Loose Threads

Panics over apparently novel threats to freedom of speech are nothing new. Yet, much like anxiety over the state of the youth, the latest free speech crisis is always presented as unprecedented. And as with other moral panics, those sounding the alarm often turn out to have little genuine interest in what they claim to be protecting. The most vociferous opponents of ‘cancel culture’ have been strangely silent – or worse – in recent weeks on the suppression of speech in support of the Palestinians or critical of Israel. ‘Free speech’ has a political function. Elaborate twists, somersaults and pirouettes are performed to make this most sacrosanct of freedoms do the bidding of those who invoke it.

The results can be discombobulating. Censorship is not the answer to speech we don’t like, we are told: fight speech with more speech. But critical speech itself is routinely cast as a form of censorship. Racist speech is protected; speech which criticises racist speech is an attempt at suppression. Meanwhile, it is permissible, indeed routine, to say that ‘the left’, ‘feminists’ or the ‘trans lobby’ are bigots – the real racists, sexists, antisemites – without setting off the free speech alarm. What this amounts to in practice is that calling someone a bigot is an offence against ‘free speech’ when it’s true, but not when it isn’t.

Underlying this discourse is a common-sense idea of free speech, one with roots in liberal theory. What it means to have freedom of speech, in this conception, is simple: nobody stops you from speaking (for example through a law banning or penalising the expression of certain opinions). Restricting speech, in the traditional liberal view, is justifiable only in rare and circumscribed conditions: where speech poses an immediate risk of dire harm; and in particular situations, such as meetings, where we may temporarily stop someone from speaking in order to allow someone else to be heard (the so-called ‘chairman principle’). By contrast, speech must not be restricted on the grounds of its propensity to cause offence (distinguished with somewhat artificial sharpness from the category of ‘harm’), however warranted or painful. While there may be grey areas, this model is attractive because it seems to make free speech a ‘default’ situation: we have it until someone interferes to prevent us from speaking.

But things are not nearly so tidy as they seem. The liberal conception trails loose threads: pull at any one of them and the whole thing threatens to unravel. One of these concerns the chairman principle. The right to speak without being drowned out by the speech of others only makes sense in specific contexts where you have a legitimate expectation of speaking and being heard – in a debating chamber, perhaps, but not during a concert or a firework display. This suggests that the apparently pristine principle of free speech is something far more pragmatic and conventional. Also implicit in the chairman principle is an acknowledgement that freedom of speech is more than the freedom to make noises: others need to be able to hear us. Freedom of speech is the freedom not just to make words but (to borrow from the philosopher J. L. Austin) to do things with those words.

Here is another loose thread. To be able to do anything with our words, we need not only to be heard but to make ourselves understood, in at least the minimal sense of that term. And how we are understood may be affected by, among other things, what people say about us (or people like us). Doesn’t speech about women, immigrants or benefits claimants – not to mention anarchists, Marxists, even social-democratic ‘Corbynistas’ – do this all the time, in numerous subtle and not-so-subtle ways? As Catharine MacKinnon has put it, ‘speech acts, acts speak’, and one of the things speech does is affect what others can do with their speech. Our sayings and doings constantly combine to restrict, as well as enable, each other’s speech. Our ability to ‘speak’ in the sense that matters – meaning not the mere production of words but the achievement of some further, inherently social act of communication – is in fact always dependent on power relations.

Seen this way, freedom of speech is not a default condition that prevails unless it is obstructed or suspended. Against this backdrop, we may still discuss the merits and demerits of different ways of managing speech, from censorship and libel law to boycotts or no-platform policies. But the point is that there is no coherent scenario of unrestricted speech, understood as the absence of interference. This is so at odds with how we are accustomed to think about freedom of speech that it will seem to many that it simply cannot be right, that it must be a form of hyperbole to say that speech can restrict speech. Yet if speech is about more than uttering words, it becomes possible in principle to speak of freedom of speech being infringed by interventions that limit what our speech can do. Caroline West makes this point vividly using a thought experiment: suppose a government were to install a chip in the brains of its citizens, enabling it to switch off those citizens’ ability to understand language whenever certain views are being expressed (or when members of certain groups are speaking); we would not hesitate to call this a restriction on free speech, regardless of the fact that, in this scenario, citizens can still say whatever they like – and even, albeit in a thin and useless sense, be ‘heard’.

Yet it might be argued that West’s example only counts as a case in which free speech is being infringed because a definite entity (the government) is intentionally blocking the understanding or ‘uptake’ (in Austin’s lexicon) of speech. But where agency is diffuse and cumulative (as, often, with speech about immigrants, women or Corbynistas), so that no particular intervention or agent can be identified as solely responsible, it cannot sensibly be said that anyone’s freedom of speech has been compromised. This reveals another hanging thread in the liberal understanding of free speech. The so-called ‘negative’ conception of liberty first distinguished by Isaiah Berlin identifies freedom with the absence of external restraint. As applied to speech, this negative conception holds that speech is free so long as it is not subject to any external restriction, such as a government ban, as opposed to an ‘internal’ restriction such as inarticulacy. So far, so common-sense. 

But the line between being prevented and being unable is not so clear in practice. Someone who is too ‘inarticulate’ to make herself understood, for example, might alternatively be described as having been prevented (by education policy, say) from acquiring the skills that would render her speech intelligible and effective, or as being excluded by hegemonic standards of linguistic ‘correctness’. And why should external interference have to take the form of a one-off act by a clearly identifiable agent? If several companies pollute a river over many years, no single act can be blamed for the death of the fish (or the residents of a town downstream), but that does not make it tenable to claim that they merely ‘died’ from natural causes.

The distinction, central to the idea of negative liberty, between being impeded and being ‘merely’ unable, is often used to maintain the semblance of freedom in situations of powerlessness: nobody is stopping you from travelling – too bad you can’t afford the ticket; nobody is stopping you from sleeping indoors – too bad you can’t afford the rent. In the case of freedom of speech, the question becomes: why care only about whether we are ‘stopped’ from speaking, rather than asking what we can do about a society in which – in large part thanks to the concentration of wealth and access to the means of dissemination of opinion – some people are able to do a great deal with their words while others can do very little?  

Those on the political right, along with most liberals, overwhelmingly purport to endorse the standard, narrowly negative conception of free speech. They typically have no truck with talk of megaphones and the marginalisation of certain groups and perspectives in the media, or with the idea that the speech of some might ‘silence’ that of others, all of which they regard as just more soft-brained snowflakery. Yet in the fray of the free speech wars, the orthodox notion of free speech underlying these responses is often forgotten or discarded. For the right, almost anything – criticism, protest, factual correction – can be construed as an attack on ‘free speech’. Suddenly, it seems, speech can silence after all. Something similar occurs on the left, too. Whereas the right operates with a narrow conception of free speech, but drops it when convenient for ideological combat, some on the left disdain the narrow conception, but then invoke it in battle with the right. In the face of the right’s claims to have been ‘silenced’ or ‘cancelled’, the reply is often: boohoo, so you had your book contract withdrawn / got called nasty names. Nobody’s actually stopping you from speaking . . .

This may draw attention to the right’s double standards, but the riposte risks falling into an inconsistency of its own and endorsing the dominant model of free speech as absence of restriction rather than effective power. On this alternative understanding of free speech, by contrast, pointing out that nobody has actually been prevented from speaking when they are ‘no-platformed’, ‘cancelled’ or simply criticised, cannot be the end of the story. If I find that, due to my criticism of Israel, many institutions and organisations are unwilling to employ me, invite me to speak, or publish what I write, then it would be entirely appropriate to see this as a threat to my and others’ freedom of expression: I cannot, in this scenario, speak freely on certain subjects without subjecting myself to an unacceptable risk of unacceptable penalties; and nor can others, to whom my fate may serve as an example of the costs of dissent. Even if I could eventually find a job or a publisher, this might or might not wholly restore my power to do things with my words, and it would not mean that this power had not been damaged in the first place.

Similarly, on this more capacious conception of free speech – understood not merely as the absence of external restrictions, but as the ability to intervene effectively in the world with words – the idea that certain kinds of critical speech might restrict their targets’ ability to communicate successfully is not inherently confused, mistaken or metaphorical. Speech can and does silence: for example, through lies, smears and distortions that can make it difficult or impossible for us to make ourselves heard. The upshot of this need not be sympathy for those styled as free speech martyrs, many of whom see their public profiles and general ability to do things with their speech grow. But the left response is on firmer ground when it highlights the disingenuousness of certain claims of silencing by working with an expanded conception of freedom of speech and insisting that the withholding of platforms to speak be seen in this wider context. That people sometimes become more influential as a result of persecution does not mean they were not really persecuted. Nevertheless, when a purported instance of silencing leads to its victim becoming a cause célèbre, this can tell us something about the position of that person or their views in relation to power (even if what it tells is not always straightforward).

Are no-platforming and other restrictive measures all right so long as they are cases of ‘punching up’ – deployed against the powerful and those with the loudest voices? This isn’t satisfactory, either. Flat-earthers are marginalised and ridiculed; is it wrong to deny them speaking invitations since this is ‘punching down’? Only at the cost of absurdity. Is free speech then a matter of getting the platforms you deserve? The notion that the power of speech should be proportionate to its merit sits uneasily with the way in which we conventionally think about this freedom, because it begins to blur the fêted distinction between how we evaluate the content of an expression and our defence of the liberty to express it – one summed up in the renowned gloss on Voltaire (often mischaracterised as a direct quotation), ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’. At the extreme, we end up saying that free speech is the freedom to say true things, or things judged to fall within the bounds of the (politically, morally or empirically) ‘reasonable’.

Yet if we instinctively reject that position, it’s not clear that the supposed content-neutrality of freedom of speech can survive scrutiny – nor that we really believe in it as much as we say we do. Is it a coincidence that those who defend the ‘free speech’ of those accused of racism tend to be those who are unconvinced that the speech is racist? Or that part of the point of defending ‘free speech’ on Israel is to resist charges of antisemitism regarded as cynically employed to suppress criticism? This pattern suggests that Voltaire’s separation, between how we evaluate speech and what we say about freedom, is not hard and fast. What we make of a given statement cannot only influence how we regard the prospect of the restriction of a speaker’s power to express it. It can also affect our judgement about whether a given response counts as a restriction, as an instance of ‘silencing’, in the first place.

Take smears. Clearly, the power of a person’s speech can be diminished if they are shunned and condemned, and this is so regardless of whether they really are a racist, a crank, or merely the victim of a witch-hunt. But it makes a difference whether the case is a smear, or one of legitimate criticism. This affects our view not only as to whether the loss of power is warranted, but also on the extent and nature of the loss. The notion of ‘uptake’ is central here. If my speech is misrepresented in a smear, then I may become unable to achieve basic uptake, to communicate my meaning effectively: my speech is received through a distorting filter, however hard I may try to circumvent it or compensate for it.  By contrast, critical speech which exposes genuine racism (for example) does not block its reception – and might actually enhance the speech power of its target in a sense (albeit not one the target is likely to find pleasing), insofar as it contributes to that target’s speech being understood for what it is.

Trading the artificial simplicity and false neutrality of the liberal view for one attentive to the workings of power might seem like a risky move; the prospect of departing from the safety of liberal norms always gives rise to fever dreams of totalitarian bogeymen, even when those norms are in reality anything but safe for most. As with any nightmare, this is not an ex nihilo invention: it is true that the language of power relations and oppression, ‘silencing’ and ‘safety’, is sometimes invoked to justify practices which are at best strategically unwise and at worst politically and humanly destructive. Yet far from a lapse into authoritarianism being the price of transcending the liberal model of free speech, there are grounds for regarding the malaises associated with a politics of ‘safety’ as symptomatic of the uncritical embrace of liberal modes of thinking which centre on the sovereign individual, and which treat problems like racism and sexism as contaminants of individual souls.

Thinking about freedom of speech as an effective power does not have determinate practical implications, but that is not the same as entailing indeterminacy or committing us to a fuzzy, case-by-case approach. There may be good reasons, in various areas of life, to operate with firm, practical principles. But we need not – and have no good reason to, and have good reason not to – rest these on unexamined or misleading concepts. It may be that thinking about free speech with proper attention to questions of power leads us toward practical postures which resemble or overlap with the relatively ‘hardline’ positions advocated (at least in theory) by some on the right, by libertarians of right and left, as well as by some liberals. If anything, an approach appropriately attuned to power will be less willing than the liberal approach to countenance restrictions of speech by entities like the state, which, once no longer viewed through the idealising lens characteristic of liberal political philosophy, reveals itself as in no way to be trusted.

The apocryphal Voltaire should be supplemented with an extension of the apocryphal Emma Goldman: if speech changed anything, they’d make it illegal. But that liberal rights like the formal freedom of speech and the right to vote are hollow does not mean we don’t have every reason to protest their removal or erosion. You can deny that the UK, for example, is a ‘democracy’ in the full sense of the word, yet still object when the government disenfranchises people through voter ID laws. Equally, we cannot really be said to have freedom of movement in a country where many people simply cannot afford to go anywhere; but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t object if the government attempted to enact coercive restrictions on our movement of the kind that Israel has long imposed on Palestinians. The point – which means both that erosions of formal freedoms are to be resisted and also that formal freedoms are not enough – is to bring closer a world in which we have real power over our lives, a world that seems ever further away. 

Read on: Lorna Finlayson, ‘Rules of the Game?’, NLR 123.



As if demonstrating that the repressed does return, politics has erupted in the supposedly apolitical world of American psychoanalysis. An advocacy group, Black Psychoanalysts Speak, and a documentary film, Psychoanalysis in El Barrio, seek to redress the racial and class biases of analysis. Unbehagen, a psychoanalytic list-serve, features a roiling debate over whether it is necessary to match the analyst’s gender, race, ethnicity and sexual orientation with the patient’s. The American Psychoanalytic Association itself has been shaken by political recriminations, purges, resignations and denunciations. An article by Donald Moss, published in the association’s journal, provided the catalyst in this case. According to its abstract:

 Whiteness is a condition one first acquires and then one has – a malignant, parasitic-like condition to which ‘white’ people have a particular susceptibility. The condition is foundational, generating characteristic ways of being in one’s body, in one’s mind, and in one’s world. Parasitic Whiteness renders its hosts’ appetites voracious, insatiable and perverse.

The reaction to the article was sharply divided. Some saw it as a valuable extension of psychoanalytic theory, while others believed it neglected vital determining factors of racialization, such as deindustrialization, union discrimination and the inequities of the real estate market. In response to the controversy, an internal body, the Holmes Commission, was entrusted to ‘investigate systemic racism and its underlying determinants embedded within APsaA, and to offer remedies for all aspects of identified racism’. Among the repercussions has been a debate over anti-Semitism precipitated by a speaking invitation to a controversial Lebanese psychoanalytic therapist, which led to the resignation of the President of the Association, Kerry Sulkowicz.

These developments are noteworthy in themselves, but they also raise wider questions about the relation between psychoanalysis and politics. What is striking about the politicization of contemporary psychoanalysis is the extent to which it conforms to the liberal identitarianism, sometimes termed ‘wokeness’, prevailing in the broader culture, which views systematic wrongs such as racism as emanating from individual psyches, along the model of sin. This marks a sad detour for a current of thought that provided a genuine alternative to moralism. Yet the stakes are greater than psychoanalysis per se. They concern the prospects for a twenty-first century Left that can encompass a non-reductionist conception of the relations between the social world and individual psychology. Recent years have also seen a certain resurgence of psychoanalytic thinking on the American Left. Sam Adler-Bell, co-host of the podcast Know Your Enemy, traces this to the defeat of Bernie Sanders. ‘There’s an inward turn’, he speculates: ‘maybe this purely materialist analysis of people’s motivations doesn’t give us what we need to make sense of this moment’. A new journal, Parapraxis, describes itself as a ‘psychoanalytically oriented supplement to radical critique and historical materialism’, promising to uncover ‘the psychosocial dimension of our lives’.

To address this, we need to consider the intertwined histories of socialism, feminism and psychoanalysis. Socialism’s core contribution was the idea that democracy and individual freedom could not be achieved without countering capitalism in significant ways. By uprooting the peasantry and gathering workers together in cities, industrialization created the basis for a revolutionary movement. Less often remarked is that this same process transformed the family. Previously, the family had been the primary locus of production and reproduction, and hence the individual’s sense of identity was rooted in his or her place in both work and the family. Industrial capitalism separated paid work from the household. The consequences were twofold. First, the separation helped give rise to a new gender order among the emerging bourgeoisie based on the cult of true womanhood, which implied that women’s suffering endowed them with moral authority. Second, the separation contributed to loosening the bonds that tied individuals of both sexes to their place in the family, giving rise to the idea of a personal life – an identity distinct from one’s place in the family, in society, and in the social division of labour.

Understanding that modern capitalist society is based not simply on the rise of industry, but also on the withdrawal of production from the family, helps clarify the contributions and blind spots of these three emancipatory currents. Socialists tended to reduce culture and psychology to the economy. Focused on political economy they left the family and personal life to psychoanalysis and to feminism. Psychoanalysis and feminism in turn focused on the family, neglecting its relation to the capitalist economy. In the sixties, a predominant view on the left was that psychoanalysis was apolitical or ‘individualistic’. But in fact, it was political in a different way, focused not on capital vs labour, but rather on the freedom of the individual from internalized forms of authority, including those targeted by the democratic revolutions, such as tradition, lord/servant relationships and the church, all of which Freud loosely tied together as paternal law. Over time, especially by the sixties, those influenced by psychoanalysis turned their attention to other forms of internalized authority, particularly racism and sexism, as well as forms of shame and guilt specific to capitalism, deference to supposed scientific knowledge, doxa and, of course, deference to psychoanalysis itself.

In general, psychoanalysis did not directly confront institutions, but rather worked indirectly, through its effects on individuals. In this way it reflected the new experience of personal life, which was presupposed by Freud in the theory of the unconscious. According to that theory, the ideas or stimuli that came to the individual from society or culture were not directly registered but were dissolved and internally reconstituted in such a way as to give them personal, even idiosyncratic, meanings. As a result, the inner lives of modern men and women were organized through symbols and narratives that had become personal or idiosyncratic; psychical life could be interpreted but not reintegrated into a previously existing whole. In this view, a person’s race, gender or nationality doesn’t simply translate into their intrapsychic world, but rather is refracted through the contingencies of their personal life. This meant that politics entered the consulting room in terms of its meaning for the individual patient, rather than in the service of a political programme. Far from being defined by any given political ideas, psychoanalytic practice was open-ended, non-utilitarian and unpredictable.

For several decades, the potential contribution of psychoanalysis to radical politics was not widely appreciated. One reason is that psychoanalysis was not oriented to an identifiable sociological group, such as the working class, but rather to new, historically specific possibilities for personal emancipation, which capitalism promised but could not deliver. The limits of psychoanalytic politics also reflected the psychical or cultural reductionism built into the separation of the family from the economy. That separation gave rise to new ways of thinking about history and politics centred on the role of psychology in understanding both individuals and groups or masses, but these tended to be argued in themselves, rather than as part of a broader social theory. It is no coincidence, therefore, that the 1960s rebellions – in which women and issues of personal life were central – played a key role in redefining the politics of psychoanalysis.

This shift began with black intellectuals who drew on psychoanalysis to elucidate the inner costs of racism. Sociologist Horace Cayton, describing his own psychoanalysis, wrote that while he had begun with the idea that race was a ‘convenient catchall’, a rationalization for personal inadequacy, he ended up understanding that race ‘ran to the core of my personality’ and ‘formed the central focus for my insecurity’. ‘I must have drunk it in with my mother’s milk’, he added. Richard Wright, deeply shaped by psychoanalysis, claimed ‘that what had been taken for our emotional strength was our negative confusions, our flights, our fears, our frenzy under pressure’. Fanon, a Freudian psychiatrist, wrote:

I was battered down by tom-toms, cannibalism, intellectual deficiency, fetishism, racial defects…I took myself far off from my own presence…What else could it be for me but an amputation, an excision, a haemorrhage that spattered my whole body with black blood? I marry white culture, white beauty, white whiteness.

Such works were never intended to replace analyses of segregation and the plantation system, but rather to complement, deepen and complicate them. The result was Freudo-Marxism, in which individual psychology and social theory were each given their place. Other efforts to strike that balance included reinterpretation of the Reformation (Erik Erickson, Norman O. Brown, Erich Fromm), and works on mass society and mass culture (Wilhelm Reich, Theodor Adorno, Christopher Lasch, Richard Hofstadter, Herbert Marcuse).

The sixties efforts to produce a non-reductive understanding of the relations of the social and the psychical were short-circuited. Although the cult of true womanhood was long dead, many women remained suspended between two different approaches to the family: first, that the family, and personal relations more generally, were women’s special – moral – realm and, second, that sexual and personal emancipation required freedom from the family. The result was a deep ambivalence toward psychoanalysis, which was at least as consequential in shaping attitudes as the very real sexism of American psychoanalysts. What carried the day was feminists’ forthright expression of the extent of women’s suffering, and the profound sense of the injustice of a male-dominated society. The result was that the ambivalence was resolved negatively. This resolution informed two books that in 1970 announced the birth of second wave feminism: Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics and Shulamith Firestone’s Dialectic of Sex. For Millett, Freud was the leader of a counter-revolution against feminism, waged under the banner of penis-envy. Firestone redefined penis-envy as power envy and replaced Marx and Engels’ idea of a dialectic of class with a dialectic of sex, according to which the rule of men over women and children was the driving force in history. Both books sought to replace psychoanalysis with feminism. Gayle Rubin famously called psychoanalysis ‘feminism manqué’.

Juliet Mitchell’s Psychoanalysis and Feminism (1974) marked a new turn in the encounter between feminism and psychoanalysis. Mitchell was a socialist ­– and an editor of NLR influenced by Fanon and by the existential psychoanalysis of David Cooper and RD Laing. The question that concerned her was how women live in their ‘heads and hearts a self-definition which is at core a definition of oppression’. In 2017 she recalled:

it was my fascination with the rabid anti-Freud stance of the first American feminists in the second half of the nineteen-sixties that made me go to the British Museum library to read Freud’s five articles on women. Instead, I read twenty-three volumes of his translated work non-stop. Psychoanalysis and Feminism was the result. I had found what I wanted – some way we could think about the question of the oppression of women.

Her book criticized second wave feminism for having gotten ‘rid of mental life’. For them, she lamented, ‘It all actually happens… there is no other sort of reality than social reality’.

In the late seventies and eighties, some feminists, gays and, to a lesser extent, people of colour became analysts, therapists or psychiatric social workers. They did not, however, for the most part join Mitchell in returning to Freud. Rather, they transformed psychoanalysis into the so-called relational paradigm, which focused not on the individual unconscious but on interpersonal relations. Based on Winnicott’s famous aperçu, ‘there is no such thing as a baby’ – i.e., the mother is always present – relational psychoanalysis was a compromise formation, combining a mother-centred paradigm, practical introspection and a new code of behaviour. Psychoanalytic feminists substituted ‘gender’ for ‘sex’, thus jettisoning the psychoanalytic theory of motivation, without putting another in its place. Melanie Klein’s theory of unconscious object relations, largely if not wholly consistent with Freud, was misrepresented as interpersonal or relational. Nancy Chodorow and Jessica Benjamin prioritized gender difference and idealized attunement and other female-associated, interpersonal skills. For others, the unconscious disappeared into a phenomenology of intimate relations, such as flirting, kissing, tickling and being bored or into a micro-sociology of insults and injuries.

The relational turn substituted an ethical theory of interpersonal relations for the unconscious. This contributed to what is today known as ‘wokeness’. What happens in the absence of a theory of the unconscious is projection. All evil and wrong is seen as coming from the outside. The theory of penis-envy was unpleasant, painful and even wrong, but its very structure included an effort to elucidate how women might have mobilized their aggression against themselves. When individuals lack even the concept of an intrapsychic life, much less access to it, they will project their aggression and other ‘bad’ feelings outward, generating the need for trigger warnings, moral judgements posted next to paintings, Deans and Provosts who play the role of police officers, for definitions of the university – and the New Left – as a rape culture. This idea that aggression comes from the outside works very well with the liberal/market paradigm, which is founded on an equilibrium model and denies that there is any aggression within the market system, and that any problems must be external – coming from the state, monopoly or China. The denial of aggression leads to moralism, based on the idea – which stems from the cult of true womanhood – that victimhood bestows moral authority. Here, the intrinsically duplicitous structure of capitalism shows itself in the realm of morality.

The demand for recognition may be read as the political counterpart to the relational turn. The overwhelmingly negative reaction of feminists to Christopher Lasch’s Culture of Narcissism (1979) signalled the triumph of a newly minted Hegelian ‘recognition theory’ over Freudian self-reflection. In that book, Lasch viewed the demand for recognition as a symptom of an attention-based society, in which processes of mirroring and idealization prevailed. Yet to his feminist critics he was an advocate of a passé and ‘masculinist’ ideal of autonomy, and only that. Meanwhile, responding not to feminism but to Germany’s trauma of the Nazi years, Jürgen Habermas dismissed Adorno and Horkheimer’s attempts to combine Freud and Marx in favour of a paradigm based on intersubjectivity, democratic dialogue and communicative action, rooted in American pragmatism and social psychology. These currents were brought into relation with feminism by Axel Honneth, who argued that the demand for recognition, in the Hegelian sense of Anerkennung, is the master key of justice. The result was a new notion of ‘critical theory’, which replaced Freudo-Marxism: Winnicott stood in for Freud and Talcott Parsons stood in for Marx.

Let us now return to our nineteenth-century roots, when the withdrawal of production from the family created the modern demand for personal freedom, understood as something beyond the economy. Surely Marx, who read everything, and embraced the work of non-socialist thinkers like Charles Darwin and Lewis Henry Morgan, as well as that of monarchists like Honoré de Balzac, would have been fascinated by Freud, Fanon and Mitchell among others. As we learn from post-colonialism about the nation, we need to think about the family in terms of combined and uneven development. Bringing into one institution the most backward elements of society and the most visionary possibilities, the politics of the family is combustible. The forced separation between forms of personal emancipation, such as women’s liberation, antiracism and identity politics on the one hand, and socialism on the other, took place in the 1960s when the three emancipatory currents – socialism, feminism and psychoanalysis – were closest to being united.

The alternative to wokeness, finally, is not the abstract, liberal separation of the individual and the political, but rather the interdependence between the individual and the collective. All human beings have basic material and social needs that can only be met collectively. This is what socialists have historically understood. But the individual’s needs cannot be reduced to the collective; they are also internal, psychological and personal. Hence the logic of the idea of psychoanalysis complementing socialism. A revitalized psychoanalysis, galvanized by the rediscovery of the personal character of the unconscious, would greatly deepen our explorations of human freedom – in psychotherapy, in the arts and in public discourse ­– and would be a natural ally for a revitalized socialist politics. Meanwhile, there is always a place for moral reformation, even under socialism – just not within psychoanalysis.

Read on: Juliet Mitchell, ‘Psychoanalysis and Child Development’, NLR I/140.


Embracing Failure

Mario Tronti, who died earlier this month at the age of 92, was best-known as the author of Workers and Capital (1966). Consisting mostly of essays written in the first half of the sixties, his magnum opus was the most influential text of operaismo, the theoretical current that was then emerging in Italy amid a wave of labour militancy and factory occupations. ‘Workerism’, in the approximate translation, placed renewed emphasis on working-class struggle and consciousness. Foregrounding the primacy of labour in capitalist accumulation, the operaisti argued that the principal focus of Marxism should be not the abstract laws of capital, but workers themselves, without whom capitalism cannot function and who ‘push capitalist production forward from within’. In the bold vision of operaismo, workers act and capital adapts. ‘We too saw capitalist development first and the workers second’, Tronti wrote in ‘Lenin in England’, his editorial in the inaugural issue of Classe Operaia, a journal he co-founded in 1963. ‘This is a mistake. Now we have to turn the problem on its head, change orientation, and start again from first principles, which means focusing on the struggle of the working class.’

Born to a working-class family in Rome, Tronti studied philosophy at Sapienza under Della Volpe in the 1950s, when he became a partisan of the PCI. Led to question the orthodox Marxism he absorbed from the party after the USSR’s invasion of Hungary in 1956, and inspired by Della Volpe’s attack on positivism, Tronti began to criticize dialectical materialism as a form of naïve metaphysics. He took the view that classical Marxism was at once too historicist and evolutionary, and too oriented to a far-off future. What was needed was not a theory of history but a ‘science’ of present-day realities. ‘Marxism’, he would write in Workers and Capital, ‘has to engage with Marx not in his time, but in our own.’

In the early sixties, he joined a group of sociologists who, profoundly influenced by Max Weber and led by the socialist Raniero Panzieri, founded Quaderni Rossi (1961–66). The first of several spirited, short-lived operaist publications, the journal was devoted to the study of postwar Italian capitalism and aimed to galvanize the rebellious workers in the country’s industrial north. Noting the close imbrication of capitalism and industrial progress – as Panzieri argued, ‘the two terms capitalism and development are the same thing’ – the aim of their research was to study workers’ efforts to become autonomous from and even halt that development. This critique of productivism became the premise of Classe Operaia (1963–67), which Tronti launched along with the historian Alberto Asor Rosa and the philosopher Antonio Negri.

Focusing on Fiat’s enormous plants in northern Italy – a cornerstone of the economy – the Quaderni Rossi circle argued that factory, society and state had become tightly interconnected; industry was fundamentally a political tool deployed to control labour and standardize society. As a result of the growing dominance of industry, society was becoming what Tronti called ‘an articulation of production’: ‘the whole society lives in function of the factory and the factory extends its exclusive domain over the whole society.’ Yet the tentacular reach of manufacturing and the importance of industrial workers also gave shop-floor struggle broader social significance and immediate political potential. The conflicts underway inside the factories were therefore not only between the needs of labour and the imperatives of the firms, but between workers and the state itself. At this pivotal conjuncture of Italian capitalism, Tronti contended, workers in key industries had the strategic power to reshape the state. A ‘vision of the part, to see the whole’, operaismo insisted that the refusal of productive labour – through absenteeism, strikes and other industrial actions of the period – was a threat to the system as such.

Above all, operaismo mounted a profound critique of work, one that questioned the place of labour in our lives. In a world in which the assembly line seemed to foreshadow the standardization of society, ‘the only plausible present-day minimum programme for the working class challenges for the first time the whole of productive activity that has hitherto existed. This challenge will abolish work. And in so doing it will abolish class domination.’ This was the basis of Workers and Capital’s admonishment of socialism, along with capitalism: both were systems that viewed ‘society as a means and production as an end’. In ‘all the upheavals of the past’, Tronti noted, ‘the type of productive activity was left intact. It has always exclusively been a question of the distribution of productive activity, redistributing labour to new groups of people’. To abolish work did not mean eradicating productive activity tout court, but it implied the difficult – perhaps impossible – task of dismantling an economy where the end of production was production itself. Only then would the ground be laid for a world with many ends.

The call for a ‘working-class struggle against work’ became a slogan, some would say a cliché, embraced by the new generations dreaming of a life free from drudgery, who often came into conflict with the PCI. But although it was among the emerging social movements that Workers and Capital found its most devoted readers, Tronti was not aiming to assemble a ‘new left’, nor did he endorse any of the myriad groupuscules operating outside the Communist Party. He was critical of the PCI’s ‘national-popular’ path and of the institutions of the classical workers’ movement (capitalism, he observed, ‘no longer manages its own ideology but has the workers’ movement manage it in its stead’). But he continued to believe in the need for a left government in the interest of workers, and for a mass politics anchored in parliament. Alluding to Machiavelli, Tronti insisted late in life that ‘the class remained the Prince, the primacy was still the struggle, but in order to try to give them a winning outcome, the instrument of the party was needed.’

In the 1990s, Tronti became a senator for the Partito Democratico, the successor to the Partito Democratico della Sinistra, which had evolved out of the dissolution of the PCI in 1991. His elevation to the commanding heights of the political apparatus was an emblem of what the workers’ movement had achieved during the economic boom of the postwar era. Yet by this time, deregulation and globalization had undermined the use of legislative power for progressive reforms, and many old comrades criticized Tronti for failing to appreciate that parliament was an ineffectual arena for social change. In another operaist journal, Contropiano (1968–71), Tronti had written that there is ‘capitalist economic development on the one hand and workers’ political power on the other – two forces . . . in a long war in which we can see neither the end nor who the victor will be.’ Ultimately, he seemed to accept that capitalist development had triumphed. In a late interview he came close to embracing failure: ‘I am defeated, not a victor. The victories are never final. But we have lost – not a battle – but the war of the twentieth century.’


Despite its lasting fame, Workers and Capital has often been interpreted as belonging to a distinct, operaist phase of Tronti’s work. His early interest in working-class subjectivity and his optimism about the industrial militancy of the sixties are sometimes contrasted with his later emphasis on what he termed ‘the autonomy of the political’: the need to consolidate the struggles in the factories through the power of the state, passing laws defending the interests of workers against the imperatives of the market – instituting worker self-management, shortening the working day, raising wages. Yet as students of Tronti’s work such as Franco Milanesi and Gigi Roggero remind us, this overlooks the essential unity of his oeuvre. As Tronti himself would later insist, it was operaismo that ‘discovered the autonomy of the political’. Meanwhile, the political realism, even pessimism, made explicit toward the end of his career, was firmly rooted in his early writings. One member of Classe Operaia, Rita di Leo, recalled Tronti remarking to her in 1966 that ‘We are left to explain, you why capitalism keeps winning, and I why socialism still cannot make it.’ In a 2001 preface to Workers and Capital, he insisted that ‘in spite of everything, in spite of the transition through the culture of crisis, of European nihilism, of the artistic avant-gardes of the 20th century, there was still too much historicism, too much progressivism, too much faith in the final victory of good over evil’ in what he enigmatically called the domain of history.

Yet if his pessimism was latent from the outset, the utopian strain in Tronti’s thinking endured, even as he appeared to concede an utter defeat. Tronti postulated a ‘choice between history and politics: two legitimate horizons, but which each stand for a different class’. Capitalist history is nothing but the development of the global market; politics, on the other hand, is the attempt to arrest its course according to the needs and desires of the exploited. Tronti insisted that ‘politics stands against history’, and never stopped hoping for an organization that could subdue ‘the rhythm of the machine’. To stand with one’s back against the future, as Walter Benjamin had pictured it, facing what Tronti called the ‘body of history’ was for him ‘the soul of politics’. History has no soul, since souls – interior lives – belong to individuals, and in a world of dashed expectations and numbing alienation, our inner lives become political precisely because we are trapped in a history that promises no way out.

This anti-historicist line of thought had paved the way for Tronti’s studies of anthropology and theology beginning in the 1980s. His turn to theology may seem surprising given his rebuke of what he saw as the eschatological fantasies and millenarian expectations of the 1960s, though he was not alone among operaists in finding inspiration here. Negri lauded John Paul II and has often returned in his work to the Second Vatican Council and Francis of Assisi, while Sergio Bologna wrote a dissertation, recently reissued, on the antifascism of the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a founder of the dissident Protestant movement Die Bekennende Kirche in 1930s Germany. In a discussion in 1980, Angelo Bolaffi noted that the weakness of the left consisted in the fact that it had produced a ‘theology of revolution’. To this Tronti responded without hesitation: ‘Precisely because there has been a failure of revolution in the West, revolution has become theology.’ For Tronti, theology was an attempt to rethink the possibility of politics in a period that offered no salvation, and to find meaning amid exploitation, suffering and the seemingly quixotic attempts to resist them.

Writing in Bailamme, a journal of spirituality and politics Tronti launched in 1987, he clarified the spirit of his anti-historicist politics by quoting the theologian Sergio Quinzio: ‘The meaning of this whole historical adventure is in its progress towards destruction so that the kingdom of God may be established’. This kingdom, which in the Gospel of Luke is said to be ‘within you’, was for Tronti a specific way to view and engage with the world. By this point, his perspective had also expanded beyond industrial capitalism to the longue durée of class oppression; he became increasingly interested in the category of the poor. Memory also became important for him: as a ‘weapon’, a means ‘to combat the present’, by linking us, not to history itself – the way things turned out – but to prior attempts to alter its course, inspiring us to change the present even if we cannot yet discern a better future.

Simone Weil once remarked that the Marxian notion that mass struggle was a ‘paradise-producing mechanism’ is ‘obviously childish’. In 2019 Tronti reflected that if the operaisti had initially been ‘outside and against’ the traditional workers’ movement, and then ‘inside and against it’, it was now time for a posture of ‘beyond and against’ – to transcend the conflicts between Western capitalism and Eastern socialism, something the PCI always refused to do. He wrote that ‘the working class was too much a product and part of industry, too much cause and negation of modernity, too much thesis and antithesis of a historical dialectic’ to resist capitalist development. The workers’ movement had never sought to alter ‘the type of productive activity’ that Tronti thought had rendered the socialism of the 20th century a terrible copy of capitalism. In an essay collected in Con la spalle al futuro (1992) he even suggested that ‘perhaps the working class couldn’t become a ruling class. And, consequently, perhaps the insurmountable limit of the experiment of socialism is not found in the backwardness of material conditions, in the isolation of the project, in the reality of war, internal and external, and much less in the iniquity or mediocrity of men’. The problem might be that it is impossible to rule over history.

Yet if, as Weil also suggested, ‘the idea of weakness as such can be a force’ – visible in the need of masses and minorities to struggle for their dignity – it might be possible to view victory and failure in a different way, one suggested by Tronti’s work taken as a whole. He was a speculative and in a sense even mystical thinker, who maintained that in a world where capitalism never seems to move beyond itself, an escape might nevertheless be found. The conflicts between ‘the body of history’ and ‘the soul of politics’ – over the meaning of our lives and the systems of production and reproduction that shape our existence – might not promise salvation. But they can, according to Tronti, produce a people who do not care for victory in this kingdom of history where only the rich and powerful count. The remnants of lost utopias can still confront the forces that reduce the end of productive activity to production itself. To embrace failure, then, is not to give up, but to reject the nihilistic idea that the good life is a victorious life, rather than one that begins to reshape our idea of happiness in the here and now.

Read on: Mario Tronti, ‘Our Operaismo’, NLR 73.


A Message From the Emperor

Make strong old dreams lest this our world lose heart.

Ezra Pound, A lume spento (1908).

The Emperor, so a parable runs, has sent a message to you, the humble subject, the insignificant shadow cowering in the remotest distance before the imperial sun; the Emperor from his deathbed has sent a message to you alone. He has commanded the messenger to kneel down by the bed, and has whispered the message to him; so much store did he lay on it that he ordered the messenger to whisper it back into his ear again. Then by a nod of the head he has confirmed that it is right. Yes, before the assembled spectators of his death – all the obstructing walls have been broken down, and on the spacious and loftily mounting open staircases stand in a ring the great princes of the Empire – before all these he has delivered his message. The messenger immediately sets out on his journey; a powerful, an indefatigable man; now pushing with his right arm, now with his left, he cleaves a way for himself through the throng; if he encounters resistance he points to his breast, where the symbol of the sun glitters; the way is made easier for him than it would be for any other man. But the multitudes are so vast; their numbers have no end. If he could reach the open fields how fast he would fly, and soon doubtless you would hear the welcome hammering of his fist on your door. But instead how vainly does he wear out his strength; still he is only making his way through the chambers of the innermost palace; never will he get to the end of them; and if he succeeded in that nothing would be gained; he must next fight his way down the stair; and if he succeeded in that nothing would be gained; the courts would still have to be crossed; and after the courts the second outer palace; and once more the stairs and courts; and once more another palace; and so on for thousands of years; and if at last he should burst through the outermost gate – but never, never can that happen – the imperial capital would lie before him, the centre of the world, crammed to bursting with its own sediment. Nobody could fight his way through here even with a message from a dead man. But you sit at your window when evening falls and dream it to yourself.

Franz Kafka, ‘An Imperial Message’ (1919).

1883: Marx dies, Kafka is born. A metaphor that describes, explains, hints at, in its own way comprehends, indirectly expresses the following fact: it is only with the weapon of political irony that these days one can combat the tragic seriousness of history. The messenger, with his message, has not left the imperial palace; he has set off, but is still entangled in the long sequence of rooms, in the arrangement of successive courtyards, in the infinite outer houses, the inner staircases and then the other palaces, crowded with things, events, masses, institutions, guards, crowds and brawls. An impenetrable tangle. A space-time in continuous flux and change. It is this we call, this that is, modern capitalism.

The messenger has not escaped the palace, but, as he passes by, has created a disturbance within. Parts of the message have, in the meantime, been received, inspiring fear in the princes and hope in the people. It is already something, an occurrence that’s far from insignificant. All this demonstrates that the messenger had to leave, that his message was necessary. He has not completed the mission. And yet the fact that he attempted it has provoked an awareness of how things really stand: one that will be passed down to those who follow. This event is irreversible: you might argue that it was mistaken, you might forget it ever happened, but neither attitude can be sustained for long. The message was not delivered, nonetheless the message was not lost. This is what we are here to say. And were that the only thing left for us to do, it would be enough simply to know, and make known, that we have lived well.

The first letter of John the Evangelist: he whom we heard, he whom we beheld, he whom we contemplated and whom our hands touched, here, we declare unto you. And these things speak we unto you, that our joy may be complete. The start of the first century and the start of the twentieth to some extent resemble one another. The fulgurant beginning, the messianic message, the eschatological perspective that ‘shows unto you that eternal life’; against which a hard, tragic reaction – war, crisis, slaughter – returns us to the hundred-year peace: an operation of restorative innovation (a new name for the conservative revolution).

What is the workers’ movement missing? There were Desert Fathers. They were not listened to. But this is not their task, to be listened to in their own time. No, it is rather the seed cast into the field of the future. But in order that the plant comes forth, grows, bears fruit, and that the fruit not be lost, something else is needed. What is the message missing? I know it’s scandalous to even think it: what is missing is the Church form. That, it must be said, was attempted but did not succeed. The Revolution requires the Institution: to last not decades but centuries. This is the Church. To be conserved in time, for those to come, the liberatory event, always a momentary act – the taking of the Winter Palace – must be given a form. The transmutation of force into form is politics that persists, and then – only then – does it become history, comprehensive, complete and undiminished. And it is necessary to know, woe betide those who do not know it, that history, before the institution that contains it, is a permixta of good and bad.

It was Agamben who thought to go back to the young Ratzinger, reader of the Liber regularum, a work of the fourth-century Donatist heretic Ticonius. Ratzinger lingers on the Liber’s second rule, De Domini corpore bipartitio, ‘on the twofold body of the Lord’. I find this doctrine of the corpus bipartitum interesting for thinking the political. The body of the Church, insofar as it is the body of the Lord, has two sides, a ‘left’ and a ‘right’, guilty and blessed. Its two faces are found in the Scriptures: fusca sum et decora, says the bride of the Song of Songs, ‘I am black and comely’. The bride of Christ, the Church, has within itself as much sin as grace. Agamben writes:

Ratzinger emphasies the difference between this thesis and Augustine’s, who nonetheless has clearly drawn inspiration from it for his idea of a Church permixta of good and evil. ‘[In Ticonius] there is not that clear antithesis of Jerusalem and Babylon, which is so characteristic of Augustine. Jerusalem is at the same time Babylon, it includes it in itself. Both constitute one sole city, which has a “right” and a “left” side. Tyconius did not develop, like Augustine, a doctrine of the two cities, but that of one city with two sides’.

No one should think of relating these two sides to the left and the right that we nowadays discuss in the bar or between which we decide at the ballot box. This is a very serious matter. If even unto the Last Judgement there is a Church of Christ and a Church of the Antichrist, let alone in history a State of the righteous and a State of the wicked, then the good and the bad must exist not just in the same body politic, but in the very body of the Political. As Hegel said before Marx, whosoever wants die Weltändern, to transform life, must first of all come to terms with that ineliminable and irresolvable mysterium iniquitatis of the human condition and, with peace in their heart, struggle without hope of a definitive revelatio at the end of days. Kafka:

Great, tall commander-in-chief, leader of multitudes, lead the despairing through the mountain passes no one else can find beneath the snow. And who is it that gives you your strength? He who gives you your clear vision.

March–April 1917: as Kafka sent the message, Lenin wrote the April Theses. February had brought the bourgeois democratic revolution. ‘Dual power’ was in effect: the Provisional Government, which had overthrown the Romanov dynasty, coexisted with the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, which harked back to the Petrograd Soviet of the 1905 revolution. Lenin had just completed and despatched from Dadaist Zurich his Letters from Afar. To Stockholm, then through Finland, in a sealed railway carriage, with the agreement of the German authorities – an ingenious tactical use of the enemy – he had arrived in Russia. At the Tauride Palace, where the Petrograd Soviet held their meetings, he speaks to a meeting of Social Democrats, Bolsheviks, Mensheviks and Independents. He reads them the April Theses:

The specific feature of the present situation in Russia is that the country is passing from the first stage of the revolution – which, owing to the insufficient class-consciousness and organisation of the proletariat, placed power in the hands of the bourgeoisie – to its second stage, which must place power in the hands of the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants. […]

The masses must be made to see that the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies are the only possible form of revolutionary government, and that therefore our task is, as long as this government yields to the influence of the bourgeoisie, to present a patient, systematic, and persistent explanation of the errors of their tactics, an explanation especially adapted to the practical needs of the masses. […]

Not a parliamentary republic – to return to a parliamentary republic from the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies would be a retrograde step – but a republic of Soviets of Workers’, Agricultural Labourers’ and Peasants’ Deputies throughout the country, from top to bottom.

Abolition of the police, the army and the bureaucracy [for publication in Pravda Lenin notes ‘i.e., the standing army to be replaced by the arming of the whole people’].

The salaries of all officials, all of whom are elective and displaceable at any time, not to exceed the average wage of a competent worker. […]

Confiscation of all landed estates.

Nationalisation of all lands in the country, the land to be disposed of by the local Soviets of Agricultural Labourers’ and Peasants’ Deputies. The organisation of separate Soviets of Deputies of Poor Peasants. The setting up of a model farm on each of the large estates (ranging in size from 100 to 300 dessiatines, according to local and other conditions, and to the decisions of the local bodies) under the control of the Soviets of Agricultural Labourers’ Deputies and for the public account.

The immediate union of all banks in the country into a single national bank, and the institution of control over it by the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies.

It is not our immediate task to ‘introduce’ socialism, but only to bring social production and the distribution of products at once under the control of the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies. […]

Our demand for a ‘commune state’ [note by Lenin: ‘i.e., a state of which the Paris Commune was the prototype’]. […]

Change of the Party’s name [note by Lenin: ‘Instead of “Social-Democracy”, whose official leaders throughout the world have betrayed socialism and deserted to the bourgeoisie (the “defencists” and the vacillating “Kautskyites”), we must call ourselves the Communist Party].

Here is the message: ‘The tasks of the Proletariat in the Present Revolution’. And here is the messenger, who departs on his mission, with Marx’s whisper in his ears, repeated with exactitude. Carr retells the story of that meeting in which Lenin read the April Theses for the first time:

Bogdanov interrupted with cries of ‘Delirium, the delirium of a madman’; Goldenberg, another former Bolshevik, declared that ‘Lenin had proposed himself as candidate for a European throne vacant for 30 years, the throne of Bakunin’; and Steklov, the editor of Izvestiya and soon to join the Bolsheviks, added that Lenin’s speech consisted of ‘abstract constructions’ […]

Lenin’s speech was attacked from all sides, only Kollontai speaking in support of it; and he left the hall without exercising his right of reply. On the same evening he re-read the theses to a gathering of Bolshevik leaders, and once more found himself completely isolated.

Pravda published the theses on 7 April 1917, but the following day a statement by the leadership signed by Kamenev stressed that the theses constituted only ‘the personal opinion of Lenin’, and the same day the Petrograd party committee rejected them with 13 votes opposed, two in favour and one abstention.

These are the first signs of the difficulties that the political message will encounter in navigating the palaces of history. But this time – ‘November sixth is early, November eighth is too late’ – the message ultimately arrived at its destination. Miracles also exist in politics. And fortunately myth continues to transmit them. From that day, future humanity will conserve it in their memory. Therefore it’s possible! It is possible to reverse power, between the low and the high: those who are above, below; those who are below, above. Certainly, the messenger is ‘a vigorous, indefatigable man’, as Giulio Schiavoni puts it in his translation, ‘a robust, tireless man’ according to Rodolfo Paoli. ‘If he meets with resistance, he points to the symbol of the sun imprinted on his chest. He proceeds more quickly than anyone else’, we read in one version. And ‘if he is obstructed, he points to his chest on which is a symbol of the sun, and proceeds more easily than anyone else’, we read in the other.

Is that all? No, not for this alone was it a victory. For the bourgeoisie the revolution led to wars, those of Napoleon. For the proletariat war led to the revolution, that of Lenin. The dialectic of revolution and restoration functioned differently in the histories of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. In the first, restoration came quickly, but the revolution won in the long run. The opposite occurred in the second: the revolution lasted, even if not sufficiently for its needs, but restoration was the definitive result; perhaps it could never have happened otherwise. So it was written.

‘The tasks of the proletariat in the present revolution’ was an eschatological message. It fits into the eternal history of salvation, sacred and not secular. It is the oppressed who rise up. Not homme, but humanité in revolt. With this message, and this messenger, it was translated into political action. For the first time. This is why its victory was irresistible.

If the message whispered in the ear does not find the messenger to bear it with power, making his way by force through the crowd, then it doesn’t arrive, doesn’t escape the tangle of palaces. The great, and for this reason tragic, event of the twentieth century, has taught us this. Instead, it is only the messenger who bears no message that arrives, because he is let through. We are being taught this lesson by the minor, comic event labelled the twenty-first century. Here, the prophecy has been fulfilled: the medium is the message. The messenger is the proclamation. Only nothing is allowed to come and go, democratically; never something. The catastrophe is that everything remains as it is. Nihilism amounts to everything being accepted as it is. Perhaps Russia was the only soil capable of welcoming that seed, the only space-time where the idea could have become history. Russian spirituality is what explains, deep down, that divine madness that was the proletarian October.

De Tocqueville caught some slight glimpse of the future. Communism in Russia and democracy in America are the two vast islands upon which the Modern, on its long journey, washed up. Provisionally, because other islands on other continents are still emerging. And today, one of these two great ships has arrived in port, while the other has foundered. Democracy has been realised and made a world of itself. Communism has been frustrated and turned itself into a dream. But the Russian revolutionary impetus and the practical American spirit remain two opposed choices in life, two alternative forms of existence. And I feel like saying something that is today scandalous: that freedom lies in the former, not the latter. I will add, repeating myself, a contentious assertion: naturally one can become free passing through many routes, but in the twentieth century I consider having been a communist the royal road. Speaking for myself, I know that I would never have the freedom that I feel, inside myself, without having passed through, in my thought and my life, the historic experience of communism.

Translated by Rees Nicolas.

This text originally appeared as ‘Un messaggio dell’imperatore’, in Dello Spirito Libero: Frammenti di vita e pensiero, Rome 2015.

Read on: Mario Tronti, ‘Our Operaismo’, NLR 73.


An Activist Practice 

I admired Caitlín Doherty’s recent ‘A Feminist Style’, and I disagreed strenuously with almost every line of it. There is no conflict between these two sentiments, and one of the era’s most unfortunate tics is its insistence on interpreting every conflict as evidence of disrespect. There are certainly cases in which we politely praise a piece of writing solely as a way of genuflecting to the requisite social forms, but I want to emphasize that this is not such a case. Doherty’s argument is ambitious, her style (ironically) is exhilarating, and her willingness to question shibboleths – and hold the darlings of the literary world to account – is refreshing. Nonetheless, I remain unconvinced.

Her argument runs as follows. Contemporary feminist theory is boring, so boring that a generation of would-be feminist intellectuals has turned backwards, towards the iconic thinkers of the second wave. Hence the incessant cycle of revival and rediscovery, in which the celebrity intellectuals most active in the sixties and seventies are rehabilitated and effused over. The intellectuals in question, most recently Andrea Dworkin and Susan Sontag, tend to emphasize the centrality of female suffering – and, as a result, feminist politics has been reduced to a thin lamentation, divorced from any material programme.

My most trivial objection is that I am less cynical about the uses and abuses of Sontag and Dworkin. The recent publication of a collection of Sontag’s essays about women, in which she is openly ambivalent about the feminism of her era and hostile to movement poster-child Adrienne Rich, hardly amounts to an attempt to canonize Sontag as an emblem of the second wave. As for Dworkin, it may be that she is extolled as a stylist not because anyone wishes to reduce feminism to gesture, but simply because she is a great stylist. To commend Dworkin’s writing is not to imply that feminism is always and only a matter of a fancy prose (although as I have argued elsewhere, perhaps it sort of ought to be).

Broadly, however, I think Doherty is right that contemporary feminism is dull and unimaginative. We might assess the movement’s prospects either in terms of the activism it inspires or the theories it produces. I am most comfortably in agreement with ‘A Feminist Style’ when it comes to the philosophical poverty of contemporary feminism’s theories. Of course, there are still feminist intellectuals worth reading (Nancy Fraser comes to mind), but it is true that, on the whole, feminist thought is less invigorating than it once was, that there is little ‘engagement with the totality of the experiences of women, qua women, by a new generation of political philosophers’ as Doherty writes. It is also true that the female intellectuals we tend to canonize are too often flattened into symbols – although it is Joan Didion, not much of a feminist by any measure, who has been most thoroughly converted into a slogan on a tote bag. Alas, by far the most visible strain of feminism in the contemporary West is the gospel of girl bossery, evangelized by sleek entrepreneurs like Sheryl Sandberg.  

But I think feminism, as an activist practice, is more robust than Doherty gives it credit for. She makes barely any mention of the #MeToo movement and is unduly dismissive of recent organizing for reproductive freedoms. ‘The closest feminism has come in recent years to a mass mobilisation is in the domain of reproductive rights – no longer the terrain of one gender, but the grounds on which a person might be feminised, a verb which in contemporary usage means to exist at the sharp edge of precarity, removed from economic productivity, overwhelmed by the burdens of reproduction’. I’m not sure what else we should be mobilizing around at a moment when abortion rights, at least in America, are so imperilled. And make no mistake: feminist efforts to equalize abortion access in the wake of Dobbs – activists distributing contraceptive pills along underground networks, by securing funding for travel to states where there is still a right to choose, and more – have been nothing short of heroic.

Perhaps more centrally, though I agree with Doherty that much of today’s feminist thinking is uninspired, I do not accept her diagnosis of what ails it. She writes that ‘a focus on the negative experiences of womanhood – however broadly and ecumenically defined ­– will yield a negative feminism: participation credentialled on the basis of suffering’. But isn’t an articulation of collective suffering the basis for any successful mass movement? There is a reason that we have abandoned some of the more maudlin products of the 70s, namely the mushy hippies claiming that our wombs put us in touch with the earth, and retained the more pessimistic Dworkin. What is femininity, at its core, but institutionalized disadvantage? And what is feminism, at its core, but the attempt to expose gender as a nightmarish farce?

Read on: Nancy Fraser, ‘Feminism, Capitalism and the Cunning of History’, NLR 56.


A Feminist Style

What is the problem described today by feminism? A decade ago, a generation of women – now in our late twenties and early thirties – claimed it as a primary political identity, but no longer. Among young radicals in the Anglophone world, embarrassment at our proximity to something so easily co-opted by liberalism and neoliberalism alike issued in two concurrent desertions of the resurgent ‘women’s movement’ of the 2010s: one group jumped ship for an activist project motivated by the critique of capitalism, with which feminism quasi-geometrically ‘intersected’, the other went overboard for a distilled ironic nihilism. In both cases, podcasts ensued.

Where an identifiable form of feminism has clung on most tenaciously is in the commissioning and branding of cultural products. When it comes to the packaging of films and books by, about, or ‘for’ women, marketers’ lexicons have shrunk to two words: ‘timely’ and ‘urgent’. Feminism, in this register, designates any text or tale in which a woman might occupy a central position, or any project in which a role historically occupied by a man has been taken by a woman. Retellings of 1984 from Julia’s perspective, histories of art that apophatically emphasise the centrality of men in the field, films with titles that, taken together, sound like the garbled punchline of a mother-in-law joke: She Said, Don’t Worry Darling, Women Talking.

In such moribund conditions, it is unsurprising that Anglophone feminism’s last defenders have returned to the works of earlier icons as a way of reminding us that the term once evoked not just cultural form but political content. Behind this manoeuvre is a motivation that even its proponents find difficult to define: frustration at the lingering disadvantages of some aspects of the most ‘privileged’ versions of womanhood (white, wealthy, western); the dull compulsion of (often passive) misogyny that gives the second wave an aura of continued contemporary relevance. Absent any theoretical engagement with the totality of the experiences of women, qua women, by a new generation of political philosophers – feminist theory, where it is practised, tends today to tackle one aspect of women’s lives at a time (usually sex) – statements intended to demonstrate the vitality of feminism have increasingly relied for their evidence on the words of the dead. Sure she’s decayed, the exhumers confess, but in such style!

A few years ago, it was Catherine MacKinnon whose thought seemed to permeate contemporary glosses of women’s ‘situation’ – her established openness to trans identities made her seem au courant when compared to some of her contemporaries, and her legal scholarship suited the litigious aftermath of MeToo. But, being alive, MacKinnon proved hard to iconise – she has an unfortunate habit of continuing to speak and, inevitably, to say the wrong things (only to deny she said them…). What is more, legalism began to seem outmoded, as radical critiques of the form and function of the law and its agents entered wide circulation. The resurgent interest in legal activism of this period has since ebbed into a more literary form, the two modes united by their shared emphasis on testimony. As part of this shift, two figures have become the subject of notable renewed interest: Andrea Dworkin and Susan Sontag. MeToo’s impact is detectable not in any political transformation among the professional women who comprised its constituency, but rather in the desiccated dregs of a ‘feminist’ linguistic mode: a speaker who narrates in the first-person, invokes the literary and wants you to know of her pain.

The Dworkin revival began in earnest with the publication of a volume of her writing, Last Days at Hot Slit (2019) edited by Amy Scholder and Joanna Fateman, and continues via Pratiba Parmar’s documentary My Name is Andrea (2022), described, generously, by Amia Srinivasan as ‘almost schlocky’. The film is a travesty, objectionable even to those of us who disagree with Dworkin on most things, manipulative in the extreme in its use of its subject’s traumatic biography as a fast-track to her canonisation. But the simple fact of its existence, along with that of the edited collection, raises the coupled questions: why Dworkin, why now?

Andrea Dworkin, as Parmar’s film makes clear, suffered. While demonstrating at an anti-Vietnam protest in 1965 she was arrested and taken to the NYC Women’s House of Detention, where she was subjected to violent vaginal examinations that left her bruised and bleeding for weeks. In 1971, aged twenty-five, she fled her life in Amsterdam to escape relentless beatings by her then-husband, whom she had met through the city’s left-bohemian scene. These are the experiences that ground her work – her brutalisation by men in both the public and the private sphere. The central device of My Name is Andrea is to have Dworkin played by five different actors (to represent Dworkin at different ages), one of whom, early in the film, speaks Dworkin’s line: ‘I write my pain to symbolise all those other women’s’. This phrase captures the appeal of Dworkin’s work to the present iteration of Anglo-American feminism: the ability to verbalise individual suffering eloquently, and in so doing claim to speak and act on behalf of a collective – to make writing about oneself the central political act of one’s life. The film’s device neatly encapsulates the risk of turning to Dworkin for anything else: the flattening of all personal and historical particularity into a single narrative that naturalises pain as the universal birthright of all women. The five actors correspond only vaguely to Dworkin’s age through the film – symbolised mostly through changing hairstyles and bandanas. (The choice to have Amandla Stenberg, the only non-white cast member, portray a pre-adolescent Dworkin who is molested in the cinema is particularly dumbfounding, suggesting that experiences determined by race were movable trivialities when compared to the constancy of gendered oppression in 1950s America.)

A flood of critical reappraisals followed first the book’s publication and now the documentary’s release, unanimously expressing concern over Dworkin’s more extreme positions concerning penetrative sex, prostitution and porn, while singling out for praise a supposedly less contentious aspect of her work: its style. ‘What’s so exciting to watch, reading “Last Days”, is not her political trajectory but the way her style crystallized around her beliefs.’ (Lauren Oyler) ‘Her sensibility and her uncompromising analyses of intercourse and pornography are hard to prize apart.’ (Sam Huber) ‘The style is strident, enraged, and the conclusions are often stark, bluntly phrased, and difficult to read.’ (Moira Donegan) Dworkin’s books ‘contain certain truths’, writes Srinivasan: ‘she is one of the more under-appreciated prose stylists in postwar American writing.’ Of her own style, Dworkin said she aimed to write a ‘prose more terrifying than rape, more abject than torture, more insistent and destabilising than battery, more desolate than prostitution, more invasive than incest, more filled with threat and aggression than pornography’. This latter quote abounds in the reappraisals of Dworkin, a way of explaining the limits of her political conclusions, of re-interpreting her contextual and situated diagnoses of the condition of American women in the last decades of the twentieth century as ‘experimental literature, cultural criticism, a strategic provocation’ (Fateman). This move accomplishes two things: it rebrands Dworkin’s ideological excesses and missteps as aesthetic, while offering contemporary feminism a way out of the hard work of following Dworkin’s attentive analysis of her own era – by imitating her style.

This style reached its formal and affective apogee in one of only three books (of twelve) by Dworkin not to be included in the anthology: Scapegoat (1999), which replicates a graphical method of argument she first deployed in Intercourse (1987) – equivalence via virgule. A glance at the contents page is enough to convey the approach taken by Dworkin and to clarify her political message too: ‘Pogrom / Rape’, ‘Zionism / Women’s Liberation’, ‘Palestinians / Prostituted Women’; there is a trans-historical parity between the oppression of Jews and women, which at points in the book also extends to black people and, on occasion, poets too. A short quote suffices to give a flavour of her rhetoric:

Swimming in the blood of her own body, in labor and in pain, the woman is a half-human who achieves her half-human fate in pregnancy and childbearing. The canal through which the infant is extruded is the man’s place of sex; he enters, not wanting blood to drown him or contaminate him or pollute him; the blood makes her dirty and threatens his pristine penis; this makes her an abomination.

The shock value of such passages, intended to reverberate in an instant from the particular to the universal, facilitates quotation and recirculation. Justificatory citation is almost always drawn from a novel or poem (in the following passage Dworkin quotes Tsvetaeva and Cixous) and so literary criticism becomes the means through which the world is to be interpreted. Such methods place a question mark over Dworkin’s posterity. Even were it possible to write a prose ‘more terrifying than rape’, should the goal of feminism be to petrify its opponents into mute submission, its evidential base drawn from literature? Ought it not attempt to root its arguments more clearly in facts about the world? 

Susan Sontag maintained a mannered distance from second-wave feminism during its peak, as Merve Emre acknowledges in her introduction to the new collection On Women (Emre seems to miss the joke, though, when she cites as evidence of Sontag’s commitment to the cause her self-professed, lifelong interest in three subjects: women, China and ‘Freaks’). The introductory essay makes much of Sontag’s timeliness – ‘What a relief to revisit the essays and interviews … and to find them incapable of aging badly.’ It’s true that Sontag’s ability to conjure a bad infinity of nuance makes it harder to disagree with the immediate arguments of her texts ‘on women’ than in Dworkin’s case, but this has less to do with the transcendental genius on display in the essays and more with the bagginess of the collection itself. At its centre are Sontag’s written responses to a questionnaire issued to prominent women theorists and writers, including Simone de Beauvoir and Rossana Rossanda, by the left-wing Spanish-language journal Libre. While the other essays in the book certainly fulfil the requirement of being about women (general – ‘The Double Standard of Aging’ – and  specific – the subject of ‘Fascinating Fascism’ is Leni Riefenstahl), this is the only chapter in which Sontag addresses the problem of how to speak politically of women as a group, of their variable priority in the political struggle in an era of class antagonism and decolonisation.

Of more historical value than this emporium of Sontag’s musings would have been the republication in full of Libre no. 3 (October 1972), in which the interviews appeared, so that they could have been read in the context of other prominent views on the question, from writers outside the Anglophone world. But this would have been to miss a trick in both marketing and critical terms. Sontag’s value here doesn’t really have anything to do with her feminism – whatever this word meant for her at different points in her life – it’s in the new collection’s ability to naturalise the position of woman as writer, and thus to make writing itself seem the very act of womanhood. These revivals have reduced both writers to equivalent absurdities: they have tried to make a style of Dworkin’s politics and a politics of Sontag’s style.

The current second-wave revival will surely not halt with Sontag and Dworkin; other authors will be unearthed from the canon in an attempt to fill lacunae in modern Anglo-American feminist thought. We should, of course, continue to read these antecedents, whose work illuminates historic stages in feminism – let us not throw a nursery’s worth of texts by Firestone, Davis, Beauvoir, Mitchell and more out with Sontag and Dworkin’s bathwater. But in substituting fifty-year-old theses for an effort to analyse present conditions – or face honestly the present difficulty of defining womanhood so that it might be articulated in something approaching a totality – we make the error of claiming as ‘timely’ a rhetorical mode that made sense under conditions of legally enshrined patriarchy, even as that particular set of circumstances has, in the USA, Canada, Britain, Ireland and the majority of contemporary liberal democracies, ceased to exist. Rather than engage in the task of describing the world anew, a world equally if not more complex in its social arrangements than half a century ago, this revivalism lulls us into a depoliticising stasis. Both Sontag and Dworkin excelled at deploying a confident presentism, the power of which rested on its compression of history. Woman is because woman was. But the historical value of their texts aren’t undermined if we make the simple point that things have since changed. Perhaps not consistently improved, for the vast bulk of us, but by no means worsened on account of being women.

Sontag and Dworkin shared a rhetorical approach formed in response to the particular, concrete situations of women they lived among, whose lives, along with their own, they were trying to describe. Their naturalising presentisms were a part of their (shared) political belief in the distinct category of experience of womanhood – a belief confirmed by the laws and social structures of their time (Sontag herself warned against the misuse of ahistorical truisms, in her reply to Adrienne Rich, included in On Women, ‘Applied to a particular historical subject the feminist passion yields conclusions which, however true, are extremely general’). Absent this context, armed only with celebratory introductions by literary critics, we’re left with the impression that there is an essential connection between three poles embodied by these figures: womanhood – suffering – writing. Writing, conveniently, then becomes the answer to woman’s politicised suffering. But to identify oneself as a writer in the age of mass literacy provokes the same response as identifying as a feminist in an age of legal equality between the sexes: aren’t we all?

Dworkin and Sontag’s shared emphasis on suffering animates a residual concern about the diffuse but ongoing predicament of what it is to be a woman, awareness of which makes one into a feminist. But is this all that feminism is? And if it has become such a negative political project, might we not want to pause to consider the ramifications of defining womanhood through not just the experience of suffering but via the constant verbalisation of pain? What, exactly, is the political programme towards which pain, as a collectivising experience, might lead us? The closest feminism has come in recent years to a mass mobilisation is in the domain of reproductive rights – no longer the terrain of one gender, but the grounds on which a person might be feminised, a verb which in contemporary usage means to exist at the sharp edge of precarity, removed from economic productivity, overwhelmed by the burdens of reproduction. A focus on the negative experiences of womanhood – however broadly and ecumenically defined ­– will yield a negative feminism: participation credentialled on the basis of suffering.

It cannot be overstated how deeply boring all this is. How unthrilling, how inessential, to how few urgent questions this seems to contain the seeds of any possible answers. As Dworkin said of porn (after her friend said it of heroin): ‘The worst thing about it all is the endless repetition.’ We’ve been here before, of course, in the past few years’ debate over Afropessimism. Similar risks adhere to a negative feminism: if the aim is to move from a biological conception of gender, as of race, to one that is socially constructed but no less real for it in its consequences, might it not behoove us to arrive at a category definition that does not condemn all those who fall within it to limitless amounts of pain? Feminism has no absolute right to existence. It must describe something about the world accurately for it to make sense as a political-philosophical position. And that description must contain within it verifiable truths about the current situation of women, or else it will be – only – a style.

Read on: Juliet Mitchell, Women: The Longest Revolution’, NLR I/40.


Body and Soul

Last month, in purple passages lauding ‘a master stylist, whose use of punctuation was an art form in itself’, whose literary career was powered by a ‘supercharged prose, all heft and twang’, the usually characterless British broadsheets succumbed to the charms of ‘style’. Journalistic prose gave way to overwriting, as if the subject – the death of Martin Amis – provided a pretext for some formal indulgence, the effusion of pent-up lyricism. If opinions differed as to the quality of his books or the value of his political interventions, all could agree that Amis’s sentences were ‘dazzling’. In these eulogies, style was invariably interpreted as a kind of personal touch, a reflection of the writer’s singular identity: ‘The style was the man’, Sebastian Faulks told The Times. Yet such unanimity created the impression that style was also more than this – something supra-personal, perhaps a class-bound argot, expressed in the shared valediction for Amis’s verbal gifts.

In his obituary for Sidecar, Thomas Meaney added a critical note to the chorus of praise. Amis ‘occasionally succumbed to the literary equivalent of quantitative easing – inflating his sentences with adjectives as if to ward off the collapse of the books that housed them’. The dichotomy, between Amis’s ‘high-flown English’ and its opposite, is a long-standing one. Here the image of inflationary adjectives presumes some ‘real economy’ of plain style, in which parts of speech can find their ‘natural rate’. Judgements about style are often structured around these two dependent poles: at one end, the flowery, the overwritten, the self-reflexive or even autotelic; and at the other, the plain, the clear, the concise and the communicative. Does this distinction, seemingly embedded in our common sense, withstand scrutiny?

The essayist Brian Dillon defines style as ‘verifiable presence on the page’, an authenticating imprint of the writer’s ‘body and soul’. This broad conception is shared with William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, authors of the influential writing manual The Elements of Style (1918). Yet they describe its realization in antithetical terms. While Dillon is a champion of deliberate stylization, Strunk and White prescribe a method that’s supposedly less self-conscious:

Write in a way that draws the reader’s attention to the sense and substance of the writing, rather than to the mood and temper of the author. If the writing is solid and good, the mood and temper of the writer will eventually be revealed and not at the expense of the work…to achieve style, begin by affecting none – that is, place yourself in the background. A careful and honest writer does not need to worry about style. As you become proficient in the use of language, your style will emerge, because you yourself will emerge, and when this happens you will find it increasingly easy to break through the barriers that separate you from other minds, other hearts – which is, of course, the purpose of writing, as well as its principal reward.

Throughout The Elements of Style, plain, ‘honest’ language is juxtaposed to its reflexive counterpart. But the opposition is an ambiguous one. The authoritative, naturalizing prose of this passage enacts the conception of style as something that can simply ‘emerge’ in the act of expression, breaking through external ‘barriers’. Strunk and White’s syntax – the parallelism of ‘will emerge’ in successive clauses – conveys the ease and fluency of this process, by which the writer’s style, and inseparably, their ‘self’, shines through. Paradoxically, though, for one’s style to organically emerge, one must first ‘affect’ a neutral non-style.

In ‘Caedmon’s Dream: On the Politics of Style’, Richard Seymour argues that since total clarity is impossible, writing as if it were is ‘an affectation – just one literary style among others. It is a form of literary naturalism, which does as much to disguise its materials and artifice as possible’. The same goes for Strunk and White’s advice: if an unselfconscious style requires ‘affecting none’, it is as much a conscious effect as contrived stylization. The very presence of such advice – to ‘write in a way that comes naturally’ – in a style manual full of prescriptions and prohibitions embodies the contradiction. Like Dillon, Strunk and White are conscious of the literary effects they want to produce; they simply prefer different effects. The performative contradictions in The Elements of Style – including the ‘egregious flouting of its own rules’ noted by the linguist Geoffrey Pullum – are at the heart of a ‘plain style’ whose plainness contrives to obscure its own artifice.

In her examination of Dillon’s oeuvre, Lola Seaton identifies a taste for ‘artifice, obscurity, extravagance and oddity’ that contrasts with the staid precepts of Strunk and White. This leads her to reflect on a broader tension in critical writing, between ‘striking’ and ‘serviceable’ language: sentences that reflect the writer’s personality and those that faithfully represent the subject. Dillon tends to opt for the first, with a singular style marked by studied ‘gushes’ and ‘lyrical flights’. Yet this procedure can undermine itself by creating ‘a distance between the writer and their prose, showing the latter not to bear the imprint of their “body and soul”, but to be a sequence of choreographed gestures’. For that reason, Seaton suggests writers should be willing to ‘default to the good-enough word’ over the most imaginative one. The pole of plain style seems to exert a pull in her concluding sentences:

Accepting we don’t always know why some writing works on us and seems bound to last, nor why people like our own style (or why they don’t), means reconciling ourselves to the fact that even our best-laid sentences may well finish up like bus tickets, swallowed by time. That might limber us up to betray ourselves better, availing ourselves of language’s embarrassment of riches, including vanilla words, slack syntax and proper grammar – small tributes to the fact that style is not only a field of choice, but that the language is also using you.

Yet Seaton is not reading these generic linguistic features (‘vanilla words, slack syntax and proper grammar’) as signs of a style ‘that comes naturally’, in Strunk and White’s phrase. Instead, they are ‘small tributes’ to how language shapes us as much as we shape language: to the limits of authorial control and expressive autonomy. This notion points beyond the usual plain/florid dichotomy. What if style not only reveals ‘the self’, but circumscribes it?

Even as Strunk and White describe the writer’s self-emergence, they convey something significant about the social dimension of style, its strange impersonality or ‘way of running beyond intention’, as Seaton puts it. With their description of the almost automatic workings of style, prior to ‘the mood and temper of the author’, they register its supra-individual power, while simultaneously striving to contain it within tendentious rules. Dillon is similarly aware that his style depends on that of other authors, not least the ‘prose pyrotechnics’ of Barthes. A curator of ‘striking’ language, Dillon keeps a personal collection of ‘stylish passages, sentences and phrases’ to inform his own writing. Style thereby becomes a ‘repertoire’, a set of decontextualized aesthetic ‘choices’: the logic of postmodern pastiche described by Jameson. What critical framework can capture this dialectic, whereby literary language is inflected by both the personal and the social?

The limits of the personal in literature are elaborated in Eliot’s ‘impersonal theory of poetry’, often read as a reaction against the expressive subjects of Romanticism. For Eliot, writing ‘is not a turning loose of emotion’ but a process of ‘surrendering . . . to the work to be done’. Strunk and White would no doubt agree. But whereas for them, ‘the mood and temper of the writer will eventually be revealed’, for Eliot the poet’s ‘depersonalization’ is a form of ‘continual self-sacrifice’. Poets put themselves in the service of ‘a particular medium . . . in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways’. These final adjectives point to the limits of authorial intention, limits Eliot ascribes not to the writer’s unconscious self-disclosure – even when the emotions in a poem derive from personal experience, Eliot argues, the ‘new combinations’ they form in the artwork exceed any individual consciousness – but to the alchemical properties of the medium itself.

For Eliot this medium is not only language, with its ‘peculiar and unexpected’ associations, but what he calls ‘tradition’ – ‘a living whole of all the poetry that has ever been written’. Eliot is arguing against an atomizing view of art, the tendency to value only ‘what is individual’ in contemporary poetry, as if it will reveal ‘the peculiar essence of the man’. True artistic novelty, he claims, derives meaning from its dialectical relationship to the history of the form, which both gives rise to ‘the new work’ and is retroactively transformed by it. Tradition is at once ‘a field of choice’, to return to Seaton’s terms, and a force field in which writers must operate. Poetic language is not an individual’s voice, but a medium through which – as Eliot writes – ‘dead poets . . . assert their immortality’.

It is easy to argue that Eliot’s ‘impersonal theory’ is all too personal. Yet it can nonetheless serve as an antidote both to the bourgeois commonplace that ‘the style is the man’ and the atomizing, postmodern premises of much contemporary criticism. If style is to be more than a set of fetishized ‘quirks’ or a matter of personal taste, it must be understood in relation to a larger formal history of styles, conceived not as a discontinuous collection but ‘a living whole’. 

What does this mean for the practice of criticism? Though its conception of culture differs from Eliot’s, the tradition Jameson describes in Marxism and Form (1971) posits just such a ‘historical continuum’ of cultural forms. Style, on this reading, is not simply a ‘bunch of mannerisms’ (Seaton) nor a ‘war against cliché’ (Amis), but a diachronic process. Jameson begins by acknowledging that the prose of the theorists he discusses is generally thought to be ‘obscure and cumbersome, indigestible, abstract . . . it does not conform to the canons of clear and fluid journalistic writing taught in the schools’. He goes on to critique plain style and defend Adorno; but here the plain/florid dichotomy is posed not as a matter of taste but as a historical problem:

. . . what if those ideals of clarity and simplicity have come to serve a very different ideological purpose, in our present context, from the one Descartes had in mind? What if, in this period of the overproduction of printed matter and the proliferation of methods of quick reading, they were intended to speed the reader across a sentence in such a way that he can salute a readymade idea effortlessly in passing, without suspecting that real thought demands a descent into the materiality of language and a consent to time itself in the form of the sentence? In the language of Adorno – perhaps the finest dialectical intelligence, the finest stylist, of them all – density is itself a conduct of intransigence: the bristling mass of abstractions and cross-references is precisely intended to be read in situation, against the cheap facility of what surrounds it, as a warning to the reader of the price he has to pay for genuine thinking.

Jameson’s own style of course must ‘be read in situation’. It strives to evoke the ‘formal pleasure’ of ‘dialectical sentences’, both as mimesis of Adorno’s style and an equivalent refusal of journalistic clarity. The periodizing clauses (‘in our present context’, ‘in this period’), although subordinate, are the pivots on which the first two sentences turn – from ‘our’ time to the time of Descartes and swiftly back, from the style to the ‘situation’ against which it must be read. The long second sentence ‘demands’ that the reader ‘consent’ to its duration, during which we become aware of the time of reading – of sentences themselves as units of time, and of reading itself as something that varies over (historical) time. The form of this sentence thus counteracts the situation it describes, as if to interpellate a slower, more engaged kind of reader.

The form of the final sentence, on the other hand, is at one with its content. Adorno’s style is abstracted into a vivid figure of a ‘bristling mass’ against a ground of glib text, a stylized impression of style as sheer differentiation. Something of Adorno himself, his supposed personality, is captured in Jameson’s reference to ‘the finest stylist’. Yet the individuality of Adorno’s style is not the expression of a discrete, autonomous subject, but the friction of a ‘situation’ that denies subjectivity. This situation is not an external historical fact, but a limit immanent to Adorno’s ‘particular medium’ at its particular historical moment. As in Eliot’s essay, the medium has ‘unexpected’ effects. The debased language that ‘surrounds’ Adorno’s, by pushing him towards obscurity and abstraction, leaves a negative impression on the style that attempts to negate it.

Of course, the ‘cheap facility’ of text has assumed new forms since Jameson’s book (let alone Adorno’s time), while the currency of modernist style may itself have been cheapened. Seymour suggests that ‘the digital reorganisation of capitalism may be the biggest transformation of writing in its history’. To pose the dichotomy as a historical problem, in our own period, would mean asking how the tradition of plain style might still be inscribed in ‘the new digital order’, and how it might be rewritten.

Read on: Francis Mulhern, ‘Caution, Metaphors At Work’, NLR 127.  


Longing for Crusades

If somebody, far in the future, decides to ‘look for the immediate cause which brought such a great war’, they will find that ‘the real reason, true but unacknowledged . . . was the growth of one side’s power and the other side’s fear of it’. The warring parties here are not the Americans and Russians, and the author is not an analyst of contemporary geopolitics. This is Thucydides, discussing the Peloponnesian War of 431–404 BC. In explaining the outbreak of hostilities between Athens and Sparta, he does not mention any moral motive, nor any notion of defending values or principles. The conflict is described as non-ideological, born of a simple power imbalance.

Thucydides offered this lucid analysis despite the prevalence of ‘Athenian exceptionalism’ in mainland Greece. After the first year of the war, Pericles delivered his famous oration for fallen Athenians, which doubled as a eulogy for the city and its democracy. Kennedy and Obama’s invocations of a ‘city on a hill’ (not to mention Reagan and Trump’s ‘shining city on a hill’) pale in comparison to Pericles’s rhetoric:

We have a form of government which does not emulate the practice of our neighbours: we are more an example to others than an imitation of them. Our constitution is called a democracy because we govern in the interests of the majority, not just the few . . . In summary I declare that our city as a whole is an education to Greece.

Writing in 1792, Thomas Paine, would note, non-coincidentally, that ‘What Athens was in miniature, America will be in magnitude’.

It may be appropriate to ask ourselves why nobody delivered the same warning to Washington in 2021 that the Corcyraeans gave to Athens in the fifth century BC: ‘If any among you do not think that war is coming, they are deceiving themselves. They do not see that fear of your power is fuelling Spartan’ – or Russian – ‘desire for war’. Indeed, the reluctance to assume a Thucydidean perspective on contemporary conflict signals a deeply ingrained political outlook: a conviction that today conflicts are driven by moral imperatives, and that wars cannot be declared unless they are considered ‘just’.

This seems a rather whimsical idea in light of the previous 4,000 years of human history. It wasn’t for the triumph of human rights that the Egyptian and Hittite armies clashed at the battle of Kadesh (1274 BC), nor were principles of humanity cited by Scipio Aemilianus when he razed Carthage (146 BC) and spread salt on the ground to prevent it from ever rising again. William the Conqueror did not need any ethical legitimation when he invaded England, and he did not feel the need to accuse Harold of war crimes and atrocities (1066).

The persistence of this moralizing discourse in the twenty-first century is partly because our mental categories haven’t yet recovered from the fall of the Berlin Wall. So long as the Soviet Union was intact, the struggle for global dominion presented itself as an ideological contest. Rather than two empires, we had two irreconcilable conceptions of society: communism and capitalism. How gratifying it was to defend the forces of good from the Evil Empire! It seemed like a natural continuation of the previous philosophical struggle between liberalism and fascism.

This viewpoint has much to do with the particular course of US history. Let’s not forget that for over sixty years, the conquest of the American West was sold to the world as the defence of poor, vulnerable colonists and their unarmed offspring against savage, howling Indians thirsty for blond scalps. (An alternative narrative can be found in Malcolm Harris’s Palo Alto: A History of California, Capitalism and the World, whose opening chapters describe, among other things, how native Californians would be bought by ‘peaceful’ colonists at less than $100 per head, while a black slave in the Atlantic could be sold for up to $1,000). In the American Weltanschauung, the entirety of human history is an endless Western movie: a teleology in which there’s always a sheriff to punish the bad guys, a guardian angel who restores law and order to the city on the hill.

According to this vision, every war triggered by Washington is a response to some greater crime perpetrated by their enemy. The invasion of Cuba was justified by the sinking of the USS Maine; US entry into the First World War by the attack on the Lusitania; the war on Japan by the attack on Pearl Harbour (it is rarely mentioned that in 1940 the US blocked the sale of planes, components, machines and aviation fuel to Japan, before embargoing the sale of oil in 1941). The war in Vietnam was likewise legitimized by aggression in the Gulf of Tonkin, which turned out to be as fictitious as Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. In each case it was a confrontation between Good and Evil, the pious and the ungodly.

Before the advent of the two great modern monotheistic religions, Christianity and Islam, the concept of ideological war was alien. The only stake was power, or rather dominion. There were no just causes – or, at least, any cause could justify itself. Religious expansion, armed proselytism, otherworldly salvation at the tip of a sword: these were the gifts bestowed by the new monotheistic faiths. Christians and Muslims annexed new territories in the name of God, eventually pitting one against the other in the Crusades. This inaugurated an age of Deus le volt – one that we are still struggling to exit.

Of course, even the Crusades degenerated into commercial wars: in the Fourth Crusade, defenders of the faith set out to liberate the Holy Land and ended up sacking Christian Constantinople. The successive, diuturnal conflicts between Europe and the Ottomans gradually lost their religious character, such that European states would often ally themselves with the Sublime Porte to weaken other Christian powers. But everything changed with the Reformation, which created an entirely new phenomenon in the West: the ideologization of war within Europe itself.

At the end of the fifteenth century, Cesare Borgia wasn’t waging wars for the predestination of grace, or to demonstrate the unity of divine nature, but simply to conquer the fortress of Fermo or the castle of Rimini. Forty years later, though, German lords would be pulverising their respective cities in the name of theology: in pursuit or defence of Thomas Münster’s Anabaptists. Two decades after that, the French fought a bitter civil war that saw the massacre of the Huguenots on the infamous night of St Bartholomew in 1572. The modern scientific revolution – Galileo’s breakthrough, the stirrings of industrial capitalism and the colonization of North America – was contemporaneous with the Thirty Years War, the most murderous religious conflict Europe had ever known.

This upheaval was so sanguineous that afterwards, for a century and a half, warfare reverted to the paradigm that had been in place during the Italian signorie: diplomacy by other means. The wars of succession – Spanish, Austrian, the Seven Years War – were unideological and secular. When ideological war eventually reappeared in the West, it was no longer motivated by traditional religion but by the religion of nationalism: an idolatry of the fatherland replete with its own apostles and martyrs (‘mort pour la France’). It’s easy to forget that over the last two centuries the creed of patriotism has killed more people than all previous religious wars. It was first seen in the War of Independence from British dominion by the thirteen North American colonies. From the beginning, one essential feature was its compatibility with republicanism, on display in revolutionary France, where the Girondin Jacques Brissot called on the nation to confront monarchic power in a ‘croisade de la liberté universelle’.

From then on, wars of national independence – from the Spanish guerrilla against Napoleon to Bolívar’s campaigns in South America, from the Italian Risorgimento to Irish and Algerian anticolonial movements – were distinctly ideological. It is notable, however, that they all involved a great (or waning) power facing off against an emerging populace. These struggles share characteristics with more recent asymmetrical wars. For one thing, the uneven distribution of power shaped the tactics deployed on the battlefield: weaker contenders – the OAS in Algeria, IRA in Ireland, the Israeli Irgun – often had to resort to guerrilla methods. The religion of nationalism also had its own foreign legion: Santorre di Santarosa and Lord Byron, an Italian and an Englishman respectively, laid down their lives for Greek national liberation; Garibaldi famously travelled to South America to fight for national independence – just as, in our century, a significant number of Europeans travelled to Syria to fight for Islamic State.

In the meantime, up until and including the First World War, symmetrical wars between great powers were fought largely on the basis of colonial ambition, for control over trade and territory. This remained the case even when rival states shared an ideology and culture (in the First World War, the monarchs of three fighting empires – Britain, Russia and Germany – were cousins). For much of this period there was no notion of ‘public opinion’, nor was there mass conscription. One could simply declare war without having to convince one’s people that it was worth fighting and dying for the cause. In the late nineteenth century, however, the emergence of public opinion inaugurated a ‘politics of atrocities’. It then became necessary to convince the population that the enemy had committed atrocities so intolerable that a military response was needed (I dealt with the politics of atrocities more extensively in Sidecar last year).

With the USSR, it was even easier to find a pretext for belligerence. Here was an empire of self-evident evil, and an atheist one at that. Its collapse created a gaping void for US grand strategists, who couldn’t help displaying a certain blasphemous nostalgia for their communist adversary. Just look at the names affixed to American military operations overseas. During the Cold War these were banal and arbitrary: the terrorist campaign against Castro’s Cuba was called Operation Mongoose; the mission to torture and assassinate members of the Vietcong was known as Program Phoenix; the bombardment of Cambodia, Operation Menu; Nickel Grass denoted the airborne delivery of arms to Israel during the Yom Kippur War; Praying Mantis the attack on Iran in 1988. Yet the register changed after the fall of the Wall. The 1989 invasion of Panama, Operation Just Cause, marked a new grandiloquence. In 1991, as the USSR crumbled, the US embarked on mission Restore Hope in Somalia, while Haiti saw the pinnacle of this Orwellian newspeak with operation Uphold Democracy in 1994. There followed Joint Endeavour in Bosnia (1995), Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan (2001), Iraqi Freedom (2003), and the classicizing Odyssey Dawn in Libya (2011).

If warfare in the communist era had a religious valence, in the post-communist world it became a question of morality – of humanity. We no longer speak of an Evil Empire but of ‘rogue states’. The enemy is to us what the criminal and gunslinger is to the sheriff. When we talk of ‘outlaw’ nations we embark, à la Carl Schmitt, on a ‘conceptual construction of penal-criminalistic nature proper to international law’: ‘the discriminatory concept of the enemy as a criminal and the attendant implication of justa causa run parallel to the intensification of the means of destruction and the disorientation of the theaters of war’.

Elsewhere, Schmitt notes that ‘to confiscate the word humanity, to invoke and monopolize such a term probably has certain incalculable effects, such as denying the enemy the quality of being human and declaring him to be an outlaw of humanity; and a war can thereby be driven to the most extreme inhumanity’. As we edge, like sleepwalkers, closer to the abyss of nuclear war, one can’t help recalling the words of the Nazi jurist (who didn’t seem to realise he was also talking about his own regime): ‘weapons of absolute annihilation . . . require an absolute enemy, lest they should be absolutely inhuman’.

The contemporary period, then, is marked by a yearning for the Crusades. But in European public opinion one can sense a certain apathy, a lukewarm resignation if not thinly-veiled scepticism: the kind one feels when watching a film one’s seen too many times. The media still denounces Putin’s atrocities and makes obligatory comparisons with the Hitlers and Stalins of the past, yet it does so with the enthusiasm of a bored schoolchild, almost as if le coeur n’y était pas. How many times have we woken up to the news that our former allies have suddenly become reprobates and criminals? How can we forget that Saddam Hussein was furnished with chemical weapons to use against Iran before he was designated a war criminal himself? Or that Bashar al-Assad was deemed reliable enough to torture prisoners at the behest of the CIA before he became a so-called international pariah?

It also strains credulity that the US wants to see alleged war criminals tried in an international tribunal which it does not even recognise; that it supports Israel’s illegal occupation and apartheid regime but refuses to tolerate Russia’s presence in Crimea and the Donbas; that it recognises the ethno-territorial grievances of Kosovar minorities in Serbia but not those of the Russophone minority in Ukraine, and so on. How can we take seriously the West’s invectives against authoritarian regimes, and calls to defend democracy, when our democratic leaders lay out the red carpet for a Saudi Prince who butchers critical journalists and an Egyptian General who executes political prisoners by the tens of thousands?

It may be time for our elites to put aside their hypocrisy for once and speak as frankly as the Athenians when they imposed their will on the inhabitants of the island of Melos:

We shall not bulk out our argument with lofty language, claiming that our defeat of the Persians gives us the right to rule or that we are now seeking retribution for some wrong done to us. That would not convince you. Similarly we do not expect you to think there is any persuasive power in protestations that . . . you have not done us any harm. So keep this discussion practical, within the limits of what we both really think. You know as well as we do that when we are talking on the human plane, questions of justice only arise when there is equal power to compel: in terms of practicality the dominant exact what they can and the weak concede what they must.  

On the one hand, Thucydides seems to speak to the Russians of today, telling them to stop justifying every act of aggression by invoking the ‘Great War’ of seventy years ago and the need to save Europe from a Nazi menace (just as the Athenians safeguarded Greek freedom from Persian dominion). On the other, he seems to refer to the Americans, who impose penalties and sanctions simply because they have the power to do so, on states whose weakness often obliges them to comply.

Read on: Alberto Toscano, ‘The Spectre of Analogy’, NLR 66.


Hidden Dogmatism

Why is history necessary? In what sense is history constitutive of humanness? In one way, the answer to such questions is straightforward. Human beings are teleological animals. Under a determinate set of relations and conditions they formulate ends that they seek to achieve. But in what relation do these ‘micro-histories’ stand to the self-understanding of the human species at a broader level? The best way to approach this problem is to ask what micro-histories imply; that is to say, to identify the conditions of possibility for acting in a micro-historical way. Is it possible for any teleological orientation to do without ‘History’ in the broader sense? Or, to pose the question slightly differently: don’t ‘little stories’ already imply or refer to a ‘grand story’? Can they ever do without one?

To achieve clarity on these issues one must distinguish between the perspective of the actor in the micro-history and that of the observer. For the actor, meaning is fully exhausted in the particular action she undertakes. Consider, for example, the decision to take a job. Imagine the actor decides to work as an Uber driver because the hours are flexible and the money allows her to keep a roof over her head. From her perspective, the meaning of the sequence of actions leading to her employment is exhausted in her desire to pay the rent and maintain some autonomy. But the observer will interpret the sequence quite differently. From their point of view, the very possibility of employment as an Uber driver would be connected to the casualization of taxi work, the technology of the smart phone, the widespread use of digital payment systems, together with a wide array of other historical conditions. One might also connect the actor’s desire for a certain type of autonomy and flexibility with the rise of the neoliberal self and associated ethos of personal entrepreneurship. The point is that from the perspective of the observer, the meaning of the action depends on its relationship to a specific phase of historical development. (Before proceeding further, it should be emphasized that the distinction between ‘actor’ and ‘observer’ is a purely analytic one. The potential for these perspectives to overlap, for the actor to be self-conscious – where the actor herself becomes an observer, constructing herself as an object of consciousness, becoming a third party to her own actions – is itself highly variable, historically and socially.)

To historicize an action, however, is inevitably to face the question: as part of what wider shape of historical development, and what phase within it? But what if one regards history as having no shape? What if one holds to the view that history, in the larger sense, is a piling up of accidents, just ‘one damn thing after another’? The paradox of not having a theory of history is that this is itself a theory of historical development, a theory that says history does not develop or that if it does, the shape of its development is inscrutable. History, from that point of view, would be like Kant’s thing in itself, the paradoxes and contradictions of which have been well explained many times. All these critiques of Kant boil down to a fundamental question: how can one say something is inaccessible to human consciousness, that it cannot be known, when to say something is unknowable or ineffable is to say something about it? (It turns out it’s rather difficult not to talk about things in themselves and be drawn into all sorts of dogmatisms.)

Perhaps a different version of this sceptical position is possible. It would hold that one might have partial theories of development, but no ‘grand narrative’, no ‘big story’. This position – common to the Weberian tradition in sociology – seems attractive and reasonable. And yet it too suffers from paradox. In the first place, why are the Weberians so sure that partial theories of history are possible? What makes them confident that history is not total, or at least totalizing? Isn’t their scepticism just a hidden dogmatism? Then there is the second, more practical problem. If history is explicable ‘partially’, into what ‘parts’ should it be divided? Are, for example, ‘ideas’ to be treated as one causal sequence and ‘production’ as another, parallel one? Even if such a treatment were correct for a given period, would it not be dogmatic to assert that such autonomy always exists? Can it really be the case that the same conceptual framework applies across all historical epochs, or should concepts be tailored to the eras they seek to describe? It turns out that theories of history are, like many other seemingly overambitious ideas, completely unavoidable.

Read on: Dylan Riley, ‘Politics as Theatre?’, NLR 101.


Grey Eminence

Ranajit Guha, who died recently in the suburbs of Vienna where he spent the last decades of his life, was undoubtedly one of the most influential intellectuals on the Indian left in the twentieth century, whose shadow fell well beyond the confines of the subcontinent. As the founder and guru (or ‘pope’, as some facetiously called him) of the historiographical movement known as Subaltern Studies, his relatively modest body of written work was read and misread in many parts of the world, eventually becoming a part of the canon of postcolonial studies. Guha relished the cut and thrust of intellectual confrontations for much of his academic career, though he became somewhat quietist in the last quarter of his life, when he took a surprising metaphysical turn that attempted to combine his readings of Martin Heidegger and classical Indian philosophy. This confrontational style brought him both fiercely loyal followers and virulent detractors, the latter including many among the mainstream left in India and abroad.

Guha was never one to tread the beaten path, despite the circumstances of relative social privilege into which he was born. His family was one of rentiers in the eastern part of riverine Bengal (today’s Bangladesh), beneficiaries of the Permanent Settlement instituted by Lord Cornwallis in 1793. The area of Bakarganj (or Barisal) from which he hailed was also the birthplace of another Bengali historian, Tapan Raychaudhuri (1926-2014) from a similar zamindar background. Raychaudhuri was himself a complex figure, a raconteur and bon viveur with a melancholy streak, who was destined to play Porthos to Guha’s Aramis. Guha was sent to Kolkata (Calcutta) for his schooling in the 1930s, where he attended the prestigious Presidency College in that city, and soon became active as a Communist. It would have been in these years that he acquired his violent aversion to the ‘comprador’ Gandhi and his version of nationalist politics, which accompanied him for much of his life. He also came under the influence of an important Marxist historian of the time, Sushobhan Sarkar, while at the same time developing a stormy relationship with another leading figure, Narendra Krishna Sinha (not at all a Marxist), under whose supervision he was meant to work on a thesis concerning colonial economic history in Bengal, which was never completed. Around the time of Indian independence, Guha left Kolkata briefly for Mumbai, and in December 1947 travelled to Paris as a representative to the World Federation of Democratic Youth, led for a time by the controversial Aleksandr Shelepin.

Over the next few years, until his return to Kolkata in 1953, Guha travelled widely in Eastern Europe, the western Islamic world, and even China; this included a two-year sojourn in Poland, where he met and married his first wife. On his return to India, he was already accompanied by ‘an aura of heroism’ (as one of his friends wrote) and exercised a degree of charisma and mystique over younger colleagues that would serve him well later. After a brief stint as a union organizer in Kolkata, he embarked on a peripatetic career in undergraduate teaching and began publishing his first essays on the origins of the Permanent Settlement in the mid-1950s. But these years also saw Guha’s estrangement from the Communist establishment, since – as for many of his generation – the Hungarian crisis of 1956 proved a turning point. Though his plans to defend a doctoral thesis never came to fruition, he was eventually able to find a position in 1958 at the newly founded Jadavpur University, under the wing of his former teacher Sarkar. But he quickly abandoned this post to move first to Manchester and then to Sussex University, where he then spent nearly two decades. There is much about this phase of his career around 1960 that remains obscure, including how a barely published historian managed to obtain these positions in the United Kingdom, where few other Indian historians had penetrated. Oral tradition has it that he was also proposed for a position in Paris, at the VIe Section of the École Pratique des Hautes Études, apparently at the initiative of the American economic historian Daniel Thorner (himself a refugee in Paris from McCarthyite persecution). It was also Thorner who helped arrange the publication through Mouton & Co of Guha’s first book, A Rule of Property for Bengal (1963).

This work remains something of a puzzle six decades after its first publication. Though begun as a work of economic history, it eventually became what is quite clearly an exercise in the history of ideas. Driving it at a basic level was Guha’s own childhood experience in a rural context where the Cornwallis Permanent Settlement had set the rules of the game, eventually leading (in some views) to the progressive agrarian decline of Bengal over a century and a half. But rather than analyzing class relations or related questions, Guha instead turned to debates among East India Company administrators in Bengal in the 1770s and 1780s over how the agrarian resources of the province were to be managed. This was presented as a complex struggle between different tendencies in political economy, influenced on the one hand by the Physiocrats in all their variety and splendour, and on the other by adherents of the Scottish Enlightenment (to which Governor-General Warren Hastings was attached). Demonstrating an impressive talent for close reading, Guha took apart the minutes, proposals and counterproposals that were presented and debated in the administrative councils of the time. A central figure who emerged in all this was the Dublin-born Philip Francis. While the opposition between Francis and Hastings had usually been read simply through the prism of factional politics, Guha was able to elevate the differences to a genuine intellectual debate, with lasting consequences for Bengal.

At the same time, it may be said that the work showed little or no concern with the ‘ground realities’ of eighteenth-century Bengal, and even less with the complex property regimes that had been in place before Company rule. This would have required Guha to engage with Mughal history and issues of Hanafite Muslim law, which were rather distant from his inclinations. Furthermore, there is little in A Rule of Property to suggest that it is a Marxist history, however broadly one wishes to interpret this term. Reviewers at the time often compared it with another work that had appeared a few years earlier, Eric Stokes’s The English Utilitarians and India (1959), probably to Guha’s chagrin. Stokes painted with a broader brush and embraced a larger chronology, but also showed less talent for the close reading of texts. But there is probably more that unites these books than separates them. While Stokes’s work was quite widely acclaimed, Guha’s somewhat unfairly languished for a time in obscurity. It is noticeable that for the remainder of the 1960s, Guha more or less ceased to publish, and when he did so in 1969 (in the form of a review of a long-forgotten edited volume on Indian nationalism) it was a bitter attack on the Indian history practiced in England, including Sussex University, ‘where the students are inducted into the rationale of […] thinly disguised imperialist procedure’. It was around this time that Guha decided to spend a sabbatical year in India, based at the Delhi School of Economics through the mediation of his friend Raychaudhuri who was teaching there.

The communist movement in India to which Guha had been attached in the 1940s and early 1950s had by now undergone considerable changes. The pro-Soviet Communist Party of India (CPI) had in 1964 split to produce the CPI(M), which was initially more oriented to Chinese communism and far more hostile to the ruling Indian Congress party. However, in 1967, a further splintering occurred in the context of a rural uprising in north Bengal, to produce the CPI(ML), which eschewed parliamentary politics in favour of a strategy of armed peasant and student mobilization. Radical student groups in cities such as Kolkata and Delhi formed in support of the tendency, generally known in Indian parlance as ‘Naxalites’. Guha, a visitor to Delhi in 1970-71, found this new movement attractive given his own pro-Maoist thinking and began to frequent these student groups. A handful of memoirs have gone over this ground, including a recent one by the development economist Pranab Bardhan. Owing to his fieldwork, Bardhan had a good grasp of Indian rural problems and was less than impressed with what he saw at a rather cloak-and-dagger meeting orchestrated by Guha, describing it in Charaiveti (2021-22) as a ‘collection of clichés’, with speakers ‘regurgitating rhetoric … learned from some cheap pamphlet’. Nevertheless, some of these students not only became activists but also historians, drawing directly on Guha’s formulations for inspiration.

The first of Guha’s renewed historical interventions was an essay, first published in 1972 but with subsequent incarnations, on the Indigo rebellion of 1860 in Bengal. This was accompanied in the following years by several texts of political commentary concerning the Congress and its political profile as well as state repression and democracy in India. Amid the political turbulence of the decade (symbolized by the infamous period of Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi), Guha’s intellectual influence began to spread. In part, this was aided by the move of Raychaudhuri to a position in Oxford; several of Raychaudhuri’s doctoral students came to be advised in reality by Guha, acting as a sort of éminence grise based in Brighton. This eventually led to a series of informal meetings in the UK in 1979-80, where a collective decision was made to launch the movement called ‘Subaltern Studies’, using a term drawn from Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. The first volume with this title appeared to considerable fanfare in 1982 and was followed a year later by Guha’s second book, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India.

This, after roughly two decades of relative occlusion, was the moment of Guha’s second coming. In an opening salvo in the first volume of Subaltern Studies, Guha railed against the ‘long-standing tradition of elitism in South Asian studies’, and after listing various elements which composed the foreign and indigenous elites, summarily declared that the ‘subalterns’ were the ‘demographic difference between the total Indian population and all those we have described as the “elite”’. He further argued that the ‘subalterns’ or ‘people’ had their own ‘autonomous domain’ of political action, and that an elitist view of Indian nationalism had led to a consensual narrative which laid aside ‘the contribution made by the people on their own, that is, independently of the elite to the making and development of this nationalism’. This open attack on not only British historians but Indian ones was the occasion for a set of violent exchanges, particularly with historians attached to the CPI(M), as well as more conventional nationalists. These debates occupied much of the 1980s, by which time Guha had moved to his last academic position at the Australian National University. By the end of the decade, and the publication of six volumes under Guha’s stewardship, Subaltern Studies had established itself as the dominant force in the study of modern Indian history.

This was despite the doubt cast on the originality of the project itself, given earlier forms of history-from-below, as well as issues related to the highly uneven contents of the six volumes. Intellectual fatigue with the standard left-nationalist historiography may explain some of this triumph, but the novel jargon of the new school also played a part. During the 1990s, the main thrust of the project as a contribution to radical social history became progressively diluted, and the group itself began to fragment and disperse, with some bitter recriminations from erstwhile participants. By the time of the twelfth volume, published in 2005, the project had largely lost shape and become mired in a fruitless engagement with deconstructionism on the one hand, and cultural essentialism on the other.

Returning to the original moment of 1982-83, however, several peculiar features of Guha’s stance are worth mentioning. One was his insistent adherence to a particular reading of the structuralism that had been popular in the 1960s, not so much the structural anthropology of Claude Lévi-Strauss as the reinterpretation of Saussurian linguistics by figures like Roland Barthes. As we know, Barthes’s own position shifted considerably in the years after his ‘Introduction à l’analyse structurale des récits’ (1966), but Guha did not follow him in this trajectory. Instead, he stuck to certain strikingly simple ideas based on a binary division between elites and subalterns. This is turn became the basis of another article of faith, namely that the voice and perspective of the subaltern could alchemically be extracted from colonial records of repression through certain protocols of translation. These ideas, expressed by Guha in some form in the first volumes of Subaltern Studies, can also be found in some of the essays by his disciples. But they are laid out at greatest length in his Elementary Aspects, which provides us with another example of the long (and ultimately unsuccessful) struggle to reconcile structuralism and historical materialism. Friendly critics such as Walter Hauser were distressed to find in the work an unmistakable strain of elitist hectoring and a somewhat unsubtle flattening out of the complexity of peasant societies, while nevertheless recognizing Guha’s importance in the renewal of peasant history. There were also issues raised by historians of the longue durée like Burton Stein over whether Guha had not confounded distinct categories such as hunter-gatherers and peasants through his adherence to the logic of binarism.

In the years that followed, Guha’s most influential writings took the form of essays, many of which were collected in a volume entitled Dominance without Hegemony (1997), which argued that the colonial political system in India (unlike the British metropolitan polity) was one in which open coercion outweighed persuasion, and that the Indian state after independence had continued to practice a version of the same nakedly coercive politics. He also developed his somewhat problematic reflections on historiography, which appeared in their final incarnation as a set of published lectures, History at the Limit of World-History (2002). In some of these later essays, we find Guha moving away from his structuralist position to try out other approaches. One of the most successful and widely cited is ‘Chandra’s Death’ (1987), in which Guha presents a very close reading of a small body of legal documents from 1849 in Birbhum, concerning a botched abortion leading to the death of a young woman. Here, we see Guha deploying his intimate knowledge of rural Bengal, as well as his hermeneutic skills dealing with materials written in a ‘rustic Bengali’ possessing an ‘awkward mixture of country idiom and Persianized phrases’. Though interspersed with genuflection to Michel Foucault, these are moments when Guha comes closest to the spirit of Italian microstoria, an approach he never formally engaged with. In contrast, the lectures on historiography take a very different tack, espousing the by-then fashionable Nietzschean critique of the Enlightenment and claims for the superiority of literature to history. We also encounter the introduction and defence of the concept of ‘historicality’ as a manner of re-enchanting the past. This would lead, almost ineluctably, to the last phase of Guha’s career, where he would largely turn to literary criticism written in Bengali and focusing for the most part on the usual suspects of the Bengali literary pantheon.        

Unsurprisingly then, over the lifespan of nearly a century, Ranajit Guha’s trajectory was one of many unexpected twists and turns. The ‘biographical illusion’, as Pierre Bourdieu termed it, may call for a neater form of emplotment than what this life affords us. This is despite the fact that we are dealing with someone with a powerful drive, not to career and careerism, but to a more complex form of charismatic self-fashioning in which Guha largely eschewed the limelight, which he left to some of his younger disciples. Perhaps the secretive habits of his early adult years proved hard to shake off. Nevertheless, by choosing the fringes of the academic world, Guha managed to exercise a greater influence than many of those who held the great seats of academic power. In this, he showed that he did indeed have a consummate understanding of politics and its workings.

Read on: Timothy Brennan, ‘Subaltern Stakes’, NLR 89.