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  • Rancière's LessonOctober '17, May '68, October '17
  • Jernej Habjan (bio)

From the Twenty-First Century to the Twentieth: Le SiÈcle

What can be said of Marxism in the twenty-first century? How can we speak of Marxism a century and a half after Das Kapital, a century after October '17, and half a century after May '68? What is Marxism in a time when Marxists mainly look back, commemorating spectacular anniversaries of their greatest achievements, while the future seems to be left to reformist projects like Capital in the Twenty-First Century, a book with the kind of sales for which even Slavoj Žižek would "sell [his] mother into slavery"? (Žižek 2014).

In 2014, when Marxists were still mesmerized by the 2012 English translation of Michael Heinrich's 2004 introduction to Marx's Capital (see Heinrich 2012) and anarchists by David Graeber's 2011 book on debt (see Graeber 2011), readers of all persuasions became enchanted by Capital in the Twenty-First [End Page 53] Century, the English translation of a 2013 French book by Thomas Piketty that "did not get much coverage except among non-English-speaking economists" until it was translated "in the language of modern imperialism" (Roberts 2015, 86 n. 1). There may be many reasons for this outcome, but one of them surely lies in the fact that, unlike Heinrich and Graeber, Piketty assigns knowledge of the history of capitalism not to historians of capitalism but to its natives. Natives as perceptive as Jane Austen and Honoré de Balzac, but natives nonetheless. "These and other novelists," says Piketty early on in his introduction, "depicted the effects of inequality with a verisimilitude and evocative power that no statistical or theoretical analysis can match" (Piketty 2014, 2).

This is how Piketty favors Balzac over political economists—including the political economist who also favored Balzac over political economists, only 125 years earlier than Piketty, namely, Friedrich Engels: in 1888, Engels claimed to have learned more from Balzac "than from all the professed historians, economists and statisticians of the period together" (Engels 1987, 91). So, even before there is anything wrong with Piketty's literature (like the fact that he reads novels as illustrations), something is lacking in his political economy itself; strictly as an economist, Piketty neglects Engels as someone who, together with Karl Marx, saw in La Comédie humaine a literary model of the totality of French society rather than a mere illustration of inequalities. A native model, yet nonetheless a model, of totality that could help Piketty supersede his abstract account of inequality—the chief illustrator of which, incidentally, is not Balzac but Zola, whom Engels explicitly rejects on behalf of precisely Balzac ("a far greater master of realism than all the Zolas passés, présents et à venir" [Engels 1987, 91]) but whom Piketty's readers might not enjoy in just such enormous numbers. Read in terms of modern society, rather than just social inequalities, Balzac could perhaps even help Piketty see that, as Žižek notes (see Žižek 2014; 2017, 27–28), to fight inequality with a tax reform today demands the tax reform, of course, but also, as a condition for this very reform to be passed, the undoing of the concrete totality of unequal society. But to achieve this kind of estrangement of Balzac's native point of view, Piketty would have to acknowledge Engels, who, however, would most likely drive away even more readers than Zola—even though a year before the fall of the Berlin Wall it was still possible in the West (e.g., in Petrey 1988, 448) [End Page 54] to use Engels's Balzac to dismiss not Engels but, on the contrary, the kind of dismissal of Engels reproduced today by Piketty.

But this is not a Marxist reply to Piketty. (This was offered by many, and by now we even have book-length Marxist replies to Marxist replies [see, e.g., Kaufmann and Stützle 2017].) It is merely a reminder that, at the moment—5 decades after May, 10 decades after October, and 15 decades after Das Kapital—the twenty-first...


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