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On November 22, 2013, Nikos Manousakis, a member of the Platypus Affiliated Society in Thessoliniki, interviewed Andros Payiatsos, Secretary General of Xekinima or “Start,” the Greek chapter of the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI). What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.
On October 28th, Spencer A. Leonard interviewed Bill Ayers, former member of Students for a Democratic Society

Jensen Suther

Platypus Review 59 | September 2013


On July 3rd, 2013, at the Goethe Universität in Frankfurt, Germany, Jensen Suther interviewed Axel Honneth, director of the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research and author of numerous books and articles, on behalf of Platypus. Their conversation focused on the problem of “reification,” or the tendency for processes of transformation to appear as, and be treated as if they were, static objects of an immutable nature. Reification was the theme of several writings Honneth delivered as the Tanner Lectures at Berkeley in 2005. These lectures are compiled in the book Reification: A New Look at an Old Idea (New York: Oxford University Press USA, 2012). What follows is an edited transcript of their discussion.


 Georg Lukács in 1913

Jensen Suther: In your 2005 Tanner Lecture series, you argue that Georg Lukács’s Marxist analysis of the problem of reification is problematic, particularly in that he ascribes the overcoming of alienated social relations to the working class. You end the lecture by emphasizing that, pace Lukács, for whom reification is generated by the commodity form, different sets of social practices give rise to reifying behavior and no one group, class, or social movement can be singularly assigned the task of abolishing reified social relations. However, reification has historically been an important concept for the Left. Do you see the critique of reification as necessarily leftist? How, if at all, does your contribution to the discourse on reification relate to the Left?

Axel Honneth: This is a surprising question, one I would not have thought to ask, so my answer comes very much ad hoc. I do not believe that concepts belong to any specific political community or group. The degree to which concepts help us explore something or see something new, they should be taken as an instrument potentially available for everyone in society. So, in that sense, I do not believe that reification is an automatically leftist concept. Moreover, in terms of the history of ideas, I am not even sure that reification is necessarily a concept developed only by leftists. For instance, the French Marxist thinker Lucien Goldmann sought to demonstrate the similarities between the approaches of Lukács and Heidegger. You can find in Heidegger an idea of reification, which already indicates that reification was a concept also utilized by the right, or on the right. There are many problems with Lukács’s analysis. The almost mystical role he assigns the proletariat is only one of them. Even if we grant that his was one of the most fruitful periods in the Left tradition, in the history of Western Marxism, I think that today we can see much more clearly the limits of that analysis and the mistakes bound up with those limits. And, surely, the biggest mistake is not only the emphasis on the world-historical role of the proletariat, but also how this is emphasized, namely by way of a very peculiar set of background ideas, let’s say, about the social structure of reality. Lukács relies on a kind of Fichtean-Hegelian metaphysical concept by which all human society is thought to be grounded in a certain kind of world-constituting activity, and so Lukács thinks that the only class that can overcome reification, which is seen as the destruction of that world-constituting activity, is the class which is representing—even under alienated or distorted conditions—that kind of praxis. Therefore, we have this almost fantastic piece within the whole study, wherein Lukács wants to reveal this one moment of the overcoming of these distorted conditions. For Lukács, this moment looks almost like this one revolutionary act; I mean, you almost get the sense that in one second all these destructive conditions are overcome. It’s a very peculiar analysis—enormously inspiring, but also very strange.

JS: You argue in your 2005 lectures that reification does not eliminate non-reified forms of social praxis, but only papers over them, and you claim that this was also Lukács’s position. In other words, you argue that a “genuine form of human existence,” one based on mutual recognition, perseveres beneath reified social relations. Even if this is the case, is it possible to grasp this genuine, underlying social reality, “as it really is”? Or is it rather the case, as Theodor Adorno suggests, that misrecognition is constitutive of our social condition? And what of Lukács’s claim that the commodity form not only generates reification, but also produces consciousness?

AH: That strikes me as an epistemological question, or probably better still an ontological question: If we grant the condition that reification is constitutive of our society, how could we ever attain a less distorted, or “undisturbed,” form of praxis? If we are to avoid contradicting ourselves, we can only hold out hope for this better form of praxis if we also believe that there must always already be an element of the better, undisturbed form of praxis in our already existing society. This is a difficult issue in Lukács. One way to understand him is to say that all praxis in the present moment of capitalist society is completely reified. But then you have this problem of how one has access to any sense that an undistorted form of praxis is possible. In Adorno it is trickier still. Even when Adorno is saying that reification is constitutive, he believes that there are still alternatives, or signs of another form of praxis. Be it in art, the artwork, or be it in small examples of everyday practices—there are, he claims, elements of an undistorted practice. So in Adorno you have this idea of the immanent appearance of an undistorted praxis, whereas Lukács is much more radical in his claim that reification is total. But this makes it much more difficult for Lukács to think the revolution, or think social change. Thus for Lukács it has to be this completely eschatological transformation, a complete reversal. With respect to this question I think Adorno is more open.


The interior of the Institute for Comparative Irrelevance, Frankfurt, Germany.

JS: To come back to the last part of my previous question, isn’t it the case, for Lukács and Adorno, that reification does not merely represent the ossification of social relations, nor just the objectification of individuals? For both thinkers reification also had a positive significance, as the basis for abolishing current social relations. Adorno, for instance, in his “Reflections on Class Theory,” argues that, “in reified human beings reification finds its outer limits.”[1] In several places Adorno stresses that every second nature is always already a new first nature. Similarly, Lukács speaks of how, during a revolutionary period in the crisis of capital, one sees the intensification, not the diminution, of reification. Indeed, he makes clear that reification is integral to the dialectic of theory and practice, and not simply an obstacle to it. How does this dimension of reification figure into your account? Or, to put the question a different way, what are the limitations to the immanent analysis of reification?

AH: I do not see that, I’m afraid. That has to do, I think, with one’s strategy for identifying reification. There is a huge difference between Lukács and Adorno, on one side, and myself, on the other. For them, the background idea is that capitalist exchange relations, as such, are producing reification. I have doubts about such a totalizing idea. I do not think forms of reification are automatically or necessarily produced by capitalist societies, but rather that specific forms of capitalism and specific forms of practices within capitalism are what produce really reified attitudes. Aside from this difference, however, I also think that Adorno and Lukács make mistakes even in terms of their own conceptualizations. If you take reification literally, which I think Lukács wants to do, then you cannot really say that all economic exchange, even exchange directly involving the labor force, is reification as such. Not all practices involved in the production process necessarily require that the human potentialities of the workers must be exacted from them. Capitalist production as such entails the use, as a commodity, of the human potentialities of the labor force, but only in some specific cases does this form of production also exhibit the opposite—namely, an ignorance of, or disregard for, human potential. Only in these particular cases does it make sense to speak of reification. In the sex trade, for example, we have a clear case of reification. But reification does not obtain in all forms of capitalist production.

JS: In an essay you wrote that concludes the Cambridge Companion to Critical Theory, entitled “A social pathology of reason: on the intellectual legacy of Critical Theory,” you argue that the process of social rationalization, or what Hegel would have called the historical unfolding of freedom, has been interrupted, and that it is the task of Critical Theory to think through the contradiction between capitalism and the aspirations of bourgeois society. You claim that this interruption poses a moral or ethical challenge, whose resolution does not necessarily require the sublation of capitalism, and that history has demonstrated that the “Marxist wing of left Hegelianism” was wrong, since the working class did not “automatically develop a revolutionary readiness.” You argue that, in light of the failure of Marxism, psychoanalysis may offer powerful tools for analyzing social irrationality. In your view, what would be the significance of psychoanalysis for a revitalized emancipatory politics?

AH: It is a very complicated question. First, I would not claim that Marxism as such has failed, but that it has clearly erred in one respect, namely in its conviction that the proletariat or the class of the labor force will automatically develop a critical perspective. An empirical doubt of that premise had already been formulated by the early Frankfurt School. Their starting point, in a way, was hesitation as to precisely that premise.

I think Adorno and some of the other representatives of the Frankfurt School relied mainly on psychoanalysis as a way to think through the emancipatory mechanisms already immanent in capitalism. In certain passages Adorno suggests that a certain component of our psychic life simply resists the existent capitalist conditions because of the element of suffering implicit in these conditions. However, if you follow Freud, suffering produces certain dispositions, not for emancipation, but for enlightening knowledge. Nonetheless, Adorno, until the end, believed in that kind of psychic mechanism. With Marcuse it is completely different. Marcuse argued there are certain drives that permanently resist the capitalist form of rationalization, which would point to a completely different usage of psychoanalysis. But, regarding how I think psychoanalysis might contribute to emancipation, I would give several answers. First, I am most interested in object relations theory, a certain strain within psychoanalysis. In brief, I think this strain, and the work of Donald Winnicott in particular, is very helpful in order to think about emancipatory moments in normal human life. More generally, one element I would take from psychoanalysis is a deep suspicion about the completely rational actor. Psychoanalysis is one tradition among others that helps us to see that human beings are driven not only by their purposive rational interests, but also by their unconscious wishes. I take this insight to be necessary for any analysis of emancipatory potentialities within a given capitalist society.

JS: In a recent interview, you announced your support for the Institute for Comparative Irrelevance (Institut für die Vergleichende Irrelevanz, or IvI), just before the building it has occupied for nearly a decade was seized. In a February 2012 dispatch entitled, “Critical Thinking Needs and Takes Time and Space,” available on its website, the IvI writes that it sees itself as offering an alternative form of politics based around a self-organized space within which it is possible for participants of any age, gender, or ethnicity to achieve autonomy.[2] Do you think this sort of alternative political project realizes, or at least approximates, the kind of mutual recognition and de-reifying behavior that you call for in your work? Adorno argues in several places, most notably in his late essay “Resignation,” that attempts to “rescue enclaves of immediacy in the midst of a thoroughly mediated and rigidified society” amount to pseudo-activity, obscuring the need for change on the level of society.[3] How would you respond to this critique?

AH: I would hope that the notion of mutual forms of recognition can help to make a little bit clearer what Adorno had in mind, actually. Concerning the Institute for Comparative Irrelevance, I think one should support it, simply because this is one expression of the interests of students to have alternative spaces for their own way of thinking, within a non-regulated, non-hierarchical form of university education. And I think it is a good sign for a generation of students if they develop interest in creating such spaces. I do not think that these spaces represent another form of life. In the IvI’s own self-description it does sound as though the IvI has already created an alternative form of life. I do not think it has done that, but the IvI nevertheless has, through a legitimate form of occupation, created a unique place close to the university. They occupied the building in order to reclaim a space for free thinking and free discussion outside the control of official representatives of knowledge. I think this is a good step. There is still a determined group of students who believe they need these places, beyond the specific regulations of education within the university, where they can debate and discuss their own matters, their own theoretical interests, their own insights. It is a good sign if a university allows those spaces, because that’s the whole idea of a university — not to distribute formal knowledge that allows one to attain a position within society, but to represent a space where free thinking is possible. And, if the usual forms of teaching are being put under greater pressure of certain economic interests, then more places like the IvI become necessary. |P

[1]. Adorno, Theodor, “Reflections on Class Theory,” in Can One Live after Auschwitz? A Philosophical Reader, ed. Rolf Tiedemann (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003), 110.

[2]. The full text of “Critical Thinking Needs and Takes Time and Space” (“Kritisches Denken brauchtund nim- mt sich-Zeit und Raum”) can be found online at <http://>.

[3]. Adorno, Theodor, “Resignation,” in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 291.

Spencer A. Leonard and Sunit Singh

Platypus Review 58 | July 2013


On June 25, 2013, Spencer A. Leonard and Sunit Singh interviewed Jonathan Sperber, historian of the 1848 revolutions and author of the acclaimed new biography Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life (2013), on the radio show Radical Minds broadcast on WHPK–FM (88.5 FM) Chicago. What follows is an edited version of the interview that was conducted on air.


Spencer Leonard: Let me start off by asking a very general question. As indicated by the book’s subtitle, this is a “19th Century life”: You are placing Marx in his context, and claiming that Marx is not our contemporary, but best understood within the 19th century, a century you view as both fading into the past and distinctively still with us. So, if Marx is more a figure of the past than a “prophet of the present,” one could ask, Why bother writing a new biography of him?

Jonathan Sperber: In his history of the 19th century, The Transformation of the World, Jürgen Osterhammel argues that the 19th century is sometimes extremely close to us, but more often it is very distant. That’s how I look at Marx. There are ways in which he seems relevant to present concerns, but most often when we look at his writings—stripped of their 20th century reinterpretations—we find Marx is dealing with a different historical era than our own, with different problems and different issues. Though he uses many of the same words, like “capitalism,” this means something very different from today’s global capitalist economy.

Sunit Singh: When Marx confronted the possibility that a university career might be closed (once Friedrich Wilhelm IV initiated a rightward, anti-Hegelian shift in Prussia around 1840) Marx turned to work as a journalist and editor. You describe Marx the crusading young newspaperman as follows:

Marx blasted [the] enemies [of the freedom of the press], linking their arguments to an archaic society of orders, to an authoritarian Prussian state trying to prop up this society, and to intellectual trends defending it…. [He also set about] praising freedom of the press as part of a broader encomium of freedom, articulated in opposition to the nature of the Prussian monarchy… [and] the debates on freedom of the press in the recently concluded Rhenish Provincial Diet…. Marx brought together liberal aspirations for an effective legislature, and for a constitution guaranteeing basic rights, such as freedom of the press, and liberal hostility to the society of orders…. [Marx argued] in Hegelian fashion, [for] a free press as the objectification of the people’s spirit and not an objectification alienated from its spirit, but one that knew itself as such (83-87).

As editor of the Rhineland News, Marx adopted a “liberal, anti-protectionist, and even anti-communist stance” that the “bourgeois liberals who were financing the newspaper” could rally around. Moreover, this commitment to free trade or even his criticisms of communism were, on your account, not the ideas of a liberal youth that Marx would later discard. So what were Marx’s formative political experiences and how does a Nineteenth Century Life reframe our understanding of them?

JS: I’ll mention four places where I show Marx’s formative political experiences. One was his relationship with the Prussian monarchy. Marx was born in Trier, a city that had been annexed by Prussia by the time of the Congress of Vienna. Its inhabitants were deeply hostile to Prussia. Marx himself was profoundly ambivalent towards Prussia. Nevertheless, as a Young Hegelian, he looked to it as a source of liberalism, reform, and enlightened ideas. However, he would ultimately become a strong enemy of Prussia. This break with liberal illusions about Prussia was formative for Marx. It led to him becoming a radical, who saw the resolution of political confrontations in violent revolution. Then, there are the ideas of Hegel, which shaped Marx’s views of historical process, and social and political struggle. Third, was Marx’s confrontation with the ideas of classical political economy in the form of figures like Adam Smith, and Smith’s most important disciples, such as David Ricardo, and James and John Stuart Mill. We see this in a very early form in Marx’s advocacy of free trade, which was something he maintained throughout his life. Although Marx, of course, broke with nineteenth century pro-free-market and pro-private property liberalism, becoming a communist, he did so while retaining the basic tenets of classical political economy. Marx always criticized socialist thinkers like Proudhon, who tried to prove Ricardo wrong. (This was one of the central points of Marx’s critique of Proudhon in his polemic, The Poverty of Philosophy.) Finally, there is Marx’s confrontation with the French Revolution, the dominant political event of the first two-thirds of the 19th century. The revolutions that Marx the radical advocated were modeled on those occurring in France in 1789 and 1793. These were Marx’s formative political experiences. His developed theory was an attempt to combine all four into a cohesive view of the past development and future trends of European history. This developed theory reminds me a little of what happens when you put a cat into a box. Cats like boxes, and they often climb into them even if they aren’t big enough. No matter how much they contort their bodies, there’s always some part sticking out. Marx’s effort to combine all of these influences into one theory strikes me as very much like this.

SL: While editing the Rhineland News in Cologne, Marx criticized many of his fellow Young Hegelians for their foppish “lifestyle-based radicalism.” How did this critique of bohemianism develop into more politically pointed criticisms of fellow socialists in Paris and Brussels?

JS: What Marx disliked about the Young Hegelians was the way their interests revolved around carrying on an atheist lifestyle, making fun of established religion and gender relations. When Marx became a newspaper editor, and began to hang around with businessmen and politicians who were actually trying to change things, he began to see the Young Hegelians as a frivolous lot and their efforts as non-serious, as leading to no changes in state and society. This attitude was expanded and developed in his various critiques of fellow socialists in the 1840s, such as Proudhon and Karl Grün. Marx criticized them for trying to smuggle communism into existing capitalist society by making it a lifestyle choice (e.g., by joining workers' cooperatives or Fourierist phalansteries) instead of seeing it as a political issue involving revolutionary social struggle. So Marx developed this critique of the lifestyle-based politics of the Young Hegelians into one of communists skeptical of political struggle. They saw the implementation of communism as a matter of changing people’s opinions and social habits, rather than of overthrowing the government.

SL: They thought if people’s ideas changed, political change would follow?

JS: Yes, but in that case political change would become unnecessary. If people’s ideas changed, then there would be no problem. Marx was well aware that people’s ideas must be changed, but he saw such change as being effected through political struggles.

SS: You argue that Marx’s developing worldview in the mid-1840s is perhaps best captured by his articles, “Introduction to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law” and the review of Bruno Bauer's “On the Jewish Question,” both written for the Franco-German Yearbooks. The two articles represent his attempt to digest Hegel’s theory of modern society after the collapse of the society of orders and, despite this collapse, the apparent antagonism between the state and civil society. While the rhetoric of, especially, “On the Jewish Question” has forced “Marx’s defenders [to] tiptoe around the essay in embarrassed fashion” (127), you take Marx’s engagement with Bruno Bauer over Jewish emancipation to mark a crucial stage in his development as, so to speak, a late Hegelian. How did Marx’s position in these pieces mark a real crystallization of his thought?

JS: As far as Marx’s review of “On the Jewish Question,” in the second part in particular, Marx really lets loose on Jews, accusing them of being greedy, selfish, and capitalistic. He claimed that in a communist society, Judaism would no longer exist, and Jews would no longer be an identifiable group. Seen from the point of view of the 20th century, with the Nazi and Stalinist persecutions of the Jews, this is very embarrassing. Indeed, many have denounced Marx as an anti-Semite and a proto-Nazi. One of the things I argue in the book is that this is a false perspective on the essay. What we actually see here is Marx making a very interesting distinction between what he calls “political emancipation” and “human emancipation.” He argues that the emancipation of the Jews would involve granting them equal rights with Christians and the creation of a society like in the United States with a separation between church and state, which marked a crucial step in the completion of the program of the French Revolution.

Now if Marx had stopped there, no one could have accused him of being an anti-Semite. But Marx believed that the completion of the program of the French Revolution (the creation of a democratic republic, a society in which people were equal under the law, an end to discrimination on the basis of religion or race), while a historic step forward from the old regime society of orders, itself created a society marked by alienation and capitalist exploitation. So, in the second part of the essay "On the Jewish Question," the part which tends to offend people, he went on to argue that true human emancipation requires an end to this capitalist society of alienation, exploitation, and the separation of state and society. This is the beginning of his Hegelian argument for the creation of a communist regime. It seems in some ways an odd argument. Marx was saying that Jews needed to be emancipated in order to act freely as members of civil society, but that when they do that, the moneyed among them will simply end up as capitalist exploiters. So the question becomes: Why would you bother doing this in the first place? What was Marx talking about? And this becomes a central element of his political aspirations, a dilemma he would wrestle with for the subsequent 40 years: How would it be possible to do both, to complete the tasks of the French Revolution by overthrowing monarchies and creating democratic republics and societies of equal citizens, but also go beyond that by creating a communist society in which alienation was abolished, and society, the state, and individuals were harmonized. Trying to carry out these two revolutionary acts at once turned out to be impossible. Marx never found a way to resolve this issue.

SL: One major theme of Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life is that, as you have indicated already, Marx understood himself as heir to the French Revolution. Specifically, Marx expected and, indeed, in perhaps the most famous passages of The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, described 19th century revolution as a repetition of the 18th century French Revolution, particularly in its 1789–1794 phase. Thus, Marx simultaneously longs for the revolutionary poetry of the future, even as he argues that the past necessarily recurs. You describe Marx’s thinking at the time of the Revolution of 1848–49 as follows:

Using his influential position within the newly reorganized Communist League… Marx took scant time to join the revolutionary fray. For a little over a year, from the spring of 1848 through the spring of 1849, Marx was, for the first and last time in his life, an insurgent revolutionary: editing in brash, subversive style the New Rhineland News; becoming a leader of the radical democrats of the city of Cologne and of the Prussian Rhineland; trying to organize the working class in Cologne and across Germany; and repeatedly encouraging and fomenting revolution. In all of these activities, Marx persistently promoted the revolutionary strategy he had first envisioned in his essay on the Jewish Question, and would present in scintillating language in the Communist Manifesto. He pressed for a democratic revolution to destroy the authoritarian Prussian monarchy. At the same time he aspired to organize the working class to carry out a communist uprising against a capitalist regime he expected such a democratic revolution to establish. In effect, Marx was proposing a double recurrence of the French Revolution: A repetition of its 1789–1794 phase in mid-nineteenth century Prussia, and also a workers’ seizure of power… (195)

And, again, when you come to address the Manifesto itself, you note the magnetic influence of the French Revolution upon its programmatic aspect. “The ten-point program in the Manifesto,” you write, “was designed for a revolutionary government, one modeled on the radical, Jacobin phase of the French Revolution in 1789” (210). How and why does Marx, who is after all, the great theorist of modernity’s historical dynamism, also view history as subject to this sort of repetition such that he expects the French Revolutionary past to return under changed conditions?

JS: Maybe we need to revise our notions about Marx’s attitude toward modernity’s historical dynamism. Marx’s political thought—like most of his contemporaries’—was centered on the French Revolution. This was just a reality that dominated the first two-thirds of 19th century Europe. When people thought about politics, they thought about it in terms of the French Revolution. Marx was no exception in that respect. What’s interesting about Marx is this idea of what I like to call the “double recurrence” of the French Revolution. On the one hand, the French Revolution would literally recur in Central and Eastern Europe, with an uprising against the Prussian and Austrian monarchies and their replacement by a revolutionary German Republic. This would probably include a revolutionary war against the Tsar—a literal rerun of 1793 in mid-19th-century Germany. But there would also be a recurrence by analogy. That is, Marx saw the bourgeoisie as seizing power, bringing the feudal society of orders to an end, and replacing it with a capitalist economy. By analogy, the workers would do the same thing: They would overthrow capitalism and create a communist society. Marx wants to do both at once in 1848, but he finds it very difficult. He discovers, in trying to overthrow the Prussian monarchy, that you can’t get the workers riled up against the bourgeoisie, because the bourgeoisie then won’t support you in overthrowing the monarchy. In his speech to the Cologne Democratic Society in August 1848, he ends up describing the class struggle as nonsense. The problem was that organizing the workers against the capitalists did not necessarily mean opposing the Prussian state.

SL: What I meant by Marx as a thinker of historical dynamism is the way that Marx thinks about industrialization as producing constant historical change. It is in this respect that the 19th century looks different from the 18th century, the century of the French Revolution. In this sense Marx is quite conscious of holding on to the French Revolutionary conception of politics under vastly changed circumstances.

JS: I really think that Marx here is a primarily backwards-looking figure, who is reading capitalism’s future out of its past. He sees the future political crisis of capitalism being resolved by a movement along the lines of the French Revolution. His whole economic vision of the future of capitalism (e.g., the labor theory of value, the falling rate of profit) is based upon the ideas of David Ricardo, who wrote in the early 19th century, the earliest phase of the Industrial Revolution. Marx saw these conditions, which by the mid-1800s were capitalism’s past, as being capitalism’s future. All of Marx’s invocations of dynamism and constant change—we all know the famous (and actually mistranslated) section of the Communist Manifesto proclaiming that “all that is solid melts into air”—tend to end up parsed in terms of Marx’s past.

SS: Could you provide your translation of “all that is solid melts into air”?

JS: The German original is “Alles Ständische und Stehende verdampft.” “Stehende” and “Ständische” both come from the verb “to stand,” and is used here as sort of a pun—it refers to both “that which exists” and the society of orders, the old regime world that still existed in Prussia and Austria. “Verdampft” means to “evaporate,” to “go up in smoke.” What Marx was suggesting here is that the power of capitalism—capitalist steam engines (“Dampf” means “steam” in German)—would “evaporate” the society of orders. This would also bring to an end the intellectual world that went along with it: Romanticism, the glorification of the Middle Ages, and religion. Marx’s comment at the end about “man is at last compelled to face, with sober senses, his real conditions of life” is about an age of realism, e.g., literary realism. One of Marx’s friends when he was in exile in Paris was Heinrich Heine, the great early German realist.

Mine is a very different take on the passage. The way it has been interpreted in the 20th century is that capitalism produces many new consumer demands; we have a world which is constantly changing in communications, artistic trends, etc. That’s a 20th century reinterpretation of Marx’s ideas.

SS: One of “Marx’s least successful predictions” from the Communist Manifesto, you note, is that of the imminent end of nations and nationalism: “National distinctiveness and conflicts between nations disappear more and more with the development of the bourgeoisie, with free trade, the world market, the uniformity of industrial production and the relations of life corresponding to them.” As you note, the resurgence of nationalism in pre-1914 Europe belies any straightforward affirmation of what Marx wrote. But as you also note, Marx’s view nevertheless contained an element of truth rooted in Marx’s own experience. Marx had participated with the London Fraternal Democrats and the Brussels Democratic Association, both of which “were based on the cooperation of radicals of different nationalities” (207) and, of course, Marx, whose own perspective was resolutely internationalist, went on to participate in other organizations dedicated to international cooperation. Given this, might we not take Marx’s observation in the Communist Manifesto as indicating, if not straightforward dissolution of nationalism, then its substantial, if subtle, transformation from British patriotism or, later French revolutionary nationalism of the 18th century? In the history of European nationalism, how does the revolution of 1848 serve as a watershed moment? How did Marx and Engels relate to post-1848 nationalisms—particularly Polish and Irish (we’ll get to Marx’s brand of German nationalism later)—and how did this shape their political outlook?

JS: The early advocates of nationalism in the first half of the 19th century tended to envisage antagonisms and military conflicts between different countries as the result of the lusts of monarchs for conquest, glory, and expansion of their domains. They imagined that when states were ruled by nations, by peoples, all of this would come to an end, and nations would spontaneously cooperate with each other. These were the ideas of Giuseppe Mazzini, the leading democrat in 1830s and ’40s Europe, whose organizations Young Italy and Young Europe were designed to be an alliance of different nationalist groups against the existing monarchical order. The Brussels Democratic Association had an absolutely fabulous name: The Democratic Association Having as its Goal the Union and Fraternity of all Peoples. This expresses exactly what nationalists thought. But in 1848, the old regimes are swept away, bringing nationalist governments in power and the first thing that happens as a result is that all these different nationalisms go to war with each other. This is especially the case in the Austrian Empire, with the Germans, the Slavs, the Hungarians, and the Italians all at war with each other. This also happens to some extent in Prussia with the Germans and the Poles, and in the far north of Germany between Germans and Danes. That is, it then became clear that nationalist movements were profoundly antagonistic to one another and that nationalism was a militaristic, bellicose ideology. This was a great disappointment and left many nationalists frustrated.

Marx and Engels developed an instrumental relationship to nationalism. For instance, Marx was a fan of Polish nationalism because it was violently anti-Russian, and he saw the destruction of the Tsarist Empire as a central revolutionary step. Marx’s daughter Jenny, who followed in her father’s political footsteps and became a left-wing journalist in her own right, wrote mostly about her support for Irish nationalism, not communism or the labor movement. Marx and Engels ended up supporting Irish nationalism, because they thought it might ultimately destroy the position of the landowning Anglo-Irish aristocracy, and this, they thought, would be a blow to English capitalism and capitalism worldwide. There were lots of other nationalisms that they didn’t like, like that of the Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe—which tended to be anti-German and pro-Russian. Engels states in Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Germany, which is a sort of post-mortem of the revolutions of 1848, that if we have a revolution in Germany and the Czechs are opposed to it, we’ll just kill all of them—frankly genocidal rhetoric. We see here the way that that these disillusioned nationalities will not in fact spontaneously fraternize, and so it is necessary to view nationalism through its usefulness for revolutionary goals.

The final issue of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung.

SL: Marx’s stint as an active revolutionary was spent editing the Neue Rheinische Zeitung in Cologne. Reminiscing about the paper in later years, Engels asserted that “war with Russia and the creation of a united German republic were its two main themes” (226).[1] Explain the logic of this and, more generally, the strategic orientation of the paper vis-à-vis other socialists, such as Andreas Gottschalk, whom you described as a “True Socialist, [and] a friend, pupil, and close confidant of [the Young Hegelian philosopher] Moses Hess” (220). What was Marx’s political aim in the revolution of 1848? How did Marx’s political development over the previous half decade or so prepare him for the role he played as editor-in-chief of the New Rhineland News? How did his position evolve over the course of the 1848–49 revolution?

JS: You will remember this idea of the “double recurrence” of the French Revolution, the literal and analogous. Marx had a “double-track” political strategy in 1848 of achieving both of these revolutionary goals at once. His work in Cologne on the New Rhineland News represented the literal, “Jacobin” wing of this strategy that would call for a united German republic, the overthrow of the Prussian monarchy, and revolutionary war with Russia. Marx spent a lot of his time really socking it to the Prussians: making fun of the monarch, the royal family, government officials, tax collectors, and army officers. He stirred up the population against them all. The Prussian officials got angry because Marx was quite good at it. And in the western provinces, the Prussians were widely despised.

The other thing that Marx wanted to do was to organize the workers and to form a nationwide German workers’ association that would prepare for a new revolutionary struggle against the capitalists once this democratic republic was achieved. The first “Jacobin” part worked pretty well, but the workers’ association did not. Marx’s working-class, communist followers were disappointing. They spent a lot of time drinking in the cafes and playing dominoes, rather than trying to organize their fellow workers. In Cologne itself, Gottschalk headed a very large workers’ association—something like every one in three adult males in the city belonged to it—but to be honest it would be fair to describe him and his mentor Moses Hess in contemporary terminology as “airheads”—fabulists who believed that everybody was in favor of communism, and all you had to do was wait a little while in order for communism to emerge on its own. Gottschalk was notorious for refusing to take part in political campaigns. He sabotaged the elections to the German National Assembly by calling the democrats bourgeois frauds and calling on workers not to vote, thereby allowing the Cologne conservatives to dominate the election. He refused to join the republican and anti-Prussian campaigns. He was really screwing everything up, and all the democrats in Cologne were hostile to Gottschalk—Marx was no exception in this respect. When Gottschalk was arrested by the Prussian government in June 1848, Marx and his followers took control of his organization and attempted to use it to support the democrats. But instead the organization itself collapsed, so that Marx found himself, in 1848, pursuing only the Jacobin/democratic half of his political agenda.

In the fall of 1848, a period of revolutionary crises, Marx was busy stirring up efforts to overthrow the Prussian government, and in November these came very close to succeeding. He continued in this vein until the very end of the revolution, until in the spring of 1849 he suddenly changed his mind and began trying to organize the workers again. He broke with the democrats and the movement for German National Unity, and stood aside in the last revolutionary crisis of May 1849. There’s this odd back-and-forth pattern, which would be the same with the International Workingmen’s Association, within which we see the difficulty Marx had in getting both prongs of his “double recurrence” to work simultaneously.

SS: As the U.S. Civil War reached a revolutionary pitch and Polish nationalists rose in revolt against the czar, Marx came to help form the International Workingmen’s Association. Respecting Marx’s involvement in the association and its original aims, you write,

Marx’s plans for the association appeared in his agenda for the First Congress of the IWMA... The items for action included the advocacy of social reform—a shorter workday, limitations on women and children’s labor, the replacement of indirect with direct taxation, an international inquiry into workplace conditions, and the endorsement of producers’ cooperatives and trade unions. There were just two expressly political points, both taken from the arsenal of nineteenth century radicalism: the replacement of standing armies with militias; and “the necessity of annihilating the Muscovite influence in Europe... [via] the reconstitution of Poland on a social and democratic basis.” (358, ellipsis in original)

Starting from this basis, how did the IWMA politically evolve? What developments did it face and what were the central tensions within it? What were the primary aims Marx sought to advance in his struggles over the direction of the First International? How did these evolve into a struggle with the Russian anarchist Mikhail Bakunin and what was at stake there?

JS: As you can see in the quote, one might think of Marx’s objectives in the IMWA as not involving any specifically revolutionary goals. He saw the IMWA primarily in terms of trade union and workplace-related reform movements. Marx believed that these would ultimately be revolutionary in nature because of his theory of surplus value, according to which capitalists gain their profits by taking part of the product that workers have produced. Marx saw unions as trying to seize some of that surplus value back from the capitalists. He hoped that, if the unions continued this effort with the support of the IMWA, it would tend to reduce capitalist profits and lead to a revolutionary crisis. This was a long-term strategy that would take a while to work out. Marx was supported in these ideas by the English trade unionists that formed the backbone of the IWMA and provided it with most of its meager finances.

The opponents of Marx were revolutionary adherents of secret societies, who saw the IWMA as a means by which to overthrow the existing order in Europe. They were interested above all in this idea of a secret society organization. At first, this was less the case for Bakunin than for the followers of the French revolutionary Louis Auguste Blanqui, who spent the 1830s–1870s plotting revolutions, trying them out, going to jail, being released, and plotting new ones.

There were two things that created tensions in the IWMA. One was its spread, from Northern and Western Europe (where it began), to countries in Southern Europe, where there weren’t really any trade unions, but where the tradition of secret societies was still very active. The second was the Franco–Prussian war of 1870, which disrupted politics all across the European continent. Marx was actually not at first hostile to Bakunin. The two became friends when they met in exile in France in the late 1840s, and Marx was always very impressed with him. When they met again some 15 years later, Marx wrote to Engels saying that Bakunin was one of the few people who had moved forward in the interval rather than backwards. Bakunin was an enormous fan of secret societies, and became involved with some very dubious ones like that of Sergey Nechayev, who was famously depicted in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed. He therefore found himself increasingly in opposition to Marx. This eventually led to a break between the two, and a struggle for control of the IWMA. As part of this struggle, Marx decided that the IWMA had to endorse the idea of workers’ political parties. At the time, very few workers’ political parties existed. There were two competing ones in Germany at the time, but Marx trusted neither entirely. This led to a ferocious struggle between Marx and his followers, and frankly every other element in the IWMA. In the 1872 Hague conference, Marx’s followers were victorious and they expelled Bakunin. They then moved the headquarters of the IWMA to New York, basically with the intention of destroying the organization; Marx realized that plans for revolution probably had to be shelved after the repression of the Paris Commune. Just as Marx took control of the organization, he chose to bring it to an end.

SL: Why was Marx concerned to maintain the IWMA as an open, democratic political activity? A quarter century before, Marx and Engels had fought to publicize the activities of the Communist League, though it is true that, after the reverses of 1849, the Communist League took on a secret, underground form. Still, is it fair to say that the struggles in the IWMA repeat his struggles in 1847 for an open form of politics and publication?

JS: I think so. The Communist League did adopt a clandestine form after 1849, but that’s because open political activity was essentially impossible in an age of revolutionary repression. Marx was always a proponent of open politics. He was a newspaper editor—this was always one of his chief forms of political activism. Marx was suspicious of secret societies and believed wholeheartedly in open politics. One of the ironies of his struggles against Bakunin was that Marx was convinced Bakunin was trying to undermine the IWMA by smuggling in his followers in order to form a secret society within the IWMA itself. This was actually not the case, and it was ironically one of Marx’s allies who was proposing this idea, the veteran German revolutionary Johann Philipp Becker. Marx flew off the handle at Becker’s suggestions, and thought he was being manipulated by Bakunin.

SS: Two of Marx and Engels’s key associates in the German workers movement were Ferdinand Lassalle and Wilhelm Liebknecht. Eventually, it was Liebknecht, who opposed Lassalle’s coziness with Bismarck, who came to enjoy Marx and Engels’s support. One crucial division between the two, and what eventually divided Lassalle from Marx as well, was again the question of nationalism. As veterans of 1848, they all supported in some sense the cause of Germany, but Marx articulated this as an anti-Prussian demand for a German republic. Yet, in the face of eventual German unification enforced by Prussia, Marx and Liebknecht were forced to make something of it. This meant coming to some sort of terms with the followers of Lassalle. What were the fundamental underlying tensions expressed by Liebknecht’s opposition to the Lassalleans and to what extent were these overcome?

JS: There were three issues here. One was the question of the nature of a united German nation-state. Would it be a Grossdeutsch one that included the ethnic Germans of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or would it be a Kleindeutsch one, without those Germans, and so exclusively dominated by Prussia? Marx was always a Grossdeutscher and, certainly, Liebknecht was a follower of Marx on this point, while Lassalle was strongly opposed. But the issue was ultimately decided by war: The Prussians trounced the Austrians in 1866, therefore Bismarck’s state would be a Prussian–dominated Kleindeutsch state. Marx was unhappy with this, but he understood that he had to come to terms with it.

The second issue was whether the German nation-state would be a democratic republic or not. Liebknecht, as a veteran of the revolution of 1848, was a strong adherent of the idea of a democratic republic. Lassalle was too, though he flirted with the idea of a constitutional monarchy, and had conspiratorial meetings with Bismarck. This tension too was decided by history. The united German nation‑state persecuted both the followers of Liebknecht and Lassalle equally, and the followers of Lassalle increasingly became opponents of the existing monarchical order.

The third issue, and this was the really tricky one, was the question of relations between the labor movement and liberal–progressive parties in the German government. Lassalle and his followers clearly despised the liberals and made deals with the conservatives, while Liebknecht and his followers were willing to make deals with at least those democrats that shunned the conservatives. This was an issue that, even after the two wings of the labor movement united at the Gotha Congress of 1875, remained alive in the German socialist party. There were some who felt that opposing liberalism was their primary aim, even if it meant collaborating with conservative authorities. Others felt that opposing the conservative authorities should be the primary aim, even if that meant collaborating with the liberals. |P

Transcribed by Tom Willis

[1]. See Friedrich Engels, “Marx and the Neue Rheinische Zeitung (1848-49)” available at <ahref=""> In that 1884 piece, Engels observes, “The political program of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung consisted of two main points: A single, indivisible, democratic German republic and war with Russia, including the restoration of Poland.”

Spencer A. Leonard

Platypus Review 53 | February 2013


Spencer A. Leonard interviewed noted Civil War historian James McPherson, author of the classic Battle Cry of Freedom (1988), to discuss the new Lincoln biopic by Steven Spielberg and the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. The interview was broadcast on January 29, 2013 on the radio show Radical Minds on WHPK–FM (88.5 FM) Chicago. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation. 

Spencer Leonard: 150 years ago, on January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued his famous Emancipation Proclamation. This constituted an important culmination in the long struggle for the abolition of slavery. What, in brief, is the background to the Proclamation in terms of the long struggle for free labor in North America stretching back to the Revolution and into colonial times? Was the destruction of slavery in America simply a matter of coming to terms with an original American sin or a lingering hypocrisy? Or had the course of history in the 19th century posed the question of chattel slavery in a way that it had not done for the generation of the American Enlightenment and Revolution?

James McPherson: Well, in the first place, slavery was not a uniquely American sin. It had existed in many societies over many centuries even prior to its first introduction into Virginia in 1619. In subsequent decades, slavery took deep root in all of the British North American colonies, as it did in the Caribbean and in South America, where in fact slavery was much more deeply entrenched than it was in most parts of North America.

But starting in the third quarter of the 18th century, a variety of forces began to call the morality and validity of slavery into question—cultural forces and intellectual forces and economic forces. The Enlightenment and, with it, the Age of Revolution—the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the Haitian Revolution, the revolutions in Latin America—these began to attack the philosophical and economic underpinnings of slavery. In the northern states of the new American nation, the Revolution led to a powerful anti-slavery movement which by about 1800 had eliminated slavery or had begun to eliminate slavery from all of the states north of the Mason-Dixon line. The Haitian Revolution beginning in the 1790s liberated that island, albeit violently.

So, there was a gathering movement against slavery in the Western world that had a significant effect in the United States, generating a strong anti-slavery movement first among the Quakers, then spreading. It extended not only to the North but to the South as well, reaching a kind of culmination in the 1830s with the beginning of the militant Abolitionist movement—William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, and the founding of the American Anti-Slavery Society. Gradually, that impulse spread into a political movement, first with the Liberty Party in 1840 and then with the Free Soil Party in 1848 and the Republican Party in the middle 1850s. Together these developed what historian Eric Foner talked about many decades ago as a “free labour ideology.” That politics created a sense of two socioeconomic orders in the United States: One in the North based on free labour with social mobility, a dynamic entrepreneurial society; the other in the South based on slavery, which since the 1780s had become more deeply entrenched.

In the 18th century there was a widespread sense that slavery would disappear. The Founding Fathers, who formed the Constitution in 1787, assumed that slavery would soon die out. This is why they were willing to make certain compromises with the slave states to get them to join the new nation. Though the Constitution-makers assumed that slavery would probably die out soon, quite the opposite happened in the South, starting in the 1790s and early 1800s with the spread of the Cotton Kingdom, which meant that in the very decades that slavery was disappearing in the North and a strong anti-slavery movement was developing in the first half of the 19th century, the institution was becoming much more deeply entrenched in the South. That generated a whole series of cultural, social, and political justifications for the institution of slavery. By the middle of the 19th century the two sections had come to a kind of face-off with each other over the question of the expansion of slavery, which had been made an acute problem by the acquisition of a huge amount of new territory in the Mexican War. A bitter struggle ensued, starting in 1854, over the territories that had originally been acquired through the Louisiana Purchase of 1803; the whole question of whether slavery would be allowed to expand into those territories that were not yet states became acute in the 1850s. So, in a sense, the anti-slavery impulse that had deep roots going back into the latter part of the 18th century was coming into a collision course with a pro-slavery impulse that had become pretty powerful by the 1830s and 1840s in the slave states. This led to the showdown in 1860, with Lincoln’s election and the secession of the southern states.

SL: So, at the time of the Revolution and the drafting of the Constitution, there was not among American revolutionaries North and South indifference towards slavery so much as an expectation that the institution would die out. And, indeed, slavery was abolished throughout the North in subsequent decades. But in the South the expectations of the 18th century proved mistaken. That generation did not foresee, for instance, the sort of changes that the cultivation of cotton for industrial production would bring about.

JM: The cotton textile industry was at the cutting edge of economic change in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. There is a real irony here, as the same industrial changes that encouraged the growth of cotton in the South and thus entrenched slavery there ever more deeply also generated—first in Britain and then in Northern United States—the free labour system that came into violent conflict with the slave power in the war.

SL: In 1862, prior to issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln remarked, “I do not want to issue a document that the whole world will see must necessarily be inoperative, like the Pope’s bull against the comet!”[1] Was the Proclamation inoperative, as Lincoln feared? If not, what was the specific import of the Proclamation in the ongoing process of the war’s destruction of slavery as an institution in the United States? What of the clauses lifting the ban on the enlistment of black soldiers in the Union Army? Finally, was Lincoln dilatory in issuing the Proclamation and confronting slavery?

JM: From the very beginning of the war Lincoln had to walk a narrow path. On one side, there were forces set in motion that eroded slavery. These began at the very start of the war: The moment the first Northern soldier set foot in the South he became an agent of emancipation—even if an unwitting and unintentional one—because slaves started flocking to Union lines. Very early the Lincoln administration made the commitment not to return them to slavery. So, starting in the Virginia Peninsula in May 1861 and expanding to many other places as army and naval forces began to penetrate the Confederacy, thousands, then tens of thousands of slaves came within Union lines. The Lincoln Administration was resolved that they would not be returned.

At first, they were not returned only if the owners supported the Confederacy. But by the late summer or fall of 1861, even in the border states that remained loyal to the Union, slaves were not being returned to masters unless the masters could prove, which turned out often to be very difficult, that they were loyal to the United States—and sometimes not even then. Congress also began passing legislation. First there was the Confiscation Act in August 1861. It said that masters whose slaves had worked to support the Confederate War effort but escaped to Union lines—those masters had forfeited the rights to their slaves. In fact, what they meant was that the slaves had become free. Half a year later, in March 1862, Congress passed legislation prohibiting Union officers from returning slaves to their masters, whether those masters were loyal or not and whether this process took place in the Confederacy or in the loyal border states.

That’s one side. The other is Lincoln’s concern to maintain the northern war coalition that included northern Democrats and border state Unionists. Neither of these groups saw this as a war against slavery but only as a war to restore the Union—the Union of 1861 in which slavery existed in half the country. They threatened to withdraw their support for the war if it became overtly and explicitly a war against slavery. So Lincoln had to walk that path. In the first year and a half of the war he sustained the steps I described above by which thousands of slaves did in fact achieve freedom. At the same time he had to make clear that this was not a war for the abolition of slavery, but only to preserve the Union. Any steps that eroded slavery were just a by-product of this war to defend this Union.

In the summer of 1862 the Confederates launched a series of counter-offensives that ended the hopes of a quick Union victory that had spread following Union success in several theatres of the war earlier in the year. The Confederacy was roaring back. It was also becoming increasingly clear that slave labour was sustaining the Southern war economy. Slaves provided much of the labor required by the Confederate army’s logistical efforts. To “strike against slavery as a military necessity” was therefore the phrase used over and over again in the North in 1862. To undermine the Confederate war effort by striking overtly at slavery, Congress passed a more comprehensive Confiscation Act in July 1862. In that same month Lincoln decided to issue a proclamation freeing the slaves in parts of the Confederacy that were at war with the United States. His proposed proclamation would go well beyond the earlier partial steps by which slaves who came within Union lines achieved freedom.

Lincoln was dissuaded from making this overt proclamation at a time when Union armies were reeling back in defeat. He was anxious that it not be viewed as a desperate measure to incite slave insurrection. So he withheld it until after Union armies won a limited but significant victory at Antietam in September 1862. Five days after that battle Lincoln stated his intention to issue a final proclamation on January 1, 1863. This would apply to all parts of the Confederacy that had not by that time returned to the Union. When January 1, 1863, came and the rebellion still persisted in the seceded states, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. It was the culmination of a process that went back to the beginning of the war. In some ways, of course, it went back decades before, back into the long history of the struggle against slavery, the movement to abolish it or at least to restrict its power.

The Emancipation Proclamation had a powerful symbolic as well as substantive impact. It announced that now one of the goals of the war was to bring an end to slavery—maybe not everywhere, maybe not immediately, but it was a much more dramatic statement of purpose than anything that had gone before. It also lifted what had previously been in effect a ban on enlistment of African Americans in the Union Army and announced an explicit intention to recruit freed slaves into the Union army. This added another arrow to the quiver of the Union. In the end, about 200,000 African Americans, most of them former slaves, fought in the Union Army and Navy. As Lincoln himself said on several occasions, these black soldiers made an essential contribution to the Northern war effort. In some ways that might have been the most important part of the Emancipation Proclamation, because now the slaves could not only achieve their own freedom by coming within Union lines but could be armed to fight for their own freedom and for the freedom of the entire slave population.


 A lithograph of a Union soldier reads the Emancipation Proclamation to newly freed slaves, image from the U.S. National Archives.

SL: Karl Marx’s Civil War writings, many of which were written in his capacity of London correspondent for Greeley’s paper, repeatedly decry the open or at least tacit sympathy for the Confederacy in governing circles in London. It is an aspect of it little remarked upon now, but in its own day the Emancipation Proclamation was as much directed at Europe as it was towards Richmond and the plantations of the South. Thus 150 years ago, on the day the Proclamation was issued, Horace Greeley, editor of what was then the leading Republican newspaper in the country, The New York Tribune, wrote the following[2]:

 Our European friends have all desired and hoped that we would take ground against that mother of sedition, that fruitful source of all our woes, Slavery. Victor Hugo, Garibaldi, John Bright—every recognized and honored leader of the party of progress —had impatiently anticipated the Proclamation of Freedom… The policy of Emancipation has won to our cause some valued friends over the water—we do not hear that it has lost us one.

Why was the success or failure of the project to enforce militarily the emancipation of American slaves significant internationally? What was the Emancipation Proclamation’s impact on that plane?


A photograph taken after the Battle of Antietam. Alexander Gardner, “Bloody Lane,” 1862. Library of Congress. 

JM: At one level, the Emancipation Proclamation was significant in precluding foreign intervention in the American Civil War. Most civil wars throughout history have attracted foreign intervention. We can think of examples in our own time: Libya last year, Syria right now. There was a real possibility that something of that sort would happen in the American Civil War. If that had happened, foreign intervention certainly would have been on the side of the Confederacy.

SL: There were French armies at the time on the borders of the Confederacy…

JM: That’s right. France had intervened in Mexico in 1861, ultimately sending some 35,000 troops, and in 1864 they installed the Archduke Maximilian of Austria on the Mexican throne. During this time, the Confederates were reaching out to the French and to Maximilian. The French might have provided some assistance to the Confederacy in return for Confederate recognition of Maximilian’s reign in Mexico. That never happened, but it was a real danger.

But the primary fear of the North and hope of the South was British intervention, and, as Karl Marx recognized, there was a lot of sympathy for the Confederacy in Britain, especially among the gentry and the aristocracy. But there was also a countervailing trend of hostility to slavery in Britain. The British had themselves abolished slavery in their West Indian colonies back in 1833. At that time it was the largest single act of emancipation in the history of the world. Within the British working class and among middle class liberals there was a lot of sympathy for the North. After all, for a generation or more before the Civil War the United States was seen by many British workers and middle class liberals as a kind of exemplar of democracy, but with its great, tragic flaw of slavery. So, as long as the North was not openly and overtly fighting a war against slavery but only for the restoration of the Union, it was difficult for those British liberals and radicals to argue that, despite the cutoff of cotton by the war which had caused a kind of economic crisis in Britain, Britain should not intervene in favor of the Confederacy. But once Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, that tragic flaw was removed and British liberals and the British working class could now openly celebrate their support of the Union, and British sympathizers with the Confederacy could no longer use the argument that this was only a war for dominion and not a war for freedom. It became much more difficult to argue that the Union was no better than the Confederacy, that Britain ought to intervene in order to get cotton, that Britain had an obligation to sustain a people fighting for self-government, and so on. So, yes, European and, especially, British opinion was a factor in Lincoln’s decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, one major consequence of which was that it put a definitive end to any possibility of military intervention. Such intervention would have been seen as supporting slavery against freedom.

SL: One abiding misconception respecting the war is in regards to its character as a military conflict. Schoolchildren are often told simply that the North had inferior military commanders. But what this leaves aside is the way in which the Civil War was political not only in its aims, but even in its conduct. How does the Emancipation Proclamation grow out of and feed back into the conduct of the war by the Union Army? How did the transformation of the struggle into one for the forcible uprooting of the slave power, signalled by the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, culminate in Lincoln’s appointment of General Ulysses S. Grant as commander of the Union armies? To take a line from the Speilberg film, how did Lincoln’s Republican Party and Grant’s Army enable each other “to do terrible things”?

JM: Politics and the military are inextricably intertwined. Carl von Clausewitz made the point in his book Vom Kriege that war is a continuation of politics by other means. In the case of the American Civil War, it broke out in the first place because of political differences and a resultant breakdown of the political process. Lincoln was well aware that as President of the United States, as leader of the Republican Party, and as Commander-in-Chief of the United States armies, he was fulfilling both a political and a military role. He knew they could not really be separated from each other.

Early in the war, Lincoln tried to maintain a united coalition of Republicans, of Northern Democrats, and of border-state Unionists for the war effort and he was afraid that any radical steps against slavery would fracture that coalition. But as the war ground on, that equation began to change in his mind and in the North more generally. Steadily demands grew louder from the principal part of his political constituency, the Republican Party, for bolder action against slavery to crush the rebellion—“Bolder action against rebels and traitors!” “Take their property!” And, of course, a principal form of their property was slaves.

So as the war grew harder and more bitter in 1862, the weight of politics became increasingly that of not merely restoring the Union, but of undermining the basis of disunion, which was slavery, the slave power. Lincoln became less and less concerned about maintaining the united support of the various parts of his war coalition and more concerned about striking against slavery and the slave power in order to break the rebellion. That shift in Lincoln’s political calculations resulted in a similar shift in the military.

In the first year or so of the war, Northern generals, and Lincoln himself, tried to avoid destruction of property in the South. He tried to conciliate or win back the support of Southern whites for the Union. But it became increasingly clear that this policy of conciliation or “soft war” was not working. This was especially so, as I have mentioned already, by the summer of 1862, as the Confederacy came storming back from an earlier series of defeats. The pressure grew to “take the kid gloves off” (one of the most frequently used metaphors in soldiers’ letters, newspaper editorials, political speeches in the North in 1862) and turn this into a really “hard war” against traitors. Instead of conciliating the traitors, the military aim was to crush them. This kind of language became increasingly common in the North in the summer of 1862. The Emancipation Proclamation and some of the Congressional confiscation legislation moved in tandem with the change in public opinion and with the actual behaviour of Union armies in the South. Whereas General George McClellan and General Buell, two of the principal Union commanders up until the fall of 1862, went out of their way to avoid hard war measures in the South, generals like Sherman, Sheridan, and Grant in 1864 adopted the policy of destroying anything that sustained the Confederate war effort whether it be railroads or farms or slavery. This was a sharp change not only in military behaviour but in the kind of political will that sustained it. The war aim ceased to be restoration of the old Union and came instead to be destruction of the infrastructure of the Confederacy so as to build a new Union on its ruins.


SL: The recent film “Lincoln” addresses Lincoln the Politician rather than Honest Abe the Plaster Saint or Everyman Lincoln the Log-Splitter. I want to play two brief clips from Spielberg’s movie. The first is Lincoln’s backroom colloquy with Thaddeus Stevens during a party at the White House respecting, in effect, the relations between war aims, strategy, and tactics. The second is Lincoln’s disquisition to his cabinet regarding the necessity of the 13th Amendment, during which he remarks that the hardest thing in politics is to recognize what is required in the here and now. Allow me to play these two clips and have you comment on the film’s portrayal of Lincoln as both leader of the Republican Party and as Commander-in-Chief during the Civil War.

In the White House Kitchen

Thaddeus Stevens: Ashley insists you’re ensuring approval by dispensing patronage to otherwise undeserving Democrats.

Abraham Lincoln: I can’t ensure a single damn thing if you scare the whole House silly with talk of land appropriations and revolutionary tribunals and punitive thisses and thats.

TS: When the war ends, I intend to push for full equality, the Negro vote, and much more. Congress shall mandate the seizure of every foot of rebel land and every dollar of their property. We’ll use their confiscated wealth to establish hundreds of thousands of free Negro farmers, and at their side soldiers armed to occupy and transform the heritage of traitors… The nation needs to know that we have such plans.

AL: That’s the untempered version of reconstruction…

TS: …. The people elected me to represent them, to lead them, and I lead! You ought to try it sometime!

AL: I admire your zeal, Mr. Stevens, and I have tried to profit from the example of it. But, if I’d listened to you, I’d’ve declared every slave free the minute the first shell struck Fort Sumter. Then the border states would’ve gone over to the Confederacy, the war would’ve been lost and the Union along with it, and, instead of abolishing slavery as we hope to do in two weeks, we’d be watching helpless as infants as it spread from the American South into South America.

TS: Oh, how you have longed to say that to me. You claim you trust them, but you know what the people are. You know the inner compass that should direct the soul toward justice has ossified in white men and women, north and south, unto utter uselessness through tolerating the evil of slavery….

AL: A compass, I learnt when I was surveying, it’ll—it’ll point you true north from where you’re standing, but it’s got no advice about the swamps and deserts and chasms that you’ll encounter along the way. If in pursuit of your destination you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp, what’s the use of knowing true north?


In Lincoln’s Office

AL: I can’t listen to this anymore. I can’t accomplish a goddamn thing of any human meaning or worth until we cure ourselves of slavery and end this pestilential war. And whether any of you or anyone else knows it, I know I need this. This amendment is that cure. We’re stepped out upon the world stage now. Now, with the fate of human dignity in our hands. Blood’s been spilt to afford us this moment. Now! Now! Now! And you grousle and heckle and dodge about like pettifogging Tammany Hall hucksters. See what is before you! See the here and now, that’s the hardest thing, the only thing that counts. These votes must be procured.

What of Lincoln’s political greatness does Spielberg’s film (and Tony Kushner’s script) get at?

JM: In the colloquy with Thaddeus Stevens, Lincoln first of all pays tribute to Stevens’s leadership. Stevens was a radical Republican who from the very beginning insisted this must be a war to destroy slavery and the planter class in the South. As he does in this scene, he frequently expressed his impatience with Lincoln’s dilatory and gradualist approach. Lincoln is here shown acknowledging Stevens’s prescience respecting what the goal of the war had ultimately to be. Stevens was the one who pointed to “true north,” total victory and the destruction of slavery.

Of course, we have no evidence that anything like this conversation ever took place. Still, Kushner here conveys something of Lincoln’s manner of often resorting to metaphor. The compass indicates the direction in which we want to go, but it says nothing about how to get there or how to negotiate the obstacles that will be encountered along the way. As President, he is saying, “You showed me the direction we needed to take.” But, he elaborates, “if I had followed your advice and blindly struck out for true north, we would have lost the support of the war Democrats and border state Unionists, and, ultimately, we would have lost the war.” As Commander-in-Chief and leader of the Republican Party, Lincoln was responsible for figuring out how to get around the swamps and mountains. He justifies his political leadership by saying that this is what he had been doing over the last three and a half years, and had led the country to the brink of abolishing slavery forever. The 13th Amendment was getting ready to pass. Lincoln notes that “it will bring us very near to the end of this long journey.” It’s a brilliant scene that shows Lincoln’s leadership style in contrast with Stevens’s. Both of them were important and necessary. Lincoln’s brilliance was that he recognized how to implement Stevens’s radical vision.

The scene with the cabinet is not true to the reality of Lincoln’s relationship with them. It portrays the cabinet as dragging their feet on the 13th Amendment. That was not really true in January of 1865. Most members of the cabinet were fully committed to Lincoln’s policy. But Kushner uses this scene, nevertheless, to make a historically valid point. Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief demanded that this step has to be taken and that here and now is the time. To use a contemporary metaphor that is much in the news right now, Lincoln says, in effect, “We can’t just keep kicking this can down the road. We must act now and act decisively.” It’s another and important component of Lincoln’s leadership, the matter of timing. There are times when you have to prevaricate and make backroom deals, but there also comes a time when you need to step up to the plate and do what it takes to accomplish the task at hand. In this sense, the scene is very effective even though it is not fair to Lincoln’s 1865 cabinet.

SL: Beyond Lincoln’s presidency, of course, lay peace and Reconstruction. Here, it seems, the contrast between war and peace threatens to obscure underlying political continuities. How did Reconstruction arise as a consequence of the war? We’ve been talking about the connection between the conduct of the war by the Union army and the political project that emerged of suppressing the slaveholders’ rebellion against the federal government. How did Lincoln’s acceptance of the emancipatory logic of the war shape the subsequent project of Reconstruction?


Frederic Edwin Church, Our Banner in the Sky, 1861; Oil on paper, 7.5 x 11.25 in; Fred Keeler Collection, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC.

JM: Reconstruction became an extremely thorny problem for Lincoln, but even more so for his successors. One reason for this is that the word reconstruction had two meanings in the contemporary usage and these were potentially in conflict with one another. In one sense, reconstruction meant to reconstruct the union, to end the war, bring the southern states back in, and to knit the United States together again as one nation. The other meaning denoted the reconstruction of Southern society on a new basis. Now that slavery was gone, the question posed itself: What was freedom going to mean? What was going to be the status of the freed slaves? What was their relationship to their former owners going to be in this reconstructed union? That became the main problem faced by the country for many decades in some ways, most especially during the dozen years after the end of the war, from 1865 to 1877, when federal troops were stationed in the former Confederate states as the agents to enforce Reconstruction.

One way to reconstruct the United States was a degree of forgiveness, of amnesty, of conciliation toward former enemies—that is, the Confederates—in order to entice them to become loyal Americans again. But what would be the fate of the freed slaves if you restored, through conciliation, through amnesty, their former masters, the former Confederates, without any safeguards to protect the freedom of the slaves from some kind of new slavery, some kind of re-imposed quasi-slavery? Such a conciliatory Reconstruction project was what President Andrew Johnson, Lincoln’s successor, tried to undertake, and he could invoke some of Lincoln’s legacy by way of precedent and justification. Lincoln had issued a proclamation of amnesty and Reconstruction back in December 1863. In his second inaugural address he had talked about forgiveness and reconciliation. President Andrew Johnson tried to implement that side of Reconstruction to bring the southern states back into the Union as quickly, easily, and painlessly as possible. But the Republican majority in Congress rejected that approach, and I think Lincoln would have come to reject it too had he seen what was happening (if he had lived in 1865 and 1866). At all events, they tried to write a number of safeguards to protect the freedom and expand the civil and eventually political rights of the freed slaves, and that led to a decade, really, of violence and conflict in the south that, in some ways, reversed the aphorism of Clausewitz: The politics of Reconstruction became a continuation of the war. Organizations like the Ku Klux Klan came into conflict with union leagues in the South, organizations of blacks including some former black soldiers. The violence that took place in southern states during Reconstruction was in some ways a continuation of the war. So Reconstruction became a very troubled, controversial, and violent process. Whether Lincoln could have provided the kind of leadership in his second term, had he lived, to avoid the worst of that, is unknowable. Personally, I think he might have. If anybody could have undertaken a more thoroughgoing Reconstruction, he could have!

SL: You are of a generation of historians that emerged in the immediate wake of the Civil Rights Movement. But by the late 1960s, that movement was internally divided with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bayard Rustin on one side representing liberal integrationism, and Stokely Carmichael and Huey Newton among others on the other side representing an ostensibly revolutionary separatism. So, the fault lines of the New Left seem not to correspond to those of the abolitionist revolution and its opponents in the 19th century. How did the experience of the politics of the 1960s shape your generation’s approach, for good and ill, to the history of abolitionism, the early Republican movement, the Civil War, and its aftermath?

JM: There can be no doubt that the Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bayard Rustin version of the Civil Rights Movement powerfully shaped a generation of historians. I know it shaped my attitude toward the Civil War and Reconstruction. Mine was a liberal integrationist view. Along with others, I have interpreted the abolitionist movement as a liberal integrationist movement in the 19th century. Following on that, together with other historians of my generation, I interpreted Reconstruction as a noble effort to bring about a free and integrated society. This effort passed the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments which, we felt, underlay the civil rights and voting rights legislation of the 1960s. We saw Reconstruction as a kind of tragic failure that had real possibilities that were undermined by Southern counter-revolution, if you will, as well as by a Northern retreat from their goals. What followed was the view that the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was a second Reconstruction that was now on its way to implementing the liberal and egalitarian goals of the first Reconstruction. I think that the movement toward the New Left, the Black Power movement, Stokely Carmichael, and others in the later 1960s and ’70s, rejected the whole idea that the liberal integrationist movement in the 19th century, the abolitionist movement, the Radical Republicans, and so on, ever had a chance to overcome white racism. For such thinkers equality had been a false promise. Reconstruction was not so much a tragic failure as it was something that never had a chance in the first place. The likes of Carmichael and Newton rejected the sincerity and genuineness of the abolitionists and the Republicans of the 1860s and 1870s. They were just racists, only slightly better than the Southern rednecks. On their view, all of those ideals of liberal egalitarianism needed to be rejected in favor of black nationalism. This view has not had as powerful an effect on the historiography but it certainly had a tendency to influence a good many historians in the 1980s and 1990s. Lerone Bennett’s book on Lincoln as a common, quintessential racist is one example of that.

SL: In his recent book Freedom National, James Oakes speaks of the abolition of slavery in the U.S. as a process of “bourgeois revolution” inconceivable without political leadership and organization. Yet about this revolution, this leadership and the revolution it brought about, the American left has always been ambivalent. Among liberals, there is often a good deal of hand-wringing respecting the constitutionality of measures taken by President Lincoln. Others to their left view the war as somehow compromised or one-sided, an industrialists’ war intended to free the slaves the better to subjugate them to industrial wage slavery. Still others seek to find the overcoming of slavery in a process “from below” that seems to take place outside of the political arena. They praise the abolitionist movement while evincing a certain reticence towards the political and military instruments that movement adopted to defeat the South and uproot slavery: The Republican Party, President Lincoln, and the Union Army. All are suspicious of the enormous growth in the power of the state that resulted from the Civil War and America’s subsequent emergence onto the world stage as a great, ultimately a global imperialist, world power. What is the value in such left criticisms? What to your mind do they grasp and what might they lose sight of? How, if you care to speculate, has the failure to digest (and advance) this history colored or compromised the Left’s subsequent project, whether in terms of the black question and racism or in terms of the politics of freedom more generally?

JM: I think that most of the “hand-wringing” by liberals respecting the constitutionality of Lincoln’s war measures concerns his suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, the declaration of martial law in the North, and the trial of civilians by military courts. At the same time, they tend to approve of his measures to emancipate slaves, including the Emancipation Proclamation, which were based on the same grounds of his war powers as Commander-in-Chief. The suspension of civil liberties probably went too far, as Lincoln himself acknowledged on one or two occasions, but most such actions took place in the border states that were active war zones, with guerrilla warfare and various kinds of sabotage creating circumstances in which martial law seemed the only way to control the situation.  Nevertheless, some of Lincoln’s actions are troubling, and created precedents that have been invoked by subsequent presidents with considerably less justification. As for the argument that the emancipation of the slaves was intended to subjugate them to wage slavery in Northern industry, that seems pretty far-fetched to me. The almost universal assumption in the 1860s was that the freed slaves would remain in the South as small family farmers. And, in fact, the large-scale migration to the North and to industrial employment did not begin until a half century after the Civil War.  And while it is quite true that the Civil War caused an enormous growth in the power of the state, the central government gave up much of that power in the decades after the war, until it began to grow again in the 1890s and 1900s, in response to circumstances that were quite different from those of the 1860s. The exercise of enlarged government power in the 1860s is something that the Left should approve of, since one of its principal uses was to abolish slavery and enact—on paper at least, and on the ground for a time—civil and political equality for the freed slaves. |P

Transcribed by Wyatt Green, Ed Remus, and Wentai Xiao

[1]. Quoted in James Oakes’s Freedom National.

[2]. Horace Greeley, “The New Base of Freedom,” New York Tribune, January 1, 1863.

Chris Mansour

Platypus Review 52 | December 2012–January 2013


On September 21, 2012, Chris Mansour interviewed Ste­phen Eric Bronner, a professor at Rutgers University and author of Rosa Luxemburg: A Revolutionary for Our Times (1980), Socialism Unbound (1990), Of Critical Theory and Its Theorists (1994), and Reclaiming the En­lightenment: Toward a Politics of Radical Engagement (2004), among many others. His most recent book is Mod­ernism at the Barricades: Aesthetics, Politics, and Uto­pia. What follows is an edited transcript of the interview.

Chris Mansour: In Modernism at the Barricades, you mention that your first publication was on the relationship of art and politics, so that this book represents a return to your earliest intellectual preoccupations. What motivated you to write a book on modernist art reconsidering its history today?

Stephen Eric Bronner: “Art and Utopia: The Marcusean Perspective” appeared in Politics and Society in the Winter of 1973. It was probably the first article in English on Marcuse’s aesthetics. More specifically, it dealt with the interplay between culture and politics, highlighting the importance of the modernist avant-garde for critical theory. At the time, the Frankfurt School was still exotic and outside the academic mainstream. In large part because of Marcuse’s popularity that situation changed. Its most important thinkers have become part of the discourse, and subject to the usual esoteric textual pedantry and academic domestication. Though my views on critical theory have shifted over the last four decades, I am still inspired by it. The same is true of modernism. Learning about modernist painting, in fact, became a kind of hobby. The bohemian, cosmopolitan, and interdisciplinary character of modernism fits with my basic view of critical theory that integrates different forms of radicalism.

Whatever one may think about Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and Marcuse, they were thoroughly modern. Culturally elitist though they might have been, they never sought a return to the past or the “good old days.” They embraced the new—new forms of aesthetics and cultural resistance—and that element of their legacy is worth preserving. The style of young radicals today is far too imitative of the 1960s. It’s time to move on. In their cultural outlook, radicals today should critically confront the 1960s in the same way that the 1960s confronted the cultural styles of the 1930s. Perhaps the young radicals of today can learn from the mistakes of the past. Modernism helped create the cultural preconditions in which political radicalism could thrive. But what Lukács termed its “romantic anti-capitalism,” its attack on the system without knowing how it operates, produced an uneasy relationship with all mass movements. Modernists understood politics primarily as cultural opposition to what they considered the (bourgeois) philistine, rather than understanding it as the economic conflict between classes or the political competition for institutional power. My new book explores the tensions between utopian developments in art, principally concerned with transforming what Benjamin termed the “poverty of the interior,” and the need to effectively challenge the existing imbalance of power and reactionary institutions.

: You have written much about the connection between modernism and modernity. If there was a period of time where the new was actually being yielded and people had to confront these new experiences, what was it that made this time propitious? Could you elaborate on this a bit more?

SB: Modernism, for me, is the culturally liberating response to the alienating and reifying aspects of modernity. There is much philosophical debate about how to define modernity but, ultimately, it is less a philosophical category than a complex of standardizing practices associated with the second industrial revolution and the rise of monopoly capital during the last quarter of the 19th century. This period witnessed the emergence of the labor movement committed to republican democracy and the rise of imperialism. This affected the formation of modernism in different ways. Modernism contested Victorianism and highlighted the experience of individual freedom rather than the liberal rule of law. It was more concerned with what Else Laske-Schüler termed “poor little humanity” than the proletariat. And it was far less interested in the rising social democratic movement than the existential impact of mass society and mass culture. Modernism also responded to imperialism by purposefully learning from non-Western forms of art. This is true almost across the board.

Enough major artists like Ezra Pound, the brilliant colorist Emil Nolde, and the founder of Futurism F. T. Marinetti were seduced by fascism. Ultimately, however, the exploration of individuality was the primary concern of modernists, along with the way in which people should treat one another. Oscar Wilde talked about “The Soul of Man under Socialism,” for instance, asking in effect: What are the new interpersonal values that accompany a genuinely radical transformation of society? That question has not lost its resonance amid the preoccupation with commercial life and the rise of what has been termed “non-conformist conformity.”

CM: You call upon my contemporaries to seek out or express the new, but this is much easier said than done. How does one even recognize the new anymore?

SB:  By highlighting genuinely experimental attempts to deal with new developments and new problems in new ways. Modernism has something to offer here. Think of the famous Radical Light Exhibition: Paul Klee and August Macke went to Tunisia to paint in the stark sunlight of the region. They painted mostly in watercolors. When they came back to Munich and put on the exhibition it caused a sensation. What they had produced was neither African nor European, but something new. It integrated elements of different traditions and reconfigured them. So, the new is not something ex nihilo. It transforms traditions inherited from the past. This is true in politics and philosophy as well as in art, albeit each in their own fashion.


Paul Klee, Southern (Tunisian) Gardens, 1919; Watercolor, 9.5 x 7.5 in; Collection Heinz Berggruen, Paris

CM: Adorno—or perhaps a better example is Peter Bürger—said that since around 1930 culture has just been repeating the styles and discoveries made in the high modernist period. Why is it that our time fails to express or seek out the new?

SB: That view reflects critical theory at its worst. Radical art did not come to an end in 1930 any more than radical politics. The integrative dangers associated with the culture industry may have grown, but it’s ridiculous to make this kind of claim. The Frankfurt School never grasped the radical contributions of either the post-war era or the 1960s, whether in terms of literature, film, music, or style. None of them mention the great developments in film by Fellini, Godard, or other great directors. It is the same with the music of the time. There was a way in which the Frankfurt School almost purposefully insulated themselves from new experiments and developments. Adorno’s embarrassing essay on jazz is reflective not merely of a certain elitist dogmatism. It also evinces nostalgia for the new provided by modernism without reference to the new as it emerged in a very different context. Who can seriously doubt that writers like Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, and Pynchon contributed to a new critical understanding of our country—its past, present and even its future ambitions? You are right in suggesting that criteria are necessary to talk about the new—and here the “radical” philosophers of our time have been remiss in providing them. Postmodern preoccupations with subjectivity are holdovers from the past, and fashionable forms of cynical relativism obscure more than they illuminate. It’s as if the abdication of judgment has been elevated to a principle of judgment. Engaging in an immanent critique of this outlook might begin to provide criteria for illuminating the new, but that is up to a new generation of intellectuals.

CM: There is an essay simply titled “Critique” by Adorno where he is extremely skeptical of what is dubbed as “constructive criticism,” as if the act of critique must always serve a constructive purpose.[1] Must critique always contain this positive function, or can purely negative critique be valuable in some other way, even if indirectly?

SB: Critique is different from simple criticism precisely insofar as it elicits a transformative and constructive purpose. The rejection of this stance is not unique to Adorno, although his view of the matter is probably the most sophisticated. The issue for him, of course, is the transformation of the totality. Either that is transformed or nothing is transformed. Like many modernists, Adorno felt that the proletariat is not up to the task. The transformative agent is lacking. Insofar as that is the case, so far as he is concerned, the primary purpose of critique is to affirm the fleeting experience of subjectivity in the face of a totality that is more and more defined by instrumental rationality and various integrative mechanisms. This may have been a legitimate position to take in the aftermath of Auschwitz and the Gulag. It’s now 50 years later. The problem today is not that subjectivity is being extinguished, but that it has become the over-riding preoccupation of radical thought. Radicals have to put something positive on the table rather than indulge in what Thomas Mann called a “power-protected inwardness.” Instead of obsessing about subjectivity and the cultivation of authenticity, we should be talking about the conditions in which people can exercise their freedom. Radical art has a role to play in that process.

CM: You note that it has been over 50 years since Adorno and Horkheimer published The Dialectic of Enlightenment, and that, while their take on the task of philosophy might have been right for their time, that time has passed. Things are no longer the same. What changed? Surely it is not simply a matter of time passing.

SB: The world has actually become a world, not simply a conglomeration of Western states. Consider the Civil Rights movement, the fall of the Soviet Union, and the popular recognition of the Orient. Pluralism, multiculturalism, and a kind of hybridity have flourished. Racism, sexism, and homophobia are on the defensive—at least in the Western democracies. New groups have entered the public realm. You can see things today that would have been almost unimaginable in the 1950s: two men walking together holding hands, gay marriage, and women enjoying sports and participating in public life. Interracial dating is evident in a way that it certainly was not when I was in high school and college. These are real points of progress. Even as cultural possibilities have expanded, however, the greatest upward shift of wealth in American history has taken place along with the effective disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of people of color through a privatized prison system and constraints on voting. Dialectic of Enlightenment has nothing to say about any of this, nor does it have anything to say about the dialectical interplay between progress and regress.

CM: How do you understand this tension between progress and regress?

SB: My former teacher, Ernst Bloch, argued that history does not move in linear fashion, and that progress in one realm of society can occur while regression takes place in another. Extraordinary scientific breakthroughs are complementing the rise of religious fundamentalism. Cultural liberation is taking place while economic inequality is increasing. It is not as if some uniform and prefabricated teleological process is leading humanity to a happy end. Bloch had little use for the idea that the contradictions of one historical period are resolved before another historical period is introduced. Instead he noted the existence of “non-synchronous contradictions” that are carried over from one period to another while changing their form and function, thereby situating regression within progress. Clearly, for example, racism and sexism and religious prejudices are pre-capitalist in character, but they play an important role in capitalist society. New forms of solidarity are generated both to protect the inheritance of the past as well as and overcome it.


 The German Marxist and Hegelian philosopher Ernst Bloch (1885-1977), also an early influential member in the Frankfurt School. Bloch wrote widely on the concept of Utopia, compiled in such books as The Spirit of Utopia (1918) and The Principle of Hope (1954).

CM: Tell me more about your education under Ernst Bloch. Who were your other teachers, and how did they influence your intellectual development? How do you reflect back on that period today?

SB:  My first mentor was Henry Pachter who taught at City College in New York where I did my bachelor’s. A communist in the 1920s, then a radical socialist, he fought in Spain with the POUM, served in the anti-fascist resistance, as well as in the Office of Strategic Services. He wrote much about socialist history, the Weimar Republic, and foreign policy. He also taught courses in critical theory. He was an extraordinarily erudite political realist who enjoyed debating politics and provoking 1960s radicals like me. After CCNY, I attended the University of California, Berkeley where I received my doctorate in 1975. In 1973, I was awarded a Fulbright to study in Tübingen. I was very excited because I knew this would allow me to attend lectures by the literary historian Hans Mayer and, above all, Ernst Bloch, the author of The Spirit of Utopia and The Principle of Hope. Bloch was a major figure of European radical thought. Himself a communist until his departure from East Germany just before the construction of the Berlin Wall, Bloch was nonetheless a staunch defender of the modernist avant-garde with its utopian outlook. He saw kernels of atheism in Christianity and inspired liberation theology, integrated the Platonic-Aristotelian tradition with Arabic thought, and articulated a cosmological materialism that anticipated the ecological appreciation of nature. Bloch’s cosmopolitan knowledge blended nicely with his over-riding commitment to the utopian novum.

Bloch was an extraordinary philosopher. When he talked about politics, however, it was a disaster. He had a critical perspective on all fixed and finished philosophical systems, and yet, as he put it, he "swallowed" Stalin and the propaganda of Stalinism. Not unlike many other European intellectuals of his generation, he believed that Stalin's society was pointing towards the communist future. If it was not utopian now, it was still heading in a utopian direction. Bloch’s idea of communism was ultimately metaphysical. It was thus never really a question of turning theory into practice. The closest he ever came to discussing institutional politics involved a romantic view of the workers’ council. Bloch basically approached politics from the cultural-aesthetic standpoint of an “anticipatory consciousness” that projects “the best life” even while burdened with various forms of repression that make its full realization impossible.

The 1960s and 1970s were the most intellectually exciting years of my life. It’s still the case that, paraphrasing Goethe, "two souls dwell in my breast." My thinking is inspired by both political realism and critical utopian idealism. But I recognize the need to distinguish between them and what each provides for the radical, intellectual project.

CM: Are these two approaches towards politics mutually exclusive?

SB: I don’t think so. Every radical movement worthy of its name has had a utopian component. This was noted long ago by the sociologist Karl Mannheim in his classic Ideology and Utopia. The danger lies in failing to recognize the tension between utopia and reality, the power of the imagination and the demands of power. Radical politics is always infused with the religious or teleological longing for utopia. Socialism itself is a regulative ideal that provides an ethical way of keeping our compromises in check. No system ever fulfills the always untapped possibilities of freedom—and no movement does either. It is a mistake to think that the utopian ideals of a movement can be simply and operationally translated into reality. There is an inherent tension between the ideals associated with humanity that great works of art project and the political works in which humanity is engaged.

CM: So not even socialism could realize an authentic form of freedom?

SB: No. Henry Pachter once wrote that, “one cannot have socialism; one is a socialist.” I always believed that. Freedom always outstrips the real. There will always be new possibilities for expanding the enjoyment of life as well as still unexplored and unrecognized forms of oppression that new movements will need to confront. It is a question of remaining open to the prospect of previously unacknowledged forms of repression, and the liberating responses to them. Modernism anticipated later concerns with generational conflict, sexual liberation, abortion, incest, spousal abuse, date rape, and a host of other such issues. But this anticipatory consciousness ultimately required (among others) a women’s movement to turn what were considered private concerns into public matters that men would have to acknowledge and deal with. No one would have expected that these were issues of such importance in 1930, when you actually had socialist movements around. It was, again, a matter of being open to the always unfinished character of freedom.

No less than modernism, critical theory was fundamentally concerned with the authoritarian personality. It exists on both the left and the right. Erich Fromm noted in his study of German workers during the 1920s that most were imbued with a patriarchal and traditionally conservative character structure. Such studies need to be taken seriously. They confirm Bloch’s position insofar as they militate against the idea that solving the problem of class conflict will necessarily solve the problems of sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. The liberal rule of law and its attendant notions of tolerance are irreplaceable when it comes to dealing with disenfranchised subaltern groups in a meaningful way. Changing society for the better does not simply involve a break with the past: there are compromises with history that need to be made.

CM: I want to talk more about compromises, about making compromises for the sake of making gradual progress. I am wondering how much that kind of ideology has a stranglehold on today’s Left. Many leftists today support the Democrats or try to focus on certain issue campaigns without any greater concern to transform the social totality. They simply devote themselves to reformist goals without revolutionary ends. How do reformist movements figure in and help provoke large changes in the social totality today?

SB: Every election in a capitalist democracy involves a choice between the lesser of two evils. There is much talk about the evils of capitalism but less about how it generates a structural imbalance of power that disadvantages working people. In a capitalist democracy, the interests of capital are served prior to meeting all other interests. That is because the employment of workers depends upon the private investment decisions of capitalists. It is just that simple. Those who consider it possible to engage meaningfully in electoral politics without making compromises with capital are utopian in the worst sense. At the same time, just because wealth is becoming centralized in fewer and fewer hands, capital is not homogenous and its various factions require allies in order to push their agendas in a democratic society. This creates the possibility for political interventions by subaltern groups and the working class. Social movements thus have a role to play. The apocryphal story of Roosevelt saying to radical communists, socialists, and trade unionists, “make me do it” (with respect to the New Deal) is a case in point. Social movements can pressure the establishment to move in more or less radical directions. We have all seen that recently with the Tea Party. Its impact on the Republican Party has been remarkable. The situation is different with Occupy Wall Street (OWS). Its core activists talked about abolishing politics as we know it through a new “horizontalism” predicated on participatory democracy. But the real contributions of OWS involved pushing the Tea Party off the front pages, introducing a new discourse of economic equality, and bringing class struggle into the streets. OWS pushed President Obama to the left with regard to his job bills and his willingness to challenge more directly the Republican obstructionists and the Tea Party. OWS did not build revolutionary consciousness but it did reinvigorate the Democratic Party. These are important contributions. Ironically (or dialectically), however, these realistic results could not have been achieved without the original utopian impulse.


An image of Occupy Amsterdam located at the central square in front of the stock exchange, 2011. In the background hangs a sign that declares "Occupy Utopia!"

CM: Many Left commentators have claimed that Occupy Wall Street brought the whole picture into view. The movement saw that the problems of capital are systemic, and it looked at a broader framework instead of just focusing on single issues. On the other hand, when reflecting on Occupy a year after its “occupations” disbanded, it is clear that the movement’s understanding of how to get from here to there, their strategic orientation, was inadequate. Does this express the tension between their utopianism and their realism you spoke of before? This might speak to why their “hibernation” ended up being a burial.

SB: Yes. In a way I agree with you, though I do not think any serious form of radical theory emerged. But we have to be clear about something: movements do not have the same function that parties do. Movements are there to mobilize the immobilized, inspire them, and maybe even raise hopes that cannot even be met. That is what movements do. Parties translate these hopes and ideals imperfectly into some kind of legislation. In order to do that, again, compromises are required. A basic strategic mistake was for organizers of OWS to assume forms of discipline that simply did not exist. Their inability to recognize that OWS was never a revolutionary mass movement contributed to its inability to sustain and organize itself. Their plan for massive civil disobedience and putting OWS (which began in the fall of 2011) into hibernation for the winter, so to speak, and reconstituting it again in the summer, was questionable from the beginning.

CM: In this case, what about the relation between reform and revolution?

SB: One can make the argument that what is required today is revolution: I think revolution is still necessary in certain nations and under certain conditions. But it is impossible to justify a revolutionary politics without being clear about whether mass support for such an enterprise actually exists or is on the agenda. Unless that support is imaginable in a meaningful way the ideal of revolution becomes a substitute for the practice of reform, and radicals thereby abdicate their responsibility with regard to the poor, the exploited, and the disenfranchised. The ultra-left simply asks people to wait for the revolution. But they cannot wait. New goals can be raised, new constituencies can be mobilized, and new utopian ideals can be articulated—but not at the expense of supporting what might help working people today—or, if you like, the lesser of the two evils.

CM: It might not be that certain political figures are asking masses to wait necessarily. It could be convincingly argued—and many Marxists have—that we are at a moment in history where it is totally confusing who that mass base, or agent, might be.

SB: But that lack of clarity with regard to agency clouds the substance of what the revolution should achieve. At the turn of the 20th century every socialist and Marxist knew what a revolution implied: a growing proletariat would substitute republican democracy for the monarchical regimes in which it operated; a new accumulation process would privilege the interests of workers through various social programs and nationalization of the major industries; and, finally, an enlightenment ideology would highlight how liberal norms and scientific experimentation would liberate them from religion and pre-modern superstitions. Without some clarity regarding the revolutionary agent, however, the idea of revolution becomes a mish-mash of apocalyptic hopes. Here is the connection with modernism, which so often confused cultural rebellion with political revolution. If you are right on the question of agency then, I think, radicals should be a bit more modest in their political ambitions and highlight the need for a new cultural discourse that might clarify the preconditions for future forms of radical politics. The inability to draw distinctions is debilitating for the left when it comes to both art and politics. It undermines the possibility of distinguishing between what is possible and what is not. Contradictions and distinctions continue to exist: they project both danger and opportunity. That is why radicals need to emerge from what Hegel termed “the night in which all cows are black.” |P

[1]. See Theodor Adorno, “Critique,”  in Critical Models: Interventions and Catchwords, trans. Henry W. Pickford (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005):

One continually finds the word critique, if it is tolerated at all, accompanied by the word constructive. The insinuation is that only someone can practice critique who can propose something better than what is criticized...By making the positive a condition for it, critique is tamed from the very beginning and loses vehemence. (287)

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).

An interview with Mary Gabriel on Love and Capital

Spencer A. Leonard

Platypus Review 47 | June 2012


On February 28, 2012, the radio program Radical Minds on WHPK-FM Chicago broadcast an interview with Mary Gabriel, the author of Love and Capital: Karl and Jenny Marx and the Birth of a Revolution (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2011). The interview was conducted by Spencer A. Leonard of the Platypus Affiliated Society. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation.


Spencer A. Leonard: Love and Capital is a biography not only of Marx but of his family and intimate circle, above all Friedrich Engels. Why write this biography today? And why write biographically about great revolutionary intellectuals about whom so much is written interpretively?

Mary Gabriel: Up until 1989, it was difficult to talk about Marx, to examine his life, and not have it be part of a political debate. (Things have since calmed down, though I must say I am shocked by some of the responses to this book, and how rabidly some people still oppose any discussion of Marx.) Before the fall of Soviet communism, many books about Marx were used as Cold War propaganda: Communists made him out to be a hero he might not have been; opponents made him out to be the demon responsible for mass repression and bloody wars from Asia to Africa to Latin America. Lost in all this hyperbole was the real Marx. I thought it was time, given the increasing relevance of his ideas, to calmly and dispassionately find him, and I decided the best place to do that would be among his family and closest friends. There I hoped to discover Karl Marx, the 19th century economist, social scientist, philosopher, revolutionary, and family man whose ideas changed the world.

Of all the libraries of books about Marx, I did not find any that covered his life among his family in detail, despite the fact that they lived and breathed social revolution alongside him. Thus, I began my hunt for Marx by examining stacks of previously neglected material, in particular the correspondence between the women in Marx’s life: his wife Jenny, the three daughters who survived to adulthood, their husbands or partners, and the intimate circle around him. I was pleased to find these letters also contained a rich and powerful picture of the “Marx party’s” common political and intellectual pursuits. There is a huge amount of material in the Russian State archives in Moscow and the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam. With the help of some friends and scholars, I was able to discover or rediscover a genuinely wonderful correspondence within the Marx circle, which allowed me to look at events—even a single day—from many different perspectives. Those divergent viewpoints help us see Marx’s life clearly and honestly, devoid of political manipulation.

SL: As you say, Marx is a figure people still have a great deal of difficulty with. One way your reviewers have dealt with your book is to write as if Marx and his family were simply quintessential 19th century bohemian, cosmopolitan intellectuals. But it seems that, in some ways, Marx and his family really are not the most representative of that type. Also, while Marx is arguably the most important intellectual of his age, any attempt to specify that claim and thus Marx’s legacy today is highly fraught. So if the Marxes are an atypical case, if they are very bourgeois in their bohemianism and if Marx’s legacy is difficult to specify, how does your book negotiate these problems.

MG: I tried to delve as deeply as possible into the Marx family story, using their own voices in direct quotes as often as I could, in order to let the reader hear and see them as they were—unadorned, unedited, unscripted. With that information the reader could then decide for themselves whether the family was bohemian or bourgeois, whether their intentions were to rule the worker or to help him. I also tried to anchor the story firmly in the times in which the Marxes lived in order to help the reader understand the importance of Marx’s work compared with other activists of the era, and the impact he had on younger generations.

I found the focus of some reviews to be odd. To me this book is primarily the story of what a group of people, faced with the realization that the existing political and social system no longer worked, did to change it. It is a book about revolution—not just a revolutionary, or a family of revolutionaries, but revolution itself. It’s about the social revolution that began in 18th century France, spread in the 19th century as it was shepherded by the growing democratic, socialist, and labor movements, and finally took hold throughout the West in the second half of the 20th century until the counter-revolution led by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher began. It is the story of where we, today, come from. The liberal freedoms that we take for granted—mass education, the vote, freedom of speech and the press, labor and women’s rights—are rooted in the tale this book tells. Marx and his family waged a life-long battle for those rights, which regrettably are now at risk.

SL: Taking the old slogan “the personal is political” literally, is the biographical aspect of your book about the politics of private lives? For instance, at a couple of points you describe revolutionary activity as the Marx "family business." As you point out, the fact that the children were Karl Marx’s daughters shaped them fundamentally. But, was the manner in which Marx, Engels, and Jenny and their daughters sought to realize themselves—as husband, friend, wife, and children—political? Is something lost in thus conflating ethics with politics? Hegel somewhere says, and I paraphrase, that world history is no place for happiness. Would not Marx think of himself as an individual—a friend, a husband, and a father—in a way that had little to do with himself as a historical actor?

MG: I did not look at the Marx family with the 1960s–70s notion of “the personal is political” in mind. That said, Love and Capital does describe the role of women through the experiences of Marx’s wife and daughters, as well as the expectations and traditions of 19th century European society. I did, however, stress throughout the book the inseparability of the personal and the political in the Marx household. Politics shaped their lives on every level.

The Marxes were a family like any other, fully engaged in the concerns of daily life, but even their most banal events were overshadowed by politics. That is because Marx, as a 19th century husband and father, dominated the house. His decision to live outside society, to commit himself to social reform, to oppose the class he was born into, indeed to work toward its demise, meant that his family experienced the consequences of that difficult path. The result for Marx’s wife and daughters was, on the one hand, poverty, ill health, depression, and, for most of their lives, a lack of all but the most basic material comforts. On the other hand, they enjoyed rich intellectual lives, self-respect, and the belief that their sacrifices on behalf of Marx’s work would benefit all mankind. They had the satisfaction of knowing theirs was not the frivolous existence of their Victorian peers. The fact that the family home was political through and through did not mean it was joyless, or that Marx was always “in character.” He did think of himself as a husband, father, and friend. He famously said the “microscopic” world of the family was more interesting than the “macroscopic” world of politics. For me, part of the joy of this project was to get to know Marx as his family knew him, to witness him at his most vulnerable and at his most triumphant, to watch him experience the small joys and sorrows we all do: In short to see him, as one young associate feared he would be revealed to be, a man, a mere man.

SL: What was the significance of Marx’s relationship to his father, his future father-in-law (the Baron von Westphalen), and of his early university training? How was his wife-to-be, Jenny von Westphalen, central to his early formation as a revolutionary intellectual?

MG: Marx and his wife were both from Trier, a town in Prussia’s westernmost province, the Rhineland. After the French Revolution, and from about 1806–1813, that region was dominated by France under Napoleon. So people there had been introduced to Enlightenment philosophy and French Revolutionary ideas of freedom of assembly, speech, religion, fair taxation, etc. That was the milieu that Jenny’s and Marx’s parents were raised in. After 1813, the French were driven out and all the old repressive measures reinstated. But Karl and Jenny’s fathers had both been exposed to the vast potential a man had if he exercised the rights that the French Revolution enshrined. Jenny’s father, Ludwig von Westphalen, openly served the Prussian crown as the highest-ranking government official in Trier, but intellectually he was not only reading French Enlightenment thinkers, but French socialists such as Fourier and Saint-Simon. Theirs was a new philosophy that responded to still-nascent industrial conditions. Baron von Westphalen began teaching teenaged Jenny and Marx about the socialists who believed that men had a responsibility toward one another, especially for those less fortunate.

In 1830, there had been another revolt in France, in which the monarch was overthrown and replaced by Louis-Philippe, the so-called “citizen king.” The events shook Prussia’s king and his aristocratic supporters because it was a revolt by a new class of people who did not inherit their money as they had, but earned it. This new breed pressed government to institute freedoms and abolish tariffs between territories, which they said inhibited trade. They also thought that, in order to compete in the new industrial world, they needed a voice in government. Louis-Philippe, who actually enjoyed business and who saw the scale of the wealth it could generate, came increasingly to favor the moneyed class, the grand bourgeoisie.

The Prussian aristocracy was unprepared for the kind of change taking place in France and the king instituted quite repressive measures. Around the time that Marx was to graduate from high school, his father was accused of giving a subversive speech to his club in Trier. Around the same time, a teacher in Marx’s school was sidelined for being too radical and a student was arrested for writing “political poetry.” So Marx felt in Trier the restrictive power emanating from Berlin. He understood that the freedoms he had been taught by Jenny’s father were meaningless as long as someone as powerful as a king who claimed to be God’s emissary on earth was in place. It was the beginning of Marx’s political education.

He eventually went to Bonn and then on to the University of Berlin. It was while he was studying in Berlin that he and Jenny became engaged. They were young lovers, but there is no doubt Jenny also found her political goals fulfilled in her union with Marx. He could be what she, as a 19th century woman, could not: a political player who might help change society for the better. All she could do was provide emotional and material support for him. And that was the path she chose. Through the years, her role developed into one of real intellectual partnership.

SL: Historians sometimes speak of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution as though they were finished by the 1830s and 1840s. But, the genie was out of the bottle in a way that no restoration could reverse. In that sense, the Revolution and the Enlightenment could be said to have done their work. On the other hand, the French Revolution was defeated, both from within and without, and Britain emerged as the dominant partner in a conservative alliance then dominating Europe. In this sense, both the Enlightenment and the Revolution remained burning questions.

MG: That’s right. Marx began with the ideas of the French Revolution. One man’s new idea is based on another man’s old idea, and it is no different in Marx’s case. Somewhere at the bottom of his thought were the ideas of the French Revolution that he had imbibed in his youth. As for Britain, he saw in its industrial society a laboratory in which to study modern society as a whole—its needs, how it might be reshaped to benefit those who were doing the work, and the political significance of a mass industrial army that had scarce anything in the way of wealth or rights.

SL: What about Engels? One of the strengths of the book is the way in which it treats “Marx” as the project of an entire family, or even a body of associates. In this sense, to fully understand Marx one must recognize how distinct he is from other thinkers in this crucial respect. Above all, the intellectual collaboration with Engels stands out as historically unique. How did Engels and Marx first meet, and what were the key phases through which their friendship passed?

MG: It is hard to imagine either of those two men having the historical impact that they had without the other. At various points, people would accuse Marx of having ruined Engels, or Engels having ruined Marx. Marx’s family would try to wrest Marx from Engels’s malign influence, and vice versa with Engels’s family. But in fact they were truly of one mind.

Engels’s father owned a factory in Prussia and was a partner in a Manchester textile firm with a pair of English brothers named Ermen. Engels’s father sent Friedrich there to learn the business. Engels, who already had a reputation as a radical writer (under a pseudonym) describing the industrial ills in the Rhineland, was eager to see Manchester, the industrial heart of Europe. He spent nearly two years there, beginning in 1842. On his way back to Prussia, in August 1844, he stopped off in Paris where Marx was working as a newspaper editor. He and Marx met at a bar on the Right Bank of the Seine and that is when they hit it off. The story is they talked for ten days and ten nights straight.

What they found was that each in his different way had come to the same conclusions concerning society, industrialization, the working class, and the needs of humanity. Marx had learned about it through books and his contact with clandestine socialist organizations in Paris. Engels had learned about it on the factory floor. Their partnership would become so close that Marx would call Engels his alter ego.

In 1845, at the age of 24, Engels became Marx and Jenny’s devoted friend. He demonstrated the extent of his loyalty and willingness to sacrifice on Marx’s behalf about five years later, in 1850. They were all in London, all the refugees who had escaped the 1848 revolt and the counter-revolution in 1849. The British ruling elite felt their system so sound that it would not be threatened by a shabby bunch of foreign revolutionaries waiting anxiously for the next big revolt. Perhaps not surprisingly, few of these refugees could find work in London—including Marx and Engels. So Engels fell on his sword, so to speak. He quit the capital, leaving the business of revolution and theory to Marx, and went back to Manchester to work at his father’s factory, where he stayed for the next 20 years, supplying the Marx family with the money and support they needed to survive. Undoubtedly, Engels would have written much more had he stayed on in London, but he became a factory owner, and from that time until the end of his life in 1895—even beyond—he supported the Marxes. He was the family’s primary breadwinner and gave Marx the means to write his masterwork, Capital.


 Jenny von Westphalen (1814–1881) in 1840.

Incidentally, Engels had one more function in Marx’s life: ghostwriter. When Marx first moved to England, he got a job working as a foreign correspondent for the New York Daily Tribune, but he couldn’t write in English, so Engels—a master of languages—penned his articles. There are many instances of Engels writing in Marx’s name, so much so that after Marx’s death, there was a lot of confusion as to who was the author of what.

SL: Oftentimes, Engels and Marx worked together in such a way that it is truly impossible to trace the provenance of ideas to one or the other. The Communist Manifesto is the ultimate example of that.

MG: Engels wrote several first drafts of that in a catechism form. Eventually, Marx wrote the final draft in Brussels after Engels had suggested a changed format and left Marx to complete it. (Engels returned to Paris from Brussels to try to organize French socialists.) When the Manifesto was published, though originally it bore neither of their names, they claimed authorship jointly. Engels would say that it was actually Marx’s work, but that was a bit of modesty on his part.

That was their first important joint work, but I think the more important work done by both men was their virtual collaboration on Capital. In 1870 Engels moved back to London. By that time Marx had published Capital Volume I in Germany, but to little or no acclaim. Soon it was translated in Russia, where it did better. Marx was beginning to slow down by this time, partly because of political demands that took him away from his writing.

The Paris Commune had erupted and Marx was the head of the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA), which was accused (and Marx also, directly) of orchestrating the Commune. So there was not only a lot of correspondence with newspapers needed to shoot down rumors and accusations, but also work with refugees escaping the Commune, and mounds of correspondence. Engels had arrived in London just in time. The two men could now split the work evenly: they were both politicians, both theoreticians. Above all, they were both revolutionaries. This was also the period in which Marx’s daughters began to take a very active role in the family business.

Marx died in 1883. Before his death he had promised to have three volumes of Capital ready for his publisher. There was also a notion of a fourth volume. No one knew how far along Marx was on these volumes until Engels found, in sifting through Marx’s papers, several versions of volumes two and three, in various stages of completion. He also found a hopelessly rough volume four. Once again, Engels put aside his own work in order to make sure that Marx’s last two volumes of Capital were published. He also set about translating and editing dozens of earlier pieces, because after Marx’s death socialism had become more a part of the political mainstream in Western Europe, and there was a growing demand for Marx’s writing. Engels ensured that volumes two and three of Marx’s masterwork were edited with the care and attention they demanded—a project he began in 1883 and did not complete until 1894. Those volumes are very much a Marx-Engels work.

SL: Marx and Engels took little part in the Revolution of 1848 in Paris, but they did engage the Parisian left prior to the revolution. Give us some more of a sense of this time in Marx’s life in Paris, with his young bride, and his budding relationship with Engels and also with the poet Heinrich Heine. What sort of initiation into socialist politics did Marx receive in these years? How did Marx and Engels experience 1848 and what did it mean to them later on?

MG: Marx was not involved in the Paris revolt of February 1848 because he had been tossed out of France three years earlier for subversive writing. He had, however, never lost touch with the Parisian radicals, particularly the socialists and communists, whom he counted as his closest friends while living in Paris from 1843 to 1845. It was through these men (at this point they were all men) that Marx initially learned about communism, and it was the combination of their influence and the books he studied during his time in Paris that really provided the foundation for Marx’s life work.

Marx and his new bride, Jenny, had arrived in Paris in 1843. He had been the editor of a “democratic” newspaper in Cologne. This meant that the paper was funded by businessmen, and had been giving voice to the notion that in order for business to grow, people had to have greater freedom, and that monarchs had to allow for constitutions and parliaments with actual power. But, of course, Marx’s ideas evolved and came to exceed this narrow compass. A fellow intellectual who was then editing a paper in Dresden, Arnold Ruge, had the idea of opening an opposition newspaper in Paris featuring German and French radicals. This short-lived publication was called the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher.

In Paris at the time, there was relative free speech, as long as one didn’t directly threaten the government of Louis Philippe. The city was wild and vibrant with ideas: nationalism, socialism, democracy. Paris at that time was the city of the revolution. It was the seat of political philosophy and revolutionary politics and, unlike Prussia, one could say virtually anything and do whatever one liked. The city was filled with radical workers exiled from Germany and other places throughout Europe. There were a lot of underground organizations building on French Revolutionary ideas, as well as elaborating new ideas about communism, which was basically seen as socialism paired with the demand for the elimination of private property. Marx attended the radical workers’ meetings and he also attended salons with writers such as Victor Hugo and George Sand, and the painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres.

Marx began by working for the Jahrbücher, but it went under after only one issue. The opinions it advanced were so radical that in Prussia charges of treason were brought against Marx and several others. Marx used his jobless status to immerse himself in opposition politics, meeting and working with many of the figures we still recognize as critical to the nineteenth century social revolution—most significantly Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Mikhail Bakunin, who had made the leap to anarchism. Marx also formed a critical personal relationship with the poet Heinrich Heine. At the same time, Marx initiated his study of the great economists. 1844 is the year that Marx’s economic ideas were first formed. They were honed over the years, but that was the year that marked their basic crystallization.

A year later Marx was thrown out of Paris for supposedly advocating the regicide of the King of Prussia in another publication Marx had joined. So he and Jenny went to Brussels where a circle began to form around Marx that became known as the “Marx party.” This was the nucleus of his international organization, a combination of intellectuals and proletarians, mostly artisans of German background.

He was still in Brussels when Europe exploded in 1848. These revolts were (and still are) the only Europe-wide revolts by the people against their governments. They were not unlike the Arab Spring. People hitherto thought powerless rose up against kings who not only denied them political freedom, but also denied them a political future. The monarchs and aristocrats of Europe could not, of course, see that the world was changing around them. Europe was suffering famine at the very time industrialization was revving up and political corruption spreading. The people who were getting jobs were the women and children who could work for very little. Displaced peasants did not necessarily find jobs in industry. A social safety net that existed in village life was gone. People who moved to the city were desperate. They had no food, no hope, no future.

In 1848, intellectuals like Marx, skilled artisans, students, and even businessmen who thought that the old monarchical system was not meeting the needs of society, joined forces with millions of disgruntled workers to confront the relics of the ancien régime. Throughout Europe, there was a seemingly spontaneous eruption, but its epicenter was Paris where the European political opposition was strongest and most organized.

After the Parisian “street” had risen up and forced the French king to abdicate, a republic was declared in France. Within days, Marx was given 24 hours to leave Belgium, where the king feared he would stir a Parisian-style revolt. He and his family quickly went to Paris, and then on to Prussia where Marx hoped the revolution might deepen. Once in Cologne, he resumed his work as a newspaper editor. At this time he was more of a propagandist than a revolutionary, because he felt it was the quickest and easiest way to reach the greatest number of people. Sometimes I wonder what Marx would do in our day with the Internet. The written word was always his most powerful weapon, and also a great source of frustration because he could not distribute his writing quickly or widely enough. He would have been thrilled to have had today’s technology at his fingertips.

Though the old order had been initially thrown off guard by the revolts, it quickly recovered and the counter-revolutionary backlash that ensued was swift and brutal. Kings were able to enlist the support of the industrialists and capitalists who were terrified that the lower class was demanding its rights. Marx watched this revolution unfold, and it was during this year, 1848–1849, that his political ideas took definite shape. He recognized then that working men could only achieve their goals when they did it themselves. They could not rely on liberals or beneficent industrialists, but had to organize as a class.

SL: Comment on Marx’s inner life of the period from 1871 to 1875 and, in particular, on the Paris Commune and the struggles within the IWA. How had socialist revolutionary politics changed in the decades after 1848 and what is the significance of Marx’s leadership in this later period?

MG: It was not until 1871 that the name Karl Marx became widely associated with revolution. Prior to that year, Marx had been watched with suspicion by the German government, against which he had been writing and agitating for 25 years. He was also recognized by opposition and labor circles from Russia to America. And while that territory was vast, the number of people engaged in opposition activity, and thus aware of Marx, was not. The Paris Commune of 1871, however, changed all that. Through the Parisian revolt against the French bourgeoisie, Marx (much to his delight) became internationally infamous.

What drew the world’s attention to Marx was a pamphlet he wrote called The Civil War in France. In it Marx heartily praised the bravery of the communards and linked their struggle to the capitalist West’s growing labor movement—that army of workers who had finally recognized the extent of their exploitation and were demanding (sometimes violently) their rights. Translations of Marx’s pamphlet flew off printing presses around the world. Documenting the Paris slaughter that killed at least 25,000 people and the fighting that left the city in ruins, The Civil War in France became Marx’s most widely read work to date. The pamphlet appeared at the very moment when the French, indeed when western leaders and their financial backers, were trying to find someone to blame for the Commune uprising. They did not want desperate workers and citizens in their countries to be inspired by the French workers’ attempts to win basic freedoms. They needed to change the narrative, and demonizing Marx gave them just such an opening. Marx was portrayed not as a chronicler and champion of the revolt, but as its nefarious Prussian mastermind. In this scenario the French working-class was said to have been manipulated and deceived by a German outsider living in London whose goal was to extend control over workers and gain support for his IWA. Alarming stories in London, Berlin, Chicago, and New York described the future carnage being plotted by Marx and the IWA: No city was safe, they said. Everyone among the lower ranks of society was susceptible to his malign influence.

The propaganda succeeded in heightening social tensions, which always swells the ranks of reactionaries who fear nothing so much as instability. But it did not dissuade workers from joining the IWA. Quite the contrary: After the Commune, the organization sprouted branches wherever industrialization had created disgruntled workers. The anti-Marx, anti-IWA propaganda showed how much labor solidarity terrified governments and capitalists. So workers recognized it for what it was, a powerful tool, and they flocked to join.

Ironically, just when the group was seen as a real force by the outside world, internally it was dangerously divided. Since its inception in London in 1864, Marx had held IWA together by sheer force of his personality. He had tricked, cajoled, threatened, and seduced its multi-national leadership into cooperation. But, by 1872 he was exhausted, and the Commune had produced further disputes within the organization. Some moderates vehemently disagreed with Marx over his embrace of the communards. Others, mostly anarchists aligned with Mikhail Bakunin, wanted to turn the IWA, which had so far only supported workers’ struggles and negotiated on their behalf, into a workers’ army. Marx recognized that the path to reform was different in each country. In some cases, change could be achieved through the ballot box, protests, or strikes. But in other cases, only violent revolution would win the greatest number of people their rights. Everywhere he thought the struggle essentially political, not military. He formally left the IWA in 1872 to return to writing and theory, fully convinced that the immediate fight would continue on its own course without his leadership. He thought it much more important that he get his ideas into print for future generations.

SL: At Marx’s funeral in 1883 where Engels delivered his famous eulogy of his lifelong friend there were only 11 people in attendance. Most of Marx’s books were out of print and obscure. Yet, on the anniversary of his death the following year some 6,000 workers marched to his grave to honor his memory. For, by the early 1880s the workers’ movement had begun to assume a decidedly new character, as evidenced by the emergence in this period of the New Unionism in Britain, the Socialist Labor Party in the United States, the French Workers Party, and, of course, the Social Democratic Party in Germany. In Russia the Emancipation of Labor Group formed just months after Marx’s death. Working class demonstrations and strike actions also grew to an unprecedented extent in this period. Thus, while Marxism obviously and with reason bears Marx’s name, it was Engels who really lived to see and direct the international socialism that came together on the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution to form the Second Socialist International in Paris in 1889. Describe Engels’s role in this process and, more generally, the activities that characterized the last decades of his life. What were key services Engels performed to perpetuate Marx’s legacy in this critical seedtime of modern, party political socialism?

MG: Immediately after Marx’s death, Engels, Marx’s youngest daughter Eleanor, and the family helper Helene Demuth began the arduous task of sorting through Marx’s papers. As discussed earlier, it fell to Engels to organize Marx’s unfinished works and get them into shape for publication, and translate his many published pieces for audiences throughout Europe. That job would have been enough to keep a small library of scholars busy. Engels, Helene, Eleanor Marx and their wider circle made certain that Marx’s Capital manuscripts were edited and his published works reprinted. That was crucial.

Engels also inherited Marx’s role as elder statesman of the European socialist movement. Young radicals from throughout Europe made pilgrimages to his London home seeking advice, shelter, and direction. When French socialists decided to inaugurate a Second International to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille, Engels was charged with settling disputes among the various national parties so that all would be in agreement when they arrived in Paris. Against all odds, they were. This was partly because of Engels’s leadership, but also because the working class and socialists of the late 19th century were much more mature politically than those involved in the First International. They had seen the strengths and weaknesses of that earlier organization and, significantly, during the intervening years many of the socialists and labor groups had become political organizations in their own right. They had produced strong leaders from within their ranks. It was these young leaders—men and women—whom Engels was able to guide and advise from his unique position of having lived the struggle from its inception. Critics often blame Engels for much 20th century misinterpretation of Marx’s work, or misdirection of the movement, but I believe this is both inaccurate and unfair. Without Engels, Marx’s literary legacy would have been a single volume of Capital, and a handful of earlier publications largely written in German. Engels had protected Marx in life and preserved his work for future generations in death. There would have been a Friedrich Engels without Karl Marx but I often wonder if there would have been a Karl Marx without Engels.


Jenny, Laura, Eleanor, and Karl Marx, with Friedrich Engels, in 1864.

SL: In many ways, Marx’s relationship to Eleanor, as to his two elder daughters, was similar to his relationship to his wife and to his close friend Engels in that, in addition to being deeply loving, it was deeply intellectual. All three daughters assisted him with his work and all become hopelessly radicalized themselves at a very young age. Could you describe their trajectories, particularly that of Eleanor?

MG: You’re right about the intellectual dimension of the family’s life. Of course, the daughters received the education of any other middle class British girl. They learned languages, music, painting, etc. But they also had an incredible education at home from one of the greatest minds of the 19th century. Marx raised them as he would have raised sons—as revolutionaries. He discussed everything with them. All three were committed to Marx’s work and were employed by him at various points as his “secretaries,” transcribing and translating his words, corresponding with labor and social agitators around the world on his behalf. But each of the three also had their own role in his revolution.

Marx was proud of their collaboration, but also worried. He wanted them to have a married life outside of revolution, because he felt his wife’s life had been wrecked by his chosen path. He had watched her suffer as they buried four of their seven children. He didn’t want to see his daughters suffer that same fate, and yet there could have been no other possibility, because that was the world they inherited. They wouldn’t have been satisfied with a bourgeois existence.

Often in describing Marx’s relationship with his daughters, critics focus on the material sacrifices the women made because Marx had decided to dedicate himself to a greater good at the expense of his family. It is true they lived extremely difficult lives by normal middle class standards. But I was struck throughout the project not by their poverty, but by their wealth. From the time of their birth the Marx daughters lived lives of high drama in a world of ideas, among some of the most important thinkers of their time. They experienced the thrill of being at the epicenter of a brewing social, political, and economic revolution. And they did so with relish.

Marx’s eldest daughter, Jenny, was a journalist. She worked with three Irish prisoners who were being held for political crimes in British jail. Her articles resulted in a parliamentary inquiry, and the prisoners’ eventual release. Her work ended when she married a French socialist journalist and former communard, who abandoned her and their brood of boys to agitate in Paris.

Laura was the most traditional. She married a Cuban-born doctor and future Marxist who was of French descent. He was a wonderful character because he was very high-spirited and very melodramatic, but he never did anything well. So she suffered the fate that her mother did, only worse, because while Marx was at least brilliant and shared his life with his wife, Paul Lafargue was not a brilliant man and a chauvinist. So this woman, who had been trained as a radical, who knew the ins and outs of every economic theory, who could talk about any political situation in Europe, was left at the sidelines to raise children who then died within two years while she and her husband were on the run after the Commune. She spent much of her later life translating her father’s and Engels’s works.

The third daughter, Eleanor, is as you say the most important historically. From the time she was eight years old, she was writing to people about French Revolutionaries and the Polish rebellion. I came across a notebook she kept as a girl, where she had written the phrase “tutti-frutti” on the cover, and inside long articles about sewage systems and industrialization in France. Even as a child she was immersed in the world of the workers’ movement, and became infinitely more so as a woman.


Eleanor Marx (1855–1898) in 1870.

In the larger social and political evolution of the nineteenth century, a change had occurred after about 1860. Working men no longer needed intellectuals to lead their movement. They were organized enough to defend themselves. So the battle Eleanor became involved in was a trade union fight. She was a committed and passionate advocate. She even traveled to the United States to introduce Marx’s ideas to an American audience. Unfortunately for her, she became involved with a very disreputable man who was a socialist and an aspiring playwright, but also an absolute scoundrel, Edward Aveling.

Indeed, the three younger Marx women’s endeavors were all disrupted, if not destroyed, by unions with men they believed would be like their father but who all proved to be lesser in every way. Their personal lives were bitter disappointments. Eleanor committed suicide. Laura and Lafargue died in a suicide pact. (Lenin gave a eulogy at their funeral.) Jenny died of cancer, but it was nothing short of suicide. She had known she was ill but did not seek treatment until it was too late. None of them lived to see the recognition Marx would receive or his theories become political reality.

SL: Allow me to return to the question of biography. The political context in which these actors lived, and their ability to participate in the ongoing modern revolution, seem to us quite distant now. There is no international political project of any significance that directly builds on the gargantuan sacrifices and formidable efforts of Marx and Engels. Given these circumstances, how have you sought to deploy the genre of biography?

MG: One of the reasons I wrote the book chronologically, which is an old-fashioned method, was because I wanted to give the reader a sense of living the lives of Marx, Engels, and Jenny. I actually came away from this book very deeply respecting Marx and Engels and Jenny and the sacrifices they made for people they didn’t even know. They could have had a very comfortable existence. Marx was born into the middle class in Western Prussia; his father was a lawyer. Jenny’s father was a baron and a Prussian official. But early on, both Marx and Jenny gave up the trappings of the bourgeoisie—or, in her case, the aristocracy—and committed themselves to the most difficult path, working against a system that had been entrenched for centuries. It wasn’t just that they were trying to get someone out of political office. They were working against absolute monarchs claiming to be God’s ambassadors on earth. After looking at their daily lives over the course of 80 years, I could only come away with a great deal of respect for them.

The American journalist I. F. Stone used to actually go to congressional hearings to hear what was being said instead of reading the summaries or press releases produced by congressional aides afterwards. He said the difference between actually experiencing something—or reading an original letter—and hearing an interpretation, is enormous. And that is the case with Marx, too. If anyone has any questions about Marx, they should go to the source and read his writings. I offer this book as a biography of Marx so that when you read Capital or the Communist Manifesto, you can understand what he was experiencing at the time, who he was, and the milieu in which he lived. That’s the difference. That’s the approach to biography that I took. Marx’s revolutionary context is obscure to us now. That’s the reason why I thought it was important to write a biography of Marx.

If it is claimed that theirs were particular times, that Jenny and Marx were involved in a revolution we could never fight, I think, on the contrary, that we’re at that same moment again, the same crucial juncture. We are entering the third industrial revolution, where everything is changing, and must change, but the entrenched interests in government and business, like the absolute monarchs and the aristocrats of Marx’s day, don’t yet see it. And if they do see it, they are too frightened at the prospect of their own loss of power and wealth to allow for the change that is not only necessary but inevitable. There are people like Marx and Jenny out there today who are working to chart this change, and provide alternatives to the systems that no longer serve the needs of society. But these things take a long time, and that’s something that Marx understood. Revolution is not something that happens in a day or a week. It takes decades. And when you’re in the middle of those decades, sometimes it is difficult to recognize. It requires something Marx cherished but did not himself possess: patience. |P

Transcribed by Pac Pobric

Pam C. Nogales C. and Ross Wolfe

Platypus Review 46 | May 2012

[PDF]  [Audio Recording]  [Video Recording]

On March 17, 2012, Ross Wolfe and Pam Nogales of the Platypus Affiliated Society interviewed Domenico Losurdo, the author, most recently, of Liberalism: A Counter-History (2011). What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation. Full audio and video recordings of the interview can be found by clicking the above links.

Ross Wolfe: How would you characterize the antinomy of emancipation and de-emancipation in liberal ideology? From where did this logic ultimately stem?

Domenico Losurdo: I believe that this dialectic between emancipation and de-emancipation is the key to understanding the history of liberalism. The class struggle Marx speaks about is a confrontation between these forces. What I stress is that sometimes emancipation and de-emancipation are strongly connected to one another. Of course we can see in the history of liberalism an aspect of emancipation. For instance, Locke polemicizes against the absolute power of the king. He asserts the necessity of defending the liberty of citizens against the absolute power of the monarchy. But on the other hand, Locke is a great champion of slavery. And in this case, he acts as a representative of de-emancipation. In my book, I develop a comparison between Locke on the one hand and Bodin on the other. Bodin was a defender of the absolute monarchy, but was at the same time a critic of slavery and colonialism.

RW: The counter-example of Bodin is interesting. He appealed to the Church and the monarchy, the First and Second Estates, in his defense of the fundamental humanity of the slave against the “arbitrary power of life and death” that Locke asserted the property-owner, the slave-master, could exercise over the slave.

DL: Yes, in Locke we see the contrary. While criticizing the absolute monarchy, Locke is a representative of emancipation, but while celebrating or legitimizing slavery, Locke is of course a representative of de-emancipation. In leading the struggle against the control of the absolute monarchy, Locke affirmed the total power of property-owners over their property, including slaves. In this case we can see very well the entanglement between emancipation and de-emancipation. The property-owner became freer, but this greater freedom meant a worsening of the conditions of slavery in general.

RW: You seem to vacillate on the issue of the move towards compensated, contractual employment over the uncompensated, obligatory labor that preceded it. By effectively collapsing these two categories into one another—paid and unpaid labor—isn’t there a danger of obscuring the world-historical significance of the transition to the wage-relationship as the standard mode of regulating social production? Do you consider this shift, which helped usher in the age of capitalism, a truly epochal and unprecedented event? What, if any, emancipatory possibilities did capitalism open up that were either unavailable or unthinkable before?

DL: It was Marx himself who characterized the so-called “Glorious Revolution” of 1688–1689 as a coup d’état. Yes, the landed aristocracy became free from the king, but in this way the landowners were able to expropriate the peasants and inaugurate a great historical tragedy. In this case, too, we can see this dialectic of emancipation and de-emancipation. After the Glorious Revolution, the death penalty became very widespread. Every crime against property, even minor transgressions, became punishable by death. We can see that after the liberal Glorious Revolution the rule of the ruling class became extremely terroristic.

RW: Insofar as the de-emancipation of the serfs led to the development of an urban proletariat (since the peasants thus uprooted were often forced to move to the cities, where they joined the newly emerging working class), to what extent did this open up revolutionary possibilities that didn’t exist before? Or was this simply a new form of unfreedom and immiseration?

DL: Of course, you are right if you stress that the formation of an urban proletariat creates the necessary conditions for a great transformation of society. But I have to emphasize the point that this possibility of liberation was not the program of the liberals. The struggle of this new working class needed more time before starting to have some results. In my view, the workingmen of the capitalist metropolis were not only destitute and very poor, they were even without the formal liberties of liberalism. Bernard De Mandeville is very open about the fact that to maintain order and stability among the workers, the laws must be very strict, and that the death penalty must be applied even in the absence of any evidence. Here too we can speak of terroristic legislation.

I also describe the conditions in the workhouses as approximating later internment camps and concentration camps. In the workhouses there was no liberty at all. Not only was there no wealth, or material liberty; there was no formal liberty either.

RW: You compile some disturbing passages from Locke, Mandeville, and Smith in which they liken workers to horses and other beasts of burden. You also offer a selection from one of Abbé Sieyès’s private notebooks in which he refers to wage-laborers as “work machines.” Hobbes claimed that there was a sensate understanding “common to Man and Beast,” and La Mettrie famously wrote of the “machine-man.” Might this language reflect these thinkers’ encounter with British and French materialism just as easily as it might indicate deliberate dehumanization?

DL: With the dehumanization of the working class in the liberal tradition, I don’t believe that this has to do with the materialistic vision of the world. These liberal theorists, on the one hand, dehumanized the working-man, while, on the other hand, they celebrated the great humanity of the superior classes. I quote in my book a text by Sieyès, a French liberal who played a considerable role in the French Revolution, in which Sieyès dreams of the possibility of sexual relations between black men and apes in order to create a new race of slave. That is not a materialistic vision. On the contrary, it is a futuristic, idealistic, and eugenicist vision to create a new race of workers who can increase productivity but who would be forever obedient to their masters.

Pam C. Nogales C.: In the seventeenth century, at least in England, doesn’t private property become the grounds on which certain demands of liberty can be made against the order of the king? Was it merely a historical necessity that demands of liberty could only be made through this particular form of private property? Or was this already a reactionary position to take, even in the seventeenth century?

DL: I would continue to stress this entanglement of emancipation and de-emancipation. The statement according to which men have the right to think freely and convey their opinions is of course an expression of an emancipatory process. But we must add that this class of property-owners, once free of the control of the government, could impose a new regime of control over their servants and slaves. In the first phase of the bourgeois-liberal revolution, the servants were without even liberal liberty, as well. I have quoted, for instance, that the inhabitants of the workhouses were deprived of every form of liberty. The [indentured] servants who were transferred to America, they were more like slaves. They were not modern wage-laborers. For instance, Mandeville writes that the worker must attend religious services. That is, they were not free in any sense of the word. On the workhouses, I quote Bentham at length, who claimed to be a great reformer, but was truthfully a great advocate of these workhouses. He envisioned the formation of an “indigenous class” of workers born within these workhouses, who would therefore be more obedient to their masters. This has nothing to do with modern wage-workers.


Marx, arrested: Brussels, 1848. Sketch by N. Khukov, 1930s.

PN: This gets back to the question of whether or not capitalism offers new forms of freedom while simultaneously posing new problems of unfreedom. On the one hand, we live in a most unfree moment. One could highlight the historically unprecedented living conditions for the worker in the crowded tenement houses of Manchester, or point out that his employer is only interested in gaining profit and not in granting him any form of freedom. But is the formation of a working class not at the same time a historical transformation of the conception of a subject in society that has implications beyond its manifestation in its present moment? After all, the worker is not identical with his social activity. He, as a bourgeois subject, has the right to work. Does bourgeois right point beyond itself and is thus not reducible to how it immediately appears?

DL: Of course I agree with you that some theorists from the ruling class end up inspiring other classes that were not foreseen as participants in liberal right. Consider Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the slave revolution in Santo Domingo, which later became Haiti. How can we explain this great revolution? We see in France the Declaration of the Rights of Man. In the original version of this document, the Rights of Man did not include colonial peoples or the blacks. But we see Toussaint Louverture who read this proclamation and claimed these rights for the blacks, as well. And we have this great revolution as a result. This is not a spontaneous consequence of liberalism, however. On the contrary, Toussaint Louverture was obliged to struggle against the French liberals of the time, who admired the conditions that obtained in the southern United States of America and strove to continue the oppression of the black slaves. In Santo Domingo, the slaveholders were at first positively impressed by the French Revolution. They thought this meant freedom from the control of the king, such that they could now freely enjoy slavery, and their property, the slaves. Toussaint Louverture drew the opposite conclusion, and thus became the organizer of one of the greatest revolutions in history.

PN: Concerning the radical inspiration for the framework you set up between Toussaint and the French Revolution, the striking thing about the Haitian Revolution is that it caused a division within France. It was not simply Toussaint versus the French liberals; the Haitian Revolution actually caused the French liberals to split and led to disarray. It raised another problem: Insofar as France could militarily continue to defend itself from counterrevolutionary forces in Europe, at this particular moment, it still depended on colonial production. It therefore seems to me that the Haitian Revolution posed the problem of the radicalism of liberalism straightforwardly and there were a number of responses. Is it possible to call Toussaint a liberal because he believed in the promises of liberalism?

DL: No! Toussaint was a Jacobin. Between the Jacobins and the liberals there was a great deal of struggle. If we read all the authors who are generally classified as liberal—for instance Constant, de Tocqueville, and so on—they spoke very strongly against Jacobinism. For these liberal authors, Jacobinism was something horrible. I don’t agree, therefore, with your claim that there was a “split” within the liberal parties of France. Jacobinism is in my interpretation a form of radicalism, because they appealed not only to the liberation of the slaves “from above,” but struggled together with the slaves in order to overthrow slavery. After the fall of the Jacobins in France, the new government began to immediately work for the restoration of slavery. The French slave-owners had acclaimed the first stage of the French Revolution, since they thought they could then freely exercise control over their slaves. After the advent of Jacobinism and the radicalization of the Revolution, the liberals went to the United States and expressed their admiration.

RW: Could you elaborate on the historical and conceptual distinction you draw between liberalism on the one hand, and radicalism on the other?

DL: Even if we conceive of radicalism as the continuation of liberalism, we should not forget that, for instance in the United States, even the formal abolition of slavery was the consequence of a terrible conflict, a war of secession. We don’t see a direct continuity between liberalism and the abolition of slavery, because this liberation was only made possible by a protracted Civil War. But Lincoln, too, was not a representative of radicalism because he never appealed to the slaves to emancipate themselves. Only in the final stage of the war of secession, in order to add more soldiers in the struggle against the South, did Lincoln agree to let some black soldiers fight.

It is another fact that in the history of liberalism, Robespierre is not considered a liberal, but a strong enemy of liberalism. In the French Revolution, it was Robespierre who abolished slavery, but only after the great revolution in Haiti. He was then compelled to recognize that slavery was over.

The author who makes the best impression on the issue of slavery is Adam Smith. Smith was for a despotic government that would forcibly abolish slavery. But Smith never thought of the slaves as catalysts of their own liberation. So on the one hand, Adam Smith condemns and criticizes slavery very harshly. But if we asked him what was in his eyes the freest country of his time, in the final judgment, Smith answers that it is England.

If we look at the history of the American continents, we can ask: Which was the most liberal country? I believe it was the U.S. But now, if we ask the question: Which was the country that had the greatest difficulty in the emancipation of the slaves? Again, it was the United States.

But if we consider the succession of emancipation in the American continents, we see Haiti first, followed by the countries of Latin America (Venezuela, Mexico, and so on), and only later the United States of America. If we read the development of the world between the United States and Mexico, in the middle of the nineteenth century, the United States—after defeating Mexico, after annexing Texas—reintroduced slavery into these territories where it had already been abolished. This, in my eyes, demonstrates that we cannot consider the abolition of slavery as a consequence of liberalism.

RW: How would you account for the admiration of Marx for a figure like Lincoln, who created the conditions (through war) for the emancipation of the slaves?

DL: Of course Marx was right in his admiration for Lincoln. Lincoln was a great personality, and Marx had the merit to understand that the abolition of slavery would bring about great progress. Why do I say this? Because in utopian socialism, there were those who constructed this argument: “Yes, capitalism is slavery. Black slavery is only another form of slavery. Why should we choose between the Union and the Confederacy? We see in North and South only two different forms of slavery.” Lassalle, for instance, was of this opinion. Marx understood very well that these two different forms of slavery—wage-slavery and slavery in its most direct form—were not equivalent. The South was for the expansion of slavery.


 Marx in 1848

PN: For Marx, what was really at stake in the Civil War were the historical gains made by the bourgeois revolutions, on which any proletarian revolution would have to depend. And insofar as liberalism in its post-1848 moment had begun to undermine the promises of the bourgeois revolutions, it was no longer revolutionary. Do you think that with the relationship between Marx and the American Civil War, there was a certain promise that, insofar as slavery could be abolished, bourgeois right could potentially be radicalized?

DL: I am critical of some ideas of Marx, but not the enthusiasm with which he greeted the struggle of Lincoln or the Northern Union. In this case Marx was correct. But Marx spoke of the bourgeois revolutions as providing political emancipation. Perhaps he didn’t see the aspect of de-emancipation. We can make a comparison with the middle of the nineteenth century: the U.S. and Mexico. In Mexico, no bourgeois revolution took place. In the U.S. we must say that the American Revolution was a form of bourgeois revolution. Comparing these two countries, we see that in Mexico, slavery was abolished. In the U.S. slavery remained very strong. Why should we say that in the U.S. the political emancipation was greater than in Mexico? I don’t see why.

RW: In explaining the manifold “exclusion clauses” that restricted the application of bourgeois rights to certain privileged groups or individuals, you use the old dichotomy of the “sacred” and “profane.” According to this model, those fortunate enough to live inside the boundaries of this “sacred space” at any given moment can be said to inhabit the “community of the free,” while those who fall outside of its domain are meanwhile relegated to the “profane space” of unfreedom. Why do you associate freedom with sanctity, and unfreedom with profanity?

DL: In this religious analogy, the “sacred space” is, of course, the space that is more highly valued than any other. With liberal ideology, we see a religious attitude. But that isn’t the most important point, because even in normal language, “sacred” has a more positive meaning. Regardless of whether one is religious, when people speak of something that is “sacred,” what this means is that this thing has a particular importance.

RW: How do you account for the rise of nationalism, the role it played in carving out the “sacred space” of the “community of the free”? Nationalism goes virtually unmentioned in your account. Lost, then, is the patriotic particularity that emerged opposite Enlightenment universality at the outset of the eighteenth century. In your work on Heidegger, you draw on the sociologist Tönnies’s distinction between “society” [Gesellschaft] and “community” [Gemeinschaft] to explain the exclusivist connotations of the ideology of the national or folk community (the Volksgemeinschaft promoted by the Nazis).[1] Insofar as it displaced the spiritual energies traditionally invested in religion to that of the nation, might this be the root of the “sacred space” that you associate with the (national) “community of the free”?

DL: Regarding “sacred space” and “profane space”: I make a comparison with religion because religion proceeds in this way. Profane derives from a Latin word. Fanum was the temple or church. Profanum was what was outside the church. That is the distinction that we find already in the first phase of religious consciousness. Liberalism proceeds in the same way—we have the fanum, or temple, which is the space of the community of the free. Profanum is for the others, those outside of this space.

Why do I use this formulation for the community of the free? I don’t believe that the category of “individualism” is adequate to the description of liberal society. “Liberalism” and “individualism” are self-congratulatory categories. Why? If we consider individualism, for example, as the theory according to which every individual man or woman has the right to liberty, emancipation, and self-expression—that is not what we see in liberal society. We have spoken of the different forms of exclusion, of colonial peoples, of workingmen, and women. Therefore, this category is not correct.

RW: But is it liberal society or the national community that is free? In your study on Heidegger, you distinguish between the more universal category of “society,” the socius or Gesellschaft, and the more particular category of “community,” the communitas or Gemeinschaft. Isn’t this distinction useful here?

DL: If we consider the history of liberalism, we see on the one hand a “community of the free” that tends to be transnational. But on the other hand, we already see nationalism in this liberal society. For instance, Burke speaks of “the English people,” a people in whose “blood” there is a love of liberty. There is a celebration of the English people. The ideology of nationalism was already present in liberalism. England—though not only England—claimed to be a special nation, a nation involved in a project of liberty. Of course in the twentieth century we have a new situation, where Heidegger celebrates the German nation.

PN: Isn’t the transformation of concepts like nationalism symptomatic of a deeper problem in liberalism itself? Doesn’t the shift that takes place in 1848 indicate the conservative (and thus reactionary) transformation of the liberal tradition, because a latent conflict within bourgeois society was only now being historically manifested? Since you raised the criticism of how Marx conceived of bourgeois revolutions, I would like to talk about the relationship of liberalism to Marxism, specifically in the moment of the mid-nineteenth century. To what extent would you say that the success of a radical or Marxist conception of revolution be the negation of liberal society, and to what extent would you say that it would be the fulfillment of liberal society?

Un-rue-de-Paris-en-1871-Luce (2)

Maximilien Luce, Une rue à Paris en Mai 1871 ou La commune, oil on canvas, 222.5 cm x 151 cm, 1903–1905 (Musée d’Orsay). 

DL: One can find a new definition of liberalism and say that the October Revolution of 1917 was a liberal revolution—why not? But in normal language, the October Revolution is not considered a liberal revolution. All the liberal nations of the world opposed the Bolshevik Revolution.

Marx does not speak at any great length about liberalism. He speaks about capitalism and bourgeois societies, which claimed to be liberal. I criticize Marx because he treats the bourgeois revolutions one-dimensionally, as an expression of political emancipation. Marx makes a distinction between political emancipation and social emancipation. Social or human emancipation will be, in Marx’s eyes, the result of proletarian revolution. On the other hand, Marx says the political emancipation that is the result of bourgeois revolution represents progress.

Again, I don’t accept this one-sided definition of political emancipation, because it implied the continuation and worsening of slavery. In my book I quote several contemporary U.S. historians who claim that the American Revolution was, in reality, a “counter-revolution.” Why do I quote these historians? They write that if we consider the case of the natives or the blacks, their conditions became worse after the American Revolution. Of course the condition of the white community became much better. But I repeat: We have numerous U.S. historians who consider the American Revolution to be, in fact, a counter-revolution. The opinion of Marx in this case is one-sided. Perhaps he knew little about the conditions in America during the American Revolution. He knew the War of Secession well, but perhaps the young Marx was not familiar with the earlier history of the U.S.

Another example of the one-sidedness of the young Marx can be found in On The Jewish Question. He speaks in this text of the U.S. as a country of “accomplished political emancipation.” In this case, his counter-example is France. In France, he claimed there was discrimination based on wealth and opportunity. This discrimination was disappearing, and was now almost non-existent, in the U.S. But there was slavery in the U.S. at this time. Why should we say that the U.S. during the time of slavery had “accomplished political emancipation”?

RW: “Radicalism,” as you have been defining it, would be liberalism without exclusion. If one were to get rid of the division between the “sacred space” and “profane space,” it would just be liberalism for all. Insofar as radicalism purports to remove any distinction between those who are inside and those outside the realm of freedom, and thereby bring everyone into the “sacred space” of freedom, wouldn’t radicalism to some extent just be universal liberalism?

DL: It is impossible to universalize in this way. For instance, colonial wars were for the universalization of the condition of the white slave-owners. That was the universality proclaimed by colonialism. The universalization of liberal rights to excluded groups was not a spontaneous consequence of liberalism, but resulted from forces outside liberalism. These forces were, however, in some cases inspired by certain declarations, for instance of the Rights of Men.

In speaking of the enduring legacy of liberalism, I have never said that we have nothing to learn from liberalism. There two primary components of the legacy of liberalism. First, and perhaps the most important point: Liberalism has made the distinction between “sacred space” and “profane space” that I have spoken about. But liberalism has the great historical and theoretical merit of having taught the limitation of power within a determined, limited community. Yes, it is only for the community of the free, but still it is of great historical importance. On this score, I counterpose liberalism to Marxism, and rule in favor of liberalism. I have criticized liberalism very strongly, but in this case I stress the greater merits of liberalism in comparison to Marxism.

Often, Marxism has spoken of the disappearance of power as such—not the limitation of power, but its disappearance—the withering of the state and so on. This vision is a messianic vision, which has played a very negative role in the history of socialism and communism. If we think that power will simply disappear, we do not feel the obligation to limit power. This vision had terrible consequences in countries like the Soviet Union.

RW: So you believe that historical Marxism’s theorization of the eventual “abolition” of the state, or the “withering away” of the State—as Lenin, following Engels, put it—was misguided?

DL: Totally misguided!

RW: So do you feel that society can never autonomously govern itself without recourse to some sort of external entity, something like the state? Must the state always exist?

DL: I do not believe society can exist without regulation, without laws. Something must ensure obedience to the laws, and in this case the “withering away” of the state would mean the “withering away” of rights, of the rule of law. Gramsci rightly says that civil society, too, can be a form of power and domination. If we conceive the history of the United States, the most oppressive forms of domination did not take the shape of state domination, but came from civil society. The settlers in the American West independently carried out the expropriation, deportation, and even extermination in more extensive ways than the state. Sometimes, even if only partially, the federal government has tried to place limits on this phenomenon. Representing civil society as the expression of liberty—this is nonsense that has nothing to do with real Marxism.

Marx himself speaks of the despotism in the capitalist factory, which is not exercised by the state, but rather by civil society. And Marx, against this despotism, proposed the interference of the state into the private sphere of civil society. He advocated state intervention in civil society in order to limit or abolish this form of domination, in order to limit by law the duration and condition of the work in the factory.

RW: That’s the famous passage where Marx describes industrial capitalism as “anarchy in production, despotism in the workshop.” In other words, haphazard production-for-production’s-sake alongside this kind of militarized discipline of industrial labor. But insofar as Marx conceives the modern state as the expression of class domination, the domination of the ruling class over the rest of society, do you believe that a classless society is possible? Because it would seem unclear why a classless society would need a state, if the state is only there to express class domination.

DL: On the one hand, Marx speaks along the lines you just laid out. In many texts, Marx and Engels say that the state is the expression of one class’s domination over the other. But at other times, they speak of another function of the state. They write that the state functions to implement guarantees between the different individuals of the ruling class, the individual bourgeois. And I don’t understand why this second function of the state would disappear. If we have a unified mankind, in this case too there is the necessity of guarantees between individuals within this unified mankind.

Furthermore, we are not allowed to read the thesis of Marx and Engels in a simplistic way. Sometimes they speak of the “withering away” of the state. In other circumstances, however, they speak of the “withering away” in its actual political form. These two formulations are very different from one another. But in the history of the communist movement, only the first definition was present, the most simplistic definition: the “withering away” of the state as such. The other formulation is more adequate: the “withering away” of the state in terms of today’s political form.

RW: And the other great legacy of liberalism?

DL: The other great legacy of liberalism exists in its understanding of the benefits of competition. And here I am thinking of the market, too, about which I speak positively in my book. We must distinguish different forms of the market. For a long time, the market implied a form of slavery. The slaves were merchandise in the market. The market can assume very different forms. Not that the market is the most important fact. We cannot develop a post-capitalist society, at least for a long time to come, without some form of competition. And this is another great legacy that we can learn from liberalism. |P

Transcribed by Ross Wolfe

[1].Domenico Losurdo, Heidegger and the Ideology of War: Community, Death, and the West (Humanity Press, Amherst NY, 2001).

Spencer A. Leonard

Platypus Review 44 | March 2012


Last summer, Spencer A. Leonard interviewed Kevin Anderson, author of Lenin, Hegel, and Western Marxism (1995) and Marx at the Margins (2010). The interview was broadcast on August 2, 2011 on the radio show Radical Minds on WHPK–FM Chicago. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation. 

Spencer Leonard: Broadly describe your aims and ambitions in writing Marx at the Margins.

Kevin Anderson: One aim was that, in the past couple of decades - really the past three decades since the publication of Edward Said’s Orientalism, there have been a number of critiques of Marx that centered on charges of Eurocentrism, ethnocentricsm, and so forth. I wanted to respond to those, but also to look at Marx anew in light of them. Moreover, while there are various works on Marx and European nationalisms, on India and China, and the late writings on Russia, no one had covered the whole of these, including Marx’s writing on the Civil War in the United States, which deal directly with ethnicity. So my second aim as to address them together in a single study with the other, more well-known writings. This also required taking account of newly surfaced writings of Marx slated to appear in the Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe.

SL: Regarding the Eurocentrism charge, it is raised not only to criticize Marx, but also to reject the Enlightenment tradition in which all critical theory finds its roots. Yet, rather than dismissing the charge as an expression of third world nationalism, your book takes it seriously—arguing that indeed Marx and Engels are not wholly immune from criticism on these grounds. You point to the “unilinearity” of their early writings, above all the Communist Manifesto and the New York Tribune writings of the early 1850s. But is the category of “the West” really relevant for Marx or for the radical Enlightenment out of which he emerges?

KA: Certainly there are places where that is the case. In some of the 1853 writings on India, for instance, Marx speaks of England as a superior civilization, which by virtue of its higher economic form is going to revolutionize India. Also, as late as the preface to Capital, Marx says that more developed countries show the less developed the image of their own future. These examples suggest almost, if one wanted to think of it in terms of a railroad train, that the Western European countries and North America are kind of in the front couple cars of the train and that Asia and the so-called “third world” are in the rear being pulled forward into modernity.

SL: So that all countries would in a sense recapitulate the historical trajectory of those at the head of the train.

KA: Right! Of course, stated so simplisticly, no one supports such a view. No one would say that India is going to become an exact copy of England. But of the extent that one would say that a country like Britain represents the future of humanity, one is adopting a Eurocentric model. Of course, there are also problems with the critique of Eurocentrism, which is often very critical of the social structures and social institutions of modern Western societies and far less so of the social structures and institutions of the non-West. Marx in examining “non-Western” societies is always critical. And as his thought matures, these criticisms cease to rely upon a Eurocentric unilinearity and move toward a more multilinear perspective. However, Marx is no primitivist anarchist interested in returning to a clan-based, low-tech society. Nor does he idealize the social formations in places like India, with their caste and other hierarchies, their subordination of women, etc. He does not sugar-coat any of that. Nonetheless, towards the end of his life, there is evidence that he entertains more of a possibility of societies evolving and revolutionizing themselves more on the basis of indigenous institutions. This is never entirely so, but he gives more consideration to the internally generated institutions of these societies.

SL: It seems to me that when Marx says England represents a higher civilization, he is not really talking about the "Englishness" of England, much less anything “authentically Western.” Capitalism for Marx is not a superior civilization. Rather, capitalist society is “civilization,” per se, in a way that the past can only be said to be by analogy with it. Thus, in the Communist Manifesto, he uses the language of “civilization,” and terms everything else barbaric, as for instance in the passage where he talks about the beating down of Chinese walls by British imports. The issue is the universality of the form realizing itself at the level of world history. So, it seems that when he is using that language, he is talking about a social form, one that just happens to have emerged in Europe.

KA: Well of course there is some truth in that, but as I also say in the book, the language sometimes verges on what today we would consider ethnocentric—the descriptions of India as an unchanging, unresisting society that has no history except that which is imposed on it by its foreign conquerors, and so on. There are some problems there. Another example would be an early text in which Engels applauds the U.S. war with Mexico, the conquest of California, and the incorporation into the United States of the Southwest, referring to “the lazy Mexicans” who were unable to develop the region in the way the North Americans are going to do. That kind of language reverses by the 1860s and 1870s. You can see a real turn there. Also in writings by Engels, but also on occasion by Marx, there is the claim that the Czech and the Serb peoples (to name only a few) are barbaric, so it is good that in some areas they are dominated by the Germans, who represent a higher civilization. These nations are destined to disappear, and this is a good thing. Again, there are exceptions to this even in the early writings. And whenever they are actually in contact with real historical movements of resistance that are at all progressive, they change their tune fairly quickly. The clearest example of this is Ireland. Nothing in their writings suggests any sympathy for any “progress” that Britain is bringing to Ireland. Engels especially was intimately involved with Ireland as early as his 1845 work The Conditions of the Working Class in England. There Engels devotes a lot of attention to the Irish sub-proletariat in Manchester and to its special oppression. Marx too supports the Irish national movement, though at first his support is not for independence but for greater rights within the empire.

SL: Marx and Engels seem to me to inherit a situation from an earlier period that is utterly unfamiliar to us. They lived in a time before the whole world was bourgeois, and it seems to me that part of the struggle of not just Marx and Engels but also of Hegel, Kant, Adam Smith, and Rousseau, is a struggle to critically apprehend the specificity of modernity, one that can be apprehended both temporally and ethno-geographically. This to me is what lies at the core of the early modern debate between the ancients and the moderns—major European intellectuals of freedom and emancipation are confronted with the fact that their society is expanding and that no other society seems genuinely capable of resisting it. Hegel thus says that the North American Indians fall at the mere breath of Europe, echoing Rousseau’s comments about the confrontation of civilization with the natural man. Similarly, Adam Smith was duly impressed by the fact that a small number of Englishmen in the East India Company could in his lifetime conquer significant territories in the ancient and fabled land of India. In this sense, then, there’s the question of the Eurocentrism of their experience. They had to address a question we don’t. That question is: What if the highest potentials of modern society are brought forward before globalization has done its work? What if there is a successful socialist revolution in Europe and North America before capitalism has spread to the rest of the world?

KA: One of Marx and Engels's great worries is this - What if radical communism or radical democracy, as they sometimes call it, should overtake this small sliver of the modernized, capitalist world only to be smothered very quickly by the rest of the world? He is particularly worried about the power of Russia. We look back and we see England as the predominant power in Marx’s time. But in political terms, Russia was the second most important power in Europe. Do not forget that the 1848 revolutions were defeated in substantial part because Russia was able to send 400,000 troops into the Austro-Hungarian Empire to aid the old regime. So Marx and Engels certainly are concerned with the fact that the modern workers’ movement has emerged only in a small corner of the world. What if it should remain isolated? So on the one hand, they are happy about the spread of modernity, capitalism, and even to a certain extent colonialism, throughout the world, at least in their early writings. On the other hand, as they develop, as Marx moves in the 1850s towards the completion of the Grundrisse and Capital, the critique of capitalism becomes more intense, sharper, deeper, more unremitting. In the Communist Manifesto, we have those lines about the progressivism of capitalism. That language persists only in very muted form in the Grundrisse and Capital. Over the trajectory of Marx’s writing there is less enthusiasm about progress emerging out of capitalist modernity. And remember that Marx had not lived in England yet when he penned the Communist Manifesto. He hadn’t experienced directly a high development of capitalist modernity. Perhaps from the outside he even idealized it. It’s very strange to say this about Marx, but he becomes more critical of capitalism. I have argued that there is a gradual shift, never toward an uncritical third worldism, never toward a primitivist anarchism, but toward harsher critiques of capitalist modernity and a greater appreciation of some of the achievements and contributions of societies at the margins.

SL: Regarding this waning of Marx’s belief in capitalism’s progressive effects the question arises, In what sense did Marx ever think capitalism progressive, in the first place? For instance, in the Communist Manifesto, Marx argued that with the coming of capitalism, “all fixed fast-frozen social relations with their venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away. All that is solid melts into air and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind” Here he seems to be celebrating the fact of capitalism’s having swept the past away and given rise to the possibility of its own self-overcoming, the possibility of mankind’s confrontation with our circumstances with, as he puts it, sober senses. Capitalism in this sense only makes possible the conclusion of pre-history through deliberate action to achieve a post-capitalist society. In this sense, when Marx terms capitalism “civilization,” it can be viewed as having a doubled charge as both the overcoming and the perfection of the past. Do you think that Marx’s attitude about that ever changes?

KA: Even in the Communist Manifesto, where his praise is at the highest, in those paragraphs you were quoting, there is the phrase, “the icy waters of individual calculation,” which I don’t think he means as a compliment to capitalism and its culture.

SL: No? Don’t we sometimes splash cold water on our faces in order to wake ourselves up?

KA: The point I am trying to make is that even in that language about progressivism, it’s always dialectical. Part of the way the Manifesto is set up is that the first few pages set out this model that the subsequent pages undermine by talking about all the contradictions and oppressions brought about by capital, such as making the worker a mere instrument or machine, the recessions and depressions that capitalism creates, that fact that the capitalist class is unfit to rule because it can’t guarantee to the subordinate population, the proletariat, even the minimal level of existence, etc. As you were saying, there is the very clear implication that you have to go through this process. But in the later writings, that is less clear. The most dramatic example is the late writings on Russia, where the Russian villages are still overwhelmingly rural but are starting to be encroached upon by capitalist property relations and capitalist banking. You can see on the horizon the glimmers of what was to become the beginning of the industrialization of Russia in the 1890s, which Marx did not live to see. Still Marx does suggest that if the villages resist the encroachment of capitalism, this might be a good thing. He talks about the communal structure of the Russian villages and the collectivist social forms they take, even more so than in the medieval European village, let alone modern capitalist social relations. He sees in this a possible building block for a modern communism. And there was a revolutionary movement there at the time trying to do exactly that. In dialogue with that Russian revolutionary movement, Marx is wondering whether it might not be able to link up with the proletarian revolutions of the West he is anticipating. So not everyone has to necessarily go through this painful, uprooting process of the old social relations as happens with the industrial revolution. This has wider implications. And there are other examples one can point to in the later writings, the writings from 1881 and 1882 just before his death.

SL: In the Lectures on the Philosophy of History, Hegel says,

Without rhetorical exaggeration, a simply truthful combination of the miseries that have overwhelmed the noblest of nations and polities and the finest examples of private virtue forms a picture of the most fearful aspect and excites emotions of the profoundest and most hopeless sadness, counterbalanced by no consolatory result. We endure in beholding it a mental torture, allowing no defense or escape but the consideration that what has happened could not be otherwise, that it is a fatality which no intervention could alter. And at last we draw back from the intolerable disgust with which these sorrowful reflections threaten us into the more agreeable environment of our private individual life- the present formed by our aims and interests. In short, we retreat into selfishness that stands on the quiet shore and thus enjoys the safety of the distant spectacle of “wrecks confusedly hurled.” But even regarding history as the slaughter-bench at which the happiness of people, the wisdom of states, and the virtue of individuals have been victimized, the question involuntarily arises: To what principle, to what final aim these enormous sacrifices have been offered? From this point, the investigation [of History] proceeds...[1]

It seems to me that Marx inherits this very profoundly, for instance, in the statement,“that all hitherto existing history has been the history of class struggle.” But it also seems to me that Marx’s theory of capital reconfigures that concern somewhat. In particular, it raises not only the question of the suffering of all of world history, which, for some at least, in one corner of the world, involved the suffering industrial capitalism's emergence, but also what Hegel says—that, in some unconsoling and inconsolable way, this is just a historical fact, albeit a deeply melancholy one. In the face of which Marx asks, What about when this suffering is no longer necessary? What about the post-1848 world? That is, in some ways it is the failure of the Revolution of 1848, the failure of the working class and indeed humanity to rise to the historical tasks of industrial society that is the most deeply melancholy fact (and the most fundamental object of critique) for Marx. It might be in that light that we’d look at his descriptions of the barbarities committed in India, China or elsewhere—i.e., that these are unnecessary. They are not History, in Hegel’s sense.

KA: Marx is a child of Hegel in that respect. On the language about fatality, I would say that Hegel is also the philosopher of the human subject. He is interested in the quest for freedom, for self-determination. This operates within a larger framework that adds up to a historical progression, as Hegel sees it. But, of course, even with Hegel progress is never one sided. He has room for retrogression within his concept of historical development. For example, he regards the entire European medieval period as one of retrogression. So neither Hegel nor Marx are the uncritical progressivists they are often portrayed as being.

But there are some differences with Hegel. Some of Marx’s descriptions of the Indian village and Indian civilization as backward, unchanging, unresisting, and passive, as not really having a history, are practically copied from Hegel’s Philosophy of History. But what I think held Marx back from being fully Hegelian, although that is certainly his major intellectual influence, is, as everyone points out, that Marx is a more empirical thinker. Marx is interested in looking at historical and social phenomena more closely than Hegel, although Hegel did do quite a bit of that too. Also, Marx is a humanist. That is the big difference. There is an implicit humanism in some of Hegel’s writings on the human subject, but in Marx’s 1844 critique of Hegel, he zeroes in on the abstraction of Hegel’s philosophizing where the real breathing human being, the corporeal, bodily being, is not really present or is insufficiently present in Hegel’s thinking. Marx is more reluctant than Hegel to think in terms of fatal laws of history, especially by the end of his life. In a response to Nikolai Mikhailovsky, a Russian who was trying to defend Marx by saying that he had a general theory of history, Marx replied that he did not have a concept of historical development that is inevitably or fatally imposed on all peoples. He is a little less global, as a thinker, in that sense, than Hegel, a little less totalizing, although it is a real caricature to paint Hegel as a thinker of totality without room for particularity. Because Hegel spent a lot of time attacking what he called the “abstract universal.”

SL: It seems to me that Marx is deeply beholden to Hegel on the question of the project of the self-conscious constitution of history. Of course, that project is radically reconfigured by Marx through his understanding of commodity fetishism and what consciousness means in the struggle to realize and overcome civil society in the age of capital. Like Hegel, the question is one of humanity’s becoming self-conscious. It is not just a question of fatality, but of reason’s cunning. In the modern world, as Hegel says, “everyone is free.” There is the question of the free constitution of history that Marx inherits. What you’re calling Marx’s pessimism or his increasingly harsh and unremitting critique of capital for me turns on the question of struggling with a social form whose potential for emancipation is bound up with its seeming recalcitrance to that project. Of course, post-1848 Marx thinks that the new tasks of the revolution have been announced yet humanity is not taking them up. The way I read the writings on the barbarity of British suppression of the Indian Mutiny is that Marx is arguing that, to the extent that modern society falls below the threshold of its own possibility, it renounces its title to supersede feudalism. It is not really a question of support for the Indian Mutiny, but of the melancholy recognition of a kind of civilized barbarism. But, once again, there are strong echoes here of Adam Smith’s earlier critique of the East India Company, to name only the most obvious instance.

KA: There is a lot packed into your comment. In the famous letter to Engels of 1858 where Marx talks about having reread Hegel’s Logic as he is reconstructing some of the categories that were to become the Gundrisse and later Capital, he says that the Logic was a great help to him in working through the economic categories. That’s the same letter where he says that the Indians are now “our best allies.” So, I do take that as support for the Indian Sepoy Uprising of 1857. The question is, What does support mean? It does not mean that he is supporting the political aims of the uprising, which, to the extent that they were coordinated, called for the restoration of the Mogul Empire. Certainly he doesn’t support that. My take on it is that it is very different.


Scene from the Indian Mutiny of 1857, depicted in a steel engraving from the 1860s. Marx addressed the Mutiny in a series of articles for the New York Daily Tribune.

In regard to Ireland, for instance, Marx always supports the Irish national movement, but the degree to which he is critical of it has to do with the social content of the movement and its leadership. In the 1840s, it was led by pro-landlord groups close to the Catholic Church. Marx and Engels are scathing of these tendencies. By the 1860s, there is the Fenian movement, which is more peasant based, less tied to the Church, and against property holdings not only of the British but also of the so-called Irish landowner classes. Similarly, the Indian movement did not have a socially progressive agenda in the Revolt of 1857. So Marx supports it, but not with the fulsomeness with which he supports the movement in Ireland later on. Marx is a supporter of national self-determination, but not as an abstract universal. The most glaring example of how he doesn’t support all claims to national self-determination is the southern U.S. Confederacy. He does not support their right to national self-determination because the political and social basis on which that was constructed was the defense of slavery.

SL: Let me ask you about the discussion in the book about Marx’s idea of modes of production. You specify what you mean by the “unilinear” model which Marx is breaking with by noting that this took the form of a purportedly universal philosophy of history, one that “focused on Western development from early stateless clan societies to the ancient Greco-Roman class societies based on slave labor to the feudalism of the Middle Ages and on to bourgeois society and its successor, socialism."[2] As you point out, all pre-capitalist societies, for all of their empirical variety share, for Marx, the crucial theoretical aspect of being pre-capitalist. As you put it at one point, “the purpose of their labor was ‘not the creation of value.’”[3] So, it seems there is a tension between making a claim about all of human history and making a claim about the specificity of capital. We would not want to let go of that tension, would we?

KA: I am not sure to the extent to which Marx saw the Asiatic mode of production as a core concept grounding his discussions of India, China, etc. I have not really thought that through, but certainly the Asiatic mode of production is not something on which he expended a lot of intellectual effort. There is the long section in the Grundrisse on pre-capitalist modes of production that talks about the Greco-Roman mode of production and the ancient Asiatic mode of production. There he is really talking about India, as far as I can tell. But beyond that, Marx wrote a lot journalistically about India, and the phrase “Asiatic mode of production” does not, to my knowledge, occur in those writings. I also used to think that there must have been a long essay somewhere by Marx describing the feudal mode of production. But there isn’t. It’s just a few scattered comments here and there, as far as I can tell. Marx is not Max Weber. Weber was a scholar who spent perhaps most of his intellectual effort on trying to figure out the uniqueness of modern Western capitalism vis-à-vis earlier social forms. He wrote voluminously on China, India, ancient Judaism, ancient Greece and Rome, and the European Middle Ages. With Marx, the concerns are very different. He does look at these kinds of issues sometimes, but he always does so with contemporary concerns in mind, not only about the structure of capitalism, but also to figure out the problems of resistance to and revolution against capital. Thus, Marx’s interest at the end of his life in the Russian and Indian villages develops because he thinks that these were possible sites of resistance to capital that could become allies of the Western proletariat. To the extent that he is concerned with the non-West or the non-core capitalist countries like Ireland in his own time, it is because of their relationship to the problematic of capital and labor inside the core countries. Sometimes he thinks these relationships can reverse themselves. Accordingly, in the late 1860s, Marx feels that an Irish revolution could become the lever that might spark proletarian uprising inside Britain. Similarly, he argues that the Russian communal village could be the starting point for a global communist development if it could link up with the proletariat in the West. These are not isolated questions for Marx. Certainly he never addresses Ireland, India, Russia or anyplace else for the sake of elaborating a philosophy of history. There may be a very interesting philosophy of history there, but that would have to be teased out.

SL: To return to a point I made earlier, my mistrust of the preoccupation with Eurocentrism is that it occludes the fact that revolution was, according to Marx, possible in his own time. This raised the question of how the transition to post-capitalist society would take place globally. For many who throw around the category of “Eurocentrism,” revolution to them was no more possible then than it is now, and they’re not interested in either case.

KA: For most academic thinking, even left-wing academic thinking, revolution is probably not possible. Even a school of thinking for which I have great respect, the Frankfurt School, devoted most of its energy to figuring out why the German working class, and later on the modern American working class in America, were not even really oppositional. In Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man this is a major theme. This goes with the territory of academic radicalism. But Marx was not an academic, and Capital was not written for an academic audience. |P

[1]. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of History. The quoted passage appears in part III, “Philosophic History,” section 24. The text is available online at: <>

[2]. Kevin B. Anderson, Marx at the Margins: On Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 155–156.

[3]. Grundrisse quoted in Ibid., 156.