‘Marx Through Poststructuralism: Lyotard, Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze’ reviewed by Carlo Salzani

Reviewed by Carlo Salzani

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Carlo Salzani is Adjunct Research Associate in the Centre for Comparative Literature and Cultural …

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Marxism and poststructuralism seem to be, still today, rather strange bedfellows, at least for an Anglo-American audience. In the Anglophone academic world, in fact, the history of the reception of poststructuralism has almost been a question of choosing sides, of asserting one’s allegiance either with Marx or with poststructuralism. The first encounters between the two have been marked by mutual suspicion: the followers of poststructuralism saw Marxism as a gigantic body of outdated metaphysical arguments, whereas the Marxists considered poststructuralism as a retrograde step or an unwelcome threat. Both sides worked on the assumption that poststructuralism begins with a rejection of Marx, or at least with a gesture of departure from him. In this new study, Simon Choat challenges this contraposition as outdated and unproductive, and argues for a novel encounter between Marx and poststructuralism. Today the polemic between the two sides has died down and it is thus a good time to revisit the scene of the debate. Choat thus proposes a different approach, which aims at being neither a critique of Marxism from a poststructuralist perspective (or vice-versa), nor an attempt to combine the two sides into a ‘poststructuralist Marxism’; rather – and against a common Anglo-American view which has been tempted to overlook or even deny this fact – Choat begins with the recognition that Marx has been an enormous influence on poststructuralism, and thus he wants to read Marx through poststructuralism.

The first problems begin with the label ‘poststructuralism’. As Choat recognises, this is not an homogeneous system of thought, but rather a loose and flexible term that has been used to describe a variety of positions, and one which the philosophers singled out as ‘poststructuralist’ would have probably rejected. Choat chooses to use the term to cover four specific philosophers: Lyotard, Derrida, Foucault and Deleuze. And the analysis focuses specifically on what they have written and said about Marx, leaving aside their (often very convoluted) links to Marxism in general. The book is thus not about the relations between poststructuralism and Marxism, and explicitly attempts to avoid the conflictive tone that the exploration of these relations retains elsewhere. Choat says he is interested in the relation that the poststructuralists have to Marx rather than to Marxism, and he repeatedly argues that the poststructuralist readings, though at times they come near to other types of – Marxist – readings, nonetheless offer original interpretations, ‘something new’ that more orthodox readings cannot give.

The justification for this double ‘reduction’ is Choat’s claim that the four philosophers’ readings of Marx share some common threads, and thus that their arguments are interrelated. Thus ‘poststructuralism’ is more than a mere label of convenience: there exist common uses and points that justify grouping these four authors under one banner. Other authors belonging to the same cultural tradition are not considered, either because their arguments are derivative of the four philosophers singled out (Laclau, Mouffe), or because in their originality they diverge too much from them (post-Marxism à la Hardt and Negri), or because they moved towards a completely different theoretical universe (Baudrillard). The first thesis of the book is therefore that there is a distinct and original ‘poststructuralist’ approach to Marx, one which reflects both the contextual situation within which poststructuralism arose, and its wider interests and influences. The second thesis is that this ‘common’ approach does not entail a dismissal of Marx; to the contrary, Choat argues, this engagement was a productive one, and has a philosophical and political significance for the contemporary world. The common traits shared by the four authors’ approaches to Marx can be summarised as follow: first, in some way or other, the four philosophers are committed to a common defence of Marx’s contemporary relevance; second, the poststructuralists are not interested in Marx’s work as a unified system, they do not try to establish a `true’ Marx or the truth in Marx, but rather read his work critically and selectively; third, they share an opposition to the Hegelian remnants in Marx’s philosophy, that is, his idealist ontology and teleology; and fourth, they call upon Marx as a radical, political figure.

Choat’s contention is that such an analysis can reveal something about both Marx and the four poststructuralists, that it can throw light on their respective strength and weaknesses and on ‘political philosophy more generally’ (2). On the one hand, Marx, according to Choat, anticipated certain poststructuralist themes and arguments; on the other, the poststructuralist readings of Marx allow us retrospectively to view Marx in a new light. What justifies these claims is the contention that both Marx and the poststructuralists are engaged in the same endeavour: to provide a genuinely materialist philosophy. This constitutes a sort of fil rouge that guides Choat’s analysis through the four readings and also positions the book within the wider debate about the status and nature of Marx’s materialism: Lyotard, Derrida, Foucault and Deleuze are also materialists, and their readings of Marx constitute a critique of a residual idealism that can be found in Marx. In order to better sustain the analysis, Choat proposes, from the outset, a definition of idealism which will guide the reading and will lead, in the conclusion, to an attempt at an ‘updated’ definition of materialism. The definition is derived from Althusser and considers as idealism any philosophy ‘of Origins and Ends, relying at once on an ontology – and a teleology – referring all events to a pre-established destiny’ (2).

The invaluable contribution of the four poststructuralists to the reading of Marx, according to Choat, consists precisely in their attacks on the remnants of ontology and teleology in Marx’s corpus: they push the critique of Marx’s idealism further than any attempt made by the Marxists, and thus help to reveal a different Marx. Moreover, they can help us to think about what a truly materialist philosophy should be. Choat argues therefore that Marx can benefit from poststructuralist readings, which can ‘supplement Marx’ (3) with new concepts and discussions. One is tempted to say that Choat wants to ‘update’ Marx with poststructuralist concepts like power, subjectivity, and desire. Choat is well aware of the thin line he is walking, and thus stresses time and again that Marx’s work retains the potential to offer something that poststructuralism does not. If the overall argument of the book is that ‘Marx emerges an invigorated figure after his encounter with poststructuralism’ (3) and is ‘enriched by [their] readings’ (36), then Choat always counterbalances the poststructuralist critiques by showing their limits and shortcomings. Through these readings, Choat concludes, Marx is shorn of certain ‘objectionable’ elements and supplemented with new concepts and perspectives, but his strengths also emerge in contrast to poststructuralism’s weaknesses.

The four readings follow a chronological structure and propose very precise and detailed analyses of what each philosopher wrote or said about Marx. Every chapter is construed so that the last section(s) shows what the shortcomings of the poststructuralist readings are, and how Marx’s work can, in turn, counterbalance them. The four reading also follow a progression: from Lyotard, the least Marxist and, for Choat, the least interesting of the four, to Deleuze, not only the sole one who always called himself a Marxist, but also the most creative, productive and inventive of them. Moreover, there is almost a divide between Lyotard/Derrida and Foucault/Deleuze, whereby the second group is the one which truly produced something important. Whereas Lyotard’s and Derrida’s readings are important, according to Choat, because they clearly identify the central charge that poststructuralism makes against Marx (against his ontology and teleology), they also seem to miss the real alternative to his idealism that already exists in Marx’s work itself. Both remain attached to what Choat calls a ‘philosophy of the event’ which prevents them from engaging in a truly effective social critique. Only Foucault and Deleuze, according to Choat, attained concrete analyses of power relations, contemporary capitalism and the production of subjectivity without reference to a metaphysical ontology, even though Foucault made almost only implicit reference to Marx and Deleuze eroded the distance that separates Marx and Nietzsche.

There is however a recurrent question that emerges at each reading, and which Choat makes explicit in his concluding chapter: ‘What can be made of Marx after poststructuralism?’. That is, what remains of Marx after these creative and unorthodox ‘uses’ and ‘criticisms’? ‘What is Marx without ideology, with no dialectic, where the economics is not determinant, where class is not the centre stage?’ (155). These questions remain open, since Choat refuses to draw a definitive conclusion; implicitly, however, he seems to argue for the inevitability of this revisiting. This seems to be the limit of this otherwise extremely balanced and informed study. In retaining a sympathetic view of both poststructuralism and Marx, in trying to ‘conciliate’ rather than ‘contrast’, he is almost forced in the end to avoid answering these questions. The answer seems to be the inevitability of syncretism in the contemporary world, which is itself a very ‘poststructuralist’ answer.

28 February 2011

2 comments

  1. This review is a decent summary of the book, insofar as it accurately conveys the aims that Choat sets out in his introductory and concluding chapters, but it does not engage at all with the central chapters on Lyotard, Derrida, Foucault, and Deleuze. Nor does it mention what is perhaps the most important element of the book, Choat’s explication of and reliance on the work of Althusser and Balibar. The 1845 break, Althusser’s definition of “idealism” (which is counterintuitive and somewhat misleading), and his particular interpretation of Thesis 11 all loom large in this text — often in such a way that they appear as given and unquestionably true. The “aleatory materialism” of Althusser’s later work (evidence of his being influenced by the poststructuralists) seems to be the model for Choat’s “materialist philosophy.”

    Also lacking in this review is any critical evaluation of Choat’s arguments. Is Choat asking the right questions? For example, why “Marx Through Post-Structuralism” and not “Post-Structuralism Through Marx”? His goal remains ambiguous throughout the text, vacillating between a justified desire to legitimize poststructuralism in the eyes of its Anglo-American Marxist critics — while at the same time denigrating those critics (Jameson, Harvey, et al.) — and a seemingly unjustified desire to redeem Marx for our contemporary world by showing how the poststructuralist reading is the only alternative that preserves a truly Marxian (if not Marxist) “materialist philosophy.” When Choat asks “what can now be done with Marx?” (165) he fails to explain why we must do anything at all with Marx. With such a radically “de-ontologized” and “non-teleological” version of Marx, one can’t help but wonder why it’s still necessary to retain the old mole’s endorsement.

  2. Like Terence Renaud (above), I also think it a pity that this review does not engage with what are very interesting and detailed arguments on each post-structuralist thinker and Marx. I also agree that the most important element of the book is the search for a genuinely materialist philosophy, also neglected by the review. But this key theme was not only, for me, the most interesting aspect of the book (as much as I enjoyed the chapters on each thinker and how they approached Marx), it was also the most controversial. I hope the author continues work in this thread, as it is a very interesting project, but as it appears here it is not without its difficulties. As Renaud comments, Choat relies quite heavily on Althusser’s (rather idiosyncratic, or at least, controversial) idea of idealism. This is quite acceptable. But it seems to me that it leads Choat to perhaps overlook aspects of the post-structuralist thinkers which would, according to another understanding of idealism, be idealist.

    For example, Derrida is claimed as a materialist because he suggests his work can be seen as a critique of idealism and because he seeks to do away with Marx’s metaphysical, logocentric, Hegelian elements. Choat makes a good case for seeing Derrida as a critic of idealism, in this sense. Choat situates Derrida’s critique of ontology and teleology in Marx in the territory of the Althusserian critique of idealism as an onto-teleological philosophy. But it is not clear that this Althusserian understanding exhausts everything in the term ‘idealism’. Similarly, Choat argues that Derrida cannot be seen as an idealist in the linguistic sense. But there seems to be a rather large idealist elephant here which is not dealt with. Although he brings out well Derrida’s critique of Marx’s ontology and teleology, and thereby provides a strong case for reading Derrida as casting new light on Marx, Choat does not directly address the question of how materialist Derrida’s idea of justice is. Because Derrida does not posit an End, but rather asserts an openness to the event – justice is always to-come – Choat claims him for materialism. (No quibble here, I am on Choat’s side on materialism disavowing teleology).

    But I think we can see Derrida as an idealist in another sense. Derrida’s notion of justice beyond law as something impossible – we can never say justice is actualised or a person is just, because justice beyond calculation (which implies existing law, not justice beyond law) is undecidable; it is a mere experience of absolute otherness. Justice beyond law or right, as the experience of the undecidable, is incalculable and infinite. Then justice seems empty. All experience seems to be ‘messianic’, on Derrida’s account: he writes of “Messianicity (which I regard as a universal structure of experience)” (‘Justice, Law and Philosophy: An interview with Jacques Derrida’ Journal of Philosophy Volume:18 Issue:3 1999). But Derrida wants to affirm a particular promise, not merely some vague content-free ‘promise’ inscribed in the very structure of experience. The future possibility that things might be different entails nothing about which future we might want to fight for. Yet Derrida links the idea of justice as messianic promise to the idea of “democracy-to-come”. The problem is: no particular content seems to follow logically from the moment of undecidability. Sheer contingency gives rise to no particular ethical/political project. Derrida describes justice as the experience of undecidability, but why should this experience give rise to any particular content? Why democratic? Derrida seems to think that the fact of undecidability itself provides a democratic content to the idea of justice inherent in all experience. Derrida is wrong that undecidability itself entails a responsibility. This mistake, it seems to me, is one we might call “idealist”. Derrida seems to fall back to a supposition of an essential ethical content inherent in all experience, derivable from the fact of undecidability alone.

    Having voiced this uneasiness with the description of Derrida as a materialist (given a wider sense of idealism), I want to say that I enjoyed this book a lot and definitely recommend it. It is the only accessible yet illuminating and genuine engagement with Marx and the four post-structuralist thinkers that I know of.

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