books Marxism as ‘Organized Sarcasm’
Women, children, and revolutionaries hate irony.
I. Gramsci is supposed to have claimed, in one of his recondite quips, that Marxism is ‘organised sarcasm’.
There is something terribly appealing about the idea of sarcasm, red in tooth and claw, being marshalled into the proletarian side of battle. It is ludic and yet hugely suggestive. And Gramsci certainly withered his opponents nicely when duty demanded it. What would the claim be like if it were true?
To speak of Marxism as ‘organised sarcasm’ is to say that it is a form of writing, a literary style, a mode of rhetoric. In that sense, it is quite significant that Gramsci didn’t refer to ‘irony,’ which has a much broader range of meanings. In addition to verbal irony, there can be existential or situational ironies. There can be ironic juxtaposition, but not sarcastic juxtaposition. Romantic irony, but not romantic sarcasm. There is only verbal sarcasm.
So in what sense is sarcasm being referenced by Gramsci? In Note 29 from Volume 1 of Joseph Buttigieg’s translation of The Prison Notebooks, he distinguishes Marx’s sarcasm as a ‘passionate’ or ‘positive sarcasm’. Marx wants to ‘mock not the most intimate feelings’ associated with worldly illusions ‘but their contingent form which is linked to a particular “perishable” world, their cadaverous smell, so to speak, that leaks from behind the painted façade.’ He even aims to ‘give new form to certain aspirations,’ the better to ‘regenerate’ them.
But these ‘new conceptions’ are only germinally in existence, somehow not susceptible to being expressed in ‘apodictic or sermonic form’. Thus, if Marxism is to be effective, it must create new tastes and ‘a new language’ – sarcasm is ‘the component of all these needs which may seem contradictory’.
Gramsci’s claim is that, somehow, without sarcasm these new conceptions would be utopian. Sarcasm, that is, is a language for the not-yet-fully-realised, for that which struggles to be born, against that which resists death. Indeed, it is difficult to detach sarcasm from a half-occluded utopianism; the things we are sarcastic about tend to be those that outrage our sense of what should be.
II. Somehow sarcasm is to distinguished from irony by dint of class, or quality. That is, sarcasm is ‘cheap,’ whereas irony is high art. Sarcasm attracts inexpensive qualifiers like ‘biting,’ whereas irony is usually ‘mordant’. Sarcasm would seem, in this sense, quite dull: a crude case of saying what is not, never leaving anyone in doubt as to one’s meaning. As if sarcasm is the vulgar stepchild of irony.
It would be as if Marxism essentially amounted to saying: ‘bourgeois ideals of liberty, equality and solidarity are fully commensurable with the rule of capital accumulation – not.’
You could argue with slightly more sympathy that sarcasm is the sigh of the oppressed creature. Teenagers use it to deal with the condescension of authority, lovers to manage their overwhelming hatred for one another, revolutionaries as an antidote to pervasive common sense. That would still hardly justify Gramsci’s suggestion, and indeed risks making it unattractive.
However, for Gramsci at least, the distinction between sarcasm and verbal irony is quite different. Irony, he asserts, is detached and unaffected by the world, reflecting an underlying fantasy of omnipotence which he classifies as ‘a “superman” complex’, while sarcasm is all passionate attachment. This is a break from the traditional conception of irony. Marc Antony’s graveside speech, in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, is considered a classic instance of rhetorical irony. Structured around a series of reversals, it praises one person only to bury him, and buries another only to praise him. The refrain that ‘Brutus is an honourable man’ can only strike one as poignantly and bitterly sarcastic, since the remainder of the speech demonstrates exactly how dishonourable Brutus is. Antony’s speech, driven by rage at the assassination and post-mortem traducing of Caesar, is both elegiac and caustic. He is attached to the dead: his ‘heart is in the coffin there with Caesar’.
It is also unusual to link sarcasm to passionate attachment. In a conventional view, sarcasm withers, it is dry, it affects no affect. This is the form of sarcasm which Gramsci classifies, for no particularly good reason, as ‘right-wing sarcasm’. But Gramsci is on to something important. Only I would add that, in fact, all sarcasm is passionate about something, whether or not it seems to be.
Indeed, a lot of what sarcasm seems to be about is obscuring attachment. Sarcastic statements are structured around the dist- inction between ‘use’ and ‘mention’. If asked, ‘Did you come by car?’ I reply, ‘No, I took a flying leap through an inter-dimensional gate with Interpol hot on my tail,’ I can be said to be ‘mentioning’ this last claim as an example of an absurd alternative to arriving by car. I certainly don’t ‘mean’ it, and it is not to be taken seriously.
The use of sarcasm, however, raises the question: why not just say exactly what you mean in a literal way? Why should ambiguity be essential to any statement where the intended meaning is not itself ambiguous? Why should I need both a literal and non-literal form of expression, in stark contradiction, and what is so funny about it? Why take such a circuitous route? In this case, the obvious answer might be: to express aggression, contempt. Of course I came by car, the words seem to imply, and only an idiot would need to ask. Still, being sarcastic implies that it wasn’t enough just to say so.
III. The use of sarcasm seems to court momentary confusion, an interval of doubt, an instant in which the listener is puzzled, before grasping the meaning being conveyed. Part of the pleasure of sarcasm for the bystander, then, could be in solving the puzzle. This perhaps derives from a conformist impulse, insofar as getting what everyone is talking about not only assures us of our adequacy, but is also a way of ensuring one’s place in the symbolic order. If in our formative years we don’t get what our parents are on about, we won’t divine what they desire from and for us, and thus we can’t be sure they’ll love us and care for us. We need to get what our begetters get, so that they can get us, and only then can we get somewhere.
What if someone didn’t understand sarcasm? If I tell you my tale about inter-dimensional travel, you might wonder about how an adult feels so comfortable with such childish fantasies. Or, if you weren’t too bothered about ideas of maturity, you might want to explore the logic of the statement: ‘That sounds like a fabulous way to travel, but it also makes it sound as though you’re a super-powerful alien on the wrong side of the law. Do you feel that way?’ Or you might want to pursue the sexual connotations of ‘hot on my tail’. This is hard work for ordinary conversation, but it does have the pay-off of taking sarcasm seriously, of treating it as if it were a surprising and enigmatic communication. As if I had opened my mouth and someone else had spoken in a strange, cryptic language. Suddenly what seemed meaningless and trite turns out to be fecund with signification.
Frank Stringfellow’s study of Psychoanalysis and Irony suggests that we have to treat all the layers of an ironic statement as meaningful. ‘It is not possible for a person to say something that she does not (in some sense) mean … All possible levels of an ironic statement have at least psychological meaning.’ In the sense that the semantic levels of irony deal in contradictory meanings, sarcasm can be seen as a sort of compromise between them. But they all carry a meaningful freight, and the whimsical, inventive and playful aspects of sarcasm deserve to be taken seriously.
We could illustrate how this works by looking at an example of titular sarcasm. Christopher Hitchens’s most famous book is undoubtedly his anti-theistic philippic, God is Not Great. The sarcasm of the title involves a play on ‘Allahu Akbar,’ or ‘God is Great’. It references or ‘mentions’ the slogan only to negate it. Were it not for the adolescent tone it would have conveyed, the title could have been phrased, ‘God is Great – Not!’ Yet, anyone reading the text and considering the range of worldly phenomena for which Hitchens blamed God would be forgiven for thinking that the title was sarcastic in a different and more opaque way. Freud’s 1925 essay on ‘Negation’ suggests that there are good grounds to be sceptical of this ‘Not’:
The manner in which our patients bring forward their associations during the work of analysis gives us an opportunity for making some interesting observations. … ‘You ask who this person in the dream can be. It’s not my mother.’ We emend this to: ‘So it is his mother.’ … Thus the content of a repressed image or idea can make its way into consciousness, on condition that it is negated.
In a sense, Freud is choosing not to ‘get’ what his patients ‘mean’, because there is something that they are saying which exceeds their meaning. Strategically, then, it is useful for analysts to start from the assumption that every thought that is negated is of unconscious origin, and should be affirmed. The playful, ‘winging’ element of sarcasm is not just a mode of attack but a way of dreaming, a means of articulating a wish. If sarcasm is impossible to detach from anger, it is also knotted with longing. It is the permissible articulation of a private religion, an ideal that one cannot acknowledge in any other way, a personal utopia that can never be arrived at.
IV. In certain psychoanalytic theories, sarcasm is treated as a manifestation of unconscious cannibalism, oral aggression (‘biting remarks’) signalling a desire to consume a disappointing object. Since, according to Freud, unconscious cannibalism is a prototype of identification, in which the object of one’s libidinal interest is internalised, it is not at all clear why a disappointing object should be the preferred meal. Still, the etymological origin of sarcasm in the tearing of flesh – literally, ‘to strip off the flesh’ – suggests that there is something to this.
Such theories are often imbricated with a stageist theory of human psychological development – sarcasm as a primitive, pre- genital form of libido expression. In one sense this flattens sarcasm, reducing it to a form of infantile expression that makes it seem less interesting, but it has the advantage of allowing the possibility of a combined sexual-aggressive aspect of sarcasm. Consider a case of gallows humour. Freud cites the prisoner who, on the way to the noose one Monday morning, sighs and says ‘Well, the week’s beginning nicely.’ It would be odd to see this as purely a bitter reproach to his killers. There is also pathos involved, and a degree of self-ridicule. The week perhaps is beginning nicely; it just isn’t going to make any difference one way or another for the hanged. But another way to see it would be to say that, unconsciously, he is rather glad to be done with life. He has found a way, through sarcasm, of enjoying his own imminent mortality.
This points to the masochistic side of sarcasm. If a sarcastic thought expresses a real unconscious wish, the ‘not’ of sarcasm is an operation of critical judgment. The negation of our wishes involves, Stringfellow argues, a degree of self-punishment. If I am asked to perform a seemingly impossible task, I might sarcastically reply, ‘Absolutely, for – beneath this unassuming exterior, behold – I am Superman.’ One could thus infer from this that I have expressed my unconscious fantasies of omnipotence, while also reminding myself and my interlocutor of my very obvious limits (and of the fact that I am not in the least unassuming).
Paradoxically, sarcasm allows me to get away with something, while also punishing me for it. It is a cover story that also betrays me. In sarcasm, that is, it is often ourselves we find somehow both disappointing and erotic. We auto-cannibalise; we eat ourselves.
V. The technical name we give to behaviour which simultaneously punishes others and ourselves is sado-masochism. This raises the question of what use sarcasm is to Marxism – which in a sense exists to inaugurate the alternative to sado-masochistic ways of being.
Recall that, according to Gramsci, the ‘positive’ element of Marx’s sarcasm adheres to the ‘human’. To clarify what was meant by the ‘human,’ Gramsci referred to Marx and Engels’s 1845 pamphlet, The Holy Family. Through this vitriolic critique of the hugely fashionable Young Hegelians, one can trace some of the origins of Marxism to the critique of the critique of religion. It opens with a sarcastic tribute to those against whom its claws are bared:
And therefore Criticism has so loved the mass that it sent its only begotten son, that all who believe in him may not be lost, but may have Critical life. Criticism was made mass and dwells amongst us and we behold its glory, the glory of the only begotten son of the father.
The sarcasm seems to suggest that these young materialists, in their seemingly radical critique of Christianity, had produced only a farcical secular religion. And this was, the thrust of the critique: that the Young Hegelians’ teleology reversed the order of determination such that ‘man exists so that history may exist, and history exists so that the proof of truth exists’. In other words, the Young Hegelians replaced Christianity with a spiritual fable in which the struggle of ‘the mass’ of people to go on existing was just a prop to sustain the existence of a ‘metaphysical subject’ that they called ‘history’.
Of course, Marx and Engels famously proposed a rather different understanding of history, in which its motor was the struggle between contending classes, and the agent of its culmination the proletariat. This has been the pivot of one of the now shop-worn critiques of Marxism: that it is critical of religion but offers in its placed a secularised version of the same.
One of Freud’s few reflections on Marxism, published in the New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, described it as a Weltanschauung – world-view – comparable to religion, an intellectual construction that through its totalising work resolved all problems in a uniform way, thus leaving no questions open. This looks, on the face of it, like a relatively banal statement of what became a Cold War orthodoxy. The unique contribution of Freud, as Samo Tomšič points out in The Capitalist Unconscious, was to link the world-view to unconscious desire. In this sense, the creation of a world-view is akin to the narrativising and totalising labours of dream-work which, through displacement and metaphor, creates such a ‘reality’ as will sustain satisfaction. Behind every world-view lies a dispositif of satisfaction. In this sense, a world-view is a bit like a fairy tale (which is to say, we should take fairy tales seriously).
This, of course, might be fair of what became the state religion of ‘Marxism-Leninism’ became, but as an account of the conceptual operations of Marxism it leaves something to be desired. It is not as if Marxism’s relationship to totality and the once-upon-a-time of narrative are not vexed. Lacan, in Seminar XX, perhaps came close to the mark in suggesting that Marxism had more of the formal structure of a gospel, being
the announcement that history is instating another dimension of discourse and opening up the possibility of completely subverting the function of discourse as such, and of philosophical discourse strictly speaking.
In that sense, Marxism is something of a saboteur of fairy tales, including the fairy tale of the present.
VI. And yet, one could even posit a structural affinity between sarcasm and what in the English context is pejoratively labelled ‘religious enthusiasm’. We have already said that sarcasm, though in one sense representing a stylised form of detachment, is prodigiously laden with passionate attachments that it disowns. The extravagant exaggerations and inventions to which sarcasm lends itself, and which is so evident in the withering description of the Young Hegelians, would in another context look like gleeful childish fantasy. In the same way, the Swiftian satire, deprived of its ironic context, would look like a fairy tale replete with the very enthusiasm that is disowned by its Anglican author. One could say that the purpose of sarcasm is to simultaneously articulate and repress a form of fanatical desire.
Perhaps is telling that beyond the ‘critique of the critique’ of religion Marx showed remarkably little interest in popping religious illusions. Marx understands religion as a form of dream-work, a work of transformation on reality to make it more conformable to one’s desire. His famous ‘opiate of the masses’ formulation, commonly misunderstood as a straightforward credendum of atheist disillusionment, is profoundly sympathetic to the need for illusion. The critique should examine, not the illusion, but the desire that illusion is called into being to satisfy, the lack that it conceals.
The form of sarcasm in the ‘critique of the critique,’ however, allows us to relate it to what we might call the Marxist unconscious. One is struck, reading The Holy Family, by the investment in the verbal form of messianic religion itself. If the format of religion is ‘mentioned’, as indeed it repeatedly is in a parodic and sarcastic form, one could infer that it is also unconsciously enjoyed.  The German Ideology, published the following year, is scathing about the ‘prophets’ and ‘prophesies’ of pious, moralistic socialism. ‘Communists,’ Marx scoffs, ‘do not preach morality at all’. ‘No moral preaching avails’ against the resistant material conditions of life in which are convoked the dilemmas of the oppressed and exploited. Of course, sardonic asides in the text constantly assert the evaluative criteria of moral judgment, even if these criteria have nothing to do with spiritual character. One is surely entitled to delete the ‘not’ and the ‘no’ in Marx’s text, according to Freud’s rule.
It is, of course, a commonplace that – voila! – behind Marx’s belligerent anti-moralism there lurks a secret morality. What one wants to suggest instead is that the ‘positive’ or ‘passionate’ sarcasm that Gramsci characterised as distinctive to the Marxist method, is a sublimation of prophetic desire. Prophetic desire in religious idiom is a desire to be possessed by the Holy Ghost and inscribed with the Word of God. It is to let omnipotence loose through the preaching of the Word, changing the face of the earth permanently and eternally. In the parodic appropriations of religious eschatology, even visible in the totally supererogatory outbursts of Capital – ‘This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds’ – Marxist sarcasm both acknowledges and repudiates this desire. And perhaps, say Hardt and Negri following Spinoza, ‘we should recognise prophetic desire as irresistible, and all the more powerful when it becomes identified with the multitude’.
However irresistible, it is of course resisted. If the form of prophesy is invoked, it is also to tacitly admit that we cannot be prophets. There is no Word of God to which we, mere flesh, could or should be subjected. And so we must analyse our situation with ruthless scorn, not sentimental illusions. We yearn for salvation, rapture, but we must not yearn so. We are down here among the garbage, and it is out of our rubble, the conditions of our existence, that we have to fashion new embodiments of these old aspirations.
Sarcasm, in this sense, is both this-worldly and other-worldly, both secular and divine, disillusioned and devoted. Organised sarcasm is yearning, bitter disappointment and still more yearning raised to the level of praxis.
1. This claim appears in Gramsci scholar Andrew Pearmain’s, The Politics of New Labour
2. One could add to this that, even if the former mentor, Bruno Bauer, can only now be recognised as a ‘saint’ in sarcastic terms, that is still a recognition of the religious esteem in which Marx and Engels had held him.
[Richard Seymour is a London-based writer, broadcaster and socialist. Author of The Liberal Defense of Murder (2008), Unhitched: The Trial of Christopher Hitchens (2012), Against Austerity (2014), and Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics (2016) and a contributing editor to Salvage, he also writes for The Guardian, the London Review of Books, Jacobin, and many other publications. He currently presents a program,‘Media Review’, for TeleSur, having previously appeared on BBC, Al Jazeera and C-Span, and teaches at the London School of Economics.]