Marx and Spinoza

Issue: 180

Alex Callinicos

This article is dedicated to the memory of another Sephardic Jewish rebel, Roni Margulies (1955-2023).

Why discuss Marx and Spinoza now? The appearance of a monumental new biography by Jonathan Israel, an outstanding historian of the early modern Netherlands, is certainly an opportunity to reassess Spinoza.1 Bento, Baruch or Benedictus de Spinoza (the forenames, respectively in Portuguese, Hebrew and Latin, all mean “blessed”) was born in Amsterdam in 1632 into the Sephardic Jewish community. Along with his brother he inherited his father’s merchant business, but his excommunication from the synagogue for heresy in 1656 forced him to abandon it. Thereafter, he supported himself through grinding and polishing lenses, topped up by donations from the wide circle of friends that his personality and intellect attracted. He died in 1677. The speedy publication by this circle after his death of his Opera Posthuma, ­including his ­masterpiece, the Ethics, ensured Spinoza’s rapid recognition as a major ­philosopher, though one widely condemned for “atheism”. The great German metaphysician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who met Spinoza as a young man and was at once fascinated and repelled by his critique of Christian orthodoxy, approvingly quoted the description of him as “the most impious and the most dangerous man of this century”.2

Karl Marx, that other great Jewish radical thinker, wrote very little about him. In 1841, as a young man, Marx devoted a notebook to extracts from the Theological-Political Treatise, Spinoza’s main political work, and from the Letters. However, in his own correspondence with German socialist leader Ferdinand Lassalle, there is a suggestive passage: “Even in the case of philosophers who give systematic form to their work, for instance, Spinoza, the true inner structure of the system is quite unlike the form in which it was consciously presented by him”.3 This implies a deep familiarity with the Ethics, whose axiomatic deductive structure “amounts to a kind of terrorism of the head”, as Gilles Deleuze put it.4 Nonetheless, the Ethics is not visible in Marx’s own theoretical writings.5

Georgi Plekhanov, the founder of Russian Marxism, nevertheless stressed Spinoza’s importance as a precursor of what he tended to describe as modern “materialistic monism”, which understands the world as a single interconnected material reality. Affirming that, “in the materialist period of their development, Marx and Friedrich Engels never abandoned Spinoza’s point of view”, he reports the following exchange between himself and Engels in 1889:

“So, do you think”, I asked, “old Spinoza was right when he said that thought and extension are nothing but two attributes of one and the same substance?”

“Of course,” Engels replied, “old Spinoza was quite right’”.6

Antonio Labriola, Plekhanov’s subtler Italian counterpart, who coined the phrase the “philosophy of praxis” to describe what he called “the marrow of ­historical materialism”, also argued that “the philosophy implicit in historical ­materialism is the tendency to monism” and called Spinoza “the true hero of thought”.7

The major Marxist philosopher with the deepest engagement with Spinoza was Louis Althusser, who called him “a great materialist philosopher and, in my ­estimation, the greatest philosopher of all time”.8 Althusser put forward an anti-humanist interpretation of Marx in For Marx and Reading Capital (both ­published in 1965), arguing that an “epistemological break” separated Capital from the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. He later explained, “We were Spinozistswe made a detour via Spinoza in order to improve our ­understanding of Marx’s philosophy”.9 Yet, we should also note, in the same era, those who, operating at the boundary between Marxism and ­post-structuralism, sought in Spinoza, as Althusser had, an alternative ­reference point to the great German idealist G W F Hegel. Notably these include the philosophers Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari and Toni Negri. Spinoza seemed to them, like Hegel, a radically ­anti-empiricist ­philosopher; however, he also seemed free of Hegel’s ­idealism, his reduction of reality to the self-development of Absolute Spirit.10

The context in which I write now is very different from that in which a range of critical thinkers in the 1960s and 1970s thus engaged intensively with Spinoza. We are confronted today with a multi-dimensional crisis of the global capitalist system. This is driven—not solely, but to an important degree—by the consequences of the prevailing mode of production’s destruction of nature, which we see in accelerating climate chaos as well as in the Covid-19 pandemic.11 The catastrophes we face pose very sharply the question of humankind’s relationship with the rest of nature. Within Marxism this has been explored recently, especially by John Bellamy Foster and his collaborators and by the late Mike Davis.12

Foster’s prize-winning The Return of Nature reconstructs the tradition of radical left-wing engagement with the natural world, starting with Engels and his ­contemporaries and stretching through the 20th century.13 This is a rich and ­illuminating work from which there is much to be learned. Foster’s key ­philosophical reference point, however, is provided by Engels’s Dialectics of Nature. The value of Engels’s studies of the physical sciences of his day lies in his broad conception of nature as a complex of dynamic processes undergoing historical transformation. However, the concepts he used to articulate this conception, notably the idea of the three “laws of the dialectic”, are problematic both in terms of their epistemological status and substantive content.14

In this context, maybe it would be helpful for those Marxists exploring the ­relationship between humans and the rest of nature to start from Spinoza, who, after all, affirms that “we are a part of nature, which cannot be conceived through itself, without the others” (Ethics, Part 4, Proposition 2).15 The rich and ­illuminating political and social detail provided by Israel’s new biography is a valuable aid in this undertaking.16 It is important, however, to add two provisos. First, I am struck by Franck Fischbach’s suggestion in an interesting recent book on Spinoza and Marx that, rather than seek philologically to demonstrate the ­former’s influence on the latter, “Let’s act ‘as if’ Spinoza’s Ethics had provided Marx with his ontology, or ‘as if’ Marx had found his first philosophy in Spinoza, and see what effects that has on our reading of Marx”.17 Secondly, in seeking to read “Marx with Spinoza”, as Fischbach recommends, I am not counterposing Spinoza to Hegel, as Althusser’s close collaborator Pierre Macherey seemed to advocate doing with the polemical title of his 1979 Hegel or Spinoza (though he subsequently retreated from this counterposition).18 However understood, Hegel’s influence on Marx is easily demonstrable, and openly acknowledged by Marx, who calls him “my teacher”.19 I will conclude with one respect in which Hegel offers what we do not find in Spinoza.

“Fully developed naturalism”

The core of Spinoza’s ontology, his theory of the basic structure of reality, is set out in Part 1 of the Ethics. He affirms, “except God, no other substance can be or be ­conceived”, defining God as “a substance consisting of infinite attributes, each of which expresses eternal and infinite essence, and which necessarily exists” (Ethics, Part 1, Propositions 11 and 14).20 The two attributes that we humans know of are thought and extension. (For Spinoza, “extension” refers to physical objects and the spatial relationships between them.) However, these attributes are expressed in an infinite number of modes, including both infinite modes, such as “the face of the whole universe” (“facies totius universi”, that is, “the order and coherence of the whole of nature”) and the totality of things composing it, and the finite modes—things such as human beings, other animals and physical objects.21 Our intellectual relationship to substance, its attributes and modes involves three kinds of knowledge, which are, in ascending order of validity, based respectively on ­sense-perception, deductions from “common notions”, and the “knowledge of God’s infinite and eternal essence” (Ethics, Part 2, Proposition 46).22

This may seem like a strange starting point for a “monist materialism”. Indeed, it is true that Spinoza emerges from the thickets of debates among medieval Jewish, Islamic and Christian philosophers about the nature of God. As Harry Austryn Wolfson says in his wonderful commentary, “Benedictus is the first of the moderns; Baruch is the last of the medievals”.23 Nevertheless, Althusser argues that it is a strength that:

Spinoza quite simply began with God. “Others begin”, he wrote, “with thought (Descartes) or beings (Saint Thomas Aquinas).” He began with God. It was a stroke of unheard-of audacity of a kind rare in history. For to begin with God was to begin with the origin and the end at the same time, and therefore literally to bracket out, from the subsequent course of his ideas, this couple that constitutes every idealism in philosophy. To begin with God was simultaneously to say that nothing other than God exists in the world, and this came down to saying, in defiance of all the theologians, who were not fooled, that since God exists in everything, he exists in nothing and therefore does not exist.24

Althusser is implicitly contrasting Spinoza with Hegel, whose Science of Logic starts with pure being stripped of all determinations. However, Hegel seeks to show that these determinations are implicit in being, laying out a circular process that progressively articulates them until they are consciously grasped as a totality in the retrospective self-understanding of Absolute Spirit. Spinoza, by contrast, systematically rejects any form of teleology, which explains things by the purposes they supposedly fulfil—what Aristotle called their “final causes”. He argues “that nature has no end set before it, and that all final causes are nothing but human fictions” (Ethics, Part 1, Appendix).25

Spinoza and Hegel were both philosophers of immanence. They saw ­reality as possessing an integrated structure and meaning that does not come from outside it, from a transcendent creator-God. Hegel, nevertheless, accuses Spinoza of “acosmism”, arguing that the latter conceived the unity of substance as absorbing particular things.26 This argument is closely related to Hegel’s affirmation that “everything hangs on grasping and expressing the true not just as substance but just as much as subject”.27 Hegel’s ­immediate target here is his idealist rival Friedrich Schelling, but behind him stands Spinoza. One of Spinoza’s merits, however, is exactly that he short circuits the entire process of the self-development of absolute subjectivity, starting instead with the unity of nature—“God, or nature” (“Deus, sive Natura”), as he famously puts it (Ethics, IV Preface).28 Or, as he puts it in an early work, “it—that is, infinite nature, in which everything is contained—is an eternal unity, infinite, omnipotent; the negation of these we call Nothing”.29 Spinoza’s is a philosophy of immanence free of teleology. Calling it “pantheism” is misleading, since this implies an emotional absorption into nature, whereas Spinoza is all about knowledge and power, reflecting both what French historian of philosophy Martial Gueroult calls his “absolute rationalism” and his dynamic realism.30

The great Soviet Marxist philosopher Evald Ilyenkov puts it well while outlining Spinoza’s treatment of the relationship between mind and body:

Spinoza also defined thought as an attribute of substance, and not as its modus, not as a partial case. Thus, he affirmed, in the language of his day, that the single system, within which thought was found of necessity and not fortuitously (which it may or may not be), was not a single body or even as wide a range of bodies as you wished, but only and solely nature as a whole. The individual body possessed thought only by virtue of chance or coincidence. The crossing and combination of masses of chains of cause and effect could lead in one case to the appearance of a thinking body, and in another case simply to a body, a stone, a tree and so on. So, the individual body, even the human body, did not possess thought one whit of necessity. Only nature as a whole was that system that possessed all its perfections, including thought, of absolute necessity, although it did not realise this perfection in any single body and at any moment of time, or in any of its “modi” (modes).31

Hegel’s accusation of “acosmism” seems inept, and indeed presupposes his own, highly problematic concept of determinate negation.32 Spinoza’s attempted proof that there is only one substance does not seek to absorb particularity into the One. The proof is directed against his great predecessor René Descartes’s dualist positing of mind and body as two kinds of substance. Spinoza transforms these into attributes of a single substance expressed in an infinity of modes, all possessing their own reality but arising out of necessity, directly or indirectly, from the nature of God. As Deleuze shows, for Spinoza, substance is numerically singular but contains the real distinctions through which all the variety of nature is expressed.33 Indeed, on Deleuze’s interpretation, Knox Peden argues, substance is “a site for the play of multiplicity”.34 Gueroult describes Spinoza’s substance, both more paradoxically and more accurately, as “an absolutely homogenous being composed of radically heterogenous elements”.35 Spinoza famously affirms that the single substance is “the cause of itself” (“causa sui”) (Ethics, Part 1, Proposition 7).36 Wolfson describes this as “an assertion of self-sufficiency and hence actual existence”.37 For Engels, it commits Spinoza to “explaining the world from the world itself”.38

How then does this ontology help us to understand Marx better? The most obvious instance of Spinoza’s influence on Althusser lies in the concept of structural causality that he developed when interpreting Marx’s Capital. This resonates with Spinoza’s affirmation that “God is the immanent, not the ­transitive, cause of all things” (Ethics, Part 1, Proposition 18).39 According to Spinoza, “the effect of this cause depends on it in such a way that without it, the effect can neither exist nor be understood; nor is the effect subjected to any other cause. Moreover, the effect is also so united with the cause that together they form a whole”.40

Spinoza rejects the traditional conception of God as a transcendent and immaterial person distinct from the world he chooses to create. His God is impersonally immanent in the world, in its effects. Similarly, Althusser argues that the capitalist mode of production is a complex totality, the structured conjunction of the determinations composing it, which has a composite effect on them. He sought in Spinoza a way of thinking of the social whole that did not reduce its different determinations to expressions of a simple core. The great Marxist critic Fredric Jameson invokes the same idea when he writes of “the new world system, the third stage of capitalism, which is for us the absent totality, Spinoza’s God or nature, the ultimate (indeed perhaps the only) referent, the true ground of Being of our time”.41 This is an approach I have tried to draw on in my latest book, The New Age of Catastrophe.42

Fischbach by contrast, bases his reading especially on The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 and The German Ideology, also drawing on the Grundrisse among Marx’s later economic writings. In the first of these texts, Marx calls communism “fully developed naturalism”, but this could be a description of his own philosophical anthropology, his theory of human nature. In a key passage he seeks to bring out why the alienation of labour in bourgeois society is so damaging in its estrangement of human beings from the rest of nature:

The universality of man manifests itself in practice in that universality that makes the whole of nature his inorganic body (1) as a direct means of life and (2) as the matter, the object and the tool of his life-activity. Nature is man’s inorganic body, that is to say, nature insofar as it is not the human body. Man lives from nature, that is, nature is his body, and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say that man’s physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.43

This last sentence is highly Spinozist, echoing, as Fischbach notes, Spinoza’s earlier cited affirmation that “we are a part of nature, which cannot be conceived through itself, without the others.” Of course, distinctive to Marx’s naturalism is that he conceives this relationship between humans and “other parts” of nature as constituted by humans’ “life-activity”, namely labour. What he calls here our “dialogue” with the rest of nature through labour is a theme informing the first volume of Capital, notably in its conceptualisation of the labour process at the basis of every social formation as “the appropriation of what exists in nature for the requirements of man. It is the universal condition for the metabolic interaction (Stoffwechsel) between man and nature, the everlasting nature-imposed ­condition of human existence”.44 The significance of the labour-mediated metabolism between humanity and the rest of nature is one of the main themes of Foster and his ­collaborators’ ­ecological critique of capitalism and the “metabolic rift” it has created.

As Fischbach shows in detail, this conception of humans as part of nature runs through all Marx’s writing. Fischbach’s reading of Marx “with Spinoza” (soon to appear in English translation) is extremely valuable, and reinforces the message conveyed by Foster in The Return of Nature. Yet, there is a more problematic side to this reading, which is that Fischbach takes from both Spinoza and Marx the theme of the “impotence of the subject”.45 Now there is an element of truth to this, in that both Spinoza and Marx are ­anti-humanists in Althusser’s sense. That is, they reject the problematic of the sovereign ­self-defining subject that originates above all in Descartes and his attempt to found philosophy in pure self-consciousness: “cogito ergo sum”—“I think therefore I am”. Spinoza’s account of the human mind in Part 2 of the Ethics is radically anti-Cartesian in the way in which it presents mental states as paralleling states of the body, which itself is highly complex, traversed by causal interactions within itself and with other bodies: “The object of the idea constituting the human mind is the body” (Ethics, Part 2, Proposition 13).46 As Fischbach notes, Marx adds a historical critique, showing how the idea of abstract subjectivity emerges in the context of the development of bourgeois society with its dissolution of particularistic social bonds and promotion of possessive individualism.

Yet, Fischbach attributes to Spinoza (and implicitly to Marx) a more radical critique of subjectivity still. This is reflected most clearly in his approving review of the critical sociologist Frédéric Lordon’s book Willing Slaves of Capital. Lordon seeks to supplement Marx with Spinoza by showing how workers under neoliberal capitalism willingly submit to their exploitation through what he calls “joyful obedience”, enjoying not simply the consumption that their wages make possible, but also their participation in the production process itself. He invokes Spinoza to support a critique of the idea that workers consent to their exploitation:

If the act of giving consent is the authentic expression of a freely determined interiority, then consent does not exist. If it is understood as the unconditioned approbation of a subject that proceeds only from itself, then it does not exist, for heteronomy is the condition of all things, and no action is such that anyone could claim it entirely as his or hers. All things are in the grip of inadequate causation; namely, they are partially determined to act by other things.47

Lordon here appeals to a distinction drawn by Spinoza: “I call that cause adequate whose effect can be clearly and distinctly perceived through it; but I call it partial, or inadequate, if its effect cannot be understood through it alone” (Ethics, Part 3, Definition 1).48 Lordon’s account of workers’ submission to capital relies on the theory of the emotions in Part 4 of the Ethics, “Of Human Bondage, or of the Powers of the Affects”. However, he ignores Part 5, “Of the Power of the Intellect, or of Human Freedom”. It seems to me that Lordon bends the stick in favour of a strictly deterministic reading of Spinoza. If we were to follow him then it would be much harder to link Spinoza to Marx, for whom freedom is a central value, and who believes that workers can emancipate themselves from the ­domination of capital.

It is true that Spinoza polemicises consistently against the doctrine of the freedom of the will, famously calling the idea of “the will of God…the ­sanctuary of ignorance” (Ethics, Part 1, Appendix).49 This is vital for his critique of Descartes, for whom the divine and human wills play a central philosophical role, but also for Spinoza’s more general denial that the world is governed by final causes. For Spinoza, ­everything is caused, both from the interaction of bodies and the affects this gives rise to in us, and through, directly or indirectly, the nature of God. Human actions arise from affects, actions and passions generated by bodily interactions, but are also driven by the person’s “conatus”: “the striving by which each thing strives to persevere in its being that is nothing but the actual essence of the thing” (Ethics, Part 3, Proposition 7).50 Israel nicely calls the conatus, a ­concept developed by Thomas Hobbes but greatly elaborated by Spinoza, “the evolving generalised tendency in any given body to respond in its own compound distinctive way—perceiving, deliberating, learning from experience and eventually regulating its own response to external stimuli”: “a complex, simultaneously mental and physical phenomenon”.51

Spinoza is explicit that this all-pervasive causal nexus is consistent with freedom, where a “thing is called free that exists from the necessity of its nature alone and is determined to act by itself alone” (Ethics, Part 1, Definition 7).52 Thus:

When Descartes says that he is free who is compelled by no external cause, if he understands by a man who is compelled one who acts unwillingly, I grant that in certain things we are not at all compelled; in this respect we have free will. Yet, if by compelled he understands one who acts necessarily, though not unwillingly, then (as I have explained above) I deny that we are free in anything.53

So, Spinoza believes we can act freely, though these actions are always caused. He is able to assert this coherently thanks to the distinction he draws between the active and passive emotions. Immediately after the passage on which Lordon relies, Spinoza writes:

I say that we act when something happens, in us or outside us, of which we are the adequate cause, that is…when something in us or outside us follows from our nature, which can be clearly and distinctly understood through it alone. On the other hand, I say that we are acted on when something happens in us, or something follows from our nature, of which we are only a partial cause. (Ethics, Part 3, Definition 2)54

Spinoza’s more detailed psychology privileges activity over passivity. Thus, for example, “The mind strives to imagine only those things that posit its power of acting” (Ethics, Part 3, Proposition 54).55 To the extent that this power is enhanced, and thus we are “determined to act by” ourselves “alone”, we can be thought of as free. Interestingly, when discussing the alienation of the worker from their labour in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, Marx too counterposes activity and passivity:

This relationship is the relationship of the worker to his own activity which is something alien and does not belong to him, activity as passivity (Leiden), power as impotence, procreation as emasculation, the worker’s own physical and mental energy, his personal life—for what is life but activity?—as an activity directed against himself, which is independent of him and does not belong to him. Self-estrangement, as compared to the estrangement of the object (Sache) mentioned above (that is, the alienation of the products of labour).56

Unlike Marx, however, Spinoza is influenced by the classical Platonist and Stoic ideal of reason governing our passions, though he insists that reason cannot overrule the affects. Indeed, he sees freedom as achieved through the medium of affects, to the extent that the active emotions prevail over the passive. This requires rational reflection that allows us the better to understand clearly and distinctly the causal network through we are constituted. This ­process is ­facilitated by our social relationships—“to man, then, there is nothing more useful than man” (Ethics, Part 4, Proposition 18)—and also by our political institutions: “A man who is guided by reason is more free in a state, where he lives according to a common decision, than in solitude, where he obeys only himself” (Ethics, Part 4, Proposition 73).57 Lordon is thus insufficiently Spinozist in focusing on the individual worker, when their ­relationships with their workmates play a critical role in whether they ­cooperate with or resist management (or, typically, both).

Lordon and Fischbach here reflect the influence of the vitalist ­interpretation of Spinoza developed especially by Deleuze. This provides a platform for the latter’s conception of being as unending, constantly shifting material fluxes into which subjects are dissolved (although in the brief and elegant Spinoza: Practical Philosophy, Deleuze himself gives a brilliant presentation of the ethico-political side of Spinoza).58 Deleuze’s vitalism has helped inspire the ­so-called “new materialism” in the social sciences. Associating this with Spinoza is misleading: on the one hand, Spinoza does not equate “substance” and “life”—like other 17th and 18th century natural philosophers, he sees nature as driven largely by mechanical forces; on the other hand, he develops, as we have seen, a materialist theory of subjectivity.

Philosopher Jason Read more helpfully interprets Spinoza as a theorist of what he calls “transindividuality”:

Spinoza’s ontological or anthropological critique of the independent ­individual is followed by a political or social analysis that illustrates how it is that affects, imagination and reason constitute every individual and collective. The affects and intellect, imagination and reason, combine in every individual and ­collective, but they do so differently in different historical moments. At the level of the collective, the political systems of tyranny and democracy ­constitute two poles; one is dominated by superstition, and the other is ­dominated by the circulation of ideas. At the level of the individual, these poles are represented by ambition, the ambivalent desire to have others love what one loves, and reason, the ­recognition that human beings are useful precisely in term of their differences.59

In his political principles, Spinoza harks back to the radical wing of the English Revolution, one of the major events of his lifetime. Here is one of the Leveller leaders, Colonel Thomas Rainsborough, during the Putney Debates in October-November 1647:

For really I think that the poorest he that is in England has a life to live as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it is clear that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government in which he has not had a voice to put himself under.60

Like Rainsborough and the Levellers, but also like his conservative and authoritarian contemporary Hobbes, Spinoza argues in the Theological-Political Treatise, the Ethics and the unfinished Political Treatise that legitimate government depends on a social contract among those who agree to be subject to it (though he also says that Oliver Cromwell’s emergence as Lord Protector shows the dangers involved in trying to change the form of government to which a people is habituated). However, quite exceptionally for a 17th century thinker, he also argues:

The democratic state [imperii democratici]…seemed the most natural state, and the one that approached most nearly the freedom nature concedes to everyone. In it no one so transfers his natural right to another that so, in the future, there is no consultation with him. Instead, he transfers it to the greater part of the whole society, of which he makes one part. In this way, everyone remains equal, as they were before in the state of nature.61

Israel sums up Spinoza’s political stance as “urban, commercial, egalitarian, ‘democratic republicanism’”. He emphasises how, emerging from the same kind of heterodox and free-thinking networks that Christopher Hill’s The World Turned Upside Down rediscovered in mid-17th century England (for example, the Collegiants, who were critical of all forms of institutional Christianity), Spinoza’s writings had a seminal influence on the political and philosophical development of the “Radical Enlightenment” that began to emerge in the decades after his death.62 The critique of “superstition”, embodied in Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish religious orthodoxies, which led to his ­excommunication and runs through his writings, had an increasingly political motivation. As Israel puts it, “If Spinoza commenced his rebellion in Hebrew studies and Bible criticism ­fighting rabbinic authority, his mature philosophy constitutes a highly ­sophisticated ­generalised assault on ‘superstition’, miracles, theology and ­ecclesiastical ­authority tied to tyranny and especially monarchy”.63

Spinoza was profoundly influenced by the experience of the Marranos, including his own immediate ancestors—Sephardic Jews who, especially in Portugal, were compelled to convert to Catholicism but secretly retained their Judaism. They often combined their secret religious practice with resistance to the Spanish monarchy as they migrated to France and the Low Countries, supporting the Dutch, Aragonese and Portuguese revolts against Spain’s crown. Israel describes Spinoza’s thought as “a heady blend of seething Iberian ­cultural rebellion combined with strands of medieval Jewish philosophy, Dutch Collegiant critique of mainstream Christianity and contemporary Dutch Cartesianism”.64 One of his first biographers, Jean Colerus, saw a now lost ­sketchbook of Spinoza’s that included a self-portrait as Masaniello, the Neapolitan fisherman who led a popular revolt against the Spanish in 1647.65

However, Spinoza had also to negotiate the intense political and ideological conflicts within the United Provinces of the Netherlands between the House of Orange, cheered on by the orthodox Calvinist clergy, and republican civic leaders, supported by more tolerant Christian sects. These struggles were ­exacerbated as the old Spanish enemy was increasingly displaced by neighbouring, dynamic rivals for trade and colonies in the shape of France and England, respectively the most powerful absolute monarchy in Europe and, under the restored Stuarts, an aspiring one. These “cultural-theological wars”, as Israel describes them, came to a head in 1672, known in Dutch as the Rampjaar (Year of Disaster), when, after a French invasion backed by England and the partial flooding of the country, republican leader Johan de Witt and his brother were lynched by an Orangeist mob and Prince William of Orange (later King William III of England) seized power.66

Even before this climactic eruption, the interacting domestic and geopolitical antagonisms during the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-7) prompted Spinoza to suspend work temporarily on the Ethics and address religion and politics directly in the Theological-Political Treatise, which Israel calls “his major political intervention”.67 This was one of a number of texts produced by the circle that had by then crystallised around him, aimed at subverting Christian orthodoxy. The suspicion Spinoza expresses in the Treatise about the irrationality of “the multitude (who are still at the mercy of pagan superstition)” seemed to be corroborated by the upheavals undergone by the Dutch Republic.68 English Republicans such as poet John Milton and political theorist James Harrington also grappled with the problem of popular conservatism after the defeat of the Levellers by Cromwell and the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. Fear of the masses led the radicals to seek “the rule of the saints”, that is, an elect minority.69

Yet, particularly in his critical reconstruction of ancient Jewish history, Spinoza takes an important step towards what would become the Marxist theory of ideology by locating the role of “superstition” in sustaining relations of domination. Moreover, these beliefs belong to the first kind of knowledge, which arises spontaneously in everyday experience, where “the human mind…does not have an adequate, but only a confused and mutilated knowledge of itself, of its own body, and of external bodies” (Ethics, Part 2, Proposition 29).70 Althusser calls this a “materialism of the imaginary”:

Spinoza’s “theory” rejected every illusion about ideology, and especially about the number one ideology of that time, religion, by identifying it as imaginary. At the same time, it refused to treat ideology as a simple error, or as naked ignorance, because it based the system of this imaginary phenomenon on the relation of men to the world as “expressed” by the state of their bodies.71

Spinoza’s political thought is thus, as Israel puts it, not “insurrection-friendly”; he argues that “the common people cannot be emancipated directly by popular rebellion but only circuitously by being freed from ‘superstition’” through “­fomenting a republican, demystifying ideology clandestinely directed at changing the thinking of present and future office holders, professionals and scholars; infiltrating society neither from above nor from below, but, as Spinoza always preferred throughout his life, unremittingly sideways via subversive discussion, universities and intellectual groups”.72 Nonetheless, this does nothing to ­undermine his ­radicalism. His political writings do not contain the critique of private property that is so important to Marx in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. Still, if we compare Spinoza with the other two great social contract theorists of the 17th century, he lacks Hobbes’s extreme individualism, and there is none of the preoccupation with legitimising and protecting private property that dominates John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government, which was written not long after Spinoza’s death and is in many ways the key text of bourgeois political ­philosophy. (Locke carefully read the Treatise but always denied any connection with Spinoza.73) As Negri ­emphasises, the key concept in his ethico-political thought is that of power (potentia), not property.

Thus, although Spinoza certainly rejects the conception of self-constituting subjectivity pioneered by Descartes, he develops an account of how we can become subjects, in the more modest sense of authors of our actions, while still affirming that these actions are all caused. This account itself connects with the conception of political subjectivity that we find in the Theological-Political Treatise (the main text that we know Marx studied) and the Political Treatise. As André Tosel put it, “The Ethics is political ontology and ontological politics. It is a system of liberation, a theory of the production of the effect of liberation as a possibility of the infinite productivity of nature.” Indeed, he argues that, from this ­perspective, despite other strengths, “Althusser’s Spinoza has lost any ethico-political dimension”.74 So, with all due respect to Lordon, and despite Spinoza’s own strategic caution, we can find in his writing resources that may help us to understand, not simply how workers are subjected to capital, but also how they can resist and indeed revolt.75

Beyond Spinoza—science, capitalism and history

Of course, it is not enough to catalogue the resonances between Spinoza and Marx. We need also to consider the differences and, more specifically, Spinoza’s limitations compared to Marx. Three in particular are worth mentioning.

(1) The sciences and nature: Like his very different fellow materialist and social contract theorist Hobbes, Spinoza saw the “new science” emerging in the 17th century, which used geometry to reveal the nature of the physical world, as a model for understanding humans and the social world as well. Indeed, according to Israel, “Although ‘ordo geometricus’ (geometrical order) was universally in fashion among the Dutch Cartesians of the 1650s and 1660s…Spinoza alone extends the new three-dimensional geometric outlook, with its lines, surfaces, planes, motions and proportions, to everything, including discussion of God, good and evil, and the human passions”.76

His correspondence shows the extent to which he was an active participant in the debates among the developing transnational network of natural ­philosophers, particularly thanks to his friendship with Henry Oldenburg, secretary of London’s Royal Society. As was reflected in his practice as a lens-grinder and polisher, Spinoza was committed to experimental science, albeit guided by mathematical deduction and philosophical conceptualisation.77 Reasoning “more geometrico” (in the geometric style), as Spinoza does in the Ethics, delivers certainty, he believed; truth would have been “hidden from the human race for eternity if mathematics, which is concerned not with ends but only with the essences and properties of figures, had not shown us another standard of truth” (Ethics, Part 1, Appendix).78 Alas, we know now that mathematics does not deliver certainty even in its own terms. For example, according to the incompleteness theorems of 20th century mathematician Kurt Gödel, within an axiomatic formal system with some arithmetic (exactly what provided Spinoza with his model of knowledge), there are statements that cannot be proved or disproved, and the consistency of the system itself also cannot be proved.79

We also know that the mathematisation of nature inaugurated by Galileo, Descartes and Isaac Newton has not prevented the radical surpassing of their theorisations of the physical world, above all in the early 20th century development of relativity theory and quantum mechanics. Meanwhile, the historicisation of nature that Engels saw emerging in the 19th century, above all in Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, has gone much further, with, for example, the development of complexity and chaos theory. None of these developments are strictly inconsistent with Spinoza’s general ­conception of nature as constituted by a process of interaction among and within bodies that is paralleled in thought. However, as we shall see below, for Spinoza, the fullest understanding of nature, provided by the third kind of knowledge (that based on “knowledge of God’s infinite and eternal essence”), takes us beyond time and change.

This is missed by Engels in a frequently cited marginal note in his Dialectics of Nature: “Spinoza—substance is self-caused (causa sui) strikingly expresses the reciprocal action”.80 Nature indeed involves the interaction of the modes, but this is only fully grasped when they are situated in the two infinite attributes of God that we know: thought and extension. As Wolfson puts it, “All the causes in nature are traceable to one cause, which is the necessity of the divine nature”.81 When Spinoza seeks to demonstrate this necessity, notably in Proposition 11 of Part 1 of the Ethics, he relies on the ontological proof of the existence of God developed in Catholic theology and reiterated by Descartes, according to which a perfect being cannot not exist. Of course, Spinoza understands this being not as a personal divinity, but as the impersonal “Deus, sive Natura”. We may indeed agree with him that we cannot doubt that the universe exists, since otherwise we would not be here to think about it. Yet, this is not the same as affirming that it is perfect, granted, for example, all the contingencies involved in getting our local bit of nature to the point where humans exist.82

So, Spinoza’s conception of nature cannot just be incorporated in the modern physical sciences unaltered. The Brazilian Marxist philosopher Mauricio Vieira Martins is moreover right that this conception would be strengthened if ­supplemented by a theory of emergence that conceptualises nature as stratified, with each layer—to put it very simplistically, the physical, chemical, biological, human and social—arising from, but irreducible to, the previous level.83

(2) The emergence and specificity of the social: The second, closely related limitation is also noted by Vieira Martins, namely that Spinoza’s naturalism prevents him from properly conceptualising the specificity of social relations. This is brought out when he responds to an enquiry about the difference between his and Hobbes’s accounts of the social contract: “I always preserve the natural right unimpaired, and I maintain that in each state the supreme magistrate has no more right over its subjects than it has greater power over them. This is always the case in the state of nature”.84 The political order thus tendentially lapses back into the physical. Thus, even if it is true, as Althusser says, that “the continent of history, into which Marx would resolutely advance, was opened up by Spinoza himself with his Theological-Political Treatise”, Vieira Martins is right that “this recognition of the singularity of human laws is not accompanied by a discussion about the emergence of a peculiar causality, which distances itself from its natural foundation and comes to acquire a logic of its own”.85

To be fair to Spinoza, conceptualising this “peculiar”—social—causality presupposed the development of classical political economy, and in particular the discovery by the Physiocrats, Adam Smith and David Ricardo that modern “commercial societies” are governed by laws that are not consciously formulated and enforced by rulers, instead arising unintentionally through the interactions of their members.86 This conceptual breakthrough, the discovery of social ­structure, which allowed Marx to formulate his distinctive account of the relations of production, depended on the far greater development of the capitalist mode of production after Spinoza’s day (even though he benefited, in ways that merit more exploration, from living in the United Provinces, the most advanced enclave of capitalism in the 17th century). Negri has written about this with brio, arguing that the advanced character of Spinoza’s thought arises from the specificity of the Dutch bourgeois revolution, which took “an anomalous form, not protected by an absolute power, but developing absolutely in the vastness of a project of rule and savage reproduction”, thereby taking on “the dimensions of accumulation on a world scale”.87

This limitation is probably related to the fact that, as we have seen, though Spinoza privileges activity over passivity in the human conatus, he does not further develop his conceptualisation of activity with the kind of analysis of labour that Marx develops—an analysis that allows a deeper understanding of how humans interact with other parts of nature. Here again, Spinoza’s failure to develop his conception of human activity is at least in part a product of his historical circumstances. As Marx famously pointed out, the concept of labour as such only becomes thinkable as capital conquers production:

Indifference towards any specific kind of labour presupposes a very developed totality of real kinds of labour, of which no single one is any longer predominant. As a rule, the most general abstractions arise only in the midst of the richest ­possible concrete development, where one thing appears as common to many, to all. Then it ceases to be thinkable in a particular form alone. On the other side, this abstraction of labour as such is not merely the mental product of a concrete totality of labours. Indifference towards specific labours corresponds to a form of society in which individuals can with ease transfer from one labour to another, and where the specific kind is a matter of chance for them, hence of ­indifference. Not only the category of labour, but labour in reality has here become the means of creating wealth in general and has ceased to be organically linked with ­particular ­individuals in any specific form. Such a state of affairs is at its most developed in the most modern form of existence of bourgeois society—in the United States.88

There is a remarkable passage in Spinoza’s correspondence where the realities of early modern Atlantic capitalism break in. Seeking to persuade a friend who claims to have foreseen his son’s death during the great plague of the mid-1660s, which would soon take him as well, that so-called omens are “effects of the imagination that arise from the constitution either of the body or the mind”, he recounts “an incident…last winter in Rijnsburg”, the Dutch village Spinoza inhabited in the early 1660s:

One morning, as the sky was already growing light, I woke from a very deep dream to find that the images that had come to me in my dream remained before my eyes as vividly as if the things had been true—especially the image of a certain black, scabby Brazilian whom I had never seen before. For the most part, this image disappeared when, to divert myself with something else, I fixed my eyes on a book or some other object; but as soon as I turned my eyes back away from such an object without fixing my eyes attentively on anything, the same image of the same black man appeared to me with the same vividness, alternately, until it gradually disappeared from my visual field.89

Spinoza offers no analysis of this image, instead going on to give quite a plausible explanation of his friend’s premonitions. Nonetheless, clearly, he was seeing an African slave whom he associates with the Brazilian plantations. Israel situates Spinoza amid what he calls “the flourishing Amsterdam Sephardic community’s trade with its unparalleled network of family and group ties in Brazil, the Caribbean and the entire Ibero-American Atlantic world”.90 The Sephardic Jews of Amsterdam dominated Dutch trade with Brazil, especially in sugar, which was produced by slave labour. The struggle between the Dutch West India Company and Portugal for control of Brazil and its lucrative sugar industry ran through much of the 17th century.91

Spinoza’s father, Michael, whose business he co-inherited in 1654, specialised in trade with Portugal and North Africa, but was also involved in the Brazil trade. The family firm was ruined by the disruption to trade and shipping caused by the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652-4). Israel suggests it may have been to liberate himself the debilitating entanglements caused by the bankruptcy and debts Michael left behind him that Spinoza broke with the Sephardic community by renouncing his inheritance in a civil court and openly avowing his critique of Jewish orthodoxy, thus provoking his excommunication.92 It is, of course, impossible to say why Spinoza was haunted by this image of an African slave. Maybe the letter supports Althusser’s claim that “formally—I say formally—Spinoza left the door open to another continent, into which Freud would later venture”, that of the ­unconscious.93 Nonetheless, the signs of Holland’s and his own community’s role at the leading edge of the capitalism in his day must have pervaded Spinoza’s everyday life as a boy and a young, struggling merchant.

(3) Negativity and contradiction: It is striking that it should be Althusser, the great anti-Hegelian, who acknowledges the third limitation of Spinoza ­compared to Marx: “Hegel introduced into philosophy precisely what was ­lacking in Spinoza: the dialectic, or the ‘labour of the negative’”.94 Thanks to Hegel, Marx develops a theory of social contradiction. The most important instance of this theory is of course the thesis that the development of contradictions between the forces and relations of production is a necessary condition of the ­transformation of one mode of production into another.95 In a strange chapter Fischbach seeks to deny that Marx affirms this thesis. He does so ostensibly on the basis of a strained reading of a passage in The German Ideology, but really on Spinozist grounds. Fischbach writes:

From this point of view, that of Spinoza’s “infinite power of nature”—where one sees that the conception “sub specie aeternitas” [under the aspect of eternity] is also that which allows a true conception of history—the modes of exchange and relations of production are always already the inorganic conditions corresponding perfectly to the state of development of the productive forces. The contradiction between the forces and relations of production can only be imagined ­historically, and it only appears as such from the perspective of those belonging to a later epoch, whose point of view is in its turn limited and unilateral by the very fact of their belonging to a social formation at whose heart social relations are ­relations to which they submit. The contradiction inherent in a social formation can only be imagined, and it can only be imagined retrospectively, in a later social ­formation, by men who believe themselves to be more clairvoyant than the past to the extent that they are blind about themselves.96

This interpretation does not seem to me to have much to do with Marx. Here is the passage in The German Ideology on which Fischbach relies:

The definite condition under which they produce thus corresponds, as long as the contradiction has not yet appeared, to the reality of their conditioned nature, their one-sided existence, the one-sidedness of which only becomes evident when the contradiction enters on the scene and thus exists for the later individuals. Then this condition appears as an accidental fetter, and the consciousness that it is a fetter is imputed to the earlier age as well.97

Something that “appears” and “enters on the scene” has an existence ­independent of its perception, and it is the “consciousness” of the fettering of the forces by the relations that is later attributed to “the earlier stage”, not the ­contradiction itself. In any case, Marx’s later writings, including his summary of historical materialism in the 1859 Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, consistently treat the contradiction between the forces and relations of production as objective and independent of the consciousness of those subject to it. Fischbach is led to this strange argument by what seems to be a misreading of Spinoza. “Under the aspect of eternity” is the condition we attain when we achieve the third kind of knowledge (Ethics, Part 5, Proposition 23).98 Here, as Gueroult puts it, we know finite things as “caused not only by their own essence, but by God”, with their finitude reflected in the fact that “they are not produced from the absolute causality of God alone, but at the same time from an infinite chain of finite causes”.99

It is under the aspect of eternity that, as Spinoza repeatedly affirms, “reality and perfection” are actually “the same thing” (Ethics, Part 2, Definition 6).100 Distinguishing things as more or less perfect is just a subjective human projection:

Insofar as we attribute something to individuals in nature that involves ­negation (such as a limit, an end, a lack of power and so on), we call them imperfect because they do not affect our mind as much as those we call ­perfect, and not because ­something is lacking in them that is theirs or because nature has sinned. For ­nothing belongs to the nature of anything except what follows from the necessity of the nature of the efficient cause, and whatever follows from the necessity of the nature of the efficient cause happens necessarily (Ethics, Part 4, Preface).101

All that is implied by God’s essence is realised; whatever seems negative or a limitation reflects solely a failure of understanding on our part. Fischbach is applying this doctrine when he seeks to explain away Marx’s use of the term “contradiction”. Yet, he seems to forget the distinction Spinoza draws between “eternity” and “duration”, which is clearly stated here:

When we attend only to the essence of modes, and not to the order of the whole of nature, we cannot infer from the fact that they exist now that they will or will not exist later, or that they have or have not existed earlier. From this it is clear that we conceive the existence of substance to be entirely different from the existence of modes.

The difference between eternity and duration arises from this. For it is only of modes that we can explain the existence by duration; but we can explain the existence of substance by eternity, that is, the infinite enjoyment of existing, or (in bad Latin) of being.102

Granted this distinction, it seems to me highly dubious that viewing things “under the aspect of eternity” can be the basis of “a true conception of history”. For, as Stuart Hampshire puts it, in Spinoza, “to say of something that it is eternal…is to say that no temporal predicates or tenses or time ­determinations of any kind can in principle to be applicable to it”.103 Yet, history surely belongs in the realm of duration—finite forms that arise and pass away in time. Moreover, as we have seen, Spinoza’s account of the attainment of freedom in Parts 4 and 5 of the Ethics allows for individual change, insofar as we are able to strengthen the active against the passive emotions. It is hard to conceptualise change without contrasting possibility and actuality in order to identify which possibilities were realised and to explain why these rather than others were realised. The same is true of the kind of collective change that is the object of historical enquiry.

It is thus interesting that Spinoza explicitly describes the method he uses in the Theological-Political Treatise, the same as that required to study nature, as historical:

The method of interpreting scripture does not differ at all from the method of interpreting nature, but agrees with it completely. For the method of interpreting nature consists above all in putting together a history of nature, from which, as from certain data, we infer the definitions of natural things. In the same way, to interpret scripture it is necessary to prepare a straightforward history of scripture and to infer from it the mind of scripture’s authors, by legitimate inferences, as from certain data and principles.104

Deleuze offers an authoritative objection to the interpretation I am ­putting forward: “Coming into existence should never be understood in Spinoza as a transition from possible to real”.105 Moreover, it is true that Spinoza says that “the possible and the contingent…are in fact nothing but a defect in our ­understanding.” However, this failure is exactly from the perspective of ­eternity, where “there is no when, nor before, nor after, nor any other ­affection of time”.106 Here we are viewing nature beyond duration and change. Shortly after arguing that describing things as more or less perfect, or indeed good or evil, is subjective, Spinoza says, “Because we desire to form an idea of man, as a model of human nature that we may look to, it will be useful to us to retain these same words”. Thus, “when I say that someone passes from a lesser to a greater perfection, and the opposite,” Spinoza means that “we conceive that his power of acting, insofar as it is understood through his nature, is increased or diminished” (Ethics, IV Preface).107 Indeed, in the Treatise, Spinoza goes even further: “We are completely ignorant of the order and ­connection of things itself, that is, of how things are really ordered and ­connected. So, for ­practical purposes it is better, indeed necessary, to ­consider things as possible”.108

In these passages, Spinoza seems to be considering human beings not simply as part of the great chain of nature, but as actors. Doubtlessly, from the perspective of eternity these processes appear differently, as they are more fully integrated into the causal nexus binding together the attributes and the interactions of the modes and therefore are no longer understood as changes unfolding in time but rather as co-existing in the divine intellect. Then, though, we have left the realm of history and duration and are participating in the condition of what Spinoza calls “blessedness”, where the “intellectual love of God”, that is, the third kind of knowledge, involves us “beginning to understand things under the aspect of eternity” (Ethics, Part 5, Proposition 31).109 Nevertheless, the process of subject-formation that Spinoza analyses in Parts 4 and 5 of the Ethics, culminating in the third kind of knowledge, implies that the realms of eternity and duration interpenetrate. Tosel wrote, “Eternal life is not always already given; it is a possibility, the ultimate ­possibility of our individuation that cannot be produced and reproduced except at the end of a process that is temporal progress, and let’s risk the word, history”.110 Negri goes further, arguing on the basis of a very close reading of the Ethics that “Spinozan democracy…is not a form of government but rather a social activity of ­transformation, a ‘becoming-eternal’”.111

If this interpretation has any degree of accuracy, then we can see more clearly the importance of Hegel, for the much more radical historicisation of thought that he achieves, above all in the Phenomenology of Spirit, which traces the ­successive ­historical shapes of European consciousness, but also in his interpretation of history as “the progress of the consciousness of freedom”.112 Yet, Hegel, too, seeks ultimately to subordinate time to the Concept, declaring at the end of the Phenomenology that “spirit necessarily appears in time, and it appears in time as long it does not grasp its pure concept, which is to say, as long as it does not erase time”.113 Here again we see the value added by Marx’s more consistently materialist theory of history. So, we should say, not Hegel or Spinoza, but Spinoza, Hegel—and Marx.

Alex Callinicos is Emeritus Professor of European Studies at King’s College London, co-editor of the Routledge Handbook of Marxism and Post-Marxism (Routledge, 2020), and a columnist for Socialist Worker. His latest book is The New Age of Catastrophe (Polity, 2023).


1 Israel, 2023. I am grateful to Professor Zang Fengyu for inviting me to give the lecture for the School of Philosophy at the Renmin University of China in which this article originated, to Roland Boer for his response, and to Joseph Choonara, Richard Donnelly, Dariush Doust, Roberto Finelli, Rob Jackson, Gareth Jenkins and Camilla Royle for their comments on drafts.

2 Israel, 2023, pp1117-18.

3 See Marx’s letter to Lassalle on 31 May 1858—Marx and Engels, 2010, p316. Similarly, in April 1879, Marx wrote to Russian sociologist Maksim Kovalevsky, “What Spinoza considered the cornerstone of his system and what actually constitutes that cornerstone are two entirely different things.”—Marx and Engels, 2010, p452. Thanks to Joseph Choonara for this reference.

4 Deleuze, 1990, p345. Deleuze supports what Marx says about the structure of the Ethics in his fascinating “A Formal Study of the Plan of the Ethics and of the Role of Scholia in Its Realisation: The Two Ethics”—see Deleuze, 1990, pp337-350.

5 See the summary of Marx’s references to Spinoza in Vieira Martins, 2022, pp31-312. The late André Tosel, a distinguished Marxist scholar of Spinoza, wrote an excellent survey—Tosel, 1994a. In a later essay, he argues that Spinoza had a persisting theoretical influence on Marx, but relies on an extremely dubious reading of Capital, Volume 1, chapter 1—see Tosel, 2008. Tracie Matysik offers a very interesting, if necessarily speculative, discussion of the significance of Marx’s notes on the Treatise for his developing conception of freedom—Matysik, 2022, chapter 3.

6 Plekhanov, 1974 and 1976. On Plekhanov’s Spinozism, see Matysik, 2022, chapter 6.

7 Labriola, 1964, pp207, 222 and 226. See the interesting discussion of Labriola’s “critical Spinozism” in Tosel, 1994a, pp200-204.

8 Althusser, 2017, p168. This interesting unfinished book was written in 1976, but it was only published after Althusser’s death.

9 Althusser, 1976, p134. For discussion of the complex relationship between Althusser and his collaborators and Spinoza, see Montag, 2013, chapter 5. See also Sánchez Estop, 2022.

10 See the important study of Spinoza’s salience in 20th century French philosophy in Peden, 2014.

11 Callinicos, 2023.

12 See, for example, Foster, 2001; Burkett, 1999; Angus, 2016; Saito, 2017; Davis, 1999 and 2001; Moore, 2015.

13 Foster, 2020.

14 See Callinicos, 2006, pp209-215. See also Sven-Eric Liedman’s massive study, Liedman, 2023.

15 Curley, 1985, p548.

16 Unfortunately, the forbidding length of Israel’s book—over 1300 pages—is likely to put off many potential readers. Too often he allows himself to be sidetracked into tracing the obscurest byways of the networks Spinoza participated in, and he indulges in repetitive and over-lengthy efforts to demonstrate his subject’s originality and influence. Despite the book’s many strengths, Israel’s preoccupation with substantiating the idea, contested by many early modern historians, of a “Radical Enlightenment”, with Spinoza and his followers at the centre of it, gets in the way of producing a manageable biography. Israel’s rejection of Marxism, expressed explicitly in other works, is comparatively much less of a problem here.

17 Fischbach, 2014, p36.

18 Macherey, 2011. See the preface to the second edition. See also Read, 2012.

19 Marx, 2008, p32. For two different recent readings of Hegel’s influence on Capital, see Callinicos, 2014, and Finelli, 2014.

20 Curley, 1985, pp420 and 417.

21 See “Letter 64 to G H Schuller (29 July 1675)” in Curley, 2016, pp439, 284. On the very difficult subject of the infinite modes, see Gueroult, 1969, chapter 11.

22 Curley, 1985, p482.

23 Wolfson, 1934a, pviii. See, more generally, Wolfson, 1934a, chapter 1.

24 Althusser, 2017, p271. Althusser may have been adapting a remark of Leibniz’s: “The majority of philosophers begin with creatures; René Descartes begins with the soul; Spinoza with God.”—quoted in Gueroult, 1974, p8. Deleuze denies that “the Ethics ‘begins’ with God”—Deleuze, 1990, p337. Nonetheless, since Part 1 of the Ethics is called “Of God”, this seems somewhat footling. Tosel made a detailed case for Spinoza’s materialism—Tosel, 1994b, chapter 5.

25 Curley, 1985, p442.

26 Hegel, 1963, pp280-282. For diagnoses of the Hegelian critique, see Gueroult, 1969, pp462-468; Melamed, 2012; and Hindrichs, 2012.

27 Hegel, 2018, p12.

28 Curley, 1985, p584.

29 This quote is drawn from the Short Treatise on God, Man and His Well-being, which remained unpublished during Spinoza’s life. See Curley, 1985, p74.

30 Gueroult, 1969, p9.

31 Ilyenkov, 1977, pp53-54. On the strengths and weaknesses of Ikyenkov’s reading of Spinoza, see Bowring, 2022.

32 The fullest demonstration of the relationship between Hegel’s teleology and the doctrine of determinate negation remains Rosen, 1982.

33 Deleuze, 1990, especially chapter 1.

34 Peden, 2014, p238. On Deleuze’s interpretation of Spinoza, see Peden, 2014, chapters 6 and 7.

35 Gueroult, 1969, pp447-448. This is from a detailed critique of what he calls “the idealist, subjectivist or formalist interpretation of the attributes” as unreal—Gueroult, 1969, pp428-461. Wolfson was a leading defender of the subjectivity of the attributes—see Wolfson, 1934a, pp142-157. See also Della Rocca, 2012, and Garrett, 2012.

36 Curley, 1985, p412

37 Wolfson, 1934a, p129.

38 Marx and Engels, 2010, p323. I am grateful to Roland Boer for this reference.

39 Curley 1985, p428. On God as an immanent cause see Wolfson, 1934a, pp319-328. Althusser’s main discussions of structural causality are located in Althusser, 2015, chapter 9, and Althusser, 2020.

40 From the Short Treatise—see Curley, 1985, p148.

41 Jameson, 1992, p82. I am grateful to Jason Read for a tweet that drew my attention to this passage.

42 Callinicos, 2023. See my discussion of the nuances of this approach to totality in Callinicos, 2012.

43 Marx, 1975, pp327 and 347.

44 Marx, 1976, p290.

45 See especially Fischbach, 2014, chapter 7.

46 Curley, 1985, p457.

47 Lordon, 2014, p55. Compare “Frédéric Lordon, Marx et Spinoza: La Question de l’aliénation” in Fischbach, 2014.

48 Curley, 1985, p492.

49 Curley, 1985, p443

50 Curley, 1985, p499.

51 Israel, 2023, p450.

52 Curley, 1985, p409.

53 “Letter 58 to G H Schuler (October 1674)” in Curley, 2016, p429. Allen Wood argues that Spinoza’s position is incoherent—Wood, 2012. Compare, however, the lucid exposition in Hampshire, 1951, chapter 4.

54 Curley, 1985, p493.

55 Curley, 1985, p525

56 Marx, 1975, p326. Surprisingly, Fischbach does not cite or discuss this passage.

57 Curley, 1985, pp556 and 587. See Wolfson, 1934b, chapter 19.

58 Deleuze, 1988.

59 Read, 2016, pp37-38.

60 Sharp, 1998, p103.

61 See the Theological-Political Treatise in Curley, 1985, p289. On Spinoza’s political thought, see Negri, 1990; Balibar, 1998; Montag, 1999; and Malcolm, 1991. In 17th century Holland, he was preceded in espousing democracy by the brothers Johan and Pieter de la Court—see Israel 2023, pp482-483.

62 Israel, 2007, pxxx. See also Israel, 2001.

63 Israel, 2023, p100.

64 Israel, 2023, p300. See also, more generally, chapters 4, 9, and 10. Tosel, 1994, pp12 and 209.

65 Israel, 2023, p467.

66 Israel, 2023, p474 and chapter 30; Israel, 1998, chapter 31. Israel describes Restoration England as “an aspiring absolute monarchy” that was ideologically hostile to the Dutch Republic—Israel, 2023, p493.

67 Israel, 2023, p506; see also chapters 19 and 23-28.

68 Curley, 2016, p70.

69 See the exploration of this dilemma in Hill, 1984. See also my review—Callinicos, 1984.

70 Curley, 1985, p471.

71 Althusser, 1976, p136.

72 Israel, 2023, pp108 and 109.

73 Israel, 2023, p947.

74 Tosel, 1994a, pp12 and 209.

75 Lordon himself has shown this in his analyses of the huge French movement against President Emmanuel Macron’s neoliberal pension “reform”—see, for example, Lordon, 2023.

76 Israel, 2023, p416.

77 See, especially, Israel, 2023, chapters 13, 14, 16, 18 and 20.

78 Curley 1985, p441. On Spinoza’s use of the geometric method and Hobbes’s influence, see Gueroult, 1974, chapter 17.

79 Raatikainen, 2013. A brilliant subversion of the deductivist model of mathematics that gripped Spinoza can be found in Lakatos, 1976. On the 17th century mathematisation of nature, see Koyré, 1966.

80 Marx and Engels, 2010, p511.

81 Wolfson, 1934a, p399.

82 For example, Gould, 1990.

83 Vieira Martins, 2022, chapters 5 and 6.

84 “Letter 50 to Jarig Jelles (2 June 1674)” in Curley, 2016, p405.

85 Althusser, 2017, p275; Vieira Martins, 2022, p62.

86 The Physiocrats were a 17th and 18th century school of political economy associated with French theorists such as François Quesnay, the Marquis de Mirabeau and Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot.

87 Negri, 1990, p7. For the economic backdrop, see Israel, 1989.

88 Marx, 1973, p104.

89 “Letter 17 to Pieter Balling (20 July 1664)” in Curley 1985, p353. Not surprisingly, this letter has attracted efforts at interpretation. See, for example, Feuer, 1957; Montag, 1999, pp87-89; and Goetschel, 2016.

90 Israel, 2023, p120.

91 Nadler, 2018, pp25-28 and chapter 3; Blackburn, 1997, chapters 4 and 5; Israel, 2023, pp165-170.

92 Israel, 2023, chapter 7.

93 Althusser, 2017, p275. See the discussion of the four “scientific continents”—mathematics, physics, history and the unconscious—in Althusser, 2017, chapter 5.

94 Althusser, 2017, p276.

95 See the fundamental exploration in Cohen, 1978.

96 Fischbach, 2014, p88. More generally, see Fischbach 2014, chapter 5.

97 Marx and Engels, 1975, p82. Italics added.

98 Curley, 1985, p607.

99 Gueroult, 1974, p610.

100 Curley, 1985, p447.

101 Curley, 1985, p545.

102 “Letter 12 to Lodewijk Meyer (20 April 1663)” in Curley, 1985, p202. See Wolfson, 1934a, chapter 10; and Tosel, 1994, chapter 2.

103 Hampshire, 1956, p129.

104 Curley, 2016, p171.

105 Deleuze, 1990, p212. Peden diagnoses Deleuze’s hostility to the very category of the possible—see Peden, 2014, chapter 7.

106 Parts 1 and 2 of Descartes’ Principles of Philosophy; Curley, 1985, pp308 and 309.

107 Curley, 1985, pp545-546.

108 Curley, 2016, ppiv and 4, p126.

109 Curley 1985, pp610-611. Translation amended in line with Gueroult’s interpretation of species as “a form, point of view or aspect”—Gueroult, 1974, p609. Fischbach’s attempt to eradicate contradiction from Marx recalls the weakness in Negri’s Deleuze-influenced Spinozism, which is diagnosed by Ernesto Laclau. See Laclau, 2004, as well as my discussion in Callinicos, 2006, pp146-151.

110 Tosel, 1994a, p50.

111 Negri, 2004, p111.

112 Hegel, 1975, p54.

113 Hegel, 2018, p461. See Callinicos, 1995, chapter 1.


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