A Klee painting named ‘Angelus Novus’ shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing in from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such a violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History, 1939

History is often depicted as a series of events that inevitably follow on from each other; this is what is called 'progress'.

We are led to believe that capitalism moves forward inexorably and positively into the future. And this is the natural order of things: there is no other path. This is the 'natural flow' of history.

In the late nineteenth century Eduard Bernstein, a German social democratic theoretician, argued that capitalism was advancing beyond the increasingly 'outdated' notion of the 'class struggle'. Bernstein, whose ideas were later to be expressed by the social democrats of the twentieth century, argued that socialism would be achieved through capitalism. It was the natural evolutionary way of things. Bernstein rejected the revolutionary impulse of Marxism in favour of social democratic reformism.

The agent for this gentle and polite glide into socialism was to be the educated middle class. According to Bernstein, the working class was not the central agent of change - merely its powerless subject.

But Bernstein was proved fatally wrong.

In the end, what developed out of the German middle class were fascism and the rise of Hitler.

By the 1960s the middle class intelligentsia were again signaling the end of the 'class struggle'. Once again, Marxism was consigned to the scrapheap of history.

In his book The End of Ideology (1960) the American sociologist Daniel Bell argued that history and ideology had been rendered irrelevant because western social democracy and capitalism had triumphed. Game over, said Bell.

Like Bernstein before him, Bell said that the educated middle class would guide society. Once again there was no place for the working class. Once again, Marxism was sent off to the scrapheap of history, labeled 'Victorian Oddity'.

Bell's views however were also proven untrue when his post-industrial utopia was rudely interrupted by the brutality of the Vietnam War and a growing disenchantment with the political status quo, leading to the emergence of the radical youth counter-culture of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Fast forward to the 1990s and the final triumph of capitalism is again being announced. Capitalism has triumphed over Stalinism; neoliberalism and the 'free market' is the all-conquering winner.

The western social democratic parties, including the New Zealand Labour Party, wholeheartedly embraced neoliberalism, which they sometimes referred to as the 'Third way' or 'social democracy adapting to New Times.'

The American sociologist Francis Fukuyama, following in the footsteps of Bernstein and Bell, announced once again the triumph of capitalism. In his 1993 book The End of History Fukuyama depicted both class struggle and Marxism as anachronistic and irrelevant, arguing that the struggle between ideologies had come to the end and predicted the political and economic dominance of neoliberalism. Wrote Fukuyama:

What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such... That is, the end point of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.

Once again this neoliberal utopia would be presided over by the educated middle class. Once again the working class had been defined as historically impotent, the 'class struggle' a thing of the past.

But, like Bernstein and Bell, Fukuyama has been proven completely wrong: capitalism has plunged into its greatest crisis since the 1930s.

In October 2008 the former chairman of the US Reserve Alan Greenspan told a Congressional hearing that he had found a 'flaw' in his free market ideology.

Democrat congressman Henry Waxman then pressed him to clarify his words. “In other words, you found that your view of the world, your ideology, was not right, it was not working,” he said.

“Absolutely, precisely,” replied Greenspan, a former confidant of the right wing 'libertarian' thinker Ayn Rand. “You know, that’s precisely the reason I was shocked, because I have been going for forty years or more with very considerable evidence that it was working exceptionally well.”

Greenspan later admitted in a widely reported university lecture that it had not only been premature to announce the victory of capitalism over socialism, but the 'argument' was still being played out.

All of the above is not some gratuitous intellectual exercise but rather it helps put into a historical framework this statement from political commentator Chris Trotter. In a blog post entitled 'A Serious Case of Mislabelling' he writes:

What distinguishes the social democrat from the socialist revolutionary is the belief that the social, economic and political changes required to emancipate humanity from its "capitalist integument" (to use Marx’s phraseology) are all achievable peacefully, without recourse to insurrectionary coups d’etat and/or murderous civil wars, through the institutions of representative parliamentary democracy.

This, as you can see, is simply a restatement of the failed reformism of Eduard Bernstein. That the evolutionary road to socialism via capitalism has proven to be a tragic historical dead end appears to be of no consequence to Chris Trotter. That he can still believe this is a viable political project is staggering. How much historical proof does he need? But having rejected Marxism many years ago, Trotter has nowhere else to go. He stumbles among the rubble of social democracy and the storm of history keeps piling up the wreckage.
Just as capitalism has not triumphed, despite repeated exaggerated claims that it has, simply tinkering with capitalism cannot change the course of history. Socialism represents a fundamental break with all that has gone before.

In her 1908 essay Reform or Revolution? Rosa Luxemburg observed that Bernstein was nothing more than a utopian if he thought that socialism could be reformed into existence.

Luxemburg wrote that Bernstein wanted to turn ‘the sea of capitalist bitterness into a sea of socialist sweetness, by progressively pouring into it bottles of social reformist lemonade.’

Over a century later people like Chris Trotter are still peddling the same discredited idea.

Trotter goes on to write:

..Social-democratic parties are strategically precluded from indulging in the sort of uncompromising political praxis of bona fide revolutionary movements. In order to attract and hold mass electoral support, parties like the NZ Labour Party must be very careful to, in the memorable phrase of Jim Anderton, "build their footpaths where the people walk". While capitalist ideology retains its hegemonic grip on the hearts and minds of the vast majority of the population, the only thing that crude anti-capitalist sloganeering will bring about is the instant loss of social-democracy’s mass support.

That Trotter can persist in calling Labour 'social democratic' is laughable, but his conviction that Labour must 'adapt' to the prevailing political current is a counsel of despair indeed.

Trotter quotes Jim Anderton as if Anderton had articulated some great truth. In reality though that while Anderton was supposedly building his footpaths 'where the people walk' he was making his peace with neoliberalism. Trotter's strategy, if we can call it that, has only served to weaken and damage the interests of the working class he claims to support.

He may well consider how Walter Benjamin's words relate to New Zealand: 'nothing has corrupted the German working class so much as the notion that it was moving with the current'.

Just as capitalism has not triumphed, despite repeated exaggerated claims that it has, simply tinkering with capitalism cannot change the course of history. Socialism represents a fundamental break with all that has gone before.

The real answer, as Benjamin wrote more than half a century ago, is to stand against the current. Like Benjamin's Angel of History we must 'awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.'

Socialism demands of us to stand against the current, to face the storm of history and, as Benjamin also wrote, to create the conditions in which turning back is impossible.


Post a Comment

Comments are moderated.