Part IV: 1848

For a host of reasons, Žižek is not able to do full justice to the program suggested by the title of his essay, that only “communism” (that is, the Left) can save bourgeois-liberal democracy.  Though accurate, this broader point is lost in his focus on the twilight of the welfare state.  Despite their historic rivalry, the projects of liberalism and socialism were always bound up with one another.  At its best, the latter saw itself as a continuation of the former.  The founding insight of socialism was that liberalism had failed to live up to the standards it set for itself.  In the words of Neil Davidson, the greatest socialists have thus fought “for those universal principles of freedom and justice which the bourgeois revolutions brought onto the historical agenda but, for all their epochal significance, were unable to achieve.”[226]  Because liberalism fell short of its own ideals, socialism has been charged with the task of their realization.   Precisely this, and nothing else, is what Marx meant when he stated in 1871 that the proletarian movement has “no ideals [of its own] to realize, but to set free elements of the new society with which old collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant.”[227]  Engels, challenging the moth-eaten liberalism of François Guizot, therefore rebuked the aging minister in 1850 for his revisionist account of the English Revolution.  Guizot had opportunistically contrasted the unhurried gradualism of social and political transformation in England with the violent convulsions that would later take place in France.  As Engels was eager to point out, however, the origin of these French revolutionary ideals could be found in the writings of the British liberals.  “M. Guizot forgets that freethinking, which so horrifies him in the French Revolution, was brought to France from no other country than England,” Engels asserted.  “Locke was its father, and with Shaftesbury and Bolingbroke it assumed that keen-spirited form [that] subsequently developed so brilliantly in France.  We thus arrive at the odd conclusion that freethinking on which, according to M. Guizot, the French Revolution foundered, was one of the most essential products of the ‘religious’ English Revolution.”[228]

To put it in the starkest terms imaginable, the advent of socialism would at the same time entail the liberation of liberalism from the unresolved contradictions in which it is still enmeshed to this day.  This is what would be required of the proletariat, by acting “[i]n the full consciousness of [its] historic mission,…in order for it to work out [its] own emancipation, and along with it that higher form to which present society is irresistibly tending.”[229]  The Left must therefore not only oppose liberalism, but in a sense it must also thereby transpose liberalism by adopting this oppositional stance.  Accordingly, the proletariat must not only negate bourgeois society, but in a sense also complete bourgeois society through this very act of negation.  The path to overcoming liberal ideology, like the capitalist mode of production on which it is based, must be pursued in and through bourgeois society itself.  It is impossible to stand at some kind of Archimedean remove, outside of one’s moment in history.  Along these same lines, Lenin already wrote in 1920 that  “[c]apitalism could have been declared — and with full justice — to be ‘historically obsolete’ many decades ago, but that [has] not at all remove[d] the need for a very long and very persistent struggle on the basis of capitalism.”[230]

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  1. Pingback: Living in the End Times and the salvation of liberalism: Slavoj Žižek « The Charnel-House

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