Critical Theory in the Post-War

Dora Longo Bahia, The Condor and the Carcará, 2019 - pigment ink print on 100g Hahnemühle Rice Paper. with iron frame 31 x 60,5 cm closed / 31 x 106,5 cm open


The second half of the 1970s and the 1980s were a period of abrupt changes in the geography of critical thinking. It was at this moment that the political and intellectual coordinates of a new period were gradually fixed.

For a geography of Critical Theory

Em Thoughts on Western Marxism (Boitempo) Perry Anderson has shown that the defeat of the German Revolution in the years 1918-23 brought about a significant mutation in Marxism. The Marxists of the classical generation had two main characteristics. Primarily, they were historians, economists, sociologists – that is, concerned with the empirical sciences. His publications were mainly circumstantial and focused on current political events. Second, they were party leaders – that is, strategists facing real political problems. Carl Schmitt once claimed that one of the most important events of the modern era was Lenin's reading of Clausewitz. The underlying idea was that to be a Marxist intellectual in the early twentieth century was to find yourself at the forefront of organizing your country's working class. Indeed, the very notion of a 'Marxist intellectual' made little sense, the noun 'Marxist' being self-sufficient.

These two characteristics were strongly associated. It is because they were political strategists that these thinkers needed empirical knowledge to make decisions. This is the famous “concrete analysis of concrete situations” that Lenin referred to. On the other hand, his role as a strategist nourished his reflections with first-hand empirical knowledge. As Lenin wrote on November 30, 1917 in his afterword to State and Revolution, “it is more pleasant and useful to go through the 'experience of the revolution' than to write about it”. At this stage of Marxist history, 'experience' and 'writing' about the revolution were inextricably linked.

The 'Western' Marxism of the subsequent period was born out of the erasure of the relations between intellectuals/leaders and working class organizations that existed in classical Marxism. By the mid-1920s, workers' organizations were being defeated on all sides. The failure of the German Revolution of 1923, the outcome of which was seen as crucial to the future of the workers' movement, put a stop to hopes for any immediate overthrow of capitalism. The decline that ensued led to the establishment of a new type of relationship between intellectuals/leaders and organizations of the working class. Gramsci, Korsch and Lukács were the first representatives of this new configuration. With Adorno, Sartre, Althusser, Della Volpe, Marcuse and others, the Marxists who dominated the years 1924-68 possessed characteristics distinct from those of the preceding period. At first, they no longer had organic relations with the labor movements and, in particular, with the Communist parties. They no longer held leadership positions. Where they were members of Communist parties (Althusser, Lukács, Della Volpe), their relationships were complex. Forms of 'travel companionship' can be observed, as exemplified by the case of Sartre in France. But an irreducible distance between intellectuals and the party persisted. And this is not necessarily attributable to the intellectuals themselves: Communist party leadership was often suspicious of them.

The split between intellectuals and working-class organizations, characteristic of Western Marxism, had a significant cause and a significant consequence. The cause was the construction, from the 1920s onwards, of an orthodox Marxism that represented the official doctrine of the USSR and its fraternal parties. The classical period of Marxism was one of intense debates about, in particular, the character of imperialism, the national question, the relationship between the social and the political, and finance capital. From the second half of the 1920s, Marxism became fossilized. This put intellectuals in a structurally difficult position, as any innovation in the intellectual domain was thus denied them. This was an important reason for the distance that now separated them from working-class parties. She confronted them with the alternative of maintaining their alliance or keeping their distance. Over time, the separation only increased, mainly because other factors aggravated it, such as the growing professionalization or academicization of intellectual activity, which tended to distance intellectuals from politics.

A notable consequence of this new configuration was that Western Marxists, unlike those of the previous period, developed abstract forms of knowledge. They were mostly philosophers and often aesthetes or epistemologists. Just as the practice of empirical science was tied to the fact that Marxists of the classical period had leading roles in labor organizations, the distancing from such roles promoted a 'flight towards abstraction'. Marxists now produced hermetic knowledge, inaccessible to ordinary workers, about fields without any direct relation to political strategy. In that sense, Western Marxism was non-Clausewitzian.

The case of Western Marxism illustrates the way in which historical developments can influence the content of thought that aspires to make history. More precisely, it demonstrates the way in which the kind of event that political defeat is influences the course of the theory that suffered it. The failure of the German revolution, argues Anderson, led to a persistent rift between the Communist parties and revolutionary intellectuals. Amputating the last of political decision-making, this rupture led them to produce analyzes that were progressively abstract and less strategically useful. The interesting feature of Anderson's argument is that he convincingly explains the property of the doctrine's content (abstraction) by a property of its social conditions of production.

Based on this, the question now is to determine the relationship between the defeat suffered by the political movements of the second half of the 1970s and current critical theories. In other words, it consists of examining the way in which the critical doctrines of the 1960s and 1970s 'mutated' in contact with defeat, rather than giving rise to the critical theories that emerged during the 1990s. second half of the 1970s be compared with that suffered by the workers' movements of the early 1920s? Have its effects on critical doctrines been similar to those experienced by Marxism after the 1920s and, in particular, its characteristic “flight into abstraction”?

From one glaciation to another

Today's critical theories are heirs of Western Marxism. Naturally, they were not influenced by him alone, as they are the product of multiple connections, some of them alien to Marxism. Such, for example, is the case with French Nietzscheanism, particularly the works of Foucault and Deleuze. But one of the main origins of the new critical theories can be found in Western Marxism, whose history is closely linked to that of New Left.

Anderson's analysis demonstrates that the significant distance separating critical intellectuals from working-class organizations has a decisive impact on the type of theory they develop. When these intellectuals are members of the organizations in question and, a fortiori, when they are its leaders, the limitations of political activity are clearly visible in their publications. They are significantly smaller when that bond weakens, as is the case with Western Marxism. For example, being a member of the Russian Social Democratic Workers' Party in the early 3th century involved different kinds of obstacles than being part of the ATTAC scientific committee. In the second case, the intellectual in question has plenty of time to pursue an academic career outside of his political engagement – ​​something incompatible with membership in a working-class organization in early twentieth-century Russia or elsewhere. Of course, academia has also changed – more precisely, massified – considerably since the era of classical Marxism; and this has an impact on the potential trajectory of critical intellectuals. Scholars belonged to a restricted social category in late XNUMXth-century Europe. Today, they are much more widespread, which clearly influences the intellectual and social trajectory of theory producers. To understand the new critical theories, it is crucial to understand the character of the associations between the intellectuals who elaborate them and the organizations of the moment. In chapter XNUMX we will propose a typology of contemporary critical intellectuals to address this issue.

There is a geography of thought – in this instance, of critical thinking. Classical Marxism was essentially produced by thinkers from Central and Eastern Europe. The Stalinization of that part of the continent vetoed subsequent developments and pushed the center of gravity of Marxism towards Western Europe. This is the social space in which critical intellectual production has been installed for half a century. During the 1980s, as a result of the recession of theoretical and political criticism on the continent, but also because of the dynamic activity of intellectual hubs such as magazines New Left Review, Semiotext(e), Telos, New German Critique, Theory and Society e Critical Inquiry, the source of criticism gradually shifted to the Anglo-American world. Critical theories have come to be more vigorous where previously they were not. While the old production regions continued to generate and export important authors – just think of Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière, Toni Negri or Giorgio Agamben – a fundamental change has taken place in the last thirty years, which is tending to relocate the production of critical theories to new regions.

It must be said that the intellectual climate markedly deteriorated for the radical Left in Western Europe, especially in France and Italy – the chosen lands of Western Marxism – from the second half of the 1970s onwards. As has been indicated, Western Marxism succeeded Marxism classic when the Stalinist glaciation hit Central and Eastern Europe. While different in many respects, an analogy can be drawn between the effects of this glaciation and what historian Michael Scott Christofferson has called an 'anti-totalitarian moment' in France. From the second half of the 1970s, France – but this also applies to neighboring countries, especially those where the labor movement was powerful – witnessed a large-scale ideological offensive, which, on a different terrain, accompanied the advance of neoliberalism with the election of Thatcher and Reagan, followed by that of François Mitterand who, despite his 'socialist' pedigree, applied neoliberal prescriptions without remorse. The movements born in the second half of the 1950s were stagnating. The initial oil shock in 1972 heralded economically and socially difficult times, with the first significant increase in the unemployment rate. The Common Left Program, signed in 1972 and uniting the Communist and Socialist parties, made the Left's coming to power conceivable, but in the process directing its activity towards the institutions, thereby stripping it of some of its former vitality.

On the intellectual front, The Gulag Archipelago it appeared in French translation in 1974. The media hype around Solzhenitsyn and other Eastern European dissidents was considerable. They were not only championed by conservative intellectuals. In France, in 1977, a reception organized in honor of Soviet dissidents brought together Sartre, Foucault and Deleuze. Other famous critical intellectuals, such as Cornelius Castoriadis and Claude Lefort, struck by the 'anti-totalitarian' anthem, the latter dedicating a book entitled A man in trop to Solzhenitsyn. It is true that from Socialism or barbarism 1950 was one of the first magazines to develop a systematic critique of Stalinism. The 'anti-totalitarian consensus' that reigned in France from the second half of the 1970s extended from Castoriadis, via As is and Maurice Clavel, for Raymond Aron (obviously with significant nuances). On the other side of the stage, young 'beginners' in the intellectual field of the time – the 'new philosophers' – made 'anti-totalitarianism' their business. Nineteen seventy-seven – which we have chosen as the starting point of the historical period dealt with in this chapter – witnessed its consecration by the media. That year, André Glucksmann and Bernard Henri Lévy published Les maitres faleurs e La barbarie à visage humain, respectively.

The thesis of the 'new philosophers' was that any project to transform society would lead to 'totalitarianism'' – that is, regimes based on mass genocide in which the State subjugates the entire social body. The charge of 'totalitarianism' was directed not only at the USSR and the countries of 'real socialism', but at the entire workers' movement. François Furet's revisionist enterprise in the historiography of the French Revolution, and his subsequent analysis of the 'communist passion' in the twentieth century, rested on an analogous idea. During the 1970s, some 'new philosophers' – many of whom came out of the same Maoist organisation, the Gauche proletarian – retained some political radicalism. In The Master Thinkers, Glucksmann opposed the plebeians to the (totalitarian) State, in libertarian accents that would not be repudiated by the current defenders of the 'multitude', which explains, in a way, the support he received from Foucault at that time. Over the years, however, these thinkers gradually shifted towards the defense of 'human rights', humanitarian interventions, liberalism and the market economy.

At the heart of the 'new philosophy' was an argument about theory. It was derived from traditional European conservative thought, especially that of Edmund Burke. Glucksmann encapsulated it this way: “To theorize is to terrorize”. Burke attributed the catastrophic consequences of the French Revolution (the Terror) to the 'speculative spirit' of philosophers insufficiently attentive to the complexity of reality and the imperfection of human nature. According to Burke, revolutions are the product of intellectuals about to give more importance to ideas than facts that have passed the 'test of time'. In a similar vein, Glucksmann and his colleagues criticized the trend in the history of Western thought which claimed to understand reality in its 'wholeness' and, on that basis, sought to alter it – a trend that goes all the way back to Plato and which, via Leibniz and Hegel, generated Marx and Marxism. Karl Popper, it is interesting to note, developed a similar thesis in the 1940s, in particular in The Open Society and Its Enemies. As is well known, Popper is one of the patron saints of neoliberalism and his argument figures prominently in its doctrinal corpus to this day. The assimilation of 'theorizing' to 'terror' is based on the following syllogism: understanding reality in its entirety leads to the desire to subdue it; this ambition inevitably leads to the Gulag. Under these conditions we can see why critical theories deserted their continent of origin in search of more favorable climates.

The success of the 'new philosophers' can be seen as symptomatic. It says a lot about the changes that have taken place in the political and intellectual field of our time. These were the years of the 1968 renunciation of radicalism, the 'end of ideologies', and the replacement of intellectuals by 'experts'. The creation, by Alain Minc, Furet, Pierre Rosanvallon and others in 1982 of the Saint-Simon Foundation, which (in the words of Pierre Nova) brought together 'people who have ideas with people who have resources', symbolizes the emergence of a knowledge of the supposedly ideology-free society. The End of Ideology, by the American sociologist Daniel Bell, dates from 1960, but it was only during the 80s that this leitmotif arrived in France and found expression in all areas of social existence. In the cultural sphere, Jack Lang and Jean-François Bizot – the founder of Actuel and Radio Nova – list May 68 as a failed revolution but a successful festival. In the economic field, Bernard Tapie, future minister under Mitterand, advertised the company as the field of all kinds of creativity. In the intellectual sphere, the newspaper Debate, edited by Nora and Marcel Gauchet, published its first edition in 1980; in an article entitled “Que peuvent les intelectuels?” Nora advised the latter to confine themselves to their areas of competence and stop intervening in politics.

The atmosphere of the 1980s must be related to the 'infrastructure' changes that affected industrial societies after the end of World War II. One of the main changes has been the importance assumed by the media in intellectual life. The 'new philosophers' were the first televised philosophical current. Certainly, Sartre and Foucault also appeared in interviews taped at that time, but they would have existed, like their works, in the absence of television. The same is not true for Lévy and Glucksmann. In many senses, the 'new philosophers' were products of the media, their works – as well as recognizable symbols such as white shirts, wild hairstyles, 'dissident' posture – were conceived with the limitations of television in mind. The intrusion of the media into the intellectual field abruptly altered the conditions for the production of critical theories. It is an additional element to explain the hostile climate that was created in France from the end of the 1970s. Thus, one of the countries where critical theories had prospered most in the previous period – with contributions from Althusser, Lefebvre, Foucault, Deleuze, Bordieu , Barthes and Lyotard in particular – saw its intellectual tradition wane. Some of these authors continued to produce important work during the 1980s. Thousand Trays by Deleuze and Guatarri appeared in 1980, Le Differend by Lyotard in 1983, and L'Usage des plaisirs de Foucault in 1984. But French critical thought has lost the capacity for innovation it once possessed. A theoretical glaciation has set in, from which, in some senses, we have yet to emerge.

The phenomenon of the 'new philosophers' is certainly typically French, especially since the sociological profile of its protagonists is intimately linked to the French system of elite reproduction. But the general trend of abandoning the ideas of 1968, noticeable from the second half of the 1970s onwards, is internationally visible, even if it takes different forms in each country. A fascinating case, which still awaits an in-depth study, is that of the Italian Lucio Colletti. Colletti was one of the most innovative Marxist philosophers of the 1960s and 70s. A member of the Italian Communist Party since 1950, he decided to leave it on the occasion of the Budapest insurrection in 1956, which (as we have seen) was the occasion for several intellectuals to break with the Communist movement (although he did not make his departure official until 1964). He became progressively critical of Stalinism. Like Althusser in France (with whom he corresponded and held in high regard), and under the influence of his teacher Galvano Della Volpe, Colletti defended the idea that Marx's break with Hegel was deeper than commonly thought. . This thesis is developed, in particular, in Marxism and Hegel, one of his best-known works. Another of his influential works was From Rousseau to Lenin, which attests to the importance of Lenin's materialism for his thought.

From the mid-1970s onwards, Colletti became increasingly critical of Marxism, and especially of Western Marxism, of which he was one of the representatives and chief theorists. In an interview published at that time, speaking with a pessimistic tone that foreshadowed its subsequent evolution, he declared: “Marxism can only be revived if books like Marxism and Hegel are no longer published, and instead books like Financial Capital of Hilferding and The accumulation of capital by Rosa Luxemburg – or even Imperialism of Lenin, which was a popular pamphlet – are written again. In short, either Marxism has the capacity – I certainly don't – to produce at that level, or it will survive only as a handicap of a few university professors. But in that case he is well and truly dead, and the professors might as well invent a new name for their clergy.”

According to Colletti, either Marxism succeeds in reconciling theory and practice, and thus repairs the rupture caused by the failure of the German revolution to which we refer, or it no longer exists as Marxism. For him, 'Western Marxism' was therefore a logical impossibility. In the 1980s, Colletti moved to the Italian Socialist Party, led at the time by Bettino Craxi, whose degree of corruption grew dramatically over the years. In the 1990s, in a tragic turn to the right, he joined the Forza Italy, a party recently created by Silvio Berlusconi, and became a senator for the party in 1996. On the occasion of Colletti's death in 2001, Berlusconi hailed the courage he showed in rejecting Communist ideology and recalled his activities and his role in Forza Italy.

On the other side of the world, a similar evolution characterized the 'Argentine Gramscians'. Gramsci's ideas quickly came into circulation in Argentina, because of the cultural proximity between it and Italy, but also because his concepts were particularly useful in explaining the highly original and typically Argentinian political phenomenon of Peronism (for example, the notion of ' passive revolution'). A group of young intellectuals from the Argentine Communist Party, led by José Aricó and Juan Carlos Portantiero, founded the magazine Past and present in 1963, alluding to a series of fragments from the Cadernos do Cárcere that bear that title. Interestingly, ten years earlier (1952), a magazine of the same name Past and present, was created in the United Kingdom around Marxist historians such as Eric Hobsbawn, Christopher Hill and Rodney Hilton. As would happen with the Latin American revolutionaries of those years, the Argentine Gramscians were influenced by the Cuban Revolution (1959), the hybridization of Gramsci's work and that event provoked theoretical developments of great fertility. At that time, the magazine also served as an interface between Argentina and the world, translating and publishing authors such as Fanon, Bettelheim, Mao, Guevara, Sartre and representatives of the Frankfurt School.

In the early 1970s, when the class struggle took a violent turn in Argentina, Aricò and his group moved towards the revolutionary Peronist left, particularly towards the Montonera guerrillas, who were a kind of synthesis of Perón and Guevara. The magazine sought to reflect strategic issues faced by the revolutionary movement, with regard to the conditions of armed struggle, imperialism and the character of the Argentine ruling classes. With the 1976 coup d'état, Aricò was forced into exile in Mexico, as were many Latin American Marxists of his generation. From then on, his trajectory, as well as that of his colleagues, consisted of a gradual displacement towards the center. To begin with, they proclaimed their support for the Argentine offensive in the Falkland wars in 1982. Some of them, including the philosopher Emilio de Ipola, would have a very critical retrospective view of this. Ardent supporters of Felipe Gonzales and the Spanish PSOE in the 80s, they ended up defending the first democratically elected president after the fall of the Argentine dictatorship, the radical (centre-right) Raúl Alfonsín. They were part of the latter's special group of advisers; the group was known as the 'Esmeralda Group' and theorized the idea of ​​a 'democratic pact'. His support for Alfonsin extended to his adoption of what was a somewhat ambiguous attitude towards the hateful Obedience Laws and Final Point amnesty for the crimes of the dictatorship, which President Nestor Kirchner would abrogate in the first decade of the 2000s.

We can multiply the number of examples of shifts of intellectuals to the right. China's neoliberal turn promoted by Deng Xiaoping in the late 1980s had a marked impact on Chinese critical thought, leading to the appropriation (or re-appropriation) of the Western liberal tradition by significant sectors of the intelligentsia, and the adaptation of debates over the theory of justice by John Rawls. Another similar case is that of the US neo-conservatives – among them Irving Kristol, often presented as the 'godfather of neo-conservatism' – who emerged from the non-Stalinist left. An instructive document in this regard is 'Memoirs of a Trotskyst' published by Kristol in the New York Times.

Again, it is not a question of claiming that these authors or these currents are identical. The new philosophers, Colletti and the Argentine Gramscians are intellectuals of a very different caliber; Innovative Marxists like Colletti and Aricò obviously cannot be placed on the same level as imposters like Lévy. Their intellectual trajectories are profoundly explained by the national contexts in which they occurred. At the same time, they are also the expression of a movement to the right of former revolutionary intellectuals that can be identified on an international scale.

The conclusion to be drawn from this is that the second half of the 1970s and 1980s were a period of abrupt changes in the geography of critical thinking. It was at this moment that the political and intellectual coordinates of a new period were gradually fixed.

*Razmig Keucheyan is a sociologist and professor at the Émile-Durkheim center at the University of Bordeaux.

Translation: Daniel Pavan

Originally published on Verso Publisher's blog.




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