The Symbol Is Dead, Long Live the Symbolic

By Axel AnderssonNovember 22, 2014

Adventures of the Symbolic: Post-Marxism and Radical Democracy by Warren Breckman

WHEN MAURICE MERLEAU-PONTY published Adventures of the Dialectic in 1955, he was firmly disenchanted with Marxism. The USSR’s show trials and camp system had for some time contributed to a change in his thinking; in the book, he issued a comprehensive warning against what he considered to be some of the pernicious manifestations of contemporary leftist thought. He accused his friend Jean-Paul Sartre of “ultra-bolshevism” — a type of Marxism that no longer justified itself through “truth and the philosophy of history and dialectics,” but instead negated these notions. As Merleau-Ponty saw it, Sartre had fallen into vague millenarianism and quasi-sacred political conviction. A more careful exploration of alternatives was necessary, focusing on shared and contingent senses rather than Sartre’s idea of a subject able to will itself anything. The latter had merely led to an “existentialist” decision to support the Party while postulating that not supporting it was equal to resigning to the “capitalist” order. For Merleau-Ponty, Sartre had performed an ill-judged leap of faith to the wrong beyond.

In Adventures of the Symbolic: Post-Marxism and Radical Democracy (2013), Warren Breckman picks up where Merleau-Ponty left off. Breckman gives a careful evaluation of how Marxism constructs its horizon of meaning at the beginning of the 21st century. His point of departure for this “adventure” is an investigation of “the symbolic” — a realm of immaterial representations, association, and projections that structure our understanding of the world — in leftist political writing since the Romantics. He contrasts this perspective to the classic assumptions of Marxism as a theoretical lens most often focused on the material, physically present, nature of our societies. An adventure, certainly — one that ends, like many journeys, not far from the beginning, bringing us from the trailblazing account of political philosophy to a contemporary, but surprisingly romantic, Slovenian firebrand: Slavoj Žižek.

Echoing Merleau-Ponty’s criticism of Sartre in 1955, Breckman is keen to point out Žižek’s revolutionary Romanticism as dangerous — what Breckman refers to as a “Christian-bolshevism,” a militant leftism mingled with idealizations of a revolutionary moment and a leader capable to dramatically overturn the existing order. Today’s post-Marxism, in Breckman’s telling, is just another sign of our neo-Romantic condition.


The first pages of Adventures of the Symbolic give a clue to the paradoxical fate of Marxism. Breckman explores it as a materialist theoretical project that, from its very inception, urges us to look at the reality of the world, of its real existing inequalities, rather than the interior world of ideas. In contrast to many books on the subject, Breckman does not begin with the rubble of the Berlin Wall. Instead he returns to the improbable implosion of capitalism only a mere 20 years after its seeming triumph: the nightmare of the 2008 financial crisis. In search for keys to understand the malaise of capitalism, many turned to Karl Marx. Even pundits on the right agreed that Marx in some ways had been “right about capitalism.” But that triumphant return was not total. The post–Cold War consensus that saw Marx as having been “wrong about communism,” wrong about the rosy dream of another world order, remained. As the English novelist Louis de Bernières wrote in a rather entertaining fit of affect: “Goodbye to the biggest failure and disappointment since the non-return of Christ.”

Marx regained his voice only when he had been emptied out and no longer offered “some other possibility.” The romantically revolutionary, and messianic, element needed to be removed, and placed on the proverbial “dustbin” or “ash heap” of history that both Leon Trotsky and Ronald Reagan referred to in slightly different circumstances.

Breckman reaches today’s theoretical post-Marxism, and its engagement with the symbolic dimension of mental representations, not merely by situating its roots in 1968 and the impact of structuralism (as well as their championing of the concept “symbolic order,” or a world arranged by discourses, on leftist thought). He goes further back than this, returning to the German Romantics and their questioning of representation. Here is the first clue that Breckman’s notion of “the symbolic” is in many ways inseparable from the relationship between art and meaning. But Adventures of the Symbolic keeps the discussion focused mainly on political philosophy, as though Breckman was only telling half the story. It is, it should be admitted, a very good half story. However, Adventures of the Symbolic becomes a richer book when one keeps the symbolic’s aesthetic dimension in mind, such as its various usages within literature (compare Adventures of the Symbolic with Edmund Wilson’s Axel’s Castle from 1931 and Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature from 1946).

One of the bigger problems for Breckman is that the complex and hard-to-define category of “the symbolic” might ultimately be an unwieldy tool with which to analyze the development of post-Marxism. He has written a thought-provoking and immensely stimulating book, but also one that can be something of a challenge for its readers. The first part, on the Romantics, is a good illustration of this. Here Breckman succeeds almost too well in describing the complexity of the Romantic relationship to symbols. This intricacy is not helped by the fact that “sign” often becomes synonymous with “symbol,” and even when it doesn’t, the thinkers Breckman studies turn out to have different theories of what constitutes the difference between the two, thus further complicating the intricacies of the argument.

On the most basic level, the symbol’s central question is arguably the extent to which it is, as Ferdinand de Saussure would put it, “motivated.” Motivation, or motivatedness, can be understood as the link between the symbol and what it symbolizes: a “touching of the object.” A lack of such a link makes the symbol arbitrary, or unmotivated. Breckman unpacks the last two centuries’ philosophical battles for or against motivations in symbols like a careful historian. This is all fine. However, if one considers the same story through Wilson, taking into account the aesthetic dimension of Romanticism, one might reach a more comprehensive picture. Romanticism can for example be seen, in its heralding of modern individualism and its related motivatedness of the “interior,” to have produced a situation in which the symbol suddenly found itself referring back to events of the mind rather than the real physical world. The Romantic reaction against the notion that one set of ideas could explain the world (in all places and in all times) let the genie of subjective points of views out of the bottle. The “eternal” that remained was an endless questioning of perspectives. This was, of course, no small thing. If nothing exists outside the text, to recall the often misunderstood statement from Derrida’s Of Grammatology, the text’s inside is infinite.

If Breckman had leaned on a discussion of aesthetics, it might have been easier for him to explain, in the manner of Wilson, the long battle between those who believe in an objectivity outside the psyche (through models from physics and mathematics in the 18th-century Classical period and biology in the 19th century) and those that argued for a subjectivity that was all-encompassing (Romantics, in particular late-Romantic movements like the Parnassians and Symbolists). Breckman, however, has his gaze uniquely fixed on political thought and moves from the first generation Romantics to Hegel and then onward to the Young Hegelians, a topic about which he has written extensively elsewhere. This sets the scene for his discussion of Marx and Marxism, structuralism, post-structuralism, and various strands of post-Marxism. Hegel, here seen as a proto-structuralist, was the first to launch a comprehensive questioning of symbols with the aim of creating a logical model. Marx will continue, and develop, this quest that is characterized by a “desymbolization” (or secularization) that paradoxically seems to give rise to as many dragons as are slain. The countercurrent, as Wilson explains, was one in which symbolism in the arts become a weapon against rational models. Symbols for 19th-century neo-Romantics were “metaphors detached from objects” that did not give us meaning but, rather, an expression of subjective uniqueness.

The Young Hegelians and Marx’s attempt to establish a clear material motivation for the symbol, rather than a metaphysical one (arbitrary or not) can be seen as completing the modernist shift between Erich Auerbach’s discursive categories of “background” and “foreground” in Mimesis. In the background, a link is established between the divine and the worldly. Signs and symbols connect the divine will with our earthly existence, like the interventions of God in the Bible. Auerbach contrasts this background to a foreground in which the Homeric link runs between worldly and worldly. The scar of Odysseus returning incognito to Ithaca leads his old housekeeper Eurykleia to think of the boar hunt in which he participated as a young man. Therefore, this sign/symbol is concretely motivated. The scar means that Odysseus is Odysseus and gives real clues as to his past. This is not merely a “point of view” or an “opinion,” nor is it a divine indication (a type of motivation with little basis in the existing world).

The complexity of the argument here is that, for Breckman, Hegel seems to foreshadow the structuralism that replaces what Auerbach calls the background/foreground distinction. Hegel launched a new attempt to make a theoretical advance in the field of “the symbolic” through linguistic definitions, in a manner not unlike those structuralists who around 1968 turned to linguistics. This launched what Breckman wants to call “the Symbolic Turn,” which makes sense in so far as leftist thinkers started to focus their attention more on a “symbolic order”: discourse formations of representations that we more often than not are unaware of in our daily life, instead of on Marxian materialism and “ontological and epistemological realism.” However, what would become post-structuralism and post-Marxism was in the long run not a return to Hegel, but instead to the Romantics that Hegel accused of being more interested in the symbol as something that spoke about their interiority and connection to the divine, rather than being a medium that reveals an underlying and objective (though not wholly material for Hegel) order of the world. Also, the Young Hegelians and Marx had kept the Romantics under close observation; for them the problem with the Romantic symbol was even more clearly the metaphysical dimension, the fact that it belonged to the background, as they argued for a completely material understanding of the world. As the Romantics, erstwhile enemies to Marx, have returned in post-Marxism, it makes sense, as Breckman does, to focus on the first debates between Marx and symbolism(s).

In one of the most interesting parts of Adventures of the Symbolic, Breckman dives into the work of Pierre Leroux (1797–1871), who stood for many of the things that made Marx exasperated with the French. Chief among these was an infatuation with religion and Friedrich von Schelling’s Romanticism. The background (or foreground) to this story is Marx’s arrival to Paris in 1843 and his aborted attempt to launch the journal Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher together with Arnold Ruge. Marx soon became disappointed with the French. The distrust was mutual. Marx and Ruge had approached Leroux to make him participate in their journal, but he was less than keen to work with militant German atheists. Other French socialists, like Alphonse de Lamartine, Louis Blanc, and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, also turned the Germans down. And so the Franco-German venture headed toward a spectacular collapse.

Marx asked Ludwig Feuerbach for a critical article on Schelling for the journal as a sound German antidote to French infatuation with Romanticism. Feuerbach never wrote it (though he submitted a short letter that was published in the journal). The Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher, without a single French contribution, folded after the first number, published in February 1844. “The intellectual alliance between France and Germany” of which Ruge had dreamt, together with Marx, took place elsewhere (Schelling-Leroux would be one suggestion). Soon the German-German collaboration between Ruge and Marx fell apart as well. Marx was radicalized in the process. The following year he published the “Theses on Feuerbach,” attacking also the theoretical materialism of the Young Hegelians in favor of a practical approach to revolution.

Marx’s revolutionary star would of course soon come to outshine his competitors’, the Schelling-inspired French Romantic socialism of Pierre Leroux included. The Germans of the Hegelian tradition wanted to fight the Romantic use of the symbolic. The Young Hegelians and Marx became famous with their fight against religious symbols, including Jesus himself (see David Friedrich Strauss’s Das Leben Jesu from 1835). That the “historical Jesus” emerged from this narration is not inconsequential. Religion passed from the background to the foreground, to recall Auerbach’s categories: from the divine to the worldly. The quarrel was, as the “Theses on Feuerbach” made clear, how to fight metaphysical speculation (in theory or action).

Many French socialists had other preoccupations. Leroux carefully studied what he called the style symbolique of Romantic aesthetics and ended up with a positive reappraisal of the symbol. The uncertain link between the symbol and reality was for Leroux far from a flaky realm of subjectivity and mysticism. The terrain separating the two contained the meeting of the word and the world, the visible and the invisible. In between symbol and reality lay the opportunity to construct new relationships in which individualism could cohabit with socialism. Leroux wanted, in a way Marx saw as hopelessly metaphysical, to replace the word communisme with communionisme (a direct invocation of the Eucharist, the Holy Communion), as Breckman writes.

Leroux thus considered the symbol the starting point — “a general epistemological phenomenon” as Breckman calls it, as well as a redemptive possibility — for the construction of a new society. The subjects of this construction were not merely guided by symbols; they were to find in symbolism a tool with which to create something “new,” or at least to render something invisible visible. This view of socialism was not only an attack on German materialists, but also a revision of the theories put forward by the Saint-Simonians and similar currents in French communism that Marx in The Communist Manifesto described as “universal asceticism and social leveling in its crudest form.” In contrast to Marx, Leroux wanted to make room for individualism, the “uniqueness” invoked by Wilson, in the collective through the symbol. Striving for total unity in communism was to do violence to the open-endedness of the symbolic in which the individual could flourish. He argued against the position that any symbol could be truly incarnated, but this also opened the possibility of an endless process of becoming, through successive symbolizations.

For Marx, Leroux represented the persistent and harmful afterlife of Christianity and Romanticism. If Marx did not get rid of it, however, capitalism would. But, as Breckman points out, the symbolic would return in Marx’s later work. Here capitalism seemed very able to construct its own mysteries, especially in the realm of commodities and value. Marx tried first, in positivistic mode, to ascertain the relationship between things like precious metals and value. But Breckman notes that Marx’s work paradoxically led him to a terrain in which more metaphysical symbols started to crop up at the highest levels of abstraction, with money being the primary example. It became the most abstract form of a symbol — another “symbol of a symbol.” Hegel had, half a decade earlier, used a similar formulation when discussing the sphinxes of Egypt.


Marx’s relationship to Romanticism is for Breckman important in light of what was to come. One-fourth into his book, Breckman shifts the discussion 100 years forward, from Marx to the birth of post-Marxism in the rubble of Stalinism. The two tendencies in Marx — the non-Romantic and grudgingly Romantic — now lead on to different schools and interpretations under, primarily, the banners of structuralism and post-structuralism. Breckman moves from Althusser and Baudrillard and then on to Cornelius Castoriadis, Claude Lefort, Marcel Gauchet, Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, and Slavoj Žižek in a dense, engaged, and thorough unpacking of the fate of Marxism in the second half of the 20th century.

The main difference in positions turns out to be the thinkers’ relationship to the question of agency, central to theoretical discussions of symbolism, Marxism, and structuralism. Can change take place within a system? If not, how difficult is it to affect the symbolic order that structures our capacity to act? The demise of political Marxism, if anything, seems to have led to a polarization in the debate, with liberal and reformist post-Marxists lining up along Lefortian lines and focusing on the malleability of the democratic order on one side, and on the other, revolutionary utopians who equate liberal democracy with capitalism and call for some vague metaphysical switch that will launch us from one system to another in a difficult-to-define revolutionary act.

The pictures that Breckman draws for the reader are not merely an endless rehash (previously as tragedy, now sometimes as farce, to recall Marx) of the Second International battle between reformists and revolutionaries. Between the lines it is also possible to spot the near total victory of Romantic paradigm. For today’s post-Marxists seem divided between the liberal children of Leroux — the good offspring — and the perverted, revolutionary ones — Žižek, in Breckman’s book. Breckman devotes some of the most readable pages of his book to exploring Žižek’s Romanticism via Joachimite theology (in which the trinity unfolded chronologically and the age of the Father was followed by the one of the Son and, finally, the Holy Ghost) and utopian Bolshevism.

One figure unites the two camps Breckman outlines in his discussion of post-Romantic post-Marxism: nothing. Even Breckman himself characterizes post-Marxism today as taking place in the “gaping hole where the Marxist political project used to stand.” The entire question of the motivatedness or arbitrary nature of the symbol somewhat founders on this question of how nothingness is symbolized, or how it falls outside the realm of symbolization. In the liberal post-Marxist account, this happens in a democracy that is an empty realm of pluralism with the theoretical possibility of always changing and evolving without, as Leroux would have put it, ever being able to become completely incarnated. On the other hand, there is the revolutionary (Žižekian) account in which the hole, the emptiness, the kernel, the messianic, the Real, etc., exists as a passage between the current order and a utopian one. The problem with Žižek, for Breckman, is that his hole seems like a rather scary thing to traverse.

Breckman might have been better served to include a discussion on the Homeric and Christian links to the hole. Auerbach writes about the sign, sēma, of Odysseus’s scar. The word sēma is also used by Homer to describe a tomb. This is not that surprising. The tomb is a sign of the person (or metaphorically a thing, like Marxism) no longer present and also a memorial, a mnēmeion (from mnēmē, memory). In the Bible, the particularity of Christ’s grave is, famously, its emptiness. That Christ exits the tomb is a precondition for his supposed return. And here things get complicated. Jesus says that the sign (sēmeion) he will give is the “sign of the prophet Jonas” (Matthew 12:39). Like Jonas/Jonah, who was “interred” in the belly of the whale for three days before he was spit out, Christ will be buried and then leave the tomb after three days. The preeminent symbol of the symbol in Christianity can thus be said to equal an absence, a hole. Today’s return to notions of emptiness, as in the idea of democracy constituting an empty space that can never be filled or, alternatively, Žižek’s empty kernel, can be taken as another token for our time’s return to religion. Thus we end up in the paradoxical position where Pope Francis appears as the true child of the present, combining a vaguely Marxian analysis of capitalism with religious belief.

But let us return, with Breckman, to Žižek. Overall it makes sense to place Žižek in a lineage of Joachimite theology. The unfolding of the trinity will lead us to an age of the Holy Spirit that is also a model for a revolutionary action that demands a community of believers (the community standing for the Spirit). That is, if one does not think that Žižek’s “return to Lenin” opens the back door for the age of the Son. Another attempt to probe the various uses of theology in post-Marxism would be through a more detailed discussion on an idealism in which the ideal forever seems to be left impossible to represent. In plain terms: What’s the aim of striving for the hole? Breckman points out that the question already unites different positions on the reform/revolutionary spectrum of post-Marxism today. How much this is a “return” of Romanticism is more difficult to say. Did Romanticism ever go away? Did Marxists (before they were “post”) manage to keep within the strict bounds of materialist desymbolization? It seems like the production of symbols, motivated or not, have been as intense as the process of stripping symbols of their previous values. Is Romanticism responsible for this, or is it just part of being human?

Toward the end of the book, Breckman anticipates a return of a conception of political theory intimately intertwined with theological sensibilities. This takes him to a final conclusion that dialectics in Marxism, with its drive toward a desymbolization that would lay bare the real mechanism of the word, has been substituted by “the symbolic” with its focus on the relationship, or lack of, between the sign and the referent, a somewhat speculative thesis. It seems safe to assume that there still exist some Marxists concerned with uncovering “reality.” What Breckman does best, and his best is truly impressive indeed, is linking the debates on socialism in the mid-19th century to those in the mid- to late 20th century: this forms an essential foreground for understanding the post-Marxism(s) of today.


Axel Andersson is a writer and critic from Sweden.

LARB Contributor

Axel Andersson is a writer and critic from Sweden. He holds a PhD in history from the European University Institute in Florence and his work often deals with the intersection of media, postcolonial history, and critical theory. He also writes on contemporary art and cinema. He is currently working on a project investigating the techniques of the body, media technology, and concepts of race and is the author of A Hero for the Atomic Age: Thor Heyerdahl and the Kon-Tiki Expedition (2010).


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!