By Diana Fuentes
Adolfo Sánchez Vázquez (1905-2011) was the most distinguished Spanish Marxist to seek exile in Mexico. Philosopher, poet, translator and activist, he undertook the task of seeking a pathway of reading Marx’s work at a distance from the incontrovertible schematism of the Soviet DiaMat, thanks to the recovery and interpretation of the Paris Notebooks, the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, the Theses on Feuerbach, and to his dedication and commitment to a critical aesthetic and ethics. His work the Philosophy of Praxis (1967) has established itself as an inescapable reference within the wave of Marxist renovation in the 1960s. In it, through the category of praxis, the philosopher keeps a critical distance from economic determinism and places the focus on the conscientious action of the political subject in the perspective of a social emancipation project. As he states there, “the philosophy of praxis considers in indissoluble unity the project of emancipation, the critique of what exists and the knowledge of the reality to be transformed. The hinge on which these three moments are articulated is praxis as an activity geared towards an end” (1997, 130).
Sánchez Vázquez’s intellectual trajectory is firmly rooted in the history of the 20th century. In June 1939 he arrived in Mexico with sixteen hundred other exiles, on board the ship Sinaia after the defeat of the Republic in the Spanish Civil War. His involvement in the conflict began in 1936 as part of the Unified Socialist Youth (Juventudes Socialistas Unificadas; JSU); first in Málaga and later in Madrid in Commander Lister’s 11th Division. During some months of 1937, he edited the newspaper Ahora [Now] and participated in the 2nd International Congress of Antifascist Writers. After the losses at the Ebro, he fled Madrid for France and was in Roissy-en-Brie where he heard the news that the Mexican President Lázaro Cárdenas would shelter the persecuted Republicans. Despite having studied literature at the University of Madrid, in Mexico, he studied philosophy at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), where he became a full-time professor and was awarded the highest recognition of Emeritus Professor.
Sánchez Vázquez’s Marxism results from an open theoretical critique of the official line of Soviet Marxism from the 1950s, and from conceptualizing the theoretical core of Marx’s critique of political economy as a philosophy of praxis. The lack of democracy in decision-making and in the debate on the political line of international communism, as well as the declarations made by Khrushchev in 1956, would be decisive for his theoretical reorientation. It was reality itself that required abandoning the pursuit to broaden the channels of mainstream Marxism, or, in his own words, “to abandon metaphysics of DiaMat, [to] return to the original Marxism in order to get in touch with reality” (2003a, 38). In his early works– the essay Ideas estéticas en los Manuscritos económico-filosóficos de Marx [Aesthetic ideas in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of Marx] (1961) and the book Las ideas estéticas de Marx [The Aesthetic Ideas of Marx] (1965)–, Sánchez Vázquez used the concept of work as a transformative activity and extended it to his conception of art as creative work as opposed to alienated labor. Heavily influenced by the Italian Marxism of Antonio Labriola, he reclaimed the category of praxis as a guiding axis in his efforts to revitalize Marxism, while Karl Korsch’s Marxism and Philosophy served as inspiration in his quest to “reestablish the internal relationship between theory and praxis” (1977, 23). Two other key figures in Sánchez Vázquez’s Marxism were György Lukács and Henri Lefrebvre. Of the former, he acknowledged the impact that History and Class Consciousness had on him, which is reflected in his approach to the problem of alienation as well as in the centrality of praxis. Lukács is also fundamental in his aesthetic considerations and his attention to ordinary or everyday consciousness, an area in which Lefebbvre’s presence also surfaces. It is a critical Marxism read from a philosophical foundation: “The theme of everydayness and of the common man’s consciousness that lives within it is a matter of special attention for contemporary bourgeois philosophy […] despite the exceptionally valuable suggestions that one can find in Marx himself […]. This is why the studies of K. Kosik […] [and] the general characterization of everyday thought by Lukács in his Aesthetics […] are of particular importance. Henri Lefebbvre […] and Agnes Heller have also dealt with everyday life and consciousness” (2003b, 32).
Under this framework, his reading of Marx’s early works takes sides with the interpretation that recognizes the transition from philosophy to economics, and, consequently, the speculative latency of some categories such as that of the human essence. Nevertheless, he considers its historical density to be of great theoretical value: “in the Manuscripts he [Marx] critiques what is ahistorical and abstract in Feuerbach’s ‘real man’ and […] with this criticism the young Marx initiates a shift from a speculative anthropology, of the Feuerbachian type, to a ‘science of real men and their historical development, as Engels would say” (2003b, 283). Thus, Sánchez Vázquez emphasizes the concrete and situated study of the economic categories, since in these youthful outlines one can already observe a “science of society and history” (2003b, 279).
This argument is fully fleshed out in his work Filosofía y economía en el joven Marx. Los Manuscritos de 1844 [Philosophy and Economics in the Young Marx. The manuscripts of 1844] (1982; later reprinted under a slightly different title, cf. 2003b), where he states that thanks to the economic analysis and to the philosophical elements, Marx anchors the human being, as a concrete subject, in the material relations of capitalist society. That is to say, contrary to the readings that only insist on the speculative character of the early works, Sánchez Vázquez sees the young Marx’s approach to economics as eminently critical since he appropriates some of the central categories of political economy to examine them in depth and find in them the contradictions that prevent bourgeois economics from seeing the true relations of the capitalist system of production. This argument also distances him from the anthropologizing versions of Marx, which in his early works exalt humanism, at the expense of the socio-historical aspects of the social being: “It is not a question of asking that the Manuscripts be seen through the eyes of a more mature Marx; nor is it a question of denying the human side that a scientistic and positivist vision of Marxism forgets. But it is a question of demanding that we see in the Manuscripts, together with their anthropological aspects, the attempt to objectively establish, as a critique of political economy, the revolutionary transformation of society” (2003b, 275).
From these lines of reading, Sánchez Vázquez’s philosophy of praxis is characterized by the effort to specify the Marxian conception of social activity in general and the emancipatory conscious practical activity in particular. It is a theoretical wager to emphasize free, rational, and collective activity as the articulating axis of any project of social emancipation, in opposition to economic determinism, historical schematism, and political formalism. In the Sanchez-Vazquian interpretation, human beings transform their environment thanks to their conscious activity and to that extent humanizes it. Thus, the concept of praxis refers to the conscious, in other words, perceives in subjective terms the activity that transforms reality or the objective world. This framework points to the dialectic that allows us to recognize the strictly capitalist alienation as a mediation that diminishes the human capacity to recognize itself in its ontologically creative activity, in pursuit of the logic of capital accumulation. For this reason, Sánchez Vázquez’s philosophy of praxis plays out in the sphere of the relation between theory and practice, that is, between the co-determination of the subjective and objective dimensions. The first is the creator of aims and objectives, the space of imagination and conceptual production; the second is the sphere of facticity or material reality, which is dynamic and is the end goal of human action.
The philosophy of praxis prompts Sánchez Vázquez to think about the possible degrees of reciprocity or interdependence between theory and practice, as well as their discrepancies, tensions, or correspondences, which construct conditions of possibility in order for praxis to be resolved creatively or to become an imitative or reiterative action. Among these methods, creative praxis allows the philosopher to pinpoint the place of political practice that has as the horizon of its action a project of social emancipation. By its nature, creative praxis fractures the logic of the subordination of activity to the general and objective dynamics of social life, which in capitalism is embodied as alienation, that is to say, as reiterative and homologizing activity.
This is the political foundation of the philosophy of praxis, which is also expressed in its aesthetic and ethical drifts. And this is what pits him against Louis Althusser, whose theoretical project does not “fail to remind us suspiciously of the old and new positivism” (1983, 27). This critique is the basis of his book Ciencia y revolución. El marxismo de Althusser [Science and Revolution. The Marxism of Althusser] ( 1983), where he argues why he considers that Althusser’s scientific commitment, moving away from its political origins, “substantially becomes a theoretical project, more precisely an epistemological one” (ibid.). This position underlines the distance between the “meteoric” task proposed by the French philosopher and the political task that, for the Spaniard exiled in Mexico, lays the foundations and brings meaning to the critique of political economy: concrete praxis. In this undertaking, Sánchez Vázquez is a clear example of confidence in a rational subject, empowered to direct his own process of emancipation, both individually and collectively. This is the basis for the conviction of the project of the philosophy of praxis as a new practice of philosophy, as well as the certainty that even in the worst conditions of social alienation, the urgency and the historical possibility of a political strategy capable of building a path to the realization of socialism cannot be extinguished.
Trans. by Paul Holzman
Diana Fuentes is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Theory (Political Philosophy) at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). Professor and researcher at the Metropolitan Autonomous University Xochimilco Campus. Professor in the School of Philosophy and Literature, UNAM. She has completed two research stays in France, under the co-tutorship of Michael Löwy. She has been part of the University Seminar of Modernity: versions and dimensions at the UNAM since 2009, founded by Bolívar Echeverría, also working alongside him as both a research assistant and an adjunct professor. She is a founding member of the Gramsci Association of Mexico (2018). Recently she coordinated the book Gramsci in Mexico with Massimo Modonesi and authored the prologue to the English edition of the book Modernity and “Whiteness” by Bolívar Echeverría, among other articles specializing in Marxism and critical theory.
We thank the family of A. Sánchez Vázquez for allowing us to use the previously unpublished photo that accompanies this text.
A. Sánchez Vázquez, “Prólogo. El marxismo de Korsch”, in: Id., Marxismo y filosofía, México 1977, 9-18.
Id., Ciencia y revolución. El marxismo de Althusser , México 1983.
Id., “Vida y filosofía”, in: Id., A tiempo y destiempo, México 2003 [2003a], 19-42.
Id., El joven Marx: Los Manuscritos de 1844, México 2003 [2003b].
Id., Filosofía de la praxis, México 1997 [The Philosophy of Praxis. Trans. M. Gonzalez. New Jersey 1977]