The Poverty of Philosophy: What Class Might Mean Today

Omair Hussain

May 19, 2022


Common sense people, not unsympathetic to what remains of Marxism today, express their uncertainty about the relevancy of the left’s political project with one primary question: In the world of start-ups and being-your-own-entrepreneur, what does class in the Marxist sense mean, if anything at all, today? This question is often heard with tone-deaf ears by the contemporary “Left,” who dismiss it with the ready-made response: “the point is not to interpret the world but change it.” But without recognition of what it’s doing, the “Left” in responding this way betrayed its own ambivalence toward what they profess to be preaching. For in dismissing workers' doubts about the applicability of Marxism with a theoretical palliative, the “Left” condemn themselves with the very words they are convinced they are accurately espousing. They think the solution to the dilemma of Marxism in the present lies in offering the correct exegetical framework to the uninitiated sinners who are too blindly stuck in their ways to understand the Holy Truth.

This contradictory relation to its own self-professed goal is expressed in a concrete phenomenon: the Left’s unrecognized ambivalence toward philosophy. The operative (or prevailing?) assumption on the “Left” is that philosophy expresses the position of the disinterested bourgeoisie, who rationalize the suffering of the world with servile theoretical justifications. This is not an unsympathetic take. But the tragicomic character of the situation is not in the Left’s orientation to this philosophy, but in its lack of recognition that its own activity and method of understanding it is what produces what it claims to critique. To put it simply, in telling philosophy that the point is to change the world, the Left is unaware that it is offering its own philosophical solution, thereby missing the point.

The motor that keeps the engine of philosophy running is the insistent impulse to explain to those supposedly concerned with action and the transformation of society what they are actually doing, even despite their own intentions. This form of vindicating itself through reason is not idle. So, if the question is not resolved by simply asserting that “the point is to change it,” it is necessary to theoretically address what Marx poses beyond the level of only theory: social revolution. The problem is trickier than it might seem from both sides. For, on one hand, we must recognize that the correct theoretical conclusions will not only not get us to our self-understood goal, but might in fact exacerbate the problems we are trying to solve. Yet we must also recognize that perhaps the problem with our social reality is not that change doesn’t happen, but that we are unable to theoretically comprehend the transformations we ourselves are participating in through our own activity, whether we know it or not. What Marx lays out in the "11th Thesis on Feuerbach" is not a materialist theoretical framework to replace the bourgeois idealism of philosophy. Rather, what Marx suggests is that the exact object of bourgeois philosophy, social reality, has itself come to task and challenged the conceptual criteria and philosophical superstructure of the bourgeois class that brought it into being. The problem is not solved by recognizing that we have to change the world. The problem is to recognize how we are changing the world already in ways that we ourselves remain unaware of. We are reproducing a bourgeois reality that incessantly explores the bounds of bourgeois thought. Addressing this problem involves a bourgeois critique of bourgeois thought and a philosophical critique of philosophy.

Perhaps one of the most interesting symptoms in contemporary philosophy is the sly revival of what once was thought outmoded: Hegelian idealism. Theories abound that seek to solve the problem of reality at the level of ideas. This is in good faith, but, following Freud, sometimes an intellectual solution can be a defense mechanism to protect a more fundamental wound.

What remains opaque to those who attempt to theorize the present state of affairs is that the society they are speaking for has forgotten its own beginnings: The world we are living in today, though it may have repressed how it once related to itself, was brought into the world through revolution - revolution not as a fixed theoretical set of commandments, nor as a practical anarchy. In fact, quite the opposite. It’s the complicated task of relating the workers’ own practical activity to the unconscious desire it has yet to make sense of to itself. Therefore, it makes sense to attend to what the contemporary “Left” dismisses as mere superstructure: in other words, how the bourgeois class attempts to make sense of itself and the reality that it projects as if identical to it. This self-understanding is expressed in a variety of phenomena not simply reducible to what is understood as philosophy. When we speak of “bourgeois philosophy,” we are not referring to a concrete set of philosophical dictums, but rather the self-consciousness this reality produces as expressed by the bourgeois class. This self-understanding finds its external reality in every theoretical and cultural product on the market today. But perhaps all the better for us. The multitude of all these seemingly unrelated phenomena amount, in the end, to a very specific task: a clarification of how the bourgeoisie’s own self-understanding is theoretically inadequate to the world it produces.