Activist Materialism and the End of Philosophy(1992)

Most in the Committees of Correspondence want to initiate an effective activist organization. This desire is from the finest of the tradition of U.S. activism and Marxism. Marxism is often referred to as dialectical and historical materialism. I would like to emphasize here how Marxism is as importantly activist materialism, but how philosophy is critical for activism.

The First Theses on Feuerbach , by Karl Marx is as follows:

The chief defect of all hitherto existing materialism (that of Feuerbach included) is that the thing, reality, sensuousness, is conceived only in the form of the OBJECT OF CONTEMPLATION, but not as SENSUOUS HUMAN ACTIVITY, PRACTICE, not subjectively. Hence, in contradistinction to materialism, the ACTIVE side was developed abstractly by idealism ---which , of course,does not know real, sensuous activity as such. Feuerbach wants sensuous objects, really distinct from the thought objects, but he does not conceive human activity itself as OBJECTIVE activity. Hence, in DAS WASEN des CHRISTENTHUMS, he regards the theoretical attitude as the only genuinely human attitude, while practice is coneived and fixed only in its dirty-judaical (sic) manifestation. Hence, he does not grasp the significance of "revolutionary",of "practical-critical" , activity. (end quote).

We can see that Marx distinguished his materialism from all previous materialisms by treating the subject (the human individual) as materially active; not ideally active as in idealisms; and not only contemplative of the material world as with the previous materialisms. Marx's is an activist materialism, very much in the sense of the modern term "political activist". As the well known 11th Thesis on Feuerbach says, for Marxists the point is to change the world; change the world through activism , practical-critical activity in the material world.

On the other hand, in recent times many Marxist activists and militants have acted as if with Marx, Engels and Lenin, we had reached the end of philosophy.This reminds of the recent bourgeois book on the end of history. Both the end of history and the end of philosophy are foolish notions for activist materialists to hold. For, in the First Thesis above it is the philosophical subject with self-determination and power that is the key and only actor, the only changer of the world. The error of leaving philosophy dormant seems to be that in focussing o the activism of Marx's materialism, in focussing on changing the world, it is assumed that PHILOSOPHICAL interpretation and contemplation of the world are to be dropped or that very little time should be spent in them by activists. This may "derive" from the 11th Thesis which says 'Philosophers have interpreted the world in a number of ways; the thing is to change it." Yet, this does not say stop interpreting the world and try to change it. And the First Thesis' active subject (objects are not actors) key for change , only source of change, is only understood as a philosophical subject. Thus, for revolutionary activity , we still need philosophical consciousness and especially in activists and militants, professional revolutionaries.

So for all who emphasize doing , not sitting around talking, acting , action, technical philosophy is more important than is usually thought.


So there is an paradox in that the common sense idea that philosophy, especially academic philosophy is a hindrance to ACTION is the opposite of the truth. Philosophy is important for comprehending the active subject , the only potential revolutionary actor.(or actor period). I know that most Americans, including most Marxists, socialists, progressives, C of C'ers, will object and reject the notion of raising actual, "technical" philosophical terminology and concepts with ourselves and masses of people. They'call it elitist, academic, sectarian, sitting around b.s.'ing, intellectual, eggheaded and on and on. The well founded fear is that this will turn most Americans off and isolate us in yet another way. After all, its bad enough that we already use too many economic technical terms such as "exploitation", "means of production", "accumulation", etc.

These concerns must not be ignored. But it's time for Americans, including Marxists, to grow-up intellectually. No, we cannot lead, inspire, organize and win effective revolutionary ACTION based on the concepts and words now in the average American's vocabulary. Marx in the Theses on Feuerbach corrected the then predominant error of materialism which was the failure to treat the subject (the acting individual person) as active. Today, in America, we have all attention to action, activism, but have fallen into the error of a certain folk Pragmatism, that is action, action, action without extensive simultaneous philosophical interpretation and contemplation. We should not drop the attention to action and practice as fulfillment and test of philosophical interpretation and theory, but we must pick up more philosophy.


The C.P.U.S.A. ( and perhaps other Communist Parties around the world) frequently draws attention to the 11th and final thesis of the Theses on Feuerbach, as mentioned above, which is as follows:

The philosophers have only INTERPRETED the world, in various ways: the point is to CHANGE it.

This call to action is important in avoiding academic, bookish, Ivory Tower, revolutionism. For Karl Marx, an extremely bookish, philosophical fellow it was important to emphasize this. But bookishness is not a concrete problem today on the U.S. Left. Inadequate study and reading is a problem. The idea of this 11th theses was not that revolutionaries should _stop_ interpreting the world as philosophers and start changing it. No, the idea is to _continue_ interpreting the world as philosophers as a guide and aid , and in dialectical unity with changing it . Yet in practice, especially recently, the Communist Party and the U.S. Left fall into this Pragmatist error of anti-interpretation, anti-philosophy and anti-subjectivity.

As stated earlier, this anti-subjectivity in championing the 11th Thesis emphasis on action and changing the world is especially ironic in light of the First Thesis, because there is founding a materialism that reactivates the subject and does not denigrate and neglect it. Marx' materialism unites in the subject contemplation with action. The active subject of the First Thesis is a key to the changing of the world of the 11th Thesis

Because the active subject, interpreting the world materialistically, (as an objective reality) is key for changing the world, Marxism must deal with both the subject or subjective reality and objective reality. In its recent history in communist parties, Marxism has emphasized the systematic theory and practice of political economy and objective reality. Subjective reality has been denigrated and neglected. It is treated as a sort of residual category that will just follow properly with scientific treatment of objective factors. Subjectivity or subjective reality is tabooed as a distorter of objective and scientific thought.

The "unscience" of recent Marxist subjectivity is not in the nature of subjectivity, but in the incomprehensive, unsystematic, inadequate observation and theorizing about subjectivity by Marxists.

The neglect of subjectivity is done in the name of getting into action, "doing something", not just sitting around talking and theorizing, "getting concrete," "concrete action". Oh, how many meetings have I been in where people think they have set things on the true Marxist course by firmly pronouncing one or a variation of these phrases. But, it is not only that, as Lenin pointed out, without revolutionary theory, there can be no revolutionary movement, that is revolutionary ACTION. It is also true that the subject is the only potential actor and therefore revolutionary actor, agent, activist. Objects don't act. Revolutionaries must "master" the art of the subject; and only subjects can be artists of revolution, that is masters and mistresses of DOING. Besides when people emphasize action over talking and thinking, it as if they think it is an issue of "being determing consciousness" as Marx and Engels' philosophical slogan for materialism goes. Yet, the ACTION called for in a political meeting is not the productive activity of the working class. It is action which involves verbal and communication "action" in the form of speeches, pamphlets, all around propaganda and agitation of large numbers of people. So the contrast between "action" and "thought" is misleading.

If revolutionaries do not develop a more comprehensive and scientific understanding and practice of subjectivity, there will be no revolutionary "concrete action". To be revolutionary our work must be, in Marx's term, practical-critical.

The key to understanding subjectivity (personality, character) is women's liberation, as the oppression of women is the fundamental barrier to personality and subjective health. The emancipation of mass subjectivity and self-determination is necessary for democracy in society at large and in revolutionary organizations.

--Charles Brown