Marx’s Reply to the Post-Marxists
Davie MacLean

In the opening sentence of his talk, Geoff asks, ‘Can there be a democratic socialism that renounces the utopian fantasy of social harmony?'

I wish to ask, ‘Can we retain Marx’s original conception of communism and still renounce the utopian fantasy of social harmony?’ That is — can we hold onto the goal of the abolition of class society, without believing this will also abolish all social antagonisms and so remove any basis for politics or ethical life within a communist society?

And furthermore, can we hold onto Marx’s idea of the proletariat as the universal class, a class with a unique and privileged position in relation to this goal of abolishing classes and class society ?

Can we do this? In my view, Yes, we can! And if my view can be sustained, then much of the arguments raised by the post-marxists against Marx fall away.

We must begin with the claim that society, and classes, are discursively constituted, that is — are located within the realm of language. At the core of society stands a number of empty signifiers — democracy, freedom, human rights — just exactly what these signifiers are to mean is precisely what makes up the content of political struggle, while the various social forces carrying out these struggles are defined in opposition to one another — capital is not labour, labour is not capital. Because they are defined in this way, no one social force can reconcile the whole of society to itself, since every social force defines itself by excluding another.

Furthermore, social forces only come into being through this political struggle, they are defined by the political stance they take. A classic example of this was the movement in Australia against French nuclear testing in 1995 — the social forces engaged in struggle over this issue were defined only by the struggle itself, by the position for or against they took in order to enter the fray. Outside of this political stance they had no existence. The movement was not a movement of the ‘working class’, or of ‘progressives’, ‘pacifists’ etc, but rather the ‘working class’, ‘progressives’ and ‘pacifists’ were defined by their decision to oppose the French nuclear tests.

But is this post-marxist discourse theory a fair description of the political terrain as it stands today?

To which my answer is — yes, and that’s exactly the problem!

Not only is it the problem, it is in fact the same problem that Marx addressed as early as 1843, in his criticism of the separation of the political citizen from the living individual engaged in material life, life that contains language but cannot be reduced to it, life as the social praxis that gives language its basis. The result is a split that runs through every individual member of society, the split between the discursive field of politics, and the reality of everyday life, which is conducted using language but also involves engaging with the world, a world that includes what Zizek calls the Real, the Real that lies beyond the symbolic order imposed by language and culture. And for Marx, it is precisely this split that defines society as bourgeois. It is this split that must be overcome.

The problem does not only lie on the side of politics, which can discuss anything except the praxis through which society meets its natural and material needs, the praxis Marx calls production, and which bourgeois thought reduces to economics, a reduction that Marx fiercely resists because the whole point is that what is produced through production are not products but society itself.

The problem also lies with production itself, which likewise is now discursively constituted, this time not only through spoken language, but through the symbols of applied technology — bits, digits, mathematical formulae, technical drawings, SOP’s etc etc. Under capital, production is always reproduction, the reproduction of what has already been pre-produced in language.

The task then is to liberate both politics and production from their confinement within language, and this liberation is communism, so that the real, everyday practices through which we all contribute to the satisfaction of each others needs become the real content of political life, politics is no longer simply talk. And production? Production can now develop fully, along the two lines capital combines into one — on the one hand the satisfaction of humanity’s general needs through the use of technology, and on the other the production of works of art, artworks that have the capacity to ground human community through the common appreciation of their aesthetic content.

Here we have an entirely different basis for human community -

We have social direction over the production of society’s needs, which includes of course proper care of our planet,

And we have the activity of producing art, works of art that human beings can agree as being worthy of merit, of having value in themselves, works we can all appreciate.

It is this production of greats of works of art that in my view is the meaning of the singular articulation to the universal law that Geoff speaks of — the singular artwork that is universally acclaimed.

Where then does this leave social antagonism? Social antagonism remains because human beings are not simply social beings, we are also anti-social. Antagonisms will erupt over exactly where the boundaries of society should lie, over what should or should not be produced socially — and this includes issues such as how we raise our children for example — and what should be left for individuals, or family groups, or artistic communities, or whatever other collective forms may exist, to produce for themselves.

And at the boundary between human society and the non-social world, in other words over the environment.

And antagonisms will also arise over artworks, because exactly to what extent an art work is truly great or whether it is only appreciated for arbitrary social or cultural reasons, fashion for example — this boundary is unclear, it is undecidable, and as such will constitute a political terrain in its own right.

But such antagonisms will not be class struggles, instead they will resemble the social forces discursively constituted by discourse theory. And the proletariat ? The proletariat acts as the universal class precisely because it is NOT simply discursively constituted — for while the proletariat is certainly defined as the opposite of the bourgeois, the proletariat is also the producing class, it is engaged not only in class struggle with capital but also with the world, in production. This is decisive.

As Marx put it in The German Ideology,

‘Up till now the communal relationship into which the individuals of a class entered, and which was determined by their common interests over against a third party, was always a community to which these individuals belonged only as average individuals, only insofar as they lived within the conditions of existence of their class — a relationship in which they participated not as individuals but as members of a class. With the community of revolutionary proletarians, on the other hand, who take their conditions of existence and those of all members of society under their control, it is just the reverse ; it is as individuals that the individuals participate in it’. [p.85]

And so in liberating itself from the yoke of capital it liberates both society and production from the yoke of being discursively constituted, it restores production to society and art to production.

And it is this conception of communism that forms Marx’s reply to the post-marxists.