Tuesday, January 20, 2009

History in the making and the making of history

By Frank Brenner

We are being constantly told by the mass media that today is a day of 'history in the making'. And there are millions of people, including many workers and many on the left, who believe this, at least to some degree: the massive crowds that have come to Washington to watch the inauguration of Obama are evidence of that. In cities throughout the US and around the world, people stopped work to watch the event on tv.

It hardly needs to be said that as Marxists we understand that this is a huge case of political demagogy. But I want to consider something different - I want to ponder the notion of 'history in the making'. This is a telling example of the counterfeits of freedom that characterize bourgeois society and particularly bourgeois democracy. By this I mean that bourgeois society continuously offers the illusion of freedom while denying its substance. Thus today the masses are being invited to watch 'history in the making', which is to say that they get to be passive spectators while the powerful (and of course the wealthy) get to make history.

In feudal times the coronation of a new king served similar purposes, and the more astute and 'progressive' monarchs very much encouraged the participation of the 'rabble': the king was meant to be seen as the 'people's king' and much effort was spent to encourage a symbolic identification with him.

Bourgeois politics has taken this a good deal further: this symbolic identification is now bound up with the ideology of nationalism. This is by no means limited to democratic forms of bourgeois rule; on the contrary, fascism in particular took this kind of identification furthest of all.

Walter Benjamin talked about how fascism aestheticizes politics, by which he meant that it transforms politics into a grand spectacle or better still a kind of national psychodrama. The giant Nazi rallies, such as the one at Nuremberg recorded in the Leni Riefenstahl movie, “Triumph of the Will,” is a perfect example of that. No doubt many of those who attended such rallies were convinced that they too were witnessing ‘history in the making’.

To be sure, bourgeois democracy approaches these matters somewhat differently. But for a long time now, as the socioeconomic divisions have widened at the base of society, there has been a major effort to divert attention away from these divisions by an ever greater aestheticizing of politics. This has been most noticeable in the US, though American techniques in this regard have increasingly been copied by ruling parties around the world. From the Reagan years on, the principal narrative of this psychodrama was the so-called ‘culture wars’ whereby ‘honest’, ‘authentic’ conservatives were fighting to defend the family and American ‘values’ against liberal elites.

With Obama’s election, the narrative has changed – it is now about ‘the audacity of hope’, about social ‘cooperation’, ‘compassion’, ‘duty’ and ‘responsibility’. Just as American capitalism survives on borrowed money, so the American political elite is now borrowing on the political capital of the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King, to say nothing of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. These are potent symbols and Obama and his circle are doing their best to capitalize on them. Under these conditions, it has never been more important for Marxists to draw the clearest possible distinction between liberalism and socialism.

One such distinction is over history and how it is made. The millions who come to Washington or watch on tv to witness ‘history in the making’ are actually being treated to a political ‘reality television’ show. What we need is not to watch ‘history in the making’ - by others! - but to make history ourselves. That is the dividing line between bourgeois and socialist democracy. The ‘beautiful’ illusions of freedom have to give way to a freedom from illusions.


Overthrow said...

I was reading Hegel's Philosophy of Right and came across this quote (which is admittedly taken out of context):

"The particular form of bad conscience that reveals itself in the sort of eloquence flaunted by such shallowness can be made conspicuous; its primary characteristic is that wherever it is most spiritless it speaks most of spirit, wherever it is most dead and desiccated it speaks of 'life' and 'bringing to life,' and wherever it reveals the greatest selfishness of empty arrogance the word 'the people' is most often in its mouth."

Hegel forgot to add that wherever it is most hopeless it speaks of HOPE, and wherever it is most unfree it speaks of FREEDOM. His comment seems to sum up Obama's totally two-faced inaugural address perfectly.

The clever delusions and simulacrum will subside soon enough, Then the masses will truly have to face the harsh winds of reality soberly.

Critical Women, Prairie Miller said...

I am unclear as to "what is freedom". I think I understand "lack of freedom" but is that freedom?

Is there such a thing as freedom without a context, a reference point?

linda z

Alex Steiner said...

The Marxist conception of freedom is very different than the liberal conception of freedom. For the latter, freedom is defined in the negative - by what is not permissible. Thus in bourgeois society freedom is simply the opposite of a "lack of freedom". In the days of the great bourgeois revolutions, such as France in 1789, it was indeed a great gain that every citizen was recognized to have certain basic rights. The French Revolution abolished slavery - an act that took several more decades in the United States which did not complete its own bourgeois revolution until the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation.

Marxists defend the gains of the bourgeois revolution in this area, but also show that the so-called universal rights of man contain a contradiction within them. The so-called "rights of citizens" legitimate the rights of one class of citizens to exploit another class of citizens, as long as it is done within the rules of the market. Thus you are correct in pointing out that freedom must have a context. The abstract "freedom" of the bourgeoisie maintains the bonds of class society.

Marxists see freedom not just negatively, but also positively as the creation of a society which allows for the full realization of human potential. Its full realization is only possible through the abolition of class society. Here is how Marx described it in Volume 3 of Capital:

"The realm of freedom really begins only where labor determined by necessity and external expediency ends; it [the realm of freedom] lies by its very nature beyond the sphere of material production proper...Freedom, in this sphere [material production proper], can consist only in this, that socialized man, the associated producers, govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing it under their collective control instead of being dominated by it as a blind power; accomplishing it with the least expenditure of energy and in conditions most appropriate for their human nature. But this always remains a realm of necessity. The true realm of freedom, the development of human powers as an end in itself, begins beyond it [labor in material production, realm of necessity], though it can only flourish with this realm of necessity as its basis. The reduction of the working day is the basic prerequisite."

If we return to the comment on Obama's inauguration we can see another dimension of the difference between the bourgeois notion of freedom and that of Marxists. The spectacle on the mall allowed millions of American to vicariously participate while others were making history. This is in a sense an exercise of the rights granted citizens in bourgeois society. But it is still an abstract right as long as democracy is defined through the ceremonies by which one bourgeois regime - ultimately representing the interests of the capitalist class - is replaced by another bourgeois regime. A genuine making of history requires not just spectators, but participants in creating their own destiny. That kind of activity is what is characteristic of a social revolution. This was put very eloquently by Trotsky in his History of the Russian Revolution:

"The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct interference of the masses in historical events. In ordinary times the state, be it monarchical or democratic, elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business - kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own interference the initial groundwork for a new régime. Whether this is good or bad we leave to the judgement of moralists. We ourselves will take the facts as they are given by the objective course of development. The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny."

umbral de las voces said...

I would like to compare the silence of Obama with respect to the massacre of the Palestinians, with his euphoria and agility to raise the delivery of trillón of dollars to the banks, which in simple terms is called a nationalization of the banks. He nationalizes them so that he serves to revive the dead of the system of banking credit and, to benefit to a handful of multimillionaires. The Socialists we always raised it so that it the future serves like a unique system as credit and accounting for the working control and working government.
The cynicism of the capitalists is only comparable to the fraud of the bourgeois democracy: with this nationalization they demand that the state does not have right to vote in its banking organizations that already are virtually of the state and that the state, in general, does not interfere in its particular businesses, that let to them make their speculation and its speculation.
This is what Marx generalizes when says that the state is not more than the office of businesses of the capitalists. And the money of the state, is coagulated work, product of the sacrifice and the kidneys of the working class. In summary Obama and the capitalists use the law of the robbery to the society well: to socialize the misery and to privatize the gains.


Alex Steiner said...
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