The archipelago of a thousand (and one) Marxisms

Marco Buti, Elementary Course


Author's preface to the English edition of the book “Marx, o tempestivo”.

This book is the result of work carried out during the 1980s. Its French version was published in October 1995, the same year as its twin book, The disagreement of the times.[*] In these times of counter-reformation and liberal reaction, Marx had become “a dead dog” for the common sense of the media. What survived of Marxism was hemmed in from all sides.

The critical rereading of Marx thus represented an act of resistance, a refusal to resign oneself to bad winds, the decision to think against the current and against the grain, with the conviction that a foundational critique such as that of Marx Capital could not be obsolete. Because its actuality is that of its object, its intimate and implacable enemy, capital itself, insatiable vampire and fetish automaton more aggressive than ever.

In the spring of 1848, a specter haunted Europe: the specter of communism. A century and a half after such inaugural proclamation of the communist manifesto, that specter seems to have disappeared under the rubble of really non-existent socialism. Twenty years ago, the weekly Newsweek solemnly announced, on its front page, the death of Marx. It was the time for counter-reforms and Restorations. Francis Fukuyama decreed the end of history. In The Past of an Illusion, François Furet claimed to have closed the question of communism once and for all. Immobilized in its mercantile eternity, capitalism has become, in turn, the insurmountable horizon of all times!

Death of Marx, death of the vanguards? End of history, end of communism?

However, the ends keep coming to an end. History revolts. After Seattle, Genoa, Porto Alegre and Florence, it recovers its colors. The ghosts stir. Spirits come to disturb the stillness of ordinary order.

Since 1993, in fact, the work of mourning has concluded. There will be no future without Marx, wrote Jacques Derrida in his Specters of Marx, there will be no future without the memory and without the legacy of Marx, in any case of a certain Marx and at least one of his spirits. Because, he added, "there is more than one, there must be more than one."[1]

In the same year, Gilles Deleuze declared to a journalist from the Nouvel Observateur not understanding what people meant when they said that Marx was wrong, and still less when they said that Marx was dead: the urgent tasks of analyzing the world market and its transformations require going through Marx. “My next book – and it will be my last –, confided Deleuze, will be called Marx's greatness”. Unfortunately, he did not have time to carry out this project.

Today, Marx is colloquialized, seminarized and even “pleiadized”.[2] Your future seems assured. That of communism, that is another question. The word seems to be forever associated with bureaucratic crimes committed in its name, as if Christianity were reduced to the Inquisition, dragonades and forced conversions.

It becomes easy to retrospectively locate the knots of the event, and to discover what, in an obscure way, was being plotted in silence. Since the early 90s, freed from his “isms” by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the decomposition of the Soviet Union, Marx has come out of quarantine. We no longer have the excuse of bureaucratic capture and statist confiscation to escape the responsibility of rereading and interpreting it. The dispute would have remained academic if it had not resonated with a renewal of struggles. In France, this was the red fury of December 1995, a beautiful explosion of winter resistance, the fragile refusal on the part of a “left of the left” (to use Pierre Bourdieu's formula).

But what can resistance do while the horizon of expectation is shattered? After the accumulated disasters of the century, and in the face of the disquieting silence of tomorrows that have become mute, the temptation to go back from “scientific socialism” to “utopian socialism” can become strong; to escape the dogmatic illusions of the first, to fall back into the senile and faded chimeras of the second, without even the excuse of innocence, nor the enthusiasm, of the first impulses. The crucial question, the ever new question, Jacques Derrida also said, “is not communism, it is capital” and “the formation of surplus value in its new forms”. Evidently, capital does not play [play] more like he played in the XNUMXth century, only idiots ignore this. But "he plays".[3] Reading his game, undoing his phantasmagoria, answering his riddles, such is always Marx's question – and that of communism.

Inheriting is never easy. Inheritance is never simple. It is not a good that you receive and put in the bank. Both tool and obstacle, weapon and burden, it must always be transformed. And it all depends on what will be done with such an inheritance without owners or instruction manuals.

As Stathis Kouvelakis points out,[4] Marxism is constitutively “crisis thinking”. Its first wave of international diffusion, at the end of the 80th century, coincides with what Georges Sorel had already called its “decomposition”. This crisis immediately meant a shift to the plurality of inheritance, and the beginning of the struggles of trends that, echoing the challenges of the time, have since then not ceased to cross the field of theory. The crisis of the XNUMXs thus had certain features in common with previous crises. Once again, the research program that emerged from Marx's inaugural work found itself confronted with the questions of a period of expansion and transformation of the capitalist system itself.

The practices and forms of the movement were put to the test in the metamorphoses of social relations, the division of labor and the organization of production. The end of the historical sequence designated by historians as “the short twentieth century” adds to such recurrent features the collapse of societies and orthodoxies presented after more than half a century as the temporal incarnation of the communist specter.

Under the blows of the liberal counter-reformation, the 1980s were lead years for militant Marxism. The disillusioned of Maoism have largely recycled themselves into human rights anti-communism, delighted to be able to be the angel after so long having been the beast.

Others have given in to weak thinking and postmodern resignation. In your Confession of a son of the century, Musset evoked, with regard to the Restoration and the 1830s, something confusing and fluctuating, marking the passage between a closed past and an uncertain future. A disenchanted generation then crossing the epoch, “tight in the mantle of the selfish”. In the absence of big promises and big ambitions, the time, in this “terrible sea of ​​aimless action”, was that of the cynicism of winners, of small pleasures and small virtues.

Faced with new reactions and new restorations, are we, in turn, reduced to minimalism and miniature?

In France, the winter strikes of 1995 marked an anti-liberal turn, later confirmed on an international scale by demonstrations against capitalist globalization: “The world is not for sale! The world is not a commodity!” On the rubble of the 1993th century, “a thousand Marxisms” began to flourish. Without turning red, the essence of the air regained its colors. In XNUMX, published The Specters of Marx by Jacques Derrida and the misery of the world under the direction of Pierre Bourdieu. In autumn, at the same time as the strike movement began, it was on the initiative of the magazine Actuel Marx the first International Marx Congress. Marx, the untimely was published in November. The press was surprised by this intellectual resurrection parallel to the “return of the social question”.

In this context of renewal, the emergence of the “thousand Marxisms” appeared as a moment of liberation in which thought breaks its doctrinal shackles. It announces the possibility of starting over, overcoming the traumatic experiences of a tragic century without at the same time making a clean slate of the past. As plural as they are current, such Marxisms have shown a beautiful curiosity and promising fecundity. Its proliferation raises, however, the question of what, beyond its differences and its disciplinary fragmentation, can constitute the common core of a research program.

Can one still speak of Marxism or would it be necessary to settle for a Marx “without isms” and a deconstructed Marxism? These thousand present and future Marxisms pose, according to André Tosel, the question of the minimum theoretical agreement on the field of legitimate disagreements. Its generous multiplication can in fact lead to the crumbling of the theoretical core and its dissolution in a postmodern culture broth.

The long theoretical fast of the Stalinist period whetted appetites for rediscovery. The mantle of State Marxism and the experience of inquisitorial excommunications also nourished a profound and legitimate aspiration for a freedom of thought which the great heretics of the preceding period (Ernst Bloch, the last Lukács, Louis Althusser, but also Henri Lefebvre or Ernest Mandel ) were the precursors. Stathis Kouvelakis emphasizes the henceforth inverse risk: that the thousand Marxisms coexist in a polite manner in an appeased landscape in which the need to make a dispute seems strangely absent. This danger would go hand in hand with an institutional rehabilitation of a Marx bowed to the decorum of an academic Marxology devoid of subversive vision. In yours Specters of Marx, Derrida warns against this temptation to pit Marx against Marxism, the better to neutralize the imperative of political action in the calm exegesis of a classified work.

The foundation of this threat lies in the disagreement between the rhythms of intellectual renaissance and those of social mobilization, in the split maintained between theory and practice, a split that, according to Perry Anderson, characterized “Western Marxism” for a long time. As Alex Callinicos points out, claiming the unity of theory and practice, Marxism courageously submits itself to a double criterion of judgment. Because, if it has not been seriously refuted on a theoretical level, [on the other hand] it has been incontestably put to the test by the serious political defeats of the last century.

Certain “schools” did not withstand the test of liberal reaction and the social defeats of the 80s. Contemporary Marx Dictionary highlight the parallel crisis of three of them.[5]

Since his 1987 balance sheet, Robert Boyer has recognized the difficulties and impasses of the so-called regulation school.[6] Clearly renouncing its reference in Marxism, it soon ceased to exist as a school, dismembered between the management trajectory of an Aglietta, Robert Boyer's encounter with the theories of conventions and the undiscovered ecological "new paradigm" promised by Alain Lipietz . Since 1995, the initial core of the current had shifted from a post-Fordist perspective to a historical commitment to patrimonial capitalism, with some reaching the apology of wage earners in the stock market [salary actionnariat], and others becoming advisors to human resources directors.[7]

The current of “analytical Marxism” also did not resist the turn of the 1990s. “Rational choice Marxism” and some of its eminent animators barely passed the test of struggles against imperial globalization. From its inception, the group was marked by a certain eclecticism, divided between the Marxist problematic of Robert Brenner, Erik Olin Wright or Gerald Cohen, and that of a Philippe Van Parijs who never claimed to have much in common with any Marxism whatsoever. . John Elster himself ended up recognizing the impossibility of seriously associating Marxism with game theory and methodological individualism. If his works or those of John Roemer remain rousing, their farewells to Marx provide a fair clarification.[8]

Finally, the current known under the name of Italian “operaismo”, illustrated in the 60s and 70s by the works of Mario Tronti or Toni Negri, did not survive the metamorphoses of the passing of two decades, the industrial deconcentration and the social defeats of the working class industry in Europe, the United States or Japan. It seems that the disillusioned workerism of yesterday translates today into a lack of love for Marx's heritage. Mario Tronti admits a kind of “theoretical despair”, while Toni Negri's latest productions remain in error.

It is not known very well, when reading Empire, whether it is a new form, the “supreme stage” of imperialism, or a qualitatively different, acentric, acephalous and rhizomatic reality, in which the relations of domination and inequality between North and South are erased in “smooth space” of the world market. Likewise, it is no longer known whether the (sociologically empty) concept of “multitude” is simply a new name – a kind of pseudonym – for the globalized proletariat, or a dissolution of classes in the diversity of subjectivities oppressed by capital and its reticular counterpowers.

The Marx-inspired research program remains robust, however. But it will only have a true future if it succeeds, instead of confining itself in the university enclosure, to establish an organic relationship with the renewed practice of social movements, in particular with resistance to imperialist globalization.

It is here that Marx's actuality is effectively and explosively expressed: that of the privatization of the world, of the capitalist fetish and its deadly flight in the frantic acceleration of the race for profit and in the insatiable conquest of spaces subject to the impersonal law of the markets. Marx's theoretical and militant work emerged in the era of Victorian globalization. The rise of railroads, the telegraph and steam navigation were then the equivalent of the internet and satellite telecommunications; credit and speculation experienced an impetuous development; the barbaric nuptials of the market and technology were celebrated; the “massacre industry” appeared. The labor movement of the First International also emerged. The “criticism of political economy” carried out in The capital remains without a doubt the founding reading of the hieroglyphs of modernity and the starting point of a research program that has not yet been exhausted.

The open crisis of liberal globalization and its apologetic discourses today constitutes the foundation of the renaissance of Marxism. Witness this to Marxological works such as Enrique Dussel, Stathis Kouvelakis and Jacques Bidet, as well as, in the field of economics, Robert Brenner in the United States, Francisco Louçã on long waves, Gérard Duménil and Jacques Lévy; militant research on the logic of globalization, such as that of François Chesnais, Issac Johsua and Michel Husson in France. Under the impetus of David Harvey, the exploration of a “historical-geographical materialism” deepens the tracks opened by Henri Lefebvre on the production of space. Feminist studies relaunch the reflection on the relations between social classes, gender belonging or community identities.

Cultural studies, illustrated particularly by the works of Fredric Jameson or Terry Eagleton, open up new perspectives for the critique of representations, ideologies and aesthetic forms. The critique of political philosophy finds a new lease of life with the essays by Domenico Losurdo or Ellen Meiksins Wood on liberalism; with the critical re-reading of great figures such as Georg Lukács or Walter Benjamin; with the investigation of a critical historiography on the French revolution; with the renewed readings of the corpus Marxist by young philosophers; with questions from jurists and university students about the metamorphoses and uncertainties of law; with the controversies about the role of science and technology and their democratic control, as well as the contributions to a critique of political ecology made by authors such as John Bellamy Foster, Ted Benton, Jean-Marie Harribey, Jean-Paul Deléage and José Manuel Naredo ; with an original interpretation of Lacanian psychoanalysis by Slavoj Zizek; with a confrontation between the Marxist heritage and works such as Hannah Arendt or Pierre Bourdieu.

Works such as those of Alex Callinicos, engaged in the great controversies of the present, illustrate the possibility and vitality of a militant Marxism.

This flourishing responds to the demands of rigorous research, preserving itself from the pitfalls of academic exegesis. He shows the extent to which the specters of Marx haunt our present, and how wrong it would be to oppose an imaginary golden age of 1960s Marxism (EP Thompson rightly criticized the “poverty of theory”) against the sterility of contemporary Marxisms. Granted, the 1980s were relatively barren. But the new century promises more than an oasis.

The molecular work of the theory is arguably less visible than it was yesterday. It does not benefit from new master-thinkers whose notoriety would be comparable to that of the old ones. It also suffers from a lack of strategic dialogue with a political project capable of bringing together and combining energies. But he is probably denser, more collective, freer and more secular. Rich, then, with new promises.

*Daniel Bensaïd (1946-2010) was professor of philosophy at the University of Paris VIII (Vincennes – Saint-Denis) and leader of the IV International – Unified Secretariat. Author, among others Marx's Books, Instruction Manual (Boitampo).

Translation: Pedro barbosa.

Original available at Daniel Bensaïd website.


[*] La Discordance des temps – esseis sur les crises, les classes, l'histoire, Paris, Editions de la passion, 1995.

[1] Jacques Derrida, Marx's Specters, Paris, Galilee, 1993, p. 36.

[2] Edited in the prestigious collection La Pleiade Gallimard.

[3] Ibid.

[4] In his contribution to the Dictionnaire Marx contemporain, Paris, Poof, 2001.

[5] Dictionnaire Marx contemporain under the direction of Jacques Bidet and Stathis Kouvelakis, Paris, Poof, 2001.

[6] Robert Boyer, La Théorie de la régulation, une analysis and critique, Paris, The Discovery, 1987.

[7] See Michel Husson's relentless article, “The school of regulation from Marx to Saint-Simon: a one-way trip?” Dictionnaire Marx contemporain, op. cit.

[8] For a balance of such a crisis, see Alex Callinicos' contribution, “Where is Anglo-Saxon Marxism going?”, Dictionnaire Marx contemporain, op. cit.

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