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The Liberal Dilemma

ORIENTERING OCTOBER 1968: Hans Skjervheim's new book The Liberal Dilemma and other essays deserves a certain prevalence for obvious political reasons. Some will receive it with insults, accompany it with choirs, and bury it with a parable or a political sketch. Others will declare it well-known, label it as past, passé and thus confirm its criticism. Some will think that it is precisely for this reason that it is a very useful book, writes Øyvind Østerud in his review, among other things.


Hans Skjervheim:
"The Liberal Dilemma and Other Essays"
The "Idea and Thought" series
Basic Tanum Publisher 1968

Hans Skjervheim is hardly canonized in orthodox SUF circles on the basis of his newly published essay collection The Liberal Dilemma. That in itself is not a sufficient recommendation, but given the limitations of the authorized Marxist-Leninist diet, it is a good starting point.

Several of the articles in the book have been printed – and partly debated – in the past; two of them are based on lectures in the Norwegian Student Society. There was a slightly confused debate when Skjervheim characterized current currents as "revolutionary romance", and his role as the left wing's own self-criticism was endangered when he supplied a greedy bourgeois press with the term "left-fascism". In a certain sense, they were then given a pretext to reject the problem by refusing to address it or by declaring it "gone". In another sense, Skjervheim's objections were confirmed in this way.

The book also contains a newly written essay. It is the longest, and most important: first and foremost, a sparkling clear and reflected settlement with the credulity of Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy. But limiting the book's viewpoint to this would be a primitive simplification. In many ways, it concerns the basis of any reflected political position, and is therefore far more than an ammunition stockpile in a party struggle. The criticism addresses two sides, says Skjervheim in the preface: "on the one hand it is directed towards the lack of sense of dialectical problems in traditional liberal politics and pedagogy, on the other it is directed towards the totalizing Marxist dialectic which is far too easy. in dealing with the liberal issue. "

The starting point is thus traditional liberalism, and the problems that arise when liberal principles are absolute. The liberal concept of freedom expresses a formal freedom, it has no substance beyond the individual's principled right to "free expression", while "coercion" is limited to the obvious aspects of external guardianship. What is then overlooked is that the liberal principles themselves can function as a means of power to ensure the strongest forces – of an "invisible" economic or social nature – dominance over the situation. Liberalism then serves as a veil over important power relations in society. This is fine enough, but it is only one side of what Skjervheim calls the liberal dilemma. For even if liberalism is "revealed" as an inadequate understanding of society, the problem of legitimizing a particular policy based on insight into this issue remains. If one demonstrates that the liberal issue "coercion versus freedom" is fictitious, that the alternative to open power is the hidden and anonymous power, one has not said anything about the guidelines for a policy beyond formal liberalism. And the explicit guidelines are precisely the starting point for the classic liberal problem.

Based on the analysis of this dilemma, Skjervheim argues for two main views:

First, that the liberal dilemma is resolved neither by relapse into naive liberalism nor by open use of force according to a totalitarian state model. The last is not to "transcend" the liberal problem, but to suspend it, decide by force to put it out of action.

Secondly, it becomes a central question to consider the possibility of a complete abolition of the liberal dilemma, of "human domination over man", in a future socialist society. If this is a utopian postulate based on an act of faith, Skjervheim's accusation of revolutionary romance within parts of the left wing is strong.

So what is the concrete the significance of this? Many have just discovered ("a couple of semesters ago") that liberal ideals can function as an ideological mask of covert use of force, that absolute tolerance ensures the abuse of power that consists in the status quo, that the humanism of the rich and western world covers a economic and political system which in reality implies a silent genocide against the poor world. This is the anonymous power, the "extended concept of violence", which Skjervheim obviously accepts: it is precisely a key point in his analysis of the liberal dilemma.

His point, however, is that this insight is not a sufficient justification for open "counter-violence", any blank power of attorney for violent revolution. The revolutionary solution is a deeply irresponsible solution, if one does not consider the costs of the revolution against the costs of the status quo, and the risk of an even worse situation against the possibilities of more peaceful means.

This is not obvious in Norwegian debate. Skjervheim complements some concrete examples:

Norwegian "revolutionaries" have echoed Che Guevara's words about creating "two, three, many Vietnam". If they understand what they are saying, this is grotesque in its unimaginative cynicism. Not because there can be no conditions in the world where the status quo is the worst alternative, but because it expresses a general principle on behalf of others. And because it is based on an incredible underestimation of the status quo powers' potential for violence. If the United States had perceived the Vietnam War as a serious threat, and had no political and military-technical reasons to pull it out, they could of course have crushed the entire country in a matter of hours. As when the "Black Power" man Charles Hamilton dryly replies to Norwegian violence enthusiasm that inciting guerrilla warfare in the United States is the same as encouraging the colored population to commit collective suicide; as we have just seen the SUF heroically urge the Czechoslovak population to be slaughtered. It should occur to us that such assessments may also be behind the skepticism of "revisionist" communist parties about the possibilities of castroism in Latin America. And there is perhaps reason to believe that, for example, Franz Fanon's revolutionary optimism would have been more subdued if he had experienced the development in his own Algeria after a violent colonial war.

My point is that to the extent that it is doubtful whether an explosion in the printing press results in a conversation lexicon, whether the revolution ensures a sensible society, Skjervheim is right in the characteristic «revolutionary romance». It does not mean the same as rejecting revolutionary solutions as possible means among others. But then the question of revolution is also a pragmatic question, and not a metaphysical principle.

Key pages by the problem in connection with the liberal dilemma, Skjervheim deals with in the critique of orthodox dialectical materialism, as it can be traced back in particular to Lenin. Lenin suspends the liberal problematics of the idea of ​​the "dictatorship of the proletariat," while at the same time waging a vigorous struggle against all approaches to "factionism": he abolishes the freedom to criticize Marxism itself, or of its variant of it. Marxism is true, what remains is to apply it on the basis of correct interpretation. Lenin's point of departure can thus be well understood in clerical categories: the basis of faith is given, but a priesthood is needed to give the authoritative interpretations. The party is this clergy. It is necessary to lead the masses, to give the proletariat an adequate awareness of its real interests to replace its actual, but false, consciousness, which leads no further than narrow trade union policy. Adequate class consciousness is thus represented by the party, which interprets its dictatorship as the true dictatorship of the proletariat. That the party can thus come into opposition to parts of the actual proletariat was shown in the fear of "factionism" and "revisionism" which, among other things, led to the crushing of the Kronstadt uprising in 1921. The point is that the "dictatorship of the proletariat" can hardly be exercised by the proletariat as such directly. In practice, it must be exercised by a ruling elite, which defines itself as the proletariat, or as an expression of its true interests. It is precisely when someone rejects this definition that we get the attacks on "factionists", "revisionists", "class traitors". From a dogmatic, ideological position, the debate becomes simple: it consists in measuring deviations from "Marxism-Leninism Mao Tse Tung's thinking", and a struggle for the power to interpret it in order to separate the enemy from the people. For those who criticize the position itself, represent per. definition enemy.

That portrayal and critique Skjervheim gives of these deeply authoritarian elements in the Leninist "Diamat", also concerns less petrified positions. It is a call for critical reflection on the very starting point, any starting point, for political activity, and not just critical analysis from a postulated position. And the elemental openness that consists in acknowledging the possibility that others may be right and oneself wrong. Therefore, Skjervheim should still be allowed to play the role of the left forces' own self-criticism. Another issue is that we may disagree with him in a number of ways. specific political issues. He argues that his critique does not apply to an "avteologized" socialism that accepts the liberal dilemma as a real dilemma, but only perceives utopia as a general guideline, a regulatory idea. However, the remarks he has about the benefits of the "pluralistic society" seem to me rather meaningless when it is not filled with a concrete political content. Formally, it could mean a relapse into traditional liberalism. That is hardly the intention, but the answer is probably also outside the scope of the book.

The Liberal Dilemma and other essays deserves a certain prevalence for obvious political reasons. If it is read, it will be met with different reactions:

Some will receive it with insults, accompany it with choirs, and bury it with a parable or a political sketch.

Others, the advanced ones, will declare it well-known, label it as past, passé, and thus confirm its criticism.

Some would argue that this is precisely why it is a very useful book.
Østerud is a professor of political science at the University of Oslo.

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