- Socialism and the Experience of Time: Idealism and the Present in Modern France by Julian Wright
The debate in socialist circles about the pace of change is as old as the cause itself. Julian Wright, however, proposes to re-envisage this debate through the prism provided by the exploration of temporality. Focusing notably on Benoît Malon, André Léo, Georges Renard, and Léon Blum, Wright explores the relationship between socialist blueprints for change and lived experience. Crucial to the elaboration of the theoretical framework for [End Page 468] Wright's study are the influences of Walter Benjamin and Georges Gurvitch, and their understanding of the operations of time. In contrast to certain advocates of socialist change and their familiar, deterministic vision of the progress towards a revolutionary end-state, Benjamin posits a more flexible understanding of time, one where the distinction between the present and the future becomes a porous membrane allowing the latter to impinge on the former. Considering the tragically limited number of days left to Benjamin when he was forced into exile in France from Nazi Germany, and the constant menace Blum must have experienced when writing À l'échelle humaine while a prisoner of the Vichy regime, it is unsurprising that they should try to articulate a way of redeeming the future in the present. But exploring the revolutionary potential of the present, through acts that enhance the everyday experience of life, is a way of actualizing the ultimate triumph of the revolution, and humanizing it in a manner that is often ignored by those wedded to the idea that all means are justifiable in pursuit of revolutionary ends. When it comes to the understanding of French socialism more broadly, and the many tensions that shaped the debate about its ultimate vocation, Wright deploys a critical apparatus that exploits Gurvitch's concept of 'plural time' (see The Spectrum of Social Time, trans. by Myrtle Korenbaum (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1964)). This assumes that many experiences in society can express themselves in different temporal dimensions, but where evocations of the future, present, and even the past can be rendered in each other. Such a concept inevitably problematizes the understanding of notions such as the historical role of the bourgeoisie and the mission of the proletariat. On the other hand, Gurvitch's categories of time, ranging from 'enduring time' to 'explosive time', allow for a more supple combining and layering of the temporal dimensions that frame the understanding of particular social situations. Wright's study, however, is far from a theoretically esoteric investigation of the contradictions of French socialism. In this study of the time of political culture, the time of socialism, and the time of the individual, it is the latter that provides the crucial and continuous thread. What Wright's original and refreshing study enables us to appreciate in the society of our time and in the society of future time is that (to paraphrase André Léo, p. 241) visions of social transformation are only brought to life by the voice of humanity.