I have a tremendous future thesis about Marx’s style curled up in my mind, sleeping and issuing yelps like an old hunting dog dreaming of its glory days. One day, I will eventually write it down in a severely truncated form, where it will flow over three pages max. I’m not a long distance runner, scholarship-wise.
Here are the previews of this exciting and never to be completed future project: Marx’s style, as I would like to prove, is where we see the actual form of dialectical materialism in practice. Or, to put it another way, Marx discovered at an early point in his career that reversal is a tremendous power. Turning things inside out and upside down, wrenching the lines of ownership inscribed in the genetive and the lines of power inscribed in the accusative and dative, one could truly say that in Marx’s work, rhetoric precedes revolution. He sinks into the regimes of ownership and of power that are his target – as he puts it somewhere in the Grundrisse – allows him to come out of those regimes through a pass that fundamentally alters our view of them.
Perhaps – and this is the kind of semi-psychoanalytical speculation that hovers near fiction, but what the fuck – perhaps Marx’s feeling for reversal is his replay of a crucial moment in his childhood: the moment when he was baptised. Or rather, the moment when his father converted his household from Judaism to Christianity. Apparently his mother resisted this decision for a while, but finally agreed to it. To reverse that baptism did not mean, for Marx, becoming Jewish again. Instead, he became something other than the Jew and the Christian, or at least that was the project. It is here, trying to reverse an essential surrender, that Marx stumbles upon the principle of negativity. The way forward and the way backwards are contained in one self-identical way, according to common sense, which seeks, thus, to squelch the power of inversion. This is not the case with Marx. He embraces negativity fiercely in order not to become the dupe of either positivism or a naïve belief in progress – while still trying to found a “universal history.”
To Anglo-American thinkers, steeped in the culture of common sense, Marx’s reversals can simply seem crabby or crooked, a matter of rhetorical excess that is vaguely alluded to by the term “prophetic” . The first task for these thinkers is to straighten Marx out, get a clear position of the case so we can properly “go forward”.Perhaps I am making too much of the effect of conversion – although I can’t resist pointing out that there is a line of great German polemicists – Heine, Marx, and Karl Kraus – who all used thundering reversals as their grand trope, and who all were converted Jews. Converted to fit with a society that was always hostile to Jews. Make of this what you will.