The Two Marxs


What happens when the person assigned to the prosecution is as fascinated by the accused as he is scandalized by him. It comes about that the prosecutor sets himself to finding a hundred thousand good reasons to prolong the study of the file, that the inquiry becomes meticulous, always more meticulous, that the lawyer submerged in the British Museum in the microscopic analysis of the aberrations of capital is no longer able to detach himself from it, that this swarming of perverse fluxes that is supposed to have produced (dialectically), never stops moving away, escaping him, being put off, and that the submission of petitions is kept waiting interminably.1

-Jean-Francois Lyotard, Libidinal Economy (1974)

The prosecution described here by Lyotard is none other than Karl Marx, the prototypical critical ‘genealogist,’ a character whose spirals through the flows of history and time have far to do with his body as a symbol, and not as one of emotion, shifting intellect. It seems fitting then that Lyotard would write a treatment of Marx’s subjectivity-in-production, something never discussed (aside from the occasional biography or collection of letters) in his hardly-ever read – nay, hated – Libidinal Economy.

Libidinal Economy‘s discussion of Marx begins with the expressed need to explore the historical figure and his theory from a new vantage point, somehow “reawakening his hidden desire and ours along with it”2 – no longer taking him to be, like so many self-professed Communists, to be a prophet of truth, but to treat him as a “work of art.”3 Lyotard conjures up two different Karl Marxs, the first one that he dubs the young “Little Marx.” This is the Marx enraptured with the Parisian revolution of 1848 and author of the The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 – a Marx emerging from the Hegelian current and mad with longings for the pre-capitalist territories. He’s “in love with love,”4 captivated by the rose-tinted idealism of being together and becoming together, the chains of solidarity that form when the will-to-be-against coalesces into a collective mass. The figure of Little Marx is something poised against the industrial combines of capitalism – it is the proletarian Marx, from whom Communism as we know it, as both a theoretical construct (potential Communism) and physical nightmare (really existing Communism), emerged.

But, living between the lines of the pages, is the “Fat Marx,” an older, more complicated Marx, that has overtaken over the desiring body of Little Marx. He is a scholar who sees the industrializing processes and proclaims that “it cannot stop.” But this is no admission of defeat; Fat Marx was forever delaying the end of his Das Kapital, final, never to be completed critique – precisely because of his hidden fascination, his desire for the capitalism’s drives. The prosecutions falls for the accused, against all better judgment, but because the accused fulfills something in the prosecution. This something is pleasure, the immediate orgasmic fulfillment of the prolonged desire of being proletarian. (But of course, it was Baudrillard who quipped that “Ours is a culture of premature ejaculation.”6)

It is tempting to read this treatment of Marx as one that is both concrete and allegorical – on one hand, there exists the very real possibility for Marx’s enrapture with capitalism and all that is does as an almost living, breath system, but on the other, Marx here may be an avatar for Lyotard himself. After all it was Lyotard who began as a militant in the name of the proletariat and sought revolutionary ends with Socialisme ou Barbarie, having then split from the group when it moved away from Marxist orthodoxy. But now it was the Old Lyotard, aged considerably in the decade between that pre-May ’68 ferment and Libidinal Economy, who is confessing his sin, pulling back the curtain to his fascination with capitalism because of its interplay with desire.

Lyotard’s admission, in turn, implicates us all. How many of us began as Little Marxs, Little Lyotards, drunk on the joys of being against but continue to harbor a secret love for the powers of capitalism? Not a love for its tendency towards calamity, but its powers of fulfillment, its subtle seductions. We become fat and old, suspend ourselves in the labyrinths of theory and critique and isolate ourselves away from active resistance, because here we can have the best both worlds, our cake that we can also eat.

Common graffiti during May of 1968: “I take my desires for reality because I believe in the reality of my desires.”

1Jean-Francois Lyotard Libidinal Economy Indiana University Press, 1993, pg. 97

2Ibid., pg. 95

3Ibid., pg. 96

4Ibid., pg. 98

6Jean Baudrillard Seduction Macmillian, 1990, pg. 38

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