Daniel Singer’s Whose Millennium?

Samuel Farber

by Daniel Singer (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1999) 295 pages, $17.95.

THIS BOOK IS a treat.  Daniel Singer is able to put forward a strongly democratic and radical left socialist analysis in a clear, transparent prose without jargon or obscurantist phraseology, be it postmodernist, academic or sectarian Marxist.

Singer’s books and articles show, as did George Orwell and others in their time, that clear writing is itself a political issue.  Whether in his books or in his columns in The Nation, Singer has stayed clear of apologetics and doublespeak.

He usually writes to address an audience of nonspecialist, politically interested readers.  This trait-a good part of what being a public intellectual is presumably all about-is in turn related to the view, implicit in Singer’s work, that political analysis and writing is above all about intelligent persuasion, not about political and cultural posturing, let alone in-crowd academic and intellectual rituals.

I.  A Reasoned Utopian Vision

Whose Millennium? shows that it is possible to have a socialist vision, even a utopian vision, while retaining an intensely political and earthbound view of the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. Singer approaches political action with a reasoned optimism quite different from the fashionable intellectual cynicism or the hack triumphalism common in a shrinking sectarian left.

He does not attempt to find refuge in romanticism from the slings and arrows of present reality.  While he acknowledges that the romantic reaction against the horrors of capitalism inspired very valuable criticisms, Singer refuses to look backward.  He argues that not all contemporary needs, even those artificially created, are superfluous, and that to go back to the poverty and scarcity of the precapitalist past would be to return to a horrible society that should not be idealized.  (274)

As part of his realistic approach to social change, he alerts us against the views of romantics and cynics alike:

We .  .  .  look at people and society in a historical perspective.  They are neither saints nor sinners, neither noble savages nor greedy monsters.  They are the products of circumstances, but also, within the limits set by their physical and social conditions, products of their own action.  The “associated producers,” on whom we rely to forge a different kind of society, will not be proletarian heroes, red knights in shining armor, with a purity and political consciousness out of hagiographic tales.  They will be ordinary people, like you and me, with all our quirks and imperfections, our habits conditioned by the world we live in, our tastes distorted by television and advertising.  As these ordinary people search to gain control over their work and their fate, they will begin to reshape society, they will be affected in the process, and, so transformed, will resume their task. (269)

II.  Europe East and West

As anybody who has followed Singer’s writings as European correspondent for The Nation would expect, he begins Whose Millennium? with a discussion of recent events in Western and Eastern Europe, with particular emphasis on France, Russia and Poland.

The discussion of France focuses on the 1995 winter of discontent, the strikes and mass demonstrations against the attacks on the social services that showed the reality and potential for a fight back in Western Europe.  Singer saw the French events as an ideological turning point, the first revolt against the notion that “there is no alternative” to the market, also known as TINA.

The French upsurge was followed by the demonstrations and warning strikes organized by the German unions in the autumn of 1996, which also managed to successfully resist the government plans to cut sickness benefits.  It is important to highlight that these movements achieved at least partial victories to counter the fatalist mood, prevalent at least in the United States, that discounts the possibility of achieving even limited victories against the employers and the state.

Singer’s chapter on “Russia in the Nineties” after the fall of Communism is a masterful account of Russian realities that exposes the myths of the Western and especially the mainstream U.S. press.  Indeed the Western press distorts Russian reality more than it did during the days of the Soviet Union.

There may well have been exaggerations of the realities of what Reagan called the Evil Empire, but the Soviet system was nonetheless evil. However, these distortions pale in comparison with the present-day Orwellian doublespeak where bad guys are made into good guys. The terms “democrats” and “reformers” are liberally applied to authoritarian, corrupt elements who are often in bed with the various and conflicting Russian financial mafias.

In their more sober moments, the Western media and governments recognize this ugly Russian reality.  In those instances, however, they move to their second line of defense by asserting that it is too early to tell where Russia is going.  In any case, we’re told, what exists in Russia is not “real capitalism”-this by the very people who were always in a great rush to insist that the ugliness of the USSR offered the definitive evidence that Marxist socialism couldn’t work!

In any case, Singer does an excellent job of debunking Yeltsin and his allies, while at the same time refusing to encourage any illusions about the ideologically bankrupt and jingoist Communist and nationalist opposition to the present Russian government.

Singer has had an often exciting, and certainly long and honorable history of covering Poland, his native country.  Since he has consistently done this from a democratic and socialist perspective, it is only with sadness that he looks at the right-wing shadow of what once was Solidarnosc, the great workers’ movement.

While this movement never thought of itself as socialist, Singer understood from the beginning of Solidarnosc as an independent trade union in 1979-81 the potential inherent in its democratic, egalitarian and self-management orientations.  (See his important study from that period, The Road to Gdansk.)

Singer wrote then, and reminds us now, of some of the striking characteristics of the original Solidarity in the early eighties, including its insistence on open (and rejection of back door) negotiations with the government, its demand of proportionately higher raises for the lowest paid, its important shopfloor encroachments on management control, and its independence from the Catholic hierarchy when the latter was willing to counsel “moderation” in exchange for corporate concessions from the government.

In analyzing the evolution of Solidarity, Singer astutely sees the critical turning point in the turn from open to underground activity that followed Jaruzelski’s military coup of December 13, 1981.  During the seven years of underground activity, the center of gravity shifted from the factories to the printing presses and from strikes to propaganda.

In this context, the role of financial resources grew significantly, which meant a considerably greater degree of influence for intellectuals, the Church and foreign donors.  I may add that the AFL-CIO foreign department with its Lovestonite/Social Democrats USA politics considerably increased its influence on Polish affairs at this time.

Singer’s insights into this period invite further reflection that he doesn’t pursue.  The Polish experience, as described by Singer, confirms previous revolutionary and socialist history in the sense that workers and oppressed people in general are much more open to radical, egalitarian ideas during certain periods (1980-1981) than others (1982-1989).  Thus, seizing the moment “while the iron is hot” becomes a critically important issue.

It is in this context that the notion of the “self-limiting revolution” put forward by Solidarity’s leading intellectuals became highly problematic, not necessarily for these intellectuals’ own goals-largely limited to the demand for political democracy-but for the far wider social and economic, as well as political goals, shared by Singer and readers of this journal.

After December of 1981, the “window of opportunity” closed far more for the egalitarian and radical potential of Solidarity than for more modest political aims.

It is true that a Soviet invasion was a very real and not an imaginary threat to the Polish movement; after all, the Soviets had invaded Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979.  The point is not to have foolishly and irresponsibly ignored that danger, but rather to ask ourselves whether the declaration of a “self-limiting revolution” immunized or even qualitatively decreased the dangers of an invasion, while at the same time powerfully contributing to the deradicalization of the movement.

It is not necessary to address the ultimate question of how different Poles were from Vietnamese or Cubans in their willingness and ability to combat imperialist oppression, even at a very high cost. It is sufficient to point out that the so-called self-limiting revolution was itself a big gamble, and that it was far from certain at the time that the USSR would accept those limited aims and goals any more than more radical ones.

In other words, giving up in advance more radical goals didn’t in fact obtain significantly greater security for the movement during the most critical periods of confrontation with the USSR. We know now that the Soviet leadership’s willingness to invade varied considerably between the beginning of the Solidarity movement in August 1980 and the Polish military coup of December 13, 1981.

A recent article, published since the appearance of Singer’s book, and based on sources such as the recently available minutes of the Soviet Politburo, has thrown a great deal of light on this question (Vojtech Mastny, “The Soviet Non-Invasion of Poland in 1980-1981 and the End of the Cold War,” Europe-Asia Studies [formerly Soviet Studies], Vol. 51, No. 2, 1999, 189-211)

It seems that from August 1980 until about April 1981, a Soviet invasion of Poland was, even when not imminent, very much on the agenda.  The Soviet disposition to invade began to waver after April 1981, and on October 29, 1981, the Soviet Politburo finally decided not to invade Poland.  Far from Jaruzelski’s coup of December 13, 1981 constituting an attempt to prevent a Soviet invasion, the opposite was the case, with the Politburo telling Jaruzelski that he was very much on his own.

According to the minutes of the session of the Soviet Politburo held on December 10, 1981, the leading Communist Party body unanimously rejected Jaruzelski’s appeal for military backing.  Jaruzelski had asked for military assistance as a sort of insurance in case he would need it during and after the planned coup. Not only did the Politburo unambiguously reject Jaruzelski’s appeal, but Politburo member Andropov after stating that “we cannot risk it,” went farther and declared that “even if Poland were to be ruled by Solidarity, so be it.” (Mastny, 204)

While, from the very beginning, the Communist leaderships of East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria were strongly for an invasion of Poland, there was a degree of hesitancy on the part of Soviet Politburo members Gromyko, Suslov, Andropov and Ustinov-the last two having been most directly responsible for the intervention in Afghanistan, the negative consequences of which course had by then become clearly evident.  (Mastny, 191)

Besides the possible influence of the negative lessons of Afghanistan, other factors at work included the calculations made by the Soviet leadership as to the sizable political and economic costs of a Soviet invasion, especially when at some points Politburo members such as Gromyko wondered whether the Polish army could be relied on to “fulfil its duty.” (Minutes of Politburo session, April 2, 1981 cited in Mastny, 199.)

For this and other reasons, the Soviet Politburo on more than one occasion withdrew from what often appeared to be imminent plans for an invasion in the period from August 1980 to April 1981.  When faced with such situations, the Soviet Politburo would usually decide to rely once again on the Polish Communist apparatus, first under the leadership of Kania and then under Jaruzelski.

III.  Imagining the Alternative

Part III of Whose Millennium? presents us with a new Singer, addressing issues not usually dealt with in his previous books and articles in The Nation.  Now, he enters new territory searching for an alternative to world capitalist hegemony.

The context for this search is provided in chapter 9, one of the book’s best. This is a lucid, brief and accessible account of the period from the early seventies to the present days; in other words, of what has happened since the end of the post-World War II boom, the greatest economic boom the world has ever witnessed.

Singer takes a hard look at the phenomenon of “globalization” and points to a number of important facts.  First, present day “globalization” is not unprecedented and bears similarities to the capitalist epoch immediately preceding World War I. Second, “globalization” and economic restructuring were themselves responses to the crises of profitability experienced by capitalism in the period after the early seventies.

Third, technology did not create globalization.  Once the decision was taken to remove all restrictions on the movement of capital, the technology developed to meet the needs determined by capital.  Fourth, the return to free-market economics or neoliberalism was not imposed from above on reluctant governments.

As Singer puts it, “governments around the world were active participants in this transition, including many ostensibly left-wing governments which, accepting the existing society, had to accept its changing rules of the game.” (207) This analysis, in turn, underlies Singer’s account of the sharp turn of European social democracy to the right, where to varying degrees (Tony Blair of Britain having gone farthest), even a residual pretense of reformism has been given up on behalf of an essentially neoliberal agenda.

With his sharp criticisms of European social democracy, Singer confirms his well-earned reputation as an opponent of both stalinist and social democratic politics.  In this context, and as part of Singer’s search for an alternative, he addresses the issue of political organization and puts forward what he calls the “stopgap organization or the provisional party.” (255)

This type of political formation, Singer proposes, would regroup the most militant and politically most conscious activists in the unions and social movements.  Rather than wanting to absorb the social movements as some parties do, this provisional party would hope to be absorbed by the social movements.  This means that as soon as the people enter into motion, the provisional party would want to be overtaken, but not swallowed, by the movement, and it would become “eager to cede its place to a broader coalition by then ready to fulfill its historical task.” (256)

Singer’s proposals for a provisional party is tied to his rejection of the “vanguard party” tradition, a rejection which I share, whether in the “toy Bolshevik” sectarian versions, or as it expresses itself in more substantial political movements.  However, Singer avoids some serious issues.  Most important of all is the question of political leadership.

Leadership is necessary to organize and encourage people to fight, and is also necessary to identify the political opportunities and dangers at hand as they present themselves in highly specific political junctures.

Lenin revealed his greatest genius and made his most important political contributions in this respect.  The problem with leadership is that we must deal with how to hold that leadership democratically accountable, and how to prevent the many ways in which that accountability is escaped, not only in social democratic and stalinist organizations.

While in search of an alternative, Singer also dispatches some of the illusions that have plagued sectors of the left in recent years, a task that he accomplishes with clarity and elegant simplicity.

To those who proclaim the “disappearance of work,” he urges not to confuse the reduction of employment with the end of work. He also warns us not to contrast a rather idealized version of work in the “golden age” with the nature of today’s jobs: precarious, uncertain, stripped of its social benefits.  (158-159)

All of this is shockingly obvious to the resident of any big city in the United States.  Rather than the end of work, what we can see with our own eyes has been the creation of millions of what Clinton and Gore boast of as new jobs: the disproportionately minority and immigrant messengers, security guards, busboys, garment and fast food workers, and the numerous jobs in the large but economically weaker sectors of the construction industry.  This constitutes a good chunk of today’s multiracial and multinational American working class that is overwhelmingly non-union and superexploited.

To those who claim that the working class is disappearing-and who often overlap with those who proclaim the end of work-Singer points out that with the peasant smallholders marginalized, wage and salary earners now account for some eighty percent of the working population in most Western countries.

While Singer of course recognizes that the male, blue-collar, big-plant section of the working class is numerically declining in the Western capitalist world, that does not necessarily mean that their specific social weight and impact has declined.  As Singer puts it, “having witnessed two of Europe’s major upheavals -France in May 1968 and Poland in 1980 -I can testify that it is when the big factories come to a halt that people’s minds start working.” (178)

IV.  The Viability of Socialism

An important element of Singer’s search for an alternative is the call for what he terms a “realistic utopia.” This does not mean that Singer has abandoned the classical Marxist opposition to utopianism insofar as it refers to detailed blueprints and full-fledged models imposed from above.  Instead, he is responding to a political situation that is dramatically different from when Marx criticized utopianism over a hundred years ago.

We are reaching the end of a twentieth century-“the age of extremes” as E.J. Hobsbawm called it-that has witnessed untold horrors and atrocities, some of which were carried out in the name of socialism and Marxism.  No wonder that one of the most effective slogans of conservatives and free marketeers in post-1989 Eastern Europe was “no more experiments” (even as they launched a wild experimental leap into the market with sometimes appalling results!).

If socialists are appealing to the democratic, egalitarian and intelligent best side of people, and not to the worst cheerleading, herd-like responses that have been greatly encouraged by the media and educational systems, then we must demonstrate, rather than assert, that a democratic kind of socialism is not only desirable, but also viable.

Thus Singer is surely right in pointing out that people want to know where movements are heading and how they propose to get there, and that they may even require safeguards for the democratic nature of the journey.  In his view, it is no longer sufficient to speak of a vision of a different society and a few signposts along the road. Movements may very well have to produce a fairly complex set of proposals, elaborated in democratic fashion, even if simply as drafts or provisional guides to be amended as a changing reality requires.

V.  Left-Wing Enlightenment

It is a pleasure to agree with practically everything a book says, and with the author’s reasoning in reaching his conclusions.  And yet among intellectuals who speak to a broad audience, Singer may be part of a threatened species, namely, the left-wing of the Enlightenment tradition-i.e.  the school of classical Marxism enriched and updated by a contemporary sensitivity to issues of gender, race and the serious problems posed by North-South relations.

The threat to this approach comes, on the one hand, from the right wing of the Enlightenment tradition-the hegemonic cult of the market-and on the other hand, from the highly influential postmodernism and other forms of anti-Enlightenment ideologies of certain sections of the left.

These latter currents make a great deal of the fact that both Marxism and Laissez-Faire (unrestrained free markets) economics are products of the Western intellectual tradition, and demagogically use that fact to discredit the application of reason to human affairs.  Nevertheless, their opposition to reason also originated and developed in countries such as Germany and France, and has historically constituted no less a part of the Western intellectual tradition than the Enlightenment.

It is only fitting that Singer concludes Whose Millennium? with the warning that politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum.  If the left fails to provide rational, progressive solutions to the growing social and economic crises, the right will seize the occasion with irrational and reactionary “solutions” to these crises.  That is why barbarism is an option.

Singer reminds us that socialism may be possible, and even necessary to eliminate the evils of capitalism, but that it is not inevitable.  This should not imply passivity or resignation but, on the contrary, “it dictates greater participation, more activity, and more militancy since, within the limits of objective conditions, the future will be what we shall make it.” (273)

Samuel Farber is an editor of ATC.  He is the author of Before Stalinism (Verso), a study of the political theory and practice of Lenin and the Bolsheviks and their implications for socialist politics.  His next book, dealing with the left and its various and conflicting approaches to social decay and reconstruction, is scheduled for publication by Lexington Books in the spring of 2000.

ATC 82, September-October 1999