Saturday, January 31, 2009

On the Difficulty of the Ethico-Political Act

From Žižek’s and Daly’s book Conversations with Žižek (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2004), pp. 71-72:

“The result of all this is that, for Lacan, the Real is not impossible in the sense that it can never happen—a traumatic kernel which forever eludes our grasp. No, the problem with the Real is that it happens and that’s the trauma. The point is not that the Real is impossible but rather that the impossible is Real. A trauma, or an act, is simply the point when the Real happens, and this is difficult to accept. Lacan is not a poet telling us how we always fail the Real—it’s always the opposite with the late Lacan. The point is that you can encounter the Real, and that is what is so difficult to accept.”

Friday, January 30, 2009

Marxism is not simply a "Worldview"

From Žižek's Tarrying with the Negative:

"[...] the proletariat becomes an actual revolutionary subject by way of integrating the knowledge of its historical role: historical materialism is not a neutral 'objective knowledge' of historical development, since it is an act of self-knowledge of a historical subject; as such, it implies the proletarian subjective position. In other words, the 'knowledge' proper to historical materialism is self-referential, it changes its 'object.' It is only via the act of knowledge that the object becomes what it truly 'is.' So, the rise of 'class consciousness' produces the effect in the existence of its 'object' (proletariat) by way of changing it into an actual revolutionary subject."

(TWTN, p. 144-145)

I would just like to add to Žižek's (and Lacan's) insight here by means of a reference to the question as to why the left in the USA is so divided. In American corporate academia, our new sophists (all of the capitalist flunkies, including the all-too-many pseudoleftists who pose as revolutionary "Beautiful Souls") are incapable of becoming true leftists because they simply are not in the proletarian subjective position. In short, the truth of an entire situation is only disclosed through the subjective position of the abject, excluded other. Only by occupying THIS position will American so-called "intellectuals" grasp the truth of Žižek's politics. --V.M.

Nationalism as Enjoyment

[...] the ideal levelling of all social differences, the production of the citizen, the subject of democracy, is possible only through an allegiance to some particular national Cause. If we apprehend this Cause as the Freudian Thing (das Ding), materialized enjoyment, it becomes clear why it is precisely “nationalism” that is the privileged domain of the eruption of enjoyment into the social field: the national Cause is ultimately the way subjects of a given nation organize their collective enjoyment through national myths. What is at stake in ethnic tensions is always the possession of the national Thing: the “other” wants to steal our enjoyment (by ruining our “way of life”) and/or has access to some secret, perverse enjoyment.

(Looking Awry, p. 165)

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Why is the American Left so Divided? The Academics!

In my experience as visiting instructor at universities in the U.S.A., the problem here is the result of the (often unreflective, but not always) capitalist habits and behaviours engaged in by the tenure-track and the tenured professors. They are willfully ignorant of how much of what they do and say is dictated by capital. If you are a professor and call yourself a leftist, do you have TIAA-CREF? Do you have other investments? Do you own your own home, a laptop, and expensive car? Do you want to efface the distinction between yourself and all of the adjunct instructors? Answer honestly, and you will say "No".

Adjunct instructors in America have no health benefits and no salary (they are paid by the course, and if the class does not fill up with students, they have no work). They are all paid the same (obscenely low) rate at the same college. They have no job security because they do not get a real contract, only a letter from the Dean of the department which the adjunct is compelled to honour, but which the school can ignore whenever it wants. But numerically speaking, there are more adjunct instructors. All across the U.S.A., at thousands of community colleges, and even some four-year schools, you have one or two or three full-time people and a dozen adjuncts.

For the tenure-track and the tenured professors in America (even the full-time visiting professors), life is much better than for the adjunct. Even if they call themselves "leftist" (as so many do), they would never agree to a real Union that was inclusive of adjuncts because this would threaten their own privileges and the hierarchy. The American pseudo-leftist academics are unreflectively capitalist--vain and greedy, promoting themselves and competing, focusing on the perks they get for not crossing the line (paid sabbaticals, etc.).

In short, the American pseudo-leftist academic is incapable of the true ethico-political act. Because their position in the socio-symbolic order is everything to them, they cannot even consider the symbolic suicide implied by the authentic act. So they only talk socialism--but the last thing they want is real solidarity. They have none of what Brecht describes as "love of the third thing", the shared commitment to the cause. Unfortunately, I can no longer support myself by means of my position in Kiev, so I also participate in capitalist system even while criticizing it.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

ŽIŽEK Interview: The Guardian, 9 August, 2008

Interview by Rosanna Greenstreet
The full interview is available online at:

What follows are some of the (complete) questions and some of the (complete) replies:

Which living person do you most admire, and why?

ŽIŽEK: Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the twice-deposed president of Haiti. He is a model of what can be done for the people even in a desperate situation.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

ŽIŽEK: Indifference to the plights of others.

Aside from a property, what's the most expensive thing you've bought?

ŽIŽEK: The new German edition of the collected works of Hegel.

What is your most treasured possession?

ŽIŽEK: See the previous answer.

Who or what is the love of your life?

ŽIŽEK: Philosophy. I secretly think reality exists so we can speculate about it.

Which living person do you most despise, and why?

ŽIŽEK: Medical doctors who assist torturers.

What has been your biggest disappointment?

ŽIŽEK: What Alain Badiou calls the 'obscure disaster' of the 20th century: the catastrophic failure of communism.

Tell us a secret.

ŽIŽEK: Communism will win.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Žižek Against the True Academic Arrogance

From Žižek’s and Daly’s book Conversations with Žižek (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2004), p. 45:

“I hate this approach of taking a little bit from Lacan, a little bit from Foucault, a little bit from Derrida. No, I don’t believe in this; I believe in clear-cut positions. I think that the most arrogant position is this apparent, multidisciplinary modesty of ‘what I am saying now is not unconditional, it is just a hypothesis’, and so on. It really is a most arrogant position. I think that the only way to be honest and to expose yourself to criticism is to state clearly and dogmatically where you are. You must take the risk and have a position.”

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Žižek against both post-politics and biopolitics

(1) From Žižek’s book Virtue and Terror: Maximilien Robespierre (Verso, 2007), p. xxxix:

“[...] what better proof of the ethico-political misery of our epoch whose ultimate mobilizing motif is the mistrust of virtue! Should we not affirm against such opportunist realism the simple faith in the eternal Idea of freedom which persists through all defeats, without which, as was clear to Robespierre, a revolution ‘is just a noisy crime that destroys another crime’, the faith most poignantly expressed in Robespierre’s very last speech on the 8 Thermidor 1794, the day before his arrest and execution:

But there do exist, I can assure you, souls that are feeling and pure; it exists, that tender, imperious and irresistible passion, the torment and delight of magnanimous hearts; that deep horror of tyranny, that compassionate zeal for the oppressed, that sacred love for the homeland, that even more sublime and holy love for humanity, without which a great revolution is just a noisy crime that destroys another crime; it does exist, that generous ambition to establish here on earth the world’s first Republic.”

(2) From Žižek’s book Violence (Picador, 2008), p. 40:

“[...] ‘post-political’ is a politics which claims to leave behind old ideological struggles and instead focus on expert management and administration, while ‘biopolitics’ designates the regulation of the security and welfare of human lives as its primary goal.”

(3) From Žižek’s book Violence (Picador, 2008), p. 202:

“Divine violence should thus be conceived as divine in the precise sense of the old Latin motto vox populi, vox dei: not in the perverse sense of ‘we are doing it as mere instruments of the People’s Will,’ but as the heroic assumption of the solitude of sovereign decision. It is a decision (to kill, to risk or lose one’s life) made in absolute solitude, with no cover in the big Other. If it is extra-moral, it is not ‘immoral,’ it does not give the agent license just to kill with some kind of angelic innocence. When those outside the structured social field strike ‘blindly,’ demanding and enacting immediate justice/revenge, this is divine violence.”

(4) From Žižek’s book In Defense of Lost Causes (Verso, 2008), pp. 460-461:

“But then how are we to counter the threat of ecological catastrophe? It is here that we should return to the four moments of what Badiou calls the ‘eternal Idea’ of revolutionary-egalitarian Justice. What is demanded is:

1. strict egalitarian justice (all people should pay the same price in eventual renunciations [...]);

2. terror (ruthless punishment of all who violate the imposed protective measures, inclusive of severe limitations on liberal ‘freedoms,’ [...]);

3. voluntarism (the only way to confront the threat of ecological catastrophe is by means of large-scale collective decisions which run counter to the ‘spontaneous’ immanent logical of capitalist development);

4. and, last but not least, all this combined with trust in the people [...] One should not be afraid to assert, as a combination of terror and trust in the people, the reactivation of one of the figures of all egalitarian-revolutionary terrors, the ‘informer’ who denounces the culprit to the authorities. (In the case of the Enron scandal, Time magazine rightly celebrated the insiders who tipped off the financial authorities as true public heroes.)

Does, then, the ecological challenge not offer a unique chance to reinvent the ‘eternal Idea’ of egalitarian terror?"

(5) From Žižek’s book In Defense of Lost Causes (Verso, 2008), p. 212:

“Gastev ran the Institute of Labor, which carried out experiments to train workers to act like machines. He saw the mechanization of man as the next step in evolution [...]. Is not this dream the first radical formulation of what, today, one usually calls biopolitics? Counterintuitive as this may sound, one can argue that this vision, had it really been imposed, would have been much more terrifying than Stalinism actually was. It was against this threat of full-scale modernist mechanization that Stalinist cultural politics reacted; it not only demanded a return to artistic forms that would be attractive to large crowds, but also—although it may appear cynical—the return to elementary traditional forms of morality. In the Stalinist show trials, the victims were held responsible for certain acts, forced to short, though it may appear obscene (and it was), they were treated as autonomous ethical subjects, not as objects of biopolitics.”

(6) From Žižek’s book In Defense of Lost Causes (Verso, 2008), p. 358:

“What is not in Marx, what Negri projects onto Marx’s ‘general intellect,’ is his own central notion of ‘biopolitics’ as the direct production of life itself in its social dimension. [...] This is why, in this Marxian vision, the objects of the production process are precisely not social relations themselves: the ‘administration of things’ (control of and domination over nature) is here separated from the relations between people, it constitutes a domain of the ‘administration of things’ which no longer has to rely on the domination over people.”

One way to summarize the insight that unifies all of these quotations from Žižek is to say that Capital today functions as the Real which informs--but is not visible from within--the imaginary-symbolic “reality” addressed by both post-politics and biopolitics. When those who are excluded from, and made abject by, this hegemonic “reality” wrest control away from the capitalists in an ethico-political act, this act (as well as the subsequent institutions that prevent the resurgence of capitalism) is neither post-politics nor biopolitics. Only such an act realizes what Žižek has recently referred to in his lectures as a “politics between fear and trembling.”

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Žižek’s Re-inscription of Hegel (2)

From The Metastases of Enjoyment (pp. 188-189)

"One naive yet difficult-to-answer objection to Hegel is : What 'sets in motion' the dialectical process? Why does the 'thesis' not simply persist in its positive self-identity? Why does it dissolve its self-complacent identity, and expose itself to the dangers of negativity and mediation? In short, is not Hegel caught in a vicious circle here; does he not succeed in dissolving every positive identity only because he conceives of it in advance as something mediated by negativity?

What is wrong here is the implicit presupposition of this objection: that there is something akin to the full immediacy of the 'thesis'. Hegel's point, on the contrary, is that there is no 'thesis' (in the sense of the full self-identity and organic unity of a starting point). That is to say: one of the illusions that characterize the standard reading of Hegel concerns the notion that the dialectical process somehow progresses from what is immediately given, from its fullness, to its mediation--say, from the naive, non-reflected consciousness that is aware only of the object opposed to it, to self-consciousness that comprises the awareness of its own activity as opposed to the object.

Hegelian 'reflection', however, does not mean that consciousness is followed by self-consciousness--that at a certain point consciousness magically turns its gaze inward, towards itself, making itself its own object, and thus introduces a reflective distance, a splitting, into the former immediate unity. Hegel's point is, again, that consciousness always-already is self-consciousness: there is no consciousness without a minimal reflective self-relating of the subject. Here Hegel turns against Fichte and Schelling and, in a sense, goes back to Kant, for whom the transcendental apperception of the I is an inherent condition of the I's being conscious of an object.

The passage of consciousness to self-consciousness thus involves a kind of failed encounter: at the very moment when consciousness endeavors to establish itself as 'full' consciousness of its object, when it endeavors to pass from the confused foreboding of its content to its clear representation, it suddenly finds itself within self-consciousness--that is to say, it finds itself compelled to perform an act of reflection, and to take note of its own activity as opposed to the object. Therein resides the paradox of the couple 'in-itself' and 'for-itself': we are dealing here with the passage from 'not yet' to 'always-already'. In 'in-itself', the consciousness (of an object) is not yet fully realized, it remains a confused anticipation of itself; whereas in 'for-itself' consciousness is in a way already passed over, the full comprehension of the object is again blurred by the awareness of the subject's own activity that simultaneously renders possible and prevents access to the object. In short, consciousness is like the tortoise in Lacan's reading of the paradox of Achilles and the tortoise--Achilles can easily outrun the tortoise, yet he cannot catch up with her.

Another way to make the same point is to emphasize that the passage from consciousness to self-consciousness always involves an experience of failure, of impotence--consciousness turns its gaze inside, towards itself, it becomes aware of its own activity, only when the direct, unproblematic grasp of its object fails. Suffice it to recall the process of knowledge: the object's resistance to the grasp of knowledge forces the subject to admit the 'illusory' nature of his knowledge--what he mistook for the object's In-itself are actually his constructions."

The Metastases of Enjoyment (London: Verso, 1994)

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Žižek on Obama’s Victory

“The true battle begins now, after the victory. The battle for what this victory will effectively mean, especially within the context of two other much more ominous signs of history: 9/11 and the financial meltdown. Nothing was decided by Obama’s victory, but his victory widens our freedom and thereby the scope of our decisions. But regardless of whether we succeed or fail, Obama’s victory will remain a sign of hope in our otherwise dark times, a sign that the last word does not belong to ‘realist’ cynics, be they from the Left or the Right.”

Slavoj Žižek, from In These Times, November 13, 2008
The full article is available online at:

Engels on the Crises of Capitalism

Friedrich Engels wrote the following in 1880:

Commerce is at a standstill, the markets are glutted, products accumulate, as multitudinous as they are unsaleable, hard cash disappears, credit vanishes, factories are closed, the mass of the workers are in want of the means of subsistence, because they have produced too much of the means of subsistence; bankruptcy follows upon bankruptcy, execution upon execution.

The stagnation lasts for years; productive forces and products are wasted and destroyed wholesale, until the accumulated mass of commodities finally filter off, more or less depreciated in value, until production and exchange gradually begin to move again.

Little by little, the pace quickens. It becomes a trot. The industrial trot breaks into a canter, the canter in turn grows into the headlong gallop of a perfect steeplechase of industry, commercial credit and speculation, which finally, after breakneck leaps, ends where it began--in the ditch of a crisis. And so over and over again.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Žižek's Hegelian Version of Lacan

“The basic insight elaborated in the first half of For They Know Not What They Do is that Hegelian dialectics and the Lacanian ‘logic of the signifier’ are two versions of the same matrix.”
--From Žižek's For They Know Not What They Do, second edition (2002), p. xviii.

Žižek develops this insight by locating the accomplishment of German Idealism in its affirmation of subjectivity as the confrontation with negativity. He argues that Hegel’s dialectic is ruptured from within by a surd element that prevents the complete and consistent understanding of any whole or totality. In short, any conceptual unification is disrupted from within by an indefinable void that proves to be essential to the very concept in question.

Žižek shows that consciousness is always linked to a "limit-moment," an experience that things are out of joint, that something has gone wrong. Why is consciousness itself linked to a fundamental disjoint or lack of symmetry? Put simply, Lacan's answer is that the subject is the asymmetry between nature and culture. In other words, the irresolvable negativity or incommensurability revealed by Hegelian dialectics is what Lacan describes as the Real of subjectivity.

Žižek’s aim is to evoke this gap--this irrepressible void at the heart of subjectivity--and, in my view, Žižek delineates this "parallax gap" more clearly than any previous dialectical philosopher (e.g., Plato, Kant, the German Idealists). Moreover, Žižek seems never to lapse into the illusion of completeness or totality that arises from the imaginary register.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Who is a "Pseudo-Leftist"? (Am I?)

Žižek illustrates in several of his books how--in spite of the decline of the paternal metaphor and the inefficacy of ethical/political principles--global capitalist relations of production actually structure an ever more prohibitive social reality. However, this underlying political-economic truth is disavowed both by risk society jargon and by multiculturalist identity politics. Žižek shows that postmodern efforts to reduce truth to "narratives” or “solidarity of beliefs,” as well as our (alleged) multiculturalist tolerance for the other, simply further the interests of global capital.

Žižek contends that today's liberal, pseudo-leftists flatter themselves with the fantasy that they are revolutionary beautiful souls. But what they really want more than anything else is to maintain their comforts and their privileges (comforts and privileges that are bought at the expense of suffering human beings in the Third World). In short, a pseudo-leftist is someone who talks about socialism even while enjoying the benefits and profits that come from the service to capitalism.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

On the Lacanian Real

Because of the irresoluble split or antagonism inherent to subjectivity, what we ordinarily consider to be “reality” is in fact a juxtaposition of the symbolic register and the imaginary register. The Lacanian Real, however, is precisely that which is not experienced as part of everyday reality.

The register of the Real involves a dimension of anxiety and loss; the Real disrupts from within all signification through the symbolic and the imaginary registers, and thereby forecloses the possibility of any harmonious synthesis of human existence and human knowledge. The imaginary and the symbolic registers are bound together with the Real like the three loops of a single knot. Consequently, although the Real is that which is in a sense impossible to say (it resists incorporation into shared, symbolic practices and intersubjective linguistic systems), nonetheless—as Žižek shows—what is foreclosed from the symbolic returns in the Real of the symptom.

Moreover, fantasy (like the symptom) serves as a support for the consistency of experience. This means that the register of the imaginary is not simply a realm of illusion, for it is primarily in dreams that we approach the hard kernel of the Real: the Real of our desire announces itself in dreams.

Monday, January 12, 2009

A quote from Žižek's The Parallax View

Žižek's point is not that we need to resolve the separation between knowing and being. The point is to think this gap itself, without introducing any imaginary sense of completeness:

"And of course, the trap to be avoided here is precisely that of trying to formulate the totality parts of which are democratic ideology, the exercise of power, and the process of economic (re)production: if we try to keep them all in view, we end up seeing nothing; the contours disappear."

The Parallax View, p. 56

Karl Marx, from a letter to a friend

"I laugh at the so-called 'practical' men and their wisdom. If one wants to be an ox, one can easily turn one's back on human suffering and look after one's own skin."

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Žižek on the Coming Ecological Crisis

The crucial, hitherto underestimated ideological impact of the coming ecological crisis will be precisely to make the “collapse of the big Other” part of our everyday experience, i.e., to sap this unconscious belief in the "big Other" of power: already the Chernobyl catastrophe made ridiculously obsolete such notions as "national sovereignty," exposing the power's ultimate impotence. Our "spontaneous" ideological reaction to it, of course, is to have recourse to the fake premodern forms of reliance on the "big Other" ("New Age consciousness": the balanced circuit of Nature, etc.). Perhaps, however, our very physical survival hinges on our ability to consummate the act of assuming fully the “nonexistence of the Other,” of tarrying with the negative.

Žižek, Tarrying With The Negative, p. 237.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

On Žižek's unorthodox Marxism

Whereas for Marx the fetishism of commodities conceals the positive network of social relations, for Žižek a fetish conceals the fantasmatic void around which symbolic networks revolve:

"Herein lies the difference with Marxism: in the predominant Marxist perspective the ideological gaze is a partial gaze overlooking the totality of social relations, whereas in the Lacanian perspective ideology rather designates a totality set on effacing the traces of its own impossibility."

Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, p. 49.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Žižek on Lacan and Truth

"According to Alain Badiou, we live today in the age of the 'new sophists.' The two crucial breaks in the history of philosophy, Plato's and Kant's, occurred as a reaction to new relativistic attitudes which threatened to demolish the traditional corpus of knowledge: in Plato's case, the logical argumentation of the sophists undermined the mythical foundations of the traditional mores; in Kant's case, empiricists (such as Hume) undermined the foundations of the Leibnizean-Wolfian rationalist metaphysics. In both cases, the solution offered is not a return to the traditional attitude but a new founding gesture which 'beats the sophists at their own game,' i.e., which surmounts the relativism of the sophists by way of its own radicalization (Plato accepts the argumentative procedure of the sophists; Kant accepts Hume's burial of the traditional metaphysics). And it is our hypothesis that Lacan opens up the possibility of another repetition of the same gesture." [...]

"The perception of Lacan as 'anti-essentialist' or 'deconstructionist' falls prey to the same illusion as that of perceiving Plato as just one among the sophists." [...]

"Lacan accepts the 'deconstructionist' motif of radical contingency, but turns this motif against itself, using it to assert his commitment to Truth as contingent." [...]

"To ask 'Is Lacan one among the postmodern new sophists?' is to pose a question far beyond the tedium of a specialized academic discussion. One is tempted to risk a hyperbole and to affirm that everything, from the fate of so-called 'Western civilization' up to the survival of humanity in the ecological crisis, hangs on the answer to this related question: is it possible today, apropos of the postmodern age of new sophists, to repeat mutatis mutandis the Kantian gesture?"

Žižek, Tarrying with the Negative, pp. 4-5

Friday, January 2, 2009

Materialism as Topological Discord

"Therein consists the ant-Cartesian sting of the Lacanian logic of "not-all" (as opposed to Descartes' premise that the less perfect cannot act as the cause of what is more perfect, the premise which serves as the foundation for his proof of God's existence): the incomplete "causes" the complete, the Imperfect opens up the place subsequently filled out by the mirage of the Perfect."

Žižek, Tarrying with the Negative, p. 58.

Possible Government Complicity in 9/11?

"The most controversial and disturbing aspect of the entire scenario of the War on Terror involves questions raised but not explored by U.S. media or the 9/11 Commission about possible American government complicity in the 9/11 attacks. Specific issues include these: plans already drawn up for an invasion of Afghanistan in summer 2001; at least four or as many as six war-game exercises going on that day, so that in some cases FAA employees were unable to be sure which blips were actual hijacked planes and which were decoys; the massive purchase of puts on stocks for United and American Airlines, betting that their value would drastically decrease, which they did in the wake of the attacks; the scientific and engineering claims that even exploding jet fuel would not have led to the collapse of steel towers, which have never before collapsed in such a manner (including the collapse of the WTC 7 building much later in the afternoon, though not hit by an aircraft); the unprecedented delay in scrambling fighter jets to intercept the hijacked planes; and evidence suggesting that Flight 93 may have been shot down."

The Sleeping Giant Has Awoken (New York: Continuum Books, 2008), p. 96.

American Fascism

"What I am calling American Fascism is the specific conjunction of three phenomena: (1) an intensely passionate, angry, and sometimes brutal form of Southern Christianity traumatized by the Civil War and civil rights; (2) a nationalism that increasingly resorts to military means to defend its economic security and financial interests; and (3) a virulent and unrestrained corporate fascism that has decimated labor, unions, and many forms of worker's rights, largely by downsizing and relocating jobs overseas."

From "Jeb Stuart's Revenge," in The Sleeping Giant Has Awoken (New York: Continuum Books, 2008), p. 90.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Tony Myers on Fredric Jameson on Postmodernism

“Jameson contends that the past thirty years or so have witnessed the arrival of a new wave of capitalism which he calls ‘late capitalism’. The distinction of late capitalism is the scale of its reach, its hitherto unsurpassed infiltration of every area of life. For Jameson (and, indeed, for Žižek, who loosely draws upon this model), postmodernism is the cultural logic of late capitalism, or the response of culture to its colonization by the commodity. Some of the main features of postmodernism identified by Jameson are the integration of previously separate cultural genres (the mixing of high and low art, as well as the combination of distinct styles, such as Westerns and science-fiction films), the loss of a sense of history (manifest in a desire for nostalgia), and a euphoric attachment to surfaces or depthlessness (such as can be found in the predominance of the image over the word).”

From Tony Myers’ excellent book, Slavoj Žižek (London: Routledge, 2003), p. 48.

Remembering Engels

As an ordinary working person, I think that we should remember Friedrich Engels, who was born into a privileged family, but fought all his life for the poor. Engels also worked dutifully at a job he detested for decades, primarily in order to provide financial support to his friend Karl Marx. In addition, Engels wrote several influential and theoretically substantial books and hundreds of pamphlets, reviews, and articles. He actually wrote many of the articles purportedly written by Marx, so that upon publication, Marx would have the royalties. Engels co-authored several books with Marx, edited Marx’s work, and translated some of Marx’s writing into English. Engels was also a brilliant organizer, publicist, and man of action. And unlike Marx, Engels took up arms and put his life on the line, fighting alongside his comrades in several pitched battles against the forces of oppression and autocracy.

And despite Engels’ later deferential attitude toward Marx, there is no doubt that early on in the relationship Engels’ critique of political economy impressed Marx deeply, and was instrumental in shaping Marx’s own views. Engels’ observations and research led to the publication in 1845 of his masterpiece, The Condition of the Working Class in England. Here is how Engels begins:

Working men!
To you I dedicate a work, in which I have tried to lay before my German countrymen a faithful picture of your condition, of your sufferings and struggles, of your hopes and prospects. I have lived long enough amidst you to know something about your circumstances; I have devoted to their knowledge my most serious attention, I have studied the various official and nonofficial documents as far as I was able to get hold of them—I have not been satisfied with this, I wanted more than a mere abstract knowledge of my subject, I wanted to see you in your own homes, to observe you in your everyday life, to chat with you on your condition and grievances, to witness your struggles against the social and political power of your oppressors.
(Marx/Engels, Collected Works, London 1975, vol. 4, p. 296)

When he heard that Engels had died, Lenin wrote: “After his friend Karl Marx, who died in 1883, Engels was the finest scholar and teacher of the modern proletariat in the whole civilized world.” How many American intellectuals today have Engels' courage or his humble devotion to a cause?

Engel's Quote

In Engels’ view, any approach to human relationships that emphasizes competition over cooperation is not only mistaken—insofar as it ignores the fundamentally inter-relational dimension of human nature and society—but also immoral, as the following quotation indicates:

In other words, because private property isolates everyone in his own crude solitariness, and because, nevertheless, everyone has the same interest as his neighbour, one landowner stands antagonistically confronted by another, one capitalist by another, one worker by another. In this discord of identical interests resulting precisely from this identity is consummated the immorality of mankind’s condition hitherto; and this consummation is competition.

(“Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy”, Marx/Engels, Collected Works, London 1975, vol. 3, p. 418)