A long time ago I read a beautiful essay by Teshome Gabriel about returning to Ethiopia to visit his mother. In that essay he describes being given a series of gifts by his mother: a cup, a photograph and a film. By the end of his essay, and his journey, he has come to regard those gifts as intolerable. They “create a sense of having been given something that can never be returned. “ The gifts “cannot be made a matter of material exchange” and “create a debt that can never be repaid.”
These gifts haunt, they are a recurring manifestation of an absent thing. For me this connected with Jacques Derrida and his Spectres of Marx. Derrida in his own quiet (but verbose) manner aligns with Marx, offering a nodding approval to the general project of Marxism.
For Derrida Marx will always haunt, he is a debt that cannot be paid. Marx can never be put back in the box and neither can the idea that there is something other than capitalism. Derrida designs his spectre(s) of Marx as being a kind of gift, an other-worldly and insubstantial treasure that calls to the scrooge in us all, a manifestation in discourse that enriches our capacity to acknowledge the possibilities of otherness.
While he’s right, the problem with the big D, in this instance, is that there isn’t much to be done with spectres: they do what they like, they do what they do. The mighty spectre of Marx offers a sense of deep play with regard to the foundations of how we live and what we value about our lives.
Play will only take us so far. Those who’ve tried to turn the possibilities of otherness into something more systematic haven’t really managed to get it together. A quick survey of (past and present) actually existing marxisms, socialisms, and communisms would reveal that precious little joy has managed to be derived from the spectre’s haunting.
I have begun to suspect that the gift of Marx’s spectres is only to be found in the glow of youth, of first love. Nabokov, in one of his letters to Edmund Wilson, wrote that the “glamour of Lenin’s reign retained for you the emotional iridescence which optimism, idealism and youth provided.” Those instances of emotional iridescence become the lifelong fuel for the spectres of Marx to offer their play; they are the released energy from all that burning bright, the energy that provides for revolutionary drive and the fires of righteousness.
Until they don’t.
Zizek nails this playing with fire when he writes that the “leftist worry that revolution will not occur, that global capitalism will just go on indefinitely, is false insofar as it turns revolution into a moral obligation, into something we ought to do while we fight the inertia of the capitalist present.” Simply put, Derrida’s ghostly Marx is a prick of conscience, a moral obligation. But it is twofold, the prick of conscience reminds us not only of injustice and the unequal distribution of wealth that results from capitalism. Nope. Not just that.
The other discomfort on our conscience is Stalin. It is terror and the gulag and the executions. The spectres of Marx might remind us of the possibilities of otherness in relation to capitalism but the spectres of Stalin laugh at us, at our feeble worries about what otherness might look like and how it might feel and how wholesome it could be. The spectre of Stalin reminds us that the key possibility of otherness is being dead.
Shortly before the fall of the Soviet Union Politburo member Aleksandr Yakovlev said: “a party that revels in myth and vain illusions is doomed.”He was referring to the CPSU but it could apply to any well intentioned leftism, any iteration of Marx’s ghost, and the doom to which Yakovlev refers is the spectre of Stalin. The nagging knowledge that whatever our project it will undoubtedly be so dependent on myth and illusion that it could all go wrong.
Our gifts, like Teshome Gabriel’s, have become intolerable. They carry terrible weight. We cannot blind ourselves to the wondrous openess that the spectre of Marx offers. Similarly we cannot look away from the awesome horror proferred by the spectre of Stalin.
To choose to look away on both counts is to turn away from everything but the moment. I worry that this is the basis for discourse presently, stuck pressing the refresh button, and as such what we are, and all we might be, is not only a debt that can’t ever be repaid but a debt sold to be the collateral for more debt.