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Messianic ruminations: Derrida, Stirner and Marx

mind/geist of Europe by its cultural others and inferiors.

Derrida’s fascination is with Hamlet-as-geist haunted by
the corporeal form of the ghost, as a trope for the
irreducible spectral implication of spirit and spook.

However, this Vah~ryian reading of Hamlet forecloses
his distinctive relation to the premodern, conscripting his
melancholic Renaissance proto-modernity into a latterday battle with the developed forms of modernity in the
moment of European high modernism.

The question of modernity is as insistent in the text of
Marx as in the texts of Freud and in Hamlet, though
differently. Marx’s use of Gothic tropes, however, does
not usually reference the uncanny’s punctural rupture of
.modernity’s breach with tradition. Derrida’s misreading
of the ManzJesto’s famous citation of the Spectre of
Communism implausibly aligns Marx as fearful exorcist
with the reactionary powers of old Europe. However,
Marx is staging not an uncanny encounter of geist with
ghost, but a clash of two forms of narrative, of the
traditional nursery tale of the spectre with the party
manifesto that calls for the realization of a future
possibility. The Classical anachronism of the French
revolutionaries in The 18th Brumaire, the mystificatory,
vampiric and spectralized effects of Capital, are seen as
the production of the internally riven and selfcontradictory character of the economic and political
forms of capitalist modernity. What this then poses is the
question of the uncanny Nachtraglichkeit, the deferred
action or afterwardsness, of the premodern within

modernity (conceptualized within Marxism as the
overdetermination of different temporalities, or uneven
and combined development) and its relation to
modernity’s self-haunting or auto-spectrality. Derrida’s
spectral a priori or ghost-in-general, in its conflation of
these effects, precludes such a questioning.

1. Jacques Derrida, Positions (1972), trans. Alan Bass,
University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1981.

2. In a footnote in Dissemination, where the theme of
undecidability is related to the uncanny, Derrida remarks
that ‘we find ourselves constantly being drawn back to
that text’ (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1981, p.

220). In a still partial invocation in the closing moment of
Specters, he remarks that, ‘One should read also for itself
… all the rest of the text (we will try to do so elsewhere),
while crossing this reading with that of numerous other
texts in Heidegger’ (p. 174).

3. Mark Wigley, Derrida’s Haunt: the Architecture of
Deconstruction, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1993.

4. David McLellan, The Young Hegelians and Karl Marx,
Macmillan, London, 1969.


Interview with Jacques Derrida, ‘The Ghost Dance’,
Public, no. 2, 1989.


Sigmund Freud, ‘The Uncanny’ (1919), Standard Edition
of the Complete Psychological Works, trans. J. Strachey,
Vol. 17, The Hogarth Press, London, 1955, pp. 245-52.

7. Ferdinand Tonnies, Custom: An Essay on Social Codes,
trans. A. F. Borenstein, Gateway Books, Chicago, 1961.

8. The Oxford Book of Gothic Tales, edited by Chris Baldick,
Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1992, p. xii.

John Fletcher

Messianic ruminations
Derrida, Stirner and Marx
Much of the response to Jacques Derrida’s Specters of
Marx has concentrated on the significance it might have
for his thought. No doubt this is an interesting and
important subject, but it is not my principal concern here.

I am interested in Specters of Marx as a Marxist, and
therefore not for what it reveals of Derrida and of the
alleged ‘ethical turn’ of deconstruction, but for what it
says about Marx and Marxism, and about ‘What is to be
Done?’, here and now in the ‘New World Order’.1
There have been other Marxist responses to Specters,
notably those by Aijaz Ahmad and Fredric Jameson. 2
Both are highly characteristic of the writers’ respective
intellectual styles. Thus Jameson’s main thrust seems to
be recuperative, as he seeks to weave Derrida’s themes
into the dialectical totality forming, he believes, the
horizon of all human thought and activity. Ahmad’s
comments on Specters are, by contrast, sharper, more

polemical, more concerned to identify the lines of
opposition still dividing Derrida from Marxism. These
differences in approach are, of course, symptomatic of
their more general stances towards poststructuralism.

My own sympathies are more with Ahmad’s
approach than with Jameson’s. Thus Ahmad highlights
the apparent contradiction between Derrida’s current
rallying to Marx and his past stance towards the Marxist
tradition, which is summed up by Derrida’s remark that
he ‘opposed, to be sure, de facto, “Marxism” or
“communism” (the Soviet Union, the International of
Communist Parties, and everything that resulted from
them … )’ (p. 14). Ahmad comments: ‘That word,
everything, is so definitive, … that one does not know
why the collapse of those socialisms [that is, the no
longer existing socialisms of Eastern Europe and the
Soviet Union] should have sent him into mourning.’3

Ra die a I Phi I 0 sop h y 75 (J an / F e b 1996)


This is a good question, and one that is made even
sharper by the fact that (unknown to Ahmad when he
wrote the piece) Specters is dedicated to Chris Hani, the
immensely popular leader of the South African
Communist Party who was murdered in April 1993,
shortly before Derrida delivered the lecture on which the
book is based. Hani was one of the great heroes of the
South African liberation struggle, a lover, as Derrida
notes, of Shakespeare, and also of Jane Austen. He was
also an honourable but thoroughly orthodox
representative of precisely the kind of ‘de facto Marxism’

dominant within the Communist Parties to which Derrida
proclaims himself so strongly opposed. 4
Derrida could respond to Ahmad’ s query by pointing
to his repeated observation that there is more than one
Marx – and, one might add, more than one Marxism (see,
for example, pp. 3, l3). The Marxist ‘tradition’ is in fact
a plurality of traditions at least partially in conflict with
one another. This is an important point of reference for
anyone – such as myself – who argues that the existence
of anti-Stalinist Marxisms – in particular, those
stemming from Trotsky and the Left Opposition – is a
prerequisite of any attempt to carry on Marxism after the
collapse of ‘existing socialism’ in 1989. The ‘New
International’ proclaimed by Derrida has quite specific
connotations for those with a Trotskyist background.

New International was for many years the name of the
most intellectually distinguished journal of American
Trotskyism. 5
The plurality of Marxisms is not, however, addressed
by Derrida. Beyond a couple of references to Althusser
and Benjamin, he concentrates on Marx himself. I wish
to consider here two of the main themes of the discussion
which serve to highlight the differences that still separate
Derrida from Marx.

Stirner and spectrality
The first of these concerns Stirner and spectrality. Max
Stirner’s The Ego and Its Own (1844) is the object of an
enormously lengthy, indeed obsessive critique by Marx
and Engels in Book II of The German Ideology, which
takes up by far the largest part of that work. Stirner
reduces everything – God, man, states, societies – to so
many ‘spooks’, phantoms invented to conceal the sole
reality, the punctual singularity of the individual subject.

For Marx and Engels, Stirner’s ‘egology’ represented an
extreme case of the idealism and elitism into which the
Young Hegelians had degenerated. They counterposed
to it the practical realities of human beings participating
in concrete forms of social production: the critique of
Stirner thus prompted the formulation, in Book I of The
German Ideology, of the first systematic version of
historical materialism.


But for Derrida, Stirneris Marx’s ‘double, … brother,
… diabolical image … He has recognized someone who,
like him, appears obsessed by ghosts and by the figure of
the ghost and by its names with their troubling
consonance and reference (Geist, Gespenst)’ (p. l39).

The point of the concepts of ghost and spectrality for
Derrida seems to be that they represent yet another way
of disrupting the metaphysics of presence. Thus: ‘this,
the spectral, is not … this, which is neither substance,
nor essence, nor presence, is never present as such’ (p.


Jameson’s discussion of spectrality is helpful here.

He calls spectrality ‘what makes the present waver: like
the vibrations of a heat wave through which the
massiveness of the object world – indeed of matter itself
– now shimmers like a mirage’. 6 Hence Derrida’ s
counterposition of ‘hauntology’ and ‘ontology’ – terms
whose French originals, like ‘differance’ and
‘difference’, are homophonic, allowing him to play yet
again with the ineffaceable gap between speech and

From the perspective of spectrality the differences
between Marx and Stirner are less important than what
they have in common:

Marx and Saint Max [i.e. Stirner] seem to put in
question, others might say a little quickly
‘deconstruct’, an onto-theological and Christian
phenomenology; but it is to the extent that it. is .

occupied, they both say, and thus inhabited,
haunted only by ghosts. Their ‘deconstruction’ is
limited to the point at which they both oppose this
spectral onto-theology – each in his own way but
regardless of the differences between them – to the
hyper-phenomenological principle of the fleshand-blood presence of the living person, of the
being itself, of its effective and non-phantomic
presence in flesh and blood. (pp. 191-2, n. 14)
Marx thus relies, according to Derrida, on ‘an ontology
of presence as actual reality and as objectivity’ relative
to which spectres and other forms of representation of
the absent can be ‘conjured away’ by being reduced to
their material conditions, the world oflabour, production,
and exchange’ (p. 170).

There is something to be said for this argument.

Stirner undoubtedly posed a difficulty for Marx. When
The Ego and Its Own appeared in 1844 Marx had begun
to radicalize Feuerbach’s critique of Hegel by applying
it to political and social conditions rather than just to
concepts and systems of belief. But in one crucial respect
at least, Marx still remained within the framework
created by Feuerbach. Feuerbach’ s method was one of
inversion – thus the Hegelian Absolute is revealed to be

a rarefied version of God, which is itself exposed as a
projection of the human essence. In this way an inversion
of subject and predicate – of essential reality and its
secondary attributes – is put right. The real subject, Man,
is set in its proper place.

Stirner’s trick was to apply this method to Feuerbach
himself, exposing Man as a hypostasis of the individual
ego. Thus:

The supreme being is indeed [as Feuerbach says]
the essence of man, but, just because it is his
essence and not he himself, it remains quite
immaterial whether we see it outside him and view
it as ‘God’, or find it in him and call it ‘essence of
man’ or man. I am neither God, nor man, neither
supreme essence nor my essence …

Indeed, Stirner declares:

Man is the last evil spirit or spook, the most
deceptive or most intimate, the craftiest liar with
honest mien, the father of lies. 7
Stirner could thus be said to have exploded
Feuerbachian humanism: its characteristic form of
critique had been turned against itself. He thus posed a
challenge to Marx, whose Critique ofHegel’ s Philosophy
of Right employs Feuerbach’s method of inversion: the
modem state is exposed as an alienated expression of the
conflicts of civil society. Though the Paris Manuscripts
are openly critical of Feuerbach, The Holy Family, the
first text Marx co-authored with Engels, which was
directed against Stirner’s Berlin cronies the Bauer
brothers, is strongly Feuerbachian in tone. The texts,
however, which Marx produced after the appearance of
The Ego and Its Own – the Theses on Feuerbach and The
German Ideology – proceed in one respect at least along
parallel lines to Stirner’s. Marx also denies to
Feuerbach’s hypostatized Man its claimed status as the
subject of history. In its place, however, he sets, not the
singular ego, but ‘the real individuals, their activity and
the material conditions of their life’.8
This countermove permits Marx to develop his first
sketch of historical materialism, and thus to present a
form of political critique which goes beyond the ‘critical
criticism’ of Stirner and the Bauers by locating itself
within the emerging struggles of the working class.

Nevertheless, the rhetoric of The German Ideology, as
Derrida observes, does tend to make great play of the
material actuality of the ‘real individuals’ who, in
concrete contexts of social production, make history. The
text is, furthermore, almost positivist in its rejection of
philosophy, which Marx famously compares at one point
to masturbation. 9
A certain ambivalence towards Stirner is revealed by

Engels’s letter to Marx of 19 November 1844, recording
his first response to The Ego and Its Own. Engels offers
a qualified welcome to Stirner’s book for the critique it
makes of Feuerbach. At the same time he expresses his
growing impatience with ‘all this theoretical twaddle’,
and puts his differences with Stirner in terms very much
consonant with Derrida’s interpretation:

Stirner is right in rejecting ‘man’, or at least the
‘man’ of [Feuerbach’s] Das Wesen des
Christentums. Feuerbach deduces his ‘man’ from
God, it is from God that he arrives at ‘man’; and
hence ‘man’ is crowned with a theological halo of
abstraction. The true way to arrive at ‘man’ is the
other way about. We must take our departure from
the Ego, the empirical, flesh-and-blood individual,
if we are not, like Stirner, to remain stuck at this
point but rather to raise ourselves to ‘man’. ‘Man’

will always remain a wraith so long as his basis is
not empirical man. IQ
Marx’s response to Stirner was much less positive. His
reply to the letter just quoted is lost, but Engels’ s next
letter suggests that Marx brought him up short with a
dressing down for making any concessions to Stirner. 11
But the ferocity of Marx’s critique of Stirner does not
alter – indeed, by its obsessive length and detail, it tends
to confirm – the impression that the two were both
seeking to make their escape from Feuerbachian
humanism, albeit in different directions. 12 •
But this is not the end of the story. Marx’s thought
continues to develop after The German Ideology. It is
only in The Poverty of Philosophy, first published in
1847, that he formulates clearly the concept of the
relations of production, the master-concept of Capital.

Derrida’s discussion of the latter work concentrates,
predictably enough, on what Marx himself called the
‘metaphysical subtleties’ of the commodity-form. Marx
does return to the Feuerbachian theme of inversion in
Capital: it figures as a metaphor, for example, when he
criticizes the ‘trinity formula’, according to which
‘factors of production’ earn specific forms of revenue.

He calls this ‘the bewitched, distorted and upside-down
world haunted by Monsieur le Capital and Madame la
Terre’ .13
This is exactly the kind of language of exorcism – of
ridding the real of the spectral- on which Derrida seizes.

But he doesn’t notice that it is no ‘present’ or ‘living’

reality that Marx invokes in order to set the ‘upside-down
world’ of commodities and capital back on its feet.

Rather, it is capitalist relations of production that form,
according to Marx, the inner structure of this world. But
the distinctive feature of capitalist relations, as Althusser
and his collaborators sought to show in Reading Capital,


is precisely that they are not present. The capitalist mode
of production is a structure which can be discerned only
in its effects, and whose nature and operations must
therefore be reconstructed through a process of
theoretical labour. The real of Capital is a structure of
relations that is the object of analysis, not a palpable
living substance in the face of whose actuality the ghost
dance of commodities falls apart. 14
This leads to a more general philosophical point.

Derrida is too quick, both in Specters and in the lengthy
interview with Jean-Louis Houdebine and Guy Scarpetta
at the height of the post-‘ 68 Paris craze for Chairman
Mao that represents one of his few earlier direct
encounters with Marxism, to equate any conception of a
real existing independently of thought and discourse with
a present directly accessible to consciousness. 15 But
Marx’s mature materialism (or realism) is precisely one
where the real is not the same as presence. The
distinctions Roy Bhaskar draws between the empirical,
the actual and the real, where the latter is conceived as a
stratified structure of powers manifested in sequences of
events (the actual) which mayor may not be experienced
by human subjects (the empirical), are helpful in further
articulating this point. 16 Deconstruction’ s victories, if
won merely over a naive realism that fails to draw these
distinctions, are unlikely to amount to much.

Eschatology and teleology
The second main theme of Derrida’ s discussion of Marx
that I wish to address concerns his counterposition of
eschatology and teleology. In seeking to characterize
what he wants to keep of Marxism, Derrida identifies,
first, a style of ‘radical critique’ that is ‘heir to a spirit of
the Enlightenment which must not be renounced’, and ‘a
certain emancipatory and messianic affirmation’. He
goes on to criticize Althusser and his followers, ‘who
believed that they must try to dissociate Marxism from
any teleology or from any eschatology (but my concern
is precisely to distinguish the latter from the former),
(pp. 88-90).

Derrida in fact wishes to rescue messianic
eschatology from teleology. Thus he asks:

Is there not a messianic extremity, an eskhaton
whose ultimate event (immediate rupture,
unheard-of interruption, untimeliness of the infinite
surprise, heterogeneity without accomplishment)
can exceed, at each moment, the final term of a
phusis, such as work, production, and the telos of
any history? (p. 36, trans. modified)
This passage inevitably calls to mind Benjamin’ s Theses
on the Philosophy of History. And Derrida does invoke
Benjamin’s concept of ‘weak Messianic power’ (pp. 55,


180-81 n. 2). In the Theses and other writings of the late
1930s Benjamin conceives revolution as a Messianic
irruption into the ‘homogenous, empty time’

presupposed by conventional historiography, Stalinism
and social democracy alike, ‘a tiger’ s leap … in the open
air of history’.17 There is here stated an important truth
about revolution: namely, that it constitutes a break in
the causal chain. Revolutions can never simply be read
off from subtending structures and preceding events.

There is an irreducible sense in which they take everyone
by surprise.

This is true, to take the most recent example, of the
East European revolutions of 1989. It has become a
cliche – but is no less true for all that – that no one
expected the wave of popular insurgency that swept away
the Stalinist regimes in the autumn of 1989. The Soweto
uprising of June 1976, the event which initiated the other
great political transformation of recent times, the
removal of apartheid in South Africa, had the same
quality of unexpectedness. But the same can be said
generally of revolutions. To take the case of what is still
the revolution of the twentieth century, the Russian
Revolution of October 1917, Lenin notoriously told an
audience of Swiss socialists in January 1917: ‘ We of the
older generation may not live to see the coming
revolution.’ The fall of tsarism in February 1917 came as
an ‘infinite’ – though very welcome – surprise to Lenin.

The situationists were therefore right to call this :the.

century of the unexpected’.

Simply to leave matters there would, however, be to
mystify historical transformations, indeed to efface their
specificity in a metaphysics of the event. For what is
usually (though not always) the surprising thing about
revolutions is not that they happen, but when and (to
some extent) how they happen. Analysis can expose the
systemic contradictions, class conflicts and ideological
disarray of a specific society; what it can’t do is
determine the precise timing and form of their
unravelling. Nevertheless, without a theoretical
understanding of the dynamics of historical
transformation of the kind that Marxism (but not only
Marxism) seeks to offer, the historical imagination will
be trapped between blind empiricism and belletrist
speculation. 18
That is why the efforts disparaged by Derrida to
disentangle historical materialism from the teleological
forms of thinking that are part of Marx’ s Hegelian
heritage are essential. A non-teleological historical
materialism – that is, one that does not posit communism
as the ineluctable end of history – is needed to provide
‘messianic eschatology’ with ballast and orientation.

Benjamin famously imagined historical materialism

calling on ‘the services of theology’, by which he meant
the ‘weak Messianic power’ invoked by Derrida. 19 But
Benjamin’s own career – his tortuous, ambiguous, but
ultimately decisive movement towards revolutionary
socialism and historical materialism – showed that the
reverse is also true, that ‘messianic extremity’ requires a
materialist anchorage.

Without the substance of Marxism as well as its spirit,
Derrida’s ‘ethical turn’ is likely to amount to little more
than an avowal of left liberalism, and a rather weak one
at that. His conceptualization of spectrality is intended in
part to help articulate his thoughts on justice (pp. 23-9).

But these thoughts – to the extent that they are not simply
impenetrable – have a curiously provincial air about
them. It is hard to know what to make of a discourse on
justice whose main reference is Heidegger’s
‘Anaximander Fragment’ – hardly the work of a thinker
who can be treated as a reliable guide to the political and which ignores the vast debates on justice which have
taken place among English-speaking philosophers over
the past quarter-century. Rawls, Nozick, Dworkin, Sen,
MacIntyre, Walzer, Sandel, Rorty, Barry and Cohen
might not have written for the notice they receive from
Derrida. But it is hard to see how he can lay claim to the
terrain of justice without addressing the prior claims of
its present occupants.

It would, however, be churlish to end on this note of
criticism, and not to welcome a book which so firmly
denounces the cruelties and injustices inflicted by
actually existing capitalism and the apologists such as
Fukuyama who seek to explain these away; a book
which, against the grain of contemporary fashion, affirms
‘no future without Marx’, and calls for ‘a new Enlightenment for the century to come’ (pp. 13,90). Whether all
this represents a significant modulation of Derrida’s
thought, I leave to others to judge. I am content here
merely to welcome another interlocutor to the great, and
still unavoidable, debate about the relationship between
Marx’s thought and the world in which we are
condemned to live a struggle.

Alex Callinicos

1. This paper is a slightly revised and expanded version of
the one given at the Radical Philosophy conference. I am
grateful to all those participating and particularly to
Gregory Elliott and Kate Soper.

2. A. Ahmad, ‘Reconciling Derrida’, New Left Review 208,
November-December 1994; and F. Jameson, ‘Marx’s
Purloined Letter’, New Left Review 209, JanuaryFebruary 1995.

3. Ahmad, ‘Reconciling Derrida’, p. 93.

4. Ahmad’s article was ‘a quick response strictly to the text
of Derrida’s “A Lecture on Marx”‘, the extract from
Specters published in New Left Review 205, May-June

1994, which omits the book’s dedication. See Ahmad,
‘Reconciling Derrida, p. 89, n. 2.

5. See A. Callinicos, Trotskyism, Open University Press,
Milton Keynes, 1990; and The Revenge of History, Polity,
Cambridge, 1991; and J. Molyneux, What is the Real
Marxist Tradition?, Bookmarks, London, 1985.

6. Jameson, ‘Marx’s Purloined Letter’, p. 85.

7. The Ego and Its Own, Cambridge University Press,
Cambridge, 1995, pp. 34,165. Stirner’s argument attimes
takes on a distinctly proto-Nietzschean tone, for example
in his book’s concluding polemic against truth: ”’The
truth” outlasts the downfall of the world of gods, for it is
the immortal soul of this transitory world of gods, it is
Deity itself’ (ibid., p. 311). One can therefore see his
attraction for a disciple of Nietzsche and Heidegger such
as Derrida. During the nouveaux philosophes’ noisy break
with Marxism in the late 1970s, Dominique Lecourt
pointed out the parallels between their arguments and
Stirner’s (see Dissidence ou revolution, Maspero, Paris,
1978, p. 55). One might say that the poststructuralist
discovery of Stirner was bound to happen, sooner or later.

8. Marx and Engels, Collected Works, Lawrence & Wishart,
London, Vol. V, 1975-, p. 31.

9. Ibid., p. 236.

10. MarxlEngels, Collected Works, Vol. XXXVIII, pp. 1213.

11. A chastened Engels wrote to Marx in January 1845: ‘As
regards Stirner, I entirely agree with you. When I wrote to
you, I was still under the immediate impression made upon
me by the book’ (ibid., p. 16).

12. Did The Ego and Its Own prompt Marx to make the final
break with Feuerbach, or had he already taken this step
when he was confronted with Stirner’s work? Auguste
Cornu’s great study supports the second interpretation,
though he does note that Marx’s ‘radical opposition’ to
Feuerbach becomes evident only in the Theses on
Feuerbach, written in the spring of 1945, i.e. after the
appearance of The Ego and Its Own (see Karl Marx et
Friedrich Engels, IV, Presses Universitaires de France,
Paris, 1970, p. 133 and passim). Marx’s possible
ambivalence towards Stirner was first brought home to
me by Tony Dodd in discussions during the mid-1970s.

13. Marx, Capital, Vol. Ill, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1981,

14. Derrida’s failure to address Reading Capital is a puzzle,
especially given his friendship with Althusser and
participation in some ofthe seminars at the Ecole Normale
Superieure from which the book emerged (see J. Derrida,
‘Politics and Friendship’, in E. A. Kaplan and M. Sprinker,
eds, The Althusserian Legacy, Verso, London, 1993, pp.

186ff). My invocation of Althusser here is not intended to
represent a simple endorsement of the idea of an
epistemological break separating the young and old
Marxes (see my discussion of these matters in Marxism
and Philosophy, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1983, ch. 2). It
should also be noted that Marx’ s abandonment of
Feuerbachian humanism left in its wake unresolved issues
(see N. Geras, Marx and Human Nature, Verso, London,

15. See J. Derrida, Positions, Minuit, Paris, 1972, pp. 51-133.

16. See R. Bhaskar, A Realist Theory of Science, Harvester,
Hassocks, 1978, pp. 56ff.

17. W. Benjamin, Illuminations, Fontana, Glasgow, 1970, p.

263. I discuss Benjamin’s conception of revolution in
Making History, Polity, Cambridge, 1987, ch. 5.

18. I discuss Marxist and other theories of history in my
Theories and Narratives, Polity, Cambridge, 1995, ch. 3.

19. Benjamin, Illuminations, pp. 255, 256.


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