On Philosophy & Practice: Notes from Marx’s Grave

Marx’s grave in Highgate Cemetery, London.

On Thursday I visited Highgate Cemetery in London to spend some time reflecting on the philosophy of Karl Marx. The celebrated Prussian thinker is buried there; in fact, his is the most visited grave at the site, according to the cemetery guide. I arrived there seeking inspiration, and with the intent of writing about my own philosophy. However, as I stood at his grave, I was overcome with emotion, and with the undeniable urge to appeal to Marx for guidance. So, I did.

Standing at the grave of my sociological hero, I took out a notepad and wrote a letter to Marx. I then tore off the pages, rolled them up, and left them on his tomb. The contents are too personal to share here, but the focus of the letter was the difficulty of marrying one’s practice to one’s philosophical outlook on the world. Marx is known for his attention to this issue. After his death, Italian scholar Antonio Labriola referred to Marxism–the intellectual tradition bequeathed by Marx–as the “philosophy of praxis.” Antonio Gramsci, another Italian intellectual whose theories are a mainstay of contemporary sociology, also used the phrase in his writing, and it has stuck.

Inscription on Marx’s grave, from his “Theses on Feuerbach.”

Calling Marx’s thinking a “philosophy of praxis” seems to refer to the eleventh and final of his “Theses on Feuerbach,” written in 1845 as a critique of the German intellectual tradition. This thesis states: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point is to change it.” This statement is inscribed on his tomb, and for me, this is his legacy. It builds on his theory of the dialectical nature of the relationship between ideas and the material world. While German philosopher Hegel asserted that ideas are the driving force of all that exists, Marx is known for inverting this notion. Instead, Marx asserted that human action is what makes the world what it is. Ideas inform action, and vice versa, but ultimately it is what we do that matters. In this context, our ideas merely reflect the material world that exists around us. So for Marx, it was paramount that critical ideas be expressed as critical practice. Otherwise, they are meaningless.

In the most basic way, we all match our actions to our thoughts in our everyday lives. We develop ideas and then we act on them. These occasions can be mundane or momentous, whether you realize that you have run out of eggs, and then set off for the store to buy some, or whether you have an existential experience, like when I realized that I would not be fulfilled by a full-time academic appointment, and so changed my lifestyle to allow for the pursuit of different applications of sociology. Hugely significant or marginally consequential, we act on our thoughts everyday.

Yet, simultaneously, we do not, and this disconnect tends to occur around issues that are greatly significant. In her recent book, Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life, Kari Marie Norgaard explains that despite widespread awareness of, and concern for, the devastating effects of climate change in Norway, and the knowledge that changes must be made in everyday life to combat these effects, people continue to engage in practices that facilitate global warming. In essence, they fail to act on their knowledge. While they might espouse a philosophy that decries this man-made crisis, their practice perpetuates it.

Similarly, I found in my study of individual knowledge and consumption of ethical coffee, that there is often a disconnect between awareness and action. For instance, while most consumers with whom I spoke expressed distaste for the corporate domination and predatory business practices of Starbucks, scorned the harmful ecological effects of large-scale coffee production, and assumed that the company practiced exploitative labor relations with producers, many stated that they patronize the establishment when traveling. They explained that because they know the brand, and trust in the consistency of what they will be served, they will go there “in a pinch.” Though those I interviewed, myself, and likely many of you have critical awareness of the negative environmental and social effects of our consumption choices, we tend to focus our action on a certain product or set of products, instead of applying an across-the-board ethical approach to consumption. Our practice does not match our philosophy.

There are many reasons for why this occurs. We experience constraints on how we can use our resources, be they temporal, economic, intellectual, or emotional. We may not always have time to get to the farmers market for our sustainable local produce, or across town to the coffeehouse that sells the coffee that we feel best about buying. Though we may want to buy only products that have a low environmental impact, or that are brought to us by fairly treated and compensated workers, we may not be able to justify the extra dollar or two that one must often shell out for these goods. As some I interviewed about consuming ethical coffee explained, there is only so much time in the day for learning about the issues behind the products. For others, accumulated awareness can be paralyzing. The more one learns about social problems, the more one realizes how connected they are, and how large the scale is on which they operate. Realizing this grandiosity can result in hopelessness, so sometimes, knowledge can actually prevent action.

It is no wonder, then, that for Marx, the connection between ideology and practice was the most fundamental aspect of social life, and in turn, the most troublesome. Through his experience with the workers of the young industries of 19th century, he came to see that people would not fight their exploitation until they realized it. He theorized that development of a critical consciousness was the necessary first step in processes of social change. Yet even with a critical consciousness, practice may not match up.

The pressure of external social forces dampens the potential for critical practice. Dominant ideology, or the common values and worldview held in society, is a major force that shapes what we see and do. Gramsci made this point in his writing in an effort to explain why the workers’ revolution that Marx hoped for never came to pass. He argued that Marx had underestimated the power of ideology to keep people in line with business as usual–he called this “cultural hegemony.” French critical theorist Herbert Marcuse built on this with his concept of “repressive desublimation,” which describes how ideological forces repress–literally push back into us–the critical consciousness that sometimes bubbles to the surface. This “unhappy consciousness,” as he called it, is more easily ignored, or satiated through consumer pleasures, than it is addressed in a meaningful way.

This is all to say that we face a lot of resistance when we attempt to break with the norms of society, whether these attempts are large, small, or perceptible only to ourselves. This is why it can be so hard to make the practice of our everyday lives meet our philosophy head on. Personally, I have never been one to back away from something because it may be difficult, so I will plod along and continue to work toward matching the two. I hope you will do the same. It is not enough to simply think and talk about social change, we must make it through our actions. This is the only way.

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6 thoughts on “On Philosophy & Practice: Notes from Marx’s Grave”

  1. Be the change you wish to see… I agree with that philosophy and try to make choices every day to support it, but I also know all too well the paralyzing awareness you mention. I sometimes feel like I can only focus on one thing at a time, so I choose riding my bike to the store over driving, but then go to a closer store that doesn’t carry the local products I want. I guess a question is – does it still count? And how to choose which to prioritize?

    In one class last year we talked about how green products or products that donate some percentage to charity are there for ease but not efficacy. That is, people can see on the label that by buying certain products they’re helping some cause, and by doing so feel like they’ve already done their part. This will allow them to easily (without guilt) opt out of doing something more meaningful that’s slightly more difficult, that they may have done otherwise if the magic product didn’t exist. OR they buy unnecessary items just because 5 cents goes to charity, and now they own something they’ll never use and would’ve never bought in the first place.

    This (broad, slightly strayed) issue is coming up for me as I search for a job. Do I embed myself in the system by working for the government, where the power to change things seems possible, though entrenched in miles of bureaucracy, or go the route of a nonprofit where it’s a struggle just to survive, let alone get to a place where creating tangible change is possible? I think either way I’ll find ways to work for my fellows and promote social justice, but again, the question of how to prioritize is big in my mind. My reality tells me I’ll go to whichever hires me first, and just go from there!

    At any rate, it’s fun (and maddening) to think about. Thanks for your thoughts!

    1. Tiffany, thank you for adding to this discussion. I understand everything you wrote. From my perspective, shifting away from consumerism as a world view and an organizing principle of everyday life is key, as evidenced in what you learned in your course (which mirrors the findings of my study with consumers of ethical coffee). I see ethical consumption as a part of contemporary “repressive desublimation,” to use Marcuse’s term. It pushes critical consciousness back into us and channels any practice related to it into the system of production and consumption. My friend Stefanie & I will be giving a talk in Gevena together on Saturday that I think you might find interesting and inspiring, in terms of tactics for change. The audio will be posted on my website afterwards. Look out for it. I think you are right that you have to take whichever job comes first. This is what I mean by “material constraints.” We have to house and feed ourselves, and in our society that requires quite a bit of money. If I were you, I would focus more on what you can do in your personal, everyday life, to promote change, because really that is all that you can control until you have a job and see what possibilities it affords. Keep on keepin’ on, my sister!

      1. good thoughts all the way around….one note, you mention to “focus more on what you can do in your personal, everyday life, to promote change, because really that is all that you can control until you have a job and see what possibilities it affords.” i would argue, its the only thing you can control, period. even after a job and money and resources etc, even still then, controlling oneself is all that can be hoped for. obviously, the goal would be to hopefully have enough respect from others that they would also want to change and control themselves!

  2. Nicki – really enjoyed this post, extremely insightful. I am well familiar with our friend Marx, but really only as Marxism is interpreted in the constructs on international relations theory, so I appreciate your analysis and application of his concepts to human behavior. You really do need to come to India at some point because the meaning of ‘cultural hegemony’ here is something so different from that in the West. You’d be fascinated, I’m sure :)

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