The Critique of Politics

marx painting

Thinking the Political

Karl Marx is a contemporary thinker.1 Because if one looks at all the reflections of Hannah Arendt, Claude Lefort, Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, Jacques Rancière, Alain Badiou, or Slavoj Žižek on the concept of the political, then one has the impression that there is a theoretical dispute. Conspicuously, all of these authors write about and in opposition to Marx. They criticize Marx implicitly and explicitly, and contest, in one way or another, the idea that he has something to say to us about the political. On the other hand, they hardly ever ask what we have to say to Marx. However, when we understand things in this way, a critical dialogue is in fact discernible. It becomes apparent that Marx argues in such a manner as if he had anticipated many of the arguments now directed against him. It is possible that he does not have the better arguments, but he certainly does have arguments that we should understand before we concede too great a power to the political, and obscure for ourselves the possibilities of emancipation that he saw during his time. Politics, and in particular democratic politics, is often viewed within political theory as the area in which human beings come together in order to make collective decisions and to become capable of collective action. From this perspective politics is seen – in distinction to the economy, with its power and its inherent necessities – as the sphere of autonomy and freedom. In opposition to this perspective, Marx put forward the view that politics is itself heteronomous and has its share of social unfreedom. The creation of a dichotomy between economy and politics represents in his view one of the central problems of the bourgeois social formation, since the capitalist economy and the form of politics cannot separated from one another. The conflict over whether the economy and the market secure freedom and self-determination, which the state then limits, or whether the reverse is true and the economy must be civilized by politics, is one located within the liberal paradigm. From an emancipatory perspective one must go beyond this paradigm.

In the contemporary debates of political theory, the arguments formulated against Marx and the tradition following him weigh all the more heavily since they are put forward by authors who have contributed to this tradition through their political or theoretical practices, and, in distinction to many of the intellectuals who became anti-Communists in their post-Stalinist phase, have by no means entirely rejected the Marxian problematic or its emancipatory goals. Insofar as this is the case, we are dealing with a type of “objective” self-critique, which includes a rational historical moment for the further development of the theory. A more decisive objection is that with Marx and in connection with him, the moment of politics and especially that of democratic politics is reduced. Slavoj Žižek has identified five ways in which political philosophy attempts to suspend, deny or regulate the destabilizing potential of the political.2 This occurs as an arche-politics of the always existing community that knows no political event; as para-politics, which depoliticizes politics in that representative conflicts regarding the seizure of executive power take place in an established space between recognized parties; as ultra-politics, which recodes politics into a military dispute; and as post-politics, as a model of strategic compromises. Finally, there is the type of politics that is of interest to us here: the meta-politics of the Marxist tradition that conceives of politics as a mere shadow theater in which events present themselves, while their actual arena is the economy. From the perspective of the critique of ideology, politics is to be separated into politics as epiphenomenon and a true politics. The latter aims at the transformation of the management of human beings into a scientific-technically directed management of things within a rational order that is itself completely transparent.

What, in contrast with this, does Žižek consider to be an “authentic politics?”3 Politics is the eventful, the new, the art of the impossible, and therefore the changing of the parameters and spaces in which things interact. Politics is conceived of as subversive, because a structured social body in which everyone has their own fixed place is called into question and a new order is constituted. Politics, so understood, is synonymous with the founding act of the revolution or the drafting of a constitution. “This identification of the part of society with no properly defined place within it (or which rejects the allocated subordinated place within it) with the Whole is the elementary gesture of politicization, discernible in all great democratic events from the French Revolution… to the demise of East European socialism… In this precise sense, politics and democracy are synonymous.”4 The constitutive action is privileged in such a concept of politics, while by contrast the political process, once it is constituted, moves into the shadows of normalcy, the commonplace, administration and the police. The question raised by Aristotle or by Machiavelli in the Discourses, of how a long-lasting polity can take all of its citizens into account, is deemphasized with a heroic gesture. “‘Political philosophy’ is therefore in all its different forms of appearances a ‘defensive formation,’”5 that is, it is anti-democratic, because it has the goal of tempering the traumatic dimension of the political. In normalized social processes, constitutive action, the incursion of events and the positing of new coordinates, has no place. Political theory therefore speaks in the name of that traumatic moment and empowers itself to be subversive, because it is internally connected with the political, with the founding event of the new order, with the realization of the impossible. Marx, on the other hand, was interested in the question of the long-term functioning of common social life and did not expect to find the answer in politics itself, because he did not believe it to be either subversive or constitutive, and because, contrary to the hopes and desires of politicians and political philosophers, it does not have the power and the means to produce the desired polity.6 Therefore, if Marx is criticized because he speaks in support of overcoming politics in the name of a true and final political action, he would probably point to a lack of dialectics on the part of the new political philosophers, because they either misjudge or glorify the contradictory character of the political. In the name of an authentic politics, they are only excited about the constitutive side of political action. Not only is the trauma of the constitutive act, which then permeates and encumbers the newly created social normalcy, ignored, but worse still, using the names “administration,” “police,” “welfare state,” or “fixed totality,” the real, administrative and dominant side of politics is pushed to the side as a mere supplement and is even denied the name “politics.” Marx, in his numerous journalistic and political writings, dealt in detail with the everyday business of politics. As in the case of the economy, he was also interested, in the case of politics, in the ideal average. Belonging to this ideal average of politics are both constitutive action as well as the everyday praxis of the exercise and retention of power, and both are criticized by Marx.

“Rule over Men” or “Administration of Things” – a Field of Discourse

Marx and Engels were convinced that an essential feature of the emancipation of humanity consists in the state becoming superfluous and withering away. As soon as the struggle for individual existence that is based in the anarchy of private production and the collisions which result from it were eliminated, along with class rule, a separate, repressive state force would no longer be necessary. In a first phase of this emancipation, the state would be the true representative of the whole of society, the means of production would be subject to public control, and particular classes would no longer exist. This universal representative would intervene into social relations in the interest of the public. But these interventions would become bit by bit superfluous and would then “pass away of their own accord. In place of the governance over persons there appears the administration of things and the management of processes of production. The state is not ‘done away with’, it withers away.”7 This reflection of Engels, which harks back to Saint-Simon, is seen by critics as the embodiment of a thought which rejects politics. This is because the democratic-political conflict which results from the tension between the claim to universality and the interests of the individuals would be suspended. Marx and Engels appear to want to suggest that human beings will no longer struggle politically over the use of resources and the means of production, over the amount or the type of labor process, the division of labor and the distribution of products, because there would no longer be any conflicting or differing class interests. The thesis of the replacement of the state as a government over human beings through the administration of things is intended to mean that there is from then on only the one and best manner of action, namely the one that is determined technically and scientifically; the space for publicly conducted political discussions and decisions would no longer exist.8 Furthermore, the critics argue, the consequence of this thesis is that the goal of the withering away of the state is reversed: it leads on the contrary to an authoritarian increase of state power, because rationalizing technocratic elites claim to alone be capable of directing society on the basis of their superior specialized knowledge according to technical and apolitical viewpoints. They believe that this universal moment is removed from every conflict of opinions and is objectively determinable; that a rational viewpoint, undistorted by interests, can be clearly established and serve as the basis for organizing a society’s institutions. Freedom is realized as insight into this necessity. However, a discussion over the goals and viewpoints of correctness and necessity is thereby suspended; this can correspond to the particular interests of those elites and connect with their rule and their material advantages. Before I present Marx’s own reflections on the critique of politics, I want to first raise three questions in regard to this critique of Marx and Engels, and the received truths on which it is based.

First of all it is surprising that in the critical discussion of Marx the concept of the “administration of things” is never investigated more closely. Obviously, recourse is made to Max Weber’s reflections on bureaucratic rule. For Weber, bureaucratic action counts as apolitical or technical; the bureaucratic Anstaltsstaat exercises its rule over human beings with the iron rigidity of inherent necessity. Socialism would be the final form of this rule, in which social relationships would be structured in a completely rational manner. Rational freedom would therefore necessarily be transformed into unfreedom. In the end there could be no freedom and no politics, because everything would be directed in accord with the system’s internal necessity and rationality by the state bureaucracy. This consideration concerns above all the bourgeoisie itself and its claim to rationality. Weber himself suggests that socialism only pushes this claim to its extreme. Weber’s alternative to this rationality, that is intended to preserve freedom, is one which he shares with liberalism as a whole: the irrationality of the market. Therefore, on the one hand we have totalitarianism as realized reason, which articulates all relationships with logical necessity; on the other hand, in the name of freedom, we have subjugation under the blind and all-powerful force of nature of the markets, that is, the backslide into the barbarism of mere self-preservation. To be trapped in such an alternative is a dialectical constellation that represents a status quo of unfreedom and has historically led to a precarious compromise between these two forms of coordination of social rule, which prevents the realization of either extreme. It is obvious that Marx and Engels are directing their critique of the bourgeois social formation toward the overcoming of this constellation. It would be quite paradoxical if Marx, who rejected the “dull compulsion of economic relations”9 so decisively, were now to defend the dull compulsion of technical-state administration. This is a moment of the capitalist mode of production and the capitalist state; in this sense it does not stand opposed to politics per se. Ruling human beings and administrating things well becomes an art of government, which, as Foucault has shown in his genealogy of the police, governmentalized the state in the second half of the 18th century.10 As with Marx, Foucault does not have any one-sided partisanship against administration in favor of politics. “Political rationality developed and established itself in the course of the history of western societies. It first based itself in the conception of pastoral power and then in the idea of reason of state. Individualization and totalization are unavoidable effects in this process. Liberation cannot be achieved merely with an attack on one or another of these effects, but rather only with one that is directed at the actual roots of political rationality.”11 It is therefore a question of this critique of political rationality, to which the “administration of things” is also clearly subordinated.

The second question concerns the Marxian understanding of technology and science. Foucault’s differentiation of four fundamental modalities of speaking the truth can be of help in more precisely defining Marx’s version of speaking the truth.12 First, there is the modality of prophetic speech, in which the prophet serves as the mouthpiece for other voices and proclaims a truth that comes from somewhere else. Then there is the modality of wisdom: the sage speaks for himself, it deals with a piece of wisdom and he must pass it on or teach it. The sage says what the being of the world and the things within it is and with this advises principles of behavior. The third modality of veridiction is that of the expert or teacher. It is a matter of technical, expert knowledge, a knowledge which is tied to a practical exercise of this knowledge. The expert must convey his ability and knowledge, and stands in a series of experts. In transmitting knowledge, in speaking the truth, the expert does not take any risks, since the band of common knowledge ties him to a tradition. Lastly, there is the modality of parrhesia: the parrhesiast is not a teacher, not a man of ability, he does not prophesize, he does not speak the truth about being and the essence of things. Rather, with his speech he enters into a conflict with others, he speaks in his own name, he speaks the truth about the uniqueness of individuals and situations. It is often alleged that Marx speaks as an expert and treats science as a medium for the pronouncement of ultimate technical knowledge. He appears to lack a theory of action, whether this is understood as normative, political, or as a theory of revolution. He also appears to speak authoritatively and in an authoritarian manner as a sage in the name of fundamental, essential, law-governed regularities of society and to urge particular modes of behavior. Finally, prophetic speech also appears to enter into his text when he encourages expectations (allegedly based on a philosophy of history) of an end of the bourgeois social formation. Curiously, Marx is hardly ever understood as a parrhesiast, which he also clearly was above all. To provide only a few indications that he did not speak as a sage, as an expert, or as a prophet: he advocated press freedom and public discussion as the foundation of common social life and was for this reason driven into exile several times. He understood science and technology as practices belonging to the confrontation between social classes in which he himself intervened by means of arguments. In the name of his own research he took on the ruling opinions in economics, political science, and philosophy, and bore the risk of jeopardizing his bourgeois existence. According to Marx’s view, with the development of social formations the forms of thought of human beings change, and therefore also the way of speaking the truth. There is no continuity of the world of great minds. Through his analyses he attempted to arrive at an assessment of concrete relationships, situations, and constraints on the action of individuals. He saw himself not as a prophet, who lent his voice to a quasi-divine working class, a messianic collective subject, in order to proclaim in its name an assurance of salvation, but rather sought to emphasize the contingency of historical processes. He did not understand contingency as an essential determination of being, but rather as a concretely conditioned, historically determined form of contingency, which allows for the recognition of the tendencies of social development. Against the background of this consideration, it would be useful to consider to what extent Marx and Engels with their expression of the “administration of things” were really tending toward a statist, scientistic and technocratic understanding, and whether problems are being anachronistically imposed on them, which first arose from the historical experience with social democratic and communist practices and the liberal critique thereof.

The third question inverts the perspective. The critique of Marx’s critique of politics is accompanied by a responsibility for its critics. If the emancipatory goal of the withering away of the state is abandoned in order to defend freedom and political and democratic conflict, then such a plea for politics and freedom cannot abandon its own responsibility for the fact that politics always ties together the administration of things with a control over human beings and nature. For the defenders of the political, politics means the continued conflict over what is to be regarded as universal or only as particular, or over what is to be regarded as necessary or free. Politically, the polity is constituted and its order is defined as universally binding and necessary, corresponding decisions are made and methods of action are carried out. This often occurs in peaceful conflicts which are settled by means of debate; more frequently, however, it takes the form of symbolic injuries to persons or groups, or the use of physical violence. In the name of the universal, and on the path to defining and realizing it, injustices are perpetrated, expulsions are carried out, state force is applied, and humans and resources are destroyed. They are a moment of the political. Without this dynamic and its consequences one cannot have political conflicts, the universality of law and its state enforcement.13 Whether for or against politics, in the end it appears as if in this matter we are only dealing with the moral and calculatory question of which type of coexistence of human beings leads to more or fewer victims and whether, and in what way, this can be justified: if politics and the state are essential for the fostering of conflict resolution, then this raises the problem of how politics and the state can themselves be civilized so that the negative consequences are minimized. A good portion of political theory is dedicated to treating these problems from the perspective of moral philosophy or democratic theory. In fact the alternative is itself unfree. For this reason theoretical efforts should, in the face of all that which accompanies the politically universal and the state in power, aim at the overcoming of politics as a moment of the emancipatory project.

Politics as an Ideological Form

The critique of politics is understood by Marx in his 1843-44 “Introduction to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right“ as a secularization of the critique of theology—a critique turned from heaven to earthly relations. His preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy of 1859 suggests that he still continued to stick to this program. Here politics, in addition to law, art, religion, and philosophy, is named as one of the ideological forms in which human beings become conscious of their conflicts and fight them out. This takes up another earlier formulation from the “Letters from the Deutsch-Französischen Jahrbücher“: “Just as religion is a register of the theoretical struggles of mankind, so the political state is a register of the practical struggles of mankind. Thus, the political state expresses, within the limits of its form sub specie rei publicae, all social struggles, needs and truths.”14

Politics is therefore no shadow theater, as Žižek claims, because in it, real conflicts are carried out. The emancipatory engagement should therefore also be critical in regard to the form in which it is carried out and thereby contribute to the ability of these social struggles to go beyond themselves. I see at least five closely connected moments that limit social praxis under the determinations of the political form and give it a non-emancipatory direction.15

1. In Marx’s view, the state still belongs to the prehistoric and natural-historical stage of the development of humanity, because it continues in a modern way the social praxis of religion. Just as in the case of mediation through God, the state is also a third entity through which human beings relate to one another. Although they have created this entity themselves, they do not relate to each other directly; rather, they see themselves as placed in a relationship to one another through this entity. The necessity of state mediation arises on the basis of private production for an anonymous market, which separates the individual and egoistic life of individuals from the “life of the species,” which is experienced as a political life lying beyond the immediate sphere of life. The atheistic and democratic state is, according to Marx, the perfected Christian state. If the young Marx still speaks of the life of the species, then he replaces this concept in later writings with the division of labor. Communal interest exists in the reciprocal dependency of the individual workers on one another; the collaboration in the division of labor produces the common, unified force that is one’s own, the multiplied productive In class society cooperation in the division of labor is not, however, voluntary and self-determined, but merely natural; capability and competence in organizing the division of labor makes possible the rule of the few over the many. For this reason the social force of the common production of common goods does not appear to individuals as their own, unified force, but rather appears opposed to them as a “foreign power that is external to them.” For Marx and Engels, the universal is therefore an “illusory form of communality,” because it realizes itself as a particular and idiosyncratic “general interest” aside from and above the common life of individuals.16

2. Marx considers the division of man into public and private man to be the perfection of political The sphere of politics and the state counts as that of universality, which has to stand opposed to the interest of individuals as something that is merely particular. Necessarily, there emerges from this a lasting conflict regarding the universal. Whoever can define what counts as universal can thereby bestow upon their interests the character of universal validity. It is for this reason that all members of society must be continuously watchful that no monopoly of the ability to define the universal emerges. In the political form, individuals must therefore be constantly alert and ready for conflict. The conflict over the universal always contains within it the dynamic of force that must at the same time always be limited and civilized. Accordingly, civility, tolerance, pluralism, the common ground of democrats, and the limits of the constitution are constantly called upon in order to transform potential antagonisms into the agonism of moderated, divisible conflicts.17 This appears most likely to be guaranteed in the democratic republic. Liberal democracy appears as the most appropriate form of the political, because it creates constitutional institutions, which make a low level of conflict over the universal possible, but at the same time thereby perpetuate the revolution: in the unstoppable struggle over what counts as universal or as a “good” order, identities and interests are realized that necessarily exclude others, and that will for their part struggle to be recognized and taken into account. In the formal sense there cannot, and should not be an end to this logic of the conflict between the common good and particular interests. A corresponding set of measures form that open up an extensive play between private and public, which is characteristic of everyday life in democracies: all citizens must pursue their particular interests as individuals, because others will not do it for them; all citizens must constantly claim that their interests are universal, objective, and necessary. On the other hand, all individuals must permanently and self-critically assess if this is actually the case in light of objections, and correspondingly must attempt to develop forms of legitimacy, in order to be capable of defending and asserting their interests. The retreat to power itself occurs in the form of arguments claiming universality: market, competitiveness, growth, jobs, the lack of alternatives, “too big to fail.” In such processes the status of what at a given moment counts as private or public can shift: the protest of homeowners against an electricity line can count in one case as particularistic, but in another as oriented toward the common good; demonstrators who oppose the erroneous management of a crisis and advocate a democratic and emancipated society are characterized as particularistic professional hooligans, while those who protest for the maintenance of their property values are referred to as concerned citizens who are responsibly making use of their right to freedom of expression; in one case it can be demanded that private sexual assault be viewed as publicly relevant, but in another case that the private sphere is protected from the public sphere of the state and the media.18 Everything depends upon the political context and on power relations. The relationship of private and public cannot be resolved in one or the other direction, even if there are corresponding Utopian proposals to do so.19

3. As he criticizes the play between private and public, Marx also criticizes additional constitutive concepts that are tied to the political form. Freedom separates humans from one another, makes them into independent monads that are isolated from one another and whose relationship to one another is determined from the perspective of the law – likewise a third instance. Individuals are regarded as free, but their freedom is restricted by law in order to protect the sphere of freedom of all others. Thus, other human beings represent a limit on one’s own freedom in each case. In the scope established by law and protected by the state, freedom, according to Marx, simultaneously makes possible and promotes individual despotism: religion as a private quirk, the enjoyment of wealth without relation to other human beings, society, and – as we would add today – nature. Whatever the freedom of the market allows is also done. Equality is for its part, as Marx laconically says, nothing else than the even distribution of such individual monads. Individuals count as sovereign, as the highest essence, but in their uncultivated, asocial, accidental existence.20 This sovereignty, particularly in a democracy, is a reality which differs from real men, and the political man is therefore regarded as an abstract, artificial man, as an allegorical, moral person.21 Finally, Marx criticizes the fact that universality and political life are only there to protect the private interests of the egoistic individual, and therefore only have an instrumental value.

4. On the basis of the separation of particular interests and the common good the state appears as the form in which society acts.22 In politics society can imagine itself as a collective subject with a common and unified will.23 This occurs when states mobilize militarily, pursue infrastructural planning or utilize social wealth to rescue banks. This is nevertheless imaginary, because it is not a matter of a society that organizes itself, but rather of individual forces that organize a multitude of social forces either through force or through consensus. The universal formula for this will is then the common good of the state. This imagination also shapes a large part of social critique and social protest: it addresses a state and combines together with this the expectation that the state could effect change. With his critique of the state Marx had already turned away from Hegel very early on and does not see in the state, society raised to the level of reason, which could direct itself by means of the state. This leads him to also provide a critique of political rationality, a critique which makes it clear that Marx considers politics to be authoritarian. Within the form of politics it is possible to use the means of politics to change social relationships. Marx sees this political logic as asserting itself above all in the terror of the Jacobins. “The mightier the state, and the more political therefore a country is, the less is it inclined to grasp the general principle of social maladies and to seek their basis in the principle of the state, hence in the present structure of society, the active, conscious and official expression of which is the state. The political mind is a political mind precisely because it thinks within the framework of politics… The classic period of political intellect is the French Revolution. Far from seeing the source of social shortcomings in the principle of the state, the heroes of the French Revolution instead saw in social defects the source of political evils. Thus, Robespierre saw in great poverty and great wealth only an obstacle to pure democracy. Therefore he wished to establish a universal Spartan frugality.”24 Democratic politics has the internal tendency to become authoritarian, because it wants to make the individuals equal with political means where they are unequal. “At times of special self-confidence, political life seeks to suppress its prerequisite, civil society and the elements composing this society, and to constitute itself as the real species-life of man devoid of contradictions. But it can achieve this only by coming into violent contradiction with its own conditions of life.”25 These conditions of existence again return the illusions of the politically active, about everything that could be realized with politics, quickly to the ground of that politically realistic wisdom according to which politics is the art of the possible.26 The bourgeoisie finally shrinks back in horror from its own revolution.

5. This authoritarian moment of politics results, according to Marx, from the claim to universality mediated by the state. The decisive feature of politics, according to Žižek and Rancière, is the paradox of something singular that is not a part of the social body, but which identifies with this as the universal and wants to establish it in the face of the existing, merely particularistic, exclusive order.27 With this Žižek describes that moment which is also, according to Marx, essential for politics. However, in contrast to Laclau, Rancière, or Žižek, Marx is fundamentally critical of it. Marx holds that it is constitutive for bourgeois society that a particular group or class claims universality for itself, and must therefore identify itself with society; or, when understood critically, must confuse itself with society if it wants to change and emancipate society. In fact, it will always consider its particular interests to be universal, and therefore this universal will be questioned by an additional group that cannot recognize itself and its interests in this universal. For Marx it is characteristic of political revolution and of the political process of democracy as a whole: every popular class is politically idealist and does not experience itself as a particular class, but rather as the representative of society’s needs. It is for this reason that Marx can write that in France, in the country with political reason par excellence, the “role of emancipator therefore passes in dramatic motion to the various classes of the French nation one after the other.”28 Authors such as Laclau or Rancière would like to understand this process as an endless process, because every attempt to stop it necessarily amounts to a particular that wants to permanently remain a universal. This is only possible if it immunizes itself against every critique of its particularity and asserts itself in an authoritarian manner against other particular interests, which for their part would like to become universal. By contrast, Marx wants to overcome this cycle of particular and universal, and therefore the political form as such. The continued existence of the political form is a symptom of the fact that the struggle for emancipation continues, always resulting in more victims, while at the same time emancipation itself never occurs. This is why he advocates passing over from the political logic that produces this bad and endless cycle to the social revolution, which pursues the goal of emancipating all spheres of society and dismantling the existing society. This does not mean a step back from the social contract of possessive individualists to the state of nature; rather, it is a step forward to the new, associated and cooperative form of coexistence.

Marx’s goal is not emancipation from a particular injustice, but rather from the logic of injustice itself. For this claim to universality there is also a singular universal: the particular position of the proletariat. This reference by Marx to the proletariat as a particular group that in a last act of emancipation is to overcome politics, has allowed Ernesto Laclau to doubt the fact that Marx can actually extract himself from the logic of the political. However, Laclau misinterprets Marx on a decisive point, since according to a long historical tradition within Marxism, he accepts that Marx sees in the proletariat itself the true universal class that ousts the bourgeois class from political power, because it unjustly claims as a small social minority to represent the whole of society. That actor is said to stand beyond particularity and universality and express, in a direct manner, pure and universal human essence.29 But Marx does not say this; he does not seek to continue this line of reasoning as it was developed by the French revolutionaries: to speak in the name of the majority, of the nation against a tiny minority of the rich. The proletariat, according to his understanding, has not yet become universal; instead, it represents a negative universality. It does not seek to be everything, but rather to dissolve itself and with itself the conditions of possibility for classes and estates, or in other words the conditions under which individuals and groups are required to accept a particular identity for the sake of their own survival, and to force their own particularity on others as universality. With this position, Marx long ago made a radical contribution to those emancipatory struggles which oppose the political power that attempts to bind individuals to their own identity and history and thereby subjugate them.30

The Reabsorption of Politics into Society

Marx responds to this problem of politics and the state that he has diagnosed with the demand for the reabsorption of politics and the state into society. The real individual human being must absorb the abstract citizen of the state, and in his individual labor he becomes species-essence. The contradiction between universal and individual is to be abolished. Such reflections could be interpreted as romantic. The concept of “reabsorption” appears to refer to a previous condition without division and without conflict. The overcoming of the illusion of the state appears as a plea for a transparent, authentic, immediate life in which individuals can live without conflict and therefore without political decision. A consequence of this requirement would be a low degree of division of labor and life in small communities which do not require any hierarchy and coordination. It could be further inferred that Marx argues in a Rousseauian manner insofar as the individual now immediately becomes a species-essence, and between him and his own individual interests on the one hand and the universal interests on the other, there no longer exists any more tension that would need to be dealt with through democratic conflict regarding the universal. The consequence of this could be the authoritarian educational dictatorship, because those who did not behave in accordance with rules of universality, but rather pursued particular interests would be classified as individuals who are not yet living at the level of emancipation and must therefore be educated accordingly or assessed as ineducable, pathological persons. Such concepts based on the logic of identity were defining aspects of the Stalinist tradition.

But there are in fact numerous reflections by Marx that show that he clearly held ideas completely to the contrary. First, his materialism implies that human beings should conceive of the division of labor as the concrete organized community. This cooperative organized community is a connection of humanity as a whole and is not locally or regionally limited. Although human beings collectively and consciously produce the relationships under which they live together, these relationships and the social division of labor are not comprehensively at their disposal in full transparency and at all times. Marx emphasizes that even the “social economy of free and associated labor” is subject to the spontaneous effect of laws, and is therefore subject to social law-governed regularities.31 However, they have shed their character of being natural laws, which is characteristic of the political economy of capital and landed property, and are the result of a collective decision to which they are universally subject. Still further and at higher stages it requires the common process of knowledge and the common decision-making process, because now human beings are confronted with the challenge that human action is no longer coordinated through God, King, money, or state decisions; rather, humans must coordinate themselves. Their decisions, however, will no longer be made by rulers or by an established professional group within the division of labor in a form that is separated from the real organized community – they will occur in everyday cooperation itself, which represents the concrete universal of coexistence. Alongside this will emerge new practices of knowledge, and decision-making models based on democratic councils, which have their basis in territorial units, in which humans will make common decisions about needs, production, services, administration, and issues of jurisdiction.32 To the extent that coordination beyond this is necessary, and it is necessary, this will be handled by decision-making processes on the basis of delegation.

Second, Marx staunchly criticized the French Revolutionaries of 1789 and their authoritarian action on account of their limited political reason, and the attempt that resulted from it to seek to “annul” the social differences between “particular individuals” by means of political will and state measures.33 This is a position with far-reaching implications for the scope of what can actually be achieved with political means, and what the possible negative consequences of a political will imposed on society can be.

Third, social existence is finally to be reorganized from the standpoint of social freedom.34 Freedom is transformed from a liberal, political-legal, negative, excluding, illusory-abstract freedom into a positive, truly individual freedom, through which the “free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”35 The priority therefore lies with the freedom of the individual, and through his or her freedom such conditions are created that increase the freedom of all others.

Is Marx’s theory meta- and post-political?

This question must surely be answered in the affirmative. However, such an unambiguous answer is capable of being misunderstood, because it abridges important theoretical viewpoints. Marx did not have the idea that politics is only a shadow theater, and just as little as religion could it simply be removed from the world by means of a single and final action. On the contrary: just as it is necessary, under the conditions of a capitalist economy which connects the rational process of labor and the realization process with one another, to advocate a different type of organization of production and distribution, in spite of the categorical critique of political economy, so must one strive within politics for emancipatory goals. Marx himself was not apolitical: for four decades he followed, commented on, and analyzed, in both theoretical and journalistic writings, the political dramas and tragedies that played out on the stage of world history. He obviously also did not think it wrong to act politically for emancipatory goals on the various levels of the bourgeois social formation: in trade unions, in the form of parties both outside and inside parliament, in government and against the government, and ultimately also in the form of insurrections or social movements that advocate new forms of government such as parliamentary democracy, that oppose the state itself and aim at new forms of social cooperation and political rule.

He conceived of politics as a social relationship that individuals do not choose, but one which they find themselves within and which determines their free action. This relationship represents a specific form of social power and rationality, one which cannot be simply passed over and rendered inoperative. Politics is, in Marx’s conception, a form in which a social contradiction can move.36 This contradiction that we are dealing with in the case of politics is the opposition between universal and particular interests, which must again and again be brought into equilibrium. The bourgeois social formation forces social groups to become conscious of themselves as groups with specific interests and collective wills, that pursue their interests in a particular way in conflict with other interests, and attempt to universalize them. In the most extreme case this can lead to violent oppression or to war in its many varieties. In the ideal average this conflict between universal and particular takes the political form of the democratic republic and the concepts of popular sovereignty and representation that are connected with it. It is in this form that the relevant conflicts of society are carried out. However, politics does not in any way stand outside society. It is not the location of the universal as such, and does not in any way organize the collective wills with which society can relate to itself in order to restructure itself – in a type of Baron von Münchhausen trick – by means of politics itself. It is for this reason that Marx is of the view that it would be fatuous to expect that a fundamental transformation to an emancipated society could succeed by means of politics alone. Politics is also subject to the practices of transformation.

Marx is convinced that economic and political processes are organized in a division of labor under bourgeois conditions of existence. However, economic and political struggles, which tend to have their own rationality, can no longer be conducted separately; in both struggles the goal of the bringing together both areas and fundamentally changing them should be anticipated. In these conflicts it is a matter of whether the division between the real organized community, the form of the socially self-determined division of labor on the one hand, and a universal separated from it on the other, is reproduced or overcome. The question of transition, however, is posed, and in this respect one must again recall the two-phase model of Engels: first there is a stronger state, because the state becomes the real representative of society and intervenes in all areas, and on this foundation gradually becomes superfluous. Without a doubt, it is possible that this would lead to an enormous concentration of state power. This would make it necessary to also dedicate particular attention to the relationship of tension between universal and individual interests, and therefore to the processes of democratic will-formation and decision making, and to deal with the question of how this state power can be controlled and gradually dismantled. Marx himself did not think further about this question in a systematic form, but he retained his attentiveness for this subject, as his remarks in The Civil War in France demonstrate. The Commune, he writes, was not a revolution against this or that form of state power, but rather a social revolution, a “revolution against the state itself, against this supernatural miscarriage of society,” against the state that was separated from and independent of society. The Commune struggled for that which Marx considered worth striving for since his early writings: it aimed at the transcendence of political management, the deceit and sham-responsibility of a highly paid caste of politicians and officials as well as the deception of state secrets and state demands, by means of the reabsorption of politics into society. It is a “reabsorption of the people’s own social life by the people and for the people,” “the political form of their social emancipation.”37 This reabsorption that is still political occurs not as a final and one-time act, but rather through the expansion of universal suffrage in all areas of society. Not only those who decide the laws will be elected, but also those who carry them out. All proceedings are open and transparent so that accountability and responsibility exist: the hierarchy of officials and the corresponding gradation of salaries is abolished and the standing army replaced by a people’s militia. The reabsorption of politics into society therefore means first of all (and Engels’s formulation can be interpreted in this manner) that the sphere of political action is expanded and that all citizens become the state, insofar as they are immediately involved in the decisions and the implementation of those decisions concerning universality. This is all still political, because decisions regarding the organized community of the processes of production and those of the distribution of jobs and goods are separated. To produce this unity, so that decisions regarding investments, labor-processes, the distribution of jobs, the design of products, lifestyles and the type of coexistence, as well as the proportions of and types of needs, are made together – that is what remains unfulfilled from the reflections of Marx’s critique of politics.


  1. This essay was originally published in Debating with the Lithuanian Left: Terry Eagleton, Joel Bakan, Alex Demirović and Ulrich Brand, ed. Aušra Pažėrė and Andrius Bielskis (Vilnius: DEMOS, 2014.)  

  2. See Slavoj Žižek, Ein Plädoyer für die Intoleranz (Wien: Passagen, 2013), 33 and Slavoj Žižek, The Ticklish Subject (London: Verso, 1999), 189. 

  3. Slavoj Žižek, Ein Plädoyer für die Intoleranz, 39. 

  4. Ibid, 415-416. 

  5. Slavoj Žizek, Die Tücke des Subjekts (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2001), 261. Žižek, Ein Plädoyer für die Intoleranz, 415-416. 

  6. Žižek sees the double-sided problem of his reflections. He himself suggests a critique of Rancière’s position, according to which Rancière fails to recognize that even the police itself is politics, Žižek, The Ticklish Subject, 237; and he poses the justified question of how the brief democratic explosion can be conscripted into the positive “police” order, of how a new lasting order can be realized within the social reality, Žižek, In Defense of Lost Causes, 116. But the critique goes no further than these suggestive remarks, which have no further consequences for his argument. 

  7. Friedrich Engels, Anti-Dühring, in Karl Marx Friedrich Engels Collected Works, Vol. 20 (New York: International Publishers, 1985), 269. 

  8. Slavoj Žižek, Ein Plädoyer für die Intoleranz; Isaiah Berlin, Liberty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002). 

  9. Karl Marx, Capital Vol. 1, in MECW, Vol. 35 (New York: International Publishers, 1987), 726. 

  10. Alex Demirović, Aktive Intoleranz. Macht und Staat bei Michel Foucault (Münster: Westfälisches Dampfboot, 2011). 

  11. Michel Foucault, Omnes et singulatim, in Michel Foucault Schriften Band IV (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2005), 198. 

  12. Michel Foucault, Mut zur Wahrheit (Le Courage de la verité), German Edition (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2010), Vorlesung 1 (lecture 1). 

  13. Slavoj Žižek is the only one of the previously mentioned political theoreticians who clearly addresses the moment of violence contained in politics and those actions which constitute it. But for him it takes on confessional and positivistic features, while the traumatic consequences for the constitutive normalcy have to be critically carved out. Because if this violence is really unavoidable, then it must be dealt with all the more consciously by the further praxis of change, in order not to destroy the project of emancipation from the inside out by means of its continuing effect. 

  14. Karl Marx, “Letters from the Deutsch-Französischen Jarbücher,” in MECW, Vol. 3 (New York: International Publishers, 1987), 143. 

  15. Alex Demirović, Demokratie und Herrschaft. Aspekte kritischer Gesellschaftstheorie (Münster: Westfälisches Dampfboot, 1997), 62. 

  16. Ibid. 

  17. Chantal Mouffe, On the Political (New York: Routledge, 2005) and Albert O. Hirschman, A Propensity to Self-Subversion (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995). 

  18. Nancy Fraser, Justice Interruptus: Critical Reflections on the “Postsocialist” Condition (New York: Routledge, 1997). 

  19. Seyla Benhabib, The Reluctant Modernism of Hannah Arendt (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003). 

  20. Karl Marx, On the Jewish Question, in MECW, Vol. 3 (New York: International Publishers, 1987), 159 

  21. ibid., 167 

  22. Karl Marx, The Holy Family, 50. 

  23. Karl Marx, “Critical Marginal Notes on the Article ‘The King of Prussia and Social Reform, By a Prussian,’” in MECW, Vol. 3 (New York: International Publishers, 1987), 198. 

  24. Ibid., 199. 

  25. Karl Marx, “On the Jewish Question” in MECW, Vol. 3 (New York: International Publishers, 1987), 

  26. Max Weber, Politik als Beruf, in Max Weber Gesamtausgabe I/17 (Tübingen: Mohr, 1992), 251. 

  27. Slavoj Žižek, Ein Plädoyer für die Intoleranz (Wien: Passagen, 2013), 30. 

  28. Karl Marx, “Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law,” in MECW, Vol. 3 (New York: International Publishers, 1987), 186. 

  29. Ernesto Laclau, Emancipation(s) (London: Verso, 1996). 

  30. Michel Foucault, “The Subject and Power,” translated by Robert Hurley, in Power: The Essential Michel Foucault, Vol. 3 (New York: New Press, 2000), 331. 

  31. Karl Marx, First Draft of “The Civil War in France,” in MECW, Vol. 22 (New York: International Publishers, 1987), 491. 

  32. Alex Demirović, “Rätedemokratie oder das Ende der Politik,” Prokla: Zeitschrift für kritische Sozialwissenschaft 155, 181-206. 

  33. Karl Marx, The Holy Family, 122. 

  34. Karl Marx, Introduction to a Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law, in MECW, Vol. 3 (New York: International Publishers, 1987), 186. 

  35. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, in Karl Marx Friedrich MECW, Vol. 6 (New York: International Publishers, 1987), 506. 

  36. Karl Marx, Capital Vol. 1, in MECW, Vol. 35 (New York: International Publishers, 1987), 113. 

  37. Karl Marx, “First Draft of The Civil War in France,” in MECW, Vol. 22 (New York: International Publishers, 1987), 487. 

Author of the article

is a senior fellow at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung. His most recent publication in English is "Reform, Revolution, Transformation" in Journal für Entwicklungspolitik: Socioecological Transformations, Vol. XXVIII 3-2012.