By: Gaither Stewart
“Those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”
George Bernard Shaw
Change is a word that both intellectuals and the intelligentsia of America are discussing in these times. However, one is justified to wonder what kind of change they mean. As a rule when intellectuals/liberals speak of change, they mean reform (and not enough of it, at that: that is, the leisurely conforming of the lives of the collective with their own. The radical, politically-socially committed intelligentsia means something else and their thought and conclusions take another avenue of meaning: their aim is transformation or, if you prefer, radical change. However, it is an unfortunate paradox that no more than liberals, the intelligentsia does not always know what to do with its convictions.
Human history is marked by change but by precious few transformations. Contemporary liberals in general are in fact eternally concerned with change/reforms, debating and writing learned papers about it. Unfortunately, however, for the most part wishy-washy liberals have never known exactly who they are or even what they intend by liberalism: is it economic or social or political? Liberals seldom have creative ideas of that which is worth leaving as a legacy for mankind. Since Spinoza’s creation of economic liberalism in the socially liberal city of Amsterdam in the seventeenth century, the very term “liberalism” has remained so nebulous that even a left-thinking person like Einstein claimed he believed in Spinoza’s god. And today, along another avenue of thought, Russians who follow the U.S. line in East Europe and are rabidly anti-Putin, call themselves and are called derogatorily by others, “Liberals”.
Most certainly, the changes mankind so needs are not the changes promised in each and every U.S. electoral campaign. On the contrary, in my opinion the radical transformation of the entire society must be the ultimate goal of socially aware people and society. And the sooner, the better. I will repeat here: The American intelligentsia might keep in mind the comforting thought that of major world countries today perhaps only America is economically self-contained and self-sufficient enough to support and survive the upheavals of a new socio-political revolution. Despite the recent statistic according to which nearly half of young Americans are curious about Socialism, the great historical contradiction remains that in no other country is real capitalism so strong and the idea of Socialism so weak as in the United States of America, which, in turn, has made Socialism so difficult to achieve elsewhere as happened in our times in Russia.
Scientists tell us that in the universe nothing is ever lost, although nothing remains the same, which seems quite logical considering the cellular process of life. Already in pre-socratic times, Heraclitus wrote that “you could not step twice into the same river; for other waters are ever flowing on to you.” In a surprising linear fashion everything is constantly undergoing change, one form replacing another and that replacing another and so on and on. Each birth and rebirth are the beginnings of something new. Death is the end of an earlier form. Meanwhile, the substance of the universe and of being remains the same in a sort of cosmic oneness, the perfect conception of the world and its life.
The creative individual who does not accept the world as it is is Godlike in that like earlier genuine revolutionaries he attempts to not only change it—that is, not only reform it—but to transform it. And there lies a major difference between change and transformation: Change alters the past. Transformation creates the future. The ideological leadership of rebellious eighteenth century France saw in the collapse of the monarchy a unique opportunity to transform society and realize the ideals of the Enlightenment—ideals that went far beyond the limited political scope of the preceding English and American revolutions. French revolutionaries aspired to the creation of a new social order and a new breed of human beings.
Revolutionaries began to refer to grandiose and ambitious plans to transform the world. Revolutionaries no longer limited their goals to mere changes that just somehow occurred but to changes brought about by men. Likewise, Communist revolutionaries of late nineteenth century Russia imagined the coming revolution as a thorough transformation, not only of every political and socio-economic order previously known, but of human existence itself. Revolution’s aim, in the words of Leon Trotsky, was “overturning the world”.
Nonetheless, within our universe the figure of rebellious Adam has shown that in the great order of things nothing new is created, nothing is destroyed; minor changes come about too often for the wrong reasons. But that does not mean that things cannot be transformed—to the same degree that Pinocchio transformed into a real boy. First, there were forests, then arrived man, and then appeared the desert. Those were transformations. In the same way, Westerners centuries ago abandoned the feudal system and transformed into capitalists.
Moreover, the world society that capitalists have created testifies to the power and durability of the phenomenon of transformation. Although changes in capitalism’s nature (as a rule for the worse) have occurred, those changes have not affected the essence of capitalism, which, though it goes by different names, its substance remains the same: this is mine and that is yours.
You return to your old hometown to take a look and you might say, “It’s not what it once was.” Something unsettling has changed in your life. That change makes you anxious. Reality is not what you once thought it was. Life in flux and constantly changing is not for many of us. That is why conservatives who resist change are in the majority and the apprehensive and indifferent minority the eternally oppressed/suppressed.
But if you are uncomfortable with change, as most people are, if you pass through your time shuddering at the idea of change, you might as well forget about transformation. For transformation, as above, means something essentially different from change, which, it is worth repeating over and over, means simply reforms. Transformation on the other hand is not just a change of clothing, home, life style or even your desires, any of which can be abandoned or changed back to the former. Transformation implies radical change and much more, a transmutation into something else altogether, a gunning of your mind to a future different from present and past. After genuine transformation there is no going back. Only in myth and fables can the prince be transformed into a donkey and then back again into a human being. Or, as in Greek mythology, a man be turned into a woman and then back to a man again. After transformation a new, radically different model emerges. You can twist and manipulate the clay but never again can you recreate the previous model that had seemed permanent. We know that reforms are not always positive; often newly instituted measures for tightening the screws over a society are labeled reforms. Not even transformation is always beneficial to society; for example, the philosopher-ecologist, Yuval Harari labels the agricultural revolution of ten thousand years ago “the worst crime in history” because of the resulting plight of farm animals and the conditions under which they live and die. Nonetheless, mankind (we now total seven billions on planet Earth) must search for a new and more just way of life, where also an inextinguishable moral light burns brightly, and that means no less than radical transformation of the present social order called Capitalism.
A shift in social standing is part of the dangerous game of life but a radically changed situation like a conversion to another faith—or a loss of faith all together—create the risk of no longer understanding who, where and what you are. Yet a rapid break-through into a radically changed social style can perhaps still save the world of mankind.
Communist Russia set out to transform man as he was and create the Soviet man. The undertaking was partially successful. However, when the Soviet state system collapsed under the firepower of its enemies, the then halfway Soviet man, was caught up in the nets of an imported form of savage capitalism. He struggled and thrashed around against what he had become. He traveled around the world, had new and exciting experiences but he is still trying to adjust to capitalism. Nonetheless, I believe, many traits of the Soviet man remain implanted in the DNA of contemporary Russians. To him the true essence of capitalism remains foreign and extraneous, irrelevant and inappropriate—if not vulgar. In that sense Communism was not a useless failure. Something has remained. Today, America aspires to domination of the entire world; according to the Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev and its greatest writer, Fedor Dostoevsky, Russia’s mission and destiny is to save the world.
Stories and literature are also temples of transformation. For Nobel Prize winner Elias Canetti, the writer is the priest of change and the custodian of metamorphosis. Narrative fiction, he says—he too sometimes confusing change and transformation—are spheres where man can experiment his desire to metamorphose, change and transform. He calls this alteration the “passion of metamorphosis”. According to Canetti, the true task of the writer is to keep alive the ability to transform, to direct his energies at a passion that exists not for personal gain but for its own sake: the metamorphosis passion. Therefore, for the sake of us all, we must “beware of sins against poets”, as the great writer, E.L. Doctorow once wrote.
Marx pointed out that the anarchy of the market itself was sufficient to understand that capitalism could not work in the long run and was doomed to eventually transform. For the market is anarchy itself. It is evident that when corporations become people—but remain free of accountability and are therefore irresponsible—the result is necessarily anarchy and inhuman totalitarianism.
In Kafka’s The Trial, the law and the trial itself are transformed into human life. For Kafka, the law, empty of content, is indistinguishable from life while the body of Joseph K. becomes the trial. This transformation moreover is marked by something of the beyond. I think that genuine transformation lies there in the beyond which in the minds of some is progress.
I return again and again to the Russian example because just as the intelligentsia in pre-revolutionary Russia set its stamp on the development of the idea of Socialism there (in the end making the greatest revolution of modern times), when the propitious moment arrives, when what was inexpressible becomes expressible, when events have created a universal mood of revolutionary discontent with the existing system, when tensions reach the boiling point and public apprehension becomes that of the animal trapped by its predator, the American intelligentsia, together with the American wage earners and the growing, multiplying, ever angrier and, one hopes, awakening middle class, will rise against the capitalist system, salvage the positive parts of America and bring about the non-postponable transformation.
Liberals could join in the great movement but contemporary liberals alone will never, never bring about real radical social change; at the most, I insist, they want reforms of the existing system. Liberals never seem to learn. They never change. Today, most of them are still on the Obama-Clinton bandwagon, even after their presidents have condoned torture, formalized the doctrine of American Exceptionalism and American world hegemony, started more and more wars and instituted new controls over Americans at home. Liberals have given up the struggle even for reforms to align the USA with the rest of the world (health, education, finance, et al). Liberals can be intolerant and extremist –and sanctimonious—in their limited views and mindset. Liberals can take strong stands on minor community improvements; they work themselves into a fury and campaign relentlessly and join sit-ins and carry placards concerning, let’s say, how the local school yard is to be used on weekends and still vote for war and ignore the concept of social justice for all. Viewed from the distance, I am dubious about so-called grassroots activities: they are welcome but I suspect in the long run harmless. As a rule Power lets them sit-in, march and carry their placards. As if the military-industrial complex (It really does exist!) of which President Eisenhower warned America, gave one hoot in hell about their protests. And it cares even less about the liberals themselves which is indicative of the banality and ordinariness of contemporary liberals, most of whom merit, in my opinion, disdain and disesteem.