Chris Harman


Join and Collapse

(Winter 1966/67)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.27, Winter 1966/67, pp.36-37.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The Accidental Century
Michael Harrington
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 36s

This book attempts to document and explain the ‘crisis of the twentieth century.’ The origins of this are seen as being in the failure of men to consciously intervene in the restructuring of society that characterises late capitalism. The result is that the restructuring takes place behind their backs, intensifying rather than alleviating the general social crisis. The crisis is portrayed not merely in terms of its economic features – chronic if not particularly heavy unemployment, welfare disparities, poverty – but also in terms of its ramifications in virtually every cultural sphere, from literature to theology. In particular the great writers of the century are shown reacting against present day reality by a retreat from rationalism and an artistic acceptance of the ‘decadent.’ Unfortunately so many writers are dealt with that the argument in each case amounts to little more than the obvious. Further, the whole treatment is slightly facile. The aim is to prove that what the writer sees as a result of the human condition is a solvable human problem. This leads him to argue that their acceptance of decadence is a false choice, since there is an alternative. In political terms this is of course correct, but its application to literature produces superficial results. For the artist is not a politician. He does not intend to point to solutions to problems. He is concerned with a completely different facet of human reality. Literature attempts to express the ideological unease of society in its own terms, not to trace it to socio-economic origins. Its greatness lies in its ability to convey to men who think in those terms (all of us for part of our lives) a living expression of them. In the twentieth century the contradictions within life have become so great that the real expression of them is usually found in ‘degenerate’ writers.

Harrington’s tendency towards a facile treatment of literature is the result of a deeper fault in his standpoint. His alternative to the ‘cold decadence’ of capitalism is conscious planning. But he is far from clear as to how this planning is to come about. He does not quite dismiss the working class out of hand (he still claims to remember Hungary ’56). But he doubts the likelihood of its moving. So he begins to search elsewhere for support. This leads him to look at those groups that seem to stand above the play of interests of ordinary life. At points he glances in the direction of the church. At others he seems to be appealing to the consciousness of decadence (one is never sure whose consciousness) which the great writers have instilled. He ends up by opting for the refuge for all fleeing socialists – the state. Senate subcommittees are quoted approvingly. It seems that if only such bodies would carry their own arguments to their logical conclusions all would be well. If only ... The fact is there are very good reasons why they should not. It should not need repeating to anyone who has ever been near the Marxist movement that the institutions of the state do not float around above class antagonisms. The course of history is not going to be altered by ‘entrism’ into them with demands that they accept the logic of their own arguments.

No doubt Harrington’s own ‘entrism’ (he is an adviser to the government’s ‘Poverty Programme’) will be as effective as so many other similar attempts in more orthodox social democrat circles.

Last updated on 15 November 2009