The Death of Living Marxism Explained


James Heartfield’s 2002 book, “The ‘Death of the Subject’ Explained” is an often fascinating account of trends in academia that have caught on, recur frequently in media stories, and have become new principles for the reorganisation of public life.  The idea is that the notion of a human being as a Subject, which is one who has freewill and is entitled to a degree of autonomy, is under attack today.  That view initially emanated from the Enlightenment and was at the centre of the organisation of the ensuing bourgeois society.  But in the 21st century, it is common for children to now stand trial even though they don’t understand the proceedings (a reflection of diminished adulthood) whilst parents are constantly nagged about how to bring up their children.  Under nudge theory, supermarkets are being rearranged (hide the tobacco and confectionary) because our freewill is held to be fragile and a danger to ourselves unless managed by caring professionals.  This blogger has written several articles about how mentally ill patients are treated as beings devoid of any autonomy whatsoever with the new policy coming in of banning them from smoking, even outdoors, when detained in a psychiatric clinic, and beyond.

The book takes apart very well academic theories that became fashionable post-1968, of deconstructionism, structuralism, evolutionary psychology, genetic determinism etc., basically anything that does not hold to the centrality of the Subject, which Heartfield rightly wants to defend.  Heartfield’s most successful strategy for doing this is to reintroduce ‘ordinary people’ in to the realm of academic theory where previously they had been evacuated.  The truth is that ordinary people make countless choices, form contracts, get married etc., every day, and this is oughtn’t be taken as a menacing thing.  It shows that having a society constituted of Subjects works.  And the alternative idea that people are completely incapable of running their own lives can only lead to a powerfully authoritarian situation which would be chaotic, hellish, and uncivilized.  So far so good.

The weak point of the book is where Heartfield accounts for the broad acceptance of the idea of degraded subjectivity.  In his view, the collapse of the left, as expressed in declining amounts of days lost to strikes, and the absolute collapse of far left parties with the Labour Party ditching all its principles, is a real basis on which the idea of degraded subjectivity can grow like a weed.  He says:

“…whatever cause the dramatic decline of working class organisation and militancy is put down to, the fact of that decline is hard to deny, and the idea that the grand narrative of the emancipation of labour was a myth begins to look more plausible.  The defeat of the working class, and its allies on the political left…begins to look like a reasonable account of the roots of the ‘death of the Subject’ announced in the theory of postmodernism.” {my italics}

This will not do.  ‘Whatever cause’ isn’t something that can be brushed over like this, it is the very thing that needs investigating.  In this blogger’s view, the form of organisation of workers has traditionally been rather pointless, and workers have now wised up to that.  That is a good thing.  The forms takes by workerist organisations were varying mixtures of trade unionism, Labourism, Stalinism, or Vanguardism.  It is actually a good thing all these things are discredited in the eyes of workers because they were all on the wrong path.  The end of these wrong paths opens up the potential to explore a new path, an undistorted Marxism with Marx considered here as the key theorist of human liberation.  Therefore, the decline of traditional workerist organisations cannot explain the rise of ideas of ‘degraded subjectivity’.  There is for sure, a historically short period of atomisation following those declines before the working class reasserts itself in a new, better way.  And in that period, we are vulnerable to the attacks from on high of those who wish to take our choices away.  That is all degraded subjectivity is – it is not a new human condition, just a new cloak for repressive social policy.  That is a problem and we must oppose it.  But eventually the working class will rally around a big idea, thereby coming together, and fully sort out the problems.  Heartfield’s book is not the idea that will cause the rallying around.  Nevertheless, it identifies clearly a short-term problem, and gives us good reason to oppose certain policies that emanate from on high.

How am I so certain the working class militancy will return, forcing theory to come to its senses?  Because the outlook of every worker already possesses revolutionary class consciousness.  This idea, from Marx, does not mean every worker is a ready-made mini-Lenin.  What it means is that they are conscious of being one-of-many having to undertake alienating and highly coercive labour which they don’t want to.  It is revolutionary in that their outlook is directly opposed to capital, which runs society.  That condition hasn’t changed, can’t change, didn’t even change in the repressive days of USSR totalitarianism.  Worker’s resistance does already take place in many ways from strikes, go slows, sabotage, malingering, etc.  And it will grow so long as we have free political conditions.

However, there is one important danger associated with Heartfield’s outlook.  The book is open to the misinterpretation that everything that happens today is a manifestation of ‘degraded subjectivity’, and therefore must be opposed.  This is not only wrong, it is extending the timescale of the atomised period and creating a pretty dodgy political outlook.  When Britain was on the verge of declaring war on Iraq shortly after Heartfield wrote this book, the 1m anti-war protestors were seen by Heartfield’s friends as only manifesting ‘diminished subjectivity’.  The online magazine spiked which could have done so much to unite the protestors with intelligent ideas against the war instead just attacked the protestors themselves.  The result?  The war went ahead and half a million Iraqis lost their lives.  And to bring us up to the present, Heartfield’s friends now see the Black Lives Matter protest as an example of diminished subjectivity.  The result?  They seek to quash a potentially vibrant movement that might be able to tackle police brutality and develop new forms of working class solidarity.  Finally, spiked is so obsessed with the idea that the whole of society can be explained through the notion of ‘diminished subjectivity’ that there are things they just don’t cover, lest it remind us of a different era (God forbid!)  Hence spiked has written nothing on the anti-strike laws that have already been drawn up and are likely to go through Parliament just as soon as Jeremy Corbyn is out of the picture.  Therefore it is possible that this book, as a basis for a new politics, actually sustains the very thing it is supposed to be opposing.

The book should be read, but it’s not Heartfield’s best work.

Buy “The ‘Death of the Subject’ Explained” by James Heartfield.