Paul de Man’s “Literary History and Literary Modernity” serves as a telling point of departure for reexamining the configuration of revolutionary history and revolutionary modernity in polemical writings written by Marx and Engels in the aftermath of the 1848–1849 European Revolutions. What de Man calls “literature” models an impasse between modernity understood as an aspiration to pure action free from the mediation of history and history understood as the inevitable recursivity through which such action finds itself caught in reflections on—and repetitions of—the past. Marx’s early “Letters to Ruge” already hints at the potential conflict and co-implication of a backward looking-left melancholia with a forward-driving revolutionary project. These issues get taken up not only in the much cited Eighteenth Brumaire but in the more purely polemical writings of Marx and Engels’s London exile. In these writings, Marx and Engels explore how the anarchic putschist fantasies of their fellow communists (August Willich and Karl Schapper) paradoxically converge with the most retrograde apologetics of their liberal opponents (Gottfried Kinkel and Arnold Ruge). They detail the short circuit between calls for an immediate renewal of revolutionary action and a nostalgic retreat from any action into secondhand literary posturing. At the same time, Marx and Engels’s own relation to that short circuit proves difficult to stabilize. Their allegory of history as long-term struggle does not conceal their ironic imbrication in the aporias they delineate. The conclusion is not that revolutionary Marxism has no alternative but to reiterate the same short circuit, but rather that it must recognize, with Marx and Engels, how revolution inevitably turns on the impasse as it takes place in a disjunction of time with itself: a conjuncture whose status remains radically undecidable.


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 102-129
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.