The Vacillation of Ideology

by Étienne Balibar

But is the position of Marx and Engels really as simple as this facile continuity suggests? The impossibility of talking about a proletarian ideology (as will be readily done later within the Socialist and Communist parties) and the oscillation between the concepts of ideology and worldview can be considered symptomatic. They redirect us toward the aporias also present, in the same period, within the definition of the party form. What remains unclear is the question of whether the conception of the party articulated by Marx and Engels, along with their definition of proletarian politics, ultimately represents nothing more than a critique of the different concurrent tendencies at the heart of the workers’ movement (particularly the anarchist antistatist tendency and the statist tendency of post-Lassallean social democracy). The strength of the Marxist position is that it exposes the “fetishism of the State,” as present in its abstract negations as in its fantasies of pragmatic utility, and that it therefore clears an autonomous space for the problem of the politics of the workers’ movement. Its weakness is in only being able to manifest this theoretical autonomy by way of a permanent tactical compromise between those tendencies, or rather by way of a political “art” of struggle on several fronts, as a function of the con­junctures, at the very moment when the continuity of organization is being reasserted as a guarantee of the correctness of this theoretical autonomy.

The same aporia can be seen—but with paradoxically prolific consequences—in the difficulty Marx and Engels experience in occupying a stable position inside the organization, in what could be called the economy of the party form, as bearers of theoretical activity and scientific discovery concerning class struggle. Everything happens as if the unity of theoretical “core” and political “core,” or the theoretical and strategic “direction” (a unity denounced on suspicion by the anarchists, as the “dictatorship” of Marx, thus providing ahead of time one of the elements of the future critique of Marxist totalitarianism), had never been able to exist without immedi­ately breaking apart again. In the period of the First International, Marx was the strategic director of a very embryonic movement, but only as a mediator and arbiter of conflicts between tendencies in the organization, not as a theoretician of the mode of capitalist production. Any division thus takes effect, in a sense, within Marx, within his own subjectivity. In the period of social democracy, Marx and Engels were officially in charge of the party’s theoretical direction but not, strictly speaking, of its political direction, which was in the hands of the “organic intellectuals” of the party apparatus with whom they found themselves in a constantly ambivalent relation, sometimes of conflict and sometimes of reciprocal advantage on the question of joining forces with the working masses. A series of well-known historical incidents illustrates this contradiction.

We can no longer believe nowadays that this represents only a historical delay, whether in the constitution of the working class as a collective intellectual or in the proletarianization of political apparatuses, since this contradiction is reproduced at each stage of the history of the workers’ movement and Marxism. That is why, no doubt, the theory of the party form has never resolved the dilemmas of spontaneity and centralism, except in some of the intuitive critiques of Lenin, Gramsci, and Mao, at the time of its transformations, crises, and reworkings. In reality, the idea of the intellectual direction of class struggle can only be divided up, constantly, between the two discursive forms it must assume: program and theory. Each is constituted as a way of engaging through thought the historical process in action, but each is constructed from different points of view or different conceptual rules of play. (Both are equally ways of responding to the de­mands of politics—if need be, by addressing them directly, but from different subjective positions).

The fact that Marx and Engels (just as, in their own way, Lenin or Gramsci) are uncomfortable with the reduction of either of these positions to the other, always preserving a residual disparity between them—or covering it up under the pressure of circumstances—explains their resistance to the constitution of a political-theoretical dogma. In this context, the very idea of scientific socialism still possesses for them a critical connotation—and a democratic one in the strongest sense of the term. This is not an example of taking advantage of science to legitimize a managerial role, let alone the means of extending to a clique (or a caste) of Marxist intellectuals, disciples of the author of Capital, the theoretical sanction they need in order to establish a monopoly over political leadership. It is, rather, an attempt, in the spirit of the Aufklarung, to make available to the masses, or the base itself, the instruments of its historical orientation against the rule of leaders, prophets, and other bosses. In this way, the theoretical core would tend to be situated everywhere (as Pascal would have said), as a kind of noncenter. However, if the unity of theoretical thought (science, philosophy) and the thought of the masses is, indeed, the effect sought after by the proletarian worldview, it remains to this day the object of a postulate, that is, the more it remains empirically uncertain, the more it is affirmed as a unity of opposites.

SOURCE: Balibar, Étienne. “The Vacillation of Ideology,” translated by Andrew Ross and Constance Penley, in: Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, ed. by Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (Urbana; Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988), pp. 159-209. This quote from pp. 190-191.

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