The Marxism of Roland Barthes

Here are a number of books I’ve found across the web by the French semiologist and literary critic Roland Barthes, all of them downloadable as PDFs:

  1. Writing Degree Zero (1953)
  2. Michelet (1954)
  3. Mythologies (1957)
  4. “Seven Photo Models of Mother Courage” (1958)
  5. Elements of Semiology (1964)
  6. Critical Essays (1964)
  7. Criticism and Truth (1966)
  8. “An Introduction to the Structuralist Analysis of Narrative” (1966)
  9. The Fashion System (1967)
  10. Semiology and Urbanism (1967)
  11. The Grain of the Voice: Interviews, 1962-1980 (1980)
  12. Empire of Signs (1970)
  13. Sade, Fourier, Loyola (1971)
  14. S/Z (1973)
  15. Roland Barthes (1974)
  16. Image Music Text (1977)
  17. A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments (1977)
  18. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography (1980)
  19. The Rustle of Language (posthumously published in 1984)
  20. The Language of Fashion (compiled posthumously from Œuvres complètes 1993, 1994, 1995)

Below I have composed a brief sketch of Barthes’ early political leanings, broken into three parts and interspersed with snippets from his biography and articles he wrote.

Part 1

Roland Barthes’ Marxism tends to get downplayed, especially in light of his post-1968 “turn” toward deconstruction. When he was still a structuralist, however, this dimension of his thinking could scarcely be ignored. Barthes’ structuralism was of a different sort than that of Louis Althusser, or even Claude Lévi-Strauss, who declined to oversee his thesis in the 1950s. His version was sensitive to historical change, despite Saussure’s methodological synchrony. As he put it in “The Structuralist Activity”:

Structuralism does not withdraw history from the world: it seeks to link to history not only certain contents (this has been done a thousand times) but also certain forms, not only the material but also the intelligible, not only the ideological but also the aesthetic. And precisely because all thought about the historically intelligible is also a participation in that intelligibility, structural man is scarcely concerned to last; he knows that structuralism, too, is a certain form of the world, which will change with the world.

It is significant that Barthes’ entry into Marxist political discourse came through his contact with a young Trotskyist named Georges Fournié. French Marxism since the 1920s had been dominated by the Stalinist PCF, with all competing tendencies deemed “dissident.” All this occurred while the two roomed together at a Swiss sanatorium, recovering from tuberculosis.

Thus the literary theorist Martin McQuillan remarks: “Like Lenin, [Barthes] learned his future Marxism in the quiet cantons of Switzerland” (Roland Barthes, Or the Profession of Cultural Studies, pg. 24). McQuillan’s a bit inaccurate here, as Lenin was already a convinced Marxist before ever staying in Switzerland. But he certainly honed his Marxism there, and so the error is a slight one.

Louis-Jean Calvet, Barthes’ biographer, relates the story of Barthes and Fournié’s friendship below.


Switzerland and Marxism

Louis-Jean Calvet
Roland Barthes: A

[Georges Fournié] was three years younger than Barthes, and his social background and subsequent life had been completely different from his. An orphan, Fournié had to earn his own living from the age of twelve or thirteen. He had also taken evening classes and eventually become a proofreader. At the age of seventeen, with the outbreak of the Spanish civil war, he joined the republicans and had fought with the POUM on the Aragonese front, where he had been injured. He had then returned to Paris, where he met his future wife Jacqueline and worked with militant anti-fascist groups. Through such groups he had met David Rousset and Maurice Nadeau.

Fournié had been a Trotskyist, an anti-fascist, and a member of the Resistance. His code name in the Resistance had been “Philippe” and his friends continued to call him this after the war. On 19 December 1943 he had been arrested by the Gestapo along with Rousset and other comrades and imprisoned at Fresnes and Campiègne before being deported to Buchenwald. Finally, he had been transferred to Porta Westfalica, a concentration camp near Hanover. For a year and a half his wife had no news of him and it was only in the spring of 1945 that he returned, on a stretcher, exhausted and suffering from tuberculosis. At Bichat hospital he was given a pneumothorax and sent to Leysin. His wife tried to make arrangements to rejoin him there. In October he met Roland Barthes.

However different their backgrounds and temperaments, both men had in common their aloofness from the general atmosphere of the place. Roland, at thirty, was a somewhat distant intellectual, while Georges had survived both the Spanish civil war and deportation. Both men were more mature than the average patient at Leysin. Neither of them liked the adolescent antics and barrack-room humor, which were supposed to take one’s mind off the illness and constant threat of death. In the canteen, where the atmosphere was rather childish (glasses of water and spoonfuls of mashed potato were frequently thrown across the room), both men kept very much to themselves.

After several attempts, Jacqueline Fournié had finally found work in a luxury sanatorium for rich tuberculosis patients, The Belvédère, which is now a Club Méditerranée hotel. She visited her husband every evening and ate with him in the canteen every Sunday. She remembers Barthes as being extremely reserved in the expression of his thoughts and feelings. The only indication of how he felt was the expression in his eyes or the movement of his lips, and his somewhat mocking sense of irony. He never really laughed out loud, totally uninhibitedly, as if it would be indecent to let himself go. He seemed to be someone without strong passions, always self-controlled, completely a creature of nuance. In this he was the complete opposite of Fournié, who was about to initiate him into the previously unknown universe of Marxist theory and the reality of class struggle.

The two would talk together for hours. Barthes discussed theater, literature, and of course Michelet. Fournié talked about Marx, Trotsky, and Spain. They had mutual admiration for each other, and each taught the other things which had previously been foreign to them. Barthes was extremely lucky that at a time when initiation into Marxism usually came through the Communist party — and more often than not required unconditional support for the political positions of the Soviet Union — Fournié’s Marxism was Trotskyist, anti-Stalinist, and non-dogmatic. [Roland Barthes: A Biography, pgs. 62-64]

Part 2

Later, when Barthes moved to Paris and began engaging the intellectual scene there, he reaffirmed his Marxian convictions, this time with reference to the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre. “Barthes was bound to find such an atmosphere exciting, since he considered himself both a Sartrean and a Marxist. He decided then that his project was to combine these two philosophies in his approach to literature: to develop a ‘committed’ literature, and to justify Sartre in Marxist terms” (Roland Barthes: A Biography, pg. 74).

Apart from Sartre, the other major literary figure bridging the gap between Barthes’ object of critique and Marxism was Bertolt Brecht. “Near the end of May 1954, [Barthes and his friend Bernard Dort] saw the Berliner Ensemble’s production of Mother Courage at the Paris international festival. It was a revelation to Barthes, who with astonishing speed came up with the following phrase to describe its impact: ‘Brecht is a Marxist who has thought about the sign,’ a phrase he was to use many times. As far as the two friends were concerned, Brecht provided Marxism with the aesthetics it lacked” (Roland Barthes: A Biography, pg. 111).

In a 1956 article on “The Tasks of Brechtian Criticism,” Barthes denounced “Zhdanovian confusion” and the crudity of its stylistic prescriptions for socialist realism. Against such strictures, he compared Brecht to some earlier giants of Marxian theory, Marx and Lenin. Particularly in the realm of politics: “In a Marxist like Brecht, the relations between theory and practice must not be underestimated or distorted. To separate the Brechtian theater from its theoretical foundations would be as erroneous as to try to understand Marx’s action without reading The Communist Manifesto or Lenin’s politics without reading The State and the Revolution” (Critical Essays, pg. 73).

Four years later, in a brief reflection on Brecht’s Mother, Barthes underscored the importance of consciousness in the Marxist theory of revolution. “If Marxism teaches that the corruption of capitalism is implicit in its very nature, the advent of a communist society depends nonetheless on the historical consciousness of men: it is this consciousness which carries the freedom of history, the famous alternative which promises the world socialism or barbarism. Political knowledge is therefore the first object of political action” (Critical Essays, pg. 140).

Dogmatic Marxist-Leninism was not altogether absent in Barthes’ life, however, though he never subscribed to the ideology himself. He first encountered Stalinism in the People’s Republic of Romania shortly after its founding in 1948. There it was enshrined as the political doctrine of the state. Calvet explains:

[T]he new French Institute librarian [Barthes] found himself in a country where Marxism was the official ideology. This did not bother him unduly since, as he had confided to Philippe [Rebeyrol], he was a Marxist, in the sense that when it came to politics he could only think in Marxist terms. In his view it was the only theory which could produce effective analysis. In Charles Singevin’s view, Barthes was a Trotskyist who passed for a communist. As for Rebeyrol, he wondered how Barthes could continue to hold his convictions living as he was under a dictatorship, and one which, among other things, was extremely intolerant of homosexuality.

Barthes returned to France after his brief stint in Bucharest. Over the course of the 1950s, however, his Marxism would again become a topic of conversation, as he entered into dialogue, debate, and polemic with figures such as Albert Camus and Roger Garaudy.


Am I a Marxist?

Louis-Jean Calvet
Roland Barthes: A

 Barthes certainly did not look for the polemic with Camus. He had often said he only wrote if commissioned, and after the publication of Writing Degree Zero he was asked to write two reviews of Camus for two magazines of a similar sort, the Bulletin du club du livre français, and the Bulletin du club du meilleur livre. Both were aimed at members of mail-order book clubs. “L’Éntranger, roman solaire?” was published in 1954, and “La Peste: annales d’une épidémie ou roman de la solitude?” (“The Plague: the annals of an epidemic or a novel of isolation?”) in 1955. Camus, who read the second article before it was published, replied in the same edition of the magazine and Barthes responded to him in a letter published two months later, in April 1955. The subject of their polemic is interesting since Campus, perhaps unwittingly, pushed Barthes into defining his philosophical position. Barthes had criticized The Plague’s lack of “solidarity” and its ethical perspective. Camus had replied with considerable skill to these points. He explained that, firstly, from The Outsider to The Plague there was precisely a movement from individual to collective revolt. Barthes’ criticisms were therefore off the mark. Secondly, if one were to accuse him of rejecting history, one should define one’s own idea of “history,” and if criticizing one’s ethics, one should clearly define one’s own.

This question obviously goes back to 1952, to the polemic between Camus and Sartre, which had led to the public rupture between them and which had its roots in their differing views of Stalinism and the Soviet Union. In May 1952, in Les Temps modernes, Francis Jeanson had strongly criticized Camus’ The Rebel. In August Camus had replied: “I am getting a little tired of being criticized by people who have only ever participated in the march of history from their armchairs.” In the same edition Sartre dealt the final blow: “First of all your moral principles became moralism, today they are nothing more than literature, tomorrow perhaps they may become immoral.” Camus was therefore exasperated by the way he was regularly put on trial, and at the same time he had developed a certain skill at this kind of debate. The substance of his response to Barthes was, to translate it into the language of contemporary discourse, “What position are you speaking from?” and “Are you for realism in literature?”

Barthes, forced into a corner by Camus’ skill at polemics and forced to make a choice by this formal demand, chose to take the plunge and declare his commitment (but what else could he do?). He replied that he was speaking from the position of a historical materialist. Doubtlessly such an affirmation, which was partly strategic, was the only one open to him, but naturally it had repercussions. In the Nouvelle NRF, Jean Guérin wondered whether the author of the “little mythologies of the month” was a Marxist and Barthes replied in Lettres nouvelles — in an article provocatively titled “Suis-je marxiste?” [“Am I a Marxist?”] — that such a question had overtones of McCarthyism. But he had already nailed his theoretical colors to the mast. Added to his championship of [Bertolt] Brecht, and his defense of the nouveau roman — which was considered “realist,” “objective,” and later “object” [objectale] literature — it gave him an image which he might have found it difficult to live up to. Previously he had been perceived as being “on the left” because of the newspapers [Combat, etc.] he had chosen to contribute to: now he had openly declared himself to be so.

Was Barthes a Marxist? According to him he had been a Marxist for a long time: when he left the sanatorium at the end of the war he had deemed himself “a Marxist and a Sartrean”; in Bucharest he had told Rebeyrol that as far as politics went, he could only think in Marxist terms. However, both his Marxist formation and his Sartrean positions can be questioned. First of all, as his articles in Combat show, at the beginning of the 1950s he was part of a group which was considered anti-communist by supporters of Stalinism. Moreover, he was writing for a paper in which, in February 1948, Claude Bourdet had called for the union of left-wing forces, of “non-Stalinist revolutionaries and progressive spirits of all tendencies.”

Of course, one could be a Marxist without being a fan of the Communist party, but Barthes’ polemics had never situated themselves within the closed sphere of Marxist rhetoric, and never would. Thus, in Writing Degree Zero, when he savagely attacked Roger Garaudy and André Stil, two particularly orthodox pillars of the Communist party, it was not on the grounds of their interpretations of Marxism but their conception of literature: “Of course, we must allow for mediocrity; in the case of Garaudy, it is impressive.” He concluded that Stalinist ideology had instilled a holy terror of discussing any formal problems in writing and thus the tendency was to choose a bourgeois form of writing, which was less dangerous than any questioning of it. None of this would have earned him a reputation as an expert in the science of Marxism. Edgar Morin, who had been expelled from the Communist party in 1951, and who did possess a genuine Marxist culture, considered that Barthes’ Marxism was the vulgar sort adopted by intellectuals who had perhaps read a few pages of Marx or, more likely, of Sartre.

But in claiming to be a Marxist — as he had once before in another very different context, during his farewell speech at the French Institute in Bucharest — Barthes for once overcame the reserve which characterized all areas of his life. As has been seen, what he hated most was exhibitionism. As he often told his friends, he hated aggression and hysteria, which he regarded as underlying any form of over-assertive militant discourse. While he was fascinated by the Sartrean notion of commitment, he was appalled by the translation of this theory into practice and he avoided meetings, demonstrations, and crowds. Camus had succeeded in making him publicly state his position, which was one of the rare occasions in his life when he was forced to drop his intellectual reserve. [Roland Barthes: A Biography, pgs. 118-120]

Part 3

Like Theodor Adorno, with whose work he was apparently unfamiliar, Barthes was less than enthusiastic about the student revolts of May 1968. Many of his friends and erstwhile admirers attacked him for not supporting the uprisings. Classrooms at the Hautes Études, where he taught, were vandalized. “Barthes says: Structures do not take to the streets,” read one recurring denunciation. “We say: Neither does Barthes.”

He soon found himself embroiled in a public dispute with Lucien Goldmann, a French sociologist and student of the great Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukács, over his putative lack of solidarity. Goldmann had locked horns with Adorno a few times during the 1960s, so the parallel between Marcuse/Adorno and Goldmann/Barthes is perhaps of interest in this connection. (Even more ironic considering Marcuse’s citation of Barthes at several points in One-Dimensional Man).

Calvet explains:

As far as Barthes was concerned…there was nothing amusing in all of this [vandalism]…Lucien Goldmann had tried to whip up anti-Barthes feelings by implying that Barthes was on the side of the establishment. Above and beyond these petty jealousies which sometimes flourish in academia, Barthes reacted extremely badly to the fact that, for the first time in his life, his commitment was being called into question. Or so he thought. In a television interview recorded in 1970, he spoke about his friend Georges Fournié, who had first introduced him to Marxist ideas while they were at the sanatorium. The gist of his remarks was that the Trotskyism of those days “bore no relation to present-day leftism and its ideological excesses.” (Roland Barthes: A Biography, pgs. 166-167)

Barthes certainly wasn’t wrong in this judgment. Something had changed.


Political modes of writing

Roland Barthes
Writing Degree

Marxist writing is of a different order. Here the closed character of the form does not derive from rhetorical amplification or from grandiloquence in delivery, but from a lexicon as specialized and as functional as a technical vocabulary; even metaphors are here severely codified. French revolutionary writing always proclaimed a right founded on bloodshed or moral justification, whereas from the very start Marxist writing is presented as the language of knowledge. Here, writing is univocal, because it is meant to maintain the cohesion of a Nature; it is the lexical identity of this writing which allows it to impose a stability in its explanations and a permanence in its method; it is only in the light of its whole linguistic system that Marxism is perceived in all its political implications. Marxist writing is as much given to understatement as revolutionary writing is to grandiloquence, since each word is no longer anything but a narrow reference to the set of principles which tacitly underlie it. For instance, the word “imply,” frequently encountered in Marxist writing, does not there have its neutral dictionary meaning; it always refers to a precise historical process, and is like an algebraical sign representing a whole bracketed set of previous postulates.

Being linked to action, Marxist writing has rapidly become, in fact, a language expressing value-judgments. This character, already visible in Marx, whose writing h0wever remains in general explanatory, has come to pervade writing completely in the era of triumphant Stalinism. Certain outwardly similar notions, for which a neutral vocabulary would not seek a dual designation, are evaluatively parted from each other, so that each element gravitates towards a different noun: for instance, “cosmopolitanism” is the negative of “internationalism” (already in Marx). In the Stalinist world, in which definition, that is to say the separation between Good and Evil, becomes the sole content of all language, there are no more words without values attached to them, so that finally the function of writing is to cut out one stage of a pro­cess: there is no more lapse of time between naming and judging, and the closed character of language is perfected, since in the last analysis it is a value which is given as explanation of another value. For instance, it may be alleged that such and such a criminal has engaged in activities harmful to the interests of the state; which boils down to saying that a criminal is someone who commits a crime. We see that this is in fact a tautology, a device constantly used in Stalinist writing. For the latter no longer aims at founding a Marxist version of the facts, or a revolutionary rationale of actions, but at presenting reality in a prejudged form, thus imposing a reading which involves immediate condemnation: the objective content of the word “deviationist” puts it into a penological category. If two deviationists band together, they become “fractionists,” which does not involve an objectively different crime, but an increase in the sentence imposed. One can enumerate a properly Marxist writing (that of Marx and Lenin) and a writing of triumphant Stalinism; there certainly is as well a Trotskyist writing and a tactical writing, for instance that of the French Communist party with its substitution of “people,” then of “plain folk,” for “working class,” and the willful ambiguity of terms like “democracy,” “freedom,” “peace,” etc.


Of what use are intellectuals?

Roland Barthes & B-H Lévy
Le Nouvel Observateur
(January 10, 1977)

Roland Barthes: [M]y childhood and adolescence were spent in poverty. There was often no food in the house. We had to go buy a bit of pâté or a few potatoes at a little grocery on the rue de Seine, and this would be all we’d have to eat. Life was actually lived to the rhythm of the first of the month, when the rent was due. And I had before me the daily spectacle of my mother working hard at bookbinding, a job for which she was absolutely unsuited. Poverty, at the time, had an existential contour that it perhaps no longer does, in France, not to the same extent…

Bernard-Henri Lévy: And yours was a bourgeois family, bourgeois in its origins, at least.

Roland Barthes: A bourgeois but completely impoverished family. There was thus a symbolic effect that intensified the real poverty, an awareness of having materially come down in the world , even though the family had managed to maintain some of its former standards of living. I remember, for example, the small crises at the start of each school year. I didn’t have the proper clothes. No money for school supplies. No money to pay for schoolbooks. It’s the small things, you see, that mark you for a long time, that make you extravagant later on.

Bernard-Henri Lévy: Is that where your oft-proclaimed aversion to the petite bourgeoisie comes from?

Roland Barthes: It’s true that I’ve used that term in my books; I use it less these days, because one can become tired of one’s own language. In any case, it’s undeniable: there is a kind of ethical and/or aesthetic element in the petite bourgeoisie that both fascinates and displeases me. But is that really so original? It’s in Flaubert. Who will admit to being a petit bourgeois? Politically and historically, the petite bourgeoisie is the key to the century, the rising class, the one we see all around us, at any rate. The bourgeoisie and the proletariat have become abstractions, while the petite bourgeoisie is everywhere, even among the bourgeois and the proletarians, what’s left of them, anyway.

Bernard-Henri Lévy: Then you no longer believe in the proletariat, in its historic mission, and all that that entails politically?

Roland Barthes: I’m saying that there was a time when the proletariat could be seen, but this time has passed: in France, it was when the proletariat was galvanized by anarcho-syndicalism and the socialist tradition of Proudhon, but nowadays this tradition has been replaced by Marxism and regular trade unionism.

Bernard-Henri Lévy: Were you ever a Marxist?

Roland Barthes: “To be a Marxist”: what does the verb “to be” mean in this expression? I’ve already explained my position here. I “went over” to Marxism rather late, encouraged by a dear friend who has since died, and who was a Trotskyist. So that I joined up without ever having been a militant, and via a dissident group having nothing to do with what was already being called Stalinism. Let’s just say that I’ve read Marx, Lenin, Trotsky. Not all their works, of course, but I’ve read some of them. I haven’t reread them for a while now, except here and there a text by Marx.

Bernard-Henri Lévy: Do you read a text by Marx as you would a text by Michelet, Sade, or Flaubert? A pure system of signs, engendering pure enjoyment?

Roland Barthes: Marx could be read in this way, but not Lenin, or even Trotsky. And yet I don’t think one could read Marx simply as one would read any other writer, one couldn’t ignore the political effects, the subsequent inscriptions through which the text exists so concretely.

5 thoughts on “The Marxism of Roland Barthes

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  2. thanks for this, you are a mensch! my first encounter with Barthes was Mythologies, which was an easy sell for me, since I thought I was reading humorous social criticism and suddenly discovered I was up to my ears in semiotics!

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