Book Reviews Reviews

Review of Joshua Moufawad-Paul’s “Demarcation and Demystification: Philosophy and Its Limits”

by Adam Benden
“For Moufawad-Paul, philosophy as it appears to operate in the book would eventually remove the veil of ideology and class distortion to allow us to see reality, bare and naked, as it really exists. It implies that philosophical errors will no longer exist once the communist revolution is successful because the terrain and theory after a revolution will be a truly unmediated experience of reality without the ideological distortions of class society.”

The relationship between philosophy and revolutionary politics has lived in the shadow of Karl Marx ever since his elegantly devastating statements in Theses on Feuerbach[1]. Marx’s 11th thesis (“the philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it”) remains a vital starting point for any revolutionary approach to describing this relationship. And it has only grown more complex in our current era of the neoliberal universities’ colonization of all intellectual pursuits, especially things like philosophy. As far back as the birth of the Frankfurt School or the writing of Karl Korsch, questions on how the class positions of revolutionary and radical philosophers subtly shapes their understanding of both philosophy and politics, as well as that of their students, created further tensions (dare I say contradictions) when attempting to explain the relationship between interpreting the world and changing it. In this context, Moufawad-Paul’s Demarcation and Demystification explores the relationship between philosophy and revolutionary politics today, particularly those of the Maoist strain. Clarifying this relationship is direly needed as the increasing environmental destruction and inequality of capitalism demands a revolutionary approach to changing these conditions. However, the legacy of communist revolution’s successes and failures have called into question exactly how our era’s capitalism and larger social landscape should be interpreted to change it.

Maoism has a unique promise in understanding this conceptual relationship due to the historical legacy of the communist revolution in China as well as revolutionary struggles in Peru, India, and Nepal. These revolutions, some successful, some disasters, and some ongoing, offer unique laboratories to see how today’s Maoism could claim a special relationship to the relevance of Marx’s 11th thesis. For many Maoists, history has offered final judgment on the soundness of their conceptualization of how to change the world due to the success of China’s communist revolution against imperialist aggression and domestic class struggle. Their specific answer focuses on prioritizing militant, armed struggle and the relationship between revolutionaries and “the masses” which is seen as the correct and proper way to mediate between a revolutionary party and those they are struggling to liberate. The legacy of armed struggle Chinese communism and the vanguard party teaching the masses of peasants in the countryside to participate in this struggle has given Maoism a model for how revolution should be pursued. However, what is common for Maoists today in particular is the tendency to make the same mistake Russell Jacoby[2] criticizes supporters of the U.S.S.R. after the shift from revolution to party apparatus: they mistake political success of a unique revolutionary movement with all its historical contingency for a metaphysical judgment on the Universal Truth of the thought and theory associated with that movement. This is particularly present throughout Moufawad-Paul’s book as he has adopted the modeling and language of people’s war, armed struggle, and the struggle over geography as he primary framework for answering the core questions of the book. He has projected the Maoist framework of political struggle onto a type of topographical and abstract map to understand philosophy and theory where everything is defined by struggles over territory through war. For him, they are situated in a type of metaphorical physical terrain where a conceptual struggle takes place and Universal Truth is discovered through struggle over territories of meaning.

How does Moufawad-Paul attempt to fulfill this promise in Demarcation and Demystification? Out of the gate, he demarcates the purpose of the book by stating that it is neither a “what is philosophy” book nor does it seek to define what a particularly Marxist philosophy would be. Instead, he aims to put philosophy in its place by describing what he calls “terrains” which exceed philosophy and have their own unique, internally consistent logic which establishes truth and meaning. Philosophy then operates as a subordinate process seeking to clarify and refine that logic and its corresponding truth and meaning of those greater terrains it exists in. Philosophers themselves therefore are also politically invested in some larger context that exceeds their philosophizing. Moufawad-Paul also seeks to clarify what philosophy is and does against any vague referencing of one’s beliefs and opinions as one’s“philosophy”. All these provisions at the beginning of the book are primarily to carve out the space for Moufawad-Paul to explore how philosophy relates to radical theory and practice and how a particularly radical philosophy would operate. In many ways, the audience of the book seems to be other radical philosophers like himself which becomes most clear when he urges them to not confuse revolutionary philosophy for revolutionary science. Philosophy for Moufawad-Paul is not the basis for defining truth and meaning in the world – class struggle and science operating at the level of a terrain are. Eventually, a revolutionary and Marxist philosophy seeking to clarify mystical and ideological obfuscation in the terrain(s) it operates in would eventually abolish the need for itself. For Moufawad-Paul, philosophy as it appears to operate in the book would eventually remove the veil of ideology and class distortion to allow us to see reality, bare and naked, as it really exists. It implies that philosophical errors will no longer exist once the communist revolution is successful because the terrain and theory after a revolution will be a truly unmediated experience of reality without the ideological distortions of class society. It is little surprise this reality would be a Maoist one for Moufawad-Paul.

This is precisely the point where his own particular interpretation of Marxism and its historical influence on revolutionary movements in the Maoist vein becomes most salient: science is given the throne in his hierarchy of disciplines. This sovereign discipline of science in the Maoist conception is given dominion but its connection to the place of theory or exactly how theory is clearly superior to philosophy is unclear. Theory is somehow more connected to the terrain of class struggle and the realm of meaning and truth, but there is not much said about what exactly makes it “theoretical”. Philosophy’s only real function for Moufawad-Paul is to intervene in the terrain which is somehow distinguishable from theory and also from a type of scientific procedure practiced by revolutionaries in their historical context. In his use of Marx’s 11th thesis, Moufawad-Paul subtly obscures the historically contextualized debates with Feurbach and German Idealism that Marx was engaging in. Time and historical context have been obliterated in the framework that only emphasizes terrain and struggles for space as if those are uniform from Marx’s time to our own. Instead, he begins with the assumption that all philosophy is not the sole ground of truth’s basic definitions; practice (and for the Maoist, this is revolutionary practice) has a rightful claim to this. Moufawad-Paul then unpacks the historical context of Marx’s theses while also taking aim at icons of the Western Marxist tradition such as Theodor Adorno, Antonio Gramsci, Henri Lefebrve and even an unconventional thinker like Slavoj Zizek. He critiques these figures for betraying Marx’s 11th thesis and returning to privileging the interpretation of the world as the primary focus of Marxist or radical philosophical approaches. Due to his provisions on what exactly Demarcation and Demystification’s project is, there is no discussion about why thinkers such as Adorno or Zizek focus on interpretation in response to the historical failures and tragedies of revolutionary attempts to overthrow capitalism. Moufawad-Paul also abstains from exploring whether their conceptualization of interpretation as it relates to changing the world is the same approach which Marx sought to undercut in his theses. Also noticeable in the book is a lack of engagement with philosophical and theoretical critiques, many by Marxists themselves, that science is never a pure method but is always theory-laden in its assumptions and claims to objectivity. The reader may wonder if Moufawad-Paul is operating with an unspoken class critique of academics sequestered from the terrain of theory and class struggle due to their privileging of interpretation and philosophy over practice, but he would perhaps have to implicate himself in this critique if he were to clearly state it.

For Moufawad-Paul, theory is distinguished from philosophy in a particular way. Theory operates in the terrain of class struggle and is a larger, more primary space of abstract logic and meaning than philosophy which merely clarifies and forces choices between different aspects of the terrain. In the material conditions of class struggle, scientific investigation reigns supreme with theory as its handmaiden. This is no surprise as Moufawad-Paul’s Maoist interpretation of Marxism (and in line with his debt to Althusser) places scientific investigation at the heart of the framework. At this initial conceptualization, there already is a vagueness that has crept into the hierarchy and division created by Moufawad-Paul. Theory and philosophy are separate but not independent – they both require each other in his definition yet is unclear how they relate to each other. And it is notable that in the book, history and past revolutions do not require interpretation or investigation – they are simply presented to us without any philosophical work or interpretive work being required. Since he dispensed with Antonio Gramsci earlier in the work, he has little to say about Gramsci’s conceptualization of philosophy as not being the realm of academics but as being a function inherent to being human. In this conception,  class struggle and revolution seek to liberate philosophy from alienated capitalist life so that it can be a type of common function that anyone can use, not just the intellectual elites of the capitalist classes[3]. Many new terrains of class struggle were created by revolutionaries utilizing philosophy as part of what informed their political visions. In many ways, philosophy operating in a more expanded way than Moufawad-Paul’s definition is exactly what inspired them to reconceptualize class struggle in new and radical ways. It is no small wonder that Marx and Lenin both returned to Hegel after failed revolutionary moments in their own historical context. 

In many ways, Moufawad-Paul’s adherence to Maoism is both the strength and a weakness of the book. The use of a topographical metaphor to relate philosophy to a wider context of class struggle does lead to potential clarifications on the role of philosophy in revolutionary politics. Rooting philosophy’s purpose in lessons from revolutionary movements in China and in Peru operating with peasants in the countryside fighting against urbanized capitalists could move it out of the academy and into the hands of the people. The class struggle exists in wartime conditions and is a battle for territory in a particular terrain that is perhaps the most intensive material context one could base their theorizing. To transfer this form of class conflict into the realm of thought itself provides unique ways to conceptualize the role of philosophy as it relates to a wider context of class struggle and theorizing. This is precisely what Louis Althusser, a Marxist scientific thinker to whom Moufawad-Paul is deeply indebted, did in his own way: to conceptualize approaches to philosophy as an expression of class conflict in the realm of abstract theorizing. For Moufawad-Paul, to obscure these dynamics and to get lost in the realms of abstract philosophizing is to betray the very terrain of class struggle that a philosophy of Marxism and revolution seeks to clarify. A common mistake to make by Marxists, betrayal occurs “when we want a theoretical terrain’s essential logic to look precisely like the logic of the terrain that has conditioned our thought and thus intervene with this with this desire in mind without necessarily realizing that such an intervention will undermine the terrain’s truth procedure.”[4] Betrayal is an interesting word to utilize here as opposed to something like Badiou’s fidelity to the Event of a political revolution[5]. Betrayal operates here almost as a moral failure cloaked in the language of science and history. And when philosophy operates in an annihilationist mode, as he describes it, it can be “demanding the eradication of an interior province, or even serving another terrain by demanding the demolition of a terrain that the philosopher believes should not exist even theoretically (i.e. the philosopher of astronomy demanding the annihilation of astrology.” (Moufawad-Paul 2019, 143) However, if a terrain is inherently tied to a class struggle, does this mean that one chooses between class struggle or class resignation? Or does it mean that there are multiple struggles between classes happening at the same time which give rise to different terrains? This is part of the weakness of a strictly topographical analogy for understanding the relation between philosophy and theory and class struggle. It obscures more than it clarifies so as to make it difficult to understand its use unless one is already a Maoist and agrees with Moufawad-Paul’s assumptions at the beginning of the book. While he does offer some cautionary remarks on unquestioned fidelity by revolutionary organizations to the Russian or Chinese revolutions, it strikes the reader as curious that Moufawad-Paul’s own unquestioned fidelity to both a Maoist philosophical legacy  and the preservation of historical materialism as a method underlie many of his positions in the book.

Despite the intriguing promise of Maoist revolutionary politics to embody Marx’s 11th thesis, the reader is still unclear on how Maoism clarifies for revolutionaries outside academia how changing the world relates to interpreting it. And the definition of philosophy in the book can be easily dismissed by other academic philosophers like Moufawad-Paul himself due to the weakness and lack of clarity in its arguments and concepts. The book operates in a liminal zone between both territories without a clear grounding in either. While operating in this liminal space can prove beneficial for bridging gaps between two distinct areas, hazy connections between the two further obscures this connection. It is not just that Demarcation and Demystification’s definition of philosophy is shot through with particular commitments to Maoism; it is that the modern Maoist perspective cleaves to them in such a way so as to render the revolutionary failures built around a historical materialist (or even Maoist) approach invisible. The Chinese communist revolution may have been successful, but that was 70 years ago now. And Sendero Luminoso in Peru certainly do not offer much in the way of a guiding light for current and future revolutionaries, despite some small sects’ fervent devotion to Gonzalo’s example in his leadership of Sendero Luminoso in Peru. In many respects, Moufawad-Pauls’ focus on the 11th thesis might benefit from more nuanced engagement with Marx’s 2nd thesis: “The question of whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but a practical question. Man must prove the truth – i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice.” If class struggle and scientific Marxism are to be the approach, and it is to be based on class struggle and proving one’s philosophical and theoretical soundness by engaging in the world, then perhaps an conceptual analogy built solely upon terrain and space eliminates the ability to see that Maoism has changed over time and that the terrain of the Russian Revolution or the Chinese revolution are not universal. Maybe looking at the actual success and effectiveness of Maoist revolutionary organizations and theorizing outside of those few successful historical examples would not only lead to a more sober point of departure for philosophy and theory in the revolutionary vein that Moufawad-Paul seeks to describe – it might also lead to more truth in the reality of a revolutionary approach to philosophy and theory in the ongoing struggle against capitalism.

About the Reviewer: Adam Benden is an Austin, TX-based political organizer, writer, licensed therapist, and host of the podcast Red Library – A Political Education Podcast for Today’s Left. His political theory writings on revolutionary politics today can be found on the blog Capillaries: Theory at the Front and his academic research has been published in the Routledge Journal of Poverty.

[1] Marx, K., 2020. Theses On Feuerbach. [online]

[2] Jacoby, R., 2002. Dialectic Of Defeat. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[3] Antonio Gramsci, Quintin Hoare, and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci (New York: International Publishers, 2008).

[4] J. Moufawad-Paul, in Demarcation and Demystification: Philosophy and Its Limits (Winchester, England: Zero Books, 2019), p. 134.

[5] Alain Badiou, Philosophy for Militants (London: Verso, 2015). For Badiou, a political Event such as a revolution signals a truly novel rupture point in history which creates a corresponding type of subjectivity for those fidelitous to it. While he does utilize ethical categories and virtues to describe how one relates to such an event, a loss of fidelity is characterized by a loss of the initial inspiration and meaning of the rupture and not as a type of moral failing. 

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