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New Left Review I/145, May-June 1984

Göran Therborn

The Prospects of Labour and the Transformation of Advanced Capitalism

Even a pair of very myopic eyes are sufficient to discern the mood of the Left today, particularly the Socialist Left, in the countries of advanced capitalism. [*] This paper was first written for the Roundtable of Cavtat, Yugoslavia in October 1983. The present version has much benefited from the lively discussion of many points of view which is characteristic of Cavtat. In particular, the author is grateful for a detailed critique of the first draft by Perry Anderson. The general picture is one of gloom, with some extra-dark strokes over the British Isles, some pale-pink touches where holding operations at least offer hope that Social Democracy will maintain itself until the next election, and a few green spots in parts of West Germany. It seems that the only appropriate sequel to Eric Hobsbawm’s memorable Marx Memorial Lecture of 1978, ‘The Forward March of Labour Halted?’, [1] E. Hobsbawm et al., The Forward March of Labour Halted?, Verso/Marxism Today, London 1981. would be ‘Can the Retreat of Labour Be Halted?’. The few positive visions of the future, which may still be found here and there in left-wing circles, are almost invariably associated with the rather nebulous ‘New Social Movements’, ‘New Political Subjects’ or ‘New Subjectivities’. It may not be completely unfair to say that their ‘newness’ expresses a perception more of the disappearance of things old than of the rise of new agencies of social transformation. What people define as reality is always a not unimportant part of reality, and the current sense of gloom and uncertainty may well be taken as a manifestation of a profound crisis of the Left in advanced capitalism. However, the left-wing tradition includes a critical, rationalist, scientific component, which has never been satisfied with prevailing ideological discourses and definitions of reality. Indeed, it has always assumed that there may be a discrepancy between how the world appears in the light of a given conjuncture and how it presents itself in a sharper historical perspective; and that the task of critical analysis is to define the character and scope of any such discrepancy, with a view to rational enlightenment. This latter tradition, of which the by now heretically orthodox notion of ‘scientific socialism’ is the prime example, has tended to use its sharpest instruments in dealing with the Other, the enemy or rival tendencies, and only rarely in analysing the Left or one’s own tendency within the Left. This article is intended as a modest contribution to the reversal of that trend.

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