Thursday, May 28, 2009

Marx in the Mid-Twentieth Century

Marx in the Mid-Twentieth Century: A Yugoslav Philosopher Reconsiders Marx's Writings, by Gajo Petrović
1965, 230 pp. Translated by the author from the Croatian Philosophy and Marxism

Gajo Petrović was a stalwart of the old and now mainly deceased Praxis School of Yugoslav Marxist humanism. He lacked the economic expertise of Branko Horvat, the innovative drive of Mihailo Marković, the ethical focus of Milan Kangrga, or the comprehensive analytical gifts of Erich Fromm of the Frankfurt School, but he was nonetheless a solid if unostentatious thinker, and this is a solid if unostentatious book. It was written after Petrović's close study of Plekhanov, but before his more critical and polemical works during his conflict with the dogmatists of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia. It is probably best considered as a preliminary statement of position and an introduction to the basic tenets of Marxist humanism. As such, it is a rather unremarkable read for the initiated and I enjoyed it on the grounds that it is always pleasant to be told things one already knows and agrees with. Though critical of Stalinist (and French-Stalinist) Marxist philosophy, it is not a polemic; since it is a collection of essays, it also lacks a unifying theoretical structure.

The first few essays are a critique of what passed for orthodox Marxist philosophy. Petrović rightly points out that most of its catechisms--economic determinism, the dogma of "dialectical materialism," the capitalism/dictatorship of the proletariat/imperfect socialism/perfect communism development, etc-- have little to no basis in Marx, but are instead Stalinist distortions of Leninist distortions of Marx. Petrović is kinder to Lenin than I think is necessary. He correctly notes that Lenin's Philosophical Notebooks (see Volume 38 of his Collected Works) effectively repudiates the dogmatism and denial of humanism in Materialism and Empiriocriticism. I still have no time for Lenin or what passes for his thought, and I think Petrović's case would be stronger if he placed the point of departure from Marx squarely on Lenin's shoulders, against the better efforts of Rosa Luxemburg, but it ought to be noted that Petrović was writing in Titoist Yugoslavia when criticism of Lenin was still zabranjen. Anyhow, he begins with some obligatory criticisms of Stalinist distortions, and the reader thinks immediately of Orwell's line about a book by Bertrand Russell: it is surprising to remember that there was a time when it was the first duty and obligation of serious people and people of conscience to loudly repudiate Stalinism, that the matter was ever in doubt. Petrović never mentions his French opponents by name, but it is necessary to remember that the Praxis School and the other disparate, lonely Marxist humanists were engaged in constant intellectual warfare with the French school of Stalin's apologists who hated the works of "Young Marx," the philosopher and humanist, asserting instead the primacy of "Old Marx," the bitter, cold-eyed, "scientific" economist. These two camps might more accurately be divided into those who have lived under tyranny and those who have not; those who recognize the thread of passionate humanism which animates all of Marx's thought and those who select only those aspects which can be interpreted to support their own preconceived allegiance to repression. Understandably, Petrović and the other Praxis thinkers knew that Moscow was a greater threat than the self-indulgent dilettantes in Paris, so it is to Moscow that the criticism is directed, but the purpose of the critique was not to win over Soviet apparatchiks but to serve as a humanist (and accurate) counterweight to the prevailing philosophical trends in Europe.

The centerpiece of the book is three or four essays on Marx's conception of man. Curiously, Petrović appears not to have had access to Marx's actual Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, but instead relies heavily on quotes cribbed from Fromm's Marx's Concept of Man, which is indeed a good book. An outright review or discussion of it may have been more profitable, rather than a second-hand approach to Marx, but again, we must give allowances for a Yugoslav thinker who probably couldn't get ahold of banned books, and who was writing for an audience probably unfamiliar with Fromm. Substantively, Petrović spends a lot of time discussing the ideas of alienation and praxis, and traces their importance through the corpus of Marx's work. He disputes the Stalinist (again, Leninist, I say!) subjection of philosophy to politics and the view of man as a mechanical, economical animal rather than a free and constructive being. He insists that man is free to the extent that he is able to act as a creative, self-determining personality and contributes to the development of humanity, all of which is solid Marxist-humanism.

Somewhat disappointingly, Petrović dodges the end-point problem of materialist philosophy: if the material world is bounded by causality, then everything has a cause, and if everything has a cause, how can man be free in a determined world? Is not the praxis which makes man a unique being itself a product of material causes? If so, how is it an essentially creative act? Neither Marx nor Petrović ever answers this question to my satisfaction.

There are a couple interesting essays on ontological and epistemological problems, including two at the conclusion which deal with language and Wittgenstein, Being and Heidegger. I would not be the tedious pedant I am if I did not point out that neither of these have much to do with Marx, in the mid-twentieth century or otherwise, but they are interesting, especially as a historical document expressing the perspective of a forgotten school of thought on the most important philosophical issues of the day. No stubborn, dogmatic obsolescence for the Praxis School: these fellows were cutting-edge. My only complaint is that the final two essays seem to represent an abandonment of any pretense to a central organizing theme.

In sum, Marx in the Mid-Twentieth Century hits most of the important themes of Marxist humanism: individuality; the importance of freedom and creativity; the process of de-alienation of man from himself, his society, and his labor; the unity of Young Marx with Old. It hits a few other points besides which are at once interesting and distracting, and would have benefited either from rhetorical fire, a central thesis, or more access to Marx's actual writings. As it stands, it is a solid contribution to the field, though it frequently leaves the reader wondering where he has mislaid his copy of Erich Fromm.

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