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.