Phantom of the pop era

Specters of Marx:
February 3, 1995

Is Marxism alive or dead? It has a past, but does it still have a future? The debate goes on, and the obituarists grow increasingly impatient. To those who never found Marxism convincing or appealing, and who have taken note, with enthusiasm, of the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the concomitant dissolution of the Cold War, the delay in delivering a definitive answer to the question must seem intolerable. Indeed, the uncertain health of Marxism today encourages a reaction reminiscent of that of Lady Bracknell upon hearing again of Mr Bunbury's chronic infirmities: "I think it is high time that Mr Bunbury made up his mind whether he was going to live or to die. This shilly-shallying with the question is absurd."

In 1993 a conference was held at the Center for Ideas and Society at the University of California in order to address some of these issues. It was organised around the question, "Whither Marxism? Global Crises in International Perspective", and it encouraged - and duly received - a wide range of "multi-national, multi-disciplinary" responses. Jacques Derrida was invited to open the proceedings. He accepted. His plenary address, "Specters of Marx", was delivered in two parts, on the evenings of April 22 and 23. That lecture forms the basis of the book of the same name, its arguments and themes, according to the author, "augmented, clarified" while retaining "the argumentative structure, the rhythm, and the oral form" of the original lecture.

The text is divided into five sections: "injunctions of Marx", which reflects on the impact of re-reading Marx in the light (and shadow) of the recent transformations in eastern Europe; "conjuring-marxism", which considers the latest struggle for meaning within contemporary Marxism, the changing notions of orthodoxy and heterodoxy within the Marxist communities; "wears and tears", which makes an attempt at reaffirming, or rather reconstituting, certain aspects of the original Marxist enterprise; "in the name of the revolution, the double barricade", which continues this project via a more specific set of reflections inspired by readings of the Manifesto of the Communist Party and, for its potential for anticipated self-critique, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte; and "apparition of the inapparent", a clever, ambitious and sometimes rather witty final chapter, which opens up a number of possible ways of thinking about Marx, Marxism and Marxist movements from a soberly contemporary perspective.

Why specters of Marx? Marx is long dead. Many would argue that Marxism is, as a coherent political project, moribund too. What seems, to some, to remain is the space that Marx used to fill, the century of Marx now left without its author. Only the ghost remains, and there are moves to exorcise that before long. For Derrida, there is more than one ghost, there are many; what he undertakes is a sympathetic reading of Marx's "spectropoetics", his fascination with spectres, spirits and ghosts - the spectre haunting Europe, the spectre of communism, the sign of imminent arrival and the sign of recent departure.

Spectres of Marx is a book of, and about, mourning. It is about the attempt to "ontologise remains, to make them present, in the first place by identifying the bodily remains and by localising the dead". Just as Shakespeare, for Derrida, speaks through the work of Marx, so Marx, in this discussion, speaks through the work of Shakespeare. Speaking of Hamlet, Derrida observes that "nothing could be worse, for the work of mourning, than a confusion of doubt: one has to know who is buried where - and it is necessary (to know - to make certain) that, in what remains of him, he remain there".

"Whither Marxism?" What, asks Derrida, does it mean to follow a ghost? Hamlet begins with the expected return of the dead king. "After the end of history," writes Derrida, "the spirit comes by coming back, it figures both a dead man who comes back and a ghost whose expected return repeats itself, again and again." A spectre, he suggests, is "always a revenant. One cannot control its comings and goings because it begins by coming back". Specters of Marx is about loss and retrieval, absence and presence, forgetting and remembering, death and rebirth.

There are four basic, interconnected points made by Derrida in this book: (a) "Marxism", as a theory, a movement, a tradition, has always been in a state of revision and renewal, a state of tension between the spirit and the letter of its laws, rich in possibilities and rife with internal disputes and debates; (b) "communism" is not, in its history nor in its possible future, identical to Marxism; (c) both communism and Marxism are, in their respective ways, mediated and marked by particular traditions and histories; and (d) "Marx", as a proper name, as a body of texts, as a point of reference, is, in a sense, uncircumventable. What is so odd and so disappointing about this book is that, after all the ambitious talk and all the portentous arguments, one is left alone at the end to reflect on the sheer banality of these four points.

The first point, which acknowledges that Marx himself appreciated - and, indeed, insisted upon - the necessity, the obligation, of self-critique, and that Marxism, as an historical theory which evolves over time, was and is committed to the ceaseless re-examination and revision of its major concepts and categories, is hardly a novel observation. The Frankfurt School in the 1930s, E. P. Thompson more recently, and countless other writers have, for various reasons and with rather different emotions, acknowledged the formal potential for regeneration within the Marxist tradition. All of this - judging from the self-conscious (and at times, self-congratulatory) sense of adventure, of risk and danger with which the argument is presented - has taken place while Derrida has had his mind on other things.

The second point is simply obvious; from an historical and a theoretical point of view, it seems redundant to attempt to make an issue of the distinction. The third assertion, again, is familiar almost to the point of appearing wilfully obtuse. And the fourth (at least at its most coherent) will also strike many readers as, after such a long and painstaking build-up, somewhat trite.

In sum, the book is a deeply puzzling performance. It is clear that, after recently rereading several of Marx's most well-known texts (for, by his own admission, the first time in "decades"), Derrida felt a genuine desire (he even describes it at one point as an "obligation") to come to terms with the heritage of Marxism. Indeed, there are places in this text when his voice sounds clearer, livelier, and more urgent than it has sounded since the time of Writing and Difference, and such moments are both surprising and admirable. It is also refreshing to witness Derrida openly attempting such a - for him - personal engagement with his heritage: what references there are (Althusser, Koj ve, Balibar, Blanchot) carry a little of an air of intellectual autobiography about them.

It remains unclear, however, as to what precisely this book was meant to achieve. It is described on the jacket as Derrida's "first major work on Marx and his definitive entry into social and political philosophy". It is certainly his first serious discussion of Marx, but it is an extremely uninspired and confused "entry" into "social and political philosophy". What is so deeply frustrating about the book is its signal lack of political purpose. Far from putting an end to shilly-shallying, it turns shilly-shallying into an art form. It is, in spite of the occasional perfunctory call to arms, unclear as to whom this book is intended to help.

If one chooses to write about politics, or, indeed, to write politically, one must have a very sharp and honest sense of who it is that one is trying to write for (and against), of whom one is trying to engage with, and of how one might most effectively attempt to catch, and hold, their attention. The genuinely sad thing about this book is that its author seems so uninterested in this task. He is surely not writing for political theorists, nor historians for that matter; if they do not know these arguments and observations by now, they are in the wrong profession. He might, perhaps, be writing for literary critics with an active interest in the world of politics and current affairs, but if so it remains unclear as to what really they are supposed to learn from, or do with, this project.

The overall effect is painfully ironic. A book which warns against the temptation to depoliticise Marx, to treat him calmly "according to the academic rules, in the university, in the library, in colloquia", and which urges us instead to "do everything we can so as to avoid the neutralising anaesthesia of a new theoreticism", manages, in spite of its good intentions, to make Marx and Marxism seem no more pertinent to contemporary politics than, say, the novels of Henry James. Derrida's first foray into the world of political theory would have been considerably more successful had he appreciated that Marx's love of Shakespeare, though genuine, was secondary to his greater respect for his own chief characteristic: "singleness of purpose".

Graham McCann is a fellow of King's College, Cambridge.

Specters of Marx:: The State of the Debt, The Work of Mourning and the New International

Author - Jacques Derrida
ISBN - 0 415 91044 7 and 91045 5
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £35.00 and £11.99
Pages - 198pp

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