Histomat: Adventures in Historical Materialism

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

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Norman Geras on 'the ex-Marxist's conscience'

Another snippet from the archives presents itself, this time from the New Left Review, series 1, no. 163 (May-June 1987). Entitled
, Norman Geras speculated about the motives for those who renounce Marxism while claiming to have advanced from it:

In the advanced capitalist world from the mid-1960s a generation of intellectuals was radicalized and won for Marxism. Many of them were disappointed in the hopes they formed—some of these wild but let that pass—and for a good while now we have been witnessing a procession of erstwhile Marxists, a sizeable portion of the generational current they shared in creating, in the business of finding their way "out" and away. This exit is always presented, naturally, in the guise of an intellectual advance. Those of us unpersuaded of it cannot but remind its proponents of what they once knew but seem instantly to forget as they make their exit, namely, that the evolution of ideas has a social and material context. We cannot help wondering how far their recent trajectory may have been influenced by a range of factors which they themselves would doubtless prefer to overlook: the pressures upon them of age and professional status; the pressures of the political time and environment we have been passing through, not very congenial, in the West at least, to the sustenance of revolutionary ideas; and then the lure of intellectual fashion, a consideration not to be underrated by any means.

The life of the intellectual of the left is pulled by different forces. There is, on the one hand, a moral commitment of some sort, however formulated: to socialism, the end of exploitation, human liberation, a decent existence at last for everyone. But there is also, on the other hand, a certain self-image, as intellectual, and amongst its constituents, the desire for recognition, and so, perhaps, originality, and the hope or the sense of being in the very van, not just abreast of the latest theoretical development but one of its actual partisans and sponsors. The force of the former, the gravitational pull of moral commitment, is a variable one, as this same intellectual is well enough aware while she or he understands Marx. It is stronger when materially manifested, so to speak, visibly represented in and supported by a social movement—that of the exploited and the otherwise oppressed—particularly on the march, in active struggle. It is much weaker where this is absent; or in defeat or retreat. The bare commitment, and the ultimate historical objectives, can come here to seem rather abstract and remote, so distant from a particular personal destiny as to be hardly related to it at all. In the light of what is intellectually on offer at this moment, the theoretical perspective which has most securely embodied the commitment and the objectives for more than a century—Marxism—may then begin to appear as old hat.

Indeed so. Damn those Marxists who abandon it when they get carried away with their own self-importance and 'the lure of intellectual fashion' and status. Norman Geras concludes the article (on 'post-Marxist' thinkers Laclau and Mouffe), with a discussion of 'the ex-Marxist's conscience':

I shall conclude by simply registering some of the more lamentable themes of this book from professed (and so-recently-Marxist) radicals; themes which give reason to ponder just how far ‘post-’ is from straightforward anti-Marxism. First, there is deployment of a concept of ‘totalitarianism’ in its familiar Cold War sense as denoting something common to both ‘a politics of the “left”’ and fascism. Second, so far as this relates to the left, its source is located not in the—complex (and dire)–social conditions and histories of the anti-capitalist revolutions of this century but—more simply—within Marxist doctrine as such: in the ‘attempt to establish a definitive suture’, ‘a point of departure from which society can be perfectly mastered and known’. [112] Third, the evolution of Leninism into its authoritarian, that is, Stalinist, sequel is likewise put down to a theoretical source. How is that evolution to be accounted for? ‘Quite simply (!), by the fact that the ontological privilege granted to the working class by Marxism was transferred from the social base to the political leadership of the mass movement.’ [113] Old and well-known images of Marxism and Leninism: historical materialism, or just explanation, discarded, then, for what looks uncannily like commonor-garden anti-communism. Fourth, Laclau and Mouffe go so far as to conflate the whole of Marxism with its Stalinist, or authoritarian, forms by writing sometimes as though democracy was just external to it. They say at one point, for example: ‘It is necessary to break with the view that democratic tasks are bonded to a bourgeois stage—only then will the obstacle preventing a permanent articulation between socialism and democracy be eliminated.’ [114] The statement exploits a critical ambiguity in the expression ‘democratic tasks’, but let this pass. As if a whole Marxist tradition itself has not always rejected the view and the bond that the authors now deem it necessary to break with. This is, well and truly, the new-found virtue of the convert.

Fifthly, finally, and by contrast with these prejudicial attitudes to Marxism, Laclau and Mouffe give us the warmest possible view of liberalism. ‘It is not liberalism as such,’ they aver, ‘which should be called into question, for as an ethical principle which defends the liberty of the individual to fulfil his or her human capacities, it is more valid today than ever.’ [115] Let us just accept, as par for the course here, the sudden appearance of ‘human capacities’. I will even affirm a certain, partial agreement with the sentiment expressed, not being one of those Marxists for whom there is a total gulf between Marxism and liberalism, and no continuity of common values at all. But, in its overall context, the above accolade is a disgrace. Liberalism, not the suffering, squalor and misery of actual, liberal, capitalisms, but the fulfilment of human capacities. And one, Karl Marx: did he not also have something to say about the realization of the individual’s human capacities? If this is what the authors have taken with them from the school of Marxism, one can only wonder what the next stop on their itinerary might be.

You tell them, Norm. How right it is for Marxists to avoid jumping on board with any sort of 'anti-totalitarian Left' and praising Liberal warmongers while damning Leninism for appeasing 'Islamo-Fascists'. We need more Marxists who can counter this pro-imperialist torrent of bullshit from the pro-war, so-called 'decent Left'. Where is Norman Geras when we need him?

Oh yeah, I remember where Stormin' Norman is now. He is busy wrestling with his (guilty) 'ex-Marxist conscience'. Best leave him be.

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At 6:03 am, Blogger syndicalist81 said...

I notice the party is left out of this analysis. Is there a correlation between the ex-marxists intellectuals of Hitchens, Geras, etc and their lack of serious involvement in revolutionary organizations (at least that I'm aware of)? If so, does the party's politics play a role in their trajectory?

I'm just curious if anyone can uncover any trends from this.

At 11:00 am, Blogger Snowball said...

Hmm - I am not sure about Geras's past to be honest, and I would be wary of trying to draw any trends from the fact that both Peter and Christopher Hitchens were in the IS when they were younger...

At 10:36 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Geras was in the IMG, I believe


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