One of the most moving documents from the history of the Left is Karl Liebknecht’s article, Trotz alledem!, “Despite It All!”, published in Berlin in the newspaper of the Spartacist League on January 15, 1919—the very day on which Liebknecht was murdered by right-wing soldiers acting in support of the Social-Democratic government of Germany. We have lost, Liebknecht wrote: “The revolutionary workers of Berlin have been defeated.” It was important to be clear about this, and to understand how and why it happened. But Liebknecht’s last words insisted that this was not the end of history: “We have not fled yet, we are not defeated for good.”
He expected “the clatter of the imminent economic collapse” to “awaken the sections of the proletariat that are still asleep” and rouse them to revolutionary action. The economic collapse indeed came—about this the Marxists were right—and in various parts of the world sections of the proletariat were roused from political slumber. But the numbers were small and the grip of sleep was strong. The Great Depression ultimately opened the way not to world revolution but to world war. Depression and war together laid the foundation for a new revival of the capitalist economy, which finally succeeded by the start of the 21st century and is becoming the dominant social structure of the world.
Yet, once again, history did not come to an end. Capitalism triumphant seems mired in stagnation, producing a series of financial crises of varying severity while the growing unemployment and immiseration of the global working class testify to a long-term slowdown in capital investment. At the same time, the ecological results of the accumulation of capital since the 18th century can no longer be overlooked; the economic costs of climate change are dwarfed by the direct human effects of drought and flooding, in a society where serious social and political issues can still only be dealt with through war and police violence.
It is hardly surprising that, as Axel Honneth observes in his book, The Idea of Socialism,
discontent with the current socio-economic state of affairs, with contemporary economic and social conditions, has increased enormously in recent years. More than ever in the post-war era, people are outraged at the social and political consequences unleashed by the global liberalization of the capitalist market economy. On the other hand, this widespread discontent has remained oddly mute and introverted, giving the impression that it simply lacks the capacity to think beyond the present and imagine a society beyond capitalism.
As Honneth points out, the “disconnect between this outrage and any notion about the future ... is a novel phenomenon in the history of modern societies.”1 From the very beginnings of the capitalist system, in the upheaval of the English agrarian economy that produced Gerrard Winstanley’s True Levellers, through the demands for radical equality provoked among the laboring classes by the French Revolution, to the myriad workers’ movements that emerged as industrial capitalism took hold in the 19th century and the revolutionary responses to World War I, the idea of a future social system in which the evils of the present would not emerge was central to oppositional social thought. It is a peculiarity of our moment that dystopias seem to have a surer grip on the popular imagination than utopias.
The story of the extinction of the ideal that went by such names as socialism, communism, and anarchism is a complex one, involving the physical and social destruction of left-wing movements and the transformation of Communism into a support apparatus for the Bolshevik state dictatorship, along with the progressive normalization of the capitalist mode of life as the upheavals of its violent birth moved into the past. But even without fully understanding it, this extinction is an important datum for understanding our present and future, suggesting the pointlessness of attempts to revive ideologies and organizations of the past.
This does not mean that nothing is to be learned from history. Contemporary society remains capitalist, sharing basic features with earlier avatars of this system of social relations. But institutional forms like trade unions and political parties, which had important parts to play in the earlier development of the system, seem to have lost those functions. Meanwhile, even such fundamental categories of social description as that of the “working class”—all those who can live only by the sale of their labor power—must be rethought in a period where the actual production of goods requires a declining proportion of the world’s wage-earning population and has been complexly reconfigured on international as well as national lines.
The tasks of understanding contemporary capitalism and rethinking its abolition are daunting ones. But the basic fact—despite it all!—is that enunciated elegantly by Lewis H. Lapham, reflecting on thinktank-crafted musings:
The intimations of mortality lurking in the depths of the policy papers lead in turn to the recognition of the capitalist economy as a historical construct, and therefore ... [a] story with a beginning (in late sixteenth-century Holland, a middle (the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century industrial revolutions in England and America), and an end foreshadowed by the financial convulsions of the past twenty years at all points on the compass of the international commodity markets. Sensing the approach of maybe something terrible slouching toward Wall Street to be born, the guardians at the gate look for salvation to technologies as yet undreamed of by man or machine. My guess is that they’re looking in the wrong direction.2
The point is well taken: salvation, if there is to be any, will come not from A.I. but from human intelligence, put to the task of remaking everyday life into something worthy of conscious beings. If it is true that only a few—too few to matter much—are now thinking in these terms, that is no reason for them not to do their best. It is also true that the future does not look promising, in light of the evils of the present. At the same time, our future is as opaque to us as the 20th century was to the revolutionaries of the late 1800s and early 1900s who were sure that socialism was on the horizon. In our time it is that opacity that makes room for the trotz alledem! animating a new series of articles in Field Notes, to which I have given the title, “Thinking About Communism.” I hope Gabriel Kuhn’s essay will inspire others to contribute writing, on the assumption that it is more important today than ever to imagine and debate the shape of post-capitalist society.
- A. Honneth, The Idea of Socialism (Cambridge: Polity,2017), p. 1.
- L. H. Lapham, Age Of Folly. America Abandons Its Democracy (London: Verso, 2017), pp. 368-9