A Response to Paul Buhle: Limits of Religious Rebellion

Against the Current, No. 10, September/October 1987

Allen Hunter

PAUL BUHLE’S “Reflections on U.S. Radicalism: Past and Future,” radiates optimism in this period of general pessimism and political retreat. His tenacious commitment to a visionary socialism at once democratic and internationalist is complemented by his generous views of diverse social movements and cultural impulses. His unifying, transcendent vision is welcome in a period characterized by fragmentation, retreat, and timidity.

The strengths of Buhle’s outlook are his robust eagerness to get on with socialist transformation even if socialism’s classic agent — the industrial proletariat — is not its bearer, and his desire/ability to see liberatory impulses where others see reform and accommodation. Still, his enticing vision is more poetry than politics, more story than strategy.

I suspect that, like me, many of Buhle’s readers are attracted to his optimism and radicalism, but puzzled and unconvinced by his confidence that emergent events “propose the definitive end to capitalist history.” In these comments I will look at several instances of that discrepancy between avid desires and adequate descriptions.

Buhle’s version of where we are and where we are going is in stark contrast to the views of most other radicals, at odds in particular with what I see as the three main tendencies on the Left today.

(1) Buhle presents socialism as the sum of widely varied oppositional movements many of which predate Marx. Here he distinguishes himself from the orthodox Marxist position and political tendency that socialism and Marxism are necessarily connected. Analytically he is at odds with orthodox Marxists who continue to hold that Marxism is adequate as a general theory for understanding capitalist societies, and that the proletariat remains the critical, essential, and unifying social agent of socialist transformation.

Buhle does not view Marxism as the overarching theory which defines socialism nor the proletariat as the single social agent which will achieve it. Rather he sees socialism as broader and more inclusive than Marxism, and movements of the working class as historically important but not necessarily the essential bearers of socialism. Buhle spiritedly seeks out radicalism in many disparate social groups and movements; however there are problems with his views on both socialism and Marxism.

(2) Buhle continues to enunciate a revolutionary perspective. Here he is at odds with the many radical activists on the Left who seek reforms without regard for visions and principles, goals and dreams evocative of a different world. Today many former New Leftists — as well as younger activists — see themselves as pragmatic, concerned with goals shared by “ordinary people,” and realistic in their assessments of what can be achieved. Yet quite understandably most of their reformist political priorities stem as much from temperament as analysis, from choices about their own lives as much as from theoretical considerations of what is possible and desirable.

Buhle’s optimistic impulse toward transcendent political goals — refreshing in contrast to reformism — is also more guided by emotion than analysis. Analytically, 1 will argue revolution seems both very unlikely and very necessary.

(3) Buhle’s perspective raises the question of the unity or dispersal of radical social groups, and is in a productive tension with the new social movements. If orthodox Marxism calls for revolution based on “privileging” (i.e. the special and central role of) the working class, and reformism dismisses a stance of radical opposition as unrealistic, the new social movements are radically oppositional without being revolutionary-and are even more open than reformist politics to the legitimacy of diverse social groups.

Buhle shares openness to many varied impulses with the new social movements. However he fails to bring out their differences, stressing their underlying socialist unity, and hence draws this activism back into a unified socialist tradition.

As attractive as Buhle’s optimism is, he achieves it by avoiding analysis of actual evolving conditions. In what follows, I will try to suggest that neither Buhle nor those he implicitly criticizes have adequately dealt with (1) the content of socialism in relationship to the status of Marxism, (2) the tensions between reform and revolution, and the issue of unity vs. diversity of social agents.

Marxism and Socialism

Buhle’s approach to socialism is fairly unique, I think. His method combines Hegel and social history. He has a reading of history which is quite teleological and abstractly determinist. Still, he is more attracted to the dynamism of socialist movements than to the categories of Marxist thought, and views history more in terms of waves of social activism than the unfolding of the structures of capital.

He clearly believes that Marxist intellectuals should have more humility and understand the extent to which social movements create their own energetic intelligence adequate to their circumstances and tasks. Yet he joins a populist embrace of people in struggle to his reading of the ultimate meaning of their struggles. Buhle’s vagueness about the relationship between socialism and Marxism allows him to avoid a number of critical theoretical questions and political evaluations.

It is unclear if Buhle sees Marxism as a valuable body of theory or as merely one of many ideologies which motivate social movements, having no more purchase on explaining society than the ideas and values which inform other movements. Properly, I believe, he does not privilege the immigrant German Marxists over non­Marxist socialist movements in the U.S.*

Buhle is right, of course, that the history of social movements is not best understood in terms of correct ideas, nor will socialism be realized by Marxists imposing their politics on other movements. Yet a body of ideas can be evaluated apart from its role in stimulating political activism; and Buhle’s casual attitude toward Marxism is inadequate in several ways. While he properly stresses its mythic qualities and the extent to which it taps into traditions of utopianism, he does not deal with the tension between that quality and its status as theory.

For instance, in his historical discussion of radicalism in the U.S. he presents Marxism as one movement ideology among many, but he also uses Marxist-influenced categories analytically. He correctly says that social movements often do not recognize their common interests, that the immigrant and native American sources of radicalism were varied and often opaque to one another, and German Marxists were no more astute at comprehending the general context than other labor activists.

Buhle further argues that discrete movements need to be joined through historically specific “hinges,” institutional settings in which different social groups share reasonably common conditions, interests, and capacities for action. If not explicitly Marxist, here Buhle has a materialist analysis of the conditions under which groups create bonds and forge unity. Historically, he argues, trade unionism was the “hinge” connecting immigrant and native-born working class movements. Yet for the current period he nowhere specifies what hinges might provide the organizational, institutional settings in which different movements with ultimately similar goals could unite.

Next, his determinism is unlike most current Marxisms, but is theoretically and politically disturbing in its own way. Theoretically he does not ground his optimism in any analysis of the current period. I have no idea why he is so confident we are at the edge of a “revolutionary response to a society sick with itself.”

One of the powers of Marxism, presumably, is that, without promising exact predictions, it can help illuminate the general trajectory of society within which social movements can arise and join. Buhle evokes images and metaphors of change, but they are not grounded in arguments about actual political, economic, or social developments. He gives us rhetoric, but no reasons for believing that a “shitstorm” is about to strike. Buhle’s romantic view of a continuous socialist tradition combines with his determinism to produce at least two political weaknesses. He is inattentive to changes in objective conditions, and he is soft on Stalinism.

By stressing a continuous socialist tradition culminating in an apocalyptic moment of socialism or barbarism, he suppresses the extent to which the issues and problems which people face in their daily lives, and socialists con­ front as political activists, change through time. This is where I think he is neither Marxist enough nor sufficiently critical of the limits of Marxism.

If his Marxism was more materialist he would analyze changes in the overall organization of capitalist societies, how those changes empower and disempower different oppositional groups, and modify the kinds of issues and concerns around which oppositional social groups are likely to mobilize. At the same time, if he more explicitly focused on the limits of Marxism he would note many issues which it inadequately treats such as nationalism, militarism, statism and bureaucratic rationalization, ecology, racial and gender oppression which cumulatively demand that radical theory and the content of social­ ism be expanded if they are to remain vibrant.

Because Buhle is laying out his vision of politics at a global level, his inattention to socialist regimes is troublesome. Through a determinist reading of socialist history he dramatically underplays the horrors of Stalinism in socialist regimes and communist movements. He says that Stalinism was historically inevitable in the USSR and only one of many setbacks for working-class communists in the U.S. While political judgments should be tempered by historically grounded analyses, it is too easy for the latter-especially when based on determinist assumptions-to excuse an awful lot.

Like the legacies of the Second and Third Internationals, the socialist regimes pose major challenges to democratic and libertarian socialists throughout the world, including the West. They are authoritarian, inegalitarian, inefficient, socially, economically, and culturally conservative, and are in many ways worse to live in than capitalist societies. The barbarisms of capitalism and imperialism are rivalled by those of the Soviet, Chinese, Cambodian and other socialist regimes.

The sources and consequences of these deformations of utopian visions cannot be ignored; they raise fundamental questions about received Marxist teachings about the political economy of socialism as well as party and state formations. In addition, the agendas of radical dissidents in socialist societies underscore the centrality of political liberty and freedom along with democracy and equality in their struggles for reform. While such dissidents may at times be too uncritical of capitalist states, their insistence on so-called ”bourgeois” civil rights and liberties remind us that we cannot have collective social liberation without individual political liberty.

Reform and Revolution

Turning to the tension between reform and revolution, Buhle’s determinism allows him simply to overlook differences between reformist and revolutionary politics by arguing that people achieved what they could given the conditions they faced.

He implicitly works within a redemptive paradigm of revolution in which he ignores different degrees of radicalism, assuming that when the conditions are right, this world will be transcended and a dramatically different one will be created through popular activity. Whether people hold .revolutionary or reformist ideas will not itself, it seems, make a difference.

This is too simple. A strong case can be made that people are uninterested in radical change when objective constraints shrink the horizons of the possible, and their receptivity to radicalism expands as the range of realistic options increases. However, it is also true that different political ideas, commitments, and traditions help create different kinds of political responses to similar conditions.

Still, these are empirical questions, quite different from Buhle’s peculiar combination of teleology and enthusiasm for the radical kernel in varied forms of insurgency.

Even though Buhle writes that there is no “single, unifying event” or “any single historical agent,” he relies on systemic crisis. His reference to a “closing of the circle upon the West” suggests that capitalist society has reached its limits, that gradual change is no longer an option. Yet he does not show why the conditions which once channeled social activism in reformist directions no longer obtain. He invokes images of rupture, but no analysis of the developing conditions which will constitute it. Capitalist crises are clearly important for the history of social activism as well as political economy; but there is no reason to believe that these crises will culminate in mega-crisis which will provide the opening for revolutionary action. In this way, Buhle invokes a scenario that even few orthodox Marxists hold to any longer; his prediction of imminent revolutionary change is implausible.

At the same time, changes of revolutionary proportions are necessary, however unlikely they seem. Even without a bias toward revolution it is clear, I think, that the sum of demands made by reformists-and especially by the new social movements-imply changes of such magnitude that a) they would cumulatively constitute revolutionary change, and b) are hard to imagine without dramatic changes in the structures of power in advanced capitalist states.

Each person can make her /his own list of concerns, add in those s/he considers legitimate demands of other social groups, and link these to ending the trajectories of statism, nuclearisrn, and ecocide; it should then be clear that, however unlikely, revolutionary transformations are necessary if the sum of these changes is to be realized democratically.

For all his sensitivity to cultural forms and social movement self-activity, Buhle is rather inattentive to differences in the degrees to which people fundamentally oppose their societies. He does not acknowledge the ex­ tent to which people have chosen reformist rather than revolutionary politics, e.g. workers calculating that the benefits of reform were preferable to the ambiguities of attempts at seizing power.

Understandably battered by the authoritarianism and barbarism of socialist regimes, the collapse of the New Left, the well-deserved demise of the Marxist-Leninist sects, the collapse of liberalism, and the ravages of Reaganism, many activists have so lowered their expectations of what can be achieved that they no longer hold onto thoughts of what is desirable and what might be possible. Many movements doing important political work and provocatively challenging received socialist orthodoxies-various feminisms, Black electoral politics, gay liberation, the handicapped movements, working class organizing-share a disinterest in classic socialist issues articulated around revolution and taking power.

Unfortunately, this supposedly realistic tempering of longings for revolution begs certain questions or answers them in ways I find unsatisfactory. Thus, for instance, Left populism too often distances itself from cultural radicalism, feminism, anti-racism, and internationalism as it seeks to articulate social democratic goals through populist rhetoric. Social democrats seeking to influence trade union officials and the Democratic Party often ignore or deny the regressive class and race implications of competing with the Republicans on the terrain of electoral politics as currently defined.

Similarly, reformist feminist and Black political currents, seeking power and influence in the Democratic Party or through lobbying, often fail to take into account (or are uninterested in) how such choices are based on accepting the premises of the very mainstream politics which historically helped structure their own marginality. In addition, the shift from anti-imperialism to anti-intervention can indicate a loss of a systematic account of the role of the U.S. in the world.

My point here is not to moralistically condemn reformist political activity, but to argue against the prevalent tendency to counterpose the sober rationality of reform to the psychologically-driven excesses of radicalism. Neither tendency has cornered the market on insight or emotion.

The emotional distance between Buhle and many reformists is illustrated by how differently they approach religion. Buhle is obviously not alone in stressing the current importance of religion, but his evocation is refreshing because he emphasizes its radicalness, not the need for socialists to restrain their radicalism in order to work with religious activists. He does not argue that feminists, gays and others who supposedly threaten “the family” should temper their politics so as not to offend religious traditionalists; rather he argues that many cur­ rents of religious activism today themselves are authentically radical.

Yet if some read into religion their own desires for cultural retreat, Buhle reads into religious movements his own visions of redemption. He is right that the Falwells and Robertsons do not alone define the new religious mood, that a great deal of liberal and radical political activity is organized through religious institutions. He is also right that many religious activists are quite thoroughly radical, motivated by visions of a qualitatively different world.

Still, in the U.S. religious activism is at least as entrenched on the Right as the Left; religious fundamentalism is one of the prime determinants of racial/sexual/cultural backlash attitudes and activism. Buhle is also too sanguine in assuming that political-religious activists are all in harmony with one another, and_ with socialist and feminist goals.

Like secular movements, religious movements can not only have different but conflicting commitments, and some religious groups-such as the U.S. Catholic Bishops-are progressive on some issues and conservative on others. For white people in the U.S., at least, I suspect the most consistently subversive challenges to the present order come from radical critics of economic growth, feminists, gays, and others who seek a wildly different world, not from religious radicals.

Historically in Europe and the U.S., Freethought, skepticism, and militant secularism have often been associated with working-class radicalism and self-education; and a full history of American radicalism would accord them as well as evangelical reformers their due. Why should it be different today?

Internationally as well, Buhle is too partial in his interpretation of the current role of religion. His comment about the radicalization of the Counter-reformation as evidenced in Latin America is insightful, but is incomplete in two ways.

First, it is not clear that Latin American liberation theology will be of greater importance for the last quarter of this century than Islamic fundamentalism which, centered in Iran, stretches at least from Northern Africa to Afghanistan. Second, liberation theology should itself be analyzed as well as celebrated. It may break with the Church to fight many this-worldly oppressions, and its goals are dramatically in tension with local and international forces of capital and militarism.

Again, however, Buhle writes as though all democratic impulses are in harmony with one another and supportive of liberatory as well as egalitarian politics. Is such the case? Does liberation theology as a whole challenge patriarchal assumptions, stand with the empowerment of women and the freeing of sexuality? Does it challenge the hierarchical nature of the church? Is liberation theology any less liable to deformation and multiple uses than Marxism? Why assume that substituting liberation theology for Leninist theory will end conflicts between leaders and led in movements and states?

Perhaps like Leninism, liberation theology works ideologically because it temporarily masks differences between popular groups and modernizing elites.

The Social Movements

Finally, Buhle’s perspective on socialism is a useful counterpoint to the new social movements. The new social movements are the segment of the Left currently most aligned with the post-structuralist (often post-Marxist) theoretical developments that stress the fragmented nature of social reality, the diversity of oppositional movements arrayed against a multiplicity of oppressions, and the supposed tyranny of theories and movements which stress totality.

Often considered post-industrial or life-style movements, they include the more radical segments of feminist, gay, urban movements, anti-nuclear power and weapons activities, and ecological, environmental politics. There is ambiguity about whether Black politics, and ethnic, regional and national movements are included.

While seemingly disinterested in classic socialist issues such as the meaning and content of socialism, the status of Marxism, and the dilemmas of reform vs. revolution, the new social movements instead stress that different oppositional groups cohere around distinct oppressions, raise particular demands and may even find their oppressors in other oppositional movements. In underscoring the dispersion of sites of oppression and the problems with reducing certain problems to other supposedly more basic structural features, the new social movements legitimate diverse and creative social and cultural movements. Buhle too is enthusiastic about many diverse social movements, but sees them as in some way acting as a collective substitute for the proletariat. There are problems with this.

On the one hand, Buhle seems to speak as if Blacks, women, Third World people, radical Catholics, can be expected to join in struggling for utopian socialism. But often people who are struggling against oppression through participation in one movement are oppressors of participants in another movement. Buhle is silent about the material bases of division (or collaboration) between movements as well as the circumstances which might lead to participation in a collective project. As a result he exaggerates the extent to which the movements actually share common agendas.

On the other hand, Buhle does not mention the qualitative contributions of new agencies to the redefinition of political goals. Blacks, women, Third World activists add not only numbers to the struggle for socialism, but also new demands, insights, and sensitivities which redefine political processes and goals. Through their cultural contributions as well as their attempts to right the particular wrongs they suffer, different social groups expand the range of issues which have to be addressed.

Buhle thus is too wedded to continuities, not changes, in the content of socialism. He knows that the history of socialism is more than the struggle to collectively appropriate the means of production. Still, received notions of socialism-whether defined by Marxism or the broader socialist tradition-are inadequate to encompass the variety of issues we face today and which the new social movements do cumulatively articulate.

At the core of socialism there is an ambivalence: Is it the radicalization of democracy or a variant of the political project of economic modernization? As the latter it cannot accommodate the new social movements; as the former its impulses and content are constantly renewed and enriched.

However at the same time Buhle does see similarities between diverse movements which advocates of the new social movements sometimes miss. There is a long history of democratic, egalitarian struggles which can be traced back centuries and up through movements such as feminism and liberation theology to­ day. The desire for communitarian forms, and strivings for liberty and equity, and even the search for freer sexuality have recurrently led people into heroic actions.

In addition, most new social movements do share certain political attitudes such as a hostility to the state and bureaucracy, an anti-technocratic outlook, and a culture of opposition, a willingness to be radical. In the United States at least, an indication of that shared culture is that many of the core leaders of different social movements have migrated from one to another with the rise and fall of particular movements.

What the relationship of particular movements can/ should be to one another is one of the pressing problems the Left faces today. After all, even if social movements are viewed as serving the interests of particular groups, most of them in fact demand society-wide changes.

Feminist programs are not only made by women, they demand change in men; anti-racist campaigns may seek modest remediations, but also imply quite dramatic changes in white people; gay politics is a plea for civil rights but is also a challenge to the elements in society which reproduce homophobia; a serious ecology agenda radically transforms the structures and imperatives of the economy in which many workers as well as capitalists have a stake.

For all these political goals to be realized without coercive state mechanisms requires quite revolutionary changes in social and character structures. If most people only think about reforms in limited areas, but cumulatively thorough changes are called for, then even committed militants may be unprepared to grapple with the extent to which the world has to change for the sum of democratically-mounted goals to be realized.

In other words, neither the dismissal of redemptive models nor Buhle’s optimism about transcendent politics speaks to the dilemmas we currently face if we are serious about achieving the demands registered by the varied movements active today.

These areas of political query raised for me by Buhle suggest the need for leftists themselves to raise questions, however discomforting, which question received notions without assuming that those notions or possible variants are necessarily outmoded. We should be as impatient with untheorized rejections of socialist commitments as with their dogmatic reassertion.

In summary let me contribute a few questions to the intellectual agenda which socialists face today: Is revolution in the West, the world, possible? If possible, is it desirable? Are the impulses of the diverse social movements sufficient in themselves or can they be elaborated into an expanded version of socialism? Do these movements promise a way to avoid the classic dichotomy between reform and revolution? How should those of us who are adamantly secular deal with religious activism?

What should western socialists learn from Eastern dissidents and Third World intellectuals and militants? How can we resist the false bases of Buhle’s optimism and still get on with making a better future with as much vigor as his appraisal of our situation gives him?

*Nick Xenos criticizes Buhle for just the opposite-reading the broad radical tradition in the U.S. through a Marxist lens — in a recent review in The Nation June 27, 1987 of Buhle’s recently published Marxism in the U.S.A.: From 1870 to the Present Day. I am not sure whether we understand Buhle differently, or whether Buhle says somewhat different things in the book and this essay.

September-October 1987, ATC 10

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