What Is To Be Dreamed? On the Uncommon Saying: That May be Correct in Practice, But It Is of No Use in Theory


For a long time now, philosophers have been in search of a unity or fusion between theory and practice. From Immanuel Kant's late reflections in "On the Common Saying: That May Be Correct in Theory but It Is of No Use in Practice," inspired by the frequent assertion (made by critics and enthusiasts alike) that the French Revolution was caused by the "empty ideals and philosophic dreams" of Rousseauist metaphysics, to Louis Althusser's coinage of the phrase "theoretical practice" as a way of closing the gap between the two, we might even argue that this search defines the essence of modern philosophy as such, in that it bespeaks an intimate longing from which the act of philosophizing cannot be separated. But the presence of such a longing is not limited to philosophical activity alone.

Communism is humanity’s memory of what has not yet happened. In this way it resembles a dream—you never know when the idyll might turn into a nightmare.

—Oxana Timofeeva, “Unconscious Desire for Communism”

The imminent awakening is poised, like the wooden horse of the Greeks, in the Troy of dreams.

—Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project

This stomach is like some monstrous Trojan horse that provides the foundations for the fantasy of a totality-knowledge. It is, however, clear that its function entails that something comes and strikes it from without, otherwise nothing will ever emerge from it. And Troy will never be taken.

—Jacques Lacan, The Other Side of Psychoanalysis

 Theory and Practice Revisited

For a long time now philosophers have been in search of a unity or fusion between theory and practice. From Immanuel Kant’s late reflections in “On the Common Saying: That May Be Correct in Theory but It Is of No Use in Practice,” inspired by the frequent assertion (made by critics and enthusiasts alike) that the French Revolution was caused by the “empty ideals and philosophic dreams” of Rousseauist metaphysics, to Louis Althusser’s coinage of the phrase “theoretical practice” as a way of closing the gap between the two, we might even argue that this search defines the essence of modern philosophy as such, in that it bespeaks an intimate longing from which the act of philosophizing cannot be separated. But the presence of such a longing is not limited to philosophical activity alone. The same is true of other activities as well. Kant himself refers briefly to the medical or physical theories deployed, however minimally or unsystematically, by doctors, artillerists or engineers as they go about their daily business; and, in the realm of moral judgments or ethical decisions, when a theory is based on the concept of duty, which is the only realm Kant concerns himself with in this text, he insists on the inevitability of taking into account the effects of theory on practical experience: “For it would not be a duty to aim at a certain effect of our will if this effect were not also possible in experience (whether it be thought as completed or as always approaching completion)” (Kant 277). Completed or caught in the endlessness of an asymptotic approach, this also goes to show that the longing in question is not only for theory to turn into practice but also for practice to recognize its own theoretical implications. A young Karl Marx already recognized this as one of the goals of his critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: “It is not enough that thought should seek to realise itself; reality must also strive towards thought” (Marx 252).

Likewise, when Althusser speaks in terms of la pratique théorique in his canonical works from 1965 that include the essays in For Marx and the collective project of Reading Capital, his goal is at least twofold: on one hand, he is seeking to inscribe theory within a larger set of social practices, including but not limited to political practice, scientific practice, economic practice, and artistic practice; but, on the other hand, to see theory as a form of practice also means to extricate the notion of theory itself from the age-old dialectic between theory and practice. One year later, in 1966, Michel Foucault would make the same point that all thought, from the beginning, is already an act: “As soon as it functions it offends or reconciles, attracts or repels, breaks, dissociates, unites or reunites; it cannot help but liberate and enslave. Even before prescribing, suggesting a future, saying what must be done, even before exhorting or merely sounding an alarm, thought, at the level of its existence, in its very dawning, is in itself an action—a perilous act” (Foucault 413). Conversely, when soon thereafter the Mexican intellectual José Revueltas speaks about the events of 1968, in an open letter to comrades in France, in terms of their constituting an acto teórico, he is alluding to the fact that political movements such as the student-popular uprisings of that year, in France and in Mexico at the same time, represent a major leap forward in the theoretical understanding of struggles against the modern State: “The movement of 1968 was essentially a theoretical act, a theoretical action. What does this mean that is so important? Above all, the point is not to devalue theory by subordinating it to the blind activism and practicism that are devoid of any content; nor to affirm that theory happens in the streets—as some contend—born from the rabble” (Revueltas 149). In short, not only is theory one practice among others, but immanent to all innovative practice there are always elements of theory. This much in fact should have been evident already from Kant’s definition of the two terms, a definition in which no theory escapes being overdetermined by a multitude of concrete conditions and all practice depends on the observance of general principles of thought: “A sum of rules, even of practical rules, is called theory if those rules are thought as principles having a certain generality, so that abstraction is made from a multitude of conditions that yet have a necessary influence on their application. Conversely, not every doing is called practice, but only that effecting of an end which is thought as the observance of certain principles of procedure represented in their generality” (Kant 275).

And yet, whether we are talking about the derivation of the right practice from the correct theory, about the concrete application of an abstract idea, about the practical aspect of all theory, or even about the presence of theoretical acts immanent to the political struggles at hand, all such formulations in more recent years also have come under heavy attack for allegedly following an all-too-familiar metaphysical pattern in which the real is only the realization of the ideal and the measuring stick for evaluating an ideal is only ever its capacity of becoming real. “This, then, is the argument: in the answers that they have traditionally brought to bear on the ‘special’ question ‘What is to be done?’ philosophers have relied, in one way or another, on some standard-setting first whose grounding function was assured by a ‘general’ doctrine, be it called ontology or something else. From this doctrine, theories of action received their patterns of thought as well as a great many of their answers,” Reiner Schürmann argues on the opening page of his book Le Principe d’anarchie (translated into English as Heidegger on Being and Acting: From Principles to Anarchy). But today, in the era of the supposed closure of metaphysics, all such derivations of practice from a theoretical foundation must be dismantled, interrupted, and thrown out of gear: “Now, the deconstruction of metaphysics situates historically what has been deemed to be a foundation. It thus closes the era of derivations between general and special metaphysics, between first philosophy and practical philosophy” (Schürmann, Heidegger on Being 1; Heidegger: Cahier de l’Herne 354-68). Far from relying on either the ideal of a possible fusion between theory and practice or the ethico-political derivation of one from the other, philosophy according to this line of reasoning would be better off by assuming not only the unpredictability of its ulterior effects on the real but also the impossibility of fully mastering the prior presuppositions that effectively condition the work of philosophy in the first place. Making this assumption, then, requires maintaining an incalculable gap between theory and practice, without for this reason falling back on the old scheme of the delay of speculative reason with regard to the events of effective history, on the model of the owl of Minerva taking flight only at dusk in the eyes of Hegel.

In what follows, however, far from pretending to exhaust the full range of philosophical arguments in favor or against the unity of theory and practice, I propose to read the fate of this problematic more specifically by tracing its genealogy through the different uses and invocations of a single dream-like image borrowed from the young Marx. Indeed, I would venture to say that in the variegated reception of Marx’s generic image of “the dream of something” (Il sogno di una cosa, as Pier Paolo Pasolini would also choose as the title of a semi-autobiographical novel, written between 1949-1950 but published only in 1962, which bears witness to his youthful experience among poor peasants in the Italian region of Friuli), we can find encapsulated a succinct history of the hopes and deceptions, but also the victories and crises of twentieth-century thought in its tense relation to the Left.

Just Dreaming

In a letter to Arnold Ruge for the Deutsch-Französiche Jahrbücher (Franco-German Yearbooks) signed in Kreuznach in the month of September 1843, Marx defines the task before him and his collaborators—the Young Left Hegelians from whom he is about to separate himself upon his arrival in Paris where he will discover the revolutionary role of the proletariat—by declaring himself to be openly antidogmatic. “Not only has universal anarchy broken out among the reformers but also every individual must admit to himself that he has no precise idea about what ought to happen. However, this very defect turns to the advantage of the new movement, for it means that we do not anticipate the world with our dogmas but instead attempt to discover the new world through the critique of the old,” Marx tells Ruge. “This does not mean that we shall confront the world with new doctrinaire principles and proclaim: Here is the truth, on your knees before it! It means that we shall develop for the world new principles from the existing principles of the world. We shall not say: Abandon your struggles, they are mere folly; let us provide you with the true campaign-slogans. Instead we shall simply show the world why it is struggling, and consciousness of this is a thing it must acquire whether it wishes or not.” Marx subsequently develops the image of the ideological slumber from which humankind must be awakened so that it may gain consciousness of that which so far has been only a dream. “The reform of consciousness consists entirely in making the world aware of its own consciousness, in arousing it from its dream of itself, in explaining its own actions to it,” he adds. “Our programme must be: the reform of consciousness not through dogmas but by analysing mystical consciousness obscure to itself, whether it appears in religious or political form. It will then become plain that the world has long since dreamed of something of which it needs only to become conscious for it to possess it in reality” (Marx, “Letters” 207-09).

Georg Lukács, in that classic of so-called Western Marxism which is History and Class Consciousness, first published in 1923, on two occasions reprises the passage from Marx’s letter to Ruge, as would Guy Debord almost half a century later in The Society of the Spectacle, this time in a typical situationist détournement, without marking the passage as a quote from Marx.

For Lukács, the image of the dream is meant above all to translate the fact that consciousness, far from having to be imported from the outside, is active within any given situation. Revolutionary consciousness, especially, works flush with the real. “Only when consciousness stands in such a relation to reality can theory and practice be united,” Lukács claims in his essay “What Is Orthodox Marxism?” included in History and Class Consciousness, right after having cited the fragment about the dream and its consciousness from Marx’s letter to Ruge. Lukács goes on to develop the image with a long explanatory paraphrase:

[...] the emergence of consciousness must become the decisive step  which the historical process must take towards its proper end (an end constituted by the wills of men, but neither dependent on human whim, nor the product of human invention). The historical function of theory is to make this step a practical possibility. Only when a historical situation has arisen in which a class must understand society if it is to assert itself; only when the fact that a class understands itself means that it understands society as a whole and when, in consequence, the class becomes both the subject and the object of knowledge; in short, only when these conditions are all satisfied will the unity of theory and practice, the precondition of the revolutionary function of the theory, become possible. (3)1

Later on, in the essay “Class Consciousness,” Lukács quotes other parts of the third of Marx’s letters to Ruge so as to make the same point and underscore the importance of this correspondence as a whole. “As early as the Correspondence of 1843 [with Ruge] he conceives of consciousness as immanent in history. Consciousness does not lie outside the real process of history. It does not have to be introduced into the world by philosophers; therefore to gaze down arrogantly upon the petty struggles of the world and to despise them is indefensible,” Lukács explains, all the while insisting that this concept of consciousness immanent to the real, which he detects in Marx’s image of the dream, at the same time should be seen as a polemical settling of accounts not only with Hegel and the Young Hegelians but also with utopian communists. ”This provides us with the philosophical foundation we need to settle accounts with the utopians. For their thought contains this very duality of social process and the consciousness of it. Consciousness approaches society from another world and leads it from the false path it has followed back to the right one. The utopians are prevented by the undeveloped nature of the proletarian movement from seeing the true bearer of historical movement in history itself, in the way the proletariat organises itself as a class and, hence, in the class consciousness of the proletariat” (77-78).

When the young Marx proposed, the “reform of consciousness” he anticipated the essence of his later activity. His doctrine is not utopian, because it builds on a process which is actually taking place. It does not contemplate realising “ideals” but merely wishes to uncover the inherent meaning of the process. At the same time it must go beyond what is merely given and must focus the consciousness of the proletariat on what is essential and not merely ephemerally the case. This liberation takes the form at first of actual rebellions against the most oppressive manifestations of the capitalist economy and the capitalist state. These isolated battles which never bring final victory even when they are successful can only become truly revolutionary when the proletariat becomes conscious of what connects these battles to each other and to the process that leads ineluctably to the demise of capitalism. (258-59)

Largely under the influence of his in-depth study of Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness, Guy Debord, too, repeats the image of the dream from Marx in The Society of the Spectacle, his 1967 treatise which often has been presented, and rightly so, as the key text to understand the critical theory behind the events of May 1968 and which even in the new edition of 1992 had no need of being modified, according to a statement from its author who obviously never gave in to the imperative of modesty: ”A critical theory of the kind presented here needed no changing not as long, at any rate, as the general conditions of the long historical period that it was the first to describe accurately were still intact.” After quoting History and Class Consciousness as an epigraph to the second part of his text, titled “The Commodity as Spectacle,” Debord also seems to be alluding to Lukács when, later on, he repeats the Marxist thesis of the immanence of consciousness in the real. ”What Marx did was to demolish Hegel’s separated stance with respect to what occurs, along with the contemplation of a supreme external agent of whatever kind. Theory thenceforward had nothing to know beyond what it itself did,” Debord postulates. And then, after an abridged history of the different forms of organization and their deformation, from the Second International to Stalinism and fascism, he proposes that only the form of worker councils may still permit the realization of Marx’s dream: “And it is here too that the proletarian subject can emerge from the struggle against a purely contemplative role, for consciousness is now equal to the practical organization that it has chosen for itself, and it has become inseparable from a coherent intervention in history” (theses 80 and 116; translation modified). Among other things, such an intervention should also overthrow the spectacular time of the commodity, the time of incessant consumption and production with their pseudo-cyclical units of vacations and augmented survival. “In contrast to the passing fashions that clash and fuse on the frivolous surface of a contemplated pseudocyclical time, the grand style of our era can ever be recognized in whatever is governed by the obvious yet carefully concealed necessity for revolution,” affirms Debord, just before he diverts once more the image of Marx’s third letter to Ruge: “The world already has the dream of a such a time; it has yet to come into possession of the consciousness that will allow it to experience its reality” (theses 162 and 164).2

The Now of Recognizability

Halfway in-between these two fairly literal invocations of Marx’s letter to Ruge by Lukács and Debord, it belongs to Walter Benjamin to have elaborated the image of the dream and its conscious awakening into a veritable methodological principle for his peculiar understanding of historical materialism.

Benjamin quotes the letter to Ruge precisely from a famous collection of Marx’s youthful writings edited by Siegfried Landshut and Jacob Peter Mayer and published in 1932 under the title Der historische Materialismus: Die Frühschriften  (Historical Materialism: The Early Writings). The other source for the development of the image of the dream and its awakening comes to Benjamin from the tradition of French surrealism, through a critical dialogue with André Breton and Louis Aragon. ”The realization of dream elements in the course of waking up is the canon of dialectics. It is paradigmatic for the thinker and binding for the historian,” writes Benjamin in section N of his Passagen-werk (The Arcades Project), titled “On the Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Progress” (464 [N 4, 4]).3 More specifically, he asks himself: “Is awakening perhaps the synthesis of dream consciousness (as thesis) and waking consciousness (as antithesis)? Then the moment of awakening would be identical with the ‘now of recognizability,’ in which things put on their true—surrealist—face” (463-64 [N 3a, 3]). This moment of truth is comparable to a surrealist “flash,” that revelation of the “time of the now” (Jetztzeit) of knowability, which arrives at the “point of rupture” of awakening and which is “dialectical to the highest degree,” serving as the main point of reference for what Benjamin calls the “dialectical image,” veritable cornerstone of his method in The Arcades Project in its entirety: “In the dialectical image, what has been within a particular epoch is always, simultaneously, ‘what has been from time immemorial.’ As such, however, it is manifest, on each occasion, only to a quite specific epoch—namely, the one in which humanity, rubbing its eyes, recognizes just this particular dream image as such. It is at this moment that the historian takes up, with regard to that image, the task of dream interpretation” (464 [N 4, 1]).4

In close proximity not only to surrealism but also, through the latter, to psychoanalysis, what is at stake for Benjamin is to look at history, as the ensemble of all that once was, with an eye for the imminence of an act that might come and break the continuum of history. As Slavoj Žižek will say many years later, in his book In Defense of Lost Causes: “The reference to psychoanalysis is here crucial and very precise: in a radical revolution, people not only ‘realize their old (emancipatory, etc.) dreams’; rather, they have to reinvent their very modes of dreaming”; and, in fact, “if we only change reality in order to realize our dreams, and do not change these dreams themselves, sooner or later we regress back to the old reality” (196). For Benjamin, likewise, the problem concerns the dialectical method. The image of the time of the now, which shows us the dialectic at standstill, reveals in history a set of perils and promises on the verge of being avoided or realized: “Still to be established is the connection between presence of mind and the “method” of dialectical materialism. It’s not just that one will always be able to detect a dialectical process in presence of mind, regarded as one of the highest forms of appropriate behavior,” observes Benjamin. ” What is even more decisive is that the dialectician cannot look on history as anything other than a constellation of dangers which he is always, as he follows its development in his thought, on the point of averting” (469-70 [N 7, 2]).

Benjamin thus shares with surrealism and psychoanalysis the respect for the shadowy part that the unconscious projects on any and all metaphysical or rationalist presupposition of consciousness—whether of the individual cogito or the collective class-consciousness. His concept of historical materialism depends precisely on the salvaging or redemption of the potential of the unthought in history. In this sense, he participates in a much vaster tendency in contemporary thought, the one that Foucault in Les mots et les choses: Une archéologie des sciences humaines will much later describe as the “doublet” of cogito and the unthought—one of the three “doubles” in the “analytic of finitude” that would mark our modernity. “What is this being, then, that shimmers and, as it were, glitters in the opening of the cogito, yet is not sovereignly given in it or by it? What, then, is the connection, the difficult link, between being and thought? What’s man’s being, and how can it be that that being, which could so easily be characterized by the fact that ‘it has thoughts’ as is possibly alone in having them, has an ineradicable and fundamental relation to the unthought?,” asks Foucault. “A form of reflection is established far removed from both Cartesianism and Kantian analysis, a form that involves, for the first time, man’s being in that dimension where thought addresses the unthought and articulates itself upon it” (325). Hence also the interest in the dreamwork: if the latter does not think, as Freud liked to say, it is because it works on the unthought.

By contrast, what separates Benjamin from someone like Aragon, and even more from Jung (Freud appearing only through second-hand quotations in the Passagen-werk), is his insistence on the dialectical moment of waking up:

Delimitation of the tendency of this project with respect to Aragon: whereas Aragon persists within the realm of dream, here the concern is to find the constellation of awakening. While in Aragon there remains an impressionistic element, namely the “mythology” (and this impressionism must be held responsible for the many vague philosophemes in his book), here it is a question of the dissolution of “mythology” into the space of history. That, of course, can happen only through the awakening of a not-yet-conscious knowledge of what has been. (458 [N 1, 9])5

Even the idea of dissolving myth into history may have been inspired by the correspondence published in the Franco-German Yearbooks. Indeed, just as the young Marx, in a letter to his father Heinrich, had written: “If the gods had earlier dwelt above the earth, so they were now made into its center,” thus too, as we already saw, he hopes to dissolve all consciousness, obscure to itself, whether political or religious, by confronting it with the current state of affairs: “Like Feuerbach’s critique of religion, our whole aim can only be to translate religious and political problems into their self-conscious human form” (The First Writings of Karl Marx, 78; Early Writings, 209).

From the Right to Dream

And yet, how should one awaken humankind from the dream of something so as to reach, without myth, the possession of the thing itself? And, above all, what is this thing or this something that humankind has always already dreamed?

Let us admit first of all, as a presupposition behind the image of the dream, that the thing in question has nothing to do with the official idea of Marxism as science of history in the objective or positivist sense: ”We know only a single science, the science of history,” Marx and Engels had written in a passage from The German Ideology which, though subsequently crossed out by the authors, is also taken up by Debord, whereas Alain Badiou, in his Theory of the Subject appears to serve up a direct reply: “Science of history? Marxism is the discourse with which the proletariat sustains itself as subject. We must never let go of this idea.”6 Against the positivist idea of a science of history limited to knowledge of objective facts, we must admit that even Marxists, whether orthodox or not, have a right to dream.

Already Lenin, in a curious passage from What Is To Be Done? takes up the defense of dreaming, albeit while hiding his true face behind a long quote from a third person. “We should dream!” exclaims Lenin. But what is this dream? In fact, he is imagining the project of a journal, not unlike Marx and Ruge’s plans for the Deutsch-Französiche Jahrbücher, which would gather the communists around a common intellectual endeavor. “This newspaper would become part of an enormous pair of smith’s bellows that would fan every spark of the class struggle and of popular indignation into a general conflagration. Around what is in itself still a very innocuous and very small, but regular and common, effort, in the full sense of the word, a regular army of tried fighters would systematically gather and receive their training,” proposes Lenin. “That is what we should dream of!” (509).7 However, almost immediately Lenin seems to give in to scruples: “We must dream!” Yes, but perhaps no: “I wrote these words and became alarmed,” Lenin adds, imagining the objections of comrades who might threaten him by saying that it is irresponsible for a Marxist to dream. “I go further,” he imagines one of them as saying. “I ask, has a Marxist any right at all to dream, knowing that according to Marx, mankind always sets itself the tasks it can solve and that tactics is a process of the growth of Party tasks which grow together with the Party?” To which Lenin in turn imagines a preemptive answer, defending at least the right to a certain way of dreaming, by way of a long quotation from Dimitri Pisarev.

“The very thought of these stern questions sends a cold shiver down my spine and makes me wish for nothing but a place to hide in,” Lenin first confesses, as if it were shame that overcame him even more so than fear. And, of course, such a link between the dream and the affect of shame should not come as a surprise. As Freud explains: “In dreams hidden impulses were stirring which stood in contradiction to what might be called the dreamer’s official ethical and aesthetic creed; the dreamer was thus ashamed of these impulses, turned away from them and refused to acknowledge them in day-time, and if during the night he could not withhold expression of some kind from them, he submitted to a ‘dream-distortion’ which made the content of the dream appear confused and senseless” (262). In the case of a confessed Marxist who, aside from ethical or aesthetic beliefs, ought above all to answer the demands of history, this sense of shame over the impulses of our dreams should be all the more overpowering. Lenin, however, tries not to give in to the pressures of censorship and distortion. “I shall try to hide behind the back of Pisarev,” he writes, before quoting the following long passage:

“There are rifts and rifts,” wrote Pisarev of the rift between dreams and reality. “My dream may run ahead of the natural march of events or may fly off at a tangent in a direction in which no natural march of events will ever proceed. In the first case my dream will not cause any harm; it may even support and augment the energy of the working men…. There is nothing in such dreams that would distort or paralyse labour-power. On the contrary, if man were completely deprived of the ability to dream in this way, if he could not from time to time run ahead and mentally conceive, in an entire and completed picture, the product to which his hands are only just beginning to lend shape, then I cannot at all imagine what stimulus there would be to induce man to undertake and complete extensive and strenuous work in the sphere of art, science, and practical endeavour…. The rift between dreams and reality causes no harm if only the person dreaming believes seriously in his dream, if he attentively observes life, compares his observations with his castles in the air, and if, generally speaking, he works conscientiously for the achievement of his fantasies. If there is some connection between dreams and life then all is well.”

Finally, Lenin feels the need to add a pessimistic assessment: “Of this kind of dreaming there is unfortunately too little in our movement. And the people most responsible for this are those who boast of their sober views, their “closeness” to the “concrete” (509-10).

The Anthropological Slumber

To the question “What Is To Be Done—With the Question ‘What Is To Be Done?’” we can thus answer by following Jacques Derrida’s example who, at this point, seems to want to repeat Lenin’s proposition: “We must dream!” (“Que faire” 45-62).8 Except that Derrida promptly has to admit that neither the question nor the way of answering the question, even by appealing to the right to dream, come out unscathed from the crisis of Marxism and the collapse of the Soviet Union, marked symbolically by the fall of the Berlin Wall.

First, Derrida recalls the brief prehistory of the question “What Is To Be Done?”: a question not just borrowed from the title of Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s novel but also anticipated by Kant, when the latter situates the project of his critical philosophy under the rubric of three fundamental questions: What can I know? What should I do? and What am I allowed to hope for? As Michel Foucault would recall in Les mots et les choses, the secret unity of this triple question, addressed respectively in Kant’s three Critiques, is linked to the privilege attributed in each of its subdivisions to the role of “man” capable of reflecting on his own limits—capable, in other words, of taking the subject as the very object of the new human sciences. Thus, an anthropological understanding of the nature of “man” is what provides the cornerstone, or, rather, the foundation, for the whole architectonics of Kant’s critical project. In this regard Foucault speaks of “a new slumber”: no longer the dogmatic slumber already combated by Hume but the anthropological slumber of “our” whole modernity, of which Kant would be the preeminent example: “This had already been formulated by Kant in his Logic, when to his traditional trilogy of questions he added an ultimate one: the three critical questions (What can I know? What must I do? What am I permitted to hope?) then found themselves referred to a fourth, and inscribed, as it were, ‘to its account’: Was ist der Mensch?” (Foucault, The Order of Things 341).

It is this anthropological slumber to which Foucault, like his contemporaries Althusser and Derrida, opposes his own theoretical antihumanism, even if for the time being it is only with the Homeric laughter worthy of a figure of thought that would be entirely still to come. Thus ends the next to last chapter of Foucault’s The Order of Things:

To all those who still wish to talk about man, about his reign or his liberation, to all those who still ask themselves questions about what man is in his essence, to all those who wish to take him as their starting-point in their attempts to reach the truth, to all those who, on the other hand, refer all knowledge back to the truths of man himself, to all those who refuse to formalize without anthropologizing, who refuse to mythologize without demystifying, who refuse to think without immediately thinking that it is man who is thinking, to all these warped and twisted forms of reflection we can answer only with a philosophical laugh—which means, to a certain extent, a silent one. (342-43)

As for the Leninist version of the question “What Is To Be Done?,” according to Derrida this too remains bogged down in the quagmire of an all-too-metaphysical and teleological tradition. Thus, when Lenin via Pisarev distinguishes the “good” way of dreaming from the one whose effects would be “paralyzing” or even “harmful,” the decisive criterion refers to a certain reality principle, which in turn offers the dreamer some guarantees only when carried by the movement of history. By contrast, when this reference to the historical reality is lacking, the dream is once again condemned as pure fantasy or irresponsible adventurism: nothing but castles in the air. Only on the condition of its possible realization, by guaranteeing the contact between fantasy and reality, would a Marxist-Leninist have the right to dream. “This is because Lenin measures the rift in terms of its ‘realization,’ that is his own word, in light of the adequate fulfillment of what he calls the contact between the dream and real life,” Derrida comments on the occasion of a public debate with Alain Minc. “The telos of this suturing adequation—which I have tried to show also closes off the philosophy or ontology of Marx—closes off the future of that which is to come. It prohibits us to think that which, in justice, supposes always an element of incalculable inadequacy, disjunction, interruption, and infinite transcendence. This disjunction is not negative, it is the very opening and chance of the future, that is to say of the relation to the other as that which and who comes” (Derrida, “Que faire” 62). Thus, it would seem that the thing whose dream humanity already possesses according to Marx’s letter to Ruge remains inscribed within a determinate horizon, which, aside from the fact that it is a fairly recent invention linked to the destiny of our modernity alone, is perhaps no longer ours. Rather, this horizon would be a thing of the past that closes off our capacity for thinking the future of what is to come. Therefore, the answer to Lenin’s question must necessarily remain suspended for Derrida: “If ‘What is to be done?’ remains a (or the) Marxist question, Derrida would, in effect, urge us to avoid answering it. The only way to be responsible with regard to the future opened up by the question is to avoid responding to it” (Walters 1157).

Must we still dream, then? Can we still dream in the way Marx or Lenin propose to do? According to Derrida, we may repeat Lenin’s proposition only if we are also capable of dissociating it from the anthropological and teleological horizon in which the answer to the question “What Is To Be Done?” remained imprisoned until now. “In the way we have inherited it, both from Kant and from Lenin, this is a modern question in a precise sense whose radicalism could not have been deployed either in the Middle Ages or in the Cartesian post-Middle Ages, in what was then called the world and which was bordered, determined, in every sense of the word, by a theological, anthropo-theological or theologico-political horizon.” Thus concludes Derrida:

But conversely, and this is the whole problem of what comes today and what makes up the acute specificity of our time, the question “What Is To Be Done?” can no longer be deployed in all its power, that is to say, without horizon, as long as a certain horizon or certain theological or onto-theological guarantees continue to provide it with a border, as is still the case in Kant and Lenin, who had or presumed to have a certain idea of man or of the revolution, of the finality, the final stage, or the final adequation, of the telos or a regulative Idea on the basis of which they raised the question “What Is To Be Done?” which then in effect became possible, but by the same token not vertiginous, not abyssal, stopped in its limits, that is to say in its horizon. (“Que faire” 52-53)

Here, in sum, is the new question that deconstruction seems to bequeath to us: Do we still have the right to dream after the crisis of Marxism? Can we still possess the dream of that something that Marx talked about, without needing for its consciousness to presuppose a teleological philosophy of history and a metaphysical ontology of the real, with the latter two presumed to have become obsolete today?

Dream Interpretation to the Rescue

It is partly with such questions in mind that Susan Buck-Morss, in Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West, picks up on the mention of the right to dream in What Is To Be Done? She, too, though, shows herself at first to be skeptical. No, she argues against Lenin’s conclusions, not everything is for the best when there is contact between the dream and real life. “Historical actualization thereby becomes the criterion for the acceptability of socialist dreaming. It seems to give proof that the dream was no mere fantasy. But in the process, history itself becomes a dreamworld. The voluntarism of the vanguard party, including the arbitrariness of its revolutionary violence, is rationalized as history striding forward. Using the masses as an instrument for realizing the dreamworld of history, the armed vanguard “submits” to a conception of time that, so long as it remains victorious, legitimates its own rule,” Buck-Morss observes. And, as if to echo the reservations felt by Derrida, who was part of the same entourage in 1990 with whom the author traveled to the USSR, she adds: “Of course, daydreams are salutary; we could not live without them. But when their logic, in compensating for the disappointments of today, becomes a ‘plan’ that locks in future meaning, time’s indeterminacy and openness is colonized, and the utopian dream becomes a reality of oppression” (67).9

In fact, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the problem seems to have become completely different. As an expert in Walter Benjamin’s work, Buck-Morss in this context cannot not be reminded of the importance of the moment of awakening. “We must wake up from the world of our parents,” she quotes from Benjamin’s Passagen-werk, before concluding with an even more disquieting question: “But what can be demanded of a new generation, if its parents never dream at all?” (Buck-Morss, Dreamwork and Catastrophe 209). True, just as “capitalism was a natural phenomenon with which a new dream sleep fell over Europe, and with it a reactivation of mythic powers,” as Benjamin had written, so too “the Soviet phantasmagorias of production generated their own ‘dream sleep,’ this time falling over the Revolution itself” (208). But, for Buck-Morss, writing from the belly of the monster at the very moment of the collapse of the Soviet Union, it will not suffice to criticize communism by contrasting it with the good utopia of democracy after the catastrophe of totalitarianism: “The gap between the utopian promise believed in by children and the dystopian actuality that they experience as adults can indeed generate a force for collective awakening. This is the moment of disenchantment—of recognizing the dream as dream. But a political awakening demands more. It requires the rescue of the collective desires to which the socialist dream gave expression, before they sink into the unconscious as forgotten. This rescue is the task of the dream’s interpretation” (Buck-Morss, Dreamwork and Catastrophe 209).

What has happened since then that might explain why this rescue operation has been abandoned? Why has the sense of shame once more taken over from the interpretation of dreams? Why do so many of our contemporary interpreters hide their faces and avert their eyes, refusing to see the collective desires expressed in the dream of something that humankind has always possessed? To be more precise, why can shame no longer serve as a point of departure for the dream of a collective transformation of society as a whole? After all, for Marx, shame could be the carrier of a genuine revolutionary promise. Speaking of how Prussia has shown its true despotic side, Marx in his first letter to Ruge had written: “This too is a revelation, albeit a negative one. It is a truth which at the very least teaches us to see the hollowness of our patriotism, the perverted nature of our state and to hide our faces in shame,” but immediately this causes Marx preemptively to address Ruge’s skepticism: “I can see you smile and say: what good will that do? Revolutions are not made by shame. And my answer is that shame is a revolution in itself…. And if a whole nation were to feel ashamed it would be like a lion recoiling in order to spring” (Early Writings 199-200). In stark contrast, if we consider the revolutionary cycle of the short twentieth century that goes from 1917 to 1968 and its aftermath, it turns out that at least for a certain orientation in contemporary thinking only shame remains at the end of this cycle: shame for once having had the dream of another world; shame for having survived the disasters of the twentieth century in this world; shame for being alive as a human being; or, purely and simply, shame for being: an ontology of shame, for which we could use Jacques Lacan notorious pun hontologie, a French portemanteau word combining honte and ontologie. “‘It’s a shame [une honte],’ as they say, which should produce a (h)ontology [hontologie] spelled properly at last” (The Seminar 180). Thus, especially in the long wake of the events of 1968 and at least until the new age of riots and uprisings heralded by the international financial crisis of 2008, we witness nothing if not an exhaustion of the revolutionary promise itself, concomitant with an absolutization of shame as the insurmountable condition of being human, or of being as such. In the words of Giorgio Agamben: “Beyond good and evil lies not the innocence of becoming but, rather, a shame that is not only without guilt but even without time” (103).10As for the history behind this timeless sense of shame, which would require that we write the genealogy of the becoming shameful of the revolutionary dream itself, that is a different story altogether, which will have to be told elsewhere.

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Bruno Bosteels, « What Is To Be Dreamed? On the Uncommon Saying: That May be Correct in Practice, But It Is of No Use in Theory », Journal of Graduate Research, Volume 1.1, Columbia University | LAIC, Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures (online), published on October 16, 2015. Full URL for this article

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