In the 20th century the failure of the German revolution in 1918/19 and the degeneration of the Russian revolution into dictatorship as well as the rising power of the US as a consumerist democracy led to a serious rethink on the part of most Marxist thinkers about questions of agency, class and economics and the dogmatic certainties of the Second and Third Internationals. It is hard to pinpoint exactly when this trend started and it certainly had many disparate branches but essentially it boils down to a turn to a sort of humanist, philosophical and cultural Marxism that attempted, in Ernst Bloch’s terms, to re-inject the “warm stream” of the ethics of human liberation back into the “cold stream” of what for many had become the “negative dialectic” of positivistic and scientistic systems of social control in west and east. In the 20th century the turn to an exploration of ideology and unconscious desire replaced that of an active revolutionary communism and an adherence to revolutionary communism in the west itself became in many ways no more than an expression of an internal unconscious and romantic desire for personal liberation.
Where Alain Badiou talks today of an almost ahistorical “communist hypothesis”, Bloch spoke about an “invariant of direction”, a mood of an eternal desire for human liberation that breaks out at certain historical points where the objective conditions allow it. The Arab spring would be an example today, whereas 40 and 20 years ago respectively it was the Prague spring and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
In this context, the attraction of going back to Hegel and the early Marx immediately becomes apparent because the idea of the unfolding of human freedom as the main motivating force of history – this time properly understood as something that can only succeed if the objective socio-economic conditions are right – is taken as a given. It is not that the economic ideas of Marx are rejected but there arises an attempt to subordinate economic categories again to human needs and desires and to see parties, states, economics and science as necessary servants of humanity rather than its eternal masters.
One passage from a letter from Marx to Arnold Ruge in 1843 is often quoted in this context:
“Hence, our motto must be: reform of consciousness not through dogmas, but by analysing the mystical consciousness that is unintelligible to itself, whether it manifests itself in a religious or a political form. It will then become evident that the world has long dreamed of possessing something of which it has only to be conscious in order to possess it in reality. It will become evident that it is not a question of drawing a great mental dividing line between past and future, but of realising the thoughts of the past. Lastly, it will become evident that mankind is not beginning a new work, but is consciously carrying into effect its old work.”
This implies strongly that the dreams of a better world are a constant, indeed transcendental drive behind our human activities but that the transcendence of prevailing conditions is an active and self-generating process of unmasking the “consciousness which is unintelligible to itself”.
Perhaps the most significant body of thought to emerge from this tradition was the Frankfurt school of critical theory based around the sociological and cultural-theoretical works of Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and Herbert Marcuse along with Walter Benjamin and the psychoanalysts Erich Fromm and Wilhelm Reich. The main focus of their work was to try to understand how ideology works, how an ideological hegemony is established and how people come to believe the things they do about themselves and the world. This became increasingly important after the rise of fascism and Nazism because the orthodox Marxist explanation of it as only the extreme response of a bourgeoisie in trouble was simply not up to the job. The question they asked was why millions of ordinary workers turned to an ideology that was quite clearly not in their “objective” interests.
This was then compounded by their time in exile in the US where the “American Dream” of human fulfilment through consumption and wealth exerted such a pull on workers’ consciousness. As John Steinbeck (a kind of literary honorary fellow of the Frankfurt school) put it, in America, the poor preferred to look upon themselves as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires”.
In turn, this trend became influential again in the 1960s, when the political turmoil in the west was based not on a proletarian uprising against poverty but an intellectual and youth uprising against “false consciousness” and the grinding banality of consumerism. Society was to be changed not by attacking only the socio-economic base but, more importantly, its superstructural and ideological hegemony.
This led them and later theoreticians to talk of people in consumer capitalism living in a state of permanent alienation, or what Lacan, after Freud, would call social castration in which, as Slavoj Žižek now puts it, we are all encouraged to “enjoy our symptoms!” The dark satanic mills of the 19th century have moved to China to be replaced by the bright satanic malls of consumer delight and our collective hopes for the future have been privatised and bundled up into little gobbets of pleasure sold to us as freedom on the never never.
Of course all of this kicking against prosperity and consumerism could be just the sigh of the creature who is not oppressed in a world that is not hostile but underneath it all is a sense that excess, consumption and obsession with growth at all costs is not sustainable in either human, ecological or indeed, as the current crisis shows us, purely economic terms. Again in early Marx we find a desire for the naturalisation of man and the humanisation of nature but it is replaced by the sense that the constant desire to search for utopia has been transformed into a vicarious and consumerist attitude in which hope and utopia are to be found in the coffee shops where we can dream about unearned fame and lottery wins.
But maybe what we really want is just to find somewhere to rest after the long and tiring journey through the desert of history. Walter Benjamin maintained that this quest, even in its correct historical materialist form, always contains hidden within it a quasi-theological and messianic message of hope in which we, as the most social of all the apes, can find our place. The question is really why we are so modest. Why are we happy with our false utopias? Let’s go home.
23 May 2011