Roland Barthes, “The ‘Scandal’ of Marxism” and Other Writings on Politics (Seagull Books, 2015), translated by Chris Turner.
In a classic nod to Barthesian polysemy, the title of Chris Turner’s new translations of Roland Barthes’s political writings, “the ‘scandal’ of Marxism,” is a many-headed, shifting reference, speaking at once to Barthes’s specific takedown of Roger Caillois’s Description du marxisme (1951), the general pall of Stalinism and Zhdanovism that hung over post-war French intellectual life and Western Marxism, and the attenuation of Marxism in Barthes’s own career, prompted by his mid-60s pivot toward structuralism. The who, what, and why of this multi-layered “scandal” is clearly laid out in Turner’s helpful editorial commentaries that introduce each piece and in his lucid translations of Barthes’s prose, yet the question of the role of Marxism in Barthes’s oeuvre, life, and thought (the location of the break, the evidence for continuity) mutely clings to the collection. “The ‘Scandal’ of Marxism” registers Barthes’s incisive, spirited navigations of the fault lines of French intellectual and political life, as it playfully, and ironically, reminds us of Barthes’s once serious commitment to historical materialism and his later penchant for scandalous, famed declarations seemingly far removed from materialist concerns—the death of the author, the unreality of literature, the liberation of the signifier, to name a few.
The title itself here comes from Barthes’s June 1951 review of Roger Caillois’s sociological study of Marxism, Description du marxisme, in Combat, the foremost radical Left, non-communist (and former Resistance) newspaper, founded by Albert Camus during the war. (Barthes would contribute many reviews to Combat from the late 40s to the early 50s, several of them collected here, as well as a series of critical essays that would become his first book, Writing Degree Zero (1953)). In his review, Barthes advances an immanent critique of Caillois’s argument, namely that Marxism’s esteemed position is a “scandalous” (Caillois’s term) one that rests not on the merit of its “content” but on its formal integration as communist party and Soviet doctrine. According to Caillois, Marxism’s prestige is “scandalous” because, as Barthes summarizes, “it represents the success of ‘errors’”: “the doctrine, which is wrong in itself, has its mistaken nature magnified by the artificial nature of its success.”
Barthes’s chief criticism is that Caillois strategically avoids any discussion of the actual “content” of Marxism; instead, he focuses on the relationship between Marxist doctrine (content) and orthodoxy (form) at the expense of investigating the terms themselves: “it is not so important to judge the two terms in motion here—the doctrine and myth [of orthodoxy]—as to describe the relationship between them. Caillois is content, in fact, to condemn the doctrine in passing.” The actual substance of Marxism is off the table and bourgeois readers are off the hook: “It was right, then, for Marxism’s errors to be treated firmly and expeditiously. Otherwise, a discussion of ideas might have developed, and the sense of security bourgeois readers derive from the mathematical evidence of Marxism’s outrageousness would have been disturbed. If Caillois dispatches the doctrine properly so-called in a few paragraphs, then that is because he has chosen his readers in advance—he doesn’t have to convince, but only reassure, them.” Carving out a space between “Muscovite dogmatism” and “bourgeois scepticism,” Barthes takes up Caillois’s language of scandal to mount a left, anti-Stalinist defense of Marxism—“Marxist dogmatism isn’t the offensive paradox of a misbegotten theory elevated into raison d’état; it is the tragedy of a truth discredited by the weapons, beneath which it has been suffocated … the scandal of Marxism isn’t what separates error from triumph but what separates truth from its failure. And this is the nub—though the promotion of error is scandalous, the debasement of truth is tragic.” Tragedy, not scandal. Truth, not error.
For Barthes, the real problem with Caillois’s study, which stands in for post-war bourgeois suspicion of Marxism writ large, is its depoliticization of Marxism via disengagement, a move which acts as if the Marxist debate is settled. Revealing himself as a firm historical materialist, Barthes concludes “that we are not discussing the sex of angels but men’s bread and butter.” Marxism is not a fanciful spectacle of airy ideas but an effort to address real, grounded historical problems (“deep problems of current history”), actual material life.
Barthes’s review of Caillois pinpoints the ironic melancholy at the heart of the title and the collection as a whole—the long, tragic slide of historical materialism’s truths, made even more poignant by Barthes’s turn to structuralism and the latter’s eventual, not insignificant role in the decline of Western Marxism. But it also brings out several major themes of the book—Barthes’s critique of depoliticization, bourgeois moralism, and idealism—and cements the young Barthes of the 1950s as a steadfast historical materialist and advocate of the early Marx, supporting the vision we often hold of the myth-busting, semioclastic young Barthes of Mythologies (1957). In the twenty or so other short book reviews, questionnaires, survey responses, and mythologies that largely comprise “The ‘Scandal’ of Marxism” and range from 1950-78, we often, at least early on, see Barthes insisting on a political, materialist approach to a broad range of topics: revolution, Marxism, racism, slavery, history, literature, French intellectual life, women’s labor, Algeria, Gaullism, language, culture, and cultural criticism. His criticism or support of a book, thinker, or position, particularly pre-1970, is most often contingent on the status of the political and historical in said work, thought, or viewpoint.
In a 1950 review, for example, Barthes excoriates philosopher André Joussain’s book La Loi des revolutions (1950), a comparative study of revolution, for its alienated, idealistic philosophy of history in his 1950 review. Pushing for a general law of revolutions, Joussain absents “man” from the substance of history, which, in turn, depoliticizes revolution and suppresses the truth of historical agency, that “actual men … made history.” Instead of an effect of collective action, “for M. Joussain, revolutions are acts of hygiene or the enforcement of order”; “the postulate is once again presented … that the essential substance of history no longer lies in time, within history and in men, but is outside time and place, outside history and in Man … a human nature that is transcendent to history.” Barthes’s conclusion: “Every historical fact, every historical human being is inalienable. And the law of revolutions belongs among the baggage of that ambiguous mythology which reasons about history only in order to spirit it away from the human beings who make it.” Joussain’s is an alienated, dematerialized, essentializing philosophy of history, and Barthes, dissecting and diagnosing his bourgeois historiography, will have none of it.
Readied with the same materialist concerns, Barthes will praise, in a 1953 review, Brazilian Gilberto Freyre’s The Masters and the Slaves: A Study in the Development of Brazilian Civilization, recently translated into French, in his 1953 review for its “materialist” approach (and title) and its “sensitivity to total history.” Similarly, he will extol anthropologist Michael Leiris’s UNESCO pamphlet Race and Culture (1951) and anarcho-communist Daniel Guérin’s two-volume work on race and racism in the United States, Où va le peuple américain (1950-1), for their materialist, historical explanations of race and racism, subjects that are often (and still are) discussed as if they were the substance of nature, not history. Moreover, Barthes’s praise of these materialist histories is a matter not simply of proper historiographical method, but also of political struggle. Calling Freyre’s book “a work of courage and struggle,” he concludes that “to introduce explanation into myth [especially one so “horrendous” as race] is, for the intellectual, the only effective form of political activism.” Materialist history, for him, is also a form of political emancipation and hope. While Guérin shows us that emancipation is only possible “once the facts have been taken out of the order of a false nature and put back into the true order of history,” Leiris demonstrates that “explanation isn’t only the necessary form of truth but also the figure of hope”: “it is because nothing in the past exists outside of historical reason that the future can be wholly the property of the human beings who make it. The cultural explanation of allegedly natural facts is, therefore, a deeply humanistic move.”
As goes history, so goes literature. In a 1953 article penned with Maurice Nadeau on the question of left-wing literature (“Yes, There Definitely Is a Left-Wing Literature”), they argue that properly left literature must be unalienated (“far from attempting to set itself up as something timeless or eternal, it knows that it is mortal and may go so far as to problematize itself”), dereified (not “a thing but a relation”), and historical (“a description and a deep analysis of a given historical situation, even if it confines itself to the sphere of the individual”). At the end of the piece, Barthes and Nadeau imagine a radical disintegration of literature into history: “We may even say that left-wing literature bolsters and develops within itself all that isn’t literature; that it aims for that ultimate point where literature would be merely the ritual form of its own self-questioning and a direct passage from the field of expression into the real world of history. If that moment ever comes, it is possible that literature will die. But that is because it will have transformed itself into history.” This prophecy of the end of literature resonates with Marx’s famous critique of the capitalist division of labor in The German Ideology (1846) and his imagination of the end of such divisions in communist society. It is in The German Ideology as well that we get one version of Marx’s materialist conception of history that is so evident in Barthes’s early political writings: “The first premiss of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals … the writing of history must always set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the action of men.”
These undeniable echoes of the early Marx are most noticeable in Barthes’s writings from the 1950s, which comprise over half of “The ‘Scandal’ of Marxism,” although some reverberations can be found in the few pieces from the 1960s and even in a couple from the 1970s, but with obvious distortions. The clearest portrait that emerges from this collection is the image rooted in his 1950s work—the young Barthes as young Marx, mirroring the left intellectual zeitgeist of post-war France and Western Marxism. While Marx’s early work (Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 and The German Ideology in particular) was available before the war, Perry Anderson reminds us in Considerations on Western Marxism (1976), that it was in the post-war period “that the full effects of the discovery of Marx’s early works … were themselves felt within the pattern of contemporary Marxism … In France, it was … the new texts of the Young Marx that largely drew Merleau-Ponty and Sartre towards Marxism after the Liberation … The peak of the influence of the philosophical writings of the early Marx was reached in the late fifties, when themes from them were diffused on the widest scale throughout Western Europe.” Barthes’s debt to Sartre (as well as to Brecht) has been well documented (Barthes called his first book, Writing Degree Zero, an attempt to “Marxify Sartrean commitment”) and surely Barthes channeled Marx through Sartre, but in the first half of this collection, he appears an almost unmediated materialist, a kind of pure emblem of post-war Western Marxism steeped in the early Marx.
There are glimpses, though, even in the early period, of cracks in the portrait of Barthes-the-materialist. Responding to a 1955 review of his “Mythologies” series by Jean Guérin in which Guérin attempts to pin down Barthes’s Marxism (or in Barthes words: “enjoins me to say whether I am a Marxist or not”), Barthes responds by calling such a question reactionary red-baiting (“these kinds of questions are normally of interest only to McCarthyites”) and based on faulty assumptions (Marxism is a mode of explanation not a “religion” or “faith”), but, in a now classic mode of Barthesian evasion that actually here is not uncompelling, he refuses to answer the question. Later, in his 1974 piece on his Tel Quel visit to Mao’s China during the Cultural Revolution, “So, How Was China?,” he strikes a similarly muted chord, although now shorn of any clear political import. Referring to himself in the second person (a common mode of evasion in his 70s-era work), he contextualizes his noiseless response: “You set out for China armed with a thousand pressing and, it seems, natural questions: How do things stand there with regard to sexuality, women, the family, and morality? What is the state of the human sciences, linguistics or psychiatry? We shake the tree of knowledge so that the answer will fall and we’ll be able to come home bearing our main form of intellectual sustenance—a secret deciphered. But nothing falls. In a sense (apart from the political answer), we come home with—nothing.” He will, indeed, say more, but the upshot is that he avoids the explicitly political and historical in the name of the textual, characterizing Mao’s China as a Text—a place of “blandness,” or muted signification, where there is “very little to be read but its political Text,” which is “everywhere.”
Barthes’s paradoxical depoliticization of Mao’s China (in the name of political overdetermination) is in stark contrast to the 50s-era Barthes featured here who, as we have seen, insists on a materialist politicizing at seemingly every turn. The China piece dramatizes a kind of structuralist cannibalization of Barthes’s Marxism, while it also depicts Barthes’s thought as a precarious exemplification of the historical opposition between structuralism and historical materialism, what Perry Anderson in In the Tracks of Historical Materialism (1983) will insist is the structuralist and post-structuralist “head-on defeat” of (especially) French Marxism. The materialist break in “The ‘Scandal’ of Marxism,” though, isn’t China. Perhaps fittingly, it comes before in the negative space taken up by Barthes’s non-engagement with the May ‘68 uprisings. In a 1969 issue of the École pratique’s journal Communications in which, as Turner notes, most contributors discussed state cultural policy in the wake of May ‘68, Barthes offers a critique of hippies in a North African town. Barthes will mention May ’68 once in a short 1974 piece, “Utopia,” published in Italian translation, describing it as “a rare historic moment … an immediate utopia—the occupied Sorbonne lived for a month in a utopian state (it was, in effect, ‘nowhere’).” While Barthes’s lack of support for the May ’68 student militants (whom he deemed adventurist) is well known, his utopianization of the movement here, coupled with his diverted silence in Communications, reads as stark political disengagement, a clear retreat from his previous concern for “men’s bread and butter.”
In the final instance, “The ‘Scandal’ of Marxism” forces us to take on Barthes’s materialism, while remaining stubbornly taciturn on its fade out. It puts pressure on backward-looking characterizations, such as J.G. Merquior’s in From Prague to Paris (1986), that would posit Barthes’s materialism as a frivolous, pre-historical blip in an otherwise consistent structuralist/post-structuralist orientation that was always, as he puts it, “drifting away from the concerns of humanity.” Likewise, it undermines narratives of materialist continuity in Barthes’s work, such as that of his longtime friend and editor at Éditions du Seuil, François Wahl, who contended that Barthes’s life (and, by extension, his work) was founded on a consistent “soubassement marxiste.” There are indeed flashes of continuity here, but, at most, “The ‘Scandal’ of Marxism” is a brilliant materialist souvenir.