Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Communism would be like - what?

In my previous post, 'Revolution back on the agenda?', I wrote about difficulties in the Marxist concept of post-capitalist society in transition to communism.

We now know so much more about human nature, and specifically how much is genetically-determined; bureaucratisation and elite power-grabbing are endemic in human affairs.

So why doesn't this cause the collapse of 'bourgeois democracy' itself into the kind of 'big-man' kleptocracies we see in the Middle-East and Africa?

The conventional answer looks to the institutions of democracies. But institutions are not things (a reified view, in the jargon) but processes which are themselves composed through habitual and recurring human behaviour.

Bourgeois governments are quite weak and circumscribed in power. In the American case, this was explicitly by constitutional design. The bourgeois state, meanwhile, typically has few direct sources of revenue and has to tax or borrow - disproportionately from economic elites. Due to private ownership of the means of production, in a mature and advanced capitalist society the owners of capital constitute a diffuse and sprawling network of distributed economic power.

There is quite a literature, Marxist and otherwise, suggesting that except in periods of great crisis, the capitalists rather prefer a weakish government as a tool to resolve their differences of interest (plus occasional bouts of unrest from the proletariat), and a state which is not too expensive.

It has also been argued that the dominance of capitalist relations of production cannot be established in the first place without prior evolutionary selection for the kind of human who was "less prone to violence, had an affinity for work, had low time preference, and was individualistic (ie not too clannish) in several ways." Arguably this was the historic outcome of mediaeval feudalism.

In the immediate post-capitalist, post-revolutionary state, we have abolished - by definition - the capitalist class by violent expropriation, and reordered economic activity as conscious 'democratic planning'. Suddenly, those extended sources of countervailing power have all been removed.

Human nature promptly reasserts itself.


A personal aside. In my revolutionary youth, I read a lot of Trotsky and Lenin; I read Lukács and Korsch. I did not read much Marx except for his more philosophical works and in particular I could never get into Capital: I learned my Marxist economics from Ernest Mandel's textbook instead.

I was not the only one.

In 2012 Michael Heinrich published "An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx's Capital" to great acclaim.

You can buy it from Amazon, but it's available free as a PDF here.

I was struck by the last chapter, (12), where the author summarises what Marx actually thought about communism - and tries to rebut some of the criticisms. It's interesting.


From: "An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx's Capital" by Michael Heinrich.

Chapter 12. Communism—Society Beyond the Commodity, Money, and the State

Marx’s political aim was to overcome capitalism. A socialist or communist society (Marx and Engels used these terms interchangeably in the 1860s), in which private property in the means of production is abolished and production is therefore no longer carried out with the goal of profit maximization, was to take capitalism’s place.

Marx did not draft an extensive concept for such a society, so that even today many readers of Capital are surprised when they find out that it does not contain even a small chapter about communism. However, at various points (both in Capital as well as in earlier writings) Marx attempted to draw conclusions from his analysis of capitalism concerning general determinations of communism.

Since such conclusions depend upon the respective level of analysis, there are widely varying pronouncements that do not, however, add up to a unified conception.

There are two widespread complexes of conceptions regarding what constitutes communism in Marx’s sense. However, neither has much to do with the critique of political economy outlined in the preceding chapters.

Communism as an ideal.

Here it is assumed that communism means a society as it should be for ethical reasons: people should not exploit and oppress other people; they should not seek to gain material advantage, but rather show solidarity and helpfulness, etc. In Marx's early writings, one finds a few pronouncements that can be interpreted in this direction.

Against such a conception, it is often objected that 'humans are not as good as communism requires, that they always seek personal advantage and that communism therefore cannot function'.

On the other hand, people who are ethically or religiously motivated find a point of contact here, since Marx’s ostensible ethics seem to be strongly compatible with Christian ethics, for example.

Both sides do not consider the fact that in Capital, Marx does not criticize capitalism for moral reasons (see section 2.2). Rather, in the course of his analysis, he demonstrates that moral conceptions are socially produced (see section 4.3). It thus follows that morals only exist as the morals of a particular society, but not as a universal morality one can measure individual societies against.

Communism as the nationalisation of the means of production.

The abolition of private property in the means of production is here equated with nationalisation and state planning of the economy. Against this, the objection is raised that state planning is far too cumbersome and slow and includes a tendency toward authoritarian rule. Often, the "really existing socialism" of the Soviet Union is regarded as a more or less direct implementation of this conception of communism.

The collapse of the Soviet Union is then taken as an obvious proof for the inevitable failure of communism.

One finds demands for the nationalization of production both in the Communist Manifesto as well as Engels’s Anti-Duhring but only as a first measure and never as a characterization of communism. Rather, the means of production should pass into the hands of society and the state ultimately “dies out” (MECW, 25:268).

In the few fundamental observations concerning communism that Marx makes on the basis of the critique of political economy, two things are clear.

First, that communist society is no longer based upon exchange. Both the expenditure of labour-power in production as well as the distribution of products (first in their use as means of production and subsistence, then as the distribution of consumption goods among the individual members of society) occur in a manner consciously and methodically regulated by society - not by the market or the state. Not only capital (self-valorising value), but also the commodity and money no longer exist.

Second, Marx is not only concerned with a distribution that is quantitatively different from that under capitalism (this question of distribution was emphasized in traditional Marxism), but primarily with the emancipation from a social nexus that takes on a life of its own and imposes itself upon individuals as an anonymous compulsion.

Not only the capital relation as a specific relation of exploitation that generates bad and insecure working and living conditions for the majority of the population should be overcome; the fetishism that “attaches” to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities should also be abolished.

Social emancipation, the liberation from self-produced and therefore gratuitous constraints, is only possible when the social relations that generate the various forms of fetishism have disappeared. Only then can the members of society truly regulate and organize their social affairs themselves as an “association of free men” (Capital, 1:171).

Marx is concerned with this comprehensive emancipation, and not merely with the question of distribution.

In contrast, it was a central tenet of traditional worldview Marxism and Marxism-Leninism that socialism or communism would lead to another mode of distribution that would offer individuals a foundation for other and better possibilities for development. According to this distribution-centric conception, an authoritarian welfare state that retains certain structures of the market economy can be regarded as socialism or communism.

The “really existing socialism” in Russia, Eastern Europe, and China moved exactly in this direction: the party elite occupied positions of state power and steered the economy in the direction of the greatest possible increase of material output, a somewhat egalitarian distribution of income as well as the greatest possible social security.

In the 'really existing socialist welfare state', the policies of the ruling party were not just imposed in an authoritarian manner against a political opposition striving for the reintroduction of capitalism. The majority of the population also had no actual influence; it was a more or less well taken care of but passive object of the party’s policies. Open discussion could occur only in a very limited way, if at all. The ruling “Communist” parties in the “socialist” countries also did not allow their monopoly of power to be questioned by other communist forces. Society here did not regulate the social process, the party did.

Clear-sightedly, Rosa Luxemburg criticized such tendencies early on. In her uncompleted text The Russian Revolution she writes:
"Without general elections, without unrestricted freedom of press and assembly, without a free struggle of opinion, life dies out in every public institution, becomes a mere semblance of life, in which only the bureaucracy remains as the active element. Public life gradually falls asleep, a few dozen party leaders of inexhaustible energy and boundless experience direct and rule. Among them, in reality only a dozen outstanding heads do the leading and an elite of the working class is invited from time to time to meetings where they are to applaud the speeches of the leaders, and to approve proposed resolutions unanimously—at bottom, then, a clique affair."

 (The Rosa Luxemburg Reader, Monthly Review Press, 2004, 307).
The state in 'really existing socialism', was primarily an instrument for securing the party’s rule over society. The “dying out of the state” was postponed to a distant future.

However, for Marx’s conception of communism, it is precisely this point that is of decisive importance: the state, whether bourgeois or “socialist,” constitutes an independent force standing above society that organizes (to a certain extent) and imposes (by force if necessary) a specific form of reproduction.

Against this, the “association of free men,” Marx’s characterization of communism, regulates its affairs without resort to such an external, independent force; as long as such a force exists, one cannot speak of an "association of free men".

That one can only speak of communism when not only the commodity, money, and capital have been abolished, but the state as well, does not mean that such a society would have no rules. The members of such a society would have to regulate their social life, organize production in individual workplaces, coordinate between workplaces, harmonize their different interests as producers and consumers, find ways of dealing with minority positions, and for a long time will still have to deal with different forms of gender and racial discrimination - such discrimination would not automatically disappear once capitalist exploitation ends.

The enormous effort of coordination that a communist society would have to perform, coordination that occurs today through the market, should not be underestimated in any case, nor should differences of interest and conflicts, as well as the danger of coordinating instances taking on a life of their own and becoming a state structure.

When Engels writes in Anti-Duhring that ‘‘the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things” (MECW, 25:268), this is correct, but one should also add that the administration of things also contains a potential for power that can always lead to the domination of people.

Despite all these difficulties, there is still no immediately apparent argument as to why a communist society should be impossible in principle. However, communism - if it is not to be a “crude” communism (MECW, 3:296) that merely manages scarcity - is tied to certain economic and social preconditions.

Marx emphasizes the massive development of productivity on the basis of science and technology, as well as the comprehensive development of the abilities of the workers as essential preconditions for the transition to a communist society (Capital, 1:616-21, 635, 637-38, 739; 3:958-59), even if both only occur in capitalism upon a narrow foundation, limited by the goal of profit maximization.

Two things are clear in connection with Marx’s considerations.

First, it is not sufficient for the transition to a communist society to conquer and defend state power during a weak phase of bourgeois rule, like in Russia in 1917. Without the corresponding social and economic preconditions, a socialist revolution might be successful as a project to maintain the power of a political party, but not as a project of social emancipation.

Second, a communist society requires a particular development to transform the preconditions created within capitalism. Not until “a higher phase of communist society,” where “the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly” can “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” apply (MECW, 24:87).

Even when a communist society can only be achieved with difficulty - in light of the social devastation wrought by global capitalism, by crises and unemployment in the developed countries as well as in the countries of the so-called Third World while there exists at the same time a historically unprecedented level of material wealth; in light of the destruction of the natural foundations of life caused by capitalist production, no longer occurring locally but affecting the planet as a whole (clearly visible in climate change); in light of constant wars that also emanate from or are promoted by “democratic” bourgeois states—in light of all that, there are enough good reasons to abolish capitalism and replace it with an “association of free men.”



Marx's assertion that,
"moral conceptions are socially produced ... . It thus follows that morals only exist as the morals of a particular society, but not as a universal morality one can measure individual societies against."
is well-refuted blank-slatism. But it does seem needed to justify the utopian premises of super-egalitarian communism.

As far as the rest of Heinrich's piece is concerned - interesting as it is - it's more an expression of hope than logical analysis. My final thoughts linger with his observation:
"When Engels writes in Anti-Duhring that ‘‘the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things” (MECW, 25:268), this is correct, but one should also add that the administration of things also contains a potential for power that can always lead to the domination of people."
Sadly or otherwise, these are the people we've got - in all their physical and psychological diversity; ants they are not.

Let me just re-iterate my closing points from the previous post:
"Improving AI-driven automation will increase overall productivity and decrease costs for things like robotic personal assistants (just beyond the state of the art right now).

"This could eventually fund a 'basic income' which, with a mature virtual reality infrastructure, could keep the left-hand side of the bell curve quiescent for ever. They might even tell you they were already in paradise - before returning to 'Call of Duty VR'. No doubt there will be more highbrow versions extending - how far, I wonder? - up the right-hand side.

"In such a process of runaway automation, note that the former working class has in fact been expelled from the process of production. Literally, they are no longer proletarian, but a group wholly parasitic upon the automated economy.

"An analogy would be to imagine a people who inhabited such a benevolent natural environment that all their needs from the most basic (food, shelter) to the most refined were instantly and effortlessly available to hand.

"If such an AI-automation economy is the means by which 'communism' (full abundance) is to be achieved, we should be careful what we wish for.

"As well as the dysgenic dangers of relaxed selection (which we already experience in the West), I suspect that without any meaningful challenges, the population would rapidly disintegrate into chaos, anomie and violence .. unless this utopia provides for omnipresent VR capable of realising any fantasy-endeavour whatsoever.

"And it was for this that the great wheel of human history turned?"

Next: "On the Corbyn New Left".

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