Situations Vacant


Marx and Engels looking forward

This is a session on ‘Social Critics’ and ‘Public Intellectuals’.

But what do these terms mean in the current context? What ‘Society’? What ‘criticism’? What ‘Public’? What ‘intellectuals’?

I do not accept the adequacy of these terms as a basis for discussing the public role of sociologists. What sociologists practice as a rule is social control. Sociologists need to be critiqued as ‘treacherous intellectuals’ as the purveyors of bourgeois ideology to the ‘masses’ i.e. the workers. They only get away with this ideological practice because true intellectual critique is almost dead.

Sociology has been debased from the mid 19th century when sociology was macro, critical and openly political. Marx built a workers’ international, Durkheim designed hygienic communities, Weber intervened with the General Staff to stop the First World War and forestall socialist revolution in Germany. We know where they stood. They stood toe to toe contesting the consciousness of workers. Lukacs critique of German sociology is still unsurpassed.

Can we say the same about today’s leading social thinkers hiding for cover behind neo-liberal shibboleths of the individual, choice, risk, and worse, today’s chic radicals reclaiming Marx or Lenin as ‘great men’ of history who can rescue society by personal acts of self-sacrifice? Sociology is in danger of flying up its own ass in search of the ‘unconscious’.

We can capture this theme as the long 20th century retreat from consciousness to unconsciousness.

What society?

I tell my students that society is what you make of it. First you have to understand it before you can critique it and change it. Take you pick, there are market liberals who want society to disappear; common liberals who see society as a harmonious unity of responsible citizens; radicals who want to overcome the deep social divisions of race class and gender, and Marxists who are dead. Or are they?

Sociology began as an antidote to Marxism and attempted from the first to present Marx as the immature precursor of Durkheim and Weber. Marx after a perfunctory museum tour is usually dropped off the end of the list of founding fathers. But Marxism hasn’t died and remains a constant provocation to the rest who ignore it like universities, patronise it like the New York Times or try reverse takeovers like Derrida and Zizek.
So social criticism can come from all directions; to end society like Thatcher; to sex-up the market like Giddens; to mobilise the masses like Chomsky; or to replace capitalist society like the latter-day Lenin. Are of these critiques of ‘society’ equally valid?

One dead end approach is to follow the lead of the sociology of knowledge and identify sociologists as ‘intellectuals’ capable of standing above classes and taking a relatively objective view of society. But this view of sociology never was a starter. It didn’t survive the debates over ‘functionalism’ in the 1960’s, or more important, the Vietnam War. Sociologists are partisans with the truth. They have their prized ‘publics’ like Talcott Parsons or C.Wright Mills.

This doesn’t make each intellectual’s truth as good as another. That would be relativism and postmodernism where there are as many truths as there are critics. So how do we decide? Facts? Evidence? Social reality? Science overcoming ideology?

I prefer to look back to see what role intellectuals played in the history of sociology, the legacies of the clashes between its ‘founding fathers’, and the more recent contretemps between post Paris 1968 generation of left and right intellectuals. Here we can trace the spiraling decline and fall of the intellect from consciousness into unconsciousness.

When the conscious becomes unconscious

The practice of early sociology was to work on consciousness. The new bourgeois mode of regulation from Comte to Durkheim was designed to train workers in the new expanding industry of capitalism. Weber provided the moral and philosophical cover with his neo-Kantian notion of ‘rationalisation’ rooted in the Protestant ethic i.e. good was great. Meanwhile back in the concrete jungle the socialists were challenging the new order. Ethical socialism became scientific when Marx and Engels discovered that being preceded consciousness and that being was historical and determinate –the capital-labour relation. Now we had the class truth. You were either for us or against us as the intellectually challenged George Bush likes to say.

In the crisis period of the First World War, of Bolshevism versus fascism, intellectuals were even more partisan. Revolution and counter-revolution blew away the fence. The right became openly militaristic, and much of the left peeled off and joined them. The Bernstein wing of socialism became warriors, the centre behind Kautsky appealed to the common sense of all sides to make peace, while the Bolsheviks called for the war to be turned into open class war. The minority came to power in Russia but the revolution was contained by the European counter-revolution. And guess where the sociologists stood? (Callinicos’ Social Theory is quite a useful survey, and see his more recent look at Habermas, Badiou, Bourdieu, Negri and Zizek in Resources of Critique.)

Antonio Gramsci provided us with a critical analysis of why ‘traditional intellectuals’ who support the capitalist order are so successful in co-opting the left and frustrating the rise of revolutionary ‘organic intellectuals’ (Prison Notebooks). Capitalism can pass itself off as naturally just and equitable provided everyone accepts the rules of the game. When the rules are broken by some power hungry elite, or power hungry mass, then everyone, workers included, must try to restore peace and prosperity. The traditional intellectuals are therefore cast as the priests of common sense, while the organic intellectuals are cast in the unfavourable light of having to justify overthrowing society itself. Unfavourable, that is, so long as the issue remains one fought out by competing factions of the intelligentsia.

Once, however, the class struggle throws up organic intellectuals, Marxists, who organise a revolutionary party (Gramsci’s ‘Prince’) the fight is seen to be that of one class against another. The traditionals have the advantage of the fetishised social relations of capital to back up their obscurantism i.e. Gramsci’s ‘common sense’. But once the organics had penetrated and exploded this ideology, the superior class truth of the proletariat could confront bourgeoisie hegemony head to head and win. Or course Gramsci’s spin on the fate of the Russian revolution was that it was atypical and a war of maneuver in a fluid backward state, as opposed to the war of position that must take place in Europe were the bourgeoisie was entrenched in the state and could only be overthrown by a ‘long siege’.

Lenin’s prejoinder was that workers in Europe were bought off by superprofits from the colonies and their consciousness was stuffed by chauvinism rather than any inherent persuasive power of the bourgeois state. Consciousness could be revolutionised in Europe by the same methods as employed by the Bolsheviks in Russia –i.e. building soviets everywhere. The failure of the revolution to spread to Europe was the result of the ‘subjective’ rather than ‘objective’ features of society (The Renegade Kautsky).

Enter the Unconscious

As well as ‘isolating’ the Russian revolution (Bolshevism, Leninism etc) and ‘quarantining’ it, Western traditional intellectuals (and their radical, Menshevik allies) looked for the failure of the revolution to spread in the unconscious of the working class. Either the working class was co-opted by capitalism in which case talk of ‘false consciousness’ was utopian until workers suffered more on the march of history. Then some petty bourgeois public opinion expert would tell them when and how to revolt. Or some pre-social barrier to revolution existed in the ‘unconscious’ motivations of individuals as theorised by psychoanalysis. In any event Gramsci’s long seige now became a process of protracted or traumatic psychic liberation.

Both of these currents fused in the professors of the Frankfurt school. On the one hand they complained about workers being captured by consumerism so that their consciousness was permanently seduced (see Marcuse, One Dimensional Man). On the other they pointed to deeply repressed drives that made workers submissive to authority figures, fuhrers, Stalins etc. (Adorno et al, The Authoritarian Personality). Put together this became an argument which made the petty bourgeois intelligentsia the agents of revolution in place of the proletariat. Generations of critical theorists have wallowed in this meglamania.

This betrayal of Marxism gave the traditionals a powerful weapon against the marginalised organics. (Of course it presupposed the earlier retreats marked by the Bernsteins, Kautskys and the process of Stalinisation going on in the USSR and in the communist parties – all adaptations of classic Menshevism – a longer story than I have space for here).

The leading organics, Gramsci himself, jailed by fascists in 1926 and dead by 1937, Lukacs trapped after 1924 by Stalinism, and Trotsky expelled from the USSR in 1928 and killed by 1940, had limited chances of success. Nevertheless, they continued to fight for workers’ consciousness rather than submit to the unconscious in the face of rising fascism. Rather than a passive fatalism of history (Stalinism) or of the ‘mass psychology of fascism’ (Frankfurt School) Trotsky continued to demand that the communist workers and social democratic workers unite to smash fascism. He, and they, failed. The missing active ingredient was the Bolshevik party. Had the working class been led by a revolutionary party it would have been strong enough to win over the middle class rather than hand it by default to fascism (The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany).

Fast forward to Paris, May 1968

Fascism (as well as the war against fascism) was a defeat for workers. Though the Soviet Union survived and new so-called ‘workers states’ arose, the US had now become the most powerful imperialist state determined to end ‘communism’ by cold or hot war. Decolonisation, the revolutions in China, Cuba, Vietnam etc., appeared to create a strong global anti-imperialist movement with Western intellectual currents in support. Paris ‘68 showed that this was a wholly hegemonised project.

Paris ‘68 showed that the organic intellectuals had been thoroughly routed by the traditionals. Third world nationalism was a bourgeois democratic struggle aiming at political independence. First and Second world intellectuals (Stalinists, Trotskyists and Maoists) lowered their revolutionary sights to the goal of national independence. A post-colonial inversion of imperialism invested third world movements with revolutionary credentials. Fanon, Che, Fidel and Ho were idolised as revolutionaries.

The defeats of revolutions in the West attributed to the ideological backwardness of proletariat justified the vanguard mantle being passed to third world nationalists. But because national independence was always on the terms of imperialism, Western revolutionaries never took their own ruling class to task to force an end to their neo-colonial economic domination of the third world. The imperialist working classes remained co-opted by high living standards and subordinated by traditionalist hegemonies of applied common sense administered by labourite, Social Democrat and Stalinist bureaucracies.

Unconscious Rules

In May ’68 the students failed to get their revolt against the archaic public education system taken up by workers. This was because workers were trapped in unions dominated by Stalinists and socialists, but also because there was no party or program that could link the two forces. Instead of drawing these conclusions (how could they?) French left intellectuals took this to be a confirmation of the collapse of consciousness into unconsciousness (Starr, Logics of Failed Revolt).

The downward spiral took another twist. Freud who had been adapted by the Frankfurt school to explain the failure of revolution in the 1920’s was now re-mastered by Lacan to explain the failure of all revolutions. Every revolution resulted in new ‘masters’ replacing old ones. ‘ The logic of recuperation’ was a kind of totalitarian treadmill. Evidence Althusser’s attempt to break free of psychodetermination out of the gulag into the bureaucratic PCF (French Communist Party) and the French road to socialism. This was psychic pre-determination which Brennan (History after Lacan) calls the ‘ego’s era’ i.e. the era of the ‘social psychosis’. However we interpret this, it is an argument for a pre-social ego that is not open to social determination. The fate of social revolutionaries is always to be pulled back into this psychosis and to the will of the father. The only way to break out is to become a new father through an Act of personal sacrifice.
Thus we come all the way down the spiral from class consciousness to individual unconsciousness. But can the new social psychotic common sense prevail against collective radical upsurges from below? First it has to be dressed up as radical or even revolutionary. Lets look at some recent paternalist attempts to do this?

Take Derrida’s reclaiming of Marx from the grave. Marx is reborn as a social democrat trying to complete the bourgeois revolution (Menshevism) for universal citizenship, human rights etc by eschewing his ‘totalitarian’ theory of communism. Derrida’s model for the new Marx is Max Stirner a narcissistic egomaniac that Marx and Engels deride mercilessly in The German Ideology. Derrida’s ‘new international’ is any approximation of individualistic struggles for bourgeois rights. There is no recognition that Marx posited a contradiction between use-values and exchange values that means that the drive for profits must exclude the masses from democracy (e.g. in Iraq or Florida). So that today, bourgeois rights can only be universalised in a socialist society. (see my Saint Jacques and the Ghost of Marx).

Second case: Hardt and Negri’s use of Marx to theorise Empire reconstitutes the proletariat as the ‘multitude’ composed of all individuals who are in any way oppressed or exploited by capitalism. At the authors’ exchange level of analysis this definition includes anyone not paid the full price for their commodities, and so unites the unemployed with the middle class. But the Argentinazo of 2001 disconfirms a shift to social movements away from class. (see my Lost in the Crowd: Hardt and Negri’s Multitude in Argentina)


Last but not least: Zizek’s reappropriation of Lenin in Lenin’s Choice. He wants to repeat Lenin, but not the historical Lenin. By seizing on the name of Lenin (which for Zizek signifies a great man like St Paul or the Pope) as a man capable of standing above the historical situation and in an act of genuine free will, break with the unconsciously determined cycle of domination, Zizek finds a new master that we can all follow.

But Zizek ignores the real history of 1917 that shows Lenin (and Trotsky) to be a man of the class and the party and not a ‘great man’. Why did the Bolsheviks try to stop the July uprising if after April Lenin was engaged in his supreme ‘Act’? Surely he could have brought the revolution forward by a sheer act of will? Why would Lenin go into hiding after the July Days dressed as a woman if he was the new father? Why does Trotsky in his sublime book The History of the Russian Revolution, refer to himself so few times and always in the third person, when he actually played a leading role in the revolution?

This is hardly the symptomatology of the ‘new man’ leaping into the abyss. Zizek’s repo of Lenin vindicates all the right wing rubbish about Lenin as a great man who not only substituted the party for the working class but then usurped the party and installed himself as dictator. (see my Rebels without a cause: post-Marxism from Althusser to Zizek).

The ‘post’ intellectuals of the ’68 generation would rather see a bewildered old Marx and a manic Lenin roaming loose than a fully fledged and armed soviet of the people on their doorstep – especially one led by women workers (long live 1917)! The retreat of intellectual life into the unconscious is but a symptom of the failure to understand the social reproduction of patriarchy in the heart of advanced imperialist capitalism. It is a retreat to the ideology produced by the class struggle over the first form of private property, women’s unpaid labour-time (on this see my Abort, Ignore, Retry: On the Domestic Mode of Production).

More importantly, the unconscious serves as an index of the extreme degeneracy of very late bourgeois ideology. As Lukacs pointed out in the Destruction of Reason reliance on pre-bourgeois fascist ideology to legitimate capitalism is a sign of desperation. The bourgeoisie enlists the petty bourgeois patriarchs of theory to dredge the historic shit of ages to paste over the masses consciousness. Today when bourgeois class hegemony has to rely on a deeply entrenched patriarchal unconscious in digitalised multimedia displays to keep the lid on the proletariat, bourgeois society has truly exhausted its historic potential. Time to lift the lid on all the old shit!

Short Answers

Of course the answer to positing the unconscious before being is to theorise the unconscious as the effect of being. An interesting contemporary Spanish Marxist intellectual who has developed a theory of the history and method of ideology production is Juan Carlos Rodriguez. I understand from the translator of his book the Theory and History of Ideological Production, Malcolm Read, that Rodriguez is working on a book on Freud. Watch out Lacan and Zizek the Marxists are coming to get you!

(This paper originated as a talk in a session on ‘public intellectuals’ at a sociologists conference in December 2004)

Note: my articles referred to above can be found on my website

Other references cited above are:
Adorno, T et al (1969) The Authoritarian Personality. W.W. Norton and Co, New York.
Brennan, Teresa (1993) History after Lacan. Routledge, London and New York. Callinicos, Alex (1999) Social Theory Polity Press, Cambridge Callinicos, Alex (2006) Resources of Critique Polity Press, Cambridge.
Gramsci, Antonio (1971) Selections from the Prison Notebooks. Edited and translated by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. International Publishers, New York.
Lenin, V.I. (1981) The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky. Collected Works. Volume 28, 227-319. Progress Publishers. Moscow.
Lukacs, Georg (1980) The Destruction of Reason. The Merlin Press, London.
Marcuse, Herbert (1966) One Dimensional Man. Beacon Press, Boston.
Marx, Karl and Fred Engels (1976) The German Ideology. Progress Publishers, Moscow.
Rodriguez, Juan Carlos (2002) Theory and History of Ideological Production: The First Bourgeois Literatures (the 16th Century). Translated by Malcolm K. Read, University of Delaware Press, Newark.
Starr, Peter (1995) Logics of Failed Revolt: French Theory after May ’68. Stanford University Press, Stanford.
Trotsky, Leon (1933) The History of the Russian Revolution. Victor Gollancz Ltd., London.
Zizek, Slavoj (2002) ed. ‘Afterword: Lenin’s Choice’ in V.I. Lenin Revolution at the Gates: Selected Writings of Lenin from 1917. Verso, London and New York.