STEPHEN ERIC BRONNER
The liberal republic is today the fulcrum of progressive politics. Protecting liberal principles, the democratic character of the republic, and existing social rights from white nationalist reactionaries in the United States and anti-immigrant and racist parties in Europe has been the over-riding issue for Western radicals since the election of President Barack Obama in 2008. Elsewhere and especially in the Middle East, the liberal republic remains an unrealized goal and the primary aim of radical politics. Terms like republic, rights, and the rule of law are tossed about so regularly that they have virtually lost all meaning. Communist states used to call themselves peoples republics and that is still the case with China and North Korea; rights are often relativized to the point where they insulate dictatorships from criticism; and social rights is often used to justify economic equality without political liberty. The test for a republic is not simply what its constitution says but whether it is willing to enforce what Montesquieu termed “the spirit of the laws.” An elemental fairness in applying the law and a willingness to constrain the arbitrary exercise of institutional power, issues that have so radically come to the forefront with the movement surrounding “Black Lives Matter!” and protests against police killings of young African Americans, ultimately determines just how “liberal” the liberal rule of law really is and whether social rights are in play.
Not only economic interests but also political and ideological issues come into play. Rosa Luxemburg correctly spoke about the quest for reforms born of class compromise as a “labor of Sisyphus,” since reactionary capitalist interests are always on the lookout to roll back progressive legislation and, even more important, the accountability of elites to the citizenry. By the same token, however, the ability of citizens both to resist and pursue further reforms is dramatically influenced by the degree to which the state and its institutions adhere to liberal republican values. Economic “austerity” is always connected with political reaction and the reassertion of cultural traditionalism. That is why defense of civil liberties and the quest for social rights are flip sides of the same coin. It is an old story: the power of authoritarian and business elites depends upon the degree not merely of organizational, but ideological, unity among working people and their supporters. Raising awareness of the practical conditions for solidarity and beginning the intellectual work of coordinating interests is perhaps the crucial political question facing progressive activists today.
This marks a change. Enlightenment political thinkers identified liberty with political rights such as freedom of religion and assembly, speech, and arbitrary imprisonment. Only explicit legal prohibitions universally applied, they believed, should constrain individual freedom. Indeed, the logic of thinkers like John Locke or Adam Smith was transparent. The new liberal state should be kept weak so that “civil society” might be made strong. An “invisible hand” would regulate supply and demand and, ultimately, foster equality. Capitalism would enhance the public good as a “watchman state” set the rules in which private associations could compete and flourish. It was after all in civil society — the economy, the family, educational institutions, and the myriad associations of everyday life — that individuals became who and what they were.
But it soon became apparent that the “invisible hand” wasn’t working, that inequality was thriving, that elites were mostly unconcerned with republican principles; and that exercising political liberty required freedom from oppressive economic conditions. Commitment to the liberal republic subsequently became intertwined with the conflict between workers seeking to maximize their wages and improve their daily lives as against capitalists wishing to maximize their profits and control over their employees. But the late nineteenth century flourished principally in authoritarian states and monarchies like Austria-Hungary and Germany rather than in England and the United States. The labor movement was strongest where it could link calls for economic with political democracy for the class that was effectively denied both. Social democrats demanded what today might be called “welfare rights;” communists called for prioritizing “people over profits;” workers’ councils sought to fulfill the dream of participatory democracy with full economic equality; and, finally, postcolonial states attempted to follow their own economic course for communitarian social or religious purposes. Nevertheless, these concerns were only part of a broader project committed to both welfare rights and maximizing the exercise of liberty — and that goal remains as important as it ever was for the development of a rational radicalism.
Especially for those most in need of radical social and economic reforms, however, the liberal republican ideal is still a source of hope. Little wonder that the attack on the welfare state in the United States has brought with it an attack upon civil liberties, the right to vote and political democracy while in Greece and Spain attempts by the European Union to introduce economic austerity quickly translated into a conflict over democratic state sovereignty. Indeed, there is nothing new about the character of this double-barreled assault.
Revolution and Counter-Revolution are terms that derive from an epoch of democratic revolutions that extends from the England in 1688 to the United States in 1776 to France in 1789 to the nineteenth century uprisings in the Caribbean, Latin America and elsewhere. Far more important than the differences between these events was the common spirit, sense of purpose, and interchange between activists in what was clearly an international revolution opposed by similar forces comprising a counter-revolution. Everywhere those committed to the creation of a secular state under the liberal rule of law, and intent upon constraining the arbitrary power of religious and other private institutions, squared off against advocates of the Army with officers reared in the old regime and the Church frantically engaged in attempts to preserve its ideological and institutional hegemony as well as the social structures of a pre-modern community.
Such was the origin of the Counter-Revolution. Everything associated with the Enlightenment came under suspicion in the years 1815-1848. Stendhal appropriately called this era a “swamp.” It was dominated by the army and the church or, using the title of his most famous novel, “the red and the black,” which symbolized “throne and altar.” Integral nationalism and absolutist understandings of religious faith have always served as intoxicants for reactionaries. With the attack upon the republican ideal of the citizen came the attack on the rights of the Other along with ideals of cosmopolitanism and tolerance. Chauvinism, racism, and sexism now took center stage. Tensions between supporters of enlightenment as against counter-revolutionary ideals simmered in Europe for the next three decades following the fall of Napoleon in 1815. They reached a climax in revolutionary calls for republics in 1848 that, especially in France, would prove “democratic” and egalitarian. Perhaps it was because these international revolutions solidified the link between democracy and social equality, and because the reaction to them was so clear in its values, that Marx and Engels were able to elucidate their theory of counter-revolution when they did.
The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1851) would remain a staple for analyzing every form of counter-revolution that has emerged since Napoleon III and Bismarck propagated an even more intensified commitment to integral nationalism and the organic community following the defeat of the international revolutions of 1848. This helps explain why the most divergent socialists were so concerned with integrating the political heritage of the Enlightenment and the revolutionary bourgeoisie into their transformative egalitarian vision for the economy. Rosa Luxemburg admired the Great English Revolution no less than Eduard Bernstein, Karl Kautsky looked back to the American Revolution, and Jean Jaures and Leon Blum as surely as Lenin and Trotsky sought to link the aims of the labor movement with what they considered the heritage of the French Revolution. Neglecting constitutional liberty in the name of economic equality or social rights has proven a recipe for disaster. Learning that lesson marks the progressive enterprise of our time.
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Capitalism is ultimately predicated upon the transformation of objects into commodities that are bought and sold on the market. The commodity thus defines not merely production and consumption, but social action as well. The extent to which previously non-commercial activities like religion and art, or “free” goods like air and water, become subordinate to the commodity form determines the progress of capitalism or what, today, is called “globalization.” Capitalism needs to be understood not merely as the struggle between classes in an exploitative system but, rather, an overarching trajectory that is associated with science, bureaucracy, standardization, the division of labor, and the criteria of “efficiency” that speak to a world of scarcity or what philosophers liked to call “the realm of necessity.”
Tradition has always been its enemy: “all that is solid melts into air, all that is sacred becomes profane” wrote Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto. What counts are mathematical determinations of value amenable to the requirements of the capitalist accumulation process. Workers are increasingly rendered subject to “reification” — or being treated as “things” — as the division of labor takes hold and they succumb to the adage “time is money.” Workers become mere costs of production in the pursuit of profit. “Alienation” is intimately connected with this process. Old ideas of community are destroyed, nature becomes an object for domination, and trust between individuals is lost. Alienation strips the individual of any organic connection to the world and other people, according to the “young Marx,” and workers are turned into mere cogs of a machine that separates them from their comrades, the products of their labor, and their own potentiality as individuals. Capital ever more surely becomes the subject, and workers the object of the “commodity form” — and what Hegel (not Marx) first termed an “inverted world” results. Capitalism and its bourgeois agents are obsessed with creating more capital while all the bonds associated with traditional society unravel: the sense of community, the binding power of nationality, and the existential dominance of religion. What Emile Durkheim termed anomie becomes ever more intense: urban life and technologized production leaves the individual feeling ever more bereft and alone.
Little wonder then that traditional elites and those outside the cities in formerly colonized territories and the Middle East should prove so suspicious of capitalism and the onset of modernity. These nations mostly lack an indigenous enlightenment tradition and an organic bourgeoisie. The recourse toward religion as an antidote to anomie is only logical. Islamic liberals and socialists like Jewish reformists and Catholic radicals attach their response to the alienating aspects of modernity with a basic commitment to modernity itself. But there is another approach that is best understood as the confrontation with modernity tout court through reliance upon traditional values associated with traditional society such as bigotry, patriarchy, fear of education, and an absolutist belief in an enchanted world created by their God. These all serve as reactionary responses to individualism, instrument rationality, and a capitalist culture.
They are not epiphenomena, or mere reflexes of economic processes, but rather lived experiences that complicate oppression, divide the oppressed, and obscure the functioning of capitalism. Whether with the Tea Party or ultra-right populist parties in Europe, or al Qaeda and ISIS, they combine to form an ersatz identity in rebellion against universal rights, separation of church and state, and the spirit of the laws as determined by the commitment to liberal democracy. Thus, the alienation produced by modernity creates an essentially modern preoccupation with pre-modern forms of solidarity predicated upon seemingly unique (group) experiences of reality. Resistance to all of this is possible as shown by the activities of, say, the international women’s movement, human rights groups, international organizations, and international law. Nevertheless, modernity sparks regression and progress brings reaction in its wake: the public sphere becomes contested terrain as the political left and the political right, each after its fashion, attempt to transform what were historically private issues into issues of public concern.
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Social rights can extend or diminish the democratic parameters of capitalist society. As for the state, whether in the Occident or the Orient, it is already implicated in the workings of the “free market.” At issue is only the type of state, a modernizing dictatorship or a liberal republic, as well as the priorities it will privilege with respect to the military budget as against financing welfare programs or fostering religion or secularism. Such choices should not be underestimated since they will have a pronounced influence on public life. The influence that citizens have on determining them marks the degree to which it is possible to speak meaningfully about national self-determination. Not only competition among capitalist elites but enfranchisement creates the need for capitalist elites to compromise and enter coalitions with groups having very different interests. The type of compromise achieved can either strengthen or weaken the dependency of workers and other classes on capital. Of course, there is a limit to such compromises: meeting capitalist interests is the precondition for accommodating other interests. That is why the system is called capitalism. Yet capitalist control over investment priorities and distribution of wealth (especially under turbulent circumstances) requires legitimation or, more specifically, the consent of the governed. The inability to deal with this question appropriately has severely hampered the socialist enterprise.
In 1980, I contributed an article entitled “The Socialist Project” for an issue of Social Research (Volume 47, No.1) that was devoted to the state and (pessimistic) future of socialism. It was edited by Henry Pachter and included essays by prominent socialists like Richard Lowenthal and Irving Fetscher. Any number of books and journal articles dealing with this topic had preceded its publication and others have appeared since. But “the end of socialism” still hangs over academic conferences dealing with current policies, left-wing conventions, and public talks by important progressive thinkers and activists. Such attention seems all the more puzzling since an array of commentators have already noted that history has invalidated the old teleological predictions concerning the “inevitable” defeat of capitalism as well as beliefs that socialism is the transition to the stateless and classless communist society. Indeed, long ago, each major brand of socialism was forced to confront its mortality: socialist republicanism, authoritarian communism, and workers councils predicated on participatory democracy.
Last rites were initially given in 1914 when European social democratic parties engaged in their “great betrayal” of internationalism by supporting their various nation-states in World War I — though, at the time, one disgruntled radical insisted that they had never betrayed anything because they never had anything to betray. Cynicism intensified during the 1920s and toward the end of the Weimar Republic, Fritz Tarnow, the socialist politician, quipped that while social democracy thought it was a doctor at the sickbed of capitalism, the patient survived while the doctor died. Fascism seemingly buried the corpse and Stalinism destroyed its reputation. With the repression of workers’ councils following World War I, moreover, hope vanished for a radical democratic alternative to the liberal and authoritarian state. Then, in rapid succession, social democracy identified with the capitalist West in the Cold War, countless revelations about the extent of Stalin’s crimes became public during the 1950s, the “New” Left arose in the 1960s, there was stark disappointment with authoritarian anti-imperialist revolutions and Maoism in the 1970s, and then in 1989 — most notably — came the toppling of Lenin’s statue and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Under the circumstances, explanations concerning the “end of socialism” seem far less interesting than speculations about why it has proven so resilient, and the kind of mass movement led by Senator Bernie Sanders should have arisen.
Reasons are not that difficult to find. If not before Marx, then surely after, socialist ideals were adapted to new conditions in both theory and practice. Socialism was the ideology of the first democratic mass parties in Europe that, everywhere, served as pillars for the inter-war republics, the modern welfare state, and anti-fascism. Communists introduced “front” politics, challenged imperialism, highlighted national self-determination, and offered hope to peasants in the colonial world; its authoritarian and totalitarian tenets don’t require elaboration here. What does call for recognition, however, is the way in which the most important socialist thinkers and activists emphasized the need for class solidarity in challenging the economic exploitation, practical political disenfranchisement, and alienation experienced by working people in class society. Utopian socialist ideals inspired workers’ struggles to abolish the abominable economic, political, and social conditions of free market capitalism that are so well described in the works of Dickens, Gorky, and Zola. They still do. To suggest that this transformative enterprise is predicated on constricting individual freedom or leading society down “the road to serfdom,” as Friedrich von Hayek argued, is historically absurd: Socialism was the bulwark of republicanism, the ideology of economic equality, and a source of internationalism and cosmopolitanism.
Obstacles blocking the translation of socialist ideals into practice have been discussed often enough: how to secure investment, control markets, and assess the needs of consumers and the character of consumption. Such issues set the limit for socialist reform, and meaningfully dealing with them might even require revolution. Yet, their impact can be either mitigated or enhanced within the present system. Socialist ideas and socialist activists are generally recognized for their attempts to temper the whip of the market. Every system has its exploitative elements and, if the god failed, nothing but faith insists upon the workings of the “invisible hand” to secure an equilibrium between supply and demand. But it is mostly socialists who still ask what classes are paying the price for maintaining supposedly free markets, rank imperialist policies, and exploitative economic development. They still recognize that workers are something more than a cost of production, disempowered under capitalism, and that investment decisions should not remain in private hands. Or, to put it another way, socialism remains a protest against an inhumane world, the egalitarian hope of the wretched of the earth, and — perhaps most importantly — a regulative ideal to judge the compromises and mistakes of its partisans.
Claiming that none of this is worth the effort, that these ideals are illusory and that they cripple the fight for competitive advantage, has always been the argument of those who, as Brecht liked to say, “sit at the golden tables.” Amid the great recession of 2007-8, indeed, Newsweek ran a headline saying “We are all socialists now!” The subsequent thunder from the right was deafening. Its supporters identified socialism with empowering the state against the market, supporting immigration, protecting voting rights, and abolishing the individual. Cosmopolitan rather than xenophobic, secular and libertarian, socialist republicans are identified with reforms such as national health insurance, redistribution of wealth, and regulation of capital.
Some might claim that none of this is “real” socialism, that it is not “enough.” But that kind of talk renders the concept ahistorical, abstract, and politically irrelevant. The young Marx insisted that critical philosophy does not face the world with fixed categories and doctrinaire principles and that it should not look with disdain upon existing struggles. To be sure: socialism is not what it once was. The old parties, ideologies, and slogans have mostly fallen by the wayside. And perhaps what we have now is only an appetizer. But socialism still animates not simply left-wing factions of established labor parties but also elements of mass movements that surfaced during the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street as well as others with roots in the ghettoes of Brazil, Greece, Southern Europe, and elsewhere. Socialism is today a bundle of regulative ideals and it inherently remains an unfinished project. So long as capitalism and class society exist, however, so will its antagonist, socialism, and the dream of a more humane future.
Stephen Eric Bronner is a Professor of Political Science (Emeritus) at Rutgers University. He also serves on the Executive Committee of the UNESCO Chair for Genocide Prevention, as Director of Global Relations at the Center for the Study of Genocide and Human Rights, and as Co-Director of the International Council for Diplomacy and Dialogue. Especially concerned with issues of human rights, bigotry, and tolerance, he is the author of many books and his writings have been translated into more than a dozen languages.