‘Socialism and Modernity’ reviewed by Ishay Landa

Socialism and Modernity

University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2009. 256pp., £15.50 pb
ISBN 9780816660858

Reviewed by Ishay Landa

About the reviewer

Ishay Landa is Senior Lecturer in History at the Israeli Open University. He has published on …


Does “socialism” still have a meaning in a post-communist era? This collection by the Australian socialist scholar, Peter Beilharz, contains 14 essays tackling this question from various angles with verve and erudition. The volume covers some 24 years (1985-2009) of obviously prolific intellectual activity, although the great majority of the articles (12) have been published during a time span of 15 years, from 1989 to 2004, namely the time which could indeed be described as post-communist. This ‘post-ish’ sensation dominates the writing, motivates it and inspires it, but also, as I will argue a little later on, burdens the essays and limits the reach of their insights and arguments in some important ways. For although this body of work is reasonably recent, it already reads somewhat like a historical product, a child of its time. For in 2012 it is no longer clear whether we still live in the same era as the book. It now appears that post-communism, at least as conceived in this volume, might have been an interlude, rather than a final act.

The book represents an effort to rescue whatever can be saved from the communistic shipwreck. In that respect, it bears unmistakable signs of soul-searching, although not in a personal sense, since the author, as he explains in the Introduction, never had any sympathy with or illusions about the nature of the Bolshevik variant of socialism. Polite expressions of animosity towards Bolshevism in all its forms, Leninism and Trotskyism no less than Stalinism, recur in the book. At one place, for example, Beilharz contends that “Max Weber was right, finally, that the Russian Revolution was the worst thing that ever could have happened to the course of socialism” (93).It is a socialistic self-analysis nonetheless in the collective, political sense of aiming to purify socialism of its Bolshevik and other errors, and see whether it can be revitalized on a new, or at least rediscovered, basis. As stated in the Introduction, “like other socialist scholars, I have given much of my working life to the task of extricating early marxism and other socialisms from under the Soviet experience” (xv). This sentence already betrays an ambiguity towards Marxism, which is central to the whole book. For the meaning of “early Marxism” here is not altogether clear. Does it mean Marx’s own oeuvre, to be defended against later misuses bearing the name “Marxism”? Or does it mean a defense of the youthful Marx from his older self, in agreement with the recurrent socialist, and even liberal distinction between the flexible and humanistic early phase in Marx’s career, and the later period of hardened “scientific” dogmas? A little later on, Beilharz clarifies that his intellectual trajectory began with a focus

on the revolutionary tradition, Trotskyism in particular, which I wanted to get off the historic stage because of its fatal flaws, not least its Jacobinism.[…] [It] then became incumbent on me to replace these false idols with something more useful and ethically desirable. I have always, in a stronger or looser sense, been a marxist, but never a revolutionary. My natural attraction was to German and Scandinavian social democracy, to council communism, English ethical socialism, Western marxism, and Fabianism. (xv-xvi)

A key, and highly salutary, feature of the essays assembled in the book is indeed the pluralistic emphasis on socialisms. Certainly, if socialism is to recuperate something of its former attraction and vitality, different socialist traditions need to be tapped for resources pertinent to the present historical moment, and there is much to gain from a renewed dialogue between socialist thinkers, especially authors who are now rather neglected, such as Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Eduard Bernstein or Karl Kautsky. And this indeed, is where the strength of the book lies: with vast learning and a sophisticated and nuanced approach, Beilharz sympathetically examines a series of socialistic schools, such as Fabianism, classical social democracy in its reformist (Kautsky) and revisionist (Bernstein) form, the modernist utopianism of Edward Bellamy, Weberian socialism, and so on.

The goal is not to vindicate such authors outright or reinstate these streams of thought, as much as to draw attention to the continued relevance of the issues they grappled with, and suggest that their solutions were not quite as preposterous as communist critics had averred. In some respects, the argument goes, these other socialisms have fared better, in historical perspective, than the dominant Marxist – with our without quotation marks – line. The main advantage they offer, according to Beilharz, is precisely the analytical and political shift they may enable from socialism as the revolutionary negation of “capitalism” – the old socialist fixation, which has turned out so badly – to socialism as an integral aspect of “modernity”, alongside capitalism: “We return here to the idea that the German social democrats engage a kind of Weberian marxism, by which I mean a kind of marxism that is politically realistic, takes ideas seriously, and embraces the postfaustian future” (38). Socialism is passionately advocated, but no longer as a comprehensive alternative to capitalism. Socialism is a goal that can’t be reached, but striving for it ennobles and reforms. The dream of an end state beyond capitalism is deemed just that, a dream, and now, in post-communism, we have soberly to envision socialism as a kind of moral and political enlivener. I quote at some length the author’s reconfiguration of the goal of socialism, from 1997:

Finally, then, we come to face frontally a contradiction built into modernity […] None of us can escape change, nor can we control it, seek though we may to do so. There is no end state, neither a capitalist nor a socialist one. […] [W]e have lost the comfortable illusion that socialism will ever actually arrive or arrive to stay. […]The point is not that socialism has failed to conquer capitalism so much as it is that socialism has failed to keep its role as the alter ego of capitalism. Not victory, but the struggle, is what matters. […] What we have lost, today, is the painful yet creative tension between the forces and ideologies that we used to call “capitalism” and “socialism.” […] The risk today is that we encounter the unfreedom but less the call for its transcendence. The challenge for socialists today remains not to achieve transcendence but to act as though freedom and dignity remain possible. (140-1)

Needless to say, compared to Marxist socialism, this signifies a drastic downgrading of the socialist project. For all his insistence on the advantages of pragmatically minded socialists such as the Webbs, the Weberians, or the classical social democrats – all of whom have paid attention to the business of building viable institutions and constructing a robust civil society – over the chiliastic daydreams of Marx and the Bolsheviks, Beilharz’s updated version of socialism seems hardly political at all. It is rather a spiritual or aesthetic injunction. Otherwise, it is difficult to see why we should go on calling for freedom and dignity, when realistically we know full well that they can no longer be obtained; this is hardly a pragmatic proposition, after all. Mutatis mutandis, this new, spiritual socialism, assumes something like the role of religion as classically described by Marx:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

So is that what socialism has come down to, after so many struggles? A surrogate religion? Such deflation cannot but invoke a profound melancholy, as well as resignation. Socialism, which in Marx’s vision was called upon to transform the imaginary happiness of the people into “real happiness,” can set itself today no higher goal than to do what religion once did: provide “illusory happiness.” And even this would seem a rather tall order.

In reality, and despite the occasional, half-hearted avowals of “Marxism,” the book noticeably jettisons any distinctly Marxist aspects of socialism. For all his pluralism, Beilharz purifies socialism not only of the revolutionary variants, but also of most of Marx’s theory. At one place it is claimed that one can “construct a socialist argument that connects Jacobinism in the manner of Bolshevism with something like fascism,” and that “it is not so obvious that fascism should be excluded from the labor movement story once Stalinism is included” (122-3). He even espouses the classical liberal narrative of totalitarianism, slightly modifying it to the effect that “the extremes are not communism and fascism but both against social democracy” (137). To my mind this is an extravagant claim that flies in the face of the historical evidence. Can one still be a Marxist, however loosely the term is defined, once revolution is discarded? Is it still at all meaningful to talk of Marxism, once socialism is cast as the alter ego of capitalism? I return to the book’s ambivalence towards Marxism mentioned above: Marx/ism is very unflatteringly depicted. Throughout the volume, numerous errors of analysis, of theory and of political orientation are ascribed to Marx. Marx’s economic theory is practically dismissed, and his colossal effort to decipher capitalism is deemed a blunder, virtually a waste of energies, distracting from the really urgent task of thinking about society and politics:

Marx’s fatal mistake […] was willfully to turn away from the sphere of civil society, now arguing rather that truth could best be located in the critique of political economy. […] Marx’s occlusion of politics, […] shadowed the subsequent history of marxism. (187)

So in reality the task for current socialism is not simply to shake off the legacy of Bolshevism, but also break free of the Marxist hegemony. Beilharz writes, for example, about the way that “the various plural socialisms have been submerged by marxism,” and maintains that “if Marx remains an inspirational thinker, there are all manner of other thinkers who can now – after communism – more readily be recognized and heard” (43). Or, still more sharply formulated: “Socialisms, then, already offered a storehouse of possibilities that we might now, in good conscience, recycle, rediscover, rethink; for these were traditions that had pushed aside the shadow of Marx and discussed many of the problems that still confront us” (48). We are urged, in short, to remember that socialism is so much more than just Marxism. An encouraging thought, perhaps, but thrown into perspective once we remember that, having got Marxist economics and Jacobin politics out of the way, socialism is not all that exciting: it is the alter ego of capitalism, a necessary “tension,” etc.

Our “today” however is no longer quite the “today” of Socialism and Modernity. Perhaps, in the mid-1990s or the early years of the new millennium, a vision of some kind of “socialism” as a part of the superstructure on the capitalist economy, more ethically distributing wealth and vitalizing our moral fiber, might have appeared possible, if not greatly enticing. But today, deep into a global crisis of capitalism, it seems as if Marx’s insistence on analyzing how capitalism really functions, and what can and cannot be expected from it, was not so misconceived. The claim from 1997 that “social democracy is the most alive form of socialism,” (139) or the dismissal of Marx’s “crisis theory” (129), now read as singularly inadequate. This is not to say, of course, that neo-Bolshevism offers a ready solution, or that pragmatic ideas on how to construct viable socialist institutions can be ignored. But it seems that the notion of “revolution” is emphatically back on our agenda: that socialism, indeed, has no other choice today but to envision and work towards a radical alternative to the capitalist mode of production. An alter ego role will no longer do. Whether a system giving people “real happiness” is obtainable or not remains to be seen, but the goal of socialism in our time can be nothing less.

3 May 2012

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