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Spirit of the Age, “Zeitgeist”


The origins of the widely-used concept, “spirit of the age” go back to the German word “zeitgeist” which appeared in Hegel’s philosophical writings. The concept simply refers to a state of mind, feelings and mentality which characterize a particular period of time. Hegel took the period covering late 18th century and early 19th century as a new transition period and wrote that the distinctive characteristic of this era was essentially the “zeitgeist” initiated by the French Revolution of 1789. The Zeitgeist in those historical episodes pointed out by Hegel implies a transitional state of consciousness stretching from past to present. This state of consciousness is composed of a combination of existing social turmoil and future expectations.

The concept has been later used by various philosophers in a way to indicate the dominant element in intellectual, political, cultural, ethical and religious environment of different eras. With the new millennium starting with 2000s, the world has entered into a new phase of deep turmoil. In this regard, the concept of “zeitgeist” gained importance and became a current issue in many writings and debates. Currently the concept is simply used to refer to the state of mind and social mentality that dominate in social life. By setting aside the details of diverging views about “zeitgeist”, what concerns us really is reflections on the social consciousness of the era of historical transition from the old dilapidated order to a new order. Starting from this point, we need to make a class analysis of zeitgeist from a Marxist point of view.

Class Character of Zeitgeist

Marxism explains that prevailing ideas of a particular era are those of the dominant classes of that era. On the other hand, history flows and everything changes over time. For example, in the era of domination of feudal lords, dominant ideas were shaped on the basis of domination of the aristocracy and church. However, when the era of feudalism ended and capitalism came, there were new dominant ideas that were based on the mode of exploitation carried on by the bourgeoisie, the new dominant class of the era. In time, capitalist mode of production spread to the whole world due to its particular characteristics and capitalism initiated to establish similar dominant ideas and class structures everywhere. Capitalism created the bourgeoisie and proletariat as the two major classes of society whereas the petty-bourgeoisie was doomed to be stuck between these two classes and eventually to melt away.

When we look at the history of class struggles, it will be seen that the proletariat cannot free itself from the dominant ideas and ideology of the bourgeoisie unless it raises itself to an independent position on the basis of a revolutionary organization and politics. Though the petty-bourgeoisie which is pushed to an intermediate position by the capitalist order is influenced by the politics of the working class in revolutionary periods, it generally keeps supporting or tail-ending this or that bourgeois policy. On the other hand, throughout a whole period of time when the bourgeoisie keeps its hegemony over whole society, “zeitgeist” is essentially shaped by the bourgeois ideology. Capitalist society is objectively divided into two camps by thick lines; the exploiting class and the exploited class. However, dominant mentality in all those times when the ideological reign of the bourgeoisie keeps on is shaped by the ideas and expectations instilled by the dominant class.

The reality of petty-bourgeoisie in capitalist society is important in the sense that it reflects the common mentality of ordinary people, which requires special attention. Sections of the petty-bourgeoisie in rural and urban areas constitute an intermediate class which generally dissolves and proletarianises with the development and spread of capitalism over every sphere. There is no other, old or new, “middle class” other than these and the capitalist process of development is not a process which promotes and enlarges the petty-bourgeoisie. In all capitalist countries, it is the proletariat that develops and gets bigger in all its diversity.

As capitalism develops, internal structure of the proletariat changes, new industries emerge and spread together with deepening of division of labour and some layers of the proletariat become more educated over time. Capitalist development results in an ever-growing clarification of objective class structure of society, a division between the bourgeois minority and proletarian majority. Nevertheless, the petty-bourgeois mentality which is deeply rooted in the very cells of the society from past to present do not easily disappear. What is more this reality is experienced more intensively in countries like Turkey.

In the cities of modern capitalist society, the petty-bourgeois elements ranging from educated self-employed professionals to petty business holders making a living on their own means create a life style and social mentality which serve as a ground for various definitions of “middle class” by some ideologists. Contrary to traditional small land holder peasants and artisans of older times, the petty-bourgeoisie of cities of modern ages is the carrier of a mentality which it assumes to be elite and modern. In addition to that, there are more educated or partially privileged sections of the class who earn their lives by selling their labour power. Although they are essentially a component of the working class, they do not accept that they belong to the working class. These include engineers, teachers, doctors, nurses and services employees, etc. Despite their objective class positions, they embrace and carry the never-ending petty-bourgeois ideology. A great majority of these elements are under significant influence of bourgeois ideology and they desperately seek to move up to the social ladder and maintain a life style imposed by the bourgeoisie. They are the fruitful resources of the mental petty-bourgeoisification of various segments of the proletariat in spite of the long course of capitalism.

The petty-bourgeois mentality of the educated city people reveals itself as an ideological eclipse of reason which is shaped by a subtle dependence on the bourgeois order. Having this kind of mentality they form all their mental products under deep influence of bourgeois ideology. Their views, therefore, are certain interpretations and generalizations which exclude class divisions within society and which see life through a bourgeois prism. Even when they supposedly attempt a critique of decaying capitalist order, these petty-bourgeois propound ideas that social consequences of the existing order are as if non-class consequences and that everything will always and desperately remain within the framework of capitalist order. It is this mentality that drags the working masses to despair, with its suggestions of “no future”, and to pacifism in the perception that nothing will ever change.

The developments from 1980s until recent years’ winds of change have served in a manner to feed despair, pessimism and pacifism. Let us briefly remind what happened. Actually, capitalist system has always inculcated individualism and value judgments based on individual competition. However, especially with the rise of neo-liberalism in the 1980s and the collapse of the Soviet Union, bourgeois ideology initiated an unprecedented propaganda bombardment to atomize the society. As a matter of fact capitalist system of exploitation in a rapid progress to a syndrome of historical exhaustion set out to seize the minds of young generations by selling the pretence that capitalism is the only social system that will last forever. The dominant bourgeois ideology sought to eradicate any sense of unity, struggle and solidarity in society and make individualism as the only supreme modern value that will bring success. As it gained success in this regard, the phenomena of alienation and isolation emerged especially among young generations, fuelled also by wide use of new technological products.

Technological developments that may serve to the happiness of people in a social system where people do not exploit one another, actually serve to create a social atmosphere which ruins relations among people under present capitalist system and creates deep cleavages in our souls as well as a mass illusion replacing everything real with the virtual. In the past, the educated young people in cities at large had a concern for social problems and constituted the intellectual and revolutionary elements. However, with the 1980s, an educated youth was created who at large do not care anyone else but themselves and adore individualism and the spirit of the age, which is injected by capitalism.

Submitting to the ideological pressure of the bourgeois system, which drags humanity into the edge of abyss and yielding to the rotten capitalist spirit of the age means nothing but giving up one’s social essence which makes human beings what they are and getting into a complete isolation, wretchedness and turning into a soulless slave in the face of capitalism. But fortunately, society is not only composed of those elements that yielded to rottenness and the history of humanity does not at all flow along the lines of the saying “it’s life and it’s inevitable”. Even those things that seem utterly unchangeable change and even when the most degenerated social conditions which cause a deep sense of despair among the masses keeps on like darkness of ages, we see the sledgehammer of masses that makes history tearing the thickest curtain of darkness and starting new times.

As a matter of fact, a change emerged in the social atmosphere of all parts of the world. Let us compare the present situation with the past. In 1980s, the expectations from capitalism and the dreams to get rich were the dominant drive for the whole society and especially for the young generations. There was a dreadful decline in the working masses’ struggle and in the spirit of social rebel. Nevertheless, by the 2000s, the social atmosphere and state of mind of the working masses started to change with the outbreak of the historical crisis of capitalist system.

The content and speed of this change is not yet on a desired level due partly to the problems of revolutionary organizing. However, emergence of such feelings that there will not be a good future under capitalism among young generations of the working masses is a significant indicator. It should not be forgotten that in the fermentation period of social revolutions is marked by social unrest developed on the basis of losing hope from the existing order. Social protests, workers’ movements, street demonstrations and mass revolts successively erupting in all parts of the world, therefore, are indicators of this situation.

The two basic classes of capitalist society have completely different world views and methods of changing the world due to difference in their objective conditions of existence. With its ideology and soul originated from the nature of capitalist competition, the bourgeois world reflects individualism. And it was bourgeois thinkers and intellectuals who led bourgeois revolutions with their individual cultural richness and struggle capacity. Nevertheless, the historical ascent and progress of the proletariat will depend on a revolutionism and class organization taking its power base from the socialist historical mission of the class. For the working class, social leadership means revolutionary organizing and collectivism. Contrary to previous historical eras the proletariat has the quality and capacity to end national boundaries, social classes as well as the exploitation and dominance of people over people thanks to its class rule.

The historical mission of the working class is to build a democratic society without new masters and, therefore, to carry the humanity into a classless and non-exploitative socialist society. While the bourgeois existence is marked by individualism, the life fountain of the working class is communality. The working class has the unique revolutionary potential to elevate human society up into a just and egalitarian world against the spirit of the age which decomposes humanity in the decadence age of capitalism. The proletariat will ensure the emergence of a new social participative and solidarist state of mind through its revolutionary organizing and struggle and this state of mind will defeat the cruel spirit of capitalism.

Historical Transition Periods

Nothing could, and can, remain the same throughout the history of humanity. After all, the world did not remain in the hands of feudal lords or kings of the West, or of Sultan Solomon of Asia. The bourgeoisie which was once a newly rising class came to power through social storms of change in various countries as it swept many kings to the garbage bin of history. However, as the capitalist mode of production started to grow outworn and decay the time of sweeping the bourgeoisie away has eventually come.

When we analyse transitional periods in human history when a social order collapses and birth pangs of a new social order starts, we can see that such kind of periods witness massive conflictual processes which deeply affect the state of mind of masses. In such periods, the zeitgeist is shaped on the basis of social tensions, contradictions and pains composed of expectations of the new historical era and the established consciousness of the previous historical age. As the previous order historically gets weaker, the dominant ideology starts to lose power and the world view of the rising class starts to have an influence over society either on a slow or fast pace.

By giving various historical examples, Marxism reveals that such social realities have been witnessed. The historical transition process from capitalism to socialism is incomparably conflictual, painful, and contradictory and it proceeds with attacks of revolution and counter-revolution as social pain, contradictions and conflicts had been dominant earlier, in the transition from feudal system to capitalism in the West. In the course of this process, the psychology of the oppressed masses is formed by ups and downs of the class struggle. Those masses, therefore, sometimes are very submissive or desperate while sometimes rebellious and hopeful of better things from the future.

Historical transition periods are processes when the masses get tired of the existing social order but do not yet attain a clear expectation from the future or a will for it. In such processes, a segment of these masses start to have new hopes while the concerns and worries of other parts over their lives overwhelmingly increase. In such periods, broad sections of masses, apart from the vanguard and combatant segments, may cling to mystic thoughts or ancient phenomena such as religion rather than abandoning their old and conservative value judgments.

Revolutionary Marxism never looks down the working masses that look for a fair future, reason and conscience in religion against ruthless and remorseless capitalism which drags humanity into a total annihilation. It is for these reasons that internationalist communists are not scornful of religious masses, but on the contrary, they try to deeply understand the situation that these masses were put into. It should not be forgotten that the conscience of the masses often does not exhibit a rapid and easy revolutionary rise even in historically revolutionary periods while vanguard and organized forces of the revolutionary class consciously and determinedly prepare themselves against social storms even in times of despair. However, it is not right to give credence to those who invent desperate theories assuming that the masses cannot rebel against the dominant classes.

To give an example of important historical processes in this regard, the process of Russian revolution with its many features brings forth striking lessons. The process which led to 1917 February revolution was a process when the poor and oppressed masses who saw the Tsar as a unique symbol of their religious beliefs and the only representative of God in the earth asked reforms from their father Tsar. Nevertheless, as the power of social transformation laws led the exploited masses to revolt against the dominant classes, there remained no Tsar or the bourgeois government. Those confused masses that once faltered between the past and future, now were under the influence of the zeitgeist shaped by the Great October Revolution.

It is obvious that social orders change in the course of history. Therefore, the zeitgeist is also changeable in due course. The spirit of age in periods of great changes has a contradictory nature which reflects the social struggle between the old and the new. This contradictory structure presents itself in various fields (ranging from practical struggle to ideological struggle and from art to literature) as a class struggle between the value judgments of the rising revolutionary class and the declining dominant class. However, large sections of society do not notice such indications except the periods of open class conflicts when revolution erupts. Except the fiery days of revolution which inspire masses, those working masses have a state of mind which assumes that days are gone in the same way without any change and that life is nothing but just daily concerns. It is for these reasons that those who look for and think about social life only on the basis of daily realities rather than grasping the deep currents and build-up taking place in the social life see everything as stationary and unchanging.

Even in revolutionary times, the segments of the society apart from those who initiated de facto struggle can perceive daily life as a flow of ordinary days. A striking example in this regard can be given from the observations of John Reed in his study, 10 Days that Shook the World. In this work, Reed mentions the days that the world was shaken by 1917 Russian October Revolution and notes that art exhibitions were done as usual in art galleries and because of the crowd, women from the intelligentsia were hustling in the conferences on art, literature and modern philosophy. The wives of senior officials were participating in tea parties while they carried gold or silver sugar boxes ornamented with bright stones in their fur collars. On the other hand, great Russia was giving birth to a new world in pangs. It is, therefore, obvious that those people making generalizations by simply looking at the dominant state of mind on the masses who are uninterested with daily concerns or politics will be sorely mistaken.

As it was experienced before with various examples in history, the present capitalist system actually witnesses the pains of the need for a great social change. Nevertheless, when one looks at the daily life, one may think that the spirit of the age is indisputably determined by expectations from capitalist society. Undoubtedly, in times when the bourgeois ideology dominates masses, pro-bourgeois influences predominate in the ideological and intellectual sphere. However, despite this very fact, all subjective factors related with social life ranging from intellectual production to the formation of the spirit of the age involve class contradictions. By dialectical nature of things, over time a future expectation of a better, fair and egalitarian world would simmer within society.

This build-up will only expose itself with its revolutionary results in great rebellion periods that transform into anti-systemic social storms with the inclusion of masses. In revolutionary periods, social laws start to function in favour of the downtrodden, oppressed and exploited people while it becomes impossible for the bourgeoisie to manipulate and stop the working class and toiling masses with lies as in usual times. Therefore, people always say that it is easy to be revolutionary in periods of revolution while the hard thing is to be revolutionary vanguards in hard times. What has prepared the working class for revolutionary periods in order to re-ignite its fire of rebellion has been the vanguard efforts of the communist vanguard of the class, which proceed with historical optimism based on Marxism while not being carried away by cross currents of the reactionary period. And this will continue to be true.

Class Attitude against Falsifications

In capitalist society, an enormous ideological machine which seeks to hide the class base of all social phenomena is always at work in line with the interests of the bourgeoisie via its ideologists, authors and media. Bourgeois milieu invents “analyses” on each and every important development or event through this ideological machinery and seeks to make these inventions be recognized and universal with tremendous advertisement campaigns. In their world, everything is designed to maintain the reign of the dominant class. Bourgeois ideological machinery strives to prevent independent analyses and attitudes with its intellectual agents within the workers’ movement. Even beneath the so-called most realist thoughts which are taken for granted by broad sections of society lies bourgeois or petty-bourgeois class attitude. 

As a striking example, we can remember those suggestions that the time for an organized revolutionary workers’ movement has long gone. Those who have such ideas claim that the ability to transform things in today’s world lies in the spontaneous and unorganized initiative of the educated people and the youth living in towns. On the other hand, “modern” parents who praise the spirit of the age draw their children into the vortex of their fake/hollow lives while recommending them to escape from organised struggle. The bourgeois ideology attempts to discredit organized struggle by seeking to set a new image of it as something to be accomplished through illusionary cyber world and games, which is certainly disruptive.

The bourgeois ideology has invented a legend of generation Y which it praises and polishes as if whole youth has the same living conditions in this ruthless and unequal capitalist society. It is possible to see some of its reflections in Turkey as well and listen to stories based on “generation Y youth” that the bourgeois ideologists and petty-bourgeois leftism so eagerly praise. Moreover, there are many “researches and analyses” on this issue written within this framework. These studies epitomize the characteristics of the generation Y youth by basing their analyses on certain aspects which are only relevant for the youth of certain and well-to-do layers of society.

Without going into detail we can give some striking examples about the issue. According to them, Y generation involves the young people born between 1980 and 1995. That this generation constitutes the most-educated generation in history, starts new trends in the world and expects immediate responses from their parents or authorities. This generation Y also has high expectations and they never tolerate oppressive laws that intervene in their personal space. They already determine the purchasing decisions and they never let anyone to intervene in their lives, etc, etc.

It is quite obvious to what extent these people who base the spirit of the age on such “analyses” are alienated from the social realities shaped by capitalism which deepens current social polarization in every respect. What common ground those young people whose characteristics are listed and praised as generation Y youth but who are but a privileged minority and the youth that are obliged to start working in their very early ages and therefore remain uneducated? What worldwide trend can those millions of young people who are exploited under the ruthless laws of capitalism set while they are wasting their lives round the machinery in their workplaces 12-16 hours a day? Likewise, is it possible that the working young people whose hopes are faded under their devastating working conditions can have any high expectations from their lives in this system?

As for the assertion that the generation Y youth never put up with the oppressive laws that intervene in their personal space, we come across with class reality at this point. It is obvious that a well-to-do segment of the young population do not tolerate any oppression coming from their parents while, at the same time, they do not make the oppressive capitalist order an issue. The fact that these segments of society escape from altruist-solidarist traditions of struggle and revolutionary organizing, which is required in order to overthrow the capitalist system, is a proof. On the other hand, in the working class life which has completely different conditions the youth begin to have sympathy towards revolutionary struggle as they gain awareness.

All in all, it is obvious that the would-be social generalizations that bourgeois ideologists formed in line with their own political expectations and plans can only hunt down the petty-bourgeois-minded educated people who are always in desperate need of seeing themselves as being privileged and elite. The fact that these sections of society in Turkey adore their children while once again “discovering” in various occasions that their children constitute the generation Y legend is an explicit proof of this situation. More importantly, the intellectual products which are again produced by the educated urban dwellers in the name of social analysis are far from the potential to change the capitalist world but are shallow, futureless thoughts which reflect life only from their narrow, consumer spiral. The segments of the population having petty-bourgeois mentality cannot save their souls from the dominance of bourgeois ideology even when they act like they are actually leftists and they consume their lives by satisfying themselves with bourgeois generalizations. Apart from these hindrances, a sincere will of change which is fermented by the historical crisis of capitalist system arises among the working population.

In periods of crisis and instability which turn the old political balances upside down as we are experiencing right now, a rebellious spirit arises, which attracts the oppressed and exploited masses in one speed/form or another. Such kinds of periods are historical turning points when the reign of former generalizations and ideological hegemony of the bourgeoisie start to shake. When we analyze history from this point of view, it will not be wrong to say that even the concepts put forward in order to understand historical facts, phenomena and developments have a class spirit.

The zeitgeist is indeed not a supra-class, unchangeable and passive concept. Even the dominant ideology and propaganda which deeply influence the psychology of masses succumb to time in some way. Changing economic conditions of society eventually find their reflection in human consciousness. Therefore, the reflection of the historical decay of capitalism on the consciousness of broad working masses will be different from the one in periods of capitalist ascendancy. In this deep and historical systemic crisis period that capitalism cannot cope with, the working masses, no matter young and old, will lose their hope from the future of this system, no matter what the bourgeoisie does. This is an objective fact despite the level of revolutionary consciousness and organization of these masses is not mature enough yet.

Submitting to pro-capitalist propaganda that the bourgeois ideology seeks to impose on the masses as the spirit of the age and having no faith in the ability of revolutionary propaganda to change the way workers and toilers see the world simply means to surrender without fighting. As a matter of fact, we witnessed a striking example of this in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union when educated people at large distanced themselves from Marxist ideas and faith in social struggle, thus surrendering to the existing order, or sank into the quagmire of their own personal crises. However, communist vanguards who went against the current and worked to patiently build the struggle within the working class have proved that both Marxism and the revolutionary working class struggle are alive and would rise more.

Today, the world has entered into a period of stir as evidenced by a host of social revolts that turned into explicit rebellions in many countries from Arab Peninsula to Latin America to the strikes by the working class. The humanity craves in pain for salvation from this ruthless capitalist system, not only the communist vanguards or the revolutionary sections of the class but also the working masses who try to oppose capitalist decay by holding on to their religious beliefs and the restless youth who have no future expectations from this system. One should brush aside the demoralisation created by the those people who do not see those pangs but only become obsessed with the negative factors which emerge in the flow of daily social life. Everything changes and the present situation will also change. It is an honour to keep building the revolutionary organization of the working class in great faith and determination which will create the revolutionary resistance of the working class to the bourgeois winds.

The struggle can only progress by trying to understand the present world on the basis of revolutionary thinking of Marxism and by not surrendering to the distortions of bourgeois ideologists and commentators. The working class revolutionaries will turn the flow of time in favour of the oppressed and exploited masses by carrying revolutionary consciousness as well as the determination for and faith in struggle to the class. Those who succeed to do that will deserve to be the vanguards who fuel the revolutionary flame and prepare the working class for revolution. It is obvious that the real achievement is to avoid surrendering to the ideological and intellectual reign of the dominant class and the so-called unchangeable zeitgeist. Although the present moment seems to be loaded with many drawbacks in terms of the revolutionary consciousness and organization of the class, those who do not surrender will open the way for the long-awaited future!