Part I: Marx & Derrida; ghostly brothers

by danielrolle


In a series of blog posts, I’m going to explore the relationship between Jacques Derrida and Karl Marx. Both thinkers have been the subject of much comparison, contrast, high-level academic conjecture and refutation. Prominent cultural theorists have endured very public fallings out over the theoretical nexus that resides between Marx and Derrida’s thinking; the subject has spawned a major series of seminars and a significant collection of essays.

I’m going to use these blogs to show that Derridean deconstruction and Marxist thinking are profoundly linked; and that there is much to be gained by reading the two thinkers together. I’ll also use the blogs to explain most of the central tenets of their thinking – focusing particularly on Derrida. 

NB – many of the Derrida quotes I use below come from the original French. I’ve referenced page numbers from the texts as accurately and as often as I can.

In an interview given in 1989, Jacques Derrida sowed the seeds of an argument that would reignite discussion about the very foundations of Marxist thought. In a context saturated by discourses pronouncing the end of Marxism as a functioning critique of the époque, Derrida suggested of his own work that:

“Marx is always immediately or virtually taken into account. My ambition (which is perhaps excessive) is to call for a new reading of Marx – a greater ambition than many Marxists…the blank on Marx is situated in my text in a certain way, that blank is not just any blank. That blank corresponds neither to a distraction, nor to a repressive denial that it brings about, but rather to an active calling into question of the Marxian legacy.”

The blank which Derrida refers to is the critically presumed absence of any actual ‘Marx’ in his texts: that is, the plethora of citations, footnotes and references to Marx’s work, which would normally act as a kind of signifier for the presence of ‘Marxism’ in the text. To cite Capital, or to pay homage to the various “Marxist” signifiers such as ‘class struggle’, ‘commodity fetishism’ or ‘dialectical materialism’, would therefore be enough to demonstrate a certain engagement, to place oneself in the heritage of Marxism.

Nonetheless, as Derrida suggested in the same interview, the simple act of hat-tipping to the Marxist legacy is not enough to render it an example of  a possible “Marxist” criticism: the designation of one’s writing as “Marxist” is less an act of engaging with the text, than of engaging with Marx’s legacy, or what Derrida will call his injonction [injunction]. The truly radical element of Derrida’s critique of “Marxist” criticism will therefore be his undermining of the discourse which purports to pay homage to, or support, its father-figure: ‘I will always wonder if the idea of Marx – the self-identity of a Marxist discourse of system… – is not in principle incompatible with the event-Marx’ (Negotiations, 188).  For Derrida, it is the establishment of a doxa, of an ideology, of an entire ontology and logic of Marxism, which is an affront to the very ‘spirit of Marx’, which seeks to change the world, rather than merely interpret it.

Indeed, if Derrida’s claim that his entire work is informed by a certain ‘spirit of Marx’ is valid, then his deconstruction will be an attempt to ‘éviter l’anesthésie neutralisante d’un nouveau théoretisme, et pour empêcher que prévale un retour philosophico-philologique à  Marx’ (Spectres de Marx, 62); instead, deconstruction will propose a radicalisation of ‘les concepts d’interprétation, de perspective, d’évaluation, de différence et tous les motifs ‘empiristes’ ou non-philosophiques qui, tout au long de l’histoire de l’Occident, n’ont cessé de tourmenter la philosophie’ (De la grammatologie, 31). Derrida thus seeks to move beyond this Western, ‘logocentric’ heritage, and, in its place, to propose a spirit of critique: ‘La déconstruction ne peut se limiter ou passer immédiatement à une neutralisation: elle doit, par un double geste, une double écriture, pratiquer un renversement de l’opposition classique et un déplacement général du système’ (Limited Inc, 50).

This double geste, this double-bind will, d’une part [on the one hand – to use Derrida’s phrasing], mean the radicalization of Marxism – that is, its reformalization for a new world, thus marking the possibility of its repetition for a plurality of contexts – and, d’autre part [on the other hand], the destabilization of the binary “Marxist/anti-Marxist”. This double bind symbolizes the impossibility that strikes at the core of any possibility, the ‘plus de sens’ whereby ‘le trop-plein et le vide se ressemblent’ (Politique de l’amitié, 51).  This relationship between the plural and the singular will condition the Derridean conception of language, such that ‘ce débordement et cet effacement ont le même sens, sont un seul et même phénomène’ (De la grammatologie, 16): thus, the double-bind which conditions the very thinking of Marxism effectuates both the impossibility of Marxism and the possibility of its proliferation; ‘plus d’un Marx’ – no more Marx, more than one Marx.

The death of Marx can, nonetheless, become the possibility of its living-on: ‘où il y a va de la déconstruction, il s’agirait de lier une affirmation (en particulier politique), s’il y en a, à l’expérience de l’impossible, qui ne peut etre qu’une expérience radicale du peut-être’ (Spectres de Marx, 65).  It is important to highlight the ‘peut-etre’, the perhaps, which will gain increasing importance in Derrida’s discussion of Marx, and of politics and the political in general. In Politiques de l’amitié, Derrida expands on this political element of this indécidable:

“On voit mal comment un peut-être pourrait jamais y trouver sa chance, la chance d’une effraction ou d’une hospitalité absolues, d’une décision ou d’une arrivance imprédictibles. Sauf par accident ou fortuitement, et c’est pourquoi nous parlons de chance; un peut-être se livre toujours à la chance; on ne peut donc pas, on ne doit pas espérer pour le peut-être une possibilité essentielle ou nécessaire, une condition non accidentelle. Peut-être le peut-être aura-t-il au contraire ouvert la possibilité pour cette configuration…de se configurer en oubliant le peut-être. (Politiques de l’amitié, p122-123)

The peut-être, the undecidable, the impossible can all give rise to a new thinking of (political) possibility. ‘Plus d’un Marx’, the possibility and impossibility of Marx, the questioning of the very possibility of “Marxism”, plays a vital role in this discussion.

Over the course of the next few blogs, I’m going to explore the way in which Derridean deconstruction undermines the “Marxist” in Marxist criticism so as radicalize and reinterpret Marx. Moreover, an analysis of Marx will demonstrate the deconstructive logic at work in the foundations of commodity fetishism, and the possibility of reading Marx as a prelude to discussions of Derrida’s la democratie à venir. I’ll try and demonstrate the flaws of the misreadings levelled at Derrida by the likes of Terry Eagleton, Slavoj Žižek and Ajaz Ahmed, and thus that Derrida’s ‘Marxism without Marxism’ is the possibility, rather than the impossibility, of a radicalized thinking of Marx.