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Saturday, March 23, 2013


My rather jejune remarks about Yugoslavian Marxists provoked Matko Soric, who actually knows something about the subject, to write the following short essay, which I am pleased to reproduce, unaltered, as a guest post.  Here is Matko Soric's brief self-description:

"Matko Soric is a PhD student at the University of Zagreb, Croatia. He wrote a book on postmodernism (The Concepts of Postmodernist Philosophy), two scientific articles (Semantic Holism and the Deconstruction of Referentiality: Derrida in an Analytical Context; Reflexivity in the Sociology of Pierre Bourdieu: Beyond Sociological Dichotomies) and a dozen of book reviews. His main areas of interest include classical German idealism and western Marxism. Currently, he is writing a PhD thesis on Milan Kangrga. An essay on Gajo Petrovi? (Gajo Petrovi?: Critical Essay) is to published this year."



                           by Matko Sorić

Gajo Petrović and Milan Kangrga were two crucial theoretical and logistical pillars of the Yugoslav magazine Praxis and the Korčula Summer School. Milan Kangrga is usually regarded to be a Hegelian Marxist with special interest in ethics, while Gajo Petrović is often looked upon as a Heideggerian Marxist with special interest in analytical philosophy. There is some truth to that, but there is also a certain paradox surrounding the two. Kangrga cannot be called an ethicist, moralist or some sort of Marxist preacher of precise normative demands, in spite of his life-long interest in ethics. Drawing upon a wide range of classical Marxist themes in a uniquely unorthodox way, Petrović developed his original philosophical position which has much more in common with classical German idealism than with Heidegger. In this text, I will try to summarize and sketch out a couple of important and internationally still unappreciated ideas of their philosophical legacy.

Some believe they were authentic dissidents with an important and original contribution to a so called open or western Marxism, similar to Rosa Luxemburg, Herbert Marcuse, Miroslav Krleža, Milovan Đilas, and partly George Orwell, Raymond Williams, Georg Lukács, Raya Dunayevskaya and Karl Korsch. Others claim they were unofficial theoretical facilitators in service of an anti-Stalinist fraction of Yugoslav bureaucratic elite with the task of vindicating and justifying the existing socialist regime. In both cases, their work remains conceptually unexplored.  

            Kangrga and Petrović started their academic career as young assistants in the wake of the II World War, at the Department of Philosophy at the University of Zagreb. Petrović wrote his dissertation on Georgi Plekhanov in 1956, while Kangrga finished his dissertation on Marx and ethics in 1961. The crucial moment in the genesis of humanist Marxism and Praxis magazine was a conference held in a Slovenian town called Bled in 1960 where the two major fractions of Yugoslav Marxists collided. Their main point of divergence was the so called theory of reflection. According to the reflection theory, developed by the early Lenin in Materialism and Empirio-criticism and reiterated by Todor Pavlov in his Theory of Reflection, human consciousness is nothing but a necessary effect of the surrounding matter without any causal autonomy. Our thoughts and knowledge are a direct consequence of crude mechanical determinism. To a contemporary reader acquainted with analytical philosophy, reflection theory might be best represented as a rudimental Soviet version of eliminative materialism or at least reductive materialism. On the other hand, a group formed around Kangrga and Petrović, inspired by Hegel and early Marx, arguing that human consciousness has a certain degree of autonomy. This group will later be known as the editorial board of the Praxis magazine. In the terminology of contemporary philosophy of mind, they could be considered Emergentists.

            The theory of reflection is one version of naïve realism or direct Referentialism that explains human knowledge as a pure reflection or mimesis of the external world. Beside this epistemological aspect, there is a much more important political aspect. If our mental states are necessary, and our actions are based on our mental states, then our actions are necessary, whatever they may be. According to the theory of reflection, human freedom does not exist, and the course of history is inevitable. Kangrga and Petrović did not believe this to be the case. They discarded the  theory of reflection as a sort of metaphysics, which has a somewhat special meaning for them.

For both Kangrga and Petrović, metaphysics is a name for any sort of perennial theory, be it of religious, philosophical, scientific, political or economic origin, that negates radical changes of human beings and their culture through time. What they call metaphysics resonates with the position Nietzsche dismissed as Platonism, Heidegger as metaphysics of presence, and Derrida as logocentrism. According to Kangrga and Petrović, reality evolves, and so does human history, which means we should never stop being engaged in the transformation of  social institutions. It should be pointed out that with the term metaphysics they do not designate only idealism: reflection theory is nothing but materialistic metaphysics, a model of the universe in which nothing essentially new can come into existence. In the discourse of Marxist humanism, metaphysics is another name for ontological, political and historical determinism.

            My basic claim in this text is that we should rename Kangrga and Petrović's position and term it “modernist humanism”. Why? They were both devoted to this fundamental metaphysical claim that Being is a process, not a state. Everything that exists is in a constant and unstoppable flux and development, especially human beings, with the important difference that while everything else changes itself uncontrollably, humans can consciously create their own destiny. This abstract notion of omnipresent change can also be found in Heraclitus, Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Whitehead and James. It is important for Kangrga and Petrović because, on the one hand, they had a theoretical tool to disregard every pre-modern social formation they encountered in everyday life, and on the other hand, they could idealise the future state of the human nature.

            Just like contemporary postmodernists, Kangrga and Petrović saw human nature as a social or historical construct. There is of course a big difference: unlike postmodernism or poststructuralism, which breaks down the Hegelian axis of historical progress, they implicitly believed there to be only one and universal criteria of human development. Nonetheless, for them, the human nature remains a historical product. A fundamental distinction they sustained throughout their entire careers was the opposition between metaphysics and historical thinking (povijesno mišljenje, geschlichtliches Denken) in the case of Kangrga, and metaphysics and thought of revolution (mišljenje revolucije, das Denken der Revolution) in Petrović. Metaphysics always advocates some universal, transtemporal, unchangeable and indestructible human essence, while Kangrga and Petrović see human beings as products of their own age and culture. This dispute remains present in the contemporary nature-nurture debate, that can be seen in the naturalist evolutionary psychology of Steven Pinker and all sorts of culturalisms typical for the humanities and social sciences.

            The theory advocated by Kangrga and Petrović is one version of culturalism, if by culturalism we mean the theory that inextricably links one's existence with a wider cultural context. In the culturalist paradigm, individuals' life cannot be explained only by its intrinsic, individual properties: proper explanation must include heteronomous historical circumstances and fluctuating social surroundings. For Kangrga and Petrović, these surroundings are History (die Geschichte), material context produced and reproduced by humans. If humans create history, and history defines future generations of humans, it is plausible to say that humans create themselves. Just like Feuerbach claimed that God did not create men, but vice-versa, Kangrga and Petrović claim that history did not create men, but vice-versa. But since history is under constant change and development, so is human nature. That is why Kangrga states this, in his speculative manner: “…Man is not what he already is, he is what he is not, but can and should be, in order to be.” (Kangrga, 1989b: 229). In their justified attempt to escape from hard determinism of reflection theory, they ended up in an over idealised humanism, purged of the most important elements of a Marxist social model, elements that point out strict financial limits and material conditions of human self-creation. That is why I think we should label their theory “modernist humanism”, rather than “Marxist humanism”.

            There were a couple of attempts to reconsider the relationship of Marxism and ethics. I will mention only The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought by Cornel West, The Ethical Thought of Young Marx by Marek Frichand, Marxism and Ethics by Paul Blackledge, and Marxism and Ethics by Philip Kain. As Marek Frichand states in his valuable study, The Ethical Thought of Young Marx, there are three possible solutions: Marxism and ethics are mutually exclusive; Marxism and ethics are not mutually exclusive, and therefore Marxist ethics should be created, and finally; Marxism already possesses normative demands, so, there is no need to articulate a specific Marxist ethics. Kangrga is among those who believed that Marxism and ethics are incompatible.

According to Kangrga's interpretation, Hegel regarded ethics to be contradictory. Simply put, every ethical claim is based upon a state of affairs that should be changed and replaced by a better situation. If this better state of affairs ever occurs, ethical claim destroys itself. So, an ethical claim can exist only due to a morally corrupt state. The essence of ethics is a gap between ought and is, Kangrga claims: “Entire Hegel's analysis of the moral consciousness tries to show that moral consciousness as practice cannot and should not, in order not to contradict its essential identity, realize what it is destined for.” (Kangrga, 1989a: 64). For Kangrga, ethics should be straightforwardly assimilated into the realm of history. Instead of a philosophical search for proper ethical values, we should turn to his version of historicism, that is historical thinking, which explains moral values in the light of their social function.

            A crucial term for both Kangrga and Petrović is practice (cro. praksa; ger. Praxis ). In my opinion, the best way to understand practice is through a culturalist perspective. Simply put, practice is a process of creating culture (or history) that redefines the material context of living for the future generations. When Kangrga states that “…practice is creativity.” (Kangrga, 1989c: 80), he is pointing out a culturalist maxim about the arbitrary nature of social institutions. The realm of culture and history is not deterministically encoded in the structure of universe, but freely created by man, and therefore apt for transformation. Along those lines, Gajo Petrović defines practice as “…universal, free, creative and self-creative being.” (1986: 192). For Kangrga, the possibility of practice is rooted in spontaneity; for Petrović, it is rooted in the revolution as an underlying principle of the universe.

            Petrović calls his own theory the thought of revolution (mišljenje revolucije, das Denken der Revolution). How come? Revolution is not only a political, but an ontological concept as well. According to Petrović's process-ontology, the essence of reality is radical change. This sort of change is not a mere realization in time of pre-existing necessity, but a moment when completely new, unexpected and spontaneous state of affairs comes into being. Revolution as radical change is not predictable, not even from God’s point of view. Petrović's revolution might be compared to the notion of event in Alain Badiou or Slavoj Žižek, a radical rupture with the material or psychological past, and it is probably motivated by a Heideggerian notion of Ereignis, whose legacy both Badiou and Žižek bear on.

            Kangrga and Petrović have much in common, but there are also many differences. One is the apparent difference in style. Petrović is under the influence of analytical philosophy, so he writes in a clear, understandable, plain, simple, downright and unambiguous manner. On the other hand, Kangrga is under the influence of German idealism, especially Hegel, so his style is much more jargoned. Despite that, I believe that Kangrga had a strong intellectual influence on Petrović's thought of revolution. This effect should be explored, not just in the context of the Praxis group, but also in a wider context of left-anticommunism and western Hegelian and Heideggerian Marxism.








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