Every socialist and their dog has a pet exaplanation of what has held back the success of socialism. Into that mix I want to throw a couple of further thoughts.
The first is quite simple, namely that in some sense the development of revolutionary socialist beliefs and organisations between, let’s say, 1830 and 1930 was not actually for any reasons to do with socialist revolution, but a by-product of the recentness of capitalist revolution. Revolution – both immediate, sudden political conflict, and also the radical re-structuring of society over time – was in the air. Anything seemed possible. The old class system no longer appeared natural and inevitable, because in so many places it was fading away – but the new class system had not yet acquired the weight of tradition.
In the 20th century, though, it came to appear natural and inevitable. The transitional period, when changes were so great that no further change seemed impossible, passed and we settled back into a state of relative tunnel vision, with alternatives appearing increasingly implausible.
This is quite a simple explanation and I think it has a lot of validity. But obviously it leaves something out – there really were large groups of people believing in revolution, so what exactly went wrong? Perhaps the conditions weren’t yet ripe – but what, more exactly, does this mean? What was the effective variable?
So the second idea I want to suggest is what I talked about in yesterday’s post: the incentive which class struggle gives the proletariat to revolt, which is in general a question of power, may take the particular form of a desire for domination. This has the unfortunate consequence that the latent pressure for change cannot be satisfied by socialism, because of its non-hierarchical nature (even a traditionally-conceived, non-single-party, “workers’ state” is radically non-hierarchical and egalitarian by comparison with any model of capitalist political and industrial relations).
So what I want to do in this post is talk a bit more about this proposed explanation (quite likely not the complete one) and link it to the sad history of socialist defeat. Tomorrow I will try to ask what the cause of this problem might be and what might correct it.
(preliminary note: of course a big part of this story would have to be ‘what have the agents of capitalism, the conservatives and those much-maligned petit-bourgeois opportunists etc. been doing. But if we do consider the future success of socialism probable, then this can’t be very explanatory – because such forces will always be active. So the question is, what determines whether they are successful or not?)
Camus, in ‘The Rebel’, writes that all rebellion – all defiance of authority, all times when the slave says ‘no’ to the master, contains an element of solidarity – in the moment of speaking for one’s own personhood against degradation, one speaks for personhood in general, one claims something that is shared with everyone else who is degraded. The process of making that rebellion successful can lead away from or into that initial moment of solidarity. The issue that concerns me here is that certain social factors may make the first option – the rebellion that makes the rebel essentially the same as the master, and turns their struggle a symmetrical one – more prevalent and more natural than the second – the rebellion that seeks merely freedom, not to enslave the previous master.
This may sound like a sort of petty moralism. The idea that revolt should be careful not to become the same as what it attacks is a commplace, a truism. So don’t take me as suggesting that it’s novel of striking, or that the question is simply whether people understand this insight. Certainly not a suggestion that ‘the proles’ are stupid and it’s a good thing I’m above that. It’s much more a question of emotions. I may claim to ‘understand’ this idea, but that doesn’t change the fact that the idea of SMASHING patriarchy, TEARING DOWN the state, DEFEATING capitalism, etc. often have a stronger emotional charge for me than the positive ideals of people living co-operatively and autonomously and so forth.
We might compare this sort of desire – for not just power, but for someone else to exert that power over – is a bit like the refined sugar, in the family of carbohydrate power-desires. Domination is fastest, most intense, most easily absorbed, but, in the long run, bad for your blood sugar level. And people can know this and still like sweet things.
So what might be the result if the desire for domination is more prominent than the desire for personal freedom?
It might involve some sort of identification with a larger entity already existing, through which the would-be-rebels can gain a vicarious domination of others. E.g. by identifying with and throwing their support behind a religious hierarchy or a national government, they can get the satisfaction of seeing that force conquer territory or drive out rivals.
It might involve something related, what I’ve previously called ‘populism’ (towards the end of this post) where the group that is identified with is not simply an existing conservative arrangement, but a group of ‘the oppressed’ seeking merely to slightly re-configure their society by shifting themselves up a bit and targeting a lot of hostility onto some unfortunate outgroup (sometimes even a section of the ruling class), such as immigrants, hippies, or bankers.
It might involve a more insidious and conservative flavour, ‘asceticism’, where what is identified with is actually one part of oneself against others – for instance, in a ‘work ethic’, I might draw satisfaction from the feeling that my ‘hard-working’ side had conquered and dominated my ‘lazy’ side, i.e. all of my desires which work frustrates. This can then be projected outwards, to identify some other persons who can be stigmatised as the symbol of, exciter of, and indulger of, the suppressed desire – the lazy, the workshy, the promiscuous, the slutty.
Or it might involve a revolutionary organisation that decays into a mix of the above under pressure – which begins by promising everybody freedom, and gradually becomes more keen on ‘discipline’, ‘sacrifice’, and targetting the insidious enemies within and the diabolical enemies without, all of which serve as excuses to roll back that freedom. If people’s driving force is to be free themselves, justifying restrictions on their freedom by the promise of vicarious domination and triumph is unlikely to work; if it’s to be triumphant over someone else, then it will work.
I think these forces can be discerned at work in most of the items in any list of forces that have turned the proletariat away from socialism – religious quietism, religious activism, nationalistic war-fever, nationalistic anti-immigrant hysteria, charismatic leaders with dire warnings of national ‘decadence’, populists with slippery promises, anti-colonial leaders with the same, dissolute adventurists promoting terrorism or assassinations, and of course the majority of successful communist leaders themselves.
Across the political spectrum, there would then be groups trying to deflect what would be genuine revolutionary impulses: on the right, nationalism and asceticism offer vicarious satisfactions from aintaining the status quo; in the centre and left, populists promise change that leaves the essentials in place; and on the far left, sects and hard-faced ‘revolutionaries’ promise to transform society entirely, and recreate its essentials features when given a chance.
And each of these is liable to become more attractive, more able to sideline and deflect real emancipation, the more the desire for domination outweighs the desire for power in other forms, because that desire makes socialism appear boring and unsatisfying.
Post-Script: Something I haven’t mentioned of course if fear and timidity – defying the state and taking steps towards revolution is very hard and very dangerous (blogging about it is, for now, thankfully not). The alternatives on offer from the centre and right are made more attractive by the offer of being gratified while avoiding this intimidating challenge. I haven’t mentioned this much because it can be expected not to change – revolution is always likely to be opposed, the ruling class is hardly going to give up its forms of control.
I focus on the desire-for-domination variable because, unlike this justified fear, it may be open to change – which will be the topic of my next post.