NEWS & LETTERS, October 2004

From the Writings of Raya Dunayevskaya

The philosophic legacy of Karel Kosík

Editor's note

Karel Kosík (1926-2003) was one of the most innovative philosophers in recent history. His emphasis on philosophy as "an indispensable human activity," which he actively promoted before and during the movement to create "socialism with a human face" in Czechslovakia in 1968, was integral to his humanist Marxism. That his death in 2003 was ignored in the English-speaking world speaks volumes about today's disregard for critical Marxist theory. As part of breaking through this conspiracy of silence, we reproduce here a 1978 essay by Raya Dunayevskaya which discussed Kosík's work. Originally entitled "Adorno, Kosík and the movement from practice," we reprint here the part  dealing with Kosík. For the full essay, see NEWS & LETTERS, March 1978 and THE RAYA DUNAYEVSKAYA COLLECTION, 7004-7005.

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[Theodor Adorno's NEGATIVE DIALECTICS and Karel Kosík's DIALECTICS OF THE CONCRETE] are not only the most serious contributions to the study of dialectics in the past half-century, but path-breaking orginals...

DIALECTICS OF THE CONCRETE, though written in as abstract a philosophic form as Adorno's and thus as difficult for the "common reader," sees what historic concrete the dialectic concrete "has in mind." Kosík's work, instead of being shunted aside, is intensely discussed, and not only in Czechoslovakia but internationally. It is the type of philosophic work, it is felt, which has something very important to say. In a very significant way, Kosík's work both anticipated the Prague Spring, 1968, AND, at the same time, was a theoretical departure which said, if defeated, this can become a new jumping off point for the next revolution.

Thus, though abstractly and indirectly articulated, no one doubted that it was an attack on the ruling bureaucracy, even if that were expressed not in political terms, but as a philosophic critique of fetishized existence. In his sharp first chapter's critique on the pseudo-concrete--an important new contribution of Kosík's--he reminds the readers that "man's fetishized praxis ... is not identical with the revolutionary-critical praxis of mankind" (p. 2).

To try to draw from his use of the generic Man (with a capital "M"), instead of specific worker, the conclusion that Kosík was shunting aside the revolutionary proletariat, in the manner of the so-called "New Left,"(1) is to fly in the face not only of Kosík's view of the role of the proletariat, but also his praise of philosophy as the "indispensable activity of mankind" (p. 4). Rather than playing up generic Man as opposed to the "classic" revolutionary proletariat, Kosík is rejecting the reductionist Communist concept of subjectivity, as if it meant nothing but petty-bourgeois egoism, and re-establishing subjectivity as, AT ONE AND THE SAME TIME, the ground of Hegelian dialectics and distinctively Marxian dialectics of Subject who shapes his own history.

Kosík is most explicit in his description of exploitation as resulting from "dead labor ruling over live labor, object ruling over man, product over its producers, the mystified subject over the real subject, the object ruling over the subject. Capitalism is a dynamic system of total reification and alienation, cyclically expanding and reproducing itself through catastrophes in which 'people' act behind masks of officers and agents of this mechanism, that is, as its own components and elements" (p. 110).

Kosík's greatest contribution is the reintroduction of the dialectic as the revolutionary pivot of Marxism. We see this especially clearly in the crucial third chapter of the work which deals with Marx's CAPITAL. Here, too, though he sticks strictly to CAPITAL as the concrete greatest work of Marx, with rigorous analysis of both its construction and its development of categories, he manages, though indirectly, to make it an attack on mechanical materialism, that is, the ruling bureaucratized teaching of CAPITAL, as if, once you counterpose social to individual, you have come to Marx's concept of the class struggle, not to mention the philosophy. As he puts it, "Man is WALLED INTO his socialness. Praxis, which in Marx's philosophy had made possible both objectivation and objective cognition, and man's openness toward being, turns into social subjectivity and closedness: man is a prisoner of socialness" (p. 106).

And a few pages later he contrasts to this "socialness" Marx's revolutionary way out: "CAPITAL turns out to be the 'odyssey' of concrete historical praxis which proceeds from the elementary labor PRODUCT, through a series of real formations in which the practical-spiritual activity of people in production is objectified and fixed, to conclude its journey not in the cognition of what it is in itself, but rather in a REVOLUTIONARY practical action based on this cognition" (p. 111).

No one need think that, because "Philosophy and Economy" is the most important chapter, Kosík limits himself to either economics or philosophy. Rather, his work is a far-ranging and far-reaching critique of the glorification of science and culture, which he calls the metaphysics of science and culture. The East Europeans will feel a great affinity for Kosík's profound critique of Plekhanov and they will easily guess that it's not only a critique of Plekhanov but of "socialist realism," LUKÁCS INCLUDED. He considers that Plekhanov's work on art "lacks the 'human sensory activity' which cannot be reduced to 'psyche' to the 'spirit of the times"' (p. 77) and holds that Plekhanov's method is a "one-sided approach smacking of Enlightenment" (p. 61). In the land of Kafka, the readers will know that reality is as irradiated by a great work of philosophy as by great works of literature and film.

The movement from practice over the past two decades that produced new theoretical departures was by no means limited to East Europe but covered the world. This was most brilliantly articulated by Frantz Fanon, when he wrote that the Africans' struggles for freedom were "not a treatise on the universal, but the untidy affirmation of an original idea propounded as an absolute."(2) There is no doubt, of course, that once action supersedes the subjectivity of purpose, the unity of theory and practice is the form of life out of which emerge totally new dimensions; in the 1960s, these heralded women's liberation as well as Black, youth as well as labor.

It is these live forces that made the near-revolutions of the late 1960s. What is needed now is the singling out of the dialectic of Reason in so inseparable a manner from the movement from practice that freedom can be made a reality. It's this type of role for new, revolutionary subjectivity that Marx disclosed: "Not only do the objective conditions change in the act of reproduction, for example, the village becomes a town, the wilderness a cleared field, and so on, but the producers change, too, in that they bring out new qualities in themselves, develop themselves in production, transform themselves, develop new powers and ideas, new modes of intercourse, new needs and new language" (GRUNDRISSE).


1. See "Czech Marxism: Karel Kosik" by Paul Piccone, in CRITIQUE, No. 8 1977.

2. Frantz Fanon, THE WRETCHED OF THE EARTH (New York: Grove Press; 1966), p. 33.

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