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You are here: Platypus /Archive for category Issue #50

Douglas La Rocca and Spencer A. Leonard

Platypus Review 50 | October 2012


On August 22, 2012, Douglas La Rocca and Spencer A. Leonard of Platypus interviewed Dick Howard, professor emeritus at Stony Brook University and the author of The Specter of Democracy: What Marx and Marxists Haven’t Understood and Why, among other books. What follows is an edited transcript of their interview.

Spencer A. Leonard: In The Development of the Marxian Dialectic (1972), you countered Louis Althusser on the question of Marx’s relationship to the Young Hegelians and, through them, to German Idealism as a whole. And you specifically instanced Lukács as a crucial forbearer in arguing that

[T]he dialectic is the key to Marx’s position—his theory and his practice… dialectical philosophy is the only kind that can break the monotony of word games and historical or philological research [typical of philosophy departments at the time], and the only one whose method does not, by its very nature, condemn it to be a defense of the established order.[1]

What at that time demanded the sort of return to Marx’s dialectic that you undertook? How do you see your work as fitting in with the larger New Left “return to Marx”?

Dick Howard: First of all, there was really no “Marx” to return to in America. There was only a Communism that had become completely irrelevant. That explains the subtitle of The Development of the Marxian Dialectic: “from philosophy to political economy.” What I wanted to figure out was how Marx started as a critical philosopher but ended up doing political economy. To see why I asked this question you have to remember the climate of the time. The 1844 Manuscripts were not translated into English until 1959 by Martin Milligan and, then, more influentially in 1963 by Tom Bottomore. These writings brought out things that were new, particularly with regard to the canonical Marx. Then, there is the concern with political economy: When I arrived in Europe as a graduate student, I discovered Althusser, as you mentioned. My first impression of Althusser, particularly of his For Marx, was astonishment. His idea that Marx discovers through his critique of political economy a “new continent” could not help but fascinate. I actually made an appointment to see Althusser at the École Normale because I wanted to attend his seminars. It was one of the strangest conversations I've ever had—I talked, he listened, he said nothing. I talked some more, he listened, yet still he said nothing. Finally I stumbled out of there, and he said, “Well, of course, you can come to my seminar.” When I arrived on the first day, there was a sign on the door saying “Monsieur Althusser est souffrant.” He was having one of his nervous breakdowns. But, to return to the point, “how do we get from philosophy to political economy?” Althusser was a help there, but more important, as you mention, was Lukács. His 1923 collection of essays, History and Class Consciousness, was fundamental… and too hot to handle, even—it turned out—for its author. One has to remember Lukács’s background. He grew out of the fin-de-siècle Austro-Hungarian milieu, wrote on culture, wrote on literature, and then discovered Marx and Marxism, and became an active revolutionary who actually took part in the 1919 Hungarian revolution. (The same year also saw the publication of Karl Korsch's Marxism and Philosophy.) Both were condemned by the Communist International, but Lukács went to Canossa, accepted the condemnation, and took his book out of circulation. Why the condemnation? Here we come to the dialectic. Lukács developed his major thesis simply by reading Capital as a critical Hegelian. Thus he did anticipate many of the insights we find in the 1844 manuscripts, of which he was not aware. After he renounced the book, it disappeared. A few people knew it, including Maurice Merleau-Ponty, who read it early and who, in his Adventures of the Dialectic, makes Lukács, along with Weber, into the foundation stone of what he calls “Western,” i.e. non-Soviet, Marxism. Of course, Lukács had been a participant in Weber’s Heidelberg circle, along with another figure who would also become a heretical Marxist, Ernst Bloch. When I knew Bloch, when he was in his 80s or 90s, he would talk about some of the Heidelberg salons, evoking dinners at which he would wax on with a sort of mystical Marxism to which people responded, “What's he saying?” Lukács would then clearly and precisely explain the dialectical core of Bloch's mystical élan, if you will.

I also then edited The Unknown Dimension (1972), and you can see from the title that what we were looking for was something like that 1844 insight: the rediscovery of the dialectic. The subtitle of that book was “European Marxism since Lenin”: We were trying to discover a non-Leninist Marxism. When Karl Klare and I put that volume together, we clearly had the New Left in mind as the audience. We wanted to combat Leninism, the orthodoxy that was always there as a temptation. Of course the paradox was that we wanted to discover heterodox orthodoxy.

There was to be a last chapter in The Unknown Dimension that did not appear in the book. The book was to conclude on an article on the French journal Socialisme ou Barbarie. At the time I was involved in some clandestine work as a result of which I met Pierre Vidal-Naquet. Through Naquet I met Claude Lefort and Cornelius Castoriadis and they in many ways turned out to be the most important people in my development. So that was the chapter that was supposed to be written, but Lefort was busy finishing his Machiavelli book, and so on.

SL: When you returned to Marx thirty years later in 2002 in Specters of Democracy what had changed and what had not? How have the intervening decades changed Marx’s significance? What makes Marx necessary after the collapse of Marxism and the socialist workers’ movement?

DH: Let me explain using the examples of Lefort and Castoriadis. Both began as Trotskyists and formed a dissenting group within the French branch of the Fourth International around 1946-1947. Two insights became fundamental for them: first, the danger of bureaucracy or bureaucratization, including that of the most orthodox of dissenting movements, Trotskyism. To become a Trotskyist is to join a secret order. (When I was a student in Paris I went to some Trotskyist meetings, and one of the things that was drolly funny was that you had to sign in to go to these meetings, but you had to do it under a pseudonym!) But what's the basis of Trotsky's theory? We know his idea of the Stalinist deformation of the true revolution and what have you. But the basis of his picture, from a more philosophical perspective, is a vision of history. History is going to go on, the contradictions are going to ripen, and the revolution will come. The poor working classes have been deceived by Stalinism, but we Trotskyists maintain the pure faith, so that when the revolution breaks out, when the working class is suddenly struck by the “lightning of thought” as Marx says, the working class will have us there to guide them so they won’t go astray. In other words, Trotsky is what he claims to be, the true heir of Lenin. So that is Lefort and Castoriadis’s insight into bureaucratization.

Their other insight is the constant working-through of Marxism. If you follow Castoriadis' evolution, what he does is constantly turn Marx against himself. He reads Marx dialectically and, in the end, he recognizes that, well, Marx bet on history and he lost. Or, more precisely, Marx bet the future of the revolution on history. Because history did not do what it was supposed to Castoriadis decided, “If I want to remain a revolutionary, I have to give up Marxism. And for ‘Marxist’ reasons.” He abandons Marx as a Marxist.

Of the two, Lefort was more interested in the problem of bureaucratization. He and Castoriadis split around many things, but two in particular stand out, both hinging on the question of bureaucracy. Lefort's argument was that in effect, if a revolutionary party is consistent with itself, it is going to become bureaucratized. There are going to be those who know and those who are subordinate to and depend upon those who know. Eventually, there will develop a structure that is the opposite of what we might call revolutionary spontaneity. So, on the other hand, Lefort's relation to Marx is much more consistent and long-term. He wants to read Marx not as having a unique theory of history and a vision of the absolute, but rather Marx as a thinker and analyst. In this respect, think of that long chapter on the working day in Capital: It does not fit into a grand theory—certainly not into Althusser’s—precisely because it is a kind of a phenomenology of the working class. More than that, it is a dialectical phenomenology in the sense that even as the working class makes gains it becomes still more oppressed. So Lefort would constantly return to Marx. He writes one of his last essays on Marx, on the Manifesto. There he asks “Why did Marx call it the Communist Manifesto?” What is a “manifesto”? A manifesto is a making-manifest. So what's Marx saying? He's saying, “All I'm doing is let history express itself. I'm bringing it to its “rightness,” its fruition.” But in that sense, Marx has to deny his own revolutionary contribution, his indeterminacy, his vision of human freedom to make history. Lefort's saying, on the one hand there's that element of Marx, but on the other hand, because Marx is such a rigorous thinker, he's constantly doubling back on himself, reflecting on himself.

Douglas La Rocca: Would you say Marx positions himself as the Hegelian self-consciousness of the workers' movement?

DH: I would not say “Hegelian,” at least not for Lefort. I would say rather phenomenological. Marx analyzes the worker, the proletariat, and shows that they are constantly challenged by what they in fact do. In another essay that is part of a polemic between him and Sartre, Lefort writes a phenomenology of the working class. Quite literally, it raises the question of “What do you do when you work? What happens, how does consciousness find itself, lose itself, and so on?” He published it Les Temps Moderne when Merleau-Ponty, who was Lefort’s teacher, was still part of the journal. Sartre, who was in one of his Stalinist phases, wrote a reply in which he claims, “What Lefort didn't understand is that the working class can never become fully self-conscious, it needs the Party.” Lefort polemicizes back and I won't go further into the exchange; but what it shows is that the dialectic is not simply thesis-antithesis-synthesis - it keeps on going. To that degree, phenomenology, and particularly as it develops with Merleau-Ponty and Lefort, is more adequate than what could be called the “simple” dialectic. In this sense, phenomenology is an example of what Marx calls immanent critique. In his Introduction to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, Marx has a phrase that translates roughly like this: “We must make these petrified, reified relations dance by chanting before them their own melody.”[2] Note their own melody, not ours. Of course, Marx could be making a claim to know what the melody of the stones is, that the stones do not know their own melody except through the theorist. On the other hand, he could be saying as a phenomenologist, we need to look at them to see what they are saying. Not what we bring them to say, but what they are trying to say. If we think we know what they are trying to say, then we think we know better. It is like when a professor says to a student, “What you're trying to say is …” But the professor does not actually know what the student wanted to say.

DL: In Luxemburg, too, you traced a tension between a theory of and a theory for the proletariat.

DH: Luxemburg is in a sense why I turned to this series of questions. There is the volume of essays I edited of hers, in the introduction to which I made her into much more of a Trotskyist than she actually is. When I re-read it a year or two later, in preparation for writing the paper in The Marxian Legacy, I said basically that Luxemburg did not have the answers. The first part of the paper is on Luxemburg as a spontaneist - all the things about her that make her so appealing, so attractive, so alert to what's happening in the world. But then, in the second part, I asked why in her refutation of Bernstein's revisionism, her critiques of Kautsky's orthodoxy and so on, each time, in order to clinch her point, she quotes Marx as if it were sacred text. And so I asked, how could she be, at the same time, the most spontaneist and the most orthodox of Marxists? I just tried to pose this problem. Before publishing, I delivered it at a conference of Luxemburgists, where criticizing orthodoxy was verboten. On the third day of the conference, incidentally, the coup d'état in Chile against Allende took place.

SL: In preface to the The Unknown Dimension, you nod to the formative role played by the Civil Rights Movement in the formation of the New Left, mentioning specifically the Montgomery Bus Boycott and SNCC’s agitations in the South. This is before you go on to mention May 1968, “the indomitable people of Vietnam,” and the women’s movement. Elsewhere in your work, when speaking of your experience and travels in Europe in the late 1960s, you relate your feeling upon returning to the U.S. that the New Left here was or had become “parochial.” What was the significance of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement to the New Left internationally and what were the limitations in how Americans (and Europeans) recognized and practiced internationalism in the early 1960s? How did the centrality of opposition to the Vietnam War figure? Does the current preoccupation with “cosmopolitanism” and human rights represent a legacy of or a falling off from New Left internationalism?

DH: As for the “indomitable people of Vietnam,” there are lots of things I have written that appear to play to the prejudices of my intended audience, the Left. There are lots of naïve assertions. One might call them utopian, but they show little real understanding of the world.

One of the first articles I published was in 1966 in the SDS journal, New Left Notes. The title was “The Reactionary Radicals.” I was asking about some of our dogmas. Without claiming that I somehow anticipated something, there was always a certain suspicion, a certain fear, of what you call here “parochialism.” “Reactionary radicals” were, if you really want to take that phrase seriously, fascists. I wasn't saying that SDS was fascist, but, perhaps, “parochial” fits here.

When I came back from Paris to the states, SDS was in its death throes. I was in Austin at the convention where the break-up began to take place. The Progressive Labor Party was spouting its slogans, Maoism was emerging, and the like. There was this idea that we students had to become workers. We were to deny our own spontaneity, our own judgment. We wanted truth, rather than judgment. So we as students had to somehow assimilate to the working class, especially since “we” had been thrown out of SNCC. I was at the Champaign-Urbana convention when SNCC said, “No white people.” Out of this comes Maoism and, in the end, the break-up of the New Left. Not immediately: It was still ongoing until at least 1976. There was still a quest, at least on campuses, to think. When I was a young professor at Stony Brook, we would meet with groups of students, both graduates and undergraduates. We were searching for something different, something new. Was that “parochial”? No, I think it is better understood as groping around. But there was always that desire to be part of history, to become part of something bigger, broader. That explains, in part, the break-up.

The first half of the ’70s is dominated by a kind of guilt. This is why one became a leftist in America in the 1970s and 1980s: guilt for being part of this wealthy, imperialist nation. Remember Lenin's Theses on Imperialism. Why is there no revolution in America or in England? Because imperialism draws in surplus profits that are used to buy off the working class, etc., etc.,etc. So there's this idea that we're guilty, that we must do something, sacrifice ourselves to redeem our debt to the exploited. And remember, this is the time of the Vietnam war. Intellectually, what is happening is that a couple of journals are thrashing around. The three I knew were Radical America, which I took part in, Telos, and New German Critique. If you look at the back issues of Telos we had the fortune and the misfortune of conducting our education in public. Numbers six and seven contained studies of Lukács, who was not yet translated. And there was Korsch. We didn't have teachers. On the one hand, this was good. But it also meant we made lots of errors. When I see students' books today on these figures, they are much more sophisticated. They see all sorts of things we didn't see. This brings me back to the title of that early book, The Marxian Legacy. We were confronting the question of what it meant to bear a legacy: Is it a burden? Sartre says somewhere, “When I give my child a name I'm determining that child's future essentially.” Similarly, when I get a legacy, I'm also determined. On the other hand, without a legacy, what am I?

DL: You took up this question in an essay on Merleau-Ponty, where you pointed to how both Marxism and philosophy share a concern with their own self-becoming. As you then said, “Each is what it is only as having become, and each is continually reinterpreting the sense of the distance it has traveled. More: each lives the paradox that the distance is only a return to the source, for the task and the goal remain constant.”[3] At that time, then, you sought to undertake a critique of the New Left on the basis of its failure to move beyond “the critique of everyday life” to what you termed “the historical.” What distinguished you and your comrades within the New Left from others in the movement such that you felt a need to work through and re-appropriate the Marxian legacy? What blocked the New Left from thinking itself historically?

DH: We knew languages and we knew history, which other people didn't know, and we were not content with what we had. There was always something more, something further to be discovered. For example, I wrote a 30- or 40-page introduction for The Unknown Dimension which was a sort of history of the period after the Russian Revolution. I had to cobble that together. There was no non-dogmatic leftist historical analysis of that period. I haven't re-read that introduction since. In some ways, I do not dare to since I am sure it has many shortcomings. But I was also helped by Karl Klare, who, like many in the New Left, was a red-diaper baby. He knew the classical history of the working class. His dad was a Teamsters’ organizer. You have probably read his brother Michael Klare in The Nation. Karl knew a lot of this stuff, particularly about the Eastern Europeans because his dad, I believe, had been a member of the party. I never asked, but he probably left in 1956 with the Hungarian revolution. I, on the other hand, am the son of a school teacher from Ohio and a traveling salesman who dropped out of college after a semester. I had no background in this stuff whatsoever.

SL: Keeping with the ’70s, in a recent volume honoring the work of your lifelong friend Andrew Arato, you describe when you first met in 1970 as follows:

[At that time] the New Left knew that it had to be more than a counter-cultural movement, and that it could not simply mobilize the resentment of those who might be drafted into the vain and vainglorious anti-communist crusade in Vietnam. “From Resistance to Revolution” was the vague slogan of those who began to call themselves “comrades” as they abandoned what they called their bourgeois liberalism for one or another variant of Marxism (a few Stalinists, more Trotskyists, still more Maoists and of course the Castroist- Guevarist).[4]

You then go on to remark that, “For all their differences, these groups shared an orthodoxy built around the legacy of Lenin.” You describe your collaboration with Arato as an attempt to retrieve the legacy of a post-1917 Western Marxist tradition. Even in your book on Luxemburg, you seem to want to distinguish her strongly from Lenin and the Bolsheviks. How and why did Lenin make a comeback in the 1970s? Why did you split with many of your fellow new leftists over this? How, if at all, do the relevant questions seem different to you today than they did more than forty years ago?

DH: The crux was the idea of substitutionism, the notion that the Party that knows has to replace that anarchic mass. In The Critique of Dialectical Reason Sartre talks about what he calls seriality, so e.g. a line of people waiting on a bus. They are a group in some sense, if, say, you look at them from above. But they have no relation among themselves. The proletariat is also in serial relation. What has to happen is what Sartre calls a “group in-fusion.” They have to fuse together to become an active historical force rather than remaining alienated individuals. But how is this to be accomplished? In Sartre's vision, and here he takes a position that's quite orthodox Leninist (indeed, I call it Stalinist in one essay), you need the party. How do we catalyze the proletariat? Or, better, when we catalyze it, it will become fused as a group, but this takes place from without. But if it is unified from outside, it is extremely fragile, potentially massified or reified. Leninism is a tempting position and it fits with Marxism insofar as Marx offers a theory of history, of inevitable history.

SL: How do we square the varying legacies respecting democracy of liberalism and Marx? For instance, Immanuel Kant and his French disciple Benjamin Constant conceive of politics as deeply bound up with civil society, so much so that both Kant with his notion of “public reason” and Constant with that of “representation” uphold the possibility of liberal politics even in the face of Prussian absolutism or the Restoration in France. Both seem to extend Locke’s vision of the socialization of the state, its subordination to society, treating the completion of that process as, so to speak, necessary and inevitable. Marx, by contrast, views the question of the democratic state as standing somehow over and against society, a situation he describes variously as Bonapartist or imperialist. Marx, of course, calls for the Bonapartist state’s revolutionary overthrow and “smashing.” Given your attempt to recover Marx as a democratic thinker, what do you make of Marx’s own self-conception as a critic of democracy?

DH: Kant doesn't talk about civil society. It is really Hegel who is the crucial figure there. In any case, when you read the young Marx, you can see him assimilating Hegel. In a sense Marx is trying to materialize Hegel: to take Hegel’s spirit and anchor it in material reality. And he gets very good at it. For instance, one of the interesting things that you notice when you read the Grundrisse is that when Marx writes spontaneously, he uses Hegelian categories. He is really a Hegelian. Marx’s theory of history, insofar as it’s a theory of historical necessity, has a Hegelian structure, a Hegelian inevitability. You say that Marx views the state as somehow over and against society, which leads to the idea of the “smashing” or the revolutionary overthrow of the state. That does not work. For there to be a clash, the state and society would have to be of the same element. The separation between the state and society is at the same time a mutual implication: that the one can't live without the other. In that sense, Hegel's theory of civil society has civil society standing between, as the common element shared by, morality/family as particular and the state as universal. That's where civil society becomes the place where individual or personal desires become political. Now we go back to the SDS, if you will. The slogan “The personal is political” is at one and the same time extremely rich and awfully dangerous. You might know enough about the history of the New Left to know that some people destroyed themselves by trying to be political in all aspects of their lives.

DL: That still happens.

DH: I'm sure it does. In some ways, it is an abiding temptation. What is political correctness, after all? So this is where civil society becomes at one and the same time the source of problems and a place where fruitful clashes can occur. This is where the question of judgment returns. One of the claims of From Marx to Kant is that Kant, or more precisely the Kant of the Third Critique, gives us the tools to understand and perhaps to do what Marx sought to understand and to do.

Kant distinguishes between two kinds of judgment. There's determinate judgment, where I start with a theory, e.g. what a physicist does, and I encounter some new facts. I have both a theory and new facts. Or say I'm an orthodox Marxist, a Leninist: History is moving towards some overcoming of contradictions; I'm confronted with a fact—say, the Burmese government has let up on censorship, meanwhile China is about to go to war with Japan. I confront these things, and as a Leninist, I immediately have the answer because I fit the facts into a theory of history. There's a quote from Harold Rosenberg that Lefort often emphasizes: “The communist militant is an intellectual who does not think.” He does not judge. You've met Leninists—they're often absolutely brilliant, they read everything, they know exactly what's happening in Burma, say, what is it about Thai development that has led the Burmese to open up, and so on. They are intellectuals in some sense. But they don't ask questions. They know the answer which lies in universal history. They just ascertain where we are at this moment.

This leads me to Kant's other kind of judgment, what he calls reflexive judgment in which one has to move from the particular to some universal claim. If we take art for example, and I say to you, “That painting is beautiful,” you might ask “Why?” and wait to hear a theory about how beauty is structured. But that does not work. What I have to do is start with the particular and show you why what I see as beautiful is not only beautiful in my eyes, but that you ought to see it as beautiful as well. Now translate that into politics: I look at the 99 percent versus the 1 percent or I see how the election is being financed and I think, Jesus Christ, we can't live like that. But now I've got to convince people, and there's no absolute rule. So, in the move from Marx to Kant the problem of judgment emerges. But this is not a concern that a Leninist or an orthodox Marxist would have. Because, if I use my reflexive judgment, I have to also accord to other people the right to be wrong . In other words, I can't seize power and force all the Romneyites to accept my vision of beauty, and I am certainly anxious that the Romneyites may try to impose their idea about what's good for society. This is where we come to the theme of democracy in Specter of Democracy: What is it Marx thinks he is making manifest? The inevitable future. But I want to say in fact what he is also showing us is that society is no longer structured by fixed hierarchies, and that would imply that there can longer be that permanence, that inevitability anymore. Capitalism, precisely because it is constantly changing, is doing what we said a moment ago Marxism does, putting itself into question. And, if that is the case, then capitalism is not simply a form of economics, but is a form of political relations among people. For example, in capitalism, under the kind of relations Marx describes in the Manifesto—relations in which “all that is holy is profaned”—a kind of alienated civilization is in dialectical self-contradiction. This is what Marx tries to illuminate.

DL: Two figures that do battle in your work are the modern revolutionary and the modern republican. Broadly speaking, the revolutionary is anti-political, yet another scribe of world spirit, while the republican could be thought of as a revolutionary “cured” of the pathological desire to overcome or transcend modernity. You contrast the republican's “Freudian” way of coming to terms with the indeterminacy of modernity to the revolutionary's desire to overcome it altogether. However, when we look at these two today, while the revolutionary appears to be increasingly lost or insane, the republican appears unable to hold open the political in the face of the overwhelming dominance of capital. How has the “dialectic” of these two changed throughout your experience on the Left?

DH: There is a passage somewhere where Freud asks, “Does psychoanalysis cure?” To which he replies, “No, all psychoanalysis can do is replace extraordinary unhappiness by ordinary misery.” It's a nice phrase. The idea that we can somehow leap over our shadow to create a new world overnight makes no sense. On the other hand, it makes no sense to live with extraordinary suffering. So what we would want to do is find an institutional structure that would ameliorate those conditions.

SL: In your recent book The Primacy of the Political you trace the history of political thought from its origins before entering into a discussion of modern political thinking in the Renaissance and Reformation. You imply that in the earlier history of mankind politics is, in some ways, bound up with other forms of thought and sentiment such as religion and virtue, such that political life does not come into its own as democracy until the modern world. What if anything distinguishes modern politics from the politics of earlier times? To the extent that your work is historical or even an attempt at a renewal of the philosophy of history, what is the salience of a sense of the modernity of politics? How is it bound up with social domination?

DH: The argument of The Primacy of the Political is that there is a structure inherent in human sociality, if you will. This structure can be called “dialectical,” so long as one grasps that a synthesis overcoming the antitheses is impossible. Instead of reconciliation, there is a constant movement between the political and the anti-political. The political is that framework, the institutional structure, which gives meaning to all aspects of life. It can be thrown into question insofar as its fragility emerges, because it must uphold a total meaning. It can be thrown into question by events. Such moments of crisis are reflected on in turn by philosophers. When the political order is thrown into question, what happens is curious: It is challenged by what I call the anti-political. The anti-political is in its own way a new kind of political meaning. A peasant jacquerie could have been an affirmation of a new form, one that overcomes the church-bound, tradition-bound, and so on. At the same time, if it is successful and becomes the new form of the political, it no longer poses a political challenge but passes over into anti-politics. Or, to return to the example of the 1970s, the slogan “the personal is political.” That claim is anti-politics insofar as it challenges the bourgeois-liberal vision of politics: it says that politics has to have this form of intimacy, this form of sociability, and so on. But if that set of values becomes dominant, then in effect, we have a new form of the political, but it's an anti-political form of the political: It closes rather than opens social self-questioning. This is the paradox here. What I want to suggest is that anti-politics is a “politics” insofar as it rejects or challenges the reigning vision of politics. But it is a politics that wants to put an end to the political.

DL: In the history of political thought, and in these categories, how do you read the difference between, for example, 1789 and 1848?

DH: Let's take the passage between 1789 and 1794, which is simpler. What you get, in effect, is an overcoming of the ancien regime, the emergence of new possibilities, indeterminate possibilities, in a situation that is of course overdetermined. What happens is that Robespierre and the Jacobins then come in with a new totalizing anti-politics. The genius of Robespierre—he's really the ancestor of Leninism, in this sense—is that he never talks in his own name. Rather, he speaks in the name of the Revolution (although not yet in that of World History). And you can't beat him. If you claim that he and the Committee of Public Safety are somehow oppressive or wrong, you are accused of particularism. So if you look at the history between 1789 and 1794 each time you get an opening or an emergence of a break it's immediately accused of particularism, what Leninists call “bourgeois self-interest”! And it is accused of endangering the revolution. Bonaparte, on his way to the empire, creates the Napoleonic code, the first (and still valid) legal code. It is built around the sacred, holy rights of property, individual rights, etc. It's very much a reworking of Roman law. Interestingly, as Napoleon is defeated, this continues, though challenged, at a formal level. The reality puts it into question, so you have in 1830 a kind of bourgeois revolution and then in 1848 the February days and then the bloody uprising in June.

DL: Marx has the idea of 1789 as moving in an “ascending line” compared to the “descending”, “retrogressive motion” of the Revolution of 1848 and the rise of Bonapartism.

DH: But 1848 does not immediately lead to Bonapartism. By Bonapartism Marx means a return of plebiscitary, pseudo-democratic centralized state structure overriding and overarching the society. That does not come with the election of Napoleon III in 1848, but later with the coup d'etat in 1851. So that is a different story.

There is an absolutely brilliant essay by Harold Rosenberg on the Communist Manifesto. It's an interesting story: When Merleau-Ponty in 1948 decided to publish an anthology, sort of like The Unknown Dimension, but on the whole history of philosophy, he asked different people to write a chapter. For the chapter on Marx to pick a Frenchman would have been difficult because you are obviously showing your colors. So, instead, he asked Rosenberg to write the chapter. He begins the essay: “Nowhere in history have there been more ghost-inspectors, more unexpected returns, than in Shakespeare and in Marx.”[5] In other words, he brings out a kind of Shakespearean dimension which, to my mind, and, again, because Rosenberg was a critic and because his entire critical structure builds around the idea of judgment and of action, fits very nicely and in a way rounds out our discussion. Just to conclude with America: the two great critics of the American breakthrough in painting—abstract expressionism—were Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. Greenberg was a Trotskyist, and if you read his theory, he has a vision whereby painting is going to go through a series of stages where it is going to more and more free itself from representation and become absolute. So this abstract expressionism, which has no claim to represent anything—it's simply the painting itself, the surface shines, and so on. Rosenberg, however, comes from a more (dare I say) anarchist perspective. He develops the idea of action painting. For him, recall those pictures of Jackson Pollock throwing the paint on the floor, it is the action, the brush that counts.

DL: The critique of political economy and the question of capitalism, both time-honored on the Left, seem in some ways to have been displaced in your work. For instance, Marx, as you present him, was wrong to theorize the crisis of modern society in 1848 as the crisis of capital. This led you to propose a re-reading of Marx after 1989, one that would re-join the Marxian legacy to the historical project of democracy. Do you view things differently now, as we enter ever more deeply into the post-2008 “new normal” of stagnant wages and joblessness?

DH: I don’t think that the “critique of political economy” is identical to the “question of capitalism.” Rereading Marx after 1989 means returning to the former to get a broader perspective; it means revivifying the political, which cannot be reduced to what you call the “new normal.” People don’t take their fate into their hands because of “stagnant wages and joblessness”—as if there existed a sort of revolutionary “tipping point” after which the revolutionary reflex would take hold. When are wages high enough, and what kind of full employment make for a fulfilled human society? In May ’68, our slogan was “l’imaginaire au pouvoir”; that was just an updated version of the young Marx’s claim that “to be radical is to go to the root; and for man, the root is man himself.”

SL: The now seemingly spent #Occupy movement arose as a belated response to the massive economic crisis that began in 2008. The situation seems not unlike the exhaustion of the Seattle “anti-globalization” movement during the election year that followed. Both of these movements arguably looked more to 1968 than to any other historical reference point. And, of course, between 1999 and 2011 came the anti-war movement, which was perhaps the last (and final?) time when the ghost of Marxism came unmistakably back to the fore in the form of anti-imperialism. None of these seem to have escaped the sort of repetition compulsion operative on the left for some decades now. There even seems to be something of a recognition of this in the form of widespread depoliticization. What stretches before an increasingly demoralized younger generation is the prospect of the total exhaustion of the post-1989 left (such as it was) with little prospect of anything taking its place. What possibility do you see in the present for at least bringing to a close a left imagination that seems increasingly to run on auto-pilot? Does politics today generate any prospect for actually being able to set aside the “200 years of error” that you speak of in your work?

DH: One can't predict the imagination! All one can do, I think, is to learn to avoid the anti-political temptation. And one aspect of this temptation is what I'm about to accuse you of!

Your question supposes that there could be something and that someone could know it. All I can do is to judge what is going on as it takes place and try to contribute to some understanding of the need to do more than just “everyday politics.” From this perspective, one of the things I do is write about day-to-day politics. Today, for example, on my weekly commentary for Radio Canada, I talked about what's going on with the Republican convention: I thought it was wonderful that this jerk from Missouri—Todd Akin and the “legitimate rape” controversy—is probably going to cost the Republicans the presidential election. It may also cost them the Senate. I do not expect Obama to transform the world: Many of us had wonderful hopes in 2008, but it was naïve to think that one person could do it; after all, charismatic leaders are doomed to routinize their charisma in order to preserve their power. But old Civil Rights Movement people like me certainly were amazed at his election, wishing/hoping/imagining it was a sign that society had been transformed. What one could have hoped was that he would have kept alive this movement of which we thought/hoped/imagined that he was the representative. I say “movement” despite its being a potentially antipolitical term: It suggests, as did the “proletariat” for Marx and the Marxists, the idea that society can somehow crystallize or “fuse” into a frictionless unity. Although I’ve suggested reasons why that Platonic-Marxist, antipolitical, dream will never be realized, I don’t want to say that those who participate in movements are somehow “wrong.” After all, I would not be who I am had it not been for the Civil Rights Movement. Movements are indeed “right” precisely because they restart the wheel of the dialectic that “makes those petrified stones dance because it sings before them their own melody.” |P

[1]. Dick Howard, The Development of the Marxist Dialectic (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1972), viii.

[2]. Karl Marx, A Contribution to a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, available online at The standard English translation reads as follows: “Every sphere of German society must be shown as the partie honteuse of German society: these petrified relations must be forced to dance by singing their own tune to them!

[3]. Dick Howard, The Marxian Legacy (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977), 190.

[4]. Dick Howard, “Politics and Antipolitics,” in Critical Theory and Democracy: Civil Society, Dictatorship, and Constitutionalism in Andrew Arato’s Democratic Theory, ed. Enrique Peruzzoppi and Martin Plot, (New York: Routledge, Forthcoming).

[5]. Harold Rosenberg, “Marx,” in Maurice Merleau-Ponty, ed., Les philosophes célèbres (Paris: L. Mazenod, 1956).

Book Review: Alain Badiou. The Rebirth of History: Times of Riots and Uprisings. New York: Verso, 2012.

Daniel Tutt

Platypus Review 50 | October 2012



Alain Badiou claims that the twenty first century has yet to begin. We stand mired in the ideology of democratic materialism, which insists there are only bodies and language, and that we can persist without an idea. Our “atonal” environment of weak differences is riddled with a type of nihilism that crushes every master signifier, even those struggling to point in the direction of equality. Emancipatory politics is confronted with the nearly impossible task of going beyond the subject of the market, but with no clear means by which to do so. Thus, at the turn of the twenty first century, Badiou claims, in no uncertain terms, “there are not yet events in the philosophical sense of the word,” but only “the constitution of zones of precariousness, of partial movement that one can interpret as announcing that something will happen.”[1] To make matters worse, Badiou’s agent of change, the militant subject, runs headlong into a political deadlock in which the militant are forced to strike blindly against the capitalist system merely to demonstrate their strike capacity. Badiou characterized emancipatory resistance in the following terms: “what is at stake are bloody and nihilistic games of power without purpose and without truth.”[2]

Badiou’s “prescriptive politics” has been criticized for distancing itself from the state and from economic resistance to capitalism, insisting that resistance must be waged with respect to democracy. Even Badiou’s finest reader, Peter Hallward, has pointed out that, “so long as it works within the element of this subtraction, Badiou’s philosophy forever risks its restriction to the empty realm of prescription pure and simple.”[3] There is thus an inherent risk that Badiou’s subtractive purity will result only in a rarefied metapolitics, purified to the point of being politics without politics. However, in his latest text, The Rebirth of History: Time of Riots and Uprisings, Badiou leaves his apoliticism at the door and ushers in a fresh set of thinking for the introduction of a new political sequence against the backdrop of a failing capitalist system. One part manifesto, and one part doctrinal guidebook for political organization following the Arab uprisings, Badiou presents a logical taxonomy of the riot as a form of political struggle in the context of his evental politics. The Arab uprisings, or what the West has perhaps condescendingly dubbed “The Arab Spring,” are placed in the context of world historical protests for equality; Badiou even elevates them to the level of the 1848 European worker riots that gave birth to the Communist Manifesto.

The Arab riots present a pre-political sign of a formerly inexistent political body and signal a new epochal opening of emancipatory history. Like the 1848 riots, the Arab uprisings had origins that were seemingly random (a shopkeeper’s suicide) and, also like 1848, they ultimately ended in failure, with a new repressive political order assuming power. While the 1848 riots did not cause an event in the formal sense, which for Badiou constitutes “a rupture in the transcendental world of the state,” they did usher in a new political sequence, one that ended only around 1990, with the collapse of “really existing socialism.” In the Badiouian lexicon, the 1848 riots, like the Arab uprisings, represent a “strong singularity” that presents a formerly inexistent subjectivity in a mode of intensity that contains the capacity for an evental explosion. The Arab uprisings have become for Badiou the guardians of a pre-evental or pre-political opening, an opportunity to re-begin time.

In this review I will examine Badiou’s reading of the Arab uprisings in particular, which constitutes the central part of The Rebirth of History, and place the text in dialogue both with Badiou’s own political thought and that of the Arab psychoanalyst Moustapha Safouan, whose book, Why Are the Arabs Not Free?, presents two distinct models for thinking political change in the Arab world today. It should be noted, however, that Badiou’s text does not offer a substantive reflection on recent western movements against capitalism, such as Occupy Wall Street and the Quebec student movement, as these only emerged after the publication of the text.


The historical riot: The guardian of emancipatory history

In Badiou’s taxonomy, there are three types of riots. The immediate riot tends to be youth-driven, located in the territory of those who take part, and typically consists of a “weak localization” (24). The immediate riot lacks the ability to displace itself and usually remains caught within a ghetto or the site of some grave injustice; this is what happened during the French riots of 2006. The second type of riot is a latent riot, which is what Great Britain experienced in the summer of 2011: a riot that contains the “possibility of possibility,” but ultimately lacks discipline, and remains merely quasi-riotous. More optimistically, the latent riot only requires an insignificant spark to set the whole thing back in motion (32). The final type of riot is the historical riot, which is what constitutes the transition from immediate to pre-political riot. For an historical riot to take place, there must be a moment of imitation, or “qualitative extension” of the site into something universal, which, as Badiou puts it, can develop “in a blink of an eye” (69). Thus, for Badiou, a pre-political event (historical riot) has a universal register of address.

Badiou invokes the term universality out of three related concepts, all of which were exhibited by the Arab uprisings. Following the logical and phenomenological proofs found in Badiou’s 2006 magnum opus Logics of Worlds, the three necessary components that propelled the Arab uprisings from immediate to historical are intensification, contraction, and localization. Firstly, the historical riot maintains intensification by presenting to the state a formerly inexistent subject in an intensified form that exceeds the ability of the state to represent it. There were only one million Egyptians who occupied Tahrir Square, which in a state of tens of millions did not represent a consensus or even a majority, but the riots nonetheless presented a sort of universality due to the intensity of their singular demand. Secondly, the Arab uprisings, in presenting this intensified existence, affirmed a generic being[4] that refused identitarian objectification by the power of the state to represent differences. The subjects of the riot were Egyptians of all different identities, religions, etc., and in their radical refusal to be divided by these seemingly arbitrary designations, they affirmed a generic being and negated the modes of representation that the state promulgates in order to ensure its own existence. Badiou calls this second quality of the historical riot “contraction,” meaning that it presents a genericity of itself, to itself, and thus enables the riot to become the symbolic master of its own site. Genericity leads to the final necessary component of the historical riot, localization, which can be seen in the politics of naming that took place in Tahrir Square. Badiou’s politics of naming does not start with an idea but with a messy and spontaneous clinging to genericity.

In previous work on emancipatory politics, Badiou has pointed out how militant subjects generate nominations or statements posed in a future anterior tense, towards a situation to come. As a continuation of Badiou’s politics of naming, which he dedicated the short text Metapolitics to perfecting, Badiou remarks “the ill said words of the subject(s) in fidelity to an event forms the basis of courage that forces the truth of a new situation.”[5] We might look at the American civil rights movement as a pre-evental riot of naming pointed towards universal equality in the words written on the protest banner that read, “Ain’t I a man?” As Badiou remarks in Metapolitics, the first condition of any metapolitical sequence is that its collective is able to serve as a universal receptacle for all, which means that for every X, there is thought. In the Tahrir Square riots that succeeded in forcing Mubarak to step down, the protest signs read, “Clear off Mubarak” and other slogans that affirmed a certain symbolic ownership of Egypt by its people and not the state.


Capitalism against the democratic materialists

Badiou’s metapolitics haunts today’s revolutionary imagination, waiting in the shadows, standing out against the “democratic materialists” who claim we can persist without allegiance to an idea. Badiou has gone so far as to bifurcate emancipatory movements along the oldest philosophical dichotomy available, between Plato and Aristotle. The Aristotelian democratic materialists end up enveloping revolutionary momentum into a flat ontology of descriptions that do not open onto Platonic axioms. The “multitude” approach to emancipation, popularized by Hardt and Negri, or what Badiou has referred to as the “movementists,” are simply obsessed with continually adapting to the ruptures that the state-capitalist system produces. Like Foucault, their primary intellectual antecedent, they refuse to “localize the break” of the topology of situations around a single point—that is, around statements that usher in a new metapolitical sequence.

For Badiou, Negri’s multitude mode of resistance to Empire (capitalism) is flawed because it remains caught in an infinite creative process of adaptation to capitalism, of counterposing to Empire a reified form of what Empire already knows. In The Rebirth of History, Badiou affirms that capitalism has both returned and moved on to a new status, a cartel-like “gangsterism capitalism”; what Marx called “a retrograde consummation of the essence of capitalism” has taken effect. We can read into this critique both a renewed political urgency to strike at capitalism as well as certain strategic conclusions about political organizing. In sync with paraconsistent logic that argues the order of capitalism gets caught up in its own negation and produces its own transgression, Badiou has gone so far as to declare that, “progressive politics must operate at a level that can rival that of capitalism and ensure that this rivalry unfolds on a plane other than that dominated by capital.” Badiou comments in no uncertain terms that “there can be no economic battle against the economy… [the battle] can only be political.”[6] The point of all emancipatory politics today is to resurrect once again the dignity of the name of equality from both the class politics that controls it as well as the economism that surrounds it. The Arab uprisings and this new gangster form of capitalism reveal a new opening for political organizing, and this is why the Rebirth of History reads as much as a strategy guide as it does a theoretical diagnostic of the Arab uprisings. With the Arab uprisings, we stand on a precipice of global outrage against capitalism, and the riot becomes the core tool, or “guardian,” for a new historical epoch, what Badiou deems the “intervallic period” of emancipatory history (41).


The state and politics: Identity and genericity

Badiou’s theory of identitarian objects sets the backdrop for how the riot must situate itself towards a non-identitarian object, or “genericity.” Genericity is located at the origin of liberalism. The origin of “citizen” was based on the maxim, “whoever proves themselves committed to the betterment of humanity is admitted to be one of us.”[7] Badiou has insisted that the terms liberty and freedom have been co-opted to such a degree that, for use in any contemporary politics of naming, we must stick to equality. Genericity lies at the heart of politics in the intervallic period that the riots have ushered in. The success of the riot’s fidelity to the generic is in inverse relation to the riot’s overall success: when genericity from the riots is “qualitatively extended” into the larger society, the movement has moved toward a pre-political event.[8] The movement thus stands for and presents the generic in its at first spontaneous, but eventually politically organized intensity of existence, and once the state around it has incorporated the generic it has moved the point of a political truth and “invented a world,” to use Badiou’s key terms. An organized politics then is that which uses the riot as an operable tool, preserving the contraction, localization, and intensification of the political movement to the extent that it can call forth a real generic project to replace an identitarian object and push beyond a politics of naming that is geared toward separation.[9]

Readers of The Rebirth of History who are unfamiliar with Badiou’s formulation of truth may find it authoritarian and aloof. Truth for Badiou must be made eternal through a metapolitical sequencing. The liberal model of consensus and plural opinion-based dialogue is predicated upon opinions and not truths. Truth is a process, not a judgment. An historical truth does not emerge in the riot, but it emerges in the generic potential the riot envelops over the society around it. The emergence of a political truth is taken by Badiou in dialogue with Rousseau’s general will, in that mass democracy imposes a general will based on a majority. But the majority under democracy does not produce the emergence of a truth. On the contrary, it occurs on the margins of the riot, where there is the emergence of a truth by a small singularity of subjects expressing intensity. The authority that this truth presents is always a part of the absolute justice that the historical riot initially presents. Truth is presented in an authoritarian mode because it cannot be defeated by opinion.[10]

At the level of representation, it’s clear that the state generates imaginary objects through a process of naming; the immigrant becomes the alien, the Muslim becomes the terrorist, and so on. Naming is central to the power of the state’s capacity to represent being. This capacity of identitarian naming of citizens-as-objects points to a certain “excess” people amongst the state, who can only be represented, and as such, the state holds ontological claim and the power of invention of an otherwise inexistent being within the state. Faced with what the Italian jurist and thinker Giorgio Agamben has referred to as “bare life,” these inexistent elements of the state are thrust into a subjectivity that lacks any potential for presenting the intensity of their existence outside of terror or the riot. The riot poses a rupture to this regime of identitarian representation by presenting an inexistent that isseeking an identification with a generic truth of identity that is outside of the state’s representation. Taken a step further, the riot is only able to produce a truth if it is able to put forth a genericity that confronts identitarian objectification and separation through naming.

What makes the riots across the Arab world in 2011 homologous to the workers’ riots across Europe in 1848 is linked to Badiou’s conception of universality developed in Logics of Worlds. While Badiou distinguishes his axiomatic conception of truth from the classical Marxist paradigm that is typically concerned with antagonism and destruction (theoretical approaches that Badiou himself remained loyal to in Theory of the Subject), he has created a position more informed by rationalist methods that consider equality purely in terms of declared axioms and principles. There is thus the capacity for equality to emerge and reemerge in an entirely different world, and this emergence itself indicates the ability for truth to realize itself. Before we accuse Badiou of deploying a latent Orientalism by considering the Arab uprisings in light of this notion of equality, let’s visit the preeminent Arab political theorist Mustapha Safouan and his approach to emancipation in an Arab context.

In Why Are the Arabs Not Free?, Safouan provides a helpful contrast to Badiou’s text. Safouan argues that what has led to an internalization of despotism, and of the Arab population’s reliance on the sacred despot, is directly tied to the fact that the common “mother” vernacular was never translated into the realm of literature, poetry, or art. While Badiou insists that the key to successfully maintaining the genericity of the Arab uprisings is the ability for the Arabs to shrug off the “desire of the West,” Safouan bases his entire theory of emancipation on the model of enlightenment of the West, specifically on the relation of writing and authorial control of books to political empowerment of the proletariat. When the people can create books, poems, letters, and plays in their own language, i.e., when the people develop an autonomous culture, they are then able to develop a new relation to the transcendent power of the sovereign. In the case of the Arab world, this includes the dictator. In Safouan’s home country of Egypt, the retention of classical Arabic in the hands of the elites has created a wedge that separates the proletariat from political empowerment, which not only exacerbates class divisions and poverty, but also impedes collective political mobilization. While not negating the role of Islam in this process of creating new relations to writing and authority, Safouan seeks to develop a culture running alongside Islam. Many Arab intellectuals have argued that Safouan’s privileging of classical Arabic as an elite and esoteric language is exaggerated, pointing to examples such as Egyptian poet Adonis’s great work “The Book,” a tract about challenging monarchial power. But for Safouan, even Adonis’s translations into classical Arabic have failed to expose the nuance of the language and have ended up contributing to a confinement of the thinking process.[11]

Both Safouan and Badiou’s conception of equality are rooted in the western model, and especially in Spinoza; thus we find in Badiou a theory of the human in terms of the human relation to thought. For Badiou, “thought is the one and only uniquely human capacity and thought, strictly speaking, is simply that through which the human animal is seized and traversed by the trajectory of a truth… [P]eople think, people are capable of truth.”[12] For Safouan, by naturalizing the transcendent realm, Spinoza brought finitude into a new relation towards power. The people in an Arab political context must convert their relation to authority from a transcendent relation to an immanent one. This new relation to the sovereignty of the lawgiver (dictator) will,mutatis mutandis, lead to a new level of sovereignty for the excluded people as a result. The duty falls on the secular intellectual to bring the culture to the people so that they can use their own language, and not merely to speak truth to power.

For Badiou, it is the rationality of the axiom itself that presents the means for discovering universality through a politics of naming, and in the case of the Arab uprising, it was the riot that was used as the tool for the expression of universality. Political change, for Safouan, is contingent a priori on the invention of a culture that is distinct from the elite’s hegemony. By contrast, Badiou sees the people through a Marxian lens of the generic, as an excess that must be maintained over the representation of the state. For Badiou, the politics of naming, the precondition to equality,

[h]as nothing to do with the social, or social justice, but with the regime of statements and prescriptions, and is therefore the latent principle, not of simple scrawls on the parchment of proletarian history, but of every politics of emancipation.[13]

We thus find in both Safouan and in Badiou a tendency to develop a theory of emancipation, universality, and equality out of a distinctly western meta-narrative. In this manner, both thinkers diverge significantly from postmodern positions that reject the possibility of meta-narratives as such. Badiou and Safouan overlap, on the other hand, at the point of genericity and identification with the non-identitarian object—that is, with the excluded people. But for Safouan, the creation of a specific cultural identity from within the excluded class that is particular to Arab cultural and artistic heritage is what will lead to the dethroning of the transcendent status of the lawgiver and usher in emancipation. For Badiou, the politics of naming and the development of axioms already suggested through the historical riot on the streets of Cairo, Tunisia, and Libya, are what hold the global sign for a new era of emancipatory politics. The Arab uprisings have proven that universality can indeed arise without needing as its precondition the sort of transfer of cultural power into the hands of the people that Safouan calls for. |P

[1]. Alain Badiou, Handbook of Inaesthetics (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2005), 120.
[2]. Adrian Johnston, Badiou, Zizek, and Political Transformations: The Cadence of Change (Boston: Northwestern University Press, 2008), 3.
[3]. Peter Hallward, Badiou: A Subject To Truth (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), xxxi.
[4]. Generic being or genericity is a concept that Badiou develops at length in Logics of Worlds.
[5]. Alain Badiou, Metapolitics (London: Verso 2012), 61.
[6]. Peter Hallward, Badiou: A Subject To Truth (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003), 237.
[7]. Alain Badiou, Metapolitics, trans. Jason Barker (London: Verso), 13.
[8]. Ibid, 78.
[9]. Ibid, 81.
[10]. Ibid, 81.
[11]. Moustapha Safouan, Why Are the Arabs Not Free: The Politics of Writing (New York: Critical Quarterly Book Series, 2007), 46.
[12]. Alain Badiou, Metapolitics trans. Jason Barker (London: Verso), 98–99.
[13]. Ibid, 115.

David Brian Howard

Platypus Review 50 | October 2012


[N]egative dialectics seeks the self-reflection of thinking, the tangible implication is that if thinking is to be true—today, in any case—it must also think against itself. If thinking fails to measure itself by the extremeness that eludes the concept, it is from the outset like the accompanying music with which the SS liked to drown out the screams of its victims.

— Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics

NEGATIVITY AND REVOLUTION seems to fly in the face of the Adorno revival over the last twenty years. The editors bravely assert in the introduction to their book that their focus will not be on Adorno, nor about the body of his work, and, above all, that it is not written by Adorno specialists. The intent of this book, which is the outcome of a seminar at the Instituto de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades Alfonso Vélez Pliego of the Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, is to elaborate on what Adorno called negative dialectics and how it might serve as a counter-strategy to other forms of theorizing the present, and could thus be of benefit to radicals, political activists, and Adorno scholars.

The attempt to maneuver Adorno’s thought into a place of relevance in the lifeless field of radical politics is, I think, a very worthwhile endeavor. However, the reader quickly confronts the danger of prioritizing Adorno’s Negative Dialectics, which is that the concept of negative dialectics itself is much abused and misunderstood. Another, secondary impediment, is the fact that Adorno is still vilified by many on the Left for having called the police when the Frankfurt Institute was occupied by the student movement in 1969, and for agreeing with Habermas’s formulation that the students were “left-fascist.” This book asks, Why is Adorno a hero of revolution and political activism? For one of the editors, John Holloway, Adorno’s concept of negative dialectics and its Hegelian pedigree offers an enticing vision of theoretical depth that is “both libertarian and revolutionary.” He argues

 It is libertarian because its pivot and driving force is the misfit, irreducible particularity, the non-identity that cannot be contained, the rebel who will not submit to party discipline. It is revolutionary because it is explosive, volcanic, and refuses compromise with the capitalist totality. If there is no identity other than the identity that is undermined by non-identity, then there is no possibility of stability. All identity is false, contradictory, resting on the negation of the non-identity which it suppresses, which it seeks to contain but cannot. (13)

For Holloway, Adorno’s concept of non-identity, elucidated most rigorously in Negative Dialectics, is “the hero, the centre, the moving force of the world.” By contrast, Gilles Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition, published in 1968, distances itself from the dialectical legacy of Hegel and the arguments of Adorno, arguing that

History progresses not by negation and the negation of negation, but by deciding problems and affirming differences. It is no less bloody and cruel as a result. Only the shadows of history live by negation: the good enter into it with all the power of a posited differential or a difference affirmed…. That is why real revolutions have the atmosphere of fêtes. Contradiction is not the weapon of the proletariat but, rather, the manner in which the bourgeoisie defends and preserves itself.[1]

By contrast, the emphasis throughout Negativity & Revolution is placed on rescuing the negative dialectical moment from the short-circuiting of theory by the demands of practice, “a practice which in its anti-theoreticism is left at ‘the prey of powers,’ whether that of charismatic leaders or revolutionary parties” (35). While there have been attempts to bridge the gap between theory and practice in the work of Adorno, for instance Espen Hammer’s Adorno and the Political (2005), this book presents a unique spectrum of the political application of Hegel and negative dialectics to the twenty first century and an attempt to negotiate the Scylla and Charybdis of neo-liberalism and anti-dialecticism.

Theodor W. Adorno (1903–1969) was one of the key leaders of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theorists that emerged in Germany between the world wars and played a crucial role both in the re-establishment of Marxian Critical Theory in post-WWII Germany and in providing intellectual inspiration to much of the New Left in Western Europe and North America during the same period. This Frankfurt School group was instrumental in developing variations in Marxist theory that had neither the vulgar, didactic quality of the “official Marxism” of the Soviet Union in the late 1920s and early 1930s, nor the progressive evolutionary quality of the late nineteenth century Second International Marxism. Both of these forms of Marxism were seen by the members of the Frankfurt School as a fundamental betrayal of dialectical materialism as Georg Lukács elaborated in his important book History and Class Consciousness and as found in Marx’s so-called humanist manuscripts of 1844 that were rediscovered in the early 1930s. Both of these publishing developments gave renewed emphasis to the Hegelian dialectic within Marxism, but with a twist. Whereas in Lukács’s Hegelian Marxism one could assume that the working class was available as the potential subject of history that would lead to the overthrowing of its antithesis, for the members of the Frankfurt School, the rise of Hitler and Fascism as well as the destruction of the working class as a potential subject of history meant that the Hegelian dialectic needed to be rethought in the absence of a powerful counter-subject to capital. As suggested in Negativity & Revolution, what would later emerge as a full-blown theory of negative dialectics that culminated in the book by the same name in 1966 is indistinguishable from the question of practice. However, equally inseparable from the thought of Adorno is Lucács’s elaboration of the concepts of totality, reification, and the commodity.

adornohorkheimer (2)

Horkheimer (front left) and Adorno at the Max Weber-Soziolo- gentag, with Habermas (back, far right) and other students.

Adorno, whose early training in the European Enlightenment philosophical tradition began at fourteen when he started studying Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason with Siegfried Kracauer, was an accomplished musician as well as philosopher who studied modernist piano technique under the guidance of Alban Berg, whom he had met in 1924 when he was completing his doctorate. This intertwinning of philosophy, aesthetics, and music imparted to Adorno a unique skill set that, I would argue, to this day is what gives Adorno’s work such longevity, theoretical vibrancy, and ongoing relevance. The mutual interaction and contrapuntal intricacy of these different registers in the various modes of his thought and compositional technique within his writing are seldom legible to contemporary writers.

Ironically, Adorno’s admiration of Lukács would come after the latter had recanted his youthful work, including History and Class Consciousness. Thus, by the time Adorno appropriated many of Lukács’s concepts, Luckás summarily dismissed Adorno and his colleagues as occupying “the Grand Hotel Abyss,” a caricature meant to mock their culturally elitist positions as well as their distance from any meaningful relationship between theory and practice. This dismissal was easily adopted by many members of the New Left in Europe and North America in the 1960s and, from a different theoretical perspective, by many practitioners of postmodernism and post-structuralism who perceived in the work of Adorno a rigid adherence to a kind of Hegelian Marxist doctrine that was seen to be totalizing, elitist, and pessimistic. Even Adorno’s most well-known student, Jürgen Habermas, distanced himself from the Hegelian philosophical and utopian idealism implicit in his mentor, in favor of the kind of social science popular in mid-century America, tinged in various ways with the tradition of pragmatism, as well as an intersubjective theory of communicative reason that sought to displace subject-centered language models. In addition, followers of the French post-structuralist theorist Gilles Deleuze and his “politics of difference” or the students of Antonio Negri, Michael Hardt, and Paolo Virno, who pursue a concept called “the politics of the multitude,” all claim to have found a more productive and direct route to radical change that avoids the dialectical legacy of Adorno. Even in the current, more radicalized atmosphere of the Occupy Wall Street era, there is immense pressure to move towards forms of praxis that bypass the impediments to direct action that Adorno’s theories would seem, as a function of their overtly negative political outlook as well as their almost impenetrable complexity, to pose.

The weakest sections of Negativity & Revolution are those dealing with art and its relationship to politics. Adorno, who was working on his magnum opus Aesthetic Theory when he died of a heart attack after hiking in the Swiss Alps in 1969, was specifying how aesthetics inflects his political and theoretical analysis. Assuming that Adorno’s aesthetics reflects his philosophy rather than informing it profoundly, on the level of form and content, what this book fails to consider is, How does Adorno alter our understanding of the relationship of negative dialectics, as well as art, to revolution and political activism? A book dealing with the subject of art and negative dialectics is vitally important at this historical juncture, when increasing demands for more “relevant” forms of political art threaten the kind of critical tension and dialectical negativity that Adorno’s aesthetic theory implies. |P

[1]. Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton (London: Continuum International, 1994), 268.