Friday 24 August 2007

What is a radical reader?

Theory in a pre-political age

Karl Marx wrote that ‘theory becomes a material force when it grips the masses’. Today, theory grips only graduate students, and is not a material force. Indeed, it may be more accurate to say that ‘theory’ is in the grip of the academy, detached from political life and the possibility of transforming the world. People still have ideas, of course, and to some extent these determine how they behave and how society functions. And scholars still try to understand and critique society in various ways. But the idea that a set of ideas might ‘grip the masses’ and inspire them to change the world is arguably more alien to Western culture today than at any time in the past 150 years.

In this context, Verso’s Radical Thinkers series is an enigmatic initiative. The question of what radical thinking is, and what it is for, is in fact discussed in the books as well as being something to ask about them. Indeed, many of the texts were originally published around the time of the end of the Cold War, a time of crisis for the political left, and, less obviously, the right. Rather than addressing a movement, they addressed other radical thinkers who were perplexed and disoriented by the demise of movements of the left in particular – the organised working class, and anti-imperialist movements. If ‘being radical’ had once been shorthand for supporting these things, this meaning was now all but redundant, and the term was up for grabs. It still is.

As Sarah Boyes argues, there is a certain ambiguity about the idea of radicalism today: the term ‘radical’ retains a glamour that appeals to advertisers as well as political progressives, but at the same time there is anxiety about ‘radicalisation’, which is becoming synonymous with Islamist extremism. The enthusiasm is nostalgic, the wariness paranoid. The Verso series errs on the side of nostalgia, which is surely preferable. The audience is likely to be mostly graduate students, but one would have to be even more nostalgic – for the days of workers’ education and Welsh miners learning German to read Marx in the orginal – to object to that. The important question is what readers – whoever they happen to be, and whatever their reasons for picking up these books – will get from the series.

All of the thinkers included are left-wing in the sense that they are not right-wing – if you were so inclined you could plausibly publish neoliberal, neoconservative, or even quasi-fascist texts, not to mention Islamist ones (Verso has in fact published the writings of Osama bin Laden), under the rubric of ‘radical thinkers’ – but there is little more ideological cohesion to the series that that. The omission of ‘other voices’ is not in itself a bad thing: keeping an open mind to new ideas doesn’t mean affecting a know-nothing neutrality. But the implication, intended or otherwise, that the thinkers who are included are all on the same side, ‘our side’, is more problematic. Thinkers as diverse as Theodor Adorno and Antonio Negri, Jacques Rancière and Slavoj Zizek, could only be considered part of a single movement in times of peculiar political drift, without the benefit of the intellectual clarity that comes with political engagement. In would be a mistake, then, to look for a common sensibility among these thinkers, and to call it ‘radicalism’. This would amount to a phony partisanship, floating free of real social divisions, actual or potential.

In his book Public Intellectuals, the American judge and conservative thinker Richard Posner describes how certain books preach to the choir rather than setting out to persuade readers of an argument. He calls these books ‘solidarity goods’: they affirm what readers already believe, and sometimes even foster the sense of being part of a movement. This is true even when there is no meaningful political movement to speak of. It is telling that such books are especially common in the US today, catering to both ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ tastes, despite the fact that by 20th century European standards there is a remarkable degree of consensus in American politics and society. Partisanship, while often bitter, is less ideological than temperamental, even aesthetic. The Democrat thinker George Lakoff describes it in terms of conflicting attitudes to child-rearing: stern father versus nurturing parent. This kind of politics is about ‘values’ rather than ideas.

Most of the Radical Thinkers books are frankly too hard-going to function on this level. No doubt their silver covers will look snazzy on the radical bookshelf, but there are few nods and chuckles to be had in the reading. It’s serious intellectual engagement or nothing. Indeed, if there is vanity in the books’ appeal, it is precisely in their difficulty. But the ambition to grapple with difficult theory is no bad thing. Things are rarely as simple as they appear, and it often takes a good deal of abstraction to get to grips with social and political developments. While many ‘radical thinkers’ are criticised for their obscurity and pretension, sometimes quite rightly, it would be philistine to insist that all theory should be easily-grasped. It is up to readers to work at books like this and to discuss and argue about them, considering how they relate to the world beyond their silver covers.

Culture Wars’ reviews of the books in this second series of Radical Thinkers offer mixed assessments: unsurprisingly some of the thinkers have more to tell us than others. Considered as a whole, these books neither speak to a political movement nor offer comfort to readers, but individually they are variously stimulating, enlightening and infuriating. Rather than supplying all the answers to the perplexing questions thrown up by politics today, it is to be hoped that the series will help inspire a new generation of radical thinkers, and political actors, to think anew. That could make the difference between the post-political world we seem to inhabit, and the pre-political one we might live in.

Dolan Cummings is a co-founder of the radical humanist Manifesto Club.


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