Guardian Column on Marx

I have just finished a series of 8 columns on Marx and Marxism for the Guardian CiF section. They got quite a lot of response (positive and negative) and there seems to be a real desire to carry on debating so I hope people will use this site to do so. It has been underused for far too long!


43 Responses to Guardian Column on Marx

  1. David Pavett says:

    That’s a good idea. I was one of the contributors to the Guardian discussion and found the exchange between people of very different views interesting and helpful. I exclude those who just wanted to bang on about the Gulag as an excuse for not studying Marx’s ideas.

    What form will the exchanges take on this platform? Can different threads for different issues be set up or will it be a kind of one-stop shop for all ideas. I don’t have much experience of the WordPress system. Perhaps we can set up separate threads ourselves. What do you have in mind?

  2. digit says:

    I’m also a refugee from the Guardian blog. Don’t know if I’ll have much to contribute here, but I’ll be reading with interest.

  3. Peter Thompson says:

    I would suggest that maybe I post up a contribution at the top (either by me or someone can send something to me to post) and then we discuss it Below the Line, so to speak. I don’t know my way around this system very well either but I’ll check it out.

  4. Mike (suddenprayers) says:

    Good one Peter.

    I was going to sign off with a suggestion along these lines but with the way things tailed off at the end thought that maybe saturation point had been reached.

    I’d like some of the more eloquent BTLers to write intros as well as Peter (not a criticism Peter, just a thought of sharing the load)

    I’d suggest that someone runs back through the discussions and pull out some under debated points of note. Use them for starting points.

    And let’s have a time limit but more than 3 days.

  5. Peter Thompson says:

    Sounds good, Mike, yes. I am more than happy to share the load. If anyone wants to write a text to start us off, please feel free. You can email it to me at

  6. UlyssesRex says:

    I was just reading this article about Ernst Bloch He comes across as a theorist worth reading. Where would be the best place to start?

  7. Peter Thompson says:

    relarively little has been translated and the translations aren’t great but his magnum opus is The Principle of Hope (1959 though written in US exile and also back in East Germany after 1949) and pretty well everything you need to know about his philosophy is in there. Heritage of Our Times (1932) is good too, on the rise of fascism. The Expressionism Debate with Lukacs in Aesthetics and Politics is good too:

  8. (Takes deep breath.)

    I’d like to thank Peter Thompson for the care he took above and below the line on the Guardian series.

    It might, however, be unfair to expect all ATL authors to be ready to participate below the line: CIF really can present a psychologically tough environment; which, of course, also makes it intriguing for others.

    In this case, Peter Thompson handled things very well. Congratulations.

  9. Peter Thompson says:

    Thanks very much Angelus. Luckily I have quite a thick skin and anyway, it is always important to learn from one’s antagonists. Attached to (but not necessarily at the heart of) every dogma and prejudice there is a kernel of truth which needs addressing or at least thinking about.

  10. peterthompson49
    10 May 2011 6:47PM

    Not sure they’d go for another series on Nietzsche though, fun though it would be.

    CIF Belief are spoilt for choice. Rather than returning directly to figures such as Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, who come across, if I may say, as a little overexposed and under-examined, it would be useful to peer at the deep influences at work around them.

    The origins of German Romanticism?

    As in J.G. Hamann, Magus of the North, Immanuel Kant’s Lutheran dining companion and spiritual adversary, who introduced Kant to Hume’s writings and to the problem of induction? Whose idiosyncratic writings influenced Goethe and Schelling?

    Very strangely neglected in English, apart from Isaiah Berlin’s fine essay of 1993; and largely untranslated until about 2007.

    What might really shake things up would an examination of power, nation, and sovereignty (about which much is heard on CIF): a calm look at the varied currents of revolutionary conservatism in the German-speaking world till 1932 and their afterlife in U.S. political studies and Neoconservatism.

    It is not hard to detect such influences at work even now in concepts such as “Blue Labour”.

    • digit says:

      Funny, I was just reading about Hamann and Herder last night, Angelus.

      Agree, a blog on Romanticism would be great. Or a blog on Kant as a lens for looking at his roots and successors so you ultimately get a nice, wide historical overview.

      • One concern is that topics such as Romanticism are of such daunting magnitude.

        Using discussion of Kant as a lens for picking out contrasting figures and signal developments is an excellent idea, not least as a device for focusing and invigorating discussion of Kant.

        Anti-imperialism, the self-determination of peoples, and the rights of indigenous populations to develop according to their own lights; languages and ancient customs threatened with extinction; the claims upon us of folk art, of the Latvian fishing song, of Saxon or Wendish paganism, of the secluded dung-walled farmstead: Herder didn’t invent these concerns but gave them a decisive and influential modern formulation, a twist in the modern consciousness. Herder didn’t invent nationalism; he coined the word Nazionalismus and thereby made it accessible to all.

        As Berlin observes, Herder was challenging Kant with a variation on his own universalism, one rooted in the ancient notion that human societies are organic.

  11. Peter Thompson says:

    Yes, that’s sounds like a good idea. Carl Schmitt is not really my area of expertise but I could certainly work it up. Gopal Balakhrishnan has just done something on him in New Left Review and has a good book in 2000 with Verso I think

  12. Yes, Gopal Balakrishnan’s Verso-published book from 2000 is The Enemy: An Intellectual Portrait of Carl Schmitt.

  13. When checking out Gopal Balakrishnan’s title on I typed in simply “The Enemy” and got this result.

  14. The substance of Gopal Balakrishnan’s recent article in the NLR is as follows:

    It is not that Neoconservatives perversely shaped U.S. foreign policy according to the evil lights of the hateful Schmitt. Rather, Schmitt accurately assessed the objective hazards facing U.S. foreign policy in a world order in which the U.S. had become hegemon. But the Neoconservatives under George W. Bush committed one unpardonable crime: they publicly departed from the approved Utopian-universalist script.

    Those who have read the article should feel free to challenge this interpretation.

    • Cbarr says:

      It seems a bit harsh to plug the entire bush doctrine on Neoconservatism or the process of neo-classical realism either especially in Iraq where Liberal Interventionists where writing so prolifically also in support of the conflict.

      • Peter Thompson says:

        Unless of course Liberal interventionism is merely a sub-variant of neo-conservatism, for which there is some evidence, not least in the form of Tony Blair

      • Cbarr says:

        Yes but in the same vein Bill Clinton and Kosovo. Liberal Interventionists have a long and very checkered history but as an entity it is distinct in its reasoning from the realist and neoclassical realist mantras of the neoconservatives. Another example of course would be Liberal Interventionists and aid protection in famines or natural disasters.

      • Gopal Balakrishnan’s article on Marx and Schmitt, “The Geopolitics of Separation” (New Left Review 68, the current issue at the time of my posting this comment) is a reply to a critique of Schmitt by the international-relations scholar Benno Teschke. To quote the blurb:

        Contra Benno Teschke’s critique of Carl Schmitt in NLR 67, Gopal Balakrishnan argues that bourgeois society’s constitutive separation of the political and economic was a central problematic for the strategist of the intransigent right.

        The article is premium content 17 pages long, but here are two excerpts that convey the drift:

        Rather than denouncing him as a theorist of dictatorship pure and simple, Teschke might have explored what could be learned from Schmitt, just as Schmitt knew that there was something to learn from how Marx had addressed this problem of the separation of the economic from the political, from his early articles on Hegel all the way to his later account of the primitive accumulation of capital in great land grabs and colonial conquests.

        More interesting is his suggestion that neo-conservatives promoted both the Manichean world-view and decisionism that he sees Schmitt as having advocated, and the wars for humanity and imposition of liberal democracy that he clearly attacked. But any familiarity with Schmitt’s accounts of the international scene between the wars makes it clear that it was precisely this combination that he saw taking shape in the American relationship to the far more unstable Versailles order. Teschke refuses to consider what Schmitt’s theorization of this inter-war crisis got right, let alone to what extent our own times could be said to resemble his.

      • digit says:

        Adam Curtis’ blog has an interesting post on the history of liberal interventionism:

      • digit says:

        Sorry, that didn’t work. Trying again:

  15. UlyssesRex says:

    Peter, thanks for those recommendations.

    Angelus Scepticus. Good ideas. Perhaps looking at the influence of Pietism in post Westphalian Germany may be a place to begin. Berlin wrote another essay on the use pietists made of Hume’s critique of rationalism as an argument for faith. Hamaan was in the same position.

    In regard to German Romanticism and nationalism, it is perhaps worth comparing much of it with English Gothicism (in a wider sense than is usually meant but also bringing in Edmund Burke’s sublime and beautiful) of the same period and the writings of James Macpherson posing as Ossian which had an incalcuable effect on European literature. As did Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. And Rousseau has a place to, his influence on Goethe and Kant as well as Romaticism in general was vast.

    Tying in Schmitt with de Maistre could have a place too though Schmitt was considering how dictatorship could work in a democratic society, more harking back to Rousseau then and the classical idea of citizen. (neo-classicism, the dictator’s favourite artistic style?).

    • Thank you, well summarised.

      As I said, the topic is of daunting magnitude.

      There are at least two other figures so pivotal that can’t be excluded, both Protestant Neoplatonists but of seemingly opposing character: the decidedly pre-Westphalian figure of Jakob Böhme (1575?-1624), shoemaker and proto-naturalistic mystic; and Anthony Ashley-Cooper, Third Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713), theoretician of Sensibility and moral hegemony, good-humoured foe of religious ‘enthusiasm’ (fanaticism).

    • The spirit of Böhme’s pervades German Pietism and, through early translations and “Behmenism”, 17th-century England; his influence therefore extends from radical Puritans, the Cambridge Platonists, Milton, and the early Quakers, to Blake, Hamann, Hegel, Schelling, Schopenhauer, and Uncle Tom Cobley and All.

      The moral-aesthetic philosophy of Shaftesbury inspired Herder as well as Francis Hutchison and the Scottish Enlightenment. With Dennis and Addison, he helped popularise the sublime of Longinus, interest in which had already been revived in France.

      • Peter Thompson says:

        Another recommendation would be Alberto Toscano’s Fanaticism (Verso 2011) which deals with Thomas Muenzer, the leader of the Peasants’ revolt in central Germany in 1525 and, of course, Ernst Bloch’s Thomas Muenzer als Theologe der Revolution (Suhrkamp 1954) which Toscano references extensively but which is not available in English. I have stated a translation of it for for Duke Uni Press.

      • Perhaps looking at the influence of Pietism in post Westphalian Germany may be a place to begin.

        Certainly. It would be necessary to consider the wretched condition of the German lands in the long aftermath of the Thirty Years’ War.

      • Berlin wrote another essay on the use pietists made of Hume’s critique of rationalism as an argument for faith. Hamann was in the same position.

        Radical skepsis seems ever to be close to the heart of true Christian mystics. The Christian theology of Late Antiquity is a study in negation, apophasis, using Neoplatonic terms.

        The Christian atheist Hume demonstrates as in a mathematical proof how we can do nothing, not rise in the morning, without the unspoken faith for which, if challenged, we could give no sufficient reason. This belief he (in my view rightly) attributes to our biological character as animals reliant on experience, habit, and instinct, the source of reasoning in human beings and in other species.

        If the Sun and Moon should doubt,
        They’d immediately Go out.

        Like Blake, Hamann unites the sensual and the pious. But so does Holy Writ.

        Behind both lies the influence of Böhme and Behmenism, and a mystical Neoplatonic tradition extending back beyond the Reformation to the Dominican dissident Meister Eckhart.

        To quote from the close of Berlin’s chapter on Hamann: Language:

        As a defender of the concrete, the particular, the intuitive, the personal, the unsystematic – this is the tendency which, for such cultural historians as Troeltsch and Meineke, distinguishes, indeed divides, the German from the rational, generalising, scientific West – he has no equal. He is a true forerunner of Schelling, of Nietzsche, and of the existentialists, and a dangerous ally of any supporter of organised religion.

      • Peter:

        Several editions of Bloch’s pioneering work on Muenzer are available at, including a first edition from 1 January 1921. Translating such material is a noble project and enviable work. Best wishes on that.

        Behind Muenzer there extends the tradition of mediaeval communistic revolt and also the Millenarian tradition of Joachim of Fiore (1135-1202), a major influence on the Franciscan order.

        Moreover, some three decades before the German farmers’ war there occurred another attempt at creating a godly commonwealth: the Florentine Republic under Giralomo Savonarola, scrutinised from the congregation by an appreciative but critical Niccolò Machiavelli.

        It will be interesting to read Bloch’s case for Muenzer’s theology, the contribution of which has received short shrift from historians such Diarmaid MacCulloch.

        From page 161 of MacCulloch’s Reformation.

      • Sorry. The perils of hand coding links. Here is the unbroken link:

        The key text from 1850: Engels’s Der deutsche Bauernkrieg (Peasant War in Germany).

  16. Peter Thompson says:

    Balakhrishnan also has an article on Marx ans Schmitt in March April’s NLR, which I am just about to read.

  17. digit says:

    Screw it. I’ll go find out how to use these html tags and in the meantime, here’s the link with no funny business:

    • Thanks for the link. That BBC Archive documentary from the 1960s on Biafra and the MarkPress PR agency is extraordinary.

      Adam Curtis’s stuff is always challenging, making thoughtful viewers want to explore things for themselves. Although I wasn’t quite satisfied with the thumbnail sketch of Leo Strauss in The Power of Nightmares, it did focus on illuminating details such as Strauss’s TV viewing preferences in the 1950s as well as some intriguing outlines of his political thought. Curtis’s film might induce some to go deeper, and perhaps even read some Strauss.

      One of the qualities that makes Marx’s writing so engaging is the element of investigative documentary: going for the real with high concept. It forces independent thought – in opposition to the doctrinaire.

      • digit says:

        Agree about the Biafra PR documentary. Curtis’ blog is full of these gobsmacking gems from the archives and incredibly fascinating histories. His tales of Afghanistan are enough to make a book – one both brilliantly entertaining and hugely enlightening. Who knew that the poppy fields of Hellmand were the result of failed US irrigation initiatives that had turned the soil alkaline, making it unsuitable for food crops, but excellent for opium?

        Off-topic, but I also can’t recommend highly enough this post, at which one can watch, in its entirety, an amazing documentary masterpiece by James Mossman from the late sixties, America: Democracy on Trial, which contains the classic Angela Davis ‘Pigs pigs pigs’ footage and seems to be the source of it:

        Also unmissable is the documentary on pandas here:

        A bit more on-topic (to the extent that there is one): it becomes increasingly clear as you go through Curtis’ material that his overriding concern is to expose the fallacies in 20th Century utopian thinking – and the very fact that the thinking was utopian – as a means of of interrogating the state of paralysis we seem overwhelmingly to be in now. He finds that thinking on both sides of the iron curtain and studiously avoids dogmatic pronouncements of his own, but yes, the feeling of needing to understand history in order to even think about beginning to effect change does seem to have a strong parallel with Marx.

      • Thanks for those links. The 1975 Chinese documentary in the second half of Very Important Pandas was revealing: it was a little shocking to learn that the animals’ digestive system is so poorly adapted to the consumption of bamboo; voraciously chewing bamboo is what they mostly do, poor things.

        On the topic of Afghanistan, here is Tariq Ali’s latest, onWhy Andropov Was Right, a review of two books.

    • Peter Thompson says:

      Yes, I was rather pathetically proud of that little play on words.

      • No criticism of the title “Ernst (Seriousness) Blog” was intended by the post at June 7, 2011 at 3.13 am, which was automatically generated by the WordPress pingback feature as I pottered about with links at my own WordPress blog space. (To everyone: WordPress users can control the pingback feature for their own space at Settings>Discussion. The default setting is “enabled”.)

        It seemed to be a good idea to create one’s own parallel space for especially lengthy comments and divagations, to avoid abusing hospitality here.

        Apologies for any sense of clutter. Please feel free to delete that which adds nothing to the discussion.

  18. Peter Thompson says:

    Angelus, I see. I know nothing of these technical details you speak so knowledgeably about. I have no idea what a pingback feature is for example.

    • Pingback:
      1. The author of Blog B creates a hyperlink to Blog A.
      2. The pingback feature attempts to notify Blog A of this new external link to it.
      3. If the notification succeeds, a link back to Blog B is generated on Blog A.

      This feature could also be described as a kind of “remote commenting”.

      According to Wikipedia’s Glossary of blogging, a pingback is the “alert in the TrackBack system that notifies the original poster of a blog post when someone else writes an entry concerning the original post”.

      Hope this helps.

  19. CurtisVomo says:


  20. CurtisVomo says:


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