Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

'Historical materialism is the theory of the proletarian revolution.' Georg Lukács

Friday, May 25, 2007

Geoff Eley on 'Writing in Opposition'

[In July 2005, the Canadian journal Left History put together a symposium of leading socialist historians asking 'What is Left History now?', and among the contributions was a short piece, 'Writing in Opposition' by Geoff Eley, who teaches mainly German history in the U.S. at the University of Michigan. Eley is the author of a number of books, including in 2002 Forging Democracy: The History of the Left in Europe, 1850-2000, an important work which was reviewed by Colin Barker for International Socialism Journal in issue 101 (online here) - a review to which Eley responded here. While Left History intends to eventually put the entire contents of its print journal online in the future - an admirable ambition which no doubt will strengthen its importance as a very useful resource - Eley and the editors of Left History have very kindly given me permission to put up on Histomat his contribution to that symposium, 'Writing in Opposition' - for which I am very grateful. While I do not agree with every point that Eley makes in 'Writing in Opposition', I do share his opinion that 'new electronic means of communication contain unprecedented opportunities for constructing our own organs of opinion and initiating grassroots political exchange' - and putting this article online will hopefully help in the process of encouraging fraternal debate among those of us interested in 'writing in opposition' to the traditional narratives of the rich and powerful, and reaffirming the importance of socialist history for the 21st century.]

Writing in Opposition by Geoff Eley

What can the purposes of a Left historian be today? My first answer is a very simple one: to write good history. Of course, the boundaries between being a historian and the other things we do are completely porous. But unless those of us on the Left try to write histories that can genuinely have an impact, whether inside the discipline or in some broader kind of public, we might as well be doing something else. We can be of most use for whatever broader political ideals we continue to hold by being as good as possible at what we do. Sometimes, to be sure, the urgencies of political life overwhelm everything else. We might regret Edward Thompson’s long delays in bringing Customs in Common to completion, for example, but who would question his decision during the 1980s to devote himself entirely to the cause of the Peace Movement? The place of politics in the overall balance of our lives, overtly and more subtly, will inevitably rise and fall. But one part of the voice we can have in that respect rests upon the quality of the histories we produce, the respect they acquire, the legitimacy they confer, the opportunities for influence they might provide – and of course the enhancements in the quality of our own understanding they impart. Good history and good politics go together. “The primary Party duty” of Communist students in the 1930s, Eric Hobsbawm remembers, “was to get a good degree.” The primary duty of Left historians today – as historians – is to write the best histories we can.

To some that may seem like the back stairway to the ivory tower. Clearly it can become the short road to quietism, to an inner emigration, or to the armchair consolations which periods of political retreat or duress always invite us to seek. It’s certainly not easy to avoid that logic taking over. These days there are precious few means of keeping us connected to any wider political sphere. To be a Left intellectual in the late capitalist world now describes a profoundly different predicament from the the ones faced by Left intellectuals in earlier periods of duress like the 1930s or the 1950s. For those of us who came of age politically thirty or forty years ago, the organized landscape of politics has changed out of all recognition, although for those growing up since the 1980s, paradoxically, the terms of this contemporary predicament have a much longer familiarity. To put this in a nutshell: there are no parties any more to join. Or at least, there are no national movements of the Left any more with the kind of social and cultural reach – the organized machineries of identification that can build collective and continuous contexts of action and thought – that might be capable of drawing Left intellectuals into their circumference, whether as fully paid-up members, critical supporters, or independent interlocutors. For roughly a hundred years between the 1860s and the 1960s under conditions of constitutional democracy, in Europe and the Americas and some other parts of the world, socialist, Communist, and other radical parties very successfully enabled that kind of participation. Then it was much easier to know how to answer this question of how to become involved. During the 1960s and 1970s the associated political cultures were already eroding, but large mass parties of the kind I’m describing – like the Italian Communist Party (PCI) or the Labour Party or the German Social Democrats (SPD) – still worked as umbrellas or points of orientation, as extraordinarily ramified bridgeheads into society and culture, as ready-made contexts for getting involved, which promised some concrete, articulated relationship to a national or state-centered politics of some plausible effect.

The availability of those parties subsisted on definite histories of capitalist industrialization and class formation, which in the course of hard political struggles had sustained a complex narrative of social improvement – one based in strong institutional structures of local government, expanding public services and employment, the growth of national planning and public investment, the creation of welfare states, collectivist ideals of the public good, and an expansive model of citizenship. Inside this story of unevenly expanding democratic capacities, the presence of a mass socialist party allowed the public involvement of intellectuals some obvious avenues. In practical ways it afforded access to a wider audience, to the means of circulation, and to the world of policy. Within the larger structures of public communication associated with democratic forms of the public sphere, it offered certain institutional outlets of Left intellectual work for those interested in exploring them. In terms of access to power, more ambitiously and usually elusively, it also harbored a promise of coherence, continuity, and meaningful effects.

Within this now-vanished institutional world of politics, even the less attractive and less democratic mass formations defined a space of opportunity. If the Stalinist proclivities of the French Communist Party (PCF) remained a constant source of frustration for even its most incorrigible fellow travellers, to take an obvious example, its place in the political landscape could never be disregarded. For all its hidebound and unappealing rigidities, the PCF provided an essential organized presence on the French political scene between the 1950s and 1980s, which brought with it vital forms of efficacy – whether positively, by building the coalitions and campaigns that others felt able to join, or negatively, by defining the spaces where different and more democratic politics could be imagined. Thus the remarkable influence as a public intellectual exercised by Jean-Paul Sartre during that time was inseparable from either the wider place the PCF had helped establish for Left ideas or its own inadequacies in sustaining them. Of course, such influence as Sartre’s also presumed a particular type of public sphere, which specifically held a place for the kind of public intellectuality he embodied, quite aside from the particular platforms he was able to use.

By now, though, the prevailing political environment under capitalism has been profoundly transformed. The former Communist and socialist parties have either disbanded, decayed, or moved drastically to the center or the right; their relationship to popular constituencies has atrophied; their old machineries of organized loyalty and identification have crumbled apart. The overall structure of public communication has likewise been decisively reconfigured: access is hopelessly impeded by new monopolies of ownership and control; older pluralist conventions are under attack; print media and public broadcasting are in decline; the democratic possibilities of the internet and other electronic media have only unevenly translated into concerted political effects. Ease of access to the internet has yet to compensate for the loss of the classically structured public sphere and the absence of the organized collective agency of a party or movement. The new electronic means of communication contain unprecedented opportunities for constructing our own organs of opinion and initiating grassroots political exchange. But the resulting circuits of activity remain highly individualized, locally bounded, episodic, fragmented, and largely hidden from conventional public visibility.

In seeking to have an effect amidst this dispiriting contemporary conjuncture, and in trying to find an audience larger than one’s own classroom or specialized field, it’s not easy to see where and how to intervene. In the present world of multi-media marketing, literary agents, and celebrity hype (and in the absence of book topics like wars, dead presidents, Nazism, or the Holocaust), unfortunately, it’s hard for Left historians not to feel confined to a margin. To use myself as an example, I recently published a general history of the Left in Europe, conceived as a study in the development of democracy, which I hoped at the very least might engage the Left itself in debate about the character of contemporary transformations and might even help claw back some of the ground of democratic discourse from the Right. Yet none of that happened. Predictably perhaps, the book went completely unnoticed by the quality press and political weeklies in the English-speaking world (in contrast, for example, to Spain, Greece, the Netherlands, and Brazil). More depressingly, with the exceptions of Tikkun, Dissent, and In These Times, it was reviewed in none of the Left’s own magazines or journals. It went unnoticed by The Nation, The Progressive, Mother Jones, New Statesman, London Review of Books, Red Pepper, Soundings, openDemocracy, Renewal, and New Left Review (or for that matter by periodicals like Historical Materialism, Socialist History, Labour History Review, Socialism and Democracy, Rethinking Marxism, Radical History Review, or indeed Left History). In terms of any aspiring political effect, the book sank like a stone.

In other words, to write as a historian of the Left these days has become a surprisingly academic and lonely exercise. I cite my own experience not solipsistically or out of sour grapes (I hope), but because it illustrates the difficulties not only of bringing one’s work into any wider public circulation, but even of moving the Left itself into a discussion of its deeper and more recent pasts. This seems very different from an earlier time. During the 1970s it was still possible to find easier points of connection to larger institutional fields of politics and the associated sites of the public sphere. In my own case in Britain, those ranged from the local branches of national campaigning organizations, trade union affairs, and the associated meeting culture of committees and public platforms to the national scene structured around the left of the Labour Party, the Communist Party, and other socialist organizations, including the conference calender of History Workshops, Communist Universities, and so forth. Of course, it’s notoriously hard to make this kind of argument without seeming to slide into generational nostalgia of a better-knowing and admonitory kind (we knew how to do it better, once upon a time), and that’s certainly not my intention. But the contrast does help us to think about the ways in which the conditions of politically engaged intellectual work have changed. It helps bring into relief the specific and novel arduousness of trying to make a difference as a Left historian now.

While this contraction of access to the wider means of political communication remains profoundly disabling and dispiriting, it doesn’t exhaust all we can say about the politics of knowledge Left historians might be able to pursue. What it means, I think, is the need for taking a realistic but sanguine view of the forms of efficacy available to us in our immediate working lives. In doing so, we might also bring what we know from other periods of conservative ascendancy and Left political retreat about the ways in which oppositional ideas can be kept alive. In that latter respect, we might well consider the complicated relationship of the counter-revolutionary 1850s to the pan-European political mobilizations and constitution making of the 1860s, for example, or the relationship of the 1870s and 1880s to the following two decades in much of western Europe, or the relationship of the 1950s to the 1960s, and so forth. In each of those cases, critical and oppositional thought was nurtured without much evident or practical articulation to the given pathways of political influence or institutional infrastructure of public power. In each case, indirectly and in hidden and subterranean ways, the production and circulation of ideas as such acquired efficacy.

There are many ways of conceptualizing the coalescence of those spaces of experimentation and dissidence where opposition might be nurtured – spaces, that is, which are capable of sustaining a relationship to an earlier experience of radicalism while enabling possible futures to be imagined. Some of those spaces might be situated inside the institutional worlds of politics themselves. Some might be found mainly in the networks of critical intellectuals and the ideas and books they produce. Some might be found in the distinct public spheres of the arts, some in the oppositional and dissentient parts of popular culture, some in the new electronic commons of the cyberspace. Some can be found in the quite localized and apparently isolated efforts at oppositional world building. Some are certainly to be found in the social movement politics of the past quarter century. The role of cultural and aesthetic avant-gardes in holding a place for radical imagining, in sharpening the critical edge of oppositional culture, in inventing new languages and practices of dissidence during times of increasingly coercive normativity, and in making available the forms of radical sensibility so essential to broader-based political insurgencies when they eventually occur, is especially interesting in this respect. How exactly all of these continuities get reproduced is extremely complex. Gramsci’s extremely utopian ideal of the party as the “Modern Prince” provided one highly articulated version of how a concerted intelligence or strategic political agency might help such continuities to converge or coalesce. But if the social histories that might have sustained that particular model of the mass party are now definitively a thing of the past, as I’ve argued above, then that doesn’t mean that oppositional impulses are not being generated. To my mind the relationship of Situationism to the radical explosions of 1968 is always a salutary example here: the Situationist milieu consisted of extremely small networks of individuals, after all, but the political languages associated with the new mass radicalisms of the late 1960s were pervasively indebted to the forms of analysis, modalities of action, iterations of utopian desire, and general oppositional sensibility the Situationists had produced.

In these brief comments I’ve chosen to focus not on particular subject matters and genres of history-writing, but on the issue of the Left historian’s possible connectedness to politics and the public sphere. I’ve been concerned with the question: how can the historian’s knowledge become useful for politics? That seems to me a more decisive set of criteria than any particular range of subject matters or methodologies and approaches in defining what Left history might be, although the ethico-political principles moving the history we write will also clearly be at the core. A set of critical, oppositional, democratic principles have to be essential to how Left historians practice their history. In these respects there would be an enormous amount to say about interdisciplinarity, the relationship of theory to history, and the forms of the politics of knowledge embedded in the kind of historiographical differences and innovations we pursue. There would also be a lot to say about particular historiographical controversies and their pertinence for politics. The necessity of working toward types of democratic practice for the classroom, the seminar room, and everything that composes the public sphere of the discipline (the wider constellation of conferences, journals, newsletters, professional associations, and so forth) would also need a lot of attention. All of these comprise arenas in which Left historians can be active and have an effect. So that brings me full circle to the comments in my opening paragraph: above all else, Left history has to be the best history. During a bad conjuncture that is where we will have to begin.

[This article will be published in the future on the Left History website - anyone else wishing to republish this article online ought to check with Eley and the editors of Left History first.]

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At 10:21 am, Anonymous Matthew Caygill said...

Thanks for this - very useful.


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