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This is not a blog which expresses instant opinions on current events. It rather uses incidents, books (old and new), links and papers as jumping-off points for some reflections about our social endeavours.
So old posts are as good as new! And lots of useful links!

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Memories of political sociology

My last post was bout the recent book - Grand Hotel Abyss – whose title refers to the accusation of the Marxist philosopher György Lukacs (and others) that the Frankfurt School “lived in a beautiful and comfortable hotel on the edge of an abys”.

I am indebted to a reviewer on the Amazon site for the further clarification that -
- they were Marxist or neo-Marxist theoreticians who lived a comfortable academic life but, with the exception of Marcuse, kept aloof from party politics and political struggle; part of the reason for this was that both in the United States and later in Germany they did not want to provoke the government or imperil funds they received from some wealthy supporters or research contracts they received from government departments;
- they contented themselves with analysis and understanding, but did not believe it was possible to change society because they thought the working class was not capable of revolution (explained partially in psychoanalytical terms by Erich Fromm);
- they distrusted the political left for an authoritarianism that was as bad as that of the Right; - in exile in America, they saw some similarities not only between the control mechanism of Hitlerian fascism and Stalinist communism but even between them and those of Roosevelt’s America – it was merely that Goebbels and Zhdanov were more open about what they were doing;
- they thought that capitalism was no longer likely to self-destruct; - the task now was to study these control mechanisms that kept it in place - mechanisms which went far beyond merely economic ones and that to understand them required a wider interdisciplinary cultural approach
This approach was the essence of Critical Theory. Not least by giving the book its title, Jeffries seems to agree with many of these charges, although he values many of the insights, critiques and influences of the School. Jeffries shows us the divisions within the Frankfurt School – notably that between Marcuse on the one hand and Adorno and Horkheimer on the other over the student revolt of 1967 to 1969, and that between the older founding generation with its profound and radical pessimism and the younger, more cautiously optimistic one, represented by Habermas, who, as Jeffries’ chapter heading has it, pulled the School “back from the abyss”.
The pragmatic Brits were impervious to the writings of the Frankfurt School – although they were, for reasons I fail to understand. seduced in the 80s by the charms of such Gallic poseurs as Sartre, Foucault, Baudrillard, Derrida and the improbably-named Lyotard.
But Adorno was in fact one of the authors, in 1950, of a famous book The Authoritarian Personality (1950) which was one of the first of a stream of books produced in the immediate post-war period to try to make sense of the power of the totalitarian model.
Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) and
JT Talmon’s The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy; (1952) were required reading on the small Political Sociology class I took under Zevedei Barbu - a Romanian who had defected in 1948 from the Romanian Legation in London (despite being an avowed communist who spent a couple of years in prison for the cause) 
-  and who had himself produced in 1956 Democracy and Dictatorship, attempting to explore the insights from combining both social psychology and sociology….You can read the entire book at the link but, be warned, the mixture of the depth and (linguistic) width of his reading; personal style; and awareness of the scale of his ambition does not make for easy reading. This is an original work which requires slow reading!!  The opening pages describe the contents in detail - and my advice is to select what seem to be relevant sections for you....

He was a great teacher – it was he who introduced me to Weber, Durkheim and Tonnies – let alone Michels and Pareto – all of whose insights still resonate with me.
Indeed it was almost certainly Barbu’s lectures which led me to register at the LSE in 1964 for a one-year MSc in Political Sociology – focusing on the development of post-war democracy in Germany. But I had also been powerfully influenced by Ralf Dahrendorf whose “Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society” had come out in 1959 and who was just about to publish his “Society and Democracy in Germany” (1965) and, indeed, found myself registered with no less a figure than Ralph Miliband – of Parliamentary Democracy fame.

Sadly, I blew this opportunity – I was so lonely in London that I soon scurried back to the family hearth and then had 3-4 jobs (including, ironically, a couple in London) before landing an academic position back in the West of Scotland….  And I regret never establishing any personal link with Barbu – admittedly quite a private person in those days. As students we never knew of his background – we never asked, of course – but, as this vignette (which I discovered recently) indicates, he was not someone to flaunt his distinctive experience. 
Apparently he left Britain in 1973 – to take up a Professorial post in Brazil where he died in 1993 – somewhat marginalised it seems…....

However I’m glad to say that Barbu seems remembered in modern Romanian academia – with this 2012 article on “fascism” quoting him extensively and a 2014 tribute here (in Romanian)

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