Transcendence of the Opposition between the Real and the Ideal

Marilyn Nissim-Sabat

This article was presented as part of a panel entitled “Alternatives to Capitalism: Theoretical, Practical, Visionary” hosted by the International Marxist Humanist Organization and the Department of Sociology at Loyola University, July 13, 2012, Chicago – Editors

Media coverage shows that violence against women, Latinos, African-Americans, Muslims, Jews, gay and transgendered people, and immigrants, as well as ferocious attacks on the rights of working people and blatant, callous disregard for human suffering and human life are increasing as capitalism and neoliberal ideology expand in, and into, more and more regions of the world. Such expansion is a function of capitalism’s drive to increase its biopolitical control over human life. This then generates social anxiety and despair that lead to destructive and self destructive acts. For example, that the unjustifiable wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have claimed hundreds of thousands of lives cannot be unrelated to the fact that the suicide rate amongst American veterans is out of control, the highest rate in American history.[i] Also, we know that as the vast riches and power of the 1% have increased, the real income, quality of life, and personal and social freedom of the 99% have decreased, and, in the US, that of African Americans has decreased even more. Given these factors, it is imperative that increased attention be focused on theoretical clarification and practical emergence of an alternative to capitalism.

In addition to the factors mentioned above that warrant this imperative, the present period is a nodal moment for focusing on an alternative to capitalism in that the struggle for freedom has erupted forcefully in the Arab Spring, the Maple Spring[ii], the Occupy movement, the Wisconsin workers movement, and other freedom movements around the world. Such movements can crystallize demands for an alternative. For these reasons, it seems to me that in opening this discussion of Alternatives to Capitalism it will be helpful to lay bare historical and extant obstacles not only to actively moving towards the attainment of a society that transcends capitalism, but even to thinking about alternatives to capitalism.

I will focus on one such obstacle, namely widespread, culturally reinforced, even mandated, belief that there is an inherent, radical opposition between realism, or materialism, and idealism, or between the real and the ideal. Belief in this dichotomy is manifest when attempts to think about, or efforts to bring about, an alternative to capitalism are disparaged as being “idealistic,” and by the charge that they are irrelevant to the day to day struggles of people to survive and to improve their lives. Those disparaging the quest for an alternative claim to be, not idealists, but  “realists” or “pragmatists”, i.e., self-proclaimed “empiricists” who, like liberals, believe that progressive change should come only very slowly, through small, incremental changes. The reactionary implications of this approach were clear to me when Nobel Prize novelist Saul Bellow told me in the early sixties that civil rights activists like Martin Luther King, Jr. wanted change too fast, that they should be more patient and stop fomenting violence. When I pointed out that it was not the movement that was fomenting violence, he scowled in disdain.

Marx placed great emphasis upon the obstructionist effect on western thought and history of the alleged opposition between materialism and idealism.  However, he himself often used the term “idealism” as a scathing critique of bourgeois modes of thinking, including Hegel’s bourgeois, or abstract, idealism, and especially when found at the heart of alleged radical theories and practices, as in Proudhon. Regarding materialism, Marx, for example in his Theses on Feuerbach, criticized “all hitherto existing materialism,” including that of Feuerbach himself, for abstracting from “sensuous human activity.”[iii] These examples show that Marx was keenly aware of the ways in which ‘idealism’ and ‘materialism’ could usefully denote different modes of failure to grasp the nature of revolutionary thought and action, or praxis. What then was, and is, the problem?

For Marx, the problem lay in the tendency to structure thinking, implicitly or explicitly, with a dichotomy between ideals and reality, idealism and materialism, as if the two poles of this binary function independently of each other, and therefore of the actual lives of real human beings. Because of Hegel’s bourgeois idealism, his tendency to think that thinking creates reality, Marx stood Hegel right side up. Because of its exclusion of the subject, Marx explicitly rejected materialism in its one-sided, positivistic form. But, most importantly, Marx rejected neither idealism nor materialism when understood in their proper, dialectical relationship. This was made clear when he wrote, in his Critique of the Hegelian Dialectic, as follows (in Dunayevskaya’s elegant translation):  “Here we see how thoroughgoing Naturalism, or Humanism, distinguishes itself from both Idealism and Materialism, and, at the same time, is the truth uniting both.”[iv] Thus, unequivocally, Marx declared himself to be an avatar of Humanism, and declared that this meant to him grasping that that there is a truth of the unity of Materialism and Idealism. No one has honored this philosophical stance of Marx more than the founder of Marxist-Humanism, Raya Dunayevskaya.

What, then, does this unity of Idealism and Materialism mean concretely, and in what way does it relate to the problematic of an alternative to capitalism? In the concluding section I will respond to these questions.  First however, I will discuss a contemporary example to show the way in which the belief, as over and against Marx’s Humanism, in a radical opposition between materialism and idealism thwarts movement towards an alternative to capitalism. The example that I discuss is drawn from a recent book, published in 2011, written by Michael Monahan, a professor of philosophy at Marquette University in Milwaukee. The title of the book is The Creolizing Subject.[v]

Invoking critical race theory in the present context is pertinent because any belief that racism in the US has diminished is now, after the election of President Obama, absurd.  The cockroaches have crawled out of the woodwork and are spreading their poison of racial hatred, and hatred of, and the drive to control, blacks, women, gays, immigrants, and workers. This, too, lends great urgency to the quest for an alternative to capitalism. Though an intersectional approach to race, gender, and class oppression is most consistent with Marx’s views, for reasons of space limitations, I will focus on race.

Monahan’s book is an attack on the theory, politics, and practice of racial purity, which he believes underlies white supremacy and racism. He shows not only that white supremacy is based on the notion that the purity of the white race exists and must be preserved; additionally, Monahan critiques other theorists, for example the Race Traitor advocates and those “eliminativists” who advocate abolition of race ( e.g., see any of David R. Roediger’s three books) by showing that they have not actually transcended infiltration by unacknowledged commitment to notions of racial purity. In his repudiations of both white supremacy and perspectives that have failed to get beyond notions of racial purity, Monahan is extremely persuasive. What he offers to enable successful movement beyond racial purity is what he takes to be a new conception of the subject such that the subject, the self, is dynamic, fluid, historically changing, and actively transformative of itself and the world. It is this subject that he refers to in his title as “the creolizing subject” (emphasis on the activity of creolizing) to differentiate it from other notions of multiplicity of identity. Thus, Monahan suggests, notions of racial purity, overt and covert, prevent us from achieving our full humanity by obscuring the actual nature of the self, which turns out to be actively self-creative.

What then is the difficulty that I find in Monahan’s views? It is that in the absence of any vision of the transcendence of capitalism such that we would free ourselves from the dehumanization inflicted on us by an exploitative and alienated existence, dehumanization that generates reifications like racial purity, Monahan evinces, but does not acknowledge, what is to me both an excruciating pessimism regarding the possibility of overcoming racism, and, at the same time a stance of bourgeois optimism.

Monahan’s pessimism is expressed in the following remarks:

Since racism, understood as the practice of purity must be thought of as an ongoing process of becoming, and not as a state of being for a collection of individual or social properties…we must conceive of antiracism in similar ways. There is not some state to be achieved either as an individual or as a society such that racism ceases to be. There is no “postracist” future waiting to be articulated and realized. [vi]

Now, it is not the point of my critique of Monahan to argue that I know that racism can disappear from human societies; but, how does Monahan know that it cannot disappear? Viewing it as he does as a process rather than as a thing does not by that fact alone justify the claim that it will always be with us. He does not and cannot know this. His belief that he does know this indicates that he views the state of affairs that obtains now as bearing no relation to a future in which our sociality will be freed from alienating forces and, to echo Frantz Fanon in the myth shattering conclusion of Black Skin White Masks, freed from the dead weight of the past: “I am not the slave of the Slavery that dehumanized my ancestors” Fanon wrote. [vii] Once so freed through transcendence of capitalism, the dialectic of reality and ideality will no longer be falsely constrained, or negated, as in Monahan’s thinking, thus freeing us to create a human world.

Additionally, Monahan’s prescription for working against racism is this: “Just as racism, as the practice of purity, demands constant maintenance and reaffirmation, so, too, must antiracism, understood as an ongoing practice of critiquing and challenging the politics of purity.”[viii] This recommendation is unexceptionable; however,  in attempting to fathom the depth of the suffering of individuals and communities that is the consequence of racism, I find both Monahan’s  analysis and recommendation pessimistic because neither projects any sense of a liberated future for African Americans, or,  therefore,  for anyone. Moreover, at the same time, the remedy is laced with bourgeois optimism in the form of bourgeois voluntarism in the implicit belief that enough people today are going to radically call into question their own inner commitments to racial purity to make a difference. It is not that I disagree with Monahan’s deconstruction of racial purity; quite the contrary. But, Monahan offers no analysis, for example, of the way in which racism, for example in the US, has emerged in its full depth of hatred of non-white peoples and indeed of women and gays, since the election of Obama. Again, without a vision of an alternative society, one transformed from the ground up, it is difficult to feel encouraged by Monahan’s analysis, even as one devotes oneself to doing what one can to act against extant racism. Moreover, the kind of pessimism evinced by Monahan conjoined with bourgeois optimism indicates that neither positivistic materialism in the form of an incomprehensible residue of racism (a kind of Higgs Boson of racism), nor bourgeois idealism, idealism abstracted from live human beings, have been transcended by him. Thus, a dialectical, immanent critique of Monahan reveals his unacknowledged commitment to a radical diremption of idealism and realism thus abrogating the quest for an alternative to capitalism. We can now look more concretely at exactly how Marx transcended the false opposition of idealism and realism and revealed the truth uniting both.

Most affirmative writers on Marx maintain that his greatest discovery, which Dunayevskaya calls “a new continent of thought,” was Marx’s materialist conception of history. How does this concept square with the “truth uniting” idealism and materialism?  Indeed, no aspect of Marxism has been distorted more in the interests of advancing totalitarian Communism and in the interest of reducing Marxism to an anti-human economic determinism.

Marx’s materialist conception of history originates in the Communist Manifesto where he states that “the history of all societies that have existed hitherto is the history of class struggle”. It was further developed in The German Ideology and the Critique of Political Economy. One of the most important aspects of Marx’s materialist conception of history is that it was formulated in order to counterpose, to negate, in the most forceful manner possible, approaches to history that posit forces external to humanity as the driving forces of history—for example Hegel’s Geist, or some notion of God, or any alleged idealism that posits mind or consciousness as existing independently of the person as a conscious, psychophysical whole.  Marx was particularly critical of the bourgeois tendency to substitute ideas for the actual lives of living breathing human beings, as if abstract ideas are as such reality. As a humanist, Marx was deeply committed to the view that, as he said, “Man makes his own history, but he does not make it out of the whole cloth… .”[ix] Nor was the driving force of human history in Marx’s view some sort of pure materiality with no relation to the subject. The forces of production that Marx called “dead labor”, the machines, do not drive history; rather, it is the relations of production that drive history in the form of inevitable class conflict and class struggle.[x] Marx’s materialist conception of history is such that we human beings make history, and indeed we are historical beings in every dimension of our existence; however, and most significantly, the history we make can only be a human history, and the essence of our humanity for Marx is our sociality. In other words, our history, can only be grasped as over and against a vision of a social existence that in its real being embodies our inherent sociality, for that sociality, which in no way constrains individuality, is, just so, the truth uniting idealism and realism. Such a society is socialism, one in which class struggle has been rendered obsolete, a society in which “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”


[i] See

[ii] Maple Spring refers to the anti-tuition student movement in Quebec, Canada which began in February 2012 with mass post-secondary student strikes.

[iii] The quotation is from the first paragraph of the first thesis.

[iv] Raya Dunayevskaya, Marxism and Freedom: From 1776 until Today, second edition, Humanity Books, 2000, 42.

[v] Michael Monahan, The Creolizing Subject, Fordham University Press, 2011.

[vi] Monahan, 181.

[vii] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin White Masks, trans. from French. by C.L. Markmann, Grove Press, 1967, 230.

[viii] Monahan, 182.

[ix] Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Project Gutenberg,

[x] A comprehensive discussion, from which I have drawn, of Marx’s materialist conception of history can be found in Raya Dunayevskaya, Philosophy and Revolution, 3rd ed., Columbia University Press, 1989, 47-94.


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *