fragments of an attempted writing.

Balibar, part I

What follows is most of the section The aporia of ideology found in Etienne Balibar's The Philosophy of Marx.  I present this section as a prelude to my posting of the next section of the book 'Commodity fetishism', which I will post later.  I am posting these sections in order to have a "base" of background material for a later post which will deal with two of the major themes of Balibar's 'Commodity fetishism' section - Marx's understanding of "the mystical" in economics and social relations, and the role of ideology in a social milieu of commodity fetishism.  In what follows it is important to keep in mind that Marx's conception of the proletariat, emphasized especially and perhaps crudely in the early stages of Marx's writing, was that of the proletariat as a universal class, "a mass situated virtually beyond the condition of class, the particularity of that mass being denied in its very conditions of existence."  This creates a number of analytical problems for Marx, as Balibar notes here:

Given Marx’s conception of the proletariat, the idea of an ideology of the proletariat (or of a ‘proletarian ideology’, later, as we know, to meet with much success) is obviously devoid of meaning.  In reality, the concept of the proletariat is not so much that of a particular ‘class’, isolated from the whole of society, as of a non-class, the formation of which immediately precedes the dissolution of all classes and primes the revolutionary process.  For this reason, when speaking of it, Marx employs, for preference, the term ‘Masse’ (‘mass’ or ‘masses’), which he turns round against the contemptuous use made of it by bourgeois intellectuals in his day.  Just as the proletarian masses are fundamentally propertyless (eigentumslos), they are fundamentally ‘without illusions’ (illusioslos) about reality, fundamentally external to the world of ideology, whose abstractions and ideal representations of the social relation ‘do not exist’ for them.  The Manifesto will say the same thing, illustrating the idea with phrases which have since become famous, but which today seem derisory, such as ‘the working men have no country.’  Similarly, they are free of beliefs, hopes or hypocrisies of religion, morality or bourgeois law.  For the same reason, they could not have ‘ideologues’ proposing to instruct or guide them – ‘organic intellectuals’, as Gramsci would later term them.  (Marx certainly did not see himself as anything of the kind and this produced increasing difficulties when it came to conceptualizing the function of his own theory within revolutionary practice.  Here again, Engels was to make the decisive step by bringing the expression ‘scientific socialism’ into general use.)

The events of 1848-50 were cruelly to emphasize how far removed this vision was from reality.  Indeed, these events might have been sufficient to prompt abandonment, if not of the idea of a universal role of the proletariat (at the level of world history and the revolutionary transformation of society in its entirety), without which there is no Marxism, then certainly of the proletariat as a ‘universal class’.  The most fascinating text in this regard is The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte…  In it, the search for a strategy with which the working class can confront the counter-revolution is combined with new analysis of the historical gap between what Marx calls the ‘class in itself’ and the ‘class for itself’, between the mere fact of similar conditions of life and an organized political movement – conceived not in terms of consciousness merely lagging behind life, but as an effect of contradictory economic tendencies, which he now began to see as promoting both the unity of workers and competition between them.  Immediate experience in France, as in Germany or Britain, was, in actual fact, to reveal the power of the political and military machines of the established order.  How was the theoretical thesis that the conditions of production of ideology were radically external to the proletarian condition to be reconciled with the observation of the daily interpenetration of the two?  It is very remarkable that Marx never invoked an implicitly moral notion, such as that of false consciousness (as later employed by Lukács and others), just as he never spoke of proletarian ideology or class consciousness.  But the difficulty remained a glaring one in his writings and led to the suppression of the very concept of ideology.

Another factor conspired towards this same end: the difficulty Marx experienced in defining bourgeois political economy – particularly that of the classics: Quesnay, Smith and Ricardo – as ‘ideology’, since this theoretical discourse, which was ‘scientific’ in form and clearly intended to provide the foundations for the liberal politics of the owners of capital, did not fall directly into the category of ideology (characterized by the abstraction and inversion of the real), or of a materialist history of civil society, given that it was based on the postulate that bourgeois conditions of production were eternal (or that the relation between wage-labourers and capital was invariant).  But it was precisely the need to extricate himself from this dilemma which was to lead Marx to immerse himself for years in the ‘critique of political economy’, a critique fuelled by intensive reading of Smith, Ricardo, Hegel, Malthus, historians and statisticians… And that critique, in its turn, was to throw up a new concept, that of commodity fetishism.  


  1. Good afternoon. I like where this is going but it is prompting me to ask a separate question: would you mind sharing a book list of good intros to Hegel and Marx? I just started Hegel's part in Continuum's Peplexed guides.

  2. Francis,

    With regard to Marx my standard line is to encourage folks to read David Harvey's Companion to Capital Vol 1 ( ) and to read this along with the sections of Capital Harvey follows (get this edition of Capital in English: ). From there my recommendations would depend upon what aspect of Marx you want to delve into - economics proper, aesthetics, Marx's influence on later critical theory, etc.

    With regard to Hegel, how deep do you want to go? If you want something even more intro level than the book you are reading Peter Singer's Hegel: A Very Short Introduction ( ) ain't bad. There is currently another paradigm shift in Hegel scholarship and so one tends to approach intros to Hegel from the point of view of which theory of Hegel the given Hegel scholar is working with. Earlier this year I read this work on the new reading of Hegel which you might find illuminating after reading some basic intros: . There is also always Zizek on Hegel. Currently I am reading Marxism and Freedom: from 1776 Until Today by Raya Dunayevskaya ( ) which deals with a Marxist reading of Hegel that I find very interesting. I am now sure I will try to read her The Power of Negativity: Selected Writings on the Dialectic in Hegel and Marx. Marcuse's Reason and Revolution: Hegel and the Rise of Social Theory is a pretty standard work on Hegel and Marx. For Hegel as read by someone very much not a Marxist you can try Robert B. Pippin. Charles Taylor's book on Hegel is a standard and reflects Taylor's analytic and communitarian methods. I could come up with a list of 10 or so Hegel books to read, but again I'd kind of have to know where your interests are. Hegel and Hegel studies are vast.

  3. The picture you posted reminds me of what anonymous grafitti artists (later revealed as a pop-art collective of nine twenty-somethings called "Destructive Creation") did to transform a monument in the capital city of Sofia, Bulgaria commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Russian 'liberation' of Bulgaria in 1944

    "Taking centre stage is Superman with his distinctive red cape and blue suit. To the left is Santa Claus and to the right Ronald McDonald, the mascot of the fast-food giant McDonalds, and the Joker also makes an appearance.

    Below the graffiti artist has sprayed "Moving with the times" in Bulgarian black paint."

  4. The best way to delve into Hegel is to read Hegel himself. I would start with the Philosophy of History, which is not too hard a read, which will give you a good sense of the Hegelian project. On Marx, of course you need to read the Communist Manifesto, but you can also read the 18th Brumaire, the Civil War in France, the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, the Critique of the Gotha Program, and of course, Capital. I would steer clear of such works as the German Ideology or the Poverty of Philosophy, as these have been beaten to death by certain sectors.

    On Owen’s post, I don’t think I agree with the direction of it. The text makes it seem like the masses “disappointed” Marx to a certain extent, that the masses were more reactionary than he thought, and so on. This is a fable that petit-bourgeois intellectuals like to tell over and over again in order to justify their treasonous ideas. Indeed, Marx was greatly encouraged by the masses in struggle after 1848, such as in the American Civil War, which he indeed saw as a genuine social revolution, the Paris Commune, the growth of the power of the English working class, and so on. Nor would I think “commodity fetishism” is a concept that came chronologically after the 1848 revolutions: it is already in a nascent form in the 1844 manuscripts. Marx was not just sitting in a London library lamenting over the backwardness of the working class in the later part of his life. While it is true that to a certain extent capital creates the workers that it needs, and that includes ideology, it is by no means very stable, nor is some inhuman structure separated with actual class struggle or social relations primary. Indeed, his vast survey of the theories of political economy was put off to the end of Capital, and not at the beginning, with the crown of Volume I being on the working day, i.e. the actual struggle at the point of production itself. If anything, a Marxist believes that the proletariat is revolutionary not because of what it thinks or even does now, but because of what the capitalist system will for it to do just to survive, and the fact that such a system cannot satisfy the insatiable hunger of the human spirit to be free.

    Balibar and Althusser seem to serve Stalinist ideology better than more humanist currents of Marxism. Their idea that Marx broke from his humanist earlier manuscripts led to their revisions of Marx himself, even to the point of mutilating the texts in the Stalinist Soviet Union (Dunayevskaya goes into this in Marxism and Freedom). Such a belief in an “epistemological break” seems to me to be one in which mystified structures and historical processes divorced from the actual actions of human being seem to govern the workings of society, and not the struggle of individuals in the form of classes struggling for freedom. That is why the “Hegelian” element is important, otherwise, you start falling into traps of backing tyrants and bureaucracies because they are more “progressive” than others: Stalin, Mao, Hugo Chávez, “socialism in one country”, pro-Islamic fundamentalist “anti-imperialism”, and so on.

  5. AV,

    I think you may care more for the later quote from Balibar's book, the next one corresponds a bit to your most recent post.

    I think it may be that B and A overstate Marx's changing views, and of course I won't deny the motivations you are inclined to think are at work there. B does seem to understate the excitement and inspiration Marx continued to have with regard to 1848 for decades afterwards. But I also wonder if there is any debate regarding the notion that Marx had an obstacle or bump in his theoretical construct following the failure of 1848 - his optimism and his tactics change following that failure, do they not? And at B does seem to indicate here, at least, that Marx (and Engels) were not out to guide the masses in action, etc.

    I wonder what a working class adherent of Marxist-humanism does, on the ground, in Venezuela - is it worth voting in support of the PSUV, or does one not vote at all? Does one support the PSUV and at the same time dissent against its bureaucraticisms, or does one reject it wholesale, ignore it, as it were? I often wonder where the line is drawn. Chávez has done a lot to improve actual conditions for working class persons in Venezuela, but that comes with a lot of paternalism and a state capitalism and the like. But isn't Chávez a much better option than whatever overt neo-liberal runs against him in 2012? Then again, doesn't my logic here end up at CPUSA telling you that THE battle of the working class in 2011-12 is supporting Obomber's measly jobs bill? Sigh.

  6. Thanks, Owen and Arturo. I picked up Phil of Hist and Capital. David Harvey's companion is, surprisingly, unavailable to me at the library. I am torn between the historical and theological regarding Hegel. I prefer to read the history and Phil of Hist but would like to prepare myself to read Cyril O'regan's Heterodox Hegel because I have had the occasion to meet Cyril and find him one of the most intelligent and genuine people I have met. I have filled myself with modern German History and now am delved in Russian history 17th c to 21st with a religious bent. A large change for Russia, Khomiakov and Chaadaev on was their appropriation of this draws me in.

    On top of that, about 3/4 yrs. ago, I decided against capital and have so far, only gone so far as reading Dorothy Day, clr James, the manifesto, and M. Delbrel and de lubac's Proudhon...mostly ecclesial stuff.


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