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Journal of Cold War Studies 6.2 (2004) 84-86

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Susan Buck-Morss, Dreamworld and Catastrophe: The Passing of Mass Utopia in East and West. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002. xvi 1 368 pp. $24.95.

There is much to learn from this beautifully produced, elegant work, which is a combination of art history, philosophical speculation, political analysis, and cultural critique. Some readers, those unfamiliar with the cultural innovations of the early Bolshevik period, will be interested in the portrayal of the doomed utopian visions put forward by architects, poets, dramatists, filmmakers, painters, and other artists who flourished in Soviet Russia in the 1920s. They will be struck to learn how most of these artists suffered as Stalinist repression and growing cultural conservatism forced Soviet society to turn to the more practical goal of constructing a war economy based on heavy industry and pervasive consumer shortages. Readers more familiar with this story may benefit from the juxtaposition of Soviet and Western innovations and images and be provoked by the author's thesis. Susan Buck-Morss argues that Stalinism crushed utopian innovation in favor of Western materialism and that once this happened the Soviet experiment was doomed because it had chosen to compete with the West on Western terms, thus excluding its original utopian promise.

Perhaps even more, this book tells us a lot about postmodernist critics of Western capitalism. Buck-Morss's main point is the usual one about capitalism—that it is bad, vulgar, materialistic, deceitful, sexist, racist, destructive, and exploitative, and that it deserved to die. Why, then, did the proposed remedy, socialism, fail? Given the main premise, and the history of the twentieth century, there are no easy answers. Instead, the book retreats into evocative citations of the sacred texts of postmodernism, especially from Walter Benjamin's work, in an attempt to show that Western illusions about democracy and prosperity are imposed frauds that need to be deconstructed in order to rescue the utopian dreams of modernity. "History has failed us," claims Buck Morss, and the only way to rescue it is to act as "soothsayers who read the entrails of animals before a battle, not to predict which army will win, but to decipher what forces of collective fantasy exist to withstand the violence of any army, aiding those forces by exposing the deceptive representations on which every army depends" (p.68) [End Page 84]

Throughout the text one finds the theme that has preoccupied the left since 1989. Surely the Western version of modernity could not have triumphed. On the contrary, "Industrial modernity in both really existing forms, capitalist and socialist, created a hostile environment for human life, precisely the opposite of the dream of modernity" (p.205). As for the competition between capitalism and socialism, in the Cold War "Good was defined as the other (that is, as what the enemy rejected), entwining them in a dialectical death embrace that ensured neither side would escape the binaries of discursive frame that contained them both" (pp.191-192).

For readers who do not appreciate postmodernist flourishes, the book can occasionally be hard going. The first chapter, on the political history of Communism, rehashes quite a bit of conventional history to put the main thesis in some kind of context, but this is distasteful to Buck-Morss because it suggests that, after all, "facts" exist. Hence, she presents the material as one huge footnote (neatly labeled "hypertext") taking up the bottom half of thirty-eight pages in very small print. One assumes she did this to spare herself the pain of admitting that old-fashioned narrative history has its uses. Nor is the solipsism and worship of the usual French intellectuals always enlightening. "I was back in Moscow with Jean-Luc Nancy," writes Buck-Morss, "for a workshop on deconstruction. Derrida's ten-day visit took place in April.... He has since written a book about his trip (or rather, written about not writing about it) in an essay entitled 'Back from Moscow, in the USSR'" (p.223). Clearly Buck...