The Functions of Childhood

Walter Benjamin finds a crucial moment of political awakening in a short story he wrote as a child. The piece ("perhaps the first I penned just for myself") follows an immiserated pamphleteer through an ordinary workday. By the end, the sheer misery of his job — the poor pay, the mindless work, the general disdain with which the public greets him — finally gets to be too much, and he throws away his employer's pamphlets. The adult Benjamin remarks that this is "[d]oubtless the least fruitful resolution," but as a child he could conceive of "no form of revolt ... other than sabotage." Sabotage is, after all, the most reliable strategy available to the child, its limited efficacy notwithstanding (see "Beggars and Whores" in the appendix to Berlin Childhood).

The child has the capacity to recognize injustice and to act upon that recognition, but the range of his action is limited by his utter physical, cognitive, and economic dependence on adults. Sabotage offers the child temporary relief in the form of both catharsis in the moment and liberation from his present responsibility. The pamphleteer, who gives shape to the young Benjamin's pre-adolescent frustrations (e.g. outrage at having to run errands with his mother), is undoubtedly finds visceral satisfaction in tossing the pamphlets as well as a momentary escape from shit-work.

Of course, that's all it is: a momentary escape. Nothing is transformed. The pamphleteer presumably has to go back to handing out leaflets tomorrow, just as Benjamin will have to run errands with his mother again at some point no matter how royal a pain in the ass he is to her today. But transformation is not the point, as transformation is not thought presently possible. The child must wait until he grows up. In the meantime, his avenue for change is obstructing his parents' plans. He can endure by sabotaging whatever seems most unbearable at a given moment, and in short enough order he will be granted freedom automatically.

Lenin excoriated his anti-parliamentarian contemporaries for having a similar strategic disposition. The total refusal to work within bourgeois institutions he aptly names an "infantile disorder," for "like children," the anti-parliamentarians cower in terror of "a small difficulty which confronts [them] today," grit their teeth, and wait for the ultimate deliverance of revolution. What they do not understand is that the difficulties of reform will only be amplified ("infinitely," in fact) in revolutionary situations. An incapacity for long-term strategizing and an expectation for final deliverance without effort are the hallmarks of political immaturity.

But childishness characterizes not only those self-proclaimed "left-wing" elements within the real movement; it also serves as an apt metaphor for the present state of things. In their rejection of parliamentarism and trade unions, the "left-wing" communists suppose it is possible to realize a fully formed communist society without engaging with transitional institutions:

Capitalism inevitably leaves Socialism the legacy, on the one hand, of old trade and craft distinctions among the workers, distinctions evolved in the course of centuries; and, on the other hand, trade unions which only very slowly, in the course of years and years, can and will develop into broader, industrial unions with less of the craft union about them ... and later proceed, through these industrial unions to eliminate the division of labor among people, to educate, school and train people with an all-round development and an all-round training, people who know how to do everything. Communism is advancing and must advance towards this goal, and will reach it, but only after very many years. To attempt in practice today to anticipate this future result of a fully developed, fully stabilized and formed, fully expanded and mature Communism would be like trying to teach higher mathematics to a four-year-old child.

It's clear that Lenin invokes childishness as more than a simple epithet. Rather, it is a useful analogy for social development. Turn of the century capitalism is akin to a "four-year-old child," no more capable of immediately transitioning to full communism than a toddler is capable of doing calculus. It's worth pointing out that when Lenin retreats to the macro scale account of development, his view becomes expressly teleological. There is an ultimate goal toward which political history unfolds, and it is a "mature Communism" in which the division of labor is totally overcome. Do we not sense here a replication of the childish logic condemned above? That there is a point of ultimate deliverance, and we must simply grit our teeth until we arrive at it?

Yes and no. As it is generally caricatured, the Marxist “teleological” view of history treats History, capital-H, as a self-acting agent who unfolds according to her own laws and purposes. This uncharitable explanation occludes the multi-level operation at play. We can recall Benjamin's famous remark that, "from the standpoint of history," there is no telos, only a terminus. And of course this is true, from the standpoint of history. History has no goal of its own, for history is not an agent. It is rather a medium through which agents move. One can speak of a "goal" of history only in the sense of the "goal" of a central agent immanent to history.

This is the essential character of Lenin's teleology. There is an ultimate goal which will be realized, but it is only realized through the actions of an immanent agent. At the beginning of the twentieth century, history is at a childish, underdeveloped stage insofar as the options available to its immanent agent are restricted. In order for history to progress into maturity, the real movement must do so first. Childishness is to be accepted as an objective condition but not a subjective one.

August 16, 2016