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BeyondMourningandMelancholyoftheLeft

BeyondMourningandMelancholyoftheLeft

byHelmutDubiel

Source: PRAXISInternational(PRAXISInternational),issue:3+4/1990,pages:242249,onwww.ceeol.com.
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RELECTIONS ON INTELLECTUALS AND THE EVENTS OF 1989

BEYOND MOURNING AND MELANCHOLY ON THE LEFT*


Helmut Dubiel
The reactions of the left-wing intelligentsia in West Germany to the unstoppable exit of 'empirical socialism' from the world stage conform to a pattern that invites psychoanalytical interpretation. On the one hand, the postmodern reaction, reflecting a presently erupting trend that sacrifices leftist identity altogether - admittedly the maintenance of which had been a matter of excessive exertion for some time. But in the process, it is not only dead weight that is being thrown overboard, but also the very passenger basket itself. Thus the affair might continue to have the appearance of flight. On the other hand we find those who have been beset by a fear of flying. Instead of pitilessly taking stock of a self-destructing reality, their first concern is preserving their own identity. They too are throwing off dead weight. But what characterizes them is the deliberate conscientiousness with which they are doing it. Scrupulously, they make a list of those political and intellectual stocks in the tradition that they want to know are secure against the downdraft caused by the tailspin of empirical socialism. As examples of each of these reactions one can cite for the first Cora Stephan's essay in Merkur, "Schmutziges Interesse? Spekulationen iiber das Menschenfreundliche am Eigennutz" (no. 493, March 1990), and for the second Oskar Negt's article, "Schadelstatte des Sozialismus: Anfang oder Ende der Utopie?" (Frankfurter Rundschau, 10 April, 1990). Cora Stephan sings the praises of a politics conducted in strict accordance with purely egocentric interests - so that we, who have been hearing this neoconservative song for years, find ourselves scared stiff of such a daring housecleaning. But perhaps Cora Stephan can be so daring because she, unlike masculine post-modernists, still disposes over a purple parachute. What a contrast to the good Oskar Negt, who lists with pastoral thoughtfulness all that which still warms the hearts and minds of us greying members of the sixties generation: the ideas of Bloch, the unification of Marxism and psychoanalysis, Benjamin's philosophy of history, Critical Theory! Why does he not point out that Critical Theory itself was the fruit of working through disillusionment over the failure of socialism? That is precisely the reason why it, least of all, can be understood as a timeless intellectual treasure upon which our political identity can rest forever. Manics and Melancholics It takes no prophetic gift to predict that a majority of the debates to be conducted in the coming years in the journals of the left will originate in
* This article first appeared in Merkur, No. 496 (Spring-Summer 1990), pp. 482--491.
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quarrels among these two camps. According to a suggestive typification introduced by Sigmund Freud in a 1915 text, "Mourning and Melancholy," one could designate the two forms of reaction sketched above with his respective concepts, manics and melancholics. In the context in which Freud introduces them, both designate unsuccessful forms of the work of mourning. With the concept of "the work of mourning" we associate the toil it costs us to withdraw libidinal energies from their links with a lost object. The manic failure of the work of mourning expresses itself for the subject through the fact that "there is ... a long-sustained condition of great mental expenditure, or one established by long force of habit, upon which at last some influence supervenes making it superfluous." A manic reaction comes from those who suddenly throw off a false position they have imposed upon themselves and endured for years. This unsuccessful form of the work of mourning represents for Freud a triumph of the unconscious, with the proviso that "what the ego has surmounted and is triumphing over remains hidden from it." It is otherwise with the melancholic. He fails to accomplish what the manic exaggerates, namely the detachment of libidinal energy from the loved object. Instead of undertaking a testing of reality, the frustrated ego withdraws into itself and secures what stocks it has on hand. For the psychoanalytic interpretation of melancholy this manoeuver is the proof that the choice of the lost object was founded in narcissism. But the images of mania and melancholy in reference to the condition of the work of mourning are not sharply separated. They border on each other in their extremes: melancholy often transforms itself into mania; the melancholy withdrawal of the ego onto itself comes to expression precisely in massive self-rejection. However they may be constituted, what interests us in these failed forms of the work of mourning is solely the positive ideal in which they are lacking. One could ask though why the question should be one of mourning in the first place, when the matter at hand is the relation of the non-communist left in the West to 'empirical socialism' in Eastern Europe? What does the one have to do with the other at all? Did not Western Marxism develop as a pitiless critique of Marxism-Leninism, which was misused as an ideology of domination? And, unlike the case of the literary intelligentsia, the number of fellow-travellers of totalitarian socialism within the social scientific community (in the Federal Republic of Germany) was negligible - a minority, representative only of poor individuals subjected to professional exclusion and who broke their own backs in their sacrificium intellectus. Does not, one could further query, the very suggestion of the present necessity of mourning amount to an identification with the conservative aggressor, who was never willing to recognize the differentiations central to our Western Marxist identity? What could be the occasion for us to make the generalizations, just as dominated by self-interest as they are vulgar, of a Johannes Gross or a Friedrich Karl Fromme the standard of our selfexamination? It is doubtless necessary to do away with such ideologically charged distortions. It is equally correct on another level that there certainly did exist for the West German (critical-theoretical) left-wing intelligentsia a back-

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ground relation to the fact of empirical socialism. And I have the impression that the "manic" and "melancholic" types of mourning so prevalent at present are the reaction, as Freud says, of one who very well knows "whom he has lost but not what it is he has lost" in the lost object. What we had to do with empirical socialism is related to the specific political and intellectual situation of the Federal Republic, as the post-fascist state located on the front between the two ideologically competitive world systems. The founding years of the Federal Republic were marked by such a virulent anti-communism that the latter dimmed even its adversaries' clarity of vision. The fundamental confrontation between a conservative anticommunism and a helpless "anti-anti-communism" on the part of leftists caused all political and moral criteria not already stamped in advance by the established structures of empirical socialism and empirical capitalism to pale. In the process, the critique of their own, like the apology for the other political system, was reduced on the left - and, with the terms reversed, among the conservatives - to a zero-sum game. Even in our day we come upon the absurd fear that a pitiless critique of former Eastern European social orders could slip into an apology for the elite democracies of the West. The political constraint of the Western German leftist intelligentsia that sprang from the constellation of anti-anti-communism was further supported by a theoretical perspective inherent to Critical Theory. Our conceptual orientation derived from the theory of "late captialism." Instructed by the old Critical Theory, indeed we - unlike the Marxist intelligentsia of the twenties - no longer believed in an end of the capitalist social order that could be anticipated in empirical terms. The point of our theory consisted precisely in the identification of the economic, political, and mass cultural strategies with which capitalism thwarts revolutionary attempts to transcend it. This perspective, inherent to the theories of fascism, of the welfare state's capacity to adjust, or of mass culture, made continued use of the end of capitalism only as a heuristic fiction, as a contra-factual assumption for purposes of the theoretical construction of empirical development in western societies. Of the political hope that this analytical finalism would sometime assume practical historical form there have not been in recent years even the weakest indications. Precisely for this reason it was important for the theory of late capitalism that there be - however unloved and rejected, nonetheless empirically existing - proof of the possibility of transcending capitalism. Nothing distinguished totalitarian socialism other than its sheer existence, other than the fact that it embodied the possibility that capitalism could be subject to a beyond. Only a consideration of the critical constraint derived from the anti-anticommunism of the West German leftist intelligentsia in the face of the totalitarian socialism along with the analytical finalism in the theory of late capitalism sketched above gives an appropriate understanding of the shortlived euphoria over the democratic revolutions in the East and, then, the ensuing depression. For that critical constraint and the analytical finalism crystallized into a wishful image of a "third way." The dreams of a third way were altogether oriented to the - not at all self-evident - suggestion that the

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path of a free society is shorter from the rubble of empirical socialism than it is through the labyrinth of the existing capitalist democracies. The circumstance that it was precisely the collapsing social order of the German Democratic Republic in the hot early winter of 1989 that catalyzed the dream of socialism rising from the ashes of totalitarianism with a human face might have instructed us as to what it was that we lost in it, in empirical socialism to return to Freud's formulation.

The Agenda of Mourning


That empirical socialism became the target for the projection of leftist hopes in the West just as it was disappearing proves that interpretational patterns still stored in the unconscious of many leftists had become linked to its mere existence. These patterns refer to the apparent seizure of the chance in the East to make a revolutionary exit once and for all from the nexus of capital. To take reflexive possession of these interpretational patterns could be the goal of the left's work of mourning. In a footnote to his essay, "Bindung, Fessel, Bremse,,,l Claus Offe supplies a few concise indications as to what the agenda of such a work of mourning might look like. On the basis of the sober insight that "the concept of 'socialism' ... is today (and not only since today) operationally empty," he sketches in abstractly compact form five aspects of a fundamental selfcritique of the left. According to Offe, we have to admit with pitiless consistency that, from a purely technical perspective, neither now nor in the foreseeable future does there exist a functional or tolerably efficient political organizational model of socialism. But even if there were such a functional model, there still do not exist the conditions necessary to bring it about which are practicable in socialtechnical terms and democratically acceptable. And even if there were such a model and the conditions of its achievement were not problematic, it would remain open what would have to happen with those parts of the population that were still not ready to follow us along the path into a post-capitalist state of affairs. But even if there were a functional political organizational model of socialism, and the conditions of its implementation were as unproblematic as its acceptance in democratic terms, we would still be lacking the certainty of a social state of affairs that was (also) proof against (wholly novel) forms of regression forever. And finally: even if a post-capitalist society were technically practicable, democratically accepted, and forever immune from novel forms of regression, there would remain for us the problematics of society's relation to nature and to gender difference - problematics for the conceptual and political overcoming of which the repertoire of the old socialism was not prepared. On each of these five points I want to comment. (1) Before the thoughts of Keynes took form in western economic policies, the subordination of the means of production to the centralized control of the state was the only fully elaborated political organizational option going by the name of socialism. This political organizational option has today - in complete contrast to the times of the world economic crisis at

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the beginning of the Weimar Republic - no mass movement behind it, no intellectuals of stature, and no politicians, in either the East or the West. After the experiences of the state socialist societies inside the sphere of Soviet domination, we have to admit that the model of a state-centralized command economy is in all aspects inferior to welfare state capitalism: in the average level of material and infrastructural provisions, in the degree of political control exerted over the problem of pollution, not to mention the relative security of human rights and the level of popular political participation. The more recent Western project of a social state compromise, with its characteristics of a growing public sector and cooperative arrangements between unions, state, and capital, is in no way discredited in a similar sense. The fundamental principles of this project have, for one thing, become such self-evident components of Western political culture that they represent no longer a genuine socialist project (if it ever was one). Second, the political project of a social state compromise has long since run up against the immanent limits of capitalist development. Given the possibilities of flexible personnel utilization opened up by the new key technologies, the flexible organization of production and labor; given the expansion of purely speculatively inspired financial cycles; given large budget deficits and the powerful integration of national economies in the world market, the Keynesian instruments of planning are no longer effective. The small minority that continues to sing the praises of demand management faces the task of furnishing the technical argumentation as to which new markets with what type of goods could capture which consumer strata - and any spurt of growth and employment comparable to that of the post-war period would have then to avoid an intensification of the ecological crisis. The catastrophic deficiencies of state socialist systems with regard to technical planning and democracy, and the vanished operational conditions of Keynesian regulation, have led to the dilemma that the classical carriers of socialist politics in western Europe are unable to oppose, either on the technical or on the normative-utopian level, a comprehensive and consistent alternative to the neo-conservative project of a "self-cleansing" of capitalism. Other aspects of an alternative economic-political strategy, like shortening the work week or introducing flexibility into the work day, guaranteed minimum income, etc., are at all events the first components of a new leftist organization of politics, which, however, continues to lack an organizational outline. (2) That we have no unified, economically operational, and ecologically tolerable model of a post-capitalist political organization at our disposal is, admittedly, only the first problem. Deeper in historical and theoretical terms is the problem of the transition, the transformation to a - however conceivedpost-capitalist state of affairs. Despite his well-known remarks on socialism as the transitional phase, Marx did not occupy himself with the problem of the transformation. The failure was neither accidental nor negligent, but a result of the image, on the level of the philosophy of history, he constructed of the end of capitalism. The relation between capitalism and post-capitalism, or

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communism, corresponded to the relation between necessity and freedom. Between the two states of affairs there is in a strict sense no transition, but only a revolutionary break. To the utopian promise of a society of free producers, material surplus, and fully transparent social relations are opposed with no mediation the alienated relations of a society still mired in the private appropriation of social surplus value. Through this historical philosophical lens, capitalism appears as the potential of material and cultural wealth shackled by domination, which can be freed only through a revolutionary act. The transition to a post- or non-capitalist state of affairs is not conceived as an open process of learning, during the course of which not only the means, but also the goal of the revolutionary struggle is subject to revision. Revolution is solely the flat realization of the state of affairs aimed at in historical philosophical preconceptions, in which an enlightened avant garde and a collection of experts exercise judgment as to the appropriate instrumental standards. This understanding of revolution, still widespread in the unconscious of many leftists, who denounce all political activity this side of the threshold of a revolutionary break as mere "modernization," as "conformity to the changed necessities of domination," etc., is a heritage of that historical philosophical denial of the transformation problem. (3) Andrzej Szczypiorski tells the story of a Polish teacher and activist who attempted to make the communist utopia appetizing to his pupils by saying that there would then be currant pudding for everyone. A pupil objected that he didn't like currant pudding. "After the revolution you will like it," was the reply. This story caricatures an authoritarian universalism that many leftists, knowingly or not, have internalized. This authoritarian universalism was blind in both eyes. It was blind to the complex motivational economy of actual individuals, in whom particularistic, that is egotistical and traditional, impulses are often so opaqu~ly mixed with universal ones that any test of rationality administered from an abstract point of view gets nowhere. From the beginnings of the Frankfurt School, through Gramsci and all the way to the current theory of populism, Marxism has labored with the problem that the masses continually act differently than the universalist morality imputed to them demands. And this authoritarian universalism was also blind to the genuinely modern phenomenon of an unsurpassable plurality of interest and value orientations, of religions, worldviews, cultures, and ways of life. We the great-grandchildren of the Enlightenment have only truly comprehended very recently that every theoretical and practical political attempt to level out this plurality through colonization or assimilation destroys the substance of these ways of life. A socialist project can only have a future as a democratic one, for all fundamental political intentions to change must not only not inspire resistance in the hearts and minds of actual people, but must find agreement there. (4) The aged totalitarian socialism that is now leaving the historical stage was born before the "dialectic of enlightenment" was grasped. That the preceptors of the revolution could themselves develop into a despotic and parasitical class, that the command economy, for its part, could lead to

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monstrous irrationalities and become a fetter on social wealth, that the unfettering of the productive forces would lead to devastating environmental catastrophes, that the abolition of bourgeois rights and forms of domination could end in a new totalitarianism, that the high culture of Marxist critique could develop into an intellectually deadening scholasticism - none of this was foreseen by those who struggled for the realization of that socialism. In their early enlightenment optimism they were blind to the danger that their socialism would merely add a new chapter to the dialectic of enlightenment. We, on the other hand, can no longer believe that humanity only poses itself problems that it can also solve. At every stage of social development we consider the risk to civilization of regression. The future-oriented trust in a merely correct and just administration of the development of the productive forces, which characterized the "old" socialism, has been replaced, precisely among leftists in the West, by struggles for the defense, and the preservation of the assets of nature or civilization now being threatened. The secret of such a politics was clad by WaIter Benjamin in the image of angels who immediately perish when they cease to sing. This image opens the eyes of the ever-present vulnerability of a hard-won status quo, of the fact that the "balance of the tolerable" (Jiirgen Habermas) occasionally achieved, is the accomplishment of social actors, who, in their hopes for progress, could rely only upon themselves. (5) In the Marxist explanation of society, the organization of sociallabor occupied an absolute monopoly position. The potential both for maintaining domination and for emancipation was located in the sphere of industrial labour. The objectively determinate force of industrial labour has not lessened in the course of the twentieth century, but in the subjective dimension of social self-construction its monopoly has been relativized. Not only in social scientists' diagnostic analyses of periods, but also in the articulated consciousness of social movements, in electoral decisions, and in demoscopically researched attitudes, other problem complexes have taken their place beside it. The public politicization of society's relation to nature and of the hierarchical treatment of gender differences might be historically recent phenomena, but the problem dimensions they call up not only run counter to the social question, but lie deeper anthropologically and historically as well. In the ecological question the relation of the species to the nature that surrounds it is addressed beyond all internal differentiations of society in the form of classes. In the politicization of the one-sided treatment of gender difference it is a matter of a critique of domination founded in the intimate structures of the gender-specific division of labour. The practical political spelling out of this subjectively "new" problem complex has already led to a constellation of conflicts, to alliances and political identities, whichmeasured according to the normal image of distribution conflicts - are radically new. The forms of domination, the crisis scenarios, the institutional amelioration strategies, and the understanding of politics altogether will change in the course of the dramatization of these problems. In an interview with L'Espresso regarding the programmatic reorientation of Italian communism, Norberto Bobbio recently remarked that the theory of the

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revolution in everyday relations being conducted by women in the Western monopolies has not even been written yet.
Empirical Capitalism

That we have at our disposal no alternative candidate for a comprehensive socialist political organization, that the transformation to a non-capitalist state of affairs can no longer be conceived in the image of a revolutionary break, that any restructuring of society will have to be accepted by people who are complexly motivated and pluralistically oriented, that there is no meta-political insurance against civilizational regressions, and that the issues of society's relation to nature and gender differences have an independent dimension - these points belong to the lesson leftists must truly have internalized if their imaginations are to become free once again for a new project. The constellation of such a project cannot be described at present without irony. What we are experiencing is precisely not the collapse of capitalism, but of a social order that alleged itself to have overcome the former once and for all through revolution. More likely to be practiced in pacing off theoretically the stages of a capitalist order destined to be overcome, we are confronted today with two grim tasks: we are supposed to understand the transformation of a totalitarian state socialism into a liberal democracy based on a market economy; and we must enter into a new, precisely nonfinalistic relationship with empirically existing capitalism. The worldwide choir of conservatives is now striking up the euphoric song of the "end of history". It is seconded by the mournful tune of a pessimistic left, which believes that now - following the irrealization of the old socialism - the internal and external and thorough capitalization of the world can proceed without any resistance. I am not persuaded by this assessment. I have much more the impression that the misery that capitalism produces the unequal distribution of life opportunities within and between societies and continents, the notorious vulnerability of its economic development of crisis, the shirking of the consequences of production onto the natural environment, the cultural levelling of variations in modern styles of life - can only be effectively mobilized for politics when the radical critique of this misery rids itself once and for all of the freight of its mortgage to totalitarian socialism. The simple mistake underlying the conservative scenarios of jubilation and the corresponding images of horror on the part of the left is that of an unhistorical conception of capitalism. For capitalism, which seems now to have the world lying at its feet, is not an order identical with itself. It can be defined only by its unique historical capacity for change, by its capacity celebrated by Marx in the Manifesto - ceaselessly to revolutionize the conditions of its own existence. Orthodox political economists, whether of Marxist or liberal provenance, like to affirm a "logical" core in this history processing capitalist mode of production. According to their respective weightings, they localize in it the right of private property, wage labor,

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production mediated by the market, or the separation of the producers from the means of production. Clearly the context, in terms of economic policy, the sociology of classes, and the requirements of legitimation in which these in fact constitutive features of capitalism are imbedded, is so radically different from the context of its historical inception that there can scarcely any longer be a question of an invariant core of the capitalist order that is subject to unambiguous isolation from the historical dimension of its development. Those who depart dogmatically from the premise that the capitalist system has the sovereignty always to prescribe the conditions of its changes fail to appreciate the extent to which it found it necessary in the course of its historical development to incorporate into itself aspects of a socialist critique. In capitalist societies, in which half of all the economic profits realized are mediated by the state, in which the majority of elites in the public and private sector are oriented according to the imperatives of a functional rationality, and in which the legitimatory aspect of private property has been weakened in favor of democratic control, it becomes less and less possible to contrast an "economic" core with the power to determine the structure to a "political"" margin. Correspondingly inadmissable is a "surgical"" understanding of revolution, permanently secure in the knowledge of what key economic mechanism has to be removed to organize the political body along fundamentally new lines. Such different Marxist theorists as Otto Bauer" Antonio Gramsci, and Franz Neumann proposed more than a half century ago that state-mediated capitalism not be conceptualized as a homogenous territory under enemy occupation, but as a moving field of compromise between various classes and groups contending for predominance by way of appeal to the norms of the bourgeois constitutional state. Antonio Gramsci made this interpretation into the basis of a socialist strategy that undermined the distinction between reform and revolution. He makes clear that in a developed, politically mediated capitalist society, the revolutionary goal can no longer consist in the conquest of the command centers of the state. With the misleading metaphor of a "war of position, '" he characterized the "cultural revolutionary'" project as a focusing and intensification of those emancipatory potentials in society not yet shut down by the capitalist spirit. "Civil society" was for him the epitome of that ensemble of moral, cultural, and institutional potencies that make it possible to check the destructive dynamic of capitalism. Such a strategy no longer anticipates the outright end of a capitalist order identical with itself, but fortifies the democratic, the social state, and the ecological buttresses contained within it. And in the place of those final fictions enters the possibility, not by any means ruled out historically, of civilizing capitalism to the point that it is no longer recognizable.
Translated by Don Reneau NOTES 1. In Axel Honneth. et al. (eds.). Zwischenbetrachtungen im Prozess der Aufkliirung (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1989) (English translation of this volume which is a Festschrift for Jiirgen Habermas is forthcoming from MIT Press).