A Return to Contradictions

Matt McManus

June 9, 2020

I read a recent piece for Sublation by Reid Kane with appreciation, but admittedly some irritation as well. While independently a useful and interesting work of Marxist theorizing, as a response to my own discussion of Marx’s theory of contradictions it falls rather short and doesn’t even appear to have read what I wrote that carefully. Kane’s piece is rather long, and I don’t take issue with the substance of most of it. So, rather than engage in an extensive rebuttal of its primary themes, I’ll simply respond to where he misconstrues my own position. In the concluding section, I’ll also indicate why some of these exegetical disputes matter since they bear on how we should interpret contemporary global capitalism and its various cultural discontents and vulgarities.

Is Marx’s Method Obscure?

One of Kane’s central arguments is that Marx’s theoretical method is not, as I suggested, obscure and in need of explanation. Indeed, his implication is that the failure to understand it has less to do with its intellectual challenges and more with a failure of nerve. Or, at a more exalted level, with the tendency of revolutionary movements “to make peace with global capitalism and abandon the task of world revolution.” As he put it, “the 'obscurity' of the dialectical method was not due to its philosophical or rhetorical abstruseness, but the blindness of intellectuals to the necessity of social transformation, their attachment to the social order upon which they depended.” Kane’s ambition seems to be pathologizing why Marx’s philosophy is conceived as obscure and framing this not in terms of interpretive difficulties, but instead something like a lack of piety or faith in the Marxist socialist project.

Beyond just being an exercise in bad faith argumentation, Kane’s claim runs counter to the historical record. Marx himself recognized that his method was obscure and flirted with writing a short piece explaining his approach to dialectics which was sadly never completed. Indeed, Marx wisely acknowledged that Capital is a difficult book, opining that there is sadly “no royal road to science” and that understanding it takes time and effort. Sadly, Kane’s own piece isn’t exactly a model of clarity, which, contra his rather elitist sentiments, is useful in popularizing and explaining the basics of Marxism. Instead of anything so clear, Kane mostly gives us a very long rehash of what the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm rightly pointed out was a rather “short” twentieth century. A far more politically significant act might be undertaking some efforts to actually reconstruct Marx’s position in a more analytically rigorous way, acknowledging his mistakes (which were sadly plentiful, as with any great thinker), and showcasing its ongoing and profound relevance to the contemporary era, for instance, by actually presenting it in a clear form to those who find such things helpful.

Is Marx’s Theory of Ideology Obscured?

In addition to these rather pedantic debates about whether Marx was wrong in assuming his philosophy was difficult, Kane’s own article is sadly filled with misconstruals and he doesn’t seem to have read my article all that closely. For instance, Kane criticizes my take on Marx’s theory of ideology, claiming the “self-contradiction of bourgeois social relations was not, as McManus asserts, obscured by ideology, whether unconsciously or deliberately. Rather, the self-consciousness of bourgeois society had become ideological because the social form itself had become self-contradictory.” But, of course, I never claimed otherwise. Indeed, I said, “the contradictions of society are often obscured by various forms of fetishism which make social reality appear to us in a variety of ideologically determined ways.” My point was about the obscurity which emerges from the various forms of fetishistic reification which are the key symptoms of living within a world hegemonically dominated by capitalist ideology. And this kind of obscurity is exactly what Marx described in his elegant passages on the subject in Capital:

Whence, then, arises the enigmatical character of the product of labour, so soon as it assumes the form of commodities? Clearly from this form itself. The equality of all sorts of human labour is expressed objectively by their products all being equally values; the measure of the expenditure of labour power by the duration of that expenditure, tak