Marxism without Marxists

Reading over some of my old work on the theme of divine and revolutionary violence in Žižek today it struck me how odd it is that although his discussion of these themes relies very heavily on Benjamin’s Critique of Violence, whose discussion of the different forms of violence revolves around the different forms of strike and the different types of state repression of strikes, nowhere in Žižek’s own work does he mention the strike as a form of political action. Probably the closest he comes is in his repeated invocation of Bartleby the Scrivener’s one-man strike which, despite Žižek’s repeated appeal to its political efficacy, results not in any general transformation of Bartleby’s workplace but simply the reordering of precisely the same system in a different location – that is to say, Bartleby fails to effect any meaningful change because while he as an individual worker in an individual office refuses to work or to leave the building, there remain plenty of other workers and other offices. The only form of collective action Žižek seems able to imagine is totally spontaneous and unorganised  – the fictional refusal of the characters in Saramago’s Seeing to fill out their ballots, various riots which always, on Žižek’s reading, emerge out of nowhere – or organised around a single charismatic leader – here Gandhi is one of Žižek’s favoured examples, and again he focuses on classically liberal terrain, ‘consumer boycotts’. When he writes about the organised political action of the demonstrations in Ferguson following the death of Michael Brown he can’t recognise the role of collective organising at work, describing them in the face of evidence to the contrary as ‘“irrational” violent demonstrations with no concrete programmatic demands, sustained by just a vague call for justice’, and comparing them to divine violence in Benjamin’s sense as ‘means without ends, not part of a long-term strategy’ – suggesting that he doesn’t really understand the idea of the general strike which is so central to Benjamin’s discussion. As his use of Benjamin indicates, it’s clearly not that Žižek doesn’t read the work of actually existing Marxists, though he’s much less interested in Marxists in general than he is in Lacanians and Hegelians. But it’s a striking lacuna in his work, and more generally indicative of his limitations as a political theorist, especially of his inability to imagine the use of deliberate and organised collective action.

It’s not hypocritical for a Marxist to participate in capitalism

[Note: This post is prompted by nothing in particular. I just want to have it on hand so as to save me some typing when the next person cleverly diagnoses the hypocrisy of a Marxist who participates in capitalism.]

The Marxist critique of capitalism is that it is a totalizing system that forces everyone to participate in it. Hence it is not hypocritical for a Marxist to participate in that system while working toward a revolutionary change in the mode of production.

Just the opposite: it would be profoundly hypocritical for a Marxist to presume that they could individually “opt out” of capitalism or preserve themselves from complicity with the exploitation and destruction the capitalist system produces. That would mean buying into the capitalist illusion that everything is ultimately determined by individual choices.

Yes, it is possible to be more or less exploitative, more or less complicit with the very worst — but charging money for Marxist books, for instance, is not hypocritical. If you think it is, then you simply do not understand Marxist theory, full stop.

Engels and Evolution

It is no great insight to point towards Engel’s admiration of Darwin and his desire to place his and Marx’s theory in the vein of scientific advance: “Just as Darwin discovered the law of development of organic nature, so Marx discovered the law of development of human history.” However, I am curious about how this analogy functions for good ol’ Friedrich. In Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Engels outlines how his scientific aspirations (“To make a science of socialism, it had to first be placed upon a real basis”) run up against dialectical materialism’s philosophical precursor: Hegelianism. After recognizing the “great merit” of Hegel and his revival of dialectics, Engels argues that Hegelianism is Darwinian, and vice versa. “Nature works dialectically and not metaphysically.” Nevertheless and as we all know–Hegel’s fatal flaw–he’s an idealist. “To him the thoughts within the brain were not the more or less abstract pictures of actual things and processes, but, conversely, things and their evolution were only the realised pictures of the “Idea,” existing somewhere from eternity before the world was.” But we, dialectical materialists, know that all past history is the history of class struggles. Bring on the real!

With Marx, we are told, “idealism was driven from its last refuge, the philosophy of history.” He goes on, “Socialism was no longer an accidental discovery of this or that ingenious brain, but the necessary outcome of the struggle between two historically developed classes–the proletariat and the bourgeoisie” (emphasis mine). History is and always has been driven by class struggle, but Marx showed us that the scientific outcome of this history, the evolutionary leap upon which we (in 1880) are surely upon the precipice, is communism. At this point, with all the talk of inevitability, I’m starting to wonder why I’m spending so much time studying this stuff. Continue reading “Engels and Evolution”

Review of Jacob Taubes’ Occidental Eschatology and From Cult to Culture

Below is a long review of two of Jacob Taubes’ recently (relatively) translated works. This was originally written for a journal, but I was not able to speak to the ideological commitments of the journal and so it has languished as they’ve waited for me to correct it. At some point I realized I would never really be able to meet their requests for a variety of reasons and so decided to pull it so they might find a more suitable reviewer. I’m not sure those who are familiar with Taubes or Continental philosophy of religion will find anything new, but since I had spent some time on this (though years ago now) I am posting it here for those who might be interested.

Review of Jacob Taubes, Occidental Eschatology, trans. David Ratmoko (Stanford UP, 2009) and From Cult to Culture: Fragments Toward a Critique of Historical Reason, eds. Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert and Amir Engel (Stanford UP, 2010).

Anthony Paul Smith (Spring, 2012)

During the mid-point of the Bush-Blair years two intellectual inquiries rose to prominence: questions relating to sovereignty, focused around a renewal of interest in the work of German far-right jurist Carl Schmitt, and questions relating to the so-called “return of religion”, which resulted in a number of para-Marxist engagements with the thought of the Christian apostle Paul. What drove both of these trends from being simply passing academic fancy to something actually reflective of live questions operative within cultural consciousness was their connection to the practice of sovereignty undertaken by the Bush regime and the seeming return of religion into the public sphere, especially in the form of resurgent fundamentalisms vying for political power. These two lines of thought came together in 2004 with the publication of Jacob Taubes’ The Political Theology of Paul in English-translation, which was originally published posthumously in German in 1993 but originally delivered as lectures in 1987. The seminar from which the book comes was to be Taubes last and during its preparation and delivery he was suffering from the final stages of an advanced form of cancer. According to Aleida Assman, the editor of the lectures, Taubes could not stand “even for a moment” during the seminar and delivered his lectures lying down in great pain. This book joined other left-wing philosophical readings of Paul’s writings, like Giorgio Agamben’s The Time That Remains: A Commentary on the Letter to the Romans, Alain Badiou’s Saint Paul: The Foundations of Universalism, Slavoj Zizek’s own engagements in The Ticklish Subject and The Puppet and the Dwarf, and the less well-known engagement by Jean-François Lyotard in The Hyphen: Between Judaism and Christianity. While there are a number of important theoretical differences at work in these books, though perhaps more minimal with regard to Agamben’s text due in part to shared sources (primarily their working with Benjamin’s theory of time), the crucial difference is that Taubes understood his reading of Paul to be the culmination of his intellectual work. His commitment to give the lectures reveals that Taubes’ intellectual work was more than just an academic interest, but a real struggle with themes and concepts that Taubes believed were of ultimate concern for Occidental history. In the writings of Paul, specifically his “Letter to the Romans”, Taubes finds within Paul, essentially a thinker whose ideas had been completely absorbed into the World (that is, the State, the Church, and all other forms of authority and law), a radical example of the living out of the experience of apocalyptic temporality, an experience that Taubes claims is to be expressed in the philosophical and theological thinking of all true revolutionary moments in history. Continue reading “Review of Jacob Taubes’ Occidental Eschatology and From Cult to Culture

revisiting Cartographies of the Absolute: a lecture by Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kinkle

What must a map of the world depict?  What aesthetic forms can “map” late capitalism, critically disclosing its dynamics and its totalizations?  What is the difference, aesthetically and politically, between a representation of capital and a representation of class antagonism?
InterCcECT is delighted to partner with Gallery 400 for a special lecture by visiting scholars Alberto Toscano and Jeff Kinkle, authors of Cartographies of the Absolute.  Revisiting and revising the themes in their book, Toscano & Kinkle will discuss arts of capitalism and arts of the state.

May we suggest Cartographies in the Los Angeles Review of Books?

Wednesday 2 September, 6:00pm
Gallery 400 Lecture Room
400 S Peoria St

Two notes on calling oneself a Marxist


There is also a sort of game that I play with this. I often quote concepts, texts and phrases from Marx, but without feeling obliged to add the authenticating label of a footnote with a laudatory phrase to accompany the quotation. As long as one does that, one is regarded as someone who knows and reveres Marx, and will be suitably honoured in the so-called Marxist journals. But I quote Marx without saying so, without quotation marks, and because people are incapable of recognizing Marx’s texts I am thought to be someone who doesn’t quote Marx.


I hear people saying ‘You picked a good time to salute Marx!’ Or else: ‘It’s about time!’ ‘Why are you so late?’ I believe in the political virtue of the contretemps. And if a contretemps does not have the good luck, a more or less calculated luck, to come just in time, then the inopportuneness of a strategy (political or other) may still bear witness, precisely, to justice, bear witness, at least, to the justice which is demanded and about which we were saying a moment ago that it must be disadjusted, irreducible to exactness [justesse] and to law. But that is not the decisive motivation here and we need finally to break with the simplism of these slogans. What is certain is that I am not a Marxist, as someone said a long time ago, let us recall, in a witticism reported by Engels. Must we still cite Marx as an authority in order to say “I am not a Marxist”? What is the distinguishing trait of a Marxist statement? And who can still say “I am a Marxist”?

‘Even Lenin’: In the Vanguard of Accelerationism

I am, as usual, late to the accelerationist party (unlike Dan Barber and Josh Ramey, to whom I am clearly indebted here). Reading the Accelerationist Manifesto properly for the first time recently, I was struck by something. ‘Even Lenin’, we are told, supported the idea that socialism depends upon the technological transformations made possible by capitalism.

‘Even Lenin’ makes it sound as if the great Bolshevik were an unlikely ally. Accelerationism is, after all, positioned as breaking with the Luddite shibboleths of the established left. And yet one of the things which stands out from the manifesto is its seeming commitment to the greatest of all far left shibboleths: vanguardism

Social movements – no doubt Occupy is in the crosshairs here – are dismissed for their fetishisation of democracy-as-process, horizontal organisation, communal immediacy and localism. Instead, we are told that ‘Secrecy, ver­tic­ality, and ex­clu­sion all have their place as well in ef­fective polit­ical ac­tion (though not, of course, an ex­clusive one)’. A left intellectual infrastructure is called for, and the means for this will be a left version of the neoliberal Mont Pelerin Society, ‘tasked with cre­ating a new ideo­logy, eco­nomic and so­cial models, and a vision of the good to re­place and sur­pass the ema­ci­ated ideals that rule our world today.’

For what it is worth, I think the manifesto is right on the money in identifying the crucial factor of the hegemony of neoliberalism and the evident failure of the left to respond. It is also surely correct to argue against a fetishisation of traditional forms of protest, or an aversion to technological change. Why, though, is it apparently prepared to endorse a tactic which has been such self-perpetuating disaster for large parts of the radical left?

Let me give an example close to (my) home. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in the UK is a Trotsykite organization of a few thousand members, but it has frequently had a higher profile and impact in left politics and movements than its size would suggest. Over the last few years it has been in turmoil, because of the way it handled allegations of rape and sexual harassment leveled at a senior party member.

This is not the place to go into detail about that case, which is well documented elsewhere. Suffice to say that, for many of us, it exposed the utter failure of a certain kind of politics, in which the ‘ideology’ and ‘vision’ came from the centre, from a Central Committee elected on a slate system which was hugely difficult to budge. As a corollary, the party was woefully ill equipped to take on the lessons of feminism and social movements other than through attempts to co-opt and re-educate them through front organisations.

At this point, it is important to acknowledge that the Manifesto endorses a pluralism of organisations and methods, and a spirit of experimentalism on the left. In an interview, Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek have cited networks such as Plan C alongside feminist initiatives around basic income as essentially working along the right lines. So I am not trying to crudely tarnish accelerationism with the misogyny and bullying found in various far left sects.

However, I become concerned when it is implied that a central hub can be constructed to filter and connect these ideas and practices, since that is just what Central Committees imagine themselves to be doing (even if what is envisaged is much smarter and better funded than a small far left party). And I am especially disturbed by the rather easy characterisation of social movements as obsessed with ‘internal direct-​democratic process and affective self-​valorisation’ as opposed to which ‘Real democracy must be defined by its goal — collective self-​mastery’. How can we simply leave ‘democracy-as-process’ behind, if chauvinistic sectarianism and authoritarian centralism are to be avoided?  (as a footnote: during the SWP crisis, branch meetings were addressed by members of the Central Committee, and representatives of an opposition faction. The Committee member was allowed 30 minutes contribution, the opposition was allowed 5-8 minutes. The justification was that the Committee member was the one who could set the debate in its ‘proper political context’. ‘Democratic centralism’ in action – and this is only one of the most benign examples).

Process matters: if the process of revolution is one of instrumentalising democracy and our desires, then it kills the very thing it longs for. Accelerationism’s recognition of the need for experiment augurs well here, but it should lead to a further realisation: particular shared experiences of non-capitalist space and community matter. They may be local and ephemeral, but it does not follow that they are tied to ‘localism’ or that they are ‘merely’ ephemeral when set alongside ideas of reason. In fact, I’d argue these experiences are indispensable to rationality as a form of embodied discernment.

There is no politics without affect. The manifesto itself sees the need for ‘affectively invigorating’ visions of a transhumanist future. But the notion of constructing affects is fraught with danger, not least the production of future legions of self-intoxicated militants and dictatorial organisers, whose principal affect to date has been one of joyless immersion in sacrifice. Please spare us from the heroic vanguard, speeding ahead to save us from the future they have already grasped.