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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Book Review: 'Postmodern Socialism'




Beilharz, P:

Postmodern Socialism: Romanticism, City and State,

Original contribution to a critical debate,

Review by Tristan Ewins

It's been some time (several years) since I read this book, so my memory might fail me sometimes. Nevertheless, it is enough to say that this is one of those books whose arguments are so clear and compelling that the reader is strongly influenced by the arguments encountered years after first perusing its pages.

This is a compact title, packed with strong arguments as to the relation between socialism, postmodernity, romanticism and the state. Beilharz argues that romanticism was always a strong element in socialist thought: this despite attempts by some to develop Marxist analysis into a science. 

Considering the 'pros' and 'cons' of anti-modernist romanticism and modernity, Beilharz sides with the Modern project, although rejects what he deems to be 'Faustian pacts'. (ie: Modernisation regardless of social cost)

Concluding that we still live in that space we have come to refer to as 'modernity', Beilharz rejects postmodernity as an 'era' but wonders, after Lytotard, whether postmodernity is best considered as the 'critical moment' of modernity.  This leads in to a thorough, and sometimes inspiring, consideration of the merits of socialism in an age where socialism is considered by many to be dead.

It is Beilharz's view that Marx remains one of those influential historical figures between which we must choose. Insisting the relevance of socialism in a world still wracked by an underworld of poverty and inequality, Beilharz argues for a 'Promethean Marxism': one which brings critical light to humanity, but which is nevertheless bound by its own limitations and the failure of Marxist prophecies to be fulfilled.

Beilharz denies, as one author had written, that 'Marxism heals the sick', but insists that in these uncertain times, he is still 'useful to think with.' Such Marxism may never promise true emancipation, but like Luther is resolute: "Here I stand. I can do no other."

Beilharz concludes by stating that, thanks to hermeneutics, we can have 'as many Marx's as we choose'. The uses to which Marx can be put is limited only by our imagination and our powers of interpretation.

Beilharz's vision of socialism, as explored in his examination of 'the city', tends to be one of the mixed economy, the Australian city of Melbourne, caught between deliberate planning and spontaneity, being something of a metaphor for the kind of socialism he would envisage.

In an indirect way, part of this book might be considered an argument for market socialism, although importantly this is never stated categorically.

For its size, this book is full of ideas, and well worth the read. It remains a significant influence on the reviewer’s thinking to this day, and I would recommend it to anyone concerned with the issues it explores.

 

Tristan Ewins

 nb: There is a link on this page - at the left margin - to Amazon's listing for 'Postmodern Socialism'.

6 comments:

  1. Actually I thought this book was typical middle-class Western wealthy academic "pap".

    The "many Marx's" concept is silly and artificial. After all, we only have one world, currently driven by the contradictions and alienations derived from exploitation. This exploitation is general and applies irrespective of postmodernist concepts of 'voice', 'site', 'discourse' and 'identity' etc etc.

    Those who preach "many Marx's" only preach their "many misunderstandings" and perpetuate the fragmentation of the movement and the disestablishment of needed organisations such as the ex CPA and competent trade unions.

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  2. Chris; if you'd like to write an entry in defence of one authentic Marx - and the meaning of exploitaton and alienation - then so long as there's no flaming - I'd be glad to publish it. (must also be under 2,000 words) This blog is intended to be a participatory forum for the Left...

    For my part: I want a strong labour movement - accompanied by a strong party of the Left...

    I would have liked this party to be the ALP - but unfortunately the Left - until now - has been losing the cultural struggle - by way of which some had hoped to transform Labor.

    My preferred circumstances would have been a democratic socialist ALP - co-operating with more moderate forces - yet being the dominant influence in such an electoral bloc...

    Furthermore - I believe that there is an important role for an disciplined alliance of the Left - to intervene in and lead the cultural struggle - such as precedes the electoral struggle - and makes electoral victories possible...

    Such an organisation would - in some ways - fill the role of 'vanguard'.... However it would be a broad, pluralist mass organsiation - and initiatives would come 'from below' - from the activity of the 'grassroots' ... - AS WELL as from any leadership groups... There would be the right mix of disciplined strategy - and individual rights of self-organisation and self-expression...

    Today, though, it is the Greens who comprise the more progressive force - but who as a consequence of being the 'minor partner' - do not have the kind of leverage over Labor many of us would want...

    The recession, however, may create the circumstances for the ALP to return to a more recognisably social-democratic policy agenda...

    Into this mix, though - there is room for a more avowedly radical party of the Left. Take the examples of the Dutch socialists, the Left parties of Sweden and Germany... With two radically progressive parties co-operating (ie: Green and Left) - were such forces to co-operate - strong leverage could be exerted over Labor in power...

    There are many reasons, though, why I don't believe in communism any more...

    I believe that it's impossible to do away with the division of labour - and that, in fact, modernity has added to this process.

    Also I don't believe that spontaneous social organisation is possible in an ideal communist sense. I think human nature is flawed enough to necessitate the need for State apparatus...

    Finally - I have been convinced of a liberal democratic socialist perspective - which holds liberty to be of the same order as equality.

    There are many interpretations of the 'dictatorship of the proletariat'... Some suggest authoritarianism....Others suggest (taken from Marx) 'winning the battle of democracy'... My hope is to retain a regime of civil liberties even under circumstances of escalating class struggle... I also suppose this line of argument is more of a critique of class dictatorship under transitional circumstances - rather then a critique of communism...

    I don't believe that the bourgeoisie is a 'homogenous mass'... Neither do I believe that bourgeois forces are always aligned with 'their own'
    nation states... Class struggle is real - but it is also very complex...

    Enough for now, though - I'm glad to see some debate here... That, after all, is the purpose of the blog...

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  3. Ok - well I did ask for contributions -and thanks... Only by such engagement can this blog work... But also - like I say in the review - it's been years since I read the book - so it seems your impressions are stronger than mine...

    What stuck with me, though, was:

    a) Beilharz's identification of the mixed economy - as the proper mix of markets and planning...

    b) Beilharz's metaphor of social 'underworlds' created by capitalism - and the Siysiphian struggle of socialists - fighting for humanity in the midst of a dehumanising system..

    c) his useful formulation of post-modernity - not as an 'era' as such - but 'the critical moment of modernity' - (I think a more constructive interpretation than many others)

    d) re: pluralism and hermeneutics... The meaning of words is forever changing... We have had the 'Young Marx', 'the Old Marx', Structuralist Marxism, 'neo-Marxism'.... I think what Beilharz is suggesting is that we don't need to accept the whole of 'holy writ' - but we can take and leave what we choose... (so far not so bad)

    I know very little about linguistics... But I belief the 'signified' is objective - but the signifier is not...

    Interpretation is important... We can read texts in different ways.... Sometimes even against the grain of the author's intent - even then this can be useful...

    The real world of exploitation, war and alienations goes on regardless... But perhaps the interpretations are just as important as 'author's intent'?......

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  4. To everyone - the debate here is encouraging.. :-)

    I'd like to encourage readers to go through - and respond to - the other posts as well... (ie: multiculturalism/relativism; the National Broadband Network; Labor's stimulus package... And finally - If anyone sympathetic to the aims of this blog would like me to consider publishing blog entries of their own - pls let me know.

    More coming up this week too.

    ReplyDelete

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