Moral Justification, Philosophy, and Critical Social Theory

By Jaggar, Alison | Monthly Review, June 1993 | Go to article overview

Moral Justification, Philosophy, and Critical Social Theory


Jaggar, Alison, Monthly Review


Marxism-bashing is currently as popular in the academies of North America as the mainstream media tell us it is in the streets of Eastern Europe. In the introduction to The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought, Cornel West tells us that Marxism-bashers in the academy include not only the predictable conservatives but also trendy intellectuals who find epistemological and methodological reasons to discredit the entire Marxist enterprise of critical social theory. The book was written over a decade ago by a self-described American democratic socialist of African descent then in his mid-twenties. It is published at this time not just with the scholarly intention of countering vulgar reductionist readings of Marx but with the directly political intention of rehabilitating the Marxist project of understanding the world in order to change it.

Leaving aside the conservatives, West associates the academic Marxism-trashers with two intellectual movements which he characterizes respectively as "ironic skepticism" and "aesthetic historicism." The ironic skeptics are faddish postmodernists, followers of Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida, who talk about the subtle relations of rhetoric, knowledge, and power, yet remain silent about concrete ways in which people are empowered to resist and what can be gained by such resistance. The aesthetic historists are the so-called "new historicists," preoccupied with "thick descriptions" of the relativity of cultural products but thoroughly distrustful of social explanatory accounts of cultural practices. To the extent that he shares these movements' rejection of positivism in science and foundationalism in philosophy, West's own intellectual commitments are both postmodern and historicist, but he departs from the ironic skeptics and aesthetic historicists in his passionate opposition to their "epistemic skepticism, explanatory agnosticism...and historical cynicism," which render progressive intellectuals politically impotent.

In order to avoid intellectually fashionable forms of skepticism, agnosticism, and cynicism, with their resulting political impotence, West believes that we still need Marxist thought. Marxism is indispensable, though not sufficient, for understanding, criticizing, and changing capitalist societies with their attendant phenomena of racism, male dominance, homophobia, and ecological devastation. In West's view, indeed, Marxism has become even more relevant after the collapse of so-called communism in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe than it was before. The exploitation of capitalist market forces on a global scale--concomitant with open class conflict, aggressive consumerism, rapacious individualism, xenophobic tribalism, and chauvinistic nationalism--makes Marxist thought an inescapable part of the intellectual weaponry for present-day freedom fighters. (p. xiv)

West's book, therefore, is an "in-house discussion," addressing left intellectuals on their own ground in an attempt to show that, despite the deep tensions in his thought, Marx also, "in his best moments," rejected positivism and foundationalism. West's goal is to convince his readers that Marx's anti-positivism and anti-foundationalism, rather than undermining his radical political commitments, in fact made possible his development of a practical and nonmoralistic form of social criticism grounded firmly in existing historical conditions. The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought thus is not primarily, as a glance at its title--and perhaps its author--might suggest, an exploration of the substantive content of Marxism's moral vision. Instead, it is a metatheoretical work discussing the epistemological and methodological presuppositions and implications of Marxist thinking primarily about ethics and secondarily about science.

West portrays Marx approvingly as a radical historicist in both ethics and science. Radical historicism, as characterized by West, consists in the abandonment of Western philosophy's traditional quest for certainty and objectivity, a quest typically conducted via a search for indubitable grounds, bases, or foundations hoped to guarantee certain and objective knowledge. …

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