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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Marx : le spectre et l’œuvre aujourd’hui

by Maurice Ulrich

Marx: The Specter and the Works Today

Translated Sunday 17 March 2013, by Gene Zbikowski

The capitalists pretend that they believe that Das Kapital, Marx’s great work, is outdated, 130 years after his death. But the economic and financial crisis only underline its relevance.

“A specter is haunting Europe, the specter of communism.” That’s the famous first sentence of the Communist Manifesto, published by Marx and Engels in 1848 and written at the request of what was then called the League of Communists, whose concern, in a way, was to possess a program or theoretical corpus. It was no accident that the League turned to Marx and to Engels, who was to stand shoulder to shoulder with Marx throughout Marx’s theoretical and practical life.

Born in Trier in 1818, Marx already enjoyed a solid reputation as an exceptional thinker and polemicist, whose revolutionary position had already been adopted. Vladimir Jankelevitch, the philosopher, once noted that there is in Marx, simultaneously with innovative and rigorous thought, at the very least, a moral point of view.

In fact, the young Marx, when he wrote a high school graduation paper, “Reflections of a Young Man on The Choice of a Profession” had already set himself a goal: “But the chief guide which must direct us in the choice of a profession is the welfare of mankind and our own perfection. It should not be thought that these two interests could be in conflict, that one would have to destroy the other; on the contrary, man’s nature is so constituted that he can attain his own perfection only by working for the perfection, for the good, of his fellow men.”

Political analyses of an exceptional perspicacity

One might annotate the relative philosophical naivety of these words, which are inspired at one and the same time by Greek thought, by Kant, and even by Hegel. One might also draw attention to what is already at work in the dialectical relationship that he introduces between Man and the world. But the fact is that the young man, first as a philosophy student, and then as a journalist (the Rheinische Zeitung) unhesitatingly enters politics.

Throughout his life, which was marked by censure, exile, and the poverty for which Engels was to compensate as well as he might, Marx was to hold to that line, working to bring the communists together through action, through programmatic texts, and through polemics, as in 1875 with the Critique of the Gotha Programme.

His political analyses, of an exceptional perspicacity, like the analysis in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, throw back ridicule on those who would like to see in him mechanistic analyses.

But Marx’s struggle was to reach its climax with the writing of the enormous work that is Das Kapital, whose first volume was published in 1867 and whose writing was to occupy him until his death in 1883. It is in the broadest sense of the term a work of political economics, underpinned by profound philosophical thinking, but it is the expression of Marx’s desire to put into the hands of the “proletariat,” the exploited of the whole world, the theoretical instruments of their liberation, by analyzing in as much depth as possible the logics of exploitation. Marx meant to reveal all the cogs in the machine, its mystifications and its fetishisms, and, in so doing, in making its functioning and its destructive dead-ends understandable for men and women, to work towards the abolition of a capitalist system whose globalization he had already understood.

But in order to undertake that task, it was necessary for him to realize a veritable reversal of philosophical perspective. In the 20th century, this reversal was often conceived of in a distorted way, as was the opposition between Marx’s historical and dialectical materialism and the idealistic philosophers. That was to forget that Marx, who admired Greek thought, had read philosophy extensively and that his relationship with Hegel’s philosophy, which one might in a certain way describe as the high point of idealism, was more complex and consequently more dialectic than has been said. One may point out, on this score, Lucien Sève’s remarkable introduction to Marx’s “purely” philosophical texts in the edition published by Flammarion. However it is indeed true that where philosophy wanted to go from Heaven (ideas) down to earth (Man), Marx certainly intends to go the opposite way: To start from real people, rooted in a history which is the history of class struggles, and who are called upon to create, themselves, the conditions of their emancipation. Thus, he says, “the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”

Discredited by the simplifications to which he was subjected by 20th-century mechanistic readings, and by the systems that adhered to them, Marx’s thought and works have more often than not been obscured by the universities and intellectual circles, though not without notable exceptions. In the post-war years, besides thinkers directly linked to the communist parties, Sartre inscribed his reflexion within the horizons of Marxism and Merleau-Ponty saw him reborn in the economic crises. Closer to us, Gilles Deleuze refers to Marxism in such essential questions as state violence. Jacques Derrida, before the economic and financial crisis of capitalism that we are experiencing, published Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning & the New International as an echo to the specter of communism.

With but for a few exceptions, the capitalists and their ideologists pretend that they believe Das Kapital is outdated. Oh, come on! But the specter of Marx does not simply crop up from time to time, to then go back into the night. It is not his ghost, but his concrete works, to be read and re-read, and which every day invite us to revolutionary work in thinking. By the by, Marx is said to have gotten angry one day, during a discussion among communists, in which one of them called into question the usefulness of theoretical work. Marx retorted; “Up to now, ignorance has never served anyone.”

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