"The writer, of course, must earn in order to be able to live and write, but he must by no means live and write to earn ... The primary freedom of the press lies in not being a trade." Karl Marx, 1842 [Collected Works Vol 1, London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1975, pp. 174-175]
"No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money." Samuel Johnson, 1776 [Boswell's Life of Johnson, Oxford: OUP, 1953, p. 731]
EL: Samuel Johnson was a lexicographer. This was a menial job, a waiter serving up words, fixing meanings rather than creating them. In addition, Johnson saw it as his lexicographer's duty to provide moral instruction for the semi-educated. So Johnson's business was weighty, but dull. It was a chore all round, and who would do it but for financial recompense? In 1759, needing money to pay for his mother's funeral, he wrote Rasselas, Prince of Abysinnia. It took a week and was barely subject to revisions. In his journal The Idler for April 1759, he noted that the powers found in Rasselas were necessitated by "great exigencies", and that "these happen but seldom, and therefore those qualities which have a claim to the veneration of mankind, lie hid, for the most part, like subterranean treasures, over which the foot passes as on common ground, till necessity breaks open the golden cavern." Rasselas had character named Pekuah, a figure worth "two hundred ounces of gold" who craves money. Coleridge admitted too that he wrote "compelled by the God Pecunia". Johnson declares that writers write for money, and insists it is so and must be so - to act otherwise would be rank stupidity. Johnson's statement recognizes brute economic actuality. It is realistic and not idealistic. That was Johnson's business, and he could more than imagine being paid by the word. But he was also expressing good old blank English instrumentalist empiricism, such as that promoted by the Royal Society. This demanded clear language, mathematical plainness, and preferred the language of artisans, countrymen or merchants to that of wits or scholars: poetry then by the yard, in an economy of language. Thomas Hobbes called metaphors absurd and likened true reasoning to adding up an account (Leviathan, 1651, II-22). Forty years later, John Locke opposed the age-old royal debasement of the unit of money: "the unit was and should be a definite weight of bullion, which must not be altered" ("Further Considerations Concerning Raising the Value of Money", 1695). Locke had the ear of Isaac Newton. Newton was made Warden of the Royal Mint in 1696. He undertook a recoinage, where nothing concerned him as much as counterfeiting of the realm's coins. Signs were failing to match up to their significations. These first-bourgeois ideologues were working on the very metal of the regime. In the realm of literature, Johnson was doing the same. He despised linguistic ambiguity for the moral and political threat it posed. He was, after all, paid for nailing down meanings and, so, halting the proliferation of language, the circulation of unmonitored signs. Rigidity sets in on language and meaning. John Locke was the man for the firm-up task. He had learned from the Dutch system of banking and commerce, which was the most highly developed in Europe. In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke insisted on the necessity for classifying things under general or universal qualities, using general terms that can apply equally and economically to various similar but not identical objects. Locke wanted to apply such rational classification to politics too, bypassing the accidents of birth that confer authority, and instead turning to Contract Law to form an agreement between governor and governed. But ultimate authority for. everything came from God, and only science had the chance of emulating his divine knowledge, providing insight into the essence of things. Locke's categorical rigidity is mocked by Hegel, master of historically and dialectically determined knowledge:
"True" and "false" belong among those determinate notions which are held to be inert and wholly separate essences, one here and one there, each standing fixed and isolated from the other, with which it has nothing in common. Against this view it must be maintained that truth is not a minted coin that can be given and pocketed ready-made.[Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit, OLTP, p. 22]
For Hegel, truth is historical. If it is historical then it is flexible, shape-shifting, and index- linked to developments across time. Regimes fix values in coin, but the promise of eternal security is undermined by inflation, devaluation and speculation. While the philosophers all disagreed amongst themselves, they were agreed on one thing: money is both a material and a metaphorical resource, and money's own historical development proves how tangled up those two aspects actually are. For them all, it is a matter of coining phrases - and for each, the economic is tangled with the expressive as they struggle to account for the new bourgeois reality of trade, circulation, exchange. In Ms young Hegelian flush, Marx continues to reflect on the relation between economy and expression. The tokens are shuffled, and Marx reverses Johnson's thought: the writer must by no means "write to earn" (Karl Marx, "Debates on Freedom of the Press", 1842, CW, Vol. 1, p. 175)
BW: Here we have a paradox. According to postmodernist rumour, Marxism is a methodology which totalises and simplifies, a reductive schema whose only coin is economic. If culture or poetry are to have any presence in this bleak outline, it will have to be supplied by some other source, such as psychoanalysis or feminism, phenomenology or deconstruction. Marxists discuss economics, so to talk about writing we need to turn elsewhere - to Roland Barthes or Jacques Derrida, perhaps, who foreground the "text" as their field of concern, or to Pierre Bourdieu with his dualist, neo-Kantian concept of "cultural capital". Actually, Marx started from a particularly clear-eyed view of writing and its effects - both the universality of ideas and the limitations of published discourse. This was based on an unsentimental assessment of his own place in society - which was that of a writer and journalist in a country subject to press censorship. In May 1842, Marx began his journalistic career by contributing to the Rheinische Zeitung für Politik, Handel und Gewerbe (Rheinisch Newspaper for Politics, Trade and Manufacture). Press censorship was the great issue of the day. Marx's earlier criticism of the Prussian censorship instruction of 24 December 1841 had itself been censored, only appearing in a collection of Young Hegelian writings published in Switzerland in 1843. Though a Provincial Assembly with representation from the urban and peasant estates was in regular session, the Prussian Government would not permit the publication of its proceedings. Liberal newspapers were subject to censorship, winch often took the crude form of overprinting in blocks of black ink. Marx subjected this state of affairs to a trenchant critique, and made a big splash. The manager of the newspaper, Georg Jung, wrote to Marx to tell him that his articles had made him the toast of Berlin [CW, Vol. 1, p. 739]. Marx appealed to definitions of freedom that were familiar to his readers from Kant and Hegel. Nevertheless, he had a shrewd grasp of the limitations of both philosophy and journalism: "to the amazement of all writing and reading Germany," he begins, "the Preussische Allgemeine Staats-Zeitung one fine Berlin spring morning published its self- confession." [CW, Vol. 1, p. 132). In this Shandyesque opening, Marx tempers the megalomania and mystification associated with the power of the written word - from St John to the Romantics - by reminding his readers of the limits of this particular manifestation of media amazement ("writing and reading German"). Marx's sober social- materialist assessment of his actual audience surfaced further on when he doubted that even "daily, unabridged publication by printing" of the proceedings of the Provincial Assembly could rightly be called "unabridged and public". "Is there no abridgement," he asks, "in substituting written for the spoken word, graphic systems for persons, actions on paper for real action?" [CW, Vol. 1, p. 1491. The fact that Marx's words sound shocking today is a measure of how far Jacques Derrida has successfully resuscitated scripture as the guiding twilight for cultural analysis. If the written word is no longer the guarantee of theological authenticity, then enquiry must proceed to the situation of the scribe: the concrete power relations of publication.
EL: Marx was replying to a series of articles supporting censorship which appeared in an official government organ. Marx reviewed the parliamentary debate on censorship laws, the Preussische Allgemeine Staats-Zeitung's position, and freedom of the press in general. He attacks the illogical and patronizing stance of the pro-censorship lobby. His arguments also delve into the material bases of thought production. Writing, he insists, cannot be a means to an end. Language, writing, thought, expression are the substance of freedom, not their torpid reflection. A system that equates words and money is a system which rewards the vile work of journalists who provide only what their editors - the managers of ruling-class "truth" - think the public will pay to read. The journalists actually deserve the punishment of censorship, Marx jibes, because - writing for money - their usual practice is unfree.
BW: During the NATO-Serbia War of 1999, the NUJ called a meeting on the bombing of Yugoslavia called "Media Accuracy and Free Speech". John Pilger told an overflowing Westminster Central Hall that television and newspaper journalists were betraying their profession by dutifully repeating lies stemming from NATO and Tony Blair. A large banner proclaimed "the first casualty of war is truth". In the light of J.H. Prynne's critique of Peter Handke's formulation "the first casualty of war is language" (Quid No 6), was the NUJ's slogan yet another outbreak of Handke's sentimentality and error? Or was the slogan a pertinent summary of the issues facing liberal journalists when their country goes to war, a brave retort to a new offensive by the ruling class? (Mark Steel, whose membership of an international-socialist party, the SWP, entailed principled opposition to the war, lost his column in The Guardian just as war was declared). In their exclusion from a mass readership and the levers of power, poets are particularly prey to scholastic definitions of Truth - an Absolute that admits noCasualty. Such "rigour" entails the convenient conclusion that any attempt to act politically is by definition egregious and sinful.
EL: Marx mocks newspaper editors who despise their own product and bow down before the value of large tomes, imagining the very weight of a bound volume to equal the importance of the thoughts contained within. The press colludes in its own devaluing, accepting hierarchy as found. No-one is more impressed by monumental unread books than the editors and journalists of newspapers which are printed in millions and are slim enough to slip into a jacket pocket. In a satirical flourish, Marx amplifies the editors' quantitative prejudice:
Our time has no longer that real taste for size that we admire in the Middle Ages. Look at our paltry little pietistic tracts, look at our philosophical systems in small octavo, and then cast your eyes on the twenty gigantic folios of Duns Scotus. You do not need to read the books; their exciting aspect suffices to touch your heart and strike your senses, something like a Gothic cathedral. These primitive gigantic works materially affect the mind; it feels oppressed under their mass, and the feeling of oppression is the beginning of awe. You do not master the books, they master you. [p. 134]
Marx insists on the communicative, historically responsive, dialogic aspect of the newspaper. It is a master of no-one. Such a conception anticipates Walter Benjamin's Marxist-modernist proclamation in One Way Street that says that only prompt language is actively equal to the moment, because it is of the moment. Benjamin writes: "Significant literary work can only come into being in a strict alternation between action and writing; it must nurture the inconspicuous forms that better fit its influence in active communities than does the pretentious universal gesture of the book - in leaflets, brochures, articles, and placards [OWS, p. 451. Benjamin carried this view over to his most notorious thoughts on art ("The Artwork In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction"), where he states that bourgeois relations of production struggle to keep art as art, ordered around traditional categories, and conceived by critics and artists in terms of "outmoded concepts, such as creativity and genius, eternal value and mystery" - a religion of art. This is the respect for the aura which modernism destroys, just as the camera's flash destroys the intimate effects created by candles in restaurants decked out like chapels.
BW: Marx's assault on theological mystification is both rationalist and passionate. He castigates the Christian concept of "evil" because it only recognises the bad heat of passion, and not the "hot passion of truth" [CW, Vol. 1, p. 1571. It is sometimes argued that the early writings of Marx are still "idealist" and haven't yet achieved the "Scientific" objectivity of Ms later writings (an echo of Louis Althusser's "epistemological break"). However, this is more to do with measuring Marx's arguments - always determinate and polemical - against generalisations made from his later work than any political failing. In 1842, he quotes Voltaire saying that only to talk of freedoms in the plural is to reduce the project of universal freedom to a set of privileges - 'exemptions from the general servitude' [CW, Vol. 1, p. 178]. This was still his criticism of the Lassallean concept of Rights in Critique Of The Gotha Programme, written in 1875, towards the end of Ms life. Marx's polemic is shot through with hostility towards Platonic Idealism and its crushing of necessary contingencies by reference to the absolute eternal Idea (an animus which also motivated the doctoral dissertation on the natural philosophies of Democritus and Epicurus he had completed the previous year [CW, Vol. 1, pp. 25-881). To try and haul Marx's pronouncements before the tribunal of abstract philosophy without investigating his stand on particular issues is to betray his method.
EL: In their dialectical polarity, our epigraphs from Johnson and Marx provide access to the question - key for us all - of "why write?". Further, they address the materialist question of what to write, when and for whom or what. Where Samuel Johnson cynically states brute fact, Marx articulates, in dialectical connection, a desire for freedom of thought and liberation from the slavery of commerce. Two phrasings of materialism - on the one hand a tough bourgeois economic reductionism, on the other a proto-statement of Marxist materialism - which prove Lenin's comment about intelligent idealism being closer to Marxism than vulgar materialism [CW, London: Lawrence & Wishart, Vol. 38, p. 276].
BW: Whereas various brands of postmodernism celebrate the flux of the market versus the patriarchal law of tradition - thus providing a convenient means of replacing the concept of truth by that of career pragmatism - Marx immediately identifies the danger of using free trade as the battering ram against feudal hierarchy and privilege. He acknowledges that merchants and manufacturers will argue that a free press will result from free trade, because this is the freedom they know best, but contends that writers have a different task: "the poet deserts his proper sphere when for him poetry becomes a means" [CW, Vol. 1, p. 1751. Freedom of trade is a good enough programme for printers and booksellers, but inadequate for real writers (which we hope is what Qui means by "poets"). Marx's definition of the human essence as freedom, as a process of self-definition and unbounded exploration, cannot be reduced to the self-interest of private money-making. He thought his conclusion important enough to italicise: The primary freedom of the press lies in not being a trade. [CW, Vol. 1, p. 1751 This formula was extraordinarily prescient. Marx was writing a polemic against feudal oppression - the Prussian censorship law - yet his close attention to the logic and material interests of the bourgeois opposition allowed him to diagnose the cultural problematic of the next hundred and fifty years: the inability of commercial media to tell the truth about the world.
EL: The debates did not, however, only resonate in a commercial, journalistic context. A citation from these articles, which were never reprinted in Marx's lifetime, appeared in a manifesto, "Towards a Free Revolutionary Art". Written by Trotsky, Breton and Rivera in 1938 as a blow against Stalinist and Nazi abuse of art and artists, the manifesto cites Marx's lines on living to write not writing to make money. It is, in their hands, a criticism of the "free" market in ideas, words as trade - but also, more generally, a protest against the channelling of intellectual activity in the direction of ends foreign to itself. The market and the state: twin enemies of universal freedom. But how can writers survive today? They are either paid by the state or up against the market. How do these freedom delimiters impact upon the material production of our ideas?
BW: When Marx says "the freedom of the press lies in not being a trade", he shows how rigour in dealing with abstractions can break with error. He suspects that the concept - in this case "freedom" - is being used to blur differences in the actual world, in this case between the conscience of the writer and the economic interest of the publisher. Instead of appealing to analogy - the press should be free just as trade should be free - he posits the opposite. Free trade and freedom of speech are not inseparable. Indeed, they may contradict each other. His words should ring true for anyone who writes in the commercial sphere. The Hegelianism of Marx's approach lies not in its conclusions (which, for Hegel, were Christianity and the perfection of the Prussian state), but in its method - a search for determinate contradiction rather than abstract identity. Nor is Marx's ability to discern the determinate contradiction masked by the concept simply a gift handed down from high philosophy. Marx deals with two speeches delivered at the Provincial Assembly. A speaker from the knightly estate defends censorship, and warns of the "siren song of evil" that will sound from an unconstrained press [CW, Vol. 1, p. 1521. Marx exposes the mysticism and elitism of his argument with a polemic that could equally apply to moral panics in the media today. However, the longest quote in Marx's piece is from a member of the peasant estate. This was precisely the species of discourse denied to German readers by the Prussian censorship laws: From one who is not permitted to find fault, [says the peasant representative] praise also is valueless; in absence of expression it is like a Chinese picture in which shade is lacking. [CW, Vol. 1, P. 1801 Marx cites this spokesman from the lower classes because his emphasis on opposites is pure dialectics: extremes can paint a picture, whereas compromise can only paint in grey. This has always been the philosophy of the dispossessed and disempowered. Speculation which splits the concept - for example, the idea that freedom for trade may become its opposite for the press - allows us to descry the real antagonisms of social life. Whether derived from Deleuze and Guattari, Marshall McLuhan or Timothy Leary, there are a battery of arguments to the effect that commercial culture is more vital and productive than that of educational institutions. An unholy alliance of post-structuralists, web-worshippers and post-punk techno-hippies assure us that a free trade in wish-fulfilling ideas - untramelled by truth barriers - unleashes freedoms undreamt of by materialist and scientific party-poopers. Academic courses on the postmodern turn out ideology-trained media students, who then make documentaries in the style of commercials and The X Files. Academics sometimes tell me they envy my "freedom" as a music journalist. Actually, the quick rotation of styles in pop music is such that a Writer can only remain "a music journalist" by abandoning precisely the commitment to a particular artist or scene that makes music mean anything. If one attempts to replace artistic principles with those of politics, then you exceed the brief of the music writer and cross swords with editors. One's success in publishing what you actually think then depends on personal "clout", which reproduces the scenario of war-of-all-against-all which is precisely the competitive market you are trying to criticise. One is driven back to various forms of Marxism - party or trade-union organisation, progressive campaigns, academic conferences with sessions on "theory" - to seek out the political solidarity that mere trade in ideas cannot deliver.
EL: However, in criticising the press as a trade, Marx did not spare academics either.
The learned men by profession, guild or privilege, the doctors and others, the colourless university writers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with their stiff pigtails and their distinguished pedantry and their petty hair-splitting dissertations, interposed themselves between the people and the mind, between life and science, between freedom and mankind. It was the unauthorised writers who created our literature. [CW, Vol. 1, p. 1781]
Marx's criticism of academia is by no means accepted by all those who call themselves Marxists. Exclusive emphasis on the opening chapters of Capital - the critique of commodity fetishism - easily becomes a justification for non-commercial or institutionalised thought, the notion that whereas journalism is from the start an unfree trade, academia is the pursuit of knowledge for the love of it, not for the wages. Consider these lines from a poem circulated by Drew Milne when the poet-academic achieved a post at Cambridge University.
Truth to tell, the still
Only stretches to Cava, which doesn't
Even make it in my pocket lexicon
And really we do it for the love
Or does such a thought merely recall a quaint once-was formation - an original academy where membership of the university imposed demands similar to those imposed on the clergy? The word "discipline" derives etymologically from the hair-shirts of religious training and education. In a previous epoch (and in the nineteenth century still, as Marx related wryly of Malthus), academics at Cambridge University took vows of celibacy and lived a life of confinement within the university's walls. Provided the gaze was averted from the market square, thought could be free of commerce. In fact, though, this meant that thought was free of having to measure itself against the world, and so untrue, unable to be scientific. Later on, these saintly types began to realise a wordly value from their specialisms. Leaving their monastic isolation, they became the authorized scribes who brokered between experience and thought, theory and practice, realising cash value by making the distinction between the two. The walls they lived in became less the stone ones of the college and more the conceptual ones of the discipline. Knowledge, subdivided and not made whole, is, however, not knowledge of real ends: it provides means for ends that are defined elsewhere.
BW: Of course this situation has been criticised, nowhere more so than in the hinterlands of academic Marxism - Structuralist, Frankfurt School or Williamsite - ever keen to tackle the contradiction between Marxist cogitation and activity in the world. In contemplating the formidable ranks of the academic Marxists, ever ready to diss the untruths of "the culture industry", it does well to remember the scorn Marx reserved for what he called "authorised knowledge".
In defining freedom as concrete and necessary, Marx appealed to the differentiations and multiplicity of nature: "how wrong it would be to demand that the lion should adapt himself to the laws of the polyp!" [CW, Vol. 1, p. 1731, recalling William Blake's epigram: "One Law for the Lion & Ox is Oppression" [MOI-I&H, 1790, p. 241]. Marx's positive reference to the pantheistic cobbler of Görlitz, Jakob Böhme [p. 176], shows that he preferred the radical ideas of independent-minded artisans - even if they wrote in terms that Stalinist professors later found mystical and absurd - to the lordly abstractions of "authorised knowledge". He learned his method from Hegel, but his appeals to concepts of freedom and the enlightenment have no truck with institutionalised authority: "Ptolemy would not have admitted that Copernicus had authority as an astronomer, nor Bernard of Clairvaux Luther's authority as a theologian" [CW, Vol. 1, p. 1761: history shows that authorised knowledge can no more guarantee truth than free trade. Neither academia nor journalism - still less some kind of slick postmodernist traffic between the two - can deliver Marx's idea of truth. It may be a nuisance for stipend-hungry writers to admit that professional life is not the whole of philosophy, but it is this percept that makes the texts of Blake and Marx more compelling than the average collection from Routledge.
EL: But what is the most heard refrain amongst academics these days? Less a sense of being sidelined in their state-supported, if genteelly declining, ivory towers, and more the exhaustion at the exhortation to publish enough: a quantifying of material production decreed by the state and executed by the publishing industry. Back to endless tomes - though not bound this time - badly proof-read, more than likely not read, classified for RAE dummy runs and new job applications. Stakhanovism has taken over the university - manifestation of that Fordist factory slogan (even in these postfordist times): Don't discuss, produce! There is a strange story to tell about the market, the state and academia. There was a time when a version of Marxist theory took over areas of the humanities. It spoke of ideology, ideological state apparatuses and the interpellated subject - and of how the state and its organs put restrictions on thought and served class interests. The concept of the free market too was understood to be a force of control, an ideological justification of class oppression. People picked over the productions of the media in order to understand how ideology worked, where its weak points lay. However, after a while they decided that ideology was really not so bad, and eventually they decreed that pleasures were to be had there - which was strange, because that only echoed what the media said of itself. The logic was a tautological assertion of "what is, is". This was an error Marx nailed back in 1842: "Was not legal serfdom a factual proof against the rationalist fantasy that the human body was no object for handling and possession? Did not the primitive method of torture refute the false theory that truth could not be extracted by opening veins, that stretching limbs on the rack did not break down the victim's silence, that convulsions were not confessions?". Marx's point is that truth is not to be found by appealing to what is or seems to be - but by analysis of concrete conditions from the perspective of universal freedom. Knowledge emerges only by a negation of what is, not via smarmy affirmation. Still, postmodemist Cultural Studies decided, lured by the feel-good factor of spotting pleasure in transactions of commerce, that there was no longer any need for knobbly theory, theoretical work, or "theoretical practice". Academic investigators of the media slid into their objects of study - or so they hoped. From now on, theory would also be fun, undemanding, affinative: as ephemeral as the objects it tracked. The Popsicle Academy was launched. The academy turns inside out. Postmodern theories and competition between universities provided twin legitimization, for the Popsicles rely on the collapsed notion of the academic life; orientation towards the fashionable, rather than the historically acute; the rapid deadline, rather than a lifetime of research; puff and hype replace criticism. RAE administrators are slaked by the increased production that results, and the guiding motif is less a critical utopia than a competitive and increasingly meaningless treadmill..
BW: Marx's critique of ideology is a permanent revolution in thought, provoking controversy and instability in ideology just as ineluctably as capitalism produces crises, wars and revolutions. The intellectual evasions of reaction - the recourse to "what is, is" tautology, to smug pragmatism, to religious reconstruction - are just as ubiquitous today as they were in Marx's times. In his polemic against censorship, Marx says "the particular can be seen intellectually and freely only in connection with the whole" [CW, Vol. 1, p. 1761. The whole of postmodernism has been waged against this crucial insight, and has brought about nothing but confusion and intellectual despair. Against the argument that press censorship must be right for Germany because it is already in place and working, Marx points out that this "is a truth of such a factual character that ... beyond certain frontier barriers, it ceases to be factual and true" [CW, Vol. 1, p. 139]. He was no doubt thinking of how his own censored articles were being prepared for publication in Switzerland: only action (Genoa!) can prove how the self- evident "limits" of reaction are false and temporary. The ability to discern how borders and nations make a nonsense of bourgeois rationality is the trump card of Marxist - or international socialist - analysis. If the universality of the idea is abandoned (as it was abandoned when Stalin formulated the concept of "socialism in one country"), then principled political orientation in the particular becomes impossible, both fruitless and dangerous. At the same time, without the ability to see how the concrete is made up of contradictory determinants, it becomes impossible to see beyond the justifications of power and the cheque from the publisher. British people cannot credit the way American politicians talk about the "good guys" and the "bad guys"; it's too reminiscent of Hollywood westerns and space operas. However, social struggles in Britain over the last twenty years have provided an abstract vocabulary - that of anti-racism - ready for exploitation by the ruling class. When Tony Blair calls the bombing of Yugoslavia with missiles tipped with depleted uranium (weapons which have already caused chronic sickness, suffering and death for the Iraqi population) an "anti-fascist" measure, it's necessary to look into what contradictory determinants his pious abstraction conceals. Just as it's only those who actually take part in mobilisations against the National Front and the British National Party (mobilisations Blair and his supporters do absolutely nothing to aid) who understand how to stop fascism, so only Marxists with an international and historical perspective can assess the real motives of NATO - from Vietnam and the Gulf through to the bombing Yugoslavia and the strategy of pushing their sphere of influence further east. The abstract pursuit of "anti- fascism" using the weaponry of the modern state is actually its opposite, while the West's "free" trade in arms produced a distortion of facts in the media to rival the censorship of the Prussian state.
A Passion for Learning
EL: Goethe once said that the painter succeeds only with a type of feminine beauty which he has loved in at least one living being. [Karl Marx, 1842, CW, Vol. 1, p. 1371]
Knowledge must be practical - it must be instituted in actuality, not abstract. Marx goes on to say: "If I truly love something, I feel that its existence is essential, that it is something which I need, without which my nature can have no full, satisfied, complete existence." [CW, Vol. 1, p. 1371] It is Marx's setting of passion at the heart of knowing that makes his analysis so impressive, and, indeed, unacademic. We have quoted the peasant who demands that in representation there should be shade: that is because their labouring selves know how important it is. Practical knowledge, unauthorised knowledge and a commitment to changing what is are the crucial ingredients: a critical materialism which could smash the commodified, privatised and professionalised mode of knowledge of the university. Periodically, the outside does seem to crash in and change everything. It did in November 1989, with the collapse of Communism. 1989 did bad business for Marxism in the academy, though in another way, it was good business - if notoriety is a measure. Marxism's corpse was never more picked over. In the process it was disfigured, a continuation of the Stalinist falsification of what Marxism is, was and could be (for that distortion was all many of these "Western Marxists" knew from the days of their own "practice"). But the cynicism and the bitter, self-castigating, "confessional" conjectures of postmodemism - damn seriousness, damn meaning, damn truth and rue my former errors - predate even that event. In a review of the English edition of Walter Benjamin's selected correspondence and the Adorno-Benjaniin letters, Fredric Jameson mournfully turned away from critical theory and critical commentary [London Review of Books, 3 August 1995]. Like our paper, Jameson's review focused on the position of "the writer". But Jameson the writer is interested in Benjamin only in as far as he reflects Jameson back to himself. Analysis of the position of the writer is indeed essential if writing is to do more than justify the split between manual and mental labour. However, it can also become a grisly form of callousness, as in Jameson's response to Nazism. For a moment Jameson imagines a world without Hitler. The crucial difference would be "the existence of a German-language readership for Benjamin". The intellectual has become so bound up in a world where only publications and literary fame matter, that he seems unmoved by the suffering of those excluded from the game. Ultimately, Jameson fails to find his mirror image in Benjamin, and that saddens Mm. It is, he rues, no longer possible to be a critical intellectual like Benjamin. Nobody listens to intellectuals any more. In a non-literary, mediatized public-sphere, they can no longer "form and inflect public taste". He continued on this theme in an edition of Critical Inquiry, a special on Walter Benjamin: "ours is an anti-theoretical time, which is to say an anti-intellectual time". These are the gloomy utterances of someone who can only struggle for the privileges that he believes are due to him, as intellectual, as theoretician. But Jameson's major grievance about using Benjamin stems from a curiously fetishistic and historicist approach to the past. We cannot understand Benjamin any longer, Jameson pronounces, we are separated from the meaning of his thought by the passage of time, in a postmodernity that has abolished Benjamin's touchstones, and that reflects only the flattening-out and making equivalent of the world. Jameson is unable to see ways of using Benjamin's ideas, or to ask what is of use now even though things may have shifted, or what is of use now because things are still the same. He cannot see beyond the books on his desk into the world. He has none of Marx's passion for truth, and none of Benjamin's abandonment to the world. We should ourselves tire of such tired theorists, whose exhaustion makes them see the world as a pale memory slipping from their grasp.
BW: When Marx quoted Goethe saying that the painter could only succeed in portraying a woman he has loved in the flesh, he wasn't perpetuating dead-white-male classicism, but making a materialist observation about the source of ideas. The idea is actually rejected by the very philosophers who claim to defend the western tradition. Men Roger Scruton asserts that "sounds become music only when organised through concepts taken from another sphere" [The Aesthetics Of Music, p. 3331, he not only contradicts every discovery made about sound since Arnold Schoenberg and Blind Lemon Jefferson, he contradicts Goethe's monist Naturphlilosophie. However, Scruton's book was well received in the press because its transcendental dualism is the perfect complement to pragmatic positivism. In a hierarchical society, idealism - the notion that ideas descend from heaven rather than being produced historically by real human love and real human industry - is always going to look self-evident compared to the nuisance truths of materialist philosophy.
Bombing populations in the name of anti-fascism and anti-terrorism is merely the most recent and atrocious example of the subjugation of actuality in the name of abstractions. If we want the particular to have its say, we must revive Marx's method and analyse the particular in connection with the whole - which means interpreting the rhetoric of Tony Blair's "anti- fascism" in the light of the interests of international capital. To reclaim Marx's dialectical method, the Left will have to break with everything Stalin did in the name of Marx. This implies more familiarity with the details of revolutionary history and working-class politics than the majority of either academics or journalists can adapt to. To be a Marxist is to be a professional unprofessional, a contradiction only dialecticians can live.
In its original form, this
paper was delivered to the Raymond Williams Memorial Trust/Marxist Cultural
Network "Towards 2000" Conference at Nottingham Trent University,
8 May 1999. It also appeared in Quid 8i, October 2001, edited by Keston Sutherland,
Gonville & Caius, Cambridge. A third, truncated version was read at Return(s)
to Marx?, a conference at the French Institute, London, 31 May 2002.
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