Continuing with Tom’s notes…
Gramsci describes as a cultural revolution the period ushered in by the Renaissance and the Reformation. I’d not previously thought of these events, or movements, as cultural revolutions before, but he was right. They sounded the death knell of medievalism and it is worth remembering that the war was protracted, often bloody and characterised by what we have come to realise as historical transformations with their obligatory twists and turns. (This latter point should serve to reassure.)
It was from this cultural revolution that the modern individual arose.
There was a Cultural Revolution (CR) in Europe and it was accompanied by political struggle, war and revolution. It ushered in the modern era. Because of poor historical and theoretical understandings we are content to think that a CR is something that is launched – as it was by Mao in China. Communists in power will indeed launch GPCRs – its surely part of the job description, part of the deal in waging revolution. It is a conscious attempt to push things forward. Prior to this CRs were not prescribed or consciously directed and were more like a dogs breakfast (could do with a better description). They moved forward in fits and starts, often suffering defeats and being impossible to distinguish from the political and social turmoil that spewed it up. A slow moving but unstoppable tsunami, creeping forward here, being held back there, leaving untouched some remnants and swallowing up others. One way of reading Christopher Hill’s histories is through a cultural lens.
From the times of the English Revolution the big bourgeoisie in Britain only recognised a political personality, an individual, if they had property. This itself was clearly reflected in the franchise which, at the time of the revolution, was given to only about 3% of the population, a situation that changed only very slowly due to a franchise version of ‘bracket creep’ rather than reform. Gramsci makes this point regarding recognition in relation to the Catholic Church (no doubt he was right) but my thinking took me to the English Revolution and the rise of the capitalist class in Europe generally. The point is that a person is not worthy in their own sake, but only insofar as one is accompanied by wealth and the power implicit in wealth. The masses (and many pejorative terms exist to describe them) are the counterpoint to the valued, wealthy man of property and they arouse disdain and a strange mixture of indifference and fear. So long as they have no power and are accepting of this, it is the former; when they cease to accept their proscribed role and seek redress, it is the latter.
The primitivist appeal to the state of nature made during the revolution’s century saw man as a rational but isolated, atomized individual, set free from society. The appeal to the individual conscience, the religion of the heart, was ultimately an appeal to changing social norms. (Hill, Change and Continuity in 17th C England p 116). This too is the appeal of Locke’s tabula rasa.
Reactions to the French Revolution and their implications for individuality.
1. “… Semblance, I assert, must actually not divorce itself from Reality. If semblance do – why then, there must be men found to rebel against Semblance, for it has become a lie.” Carlyle, “The French Revolution.”
Marshall Berman’s page on this raises the matter stated by Marx that the dominant ideas of any epoch are those of the ruling class ->
xxxi Burke saw in 1790, before the revolution’s direction was clear, that the Enlightenment – the multitude of “ sophisters, economists and calculators”, had seized the initiative and “extinguished forever” “the glory of Europe”.
“All the pleasing illusions which made power gentle and obedience liberal, which harmonised the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics all the sentiments that beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by the new conquering empire of light and reason. All decent drapery of life is to be torn off …”
Beautifully written tripe and an admission that the ”whole social system of Europe was essentially a system of lies.” The artifices of ruling class life and the ideological justifications of it were laid bare. Once again the emperor had no clothes – but this time they had been torn off. Semblance had not only become a lie, it had been seen to become so.
This masquerade, as Berman calls it, may well have been subtle for its beneficiaries (here straight jacketing the self expression of those within it) but it was hardly subtle for the peasants or the emerging proletarians. In Britain it was brutal (the Industrial Revolution) although Burke’s prose applies equally to the draperies employed by the capitalist ruling class in Britain as it did for the decadent feudal ones of Europe.
THE EMERGING INDIVIDUAL
a) in England – the role of Puritanism
Hill makes the point that the transition from tribal to village society involved a shift from kinship (blood bond) to neighbourhood – ie, tribalism to feudalism; and that the transition from parish to sect was a shift from local community to voluntary organisation.
Voluntary organisation cannot occur to any significant degree without the existence of self motivated individuals. Today this is everywhere around us. If we exclude work from our reckoning (it is a necessity and as such limits the ground in which voluntary organisation can operate) we see a plethora of activities, clubs, associations and the like which people engage in freely. It covers all classes, ages and tastes and could not occur without freely choosing individuals, all taking responsibility for fulfilling certain of their needs.
The communist movement has struggled with this aspect, that is, the ‘free’ aspect of the individual. A difficulty I see is that the free individual, as he/she emerged from the medieval quagmire, has been associated with the development of capitalism. In other words the free individual has more than likely been one of the ‘industrious sort’ so central and instrumental in the development of capitalism, in England especially (Tawney’s depiction makes this connection a defining characteristic). Bourgeois individualism has ‘form’ and communist movements have rightly identified these social elements (and the economic relations which generate them) as self serving and willing (and needing, more to the point) to exploit others.
This aspect of the individual’s development, while true, is also one sided. And it’s with the other side that we have had trouble understanding, coming to terms with and more importantly, relating to. Berman, in ‘The Politics of Authenticity’ and ‘All That is Solid…’ has, I think, attempted to correct this by focusing on the other side, that which deals with the emergence of the individual due to the development of modernity.
From a different discipline so too has the English Marxist historian Christopher Hill. One of Hill’s great contributions has been his determination to track and expose the development of both sides or aspects of the individual’s development in England from the 16th to the 18th centuries. That is, the individuals connection to bourgeois economic and social development, the aspect that has ‘form’, and the individuals development caused by modernity (although I cannot recall him using that term).
The Levellers wanted to extend voting rights to all adult men with a proprietary stake in the realm. While limited re today’s understanding, this demand was radical and aimed against their class enemy. The bourgeoisie, for its part, successfully sought to deny the common people this right. What is significant about this struggle is that it indicates that two streams of individuality/individualism had emerged – one was that of the bourgeoisie proper and the other that of the common people, the latter being led at this historical stage by the Levellers. (Paine’s ‘Rights of Man’ represent the logical development of the Levellers position.) This latter represents the historical tradition that we need to identify with. Its development took, what we could call, petty bourgeois and proletarian directions; Paine on the one side, Marx on the other. Figures like Goethe and Shelley sit somewhere in between, but much closer to Marx, I think.
Capitalism and modernity are not the same. Each has developed together and each has, within itself, contained the possibility of the other. This is best seen and summed up in the “all that is solid melts into air’” aspect, the dynamism, that is common to both.
By the early 19th C it was becoming possible to clearly distinguish between the two and to see that the development of one frustrated, distorted and held up the development of the other. Marx’s writings were very much concerned with this distinction; indeed he and Engels were key figures in making it. In effect they were saying: I like this part, the dynamism, the restlessness, the urge to develop, which in turn enables the individual to develop; but not this part, the tying of labour in perpetuity to market relations and the exploitation and alienation that goes with this. Marx and Engels spent most of their lives demonstrating that capitalist economic and social development will materially create the conditions where it can be superseded. Where, iow, (in other words) modernity can be fully transformed and shed itself of its capitalist aspect.
b) The 18th C Enlightenment
‘To be authentic, authentically “oneself”, is to see critically through the forces that twist and constrict our being and to strive to overcome them” In this sense we see Burke as not authentic, just true to his class (see comments on Burke’s take on the French Rev).
We are affected ourselves by the twistings and constrictions as we do this. We may move toward authenticity through willingly taking on (or perhaps even maintaining) other twistings as we identify and seek to overcome or overthrow the main source of that which twists and constricts us. (This needs some thinking through).
The notion of virtue draws a sharp line between the self and society: the self is virtuous only when it surrenders its freedom and submits to the laws of the society that imposes them. Yep; and clearly an important reason for women in particular to not be virtuous. When Berman wrote that sentence – the second is mine – he could not have imagined how prescient it would turn out to be for Muslim women in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
In the Persian Letters Montesquieu tries to show that no social system can provide human happiness unless it posits – and its Government guarantees, a basic human right: the right of every person to be oneself.
a) this seems self evident as one needs a ‘self’ to get this.
b) the link between this idea and the American Rev, and its emphasis, well developed by the Revolution and crystal clear by the 19th C, on individualism.
c) The floods of migration from Europe to the Americas and a little later to Australia and other areas of the new world indicate a strong drive for economic betterment for family and for self. This often took the form of a sacrifice for one’s children, for the next generation, and it bore fruit. This drive has been overwhelmingly positive and progressive.
d) The self, oneself, is not a static entity. The self evolves, develops according to the constraints and possibilities of the level of social development in a given society. This applies between social systems and within them. This is especially so with capitalism
e) If communists don’t ‘get’ this, respond to it, work with it (not against it) we will be relegated to the margins of history, a curio blip, like a number of historically redundant beliefs and trends.
“The basic question, now, is how much freedom do the members of any state or society have to be the individuals they are – how far, in other words, is human authenticity allowed to unfold?”
Comment: This is historically and socially mediated, constructed even. As ‘they are’, the degree of unfoldingness, is developmental. This also applies within a historical epoch, to movements.
It applies to us on two levels:
1. The general, the historical.
2. The demands, impacts on oneself of the movement, group, whatever.
A repressive society – and this covers all pre capitalist societies and non democratic capitalist societies – creates a radical gap between people’s social identities (the roles they are forced into) and their real selves/identities. Personal identities must therefore be achieved. People cannot be themselves within the system but must strive to become themselves in spite of the system. This can take private, even mystical forms (see above) where the contradiction is maintained and where, therefore, authenticity cannot be achieved; or against the system. Here people cannot be themselves within the system and strive to become themselves against the system. Thus, Berman argues, revolt is the only mode of authenticity a repressive society allows (a variant of where there is oppression there will be resistance to that oppression, where our true nature is oppressed, revolt is inevitable).
The theory of revolution grows out of, and develops alongside, the idea of authenticity. This is consistent with our revolutionary history going back to the English Revolution. The question is: how well have proletarian parties, especially the successful ones – Bolsheviks, CCP being foremost – fulfilled this – or sought to fulfil – within the boundaries of what was historically and socially achievable? Within the west I think we’ve been mainly bench warmers and not players. Revolutions in the undeveloped economies led by communist parties present a more complex picture. With 80/90% of the population in China, for example, being peasant and where feudal practises, ideas and habits predominated, the communists had to work with the raw materials at hand and an emphasis on a collectivism that downplayed individuality was probably inevitable and necessary. (This did not mean that individuality did not develop – it did, in leaps and bounds – but that this aspect was not overtly promoted.) What I find disappointing is the lack (or maybe it’s an apparent lack?) of theoretical material from either the CCP or the Bolsheviks that laid the realities on the table in such a way that indicated that they knew the growth of the individual was an important goal, and a Marxist one to boot, but that circumstances did not allow them to focus on this. This distinction, the rationale, does not strike me as complex or beyond the ability of most people to ‘get’. That there does not appear to have been much written about this indicates that it was not seen as a problem. This reinforces my hunch that there is a deep ambivalence about the individual/individuality in revolutionary movements generally that has been dealt with through avoidance and a one-sided focus on notions of collectivism.
A comment on the romantic yearnings for an idealised, Arcadian past. What is yearned for is an equality of a simple, static, face to face agrarian economy based on scarcity and frugality.
And this is what makes it a reactionary yearning – it looks to the past, an idealised and non-existent one at that – and posits it as the future. Its most modern form can be seen amongst extremist greens and Islamic fundamentalists like the Taliban. It certainly had a presence in the English Revolution and re-emerged as a current of the Romantic movement which coincided with and responded to the Industrial Revolution.
We, however, envision, as Berman states, equality (and authenticity) within an urban, dynamic economy based on growth and abundance. And Amen to that!
Montaigne: (16th C) Nothing within the range of human experience was alien to him – anticipating Marx in the 19th who was no doubt paying tribute when he said it.
was self alienation. This was new. Rousseau: “they transform themselves into totally different men” (Confessions); in other words, the source of this alienation was men themselves. Philosophers had hitherto enjoined people to “know thyself”. Rousseau deepened this – not just to know, but to be oneself. His Confessions were aimed to bring his authentic self into being. The injunction to know oneself assumes a core self, an inner reality that, while masked, shrouded, hidden beneath layers of socially prescribed falsities (hypocrisies, two facedness) existed and was ready for development. The idea of a true self/false self dualism fits into this. Rousseau’s idea was much more radical. He posited that the inner self itself was a problem – that the self was only potentiality, something yet to be attained.
While stripping away the layers of the false self was a valid ‘work in progress’, the more important task was the actual creation of the self – a ‘work in progress’ from go to woe.
“It is no longer necessary for the self to go back into the past to search for its source. Its source is here and now, in the present moment”. This is a radical idea and one picked up within the psychotherapy field in the last century. Its truth, its value needs to be counter-posed to the observation made by Marx: “we suffer not only from the development of capitalist production, but also from the incompleteness of that development. Alongside modern evils, a whole series of inherited evils oppress us, arising from the passive survival of antiquated modes of production, with their inevitable train of social and political anachronisms. We suffer not only from the living but from the dead.” Capital 1 13. Together these views form a dialectical whole.
“…Rousseau showed how all the modes of personal identity – both traditional and modern – were actually modes of depersonalization, stumbling blocks which kept the individual self from coming into its own.” Marx would not have a problem with this.
“Servitude is so unnatural to man” writes Rousseau in Julie, “that it could not exist without some discontent”. He is grappling with a truth (let’s leave aside the unnatural bit as this is both true and untrue) that Mao was able to articulate in full force 200 years later – it is right to rebel against reactionaries.
Rousseau comments on his experience of servitude when, as a young man he was employed by the Countess de Vercellis. “She judged me less by what I was than by what she had made me; and since she saw in me nothing but a lackey, she prevented me appearing to her in any other light.” “But” continues Berman, “he himself had collaborated in the falsification, by acting as if her image were true.”
This objectification, and creation of a demeaned other in the process, continues today in all areas of life. What is different is that the individual has assumed centre stage and demands expression in ways unimaginable 250 years ago. How the individual exists or is portrayed in media etc – their central role in soaps, for example, are indicators of this development. While the ‘making’ aspect still applies it is now done much more consciously (because there is no other solution). This needs more teasing out………
That the Countess could have this effect underscored to Rousseau that he needed recognition – that he could be himself only to the degree that his self identity was confirmed by others. That which they did not recognise he could not assert. To Rousseau this suggested that others could mould people into whatever shape one wanted, and in a traditional hierarchy this power was held by the hereditary ruling classes – those at the bottom were forced to define themselves according to the terms dictated from above.
While this seems obvious, Rousseau’s conclusions came from a very personal experience via an examination of self. His conclusions indicate that he already had a well established self capable of self reflection and autonomous action. His ability to be self analytical and to resist sprang from that well.
It also indicates that resistance to ruling class pressure that distorts identity a la Rousseau’s experience begins in the individual (there must be formed individuals of which modern societies generate by the truck load) and then taken to a mass arena.
Another take on this: OK, so one can be moulded by the ruling class; this is old news. The interesting bit is the resistance. This was based upon the existence of an autonomous self, who drew the lessons and grew in strength. Today we are a much harder bunch to mould. The autonomous individual is churned out by the truck load. But this means that ‘we’ or, rather, ‘they’ will resist being moulded by us too. If we pigeon-hole whole bunches of people along simplistic class lines without recognising and respecting their individuality, we will be making a rod for our own individual and collective back.
Another aspect here springs from our social nature. We define ourselves in relation to the other. Developmentally the self is created through the interplay of the infant/child and external ‘objects’/subjects. Without recognition there is no self and therefore no individual. The question is not whether recognition is needed, but from whom/what and with what aim.
Traditional societies pigeon hole people; their identities are ascribed and fixed within very narrow limits
Modern societies enable identities to be achieved and transcended. Limits, roles are transcended regularly and to such a degree we barely notice. Your average Joe at work transcends himself out of work – is he a junior sports coach, team manager, assistant this or that, the secretary of a club, an amateur whatever, a blogger etc. How about a revolutionary? Now, that’s a novel idea!
Modern society has made it possible for the first time in our history for people to be themselves, to define and create their lives as they see fit, to create lives authentically their own. And modern capitalist society both enables and prevents this.
Cultural authoritarianism of the 18th C – Berman mentions the political Newtonian physics, used to promote ideas of clockwork perfection in science, everything in its place etc and neo-Classicism in the arts – was aimed at accustoming people to submit to fixed, eternal rules, externally imposed, closed to scrutiny… It’s an interesting idea – a defacto, partial, ideological united front between a decaying French feudalism and an ascendant British capitalism. The point of unity was the need for social stability. The British ruling class was largely successful in this quest because they had had a revolution; their French counterparts were not because they hadn’t. It’s also a consequence of the ER being forcibly stopped where it was. As social/economic developments continued to gather pace, the ruling class was attracted to and also had a need, to dust off ideas of stability and of permanently fixed social roles that they had challenged so successfully when the feudalists held sway.
This following quote has relevance for today:
By teaching to order and evaluate their experience according to received conventions, culture was depriving them of their strongest weapon against political oppression and social exploitation: their sense of self.
This was made regarding Rousseau’s evaluation of pre revolutionary France, albeit a Paris in the early throws of modernity. But the comment regarding culture stands alone. Culture that draws its authority from a closed and oppressive past cannot prepare or aid its members to negotiate the permanently turbulent waters that modernity throws up. For such cultures, the future has already happened and all it does is prepare people for another round of the same.
Rousseau saw modernity as possessing a paradoxical character: “as both the nadir of man’s self alienation and, simultaneously, the medium for his full self-liberation.” Yep, got it in one – well, almost. Seeing it as a paradox denies its dialectical nature although it is unfair to be critical of Rousseau here as he precedes Hegel. He deserves our gratitude for seeing both aspects of this ‘paradox’ which, as an 18th C thinker puts him one up on most the left thinkers of the following two, for, with notable exceptions, only one aspect or the other has been focused upon and only very rarely has their dialectical nature been understood. The left has been particularly guilty of this as it is they who have claimed the mantle of Marx’s critique. This includes the revolutionary left as well as the reformist.
Some interesting ideas here:
To overcome self alienation Rousseau understood that this (modern) social system (although I don’t think he understood it as capitalist), in the course of its own development, had created a mode of consciousness that was capable of transcending it. (He gets a cigar for this very profound insight). Re this, Rousseau drew upon his view that modern men inherently strove to transform their thoughts into practise (another cigar) and that, therefore, their alienation could be overcome via their consciousness being transformed into self consciousness (half a cigar because of the link to individuality and autonomy). In this way they may be able to solve their personal and social problems through reforms from within (no cigar). He hoped “to draw from the evil itself the remedy that can cure it.” (A dialectical view, but not a sophisticated one – a few puffs on somebody else’s cigar for this one).
It seems to me that Rousseau is swinging between idealist and materialist frameworks, anticipating, in some ways, Hegel. His dialectical thinking comes close, but there is no cigar because he is unable (by nearly a century) to link his observations and analysis of modernity to the economic relations driving it. Without this the slide into idealist solutions becomes seductive.
(to be continued)…