The Treason of Intellectual Radicalism and the Collapse of Leftist Politics

Radical politics in contemporary western democracies finds itself in a state of crisis. When viewed from the vantage point of social change, a progressive transformation of the social order, political radicalism is found wanting. This would seem to go against the grain of perceived wisdom. As an academic enterprise, radical theory has blossomed. Figures such as Slavoj Žižek openly discuss Marxism in popular documentaries, new journals have emerged touting a radical “anti-capitalism,” and whole conferences and sub-fields are dominated by questions posed by obscure theoretical texts.


Despite this, there is a profound lack in substantive, meaningful political, social, and cultural criticism of the kind that once made progressive and rational left political discourse relevant to the machinations of real politics and the broader culture. Today, leftist political theory in the academy has fallen under the spell of ideas so far removed from actual political issues that the question can be posed whether the traditions of left critique that gave intellectual support to the great movements of modernity – from the workers movement to the Civil Rights movement – possess a critical mass to sustain future struggles.

Quite to the contrary, social movements have lost political momentum, they are generally focused on questions of culture, shallow discussions of class, and are generally obsessed with questions of identity divorced from the questions of material forms of oppression rather than on the great “social question” of unequal distributions of economic and political power which once served as the driving impulse for political, social and cultural transformation. As these new radical mandarins spill ink on futile debates over “desire,” “identity,” and illusory visions of anarchic democracy, economic inequality has ballooned into oligarchic proportions, working people have been increasingly marginalized, and ethnic minority groups are turned into a modern “coolie” labor force.

This has been the result, we contend, of a lack of concern with real politics in contemporary radical theory. Further, we believe that this is the result of a transformation of ideas, that contemporary political theory on the left has witnessed a decisive shift in focus in recent decades – a shift that has produced nothing less than the incoherence of the tradition of progressive politics in our age. At a time when the left is struggling to redefine itself and respond to current political and economic crises, a series of trends in contemporary theory has reshaped the ways that politics is understood and practiced. Older thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, and Jacques Derrida, and newer voices like Alain Badiou, Jacques Rancière, David Graeber and Judith Butler, among others, have risen to the status of academic and cultural icons while their ideas have become embedded in the “logics” of new social movements. As some aspects of the recent Occupy Wall Street demonstrations have shown, political discourse has become increasingly dominated by the impulses of neo-anarchism, identity politics, post-colonialism, and other intellectual fads.

This new radicalism has made itself so irrelevant with respect to real politics that it ends up serving as a kind of cathartic space for the justifiable anxieties wrought by late capitalism,[pullquote]This new radicalism has made itself so irrelevant with respect to real politics that it ends up serving as a kind of cathartic space for the justifiable anxieties wrought by late capitalism . . . [/pullquote] further stabilizing its systemic and integrative power rather than disrupting it. These trends are the products as well as unwitting allies of that which they oppose.

The transformation of radical and progressive politics throughout the latter half of the twentieth and the early decades of the twenty-first centuries is characterized by both a sociological shift as well as an intellectual one. A core thesis has been that the shift from industrial to post-industrial society has led to the weakening of class politics. But this is unsatisfying. There is no reason why class cannot be seen in the divisions of mental and service labor as it was with an industrial proletariat. There is no reason why political power rooted in unequal property and control over resources, in the capacity for some to command and to control the labor of others as well as the consumption of others ought not to be a basic political imperative. To this end, what we would call a rational radical politics should seek not the utopian end of a “post-statist” politics, but rather to enrich common goods, erode the great divisions of wealth and class, democratize all aspects of society and economy, and seek to orient the powers of individuals and the community toward common ends. Indeed, only by widening the struggles of labor and re-thinking the ends of the labor movement – connecting the struggles labor to issues beyond the workplace, to education, the environment, public life, issues of racial and gender equality, culture and the nature of the social order more broadly – can we envision a revitalization of a worker’s movement, one that would have no need of the alienated theory of the new radicals.[1]

But this is merely one fringe expression of what we see as a corrupted, simplified and de-politicized “new” radicalism. Once grounded in the Enlightenment impulse for progress, equality, rationalism, and the critical confrontation with asymmetrical power relations, the dominant trends of radical political thought now evade the concrete nature of these concerns. The battles that raged in the 1980s and 1990s between postmodernists and defenders of modernity – while serving as a harbinger of the contemporary split between the radical theorists divorced from reality and those who seek to establish anti-foundationalist conceptions of democratic discourse – were attached to a strong sense that the future of rationalism and radical politics hung in the balance. Today’s radical intellectuals do not feel compelled to defend their arguments or respond to their critics. Their purported radicalism becomes all the more opaque when the coherence of their claims is called into question. A concern for an exaggerated subjectivity, identity politics, anti-empirical theories of power, an obsession with “difference” – all serve to deplete the radical tradition of its potency. Radical intellectuals now formulate new vocabularies, invent new forms of “subjectivity,” and concoct new languages of discourse that only serve to splinter forms of political resistance, consigning radicalism to the depths of incoherence and (academic success notwithstanding) political irrelevance.

Indeed, the disintegration of the great radical movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – from the labor movement to the Civil Rights movement – has detached philosophical thinking from the mechanisms of power and political reality more broadly. The result has been – despite the ironic new turn toward “anti-philosophy” – the conquest of politics by poorly constructed philosophy. Abstraction has been the result, as well as a panoply of shibboleths that have only served to sever “radical” thought from its relevance to contemporary politics and society. It seems to us that the survival of the tradition of rational, radical political and social criticism pivots on a confrontation with these new academic trends and fads.

The rise of this new radicalism is largely due to the success of liberalism on the one hand and the collapse of Marxism on the other. Liberalism has been highly successful at incorporating many of the social movements that have emerged throughout the twentieth century: the rights of women and minorities, a basic social security and welfare state scheme for the poor, and the recognition of different sexual identities and preferences – all have found their place to some degree within the modern liberal state. As a result, these movements which, in their earlier, more radical phase of development, saw their struggles in connection with the struggles of working class interests, were cleaved off and given pieces of the political pie. This resulted, as Theodore Lowi has argued, in a conservatism of these interest groups as they protect their constituent interests.[2]  But it also detached these different struggles from the central struggle over social and economic power, the control of work, consumption, time and space, by the owners of capital.

The collapse of Marxism not only weakened labor movement radicalism, it caused a more general intellectual breakdown on the left. With its emphasis on science and knowledge of objective social processes, Marxism’s disintegration left a theoretical vacuum that was now to be filled by the very cultural concerns produced by capitalist economic life itself. The post-Fordist, flexible accumulation of late capitalism, its emphasis on ephemeral fashion, personalized technology, and mass consumption, has led to an anomic self-absorption where objective political concerns have become abstract.[3] As consumerism and mass culture continues to weaken class consciousness the social order becomes increasingly legitimized forcing radical politics into the domain of the mind and the realm of spectacle. The political now morphs into the personal, and class has dropped out as a category of power-analysis and as an organizing variable of society. Theory now follows the superstructural stream of consciousness and politics becomes, for the new radical mandarins, a sphere of self-promotional platitudes. What is left over from these two intellectual-political shifts is the context within which the new radicalism begins.

What we are calling here a “treason of intellectual radicalism” can be seen to consist of several impulses that have had a deep and debilitating effect on progressive politics. First has been a shift toward a radical “non-foundational” or even “anti-foundational” thought. According to this philosophical view, in its more radical forms, the social world (and even the natural world) is constructed by subjects no longer possessing any kind of foundations for knowledge. The “myth of the given,” or the proposition that the social world is essentially constructed by subjects and discourse, is a basic starting point. There is no longer a need to rely on foundations for knowledge nor need we possess universal or rational justifications for political or ethical propositions and ideas. Political reality is the product not of concrete mechanisms of resource control and the organization of social structure, but instead the product of discourse.

On this view, the site of politics becomes the struggle between and over the discursive narratives of the political and social. Now, political subjectivity is to be created, indeed, even “invented” and pushed against the state. The constructivist epistemology adopted by these thinkers is seen as liberating politics from the “realities” of class and social structure. As one advocate of this thesis argues, political subject-formation “cannot be articulated in relation to a pre-given socio-economic identity like that of the proletarian, but has to be invented or aggregated from the various social struggles of the present.”[4] These discourses and subjectivities are particularist in nature, even as they assert themselves as universals. This kind of thinking “is bound to discourse, literally narratives about the world that are admittedly partial.”[5] The politics that follows from this necessarily eschews formal political institutions, even as it becomes an increasingly abstract affair for academics only. Even more, it no longer sees exploitation and domination in concrete, material terms. As Robert Meister has insightfully argued, “As soon as the paradigm of language supplants the model of production, exploitation appears as merely another way of being misunderstood.”[6] The result is not political resistance in any meaningful sense of the term, but the “spectacle” of a political demonstration or some puerile display of public “art.”[7] In the meantime, more politically mature and reactionary forces have been able to roll back the welfare state, consolidate economic and political power, and help craft a neoliberal social order.[8]

A second feature of alienated theory is its emphasis on anti-rational, anti-Enlightenment and anti-science as an epistemological and political stance. Knowledge, now seen as inherently braided with power, is recast as an interpretive activity; impartiality is a myth of scientific rationality, one premised on the power of exclusion. The perspective of the marginalized now becomes the central focus of how knowledge ought to be constructed. Dispensing with objectivity, theorists are now able to transform theory, properly understood as the search for the explanation of facts, into a kind of aesthetic enterprise where the boundaries between politics and culture blur.[9] New theoretical languages and vocabularies have been invented where the aim is not the explanation of reality or the construction of rational argument, but the exploration of some alternative perspective that has been repressed. Universalist principles and categories are anathema, on this view, to radical politics because of their tendency to crush difference and privilege exclusion.

Now, we are told to privilege experience, the phenomenological dimensions of power over its structural causes. This results in a collapse of politics into culture. It displaces politics in its “dirty hands” manifestation where realizable ends are sought and fought for and instead insists on the “utopian” as an impossible goal. As Stanley Aronowitz argues, “utopian thought seeks to transform the present by articulating an alternative future, its power lies in its lack of respect for politics as the art of the possible, in its insistence that realism consists in the demand for the impossible.”[10] Power is now to be grasped through the elusive terrain of culture, the non-empirical sources of which can no longer be located and are hence “overdetermined.”[11] No longer can we look to class, to the power of privilege, but rather to the ways that power and knowledge are entwined. All objective points of reference have been abandoned. With the academic victory privileging the discourse of identity, the “unreal” has taken precedence over the real.[12]

A third salient feature of this nouveau radicalism is its emphasis on spontaneous, disruptive and localized struggle as the means of politics. Taking their cues from the legacy of anarchism and third-world indigenous struggles such as the Zapatistas, these tactics are seen as the essence of a democratic politics of resistance. The basis for new movements is now seen to be the emergence of new identities, themselves created from the exaggerated subjectivity of the modern, narcissistic self.[13] Rejecting the state and conceiving of a post-state politics is now a central dogma of the new “radical” theorists. Since the state is seen to be inherently despotic, only the spontaneous, autonomous collection of groups who act against the state and outside of it are viewed as vehicles of political change. The absence of domination is now cast as the freedom to explore narcissistic lifestyles as well as expand an already exaggerated subjectivity where participatory and direct democracy become the political ideal. In the end, they valorize the individual’s resistance to the state and the power of localism.

Here left and right touch in their extremes: it is precisely a libertarian ethos of freedom that dominates their vision, as David Harvey has insightfully pointed out: “This is the world that libertarian Republicans construct. It is also the view of individual liberty and freedom embraced by much of the anarchist and autonomist left, even as the capitalist version of the free market is roundly condemned.”[14] Now, it is a “multitude,” a disruptive demos, that commands the political imaginary of the new radicals. Instead of a rational radical position which seeks to democratize the state and its powers and to transform it in order to enhance and protect public goods, the new interpretation of radical democracy “is only intelligible once it is thought as being against the state – and once the term ‘democratic State,’ which appeared so naturally from Tocqueville’s pen, is by the same stroke rejected.”[15]   In turn, claims like these have been used to legitimize the use of violence; to pit the violence of the state against “emancipatory violence.”[16] Further, it has been used as a pretext for reviving left-wing totalitarian traditions, such as Jacobinism, Leninism, and Maoism, and reconsidering their significance for the modern left.[17] Of course, these claims are made cautiously and a modern Maoist like Alain Badiou easily slips into patent misapplication of mathematics to obscure his politics.[18]

Finally, in opposition to the universal and the concrete, the new radical politics and its advocates in the academy have come to celebrate the uncertain and unstable as a principle both for conducting politics and pursuing research. Hence, for example, the history of feminist thought has “only paradoxes to offer.”[19] The effort to understand mechanisms of domination and oppression is itself a manifestation of ideology.[20] Any recourse to normative judgments or empirical claims is hopeless. “In vain do we try to break out of the ideological dream by ‘opening our eyes and trying to see reality as it is,’ by throwing away the ideological spectacles: as the subjects of such a post-ideological, objective, sober look, free of so-called ideological prejudices, as the subjects of a look which views the facts as they are, we remain throughout ‘the consciousness of our ideological dream.’”[21]

Ultimately, for the new radical intellectual, everything is a form of ideology. This does not mean that critique should become more rigorous, but, rather, that we should celebrate indeterminacy. Au courant theories of emancipation start with the premise that there is no “real.” We become free when we are disabused of the notion that critique can reveal truths that are obfuscated by social relations. We are liberated from definitions and categorizations. Such thinking has had its strongest effect among radical theorists discussing race and gender. Racial and gendered oppression is supposedly combatted when we recognize these categories as ideological constructions. However, the consequence of such thinking leaves the systemic and institutionalized forces that perpetuate oppression unaddressed. Both society and individual are constructed by incommensurables. This means that any political struggle that would seek to establish a freer, more just society would fall prey to merely creating new ideologies.

These four elements of the new radical intellectuals and the movements they have influenced are in direct contradiction to the rational radicalism that we implicitly espouse here. On our reading, there is not only a theoretical but also a deeply political difference between what these theorists search for and the Enlightenment-inspired radical view of a social order marked by solidarity around common goods, civic virtue oriented toward the defense of the public welfare, well-ordered political institutions with public purpose as their aim, constitutionalism that secures individual as well as economic rights, and the democratization of social and economic life as basic criteria for social justice. The alternative move, marked by identity politics, anti-statism, direct and participatory democracy, and neo-anarchism, has succeeded in fragmenting and marginalizing left movements and politics. Perhaps even worse, these “new movements” lack any real constituency, have scarcely any concrete political demands, and are purposefully self-alienated from the levers of real power and policy.[22]

As a result, a real, politically consequential left has withered. The political culture of western democracies are marked more by a general value-consensus around liberal-capitalism than any time since the late 1950s. Movements that once saw the true mechanisms of politics – the need to influence parties, to push for legislative reform, to insist on the expansion of the democratization of economic and political institutions, to forge ideologies that were rooted in national culture – have simply disappeared. Nietzsche’s insistence that aesthetics replace the political has now become manifest in this new radicalism. Now, so-called academic “radicals” can be seen to have betrayed politics: they dismiss the reality of the political process and instead call for an obscure and abstract “resistance.” Perhaps the basic thesis can be laid out that where there is no strong labor movement, there can be no robust left politics, and even less relevant left political theory.

But whatever the explanation for the increased irrationalism of current left theory, we believe that these intellectuals should be held accountable for the ideas they promulgate. Staggering is the extent to which these radical mandarins self-confidently strut their stuff, even as political defeats mount for leftist politics[pullquote]Staggering is the extent to which these radical mandarins self-confidently strut their stuff, even as political defeats mount for leftist politics . . . [/pullquote] with the increasing victory of “right to work” legislation, the dismantling of environmental protections, the increased power of corporate interests, and an expanding wealth and income divide. We take seriously the notion that there is a responsibility for intellectuals to debate and critique ideas that have public consequence; the effect of these thinkers and their ideas on the left we see as a primary concern. As Christopher Lasch once remarked, “Cultural radicalism has become so fashionable, and so pernicious in the support it unwittingly provides for the status quo, that any criticism of contemporary society that hopes to get beneath the surface has to criticize, at the same time, much of what currently goes under the name of radicalism.”[23]

With this in mind, reviving the tradition of rational progressive politics can be saved only once these new radicals and their approaches have been interrogated and critiqued. Confronting the fashionable nonsense of the present requires that these their ideas be scrutinized against the more rationalist claims that have given shape to radical and critical thought since the Enlightenment, not to mention the common sense that the thinkers we address have sought to evade. We believe that the success of these thinkers and ideas marks a real and disturbing departure from the more rationalist, more realist understanding of progressive and radical politics that marked the more successful movements of the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century.

Indeed, one of the more recent fruits of this new radical theory has been the renewed interest in Marxism by so called “millennial Marxists” and their associated publications, like Jacobin, n+1, and others. They put forth no new body of theoretical arguments but seek a rediscovery of Marxism and class politics. But Even this relatively modest claim to fame cannot be further from the truth. An undeserved self-confidence and moral self-righteousness abound while concrete political analysis vanishes.  To be sure, this new trend is scarecely more than a pseudo-radicalism with no real politics in view rendering its pursuits shallow and bereft of critical content. Far from opposing the trends of the culture industry and its very technique of commodifying culture and thought, their efforts are merely its expression. Radicalism now acts as a cultural tag, a new identity, at best a means to vent moral rage without genuine political acuity. In a mesmerizing sleight of hand, these new “radicals” have turned the discourse of Marxism and other figures of a past radicalism that once nourished organic labor and social movements against the realities of exploitation and human debasement into limp caricatures.

This is partly the result of the very cultural expressions of class that is typical of the new urbanism and the new inequality. Rather than some organized relation between a labor movement and a broader political and cultural left – one that shared vision of socialist and or at least radical social democratic principles and social formations – we now see the formation of the left as a cultural community devoid of class interests and concerns. It is precisely when radical theory is not renewed for the ends of contemporary critique that it becomes a reified fad – a museum piece for an elite. These “millennial Marxists” have done little more than debase left political discourse, dumb down cultural critique, and turn the traditions of the left into an intellectual smorgasbord. Radical Politics now once again becomes what Tom Wolfe rightly called “radical chic” – but now re-tooled for the new-urban hipster. Contemporary conservatives and moderates now have ample cause to revive this charge. The new radicals reject the hard-work of confronting the present, have nothing positive to present as a political agenda, and instead render esotericism into a “hip” virtue.

In many ways this is the very product of the system they shallowly critique. The class basis of the new radicalism no longer sounds in key with working people; no longer is it the expression of  organic intellectuals. With no movement to attach to, no working class politics to inform their political sensibilities, theory becomes a fetish. Exploitation and domination are real problems, but the words lose their meaning if they are not attached to concrete referents. This is a disservice to the exploited and dominated. It is to place them – as Bertolt Brecht wrote at the conclusion of the film version of his Threepenny Opera – back in the dark. They retain their ignominious invisibility. Radical theory should illuminate present social relations. Sadly, millennial Marxists only fetishize it. This purported revival of Marxian politics is not a revolt by the generations raised during the conservative Reagan revolution and economic complacency of the Clinton-era’s credit economy. Their Marxism is the product of the sensibilities cultivated by late capitalism. It’s facile and unreflective cant a mere sound-byte radicalism ready-made for and by a cultural consciousness mauled by Facebook and Twitter.

The thinkers we have mentioned and their ideas have had a disintegrating effect on the nature of progressive politics the critique of which ought to lead us toward a more lucid, more compelling account of what progressive political and social criticism ought to be able to achieve. The basic purpose of this effort should be to indict a style of theory and thinking that has become so esoteric and self-referential that it has divorced itself from the historic concerns of progressive politics: from remedying inequality, confronting forces eroding our public goods, or challenging the entrenched power of political and economic elites. Whether it is a rampant irrationalism, a rejection of any sense of realism in politics, naïve anti-statism, theories of power and oppression that have no empirical basis, or simply an incoherent, confused set of texts upon which one can project and read whatever one wants, this new radicalism has been able to seduce a generation into an understanding of politics that privileges an abstract, self-regarding “politics” over the concrete analysis of power and a politics based on the public good.

We believe that the appeal of these thinkers and ideas is symptomatic of a crisis in progressive politics – a crisis that cannot be simply solved. We hope that a new self-critique of the left by the left can lead to a more rationally informed, more realistic account of the nature and import of real politics and radicalism’s role in transforming it. Our fear is that the proliferation of these theories and the ideas that they make common will penetrate so deeply that an effective, politically relevant left will all but collapse. To renew radical political theory along rational lines will require much work, but we believe it begins with critique. With this in mind, we hope that those who encounter these new radical mandarins will reflect more critically on the false self-confidence of their ideas and political prescriptions, and realize that another, more satisfying and productive tradition of radicalism once existed and is once again possible.



This article is adapted from the Introduction to a forthcoming book of essays edited by the authors titled The Betrayal of Politics: Radical Intellectuals and the Subversion of Progressive Politics. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming 2015).

[1] For a discussion of this kind of renewed and expanded conception of the labor movement, see Stanley Aronowitz, The Death and Life of American Labor: Toward a New Workers’ Movement. (London: Verso, 2014), 135ff.

[2] See Theodore J. Lowi, The End of Liberalism: Ideology, Policy and the Crisis of Public Authority. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1969).

[3] For a discussion of the relation between the new, late capitalist form of economics and culture and consciousness, see Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism: Or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1992); David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990), 284ff.; as well as Ernest Mandel, Late Capitalism. (London: New Left Books, 1975), 500ff.

[4] Simon Critchley, Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance. (London: Verso, 2007), 91.

[5] Stanley Aronowitz, “Postmodernism and Politics,” in Andrew Ross (ed.) Universal Abandon? The Politics of Postmodernism. (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 51.

[6] Robert Meister, Political Identity: Thinking through Marx. (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991), 21.

[7] Lauren Langman has shown that this can be seen as a “carnivalization” of politics where meaningful political action is displaced by escapism. See his “Alienation, Entrapment and Inauthenticity: Carnival to the Rescue.” In Jerome Braun and Lauren Langman (eds.) Alienation and the Carnivalization of Society. (New York: Routledge, 2012): 53-75.

[8] For an excellent discussion of this problem, see Joseph M. Schwartz, “A Peculiar Blind Spot: Why did Radical Political Theory Ignore the Rampant Rise in Inequality Over the Past Thirty Years?” New Political Science, vol. 35, no. 3 (2013): 389-402.

[9] For an important critique of this tendency to collapse politics into culture, and its roots in the politics of the 1960s, see Stephen Eric Bronner, Moments of Decision: Political History and the Crises of Radicalism. (New York: Routledge, 1992), 101ff. Also see the important discussion by Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, The Cynical Society: The Culture of Politics and the Politics of Culture in American Life. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1991), 82ff.

[10] Aronowitz, “Postmodernism and Politics,” 55.

[11] Daniel T. Rodgers has recently assessed this movement of ideas as one where “Notions of power moved out of structures and into culture. Identities became intersectional and elective. Concepts of society fragmented. Time became penetrable. Even the slogans of the culture war’s conservatives were caught up in the swirl of choice.” Age of Fracture. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 12 as well as 77ff.

[12] See the important discussion by Joseph M. Schwartz, The Future of Democratic Equality: Rebuilding Social Solidarity in a Fragmented America. (New York: Routledge, 2009), 47ff.

[13] Richard Wolin remarks on this theme that “Identities shorn of substantive ethical and cultural attachments would conceivably set a new standard of immateriality. It is unlikely that fragmented selves and Bataille-inspired ecstatic communities could mobilize the requisite social cohesion to resist political evil. Here, too, the hazards and dangers of supplanting the autonomous, moral self with an ‘aesthetic’ self are readily apparent.” The Seduction of Unreason: The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 312.

[14] David Harvey, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 206.

[15] Miguel Abensour, Democracy against the State: Marx and the Machiavellian Moment. (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011), 2. Critchley similarly argues on this point that “democracy as democratization is the movement of disincarnation that challenges the borders and questions the legitimacy of the state. Democratization is a dissensual praxis that works against the consensual horizon of the state.” Infinitely Demanding, 119. These authors, as well as many other fellow travellers, misconstrue Marx’s critique of the state which was actually the critique of the bourgeois incarnation of the state expressing capitalist interests. As Terry Eagleton correctly points out: “The state as an administrative body would live on. It is the state as an instrument of violence that Marx hopes to see the back of. As he puts it in the Communist Manifesto, public power under communism would lose its political character. Against the anarchists of his day, Marx insists that only in this sense would the state vanish from view. What had to go was a particular kind of power, one that underpinned the rule of a dominant social class over the rest of society. National parks and driving test centers would remain.” Why Marx Was Right. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 197.

[16] This view of violence has an old pedigree. It appears in the writings of revolutionaries ranging from Robespierre to Trotsky. Contemporary defenders of “left-wing” violence, such as, Žižek, Badiou, and others often turn to Walter Benjamin’s essay “Critique of Violence,” in his Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings. (New York: Shocken Books, 1986), 277-300.

[17] Note, for example, the two volumes seeking to revive the idea of communism, Costas Douzinas and Slavoj Žižek (eds.) The Idea of Communism (London: Verso, 2010) and Slavoj Žižek and Alain Badiou (eds.) The Idea of Communism 2: The New York Conference (London: Verso, 2013) as well as volumes published in Verso’s Pocket Communism and Revolutionaries book series.

[18] Badiou’s recourse to mathematics has been the subject of an insightful attack: “Alain Badiou calls himself a Platonist and proclaims the revolutionary political power of his philosophy of numbers. But insofar as his mathematical ontology disguises the contingent in robes of necessity, it can only diminish our freedom. We can embrace the politics if we so wish. But we should not confuse this choice with mathematics, nor can we call it philosophy.” Ricardo L. Nirenberg and David Nirenberg, “Badiou’s Number: A Critique of Mathematics as Ontology.” Critical Inquiry, vol. 37 (2011): 583-614, 612.

[19] This is the title of a work by the influential historian Joan Scott. The notion that history only reveals contradictions, paradoxes, incoherencies, etc. has had a powerful impact on historians, particularly working on issues of gender, race, and decolonization. Three historians have objected that “The implication is that the historian does not in fact capture the past in faithful fashion but rather, like the novelist, gives the appearance of doing so. We this version of postmodernism applied to history, the search for truths about the past would be displaced by the self-reflexive analysis of historians’ ways of fictively producing convincing ‘truth-effects.’” Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob, Telling the Truth About History. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994), 227.

[20] This conception of ideology has nothing to do with the traditional Marxist theory of ideology and, indeed, is a repudiation of it.

[21] Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology. (London: Verso Books, 1989), 48.

[22] Robert Meister correctly notes about these new movements that each “conspicuously lacks either an epistemological vision, a political majority, structural leverage, or a historical trajectory – and often it lacks one of another combination of these.” Political Identity, 25.

[23] Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1979), xv-xvi.


Gregory Smulewicz-Zucker is Managing Editor of Logos and adjunct professor of Philosophy at Baruch College, CUNY.

Michael J. Thompson is Founding Editor of Logos and Associate Professor of Political Theory, William Paterson University. 


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1