Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Prabhat Patnaik, Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, Slavoj Zizek: Marxist ideas live on long after Marxism as a political system collapsed, and the dangers of totalitarian thinking persist as well

By Prabhat Patnaik
Tulika Books; 2011; Pages: 271

Contingency, Hegemony, Universality
Contemporary Dialogues on the Left
By Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau and Slavoj Zizek
Verso; 2000; Pages: 329

                                           Prabhat Patnaik

Karl Marx and his friend Friedrich Engels did not very much like the idealists, though they declared to take Hegel seriously and they did too, and they thought that they were in the realm of praxis and not mere theory. In Marxism, theory was incomplete without action. But it turns out that after the 20th century political Marxist experiment in Soviet Union, east Europe, China and Cuba and Albania ended, Marxist thought did not fade away. Marxist polemics live on and they do make interesting reading. There is intellectual vigour and imagination in the Marxist arguments put forward by leftist intellectuals with differing shades of Marxist affiliation. In Europe, the intellectuals could not stay confined to mere Marxist ideas because they were and are living in the middle of competing philosophies and ideas. They had to borrow from the new thinkers even as they found Marxist ideas useful. There is no doubt that political radical thought on the Left still looks back to Marx. In India the situation is different. The intellectual climate is rather bare and Marxists have to argue their case not so much in reply to other philosophies but more as a critique of the political and economic system, and how Marxism still is a useful tool to talk about politics and economics. In India, Marxists did not have to worry too much about the implied philosophical issues of Marxism as in Europe. So, Marx the sociologist and Marx the philosopher have not gained importance in India. Here Marxism was confined to politics and economics, which is closer to the original Marx and Engels intellectual agenda.

Patnaik's book is a collection of essays, and that of the other book is essays of the three in dialogue with each other. Patnaik uses Marx and Lenin in almost an orthodox manner, keeping close to what Marx and Lenin meant and without too much extrapolation from the latter thinkers. Of course, he is careful enough to say that it would be a mistake to think that Marx had all the answers to all the political and economic questions and that it can exist independently of other systems of thought. In the essay, 'The Terrain of Marxist Theory', Patnaik clearly states in almost pure Marxian manner with the ironies unresolved: "To view Marxism as the end of all theory, or as the theory that encapsulates the entire future development of capitalism , is to  see it as a new idealism. If this indeed is Marx's theory, then Marx's criticism of Hegel could with justification be addressed against him.This, however, is not Marx's theory; and there is no need to do to it what Marx had done to Hegel."
What is also interesting about Patnaik's arguments about Marxism is that he is willing to use some of the 'idealist terms' which are there in Marx's own writings with their Hegelian colouring. This is something that most Indian Marxists avoided: Marx's barely hidden Hegelianism. So, it is interesting when Patnaik writes at the beginning of the essay, 'Capitalism, Freedom and Democracy': "Let me begin with a basic Marxist proposition whose validity, in my view, is incontestable: that capitalism constitutes a spontaneous economic system, in the sense that its inner working propels it in a certain direction of movement and towards a certain manner of development that are not consciously willed by anyone. In Marx's words, there are certain immanent tendencies within capitalism." The Hegelian terminology is used for the first time in Marxian polemics without undue self-consciousness and even without a certain defensiveness. Indian Marxist intellectuals have come to accept Hegel in the room. But Patnaik does not move too far away from Marx and Lenin.

                                           Judith Butler                                        

The conversation between American feminist Judith Butler, Argentinian political theorist Ernest Laclau and Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek is tackling Marxist ideas from a different tangent, that of the philosophical and political situation in Europe. Judith Butler states at the very beginning: "Ernesto Laclau, Slavoj Zizek and I have had several conversations over recent years pertaining to post-structuralism, the political project of hegemony, and the status of psychoanalysis. We have all, I believe, worked at the theoretical margins of a Left political project, and have various degrees of continuing affinity with Marxism as a critical social theory and movement."

Compared to the cogitations of Patnaik, which keeps close to Marx and Lenin and their original intentions, Butler, Laclau and Zizek seem to be roving along alleyways of new thinking opened up by Sigmund Freud and re-interpreted for French philosophical polemics Jacques Lacan, and which the new European thinkers find it necessary to grapple not just with Hegel and Marx, with Gramsci and to an extent with Syndicalist thinker like Georges Sorel and even Leon Trotsky. The intellectual and philosophical engagement of these three thinkers is quite serious. They feel the need to get their theory right so that it reflects reality as accurately as it is possible.

So Butler argues in a rather attractive way the problem of  'universality': "The assertion of universality by those who have conventionally been excluded by the term often produces a performative contradiction of a  certain sort. But this contradiction, in Hegelian fashion, is not self-cancelling, but exposes the spectral doubling  of the concept itself. And it prompts a set of antagonistic speculations on what the proper venue for the claim of universality ought to be. Who may speak it? And how ought it to be spoken? The fact we do not know the answers to these questions confirms that the question of universality has not been settled."

                                              Ernesto Laclau

Laclau states his own issue: "This, in my view, is the main political question confronting us at this end of the century: what is the destiny of universal in our societies? Is a proliferation of particularisms -- or their correlative side: authoritarian unification -- the only alternative in a world in which dreams of a global human emancipation are rapidly fading away?  or can we think of the possibility of relaunching new emancipatory projects which are compatible with the complex multiplicity of differences shaping the fabric of present-day societies?"

                                          Slavoj Zizek

Zizek states the problem in more flamboyant language: "The 'return to ethics' in today's political philosophy shamefully exploits the horrors of Gulag or Holocaust as the ultimate bogey for blackmailing us into renouncing all serious radical engagement. In this way, conformist liberal scoundrels can find hypocritical satisfaction in their defence of the existing order: they know there is corruption, exploitation, and so on, but every attempt to change things is denounced as ethically dangerous and unacceptable, recalling the ghosts of Gulag or Holocaust...

Zizek states openly the totalising, universalising project and intent of radical change, and therefore shows the problems inherent in Marxist-Hegelian thinking and even in the whole philosophy project of Europe, with its desire to achieve universality which has an undercurrent of the hegemonic, and the problem of the presistent particularity and contingency. This is an old philosophical problem, and the liberal solution would be to be keep the universal at bay and deal with the particular and the contingent in a straightforward fashion but within the universal framework of justice and rationality, while recognising their extremely limited ambit. The Marxians, the neo-Marxians, the Hegelians and the neo-Hegelians, and the Freudians and the Lacanites are all tied up in knots because they want to beat reality into the shape of philosophical notions. And it is in this tendency that there is the danger of a Gulag and a Holocaust, which Zizek dismisses with such contempt. The liberals are no doubt conformist and timid and status quoist, but then they know the dangers of this totalising projects of achieving universal summum bonum.

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