Jacques Derrida’s Defense of Marx and the Birth of Hauntology

French philosopher Jacques Derrida is best known as one of the champions of postmodernism. But in the early 1990s, at the height of capitalist triumphalism, Derrida took up the cudgels in defense of Karl Marx — and inadvertently spawned a whole musical genre.

French theorist Jacques Derrida in France in 1994, about a year after he published Specters of Marx. (Louis Monier / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

When the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989, a narrative of Western triumphalism rushed into the space it had occupied. This was, so the story went, a victory for Western liberalism against the malign forces of communism.

Poland had already elected a noncommunist prime minster and Hungary was preparing for a multiparty election. A week after the fall of the wall, Czechoslovakia began its Velvet Revolution, with Bulgaria and Romania following soon after. On December 26, 1991, the Soviet Union was dissolved, the Soviet flag having been lowered at 7:32 PM the night before.

By now Jacques Derrida was combining his teaching at the École des hautes études en sciences sociales in Paris with teaching at the University of California, Irvine. The United States at the time seemed to him more open to French theory. “L’Amerique, mais c’est la deconstruction,” he once joked. “America is deconstruction.”

America was also now globally ascendant. Famously, Francis Fukuyama declared, in a best-selling book, that this was The End of History. Fukuyama argued that Western liberal democracy is the final form of government — no other form can supersede it — and humanity had reached an end point of ideological evolution. It will achieve a universal hegemony, without rupture, without disruption.

A Symptomatic Signal

On April 22–24, 1993, the University of California held a conference titled “Whither Marxism? Global Crises in International Perspective,” which sought to address the question of whether the fall of communism meant the end of Marxism and Marxist theory. Though the euphoric epistles to Western liberal democracy were crude, did they have a point? Could any of Marxism be saved from what was regarded, whatever the reservations, as its testing ground?

Derrida’s plenary address was delivered over two nights on the 22 and 23 of April, under the title “Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International,” and later became a book of the same name. It is impossible to displace Of Grammatology as Derrida’s most astonishing work, but Specters of Marx runs it close, given the historical context and Derrida’s long-term resistance to a Marxist political position (or any political position, some might have argued, certainly before his outpouring of juridico-ethical works of the late 1980s and ’90s).

To intervene on the question of Marxism at precisely this point in history was shocking. Few heads were seen above the parapet offering any sort of defense of a system whose internal flaws — contradictions even — seemed to have brought it down, and whose victims were celebrating its demise. It was only just over ten years since Derrida himself had been a victim, jailed for attempting to bring Western ideas into a communist country, Czechoslovakia, while the brief reign of the stridently anti-communist New Philosophers on the Parisian scene seemed to have made the conflation of Marx and the gulag indisputable in intellectual circles.

Specters of Marx is, as one might expect, no simple paean to Marxism — unable to produce such a document in 1968, Derrida had no reason or temptation to produce one now. What he is writing, he notes, “will not please anyone. But who ever said that someone ever had to speak, think, or write in order to please someone else?” Rather, he wishes to complicate what he sees as two particular dangers this singular moment inaugurates.

The first is that which has been noted — the fall of communism being misread as the triumph of Western liberalism, and as giving license to its uncontested dominion. As well as triumphalism, he sees a certain set of neuroses in the heralding of the new dawn (“this neo-liberal rhetoric, both jubilant and worried, manic and bereaved, often obscene in its euphoria”).

Derrida takes Francis Fukuyama and those who speak through him to task. While attempting “not to be unfair” to The End of History, he notes that with books of this sort, “their very incoherence and sometimes their distressing primitivity play the role of symptomatic signal which one must account for as well as possible.”

Fukuyama’s work drew on a Hegelian framework, via Alexandre Kojève’s famous 1933 lectures on The Phenomenology of Spirit. Hegelian progress, Kojève argues, posits moving toward a global order without classes or other types of distinction, conferring universal recognition on all individuals, who in turn recognize each other.

Human needs will not, as Marx argued, be eliminated by the end of capitalism, but by capitalism itself that, in Kojève’s version, will overcome its own contradictions, unleash its full productive power, and create wealth more than sufficient for human freedom. The capitalist West will thus achieve dominance through economic rather than military means.

Absolute Knowledge, Hegel’s dream of complete self-consciousness and self-possession of spirit, will replace ideology. And, like the utopia Marx desired, this post-historical world will leave absolute space for “art, love, play, and so forth; in short, everything that makes Man happy.” Fukuyama proclaimed we were now approaching that endgame. While it may still take centuries, and still go through reversals, the model for human emancipation has been found.

While one thread of human existence might, at a pinch, be conducive to Fukuyama’s thesis, it took a lot of nerve, Derrida argued in reply, to avow this as anything but a local phenomenon, and to fail to hold Western liberal democracy accountable for those conditions in the world that were at odds with its sunny positivism:

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. Instead of singing the advent of the ideal of liberal democracy and of the capitalist market in the euphoria of the end of history, instead of celebrating the “end of ideologies” and the end of the great emancipatory discourses, let us never neglect this obvious macroscopic fact, made up of innumerable singular sites of suffering: no degree of progress allows one to ignore that never before, in absolute figures, have so many men, women and children been subjugated, starved or exterminated on the Earth.

These conditions were not outside the remit of capitalism, they were not exceptions to it, and they certainly were not its antithesis. They were as much part of the structure of capitalism as Fukuyama’s bullish diagnosis.

Canonizing Marx

Derrida is also prepared to give a history lesson, noting that the sort of eschatological thinking in which Fukuyama is indulging is nothing new, not even when it comes to proclaiming the end of Marxism:

Many young people today (of the type “readers-consumers of Fukuyama” or of the type “Fukuyama” himself) probably no longer sufficiently realize it: the eschatological themes of the “end of history,” of the “end of Marxism,” of the “end of philosophy,” of the “ends of man,” of the “last man” and so forth were, in the 1950s, that is, forty years ago, our daily bread.

The second danger he identifies is that Marx — his radical thought — would now be tamed, “depoliticize[d] profoundly . . . by putting on a tolerant face, to neutralize a potential force, first of all by enervating a corpus, by silencing in it the revolt.” This defanged Marx then becomes just a philosopher like any other, and academics will “treat him calmly, objectively, without bias: according to the academic rules, in the university, in the library, in colloquia!”

As Derrida ventriloquizes this line of thought:

“Marx, you see, was despite everything a philosopher like any other; what is more [and one can say this now that so many Marxists have fallen silent], he was a great-philosopher who deserves to figure on the list of those works we assign for study and from which he has been banned for too long. He doesn’t belong to the communists, to the Marxists, to the parties, he ought to figure within our great canon of Western political philosophy. Return to Marx, let’s finally read him as a great philosopher.”

“We have,” he notes, “heard this and we will hear it again.”

Time Out of Joint

Derrida wishes to resist each of these temptations. His text opens, again surprisingly, with a scene from Hamlet — Act I, Scene V — in which Hamlet, having encountered his father’s ghost, declares that “time is out of joint.” Marx’s love of Shakespeare, Derrida notes, is well known, and it is the spirit of Hamlet that seems, in Derrida’s reading, to haunt Marx, in particular the Marx of The Communist Manifesto, that least depoliticizable of his works.

To his shame, Derrida admits having not read the Manifesto in decades, and to have found “a ghost waiting there” — the first noun, “specter”: “A specter is haunting Europe — the specter of Communism.” It is of specters — ghosts, revenants, spirits — which Derrida wishes to speak. Triumphalism reveals its fears in the very manic mode of its avowals: “Hegemony still organizes the repression and thus the confirmation of a haunting. Haunting belongs to the structure of every hegemony.”

The positivistic hegemony advocated by Fukuyama (and Kojève, and Hegel, and Marx for that matter) has an absolutely transparent ontology — this is, after all, what Absolute Knowledge is. Opposing this, Derrida proposes his near homonym — “hauntology.” Any hegemony is haunted from within by those “things” which it is not, by pasts that can never quite cease to be past even under erasure, and those futures that were prophesied but never occurred. And by the “starved and exterminated” who are the victims of its triumph.

We have, as Derrida notes, been here before. In 1919, after the Great War, Paul Valéry wrote “The Crisis of the Mind,” in which he imagined a “Hamlet of Europe” who is “watching millions of ghosts” and staggering “between two abysses — for two dangers never cease threatening the world: order and disorder.” Valéry writes:

Every skull he picks up is an illustrious skull. This one was Leonardo. He invented the flying man, but the flying man has not exactly served his inventor’s purposes . . . and that other skull was Leibnitz, who dreamed of universal peace. And this one was Kant . . . and Kant begat Hegel, and Hegel begat Marx, and Marx begat . . .

Presence/absence, ontology/hauntology, being/non-being or, in Shakespeare’s formulation, “to be” or “not to be” — these are oppositions which must be undone through a discourse that Derrida names spectrality.

As with the deconstruction of any binary opposition, this is not a simple overturning, but a recognition of mutual dependence, a putting into question, an encounter of the aporia, of the impossible. Like the ghost of Hamlet’s father, the ghost of Marx is there and not there in the discourses of Western liberal democracy.

Marxism and Deconstruction

As Derrida notes, deconstruction was born from a previous “end of history,” drawing upon “the canon of the modern apocalypse . . . end of History, end of Man, end of Philosophy, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Heidegger.” But it was also born from

what we had known or what some of us for quite some time no longer hid from concerning totalitarian terror in all the Eastern countries, all the socio-economic disasters of Soviet bureaucracy, the Stalinism of the past and the neo-Stalinism in process (roughly speaking, from the Moscow trials to the repression in Hungary, to take only these minimal indices). Such was no doubt the element in which what is called deconstruction developed — and one can understand nothing of this period of deconstruction, notably in France, unless one takes this historical entanglement into account.

While “deconstruction has never been Marxist, no more than it has ever been non-Marxist, although it has remained faithful to a certain spirit of Marxism, to at least one of its spirits,” Derrida goes on to say that deconstruction “would have been impossible and unthinkable in a pre-Marxist space.”

The hegemonic state that Western liberal democracy aspires to is simultaneously performing its own version of spectralizing, in its dissemination — via the media. Today, notes Derrida, politicians and events are always already filtered through the media. Traditional political parties are “radically unadapted to the new-tele-techno-media-conditions of public space, of political life, of democracy, and of the new modes of representation (both parliamentary and non-parliamentary) that they call up.” They may disappear, become ghosts whose existence is effaced by politicians who “now often risk, as everyone knows, being no more than TV actors”:

If there is a tendency in all Western democracies no longer to respect the professional politician or even the party member as such, it is no longer only because of some personal insufficiency, some fault, or some incompetence, or because of some scandal that can now be more widely known, amplified, and in fact often produced, if not premeditated by the power of the media. Rather, it is because politicians become more and more, or even solely, characters.

Derrida privileges Marx as one of the only thinkers of the tradition who, in his engagement with the space between historical diagnosis and a political prognosis, is able to “converse with the specter” and to “analyze the ambiguities of the event as the happening of the impossible.”

Deconstruction takes up this Marxism and radicalizes it in two ways. First, it attempts to bring political reality closer to the Marxist ideal. Second, as Derrida writes, deconstruction is “a question of putting into question again, in certain of its essential predicates, the very concept” of the Marxist ideal.

Marxism should not be just another ideology competing for hegemonic completion; rather, having been radicalized by deconstruction, it should continue to work away as a form of engagement and a continual challenge to hegemony. It should continue to return, like Hamlet’s father, to accuse its murderers.

Nostalgia for the Future

Improbably, Derrida’s exploration of ghosts, specters, spirits and mourning had a new life that it is unlikely he could have imagined. In the 2000s, the idea of hauntology was taken up by a number of critics of late modernity, who saw in it a sort of reverse nostalgia — a nostalgia for futures that never came to be, cancelled, for example, by postmodernity or neoliberalism, and which haunt us by their absence.

Theorists such as Mark Fisher drew attention to the shift into post-Fordist economies in the late 1970s, which Fisher argues has “gradually and systematically deprived artists of the resources necessary to produce the new.” In Germany, thinkers such as Erich Hörl, in his Sacred Channels: The Archaic Illusion of Communication, related the idea to the way that logic, in its nineteenth-century incarnation, presented a world untethered from experience and intuition, which he linked to the early twentieth century’s obsession with primitive magic in the anthropology of Durkheim, Mauss, and Lévi-Strauss.

More improbably, hauntology became a British music genre. Ambient artists such as Boards of Canada, Burial, and the Caretaker produced work that, in their use of cassette tapes and analogue synthesizers, foregrounded the hiss and crackle of the decaying medium, producing eerie soundscapes which evoke a nostalgia for a lost future.

Incorporating found sounds, such as soundtracks of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, incidental music from children’s television of the 1970s, and samples from public information films, these artists produced music which yearned for a lost utopia of the sort dreamed of by Stuart Hall and Raymond Williams. As Marxism continues to haunt the narratives of hyper-capitalism, so this dreamed future continues to seep into the interstices of Britain’s dreaming, a relic of an imagined future.