Karl Marx in Wonderland

Issue: 131

Luke Evans

Simon Choat, Marx Through Post Structuralism: Lyotard, Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze (Continuum, 2010), £65

In this book, Simon Choat analyses the relationship between the ideas of four “post-structuralist” thinkers—Jean-Francoise Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze—and the works of Karl Marx.

The key concerns of post-structuralism arose from what is called the “linguistic turn”, after which the development, use and study of language became a key focus for philosophers and other social scientists. Documenting, criticising and challenging social issues became a matter of observing how language and discourse contained inherent asymmetries of power, and post-structuralists held that attempts to aspire to a radical, revolutionary truth could not overcome this distorting and mystifying character of language.

Post-structuralism was in many ways a response to the bastardisation of mainstream Marxism, in both its Stalinist and social democratic forms. At some level it was a genuine attempt to overcome the limitations of the politics that held back the great revolutionary moment in Europe after 1968.

Choat’s book does not shirk from engaging critically with the post-structuralists. Nor does he seek to diminish the legacy of Marx’s work in favour of academic fashion. The book is written in a thorough and meticulous fashion, with no argument left ambiguous or seeming ill-thought through.

Choat rightly points out that the shift in post-structuralism thought can be surmised as the move from Hegel to Nietszche in terms of philosophical ancestry. This means moving from the idea of contradiction or conflict shaping and changing the social whole, to the proliferation of isolated, and unique moments of difference as a force for social change.

Choat is right to point out that the post-structuralists he discusses sought to engage with Marx without sticking to any party orthodoxy or branch of Marxism. But the resulting alternative method becomes the scholastic one—poring over Marx’s Collected Works, finding meaning in every turn of phrase or remark in a margin he ever made. Choat calls this the “event-Marx”, rather than the historical set of politics called Marxism. This method actually reinforces one of the key ideological threads within bourgeois ideology—the idea of the individual as the most basic unit through which we compose and understand society as a whole.

A keen and vociferous engagement with Marx’s prose is never a bad thing. But basing one’s engagement on an abstract fidelity to the letter of his text assumes that Marx’s words, and the subsequent response proffered by the analyst of his work, somehow possess a truth beyond their social and material context. This reinforces the Marx of the dead word—a Marx from the past, trapped in his manuscripts. When Marx’s work is engaged with simply as the author of texts, not as a living body of political thought (ie Marxism), innovation within his legacy becomes the sole preserve of the masters of novel or idiosyncratic readings of his work. This relegates advocates and agents of Marxist politics to the role of ignorant passengers of history, awaiting the word of god from cognoscenti with plenty of free time.

From a critique of orthodoxy and the evasion of the dreaded party-line, the post-structuralists actually end up repeating the practices of the most hard-line sectarians, deeming their Marx of a more authentic and liberated character than the Marx of the party.

Choat concludes by highlighting the point where post-structuralists are weakest when dealing with Marx—class.

As Choat rightly highlights, the post-structuralists do not engage effectively with the complexity of Marx’s conception of class struggle as the motor of historic change. The problem is that Choat takes from his work the idea that class is not an objective reality, but is only present in the context of class struggle. Whilst it is true that struggle between oppressor and oppressed defines the development of history, this does not mean that there are not classes that exist objectively based on their relationship to the means of production. By neglecting the notion that the working class is the agent of change, Choat ends up affirming a kind of “if it fights, it’s class struggle” idea that can slip easily into movementism or autonomism.

The dialectic of class struggle means that the working class, because of its social position, is sometimes compelled to fight against its exploiters—through this process, it can come to understand the power it has to do away with this whole sordid system.