What would socialism be like?

Geoffrey Hawthorn

  • BuyIn the Tracks of Historical Materialism by Perry Anderson
    Verso, 112 pp, £4.95, November 1983, ISBN 0 86091 776 2
  • The Dialectics of Disaster by Ronald Aronson
    Verso, 329 pp, £5.95, February 1984, ISBN 0 86091 075 X
  • Rethinking Socialism by Gavin Kitching
    Methuen, 178 pp, £3.95, October 1983, ISBN 0 416 35840 3
  • The Economics of Feasible Socialism by Alec Nove
    Allen and Unwin, 244 pp, £12.95, February 1983, ISBN 0 04 335048 8
  • The Labour Party in Crisis by Paul Whiteley
    Methuen, 253 pp, £12.50, November 1983, ISBN 0 416 33860 7

Joseph Schumpeter had a refreshing sense of socialism. For him, it had almost no fixed sense at all. ‘A society may be fully and truly socialist and yet be led by an absolute ruler or be organised in the most democratic of all possible ways; it may be aristocratic or proletarian; it may be a theocracy and hierarchic or atheist and indifferent to religion; it may be much more strictly disciplined than men are in a modern army or completely lacking in discipline; it may be ascetic or eudemonist in spirit; energetic or slack; thinking only of the future or the day; warlike and nationalist or peaceful and internationalist; equalitarian or the opposite; it may have the ethics of lords or the ethics of slaves; its art may be subjective or objective; its forms of life individualistic or standardised.’ Of course, Schumpeter conceded, most who call themselves ‘socialist’ are in fact committed to one of these things rather than another, to peace rather than war, or to irreligion rather than religion. But if we wish to argue about which if any of these things are necessarily socialist, ‘we had better yield the floor to the only truly great performer in that field, Plato.’

This is not to say that Schumpeter did not himself have a conception of what socialism was, or see why socialists like him leant in one direction rather than another. Socialism was a reaction to capitalism, which ‘inevitably and by the very logic of its civilisation creates, educates and subsidises a vested interest in social unrest’. His own life had made that clear to him. It began in Austria-Hungary, where at Czernowitz he fought a duel with the university’s librarian over access to books. It continued in the new Austria, where in 1918 he was made Minister of Finance in the Social-Democratic Government. It ended in America, were he taught at Harvard, wrote Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, and died in 1950. Like others in his culture, he had seen how bourgeois society had affected the intellectuals. In the old order, they were in general expected to give support. They had a duty to honour Kultur and foster Bildung. In the new, they were expected to criticise, and to do so with the freedom the bourgeoisie purported to respect. But in so doing, they lost respect. As a result, the intellectual, ‘having no genuine authority and feeling always in danger of being unceremoniously told to mind his own business ... must flatter, promise and incite, nurse left wings and scowling minorities, sponsor doubtful or submarginal cases, appeal to fringe ends, profess himself ready to obey: in short, behave towards the masses as his predecessors behaved first towards their ecclesiastical superiors, later towards princes and other individual patrons, still later towards the collective master of bourgeois complexion’. Socialism, at least in the intellectuals, was a rage against displacement. And if some social historians are to be believed, socialism in its putative beneficiaries was a rage against displacement too, displacement of a more brutal kind.

What has always been less clear is what the replacement, socialism itself, would be. Schumpeter himself was an amoralist, and argued only for a centrally-directed economy to alleviate waste and disorder. But he did actually say. Few others have. In Perry Anderson’s view, Marxists have been ceasing to do so since the Bolshevik coup in 1917. Ever since the 1880s, they had understandably been more exercised about how to escape from capitalism than about what to do once they had. Lenin’s success and the subsequent failures to the west, especially in Germany, exercised them further, for their standard suppositions were turned upside down. Capitalism might not be a necessary condition of socialism at all. Indeed, it might impede it. Moreover, the new Soviet state had its own vertiginous difficulties and its Comintern recommended restraint, which was anyway evident, elsewhere. In the Twenties, the Western intellectuals turned away in despair from questions of economics and politics to ask whether there were not deeper reasons of a cultural or even psychological sort for the lack of revolutionary will. In the Considerations on Western Marxism which he published in 1976, Anderson thought he saw some sign of their at last turning back. France in the spring and early summer of 1968, Italy in the autumn of 1969, Portugal and even Britain in 1974, together with the onset of recession everywhere: these events, he believed, would concentrate their minds again on more practical possibilities. The intellectuals’ ‘long and tantalising’ diversion into theory might be coming to an end. In fact, it has taken ever more diverting turns.

In Paris, this might have been expected. There, the ‘irritated clowns’, in Christine Brooke-Rose’s happy phrase, the new ‘artists and philosophers of the meaningless’, have gone so far as to celebrate the arbitrariness of all reality and the reality of all arbitrariness. Former Marxists, like the anthropologist Godelier, now say that economies are no more fundamental than kinship or even myths. Infrastructural foundations can be found in any fact. Former structuralists, having already dismissed history as the epiphenomenal expression of eternal arrangements, now say that to talk of structures still supposes a subject to do so, and have dismissed this, too, in what Derrida calls ‘the seminal adventure of the trace’. They have deconstructed even subjective assent. Former Althusserians, like Glucksmann, say that Marxism is Stalinism is authoritarianism. Former Maoists, like Kristeva and Sollers, praise capitalism and Christianity and have renamed Tel Quel L’Infini in which to do so. In Italy, Colletti, previously one of the most persuasive of Marxists, now declares ‘il tramonto’ – the ‘twilight’ – ‘dell’ ideologia’. Even in Germany, always the most serious place, Habermas has abandoned his heroic effort to prove a real interest, an interest we have whatever we may in fact believe, in arriving at freedom and agreement, and retreated into a sweetly old-fashioned faith in a natural, and naturally very extended, evolution towards consensual altruism. ‘Western Marxism’ in these respects is ever more diverting, and dying.

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