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self-criticism: bourgeois socialism

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(Xposted to long sunday…)

I’ve been reading The Communist Manifesto, as well as the truly excellent (and book-length, really) introduction in the new Penguin edition by Gareth Stedman Jones. A few passages toward the end have provoked my interest tonight.

First from the section on Conservative or Bourgeois Socialism:

The Socialistic bourgeois want all the advantages of modern social conditions without the struggles and dangers necessarily resulting therefrom. They desire the existing state of society, minus its revolutionary and disintegrating elements. They wish for a bourgeoisie without a proletariat. The bourgeoisie naturally conceives the world in which it is supreme to be the best; and bourgeois Socialism develops this comfortable conception into various more or less complete systems. In requiring the proletariat to carry out such a system, and thereby to march straightway into the social New Jerusalem, it but requires in reality, that the proletariat should remain within the bounds of existing society, but should cast away all its hateful ideas concerning the bourgeoisie.

And another, related passage from the section on Critical-Utopian Socialism and Communism:

The undeveloped state of the class struggle, as well as their own surroundings, causes Socialists of this kind to consider themselves far superior to all class antagonisms. They want to improve the condition of every member of society, even that of the most favoured. Hence, they habitually appeal to society at large, without the distinction of class; nay, by preference, to the ruling class. For how can people, when once they understand their system, fail to see in it the best possible plan of the best possible state of society?

The second one is a bit tougher than the first, but I must admit that I feel some half-guilty self-recognition here. I am not sure that I do not, in my heart of hearts, dream of a bourgeoisie without a proletariat.

The thing is, I also do not think I am alone on this point, even in contemporary leftist circles. Is it possible to believe in a proletariat anymore? In the developed world? If you were to say that it exists in the US, you would have to stretch the definition to enormous, distorted dimensions. In short, while Marx and Engels were in 1848 trying to argue the nascent-proletariat into existence in the first place, we who remain invested in Marx wonder if the revolutionary class has not already come and gone, at least here, where we live and think and write.

(This is of course not at all to deny the very, very tangible examples of poverty and degradation and alienation both economic and psychological that exist all around us in the US and other developed nations. It is, rather, to doubt the existence of the very specific configuration that Marx and others labeled the proletariat – and to doubt whether, if change were to come, change would come from even the remnants or the afterlife of this class…)

Isn’t the Bourgeois Socialism that Marx describes something all too familiar to us American leftists? Isn’t it something close to the US fantasy of welfare-state Europe: government by an enlightened, socialized bourgeoisie that, yes, has eliminated (upward!) the proletariat altogether. Of course it is a dream, a falsehood – it is the dream that we Americans often call “Sweden.” And it is a dream that surely has something very much to do with race, the old secrets-in-plain-sight of the American experiment.

There are no easy answers, it seems to me, to this problem. One might be tempted to claim that my problem is simply one of misunderstanding (or choosing not to acknowledge) the global division of labor. One might respond that the proletariat exists, it simply lives elsewhere, and due to the construction of global society, the US must be completely written off as a locale for revolution or reform.

I do not accept this answer. I will perhaps go into the question more deeply, but I cannot help but believe that a socialized United States would be – if done properly* – a gift to the world. There is great suffering here in the US – definitely not on the scale of so many other places – and here is exactly where I tilt toward the second passage from Marx above – there is suffering spread across the economic strata of society.

Dangerous thoughts, I know. They likely will provoke angry responses from some – which I welcome. Just do ask yourselves first whether the policies that you support are truly aimed exclusively or even primarily at the lowest quadrants of society. There are quite a few things that we all like to discuss that are perhaps selected – unconsciously or not – because of their dual applicability to the poor and the relatively well-off at once. I can think, for instance, of reforms that would do more immediate good for the working classes than socialized medicine, which we never stop discussing.

In short, I am left with the same question that I am almost always left with – and the primary question that mobilizes my work on the blogs. I cannot tell whether my self-recognition as what Marx calls bourgeois socialist is:

1) simply an effect of my own class-standing, one that (completely naturally) naturalizes my own classed perspective at universal, as the “truth.”


2) a moment of recognition that work needs to be done to reconfigure the terms of Marx’s (of the socialist) argument to present day conditions and in terms more distinct and workable than, say, Hardt and Negri’s turn to the amorphous (and amorphously useless) “Multitude.”

In concluding with this question, you will see that I remain, perhaps, methodologically dogmatic if not programmatically or ideologically so. But – whether or not my questions are the right ones – we do not listen to Marx if we fail to adapt his claims to the current socio-economic conditions, which are distinctly different from those of 1848. I am beginning to feel that resting on the wrong side of some of these questions is stunting out growth as a movement. I am beginning to believe, in other words, that failing to define exactly what it is that we mean, today, by the words socialism and communism, will lock us into a permanent cage of obsolescence, nostalgic hubris, and doctrinal impossibility.

* Of course there is always the possibility of what has been labeled (by Hobson I believe and others) “welfare imperialism.” Which may in fact be one way to label exactly the thing that the US glides toward now. And the extreme form of “welfare imperialism” we usually know as “national socialism.”

Written by adswithoutproducts

September 10, 2007 at 10:52 pm

Posted in socialism

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