‘In the Spirit of Critique: Thinking Politically in the Dialectical Tradition’ reviewed by Rich Daniels

In the Spirit of Critique: Thinking Politically in the Dialectical Tradition

State University of New York Press, Albany, 2013. 183pp., $80 hb
ISBN 9781438448411

Reviewed by Rich Daniels

About the reviewer

Rich Daniels is Emeritus Associate Professor of English, Oregon State University, and works in …


In this book’s six relatively brief chapters, Andrew J Douglas attempts to define a “dialectical humanism” and moral concern (115) that he says undergird the tradition of dialectical thinking, in order to update that tradition so it “might speak to a modern experience in which citizens have come to see themselves increasingly, and in the throes of neoliberal hegemony perhaps almost exclusively, as something less than capacious agents of robust democratic politics” (116). The heart of the book lies in chapters three, four, and five, which treat in turn the dialectical works and ideas of Jean-Paul Sartre, Theodor Adorno, and C L R James; and its greatest strength is that it brings together these three authors as a kind of constellation to discuss dialectical thought, three authors who are seldom, if ever, considered in the same breath. This conjuncture I find both surprising and thought-provoking, although I often disagree with the direction Douglas takes the discussion.

The introductory chapter sets forth Douglas’s views of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century dialectical tradition and finds it problematic. We live, he says, in an age that has no patience for “grand narratives” and teleological thought, the main examples being the work of Hegel and Marx, which he by and large equates. Chapter two, “Restaging the Dialectic”, introduces the dramatic terms tragic and comic (here based mostly on Hegel and Aristotle) as poles of the discussion. The dialectical tradition has tended to emphasize comic resolution and, by the end, “harmonious reconciliation” (19), while Douglas thinks our time needs a more tragically inclined dialectic, one which more completely recognizes the trials and sufferings of ordinary people in their daily lives, a controversial notion of tragedy. A premise of the book, he writes, “is that, in order to draw upon the dialectical tradition to inform our engagement with the political, we must catch sight of the tragic dimension of the tradition”, which is there in Hegel and Marx, but “has often been obscured by the comic lightheartedness of the audience, by the grand theorists and historians, those removed from the felt struggles of ordinary women and men and more concerned to synthesize the longue durée of rational progress” (32). The focus of the rest of the book will be to “cull” from the works of Sartre, Adorno, and James “a series of contributions that speak to our own postpolitical moment” (41) (a focus that Adorno, at least, would have considered simply a misreading of any serious thinker).

Chapter three, “In a Milieu of Scarcity”, deals with Sartre’s “dialectical lens”, developed mainly (in English translation) in Search for a Method and The Critique of Dialectical Reason, in which the notion of scarcity, as well as his increased awareness of the deleterious effects of colonialism and racism, leads him, ultimately, beyond Marxism, to a kind of dialectical humanism, hardly surprising in this author: “Sartre’s meditations on dialectical reason—which encourage us to see our human interaction ‘in its inadequacy, in its imperfections and in its mistakes’—help to vivify, in our critical consciousness, a sense of limitation, imperfection, disappointment, perhaps a more tragic awareness that our human world does not always, or even very often, conform to our desires or expectations” (61). One senses not for the first time echoes of Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, although that text is never mentioned, and, more relevant here, Marx’s well-known dictum from the Eighteenth Brumaire, which, by my count, is referred or alluded to some fifteen times in Douglas’s book, forming a welcome if problematic undercurrent in its argument: “men make their own history … not under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past” (quoted 49).

Throughout his treatment of Sartre, Douglas is concerned with how the “dialectical tradition” can foster critical reflection on “the modern world”, “our human world” of “postindustrial culture” (59). There are a few references to Marx, almost none to capital or capitalism, let alone to the capitalist mode of production. Indeed, we live “after Marxism” (45) he says, and the argument of the book is not a Marxist one, although this is complicated by the many references to the passage from The Eighteenth Brumaire. Basically, the book is in one sense liberal-humanist, in another very important sense concerned with the colonial and racist underpinnings of Western culture. The first, in my view, is not worth attending to, and sounds like Camus or Niebuhr; the second, though, is well-taken and extremely important in our time. It’s what Douglas mainly finds in Sartre and James. He writes that the “deeply tragic character of the colonial and neocolonial situation only contributes to the failures of the Marxist project, for if we embrace honestly the entrenched, institutional complexities of racism and imperial hegemony, we are compelled to qualify our embrace of historical materialism as a rationally comprehensible phenomenon” (47). And Sartre, he argues, can “inspire a mode of critical reflection attuned to uncertainty, a mode of reflection more appropriate to political thinking after Marxism” (48). A final word on “scarcity”, the problem of which in our time is that capital, after its apparent triumph in the early 1990s, has steadily enforced scarcity or its appearance wherever possible, and in the midst of real abundance, for the sake of accumulation, and as one effect has steadily weakened people’s hope for a truly better world; it is a kind of neoliberal global Gleichschaltung. Struggling against this, while maintaining hope for a better world as our standard, is in my view one of our great challenges.

Perhaps the most awkward thing in this book is the inclusion of Adorno’s thought and work (chapter 4), although in a consideration of twentieth-century dialectical thought he could hardly be omitted, especially given his chief philosophical work, Negative Dialectics (1966). Nonetheless, he’s not an easy fit here, and I suspect he would have disagreed with most of Douglas’s argument, as well as with his mode of argument and understanding of what Adorno typically calls “dialectics” or “the materialist dialectic”, which he says more than once is something the thinker does, not something she or he defines or describes. Adorno’s work also remains within the purview of Marx’s category of the capitalist mode of production (of which, for Adorno, the materialist dialectic is a function), and is a critique of it (with the possible exception of parts of The Dialectic of Enlightenment), in the spirit of Marx. Adorno is also, in my view, the most thoroughly materialist writer there has been, despite his use of certain formerly theological terms, such as “transcendence” and “redemption”, which he clearly materializes. So it can be said (and I would) that Douglas’s entire project is misconceived from the start, so far as it depends on his uses of Adorno’s work. As for associating Adorno’s thought with any kind of humanism, one should recall his words from Minima Moralia (89): “In the innermost recesses of humanism, as its very soul, there rages a frantic prisoner who, as a Fascist, turns the world into a prison”. A moment’s thought about Abu Ghraib, for instance, and Guantanamo, as well as numerous anonymous “black sites” in the world, and then the massive displacements and the debt traps being foisted on working people worldwide, illustrates the truth of his remark.

In chapter 4, Douglas is concerned with how Adorno uses theological language (as noted above) in his effort to encourage critical thought in his time. Focusing mostly on Negative Dialectics, Douglas wants to see how Adorno’s materialist dialectic (between the “extreme poles” of despair and redemption) “can animate and sustain the critical imagination in challenging (elsewhere “dark”) times” (66). In a way, I suppose this view is beneficent, helpful to the reform spirit, although it seems a bit like brightsiding, and as a serious reader of Adorno’s work, I find it misleading, if not disheartening. Douglas denatures Adorno’s thought, separating it from the spirit and substance of Western Marxism, where it belongs, and being ambivalent about Adorno and (largely Jewish) theology. There is no such ambivalence in Adorno’s thought, at any stage. I am also unsympathetic to his understanding of Adorno and his possible uses for our own time. Somewhere, Adorno writes that the question is not what might be living or dead in Hegel’s philosophy, but rather how we look from the standpoint of Hegel’s work (or Marx’s for that matter, or, now, Adorno’s). It’s just this diminished, partial sense of the materialist dialectic in important philosophical and critical work that I cannot abide, the effort to “cull” what one might find useful from it. What follows from this is necessarily, at best, a reformist and liberal-humanist view of contemporary society that ends up merely contributing to the reproduction of capitalist social relations (68 ff.)

It’s also problematic that Douglas’s take on Marx and Marxism is much the same, that its time has passed but there remain some aspects of it that are potentially useful to the democratic spirit today, speaking to “ordinary citizens struggling to make sense of and improve their lives and their communities” (87). To this end, he always refers to “modernity” or some variant thereof rather than, say, the capitalist mode of production, which, properly understood, remains a very powerful term of understanding and critique. Chapter 4 and the book are replete with efforts to distance and separate critique from any Marxist understanding. What’s left is a rather wizened sense of dialectical thinking, and of Adorno’s carefully wrought, thorough-going materialist dialectic.

In chapter 5, “The Instinctive Dialectic”, Douglas focuses mostly on certain works by the ever-interesting Caribbean Marxist philosopher C L R James, and it is, to the extent that it keeps its focus on James’s work, the strongest of the book’s substantive chapters. Following a contextual introduction, it is divided into three sections of a few pages each: “Contours of a Romantic Humanism”, “Hegelian Pastiche” and “The Tragedy of Self-Activity”, followed by a brief conclusion. Douglas introduces the “humanism” of the early Marx of the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (James read the parts translated by Grace Lee Boggs and Raya Dunayevskaya 1943-7), via brief references to Erich Fromm and Judith Butler. He writes that in “Western modernity as such, humanist discourse has been mobilized, often implicitly, as a kind of ideological smokescreen” to hide relations of power (92). Fair enough, but he still uses the notion positively throughout the book. C L R James, he says, “brings a rather distinctive perspective to bear on his embrace of Hegel, Marx, and the humanist elements of the dialectical tradition” (93).

On another, related note, Douglas—and perhaps James, too—sees Descartes and Cartesianism, and the mind/body split, as “the dominant strand of modern European thinking” (97), a far too common assertion that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, unless restricted to Francophone thought. What, one might ask, of Spinoza, the great contemporary critic of Descartes? What of Kant, and especially of Hegel and Marx? And what of the Frankfurt School thinkers, and contemporary Western Marxism? W G Sebald? Descartes, although influential, has clearly not been dominant.

Douglas fully appreciates the importance of James’s emphasis on the achievements of black Americans, as well as the suffering and dehumanization they have experienced, his thinking here being inspired by James’s 1938 books The Black Jacobins and A History of Pan-African Revolt. Douglas also does not deny that James is a Marxist intellectual, concerned (in this like Frantz Fanon) with universals, and the welfare and fate of the entire working class, as well as with the incredible suffering caused by Western racism. In this book, however, concerned with dialectical thought, it is odd that so little attention is paid to James’s 1948 text Notes on Dialectics, or to the problems of the James estate that have kept the full, longer version of that work from being published.

It’s certainly true, as Douglas notes, that James’s sense of the tragic and of tragedy, derived from Aristotle, Shakespeare, Hegel, and Melville, as well as from the sufferings of African peoples, deepens and complicates understanding of the travails and suffering of “ordinary people” in general—this is a significant part of the strength and interest of James’s work. That said, it is odd that in a book where the category of tragedy, and the problem of agency (although rarely discussed as such) are putatively so central, the plays of Sartre or of Samuel Beckett, or of Adorno’s great essay on Endgame, are never once brought up, when these dramatic works so deeply question the very being, the fractured structure of the bourgeois subject, and the notion of tragedy, whether or not Western. Some reference to Brecht might also have been apropos. These lacks weaken the book’s uses of the notions of the tragic, and indeed puts them into question. Nonetheless, Douglas’s treatment of the work of C L R James shows it to exhibit, as he says, “a dialectical style of thinking, a spirit of critique, [that] recommends itself as a potent resource in the struggle for a more human and humane world, the struggle, James might say, for happiness” (112).

Chapter 6 is a five-page Conclusion that “recaps” briefly what has been said about dialectical thought and the three thinkers considered—Sartre, Adorno, and James—and the problem of the political quietism promoted by the “ethical turn” in the present conjuncture. Douglas writes (as earlier quoted) that “our focus throughout the book has been on how dialectical thinking might speak to a modern experience in which citizens have come to see themselves increasingly, and in the throes of neoliberal hegemony perhaps almost exclusively, as something less than capacious agents of robust democratic publics” (116). One can appreciate this sentiment but also question it. What exactly is meant by the term “citizen”, and how useful can it be, beyond the ideological center-right of wealthy nations, in this global age of migrant workers, refugees, vast unemployment, and “illegal” immigration? And who exactly are these “capacious agents”, and are there really, in this stage of the capitalist mode of production, any “robust democratic publics” (116)? Were there ever? The terminology is regressive, and the problem of unexamined agency haunts the book, from start to finish. Ultimately, I feel ambivalent about the book: I keep wanting to like and value it, at the same time as my reactions to it are, for the most part, negative.

Two lesser problems I wish to mention. Too much of the actual argument is carried on, from time to time, in the footnotes, so one has to keep on referring to them at the back of the book. Second, there is no list of works cited, and one is sorely needed.

21 July 2014

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