Civilisation: Evolution of a word and a group of ideas

Lucien Febvre
May 25, 1929

It is never a waste of time to study the history of a word. Such journeys, whether short or long, monotonous or varied are always instructive. But in every major language there are a dozen or so terms, never more, often less, whose past is no food for the scholar. But it is for the historian if we give the word historian all its due force.

Such terms, whose meaning is more or less crudely defined in dictionaries, never cease to evolve under the influence of human experience and they reach us pregnant, one might say, with all the history through which they have passed. They alone can enable us to follow and measure, perhaps rather slowly but very precisely (language is not a very rapid recording instrument), the transformations which took place in a group of those governing ideas which man is pleased to think of as being immobile because their immobility seems to be a guarantee of his security.1 Constructing the history of the French word civilisation would in fact mean reconstituting the stages in the most profound of all the revolutions which the French spirit has achieved and undergone in the period starting with the second half of the eighteenth century and taking us up to the present day. And so it will mean embracing in its totality, but from one particular point of view, a history whose origins and influence have not been confined within the frontiers of a single state. The simple sketch which follows may make it possible to date the periods in the revolution to which we refer with more rigor than previously. And it will at least show once more that the rhythm of the waves which break upon our societies are, in the last instance, governed and determined by the progress not of a particular science and of thought that revolves within one and the same circle, but by progress in all the disciplines together and in all the branches of learning working in conjunction.

Let us clearly mark out the limits of the problem. Some months ago a thesis was defended in the Sorbonne dealing with the civilization of the Tupi-Guarani. The Tupi-Guarani are small tribes living in South America which in every respect fit the term “savage” as used by our ancestors. But for a long time now the concept of a civilization of non-civilized people has been current. If archaeology were able to supply the means, we should see an archaeologist coolly dealing with the civilization of the Huns; who we were once told were “the flail of civilization.”

But our newspapers and journals, and we ourselves, talk continually about the progress, conquests and benefits of civilization. Sometimes with conviction, sometimes with irony and sometimes even with bitterness. But what counts is that we talk about it. And what this implies is surely that one and the same word is used to designate two different concepts.

In the first case civilization simply refers to all the features that can be observed in the collective life of one human group, embracing their material, intellectual, moral and political life and, there is unfortunately no other word for it, their social life. It has been suggested that this should be called the “ethnographical” conception of civilization.2 It does not imply any value judgment on the detail or the overall pattern of the facts examined. Neither does it have any bearing on the individual in the group taken separately, or on their personal reactions or individual behavior. It is above all a conception which refers to a group. Continue reading

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]

Continue to Socialism or Barbarism?

Socialism or Barbarism?

The decline of the Left over the course of this last century is thus not only a tragedy for those who fought on its behalf, but also for those who traditionally fought against it.  Inasmuch as proletarian socialism aimed at the supersession of bourgeois liberalism, its old nemesis, while simultaneously preserving the latter’s revolutionary accomplishments and raising them to a “higher level,” the former stood for the hope of all humanity — no matter which side one was on.  For as long as it is able to reproduce its own existence, the underlying volatility of capitalist society will remain unchanged (whether or not there is a leftist political project capable of overcoming it).  But the idea that capitalism will simply continue to exist indefinitely cannot at all be supported by historical experience.  Though bourgeois political economists have time and again tried to naturalize the social relations that have appeared immediately before them, mesmerized by the fetish-character of the commodity form, the capitalist mode of production has not always existed.  It came into existence historically, and could just as easily pass out of existence historically.[231]  The issue thus comes down to ascertaining the nature of this historical passage, should it ever arrive at all.  Capitalist society could cease to exist in any number of ways, the majority of which would not be emancipatory in the least.  This might well be the most disturbing prospect of all: that capitalism will collapse and still not lead to a more just, liberated, and equitable society.  As Lukács pointed out, commenting on the revolutionary legacies of Lenin and Luxemburg, “socialism would never happen ‘by itself,’ and as the result of an inevitable natural economic development.  The natural laws of capitalism do indeed lead inevitably to its ultimate crisis, but at the end of its road would be the destruction of all civilization and a new barbarism.”[232]  Broadly speaking, there are two scenarios that can be imagined as leading to capitalism’s eventual demise: 1.) cataclysm or 2.) revolution.

In either case, the result would be that capital would no longer exist.  The reason for this would be quite different from instance to instance, however.  Should the former take place, capital would be dissolved simply because it would no longer be able to reproduce and augment its own value through the process of production.  For example, a war could break out that would be of such devastating proportions that the cycles of production and circulation would be fatally disrupted.  Some of the images called to mind are total blight, scorched earth, and nuclear holocaust.  Another possibility would be some sort of global environmental catastrophe.  Should the latter (revolution) obtain, however, capital would be dissolved because human production would no longer be subordinated to its ends.  Humanity would not produce goods simply to extract surplus-value from labor and then be realized on the market, only to repeat this cycle all over again, in perpetuity.  Rather, humanity would produce in order to meet (and surpass) human needs, in a way that does not endanger the provision of such needs in the future.  In this scenario, society would not undertake production for the sake of a category external and alien to itself (capital), but would become its own self-directed end.  Society would only produce for the sake of society and its individual members.  The mystery of capital — and indeed the riddle of all history[233] — is that society is a product of human activity, and yet appears to humanity as an unruly force of nature.[234]  Crises are experienced under the capitalist social order as so many natural disasters, as storms to “weather” or endure.  Humanity is, nonetheless, the unconscious demiurge of this second nature.  It has but to attain consciousness in order to decisively act and thereby claim this system for itself, so that society and its constituent individuals might someday live autonomously.  As Engels once put it:

With the seizing of the means of production by society, production of commodities is done away with, and, simultaneously, the mastery of the product over the producer…The laws of his own social action, hitherto standing face-to-face with man as laws of Nature foreign to, and dominating him, will then be used with full understanding, and so mastered by him.  Man’s own social organization, hitherto confronting him as a necessity imposed by Nature and history, now becomes the result of his own free action…It is the ascent of man from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom.[235]

Faced with the polarity dividing freedom and humanity on the one hand from unfreedom and inhumanity on the other, society arrived at a historic impasse almost a century ago.  Since this time it appears to have remained at a virtual standstill, stuck before this fork in the road.  This apparent immobility must not be thought of as an absolute motionlessness, however, qua an absolute cessation of motion or activity.  At best, civilization has merely been spinning its wheels for the last hundred years; at worst, it has politically regressed.  The choice presently at hand poses afresh Luxemburg’s old disjunction of “socialism or barbarism.”[236]  But make no mistake about it: these options do not present themselves as on an empty slate.  Liberalism has been utterly barbaric for over 150 years now.  But the attempts to go beyond it during this time, the many faces of “actually existing socialism,” have been similarly barbarized and enervated.  The twentieth century, Richard Rubin has pointed out, revealed the nightmarish possibility of having both socialism and barbarism, embodied its most characteristic and grotesque form as Stalinism.[237]  A pair of related, if troubling, questions now makes an appearance.  What if liberal civilization still provides the basis for the best (or least worst) of all possible worlds that humanity can realistically hope for? This is, at least in Michéa’s opinion, how it has often understood itself.[238]  And, assuming that liberalism does in fact provide this basis, what if the best (or least worst) of all possible worlds thus established proves impossible to maintain?

This is the prospect raised by Žižek, amongst others, as the specter of ecological and thermonuclear Armageddon continues to haunt contemporary social life.[239]  In one of his more bombastic books of late, In Defense of Lost Causes, Žižek summarizes this current state of affairs more succinctly.  “What looms on the horizon today is the unprecedented possibility that [a calamity] will intervene directly into the historical Substance,” projects Žižek, “catastrophically disturbing its course by triggering an ecological catastrophe, a fateful biogenetic mutation, a nuclear or similar military-social catastrophe, and so on…It no longer holds that, whatever we do, history will carry on.”[240]  Since the 1970s and the emergence of the environmental movement, many leftists fear that an impending natural disaster will render the Earth uninhabitable, effectively bringing an end to the drama of human history.  Other critics of a Marxist persuasion, such as Fredric Jameson, count no fewer than “four fundamental threats to the survival of the human race today,” throwing global impoverishment and famine as well as structural unemployment into the mix along with ecological collapse and nuclear war.  He immediately adds, correctly, the humbling fact that “in each of these areas no serious counterforce exists anywhere in the world.”[241]  Yet it would seem to be of paramount importance that such counterforces eventually arise so that humanity can continue to exist at all — let alone realize its deepest aspirations of liberty and equality.  Despite capitalism’s much-vaunted “adaptability,” the liberal belief in the self-correcting capacity of the Market seems a dangerous game to play, a concern voiced in recent decades by the Marxian anthropologist Maurice Godelier.[242]  For now, at least, liberalism clearly offers no way out.  With the decline of the Left in the twentieth century, however, no socialist alternative seems readily available.  That is to say, the need for revolutionary transformation has never been greater, and yet the forces necessary for such a transformation have never been in shorter supply.

Lenin remarked in 1917, of course, that revolutionary ruptures necessarily appear as “miracles” to those who witness them.[243]  It is thus perhaps not entirely beyond the realm of possibility that capitalism might still someday be transcended.  If liberalism’s original emancipatory potential is ever to be realized, however, it will require a revolutionary act of sublation — in the strict Hegelian sense of a thing’s determinate negation, its concurrent cancellation and preservation.[244]  As Chris Cutrone has put it: “Socialism is meant to transcend liberalism by fulfilling it.  The problem with liberalism is not its direction, supposedly different from socialism, but rather that it does not go far enough.  Socialism is not anti-liberal.”[245]  Despite the recalcitrance it has repeatedly shown to efforts aiming to radically transform it, liberalism’s — and, indeed, all of humanity’s — only chance for survival resides with socialism.  “In this hour, socialism is the only salvation for humanity,” Rosa Luxemburg proclaimed in 1918.  The fundamental truth of this assertion remains equally valid today, however much other conditions have changed.  Absent the possibility of its determinate negation, liberalism now instead faces absolute annihilation.  Socialism or barbarism? Revolution or cataclysm?

Continue to Revolution into Reaction: June 1848 to August 1914