Contents Disappointed Utopia Miscellany

Marxism and the death of philosophy

One cannot draw a strict separation between French philosophy and French politics; the two have been entangled since the time of Descartes. At Vincennes, the Philosophy Department descended from a branch of French philosophy that had developed a radical self-critique of the discipline. This branch of philosophy had developed a set of stock radical rhetorics that Paris 8 then inherited.

These are a few reading notes on where those “stock radical rhetorics” came from. No doubt a professional philosopher would write a very different intellectual history.

The lodestone of this critical tradition was The Watchdogs, a polemic published in 1932 by Paul Nizan, a Communist who died young in the Second World War. Nizan took aim at “bourgeois” philosophy, and its ability to legitimate the status quo through “the illusion of Olympian detachment” (1971:43). He instead advocated a Communist model of “the professional revolutionary,” who does not try to deduce a priori “values for the society of the future,” but instead joins the Communist Party and “identifies completely” with the proletariat (138). This philosopher’s task was thenceforth to “[expose] the myriad illusions and false ideas which prevent men from realizing how they have been enslaved.”[8]

Forty years later at Vincennes, Nizan’s book became a touchstone of revolutionary philosophy. As the Trotskyist professor Alain Brossat explained:

For me, and no doubt for others like Bensaïd as well, it was about taking over from academic philosophy [la philosophie universitaire]. It was this idea that something was philosophical in the sense of using concepts, but which was philosophical after the collapse [effondrement] of academic philosophy. If you like, we fit completely into the type of discourse that someone like Nizan had created in the 1930s in The Watchdogs, that’s what it was. In any case, The Watchdogs, no one read it when it came out, but everyone had read it in 68 and in the years afterwards. We were the protagonists of that kind of lineage [relève] — of a politicized philosophy, a philosophy that would produce itself and endure only under conditions of revolutionary action.
[Dormoy-Rajramanan 2004:97–98]

Yet there was an inner tension between contesting philosophy as such and elaborating an alternative version of philosophy which merely wanted space of its own within the academy. Such a tension was already latent in Nizan, who had opened his book with a declaration of pluralism. “Philosophy-in-itself does not exist any more than the Horse-in-itself exists: there exist only different philosophies, just as there exist Arabs and Percherons, Léonais and Anglo-Normans” (Nizan 1971:7). This loosely anthropological image of “many philosophies” reappeared regularly in subsequent decades, and it initially took the form of a denunciation of philosophy “as such.” For instance, Jean-Paul Sartre declared that “In our view Philosophy does not exist. In whatever form we consider it, this shadow of science, this Gray Eminence of humanity, is only a hypostatized abstraction. Actually, there are philosophies” (1968 [1963]:3).

When Michel Foucault denounced Vincennes in 1970 as “a trap,” he echoed that thought.

I am not sure, you know, that philosophy exists. What exists is “philosophers,” that is a certain category of people whose activities and discourses have varied greatly from one age to the next. What distinguishes them, like their neighbors the poets and the madmen, is the common lot that isolates them [le partage qui les isole], and not the unity of a genre or the consistency of a sickness.[9]

Alongside the wish to pluralize philosophy was a more aggressive desire to negate the discipline altogether. Marxists aspired to overthrow bourgeois philosophy in order to establish a theoretical monopoly of their own.[10] Henri Lefebvre had written in 1947 that “The only real critique was and remains the critique of the left. Why? Because it alone is based on knowledge” (1991:130). Sartre, who turned towards Marxism, came to privilege social class as the motor of intellectual life: “You would never at the same time find more than one living philosophy… A philosophy is first of all a particular way in which the ‘rising’ class becomes conscious of itself” (1968 [1963]:3–4).

This class critique of philosophy was only one facet of a larger disciplinary crisis, as philosophy’s intellectual position was contested by new disciplines such as anthropology, sociology, semiotics, and psychoanalysis, as the universities were opened to minoritized subjects and mass media developed. Sartre personally embodied this critique of academic philosophy: he lived as an ”engaged intellectual,” resolutely refusing titles and credentials, and making a living outside the university by selling his writing. “Sartre was our Outside,” recalled Gilles Deleuze, “he was really the breath of fresh air from the backyard… Among all the Sorbonne’s probabilities, it was his unique combination which gave us the strength to tolerate the new restoration of order” (Deleuze and Parnet 2002 [1987]:12).[11] Sartre’s philosophical work was soon enough attacked by younger male challengers, in classic masculine-combat fashion. But the project of contesting academic philosophy continued, as philosophy “itself” was attacked, reinvented, and even declared dead.

The 1960s discourse that “philosophy was dead” was a prime strategy for renegotiating the political boundaries of the discipline. It has to be read as a form of collective bargaining. “It’s not about saving philosophy,” wrote Châtelet, Foucault’s successor at Vincennes, “It is dead and there’s no room for bringing museum pieces back to life” (1970:26). The rhetoric of a “crisis” or “end” of philosophy became so commonplace that it was widely made fun of. Deleuze deplored the 1960s’ eclectic radical philosophy, writing mockingly that “We see Marx and the Pre-Socratics, Hegel and Nietzsche, holding hands in a dance celebrating the transcendence of metaphysics and even the death of philosophy as such.”[12] Meanwhile, political criteria of evaluation were widely applied to philosophy. “In France the whole of intellectual life is affected by the existence of an organized and long-standing Communist Party, and by the presence of a sizable group of Marxist intellectuals” (Bourdieu and Passeron 1967:175). Or more succinctly: “Philosophy lives on politics” (Althusser 1971b:30). Another observer sounded resigned: “In France, the development of a political position remains the decisive test [of philosophy], disclosing as it does the definitive meaning of a mode of thought” (Descombes 1980:7).

The Althusserian moment deserves a word here. Althusser himself — born in Algiers, a prisoner of war in Germany, and a lifelong depressive — was naturally a walking contradiction, as a civil servant paid to (re)produce state intellectual elites.[13] One non-Marxist remarked that “He was, humanly speaking, extremely warm and not at all dogmatic… The dogmatism that’s so characteristic of his disciples, that wasn’t him.”[14] But his erstwhile student Jacques Rancière, who later became one of Paris 8’s global stars, remained quite ambivalent. Althusser “was like the priest of a religion of Marxist rigour… there was an adventurous side and a dogmatic side to it all.”[15] In Althusser’s published writing, the dogmatism came out. In 1968, he declared dramatically that “The fusion of Marxist theory and the Workers’ Movement is the most important event in the whole history of the class struggle, i.e. in practically the whole of human history” (1971:15). Yet his movement splintered in May 1968, and the fixation with theory was attacked. “Althusser is useless!“ read one slogan. ”Althusser not the people!" said another.[16]

Jacques Rancière soon dedicated himself to attacking his former teacher’s theoretical elitism. His disciple’s attack on the master was decidedly in keeping with the homosocial antagonisms which, we saw earlier, organized French philosophers’ relationships. In 1974, Rancière published a brutal attack on Althusser’s view of theoretical work as “class struggle in the field of theory.” Above all, Rancière argued that Althusser’s effort to politicize the academic field had only reinscribed traditional forms of academic power.

Althusser speaks to the clever, to those who can see further than obtuse bureaucrats and know how to decipher his discourse. It is in this, precisely, that his discourse is akin to that of bureaucrats, that his ‘leftist’ discourse serves as a conduit for the power of specialists. ‘Class struggle in theory’, the power to decree, from the height of his armchair, that these utterances are bourgeois and those proletarian – but also to speak between the lines to ‘crafty readers’, that is, to Marxist mandarins – is also, like salary hierarchies, a form of ‘class struggle’… The professor’s ‘Maoism’ says the same thing as the cadre’s economism or the manager’s humanism: it defends the privilege of competent people, of the people who know which demands, which forms of action and which words are proletarian, and which bourgeois. It is a discourse in which specialists of the class struggle defend their power.
[Rancière 2011:109]

For Rancière, Althusser suffered basically from a failure of reflexivity: he had not taken account of his own specific position as a university professor. But the irony is that Rancière ultimately faced the same reflexive dilemmas he had diagnosed in his former master. The 1960s crisis discourse in French philosophy faded away, along with the Marxist critiques of the field.[17] But it left behind a question. How would radical philosophers such as Rancière recover from their own critiques of the discipline? As Marxist attacks on bourgeois philosophy fell by the wayside, the pluralist image of “many philosophies” stuck around, and became a useful rationale for the philosophical multiculturalism that gradually emerged at Paris 8.

  1. Affectively speaking, Nizan’s project also entailed getting beyond the class shame that prevailed among “petty-bourgeois” philosophers — the class shame that Foucault later parodied in insisting that he was “not a comrade.” Nizan concluded: “Our most distinguished philosophers are still too ashamed to admit that they have betrayed mankind for the sake of the bourgeosie. If we betray the bourgeoisie for the sake of mankind, let us not be ashamed to admit that we are traitors” (1970:140).  ↩

  2. Le piège de Vincennes,” Le Nouvel Observateur 274, 9–15 February 1970, pp. 33–35. See also  ↩

  3. From my perspective, it seems that the locus classicus of this move was really Lukacs’ History and Class Consciousness (1968) with its famous argument that the proletarian standpoint had a special epistemic privilege.  ↩

  4. This was a form of misrecognition, as Jean-Louis Fabiani points out, since Sartre was himself a standard product of the French philosophy system, a brilliant normalien agrégé in a world that churned out brilliant normaliens agrégés and sent them to teach in provincial lycées, as Sartre had done in the 1930s (Fabiani 2010). Sartre himself thus illustrated the familiar dynamic by which an establishment structurally produces its own outside, only to experience it as a form of rupture.  ↩

  5. I have amended Hugh Tomlinson’s translation of Nietzsche and Philosophy. See Deleuze 2006a:95.  ↩

  6. Even by Althusser’s own account, his own professional position was ambiguous. “A professional philosopher who joins the Party remains, ideologically, a petty bourgeois. He must revolutionize his thought in order to occupy a proletarian class position in philosophy” (1971:13). See also Balibar (2009).  ↩

  7. Interview with Jacques Bouveresse,  ↩

  8. See Rancière and Hallward (2003:195).  ↩

  9. Dosse 1997:119–120.  ↩

  10. There were, however, subsequent disciplinary crises in philosophy, e.g. around 2009’s university movement, or around relationships to Anglophone academic philosophy.  ↩

« Previous Section | Next Section »