Gillian Rose and the project of a Critical Marxism

The work of Gillian Rose (1947–1995) displays a prodigious range equal to that of any British intellectual of her generation. Her output consists of eight books produced over a seventeen-year period between 1978 and her early death in 1995. The authorship falls into two distinct periods: a first phase, from 1978 to 1984, which includes The Melancholy Science: An Introduction to the Thought of Theodor W. Adorno (1978), Hegel contra Sociology (1981) and Dialectic of Nihilism (1984); and a second phase from 1990 to 1995, comprising The Broken Middle (1991), Judaism and Modernity (1993), Loveʼs Work (1995), Mourning Becomes the Law (1996) and Paradiso (1999). Rose published only one article between 1984 and 1991, ʻArchitecture to Philosophy: The Post-modern Complicityʼ. A paper important for tracing the evolution of her thought, ʻFrom Speculative to Dialectical Thinking: Hegel and Adornoʼ, although not published until 1993 (in Judaism and Modernity), was first delivered as a public lecture in 1987.

Rose Represents her oeuvre as a unified philosophical project centred around her three main texts: Hegel contra Sociology, Dialectic of Nihilism and The Broken Middle.1 However, this claim does not withstand critical examination. The exposition of speculative experience in the late works diverges markedly from the mode of presentation adopted in the ʻfirst phaseʼ of her output. In Hegel contra Sociology, Rose presents a phenomenological account of the relation between ʻsubstanceʼ (objective ethical life) and subjectivity in which the possibilities of self-transformation are predicated upon overcoming the limitations and constraints placed on society by the continued domination of bourgeois law and private property. In the late works, this ʻobjectiveʼ treatment of subjectivity is displaced by a contrary emphasis on faith, inwardness and an ethic of singularity. While this ethic continues to demand an engagement with the political, the terms of this engagement are no longer predicated upon a politics of revolutionary transformation.

This article is intended as a contribution towards the retrieval of Roseʼs original project of a Critical Marxism for contemporary social and political theory. In Hegel contra Sociology, Rose states: ʻThe critique of Marxism itself yields the project of a Critical Marxism.ʼ2 This project is to take the form of linking ʻthe presentation of the contradictory relations between Capital and cultureʼ to ʻthe analysis of the economyʼ and thereby ʻcomprehend the conditions of a revolutionary practiceʼ.3 It must be conceded that Roseʼs Marxist phraseology appears dated today. But the power and promise of Roseʼs early thought lie precisely in its capacity to comprehend the way in which Marxism has been rendered anachronistic, from a standpoint that does not admit of its historical redundancy. Rose holds to Lukácsʼs tenet that Marxism is a ʻmethodʼ of philosophizing rather than a fixed doctrine. It is guided only by the goal of achieving a fully mutual social subjectivity. Therefore each generation has to reinvent the ʻmethodʼ for itself and apply it to the conditions of its own age. To demonstrate that Roseʼs thought is relevant to our age, we must, first, establish – since this is far from self-evident from the texts – that there is a coherent Critical Marxist project contained in her first two works; and, second, we must detail how and why she abandoned it.

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