Wednesday, December 3, 2014

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Oblivion, Transvaluation, Mutation, Redemption?

Guest writer Liam O Ruairc with Some Considerations on Irish Republicanism and the Future of Socialism.

Defeat is a hard experience to master : the temptation is always to sublimate it - Perry Anderson, Spectrum: From Right to Left in the World of Ideas, London and New York: Verso, 2005, xiv

One of the most intriguing developments of recent years has been the growing socialist orientation of oppositional republican currents in Ireland. The IRSP’s 2010 document Perspectives on the Future of Republican Socialism in Ireland, Eirigi’s 2011 programme From Socialism Alone Can The Salvation of Ireland Come or RNU’s publication in 2012 of Revolutionary Republicanism : National Liberation, Socialism, International Solidarity are the three most obvious examples of this trend, not to mention the polemical debate on socialism inside the 32 County Sovereignty Movement over the last twelve months. Socialism is seen as an important  remedy to the crisis of Irish republicanism, and a key component of its renewal. But the paradox is that republicans see their future closely bound with socialism at a historical conjuncture where socialism is in crisis. This crisis is hardly something new. To go no further than 1977, Louis Althusser had proclaimed on 13 November of that year : 'At last the crisis of Marxism has exploded!' 

Socialism is not about abstract theorizing or wishful thinking about how the world should be. The principles of scientific socialism:

are in no way based on ideal principles that have been invented, or discovered, by this or that would-be universal reformer. They merely express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our very eyes." (Marx-Engels, Werke 4, Berlin : Dietz Verlag, 474)

 As Marx and Engels had insisted in The German Ideology:
communism is not for us a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the now existing premise. (Marx-Engels, Werke 3, Berlin : Dietz Verlag, 35)
For Irish Republicans, a socialist orientation above all means attempting to relate to and take part in this "real movement."

However, 'the real movement which abolishes the present state of things', the 'historical movement going on under our very eyes'  has not been communism but global capitalism, and its trophies include the traditional agencies and strategies, parties and programmes, of its historic opponent. It can (provisionally ?…)  be argued that capitalism has dug the grave of the gravedigger nominated in the Communist Manifesto. The forward march of labour has halted. Witness the massive assymetry between the international mobility and organization of capital and the dispersal and fragmentation of labour that has no historical precedent. Today everywhere on the defensive, organized labour’s intra-modal ability to resist capital, let alone its inter-modal capacity to supplant it, can be questioned, and its limitations are far more evident than its possibilities as a self-emancipatory agent. Irish republicans have generally turned to socialism in periods of defeat, but they do this today at a time when socialism as a historical force itself has been defeated. 

Marx concluded in his famous 1859 Preface that 'humanity only sets itself such tasks as it can solve' (Marx-Engels, Werke 13, Berlin : Dietz Verlag, 9). However as Gregory Elliott notes:

the problems of the organisation, agency, strategy and goal of a systemic alternative remain unsolved, suggesting (contra the1859 Preface) that the mere ability to table a task does not ensure its resolution. Moreover, they are dramatised by the crying discrepancy between the faits accomplis of capitalism and the faits inaccomplis of socialism, in the twentieth century; between the prevalence of capitalism, verifying the main premise of the Manifesto, and the absence of communism, infirming its consequent; or between what Marx called the ‘poetry of the future’ and what (following Merleau-Ponty) we might call the ‘prose of the world’. » (Gregory Elliott, Ends in Sight : Marx/Fukuyama/Hobsbawm/Anderson, London : Pluto Press, 2004, 24).
"Actually existing socialism" giving way to "historical socialism" and the monuments of  revolutionary and reformist socialism being  consigned alike to the history museum indicate that the inviability of capitalism did not prove the viability of socialism. A more critical observer like Cornelius Castoriadis could thus advance the claim that : « Even the Roman Empire when it disappeared, left behind it ruins ; the workers’ movement is leaving behind only refuse. » To paraphrase Engels, socialism has gone from science to utopia. Irish republicans of course need to build on solid ground, not utopias or historical "refuse".

The challenge for Irish republicans is to be contemporary with our present.  However:

The only starting-point for a realistic Left today is a lucid registration of historical defeat. Capital has comprehensively beaten back all threats to its rule, the bases of whose power… were persistently under-estimated by the socialist movement. ... The novelty of the present situation stands out in historical view. It can be put like this. For the first time since the Reformation, there are no longer any significant oppositions – that is, systematic rival outlooks – within the thought-world of the West; and scarcely any on a world scale either …. Whatever limitations persist to its practice, neo liberalism as a set of principles rules undivided across the globe: the most successful ideology in world history." (Perry Anderson, Renewals, New Left Review, 2nd series, no. 1, January/February 2000, 16-17)

Of the possible contenders today, contemporary nationalism and religious fundamentalism can be dismissed as systemic alternatives; as by definition, the former is non-universal, while the latter is a sublimated form of it. Currents such as the left-bonapartist Bolivarianism in Latin America represent a local ideology and  not a global alternative. Putative counter-trends from  the "anti-globalisation" movement to "Occupy"  prove on inspection to be less than counter-weights. There is a danger of taking one swallow for a summer. Unlike ten days in Petrograd, five days in Seattle did not shake the world … There is a crisis of determinate negation, as oppositional currents define themselves as ‘anti’ something (ie anti-capitalist, anti-austerity, anti-war, anti-water rates, anti-Belfast Agreement, etc) rather than in terms of a positive alternative.

In his 2010 novel The Map and the Territory, Michel Houellebecq captured something of the current zeitgeist:

More generally, one was living in an ideologically strange period, when everyone in Western Europe seemed persuaded that capitalism was doomed, and even doomed in the short term, that it was living through its last years, without, however, the hard left parties managing to attract anyone beyond their usual clientele of spiteful masochists. A veil of ashes seemed to have spread over people’s minds. » (Michel Houellebecq, La Carte et le Territoire, Paris : Flammarion, 2010, 397)

Slavoj Zizek famously summarized the contemporary crisis of political imagination in the following terms : 'It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine a far more modest change in the mode of production.' (Slavoj Zizek (ed), Mapping Ideology, London : Verso, 1994, 1) The 2014 movie Interstellar directed by Christopher Nolan is a manifest illustration of that horizon in terms of popular culture.

Given such parameters, is it possible for Irish republicans to believe in socialism?  Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in the Preface to Signs (1960), registering the misadventures of the dialectic noted:

Marxism has definitely entered a new phase of its history, in which it can inspire and orient analyses and retain a certain heuristic value, but is certainly no longer true in the sense it was believed to be true. »  (Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Signes, Paris: Gallimard, 1960, 15 – emphasis in the original)

However disputable is Merleau Ponty’s claim that it is not possible to believe in socialism in the sense it was believed to be true, the fact remains that Marxism has undergone an irresistible displacement. Scientific socialism is no longer the theoretical expression of a real movement, as the nexus between theory and historical forces, theory and social and political movements has been broken and only a quasi-Pascalian wager may be hazarded about the abolition of the existing state of things. One of the most striking recent development in radical thought is the turn towards christian figures such as Job, St Paul or Pascal – ie Alain Badiou, Slavoj Zizek or Giorgio Agamben. These thinkers are not trying to resurect religion, but use these theological figures raise the question of how is it possible to continue believing or hoping when everything seems to run counter to belief, when circumstances are radically hostile to it. Theology offers plenty of resources for thinking this problem – belief in the non-existent (or not-yet existent) is its speciality.

Socialism may no longer be true in the sense that it was believed to to be true, but this does not mean Irish republicanism should dismiss it as a ‘dead dog’. More than twenty years ago, following the collapse of "actually existing socialism", Perry Anderson suggested a number of historical analogies to which republicans should pay close attention.

Historical analogies are never more than suggestive. But there are occasions where they may be more fruitful than predictions. It would be surprising if the fate of socialism reproduced any one of these paradigms in all fidelity. But the set of possible futures now before it falls within a range such as this. Oblivion, transvaluation, mutation, redemption: each according to their intuition, will make their own guess as to which is more probable. Jesuit, Leveller, Jacobin, Liberal – these are the figures in the mirror.  (Perry Anderson, A Zone of Engagement, London and New York: Verso, 1992, 375)

Socialism might fall into an  "oblivion" comparable to that into which Jesuit egalitarianism in Paraguay lapsed. Between the 1610s and 1760s Jesuits had organised an egalitarian society in Paraguay which fascinated Enlightenment figures like Voltaire and Montesquieu. (Readers might be familiar with the Jesuit state of Paraguay through its portrayal in Roland Joffé’s 1986 movie The Mission). It is possible that the experience of socialism in the "short 20th century", as Eric Hobsbawm called the 1917-1989 period, will simply be regarded by future historians as something like the Jesuit state of Paraguay; that is as some kind of historical curiosity or aberration of no lasting consequences only remembered by specialists. 

Socialism could experience a process of "transvaluation" equivalent to that undergone by the ideals and the idiom of the English Revolution. In England in the 1640s, the dynasty and episcopacy were overthrown, a revolutionary army emerged, a republican state was founded and an extraordinary ferment of radical ideas bubbled up as witnessed by the Putney debates. But with the restoration of the English monarchy, one had to wait 140 years until the French Revolution in 1789. The political horizon of the Jacobins however was qualitatively different from that of the Levellers. If something like that was to happen to the socialism of the "short 20th century", its successor would be  objectively related but subjectively disconnected from its predecessor like the Jacobins were from the Levellers. 

Socialism could go through some  "mutation" similar to that which bred socialism out of the principles of 1789. The French Revolution was not a national but a universal event whose memory could not be forgotten. The French revolution founded a "cumulative political tradition" inspiring sucessive later attempts to realize the principles of 1789 – ie 1848 and 1871 - while at the same time criticizing its predecessor and bringing qualitatively new demands, combining the slogans of the bourgeois democratic and proletarian revolutions.  If this was to be the future for socialism, it would entail the emergence of a new kind of movement which would in some respects acknowledge its debt to socialism but in others criticize and repudiate it quite sharply the same way socialists related to jacobins.  

Socialism could finally undergo a  "redemption" commensurate with that experienced by liberalism. From 1914 onwards liberalism became a discredited ideological current but in the 1970s came back from the grave with massive force. From being discredited it became ideologically dominant. Based on such historical analogy, communism might have ‘died’ in 1989 but (decades?) later will make an unexpected come back. 
From the above four historical analogies it is possible to see the rational kernel in Louis Althusser’s claim that : "Communists, when they are Marxists, and Marxists when they are Communists, never cry alone in the wilderness. Even when they are practically alone." This could be adapted for the Irish context as: 'Republicans, when they are Socialists, and Socialists when they are Republicans, never cry alone in the wilderness. Even when they are practically alone.'

It is interesting to note that the "transvaluation" and "mutation" historical analogies come close to the "dialectic of history" evoked by the League of Communist Republicans when "actually existing socialism" fell in the winter of 1991.  (Where the Socialist Cause Now Stands, Congress, Issue No.14, Winter 1991, 4 – article most likely to have been written by Tommy McKearney) This is not suprising given the close links between Irish Republicanism and the Leveller and Jacobin traditions.

These four historical analogies could also very well apply to the Irish republican tradition. Irish republicanism and socialism face similar results and prospects. And both need to remain radical – that is to be "radical" is to go to the root (radical comes from the latin radix meaning "root"), that is to the actual structural conditions of capitalism that make society’s current morbid symptoms possible and point to the need to up-root the current organization of society.


AM said...


a piece I would like to respond to shortly, although not in anything like the detail you have amassed.

There has to be room on the Left for the type of critique you make.

Thanks for pushing it the way of TPQ.