Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The birth of public opinion out of the death of the Little Tradition

In Engel’s introduction to his The Situation of Labor in England, he gives a brief history of the displacement of the old, ‘detached’ rural farming and artisan system brought about by the new system of industrial production:

“The felt comfortable in their quiet plant life, and would never, save for the Industrial revolution, have been taken out of this clearly very romantic-cosy, but yet, for humans, unworthy existence. They were not humans, but simply working machines in the service of the few aristocrats, which up until now have lead history. The Industrial Revolution has thus only carried through the consequence of this when it made the laborers completely into a mere machines and took away the last remnant of independent activity from under their hands; but in doing so drove them to thinking and to the claims of a human situation. What politics effected in France, in England was effected by industry and the movement of bourgeois society overall; it pulled the last classes to be mired in the apathy against universal human interests into the vortex of history.”

Engels had already explained to his readers in the foreword what he means by the bourgeois: 

“…I always used the word Middle Class in the sense of the English middle-class (or as it is almost always said, middle classes) where it means the same as with the French bourgeoisie the possessing class – the class, which in France and England directly, and in Germany as “public opinion” indirectly is in possession of state power.” 

That is a pretty fascinating definition of class, linking it both to economic power and the power of the state even if – in backwards Germany – that power is possessed not by representatives, but by ‘public opinion’. The latter – the power of public opinion – is what fascinates me about the conflicts between ‘freedom’ and ‘the emancipation of the working class’. What, after all, does it mean for the workers to be uprooted from shameful apathy and thrown into the ‘vortex of history’ where they could think about the claims of the human situation except that the working class would have, among other things, an opinion? 

This is the question that became very real to the generation of 1848 after the revolution failed. Herzen’s whole life has often been seen from the perspective of a before and after 1848 – he himself often wrote in those terms. Isaiah Berlin has noted that Herzen’s skepticism – about the people, and especially about progress – preceded the events of 1848. It is a shame that Berlin never really grappled with Lenin’s essay on Herzen, because Lenin makes an acute historical point:

Herzen's spiritual shipwreck, the profound scepticism and pessimism to which he fell prey after 1848, was the shipwreck of the bourgeois illusions of socialism. Herzen's spiritual drama was a product and reflection of that epoch in world history when the revolutionariness of the bourgeois democracy was already passing away (in Europe), and the revolutionariness of the socialist proletariat had not yet ripened. This is something the Russian liberal knights of verbal incontinence, who are now trying to cover up their own counter-revolutionariness by florid phrases about Herzen's scepticism, have not understood and cannot understand. With these knights, who betrayed the Russian Revolution of 1905, and have even forgotten to think of the great calling of a revolutionary, scepticism is a form of transition from democracy to liberalism to that servile, vile, infamous and brutal liberalism which shot down the workers in 1848, restored shattered thrones, applauded Napoleon III and which Herzen cursed, unable to understand its class nature.

Lenin’s notion was that bourgeois skepticism targeted the supposed incapacity of the working class to enjoy the cultural gains of progress. Ripped from their apathy, as Engels puts it, their minds were concentrated by their conditions on the material facts of life, making them great sniffers out of the web of self interest that underlies the industrial system, but contemptuous of the culture of the rentiers of that system. In Tom Stoppard’s Coast of Utopia, this is exactly how Herzen is portrayed:

“Being proved wrong has made them [the revolutionaries] cocky. They’re more certain than ever that the people are natural republicans waiting to be lead out of bondage. But the people are more interested in potatoes than freedom. The people think equality means everyone should be oppressed equally. They love authority. They’re suspicious of talent. They want a government to govern for them and not against them. To govern themselves doesn’t enter their heads. We thought we could educate the people like a horse doctor blowing a pill into a horse. We thought we could set the pace for social change. The emperors did more than keep their thrones, they pushed our faces into the wreck of our belief in the revolutionary instincts of the people.”

The luster and luxury of disillusionment – it has a standing, in the cold war mythology, with the metanoia of Saul in sacred history, except that it is conversion to the God that failed. There is an impulse in Herzen, embodied especially in the middle dialog in From the other shore, between a doctor and his lady companion before the house in which Rousseau wrote... something, which is full of phrases about the precarious civilization of people such as him and her, in the face of the inscrutable masses. Yet Stoppard, oddly for a dramatist, misses the form that Herzen has chosen - dialogue. Of course, there are dialogues in which one viewpoint is clearly the right one, dialogues in which the other is a projection of an obstacle more than a point of view. But Herzen didn't write one of those. He wrote dialog not because he wanted to represent himself in one speaker who cleverly undoes another, but because he felt the clash in himself of views. This, actually, is the liberal intellectual’s highest form of skepticism – the refusal to pretend that the clash has an easy resolution. Like Engels and Marx, Herzen was definitely one of the Ultras in 1848 – and like those two, he wasn’t stupid about it. But he didn’t quite have Marx’s moderation – for Marx was strongly of the opinion that the task at hand was democratic government, at least in Germany and Austria. 

Stoppard’s picture of Herzen the sceptic is, as has been mentioned in many reviews, a bit too reliant on Berlin's picture of Herzen as the disenchanted liberal, kin to John Stuart Mill. Herzen doesn't see some elite, some cultured margin, as separate from and higher than the people and their potatoes. In reality, he was shrewder than this. In his letters to an old comrade [Bakunin] which have been used to make the case that Herzen turned to the right at the end - they were written in the late 1860s - he writes this:

“It is this pattern that the past, which we want now to leave behind, has followed. The forms, aspects, and rites have changed but the essence has remained the same. He who bowed his head before a Capuchin friar bearing a cross is no different from the man who bows his head to a court decision no matter how absurd it is.”

The man who bows his head to the court decision is, of course, the establishment liberal par excellence. He is bowing his head to his own system. It is only in seeing Herzen’s criticisms as total, directed not just at the people but at European society in general, that one understands how the sceptic and the revolutionary were joined.

No comments: