Derrida on Marx and the Manifesto

From Marx

Derrida's Specters of Marx:

There is, today, a dominant discourse about Marxism, a triumphant, incantatory discourse that proclaims “Marx is dead, Communism is dead… long live capitalism, long live the market, here’s to the survival of economic and political liberalism!” Francis Fukuyama says we’re living now in a new era, in “the end of history.” But this current talk is just another attempt to exorcise the threat of Marxism, an exorcism that’s been repeated and attempted again and again…

D. says he wasn’t thinking about the “specter of Communism” when he first starting planning his lecture. And yet, it doesn’t matter that the specter of Communism in the Manifesto comes from the future rather than the past. We can’t distinguish between “the future-to-come and the coming-back of a specter.”

“When, in 1847-48, Marx names the specter of communism, he inscribes it in an historical perspective that is exactly the reverse of the one I was initially thinking of in proposing a title such as “the specters of Marx.” Where I was tempted to name thereby the persistence of a present past, the return of the dead which the worldwide work of mourning cannot get rid of, whose return it runs away from, which it chases (excludes, banishes, and at the same time pursues), Marx, for his part, announces and calls for a presence to come. He seems to predict and prescribe: What for the moment figures only as a specter in the ideological representation of old Europe must become, in the future, a present reality, that is, a living reality.” (101)

Whether we’re talking about the specter of Communism in the year the Manifesto was written, or whether we talk about it today along with the “death” of Marxism, the specter is always about the future: “It is always to come, it presents itself only as that which could come or come back; in the future, said the powers of Old Europe, it must not incarnate itself, either publicly or in secret. In the future, we hear everywhere today, it must not re-incarnate itself; it must not be allowed to come back since it is past.” Whether in our time or theirs, everyone wants “once again in the future, to conjure [it] away.” (39) Puns on the word revenant.

They’re alike, too, in that both the specter from the future and the one from the past are conceived (by the powers of Old Europe, by those who declare Marxism dead today, and by Marx himself) as being as-yet immaterial, virtual, still absent—as opposed to actual present reality, Wirklichkeit.

Marx both announces and calls for a presence to come, predicts and prescribes—what is now only a specter must become a living presence, a living reality, in the form of a Communist International.

This is what Marx shares with his adversaries: he believes firmly in this binary, in the dividing line between this presence and absence, even though he believes that Marxism must be made present while his enemies believe it must never be allowed to do so. The Powers of Old Europe want to be sure that the specter is just a specter, that it hasn’t crossed over the line into reality. Marx, too, believes the specter hasn’t yet crossed over into reality, that the dividing line exists, that it must be crossed by revolution. The specter of Communism is “already promised but only promised,” Communism itself is not yet present; it announces itself under that name, but is not yet a reality.

D. sees this as one of Marx’s conceptual limitations? Marx hates ghosts too, according to Derrida: he’s weirded out by the spectrality of capitalism, the ghostliness of money, the way the capitalist system reifies abstractions, vampirizes a worker’s labor and turns it into capital, and seems to give a weird life to objects, turning them into commodities. Marx thinks he can distinguish the ghosts of capitalism from actual reality, exorcise them (47).

But this program for demystification, in our day and age, is hopelessly inadequate. Derrida believes spectrality is unavoidable in this age of the tele-techno-media, and finds something intriguing in the way it undoes the opposition between actual present reality and absence, non-presence; actual present reality versus the future-to-come and the coming-back.

D. puns on “conjuration”: it’s an exorcism, the way the powers of Old Europe wanted to exorcise the specter of Communism, but it’s also a secret alliance, a swearing-together, usually to overturn some power. It’s a performative act, it involves taking a responsibility, promising, deciding, in a fashion that displaces the boundary between the public and private realms (private since it’s done in secret, public since it’s done in the company of other witnesses?)

Derrida’s own problematic relationship with Marxism: he concedes that Deconstruction has no sense or interest except as in the tradition of a certain spirit of Marxism, and as a radicalization of that certain spirit of Marxism. (92) And yet Marxism itself has much to be called to account for, much to come to terms with, both politically and theoretically…

“For one could be tempted to explain the whole totalitarian inheritance of Marx’s thought, but also the other totalitarianisms that were not just by chance or mechanical juxtaposition its contemporaries, as a reaction of panic-ridden fear before the ghost in general. To the ghost that communism represented for the capitalist (monarchist, imperial, or republican) States of old Europe in general, came the response of a frightened and ruthless war and it was only in the course of this war that Leninism and then Stalinist totalitarianism were able to constitute themselves, harden themselves monstrously into their cadaverous rigor. But since the Marxist ontology was also struggling against the ghost in general, in the name of living presence as material actuality, the whole “Marxist” process of the totalitarian society was also responding to the same panic. We must, it seems to me, take such a hypothesis seriously.” (104-105)

Derrida refuses to concede that ideology can ever be “banished” by the science of historical materialism. (But haven’t Marxists themselves gotten more sophisticated about this since Marx?)

Jameson says Derrida wants a certain spirit of Marxism “from which ontology has been expunged, along with Marx’s own fear of ghosts.”

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