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Critical theory German history Intellectual history Kant Marxism philosophy political theory Theory

On a Kantian Antinomy in Hannah Arendt’s Political Thought

By Contributing Writer Antoine Pageau-St-Hilaire

In an interview with Günther Gaus in 1964, Hannah Arendt (1906-1975) recalls that she had started to read Immanuel Kant at the age of 14.[1] Evidently, this long and intense intellectual acquaintance with Kant played an important role in her understanding of political judgment, the articulation of which is best expressed in her Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy, delivered at the New School for Social Research in 1970. The scholarship on Arendt’s political reinterpretation and appropriation of Kant’s aesthetic judgement is prolific, and I do not wish to add anything to it here.

What I wish to suggest – and hopefully to show, although briefly, in some persuasive fashion – is that we find a Kantian inspiration beneath the question of political judgment in Hannah Arendt’s political thought. Beneath, for political judgment presupposes a sphere of politics where political speech and action can take place. This is by no means odd, since judging pertains to human beings insofar as they are acting beings (LM in LKPP 3). But action, Arendt thinks, does not stand on its own. In fact, action is “ontologically rooted” in the human condition of natality (The Human Condition 247). This means that there is an ontological priority of natality over acting and judging. Natality is Hannah Arendt’s very own (and perhaps most distinctive) concept. Yet, while it is plain that she did not invent it ex nihilo, attempts to pin down the intellectual inspiration(s) behind it remain most of the time tentative and, I think, unconvincing in important respects.

The unexplored possible explanation that I wish to bring forth here is that Kant’s definition of transcendental freedom and its antinomic opposition to nature is what is at play in Arendt’s natality. I propose here to introduce this idea very briefly by: I) showing some limits to common interpretations of the intellectual source(s) of the notion of natality; II) showing the striking resemblance between Arendt’s understanding of natality and Kant’s definition of freedom.

*

The first explanation of Arendt’s conception of natality that comes to mind is that it represents a critical appropriation of Heidegger’s philosophy. It is often suggested, assumed, and only sometimes argued for that Arendt’s natality is a response to Heidegger’s emphasis on Dasein’s mortality and being-towards-death. It would be mauvaise foi to deny that there is some truth to this interpretation. Yet it is by no means a fully accurate and sufficient explanation. The main disadvantage of this commonly held view is that it presents natality and mortality as if they were mere opposites, and this is neither how Heidegger thinks nor what Arendt means. Arendt, for instance, speaks of human existence (or human life in its “non-biological sense”) as the “span of time between birth and death” (HC 173), which is fairly similar to and reminds us of Heidegger’s characterization of the historicity (Geschichtlichkeit) of Dasein as a “stretching” (Erstreckung) between birth and death (SZ §72, 373). Arendt does not deny the importance of death: she acknowledges explicitly in The Human Condition that death represents the phenomenon according to which one must think if one wants to think metaphysically, and birth the primordial phenomenon if one wants to think politically (HC 9). Accordingly, one could argue that Arendt is taking up Heidegger’s conceptual framework and reversing it, so as to think politically. But this would only be true if her understanding of birth and natality is the same as or very similar to Heidegger’s, which is not the case. Heidegger’s couple-notions of birth and death designate in the conceptual apparatus of Being and Time two poles of Dasein’s temporal-historical existence: whereas death clearly maps on the pole of our “futurality” (Zukünftigkeit) and the projective aspect of our being (Entworfenheit), birth represents our inherited past and factitial thrownness (Geworfenheit). To say that we are historical because we are stretching between birth and death therefore means that we are thrown projects. As we shall see, Arendt’s definition by no means allow to understand her version of natality as human inherited thrownness – on the contrary, one may even say that, in a way, it is closer to Heidegger’s “projectiveness.” More could and should be said on this, but not here.

The second and more textually based interpretation is that the inspiration is Christian. Arendt does in fact refer to the birth of Christ (“a child has been born unto us”) as an illustration of the miraculous character of birth (HC 247). However, it is quite clear that Christ’s birth represents for her only an exemplification of the phenomenon of birth: natality is what makes Christ’s miraculous birth possible, and not the other way around (Arendt’s thought is emphatically not Christian in this sense). When Arendt does draw on the life and ways of Jesus Christ in The Human Condition, it is to advocate the importance of forgiveness as an indispensable remedy for the calumnious irreversibility of action (238-243). But in this respect, Christ’s teaching becomes relevant downstream from action and therefore does not explain natality. Scholars have argued that the genuine influence is Augustine (especially Vecchiarelli Scott & Chelius Stark 1995, Young-Bruehl 2004 [1982] and Kiess 2016). In fact, Arendt’s own later revisions of her doctoral dissertation (Der Liebesbegriff bei Augustin: Versuch einer philosophischen Interpretation, revised between 1958 and 1965) suggest that natality was implicit in her analysis of Augustine’s theology of Creation and nova creatura (see Chelius Stark 1995, 132-133, 146, 154ff.). I do not mean to discredit Arendt’s self-interpretation or to deny the strong continuity of Arendt’s work and thought, but I would like to underscore two facts. First, Augustine’s Creation is divine and not human action, and the nova creatura refers to the second birth of conversion and baptism, not to birth per se. Its innovative miraculous character is entirely dependent on the miraculous life, death and resurrection of Christ. Second, before studying Augustine, Arendt enthusiastically read another thinker whose emphasis on the unprecedented and the innovative in human action is not grounded in Christology: Kant. In other words, whereas one can hardly deny that ‘natality’ has a Christian appearance and Christian echoes, it may very well be that this Christian outlook was substantially filled in with Kantian insights.

**

As I said, I think that Arendt’s natality is conceptually closer to Kant’s definition of transcendental freedom than to any other possible influential sources. There is probably no better way to show this than to look at both definitions. Hannah Arendt understands action as the actuality or activity (ἐνέργεια in Aristotle’s sense) of the condition of natality, which in turn is a capacity, a δύναμις (cf. HC 178, 200, 206). Natality, she says, is the capacity of “beginning something new on our own initiative”. She adds: “With the creation of man, the principle of beginning came into the world itself, which, of course, is only another way of saying that the principle of freedom was created when man was created but not before” (177). So natality is the capacity to act, to initiate something new from one’s own initiative, and this is just what freedom is. Let us now look at Kant’s definition of transcendental freedom in the first Critique: “the capacity to begin by oneself a state [of affairs] (das Vermögen einen Zustand von selbst anzufangen), the causality of which does not in turn stand under another cause that determines it according to a law of nature” (A 533/B 561). As far as I know, the striking similarity has only been noticed once, and not explained.[2]

The only component that seems to escape the strong parallel is Kant’s insistence on the fact that an act of freedom should not depend upon any further natural causality (for otherwise, freedom would be in fact a mere expression of physical necessity). Yet this absence is only apparent, for Arendt in fact does conceptualize a rather strong contrast between nature and freedom: whereas action is the expression of freedom, labor is the expression of the mere natural necessities of biological life (ζωή). In order for action to be truly such, Arendt thinks, it should not condescend to busy itself with anything that pertains to the productive activities of human beings. Against Marx, she thinks that work is not an expression of freedom and could never be, for labor just is enslavement to necessity (83-84). Further signs of the Kantian antinomy between freedom and nature could be seen, for instance, in her conceptual appreciation of the American and French revolutions in On Revolution. In both works, Arendt’s extremely restrictive acceptation of what counts as political rests upon the view that an activity that follows in a way or another the course of natural necessities cannot at the same time be an expression of genuine freedom, a response to our condition of natality. Arendt’s political conceptuality cannot be fully grasped if one does not get the tripartite division that she introduces within the vita activa. But this division, in turn, may not be fully intelligible if one does not see its deep Kantian resonances.


[1] Interview of October 28, 1964 (available online).

[2] Sylvie Courtine-Denamy, De la bonne société. L. Strauss, E. Voegelin, H. Arendt: le retour du politique en philosophie, Paris: Cerf, 309. The strangest thing is that the similarity is noted in the penultimate sentence of her book. Very unfortunately, the author passed away prior to the publication of her manuscript, so we cannot hope for further light on this parallel from her. 

Antoine Pageau-St-Hilaire is a Ph.D. student in the John U. Nef Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago. His research interests include Ancient philosophy,  German philosophy, and political philosophy. He works specifically on appropriations of Greek philosophy in German and Continental philosophy.  His work has been published in various journals, including Polis,  Interpretation, Dialogue,  Bulletin d’analyse phénoménologique, Philosophiques, Politique et Sociétés, and the Revue de métaphysique et de morale.

Categories
Think Piece

Tory Marxism

by Charles Troup 

For many on the Right today, describing something as “Marxist” is sufficient to mark it out as something every decent conservative should stand against. Indeed, at first glance Marxism and conservatism may even look diametrically opposed. One is radically egalitarian, whilst the other has always found it necessary to defend inequality in some form. One demands that a society’s institutions express social justice; whilst the other asks principally that they be stable and capable of managing change. One proceeds from principle; the other prefers pragmatism.

But things weren’t always this way. The Right’s most creative thinkers have often drawn on an eclectic range of sources when expressing and renewing their creed—Marx not excepted. On the British Right, in fact, we can find surprisingly frank engagement with Marxism as recently as the 1980s: in particular amongst the Salisbury Group, a collection of “traditionalists” skeptical about the doctrines of neoliberalism which were conquering right-wing parties in the Western world one by one.

Roger Scruton

The influence of Marx is plain, for instance, in the philosopher Roger Scruton’s 1980 book The Meaning of Conservatism. Here Scruton made the striking claim that Marxism was a more suitable philosophical tradition than liberalism for conservatives to engage in dialogue because ‘it derives from a theory of human nature that one might actually believe’. This was because liberalism, for Scruton, began with a fictitious ideal of autonomous individual agents and believed that they could not be truly free under authority unless they had somehow consented to it. For Scruton, however, this notion “isolates man from history, from culture, from all those unchosen aspects of himself which are in fact the preconditions of his subsequent autonomy.” Liberalism lacked an account of how society and the self deeply interpenetrated each other. Scruton believed that the individuals yearned to see themselves reflected at some profound level in the way their society was organized, in its culture, and in the forms of collective membership it offered. Yet liberalism presented no idea of the self above its desires and no idea of self-fulfillment other than their satisfaction.

Marxism, on the other hand, possessed a philosophical anthropology which was much friendlier to the sort of “Hegelian” conservatism which Scruton advocated. He was particularly impressed with the concept of “species-being” or “human essence,” which Marx had borrowed from Ludwig Feuerbach and employed in the Manuscripts of 1844. It was this notion, Scruton reminded his readers, that underpinned the whole centrality of labour for Marxists, since they regarded it as an essential, intrinsically valuable human activity. Moreover, it was the estrangement of the individual from their labour under capitalism which caused the malaise of ‘alienation’: that condition of spiritual disaffection which, Scruton believed, conservatives should recognise in their own instincts about modernity’s deficiencies. Of course, the conservative would seek to ‘present his own description of alienation, and to try to rebut the charge that private property is its cause’; but Marxists should be praised for recognising ‘that civil order reflects not the desires of man, but the self of man’.

There was an urgent political stake in this discussion. Scruton had welcomed Thatcher’s victory in 1979 as an opportunity to recast British conservatism after its post-war dalliance with Keynesianism and redistributive social policy. Still, he felt a sense of foreboding about the ideological forces which had ushered her to victory. The Conservative Party, he complained, “has begun to see itself as the defender of individual freedom against the encroachments of the state, concerned to return to people their natural right of choice.” The result was damaging ‘urges to reform’, stirred by the newly ascendant language of “economic liberalism.” Scruton implored his fellow conservatives not to mistake this for true conservatism, but to recognize it as a derivation of its “principal enemy.”

In doing so, he once again compared Marxism and liberalism to demonstrate to conservatives the limitations of the latter. “The political battles of our time,” he wrote, “concern the conservation and destruction of institutions and forms of life: nothing more vividly illustrates this than the issues of education, political unity, the role of trade unions and the House of Lords, issues with which the abstract concept of ‘freedom’ fails to make contact.” Marxists at least understood that “the conflict concerns not freedom but authority, authority vested in a given office, institution or arrangement.” Their approach of course was “to demystify the ideal of authority’ and ‘replace it with the realities of power,” which Scruton thought reductive. But “in preferring to speak of power, the Marxist puts at the centre of politics the only true political commodity, the only thing which can actually change hands”—it “correctly locates the battleground.”

Scruton wasn’t the only figure in the Salisbury Group to engage with Marxism. So too did the historian Maurice Cowling, doyen of the “Peterhouse school” associated with the famously conservative Cambridge college. He believed that Marxism’s “explanatory usefulness can be considerable” and was even described by one of his admirers as a “Tory Marxist jester.”

Maurice Cowling

Cowling hated the Whiggish historians who dominated the English academy in the first half of the 20th century, and welcomed the rise of the English Marxist school in the 1950s—those figures around the journal Past & Present like E.P Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, Dona Torr and Christopher Hill—as a breath of fresh air. Whereas Whig liberals gave bland and credulous accounts of the motive forces of British political history, the English Marxists were cynical and clear-eyed about power and conflict. As he explained in a 1987 radio interview for the BBC, he agreed with them that “class struggle” was “a real historical fact” and that we should “always see a cloven hoof beneath a principle.” Marxists knew that any set of institutions unequally apportioned loss amongst the social classes, making the business of politics that of deciding in whose image this constitution be made.

This was one point for Cowling where Marxists and conservatives parted ways: accepting the reality of class struggle didn’t mean picking the same side of the barricades. But Cowling believed that conservatives also diverged analytically from Marxists. One of their great errors, he wrote, was to believe that all forms of cultural or social attachment which entailed hierarchy were reducible to false consciousness; but Cowling believed that these were more concrete, especially if they connected to a sort of national consciousness he often referred to in quasi-mystical terms. The error made Marxists naïve about “the fertility and resourcefulness of established regimes.” For Cowling, it was the job of conservative political elites to enact this “resourcefulness:” to tap into the deep well of national sentiment and renew it for successive generations, and thus to blunt class conflict and insulate Britain’s political system from popular pressure.

We can see Cowling applying these ideas to contemporary politics most explicitly in the Salisbury Group’s first publication, the 1978 edited collection Conservative essays. Here he criticized Thatcher’s political rhetoric. Adam Smith might be a useful name to deploy against socialism, he wrote, but if carried to its “rationalistic” pretensions his political language was too rigid and unimaginative for the great task facing conservative elites. “If there is a class war—and there is—it is important that it should be handled with subtlety and skill […] it is not freedom that Conservatives want; what they want is the sort of freedom that will maintain existing inequalities or restore lost ones.” No class war could be managed by “politicians who are so completely encased in a Smithian straitjacket that they are incapable of recognizing that it is going on.” Conservatives needed to read more widely in search of insights to press into service against the reformers and revolutionaries of the age.

Marx rapidly fell out of favor as a source for creative borrowing, however. The collapse of the USSR was hailed by many conservatives as the ultimate indictment of socialism and Marx’s whole system along with it – something many on the Right still believe. Even Scruton became more reluctant to engage with Marx as the Cold War wore on (Cowling criticized him for making the journal Salisbury Review “crudely anti-Marxist” under his editorship). The frank openness to learning from Marx that we find in these texts looks like a historical curiosity today.

The story of the Salisbury Group is also something of a historiographical curiosity. The conservative revival of the 1970s has been the subject of much excellent work in recent British history; but the Group, despite its reputation on the Right and the status of its most prominent figures, has with a few exceptions been passed over for study. Thatcherism and its genealogy have understandably drawn the eye, but this has sometimes unhelpfully excluded its conservative critics or more skeptical fellow-travellers. Historians should seek now to tell more complex stories about the intellectual history of conservatism in this period: after all, the ascendance on the Right of the doctrines and rhetoric of neoliberalism was, in the words of philosopher John Gray, “perhaps the most remarkable and among the least anticipated developments in political thought and practice throughout the Western world in the 1980s.”

As for the present, whilst we shouldn’t expect a conservative re-engagement with Marx we should expect to see more creative re-appropriation of thinkers beyond the typical right-wing canon. This is especially so because the Tory Marxists of the 1970s were looking for something still sought by many conservatives today. That is a counterpoint to a neoliberalism which in its popular idiom increasingly rests upon a notion of individual freedom which fewer and fewer people experience as cohering with their aspirations, values or attachments; or which appeals to moralistic maxims about personal grit, endeavour and innovation which are belied by the inequalities and precarities of contemporary economic life. They seek a political perspective which issues from a holistic analysis of society and its constituent forces rather than individualistic axioms about entitlements and incentives, and which can speak to alienation and to conflict over authority. We can see this process underway already on the French Right, as Mark Lilla made clear in a recent article, where a new generation of intellectuals count the ‘communitarian’ socialists Alasdair MacIntyre, Christopher Lasch and Charles Péguy among their lodestars. And in a perhaps less self-conscious way we can see it on the American Right too, as the long-durable “fusionist” coalition between social conservatives and business libertarians comes under strain: witness Patrick Deneen’s surprise bestseller Why Liberalism Failed and the much-publicized debate between Sohrab Ahmari and David French over whether conservatives should reject or reconcile themselves to liberal institutions and norms. In this moment especially, we should expect to see more inspiration on the intellectual Right from strange places.


Charles Troup is a second-year Ph.D. student in Modern European History at Yale University. 

Categories
Global History Marxism religious history

Marxism and Religion: A Reply to Graham Priest

By guest contributor, Jake Newcomb

Last year, philosopher Graham Priest published an article in the Journal of the American Philosophical Association titled “Marxism and Buddhism: Not Such Strange Bedfellows.” In the article, Priest aimed to highlight the complementary elements of Buddhist philosophy with Marxist political theory, while acknowledging that, as schools of thought, these two ways of looking at the world diverge drastically. The crucial similarity between the two, Priest rightly points out, is the fact that both schools “reject the existence of a self/soul; both see being human as being involved in natural processes and natural laws; and both move toward thinking of people in mostly structural terms,” (Priest 7). They also, according to Priest, both make the argument that people are subjected to illusions about the true nature of reality, and provide a framework by which people can see these illusions. Priest suggests that the structural analysis of capitalism provided by Marxism can help to elucidate the philosophy of the human condition presented by Buddhism, and vice versa. A comparative analysis along these lines appears to be possible, and there has been a long tradition of comparing Marxism to religion. The following essay will be a brief history of the relationship between Marxism and religion. It will attempt to highlight, through Hegelian philosophy, another similarity between Marxism and Buddhism, as well as describe the relationship between Marxism and Christianity.

The keystone which links Marxism to Buddhist philosophy is Hegel. Hegel’s conception of reality, as a series of dialectically intertwined processes, was reinterpreted by Marx and Engels as a framework by which all of reality could be explained without theology. The important element here is that these men believed that all the things and processes that make up reality could not be understood in isolation, but only in relation to other things and processes. Hence, in Hegel’s Logic, the very mention of “Being” implies the existence of “Nothing,” (Hegel, Logic, 82) This fundamental inseparability of objects and processes appears to be the primary way in which Marxist thought, which was inspired by Hegel, is similar to the Buddhist thought that Priest presents. In fact, the philosopher Michael Allen Fox’s book The Accessible Hegel presents the Hegelian dialectical framework as sharing this same fundamental quality with not just Buddhist conceptions of reality, but Taoist ones as well. Both of which, Fox argues, present reality as being a collection of interrelated processes, by which nothing can be understood in isolation. Fox says that “the idea that opposites are interrelated and define one another, as we have seen, conveys an insight that is truly cross-cultural,” because of its appearance in Hegelian, Buddhist, and Taoist thinking (Fox 48).

Despite this apparent connection between his philosophical framework with Buddhism, and Taoism, Hegel argued that Christianity was the highest expression of religious truth in Phenomenology of Spirit (Fox 99-100). According to Fox, Hegel wanted to merge Christianity with the belief the reason governs the development of the universe, although this caused major backlash from non-Christians and Christians alike such as Marx and Kierkegaard (Fox 100). Hegel was not unaware of the existence of philosophical frameworks from Asia. In fact, in Reason in History, Hegel suggested that the “highest thought” of the metaphysics that came from Asia rested in their proposition that “ruin is at the same time emergence of a new life, that out of life arises death, but out of death life,” (Hegel, Reason in History, 88) However, despite this acknowledgement, Hegel argued that the religions of China and India “lack completely the essential consciousness of the concept of freedom,” which, he argued, was what separated these philosophies from those of Europe (Hegel, Reason in History, 86) Today, we consider this to be regarded as an expression of orientalism, à la Edward Said. But it’s important because it denotes the limits of what Hegel and his contemporaries could appreciate from systems such as Buddhism. According to Nicholas A. Germana in a recently published article in the Journal of the History of Ideas, Hegel believed the religions of India and Asia morphed into Christianity over time.

It was Hegel’s support of Christianity that Marx first took issue with in Hegel’s schema, which he himself was heavily influenced by. In 1844, Marx published Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. In the introduction, Marx wrote the now famous line, “[r]eligion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the sentiment of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people,” (Tucker 54). Here, as elsewhere in this essay, Marx is clear in what he believed to be religion’s function in human society: a human-constructed refuge from the suffering of life. A few lines down from this oft-repeated quote is a fundamental claim made by Marx which helps contextualize his later work:

“The immediate task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, is to unmask human self-alienation in its secular form now that it has been unmasked in its sacred form. Thus the criticism of heaven is transformed into the criticism of earth, the criticism of religion into the criticism of law, and the criticism of theology into the criticism of politics.” (Tucker 54)

The self-alienation in its “secular form” that Marx claimed existed, appears as the form of commodity fetishism in Capital Vol. 1, published in 1867. Here, Marx argued that the pricing of commodities depended on the total aggregate relationships between people, and not the utility of the object itself (Marx, Capital, 165). This reality, according to Marx, tricks people into thinking that commodities have an autonomous value, independent of the sum of human relationships. An illusion of the mind which Marx liked to the illusions of reality brought upon by theology. Capital, as a project, was an attempt to demystify the pricing of commodities and the capitalist system of production as a whole, in a similar fashion to the deconstruction of Christianity that he participated in during the 1840s. The mystification of capital, for Marx, created alienation in people in the way that he argued Christian theology did. In Marx’s world, capitalism and Christianity were not so strange bedfellows (Marx, Capital, 174-175).

But, as numerous scholars have pointed out, Marx and further proponents of Marxism carried on the legacies of Christianity in several respects. William Clare Roberts, for instance, argues in Marx’s Inferno: The Political Theory of Capital that Marx based the structure of Capital on Dante’s Divine Comedy, specifically Inferno. Even though Marx rejected the Christian moral ontology, espoused by Dante, that “[n]o one is responsible for their sins but themselves,” Roberts argues that he replicated the structure of Inferno in order to liken capitalist society to a social hell (Roberts, Marx’s Inferno, 21). Then there is Bertrand Russell, who in 1946 published History of Western Philosophy which clearly cast Marxism as a secularized substitute for the Judeo-Christian understanding of history. Russell argued that Marxism simply cast the theological understandings of history’s teleological trajectory in new terminology:

“Yahweh = Dialectical Materialism

The Messiah = Marx

The Elect = The Proletariat

The Church = The Communist Party

The Second Coming = The Revolution

Hell = Punishment For The Capitalists

The Millenium = The Communist Commonwealth”

(Russell 338)

787px-Vaclav_Havel_croppedIt stands to reason that Russell’s typecasting of Marxism as a new form of Christianity was influenced by the rise of the Soviet Union. Vaclav Havel, the last President of Czechoslovakia who presided over the collapse of the Soviet system, also likened the practical application of Marxism to a modern form of theocracy. In his masterful 1978 essay “The Power of the Powerless,” Havel argued that the “hypnotic charm” of the Soviet ideology was due, in part, by its insistence that its legitimacy derived from the authenticity of the social movements that gave birth to the system, and the supposed objective righteousness of those movements (Havel, Open Letters, 129). This created a situation whereby ordinary people within the communist world, including Czechoslovakia, consigned “reason and conscious” to the state, who were the sole possessors and arbiters of truth. Which, for Havel, directly reflected a Byzantine-esque theocracy because the “highest secular authority [the state] is identical with the highest spiritual authority,” by having authoritarian control over truth and a claim to a sacred history (Havel, Open Letters, 130). These works indicate in differing ways the extent by which Marxism, in Marx’s Capital and in twentieth-century communist practices, bore resemblances to Christianity.

It is thus clear that there is sufficient cause to acknowledge similarities between Christianity and Marxism. Today, in the twenty-first century, there is a striking trend in Christianity that is adopting political positions that would be considered Marxist not so long ago. This is expressed most potently in Pope Francis’s Encyclical on Climate Change & Inequality: On Care for Our Common Home in which he argues that wealth inequality, climate change, and the loss of biodiversity are interconnected with the rise of global capitalism. Pope Francis considers this to be an issue that transcended national boundaries, and he advocates on global cooperation in order to adjust our value-systems in order to move toward ecological balance and wealth equality. Graham Priest forces us to recognize that there is a deep philosophical relationship between Marxism and Buddhism as well. These similarities are very different from the aforementioned similarities between Marxism and Christianity, but both sets of similarities invite us to reconsider the history of Marxism itself. Marxism has often been understood as an atheist political ideology, whose practitioners took drastic measures to curtail the influence of Christianity and Buddhism. But the work of Priest, Russel, and Havel beg the question: to what extent was Marxism a religion?

Jake Newcomb is an MA student in the Rutgers History Department, and a musician. His essays on his personal experience with music can be found at jakenewcomb.tumblr.com

Categories
Book reviews Think Piece

Revolutions Are Never On Time

by contributing editor Disha Karnad Jani

9780231179423In Enzo Traverso’s Left-Wing Melancholia: Marxism, History, and Memory, timing is everything. The author moves seamlessly between such subjects as Goodbye Lenin, Gustave Courbet’s The Trout, Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire, and the apparently missed connection between Theodor Adorno and C.L.R. James to guide the reader through the topography of the Left in the twentieth century. The book is an investigation of left-wing culture through some of its most prominent (and dissonant) participants, alongside the images and metaphors that constituted the left of the twentieth century as a “combination of theories and experiences, ideas and feelings, passions and utopias” (xiii). By defining the left not in terms of those political parties to be found on the left of the spectrum, and rather gathering his subjects in ontological terms, Traverso prepares the laboratory prior to his investigation, but not through a process of sterilization. Rather, the narrative of the “melancholic dimension” of the last century’s left-wing seems assembled almost by intuition, as we follow along with affinities and synchronicities across the decades. In its simultaneously historical, theoretical, and programmatic ambitions, Left-Wing Melancholia sits in the overlapping space between the boundaries of intellectual history and critical theory.

In a series of essays, Traverso explores the left’s expressive modes and missed opportunities: the first half of the book is an exploration of Marxism and memory studies (one dissolved as the other emerged), the melancholic in art and film, and the revolutionary image of Bohemia. The second half of the book is a series of intellectual and personal meetings, which Traverso adjudicates for their usefulness to the left: Theodor Adorno and C.L.R. James’ abortive friendship, Adorno and Walter Benjamin’s correspondence, and Daniel Bensaïd’s work on Benjamin. The “left-wing culture” these affinities is meant to trace is defined as the space carved out by “movements that struggled to change the world by putting the principle of equality at the center of their agenda” (xiii). Since that landscape is rather vast, Traverso relies on resonant juxtaposition and very real exchanges in order to erect monuments to the melancholia he reads throughout their shared projects.

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries burst forth onto the stage of history buoyed by the French and Russian Revolutions, surging confidently forwards into a future tinged with utopia. In devastating contrast, the twenty-first century met a future foreclosed to the possibility of imagining a world outside of triumphant capitalism and post-totalitarian, neoliberal humanitarianism. While successive defeats served to consolidate the ideas of socialism in the past, the defeat suffered by the left in 1989 withheld from memory (and therefore from history) any redemptive lesson. In Left-Wing Melancholia, the reader is thus led gently through the rubble of the emancipatory project of the last two hundred years, and invited to ruminate on what could come of “a world burdened with its past, without a visible future” (18).

As critical theory, Left-Wing Melancholia uses the history of socialism and Marxism over the last two hundred years and its defeat in 1989 in order to name the problem of the left today. As intellectual history, it may be found wanting, at least if one seeks in its tracing of left-wing culture some semblance of linearity. If, however, a reader is willing to follow, instead of context à la Skinner, or concept à la Koselleck, a feeling – then Left-Wing Melancholia will soothe, disturb, and offer an alternative: Traverso assures us that “the utopias of the twenty-first century still have to be invented” (119). Indeed, Traverso argues that Bensaïd “rediscovered a Marx for whom ‘revolutions never run on time’ and the hidden tradition of a historical materialism à contretemps, that is, as a theory of nonsynchronous times or non-contemporaneity” (217). Traverso’s own project could be read as part of this now-unearthed tradition.

It is clear that Traverso is aware of the reconfiguration of enshrined histories of socialism and Marxism implicit here, that he has skewed any orthodox narrative by reading through disparate political projects the feeling of melancholia. Ascribing a single ontology to the left over the course of the twentieth century and representing its culture in such a frenetic fashion makes this book vulnerable to the criticism of the empiricist. For instance, he speculates on the lost opportunity of Adorno’s and James’s friendship with “counterfactual intellectual history”: “what could have produced a fruitful, rather than missed encounter between Adorno and James…between the first generation of critical theory and Black Marxism? It probably would have changed the culture of the New Left and that of Third Worldism” (176). In such statements, it is startling to see at work the faith Traverso has in the dialogue between intellectuals, and in intellectuals’ power to change the course of history.

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Hammering through the Berlin Wall. Photograph by Alexandra Avakian, from Smithsonian Mag.

He also eschews the Freudian use of the term “melancholia,” representing it instead as a feeling of loss and impossibility, expressed through writing, monuments, art, film, and his repeated articulations of how “we” felt after 1989. Presumably, this “we” is those of us who existed in a world that contained the Berlin Wall, and then witnessed it come down and had to take stock afterwards. This “we” is transgenerational, as it is also the subject that “discovered that revolutions had generated totalitarian monsters” (6). This same collective subject is a left-wing culture that had its memory severed by 1989, but also remembers in an internalist melancholic mode: “we do not know how to start to rebuild, or if it is even worth doing” (23). (I ask myself how the “we” that was born after 1989 fits in here, if the transgenerational memory of the left was severed in that year. Leftist post-memory, perhaps?) This book is addressed to fellow travelers alone. The reader is brought into the fold to mourn a loss assumed to be shared: “…we cannot escape our defeat, or describe or analyze it from the outside. Left-wing melancholy is what remains after the shipwreck…” (25). Thus, Traverso demonstrates the possibility of fusing intellectual history and critical theory, where one serves the other and vice versa; in his discussion of Benjamin, he remarks: “To remember means to salvage, but rescuing the past does not mean trying to reappropriate or repeat what has occurred or vanished; rather it means to change the present” (222). Left-Wing Melancholia has the explicit purpose of rehabilitating the generation paralyzed by the triumph of neoliberal capitalism. It is a long history of left-wing melancholy that puts struggles for emancipation in our own moment in perspective. And for all its morose recollection, Left-Wing Melancholia contains moments of hope: “we can always take comfort in the fact that revolutions are never ‘on time,’ that they come when nobody expects them” (20).

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Think Piece

History or Ghost Story? Marshall Berman

by guest contributor Max Ridge

“One of the most important things for radical critics to point to,” Marshall Berman writes in his first book, “is all the powerful feeling which the system tries to repress—in particular, every man’s sense of his own unique, irreducible self” (xiii). In his life and work, Berman demonstrated the importance of the personal side of politics. Though an earnest student of Marx, he thought little of theoretical systems that ignored individualism, authenticity, and identity. He won his widest audience with All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (1982), a blend of historical and literary analysis culminating in a unified study of cultural modernism and industrial modernization. As opposed to the Frankfurt School’s “culture industry” or C. Wright Mills’ “cultural apparatus,” Berman’s mature worldview sometimes reveled in the entanglement of capitalist interest and artistic creation, and declined to ascribe an overarching order to dynamics in consumer culture. Thirty years later, the text remains globally influential in urban studies, literary studies, and architectural scholarship. His other works, however, enjoy considerably less scrutiny.

Today it appears that Berman’s legacy as a person (or personality) has defined his legacy as a political thinker. His death in 2013 marked the loss not only of a New York intellectual, but also of a figure in the mythos of the Upper West Side. He was, in later life, hard to miss as he patrolled Broadway, wearing a bushy head of hair and an even bushier beard. His wardrobe featured an assortment of t-shirts with slogans like “Make Poverty History.” Berman was a lifelong professor at CUNY, member of the editorial board of Dissent, and author of many influential books. Todd Gitlin, Michael Walzer, and other stars in New York’s intellectual constellation sounded off heartbreakingly personal obituaries and reflections shortly after his death three years ago.

The years since have seen a renewed interest in Berman’s work, as historians and critics both memorialize him and attempt to situate his legacy within American intellectual history. Adventures in Modernism, a volume of reflections from Berman’s later friends and interlocutors, appeared in November 2016. Verso will also publish a collection of his essays in May 2017. At the launch event for Adventures in Modernism, acquaintances and students of Berman’s shared stories of what it was like to read All That Is Solid for the first time, or attend one of his impressive lectures on rap music or the South Bronx. It was riveting and intimate—even mournful—yet did little to advance Berman’s image past that of the “happy warrior.” While uniqueness and historical significance definitely do not undo each other in the abstract, most of the new work on Berman seems to capture his singular nature without contextualizing him in terms of any specific tradition.

Lacking a significant base of existing secondary scholarship, my own work on Berman seeks to uncover his main interests and priorities at the very beginning of his career. Through his archived graduate and undergraduate scholarship, I investigate which traditions (especially so-called “Cold War liberalism”) informed his emerging Marxist humanism, interrogate his work alongside parallel trends in political thought like the New Left, and track the origins of his theoretical syncretism. Though “revisionist” in his emphasis on theories of alienation and dismissal of Stalinism, Berman deviates from more prominent Marxist humanists like Leszek Kolakowski and the Praxis School, who criticized the political realities of the Cold War (and their intellectual antecedents) on the basis of humanistic principles. Berman displayed a lifelong tendency to work within established liberal and Enlightenment contexts in an exceedingly academic register, rallying “canonical” authors in a perceived common struggle against the alienating forces of modernity. He once described Marxist humanism as “a synthesis of the culture of the Fifties with that of the Sixties” (160).

In All That Is Solid, Berman’s revisionism, though stark, is never fully explicated. To Berman, Marx may have appreciated capitalism’s achievements while also apprehending its spiritual deficiencies. “Radical fusion,” Berman argues, “has given way to fission; both Marxism and modernism have congealed into orthodoxies and gone their separate and mutually distrustful ways.” In place of orthodox Marxist social analysis and the “haloed” purism of modernist art criticism, Berman aspired to a framework that would “reveal modernism as the realism of our time” (All That Is Solid 121-122). The book initially struck me as radical, though cross-pollinated with the languages of liberal political thought, romanticism, and psychoanalysis. Berman’s earliest novel contribution to political thought, perhaps, was therefore an optimistic, non-dogmatic Marxist idiom that was intelligible to thinkers who would have otherwise assailed Marxism due to the failures of Soviet communism.

Though a political radical and student in the 1960s, Berman channeled his energy into his studies rather than activism or confrontation. At this remove, Berman’s work nonetheless embodied many principles of the radically democratic New Left. Undergraduate experiences at Columbia University between 1957 and 1961 solidified Berman’s interests in the humanities. Early interests in psychoanalysis and the 1844 Manuscripts, whose English translation coincided with Berman’s undergraduate explorations, further helped establish his animating political fixations: alienation in modernity, personal autonomy, and the struggle for authentic political community.

Berman earned advanced degrees from Harvard and Oxford in predominately liberal settings. At Oxford he wrote a B.Litt. thesis under Isaiah Berlin’s supervision, a final or near-final draft of which, entitled “Marx on Individuality and Freedom,” sits in Berman’s archives in New York. It contains remarkable echoes of Berlin’s “Two Concepts of Liberty”—suggesting, perhaps, a student’s attempts to synchronize Marx with the liberal sensibilities of his supervisor. As in All That Is Solid, Berman suggests that orthodox Marxism, manifest in the state doctrine of the Soviet Union and dogmatic revolutionary readings of Capital, cannot alone account for the complex effects of modern life on the self. Yet unlike All That Is Solid, the thesis shows Berman’s revisionism in real time.

Berman’s thesis attempts to demonstrate that Marx “clearly sees that there is more to men than economic characters allow.” He articulates Marx’s conception of history as a constant effort on the part of humanity to overcome “illusory communities” and, one by one, assert their individuality in spite of “deterministic myths.” Though unique in their content, Berman’s revisions are familiar in their terminology: “To understand what freedom means… is to recognize that other men are free agents themselves. To affirm myself and recognize another as free… is to realize that orientations other than my own, and no less ‘true,’ are possible.” Berman therefore constructs a novel and humanist Marxism that can facilitate, rather than dismiss, pluralism, liberal democracy, and seemingly “bourgeois” notions of rationality and personal autonomy.

Leaving aside the question of whether or not Berman’s graduate revisions are convincing on their own, his B.Litt. thesis casts his first book, The Politics of Authenticity (1970), in a new light. An expansion of his doctoral dissertation, this book analyses Rousseau and Montesquieu in order to develop an account of the notion of authenticity. “Being oneself,” in Berman’s view, poses one of the greatest difficulties and sources of emancipation for modern people. “Why,” he asks, “should the ideal of authenticity, which had co-existed for so long with real repression in society and the state, now suddenly,” in the modern age, “help to generate a revolutionary upheaval against it?” (xiii). The language of authenticity becomes a way of squaring the circle, so to speak, that is the tension between group and individual identity.

As Allan Bloom pointed out in a review, The Politics of Authenticity is a product of the New Left “in having as twin goals freedom, understood to mean being and doing whatever one wants to be or do, and community.” This is unsurprising, as Berman’s work up until 1970 signaled a desire to reconcile the developments of individual autonomy and the communal self. Bloom wrote Berman off as sectarian when, in actuality, Berman’s book is anything but divisive. It explicitly argues that authenticity may be a useful concept for the New Left and Right alike. The common ground stretches back further: “In the nineteenth century the desire for authenticity became a point of departure for both liberal and socialist thought,” Berman writes, as thinkers like J.S. Mill stressed the importance of free expression, diversity of “modes of life,” and the assertion of individual “character” over tradition. “The same values,” Berman claims, “underlay Marx’s radical indictment of liberalism,” as the proletariat lived in a contradiction between individuality and the condition of their labor (xxv).

Looking backwards, it seems plausible that The Politics of Authenticity, like All That Is Solid, is an oddity in intellectual history—an example of a young academic’s attempt to transmogrify the radically democratic energy of the sixties into political science. The former book proved less popular than the latter, but neither is all style. Rather, we would be wise to take a second look at Berman’s impulses as a young scholar. Was he a unique personality to be celebrated, or might we take a critical look at his tendency to revise—without consideration of barriers of tradition or discipline—the ideas of past thinkers according to the demands of the present? If it could be done in the ideological crucible of the Cold War, could it not also appear today?

Max Ridge is an undergraduate student at Columbia University majoring in history.