Socialist Register 1990: The Retreat of the Intellectuals edited by Ralph Miliband and Leo Panitch. Merlin Press, $16.00 (paper).
April 1, 1991        

The collapse of the Soviet and East European regimes is not only one of the best things that ever happened; it’s one of the best things that ever happened to socialism. Some misunderstandings are, after all, easier to cope with than others. It might be just a bit easier now to get people to sit still for an explanation of why it suited the ruling classes of East and West alike to identify Soviet and Third-World war with genuine socialism.

It goes without saying that mainstream intellectuals won’t be much help— if you’re smart enough and scrupulous enough to make that sort of distinction, you don’t get into the mainstream. What does need to be said, though, according to the editors of Socialist Register 1990 is that a lot of left-wing intellectuals aren’t being much help just now, either, having lost their bearings or in some cases their scruples. Cheap shots and obsolete misunderstandings abound; hence this volume of intellectual rectification, the latest of Socialist Register’s annual surveys of the left or (occasionally) the real world.

The Retreat of the Intellectuals goes back well before the revolutions of ‘89, actually. Its 16 contributors have found evidence throughout the ‘80s of a “general retreat from socialism”; the very “notion of a radical alternative to capitalism has been correspondingly devalued in the eyes of many intellectuals who had previously been committed to it.”

Is this an orthodox-Marxist counterattack against recent revisionisms: feminism, deconstruction, the theory and practice of the “new social movements”? Yes and no. The editors say: no, of course not, we welcome the many invaluable criticisms of the tradition made by our feminist and other comrades; we recognize that “constant reappraisal is essential for socialism to advance”; and so on in this conciliatory vein. But to the targets of these essays, rudely interrupted while partying on Marx’s grave, the volume will undoubtedly appear a hostile act: the revenge of the retros.

As a (largely) neutral observer in this civil war, I can report that some, at least, of the sorties in Retreat of the Intellectuals are devastating. In the book’s lead essay, “Seven types of Obloquy: Travesties of Marxism,” Norman Geras shows that quite a few intelligent people have written quite a lot of nonsense lately about Marx or “classical Marxism” or “the Marxist tradition.” For example, that Marx thought “each individual ... has all the capacities that any other has” (Jon Elster); that Marxism “excludes the possibility ... that there might be other modes of domination than socioeconomic class relations” (Jean Cohen); or that Marx held out “the utopian hope of perfect reconciliation,” of a conflict-free, “fully redeemed social order” (Martin Jay). If all this were true, then good riddance to Marxism. It isn’t, as Geras demonstrates in his exquisitely reasoned and phrased rebuttal.

Ellen Wood’s “The Uses and Abuses of ‘Civil Society” argues two theses. First, that “formal democracy” (a.k.a. “bourgeois democracy”), while definitely a good thing, is nevertheless “a subtraction from the substance of the democratic idea, and one which is historically and structurally associated with capitalism.” Second, that “while all oppressions have equal moral claims, class exploitation has a different historical status, a more strategic location ... and class struggle may have a sore universal reach.” The superiority of socialist democracy and the primacy of class are pretty unpopular notions just now— many leftists consider than already dead and buried. But Wood is unapologetic and her arguments forceful.

There are a great many notes in the socialist register, and a great many more essays in Socialist Register. Bryan Palmer deplores the abandonment of historical materialism. Terry Eagleton wrongheadedly raps Richard Rorty. Fredric Jameson natters on about “postmodernism and the market.” George Pass fumes over the intellectual depravity of contemporary France. Eleanor Macdonald tries valiantly to pin down Derrida’s politics. John Bellamy Foster denounces the U.S. left for its craven ‘ liberal practicality” and discerns in the Rainbow Coalition “the first signs of a nascent mass-based class struggle.” Throughout, rigor and militancy are recommended, intellectual and strategic backsliding rebuked.

Rigor and militancy are glorious virtues. And yet, for all the intelligence and dedication of its contributors, there’s something a little arid and doctrinaire about Retreat of the Intellectuals. Beneath the current of argument murmurs an undertone of angry isolation, of austere, almost ascetic, comradeship. This is not -- to fall in with the editors’ military metaphor-- a very effective recruiting device. And anyway, why should all intellectuals be in the vanguard? The socialist army needs scouts, too, and even slackers: hedonists (or even cowardly careerists) who can see the point of Socialist Register 1990 but also remind its editors and contributors that a movement whose atmosphere was dominated by their scornful rigor and fierce militancy might well inspire not just occasional retreats but mass desertion.