Iread with great interest Alex Callinicos’s critique of Anthony Giddens and Pierre Bourdieu in NLR 236. It is a provocative essay whose ambition and logic epitomizes what is wrong, and what is right, with a certain kind of ‘Marxist’ critique. Most of what is wrong with it stems from its reductionism and stubborn refusal to interrogate canonical categories. Callinicos does not want to learn from his interlocutors, because he already knows the truth; so his essay is predictable—never an intellectual virtue. On the other hand, armed with his particular truth, Callinicos is incisive and relentless in a critique that rightly identifies the limits of his interlocutors’ arguments, but unfortunately stops short before his own.
Callinicos’s critique can be summarized as follows: Giddens is a Weberian social theorist who has lost his critical edge and become an ideologist of the Clinton/Blair Third Way. Bourdieu is an iconoclastic social theorist, in the mould of Durkheim, who has moved politically to the left, but remains trapped in a bourgeois discourse of the ‘universal intellectual’ and social democratic reform. Both theorists fall short of standard Marxist analysis of the contradictions of capitalism in the epoch of post-Fordism and flexible accumulation. Giddens attracts most hostility. The Third Way, ‘one of the worst books by a leading social theorist’, offers a complacent vision of globalization. Bourdieu is presented as the antithesis of Giddens, a crusader like Noam Chomsky who takes the depredations of capitalism seriously and struggles against them in a spirit of Sartrean engagement. But, alas, Bourdieu is limited by his failure to be a Marxist and thus, in good Hegelian fashion, needs to be aufgehoben. Giddens’s acceptance of the imperatives of capitalism, and Bourdieu’s spirited and well-meaning but merely social democratic opposition to them, find their resolution at a higher level in a vaguely defined Marxism. Indeed, by the end of Callinicos’s essay the apparent choice between these three alternatives is dialectically reduced to two, as Bourdieu’s ineffectual social democracy is compelled by the force of argument to opt between the others. The first path, writes Callinicos, is to ‘adapt to the existing order, seeking marginal improvements inflated by self-deceiving rhetoric. Such, essentially, is the course adopted by Giddens. Alternatively, one can seek to identify and to strengthen the forces capable of challenging the structures of capitalist domination. Bourdieu seems to be groping towards this second option. To do so effectively will require that he seriously engages with the revolutionary Marxist tradition.’ Despite the qualifications—what do ‘effectively’ and ‘seriously’ mean?—Callinicos leaves no doubt that Bourdieu can rise to the level of authentic critique only by embracing some of the central claims of revolutionary Marxism.
I asserted earlier that Callinicos has no desire to learn from his interlocutors. His attitude is unfortunate, and I have no wish to be similarly dismissive of Callinicos’s own argument. In a spirit of serious intellectual engagement, then, having reduced this argument to its basic dialectical logic—to rational kernel—I should say that Callinicos presents a compelling critique of both Giddens and Bourdieu from a Marxist perspective. He effectively demonstrates that neither Giddens nor Bourdieu has a systematic theory of the structures of capitalism, or a strategy capable of breaking with the powerful imperatives of capital accumulation that constrain even the best-intentioned government, as the fate of Oskar Lafontaine illustrates. Callinicos rightly argues that neither writer raises deep questions about ‘the viability of the nation-state in an era of globalization,’ nor addresses ‘the structural limits to the state’s responsiveness to pressures from below.’ These criticisms come down to the following unimpeachable point: capitalist societies produce insecurity and inequality, and the distribution of power in these societies—structured by both the state and social relations—tends to make it exceedingly difficult to challenge insecurity and inequality, thereby in effect reproducing them.
While both Giddens and Bourdieu have no answer for this, Callinicos prefers the latter because he ‘sets himself in frontal opposition’—a rather unGramscian stance—to the effects of capitalism. By comparison with Giddens, in his eyes Bourdieu at least has the virtue of being militantly, or moralistically, anti-capitalist. But here the key question is this: what does it really mean at the dawn of the twenty-first century to be ‘anti-capitalist?’ Beyond this, what does it mean to be a ‘revolutionary Marxist’ or, in Callinicos’s phrase, to adopt ‘Gramsci’s conception of the revolutionary socialist party as the organic intellectual of the working class?’ What is the practical point of such avowals—what forces of liberating or even merely remedial transformation do they disclose within the heart of the present?
I believe they amount to very little. Certain Marxian categories of analysis—‘flexible accumulation’, ‘post-Fordism’—are indispensible to intelligent social criticism, although many non-Marxist writers make good use of them as well (for example Richard Sennett in his Corrosion of Character). But while Marxism continues to offer insights into features of capital accumulation, it has lost its charm as a revolutionary praxis—that is, as an immanent critique of capitalism that points towards its transcendence by a ‘higher’ form of society. This is the tragic side of the relationship between theory and practice in Marxism. It has lost whatever ‘organic’ connection it once had to significant parties and movements. Most importantly of all, naïve confidence in a future beyond commodity production, surplus value, exploitation and alienation is no longer possible. As a slogan or expression of rancorous hostility towards capitalism, and a way of identifying with a historical tradition that had its good—as well as its evil—dimensions, ‘revolutionary Marxism’ has a point. But as a practical position, it has become pointless. This is demonstrable in the most intelligent and programmatic essays published in New Left Review itself, which develop and endorse—as in the case of Robin Blackburn’s fascinating study of pension funds—what can only be described as practical experiments within the admittedly unethical and unsatisfying framework of capitalism. Of course these arguments can be chalked up to strategic compromises on the path toward ‘revolutionary transformation’. But this would be no more than wishful thinking, for there no longer exists a compelling vision of what such a journey would be like or what would be in store for us at the end of it. Why? Part of the reason lies in political and economic changes; part in the emergence of sources of social division not reducible to class; and part lies in what Jurgen Habermas has called a learning process. The history of violence in the twentieth century—not least the Communist terror justified by appeals to ‘necessity’ and ‘progress’ that François Furet has analysed so well in The Passing of an Illusion—has made many, including on the left, suspicious of appeals to ‘revolution’ of any sort. The demise of the Marxist vision has many causes. But it is now an accomplished fact.
This brings me back to Giddens. Callinicos presents a powerful critique. Giddens is too upbeat about the Third Way. He has too little to say about the obstacles in the real world to the values he espouses, about the deplorable conditions that the Third Way does not and cannot seek to eliminate. Perhaps he has offered too much intellectual credibility to the two-faced policies of Blair and Clinton. These criticisms are apt. But there is nonetheless a truth in Giddens’s analysis that is lacking in both Bourdieu’s moralizing opposition to globalization and Callinicos’s more sophisticated, systematic, yet at the same time religious—indeed almost Kierkegaardian—critique of capitalism. Giddens declares that ‘no one has any alternatives to capitalism’. Now we might not like this, but Giddens is alas correct. Nothing that Callinicos says refutes him. To say this is not to regard contemporary capitalism as a ‘trans-historical feature of human existence’ or ‘second nature’. It is simply to remark that given the history that we have inherited and the world that human beings have created, there exists no credible wholesale alternative to capitalism. The same could be said of water purification, modern medicine, electronic communication, industrial technology with all of its wastes and hazards, and also civil liberties and representative government of some sort. These are all historical achievements, products of human agency we cannot imagine transcending. We could of course attempt, by force—because few who have experienced these things would simply assent—to abolish all of these. But it is hard to conceive what could plausibly be held up as radically different but also better, and it is harder still to imagine that the effort to abolish such modern arrangements would produce anything but great misery.
Capitalism, of course, differs from medicine or civil liberties. For in spite of the consumer advantages it makes available to some—including a not inconsiderable number of inhabitants of advanced industrial societies, and no doubt many keen readers of New Left Review—it is a system of thoroughgoing, global inequality. As such it is an evil. But there exists neither a credible idea of what might replace it nor a substantial portion of humankind committed to any ‘universal’ alternative to it. That is why what Callinicos pejoratively describes as Giddens’s ‘coming to terms with capitalism’ is necessary. Far from being an act of betrayal or intellectual cowardice, such a ‘coming to terms’ is the only mature and serious course open to us. To come to terms with the world does not mean to accept it as it is, but to approach it with a realistic sense of what is ethically and politically possible. Perhaps we could imagine completely different and better worlds. I regularly encourage my undergraduate students to do this. Much of the literary genre of science fiction is based on such imagining. But a serious, responsible critique that seeks to make this awful, wonderful and tragic earth a better place, must take its bearings from the world that exists. This, after all, was always what Marxism claimed as its principal virtue, though as far back as Karl Korsch critical Marxists themselves began to see that Marxism was less prescient, more partial and constrained by history, than its most fervent adherents were willing to admit. It is precisely in the name of realism and ‘materialism’ that one must take very seriously the critique of Marxism that Giddens, and many others, have developed. The tragedy of Marxism is that while it retains theoretical insight it lacks ethical credibility and historical power.