Henri Lefebvre and Marxism: A view from the Frankfurt School

Le­fe­b­vre and con­tem­por­ary
in­ter­pret­a­tions of Marx

Al­fred Schmidt
Frankfurt, 1968

In re­cent years the lit­er­at­ure that has ap­peared about, for, and against Marx and Marx­ism has in­creased to the point where it can hardly be sur­veyed. Yet it would be false to con­clude that the de­bate over mat­ters of con­tent has been ad­vanced. To the ex­tent that this lit­er­at­ure does not speak the lan­guage of the Cold War and at­tempt to es­tab­lish a du­bi­ous “counter-ideo­logy,” it pro­duces (as polit­ic­al sci­ence or Krem­lino­logy) works full of in­form­a­tion con­cern­ing the state of So­viet Marx­ist doc­trines in terms of their de­pend­ence on cur­rent polit­ic­al trends. To the ex­tent that Marxi­an the­ory it­self still enters its field of vis­ion, it is dulled by the fact that people (gen­er­ally fol­low­ing Karl Löwith) clas­si­fy it in the his­tor­ic­al tra­di­tion of Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Ni­et­z­sche, or else re­duce it to an ahis­tor­ic­al in­ter­pret­a­tion of the prob­lem­at­ic of ali­en­a­tion in the Eco­nom­ic and Philo­soph­ic­al Manuscripts.

On the oth­er hand, the group of au­thors hon­estly in­ter­ested in the fur­ther de­vel­op­ment of Marxi­an the­ory is ex­cep­tion­ally small. They are able to ab­stract from what still fre­quently passes for Marx­ism in the East­ern half of the world without deny­ing the ob­ject­ive sig­ni­fic­ance of the East-West con­flict for their thought. They have in­volved them­selves in­tens­ively with texts of Hegel and Marx, which by no means have fi­nally been dis­posed of, without fall­ing in­to the hair-split­ting on­to­logy — with its con­sec­rated body of quo­ta­tions — that is typ­ic­al for the post-Sta­lin­ist peri­od in So­viet philo­sophy. To this group be­longs Henri Le­fe­b­vre (who has re­cently be­come known in Ger­many through his acute ana­lys­is of Sta­lin­ism).1 His writ­ings are in­dis­pens­able to those who aim at an ad­equate (and there­fore crit­ic­al) un­der­stand­ing of Marx with­in the lim­its of the al­tern­at­ives that have been in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized in the polit­ic­al arena: either call­ing dia­lect­ic­al ma­ter­i­al­ism a “wa­ter­tight world­view” (Robert Mu­sil) or dis­miss­ing it out of hand as a product of the dis­cred­ited nine­teenth cen­tury.

If a pub­lish­er has de­cided to bring out an edi­tion of Le ma­té­ria­lisme dia­lec­tique,2 a work that ap­peared over three dec­ades ago, it is be­cause it has scarcely lost its ac­tu­al­ity — aside from a few points that needed cor­rec­tion. The philo­soph­ic­al dis­cus­sion of Marx­ism that began dir­ectly after the First World War with Ernst Bloch’s Spir­it of Uto­pia and Georg Lukács’ His­tory and Class Con­scious­ness, and was es­pe­cially furthered by Karl Korsch, Her­bert Mar­cuse, Max Horkheimer, and Theodor Ad­orno, broke off with Hitler’s seizure of power. There­fore, works on Marx from that peri­od, as well as those writ­ten in west­ern Europe in the late thirties, are still of great im­port­ance to us: not least be­cause those works ap­proached prob­lems in a way far more polit­ic­al and closer to real­ity than was pos­sible for the new West Ger­man at­tempts at an in­ter­pret­a­tion of Marx after 1945, which re­mained more or less aca­dem­ic. These were all es­sen­tially centered on the “young Marx” in whom the au­thors (Thi­er, Po­pitz, Fromm) wanted to see an “ex­ist­en­tial thinker.”

Since Le­fe­b­vre’s book also seems at first glance to be­long to the ex­ist­ence-philo­soph­ic­al, mor­al­iz­ing, and ab­stract an­thro­po­lo­gic­al school of in­ter­pret­a­tion, it seems ne­ces­sary to make the read­er some­what more con­vers­ant with Le­fe­b­vre’s in­tel­lec­tu­al de­vel­op­ment.3 Only on that basis can the cent­ral concept of “ali­en­a­tion” in his Dia­lect­ic­al Ma­ter­i­al­ism be un­der­stood and dif­fer­en­ti­ated from in­ter­pret­a­tions us­ing this concept in a sense al­most ex­actly op­posed to the Marxi­an one.

First, some dates in pre-World War II French philo­sophy. About the year 1930, the philo­soph­ic­al as­pect of Marx­ism began to arouse in­terest in France. At the same time, a broad gen­er­al re­ceptiv­ity to­ward Hegel, in­ter­woven with at­ti­tudes to­ward Kierkegaard, was an­nounced by Jean Wahl’s book, Le mal­heur de la con­science dans la phi­lo­soph­ie de He­gel. Wahl is in­clined to re­duce the rich­ness of Hegel’s work to the stage of the “un­happy con­scious­ness.” With this em­phas­is on the ro­mantic mo­ment in Hegel, it be­comes al­most im­possible to sep­ar­ate Hegel and Kierkegaard. Sub­sequently, the ap­pro­pri­ation of the ideal­ist dia­lectic is par­alleled by an in­ter­pret­a­tion of Marx’s early writ­ings in the light of Heide­g­ger’s Be­ing and Time. This pro­cess led to the birth of the French vari­ety of ex­ist­en­tial on­to­logy: to ex­ist­en­tial­ism. It was com­pleted between 1933 and 1938, years in which Al­ex­an­dre Kojève gave his now fam­ous lec­tures on the Phe­nomen­o­logy of Spir­it4 at the Ecole des Hautes Et­udes be­fore stu­dents such as Jean-Paul Sartre, Maurice Mer­leau-Ponty, Ray­mond Aron, and R. P. Fes­sard. These lec­tures fol­low the same ques­tion­able lines as Wahl and see ac­cess to Hegel’s en­tire oeuvre in a single level of con­scious­ness. With Kojève, it is the much-com­men­ted-on chapter “De­pend­ence and In­de­pend­ence of Self-Con­scious­ness: Lord­ship and Bond­age.” Al­though he wants his in­ter­pret­a­tion of Hegel to be con­sidered “Marx­ist,” he does not fo­cus on Marx’s ma­ter­i­al­ist “in­ver­sion” of the dia­lectic. Rather, as Fetscher em­phas­izes, Kojève already sees in the phe­nomen­o­lo­gic­al dia­lectic it­self “all the ul­ti­mate con­sequences of the Marx­ist philo­sophy of his­tory.”5 Thus “mo­tifs of thought” that first arose from Marx’s cri­tique of Hegel are ascribed to Hegel. But even Marx’s po­s­i­tion is not done justice, since Kojève lags be­hind his claim that one should el­ev­ate one­self to real his­tory, that is, to the con­crete forms of hu­man re­la­tion­ships, which are de­term­ined dif­fer­ently at dif­fer­ent mo­ments in time. In­stead, he is sat­is­fied with the sterile defin­i­tion of a Heide­g­geri­an “his­tor­icity of ex­ist­ence” that is sup­posedly present in the Phe­nomen­o­logy of Mind as an “ex­ist­en­tial”6 and rad­ic­ally “fi­nite”7 an­thro­po­logy. Ac­cord­ing to Kojève, the an­thro­po­lo­gic­al char­ac­ter of Hegel­i­an thought be­comes un­der­stand­able only on the basis of Heide­g­ger’s em­phas­is on “on­to­lo­gic­al fi­nitude,” al­though the an­thro­po­logy of Be­ing and Time (which Kojève as­serts in op­pos­i­tion to Heide­g­ger’s in­ten­tion) adds noth­ing new to that de­veloped by Hegel.

The sup­posedly broad­er “an­thro­po­lo­gic­al-on­to­lo­gic­al basis”8 with which Kojève wants to dote dia­lect­ic­al ma­ter­i­al­ism is more li­able to re­duce it to a doc­trine of in­vari­able struc­tures. Not the least of the ways that this would de­vel­op is in strictly polit­ic­al terms. In­so­far as Kojève breaks the struc­tur­al ele­ments of the Mas­ter-Slave dia­lectic away from its spe­cif­ic his­tor­ic­al back­ground (which must al­ways be thought of with it), he in­flates labor and the struggle for life and death in­to etern­al factors, à la so­cial Dar­win­ism. Stripped of every con­crete de­term­in­a­tion, man ap­pears as an es­sence “which is al­ways con­scious of his death, of­ten freely as­sumes it and some­times know­ingly and freely chooses it”; Hegel’s “an­thro­po­lo­gic­al philo­sophy” is viewed as “ul­ti­mately one… of death.”9 Ana­chron­ist­ic­ally, and thus in a way that fals­i­fies Hegel, Kojève equates the struggle for “re­cog­ni­tion” with a “fight for pure prestige.”10 Hu­man es­sence and know­ledge con­sti­tutes it­self with a de­cided “risk” of life. It is as if “self-con­scious ex­ist­ence is pos­sible only where there are or — at least — where there have been bloody fights, wars for prestige.”11 On the oth­er hand, it mat­ters little that he ab­stractly holds firm to the idea of the “realm of free­dom” that Hegel an­ti­cip­ated and that has to be real­ized by Marx­ism.12 It is a re­con­ciled con­di­tion that does not oc­cupy a situ­ation, in which neg­at­iv­ity (time and ac­tion in their present mean­ings) ceases, as do philo­sophy, re­volu­tions and wars as well: his “polit­ic­al-ex­ist­en­tial” an­thro­po­logy sharpened by “de­cision­ism” bears fas­cist­oid traces.13 If one starts from the premise that the Hegel and Marx ex­eges­is out­lined here was dom­in­ant in the France of the thirties, it be­comes clear that Le­fe­b­vre, even with all the un­avoid­able con­ces­sions to the spir­it of the times, took a path all his own. Op­posed to every on­to­logy, to the late-bour­geois as well as to the Sta­lin­ist ones, he de­veloped him­self in­to a crit­ic­al Marx­ist whose stand­ards grew out of a ma­ter­i­al­ist ana­lys­is of the course of his­tory. His aca­dem­ic teach­ers were hardly ap­pro­pri­ate to lead his thought in this dir­ec­tion. In Aix-en-Provence he stud­ied Au­gustine and Pas­cal14 with the lib­er­al Cath­ol­ic Maurice Blondel, and at the Sor­bonne he worked with Léon Brun­schvig, the “in­tel­lec­tu­al­iste” philo­soph­er of judg­ment who was an en­emy of every dia­lectic. What made Le­fe­b­vre (by no means without con­flict) turn to Marx­ism had little to do with uni­versity philo­sophy. It was the polit­ic­al and so­cial up­heavals of the post­war peri­od, and more par­tic­u­larly per­son­al prob­lems, psy­cho­ana­lys­is, and as­so­ci­ation with the lit­er­ary and artist­ic av­ant-garde, the sur­real­ist move­ment.15 Lastly, it was the sus­pi­cion, which turned in­to a firm con­vic­tion, that philo­sophy as it had been handed down to us had demon­strated that it in­creas­ingly was less able to come to grips with, not to men­tion mas­ter, the prob­lems posed by the his­tor­ic­al situ­ation of be­ing and con­scious­ness in so­ci­ety. At this point, the call of Marx and En­gels, in their early writ­ings, for the “neg­a­tion” of philo­sophy and the turn to­ward a prax­is “which would real­ize philo­soph­ic­al in­sight,” seemed to of­fer it­self to him. A pos­sib­il­ity seemed to open up, not only of more or less ar­tic­u­lately mir­ror­ing the frag­ment­a­tion de­vel­op­ing in mod­ern ex­ist­ence — the way it happened in ir­ra­tion­alist ideo­lo­gies — but of grasp­ing it con­cretely, that is, as something which could be tran­scen­ded.

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From James Joyce to Howdy Doody: Deconstruction and deindustrialization after 1968

Loren Gold­ner was an angry is­land of Marxi­an cri­tique sur­roun­ded in the 1980s and 1990s by a sea of post­struc­tur­al­ist and post­co­lo­ni­al hogshit. Even os­tens­ibly Marx­ist parties like the ISO in­tern­al­ized a lot of the re­lat­iv­ist garbage of this peri­od, however much they might claim to re­ject it.

I think Gold­ner is a bit un­fair in lump­ing the Frank­furt School in with all the oth­er stuff he dis­cusses in this es­say, but in terms of its re­cep­tion by the Anglo­phone academy he has a point. One might quibble with Gold­ner’s char­ac­ter­iz­a­tion of this or that thinker, or some of his gen­er­al­iz­a­tions, but this is de­lib­er­ate and cal­cu­lated for po­lem­ic­al ef­fect.

This es­say was ori­gin­ally pub­lished in 2001, and can be read over at his web­site. I’ve taken the liberty of cor­rect­ing the vari­ous mis­spellings that ap­pear in it, and ad­ded first names of au­thors who might oth­er­wise seem a bit ob­scure. You should also check out his es­say on “The Uni­ver­sal­ity of Marx” re­pos­ted by Com­in Situ a few months back, an in­cis­ive cri­tique of Ed­ward Said and Samir Amin.

Foucault Deleuze SartreDeconstruction and deindustrialization
Ontological “difference” and the neoliberal war
on the social

Loren Goldner
Queequeg Press
January 2001

Art without know­ledge is noth­ing.
[Ars sine sci­en­tia ni­hil.

— Jean Mignot

It was 1971. We were in our early twen­ties and we were mad. After the seem­ing pre­lude to apo­ca­lypse we had just lived through, who, at the time, would have be­lieved that we were at the be­gin­ning of three dec­ades (and count­ing) in which, in the U.S. at least, mass move­ments would all but dis­ap­pear from the streets? Even today, the evan­es­cence of the world-wide mood of 1968 seems slightly in­cred­ible. The funk of 1971 turned Wordsworth on his head: “Ter­rible in that sun­set to be alive, but to be young was hell it­self.”

The “six­ties,” in their pos­it­ive im­pulse, were over. In the U.S., the mass move­ment in the streets of 1965 to 1969 was quickly turn­ing co­matose. The ul­tra-Sta­lin­ist Pro­gress­ive Labor Party cap­tured SDS (Stu­dents for a Demo­crat­ic So­ci­ety), but cap­tured only a corpse made up only of its own rap­idly-dwind­ling mem­bers. The stock mar­ket crashed, Penn Cent­ral went bank­rupt, and the fin­an­cial mar­kets seized up in a gen­er­al li­quid­ity crisis (it would not be the last). Not many people of the 1960s New Left paid much at­ten­tion to these eco­nom­ic de­vel­op­ments at the time, and few­er still un­der­stood that they signaled the end of the post­war boom. But a sense of the end of something was in the air. The Decem­ber 1969 Alta­mont con­cert of the Rolling Stones had turned ugly, as the Hell’s An­gels guard­ing the band­stand had beaten a young black man to death with pool cues. The Chica­go po­lice murdered Black Pan­ther Fred Hamp­ton in his sleep. Charles Man­son’s col­lect­ive had earli­er murdered preg­nant act­ress Shar­on Tate and oth­er party­go­ers in the Hol­ly­wood hills, leav­ing a fork in Tate’s stom­ach, and the Weather­men made the fork in­to a sym­bol of struggle at their next con­fer­ence. Some Weather­men, in turn, blew them­selves up in a Green­wich Vil­lage pent­house, though Ber­nad­ine Dohrn and the oth­ers would con­tin­ue to plant more bombs and to put out their de­men­ted mani­fes­tos for some time af­ter­ward. The postal work­ers struck mil­it­antly and the gov­ern­ment sent the Na­tion­al Guard — fu­tilely — to de­liv­er the mail be­fore cav­ing to the strike. Nix­on and the U.S. mil­it­ary in­vaded Cam­bod­ia; the Team­sters wild­cat­ted in Clev­e­land and else­where; the Na­tion­al Guard unit which had con­fron­ted the Team­sters went on to Kent State with little sleep and killed four anti-war stu­dents. A na­tion­al stu­dent strike fol­lowed, but it was (sig­ni­fic­antly) taken over in many places, for the first time in years, by left-lib­er­als who tried to turn its en­ergy to lib­er­al Demo­crat­ic polit­ics for the fall 1970 elec­tions. Huey New­ton, head of the Black Pan­ther Party (BPP), was re­leased from jail in sum­mer 1970, an­noun­cing at the en­su­ing press con­fer­ence his in­ten­tion to “lead the struggle of the people to a vic­tori­ous con­clu­sion,” ap­par­ently un­aware (after serving 2½ years on man­slaughter charges for killing an Oak­land cop) that the “struggle of the people” in the U.S. was, for the fore­see­able fu­ture, fold­ing up the tent. The sleaze and rot of the end of the six­ties were not a pretty sight: Tim Leary, the former P.T. Barnum of LSD, held pris­on­er by the break­away Eldridge Cleav­er fac­tion of the BPP in Al­gi­ers; the burnt-out meth freaks scroun­ging spare change; the grim de­term­in­a­tion, in dour New Left mi­lieus, to “smash” everything bour­geois.

More dif­fusely but with more of a fu­ture, at least in the pro­fes­sion­al middle classes, the “new so­cial move­ments” were gath­er­ing mo­mentum: wo­men re­jec­ted their second-class roles every­where in so­ci­ety, in­clud­ing in the 1960s New Left; gays rode the mo­mentum of the 1969 Stone­wall ri­ots; an im­port­ant minor­ity of blacks and Lati­nos moved in­to the middle class through af­firm­at­ive ac­tion pro­grams, the Club of Rome re­port on Lim­its to Growth and the Rock­e­feller-backed Zero Pop­u­la­tion Growth gave the eco­logy and en­vir­on­ment­al move­ments (and more dif­fusely, a good part of so­ci­ety) the Malthu­s­i­an agenda they have nev­er really shaken off.

The fol­low­ing es­says were writ­ten over more than two dec­ades, yet they form a con­tinu­ous whole, even if it is one that only fully emerged over time. They were writ­ten “against the grain” of much of the ideo­logy of the past fifty years, above all in its left and far left guises, that might be sum­mar­ized with the term “middle-class rad­ic­al­ism.” While much of middle-class rad­ic­al­ism may have seemed, over the course of the 20th cen­tury, to over­lap with the Marxi­an project of com­mun­ism, they are as ul­ti­mately op­posed as Max Stirner and Mikhail Bak­un­in on one hand and Karl Marx and Rosa Lux­em­burg on the oth­er. One might use the Hegel­i­an term “neg­a­tion of the neg­a­tion” to de­scribe the former and the Feuerba­chi­an term “self-sub­sist­ing pos­it­ive” to de­scribe the lat­ter. The “fault line” between one and the oth­er is pre­cisely Marx’s re­lo­ca­tion of the “cre­at­ive act of trans­form­a­tion” with­in man’s re­la­tion­ship to nature, what the “Theses on Feuerbach” call sinn­liche umwälzende Tätigkeit or “sen­su­ous trans­form­at­ive activ­ity.” The fault line is moreover between Hegel’s view of nature as the realm of “re­pe­ti­tion,” as “bor­ing,” and Marx’s view of hu­man his­tory, and man’s his­tory in the trans­form­a­tion of nature, as the trans­form­a­tion of the laws of nature them­selves in his cri­tique of Malthus’ the­ory of pop­u­la­tion. In the lat­ter view, nature and nat­ur­al laws them­selves be­come his­tor­ic­al. “An an­im­al only pro­duces its own nature,” Marx wrote in 1844, “but hu­man­ity re­pro­duces all of nature.” An an­im­al is a tool; a hu­man be­ing uses tools. Hegel epi­tom­ized the “state civil ser­vant” view of his­tory, with his idea that the Prus­si­an mon­arch and his bur­eau­crats per­formed uni­ver­sal labor, where­as Marx pre­cisely trans­poses the idea of uni­ver­sal labor, i.e. cre­ativ­ity, to man’s sen­su­ous activ­ity with­in nature, an ex­ten­sion of nat­ur­al his­tory. This “uni­ver­sal labor” of course ex­ists only frag­ment­ar­ily and ab­stractly with­in cap­it­al­ism, scattered among the dif­fer­ent parts of the (pro­duct­ive) work­ing class, and some parts of the sci­entif­ic and tech­nic­al strata. But these frag­ments, along with oth­ers from in­tel­lec­tu­al and cul­tur­al life, are in­dis­pens­able fu­ture parts of a fu­ture activ­ity “as all-sided in its pro­duc­tion as in its con­sump­tion” which Marx, in the Grundrisse, sees as the su­per­ses­sion of the cap­it­al­ist work/ leis­ure an­ti­nomy in com­mun­ism.

Fol­low­ing in the same vein, one might just as suc­cinctly coun­ter­pose middle-class rad­ic­al­ism and Marxi­an so­cial­ism as fol­lows: middle-class rad­ic­al­ism con­ceives of free­dom as “trans­gres­sion,” as the break­ing of laws, the “re­fus­al of all con­straints,” as the Situ­ation­ist In­ter­na­tion­al put it more than thirty years ago, where­as the Marxi­an project of com­mun­ism con­ceives of free­dom as the prac­tic­al solu­tion of a prob­lem­at­ic which evolved the­or­et­ic­ally from Spinoza and Leib­n­iz to Kant, Hegel, and Feuerbach as the trans­form­a­tion of laws, up to and in­clud­ing the phys­ic­al laws of the uni­verse, man’s unique “Pro­methean” ca­pa­city. More than 150 years ago, Marx, in his cri­tique of the middle-class rad­ic­al­ism of the Young Hegel­i­ans, said that for Bauer, Hess, and Stirner the sci­ence, tech­no­logy, and hu­man his­tory of prac­tic­al activ­ity in nature was only “mass, mere mass,” to use the jar­gon of the day. For most of the West­ern left, far left, and ul­traleft which emerged from the 1960s, these phe­nom­ena are shown the door with the up­dated (and es­sen­tially Weberi­an) Frank­furt School man­tra “dom­in­a­tion, mere dom­in­a­tion.” For the middle-class rad­ic­al, “neg­a­tion of the neg­a­tion” view, the prob­lems are “hier­archy,” “au­thor­ity,” “dom­in­a­tion,” and “power”; for the Marxi­an com­mun­ist view, the prob­lems are the project of the ab­ol­i­tion of value, com­mod­ity pro­duc­tion, wage labor, and the pro­let­ari­at (the lat­ter be­ing the com­mod­ity form of labor power with­in cap­it­al­ism). From these lat­ter the “neg­a­tion of the neg­a­tion” prob­lem­at­ic is en­tirely re­cast, re­formed and su­per­seded, and its heavy over­lay of bour­geois ideo­logy — free­dom con­ceived without the trans­form­a­tion of ne­ces­sity — dis­carded.

What is truly ap­palling today in large swaths of the left and far-left in the West is the will­ful il­lit­er­acy in the cri­tique of polit­ic­al eco­nomy. Per­haps even more ap­palling, and closely re­lated, is the will­ful il­lit­er­acy, bore­dom and hos­til­ity where sci­ence and nature are con­cerned. It is cer­tainly true that the “cri­tique of polit­ic­al eco­nomy” can some­times be al­most as bor­ing as polit­ic­al eco­nomy it­self, bet­ter known today un­der its still more ideo­lo­gic­ally con­tem­por­ary name of “eco­nom­ics.” We re­call Marx writ­ing to En­gels (in 1857!) say­ing that he hoped to have done with the “eco­nom­ic shit” with­in a year or two. I my­self have stud­ied “eco­nom­ic ques­tions” for years, and have also spent years in re­cov­ery from the no­vo­cained, ashes-in-the mouth feel­ing brought on by ex­cess­ive ex­pos­ure to the “dis­mal sci­ence” — or even to its cri­tique.

But this is something rather dif­fer­ent than a cer­tain mood of the past thirty-five years, a mood whose cul­min­a­tion to date is the post­mod­ern, “cul­tur­al stud­ies” scene that has filled up book­stores with its ni­hil­ist pun­ning, its “white males nev­er did any­thing but rape, pil­lage, and loot” the­ory of his­tory, and its ig­nor­ant “everything and every­one is tain­ted” pro­jec­tions onto everything and every­one in some pot­ted no­tion of the West­ern “tra­di­tion.” This is the world view of de­mor­al­ized up­per middle-class people en­sconced in fash­ion­able uni­versit­ies, largely ig­nor­ant of the real his­tory of the fail­ure (to date) of the com­mun­ist project for a high­er or­gan­iz­a­tion of so­ci­ety, as­sum­ing that the his­tor­ic­al and in­tel­lec­tu­al back­wa­ter en­gulf­ing them is the fi­nal product of hu­man his­tory.

All this can be cri­tiqued and re­jec­ted on its own terms. It goes hand-in-hand with an ever-linger­ing “mood” which as­serts that there was nev­er any­thing his­tor­ic­ally pro­gress­ive about cap­it­al­ism, a mood so per­vas­ive that it does not even both­er to ar­gue the case, since it re­jects out of hand the idea of pro­gress — lin­ear, non-lin­ear, or oth­er­wise — and there­fore the ques­tion is fore­closed be­fore it even comes up. Once the idea of an or­gan­iz­a­tion of so­ci­ety su­per­i­or to cap­it­al­ism is re­pu­di­ated, cap­it­al­ism it­self ap­pears to the post­mod­ern­ists as un­prob­lem­at­ic, just as it is to the rest of bour­geois ideo­logy. While some post­mod­ern­ists might stop short (though God knows why) of one French Heide­g­geri­an’s call to “bring the in­hu­man in­to the com­mons” [don­ner droit de cit(c) a l’in­hu­main], their un­der­ly­ing world out­look eas­ily moves to­ward the same re­pu­di­ation of the tired word “hu­man­ism.” This coun­ter­pos­i­tion sur­faced in the 1987-1988 Heide­g­ger and De Man con­tro­ver­sies in such for­mu­la­tions as “Is Nazism a Hu­man­ism?” [Le Nazisme est-il un Hu­man­isme?] The ar­gu­ment was as fol­lows. Hu­man­ism was the West­ern meta­phys­ic of the “sub­ject,” cul­min­at­ing in Hegel and re­shaped by Marx. Trapped in and con­sti­tuted by the meta­phys­ics of “pres­ence,” the re­duc­tion of everything to a “rep­res­ent­a­tion” (im­age), hu­man­ism was the ideo­logy of the sub­jec­tion — the PoMos would of course write (sub­ject)ion — of the en­tire earth to “rep­res­ent­a­tion,” in what Heide­g­ger called the world­wide dom­in­a­tion of “tech­no­lo­gic­al ni­hil­ism.” Ni­et­z­sche had already ar­rived at im­port­ant an­ti­cip­a­tions of this ana­lys­is. For a cer­tain, “post-1945” (!) Heide­g­ger, Nazism had cul­min­ated this drive to “tech­no­lo­gic­al ni­hil­ism.” (When he was a Nazi, up to 1945, Heide­g­ger had gamely ar­gued that lib­er­al cap­it­al­ism was the cul­min­a­tion of “tech­no­lo­gic­al ni­hil­ism.”) The French Heide­g­geri­ans thus ar­gued that Nazism was a hu­man­ism in its drive to com­plete West­ern “tech­no­lo­gic­al ni­hil­ism,” and that the ap­par­ently Nazi Heide­g­ger, by at­tempt­ing to “de­con­struct” hu­man­ism, was thereby “sub­vert­ing” Nazism. Mean­while, of course, the op­pon­ents of Nazism, of whatever polit­ic­al stripe, were trapped in “hu­man­ism” and there­fore trapped on Nazism’s ter­rain, sim­il­arly fa­cil­it­at­ing the world­wide vic­tory of “tech­no­lo­gic­al ni­hil­ism.” One could pre­sum­ably count an old hu­man­ist such as Lux­em­burg (had she not been murdered in 1919 by proto-Nazis, abet­ted by So­cial Demo­crats) as someone else con­fusedly trapped in “tech­no­lo­gic­al ni­hil­ism,” hav­ing died a bit too early to ap­pre­ci­ate Heide­g­ger as the real op­pon­ent of Nazism. Continue reading

Schapiro contra Heidegger: The controversy over a painting by Van Gogh

Below is republished the Latvian-Jewish art historian Meyer Schapiro’s epic troll of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, which originally appeared in 1968. He takes aim at the primary example used by Heidegger in his essay on “The Origin of the Work of Art”: a painting of a pair of shoes by the artist Vincent van Gogh. Schapiro contends that the artwork Heidegger examines, which is supposed to disclose an ageless truth about the relation of being to world, represents something entirely different from what he claims. Painstakingly reconstructing the exhibition Heidegger attended where he first saw the Van Gogh painting (gleaned from a letter in response to his inquiry), Schapiro pinpointed the precise work referred to in the essay.

Needless to say, Schapiro’s article cause quite the stir in aesthetic and philosophical circles. Jacques Derrida, the French theorist and longtime champion of Heidegger, responded to the controversy at length in his book The Truth in Painting, where he concludes: “Schapiro, insouciant, lays a trap for Heidegger. He already suspects the ‘error,’ ‘projection,’ ‘imagination’ in Heidegger’s text.”

Heidegger at spring Gelassenheit jpg1 Meyer Schapiro with his wife Lillian in 1991, Photograph, Black and White Silver Gelatin Print, 6.25 x 6.25 inches

The relevant works can be downloaded here:

  1. Martin Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art” (1936) in Off the Beaten Track (1950)
  2. Meyer Schapiro, “The Still Life as a Personal Object: A Note on Heidegger and Van Gogh” (1968)
  3. Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting (1987)
  4. Meyer Schapiro, “A Further Note on Heidegger and Van Gogh” (1994)
  5. Babette E. Babich, Words in Blood, Like Flowers: Philosophy and Poetry, Music, and Eros in Hölderlin, Nietzsche, and, Heidegger (2006)

An orthodox Trotskyist living in New York during the 1930s, Schapiro was moreover an associate of the Frankfurters-in-exile Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno. In 1937, he even helped the pioneering critical theorists find an apartment near Columbia University. Much to Adorno’s surprise, Schapiro was already acquainted with Walter Benjamin’s writings on “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technical Reproducibility.” Writing to Benjamin, who was then living in Paris, Adorno urged him to “establish contact with Schapiro, who is extremely familiar with your writings and in general is a well-informed and intellectually imaginative man…Politically speaking, Schapiro is an active Trotskyist. Here is his address: Prof. Meyer Schapiro, 279 West 4th Street, New York, N. Y. (he reads German fluently).”

Benjamin met with Schapiro in Paris in 1939, at the request of Adorno, who hoped his friend might be persuaded to move to New York. Tragically, Schapiro was unable to convince Benjamin to emigrate. He committed suicide near the Spanish border a year later.

Schapiro’s political involvement during that decade even led him to correspond with Leon Trotsky in Mexico. The former Red Army leader clearly appreciated the gesture, writing: “You belong to the camp of friends who as yet are not too numerous but who are, fortunately, increasing.” Later Schapiro acted as an intermediary between Bronstein and the surrealist leader André Breton, setting up the meeting where they would co-write the manifesto “Towards a Free Revolutionary Art.”


The still life as a personal object: A note on Heidegger and Van Gogh

Meyer Schapiro

In his essay on 
The Origin of the Work of Art, Martin Heidegger interprets a painting by van Gogh to illustrate the nature of art as a disclosure of truth.[1]

He comes to this picture in the course of distinguishing three modes of being: of useful artifacts, of natural things, and of works of fine art. He proposes to describe first, “without any philosophical theory…a familiar sort of equipment — a pair of peasant shoes”; and “to facilitate the visual realization of them” he chooses “a well-known painting by van Gogh, who painted such shoes several times.” But to grasp “the equipmental being of equipment,” we must know “how shoes actually serve.” For the peasant woman they serve without her thinking about them or even looking at them. Standing and walking in the shoes, the peasant woman knows the serviceability in which “the equipmental being of equipment consists.” But we,

as long as we only imagine a pair of shoes in general, or simply look at the empty, unused shoes as they merely stand there in the picture, we shall never discover what the equipmental being of equipment in truth is. In van Gogh’s painting we cannot even tell where these shoes stand. There is nothing surrounding this pair of peasant shoes in or to which they might belong, only an undefined space. There are not even clods from the soil of the field or the path through it sticking to them, which might at least hint at their employment. A pair of peasant shoes and nothing more. And yet.

From the dark opening of the worn insides of the shoes the toilsome tread of the worker stands forth. In the stiffly solid heaviness of the shoes there is the accumulated tenacity of her slow trudge through the far-spreading and ever-uniform furrows of the field, swept by a raw wind. On the leather there lies the dampness and saturation of the soil. Under the soles there slides the loneliness of the field-path as the evening declines. In the shoes there vibrates the silent call of the earth, its quiet gift of the ripening corn and its enigmatic self-refusal in the fallow desolation of the wintry field. This equipment is pervaded by uncomplaining anxiety about the certainty of bread, the wordless joy of having once more withstood want, the trembling before the advent of birth and shivering at the surrounding menace of death. This equipment belongs to the earth and it is protected in the world of the peasant woman. From out of this protected belonging the equipment itself rises to its resting-in-self.[2]

Professor Heidegger is aware that van Gogh painted such shoes several times, but he does not identify the picture he has in mind, as if the different versions are interchangeable, all disclosing the same truth. A reader who wishes to compare his account with the original picture or its photograph will have some difficulty in deciding which one to select. Eight paintings of shoes by van Gogh are recorded by de la Faille in his catalogue of all the canvasses by the artist that had been exhibited at the time Heidegger wrote his essay.[3] Of these, only three show the “dark openings of the worn insides” which speak so distinctly to the philosopher.[4] They are more likely pictures of the artist’s own shoes, not the shoes of a peasant. They might be shoes he had worn in Holland but the pictures were painted during van Gogh’s stay in Paris in 1886-87; one of them bears the date: ’87.[5] From the time before 1886 when he painted Dutch peasants are two pictures of shoes — a pair of clean wooden clogs set on a table beside other objects.[6] Later in Arles he painted, as he wrote in a letter of August 1888 to his brother, “une paire de vieux souliers” which are evidently his own.[7] A second still life of “vieux souliers de pay san” is mentioned in a letter of September 1888 to the painter Emile Bernard, but it lacks the characteristic worn surface and dark insides of Heidegger’s description.[8]

In reply to my question, Professor Heidegger has kindly written me that the picture to which he referred is one that he saw in a show at Amsterdam in March 1930.[9] This is clearly de la Faille’s no. 255; there was also exhibited at the same time a painting with three pairs of shoes,[10] and it is possible that the exposed sole of a shoe in this picture, inspired the reference to the sole in the philosopher’s account. But from neither of these pictures, nor from any of the others, could one properly say that a painting of shoes by van Gogh expresses the being or essence of a peasant woman’s shoes and her relation to nature and work. They are the shoes of the artist, by that time a man of the town and city.

Heidegger has written: “The art-work told us what shoes are in truth. It would be the worst self-deception if we were to think that our description, as a subjective action, first imagined everything thus and then projected it into the painting. If anything is questionable here, it is rather that we experienced too little in contact with the work and that we expressed the experience too crudely and too literally. But above all, the work does not, as might first appear, serve merely for a better visualization of what a piece of equipment is. Rather, the equipmental being of equipment first arrives at its explicit appearance through and only in the artist’s work. What happens here? What is at work in the work? Van Gogh’s painting is the disclosure of what the equipment, the pair of peasant’s shoes, is in truth.”[11]

Alas for him, the philosopher has indeed deceived himself. He has retained from his encounter with van Gogh’s canvas a moving set of associations with peasants and the soil, which are not sustained by the picture itself. They are grounded rather in his own social outlook with its heavy pathos of the primordial and earthy. He has indeed “imagined everything and projected it into the painting.” He has experienced both too little and too much in his contact with the work.

The error lies not only in his projection, which replaces a close attention to the work of art. For even if he had seen a picture of a peasant woman’s shoes, as he describes them, it would be a mistake to suppose that the truth he uncovered in the painting — the being of the shoes — is something given here once and for all and is unavailable to our perception of shoes outside the painting. I find nothing in Heidegger’s fanciful description of the shoes pictured by van Gogh that could not have been imagined in looking at a real pair of peasants’ shoes. Though he credits to art the power of giving to a represented pair of shoes that explicit appearance in which their being is disclosed — indeed “the universal essence of things,”[12] “world and earth in their counterplay”[13] — this concept of the metaphysical power of art remains here a theoretical idea. The example on which he elaborates with strong conviction does not support that idea.

Is Heidegger’s mistake simply that he chose a wrong example? Let us imagine a painting of a peasant woman’s shoes by van Gogh. Would it not have made manifest just those qualities and that sphere of being described by Heidegger with such pathos?

Heidegger would still have missed an important aspect of the painting: the artist’s presence in the work. In his account of the picture he has overlooked the personal and physiognomic in the shoes that made them so persistent and absorbing a subject for the artist (not to speak of the intimate connection with the specific tones, forms, and brush-made surface of the picture as a painted work). When van Gogh depicted the peasant’s wooden sabots, he gave them a clear, unworn shape and surface like the smooth still-life objects he had set beside them on the same table: the bowl, the bottles, a cabbage, etc. In the later picture of a peasant’s leather slippers, he has turned them with their backs to the viewer.[14] His own shoes he has isolated on the ground; he has rendered them as if facing us, and so worn and wrinkled in appearance that we can speak of them as veridical portraits of aging shoes.

We come closer, I think, to van Gogh’s feeling for these shoes in a paragraph written by Knut Hamsun in the 1880s in his novel Hunger, describing his own shoes:

As I had never seen my shoes before, I set myself to study their looks, their characteristics, and when I stir my foot, their shapes and their worn uppers. I discover that their creases and white seams give them expression — impart a physiognomy to them. Something of my own nature had gone over into these shoes; they affected me, like a ghost of my other I — a breathing portion of my very self.[15]

In comparing van Gogh’s painting with Hamsun’s text, we are interpreting the painting in a different way than Heidegger. The philosopher finds in the picture of the shoes a truth about the world as it is lived by the peasant owner without reflection; Hamsun sees the real shoes as experienced by the self-conscious, contemplating wearer who is also the writer. Hamsun’s personage, a brooding, self-observant drifter, is closer to van Gogh’s situation than to the peasant’s. Yet van Gogh is in some ways like the peasant; as an artist he works, he is stubbornly occupied in a task that is for him his inescapable calling, his life.

Of course, van Gogh, like Hamsun, has also an exceptional gift of representation; he is able to transpose to the canvas with a singular power the forms and qualities of things; but they are things that have touched him deeply, in this case his own shoes — things inseparable from his body and memorable to his reacting self-awareness. They are not less objectively rendered for being seen as if endowed with his feelings and revery about himself. In isolating his own old, worn shoes on a canvas, he turns them to the spectator; he makes of them a piece from a self-portrait, that part of the costume with which we tread the earth and in which we locate strains of movement, fatigue, pressure, heaviness — the burden of the erect body in its contact with the ground. They mark our inescapable position on the earth. To “be in someone’s shoes” is to be in his predicament or his station in life. For an artist to isolate his worn shoes as the subject of a picture is for him to convey a concern with the fatalities of his social being. Not only the shoes as an instrument of use, though the landscape painter as a worker in the fields shares something of the peasant’s life outdoors, but the shoes as “a portion of the self ” (in Hamsun’s words) are van Gogh’s revealing theme.

Gauguin, who shared van Gogh’s quarters in Arles in 1888, sensed a personal history behind his friend’s painting of a pair of shoes. He has told in his reminiscences of van Gogh a deeply affecting story linked with van Gogh’s shoes.

In the studio was a pair of big hob-nailed shoes, all worn and spotted with mud; he made of it a remarkable still life painting. I do not know why I sensed that there was a story behind this old relic, and I ventured one day to ask him if he had some reason for preserving with respect what one ordinarily throws out for the rag-picker’s basket.

“My father,” he said, “was a pastor, and at his urging I pursued theological studies in order to prepare for my future vocation. As a young pastor I left for Belgium one fine morning, without telling my family, to preach the gospel in the factories, not as I had been taught but as I understood it myself. These shoes, as you see, have bravely endured the fatigue of that trip.”

Preaching to the miners in the Borinage, Vincent undertook to nurse a victim of a fire in the mine. The man was so badly burned and mutilated that the doctor had no hope for his recovery. Only a miracle, he thought, could save him. Van Gogh tended him forty days with loving care and saved the miner’s life.

Before leaving Belgium I had, in the presence of this man who bore on his brow a series of scars, a vision of the crown of thorns, a vision of the resurrected Christ.

Gauguin continues:

And Vincent took up his palette again; silently he worked. Beside him was a white canvas. I began his portrait. I too had the vision of a Jesus preaching kindness and humility.[16]

It is not certain which of the paintings with a single pair of shoes Gauguin had seen at Arles. He described it as violet in tone in contrast to the yellow walls of the studio. It does not matter. Though written some years later, and with some literary affectations, Gauguin’s story confirms the essential fact that for van Gogh the shoes were a memorable piece of his own life, a sacred relic.


[1] Martin Heidegger, «Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes», in Holzwege (Frankfurt a.M.: Klostermann, 1950), 7-68. Reprinted separately, in paperback, with an introduction by H.-G. Gadamer (Stuttgart: Reclam, 1962). Trans. by A. Hofstadter, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” in A. Hofstadter and R. Kuhns, Philosophies of Art and Beauty (New York: Random House, 1964), 649-701. All quotations are from the excellent Hofstadter translation and are reprinted by permission of Harper Row, Publishers, Inc., New York. It was Kurt Goldstein who first called my attention to Heidegger’s essay, presented originally as a lecture in 1935 and 1936.
[2] Origins of the Work of Art, 662-63. Heidegger refers again to van Gogh’s picture in a revised letter of 1935, printed in M. Heidegger, An Introduction to Metaphysics, trans. by R. Manheim (New York: Anchor Books, 1961). Speaking of Dasein (being-there, or “essent”) he points to a painting by van Gogh: “A pair of rough peasant shoes, nothing else. Actually the painting represents nothing. But as to what is in that picture, you are immediately alone with it as though you yourself were making your way wearily homeward with your hoe on an evening in late fall after the last potato fires have died down. What is here? The canvas? The brushstrokes? The spots of color?” (Introduction to Metaphysics, 29).
[3] J.B. de la Faille, Vincent van Gogh (Paris: 1939): no. 54, fig. 60; no. 63, fig. 64; no. 225, fig. 248; no. 331, fig. 249; no. 332, fig. 250; no. 333, fig. 251; no. 461, fig. 488; no. 607, fig. 597.
[4] La Faille, op. cit., nos. 255, 332, 333.
[5] La Faille, op cit., no. 333; it is signed “Vincent ’87.”
[6] La Faille, op cit., nos. 54 and 63.
[7] La Faille, op. cit., no. 461. Vincent van Gogh, Verzamelde brieven van Vincent van Gogh (Amsterdam: 1952-64), III, 291, letter no. 529.
[8] La Faille, op. cit., no. 607. Van Gogh, Verzamelde brieven, IV, 227.
[9] Personal communication, letter of May 6, 1965.
[10] La Faille, op. cit., no. 332, fig. 250.
[11] Origins of the Work of Art, 664.
[12] Origins of the Work of Art, 665.
[13] “Truth happens in van Gogh’s painting. This does not mean that something is rightly portrayed, but rather that in the revelation of the equipmental being of the shoes that which is as a whole world and earth in their counterplay — attains to unconcealment…The more simply and essentially the shoes appear in their essence…the more directly and fascinatingly does all that is attain to a greater degree of being. (Origins oft he Work of Art, 680).
[14] La Faille, op. cit., no. 607, fig. 597.
[15] Knut Hamsun, Hunger, trans. by G. Egerton (New York: Alfred Knopf, Inc., 1941), 27.
[16] de Rotonchamp, Paul Gauguin 1848-1913, 2nd ed. (Paris: G. eres, 1925),33. There is an earlier version of the story in: Paul Gauguin, “Natures mortes,” Essais d’art libre, 1894, 4, 273-75. These two texts were kindly brought to my attention by Professor Mark Roskill.

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Notes to “Twilight of the Idoloclast? On the Left’s recent anti-Nietzschean turn”

Notes to Twilight of the idoloclast? On the Left’s recent anti-Nietzschean turnMalcolm Christ, or the Anti-Nietzsche, Anti-Dühring and Anti-Christ: Marx, Engels, Nietzsche

[1] “Reading for victory is the way Nietzsche himself thought people ought to read.”  Bull, Malcolm.  Anti-Nietzsche.  (Verso Books.  New York, NY: 2011).
[2] As Domenico Losurdo blurbs on the back of his book, “Altman…adopts Nietzsche’s own aphoristic genre in order to use it against him.”  Altman himself explains: “[T]he whole point of writing in Nietzsche’s own style was to demonstrate how much power over his readers he gains by plunging him into the midst of what may be a pathless ocean, confusing them as to their destination.”  Altman, William.  Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche: The Philosopher of the Second Reich.  (Lexington Books.  New York, NY: 2012).  Pg. xi.  Later Altman admits, however, that “[t]his kind of writing presumes, of course, good readers.”  Ibid., pg. 181.
[3] Dombrowsky, Don.  Nietzsche’s Machiavellian Politics.  (Palgrave MacMillan.  New York, NY: 2004).  Pg. 134.
[4] Conway, Daniel.  Nietzsche and the Political.  (Routledge.  New York, NY: 1997).  Pg. 119.
[5] Appel, Fredrick.  Nietzsche Contra Democracy.  (Cornell University Press.  Ithaca, NY: 1999).  Pg. 120.
[6] “[I]n uncovering Nietzsche’s rhetorical strategy [they] reuse it.”  Bull, Anti-Nietzsche.  Pg. 32.
[7] Ibid., pg. 33.
[8] Ibid., passim, pgs. 35-38, 42, 47-48, 51, 74-76, 98, 100, 135, 139, 143.
……Indeed, Bull’s call to “read like a loser” grants to the essays in Anti-Nietzsche their hermeneutic integrity.  This formulation has since gone on to become one of the book’s most celebrated phrases, as well, charming reviewers from New Inquiry’s David Winters to Costica Bardigan of the Times Higher Education. Winters, David.  “Reading Like a Loser.”  New Inquiry.  (February 14, 2012).  Bardigan, Costica.  “Review of Malcolm Bull’s Anti-Nietzsche.”  Times Higher Education.  (January 29, 2012).  Even longtime admirers of Nietzsche like T.J. Clark admit its interpretive power: “[N]o other critique of Nietzsche, and there have been many, conjures up the actual reader of Daybreak and The Case of Wagner so unnervingly.”  Clark, T.J.  “My Unknown Friends: A Response to Malcolm Bull.”  Nietzsche’s Negative Ecologies.  (University of California Press.  Berkeley, CA: 2009).  Pg. 79. Continue reading