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The Ghostly Elusiveness of Critique
Ghostly Demarcations: A Symposium on Jacques Derrida's Spectres Of Marx
Edited by Michael Sprinker.
reviewed Anthony McIntyre, 29.12.01


I have long been alienated from many writers because of their style. I doubt if it places me in a minority of one. It may not even place me in a minority at all. Those from whom we on the Left would hope to learn something comprehensible about our otherwise incomprehensible world can be the most turgid. I refer here to some in the Marxist school. Fredric Jameson once, unpersuasively in my view, sought to defend his writing from the criticism that it was part of the genre of texts described as 'obscure and cumbersome, indigestible, abstract'. This in turn prompted the comment from Adam Roberts in his excellent Routledge guide to the work of Jameson that as the latter is a highly paid part of the critical academic machine which makes billions alone each year selling education, we might see his 'stylistic difficulty as a means of repelling the ignorant and working classes and of speaking only to those who have the expensive education to enable them to understand'. While Roberts offered this as one amongst a range of interpretations, as an explanation I find it unfair. It can all too easily be misperceived as a conscious involvement on the part of those Marxists in academia in an exercise aimed at reinforcing the impotence of the powerless.

Nevertheless, it seems that much writing in the Marxist sphere remains at best paradigmatically insular and at worst intellectually self-referential and perhaps self-satisfying. Audience alienation is an intellectual cul de sac for both the writer and the reader. The collection of works on the thought of the French deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida edited by Michael Sprinker found its way into as many dead ends as it prised openings. The bulk of the work aimed at interrogating Derrida's claim to be working towards a new Marxist project in his work Spectres Of Marx and his search for a new International. The editor Michael Sprinker to his credit set out his stall as early as the second page of his introduction when he referred to Marxism and 'the crimes committed in its name, the errors in which it indulged, the massively undemocratic forms of organisation which it tolerated'.

Too often Marxists display an epistemological cataract when confronted with such matters. They call all to easily to mind the observation of the former Marxist Bruce Anderson: 'the ignorance and na´vetÚ of the 20th-century Left: its endless willingness to construct political fantasies out of mass suffering and bloodshed. These are under-chronicled subjects.' In this collection Terry Eagleton and Tom Lewis jump out as analysts with other things on their minds. Eagleton criticises Derrida for having merely an ethical rather than a materialist response to Stalinism. The entire Derridean project is summed up as 'a perpetual excited openness to the Messiah who better not let us down by doing anything as determinate as coming'. Yet, Eagleton is exceedingly humourous and his wit alone adds badly needed lubrication to what in many respects is a textual aridity. Lewis self-assuredly contents himself with the observation that 'for Marxists there is nothing to mourn'. Incredible, given the failures and crimes of Marxism throughout the past century. As if the evasive Trotskyite 'blame it all on Stalinism' mechanism has any appeal left amongst serious or potential Marxist thinkers trying to claw their way out of the totalitarian abyss Marxism descended into. In one of the more engaging essays Aijaz Ahmad takes Derrida to task for having a 'highly problematic' view of Marxism. Here the writer feels that Derrida occupies a contradictory position by criticising Althusser for dissociating 'Marxism from any teleology or from any messianic eschatology' and then going on to create the very problematic he objected to in Althusser by stating that 'my concern is to distinguish the latter from the former'. A peculiar Derridean conundrum which sends the philosopher spiralling into an orbit of slippage making it impossible to grasp the core of his position. All we can do is remain appreciative of Derrida, despite the enormous difficulty in understanding him, for having challenged the ensemble of western rationalist thought, maintaining that it was engaged in a dishonest pursuit of certainty and detecting a totalitarian arrogance therein.

For Derrida his usurpation of a totalitarian certainty did not take the form of maintaining a regime of endless meaning but instead sought to undermine what Foucault called 'regimes of truth' by introducing an open framework which could fertilise a plurality of meanings rather than one. It is not surprising that Derrida finds himself under attack from Ahmad for shying away from conceptualising 'a unity of a global process' which would supposedly explain a wide range of events from the fall of communism, the collapse of West European labour movements and an almost total diminution of third World radicalisms - all combined with the rise of fascisms throughout Europe. This 'looking from the outside in' approach leaves us floundering and trying to square the circle when, as Martin Shaw elsewhere points out 'local power dynamics remain unexplored'.

One final point on Ahmad is the seeming eyebrow he raises at what he terms Derrida's International given that it is based largely on critique. He calls it a very 'writerly' International. This seems to impose some artificial dichotomy between writing and activism. Given the writers slaughtered throughout history because of their active role as agents in a process of change this is insensitive. Who are the most active - those 'activists' who debate the difference between a Workers Republic and a Socialist Republic or those 'writers' who pull the house down round their ears and invite the wrath of the death squads because of their commitment to challenging the structures of power which support a particular acquisition of knowledge which Antonio Negri argues in this collection now amounts to accumulation? Surely, as Orwell argued, in a time of universal deceit telling the truth, in itself, becomes a revolutionary act.

But Derrida has achieved more than this. Zygmunt Baumun has asserted that Western society had 'practically de-legitimised all alternatives to itself' and brought us to a point in which we were 'living without an alternative'. At a time when Fukuyama was leading the charge to ridicule and negate all alternatives and impose a totalising system of capitalist democracy on the rest of the world Derridian deconstructionism proved to the rock of opposition on which much of the Fukuyama critique began to flounder.

Derrida, who had the last say in this collection, issued a rebuff to those 'Marxists still prepared to dispense lessons from on high'. He convincingly rejects Lewis who alleged that Derrida saw no moral difference between Leninism and fascism. Derrida makes the point that Leninism however was not without totalitarianism. Furthermore, he argues that there is a need to be worried about the increasing rarity of 'criticism and discussion'. Arguably, such a dearth has led Marxism to an intellectual gulag. Perhaps those such as Derrida can help unlock it and allow it to become the creative force it should always have been.




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