The Political (1979)

The Lic­tors Bring to Bru­tus the Bod­ies of His Sons (Jacques-Louis David, 1789)

“Intro­duc­tion” to the edit­ed col­lec­tion Il Politi­co, in four vol­umes, Fel­trinel­li, Milan 1979.

1. The polit­i­cal has a his­to­ry. It is the mod­ern his­to­ry of rela­tions of pow­er. To recon­struct, reread, to accu­mu­late mate­ri­als, to lay out the prob­lems by fol­low­ing the unhur­ried course of time, to set out from the clas­sics is not an escape into the past, it is an exper­i­ment, a test, the attempt to ver­i­fy a hypoth­e­sis. Let us leave for­mu­lae to the arith­metic of pol­i­tics. Let us leave the auton­o­my of pol­i­tics to the news­pa­pers. The dif­fi­cul­ties encoun­tered by the Marx­ist the­o­ry and prac­tice of the work­ers’ move­ment in tak­ing upon itself the fact of pow­er all stem from this absence of knowl­edge, from this lack of reflec­tion on the his­tor­i­cal hori­zon of bour­geois pol­i­tics. The Marx­ist cri­tique of pol­i­tics has no fol­low-up; it has not accom­pa­nied, not antic­i­pat­ed – here we must choose! – the Marx­ist cri­tique of polit­i­cal econ­o­my. The idea of this book has, in its own small way, a great mod­el: that fourth book of Cap­i­tal [The­o­ries of Sur­plus Val­ue], where Marx col­lects, expos­es, com­ments upon, attacks – that is, cri­tiques – the econ­o­mists, great and small, clas­si­cal and vul­gar; he does his­to­ry of the­o­ret­i­cal eco­nom­ics, a his­to­ry of bat­tle, for his own ends, so as to know, to under­stand, to beat the hege­mo­ny of bour­geois thought in a field that is imme­di­ate­ly incor­po­rat­ed in the class rela­tions of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety. The fourth book of Cap­i­tal, as every­one knows, was com­posed pri­or to the oth­er three.

The polit­i­cal has a bour­geois his­to­ry. It can­not be leapt over. One can­not imme­di­ate­ly arrive at an “oth­er” polit­i­cal with­out hav­ing tra­versed and test­ed and under­stood what there is already. The past is weighty. Up to now cap­i­tal­ism has pro­duced pow­er; but pow­er has also pro­duced cap­i­tal­ism. This lat­ter thing is dif­fi­cult to accept. And yet here there is one of those stub­born facts that do not allow them­selves to be shunt­ed aside even by the most rev­o­lu­tion­ary form of thought that has ever exist­ed, that of Marx. It is the fact of a his­to­ry that from its begin­nings, above all from its begin­nings, comes forth as a polit­i­cal his­to­ry. The pro­pos­al that we read this polit­i­cal his­to­ry of cap­i­tal, in intel­lec­tu­al dis­cov­er­ies and prac­ti­cal choic­es, is a neces­si­ty for Marx­ist research. Each attempt to leap over a moment of the­o­ret­i­cal delay nat­u­ral­ly pro­vokes the risk of impre­ci­sion, numer­ous exam­ples of incom­plete­ness, and some naïve enthu­si­asms. This pro­pos­al would like to act as a guide to a gath­er­ing of mate­ri­als that are then to be tak­en up, one by one, through spe­cif­ic analy­ses and labors. It is an idea for inves­ti­ga­tion aimed at young intel­lec­tu­al forces. We also find here a first reply to one of their ques­tions. The arc of his­tor­i­cal devel­op­ment is long. Who­ev­er thinks of pol­i­tics today, thinks they are doing so in a new way. This is very much organ­ic to the old pol­i­tics, because it leaves it in the tran­quil­i­ty of its every­day life, it fails to reck­on with it, it does not fight it and hence does not destroy it. The need for strate­gic breadth can­not leap over the angst of every­day prac­tice; it must con­front it if it wish­es to strike it.

The polit­i­cal has a mod­ern bour­geois his­to­ry. Many of the things that we do bad­ly today had been done well a few cen­turies ago. It is extra­or­di­nary how lit­tle that is new can be found under the sun of pol­i­tics. No, this is not the banal the­sis that pol­i­tics is always the same. It is not. Depend­ing upon the way that it relates itself to the prob­lem of pow­er, pol­i­tics changes form. As the sub­jects of pol­i­tics change, its laws also change. It is around the crux of the polit­i­cal his­to­ry of cap­i­tal that a uni­ty is to be recon­struct­ed. The iter­abil­i­ty of polit­i­cal phe­nom­e­na must be sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly ver­i­fied with­in a his­tor­i­cal­ly deter­mined socio-eco­nom­ic for­ma­tion. For this rea­son, in under­tak­ing a uni­fied recon­struc­tion of polit­i­cal his­to­ry, we can­not go back beyond the mod­ern era. Oth­er­wise one would have to speak of an eter­nal and ide­al notion of the polit­i­cal. This we can do with­out. The quar­rel between the ancients and the mod­erns does not present itself again here. In pol­i­tics we are not dwarves stand­ing on the shoul­ders of giants. Cap­i­tal­ism, in the epoch of its great cri­sis, pro­duces Great Pol­i­tics, as it did at the time of its birth. And along­side the mod­ern clas­sics there are the con­tem­po­rary clas­sics of pol­i­tics. There is an inter­twin­ing of the pro­duc­tion of pol­i­tics, the­o­ret­i­cal and prac­ti­cal, and the pro­duc­tion of cul­ture, mod­ern and con­tem­po­rary, that must almost always be teased apart in orig­i­nal ways. The old inter­pre­tive cat­e­gories of the great intel­lec­tu­als are use­less. One needs new forces, brains that have not been smoothed out by the ham­mer of tra­di­tion. One needs the taste for a new inquiry into new prob­lems. This explains the method cho­sen for the com­po­si­tion of this anthol­o­gy. Putting in direct con­tact a page of mod­ern his­to­ry or of polit­i­cal the­o­ry with a young schol­ar who is doing research or doing pol­i­tics today already makes a spark fly that can illu­mi­nate pos­si­ble dis­cov­er­ies. But only on one con­di­tion: that we pos­sess a work­ing the­o­ret­i­cal hypoth­e­sis with­in a hori­zon of prac­ti­cal action. This project exists to bring Marx­ist research and the ini­tia­tive of the work­ers’ move­ment to a trans­for­ma­tive strate­gic con­fronta­tion with the polit­i­cal.

But what is the polit­i­cal? There is an image of it that is at once mod­ern and clas­si­cal. This image has under­gone prodi­gious devel­op­ment and ruinous crises, it has shaped the his­to­ry of the past cen­turies but also that of recent decades, and only today does it appear unable to gath­er with­in itself the new com­plex­i­ty of the social, inca­pable of gov­ern­ing the action of the forces that it itself con­tributed to putting into play. The pow­er­less­ness of pow­er seems today to hint ambigu­ous­ly at the end of pol­i­tics. It is not so. But we should take on and fol­low through to the end the pos­i­tive charge of this ambi­gu­i­ty. We must put up for dis­cus­sion the clas­si­cal mod­ern canons of pol­i­tics. A cri­tique of pol­i­tics is nec­es­sary. In a Marx­ist sense. Not mere cri­tique of ide­ol­o­gy, but cri­tique of the prac­tice embod­ied in the rela­tions of pow­er. Knowl­edge, which is insuf­fi­cient, is nev­er­the­less indis­pens­able. Knowl­edge of the mech­a­nisms, the tech­niques, the sub­jects and of the images of pow­er. One can­not turn the State into a the­o­ret­i­cal dog­ma, pre­cise­ly today when it no longer works as the man­ag­er of inter­ests and the con­troller of con­tra­dic­tions. The stand­point of the move­ments that con­test the state-form must not be expelled from the hori­zon of reflec­tion, because some­thing of their the­o­ret­i­cal­ly aggres­sive charge must be brought to bear on the prob­lem. The out­look of a pos­si­ble gov­ern­ment of the new fig­ure of the social should not be moral­is­ti­cal­ly thrown back into the hell­fire of crim­i­nal actions, because direc­tion and medi­a­tion, that is, author­i­ty, is not the past of pol­i­tics, but its present in cri­sis. The oscil­la­tions between these extreme ways of look­ing at the polit­i­cal are in the things them­selves, in the forces, in the rela­tions and in the sub­jects. We can find their echo in the dif­fer­ent treat­ment of the thinkers in this anthol­o­gy. One can­not do a his­to­ry of the polit­i­cal with­out doing pol­i­tics.

What, then, is the mod­ern bour­geois polit­i­cal? It is tech­nique [tec­ni­ca] plus machine, polit­i­cal class [ceto] plus mech­a­nism of dom­i­na­tion, pol­i­tics plus state. Each of these com­po­nents has a his­to­ry, but the his­to­ry of the polit­i­cal includes them all. In the bour­geois con­scious­ness of the mod­ern polit­i­cal the total­i­ty is not brought in from out­side; it is its nature, its ten­den­cy, its log­ic. Hegel is in nuce Machi­avel­li. Not in gen­er­al, but on the basis of cap­i­tal­ism, the machine of the State is implic­it in the tech­nique [tec­ni­ca] of pol­i­tics. For this rea­son, pow­er can­not be the pure sum­ma­tion of tech­niques [tec­niche] and pol­i­tics the raw instru­ment of dom­i­na­tion. Of course, the total­i­ty of the polit­i­cal is that of the clas­si­cal bour­geois era. Then there is the cri­sis. In oth­er words, there is our time: cri­sis of total­i­ties, of organi­cist sum­mings-up, of final prod­ucts and results, the cri­sis of the Syn­the­sis-State. One must stand in this new hori­zon of the bro­ken, dis­persed, non-orga­nized polit­i­cal. In the knowl­edge, how­ev­er, of the rela­tion­ship that is estab­lished here with the pre­ced­ing moments of uni­ty, con­cen­tra­tion, and force. It is not enough to look, one must change. This is also true of the polit­i­cal, and for its his­to­ry. The cri­sis of the State-form pos­es prac­ti­cal prob­lems of strug­gle. Is the schema, the pas­sage, the con­tra­dic­tion “con­quest of pow­er – con­ser­va­tion of pow­er” still valid? In order to know, we will have to retrace the entire devel­op­ment of the expe­ri­ence of the mod­ern polit­i­cal at the lev­el of the high­est works of thought, on the bat­tle­fields of ide­o­log­i­cal alter­na­tives, on the ter­rain of his­toric prac­ti­cal deci­sions. The con­scious­ness of the past must not lead to the his­tori­cist knowl­edge of the present; it must push, prac­ti­cal­ly, for its trans­for­ma­tion. Hence the leaps will be priv­i­leged over the devel­op­ments. What emerges is a his­to­ry of Great Pol­i­tics. This is a choice. Besides, the ques­tion comes from below. The last ten years have made an ini­tial selec­tion of the emerg­ing forces of the young pol­i­tics. The mass elite that has emerged from it is now being asked to stand up and be count­ed. Those who resist the return of mod­er­a­tion in small things, whether pri­vate or pub­lic, will find them­selves hav­ing to make a grand reck­on­ing anew. We must pre­pare instru­ments for read­ing the process­es that are capa­ble of grasp­ing real­i­ty so as to return to the young intel­lec­tu­al forces the taste and appetite for great trans­for­ma­tions.

2. There is, then, a prac­ti­cal ori­gin to this the­o­ret­i­cal inter­est in the his­to­ry of the polit­i­cal. From the begin­ning, a close link is estab­lished between the ter­rain of the polit­i­cal and the birth and devel­op­ment of cap­i­tal­ism; an organ­ic rela­tion­ship, a rec­i­p­ro­cal func­tion­al­i­ty. The present tran­si­tion – that is, the strate­gic rever­sal that with­in cap­i­tal­ism puts cri­sis in the place of devel­op­ment with­out even a glimpse of a pos­si­ble col­lapse of the sys­tem – and yesterday’s tran­si­tion  – that is, the great cri­sis and the exit from it through a new rela­tion­ship between sys­tem of pow­er and class strug­gle in Amer­i­ca – all of this puts the role of the polit­i­cal back in play and makes that of the State vis­i­ble. To grasp the sense of these tran­si­tions at its root it is nec­es­sary to retrieve the clas­si­cal dimen­sion of cer­tain prob­lems.

 The birth of the polit­i­cal as a prob­lem lies at the ori­gins of cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety. The impact, the inter­twin­ing, the exchange, the con­flict is between the state sub­ject and the tran­si­tion to cap­i­tal­ism. With­out the State, from its ori­gins, no cap­i­tal­ism. With­out mod­ern pol­i­tics, imme­di­ate­ly, from its begin­nings, no bour­geois rev­o­lu­tion. Let us recon­sid­er the “Marx­i­an” exam­ple of Eng­land. The Eng­lish route to cap­i­tal­ism is simul­ta­ne­ous­ly – not before and not after – but at once the Eng­lish route to the mod­ern bour­geois State. And the lat­ter, before its birth as a lib­er­al State, as a con­sti­tu­tion­al form, does not have a pre-his­to­ry; it has a real his­to­ry that leads to that result, which forces it to that tran­si­tion. About this orig­i­nary his­to­ry, about this prim­i­tive polit­i­cal accu­mu­la­tion of the bour­geois State, Marx­ism is silent. And yet, as is Marxism’s wont, there are here ele­ments not only for knowl­edge, but also for denun­ci­a­tion; moments not only for devel­op­ment, but also for strug­gle. And so it is. The polit­i­cal devel­op­ment, like the eco­nom­ic, drips blood and tears. The his­to­ry of the State, like that of cap­i­tal­ism, is the his­to­ry of force and vio­lence, of con­quest and dom­i­na­tion, of abil­i­ty and deceit. It is polit­i­cal, not eth­i­cal; it is his­to­ry, not human progress. When indi­vid­ual rights made their appear­ance, pow­er had already won, sov­er­eign­ty was already absolute, and the mod­ern State had already been born. How does one arrive first, along with cap­i­tal­ism, at this sov­er­eign pow­er of the State – this is the prob­lem.

The hypoth­e­sis that runs through the pages of this first vol­ume is that one pass­es from a the­o­ry of pol­i­tics to a the­o­ry of the State, from Machi­avel­li to the thresh­old of Hobbes, from the Prince to the Leviathan. With respect to this strong line of inter­pre­ta­tion of polit­i­cal thought and polit­i­cal prac­tice in the 1500s and through to the mid­dle of the 1600s, the dif­fer­ences of approach to the var­i­ous pro­tag­o­nists of the epoch serve not only to artic­u­late the frame­work of the inter­pre­ta­tions, but also to reg­is­ter the objec­tive blur­ring of the rigid­i­ty of the hypoth­e­sis. So we pass from the care­ful philo­log­i­cal recon­struc­tion of an author and his work to the bril­liant dis­course of some­one who has fall­en in love with a char­ac­ter, paint­ing a por­trait that can­not fail to be per­son­al. At least at the start, I think this mar­gin of oscil­la­tion can­not be elim­i­nat­ed. This is a tan­gled knot that belongs to cul­tur­al work on the mod­ern clas­sics. I do not believe that it will be pos­si­ble quick­ly to arrive at a syn­the­sis of a sophis­ti­cat­ed inter­pre­ta­tion of a text (as sci­en­tif­ic as pos­si­ble), and its cold, raw, prac­ti­cal use. This con­tra­dic­tion must be kept alive; its terms must be tak­en to their extremes, the oppo­site solu­tions must be set in oppo­si­tion. This is a real con­flict, as with all con­flicts that can­not be elim­i­nat­ed, one must pre­pare one­self to use them.

As we said: from pol­i­tics to the State, through­out that cen­tu­ry of great polit­i­cal thought that the six­teenth-cen­tu­ry was. Here the great islands of Bod­in, Althu­sius, Suarez, Grotius are sur­round­ed by an arch­i­pel­ago of less­er islands where real­ism and ide­ol­o­gy, the recog­ni­tion of things and the vain ambi­tions of uni­ver­sal palin­ge­ne­ses are inter­wo­ven, coex­ist and fight. No mat­ter how and in any case, at the begin­nings, in the process of for­ma­tion of the bour­geois polit­i­cal hori­zon, the tech­nique [tec­ni­ca] of pol­i­tics comes forth as a tech­nique [tec­ni­ca] of dom­i­na­tion. Con­quest and con­ser­va­tion of pow­er: Machiavelli’s Prince and Dis­cours­es put the prob­lem direct­ly in this form. Mod­ern soci­ety is found­ed not only on the dom­i­na­tion of nature, through the devel­op­ment of tech­nique [tec­ni­ca] and indus­try. Mod­ern cap­i­tal­ist soci­ety is found­ed on the dom­i­na­tion of men by men. As Horkheimer writes of Machi­avel­li: “The aggre­gate of the paths that lead to this con­di­tion, and of the mea­sures which serve to main­tain this dom­i­na­tion, goes under the name of pol­i­tics.”1 Whether we are deal­ing with a prin­ci­pal­i­ty, a gov­ern­ment of patri­cians, or a pop­u­lar state, it is always like this – as Machi­avel­li said, “it is while revolv­ing in this cycle that all republics are gov­erned and gov­ern them­selves.”2

Let’s repeat. There has been an opti­cal illu­sion, that is, an exces­sive­ly pas­sive Marx­ist read­ing of a bour­geois pol­i­tics as being based on the “rights of man,” as a uni­ver­sal­ist ide­ol­o­gy of the citoyen that masked the par­tic­u­lar class inter­est of the bour­geois. Whence a work­ers’ hori­zon of thought as essen­tial­ly a cri­tique of ide­ol­o­gy and as a retrieval of its ulti­mate truth in the Marx­ist doc­trine of human eman­ci­pa­tion. These things remain painful­ly present. What still has to be cal­cu­lat­ed is the politi­co-prac­ti­cal dam­age, the block­age of the devel­op­ment of the class strug­gle that has been occa­sioned by the incom­pre­hen­sion of the polit­i­cal ori­gins of cap­i­tal­ism. Once again, these are the rea­sons behind this choice of a work of research that, over the long term, aims to remove this block­age, even, and amongst oth­er things, putting a web of prob­lems back into play. In real­i­ty, in mod­ern clas­si­cal bour­geois polit­i­cal thought there was not only a know­ing false con­scious­ness, which is to say ide­ol­o­gy, but also real­is­tic objec­tive descrip­tion of nodes, pas­sages and, yes, prob­lems – of course, this is truer in the case of great con­ser­v­a­tive thought than in so-called rev­o­lu­tion­ary think­ing. So, I repeat, from Machi­avel­li to Hobbes, pol­i­tics becomes State, tech­nique [tec­ni­ca] becomes machine, accu­mu­la­tion becomes pow­er and the prac­tice of pol­i­tics wins, that is, con­quers and con­serves dom­i­na­tion. In between there are the wars of reli­gion, social revolts, a civ­il war turn­ing into rev­o­lu­tion, the “gen­er­al cri­sis” of the 1600s and a first cri­sis of bour­geois cul­ture in which the uni­ty and ratio­nal­i­ty of the Renais­sance intel­lect crum­bles. In the course of this fiery ordeal, it is a fact – as his­tor­i­cal­ly indu­bitable as it is polit­i­cal­ly rich – that the uni­ty and con­cen­tra­tion of pow­er, and hence the real­i­ty of sov­er­eign pow­er, comes before and founds the lib­er­ty, sov­er­eign­ty, and the very prop­er­ty of the bour­geois indi­vid­ual. It is on this lat­ter mate­r­i­al base that the need for the ide­ol­o­gy of mod­ern pol­i­tics emerges and does so quick­ly, already in the six­teenth cen­tu­ry with nat­ur­al law the­o­ry and Calvin­ism. What fol­lows, Locke, the lib­er­al tra­di­tion and lat­er demo­c­ra­t­ic thought, can­not be under­stood with­out these ide­o­log­i­cal sources; but they also can­not be under­stood with­out those great mate­r­i­al, struc­tur­al process­es of the orga­ni­za­tion of pow­er as a func­tion of what will become the his­to­ry of the accu­mu­la­tion of cap­i­tal. What emerges here is a weighty prob­lem that has yet to find its great his­to­ri­an. Upon these two aspects of ide­ol­o­gy and pow­er the reli­gious uni­ty of the world is shat­tered. The protes­tant eth­ic oper­ates as an ide­o­log­i­cal sup­port for a very spe­cif­ic epoch of the spir­it of cap­i­tal­ism: it appears as a tac­ti­cal rela­tion, not by chance expressed in cer­tain soci­o­log­i­cal cat­e­gories, Weber­ian ide­al types that inter­pret, describe, explain but do not change and do not pro­pose to change the con­di­tions of the inves­ti­ga­tion accord­ing to a prac­ti­cal out­look. The his­tor­i­cal nexus rep­re­sent­ed by the rela­tion of pow­er and cap­i­tal – the con­quest and exer­cise of pow­er, the accu­mu­la­tion and devel­op­ment of cap­i­tal – is posed in the form of the strate­gic nexus of the rela­tion between Catholi­cism and cap­i­tal­ism. And on the side, more dis­tant his­tor­i­cal­ly but con­cep­tu­al­ly tighter, it appears as the ambigu­ous func­tion­al inter­change of the­ol­o­gy and pol­i­tics. This is where we must plunge the knife of dis­cov­ery so as to uncov­er the nerves, the lig­a­ments, and the rela­tions of the polit­i­cal in a deter­mi­nate his­tor­i­cal point; here is per­haps the priv­i­leged field for an anato­my of pow­er; with­out doubt, this is the ter­rain upon which for a long time it will be nec­es­sary to work with the means of pro­duc­tion of the cri­tique of pol­i­tics.

With Hobbes, in the bour­geois epoch, a ver­i­ta­ble age of the State begins. From Machi­avel­li to Cromwell – this is the age of mod­ern pol­i­tics. A doing, an act­ing begins, which is by a sin­gle indi­vid­ual but is for all the oth­ers, or over all the oth­ers. It is the pub­lic action of the iso­lat­ed indi­vid­ual; it is polit­i­cal activ­i­ty. The laws of action, the rules to direct men and women, the forms to dom­i­nate them are born. The ratio­nal­i­ty of pol­i­tics is born: look­ing in, there is the iter­abil­i­ty of human behav­iour and the con­tempt for the nat­u­ral­ly sub­al­tern voca­tion of human­i­ty, the cit­i­zen as sub­ject; look­ing out, there is the taste for abil­i­ty and the sense of force, the cul­ti­va­tion of virtù and the com­mand over for­tu­na, “those princes are weak who do not rely on war.”3 This is the bour­geois hori­zon of pol­i­tics: the only one that has exist­ed up to now. Hith­er­to the work­ers’ stand­point has attempt­ed to change this hori­zon; now the moment has come to under­stand it. Only a cold under­stand­ing can put a real trans­for­ma­tion back on its feet. From Machi­avel­li to Cromwell pol­i­tics wins: because it becomes State, it becomes pow­er. The work­ers’ move­ment is the end of pol­i­tics, or is it pol­i­tics incar­nat­ed in the mass­es? In the first case there is a break in the course of his­to­ry: “play crazy, like Bru­tus,”4 Machi­avel­li used to say. In the sec­ond case, there is the rever­sal of direc­tion: “we should con­sid­er where are the few­er incon­ve­niences and take that for the best pol­i­cy, because noth­ing entire­ly clean and entire­ly with­out sus­pi­cion is ever found.”5 Death of pol­i­tics or class pol­i­tics? This sharp alter­na­tive should be left open. The knot must either be undone or cut. Before we decide, we must under­stand. This is why we need to tra­verse mod­ern pol­i­tics, look­ing at it with fresh eyes, rethink­ing it with young minds. At the end of the his­tor­i­cal course of events, we will decide with the­o­ry.

 3.  The­o­ry, pre­cise­ly. In the cur­rent con­fu­sion of lan­guages or, to be more up-to-date, in the present plu­ral­i­ty of lan­guages, it is dif­fi­cult to under­stand if this cri­sis of Marx­ism exists or not. Inso­far as it is a project of thought-trans­for­ma­tion, Marx­ism is tied to the his­tor­i­cal nature of the work­ers’ move­ment. There could be a tem­po­rary tac­ti­cal cri­sis regard­ing the instru­ments, with­in the frame­work how­ev­er of a strate­gic devel­op­ment of restruc­tur­ing of objec­tives. That is, the eleventh the­sis on Feuer­bach does not go into cri­sis while there is even a sin­gle case of class strug­gle present. When there is none, if there is none, then we will see. In the mean­time, parts of con­tem­po­rary Marx­ism fall. Sec­tors of Marx­ist cul­ture no longer find space for pro­duc­tive growth. There is a cri­sis, in the strong sense, of his­tor­i­cal Marx­ist research. It has last­ed too long and is too wide­spread for it to be down to mere acci­den­tal or imme­di­ate caus­es. There must be an under­ly­ing process that makes its effects felt on the gen­er­al sense of the research, on the entire field of the analy­ses that refer back to Marx­ism. There is a cri­sis of his­tor­i­cal mate­ri­al­ism, of that com­plex of organi­cist, uni­ver­sal­ist, and (not coin­ci­den­tal­ly) econ­o­mistic ideas that goes by the name of the mate­ri­al­ist con­cep­tion of his­to­ry. These first cen­turies of mod­ern his­to­ry, this passé present, has refut­ed this aspect of Marx­ism. Indeed, as Lüthy writes: “The great­est wrong that the preva­lent school of doc­tri­naire his­tor­i­cal mate­ri­al­ism has com­mit­ted against his­to­ry has been that of con­sid­er­ing the State sole­ly as an instru­ment in the ser­vice of oth­ers, and of the polit­i­cal regime as the reflec­tion of the rela­tions of pow­er between social class­es; and hence to have pre­clud­ed for itself the true study of insti­tu­tions, law, regimes, in short, of the polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tion of soci­ety and of the ever­more con­strain­ing and over­pow­er­ing autonomous action of con­sti­tut­ed pow­er on the evo­lu­tion of soci­ety and of economies. Because polit­i­cal his­to­ry, in the full sense of the term, is not an epiphe­nom­e­non, nor a his­tor­i­cal cat­e­go­ry along­side oth­ers: the eco­nom­ic, the social, the cul­tur­al, it dom­i­nates them and unites all of them as inte­grat­ing parts of the his­to­ry of the ‘city.’” Here there is a clear-cut inver­sion of direc­tion that goes to the oppo­site extreme, assign­ing to polit­i­cal his­to­ry a new total­iz­ing, inte­grat­ing func­tion. This is cer­tain­ly not the guid­ing hypoth­e­sis of our inves­ti­ga­tion. We seek a place for the polit­i­cal with­in a Marx­ist ana­lyt­i­cal hori­zon; a spe­cif­ic place for the polit­i­cal and hence also a deter­mi­na­tion of its his­to­ry that helps us under­stand the func­tion that it has played and thus the role that we can ask it to play. The his­to­ry of think­ing about pol­i­tics and about the State, the his­to­ry of cer­tain great direc­tions of state pol­i­tics must also be read along­side the rest of mod­ern his­to­ry, that of class strug­gle and the rela­tions of pro­duc­tion, that of indus­try and sci­ence, that of soci­ety and move­ments. We want to hold open this his­tor­i­cal spec­trum; in each case, we attempt to under­stand its log­ic; we do not aban­don the objec­tive of a syn­the­sis, but we do not pre­empt the results of the inves­ti­ga­tion. Besides, the log­ic of sci­en­tif­ic dis­cov­ery with­in the work­ers’ move­ment is inter­wo­ven with the strug­gle over polit­i­cal direc­tion. I am con­vinced that a the­o­ret­i­cal syn­the­sis only begins to become pos­si­ble when one starts to win in prac­tice.

The cen­tral­i­ty of pol­i­tics must there­fore be crit­i­cal and prob­lem­at­ic, it must car­ry con­tra­dic­tions – which it has done and con­tin­ues to do. Imme­di­ate­ly behind us lies the era of the vic­to­ry of pol­i­tics: in the work­ers’ camp, with the age of rev­o­lu­tions and the attempts at alter­na­tive soci­eties; in the cap­i­tal­ist camp, with the macro-gov­ern­ment of the great cri­sis and the pro­grammes for the ratio­nal­iza­tion of devel­op­ment. The sub­stan­tial fail­ure of these attempts and pro­grammes, both the great rev­o­lu­tion­ary ones and the great con­ser­v­a­tive ones, and fur­ther­more the growth in the com­plex­i­ty, strat­i­fi­ca­tion, and dis­ar­tic­u­la­tion of the con­tem­po­rary social, lead today (or appear to lead) the great forces as well as sin­gle indi­vid­u­als, to a “retraite” from the polit­i­cal. We are liv­ing through a moment of cri­sis of pol­i­tics. It is a cri­sis of the ide­o­log­i­cal appa­ra­tus­es, the cri­te­ria of belong­ing, the arti­cles of faith, and it is a cri­sis of the tech­ni­cal instru­ments, of admin­is­tra­tion and muta­tion, State, par­ties, unions. The cap­ture of active con­sent and the prac­tice of sub­jec­tive trans­for­ma­tion become increas­ing­ly dif­fi­cult. The func­tion­ing of pol­i­tics becomes more dif­fi­cult, both in terms of management-and/or-overturning and of government-and/or-revolution.6 Pol­i­tics is suf­fer­ing from a cri­sis of iden­ti­ty; there is a fall in the cred­i­bil­i­ty of a polit­i­cal solu­tion to the great prob­lems of mod­ern soci­ety and indi­vid­u­als. We are expe­ri­enc­ing a cri­sis of polit­i­cal ratio­nal­i­ty. Here too one must think and live this tran­si­tion; remain with­in it, tra­verse it and allow it to tra­verse us. We must take up a line of inves­ti­ga­tion that is open and pro­vi­sion­al. This was pre­cise­ly the “oth­er” dimen­sion of the auton­o­my of the polit­i­cal. Tak­ing cog­nizance of a log­ic spe­cif­ic to the polit­i­cal and in this sense bring­ing about a rev­o­lu­tion in the Marx­ist mode of think­ing. But not as a project; not as a recom­po­si­tion or as ratio­nal­iza­tion. On the con­trary, as a moment of desta­bi­liza­tion at the lev­el of the the­o­ret­i­cal tra­di­tion and, hence, with an aware­ness of the cri­sis of polit­i­cal ratio­nal­i­ty. The unveil­ing of the autonomous forms of polit­i­cal dom­i­na­tion and so the antic­i­pa­to­ry expres­sion of anti-insti­tu­tion­al move­ments under­stood, how­ev­er, as new lev­els of class strug­gle that seek for them­selves – and per­haps here is where the real nov­el­ty lies – a use of the polit­i­cal and an insti­tu­tion­al pol­i­tics. In oth­er words: matur­ing of the class move­ment through a cri­sis of ratio­nal­i­ty of the very auton­o­my of the polit­i­cal of the bour­geoisie.

To know pol­i­tics, and its his­to­ry, is a weapon; an offen­sive instru­ment in the strug­gle for change. And it is not a strug­gle between cul­tures; it is not a bat­tle of ideas. It is not a case of con­vinc­ing intel­lec­tu­als. And we don’t wish to tit­il­late the spe­cial­ists. I repeat and insist. There is an area of new mil­i­tan­cy that has grown in the course of these ten years amid var­i­ous dis­ap­point­ments; it now asks for a new cul­ture of pol­i­tics, a mod­ern knowl­edge of trans­for­ma­tion. There is a young intel­lec­tu­al force in for­ma­tion, which has already expe­ri­enced on its own body the fail­ure of the “pro­gres­sive” cul­tur­al hori­zons and is now ready to grap­ple with the oth­er, even if the oth­er is the ene­my. This is the pub­lic for this dis­course. Here there are vig­i­lant eyes and minds ready to under­stand, deployed in such a way as to cap­ture the true sense of the inves­ti­ga­tion and to uti­lize it for growth or for chang­ing them­selves. There is only one path towards the recov­ery of pol­i­tics – as activ­i­ty and as thought – and that is via the real­is­tic recog­ni­tion of its orig­i­nary bour­geois nature. Once rec­og­nized, and only then, will we be able and will we need to go beyond.

Cas­sir­er writes: “There is a scene in Goethe’s Faust in which we see Faust in the kitchen of the witch, wait­ing for her drink by virtue of which he shall regain his youth. Stand­ing before an enchant­ed glass he sud­den­ly has a won­der­ful vision. In the glass appears the image of a woman of super­nat­ur­al beau­ty. He is enrap­tured and spell­bound; but Mephis­to, stand­ing at his side, scoffs at his enthu­si­asm. He knows bet­ter, he knows that what Faust has seen was not the form of a real woman; it was only a crea­ture of his own mind.”7 There is not only the “myth of the State,” there is also the myth of pol­i­tics. It is pos­si­ble that the exer­cise of this new pow­er, “the pow­er of myth­i­cal think­ing,” has not erupt­ed any­where with greater vio­lence than in the field of pol­i­tics. Carr has spo­ken of “Bol­she­vik utopia;” it would have been bet­ter to speak of utopia with respect to the Bol­she­vik 1917, or of State and Rev­o­lu­tion as active inher­i­tance that brings with it the “most bla­tant­ly utopi­an ele­ment of Marx­ist doc­trine,” the extinc­tion of the State and, con­se­quent­ly, the end of pol­i­tics; a Marx clos­er to Smith than to Hegel. Along­side oth­er sig­nif­i­cant facts, is it not also this Bol­she­vik utopia that arous­es the com­plete state-cen­tered­ness of the Sovi­et expe­ri­ence?  “Mys­ti­cal visions” are like the sleep of rea­son; they pro­duce mon­sters. Only the real­ism of analy­sis, the cri­tique of motives, the cal­cu­la­tion of forces, and the dis­en­chant­ment of val­ues are able to save us from the fate of uncon­trol­lable results.

And so: from Machi­avel­li to Cromwell; this is pol­i­tics and this is the State. Here we find the his­to­ry of ori­gins. The rest, what fol­lows, will not come about through spon­ta­neous ger­mi­na­tion, or through peace­ful devel­op­ment, or from the accu­mu­la­tion of data; it will only come through con­tra­dic­tion, con­trast, via leaps, for­ward and back. Focus­ing on the ori­gin does not help us under­stand every­thing, but it does help us to know the ori­gin. Know­ing where the the­o­ret­i­cal roots of pol­i­tics and the State lead is know­ing where we must plunge the spade to tear out those roots in prac­tice. To do this we must turn our hands to a labor of exca­va­tion. We can­not just exploit the labor of oth­ers; revis­it their schol­ar­ship. We must get our hands dirty. Bet­ter to run the risk of error than to have the aca­d­e­m­ic cer­tain­ty of not know­ing. In pol­i­tics, in polit­i­cal the­o­ry, one can­not be Canetti’s Peter Kien, pro­fes­sor of sinol­o­gy, a head with­out a world: “he remem­bered [the ros­es’] sweet smell from Per­sian love poet­ry.”8 The route is the oth­er one. Con­fide in God but keep your pow­der dry. Machi­avel­li … but with Iron­sides.

 – Trans­lat­ed by Mat­teo Man­dari­ni

  1. From M. Horkheimer, “Begin­nings of the Bour­geois Phi­los­o­phy of His­to­ry,” in Between Phi­los­o­phy and Social Sci­ence, trans­lat­ed by G. F. Hunter, M. S. Kramer, and J. Tor­pey (Cam­bridge, Mass­a­chu­setts: MIT Press, 1993), 316 

  2. N. Machi­avel­li, The Dis­cours­es on Livy, trans­lat­ed by H. C. Mans­field and N. Tar­cov (Chica­go: Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Press, 1996), 13. 

  3. Ibid., 53 

  4. Ibid., 214. 

  5. Ibid., 22. 

  6. Translator’s note: the orig­i­nal Ital­ian is “ges­tione-riv­ol­gi­men­to” (man­age­ment-over­turn­ing) and “gov­er­no-riv­o­luzione” (gov­ern­ment-rev­o­lu­tion). The func­tion of the dash in Ital­ian always sig­nals a cer­tain ambi­gu­i­ty: is it alter­na­tion or oppo­si­tion? Gior­gio Cesar­ale explained this to me with the fol­low­ing exam­ple: “I remem­ber that in the ‘90s, there was a dis­cus­sion around the ‘cen­ter left’ with or with­out a dash. Cen­tre-Left indi­cat­ed both alliance and dis­tinc­tion, for which rea­son the Vel­tro­n­i­ani [the fol­low­ers of the most right-wing of the par­ty lead­ers, Wal­ter Vel­troni] would cry ‘with­out a dash!’” That is to say, they want­ed to trans­form the ex-Par­ti­to Comu­nista Ital­iano, into a ful­ly cen­trist par­ty with no roots in the work­ers’ move­ment. I have there­fore opt­ed to sig­nal the ambi­gu­i­ty a lit­tle more force­ful­ly, if not very ele­gant­ly. 

  7. E. Cas­sir­er, The Myth of the State (New Haven: Yale Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1946), 5 

  8. E. Canet­ti, Auto Da Fé, trans­lat­ed by C.V. Wedg­wood (Lon­don: The Harvill Press, 2005), 246. 

Author of the article

is an Italian philosopher and politician, and one of the founders of Quaderni Rossi and later Classe Operaia in the 1960s.