Marx Contra Zizek: On the Question of the Question and the Necessity of Acting on those Questions
By Jose Mario De Vega
I refer to Professor Zizek’s video, Think Big, “The Purpose of Philosophy is to Ask the Right Questions”, May 28, 2013.
Here’s what the unphilosophical megalomaniac has stated on the opening salvo of his discourse:
“I’m not saying — I’m not a philosophical megalomaniac — that philosophy can provide answers, but it can do something which maybe is even more important, you know? As important as providing answers and a condition for it, maybe even the condition, is to ask the right question.”
Though I agree to a certain extent to the contention of the said professor that philosophy can provide all the answers, yet promptly I would like to ask: if it cannot, then what can provide us?
Here the professor’s reply is illustrative:
You see, this would be one example, not to mention ecology. Now, ecology may be the ruin of us all — it’s a terrible crisis, but the way we formulate it, either as a pure technological problem or in this New Age way – we, humanity, are too arrogant, we are raping the mother earth, whatever, it’s already the way we perceive the question that mystifies the problem. Here philosophy enters correcting the question, enabling us to ask the right question.
Further, the professor stated that:
There are not only wrong answers. There are also wrong questions. There are questions which deal with a certain real problem but the way they are formulated they effectively obfuscate, mystify, confuse the problem. For example, my eternal example, we have to fight of course today sexism, racism and so on. But did you notice how almost automatically we tend to translate issues of sexism, racism or ethnic violence, whatever, into the terms of tolerance? This, for me, doesn’t go by itself. This presupposes already a certain horizon where you naturalize the order. We have different cultures. What can we do? We can only tolerate each other. And to give you a proof how this is not self-evident: download speeches by Martin Luther King and put on search words precisely like tolerance and so on. . . . Never, he never uses them. For him — and he was right — it would have been an obscenity to say white people should learn to tolerate us more, or whatever.
If philosophy cannot provide all the answers and its only purpose is for people engage in philosophy or in philosophizing is/are merely to ask the correct questions or to pose the right query, then what kind of purpose or use is that?
I can detect a certain degree of contradiction to the contention of the said professor. To restate: if philosophy cannot provide all the answers and its purpose is only to reduce those people engage in philosophy to ask the right questions, then how the hell those ‘philosophers’ arrive at the right questions if they did not subjected themselves to a vigorous philosophical reflections and rigid mental exercises?
What intellectual method or ideological vehicle did those philosopher’s use to arrive at the correct questions?
In saying that philosophy cannot provide all the answers, is that not a philosophical assertion in itself? In saying what he said, did he not engage in a philosophical exercise himself before he reached that position?
On the Question of the Question
Assuming arguendo that the only role or purpose of philosophy is to ask the right question, then, after asking and posing and raising those correct questions that affect mankind and humanity: what’s next?
After we demystify, settled the obfuscation and cleared the confusion with regard to the colossal problem and burden of humanity, then what’s next?
After we cleared all the mental rubbishes that darkens our minds and perception, after we destroyed the walls that separates us from each other and after we hurdles all our barriers of our conditions, then what’s next?
What is to be done?
It is my firm and considered view that simply to raise the correct questions is not enough for a true philosopher.
Asking the right questions in my view is merely to be on the level of theory. That theory no matter how correct or even perfect is nothing without subjecting it to the furnace of practice.
Example, to ask that (I believe it is a correct question) question: “What is the best form of universal human solidarity?”
In my view that question is lifeless without acting on that question by practicing it on actual life and circumstances.
Theory and practice are inseparable. The former without the latter is dead!
Theory without acting on it is a mere academic enterprise. It has no social or human value whatsoever, except perhaps on the four corners of the bloody classroom.
Consider Lenin’s mindset in narrating a conversation he had with a comrade during the Second Congress (1903) of the Russian Social- Democratic Labor Party:
I cannot help recalling in this connection a conversation I happened to have at the Congress with one of the “Centre” delegates. “How oppressive the atmosphere is at our Congress!” he complained.
“This bitter fighting, this agitation one against the other, this biting controversy, this uncomradely attitude! . . .”
“What a splendid thing our Congress is!”
I replied. “A free and open struggle. Opinions have been stated. The shades have been revealed. The groups have taken shape. Hands have been raised. A decision has been taken. A stage has been passed. Forward! That’s the stuff for me! That’s life! That’s not like the endless, tedious word-chopping of your intellectuals, which stops not because the question has been settled, but because they are too tired to talk anymore….” (One Step Forward, Two Steps Back (THE CRISIS IN OUR PARTY), 1904)
Marx on the Question of Practice/Activity/Action/Struggle
To Marx, the word struggle occupied almost a central aspect — both in his philosophy and in his personal life. In general, the principle refers to the activist element in the Marxian practice motivating Marx and his disciples.
The specific facet of the principles refers to Marx’s philosophy — the principle of activity being that concept, which underlies the entire system. Marx, that is, not only theorizes about activity but also illustrates his theory in (his) life. Marx’s own life was also a great struggle! Hence, we find the principle of activity, action and struggle both in his writing and in his doings.
Marx most often used the words Action, Tatigkeit or Praxis to refer to the principle of activity, of action and relentless struggle. No major philosopher has fully dealt with the concept of action and practice as Marx did.
Norman Livergood (1967) stated that:
With Marx philosophy descended from the cloudy towers of mere speculation to the arena of practice. Certainly Hegel’s transformation of traditional logic marked the first step in the direction of unifying theory and practice since it protested against the divorce of truth reality. But Marx’s system represents the full development of philosophy as practical.
Marx develops this idea of philosophy as practical as early as his Doctoral; Dissertation, The Difference Between Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature. This led G. Voegelin (1950) to state that:
The dissertation shows Marx dissatisfied with the semi-action of the contemporary intellectuals. He demands a transition from speculative philosophy o a “radical” critique, which can be no less than an embodiment of the idea in reality through revolutionary action.
Marx saw his mission as the transposition into practice of the whole order of things, which Aristotle and Hegel had reserved to the theoretical intellect. The theoretical, as opposed to the practical mind, when free (as after Aristotle and Hegel), is transformed into practical energy, practical force — and turns to act upon material reality. Just as the post-Aristotelian period that emphasized practical, ethical self-determination (which Marx would continue), so Marx desired to rescue man from the post-Hegelian impasse by reclaiming the world in practice (not in pure thought as he thought and he pitilessly criticized Hegel on this score).
For Marx, philosophy is an instrument of change!
Ludwig Feuerbach who conceived philosophy as a social activity influenced Marx on this matter. Without a doubt, Marx recognized the importance of theory, but he did not stop there, because his interest and goal was for philosophy to be more than mere theory.
Theory must be united to practice — so that it can become a tool, a force of cure and radical transformation. It is on this undeniable sense that philosophy in Marx’s system is not destroyed but completely transformed, because Marx was desirous of destroying the limited conception of philosophy as a mere theoretical activity. To Marx, theory without practice is dead!
That is precisely the reason behind his violent denunciation and radical stinging criticism of (limited) philosophy and of the contention of his contemporary philosophers, moralists and intellectuals.
He relentlessly criticized and vehemently attacked ravenously German thinkers because they had done nothing more than to theorize. They talked and talked, but they did not act, they seem to know everything but they did nothing on what they appear to know or claim to know.
Below is the testimony of F. Copleston’s (1994) reading on Marx’s position that philosophy or theory without practice is worthless:
We cannot change society by philosophizing about it. Thought must issue in action, that is, in social revolution. For philosophical criticism raises problems which can be solved only in this way. In Marx’s language, philosophy must be overcome, this overcoming being also the realization of philosophy. It must leave the plane of theory and penetrate to the masses. And when it does so, it is no longer philosophy but takes the form of a social revolution, which must be the work of the most oppressed class, namely the proletariat. By abolishing private property consciously and explicitly the proletariat will emancipate itself, and, together with itself, the whole of society. For egoism and social injustices are bound up with the institution of private property. (My italics)
Below is an example of Marx’s typical, forceful and scathing criticism of those bloody idiots who called themselves as “philosophers”
In direct contrast to German philosophy which descends from heaven to earth, here we ascend from earth to heaven. That is to say, we do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process, which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises. Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence. They have no history, no development; but men, developing their material production and their material intercourse, alter, along with this their real existence, their thinking and the products of their thinking. Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life. (The German Ideology, 1845, written with Engels)
Does it mean that Marx hates and/or distrusted ‘philosophy’?
Let us quote Leon Trotsky (1927) to explain the answer:
Marx once said that philosophers had sufficiently interpreted the world, and that the task now was to turn it upside down. In these words there was by no means a lack of respect for philosophy. Marx was himself one of the most powerful philosophers of all time. His words simply meant that the further development of philosophy, and of culture as a whole, both material and spiritual, demands a revolution in social relations. And therefore Marx appealed from philosophy to the proletarian revolution, – not against philosophy, but for it.
Wherever Marx spoke of philosophy so as to disparage it tremendously and to mercilessly criticize it, he was attacking that kind of philosophy, which merely theorized, which simply described existing problems and conditions without finding concrete solutions that will lead eventually to a realization and ultimate transformation.
Philosophy for Marx is both a social and universal philosophy of action. It is necessarily the study of man’s social relationships since these are his very nature, his essence (Theses on Feuerbach, no. VI, 1845). Man is a social animal; his being is constituted by his relations to other beings. Also, philosophy for Marx does not immediately become active in the transformation of society and the world. It has to be tested, developed and practiced.
Philosophy leads to action; but philosophy is not action per se… in a way, we can say that to Marx, words are nothing and empty, without the corresponding action to test them; in order to prove them.
This is precisely because when Marxist revolutionaries speak of the “unity of thought and action”, it does not intend to imply that thoughts and actions are one and the same thing. It does mean however, that thoughts and actions are inseparably united.
For Marx, socialism (on to communism) is not just the goal or end of the movement or party committed to realizing it. Socialism is also the very struggle itself, and to be a socialist, or for that matter, a Marxist revolutionary, is not merely to be committed to a belief in the virtues of equality, solidarity and the like, but to take the side of the oppressed and the exploited in their struggles.
This is a morally and personally demanding version of what socialism involves; but it is also, without the slightest iota of doubt, in an utterly important ways, a more realistic and hopeful one, because instead of relegating socialism to a distant and perhaps unattainable future, it firmly stresses that victories for the oppressed and the exploited, and hence, for socialism can be achieved here and now, in the real and imperfect world of the present!
This is the ultimate difference of Marx to those so-called ‘philosophers’ who merely posed and raises the questions without doing anything about it.
For Marx does not simply raises the questions of Mankind and calling the world’s attention in his brutal, extensive and exhaustive depiction the burden of Humanity, he does not stop there, rather he went all the way to transcend the questions by acting and working on it at the forefront of the Struggle!
Marx is not merely a philosopher who raised the correct questions, but precisely a revolutionary philosopher that stood, fought and struggled to change the world – all throughout his life — until the very end!
Jose Mario Dolor De Vega
Philosophy/Social Science lecturer
College of Liberal Arts
Department of Social Science
Technological University of the Philippines
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