Socialism in Theory and Practice. Volume I: Marxism and Socialist Theory. Volume II: Socialism Today and Tomorrow. By Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel. South End Press, $7 each, paper.

Printer friendly version |

After the defeat of the German revolutionary movement in 1849, the young Marx retreated to exile and to books. With no immediate prospect of changing the world, he set about deepening and propagating his understanding of it. Similarly, the stalemate of the middle and late 1970s has sent many American New Leftists back to their books, resulting in a renaissance of radical social studies. Notwithstanding jeers at its supposed anti-intellectualism, the former New Left has produced several impressive accounts of its convictions and ideals, including Bowles and Gintis’s “Schooling in Capitalist America,” Carnoy and Shearer’s “Economic Democracy,” and now Albert and Hahnel’s “Socialism in Theory and Practice.”

Michael Albert is co-founder and mainstay of South End Press, one of the most promising left publishing ventures in recent years. Robin Hahnel teaches economics at the University of Massachusetts. Though neither was academically trained in philosophy or political science, they have turned out a series of ambitious theoretical tomes, including “What Is To Be Undone?” (1974), a critique of Leninism and statist pseudo-socialism, and “Unorthodox Marxism” (1978), a revision of historical materialism, and a technical discussion of Marxist economics. Their new book incorporates these and nearly every other imaginable concern into what they apparently hope will be a kind of summa of contemporary radical thought. It is an adventurous and useful work, and its more interesting ___ suggest something important about the limits of theory.

The purpose of the first volume is to correct the simplifications and distortions of theories currently popular on the left, such as orthodox Marxism, radical feminism, cultural nationalism, and anarchism. The authors do this by formulating what they call a “totalist” approach: that is, a “synthesis of complementary orientations,” embracing and dialectically relating the economic, political, sexual, and cultural “moments” in every situation. Whether they successfully accomplished this worthy project was not something I could finally bring myself to care much about. When I hear words like “economism” an “holistic,” I reach for my Marvel comics. To a noninitiate, “totalism” looks like mere judicious open-minded ness, perfectly adequate in most circum stances, though less than completely satisfying (in name, anyway) to the soul of a theorist.

I suppose the varying emphases and perspectives of Marxists, feminists, anarchists, etc., may need somehow to be integrated in an inclusive theory or model, as Albert and Hahnel believe. But for all their suggestive references to “complementarity” and “connectivity,” “totalism” remains, for me, as elusive and disembodied as “the dialectic” ever was. Perhaps the unity of social relations has to be grasped first in the imagination, only later to be haltingly elaborated in theory. If so, then maybe we require a totalist socialist novelist since, arguably, it’s only the novel that sees life whole.

The most interesting part of “Socialism in Theory and Practice” is “Socialism Tomorrow,” the latter half of the second of “practical” volume, and especially a chapter called “Socialist Economics.” Doubtless many political idealists, perhaps most, feel in their bones that however stirring the grand old slogans may be—”from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” and “the free development of each to be the condition of the free development of all”—there’s probably no way to organize a complex modern economy without either competitive market mechanisms or central planning. To most people, socialism means central planning; and the rest of us usually find our jaws setting grimly when asked to explain just what else it might mean. To their credit, Albert and Hahnel offer a fairly detailed account of what a decentralized, democratically controlled economy might look like. There are consumers’ councils, representing neighborhoods, and workers’ councils, representing workplaces. Both are federated with other local councils into regional and national bodies. All together, with a lot of I help from computers, these groups formulate a general plan designed to maximize not output but “self-management, solidarity, and variety of individual development.” In describing the planning process, the authors bring in matrix algebra, iteration, and the theory of computation, which sounds reassuringly rigorous but makes their argument a little difficult to follow. Also, one may feel less relentlessly enthusiastic than they about the amount of individual participation required by their model of collective decision-making. Evidently they have yet to encounter the only halfway sensible objection to socialism: that it may possibly involve too many meetings. Still, to have the grand old slogans translated into a plan, however tentative and imperfect, is tremendously exciting.

Compared with “Socialist Economics,” the rest of “Socialism Tomorrow,”—about socialist administration, kinship, sexuality, race relations, and culture—is disappointing. The protagonist of “Walden Two,” perhaps exaggerating slightly, scoffed “the economics of a community is child’s play”; depicting the social and sexual relations of a desirable community certainly is not. Albert and Hahnel struggle bravely to advance the discussion beyond appealing rhetoric, and succeed more often than any other treatise on the future of socialism that I’ve encountered (except Shaw’s “Intelligent Woman’s Guide”). Still, their picture lacks texture, atmosphere, definition. Maybe the authors ran out of imaginative resources after conceiving the economic infrastructure of the new life.

Or maybe it’s just not possible to capture a utopian vision in a treatise. Albert remarks, ruefully, engagingly, and quite accurately, that he “cannot write a literate sentence”; but the problem is less a matter of style than of sensibility and imagination. The farther possibilities of individual and social development are as yet only dimly perceived. Illuminations on this score are precious and infrequent, and come less reliably from theory than from art.

Sometimes art sings where theory stammers. Commenting on bureaucratic “socialism,” the legacy of previous revolutions, Albert and Hahnel conclude, rather ponderously: “The problem of evaluation must be taken up first from the perspective of human fulfillment. Most simply, a society is more desirable the more it promotes fulfillment of human needs and enrichment of human capabilities…We need to assess not only whether people’s aroused potentials are elaborated into positive social outcomes, but also whether the best potentials are being expressed. In short, a good society must not only allow and help its citizens meet their aroused needs, it must also allow the continual development of needs and of human capacities that are most beneficial to its citizenry.” The same idea, and something more, is better expressed in a poem by D. H. Lawrence, “A Sane Revolution”:

If you make a revolution, make it for fun,
don’t do it in ghastly seriousness, don’t do it in deadly earnest,
do it for fun.

Don’t do it because you hate people,
do it just to spit in their eye.

Don’t do it for the money,
do it and be damned to the money.

Don’t do it for equality,
do it because we’ve got too much equality
and it would be fun to upset the applecart
and see which way the apples would to a-rolling.

Don’t do it for the working classes.
Do it so that we can all of us be little aristocracies on our own
and kick our heels like jolly escaped asses.

Don’t do it, anyhow, for international Labour.
Labour is the one thing a man has had too much of.
Let’s abolish labour, let’s have done with labouring!
Work can be fun, and men can enjoy it; then it’s not labour.
Let’s have it so! Let’s make a revolution for fun!

It may seem perverse to invoke Lawrence, widely considered a political obscurantist and authoritarian, in a discussion of libertarian socialism. But that is the sort of misconception the left urgently needs to overcome. Lawrence’s astonishing essays in Phoenix, such as “The Education of the People,” “Democracy,” “An Attack on Work and the Money Appetite and on the State,” and “About Women’s Suffrage, and Laws, and the War, and the Poor, with Some Fanciful Moralizing,” are a high point of political thought in this century. They are an education in desire.

In his biography of William Morris, E. P. Thompson claimed that “the consummation of [Morris’s] romantic aspirations in the Socialist cause symbolized a historical consummation of vast significance”: namely, the union of the romantic, aesthetic critique of industrialism, a current extending back to Blake, Carlyle, and Ruskin and forward to Lawrence, with the mainstream socialist tradition leading up to (and down from) the mature Marx. In a postscript written 20 years later, Thompson went further, arguing that Marxists (including himself) have too readily assimilated and domesticated the romantic and utopian traditions, subsuming those heresies into the Higher Theory, treating them as naturaliter marxiana, pagan anticipations of the True Faith. On the contrary, utopian art and romantic protest are as important as analysis and theory in the work of liberation. Their peculiar function is “the education of desire”: the recovery and reassertion of the best that has been, and the discovery and articulation of what might be. Thompson urged, in effect, that “Capital” and “News from Nowhere” be taken equally seriously—or, say, “One-Dimensional Man” and “Love’s Body.”

A radical fidelity to the legacy of the imagination is as subversive as a “ruthless criticism of everything existing” (Marx)— this seems to be what Thompson meant. And it is perhaps what Marcuse (to whose memory “Socialism in Theory and Practice” is dedicated) meant by the final words of his lovely last work, “The Aesthetic Dimension”: “Utopia in great art is never the simple negation of reality, but its transcendence and preservation, in which past and present cast their shadow on fulfillment. … ‘All reification is a forgetting.’ Art fights reification by making the petrified world speak, sing, perhaps dance.

The horizon of history is still open. If the remembrance of things past can be come a motive power in the struggle to change the world, the struggle would be waged for a revolution hitherto suppressed in history’s previous revolutions?’


Powered By Movable Type 4.1

Copyright © 2004-2008
George Scialabba