Of Derrida’s Inheritance of Marx

On April 25, 2024 by admin


Aniruddha Chowdhury

More than one/No more one

~Specters of Marx


In Specters of Marx, Jacques Derrida reaffirms his inheritance of the Marxist tradition. The reaffirmation is singular and timely.  Derrida insists on the co-belonging, in an almost genealogical manner, of deconstruction and the tradition of a certain Marxism.  “Deconstruction … would have been impossible and unthinkable in a pre-Marxist space.” 1 In his early career, Derrida, on more than one occasion, spoke of his allegiance to Marxist materialism, especially to its anti-idealist program.2  But the tone is unfailingly political now.  Derrida deploys his notion of conjuration to remark on a veritable counter-revolution that tirelessly erases the memory of the Marxist or communist past in order to devastate its future possibility.  “Conjuration”, Derrida explains, means primarily “conjurement” (exorcism) that “tends to expulse the evil spirit” through invocation, or better convocation — a political pact, a plot, or a conspiracy (SM, 47). “Effective exorcism pretends to declare the death only in order to put to death” (SM, 48).  No one can really contest, Derrida notes, that there is a worldwide dominant discourse, a hegemonic discourse, on Marxism, International, universal revolution, and so on.  “This dominating discourse often has the manic, jubilatory, and incantatory form that Freud assigned to the so-called triumphant phase of the mourning work… Marx is dead, communism is dead, very dead, along with it its hopes, its discourse, its theories, and its practices.  It says: long live capitalism, long live the market, here’s to the survival of economic and political liberalism!” (SM 51-52).  Derrida analyses the distinct forms of this conjuration: political, cultural, and scholarly.  There is a spectrality to the dominant “conjuring trick.”  There is a disavowal in this triumphant conjuration, it hides from itself, from the fact that that whose survival is championed is as threatening as it is threatened.  It invokes the ‘red specter’ in order to put it to death, which is impossible.  How can one put to death a specter? 

Derrida returns to Marx, it is an unheard-of return – neither a phenomenology of life nor structural Marxism, but a certain post-phenomenological, post-critical ‘philosophy’, a quasi-atheistic religion of revenant and arrivant.  In contrast to early Marx’s ‘life-philosophy’ and Michel Henry’s” hyper phenomenology” of life, Derrida posits sur-vie as opposed to la vie: “We are attempting something else.  To try to accede to the possibility of this very alternative (life and/or death), we are directing our attention to the effects or the petitions of a survival or of a return of the dead (neither life nor death) on the sole basis of which one is able to speak of “living subjectivity” (in opposition to its death)” (SM, 187).  Inheritance is never homogeneous, let alone self-identical.  Inheritance involves decision, it involves affirmation through choosing.  Derrida decides on Marx, his spirit, to choose one instead of another.  For the Marxist tradition is anything but homogeneous.  More importantly, there is a spectrality to Marx and the Marxist tradition that Derrida affirms, so to speak, against Marx.  Marx invokes spirit and specter, but, “with a burst of laughter,”Marx too chases away the specters, and wants to annihilate them in the name of life and reality.  “Marx does not like ghosts any more than his adversaries do.  He does not believe in them.  But he thinks of nothing else” (SM 45-46).  Marx too conjures away the ghosts like his adversaries.

Derrida, it is important to note, distinguishes his ‘return’ to Marx as something other than merely scholarly exercise and discourse. It is to a certain spirit of communism to which Derrida seeks to ‘return,’ – and that’s certainly how Derrida would have intended the work to be read, – which Derrida does not hesitate to call (pace Postmodernism?) a certain spirit of “emancipation” (SM, 75), a certain spirit of emancipation that Derrida calls eschatological.  “Deconstruction has never had any sense or interest, in my view at least, except as a radicalization, which is to say also in the tradition of a certain Marxism, in a certain spirit of Marxism” (SM, 92).  So, it is a matter of spirit whose paradoxical phenomenality is a specter, which is thus “almost” distinct from the speculative discourse of spirit a la Hegel.  “Almost,” because the spirit in Hegel, Derrida reminds us, is also a specter.  “The semantics of Gespenst themselves haunt the semantics of Geist” (SM, 107). Yet, it is of utmost importance to separate specter from spirit despite their common ‘genealogical’ co-belonging.  What separates them “is doubtless a supernatural and paradoxical phenomenality, the furtive and ungraspable visibility of the invisible, or an invisibility of a visible X … it is also, no doubt, the tangible intangibility of a proper body without flesh, but still the body of someone as someone other.  And someone other that we will not hasten to determine as self, subject, person, consciousness, spirit and so forth” (SM, 7)  This paradoxical visibility of the invisible, in Hamlet as in Marx’s The German Ideology, is what Derrida terms the visor effect: we do not see who looks at us (SM, 7).  There is an uncanniness, even despotism, in being observed by someone other who hides from visibility.  This simulacrum that is “virtually more actual than what is so blithely called a living presence” (SM, 13) is what causes not only fear but also anxiety.  The visor effect, Derrida suggests, is what destabilizes synchrony, and its uncanniness consists in being referred to “anachrony.”  Anachrony is the time of the specter and it is the anachrony of the visor effect that “makes the law” (SM, 7). It is the visor effect on the basis of which we inherit from the law.

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The anachrony is also diachrony: repetition and thefirst time, which is the question of the event of the ghost, a spectral event (SM, 10).  A ghost or a revenant “begins by coming back” (SM, 11).  Repetition and the first time and also the last time.  Each visitation is singular without being self-identical.   The extremity of the eschaton is also a flood of revenants.  Repetition is not the repetition of the same but of difference, each time singular.  If repetition or return is singular, then, paradoxically, singularity is repeated singularity, which de-synchronizes, is what is constitutive of the recurrent haunting (anxious and fearsome) which Derrida famously calls, using a neologism hauntology which, Derrida suggests, makes possible ontology and onto-theology as such.  The hauntology also means specters of Marx, revenants that inhabited him, haunted him without being thematized.  Hauntology refuses to be thematized or theorized.  Marx lived in the “frequentation of specters.”   “In this regard, communism has always been and will remain spectral: it is always still to come and is distinguished, like democracy itself, from every living present understood as presence-to-itself…” (SM, 98). In Hamlet, the assured opposition of being and non-being, living and non-living is destabilized.   Derrida thus weaves the text of Hamlet with Marx’s Capital, The German Ideology, and The Eighteenth Brumaire.

According to Derrida, Marx’s analysis of commodities in general, in Capital, explains commodities as having the irreducibly non-simple, phantasmagoric,  spectral form (SM, 150). The social relations that the generalized commodity production expresses are phantasmagoric through and through. Social relations are turned ‘on its head’, idealized, autonomized, and automatized. There is an invisibility, better, visible invisibility, in a commodity form or what Marx calls a sensuous non-sensuous thing. The commodity has a spectral density, it is a “thing” without phenomenon (SM, 150).  In Marx’s famous analysis of the “mysterious” wooden table, the wood is a sensuous thing, a phenomenon of flesh and blood.  It is quite different when it becomes a commodity when the commodity table, says Marx, enters the stage, walks around, and put itself forward as a market value.  “This woody and headstrong denseness is metamorphosed into a supernatural thing… The ghostly schema now appears indispensable” (SM, 150).   In Marx’s analysis, however, as Derrida glosses, “the phenomenological good sense” is still valid for what Marx calls use-value precisely because use-value “always relates to what is proper to man, to the properties of man” (SM, 150).   According to Derrida, Marx intends to keep a space free of this phantasm, though unsuccessfully, in the name of real, which Marx terms use value towhich Marx wants to give a natural, quasi-ontological, uncontaminated identity.

A specter haunts precisely because its return is unpredictable and uncontrollable.  Its time is anachronic and thus profoundly unhinged, out of joint.    If this “time is out of joint” is the possibility of evil as such, it is the basis of inheritance and justice as the relation to the absolutely other that is not properly present here and now, no longer present, not yet present, which is anterior to ontology.  A specter is there without being there.  In that sense, a specter is not a Dasein (though Dasein is being-toward-death) and cannot be thought of within the category of being of beings.  It is beyond being (epekeina  tes ousias) and beyond our horizon of expectation.  But this is Derrida’s insight which would perhaps disturb the author of Being and Time: “There is no Dasein without the uncanniness, without the strange familiarity (Unheimlichkeit) of some specter” (SM, 100).

Derrida insists, in the context of Marx, that our inheritance is de-synchronized.  It is finite through and through.  There is a remarkable heterogeneity in our inheritance (SM, 16), a heterogeneity that cannot be reduced.  “An inheritance,” Derrida writes, going against a certain Heideggerian orthodoxy, “is never gathered together, it is never one with itself” (SM, 16).  Though Derrida contests, here and elsewhere, horizonal phenomenology, a ghostly repetition, a spectral inheritance still presupposes, especially in the context of Marx, I think, what Derrida elsewhere calls “the horizon of infinite (indefinite) alterity as the irreducibly common horizon of Death and the Other.  The horizon of finitude or the finitude of the horizon.” 3 Not a totalizing horizon but a finite and singular horizon.  Finitude is the condition of inheritance.  Inheritance is irreducibly finite and thus plural, not a plurality (more than one) spread out before our neutral gaze but secret, anterior in itself, dislocated, dislodged through and through.  Thus, Derrida writes of the inheritance of Marx: “Not without Marx, no future without Marx, without the memory and the inheritance of Marx: in any case of a certain Marx, of his genius, of at least one of his spirits.  For this will be our hypothesis or rather our bias: there is more than one of them, there must be more than one of them” (SM, 13).

In Specters, Derrida reads Maurice Blanchot’s incomparably dense and haunting short essay “Marx’s Three Voices.”  In this essay, as Derrida reads, Blanchot remarks on the interweaving, through juxtaposing, of irreducibly plural voices (spirits?) of Marx.  Marx’s name designates a futural pledge, an assignation, and injunctions.  Yet, there is a disparateness among the ‘voices’.  But, this is Blanchot’s intervention, disparate “holds together” the disparate.  Holding together is not to maintain together the disparate; rather disparate holds itself together, without a necessary conjunction, in an almost non-dialectical manner, that is, not “according to a dys-of negative opposition and dialectical disjunction, but a time without certain joining or determinable conjunction” (SM, 18). 

Derrida reads Marx’s (and Hamlet‘s) spectropoetics – the post-critical (more on this soon) injunction of non-living and survivant, those who are no longer living and those who are not yet born (revenant and arrivant) –  in the name of justice. This is Derrida’s Levinasian heritage: “The relation to others –that is to say, justice” (Levinas) (SM, 23). The present is unhinged by this injunction.  Derrida calls this justice undeconstructible, which is anterior to law.  However, we should note, without going into detail, that justice is not uncomplicated. As Derrida reads, there is a cleavage, so to speak, between law and justice as such.  If “Time is out of joint,” which is the possibility of evil, Hamlet curses himself to be borne to set it right. “The Time is out of joynt: oh cursed spight,/That ever I was borne to set it right.”  Hamlet opposes the being “out of joint” of time to his being-right.  He, as it were, curses his destiny to be the man of right or law.  Hamlet comes after, originarily late, he is born to set time on the right path, “only by castigating, punishing, killing” (SM, 21).  Now, this is Derrida’s deconstructive, transformative question: if law or right stems from vengeance, in Hamlet -before Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Benjamin — can we not yearn for a justice freed from vengeance, a quasi-messianic day of justice that no longer belongs to history?  This is Derrida’s transformative question, what  Derrida terms “transformative interpretation.”  If the disjuncture is the possibility of law as vengeance, does not the disjuncture open up the possibility of “infinite asymmetry of the relation to the other” as the very possibility of justice? 

In a similar reading of Heidegger’s ‘Anaximander’s Saying‘ Derrida reflects on the asymmetry of law and justice (SM, 23-28).  If Dike, thought on the basis of presence, is harmony and ad-joining, then Adikia, on the contrary, is a certain dis-joining, dis-articulation, which is translated as injustice.  If Heidegger speaks of the gift of Dike, then that gift must be thought without restitution, debt, and right (or even duty), beyond the experience of vengeance and the economy of exchange.  Further, against the current translation, Derrida reads Heidegger’s Fug as law and Un-Fug as justice, the relation between them being asymmetric.  Justice remains (as the injunction) in the dis-jointure of the Un-Fug, beyond presence, right and juridism, beyond morality, as the very experience of dis-juncture: “Here, in this interpretation of the Un-Fug, … would be played out the relation of deconstruction to the possibility of justice, the relation of deconstruction (insofar as it proceeds from the irreducible possibility of the Un-Fug and the anachronic disjointure, as it draws there the very resource and injunction of its reaffirmed affirmation) to what must (without debt and without duty) be rendered to the singularity of the other, to his or her absolute precedence or to his or her absolute previousness…” (SM, 27-28).

Justice beyond restitution is the recurrent theme in late Derrida.  In his celebrated essay, ‘Force of Law: The “Mystical Foundation of Authority,”‘ Derrida points out the very ambiguity in the term Gewalt.  The term is translated as both force and violence.  Gewalt, Derrida suggests, is both legitimate power or authority and a certain originary, instituting violence which is itself neither legal nor illegal.  If justice is thought on the basis of the asymmetry of power and force, then force is in itself differential, there is a force as differance (differance is a force differee-differante).  This is the double affirmation, double writing, on Derrida’s part: “It goes without saying that discourse on double affirmation, the gift beyond exchange and distribution, the undecidable, the incommensurable or the incalculable or on singularity, difference and heterogeneity are also, through and through, at least obliquely discourse on justice.” 4

Derrida’s corpus is haunted.  The schema of non-living and non-present has a ‘constitutive’ role in Derrida’s thought from his earliest writings.  In his first masterwork Speech and Phenomena, Derrida shows how differance, the differential, and repetition have “a constitutive value” in Husserl’s conception of the transcendental life and internal time consciousness.  As Derrida observes the central motif of his critique, “Phenomenology seems to us tormented, if not contested from within, by its own descriptions of the movement of temporalization and of the constitution of intersubjectivity.  At the heart of what ties together these two decisive moments of description we recognize an irreducible nonpresence as having a constitutive value, and with it a nonlife, a nonpresence or nonself-belonging of the living present, and irreducible non-primordiality.” 5 To put it very briefly, if the whole argument of Husserl’s theory of meaning – the primacy of “expression” (Audruck) over “indications” (Anzeigen),  the priority of the sphere “ownness” over the sphere of the “other”– rests on his (Husserl’s) notion of self-presence and instantaneity of the “now”, then Derrida’s “transformative interpretation” is to show that this priority is denied by Husserl’s own descriptions. Not only the hierarchic oppositions cannot be maintained except through force, as Derrida reads Husserl, but the very instantaneity of now is also part of the wider notion of the living present which, as Derrida shows, is the effect of ‘synthesis’, i.e. retention, representation, and repetition (the sphere of the otherness):

              The possibility of re-petition in its most general form, that is, the constitution of a

 trace in the most universal sense – is a possibility which not only must inhabit the

 pure actuality of the now but must constitute it through the very movement of

 difference it introduces … more “primordial” than what is phenomenologically

 primordial. 6

If the present is the effect of repetition, then Derrida would astutely show, contrary to Husserl, that signs “work’ at the very core of ‘transcendental’ consciousness.  Mediation of signs is constitutive of our “inner life” that Husserl wants to keep unmediated and uncontaminated.  The necessity of retention and of signs disturb, at its core, Husserl’s conception of the self-presence of voice uncontaminated by, say, worldly writing – a silent inner voice.  Derrida shows that writing already dwells within speech and the sphere of “ownness.”

Derrida’s ‘basic concepts’ such as differance, trace, writing, supplement, designate non-presence, and non-primordiality.  The terms such as differance and trace are inherently plural and polysemic.  The terms are marked by a spectral ‘more than one/no more one’ (non-identity) as they are anterior to and constitutive of difference and identity, without themselves being primordial and original.  Derrida suggests that the term such as differance is “historically” constituted through and through, are in that sense ‘determinate.’  As temporal terms,  constituted through and through, the differences, in Derrida, as in Saussure,  are themselves effects, “an effect without a cause”, which is neither substance nor subject. Differance is the non-full, non-simple, structured and differentiating origin of differences.” 7 Differance is trace.  If differance contains a minimal structure of delay (Nachtragiclichkeit), Derrida forbids us to make of temporization ” a simple dialectical complication of the living present as an originary and unceasing synthesis,” 8 for synthesis gathers in on itself, directs back on itself.  Yet, if differance is a minimal synthesis of differences, Derrida would still distinguish it from the Hegelian synthesis where differences are resolved into contradiction, interiorized and lifted up into the self-presence of ontological synthesis.9 Further, differance, Derrida would write in a certain non-Heideggerian manner, does not gather itself, it is not one with itself (“no more one”).

The concept of trace, in Derrida, is catachrestic in that it functions, paradoxically, as the ‘transcendental’ structure of an irreducible otherness and nonpresence, which by its very operation makes any transcendental and phenomenological synthesis finally impossible.  The trace is the ‘condition’ of ideality, in so far as the ideality must be infinitely repeatable in order to be.  The possibility of repetition, as the basis of identification, is trace.  As a catachrestic concept, trace refers to a constitutive nonpresence and a non-primordiality.   The logic of the catachresis of trace is evident in Derrida’s remark that the unmotivatedness of the trace requires a ‘synthesis’ in which the completely other is announced as such.  But when the other announces itself as such, it presents itself in the dissimulation of itself. 10 In Of Grammatology, Derrida’s deconstructive task is not simply to reverse the traditional hierarchy of speech and writing in order to make writing innocent. 11 If writing is the name of the absence of signatory and of the referent,Derrida’s phenomenological task is to reveal the horizon within which such an absence is possible. 12 That horizon is revealed, paradoxically, as the originary differentiality, alterity, and trace, which the concept of general writing or arche-writing designate.  This ‘structure’ of an irreducible self-alterity is thus graphic rather than logic: an unheard-of graphic silence marks the differance with a which is always the unperceived, the non-present, and the nonconscious.  Now, the concept of graphie (unit of the possible graphic system) already implies, Derrida writes, the “framework of the instituted trace, as the possibility common to all systems of significations.” 13

As an ‘originary’ effect, as temporal through and through, differance refers not to a past that is only a modified present but what Derrida, following Levinas, calls an absolute past and a future that is its memory (SM, 37).  Derrida would caution repeatedly that if differance contains a minimal structure of delay, that does never mean that it retards an already constituted possibility.  Rather, that possibility is possible only through differance. Thus, in Specters, we read: “In the incoercible differance the here-now unfurls.  Without lateness, without delay, but without presence, it is the precipitation of an absolute singularity, singular because deferring … No differance without alterity, no alterity without singularity, no singular without here-now” (SM, 31). 

To return to Specters of Marx, the inheritance of Marx involves, as always, a double affirmation of the Marxist spirit of “radical critique” that belongs to the tradition of Enlightenment and a certain post-critical, post-Enlightenment religiosity (affirmation of the messianic).   Derrida interprets deconstruction as a version of emancipatory critique and Enlightenment even if Derrida moves from Marxist ontology and science to a post-critical hauntology.  It is always by way of critique that Derrida passes beyond critique. In both respects, Derrida is selective.  It is in the name of justice (dissociated from law) that Derrida inherits and chooses.  The radical critique in Marxism “is an heir to a spirit of the Enlightenment” which Derrida never renounces.  Nonetheless, the critique is entwined with a certain notion of eschatology that Derrida seeks to distinguish from teleology.  The critique stems from “a certain emancipatory and messianic affirmation” (SM, 89)that must be liberated from any dogmatics and from religious messianism (SM, 89).  This is an unheard-of, a quasi-atheistic messianicity of religion: a religion that is the effect of differance.  In the context of Marx, Derrida writes: “The religious is thus not just one ideological phenomenon or phantomatic production among others.  On the one hand, it gives to the production of the ghost or of the ideological phantasm its originary form or its paradigm of reference, its first “analogy.”  On the other hand, (and first of all, and no doubt for the same reason), the religious also informs, along with the messianic and the eschatology, be it in the necessarily undetermined, empty, abstract, and dry form that we are privileging here, that “spirit” of emancipatory Marxism whose injunction we are reaffirming here, however secret and contradictory it appears” (SM, 166-167).

The notion of interminable self-critique, in Derrida, is separated from the other spirits that, in the Marxist tradition, link the critique to a systemic and ontological totality.  Rather, the spirit of radical critique is itself intertwined with a certain spirit of the messianic.  In affirming the messianic spirit of critique in Marx, Derrida risks renouncing “almost everything” of that tradition –ontologization, notion of the Marxist science, “its fundamental concepts of labor, mode of production, social class … the Internationals of the labor movement, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the single party, the state, and finally the totalitarian monstrosity” (SM, 88).Yet this notion of critique, and its distinction from ontologization is never meant to be just “spiritual” or “abstract”(SM, 89). For example, Derrida writes: “To break with the “party form” or with some form of the state or the International does not mean to give up every form of practical or effective organization” (SM, 89).  To repeat, it is from the “absolute future of what is to come” (SM, 90) that the critique inherits itself.  The tradition of critique must not be totally separated from the post-critical notion of ‘religious’.  This is Derrida’s double inheritance.  Marx is haunted by a certain post-critical conception of ghosts and revenants and yet ontologizes them.  Derrida links what he calls “the totalitarian heritage of Marx’s thought” to his (Marrx’s) refusal and ontological neutralization of the specter.  Though it must be said that totalitarianism is a gross distortion of Marx’s critical heritage, Derrida can still interpret theories of ‘economic determinism and of the ‘end of the political’ (a Second International tradition) as the basis of a certain totalitarian ethos.  Specters of Marx, in Derrida’s own words, is a politicization of deconstruction itself and a sort of Post-Marxist repoliticization of Marxism. 14 However, Marx, along with the Young Hegelians (Bauer, Feuerbach, Stirner) makes an ontological response to the spectrality of religion through what Derrida calls a pre-deconstructive conception of life, reality, and objectivity, and neutralizes the radical future in the form of a telos:  already, in 1848, Marx and Engels hoped that the ‘truth’ of the spectral would be ‘realized’ in the form of a universal communist party or the International.  We will come to Derrida’s reflection on the purported ‘futural’ realization of the ghost, and its possible neutralization, in the Eighteenth Brumaire soon.

The double affirmation of the Marxist tradition – the critical and the messianic – finds expression in Derrida’s conception of “the new International,” which is one of the most significant aspects of Derrida’s inheritance of Marx.  Here Derrida certainly inherits the best of the critical Marxist tradition but not without qualification.  What Derrida calls “the absolute singularity” of the Marxist project is distinct from “a positive religion” and mythology as such.  Thus it is not national (SM, 91) whose deeper and ontological forms Derrida calls ontopology. If an undeconstructible Marxist spirit that Derrida inherits is open to the absolute future of what is coming, an indeterminate and “desert-like” experience of the messianic, then it is in the name of this future that Derrida thinks of a “new international”.  An idea of radical critique thus merges with the post-critical messianic-without- messianism (more on this soon).  Even if one does not subscribe to a certain Marxist discourse on the state, on the end of the political and so on, one still draws inspiration from the Marxist spirit to criticize the so-called, autonomy of the juridico-political and de facto take-over of the international organizations by the powerful Nation-States.  A “new international” takes shape through the crisis of international law, it denounces “the limits of a discourse on human rights that will remain inadequate, sometimes hypocritical…” (SM, 85).  A “new international” is a response to the catastrophic consequences of capitalism.  We read:

       For it must be cried out, at a time when some have the audacity to neo-   

       evangelize in the name of the ideal of a liberal democracy that has finally

       realized itself as the ideal of human history: never have violence, inequality,

       exclusion, famine, and thus economic oppression affected as many human beings  

       in the history of the earth and of humanity … let us never neglect this obvious

       macroscopic fact, made up of innumerable singular sites of suffering…(SM, 85)

The conception of a new international is part of Derrida’s double inheritance of Marx. New international certainly belongs to the best tradition of Marxist internationalism.  Yet, in The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels nonetheless announce in a performative mode, as Derrida critically comments, the advent, though yet secret, of the universal communist party, the Communist International as the final incarnation of the specter.  They announce a future when this specter will be a living reality in the form of a party.  Derrida, on the contrary, thinks of an international that is radically non-present, out of joint.  It is in the name of a post-critical messianic spirit that Derrida’s new international takes shape.  It is a community without anything in common, without a necessary co-joining: “It is an untimely link, without status, without title, and without name, barely public even if it is not clandestine, without contract, “out of joint,” without coordination, without party, without country, without national community (International before, across, and beyond any national determination), without co-citizenship, without common belonging to a class” (SM, 85). Yet, it is not utterly abstract but is a call to “ally themselves, in a new, concrete, and real way” (SM 86) Derrida calls the international a kind of counter-conjuration, in the (theoretical and practical) critique of the state of international law, the concepts of State and nation, and so forth” (SM, 86).

Communism has always been and will remain spectral.  Marx and Engels invoked the specter, they lived “in the frequentation of specters” (SM, 101). Marx, like Stirner, was haunted and “persecuted” by the specters and “ kept on persecuting their persecutors” (SM, 106).  The inheritance of Marx is that of the spectral event, that is, an event of irreducible virtuality and  simulacrum.  The messianic trembles, Derrida writes in a Kierkegaardian manner, on the edge of the event and “hesitates between the singular “who” of the ghost and the general “what” of the simulacrum” (SM, 169).  There is no messianic without this trembling and hesitation.  There is therefore “a double bind” that informs the inheritance of Marx and any inheritance.  Yet, Marx continues to cling to a “critical but pre-deconstructive” ontology of the possibility of dissipating the ghostly.

In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte Derrida focuses on a frequent deployment of “a spectropolitics and a genealogy of ghosts” (SM, 107).  Marx, following Hegel, invokes the motif of repetition and at the same time altogether denies it (first tragedy, then farce).  But, for Derrida, in the tradition of Blanqui and Walter Benjamin, revolution is the act of repetition (repetition and the first time).  Let me quote the famous opening passage of The Eighteenth Brumaire that Derrida interprets “transformatively”:

              Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not

              make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly

               encountered, given and transmitted from the past.  The tradition of all the dead

               generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.  And just when they

              seem engaged in revolutionizing themselves and things, in creating something that

              never yet existed, precisely in such periods of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure

              up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle cries and

              costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honoured

              disguise and this borrowed language.  Thus Luther donned the mask of the Apostle Paul,

              the Revolution of 1789 to 1814 draped itself alternately as the Roman republic and the

              Roman empire, and the Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody,

              now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793 to 1795.  In like manner a beginner

             who has learnt a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue, but he

             has assimilated the spirit of the new language and can produce freely in it only when he

             finds his way in it without recalling the old and forgets his native tongue in the use of the

            new. 15

Revolutionary repetition, Derrida would argue, is a theatre and a costume drama. There is a moment of double citations in the Revolution.  Not only did ancient Rome become charged with “the time of the now” (of the French Revolution)and thus became something entirely different from “the way it really was,” but also the French revolutionaries saw themselves as resurrected Romans when they created something entirely new.  More importantly, as Derrida reads, there is a spectrality in this theatricalization of the revolutionary action.  The past tradition weighs like a nightmare, which is the spectral condition of the inheritance of the living.  The spectral conjuring is hospitable and yet, Derrida writes, “is never free from anxiety … it is destined to the anxiety that it is” (SM, 108).  Derrida calls this anxiety properly revolutionary (SM, 109). “The specter weighs, it thinks, it intensifies and condenses itself within the very inside of life, within the most living life…” (SM, 109).  The paradox of revolutionary repetition lies in the fact that the more the new appears in the revolutionary crisis, the more one convokes the old, and “borrows” from it (SM, 109).  There are “figures of borrowing, borrowed figures” (SM, 109).  There is an appropriation of the “spirits” of the past that is so living and so interiorizing that it is none other than the “life of forgetting.”  Marx’s reference to language is thus itself exemplary. One must refer to the pre-inheritance in order to appropriate the life of a new language or make the revolution (SM, 110).  Yet Marx’s position in this regard is also negative.  There is a double movement between forgetting and remembering in Marx.  One must forget the specters and yet forgetting results in bourgeois platitude.  So, according to Marx, one must remember “to find again the spirit of the revolution without making its specter return” (SM, 110).  Marx distinguishes between the good spirit of the revolution and its bad specters, so to speak, but unsuccessfully.  Revolutionary time, in Marx’s own description, is itself dislocated and unhinged.  Thus it can appear irreducibly “in the anachrony of antique costume and phrases” (SM, 111).  Marx wants to do away with this anachrony.  The revolution of the nineteenth century must turn away from the ghosts of the past:

            The Social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot draw its poetry from the past,

             but only from the future.  It cannot begin with itself before it has sripped off all

             superstition in regard to the past. … In order to arrive at its own content, the revolution

             of the nineteenth century must let the dead bury the dead.  There the phrase went

             beyond the content; here the content goes beyond the phrase. 16

There is, as always, a double affirmation in Derrida’s reading of this crucial passage.   No doubt, the schema of the past revolutions will reverse itself: it will be “a coming of the future-to-come.”   Yet, pace Marx, “the anachrony or untimeliness will not be erased in some plenitude of the parousia and the presence to itself of the present” (SM, 115).  The “future” of the social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot negate the past.  Here, Derrida would also think of the absolute past whose memory is the future.  This is Derrida’s Benjaminian heritage: “The past carries with it a secret index by which it is referred to redemption” (Benjamin).  But this time the inadequation would follow from the excess of the “content” in regard to the form.  It is in this “unleashed” excess that the “content” will be properly its “own” and properly be revolutionary.

Derrida takes pain to separate what he calls the undeconstructible justice, in the name of which deconstruction works, from the morality of good conscience of duty done.  Derrida dissociates justice from law and weaves the radical critique with a post-critical messianic-without-messianism, a quasi-atheistic messianic.  Otherwise, we lose the “chance of the future … of this desert-like messianism (without content and without identifiable messiah), of this also abyssal desert…” (SM, 28).  The messianic is the central motif of Derrida’s inheritance of Marx: “We believe that this messianic remains an ineffaceable mark … of Marx’s legacy, and doubtless of inheriting, of the experience of inheritance in general” (SM, 28).   In concluding the book Derrida reflects again on the religious heritage of the messianic.  If the messianic belongs to what Derrida calls “a universal structure, to that irreducible movement of the historical opening to the future” (SM,167), then is it not properly Abrahamic heritage as “an exemplary pre-figuration, the pre-name” of the possibility of the messianic?  But it is not primarily the religious messianism that Derrida thinks of.  Messianic “designate(s) a structure of experience rather than a religion” (SM, 168).   It is rather an unheard-of messianic of the revenant and arrivant that cannot be pre-determined or pre-named (SM, 168).  Derrida calls this an atheological heritage of the messianic (SM, 168).  And to the revolutionary forms of the messianic (messianic is always revolutionary, says Derrida) belongs, says Derrida, “urgency, imminence but, irreducible paradox, a waiting without the horizon of expectation” (SM, 168),  The quasi-atheistic dryness of the messianic is “the condition of the religions of the Book” (SM, 168). 

Derrida reaffirms his inheritance of Marx.  For Derrida, the Marxist inheritance preserves an absolutely undetermined event, an opening of event-ness as an eschatological relation to the to-come of an event.  The time of the singular relation to the to-come of an event is anachronic as the future refers ineluctably to the past-to-come. This is the anachrony of revenant and arrivant, which is the experience of the messianic, of promise as promise, without the teleo-eschatological program.  It is within this messianic horizon, a horizon without horizon, that affirmative deconstruction returns to Marx.



[The article is written on the occasion of the thirtieth anniversary of the original publication of Derrida’s  Specters of Marx.]

1. Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx, trans. Peggy Kamuf (New York and London: Routledge, 1994), p. 100. Hereafter cited parenthetically in the text as SM followed by the page number.

2. See, for example, Derrida’s interview with Jean-Louis Houdebine and Guy Scarpetta, in Positions, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago:The University of Chicago Press, 1981).

3. Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, tran. Alan Bass (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1978), P. 115

4. Jacques Derrida, ‘Force of Law: The “Mystical Foundation of Authority”‘ in Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, edited by Drucilla Cornell (New York and London: Routledge, 1992), p. 7

5. Jacques Derrida, Speech and Phenomena and other essays on Husserl’s  Theory of Signs, trans. David B. Allison (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973), P. 6-7

6. Derrida, Speech and Phenomena, p.67

7. Jacques Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1982), p. 11

8. Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, p. 21

9. Derrida, Positions, P. 44

10. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Spivak, (Baltimore and London:  The Johns Hopkins University Press), p.47

11. Derrida, Of Grammatology, p.37

12. Derrida, Of Grammatology, 41

13. Derrida, Of Grammatology, p.46

14. For an insightful discussion of Derrida and Ernesto Laclau, see Simon Critchley, Ethics-Politics-Subjectivity: Essays on Derrida, Levinas and Contemporary French Thought (London, New York: Verso, 1999) Chapters 5 and 7

15. Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels, Selected Works, vol. 1 (Moscow, Foreign Language Publishing House, 1950) p. 225

16. Marx and Engels, Selected Works, vol. 1, p. 227


Aniruddha Chowdhury received his PhD from the Graduate Program of Social and Political Thought at York University.  He is the author of Post-deconstructive Subjectivity and History: Phenomenology, Critical Theory, and Postcolonial Thought (Brill, 2014)

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