Marxism & Totality & Gramsci & Della Volpe

By Ralph Dumain

Gramsci & Della Volpe

I picked Martin Jay's Marxism and Totality: The Adventures of a Concept from Lukacs to Habermas (Berkeley; Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1984) off the shelf to look up the chapter on the surrealists, and got hooked on the book. [1] I had never read it all the way through, but I could not keep from devouring several chapters, but not in order. So far I've read about Gramsci, Benjamin, Adorno, Lefebrve, Surrealism, Goldmann, Della Volpe, and Colletti, plus the introduction to Western Marxism. This leaves Lukacs, Korsch, Bloch, Horkheimer, Marcuse, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty, Althusser, Habermas, the prehistory of totality, and the challenge of poststructuralism. [I eventually read the remaining chapters.]

The book is irresistible. Jay always gets to the point, revealing the essentials, including the internal tensions and contradictions and fundamental weaknesses of each thinker. This degree of candid critique is very helpful. "Totality" proves, just as Jay says, to be a lens that reveals central issues and debates in the purview of Marxism and I would say all available philosophies/worldviews. This book is a marvelous resource for investigating the positivism-lebensphilosophie polarity I always keep harping on. Holism always gravitates toward idealist mystification, and the rebellion against it may lead to a rejection of dialectics or Hegelianism altogether. Sometimes Jay applies the word holism too indiscriminately in characterizing some thinkers, Marx especially. It should also be clear that dialectics (not just in the case of Adorno) may be anti-holist as well as holistic. The alternatives are there in the book of course, but I'm not certain that Jay makes this abstract point. But as I said, the tensions are clearly there to be seen and learned from, especially as Jay is no mere cheerleader for Western Marxism.

I've always been suspicious of all the fuss over Gramsci. The very word "organic" would be enough to make me reach for my gun if I had one. I get a very negative feeling about Gramsci from reading this chapter, confirming my worst suspicions. I once probed a Gramsci scholar about Gramsci's view of intellectuals, with questions about independence, originality, and the generation of novel ideas not merely the social organization of the transmission of existing ideas. I could not get any clear answers, though my interlocutor was intrigued by my questions. I got the feeling he never thought through those issues before, which would hardly surprise me, as I've detected certain problems he has in achieving his own intellectual independence. Jay says that Gramsci leaves no room for independent, free-floating intellectuals, the only kind of intellectual I recognize. That is enough to condemn him. Free your inner Stalin.

I had forgotten all about the other Italians while I often cite the Polish Poznan School when I discuss Marxism and scientific method. The Della Volpe school, in reaction to Italian idealism, was militantly scientific, developing intense suspicion against muddy holistic thinking and even rejecting dialectics. I was surprised to learn that Della Volpe was enthralled by Gentile early in life and rebelled later, just as Gramsci was soaked in Croce. Interesting flipflops. But once Della Volpe rebelled, he was fanatical. He even condemned the Frankfurt School as a cabal of anti-scientific, mystical irrationalists. This accusation makes my criticisms look mild by contrast. His condemnation is excessive, but I admire his fanaticism. Della Volpe drew an oppositional distinction between Hegelian and Marxian dialectics. He also claimed there is one scientific method only—that of Galileo—and Marx used it. Gotta admire the guy! (The Galileo connection reminded me of the Poznan School.) Though Della Volpe's politics were uninspiring (as were Colletti's), his views on logic, science, and aesthetics are intriguing (with little intrinsic connection to his politics), and I should learn more.

Colletti was even more fanatical. He would brook no challenge to the logical law of non-contradiction. He opposed dialectics in every form, and when he concluded that Marx's theoretical structure was irredeemably dialectical, Colletti rejected Marxism. In his zeal, he was reckless in his criticisms of Hegel and others.

There is a lot to be learned from these examples.

(Written 2 October 2003)

Totality & Holism

Martin Jay's Marxism and Totality is a marvelous book in many respects, not least in the clarity and readability of its writing. There is much to be learned from it. I imagine though that people who assimilated all this stuff many years before I did are already bored with it and have moved on to something else. Most of the intellectuals seem to have moved on to the poststructuralism Jay presents in his final chapter, which by now is getting old too. However, sometimes it helps to revisit all the tired old debates, to delve more deeply into the underlying abstract issues which may turn out to require further articulation. When an author has accomplished so much in 576 pages it is hardly fair to complain about what he didn't do. However, the organizing concept that makes his book so valuable—totality, of course—also disturbs me in ways I find necessary to attempt to articulate.

If Jay has substituted "dialectics" for totality, he would have run into trouble, as that concept would have both expanded and contracted the range of the material he covers. But for the sake of argument, had he covered exactly the same authors and general background, what might be different? The problem with "totality" increases with its sister term used throughout the book, "holism". I shall return to this latter term before long. One problem is that the issues involved cover both the epistemological as well as ontological as well as political aspects of these related concepts.

In Chapter One Jay does recognize these and other distinctions in the meaning and applications of these terms. In the epilogue, on the challenge of poststructuralism, after having followed an impressive narrative of the rise and fall of totality (with valiant partial attempts to rescue the concept, ending with the case of Habermas), one gets a feeling of disintegration, though Jay in his introduction disavows pessimism. In 1984 when the book was published, postmodernism had already invaded popular culture, and the outcome of the political, historical, cultural, and intellectual changes under way in recent years remained uncertain. However, one might still ask the question, even if the society had reached a critical mass of fragmentation, even if the prospect of a single agency of political change appeared dim, is a necessary consequence of this a disintegration in the realm of theory itself? Sociologically, of course, the answer is almost inevitable, but surely there are intrepid souls to counter the trend towards incoherence and intellectual collapse. The next question is, naturally, where to go from here?

This brings us to the other problem, that of holism. Jay at the end confirms that holism has had a number of unfortunate by-products that mark the partial failure of the Western Marxist project. Holism's opposite is non-identity or something like it. But if this terminology represents the concepts under issue, there is a problem. For, while Jay does attempt to discriminate possible meanings of "holism", as well as of "totality", he never succeeds in doing so with sufficient clarity and logical discrimination to ask another round of questions that need to be asked. The need for integration—here I'm confining myself to the epistemological issue, that is an integrated perspective—does not automatically entail holism as I understand it, for an integrated perspective may include both systematicity and differentiation and aspects of an object of study that escape a totally systemic formulation, avoiding the dangers of "expressive totality". Jay does at times recognize other possibilities, as in his treatment of Della Volpe's distinction between Marx's and Hegel's dialectic, but Jay never pursues this path very far, as he sticks to his main complex of issues surrounding totality. However, some of the thinkers he treats could stand greater elaboration along the logical path I've suggested. For example, while Jay criticizes the twists and turns of Althusser's evolution, he could have pursued certain logical concepts further, especially "structure-in-dominance", which was one of Althusser's clever ideas worth pursuing. Indeed, however difficult it is to articulate nebulous formulations incorporating both systematicity and differentiation, it is the path that must be travelled to formulate a satisfactory Marxian dialectic as opposed to holism. That way, the epistemological, scientific questions to not have to fall apart as the political and ontological constructs of holism prove to be inadequate.

The next step that could be taken might lift us out of the constructed paradigm of "Western Marxism" in a different way, expanding the "tradition" in different directions. The presence of Della Volpe, who miraculously does get included under Western Marxism, but who embodies a scientific streak at variance with the other thinkers in the book (except Colletti, who takes anti-Hegelianism to unacceptable extremes, and Althusser, who complicates his errors rather than building on his better ideas), gives a clue as what other directions could be pursued. (Della Volpe's philosophical work of course, not his politics.) Now we are back at the problem of intellectual traditions and the weakness of the hypertrophy of the theoretical life of luftmenschen who may be brilliant at what they do but spend too much time dwelling in the theoretical terrain they study and thus are unable to step back, get another perspective, and see where else they might go. Even without coming up with new theories and philosophies, a fresh application of known theoretical techniques to the empirical world might be in order. Maybe that should be a priority and not the next up-and-coming intellectual fad.

Well, this takes us beyond the epilogue to chapters unwritten. But the problem comes in chapter one with the introduction of "holism" itself. The prehistory of Western Marxism is very instructive—"totality" serves us well here. Some quotes from Marx relating to the whole are useful especially if one has not thought about them before (p. 61-63). But I balk at characterizing Marx as a holist or characterizing Marxism as holism. There are caveats, but they are inadequate. There is a footnote listing works from authors who claim that Marx was a methodological individualist (p. 61); another on Marx as anti-totalizing (p. 65). Jay is aware of the right-wing nature of organicism and differentiates Marx's position from it (p. 27). However, Jay repeatedly refers to Marx's holism. He stresses that it is different in some respects from Hegel's, and that the alleged similarity and difference is hotly contested within Western Marxism (p. 63) even though all Western Marxists agree that Marx was a holist (p. 61). Jay goes on at length about what differentiates Marx from Hegel and others, but he always seems to miss the crux of the logical issues. In one spot, he lists all the conceptual issues involved (p. 65), including the question of the logical relation between part and whole. But something is missing from a logical standpoint. One way to differentiate a dialectical from a holist perspective (under one interpretation of these terms) is that a dialectical thinker does not only see unity where others see only difference, but also sees distinction and difference where others falsely see an undifferentiated unity. Dialectics reveals mystified totalities to be temporary balances of contradictory forces fused together in specific conjunctures which may not cohere under different circumstances. Jay buries any potential elaboration of this crucial insight.

In addition, and not coincidentally, while Jay shows up the political as well as strictly conceptual dangers of "totality" throughout the book, he comes to no resolution of his own. Totality, politically, means the struggle against fragmentation, alienation, the limitations of liberalism and individualism. Jay as well as several of the thinkers under review are indeed concerned about the totalitarian dangers of "totality", yet the framework in which Jay pursues this problem solidifies a dualism that pits right-wing politics or Stalinism against disintegration, and thus unwittingly inhibits movement to the next stage of theoretical reflection on this history. So the story becomes one of faith and doubt, commitment and disillusionment. But something is left out here.

And for this to become the abstract subtext of this brilliantly assembled philosophical narrative is unsatisfying. Because the one naturally leads to the other. Jay is candid about the weaknesses as well as the strengths of his holistic thinkers. One cannot be sure how he personally feels, though, or of what conclusions he has reached. When I read Jay's account of Lukacs, I am completely revolted by Lukacs, as the right-wing basis of most of his thought even through the Marxist period becomes conspicuous. (While Jay copiously cites the later "Stalinist" Lukacs' self-criticisms of the early Lukacs, Jay doesn't resolve the epistemological status of the late Lukacs's perspective. Just as Lukacs' characterization of his early self as rightist epistemology combined with leftist politics has some merit, perhaps the late Lukacs might be characterized as left epistemology + Stalinist politics.) Jay is certainly aware of this problem, but if I am right about the implicit duality of his perspective, can I then impute to Jay a more sophisticated perspective transcending both communitarianism and liberalism, a socialist individualism, perhaps? Is the notion of holism, Jay's reservations notwithstanding, as deeply repellent to Jay as it is to me? I can't really know, but deep down I'm dubious as to whether he has really transcended the assumptions of the people he has analyzed. I suspect a failure both of discrimination and of abstract generalization in his perspective.

(Written 8 October 2003)


There is a basic logical issue at work and not merely an ideological tug of war; i.e., the tenability of "totality" in the obfuscatory holistic sense in which Lukacs for example imported it into Marxism, and how the concept can hold up subjected to severe logical scrutiny. Hence the anti-Hegelian reaction of Della Volpe and his school, which led to the extremism of Colletti.

However, I think there is a way to attempt to bring the philosophy of natural science and mathematics and the philosophy of consciousness of German idealism closer together, even short of attaining logical consistency at this moment. If Niels Bohr could live with complementarity, we too can live with it for awhile. It would mean jumping out of the usual comfort zones of specialization in which people pretend they know all they need to know by citing all the familiar authorities in their corner of the knowledge industry.

(Written 17 October 2003)

[1] I commented on chapter 8 in a post of 26 April 2003. At the time I was rummaging through the book looking up various topics, such as Nietzsche. I was also in search of comparisons between Lukacs and Adorno. There are a few pejorative stray references in this chapter to Lukacs' The Destruction of Reason, characterized as the low point of Lukacs' intellectual trajectory. However, I did not trust Jay's judgment at this time. I thought he operated from the provincial premise that German idealism is the antidote to (Second International) scientism—i.e., from the premises of the construct "Western Marxism." Jay proved to be more sophisticated than this, but as I suggested in my quibbles over holism, it is time to deepen one’s perspective, as my positivism-lebensphilosophie project attempts to do. [—> main text]

Compiled & edited 20 November 2003
© 2003 Ralph Dumain. All rights reserved.

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