In the revolutionary warm-stream

Michael Calderbank reviews Magical Marxism: subversive politics and the Imagination, by Andy Merrifield

September 10, 2011
3 min read


Michael Calderbank is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. He is also a parliamentary researcher for a group of trade unions.

When the surrealist André Breton applied to join the French Communist Party in the 1920s, the party hierarchy – ever suspicious of flights of lyrical imagination – responded by directing him to crunch statistics on industrial output. Hard science, proletarian discipline and sexual hygiene were the governing values as Stalinism took hold. Even today, self-proclaimed ‘Marxists’ are likely to spend an inordinate amount of time selling newspapers or sitting through interminable academic discussions that don’t exactly make the spirit sing.

Magical Marxism aims to counter this ‘cold-stream’ of Marxist orthodoxy with a ‘warm-stream’ of passionate revolutionary subjectivity. This draws upon an aesthetic in which dream and reality are suffused to reveal our ability to transfigure the world around us, and especially on Latin American currents of magic realism in literature (particularly Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude) and the Caribbean surrealism of Aimé Césaire. But this magic is not the kind of enchantment that induces passivity; drawing on the work of Guy Debord, the author argues that the spell cast by the commodified image-world of capitalist society must be broken through revolutionary action.

From the streets of Paris in May ’68 through to the Zapatista rebellion in Chiapas and the emergence of the alter-globalisation movement, Merrifield celebrates those moments when the constraints of what appears possible or pragmatic are suspended, and where the diffuse currents of the apparently powerless begin to coalesce into a force capable of mobilising real alternatives. Understandably, the author is less concerned about whether this accords with a dogmatic approach to ‘Marxist’ orthodoxy than its capacity to resist the power of capital and open up alternatives.

But critics might wonder whether Merrifield’s approach essentially reverts to a radical dissenting liberalism – urging everyone to stand together for a better world – rather than mapping the fault-lines of class conflict internationally. Much the same move is played out at a philosophical level, where dialectical thought is rejected for its privileging of the negative, in preference for a stress on affirmation (a move characteristic of recent thinkers such as Hardt and Negri, who look to Spinoza rather than to Hegel for inspiration).

There is much to be commended here; it is deliberately, even gleefully, provocative and none the worse for that. Undoubtedly its revisionism will offend Marxologists. But it reminds us that Marxism without the magic is a meagre gruel indeed.


Michael Calderbank is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. He is also a parliamentary researcher for a group of trade unions.


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