Kettles boil, classes struggle

Terry Eagleton

  • A Defence of ‘History and Class Consciousness’: Tailism and the Dialectic by Georg Lukács, translated by Esther Leslie
    Verso, 182 pp, £10.00, June 2002, ISBN 1 85984 370 0

Changing the world involves a curious kind of doublethink. If we are to act effectively, the mind must buckle itself austerely to the actual, in the belief that knowing the situation for what it is is the source of all moral and political wisdom. The only trouble is that such knowledge is also desperately hard to come by, and perhaps unattainable in any complete sense. The difficulty is not so much the solutions themselves, but grasping the way it is with a particular bit of the world. If you get this right, it will intimate the kinds of solution you should look to. Answers are not the hardest thing.

The problem is not only that there are many competing versions of how it is with the world, including the Postmodern belief that it is no way in particular; it is also that to bow our minds submissively to the actual requires a humility and self-effacement which the clamorous ego finds hard to stomach. It is an unglamorous business, distasteful to the fantasising, chronically self-deceiving human mind. Seeing things for what they are is, in the end, possible only for the virtuous.

There would be no point demanding an end to capitalism if the system had been wound up several decades ago and we had simply failed to notice. In this broad sense, all prescriptions about what should be done imply descriptions of what is actually the case. Values must be linked to facts.

But at the very moment the mind is required to be chaste and self-forgetful, it is also asked to spurn the actual in the name of the possible. It must combine the indicative mood with the subjunctive, yoking a coldly demystified sense of the present to a warmly imaginative leap beyond it. The flights of fantasy which get in the way of seeing the situation straight are vital to imagining an alternative to it. If the romantic conforms the world to his desire, and the realist conforms his mind to the world, the revolutionary is called on to do both at once.

In this sense, radical politics demand a strangely hybrid human being, one who is both more sceptical and more trustful than the average. Such characters are more gloomy in their view of the past and present than most conservatives, but also more open to a transformed future than most liberal reformists. The bad news is that because what is awry with the present is a structural affair, it runs far deeper than individual folly or knavery; but for the same reason it can in principle be changed, which is the good news. It is when radicals are decried as Jeremiahs by liberals and as starry-eyed utopianists by conservatives that they know they have got it more or less right.

This duality crops up in Marxist theory as a contention over how much power should be assigned to the subject and how much to the object. But since ‘subject’ here means the revolutionary masses, and ‘object’ something like history or class-society, the epistemological is also the political. How far is change up to us, and how far is it constrained by objective conditions? Pushed too far, the former keels over into voluntarism, and the latter into determinism. The combination of these two heresies is the preserve of middle-class society, which believes politically speaking in self-determination, and economically speaking that the individual is merely a pawn in the marketplace. The voluntaristic doctrines of capitalism – the sky’s the limit, never say never, you can crack it if you try – are a convenient screen for the ‘truth’ of its determinism: the fact that the human subject is shunted around by random economic forces. But they also reflect a genuine belief in democracy, hard though that is to reconcile with economic anarchy.

What, then, of the Marxist version of this problem? Marx himself tended to speak of practical human subjects in his youth and objective, law-like processes in his middle age. Some of his disciples claimed that these were just different ways of talking about the same thing, whereas others, not least humanist or Hegelian Marxists like Sartre, regarded talk of law-like processes as itself a form of alienation. For the early Gramsci, Marx had immatured with age, and Capital was to be discarded. For Althusser, however, Marx’s youthful talk about living human subjects was simply a regrettable Hegelian hangover, and the ‘mature’ Marx was the genuine scientific article.

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