On Marx’s Name and its Exorcists

All times I have enjoy’d
Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone, on shore, and when
Thro’ scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea: I am become a name;
For always roaming with a hungry heart
Much have I seen and known; cities of men
And manners, climates, councils, governments,
Myself not least, but honour’d of them all;
And drunk delight of battle with my peers,
Far on the ringing plains of windy Troy.
I am a part of all that I have met;

-Tennyson, “Ulysses”


The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.

-Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte


After the financial crisis, however, it seemed like capitalists had flunked a test they had themselves designed. Marxism might have failed as a political project, but the conditions were set for its recovery as critique, both because of where it diverged from the consensus and what it affirmed. It was easy to swap one kind of economism for another. Like a photographic negative, the Marxist critique took what was light in the capitalist worldview and made it dark. The outlines of the picture were the same, but the shadings reversed. The resulting image was arresting—definitely worth putting on Instagram.

-Timothy Shenk, “Thomas Piketty and Millenial Marxists on the Scourge of Inequality”

As a teenager I was always struck by the ambiguity of Ulysses’ “name” that I have quoted here. At first glance Ulysses’ statement “I am become a name” appears to be a part of his boasting of his worldliness – his person and his exploits are so grand that he is recognized by everyone as a “big name.” However we can also read this passage in the opposite sense. Ulysses is old and tired, nothing more than a “name” that has faded from the time of his younger adventures and become a degenerate copy of his younger self. In fact the pathos of the poem arises from the distance between these two different senses of what Ulysses is. Tennyson’s poem powerfully elicits a sense of finitude, loss, nostalgia, and masculinity, but it also points to how we are a part of language and how it is a part of us. More specifically it speaks to the distance between ourselves as “empirically” existing finite creatures of flesh and blood and ourselves as figures existing in the medium of language. One of the strange characteristics of our existence is how these two selves do not quite fit together. It is a commonplace of fiction about celebrity culture that celebrities must struggle mightily to control and not be undone by the simultaneously terrifying  and thrilling power of their names as “stars,” and this is an endless source of fascination for those caught up in the world of the tabloids. To a lesser extent it is a preoccupation of all of us in an age of social networks and omnipresent surveillance, in some sense abolishing the anonymity that grew up with the end of village life and mass migration to the cities in the 19th century. However the phenomenon that Tennyson points to is not quite that of stardom (Which of course he was personally familiar with in its early form) nor that of common personal reputation. He is instead pointing to the sort of names that are recognized by history as agents. These personages are agents in the sense that they are recognized as influencing their immediate historical situation, but more importantly they are agents in the sense that they hold an influence over the present moment through their presence in our conceptual world. Ulysses speaks to us at an imagined moment of parting between himself as a living person of flesh and blood and himself as a disembodied “name” possessing continuing power and agency in its linguistic and conceptual presence. These are the “spirits of the past” that Marx invokes in the Eighteenth Brumaire and although they are often not individuals (The Ancient Romans), they often are (Napoleon).

The fact that Marx’s “specter” continues to haunt us even after the fall of the USSR was well explored and established by Derrida in his Specters of Marx and I do not intend to add much more to the topic in this article other than to note that Marx’s “name” has recently once again become a point of great controversy.  As Shenk notes, Marxism has undergone a “[a] small but serious…renaissance” since the 2007 crisis began because Marx continues to exist for us as a “negative” of capitalism.  Speak the word “capitalism” and you will find Marx’s specter there protesting its continuation. He remains a part of our language, or “tradition” as Marx himself put it. Shenk, for his part, is part of that group of intellectuals who want to see this “nightmare” exorcised from our presence. Shenk’s objection to the force of the Marxist critique is that “Capitalism did not create socialism; socialists invented capitalism” – it was a narrow totalizing concept invented by the socialists, and especially Marxists, that they could use to tar all their opponents with.  In Shenk’s view then, Marx’s name is an obstacle to clear thought and progress.  The discourse of socialism and capitalism is an incestous little language game that weighs like a nightmare on our minds and obscures the truth. The neoliberals were just as entrapped in the Marxist game as the Marxists originally were and all we have been experiencing is a futile series of reversals of these related “economistic” terms. It is unquestionably the case that neoliberal thought is strongly conditioned by Marxist thought, and that the Marxist thought of today is in turn strongly conditioned by that of neoliberalism, however it seems to me that Shenk misses the point when he describes the birth of “capitalism.” Shenk’s objection is that the term that socialists have critiqued was in fact posited by the socialists themselves and therefore a kind of vicious and dogmatic solipcism, but the origins of critique can be seen in a different way. As Zizek writes in his recent book Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism:

…one should not confuse dogma with the immediate pre-reflexive acceptance of an attitude. Medieval Christians were not ‘dogmatic’ (just as it is senseless to say that the ancient Greeks ‘dogmatically’ believed in Zeus and other Olympian divinities: they were simply part of their life world ), they become ‘dogmatic’ only when modern Reason started to doubt religious truths. A ‘dogmatic’ stance is always already mediated by its opposite, and this is also why contemporary fundamentalism really is ‘dogmatic’: it clings to its articles of faith against the threat of modern secular rationalism. In short, ‘dogma’ is always already the result of the decomposition of a substantial organic Whole (382).

From this point of view, it is only the critic that can give a name to the object of criticism. The critical negation is what rendered capitalism “in-itself” into capitalism “for-itself” as a entity “dogmatically” opposed to the socialist criticism. This dogmatism should be familiar to any socialist who has met the standard defenses of capitalism (The argument from human nature, the argument from information, etc…) which all amount to the assertion that “There Is No Alternative.” It is not that social truths are there to be discovered as self-evident facts and are obscured by dogmatism, but that they appear to us as truths through their own negation. Shenk’s objection to Marxism then is essentially its own dogmatic position that “There is No Alternative to Our Alternative”, that all other critiques of capitalism are insufficiently radical. Shenk’s complaint is not new – it is exactly the sort of complaint Marx himself made when he called for the poetry of the future to replace the poetry of the past. What is strange about the present moment is that the fall of the USSR was proceeded by the development of “Post-Marxism” and “Third Wayism” which raised just these sort of objections and yet this Post-Marxist moment was followed by the crisis of 2007 which revealed its own blindness to exactly the fundamental questions that Marx had posed. There is therefore a kind of intellectual superposition we are confronted with where it is unclear who occupies the dogmatic position and who occupies the critical position. Is the Marxist criticism of the Post-Marxist and neoliberal dogma of “the new economy” a dogmatic or a critical one? It has been my conviction that it is only through a committed Marxist criticism of the prior dogma that we can arrive at a new critical moment of rupture. It has been my wager that attacking the dogmas of the 1990s with Marxist criticisms in a considered and engaged would allow for the negation of both in the form of a new point of view. In the aftermath of the crisis Marx’s name was on everyone’s lips. We have to remain faithful to that memory of the terrifying power of the alien force of capital in order to challenge the thought that was blind to its growth.

Opposed to this view is Jonathan Sperber’s Karl Marx: A Nineteeth Century Life which attempts to exorcise the name of Marx through a collection of empirical and biographical facts. Sperber wants to deny the “specter” of Marx by asserting that he was in fact just a person of flesh and blood, and engaged in the immediate commitments of his time. This is a Marx who was a committed political activist but never wrote the abstract theories found in Capital. And yet Marx’s thought did in fact rise to this level of abstraction and his name is still with us today influencing our way of thinking. Sperber’s protestations to the contrary betray their own futility. Every time he points to Marx the man he cannot help but invoke Marx’s name.

Marx’s name also haunts the current hubbub surrounding Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Every review of the book points to its large accumulations of data on inequality to explain its current sensation, yet these reviews also invariably point to its title and to its preoccupation with the concept of capital and its contradictions, which is genetically linked to the Marxist project – a point which Piketty protests, but which the books own title betrays. Before the book was even published in English the controversy over inequality was well underway, engendered by the resurgence of criticisms of capitalism brought about by the crisis. Yet what Piketty has done is allowed for these criticisms to be voiced without any excessive risk of being contaminated by the Marxist label. Piketty’s faith in his data acts as a shield separating him and his supporters from association with the communist project. Nevertheless I believe that it is exactly this proximity-but-not-identity with the Marxist taboo that has generated such a buzz. Like Elvis’ appropriation of early R&B for white audiences, Piketty’s work allows for a consumption of the critique of capitalism at a comfortable distance.

All these denials of Marx’s name only serve to make it stronger. It is my belief that is only through an affirmation of this name that we can in fact overcome its weight on our brains.



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2 responses to “On Marx’s Name and its Exorcists

  1. Great thoughtful piece. It reminded me a little of this Joan Robinson letter in the era when she was coming to critique and appreciate Rosa Luxemburg for her in turn willingness to critique Marx: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2011/07/joan-robinsons-open-letter-from-a-keynesian-to-a-marxist-2/

    In her introduction to Luxemburg’s Accumulation of Capital, Robinson said in effect that Luxemburg was that rarest of Marxists who was willing to dispute with the master. Robinson was a left-Keynesian similar I think to Picketty but less bashful about invoking Marx’s name and views.

    Although I’m unabashedly socialist, if “you’re” a leftist, I’m most interested in “your” actual functional praxis and views and less interested in whether “you” claim to be a “Marxist” or a “Marxian” (someone please explain to me the difference). As I’ve said many times, I agree with a lot of what Marx wrote, to the extent I understand and agree with it, but it’s not the focus of my praxis and views. I just claim to be a well-meaning international ethical socialist. I’m waiting to be virtually disparaged as a “Marxist.” That would be high praise. As in Toy Story, I’ll just smile and wave.

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