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Renewing Political Marxism

Review of Isabelle Garo's "Communism and Strategy"

August 3, 2023

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Communism and Strategy: Rethinking Political Mediations
by Isabelle Garo
Verso Books
2023

Political Marxism from Wood to Garo

In just a matter of years before the collapse of the USSR, the Marxist historian Ellen Meiksins Wood wrote an incisive critique of the state of Marxist theory at the time. Wood’s now infamous work, The Retreat from Class: A New “True” Socialism was written in the late 1980s, a social context in which neoliberal reforms—from the gutting of social services and the decline of the labor movement, to the disappearance of socialist and mass partieswere already well-established features of social life. In this depoliticized context, in which there seemed no alternative to capitalism on the horizon, Wood accused Marxist theorists of leaning on opaque philosophy and stripping Marxism of its radical core.

Her polemic primarily took on the widely-read 1985 work, Hegemony and Socialist Strategy, by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. This text aimed to fundamentally reset socialist strategy for a post-Soviet world by synthesizing philosophical concepts that grew out of French theory and Althusserian Marxism during the 1960s and 70s. Inspired by Althusser and a mélange of French Theory, post-structuralism, and Lacanian psychoanalysis, Laclau and Mouffe turned away from an understanding of class as a matter of exploitation tied to relations of productive labor and towards an understanding of class and political subjectivity vis-à-vis discourse and language.

But it was not just the eclectic philosophical and academic terminology they smuggled into Marxist thought that proved problematic in Wood’s view. It was the ways that Laclau and Mouffe, along with Nicos Poulantaz and other “post-Marxists,” had seriously, if not irreparably, altered the core tenets of Marxism. The most damaging thesis that this constellation of thinkers proposed was the notion that there is nothing in the logic of capitalism that determines the development of a united working class. It followed that there could be no such thing as a working-class interest apart from and prior to its ideological construction.1Wood, Ellen-Meiksins. The Retreat from Class: On The New True Socialism. Verso Books, 1996, p. 179. This new age of “post”-Marxist theorists had regressed to what Marx and Engels called “true socialism” in the Communist Manifesto. The so-called “true socialists” in Marx’s and Engels’s time were socialists in the revolutionary intelligentsia such as Bruno Bauer and Moses Hess who developed abstract philosophical conceptions of socialism untethered from working class interests. 

Thirty-five years have passed since the publication of Wood’s polemic. While the state of Marxist theory today is often relegated to academic journals and conferences, it would be unfair to judge post-Marxist theory as completely disconnected from the practical struggles of the left. To the contrary, many Marxist theorists—whether they embrace the often-pejorative moniker of “post”-Marxist or not—have contributed to shaping the strategies and the ideas of political movements on the left. Antonio Negri’s and Michael Hardt’s Empire series was highly influential on the tactics of the alter-globalization protest movements throughout the early 2000s, and Laclau and Mouffe’s ideas proved fundamental for post-2008 anti-austerity and left populist struggles. Much of the rhetorical tactics of the left during this time, from Occupy Wall Street’s left-populist slogan “1% vs. the 99%,” to the democratic political coalitions of Syriza in Greece and PODEMOS in Spain, were articulations of a Laclauian method of politics.  But with the defeat of these governing coalitions, combined with the defeat of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, and mixed with a post-COVID world in which worker agitations and labor union militancy are ascendent, the state of Marxist theory is due for another shake-up. 

Isabelle Garo’s recently-translated work, Communism and Strategy: Rethinking Political Mediations was released in the spring of 2023 amid the largest worker uprisings France has seen in decades. Garo is a communist philosopher whose work is less well-known in Anglo-American contexts than it is in France. Her work examines the legacy of 1960s and 70s French philosophy and its often-idiosyncratic interaction with contemporary Marxist and communist theory and practice. Garo’s most substantive work prior to Communism and Strategy is called Foucault, Deleuze, Althusser & Marx; there, she argues that Althusserian Marxism has given rise to a generation of Marxist philosophers who have contributed to the depoliticization of Marxist practice.2 Garo, Isabelle. Foucault, Deleuze, Althusser & Marx—La politique dans la philosophie. Démopolis: Paris, 2011. Althusser’s legacy is responsible for rendering Marxism entirely too philosophical. While proscribing a new politicized conception of struggle, it remained housed entirely within theory and philosophy. 

The disciples of Althusser, from Jacques Ranciére, Étienne Balibar, and Alain Badiou, to more well-known figures such as Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, remain lodestars and touchstones for contemporary Marxist theory. In Garo’s reading, Althusser stands as the preeminent Marxist thinker from whom this assortment of the leading lights of French theory drew their understanding of Marxism. In Garo’s reading, Althusser simultaneously declared the defeat of Marxism and offered a completely revamped direction that Marxism is to take, one in which the philosophical understanding of antagonism is no longer based in a Hegelian account of mediation. 

Most notably, Althusser incorporated a psychoanalytic conception of social antagonisms that draws from the French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. He relied in particular on the idea of “over-determination,” a concept in which social and political contradictions are thought as irreducibly complex and generated by multiple factors rather than analyzed as forms composed by causal unity. In his polemics with French Stalinism, Althusser declared the defeat of Marxism and proceeded to usher in a major overhaul of Marxist theory and practice. Most notably, this overhaul moved Marxism away from humanism, Hegelianism, and towards a new foundation in science grounded in the French epistemological tradition. But Garo argues this overhaul contributed to a move away from a foothold in the critique of political economy and moved Marxist practice away from engagement with unions and political organizations. Althusser’s conception of “theoretical practice,” or the means by which the theorist arrives at scientific knowledge, has contributed to a politicization of philosophy within Marxist practice. Yet, by de-emphasizing the centrality of the critique of political economy, Althusser depoliticized core, labor-focused aspects of practical struggle. It is with this skepticism towards the legacy of French Marxism that Garo’s latest work Communism and Strategy must be assessed. The book is not to be understood as a narrow polemical tract against post-Marxist theory. The first half of the book is a comparative analysis of three radically divergent post-Marxist theorists: Alain Badiou, Ernesto Laclau, and Antonio Negri. Though incompatible with each other, each of them are distinguished and popular Marxist thinkers who have made crucial contributions to Marxist thought.

In the first four chapters, Garo narrows in on what is most novel about these authors’ contributions to Marxist thinking. In the case of Badiou, it is the question of the state and the party; Laclau is a thinker of revolutionary strategy, albeit on radically revised terms than those on which Marx theorized revolution; Negri is a thinker of the changing conditions of labor and property. The remaining chapters of the book concern Garo’s own singular approach to reading Marx through a theory of what she calls “strategy,” or a study of what enables “the collective construction of a project of general, mobilizing, radical transformation by the exploited and dominated.”3Garo, Isabelle. Communism and Strategy. Gregory Elliott trans. Verso Books: New York, 2023. p. 4 But before we consider Garo’s prescriptions for a revitalized political Marxism, we must first turn to her original reading of Laclau, Badiou and Negri, as it is not quite Wood’s reading.

Isabelle Garo's work examines the legacy of 1960s and 70s French philosophy and its often-idiosyncratic interaction with contemporary Marxist and communist theory and practice.

Untethering the Proletariat from Marxist Political Economy

A central claim of Laclau and Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy is that the failure of communism implies that the very idea of socialism has also become discredited. This means that virtually everything in Marxist theory can be taken back to the drawing board and assessed anew. To understand the radicality of Laclau and Mouffe’s revisions to Marxist thought, Garo convincingly shows that these were not revisions inspired primarily by empirical analyses borne from the rise of neoliberal capitalism and the fall of the USSR. The radicality of their revision to Marxist thought is discovered in Laclau’s earlier work, Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory, published in 1977. In this work, Laclau began to move away from what he saw as a fundamentally class-reductionist worldview in Marx’s own thought and in the subsequent Marxism of the worker’s movement. Equipped with the epistemological insights from French philosophy and with close attention to Lacanian psychoanalytic concepts, Laclau sought to make Marxism into a theory which, like any other theory, must be made “subject to the exigency of a constructed coherence rather than of verifiable knowledge.”4Garo, Communism and Strategy p. 61 In his view, Marxist ideas are clarified by their own internal and formal rules of construction and Garo argues that this has the practical effect that ideology need no longer “relate to class interests or objective logics.”5Ibid., p. 61

In this early intervention, Laclau rejects both the assertion of a basic antagonism between capital and labor and the notion that capitalism can be construed as a mode of production. By positing that there is no basic antagonism between capital and labor, he then proposes an account of contemporary society as in a continuous state of ontological disequilibrium. Over the course of his oeuvre, Laclau eventually adopts a populist conception of politics that is grounded in the controversial German jurist Carl Schmitt’s concept of the political, a position that maintains that politics is neutralized by the social sphere. Consequently, the social power of rhetoric and discourse become the central preoccupation of Laclau’s later political thought. 

Laclau makes the main task of politics the coordination of heterogeneous social demands from a range of vaguely leftist social movements; he then aims for the conversion and organization of these social identity groups into more radical democratic coalitions. This political framework importantly calls for a new vocation of the leftist intellectual which, as we noted earlier, has been highly influential on the Left in both the alter-globalization period from the early 1990s through to the post-2008 turn to anti-austerity and left-populism. The Laclauian intellectual is not a critical analyst of material conditions but a conductor and sloganeer in the service of coalitional blocs that include a panoply of causes, from ecological, anti-racism, and labor, to feminist and so on. Having abandoned the core tenet of Marx that labor power is a commodity that must be abolished, Laclau enlarges the basis of leftist demands through a conception of the proletariat as broadly tied into an idea of the underdogs or the “plebs.”

Based on these significant revisions to core Marxist tenets regarding an understanding of capital and labor, Laclau has often been accused of falling sway to a postmodernist position. While Laclau is a believer in the power of discourse in shaping political identities, he endows the power of discourse with what Garo rightly calls a “quasi demiurgic power” once it is embodied. Thus, accusations that Laclau is a postmodernist who somehow submits to a fundamentally illusory conception of reality is an accusation that does not accurately depict his work.

While Laclau has made important contributions to radical strategy for the Left, he problematically maintains that capitalism is fundamentally untranscendable. Thus, not only does Laclau abandon an account of class as understood in terms of relations of domination and exploitation, his core idea of power makes the prospect of what a rhetorically charged left populist governing coalition can achieve fundamentally unclear. Laclau’s work leaves us with what Garo refers to as “a hyper politics, cut off from the reality of exploitation, social injustice and all forms of domination,” i.e., a politics “based on nothing but itself.”6 Ibid., p. 84.

In the work of Alain Badiou, we find an equally creative confrontation and reworking of Marxist thought; but, unlike Laclau, Badiou insists on a systematic refusal of participation in elections, labor unions, and other capitalist institutions. Badiou proposes a radically revamped Twenty-First Century Marxism in which communist militants must subtract their activity from the machinery of capitalist dominated political institutions, a position inspired by Mao’s critique of bureaucratic representation. Garo reads Badiou’s political thought as a double-edged sword for contemporary Marxism: while he makes important contributions to communism in the areas of party, state, and revolutionary strategy, his thought is also voluntarist and abstractly disconnected from the world of existing institutions. This portrait of Badiou at times risks falling into the same clichés that Garo’s mentor, the communist thinker, Daniel Bensäid, fell into in his analysis of Badiou as a theological voluntarist.7Bensäid, Daniel. “Alain Badiou and the Miracle of the Event” in Think Again: Alain Badiou and the Future of Philosophy. Ed. Peter Hallward. Continuum: London. 2004 At times, Garo neglects the vastness of Badiou’s oeuvre and the multiple readings one can glean from it, including even a critique of political economy. Garo does not pay close attention to the ways that Badiou’s philosophy is informed by the strong declaration that our historical moment is “post-Leninist,” a theory he derives from local political militant activity with a group he co-founded called Organisation Politique, which organizes migrant laborers, the sans papier, or “those without papers” in French society.  

And yet despite all her reservations with Badiou’s failure to think political economy—the same accusation she wages against his mentor, Althusser—Garo finds Badiou’s work incisive and radical, especially in a context of neoliberal ideology that has seemingly sapped any resolve for the emergence of an alternative to capitalism. Since the early 2000s, Badiou’s books have been highly popular and he is often cited as among the top three most important philosophers in the world. Following the crisis of the capitalist system brought on by the great recession in 2008, Badiou’s works have appealed to the Left as they aspire to a revitalized conception of communism such as we find in The Communist Hypothesis and the Rebirth of History, texts that grappled with the Arab Spring and the Movement of the Squares. Amongst Marxist thinkers today, Garo writes that Badiou is “the only theoretician to propose a negative view of institutions, of parties in their entirety and ongoing mobilizations, which in one and the same move helps to amplify the tendency to depoliticization and to nurture the spirit of rebellion.”8Garo, Communism and Strategy. p. 51

While Badiou insists on a separation of politics from social issues, this position has the consequence of making his wider idea of communism depoliticized. In Badiou’s work, “the issues of the social alienation of the producers and social relations of sex and race” are absent and this separation results in a paradox in which his thought ends up linking the liberal tradition to Maoism.9 Ibid, p. 42. Instead of actively contesting liberal hegemony within social institutions and thinking that relation in a mediated fashion—as Garo reads Marx as doing—Badiou’s subtractive approach ends up unintentionally complicit with liberal forms of power, precisely because his approach is characterized by a refusal to contest liberal institutions. 

It is this failure to mediate communist radicalism with existing political institutions that leads Garo to articulate a theory of mediation in the last several chapters of her book. Although Badiou’s politics insist on a subtraction from representative politics, his work has the merit of keeping a flame of radicalism alive by politicizing the idea of communism amidst a period of neoliberal triumph and disempowerment on the left. Thuswhile Garo neglects to discuss how Badiou’s philosophy has influenced political movements such as the Shackdwellers Movement, known as “Abahlali base Mjondolo” in South Africa, or the ways that Badiou influenced the Congolese militant, Ernest Wamba dia Wambaas noted, she draws useful insights into some theoretical shortcomings specifically involved in the application of Badiou’s thought to political practice in general. 

Even though Badiou differs profoundly with Laclau in his refusal to engage with capitalist and parliamentary institutions, both thinkers share a general conception of the proletariat as untethered from relations of productive labor and exploitation. Like Wood, Garo pinpoints how the abandonment of concrete issues of labor, exploitation, and domination redefine both of their politics as local and experimental (in the case of Badiou) and a hyper-politics (in the case of Laclau). Here we are introduced to the novelty of Garo’s work: she shows how the intellectual ecosystem of 1970s French philosophy has contributed to a recasting of the modern proletariat away from the working class as the revolutionary agent of socialist struggle. For example, Badiou’s conception of the working class in Europe and the U.S. is thought to have been already integrated and pacified into the capitalist system. Laclau maintains a similar position on the working class, but his position is derived from a mostly theoretical rejection of Marx and the historical workers’ movement supposed class reductionism.10Ibid., p. 48–49.

In the third chapter, “Theories of the Common, or the Permanent Transition,” Garo assesses the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Negri with particular attention to his three-volume Empire series, co-authored with the American philosopher Michael Hardt. While these works have undoubtedly contributed to a revitalized idea of radical politics, Garo convincingly shows that they are based on dubious and contradictory theoretical positions. Inspired by Michel Foucault’s idea of biopolitics, which maintains that politics and production have fused such that capitalism no longer organizes production, Hardt and Negri argue that contemporary capitalism is longer a vertical relation with a figure of authority based in a contractual relation. The older nation-state forms of sovereignty have collapsed and given way to a decentralized and de-territorialized capitalism. 

Hardt and Negri recast and redefine Marx’s proletariat as possessing a cooperative and social activity, and optimistically endow this emancipatory class, “the multitude,” with the capacity to destroy the traditional distinction between economic and political struggles.11Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. Empire. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000, p. 56 . Although the multitude is tasked with this new liberatory agenda, Garo convincingly shows that the power of the multitude is paradoxically owed to Negri’s commitments to the tradition of Italian Operaismo Marxism. Italian Operaismo (or, “workerist Marxism”) put forward the thesis that the working class is the motor and engine of capitalist advances and change. Yet, when this thesis is combined with Foucault’s biopolitical thesis which abolishes class relations, the multitude is thought as untethered from relations of exploitation and productive labor. Negri and Hardt thus align with Laclau and Badiou, albeit from completely distinct theoretical points of influence, in eschewing an idea of the proletariat as understood in relations of exploitation and productive labor. 

The crux of Hardt’s and Negri’s argument is that immaterial labor, mainly cognitive labor and service labor, has become generalized in contemporary capitalism and this has given way to a liberatory potential for cooperative action amongst these sectors of workers. But in a careful study of their theories of the common in Commonwealth, the third volume of the Empire series, Garo shows that the basis of their idea of revolution becomes nonsensical, and ultimately risks a technocratic, rather than a democratic footing. Similar to Laclau, Hardt and Negri do not seek a break with capitalism, they rather seek to embrace “the tendencies at work rather than fighting them in vain.”12Garo, Communism and Strategy, p. 95. This results in a theory of revolution in which revolution has paradoxically already occurred and is already accomplished. 

Taken together, the critiques of these theorists resonate powerfully in the context of our current political situation. We are witnessing the rumblings of working-class agitation and worker-based movements in labor and insurrection, from the gillets jaunes, or Yellow Vest movement across France, to the massive demonstrations in response to Emmanuel Macron’s pension reforms across France, to public service unionization strikes across the United States, to name only the most visible of examples. Marxist theorists must contend with this growing working-class militancy or risk a continual regression into what Garo aptly names a “hyper politics, cut off from the reality of exploitation, social injustice, and all forms of domination.”13Ibid., p. 84.

Garo looks to recast communist politics with labor power at the very center.

Garo’s Marxist Strategy

Unlike Wood’s more pointed critique of post-Marxism, Garo manages to extract the strengths of these theorists’ work and apply them towards her own original conception of a revitalized political Marxism. Chapters 4 through 6 attempt to stake out a conception of political Marxism that places the concept of strategy at the very center of analysis. Strategy is defined not only as a method of reading the class struggle in which communism is thought beyond ways to merely win working class power, it is also a means to actively escape state control and reappropriate key domains of social existence. Against the post-Marxist refusal to think labor power in its subjective dimension as a relevant form of alienation to be overcome, Garo looks to recast communist politics with labor power at the very center. Communism must concern itself with winning power and the goal of achieving worker control over the mode of production. 

With the strategic orientation, communism must interrogate three areas of political life: democracy and governance, overlapping areas of emancipation (anti-racism, ecological, feminist, and anti-fascist struggles) as well as labor. Contra Laclau, the demands that emerge from these domains of social life must not be approached with a narrowly social framework, but with a political aim that maintains the centrality of labor across each of these sites of struggle. To drive this argument home, Garo provides a reading of Marx’s engagement with the practical struggles in his own time, from the 1840s, to the Paris Commune and its aftermath in the 1870s, on through his later reflections on state power in Critique of the Gotha Program

Garo avoids the Althusserian commitment to an epistemological break, that supposedly occurred in the move from a young Marx to the more mature Marx of Capital, by showing the ways that Marx maintained a consistent focus on revolutionary strategic mediation throughout his oeuvre. This means that at a philosophical level, Marx’s commitment to enlightenment universalism must be tied back to his early project of communism which was thought as the reappropriation of property and wealth. This orientation is thought as a concrete universal located at the level of social individuals and their activity remains a consistent orientation throughout Marx’s life.14Ibid., p. 146.

The strategic focus is found in Marx’s early, pre-1848 conception of communism, and it begins to mature immediately following the Paris Commune of 1871, particularly in his work, The Civil War in France. In this work, Marx begins to theorize any future socialist revolution as needing to first prioritize the political aim of winning free time for autonomous, collective decision-making amongst the working class. Communist activity entails a process of  revolutionary struggle in which the working class gains political power and actively reappropriates all areas of proletarian social existence across culture, democratic institutions and labor. This strategic vision remains consistent in Marx’s commentary, The Critique of the Gotha Program, where he argues that working class capture of state power and the transition to communism is best understood as a process occurring within the state forms as they are, and as a movement that is continually recasting politics itself.15 Ibid., p. 200.

Strategy involves the process of triangulating the construction of political mediations which includes forms of mobilization and organization, political programs and projects, and the reconstruction of a common oppositional culture associated with redesigned forms of social existence.16Ibid, p. 221. Importantly, communism is not completely reducible to the strategic perspective, given that it is also the inheritor of the social order on whose abolition it aims to enact. Revolution is thus not to be construed as a fusional reconciliation of society with itself, but as political reappropriation; a practice that continues after the working class seizes power. Although the contours of how this movement of reappropriation is to occur is not fully articulated in Communism and Strategy, Garo points to some ideas for how it might be thought.

Most interestingly, this movement calls for a new form of practical reason that would be capable of making and realizing this wide scale collective reappropriation of the means of production. In articulating this idea, Garo turns to Antonio Gramsci, the Marxist thinker who also deeply influenced Laclau and other post-Marxists. But Garo invokes Gramsci as a thinker who is more antagonistic to liberal institutions than post-Marxist thinkers have tended to paint him. The process of reappropriation is not to occur in the domain of alternative economies as advocated by the Marxist sociologist Erik Olin Wright, but in militant political agitation. Wright’s embrace of alternative economies leans on a poorly developed notion of political knowledge and technocratic rationality.17Ibid, p. 240. Reappropriation must avoid this technocratic trap just as it must avoid the libertarian trap that far-left movements such as the Nuit debout citizen assembly movement have adopted. Garo’s political Marxism is set on enlarging the scale and the tactics of social confrontation, to include the politicization of overlapping domains of emancipation and political struggle within the sphere of democratic institutions. While Garo is not opposed to electoral politics, she is attentive to the ways that electoralism often leads to depoliticization and organizational inertia on the left. 

Garo’s vision calls on communist activity to begin from existing struggles, especially feminist, ecological and anti-racist struggles in the forms they take within existing organizations, even though bourgeois institutions are directly responsible for perpetuating and distorting the stakes of these conflicts. While communist approaches must engage with and mediate popular struggles with existing institutions, they must also address the discord that identitarian, anti-essentialist and pseudo-universalist discourses spark on the Left. Communist political activity must see itself as capable of articulating the way that anti-racist, gender rights, ecological, feminist, and anti-fascist struggles are tied back to exploitation, forms of domination, and specifically to labor power. Any renewal of political Marxism must set itself the task of continually linking these struggles back to capitalist social relations and their social reproduction.

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