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  • After VirtueNotes on Early-Twentieth-Century Socialist Antimaterialism
  • Leela Gandhi

This paper is part of a wider inquiry into shifts in imperial and capitalist style and thence in antiimperial and socialist style which occurred during the belle époque: that "beautiful era" of European history commencing sometime toward the end of the nineteenth-century and ending in the midst of the First World War. It is my guiding contention that consequent upon the strange demise of liberal England in the early years of the twentieth century there came into view an imperio-capitalist culture shaped increasingly by the protocols of economicism rather than those of governmentality, that is, by a rhetoric of wealth rather than civilization. Contingently, antiimperialist socialism, now faced by profit, commercialism, mercantilism, materialism, determinate interest, expediency, and practicality as the constitutive and normative tropes of contemporary dominion, embarked reactively upon a countervailing discourse of antimaterialism characterized by abstract thinking, theory, unprofitable speculation, and amateur metaphysics. This anti-materialist discourse was, however, internally divided by a crucial schism between a type of phusikaphobia or recoil from the physical world, on the one hand, and a type of philophusikia or love for things, specifically for the alienated objects of possession, on the other. The former, seeking to quarantine the human subject from the threatening contagion of matter, fashioned a neo-idealist invective against the objects and practices of consumption typical to the world of capitalist imperialism. The latter, seeking, à la Henri Bergson, to bring the human into reparative fellowship with things, and laying claim to an updated metaphysical empiricism, formulated a self-reflexive critique directed not only against objects of possession but more strenuously against the virtuous subject of non-possession, in this case the ethically self-righteous anticapitalist antimaterialist. It will be my claim that notwithstanding its greater ideological clarity the phusikaphobic ban against cohabitation with the nonhuman and inanimate lends itself, historically speaking, to a provincial anticollectivism. By contrast, despite its apparent swerve from the main themes and figures of belle époque anticapitalist antimaterialism, philophusikia manifests a resourceful will [End Page 413] toward radical democracy and collectivity. Its provisional suspension of left-revolutionary aims subtly countermands a tendency toward totalitarianism secreted within several past and current manifestos of anthropogenic antimaterialism. To make this case we will need to consider questions such as these: Did the phusikaphilic critique of non-possessive virtue, conducted in the name of antimaterialism, supply the rudiments of a recuperable anti-totalitarian politics? How far did this politics authorize a conditional relapse into the comfort zone of liberal socialism with its multiple concessions to the small material advantages of imperio-capitalist expansionism? Finally, who or what appears upon stage of socialist antimaterialism, as it were, after virtue? Let us begin with a précis of some pertinent historical and theoretical markers for the ensuing discussion.

Context 1: The Field of Non-Possession

During the late years of the belle époque, partly in reaction against the unseemly scramble for empire between competing national economies, antimaterialism emerged as the governing idiolect of insurgency, whether radical or conservative, western or non-western. As historian Zeev Sternhell writes, "'Anti-materialism' was the dominant trait and the common denominator of all the movements of revolt before the world war and between the two world wars … It was in the name of 'anti-materialism' that men who had issued from different political streams condemned Marxism and liberalism … All of them shared a common hatred of money, speculation and bourgeois values[.]"1

Broadly speaking, there were two contiguous cultural sources for this revolt: the one European in origin, obtaining its energies from French syndicalism; the other British in dispensation, deriving its momentum from Guild socialism. A movement of direct proletarian action, launched through a series of spectacular strikes by the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), French syndicalism acquired its compelling theoretical gloss through the fiery writings of the irascible autodidact, George Sorel, especially his Reflections on Violence, first published as a series of articles between 1905 and 1906, and translated into English in 1914.2 Responding to the "revisionist crisis" consequent upon Second International Marxism, Sorel's syndicalist antimaterialism began as a bid to eliminate economicism as...


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