Faithful Marxist Preaches; Nation’s Shareholders Shrug

For Norman Birnbaum, capitalism is all stick, no carrot.

After Progress: American Social Reform and European Socialism in the Twentieth Century , by Norman Birnbaum. Oxford University Press, 432 pages, $35.

The “socialism” Norman Birnbaum extols in After Progress is what most Americans would call communism. Mr. Birnbaum, Georgetown University law pro- fessor and founding editor of the New Left Review, distinguishes between “a socialism of ideals and a socialism of material gains.” The latter may have triumphed through the European welfare states and the American New Deal, to the extent that it is now a near-universal ideology in the advanced world. But “idealistic” socialism the toppling of monopoly capital, the reconfiguration of society from top to bottom, the “religion of redemption” is what fires Mr. Birnbaum’s imagination. Such socialism has been repudiated by all the world’s peoples in the last two decades, and globalization has raised the question of whether it would be practicable even if people wanted it. To Mr. Birnbaum, these are merely “contemporary forms of recurrent dilemmas.” Revolutionary utopianism will be back, he thinks, if only because the Western world is so hopelessly screwed up.

Mr. Birnbaum stands Dr. Pangloss on his head: Nothing satisfies him. The “primary problem remains the domination of capital,” and despite appearances the 20th century has been one long story of defeat at capital’s hands. In France and Austria, socialist governments may have brought higher living standards, but these have led to “a renunciation of ideological rigor.” (Such rigor being self-evidently a good thing.) Germany’s postwar stability which brought with it the world’s highest wages “had its price: an obvious public reluctance to consider large-scale projects of reform.” (Yeah, those “large-scale projects” that everyone has always wanted from Germany.) In America, the rhetoric of a “nation of shareholders” is “absurdly exaggerated. Less than 50 percent of households have holdings in the stock market.” (A mere quintupling from 35 years ago.) And everywhere, the information economy threatens “work as the deepening of learned technique … as changes in production demand frequent relearning.” (Apparently, after decades of deploring the dehumanization of industrial work, the left has come to deplore our liberation from it.) The welfare state beats unbridled capitalism, Mr. Birnbaum says, but it “most definitely does not extend to a coherent emancipatory project.”

For Mr. Birnbaum, the great enemies of the coherent emancipatory project have been American politicians of both parties. Starting with Harry S. Truman, who bore an “implacable hostility to the Soviet Union,” there has been no dark design of which Mr. Birnbaum believes the American power structure incapable. Even that juggernaut Senator Joseph McCarthy was “eliminated” by Republican elites, “lest his demagoguery threaten the elite itself.” Mr. Birnbaum speculates that John F. Kennedy was murdered for envisioning coexistence with the USSR in a June 1963 speech. (“To what extent that speech may have occasioned a plot against his life is an open question.”) Jimmy Carter is taken to task for admitting the ex-Shah to the U.S., an action that “provoked” (Mr. Birnbaum’s word) the “occupation” of the U.S. Embassy in Teheran.

Soviet Russia, by contrast, appears to have acquired its Gulag in a fit of absentmindedness. Mr. Birnbaum accuses Brezhnev only of “ineptitude” in crushing the Prague Spring. (His skepticism in the face of American propaganda is matched by his credulity in the face of Russian propaganda: “The handful who protested in Red Square against the invasion of Czechoslovakia,” he writes, “were attacked not by police, in the first instance, but by ordinary Soviet citizens.”) The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was merely a “moment of abysmal imperial judgment.” Anyhow, repression under Brezhnev was “increasingly ritualized, an implicit acknowledgment of the increasing ideological importance of alternatives.” What a consolation.

Mr. Birnbaum, in other words, is an ideological hard guy, a real egg-breaker-and-omelet-maker, deploring “the compulsive celebration of a sterile liberalism by many traumatized by the historical conjuncture of fascism and Stalinism.” (Those wussies.) His idiom is an underground intellectualese that has not been heard, except in parody, for decades: America as a “plebiscitary democracy of consumption,” the Third World as battling “metropolitan chauv inism,” and so on to the “American police state” and “capital’s intellectual agents in the media.”

To be sure, Mr. Birnbaum proclaims his outrage at the crimes of Stalinism, and rues the obedience of French and American Communists to Moscow. He sees that Castro, Ho Chi Minh and Mao created “new systems of oppression.” His heroes are those who, like the Italian Communist Enrico Berlinguer, balked at doing the Soviets’ bidding. But Mr. Birnbaum’s anti-Stalinism is of a rather nuanced kind. He is so desperate for a big, authoritarian politics of “solidarity” that he is willing to risk Stalinism (and fascism) to get it. If he considers the Nazi-Soviet pact “devastating,” it is not least because it spurred American conservatives to roll back Communism at home.

For Mr. Birnbaum, capitalism is all stick, no carrot. Its “inexhaustible powers of resistance” frustrate him. But it’s never quite obvious what Mr. Birnbaum thinks capitalism is, or what he dislikes about it. At times, he means the entire system of liberalism, with its emphasis on property rights and individual autonomy. His ridicule of Isaiah Berlin’s ideas of liberty and Tony Blair’s is a frontal attack of the sort few leftists were willing to make back when the USSR was a going concern.

At times, however, Mr. Birnbaum uses capitalism to mean something even larger. “For a century and a half,” he writes, “the movement inspired by Marx had sought a profound transformation of human nature and society by transcending the market only to be defeated time and time again by chauvinism, ignorance, possessiveness and servility.” In other words, by human nature itself. As long as everyone votes for that other kind of socialism the kind with the 35-hour week, the seven-week vacation, the health plan and the COLA Mr. Birnbaum’s kind of socialism will never be freely chosen, only installed through coercion and murder. So Mr. Birnbaum is left at the same impasse as all utopian radicals: cursing mankind for its barbarism and frailty.

In the end, it’s hard to say just what After Progress is about. Though his subject is broad, Mr. Birnbaum’s field of vision is stiflingly narrow: He discusses F.D.R., Mitterrand and Mr. Blair as leaders of their parties, not of their nations, and World War II for its impact on class “solidarity,” not for its reshaping of both Europe and the Western moral universe. A klutzy prose (“constern” as a verb), mangled clichés (“the Gordonian knot”) and repetitions make this march through the institutions a very long one.

The central problem, though, is that Mr. Birnbaum is an atavist, still applying the Marxist classics to the problems of heavy industry as they existed 45 years ago. The persistent failure, in the global age, of Mr. Birnbaum’s favorites Michel Rocard in France, Oskar Lafontaine in Germany, Jesse Jackson in the United States makes his proposition that there are no new challenges to socialism less and less tenable. Unlike Eric Hobsbawm, whose world view his much resembles, Mr. Birnbaum has not adjusted his politics to embrace the new actors and issues of the last decade environmentalists, multiculturalists, feminists. He knows they’re out there, but distrusts them all as pleaders for crumbs from an untransformed power structure. Even the 1960′s are not quite on Mr. Birnbaum’s radar screen, and he remains bewildered that the New Left didn’t try harder to make common cause with the American union movement even a quarter century after All in the Family turned Joe-Sixpack-meets-the-nuclear-freeze-activist into a comic cliché.

Mr. Birnbaum is an elegant thinker, a man of erudition, at home in many European cultures. He is aware that his kind of “socialism” failed because it “presupposed the kind of human nature it was intended to make possible.” At a certain level, he knows history has passed his movement by. So how does he continue to hold out hopes for it?

Because Mr. Birnbaum is a sort of religious fanatic. He has long been fascinated by parallels between the “solidarity” practiced by certain Christian churches and the social cohesion revolutionaries envisioned. “Socialism at its beginnings and for much of its history,” he writes, “was a secular religion.” Utopian is for Mr. Birnbaum a term of praise, since utopias provide “a standard against which redemptive measures in an unredeemed world may be judged.” (So, of course, did the Spanish Inquisition.) Radicalism’s failure and Mr. Birnbaum’s abiding faith in it thus have the same source: The less intelligible the revolutionary socialist project to non-communicants, the less redeemed the world. The less redeemed the world, the louder the men of faith holler in the desert.

Christopher Caldwell is senior writer at The Weekly Standard and a columnist for the New York Press.