Saturday, May 15, 2010
Joschka Fischer's Die Linke nach dem Sozialismus (1992)
Reading the then Green Party leader and later German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer's Die Linke nach dem Sozialismus [The Left After Socialism] (1992) now was a surprise to me in several ways. Unlike his later books Die Rückkehr der Geschichte: Die Welt nach dem 11. September 2001 und die Erneuerung des Westens (2005) and Die rot-grünen Jahre: Deutsche Außenpolitik vom Kosovo bis zum 11. September (2007), he attempted to present a broad ideological framework for understanding the post-Cold War world. He's much, much better at dealing with contemporary policy problems, and fortunately he included discussions of some of those as well.
The most interesting feature of this book is Fischer's perspective in 1992 on the resurgence of nationalism in eastern and central Europe, particularly in the Balkans. He disagreed with Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher's push for Germany and other European countries to recognize the independence of Croatia and Slovenia in late 1991 at a time when they did not have full control over their own territory. In other words, he agreed with the official US position under both the Bush I and Clinton administrations that the escalation of the Balkan Wars were partially Germany's fault for pushing through premature recognition of Croatia and Slovenia.
Fischer's 1992 account conveys a sense of the urgency of the moment. With the freeing of east European nations from Soviet dominance, the dissolving of the old Yugoslavia and the end of the Soviet Union itself, the risk of nationalist wars spreading across all of eastern Europe was painfully visible. We can see now that what actually did happen since 1992, events which were influenced in significant part by Fischer's own actions as German Vice Chancellor and Foreign Minister from 1998-2005, it was more than bad enough, such as the bloody Balkan conflicts and the Russian conflicts with Georgia and Chechnya. Other conflicts, such as the division of Czechoslovakia into the separate countries of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, were more happily resolved.
Fischer also discusses the urgency of developing the European Union as a robust trans-national organization in the context of the resurgence of aggressive nationalism after 1989. The problems faced by the EU today are of a much higher order than those before it in 1992, again in no small part due to Fischer's own successful efforts as German Foreign Minister. But saying they have a better set of problems isn't to say that the ones they have aren't very serious. See, for instance, Project Europe 2030: Challenges and Opportunities 05/08/10, a report of the Reflection Group on the Future of the EU 2030, and New York Times 05/06/10.
One aspect of Fischer's larger vision articulated in this is important and helpful. The classical socialist views of the limits of capitalism stressed the problem that the production relations of the capitalist system restrained its productive capacity and technological potential. This was part of the internal contradictions of the capitalist system that would push the working class majority to transform the system into socialism, where in the classical conception adopted by the Soviet Union, the "means of production" would be owned by the state. That contradiction between productive capacity and the actual performance of capitalist economies is most dramatically displayed during recessions and depressions, which the immediate production and capacity for production (factories, offices) both actually shrink. During the Great Depression, that involved large-scale physical destruction of crops in pursuit of the stabilization of agricultural prices, presenting the painful spectacle of people suddenly thrown into poverty and destitution and actual hunger in the most advanced countries of the world as well as elsewhere, and at the same time the mass destruction of certain food supplies.
What was apparent in 1992 to people like Al Gore and Joschka Fischer and anyone else who was paying attention is that the world is clearly approaching a point where the limits of existing "means of production" are pushing up against the physical capacity of the Earth to sustain them. And the urgency of making adjustments to deal with the global ecological crisis has become a higher practical imperative than the limitations to production that existing economic system impose.
Fischer in this 1992 book really hammers the notion that socialism in the classical concept died with the Soviet Union. Which may not seem too controversial at the "30,000 foot level", as broad generalizations are popularly called in US business presentations these days. But Fischer devotes most of the book to evaluating the theoretical implications of the developments that we might called "1989" for shorthand. My short analysis of the results is that they are surprisingly superficial coming from a figure whose insights into current international events are often so perceptive.
The best feature of his analysis of those events is his observation that "1989" represented "revolution by implosion." In other words, for the most part they didn't take place in the manner of the French Revolution of 1789, a pattern which the democratic revolutions of 1848 in Europe followed, as did the Russian, Chinese and Cuban revolutions of the following century. Those events powerfully influenced the understanding of socialists and non-socialists alike throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.
His analysis of the history of the USSR is basically pretty conventional. Even the "postcommunist" parties of Europe, including the Left Party in Germany, wouldn't argue with Fischer's contention that the USSR and the other European Communist states suffered a deficiency of democracy, freedom of expression, human rights, and the rule of law.
But his analysis also doesn't distinguish very well the phases of evolution in those societies. The Soviet Union didn't become a paradise of freedom of speech after Joseph Stalin's death. But there was also nothing to realistically compare with the purges of the 1930s. Nothing in his analysis would give anyone much understanding of how someone like Mikhail Gorbachev who understood himself as a committed Communist would encourage democratizing developments that would lead to the end the Soviet system.
I could give other examples, but the point is that most of his meta-analysis is just not very useful. His discussion of political theory actually give the impression of someone who crammed hard on the subject without integrating the pieces very well. Some of it is just downright confused and confusing, such as his mysterious argument that the middle class turned out to be more of a source of productivity than the working class from the time of Marx until today. There are certainly valid observations to be made about the standard Marxist usage of the classical capitalist economic notion of surplus value, which Marx largely derived from David Ricardo. But Fischer doesn't make them.
It's not at all clear about who he means by middle class. Presumably it's not the common American usage of the term, which includes just about everybody. But does he mean what is referred today as the Mittelstand, i.e., medium-sized businesses? Does he mean just middle income people?
I can agree with Fischer is that in the so-called 30,000 foot view, the "real existing socialism" of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc was an example of utopianism and its dangers. But even that does hold up too well once you get down out of the clouds. He adds to the confusion by making the conventional (even banal) argument that utopianism attempts to impose the demands of an abstract Reason on a limited humanity that never manages to entirely conduct our affairs according the dictates of Reason. But then he also argues that the alternative to ecological calamity requires the realization of a much greater degree of Reason in practical politics. He favorably cites the Frankfurt School theorists Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in support of the latter perspective. But it's not clear that even that part of his theoretical perspective is one that he understands consistently.
In some places in this book, Fischer sounds almost like neoconservatives. He even quotes approvingly neocon favorites of the time like Daniel "end of ideology" Bell and Francis "end of history" Fukayama. I wouldn't describe his analysis in this book as a neocon analysis, though. It seems to me more like a sense of resignation that European politics for the immediate future would be dominated by neoliberalism, i.e., the ideology of deregulation.
I don't know enough details about Fischer's individual biography to speculate with great confidence, but it strikes me that this 1992 book does show Fischer struggling to make sense of the political fallout of "1989" for the European left and for the German left in particular: the Greens, the Social Democrats and the postcommunist parties. For one thing, that meant a frank acknowledgement of the failure of the brand of socialism that the DDR (Communist East Germany) had practiced. Contrary to the American neoconservative approach of exaggerating the threat posed by the Communist bloc, it became painfully apparent after German unification in 1990 that the productivity of the former DDR had been much lower than what economists in West Germany had assumed, the ecological damage much worse, the competitiveness of East Germany businesses and infrastructure much less.
After the red-green government of 1998-2005 in Germany and the red-red coalition of the Social Democrats and the Left Party in Berlin, it takes a bit of effort now to remember that it was surprising to everyone who strongly the former DDR went for Helmut Kohl's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) in the free election of 1990 there. The former pro-democracy activists in the DDR itself, most of whom understood themselves as some variety of socialist, where all but completely sidelined. The Green Party had always since its formation been more actively supportive of the democratic opposition in the DDR than the other German parties. But politically active party leaders like Fischer in 1992 needed to stress their rejection of the old DDR model for practical electoral reasons.
His broader analysis is interesting mostly as a snapshot of a moment in a time of great transition. His practical observations on the resurgence of violent nationalism in Europe and the need for further developing the European Union have more enduring value.
Tags: frankfurt school, joschka fischer
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No subject for immortal verse
That we who lived by honest dreams
Defend the bad against the worse."
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