August 14, 2012
The Second International Conference on Marxism and Psychology last week in Morelia Mexico was packed—about 700 participants, a good half of them Mexican university students and activists. It was challenging and fascinating to be part of the gathering of academics and activists, young, old and older, some wanting to create something together and others wanting to say their piece.
There was a three-way tension present throughout the conference between: 1) those who prioritize practice, placing people’s everyday life practices as the starting point for a Marxist understanding of contemporary life; 2) those who prioritize theory, taking understanding to consist of a Marxist analysis of what’s going on politically and economically; and 3) those for whom practice and theory are a unity, a practical-critical activity in which understanding is inseparable from people creating—in their everyday lives—new forms of life and activity. It’s this third camp that I presented and represented (along with a handful of others). It’s what I speak about wherever I go, in a variety of ways. But it’s Marxists, in my experience, who have the hardest time with it.
Marx did say (in the 11th Thesis on Feuerbach), “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.” I’ve learned many times over the years that not everyone reads that message as clear-cut as I do. Back in 1999, a new journal, Annual Review of Critical Psychology, invited my colleague and mentor Fred Newman to submit an article. Journal editor Ian Parker (a colleague of ours) sent Newman’s draft to two reviewers for comments. In his comments, one reviewer made clear his very different understanding of change and interpretation, of theory and practice and—as Newman pointed out in the final published version—of dialectical materialism, the cornerstone of Marx’s method (see Newman, One Dogma of Dialectical Materialism).
At issue was not the 11th Thesis I quoted above but the 1st, in which Marx writes: “The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism (that of Feuerbach included) is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the object or of contemplation, but not as sensuous human activity, practice, not subjectively.”
The reviewer claimed that Marx isn’t negating contemplation but “only” criticizing the one dimensional, non-dialectical understanding of reality as a sensuous object and pointing out that practical-critical human activity is also important. Newman misunderstands Marx, he said: “Newman, by taking only the societal activity (no matter how important it is), breaks the dialectics between activity and its contemplation and becomes one-dimensional again.”
I love how Newman responded:
“Dialectical Materialism is not a kind of materialism. Indeed, it is not an ontological or epistemological position at all. It is, rather, a full blown shifting of the philosophical ground to a methodological point of view – not an interpretation of reality at all but a changing of it! The dialectic is not to be found between the activity and its contemplation (the mind and the body); the dialectic is the full-blown rejection of ‘between-ness’ in favor of a radically monistic (call it “one-dimensional” if you like) methodology.”
Marxism as a practical-critical method for ordinary people to change the world—not an ideological tool for analysis or critique—is what I believe and live. I offered this to the conference in my various presentations. I was especially pleased with a packed-house symposium I shared with Wellington de Oliviera from São Paulo Brazil, and Miquel Cortes and Jorge Borciaga from Juarez Mexico—three emerging grassroots leaders of this third, radically monistic, camp. Not surprisingly, the young and the activists were excited and energized, while the Marxist scholars for whom theory is separate from and imposed upon practice were disgruntled. I was—I hope understandably—both thrilled and saddened by this.