2 February 2017

The Concept of Indignation in Spinozist Marxism

Arthur Duhé replies to Frédéric Lordon at London HM 2016 on Spinoza, Marx and indignation.

Arthur Duhé is a D.Phil Candidate in International Relations at the University of Oxford. His PhD thesis on Spinoza’s theory of international relations both aims to understand Spinoza in his own historical context and to link his philosophy to our contemporary issues. This talk was given on 13 November 2016 at a panel entitled ‘The Spinoza/Marx Relationship’ with Frédéric Lordon and Panagiotis Sotiris, chaired by Sebastian Budgen. A French version of this talk can be found here.

Frédéric Lordon’s book, Willing Slaves of Capital – Spinoza and Marx on Desire[1] belongs to an on-going intellectual trend  coined as Spinozist Marxism. Although this trend has been extremely fertile and thought-provoking, I will focus here on the tensions that the fundamental differences between Spinoza and Marx’s philosophies produce. To do so, I will first analyse the notion of indignation, which reveals an irreconcilable opposition between a Marxist pole and a Spinozist one. I will argue that these tensions can be perceived in both Frédéric Lordon’s Willing Slaves of Capital and Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri’sCommonwealth[2] and I will compare how each of them deals with this issue. These two books therefore constitute precious laboratories to bring out the philosophical assumptions and consequences that are linked to the definition of indignation.

What is Spinozist Marxism?

As stated above, these two books enter a longer tradition and I would like first to present shortly Spinozist Marxism. This movement starts with Louis Althusser, who declared in his ‘Elements of Autocritics’ (1974): ‘We were not Structuralists … But now, we can confess why: we were guilty of a passion much more powerful and compromising: we were Spinozists’.[3] Althusser is undoubtedly the figure that most prominently supported the renewal of Spinozist studies with the aim of combining Spinoza and Marx and challenging the more traditional couple Hegel and Marx. To do so, he created in 1967 the Spinoza group at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, and invited other intellectual figures to join them, such as Gilles Deleuze or Alexandre Matheron. However, even though Spinozist Marxism originated in Paris in 1967, it has since then crossed the Alps, the Atlantic Ocean and, to a lesser extent, the Channel.

Cesare Casarino in his article ‘Marx before Spinoza’[4] offers the most exhaustive description of Spinozist Marxism, the latter being divided into several categories:

  •   1 – Thinkers who have written about Marx and Spinoza in separate yet closely related works. For example, Negri and Balibar.
  •  2 – Thinkers who refer implicitly or in passing to the relation between Spinoza and Marx, such as Althusser.
  •  3 – Thinkers whose entire thought is imbued thoroughly with Spinozian and Marxian problematics, see Deleuze’s thought and Negri and Hardt’s collaborative works.
  • 4  – Thinkers who confront the Spinoza-Marx relation indirectly yet significantly via the examination of a third and related thinker, the best example being Macherey’s book entitled Hegel or Spinoza.
  •  5 – Thinkers who directly refer to both Spinoza and Marx, and Frédéric Lordon is one of them.

Willing Slaves of Capital book cover

In sum, ‘the body of Spinozist Marxism is abundant, yet the literature on Spinoza and Marx is thin’.[4bis] I would add that this literature explicitly focused on Marx and Spinoza is particularly useful for us as it highlights the fertility of this rapprochement, but also, in a more critical manner, since it reveals some unsurpassable tensions. One of these tensions, I believe, is to be found in indignation.

A definition of indignation

Indignation, in Spinoza’s philosophy, is a form of affective imitation described in the Ethics as such: ‘if we imagine [someone toward whom we have had no affect] to affect [a thing like us], we shall be affected with hate toward him’.[5] One of the most interesting features of indignation is that it tends to spread, thanks to the affective mechanisms described in theEthics. Because it is contagious, indignation is at the root of any revolution or revolt. Indeed, when the ruler changes ‘to indignation the common fear of most of the citizens, by this very fact the commonwealth is dissolved, and the contract comes to an end; and therefore such contract is vindicated not by the civil law, but by the law of war’.[6]

In sum, indignation highlights why the multitude sometimes refuses to see its power captured by the authority of institutions. En passant, I think that the mechanisms of indignation appeared very clearly in the recent social movements against police violence in Morocco, following the death of a fisherman crushed by a garbage truck. The same scheme could also be found at the origins of the Arab Spring in Tunisia in 2010.

In other terms, Negri and Hardt are right to state that: ‘Indignation, as Spinoza notes, is the ground zero, the basic material from which movements of revolt and rebellion develop’.[7]

Indignation and dialectic

In both Willing Slaves of Capital andCommonwealth, the notion of indignation is presented not only as a key to understand how revolutions work, but also as ‘the affective historical force that is capable of bifurcating the course of events’.[8] Were indignation the affect that could lead to the end of capitalism, it would be a fair reason to pay attention to it. But, ‘can indignation lead to a process of self-determination?’[9]

In order to respond to this question, I will have first to make a digression. In a famous passage of the second Postface of the German edition of the Capital, Marx enhances the differences between Hegel’s dialectic and his own materialist dialectic. The latter implies that the concrete relations of production within the capitalist society necessarily lead to a ‘general crisis’, whose climax is the revolution of the proletariat against capitalist society itself. In other words, ‘the bourgeoisie forged the weapons that bring death to itself’,[10] which is characteristic of the dialectic movement. At the risk of caricaturing his philosophy, Marx depicts three historical steps that are necessarily enchained together: first, an age of Capitalism in which the Bourgeoisie is led to extend as much as it can the process of industrialization and the accumulation of capital; then, the revolution of the Proletariat; and, finally, the establishment of a communist society.

In Commonwealth, Hardt and Negri use indignation to broaden the Marxist and communist revolutionary traditions that ‘understand the revolutionary process as taking place primarily within the field of economic production’.[11] With this notion of indignation, Hardt and Negri can include in their analysis cases of revolts such as the riots in suburbs, that are not directly targeting factories or the economic system more broadly speaking. For instance, it is unclear that the riots in Morocco or during the Arab Spring were based on anti-capitalist aims or were trying to undermine the socio-economic system at all. Thanks to this Spinozist addendum, these authors can keep the core of the Marxist dialectic process that, otherwise, would be difficult to apply to some phenomena of the contemporary world. If Hardt and Negri were the first to explicitly ask whether indignation could lead to emancipation, they do not tackle this issue very clearly. I assume that this absence of response has yet to be interpreted as a positive answer: for them indignation is the affect that will produce the revolution, which will end capitalism to settle a more emancipated society.

But by doing so, Hardt and Negri separate indignation from the whole Spinozist system in which it first appeared. Two distinct critiques can be made here. First, Hardt and Negri tend to change the nature of Spinozist affects. This critique has been made in ‘The Indignant Multitude: Spinozist Marxism after Empire’ by Sean Grattan.[12] Considering Negri’s article ‘Value and Affect’, Grattan notices that affect is first defined as ‘a power of transformation, a force of self-valorisation,’ then as ‘a power of appropriation,’ and finally as ‘an expansive power’. But Spinoza’s definition is much more ambivalent: ‘by affect, I understand affections of the body by which the body’s power of acting is increased or diminished, aided or restrained’ (Ethics III, d3). Given this definition, we understand why, in Spinoza’sEthics, most of the affects are dual, such as joy/sadness; hate/love, and so on. As it has been stated above, indignation is a sad affect and thus leads to a diminution of power. Even though Grattan is wrong to assume that indignation therefore ‘weakens our ability to act in the world’ since Spinoza argues that ‘we strive to deny whatever we imagine affects with sadness ourselves or what we love’ (Ethics III, proposition 25),[13] it is however true that indignation is a sad affect. Spinoza is as ambivalent concerning indignation as he is vis-à-vis the notion of multitude itself: surely, indignation can overthrow despotism; but it can also transform people into theultimi barbarorum (the last barbarians) that lynched the brothers De Witt in 1672.[14] In William Godwin’s words, there is a risk that ‘revolution is engendered by an indignation with a tyranny yet is itself pregnant with tyranny’.[15]

Indignation meme by skearlev

The second critique concerns the teleological aspect which is linked to the notion of dialectic. Even though Hardt and Negri do not argue that indignation will dialectically lead to the negation of the negation, they do enhance the optimistic assumption that it could work, without even mentioning that it may as well lead to an impasse. Again, there is no value of negativity in Spinoza’s philosophy. The Spinozist immanence is plain positivity, without any rest. Even a sad affect, such as indignation, is only to be understood as a lower degree of power so as something that is inherently positive. Althusser here confessed that ‘Spinoza will always miss what Hegel gave to Marx, namely contradiction’ and by contradiction, Althusser understood the dialectic contradiction. Because Spinoza refuses the very notion of negativity, the dialectic process is not understandable in Spinozist terms. Even though Spinoza’s materialism is radically deterministic, it is not teleological as Spinoza’s God is deprived of any form of will or desire (as it clear from the Appendix of Ethics I). In other words, history, for Spinoza, is a chain of causes and consequences that goes infinitely without any aim.

Indignation of the Willing Slaves

I would like now to compare the understanding of indignation in Commonwealth, with Frédéric Lordon’s one. As he stated explicitly, Frédéric Lordon wants to complete Marx’s structuralism with Spinoza’s anthropology of passions. Here again, the analysis of passions is for Frédéric Lordon a way to go beyond an opposition between social classes – the Proletariat and the Bourgeoisie – that has been undermined by the emergence of the executive workers. Indeed, the latter embodied the paradox of joyful workers, or, to echo the English title of Frédéric Lordon’s book, ‘willing slaves’. Consequently, affects are both the notions that help to understand our modernity by shedding light on our relations of production, and the starting point to think about the change that could occur. And here, Frédéric Lordon is crystal clear: indignation is the motor of historical processes.

Nevertheless, echoing Althusser for whom materialism was an imperative to stop telling ourselves stories, Frédéric Lordon refuses the necessity of the dialectic process and states that ‘true communism does not come about immediately just because capitalism has been (hypothetically) defeated: can indignation lead to a process of self-determination? Frédéric Lordon’s response seems to be that indignation is necessary but insufficient. However, he affirms that indignation is as such a desire to live ex suo ingenio, following one’s nature:

‘indignation sometimes spreads like syphilis. It overturns the affective equilibria that have until then determined the subjects to submit to institutional relations, and leads them to desire to live, not according to their free will, but as it pleases them – ex suo ingenio – which implies, not some miraculous leap into the unconditioned, but a step into a life determined in another way.’[16]

I would disagree with the following point. First, because the fact that the multitude wants to suppress an order that they hate does not necessarily imply that it positively seeks its own emancipation. It is not because you consider that this order should be condemned that you have a clear idea of what you want instead. Second, the affective agreement on which indignation is based cannot be an agreement in nature because ‘insofar as men are subject to passions, they cannot be said to agree in nature’, [17] so indignation is already another order that shapes individuals’ natures (ingenia).

But this consideration is secondary, what is much more important is the fact that Frédéric Lordon clearly shows that indignation is not a dialectical process as he argues that ‘it is still possible to set history on the march again, or more accurately, to set in motion a possible history of transcending capitalism – but an open-ended history, not yet written and without any teleological guarantees’.[18] The difference between Frédéric Lordon and the authors ofCommonwealth becomes obvious here: by refusing any form of blind optimism, Frédéric Lordon adopts another philosophy of history.

Frédéric Lordon claims here Spinozist realism: ‘It is perhaps on this precise point that the Spinozist realism of the passions is most useful to the Marxian utopia: as a sobering-up. The extinction of politics by the final dissolution of classes and the conflict between them, transcending all antagonisms by the victory of the working class, that non-class without any class interest, are post-political phantasmagoria, perhaps Marx’s deepest anthropological error’.[19] So not only he stands here in favour of a Spinozist stance, but he denounces what he perceives as the limits of Marxism. Furthermore, it is probably not innocent that Marx, who distinguished his thought from what he called utopian forms of socialism, is here associated by Frédéric Lordon with utopia. Being aware of the tensions between Spinoza and Marx, Frédéric Lordon favours a more rigorous Spinozist approach of indignation.

To conclude, there are tensions produced by the dialectical movement of history as depicted by Marx and the mechanisms of indignation. Commonwealth andWilling Slaves of Capital apparently offer us a dilemma: either, we decide to follow Marx by considering that the affective mechanisms of indignation are part and parcel of the dialectical process; or we decide to convert Marxism to Spinozism by giving up the teleological perspective on history. As I understand it, there is novia media possible here.

Does it mean that Spinozist Marxism is based on weak foundations and that it is therefore fallacious to maintain this philosophical relationship? As a response, I will quote here Cesare Casarino for whom: ‘Their meeting, thus, is not unlike the infinitely repeated yet always impossible rendezvous between the man and the woman in Alain Resnais’ L’Année dernière à Marienbad’.[20] This impossible rendez-vous is nevertheless fertile as it opens several theoretical options and it avoids the establishment of a dogmatic school of thought.

In the last decade, several books have been published about the use of Spinoza to think about our world. Chantal Jaquet used Spinozist concepts within the field of sociology,[21] Antonio Damasio based his works in neurology on Spinoza’s materialism.[22] And Frédéric Lordon published several books on the use of affects in economics, sociology and political sciences.[23] This recent emulation may be the sign of a new configuration of the relation between Spinoza and Marx: it may be the first step of a shift from Spinozist Marxism to Marxist Spinozism, the first exploration of a philosophy that would try to go beyond Marx with Spinoza.


Althusser, L. (1974) ‘Eléments d’autocritique’, in Solitude de Machiavel. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France

Casarino, C. (2011) ‘Marx before Spinoza: Notes toward an Investigation’ in Spinoza Now (edited by Vardoulakis, D.). University of Minnesota Press

Citton, Y., Lordon, F. (2008) Spinoza et les sciences sociales : De la puissance de la multitude à l’économie des affects. Paris: Editions d’Amsterdam

Damasio, A. (2013) Looking for Spinoza. London: William Heinemann.

Delruelle, E. (2013) ‘Nous avons été spinozistes. Spinoza et le marxisme en France’, paper given in ‘L’actualité du Tractatus de Spinoza et la question théologico-politique’ organized by l’Université Libre de Bruxelles.

Godwin, W. (1793) Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on Morals and Happiness, vol. 2, book 4, chap. 2

Grattan, S. (2011) ‘The Indignant Multitude: Spinozist Marxism after Empire’ in Mediations, vol. 25, n°2.

Hardt, M., Negri, A. (2011) Commonwealth. Harvard University Press

Jaquet, C. (2014) Les Transclasses ou la Non-Reproduction. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France

Lordon, F. (2006) L’Intérêt souverain : essai d’anthropologie économique spinoziste. Paris: La Fabrique

Lordon, F. (2013) La Société des affects : pour un structuralisme des passions. Paris: Editions d’Amsterdam

Lordon, F. (2014) Willing Slaves of Capital – Spinoza and Marx on Desire. Verso Books

Lordon, F. (2015) Imperium : structures et affects des corps politiques. Paris: La Fabrique

Lordon, F. (2016) Les affects de la politique. Paris: Editions du Seuil

Marx, K. (2015) The Communist Manifesto. Penguin Classics.

Montag, W. (2005) ‘Who is afraid of the multitude?’ in South Atlantic Quarterly, 104:4


[1] Lordon, F. (2014)Willing Slaves of Capital – Spinoza and Marx on Desire. Verso Books

[2] Hardt, M., Negri, A. (2011)Commonwealth. Harvard University Press

[3] My translation, Althusser, L. (1974) ‘Eléments d’autocritique’, inSolitude de Machiavel. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, p.181, quoted in Delruelle, E. (2013) ‘Nous avons été spinozistes. Spinoza et le marxisme en France’, paper given in ‘L’actualité du Tractatus de Spinoza et la question théologico-politique’ organized by l’Université Libre de Bruxelles.

[4] Casarino, C. (2011) ‘Marx before Spinoza: Notes toward an Investigation’ inSpinoza Now (edited by Vardoulakis, D.). University of Minnesota Press.

[4bis] Casarino, C. (2011) ‘Marx before Spinoza: Notes toward an Investigation’, op. cit., note 3

[5]Ethics, III, prop. 27, cor. 1(traduction E. Curley)

[6]Political Treatise, chap. 4 §6

[7]Commonwealth, op. cit., p. 235

[8]Willing Slaves of Capital, op. cit. p. 103

[9]Commonwealth, op. cit., p. 236

[10] Marx, K. (2015)The Communist Manifesto. Penguin Classics.

[11]Commonwealth, op. cit., p. 239

[12] Grattan, S. (2011) ‘The Indignant Multitude: Spinozist Marxism after Empire’ inMediations, vol. 25, n°2.

[13] This convincing argument can be read inWilling Slaves of Capital.

[14] Montag, W. (2005) ‘Who is afraid of the multitude?’ inSouth Atlantic Quarterly, 104:4

[15] Godwin, W. (1793)Enquiry Concerning Political Justice and its Influence on Morals and Happiness, vol. 2, book 4, chap. 2

[16]Willing Slaves of Capital, op. cit. p. 98

[17]Ethics IV, prop. 32

[18]Willing Slaves of Capital, op. cit., p. 103

[19]Ibid., p. 109

[20] ‘Marx before Spinoza: Notes toward an Investigation’, op. cit.

[21] Jaquet, C. (2014)Les Transclasses ou la Non-Reproduction. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France

[22] Damasio, A. (2013) Looking for Spinoza. London: William Heinemann.

[23] Lordon, F. (2006)L’Intérêt souverain : essai d’anthropologie économique spinoziste. Paris: La Fabrique; Citton, Y., Lordon, F. (2008)Spinoza et les sciences sociales : De la puissance de la multitude à l’économie des affects. Paris: Editions d’Amsterdam; Lordon, F. (2013) La Société des affects : pour un structuralisme des passions. Paris: Editions d’Amsterdam; Lordon, F. (2015) Imperium : structures et affects des corps politiques. Paris: La Fabrique; Lordon, F. (2016) Les affects de la politique. Paris: Editions du Seuil.