From International Socialism (1st series), No.97, April 1977, p.31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Raids and Reconstructions
Hans Magnus Enzensberger
Pluto Press £3.30 paperback £7.50 hardback
‘PART of the state secret’s magic character is that it allows of no definition ... what is primarily secret is what is a secret and what isn’t; that is perhaps the actual state secret.’
I first read those words, included here in an essay on treason, several months ago. At the time I was struck by his capacity to make an apparently obscure area of legal theory both vital reading and illuminating about certain key aspects of state power. Re-reading them with an Official Secrets Act being used to bludgeon journalists and their sources into silence, I find their relevance more immediate, and more ominous.
But that is typical of this exciting book. A collection of essays is an unusual reason for excitement, but this is the product of an unusual and remarkable mind.
Enzensberger is a German poet and writer. His approach to the media owes much to Walter Benjamin, whilst representing the first useful advance on his work in some forty years. Because he refuses to take the puritanical and one-sided view of some representatives of the ‘Cultural School of Marxism’, his analysis reveals the dynamic contradictions and the subversive potential of the media. He is typically economical in his dismissal of those representatives of the Left who have refused to soil their hands with an involvement in the mass media: ‘The fear of handling shit is a luxury a sewerman cannot necessarily afford.’
On this as on the other subjects he deals with, his pungent vivid style is a salutary corrective to much of the lazy thinking, what Victor Serge called ‘Marxist unawareness’, to be found on the Left. In each case he goes beyond the usual critique of the ideological basis of various postures, to the underlying contradiction. He shows how the need of the ruling class to exercise absolute control over the media runs counter to the need for constant innovation; how in that field, as in all others, the conflict between the forces and the relations of production provide the central motive force for change.
His Marxism goes out to discover what is going on, it does not rest easy on its assumptions. Nor does he take on obvious targets. The subjects here include: the state and crime, Rafael Trujillo the Carribean dictator, the Russian terrorists of the Nineteenth Century, the hollow nature of the Cuban Communist Party, the Western tourists of socialism, and the fallacious basis of the ecology debate.
Each subject, however, is made to yield up a general argument of importance. Whether he is exploring the way in which the Tsarist secret police engendered the opposition it was designed to prevent, or the ability of capitalism to profit from the ecology crisis it has created, his reasoning is a model of dialectical thought.
There is a refreshing urgency about Enzensberger’s writing, a restless imagination which will not be satisfied with easy answers. His essays are corrosive of comfortable asumptions, but he goes deeper than simple exposure of individual hypocrisy to the structural reasons for behaviour. We need more like him.
Last updated on 1.3.2008