Saint Jacques -- Derrida and the Ghost of Marxism

Saint Jacques: Derrida and the Ghost of Marxism

Review of Specters of Marx

David Bedggood


1. For the bourgeoisie, the collapse of "communism" made the world-historic
victory of capitalism seem certain. Yet the contradictions of capitalism
immediately called the new world order into question as globalisation
brought with it what Jacques Derrida calls the "10 plagues". Apologists for
capitalism are now fearful of the return of Marx's ghost. George Soros sees
the ghost in the form of the anarchy of finance capital. Anthony Giddens
sees the ghost in the rise of left or right fundamentalist ideology.
Without realising it, they pose the problem in terms familiar to Marxists:
the contradiction between dead and living labour and the rise of the dead
reclaimed by the living. But is there a way out for capitalism?

2. Jacques Derrida enters the fray with his book Specters of Marx. He
returns to Marx, or at least, "one spirit" of Marx in the German Ideology.
This is the "spirit" of Marx which became lost to totalitarian Marxism --
the "spirit" rediscovered in the extreme individualism of Max Stirner, who
deluded himself that he was a free floating "unique" ego not subject to any
social laws. By reclaiming the powers of alienated social being from the
Hegelian god, Stirner worshipped his self as his personal god. By
rediscovering this formerly unnoticed "spirit" of Marx, Derrida claims to
find a way out of capitalism's plagues with the call for a "new
International". Not a Marxist International on the side of living labour,
but rather a reworked messianism of the religion of the abstract ego. This
is the path of individual redemption, an expression of the alienation of
dead labour that can never reclaim itself as the spirit of living labour.
In appropriating Marx, Derrida provides the ultimate apology for capitalist
reaction in the name of a "Marx" -- an ideology of personal religious
salvation which serves as a philosophical left cover for the "Third Way".

3. In a recent reply to a number of responses to his book, Derrida
re-asserts his messianic claims when he accuses his strongest critics of
being "proprietal" and "patriarchal" under the ghostly influence of "Marx
the father".1 While this is undeserved, I argue that Derrida's Marxist
critics nevertheless fall short of conjuring away Saint Jacques because
they represent the flawed tradition of Western Marxism -- the failure of
materialist dialectics grounded in the ontology of living labour.
Therefore, the Marxist counter to Derrida's apologetics for capitalism is
to be found in reclaiming the dialectical method that Marx applies in the
German Ideology and which Lukacs, Lenin and Trotsky attempt to develop in
the unity of theory and practice of the revolutionary party.

Post-Marxist Apologists for the New World Disorder

4. George Soros, one of the richest men in the world, has spent millions
trying to restore capitalism in Russia. But he lost much of his money with
the collapse of the Russian economy in August 1998. He claims that the
global finance system is out of control and needs to be regulated. His
calls for a return to an "international" like Bretton Woods, or some body
attached to the IMF, have been echoed with increasing frequency after the
so-called Asian "meltdown". His fear is that the casino of finance capital
will bring an end to the new world order and the return to anarchy and
revolution.2 If Soros fears the collapse of the new world order, Tony
Giddens, the apostle of the post-scarcity global society, claims that the
new world order can be managed by social scientists as advisers to the
politicians of the "Third Way".3 The recent discussions between Soros and
Giddens about the unstable state of the world are premised on the "death"
and "burial" of socialism.4 Giddens believes that socialism has been
banished: ". . . the spectre which disturbed the slumbers of bourgeois
Europe for more than seventy years . . . has been returned to its nether

5. Yet it seems that these speeches at the graveside of Marxism are
premature. The ghost of Marxism continues to haunt the big bourgeoisie
despite every effort to exorcise it. The Communist Manifesto is being
fleshed out as never before by a capitalist world system out of control.
The end of the cold war and collapse of "communism" has allowed capitalism
unrivalled domination over its "other". Yet everywhere the forces of
disorder manifest themselves -- from the breakup of the former Yugoslavia
and the former Soviet Union, the instability of the "Middle East" and
Central Asia, to the renewed worker and peasant uprisings in Latin America
and South Asia. It is in the face of such rampant disorder and deepening
divisions that a more robust defence of capitalism is required. In order to
exorcise the ghost of communism, it is necessary to provide a philosophy of
rebellion and redemption that can empower the intelligentsia to confuse and
disorient the masses. Post-Marxism and the new liberalism of the centre
need an anti-foundationist foundation. Post-Marxism needs a new priesthood.6

6. If Soros is its financier and Giddens its sociologist, then perhaps
Derrida is the philosopher of post-Marxism.7 His mission? The "new middle"
needs to pre-empt the left not merely by declaring Marx dead (since who has
seen the body?), but by res-erecting the body of the father as the son --
Derrida! From the safety of "After the fall" (of "communism"), Jacques
Derrida, darling of the post-structuralists writes Specters of Marx,
claiming that we are all in "debt" to Marxism as the New World Disorder
crumbles.8 Derrida asks, "Where is Marxism going? Where are we going with
it?" He recounts how he re-read The Communist Manifesto after some decades.
"I knew very well there was a ghost waiting there, and from the opening,
from the raising of the curtain. Now, of course, I have just discovered, in
truth I have just remembered what must have been, haunting my memory: the
first noun of the Manifesto, and this time in the singular, is 'specter':
'A Specter is haunting Europe the specter of communism'".9 Derrida's
salutes Marx and reveals his desire to reclaim at least "one spirit" of
Marx by de-totalising Marx-ISM.10

Upon re-reading the Manifesto and a few other great works of Marx, I said
to myself that I know of few texts in the philosophical tradition, perhaps
none, whose lesson seemed more urgent today, provided that one take into
account what Marx and Engels themselves say (for example in Engel's
"Preface" to the 1888 re-edition) about their own possible "aging" and
their intrinsically irreducible historicity. What other thinker has ever
issued a similar warning in such an explicit fashion? Who has ever called
for the transformation to come of his own theses? Not only in view of some
progressive enrichment of knowledge, which would change nothing in the
order of a system, but so as to take into account there, another account,
the effects of rupture and restructuration? And so as to incorporate in
advance, beyond any possible programming, the unpredictability of new
knowledge, new techniques and new givens? No text in the tradition seems as
lucid concerning the way in which the political is becoming worldwide,
concerning the irreducibility of the technical and the media in the current
of the most thinking thought -- and this goes beyond the railroad and the
newspapers of the time whose powers were analysed in such an incomparable
way in the Manifesto. And few texts have shed so much light on law,
international law, and nationalism.11