Echoes of Marx


The following is an Introduction to Marx's Literary Style by Ludovico Silva, written by Alberto Toscano.

Sólo desde la tierra se puede ver el cielo - L. Silva, ‘Carta materialista a mi madre’ (1973)

Marking the 150th anniversary of The Communist Manifesto with an article on that text’s style, the novelist and semiotician Umberto Eco prefaced his remarks by calling for the republishing of Lo stile letterario di Marx, the 1973 Italian translation of  Marx’s Literary Style].

While the question of Marx’s style has not been ignored by his legions of commentators (and detractors), Eco’s reminiscence testifies to the lack of concerted treatments of how Marx produced himself as an author. That said, Marx’s style was not a marginal matter for his contemporaries. His comrade and disciple, Wilhelm Liebknecht, and his first biographer, Franz Mehring – socialist activists who were also academically trained philologists – both illuminated aspects of Marx’s literary and critical artistry that Silva’s volume explores with nuance and combativeness.

In his Biographical Memoirs (1896), Liebknecht pushes back against claims that the author of Capital was plagued with a bad style or was altogether bereft of one. While castigating those philistine ‘polishers of words and twisters of phrases who have not understood and were not capable of . . . following the flight of [Marx’s] genius to the highest peaks of science and passion and into the lowest depths of human misery and human baseness’, Liebknecht underscores that such pejorative judgements stem from the incapacity to see the signature of Marx’s thought and person behind the surface heterogeneity of his products. The plethoric sarcasm of Herr Vogt, the dialectical complexity of Capital, the polemical bravura of the Eighteenth Brumaire – all corroborate the principle that the ‘style is not only the man, it is also the subject-matter – and it must be adapted to the latter’.

Liebknecht, editor of the Social Democratic Party newspapers Der Volkstaat and Vorwärts, is particularly attuned to the political violence of Marx’s craft:

Is the Eighteenth Brumaire unintelligible? Is the dart incomprehensible that flies straight at his target and pierces the flesh? Is the spear unintelligible that, hurled by a steady hand, penetrates the heart of the enemy? The words of the Brumaire are darts, are spears – they are a style that stigmatizes, kills. If hate, if scorn, if burning love of freedom ever found expression in flaming, annihilating, elevating words, then it is surely in the Eighteenth Brumaire, in which the aroused seriousness of Tacitus is united to the deadly satire of Juvenal and the holy wrath of Dante. The style is here what it – the stylus – originally was in the hands of the Romans – a sharp-pointed steel pencil for writing and for stabbing.

A few years later, on occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of Marx’s death, Mehring would remark that, while a comprehensive inquiry into his style would make a signal contribution to the understanding of Marx’s work, ‘the task would be difficult, and it is not one of those immediately incumbent on his heirs’ – busy as they were struggling over how best to actualize his political legacy. Yet Mehring did think it was imperative to provide some local resistance to bourgeois scientists’ maligning of Marx’s style and method, which came down to one question: 

From Herr Wilhelm Roscher down to the youngest university instructor, they all complain of his passion for metaphor. Marx’s fondness for the use of figurative language is indisputable: but what these adversaries mean to convey by the accusation is that though his intelligence may have been brilliant, it was certainly not acute; that, entangled in ‘obscure mysticism’, he could only elucidate even the doctrine of historical materialism quite vaguely, and with the use of a ‘patchwork of imagery’.

Mehring countered this objection first by referring to Aristotle’s view of genius as grounded in the capacity to recognize likeness (to homoion theorein), and then via a portable history of the theory of metaphor in German letters, beginning with Luther’s Bible translation (formative for Marx), moving through the metaphorical inflation of movements like euphuism and Marinism, and culminating in the consolidation of a thinking and practice of metaphor in Lessing, Goethe and Hegel – a consummate metaphor-maker who bequeathed to Marx some of the literary and cognitive tools with which he would forge dialectical images of capital’s metaphysical manifestation, like the section of Capital on commodity fetishism, which still proves so indecipherable to bourgeois economists. They, Mehring sardonically observes, counter Marx’s use of metaphors with what they advertise as conceptual analysis, but which, on closer inspection, turns out to be ‘an unending shadow-dance of metaphysical notions, which momentously glides along the walls of the capitalist prison-­house’, trying to hold at bay ‘the racy metaphors of revolutionary dialectic’.

The relation between concepts, categories and metaphors is among the salient concerns of Silva’s study. That he was able to tackle the difficult task of elucidating Marx’s style is also a function of the Venezuelan writer’s biographical and intellectual trajectory, of what he termed the ‘profound duality of my intellectual life, divided between the essayist and the poet’. Born Luis José Silva Michelena in 1937 to a well-to-do family in Caracas (his older brothers José Agustin and Héctor were prominent academics, the first a sociologist and anthropologist, the second an economist whose contributions to dependency theory would influence his younger brother), after attending a private Jesuit college Ludovico continued his education in Europe between 1954 and 1960. There he studied philosophy and literature in Madrid (where fellow student--poets baptized him with the name he would use from then on), French literature at the Sorbonne and Romance philology at Freiburg under Hugo Friedrich, whose readings of Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Mallarmé in The Structure of Modern Poetry would hold an abiding influence over Silva – introducing him not just to formal study of les poètes maudits but to what he called the ‘dense and jagged, if ultimately tender, forest of the German language’.

Upon returning to Venezuela, Silva began establishing himself as a poet and essayist – his first collection, Tenebra, is from 1964, while his second book, Boom!!! (1965), a poem on nuclear warfare in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, would be prefaced by Thomas Merton. For Silva, poetry was ‘an indispensable weapon to attain a genuine knowledge of things. It is, in its deepest essence, dialectics.’ He was also intensely active on the cultural front, serving as the general secretary of the Ateneo de Caracas and founder of its journal Papeles, co-founding the journal Lamigal, and writing for the newspaper El Clarín and the literary journals Sol Cuello Cortado, Cal and El Corno Emplumado. While sympathetic to political and not just artistic vanguards, Silva seems to have kept a distance from the organizations of the revolutionary left and the guerrilla formations they bodied forth (though he was apparently sympathetic to the Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria, abhorred the Venezuelan Communist Party, and in the 1970s would refer positively both to Yugoslav experiments with self-management and to the experience of poder popular in Matanzas, Cuba). From 1970, he would teach philosophy at the Central University of Venezuela.

Silva’s life seems to have borne greater affinities with Baudelaire’s (or Bukowski’s) than with that of a typical revolutionary militant or theorist. As his brother Héctor reminisced: ‘Tormented existence? Yes! Together we traveled to alcohol’s chiaroscuro kingdom, together we caroused in the bars and taverns in the whirlwind of the República del Este and the Callejón de la Puñalada,  together we gave food and drink to beggars and gangsters at high dawn.’ In 1986, Silva would be briefly committed to an asylum for the mental disturbances caused by ‘a demonic acid they called ammonium’, generated by his alcohol consumption – an experience recorded in short harrowing and delirious texts, scribbled on any available surface, including cigarette packets, and published posthumously as Papeles desde el amonio. He would die two years later, at the age of fifty-one, of a heart attack caused by cirrhosis of the liver.

It was only in the context of a global ’68 that a relatively mature Silva would undertake his reading of Marx and very quickly become a prominent reference in Latin American debates. By his own account, he was impelled in this direction not just by political turbulence and a deep dissatisfaction with the Marxism of party hacks and their handbooks (which he would skewer in his 1975 Anti-manual), but by the teaching of two Spanish-Venezuelan philosophers teaching at the Central University of Venezuela, where Silva would obtain his philosophy degree in 1972 – Federico Riu, a former student of Eugen Fink and of Heidegger, whose Caracas seminar on Sartre was a significant inspiration, and Juan David García Bacca, to whom this book is dedicated and whose work Silva would celebrate in his Belleza y revolución.

Beginning with two books released in 1970, La plusvalía ideológica and Sobre el socialismo y los intelectuales, Silva would go on to publish numerous books and essays on Marx and Marxism, centred on the interlocking problems of ideology and alienation as they impacted upon the critique of capitalism and the concrete utopia of socialism, grasped in the context of the development of underdevelopment and (cultural) imperialism in South America. In dialogue with Marcuse, Löwenthal, Horkheimer and Adorno, but also his friend, the poet and essayist Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Silva developed the notion of ideological surplus-value. In an essay on television as the ideological medium par excellence, the commodity which lets us see all the other commodities – which some commentators regard as foundational to the critical study of communication in Latin America – Silva articulates this novel notion to capture the production of subjectivity under conditions of dependency and imperialism, what he terms the ‘interiorization of underdevelopment’. As he writes:

The system of dependency operated shrewdly. Together with material estrangement [enajenación] it came to form a kind of ideological estrangement at the mental level: a great ideal reservoir of loyalties toward the system itself, an ideological capital always ready to betray any subversive impulse and ever at the service of material capital. Together with the material surplus-value extracted from labour-power, the system of dependency gradually formed a mechanism to produce ideological surplus-value, through which the non-conscious part of people’s psychic energy comes to form part of imperialist ideological capital, sustaining it, preserving it, perpetuating it.

We might say that, where the ideological surplus largely operates behind our backs, style, as manifest in the person and writing of Marx, is a matter of the political appropriation of our unconscious as social individuals, the forging of a combative singularity open to the vast reservoirs of world literature and the world’s languages – as well as, and above all, to the collective historical sedimentations and idiosyncrasies of one’s idiom. This understanding of style is also open to its bodily basis, as in the observation that the Grundrisse is a difficult text ‘because its literary style reflects the deadly tiredness of that man who, in London, spent his days working as a journalist just to live badly, while he was up nights until four in the morning, between innumerable cigarettes and an empty stomach’, labouring on his critique of political economy.

In Silva’s discussion of irony and alienation in this book’s epilogue, he enjoins us not to follow in the tracks of so much Marxist scholasticism, which mistreats Marx’s style as something that could be regarded as surplus to his science. Marx’s personal, polemical, and literary temperament cannot be hived off from the temperament of his theory – irony, mockery, and critique (including of the ad hominem variety) are constitutive of his social theory. ‘To be able to imitate Marx’s style gracefully,’ Silva warns, ‘one would need to recall that the entire machinery of his indignation is mounted on the serrated gear of his irony.’ Silva’s contention that the expression of the dialectic and the dialectic of expression are inseparable, that critique cannot be separated from style, finds its emblem and evidence in a phrase from Class Struggles in France where the theory of ideology and alienation finds full incarnation in syntax. Silva would return to it close to the end of his life, while advancing the scandalous if cogent proposition that Marx was an aristocratic thinker. Riffing off Stendhal’s comments on Napoleon’s Civil Code as a paragon of economy and efficacy in expression, Silva writes of how Marx

was able to create a style and a way of thinking and writing endowed with the loftiest virtues of the aristocracy, namely, the musical elegance of phrases, his dialectical manner of beginning a sentence abruptly to then make an about-turn and go back to its starting point (this is the secret of the popularity enjoyed by many of Marx’s phrases); his never-vulgar aggressiveness, his refined irony set like a diamond on the serrated wheel of his sentences, his way of saying things like: ‘The mortgage the peasant has on heavenly possessions guarantees the mortgage the bourgeois has on peasant possessions’, where the apodosis of the first prosodic syntagm makes a felicitous pirouette to land suddenly on the protasis; lastly, the grace and devastating precision that lends his science the appearance of a score by Cimarosa or Pergolesi, because of what Andrés Bello called ‘smoothness’ (suavidad), but which harbours in its interior an intellectual storminess worthy of Beethoven – all of this makes of his literary style a perfect demonstration of intellectual aristocracy.

In this book, Silva explores three elementary aspects of Marx’s style. First, an ‘architectonic’ perspective in which the scientific system and the aspiration to the work of art are inseparable – in keeping with Marx’s own efforts to make conceptual dynamics plastic, perceptible. This is, of course, as any reader of Marx’s masterpiece can testify, a very complex seeing and a very complex unity. Drawing on his own way with metaphors, Silva will speak of how, ‘in Capital, categories are slowly embodied, bit by bit, as though we were dealing with a growing, ascending vegetation, which comes to blanket an ocean of abstractions’. Second, he identifies a dialectic of expression that doubles as an expression of the dialectic, such that the ‘formal and logical relations into which Marx places verbal signs constitute a plastic gesture aimed at reflecting the material and historical relations of signifieds’. Third, and crucially, there is Marx’s unparalleled mastery of metaphors as cognitive and poetic instruments.

The pages devoted to the metaphors of superstructure, reflection and religion double as sharp polemics aimed at countless commentators who, insensitive to the internal economy of Marx’s prose, would misunderstand them as theories in themselves, thereby failing truly to grasp the most monstrous and most spectral metaphor of all, capitalism. Many Marxists, impervious to the logic of Marx’s style, have missed the style of his logic, while in trying to force metaphors into concepts they have ignored the lesson of Ortega y Gasset, for whom ‘metaphor is an indispensable mental instrument, a form of scientific thought’. As Silva would write in one of his several posthumously published works, in the twentieth century ‘certain “Marxist” sectors have turned Marx’s scientific categories (for example, alienation) into mere metaphors, but also the reverse: many of Marx and Engels’ metaphors, such as the famous “superstructure” and “reflection”, have been forcibly converted into scientific categories’. A symptom of this methodological malady is discerned by Silva in the way the Marxist vulgate has retained only one of the two terms from that (un)fortunate expression in The German Ideology, ideologische Reflexe und Echos. As it is a dogmatic counterfactual, we are induced to wonder what kind of fierce debates and doctrinal revisions might have been generated if a ‘theory of the echo’ had arisen where we now puzzle over the ‘theory of reflection’.

If metaphor is a translatio, a transposition – not just from one meaning to another, but from one being to another – then what Silva tried to diagnose and counter was a certain tendency to neglect the constitutive role of style in Marx, and thereby to generate pseudo-concepts (base and superstructure, reflection) as, so to speak, metaphors of metaphors, illegitimate and misleading transpositions of transpositions. And, while he often avowed, with self-deprecating irony, that he was not a Marxist in the sense of someone able to make the leap from interpretation to transformation, he did see his readings of Marx, this book very much included, as a contribution to a Marxism as heterodox, critical, irreverent and committed to the abolition of the world of capital as Marx himself was. In a short text entitled ‘And Marxism?’, he declared:

Yes indeed, there are Marxists, including in Venezuela. It is not necessary that they all be in perfect agreement; even Marx did not agree with himself, which is why he said that he was not ‘Marxist’. But Marxists are few, since not everybody is willing to take up an intellectual position that practically represents a war against everything that exists. Nor is it a matter of asking Marxist politicians that they adopt this stance in their tactics, even though we should when it comes to outlining a long-term strategy. Some time ago, we used to speak here of the ‘long war’. The thesis, beyond bullets and rifles, remains in force. And so does the long war that a Marxist must wage against himself, which begins by reading Marx and never ends.

Alberto Toscano, 2022, (written for the Introduction to Marx's Literary Style - a major Marxist work originally published in 1971 and now available in English. Read the editorial letter for this book here.)

Ludovico Silva (1937–1988) was one of the most important Venezuelan intellectuals of the twentieth century. His books include La plusvalía ideológica (Ideological Surplus-Value) and Anti-manual para uso de marxistas, marxólogos y marxianos (Anti-Handbook for Marxists, Marxologists, and Marxians), and now, Marx's Literary Style.

A true understanding of Marx’s work requires a careful study of his literary choices

Originally published in 1971, this is a key work by one of the most important Latin American Marxists of the twentieth century. This edition, which marks the first appearance of one of Silva’s works in English, features an introduction by Alberto Toscano.