Warren Breckman’s study of radical social theory in the aftermath of Marxism’s collapse is a formidable and surprisingly predictive account of Marx’s recent legacy in France. Adventures of the Symbolic: Post-Marxism and Radical Democracy was released in 2013 just as a renaissance of classical political economy swept the country, notably Thomas Pikkety’s Capital in the Twentieth Century, his collaboration with Emmanuel Saez in Quarterly Journal of Economics, “Capital is Back: Wealth Income Ratios in Rich Countries 1700–2010,” and Gabriel Zucman’s The Hidden Wealth of Nations. All three economists testify to a guiding theme of Breckman’s book, “Marx may have been wrong about communism, but he may have been right about capitalism” (2). Marx may have been right, as all three economists indicate, that the money generated by capital outpaces that of income, thus widening inequality. But Marx’s thesis, as Breckman suggests, was not simply economic. For Marx, money is a symbol, a concrete emblem of the process of commodity exchange. And one of his aims was to dispel the mystical veil of money and reveal the symbolic web in which it is [End Page 1220] entangled. As Breckman makes clear, there is no return to Marx. But the symbolic nonetheless holds the key, not only to understanding capitalism, but also to reinvigorating democratic politics in the wake of Marxism’s demise.
The symbolic is a concept at once foundational to and forsaken by Marxism. Although Marx conceived money as a particular symbol, he generally mobilized philosophy as a weapon of desymbolization, as is evident in the grounding problem of his materialism: What is the relationship between the cultural strata of politics, law, art, and religion—the symbolic realm that doctrinaire Marxists often dismiss as bourgeois ideology—and a society’s modes of production? Various resolutions have been marshaled in the century since Marx argued that socio-historical development unfolds as a dialectical totality determined by the economic base and reinforced in the cultural superstructure. But the vexing question facing dialectics hinges on what determination means. A strong thesis treats determination as a causal principle. Just as the prick of a finger causes the sensation of pain, humans’ material relation to the economy is the sensuous activity that causes the superstructural regime. A weak thesis treats determination as a functional principle. The character of law and politics, for example, is a function of their beneficial effects on economic interests, so private property reigns under capitalism because it is the politico-legal apparatus that best facilitates the system’s preservation. Where the strong thesis posits determination as unidirectional, the weak thesis posits determination as complementary. But both, as Marx had a penchant for writing, regard determination as, in the last analysis, economic. This reductionist picture not only inhibits Marxism from explaining the complexity of civil society, but it also shackles Marxian cultural critique to exposing the economic constitution of ideas and institutions. Marx’s analysis of capitalism, however accurate it may be, thus comes at the expense of a satisfying account of culture—that is, society’s symbolic dimension.
Adventures of the Symbolic straddles either side of this dialectical heritage in order not to resolve the problem of determination, but to dissolve it. Breckman does so by returning to early nineteenth-century Romantic thought and excavating the conceptual edifice originally shunned by Hegel and occluded in Marxism. Yet the symbolic reemerged in social theory of the 1960s when former card-carrying members of the Parti communiste français jettisoned determinism and economic reductionism and instead recognized politics’ ambiguous and contested character. Breckman’s aim is not to demonstrate that these thinkers rehearsed Romantic themes, but rather, as he writes, “to create associations, resonances, and reverberations that may alter and inflect the way we read and hear contemporary theory” (270). Adventures of the Symbolic follows a guiding concept of modern European intellectual history that precedes and exceeds the dialectic.
The book is organized into six chapters, each of which sets radical social thinkers in what Breckman calls “a series of contrapuntal exchanges...