I feel compelled to write a brief defense of two Marxists recently under attack. Who are they? Louis Proyect, the self-described unrepentant Marxist (according to his website, louisproyect.org). and Paul Street who also has a website (paulstreet.org) with his self-description on Twitter being Scary Radical Left Marxist writer.
Immanuel Kant has the following quote we could apply to linking the Marxism of Proyect with the Marxism or Street: “The manifold of representations can be given in an intuition which is purely sensible, that is, nothing but receptivity; and the form of this intuition can lie a priori in our faculty of representation, without being anything more than the mode in which the subject is affected. But the combination (conjunctio) of a manifold in general can never come to us through the senses, and cannot, therefore, be already contained in the pure form of sensible intuition.”
What does this mean? Perhaps it is best explained through the concept of an integer, in its broadest sense. One item could arise from direct contact with our senses and our perception of the world around us. However the combination of items cannot come through the senses, rather it must be constructed, through the being who conceptualized each item individually. Not simple, but obvious enough.
Now what is more intriguing is that for Kant synthesis is a point of no return: “For where the understanding has not previously combined, it cannot dissolve, since only as having been combined by the understanding can anything that allows of analysis be given to the faculty of representation.” Once we combine Street and Proyect we cannot simply return to either/or.
How are the works of Street and Proyect a sort of chorus that overlap with each other? It is because both (I am mostly familiar with their recent work) explicitly reject the analysis of false choice. Now there is a lot going on in the analysis of both writers but both seem to return to this schema.
I was tempted to say that Proyect rejects the false either/or of liberalism and socialism but that’s not quite right. Liberalism probably is a shaky definition here and it may make more sense to say Proyect is being critical of post-materialist ideology. This ideology is commonly referred to as post-modern, which I defend generally. However, if Marx is right that history has material forces then what could better define modernity than the acceleration of materialism? Materialism has accelerated so fast that we reject it as a reflex.
If anything characterizes modern ideology it is the ability of elites and their ideological backing to separate themselves from the material world. Given that we have passed the point of ecological catastrophe there is no way to rationalize further degradation of the natural environment except through this denial of material reality.
On the other hand post-modernity represents a higher plain. Not only is the Real too cruel it also is not enough. One doesn’t have to have the colonialist mindset of Elon Musk to appreciate something beyond base materialism. However it is perhaps here where we must return to Kant and recognize that even when we do form a high point of synthesis we also are coming from somewhere, and this somewhere is our senses, and our senses are likely not even perceiving correctly but rather constructing the unity of structure in order so that we can perceive it. It’s this same structuring that helps us build synthesis between other concepts like Proyect and Street.
However one has to wonder if discovering the unity between Proyect and Street is a discovery at all. If they have the same origin of Marx, whether he be unrepentant or radical, then we are simply back to where Marx started. This is not a bad place to be.
Proyect is very tuned in to modern ideology and he is often quite critical of what forms as pop left analysis. For Proyect, origins of gains by the working class come from materialist organizing and cannot be extrapolated into much of what passes as modern ideology that is strictly divorced from materialism. My main lesson from the work of Proyect has been to look out for danger precisely when a theory of materialism itself is being used as a substitute for materialism proper.
Proyect is constantly returning to a structural understanding what makes him unique. My reading of Proyect tells me that the synthesis between Old Left (political economy and labor) is already in synthesis with New Left (the multiplicities of modernity). Immanuel Kant’s break from David Hume had much to do with giving synthesis a quality as real as a priori senses. Sure there could be some way of tracing an origin of concepts not unlike Darwin’s tracing of species. From a practical standpoint we should recognize that evolution creates a synthesis just as concrete and irreducible. It’s useful to know we were monkeys but that doesn’t make the human any less real.
Indeed I find Proyect’s work useful from a practical solidarity standpoint. Yet once again this is not an idealistic argument for solidarity. It is rather to say that if New Left and Old Left came from the same place then of course it is all part of the same project. What I see going on sometimes is an attempt to return to a pure Old Left or New Left but that would be extrapolating a certain point in time. Doing this would only take a point of discovery and make it a permanent ideology. A new discovery always changes what we already have but it does not erase it. Time always is a matter of synthesis.
Likewise, Paul Street is what we could call someone hurdling down a direct confrontation with the truth. For Street it seems that while history is useful to understand what is going on we need to first look at exactly what is going on in front of us. Too many times we come into a situation with certain expectations and biases and we don’t first look at what is going on. In mathematics this is the order of operations. It is also true that too many times we simply react to what just happened. Street combines both approaches in a seamless synthesis.
If we come in with an ideology we miss what is going on in front of us. If we react without reflecting we miss history and precedence. Rather let’s look at what is going on and once we find that out we can set that against or in concord with a history. This is why Street saw the dangers of fascism while much of the left was expecting a pure acceleration of neoliberalism and capitalism. It’s hard to know if Street was anticipating a new chapter but either way he was quicker on his toes than most.
Proyect and Street as a synthesis can effectively diagnose today’s modern times. By combining their theories we can reject many either/ors. Most crucially we can reject the discontinuity between time. Both theorists are distinctly modern in their methods and historical in their conclusions.
By using the work of both Proyect and Street together we can effectively see Marxism as both the counter to neoliberalism and fascism as the ruling class battles over the two. Indeed the opposition to power is as dynamic as power is. So yes we must synthesize the New Left and Old Left (Proyect) while creating a synthesis of New Resistance and Old Resistance (Street). By combining the theorist named Proyect who tells us where to go exactly and the theorist named Street who tells us exactly where not to go we are heading down a path towards a communal liberty.
America sees an opposition between community and liberty. We cling to a definition of liberty defined by property and slave owners while viewing all attempts to bind community together as authoritarian. I would look at it slightly differently. Once we form a synthesis it can’t be broken.