Philosophy and Revolution: from Kant to Marx — an interview with Stathis Kouvelakis
To mark the publication of La Fabrique's new edition of Philosophy and Revolution: from Kant to Marx, Révolution Permanente spoke with Stathis Kouvelakis about his 2003 book. Translated by David Broder.
Stathis Kouvelakis, 2015. via Youtube.
Stathis, could you introduce yourself to those who do not know you already? What is your experience as a militant?
Stathis Kouvelakis: Since 2002 I have taught political philosophy at King’s College London, but my own university education was in France. In terms of my militant record, since my high school days I was active in the anti-capitalist radical Left in Greece and then in France. In 1981 I joined the youth organisation of what was called the Greek Communist Party "Interior," a current that subsequently participated as one of the components that founded Syriza. I also took part in Syriza’s leadership bodies between 2012 and 2015, and then left that party, together with thousands of other militants and cadres, when Alexis Tsipras shamefully capitulated to the diktat from the lenders’ Troika. Subsequently I participated in the foundation of Popular Unity — a formation I am still part of — which rallies the forces that came out of the left wing of Syriza and part of the far-Left coalition Antarsya.
As for France, I was a militant in the Parti Communiste Français in the 1980s, and then from 2005 in the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire and the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste, which I then left in favour of supporting the Front de Gauche. I have also been active in Marxist journals like Actuel Marx (up to 2004) and then Contretemps, which provided me with the extraordinary privilege of being able to work with Daniel Bensaïd.
To summarise this experience, I would say that I have tried to be a communist militant in a period of reflux and transition, during which the organisations of the workers’ movement — both big and less big — have gradually disintegrated. And that has happened without new forms of political structuration of the dominated classes managing, for the moment, to crystallise.
La Fabrique has just republished your 2003 book, Philosophy and Revolution: from Kant to Marx. What was the context in which you wrote it?
The book was essentially written around the end of the 1990s, and its first edition came in 2003 with Presses Universitaires de France. That was a period in which reflection on Marx had opened up anew, based on a context in which social movements in France and elsewhere were starting off again. As Daniel Bensaïd liked to say, the sky may not have been turning red but it did nonetheless start to take on a bit of colour again. So for me that seemed a conducive moment for a revived theoretical reflection, which is indispensable if we want to escape the period of defeat set in place by the collapse of the USSR and China’s turn toward capitalism.
From a theoretical point of view this book situates itself in continuity with the debates of the previous period, opened up by the so-called "crisis of Marxism" of the late 1970s. More particularly, the question that concerned me was that of Marx’s political theory, whose status and very existence are subject to debate. So this was a way of reflecting on the questions surrounding the relations between revolutionary theory and practice, politics and strategy, by returning to a foundational sequence. Namely, the sequence that saw Marx’s trajectory mark itself out as unique within the wider landscape of the oppositional intelligentsia — one of essentially philosophical training — in Vormärz-era Germany, meaning the years preceding the 1848 revolutions.
Philosophy and Revolution appears to be yet another work on Marx. Could you explain in what way it is unique?
I think there are two ways, to keep things brief. Firstly, I try to situate Marx as a figure in a group portrait, including Heine, Moses Hess, and the young Engels. Of course, this is a group under the shadow of the tutelary figures of classical German philosophy, Kant and Hegel, to whom I devote an introductory chapter. I then expand the focus in order to capture Marx’s singularity within the wider tendency from which he emerged, namely that of the "Young Hegelians." That provides a basis for further reflection on the phrase with which the elderly Engels concludes his pamphlet on Ludwig Feuerbach — a phrase which has always both fascinated and intrigued me: "The German working class movement is the heir of classical German philosophy."
So with that we should understand that this apparently only speculative philosophy is in fact the bearer of an emancipatory charge, at the crossroads of the Enlightenment and the shockwave unleashed by the French Revolution. This is a charge that from the outset poses the question of its practical realisation. Moreover, in this phrase Engels repeats the adjective "German" in order to emphasise this specificity, what he calls the "German aptitude for theory," which first blooms in philosophy — that is, at a distance from practice — and which Marx "translates" into a new theory putting itself forward as a guide for the action of a class that might overthrow the existing order.
To put that another way, the "realisation" of philosophy entails its "abolition," its transcendence in a practice that preserves its truth content by making it effective, concretely active. This is where Marx intervenes, saying that this abolition must be thought of as politics, but not just any politics. What was necessary was to "translate" into politics the emancipatory content that classical German philosophy had grasped in speculative fashion. And that also profoundly transforms the previously existing conceptions of "politics" and even of "revolution."
The second specificity of my work thus resides in the attention it accords to the political passion which I consider to have been the motor of Marx’s intellectual evolution. This passion also fed off his profound relation with Hegel, a thinker of bourgeois modernity and its contradictions, whose relentless realism is much more useful to a revolutionary than any moralism or exaltation of voluntarism.
You try and explain the emergence of Marx’s revolutionary thought not as a logic that was inscribed in history in advance, but as the political and philosophical result of the Vormärz. Could you tell us more about this?
Karl Korsch once invited us to apply to Marx himself the method that he elaborated for studying social and historical realities, starting from the principle that ideas do not fall from the sky. I strove to apply that method in Marxism and Philosophy. Understanding Marx’s singularity means casting off the conception according to which everything was already there in embryo, in his individual genius, in favour of an attempt to understand how a young radical intellectual reacted — simultaneously both practically and theoretically — to the unforeseen events that marked the Vormärz period leading up to the revolutions of 1848.
Marx was not born a revolutionary, he became one at the cost of a difficult break with the framework that served as the reference for the German intellectuals of his generation, including even oppositional ones. He had to deal with a situation in which the very limited space that still made this intellectual activity possible — including in the university and the press — fell under the hammer-blows of a Prussian monarchy engaged in a ramped-up authoritarianism. Marx’s "young Hegelian" rivals and interlocutors reacted either by retreating entirely, or by a headlong rush into a posture whose rhetorical ultra-radicalism did little to mask its total impotence. He preferred exile, in order to be able to take part in the political activities of the working-class and intellectual émigré milieu, whose epicentre was in Paris, but also in Brussels and London.
This exile condition set him in direct contract with the main European revolutionary currents and directed him toward communism. His radicalisation thus had the particularity of allying effective political action and theoretical innovation. Indeed, right from the outset Marx’s communism established itself as something very much unique, a rupture rather than a variant of the communist doctrines of the 1840s, from Blanqui to Cabet and the neo-Babouvists.
The originality of your approach also comes from the selection of authors you analyse: Heine, Hess, Kant, and Feuerbach. Why did you choose them?
As I said earlier, grasping Marx’s singularity demands that we situate him among this wider group of rivals and interlocutors in the young Hegelian tendency. More particularly, I chose Hess and Engels over Feuerbach — who was very distant from political questions — because they were in contact with socialist currents and, in Engels’s case, with the realities of industrial England and its powerful workers’ movement. Yet in the period I study their trajectory differs very noticeably from Marx’s. Indeed, they oriented themselves towards a form of humanist socialism, with a strong ethical dimension, hostile to political action.
Heine is a case apart. He belonged to a previous generation. He knew Goethe and Hegel personally, and took up exile in Paris shortly after the July 1830 revolution. He would later meet Marx there. Heine elaborated a directly political reading of classical German philosophy and culture more widely, highlighting its revolutionary kernel. He played a decisive role in the cultural and political exchanges between France and Germany over this period. He was a pioneer in the operation translating into French — that is, into political language — the German theory which Marx would drive onto a new course.
And that is why your study stops before the revolutionary phase of 1848?
Indeed, my study of Marx stops at the beginning of his Parisian exile, which is also the moment of his encounter with Heine. By this moment in his trajectory, Marx had become a revolutionary and saw the proletariat as the agent of a German revolution of a new type, a "radical revolution" transcending the French horizon of 1789-93, in that it would put into question the whole edifice of society.
It is worth emphasising the deep paradox of such a position, since as Marx like so many others forcefully repeated Germany was a backward country, both politically and economically speaking. The only exception was theory. But what Marx was able to make out was that it was already "too late" for a successful bourgeois revolution in Germany, since even though the proletariat’s entry onto the stage was still in its infancy, it was enough to push the bourgeoisie into compromise with the old ruling classes. Germany’s fate would thus be played out within the tear between these contradictory temporalities. And it was precisely from this "discordance of time scales" — to adopt a notion dear to Daniel Bensaïd — that an unprecedented possibility emerged, whose name was "radical revolution." So I leave Marx at this definitive tipping-point in his trajectory, which is also the moment where the philosophical sequence of which this trajectory was the condensed expression reached its point of truth.