In his biography of Stalin, Isaac Deutscher asserted that the historian, inevitably, believes in inevitability: ‘The historian deals with fixed and irreversible patterns of events: all weapons have already been fired; all wills have been spent; all decisions have been achieved; and what is irreversible has assumed the aspect of the inevitable’.footnote

To some, this quasi-determinism will sound distinctly old-fashioned. The era of grand narratives—in the sense that the past can be understood as having the shape of a story—is supposed to have come to a close. Thirty years after Deutscher’s death, modern Marxists are people who are no longer quite sure whether they are Marxists; or do not care whether they are; or do not know what it means to be one; or who, after admitting, with a slight embarrassment, that they are still Marxist, add quickly: ‘but not in any simple way’.

Yet, while the sophisticated gauche marxisante is preoccupied with deconstructing the Self and subverting Totalities, the somewhat deterministic Marxism of yesteryear has triumphed. Stripped of its messianic and humanistic hopes for a world without exploiters and exploited—not a minor excision—it is now the dominant ideology in the world. If post-Marxist bourgeois Marxists had read Marx they would certainly quote his celebration of the bourgeoisie ‘who compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilization into their midst, i.e. to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.’

But Marx also warned against using as ‘one’s master key a general historico-philosophical theory, the supreme virtue of which consists in being super-historical’. Today’s bourgeois Marxists have no such fears. Vulgar, reductionist, deterministic Marxism has triumphed with a vengeance. Most explanations of contemporary transmutations have the economy as their starting-point and a world-wide market economy as its inevitable destination. Examples proliferate: the superiority of the international market—manifest in its post-Fordist phase—has destroyed the inefficient centrally planned economy of what was the Soviet Union and has forced China towards a capitalist revolution that must have the most profound consequences for the twenty-first century. Pundits everywhere ridicule all those who still believe that there are alternatives. The world is going one way, and those who don’t like it had better get off the train. They proclaim that there is one way and one way only for economic development, whether we are in India or Indiana, in Georgia or. . .in Georgia. They celebrate a globalized economy which has apparently deprived national governments of all significant powers. Governments must be little more than the executive committee of international markets and do as they are told or condemn their own electorate to poverty and unemployment. Political parties—we are reliably informed—are tied to specific classes. When that class vanishes or shrinks, ‘its’ party must follow, disappearing in a puff of smoke, unless it discards ‘its’ old class and looks around for new and younger ones. Ideas which inhibit the advance of the new world economic order, such as socialism, belong to the dustbin of history. In fact the end of history has finally arrived. It is called capitalism not socialism. Bond dealers of the world shout in unison down their fibre optic lines: ‘Long live the economic base, down with the superstructure!’

In these circumstances, it is not surprising that those celebrating the historic defeat of socialism are not troubled by the unprecedented electoral victories of socialist parties throughout most of Western Europe. They point out—with considerable justification—that these surviving forces have made their peace with capitalism and can aspire to last another century only by accommodating themselves to it, as they have done for the past one hundred years. How they will do so is the question before us. Capitalism is not an ideology. It is a mode of production. It can be managed in a variety of ways. Modern politics is a battlefield in which contending forces clash over how best to tame the beast, if at all.

Europe is socialism’s last redoubt and its last hope. As we approach the end of this century, a review of its achievements and its prospects is on the agenda. For those on the Left it is vital to avoid celebrations, or nostalgia, or a misplaced optimism. It was never written in the Great Book of History that a socialist movement should arise with industrialization. Nor is it written that it should last for ever. The correct attitude is to adopt Deutscher’s perspective when he remarked that he, who had been one of those whom Stalin had cruelly defeated, had forced himself to analyze Stalinism in ‘as cool and impersonal’ a way as possible. Gramsci, another great loser, had urged his followers to adopt not only the ‘optimism of the will’ but also ‘the pessimism of the intelligence’.

The starting-point for such a fin-de-siècle review must be the final years of the nineteenth century when the socialist movement organized itself as a European-wide system of political parties—the Second International. The central assumption of these parties was convergence: they supposed that the societies which surrounded them already possessed or were about to acquire common characteristics. Capitalism was their collective destiny. Everywhere pre-capitalist classes and intermediate groups would disappear leaving the field clear for a conflict between workers and bosses whose outcome was predetermined: the collapse of capitalism and the victory of socialism. It followed that all socialist parties—regardless of their national differences—could have the same programme and be committed to the same medium-term goals: the expansion of political democracy, the establishment of the welfare state and the regulation of the labour market—the eight-hour day. They all shared the same strategic principle: no cooperation with bourgeois parties. They all had a common ‘foreign policy’: a vague internationalism buttressed by an equivocal pacifism.