Originally Appeared in: Social Text: No. 100 | Published: Fall, 2009

When the editors of Social Text suggested I look back at the “Prospectus” that Stanley Aronowitz, Fredric Jameson, and I wrote for the journal’s inaugural issue (ST 1, 1979), I gulped. I hadn’t reread it since I left the journal in 1983. My anxieties over revisiting the text were garden-variety. Would it be unrecognizable? Or would its every pronouncement and question anticipate, indeed even predict, everything I’ve thought, taught, and written since? Would thirty years seem like an instant or an eternity? Would our project’s boldness reawaken pride? Or would its datedness embarrass? Was my break with the journal a mistake? Or a liberation? Would the prospectus seem visionary? Or would it feel outworn?

The answer to all of these questions turned out, of course, to be yes. Unrecognizable and prescient. Lost and lasting. Tumescent and detumescent. Erroneous and freeing. Prophetic and exhausted. Once my anxieties were thus at once fulfilled and thwarted, I had to reread the “Prospectus” and then reread it again, and then once more, until there emerged the questions that sloughed off the merely personal and touched on our present intellectual and political predicament. Two questions stood out:

Why at the moment that Social Text was founded did Marx seem so relevant and liberalism so bankrupt, whereas today — a scant thirty years later — Marxism might reasonably be thought to be dead, while the fundamental elements of liberalism are in need of vigorous defense?

Where do things stand today regarding the conflict between systematic and pluralizing ways of understanding the topics on which the “Prospectus” called for “substantive interventions”? Namely: Everyday Life and Revolutionary Practice, the Proliferation of Theories, Symbolic Investments of the Political, The Texts of History, Ideology and Narrative, Mass Culture and the Avant-Garde, Marxism and the State, “Consumer Society” and the World System.

As I have argued elsewhere, the predominant attitude of Western Marxism at the time, on the one hand, took democracy for granted and considered repressive anticommunism, from 1950s McCarthyism to the German Autumn of 1977, to be the decisive brake on greater equality and social justice in Western societies, and, on the other hand, rejected the totalitarianism of Soviet and Chinese communism and expected revolts like those in Czechoslovakia and Poland to eventually democratize state socialism. “The two prongs complemented one another, as mutual alibis, so to speak: anti-anticommunism presupposed democracy while rejecting capitalism; antitotalitarianism presupposed socialism while rejecting bureaucracy and one-party rule. The rejection of capitalism, bureaucracy, and one-party rule seemed then to confirm the presupposition that socialism and democracy belong together. Meanwhile, the standoff of the Cold War itself deferred the crucial unanswered question: by what path could liberal democracy become socialist or state socialism democratic?”1

The Soviet system’s collapse exposed the hard truth that state socialism was incapable of reform, and the transformation of China into a confection of state socialism and state capitalism under shamelessly undemocratic one-party rule further confounded the old equations. The rhetorical remnants of Marxism have been able to persist in part thanks to the gross simplifications of neoliberal ideology. Neoliberalism extols as real a nonexistent system — since everywhere free markets are created, sustained, managed, and guided by means of the state — and so continues to give life to a mirror-image leftist ideology that denounces capitalism per se as the ruthless creator of poverty, injustice, and ecological disaster. The supposed antagonism between the so-called global North and global South — a latter-day version of Mao’s “principal contradiction” — replaces and revives the image of class struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat that Marx theorized and whose ripening he fruitlessly awaited.

In those first years of Social Text we neglected the criticism of totalitarianism, in part because of the misguided priority given to anti-anticommunism in the American context and in part because of a misreading of the nouveaux philosophes in France, who were rediscovering the liberal tenets we had grown used to belittling precisely because we could so comfortably take them for granted. That oppressed peoples in the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic, and throughout the third world had a real need for liberal institutions and liberal freedoms was a blind spot that damaged our project from the beginning. We were all too happy to leave the antitotalitarian discussion to our friends at New German Critique and Telos, thus failing to make what could have been an original contribution of our own to the vexed question of democracy and socialism, and especially the role of liberalism and illiberalism in various visions of liberation, egalitarianism, and social justice.

A remarkable aspect of the “Prospectus” is that no sooner did we declare that “the journal’s mission is to develop and keep open a distinctively Marxist problematic” than we proceeded to reject or question the way Marxism had hitherto framed the question or oriented the politics in nearly every area we intended to explore. A sign of our bravura to be sure, pioneers who saw that the most basic concepts needed “to be worked out afresh and reinvented in terms of today’s situation.”

Behind the rhetoric, though, was the unique intellectual situation of the late 1970s. Marxism had not played a vital role in American intellectual life except in fairly orthodox Old Left circles whose influence had died out; the sixties saw posters and T-shirts of Che, Lenin, and Trotsky, and Mao jackets and caps, more than a serious reading of Marx. It was only as the pseudorevolutionary mood of the sixties came to an end that we began to discover the intellectual richness of European Marxism and its Frankfurt School offshoot. Georg Lukács’s History and Class Consciousness did not appear from MIT in Rodney Livingston’s translation until 1972 when I was in the middle of graduate school. While we of course knew Herbert Marcuse’s work, Theodor W. Adorno and Ernst Bloch had scarcely been heard of. Illuminations with Hannah Arendt’s introduction, published in 1968, was the only Walter Benjamin available in English. Jean-Paul Sartre was known primarily as an existentialist not a Marxist. All this began to change in no small part due to Fredric Jameson’s Marxism and Form (1971), which boldly presented the work, precisely, of Adorno, Benjamin, Marcuse, Bloch, Lukács, and Sartre, replete with long citations he himself translated from the German and French. I encountered this extraordinary book when it appeared in paperback in 1974; I met Jameson the next year; we first discussed the idea of a new journal shortly after he had met Stanley Aronowitz. Aronowitz undoubtedly had in mind the Partisan Review, Jameson Les Temps modernes, and I Tel Quel.

It is Marxism and Form, though, that truly inspired the project. Most of the young scholars who got involved in Social Text at its early stages, including me, came from literary studies. We had long ignored Marxist criticism that tracked characters’ social background, documented class struggle, or laid claim to sociologizing literature. Here in Jameson was something else: a new consideration of literary form in relation to a heteroclite group of thinkers who drew from Marxism the imperative to understand cultural creations in light of a spiritedly critical view of society as a whole and of history in its broadest scope. The aspiration was breathtaking, the readings were challenging, the sense of worldly relevance palpable. Jameson is one of the most imaginative and prolific critics of the past fifty years. His aesthetic taste, nay, his aesthetic appetite is vast, varied, and contradictory. Like the other aesthetes in the tradition — Lukács, Bertolt Brecht, Benjamin, Adorno — he finds in Marxism a frame, and a conceptual toolbox, with which to grab hold of his aesthetic responsesand twist them into a coherent, politically relevant commentary on society. Arguably, all literary criticism is social criticism, but the imperative — or irrational need — to transform polymorphous aesthetic perversity into monolithic social vision is unique to Marxist aesthetes from Lukács to Jameson. The Social Text “Prospectus,” it seems to me in retrospect, took its vibrant, unsettled, double-voiced aspiration to plurality and totality from Jameson’s sensibility.

The thrashing out of the drafts and final version was the product of the three editors’ quite distinct inclinations and preoccupations. Jameson’s confidence that Marxism’s frame and tools would always ultimately win out inflected our exuberance for such wildly different thinkers as Bloch, Georges Bataille, Mikhail Bakhtin, Michel Foucault, Jürgen Habermas, Jacques Derrida, Fernand Braudel, Immanuel Wallerstein, and Louis Althusser, all of whose names are evoked in the “Prospectus,” plus those alluded to, such as Guy Debord, Adorno, and Julia Kristeva. Aronowitz and I gave different inflections to this plurality. Aronowitz tended to see Marxism as one among many voicings of the working class’s aspirations rather than an ultimate theory. A musical prodigy as a child, a labor organizer from the age of nineteen, an autodidact in philosophy and theory, Aronowitz adhered to the twofold dream of an emancipated and cultivated working class — a dream reinforced by chance during his sojourn in the France of May ’68 where there flashed before his eyes the image of a revolutionary coalition of students and workers, intellectual and manual labor, learning and industry. Aronowitz’s gift as a writer and speaker lay in his ability to take up some specific political situation or struggle — from the teaching assistants’ strike at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that preoccupied me as a young faculty member in 1980 to the election later that year of Ronald Reagan — and weave an account of the dynamics of capitalism and the direction of social struggles worldwide that made the concrete event in question seem like the inevitable excrescence of world history! Aronowitz’s totality was a narrative art, the knack of bringing the big picture to bear on the present and immediate. At the same time, I think he believed Marxism was dead even as he was starting a new Marxist journal; his thought in this period closely resembled that of André Gorz, author of Farewell to the Working Class.

Being Jameson’s and Aronowitz’s junior by some thirteen or so years, I had not yet distilled my convictions, inclinations, prejudices, into a body of work or habit of mind. Perhaps as a result I embodied the journal’s sense of adventure and uncertainty. In any case, my reflections today are more retrospection than memory. The intellectual currents I was trying to mesh at the moment of Social Text’s founding were poststructuralism, the Frankfurt School, and Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan. By instinct — as I would not realize until later — I eschewed synthesis. I was drawn to plurality and distrusted totality. Eventually Paul Ricoeur’s idea of the “conflict of interpretations,” with its sense that reality can only be grasped through incommensurate interpretive frameworks, clarified my own view. The Madison group had lively, sometimes ferocious debates over the idea of totality during the drafting of the “Prospectus.” Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari were often cited to contest the aim of totalization, but of course they were an ambiguous reference point. For despite the tropes of rhizome, network, and so on, what was more totalizing than their Anti-Oedipus? I defended totality, too fearful of confronting Jameson, but in turn fought for the language of plurality, playing on his fear of appearing retrograde. Plurality versus totality is a philosophical dispute over the aims of theory. The political question, which does not necessarily match up term-for-term with the philosophical one, touches on Arendt’s concept of human plurality, that is, the infinite individuality that is the principle of democratic citizenship; Isaiah Berlin’s concept of negative liberty, as the space of individual initiative free from the intrusion of the state or of one’s neighbors; and Max Weber’s concept of the polytheism, which results from the fact that modern society imposes on every individual the freedom, and the burdensome responsibility, to posit his or her own supreme values. Social Text at the moment of its founding, like the Left in general in the decades since then, largely neglected the import of Arendt, Berlin, and Weber and their conflicting commitments to liberalism. We also shied away from Habermas and Pierre Bourdieu. At the outset we envisioned the journal as fostering a new kind of commingling of the humanities and the social sciences, but in the end we found hardly any social science contributors, except of course Aronowitz. We missed the chance to explore the tensions between sociology and political theory, a conflict of incommensurate interpretations of human association; sociology, like Marxism, looks to patterns of human behavior in groups, while political theory, like liberalism, postulates individuals in their capacity of action rather than behavior. The common thread of all our missed encounters was our unreflected antipathy to liberalism. And the Left still faces this fundamental challenge: to fight its inclination to illiberalism and embrace the ordeal of liberalism.

1. John Brenkman, The Cultural Contradictions of Democracy: Political Thought since September 11 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), 65 – 66.