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Symbols of Failure? Radical Democracy between Past and Future

Review of Warren Breckman, Adventures of the Symbolic: Post-Marxism and Radical Democracy by Warren Breckman. Columbia University Press, 2013. 376p.

Twenty-five years ago the revolutions of 1989 transformed the political landscape of the Cold War world. Crises were nothing new in the history of Marxism—the dates 1914, 1933, 1956, and 1968 all come to mind—each prompting serious debates and reappraisals of what the theory could mean in the context of the times. The fall of the Berlin Wall certainly marked the end of Soviet communism as politics. But according the story told in Warren Breckman’s Adventures of the Symbolic these events were the political conclusion to a philosophy that had already been challenged and pushed aside decades earlier. For many Western radicals, the rise of the New Left and its fallout in post-1968 France brought about an agonizing re-examination of what emancipatory politics could mean when it rejected both the high capitalism of the United States and the repressive communism of the Soviet bloc. These two points—1968 and 1989—form the historical backdrop for this book, as it frames the development of radical democratic theory as a response to the problems associated with Marxism.

Breckman, a professor of modern European intellectual history at the University of Pennsylvania, begins from the current empty space where Marxism once stood as a political project that sought to link critical theory to revolutionary practice. Unlike so many trenchant and theoretically innovative critics of capitalism from the past century—Lenin, Lukacs, and Gramsci all come to mind—he reminds us that today we are no longer capable of taking at face value the certainty of an objective historical dialectic, the need for a revolutionary vanguard party, or even the primacy of class struggle for historical development. Neither should we pin our hopes to social democracy and the welfare state—a discussion of these twentieth century alternatives to communism is all but absent here, as they have become integral to the functioning of global capitalism, with years of neoliberal reforms culminating in the Great Recession now pushing them to the edge of crisis.

By now this story is familiar. For the Left, the result of this displacement of Marxism has been a pluralization of resistance movements along identity lines and specific issues, their organization tending to emphasize the local and the horizontal. Furthermore, the influence of French theory (especially post-structuralism and deconstruction) on the American academy in the 1980s and 90s undermined the historical metanarratives and universalism that made Marxism the heir of the Enlightenment. Today, with the neoliberalization of the university threatening humanities departments everywhere, theory itself is in crisis. Yet both left-liberals and Marxists alike remain skeptical of its usefulness for articulating a political program around which social movements can be built and fought. To many, “theory” continues to represent a waywardness of critical thought, the point where the ruthless criticism of all that exists becomes a solipsistic and indulgent exercise in self-examination (Recently Francois Cusset, in his book French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States, has called theory above all a discourse on itself and on the conditions of its production, i.e. the university).

On the basis of this current situation, Breckman turns to the idea of the symbolic as a lens through which to re-think the possibilities that radical democratic politics holds for us today and to highlight “the pressing relevance of radical democratic theory to the prospects of protest movements for contesting and transforming the coordinates of the world as it is” (285). Like Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Adventures of the Dialectic (whose title it echoes), the story is organized around a key concept as a means of offering a narrative about radical thought from the nineteenth century to the present. But whereas Merleau-Ponty was writing in the 1950s, at a time when Marxism still constituted the horizon of radical thought, here the focus is on the post-Marxist tradition that developed in response to its limitations—in particular the limitations of the orthodox Marxism that was the state philosophy of the Soviet Union and of various communist parties in the West. Summarizing the book’s theme, Breckman asks “What are the possibilities of creating and sustaining a positive emancipatory project” (6) beyond the Marxist framework?

Why turn to the symbolic, and what is its value for thinking about the potential of radical democracy? Part of the answer lies in the contrast that Breckman draws between the complexity and ambiguity represented by the idea of the symbolic, and the ontological and epistemological realism implicit in the Enlightenment’s emancipatory project. That lineage, running from Rousseau to Kant to Hegel to Marx, affirmed the capacity of philosophy and critique to guide us in accurately knowing the world. At the center of the Enlightenment project was a desire to desymbolize the world by reducing the transcendent dimension of human existence to the immanent and ‘this-worldly.’ Whereas the task of religion was to mystify and obscure the foundations of social order, Enlightenment thinking sought to achieve its clarity and self-transparence. To desymbolize the world was to secularize it. In essence, it meant a radical rejection of the idea that the world eluded our capacity for understanding.

In this spirit, Hegel challenged the Romantics by putting forward an essentially secular philosophy that emphasized the self-conscious self-determination of humanity through a universal historical process. Meanwhile Marx, influenced by the political and philosophical attitudes of Young Hegelians like Feuerbach, saw human emancipation as the overcoming of the otherness and alienation of modern bourgeois society—problems that humanity set before itself, and as a result, was also capable of solving. Yet for Breckman this emancipatory vision of modernity was “a state of longing for an impossible unity” (34) that could never come.

He explains that the reason for this inability to achieve a fundamental unity between a radical social philosophy and the social order it referenced was the dissonance created by the symbolic phenomenon of language. The epistemological and ontological realism through which Marx and Engels’s writings were interpreted by their followers assumed at least a minimal degree of coherence between consciousness and world. In the body of Marxist literature that emerged alongside the Second International, forms of social consciousness could be explained by pointing to a given society’s mode of production and stage in historical development. The realms of activity where symbolic forms dominated—namely language, religion, art, and culture—were treated as epiphenomenal products of the superstructure, which in turn was determined by (non-symbolic) social labor and value. According to this view, the task of historical materialism was to expose the symbolic dimension as an illusory realm—as ideology seen through the lens of the camera obscura—by tracing its origins to the material substratum of society.

The history of Western Marxism can understood as a series of attempts to explain the interaction between the material forces shaping the world and the social role of ideology and consciousness. Although he does not figure into the story here, the Hegelian Marxism of Lukacs, whose History and Class Consciousness (1923) became perhaps the most influential text for the rich tradition of humanist Marxism, was a response to the economistic tendencies of earlier theories. Following Marx’s reflections on the mystifying role of the commodity-form and developing the ideas of reification and false consciousness, Lukacs held that capitalism’s obscuring of human beings’ real social relations could be exposed by philosophically grasping the working out of the historical dialectic. Yet as Martin Jay noted in Marxism and Totality (1984), Lukacs still argued for the ability to gain knowledge of a concrete totality, which he defined as the “conceptual reproduction of reality.” In other words, history read through the dialectical unfolding of the relationship between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat affirmed the certainty of the proletarian point of view and its status as the subject-object of history.

As a result, the post-Marxist turn to the symbolic must be understood as a response both to the positivist and naturalist interpretations of Marx, and to Hegelian Marxism’s search for the possibility of demystification through the critique of ideology. Breckman does not begin with Marx but devotes space to the pre-Marxian “adventure” of the symbolic as something akin to a subterranean current in modern thought, going back to the German Romantics, the Young Hegelians, and the little known socialist Pierre Leroux. Although he clarifies that there was no direct line of influence between the Romantics and post-Marxism, he suggests that there is an affinity between them. For the Romantics the symbol was inherently ambiguous, in that it both concentrated and dispersed meaning. On one hand, it created a link between an object and its representation. But because no representation can ever be identical to its object, the symbol also highlighted an unbridgeable gap between the two.

In the second half of the twentieth century, this emphasis on the ambiguity of representation amounted to a turn away from epistemological realism. Figures like Claude Levi-Strauss, Jacques Lacan and Louis Althusser came to the forefront as the heralds of a new structuralist critique of humanism. Among this movement’s most important contributions was seeing the social world as pre-constituted by a linguistic symbolic order. Lacan’s idea of the real—that ontological certainty imagined to exist beyond the representation but which we cannot penetrate because of the inherently ambiguous nature of language —articulated this constant absence at the basis of social existence. In turn Althusser, who was influenced by Lacanian psychoanalysis, theorized ideology not as a distortion of real social relations, but as the imaginary relationship that individuals had to their real conditions of existence. This imaginary relationship was unconscious, manifested in everyday life through mundane activities, and therefore impervious to enlightenment. Even if particular ideologies came and went, Althusser concluded, Ideology itself, like the Freudian unconscious, was eternal.

Althusser’s attempted break with humanism still affirmed Marxism by reorienting it on the level of a subjectless theoretical science containing its own internal conditions of truth. But it was figures like Cornelius Castoriadis, Claude Lefort, and Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe (each treated in individual chapters here) who went further beyond structuralism. In different ways and through different paths, each made the “symbolic turn.” The new generation of critical thought concluded that if truth could no longer be treated as a correspondence between an object and its representation, the road taken by critique would instead be through a constructivist perspective that emphasized discourse, meaning, absence, and nonidentity. The task shifted from saving Marxism from its vulgar interpretations “to [rescuing] radical thought from Marxism itself” (266).

This new rethinking of the political emphasized that society could no longer dream of a time when it would be perfectly transparent to itself—a dream that for thinkers like Laclau and Mouffe contained a totalitarian streak lurking in all politics, and not just those of the Communist bloc. Lefort argued that social homogeneity had been the fantasy of modern democracy since the French Revolution, but modern democratic society also could not avoid creating a representation of itself as an empty place. Whereas the monarch once represented the unity of the social in his own body, the radically egalitarian impulse of modern democracy led it to disembody power, deliberately constructing its symbolic dimension as empty of any single entity that could represent the social as a whole. This loss of foundation brings about a constant search and debate about legitimacy, and moves democracy into the open, ungrounded space of political contestation.

The secularization and “disenchantment” of the world that we now commonly see as the defining features of modernity, and the replacement of personal authority with impersonal institutions, also gave rise to quasi-transcendent entities like the State, the Nation, and Class. These fictitious constructs make up the horizon of our political thinking, revealing a symbolic dimension of politics that cannot be reduced to a neat identity between being and thought, or being and language. They and other “twentieth-century fantasies” (163) such as the sovereign people, the party, race, and the leader, despite the different contexts in which they appeared, are all invoked here as manifestations of a desire to close the gap between the complexity of the real and the symbolic representation of power. In contrast, the emancipatory potential of radical democracy is found not in the fixationof clear and unambiguous meanings—a single definition of “the People,” “the Nation,” “the State,” and so forth—but in the constant destabilization of these terms, in which they are subject to redefinition through the emergence of new contestatory struggles and practices.

Breckman thus treats the symbolic as a multifaceted and ambiguous construct, constantly moving back and forth between embodying a positive meaning and revealing a negativity or absence. It contains within itself both the “power to body forth an idea and the impossibility of a fully adequate representation of it” (266). Rejecting the idea that there could be a totalizing and fully intelligible logic upon which the social world rested, the post-Marxist tradition embraced this openness as the space where autonomy could be exercised. As he writes, radical democracy focuses on “the preservation of nonidentity between the symbolic and the real,” and by taking as a starting point the idea that fixed meanings are impossible it “opens the symbolic domain to the possibility of a constant activation of the quest for autonomy” (56).

As Breckman argues in his chapters on Castoriadis, Lefort, Laclau and Mouffe, and Slavoj Zizek, this discourse of the symbolic was particularly influential for contemporary debates on the meaning of democracy. At the risk of papering over important differences between these figures, which Breckman painstakingly reconstructs, one may say that all approached the idea of democracy from the post-foundationalist perspective that emphasized contingency, indeterminacy, and absence and emptiness as ineradicable elements of the modern democratic experience. These chapters show the flowering of theoretical problems and approaches (psychoanalysis, phenomenology, and structuralism among others) that were influential in the attempt to go beyond Marx. For example, Castoriadis and Lefort—onetime collaborators in the Socialisme ou Barbarie group, known for its critique of the Soviet Union as a form of bureaucratic state socialism—are treated in depth as thinkers showing both democracy’s potential for novelty and its limitation as a condition of openness that can never be completely fulfilled. Meanwhile, the clashes between Laclau and Zizek on how to move beyond radical pluralism and recapture the idea of universality are recapitulated here as those of “a poststructuralist Eduard Bernstein against a Hegelio-Lacanian Vladimir Lenin” (218).

Breckman especially disagrees with Zizek, whose recent writings have argued that moving beyond the horizon of liberal democracy necessitates a new form of universalist thinking—a “new and undreamt Order” (261) created out of a marriage of the Christian and Bolshevik revolutionary traditions. But his disagreement is not because of a liberal recoil at Zizek’s pronouncements about revolutionary violence and praise of the Jacobin-Bolshevik tradition, which has been the preferred avenue of attack for many of Zizek’s critics. Rather, it is because he sees Zizek as promoting a new form of closure for the Left. If the symbolic represents a space at the heart of the social body that can never be fully reconciled with itself, it is exactly this quality that Breckman argues can be used to defend, extend, and radicalize democratic openness. Channeling the symbolic in practice means remaining open to politics as a pluralizing and multifaceted site of contestation, and not one of certainty.

Surveying this landscape of radical democracy’s possibilities leads Breckman to offer up a brief sketch in the Epilogue of how recognizing society’s lack of foundation can contribute to modern day struggles for autonomy and push emancipatory politics forward. Translated into political practice, we may take this to mean that radical politics operates in the space between what is imagined as the horizon of possibility and the “realistic” and pragmatic focus on short-term, strategic gains. Breckman discusses Occupy Wall Street (also linking it to other worldwide protests like the Arab Spring, the Indignados, and the anti-austerity protests in Greece) as an example of the new form of post-Marxist activism, more influenced by contemporary anarchist theorists like David Graeber than by 20th century theoreticians of revolution like Lenin, Trotsky, or Mao. He quotes Graeber’s description of direct action as “the defiant insistence on acting as if one is already free” (283) as representative of this new ethos of freedom and possibility, where it may seem all is needed to bring democracy into existence is the desire to act in a democratic manner.

This willingness of Occupy activists to think and organize in ways very different from those of mainstream progressives, as well as its inclusive slogan of membership in the 99%, show the importance of the symbolic dimension. Its polyvalent character, its emphasis on a multiplicity of meaning, and its accentuation of contingency and indeterminacy all aligned with the horizontalism, diverse constituency, and procedural openness present at the Occupy protests. Yet looking back it also becomes more apparent that what made OWS such a successful model of protest simultaneously revealed its limitations. Although it was incredibly successful at putting the question of economic inequality and social justice back on the table and reframing the debate as one of the 1% against the rest of the people, these were (tentative) victories in the symbolic realm of discourse, not institutional or material ones. Forcefully evicted from the urban encampments, which served as a powerful visual manifestation of the 99% in the public space, OWS was unable to recapture the momentum of those autumn months.

Ironically, Occupy’s focus on the inequality and democratic deficit in modern capitalist society evokes the specter of Marx. If democracy cannot be understood apart from the symbolic dimension and its turn to “the political,” it does not also mean we should neglect how power operates in what we may think of as the socioeconomic realm. The proliferation of radical democratic theories over the last twenty years coincided with the most volatile boom and bust cycle in the U.S. since the 1930s. Government intervention to prevent the full collapse of the American—and global—economy, and the political struggle over the federal debt, have again raised questions about the relationship between state and capital. The stigmatization of the working poor as entitled people who do not pay income taxes, perpetual inner city poverty, and the spread of anti-union Right to Work laws in states across the South and Midwest continue to remind us that class matters. And the reliance on cheap overseas labor for the production of mass goods, as well as the push for the privatization of public services such as education here at home, illustrate the constant tendency of capital to expand and exploit new markets. One does not need to subscribe to Alain Badiou’s Platonic notion of Communism, or even any belief in the ultimate victory of the proletariat, to think there is reason to put the triumphalism of 1989 to rest and again begin taking seriously the critique of capitalism.

This is also where understanding democratic practice in terms of contingency, contestation, and openness, as Breckman urges us to do, may actually clash with the goals of social justice and equality that ostensibly make up the democratic horizon. He concludes with the hope that “recognition of society’s lack of foundation…may intensify the commitment to autonomy and emancipatory politics” (288). Taken alone, a politics of the symbolic can be, but is not necessarily, oriented toward autonomy, egalitarianism, and social justice, since establishing these end points would amount to a form of closure that violates its own logic. While the 99% is one example of a demos emerging to challenge the current holders of power, what are we to make of the Tea Party’s own symbolic repository—such as Confederate flags and anti-abortion placards—which represent the opposite of equality and social justice? In instances such as these the symbolic realm appears as neutral rather than oriented toward those values. But if this is true, it also raises the question of which individuals or groups will be able to effectively use the symbolic for their own ends, given that even the most democratic societies today do not have level playing fields. Inevitably, some will be more successful at leveraging the symbolic domain than others, and most likely they will be the same vested, hegemonic interests against which radical democracy seeks to mobilize. Therefore, in the end, the question of whether a post-Enlightenment and post-Marxist secular politics can “recapture a vital sense of complexity and ambiguity” (54) while at the same time remaining true to the emancipatory project of modernity—all this after having done away with much of its foundation—remains unresolved.

What lessons can we learn looking down the road? At one point in the Epilogue we come across a quote from Badiou, who remarks that the problems facing us in the twenty-first century echo those of the first half of the nineteenth. Just like then, Badiou states, we are faced with “an utterly cynical capitalism, which is certain that it is the only possible option for a rational organization of society” (264). Like in 1840, the marketization of social relations has created a disparity between a small wealthy elite and the rest of the people, and oppositional currents of thought are more fragmented among themselves than united in a popular, egalitarian movement.

To believe with certainty that a new 1848 is on the doorstep is utopian. But Badiou’s assertion does carry a symbolic weight reminding us the struggle for the democratic horizon is an ongoing process. To read about the adventures of the symbolic is to recognize the complexity and uncertainty that are at the heart of democracy, as a theory and as a practice. For that, Breckman’s masterful work is an important contribution.


Rafael Khachaturian is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Indiana University Bloomington. 

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