Watching the World Wake Up From History

the “dream of the 90s” is alive in this book review.

X-posted from US Intellectual History Book Review.

  • Sebastian Berg, Intellectual Radicalism after 1989: Crisis and Reorientation in the British and the American Left (Verlag, Bielfeld: Transcript, 2018).

Remember in the 90s when they encouraged you to be weird?


For much of the twentieth century, Marxists thought they would be the ones declaring the end of history. Instead, it was a more conservative figure, Francis Fukuyama, who became famous for arguing that the game was up. Worse yet for Marxists, Fukuyama contended that the final destination of the historical dialectic was not a communist state of liberated workers, but rather Western-style capitalism and liberal democracy. This may appear rather quaint given how history has currently led to the Age of Trump and the rise of authoritarian regimes around the world. During the early 1990s, however, the situation looked different. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the demise of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, and the Tiananmen protests in China, Fukuyama’s analysis struck a chord. Leftwing radicalism, or any radicalism for that matter, seemed to be dead. The permanent revolution belonged to the bourgeoisie.

The success of Fukayama’s argument, published first in a 1989 essay for The National Interest and then as the best-selling book The End of History and the Last Man, suggests how difficult the years around 1989 were for the left. While a few theorists of radicalism in Britain and the United States thought that the end of the Cold War heralded new opportunities for emancipatory politics, most despaired of what was to become of socialism. “We are in a period of uncertainty and confusion,” Michael Walzer wrote in Dissent in 1992, “The collapse of communism ought to open new opportunities for the democratic left, but its immediate effect has been to raise questions about many leftist (not only communist) orthodoxies: about the ‘direction’ of history, the role of state planning in the economy, the value and effectiveness of the market, the future of nationalism, and so on” (7). For British political scientist Andrew Gamble, “Nothing quite as cataclysmic, however, has occurred before in the history of Marxism as the collapse of the Soviet Union between 1989 and 1991.” Writing at the end of the 1990s, Gamble thought that “despite the ossification of Marxism as a doctrine in the Soviet Union, and the open repudiation of the Soviet system by Marxists in other parts of the world, the extent to which in the previous seventy years the meaning of Marxism and of socialism had become inextricably bound up with the fate of the Soviet Union had not been fully appreciated” (8).

These quotations open Sebastian Berg’s book Intellectual Radicalism after 1989: Crisis and Reorientation in the British and the American Left. Written in the dry, analytic, slow-paced style befitting its origins as a German university dissertation, the book nevertheless manages to reveal vividly how uncertain, if not downright bleak, the situation appeared to left-wing intellectuals during the early 1990s. Yet in carefully tracking writing in four magazines—Dissent and Monthly Review in the United States and, across the Atlantic, New Left Review and Socialist Register in EnglandBerg also documents how even in this period of bewilderment, new ideas, positions, and imaginings of radicalism were also beginning to take shape. Among them, a “post-Marxist” transition to what would become the “anti-globalization” movement would eventually crystallize in the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle. A renewed curiosity about non-statist modes of radical activity in the realms of community and civil society emerged, both within conventional parliamentarian spaces of reformist politics and also out in the streets. This line of thinking would culminate in the Occupy movement of 2011. More abstractly, but just as importantly, intellectual radicals began to reexamine ideas about history itself: what was it, exactly? And how was history still in flux if no longer on the march toward a clear destination?

Today, rather than communism, it is democratic socialism—the “democratic left” as Michael Walzer called it—that is growing in unexpectedly expansive forms in the United States, particularly after the 2008 financial crisis and in the seemingly endless toll of violence and despair called the War on Terror. The surprising success of the 2016 Bernie Sanders presidential campaign is one indicator of something new afoot. So too, in Britain, the fiery leadership of Jeremy Corbyn has reinvigorated a more left-leaning Labour Party. At the same time, we are in a period of enormous backlash, some of it fostered, ironically, by the very Russian government whose leader, Vladimir Putin, rose to power within the Soviet Union’s security apparatus and then emerged, Phoenix-like, from the ashes of communism’s demise. Most of all, our vexing and traumatic times give the lie to Fukuyama’s prediction. History did not end. In fact, history is very much alive and kicking, in terrifying as well as hopeful ways. A look back to those first uncertain years after 1989 therefore seems worthwhile. What were intellectuals on the left writing in that moment of crisis? And how did their thinking relate to a larger cultural context in which many sang along approvingly with Mike Edwards of the London band Jesus Jones as he sat in front of a television screen “watching the world wake up from history” in the 1991 MTV video for the hit song “Right Here, Right Now,” which quickly becoming something of a soundtrack for the moment?

A number of recent books have, like Berg, begun to address these questions, but they have done so not by directly analyzing intellectuals, but rather by focusing on the realms of popular culture and political economy—and where the two meet. Cultural critic Joshua Clover’s fabulously strange 1989: Bob Dylan Didn’t Have This to Sing About, published in 2009, suggests that a “constellation of changes in pop music around 1989 might be tied to changes in the world at large—that is, might provide ways of thinking about the historical situation of ‘1989’” (7). Listening to grunge, gangsta rap, acid house, and other genres, Clover concludes that music such as Billy Joel’s truly awful “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” released just before the fall of the Berlin Wall, captured “an experience of immutable endlessness, of exploded time and a superfluity of history in the face of which meaningful action is impossible—this is the secret sense of the period in pop music. A feeling, if not a structure” (95). Ultimately, it is the teen pop of the era that best encapsulates the culture of the 1990s: “Teenpop is the dominant’s dominant,” Clover writes, “for the dot-com boom and Pax Americana—the very figure of the endlessly expanding market as celebratory stomping ground for risk-free adolescence…” (104). Brilliantly, even “Fukuyama’s version” of history becomes “more like a pop song” to this cultural critic’s sharp ears. “A formula that seems at once to tell a total story and condense it into a slogan, a logo, an image.” For Clover, “Is that not what the perfect chorus is for—in which ’the end of history’ becomes a hook so catchy and memorable, so improbably pleasing to repeat, that it spins around the globe in a blink?” (8).

Like Clover’s book, Phillip E. Wegner’s Life Between Two Deaths, 1989-2001: US Culture in the Long Nineties, published in 2009 as well, focuses not only on details of the period drawn from popular culture, but also links them to political economy and asks how history itself was up for grabs during the supposed “end of history” (everybody sing along now!). Wegner, like Clover, takes his intellectual apparatus from cultural studies, and contends that “the 1990s represented a moment of heated debate over the direction of the future, and hence of immense historical possibilities for a global left, possibilities that are now, in the aftermath of the events of September 11, 2001, and the emergent global regime of the so-called war on terror, at risk of being forgotten” (1). Looking to novels and films as his sources more than pop music, Wegner wants to better understand the continuities between the fall of the wall in 1989 and the fall of the Twin Towers in 2001 rather than follow the dominant interpretation of 9/11 as a fundamental rupture from “the way things were.” He concludes that the uncertainty of the “long nineties” is worth revisiting now, particularly for those on the left: as the period just prior to our contemporary moment, it sits in an ambiguous location between the past and the present, and rather than convey “the way it really was,” Wegner seeks to extract its more utopian longings and desires because, he believes, these have the capacity to erupt in a Benjaminian “moment of danger” as a means of “fanning the spark of hope.” In fact those words, from Walter Benjamin’s famous “On the Concept of History” essay, serve as the epigraph for the introductory chapter in Life Between Two Deaths (1).

These two studies draw upon pop cultural and literary materials to give us a much wider context in which to locate the leftwing magazine writers in Berg’s careful, focused study. In doing so, they reveal the growing distance between the focused orientation of radical intellectuals and the sprawling energies of the larger culture industry in the aftermath of 1989. Clover and Wegner themselves orient their historical thinking to the cultural studies approach of Raymond Williams, Frederic Jameson, Alain Badiou, and, perhaps most of all, Benjamin. The contrast between their adventurously wide-ranging subject matter as well as their theoretical orientation and Berg’s careful intellectual history spadework in examining four small radical journals indicates that odd gaps remain between the fields of cultural studies and intellectual history. Despite the fact that these two fields investigate similar topics, time periods, and methods here, it is almost as if one were watching two ships (of thought) that pass in the night. The historians and the cultural studies scholars both want to know how the history of ideas relate to ideational worlds in richer context; they both are thinking carefully about periodicity and how we organize change and continuity over time; and they both stake their claims in “readings” of artifacts, texts, and other materials.

Yet, in the end, they do not meet. While cultural studies scholars such as Clover and Wegner take more risks in querying the uncanny ways in which very different areas of social life (pop culture and political economy) relate to shape the very ways we understand history itself, intellectual historians remain most interested in stabilizing history in order to perceive a certain construction of linearity, relationality, and a more static, organized map of how different levels of social interaction relate to each other. Perhaps, one wonders, these cultural studies scholars might do a bit more contextualization of the linkages between the ephemeral burble of pop and the clanking chains of political realities? And perhaps intellectual historians could use a good dose of the “trippier” approaches to historical inquiry found in cultural studies scholarship. This might especially be the case for trying to make sense of the period after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when, in the historical moment itself, thinkers such as Fukuyama were ready to claim, in eerily pop-song-like tones (as Clover contends), that history had come to an end.

Intellectual historians are, thankfully, taking up this task. There is Andrew Hartman’s A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars, published in 2015, which surveys the culture wars of the 1990s and argues that what binds them together is a debate over “the idea of America” in the aftermath of the tumultuous events of the 1960s, when “new people, new ideas, new norms, and new, if conflicting, articulations of America itself” ruptured the fabric of post-World War II consensus and conformity. So too, James Livingston touches on the culture, politics, and intellectual life of the 1990s his book The World Turned Inside Out: American Thought and Culture at the End of the 20th Century, published in 2010. Livingston’s book is quirkier than the more well-known Age of Fracture by Daniel Rodgers, which came out one year later, however, The World Turned Inside Out offers what is, in many ways, a more intriguing argument: intellectual life did not merely fragment in the latter half of the twentieth century, Livingston contends, but did so in a particular way—it troubled, and sometimes outright flipped or reversed, the boundaries between insides and outsides, centers of power and margins of powerlessness, the everyday and the epic, the normal and the abnormal, the direct and the mediated, the instinctually felt and the abstractly reasoned, and, perhaps most of all, the 1990s witnessed a breaking down of the line between the internal self and the external world.

Within the framework of these studies, which also join a developing historiography and critical literature on the 1970s and 80s, as well as early historical inquiries into the last two decades of twenty-first century life in America, Berg’s focus on intellectual radicals writing directly after 1989 can sometimes seem like a minor story, or even beside the point. The writing of these leftwing thinkers feels dated, constrained by a limited worldview of just what to seek out or look at to discern the crisis of 1989 and how a radical movement might direct itself—reorient itself—in its aftermath. But there is also something quite useful about zooming in on the words of these magazines— Dissent, Monthly Review, New Left Review, and Socialist Register—to glimpse smart writers struggling to make sense of epistemic changes as they were happening. Beyond Fukuyama’s end of history thesis—itself now largely swept into the dustbin of history, even by Fukuyama himself—lies a wider range of voices and ideas formed in the rubble of the Berlin Wall and the remnants of the Soviet empire and a changing Chinese communist order. To recover them is to listen in on the effort to make meaning during dizzying times, trying out new theories, and noticing new aspects within a grand narrative of political and cultural development that suddenly was up for grabs. To read Berg’s book is most of all to notice a slow-cooking reorientation of radicalism’s understanding of history itself—out of the assumptions guiding a simplistic, linear story of the march of the people to a far more fraught, uneven narrative of how change happens, and on what terms.

Attempting to move past the prior focus on key authors such as New Left Review editor Perry Anderson, Berg attempts to explain this paradox by “developing a comparative approach based on a clearly defined corpus of sources” which he calls “political-academic journals.” He narrows his source material even further by only examining articles written between January 1990 and December 1994. These five years, he contends, “form a period of crisis in the Gramscian sense: the old had died but the new could not yet be born.” By the late 1990s, Berg argues, a justified-war approach to the renewed ethnic violence that sprang from the fall of communism as well as opposition to globalization and neoliberal moves against governmental welfare states began to shape the left to come, but in the early 1990s these were only nascently present. Berg then structures his manuscript around close readings of how each journal handled the moment of 1989, assessments of state socialism, Marxist theory, ideas of “market socialism” and the role of the welfare state within capitalist systems, and conceptualizations of history itself. There are many fine details he observes of the subtle arguments and debates that arose not only between the publications, but also within their respective pages. For instance, Berg chronicles a vibrant debate between Eric Foner, Mitchell Cohen, and Eugene Genovese in the pages of Dissent concerning whether any aspect of the Soviet experiment at all could be salvaged from the sins of Stalinism (113-116). But what emerges overall from his study is a kind of sad, almost nostalgic reckoning with the demise of the Soviet system and the Eastern Bloc—and the effort to begin to understand its legacy.

There is an odd paradox here, as Berg notes, because Western Marxists such as the ones writing for Dissent, Monthly Review, New Left Review, and Socialist Register had long been at the forefront of criticizing the Soviet Union. While most radical intellectuals recognized that the Soviet Union had been crucial in defeating fascism during World War II, most viewed the country as a failed socialist experiment. Stalinism and its aftermath had chastened any but the most ardent believers in thinking that the Soviety Union was the end of radicalism, nevermind history. Irving Howe and Lewis Coser, the founders of Dissent, broke with the Stalinist Communist Party of the United States in the 1930s and 40s; Paul Sweezy was never a member, and inspired figures Trotskyist thinkers such as Harry Braverman, who analyzed how the USSR had become a “degenerated workers’ state” no less bureaucratically dysfunctional and unjust than the “monopoly capitalism” that Sweezy described in the US. In England, figures such as Socialist Register editor Ralph Miliband refused to join the Communist Party. For the editors and writers of these journals, what emerges most of all is the pursuit of a “third way” between capitalism and communism. These publications were fundamentally socialist, but they neither tolerated the growing totalitarianism of the post-Stalin Soviet Union (or Maoist China for that matter), nor accepted the continued inequalities and injustices of the capitalist West.

The demise of the Eastern Bloc only intensified the vexed quest to locate a “third way” between East and West, communism and capitalism. Berg concludes that, “1989/91 became an ending, which put intellectuals in a state of existential crisis.” What resulted in the pages of Dissent, Monthly Review, New Left Review, and Socialist Register was a thorough taking stock of the Soviet story as well as the framing of new questions which haunt us still. Making sense of contemporary events in the aftermath of 1989, writers in the magazines asked whether Western-style capitalism “won” (a la Fukuyama) or if the Soviet system was undermined more by its own internal contradictions? What role could the “market” play even in making more centrally coordinated modes of socialism efficient and effective after 1989? Were the new identity-based social movements that sprang from the 1960s the key building block of a newfound radicalism or were the trade unions and political parties of yore still the key organizations to support in intellectual modes? Bigger conceptual questions that had long driven intellectual radicalism continued to resonate in post-1989 left wing political-academic journals as well: what was democracy exactly? Was revolution necessary or could capitalism be transformed through reformist efforts? Who was to be the agent of that revolution? What role were the intellectuals themselves to play in an emancipatory politics? If Marxist thinking from Marx and Engels to Lenin and Trotsky no longer provided much of a playbook and many of the writers Berg tracks started to look elsewhere for theories of social change, nonetheless Berg finds that, “Marxism still provided an analytical toolkit when it came to explaining social phenomena and developments of the past and of the present” (17).

One of the most fascinating aspects of Berg’s book is its comparative transatlantic orientation. In this way, it builds on work by Joel Pfister on the North Atlantic development of the New Left in the 1950s and 60s dialogues between US and UK intellectuals and activists (Critique for What?: Cultural Studies, American Studies, Left Studies, Routledge, 2006). By 1989, the Anglo-American world of intellectual radicalism was largely imagined to be contiguous, but Berg discovers important differences. Most of all, he detects “a deeper sense of loss and mourning” for the vanishing of the Eastern Bloc among British radical intellectuals than their US counterparts, perhaps due in part to the stronger presence of class differences in the UK and the more pluralistic complexity of the United States (317, 74). The only expression of regret found in American journals such as Dissent had to do with the irony that just as the reformist ethos of glasnost spread from Gorbechev’s leadership of the Soviet Union to the rest of the Eastern Bloc, the entire communist system crumbled. More common in the US was a greater attention to hemispheric matters. Berg finds that Monthly Review, for example, paid more attention to the still vibrant radical movements in Latin America during the 1980s than its British counterparts.

Overall, however, by the mid-1990s, Berg believes, intellectuals in both countries most of all “defined their socialist orientation as a point of reference or as a horizon rather than as a guide to political action” (312). They no longer thought that they were on the battle lines of a world-historical struggle, forging an ironclad version of the material dialectic for practical use. Instead, they began to examine radical ideas as more free-floating, detached phenomena separate from political parties, trade unions, and other on-the-ground political organizations. Because of this turning away from immediate utility, radical intellectuals also began to investigate the radical intellect itself with more imaginative intensity. They sought to draw better connections between theorizing the imagination intellectually and, to paraphrase that old 1968 adage, demanding the impossible politically.

Perhaps the most fascinating work to emerge out of this milieu was Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe’s post-Marxist Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (Verso, 1985), which pushed the poststructuralist idea of “discourse” forward above the power of economic materialism as a guiding historical force. For Laclau and Mouffe, what could be imagined, what could be said, what could be expressed as sensical, shaped what was—and what was to be done. Writers on both sides of the Atlantic, according to Berg, were by and large unwilling to go as far toward a purely cultural or linguistic view of how power worked. This meant that in joining the interest in analyzing discourse, but then refusing to conceptualize it as the main space of political conflict, they grew even more detached from political action. While Laclau and Mouffe and their followers could sometimes be downright giddy in thinking they had discovered the political tactics of the future in a discursive “war of position” inspired by Gramsci’s understanding of hegemony, the writers in Berg’s leftwing publications found themselves often floundering in a no man’s land between base and superstructure, which the crumbling of the Berlin Wall had rendered utterly confused. Where was the base, exactly, when it lay in ruins? And what “Winds of Change,” to quote the title of a 1990 song by the Scorpions that became another anthem of the moment, had blown them over? Radical intellectuals could wonder, but their wondering seemed increasingly disconnected from the halls of power or even the streets of activism.

And yet, as one writer from the era, the American sociologist Dick Flacks, argued in 1991, “To make social theory is frequently to attempt to make history.” We can now begin to examine that history: of ideas being worked out in a moment when history itself was supposedly drawing to its conclusion. Today, as the era of the end of history itself moves into the past, intellectuals might use Berg’s study of intellectual radicalism during that time to continue to ponder how the two—thinking at the edge of being and transforming being into something closer to the edge of thinking—remain in play with each other, as they still very much do, right here, right now.

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