Why “Actually Existing”?
Partly to advertise the fact that I’m an old leftie. For some of us, the words ‘actually existing’ immediately suggest the noun ‘socialism’ – and the phrase immediately suggests a wince, at best. The “actually existing socialism” of Brezhnev and Honecker and Jaruzelski! How we miss it! How we miss debating the class nature of the USSR with Fourth Internationalists and state-capitalists and closet Schachtmanites and even, if you were lucky and kept very still, the odd Stalinist! Happy days.
Partly because, if the idea of “actually existing socialism” was a sick joke back then,now it’s rapidly becoming a nostalgic fantasy. This way of thinking can lead to some fairly ghastly conclusions – witness the dominant view of Milosevic’s Serbia on the British Left – but I think it’s worth entertaining for all that. Was the Bolshevik experiment an attempt to build an alternative to free-market capitalism? Yes, clearly. Was it unforgivably vile in some ways and fatally flawed in others? Yes, again. Was it utterly worthless and without any positive content, for those of us who are interested in alternatives to capitalism? I’m not convinced.
As for the subtitle, I’ve always liked that quote –
“If constructing the future and settling everything for all times are not our affair, it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.”
Marx to Arnold Ruge, 1843
This to me is just what the Left should be about. I think it’s far more constructive to say what people – what everyone – is doing wrong than to take sides with one group of people you don’t know against another. I don’t believe that any government speaks for me, and I don’t take pride in anything any government does. This makes me a bit of a sourpuss, obviously, but it does at least spare me the shame of lining up with Saddam Hussein. And, indeed, the shame of lining up with Tony Blair.
The Situationists are an inspiration to me in this area. Debord was always a practitioner of ruthless criticism of all that exists – although when he came to write Panegyric, all that existed was a condition of general inauthenticity which had replaced experiences he had loved. I wrote somewhere that the older Debord, unlike Durruti, was afraid of ruins – he mourned the loss of the Paris which he had once dreamed of sweeping away. There’s a contradiction here, but I think it’s inescapable. Rise up and destroy the bleached tombs of bourgeois death-in-life! Only don’t destroy the good… oh, too late.
But the inspiration for this blog was the curious way that much of the Left seems to take its bearings from what Actually Exists, these days. For some people, the fact that Saddam Hussein’s regime Actually Existed – and was indisputably a vile dictatorship – seems to justify whatever was done to remove it, UN resolutions or no resolutions, WMD or no WMD, legal advice or no legal advice, peaceful transition to a generally-recognised independent and sovereign Iraqi regime or no… you get the idea. For other people, the trump card is the fact that Iraqi oil Actually Exists – as do companies like Halliburton. Political Islam is another great topic for the Actually Exists treatment – how can we argue with religious faith? Would we be this critical of Christians? (Well, yes, actually.) Or take the forthcoming election – isn’t the choice between Blair and Howard the only choice that Actually Exists? There’s something table-thumping about these appeals to what Actually Exists, and a whiff of the easy answer.
Ruthless criticism of all that exists (including Actually Existing socialism and other Actually Existing regimes and ideologies, the progressive ones included)… Ruthless criticism of all that exists, except for the good bits. (When I find the good bits I’ll let you know.)