You will have to forgive me if I say some things that I have said before. I only know three chords on this guitar, so all my songs sound alike.
Bruce Robbins begins his review essay thus: At a debate in southern California in 2007, the French philosopher Alain Badiou informed the French philosopher Étienne Balibar that he, Balibar, was a reformist. “And you, monsieur,” Balibar replied, “are a theologian.”
This theme, of reformism versus theology in the ranks of Marxists, runs through the entire essay. In this dispute, I am clearly and unapologetically on the side of reformism, not theology, and I am quite convinced that Marx was as well. Let me explain, at some length. Since this is a song about the inadequacies of theology, let me begin with the Bible.
As told in the Old and New Testaments, human history is a story that unfolds according to God's plan in five metaphysical stages: The Creation, The Fall, The Law, the Incarnation, and The Last Trump. Man's ontological condition, his relationship to the Almighty, is completely transformed as each stage succeeds the preceding one. In the first stage, man is without sin. He walks and talks easily with God. This stage, Eden, ends with the Fall, the violation of God's commandment not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. After the Fall and the expulsion from Eden, man lives in sin. Some time later, God makes a covenant with Abraham, which He renews with Noah. He then gives to Moses his Law in the form of written Commandments. The entire period of the Old Testament after the Fall, however long it lasts, and whatever secular events take place during it, is the time when Man lives in sin under The Law. This stage in history comes to an abrupt end with the Incarnation, through which miraculous event God gives His only begotten Son to save man from the damnation that must otherwise be visited upon him for failing to obey the Law. With the Passion of Christ, there begins a new stage, the one in which we now live. In this stage, man is offered the miracle of undeserved salvation, through faith in the promise of Jesus Christ. ["Belief in God" does not mean "Belief that God exists." That is taken for granted. It means belief that God will keep his promise of salvation to all those who trust unreservedly in that promise.] History ends with the Last Trump, when the graves give up their dead and those who are saved sit at the footstool of the Lord forever in eternal bliss, while those who are damned are denied forever the presence of the Lord.
O.K. That was fun. The crucial thing to notice here is that the passage from one stage to the next, according to the Christian story, is abrupt, total, and irreversible. Nothing of any importance remains the same. Before the Fall, man is free of sin. After the Fall, he bears the mark of Original Sin in his soul. Before the Incarnation, man lives under the Law. After the Incarnation, the Word is made Flesh, and salvation is by faith [since I am, in my heart of hearts, a Lutheran, I will say by faith alone, as Luther wrote in the margin of his copy of Paul's Epistles.]
Hegel immanentized the transcendent Christian story, and Marx secularized Hegel's version. So the Creation, the Fall, the Law, and the Incarnation became Primitive Communism, Slavery, Feudalism, and Capitalism, with Socialism playing the role of the Last Trump. BUT: along the way, Marx had the genius to understand that the passage from one stage to the next is NOT abrupt, total, and irreversible. In human history, the transition from one stage to the next is lengthy, complex, and ambiguous -- the product of the decisions, actions, and reactions of countless men and women over centuries. Marx's work, so completely grounded in his archival historical research, was almost completely focused on the transition that had taken place within the memory of those then living, and indeed was only commencing in many parts of the world: the transition from feudalism to capitalism.
As a young man, Marx, like all of his contemporaries, was mesmerized by the world-historical upheaval of the French Revolution, and although he understood even in his twenties that that event was the culmination, not the inauguration, of the centuries long transition from feudalism to capitalism, he allowed himself to hope that the next transition, from capitalism to socialism, would come abruptly, violently, and virtually immediately, even in lands like Prussia in which the first tender shoots of capitalist social relations were only beginning to thrust their heads above the soil. Eventually, Marx knew better. In 1859, he published the Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy, in the Preface to which he wrote these famous and very profound words:
" In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.
The mode of production of material life conditions the social, political and intellectual life process in general. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.
At a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or — what is but a legal expression for the same thing — with the property relations within which they have been at work hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters.
Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed. In considering such transformations a distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic — in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out. Just as our opinion of an individual is not based on what he thinks of himself, so can we not judge of such a period of transformation by its own consciousness; on the contrary, this consciousness must be explained rather from the contradictions of material life, from the existing conflict between the social productive forces and the relations of production.
No social order ever perishes before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed; and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society itself. Therefore mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve; since, looking at the matter more closely, it will always be found that the task itself arises only when the material conditions of its solution already exist or are at least in the process of formation."
The implication is clear, and thoroughly anti-theological: The transition from capitalism to socialism [deo volente] must come about through the development within capitalism of the elements of what will eventually become socialist social relations of production. In the absence of such developments, no movement, however orthodox, however courageous, however true to the ipsissima verba of Marx's writings, can accomplish a transition to socialism.
Since in this neck of the ideological woods, as in the land of theological disputes, proof texts are much prized, I offer in closing this quotation from that most canonical of all texts, Capital Volume I. In the long Chapter 10, "The Working Day," Marx details the devices by which factory owners seek to wring a bit more surplus labor time from their workers. Here is the concluding paragraph:
"It must be acknowledged that our labourer comes out of the process of production other than he entered. In the market he stood as owner of the commodity “labour-power” face to face with other owners of commodities, dealer against dealer. The contract by which he sold to the capitalist his labour-power proved, so to say, in black and white that he disposed of himself freely. The bargain concluded, it is discovered that he was no “free agent,” that the time for which he is free to sell his labour-power is the time for which he is forced to sell it,  that in fact the vampire will not lose its hold on him “so long as there is a muscle, a nerve, a drop of blood to be exploited.”  For “protection” against “the serpent of their agonies,” the labourers must put their heads together, and, as a class, compel the passing of a law, an all-powerful social barrier that shall prevent the very workers from selling. by voluntary contract with capital, themselves and their families into slavery and death.  In place of the pompous catalogue of the “inalienable rights of man” comes the modest Magna Charta of a legally limited working-day, which shall make clear “when the time which the worker sells is ended, and when his own begins.” Quantum mutatus ab illo!"
Take note, all you secular theologians, for whom concern about minimum wage laws or occupational safety and health regulations are a cop-out, a gradualist sell-out. Karl Marx himself calls for the workers to organize and struggle for passage in England of a bill limiting the working day to ten hours.
Balibar is right. Badiou is wrong.