Fantastic Materialism

By Sarah Hamblin

Andy Merrifield. Magical Marxism: Subversive Politics and the Imagination. London: Pluto, 2011. 220 pp.

Andy Merrifield’s Magical Marxism arises from what he describes as “a double dissatisfaction”: an obvious dissatisfaction with the state of contemporary society and a more delicate frustration with the revolutionary potential of actually existing Marxism (xii). Discontent with the resolute negativity of traditional Marxism, Magical Marxism instead proposes an alternate vision that leaves behind some of Marxism’s most well-worn notions in favor of an affirmative utopianism that uses the imagination as the foundation from which to begin the act of living “post-capitalistically” (73). As such, the book is in conversation with other recent attempts to reinvigorate Marxism, most of which have been published as part of Verso’s Communist Hypothesis series. Merrifield’s contribution to these debates centers on the affirmative politics of living differently. Thus, alongside its critique of traditional Marxism and its theorization of a new international – one inspired by magic and surrealism and which sees Gabriel Garcia Márquez and Guy Debord as its guiding thinkers – Magical Marxism surveys existent models of alternate living that challenge both capitalist hegemony and certain tenants of traditional Marxist thought.

At the core of the book is Merrifield’s attempt to reconnect critique and praxis, a link that has been lost as Marxism becomes an increasingly and exclusively negative practice. For Merrifield, this emphasis on negativity is, in part, the legacy of Marxism’s adherence to dialectical thought, where the positive can only ever be “an outcome, not a starting point” (111). Moreover, it is reinforced through basic Marxist concepts – the idea that the proletariat is the class proper to revolution, the theory of fetishism, and the tension between appearance and essence – all of which stem from the belief that there is a truth of material conditions that only (scientific) Marxist analysis can uncover through political critique. As a result, Merrifield maintains, Marxism has become obsessed with capitalism’s contradictions and crises, with its “darker, negative side” (112) and its mission has become simply to “monitor a failing global system, to soberly and coolly analyze capitalist machinations, to revel in clinical critical negativity (146). “Historically,” Merrifield argues, “negative thinking has been a collective prison-house and individual straightjacket” (110) that has resulted in a “gutless and worthless” Marxism, one “without a future, without hope, without hope of inspiring hope, without any discernible characteristics to pass on to anyone” (146).

Turning away from the canon of traditional Marxist concepts and the stultified negative Marxism inspired by them, Merrifield posits instead an “ontology of action,” a positive subversion that affirms utopian desire and attempts to bring it into being through the act of living differently (119). The source for this desire is the poetic imagination, which enables us to imagine radically new worlds and non-traditional ways of being that can then materialize. “Never, perhaps, have we lived in such unpoetic times” (162), laments Merrifield, and it is essential that we reconnect with our creative, utopian spirit if we are to transform the world. For Magical Marxists, poetry “becomes something ontological […], a state of Being- and Becoming-in-the-world, the invention of life and the shrugging off of tyrannical forces that are wielded over that life. Poetic lives destabilize accepted notions of order and respectability, of cool rationality and restraint” (11-12). Channeling André Breton and the surrealists of the early twentieth century, Merrifield champions their poetic power of “absolute nonconformity and marvelous unreality” as the source of new ways of being (12).  Tracing this thinking back to the Grundrisse, Merrifield maintains that this magical imagination is “something more than idealism, something more than simple wishful thinking and naïve optimism” (143).  Rather, it is a powerful material force where “‘real materialism” is conditioned by “the will (and hope) of ‘fictitious’ idealism” (16), it “drag[s] present reality along with it, […] leaping across the ontological gap between the here and the there, between the now and the time to come” to actively create the future (12). Thus the Magical Marxist project is, in the Blochian sense, conditioned by invention rather than discovery; it is a large-scale détournement of reality where “the source of creation is always reality, always somehow embedded in reality, yet a reality in which imagination is an instrument in its production and recreation” (29).

This poetic transformation of reality breaks with the traditional Marxist model of the seizure of power since “society isn’t so much overthrown as reinvented” (12). Rather than focusing on the negation of capitalism, Magical Marxism proposes affirmative invention through spontaneous subversion, or what John Holloway elsewhere calls “an anti-politics of event rather than a politics of organization”(Holloway 214). The influence of anarchism and the self-determined politics of 1968 loom large in this emphasis on anti-power. Indeed, Merrifield’s Marxism is founded on the desire for autonomy, for Lefebrvre’s notion of the autogestion of life; that is, “a spontaneous subjectivation from the standpoint of social reproduction … [where] people construct their own objective structures to life,” and where “their agency and even their wishful thinking drive them forward, compel them to act, have them strive for collective autonomy” (101). The result is a movement characterized by a revolutionary energy that “resonates” affectively and non-teleologically (74), that is adaptable, non-dogmatic, fully self-determined, “unperfect”[1] and spontaneous. Significantly

Sarah Hamblin is a PhD candidate at Michigan State University. Her research focuses on transnational art cinema, emphasizing the relationship between aesthetics, affect, and radical politics. Her publications include a forthcoming essay on Abderrahmane Sissako in Black Camera and an entry on Sissako in the African volume of the Directory of World Cinema.