Failure is necessary in politics

CALEB STEKL, Opinion Columnist

Samuel Beckett, one of the most prolific writers of the late 20th century, wrote a paradoxical yet absolutely true statement: “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” This mantra has been taken up by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs as a business practice, a slogan to remind them of the resilience required to face market forces and that success is rarely immediate. However, the same statement could be read in a parallax way: the slogan of any radical politics should be “fail again, fail better!” If the 20th century teaches us anything, it is that the worst mistake a radical political movement can make is to be afraid of failure. The obsession of communist parties in “actually existing socialism” with total control of discourse and civil society is precisely what G.W.F. Hegel meant when he said that “the fear of failure reveals itself as the fear of truth.”

So, what was the “Evil Empire” so terrified of? Unfortunately, the answer is not what the liberal consensus wants us to believe, that we can simply reduce the catastrophe of 20th century socialism to megalomaniac lust for power. If this were so, new leadership could have mended the ship. But as we know the great reformer Khrushchev also failed miserably in this regard. If we take this path, we expose ourselves to the critique that socialism is inherently “totalitarian,” and that any attempt at forging a new society is doomed to the excesses of state bureaucracy. Our condemnation of “actually existing socialism” goes far beyond any such petty critique. Communists were not scared of western imperialist powers infiltrating their countries and fomenting insurrection. As valid as this fear was (and still is), we cannot accept the Stalinist trials based upon this alone. Communist parties were also not scared that “revisionist” tendencies within the Party would cause the eventual disintegration of communist rule. If this were so, Khrushchev’s rule and his “secret speech” condemning Stalin would never have been possible.

Actually existing socialist states failed to create a new society precisely because those in power were afraid of the “truth” of socialism: if their subjects took socialism seriously, and if the Party took steps to allow people to actualize socialist ideals, the entire social structure which allowed communists to rule in such a way would have completely collapsed. Simply put, communists were afraid of what their own ideology would have unleashed – they were afraid of that which they claimed to defend: communism. Thus, we should condemn communists not for trying to take power and create a new society, but for their cowardice in the face of such an opportunity.

So, what would a politics that is not afraid to fail again and fail better look like? In the era of neoliberal politics where grand ideological projects have been abandoned, where socialism is no better than fascism, we can learn something. The entire neoliberal project is based upon the idea that, if we simply rid ourselves of the state, eternal economic growth will flower without a hiccup. These hiccups, however, occur every four to six years under the name of “recessions.” Neoliberalism is capable of maintaining its grip on the state (and its subjects) even in the face of its own global failure every decade. This is precisely where leftists should look for advice. We should learn from Thatcher and Reagan, not Stalin or Mao!

Neoliberalism is certainly unafraid of failure – it accounts for failure in its very functioning. Neoliberals know that a recession is structurally necessary, but it simply has the state bail it out. Why should leftists not take the exact same approach but from a different ideological tilt? We can no longer be afraid to do the impossible, to take state power and make big business bail us out. If the state runs short of funds to pay for healthcare, we should have no qualms about pillaging the coffers of big Capital: are they not afraid to do the exact same with our pensions and taxes? If big business is trying to make us pay too much for prescription medicine, why should we not nationalize them? Have we not seen the wholesale privatization of public services over the past 40 years?

To embrace truth, we must account for failure as necessary in the very act of taking power. Medicare for All will not function perfectly. The Green New Deal will have some delays. Congress will not be our friend. However, in the face of all past and future failures, from “actually existing socialism” to the democratic socialism of Bernie Sanders, the Left must remain militant in our fidelity to the cause of equality. We must firmly declare our maxim to be: “fail again, fail better!”