How Leftist Theory Stopped Making Sense

Progressive thinkers tried to explain ever more of the world—and found themselves explaining nothing at all.

By , an editor at Jacobin Magazine.
From left: French philosophers Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Gilles Deleuze.
From left: French philosophers Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Gilles Deleuze.
From left: French philosophers Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, and Gilles Deleuze. MPI/Getty Images

There exists a strand of social thought, stretching from Georg Hegel in the 19th century through to Max Weber in the early 20th and Jürgen Habermas in the postwar era, that insists that a hallmark of modernity is the differentiation of forms of human knowledge. The sophistication of culture is defined in part by the autonomy of science, morality, and art from religion, and their mutual incommensurability. Any undoing of this development, according to these thinkers, would mean regression to a less sophisticated form of culture.

What then is to be made of “theory,” a term that became en vogue among English-speaking intellectuals in the second half of the last century? Defined not by a focus on a specific subject domain—biology, say, or sociology—but instead by its commitment to producing concepts that could then be applied to different forms of thought, theory became a catch-all phrase for whole swathes of (primarily French) philosophy and cultural criticism from the late-1960s on. There were, however, some unifying features of the genre, including the commitment on the part of its most famous practitioners—Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze—to breaking out of the confines of orthodox Marxism, often in ways that mirrored the criticisms put forward by uncritical defenders of the free market.

Playfulness and a general lack of seriousness became another hallmark of theory. French philosophers Deleuze and Félix Guattari, perhaps the most infamous innovators of the genre, insisted that their anti-psychoanalytic tract Anti-Oedipus was not a work of philosophy, in any traditional sense. By this they meant it did not seek to produce a unified worldview or to answer age-old questions about the reality of freedom or the legitimate authority of the state. The task of philosophy was instead, the duo claimed in What is Philosophy?, the creation of problems. Lost in this reformulation was any vision of philosophy as an attempt to make sense of the human life, understood as limited by specific anthropological or historical constraints. Philosophy-as-theory was, Guattari claimed, ideally addressed “to people who are now between 7 and 15 years old.” Clearly disingenuous, Guattari’s comment did, however, say something about the co-authors’ commitment to a child-like playfulness, taking as much from geology and mathematics as they did from philosophy.

There exists a strand of social thought, stretching from Georg Hegel in the 19th century through to Max Weber in the early 20th and Jürgen Habermas in the postwar era, that insists that a hallmark of modernity is the differentiation of forms of human knowledge. The sophistication of culture is defined in part by the autonomy of science, morality, and art from religion, and their mutual incommensurability. Any undoing of this development, according to these thinkers, would mean regression to a less sophisticated form of culture.

What then is to be made of “theory,” a term that became en vogue among English-speaking intellectuals in the second half of the last century? Defined not by a focus on a specific subject domain—biology, say, or sociology—but instead by its commitment to producing concepts that could then be applied to different forms of thought, theory became a catch-all phrase for whole swathes of (primarily French) philosophy and cultural criticism from the late-1960s on. There were, however, some unifying features of the genre, including the commitment on the part of its most famous practitioners—Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze—to breaking out of the confines of orthodox Marxism, often in ways that mirrored the criticisms put forward by uncritical defenders of the free market.

The Summer of Theory: History of a Rebellion, 1960-1990, Philipp Felsch, transl. Tony Crawford (John Wiley & Sons, 280 pp., .76, October 2021)
The Summer of Theory: History of a Rebellion, 1960-1990, Philipp Felsch, transl. Tony Crawford (John Wiley & Sons, 280 pp., .76, October 2021)

The Summer of Theory: History of a Rebellion, 1960-1990, Philipp Felsch, transl. Tony Crawford (John Wiley & Sons, 280 pp., $34.76, October 2021)

Playfulness and a general lack of seriousness became another hallmark of theory. French philosophers Deleuze and Félix Guattari, perhaps the most infamous innovators of the genre, insisted that their anti-psychoanalytic tract Anti-Oedipus was not a work of philosophy, in any traditional sense. By this they meant it did not seek to produce a unified worldview or to answer age-old questions about the reality of freedom or the legitimate authority of the state. The task of philosophy was instead, the duo claimed in What is Philosophy?, the creation of problems. Lost in this reformulation was any vision of philosophy as an attempt to make sense of the human life, understood as limited by specific anthropological or historical constraints. Philosophy-as-theory was, Guattari claimed, ideally addressed “to people who are now between 7 and 15 years old.” Clearly disingenuous, Guattari’s comment did, however, say something about the co-authors’ commitment to a child-like playfulness, taking as much from geology and mathematics as they did from philosophy.

Unlike the socialist political economy and philosophy of the early 20th century, postwar theory was propelled not by any kind of practical engagement but by a constant demand for innovation and newness, needed to keep up with a postwar political landscape that was thoroughly fragmented. The social transformations that theory attempted to make sense of—disillusionment with communism, anti-colonial movements, women’s liberation, the existence of an underclass, the continued existence of capitalism—undermined so many assumptions about the world held across the political spectrum that it was hard to see how any overarching ideas could synthesize them, or whether theorists’ inability to do so should be considered a failure.

Consequently, the portrait that Philipp Felsch painted in The Summer of Theory: History of a Rebellion, 1960-1990, is that of an open-ended journey rather than a decisive verdict on the value and usefulness of theory. Felsch’s account largely focuses on the radical publishing house Merve, which made its name as a popularizer of theory in the German-speaking world. Founded in 1970, Merve was created by a generation for which the recent memory of the second world war was still strong. The divide between parents and their children, many of whom perceived their elders to be bystanders to fascism, motivated many postwar Germans to take up the political task of creating a liberal public sphere in the present. A key feature of this public sphere was an emphasis on discussion as conducive of civility and as an antidote to authoritarianism. Throughout this period, the country’s leading intellectuals engaged in fierce public debates around the relationship between fascism and German culture.

Theory, in Felsch’s account, emerges out of an attempt to take seriously that which “the bourgeois relegate to non-working hours as ‘culture,’” as the German philosopher Theodor Adorno writes in Minima Moralia. Art, literature, and music would, in the publishers’ catalogue, receive the same critical scrutiny previously reserved for politics, following the example set by Adorno.

Adorno’s book, subtitled Reflections on a Damaged Life, was a lodestar for a generation of young Germans such as Merve co-founder Peter Gente, for whom the desire for discussion had not yet broken down the traditional hierarchical boundaries between intellectuals and their readership. These new readers were still willing to look for validation in traditions incapable of keeping up with the pace of societal transformation. (Felsch neatly illustrates this new incongruence between past and present by recounting episodes of various members of the growing public sphere seeking out Adorno’s advice on everything from sexual alienation to depression. Adorno’s response to these letters speaks both to the gap between himself and his readership, and the sincerity with which he sought to understand this chasm. One correspondent remarked, after meeting Adorno in person, that she realized she had not been “looking for hope, but for solidarity in my hopelessness.”)

The desire for community, already present in the cultishness that developed around the work of Adorno, remains inextricable from the story of theory. This is the source of the ambivalence Felsch wrestles with throughout his narrative. Theory responded to a desire, completely understandable in the context of postwar Germany, of many leftists to be part of a community of the like-minded. It was a desire exacerbated by the Social Democratic Party’s abandonment of socialism in 1959 and consolidated by the hopelessness of left-wing terrorism during 1977’s “German Autumn.” But was it powerful enough to compel those would-be community members to ignore any scruples they would otherwise have about the intellectual or political value of the community created? Did theory advance a genuine critique of society, or did it simply create subcultures unified by an increasingly self-referential use of language?

The specter of theory as mere fashion already loomed over Merve as a negative exemplar. Merve’s editors were, up until their last days, insistent on describing themselves not as “professionals” but as “bookworms.” Merve’s self-appointed task was, in Felsch’s words, to “jump-start German Marxism out of its dogmatic standstill with boosts from Italy and France.” Not content with abstract theorizing, Merve understood itself as pursuing revolutionary politics through letters. The political project the publisher sought to animate was one that afforded special privilege to theoretical discussion.

Never willing to abandon the bourgeois idea of a public sphere being conducive to the healthy functioning of a society, the collective, motivated by their radical politics, sought interlocutors among the migrant workers propping up postwar German industrial capitalism. In the northern city of Wolfsburg, Merve’s editors descended on the 6,000 odd Italian guest workers employed in the local Volkswagen factory with the aim of discussing the latest Marxist theory in proletarian pubs. Their hope was that they would find there soil as fertile for political tumult as that which existed in the European coffee shops of the 17th century. Not only did this project in revolutionary outreach fail miserably, proximity to the migrant workers during this sojourn exposed differences in outlook between Merve’s members. Shockingly, while the collective lay on shared mattresses placed on the floor, one of its members admitted a secret dream of having a family, children, and a garden. Bourgeois society had clearly not been transcended.

Fractures within the private sphere continued to affect the project of building a public sphere. In the mid-70s, Gente became romantically involved with a young student, Heidi Paris, with whom he collaborated as a fellow editor. His wife at the time, Merve Lowien, who lent her name to the publishing house, would document the often-unsurprising gender dynamics at the company in Feminine Productive Power—Is There Another Economy? Experience in a Left Project.

Market imperatives forced Merve to look for fresh theory, a search that proved incompatible with the strictures of Marxist politics, traditionally conceived. Of course, temperamentally Merve’s editors were already prone to searching for new trends. Drug addicts, social rejects, and those deemed insane became the foci of Merve’s books and radical theory in the 1970s. Jean-François Lyotard, author of The Postmodern Condition, could proclaim during this period that all thinking about universal subjects, such as the working class, the human being, or the citizen, was “obsolete.” A hostility to the guidance sought by Adorno’s readers had started to emerge, and a general skepticism towards the discipline present in education took the place of this early desire for instruction. Subsequently, the writer as sage was replaced by the reader as the participant. The shift here was that the pace of production of new text meant that the only thing that remained fixed was the readership. The latter were active as consumers of cultural content while writers had to struggle to keep up with the latest trends.

Unmoored from any fixed institutions or political worldview, theory was free to turn to areas that its origin as a response to the trauma of the second world war had previously prevented it from engaging with. By the late ‘70s, Merve was publishing books rehabilitating the conservative philosopher Ernst Jünger and the Nazi legal philosopher Carl Schmitt. Schmitt’s anti-liberal decisionism would have run afoul of Merve’s early discussion-centered conception of politics. In the heady days of theory, however, the far-right thinker’s conceptualization of politics in terms of opposition between friends and enemies proved perfectly amenable to the iconoclasm of the 1980s.

In The Summer of Theory’s closing sections, Felsch paints a portrait of an intellectual world completely detached from any real constituencies: American artists and musicians schmoozing in Berlin bars and discotheques with radical theorists speculating about the end of art. The social forces that made this dealignment possible are not, in Felsch’s account, brought to the fore. What we are presented with instead is an image of theory as a series of waves appearing above a body of water, beneath which the quotidian realities of politics and everyday culture clash vigorously. The goal of eliminating the distinction between culture and politics results, ironically, in theory distancing itself from both. Consequently, Felsch’s narrative arc leaves the reader with a decidedly pessimistic view of the relationship of theory to politics and culture. At its very best theory seems to be a balm for the despair caused by politics; at its worst, an accommodation with an increasingly disorientating world.

Unsurprisingly, it was theory’s separation from Marxism, a worldview that thought seriously about the relationship between ideas and politics, that left it ill-equipped to understand the causes of its own transformations. The same holds true of attempts made by contemporary progressives to overturn sedimented prejudice and inequality by introducing concepts from the classroom. Marxism has always contended that social structures and institutions constrain the way we think, not the other way around. We would do well to take this insight seriously if we are to try to bridge the gap between theory and practice.

Correction, Feb. 14, 2022: A previous version of this article misattributed a quote by Theodor Adorno. It has been corrected.

This article appears in the Spring 2022 print issue. Subscribe now to support our journalism and get unlimited access to FP.

John-Baptiste Oduor is an editor at Jacobin Magazine.

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