Marx For Our Times

Submitted by on 6 November, 2003 - 12:00

Marx For Our Times: Adventures and Misadventures of a Critique by Daniel Bensaid, Verso, 2002, ÂŁ20

"At the singular points of bifurcations that are open to hope, strategic choices, the aim of the archer skilled at attaining possibilities in full flight, are applied. (...) Messianic anticipation is never the passive certainty of an event foretold, but akin to the concentration of a hunter on the lookout for the sudden emergence of what is possible"
(Daniel Bensaid, Marx for our Times)

"The factor of time is decisive here and it is difficult in retrospect to tell time historically. Dialectical materialism at any rate has nothing in common with fatalism. Without Lenin the crisis ... would have assumed an extraordinarily sharp and protracted character [but] the conditions of war and revolution, however, would not allow the party a long period ... a disoriented and split party might have let the revolutionary opportunity slip."
(Leon Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution)

Daniel Bensaid is the most prominent writer of the French revolutionary socialist group Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR). A leader of the student movement in 1968 at the Université de Nanterre, and now a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Paris-VIII (Saint-Denis), Bensaid is above all a political militant of the LCR. In 2003 the Alliance for Workers' Liberty conference heard a fraternal speech from an LCR member and Martin Thomas carried our greetings to the LCR conference in October 2003. So it is with some excitement that we should greet this book.

But first, a warning. Marx for our Times is an extremely difficult book. I do not claim to have the reading to judge all of it. Its subject is not only Marxism but also a range of philosophical thinkers as well as a series of debates in the philosophy of science concerning "complexity". Nonetheless it is perhaps the most important book to have been produced by revolutionary Marxism in recent times.

1. Introduction

Marxists have long suffered from a failure to appreciate the theoretical revolution wrought by Marx. Bensaid's book establishes this fact and its consequences. Running through it are four arguments.

First, the character of "our times". We are living through an accelerating global upheaval driven by "the universalisation and morbid energy of capital itself". As capital privatises the world then "under the lash of money, the world becomes frenzied". However, there is an ongoing "anti-neo-liberal turn" on a global scale. And, because of the collapse of Stalinism, Marxism can once again "resonate with the revival of struggle". There is a "basis for the renaissance of Marxism". The possibility exists of "starting over anew, overcoming the traumatic experiences of a tragic century" (xiii).

Bensaid's book, as I read it, is about the fundamental theoretical preconditions for Marxists to seize this moment. Not only must Marxists forge an organic relationship to the revived practice of social movements. We must also cast off the entire range of dogmatic and wooden forms of "Marxism" that we have inherited.

Second, Bensaid examines three of the forms to which post-Marx Marxism has been reduced. Each of these simplifications distorts Marx's thought and, crucially, misses its political meaning. Marxism has been reduced to a "historical reason" and thus a speculative philosophy of history, to a form of "economic reason" and thus an empirical sociology of class, and to another "normal" positive science of economics. Bensaid argues that each of these reductions is a translation of Marx, by post-Marx Marxists, into the dominant idioms of the nineteenth century.

Third, Bensaid gives us back a Marx who developed his ideas precisely by breaking from these limited, individualistic and unhistorical forms of reason, and nowhere more so than in his masterwork, the three volumes of Capital. Each simplification - speculative philosophy of history, sociology of class, positive economic science - was rooted in surpassed scientific models of a "mechanical world governed by isolated causal chains". Marx pushed past these mechanical models in the very course of the decades-long labour writing Capital. Bensaid argues that it was the very act of understanding the "stochastic [laws of probability] behaviour of capital", the "swirling logics of capitalism" that pushed Marx to the edge of a new non-mechanical conception of temporality and causality. Bensaid claims that Marx's "tentative steps" are being "clarified in the light of contemporary scientific developments".

Fourth, Bensaid draws out the practical political consequence of Marx's conceptual revolution. It demands of us the very opposite of a passive waiting on the so-called "Laws of History" but rather an alert, questing, strategic seizure of the opportunities thrown up by history's "points of bifurcation" in order to make history. As Bensaid puts it, with Marx, "knowledge takes on a strategic cast".

2. Marx does not offer a speculative philosophy of history

History-with-a-capital-H does nothing. So said Marx in The Holy Family and The German Ideology (1845-6), breaking with all speculative philosophies of history. Marx did not predict a guaranteed universal future based on natural laws.

When history is secularised in this way the consequences are profound for politics. As Bensaid puts it "To overturn the dictatorship of ends [i.e. to drop the idea that history has a meaning or destination] is to de-moralise history (to renounce definitively the notion that it has a moral). To demoralise it is to politicise it, and open it up to strategic conceptualisation". This insight is vital for the development of Marxist political theory. Bensaid observes that "shattering the fetish of history liberates the categories that allow us to conceive it differently. What emerges from the ruins of universal History is a 'rhythmology' of capital. A conceptualisation of crises, and a historicity in which politics attains primacy over history".

3. Marx does not offer a 'sociology of class'

By "class" Marx did not mean classification. His theory of class is in Capital and it is "a system of relations structured by struggle". As Bensaid puts it "An isolated class is not a theoretical object, but a nonsense". Marxism, like Robert Redford's Sundance Kid, is better when it moves, we might say. That is why Marx's first word may be the basic determination of class relations in the sphere of production but his last word is found in the political writings where "complexity is displayed to the full". There is no simple direct relation between first and last word. Marx registered the manifold mediations - political ones to the fore - that come between the two.

The purpose of Capital is to reveal the dynamics of capitalism and so trace the roots of alienation and fetishism in the production relation and register the damage this causes to human beings - physical, intellectual, spiritual. This damage means that in normal times most workers are fragmented from each other and look on capitalism as inevitable and natural. This begs the question of how the self-emancipation of the working class is possible? On the wave of Marx's theory we are brought up on the shores of the political and the strategic. For Marx the answer is "political confrontation and class struggle: only struggle can break this vicious circle". But this struggle, Bensaid usefully reminds us, cannot be reduced to a battle in the workplace. The three volumes of Capital show how the basic contradiction in production between wage-labour and capital spreads over - or, we might say, infects - the entire process of social reproduction, the whole society, until exploitation is a social phenomena. Tracing this infection and its mediation is no easy matter. "In the specific field of the political, class relations acquire a degree of complexity irreducible to the bipolar antagonism that nevertheless determines them". We need a Marxism adequate to the "specific field of the political".

3. Marx is not a normal positive science of economics

In Capital, having plunged every "timeless" economic category into the solvent of history, Marx began to "conceptualiseÂ…a swirling economy, whose circles of circles and dizzy shapes fascinate chaos physicists today". It turns out that Marx, far from being an out-of-date mechanist, is a forerunner of the complexity sciences of the late 20th century. Says Bensaid, "Regarding capital as a dynamic social relation in chronic disequilibrium, Marx glimpsed 'the footprints of chaos on the sands of time' but was not able to decipher them".

What then are the affinities between Marx's way of doing science - critical, historical, and dialectical - and chaos or complexity theory? The latter is "in painful gestation, lying somewhere between rigorous research and the effects of fashion" but its central demand is that "the smooth mirror of uniform temporality be shattered". In chaos theory, as in Capital, "time rediscovers its rhythms and catastrophes, its nodes and antinodes". In these notions of "points of bifurcation" or "tipping points" - look again at the quote from Trotsky which introduces this article - as in the concept of "punctuated equlibria", we find striking confirmation of Marx's revolutionary and dialectical science. Marx's "partial responses to the theological niceties of the commodity transcend the scientific horizon of his century".

Bensaid has in mind the impact within the natural sciences of a series of developments: the sharpened sense of "the contingency of evolution without a goal" and the understanding of history as "an explanatory, rather than a normative principle". For example, Bensaid invokes the revolutionary implications of the notion advanced by the late natural scientist Stephen Jay Gould of "punctuated equilibria" which tells us that "punctual changes are at least as important as imperceptible accumulation and that the history of the earth is punctuated by a series of pulsations that force reluctant systems to pass from one steady state to the next". The Marx of Capital is "seeking causality in the lawfulness of complex structures".

Marx added to the discipline of normal scientific research (a necessary moment in the gaining of knowledge) something new - "deutschen Wissenscahft" or German science. The legacy of the German philosopher Hegel was reworked to develop the practice of critique, that is the adoption within the scientific enterprise of an active, practical, critical and political standpoint able to dig beneath the mystified forms in which reality (in this case the capitalist mode of production) presents itself on the surface. Capital is a "critique of appearances and fetishism", an unearthing of "inner relations underlying phenomenal forms".

The point of critique is not to create a new "system" but to refuse the closure of history, to open history up again, reject all "last words". One might say critique is the theoretical analogue of the activist's slogan "another world is possible". Critique leads thought "to the threshold of the struggle, where it takes strategic wing". When did philosophy of history, or sociology, or economics last do that?

Bensaid stresses the importance to Marx's way of doing science of the notion of law of tendency and their non-linear logic. Marx was, in other words, a "thinker of possibility". In history, and in Marx's thought, "Necessity delineates the horizon of struggle. Its contingency averts the decrees of fate". There is no smooth linear progression in history. Only "chaotic dynamics [that] carve out a series of forks and junctions in time where possibilities can bud, open out, or wither". History throws up "points of bifurcation" in which there are multiplicities of outcomes to each situation.

The terrain on which outcomes are shaped is the political. It is the "specific field of the political" which is the very "modality of the making of history". Marxism must learn to think and act on this field. Above all that means the development of Marxist political theory.

4. Politics decides

Bensaid constantly stresses the political charge carried by non-linear Marxism. Because history moves via discordant contradiction and points of bifurcation, time is understood as "replete withÂ… opportunities and auspicious moments ... junctions, bifurcations, forks and points" that must be seized or lost. "Knowledge takes on a strategic cast", as Bensaid puts it. The proletarian revolution possesses a specific temporality. It cannot grow organically like the "bourgeois revolution" and establish itself over hundreds of years of transition. Socialist revolution is a leap. The complex and discordant processes of capitalist societies produce "exceptional moments when the spell of fetishism can be broken" but these moments must be recognised and seized (it strikes me that one might read Bensaid's book as a working up of some passages from his superb 1986 pamphlet Revolutionary Strategy Today, a talk to LCR party activists). Politics and the present, not history and the past, nor philosophy and the future, are the heart of Marxism. And in this realm of the political present all the old muscle-bound simplicities of "orthodox Marxism" are useless. This seems to me the heart of Bensaid's reading of Marx.

Mechanical forms of Marxism have kept Marxist political theory in short pants for too long. Bensaid urges us to learn to think in terms of "an art of time and contretemps" and to grasp that "strategy has as its temporal mode the present and as its cardinal virtue 'presence of mind'." Every instant involves a confrontation between possibilities and so "in practice, the only foresight is strategic".

This understanding of historical change also makes Marxism sensitive to the dangers of bureaucratic degeneration. Because the socialist revolution is a perilous leap, rather than a demiurge or a working out of the riddle of history, then that leap is always possibly "a fatal one". The time of the leap (its specific temporality) is "suspended" to employ Bensaid's useful term, and "conducive to bureaucratic usurpation and totalitarian confiscation". These are tremendously important lines. Bensaid does not question the necessity of popular revolution from below. But he knows that after Stalinism we must imagine that we have at our shoulder not only Danton crying "audacity, audacity, audacity" but also the counsel of Victor Serge warning "vigilance, vigilance, vigilance".

Bensaid's book has profound implications for debates about both Stalinism and the anti-capitalist movement.

Stalinism and non-linear Marxism

Bensaid makes a few comments, in passing, about Stalinism's "bureaucratic crimes" and the "bureaucratic exploitation" of "really non-existing socialism", as well as advancing the claim that "the bureaucratic societies were never post-capitalist". One hopes Bensaid will return to the subject. For there is surely a rich irony here. The post-war Trotskyist movement, right up to the collapse of 1989, thought it was looking out, critically, onto a progressive "world revolution" sweeping the globe in the distorted form of Stalinism. The Communist Parties were the "blunt instruments" of "history". Throughout the book Bensaid rightly criticises the disastrous political charge carried by "historical reason" and all speculative philosophies of history.

But what else led the USFI for half a century to maintain a false understanding of Stalinism as a distorted expression of "the world revolution"? How to explain Ernest Mandel's claim that "world revolution is an objective process that has dominated the history of the twentieth century"? Was it not precisely the absence within the Mandel tradition of any sense that history possessed genuine "points of bifurcation" (and not just ladders one shuffled up or down, or to the first rung of which one clung) that led Mandel to such disastrous claims as this one: "the Chinese Communist Party ... was striving to destroy capitalism and therefore represented a fundamentally proletarian social force"?

Look again at the role played by the word "therefore" in that sentence. Bensaid's entire book could be read as a critique of that mechanical "therefore", that linear "therefore" that politically disastrous "therefore". And how does Michel Pablo's notion of "centuries of transition" shape up next to Bensaid's meticulous appreciation of the specific temporality of the proletarian revolution? The point is not that today's revolutionaries should divide over historical debates. And nor is my intention to rubbish, or reduce the history of Trotskyism or the USFI to a series of errors over Stalinism. The point is that it would be an optimist indeed who would conclude that we have seen the last of bureaucratic forms of collectivism or reactionary anti-capitalisms. If grievous political errors are never registered and theoretically accounted for then they can certainly be repeated.

Is Bensaid's an ungroundable socialism?

We might ask whether Bensaid's socialism lacks foundations? Bensaid flatly rejects the idea, advanced by Norman Geras among others, that Marx condemned capitalism as "unjust" in the name of a transhistorical notion of distributive justice based upon a theory of human nature. For myself I think Geras has made the case. Bensaid asks rhetorically how could the superiority of an alternative system by defined and by whom. Bensaid counterposes to this the idea of universality understood not as an essence but as a becoming-through-struggle. A real universalisation would involve, as Marx suggests in Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875), transcending "distributive formalism" and embracing as a society the needs principle ("from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs').

But it is unclear that this is an alternative to Geras. What Marx offers in Critique of the Gotha Programme is precisely a theory of distributive justice - the needs principle - and one based squarely upon a theory of human nature. One might also ask, of Bensaid, how one decides what to struggle for without a theory of human nature or a principle of justice and how, lacking both, needs could be socially agreed - discussed politically and collectively. When Bensaid talks of "the design of nature ... embodied in the sequence of generations" and of the existence of "a straining towards the end", do we not find ourselves creeping back to a determinism of sorts. Perhaps fact and value can't be so easily merged.

Other criticisms, of course, could be advanced of Bensaid's book on another occasion. The priority is to establish the book's towering contribution to the rebirth of revolutionary Marxism and to hope it achieves the widest possible readership. How to sum up that contribution? Well, Bensaid cites the work of Maurice Blanchot at one point. I recall that Blanchot issued the injunction, in Awaiting Oblivion, "Act in such a way that I can speak to you". Bensaid is telling us what a Marxism would look, sound and feel like that could "speak to" the rebels of the twenty first century and to which they could "speak" back.

Alan Johnson is a supporter of the AWL and an editor of Historical Materialism
Score: 9/10
Reviewer: Alan Johnson

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