Notes on the Millenium

Against the Current, No. 81, July/August 1999

Jane Slaughter interviews Daniel Singer

DANIEL SINGER SPECIALIZES in explaining pivotal social movements.  His books on the French worker-student revolt of May 1968 and on Polish workers’ rebellion against the party-state bureaucracy showed us the real-life workings of movements from below, and their potential to go farther.  Best known to American socialists as the European correspondent of The Nation, Singer’s elegantly written dispatches are notable for avoiding the false trails of various social democratic election victories.

His new book, Whose Millennium?  Theirs or Ours? (soon to be reviewed in Against the Current) seeks to take advantage of the millennium craze the hucksters are using to hype everything from “Best Of” compendiums to cryogenics.  But for the best of reasons: Whose Millennium? is an attempt to help resuscitate a left demoralized by capitalism’s worldwide ascendancy and its accompanying ideology that, in Margaret Thatcher’s words, “there is no alternative” (TINA).

On a speaking tour in the United States in April, Singer told audiences that there’s hope for our side both in the collapse of the Soviet Union and in “globalization.”  Jane Slaughter conducted the interview.

ATC: Is it easier or harder to talk with people about socialism now that the Soviet model is gone?

Daniel Singer: To my great surprise, what happened in Eastern Europe was taken by so many people in the West as the end of socialism.

That this was the official propaganda of the establishment I expected, but that it would be accepted, internalized by so many on the left, I must confess, I did not. Because to me, it seems at least since 1968-since the Soviet tanks entered Prague-that nobody, not even Communist parties in Western Europe, was presenting the Soviet Union as the alternative where the future was being forged.

My argument was to say, “socialism has not died, because it never lived there.” But so many people had that reaction-this feeling that socialism is doomed-that to say “this wasn’t socialism” is not enough.  You have to explain why.

ATC: And why it might not happen that way again if workers seize power.

Singer: That’s why I wrote a big chapter [in Whose Millennium?] on democracy.  Obviously because of what happened in the Soviet Union, but not only because of the horrors that were committed allegedly in the name of socialism.  It’s also because unless we invent new forms of democracy from below, we will not transform planning into the self-organization of society.

The so-called formal freedoms are quite important, and at the same time they are not sufficient.  If we don’t put social content into them, they are merely formal freedoms.

ATC: You predict that the site of the next big confrontation with capitalism is more likely to be Western Europe than the United States or the Third World.

Singer: There is the problem that people must be conscious once again that they can change their lives by collective political action.  This belief was quite strong in Western Europe, say thirty years ago, and it was never very strong in the United States.

Naturally, in the long run, there is nothing that dooms the United States to being forever the example of the most advanced forms of capitalism.  I think the United States will also change.  But for the time being, the reason I think France is more likely to be the next stage (rather than Britain) is that there was a tradition in France, which is now being revived, a popular belief that things can be altered through collective political action.

It’s the American nightmare rather than the American dream that is now being offered in Europe.  After the last war the Europeans were looking to the United States.  The dream meant the refrigerator, the washing machine, the car and so on, which we’ve acquired over a generation.

Now what we’re being offered is the American nightmare: You can’t have a decent minimum wage, you can’t have a national health service, you can’t have any guarantees on security of labor.  You have to do as the Americans do. And there is great resistance to that.

The social democratic mood in the thirty years after the war, this period of unprecedented prosperity, the golden age of capitalism, did cause people to say, “After all, why change society?  We can make changes within that society.”

During that period, in Europe, unlike in the United States, there were quite a lot of collective conquests as opposed to only individual ones. Here the unions were obtaining advances in each contract in the factory, where in a country like France, conquests like five weeks of holiday with pay were obtained on a national level, and endorsed through legislation.

That makes taking it back more difficult, and that’s why you have these strong collective reactions.  If you try to take that back you have people coming into the streets-because you have to take it from everyone.  It’s not just a local struggle; it provokes a national reaction.

When the old-age pensions were attacked in Italy in 1994 you had big demonstrations, when sickness benefits were threatened in Germany in 1996 you had the trade unions reacting, but the most important so far was what I call the French winter of discontent in 1995 [when the government tried to downsize the welfare state and Paris was paralyzed by a transport strike and the provinces shaken by mass demonstrations].

This was ideologically against TINA, in a sense, because what these people were saying was, “If that is the future you’re offering us and our children, to hell with you people, alternative or no alternative.”

That clearly is not enough.  The “No!” is extremely important, because as long as you internalize the idea that there is no way out of this system, you’re not going to do anything about it. It’s not that you like this society, it’s not that you believe what they’re saying, but there is one thing that you accept from what they’re saying: namely that there is no possibility of doing anything fundamental.

Thus it’s very important to say “we don’t want your future,” but it’s not enough.  You have to start building an alternative.  And therefore half of the book, for me the difficult part of the book, was to say, how do you search for an alternative?

I don’t have the cheek to pretend that I have the answers.  What I try to do is to suggest what are the questions that the left has to tackle and solve if it wants to be historically and politically relevant once again.

ATC: How do you maintain your optimism?

Singer: I think it’s a historical optimism with quite a lot of realism about the existing situation.  I don’t think anybody can now say that socialism is inevitable.  But to struggle we don’t need to have the certainty of victory.  Its possibility is enough.

But that possibility imposes a certain burden on us, because nature abhors the void, and if we do not provide progressive and rational solutions, there are plenty of (Patrick) Buchanans and (French far-right racist leader) Le Pens who are ready to provide reactionary and irrational solutions.

And therefore we have to be, if not optimistic, at least convinced that there is a duty to do things.  In the book I quote Walt Whitman’s saying, “Society waits unformed, and is for a while between things ended and things begun.”

We’re in this transitional period which offers hope but also danger, its companion.  Therefore I think this is something that is thrust upon us. We have to decide that we can do it, and therefore we should do it.

ATC: If socialism were certain we wouldn’t have to do anything.

Singer: Exactly.  I am against the fatalistic conception of the other side which tells us there is no alternative; I am also against a fatalistic determinism on our side.

The real question is, do we still believe in revolution?  It depends.  If by revolution we mean instant socialism, the storming of the Bastille, the seizure of the Winter Palace, followed by an inexorable road to a radiant future-obviously not. But if we think of it as a long historical process, with victories and defeats, with advances and retreats, as a vast movement from below in which the people will transform themselves as they are transforming society, yes, I believe in that.

ATC 81, July-August 1999