Dreams Unlimited


When History in a blindfold emasculates memory and pushes it over the edge, then perhaps, imagination can be its only saviour and aid in its redemption. That, one believes, is the moral of Funes, The Memorious, a short tale by Argentine fabulist Jorge Luis Borges. Ireneo Funes, the protagonist of this fable is doomed to complete unforgetfulness -- he remembers every detail and every moment that he has seen in his life and this is a grand tragedy for he is always confined and tied down by the overly empirical world that surrounds him. His is a case of existence sans imagination. An inability that would have otherwise helped him break free of the empirically given and positive world of suffering to seek the paradise of transcendence.

This urge to transcend the given is what utopia is all about. In that sense, all those who reject the exploitative present in their search for an emancipated and egalitarian future are utopians. And it is precisely here that the nub of our problem lies.

Revolutionary socialists belonging to the Marxian tradition have generally been extremely wary about the utopian mode of thinking or conducting politics. And their suspicion goes back to the sustained polemic of Marx and Engels, and later, Lenin against the utopian socialists and voluntarists respectively. The question, therefore, is what sets the Marxists apart from the so-called utopians? For, all of us who are part of the revolutionary Marxist tradition know all too well that our politics is about transforming the oppressive status quo into the emancipated history of human self-consciousness. So, what is it that sets us apart from utopians, who at first sight, appear to have a similar goal? Well, unlike the utopians who seek liberation in their fantastic flights of fancy, Marxists attempt to change the given order of things by firmly grounding their politics in the history and circumstances through which they live. In other words, while utopians seek a kind of metaphysical transcendence that has no connection with or bearing on the given material realities of their time, revolutionary socialists seek emancipation through historical transcendence.

History, however, has shown that many such attempts at historical transcendence have fallen flat on their faces. After all, what used to be the USSR just a decade ago is now the ‘erstwhile Soviet Union’ and the People’s Republic of China is immersed neck-deep in the post-Maoist ideology of ‘market socialism’ -- god alone knows what that means. In such a scenario, when the sumptuous images of never-ending production and unbridled consumption peddled by the dream merchants and spin doctors of global liberalism and the free market constitute our only sense of reality, it’s time that we indulged once again in some utopian thinking. Of course, like true-blooded Marxists with our nose firmly in history and not like the sundry cultists who wait for their messiahs in flying saucers, or for that matter in the manner of Blanquists, who without any understanding of the objective situation, gloriously raised the banner of insurrection only to be thwarted and defeated.

It’s time again to reinvent utopia by giving it a new political meaning, a novel ideological content -- the content of historical materialism. And that’s exactly what Socialist Register 2000--Necessary and Unnecessary Utopias sets out to do: “… we hope this volume will contribute to loosening the grip that the narrow, alienated conception of ‘reality’ peddled by the neoliberals has had on too much left thinking in the past decade, and encourage people to refocus their imaginations and their political ambitions on the fundamental ideals that have inspired socialism throughout their history”.

The first essay in the anthology, Transcending Pessimism: Rekindling Socialist Imagination by Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin sets the tone of the entire Register by arguing that “Overcoming this (present) debilitating political pessimism is the most important question anyone seriously interested in social change must confront”. And what is this debilitating political pessimism but the confounding insanity of the empirically given and restrictive universe of Borges’ Ireneo Funes, a universe that can only be changed by the force of creative though historical imagination.

The quest for this kind of imagination leads Panitch and Gindin to formulate the idea of “concrete utopia” and while doing so invoke Marx to decode the given objective reality to effect a complete transformation of the status quo. But the theoretical rigour of historical materialism which was meant to be the compass in Panitch’s and Gindin’s exploration of the socialist imagination, “concrete utopia” if you like, becomes its bane and makes it flounder into a blind alley. They quote from German Marxist thinker Ernst Bloch’s The Principle of Hope to show how a revolutionary socialist’s dream should be grounded in the given reality and how the germ of future emancipation lies in the oppressive present: “Fermenting in the process of the real itself is the concrete forward dream: anticipating elements are a component of reality itself. Thus the will towards utopia is entirely compatible with object-based tendency, in fact is confined and at home within it.” And this is precisely where the theoretical and political fallacy of their argument lies.

Louis Althusser, in his study on Marx, makes it convincingly clear that to read the future in the present is to fall into what he called the ‘analytico-teleological’ trap a la Hegel. For did not Hegel talk about history unfolding to reach its pre-determined goal of salvation. Therefore if Althusser is to be believed, a Marxist can only strive to change the present for a better future. That in no way should be confused as the present leading up to the future because if that is the case the future cannot signify a complete break from the present. It’s bound to be contaminated by elements of the present from which one seeks to liberate oneself completely. Instances of such Hegelian distortion in Marxist praxis have inevitably led to bourgeois ideology infecting the science of proletarian politics leading to bourgeois politics operating in post-revolutionary societies and even hindering the course of revolution while one is in the making.

A good example would be to look at class contradiction as a political formulation. In the era of bourgeois revolutions it was a critical formulation meant to challenge and subvert the feudal hegemony. But with the victory of the bourgeoisie, class becomes a mere descriptor and it loses its critical edge for it doesn’t need to challenge the preponderant order. On the contrary, it has to be pressed into the service of preserving this order. The complete and revolutionary break that a Marxist politics envisages in such a situation is meant to restore the critical function of class in the course of its historical action. But that doesn’t happen when one sees the present continuously unfolding to obtain to a pre-determined future because class remains a descriptive category.

This problem is, therefore, naturally present in Gindin’s and Panitch’s essay and it becomes clear when they write: “Yet it is increasingly apparent from the extreme limitations of the ‘third way’ in practice that reviving the goal of socialism is necessary even to make small improvements in the current state of the world.” So, after so much of theorising what comes across is a kind of nostalgia for social democracy which had been articulated by the Old Labour. And Gindin and Panitch seem to be only defending that against the neoliberal onslaught of Tony Blair’s New Labour.

The editors of the Register (one of them is Panitch himself), however, do justice to their search for “necessary utopia” by including Terry Eagleton’s ‘Utopia and its Opposites’. Eagleton’s is the most forceful argument against this strain of Hegelianism that not only informs the opening essay but seems to be running like a thread through most of the other pieces in the collection. The reputed Marxist intellectual and literary theorist, with great theoretical insight, redefines the meaning of immanent critique when he says that imaginations are necessarily constrained by the present so a successful and viable ‘utopia’ would be one which, through its praxis, unveils all that is repressed and absent in the given present and not make the present the basis of imagining the emancipated future.

But Eagleton’s piece is one of the few gems in this collection. Most of the other essays -- Norman Geras’ Minimum Utopia: Ten Theses, or Friga Haug’s On the Necessity of Conceiving the Utopia in a Feminist Fashion, or Diane Elson’s Socializing Markets, Not Market Socialism, or Kate Soper’s Other Pleasures: The Attractions of Post-Consumerism -- which begin with noble historical materialist intentions of trying to transcend the aberrations of post-1917 socialist regimes or the failures of the post-Soviet phase of Marxist politics, run the risk of becoming effective instruments by which the current system of globalised finance capital can co-opt people’s struggles of resistance.

Their prescriptions of looking at various dimensions of exploitation and thus sites of struggle which, as they rightly point out, were incorporated and encouraged rather than being eliminated by the various socialist bureaucracies is meaningful. However, the domestic sector, environmental preservation, alternative consumption patterns and socialised markets running on the principle of non-profitability are effective only when they are (and they should be) fitted into the larger paradigm of revolutionary politics and class struggle. In fact, the suggestions made in these essays should become the guiding principles of conducting an ideological revolution within a revolutionary people’s party committed to class struggle and revolution. Outside it and, particularly in the present conjuncture (balance of forces), they would only compromise people’s struggles and benefit the repressive capitalist order. That is something these essayists fail to see.

Their politics, in the ultimate analysis, is weighed down by their overbearing concern to right the wrongs of post-Soviet Marxism. But in doing so as also in trying to critique the compromised ‘third way’ of social democracy they end up producing nightmares instead of dreams.

     --Pothik Ghosh     

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