Sometime in the course of the 1970’s, the international Marxist ferment of the previous two decades lost its momentum and, in most quarters, also lost its road map. Only the hardiest individuals or the most foolish sectarians claim that the events of the past 15 years have not seriously tested the received ideas, even the best ones, which proliferated in the epochal developments uf the 1960’s. The post-1975 crackup of world Stalinism, associated with economic and social debacles in Indochina, China, Africa, and more recently in Eastern Europe and finally the Suviet Union itself, is actually the least of these events . This phenomenon surprises a consequential anti-Stalinist Marxist of the earlier period only by the rapidity of the collapse and by the total prostration of the system it revealed. Revolutionary critiques of Stalinism from a Marxist viewpoint were hardly dominant in the 1960’s , but they were not without influence in every major capitalist country, and even in a few “socialist” ones. But few anti-Stalinist Marxists of the 1960’s and 1970’s imagined that the growing revulsion against statism would , for an extended period, triumph almost exclusively in the worldwide wave of “neo-liberalism” promoted by the unlikely alliance of Thatcher, Reagan, Mitterand, Teng, Gorbachev and, must recently, the Solidarnosc government of Poland. Fewer still imagined the “return of religion” as an explosive social issue in contexts as diverse as the Islamic world, the U.S., Israel, Poland, Latin America or France. The 1980’s were clearly a “trial of the Enlightenment”, and all the more so for those strands of Marxism which saw only continuity between the Enlightenment and Marx. If any historical development of that decade stretches the “epistemological lenses” of Marxism more than the Iranian revolution, it must be the Polish workers’ movement since 1980 which, in repeated waves of strikes and other resistance, opened an irreparable breach in Stalinist totalitarian rule, not in the name of Marx or Luxemburg, but with the blessings of the Pope, the U.S. government, the International Monetary Fund and the Friedmanite school of economics.
Out of this “trial of the Enlightenment” in the West and elsewhere have emerged the “new social movements” and, in less activist intellectual milieus invariably tied to academia, such movements’ more esoteric ideological expression, increasingly known under the rubric of “post-modernism”. Their contribution to clarifying the reigning malaise may be stated succintly. To those ideologues and dullards, still benighted by the the “canons” of the “19th century”, who lament or work to rectify the current loss of a “road map”, these bright-eyed junior professors rush, like so many latter-day Zarathustras with their lanterns in daytime, to announce the good news that there is no road map, but rather many maps, and more importantly, that THERE IS NO ROAD. Or better still: there are many roads, not necessarily connected to each other, not necessarily leading anywhere and that, lo! , they are to found more or less exactly where the mapmakers… “desire” them to be.
Not all the post-modern, post-Marxist, post-political theoreticians of the current ebb of struggle have been so quick or so content to proclaim that multiple discourses and identities of desire, “articulated” by the new social movements of women, gays, pacifists, Third World peoples and ecologists will succeed where the unspeakably boring working class has failed. This second stream also “marches to a different drummer”, but their different drummer marks time for them in Frankfurt rather than in Paris. They also like the “grassroots” “citizens’ initiative” “pluralist” aspects of the new social movements, but they are less hell-bent than the French originators of “acquired intelligence diminution syndrome” on jettisoning quite the entire edifice of 2,500 years of the Western “canon”. Marx and his concerns, such as capitalist crisis and the abolition of wage labor, are of course hopelessly passe for these “Bernsteins” of post-modernism as well, so they focus instead on the resurrection of “civil society” and the “public sphere” which it provides for “discourse” and “communication”. But , in the end, much like their allies of the French persuasion, they live in chic lofts in New York’s Soho and Tribeca districts, and even occasionally notice New York’s 100,000 homeless people articulating their identities and their desires for food and shelter as our theoreticians make their way into chic restaurants or into chic black-leather orange-hair and gold-chain conferences where they darkly warn against the “totalitarian” project of attempting to radically abolish and supercede THIS rotting social order. The remark of one wag captures their world outlook precisely: “Marxists have previously attempted to change the world; the point, however, is to interpret it.”
Such people are worthy of passing critical mention not because of any serious risk that their ideas might influence an honest working person looking for a way out of today’s grinding social decay, or because the protagonists of “desire” and “discourse” would ever bother to make their thoughts known in a programmatic way to working people. We polemicize against them only because many of their ideas are derived from the writings and struggles of a nobler social stratum, the postwar anti-Stalinist intelligentsia of Eastern Europe, who in turn came to maturity in the ruins of the defeated world revolution that shook Kiel, Berlin, Munich, Budapest, Vienna, Petrograd and Moscow from 1917 to 1921. We can attempt to understand and perhaps even partially empathize with the curious and ultimately disappointing evolution of the generation of postwar oppositionists in Eastern Europe, such as Kuron, Modzelewski, Michnik, Heller, Kolakowski , Konrad, Szelenyi , or Feher, under the crushing weight of their direct experience of Stalinism. (We can thereby also see in even truer dimensions the ultimate consequences of the tragedy and defeat associated with the revolutionary generation conjured up by the names of Luxemburg, Trotsky, Korsch, or Serge.) But no such considerations need restrain us when we contemplate the unrelenting and pretensious farce, drawing on the work of the postwar Eastern Europeans and other currents, which has been perpetrated in Western European and above all American academia by the likes of the later Castoriadis , Lyotard, Baudrillard, Andrew Arato or Jean Cohen.
In the 1940’s and 1950’s, the “God That Failed” generation of former leftists burned by Stalinism, who then made their peace with capitalism, usually made the transition directly; in the hothouse climate of the immediate post-World War II period, the few coherent voices who could challenge their facile equation of Stalinism and Marxism were easily marginalized and ignored. Too many Stalinists, and too many apologists for the West had a deep interest in a situation where both sides happily agreed that Stalin’s Russia was the very realization of the communism prescribed by Karl Marx. The ex-Stalinist ideologues, moreover, successfully won hegemony for their ideas by insisting that as ex-Communists , they, and they alone, understood Communism better than anyone. They made no secret of their past or their sources because the latter were their strength and cachet. Today, on the other hand, the “post-political” ideologues of “new social movements”, who “are neither pro-capitalist nor pro-socialist” but above all “democrats”, have gone their predecessors one better. They do not merely write as if they never heard of the Marxist critiques of the Soviet and specifically Stalinist experience, starting with Rosa Luxemburg’ s 1918 broadside at Lenin, and continued in the 1920’s, 30’s and early 40’s by such figures as Mattick, Bordiga, Korsch, Trotsky, CLR James, Dunayevskaya or Schachtman; they write, in contrast to the more honest Cold Warriors, as if they themselves had not spent years studying the work of such people, or as if this body of work had somehow been historically refuted. The current neo-conservative and neo-liberal climate, combined with the hopeless domestication of the leftist discussion in the West by academia, relieves them of the pressure they once felt to draw on, or at least to respond to, such critiques. These people know perfectly well that the attempt at a Marxist account of the Stalinist phenomenon was continued in the postwar era both by some of the above-mentioned figures, as well as by Tony Cliff, Pierre Naville, David Rousset, Rita di Leo, Antonio Carlo, Hillel Ticktin, and even in the early and sometimes interesting work of their own mentors Castoriadis and Lefort. One need not agree with any or all of the above writers, since they deeply disagree among themselves. But one can use their work, often carried out in the difficult personal circumstances of serious political engagement, as a benchmark of quality and integrity from which to properly judge the current generation of trendy Post-Marxist intellectuals in the West, who have occulted these sources, or simply replaced them in their footnotes with the more fashionable names of their respective academic disciplines. The older generations of leftists were broken by the horrendous decades of Stalinism, fascism and Cold War hysteria; the post-modernist post-Marxist purveyors of current fashion (who for the most part have never gone anywhere near the real political movements of their own lifetimes) have caved in to nothing more than 15 years of social quiescence and political ebb in the West and to the pressures of the race for academic jobs and tenure.
(Having said the above, we hasten to add that there is in fact a real crisis of Marxism and that the post-modernists, like all ideologues, live off of real problems; it is merely that their role in occulting the best efforts of the past to pose and solve such problems has become yet one more obstacle to dealing with them today.)
The most important message of the ideological climate of the past decade, from Reagan and Thatcher by way of Jeffrey Sachs to the editors of Telos, is this: any attempt to take seriously Marx’s critique of civil society, and his call to abolish civil society by abolishing the commodity production upon which it rests, is by definition totalitarian” and leads straight to the Gulag. Because Marx’s relationship to Hegel and to German philosuphy was so poorly understood at the time, the Cold Warriors of the 1940’s and 50’s rarely troubled themselves with these subtleties. For them, Stalin, like Lenin before him, was a Marxist , and had “applied” “Marxism-Leninism” to the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia, and that was that. The continuity from Marx to Lenin to Stalin was obvious and unproblematic. The new generation also wants to trace a direct thread from Marx’s “Introduction to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” to Lenin to Stalin to Pol Pot and Shining Path. But the Marx and Hegel renaissances of the postwar period , in which these people cut their teeth, leaves them with a much more formidable task. Their whole case rests on a distortion of the relationship between the early Marx’s critique of civil Society and his later turn to the critique of political economy. Because this distortion, as articulated in works such as Jean Cohen’s problematic book on the subject (Class and Civil Society: The Limits of Marxian Critical Theory, Univ. of Mass. Pr. 1983), is so fundamental to the stance of the post-Marxists, we must give it our particular attention. To cut through this question, is not merely to undermine these currents at their strongest point; it is also to open the way to a frank discussion of some lacunae in even the best of the Marxian tradition closely related to the actual crisis of Marxism.
Both Hegel and, more radically, Marx confronted the problem posed by the extreme atomization of individuals in modern civil society, and their consequent relationship to the State. The new theoreticians of democracy are quite right that the point of departure of Marx’s entire project is in the dialogue with and supercession of Hegel’s inadequate solution to this problem. Marx’s answer to the dualisms of civil society was the abolition of the latter, in the well-known sense of the German Philosophical term Aufhebung, which implies both continuity and discontinuity.
The fundamental question before the international left today is whether or not Marx was (as this writer believes) right to think that civil society could be abolished (aufgehoben) on a higher level (which preserves and deepens the positive historical achievements of civil, that is, bourgeois society) and not on a lower level, as happened in Soviet-type societies. The second question, which follows hard on the first, is: if Marx was wrong about the critique of civil society, and was in fact a proto-totalitarian, what, if anything, remains valid in his critique of political economy and its programmatic implications? The fact that today’s theoreticians of the “public sphere” and of “democracy” separated from the question of capitalism vs. socialism think it superfluous to ask, let alone answer that second question is one powerful sign of the underlying bad faith and of the agenda of accomodation in their negative answer to the first. IMF teams shuttle about Latin America, Africa and now Eastern Europe, pushing slash-and-burn policies on countries and governments crushed under trillions in foreign debt; neo-liberal economic policies in the U.S. increasingly blur the lines between First and Third Worlds for America’s working class and inner-city populations, (and where, for the latter, infant mortality is at Third World levels); factory closings marginalize a whole generation of young workers in the West (and, in the U.S., a generation of black youth), all without eliciting the slightest interest or protest from these people. For nearly 15
years, “soft cop” democracy has sold austerity in countries emerging from “tough cop” dictatorship all over the world, but the only concern of the new watchdogs of “civil society” is to pounce whenever someone points, like Marx 150 years ago, at the formal side of the public sphere enjoyed by those now eating, (when they do eat), at the newly-opened soup kitchens of Buenos Aires and Warsaw. One important tack of these new defenders of the “West” against the “East” has been to pass over in total silence the devastation of the “South”, where it has been the bankers of New York, London, Paris and Frankfurt, more than the waning bureaucracies of Moscow and Beijing, who are calling the shuts for the concentration camps without walls that are Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, the Sahel , Nigeria or Zaire (which should not make us forget similar open-air concentration camps named Vietnam, Angola, Mozambique or Ethiopia).
But to be radical is to attack ideology at the root, and the root , here , is the supposedly “totalitarian aspiration” of Marx’ post-1843 evolution.
Marx attacked the mediation proposed by Hegel between the atomized individual and the state as the typical conceptual sleight-of-hand of German philosophy. Far from identifying a real mediation between the individual and the supposed universality of the state, Hegel’s presumed solutions mystified Prussian reality. The contradictions between abstract universality and concrete individuality which Hegel variously saw as mediated in the civil service, in the “corporation” (i.e. societal interest groups), or in art, philosophy and religion, were discovered by Marx to be real antagonisms in social practice, which could only be solved by their abolition in social practice. Marx discovered the empty universality held out by the state to atomized individuals in civil society to be an abstraction, growing from the alienated social existence of real people in an antagonistic social world. (Or, in Anatole France’s memorable formulation: “The. law, in its sublime egalitarianism, prohibits both the rich and the poor man from sleeping under the bridges of the Seine.”) Marx argued that the practical abolition of civil society would reunite atomized private individuals with their alienated social powers. He characterized his solution to the antagonisms of civil society in the abolition of the latter as the material human community” (Gemeinwesen).
But figures such as Jean Cohen and those who follow her see Marx’s post-1845 shift from the radical democratic call for a realization of the universal claims of civil society to “political economy (the post-Marxists like to forget that Marx called it the “CRITIQUE of political economy”) as the fatal step. In this transition, Marx discovered the proletariat as the concrete universal class, (a “class with radical chains” as he had put it in 1843), which could practically abolish civil society and realize its empty universality in a higher, substantial social form. This, for the civil society theorists, is the nub of a program with “totalitarian aspirations”. In this conception, St ate and Society are ‘de-differentiated’ ” (as if Marx were a theorist of statism).
What this optic totally obscures is that Marx did not dumbly take over Ricardo’s political economy, but rather submitted it to the same immanent critique to which he had submitted philosophy. As Lukacs showed in his 1923 classic, History and Class Consciousness , Marx found in the contradiction between abstract exchange value and concrete use value the transposition, and thus the root, of the contradiction between abstract universality and concrete individuality with which he had already grappled in philosophy, jurisprudence and political philosophy. He understood that the earlier separations and contradictions rested on a separation already made in production, in a society in which labor power had the status of a commodity. Thus Marx’s turn to the critique of political economy is also a continuation, and a deepening, of the earlier immanent critique of Hegel. The civil society theorists have reformulated the old counterposition between the early and late Marx that was always a shibboleth of the Stalinist interpretation of Marx. A whole generation once used the 1844 Manuscripts to free Marx from the Stalinists; part of that same generation, (like “an old bitch gone in the teeth” in
Ezra Pound’s phrase), now uses the 1844 Manuscripts to show that Marx was.. well.. .sort of a St alinist after all.
Cuhen sees in Marx’s transition from his 1840-1845 settling ~t accuunts with Hegel and Feuerbach to his immersion in the critique of political economy an abandonment of “immanent critique”, or the “contrasting of norm and reality”. (This in itself is preposterous, because Marx used precisely the same method in discovering, in his critique of political economy, the labor power hidden by the reified category of “labor” in British political economy, and particularly in Ricardo’s labor theory of value.) The post-Marxists fault Marx for moving away from his earlier view of “univeralistic norms of citizenship, principles of legality, and a formally democratic and constitutional state as fully positive developments” (cf. David Ost. Solidarity: The Politics of Anti-Politics, Temple UP, p. 26). It is quite true that Marx, after he began the critique of political economy, was no longer merely a radical democrat. But it is the worst vulgarization to imply that “immanent critique” was abandoned in Marx’s increasing turn to the “economy” and that thereafter for Marx, civil society is nothing but the capitalist market” (ibid. p. 27). “Immanent critique” of philosophy and law did indeed lead Marx to the historical discovery that these spheres were not self-subsisting, and immanent critique, by exploding the autonomy of such spheres from within, also taught him that their internal self-contradictions could not be resolved in their own terms, but required the extension of critique to a broader terrain. The post-Marxists’ falsification is their implication that Marx did not also show that the Self-contradiction of “economics” could not be resolved in the separate, alienated terms of that sphere, and that the formal pretenses of the “universality” of the commodity status of labor power in capitalism, too, was not universal enough. And it is quite true that in this process, Marx ceased to view the formal side of citizenship, legality and the constitutional State as “fully positive developments”, any more than he saw the emancipation of capitalist “free labor” from medieval corporations (that “democracy of unfreedom” , in his phrase) as a purely positive development
The post-Marxists and the partisans of civil Society want to say, in effect, that the experience of Stalinism in Russia and in Eastern Europe was in fact the legitimate historical test, and the definitive historical failure, of Marxism as a whole. They think that the Stalinist attempt to abolish the dominance of the market in backward agrarian societies is a warped but ultimately faithful “Marxist attempt to abolish the dominance of the market, period. The better-read figures in this current know that the discussion, within Marxism itself, of the degeneration and failure of the Russian Revolution began within months of seizure of the Winter Palace. They know that Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks, whatever else one might say about them (and one can clearly say a great deal), never doubted for a moment that without revolution in the West, the Russian Revolution was doomed to degenerate. They know that Marx himself usually envisioned the construction of socialism on the foundations of a materially advanced capitalist society. They also know that in the most important case where Marx flirted with an alternate basis for the transition to communism–the peasant commune theorized by the Russian Populists–he concluded in 1881 that capitalism’s penetratration of the Russian countryside had condemned Russian as well to the capitalist road. They know that the Stalinist model arose in conditions of extreme backwardness in which the working class was at most 15% of the (largely peasant) population, and was then exported to Eastern Europe by the Red Army. The partisans of civil society and their East European fellow ex-radicals who now see the formal spheres of civil society as a “purely positive development” know all this, will acknowledge it (though less and less) under pressure, but insist that such objections are secondary and contingent. For them, as for Ronald Reagan and Time magazine, it is Marx’s “totalitarian aspirations” , and not merely Stalin, that are on trial for the barbarism of the forced collectivizations , factory speedup directly under GPU Supervision, slave labor, “bacchanalian planning”, state terror and ideological delirium that shaped the actual “state socialist” model after the abandonment of the NEP. The contempurary social climate gives weight to such arguments, and in it, the classic Marxist rejoinders to such insinuations, as cited above, somehow sound like Talmudic and unconvincing “old hat”.
Lenin is of course an easier target than Marx for these people, and a full settling of accounts with Lenin’s legacy cannot be undertaken here. Beginning in the late 1960’s, a very extensive debate in the West began to make serious distinctions between Marx and Lenin, drawing ultimately on such pioneering sources as Karl Korsch’s 1923 Marxism and Philosophy. The most effective part of this critique, in this author’s view, focused on the new elements which Lenin introduced into the Marxian tradition with his emphasis on the role of the organized revolutionary intelligentsia in bringing consciousness to the working class”, a notion which is far more muted in Marx, if it is there at all. Much ink has been spilled on this question and it is not imperative to settle it here. What is important, however , is the rapidity with which the post-Marxists and civil society theorists are all too happy to assimiliate Lenin to Marx. Using the more vulnerable target of “Leninism”, (which for them is almost always seen as the self-evident precursor of Stalinism) it is the very idea of social revolution they are really after. These theorists, on a terrain already mined with false assumptions, seek a “third way” between capitalism, (“a civil society centered on the market”) and “state socialism”, which they imply or openly identify with Marx. This “third road”, as in the formulation of David Ost’ s recent book on Poland, is a permanently open democracy , a civil society based “neither in the state or in the marketplace” (once again, as if Marx were an advocate of statism) but an interesting new mode of production called “a vibrant po1itical public sphere”. This “third road”, the post-Marxists like to tell us, has been theorized and practiced by the new social movements, the Greens, human rights activists, radical Christians and, in Eastern Europe, by Solidarnosc in Poland.
It is most instructive to see the relevance and above all the limits of this post-Marxist perspective when applied to the recent historical event which probably most clearly tested it, the working class insurgency in Poland from 1980 onward. Since at least the revolutions of 1830, Poland has always occupied a special position in the history of the international left, and as far and away the largest Eastern European country, developments in Poland have usually had implications far beyond its borders. There is no question that the evolution of the Polish intelligentsia since the 1960’s, in relation to the Polish working class, provides an excellent case study in the issues raised above.
In 1964, Jacek Kuron and Karol Modzelewski wrote their “Open Letter to the Party”. This pamphlet-length work is, without question, the most interesting analysis of the Stalinist system ever written in the Soviet bloc during the postwar period. It is a rigorously Marxist attempt to locate the dynamic of the “state socialist” system (a challenge in which the theoreticians of civil society evince not the slightest interest), which is characterized without hesitation as a new form of class rule and against which only a “new proletarian revolution” offers a meaningful perspective. Kuron and Modzelewski situate Polish state socialism” (a term to which they, in contrast to most post-Marxists, give a real definition, whether one accepts it or not, and sharply distinguish from Marx’s own project of abolishing the state along with social classes) in a thoroughly international framework, clearly recognizing, like the Bolsheviks before them, the impossibility of revolution in Poland without revolution throughout the Eastern bloc and ultimately in the capitalist West. In the “Open Letter”, Kuron and Modzelewski have none of the illusions about the capitalist West which crept into their politics in the course of the 1970’s, under the impact of such short-lived phenomena as the “Euro-communism” of the PCI. The retreat of the Polish opposition from the perspectives of the “Open Letter to the Party” of 1964 is the real story of what happened in Poland after 1970 and particularly after 1980. The “Open Letter to the Party” was translated and distributed throughout the world in the 1960’s , and was read everywhere for what it was, the most advanced statement of Marxism, based squarely on a call for international revolution, east and west, ever written in the St alinist bloc after 1945.
One should not of course exaggerate the role of one document, however important. But since both of the authors, and particularly Kuron, went on to p1ay leading roles in the events of the 1980’s, one might expect the post-Marxists to provide a more serious treatment of their evolution away from revolutionary Marxism, one which had no illusions about “reforming” either the party or the state. The theses of Kuron and Modzelewski’s “Open Letter” are clearly quite far from what the authors themselves thought, wrote and did after 1970. Yet it never occurred to them then, and no one would never dare imply today, that their 1964 call for “all power to the workers’ councils” was a “totalitarian aspiration”. But that is precisely the implications of the entire perspective with which the post-Marxists and civil society theorists approach Eastern Europe.
Well before the emergence of Solidarnosc in 1980, the Polish working class was already the most consistently militant in Eastern Europe. In 1956, 1970 and 1976, in particular, it conducted strike actions that were turning points in the whole evolution of Polish society, and which were followed closely in both blocs. Yet for those for whom the working class is at best just one more “social movement”, each of these turns in the history of the pre-1980 Polish working class, not to mention the social and economic context in which they occurred, fall into obscurity, allowing them to distill a whole optic on events from their terrain of predilection, the evolution of the intellectual Opposition. This opposition in Poland was undoubtedly central, and through KOR in particular, was central in the evolution of the workers’ movement itself. But this focus on intellectuals, speaking (indeed, pioneering) a language similar to their own, allows the post-Marxists to ignore the same realities which the Polish intelligentsia, for other reasons, also ignored. The meaning of the turn in Stalinist economic strategy after 1970, the Gierek regime’s frenzied borrowing in Western capital markets to buy social peace through increased worker consumption, the fatal blow delivered by the 1973 world economic crisis to this export-oriented strategy, and how all these forces influenced the climate in which the opposition evolved, are generally terra incognita to these people. The slightest attempt to identify the overall dynamic of the Stalinist societies, a more than 50-year old debate, or their relationship to the capitalist world market, is equally beyond them. They cannot be troubled by the slightest discussion of the concrete relationship, in Poland, between the state bureaucracy, the working class, and the peasantry, or of the impact of post-1945 industrialization on the balance of forces between them. The important attempts of figures such as Hillel Ticktin, working within a Marxist framework, to discuss the historical relationship between extensive and intensive phases of accumulation and to relate them to the crisis of Soviet-type societies, draw little but a yawn. The “totalitarian aspiration” that leads Marxists (and others) to pose a relationship between such questions and “civil society” forecloses, for the post-Marxists, an investigation of these apparently boring questions.
What do they substitute for such concerns?
The “antipolitics” of the post-1970 Polish opposition, which inspired post-Marxist David Ost’ s recent book, was theorized in an essay of the same name by the Hungarian writer Gyorgy Konrad. Ost defines this term, in a passage worth quoting at length:
“The goal (of Solidarnosc-LG) was a political arrangement neither capitalist nor socialist, neither East nor West, but something new and original, something that borrows whatever seems worthwhile from existing models without adopting any one model altogether. It is for this reason that the Polish opposition rejected being pigeonholded into Western categories of ‘right’ and ‘left’. This is why they scorned naive questioners asking if they favored ‘capitalism’ or ‘socialism’ . Their goal was autonomy, an open democracy, podmiotowosc (roughly, “subjectivity”-LG) , and their enemy was a party monopoly that sought to crush it all. Their goal was a political system centered on neither the state nor the market, but on the public sphere of a strong, pluralist, and independent civil society. What they coveted was the social space for a free public life. To the extent that capitalism provided for that space, they were “for capitalism”. To the extent that capitaiibm limited social space according to market constraints, they were “against capitalism”. And the same goes for “socialism”. To the extent that it undercut market constraints on freedom, great; to the extent that it undercut democratic freedoms themselves, down with it. They sought autonomy within a stable democratic polity, where what was most important was not the final goal of a perfect world, but the continually open search for a better world. They rejected the old left with its vision of a perfect society because they knew it led to Lenin’s “Kto-kovo” (“Who will beat whom?”) understanding of politics, where either the good guys with all the answers triumph absolutely, or they are wiped out by the philistines who will lead society astray. The new opposition admitted that it did not have all the answers, and said that that was OK. The vagueness of “permanently open democracy” is one of the things that made it so attractive, and so apt a description. They didn’t know exactly what it meant. They didn’t know what “the answer” was . What they knew, from thirty-five years of experience, was that believing one does know “the answer” is the source of the problem.” (Ost, p. 15) (our emphasis-LG)
Yet somehow the answers, thrashed Out in the “vibrant public sphere” by these very same earlier exponents of “anti-politics turned out ultimately to lead to Jeffrey Sachs and to an austerity program which the Wall Street Journal has criticized from the left.
In the above passage, Ost has in all probability faithfully rendered the world view of at least the intellectual wing of the movenent that brought the party to its knees in Poland in 1980-81. It is a world view whose genesis is perfectly, tragically comprehensible in light of the conditions that engendered it. But it is also a world view ultimately inadequate to the problems it set out to resolve, and if this was not clear in 1980-1981 (which it was), it is certainly clear in 1990, when the people who articulated it are in power. “Neither capitalism nor socialism”, “neither ‘left’ nor ‘right'”, “neither state nor market”: who, in Poland in 1980, could meaningfully counter the mass movement’s visceral rejection of Marxism (which was, of course, the “Marxism” hopelessly compromised by the decades when it became a meaningless husk in the mouths of gangsters and their ideological flunkies)? In an ideological atmosphere in which concepts like “socialism” or “planning” or the “abolition of wage labor” were transformed, over 50 years , into sawdust and a catechism masking the privileges of the grey Stalinist Babbitts, the Catholic Church (which, after all, taught the Stalinists a thing or two about ideological casuistry) could plausibly appear as a force in touch with the very wellsprings of life itself.
Thus armed, or disarmed, as the case may be, with such ideas, Kuron, Michnik and the rest of the Polish opposition suddenly found themselves in a situation beyond their wildest expectations, the strikes which culminated in the Gdansk accord of August 1980. Through 1980 and 1981, Solidarnosc and the KOR intellectuals who most influenced it, confronted by an explosion of such unexpected depth which forced a recognition of independent unions on the party, groped toward a notion of their possible role. It is a relatively well-known chronology which will not be repeated here in detail. Having cracked the Stalinist state’s monopoly of social life by establishing parallel unions alongside the moribund official ones, the KOR intellectuals and working-class leaders such as Walesa had to define a role for themselves in a hurry.
Yet is precisely here that the alternative Marxist approach to Polish and Eastern European reality became the obstreporous uninvited (or better, disinvited) guest at the post-Marxists’ otherwise quite open-ended and eclectic theoretical smorgasbord. In the social realities of Poland and elsewhere, it was terror, the secret police and the militia which ruthlessly expelled this rude intruder; in the more polite Western academic world in which the partisans of civil society reside and write, mere silence or (when that is impossible) the insinuations of the skillful pamphleteer usually do the trick. (In Poland, since 1980, the vacuum created by this absence has been filled by Catholicism, hallucinatory versions of Western neo-liberalism, and by growing nostalgia for Josef Pilsudski’s interwar dictatorship.)
One pair of uninvited guests at the post-Marxists’ threadbare banquet are two Eastern European revolutionaries, Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky, in contrast to the respectful attention they usually accord the ideas of such well-known theorists of the modern workers’ movement as Juergen Habermas Jean Cohen, Hannah Arendt or Philippe Schmitter.
Rosa Luxemburg, in writings ranging from her 1898 doctoral dissertation The Industrial Development of Poland, via her battles against none other than the nationalist-populist Pilsudski himself in the Polish socialist movement ca. 1908, to her ongoing polemics with what she saw as Lenin’s party-substitutionism right up to her death in 1919, had a lot to say about Poland (and Russia) that is of obvious relevance today. Luxemburg argued that the economic inter-relationship of Poland and Russia was already so great that a Polish revolution would necessarily also have to be a Russian revolution, and that in such a context, there was no possible progressive role for Polish nationalism (Poland prior to 1918 was of course partitioned between Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary). In her formulation, nationalism was “utopian under capitalism, reactionary under socialism”. The conventional wisdom on Luxemburg within the socialist movement (needless to say, as yet another “proto-totalitarian” she requires no mention at all in contemporary post-Marxist circles) was that she was “wrong on the national question”, and she certainly was wrong (like most other 20th century Marxists) in underestimating the ferocious tenacity of nationalism in the working class, and perhaps in the Polish working class above all. (What she would have said before the spectacle of masses of striking workers genuflecting before an archbishop, we can only hazard to guess.) But Luxemburg, a revolutionary internationalist equally at home in the workers’ movements of Russia, Poland and Germany, a theorist of the mass strike and of the primacy of the direct lessons of mass working-class struggle over the directives of “the shrewdest central committee” has posed since her death an unanswerable challenge to Stalinist totalitarianism, Social Democratic accomodation and, of late, to the post-modern post-Marxists (who may rightly intuit that the very juxtaposition of her name on the same page with those of their theoretical sources could only underscore the abyss between a real workers’ movement in motion and the concerns of very late 20th century academia).
It is of course true that the ideas of Rosa Luxemburg were precisely nowhere in the discussion of the postwar Opposition in Poland, through a complex process of the distortion of historical memory that cannot concern us here. In a country where the questions of Stalinism and national oppression are so intertwined, and run so deep, where Pilsudski’s PPS so overwhelming won out, where her own SDKPiL was so quickly Stalinized after her death and after the founding of the Comintern, Luxemburg’ s acid remarks on the future trajectory of Pilsudski (who in the pre-1914 period had the sympathies of the grey eminences of the Second International and of German Social Democracy) in the direction of “National Bolshevism” (en route to a military dictatorship), as well as everything else she stood for , (starting with her critique of Lenin) , could be easily forgotten. (All the more so after she was finally awkwardly embalmed in the ruling Stalinist pantheon, with the official publication of her complete works in East Germany in the course of the l970’s .) But Rosa Luxemburg was also associated with an even more formidable historical reality, the emergence of the soviet in the Russian and Polish 1905, and later, in the German revolution of 1918-1919, with the Raeterepublik or republic of workers’ , soldiers’ and sailors’ councils
The post-Marxists have yet to enlighten us on the totalitarian character of these classic expressions of real working-class power.
Yet here, in 1905 and in the European revolutionary wave of 1917-1921, as in later revolutions in Spain and elsewhere, was a “public sphere” beyond anything the partisans of the “new social movements” have ever come up with, in theory and still less in practice. Here, the formal side of bourgeois legality and “citizenship”, its complete separation from the concrete realities of economic life, was absorbed into living, palpable, “concrete universality”. In these council and soviet forms, which were precisely the concrete discovery of masses in motion and not the prior “dream of some world reformer” (Communist Manifesto) was sketched out precisely the Aufhebung, abolition on a higher level, of the positive advances of bourgeois society. Yet this tradition, and how it fell into such total oblivion for a Polish workers’ movement that was groping, practically, toward the recreation of some of its finest moments (or, even more importantly, why it failed to attain them) is of no interest to the post-Marxists and post-modernists.
Leon Trotsky was no favorite of Luxemburg, but he too wrote some interesting books and pamphlets about the problems which the post-Marxists prefer to discuss with the other tools. Trotsky, almost uniquely, developed Marx’s theory of permanent revolution from the experience of the 1905 revolution. As chair of the the Petrogr ad soviet of 1905, he had some ideas on a proletarian “public sphere”. Even before Lenin, he saw the possibility of a Russian working-cl ass revolution (in tandem with a revolution in the West, above all in Germany) obviating the phase of a bourgeois revolution which the entirety of the Second International saw as the linear, inevitable next step for Tsarist Russia. After the failure of the German revolution to materialize, and the totally unforeseen isolation of the enfeebled Soviet state in a hostile capitalist world, Trotsky clung to the perspective of world revolution to save the Russian Revolution from inevitable degeneration. He understood that tne Russian Revolution failed first of all in Germany. His 1936 theory of the “degenerated workers’ state” was and is highly debatable, but it is at least a serious Marxist attempt to grasp the dynamic of a “Soviet-type” society, part of a debate of a seriousness far greater than the economically-illiterate academic faddism of the post-Marxists. Trotsky, like Luxemburg, in a world far less dramatically inter-connected than today’s, understood what the Eastern European ex-radicals recently converted to the market and to the buildup of NATO (at least until German reunification made them hesitate) have such a hard time with: the simple, relentless, and “reductionist” truth that capitalism is–from its origins–an international system, centered in the tyranny of the world market, and that it, like the Stalinist sub-system of the world market (a world market crashing down on Eastern Europe today), can only be abolished internationally. Won over to the “politics of anti-poliics” in 1980-81, swept up in the euphoria of the mass strike and their momentary victory over the party, Polish workers and intellectuals tended to “forget” this reality. Or, worse still, in their demand (in late 1981, just before martial law) that Poland join the IMF , they embraced this reality from the wrong end.
We are hardly suggesting that the best of the old revolutionary tradition, the vision of direct workers’ democracy in the specific form of soviets and workers’ councils, or the even older vision, often simple-minded in the extreme, of the complete abolition of the market, remain an infallible, ready made guide to today’s reality and problems. But the contemporary climate obliges us to point out that these real historical experiences of 1917-1921, and not the Gulag of slave labor and state socialism” in essentially agrarian Societies undergoing forced-march industrialization, remain the true historical benchmark against which the possible anachronism of the old visions must be demonstrated. It is yet another symptom of the bad faith of the post-Marxists and post-modernists that these well-known historical realities are ignored or dismissed in passing as the emphemeral “utopian” side of a movement whose true telos was the concentration camp, as if Rosa Luxemburg were merely a well-meaning cat’s paw for Joseph Stalin.
The post-Marxists steer clear of any discussion of the legacy of Luxemburg, Trotsky (and the latter is, of course, hardly unproblematic) and other early 20th century revolutionaries, just as they steer clear of the more than 70-year old Marxist debate on the “Russian question” to which we have alluded several times. They do so because they know that to acknowledge the existence of such a discussion, let alone to seriously engage it, would take them onto a terrain where their theoretical framework would quickly self-destruct. Nowhere is this evasion more obvious, and more crippling, than in their enthusiasm for “market socialism”
The post-Marxists treat gingerly the question of “market Socialism”, and for good reason. For there was in 1980-81 no greater illusion, revealing the dead end of the “politics of anti-politics” and pointing straight to Solidarity’s embrace of Jeffrey Sachs ‘ draconian austerity program, which, in 1980 or in 1990, the creation of a “civil society” implied for Poland.
There is a discussion with a long history, both theoretical and practical, on the use of the market in socialist planning, a discussion carried on throughout the 20th century by Social Democrats, Stalinists , partisans of the “third way” such as the economic architect of the 1968 Prague Spring, Ota Sik, W. Brus , Oskar Lange or, most recently, Alec Nove. Because they like to settle everything at the level of philosophy and theory, the partisans of post-Marxism and of civil society tend to ignore, or bowdlerize, these debates in postwar Poland and throughout the Eastern bloc, on different types of market reforms , the introduction of Western econometrics and ultimately even ultimately of neo-classical and specifically Friedmanite economics. Even farther from their purview are the debates among anti-St alinist Marxists such as Trotsky, Dunayevskaya, James, Cliff or Ticktin about the operation of the famous (and highly pertinent) Marxist “law of value” in the Soviet bloc. (Stalin himself, in the appended “Concerning Certain Errors of Comrade Yerushenko” of his Economic Problems of the U.S.S.R., weighed in on this subject.) Yet whenever Polish workers and oppositionists in 1980-81, groped fur the economic basis of the post-Marxists’ “vibrant public sphere”, it was usually some variant of “market Socialism” they embraced.
The question of “market socialism” is of fundamental importance for many reasons. It takes us right back to the beginning of this critique of “postmodern politics” and its cavalier formulations on the relationship of civil society, the market, and formal legality. Because, with increasing stridency over the past 15 years, the partisans of “civil society” and the “public sphere” have (quite consistently) increasingly come to identify the market (they trouble themselves less and less with “market socialism”) as the guarantor of civil society. As David Ost , to take one example, admits in his account of the discovery of the market without phrases by the Polish opposition in the mid-1980’s , during martial law, “it was as if the opposition remembered that buergerliche Gesellschaft means not just ‘civil society’ but also bourgeois society” (p. 168).
As with the question of soviets and workers’ councils, we do not wish to imply that the question of the relationship between plan and market is a trivial one for the future of socialism, or a question to which easy answers are to be lifted out of old classics. We merely wish to assert, from observation of the recent ravages of thc market in places like Chile, Peru, Bolivia and, more recently, Poland, (not to mention its recent ravages in places like northern England or the American Midwest) that the answers to these problems are not to be found (contrary to what a majority of Polish society today seems to think) in the writings and prescriptions of Jeffrey Sachs and Milton Friedman, or among those ex-Stalinist “leftists” whose bad consciences about their statist past lead them to advocate a “left” version of the same thing. The dictates of the market today, on a world scale, from Detroit to Sao Paolo and from London and Paris to Peking, via Lagos and Bangladesh, mean, for literally billions of people, the scrap heap: grinding poverty, Lumpenized marginality, starvation, destitute old age and death. This is the reality which is daily intensified through the increasingly brazen “lifeboat economics” of the Chicago School or their new East European counterparts. But for the truly trivial approach to these problems, once again, no one excels those theoreticians whose rarified engagement with Big Theory leaves them with no time, and less desire, to trouble themselves with such messy realities. These latter-day exponents of the “purely positive development” of formal legality and the colonization of all reality by the laws of commodity production have nothing better to do than attack, with all the fanaticism of the newly converted, contemporary efforts at the renewal of Marxism as the face of barbarism itself. The current barbarism committed in the name of the market and formal legality interests them not in the least.
The idea that, in 1980-81, or at any later time, there could have b een an economically -viable course for Poland (or , by implication, for any other debt-strapped semi-developed country of Eastern Europe or Latin America emerging from dictatorship), without a working-cl ass seizure of power and its internationalization is utopian, most recently refuted in the wrenching scenes of social dislocation emanating daily from a Warsaw where material conditions for many people are today back to 1945 levels. Just in the same way that “we do not form our opinions of individuals solely from what they think of themselves, but rather on how they express their life activity”, we also do not judge societies and social movements solely by their their self-conceptions. However tragic it may be that no one in Poland in 1980, or perhaps in 1989, believed it, the project of a working-class revolution against capitalism remains to be reinvented, as the sole long-term perspective offering any way out of the current devolution of Poland, and most other Eastern bloc countries as well. This does not mean that such a revolution is on the immediate agenda, nor that there are not many strategic and tactical questions to be settled between here and there. But nothing else holds out any positive prospect to the majority of the Polish population now being crushed under austerity. Once again, the legacy of Stalinism in Poland and Eastern Europe weighs heavily against any solution smacking of “collectivism”. But the contraction of the world market and the unfolding of the ongoing world economic crisis since at least 1973 simply leave no room for any “neo-corporatist” compromise (as figures such as David Ost advocate), and the only possible “vibrant public sphere”, separated from serious international considerations of economics and politics, is the one that millions of Poles (and Argentines) are now mulling over in their charity soup kitchens. Apparently, the intensity of the crisis is such that it does not even leave any room for the supposed “second way” of “state socialism” either. In the meantime, Eastern Europe an workers are discovering what theological nuances today differentiate “reform” from “reaction”.
In the 1981-89 evolution of martial law and its aftermath, increasingly the party itself was embracing virtually everything that Solidarity had demanded ih 1980-81. Once the totalitarian mold was broken (which the party never imagined it could restore integrally), the logic it had always feared forced it from retreat to retreat, until the discourse of the “public sphere”, “civil society” and the superiority of the market over planning could virtually be eulogized in the party press itself. When the strikes of 1988 erupted, from a new generation of young workers not even in the work force in 1980-81, the revival of Solidarity was accelerated by the party’s open recognition of the need for independent unions to rein in the working class. If the Stalinists had only understood in 1981 that they needed Solidarity to control the working class, (as Walesa and others were clearly willing to do), how different things could have been!
The historical experience of Stalinism has delayed by decades, perhaps generations, the maturation of the historical project, first elaborated by Marx, of a positive supercession of the formal juridical universality of “civil”, or bourgeois society, and the commodity status of labor power in that society upon which it rests. Nothing illustrates the weight of the albatross of Stalinism better than Polish society in the past decade, in which one of the must creative, combative and resourceful worker insurgencies in modern history ran, seemingly willfully, into the embrace of the Pope, Western bankers and the International Monetary Fund, and nothing illustrates the depth of the havoc wrought by St alinism better than its bastard progeny among those who are attempting to dig their way out of its ruins. “The sleep of reason will engender monsters”, as Goya prophecied. Tragically, in Eastern Europe, and cynically, in the West, much of the intelligentsia, weary of tired retreads of discredited (and caricatured) variants of Marxism, has turned for new sustenance to the intellectual junk bond salesmen of our era. In Warsaw, today, the Chapter 11 proceedings are already underway.