Time for Socialism: the Perils of Fortune-Tellers

Caracas, Venezuela.

Fortune-telling and positivist theory might easily be thought to be two strictly antithetical activities, the proverbial oil and water of mental tasks. Yet they are in fact secret family members: both take uncertainty out of the future and freedom out of the present. In the former case, this is because the diviner or the cards tell you what the future will be. In the latter, it is because progress and the golden future promised by positivism is our manifest destiny.

Marxism had its first fortune-tellers, if not in Marx and Engels themselves (who indeed made a few claims in an unfortunate oracular tone [1]), most clearly in the positivist and progressivist tendencies born in the second part of the 19th century. For these tendencies – which in fact became dominant in the Second International – the socialist revolution was a lumbering passenger train. You get on board and the last stop is communism. The journey, which emblematic second internationalist Eduard Bernstein famously said was “everything,” is a slow slide along the train tracks of historical inexorability.

What this does is eliminate politics, human politics. [2] In a context dominated by this kind of gradualist and fatalist thinking, politics cannot help but seem messianic, as the most brilliant critic of the progressivist viewpoint Walter Benjamin argues. That is to say, in this sort of context politics inevitably takes on the character of a tremendous interruption, a kind of train robbery or stick up! In a preparatory note to his “On the Concept of History,” Benjamin famously refers to the socialist revolution as applying the emergency-brake to stop the capitalist train. [3]

These days, it is possible that the fortune-telling voice that most beguiles and temptingly reassures Marxism is a certain take on Chinese socialism. Forgetting the uncertainties of the Chinese situation post-Mao, many proponents of the “Chinese model” give short shrift to the struggle of tendencies in China while fixating on oracular prophecies: claims such as that the preparatory stage for socialism will be over by 2050. [4] It is as if by peering into a crystal ball one could affirm that by then (voila!) the productive forces will be ready…

The point to keep in mind is that once one adopts the fortune-telling mode, already politics has been suppressed and a fortiori socialist politics. This is because socialism cannot consist in giving oneself over to automatic forces of history – which are the blind forces of capitalism under a different name – but rather it is the negation of these automatic forces. For behind the train-tracks-like progress of the earlier positivist model and the sedimentary growth of productive forces that is often used to justify the “Chinese model of socialism” lies precisely the logic of capitalism and its domination of the human being. Socialism is not some concluding or final step in the playing out of these forces but is rather a collective decision to throw them off. This is something that can begin right now. For that reason, Benjamin writes in “On the Concept of History” that every instant is a “small gateway in time through which the Messiah [Benjamin’s figure for the socialist revolution] might enter.” [5]

Hence the most important criterion in a process claiming to be socialist or directed at socialism is a political one. In China, the relevant question is not whether the Chinese people are on an inexorable track that will lead them in 35 years or so to the station stop called socialism, the station stop preceding communism (once things are conceived this way the game is already potentially in the process of being lost), but rather whether the Chinese Communist Party and the wider popular movement are capable now of expressing the negation of capitalism. This is virtually the same as saying they are democratic, perhaps under some specifically socialist form of democracy such as the mass-line.

Taking a page from Blaise Pascal and Lucien Goldmann, we can view socialism as a bet or wager that is made at the present moment, not in a future one. Once the bet is made the game is going, and the fact that there are no certainties is an essential part of the process. If the socialist wager is made, it essentially erases the role of divination; divination and certainty are rather practices and stances that belong to the other camp. The fortune-telling oracle which says in a parrot-like fashion: “Socialism by 2050” is really a bird of the same feather as the neoliberal raven that repeats “There is no alternative.” Socialism is the overcoming of such oracular voices and automatisms of all kind, and (insofar as it is the negation of capitalism’s historically specific forms) it can begin now.

About the dangers of fortune-tellers, Benjamin has very direct things to say:

To interpret [presentiments of the future] or to use them, that is the question. The two are irreconcilable. Cowardice and apathy counsel the former, lucidity and freedom the latter. [6]

It hardly needs underlining that cowardice and apathy are two attitudes that continue to plague the socialist movement today. To avoid the railroad tracks view of history, both its assurances and its passivity, Benjamin looked for ways to break with the conception of time as a succession of empty moments (which is really capitalist time, the time of work as value-production). For example, the passage from his One-Way Street quoted above concludes saying that the day is a “fresh shirt” laid on the bed in the morning, and you can put it on. Benjamin’s work also tends to spatialize time in urban, noncartesian spaces, so that it may be thought of as full and not empty time. The gates through which the revolution-as-messiah may pass are not a triumphal arch that is seen in the distance but rather a small aperture in the walls of Jerusalem that is before us right now.

Here we can pause to consider a remarkable feature of Marx’s writing in general and especially of his most important work Capital, which is the virtual absence therein of speculations about the socialist future. Was this because, as his biographer Franz Mehring suggests, Marx “saw coming things much nearer than they were in reality” and in effect launched himself precipitously into the future? [7] Or was it, on the other hand, that Marx reactively turned his back on the empty projections of the utopian socialists? There may be something to both explanations. However, the main reason is the nature of Marx’s project itself: Capital: A Critique of Political Economy dedicates itself to showing the historicity of capitalism’s categories, categories such as commodity, value, surplus value, salary, and capital itself. As categories that are historically specific to a determinate social formation, they are so many gates through which the revolution can pass, but it would be foolish to predict when. [8]

One good reason not to think of socialism as projected in future time is that perhaps of greater relevance for socialists is the view of time as a counting-down. This countdown image contrasts sharply with the concept of time as a succession of future moments (the long timeline in which we can, according to the Chinese model, lay down brick after brick of productive forces). Thinking in terms of a countdown is pertinent not only to the environmentalist perspective that argues for the need to avoid approaching “tipping points” and repair “planetary boundaries” before time runs out. [9] The clock is also rapidly counting backwards in cultural and political terms: there is a need to cut short the further degeneration of capitalist culture into nihilistic individualism and alienation and to stop the spiral toward fascism that has haunted capitalist politics for almost a century.

It was in 1928 that Benjamin wrote:

History knows nothing of the evil infinity contained in the image of two wrestlers locked in eternal combat. The true politician reckons only in dates. And if the abolition of the bourgeoisie is not completed by an almost calculable moment in economic and technical development… all is lost. Before the spark reaches the dynamite, the lighted fuse must be cut… [10]

There are few better, more relevant passages that show the dangers of being beguiled by the image of the socialist future. This is because there is no guarantee of a century-long playing field in which socialism and capitalism can be in eternal struggle. For this reason, there is all the more need for true political activity (equivalent to “unchivalrous fuse-cutting” according to Benjamin’s text). In danger of being bewitched by the chimerical future, yet pursued by more than a century of capitalist devastation and genocide, this political activity should take as one of its key slogans the injunction: Remember!


[1] I refer to claims such as those made in Capital Volume I, chapter 24, to the effect that the expropriators will be expropriated.

[2] “The homogeneous and empty time of mechanical progress without crises and ruptures is a time without politics.” Daniel Bensaid, La Política como arte estratégico (Madrid: Oveja Roja, 2013), 35.

[3] Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Vol. 4, 1938-40 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), 402. “Marx says that revolutions are the locomotive of world history. But perhaps it is quite otherwise. Perhaps revolutions are an attempt by the passengers on this train – namely, the human race – to activate the emergency brake.”

[4] For a well-researched discussion of the debates in China in the fifteen years following Mao’s death see, Yan Sun, The Reassessment of Chinese Socialism, 1976-1992 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).

[5] Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, Vol. 4, 1938-40, 397.

[6] Walter Benjamin, One Way Street and Other Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter (London: NLB, 1979), 99.

[7] Franz Mehring, Karl Marx: The Story of his Life (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1962), 192.

[8] Daniel Bensaid, Marx for Our Times: Adventures and Misadventures of a Critique, trans. Gregory Elliott (London: Verso, 2009), 28-30. Bensaid’s rich paragraphs on the disanalogies between bourgeois and proletarian revolutions conclude: “Whereas the relation of exploitation and the contract of commodity exchange automatically reproduce the encounter between bourgeois and proletarians, no social mechanism guarantees the withering of commodity categories and the reproduction of a noncapitalist social order.”

[9] Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster, What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know about Capitalism: A Citizen’s Guide to Capitalism and the Environment (New York: Monthly Review, 2011), 11-25.

[10] Walter Benjamin, One Way Street and Other Writings, 80.

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Chris Gilbert is professor of political science in the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela.

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