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A shelter in the tempest of history

Far from being dead, socialism is as relevant as it's ever been - its task being to resist the fascism, mayhem and savagery resulting from the inevitable crises of the inherently unstable and self-destructive system of global capitalism. By Terry Eagleton

February 1, 2002
15 min read

The soothsayer seeks to predict the future in order to control it. He peers into the entrails of a social system so as to decipher the omens, which will assure its rulers that their profits are safe and the system will endure. These days, he is generally an economist or a business executive. The prophet, by contrast, has no interest in foretelling the future, other than to warn that unless people change their ways there’s unlikely to be one. His concern is to rebuke the injustice of the present, not dream of some future perfection; but since you can’t identify injustice without some notion of justice, a kind of future is implicit in the denunciation.

A future that was not somehow in line with the present would be unintelligible, just as one that was only in line with it would be undesirable. A desirable future must be a feasible one, otherwise we shall come to desire uselessly and, like Freud’s neurotic, fall ill of longing. But if we simply read off the future from the present, we cancel the futurity of the future, rather as the new historicism tends to erase the pastness from the past. The seriously bizarre utopian, the one with his head buried most obdurately in the sand, is the hard-nosed pragmatist who imagines the future will be pretty much like the present only more so. The pure fantasy of this delusion, that the IMF, Brad Pitt and chocolate chip cookies will still all be up and running in the year 5000, makes the hairy, wild-eyed apocalypticists look like spineless moderates. Whatever Francis Fukuyama may think, the problem is not that we are likely to have too little future, but too much. Our children are likely to live in interesting times.

It’s highly probable that there will be a major crisis of capitalism in the coming decades, which is not to say that it is certain – or that there will be socialism. That the future is bound to be different from the present doesn’t guarantee that it will be any better. But as the West draws its wagons into tighter and tighter circles and slams the hatches on an increasingly alienated, displaced, deprived population of the excluded (both at home and abroad), and as civic society is increasingly torn up by the roots, it doesn’t require a Nostradamus to foresee a spot of turbulence on the horizon.

You can’t let market forces rip without a lot of social featherbedding, otherwise you risk too much instability and resentment; but it’s exactly that sort of featherbedding that market forces destroy. The system undermines its own hegemony, without much need of help from the left. What is to be feared is less that history will merely repeat itself, than the prospect that it will begin to unravel while the left is dishevelled, disorganised and incapable of steering ragged, spontaneous revolt into productive channels. The problem then is that a lot more people are likely to get hurt than might otherwise be the case.

This is all the more regrettable when you consider how remarkably modest a proposal the left is really advancing. All it wants are conditions in which everybody on the planet can get enough to eat and have a job, freedom, dignity and the like. Hardly a revolutionary affair. Yet it’s a sign of just how dire things are that it would take a revolution to achieve this. That is because of the extremism of capitalism, not of socialism. That things are very bad, by the way, is the kind of simple-minded claim that distinguishes radicals from liberal reformers, but not certain conservatives. Liberals, pragmatists and modernisers cling to the Utopian delusion that there’s nothing fundamentally wrong. Conservatives see that there is something fundamentally wrong; it’s just that they tend to be mistaken about what it is. The most blatantly naïve form of idealism is not socialism, but the belief that, given enough time, capitalism will feed the world. Just how long do you let such a view run before judging it discredited?

I’ve never been very convinced, for all that, that terms like optimism and pessimism make much political sense. What matters – what’s indeed the necessary condition of any fruitful moral or political action – is realism, which sometimes leads you to be glum and sometimes to be jubilant. Realism is extraordinarily arduous. The point is to be gloomy for the right reasons, which is where the left sometimes gets it wrong. So let me briefly spell out some reasons for the left not to be discouraged.

First, I think it’s a mistake to think that the current crisis of the left has anything much to do with the collapse of communism. Few socialists were disenchanted by the events of the late 1980s, since to be disillusioned it is necessary previously to be illusioned. The last time that large numbers in the West were illusioned about the Soviet Union was in the 1930s, which is rather a long time ago. Indeed, if you want the most effective critique of that system, you have to go not to Western liberalism but to major currents of Marxism, which were always a good deal more radical in their resistance to Stalinism than Isaiah Berlin. In any case, the global left was in deep crisis long before the first brick was dislodged from the Berlin wall.

If there’s a reason for the left to feel dismayed by the end of communism, it’s more because that collapse demonstrated the formidable power of capitalism (which, through a deliberately ruinous arms race, was largely responsible for bringing the Soviet bloc to its knees), than because some precious life form disappeared with the Ceausescus. Even so, what happened in the late 1980s was a revolution, for all its horrific consequences. And revolutions weren’t supposed to happen in the 1980s.

Nor is the supposed apathy of the populace a good enough reason for feeling glum. That’s largely because it’s a myth. People who clamour against refugees and demand the right to defend their property with a neutron bomb may be unenlightened, but they aren’t apathetic. There are lots of good citizens in the north of where I live, Ireland, who are all too unapathetic. Men and women are usually only apathetic about kinds of politics that are apathetic about them. People may not currently think much of the politicians or theories of surplus value, but if you try to drive a motorway through their backyard or close down their children’s school, they will protest swiftly enough. And why not? It is rational to resist an unjust power if one may do so without too much risk and with a reasonable chance of success. Such protests may not be in the least effective, but that’s not the point at issue. It is also rational, in my view, to refuse radical political change as long as a system is able to afford you some gratification, however meagre, and as long as the alternatives to it remain perilous and obscure. In any case, most people invest too much energy in simply surviving, in immediate material matters, to have much left over for politics. But whereas the demand to be reasonable nowadays means ‘cool it’, in the 1790s it meant throwing up the barricades. Moreover, once a political system ceases to be able to provide enough gratification to bind its citizens to it, and once reasonably low-risk, realistic alternatives emerge, then political revolt is as predictable as the word ‘like’ in the conversation of a Cornell freshman. The fall of apartheid is a signal instance of this taking place in our own time.

There’s little evidence, then, that the citizenry is, in general, torpid or complacent. On the contrary, the evidence suggests that they’re considerably alarmed about a number of key issues; even if most of them are about as likely to turn to socialism as theosophy. Though – faced as we are with the Brazilian landless movement, French working-class militancy, student anti-sweatshop agitation in the US, anarchistic raids on finance capitalism and the like – one shouldn’t exaggerate the lack of leftist resistance either.

Nor can the ‘disappearing working class’ thesis survive close scrutiny. It’s true that the proletariat has shrunk in size and significance; but the proletariat, in the sense of waged industrial manual workers, isn’t quite the same thing as the working class. You don’t cease to be working class because you’re a waiter rather than a garment worker. Roughly speaking, ‘proletariat’ denotes a kind of labour, whereas ‘working class’ denotes a position within the social relations of production. (It’s partly because in Marx’s day the working class was pretty much identical with the industrial proletariat that this confusion has arisen.) In any case, even the proletariat, in a strict, technical sense of the term, has increased absolutely in global terms. It’s arguable that in global terms it has declined relative to other classes, but there was never any requirement that the working class be the majority social class for it to qualify as a revolutionary agent. The working class is the ‘universal’ class not necessarily because it is the most numerous, but because for it to achieve justice would mean a global or universal transformation of the system.

Nor is there any requirement that the working class be the most miserable and wretched of folk. There are plenty of people – vagrants, the elderly, and the unemployed (what we might today call the lumpen intelligentsia) – who are far worse off. The working class has been viewed by some socialists as the agents of revolutionary change not because it suffers a lot (sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t), but because it’s so placed within the capitalist system as to be feasibly capable of taking over. Like some other radical forces, it’s simultaneously at the root and source of that system and incapable of being wholly included within it, part of its logic yet a subversion of it. If the working class, for Marxism, has a special role, it’s not because it’s especially miserable or numerous, but because it is, in the Freudian sense, ‘symptomatic’: that which represents contradiction, which, like the boundary of a field, is both in and out and manifests something of the dual or contradictory logic of the system as a whole. If it’s in some sense a ‘totaliser’ of that system, it’s because it represents the contradictions of the regime as a whole. Who else but the men and women who create the system, whose livelihood depends on it, who are capable of running it justly and collectively, and who would most benefit from such a change, should take it over?

In the ancient world the word ‘proletariat’ (proletarius in Latin) referred to those who served the state by producing children (who manufactured labour power) because they were too poor to serve it by property. The proletariat, in other words, is as much about sexual as material production; and since the burden of sexual reproduction falls more upon women than men, it’s no hyperbole to say that in the world of antiquity, the working class was a woman. As, indeed, it is increasingly today. The geographer David Harvey speaks of the oppositional forces of the future as the ‘feminised proletariat’. Those dreary old bickerings between socialists and feminists are being made increasingly redundant by advanced capitalism itself. It’s capitalism that is throwing socialists and feminists into each other’s arms. (I speak metaphorically.) Of course, these oppositional forces may fail. But that’s a different matter to their not existing in the first place.

Should the left be gloomy because Marxism has been finally discredited? No, because it hasn’t. It’s been resoundingly defeated, but that’s a different matter. To call it ‘discredited’ is a bit like calling Mozambique discredited because it was once owned by the Portuguese. If Marxism has been discredited by the fall of the Soviet bloc, then why wasn’t it already discredited in the 1960s and 1970s, when we already knew well enough what a grotesque travesty of socialism the Soviet bloc was? Marxist theory hasn’t been unmasked as intellectually bankrupt; partly because it didn’t need to be. It’s not so much out of answers as out of the question. A whole cultural and political shift has left it behind as a practical force, but hardly disproved it as a description of the world. Indeed, as a description of the world, what could be more to the point than a document of 1848 (The Communist Manifesto), which foresees a future of spreading globalisation, deepening inequalities, mounting immiseration and intensifying warfare? This is surely a lot less out of date than Maynard Keynes.

In any case, when people call Marxism discredited or irrelevant, they imply that they know just what Marxism is, which is more than I can boast. Devout anti-essentialists speak of the failure of Marxism as though we could isolate some essence of the creed that has now disintegrated. But figuring out what’s peculiar to Marxism as a doctrine is no easy matter. The concern with class? Certainly not: Marx and Engels themselves insisted that this was by no means new to them. Political revolution, class struggle, the abolition of private property, human cooperation, social equality, an end to alienation and market forces? Not at all: many leftists have shared these views without being Marxists; William Blake, for example, shared almost all of them; so did Raymond Williams, who didn’t call himself a Marxist. The economic determination of history? Well, perhaps that’s getting a little warmer; but Sigmund Freud, himself no friend of Marxism, held that the basic motive of social life was an economic one, and that without this dull compulsion we’d just lie around all day. Different material stages of history as determining different forms of social life? Well, this was pretty much a commonplace of the radical Enlightenment.

It’s the survival of socialism, not Marxism, which is important; though it may turn out that Marxism has been such a major carrier of socialism that the survival of the one is impossible without the survival of the other. What is peculiar to Marxism is a fairly technical theory of the mechanisms by which one historical mode of production mutates into another. If the working class is to come to power, it is because this is the logical result of that mechanism. But you can believe in the need for the former without believing in the latter. Marxism is often spoken of as an indissoluble unity of theory and practice; but a non-Marxist socialist can support the kinds of practice a Marxist does without adhering to the theory. So this doctrine no doubt needs to be re-examined. In the last century, petit bourgeois nationalism quite often did some of the things, politically speaking, which Marxism recommends, such as overthrowing capitalist social relations. The issue is a complex one.

Nor is socialism theoretically bankrupt in the sense of being cleaned out of ideas. There are still plenty of good leftist ideas around the place: not least a fertile, suggestive body of work on what a socialist economy might look like, on how far markets would still be necessary for certain functions, and so on. One might add, too, that the 20th century did not witness the defeat of the revolutionary impulse, merely a change of address; in its middle decades it saw the victory of the most wildly successful radical movement of the modern epoch – anti-colonialism, which swept the old empires finally from their seats of power. Socialism has been described as the greatest reform movement in history, but anti-colonial struggle has been far and away the most successful.

No, none of the reasons listed here are justifications for feeling blue. Nor is the belief that the capitalist system is impregnable. Some disenchanted radicals may hold this view, but the IMF certainly doesn’t. It’s quite aware of how sickeningly unstable the whole business is. And globalisation deepens that instability; if every bit of the world is tied up with every other bit, then a wobble at one point can mean a spasm at another and a crisis at a third.

What, then, has the left got to feel blue about? The answer is surely obvious: it’s not that the system is monumentally stable, just formidably powerful – far too powerful for us at present. Does this mean that the system will just go on and on? Not at all. It is perfectly capable of grinding to a halt without any help from its political opponents. Whether this is good or bad news is a debatable point. It doesn’t take socialism to bring capitalism crashing down; it only takes capitalism itself; the system is certainly capable of committing hari kari. But it does take socialism, or something like it, for the system to be brought down without plunging us all into barbarism. And this is why oppositional forces are so important: for resisting as far as possible the fascism, mayhem and savagery that are bound to arise from a major crisis of the system. Walter Benjamin wisely observed that revolution wasn’t a runaway train; it was the application of the emergency brake. The role of socialist ideas is, in this sense, to protect the as-yet unborn future: to offer, not a storm, but a place of shelter in the tempest that is contemporary history.Terry Eagleton is professor of cultural theory and John Rylands Fellow at the University of Manchester. His latest book is After Theory (Allen Lane, 2003)

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