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Post War Critical Theory: A Theoretical Glaciation

As the crisis of capitalism unfolds, the need for alternatives is felt ever more intensely. The struggle between radical movements and the forces of reaction are merciless. Over the last twenty-five years, radical intellectuals across the world have produced important and innovative ideas. The endeavour to transform the world without falling into the catastrophic traps of the past has been a common element uniting these new approaches.

Razmig Keucheyan29 September 2020

Post War Critical Theory: A Theoretical Glaciation

What is the relation of theory to history and society? In The Left Hemisphere: Mapping Critical Theory Today Razmig Keucheyan not only summarizes whole swathes of post-war critical theory, he also attempts to provide a sociological grounding to the developments and divergences, what motivates particular theorists to emphasize one question or another. Keucheyan asks: How did the left intelligentsia develop in a moment of depoliticization and alienation from the working class? 

2020 marks 50 years of radical Left publishing at Verso. All our student reading is 40% off until September 30th at 11:59PM EST. Join our newly launched Book Club, and see our Western Marxist Theory reading, and Key Debates in Theory, from across our publishing history.

Towards a Geography of Critical Theory 

In Considerations on Western Marxism, Perry Anderson has shown that the defeat of the German Revolution in the years 1918–23 led to a significant mutation in Marxism. The Marxists of the classical generation had two main characteristics. Firstly, they were historians, economists, sociologists – in short, concerned with empirical sciences. Their publications were mainly conjunctural and focused on the political actuality of the moment. Secondly, they were leaders of parties – that is, strategists confronting real political problems. Carl Schmitt once claimed that one of the most important events of the modern age was Lenin’s reading of Clausewitz. The underlying idea is that to be a Marxist intellectual in the early twentieth century was to find oneself at the head of one’s country’s working class organizations. In truth, the very notion of ‘Marxist intellectual’ made little sense, the substantive ‘Marxist’ being self-sufficient.

These two characteristics were closely linked. It is because they were political strategists that these thinkers required empirical knowledge to make decisions. This is the famous ‘concrete analysis of concrete situations’ referred to by Lenin. Conversely, their role as strategists nourished their reflections with first-hand empirical knowledge. As Lenin wrote on 30 November 1917 in his postscript to State and Revolution, ‘It is more pleasant and useful to go through the “experience of the revolution” than to write about it.’ In this phase of Marxism’s history the ‘experience’ and the ‘writing’ of revolution were inextricably linked.

The ‘Western’ Marxism of the subsequent period was born out of the erasure of the relations between intellectuals/leaders and working-class organizations that had existed in classical Marxism. By the mid-1920s, workers’ organizations had everywhere been beaten. The failure in 1923 of the German Revolution, whose outcome was regarded as crucial for the future of the working-class movement, sounded a halt to hopes of any immediate overthrow of capitalism. The decline that set in led to the establishment of a new kind of link between intellectuals/leaders and working-class organizations. Gramsci, Korsch and Lukács were the first representatives of this new configuration. With Adorno, Sartre, Althusser, Della Volpe, Marcuse and others, the Marxists who dominated the years 1924–68 possessed converse characteristics to those of the preceding period. For a start, they no longer had organic links with the workers’ movement and, in particular, with the Communist parties. They no longer held leadership positions. In those instances where they were members of Communist parties (Althusser, Lukács, Della Volpe), they had complex relations with them. Forms of ‘fellow-travelling’ can be observed, exemplified by Sartre in France. But an irreducible distance between intellectuals and party remained. It is not necessarily attributable to the intellectuals themselves: Communist party leaderships were often profoundly mistrustful of them.

The rupture between intellectuals and working-class organizations characteristic of Western Marxism had a significant cause and a significant consequence. The cause was the construction from the 1920s of an orthodox Marxism that represented the official doctrine of the USSR and fraternal parties. The classical period of Marxism was one of intense debates over, in particular, the character of imperialism, the national question, the relationship between the social and the political, and finance capital. From the second half of the 1920s, Marxism became fossilized. This placed intellectuals in a structurally difficult position, since any innovation in the intellectual domain was hence-forth denied them. This was a major cause of the distance that now separated them from working class parties. It confronted them with the alternative of maintaining allegiance or keeping their distance from the latter. With time the separation only grew, all the more so in that other factors aggravated it, like the increasing professionalization or academicization of intellectual activity, which tended to distance intellectuals from politics.

A notable consequence of this new configuration was that Western Marxists, unlike those of the previous period, developed abstract forms of knowledge. For the most part they were philosophers and often aestheticians or epistemologists. Just as the practice of empirical science was bound up with the fact that the Marxists of the classical period played leadership roles within workers’ organizations, so remoteness from such roles prompted a ‘flight into abstraction’. Marxists now produced hermetic knowledge, inaccessible to ordinary workers, about fields without any direct relationship to political strategy. In this sense, Western Marxism was non-‘Clausewitzian’.

The case of Western Marxism illustrates the way in which historical devel- opments can influence the content of thinking that aspires to make history. More precisely, it demonstrates the way in which the type of development that is a political defeat influences the course of the theory which has suffered it. The failure of the German revolution, Anderson argues, led to an enduring rupture between the Communist parties and revolutionary intellectuals. In severing the latter from political decision-making, this rupture led them to produce analyses that were increasingly abstract and less and less strategically useful. The interesting thing about Anderson’s argument is that it convincingly explains a property of the content of the doctrine (abstraction) by a property of its social conditions of production (defeat).

Starting from this, the issue is to determine the relationship between the defeat suffered by political movements in the second half of the 1970s and current critical theories. In other words, it consists in examining the way that the critical doctrines of the 1960s and 70s ‘mutated’ on contact with defeat, to the point of giving rise to the critical theories which emerged during the 1990s. Can the defeat of the second half of the 1970s be compared with that suffered by the workers’ movement in the early 1920s? Have its effects on critical doctrines been similar to those experienced by Marxism after the early 1920s and, in particular, to the ‘flight into abstraction’ characteristic of it?

From One Glaciation to the Next 

Today’s critical theories are inheritors of Western Marxism. Naturally, they have not been influenced exclusively by it, for they are the product of multiple connections, some of them foreign to Marxism. Such, for example, is the case with French Nietzscheanism, particularly the oeuvres of Foucault and Deleuze. But one of the main origins of the new critical theories is to be found in Western Marxism, whose history is closely bound up with that of the New Left.

Anderson’s analysis demonstrates that the significant distance separating critical intellectuals from working-class organizations has a decisive impact on the type of theories they develop. When these intellectuals are members of the organizations in question and, a fortiori, when they are leaders of them, the constraints of political activity are clearly visible in their publications. They are markedly less so when this bond weakens, as in the case of Western Marxism. For example, being a member of the Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party at the start of the twentieth century involved different kinds of constraints than being on ATTAC’s scientific committee.13 In the second case, the intellectual concerned has plenty of time to pursue an academic career outside of his political commitment – something incompatible with member- ship in a working-class organization in the early twentieth century in Russia or elsewhere. Obviously, the academy has itself changed – more precisely, massified – considerably since the era of classical Marxism; and this has an impact on the potential trajectory of critical intellectuals. Academics were a restricted social category in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Europe. Today, they are much more widespread, which manifestly influences the social and intellectual trajectory of the producers of theory. To under- stand the new critical theories, it is crucial to grasp the character of the links between the intellectuals who elaborate them and current organizations. In chapter 3 we shall propose a typology of contemporary critical intellectuals intended to address this issue.

There is a geography of thought – in this instance, of critical thought. Clas- sical Marxism was essentially produced by central and east European thinkers. The Stalinization of that part of the continent cut off subsequent development and shifted Marxism’s centre of gravity towards western Europe. This is the social space in which critical intellectual production was installed for half a century. During the 1980s, as a result of the recession of theoretical and political critique on the continent, but also because of the activity of dynamic intellectual poles like the journals New Left Review, Semiotext(e), Telos, New German Critique, Theory and Society and Critical Inquiry, the source of critique gradually shifted to the Anglo-American world. Critical theories thus came to be most vigorous where they had not previously been. While the old regions of production continue to generate and export important authors – it is enough to think of Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière, Toni Negri or Giorgio Agamben – a fundamental shift has set in over the last thirty years, which is tending to relocate the production of critical theories to new regions.

It must be said that the intellectual climate deteriorated markedly for the radical Left in western Europe, especially France and Italy – the chosen lands of Western Marxism – from the second half of the 1970s. As has been indicated, Western Marxism succeeded classical Marxism when the Stalinist glaciation struck eastern and central Europe. Although different in numerous respects, an analogy can be established between the effects of this glaciation and what the historian Michael Scott Christofferson has called the ‘anti- totalitarian moment’ in France. From the second half of the 1970s, France – but this also applies to neighbouring countries, especially those where the labour movement was powerful – saw a large-scale ideological and cultural offensive, which, on a different terrain, accompanied the rise of neo-liberalism with the election of Thatcher and Reagan, followed by that of François Mitterrand who, despite his ‘socialist’ pedigree, applied neo-liberal recipes without remorse. The movements born in the second half of the 1950s were stagnating. The initial oil shock of 1973 heralded difficult times economically and socially, with the first significant increase in the rate of unemployment. The Common Programme of the Left, signed in 1972 and uniting the Communist and Socialist parties, made the Left’s arrival in government conceivable, but in the process directed its activity towards institutions, therewith stripping it of some of its former vitality.

On the publishing front, The Gulag Archipelago appeared in French translation in 1974. The media hype around Solzhenitsyn and other east European dissidents was considerable. They were not defended only by conservative intellectuals. In France, in 1977, a reception organized in honour of Soviet dissidents brought together Sartre, Foucault and Deleuze. Other famous critical intellectuals, like Cornelius Castoriadis and Claude Lefort, struck up the ‘anti-totalitarian’ anthem, the latter devoting a book entitled Un homme en trop to Solzhenitsyn. It is true that from the 1950s Socialisme ou barbarie was one of the first journals to develop a systematic critique of Stalinism. The ‘anti-totalitarian consensus’ that reigned in France from the second half of the 1970s extended from Castoriadis, via Tel Quel and Maurice Clavel, to Raymond Aron (obviously with significant nuances). From the other side of the stage, young ‘entrants’ into the intel- lectual field of the time – the ‘new philosophers’ – made ‘anti-totalitarianism’ their stock in trade. Nineteen seventy-seven – which we have selected as the starting point of the historical period dealt with in this chapter – witnessed their consecration by the media. That year André Glucksmann and Bernard- Henri Lévy published Les Maîtres penseurs and La Barbarie à visage humain, respectively.

The thesis of the ‘new philosophers’ was that any project for transforming society led to ‘totalitarianism’ – that is, regimes based on mass murder in which the State subjugates the whole social body. The accusation of ‘totalitarianism’ was directed not only at the USSR and the countries of ‘real socialism’, but at the whole labour movement. François Furet’s ‘revisionist’ enterprise in the histori- ography of the French Revolution, and his subsequent analysis of the ‘communist passion’ in the twentieth century, rested on an analogous idea. During the 1970s certain ‘new philosophers’ – many of whom issued from the same Maoist organization, the Gauche prolétarienne – retained a certain political radicalism. In The Master Thinkers, Glucksmann counterposed the plebs to the (totalitarian) State, in libertarian accents that would not be disavowed by current supporters of the ‘multitude’, and which go some way to explaining the support he received at the time from Foucault. Over the years, however, these thinkers gradually moved towards the defence of ‘human rights’, humanitarian interven- tion, liberalism and the market economy.

At the heart of the ‘new philosophy’ was an argument about theory. It derived from traditional European conservative thought, especially Edmund Burke. Glucksmann encapsulated it in a formula: ‘To theorize is to terrorize’. Burke attributed the catastrophic consequences of the French Revolution (the Terror) to the ‘speculative spirit’ of philosophers insufficiently attentive to the complexity of reality and the imperfection of human nature. According to Burke, revolutions are the product of intellectuals prone to assign more importance to ideas than to facts that have passed the ‘test of time’. In a similar vein, Glucksmann and his colleagues criticized the tendency in the history of western thought that claims to grasp reality in its ‘totality’ and, on that basis, seeks to alter it – a tendency that goes back to Plato and which, via Leibniz and Hegel, issues in Marx and Marxism. Karl Popper, it is interesting to note, developed a similar thesis in the 1940s, in particular in The Open Society and Its Enemies. As is well known, Popper is one of the patron saints of neo-liberalism and his argument features prominently in its doctrinal corpus to this day. The assimilation of ‘theorization’ to ‘terror’ is based on the following syllogism: understanding reality in its totality amounts to wanting to subjugate it; this ambition inevitably leads to the gulag. In these conditions we can see why critical theories have deserted their continent of origin in search of more favourable climes.

The success of the ‘new philosophers’ may be regarded as symptomatic. It says a lot about the changes undergone by the political and intellectual field of the time. These were the years of the renunciation of the radicalism of 1968, the ‘end of ideologies’, and the substitution of ‘experts’ for intellectuals. The creation by Alain Minc, Furet, Pierre Rosanvallon and others in 1982 of the Fondation Saint-Simon, which (in the words of Pierre Nora) brought together ‘people who have ideas with people who have resources’, symbolizes the emergence of a knowledge of the social world supposedly free of ideology. The End of Ideology by the American sociologist Daniel Bell dates from 1960, but it was only during the 1980s that this leitmotif reached France and found expression in all areas of social existence. In the cultural sphere, Jack Lang and Jean- François Bizot – the founder of Actuel and Radio Nova – cast May 1968 as a failed revolution but a successful festival. In the economic domain, Bernard Tapie, future minister under Mitterrand, projected the firm as the site of every type of creativity. In the intellectual sphere, the journal Le Débat, edited by Nora and Marcel Gauchet, published its first issue in 1980; in an article entitled ‘Que peuvent les intellectuels?’, Nora advised the latter henceforth to confine themselves to their area of competence and stop intervening in politics.

The atmosphere of the 1980s must be related to the ‘infrastructural’ changes affecting industrial societies after the end of the Second World War. One of the main changes was the importance assumed by the media in intellectual life. The ‘new philosophers’ were the first televised philosophical current. Certainly, Sartre and Foucault also appeared at the time in filmed interviews, but they would have existed, as would their oeuvres, in the absence of television. The same is not true of Lévy and Glucksmann. In many respects, the ‘new philosophers’ were media products, their works – as well as recognizable signs like white shirts, wayward locks, ‘dissident’ posture – being conceived with the constraints of television in mind. The intrusion of the media into the intellectual field abruptly altered the conditions of production of critical theories. It is an additional element in explaining the hostile climate that developed in France from the late 1970s. Thus, one of the countries where critical theories had prospered most during the previous period – with the contributions of Althusser, Lefebvre, Foucault, Deleuze, Bourdieu, Barthes and Lyotard in particular – saw its intellectual tradition wither. Some of these authors continued to produce important works during the 1980s. Deleuze and Guattari’s Mille Plateaux appeared in 1980, Lyotard’s Le Différend in 1983, and Foucault’s L’Usage des plaisirs in 1984. But French critical thinking lost the capacity for innovation it had once possessed. A theoretical glaciation set in, from which in some respects we have yet to emerge.

The phenomenon of the ‘new philosophers’ is certainly typically French, notably because its protagonists’ sociological profile is intimately bound up with the French system of the reproduction of elites. But the general trend of abandoning the ideas of 1968, noticeable from the second half of the 1970s, is observable internationally, even if it assumes different forms in each country. A fascinating case, which still awaits an in-depth study, is that of the Italian Lucio Colletti. Colletti was one of the most innovative Marxist philosophers of the 1960s and 70s. A member of the Italian Communist Party from 1950, he decided to leave it at the time of the Budapest insurrection in 1956, which (as we have seen) was the occasion for a number of intellectuals to break with the Communist movement (though he did not actually make the break until 1964). He became increasingly critical of Stalinism. Like Althusser in France (with whom he corresponded and who held him in high regard), and under the influence of his master Galvano Della Volpe, Colletti defended the idea that the break made by Marx with Hegel was sharper than commonly thought. This thesis is developed, in particular, in Marxism and Hegel, one of his best-known works. Another of his influential works is From Rousseau to Lenin, which attests to the importance of Lenin’s materialism in his thinking.

From the mid-1970s Colletti proved increasingly critical of Marxism and especially Western Marxism, of which he was one of the representatives and chief theoreticians. In an interview published at the time, speaking in a pessimistic tone that heralded his subsequent evolution, he declared:

The only way in which Marxism can be revived is if no more books like Marxism and Hegel are published, and instead books like Hilferding’s Finance Capital and Luxemburg’s Accumulation of Capital – or even Lenin’s Imperialism, which was a popular brochure – are once again written. In short, either Marxism has the capacity – I certainly do not – to produce at that level, or it will survive merely as the foible of a few university professors. But in that case, it will be well and truly dead, and the professors might as well invent a new name for their clerisy.

According to Colletti, either Marxism succeeds in reconciling theory and practice, and thus repairing the rupture provoked by the failure of the German revolution to which we have referred, or it no longer exists as Marxism. In his view, ‘Western Marxism’ was therefore a logical impossibility. In the 1980s Colletti moved towards the Italian Socialist Party, led at the time by Bettino Craxi, whose degree of corruption mounted vertiginously over the years. In the 1990s, in a final tragic shift to the right, he adhered to Forza Italia, the party newly created by Silvio Berlusconi, and became a senator for the party in 1996. Upon Colletti’s death in 2001, Berlusconi saluted the courage he had demonstrated in rejecting Communist ideology and recalled his role in Forza Italia’s activities.

On the other side of the world, similar evolution characterized the ‘Argentinian Gramscians’. Gramsci’s ideas were soon in circulation in Argentina, by virtue of the cultural proximity between it and Italy, but also because his concepts were particularly useful in explaining the highly original and typically Argentinian political phenomenon of Peronism (for example, the notion of ‘passive revolution’). A group of young intellectuals issued from the Argentinian Communist Party, led by José Aricó and Juan Carlos Portantiero, founded the journal Pasado y Presente in 1963, alluding to a series of fragments in the Prison Notebooks that bear this title. Interestingly, ten years earlier (1952), a journal of the same name, Past and Present, was created in Britain around the Marxist historians Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill and Rodney Hilton. As was bound to be true of Latin American revolutionaries in these years, the Argentinian Gramscians were influenced by the Cuban Revolution (1959), the hybridization of Gramsci’s oeuvre and that event prompting theoretical developments of great fertility. At the time, the journal also acted as an interface between Argentina and the world by translating and/or publishing authors like Fanon, Bettelheim, Mao, Guevara, Sartre, and representatives of the Frankfurt School.

In the early 1970s, when the class struggle took a more violent turn in Argentina, Aricò and his group moved towards the Peronist revolutionary Left, particularly the Montoneros guerrillas, who were a kind of synthesis of Perón and Guevara. The journal attempted to reflect the strategic questions faced by the revolutionary movement, concerning the conditions of armed struggle, imperialism, and the character of the dominant Argentinian classes. With the 1976 coup d’état, Aricò was forced into exile in Mexico, like a number of Latin American Marxists of his generation. Thereafter his trajectory, like that of his colleagues, consisted in a gradual shift to the political centre. To start with, they proclaimed their support for the Argentinian offensive during the Malvinas War in 1982. Some of them, including the philosopher Emilio de Ipola, would cast a highly critical retrospective eye over this. Ardent support- ers of Felipe Gonzales and the Spanish PSOE in the 1980s, they ended up backing the first democratically elected president after the fall of the Argen- tinian dictatorship, the (centre-right) radical Raúl Alfonsín. They formed part of a group of special advisers to the latter; the group was known as the ‘Grupo Esmerelda’ and theorized the idea of the ‘democratic pact’. Their support for Alfonsin extended to adopting what was in some respects an ambiguous attitude to the odious Leyes de Obedencia y Punto Final amnestying the crimes of the dictatorship, which President Nestor Kirchner was to abrogate in the first decade of the 2000s.

Examples of shifts to the right by intellectuals could be multiplied. The neoliberal turn of China propelled by Deng Xiaoping in the late 1980s had a marked impact on Chinese critical thinking, leading to the appropriation (or reappropriation) of the western liberal tradition by significant sectors of the intelligentsia, and the acclimatization of debates on John Rawls’ theory of justice. Another, similar case is that of many US neo-conservatives – among them Irving Kristol, often presented as the ‘godfather of neo-conservatism’ – who issued from the non-Stalinist Left. An instructive document in this regard is ‘Memoirs of a Trotskyist’ published by Kristol in the New York Times.

Once again there is no question of claiming that these authors or currents are identical. The new philosophers, Colletti, and the Argentinian Gramscians are intellectuals of very different calibre; innovative Marxists like Colletti or Aricò obviously cannot be placed on the same level as an impostor like Lévy. Their intellectual trajectories are largely explained by the national contexts in which they occurred. At the same time, they are also the expression of a move to the right by formerly revolutionary intellectuals that can be identified on an international scale.

The conclusion to be drawn from this is that the second half of the 1970s and the 1980s were a period of abrupt changes in the geography of critical thinking. It was then that the political and intellectual coordinates of a new period were gradually fixed.


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The Left Hemisphere
As the crisis of capitalism unfolds, the need for alternatives is felt ever more intensely. The struggle between radical movements and the forces of reaction will be merciless. A crucial battlefiel...

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