Saturday, November 8, 2008

History and "history"

"We [Americans] don't hide from history. We make history."
-- John McCain

"A man has nothing to fear, he thought to himself, who understands history."
-- last line of Robert Stone's A Flag for Sunrise (1981)

In these two quotations, "history" is, respectively, a prize and a consolation. In McCain's congratulatory usage, the power to make "history" is what Americans award themselves for being Americans. In Robert Stone's novel, the anthropologist Holliwell, having blundered around in an imaginary Latin American country and helped wreck more than several lives, consoles himself by taking the long view. You can't make an omelet without breaking eggs, or something like that.

When Francis Fukuyama wrote his famous article "The End of History," later expanded into the book The End of History and the Last Man, he was careful to point out that he was not talking about history but about History in the Hegelian sense, the ostensibly progressive development or unfolding of collective human consciousness, or spirit (Geist). Did McCain's speech writer have Fukuyama somewhere at the back of his mind? Maybe. Or maybe not.

Hegelians and Marxists, among others, believe that History has a veiled or hidden logic, one that their theories grasp. History unlocks its secrets to those in possession of the key: Spirit rising to consciousness of itself, or the inevitability of socialist revolution. Marxism is not about "spreading the wealth," contrary to what certain denizens of the right-wing blogosphere said or implied during the just-concluded U.S. election campaign. Marx himself had nothing but contempt for anyone who concentrated on distribution as opposed to the forces and relations of production. He asserted that redistribution was not possible without a change in the mode of production:
"Any distribution whatever of the means of consumption is only a consequence of the distribution of the conditions of production themselves [Marx wrote in Critique of the Gotha Program].... Vulgar socialism...has taken over from the bourgeois economists the consideration and treatment of distribution as independent of the mode of production and hence the presentation of socialism as turning principally on distribution. After the real relation [between distribution and the mode of production] has long been made clear, why retrogress again?"
When certain conservatives charged that Obama was a Marxist, they proved only that they had not read Marx.

This post seems to have wandered away from the rhetorical uses of "history." Perhaps that's just as well. When we get too serious about these things, we can count on Shaw to puncture the balloon. In Shaw's play The Devil's Disciple, set during the American war of independence, the British general Burgoyne, facing defeat at Saratoga, is asked by a horrified subordinate: "What will history say?" Burgoyne's answer: "History, sir, will tell lies, as usual."

P.S. A link to Critique of the Gotha Program.


hank_F_M said...


I think Marx is coming as close to being "most quoted", by people who have never read him, as the Bible.

Your point is very well taken, but we should keep in mind that many on the left support “redistibutism” without the benefit of some of Marx’s common sense. They are basically supporters of what Marx called "Vulgar Socialism."

As the President Elect will undoubtedly govern as far left as is politically possible (which of course I do not think is good idea); I hope his attitudes are tempered by some of Marx’s common sense, but I suspect he is one of Marx’s "Vulgar Socialists" which would make the criticism you complain about correct in principle though not in detail.

LFC said...

As you probably can guess, I myself favor a somewhat less unequal (i.e., a somewhat more equal) distribution of wealth, income, and opportunity than presently obtains in the U.S. In other words, I support a certain measure of redistribution. In recent years, the distribution of income in the U.S. has been the most unequal it has been since the 1920s, so a measure of redistribution would only perhaps restore the more 'normal' post-1945 situation. We will never go back to the economic situation of c.1945-c.1970 b/c the world has obviously changed, but I don't think we have to have the very high levels of inequality we have today. Obviously some people are (a) not bothered by these levels of inequality and/or (b) feel that reducing them would entail unjustified encroachments on other persons' "rights" to accumulate relatively large amounts of income and wealth. I don't happen to agree.

All that said, my sense of Obama is that, despite what conservatives inferred from a few of his past remarks and past associations, "redistributism" is just not a major goal or preoccupation of his. The redistributive effects of Obama admin policies are likely to be mild, I would guess (if they exist at all). Already Obama is leaving himself wiggle room on raising tax rates for the top income earners, as his evasion of the last question at his recent press conference demonstrates. The economic advisors who surround him -- Lawrence Summers, Paul Volcker, Robert Rubin, Laura Tyson, Gene Sperling, Austin Goolsby et al. -- are not, as a group, people I think of as being deeply committed to, or in some cases even concerned with, redistribution. Finally, the financial support Obama got from some wealthy circles, and the voting patterns among the top income groups in the election, further suggest that radical or even non-radical redistribution is probably not going to be at the top of his agenda. Moreover, the Dems in the Senate do not have 60 seats, which will require compromising to put through legislation. In short, the question is still open, the Obama admin. has not yet taken office, and we will simply have to wait and see which of us turns out to be more nearly right on this point.

As for Marx, whether or not his position in 'Critique of the Gotha Program' is "common sense" is something that would need to be the subject of a separate discussion, I think. (My short cop-out answer is: it depends on what your view of common sense is.) Marx's views on most issues were complicated and sometimes contradictory, and people have spent careers arguing about what Marx's 'real' view on X Y or Z was. So my post no doubt oversimplifies Marx, but I think it does so in more or less the correct direction.

Anonymous said...

I see McCain's quote in a different light - it is not so much distribution or economics, but about American exceptionalism. We make History, others live it. Somehow America has God (and/or) right on its side and becomes the vehicle for the immanent development of these forces. This is something that Morgenthau decried, if you remember.

LFC said...

I agree with you that the McCain quote is about American exceptionalism. The post wandered around, obviously, and I did not mean to link the economics stuff directly to the McCain quote. Also you're right to remind about Morgenthau. If you ever want to write about these or other matters, I'll be glad to post it. Let me know. (Guest commentators are allowed here, at my discretion, though so far I've only had one.)

Anonymous said...

Thanks, LFC. I am a little behind with my writing commitments, but might take you up on that sometime in the future - appreciate the offer.

bro said...

Speaking of History, I was struck during the Obama campaign by his repeated use of "history is on our side" or "we are on the right side of history" or some such phrase. It always rubbed me the wrong way, precisely because it implied a kind of Hegelian teleology. Of course there is a certain modesty in this (we are simply borne along on the wave of history) but there is a huge immodesty as well (we know where the wave is going). I almost think McCain's line about Americans not hiding from history but making it was a kind of answer to Obama's, as if to say "we don't just ride the wave, we determine its course." Whether that's more or less immodest or megalomanic than Obama's line is hard to say. In any case, there was some irony (given Obama's line) that his election was greeted with headlines of the sort "Obama makes history" -- as if to say that McCain might have lost but at least he was right about history. But I suppose one could argue that "making history" and "being on the right side of history" are really just equal euphemisms for "I'm Right!" or "I Win!"

Fantasy time: Just imagine if Obama had responded to the charges of Marxism with the kind of learned disquisition that LFC sketched. Wow, that would really have made him a Marxist.

Anyhow, sorry to blab on. I do have something to say that LFC might find useful as he tries to purge McCain's line from his memory. Just imagine an additional sentence, to wit:

Americans don't hide from history; we make history. And then we run screaming out of the room, get trashed, go to sleep, and wake up the next morning with no memory of what happened.

LFC said...

I love it.