Friday, July 14, 2006

What has made the Marxist vision convincing? (Norman Geras)

At one point in my recent post on Trotsky's critique of "Kantian-priestly and vegetarian-Quaker prattle", I quoted from an assessment of Trotsky by John Maynard Keynes that included the following passage ...
Granted his assumptions, much of Trotsky's argument is, I think, unanswerable. Nothing can be sillier than to play at revolution if that is what he means. But what are his assumptions? He assumes that the moral and intellectual problems of the transformation of Society have been already solved--that a plan exists, and that nothing remains except to put it into operation. [....] He is so much occupied with means that he forgets to tell us what it is all for.
... about which I commented:
Sounds harsh ... but it captures a crucial lacuna in a whole century of "revolutionary" Marxist & Marxist/Leninist discourse & argument. Much of it has started from the premise, explicit or implicit, that The Solution for mankind's problems is clear, obviously workable, and ready to be put into effect--namely, Socialism (or Communism). Getting there requires the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. So the question is how to find the strategies and generate the will to accomplish that job. (Anyone who thinks I'm exaggerating or generalizing too broadly should revisit, for example, the accumulated work of someone like Perry Anderson.)

Millions of people have accepted that this premise was valid, even obviously correct. Why, and on what basis? Frankly, that's a great world-historical puzzle.
Of course, this puzzle has been noticed many times before, and both Marxists and critics of Marxism have addressed it at length. For example, in the three-volume masterwork on Main Currents in Marxism (1978) by Leszek Kolakowski, who had once been a major Marxist philosopher himself, the final chapter opens by posing this problem in more dramatic terms than I have done--though Kolakowski doesn't really try to solve it.
Marxism has been the great fantasy of our century. It was a dream offering the prospect of a society of perfect unity, in which all human aspirations would be fulfilled and all values reconciled. [....] It owed much of its success to the combination of Messianic fantasies with a specific and genuine social cause, the struggle of the European working class against poverty and exploitation. This combination was expressed in a coherent doctrine [....] [which] expressed the belief, discussed critically more than once in the course of the present work, that human knowledge and human practice, directed by the will, must ultimately coincide and become inseparable [....]
Another former Marxist intellectual, Jon Elster, has put it more cuttingly:
Optimism and wishful thinking have been features of socialist thought from its inception. In Marx, for instance, two main premises appear to be that whatever is desirable is possible, and that whatever is desirable and possible is inevitable.
Well, that seems fair, but it once again raises the question of why so many people have found the resulting picture so powerfully convincing--including Elster himself.

Furthermore, in many respects this Marxian revolutionary idea is only one form of a larger revolutionary vision that has been a major force in world history since the French revolution. The historian R.R. Palmer captured it beautifully in the first paragraph of his book on The World of the French Revolution:
[....] [O]ne of the most portentous consequences of the upheaval was the "invention" of revolution itself, the launching of the belief--or, as some would say, "myth"--that human problems will be solved by a vast phenomenon in world history known as "the revolution." No one had made any such supposition before 1789, not even those Frenchmen who, in the course of events, became revolutionaries.
But many, many people have believed it since 1789. Why?

=> So the question I raised is now an old and familiar one, pondered and ruminated from many perspectives. But I would say that it remains a genuinely important and perplexing "world-historical puzzle."

Norman Geras, who is exceptionally familiar with these matters through both scholarship and personal experience, has ventured his own partial and preliminary response to this puzzle. As Norm is careful to make clear, his discussion here doesn't at all pretend to be substantial or definitive. Instead, it offers some brief and tentative reflections ... which merit consideration.

--Jeff Weintraub
====================
Norman Geras (Normblog)
July 14, 2006

Problematic futures

In a post that cites some observations by J.M. Keynes about Leon Trotsky's outlook, Jeff Weintraub raises an interesting question of (Marxist) theory. Jeff writes:
[The passage] captures a crucial lacuna in a whole century of "revolutionary" Marxist [and] Marxist/Leninist discourse [and] argument. Much of it has started from the premise, explicit or implicit, that The Solution for mankind's problems is clear, obviously workable, and ready to be put into effect - namely, Socialism (or Communism). Getting there requires the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism. So the question is how to find the strategies and generate the will to accomplish that job...

Millions of people have accepted that this premise was valid, even obviously correct. Why, and on what basis? Frankly, that's a great world-historical puzzle.

I don't know that I have an answer, exactly, to Jeff's 'world-historical puzzle'; but I think it's possible to identify a number of themes within classical Marxism that make it easier to understand why this combination of views has seemed plausible to so many. Here are five:

1. Emergence: The solution of capitalist 'contradictions' - a classless society - is not an abstract ideal, a model figured out in advance. It is emergent within the present, the result of economic tendencies and social forces already operative within capitalism, and making the transcendence of capitalism possible. So this is not a solution imposed from above or without - by intellectuals or a political organization. It is the liberation of forces already at work.

2. Democracy: While the change envisaged is revolutionary in the sense of being a far-reaching transformation of societal structures, the assumption is that it is the work of the great majority of the exploited, who have an interest in its happening. Therefore, the scope of social disruption, conflict and violence is seen as limited and manageable. The democratic basis of the transformation is integral to the conception.

3. Anti-utopianism: Blueprints for the future, for utopia, are a foolish game. You can't map out in advance the entire complexity of a social order, and if you try to, you inevitably end up with something that looks silly - projecting forward features of the present that are ephemeral, and/or failing to anticipate new problems, new solutions, new capacities.

4. Narrowing options: In any case, to lay out a blueprint for the future forecloses the options, the freedom, of those - the great majority - whose emancipation is projected.

5. Ready solutions: 'Mankind... inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve, since closer examination will always show that the problem itself arises only when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the course of formation.'

In laying out these themes, I've said nothing about how persuasive they are. But I think there's more to be said for the first two than for the last three.

To be realistic, the projection of an alternative future does have to be hooked on to tendencies and capabilities that are already present. And to be either realistic or morally supportable they have also to be able to win the legitimacy, the full, uncoerced legitimacy, of the democratically given consent of a considerable majority.

On the other hand, neither of these desiderata validates the idea of embarking on a major effort of change without having some good, if only provisional, models of the social alternatives in view. Free people will be free to adapt or reject as they see fit, but there's no virtue in not trying face some of the toughest questions in advance. And there's no reason of any kind, the genius of human creativity notwithstanding, to expect that solutions will always present themselves when problems arise.

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