A new leftist journal called Jacobin will soon publish “How the Left Has Won, or Why Is There Still Socialism in the United States?”—an essay I wrote in response to a challenge from students in a graduate class I taught this past spring on the development of capitalism, ca. 1540-2010. Like almost all leftists, they can see only a shift to the right of the political spectrum in their lifetimes, so they were astounded to hear me speak as if the Left has succeeded where it matters, in winning the culture wars, and then stretching the proposition a bit to claim that socialism saturates our social relations right here in River City, the good old USA. I told them I was thinking of writing up the argument, and they demanded that I do, presumably because the intellectual alchemy involved would then be subject to proper ridicule.
So I’ve been there and done that. Now I want to examine something more specific and more insidious about the Left’s case against itself. This is the “political unconscious,” the “immanent ideology” residing in the notion that the development of socialism, progressivism, radical democracy, call it whatever you want (how about peas and carrots?) requires a resolute cadre of leftists dedicated to the overthrow of capitalism. In other words: either a dedicated, organized anti-capitalist Left exists to answer Rosa Luxemburg’s question—socialism or barbarism?—or the cause of social and political progress toward democracy will be thwarted by the pro-capitalist forces of reaction.
On historical grounds, I find this notion specious at best. It’s a form of congratulations to those beautiful souls who just won’t compromise with the world as it actually exists—all those radicals, mystics, and seers, all the poets, comics, and freegans who have said No, in thunder, to modernity as a market-driven phenomenon. But it’s also a residual form of Leninism, because it posits an alliance between workers and intellectuals as the crucial condition of effective anti-capitalist movements and politics—as Lenin did in his canonical polemic of 1903, “What Is To Be Done?,” the blueprint for every vanguard party of the last century.
Or rather, this political unconscious, this immanent ideology imagines—it insists—that only an alliance with the well-educated can liberate workers from their limited visions of the future, and thus create a passage beyond capitalism. (Spoiler alert: you can let yourself off the hook and stop reading by acknowledging that socialism, like capitalism, is a cross-class construction, but keep in mind that to do so is to acknowledge that socialism has no predictable valence, Left or Right, liberal or conservative, and maybe even to admit that Lenin was just another social democrat.)
You don’t have to be a Marxist or a moron to be a Leninist by this definition. Richard Rorty, Christopher Lasch, Thomas Frank, and Nelson Lichtenstein, each of them a brilliant critic of late capitalism—OK, two of them are dead, so what?—are good examples of moderate, liberal devotion to the idea of a polite, eggheaded vanguard, without whom the proles get distracted, confused, besieged, and eventually succumb to the terminal disease of false consciousness. On the other side of the political spectrum, Niall Ferguson, the Fredo Corleone of our academic time—he’s the genuine article, the perfect twit—presents the same intellectual credentials in touting China as the antithesis of the “stationary state” that plagues the Western democracies. The difference between Ferguson and his counterparts on the Left is not the mandarin attitude that makes intellectuals the most important of people—without them, you see, all consciousness is false—it’s the stated goals of their intellectual attainment.
So the question really is, why do academics and intellectuals think like Lenin in exile (in 1903, long before the Finland Station)—on the one hand, believing somehow that they’re indispensable to political progress even while removed from the scene of political decisions, while, on the other hand, believing that they’re more superfluous than Oblomov holding office hours from his bed, with no possible purchase on the popular mind? Is it because Lenin’s ideological relation to the working class has become the professoriat’s pedagogical relation to the student body?
Every professor believes that his more or less benighted students need him, the intellectual, to get beyond their unenlightened state and see the world anew—ask Mark Jacobson, Andrew Delbanco, Mark Taylor, or the next colleague you encounter in the hallway, if there is such a place where you work. Ask yourself: if not to change what people think, what is your function as an intellectual? Every professor also believes that, having been sequestered in the ivory tower or silenced by the forces of reaction, he has no standing in political decisions unless NPR or MSNBC comes calling. He knows he’s in exile unless he exerts himself enough to insist on his broader and deeper engagement with the hallowed public sphere. But where to find an authorial “platform,” as the publishing houses call the place he must stand to address this phantom, this reading public? What audience, what constituency, he asks himself, lies beyond this classroom?
I borrow the idea of a political unconscious, an immanent ideology, from Fredric Jameson’s great work of 1981, one of those books that either mystifies you or changes your life. I read it as the literary equivalent of Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), whereby form (or genre) in fictional discourse becomes the analogue of paradigm in non-fictional discourse. Jameson wasn’t reminting the vulgar Marxist coinage of base and superstructure, he was instead explaining how historically determined protocols of writing and reading make certain realities observable, probable, even actionable and, by doing so, he was showing how they constitute social relations between practitioners (writers) and their potential publics. Like Roland Barthes in Writing Degree Zero (1967), Jameson was working out the differences between language, form, and style, or History, Society, and Biography—the choice of form establishes a “relationship between creation and society,” Barthes claimed, and thus generates a “literary language transformed by its social finality.”
But how to illustrate the political unconscious of the intellectuals that is Leninism? I won’t even bother with the right-wing variations on the vanguard theme, which you can sample in any utterance of Newt Gingrich or Ron Paul or Dick Cheney from the last twenty years. I’ll cite my own anecdotal experience, then turn to some recent egregious instances of the left-wing variation—and I promise not to make fun of Thomas Frank, the man who believes that all consciousness is false except his own.
“What are you saying? Socialism without socialists is impossible! No movement, no progress, period.” That’s a distillation of conversations I’ve had with a lot of comrades in my time on the Left. They have a point. Socialism was installed in the 20th century in countries where great movements led by leftist intellectuals fought for it. My reply has been, well, capitalism happened in countries where great movements led by bourgeois intellectuals fought for something else. These early modern revolutionaries didn’t even know what capitalism was, let alone promote it as their political-economic agenda.
Why then do we need a socialist movement—an organized Left—to get us beyond capitalism? Put the same question another, more provocative way. What makes us think the Left has disappeared because it has no affiliated social movement outside of Occupy Everything at its disposal, or because it has no political party pitching its line? The answers are contained in the questions. The Left hasn’t disappeared, it has instead infiltrated every level and every sphere of social life, making socialism an institutionalized dimension of everyday life. The Right doesn’t own a party, just a news network—the Republicans are pro-market, to be sure, but that urge is never a sign of merely pro-capitalist sentiment, and often enough it signifies an anti-corporate agenda that intersects with the Left’s, as in the silly idea that we need to break up the big banks to unleash more competitive market forces.
The Left, in other words, is an extremely variegated social, intellectual, and political phenomenon, just like the Right. It comes and it goes, it waxes and wanes, but it never expires. The fact that we can’t point to a concrete instance of its political presence—a faction, a party, a cadre—doesn’t mean it’s over and done. In my view, that political inconspicuousness might be the measure of its significance, because the nature of politics has changed: where it was once a matter of elections and campaigns, it’s now a more diffuse cultural phenomenon.
We’re all grateful that the CP was a well-organized presence in the 1930s, operating at the cultural front of the CIO and the popular arts–notice, not running candidates–but in its decided absence, in the 1950s and 60s and, yes, the 1970s as well, the Left won every battle it joined. Since then the Right has learned how to use political tactics and judicial activism to stall progress toward the social democracy promised by the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, and the gay rights movement. But, historically speaking, this “conservative” bid to derail the train to Jordan is a bad bet, a losing proposition.
Still, the leading intellectuals of the Left think it’s over, and so they’re either scrambling to explain why or composing erudite eulogies for what they think is the Lost Cause. Two good examples are Richard Wolff, the scourge of bourgeois economists, and T. J. Clark, the brilliant art historian. Wolff published his lessons on line under the aegis of Truthout, June 12, 2012, Clark was given a platform in New Left Review 74 (March-April 2012).
Wolff is trying to explain the debacle of Wisconsin, which bothered all of us. The working class turned against itself in this recall election, he observes, so he asks “Why did this happen, and what strategic lessons can we learn from answering that question?” The historical analogue he devises is the difference between then and now—the difference between working class responses to the Great Depression and the Great Recession. “Why did capitalism’s collapse in the 1930s affect workers so differently from what is happening in the current crisis? Back then workers’ interests were advanced by a powerful alliance coordinating two sets of organizations active in two different segments of society.” The two organizations were, of course, the CIO and the Communist Party—I say “of course” and I reduce his formula to these organizations because he’s adhering to the now dispositive precedent in the historiography of the Left in analyzing the 1930s (among hundreds of others, see esp. Robin D. G. Kelley and Mark Naison) and now of the Long Civil Rights era (see Jacqueline Dowd Hall, Glenda Gilmore), whereby the centrality of the CP has finally become the premise and the conclusion, notwithstanding the fact that, after 1953, its role in the struggle for black liberation (or the rise of the larger New Left) was minimal at best. Parenthetically, I find this new historiographical trend pathetic, another instance of a Leninist urge to assert the importance of radicals in steering benighted Americans toward redemption.
“The lesson that American history teaches us is thus not the need for just any alliance or cooperation between unions and the community,” Wolff intones, with all the heavy breathing an academic can bring to the role of Old Testament/Old Left prophet: “The key lesson is this: What makes all the difference is a very particular alliance, one between unions and an explicitly anti-capitalist social and political movement. . . . The absence of that alliance now enables the results of the June 5 elections [in Wisconsin], just as its absence in recent decades facilitated right-wing shifts. In contrast, the presence of such an alliance in Europe (although weaker than it once was) explains why so many countries there have shifted far less to the right.”
But listen closely, the Owl of Minerva is spreading her wings: “the 1930s marked not only the peak of the union/anti-capitalist alliance . . . it also marked the breakup of that alliance.” How so? FDR’s welcomed the unions into his new coalition, but on the condition that they “drop, or at least downplay, the critique of capitalism and the activities for a change of system.” In this sense, the president split the crucial alliance between the CP and the CIO, saving capitalism by enfranchising the unions, on the one hand, and ensuring on the other that they would be “increasingly isolated from the kind of mass radical support that served workers’ interests so well in the depths of the Depression.”
In short: absent the anti-capitalist radicals—us white-collar leftists with the good educations who congregate on campuses or in vanguard parties—the workers lose. Really?
By all accounts, the American working class prospered during two moments of modern-industrial development, from the 1870s to the 1890s and from the 1930s to the 1970s, irrespective of union representation at the point of production. Can some cadre of radicals or charismatic professors, or a vanguard party, take credit for that? Some urgent alliance of workers and intellectuals, the grunts and the officers? Of course not. In the late-19th century, for example, the proprietary middle class of the small towns and cities—hardly a radical vanguard—sided with their neighbors, the workers, in the struggle against “foreign capital,” the railroads and corporations that were trying to discipline their labor forces; that made all the difference when strikes occurred.
But I know what you’re thinking, I’m using a narrow measure of “prosperity” in this calculation, by assuming that the increase in labor’s share of national income in these two moments exhausts the meaning of subaltern progress. I deny the charge. Workers’ control of machine production in the late-19th century meant far more than relative autonomy for skilled labor—because it entailed better wages and more leisure time for unskilled labor as well, and meanwhile it embedded working people as such in communities that stretched well beyond the factories. Collective bargaining improved the lives of the majority, not just those involved in deciding the wages and the hours.
In the mid-to-late 20th century, the American working class prospered in every sense not because anti-capitalist radicals kept clamoring for a “change of system,” but because the New Deal had socialized property, production, and distribution without announcing the advent of socialism—and because both parties, at least at the level of presidential electoral coalitions, accepted this socialization as the price of escape from economic depression and the necessary cost of world power. The organized, sectarian Left was a spectator on this moment until the mid-1970s, when it was already too late to the party, having written off or newly anointed the working class as the authoritarian bearer of the socialist future.
So my revision of Professor Wolff’s lesson plan would run as follows. The working class doesn’t need our condescension or our radicalism, it’s done just fine without us—and besides, the working class, no matter how we define it, can’t bear the weight you assign it by assuming that socialism is its exclusive mission or property. This stratum can’t bear such weight not because its vision is limited but because, like capitalism, socialism can’t develop except as a mode of production that elicits and requires cross-class coalitions.
Turn now to T. J. Clark’s elegy, which reads like the spoken text it started as—every paragraph heaves with the plaintive sound of a funeral oration, you can almost hear his voice rising, falling, and cracking. The sense of an ending here is audible, but we’re not listening to the last gasps of late capitalism: this “question of capitalism,” Clark insists, “has to be bracketed.” No, what is ending is the Left itself, here defined as the “root and branch opposition to capitalism” that was once visible and even respectable in the western parliamentary democracies. The essay is called “For a Left With No Future.” It’s the scene of an epistemological crisis, an emotional disaster.
“Left, then, is a term denoting an absence; and this near non-existence ought to be explicit in a new thinking of politics. But it does not follow that the left should go on exalting its marginality, in the way it is constantly tempted to do—exulting in the glamour of the great refusal, and consigning to outer darkness the rest of an unregenerate world. That way literariness lies.”
But what else is to be done? Clark proposes a revisionist solution: drop “the big ideas, the revolutionary stylistics” and try to “turn the vestige, slowly or suddenly, into the beginning of a ‘movement.’” Like Eduard Bernstein in 1899, Clark wants the Left to shed its teleological or rather eschatological baggage—to make the movement both the means and the end of its vestigial political presence.
So he asks two questions. The first is “what would it be like for left politics not to look forward—to be truly present-centred, non-prophetic, disenchanted, continually ‘mocking its own presage’?” (This is the same question Jackson Lears asks and answers in an important provocation, “The Trigger of History,” The Hedgehog Review [May-June 2012], but, unlike Clark, Lears won’t bracket the discussion of capitalism, and indeed foregrounds it by suggesting that the master narratives of modernity produced by the Left are participants in the reproduction of capitalism.)
There can be no intelligible answer to this question in Clark’s essay because, having already foreclosed the “great refusal” that would keep the Left pure—and thus marginal—he claims that to be “non-prophetic” is to abjure either Utopia or Heaven, both symptoms, as he sees it, of a religious impulse that manifests as “the wish for escape from mortal existence, the dream of immortality, the idea of Time to Come.” Stay in the fight, stay in your calling, but don’t go back to the church, Clark preaches, in a reprise of the late Luther: be resolute in the present, but do not think of the future as something you can shape: try to be in but not of this world.
It’s a recipe for resignation to the world as it stands—Occupy Your Office is the slogan, as if Bartleby the Scrivener’s inertial preference has become the Left’s political purpose.
The second question shapes the essay more profoundly, to the point of literariness: “could left politics be transposed into a tragic key?” By tragic Clark means many things, but the fundamental connotation is “the experience of defeat,” and he cites the book by Christopher Hill with that title to argue the case covertly, by historical analogy—the book that followed the careers of those who, like John Milton, made the English Revolution and then were forced to watch as its grand claims and great advances withered after 1660. Tragedy since 1914, Clark suggests, also means violence, failure, self-misunderstanding, powerlessness, horror, danger, and war, “greatness come to nothing,” “the time of human smoke.”
Clark repeatedly invokes A.C. Bradley, the late-Victorian Shakespeare scholar and brother to F. H. Bradley, the British idealist philosopher, to explain the nature of tragedy as such and then the tragedy that is the 20th century, thus to transpose left-wing politics to an appropriately minor key. It’s an arresting move, because the literary name-dropping that otherwise crowds Clark’s canvas stops here—these invocations of Bradley never lead to the obvious collateral source, T. S. Eliot, who wrote approvingly about the Shakespeare scholar in his “London Letters” of 1921-22, and more seriously about the brother, the idealist philosopher, in his Harvard PhD dissertation of 1910, “Knowledge and Experience in the Philosophy of F. H. Bradley.” (Eliot took this Bradley so seriously that he cited the philosopher’s Appearance and Reality , p. 346, alongside Dante’s Inferno at line 411 of his notes to “The Wasteland.”)
This absolute silence makes Eliot the “old mole” of the piece—the ghost that haunts Clark’s impersonation of Hamlet, the character A. C. Bradley treated as the epitome of the tragic sensibility, and the play to which he devoted most of his lively, surprising critical attention.
Eliot famously criticized Hamlet for its artistic failures (he called it “the Mona Lisa of literature,” meaning that it was enigmatic only to the unwashed). “Both workmanship and thought are in an unstable condition,” he wrote of Shakespeare’s writerly situation in 1604, and noted also that the play is a “stratification,” upper stories added to an earlier edifice, new styles imposed on old plays like Thomas Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy. The pivot of the critique, though, was the notion of an objective correlative: “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately invoked.”
It’s an inane idea unless you think like Henry James, that writing for the theater is your destiny, or unless you think like a German phenomenologist pronouncing on art—and let’s keep in mind that Eliot was thoroughly familiar with Schelling, Fichte, and Hegel via F. H. Bradley—but it’s the aesthetic/artistic agenda Clark realizes in “For A Left With No Future.” The objective correlative of the emotional disaster area he designates, for himself and the contemporary Left, is the charnel house of the 20th century: “Here is where the tragic perspective helps. It allows us not to see a shape or logic—a development from past to future—to the last hundred years. It opens us, I think rightly, to a vision of the period as catastrophe in the strict sense: unfolding pell-mell from Sarajevo on, certainly until the 1950s.”
No rhyme, no reason, no explanation: just an emotional apprehension of the century’s horrors, “a chaos formed from an unstoppable, unmappable criss-cross of forces.” But this is not merely an emotional impasse, it’s the same epistemological crisis Hamlet encountered on his return from university: too many narratives, and no way to accredit any one of them without sacrificing his life to its truth.
Now A. C. Bradley wouldn’t stand for the romantic rendition of Hamlet as a bruised and lonely artist, exulting in the glamour of the isolation determined by his refusal to accept the incestuous, dynastic politics of Elsinore. He agreed, more or less, with Hegel, who insisted that the prince never doubted what to do, only how to do it (which is a pretty good definition of an artist, anyway). Here’s how Bradley deflected the idea that the late passages ending in those immortal words of “readiness” were an index of Hamlet’s growth as a character:
“But I find it impossible to believe, with some critics, that [these passages] indicate any material change in his general condition, or the formation of any effective resolution to fulfill the appointed duty. On the contrary, they seem to express that kind of religious resignation which, however beautiful in one aspect, really deserves the name of fatalism rather than that of faith in Providence, because it is not united to any determination to do what is believed to be the will of Providence. In place of this determination, the Hamlet of the Fifth Act shows a kind of sad or indifferent self-abandonment, as if he secretly despaired of forcing himself to action.”
You can now see what I mean when I say that Clark has impersonated (Bradley’s) Hamlet, and in doing so has adhered to Eliot’s aesthetic agenda of genteel abstention from the horrors of the 20th century. To illustrate the tragic sensibility Bradley derives from Shakespeare, Clark quotes Isaac Penington and Moses Wall, two Puritan revolutionaries. “The world is now very dark and barren,” says Penington in 1654, and soon after Wall bemoans the “retrograde motion” of the English nation. This is clearly religious resignation expressed by two of the men who made what Michael Walzer called the Revolution of the Saints. And this is what T. J. Clark wants from the Left of our time—the attitude toward both the past and the future that deserves the name of fatalism. The Left is dead, long live the Left.
Or it’s the resignation he wants from himself, this lonesome Hamlet for our time. But is he perhaps casting himself in the wrong part? The “old mole” might have thought so. Here is one of those little poems within a larger, anti-epic poem that Eliot first perfected in “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915):
No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a chorus, start a scene or two
Advise the prince; no doubt an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Polite, cautious, meticulous;
Full of high sentences, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.
This is Polonius speaking, not Hamlet. Is T. J. Clark better cast as the fussy old courtier, full of high sentences but a bit obtuse? And if so, what about his casting of that larger part in our own political drama, the Left of “root and branch opposition to capitalism”? Bring out the bodies. Bring out your dead.
So I return, finally, to the question of a political unconscious. Why is it that socialism, progressivism, radical democracy, whatever you call it, must presuppose a movement, a cadre, a party, a set of saints? Why do Richard Wolff and T. J. Clark and most of our comrades believe that the project(s) of the Left must expire in the absence of a movement, a cadre, a party, a set of saints? The historical evidence suggests that in the late-19th and 20th centuries, socialism and progressivism thrived in the absence as well as the presence of these political devices. The masses have done fine without us intellectuals. So what is at stake in insisting that they need us?
I have two answers. Our insistence is a cryptic way of acknowledging that social origins have little to do with class allegiance or political affiliation—it’s a hopeful way of saying that socialism, progressivism, radical democracy, whatever, is a cross-class construction that requires the intellectual contribution of every social stratum. But it’s also a way of unconsciously condescending to the masses, treating them exactly as Lenin treated workers in 1903 and after, as people who couldn’t possibly realize their proper roles without the guidance of a disciplined Left—a movement, a cadre, a party, a set of saints—properly equipped with the correct Theory. The “political unconscious” of the Left still harbors, and produces, this condescension.
We can choose between these attitudes toward history, toward our fellow citizens, and toward the future. One attitude requires close attention to socialism, progressivism, and so forth, as social relation and realities that have developed without ideological fanfare or claims of accomplishment by radicals and leftists; it sees the ethical principles of socialism residing in and flowing from historical circumstances—the world as it is—not as ideas imposed from elsewhere. So conceived, the future doesn’t require a leading man in the form of a movement, a party, a cadre, a set of saints.
The other attitude requires religious resignation from a world so fallen, so corrupt, so broken, that its redemption is inconceivable; it sees the ethical principles of socialism as the property of renegades and castaways, the beautiful souls that come alive only at the margin of modern-industrial society. So conceived, the future does require the leadership of a movement, a party, a cadre, a set of saints. And yet these stalwarts will be martyrs to a cause no one can name, because they will be leading us away from the world as it is.
Fatalism could be the result of either attitude. But my guess, for now, is that when you can see opportunity in actuality—when you can recognize what we ought to be doing in what we’re already doing—you have a better chance at hope for the future, simply because you have a better purchase on the local reality that is the present.