THE LEFT IS NOT OBSOLETE
By Norman Birnbaum
[This article published in February 2019 is translated from the German on the Internet, www.blaetter.de.]
[On January 4, 2019, the important intellectual and sociologist Norman Birnbaum died at the age of 92. Above all, Norman Birnbaum was a universalist cross-border thinker: between science, journalism and politics and also between the US and Europe. From the mid-1950s, he studied in Germany and France. Like hardly any other, the advisor of Robert and Edward Kennedy embodied the democratically enlightened America. In the time of Donald Trump, “the man with the X-ray vision,” this intrepid translator and mediator between the US and Europe is bitterly missed.]
From the beginning, Norman Birnbaum’s thinking circled around history and the left’s present and future. We bring here passages from two of his last texts.
The left is rooted philosophically in the Enlightenment with its rejection of throne and altar. The left sought material redistribution for moral reasons – for the sake of the transformation of human nature. Building a socialist society would change the architects. Although secular through and through, this idea doubtlessly has religious origins. It remained secular and gathered new hope from the powers ascribed to science and technology. The Greens criticize the socialists (when they did not form a coalition with them) be cause they uncritically followed the prophets of industrial society and their productivist ideology and believed nature existed to be ruled or dominated by us. Still this was not an exclusively socialist sin. The demand of the creation narrative to make the earth “subject” has served as a biblical excuse for the plundering and destruction of the environment.
The modern age has actually brought about emancipation in some areas. Slavery was abolished. Women experience legally and socially a greater measure of equality. Children are no longer treated as pets. Workers are citizens. Recalling Karl Marx, persons are challenged to become humans after the transformation from interior objects to citizens.
The sciences and technologies released from serving the power- and profit maximization of elites who privatize humanity’s knowledge are alien forces with which humankind must grapple today. These expectations of the dawning epoch of peace among nations and within nations and the end of humanity’s recourse to violence have proven illusory. The countries of Western Europe were rational enough to renounce armed forms of imperialism and nationalism but this accomplishment is not an exclusive achievement of the left. The leftist conception of inevitable progress toward a world of secular rationality is a historical myth. The reference to the coexistence of technological rationality and dogmatic fundamentalism is a good example.
The social-democratic and progress-oriented left must forge strategic alliances with the critical and modern currents within the great world religions. Ultimately, these belong to the rese3rvoir of humanity’s memory of past struggles and initiating stable hopes. This reflection on its internationalist inheritance could lead to the left covering up its (morally repulsive) entanglement in those processes by which richer nations control poorer nations (above all regarding their uncritical connections with the United States). The most interesting ideas and the greatest sensitivity are found today the formal procedures of western politics and the older leftist parties.
This tradition is now renewed by those groups that grapple frontally with exploitation and impoverishment, destruction of the environment, cultural homogenization and tyranny and violence and their inner causes. Often they are praised publically for their engagement while dismissed privately as a sectarian circle. This recalls the situation in England at the start of the 17th century when sects brought down monarchical absolutism.
Today we face a whole range of different absolutisms. There is the absolutism of the market and its intellectual henchmen who insist there is no alternative to the submission of all areas of life under cost-benefit calculations. I learned from the German press that a colleague, Professor Hans-Werner Sinn from the Munich ifo-Institute, declared the laws of the economy are just as valid and convincing as the law of gravity. Politically-motivated attempts to influence their functioning are condemned to fail. Professor Sinn speaks with the certainty of faith of the faded Dr. Eugen Duhring, the rival of Marx and Engels. The laws of the economy obviously involved ideological working models that are based more on philosophical and political assumptions than on observations of reality. Maybe Professor Sinn should recall that passage in Bertolt Brecht’s “Life of Galileo” where the people direct the telescope at priests, landlords and princes, not heavenwards. The new telescope that still has to be built for the global society of our days is expected. Professor Sinn’s “laws” go the way of the Ptolemaic worldview.
Another competing absolutism consists in the claim that primary group bonds are primary and we have no choice but to be free of unrealistic myths of universalism. A third absolutism is that people and nation are large intact families and exclusive showplaces of our life with a precedent claim to our loyalty. A fourth absolutism is spiritual and consists in the belief that a certain doctrine of salvation can raise privileged truth claims and expel all skeptics and doubters to the kingdom of darkness.
The different absolutisms contradict one another and then complement each other. But they do not tolerate any dissent. They prevent what is really human, namely learning processes. Learning processes can only occur with critical reflection on individual experience, the life of one’s group and humanity’s history. The secular left of the West obviously knows that the majority of contemporaries on this earth do not share their intellectual perspectives. When John F. Kennedy in June 1963 proposed ending the Cold War, he listed the simple fundamental demands uniting humanity in the search for what the founders called “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” The great narratives and salvation doctrines on ways to these goals are very different. The secular left could find more nuanced and realistic positions.
The progress of history happens over long time periods, not on the way of linear progression. Over long time periods, new cultural and social ideas and sensibilities form and breakthrough in those brief historical moments when the will for change reaches its greatest concentration. Recognizing the pluralism of history means putting all absolutisms in question.
No, the left is not obsolete. The left finds itself in a grave crisis that it ascribes to the toughness or tenacity of its opponents, a global capitalism with its weak understanding of history. The very respectable success recorded by the left in the last half-century often came about through cooperation with very different groups. Roosevelt’s New Deal and the Western European welfare states of the postwar era following the New Deal model succeeded because some socially privileged were convinced restriction s on their privileges would make them materially and morally more visible. De Gaulle and Brandt convinced the neo-Stalinists in the USSR that international coexistence offers the best guarantee for domestic progress. Italy’s compromisso storico united communists and Catholics to defend the democratic republic. Like every social reform in America, the New Deal was the work of economic alliances between secular and religious forces. For that reason, the challenge of the left is to forge new alliances.
Following our intellectual callings or vocations is incumbent on us as citizens. Intellectual and moral toughness or tenacity remains the only life-preserving alternative.
Michael Harrington, The Crisis of Industrial Society, 1979
As the New York Times notes, “Critics of today’s domestic surveillance object largely on privacy grounds. They have focused far less on how easily government surveillance can become an instrument for the people in power to try to hold on to power. ‘The U.S. vs. John Lennon’ … is the story not only of one man being harassed, but of a democracy being undermined.”
Indeed, all of the many complaints we have about government today—surveillance, militarism, corruption, harassment, SWAT team raids, political persecution, spying, overcriminalization, etc.—were present in Lennon’s day and formed the basis of his call for social justice, peace and a populist revolution.
For all of these reasons, the U.S. government was obsessed with Lennon, who had learned early on that rock music could serve a political end by proclaiming a radical message. More importantly, Lennon saw that his music could mobilize the public and help to bring about change. Lennon believed in the power of the people. Unfortunately, as Lennon recognized: “The trouble with government as it is, is that it doesn’t represent the people. It controls them.”