RSS FeedRSS FeedLivestreamLivestreamVimeoVimeoTwitterTwitterFacebook GroupFacebook Group
You are here: Platypus /“These petrified relations must be forced to dance”: An interview with Dick Howard

“These petrified relations must be forced to dance”: An interview with Dick Howard

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).

One comment

    Leave a Reply

    %d bloggers like this: