Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Blanchot, Baudrillard, Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, Levinas, and Lyotard

Adam Haig's essay "Steiner, Brenner and Neo-Marxism: The Marcusean Component" International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI) Neo-Marxism and post-modern Marxism
The intellectual line of development of neo-Marxism, including its petty-bourgeois politics and non-dialectical materialism, has made it assimilable into the reactionary subjective idealist school of post-modernism, whose leading representatives include Blanchot, Baudrillard, Deleuze, Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, Levinas, and Lyotard. Critical theorists like the American academic Fredric Jameson, for example, are on the borderline between the neo-Marxists and post-modernists. Steiner and Brenner are not too far from this borderline social milieu.
"By the 1990s, critical theory had expanded in meaning from the original Frankfurt School work to represent a broader body of scholarship in post-modern, post-colonial and cultural studies. [. . .] The Frankfurt School had been transformed from a relatively obscure network of scholars to become an influential school of thought on the margins of the academy," says one commentator. [54] Neo-Marxism has turned into post-modern Marxism, or, in the more fashionable academic terminology, post-Marxism.
It is outside the scope of this essay to address post-Marxism in any detail. Suffice it to say that when Ann Talbot and Chris Talbot speak of "Steiner's light-minded approach of picking up books and ideas as and where he can," and continue, "His theories are a melange of such objets trouvés [found items]. He is always eclectic, ungrounded and erratic. His work reveals a mind in chaos. The one theme that binds it together is a constant hostility to objective thought and resistance to its liberation from the authority of dogma," [55] their characterization could as well be applied to Slavoj Zizek, a leading figure in post-Marxism.
Despite Zizek's formal criticisms of post-modernism, an article in the inaugural issue of the International Journal of Zizek Studies describes him in the following terms: "Slavoj Zizek represents the new post-modernist left in all the energy and conceptual audacity of its effort to formulate strikingly new concepts and boldly go where we could not as long as our thought was hedged in by the need to preserve the guarantees. Zizek is (arguably) the most important theorist on the left today." [56] The Slovenian philosopher sits on the editorial board of the journal named after him.
Zizek, who is not unlike Steiner and Brenner in their Utopian project to synthesize Marcusean psychoanalysis and Marxism, combines Lacanian psychoanalysis and something that passes for Marxism. This eclecticism is seen in the book that launched Zizek's name, The Sublime Object of Ideology (1989), which is prefaced by the political opportunist Ernesto Laclau, co-author with Chantel Mouffe of Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (1985). Zizek is a haphazard and pretentious thinker, and his politics leaves much to be desired. He is not a Marxist.
This does not mean neo-Marxism and post-Marxism are synonyms. Zizek, in his rambling postface to Georg Lukacs' Tailism and the Dialectic (2002), criticizes the Frankfurt School for its tradition of "almost total absence of theoretical confrontation with Stalinism." The school maintained "the official mask of its ‘radical' leftist critique" and did not acknowledge its solidarity with liberal bourgeois democracy, as that would have deprived the critical theorists of "their ‘radical' aura." [57] But it is precisely this pseudo-Marxist aura that both the neo- and post-Marxists share.
Ironically, Steiner claims that "feelings of ‘party-patriotism' will blind many members and supporters" from seeing "the [Socialist Equality] party's abstentionism and estrangement from the working class," and that "the SEP's theoretical degeneration" has been laid bare in Marxism without Its Head or Its Heart. [58] Steiner has a very low opinion of the ability of SEP members and supporters to seriously think through theoretical, political, and historical questions.
In relation to the historical development of Marxism, it is especially important to note Steiner and Brenner's denunciations of Georgi Plekhanov, the founder of Russian Marxism. Their attack on this outstanding theoretician is another example of their contemptuous attitude toward the heritage of the Marxist movement. Steiner and Brenner would have their readers believe that their assessment of Plekhanov is in keeping with Lenin's critique of the leaders of the Second International in the aftermath of the outbreak of the first imperialist world war in 1914. Nothing could be further from the truth. Steiner and Brenner's repudiation of Plekhanov's theoretical work reproduces not the attitude of Lenin and Trotsky, but that of the petty-bourgeois intellectuals of the Frankfurt School. Notwithstanding Lenin and Trotsky's bitter opposition to Plekhanov's politics after 1914, the co-leaders of the Russian Revolution continued to view him as a great Marxist theoretician.
Steiner began his series of attacks on David North by denouncing the latter's appraisal of Plekhanov's theoretical work; however, Steiner conveniently ignores what the Bolsheviks wrote about the Russian Marxist. Steiner and Brenner say that "Plekhanov's version of the dialectic was superficial and fatally flawed," [59] and that he was a "mechanical materialist who believed in the inevitability of socialism emerging as a result of the maturation of objective conditions." [60] But Voronsky, writing in 1920, explained that "Plekhanov completely mastered both the spirit and method of Marx's teachings. Under his pen the revolutionary doctrine became animated with all its flexibility, profundity and merciless severity." [61]
Aside from the falsification of history undertaken by Steiner and Brenner, the fundamental substance of their allegations is that the ICFI has adopted Plekhanov's "objectivism" and that "dialectics is a dead letter" in the ICFI. [62] For the record, the Marxist party does not create mass working class struggles. The inevitability of revolutionary events is the outcome of the structural contradictions and crisis of capitalism.
Steiner and Brenner's criticism reproduces the basic objections of the Frankfurt School to the Marxist insistence that objective social being determines subjective social consciousness, that social revolution is the historically determined outcome of objective socioeconomic processes, and that the principal pedagogical task of the revolutionary party is to develop within the working class a scientifically grounded understanding of capitalist society and the class struggle. The attack on "objectivism"—whether of Plekhanov or, for that matter, North—is, in essence, a rejection of historical materialism.
The era of social revolution develops out of the objective situation. Through no fault of their own, workers do not spontaneously develop socialist consciousness from objective conditions. The political consciousness of workers is, however, radicalized by the force of the objective, that is, by the material and economic. As Marx said, "It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness." [63] Material life has a material impact on consciousness, and thereupon arises social opposition by the workers themselves.
This has been seen, for example, in the courageous but limited struggle of the 250 laid-off workers at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago, Illinois. When the company folded up, the workers occupied their factory for six days, beginning on December 5, 2008, winning wages and benefits they were legally entitled to. The mass social struggle in Greece is also testimony to the self-action of the working class. When Athens police murdered fifteen-year-old student Alexis Grigoropoulos on December 6, Greek society exploded with tens of thousands of students, youth, and workers taking to the streets nationwide in protests, strikes, and battles against armed riot police. The ongoing struggle is fundamentally underlain by deteriorating social conditions in the midst of the world financial crisis.
The Marxist party fights for an independent perspective—an understanding of the nature of the objective situation and its revolutionary implications—political authority in the international working class, and the tasks that will confront workers in the era of social revolution, in the era of the workers' self-emancipation. As a revolutionary mood begins to develop among workers, intellectuals, and youth, they will utilize internet and communication technologies to organize their struggle; they will become increasingly aware of the presence and interventions of the World Socialist Web Site and the ICFI; and they will determine on their own if the ICFI is the party and leadership that defends and serves their class interests.
In closing, the psychodynamic Utopianism of Herbert Marcuse and the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory has had a profound impact on the political orientation of Alex Steiner and Frank Brenner. Both men provide sufficient indication of their departure from revolutionary Marxism and materialist dialectics into the realm of neo-Marxist subjective idealism and the post-Marxist borderline. Their assertions cannot be taken seriously on political and logical grounds. There is too much middle-class radicalism, too much impatience, too much reductio ad absurdum, and too much that is foreign to Marxism in their entire line of argumentation.
1. Alex Steiner, "Unable to Answer Our Political Criticisms: The WSWS Resorts to a Smear Campaign," Permanent Revolution, 9 November 2008.
2. Frank Brenner, "To Know a Thing Is to Know Its End: On Why Utopia Is Crucial to a Revival of Socialist Consciousness" [PDF], May 2003, Permanent Revolution.
3. Leon Trotsky, Results and Prospects, Marxists Internet Archive, 1996.
4. Herbert Marcuse, Eros and Civilization: A Philosophical Inquiry into Freud (Boston: Beacon Press, 1966) p. 7; italics in original.


  1. Tusar,

    I see that you have reposted Adam Haig's article from the World Socialist Web Site attacking me. I would like to point out that Haig's piece is a complete distortion of what I and Frank Brenner have been writing. We are working on a reply to the various WSWS articles smearing us but in the meantime I would appreciate it if you also posted the following Brief Note on the Adam Haig piece:

    Here is the URL:

    Please feel free to visit our web site:

    and get the whole story rather than the distortions and smear campaigns perpetrated by the World Socialist Web Site.

    Thank you for your consideration.

    Alex Steiner

  2. Out-of-body Thinking

    Derrida gets the language for his epistemology from Husserl. Phenomenology starts with a "principle of principles" that "primordial presence to intuition is the source of sense and evidence, the a priori of a prioris."

    This means that "the certainty, itself ideal and absolute, that the universal form of all experience (Erlebnis), and therefore of all life, has always been and will always be the present. The present alone is and ever will be. Being is presence or the modification of presence. The relation with the presence of the present as the ultimate form of being and of ideality is the move by which I transgress empirical existence, factuality, contingency, worldliness, etc." [Speech and Phenomena, 53-54.]

    However, the choice of the words "present" and "presence" to indicate the ground of all knowledge has some very unfortunate consequences. That choice sets up a confusion between two completely different meanings of the word "presence."

    One meaning is "phenomenological presence". This refers to the immediate access to being in the original act of knowledge. It does not refer to time at all. So, phenomenological presence might be better expressed by calling it presence-to-being. That would save it from being confused with the other meaning of "presence", what we should call "temporal presence", that is, the occurrence of an event at a particular moment in time.

    Derrida also calls this living presence "the now". This reinforces the confusion between presence-to-being and occurrence-at-a-particular-moment-in-time. It is also unfortunate that Derrida uses the word "form" in the phrase "the universal form of all experience". What he wants to refer to is the "universal basis of all experience", which is not a form. It is an act. But this word-slippage is also quite telling, and one of the many clues in Derrida's work that he is confusing the order of abstract concepts and the order of actual reality.

    This epistemology leads to the cornerstone mistake of claiming that iterability is an a priori condition of knowing, whereas in fact iterability is an a posteriori result of knowing. An original presence-to-being (insight) occurs in time. Consequently it is repeatable. So, iterability is not "inside" phenomenological presence, it is extrinsic to it. This mistake is made all the more easy since both relationships are necessary. Once you get this, then all of Derrida's objections to realist epistemology collapse, and his whole philosophical system collapses into imaginary ashes.

    I have discussed these issues at length in my article "Dealing With Derrida", which you can find on the Radical Academy web site.

    Although running down Derrida's mistakes in his text is difficult, once you get the key point that he was dissociated, the whole pattern of his out-of-body thinking makes sense. Once you discover Derrida's dissociation, you find it in many thinkers. There is a lot of out-of-body thinking in philosophy and social theory. Perhaps leaving one's body is an occupational hazard for professional thinkers. Dissociation is the result of trauma, and trauma is easy to come by.

    There are many sources of insight into dissociation. I recommend Trauma and the Body (2006) by Pat Ogden et al. as a start.