Has the Left Won? An Exchange Between Tim Barker and James Livingston

Has the Left Won? An Exchange Between Tim Barker and James Livingston

The following is an exchange between Tim Barker, assistant editor at Dissent, and James Livingston, professor of history at Rutgers University and author, most recently, of Against Thrift: Why Consumer Culture is Good for the Economy, the Environment, and Your Soul. In this exchange, Barker and Livingston argue about the thesis of that book as well as a number of recent essays by Livingston on socialism and socialists.


Part I: Tim Barker – Has the Left Won?
Part II: Response by James Livingston
Part III: Reply by Tim Barker
Part IV: Final Response by James Livingston

I’m going to focus in this exchange on a pair of complementary essays you wrote recently: “How the Left Has Won,” published in Jacobin, and “Socialism Without Socialists, or, What’s the Matter With Leftists?” They’re very rich interventions, so we won’t be able to address every point. At the same time, they deal with some of your most important preoccupations, so discussion will likely range beyond the texts themselves.

Interested readers should check out both pieces, but I’ll try to be explicit in explaining your thesis. So far as I can tell, you argue that most leftists hold mistaken beliefs about (a) the dynamics of historical change and historical agency and (b) the meaning of socialism. (These two strains obviously intersect at many points, but I think the analytic distinction is useful.) In this first missive, I’ll focus on your philosophy of history, trying to sum up your position and offer some of my reservations.

Your theory of history is Hegelian in the broadest sense: you believe that history can be understood as a coherent whole, consisting of successive stages that both destroy and preserve elements of their predecessors. Moreover, like Hegel, you believe that this process occurs “behind the backs of men”—the most epochal shifts are often midwifed by people ignorant of their world-historical roles. The parliamentarians in the English Civil War had no idea they were harbingers of bourgeois society, and the self-interested businessmen who designed the Federal Reserve system had little notion they were laying the initial planks of American social democracy. On the flip side, you argue that those activists who attempt self-consciously to shape history according to their blueprints rarely accomplish their stated goals. This is especially true of revolutionary socialists—you refer to your targets as Leninists—but you also include Christopher Lasch and Richard Rorty in your list of sinners, so it’s clear that you’re not just arguing against those who proclaim the necessity of a Bolshevik-modeled vanguard party.

As a result, you argue, the material accomplishment of left-wing goals isn’t significantly correlated with the existence of self-identified leftists. Not to say that there are never correlations—just that the absence of a corps of self-identified leftists cannot be conflated with an absence of the Left. Thus, the undisputed absence of a self-identified Left in the years since the late 1970s should not lead immediately to hand-wringing over the “death of the Left.”

My two questions about this position are, respectively, theoretical and empirical. Theoretically, I’m interested in how you think positive forward progress happens, if not partially through the active praxis of self-conscious leftists. If professional revolutionaries (along with the local populist movements favored by Lasch and the left-liberals embraced by Rorty) are not plausible actors, what force or forces are responsible for the gradual but substantial progress of left-wing goals that you assert? Hegel had the “Idea” (Geist), unfolding itself gradually through contradictions and higher resolutions, until society was both rational and accepted as rational by its constituents. Marx, although he was never nailed down to this position, had a theory of history driven forward by technological change, which sooner or later disrupted the social relations of a given society. What is the Geist in your story? What moves actors in all classes to, in responding to historical challenges, inadvertently advance socialism?

If this characterization of your position is too teleological or determinist, I will welcome being corrected. But if I am wrong about your position, then you must acknowledge that the Left can lose. Even if it is wrong to read recent U.S. history as a defeat for the Left, do you accept the possibility that some events have been or could be bad for the Left? If so, how does the Left fight back against defeat? If not by political organizations, then how? We seem to be left with a choice between iron train tracks (the optimistic determinism) and crap shooting (the pessimistic acceptance of possible defeat, but the unwillingness to try actively to change it.) We’re left with something like the line from the German Social Democratic Party philosopher Wilhelm Dietzegen: “Every day our cause becomes clearer and people get smarter”—words made famous when quoted by Walter Benjamin as examples of the blind faith in progress that led the German working class to acquiesce in the Third Reich.

This leads to my empirical question. I will take on a few examples you use in your arguments about history and the Left.

For starters, you challenge recent historiography stressing the centrality of Communist Party members in the radical social change in the United States in the 1930s. The exact amount of credit they deserve is a question for specialists, but the CP weren’t the only ones building the CIO. Walter Reuther and Sidney Hillman, to say nothing of rank-and-file militants, were not Leninists, but they were self-conscious political actors trying to convince the apolitical masses to share their analysis and praxis. Do you think it’s possible to tell the story of unionism in the wake of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act and the subsequent rise in living standards and shop-floor agency without reference to any of these figures? If none of them had existed, would the outcome have changed? Even if the CP played little role in the labor movement after the 1950s, that just means they helped build something that endured after their involvement ended—just like the spirit of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis lingers over the music of New Order. More than that, the absence of CPers after the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which greatly weakened the protections of the NLRA, may well have facilitated the ascendance of business unionism, led by people like George Meaney (who boasted of never having been in a strike, and supported atrocities in Vietnam). This form of unionism lowered public opinion of unions, and left labor poorly placed when the “one-sided class war” began in the 1970s. Consequently, we live in a country with a vanishingly small workers’ movement, a development I think we can both agree is, all else being equal, bad for the Left.

Your theory of history is Hegelian in the broadest sense: you believe that history can be understood as a coherent whole, consisting of successive stages that both destroy and preserve elements of their predecessors.

Which brings me to another point: you write that American workers made the most progress in two periods, “irrespective of union representation.” Regarding the second era you point to, the 1930s to the 1970s, I think your independent variable is less than ideal. At the rough midpoint of that period—1960—30.4 percent of nonagricultural workers in the United States were in a union. But there’s more. Social scientists have documented that high levels of unionization bring carryover benefits to all workers. First, the existence of unions raises the price of labor, so that competing firms have to raise wages to stay competitive in a tight labor market. Second, the very threat of unionization could be enough a motivation for non-union businesses to respond to workers’ demands. Finally, organized labor—despite many blemishes on its political record—played a crucial role in passing social democratic legislation that benefited the working class as a whole. Medicare and Social Security were partially enabled by the powerful labor element in the post–New Deal Democratic Party, and labor played a crucial role in backing the civil rights movement. Even the Port Huron Statement was an example of the long-reaching effects of powerful labor institution: the manifesto gets its name from the UAW-owned retreat where it was drafted.

The other Golden Age you point to, the Gilded Age, is an equally murky example. Even if real wages rose from the 1870s to the 1890s, things were not so good for the workers who had to deal with the unmitigated terror of the nineteenth-century business cycle. I’ll grant that anti-capitalist groups like the Knights of Labor or the People’s Party never directly achieved their goals. But is it possible to tell the story of the Progressive Era, when brakes were put on the business cycle and the role of the redistributive state was greatly strengthened, without mentioning the fear of socialism that possessed the ruling class around the same time? Elites put their immediate interests aside because they felt threatened by the growing strength of the radical fringes. The lesson, it seems to me, is that socialists are a necessary but not sufficient condition of material left-wing success. Unintentional consequences are a basic part of history, but sometimes self-conscious cadre achieve a great deal that would otherwise be unachievable.

In closing, I have two questions for you to jump off from: 1) Is regression possible in your historical framework? Even if it is mistaken to consider the late-twentieth century as a time of left defeat, are there or could there someday be a period accurately described as defeat of the Left? How would we know when a left defeat occurs? 2) What is your best example of a major social-economic change that emerged without “a movement”? Does the civil rights–era Southern Christian Leadership Conference, for example, count as “Leninist” in your book?

-Tim Barker



In setting up those two concluding questions, you cover a lot of ground, as I suppose you must in focusing on someone’s philosophy of history. I’m going to work backward toward the set-up, in the hope that I clarify your premises as well as mine.

You ask, 1) “Is regression possible in your historical framework”—in other words, “could there someday be a period accurately described as defeat of the Left?” Then 2), “What is your best example of a major social-economic change that emerged without ‘a movement’?”

The short answers are, 1) of course! And 2) the big one, capitalism, which changed everything. I’ve explained in the Jacobin piece how capitalism emerged without a movement dedicated to its establishment, ca. 1400-1800, but also how socialism arrived in the twentieth century with or without revolutionary fanfare. Here I’ll concentrate on what I take to be the implications of your first question.

After the Enlightenment—after the eighteenth century—ineluctable and/or linear progress toward some goal determined by the mere fact of human nature was no longer something western Christendom could take for granted: by this time, the Reformation and the scientific revolution had demoted God’s Providence; meanwhile, the Romantics had already begun to interrogate the very idea of progress.

And yet three great revolutions informed by eschatological longing—the American, the French, and the Haitian—had occurred by 1815. Soon after the most teleological theoretical systems imaginable would be built on the foundations laid by Hegel, Spencer, and Darwin. But these systems, Marxism included, rarely if ever posited seamless, ceaseless movement toward a goal determined by an original human nature. Unless you factor in Freud, and then the goal becomes either mastery of the material circumstances at hand in accordance with the experience of infantile omnipotence (you could call this urge the source of the neurotic longing for freedom that creates a specifically human history), or death—or both, as the more apocalyptic environmentalists among us would have it.

So yeah, regression is possible, and maybe even probable in my historical framework—perhaps because it’s saturated in psychoanalysis. It’s difficult to inspect the charnel house that was Europe until 1948 and not curse every historical explanation or theoretical system, or human nature as such. It’s hard to understand why Henry Kissinger is not in shackles.



But the regressions you want me to (be able to) acknowledge are very specific—the defeats of the Left. So it all depends on what you mean by the Left, and by progress, which presumably derives from the victories of this Left.

The Left, in my view, is not merely “root-and-branch opposition to capitalism,” as T. J. Clark has recently defined it in his turn as Hamlet in New Left Review—if it were, intellectuals like you couldn’t claim that the labor movement is a vital component of the Left, because neither the AFL nor the CIO was ever explicitly anti-capitalist. Sure, the Wobblies wanted to overthrow capitalism, but they operated, consciously so, at the margins of industrial society and the labor movement. And yes, the Knights of Labor were, like the Populists, anti-capitalist; but their programmatic aim, again like the Populists, was the reconstitution of bourgeois society, the reinstatement of a small-holder economy and its political armature. Speaking of regression.

So the Left is not necessarily radical, and it’s always composed of many social strata, including capitalists intent upon the reconstruction of market society, from the abolitionist Tappan brothers in the 1830s to the most successful Hollywood producers and directors of our time. Moreover, the Left is not always convened as a self-conscious social movement with consistent or even stated goals.

The Progressive Era is a perfect example of what I mean—racists in the White House and the post-Populist South combined to pass laws that created central banking (FRS), federal regulation of corporations (FTC), federal inspection of food and drugs (FDA), etc., which were enthusiastically sponsored, sometimes written, by capitalists with vested interests at stake. The socialization of the market, a venerable left-wing goal, was driven by variegated business interests as well as subaltern groups, mainly trade unions, all of which wanted a more stable, more civilized society.



But you cite the Progressive Era as a moment of reform created by a ruling class that put its “immediate interests aside because it felt threatened by the growing strength of the radical fringes.” Notice what you have to assume to make this statement: 1) There was a ruling class in place; 2) this ruling class had no immediate interest in the socialization of the market, or, to put it more plainly, businessmen are by nature opposed to reform or progress as the Left would define it; 3) the “radical fringes” were the visible and salient forces in shaping ruling-class strategies of political containment.*

On historical rather than theoretical grounds, I think all three of your assumptions verge on the ridiculous. It’s true, I could have subtitled my book on the origins of the Fed “The Making of the American Ruling Class”—homage to E.P. Thompson, and also critique of him, because I actually define class consciousness, something he never bothers to do, without recourse to theoretical jargon—but I was at great pains to show that it was still a work in progress as late as 1913. And in my next book, I described the social death of the capitalist class at the hands of its own creation, the modern corporation.

Meanwhile, in collateral work that informed the Fed book, and that would be published as “The Social Analysis of Economic History and Theory” in the American Historical Review, I explained why, at the end of the nineteenth century, all social classes and strata were asking not whether but how to reconstruct the market so as to preserve its civilizing functions. If I had to summarize the import of that article, I would say this: there is no irony in the businessman’s urge to reform everything in the early twentieth century, because capitalists of all kinds had the most to lose from the extremities and idiocies of an unregulated, under-socialized market. The Progressive Era was progressive not in spite of the participation of pro-capitalist corporate liberals but precisely because they were so deeply involved.

It is also here, in this AHR article, that I prove industrial workers were winning the class struggle of the late nineteenth century, even though only 10 percent of them were unionized. When I say the Left subsists because the working class has prevailed irrespective of how well-organized it is by the measure of trade union representation, this moment is what I have in mind. Working people kicked ass between 1873 and 1902, and again between 1935 and 1973—in one era they had almost no union representation, in the other they were able to enforce collective bargaining because a third of them were formally represented. Why then would leftist intellectuals insist that only a labor movement as convened in the 1930s is the groundwork of social democracy?

And what “radical fringes”? Until 1919, socialism was a respectable, small-town political phenomenon, not a clandestine movement or a cultural virus from the big cities and the other shore (ca. 1904-1917, the highest per capita membership in the Socialist Party of America, and the backbone of the socialist press, were in Kansas and Oklahoma). It was part of the mainstream of American life, in other words, until avowed socialists collaborated with their adversaries in reading themselves out of it. To many political scientists, among them Woodrow Wilson, socialism looked like the future of American politics; his opponents in the election of 1912, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, agreed. Taft feared that future, saying that the either/or choice was between restored business competition—busting trusts—or the socialism to be supplied by the collectivism of the large corporations.

Theodore Roosevelt was no radical, as we all presumably know, having seen him endorsed since 2008 by David Brooks, John McCain, Michael Lind, and every other public figure seeking the title of Moderate-in-Chief. But here’s what TR said in a speech at Osawatomie, Kansas, John Brown’s old stomping grounds, on August 31, 1910, as the Progressive Party he would lead in 1912 was taking programmatic shape: “We are face to face with new conceptions of the relation of property to human welfare.” In a paraphrase of James Madison, who specified the “two cardinal objects of Government” as the rights of persons and the rights of property, TR insisted that property rights were now subordinate to “human welfare”—the capitalist “holds his property subject to the general right of the community to regulate its use to whatever degree the public welfare may require it.” This general right of the community included “the right to regulate the terms and conditions of labor…in the interest of the common good.”

In addition to the regulatory measures required by Roosevelt’s New Nationalism, the reforms he advocated included environmental conservation, a progressive income and inheritance tax, workmen’s compensation, workplace safety, regulation of child labor, funding and reform of public education, farm cooperatives, day-care centers, a minimum wage, and a statutory limitation on working hours.



My point is that a socialist sensibility was not then the exclusive property of radicals on the left, that it is not now this property, and that it never will be. The socialist Left was then larger than its self-consciously radical, sectarian, or academic constituents, and it has remained so unto our own time. Beyond that, let me note that socialists, conscious or not, have differed significantly on the role of the state in defining, modulating, and limiting the rights of property, and, in doing so, they have moved the boundary between the state and civil society. The corporate liberals who borrowed from the socialist repertoire succeeded in the early twentieth century because their design for a more democratic future was more in keeping with the American political tradition than the Populist or the avowedly socialist alternatives—it was less radical, and more revolutionary, because it insisted on the founding principle of the sovereignty of the people, the supremacy of society over the state. That is, it did not impose statist command on civil society, as would those alternatives, and yet it enhanced the regulatory power of the state.

I will continue to evade your philosophical questions, and follow the empirical path you have cleared, by addressing the other great moment of left ascendancy you cite as an example of progress made by radical, anti-capitalist movements: the 1930s.

You write that “the CP weren’t the only ones building the CIO,” and go on to say: “Walter Reuther and Sidney Hillman, to say nothing of rank-and-file militants, were not Leninists, but they were self-conscious political actors trying to convince the apolitical masses to share their analysis and praxis.”

Well, yeah, except for the part about the apolitical masses—they’re never apolitical except by the quaint standards of the drawing room and the faculty club. John L. Lewis always said he was willing to use Communists as union organizers because they were willing to get their heads busted in the name of solidarity (not the overthrow of the state, by the way—that rhetoric was for cadre meetings). They did: by the 1940s, a third of the CIO unions were led and/or organized by card-carrying members of the CP. But notice that Reuther, Hillman, and other social democrats did better than merely survive the HUAC-led purges of the labor movement in the late ’40s—just as the Left did better than survive the eclipse of the CP in the 1950s and early ’60s.

As I have said many times in print, we owe a colossal debt to the writers on the left who congregated around but not in the CP—writers like Lewis Mumford, Kenneth Burke, V.F. Calverton, and Edmund Wilson, who always remained enthusiastically agnostic about the Party, and writers like Richard Wright and Harold Cruse, who embraced the cause in the 1930s and ’40s but became apostates in the 1950s. (I leave out Mike Gold, Joseph Freeman, Matthew Josephson, and the like because their writing is so shrill as to be unmemorable, but we ought to remember that, as both Daniel Aaron and Michael Denning have shown in exhaustive detail, the vast majority of writers and artists in the 1930s were constituents of the Popular Front.)

The Left in the mannered, arcane, Byzantine form we know as the Communist Party lost decisively in the 1950s, but the Left in every other form gained intellectual space, cultural ground, and, yes, political leverage, especially after the Party Congress of 1953 and the Hungarian invasion of 1956. For reasons that require psychoanalysis to explain, leftists of approximately my age like to think their kind was marginalized by the Cold War and its McCarthyist attendants. Nothing could be further from the historical truth: a New Left was born when the CP died as the arbiter and clearinghouse of “progressive” opinion. The Left made more progress in the 1950s and after than ever before, mainly because it had no authoritative voice or censor to speak for it. It became as de-centered, as pluralist as the society it spoke to and for. The civil rights movement led the way.



Your questions about my philosophy of history, such as (or whether) it is, can now be addressed. You identify me as a “Hegelian in the broadest sense,” which means, for your purposes, that “history can be understood as a coherent whole,” that “history occurs ‘behind the backs of men,’” largely without their conscious intention, and that whereas “Hegel had the Idea,” Marx had “a theory of history driven forward by technological change.”

Then you ask: “What is the Geist in your story?”

It’s true, I’m a Hegelian in these (truncated) terms. To begin with, I assume a difference between the Past as such and History as we write it. The Past is not a random sequence, strictly speaking, because as more choices get made in the present, the range of choices about the future narrow or change; but it is, in fact, a meaningless sequence. History is what we say about how this sequence ought to be apprehended, articulated, and put to political use; so a major part of the historian’s task is to arrange, or rather compose, the meaningless parts of real experience into a legible, satisfying whole. This arrangement or composition happens when the historian turns sequence into stories: mere incidents become important events through dramatization, narrativization. Let me borrow from William James, my favorite philosopher—even though he vowed, like Marx, to “fight Hegel”—to make the point: “Day follows day, and its content are simply added. They are not themselves true, they simply come and are. Truth is what say about them.”

So yes, I think History can be understood as a coherent whole, because the writing of history is by its very nature an attempt to wrest meaning and significance—coherence—from what cannot be immediately experienced as meaningful or significant. The exception to this rule resides, of course, in conventions and rituals like, say, baptisms, wedding days, and funerals, but notice how in each of these cases the purpose is to create an event, not just to commemorate it.

William James and Karl Marx notwithstanding, I rely on Hegel for other reasons. He drew on both German Idealism and British Empiricism—he refused, at its origin, the either/or choice we now experience as continental vs. analytical philosophy, or, more hilariously, Marxism vs. pragmatism. Hegel studied Smith, Say, and Ricardo with care, and while he was grappling with Kant, Fichte, and Schelling, trying to articulate the alternative that would become The Phenomenology of Spirit, he read everything he could about Touissant’s black Jacobins and Napoleon’s citizen armies.

What came of these studies, apart from a profoundly materialist philosophical system, was a suspicion, even a fear, of radicalism—the Terror was, for him, the consequence of a departure from the past so complete that anything became possible, even the slaughter and suicide of the revolutionaries themselves. Hegel wrote both The Phenomenology and The Philosophy of Right with this “maximum of terror” in mind, seeking a way to acknowledge the claims of the past and yet move beyond them, into a future able to both honor tradition and rewrite it—a way to reconcile conservatism and radicalism, and thus grasp revolution as a normal, productive moment in the making of modernity.

Hegel’s search resulted in a flat rejection of Kant’s radical claim in The Critique of Pure Reason:

For whereas, so far as Nature is concerned, experience supplies the rule and is the source of truth, in respect to the moral law it is, alas, the mother of illusion! Nothing is more reprehensible than to derive the laws prescribing what ought to be done from what is done, or to impose upon them the limits by which the latter is circumscribed.

For Kant, ethical principle and historical circumstance would always be antithetical—to act on principle was to repudiate, not redeem, the Past.

For Hegel, it wasn’t that simple. He wanted to know how we might read our ethical principles in our historical circumstances, because if we couldn’t, the only honorable options were escape from or destruction of whatever constituted the present. Either way, we wouldn’t be making or writing History, we’d be forgetting or obliterating the Past, leaving it as meaningless sequence. We wouldn’t be crossing over into the future we had mapped, we’d be burning bridges and hoping for the best. We’d be creating the “maximum of terror” and the conditions of counter-revolution. We’d be mere radicals.

Or pietists of the political kind, hoping for a revolution of the saints. Here’s how John Dewey made fun of these creatures in his Hegelian phase, in 1891:

This, indeed, is the failure of the Kantian Ethics: in separating what should be from what is, it deprives the latter, the existing social world as well as the desires of the individual, of all moral value; while, by the same separation, it condemns that which should be to a barren abstraction. An “ought” which does not root in and flower from the “is,” which is not the fuller realization of the actual state of social relationships, is a mere pious wish that things should be better.



I’m not a big fan of the “unintended consequences” school. My book on the Fed tells the story of men who announced how and why they meant to change the world, and then did it. But they learned by doing, by engaging their opponents and defeating them with better ideas, better arguments, better programs, not greater force of arms (although I would be a fool to say that organized violence against white workers and black sharecroppers was a minor incident in the transition from proprietary to corporate capitalism, ca. 1890-1923). These men got pretty much what they wanted because they fought a protracted “war of position,” as Gramsci named it, never thinking that their mission was a (Leninist) “war of maneuver” that would end with the overthrow of the state.

Still, I’m Hegelian enough to accredit the Cunning of Reason, which is Desire itself, and to see how Freud’s rendition of the body in the mind completes Hegel’s account (and here I presuppose the intellectual sutures stitched by Geza Roheim, Sandor Ferenczi, Herbert Marcuse, Jacques Lacan, and Norman O. Brown). The political unconscious of History, in these terms, is the neurotic struggle of every human being to be free—the doomed effort, the repetition compulsion, to recapture the experience of infantile omnipotence, to recreate what never actually existed. But Hegel saw even better than Freud that this struggle to be free, which is attained in self-consciousness, happens in and as the projection of Desire onto and into the world of objects, in and as the transformation of material environments.

That urge toward freedom and self-consciousness (or individuation, as Jonathan Lear would have it) is human nature, and it keeps driving History, but its form changes in time, and so, then, does its content. Until the advent of modern market societies, freedom meant release or abstention from the demands of socially necessary labor—work was, for the most part, not the site of self-creation or self-determination. Or it meant the abolition of all particular circumstances, escape from the cares of this world and entry into the next. Either way, the trans-historical “compulsion to work,” as Freud called it, lacked legitimacy except, according to the ancients, in the form of poeisis, which translates as “composition” (e.g., composing music).

Until the Reformation and the rise of capitalism—or rather, until the (re)emergence of bourgeois society**—freedom meant release or abstention from socially necessary labor, and/or the abolition of particular material circumstances. The bourgeois social strata—this class was never uniform—that created Protestantism and laid the foundations for capitalism didn’t know they were making a cultural revolution that would forever change the meanings of individuality and society. Speaking of unintended consequences. But they did know in their bones that they were changing the meanings of work, and thus the relation between necessity and freedom. That is why Hegel called Luther the founding father of modern philosophy: this preacher made one’s calling the essence of humanity and the condition of God’s grace. “Stay in your calling,” he admonished his minions, “there God will lay cross enough upon you.”

That is also why Marx characterized Hegel, as Nicolai Hartmann and Alexandre Kojeve would almost a hundred years later, as the philosopher of work: “He grasps labor as the essence of Man,” Marx exclaimed in 1844. Indeed Hegel did follow Luther’s lead, going so far as to claim, in both The Phenomenology and the Philosophy of Right, that self-consciousness developed as a function of work, which was at once the articulation and the deferment of Desire. So I can’t agree that “Hegel had the Idea” while Marx “had a theory of history driven forward by technological change.” Both were materialists, but neither was a monist, insisting that thoughts were copies of things. They agreed that the labor process, even at its most degrading (slavery), was the setting in which men and women could arrive at a consciousness of their unfolding capacities as human beings, because it was here that thoughts and things traded places under the sign of social purpose.

In time and sensibility, Hegel was closer to Goethe than to Darwin, so he was more lyrical and metaphorical than Marx—as philosophers from Josiah Royce to Robert Pippin have noted, The Phenomenology is the Bildungsroman of self-consciousness. But both Hegel and Marx proposed a periodization of human civilization that made labor systems the centerpiece of their analysis: they were social historians as well as social theorists avant la lettre.

So what, after all, is “the Geist in my story”? Having promoted the slogan FUCK WORK, I can’t very well claim to be a resolute Marxist or even a “Hegelian in the broadest sense.” I can claim, however, to be a close observer of modern politics and social relations of production whose observations are deeply informed by German Idealism, British Empiricism, and its two unruly offspring, Marxism and Pragmatism.

In any event, my empirical observations lead me toward two conclusions. First, because the development of corporate capitalism has enabled and enforced a dispersal of power from the state to society, the nature of politics and the character of revolution have changed—both have evolved into centrifugal cultural phenomena rather than state-centered campaigns led by disciplined cadres or parties. Second, and partly as a consequence, socialism has developed not just alongside of or in opposition to capitalism, but as a constituent element of bourgeois social relations “out of doors,” beyond the purview of the state and public policy—in the regulation and socialization of the market conducted by interest groups, trade unions, corporations, and consumer organizations, not only by government agencies. Socialism is not the same thing as statist command of civil society, even though their equivalence is assumed by both the Left and the Right.

You might then agree with me in saying that the socialization (not expropriation) of the means of production, which is the obvious trend of the last hundred years no matter where on the planet you look, does signify the “slow progress of socialism.” But it can’t follow that the Left has won, simply because socialism has no predictable political valence. Fascism and communism were viciously anti-liberal, regressive variations on the theme, while the unspoken socialism that has developed in North America since the Progressive Era has been more or less liberal, in the sense that it has rarely violated the central principle of American politics—the supremacy of society over the state, or the sovereignty of the people. But there is no guarantee that it will remain so.

-James Livingston


I am grateful for this response to my inquiries, which is as clear and convincing an articulation of your argument as I’ve seen. As Ross Posnock put it, your work “wears its considerable learning lightly,” offering fruit for thought and debate without sacrificing pith and clarity. In the spirit of your own writing, however, I find that I must “keep arguing.” I’ll leave to one side the philosophy of history, though I know I dragged that in—lacking a philosophy of my own, I take your Freud-Hegel-James synthesis as an attractive possibility. My learning is not nearly so considerable, but I’m enough of a Hegelian comrade to attempt an immanent critique of your response. You know the drill: examine the categories you use, try to find the hinge where they reach their own limitations.

I think the most important category to discuss is socialism—the name of our desire. In general, your interventions here have been models of a historian’s virtue: suggesting that qualitatively distinct binaries be replaced with subtler shades of affinity and difference. Thus, your argument that socialism and capitalism exist together, and that neither has a predictable political valence. But subtle as your categories are, you do commit yourself to certain claims. One of them is that the United States can meaningfully be called “socialist” because something deserving to be called “the socialization of the market” occurred in the Progressive era and has continued apace. Is this claim true? In one sense, surely. No observer, and certainly no Marxist who had seen Otto von Bismarck invent universal health care in the late nineteenth century, would deny that the scale and nature of state intervention became greater in the twentieth century than it had been in the liberal/entrepreneurial/proprietary (pick your nomenclature) phase of an earlier capitalism. That government inspectors can enter factories and use coercive force to uphold democratically determined standards, that the state can confiscate much of the income of the rich and give it out in transfer payments to the less well-off—neither these nor any other such achievements deserve to be gainsaid. Unlike Marxists such as T.J. Clark (your example) or the Platypus Affiliated Society (mine) who see nothing but declension, I feel strongly and personally that the modern liberal and social democratic societies represent real advances in human freedom, and that we’ve still got a chance at retaining them and expanding their scope.

But things can be good, and defensible, without being socialism. They can also, as you point out, be indefensible and still be socialism. Nazi analogies are never good form, but since you give credit to the second word in National Socialism, we’ll work from there. Socialism, in your parlance, is any society where market imperatives are subordinated, wholly or partially, to some other logic. This can happen in statist forms, like the Third Reich, or liberal ones, like our own USA. I still question whether your definition of socialism is sufficient. It seems to me to function more as a re-description of what others have variously labeled state capitalism, monopoly capitalism, post-liberal capitalism, and corporate capitalism. The idea that something had changed in the relation between economy and state is not unique to you (and your fellow historian Martin Sklar); it was endemic to mid-twentieth century thought. The Frankfurt School, for instance, believed enough in the effective “socialization” of state capitalism that its protagonists abandoned all hope of an economic crisis that might bring on the “final struggle.” But they, and many others, stopped short of calling this socialism. Why? Because they had other standards in mind, which contemporary society clearly fails to meet.

I can’t sum up every variant on this position, so I’ll just venture one. “Capitalism” we can call a system where people need to sell their labor power in order to buy the means of their subsistence on the market. The alternative to laboring for a capitalist is starvation. “Socialism” we might identify with a state of affairs where human beings can develop their talents and desires without having to spend most of their waking life working for someone else, doing something very likely useless or positively harmful. Peter Frase has articulated something along these lines very clearly in his essay “Four Futures.” By these measures, the involvement of the state in the economy is insufficient to constitute socialism. Whether state interventions improve the lives of human beings or lubricate the accumulation of capital (I think you’ll agree they do both), people are still nearly universally subject to the alien discipline of wage labor. What kind of socialism is this? I’ll grant that in a country like ours with universal suffrage and government intervention, there is a degree of democratic control of the economy. But how much, really? Who voted to have the iPad 2 instead of a guaranteed minimum income? Who voted for Citizens United? As you yourself have written, the socialist solutions we need are taboo to “all politicians, Democrat or Republican, now running for office.” Without any salvation in sight from existing political formations, shouldn’t we advocate rather than deride the importance of an explicitly left-wing movement?

The Frankfurt School mandarins have been rightfully criticized for the crudeness of their political economy: like the night in which all cows are black, they assimilated the sundry economic interventions of Hitler, Roosevelt, and Stalin into one vision of totally administered society. You at least make the distinction between liberal and illiberal “socialisms.” But I fear that, by abandoning the standards I’ve outlined above, you end up declaring left-wing victory in a situation where people’s lives are still determined by the irrational logic of capital, a logic outside their control. You acknowledge the easy point that the European civil war of 1914-1945 represented historical regression. But I still doubt your claim of untrammeled victory for the postwar Left. Where, in your account, is the fact that Americans now work more for less money than they did in the 1960s? Where do you fit the ugly reality that, rich Hollywood liberals notwithstanding, money speaks loudly in our democracy and does so in ways that harm working people? These realities seem to me as empirically undeniable as the fact that Social Security is a real advance toward the separation of work and income—and thus toward socialism. I’ll acknowledge your side of the truth, but the truth is the whole—can’t you recognize my side?

-Tim Barker


This has been an extraordinarily fruitful exchange because we’ve both done more than restate or clarify our original positions. The call-and-response format, if I may dignify our exchange with that designation, has actually changed the content of those positions: transformation by repetition, as in the fundamental American music.

Let me begin by noting what I haven’t said. First, I never claimed an “untrammeled victory for the postwar Left.” The title of the Jacobin piece is “How the Left Has Won,” with the emphasis on the partial truths of methods, sensibilities, and practical realities, not theoretical subtleties or attainment. Second, I never defined socialism as the exclusive property of a regulatory state apparatus, as in your Bismarckian example—I’ve gone to great lengths in these essays to suggest something else altogether, that socialism resides in markets as well as outside them, in the so-called private sector as well as the public sphere of state-centered politics and policy. As always, it’s a matter of social relations.

You’re right, socialism can’t be the name for just anything that challenges the idiocies and complacencies of nineteenth-century proprietary capitalism and its bourgeois, work-based virtues. But you’re also right to say that my definition of socialism is “a re-description of what others have variously labeled state capitalism, monopoly capitalism, post-liberal capitalism, and corporate capitalism.” Also, lest we forget, “late capitalism.” I’m looking for the socialist dimensions, components, and angles within this social formation we call capitalism, in keeping with what Raymond Williams, Stuart Hall, Martin Sklar, and, yes, Antonio Gramsci and Karl Marx himself have taught us about the ambiguities of—the fissures in—every mode of production. We ought to remember that it was the Marx of volume 3 of Capital who discovered a new “socialized mode of production” in the historical (not theoretical) convergence of modern credit and the modern corporation.

My search for these dimensions, components, and angles has led me to the conclusion that the development of socialism doesn’t require avowedly, actively socialist movements—not anymore than the development of capitalism required movements dedicated to its installation. Such movements can certainly galvanize the transition from capitalism to socialism, but then I’m not so sure that I want to see the transition completed if this means statist command of civil society. Most avowedly and actively socialist movements seem to think—along the lines of your Bismarckian example—that their goal is the replacement of private enterprise with public virtue, the politicization of every goddamn thing. I’d rather stick with the profoundly liberal founding principle of the sovereignty of the people, the supremacy of society over the state. So when socialism falls short of replacing capitalism, I’m in favor.

But as for the name of our desire. This was Michael Walzer’s query last spring when I sent “How The Left Has Won” to Dissent—why is socialism that name? You have sharpened the question to the point of a knife fight. So I’m bringing my gun.

Human beings want socialism not because they’re compassionate do-gooders—soft-hearted liberals and all that—but because they don’t think anybody should have to buy the right not to die. Human beings want socialism because they know that love sustains them, and they know this when they act as their brother’s keeper, or when their weakness makes them too frail to help themselves, in either case acknowledging that nobody can bear to live or die alone. They know they are loved not because they deserve it, but because they need it. They know they can love others—it’s more than that, they must try to love others—because they have experienced this need.

“From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” Among other things, socialism signifies the detachment of income from work—the once utopian and now historically realized moment when the production of exchange value via alienated labor no longer determines the wage earner’s access to a share of commodified goods; or rather, it no longer fully determines that access. But the modern socialist slogan that expresses this goal derives from the ancient Christian criterion of need, which found its “objective correlative” in the destruction of the classical separation of narrative styles. By allocating serious, tragic roles to the well-born noblemen and slapstick, comedic roles to the slaves, the proles, and the prostitutes, this stylistic divide enforced the idea that everyday life was banal, and that equality was a joke.

And so at the risk of sentimentalizing my sober project, let me quote Erich Auerbach on how Christianity challenged the classical separation of styles, and with it the “paralysis of the human” that becalmed the Hellenic world. “From the end of the first century of the Imperial Age something sultry and oppressive appears, a darkening of the atmosphere of life,” he writes, and then he deploys Augustine’s story of his hyper-educated friend Alypius—a rational young nobleman swept away by the bloodlust of the amphitheater—to explain how redemption waits on the other side of faith in a future.

For in the fight against magical intoxication, Christianity commands other weapons than those of the rational and individualistic ideal of antique culture; it is, after all, itself a movement from the depths, from the depths of the multitude as from the depths of immediate emotion; it can fight the enemy with his own weapons. Its magic is no less a magic than is bloodlust, and it is stronger because it is more ordered, a more human magic, filled with more hope.

That’s my answer to T. J. Clark and all his fellow left-wing Hamlets. Socialism, like ancient Christianity and its criterion of need, is a matter of social relations, not something measurable only by the scope of the self-conscious political movements (or sectarian churches) that profess the cause. It comes “from the depths of the multitude as from the depths of immediate emotion,” and in this sense it’s the bass line or the backbeat of every story we can tell about our time. Its magic is no less a magic than the bloodlust of Ayn Rand, Paul Ryan, and their Alypius, the Manchurian candidate of the Republican Party, but it is stronger because it is a more ordered, more human magic, filled with more hope.

But are we winning just now, us socialists? Can we get up and dance to this tune, believe in this magic? Yes and no. We’ve won the culture wars and fundamentally transformed social relations since 1950. In the long run, the future is ours. Meanwhile, however, a powerful remnant of reaction has been using political means to stall progress toward social democracy, and, like the slaveholders of the 1850s and the segregationists of the 1950s and ’60s, it will win more battles than we would like.

The problem, in my view, is that too much of the Left remains hostage to bourgeois propriety—save for a rainy day, build character by working hard and expecting the appropriate reward, denounce consumer culture as the realm of feckless hedonism or the cause of environmental catastrophe, and meanwhile do the right thing. Any Left that hews to this line is doomed to failure, which is to say glad acceptance from and incorporation by the so-called neoliberal agenda.

But a definition? How’s this:

Socialism is both the antidote to and the complement of capitalism, because it realizes the possibilities residing and flowing from capitalism, particularly those legible in the decline of material deprivation and the reduction of socially necessary labor time determined by the corporate form of capitalism in the twentieth century. The most important of these possibilities is the fulfillment of the ancient criterion of need, “from each according” and so on. Socialism moves beyond the criterion of productivity perfected under capitalism, according to which the receipt of income must be determined by the creation of value through work; thus it enhances a distributive form of justice as against its commutative rival and forbear, without displacing this honorable elder by eliminating markets, prices, and contracts. In theory, then, socialism is the heir to liberalism, as Eduard Bernstein insisted, because it promotes the supremacy of society over the state. In practice, in history, of course, socialism has been more prodigal son than dutiful scion; but then capitalism and democracy have never been perfectly matched, either.

On the assumption that markets are trans-historical properties of human nature and essential components of equality in the modern epoch—David Graeber’s recent historical novel notwithstanding—socialism becomes a way of asserting the rights of persons over the rights of property rather than abolishing private property as such. Or, to put it in the terms proposed by Jane Addams, socialism becomes the means by which we transpose consent from the minor key of politics to the major key of society, thus turning a principle of political obligation into a social norm.

Socialism can’t be the name of the desire to abolish capitalism. But it can be the name of the imperfect, eminently possible world we need, and deserve.

-James Livingston

* Your distinction between the immediate and the long-term interests of the ruling class might give us a better grip on the deadly notion of “false consciousness” as it has been used by leftists to explain why the working class doesn’t behave as it should: historically speaking, working people, particularly in the United States, have been better able and willing to sacrifice short-term gain for their long-term interests as human beings, not just workers or producers.

** There’s a huge difference between these two social formations (as I have argued elsewhere to no avail). Bourgeois society is a trans-historical phenomenon based on a small-holder economy—it’s what C.B. Macpherson called a simple market society—whereas capitalism subsists on the destruction of that economy. So the presence of bourgeois social strata tells us nothing about the existence of capitalism: as the extremity of modern bourgeois society, the slave South stood athwart the development of capitalism in the nineteenth-century United States.

Image courtesy of Krytyka Polityczna

Wurgraft | University of California Press Lima