Thursday 26 June 2008

Ghostly Demarcations

Ghostly Demarcations: A Symposium on Jacques Derrida's Specters of Marx, by Derrida et al (Radical Thinkers III series)

‘God is dead, Nietzsche; Nietzsche is dead, God,’ Graffito

In 1993, the French philosopher Jacques Derrida published Specters of Marx, which was quite an event. It is hard to remember now, but Derrida had a huge reputation then. The method, or school of thought he founded was called ‘deconstruction’. It was self-consciously difficult, since it revolved around ambiguity and deferring conclusions. One of Derrida’s bigger teases was his relation to the great socialist thinker, Karl Marx. As his reputation grew Derrida refused to be pinned down on his attitude to Marx, which was quite a statement in itself, since, in those politically contested times, all were expected to situate themselves in the great debate of the day, between liberalism and Marxism.

Derrida was of course quite familiar with Marxist theory, at least the dogmatic kind that was popular in the Stalin-influenced Communist Party (PCF). His friend and co-thinker Louis Althusser developed his parallel ideas (together they were called post-structuralists) in what he thought of as a development of Marxism. Indeed, the intellectual milieu Derrida moved in at the Ecole Normale Superieur and as a contributor to the journal Tel Quel, was heavily influenced by an increasingly radical outlook, that moved from official Communism to posturing Maoism.

Politically, though, Derrida’s instincts were more much conservative. As a Jew in French Algeria, Derrida had been a childhood victim of Vichy discrimination, but he was more alarmed by the nationalist independence movement, the FLN, and did his national service teaching the children of the French occupation forces (where others, like Jean Jeanson and Frantz Fanon aided the freedom fighters). Married to a Czech, he lent his authority to the Cold War campaign for East European dissidents, whose British representative was Roger Scruton and which is today claimed as a success by the CIA. His elevation to a public figure was through charming an American audience by exposing the pretensions of European ‘structuralist’ theory at a conference at the Johns Hopkins University, sponsored by the Ford Foundation. In 1968, when intellectuals like Guy Debord, Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Rudi Dutschke threw themselves into students’ and workers’ protests, Derrida retreated, expressing his fear of the mob. Though Derrida and his fellow ‘deconstructionists’ were sold as the continuation of the spirit of 1968 to gullible American students, their real relationship to those events was analogous to Stalin’s relationship to the Russian revolution, which is to say, they summarised its defeat in a philosophy that mocked the pretensions of those who wanted to change the world.

And perversely, Derrida flirted with some thinkers who were politically associated with the far right, Friedrich Nietzsche, the former Nazi collaborator Paul de Man and the card-carrying Nazi Martin Heidegger. His defence of these philosophers’ intellectual contribution was a kind of dare to leftists, to see if they could be provoked (they were too jaded to care, perhaps even a bit turned on by the Nazi chic). The essay skirting around de Man’s wartime contributions to Nazi propaganda was surely the model for Bill Clinton’s Grand Jury defence ‘it depends what you mean by “is”’. At a deeper level Derrida’s sympathy with Nietzsche and Heidegger was a wilful adoption of the obscurantist and anti-rational currents of reactionary thinking that corresponded to the anti-democratic element in right wing politics.

Early on, those who ran across Derrida understood that he was not radical, but something of a Cold War liberal. His interest in reactionary philosophers was noted by the left-wing paper l’Humanité, and later became a sticking point with the radicals at Tel Quel. Even when he gave papers in US colleges, more radical American academics winced at the quietistic implications of ideas such as those expressed in ‘The Ends of Man’, a paper he gave in New York in response to the events of 1968. For the most part, though, Americans welcomed the mocking of rationalist pretensions.

L’Humanité, still publishing today

In his rather good account of the impact of deconstruction in America, French Theory (translated from the French) Francois Cusset shows how the ground for Derrida’s success in America was already prepared by a Yankee disdain for unifying theories. Derrida blossomed in Yale University’s literature department alongside de Man, Bevis Hillier and Harold Bloom, because, even though his public face was that of austere theory, his actual message was pluralistic and jokey-cute – ideal for an academic audience that was negotiating the diverse claims of special interest groups organised around gender and race. Derrida took the deconstruction of rationalism (which meant Marxism in the French context) and reapplied it to deconstruct the American Dream, just at the point that it was disintegrating under competing demands. As Cussett shows, Derrida’s citations in journals began to rise in the US, just as they were falling off in his native France.

Derrida’s book on Marx had an impact out of proportion with its content because of the intellectual state of those radicals who counted themselves Marxists. In 1993 we (I was editor of the book reviews section of a journal called Living Marxism at the time) were frustrated with the state of things. The collapse of the official Communist states in east Europe and Russia was shown almost nightly on television screens as a popular revolution against Marxism, with joyous Poles and East Germans dancing on prostrate statues of Lenin. In the West, the Socialist parties were by the close of the 1980s the pathetic losers of election after election. The organised working class that we had hoped would be the vehicle of social change was battered and demoralised by a decade of unemployment, strike breaking and attacks on trade unions. Left wing politics was a laughing stock. So when superstar philosopher Jacques Derrida deigned to talk about the importance of Marx, much of the left was unduly flattered. We had been thrown a lifeline that might save us from obscurity, if only we would embrace his philosophy of deconstruction as a kind of ‘radicalisation’ of Marxism.

Sadly, Specters of Marx was not very good. Not as a contribution to Marxism, nor as a work of deconstruction. There is some pretentious stuff at the beginning trying to ask the question where do we stand with Marx today, which only manages to irritate Marxists with its image of Marx dead, haunting us. There is a long complaint against ‘Capitalist Triumphalism’ at the end of the Cold War, exemplified by Francis Fukuyama’s essay ‘The End of History’. There is some low level rehearsal of Marx’s categorical development of the value form and the commodity, which is supposed to show that Marx is not a dullard (which is most definitely true, so much so that Marx’s original passages leave Derrida standing in the blocks). And then there is the vague hope that there might now be a ‘new international’ which, abandoning Marx’s materialism, political programme and class politics, will counter the ascendance of the right.

Substantially, though, Derrida was out of sympathy with Marx’s project, but chose, for pragmatic reasons, to tiptoe around the areas where his differences were clearest. For Marx, ‘all science would be superfluous if the appearances of things coincided with their essence’; for Derrida, this was anathema, since his philosophy rejected the distinction between appearance and essence, as ‘metaphysics’. For Marx, the rehearsal of the alienated forms of exchange were intellectual preparation for the assertion of free subjectivity, through the class struggle; for Derrida subjectivity was precisely what was to be criticised, as he argued in ‘The Ends of Man’. But Derrida preferred not to take issue with Marx, sensing that his reputation had lost the awkward association with mass movements, and was available for incorporation into the project of deconstructing Western rationalism (an enterprise wholly at odds with Marx’s own joyful plundering of the Western canon).

Derrida himself

Ghostly Demarcations is a response to Derrida’s original book Specters of Marx, a collection of papers from some leading Marxist academics, Pierre Macherry, Antonio Negri (who went on to write the influential, though difficult, Empire), the erudite critic of post-structuralism Aijaz Ahmad, and the witty and acerbic critic Terry Eagleton and many others. The collection was first published by Verso nine years ago, and is republished here as part of the ‘Radical Thinkers’ series. Re-reading it has a certain ghoulish fascination. Today, Derrida’s work is largely forgotten outside some specialist philosophical schools, and I fear that his main contributions are just too slight to save him for prosperity (he died in 2004). Does anyone still think that we can undo ‘logocentrism’, or that we would want to?

Derrida contributed a ‘short response that has already gone on too long’ to the papers in Ghostly Demarcations, and very bad-tempered it is. Having played fast and loose in his interpretation of Marx, Derrida seems very angry that any of his respondents should be so cavalier with him. His scorn for the attempt to seek Marx’s heritage seems like bad manners after so pointedly dancing on his grave.

On the other hand, some of the Marxists represented here are very brusque. In particular Aijaz Ahmad and even more so Terry Eagleton make fun of Derrida and the pretensions of deconstruction rather effectively. After his ill-made attack on Martin Amis, it is good to be reminded just how effective a critic Eagleton can be.

Still, there is something rather less than satisfying about the defence of Marxism put up by Derrida’s respondents in Ghostly Demarcations. What the defenders of Marxism do not really face up to is the fact that Marxism as a school of thought could not really survive in the absence of a combative labour movement. Marxism, after all, strived to be the intellectual reflex of the working class movement. Ahmad’s argument that Marxism need not be hurt by the collapse of the Stalinist social system (because that was not Marxism, but a travesty of Marxism) will not do.

It was not the collapse of the Soviet bloc in the end that undermined Marxism, but the absence of combativity in the working class, most pointedly in the West, not in the East. Certainly that defeat of the working class was conditioned by the object lesson in the defeat of alternatives to capitalism. But in the end, without being attached to a dynamic challenge to capitalism, what could Marxism be – a philosophy, an ideology, an academic discipline?

Back in 1995 I reviewed Specters of Marx in Living Marxism. Living Marxism was a very interesting intellectual project. Its founders took as their starting point the proposition that the Marxist tradition was dead, that there was nothing left to defend, and that we needed to found a new Marxist tradition for our times. Reviewing Derrida’s thoughts made it clear that Marxism as such only had a future as a kind of culture of complaint. ‘The attraction of Marx for Derrida is not the case for overthrowing capitalism, but the case merely for calling it into question’, I wrote. Marxism is just ‘the rejuvenated complaints of the radical intelligentsia.’ (Living Marxism issue 75, January 1995). Sadly, that is what goes by the name of Marxism these days, a kind of moaning that is, if it were possible, even more reactionary than capitalism.

On the other hand, it is pointed that Marx’s reputation is rather good these days. In 2005 he was named the greatest philosopher ever in a Radio 4 poll, Francis Wheen’s admittedly rather trivial biography was a best-seller, while EU trade negotiator Pascal Lamy lauded Marx’s memory only last year. ‘Southey will be remembered when Shakespeare is forgotten’, joked Coleridge; on the same model we might say that ‘Derrida will be read when Marx is forgotten’. Maybe that is how it should be. After all, it was the intensity of the class struggle that made it obligatory for all kinds of third-rate ideologues to rise up on their hind legs to ‘refute’ Marx. Maybe now that it is less of a scandal, intellectuals are comfortable giving Marx his due. In academia, Marx’s insight into the historical transience of human relations is often acceded, even lauded, in specific realms of gender identity or international relations. Perhaps we should expect Marx’s reputation to settle down, so that he can take his place alongside other great thinkers, like Newton, Adam Smith, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, GWF Hegel and Darwin.

But then the name of Marxism is not that important. It is the spirit of Marx that counts: the willingness to overturn received opinion, and the ambition to overturn existing conditions. The class conflict that Marx imbued with transformatory potential is not present, but you would have to ignore the lessons of 1989-91 to imagine that things never change. On Culture Warsspiked and before that in the pages of Living Marxism, I and others have reflected on the retreat from subjective agency. But subjectivity is not wholly separate from the objective world. Yesterday’s subjective acts are today’s objective conditions. More than ever, society needs theoretical investigation, whatever we call it.

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