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Jameson, Brecht, Lenin and Spectral Possibilities

Esther Leslie

Everything changes. You can make

A fresh start with your final breath.

But what has happened has happened. And the water

You once poured into the wine cannot be

Drained off again.


What has happened has happened. The water

You once poured into the wine cannot be

Drained off again, but

Everything changes. You can make

A fresh start with your final breath

Bertolt Brecht, c.1944



On the bed of the Moldau the stones are turning

Three Kaisers lie buried in Prague.

The great do not remain great and the small do not remain small.

Night has twelve hours, and then day arrives.

The times are a changing. The grandscale plans

Of the powerful reach a halt eventually.

They perish like bloody cocks

The times are a changing, and violence cannot stop that.

On the bed of the Moldau the stones are turning

Three Kaisers lie buried in Prague.

The great do not remain great and the small do not remain small.

Night has twelve hours, and then day arrives.

Brecht, Das Lied von der Moldau,

Fredric Jameson’s star rose in the late 1980s when theorists located within the discipline of cultural studies latched onto his essay ‘Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’. This essay became a guiding text for what was perceived as a new epoch. It appeared at a moment when epochalism was rife, and its proclamation of so many endings, and definitions were eagerly sought. The essay claimed to outline this new stage of world history and world culture, dependent on a new scenario in world economics. ‘Postmodernism…’ did not just define a new scene: it was taken as a certain conferment of legitimisation to the new postmodern epoch, tantamount to a justification. Now named and outlined, it could be lived and affirmed. There was no going back – going back was understood to be a return to ‘modern’ concepts, which were bound up with ‘old style’ Marxist politics and economics and high art elitism, and these two seemingly opposite principles where cast aside as co-dependents in an old, excessively hierarchical world. Despite its critical animus and stance towards the new postmodern world, the essay attested to postmodernity’s existence - if negatively. It became its map. The map turned into a gazetteer, swelling into a baggy book of encounters with contemporary culture in an attempt to ‘cognitively map’ comprehensively the era of multinational late capitalism. Just like Marx and Engels’ gigantic and, in the main, only partially read German Ideology, the book version of the postmodernism essay aimed to deal with the key thinkers and ideas in the contemporary landscape. The book was also keen to reanimate the dead, attempting to refract the legacy of a number of cultural theorists who had occupied Jameson in earlier work through the lens of postmodernity. As Jameson wrote in the Introduction, ‘… any sophisticated theory of the postmodern ought to bear something of the same relationship to Horkheimer and Adorno’s old ‘culture industry’ concept as MTV or fractal ads bear to fifties’ television series’. (p.x). This was a comparative exercise – and not necessarily so much because of the value of measuring the distance travelled by cultural forms via these models from the past, but rather because, simply, that is how cultural criticism is done, or, at least, how it was done before. Around this time, which was the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the recomposition of the political map of the world, Jameson turned quite melancholy about the prospects for critical intellectual writing. Using the approach of the modernist cultural critics of the pre-second world war era was futile, in a sense, and yet it was the only mode in which critique could be conducted. In a review of the English edition of Walter Benjamin’s selected correspondence and the Adorno-Benjamin letters Jameson seemed mournful about the prospects for criticism, as epitomized by ‘the last intellectual’, Walter Benjamin, and the Frankfurt School tradition.1. Postmodernity precludes the possibility of existing as a critical intellectual. Intellectuals speak into a void, for they can no longer ‘form and inflect public taste’ in the highly mediated public-sphere.2. Our world is flattened out. It is a vast screen of perma-spectacle. Its surface is sheer and evenly illuminated. There are no toeholds that enable the scaling of spectacular walls. Jameson genuflected to Baudrillard in the conclusion to his book on postmodernism:

… my version of all this … obviously (but perhaps I haven’t said so often enough) owes a great debt to Baudrillard, as well as to the theorists to whom he is himself indebted (Marcuse, McLuhan, Henri Lefebvre, the situationists, Sahlins, etc., etc.) (p.399)


But that was some while ago, and the years that passed afterwards were far from uniform in character. Textures and cracks and crevices reasserted themselves on the once homogenous space-time of non-history. Jameson noted in the 1991 book on Postmodernism that ‘cognitive mapping was in reality but a code word for class consciousness’ (p.15), and class consciousness, of course, in traditional Marxist terms, has a tendency to light up and dim down. Flickers appeared on the screen of history, and in parts of the screen the light is now dimmer, now brighter. The process of ‘globalisation’ produced its antithesis, a globalised resistance - which might be resistance to globalisation or, more specifically, resistance to world capitalism on a world scale. This global fightback established its own channels of information, discussion, distribution and critique. Jameson’s ‘Postmodernism’, in essay form and book form, is largely free from the digital imperative that was to become the hallmark of mid-1990s postmodern theory. The computer screen had come to be defining motif of postmodern theory – and in its bleak negative form envisioned as a pacifying control system of 24 hour surveillance and ‘global paranoia’ (p. 38), that could be challenged only by the lone terroristic activity of the cyberpunk or hacker. From the mid-1990s a different discussion of digital potentials emerged, as the World Wide Web was seen to present new modes of interaction, informatics and connectivity. A new discursive space - inside the mediated space - opens up, and it is one that is connected to possibilities of action in the world wide beyond the web. And so resistance and intellectual dissidence and text-based subversion was reborn from the weave of the postmodern. Simultaneously Jameson too rediscovered the possibilities of criticism, but not in the same terms, for their was something too sunnily techno-futurist for someone as influenced by Adorno’s critique of technological rationality. Jameson’s revived critical framework is made of a bricolage of leftovers from the earlier age whose legacy formed him. Long after the death of Walter Benjamin, ‘the last intellectual’, who died a second time in the post-literary carnival of postmodern skepticism and anti-intellectualism, Jameson resurrects the distinctly unfashionable voicepieces of the highpoint of modern Marxist praxis and class struggle: Brecht and Lenin. Jameson brings them back into a dialogue with the postmodern present, which secretly they inform – Brecht as decentring anti-humanist and proponent of a ‘politics of pleasure’ and Lenin as internationalist (globalist) and theorist of subjectivity.


In ‘Postmodernism…’ Brecht is cited as exponent of pedagogical culture – though his ‘prodigious’ work was ‘still imperfectly understood’ (p.50). He is also cited as enthusiast of a process of anti-individualism that was also at work in poststructuralist theories of ‘death of the subject’. Lenin is barely present in this book. He is cited as a dialectical thinker who sees the progressive aspects of the ‘older imperialist global network’ (p.50). Lenin is also the legitimator of new epochal thinking, having himself identified a stage beyond Marx’s schema: ‘the so-called monopoly stage, or the moment of classical imperialism’. (p.400) Having named one new stage, any post-Marxist might now feel able to name another. Lenin allows re-naming. The new epoch that could be named back then was postmodernism, announced in melancholic and nostalgic tones, for it presented the spectacle of intellectual conferment of meaning to an age that apparently screened the interlocutor out. It left him no room, or rather it left to him only the historically remaindered form of systematizing and historicizing reflection on an ahistorical, unsystematized age. What it wrote out laboriously in order to outline ‘the ultimate realities and experiences’ (p.412), a cultural artefact such as Blade Runner or the Talking Heads could do instantly, providing an immediate and more appropriately contemporary ‘aural and visual’ (p.38) experience. The new space is inherently anti-critical, anti-reflexive:


The new space … involves the suppression of distance (in the sense of Benjamin’s aura) and the relentless saturation of any remaining voids and empty places, to the point where the postmodern body - whether wandering through a postmodern hotel, locked in to rock sound by means of headphones, or undergoing the multiple shocks and bombardments of the Vietnam War as Michael Herr conveys it to us -is now exposed to a perceptual barrage of immediacy from which all sheltering layers and intervening mediations have been removed. (p.412-3)


Sheltering layers or intervening mediations are the niches and functions of the critic, who, so exposed, can only remap the points of this sheer and reified landscape. Such repetition can gain little critical purchase. Ten years on though, a decade after the ‘end of history’ proved itself to be wishful triumphalism against a horizon of snaggy remnants, new beginnings and tenacious remains, the unholy duo of Brecht and Lenin push to the fore in Jameson’s thought. These become the guiding Geister for a ‘period of political effervescence such as we now seem once again to be entering 3. Through Brecht and Lenin, Jameson has reasserted the possibility of pedagogy, the persistence of contradiction and the necessity of reinvoking a revolutionary perspective, as entry to action.


Brecht and Method


Jameson’s Brecht and Method appeared in 1998. This book was not a rediscovery of a lost Brecht, for Jameson insisted that Brecht’s thought was present everywhere today, even if it is not recognized as such. It is to be found in post-war drama and film and popular culture – for example, Jean-Luc Godard, Orson Welles, Peter Brook and Robert Crumb. It is also present in French poststructuralist theory with its emphasis on the historicity of nature and the denaturing of the human. Brecht’s brutal and anti-sentimental dismantling of the bourgeois individual found an echo in postwar French theory. For example, Roland Barthes discovered Brecht for structuralism in 1954, when Brecht and his East German theatre troupe, the Berliner Ensemble, came to Paris. Barthes reports that he was ‘set on fire’ by a production of Mother Courage. He was also enthusiastic about a passage of Brecht’s theoretical writings, included in the programme. Barthes drew several lessons from Brecht. Theatre is to be understood in cognitive rather than emotive terms. Techniques of estrangement produce a theatre of consciousness not one of action. Theatre should not try to tell us what things mean but call attention to the way meaning is produced. Theatre should exploit the arbitrariness of the sign, drawing attention to its own artifice rather than attempting to conceal it. There is a demystificatory political potential in any drama that abandons a theatre of character and inner psychology. Anti-humanism and demystification were taken by Barthes into a critique of the coherent, unified, self-identical individual, though, along the way, any emphasis on proposals for concrete political acts of solidarity were shed. For Barthes, in fact, this was a return of theatre to questions of ‘moral’ enlightenment. Brecht provides the ‘secret’ undergirding of the subsequent post-structuralist turn. The plays, the stories and poems, allow historical representation and reflection of the self and on the self. This aspect – the historical character of all manifestations – is what made Brecht important for Barthes, evident particularly in his Mythologies where everything that appears natural and eternal is shown to be product of a historical moment. Brecht prepares the way for current anti-essentialist notions of subjectivity. His alienation-effect acts out Lacan’s sense of how the self is a foreign body. Such an assertion may not come as a surprise to those aware of the rediscovery of Brecht by Screen in the 1970s – in that context, just as, in part, in Jameson, through lenses focused by Althusser and Lacan. But Jameson, operating now in a different historical context, defined by him in 1998 as a time of deep defeat for the Left and a time of stasis, is more concerned than Screen with dialectical questions of the part and the whole. It is as if stasis must be rattled into movement by the dynamiting effect of dialectics, by the impact of an approach based on mobility and flux. Jameson revives Brecht at the fin-de-siècle differently to that structuralist/poststructuralist rediscovery. Brecht proposes a mode for the critic who evokes political effect, rather than critique per se. Jameson both places and displaces Brecht in an abstract space of reasoning, placing it there in terms of maintaining Barthes’ emphasis on reflexivity, essentially thinking about thinking and historicizing history, as well as nature, but displacing it in terms of indexing the work to questions of acting historically, not simply perpetrating ideology-critique.


Brecht’s output – a stunning productivity across genres from poetry to theory to plays to novels to songs – is a long gush of fragments. Each fragment shard acts as a mirror, reflecting on each other fragment, on the shifting history that spawns them and on Brecht himself. Brecht’s output is seen ‘dialectically’ by Jameson from the off. This dialectical approach asserts a break with any insistence on the coherent body of work stemming from a unified individual. Such a view of individuality is dismantled in the plays – even in one of the earliest ones: Man is Man (1925). The hero of the play, Galy Gay, is a man who flows with the tide, a man subject to social circumstance, an extremely adaptable character. Brecht takes no moral standpoint. In Man is Man humans are shown as victims of circumstance. There is no essential human nature and no essential human goodness. Galy Gay is lured into the British army and transformed during the course of the play from a peaceful mind-your-own-business type of a man into a ferocious warrior. A deliberate interruption is made by one of the characters, who comments directly to the audience on the action:

They’ll soon, if we don’t watch over him, in the wink of an eye make a butcher of him


In this act of direct address, all illusion of the theatre as a slice of life occurring on stage, voyeuristically observed by spectators, is broken. It also exposes the motility of human personality and human beings’ capacity for action. Brecht’s dramatic writings evince a ‘decentred structure’, and like Mother Courage’s wagon, it is possible ‘to wheel them around in various directions’. This decentring destabilises the oeuvre as a whole too. The young Brecht of Baal, and the expressionist anarchist urbanism of Drums in the Night and In the Jungle of the City, is matched, undercut, challenged by the older Brecht of the didactic ‘Lehrstücke’ or the expansive ‘great plays’ so favoured in the East German Berliner Ensemble repertoire.


Dialogue, dialectic, multiplicity is found by Jameson in every possible circumstance. The appreciation of multiplicity and anti-individualism counters recent debates about the originality of the work and the speculation on Brecht’s cool cynicism – fuelled by a gossip-based scholarship purveyed by John Fuegi. Jameson locates Fuegi’s bad faith as emanation of a politically motivated insistence on bourgeois originality and genius, which Brecht then fails to achieve. Against this, Jameson asserts positively Brecht’s principle of collective authorship, ‘the promise and example of utopian cooperation’. Brecht’s oeuvre is a product of collective action. Jameson poses Brecht’s simultaneously Marxist and modernist texts as ‘intertexts’, productive plagiarisms of other people’s work as much as reworkings of his own work and practice.


Jameson’s meditation on Brecht emerges of the swirl caused by three ‘events’. The first is the fall-out of 1989 (overt finale to Brecht’s now cherished now mocked communist system). The second ‘event’ is the correlative success of postmodernity (which, in contradistinction to high modernity, Jameson insists has reopened the possibility of didactics, while also rejecting all high culture because of its love-affair with the ‘popular’). The third ‘event’ is the re-encounter with 1930s’ debates over realism and modernism in the context of structuralism, post-structuralism and post-humanism. This last complex throws up questions of ethics, responsibility and action.


Brecht and Method is in dialogue primarily with a set of parables called Me-ti; Book of Transformations or Book of Changes or Twists and Turns, a cryptic book, unpublished in Brecht’s lifetime. This book emulates writings by the Chinese dialectician and anti-Confucian of the classical period Me-ti, who was regarded by many 19th century scholars as a proto-socialist. The title - Book of Twists and Turns, or Transformations - stems from a Confucian text – the I-ching – which can be translated likewise as the book of transformations. Brecht in yoking two contrary things together was acting eclectically, but was also foregrounding contradiction, that is, laying out the field of study as criss-crossed by oppositions. Such a stance arguably underwrites the whole of Me-ti, an attempt to reflect critically on the method of dialectics, as taught to Brecht by Karl Korsch, and to use that dialectical method to relate a covert history of the Soviet Union, which proposes, pragmatically, contra Korsch, the ‘usefulness of Stalin’, if not his endorsement. (Jameson is keen to express similarly the usefulness of Brecht, rather than his ‘greatness’: a ‘usefulness, which, although it certainly involves teaching, is something a little more fundamental than mere didacticism’). Jameson takes on the question of Brecht’s relationship to Stalinism only in a roundabout way, preferring to use Brecht’s ‘Chinese dimension’ to think about the possibility of Brecht as Maoist (Jameson calls him a ‘secret Maoist’ after 1949). Brecht’s Chinese fixations –including philosophy and method as well as theatrical practice – diverge from Stalinist prescriptions, presenting an articulation of the dialectic in terms of flow, flux, change, transformation and all that is non-eternal. Taoist or Maoist, no matter, each has a honesty and a completeness denied in the more regularly flaunted self-understanding of the modern epoch. For Jameson, as apparently for Brecht, the advantage of a Taoist-inflected, ‘pre-capitalist’ philosophy is that it acknowledges death. Death is repressed by the bourgeoisie, who eternalize and naturalize their rule. It is also repressed by the Stalinists for whom it would mean their rule too on Earth is time-limited. Death, then, is seen to hold open the possibility of history, and change.


Jameson details the intricacy of Brecht’s ‘intertexts’, with their scenes ingeniously laid out for reflection on the nature of choice and the time-tethered nature of truth. Given that Me-ti’s original work was an attempt to found rules of behaviour on socio-political considerations, Jameson foregrounds the question of individual ethical behaviour in the context of collectives. The theme of choice is recurrent. Jameson shows how Brecht offers us a choice about modes of choice, that is to say, he reflects on the modalities of choice, demonstrating sometimes choice as a matter of yes/no, of acceptance or refusal, and sometimes choice as the opening up of multiple possibilities, not just ‘yes/no’ but ‘either, or, or, or...’. Choice, if it is to be real, must contain within its own form a choice as to what it is. The scenes facilitate also clashing temporalities of peasant, exploiter and urban poor, and set in conflict their contra-dictions (literally, discursive differences: austere and simple peasant idiom meeting profuse, mixed-up city jargons). Such multi-layered reflection and self-reflection, reference and self-reference, comprises Brecht’s method. Its vigour and its politics consist in the way that the works tear open a gap for individuals to think about themselves historically, enabling them to view themselves in the third person. They are then able to use that self-setting in history as a basis for judgement. Jameson’s accenting of separation, distance, decentring, multiplicity, choice, contradiction locate Brecht’s politics in a zone far removed from the conceptual rigidity of Stalinism.


Jameson is enthusiastic about the political possibilities of pleasure, underscoring Brecht’s insistence on the relationship between science, didactics and joy. He insists that Brecht is not prescriptive, but performative, his work an ‘embodied logic’. His plays do not provide answers but attempt to show people how to perform the act of thinking, that is how to begin to search for answers themselves. Jameson is adamant that Brecht is a pragmatist, not a Western Marxist toying with questions of ideology and ideology-critique. His method is not philosophical system building, but enactment, not description but praxis. His modernist realism is both referential (it shows the recognizable) and auto-referential. It shows and its shows itself showing, as Brecht puts it in one of his ‘theatre poems’. Through its barrage of techniques, it shows itself showing not as some aestheticist formalist quirk, but in order to be a resource, of practical pedagogical worth. Jameson indicates how, for example, in the opening scene of Galileo we see a teacher teaching, not just a representation, a chip of content or story, but as an object lesson in how to teach. Form and content become one. Jameson identifies other moments of self-referentiality, where a gap is torn open in the text. This is a gap torn open not just in the text as representation of the real, but also in the text as representation of itself. Brecht’s own dramatic theory is put on the stage, in a complex sequence of mediations when, for example, in The Threepenny Opera, Peachum demonstrates to the beggar-actors how begging is all about the arousing of pity [Einfühlung, Mitfühlung]. Peachum, the boss of a begging business, has his beggars parade around as cripples, so that he may judge how effective their dissimilations will be on the people from who they hope to beg. First we see the beggars as healthy, if dirty, men and women. Then they are transformed before the audience’s eyes into lame and incapacitated victims, dressed in filthy rags and carrying placards, upon which are emblazoned slogans about how they have suffered for King and Country. But Peachum tells them they have it all wrong. There is a difference between appealing successfully to the public, on the one hand, and, on the other, frightening them away by horrifying them. Poverty and degradation should appear to go only so far. This moderation will produce the desired financial results, Peachum counsels. By displaying Peachum’s methods so graphically, the audience is invited to reflect on the condition of the poor who have no Peachum. They are also invited to reflect on their relationship to the poor and under what conditions they give money. Also, in absurdist form, the activity of dressing up and disguising, refers back to the very constructed nature of theatre itself. The familiar practice of begging is exposed and turned into something strange, constructed, artificial, non-natural. The slogans on placards mirror Brecht’s other slogan practices that were crucial to his ‘literarisation’ or ‘footnoting’ of the theatre. But the central point for Jameson is that here enstaged is a dramatic praxis that cancels out Brecht’s own anti-empathetic dramaturgy. The very grounds of Brecht’s dramatic practice are placed in question by the dramatic practice. Galileo’s gourmandism is cited as such an example of self-critique. Brecht is known to have been personally ascetic and he was vociferous in his negation of ‘culinary aesthetics’. Jameson’s argument is that time flows and Brecht too flows with the time, updating, upgrading and starting over again. Brecht’s practice and theory fold in on themselves, making Brecht’s a yield of sustained and extraordinary intelligence. Brecht’s output engages its audiences, its figures and its author in reflection and self-reflection.


Opposing a populism rampant in Cultural and Media Studies, which claims to be inspired by the democratic gestures of Walter Benjamin’s Artwork Essay, Jameson sets out to defend, unfashionably, the theatrical space. This is an actual not a virtual space. It has a history of being the space in which moral and political reflection occurs. It is a space of representation, but it is a space of presence too, in which collective change undertaken in real time may occur. In as much as Brecht incorporates the audience as participants in his drama, it takes on aspects of the courtroom – also thematised by Brecht in his plays. That is to say, the theatre becomes a place of judgement. Brecht chose theatre above film, because of its openness to possibility, dialogism, change, action, response and counter-response. It is unfixed, and here is film’s crucial problem, the reason why it refuses the micro-history and potentialities of the moment. Film is fixed on celluloid and always the same in each projection. But, as Walter Benjamin pointed out, Brecht borrowed from film its structuring principle, its language, its tempo. Film is always conceived as scenes, as episodes, strung together, just as in epic theatre. And yet at the same time, Jameson points out, Brecht is undogmatic in his choice of media. In techno-futurist fashion, Brecht not only represents but also uses the newest technologies, such as in his deft use of the radio-play form. This is another ‘paradox’ in the Brechtian ensemble. Jameson approaches Brecht as a theorist of paradox and a paradoxical theorist. For him, such flexibility - the ability to be wheeled in all directions - is Brecht’s strength, and proof of the muscularity of Brecht’s method and politics. Brecht’s ‘paradoxicality’ is evident in the poising of the parable – a narrative – against the proverb, with its artful concision. It also emerges in his dual conception of time. One the one hand, there is the time of the peasants (‘the immemorial peasantry that stands behind so much of his work and his language’), cyclical and slow. On the other hand, there is the time of the urban working class, presented as frantic, discontinuous, overcrammed. Likewise, nature is bare and stripped and minimal – reduced to a few objects – whereas the city is crammed, profuse, and if it has its natural analogy then it is that of the jungle, not bare European plains. That Brecht brings these two temporalities into play is part of his ‘Maoist’ predilection, the possibility of forging an alliance between peasants and workers. Brecht found the key paradox in the peasantry. But even the temporality is paradoxical, deconstructing. Peasant life is ‘immemorial’, in stasis, but peasant history was turbulent at that point that it comes most under threat of disappearance. So it had to be included in the drama ‘in order to recapture and represent the note of Hope it could alone afford’. Peasant history provides a redemptive moment ‘a vision of change as a kind of immense window, not unlike Bakhtin’s theorisation of Rabelais as a brief moment of freedom between a scholastic Middle Ages and a counter-revolutionary baroque’. It was a ‘“golden age” that lasted but a season’. Paradox - as dialectics - is not absent from Marxism. Brecht maintains a typically Marxist ambivalent relationship to capitalism, that system of exploitation that, of needs, produced its own gravediggers.


The sustained theme of Brecht and Method is an insistence that in Brecht, as in life, there are two tendencies – the endless flow, a permanent transformation and the breaking-up, a discontinuity, a starting over again. Such an image repeats the image of the Fordist conveyor belt with its division of labour – an organization of production that has its proponents and detractors in the Marxist movement. Brecht’s ‘solution’ to what could be perceived as a movement in two directions – flow vs. intervention – is to represent the ceaselessness, while at the same time, alienating it, that is to say interrupting it by denaturing it, or making it comprehensible by making it incomprehensible, strange.


Brecht’s dramatics straddles both the valuing of flux and ceaseless change and also epic theatre’s idea of breaking-up the flow, of interruption, slicing the narrative into scenes and the scenes into Gestus. The insistence on a kind of inevitable transformation, the flow of time, meets the demand for analysis. Analysis, Jameson points, out means to ‘break up’. History, the passing of all things, and agency, the decisive moment of force, are preserved in Brecht’s method. If the two aspects are brought together, revolution is a prospect. In splintering representations – by analysis – the possibility springs up of worldly reconstitution under new laws.

Revolutionary Thoughts on Possibility and the Possible

From this point on, revolution was firmly back in Jameson’s notebook. That is to say, the idea of revolution is back and revolution as idea necessitates thinking about revolutionary thought or thought in revolution, which is dialectics. Dialectics has to take up its rightful place in relation to revolutionary thought too. In a lecture on Lenin in 2001 Jameson laid out the necessity of an economically based revolutionary Marxism.4. He observed that in Marxism there are two modes: economic analysis and the political, or class struggle. Economics is concerned with processes, politics with the eventual. These two modes have different vocabularies. Lenin apparently skewed the course of twentieth century Marxism by setting too much emphasis on ‘the political’, the event, the moment. Lenin always thinks politically. Jameson worries that ‘thinking politically’ is not compatible with philosophical thought. Lenin’s dominant code is one of class struggle, not economics. Economic analysis implies a theoretical rather than a practical stance. This is not, apparently, Lenin’s stance, for he is seen as a figure of ‘practice’, action, politics, not reflection, contemplation, theory. At least, that is how he was taken up in subsequent years. This may have emerged from a selective emphasis on Lenin’s writings - State and Revolution - rather than the Philosophical Notebooks, for example. It was underlined by the anti-Hegelianism (which Jameson locates as a post-war anti-Germanism) on the part of the French left, who became so dominant theoretically across the rest of Europe and the US in the post-war period. Subsequent Marxists were sanctioned to forget the economic, the base, questions of the (interconnected and contradictory) totality, and instead concentrated excessively on institutions, such as the state. Althusser had overemphasised the role of institutions, and he had purged Hegel from the scope of Marxism, by insisting on Marx’s ‘epistemological break’ with Hegelian methodology and its attendant dialectics. Poststructuralist thought has wrongly painted Hegel as a static and totalising thinker, as a synthesiser who has no room for a politics of difference. But any reading of Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks shows that Lenin, at least, understood the splitting inherent in Hegel’s ‘system’, even if this was not conveyed to subsequent post-Leninists. And a study of Lenin’s philosophical work shows that Lenin’s practical activism was impossible without such philosophical engagement. In notes on Hegel’s Larger Logic, from 1915, arguably the indispensable philosophical study that made the revolutionary-pragmatic proposals of his ‘April Theses’ thinkable, Lenin comments:


We cannot imagine, express, measure, depict movement, without interrupting continuity, without simplifying, coarsening, dismembering, strangling that which is living. The representation of movement by means of thought always makes coarse, kills, – and not only by means of thought, but also by sense-perception, and not only of movement, but every concept.


And in that essence lies dialectics.


And precisely this essence is expressed by the formula: the unity, identity of opposites.


Commenting on Hegel, Lenin observes thought’s pressing of a discontinuity onto the flow of actuality. He accentuates the flash of interruption of thought, the splitting of concepts, postponing movement in order to make thought thinkable. The essence of dialectics is in this detention, this splitting of cogitation from flux, as well a shattering of the concept in itself. Disruption nestles in its very name. Dia means splitting in two, opposed, clashing and lectics comes from logos, the word for word or reason. The concept must be split. Jameson asserts the need to reintegrate Hegel into the study of Lenin - for the dialectical method, expunged by structuralism and its aftermath, is still in becoming, yet to be invented. If this Hegel-reading Lenin is found again, then out of him some sort of Brechtian Lenin can be conjured forth. What it makes possible is a de-emphasis of the role of institutions and a re-emphasis on the interconnected and contradictory totality. From this perspective, revolution comes to be reperceived, not as event but as process. Through Hegel, Lenin found his way back to Marx’s Capital and its methodology, its originary undergirding, before the idealist content was shaken out and replaced by materialist substance. The materialist replacement of the ideal succession of moments of consciousness is essential too, for thereby Marx theorises a totality, in which economics, the base, is determinant (in the same way that sexuality is determining for Freud). Such causality has been contested, by postmodernist doxa, and yet, asserts Jameson, that most controversial of Marxist claims - that the economy is causal - now seems innocuous to the ruling class, at least, according to Jameson, in a globalised post-monetarist age, in which everything appears obtrusively economic. Economic determinism is the least of Jameson’s worries, but it must be seen only as the crucible within which analysis takes place, rather than the excuse for evolutionism and the passive acceptance of the working out of necessary laws. Accompanying the recognition of economic sourcing must be a philosophical, dialectical method that posits all the things that Brecht proposed for the theatrical space: the possibility of change, the historicality of all concepts, the flexibility of thought and the flows between thought and practical engagement and so on. Revolution must take its place here as a philosophical concept that supplements and acts on the economic context. Revolution is in very substance possibility, that is, it is shaped as moments of potentiality (which in a Hegelian sense is already a moment of the actual: ‘…Actuality is first of all Possibility’…§143, Smaller Logic [1830]. But, at the same time, Jameson views the enunciation of revolution as itself a possibility – that is to say, it itself has to be mapped back onto the schema of futures. Revolution is possibility; and revolution is possible. The first statement - revolution is possibility - must be said to seal off revolution from determinism, dogma, Stalinist and Social Democratic visions of progress assured though a passive but ever more productive workforce. The second statement - revolution is possible - swims against the current, and is the minimal performative utterance that must be voiced as insurance for the future. To assert the possibility of revolution is not a resurrection of a past, seemingly outmoded concept, a resurrection of the dead – such as would be achieved by bringing Lenin back from a grave whose lid has been firmly nailed down by postmodernism. Rather it is a disavowal. Jameson structures his argument around a dream that Trotsky had on the night of 25/26 June 1935. Trotsky dreamt that he was with Lenin on board a ship. Trotsky is recovering from illness. Lenin asks him about it:


Last night, or rather early this morning, I dreamed I had a conversation with Lenin. Judging by the surroundings, it was on a ship, on the third class deck. Lenin was lying in a bunk; I was standing or sitting near him, I am not sure which. He was questioning me anxiously about my illness. ‘You seem to have accumulated nervous fatigue, you must rest …’ I answered that I had always recovered from fatigue quickly, thanks to my native Schwanzkraft, but that this time the trouble seemed to lie in some deeper processes … ‘Then you should seriously (he emphasized the word) consult the doctors (several names) …’ I answered that I had already had many consultations and began to tell him about my trip to Berlin; but looking at Lenin I recalled that he was dead. I immediately tried to drive away this thought, so as to finish the conversation. When I had finished telling him about my therapeutic trip to Berlin in 1926, I wanted to add, ‘This was after your death’; but I checked myself and said, ‘After you fell ill…' 5./h2>


The dream appears to be about the ‘degeneration’ of the workers’ state – embodied in the form of Lenin, and perhaps Trotsky too – and this was indeed the question that vexed Trotsky: at what point is the revolution dead? At what point is it, and all that it promises, no longer actual or even possible. When would it need to be done again? The dream appears to be about the specific disastrous fate of his revolution under Stalin. Jameson’s reading of the dream donates a more general application. It is a type of wish-fulfilment, a making right that is the very ground of possibility for revolution. Lenin does not know that he is dead. As long as he does not know, then that ‘the end of communism’ has taken place, it remains a process, a project that can be continued. Jameson asserts that we have to believe that Lenin is alive, which means to assert that revolution is still alive as possibility, just at that moment when it has become a stumbling block or scandal.


And so, too, Lenin can be written back into a history of Marxism of the 20th century, thereby denying the Western Marxist aura that has subsumed philosophical Marxist currents in the post-war. Lukács provides a testing ground here. The rediscovery of Georg Lukács, A Defence of History and Class Consciousness; Tailism and the Dialectic< 6. in the Soviet archives in the late 1990s is championed by Jameson as evidence that Lukács was a Leninist not only after 1925 when he wrote his study Lenin: A Study on the Unity of His Thought, but also already in those years immediately after the Hungarian revolution when he drafted History and Class Consciousness. This is significant because it was a book that became known as the ur-text of Western Marxism. Lukács is re-discovered for Jameson too as a post-philosophical theorist of the totality, rather than a Western Marxist. In ‘Postmodernism…’ Lukács is present particularly as theorist of the ‘historical novel’, which is understood by him as an appropriate mode of articulation of the worldview and dynamic of a rising bourgeois class. Jameson took from this the insight that particular epochs and class formations generate apt forms of representation, that is to say, that ‘class-ideological analysis’ or the ‘analysis of the constructive links between thought and a class or group standpoint’ (p.323) is possible. Now more was needed than analysis or ‘theory’, that travesty of thinking that dresses up all work in the humanities these days. In his review of the little book that re-Leninises early Lukács, Jameson comments:


…whatever the historical destiny and fate of Leninism, it can be confidently asserted that it relegated to the past and to obsolescence the whole bourgeois tradition of political philosophy, whose revival today is little more than pastiche, unless it is simply a joke.

Long may it live!


1. Radical Philosophy 110, November/December 2001 p.36

2. 'Is There Politics of Truth After Lenin'/Gibt Es Eine Politik der Wahrheit Nach Lenin', a conference organised by Slavoj Zizek, Haus der Technik, Essen, Germany 2-4 February 2001

3. Fredric Jameson, review of Georg Lukács, A Defence of History and Class Consciousness; Tailism and the Dialectic, Verso, London, 2000RP 110, November/December 2001 p110.

Jameson's review is titled 'An Unfinished Project' and is in London Review of Books 3rd August 1995 p.8-p.9. It is a review of The Correspondence of Walter Benjamin 1910-1940, edited by G. Scholem and T.W. Adorno, Chigago 1994 and T.W. Adorno & Walter Benjamin: Briefwechsel 1928-1940, edited by Henri Lonitz, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt/Main 1994.

4. Ibid. p.8.

5. For Brecht's usage of the term 'culinary', see his 'Über kulinarische Kritik' in Gesammelte Werke; Schriften zur Literatur und Kunst 1, volume 18, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt/Main 1967 p.97.

6. V.I. Lenin, Collected Works vol. 38, Progress Publishers, Moscow 1972 p.259-p.260.

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