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‘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). — 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.2We 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).

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.3We 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.

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).4Politically, 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. As Balibar notes, we can thus argue there is a profound political significance in the difference between Spinoza’s and other philosophies.

Part 2 >>

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