Has the 20th century passed in vain?

Here’s the video of my overly long presentation (practically a monologue) on Trotskii’s excellent 1906 reflection, Results and Prospects. Sadly, James was sick yesterday, and Lisa’s been out of town.  Plus Eugene has been really bogged down with schoolwork, and Sidd and Yoni weren’t around.  So the attendance was a bit light, but whatever:

Basically, the thrust of my interpretation of this text centers around Trotskii’s remark in the third chapter that “The 19th century has not passed in vain,” which I contend can be understood in a twofold sense:

1. First, at a purely objective level, in terms of the social and economic means of production, the 19th century has not passed in vain. Capitalism has developed and expanded in an irreversible manner, both extensively (as an increasingly global system) and intensively (with accelerating technological rapidity). The productive capacities of mankind are greater today than at any prior point in recorded history. Thus, we cannot go back to 1789, 1848, 1871, etc. The world is more prepared than ever to overcome capitalism on the basis of capitalism itself.

2. Moreover, at a subjective level, in terms of the development of an historical and political consciousness in a prospective revolutionary class, the 19th century has not passed in vain. After the great fissure within modern (civil) society burst into the open in June 1848, a radical and international working-class movement has gained more and more momentum, reaching its peak in the 1890s around the Second International and continuing into the first two decades of the twentieth. The potential political agency of a self-conscious social subject has risen to an unprecedented degree. Thus, we are in a better place, politically, than the revolutionary bourgeoisie in 1789, the nascent working-class movement in the Insurrection of 1848, or the communards of 1871.

Poster commemorating the 1905 sailors’ mutiny aboard the Battleship Potemkin, an important symbolic event in the Russian Revolution of 1905

In light of Trotskii’s assertion in 1906 that “History does not repeat itself…The 19th century has not passed in vain,” I thus asked an analogous question with respect to our present moment, wondering

Has the 20th century passed in vain?

At least my own cursory reflections on this question, the answer to which can really only be considered preliminary and provisional, there is a split here between the two aspects I mentioned as being unified in Trotskii’s understanding of his own point in history. Again, in an objective sense, the 20th century has not passed in vain. The global capitalist order that Marx predicted in the 1840s is more of an empirical reality today than it ever was in Marx’s lifetime. Indeed, what existed only in England and parts of Amsterdam in Holland and Northern France holds nearly unchallenged dominance here at the outset of the 21st century. So at least objectively speaking, socially and economically, the 20th century has not passed in vain.

Subjectively speaking, however, there is a sense in which the 20th century has passed in vain, I would argue. This is not universally true, of course, but this seems to me to be the prevailing state of affairs. Of course I don’t want to slide into some quasi-Heideggerian lamentation regarding the social “forgetfulness” of the question of the relation between history and freedom (just as Heidegger characterized the “forgetfulness” of the question of being). But really, when it comes to the retention of an historical memory of past revolutionary struggles, and an understanding of the way that they inform present attempts to realize an emancipated society, I think it is almost unquestionable that our situation has regressed. At the subjective level of political consciousness, perhaps the 20th century has passed in vain.

A consequence of this, I would further maintain, is that Trotskii’s statement, though true in his time, is falsified with respect to our own time. History now does begin to repeat itself, all the more so in the realm of politics and revolutionary subjectivity. But the repetition here is not a pure repeat of that which came before. It is rather a repetition with difference (though here I must immediately mention that I do not draw the same conclusions from this that Deleuze or Derrida do). If the past is not present with us consciously, informing our practice, it nevertheless is with us unconsciously, informing our practice. Here the past takes its revenge on the present, as that which “has been cast aside but not absorbed theoretically will often yield its truth content only later. It festers as a sore on the prevailing health; this will lead back to it in changed situations.” (Adorno, Negative Dialectics. Pg. 144).

This is perhaps why so many of the revolutionary slogans and practices from the past resurface in such unreflective ways in contemporary politics. People unwittingly reenact past gestures at social transformation which have long since lost any truth-value or utility they might have had. Subjectively, then, in the sphere of political and historical consciousness, we see this pattern of repetition. It almost proceeds according to the logic of “first as tragedy, then as farce,” which Marx outlined in his gloss on Hegel in the famous opening to The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon.

Emptied of any historical self-recognition, political discourse can only function as a sort of echo-chamber into which outworn ideological fragments endlessly reverberate. But if I may hazard an attempt at lay analysis, as Freud called it, this subjective tendency to unconsciously recapitulate all the political postures of yesteryear takes the form of a “repetition compulsion.” These repetitions are typically enacted ritualistically, in the call-and-repeat slogans of “This is what democracy looks like” or “Ain’t no power like the power of the people ’cause the power of the people don’t stop.” Transposed into a religious setting, I wonder if things would be any different if they uttered an equivalent number of “Hail Marys.”

And so again, inasmuch as these subjective repetitions play themselves out politically following the decline of the Left in the twentieth century, we are perhaps forced to admit that the 20th century has indeed passed in vain. Or more precisely, it will have passed in vain if we fail to learn from its tragic example.

Expanding on this point, I think there is perhaps a helpful follow-up here from Nietzsche on the subject of nihilism, which was written of course with an eye toward Schopenhauer’s metaphysical pessimism:

A nihilist is a man who judges of the world as it is that it ought not to be, and of the world as it ought to be that it does not exist…[T]he pathos of “in vain” is the nihilists’ pathos — at the same time, as pathos, an inconsistency on the part of the nihilists.

— Friedrich Nietzsche, KSA 12:9 [60], taken from The Will to Power, § 585

Insofar as “nihilist” here is basically used as equivalent to “pessimist,” might we not perhaps regard ourselves as historical (not metaphysical) nihilists, working to annihilate the conditions of our own nihilism?

With reference to figures from the past, I would differentiate the metaphysical or dialectical-idealist optimism of figures like Leibniz and Hegel, as well as the metaphysical pessimism of someone like Schopenhauer, from the historical optimism of revolutionaries like Trotskii and the historical pessimism of a critical theorist like Adorno. Just as Leibniz straightforwardly set out to perform a metaphysical theodicy (“the best of all possible worlds”), and Hegel explicitly asserted that his philosophy of history aimed to dialectically accomplish the same, so too did Schopenhauer set out to write a metaphysical antitheodicy (“the worst of all possible worlds”). Oppositely, the revolutionary optimism of someone like Trotskii was self-consciously based on the historical experience of the rapid development of international social-democracy and the workers’ movement, while Adorno’s critical pessimism was self-consciously based on the historical experience of living through the aftermath of its failure. This includes the experience of fascism, of course, which was one of the results of this its political failure (along with Stalinism). For as Walter Benjamin aptly observed: “Every fascism is an index of a failed revolution.”  How else are we to understand Adorno’s characterization of his own philosophy as a “melancholy science” in Minima Moralia?

I think that the recognition that the 20th century might yet pass in vain does not somehow place us beyond or above the pathology of the rest of the existing Left. This is why we cannot place ourselves at some sort of Archimedean remove, outside of this pathology, as if we somehow simply “know better.” Rather, we too embody this “pathos of ‘in vain’” that Nietzsche described, perhaps even more acutely, and this is precisely what makes us historical and active nihilists. The negativity implied by this nihilistic orientation would be of the determinate variety theorized by Hegel, who explained that

[T]he exposition of…untrue consciousness in its untruth is not a merely negative procedure. The natural consciousness itself normally  takes this one-sided view of it; and a knowledge which makes this one-sidedness its very essence is itself one of the patterns of incomplete consciousness which occurs on the road itself, and will manifest itself in due course. This is just the skepticism which only ever sees pure nothingness in its result and abstracts from the fact that this nothingness is specifically the nothingness of that from which it results.  For it is only when it is taken as the result of that from which it emerges, that it is, in fact, the true result; in that case it is itself a determinate nothingness, one which has a content.  The skepticism that ends up with the bare abstraction of nothingness or emptiness cannot get any further from there, but must wait to see whether something new comes along and what it is, in order to throw it too into the same empty abyss.  But when, on the other hand, the result is conceived as it is in truth, namely, as a determinate negation, a new form has thereby immediately arisen, and in the negation the transition is made.

— G.W.F. HegelThe Phenomenology of Spirit.  § 79

Though we must certainly resist the temptation to transform this determinate negation into some sort of utopian-positivist blueprint for an emancipated society, this at least provides certain guidelines by which we can pursue the via negativa prescribed by thinkers like Horkheimer and Adorno.  Our criticisms of the existing Left are not intended to simply balk at their attempts (however inadequate they might individually be) to transform the world, and fatalistically sing hymns to the impossibility of action, but are rather meant to prompt a recognition of the need to create a political subject that actually could transform the world.  This is the nihilism which says “The Left is dead!” But it is also the nihilism which says “Long live the Left!”

To say that the Left today carries within itself the germ of decease is not to proclaim the utter futility of politics.  The death of the Left in the twentieth century instead tasks us with the problem of its rebirth.  The active nihilism, or historical pessimism, thus entailed by the recognition that the 20th century might pass “in vain” suggests to me that we must answer just as Richard Rubin proposed to Nietzsche’s question:

Can there be a pessimism of the strong?

“Yes!”

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