Marx for which times?

Submitted by Anon on 9 December, 2003 - 2:25 Author: Martin Thomas

I offer a different assessment of Daniel Bensaid's Marx for our times to the one given by Alan Johnson in Solidarity 3/40.

Marx for our times* is one of a number of books which Bensaid has published since 1990 to rethink Marxism in the light of the disconcerting events of 1989. Until then, Bensaid's current, the USFI, and many others had located their politics within a view of history as proceeding on two levels.
The "underlying" history of the second half of the 20th century was relentless advance by the "world revolution" through more and more victories "against imperialism". It was both pushed forward in a mechanical way, by the ever-stewing "crisis of imperialism", and pulled forward inexorably, the predetermined end-point of any negation or destruction of the existing order being the "world revolution". Sometimes the the "crisis" eased in spots, or the "world revolution" was stalled or pushed back here or there, but all such variants were within a single line of development.

Above that "underlying" history, however, was another one, the history of monstrosities, degenerations and deformations, which shaped the profane (Stalinist) actuality of the states and movements embodying the "world revolution".

The USFI sided with Stalinism against western capitalism ("imperialism"), but also condemned Stalinism. Its perspective was that eventually the front would be straightened out, by "political revolutions" against the bureaucracies pulling the profane actuality back into line with the norms of the underlying world-revolutionary trend.

Then the profane actuality collapsed - and the vault supposed to contain the "underlying" history was found to be empty.

The first of Bensaid's books (1990) was on Walter Benjamin, a German Marxist of the 1920s and 30s, and Bensaid continues to draw heavily on Benjamin. As Esther Leslie explained in Workers' Liberty 66, Benjamin tried to discern the rationality of hope in a world where one unexpected tragedy piled on another. Bensaid draws from Benjamin "a new appreciation of time": a notion of history as uneven, criss-crossing, crisis-torn, full of uncertain branching-points and overlapping patterns with different tempos.

Any genuine historical event, says Bensaid, is "abnormal". "An event that is inserted like a dutiful link into the orderly sequence of days and tasks is no longer an event, but mere routine. History is composed of eventful singularities" (p.51). The political, cultural and other structures of a society never smoothly reflect economic developments. They move at a different tempo. They will include elements inherited from other times or transposed from other societies.

With these considerations, Bensaid rejects many of the old schemes of the USFI. For him: "The bureaucratic societies were never post-capitalist. Neither temporally: they remained contemporaneous with the dominant world capitalist system; nor from the viewpoint of labour productivity, which never caught up with that of the imperialist metropoles" (p.38).

They were not "degenerated" and "deformed workers' states" either. "Even among resolute opponents of the Stalinist counter-revolution, we often encounter a nostalgia for historical norms. The revolution is alleged to have 'degenerated' or 'deviated'. Having come off its tracks, history should end up being put back on them, after a more or less protracted 'detour' or skid" (p.41). But "treating... Stalinism as [a] pathological form, rather than seeing [it] as [an] entirely original historical phenomen[on], results in... minimising the specific import of [its] temporary 'deviancy'..." (p.33).

This critique is developed further in Bensaid's later book Les trotskysmes (2002). But it's all too airy.

Bensaid's general argument is that Marx developed a new approach to understanding history, but blurred by the dominant modes of natural science in his time. The Marxists of the Second International blurred it further. With the dark shadow of Stalinism lifted, and illumination from newer science, we can re-learn and redevelop Marx's authentic approach.

The argument from natural science seems to me as dubious here when used to promote a Marxism allegedly in line with chaos theory and quantum physics as when used in earlier eras to advocate a "mechanical" sort of Marxism as scientific. For example, Bensaid refers to Stephen Jay Gould's idea of "punctuated equilibria" in evolution. Gould argued that some processes of Darwinian evolution have had millions of years with little change interspersed with shorter periods of relatively rapid change. I don't know whether he was right.

It is certainly wrong to suggest that every social revolutionary must applaud Gould here, while reformists and conservatives will back other scientists. (So if the fossil record should eventually prove Gould wrong, we should all become Blairites?) All the more so because Gould's postulated periods of relatively rapid change are of the order of five to ten thousand years, scarcely analogous to working-class insurrections.

If what we learn from Stalinism, and the mistakes of Trotskyists trying to comprehend Stalinism, is that we must think in terms of historical sequences branching, criss-crossing, zig-zagging and overlapping rather than chugging along straight tracks, then what we have learned is still too general to reorient us.

If we conclude that almost any bit of Marxist analysis since Marx and Engels (some cryptic remarks of Benjamin and Gramsci excepted) is likely too have been too linear, too mechanical, then we fail to get down to brass tacks about what, specifically, was wrong, and what was right.

Bensaid sometimes refers flatly to the Stalinist systems as "bureaucratic collectivism", and their mechanism as "bureaucratic exploitation" (Marx pp.33, 129, 172). Les trotskysmes cites The fate of the Russian revolution: lost texts of critical Marxism. He writes that the collapse of the Stalinist regimes "was the epilogue of a bureaucratic counter-revolution consummated long before" and was not to be regretted, "quite the opposite" (Les trotskysmes, p.118).

But he also adopts the old Communist Party historian Eric Hobsbawm's notion of "the short twentieth century", implying a continuity from 1917 right up to 1991 (Marx, p.xii).

General talk about historical branching-points is not much good unless it can deconstruct that notion.

It has political consequences: an idea that with the collapse of Stalinism, much of Bolshevism and the old Marxist tradition on which it rested has to be seen as the stuff of a past epoch - important and valuable, but outdated - and politics must be devised anew. The alternative, of course, is not dogmatism, but a due sense of our own limits and of the dangers of opportunism.

In Marx, Bensaid questions the idea that in conflicts between different camps of the established order socialists should back whichever is more "progressive" (p.32). In Les trotskysmes he flatly condemns "campism" (p.46).

But he still has the idea - which encapsulates a whole "philosophy of history", for the mid and late 20th century - that what was essentially wrong with the Stalinist regimes was their insufficient struggle against Western capitalism (Les trotskysmes, p.118).

He thus builds no solid alternative to post-Stalinist "campism", the idea that Islamists, Milosevic, or Saddam Hussein should be critically supported (or, at least, not opposed harshly) when they do "struggle against" the USA.

Bensaid's most recent book, Le nouvel internationalisme, has a whirl of interesting ideas about imperialism today, but no sharp conclusions or polemic on this point.

This philosopher, maybe, has interpreted Marx sufficiently. The point is to change the politics...

* Verso 2002. Original French edition 1995.

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