Totality: Decades Return of Nature

On how Marxism is the only intellectual tradition on the scene capable of embracing in an integrated and grounded way the whole of what needs to be comprehended to understand and cope with our world


Helena Sheehan

How is it that classical Marxist authors were able to address such a stunning array of issues? In the call for a recent conference on Frederick Engels, organisers suggested possible themes in exploring the legacy of Engels, suggesting class, gender, nature, science, religion, colonialism, capitalism, and socialism. Many more could have been added. The same could be said of Karl Marx, V. I. Lenin, Nikolai Bukharin, and many more authors. What made it possible for them to encompass such a wide range of themes?

Of course, many people discuss many things, but do they encompass them in a coherent perspective? Quite often, they do not. There is a difference between scatty and systemic thinking, between eclecticism and synthesis, between pluralism and holism, between a ragbag of assorted notions and a coherent and comprehensive worldview.

It is systemic thinking, synthesis, totality that characterised the approach of the above theorists and continues to set apart the best of what has come to be called Marxism.

Totality is an ongoing process, not a static or finished thing. The verb totalising, rather than the noun totality, better captures its open-ended, always striving, process. It is an activity rather than an object. It is an orientation toward the whole, not a finalised conception of the whole. It is a way of thinking that endeavours always to understand each phenomenon within the pulsing whole and the complex nexus of its interactions.

We live in a time of deep decadence, evident everywhere, from paralysis in the face of ecological crisis, to the capitulation of governments, universities, and mainstream media to power, to many manifestations of massive mental illness, to the empty noise of computer gaming, reality television, and the Eurovision song contest. The morbid symptoms and monsters multiply. Capitalism is decadent and yet still dominant.

What to do about it? The first priority is to see the shape of the whole clearly. The next is to speak and write about it clearly. The next is to organise around it. Marxists, from the beginning, have been doing this, and there is more than ever a need to do that now. We may be marginal in relation to the overwhelming forces of confusion and destruction ranged against us, but the margins are not nowhere. We need to inhabit them and reach out from there. Otherwise, the confusion and destruction go uncontested. There must have been times when Marx and Engels felt marginal to their times and all that was happening beyond their control. They had no idea what an enduring intellectual tradition and what a mighty movement would spring from their efforts. We need to keep this going, whatever future might spring from it.


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