De Omnibus Dubitandum: Why business as usual is no longer an option for the revolutionary socialist left

I am convinced that there is little force left in the original Marxist stimulus to revolution. Its impetus is petering out as the practical failure of the doctrine becomes daily more obvious. It has failed to take root in the advanced democracies. In those countries where it has taken root – countries backward or, by tradition, authoritarian – it has failed to provide sustained economic or social development. What is left is a technique of subversion and a collection of catch-phrases. The former, the technique of subversion, is still dangerous. […] As for the catch-phrases of Marxism, they still have a certain drawing power.

Margaret Thatcher, Foreign Policy of Great Britain Speech, December 18, 1979


At the level of general society, socialist ideas – ‘socialist’ here understood in the specific sense as the proposition of socialism as a form of organising society distinct from and opposed to that of present, capitalist, society – not only enjoy less currency than they did, say, twenty or thirty years ago, they are probably as marginal as they have been ever since the idea of socialism itself first manifested itself alongside the appearance of a working-class political movement in its modern form.

Within this general context, what I would call ‘serious’ socialism – a socialism that would present itself as the product of a concerted and conscious struggle against capitalist society; a socialism as the objective dynamic of partial oppositional struggles within existing society; a socialism which justifies its actuality through a dispassionate investigation of the nature of existing society and its historical genesis – is today granted the kind of respect previously normally accorded the more exotic fauna of religious discourse. This kind of socialism – in its most refined and developed form Marxism – once perceived as an ideologically legitimate but politically dangerous ideology to be, under normal conditions, subsumed – and therefore tolerated – as a minority opinion within the political organisations and academic institutions that have afforded stability to the existing capitalist order, and, under the whip of crisis, to be crushed by the police, the prisons, and the concentration camps, not only today enjoys a level of mainstream credibility of the same order as that accorded the partisans of the idea of the Flat Earth, but is considered equally innocuous for the existing social and political order.

This ideological marginalisation of socialism in its various stripes sees itself accompanied by an institutional decline within mainstream bourgeois politics. Those social-democratic parties that still maintain an electoral position in the classical bourgeois democracies do so increasingly less on the basis of, or even despite, their opposition to the existing order – be that opposition real or perceived – than on their being seen as more credible administrators of that order: even the traditional high day and holy day acknowledgement paid to socialist ideas by these parties has largely been jettisoned as either no longer necessary if not actively counterproductive to their present-day concerns. And where smaller oppositional parties, be these of Communist origin, or emanating from the non-Communist revolutionary left, or the products of splits from mainstream social democracy (or some combination of such developments), have previously enjoyed a mainstream political legitimacy, a diminishing electoral base, an increasingly marginal institutional role and an ever greater tendency to be stricken by recriminatory infighting and political splits all combine in a vicious circle of decline and irrelevance. Political currents previously susceptible to socialist ideas – nationalism, ecologism – find themselves increasingly drawn to a perspective of seeking better concessions within the system rather than one of mounting an opposition to it. In good part, the vacuous psycho-babble that passes for mainstream political discourse in the advanced capitalist democracies nowadays stems from the fact that there is no longer any meaningful antisystemic project worthy of being polemicised against.

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‘The General Discouragement of the Generation’: Orwell and the Politics of Language

As is well known, decisive among the weapons deployed in the panoptical dystopia portrayed in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four is the conscious engineering of language itself, such that ‘modes of thought’ contrary to those willed by the regime would be, because of being linguistically inexpressible, literally unthinkable. The idea is a suggestive one, so much so that some of its related vocabulary – ‘doublethink’, ‘thought crime’, ‘unperson’, ‘memory hole’ – have passed into everyday, ‘normal’ English. The phenomenon of ‘Newspeak’ of course comes to us as rather more than a mere narrative caprice: not only does Orwell’s projection continue to fascinate and horrify, its theoretical premise, that language and its limits, once set, condition and delimit thought, is one that has enjoyed a significant pedigree. The question that I address here is as to how seriously Orwell himself took the proposition. Was Orwell the writer really a partisan of this form of linguistic determinism; and, if he was, to what degree did this belief inform his practice as a writer?

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Fact and Fiction

It has become something of a commonplace to comment that ‘history’ must be a strange discipline, since the same word is used to denominate both the process of enquiry and the object of that enquiry itself. Unfortunately, the observation usually stops there; ‘unfortunately’, because what is at stake here is no mere linguistic curiosity but a reflection of a real methodological muddle, of which the ‘fact or fiction’ debate can be seen as but one reflection.

Around what does the debate turn? Fundamentally, on whether there really exist in history such things as ‘facts’, and, if they do, whether historians can grasp them objectively as they are or not; whether, in other words, ‘history’ (which here let us read as ‘the past’) can be said to exist independently of the mind of the historian, or whether all ‘history’ (for which here let us read as ‘historical interpretation’) is mere ‘discourse’: rootless, contingent, subjective, and relative.

Posed this way, of course, it can be seen that the debate is not about history at all really, but is in fact that hoary philosophical chestnut of the existence (or otherwise) and knowability (or otherwise) of material reality: of whether material reality exists outside of human consciousness of it, and, if it does, to what degree human beings can come to a comprehension of it.

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On Postone

Postone’s project – as he explains it – is to identify, or rethink, what is capitalist about capitalism. He notes that capitalism has assumed various ‘social-political-economic-cultural configurations’ in its history, and Postone enquires as to what is common – ‘core’ – to each of them. But this procedure, even if carried out ‘retrospectively’, is problematic; the question, in that it already assumes what it seeks to explain, is circular. If what is core to configurations of capitalism needs identifying, by what standard are these ‘capitalisms’ capitalist?

The difficulty is that Postone rules out a non-circular approach to this problem with his judgement that that the ‘mature’ Marx historically relativised what were for him previously ‘transhistorical notion’, restricting their validity to the capitalist mode of production. Thus, by situating his project within a rethinking of Marx in which ‘Marxist’ categories apply to where the operation of capitalist production predominates and here alone, Postone is left without categories by which to judge capitalist society (if I can for the moment use such a question-begging term) against other ones. Capitalism can only be analysed within its own terms of reference, and, as such, has to be assumed into existence.

Now, not to make too much of a fuss about it, I simply think that to say that Marx did historically relativise his concepts in this way is just wrong – wrong, in the sense of what it was that Marx said.

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Twenty-Nine Theses on Language

The property that marks human beings as unique in nature is their capacity to regulate their own relationship with the material world. Constitutive to this capacity is their capacity to think. The sense-impression that is their immediate contact with the material world is not only processed in the form of instinctual perception but is also manipulated so as to be able to form an abstract and theoretical representation of material reality in thought.

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Marxism and Translation

One of the aspects of this book which doesn’t seem to be getting the attention it deserves relates to the general question of translation. If we are to talk about the ‘classics’ of Marxism it appears to be that we often forget that, for a reader of English, practically in their entirety we are not reading what the original author wrote, but what the translator(s) of that author wrote, i.e. what the translator thought the author wrote and how that could be best expressed in English (or any other target language). One of the reasons Lih’s book is as long as it is is because of the fact that he (apparently) goes into in some depth the question of how What Is To Be Done? has been translated, discusses Lenin’s original Russian terminology and includes is own retranslation of Lenin. Not having read Lih’s book (and given its ridiculous price I doubt I ever will be able to either) I am unable to judge his arguments, but the central point remains that, when we discuss, say, Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? in English, we are not discussing Lenin’s text but someone (who?) else’s translation of that text, and that translation is never going to be semantically or formally identical to, and even may be semantically and formally quite different from, the original. For the more exegetical among us, who are over fond of quoting the ‘classics’ and splitting terminological hairs in them, this is something worth bearing in mind.

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Through What Stage Are We Passing?

[The] assertion that ‘everything is possible in human affairs’ is either meaningless or false.

—E. H. Carr

What Happened to the Socialist Revolution?
Anyone who has pretensions to being a revolutionary socialist nowadays, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, is surely obliged to answer one simple, if salient, question: what on earth has happened to the socialist revolution? For those of us who believe that the socialist transformation of society must through necessity pass through the gate of the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist order the fact is that moves to do just that have, since the mid point of the last century, been almost entirely absent from our planet; and absolutely absent from that part of our planet where the locus of capitalist power is lies––the advanced metropolis of western Europe, north America and Australasia. While the first half of the last century, as we shall see, was indeed a period rich in revolutionary experience in just this part of the world capitalist system, since the restabilisation of social and political order following the Second World War the metropolitan capitalist citadel has remained pristine in its resistance to revolutionary challenge.

For sure, the quarter of a century following the Second World War witnessed a period of economic growth and social stability arguably without parallel in human history: that openly anti-capitalist struggles were marked only by their absence in the bourgeois democracies of the ‘west’ in this period was only to be expected. But what of the period which opened up at the cusp of the sixties and seventies of post-Second World War boom? Those who believed that the ‘long detour’ of the previous two decades would end in a renewal of the conditions favourable to placing the socialist revolution back on the historical agenda will have been sorely disappointed.

While some will surely use this state of affairs as further ammunition for the argument that the revolutionary struggle for socialism was always a chimera, it is incumbent for anyone maintaining a commitment to socialist transformation with a modicum of intellectual honesty to point out that other roads to socialism––the so-called parliamentary one, for example, or the once modish strategies of ‘counter-hegemony’ and the like––have been found even more wanting in their efficacy in shifting the power of the bourgeoisie and its political institutions than the socialist revolution. The hard truth is that capitalist power has only ever been directly and successfully challenged by a revolutionary socialism. So, if the conclusion that the struggle for socialist emancipation was only ever a naïve and utopian dream is to be avoided, the question poses itself in all its force: what is it that is absent from the current world set up that was present in the first half of the twentieth century; and what might be the circumstances that will announce its return?

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