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Adventures of the Symbolic

Adventures of the Symbolic: Post-marxism and Radical Democracy

Warren Breckman
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    Adventures of the Symbolic
    Book Description:

    Marxism's collapse in the twentieth century profoundly altered the style and substance of Western European radical thought. To build a more robust form of democratic theory and action, prominent theorists moved to reject revolution, abandon class for more fragmented models of social action, and elevate the political over the social. Acknowledging the constructedness of society and politics, they chose the "symbolic" as a concept powerful enough to reinvent leftist thought outside a Marxist framework. Following Maurice Merleau-Ponty's Adventures of the Dialectic, which reassessed philosophical Marxism at mid century, Warren Breckman critically revisits these thrilling experiments in the aftermath of Marxism.

    The post-Marxist idea of the symbolic is dynamic and complex, uncannily echoing the early German Romantics, who first advanced a modern conception of symbolism and the symbolic. Hegel and Marx denounced the Romantics for their otherworldly and nebulous posture, yet post-Marxist thinkers appreciated the rich potential of the ambiguities and paradoxes the Romantics first recognized. Mapping different ideas of the symbolic among contemporary thinkers, Breckman traces a fascinating reflection of Romantic themes and resonances, and he explores in depth the effort to reconcile a radical and democratic political agenda with a politics that does not privilege materialist understandings of the social. Engaging with the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss, Cornelius Castoriadis, Claude Lefort, Marcel Gauchet, Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, and Slavoj Žižek, Breckman uniquely situates these important theorists within two hundred years of European thought and extends their profound relevance to today's political activism.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51289-3
    Subjects: Philosophy, Political Science, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Foreword
    (pp. xi-xvi)
    Dick Howard

    THE PARALLEL OF BRECKMAN’S TITLE and his critical analysis to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Adventures of the Dialectic, which was published in 1955, is well taken. Merleau-Ponty was concerned with the fate of Marxism in the postwar climate. He sought to understand the reemergence of dialectical thought as an attempt to overcome the challenge to classical liberalism that Max Weber formulated as the opposition of an ethics of conviction and an ethics of responsibility. Dialectical Marxists, most prominently Georg Lukács, sought to go beyond the antinomies of liberalism by finding a synthesis incarnated by the proletariat; the working class was said to...

  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xvii-xxii)
  5. Introduction: Post-Marxism and the Symbolic Turn
    (pp. 1-23)

    IN THE DARK DAYS OF LATE 2008, as the world economy slid toward the abyss, commentators in Europe began to notice a curious side effect of this unfamiliar sense of epochal crisis. People were reading Karl Marx again. The collapse of the East Bloc in the late 1980s and early 1990s and the triumphant march of liberal capitalism across the globe had made it easy to relegate Marx to the dustbin of history. His diagnosis of capitalism’s tendency toward crisis seemed fully belied not only by the disappearance of any serious alternative world order but also by steadily accumulating profits...

  6. CHAPTER ONE The Symbolic Dimension and the Politics of Young Hegelianism
    (pp. 24-56)

    IS STRUCTURALISM A PRODIGAL CHILD of German Romanticism? If we follow hints from Pierre Bourdieu and François Dosse, the answer would seem to be yes. Thus, in his major work on the history of structuralism, Dosse follows Roland Barthes in suggesting that Saussurean linguistics heralds a democratic model insofar as the conventional nature of the sign establishes a homology between the linguistic contract and the social contract. “An entire lineage here refers to structuralism’s enduring rootedness,” writes Dosse. “Poetry, according to the Schlegel brothers, was supposed to be a Republican discourse, and there is indeed a debt to German Romanticism,...

  7. CHAPTER TWO The Fate of the Symbolic from Romantic Socialism to a Marxism in extremis
    (pp. 57-95)

    IN 1843 KARL MARX MOVED to Paris to begin his life as a political exile. His plan was to establish with his fellow Left Hegelian exile Arnold Ruge a new journal that would unite the best of German radical thought with the political savvy of the French left. Shortly after his arrival in Paris, Marx wrote to Ludwig Feuerbach soliciting a contribution for the first issue of the Deutsche-Französische Jahrbücher. Unlike many editors seeking to win an article from a prominent author, Marx did not leave the choice of subject open. Rather, he urged Feuerbach to do a “great service...

  8. CHAPTER THREE From the Symbolic Turn to the Social Imaginary: Castoriadis’s Project of Autonomy
    (pp. 96-138)

    STRUCTURALISM WAS WELL ON ITS WAY toward fully displacing Sartrean existentialism as the regnant intellectual style in France by the early 1960s. François Furet, as we saw in the previous chapter, explained this success as a “dislocation of Marxist dogmatism.”¹. The Soviet invasion of Hungary, Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalinism, the PCF’s waffling on the Algerian war, the apparent waning of working-class activism, particularly the absence of resistance to Charles de Gaulle’s power grab in 1958—these and other disappointments weakened the old attraction of Marxism-Leninism. Even as some disillusioned leftists turned to Lévi-Strauss and others turned to Lacanian psychoanalysis, still...

  9. CHAPTER FOUR Democracy Between Disenchantment and Political Theology: French Post-Marxism and the Return of Religion
    (pp. 139-182)

    IS A SYMBOL CREATED OR FOUND? Does it reveal the freedom of human creation or does it disclose the form of the world? This was a perennial question for the Romantics. While some denied the instituted character of symbols in order to assert their correspondence with reality, others defended the autopoietic power of the human creator. In his theory of the radical imagination and his insistence on society’s instituting creativity, Castoriadis was an emphatic heir of the latter camp. Yet, we should recall from chapter 2 that Paul Bénichou urges us to recognize within Romanticism “the ambiguity that is characteristic...

  10. CHAPTER FIVE The Post-Marx of the Letter: Laclau and Mouffe Between Postmodern Melancholy and Post-Marxist Mourning
    (pp. 183-215)

    IN A LATE TEXT LOUIS ALTHUSSER urged his readers to give “the crisis of Marxism” a “completely different sense from collapse and death.” Instead of writing the epitaph for Marxism, he insisted, it was necessary to show “how something vital and alive can be liberated by this crisis and in this crisis.”¹. This missive went unanswered by Althusser’s French readers, and in fundamental ways it remains unanswered to this day. Indeed, by the time Althusser dispatched his call in 1977, the French intelligentsia was in “the process of full de-Marxification.”². With the left-wing parties and unions compromised by their response...

  11. CHAPTER SIX Of Empty Places: Žižek and Laclau; or, The End of the Affair
    (pp. 216-261)

    CLAUDE LEFORT’S DESCRIPTION of the “empty place” at the center of power in modern democracy resonates in the pages of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s Hegemony and Socialist Strategy. This is equally true of the young Slavoj Žižek, for whom Lefort seemed to offer a “complete theory of democracy.”¹. Yet, at the same time, Žižek shifted the register of the “empty place” in his 1987 essay on Mouffe and Laclau. He praised them for conceptualizing antagonism in Lacanian terms as the traumatic confrontation between the real and the symbolic and thereby converting the Lacanian notion of the real into a...

  12. Epilogue
    (pp. 262-288)

    POST-MARXISM EMERGED in the 1970s and 1980s as Marxism lost its hold on the imagination of the western European intellectual left. The post-Marxism that we encounter in Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, Jacques Derrida, and the young Slavoj Žižek attempts to hold onto the possibility of radical action and progressive transformation, while at the same time it renounces Marxism’s idea of a privileged social actor, Leninism’s insistence on a vanguard party possessing correct theory, and indeed, the basic Marxist-Leninist belief that a theory could ever adequately guide social movements operating within a complex historical reality. These theoretical projects intersected with many...

  13. Notes
    (pp. 289-340)
  14. Index
    (pp. 341-354)