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Top Marx?

Karen Adler reports on the ‘Return(s) to Marx’ conference at the Tate Modern in London.

On Saturday 1st June, I attended a conference at the Tate Modern, Bankside. With the ambitious title ‘Return(s) to Marx’, and an array of prestigious speakers, I felt excited about the day ahead and wondered what conclusions the speakers would reach.

The conference was divided into three sessions. The morning one was entitled ‘Marxism in French Intellectual Life since the 1960s’. The speakers were two Parisian philosophy professors, Alain Badiou and Dominique Lecourt.

Badiou spoke with passion and humour. He divided Marxism into three parts – analytic (based on the economics of capital), philosophical (based on Hegelian dialectics) and political (based on action and revolution). For him, the question to address today isn’t about the analytics or philosophy of Marxism but the political question of the existence of the proletariat. He diagnosed two interrelated problems: 1) the existence of the proletariat as the ‘universal subject’, and 2) the issue of proletarian parties and political representation. It is the nature of the proletariat’s political self-determination and political representation which will be the deciding factors for the future of Marxism. He defined ‘the Communist’ in the Marxist sense as having three characteristics: 1) not separated from the general struggle of the working-class 2) having a general vision 3) internationalist. The precise question lay in the possibility of these sorts of characteristics. For Marx, the revolutionary proletarian party had a name and that name was the Communist Party. The question which Badiou wanted us to ask today is: What is the new conception of communism? Badiou warned that although Marxism is newer than capitalism, it is perceived as old fashioned. He concluded by saying that we have to find a new name to describe the movement.

Dominique Lecourt disagreed with Badiou. He stated that Badiou’s distinction between the politics, economics and philosophy of Marxism was disastrous. He doubted the possibility of a return to Marx, but said that if there were to be a return, Marxists would need to rethink the basis and limitations of political economy.

Badiou replied that his tripartite division was simply a way to talk about the relation between objective and subjective determination. He argued that his discussion had not been about the tripartite partition but about the subjective capacity for Marxism today.

During their exchange, there was a loud interruption from Alex Callinicos, who sat in the audience and was due to speak later. Sensing the audience’s frustration at the lack of democratic participation, he asked the moderator to open up the discussion, a suggestion which drew rumblings of agreement from the floor. Addressing Badiou and Lecourt, Callinicos then declared that “this is nonsense what you both say” as “there were all sorts of Marxists engaged in the nature of changes.” and he proceeded to cite diverse examples. After his interruption, however, Callinicos’ plea for an open discussion was ignored by the moderator.

The afternoon session was called ‘French Marxism/British Marxism’, and was on the theme of culture and language. Professor Jean-Jacques Lecerde began by outlining the contrasts between French Marxism and British Marxism. He explained that whereas British Marxism is ‘cultural’, French Marxism is purely ‘philosophical’ an emphasis which has been compounded by the French educational system. French Marxism both ignores and downplays the force of language. His main argument was for the need for an independent Marxist philosophy of language. He said that we must draw on the concepts of Anglo-Saxon cultural theory and the resources of continental philosophy to achieve this.

Esther Leslie delivered a paper called ‘Within Spitting Distance’ outlining the development of British Marxism as a cultural rather than a philosophical force. She was against cultural relativism. Leslie claimed that British Cultural Marxism had provided the basis for cultural studies in the last three decades. She illustrated this with a lively analysis of explosion of punk in 1977, which she described as an intervention and interruption in the dominant ideological discourse, until it was taken over and destroyed by the commercial market and media.

The final session was called ‘Returns to Marx Today?’ The speakers were Alex Callinicos (who is Professor of Politics at the University of York) and yet another Parisian philosophy professor, Daniel Bensaid. Callinicos opened in his self-assured manner by saying that the idea of a ‘return to Marx’ was a problem because we had never left Marx, so to return would be redundant. For Callinicos, when considering continuing with Marx, it is not a matter of restoring a lost orthodoxy but of carrying on a tradition of debate and interpretation. This is not a mechanical but a creative process. However, it is a weighty choice about how to creatively continue. He argued that Badiou was carrying on Marxism in the traditional sense, grounded in analysis of the objective situation.

In the last twenty years, Callinicos said, it has been very difficult to carry on the tradition and he proceeded with a list of reasons – the great wave of struggles against Western capitalism in 1968, the Nouvelle Philosophes in the late 1970s, the humiliating disintegration of Stalinism, the triumph of the ‘Washington consensus’ in the 1980s and the rise of Postmodernism. He said that this had marginalised the Marxist Left, but that the situation has begun to change radically for three reasons: (1) the 1995 strikes in France (2) the anti-globalisation movement beginning properly in Seattle 1999 (3) the events of September 11 and the global ‘war against terrorism’. Together, these indicated that we are now in a different period.

Callinicos described how today’s political environment is characterised by a ‘new spirit of capitalism’. He cited the book Le nouvel espirit du capitalisme by Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello (to be translated by Verso next year). He mentioned Susan George and Naomi Klein with their systematic critiques of capitalism. He stated that this new critique is non-Marxist in its theoretical assumptions but said that the classical Marxist tradition has important features which are mirrored in these new approaches. Callinicos said that in its critique of political economy, the antiglobalisation movement focuses solely on financial global markets. However, it does recognise the issue of class. He concluded that there is a partial convergence between the new movement and classical Marxism. He described how in his view Marxists could contribute to this new anticapitalist movement. [see box]

Daniel Bensaid began his talk by mentioning Time magazine’s declaration that ‘Marx is dead’, and then saying that ‘Marx is back’. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, he said, Marx has been ‘freed’. Like Callinicos, he expressed distaste for the word ‘return’, preferring instead to say that we have an ‘appointment with Marx’. For Bensaid, this ‘appointment’ implied two questions – 1) Which Marx would we like to meet again? That of Walter Benjamin? That of Gramsci? 2) What are the Marxisms we don’t want to meet again? He said that we need to learn from the disasters of the past century. He suggested the possibility of a minimal Marx but thought this might be difficult to encounter.

Like Lecourt, Bensaid criticised Badiou’s tripartite separation of economy, philosophy and politics in Marxism. He stressed that politics cannot be separated from economics as it has the power to influence economic conditions. He went on to say that a critical part of Marx’s legacy is the idea of the capability of the proletariat to change things. However, to achieve this the proletariat would require better organisation. According to Bensaid, Marxists have to change this world or be destroyed by it. The idea of revolution, he explained, is to change the logic of society. Bensaid suggested that Marx alone is not enough and that we need an appointment with Lenin too.

The final speaker was Eustache Kouvelakis from Greece. Addressing the question of a possible return to Marx in France today, Kouvelakis reinforced Callinicos’ argument by saying that prior to this ‘return’, there had not been a disappearance but a repression of Marx. He explained that this repression came as a result of the defeat of Marxism and the workers’ movement in advanced capitalist societies in the late 1960s culminating in ‘The Manifesto Conference’ in Italy in 1979 which pronounced ‘the crisis of Marxism’. France heralded the ‘hegemony of liberalism’ which became the lingua franca for intellectual debate. It was a common shared language, albeit with contradictory positions. In this hegemony, other antagonistic currents were simply reduced to an alternative. From the alternative, post-structuralism emerged. However, he pointed out that there were sharp differences between the politics of left liberalism and the politics of poststructuralism.

Kouvelakis said that we are now in a new period characterised by more openness and greater possibilities for change. The ‘hegemony of liberalism’ has hit a crisis, with demands for critical thought bubbling up from below. He said that the signs of a new capacity to create an autonomous agenda could be seen in the antiglobalisation movement. Kouvelakis concluded his talk by saying that a ‘return to Marx’ needs to be more than a performative move. In order to make the new agenda meaningful, it must be more strategic. For him, Marxism is a game in permanent contradictions.

After this final session, the audience was given the opportunity to respond to the speakers. However, it was certainly not going to be an open, free and democratic exchange of ideas. This was quite clear when one audience member (representing the Labour Committee on Democratic Accountability of Secret Services) challenged the speakers in the third session with his criticism of Soviet Communism and its alignment to totalitarian rule. He raised the issue that the old Communist states became dictatorships, and were never democratic regimes. At this point, there were smug smiles and stifled laughter from the audience with no attempt at reply by the speakers. It was definitely a case of ‘No dissenting opinions will be tolerated in this conference space’ so mirroring the Communist dictatorships which he criticised. With these attitudes among academic Marxists today, I believe that progress towards a fairer society is further away and talk of a ‘return to Marx’ is empty.

Overall I found the conference an alienating and intimidating experience. The layout of the auditorium was not really conducive to an egalitarian atmosphere in the true spirit of Marxism and Communism. There was a distinct barrier between the speakers and the audience scattered in their isolated units or clusters in the rows of seats, creating a sort of ‘them’ and ‘us’ scenario. Most of the speakers assumed the audience had a background knowledge of the subject which I felt to be exclusive and helped to reinforce their high academic status and membership of the academic elite. It seems that the study of Marxism over the last thirty years has actually created a new class of academics, who are no longer seriously engaged in overthrowing the system of capitalism (perhaps they never were) but instead are intent on preserving and protecting their status within the system. I felt extremely disappointed also because, with the exception of Badiou and Lecourt (they were great) the speakers kept themselves isolated from each other, not engaging in any kind of debate on stage, and for that matter, offstage during the breaks.

My fear that the essence of Marxism has become buried in academic elitism and competition was further reinforced by the nature of the audience participation. Rather than simply asking the speakers direct questions, most of the audience members were equally self-conscious of their knowledge and academic reputations. Before a question was asked, it was prefixed by their current career profiles and achievements which seemed to be a way of both aligning themselves with the speakers, for the benefit of their colleagues sitting next to them and as a way of boasting to the rest of the audience. Many questions remained unanswered due to a combination of time constraints and the speakers’ preferences.

At the end of the conference, I eagerly anticipated the moderators drawing the threads together with a summary, and looked forward to hearing some conclusions and possible future projections. To my dismay, there was just a polite “thank you” to the speakers and a brief announcement about the wine reception.

I thought I would brave the crowds and stay for the wine reception. This experience simply demonstrated the hollowness of my Marxist ideals and values. The wine overflowed in large glasses amid a flurry of chequebooks and credit cards as the crowds gathered around the Verso bookstall. The latest Verso book catalogues beckoned us with their bright, glossy covers (I am afraid to admit that I took one and so am guilty of being sucked into their publicity drive). I picked up a slim volume by Badiou. When confronted with the price, I had a shock. My budget on jobseeker’s allowance does not stretch to £18! I am also sure that I would have to wait a long time before my local library obtained a copy. I was rather amused when glancing at two volumes of a radical Marxist journal called Historical Materialism displayed on another table nearby. When I enquired whether these were for sale, I was promptly told by one of Verso’s team that they were £8 each, but that I could get a reduction if I took out a subscription! It seems that even Marxist theorists are slaves to capitalist market forces now.

© Karen Adler 2002

Karen Adler was an intern at Philosophy Now during the summer of 2002.

A brief word with Alex Callinicos

Could you outline your criticisms of Alain Badiou’s arguments? What do you mean when you say there is a discrepancy between the order of being and the event?

The issue isn’t so much what I mean as what Badiou means. In his major philosophical work L’Etre et l’evenement (1988) he distinguishes between situations, which exist at the level of being (whose structure in turn is analysed by means of various results in set theory), and events, which do not. The event emerges from a void in the situation, which I take to mean that it cannot be explained through an analysis of the constitutive structures of the situation. The effect is to mystify events – to make them inexplicable. The underlying opposition between structure and event is a long-standing syndrome in contemporary French thought that can be traced back (at least) to Braudel and Levi-Strauss. Classical Marxism offers in my view a superior perspective on change, through the notion of structural contradiction, which traces events back to tensions inherent in the structures themselves – particularly when this concept is supplemented by a theory of individual and collective agency, as I sought to do in Making History (1987).

Considering your points about the latest critiques of capitalism, do you think there are any links between the anti-globalisation movement and classical Marxism? Do you feel there is a possibility of dialogue between the new movements and classical Marxists?

The links exist in practice. Representatives of the revolutionary Marxist tradition in continental Europe have been prominent in the Drop The Debt movement and the movement against financial speculation ATTAC. In Britain the Socialist Workers Party is actively involved in Globalise Resistance. This reflects the fact that the anti-globalization movement is renewing the critique of capitalism to which Marx made such an important contribution. There is thus a convergence between this new movement and classical Marxism. The overlap is by no means complete, which is hardly a surprise given the heterogeneity of the anti-globalization movement.

How do you think classical Marxists should proceed in their strategies? Do you think we need to renew or reinvent ourselves? If so, how should we go about our renovation?

The critical test lies, as I have implied, in classical Marxism’s capacity to relate to the anti-globalization movement. I have just finished a book – An Anti-Capitalist Manifesto – devoted, in effect, to this subject. It is a big challenge for Marxists to demonstrate the relevance of their thought to a new generation, after all the setbacks we have had to endure and the infamy of Stalinism. But I think we have much to offer as well – for example, in helping to clarify some of the ambiguities in the movement – such as: what is it against, neo-liberalism or capitalism tout court? Despite the grimness of recent events, I am more optimistic than I have been for many years: the mass mobilizations at Seattle, Genoa, and Barcelona demonstrate that the revolt against capitalism – which was meant to have died along with History itself – has resumed.

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