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Mainstream, VOL LX No 25, New Delhi, June 11, 2022

Rethinking The History Of European Philosophy After Encountering Marx And Nietzsche | Murzban Jal

Saturday 11 June 2022

by Murzban Jal

Philosophy is nothing but religion rendered into thought and expounded by thought, i.e., another form and manner of existence of the estrangement of the essence of the human essence (Form und Daseinweise der Entfremdung des menschliche Wesens); hence equally to be condemned. —Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.
‘All gods are dead: now we want the superman (Ubermensch) to live’let this be our last will one day at the great noontide. —Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
Everything that touches of politics may be fatal to philosophy, for philosophy lives on politics. —Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy.

Suspicion as the End of Metaphysics

In Freud and Philosophy, Paul Ricoeur called Marx, Nietzsche and Freud as the philosophers who belong to the “school of suspicion” [1]. It is a theme that Louis Althusser took up in his Lenin and Philosophy and Reading Capital. Besides belonging to this critical school of thought, they are also the three figures that yet stand central to modern human thought. In a certain sense they announce the ‘end’ of philosophy, and end that by no means has to be confused with the postmodern theory of ‘ends’. Instead they announce a very different type of end that Engels had made famous in his Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy. And as announcing the end of all metaphysics they become (to borrow a phrase from Nietzsche) the revaluers of all values. They also become the founders of great systems: modern communism (Marx), romantic anti-capitalism (Nietzsche) and psychoanalysis (Freud). With them we have not only a new beginning, but also a return to the classical past that gave birth to philosophy two and a half millennia back. The central philosophical theme: “What is humanity?” rings out in their works. Of course all three stand of different terrains, despite having a certain form of common bond of this play of suspicion. In order to understand this let us turn to Althusser:

To my knowledge, the nineteenth century saw the birth of two or three children that were not expected: Marx, Nietzsche and Freud. ‘Natural’ children, in the sense that nature offends customs, principles, morality and good breeding: nature is the rule violated, the unmarried mother, hence the absence of a legal father. Western Reason makes a fatherless child pay heavily. Marx, Nietzsche and Freud had to foot the often-terrible bill of survival: a price compounded of exclusion, condemnation, insult and poverty, hunger and death, or madness. I speak only of them because they were the birth of sciences or of criticism. [2]

We begin with Marx. And since Marxism has rigorously developed since the last century and also since the impact of Marx has singularly been the greatest, one begins with Marx himself. One will have to bracket almost all post-Marx Marxist thinkers in this respect (Engels included) to understand what Marx himself meant. For Marx, one had to be suspicious (though he himself never used this term) of philosophy, since philosophy in the last resort (despite it being however much critical) was determined by the ruling ideas of the ruling classes. It was (to borrow Hegel’s phrase) the “child of its own time”. And also since times are determined by the spirit of human alienation, one has to be suspicious of this little estranged child.

Critique of Alienation as a Different Practice of Philosophy

Marx’s own philosophy and his programme of a theory of philosophy are extremely vast, though hidden within the layers of what we know as the critique of political economy. Marx though claiming to be a student of Hegelian philosophy was no traditional philosopher. Most certainly he was no academic philosopher. But Marx did philosophy, albeit totally different from academic and traditional philosophers. What then was this different practice of philosophy that Marx advocated?

For Marx, philosophy as authentic quest for wisdom had not only to confront regressive thinking. This as we know is what philosophers claim. It has to be suspicious of thought itself. We know that this is what Marx (along with Engels) did in The German Ideology. For this it has to be involved a very different practice of philosophy, a different practice that understands that:

Philosophy is nothing but religion rendered into thought and expounded by thought, i.e., another form and manner of existence of the estrangement of the essence of the human essence (Form und Daseinweise der Entfremdung des menschliche Wesens); hence equally to be condemned.

The claim is rather startling. Philosophy is nothing but religion, and if not altogether crude as religion, is nothing but speculative and idealist philosophy. What does one conclude from this? One concludes that there can be nothing called “materialist philosophy” and if there is anything called “materialism”, it cannot be philosophical.

To understand this different practice of philosophy let us turn to his doctoral dissertation on the programme of the “practice of philosophy”. After this let us turn to the idea of the transcendence (Aufhebung) and realization (Verwirklichung) of philosophy [3], and idea that has unfortunately not been developed at all. Now it was Marx in the early 1840s who had talked on this programme and linked it directly to emancipator politics with the then emergence of the European proletariat. Firstly let it be known that by Aufhebung of philosophy one implies a transcendence and sublation of philosophy through a lifting up of philosophy at a higher level of existence. And it is this very important historicism and humanist theme that made Marx very different from other philosophers who either lapsed into positivism or postmodern cynicism and sophistry. And it is this dialectic of Aufhebung and Verwirklichung whereby philosophy as revolutionary praxiswas born. Now it must be known that thinkers following Georg Lukács, and following him the great Hegelian-Marxist thinkers like Karl Korsch, Karl Kosik, Antonio Gramsci and Raya Dunayevskaya who put the Hegelian method at the centre of Marxist discourse. Yet very strangely this very dialectic could not take centre stage in their respective repertoire.

For Marx, philosophy has to become worldly, just as the world has to become philosophical. [4] And how does this happen? It happens when the human mind liberated ‘turns into practical energy’ and thus ‘turns against the reality of the world’ itself. [5] There is now a ‘practice of philosophy’, a practice that is basically theoretical [6]. The revolutionary programme of the realization of philosophy has a ‘double-edged demand’: to turn against the world and also to turn against hitherto existing philosophy itself. [7]

There are diverse ways of looking at Marx’s programme of the Aufhebung of philosophy: one is dismissive of this idea. Take the case of Louis Althusser, who strangely transcribes the Aufhebung of philosophy as ‘suppression of philosophy’ [8]. Take another idea, namely that of Daniel Brudney who talks of “Marx’s attempt of leaving philosophy” [9]. Let us see the trajectory of this latter idea of leaving philosophy. To understand this dialectic of “leaving philosophy” let us turn to Lenin in Capri in 1908 and see how he saw the radical break in human thinking.

The 1905 revolution is crushed by the forces of the tsar. Gorky wants to discuss philosophy with Lenin and Lenin responds with laughter. A section of the Bolshevik leadership led by Lunacharsky, Bognadov, and Bazarov has taken an extreme left turn politically (they want to boycott all types of politics), but a right turn philosophically (they are influenced by the rather bizarre theory of ‘matter has disappeared’). They claim to be Bolsheviks, but have become empiro-critics. They are seized by (to borrow Lenin’s expression) an infantile disorder. Gorky wants Lenin to have a discussion on philosophy with them. Lenin breaks into laughter. He says that he would love to meet Gorky. But a philosophical discussion? Lenin thinks not. But he himself goes into philosophy. His conclusion: philosophy is not only a lost path, but it is the falsest of false paths (der Holzweg der Holzwege) [10]. One cannot take philosophy as it is. One has to aufheben it, an Aufhebung that goes through the process of a negation (Negation) of philosophy, of ‘previous philosophy, i.e. of philosophy as philosophy’. [11] Philosophy is no longer a scholastic enterprise. It is praxis itself, the praxis of insurrection.

And what is the opposite of praxis? It is contemplation of the petty bourgeois variety. Or, to be precise, it is alienation. And what is Marx’s great discovery? It is that he discovers the continent of alienation. Not only does he discover the continent of history (what Althusser claims in Lenin and Philosophy), he discovers the continent of alienation. Or to be precise he discovers the continent of history that has been colonized by alienation. Marx’s phrase; ‘the history of all hitherto existing class societies is the history of class struggles’ is now transcribed as: ‘all class history is also the history of human alienation’. What I did in my book was to extend Marx’s understanding of the historical materialist proposition: the economic base determines the political and ideological superstructure into: the reified base determines the estranged mind. Now those who have read Marx’s Economic and PhilosophicManuscripts of 1844 will know that the idea of the ‘estranged mind’ (entfremdete Geist) [12] is central to Marx’s method of doing philosophy. Marx’s different practice of philosophy recognizes this fundamental fact of human alienation, where ‘all sensuous conditions are put out of sight’ (Alle seine sinnlichen Beschaffenheiten sind ausgelöscht). [13] Philosophy is blindness and the history of philosophy is the history of blindness. Once one has recognized this fact of alienation and philosophical blindness, combined with the disembodiment and metamorphosis of commodity production (not to forget the disembodiment and metamorphosis of the neo-Hindu from esoteric gymnosophist to fascist), then only is one able to understand Marx’s programme of the transcendence and negation of philosophy.

And what does this Marxist New Philosophy do? It keeps the three Kantian questions: ‘What can I know?’, ‘What ought I to do?’ and ‘What may I hope for?’ along with the radically new question: ‘What is humanity?’ now transcribed into the question: ‘What is free humanity?’ into the site of the insurrectionist proletariat. We have in our book used Feuerbach’s idea of species being (Gattungwesen) and the young Marx’s idea of the human essence (das menschliche Wesen) to lay stress on the scientific and philosophical specificity of classless societies. What we have done is negate the old left wing idea of the iron laws of history (that was largely popularized firstly by the Second International and then made into gospel truth by the Soviet regime) into the new programme of the humanization of history. And that is why we spoke in our book that the human essence is to be considered as the essence and basis of history—and to quote Marx:

History does nothing, it ‘possesses no immense wealth’, it ‘wages no battles’. It is the human, real, living humanity who does all that, who possess all that; ‘history’, is not, as it were, a person apart, using humanity as a means to achieve itsown aims; history is nothingbut human activity pursuing its aims. [14]

Nietzsche and the Dilemma of Western Reason

Probably no thinker has been consciously been misunderstood (besides Marx) is the figure of Nietzsche. Besides this conscious misunderstanding there is also an unnoticing. Out of the two themes that Nietzsche prominently stated, one goes almost unnoticed. The first theme—the one recognized by the world—is the death of god. The second is of Nietzsche’s critique of Western Reason spoken through the figure of Nietzsche’s central hero, Zarathustra, who is depicted as going into the underworld (Unterwelt). [15] What did he mean by this statement? What was Nietzsche’s claim? His central claim is that Zarathustra is the authentic philosopher as against the decadence of Western Reason, from Socrates to Schopenhauer.

But there is also a second theme that emerges. This time it is heard in Iran with the crisis of not merely the legitimacy of the political theologians in contemporary, but to the crisis of global theology itself. There are two themes bound to this central theme of crisis: (1) Zarathustra who was driven underground in real Iran has emerged once again, and (2) the European sciences and philosophies would not be solutions to this crisis because of what Husserl called the crisis of the European sciences itself. This theme is then related to Marx’s critique of philosophy in A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Introduction,Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 and The German Ideology; as also to Freud’s analysis of civilization as neurosis. Keeping this theme in mind we go into the next part of this work.

Quite often philosophy, especially in India, is compartmentalized as either ‘Western’ or ‘Indian’. One could claim that this type of reasoning emerges from the life-world of colonial ism. That philosophy as philosophy, or the notion (Begriff) that thinks (to borrow a Hegelian terminology), emerged around the sixth century B.C in the encounter of the Indians, Persians, Greeks, Egyptians and Babylonians is almost now forgotten. What this present work is doing is firstly relating the problems of philosophy that Marx and Nietzsche noted in their own ways with the encounter of Greek philosophy with the Persians. We are then questioning the foundations of Western Reason itself. We will have to note the following points: (1) Marx’s claim that philosophy is alienation (Entfremdung), (2) Freud’s analysis of neurosis and psychosis and (3) Nietzsche’s Zarathustra as against Western Reason.

We now come to the central point. Something strange about Western philosophy is that it has steadfastly purged almost all non-‘Western’ themes from its repertoire. The Persian Zarathustra—we will have to differentiate Nietzsche’s Zarathustra from the Persian one (the one that lived three and a half thousand years ago)—almost remains absent from Nietzsche scholarship. Neither does Martin Heidegger’s Nietzsche (in four volumes) nor Gilles Deleuze’s Nitezsche and Philosophy mentioned even the slightest traces of the Persian in their analysis of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Nietzsche had it differently:

Zarathustra was the first to see in the struggle between good and evil the actual wheel in the working of things: the translation of morality into the realm of metaphysics, as force, cause, end-in-itself, in his work. But this question is itself at bottom its own answer. Zarathustra created the most fateful of all errors, morality: consequently he must also be the first to recognize it. Not only has he had longer and greater experience here then any other thinker—the whole of history is indeed the experimental refutation of the proposition of the so-called ‘moral order’—what is more important is that Zarathustra is more truthful than any other thinker. His teaching, and his alone, upholds truthfulness as the supreme virtue—that is to say, the opposite of the cowardice of the ‘idealist’, who takes flight in the face of reality; Zarathustra has more courage in him than all the thinkers put together. To tell the truth and to shoot well with arrows: that is the Persian virtue—Have I been understood? The self-overcoming of morality through truthfulness, the self-overcoming of the moralist into his opposite—into me—that is what the name Zarathustra means in my mouth. [16]

This brings us to our central question: “Are the origins of Western thinking, really Western, or did they originate from non-‘Western’ sources?” The dominant line of thinking is constituted by a form of thinking that claimed that Indians, Chinese and the Persians were the children of world history dwelling more in mythology than real philosophy. Hegel’s Historyof Philosophy is one example of such sort of thinking. But Hegel was not one isolated case. From Plato to Heidegger and Karl Popper, philosophy is said to dwell in this myth of the dominance of Western Reason. Take the case of Copleston who talked of the “cradle of Western thought” being Ionia. [17] The Egyptians and Babylonians, we are told, were “practical-gardeners” [18], whilst thought, or pure thought as philosophical and scientific reasoning belonged solely to the Greeks. But then did Nietzsche, along with Marx and Freud—the three philosophers of suspicion (as Louis Althusser called them in Lenin and Philosophy)—change this line of thinking? How does one (since these three masters) read the history of philosophy differently? It is to this mode of thinking that one will turn one’s attention. Though one will be keeping the condensation of the Indian, Persian, Babylonian and Greek modes of thinking, one is concentrating here on the Persians.

One merely needs to turn one attention to the beginnings of Western Reason. Though Marx had called Aristotle, “the great thinker who was the first to analyze so many forms, whether of thought, society, or Nature, and amongst them also the form of value...” [19], and Engels had noted that he was “the most encyclopedic intellect” of the old Greek “natural dialecticians” [20], there is something also unsaid—philosophy with its commitment to the core questions: ‘What is true?’,‘What isgood?’ and ‘What is beautiful?’ along with the question: ‘What is humanity?’, will abandon this path altogether. And this abandonment, begins at the beginning—with the Greek philosophers themselves.

So what does one do? According to Marx, though one recognizes that alienation is the basis of both the human condition and the foundation of philosophical thinking, yet one cannot turn ones back onto philosophy by muttering angry phrases. [21] Most certainly one cannot merely attempt an “exit (Ausgang) from philosophy”. [22] There are two parts to Greco philosophy, one well known—that it is a work of philosophical excellence and deals with metaphysics, economics, politics, logic and language. But there is another part barely known, in fact deliberately repressed throughout its intellectual history. The Persians had first talked of it—of not Aristotle directly ‘borrowing’ from them, but his ‘student’ Alexander the imperialist, known to the Persians as “the accursed” who robs their works. [23] Now, according to the Persians, what this imperialist Alexander did was loot their ‘grand’ philosophical Collected Works (Nasks), burnt one copy down and took the other to the grand master of Western Reason, Aristotle himself. Since there are possibilities of themes of the Persians and Aristotle synchronizing, the Persians felt that Aristotle had robbed their entire repertoire. Western Reason thus stand on a double faulty ground—one that it is strictly not ‘Western’ and secondly it is not merely borrowed without due acknowledgements—it is to be precise robbed. Western Reason thus stands on theft, pure and simple. One does not merely say that philosophy is an estranged gaze. One now says that philosophy is barbarism. And wherever there is the master philosopher, the barbarian student cannot be far behind.

So what we get, is the proposition that Western Reason is not grounded in the Greek polis, but somewhere far beyond. It is barbaric, not merely because it is a work of theft, but that it is itself produced by barbarians (the Persians were, and possibly yet are, barbarians for the Western world). We are caught in this strange paradox. As philosophy is produced by the barbarians (for Western Reason), one can only say that philosophyisbarbaric. So in both forms (in the first rendering Aristotle as the ‘borrower’ who does not pay his debts, and in the reversed form that it is produced by the barbaric Persians) we get the beginnings of philosophy caught up in not too wise and moral foundations.

But there is another terrain that Hegel was to spot—what we are articulating as the terrain of traditional philosophy is actually Verstand (understanding) and which corresponds to pure formalism. Kant, as we all know, would perfect this domain of philosophical reasoning. And yet this formalism (and idealism) has a history of its own that cannot merely be traced only to Aristotle, or even Parmenides and Plato, but far beyond: to mythology. And here we go back to the ancient Persians and what they called (and yet call) the Fravashi—some sort of supra-soul appearing in the form of an angelic being, even as Nietzsche’s Ubermensch. Now what happens is that (as we learn from the German philologist Martin Haug) Plato took his view of the ‘Idea’ from this Fravashi. [24] But not only did he take the ‘Idea’ from the Persians, he also took the idea of the philosopher-king from them. In this rendering the Persian Cyrus (‘the great’ for the Persians) becomes the model for Plato’s political-philosophy.

One thus has to understand the complex beginnings of world philosophy. Against the domain of Western Reason that consciously erases all traces of its own self, one has to study the encounters of Greco and other philosophies. If one bothered to take Nietzsche’s hermeneutics of suspicion seriously then one would know that Persia is no longer the ‘estranged other’ of Western philosophy, but its very core. One thus has to understand the complexity of dialogical forces, where human thinking (in both its profane and messianic senses) is said to lie in the heartland that is the other of Western Reason, namely into the Persian heartland, where Anaximander of Miletus and the Second Isaiah meet as the profane and the messianic. [25] Yet in the last resort, the revolutionary messianic idea is destined to be destroyed.

This is because capitalism hates revolutionary messiahs.


[1Paul Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy. An Essay on Interpretation, trans. Denis Savage (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1972), p. 32.

[2Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy, trans. Ben Brewster (Delhi: Aakar Books, 2006), p. 134.

[3Karl Marx, ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Introduction’, p. 250

[4‘Difference between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature’, in Marx. Engels. Collected Works, Vol. 1 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975), p. 85.

[5Ibid.

[6Ibid.

[7Ibid., p. 86.

[8Louis Althusser, For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster (London: Allen Lane, 1969), p. 45. Besides this, Althusser also calls Aufhebung a ‘sly’ concept (Ibid., p. 42).

[9Daniel Brudney, Marx’s Attempt to Leave Philosophy (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1998).

[10V.I. Lenin, Materialism and Empiro-criticism (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975), p. 320.

[11Karl Marx, ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Introduction’, p. 250.

[12Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1982), p. 129; ‘Nationalökonomie und Philosophie (1844), in Karl Marx Die Frühschriften (Stuttgart: Alfred Kröner, 1964), p. 253.

[13Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Erster Band (Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1993) .p. 52.

[14Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels, The Holy Family (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1980), p. 116, p. See also The Seductions of Karl Marx, p. 71.

[15Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. R.J Hollingdale (London: Penguin Books, 1983), p. 39.

[16Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, trans. R.J. Hollingdale (London: Penguin Books, 1992), pp. 127-8.

[17Frederick Copleston, A History of philosophy, Vol. I, Greece and Rome (New York: Doubleday, 1948).

[18Ibid., p. 15.

[19Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1984), pp. 64-5.

[20Frederick Engels, ‘Socialism. Utopian and Scientific’, in Marx. Engels. Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975), p. 405.

[21Karl Marx, ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Introduction’, trans. Rodney Livingstone, in Karl Marx. Early Writings (New York: Vintage Books, 1975); Karl Marx ‘Zur Kritik der Hegelschen Rechtsphilosophie. Einleitung’, in Karl Marx. Die Frühschriften (Stuttgart: Alfred Kröner, 1964), p. 249.

[22Etienne Balibar, The Philosophy of Marx, trans. Chris Turner (London: Verso, 1995), p. 17.

[23Iranian tradition holds Alexander as the embodiment of Satan and responsible for the destruction of both Iran and its ideology as collected in the Avesta. The Middle Persian text Ardā Viraz Nāmag says how the evil spirit sent ‘the accursed Alexander, the Roman....to Eransahr’ ( ān guzastag alaksandar ī hrōmāyig...ō ēreānšahr mad).

[24Martin Haug, The Parsis. Essays in their Sacred Language, Writing and Religion (New Delhi: Cosmo Publications, 1978), pp. 206-207.

[25See Mary Boyce, History of Zoroastrianism Vol. Two, Under the Achaemenians (Leiden: Brill, 1982), pp. 46-48.

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