What and Why are the Specters of Marx

Where to begin. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International is a 1993 book by Algerian-born French philosopher Jacques Derrida. It can be read as two separate books. The first explains Specters. The second is on how Marx was haunted. It was written in a response to the question, “Whither Marxism?” which could be asking “Where is Marxism going?” or “Is Marxism dying?”

The result is a book of five chapters, none of which are easy to understand. This review explains the gravity of Derrida’s first message. 

Conjuration & Exorcism.

Derrida says a specter is “a paradoxical incorporation, the becoming-body, a certain phenomenal and carnal form of the spirit.”(p5)

They are a “paradoxical incorporation” because they are created when we try to conjure away something. Marx opens the Communist Manifesto explaining, “A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of Communism. All the Powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre.” 

These “Powers of old Europe” (religious powers, capitalists, military powers, and imperialists) have taken actions to prevent communism and by taking those actions, have made communism a specter. This is why Derrida calls these actions “conjuring (away).” (p58,133,145) Derrida puts the “away” in brackets because communism can not actually be conjured away. This is a rereading of Marx because most people don’t read the Communist Manifesto as “A specter of communism is haunting Europe because the powers of old Europe have tried to exorcise it.” 

“…what was the most manifest thing about the Manifesto. What manifests itself in the first place is a specter.” (p13)

Anything that cannot be destroyed will be conjured as a specter instead when we try to conjure it away. This is a concept Derrida calls incorporating by destroying. (p160) That is what seems to make it “paradoxical”. Any attempt is like a coroner trying to kill something just by declaring it dead: “But effective exorcism pretends to declare the death only in order to put to death. As a coroner might do, it certifies the death but here it is in order to inflict it.” (p59)

He ends the first chapter of the text, Injunctions of Marx, summarising this idea, calling attempts to “exorcise” communism a “restless dream”

“In short, it is often a matter of pretending to certify death there where the death certificate is still the performative of an act of war or the impotent gesticulation, the restless dream, of an execution.” (p60)

Derrida also returns to this thought in the fourth chapter, making it a central theme of the concept of hauntology:

“The alliance signifies: death to the specter. It is convoked to be revoked, everyone swears only on the specter, but in order to conjure it away. No one talks of anything else. But what else can you do, since it is not there, this ghost.” (p124)

But that just explains the “paradoxical incorporation” part of the definition. What does Derrida mean by the “becoming-body” or “certain phenomenal and carnal form of the spirit.” This is because the “body” of communism is quite clearly destroyed by the powers that want to prevent it. Obviously, around us, we don’t live in communism. Derrida explains that we live in a “dominant discourse” or a “hegemony” that has predicted the end of Marxism. (p64—9) In fact, some writers have arrogantly claimed that liberal democracies will spread the world over. (p7082). So, communist leaders, institutions and revolutions have been prevented or destroyed. Derrida’s book was written after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the decline of the U.S.S.R.

That means, this specter has no body. That is what makes it have a “phenomenal and carnal form”. It is trying to get a body, hence “becoming-body”. “It is also the impatient and nostalgic waiting”, he writes. (p170) Derrida introduces a new word to explain this concept: hauntology. Ontology is the branch of philosophy exploring existence, being and becoming. Hauntology explores the way that specters become and how they exist. 

The entire second chapter of the book, Conjuring Marxism, (p61—95) is dedicated to explaining the misconception that communism has been defeated because it is body-less or as Derrida puts it:

It becomes, rather, some “thing” that remains difficult to name: neither soul nor body, and both one and the other. For it is flesh and phenomenality that give to the spirit its spectral apparition, but which disappear right away in the apparition, in the very coming of the revenant or the return of the specter. There is something disappeared, departed in the apparition itself as reapparition of the departed. (p5)

Fear & Imminence.

The next question is: Why are specters created when we try to destroy the body of communism? Why doesn’t destroying communism just destroy it entirely? Why are specters?

For Derrida, this is psychological. In our minds, we feel communism is imminent. It is precisely its absence which makes us nervous of its potential presence. Conjuring (away) communism is trying to make absent what is already absent to prevent its presence. But the aspect of it which is present is the feeling that it might still come. Quite clearly, something being absent in the present does not stop it from being present in the future. So, the specter takes the form of its imminence. It may still be present in the “future-to-come”. (p45)

Communism has been promised. There is no way to control the future to prevent this promise from being fulfilled. So, the more it is conjured (away), the more it reappears to haunt those that would do away with it. It reappears as the simple thought: it is a promise that is still to come.

Of a communism, to be sure, already namable, but still to come beyond its name. Already promised but only promised. A specter all the more terrifying, some will say. Yes, on the condition that one can never distinguish between the future-to-come and the coming-back of a specter. (p46) 

Whether communism is practically possible does not matter. Whether it will ever come does not concern the specter. Derrida says, “Whether the promise promises this or that, whether it be fulfilled or not, or whether it be unfulfillable, there is necessarily some promise and therefore some historicity as future-to-come.” (p92). In other words, just the existence of the promise is enough to make people feel it may still come, so all efforts to make the promise disappear can not stop it from reappearing. 

Derrida expresses this as chasing away the specter in order to chase after it. If one is concerned that communism might exist, they will have to keep chasing after events/institutions/people that might cause it. So they will always be chasing after communism to chase it away. Derrida states this poetically in the fifth chapter:

For these words always cause to come back, they convoke the revenant that they conjure away. Come so that I may chase you! You hear! I chase you. I pursue you. I run after you to chase you away from here. I will not leave you alone. … one chases after in order to chase away, one pursues, sets off in pursuit of someone to make him flee, but one makes him flee, distances him, expulses him so as to go after him again and remain in pursuit. One chases someone away, kicks him out the door, excludes him, or drives him away. But it is in order to chase after him, seduce him, reach him, and thus keep him close at hand. One sends him far away, puts distance between them, so as to spend one’s life, and for as long a time as possible, coming close to him again. (p175)

At the same time, Derrida uses the word “conjure” to imply that specters are not actually here but are brought about only by our trying to conjure them (away). “Come so that I may chase you!” implies that we cause it to come, then we chase it away and then we chase after it. If we return to an earlier quote, Derrida explains specters are “not there” until we bring them:

“The alliance signifies: death to the specter. It is convoked to be revoked, everyone swears only on the specter, but in order to conjure it away. No one talks of anything else. But what else can you do, since it is not there, this ghost.” (p124)

At the same time, “It is not there, this ghost” means that the specter does not have a tangible form. It exists in our minds and we are the ones which bring it there, in our efforts to get rid of it. Specters not being here also confuses our fear of them. We return to another earlier quote: 

Of a communism, to be sure, already namable, but still to come beyond its name. Already promised but only promised. A specter all the more terrifying, some will say. Yes, on the condition that one can never distinguish between the future-to-come and the coming-back of a specter. (p46) 

What does Derrida mean by “one can never distinguish between the future-to-come and the coming-back of a specter.”? Derrida says the disjointure (out of joint) of a specter is what makes it terrifying.

When you feel afraid of a specter, are you feeling fear at the idea that it will come in the future or are you feeling fear at the idea that it will come back? It is not clear where the source of our fear comes from.

To make sense of this, think about it like this: We would not be afraid of a specter that has appeared and will never appear again. So if it has come and gone, there is nothing to fear. If it comes and tells us it will be back, we have something to fear. Added to that, if it has never come, but we feel it will come someday, then we have something to fear. So, we can either fear its first appearance or its repetition.

For Derrida, our minds don’t know the difference between these two: repetition and first time. (p10) We don’t know the true source of our fear. Is it the first appearance of the specter in the future-to-come or is it a repeated appearance? After all, a specter is a feeling of imminence. It is not something tangible that we see before us. We don’t know if it has already come and will come again. So, we don’t know if we’re fearing its return or its first appearance. “One does not know if the expectation prepares the coming of the future-to-come or if it recalls the repetition of the same.” (p44)

Derrida explains that these two different fears are so extremely different that we cannot understand the difference. He argues our minds do not actually know the difference between any extremes, such as the difference between life and death. We can understand that we are being haunted because that is what we feel, but we understand this haunting in a way that we do not understand its nature or extremity:

“It would comprehend them, but incomprehensibly. How to comprehend in fact the discourse of the end or the discourse about the end? Can the extremity of the extreme ever be comprehended? And the opposition between “to be” and “not to be”?” (p10)

The uncertainty over whether it is a repetition or a first time causes any appearance of a ghost to be a first time, even if it is a repetition. This also means that first-time appearance is also a last-time appearance and a “singularity.” (p10) Because we cannot truly understand this feeling of this specter and its appearances, we obscure “first” and “last” and so give its ontology (or being) a haunting existence, hence hauntology. (p10) 

The “past” specter is the one that reappears. Derrida calls this revenant. The future specter is the one that is still to come. This one, Derrida calls arrivant. Specters exist both in the past and the future at the same time. It is for this reason, Derrida defines a “spectral moment” as “a moment that no longer belongs to time”. (p.xix)

“the apparition of the specter does not belong to that time, it does not give time, not that one: “Enter the ghost, exit the ghost, re-enter the ghost”(Hamlet).(p.xix)

Disjointure & Justice.

“Enter the ghost, exit the ghost, re-enter the ghost” is the first of many Hamlet references that Derrida uses to explain hauntology, time and spectrality. He repeats the phrase, “the time is out of joint” to explain why specters are created. By trying to destroy communism, we cause a disjointure. That is why specters are created. They are attempting to conjoin (bring back together) a state of harmony. For Derrida, harmony is justice. So, disjointure is injustice. Therefore, injustice causes the creation of specters. Attempting to rid the world of communism creates injustice and therefore, specters. (p27) ”Something in the present is not going well, it is not going as it ought to go.“ (p27)

Derrida interrogates whether this idea of making things as they “ought to go” is the role specters play.

Does it come along simply to compensate a wrong, restitute something due, to do right or do justice? Does it come along simply to render justice or, on the contrary, to give beyond the due, the debt, the crime, or the fault? Does it come simply to repair injustice or more precisely to rearticulate as must be the disjointure of the present time (“to set it right” as Hamlet said)? (p29)

Derrida, quoting Heidegger separates repairing injustice from that act of vengeance. “He [Heidegger] would especially like to wrest it away from that experience of vengeance whose idea, he says, remains “the opinion of those who equate the Just with the Avenged.” It is common to think of specters as harbingers of revenge. Instead, Derrida argues they are brought about by disjointure and the disturbance of accord. The time is out of joint. 

Mourning & Inheritance.

So, what should we do about these specters? There are people who distort Marx, negate Marx or refer to Marx only as some academic philosopher. (p38) In fact, Derrida explains that some people view the specter of communism as something that truly was in the past. 

“there are many who, throughout the world, seem just as worried by the specter of communism, just as convinced that what one is dealing with there is only a specter without body, without present reality, without actuality or effectivity, but this time it is supposed to be a past specter. It was only a specter, an illusion, a phantasm, or a ghost.” (p47)

“Capitalist societies can always heave a sigh of relief and say to themselves: communism is finished since the collapse of the totalitarianisms of the twentieth century and not only is it finished, but it did not take place, it was only a ghost” (p123)

But the feeling of imminence creates an idea that the specter cannot remain in some past. “The specter is the future, it is always to come, it presents itself only as that which could come or come back.” (p48)

Knowing this, Derrida wants us to accept this specter and inherit Marxism.“One never inherits without coming to terms with some specter (p24).” The primary task of people to fulfill this inheritance, according to Derrida, is to mourn, to mark and to work. (p9)

Mourning is the work which follows a trauma, such as a supposed defeat of communism. (p121) It describes a process of locating a body, such that one may allow it rest in safety. So, it requires seeking out.

“Nothing could be worse, for the work of mourning, than confusion or doubt: one has to know who is buried where—and it is necessary (to know—to make certain) that, in what remains of him, he remain there. Let him stay there and move no more!”(p9).

Here, to “mark” a specter is simply to recognise it. “Mark me” states the ghost in Hamlet. Clearly, if none of us mark the specter then there is no specter. The work here is a transformation of Marxist critique to present times. Derrida firmly believes that we have a responsibility to inherit Marxism.

“When the dogma machine and the “Marxist” ideological apparatuses (States, parties, cells, unions, and other places of doctrinal production) are in the process of disappearing, we no longer have any excuse, only alibis, for turning away from this responsibility. There will be no future without this. Not without Marx, no future without Marx, without the memory and the inheritance of Marx.” (pg14)

This process relocates a body for the specter and through revolution, we can bridge the gap between the spectral and the real: we can make communism real. “Marx thought, to be sure, on his side, from the other side, that the dividing line between the ghost and actuality ought to be crossed, like utopia itself, by a realization, that is, by a revolution.” (p47)

Transformation & Debt.

Derrida explains that there are problems with Western liberal institutions, such as “economic wars, national wars, wars among minorities, the unleashing of racisms and xenophobias, ethnic conflicts, conflicts of culture and religion.” (p100) He further lists ten major issues with global capitalism: 

  1. Social in-activity, a lack of work, and underemployment.
  2. Frontiers of identity which exclude the homeless and deport the stateless and migrant.
  3. Economic war, which creates unequal international relations.
  4. The contradiction of protectionism which creates international inequality but also tries to protect itself from cheap labour (which is a consequence of the inequality it creates).
  5. The contradiction of a market which increases the debt of the poor, thus excluding them from the very market it wants them to participate in.
  6. The normalisation of the arms trade into regular industries, which means scaling it down will lead to unemployment. 
  7. Countries which want to protect themselves from nuclear weapons are responsible for its spread and states are losing the ability to control its market.
  8. Inter-ethnic wars driven by nationalism, borders and displacement.
  9. Phantom-states controlled by mafia and drug cartels with international influence.
  10. Above all, the two limits of international law:
    1. It is driven by historical European philosophical concepts.
    2. Dominant techno-economic military powers control its implementation. (p100—104)

What Derrida calls for is a “profound transformation, projected over a long term, of international law, of its concepts, and its field of intervention” which will require a “New International”. (p105). He wants us to adopt a spirit of criticism for present international institutions and fight for their transformation. The New International is also an end to suffering: “never before, in absolute figures, never have so many men, women, and children been subjugated, starved, or exterminated on the earth.” (p106)

Derrida does not commit to one certain interpretation of what new institutions should look like. This book is not dedicated to practical ideas for after the revolution, but instead to inherit a spirit that calls for a revolution in the first place. However, he does seem to endorse the standard formula of the Communist Manifesto, “the transformation, the appropriation then finally the destruction of the State” (p127), while being very critical of relying on State-Party politics which Derrida claims is reactionary and unadapted to new technological and media conditions. (p127).

In the concluding pages of the third chapter, Wears and Tears (Tableau of an ageless world), Derrida states that our duty to reform international institutions, using Marxist critique and ending suffering is a something that we owe:

“And whether we like it or not, whatever consciousness we have of it, we cannot not be its heirs. There is no inheritance without a call to responsibility. An inheritance is always the reaffirmation of a debt” (p114)

Derrida does directly call for a “radical transformation” of Marxism to critique the “unheard-of powers” which include cyber-space and surveillance. (p68) Being an heir is not about what we receive, instead it implies “that the being of what we are is first of all inheritance”. (p68) Heirs have a responsibility to mourn, recognise and transform Marxism: to be Marxists, which for Derrida just means using Marxist critique. 

Derrida understands that our task is to deliver justice to the world and end suffering. But, still, this task weighs heavy on us. The Specter of Marx does not only haunt the imperialists, the capitalists and the Western liberal democracies, it also haunts the inheritors of Marx. We are burdened to conjoin time, history, memory and space. We must set things right. That is a task so heavy that it haunts us. Derrida poetically references Shakespeare’s Hamlet, who felt such pressure from the ghost of his father.

Hamlet does not curse so much the corruption of the age. He curses first of all and instead this unjust effect of the disorder, namely, the fate that would have destined him, Hamlet, to put a dislocated time back on its hinges—and to put it back right, to turn it back over to the law. He curses his mission: to do justice to a de-mission of time. He swears against a destiny that leads him to do justice for a fault, a fault of time and of the times, by rectifying an address, by making of rectitude and right (“to set it right”) a movement of correction, reparation, restitution, vengeance, revenge, punishment. He swears against this misfortune, and this misfortune is unending because it is nothing other than himself, Hamlet. Hamlet is “out of joint” because he curses his own mission, the punishment that consists in having to punish, avenge, exercise justice” (p23)

For more reading on the concept of Hauntology:

Hauntology & The Ghosts It Gathers


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s