Tag Archives: Karl Marx

After a long day I went to sit outside for a bit, and I watched the stars. Reflecting on the moment and on my life as it is now, a sentence came to my head: ‘I am just living my life and enjoying it.’ It was a humble thought, not a triumphant one. And then, this sentence of Derrida, which had vexed me for years ‘to learn to live, finally’ came to my head. I cite from the head now, but it is from his Specters of Marx, which I read for the first time about seven years ago. Upon my first read this book fascinated me, as it gave me so much new insights into the world we are living in right now. Published in its English version in 1994 (French 1993), the book foresightedly analyzes the post-Cold-War world, which was fresh and new back then, but of which we see the essential characteristics unroll more and more today.

All the same, the book contains long passages of which I could hardly makes sense, as Derrida always thinks along and against and through the many texts he read – of which many are unread by me. Even of Marx, whose name is in the title, I only have sketchy knowledge. For that reason, and out of the hope to understand more of the book, I proposed we would read and discuss it in depth in the postgraduate reading group I formed a few months ago. In my language (Dutch) we have a saying: ‘two know more than one’ – so seven would even know more. And they do. After three sessions (and having progressed unto page 33 of the book) I understand more than I did before. I see, among other things, how Heidegger and Marx dialogue in the thought of Derrida (Levinas always somewhere in the background) – or should I say in his writing? In the thought that springs up when reading his writing again.

We spoke also about this mysterious sentence – to learn to live, finally – we circled around it, but I still didn’t understand what these words, that reminded me rather of self-help literature (to learn to live, finally, in 7 steps – or something to that effect), were doing in a serious philosophical text. But now, looking at the stars, as the ancient philosophers must have been doing so much more than present day ones, I suddenly saw it: this sentence was Derrida’s answer and reference to Plato’s Phaedo, where Socrates teaches his pupils, when he is in prison and about to undergo capital punishment for spoiling the minds of the young, that philosophy is all about learning to die. In the mind of Plato learning to die becomes focusing on the eternal (the stars), the unchanging – to overcome the pain and anxieties of this here life. So suddenly I was present at the grand U-turn Derrida makes – we can still look at the stars, but they aren’t unchanging, as little as anything in our world. After pursuing the Platonic gaze for more than two thousand years, attempting to learn to die in vain, we better try to learn to live, finally.

And that was also what I was feeling myself – after more than half a century on this earth I have learnt to see that nothing is unchanging, not even for a moment. Large as well as minute changes surround me and work in me. Just a few weeks ago I returned to a place where I had been last almost forty years ago, and although I could remember ‘me’ being there, no cell in my body is still the same as then. The fragile structures of my body have somehow translated the memory over and over again, untill it is a faint imprint of the first experience. One cannot even say the memory captures the ‘same’ experience. Or that the ‘me’ remembering is the same.

Everything is changing, but this is for Derrida not a trigger to go and look for eternity beyond this life – but, on the contrary, to take up responsibility: to see injustice in front of me, and try to invest myself to try to restore justice (a justice that has never been, in this world, but that attracts and commands us). Here is where Marx comes in – this thinker, he says, who is ‘mad enough’ to speak to a ghost. When we were discussing in our reading group I remembered Marx’ words about how philosophers ‘up till now’ have only understood the world, but that now it is also time to change it.  This incentive Derrida takes very seriously, where he sees Marx as the first thinker who turned philosophy around – from staring at the stars and wanting to escape life, to seeing even the stars as reminders that we are up to our knees in the endless open ended decision moments of this life, and that we should take up our responsibility to do something, even when we remain in the dark, finally, about the rightness or wrongness of our actions.

Do something, however, not arbitrarily – but under the gaze of the ghost that looks at us – the ghost (of Marx, of the dead, of the suffering who are not fully in this world, of those without civil rights, without papers, without birthright in the affluent societies) that horrifyingly shows us injustice every moment, and our involvement in it. Thus our uncertainty about right and wrong does not mean we can be unengaged, or that we can ever, even for a moment, be indifferent. Paradoxally, this ethical awareness, after the Marxian U-turn of philosophy, means that we are on the path to learn to live, finally. To learn to enjoy life – being part of it, not fleeing it, knowing we can do something, at every moment. Or just doing something, under the gaze of the ghost – without even knowing whether we really can.


I want to thank here my brilliant co-readers of Specters of Marx – you know who you are. You would obviously write a very different post about your reading experiences, were any of you to write a blog. This post just addressed one moment of looking at the stars, on one fine evening in August, by one of us, who realized her ‘me’ to be within this ever changing and changeable sphere which I might want to call life.


I have never called myself a Marxist. Or a Spinozist. Marx and Spinoza are to me just thinkers, who added important new viewpoints to our understanding of our human selves and our human world. In their attempt to create a coherent philosophical explanation of the world, they created as many (philosophical and actual) problems. Confessing to the thought of one of them would mean to think those problems are not there, or can be overcome, which I do not. I have sometimes made an exception to my habit of not confessing to the work of any thinker as work that I could almost always in some way agree with. Sometimes I call myself a Derridian – to me that is less problematic, as Derrida never aimed to create a coherent philosophical explanation of the world, but just wrote endless commentaries to deconstruct any claim to universal truth. So being a Derridian is actually inconsistent in itself, and therefore less problematic to one who thinks, like me, that there is no such thing as a consistent philosophical view. Consistency is not nonsense, of course, but it is just a norm, indicating what we should strive for, like politeness, or maturity – no more.

Still, some months ago, when some colleagues were having drinks at a conference, continuing our learned conversations in a more easy tone, someone said that I lived in an Eco-Marxist bubble. Although I was rather surprised, I found it very funny, and immediately after my friend had crafted this expression, I knew I would be using it for my blog. The more so as it was used to describe the mindset of my internet personality, who was supposed to see the world through the filter of this epistemic shelter. Although it was said jokingly, I could understand that it was still meant to contain some real description of me. And I also immediately understood that it related to the subjects I tweet about on twitter. Indeed they often include articles that criticize how mining and deforestation threaten the lifeworld of indigenous peoples – the eco-part. As well as articles that criticize social problems created by neoliberal capitalism (the Marxist part). Still, I never was a Marxist, and I never adhered to any ecology movement or ideology.

Why, then, do I tweet about these subjects? And how do they relate to what I think about and write about here? My friend forgot one aspect, which is not so ubiquitously present on my twitter timeline, but that is because there is less interesting news about it – that is the aspect of the spiritual, especially in its more anim(al)istic manifestations. This forgotten aspect explains a lot about my interests and concerns, though, also those of a more ‘socialist’ and ‘ecologist’ character. It clarifies what motivates the other tweets. Let me first make it clear though that I am neither a spiritualist, a new ager, or a romantic traditionalist. I just take the approach to ourselves and our world that is often called animistic, and which I would rather call anim(al)istic, very serious. And I don’t do that because I fell for some new Latourian fashion. I have from a young age known this approach to make sense.

I would never argue that we should take more care of the planet because we would otherwise destroy it, or because otherwise the future of humankind would be at risk. We should take care of the world we live in, because taking care in itself is meaningful and makes life better. There is just nothing attractive or meaningful in using up everything around us and transforming it into waste. It hollows out our life, and that of the other creatures around us. I would also never argue that wealth should be distributed more evenly for the sake of making an end to the reign of capital, or to create a classless society. I would not know what that would mean, nor if it would help us. I do think however that amassing wealth on one side, and creating poverty on the other, should never be a goal of one’s actions, as that makes – again – no sense. It is ugly. Destroying nature and giving the economy complete free reign makes for a very ugly world. So is my position an aesthetic one, then? Again, no. I do not value beauty in itself. It is just one of the things to enjoy, like tastefulness, warmth, or bodily movement.

The point is, my hunch is, that, first, a human life can be best enjoyed when one knows one’s limits – having enough to not constantly think about food or money, and not so much that it creates its own worries. That ‘enough’ is not exactly the same for everyone is okay by me. My hunch is, secondly, that in conditions of ‘enough’ one can most easily search those experiences that create real joy, and those are of the relationship kind. Enjoying the shadow of the tree, the whispering of the grass, the flowering of the weeds, even the torture of the wind on a stormy day. Enjoying the kindness of animals, and among these, the kindness of our fellow-humans. Also their otherness, that challenges our own being. Their mystery that makes us wonder. That seems to be a good life for most of us.

It is generally called animistic to value grasses, winds, and other things as things with which one can enter into a relationship. Yet we do so all the time. Not just with natural things, but also with those of our own creation. We miss ‘the old house’, we grieve a thing that has been broken, we get frustrated at an instrument that doesn’t work. As I said, I take that approach very seriously, as it makes me understand a lot of our behavior. So why add the ‘al’ – creating the word anim(al)istic? To remind us that we are animal, and that the other animal is our relative, and that we can best learn from our close relatives how to be animal in a better way. We humans constantly wander astray from our animality, which is strange, to say the least, as it is the beginning and the end of all human life.


To wander freely does not mean being without direction. That would be erring around. A free wanderer however has no predetermined goal, but rather lets himself be guided by the quality he encounters on his journey. Quality being of course a relation between the traveller and his surroundings, a relation which is not free from the things one loves. One person might descry an attractive turn, which another would have passed by indifferently. So it goes in research: one does not know exactly what one is looking for (although funding institutions wrongly suppose that one does), but having come at a crossing, or seeing a dark alley on the side you decide to continue or to venture into a new direction.

It was thus, wandering, that I came to read Derrida’s Specters of Marx. In the course of collecting material for a reader on ‘knowledge and imagination’, in search for views that challenge mainstream ‘Western’ epistemology, I encountered Derrida in the introduction into African philosophy, Mazungumzo, by German-Dutch philosopher Heinz Kimmerle. Actually the book is an intercultural introduction – which means it confronts, as in a dialogue, texts from Western philosophers with texts or ideas from Africa and from African philosophers. In the chapter on spirit belief Derrida’s book featured – so, a few years later, when I had the time I started to read it. And was captivated.

Reading the book itself is like wandering, but then in a space that has been put there by the philosopher Jacques Derrida. As the great reader he is, Derrida takes you through literature which he thinks is necessary to understand the meaning of Marx, and why his specters will haunt us again after communism has been exorcised in the late eighties and early nineties of the twentieth century. As such it is a very interesting cultural history of the modern view of human society. Its political and anthropological preconditions. And its spectral ones. Larger than life looms the figure of Hamlet, who by the encounter of the specter of his father has been called to see justice and its violation. Who stands before the impossible question to risk his life or be silent, and thus, in both cases, risk his sanity.

Derrida calls into remembrance the words of Marcellus, who, frightened upon encounter of the ghost, speaks to his partner: ‘Thou art a Scholler – speake to it, Horatio’. Words that could be understood as the appeal the book does to the potential reader: scholars should address the specters of their times – those without rights, the invisible people, hungering, working as modern slaves in faraway places, out of sight of the consumers of their produce, the ones without identity (sans papiers), or those who are there, visibly, with papers and rights, but who through some magical trick are treated as second class citizens. Starting off with the most prominent specter of Marx, the one of the Communist Manifesto, Derrida finds with joyful expectation: ‘here is someone mad enough to hope to unlock the possibility of such an address.’

The surprise for me was, that while wanting to investigate alternative epistemologies, I had returned myself to that author whose books I had long sold, because I thought I would never read them again (this goes for more authors, as I don’t like watching ‘dead’ backs on my bookshelves – that are those books who do not invite anymore, who don’t promise possibilities of new readings). Derrida is strict on this point: ‘It will always be a fault not to read and reread and discuss Marx […], it will be more and more a fault, a failing of theoretical, philosophical, political responsibility.’ More and more now that the dogma machines of the communist states have (to a great extent, that is) disappeared, says Derrida. For now we cannot use it as an excuse any more that one would not want to discuss texts that are used (wrongfully) to support those injust regimes. And it put the question about alternative epistemologies in another light, the light of the (repressive) politics that decides on what we are allowed to know or not, and the (liberative) politics that aims to lift just such a – philosophically unforgivable – unfreedom.

I cited from Jacques Derrida’s Specters of Marx. The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, Routledge, 1994 (original French edition 1993).

Heinz Kimmerle has put many of his texts online:

There is justified grief, and anger, among many U.S. citizens, about the way in which the recent Zimmerman case has been handled. Although I am not American, and no expert in the law, I would like to add to the perception of what is going on here by trying some philosophical reflection. As I understand it, the problematic aspect of the stand-your-ground law, which aquitted George Zimmerman, who shot 17 year old Trayvon Martin when he walked home at night, is that it blurrs to an unbearable extent the line between defense and attack. I will not go into the question of racist motives in U.S. courts, or in the general public – one can simply acknowledge that they are there, and it should make one sad and angry. But, suppose that both actors in that drama had the same skin colour, only one was very paranoia about defending himself and people’s property – and he could legally carry a gun. And could suppose that when he used it against a person which he thought was threatening the law would protect him… in other words, I would like to try to show what this law as such expresses about being human in our time.

Originally, as I understand it, the stand-your-ground law was designed to exonerate persons who defended their property, their home, their own safe place to live, to intruders (for my Dutch readers, we are having a discussion to alter the law in this direction in recent years, think ‘Teeven’). But what does it say about being a person – in relation to property, that one would rather kill another human being than try to run first and call the police? It happened that I was reading just now in the early writings of Marx, where he discusses the ideas of Hegel on the state and property. Where a certain class of property-owners, land owners in the case discussed, are allowed special political representation, as in the House of Lords in England, this is not in the interest of individual property-owners, Marx notices, but in the interest of property itself. This has to do with ancient European customs related to succession. It provides, Marx notices, a possibility to buy rights for ‘younger sons’, who do not inherit the land of their fathers (along with the race question, I will also leave out the feminist question here).

Marx criticizes Hegels idea that property is something one can dispose of (‘meines Eigentums kann ich mich entäussern’), since it would be mine only because I can do with it what I want, and is as such external to my personality. To Hegel property is not substantial to a person, as are his free will, his morality and religion – those would make up a persons self-awareness. Marx points to the fact that certain historical social arrangements (and their legal articulations) make property undisposable (‘unveräusserlich’). Although he speaks of the special political representation mentioned above, I would suggest one reads his words as applicable to discussions as the one excited by the stand-your-ground law: ‘Property is becoming a good one cannot dispose of, a substantial destination, which makes up the very person, the general essence of self awareness […], personality as such, its general freedom of will, morality, religion.’

These are harsh words, and to my view they describe without mercy the situation of present society. They apply not just to Florida, but also to Bangladesh (to remember those workers who died in the collapsing factory where they were slaving), to the Netherlands, to anywhere. Marx continues: ‘property is not any more ‘because I can do with it what I want’, but my will is ‘because of my property’. My will does not posess, but is posessed.’ Modern humanity has accepted to let itself be defined by property, as something which one cannot dispose of, and traded it for the disposability of human beings, not only those considered a threat to it, but also those who as workers without rights have to keep the stream of goods to be posessed flowing. In the process we have traded in something essential, I think.

Karl Marx lived from 1818-1883. I translated freely from Die Frühschriften (the early works), in the edition of Kröner Verlag, Stuttgart, 1971. The passages cited are on page 120.

The ethics conference which I hope to visit in August has in it’s title ‘Ethics of an Open Future’. And furher it is on Climate Change and Sustainability. It should be on the major problems which face humanity, therefore (although one never knows whether this will remain so when academics start to talk shop). I chose to discuss there in my paper two rather radical books – Derrida’s 1993 study Specters of Marx and Marcuse’s 1964 work on One Dimensional Man. Both philosophers explicitly draw (among so many other sources) on the thought of Karl Marx, but do so in the most original manner, writing not as followers or disciples of the great nineteenth century analyst of his times, but as analysts of their own times, searching for tools to unhinge the silence that hides the current power structures. Should I write ‘silence’, or ‘innocence’?

Heidegger coined the word ‘Seinsvergessenheit’  which should mean a having-forgotten about being to such a degree that one has even forgotten the forgetfulness. To many a reader this will be vague, as it is hard to understand why we should be aware of ‘being’. Heidegger’s most original pupil, Hannah Arendt, used this idea of something lost and out of sight, and stuck it on a more urgent matter – the forgetting of politics, as a critical exchange between free human beings. As politics became, in the twentieth century, management of society instead of this critical exchange, she named this ‘Weltverlust’, loss of world. World meaning for her the public space which human beings create with each other when they exchange their different, perspectivated views. Differing, daring to discuss and criticize creates the ‘room to move’ for the human spirit, individually as well as in community.

Marcuse must have been inspired by her work when he titled the second chapter of his book ‘The Closing of the Political Universe’. Modern society, which measures it’s succes with an eye to it’s technological progress, blinds itself to this goal – ‘progress’. When technological progress is the ultimate goal, in industry, in consumption, as well as in scientific research and argumentation, society goes blind to the quality of human life – that is – to the idea that first fired the struggle for modernity: freedom. We have lost public space (to a great extent), as we live in a closed political universe. That is, when we have lost the possibility to criticize the principles by which our society propells itself into the future. One could also say that we live in a situation of a closed future. Slaves of progress, without any thought in our minds on where this should lead us…

And here comes the relationship with ethics: when we cannot criticize society for it’s goals, when we cannot discuss what we want in life as human beings, when we are, therefore, not free – we can neither be moral. A moral agent is supposed to be a free agent, and both Derrida in his mentioned work and Marcuse, have tried to show their contemporaries that we loose our morality when the political universe is closed. Their work is a work of titanic proportions, as they had to do away with the ideology of the Cold War (and it’s supposed ending in Derrida’s case) that had stifled the thought of an entire era. Re-opening the political universe is not an easy thing, and the majority of the work still has to be done. It means we have to disengage ourselves of the society of needs – of the economy of scarcity, that is, and of the metaphors of war which are used to support it. It is understandable that they went back to Marx, as his analysis of the economical universe is still worthy of further interpretation. Their search for words to articulate the hinge that decides on openness/freedom over against closure/repression – living our difference, our multi-dimensionality, our plurality – owes to my view more than said to that great twentieth century analyst of the political: Hannah Arendt. But that is not the point here – the point is that we can not reclaim our status of moral agents unless we decide to dare to be political once more.

Hannah Arendt The Human Condition, University of Chicago Press 1998 [originally published in 1958]

Jacques Derrida Specters of Marx. The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, Routledge 1994 [original French edition 1993]

Herbert Marcuse One Dimensional Man. Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society, Routledge 2002 [first edition 1964, second edition 1991]

When I was a student, in the eighties of the twentieth century, Karl Popper’s Open Society was considered not quite okay to read – at least when one considered oneself to be on the critical and leftish side of the political arena. As incomprehensible as this now seems to me – well, there were more strange things going on in that stifled age of what is called ‘Cold War’. In those polarized circumstances anyone who was not for Marx, was definitely thought to be against him, and, more, under suspicion of propagating Capitalism and its wrongs.

Popper, who had been a Marxist in his own younger days, left the movement when in a protest rally some individuals were shot dead by the police. It opened his eyes to the moral principle that no ideology justified people dying for it – which made him leave the movement. But worse, he criticized Marx to the core in the book which he considered to be his ‘War effort’ (while living peacefully in New Zealand, which he had reached in time before the Nazi’s could have hunted him in his native Austria for being of jewish decent). His criticism centered on Marx’ idea of history: that one could project into the future a blueprint of a just society, for which then, sacrifices were acceptable.

Of course he was right about this core point in Marx, which was borrowed from Hegel, and we know how it worked out in Communist countries, where the destruction of families, of personal privacy, and of lives were condoned by this idea of rightful sacrifice. Instead one should hold, Popper wrote, that history cannot progress, cannot move towards a (somehow already existing) end: ‘only we, the human individuals can do it; […] by defending and strenghtening those democratic insitutions upon which freedom, and with it progress, depends.’ Democratic institutions, because they garantuee that we can always take new courses when tried ones fail, instead of having to keep steering toward the one ideal society once thought out. And then he wrote those compelling concluding words: ‘Instead of posing as prophets we must become the makers of our fate.’

Another philosophical writer on society (who had fled Germany for similar reasons in that same period, but then to that other haven, the USA) – a writer with similar views on history – was considered to be okay for the left-wing student, since he rather revised Marxist theory from within, instead of rejecting it. I mean Herbert Marcuse, whom I mentioned earlier (in ‘Difficult Freedom’) and to whom I will probably return another time. The interesting fact is that he does not reject absolutist tendencies in theory only, but that he sees them at work also in the so-called ‘free’ world of those days. Because we have separated ideologically politics from technology, says Marcuse, we have lost a real freedom of thought. Thinking that our technological progress is a politically neutral development, we can no longer criticize the economic, ecological and humanitarian injustices that are inescapable when we let it dominate our goals. Food for thought, really, in our present days of ecological and economic (and humanitarian…) crisis!

Marcuse dares to criticize a naive faith in a certain type of democracy (which he calls ‘mass democracy’) – the kind that grants liberties, while at the same time denying freedom. Liberties for some, that is, because they are denied to ‘the exploited and persecuted of other races and colors, the unemployed and the unemployable. They exist outside of the democratic process […].’ This sounds still relevant, watching today’s world – with its masses of poor people living on the verge of subsistence, working in situations which are not officially, but actually situations of slave labour, who lack democratic institutions, or the knowledge, money and power to make use of them; more, our world with it’s large amounts of undocumented migrant workers living in the heart of ‘democratic’ nations without full citizen’s rights. They are named ‘illegal’, and my own government now wants to upgrade this downgrading by declaring illegality a penal offence.

In these conditions it is necessary to make use of any theory which will work for a better world – so forget right or left, love Marcuse’s critical analysis of false freedom, and stress at the same time that we, individuals, are the makers of our shared fate. Love Popper for rejecting so strongly the idea of rightful sacrifice, since it stresses the provisional character of any blueprint and it’s subordination to the worth of every individual life.

Karl Popper lived from 1902-1994, Herbert Marcuse from 1898-1979.

Citations are from Karl Popper The Open Society and its Enemies, Routledge, 2002 [original edition 1945] and Herbert Marcuse One Dimension Man. Studies in the Ideology of advanced industrial society, Routledge Classics, 1991 [original edition 1964].

Once upon a time, when I was a poor student of philosophy, I stumbled upon a book named Principles of the Philosophy of the Future. I had never read a text by its author, Ludwig Feuerbach, but the title uplifted my mood. It was reduced in price, so I could buy it… the only problem being that it contained the reprint of its original edition in Gothic script. Because of its affordability, however, I decided I would learn to read it, and was happy when I finally managed to do so.

Feuerbach is a philosopher who is read too little. Most people know his name only from introductory courses in philosophy or theology, and name him in one breath with Marx. ‘Oh, Feuerbach, that’s the one who said religion is human projection!’ Well, there would be more to be said about that characterization, but it is not my aim here and now. Feuerbach wrote his pamphlet-like book on philosophy (published in 1843), aimed at ‘pulling philosophy down from the divine, self-sufficient bliss in the realm of ideas into human misery’, into ‘the realm of embodied and living souls.’

The reason for Feuerbach to try to revolutionize philosophy was the predominance of idealistic, otherworldly thinking in the midst of great social change. The reason that we should widely re-read his book is that, although philosophy in our days is no longer idealistic, it surely is otherworldly. Not in the sense of focusing on the spiritual or the religious, but by focusing only on questions of academic interest, forgetting the huge problems most human beings, as well as the non-human earthlings (animals, plants), face every day in our times.

It is perhaps not the primary aim for philosophers to change the world, as Marx urged them to do, but it should certainly be their aim to change our understanding of the world, so it can come to light what has been silently screaming for change. Feuerbach thought that philosophy should take the place of religion, providing moral and spiritual direction to humankind. He was not right in that point, since we better draw from multiple guiding traditions, in stead of looking for a single one to take the lead. With William James I hold that human imperfection asks for plurality in views and philosophies, since we can never reach absolute certainty. With Feuerbach I strongly agree, however, that philosophy, ‘without damaging the dignity and independence of theory’ needs a practical direction. It should look global problems, as they relate to our behaviour, in the eye, and focus on ‘the needs of mankind and of the future’.

All citations are taken from Ludwig Feuerbach, Principles of the Philosophy of the Future, Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis/Cambridge, 1986 [1843].

Ludwig Feuerbach lived from 1804-1872.