The Politics of Spinozism — Composition and Communication (Part 1 of 2)

Introductory Note

This highly in­sightful and in­form­ative paper was presented by Alberto Toscano at the Cultural Research Bureau of Iran, Tehran, January 4, 2005. We are grateful to him for al­lowing us to pub­lish it here.

As many scholars have noted, Spinoza’s re­la­tion to the his­tory and prac­tice of philo­sophy is unique. Though often por­trayed in the academy as a thinker in­teg­rated into the ‘ra­tion­alist’ tra­di­tion, Spinoza has re­peatedly emerged as what Antonio Negri fam­ously called a ‘savage an­omaly’. Whether in the rad­ical en­light­en­ment of the late 17th and 18th cen­turies, the Pantheism con­tro­versy that played such a form­ative role within German Idealism, or in the philo­soph­ical rad­ic­alism cata­lysed by May 1968, Spinoza has been re­peatedly in­voked as a point of ref­er­ence and in­spir­a­tion at mo­ments when the very meaning of philo­sophy and its link to the con­tem­porary world was at stake. Toscano’s ini­tial ques­tion is there­fore the fol­lowing: How is it that a philo­sopher renowned for thinking, with su­preme de­tach­ment, ‘sub specie ae­tern­i­tatis’, could play such a forceful part in de­bates over what Michel Foucault called ‘the on­to­logy of the present’? In order to ad­dress this matter, Toscano con­cen­trates spe­cific­ally on the latest ‘wave’ in the long his­tory of Spinozism, and fo­cuses on three thinkers who have played a cru­cial role in the re­cent re­sur­gence of in­terest in the work of the Dutch philo­sopher: Gilles Deleuze, Etienne Balibar, and Antonio Negri. More spe­cific­ally, Toscano is con­cerned with how Spinoza has served as a spur for these three thinkers in their rad­ical in­ter­rog­a­tions of the meaning of politics, demo­cracy and the common. He does this by fleshing out three con­cepts through which Deleuze, Balibar and Negri re­spect­ively af­firm the rel­ev­ance of Spinoza’s on­to­logy and ethics to any re­flec­tion on the con­tem­porary status of the polit­ical: com­pos­i­tion, com­mu­nic­a­tion and constitution.


Let me begin by ex­tending my sin­cere thanks to Ramin Jahanbegloo and the Cultural Research Bureau for having in­vited me to this unique oc­ca­sion. I cannot fail to take this op­por­tunity to ex­press my grat­itude to Toni Negri who, be­fore Deleuze, was the first ‘in­ter­cessor’ in my own en­counter with Spinoza. Some years ago, at the very be­gin­ning of my studies in philo­sophy, I de­voured his book The Savage Anomaly with the some­what un­dis­cip­lined pas­sion of the neo­phyte. It re­mains for me a model, both styl­istic and meth­od­o­lo­gical, of how to transmit the inner ten­sion, his­tor­ical em­bed­ded­ness and con­tem­porary ur­gency of a philo­soph­ical thought. It is quite a priv­ilege to be sit­ting with him here today.

My own ‘schol­arly’ en­counter with Spinoza’s philo­sophy has al­ways taken the guise of looking at Spinoza in or Spinoza with other thinkers (for ex­ample Schelling, Deleuze, Althusser). Today I would simply like to ad­dress — guided, alas, by my pas­sions and pre­ju­dices — the role and the dif­ferent guises taken by Spinoza’s thought, over the past 35 years or so, within the ambit of European philo­sophy. I do not wish, how­ever, to sub­ject you, in the re­gister of the his­tory of ideas, to a painstaking re­con­struc­tion of the most re­cent Spinoza renais­sance and the various guises it has ad­opted over the years (for which I highly re­com­mend the col­lec­tion The New Spinoza, edited by Warren Montag). Rather, I want to give you a pre­lim­inary sense of some of the ways in which the thought of Spinoza, and his polit­ical thinking in par­tic­ular, has been re­vital­ised and re-​actualized in the last few dec­ades. Remaining wedded, to a con­sid­er­able ex­tent, to Gilles Deleuze’s defin­i­tion of philo­soph­ical prac­tice as a cre­ation of con­cepts, I would like to focus on two con­cepts that have emerged as deeply sig­ni­ficant in re­cent read­ings of Spinoza’s work, the con­cepts of com­pos­i­tion and com­mu­nic­a­tion (my ori­ginal in­ten­tion was to con­sider the no­tion of con­sti­tu­tion in Negri’s work, but time con­straints have forced me to trun­cate this trinity and let Negri speak for himself).

Not only — and des­pite the aca­demic at­tempt to de­pict him as a straight­for­ward ‘ra­tion­alist’ — is Spinoza con­vin­cingly char­ac­ter­ized as an an­omaly in his own time and in the ‘time­less time’ of philo­sophy, as both Negri and Deleuze have af­firmed, but the his­tory of Spinoza’s re­cep­tion is also wholly unique. To take some of the more striking, if an­ec­dotal, cases, three great German philo­sophers — Schelling, Nietzsche and Marx — un­der­went genuine trans­form­ative en­coun­ters with the thought of Spinoza. In 1795, Schelling, as a pre­co­cious philo­sopher trying to con­struct a philo­sophy that would provide an ‘im­man­ent­istic af­firm­a­tion of the in­finite’ (Semerari 1996: 83) and un­der­mine the stric­tures of dogma, dashed off a letter to his then close friend Hegel, en­thu­si­ast­ic­ally con­fessing: ‘I have be­come a Spinozist!’. In 1881, Nietzsche him­self, in a letter to Overbeck, re­marked on Spinoza: ‘I am amazed, de­lighted! I have a pre­cursor, and what a pre­cursor!’, be­fore listing his close­ness to the fun­da­mental tenets of Spinoza’s thought. Marx him­self, in his form­ative years, once com­posed an en­tire note­book con­sisting of a com­plete re­arrange­ment of one of Spinoza’s treat­ises, and then quix­ot­ic­ally en­titled it ‘Tractatus Theologico-​Politicus by Karl Marx’. Yirmiahu Yovel, in his study Spinoza and Other Heretics, has provided a useful ac­count of these strange al­le­gi­ances and af­fin­ities. In terms of move­ments, rather than fig­ures, Spinoza func­tioned as the some­times sub­ter­ranean cata­lyst be­hind the many-​headed move­ment for rad­ical en­light­en­ment that swept Europe in the late 17th and early 18th cen­tury, and as the elu­sive centre of the po­lemics out of which the various strands of German idealism were woven — to take two no­torious and cru­cial in­stances, painstak­ingly in­vest­ig­ated by Jonathan Israel and Frederick Beiser, re­spect­ively1 — Spinoza’s very name was the dis­puted cur­rency in some of the fiercest philo­soph­ical, polit­ical and theo­lo­gical con­tro­ver­sies. And yet, we might be tempted to argue, this did not, in most cases, en­tail a crit­ical ap­pro­pri­ation of his con­cepts and of the in­tricate, often for­bid­ding, dy­namic of his thought. Rather, as is the case with most po­lemics, here Spinoza be­came a meta­phor of a host of badly defined com­plexes: atheism, pan­theism, ma­ter­i­alism, idealism… And even for some of his par­tisans, his philo­sophy be­came a kind of mo­tiv­ating myth in the struggle against the in­er­tias of tra­di­tion. But, as the Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges wrote in his poem ‘Spinoza’, this was a thinker ‘freed from myth and meta­phor’. Indeed it is both the crys­tal­line con­cep­tual rigour (re­call that Ethics, his prin­cipal work, is sub­titled More Geometrico Demonstrata) and the sin­gular realism of his philo­sophy that might ac­count for his sin­gular place in con­tem­porary thought.2

How then are we to char­ac­terize the ‘ac­tu­ality’ of Spinoza? Why is the re­la­tion­ship of Spinoza to the present (not just our own, but that of 18th cen­tury Italian rad­icals or 19th cen­tury German philo­sophers) of a dif­ferent order than that of, say, Descartes or Leibniz? In what sense could we even say that Spinoza is al­ways ahead of us, that he is even a ‘philo­sopher of the fu­ture’? This ques­tion is not simply that of the polit­ical and his­tor­ical in­ser­tion of Spinoza’s thought into various con­texts and con­junc­tures, it is a pro­foundly philo­soph­ical ques­tion which has oc­cu­pied those thinkers who have sought to un­der­stand the power of Spinoza’s ethics and politics as tools for in­ter­vening in the present. After all, the most ob­vious image of Spinoza is as a philo­sopher of eternity (‘a god-​intoxicated man’, even), and one wedded to a rad­ical system of de­term­inism which un­der­mines any pos­tu­late of free will, if not freedom tout court. How then could such a figure, seem­ingly the least ‘his­tor­ical’ of philo­sophers, provide thinkers con­cerned with trans­form­a­tion, nov­elty, the event, with the where­withal to ad­vance rad­ical pro­jects of thought? Why is Spinoza re­peatedly be in­voked in the most ur­gent of polit­ical and ideo­lo­gical po­lemics? How could a philo­sophy turned to­ward the eternity of being (an on­to­logy) link up with the at­tempt to un­der­stand the col­lective con­struc­tion of a common polit­ical space and the some­times cata­strophic in­cur­sion of worldly events?

Permit me then, to read to you a longish quote from Pierre Macherey’s per­spicuous treat­ment of Spinoza’s actuality:

Perhaps then we shall take note that the eternity of sub­stance is not, as Spinoza him­self re­flected, dir­ectly as­sim­il­able to the per­man­ence of a nature already given in it­self, in an ab­stract and static manner, ac­cording to the idea of “sub­stance which has not yet be­come sub­ject” de­veloped by Hegel re­garding Spinoza; but, to the ex­tent that this sub­stance is in­sep­ar­able from its pro­ductivity, that it mani­fests it­self nowhere else than in the to­tality of its modal real­iz­a­tions, in which it is ab­so­lutely im­manent, it is a nature that is it­self pro­duced in a his­tory, and under con­di­tions that the latter ne­ces­sarily at­taches to it. Thus for the soul to at­tain the un­der­standing of its union with the whole of nature is also to re­cog­nize his­tor­ic­ally what con­fers on it its own iden­tity, and it is in a cer­tain way, then, to re­spond to the ques­tion “Who am I now?” (Macherey 1998: 134)

It is per­haps the for­bid­ding but cru­cial theme of im­man­ence that al­lows an in­road into the ever re­newed force of Spinoza’s thought. It is in this concept, which tra­verses physics, ethics and politics, that we can dis­cern the clue to the idea of a being that is both eternal and rad­ic­ally in and of the now, of a praxis and a tem­por­ality that would not sep­arate an im­macu­late realm of eternal values and ideas from the vi­cis­situdes of col­lective human life. To para­phrase Yovel, im­man­ence is not a kind of static in­dif­fer­ence, but is al­ways caught in dy­nam­isms, in ad­ven­tures, and some of these ad­ven­tures are the ad­ven­tures of men. By ap­proaching the en­igma of im­man­ence, of a thought (and in­dis­so­ci­ably, a prac­tice) that would not refer to some form of ex­ternal le­git­im­a­tion, to a sup­ple­mentary di­men­sion of any sort, we could per­haps begin to un­ravel the seeming paradox of Spinoza’ re­cep­tion. This is also per­haps why, in its sin­gular mix of ex­acting schol­ar­ship and prac­tical ur­gency, re­cent Spinozism is qual­it­at­ively dif­ferent than its pre­cursors and has really begun to ar­tic­u­late what is most puzz­ling and po­tent about this great philo­sopher. It has done so pre­cisely in its em­phasis on the con­sequences and unique­ness of the thesis of im­man­ence and on the key, and pre­vi­ously un­der­es­tim­ated, role of Spinoza’s polit­ical thought, more pre­cisely on the re­sources that Spinoza provides for re­thinking the very concept of demo­cracy in our present con­junc­ture. To be more pre­cise and an­ti­cipate some of the themes I will in­tro­duce shortly, what is at stake in this ‘new Spinoza’ is a way of thinking Spinoza’s philo­sophy, and even his concept of eternity, in terms of what, for want of a better term, I would call forms of in­ter­ac­tion, ways of moving beyond the im­me­diate linking of on­to­logy and ethics to­ward a thought of how the col­lective con­struc­tion of polit­ical re­la­tions so­cial­izes both the eth­ical and the on­to­lo­gical, how politics amp­li­fies or in­ter­feres with the ex­pres­sion and af­firm­a­tion of power, both at the on­to­lo­gical and eth­ical level. Politics — and the im­manent tend­ency of politics, demo­cracy — is thus ar­gu­ably the priv­ileged way of re­lating Spinoza’s on­to­logy to what Foucault once called the ‘on­to­logy of the present’.

As the French philo­sopher Louis Althusser wrote in his 1976 Essays in Self-​Criticism, much late 20th cen­tury Spinozism has pro­ceeded by ‘at­trib­uting to the au­thor of the Tractatus Theologico-​Politicus and the Ethics a number of theses which he would surely never have ac­know­ledged, though they did not ac­tu­ally con­tra­dict him. But to be a heretical Spinozist is al­most or­thodox Spinozism, if Spinozism can be said to be one of the greatest les­sons in heresy that the world has seen!’ (Althusser 1976: 132). Though Spinozists have ex­isted ever since the rad­ical circles that rippled through Europe in the wake of Spinoza’s death, I think it is fair to say that only in the past 50 years or so has there been a Spinozism to match in her­men­eutic rigour and cre­ative in­ter­ven­tions the his­tory of Kantianism or Hegelianism, that only now has the hereti­cism that Althusser re­ferred to been com­ple­mented by the la­bour of the concept. Arguably, it is only now then that the scope of his thought and its rel­ev­ance to our so­cial and polit­ical ex­ist­ence can be truly ap­pre­ci­ated, at a his­tor­ical junc­ture when the com­mu­nic­ative power of the mul­ti­tude and of what Marx called the gen­eral in­tel­lect is so in­tens­i­fied that the physics, ethics, on­to­logy and politics of Spinoza (what are ul­ti­mately in­dis­so­ci­able fa­cets of his philo­soph­izing) can be thought sim­ul­tan­eously. Today more than ever, one might argue, is Spinoza, as Pierre Macherey puts it, ‘an ir­re­place­able re­actor and de­veloper’ (Macherey 1998: 135). To follow an­other of Althusser’s sug­ges­tions, we could pose that much of what is most living in the European philo­sophy that fol­lowed upon the struc­tur­alist episode is im­bued by this Spinozist ele­ment, and that it is a cer­tain un­der­standing of the ar­tic­u­la­tion of politics and on­to­logy, an ar­tic­u­la­tion which sim­ul­tan­eously es­chews the turn to straight­for­ward polit­ical lib­er­alism and the se­duc­tions of Heidegger’s on­to­logy which is at the heart of the turn to Spinoza ini­ti­ated by Deleuze and Matheron, following Gueroult, in the late 60s.3

Digging deeper, and re­maining with our Althusserian ref­er­ence, we must also con­sider the cru­cial role that Spinoza’s meta­physics played in the ideo­lo­gical struggles, throughout the 20th cen­tury, against the dom­in­a­tion of dia­lect­ical thought. One of the century’s guiding philo­soph­ical al­tern­at­ives, to borrow the title of one of Macherey’s books:‘Hegel or Spinoza’. And inas­much as dia­lectics can be re­garded as the cul­min­a­tion of a cer­tain variant of philo­soph­ical and polit­ical mod­ernity, we can begin to see why Spinoza’s has been presented as a sin­gular alternative, a thinker of a kind of anti-​modernity. Let me now turn to two points, two con­cepts, through which the Spinozan al­tern­ative has been iden­ti­fied. This is the al­tern­ative rep­res­ented by a philo­sophy of af­firm­a­tion, both at the on­to­lo­gical level (dy­namic plen­itude of the single sub­stance) and the eth­ical level (the struggle of joy against the sad pas­sions) — what Macherey has called ‘Spinoza’s pos­it­ivism’, the in­tel­lec­tion of being ‘without me­di­ation, that is, without the in­ter­ven­tion of a neg­ative re­la­tion of self to being’ (Macherey 1998: 128).4 As Balibar notes, we can thus argue there is a pro­found polit­ical sig­ni­fic­ance in the dif­fer­ence between Spinoza’s and other philosophies.

Part 2 »

Show 4 foot­notes

  1. ‘Until the pub­lic­a­tion of Jacobi’s Briefe über die Lehre von Spinoza in 1785, Spinoza was a no­torious figure in Germany. For more than a cen­tury the aca­demic and ec­cle­si­ast­ical es­tab­lish­ment had treated him “like a dead dog” as Lessing later put it. The Ethica was pub­lished in Germany in 1677, and the Tractatus Theologico-​Politicus in 1670 (though it ap­peared anonym­ously, Spinoza was known to be the au­thor). Until the middle of the eight­eenth cen­tury it was de ri­gueur for every pro­fessor and cleric to prove his or­tho­doxy be­fore taking of­fice; and proving one’s or­tho­doxy de­manded de­noun­cing Spinoza as a heretic. Since at­tacks on Spinoza be­came a vir­tual ritual, there was an abund­ance of de­fam­atory and po­lem­ical tracts against him. Indeed, by 1710 so many pro­fessors and clerics had at­tacked Spinoza that there was a Catalogus scrip­torium Anti-​spinozanorum in Leipzig. And in 1759 Trinius counted, prob­ably too mod­estly, 129 en­emies of Spinoza in his Freydenkerlexicon. Such was Spinoza’s repu­ta­tion that he was often iden­ti­fied with Satan him­self. Spinoza was seen as not only one form of atheism, but as the worst form. Thus Spinoza was dubbed the “Euclides athe­ist­icus,” the “prin­ceps atheorum” (Beiser 1987: 48).
  2. We should not forget the very ‘in­timate’ and non-​philosophical ex­per­i­ence of Spinoza, which also sets him apart from most other philo­sophers: ‘He is a philo­sopher who com­mands an ex­traordinary con­cep­tual ap­par­atus, one that is highly de­veloped, sys­tem­atic, and schol­arly; and yet he is the quint­es­sen­tial ob­ject of an im­me­diate, un­pre­pared en­counter, such that a non-​philosopher, or even someone without any formal edu­ca­tion, can re­ceive a sudden il­lu­min­a­tion from him, a “flash”. Then it is as if one dis­covers that one is a Spinozist; one ar­rives in the middle of Spinoza, one is sucked up, drawn into the system or the com­pos­i­tion. (…) What is unique about Spinoza is that he, the most philo­sophic of philo­sophers (…) teaches the philo­sopher how to be­come a non-​philosopher’ (Deleuze 1998: 129).
  3. We should not forget here that Spinoza has also served as a ‘neg­ative’ foil for a number of con­tem­porary philo­sophers, chiefly, and not sur­pris­ingly, among those faithful to some as­pect of crit­ical theory and dia­lect­ical, if not straight­for­wardly Hegelian, thought: Horkheimer and Adorno, in their Dialectic of Enlightenment, for whom conatus as self-​preservation is a key figure in the rav­ages and bar­bar­isms is­suing from a ra­tion­alist and in­stru­ment­alist West, a key to Western in­stru­ment­alism; or Slavoj Žižek who, in Tarrying with the Negative, por­trays the full pos­itive im­man­ence of Spinoza’s on­to­logy as iso­morphic with the ‘logic of late cap­it­alism’. We could also con­sider the whole tra­di­tion, present in the Anglo-​American set­ting, of con­sid­ering Spinoza as a lib­eral or con­ser­vative thinker.
  4. Politically, this struggle against the neg­ative is also, as Negri and Deleuze painstak­ingly demon­strate, a struggle against the One, against the ‘mon­arch­ical’ prin­ciple in philo­sophy (dom­in­a­tion of the one over the mul­tiple versus power of the one in and as the mul­tiple), even prior to the de­nun­ci­ation of the ima­ginary char­acter of mon­archy in politics.

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