To turn the mass into a class

Eli Zaretsky

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.


  • 23 December 2019 at 8:14am
    Tony Barrett says:
    Yes, I’m sure this kind of thought will win over the voters of Blyth.

    • 23 December 2019 at 2:27pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Tony Barrett
      do you have a better suggestion?

  • 23 December 2019 at 1:10pm
    Martha12345 says:
    That ‘sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy’ is not only observed on the right. Clearly, it has long been evident on the sectarian left which presently holds significant control in the labour party. I really do not think it helped.

    • 23 December 2019 at 2:27pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Martha12345
      I agree. That was the part of what I was saying.

    • 24 December 2019 at 11:00am
      Peterson_the man with no name says: @ Martha12345
      A ‘sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy’ is a pretty apt way of describing the thinking of the political centre these days - and that's a much bigger problem. At least those on the radical left and right are usually aware that they live in a small and fairly insular subculture. The sectarians of the centre genuinely believe that their point of view is the only legitimate one, and that anyone who doesn't share it is by definition unreasonable.

    • 24 December 2019 at 5:51pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Peterson_the man with no name
      of course, there are overlaps between left and right-- both are subject to group psychologyI am interested in the differences.

  • 23 December 2019 at 2:14pm
    Norman Ravitch says:
    I think leftists forget the cause of the rise of Fascism in Europe. It was the answer of the frightened classes to Marxism. Conservatives were happy enough to counter Marxism with conventional appeals to religion and tradition but when they were frightened enough and fearful enough that their efforts might fail they called in those who were or would soon be called Fascists. We know this from many sources, one of the most curious came from a man who more recently placed himself on the extreme Right in Germany but who in the early 1960's was not a rightwinger at all, Ernst Nolte. He showed clearly in his (Eng. title) THE THREE FACES OF FASCISM where Fascism came from and what its appeal was.

    • 23 December 2019 at 2:29pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Norman Ravitch
      yes, that is true. But I'm not sure what the implications of this are? Should the Left back off?

    • 26 December 2019 at 2:06am
      Linda Jansen says: @ Eli Zaretsky
      No! We need to stand up against the right wing. Locally is the best arena because it builds a strong community base. Community means self-identified common interests. It's natural. And it minimizes the weapon of identity politics. Anyway, you've energized me, Eli. Thanks!

    • 26 December 2019 at 9:41pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Linda Jansen
      you're welcome. I am just trying to suggest a different way of thinking about the left and also to underline that the center will not hold.

  • 23 December 2019 at 7:26pm
    Fred Mayer says:
    Ms. Zaretsky, I heartily agree with your summary as far as it goes. But there's one word/concept you haven't used in your analysis: neoliberalism, which must be the focus of any and all thinking surrounding our catastrophic political situation, here in the U.S., and in the U.K. There are no liberals, because the time when that word's meaning was clear is over.

    • 24 December 2019 at 12:53am
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Fred Mayer
      well, that is what I am talking about when I refer to clinton, obama, blair and cameron

  • 24 December 2019 at 3:18pm
    Kevin Egan says:
    I think you raise the right questions about the possibility of a progressive patriotism that's inclusive rather than exclusionary. Progressive or quasi-socialist patriotic movements accomplished wonders in the New Deal and in the earlier educational and independent safety-net infrastructure of the British working class––whose anthem ended with Blake's promise to "build Jerusalem/In Englands green and pleasant land." (The American equivalent was Woody Guthrie's "This land is your land, this land is my land.") But both those movements lost their way, foundered at the challenges of race and immigration, which became impossibly nationalized and inflated beyond rational solutions in the new media environment after World War II, especially in the successive media expansions of the Sixties (Television) and the Oughts (Internet).

    Finding the thread again ought to begin where our successes left off: in head-down, tightly-focused local efforts to improve living conditions, cultural awareness and solidarity, and political agency. We still have the Mrs. Jellyby problem! We spend too much funding well-intentioned national non-profits, with their massive national advertising and staff budgets, and not enough directing funds to union local organizing, local medical and especially dental clinics for underserved populations (a screaming need in the NHS-less U.S.), local school improvement through expert teacher assistance, and neighborhood-based home improvement construction. Through these and similar efforts, people on the left need to show their aggrieved, suspicious fellow citizens that we actually care about their globalization losses (jobs, addiction, depopulation), and that we brothers and sisters of all classes and colors and origins are coming with love in our hearts to hear what they need and to help them build it.

    • 24 December 2019 at 5:53pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Kevin Egan
      there is a lot of truth in what . you say. Many of th e most successful movements have stressed the local, including Maoism and SNCC> Still we need both national and i international perspectives. I may not have stressed the need for thelatter enough in my piece.

  • 24 December 2019 at 4:59pm
    Michael Manis says:
    I don't think "left" politics is based entirely on appeals to "solidarity"--In my studies, I see very clearly a thread of left politics that is too little commented on: a common enemy to hate. A "community" must have outsiders against which to define itself. For the right, that outsider is the foreigner, resident alien, or traitor. For the left, it must be the rich and the ownership class. Sanders, I think, understands this; note the appeal of "Billionaires should not exist!"

    • 24 December 2019 at 5:54pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Michael Manis
      of course, there is a populist element in sanders. But he goes beyond the populism and that is what i mean by turning mass into class. Trump copied Sanders and added an irrational and racist element

  • 25 December 2019 at 5:34pm
    Khalid Mir says:
    Great post, Eli! I don't think socialism is viable without social relations in ordinary life and in the economy-and those have been whittled away by forty years of neoliberalism. I think the internet is only exacerbating this 'atomisation'.

    'The social' (and 'the public') have been undermined by economic theory, think tanks and late capitalism. The kind of solidarity you talk about surely requires time and space (or, rather, place)? But both are scarce 'commodities' today.

    I dunno, I think the default ethos in this country is one of individualism. Socialism (though it too has deep roots --Craig Calhoun: The Roots of Radicalism) may turn out to have been a short-run experiment (1945-75).

    Cultural, social, human, cognitive, and affective capital. What *isn't * capital today?

    • 26 December 2019 at 3:03am
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Khalid Mir
      what is striking looking at recent history is that the left has not been destroyed. With all its mistakes, many of its own making, it is still around. The key problem in the US is identity politics. If we add feminism and gay liberation, the left is quite powerful and a majority. I would not give up.

  • 25 December 2019 at 7:44pm
    Gary McMahon says:
    I feel alienated by 'Global' anything - - it's the biggest exclusion zone imaginable. As for Labour being 'too far to the Left,' being Left at all is going 'too far' in the co-opting view of commentators, which is why we have had 40 years of Tory government in various successive guises. Labour is nowhere near Left enough for my vote. The House of Parliament butchered the public interest long ago, until, now, not even the public believes in itself.

    • 26 December 2019 at 3:04am
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Gary McMahon
      not sure I follow. What are you advocating?

  • 26 December 2019 at 8:25am
    Khalid Mir says:
    Perhaps you are correct, Eli, but I'm not so sure.

    In the UK is socialism still around? It's been the Conservatives and Conservative-light Blair in power for the last 40 years!

    Also, the cultural left (in the U.S.) is not really about "class" (which was your original point, wasn't it? Apologies if I'm misreading you). Some might say that it's the fragmentation along identity lines that has crowded out a perspective on class from emerging? Is 'identity', therefore, really- in part-a product of late capitalism (as I think Rodgers was arguing in the Age of Fracture)? A choice, another element in a preference function? Of course, I'm not discounting its emancipatory dimension but if we're talking about socialism as a common good then I don't see it as socialism. In fact, isn't 'liberation' what is *required* by late capitalism ('a negation of the negations,' Rieff would say)?

    • 26 December 2019 at 9:45pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Khalid Mir
      Khalid: without being naive, we have to uphold certain established human values like cooperation, having common goals, fairness, equal respect, etc. we cannot live by polls and elections.

  • 26 December 2019 at 10:55pm
    Graucho says:
    As far as the UK is concerned there are only three classes in my book. Those who are on the street, those who are only 3 months worth of pay away from the street and the rest. The first group are irrelevant for attaining political power, you don't get on the electoral register without an address and the Tories have the third group in their pocket (or is it vice versa ?). You'd think that the left would easily get the support of the middle group, but they don't - why ?

    Divide and conquer has always been a successful tactic for the right and when it comes to the welfare state nothing is as divisive as means testing. It is unfair on those who just fall on the wrong side of the cut and gives the Daily Mails of this world the "why should you be working your buns off to pay taxes to support a bunch of idle good for nothings" argument to beat the left with.

    The one popular social measure in this country is the NHS and I contend that it is popular because it is there for everybody no questions asked.
    Learning from this here are two measures labour should adopt.

    1) A universal wage, your money for passing GO as it were. Set at the level of job seekers allowance and made revenue neutral by eliminating tax allowances and rasing the basic rate. The attractions are simple.
    a) There is no poverty trap. You will always be better off working and
    there are no complex rules to follow.
    b) If you are unfortunate enough to lose your job you do not have to
    waste time filling forms, signing on, showing that you are looking for
    work, you just get on with looking for work.
    2) Abandon social housing and replace it with a large scale affordable
    housing program where homes are allocated to first time buyers by
    ballot so each of them has a chance. Provide 100% government
    mortgages at base rate + 0.5%. Stipulate that if the home is sold then
    the housing authority gets first refusal and the price is the original one
    inflated by RPI.

    • 27 December 2019 at 4:51pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Graucho
      some good ideas here.

  • 27 December 2019 at 8:28am
    Khalid Mir says:
    Absolutely! I think we're on the same page. I'm just *suggesting* that capitalism and electronic communication are rapidly undermining 'the social' (in our day-to-day lives, our working lives, our imagination and communication (Berardi's 'sensibility') and in what's left of 'the public'). That, unfortunately, is where we are. Thinking about socialism and class has to surely start from that ground reality?

    But I completely agree with you: without human bonds, relationships, are we even human? (From my perspective: no 'I' without a 'Thou' or a 'we')

    Bellow said it better:

    "I count on this. Not on perfect understanding, which is Cartesian, but on approximate understanding which is Jewish. And on a meeting of sympathies, which is human."

    • 27 December 2019 at 4:54pm
      Eli Zaretsky says: @ Khalid Mir
      yes-- one great thing about Walter Benjamin was his sensitivity to technology. He would be all over the digital today, trying to capture how it interacts with our "instincts" so to speak. But equally important is that he remained "old --fashioned." He loved things like books, fountain pens, drawings.

  • 27 December 2019 at 6:30pm
    Khalid Mir says:
    Haven't read him, Eli - apart from 'The Storyteller' and an intro on him by Arendt- but I'm sure you're right. I find Chul Byung Han to be interesting on the digital.

    Yes, I think it's important to remain old-fashioned (and innocent). Charm the last corner of the human world, Hannah would say. My father made me promise him, though, to never grow old!

    Not sure how long this thread will be open so let me just take this opportunity to wish you well Eli.

    Maybe Benjamin had it wrong on this one..we need to retreat into the past but face the future?


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