Frederick Engels was Karl Marx’s closest friend and collaborator. In the light of the ongoing ecological crisis and COVID-19 pandemic, Engels’ Dialectics of Nature takes on a new significance.
Frederick Engels was Karl Marx’s closest friend and collaborator. In the light of the ongoing ecological crisis and COVID-19 pandemic, Engels’ Dialectics of Nature takes on a new significance.
Publisher’s preface Marx’s writings have sometimes been misrepresented. Many consider them to be no longer relevant for the 21st century on the mistaken assumption that he was obsessed only with class and had little appreciation of how issues of gender, racism and colonialism inter-related with class and the struggle for human emancipation. But as Kevin […]
In Marxism and Intersectionality: Race, Gender, Class and Sexuality under Contemporary Capitalism its author, Ashley J. Bohrer, presents a tour de force, offering and contributing to a wide-ranging debate that has occupied left academic and activist audiences for some time now. Indeed, intersectionality, once a catchword, has become one of the major lenses through which scholars in social theory, political science, gender and sexuality studies, critical race theory and philosophy reflect on our contemporary situation not only nationally, but also globally. Reflections and theories about identity, the intersection of identities in the context of oppression, exploitation and difference are so vast that one needs to be a specialist to oversee the entire debate. In this vein, Bohrer’s book achieves the impossible, insofar as it considers a vast amount of contemporary literature on Marxism, intersectionality and the relation between the two. Bohrer calls this approach the ‘“maximalist’ approach.’ (Bohrer and Souvlis 2020) For a reader who is not familiar with the entire scope of the debate, such as this reviewer, the book is very enlightening and provides a helpful guide for understanding how these two sides of the contemporary left can be brought together.
The complexity of the debate is unfolded in seven chapters that are divided by three sections within which Bohrer reconstructs the shared histories of Marxism and intersectionality (section I), presents detailed analyses of the debates and clashes between both groups of scholars (section II) and opens up extended ways of engagement with both (section III). Readers who are somewhat familiar with the history of intersectionality can safely jump over the introductory chapter (called chapter zero) in which Bohrer outlines nineteenth and twentieth century precursors to the contemporary debate. Via short summaries Bohrer presents the positions of main authors, such as Claudia Jones and W.E.B. Du Bois, main approaches, such as standpoint theory, the Jeopardy Approach and Latinix Feminism, a short history of political activism, and authors who directly influenced contemporary discussions, such as the Combahee River Collective, Patricia Hill Collins and Angela Davis. The next four chapters discuss definitions, postulates and specific aspects of intersectionality, and reconstruct Marxist critiques of intersectionality as well as intersectional critiques of Marxism. These chapters are very well organized, and the main points are forcefully presented. Bohrer argues that both critiques have their shortcomings and are largely based on either reductive readings or basic misunderstandings. The last chapters deal with specific issues that are of importance for further developments and seen from a philosophical point of view, they are central to this work, as the author focuses (1.) on the relation between exploitation and oppression, (2.) on the concepts of dialects and contradiction, as well as (3.) on difference, solidarity, and coalition building.
Though the concept of capitalism is announced in the title of the book, it is not always clearly developed or framed in the author’s treatment, which may be due to the absence of an engagement with (contemporary) political economy or a theory of society. On the one hand, Bohrer argues that ‘intersectional histories refuse to name a singular cause for the multi-dimensional, contradictory, internally variant, and historically-dependent relations between the various forces in matrices of domination’ (114), while on the other hand, stating that ‘capitalism plays an important structural role, even if it does not play a unilateral or universal role’ (Ibid). What exactly is meant by ‘structural role’ remains unclear to such an extent that – despite the awkward tendency to reduce ‘Marxism’ to the topics of class and exploitation – it is not always clear in which sense agents are constituted within capitalist social organization. Bohrer therefore often speaks of capitalism as a ‘factor’ among others and, as a consequence, it is challenging to understand the concerns and claims of the text within the critical context of a larger theory of society in which exploitation and oppression are related in specific ways to social totality. Agents understood as the outcome of intersecting identities are the clear focus of Bohrer’s reflections, but the reader wonders how these subjectivities are constituted in relation to social totality, especially since the author does not really offer a theory that explains the most fundamental concept of intersectionality, namely, the concept of identity (with the exception of pp. 252-3). Definitions such as ‘identity as multi-pronged, group based, historically constituted, and heterogenous’ (93) do not help much in the effort to genuinely grasp the concept philosophically. Given the lack of a material social theory and political economy, as well as the focus on agents and their identities, concepts that are important for a theory of subjectivity under conditions of capital accumulation, such as technologies, state apparatuses and knowledge as a direct productive force, one wonders whether the book’s real intellectual horizon is a theory of justice based on ‘deep interpretations of all systems of oppression’ (224). It is admirable how Bohrer tries to be sensitive to and to recognize an almost infinite list of differences and identifications. However, the discussions overall seem to be more in line with a philosophy of recognition rather than a materialist theory of society for which not only a critique of political economy would be needed, but so, too, would a sober analysis of habitus as well as ideological and disciplinary state apparatuses. For example, the author’s worry about ‘sexist norms, heterosexist understandings of femininity and gendered (and racialized) social reproductive labor’ (210) seen ‘through the matrix of domination’ (118) seems to be a worry about injustices encountered in the form of norms; i.e. norms that regulate identifications that agents are forced to take on in capitalism. How these norms are habituated or constituted – aside from repeated references to the multiplicity of oppressive practices – is not clear. The ‘devaluation of black and brown lives’ (210) or the predominant ‘European heterosexist and white supremacist form of thinking’ (219) could be more properly addressed by a theory of recognitional justice, at least as long as these misrecognitions and matrixes of dominations are not connected to a materialist theory of society or theory of subjectivity.
In addition, Bohrer’s tendency to focus on domination via oppression and exploitation leads to the rejection of the argument that we need to make a distinction between the logic of capital and ‘capitalism’ as the term that refers somehow to the whole. Though I agree with Bohrer’s attempt to push exploitation and oppression on even ground, I still would argue that capital ultimately constitutes social reality and the totality of capitalism, especially if we mean by the latter a form of social organization that is globally based on the same principles. The point is precisely that the basic categories of political economy are the same everywhere, even if they get actualized and develop differently in different cultural and national contexts. While we find a myriad of combinatory identities and identity positions through a variety of exploitative and oppressive practices, we only find one social reality constituted as a totality that establishes the realm in which these practices can take place. As Marx puts it in Capital, capital ‘announces an epoch’ by which he means the unity of one social formation. Bohrer’s argument that the separation of capital and capitalism presupposes a separation of history and logic (188) fails, since it is undeniable that history and logic go hand in hand empirically, even if, in theory, we nevertheless make this distinction. To be sure, making this theoretical distinction permits us to synchronize all empirical elements as belonging to one social formation and social whole, and while it is true that in synchronizing these elements, we see that capital cannot be disconnected from exploitation and oppression especially inasmuch as capital is a real dynamic, this does not mean that we do not need to draw a sharp distinction between practices of oppression and the logic of capital; for value/capital is the social form that all entities take on, including agents whose productive capacities capital mobilizes for its own purposes via particular identities. Whereas a theory of society can give us constitutive categories, intersectionality can help us understand how agents must live through the contradictions of capital experience and react in many varied and nuanced ways within this whole. It is certain that ‘capitalism takes a variety of shapes and forms, responds to a variety of conditions, and encounters a wide variety of constraints and resistances’ (213) and that ‘an adequate theory of capital requires rapt attention to the multiplicity of formations that constitute it’ (203). Just as it is self-explanatory that capitalism cannot ‘explain or cause’ (163) all forms of agency, so is it the case that a single theory cannot make sense of all ‘choices, actions, thoughts, opportunities, and sacrifices made by people’ (163). However, this ‘dizzying set of capitalist arrangements’ (145) presupposes that the referent of ‘capitalism’ refers to one ‘X’ that takes a variety of shapes; i.e. it ideally presupposes one theory; this assumes, though, that we do not want to fall back onto nominalist strategies, historicist relativism or empty pluralizations that do not help us to grasp the reality, such as when Bohrer claims that ‘[s]ocial antagonisms should always be figured as pluri-vocal, multiplicitous, and, what is more, unpredictable and contingent’ (213), that social contradictions should allow for a ‘plethora of outcomes, arrangements, and compromises’ (214), or that there are not singular causes for ‘the multi-dimensional, contradictory, internally variant, and historically-dependent relations between various forces in matrices of domination’ (114). Indeed, this is dizzying!
In this vein, the author’s attempt to lump together a variety of authors under an identity labeled ‘Marxism’, especially if we take into account the theoretical range and global presence of Marxism, is problematic, to say the least. Moreover, Bohrer seems to have an ‘activist’ understanding of Marxism and although movements are understood as the major source of theory, and theorizing may be understood as a form of praxis, praxis is nevertheless understood as something external to theory. In this connection let us be reminded that Capital was not written for the laboring class (who would need to be addressed in different kinds of publications); rather, it was written against the ruling class and their classical economist and philosophy representatives with the goal of positioning Marxist theory and philosophy within the theoretical and philosophical discourse of Marx’s time. The hope was that, in turn, this would also lead to a reflection that theorizing cannot take place in some kind of neutral space. As a consequence, theory as praxis means that theory must be carried out as a critique of ideology and not as a form of activism. Similarly, the goal of contemporary Marxist theory and philosophy should be seen in the attempt to establish itself as a position that can demonstrate its own superiority over other positions in the fields of epistemology, ontology and ethics. As a result of Bohrer’s ‘practicist’ approach to theory, it is difficult to understand where the author stands in this field, insofar as it is not clear against which theory Bohrer’s ‘intersectional Marxism’ is directed, unless, perhaps, it is intended to position itself against certain forms of thinking based on specific identities, such as liberal feminists or white binary males.
Finally, though the book is extremely strong in its precise, clear and far-reaching reconstruction of authors and debates, its basic theoretical concepts remain vague because essential philosophical questions are not properly engaged. For example, what is identity?, what is a category (which is still presupposed for terms such as ‘intra-categorial’ or ‘inter-categorial’)?, and what is subjectivity? – these are but a few of the foundational philosophical questions that need to be addressed for the important considerations of this text to be fully analyzed. Indeed, the idea that overlapping identities constitute subjectivities remains weak, as long as we do not embed it within phenomenological or ontological frameworks. A statement such as intersectionality is an ‘ontological approach that accounts for complex subjectivity’ (90) remains empty without these antecedent or complementary philosophical considerations.
In addition, one could – and perhaps should – argue that it is philosophically problematic to identify who one is with what one is. Furthermore, even the last echo of what was once a universalist vision of a classless society as a society of human individuals evaporates in the author’s desire to recognize infinite chains of difference that fixate human beings in what they are rather than what they could be. Put with Sartre, the idea of a self that can be observed under the intersectional magnifying glass is itself bad faith, insofar as one could argue that an individual always transcends all identities. In the end a theory of social subjects that is constructed on the basis of identities is modeled after neoliberal desires since as agents seem to live in an abstract universe of identifications rather than in factories, schools, ghettos, camps, farms, homes, on ships or in political institutions.
In closing, on the one hand, the book reaches a level of complexity and inclusivity that we rarely see in a field in which many authors are desperately trying to defend their intellectual territory, but on the other hand – and here’s the paradox – it comes dangerously close to losing any focus on the very particular systematic issues that need more theoretical or argumentative treatment. The reader should not get these critical remarks wrong: despite the reviewers’ quibbles, Bohrer’s book is an impeccable achievement in terms of clarity and complexity that should be read by everyone interested in the relation between Marxism and intersectional theorizing.
Robert Sayre and Michael Löwy’s Romantic Anti-capitalism and Nature is an extremely interesting book—enjoyable, informative, and intellectually stimulating.
In the fourth part of CARR Senior Fellow, Dr Henry Mead’s, series on Hegel and Fascism, the author takes a look at how echoes of the idea of the fall circulated beyond Hegel – showing inspiration in fascism as well as religious and secular theories.
The Myth of the Fall within Hegelian Thought
As noted previously in this series on Hegel and Fascism, Hegel saw the actions of “Great Men” in history as the product of a larger pattern of forces – the product of “the cunning of reason”. This determinism, what Popper attacked as “historicism”, is of course compatible with recent attempts to define fascism, in a flexible ‘ideal type’, as a form of “palingenetic ultranationalism”.
This theory of history is anticipated to some degree in Hegel’s Phenomenology, which at times seems to connect its account of the emergence of a specific consciousness with historical events in a kind of cosmic bildungsroman. The connections are not sustained or explicit, however. Moreover, the analogy between the spirit’s progress and world-historical time was not drawn fully until the Lectures on the Philosophy of History, published from student notes posthumously in 1835. This tells the story of human civilisation as a correlation to the emergence of the world-spirit. The stage of divided consciousness that sets Hegel’s dialectic moving in his first major work is replicated in the ‘system of falls’ that mark history. Yet, as Cyril O’Regan notes, the fall motif is not just a grand, framing pattern in history, but recurs several times in various historical stages. There are multiple movements from unity into disunity, as required by the dialectic’s move from proposition to contradiction – before resolution in a higher unity. These disruptions could be hurtful, savage, causing long spans of pain and suffering before achieving their resolution. The expulsions of the Jews, the deterioration of the middle ages, and the religious wars of the Reformation, were all – in Hegel’s mind – explicable as necessary stages in a developmental growth. As he notes in the Lectures on the Philosophy of History:
“The History of the World is nothing but the development of the Idea of Freedom… That the History of the World… is the realization of Spirit, this is the true Theodicy, the justification of God in History… What has happened and is happening… is essentially His Work…”
Fascism & the Hegelian Form of Order
Although Popper’s work has long been treated as a polemical distortion of Hegel’s main assertions, more recent accounts of an ‘ideal type’ of Fascism certainly match the Hegelian form. In his major study of the Marxist tradition, Leszek Kolakowski traced the dialectic’s descent from Neoplatonic patterns and its return into more recent manifestations. Moreover, a long-standing tradition of scholarship on ‘political religion’ has made the same point, most notably in works by Eric Voegelin, Emilio Gentile, Michael Burleigh, and John Gray among others.
The pattern was, to use Roger Griffin’s phrase, essentially palingenetic; it involved a narrative of birth, degeneration, and rebirth; or, alternatively, of wholeness, division, and a higher wholeness. The dialectic itself exemplifies a deeper three-beat rhythm that runs through Romantic literature, and is paradigmatic of Fascist and Nazi imagery of pre-modern unity, civilizational rise (also a corruption), and then a final formation into a renewed, and purged unity. Yet it was not exclusively a fascist form. Hegel’s philosophy became a touchstone for liberals and socialists too from the 1880s through to the interwar period.
The Influence of the Hegelian Form of Order & Other Modern Writers
Hegel, as Karl Löwith and many others has shown, was one of many modern writers to propose a pattern in human history. German Enlightenment and Romantic writing was full of echoes of an essentially Neoplatonic myth of fall and return. In a classic study, M.H. Abrams offers an exhaustive survey of such motifs in a mass of literary and philosophical works. The shape of the argument – the explanation of man’s divided nature, both socially and psychologically, and the path back to re-unity – comes to the fore in Gotthold Lessing’s ‘The Education of the Human Race’ (1780). Herder developed the idea, and Friedrich Schiller (in his 1795 ‘Letters on Aesthetic Education’) refined the idea of the necessary fall: “It was civilization itself… which inflicted this wound upon modern man”; but the “fragmentary specialization of human powers” through which “individuals … suffer under the curse of this cosmic purpose” was necessary. This was a felix divisio, as Abrams puts it (p. 211), for as “little as individuals might benefit from this fragmentation of their being, there was no other way in which the species as a whole could have progressed.” (Schiller, p. 39; quoted in Abrams, p. 211). The works of Jakob Böhme, the Lutheran mystic who stressed the necessity of the fall in the movement towards heaven, were also important to Schelling, Holderlin, and Hegel, whose conversations at the Tübingen seminary produced the first Idealist system. Within the pattern of the bildungsroman there lies a version of Christian eschatology which, some historians argue, can be traced back to much earlier texts on one hand, and forward into Marxism and other secular political philosophies on the other.
Marx and Hegel
Indeed, the historical pattern Hyndman attributed to Hegel was an ancient one. As the Marxist scholar, G.A. Cohen, puts it: “This rhythm of primitive whole, fragmentation, and reunification asserts itself widely in Western thought. It beats not only in Hegel and… in Marx, but in much religious doctrine, in the Christian triad of innocence, fall, and redemption, in Aristophanes’ account of love in Plato’s Symposium, in some psycho-analytic narrations of the genesis of the person, and—seminally for German philosophy of history— throughout Schiller”. (Karl Marx’s Theory of History (1978), , p. 21). Referring to this sequence in intimate relations, Hegel wrote in his fragment ‘On Love’ that “the process is: unity, separated opposites, reunion.” Later in the Phenomenology, he describes the movement as “sensuous consciousness”, “understanding”, and “Reason”. The “Hegelian generalisation of the evolution from unity to disintegration back again to unity on a higher plane”, would be inherited by Marx, in “a dialectical progression from a state of undifferentiated unity, through a stage of differentiation without unity to a stage of differentiated unity”. The motif of rebirth in fascism involves, as Griffin puts it, the loss and the recovery of a sense of transcendence. To achieve this, there will be sacrifices on a grand scale; something to which the annals of world history can attest.
 For details of Lessing’s and Herder’s texts, see M.H. Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971) pp. 203-4. Friedrich Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man, trans. Elizabeth Wilkinson and L.A. Willoughby (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982), p.33.
 David Leopold, The Young Karl Marx (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 18.
Dr Henry Mead is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Research Fellow at Tallinn University. See full profile here.
© Henry Mead. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).
‘Research for this article was supported by a European Research Council Starting Grant (TAU17149) “Between the Times: Embattled Temporalities and Political Imagination in Interwar Europe’.
From Defensive Traits to Participatory Ego States
In celebration of Murray Bookchin’s birth centenary, his daughter Debbie is joined by a number of his former friends, students and fellow travelers to honor his memory and reflect on his revolutionary legacy.
January 14, 2021
In the years before his death, my father wrote a series of books entitled The Third Revolution. In them, he analyzed transformative revolutionary moments in history, beginning with the late-medieval uprisings and German Peasant Wars of the 16th century, and ending, four volumes later, with the Spanish Civil War. Studying this revolutionary history gave my father solace — it took him back to a time when revolutionary ideals animated everyday life, when utopian cries lived on the lips of ordinary people.
It also gave him immense hope, best exemplified by his choice to dedicate each of the four volumes of The Third Revolution to his young granddaughter. To be sure, he loved her quite madly as an individual, one whom he felt shared many of his early talents as a musician, an artist and, above all, a writer. But his dedication also indicated his belief in the promise of a new generation, one that might take up the banner in the struggle for a more rational society — a banner that had lost its sheen in the decades before his death, when the left was struggling to combat rising neoliberalism, authoritarianism and rampant ecological destruction.
In many ways, my father was ahead of his time. His ideas were often ridiculed or dismissed during his lifetime — his belief that climate change would become a serious threat to our survival laughed off as alarmist by the New York Times in the 1960s; his pleas to the left in subsequent years to put in the hard and unglamorous work of building an organized network of local democratic assemblies often bypassed in favor of street insurrection.
The first two volumes of your Écrits* combine concept and history, notions that are often opposed. What drives this dual interest in your thinking?
Over the course of my life, I have worked, on the one hand, on questions whose focus was the work of the concept, in particular epistemological and anthropological questions, and then, on the other hand, as a citizen and an activist, I have felt the need to confront the history of which we are a part. One might say that history is the field in which everything changes. In which the most secure positions are, at one time or another, inevitably called into question. I discuss a number of these in my book under the name of ‘traces’. On the other hand, one might have the feeling that the work of the concept aims at a kind of permanence that is the very opposite of the flight of time. It’s true that these are two styles of work, but I would say – and I hope that these two books show this – that there is a third fundamental term involved in both reflection on history and the work of the concept, which is politics in the broadest sense of the term. So, on the one hand, I have tried to work and reflect on examples, past or present, and even future examples, in the sense of conjecture, on how the intrinsic relationship between politics, history or praxis and temporality is established, and then, on the other hand, I have tried, particularly following the late attempts of Althusser and Foucault, to produce and explore a conception of theoretical thought in which conflict, and so inevitably politics, would constitute not a contingent exteriority, or even a danger to be guarded against, but on the contrary a kind of wellspring or intrinsic power.
A point that you keep coming across in Marx?
Yes, I can claim different sources of inspiration – including some that are not self-evident, like Weber or Schmitt – but the greatest of all for me is always Marx. There is something about him that is admirable and that I have already stressed in my little book The Philosophy of Marx. I see Marx as someone who basically never conceded on two fundamental requirements, even when they were in conflict with each other. One of these was to transform the world. This is the idea that we live in a society that is not only contradictory but unbearable, and that it is absolutely necessary to find the levers, the forces and tendencies which we can base ourselves on so as to give birth to its own future and alternative. On the other hand, there is in Marx a thirst for truth that rejects compromise with the facilities or contingencies of political struggle. He did not concede on either of these demands, which also means that he took the risk of being mistaken. Truth can only be discovered through error. As Spinoza said, ‘it is necessary to understand’, especially to understand what one has done and what happens to what one has done. Maximum enthusiasm, therefore, and maximum conceptuality.
Pessimism of the intelligence, optimism of the will. Isn’t that also, in a way, the Gramscian formula?
It is exactly Gramsci’s formula! It is one of the clearest expressions of this tension, which is certainly not easy, but which is also a sine qua non of political action. There are other possible formulations. For example, that contained in the Weberian opposition between the ethics of conviction and the ethics of responsibility, provided that this is read not as an exclusion but as a reciprocity of perspectives. Max Weber is not seen as a great revolutionary, but from my point of view he is a teacher at least as important as Gramsci or Marx, at least in terms of method. There is also Machiavelli’s formula: ‘Andar drieto alla verità effetuale della cosa’ [‘Pursue the effective truth of the thing’], which appears in a letter from Machiavelli to François Guichardin and which I quote at the start of Passions du Concept. ‘Andar drieto’, in the Tuscan language of the time, did not mean ‘go straight ahead’, rather ‘go behind’, that is to say, ‘follow’ or ‘pursue’ the truth.
Your reflection on the history of what was called ‘actually existing socialism’ leads you, in the wake of Spinoza, to a critical reflection that particularly rehabilitates the idea of democracy. Why?
There are a number of decisive turning points in the history of ‘actually existing socialism’. Naturally, Stalin is the inescapable point of reference. The question that arises is what happened when Stalin, and everything he represented, took power in the Soviet Union some time after Lenin’s death. I described this in my text on the trace of the October Revolution as the return of the principle of state sovereignty in the history of the communist revolution. But something happened earlier than that, which I completely changed my mind about in the course of my life. It was the moment in 1918, at the height of the civil war, when Lenin decided that the Constituent Assembly elections were null and void and that parliamentary democracy was an obstacle to revolutionary transformation or a hotbed of counter-revolutionary resistance. The idea was that representative institutions of this type had to be abolished in order to put in place, it was claimed, a more radical democracy in the form of soviet or council democracy – though in fact, this would actually mean the omnipotence of the single party, however necessary this was believed to be. At that time, Rosa Luxemburg, in a premonitory way, wrote a text that she herself was unable to publish because of her arrest and assassination, and in which she wrote the famous sentence: ‘Freedom is always the freedom to think differently.’ This means that the abolition of ideological pluralism contains within itself, in a way, the death sentence of the revolutionary attempt. In the communist tradition to which I belonged, this question was considered settled: Lenin was right. It was an argument that made the worst possible use of Machiavelli in the name of immediate efficiency, failing to grasp ‘the effective truth of the thing’. I think Rosa Luxemburg understood something that was quite decisive, with catastrophic consequences for the future of Soviet-style socialism.
The consequence is not that I see parliamentary democracy as the nec plus ultra or the alpha and omega of the democratic idea. The attempts I have made, along with others, to give some content to the idea of a radical democracy, in my collection on Equaliberty, for example, lead me to think that there are democratic forms more advanced than representation or parliamentarism. It is also likely that their mutual relationship should be seen in a dynamic, and therefore inevitably conflictual, way, as a kind of complementarity or alternance, rather than as the pure and simple abolition of one form for the benefit of the other. This seems to me to be indicated by the many insurrectional movements calling for participatory democracy that are emerging at the moment throughout the world, and are translating the vitality of the ideals of emancipation by adding new content to these.
Some Marxist thinkers such as Lucien Sève insist on separating socialism and communism with a view to critically overcoming the historical impasses of this ‘actually existing socialism’. What do you think of this?
I am very happy that discussions on communism are more lively and more alive than ever. I try to take part in these. The basis of my position is not that we have to choose. Some of our contemporaries – including Lucien Sève, who is the representative of a great tradition, with many elements that we have share – have drawn from all this history the lesson that we must bury the category of socialism. They propose to go back to a kind of original purity of the idea of communism and, at the same time, they try to show that the idea of communism in this form of a radical alternative to the world of private property and the state (what some call the ‘common’, to avoid embarrassing historical connotations) is somehow required by the contradictions of the absolute capitalism in which we live today.
This is not very different, verbally at least, from what Toni Negri says on his side or from what Althusser explained in some of the last texts of his life, a convergence that I find impressive. I agree with the idea that we need to think in terms of radical alternatives, but I also tend to think that we still need both categories of communism and socialism. On condition, of course, that we break completely with the evolutionary perspective in which classical Marxism had inscribed these: first, the seizure of political power; second, economic and social transition… It is this ‘stage-ist’ and at the same time statist schema that has been completely invalidated by history.
What is not invalidated is the idea of long-term transition or confrontation between social, political and cultural forces that embody radically alternative world-views. And the reality of the environmental catastrophe we have now entered, with no possible return back, highlights all the more the importance and urgency of forging and implementing, inventing systems of government and programmes for social transition that inevitably confront us with the fact that, over a very long period of time, we will be dealing with conflicts between antagonistic forces, with phases of compromise, more or less solid alliances and increasingly profound reforms.
In the last text of my collection, hypothetically entitled ‘For a Socialism of the 21st Century: Regulations, Insurgencies, Utopias’, what I try to do is to clarify the idea of a socialist transformation whose content would be completely rethought on the basis of the lessons of history and the immediate emergency. One might therefore think that, under these conditions, I am saying goodbye not to socialism, like Toni Negri, but to communism. But I believe that the reality is quite the opposite. I am convinced, in fact, that there will be no socialist transition or programme of any kind, particularly ecological socialism, which is the only conceivable one today, if there are not communists, under many different names moreover, who provide this transition and this struggle with the energy, the capacity for invention, imagination and utopia, but also the revolutionary radicalism that it needs. Communism is not a form of property or a mode of production, it is an active and diverse collective subjectivity.
The alternative to the old patterns is not to say: let’s forget socialism and try to achieve communism right away in today’s world. Nor is it the alternative of saying: let’s put off communism to a distant, even inaccessible ideal. It is that which consists in saying: more than ever we need masses of communists, intellectuals and others, if we want something like an alternative to capitalism to find its reality in the world we live in. That is why I quote the formula of another ‘deviationist’ in our tradition, Eduard Bernstein, that ‘the final goal is nothing, the movement is everything’ – a formula that actually comes from Marx.
This interview first appeared in L’Humanité, 21 February 2020
* Histoire interminable. D’un siècle l’autre. Écrits I, and Passions du concept. Épistémologie, théologie et politique. Écrits II (La Découverte, 2020).
Under capitalism, life is work and work is life. To imagine a world beyond it is sheer blasphemy. Yet, a growing number of titles over the past decade have begun to do just that. They have promised, at the very least, a more critical analysis of work. Capitalism, they say, is in an intractable crisis: the crisis of work. The goal now is not simply the liberation of labour but, rather, the liberation from labour. Among these titles, we can now include Alastair Hemmens’ The Critique of Work in Modern French Thought: From Charles Fourier to Guy Debord. Hemmens differs in many respects from other recent critiques of work. He avoids techno-utopian speculation and in the few moments universal basic income is mentioned, it is given short shrift. Furthermore, the tradition of French anti-work theory he surveys – Fourier, Lafargue, Breton and Debord – has, in large part, been neglected or only superficially referenced within contemporary critiques of work (4). Whilst Hemmens provides an insightful and often unique approach to his analysis of French anti-work theory, he is concerned primarily with one single problem: how might we take the critique of work literally? (14).
Hemmens finds the resources for such a critique in the Marxian tradition of Wertkritik and the ‘critique of value’ school ‘associated with the German-language journals Krisis and Exit!’ (Ibid). As such, this book serves as a useful introduction to a tradition that remains relatively obscure to English readers. Drawing on the work of critical theorist Robert Kurz, the central philosophical claim of the book is ‘that there are really only two possible ways of understanding and approaching the critique of work’ (6). Hemmens dubs one approach the ‘phenomenological mode of analysis’ (Ibid) and the other as the ‘categorical critique of work’ (194). The former, following Kurz’s distinction, is indebted to the ‘exoteric’ reading of Marx and the latter to the ‘esoteric’ reading. The clear advantage of this distinction is that it does not search in vain for a ‘true’ Marx who just so happens to lend legitimacy to one’s own position, instead arguing that aspects of ‘both approaches can be found’ (6) within his work. A potential disadvantage, nevertheless, is that through installing this opposition one risks foreclosing thinking through Marx’s apparent contradictions.
In the ‘exoteric’ side of his work, Marx is said to be the ‘political economist par excellence’ who adopts a ‘progressivist and positivistic conception of labour and the development of productive forces from bourgeois idealism’ (9). I will not go into a detailed dispute here on whether this really is an accurate description of any side of Marx’s work. Suffice to say, the sense in which Marx acted as the ‘political economist par excellence’ is extremely dubious to me. Nevertheless, ‘exoteric’ Marxism – understood more broadly as a tradition in which ‘Marx is believed to have ‘corrected’ political economy by revealing the ‘theft’ of the full value of the workers’ labour that is carried out by the capitalist class’ (13) – is certainly a useful description of long-standing misinterpretations. As Hemmens rightly argues, such a description wrongfully envisages capitalism ‘to be primarily a system of personal domination’ (Ibid). Hemmens contends that ‘exoteric’ Marxism results in a phenomenological critique of work which proceeds on the basis of ‘an empirical, historical, ethical and moral critical analysis’ (6). Work as such is assumed to be unproblematic but ‘might become so under certain conditions’ (Ibid). Because an implicitly positivistic analysis begins from a critique of empirically perceived objects, ‘“work” per se could never be the object of critique, only specific phenomena that fall under its rubric’ (7).
For the literal critique of work, Hemmens turns to ‘esoteric’ Marxism, and the ‘critique of value’, in order to demonstrate the superiority of a categorical critique of work. As Hemmens puts it, labour is ‘not a neutral fact of all social life […] rather it is a historically specific social form that establishes the grounds for an impersonal, subjectless, and abstract domination that gives a historical “directionally dynamic” character to phenomenological reality’ (16). Work as a general category for all ‘abstract expenditure of human energy’ (194) is only understandable, Hemmens argues, from within societies held under the sway of the value-form. From the perspective of a categorical critique of work, the phenomenological analysis is limited insomuch as it cannot contend with work and labour as real abstraction. Similarly, Hemmens argues, it is beset with the ‘philosophical baggage’ (7) of much modern thought. The dizzying array of baggage here includes but is not limited to: positivism and empiricism, enlightenment theories of the subject, Cartesian dualism, the proletariat as capitalism’s gravediggers, ‘homo-faber’ as human nature, and Marx’s concept of ‘species-being’. Having foregrounded this distinction between two differing possible critiques of work, Hemmens deploys it as means to assess the contemporary relevance of the French anti-work theorists. As he states clearly, they are relevant today because ‘they contain, to a greater or lesser degree, elements of a ‘categorical’ critique of labour’ (33). It is a cruel irony that the work of these French thinkers remains relevant only insomuch as it lives up to the work of a German critical theorist, i.e. Robert Kurz. This is not a criticism, we can agree that this is almost always the way one should assess French philosophy. Perhaps this reviewer differs on which German we should choose.
Throughout his readings of Fourier, Lafargue, Breton and Debord, Hemmens gives a clear and accessible account of the importance of their anti-work sentiments to their overall projects. He sheds new light on the centrality of this aspect of their work and in so doing provides a compelling re-assessment of their respective projects. Fourier is given due credit for his influence on the tradition of anti-work French thought, with Breton having been a ‘great reader’ of his (107). Furthermore, Hemmens does not rehearse the now well-worn Marxist criticisms of Fourier as too ‘unscientific’, ‘utopian’, etc. (72). Rather, he attempts to demonstrate how Fourier’s critiques of work, which views modern work as ‘intrinsically at odds with human being and […] an affront to the very order of the universe’ (47), are undermined by his commitment that any utopian society would aim ‘to realise the most rational and utilitarian expenditure of the energy contained in the social body’ (71). A further critique made, in which the influence of Moishe Postone is evident, notes how Fourier ‘is one of the forerunners of modern Antisemitism’ (65). Hemmens points to Fourier’s uncritical embrace of ‘the idea of the separation of society into “productive” and “unproductive” persons’ (65) and his analysis of how this contributes to Antisemitic discourse is a timely intervention at a moment when the rise of a far-right politics of resentment coincides with the ‘crisis of work’. Of all the theorists assessed, there is no doubt that Fourier, though an important interlocutor for his successors, contributes the least to a critique of the category of labour as such (47).
Lafargue, Breton and Debord are seen to be somewhat more successful in their contributions to a categorical critique. Though, at times, they too are let down, in Hemmens’ opinion, by an uncritical reification of capitalism’s ‘social ontology of labour’ (14). Hemmens, nonetheless, highlights the aspects of their work which could prove fruitful for contemporary critiques of work. Lafargue’s position that ‘“work”, and not “God”,’ is the ‘true object of worship in contemporary society’ (86), is a powerful rejoinder to those who see capitalism as a purely secular force. Elsewhere, Debord’s characterisation of the spectacle as ‘nothing other than the economy developing itself for itself’ (145) chimes with the ‘critique of value’ and the acknowledgement that under the domination of the value-form ‘an impersonal, abstract and quantitative social form organises society and not the human beings themselves’ (144). So far, so good. It is in Hemmens’ treatment of Breton and the surrealists, however, where the philosophical shortcomings are most evident. To be clear, this is not to say that Hemmens does a bad job of detailing Breton’s anti-work commitments. It is Hemmens’ seduction by surrealist fantasies with which we might take issue. In my view, this is what constitutes the fundamental shortcoming of the whole book.
Hemmens shares the surrealist desire to overcome both the ‘vision of mankind as homo faber’ and the ‘very distinction between subject and object’ (131). To paraphrase André Gorz, farewell to the species-being! When Hemmens does criticise Breton – this is characteristic of his criticism of Fourier, Lafargue, Debord and Marx too – it is on the basis that he ‘accepts the notion that labour is a material necessity’ (119). Hemmens argues that this refers to a ‘broad, and meaningless, definition of labour as the fact that people have to feed, clothe and shelter themselves’ (Ibid). Underlying Hemmens’ anti-positivist critique of labour lies a dogmatic positivism. Against mediation, against concrete universality, against generalisation per se, Hemmens prefers the minutia of particularity and immediacy. Humans are material, living beings. That people have to ‘feed, clothe and shelter themselves’ implies that the human has needs regardless of the specific historical and social mediation of those needs. What Hemmens misses is that the very concept of need introduces a split into the subject and the split between subject and object. A minimal definition of the human as a socially labouring, producing and consuming animal is not necessarily an unwelcome inheritance from ‘Enlightenment philosophy’ (8), nor a reflection of the value-form’s domination; it is the basis on which Marxist critique stands. By taking the critique of work to its limits, Hemmens has demonstrated, in my view at least, the limits of the critique of work.