The fact is Marxists have a lot to say when it comes to their criticisms of capitalism, a lot that I agree with, although I am not so enamoured of their political 'solutions'. It is, however, when it comes to 'marginal questions' that I find myself most dissenting from the closed mindset they represent - especially in regard to any question relating to art. One cannot help but feel when reading a Marxist critique of a work or writer that one's responses are being poured into a mould in which there is no more room for expansion without breaking the mould. It is then that you realise that Marxism isn't all that it says on the side of the packet, just as UKIP is not this nice fluffy anti-EU party which wants to free us from the clutches of Brussels, but a party of barmy, but far from harmless, cranks. Marxists, of course, are a lot more sober than kippers, but also, thanks to democratic centralism, a lot more boring as well. That's their problem. They are far too responsible.
Art for its part is irresponsible; it doesn't think before it acts, it doesn't have it all worked out beforehand. It blindly gropes towards its solutions and only when it has passed through that process and come out the other side with the answer, does it finally say "Eureka!" This is not how Marxists expect it to work. Since they already have all the answers, artists must confirm what they already think. That's why they privilege certain approaches over others. Social-realism, for instance, has always been a big thing with Marxists. A writer like William Burroughs on the other hand is definitely persona non grata from any Marxist perspective.
Art is like the Gods, who were allowed to do things which were forbidden to ordinary mortals - such as flouting the 'incest-taboo'. It serves the same function in terms of 'unconscious discharge' of forbidden impulses that dreams do while we're asleep. Ever since I first started to read the books of William Burroughs in the early 70s, I have been a big fan. It seemed to me that, to paraphrase Star Trek, he boldly went where no writer had gone before. Clearly, heroin had given him visions and bequeathed him insights which no other writer seemed to have access to. My two 'big things' at the time were Genet and Burroughs. But of the two, Burroughs seems to me now the more obsessive and pathological, His books are a record of journeys into the darkest recesses of the human psyche, where sex and death - Eros and Thanatos - perform ecstatic and violent dances together to finally fuse in the simultaneous orgasm they reach. Whether Burroughs was writing about people ejaculating while their necks were being broken, or lambasting the dead, bureaucratic totalitarian police-state of late capitalist society in ways that left Orwell standing, he seemed to be way ahead of anyone else. The last thing he cared about was being 'responsible' and tailoring his vision to suit other people.
In a recent review of Naked Lunch@50 for the online magazine Chroma I pointed to the transgressive tradition which Burroughs was heir to. Such a tradition goes all the way back to Francois Villon in France and Christopher Marlowe in England, both of whom died for their transgressions of what was acceptable at the time. Its more modern incarnation can be seen in writers like Baudelaire, Lautremont, Huysmans and, above all, Rimbaud. Both Burroughs and Genet fit into this tradition very well. The thing about this tradition is that it does not give a fuck about the 'social responsibility' of literature. Only complete 'irresponsibility' will allow it to explore the domains it explores and come up with the goods at the end of the day.
I don't know what Burroughs' politics were. I have heard him described as 'right-wing' because he equated Nixon with Stalin. But he could just as easily be 'left-wing' - whatever that means. He was undoubtedly a libertarian of some description, and he believed in gun-ownership, but not because he was patriotic. For him, the bureaucratic state - whether left-wing or right-wing - was anathema - a cancer eating human society from the inside. In Naked Lunch he applauds the co-operative alternative to bureaucracy, whether that was capitalist or communist bureaucracy. The fact that he cannot be so easily pigeon-holed and occupies an ambiguous realm is to his advantage as a writer; it leaves him free to slice away at the cancer he detects in society without deferring to any extraneous political position. After all, as a drug-addict, he interfaced with the larger society through the police and the anti-drug bureaus. He knew what his enemy was; it was the repressive apparatus of the bureaucratic state. He didn't see capitalism as the enemy, but bureaucracy, the police, the anti-drug agencies, the anti-drug policies and laws of successive governments - everything in fact which persecuted him as a drug-user. We all see society through our own particular lenses, and that is what counts, not some abstract idea of where the bodies are buried.
Of course, if Burroughs's experiences had been different - if for instance he hadn't been rich or had worked in factories or been in and out of jobs which bored him to distraction - his take on the world might have been different. He might even had identified capitalism and the boss-class as the enemy, rather than the state-bureaucracies which were the obvious bane of his life - although I suspect that even in that situation he would not have encountered the class-enemy as such, but the minions of capitalist bureaucracy. As Ira Cohen says, it is less our imagination than our experience which shapes our responses to things, the whole unique timbre and tenor of lived life, which, for Burroughs, was what it was. Echoing Deleuze, I would say it is this unique difference that matters and makes a difference, and this difference is the irreduceable factor which sets one writer apart from another and indeed all of the others. Not that you would think so reading a lot of leftist - sub-Marxist - criticism of writers. Recently I came across an article in the British Communist Party newspaper the Morning Star in which the punk performance-poet, Atilla the Stockbroker, slammed into Burroughs. "God, that self-indulgent idiot Burroughs has a lot to answer for. How many lives have been wrecked by following his cretinous example... I'm so glad that the drug of my choice has always been beer. It has ensured that, love it or loathe it, my work has always been devoid of hippy bollocks." Quite apart from the fact that alcohol probably wrecks more lives than heroin, what really stands out in this 'critique' of Burroughs is a crass identity-politics based on class. Note, that this is not class-politics as such, where one class confronts another across an unbridgeable divide in a struggle for survival, but a sort of sentimental "Look at me, I'm working-class" kind of 'politics' based on the idea that if you drink beer your class-credentials are better than if you shoot heroin. It is so crass, it just isn't true. Give me the 'irresponsible' Burroughs any day of the week "and twice on Sundays". At least he did it in style, which is a lot more than one can say about Atilla the Stockbroker. Burroughs exemplifies to me what Deleuze might call the fractured self which resists identity and any kind of politics based on it. He is unique. He's been there, done that, and come up with the goods. His work testifies to his sojourn through hell and the underworld. If it took heroin for him to achieve that, then so be it, that's what it took. No other writer has done what he's done and done it with so much panache. Reading him, I am not tempted into becoming a heroin-addict, but I am glad he was one because of what it turned him into as a writer. The kind of beer-drinking, working-class identity-politics which Atilla the Stockbroker goes in for is likely to turn you into the kind of generic poet Atilla the Stockbroker is. Perfect in other words for a responsible Marxist newspaper like the Morning Star.
Deleuze was right in my opinion to cut the ground from under Hegel's feet and question the metaphysics of identity which informed his dialectic. His critique extends to Marxism as well which roots its politics in a metaphysics of class-identity rather than simply the here today gone tomorrow confrontation of classes in the real world, which one might equate with two dogs fighting over a bone. I have no doubt that a concept is a very convenient thing to have lying around on occasion. But I also have no doubt that a concept generates the illusion of stable categories which mask an unstable reality. It is convenient to refer to class at times, but class is hardly an exhaustive description. It is a convenient category, an abstraction, much like the abstractions of science, which are convenient ways of referring to certain phenomena in the world around us - each of which, however, is different in itself from each of the others which might come under the same conceptual and categorical umbrella. Concepts and categories are things we impose on the world because we need to organise our ideas about it and create some kind of order from the chaos of its "buzzing, blooming confusion". Even Kant understood that. But the world, nonetheless, is always poised to collapse back into that state of chaos that Alex Migliore might describe as its "golden havoc". Marxists are kinds of bureaucrats of thought who want to make their concepts stick, so that they can conveniently organise their ideas concerning the world - a place for everything and everything in place - and when the world resists such conceptualisation, something needs to be done to put it back in its place. This goes for their attitudes towards artists whose responses to the world start from the "golden havoc" of its "buzzing, blooming confusion", rather than their own conveniently ordered concepts and categories. And, no doubt, this is why writers like the "self-indulgent" and 'irresponsible' William Burroughs, need to be put in their place.