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 parties—were 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.