Jonas Čeika and synthetic philosophy
How to Philosophize with a Hammer and Sickle: Nietzsche and Marx for the Twenty-First Century, Jonas Čeika, Repeater Books 2021, £10.99 (Paperback)
Where would philosophy be without the Will to Synthesise? Radical originality—philosophy ex nihilo—has been conspicuous by its absence. Major philosophers have instead synthesised existing traditions and influences to produce new forms of knowledge.
…………Confucius, for example, preserved, transmitted and combined the intellectual traditions inherited from the Xia (c. 2070–1600 BCE), Shang (c. 1600–1046 BCE) and Western Zhou (c. 1046–771 BCE) dynasties. Greek mythology, literature, art, and philosophy were ‘transformed and absorbed into Roman culture and religion’ and Rome ‘used the cultures she absorbed to reframe her own changing identities and values’ to such an extent that we sometimes consider these two civilisations as one continuum: the ‘Graeco-Roman’ world.
…………Christianity, the edifice on which all subsequent Western thought has built (or attempted to demolish) was a fusion of its ‘twofold ancestry’, says Diarmaid MacCulloch, and ‘far from being simply the pristine, innovative teachings of Jesus Christ, […] draws on two much more ancient cultural wellsprings: Greece and Israel’. In the Middle East, al-Kindī and others in the Golden Age of Islamic Peripatetic philosophy combined Greek-inspired falsafa with Muslim philosophies of Tawḥīd (the indivisibility or ‘oneness’ of God) and exegesis of the Qur’an. As Emma Gannagé points out, for example, al-Kindī’s Al-Falsafa al-ūlā (On First Philosophy, early ninth century CE) ‘elaborates a complex and original synthesis […] in which Neoplatonic concepts overlap with the demands of Muslim theology’. The ontology of the Persian Safavid theologian Mullā Ṣadrā likewise demonstrates ‘a great variety of influences’, synthesising ‘Aristotelian’ metaphysics (via Suhrawardī’s Illuminationism and the Theologia Aristotelis) with the Sufi mysticism of Ibn ʿArabī and Qur’anic hermeneutics.
…………In Europe, Thomas Aquinas’s work, culminating in the unfinished Summa Theologica (composed 1265–1274), can be read as an attempt to fuse the Aristotelian ‘science of being’, and the ‘reception and application of Aristotle’s metaphysics and natural philosophy’ with the Biblical story of the Eucharist. This union finds its highest expression in the doctrine of transubstantiation, one of the central tenets of medieval sacramental theology. The Reformation emerged as the Aristotelianism that had dominated medieval theology was eclipsed by a strand of Christian humanism fuelled instead by the ‘hitherto unknown philosophical works of Plato’, brought to Western Europe by opportunistic manuscript dealers and Byzantine scholars after the fall of Constantinople in 1453.
………..Immanuel Kant’s self-proclaimed ‘revolution in the way of thinking’ in the Critique of Pure Reason (1781, 1787) was inspired by the central insight of Newtonian physics but sought primarily to reconcile the rationalism of Leibniz and Descartes with the empiricism of Hume. The Bolshevik revolutionary and intellectual Nikolai Bukharin said that ‘Marxism from the point of view of its logical genesis was a creative synthesis of genius which arose on the basis of the most precious products of thought of the age’. Indeed, Marx combined materialism and dialectics, as well as transforming the English tradition of political economy—epitomised by Sir William Petty and Ricardo—and fusing it with French socialism.
…………Perhaps the Will to Synthesise speaks to the enduring, underlying truth of the Hegelian dialectic, an unquenchable thirst for Aufheben: to abolish and transcend difference whilst also distilling and preserving the best of both for the ongoing march of the philosophical Weltgeist. Though Hegel, we must note, as Walter Kaufmann does, ‘never once used’ the thesis-antithesis-synthesis formula (which originated with Johann Gottlieb Fichte) ‘to designate three stages in an argument’.
…………Synthesising the philosophies of two different thinkers, disciplines or systems, then, is an intellectual manoeuvre with a long history. Jonas Čeika, creator of the YouTube channel CCK Philosophy, is the latest to attempt a bold philosophical syncretism. Despite the author’s claim that ‘this book is not so much an attempt at synthesizing Marx and Nietzsche’ as ‘using each thinker to bring out what is already present in the other, but perhaps overlooked, hidden, or placed in the background’, Čeika’s is perforce a synthetic philosophical endeavour. The book aims to theorise ‘Nietzschean socialism’, a coinage borrowed from Steven E. Aschheim’s survey of the use of Nietzsche in socialist thought in the ‘highly volatile political consciousness’ of Europe, on both Left and Right, before its toxic association with National Socialism.
…………Čeika’s synthesis of the ‘hammer and sickle’ (urged in the book’s title) proposes a form of empowerment with a strong emphasis on individuality, or rather individual ‘flourishing’. He advocates, for example, the ‘proliferation of needs’ instead of self-denial for the good of the collective or the commonwealth. Marxism is framed as the archetypal conflict of capitalist v worker, but an immature understanding would see Marx as attempting to reverse that polarity. In fact, as Čeika points out, it is not reversal but sublation that Marx aims at: in a socialist society, there would be no workers or capitalists.
…………In the same way, Nietzsche advocates not the reversal of ‘slave morality’ but the overcoming of morality altogether, hence the title of Beyond Good and Evil (1886). In this book and On the Genealogy of Morality (1887), Nietzsche diagnoses the ‘sickness’ of modern European culture precisely in a damaging reversal: the supersession of Greco-Roman ‘noble morality’ that prized strength, pride, and an ‘over-abundance of power’ concentrated among a social elite by a Judeo-Christian value system that celebrated the ‘violated, oppressed, suffering, unfree, [and] exhausted’ masses. Čeika says that Nietzschean socialism would herald a ‘fundamental negation’ of both the social and economic aspects of capitalism as described by Marx and, at the same time the ‘overcoming of bourgeois morality’ aimed at by Nietzsche. In this way, Čeika argues, Marxists are misguided to aim at bald equality: he usefully points out that neither Marx nor Nietzsche advocated treating everyone, everywhere, exactly the same. Perhaps counter-intuitively, it is Nietzsche’s insistent emphasis on individual flourishing that Čeika sees as the fuel to a properly socialist society.
…………Art and aesthetics are central to Čeika’s synthetic philosophy and his attempt to connect the liberation of society to the emancipation of individual needs and desires. In this, he follows Nietzsche’s conviction that art is not ‘an amusing sideshow’ of human experience but the ‘highest task and the true metaphysical activity of this life’. Čeika draws Marx and Nietzsche together by highlighting the importance both thinkers place on the role of aesthetic experience in individual flourishing. This comparison is especially apt. In his days as a student in Bonn and Berlin, Marx ‘lived the life of a bohemian’, ‘sowed his wild oats’ and ‘above all […] formed the desire to be a poet’. Likewise, Nietzsche, as Matthew Rampley notes, turned to art and aesthetics to confront ‘the question of how the radical sceptic can avoid becoming a nihilist’. In The Birth of Tragedy (1872 and 1886), Nietzsche castigated Platonism and Christianity for ‘banish[ing] art, all art, to the realm of lies’ and instead looked to Attic tragedy as the ideal synthesis of Apollonian and Dionysian Kunsttriebe. These ‘artistic impulses’ are what enable Nietzsche’s brave ‘philosophers of the future’ to see in the dramatic representation of suffering an affirmation of life rather than hopelessness at its futility – what Jean-Paul Sartre would later term the ‘quietism of despair’.
…………But dangers lurk in Nietzsche’s claims that ‘our highest dignity lies in our significance as works of art’ and that ‘only as an aesthetic phenomenon is existence and the world eternally justified’. Čeika is far from advocating a grotesque primacy of aesthetics along the lines of F.T. Marinetti, who vaunted ‘beautiful ideas that kill’; or the Symbolist poet Laurent Tailhade, who called the anarchist bombing of the French Chamber of Deputies in 1893 a ‘beautiful gesture’. Indeed, Čeika is careful to temper Nietzsche’s aesthetic ideal with an aspiration to Marxist materialism: ‘the aesthetic sensibility is itself nothing supernatural, but something that develops on a material basis, and is maintained, strengthened or undermined by specific social relations’. Yet the problem of the aestheticization of politics remains in any philosophy in which the aesthetic, as Čeika hopes, ‘expands to cover the whole world’ and thus ‘no longer exists as a distinct, limited sphere’. As Benjamin warned, ‘Fascism sees its salvation in giving [the] masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves’.
…………Čeika’s admiration for Nietzsche is clear from the book’s form, as he writes in an episodic, aphoristic style cribbed from the German philosopher. Yet this abbreviated mode can lead its author onto rocky critical ground. For example, in a discussion on the nature of objectivity, Čeika asserts: ‘If Nietzsche’s analysis of slave morality is correct, then it is able to explain, on the basis of one complete and coherent conceptualization, the nature and perspectives of both the masters and the slaves’. That ‘if’, enforced by the limitations of the aphoristic form, is compelled to perform an enormous amount of intellectual heavy lifting. Nietzsche’s ‘analysis of slave morality’ and Ressentiment in the Genealogy, as David Lindstedt points out, risks contradiction:
……While Christianity and its belief system generate a progression […]
……allowing human beings to become interesting for the first time, Nietzsche
……also maintains in the Genealogy that slave morality is a regression, somehow
……lowering or bringing them down from a possible higher level.
This is far from a ‘complete and coherent conceptualization’. In this way, the aphoristic form often hurries Čeika’s argument so that it shades into assertion without sustained exposition or explication. Today, when discursive, long-form nonfiction increasingly struggles against the tendency towards extreme brevity in thought—the unthinking, asinine Twitter ‘take’, the clickbait headline, the rushed 1,000-word ‘polemic’ of the professional content provider—the aphoristic style risks coming across as a concession to the short attention span of the bored internet reader. Given the importance Nietzsche placed on forging a style that ran counter to the dominant modes of expression in his day—the treatise, the essay, the monumental, plodding opus—it is by no means certain that the aphoristic form is the most suitable means of exposition for Nietzsche’s philosophy today.
………..It is also impossible (or irresponsible) to ignore Nietzsche’s disdainful pronouncements on the liberation of the proletariat. In Thus Spake Zarathustra (1883) for example, Nietzsche made his distaste for social equity clear: ‘Equal rights for all!’, he scoffed, ‘this is the most extraordinary form of injustice, for with it the highest men do not get their due’. In Twilight of the Idols (1889), apparently responding obliquely to Marx himself, Nietzsche dismissed ‘the question of the working-man’ as a mere symptom of ‘degenerate instincts which are the cause of all the stupidity of modern times’, arguing that it is ‘madness’ to educate ‘slaves’. Indeed, Nietzsche advocated not merely oppression but slavery throughout his writing: ‘slavery is the only and ultimate condition’, he wrote in The Antichrist (1895), ‘under which the weak-willed man, and especially woman, flourish’. Nietzsche, unlike Marx, was in no rush to liberate the oppressed: his main aim was cultivating an elite race of Übermensch that would manifest a new, life-affirming value system to banish nihilism once and for all. There is no obvious place in this vision of the future of humanity for Marx and Engels’s forecasted ‘victory of the proletariat’.
…………Nevertheless, Čeika’s is a powerful and important contribution to Continental philosophy in the synthetic tradition of Critical Theory. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, we must remember, combined a Marxist foundation with the idealism (variously construed) of Kant and Hegel, whilst borrowing the early sociological methodology of Max Weber, thus setting an example for disciples of the Frankfurt School. To a certain extent, every attempt at a grand philosophical synthesis necessarily results in compromise and imbalance. Walter Benjamin sought to combine a Marxist theory of superstructure with Jewish mysticism and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s idea of the Urphänomen (‘archetypal phenomenon’). This unorthodox syncretism was praised by Terry Eagleton, who admired such a ‘confluence of […] impulses’ and even by Jacques Derrida, who admired Benjamin’s essay ‘Critique of Violence’ for being ‘at once “mystical” […] and hypercritical’. But for Hannah Arendt, Benjamin was ‘the most peculiar Marxist ever’. Adorno, meanwhile, reproached Benjamin’s ‘wide-eyed presentation of actualities’ and his granular obsession with ‘scraps’ and ‘the most insignificant representations of reality’, such as in The Origin of the German Trauerspiel (1928), Benjamin’s study of the obscure history plays of the late seventeenth-century German Baroque.
…………Likewise, Herbert Marcuse combined Freudian psychoanalysis with Marxism to critique the mental economies of twentieth-century class conflict and advance the possibility of a non-repressive society – and later to lament the parallel repressions of the capitalist West and the Soviet Union. Paul Ricoeur paid Marcuse the ultimate compliment by framing his Freud and Philosophy (1965) as an ‘homage’ to (among other works) Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization (1955). But Leszek Kołakowski criticised Marcuse’s synthesis for its imbalance in favour of psychoanalysis and inattention to the historical specificities of class conflict. Čeika allows Nietzsche to dominate his thinking, to the extent that staunch Marxists might plausibly criticise the work as being a touch too idealist; ambitious certainly, but potentially not quite materialist enough to forge an historically-specific brand of Nietzschean socialism in the here and now.
…………But overall, How to Philosophize with a Hammer and Sickle is a bold and important intervention in contemporary socialist philosophy. Taking up the synthetic model of Marcuse, Benjamin, and others associated with the Frankfurt School, Čeika extracts the best of Nietzsche and Marx to critique capitalism as the ultimate cause and expression of nihilism and advance an accessible form of socialism, one geared towards the flourishing of both the individual and the collective. Like Nietzsche, Čeika re-affirms human experience and the importance of the aesthetic; like Marx, he seeks to place the emancipation of individuals within a broader liberation of humanity. Despite its flaws—those of any synthetic philosophy—How to Philosophize with a Hammer and Sickle deserves to be read by students, scholars and anyone with a serious interest in Continental Philosophy and Critical Theory.
Josh Mcloughlin is a writer from Merseyside. He is the editor-in-chief of New Critique, a Wolfson Scholar in the Humanities at University College London, and he was shortlisted for the Jane Martin Poetry Prize (2019) and the International Awards for Art Criticism (2020). His work is published in The Times, The Spectator, The Fence, and others.
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