Completing an unfinished project


EM>Socialism & Modernity
By Peter Beilharz
University of Minnesota Press, 2009
225 pages, $47.95 (pb).

This book is a collection of essays published between the mid-1980s and 2009, highlighting the relationship between modernity and socialism. Modernity began with the French Revolution of 1789 marking its official start date. This revolution transformed the feudalist-religious trinity of father, son, and holy spirit into modernity's liberte, egalite, fraternite.

Socialism is a product of modernity. Modern societies have failed to achieve liberty, equality, and fraternity and modernity remains, as German philosopher JurgenHabermas argued, an unfinished project.

This renders all discussion of post-modernism as nonsensical. Hence, Beilharz's enlightening discussion of modernity — not post-modernity — and socialism.

The introduction to the book's 14 chapters starts with the birth of socialism after the French Revolution culminating in the 19th century with the Communist Manifesto. When the French Revolution literally took the heads off feudal rulers, it created space for modern societies.

For brief moments in history, socialism became actual reality during the 1871 Paris Commune, the Russian Revolution of 1917 and in Spain during the events of 1936-37. The introductory chapter emphasises this history but includes the history of socialism in Europe, the USA, and Australia.

The chapter on Fabianism discusses Beatrice Webb's 1891 work The Co-Operative Movement in Great Britain. This leads to directly to the next chapter, "The Australian Left: Beyond Labourism"?

Australian socialism is further discussed in the chapter "Australian Laborism, Social Democracy, and Social Justice".

Several of the essays, such as "Socialism after Communism: Liberalism?" deal with the end of Soviet-style communism. "The End of Australian Communism" examines the repercussions for Australia while "Socialism in Europe: After the Fall", does so for Europe.

The ideological hegemony established by late capitalism and potential alternatives to Soviet-style "communism" and rampant capitalism are discussed in "Between Totalitarianism and Postmodernity".

The chapters "Intellectuals and Utopians" and "Modernity and Communism" focus on the work of European intellectuals including one of Europe's finest critical writers, Zygmunt Bauman, who wrote Legislators and Interpreters and the masterpiece Modernity and the Holocaust.

The chapter "Looking back: Marx and Bellamy", compares Marx unfavourably with his utopian contemporary Edward Bellamy.

The final chapter is titled "Socialism and America". Somewhat misleadingly, the term "America" is used to denote the part of the Americas called the US. There is still (despite all efforts of the US) socialism in other parts of the Americas, notably Cuba and perhaps Venezuela.

In sum, this book is one of the finest collections of essays written in the tradition of independent thinking.