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To Turn the Mass into a Class

People can be organized in two ways: right-wing populism prone to xenophobia, demonization, and magical thinking or as a class, held together by solidarity and conscious, purposeful action. The socialist project is to turn the mass into a class.

Walter Benjamin 1892-1940,

Liberal commentators on both sides of the Atlantic have been quick to blame the UK’s general election results on Labour going too far left. In the United States, Democratic Party centrists are preoccupied with warding off Bernie Sanders and, to a lesser extent, Elizabeth Warren. That liberals would seize an opportunity to chastise the left is no surprise. Anti-leftism plays the same role in today’s society as antagonism towards heresy played in the Middle Ages, and is animated by similarly ignoble motives. Nevertheless, Labour’s defeat has profound implications for the left. The party was faced with a whirlwind, in the form of English nationalism in particular and right-wing populism in general. The question is what a left alternative might look like.

At the most immediate level, Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to provide leadership on the question of Brexit seems to have been the main cause of the defeat. There were two levels to this failure. The first has to do with the Labour Party’s relation to the British people. After the referendum, both Theresa May and Corbyn could have tried to unite the country behind a compromise ‘soft’ Brexit. Instead, May sought to conciliate the far right of the Conservative Party, while Corbyn chose to finesse the Brexit question in the partially mistaken hope that by doing so he could hold Labour together. Their joint failure led to three unnecessary years of stagnation, belligerence and confusion. Those years gave Johnson his opportunity to cut the Gordian knot.

In Labour’s case there was a second, deeper level to the failure. In classic old left fashion, Corbyn suggested that Brexit was a ‘secondary contradiction’ and the ‘real’ question was socialism v. capitalism. In effect, this perpetuated the idea that socialism is simply a change in the economic system, rather than a reorientation in the values and guiding spirit of the various peoples that make up Britain. To be sure, the referendum was unfortunate, and in the long run the question of whether to remain in the EU is likely to prove secondary. But the fact remains that the referendum opened up an existential crisis concerning Britain’s identity, its internal divisions, its relation to Europe and its place in the world, a crisis in which the issues of socialism and nationalism were inextricably intertwined. The crisis, in other words, was and is neither ‘cultural’ (i.e. nationalism v. cosmopolitanism) nor ‘economic’ (capitalism v. socialism) – at least not in the older senses of these terms.

Corbyn had the right idea in trying to turn the question of whether to leave the EU towards the goal of socialism, but it’s possible to build on the limited nature of what he achieved by considering the populist force that led to Johnson’s victory. How can the left respond to a largely irrational, emotional force of the sort that powered Brexit? One answer, offered by Chantal Mouffe among others, is ‘left populism’, i.e. an equally irrational movement aimed at socialism rather than unleashed markets. A far better alternative, however, can be seen by returning to another moment when the forces of the right were in the ascendant: the mid-1930s, when leftists had at their disposal a now forgotten way of thinking: mass psychology.

‘The growing proletarianisation of modern man and the increasing formation of masses,’ Walter Benjamin wrote, ‘are two aspects of the same process.’ The ‘masses’, he explained, can be organised in two ways. One, which led to fascism in Benjamin’s time and is the forerunner of today’s right-wing populism, is characterised by an instinctive, reactive psychology, prone to xenophobia, demonisation and magical thinking. The other, which Benjamin called a class as opposed to a mass, is held together by solidarity, which makes conscious, purposeful action possible. The socialist project, according to Benjamin, is to turn the mass into a class. Socialism, then, in Benjamin’s view, is not primarily a way of organising the economy per se; rather it refers to the spirit or psychology that holds individuals together.

If Benjamin’s project seems hard to fathom today, we can clarify it by adding a factor missing from his analysis: the nation. Benjamin did not think through the national basis for socialism because the global economy had been shattered in 1914 and had not yet been reconstituted; he took it for granted that the nation supplied the necessary basis for socialism. That premise also underlay the enormous success of Roosevelt’s New Deal, which turned deracinated immigrant workers into today’s ‘middle class’, built dams, schools, hospitals and a power grid, supported trade unions and created the social security system, all the while redefining what it meant to be an American through new art, literature, film and documentary photography. The Attlee government’s creation of the modern welfare state was accompanied by the dismantling of the British empire and an attempted redefinition of Britain’s national identity or identities.

By contrast, contemporary right-wing populism, characterised by what Richard Hofstadter called the paranoid style – a ‘sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy’ – is a product of the globalisation of the 1970s. Corbyn’s short-term problem, and the left’s long-term problem, is to speak to the primordial need for group-belonging that globalisation has stirred up, without taking for granted the national frame as our unstated premise.

To be sure, this is very difficult, which is why so many have turned to the right, but redefining socialism in Benjaminian terms makes clear that we have one great advantage. Liberalism – represented in the US by the Clintons and Obama and in Britain by Blair and Cameron – cannot address the problems that global capitalism has created. As Raymond Aron wrote, ‘every social order is one of the possible solutions to a problem that is not scientific but human, the problem of community life.’ The liberal focus on individual freedoms remains indispensable to solving this problem but, because of liberalism’s deep convergence with capitalism’s relentless drive towards upward redistribution and irrepressible need to turn everything into economics, it can offer no long-term alternative.

The choice remains – as it has been since the 18th century, and especially since the last century – the choice between right and left. As Benjamin wrote, ‘fascism attempts to organise the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate.’ It gives ‘these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves’. How long such a solution can last is an open question but Corbyn is right to insist that socialism remains the only solution to the problem of ‘community life’: in other words, of creating a group basis for a technologically and economically advanced society, founded on both individual freedom and collective solidarity.

Eli Zaretsky is a professor of history at the New School for Social Research in New York. His books include Political Freud and Why America Needs a Left.