‘Deleuze and Marx’ reviewed by Jay Conway

Deleuze and Marx

Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 2009. 128pp., £22.99 pb
ISBN 9780748638932

Reviewed by Jay Conway

About the reviewer

Jay Conway is the author of Gilles Deleuze: Affirmation in Philosophy (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010). …


Deleuze and Marx, a 2009 supplement to Volume 3 of the journal Deleuze Studies, gathers together essays by Simon Choat, Aidan Tynan, Aldo Pardi, Jason Read, Eduardo Pellejero, and Guillaume Sibertin-Blanc. These pieces, along with Dhruv Jain’s introduction, are available in paperback form. They may also be purchased individually through the Edinburgh University Press homepage (www.euppublishing.com/journal/dls).

The dominant academic reception of Deleuze’s work subsumed it under the headings of ‘postmodernism’, ‘poststructuralism’, and ‘continental philosophy’. But Deleuze employed a very different set of categories to characterize his work, most notably, ‘philosophy’, ‘empiricism’, and ‘vitalism’. To recognize the unfashionable nature of these identifications we simply have to consider the gravitational pull exerted by the theme of ‘the end of philosophy’, the structuralist representation of empiricism (empiricists are those who confuse episodic, observable facts for knowledge), and the displacement of French Bergsonism by Hegelian and phenomenological currents. Understanding the precise character of Deleuze’s identifications, however, is one of the great challenges facing his readers. After all, Deleuze’s affirmation of philosophy is not simply his decision to identify with the term ‘philosophy’; it is the construction of a system of concepts—a system that includes a powerful, nuanced vision of philosophical practice. Similarly, the affirmation of empiricism involves a specific way of thinking unity (as a function of external relations), a specific vision of the social (as the site of institutions or behavioral models irreducible to natural instinct), and a specific account of the conditions of experience (one that accents experience’s durability and modifiability). The affirmation of vitalism involves an explicitly abstract and ethical distinction between life and how life happens to be organized.

The value of Deleuze and Marx lies in the light it casts on a fourth, less well-known term of identification. In conversation with Toni Negri, Deleuze stated he remained a Marxist; at the time of his death he was working on a study of Marx (Grandeur de Marx). Considering the post-1968 backlash against Marxism and the very idea of revolution, Deleuze’s decision to situate his work in this way was no more fashionable than his other affirmations. And like the affirmations of philosophy, empiricism, and vitalism, this feature of Deleuze’s thought requires a more complex explication than simply pointing to an interview or unfinished manuscript. For this reason, this collection of essays is a welcome addition to the fields of Deleuze and Marx scholarship. Granted, the density of each of Deleuze’s concepts, not to mention the complex relations among his concepts, highlights the severe limitations of the essay form. Granted, as in most collections the quality of the writing and analysis in this one is uneven. In the case of Aldo Pardi’s essay, the prose is so awkward, the use of theoretical language so forced, and the positions attributed to Deleuze so strange that one cannot help but wonder about the quality of Daniel Richter’s translation. For example, Deleuze is depicted as undermining the ‘totalitarianism’ of traditional philosophy by deconstructing univocity, transcendental inquiries, and the concepts of being or essence. In reality, Deleuze utilizes elements of traditional philosophy to engineer a vision of transcendental empiricism and unique conceptions of being, essence, and univocity. But despite the inclusion of Pardi’s essay, Deleuze and Marx offers an effective preliminary consideration of Deleuze’s relationship to Marx. Three particularly constructive effects of the collection should be acknowledged.  

First, the essays help us frame Deleuze’s philosophy by implicitly and explicitly challenging certain misperceptions. These misperceptions are extreme distortions of Deleuze’s thought that have, nevertheless, gained traction. For example, the tendency to place Deleuze’s name under the headings of ‘postmodernism’ and ‘poststructuralism’ has the effect of suggesting Deleuze’s relationship to Marx is, first and foremost, that of a critic—one who attacks Marx’s analysis of history as a reductive ‘master-narrative’ resting upon a spurious teleology. Similarly, this uncritical classification of Deleuze’s philosophy encourages us to think of the unfinished Grandeur of Marx and Derrida’s Specters of Marx as poststructuralist reconsiderations of Marx’s work. But Deleuze’s principal relationship to Marx’s thought was never that of a critic, and his relationship to Marx has as little to do with Derrida’s as his philosophy has to do with deconstruction. Choat’s, Tyman’s and Read’s respective treatments of Difference and Repetition and Anti-Oedipus make all of this abundantly clear. Choat, for example, foregrounds the conception, endorsement, and implementation of universal history in Anti-Oedipus. Appealing to the Grundrisse, Deleuze and Guattari argue that, for Marx, the meaning of history is contingent, retroactive, and a function of discontinuity: through contrast, capitalism—a contingent, dynamic calculus operating independently of rigid beliefs and values—renders visible essential characteristics of previous social formations.  

Choat’s and Tynan’s contributions also have the merit of directly and critically addressing Zizek’s account of Deleuze’s trajectory. According to Zizek, the ‘true Deleuze’ is an apolitical thinker who arrived at an impasse consisting of two contradictory metaphysics (one contained in Difference and Repetition, the other in Logic of Sense). Evading responsibility (i.e. the task of resolving contradiction), Deleuze engages in political theory (represented by his work with Guattari). But as Choat points out, Deleuze’s Nietzsche and Philosophy should be seen as a politics of forces and powers. In other words, Deleuze was a political thinker long before Anti-Oedipus. Similarly, Tynan underscores significant connections between Difference and Repetition and Anti-Oedipus. Choat’s and Tynan’s observations can be strengthened by considering the explicitly social and political character of Deleuze’s earliest titles—Empiricism and Subjectivity and Instincts and Institutions—as well as the concluding pages of Bergsonism, the two books on Spinoza’s Ethics, and the metaphysics of Difference and Repetition. In many respects, Deleuze was the most classical of contemporary philosophers. He was a system-builder who engaged in metaphysics, epistemology, aesthetics, and yes, ethics and politics simultaneously. Plus, it must be said that Zizek’s depiction of Deleuze’s philosophy as two contradictory metaphysics is as superficial as the claim his philosophy is apolitical. On the one hand, Deleuze has more than two metaphysics: one is mediated by Hume, others by Spinoza, Bergson, Nietzsche, and Stoicism. On the other hand, each of the metaphysics found in his writings must be regarded as diverse, concrete expressions of the same abstract gestures: a rethinking of unity and difference, a meditation on the conditions and risks of creativity. At best Zizek’s reading of Deleuze illustrates Deleuze’s contention that the notion of contradiction, along with the desire to score points against an author, masks more than it discloses.

A second important effect of Deleuze and Marx is the way it draws our attention to, and includes, expository sketches of some of Deleuze’s references to Marx’s work. Choat describes how Deleuze raises the question of Marx’s relationship to Nietzsche in the course of reconstructing the latter’s theory of bodies and practice of critique. Bodies are dynamic assemblages of active and reactive forces—assemblages whose general direction is either affirmative (the figure of the Master) or negative (the figure of the Slave). Instead of being difference in general, determination through negation or opposition (i.e. the dialectic) is associated with the diminishment of active, creative forces. Alongside this distinction between Nietzschean and Hegelian difference, Deleuze distinguishes two images of critique: Nietzsche’s merciless prelude to creativity is contrasted with Kant’s critical project (critique as a means of re-founding the established values of truth and morality). As Deleuze considers Nietzsche’s divergence from Hegel and Kant, he references Marx’s critical attitude toward the Hegelian dialectic. Mind you, he does this in passing, and the question of Marx’s relationship to Nietzsche is simply posed. But, as Choat points out, we can consider this as foreshadowing the depiction of universal history in Anti-Oedipus. As stated above, Deleuze and Guattari do not oppose Marx’s style of historiography to Nietzschean geneaology as much as render the two indistinguishable.

Choat, Tynan, and Read each explore the role Marx plays in the metaphysics of Difference and Repetition. In Deleuze’s redirected Platonism, beings are Ideas—differential structures existing within an open-ended series of heterogeneous actualizations. And, Deleuze presents Marx’s analysis of capitalism as illustrating this line of thought. Instead of being a reductive gesture, the accent Marx places on the economy becomes the non-reductive gesture par excellence. For the economy is not an area of the social operating as an external cause on the remainder, but a series of abstract (or virtual) relations and roles expressed in disparate, concrete forms across the social field. Deleuze’s interest in Marx’s notion of fetishism lies in the way it substitutes the notion of objective misapprehension (a form of misperception rooted in the very material relations it conceals) for the familiar distinctions between subjective and objective, appearance and reality. In Deleuze’s theory of Ideas, the virtual structure is necessarily concealed by its expressions. Choat, Tynan, and Read also identify the ways Marx mediates the concept of desiring production and the analysis of capitalism found in Anti-Oedipus. Deleuze and Guattari draw careful parallels between their critique of psychoanalysis and Marx’s critique of bourgeois political economy, and integrate the major elements of Marx’s analysis in their portrayal of capitalism as a quantitative axiomatic possessing internal limits and an inherent flexibility that enables these limits to be displaced.

What should be clear—and what Deleuze and Marx helps to make clear—is the absence of an overarching use of Marx’s work in Deleuze’s writings. Deleuze uses Marx’s work for a wide range of conceptual purposes: some predictable (understanding capitalism), some surprising (crafting a theory of being). In fact, the first appearance of Marx’s name in Nietzsche and Philosophy is a reference to Marx’s dissertation on atomism. Just as Spinoza argued that the relations within and between bodies requires the concept of mode rather than substance, so Deleuze argues that this relationality requires the concept of force rather than atom. What this reference helps us to see is that there is an overarching way Deleuze positions Marx’s writings: as philosophy in the precise Deleuzian sense of the word. Deleuze’s references encourage us to see Marx as a prodigious inventor of concepts, as someone engaged in metaphysics (an attempt to understand the social-historical world), as someone who practiced a form of abstraction that reveals rather than obscures the concrete, as someone who broke with familiar forms of unity and difference, and as someone that folded the subjective (appearance and misapprehension) into the objective. Additionally, from his earliest writings Deleuze will invoke Marx so that readers do not confuse his theory of difference with a vague celebration of difference (or the virtual). Presenting a structure as composed of difference is one thing, endorsing or evaluating that difference is another.

Of course the way Deleuze positions Marx brings to mind the latter’s call for a thought that addresses and is integrated in a practice of social transformation. One meaning of the conjunction in the title Deleuze and Marx is the question of Marx’s complex and varied influence on Deleuzian concepts; another is the question of Deleuze and political struggle. The raising of this question by Read, Pellejero, and Sibertin-Blanc is the third important effect of this collection of essays. In addition to pointing out the obvious—Deleuze’s theorization of the political is non-teleological and is not presented as a political program—the authors identify areas of Deleuze’s work that anyone wrestling with the question of Deleuzian praxis would need to consider: Deleuze’s theory of faculties (in particular the faculty of sociability), his concept of the minoritarian, his assertion that revolutions have a virtual side (an assertion made against the platitude that revolutions never work out), his conviction that social fields always lack self-identity (if there are dominant structures, there are also cracks, leaks, or minoritarian spaces), and the way his practice of universal history modifies the notion of a subject of history. Regrettably, the important question of Deleuze’s praxis is closed far too quickly in Deleuze and Marx. Deleuze becomes associated with overly general and familiar positions such as the renunciation of revolution in favor of resistance or the belief that another world is possible. But Deleuze was a vocal critic of the post-1968 attacks on the idea of revolution and, following Bergson, contested the concepts of possibility or potentiality (even when the focus is the connection between political action and the growth of a sense of possibility). For Deleuze, a new world is precisely that which is not already given; creating it, therefore, should not be understood as realizing a pre-existing potential or possibility. Deleuze uses the term ‘virtual’ instead of ‘possible’ precisely to highlight the labor, uncertainties, and risks of creativity. The difficulty of true creativity is also one of the principal themes of the concluding section of Anti-Oedipus. Deleuze and Guattari’s discussion of the heterogeneous tendencies constitutive of groups (militant groups in particular), the examination of the risks of each tendency, and of different ratios of tendencies, makes one think of the courageous and experimental spirit of the recent ‘Occupy’ movements—movements Deleuze and Guattari would have no doubt supported.

4 March 2012

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