marxism, mechanization of thought, and a neo-communism…//A Chat With Jonathan Chait and Jacobin’s Bhaskar Sunkara

Sunkara’s reply to the charge of failure on the left is reasonable but at this point, as we have said repeatedly, it is necessary to sublate over the old left: (gosh forbid the use of such a term, make over for frankenstein?), that is to create a superset of the old even as we create a temporal (anti-causal) break with the past. We must leave the past, but not lose the past. I am mindful of the sufi commentaries on frozen consciousness: you are a machine, break old habits.

The left is stuck in the historical continuity of, from a bird’s eye view, the legacy of the rough era of the second international. We didn’t even say ‘Marx and marxism’: that’s one of the habits of the older left, the obsessive clinging to marxism. Not surprising: marxism created a canon from the void of the 1840’s socialists/communists, but the result is counterproductive. Marx intoned on the difference of utopian and scientific socialism but his work doesn’t seem scientific now, not at all, and the term’utopian’ has been given a bum rap. The term ‘utopian’ is wrong, to be sure, but its larger meaning demands old/new-fashioned social movements with free agents plying a set of values. Such a simple thing became anathema to Marx, or so it seems. We need to revert to the latter but change labels, and there is no reason we can’t sideline/multitask a fresh enquiry into the nature of social science. But the Romantic movement killed off in advance the scientism of a figure like Marx, among other issues and debates, and that ‘romantic’ sector of the modern transition can join the enlightenment/science and the Reformation (and much else) as the parents of the contracted ideology of Marx that wished in vain to supercede modernity and its classic transition: the latter is the basis, of last resort, for the left, if it can indeed consider the critique of the moving form of liberalism, class, and economic theory, that was original with the early socialists in the wake of the French Revolution. The left, with the socialists, takes the first step beyond the modern transition, but it is still a part of it and it cannot indulge in postmodern fantasies even as it invokes without the jargon a real ‘postmodern’ ideality. But in practice the socialist possibility must be a realization of modernity even if it can aspire to a timeless transhistorical potential. We see the problem with both marxism and the Russian revolution: the former contracts away from modernity while the latter has missed modernity altogether. A clear indication of a ‘muddle’, an analysis of the reason for failure and the obvious implications of how to reconstitute a better left that ‘sublates’ its now classic but dysfunctional history.
We have suggested freeing socialism/communism from its cliches, it early nineteenth century moment, its frozen historical materialism, its obsessive posthegelian scientism, its incoherent economic theory competition with incoherent classical, soon neo-classical economics. Such a recreation can consider religious/reformation (and world religion) issues, the nature of science, the failures of social ‘science’, the revolution of modern philosophy from Spinoza to Kant, with Hegel temporarily sidelined and the dialectic kept in quarantine against the plague of mysticism concocted by the ‘oulala’ dialectical materialists. The old ‘theory’ of the stages of production is a completely destructive mindset and causes fumble in every instance.
The left must consider the actual details of a social/communist transition, its form (our democratic market neo-communism with its two manifestos takes a stab at this) and free the future of the completely off the wall realization of the bolsheviks, that hallucination that has caught the left in a mirage.
At that point the essential simplicity of creating a neo-communist republic/democracy can be a new possibility that owes nothing to the ‘karma’ of bolshevism, and can rescue the hodgepodege of marxism that is the stale habit we have protested.
We live at a strange moment: we had thought socialism was ‘finished’, that ‘end of history’ stuff, but now we see the eerie prescience of the early socialists, imbibed by Marx: the actual facts on the ground of the ‘capitalist globalization’ experiment the verdict being that capitalism is destroying a planet. So we have no choice, all at once, and must explore postcapitalism. And we have the complete reckoning of a failure here, of the way not to do it, in bolshevism.
Orgs like the DSA are clearly in the mode, or mood, of breaking old habits, but one habit we can’t seem to break: the almost automatic mechanization of thought around reformist/revolutionary dilemmas (I won’t say dialectic), the achilles heel of the left, it seems, since the revolutionary has become improbable, the reformist, well, another bad habit. Hardly socialist at all.
But we might trust history to grant the possibility of ‘real socialism’ or ‘communism, neo-‘, but can the left break old habits and produce a new canon, one that can surpass/sublate its prior mechanization as dead history?
Failure of bolshevism produced Putin. A future failure of the left would produce a planet of Putins with their Dugins, neo-medievalism perhaps.
A very cogent motivator to break old habits and do socialism right, via a reformism that is revolutionary, or even, vice versa…

Didn’t the 20th century prove that socialism is even worse (as Jon has argued)? After all, socialists are supposed to be radical (small-d) democrats — yet, in country after country, didn’t they transform into authoritarians upon their first taste of power?Sunkara: I deny being a “card-carrying pinko” — I’m completely red. And I think that the history of the socialist movement has in fact been much more of a success than you’ve let on. If you get weekends off, you have a workers’ movement — that by the 1880s and ’90s was largely inspired by socialism of the Marxist variety — to thank. Obviously those great movements of the late-19th and early-20th century didn’t end up inheriting the world. They split into social-democratic and revolutionary socialist wings. Both aspired to go beyond capitalism. The former never did break with capitalism, but in countries like Sweden, its parties administered the creation of welfare states, taking huge swaths of life outside the market and using the collective-bargaining power of workers to shape the outcomes of competition in a way that benefited ordinary people. It might not have been perfect, but Sweden in the 1970s was the best society we’ve ever seen. And it was governed by a socialist party that fought for democracy through the 1920s and ruled virtually uninterrupted for a half-century through democratic elections (and when it lost in 1976, it oversaw a peaceful transition of power).We know the tragic legacy of the latter tradition. But socialism in the West has largely been dominated by anti-Stalinists, by people who believe in freedom. At our best, we don’t oppose liberalism so much as force liberalism to live up to its ideals.

Source: A Chat With Jonathan Chait and Jacobin’s Bhaskar Sunkara

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