Cornel West and Marxism:
An Incomplete Review

By Ralph Dumain


Up to a point, Cornel West's The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought [1] is a worthwhile read. I find his overall preoccupation with anti-foundationalism unsound—with the unwholesome influence of Rorty in evidence—but West has some useful things to say about the development of the young Marx. A critique of this work must fall into two parts, in reference to:

(a) West's preface written for the 1991 publication of this book;
(b) the work itself, written in the late 1970s.

West's foreword gives an overview of his intellectual development, influences, and perspective on various schools of thought. It shows what West was thinking as he was moving into academic superstar status. Now he is only a second-rate preacher, with footnotes to add to his homiletic sound bites. But in 1991 he was only en route to his present mediocrity. Much of what he had to say then is reasonable, though he should have questioned some of his mentors like Rorty. The only really objectionable part is his weaselly justification of his commitment to Christianity, which at least he honestly admits is incompatible with Marxism.

The text of his late-70's work on Marxism, as West traces the development of Marx's thought, shows a commendable intellectual discipline that seems to have since disappeared. West's discussion of Marx's wrestling with the is-ought problem and the metaphysical residues of moralism in his struggle with Left Hegelian thought shows a great deal of perspicacity.

However, the language which West uses to describe Marx's position I find troublesome. West calls it "radical historicism", which he ties to anti-foundationalism and anti-justificationism. West takes care to distinguish the radical historicist position from relativism, and in fact argues that the universalization of ethical thought is entirely compatible with anti-foundationalism once the identical a priori premises of both absolutism and relativism are eliminated. While he is correct about this, I doubt that radical historicism is the best way to characterize this position.

Furthermore, the language he falls back on at crucial junctures smacks of pragmatism, and his focus on anti-foundationalism occasionally skews his analysis in the same direction.

I will give examples to show what I mean.

On the plus side, as West traces Marx's thought from Marx's key 1837 letter to his father to the Theses on Feuerbach, West shows himself to understand the issues quite well overall. He is also perceptive in claiming that as Marx rejects philosophy, he deepens his engagement with theory. Now this is terminologically interesting as well, as the distinction between "philosophy" and "theory" rests on the traditional notion of philosophy as a priori metaphysics.


This is an admittedly fragmented way of approaching a review, but now I want to isolate passages (not including the foreword) that disturb me.

West is discussing Marx's 1844 mss.

And why is Feuerbach so important? Precisely because he provides Marx with a conception of philosophy (and ethics) which permits Marx to liberate himself from the vision of philosophy as the quest for certainty, the search for foundations. (49)

West's overall explanation of Feuerbach's role is good, and indeed Marx does reject this traditional role for philosophy, but this particular characterization seems off to me.

We saw earlier that for Marx the completion of the criticism of religion signifies that the concern with the objectivity, validity, and/or necessity of its claims and beliefs has been transformed into a concern with a description and explanation of the function and role of the beliefs—a shift from philosophic to theoretic concerns. We also saw Marx's concern to broaden the scope of this shift by focusing on other alienated forms of theoretical activity. Marx praises Feuerbach precisely because Feuerbach has shown that philosophy, like religion, is but an alienated form of theoretical activity. In other words, philosophic claims must no longer be scrutinized in terms of their objectivity, validity, or necessity, but rather described and explained in terms of their function and role in relation to groups, communities, societies, and history. (49)

This is all true; none of West's assertions are wrong. However, what are the unstated presuppositions and implications of the statement "philosophic claims must no longer be scrutinized in terms of their objectivity, validity, or necessity"? The reason they must no longer be scrutinized in these terms is because (a) they have already been done so, (b) they are not self-subsisting and do not provide a social theory, which means also a social theory that accounts for their own existence. One must be careful of this functionalist language. It's not wrong, but there are implications for truth claims that make come back to bite later.

West is concerned about the role of species-being in the 1844 Manuscripts:

Despite Marx's philosophic to theoretic shift and his condemnation of philosophy as an autonomous discipline, he remains partly captive of the old vision of philosophy, of its quest for certainty and search for foundations. He does so because he tends to defend his standard of wholeness and the human by appealing to a "human essence" or essential human activity. Following Feuerbach, Marx conceives of human beings as possessing essential qualities or as engaged in essential activity separated from their so-called accidental qualities or alienated activity. This humanist view permits the essential qualities or activity to serve as metaphysical facts about people which then form the basis for generating timeless criteria, necessary grounds, or universal foundations against which to measure moral principles and action.

Marx does not explicitly engage in the usual philosophic activity of specifying his criteria and justifying his ethical beliefs by appealing to the criteria. In this sense, he already has rejected certain aspects of the old vision of philosophy. But within the confines of his theoretic concerns and aims, he employs essentialist, i.e., philosophic, language which implicitly serves as a standard against which to measure certain kinds of qualities and activities. (57)

There is something misleading in this characterization, though West points to a real issue. The philosophic to theoretic shift that West traces is not only a shift in conceptualizing the relationship between is and ought and also in creating a social theory that upends metaphysics in both social and moral thinking. If there is a problem with species-being; it is because species-being as a concept is not a fully social and historical explanation of how the specific configuration of alienation came to be and what path to take politically to solve the problem. Species-being as a concept to be employed moralistically to preach the reordering of society based on the human essence rather than the specific historical scope of action cannot ultimately work for Marx.

But I disagree that species-being is a false concept. As we well know, this concept was resurrected precisely to combat the distortions of Marxian thought that ensued from the imposture of Marxism-Leninism. In other words, the advocates of humanist Marxism abstracted from the concrete conditions in which they found themselves to ferret out general conceptions that had been occluded and suppressed by the pragmatic rationalizations that Marxist-Leninists put forth for their actions. This represents a need inverse to the Marx's need of the 1840s. The notion of species-being does not make for social theory in itself, but without it, what becomes of "radical historicism" if not a collapse into the very relativism West abjures?

Furthermore, looking down the line, if West can bring Marx's social theory in line with his own pragmatist project, does not the elimination of the theoretic value of the 1844 Manuscripts enable West to substitute Christianity in its place, and to thus to embrace both Marxism and Christianity in a cynical utilitarian fashion?

West finds the Theses on Feuerbach to be the decisive turning point in Marx's thought.

Commenting on thesis 2, West states:

Marx holds at arm's length the traditional theories of truth in philosophy, namely, the correspondence and coherence theories of truth. The doctrine of an idea corresponding or agreeing with its object presupposes a clear understanding of correspondence, or what it means for an idea to "correspond" or "agree" with an object. The doctrine of ideas cohering with other ideas, e.g., being logically consistent, theoretically intelligible, makes sense but surely such coherence could hold with it being unrelated to reality, or independent of empirical evidence.

For Marx, the question of whether human thinking can reach objective truth is a practical question for two basic reasons. First, it is a practical question in the trivial sense, namely, that whatever "objective truth" is, it is arrived at by particular social practices and human activities, e.g., "scientific" practices and activities. Second, it is a practical question in a deep sense, namely, that "objective truth" should not be associated with copying the world, but rather with coping in the world, that "objective truth" should not be associated with representations agreeing with objects in the world, but rather with people transforming circumstances and conditions in the world. In short, truth-searching is not a quest for necessary and universal forms, essences, substances, categories, or grounds, but rather a perennial activity of solving problems, responding to dilemmas, or overcoming quagmires. Marx's philosophic to theoretic shift leads him to conclude that philosophic discussions on the nature of truth, independent of theoretical activity related to concrete problems or pressing social circumstances, are mere playthings for "scholastics." (65)

Here is where West truly distorts Marx and where his pragmatist brainwashing really shows. Marx holds the traditional theories of truth at arm's length only because the traditional philosophic quest for absolute truth arguing on a priori grounds is a dead end. Indeed, truth can only be proved in practice, both in a shallow and in a deep sense. This, however, has nothing to do with the rejection of a correspondence notion of truth. Not also the use of the word "representations". This suggests that West has already been brainwashed by Rorty. The phrase "perennial activity of solving problems . . ." scales Marx down to the dreary plane of pragmatism, undercutting the objectivity of truth that Marx nowhere rejects. The very phraseology "concrete problems or pressing social circumstances" undercuts the notions of objectivity and universality, which are fine for petty-bourgeois pragmatism (e.g. West's "prophetic pragmatism"), but will not do for Marxism.


In the late '70s, Cornel West was both a skilled analyst and a sly little weasel. It's a shame only the weasel survived. West is most impressed by the 6th and 7th theses on Feuerbach.

These two theses constitute Marx's celebrated rejection of the doctrine of essentialism we examined earlier. We have seen Marx himself employ such language in earlier texts. The mistake Feuerbach makes is to substitute one essence for another: the religious essence for the human essence. Marx views "essence-making" as elevating particular human characteristics within a specific social arrangement to an abstraction with transhistorical status. In short, the idea of a particular essence of humankind results from a historical expression of a human trait and the notion of the abstract individual to whom this essence is attributed is a product of a certain kind of society.

Just as for Feuerbach theological reflections about the religious essence of people are transformed into philosophic formulations about the human essence of people, for Marx these philosophic formulations are dissolved into theoretic ones which probe the socioeconomic circumstances out of which the theological and philosophic claims come. For Feuerbach, anthropology or philosophy of abstract man is the secret of theology; for Marx, a theory of history and a social analysis is the secret of anthropology.

These two theses are the most important ones Marx puts forward because they express more than any of the others his radical historicist viewpoint. His move from philosophic aims and language to theoretic ones is now fully complete. This means that fundamental distinctions such as objectivism/relativism, necessary/arbitrary, or essential/accidental will no longer be viewed through a philosophic lens. That is, no longer will one be concerned with arriving at the timeless criteria, necessary grounds, or universal foundations for philosophic objectivity, necessity, or essentiality. Instead, any talk about objectivity, necessity, or essentiality must be under-a-description, hence historically located, socially situated and "a product" of revisable, agreed-upon human conventions which reflect particular personal needs, social interests, and political powers at a specific moment in history. The task at hand then becomes a theoretic one, namely, providing a concrete social analysis which shows how these needs, interests, and powers shape and hold particular human conventions and in which ways these conventions can be transformed. (67)

West almost has this right. The first two paragraphs are unimpeachable. But something happens in the last paragraph:

Instead, any talk about objectivity, necessity, or essentiality must be under-a-description, hence historically located, socially situated and "a product" of revisable, agreed-upon human conventions which reflect particular personal needs, social interests, and political powers at a specific moment in history.

This is not Marx-talk, this is Rorty/Davidson/pragmatist boilerplate. It is false and rotten. By a sleight-of-hand, West draws true conclusions about Marx and then redescribes him in false pragmatist language. Disgusting!

Finally, West discusses thesis 11. He emphasizes that this thesis is not a rejection of rational discourse and a call to blind activism. But:

For a radical historicist—be it Pascal, Kierkegaard, Marx, or Wittgenstein—the aim of philosophy is not to interpret the world but to change it. For the philosophically inclined radical historicist who, like Wittgenstein, shies away from theoretic activity, this means to first and foremost change the dominant conception of philosophy, to change philosophy by making clear where and how it goes wrong. For a highly theoretically inclined radical historicist, like Marx, this means to leave the confines of philosophic discourse and the reform of philosophy and plunge eagerly into full-fledged theory construction.(69)

The very grouping of Marx together with irrationalist miscreants like Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Wittgenstein shows up West for the intellectual sneak he is. How can West possibly compare Marx's venture into theory-construction (correct) with these other characters?


Finally, West analyzes Marx's fully developed "radical historicism" in The German Ideology. In the middle of this he takes a detour to summarize Max Stirner's radical psychologism in The Ego and His Own as it marks a crucial step in the evolution of Left Hegelian thought and the last hurdle Marx must jump in this stage of his evolution. (There are also some quotes from the Grundrisse, Capital, and Critique of the Gotha Programme. The subsequent chapters are on Engels, Kautsky, and Lukács, plus a summary chapter comparing Marx to these three.) For the most part, West's treatment is illuminating, but occasionally he veers off the rails.

This passage mixes the good with the bad:

Marx's radical historicist viewpoint differs from Stirner's radical psychologism as an alternative to philosophy in two ways. First, Marx understands dynamic human activities as ever changing social practices of people, their particular agreements or disagreements on conventions and their behavior which is often regulated by these conventions. As we saw earlier, Stirner understands dynamic human activities as fleeting mental states of people. Second, Marx rejects the fundamental philosophic distinctions of reality/appearance, objectivism/relativism, essential/accidental in order to discard the aim of providing philosophic criteria, grounds, and foundations for reality, objectivity, or essentiality. These distinctions may be employed for theoretic aims, i.e., under-a-description, but they then are to be understood in a completely different way, having a different status and viewed as an instance of a dynamic human social practice. We will examine this claim more carefully in the next section. Stirner also rejects these fundamental philosophic distinctions, but he remains in the veil of consciousness owing to his understanding of dynamic human activities as mental activities. From within this veil, he proceeds to put forward theoretic formulations which consist roughly of preaching egoism. (80)

Some of this is good. But here's the problem:

Second, Marx rejects the fundamental philosophic distinctions of reality/appearance, objectivism/relativism, essential/accidental in order to discard the aim of providing philosophic criteria, grounds, and foundations for reality, objectivity, or essentiality. These distinctions may be employed for theoretic aims, i.e., under-a-description, but they then are to be understood in a completely different way, having a different status and viewed as an instance of a dynamic human social practice.

Half of this is BS. Naturally, Marx discards the aprioristic quest for foundations, but it is misleading to assert, for example, that Marx rejects the distinction of appearance and reality and that somehow this notion of "under-a-description" applies. This is an artificial introjection of something alien to Marx into Marx.

Here's another specimen:

. . . the only "foundations," "grounds," or "bases"—for science or ethics—available to radical historicists are the contingent, dynamic, community-specific agreements people make in relation to particular aims, goals, and objectives. (95)

This is all drivel. Marx would never use language like "contingent", "community-specific agreements", "particular aims". This is the subjectivist language of pragmatism, that robs Marx of historicity and objectivity. Further down on the same page West summarizes Marx's distinction between science and ideology. West: "For Marx, to be scientific is to pierce the veil of appearance, to disclose, unearth, and reveal what has hitherto been concealed." He quotes Marx: "But all science would be superfluous if the outward appearance and the essence of things directly coincided." West then claims that the distinction between appearance and reality is theoretic, not philosophic. We can grant this terminological distinction if we accept the reasonable assumption that philosophic refers to aprioristic foundationalism. But note that objectivity is affirmed here by Marx as well as the appearance/reality distinction, even if conceived under the rubric of "science" rather than "philosophy". None of this nonsense about "community-specific agreements" comes from Marx.

And here's the final example:

For Marx—and radical historicists—the scientific or objective status of theories is not linked to philosophic notions of verification or of correct correspondence relations (e.g., idea/object, words/things, propositions/states of affairs); rather, the status of the theories depends on the sensitivity expressed toward pressing problems, the solutions offered for urgent dilemmas, and openings made into new areas of self-criticism. (98)

This is a pack of lies packed with duplicitous pragmatist rhetoric. Just the opposite of what West arbitrarily asserts is true. Marx does not claim "sensitivity" but precisely the correspondence of his theory to objective reality. Theory is a tool but it is also objective, not merely a subjective means expressing sensitivity to "urgent dilemmas". Naturally, Marx has no interest in proving his theory in the old aprioristic manner of traditional metaphysics. But to deny the correspondence theory of truth in favor of touchy-feely comfort language reveals West's life-long duplicity in matters philosophical. [2]

West's gambit is to define philosophy not as engaged in the quest for objective truth but vaguely as utility in addressing cultural needs—in other words, by an entirely subjectivist criterion. And this serves West's mendacious taxonomy of Afro-American intellectual traditions and his desire to legitimize a certain strain of edifying Afro-American philosophy. [3] Cornel West is a petty bourgeois ideologist from the very inception of his career. But en route to his present role as insipid academic preacher, he made a serious study of Marx, explaining some key steps in the evolution of the young Marx, but summing it up in the distorted lens of an exogenous category labeled "radical historicism", which reflects West's opportunistic relationship to ideas, which in the end serves his petty bourgeois Christianity. [4]


It is worthwhile quoting the introductory to chapter 4 in full:

The major Marxist approaches to ethics bear the historicist stamp. They deny the existence of an Archimedian point from which to adjudicate rival ethical judgments, they accent the fleeting character of moral views, and they thereby preclude traditional foundationalist justifications of moral positions.

Yet despite this historicist orientation, the major Marxist thinkers who have been concerned with ethical matters have engaged in the philosophic quest for objectivity, the search for foundations. I shall try to show that the three major texts which represent the three chief approaches to ethical matters in the Marxist tradition—Frederick Engels' Anti-Dühring (1878), Karl Kautsky's Ethics and the Materialist Conception of History (1907), and Georg Lukács' History and Class Consciousness (1923)—put forward different versions of the moderate historicist viewpoint.

These three Marxist texts reveal a deep uneasiness about the charge of relativism. And they each try to reply to such a charge. There are two basic reasons why Engels, Kautsky, and Lukács engage in the philosophic quest for objectivity. First, because their epistemology is itself foundationalist. Therefore they find it difficult to reconcile the anti-foundationalist, historicist view in ethical matters with their own particular brands of foundationalism in epistemological matters. Second, and this reason is closely related to the first one, they all assume a foundationalist conception of science, be it based on hard positivistic "facts" or unalterable "dialectics." So they find it difficult to bring together a foundationalist view of science and an anti-foundationalist view of ethics. I will try to show that this is the primary reason why none of the three are able to adopt a radical historicist position in ethics.

I shall call the view of Engels the teleological quest because it attempts to ground moral objectivity in the ever broadening intersubjective agreement which shall occur at the end of history (or, in Marxist terminology, at the end of prehistory and the beginning of history). In my reconstruction of his arguments, his perspective resembles a Peircian move to preserve the notion of moral objectivity by claiming that it amounts to what moral agents will converge to or agree upon in the long run.

I will call Kautsky's view the naturalist quest because it tries to hold all metaphysics at arm's length and promote an evolutionary naturalism which ensures that moral progress and technological progress go hand in hand. It is a crude kind of Deweyan move that tries to translate norms-talk into needs-talk (or, more specifically, instincts-talk) in order to sidestep strong relativism. Lastly, I shall call Lukács' view the ontological quest because it tries to ground moral objectivity in the "dialectics" inherent in the nature of reality, in the development of history. It is a sophisticated Hegelian move to overcome traditional foundationalist epistemology and ethics, only to resurrect an untraditional foundationalism in ontological garb. I shall conclude that all three Marxist thinkers remain moderate historicists, that they put forward unsuccessful attempts to secure moral objectivity and therefore diverge from Marx's own radical historicist viewpoint. (102-103)

The balance of the chapter is on Engels. It is unfortunate that West does not address Engels' Ludwig Feuerbach and the Outcome of Classical German Philosophy, because in the opening pages of this work Engels' struggles with Hegel's notion of the rational and the actual (sometimes translated 'actual', sometimes 'real') and whether it supports a conservative or revolutionary view. This I think is also key to the problem. [5]

But before even engaging West's analysis in this and the subsequent chapters, I sense something wrong at the outset. I can foresee problems (as well as obvious divergences from Marx) with the views of Engels, Kautsky, and Lukács, but note West's characterization by way of his terminology:


We shall see whether this whole approach is misguided, but I suspect from the outset that it is.


Continuing chapter 4, on Engels: West first offers a few quotes from Anti-Dühring documenting Engels' belief that there is historical progress in morality. I will only quote a fraction of one of these quotes, which I think is directly relevant to West's subsequent assertions. Quote from Engels:

Which then is the true one? [morality] None of them, in the sense of having absolute validity; but certainly the morality which contains the maximum of durable elements is the one, which, in the present, represents the overthrow of the present, represents the future: that is, the proletarian. (in West, p. 105)

I am not going to bring in the rest of this quote, or any of the others, for as I see it, only the reference to the "maximum of durable elements" justifies what West is about to say:

When Engels talks about progress in morality he is not only referring to progress in the way in which we account for the moral beliefs people hold, but more importantly, progress in the particular moral beliefs people have come to hold over time. Certain moral beliefs have been appropriate for particular historical epochs, but the shifts in the systems of morality over time represent progress in morality. In short, certain historical shifts in moral beliefs constitute shifts to better, or more desirable, moral beliefs.

And what is the standard against which such progress is measured? This standard, on my interpretation of his view, is best understood as the ever-broadening intersubjective agreement and convergence among people that a classless society is desirable. Progress in morality is the enlarging of the pool of people who agree that class equality is preferable. Such progress in morality takes the form of a highly critical disposition toward the present society and its dominant moral beliefs.

For Engels, Marx's theory of history explains why there has been limited agreement in morality and predicts what particular social conditions are necessary for this agreement to broaden. The class character of human societies restricts human agreement in morality and prohibits convergence among people on the desirability of a classless society.

Engels identifies a desirable morality with the proletarian future revolution because, following Marx's social theory, broad agreement on the desirability of a classless society is possible only after successful transfer of power from the capitalist class to the proletariat. And this transfer of power can be achieved only by revolution. In this way, the substance of proletarian morality at the present time is critical revolutionary activity, bringing about the conditions requisite for broad agreement on class equality. (106)

I can't vouch for Anti-Dühring as a whole, but I don't see this argument following from any of West's quoted passages, including the fragment on 'durability' I singled out.

"Certain moral beliefs have been appropriate for particular historical epochs"

Engels doesn't use this tendentious phraseology in the passages quoted. If he did, it would be relevant to the question of Hegel's rational/actual addressed by Engels in Ludwig Feuerbach.

Engels supplies no standard for moral progress; he simply asserts it. But West chooses to interpret it as "ever-broadening intersubjective agreement". He says this because previous moralities were products of class antagonisms according to Engels, and the morality of the future will be free of them, which implies broad or even universal intersubjective agreement. But Engels doesn't make this argument at all. Hence West's interpretation is arbitrary, and the rest of his arbitrary interpretation follows. Unbelievable!

Next, West is concerned whether Engels' argument is based on vicious circular reasoning. (107) There are two ways out, according to West (108-9): (1) to adopt a radical historicist view, or (2) to pursue "a philosophic quest for objectivity". (109)

West argues that Engels wavers between the two, but opts for the latter. Engels' view, in West's view, "resembles a historicized Rawlsian Original Position within the historical process." (109)

This "Original Position" consists of not-yet-arrived-at historical circumstances of class equality which serves as ideal choice-conditions for actual broad moral agreement." (109-110)

It is bad enough to waste one's time reading Rawls; it is even worse to dredge him up for a discussion of Engels. If this doesn't show how worthless the American academic philosophical establishment is, what does? There is a whole argument that follows (p. 110), but why should we care, since it is based on nothing? The conclusion is that Engels makes a leap of faith on the "ultimate harmony of human existence and human history." This is a metaphysical view unsubstantiated on empirical grounds. (110-11)

Now the problem with all this is that West's interpretation is totally arbitrary. In the passages quoted, Engels argues nothing at all for progress in morality, he simply asserts it without justification. If there is a problem, it is that there is no argument at all. But remember, these are just a few passages. If Anti-Dühring bears out this analysis, there is nothing West adduces to support it. Again, I would consult Ludwig Feuerbach where I see this problem actually occurring.

West terms Engels' position moderate historicism. This ethical position is based on foundationalist epistemology and philosophy of science. Huh? I'm guessing West claims this because this position purports to justify itself based on historical facts and hence the facts of social evolution. But proper evidence is not adduced to show how Engels connects is and ought, and how this differs from Marx's approach. By contrast, radical historicism "discards the obsession with the notion of philosophic foundations and hence the quest for objectivity." (111) But West has not yet documented his claim regarding Engels. Marx discards morality; Engels finds progress in morality by merely asserting it. An argument based on this difference is a house of cards.

But apparently an argument is forthcoming: Engels clings to the distinction between hard and soft sciences. First, according to Engels, there are the hardest of the sciences, subject to mathematical treatment, which yield exact results. Then there is biology. Finally, there are the historical sciences. Engels is out to combat Dühring's hard objectivism and foundationalist philosophy of science and ethics. (112) There follows a quote from Engels on variable magnitudes and the recession of final truths. (113) Engels thinks this sounds like Kuhn. What an idiot! So, according to West, a radical historicist would interrogate the social practices of mathematicians and scientists, rather than appealing to some "eternal truths" (which I presume are the terminological equivalent to objective knowledge). West sees Engels misguided in asserting the relativity of historical knowledge in distinction from the greater objectivity "immutability" of the truths of the hard sciences. (113) And then West attacks "objectivity" as "philosophic" and hence by implication apioristic and foundationalist (my words, not West's). (114) West doesn't like Engels' notion of 'immutable' truths.

But this is all dishonest. For what is involved in 'immutability' here is not the assertion of absolute certainty (an epistemic claim) but in the immutability of scientific laws (of physics, for example). But this immutability was assumed of physical laws if not of physical objects (i.e. of astronomy) even by cosmology until recently. While this may be a scientific and even metascientific (ontological) claim, it should not be considered a dogmatic, irresolvable claim. Rather, it is consistent with Engels' general emphasis on variability, even though he did not suspect that even the laws of physics might be variable (i.e. emerged as stable laws shortly after the Big Bang).

West is simply incompetently, arbitrarily importing subjectivist garbage from Kuhn, Rorty, and the panoply of postpositivist American philosophical wastrels. What an ass!

Then West charges ahead to Engels' notion of dialectics, certainly a vulnerable area. The first quote, oddly, does not support West's concerns, for it is the quote in which Engels says that only formal logic and dialectics survives the obliteration of philosophy by positive science in a materialist perspective that is relevant.

But what is implied hereby West is that formal logic and dialectics preserve immutable truths. This doesn't sound good for Engels, but the quote adduced is the one where Engels asserts the dialectical laws of motion (without enumerating them). Now this is a dangerous assertion to be sure, but West does not trouble himself to locate Engels' conflation of empirical and logical laws. In fact, he begins to defend Engels with Engels' confession that dialectics provides no guarantees, but what bothers West is "the old quest for objectivity and the search for foundations" as Engels' "regulative ideal." (114-5) But there is no search for foundations in Engels, as Engels makes clear. There is, however, the quest for objectivity, and West hates this because he is a subjectivist.

Engels' relation of science and ethics requires a teleological view of history. Furthermore: "Engels' conception of science leads him to think that the development of history is guided by dialectical laws". A society without class distinctions is morally desirable because in it choices could be made based on "essential preferences". This necessary historical process, ascertained by scientific investigation revealing dialectical laws, culminates in genuine history. The attempted linkage of ethics, science, morality, history, dialectics and objectivity fails. (115-6)

Now such a linkage probably does fail. However, West does such a poor job of establishing Engels' conception of the linkage, we don't know from the citations where the failure is. Engels may well fail, if in fact his view of history is teleological and grounds morals in a teleological metaphysics. But in the passages cited, Engels does not ground his assertions regarding the progress of morality in any way, nor does he say much about teleology and the dialectical laws of history. Filling in the blanks, we may well find both problems with Engels' view of historical lawfulness and its relation to the notion of moral progress, and we can certainly anticipate lack of clarity with respect to his notion of dialectics. On this basis, we could find that his views differ from Marx's. But there is much less to go on in claiming that Engels' view of morality really differs from Marx's. In a non-"philosophical" sense of the term, it is likely that Marx believed in moral progress, at least potentially if not in actuality. And it is not clear from the citations alone that Engels asserted anything about moral progress in any other than an informal conception.

In the final analysis, West's chapter on Engels is worthless, unlike his analysis of Marx. And why is this? Because ultimately West is a subjectivist who hates sciences and the quest for objectivity, which he conflates with foundationalism and metaphysics.


To recap what we have so far: Marx has been mischaracterized as a "radical historicist". He rejected the notion of morality altogether. Note however that Marx also asserted that "Right" can rise no higher than the capacities of any society allows. Hence no assertions about morality can be made. However, no assertions justifying the morality of any given epoch can be made either, though its concept of "Right" can be analyzed. Now how does this relate to Hegel's notion of the rational/real? The theme is not explored by West. However, if Marx overthrows teleology (does species-being imply teleology?), perhaps the question disappears. Now Engels can be shown to differ from Marx in certain ways, though the implications of those differences remain disputed. If Engels posits scientific or metaphysical claims beyond what Marx asserts, how do they affect his views of morality/ethics? Does Engels have a metaphysical conception of morality that says something different from what Marx says about Right? Both are concerned with empirical history, and both with praxis. West really does not do a proper comparative analysis.

And, via subjectivist, particularistic notions embodied in the formula "contingent, dynamic, community-specific agreements people make in relation to particular aims, goals, and objectives", a scientific investigation of history and social structure dissolves into a language of synchronic cultural preferences. "Radical historicism" is a ruse. It's a convenient label to whisk Marx off into a separate realm, creating a specious as opposed to a specific contrast with the other three thinkers examined.

West does manage, positively, to explain why Marx had to discard metaphysical approaches to morality and society in the process of managing the is-ought relation as he forged ahead in search of an adequate social theory. This process is not directly commensurable with projects assumed by his successors. If they should try to justify a prescriptive socialist ethics, then we will have good cause for suspicion. [6]

Kautsky in Ethics and the Materialist Conception of History (1907) argues a naturalistic perspective on ethics to combat ahistorical, idealist, and reformist Neo-Kantian conceptions which had infiltrated Marxism.

West begins with a definition of positivism: "Positivism differs from other philosophic quests for objectivity or searches for foundations in that it deems the scientific method the only legitimate way in which knowledge claims about the self, the world, and God can be tested. (118) While this may be a capsule definition of Comte's positivism, it hardly serves as criteria to isolate positivism as it developed later on from all other philosophical positions down to the present time. West concedes that there are differing conceptions of the scientific method. This renders his definition useless, and in any case, how would one distinguish positivism from materialism with such a definition?

For Kautsky, science addresses only necessity and general laws. The natural sciences provide the model, and Marxism can be considered an extension of Darwinism. Kautsky explores the historical opposition between idealism and materialism, showing a preference for the ethics of Epicurus. Whatever one can say about Kautsky's reasoning, West is concerned that Kautsky's opposition to idealism "reveals his positivist bias against any ethical viewpoint based on metaphysics, religion, or the supernatural." (120-1) Say what? West continues discussing Kautsky's "materialist approach", without recognizing either a distinction between positivism and materialism or the preposterousness of singling out positivism as the opposition to the supernatural. (Kautsky lives in the period of Mach, not of Comte.)

Kautsky is of two minds on Kant. On the one hand, he finds Kant's delineation of the limits of knowledge to be in accordance with materialism. But Kant's moral philosophy posits a supersensible world. Kant's progressive epistemology and idealist morals represent the contradictory position of the bourgeoisie towards church and state. Kant's advocacy of the autonomous individual was a progressive blow against the feudal order. Kant's dualism—the moral law inhabiting a separate realm from the natural world—suggests that a harmonious society was impossible in Kant's time.

Kautsky also grapples with the problem of freedom and determinism. Free will is a necessary illusion.

Kautsky sees moral progress as attendant on technical progress. (124-5)

Kautsky's point of departure is Darwinism. Organisms have a telos, self-preservation. Kautsky does not see humans fundamentally in competition with one another, but views the struggle of man with nature as primary, human conflicts being attendant upon that. (125) The struggle for existence drives the division of labor. (127) The division of labor is not the problem and is not to be abolished; private property is the issue. (128-9) Kautsky's ethical position is one of ethical naturalism: there is a naturalistic basis for social norms grounded in social instincts. (130) The basis of moral law, pace Kant, is an instinct for equality. (131) Self-preservation is instinctual, not just a philosophical assumption. (134)

Finally, we come to the relation between normative ethics and science. Kautsky is ambiguous here. Ethics is not an autonomous discipline, but science only deals with necessity, but it cannot dictate what should be. (134-5)

We see this problem in Kautsky's contradictory relation to Kant. Kautsky supports's Kant's positivist view of science and opposed his anti-naturalist view of ethics. (136) Kautsky would like to find an identical foundation for science and for morality, but gets tangled up in the endeavor.

Here is West's conclusion:

By siding with the Kantian epistemological project, Kautsky gets trapped in the philosophic quest for objectivity and search for foundations. And what he overlooks is that Kant's quest and search result in transcendental foundations for both science and ethics. Kautsky's ambiguity toward Kant is based on a misreading of Kant's consistent metaphilosophical vision. By utilizing Darwin and Marx as the major exemplars of scientists, Kautsky opts for radical historicists—or anti-foundationalists—who shun the need for philosophic foundations (or a science of science) and are content with theoretic concerns. This leaves Kautsky in a dilemma. If he goes completely with the Kantian project, he must choose a foundationalist conception of philosophy; if he follows Darwin and Marx, he must overcome this conception and choose radical historicism. Since he does not fully grasp what the Kantian project is, he ends up giving lip service to a conception of philosophy which his Darwinistic Marxism must reject, and he supports an anti-foundationalist viewpoint which Kant surely would abhor.

In fact, I believe that Kautsky's heart is with the Darwinistic Marxist view, but that his positivist view of science and his search for philosophic foundations prevent him from fully appreciating the radical historicist potential in the Darwinistic Marxist view. The best example of where his heart is can be found in his naturalist argument for the objective status of socialist norms. The crux of his argument is his understanding of scientific, technical, and moral progress. His instincts-talk provides out-of-place naturalist ornaments which are added because he thinks he must provide philosophic foundations for his ethical views. His central argument is a quite plausible one which employs value-laden terms such as technical progress and moral progress. Like any plausible argument, it appeals to factors which people consider important, e.g., survival, historical regression or progression, and provokes stimulating and intelligent responses. Admittedly, it is not a terribly convincing argument, but it does merit consideration without appealing to its philosophic foundations.

Like a good ethical naturalist, Kautsky is frightened by extreme moral nihilism and overly impressed by "scientific facts" or "scientific status." Both this fright and genuflection result from his acceptance of the philosophic quest for objectivity and search for foundations, the metaphilosophical vision that his heroes have abandoned. (136-7)

Now there are a number of vulnerable points in what we see of Kautsky here, and there is something to be said for West's analysis, but certain matters need to be cleared up.

(1) Positivism: West's definition of positivism does not address what matters about positivism from the late 19th century to today. One needs to show how Kautsky's self-professed materialist view of history is actually positivist. Furthermore, whether it is or not, is Kautsky's moral theory positivist? Is Kautsky's descriptive ethics positivist? Is his normative ethics positivist?

(2a) Foundations and objectivity: There is a problem that carries over from (1)—the is-ought relation. The words 'foundations' and 'objectivity' have commonplace meanings and special technical meanings. If in fact ought devolves to is, and normative ethics is merely descriptive ethics made self-conscious, and if ethics can only be determined empirically—or positivistically—then where are the "foundations" in the special sense of a priori grounding of ethics on first principles? Or is the very notion of grounding ethics in any way foundationalist?

(2b) "Objectivity" creates a similar problem: if norms are not merely arbitrary, or do not descend from a supernatural order, they must have some relation to the objective world—the objective social world. What is that relation? Does "grounding" ethics in the objective world in some way make it foundationalist, a prioristic—is it justificationism? And in fact are Kautsky, or Engels, really attempting to ground ethics in such a fashion?

We could bring in another philosophical dynamic—the subject-object relation. We see no concept of subjectivity in Kautsky's schema, which makes it by one important definition undialectical. This is one possible way of analyzing the ambiguity West finds in Kautsky's is-ought position.

(3) Relation to Marx: Marx basically sees 'morality' as ideology. In his journey through Left Hegelianism (-1845), Marx has to transcend the ideological constructs of his peers in order to get to the social theory he's after. Marx discards 'morality' as a theoretical category, but he also doesn't attempt to justify the norms of any epoch as a relativist or a certain type of historicist would do. There is, however, no evidence that Marx embraces 'radical historicism' in the manner that West describes.

Engels and Kautsky are interested in the history of morals, why they were and are what they are, and what the future might look like. But is not clear from the descriptions given that they truly seek to justify a morality, ethics, or moral theory. They don't—in the passages cited—attempt to lay down a prescriptive socialist ethics on philosophical grounds. Hence what constitutes their foundationalism is murky. Foundationalism's cousin "objectivity" enters to bolster West's case, but as the is-ought relation is murky in the passages from Engels and Kautsky cited, the relationship of 'ought' to objectivity is not terribly clear, and thus it is not clear that they are attempting to ground morality in a "philosophic" rather than "theoretic" sense. Because Marx has been whisked away to the Phantom Zone of "radical historicism", we really don't get a proper comparison.


Chapter 6 is on Lukács, particularly History and Class Consciousness and particularly the essay on reification. First West summarizes Hegel's notion of dialectic. Then he shows how Lukács' Marxian dialectic differs, and emphasizes that it applies only to history and society, not nature. Marxist method is based on the primacy of concrete totality. (142) That, and the emphasis of the historical delimitation of the validity of its generalizations, differentiates it from the bourgeois conception of the (social) scientific method.

The concept of concrete totality also enables Marxism to adopt the proletarian standpoint. (144) The proletarian subject is not a detached spectator, as in Kant.

Says Lukács (145):

The proletariat is more than just the active and passive part of this process: the rise and evolution of its knowledge and its actual rise and evolution in the course of history are just the two different sides of the same real process.

At this point West intervenes:

Lukács' claim about the capacity of Marxist dialectics to grasp social reality is epistemic, and it therefore prompts the questions how he knows and how he would go about confirming this knowledge claim. Lukács seems to have two lines of answers to these questions. The first simplistic line holds that reality itself, the process of becoming itself, is dialectical. Therefore only Marxist dialectics can discern this process. Marxist dialectics grasps social reality because it correctly corresponds to the world, and it correctly corresponds to the world because both the world and the theory share a basic characteristic, namely, both are dialectical.

Two problems are immediately apparent in this reply, which appears to be mere verbal play. First, even if reality and theory were dialectical, it is not clear that both would have to be dialectical in the same way. Therefore, the question about whether the dialectical theory correctly corresponds to dialectical reality still remains. Second, and the more profound problem, the reply is circular. It claims that reality is inherently dialectical and then presents evidence for this claim guided by a theory that views reality only dialectically.

The second line of reply picks up where the first line leaves off. It holds that there is no noncircular way of talking about the relation of theory to reality. Any relevant statement about this relation will be non-neutral, it will already presuppose a particular theory about reality. It is impossible, Lukács suggests, to isolate reality from particular theories of reality, then to compare and adjudicate between these theories using a theory-free reality as the last court of appeal. So he believes that a certain kind of circularity is inescapable. Yet since a theory-free philosophic court of appeal is never available, he suggests that theories be tested in practice . . . . (145)

So far, so good. The adequation of the proletariat's self-consciousness, even while advancing, to its social reality, remains an open question. Lenin claimed [7] that the conceptual grasp of a situation could never capture the full concrete richness of that situation. I wish West would have brought in Lukács' notion of the identical subject-object for scrutiny, because there is a real problem there.

For Lukács, the practical component—praxis—is crucial in ascertaining the truth and overcoming the biased fragmentation of the bourgeois social scientific view, which prostrates itself before isolated facts. (146-7) Thus Lukács rejects the bourgeois foundationalist view of science and the notion of value-free science. (148)

Lukács has a different conception of historical necessity from Kautsky, emphasizing choice, the revolutionary subject, praxis, the necessary component of class consciousness, but without lapsing into pure voluntarism. (149-50)

Note: this is of course what is missing in Kautsky. However, given my policy on the term "positivism", I remain loathe to label Kautsky a positivist, though the proper dialectical perspective is not in him, from what we see here, anyway.

For Lukács, grappling with the problem of reification, dialectics unites fact and value, the actual and the ideal. (151)

As West sees it, Lukács views norms as negative ideals or historical possibilities.

Postscript 1

Due to a computer failure, my writing of this review was interrupted, and it was never resumed.  In my review up to this point I skipped over some of West's treatment of Marx to get to the core of what bothers me about the book. West actually does a good job of delineating key moments in the development of the "young" Marx from 1837-1845 (which I skipped), but his characterization of Marx as radical historicist and anti-foundationalist and contrast with the alleged foundationalism of Engels, Kautsky, and Lukács, is a travesty, and the malignant influence of Rorty is palpable in this work.

West wrote this in the late 1970s, long before his ascent to stardom. The curious transmutation of pragmatism initiated by Rorty's charlatanism later morphed into multiculturalism, or the diversification of elites. There is an increasing trend of integrating philosophy with popular culture and reducing philosophy to advertising slogans. Philosophical fluff is of late being inserted into histories of American (even analytical) philosophy; thus Cornel West becomes part of the tradition.

Postscript 2

I was not sufficiently precise in my treatment of positivism as relates to Kautsky. I also had in mind empiricism, which is related. The question would pertain, inter alia, to Kautsky's conception of scientific lawfulness. I doubt he would have considered scientific lawfulness to be confined to empirical regularities only, which would factor into how one would compare him to positivism.

In any case, Cornel West raises some interesting questions with respect to Kautsky, Engels, and Lukács, but he is not thorough, so his arguments are inconclusive. Also, I don't think foundationalism is the real issue, since it after all has something to do with philosophical guarantees of the validity of knowledge claims.

For more on Kautsky, I suggest chapter two of Socialism Unbound by Stephen Eric Bronner. He only treats Kautsky's ethics and concern with Kant in passing, but he gives a much more thorough overview of why Kautsky's Marxism was what it was.


[1] West, Cornel. The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1991.

[2] See my essay: Cornel West's Evasion of Philosophy, Or, Richard Wright's Revenge, AAH Examiner [The Newsletter of African Americans for Humanism], vol. 6, no. 1, Spring 1996, pp. 3-6.

[3] Ibid.

[4] This can be seen in an essay on Martin Luther King's approach to ideas in one of West's essay collections. While West may be right about King, who had no academic commitment to systematic philosophy, he is even more right—without stating such—about himself.

[5] Just a personal note here, for those of my readers who remember Lisa Rogers. I think West's book was one of the last Lisa read before her sudden death. She discussed it with me vaguely. But I do remember that we discussed the opening argument of Engels in Ludwig Feuerbach and whether it did not in fact embroil Engels in an irresolvable contradiction. Lisa did not live long enough for us to explore these works further in concert, so I could consider this intervention an intellectual debt being discharged at last.

Lisa discerned a contradiction in Engels' Ludwig Feuerbach having to do with the implications of rational = actual/real, whether this notion is conservative, justifying the status quo, or revolutionary. Engels stresses the revolutionary interpretation of the notion—that is emphasizes impermanence (all that exists deserves to perish) rather than the rightness of any social arrangement even for the moment. I think there was some problem with the notion that the dialectic could be considered inherently revolutionary. The specific content of my dialogue with Lisa is lost to memory.

Another of the Lisa's last readings, in Marxist philosophy anyway (she pursued studies in several disciplines at once—and she had many other talents besides)—was Engels’ writing on dialectical laws or the dialectics of nature. Lisa was patiently endeavoring to untangle Engels' confused presentation. We never got the chance to pursue this topic.

[6] Anthony Skillen's book Ruling Illusions has a good chapter on Marxism and ethics: Skillen, Anthony. Ruling Illusions: Philosophy and the Social Order. Hassocks [UK]: Harvester Press, 1977. Of greatest interest to me was chapter 2, the first section—"Labour: Philosophy’s Suppressed Premiss"—and chapter 4, on "Moralism and Morality," part of which is directly related to West’s subject matter.

[7] See Lenin's remark on "seventy Marxes": Lenin, V. I. Materialism and Empirio-Criticism: Critical Comments on a Reactionary Philosophy, translated by Abraham Fineberg (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1972 [Collected Works, vol. 14]), Chapter Six: Empirio-Criticism and Historical Materialism; 2. How Bogdanov Corrects and “Develops” Marx.

Main text written 7-9 June 2007. Content of postscripts and parts of footnotes written 18 April, 12 June , & 2 July 2007.
Entire text compiled, arranged & edited 27 January 2010.

Cornel West's Evasion of Philosophy, Or, Richard Wright's Revenge
by R. Dumain

Moralism & Morality (Excerpt) by Anthony Skillen

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