When Derrida discovered Marx

Revisiting the post-structuralist's legendary lecture "Specters of Marx"

Published April 28, 2013 3:00PM (EDT)

Karl Marx    (Wikimedia Commons)
Karl Marx (Wikimedia Commons)

This article originally appeared on the L.A. Review of Books.

Angeles Review of Books ON THE OCCASION of the 20th anniversary of the “Whither Marxism?” conference conceived by Stephen Cullenberg and Bernd Magnus and organized by the Center for Ideas and Society at the University of California, Riverside, we asked Peggy Kamuf to reflect on the lecture that Jacques Derrida delivered there: “Specters of Marx.” The lecture was eventually published as a book, translated into English by Kamuf, and subtitled The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International. It stands as a landmark text in Derrida’s oeuvre.


“I meant to read Marx my way when the time came.” So Jacques Derrida declared in an interview with Michael Sprinker in 1989. Four years later, the conference “Whither Marxism?” was going to give him the occasion to do just that: read Marx his way. That was also the year, of course, the Berlin Wall fell, and then the dominoes continued to fall all over the former Communist bloc. So — in the ruins of Marxism, on the grave (good riddance!) of Marxist-Leninist-Stalinism, or whatever name is finally settled upon for the monstrous construction that had just fallen apart — the time had finally come to read Marx.

What an event!

A kind of academic urban legend has it that “Specters of Marx,” the lecture given at the Riverside conference, was Derrida’s first foray into Marx and Marxist theory. It’s a particularly American type of legend, one that casts Derrida’s thought somewhere outside the circle of Marx’s influence. This version says more, no doubt, about the American reception of Derrida than it does about how his work was brought to the juncture of Specters of Marx. Perhaps Derrida also sought to forestall that misunderstanding by reminding his largely American audience that, for him and his generation, Marxism was mother’s milk. He does this in passing, and by way of announcing a temptation he will have to resist in the lecture: the temptation of recounting from memory:

[W]hat was for me and for those of my generation who shared it during a whole lifetime, the experience of Marxism, the quasi paternal figure of Marx, the way it fought in us with other filiations, the reading of texts and the interpretation of a world in which the Marxist inheritance was — and still remains, and so it will remain — absolutely and thoroughly determinate.

He is not just boasting when he claims filiation from Marx. In The Young Derrida and French Philosophy, 1945-1968 (Cambridge University Press, 2011), Edward Baring largely fills in the particulars of the memory Derrida so quickly evokes here. Baring’s meticulous archival reconstruction of the philosopher’s early intellectual itinerary tends strongly to confirm, and in considerable detail, the portrait of a generation that was determined by Marx “absolutely and thoroughly,” in a manner specific to that time and place.

The time was postwar France, the 1950s and 60s, and the place was the elite training center for French philosophers, the École Normale Supérieure. Derrida was admitted to its rarified air as a student in 1952, and in 1965 he returned there to teach philosophy. As Baring documents, a doctrinaire Marxism dominated the intellectual currents at ENS in the early 1950s. There was a student cell of the PCF, the French Communist Party, and the pressures were stiff to join it or be considered almost an enemy of the people. The other strong current, decidedly less Stalinist, was the mix of Christian thought and phenomenology that had largely guided Derrida as a student up to that point. Needless to say, these currents and the groups formed around them were mutually exclusive. As Baring recalls, a papal decree in 1949 had excommunicated all Communist Party members. But for Derrida, who, as a Jew from Algiers, already qualified as an outsider on at least two counts, the greater pressure was exerted by the Communists to join the Party and toe the line. “[W]hen I was a student at the École Normale,” he recalls in the 1989 interview with Sprinker,

the school’s Communist group was truly hegemonic — Stalinist and hegemonic. And it was extremely difficult for someone on the Left (need I remind people that I’ve always been on the Left?) to be thought of only as a crypto-Communist or fellow traveler. It was very difficult not to join the Party.

By the time he returned to ENS in 1965, this picture had not changed very much.  Although Stalinism had been largely forgotten, the Party still ruled, with Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser in command not only of the school’s Party members but of the whole PCF’s theoretical wing. As a consequence, Derrida faced intimidating challenges from his own students, who wanted him to rally round what Althusser was saying about an “epistemological break” that supposedly set a later scientific Marx apart from an earlier humanist one. But that distinction, as Derrida saw it, relied far too much on metaphysical concepts — concepts, for example, of science and history — and homogenized Marx’s text on either side of a presumed divide that masked other, more complex or decisive patterns. It was then Derrida began to elaborate a grammatological thinking that hewed closely to the grain of a philosophical text, whether Husserl’s, Rousseau’s, Nietzsche’s or, yes, Marx’s.

So, once again, Derrida resisted the demand to endorse an accepted, hegemonic reading of Marx. Already, he wanted “to read Marx my way.” And yet, throughout the 1970s and 1980s, he held back on putting his signature to a deconstructed Marx. His silence on the subject was received in certain circles as a lacuna, or even a gaping hole. One of these circles was the group Tel Quel, into which Derrida had been welcomed after the success of Of Grammatology in 1967. But Tel Quel, like ENS, also had its hard Marxist wing, and it too, like Derrida’s students, pushed him to answer for his silence on Marx.

In a long interview published in 1971, Derrida has to explain himself before the pressing questions of tel quelien Jean-Louis Houdebine, which conclude with this one: “And could you tell us why,” Houdebine asks, “you refer to Nietzsche and Freud, while suspending (but this suspense is itself perfectly readable) the reference to Marx and with Marx, to the dialectical materialist text?” Kicking off his long response, in which he sounds a little exasperated, Derrida says:

You may well imagine that I was not totally unaware of it. That said, I continue to believe that there is no benefit to be had, either theoretical or political, by hastening to make connections or articulations so long as the conditions for doing so have not been thoroughly elucidated […] Do me the credit of believing me when I say that the “lacunae” to which you alluded are explicitly calculated to mark the coordinates of a theoretical elaboration that remains, for me in any case, still to come.

Derrida goes on to outline some principles for a deconstructive reading of Marxist texts over the remaining five pages of this response, which breaks off with the reminder that “the improvised speech of an interview cannot be substituted for the textual work.” It would be more than twenty years before he was ready to fill in this improvised outline with Specters of Marx.


Well, not ready, no; no one was ready for what happened in 1989, not even Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan, who were ready only to take credit for events that they did not predict anymore than anyone else. This unforeseeability is what marks the event out of which Specters of Marx precipitated, like a compound held in suspense for at least 40 years, the four decades of the Cold War. To help convey this sense of the sudden arrival of what was not foreseen, Derrida confides in a parenthesis in Specters of Marx: “(In 1981, while I was imprisoned in Prague by those then in power, I said to myself with a naïve sense of near certainty: ‘This barbarism could last for centuries [...]’)”. This candid memory (which conjures up Derrida’s arrest on spurious drug charges, engineered — and subsequently dropped — by the Czech government) is evoked by the necessity to account for a certain delay or precipitation that affects temporal experience. Because it is essentially conditioned by events that can overtake it, this experience is put out of sync with itself as present. “Time out of joint,” Hamlet called it, in the phrase set as epigraph to Specters of Marx.  Derrida calls it “spectrality.”

But I must not launch into a dissertation on the book’s arguments. Anyone can read them for herself and, besides, this is not the place. To the commemoration of this event, I ought to bring some account of what I witnessed, interrogate my own memory and make it yield up telling details. I suppose I could tell the story again about the weeks during which “Spectres de Marx” was being translated as its pages came off Derrida’s printer. He was writing fast, as always, but time was short. That’s what I especially remember: time running short, being almost out of time. As one measure of the breathlessness with which everything took place, the dedication to Chris Hani, Head of the South African Communist Party, was not written until at least a week after Hani’s assassination on April 10, 1993 and thus barely a few days before the conference opened. It’s also a measure of how the book emerged along with events, whether in their wake when they are tragic like Hani’s murder, or tensing to meet who knows what events yet to come.

It was thus a conjunction of delay and precipitation, deferral and haste, that produced Specters of Marx. That work was precipitated out of its long suspended state in the wake of a sudden, unforeseen acceleration of events in Berlin, Moscow, Prague, Warsaw, Budapest, Sarajevo, and elsewhere. These were, Derrida remarks, events happening “at a rhythm that no one in the world could calculate in advance, not even a few months before.” In other words, the whole world was, just like the imprisoned philosopher in 1981, naïvely thinking that “this could last for centuries.”

Fast forward almost a decade, to February 1990: Derrida is invited to lecture for the first time in Moscow. His hosts are young philosophers associated with the Academy of Science of the USSR. Although no one could exactly foresee it, Gorbachev’s glasnost experiment, begun in 1986, was reaching its term. A year after Derrida’s visit, in 1991, a coup would cut short Gorbachev’s effort to rescue the USSR through perestroika. Remember perestroika? Well, then you recall how this untranslatable name also named the era and its events. We all learned to pronounce (more or less) perestroika. In 1989, the word even entered the Oxford English Dictionary’s Second Edition (“in the former Soviet Union: the restructuring or reform of the economic and political system. Also: the period during which this restructuring was being implemented. Cf. Glasnost”), which event is aptly marked by the first quoted use of the term from the Washington Post in 1986: “If words can define an era, then perestroika is the catchword here before Tuesday's opening of the Communist Party Congress as Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev enters a decisive phase of his leadership.”

In this era-defining moment, then, Derrida travels to Moscow. Afterwards, he wrote only glancingly about the trip, notably in a text titled in English (via the Beatles): “Back from Moscow, in the USSR.” Among the very few first-hand anecdotes recounted there, Derrida mentions that “several of my interlocutors [...] told me that in their view the best translation for perestroika, the translation that they used among themselves, is ‘deconstruction.’” And he recalls how a Soviet colleague even said to him “Deconstruction? That’s today’s USSR.”

Perestroika, then, had come to be one of the other names of deconstruction (and Derrida has always insisted on other names for deconstruction). By 1993, the Soviet Union having deconstructed itself and, with it, regimes all over Eastern Europe, it’s not surprising that the oft-called “father of deconstruction” is summoned to respond to the question “Whither Marxism?” Bernd Magnus and Stephen Cullenberg, the conference organizers, explain it like this:

[I]t seemed to us significant to provide a forum within which one of the most famous and influential contemporary philosophers — Jacques Derrida — could reflect on the conference’s topic, something he had not yet been able to do in a sustained and systematic way in print.  We thought that such a sustained reflection on Marx by Derrida would be of intrinsic as well as historical importance.

“My ambition (which is perhaps excessive) is to call for a new reading of Marx,” Derrida confesses in the 1989 interview with Sprinker. The reading he proposed 20 years ago was of a haunted and haunting Marx whose ghosts, he argued, we must continue to encounter in the future, and even as the future. For a premise of this new reading is that specters come back as well from a future that is no more present, no less spectral than the past. It is well to remember that now, so as not to mistake Specters of Marx for something that will be easily laid to rest.

By Peggy Kamuf

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