Continuity and Discontinuity in Aronowitz’s Critiques of Sociology, Science, and Marxism.**
B.Ricardo Brown, PhD
Department of Social Science and Cultural Studies
“Stanley Aronowitz and the Labors of Theory”
April 13 and 14, 2017
Center for the Study of Culture, Technology, and Work
Department of Sociology
Center for the Study of Culture, Technology, and Work
Department of Sociology
The Graduate Center, City University of New York
There are many approaches to Aronowitz’s critique of Marx and Marxism. I want to highlight how the critique of Marxism runs alongside Aronowitz’s critiques of science in general, and more specifically, of the aspirations of both Sociology and Marxism to become the sciences of life.
Of course, from the start the relationship between sociology and Marxism has been hostile. Marx wrote that “as a party man I have a thoroughly hostile attitude towards Comte’s philosophy, while as a scientific man I have a very poor opinion of it” (London June 12, 1871). Engels wrote to none other than Ferdinand Tonnies regarding the new science of sociology:
In this system there are three characteristic elements: 1) a series of brilliant thoughts, which however are nearly always spoiled to some extent because they are incompetently set forth likewise; 2) a narrow, philistine way of thinking sharply contrasting with that brilliant mind; 3) a hierarchically organised religious constitution... but divested of all mysticism and turned into something extremely sober... [a] Catholicism without Christianity (Engels to Tonnies January 24, 1895).
And Karl Korsch, whom Aronowitz praised for having recognized that Marx’s contribution “consisted in his discovery that nothing in society was immutable”
Even Korsch, who argued for Marxism as “the science of socialism”, even he was careful to distinguish sociology from Marxism:
What is the relationship between Marxism and modern sociological teaching? ….we shall not find any affinity or link between it and Marxism. Marx and Engels, with all their keen desire to extend and enhance the knowledge of society, paid no attention to either the name or contents of that ostensibly new approach to the social studies.…
The science of socialism as formulated by Marx, owed nothing to this “sociology” of the 19th and 20th centuries.... bourgeois social thought has been a reaction against the theory and thus also against the practice of modern socialism. Up to the present day “sociologists” have endeavoured to submit another way of answering the embarrassing questions first raised by the rising proletarian movement. [This is] the essential unity of the manifold theoretical and practical tendencies which during the last hundred years have found their expression under the common denomination of Sociology.
Karl Korsch. Karl Marx. (1938) https://www.marxists.org/archive/korsch/1938/karl-marx/ch01.htm
Neither sociology nor Marxism successfully became the sciences of society that they worked to become. Even at their most positivist extremes, they remain at the level of scientific ideologies.
These failures to secure a science of social life expose the problems that scientific ideologies pose to our understanding of science and truth, and therefore in Aronowitz handling demands the critique of Marxism itself.
These are not abstract problems, because Aronowitz is after all a materialist. It is a concern that runs through Aronowitz’s work: the problem of continuity and discontinuity, for isn’t science – even scientific Marxism – shaped by its histories of error; and doesn’t truth – even the truth of revolutionary transformation – always appear as continuous through the past, present, and future?
It is here that Aronowitz’s somewhat overlooked engagement with Michel Foucault’s work provides an avenue for us to discuss matters of continuity and discontinuity in the histories of the Marxist movements/parties and the genealogies of Marxist theory. In fact, Aronowitz’s encounter with Foucault has profound ramifications for our understanding of these histories and genealogies in relation to any critical theory derived from Marx.
Moreover, in Aronowitz’s work, the problem of continuity and discontinuity sheds light on how to approach the deeply related yet often opposing formations of sociology and marxism as sciences of life.
We can find this concern with continuity and discontinuity when we look again at works such as the Crisis in Historical Materialism, Science as Power, and Dead Artist/Live Theories.
I’ll begin with
1] The Crisis in Historical Materialism
In the chapter “History and Disruption” Aronowitz asks the question: “Can we speak of a unitary science or is the object of our knowledge constituted by structures/discourses that are fundamentally discontinuous? (301)”
For the most part I will leave aside Aronowitz’s discussion of the conjunctures of Benjamin and Foucault, in this early encounter with Foucault on the question of the science and Marxism, Aronowitz makes two points that are particularly relevant to our discussion today:
First, Aronowitz notes that Foucault pays close attention to that which is excluded, marginalized, and displaced by the relations of power/knowledge. It is in this attention to exclusion that Foucault’s work seems to “parallel Thomas Kuhn’s notion that normal science excluded counter-paradigms until forced to account for them” (317). And by “Normal science” here Aronowitz means the discipline or theoretical consensus that “excludes all possible sciences [so as to] make itself a monopoly of power and knowledge” (317).
[Just as an aside: One might play a little game when reading Aronowitz of substituting “marxism” or “the Parties” for Science (or vis-a-versa) and it becomes clear that what holds for one often holds for the other. Indeed one can not deny that the marxist parties sought to exclude other possible knowledges or to at the very least subsume them to the revolutionary sciences. Moreover, Aronowitz has always maintained that the specific knowledges of certain classes are also excluded, marginalized, and displaced.]
A second important point that Aronowitz makes regarding Foucault’s work is that Foucault consistently lays bare the ideological assumptions lurking within concepts such as continuity, coherence progress, and revolution.
Aronowitz emphasizes that this notion of discontinuity moves us to something more than just the criticism of an author: “here we are not just talking about Foucault. We are talking about the enunciation of a principle” that should guide the practical activity of Critical Theory.
In other words, Marxist theory must be seen as Critical Theory and cultural critique, rather than as a science of social life.
Aronowitz writes that:
“It is a question of the status of literature, law, and science. [Foucault and Benjamin insist that we see] culture as a material practice rather than as [a mere] representation of underlying social forces” (319)or to put it another way, we should understand scientific ideologies through their modes of deploying continuity, discontinuity, power, and class. At the same time, we must always remain skeptical of the utopianism that stands behind the desire for a science of social life.
As he writes in Science as Power: “The desire to transform politics and economics into sciences, rather than keep them as arts, is nearly universal” (300).
And if we turn to
2] Science as Power
We find recognizable continuities within Aronowitz’s critique of Marxism, particularly in the chapter “The Science of Sociology and the Sociology of Science” which begins by deploying Foucault’s “concept of episteme as a way of seeing that is specific to a historical period, but that is, at the same time, discontinuous in time and space.... [The place of science in the social formation] is constantly renegotiated with the other power centers, and degree of its 'freedom’ is always understood in context. Marxism does not flourish (or wane) in some mythic pristine form. Marxism adapts itself to other paradigms and adopts them as a condition of its own legitimacy within the academy. Far from constituting an alternative to 'bourgeois’ theory, in the context of the academy, Marxism easily adapts” to being “a variety of [naive scientism]” (300).
Here, the views of Aronowitz and Henri Lefebrve converge in asserting the utter failure of both Marxism and Sociology to achieve the status of sciences. They are “scientific ideologies” because, while they enjoy a certain appearance of – and will to be – sciences (192), they can never achieve the same status and refinement that sciences such as physics enjoy. To quote Lefebvre:
Towards the end of the 19th century, scientific knowledge began to address the city. Urban sociology, understood as a scientific discipline, was inaugurated in Germany by, among others, Max Weber. But this science of the city has not kept its promises. It brought forth what we today term ‘urbanism’ (l’urbanisme), which amounts to extremely rigid guidelines for architectural design and extremely vague information for the authorities and bureaucrats. Despite a few meritorious efforts, urbanism has not attained the status of a theory (pensée) of the city. What is worse, it has gradually shrunk to become a kind of gospel for technocrats.
How and why have so many investigations and evaluations failed to produce a living and
livable City? It is easy to blame capitalism and the pursuit of profitability and social control. [But] This response seems all the more inadequate since the socialist world has encountered the same difficulties and the same failures in that domain.
Henri Lefebrve. 1989/2014. “Dissolving city, planetary metamorphosis”. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 2014, volume 32, pages 203–205. Originally published as: “Quand la ville se perd dans une métamorphose planétaire”, in Le Monde diplomatique May 1989; republished in Manière de voir 114, Le Monde diplomatique, December 2010/January 2011, pages 20–23.
Although Sociology failed to become a science of society, it does continue to serve valuable functions within the apparatus of power. And so it’s place amongst the other legitimate scientific ideologies is fairly secure.
On the other hand, Marxism of course does not enjoy such a secure position either inside or outside of academia.
In fact, the very notion of Marxism as a positive science of society, which is where sociology and marxism have often intersected to create that monstrosity known as “Marxist Sociology” languishes withing the confines of the discipline. And who really ever speaks any more of a “science of Marxism” or “Marxist science”?
So the critique of science that we find in Aronowitz’s work is always bond up with his critiques of sociology and Marxism. They fold into each other. And these critiques are again taken up in his essays in Dead Artists/Live Theories, where Marx’s work is presented as inviting a manner of cultural critique that can not be fully closed off by the structures of power and knowledge.
3] Dead Artist/Live Theories
Now the essay “Tensions of Critical Theory” begins with an attempt to recover Foucault from his many fans:
“Foucault’s work has been shamelessly appropriated by his universalizing disciples who, nudged by academic environments, are prone to overtheorization.... It was, after all, in consideration of the dangers entailed by such a use of science that schools of social inquiry, including Marxism as well as positivist social science, bid us [to] return to the concrete” (130).
Dispensing with this academic appropriation of Foucault, Aronowitz returns again with certain modifications, elaborations, and most of all, critically, to Foucault’s notion of the episteme, which Aronowitz takes to mean
“A way of seeing reality that not only forms a specific perception of the social world as well as ordinary objects, but also becomes a way of activity and inscribes itself in institutions such as law and education”This
“notion of episteme requires not only an examination of ideological stances, it demands an attempt to recover and name [the activities that] resist representation in terms of ideological or scientific [systems of classification].”
Once again, that which is excluded, marginalized, and displaced by scientific ideologies also mark the space of resistance to the conventions of science. To locate these sites of resistance requires an interrogation of “practical activity” (p.68) and for Aronowitz, history becomes an “interrogation that refuses to privilege political and economic events or perceptions over expressive forms” (68)
So we find that “practical activity” and the “expressive forms” of everyday life mark the limits of the sciences of life even as it is dominated by them.
“Practical activity... leaves a trace that is discontinuous with... scientific [classifications]”, ideological formations, and systems of knowledge.
And “practical activity” and its expressive forms are located of that singular object of study that both Marxism and sociology have tried to reduce or fix as an object of scientific knowledge: class.
Now this is where Aronowitz supplies something more than a modified definition Foucault’s episteme, he alerts us to class as a fundamental silence in Foucault’s work, whereas for Aronowitz class supplies the foundation for any notion of history and continuity. It is not that Foucault is alone in his silence. And Marx himself, we remember, had his own difficulties with the concept of class, as the final section of Capital III demonstrates when it famously breaks off just as we are finally about to be given the definition of class.
What continuity that concretely exists is supplied by class, culture, everyday life and its repetitions. This point returns us to Marx by highlighting the discontinuities so as to open up Marxist theory to critique. The history of Marxism itself becomes nothing less than “a theory of discontinuity as well as continuity” of science (68).
In How Class Works, Aronowitz elaborates on this in the section titled “The Ideology of Endings” where he rejects the notion that “class and class struggle are relics of a bygone era” (210).
“History is made when – through self-constitution – the subordinate classes succeed in changing the mode of life in significant ways. That these changes rarely involve transformations in the ownership of productive property does not disqualify them from being historic. Moreover, rulers make history when they are able to abrogate previous gains made by insurgent social formations and return to some previous time. In this sense Nietzsche’s comment that nothing disappears but, instead, returns to bite us is entirely vindicated by current events. The form of the return is never identical to its previous incarnation, but it is recognizable as the past.... For the making of history is a creative act, but one constrained in part by conditions already in existence. Because change is self-generated by social formations, it is always different in many respects, always new” (211).
Marxism thus becomes not an abstract science of abstracted life, as Aronowitz notes regarding the vitalism behind Althuseer’s separation of science and ideology. Instead Aronowitz offers a critique of life alienated from living: i. e., a materialist critique of everyday life that is not chained to a dogmatic moralism, or to the orthodoxy of past or future parties and political formations.
There is no epistemological break in Aronowitz’s work. Where we find discontinuities, they serve to mark the continuities of culture, the struggles of classes, and the domination of nature.
Critique is never closed off. This provides the continuity in Aronowitz’s contributions to Cultural Studies, labor, class, sociology and the other sciences of life, but especially to Marxism and Critical Theory. The continuity that flows through them is less historical than it is cultural, that is, the continuity that allows us to trace these histories/genealogies is – at its core – the “practical activity” of social classes. The notion of historical continuity always appears in Aronowitz’s works as the concrete social relations of class formation.
So how should we understand the relationship over time of science to Marxism, or rather, the various sciences to the various Marxisms?
This is the Unanswered Question of Marxist Theory. Just as Charles Ives put the question of continuity and discontinuity to music, Aronowitz puts the question to Marxism and to the sciences of life and society. And just as with Ives, the question is never answered, though the responses grow louder and more chaotic as they become more insistent.
As he states at the conclusion of “Tensions of Critical Theory”:
“I am persuaded that these debates [on the place of science and the relationship of Marxism to the sciences] will not end; a final solution will not be found.
And it should not be, for the very reason that the [social function of the various scientific and/or sociological Marxisms ] as with science in general, “is constantly renegotiated with the other power centers, and degree of its 'freedom’ is always understood in context” (300).
[**] Before beginning this talk I added a few remarks about how I came to be a student of Stanley’s at the Grad Center. This is a slightly edited and expanded version:
In some respects I encountered Stanley long before I read or knew him. As a undergraduate at Simon’s Rock, my sociology professor was Jim Monsonis. Jim was in the SDS with Stanley. Jim had in fact once been the national treasurer for the SDS. My freshman year he gave the Intro. Sociology class Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capitalism for its first reading. When I first heard Stanley speak at the American Sociological Association, he was speaking in part about the lessons to be drawn from Braverman....
At the time, I was more interested in being an Ecologist than in being a Sociologist. By those twists of fate I got a fellowship to study Geography at Syracuse University. While I was there I undertook a study involving Emerson’s philosophy of Nature and specifically how to observe nature, the social and natural transformations of the 18th and 19th century New England landscape, and the luminist-style paintings of that landscape. My adviser, the one “Marxist” in the department, objected to my MA thesis on the grounds that no where had I denounced Emerson for being a bourgeois philosopher. I said that that was both the most obvious and the least interesting thing about Emerson. Upon that, he told me that I was “an armchair Marxist” (which was, if you can believe it, a pretty big insult back in the day) and I replied that he was a “Stalinist” and soon after moved to New York City to work as a legal reference librarian, giving little thought to ever going back to grad school.
But while I was at Syracuse I picked up a copy of the Crisis in Historical Materialism and was immediately taken with its mix of Critical Theory and what would later be known as Cultural Studies that came together to form a critique of Marxism itself. Nancy was encouraging me to consider returning to grad school for Sociology and I realized that Stanley was only a few blocks away at the Graduate Center. I sat in on a couple of classes and then dove back in. With Patricia Clough coming to the Grad Center soon after, it was obviously the right decision.
Now, a couple of years after I started at the Grad Center I was talking to Jim Monsonis and only then learned that he and Stanley knew each other. But there is something more that is directly relevant to my talk today. When I was a senior at Simon’s Rock, I took the Social Science seminar with Jim. The final essay question (15-20 pages!) was on the question “Is Marxism a science, a branch or the social sciences, or not a science at all?”
After thinking about it for a long time,I told Jim that I had no way to answer the question, as all of them could be either true or false depending on how one understood science. Jim gave me a grade even though I never finished the paper... and I have always told him that I still owe him an answer. And now, it is with these remarks on Stanley’s work that I, in fact, return to the question that Jim posed and whose answer, as you will see, Stanley leaves open.... unanswerable.... at least within the social relations of capital.....
Lathe Biosis. Epicurus