Historian of the Left

New Beginning: Sketch for a Conceptual History

The new year inevitably brings with it a spate of new year’s resolutions. While the timing of these life decisions — vowing to exercise more, to spend less money, to find a partner or new job, etc. — is somewhat arbitrary and their results often short-lived, the symbolic importance of the new year and its seemingly infinite possibilities is undeniable. Baby New Year is a common personification of this collective rebirth. Where does this radical notion of self- and social refashioning come from? Is the concept of “new beginning” just a reassuring ideal that helps accustom us to a bitter, unchanging reality, or is it something more?

There is an article in the latest New Yorker on the possibility of “restarting” or “rebooting” a presidency after a bad run of events. In it, the author claims that the idea of a “fresh start” is distinctly American: “It’s an appealing and very American notion — the fresh start, the clean slate, the second (or third, or sixth) act.” While colloquially this may be true, the concept of new beginning is older and much broader than the American experience of a clean slate. First of all, the etymology of the English word “begin” relates to a Germanic word meaning “to open” or “to open up” (per OED). That original sense of opening up toward something new is contained in the concept of new beginning. But more importantly, to speak of new beginnings implies a consciousness of time and a particular understanding of history. In the ancient world, time and history possessed a circular quality whereby the same series of events seemed to repeat itself over and over again. Myth dominated humans’ understanding of the world. Even ancient philosophers like Aristotle tended to unify beginnings and endings in a circular teleology: everything exists or is created for the sake of fulfilling its final goal, or telos. For the ancients, every beginning already contained its ending, thus ruling out the possibility of any “new” beginning that opened into an unknown future.

With the advent of Christianity, which built upon the existing messianic tradition of Judaism, consciousness of time and history began to shift toward a linear model. For medieval minds, Christ’s resurrection was a watershed event that had broken through the mythic circularity of previous time and had opened the gates of heaven for the salvation of mankind. The fact of Christ was the new beginning that lay at the center of history: the Jews had prophesied it and Christians would continue to refer back to it. In this historical totality of past, present, and future, all that was left to do was wait for the return of the Messiah and the end of the world. Still caught between mythic circularity and messianic linearity, then, medieval and early modern thinkers used a variety of motifs to capture the ambiguous nature of beginnings and endings. The common Latin phrase de novo, meaning “anew” or “over again from the beginning” (per OED), suggested a return to a previous state of affairs. On the other hand, Christian conversion stories — the paradigmatic one being Saint Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus — suggested the possibility of abandoning a previous path and setting out on a completely new one, i.e. the Christian faith.

The 17th- and 18th-century Enlightenment saw new attempts to resolve this ambiguity of circularity vs. linearity. Giambattista Vico argued in his New Science (1725) that history proceeds according to distinct stages and that civilizations develop through recurring cycles. Later thinkers like Condorcet also used some form of stage theory in their philosophies of history, but the cyclical notion found in Vico eventually gave way to more linear notions of progress; that is, once achieved, an historical stage never repeats or cycles back on itself. According to this progressive philosophy of history, there was no going back. In the early 19th century, the German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel attempted a grand synthesis of the Christian teleological model and the progressive Enlightenment model of history. The motor of history for Hegel was consciousness, spirit, or “mind” (Geist), and through a dialectical process of overcoming successive contradictions (e.g. master vs. slave, divine law vs. human law, natural vs. artificial, subject vs. object, etc.) individual consciousness/mind would tend toward identity with the “world spirit” (Weltgeist). The individual would recognize the world in himself and the world would recognize itself in the individual. In this rather arcane context, any new beginning is always interpreted from the perspective of totality: a contradictory situation requires a new beginning, but that new beginning then becomes part of a new contradictory situation and must be overcome by yet another new beginning. Nothing is final in Hegel’s system until the great reconciliation of all immanent contradictions in the world, the reconciliation of God and man.

In everyday usage, new beginning usually means something like “turning over a new leaf”: a fundamental reorientation of one’s life, a departure from the previously chosen path, a change of course. The birth of a child symbolizes such a new beginning (see above Baby New Year), and youth in general serves to “revitalize” or regenerate an aging society. Other formative moments of a person’s life contain aspects of new beginning. The college experience, for example, is a chance to remake oneself, to determine one’s future, to start a life that is not necessarily determined by one’s social or familial circumstances.1 A new beginning entails both a rupture with (or revision of) the past and a re-visioning (or revision) of the future.2 New beginning may also be translated into more mundane contexts, such as the financial “restructuring” of a failed business venture. Optimizing efficiency is not the same as opening new horizons for human action, but the practice of re-branding that often occurs after a business merger implies a kind of renewal, a new chance on the market.

In the sociopolitical context, the concept of new beginning is tied intimately to the phenomenon of modern revolution. Edmund Burke’s famous critique of the French Revolution in Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) rested on his contention that the French in 1789, in contrast to the English in 1688, had broken completely with past customs and traditions in order to begin society anew. The consequences of this radical utopian act, he predicted, would be dire: “at the end of every [utopian] vista, you see nothing but the gallows.” Hannah Arendt later picked up this thread in her volume On Revolution (1963). The difference between the (successful) American Revolution and the (unsuccessful) French Revolution, she argued, was that the former’s new beginning resulted in the legal foundation of liberty in a written constitution acknowledged by all as legitimate; the latter’s new beginning, on the other hand, only produced a series of abortive constitutions that degenerated into constant upheaval, anarchic renewal, and “permanent revolution,” as Trotsky would later call it. In other words, the problem with the French Revolution was that there was no way to end it. Arendt had already written a lot about natality and new beginnings in her philosophical treatise The Human Condition (1958). For her, the human capacity to begin anew was what sustained civilization, what saved “the realm of human affairs from [. . .] ruin.” But in On Revolution she introduced an important distinction between “normal” new beginning (constitutio libertatis, the foundation of liberty; e.g. the American Revolution) and pathological new beginning (novus ordo saeclorum, new secular order; e.g. the French Revolution). With this distinction, she reminded us of both the ancient observation that every new beginning is defined in part by its ending and the more modern recognition of the difference between new beginning as an event and renewal as an unbounded process.

For reasons that I will not explore in this post, the concept of new beginning has had a special appeal within the European socialist tradition.3 During the 1920s and 30s, the call for socialist renewal usually came from a number of small, “third-way” splinter organizations — that is, groups that positioned themselves somewhere between the two opposed tendencies of the divided labor movement, social democracy and communism. One example of such an organization was the New Beginning Group, which formed in Berlin in 1929 and expanded throughout the mid-1930s even amid Nazi persecution. The group, initially known to members only as the “Organization,” took its name from a programmatic pamphlet published toward the end of 1933. Neu beginnen!, or “begin anew!,” resonated broadly with social democrats and communists inside Germany and in exile who were frustrated with the two major labor parties’ dogmatic refusal to cooperate in the fight against fascism. The pamphlet was quickly translated into French (Nouveau départ), British English (Socialism’s New Start), and American English (Socialism’s New Beginning). The latter name stuck and the organization became known internationally as New Beginning.

I refer to this example not only because it is the subject of my doctoral dissertation, but also because the transformation of the pamphlet’s original German title (the imperative “begin anew!”) into the pronoun “New Beginning” demonstrates how a plea for renewal as a process was inseparable from “new beginning” as a concrete, nominalized event or political program.4 This process of reification or nominalization, a conceptual oscillation between renewal and new beginning, reflected the dialectic inherent in attempts to reform modern political parties, which combined elements of hierarchical party organization with a more fluid mass movement.5 The sociologist Robert Michels had predicted that “worldview parties” (the term was Max Weber’s) like German Social Democracy would eventually succumb to what he called the “iron law of oligarchy”: the ideological leaders of the mass movement would accrue organizational power within the party structure and, served by a disciplined party bureaucracy, would gradually stifle the originally democratic character of the movement.6 This oligarchic or authoritarian tendency even in parties on the left that claimed to fight for socialism and democracy naturally gave rise to attempts at “democratic renewal” within the socialist movement.7

In the aftermath of the Second World War, such attempts at renewal — which, as mentioned before, had been the province of small “third-way” splinter groups during the interwar years — became integrated into the official party platforms of many of the leading European socialist parties. The British Labour Party won the 1945 elections on a “renewal” platform (both inner-party reform and social reform), many of the communist parties of the Soviet bloc were “de-Stalinized” and renewed after 1953 and especially after 1956, and the German Social Democratic Party “renewed” itself at the Bad Godesberg party convention in 1959. In the latter case, renewal meant the abandonment of traditional Marxist terminology like “class struggle” and the party’s reorientation away from the industrial working class toward the broad West German middle class. But Hegel’s dialectic of new beginning came into play during the following decades, when the mantle of renewal once again passed to the small, unofficial, and “extra-parliamentary” opposition groups that were frustrated with the oligarchic tendencies of the established parties. Nineteen sixty-eight was the miraculous year of this development, culminating with the student movement in the West and Prague Spring in the East.

The relationship between the concept of new beginning and violence is another important issue. In his essay “Toward a Critique of Violence” (1921), Walter Benjamin distinguished between what he called “mythic violence” (mythische Gewalt) and “divine violence” (göttliche Gewalt). The philosopher Andrew Benjamin (no relation) has illustrated what Walter meant through an analogy to Sophocles’ Antigone.8 In that classic drama, Antigone seeks to bury her brother Polynices, who had died in the Theban Civil War and had been condemned to dishonor by the new king Creon. The king’s law forbids a proper burial of Polynices’ body, but Antigone claims that her sibling love is superior to the laws of men. She is caught burying her brother illegally. The blind prophet Tiresias, speaking for the gods, eventually intervenes and urges Creon to ignore his law and listen to the Chorus of Theban elders, who counsel moderation and leniency. The play ends in tragedy, of course, but Antigone (and the Chorus) is proven right and Creon wrong. In Walter Benjamin’s terms, Creon’s law and the laws of men in general represent the mythic violence of the status quo: force, or violence, compels people to obey the existing order and condemns those who break the law. Divine violence, on the other hand, is how Benjamin would have characterized the intervention of Tiresias, the gods’ prophet. Using a different kind of force, this violence breaks open the status quo and suspends the legitimacy of the existing order: it makes possible something new, which in the play is the Chorus’ decision of Antigone’s fate. Although he may not have intended it when he wrote the essay in the early 1920s, Walter Benjamin would come to see divine violence as a model for revolutionary new beginning.9

It is possible, though somewhat counterintuitive, to combine Benjamin’s categories with Arendt’s in order to interpret the processes of modern political renewal as described above. Mythic violence characterizes the “undemocratic” renewal that often occurred in the communist camp (purges, show trials, etc.). That kind of renewal replicates Arendt’s pathological new beginning insofar as it initiates an unending cycle of violence and repression, a permanent revolution from above that serves only to consolidate the power of the totalitarian leader (e.g. Stalin). In contrast, divine violence creates a sort of caesura or rupture10 that allows for democratic discussion about the direction of the political movement. A chorus of new voices (and not just the party oligarchy) might “force” their way into the inner-party debate in order to determine a new direction. This is more along the lines of what Arendt meant by a normal new beginning, a democratic foundation of liberty.11

The fate of political and social revolution in the 21st century remains unclear. Arab Spring and recent events in Ukraine suggest that, contrary to postmodern (and post-communist) theories of the “end of history,” we have not seen the last of modern revolutions. But it is certain that the concept of new beginning and its attendant process of renewal remain powerful rhetorical and organizational devices both for political parties and for the formation of the modern self.12 Their conceptual history remains to be written, but this sketch might at least show us the right road — be it to Damascus or somewhere else.



  1. Attending college, of course, already presupposes certain financial and social requirements. The new beginning is not then a complete break with the past. Belief in a total new beginning is often an ideology that hides indebtedness to past and present circumstances.  (back)
  2. This bi-directionality of new beginning — its historical and utopian dimensions — figured into Karl Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge in Ideology and Utopia (1929) and Ernst Bloch’s philosophy of “concrete utopia” in The Spirit of Utopia (1918) and The Principal of Hope (written 1938-47).  (back)
  3. Renewal was of course also associated with liberal progressive — and often populist — reform parties. For the US, a classic account is Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform (1955).  (back)
  4. Other German socialist groups of the time used the new beginning motif, especially after New Beginning itself became popular. See for example the International Socialist Fighting League (ISK) and its 1935 pamphlet Sozialistische Wiedergeburt (“Socialist Rebirth”). Incidentally, it should be noted that rebirth and renewal were also frequent motifs in Nazi propaganda.  (back)
  5. Hannah Arendt also perceived this difference between parties and (totalitarian) movements. See Ch. 11, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951).  (back)
  6. Political Parties (1911).  (back)
  7. In Germany, though perhaps not elsewhere, democratic renewal (demokratische Erneuerung) is a distinct concept.  (back)
  8. Andrew Benjamin, talk at UC-Berkeley on Oct. 21, 2009. See also his chapter “Placing Speaking: Notes on the First Stasimon of Sophocles’s Antigone,” in: Place, Commonality and Judgment (2010).  (back)
  9. The ambiguous role of violence here is due somewhat to the multiple meanings of the German word Gewalt (force, coercion, physical violence).  (back)
  10. The terms are Andrew Benjamin’s.  (back)
  11. It also loosely follows the model of Jürgen Habermas’ communicative rationality. See Communication and the Evolution of Society (1976) and Theory of Communicative Action (1981).  (back)
  12. See the implicit discussions of new beginning and self-remaking in Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self (1989) and Jerrold Seigel, The Idea of the Self (2005).  (back)