The Stumbling Block: Marxism as Inverted Scapegoating?

Preparing my teaching on Marx’s Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, a word caught my eye.

Marx has just finished explaining the first condition of revolution, which is that one part of society – one class or estate – must establish itself as the “general representative” of the whole of society. Only then can the liberation of this class be the liberation of the whole of society. For this revolutionary class, “its claims and rights are truly the claims and rights of society itself”.

He then explains the next condition:

For the revolution of a nation, and the emancipation of a particular class of civil society to coincide, for one estate to be acknowledged as the estate of the whole society, all the defects of society must conversely be concentrated in another class, a particular estate must be the estate of the general stumbling-block, the incorporation of the general limitation, a particular social sphere must be recognized as the notorious crime of the whole of society, so that liberation from that sphere appears as general self-liberation.

The word I noticed was “stumbling-block”. Marx’s original term is Anstoßes, short for Stein des Anstoßes, which is Luther’s translation of the Biblical Hebrew term, אֶ֣בֶן נֶ֠גֶף. In the Greek Bible or New Testament, this is rendered by the Greek term σκάνδαλον – skandalon, from which we get “scandal”.

This word stopped me in my tracks, because it is a very important word for the theory of René Girard. In I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, Girard writes

Like the Hebrew word that it translates, ‘scandal’ means, not one of those ordinary obstacles that we avoid easily after we run into it the first time, but a paradoxical obstacle that is almost impossible to avoid: the more this obstacle, or scandal, repels us, the more it attracts us. Those who are scandalized put all the more ardor in injuring themselves against it because they were injured before (p.16).

For Girard, the scandal in the Bible is always mimetic desire: coveting what a neighbour has. This sort of covetousness is not coincidental. You don’t happen to desire the wife, slave, ox, or ass (to stick with the Biblical examples) that belongs to your neighbour. Rather, you desire these things precisely because they are your neighbour’s. Envy drives desire, rather than the other way around. Girard’s explanation for this is that desire is, more often than we recognise, mimetic – imitative. We aren’t born knowing what we want; we look to the desires of others to inform our own. And so, very often, we end up coveting what they desire to keep.

In this way, according to Girard, we can easily become trapped into circles of mimetic rivalry. As our desire feeds on that of our neighbour, our neighbour’s desire feeds on our own. The more we want to take what the neighbour has, the more the neighbour wants to keep it, driving us to covet it all the more, and so on, in a positive feedback loop. This is scandal, which is why Girard says “the more this obstacle, or scandal, repels us, the more it attracts us”. The obstacle to our desire – the protective neighbour, striving to drive off a covetous rival – is also the inspiration for it. Here is a deep source of envy, rivalry, and violence – the work of Satan, whom Jesus calls skandalon.

Girard’s most famous theory is his explanation of religious sacrifice, particularly human sacrifice. Scandals – rivalries – would easily tear a human community apart, were it not for their mysterious power to be deflected onto a single enemy. Then, instead of mutually resenting and hating each other, the members of a community can be united against a single enemy: a common rival to all. For this to occur, it must be possible for people’s rivalry to be deflected from their various neighbours onto somebody else:

Scandals initially appear rigid, immovably fixed on a specific antagonist, each forever separated from the other by reciprocal hatred, but at the advanced stages of this development substitutions come about as antagonists are exchanged. Then scandals become “opportunistic”. At this point they are easily drawn to another scandal whose power of mimetic attraction is superior to theirs. In short, scandals may turn away from their original antagonist, from whom they seemed inseparable, in order to adopt the scandal of their neighbours and substitute a new antagonist for the original one.

And then the culmination:

What determines the scandal’s power of attraction is the number and prestige of those it succeeds in scandalizing. Little scandals have a tendency to dissolve into larger ones, and the larger ones in turn go on to contaminate one another until the strongest of these absorb the weaker ones. There is a mimetic competition of scandals, which continues until the moment when the most polarizing scandal remains alone on the stage. This is when the whole community is mobilized against one and the same individual. (23)

Girard writes “the same individual”, but he is clear that this can be a group. Or a class. And that, of course, is why I was arrested by Marx’s words:

all the defects of society must conversely be concentrated in another class, a particular estate must be the estate of the general stumbling-block, the incorporation of the general limitation, a particular social sphere must be recognized as the notorious crime of the whole of society…

Girard calls this process – the concentration of all society’s scandals onto a single scandal, with a single enemy – the scapegoat mechanism. The unification of the community against a single scapegoat gives temporary relief – perhaps distraction – from the various internal rivalries that threaten to pull it apart. Caiaphas and Pontius Pilate, formerly rivals, bond over the elimination of the scapegoat Jesus.

So is Marx trying to trigger the scapegoat mechanism? Is his imagined revolution the unification of society against a single estate blamed for all its ills – the “notorious crime of the whole society”? (Marx is clearly taking inspiration from the French Revolution, which developed its category of the “enemy of the human race” – see Dan Edelstein’s book on this).

We should be careful about this interpretation, I believe. The legacy of scapegoating is more complicated than it allows. In one interview (found in the book When These Things Begin), Michel Treuger exclaims to Girard: “The scapegoat is the bourgeoisie!”. Girard replies: “Yes and no.” He then goes on to speak about Christianity.

For Girard, the key revelation of the Gospels is the innocence of the scapegoat. Unlike scapegoats of the past, the innocence of Jesus is known at least to some. Soon it is known to all. The attempt to deflect onto him all the crimes and scandals of society radically fails – for the first time in human history, Girard claims. The world can never be the same after that. Every time society attempts to name one individual or group as the notorious crime of the whole society, some will wonder whether this is in fact a scapegoat. Unanimity will not be achieved, and without unanimity the mechanism fails to purge society of all its internal rivalries. Instead, a new conflict will arise, between the defenders and the accusers of the scapegoat.

Now the bourgeoisie are hardly innocent. But when Girard speaks of the innocence of the scapegoat, he doesn’t mean that the scapegoat has done nothing wrong, only that the scapegoat isn’t the source of all society’s scandals. Is Marx, in proposing to concentrate “all the defects of society” onto the single class of the bourgeoisie, ignoring what was revealed in the Gospels? On the contrary, Girard proposes that Marxism “has ultra-Christian roots”.

The key, I believe, is the position of the revolutionary class: the proletariat. This class alone can be revolutionary – can take on its own liberation as the liberation of society as a whole – because it is:

a class with radical chains, a class of civil society which is not a class of civil society, an estate which is the dissolution of all estates, a sphere which has a universal character by its universal suffering and claims no particular right because no particular wrong, but wrong generally, is perpetuated against it…

With whom in Girard’s story can we identify the proletariat? Only with the scapegoat: the victim of the whole of society – the one that the whole community is mobilized against.

Marx isn’t trying to trigger the scapegoat mechanism; he is trying to reverse it. He isn’t calling for society to unite around a single scapegoat victim, he is calling for the victim to unite against society. This is why Girard calls Marxism ultra-Christian.

But it isn’t Christian. The Christian revelation as Girard sees it – the truth that no single individual or group is to blame for all society’s scandals – applies no less to the scandal of scapegoating itself. Christianity involves an inversion of the world: the lowliest of crucified slaves is revealed as the King of Kings; those who are poor in this world are revealed as glorious in a kingdom not of this world. But Marx’s story – at least in the passage I quoted – aims to turn victims into victimisers. Everyone who is a victim of any sort of oppression is enlisted in the fight against a common enemy: a single class who is the oppressor, not of its own specific victims, but of humanity as a whole.

To this the Girardian-Christian reply will be that scapegoating against scapegoating is still scapegoating. All the same, Marx seems to have identified something very interesting about the Christian story. The Christian revelation undoes the unifying effect of the scapegoating mechanism: no longer can a community be unanimous in condemning a single scapegoat and thus imagining that it has purged itself of all scandals. But does it give rise to a new sort of unity: the unity of victims? It would, if the scapegoating mechanism still worked. If society were successful in uniting against a single class of victims, those victims would be unified by the very same mechanism.

But Girard’s point is that Christianity has made this impossible. There will always be some who recognise the victims as victims. If Marx were alive today, he could point to many attempts by the bourgeoisie, the press, and the state to blame the wretched of the Earth for every misfortune including their own. But many, even among the privileged, don’t believe this. This means that the victims can’t be universal victims and the privileged classes can’t be universal oppressors. There is no one big scandal to unify all the many small scandals, all running in a thousand different directions, nested and overlapping with each other in a thousand different ways.

Once Christianity has undermined the great moral fable of the ancient world – the one great scandal that united society in a fight against the universal stumbling block – it can’t come back. There is only the chaos of millions of petty scandals. Despite some notorious attempts in the twentieth century, the scapegoat mechanism can’t be revived, not even if it is turned upside-down. It can sacrifice millions, but the sins of the world won’t be taken away.

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