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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  29 December 2014

School of Philosophy, Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University E-mail:


Intellectual historians owe Nietzsche a debt for many things, not least for lending the quality of “untimeliness” a positive connotation. In the late 1990s, when Marxism was arguably at its nadir as an intellectual program, much less a political one, Warren Breckman published an insightful study of Marx's early thought and its genesis out of a series of disputes with the Young Hegelians concerning the state and its ambiguous relationship with theological conceptions of authority. The untimeliness of Breckman's intervention had much to recommend it. Taking his distance from the pallbearers, Breckman showed that a historical inquiry into the Marxist enterprise increased rather than diminished its contemporary relevance. In the wake of the eastern bloc's collapse, “civil society” had become the order of the day. Breckman showed that, far from being an innocuous panacea to the terror of state power, the concept had its own contested political history, one that Marx grappled with in ways whose resonance has only grown in the decade since Breckman's first book appeared.

Two Views of Warren Breckman on Post-Marxism and the Symbolic
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2014 

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1 Breckman, Warren, Marx, the Young Hegelians, and the Origins of Radical Social Theory (Cambridge, 1999)Google Scholar.

2 For a brief overview of recent Marxist writings, in which a sense of generational recovery is made explicit, see Kunkel, Benjamin, Utopia or Bust (London, 2014)Google Scholar. The rise of David Harvey's popularity might be taken as exemplary of the renewal of interest in Marxist political economy. See, e.g., Harvey, David, Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism (Oxford, 2014)Google Scholar. The enthusiastic reception of Piketty, Thomas, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, trans. Goldhammer, Arthur (Cambridge, MA, 2014)CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed, in spring 2014 plays a role in this phenomenon, despite its author's putative indifference to Marxism. For a critical assessment, and the coinage of “millennial Marxists,” see Timothy Shenk, “What Was Socialism?”, The Nation, 5 May 2014, 27–37.

3 It should go without saying that Breckman was not the first to approach Marx in this way. Compare, for example, the entire tradition of Western Marxism. The particular value of Breckman's study was the breadth of his textual and contextual engagement with the Young Hegelian firmament of Marx's early thought.

4 See Breckman's discussion of John Milbank's radical orthodoxy, where he breaks the fourth wall to make his point: “Indeed, one of the questions that lurks behind our investigation of the post-Marxist adventure of the symbolic is whether a secular politics can recapture a vital sense of complexity and ambiguity without lapsing into the explicit or covert theological view that Milbank believes exercises a monopoly over these qualities. More precisely, I am concerned with the survival of complexity and ambiguity within the modern emancipatory project, not just as obstacles that will be overcome but also as irreducible—and even enabling—conditions for the attempt to create meaning” (54–55).

5 The link is essential to one of the canonical works of post-structuralism: Lacoue-Labarthe, Philippe and Nancy, Jean-Luc, The Literary Absolute: The Theory of Literature in German Romanticism, trans. Barnard, Phillip and Lester, Cheryl (Albany, NY, 1988)Google Scholar.

6 Cf. Nassar, Dalia, The Romantic Absolute: Being and Knowing in Early German Romantic Philosophy, 1795–1804 (Chicago, 2013)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, which, though focused on an earlier period, likewise challenges Hegelian hegemony via a fresh examination of Romanticism's contribution to philosophy.

7 See Gauchet, Marcel, The Disenchantment of the World: A Political History of Religion, trans. Burge, Oscar (Princeton, 1999)Google Scholar.

8 Cf. Louis Althusser's famous essay on the subject, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses,” reprinted in Althusser, Louis, On the Reproduction of Capitalism, trans. Goshgarian, G. M. (London, 2014)Google Scholar, 232—72.

9 Žižek, Slavoj, Žižek's Jokes (Did You Hear the One about Hegel and Negation?) (Cambridge, MA, 2014)Google Scholar, 67.

10 See, e.g., his lecture at Powell's City of Books in Portland, 9 Sept. 2008: “Maybe We Just Need a Different Chicken . . .: Politeness and Civility in the Function of Contemporary Ideology,” online at, last accessed September 2014.

11 Butler, Judith, Laclau, Ernesto, and Žižek, Slavoj, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left (London, 2000)Google Scholar.

12 There is also a certain temporal discrepancy in Breckman's endorsement of “the ‘politics of ambivalence or ambiguity’ that Fredric Jameson believes is called for in our age” (286). On the one hand, the invocation of Jameson suggests a stepping back from the “post-Marxist” paradigm, given that Jameson has rarely expressed anything better than bemused skepticism for the concept. On the other hand, and more to the point, Breckman cites the phrase from Jameson's 2009 volume Valences of the Dialectic. The chapter, however, is a straight reprint of a 1993 article published in Polygraph, titled (ironically enough) “Actually Existing Marxism.” Granted, Jameson saw fit to include the essay unaltered. But given Jameson's commitment to the situated reading—“Always historicize!” as The Political Unconscious famously put it—the “politics of ambivalence or ambiguity” called for in this essay would seem to belong to a previous valence of the dialectic. Finally, as he notes parenthetically, he proffers ambivalence or ambiguity “assuming the word ‘dialectical’ is still unfashionable,” a more tenuous assumption today.