Micro-Reviews #1: Michel Henry’s “Marx: A Philosophy of Human Reality”

Overall Rating: 9/10

In Marx: A Philosophy of Human Reality, Michel Henry attempts a reorientation of “Marxist” thought through a return to the fundamental philosophical insights of Marx’s pre-economic period. This reorientation opens with the bold, and markedly controversial, claim that “marxism is the interrelated set of misinterpretations that have been given concerning Marx.” (p.1) Such a claim is noteworthy, not merely for its polemical character, but for the breadth of its targets. Not only does Henry identify this misinterpretation with the political manifestations of Marxism (viz. Stalinism, etc.), but in a sweeping gesture condemns nearly all Marxists including recent critical theory, the Frankfurt School, and one of the very foundations of Marxism itself: Friedrich Engels. The source of this misinterpretation is doubly posited as the blindness of Marxism to Marx’s philosophical novelty and the unavailability of certain key texts (i.e. The 1844 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts and The German Ideology) which were not published until the middle of the 20th century.

Through a close reading of these key texts, the first half of Marx proposes that the true insight of Marx’s thought is a radical reinterpretation of reality in its concrete subjectivity—a subjective reality designated as praxis. Whereas traditional Marxist thought tends to emphasize the placement of the individual within a class as its defining feature, Henry’s reading of Marx construes reality as an inversion of this paradigm. Instead, the subjective conditions of practical life (hunger, need, work, etc.) form the true contents of reality which constitute the class structures as economic idealities. “What is real, therefore, is need, hunger, suffering, labor too—everything that consists in this inner and insurmountable experience of the self.” (p.160)

This opposition of reality and ideality arises out of Marx’s early turn from Hegel, whom he criticizes for the hypostatiztion (i.e. reification) of ideal entities such as history, the state, etc. To posit these purely ideal entities as though they possessed reality and the effectivity of reality, is to bury the individual, “the splintered, multiple, plural reality” (p.89), under the weight of this “metaphysical” totality. It is in response to this hypostatization that Marx turns from Hegel toward the anti-metaphysical materialism of Feuerbach. Although traditional Marxism recognizes this key split with Hegel, what it has consistently failed to recognize is the rejection of Feuerbachian materialism upon the same grounds. Whereas Hegel sought to reify history, Feuerbach similarly reifies “mankind.”

It was in light of his attempt to establish his though within (or out of) reality and to avoid this pervasive tendency towards reification that Marx chose to ground his philosophy within the labor of the individual human person. This labor, praxis, is nothing less than the activity of the human individual, their being in reality, their life.

In the second half of Marx, originally published separately as Marx Volume II: A Philosophy of Economy, Henry attempts a reading of Marx’s later work, particularly Capital, in light of these earlier philosophical concerns Building upon the reality:ideality distinction of The German Idealogy, Henry recognizes a consistent theme underlying Marx’s economic descriptions whereby labor-time—that is, the subjective labor of the individual human subject—is identified as the ground of economic (ir-)reality: as the “genesis of the economy.” Analogically, economic value, particularly within capitalism, is recognized as grounded at all times within use-value, the use of commodities for individual life. In this way, Marx’s later economic work is recognized not as a break with, but as a continuation of his philosophical work.

Written in Henry’s usual dense tone and particularly sub-clause-laden French, this work can be (at times) difficult to move through. Nonetheless, for those who are interested in Henry, Marx, French phenomenology, or lebens-philosophie, this is an exceptionally helpful work. Although, unpopular within Marxists circles (for the obvious reason) this work does provide a fundamentally unique vision of this influential figure. This emphasis upon subjectivity allows for interesting inroads (hinted at, but not explored) by which Marx’s thought could be synthesized or put in conversation with Heideggerian phenomenology, Nietzschean and French existentialism, or any number of other recent philosophic schools.

Perhaps more than for Marx, this text is key to a proper understanding of Henry’s Material Phenomenology. Henry writes, “to the radical immanence of this subjectivity, which now constitutes reality for him, Marx gave the name appropriate to it: life.” (p.160) This text may be direct towards Marx, but these terms: “radical immanence,” “experience of the self,” “Life” are the domain of Henry’s radical phenomenology. Whether this text is an accurate portrayal of Marx’s thought is unclear, but its direct correspondence to Henry’s phenomenology is indubitable. Yet, here, unlike his later I am the Truth: Toward a Philosophy of Christianity we find the reduction to subjectivity expressed in terms of praxis and activity. Against the gnostic undertones which haunt his religious work, Marx provides a “fleshed-out” subjectivity, one which finds a role for communal activity, labor, and inter-subjectivity. In this sense, this text is essential reading for anyone interested in Henry in particular, or French Phenomenology in general.

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About jleavittpearl

Philosopher and Theologian out of Pittsburgh PA.

Posted on May 24, 2012, in Reviews and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Hi there. I am particularly amazed at how you revive for me my once delirious fascination with Henry, especially, through this work on Marx. It was Henry who introduced me to the deeper phenomenological side of Marx, something that most traditional and orthodox interpretations of Marx grossly neglected. It was also Henry who introduced me ‘away’ from the kind of radical activism that I held so dear and thereof let me in on phenomenology in general to better understand the stakes involved in the debate over the essence of the subject or subjectivity. Having read Sartre before Henry then phenomenology was no stranger theory to me but Henry allowed me to better understand the fundamental relation of Marx to phenomenology in general and even now to post-phenomenology. I just wonder if this is a new edition of Henry’s book. My copy is a 1993 edition by Indiana University Press, a jurassic by all accounts!

    Nice blog. Will be watching its progress and good luck!

    • Thank you for your kind words. I find Henry’s account of Marx wholly fascinating, and like you, have been unable to locate an analysis of this kind elsewhere. Unfortunately, this is likely the same edition of the work with which you are familiar. Henry’s work does not experience much in the way of translation, although “Words of Christ” has just been released in English translation earlier this month and “Barbarism” will be released in August.

      • I haven’t read Henry yet (just found it and haven’t had time), but from the review, I think there may be some parallel between his reading of Marx, and some Soviet psychology, particularly, Leontyev.

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