Review: The Philosophy of Marx – Etienne Balibar (Verso, 1997)

Originally written in 2010

Re-entering the world of studying socialist, anarchist, and other leftist thought one often ends up reading French texts released by Verso press quite a bit.   This is a slim volume and ostensibly designed to be an introduction to the philosophy of Marx.   Verso has given a slick red-tape Marx profile cover, and it stood out on a book shelf as I pursued the standard texts from Alain BadiouSlavoj Zizek, Robert Service, V. I. Lenin, and Leszek Kołakowski.    I have also recently read Das Kapital while listening to David Harvey’s lectures on the topic.

So this brings me to Etienne Balibar, student of the infamous anti-humanist and structuralist Marxist Louis Althusser.  Like Althusser’s students Charles Bettelheim, Alian Badiou, and Jacques Rancière, Balibar stayed in the Marxist tradition unlike his compatriot Michel Foucault.  Balibar largely became involved with Marxism from Althusser’s lectures on Das Kapital.  Balibar is not just a critical theorist, he was directly involved French immigrants rights and the Maoist activism of many of Althusser’s students.

So far so good, right?  You may say, “Slim volume written by a prominent thinker who is also actually an activist.  So your implying its obtuse? It’s French.”

Slow down, gentle reader.  This book while marked as an introduction to the Philosophy of Marx has two functions: one, it is an attempt at an introduction of Marx’s philosophy.  It is vital, however, to notice that philosophy is specific here. It is not an introduction to Marx’s sociology or his economics.  While it does touch on this points as each element is intertwined with the others, it is specifically about philosophy in the narrow sense.  Secondly, Balibar is not just introducing the material, he is making a sustained argument about Marxist philosophy itself.

The book is quite excellent in discussing the background of the Marx especially in compared to a lot of what you would get in a dismissive general theory textbook.  The section on ideology-not surprisingly given Balibar’s relationship to Althusser, is very lucid and powerful in explaining how Marx attempted to account for the limits and basis of human thought without the aid of advanced sociology, which arguably Marx is one of the several founders,  or modern neurology.   Furthermore, the block inserts on Gramsci, Althusser, Lenin, Benjamin,etc are all excellent in their concision and aid to the controversies of Marxist philosophy..

Yet one must not ignore that this is all written under the guise of Balibar’s thesis: “there is no Marxist philosophy and there will never be; . . . Marx is more important for philosophy than ever before.”  In this Balibar has placed Marx as vital to the academic philosophy and its relationship to praxis, but completely outside practical application by socialists.  Furthermore, he makes this almost argument entirely on conflict between dialectics of history and critical theory being at an aporia.  This is particularly true in the last section, which, despite the clear and generally readable translation of Chris Turner, comes off as muddled.

What is even not interesting is that Balibar makes this claim without any reference to Marxist historical practice.  He is only concerned with the abstractions that emerge from Marx’s own development. So Balibar does seek to place Marx in his own historical context but denies the importance of practiced Marxism: “The events which marked the end of the great cycle during which Marxism functioned as an organizational doctrince (1890-1990), have added nothing new to the discussion itself, but have swept away the interests which opposed its being opened up.”

His thesis is also predicated on the claim that while Marx’s attempt to make philosophy cause action and also place it in a sociological context makes him a truly original thinker, Balibar says that Marx is a dogmatist that falls short of fully exploring his claims. This kind of argument has been made in far less obtuse ways by Isaiah Berlin or even Noam Chomsky.   I suspect because this is sort of a liner-notes form of Baliber’s developed critique in Masses, Classes and Idea that there is no reason to assume that class structures will because consistent because “the emergence of a revolutionary form of subjectivity (or identity)… is never a specific property of nature, and therefore brings with it no guarantees, but obliges us to search for the conditions in a conjuncture that can precipitate class struggles into mass movements…” (Masses, Classes, Ideas: Studies on Politics and Philosophy Before and After Marx, Routledge. Trans. James Swenson.)

Still let us return to a structured critique of the book instead of jumping to the Balibar’s other works that inform it. The second chapter focuses on the praxis/poiesis  dialectic (or, in non-philosopher speak, “theory/action” divide). Balibar reads this as an aporia:

“it is not difficult to derive the following hypothesis from Marx’s aphorisms: just as traditional materialism in reality conceals an idealist foundation (representation, contemplation), so modern idealism in reality conceals a materialist orientation in the function it attributes to the acting subject, at least if one accepts that there is a latent conflict between the idea of representation (interpretation, contemplation) and of activity (labour, practice, transformation, change). And what he proposes is quite simply to explode the contradiction to dissociate representation and subjectivity and allow the category of practical activity to emerge in its own right”

Yet, even if I agree with Marx, can we say that there is actually a real dialectic there?  What if the problem that Marx was trying to reconcile resolves itself in practice.  Belief is acted upon and created through action.  There is a lot of modern psychological studies to confirm this.  This means that philosophy that is not enacted is not operating in good faith.   This seems to be consistent with Marx’s intention and his economics but removes the problem Balibar is placing on him by accepting an essentially Hegelian dialectical problem.

In discussing ideology Balibar seems to indicate that it is conflict with  fetishism in Marx’s work.  That this is a hard division between Marx’s early and later thought. However, he admits that fetishism is concerned with economic mystification and ideology is concerned with state/cultural mystification. He see these as opposed, perhaps because Balibar accept’s Althusser’s conception that ideology is totalizing.
On this, I am not sure if I agree, but it seems to be that the difference between ideology and fetishism is descriptive focus.   Fetishism calls attention to an element of commodity value that is ideological and mystifying but is in no way in conflict with the larger  analysis of capital and class emergence.

Furthermore, Balibar talks about Marx’s having an “evolutionary” or “Darwinian” view. He is accusing Marx of having somehow sublimated a theory of progress.  I think this is a misunderstanding of what an evolutionary view is. It is a common mistake made from Herbert Spenser onward that evolution implies teleological process towards some absolute goal. Indeed, Hegel also has this latent teleology.  Marx, however, seems to indicate unsure of this:  capitalism contradictions make impossible to be self-sustaining, but in very little of Marxist writings does he seem to say that the outcome of this dialectical impasse has a specific ending. It seems many of the historical problems of the Paris Commune may have complicated Marx’s view, something that Balibar himself suggests.

This critique aside, I find Balibar’s book to be challenging and engaging when it is clear.  Balibar’s discussion of Marx’s revolution of the idea of “subject” is worth the 140 pages.   It’s introductory elements are sound, but this text is NOT an introduction to Marxist philosophy as you can tell by the my critique.  Indeed, you would have to familiar with the primary texts and a good bit of post-structuralist and post-Marxist jargon to get past parts of the last chapter.

For a better introduction to Marxist thought, read Marx.  Then watch the David Harvey lectures I posted, and if you still need some supplements–don’t feel bad about it, Marx combines economics, philosophy and nascent sociology in a way that few people can handle from every aspect.

For those more textually inclined: David Harvey’s Companion to Capital, The Cambridge Companion to Marx, and Terry Eagleton’s Marx Was Right are all more introductory in a (slightly in the case of Eagleton) less polemic and obtuse way.  

If you want a ready an interesting and provocation, but brief philosophical treatise on Marx, do read Balibar.Also I can suggest reading his work on Kapital with Althusser and some of his reflections on Dictatorship of the Proletariat.    For similar critiques, Derrida’s The Spectre of Marx and the reaction against it, Ghostly Demarcations, are quite good.

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