Friday, December 23, 2011

Marx Against "Crude Communism"

I can still recall some of the first things I learned about "Communism" in elementary school. According to what we were taught, "Communism" was supposed to be a system which did not reward hard work. We discussed the parable of the ant and the grasshopper, where we were encouraged to conclude that the upshot of the story was that the productive should flourish and the lazy should perish. Since capitalism allegedly exemplified this moral principle of just reward for hard work—never mind that this is totally false—we were supposed to prefer it to "Communist" systems that rewarded the lazy and stultified the diligent.

A close corollary of this teaching was that socialism is little more than a "politics of envy". That is, since socialism is the institutionalization of the principle that the lazy shall be rewarded and the productive shall be punished, it follows that the main motivation to adopt socialist politics must be envy. The poor, the oppressed, the exploited masses of workers are just jealous of what their allegedly hard-working wealthy counterparts have amassed. Everyone wants the same thing, the story goes, and that thing is rather simple: maximum consumption. The only difference, then, between workers and the ruling classes is that the former is denied high levels of consumption whereas the latter is not. Socialists and defenders of capitalism therefore agree that the basic goal of society—whether its socialist or capitalist—should be maximum production and endless consumption for its own sake. Socialism appears here as little more than a leveling down maneuver that aims to realize a certain patterned distribution of material goods. Equality—or, more specifically, possessive equality—appears to reign supreme.

But what has this to do with genuine socialism as Marx himself described it? Nothing whatsoever. In fact, this picture is precisely what Marx excoriated as "crude communism".

Now, to be fair, this image of socialism as conforming to the basic goals of capitalist society, as aiming at consumption and possession, does describe the basic contours of the Stalinist system rather well. But that is no stain on the socialist ideal—it is simply one further reason to think that those state capitalist regimes had nothing to do with socialism properly understood.

Marx weighs in against "crude communism" in many different places, among them in the Manifesto, the Critique of the Gotha Program and in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. Let's examine what he says about "crude communism" in the latter text:
"[In crude communism] the domination of material property looms so large that it aims to destroy everything which is incapable of being possessed by everyone as private property. It wishes to eliminated talent, etc. by force. Immediate physical possession seems to it the unique goal of life and existence. The role of worker is not abolished but is extended to all men. The relation of private property remains the relation of the community to the world of things. Finally, this tendency to oppose general private property to private property is expressed in animal form; marriage (which is incontestably a form of exclusive private property) is contrasted with the "community of women", in which women become communal and common property. One may say that this idea of the community of women is the open secret of this entirely crude and unreflective communism. Just as women are to pass from marriage to universal prostitution, so the whole world of wealth is to pass to the relation of universal prostitution with the community. This communism, which negates the personality of man in every sphere, is only the logical expression of private property, which is this negation. Universal envy setting itself up as a power is only a camouflaged form of cupidity which reestablishes itself and satisfies itself in a different way. The thoughts of every individual private property are at least directed against any wealthier private property, in the form of envy and the desire to reduce everything to a common level; so that this envy and leveling in fact constitute the essence of competition. Crude communism is only the culmination of such envy and leveling-down on the basis of a preconceived minimum. How little this abolition of private property represents a genuine appropriation is shown by the abstract negation of the whole world of culture and civilization, and the regression to the unnatural simplicity of the poor and wantless individual who has not only not surpassed private property but has not yet even attained it. The community is only a community of work and of equality of wages paid out by the communal capital, by the community as universal capitalist. The two sides of the relation are raised to a supposed universality; labor as a condition in which everyone is placed, and capital as the acknowledged universality and power of the community."
This critique of "crude communism" is as much a searing indictment of contemporary capitalism as it is an indictment of the state capitalism of the Stalinist regimes. Let's take a close look at specific passages to get clearer on what Marx's socialism is and is not.

First, Marx is not arguing for a leveled, conformist society in which personality and individuality are obliterated. Neither does he stand for a society in which people are not able to develop their talents, cultivate their natural powers, and develop their full potential; on the contrary, the basic aim of a socialist society would be to fully realize these goals. For Marx, it is a profound problem with capitalist societies that "immediate physical possession seems to it the unique goal of life and existence." That is, rather than placing human development at the center, capitalism privileges having and possessing capital at the forefront. Profit trumps human flourishing whenever the two come into conflict (which is often) in capitalism. But Marx's argument against crude communism here is that it doesn't depart from the basic aim of capitalist societies. It merely reproduces them in a slightly different form.

What's more, Marx argues that in "crude communism", "the role of worker is not abolished but is extended to all men. The relation of private property remains the relation of the community to the world of things." There are two deep insights here. First, Marx didn't think that socialism had to do with increasing workers' standard of living, winning better working conditions, shorter work hours, etc. Of course, Marx was for all of these reforms, but he didn't think that they were enough. For Marx, socialism is about full working class self-emancipation—which is equivalent to the worker's self-abolition of her status as worker. That means abolishing the division labor characteristic of capitalism—especially the sharp division between mental and physical labor—and fundamentally restructuring the organization of socially necessary labor. A socialist society, for Marx, is precisely not one in which workers are simply treated better by the bosses than they are in capitalist societies. On the contrary, a socialist society is one in which there are no bosses, no workers as such, indeed no classes at all. No group would enjoy exclusive ownership and control of the social means of production and no group would be dispossessed from it. No propertied group would be in a position to rule over those without property. In short, socialism would not mean leveling-down all to the status and social position of the worker in capitalist societies. It would be a qualitative break from the present in which human development and genuine individuality were possible for all.

The second deep insight is that crude communism preserves the possessive, reifying tendency of capitalism. In the Manifesto, Marx and Engels complain that capitalism has torn asunder traditional (i.e. feudal) social relations, norms, practices and rituals with the result that the fundamental bond between individuals consists of little more than cold cash transactions. The point isn't that we should be nostalgic for feudal social formations; the argument is that capitalism tends to colonize human relations, leisure, recreation, even family and "private" life. These spheres come to be ruled by the basic coordinates of capitalist property relations, with money as the mediator and accumulation of profit as the basic aim. To be sure, the colonization and commodification of these domains isn't total or all-encompassing. But one only needs to think of the ways in which Christmas has been packaged, commodified and transformed into a orgy of consumption to see that Marx was on to something here.

Neither is genuine socialism (or genuine communism—I draw no principled distinction here) about "abstractly negating" (a Hegelian concept) all culture and "civilization". On the contrary, it would represent a "determinate negation" within the history of culture and civilization, a dialectical maneuver that takes stock of what is good and true in the present while negating what is false in the act of going beyond it. It would draw on the promise of the elements of existing progressive culture as leverage to forge something new.

This brings us to envy. Envy usually has the form of resenting someone for having something (a good, a status, an ability, an office, etc.) that you wish you had. It is not to be confused with wishing that you had your needs met—envy is about resenting a particular person (or group of persons) who have something you lack but wish you had. Thus, it's often enough, as far as the envious impulse is concerned, that that person is cut down to your level. This kind of sentiment surely simmers underneath those workers who resent other workers for having better pensions or wages. On the other hand, to envy a capitalist, from the perspective of a worker, would be basically to wish you were in their shoes. But the goal of collective working-class liberation is incompatible with the individualist urge to leave the class to join the small clique of rulers. Envy, then, is certainly not a revolutionary impulse. It does not brush against the grain of exploitation and oppression. Nor is it like the sort of righteous anger that we feel toward oppressors of all kinds. Envy is a self-regarding, possessive impulse that is based on avarice. It is a police concept—something that is essential if one wishes to artificially ensure that everyone is off in their own respective corner consuming equal amounts of stuff.

But socialism is not in the first instance about ensuring that everyone earns exactly the same income or possesses exactly the same amount of stuff. Negatively, socialism is a society in which there are no social relations of domination: no exploitation, no oppression, no high and mightiness, no bowing and scraping. Positively, socialism is a free community of equals, or, if you like, freely associated producers who, through organization and democratic self-governance, put human development first. Socialism is about making the flourishing of all human beings the basic priority of social production—not private profit.

This is all a way of saying that envy has no basic place in the argument for socialism. We shouldn't want to be socialists because we're jealous of the nice cars and mansions that the ruling class lavish themselves with. We should be socialists because we cannot tolerate a system in which a small class dominates, oppresses and exploits the majority—all for the sake of the endless accumulation of capital. Envy presupposes the competitive, possessive mindset we are encouraged to adopt in capitalism. Thus, it has no legitimate place in a socialist society.


-sf said...

"On the contrary, a socialist society is one in which there are no workers as such, no bosses, indeed no classes at all. No group would enjoy exclusive ownership and control of the social means of production and no group would be dispossessed from it. No propertied group would be in a position to rule over those without property."
I'm just curious, how would this work out in practice? Lets just assume none of us want to give up "consumer goods" like laptops that qualitatively improve our lives (the latter being another assumption). How would these goods be manufactured? Feel free to linkdump in answering, as I'm sure this kind of question is addressed often.

Anonymous said...

As I understand the Marxist perspective here, "no workers" doesn't mean that nobody does socially necessary labor. Nor does it mean that social production ceases. On the contrary--it means that social production is brought under our control and run in our interests.

Workers only exist if there are capitalists. Workers only exist on the condition that there is a group of people who possesses no means of production, who has only one way to earn a living: selling their labor-power. This, in turn, requires that there is another group (capitalists) who own the means of production, who exploits the labor of the workers whom he employs for a wage. Socialism, in its most simple form, means that the means of production is under the democratic control of the community. This gives us the power to decide what's produced, how it gets done, etc. So if we want laptops and electronics--that's what will get produced.

Contrast this perspective with the top-down, centrally planned bureaucratic societies of the East Bloc where ordinary people had no control over what was produced, how it got done in the work place, etc. That's not what (genuine) socialists stand for.

-sf said...

Still seems pretty theoretical. How does a socialist society decide on division of labor? Who will be the engineer, who will do the menial labor, how does a socialist society decide equitably to divide that labor? Is the engineer who designs the computer more valuable/equal to than the workers who build the computer? Why on earth would anyone spend the time and energy educating themselves in computer technology (or medicine for a better example) if they're just as valued as someone who spent their youth hanging out? And of course the most important question: Does Marxism lose its practical worth by virtue of its failure to be successfully implemented, despite many many attempts to do so? I've deployed the "crude communism" argument before (when I was less skeptical), but now I think its rather weak. If every society that has tried to implement Marxism devolved into Stalinism, doesn't that say something about Marxism? (and as far as I understand it, dictatorship of the proletariat demands a Stalinist political system) For a theory that's been around for over 150 years, that's a pretty shitty track record. Contrast that to capitalism, which despite its flaws, has radically improved the lives of millions. I think the fact that you're sitting here reading this on a magic communications box is proof enough... (although I'll preemptively grant you the argument that we in the Global North have benefited from exploiting resources and labor of the Global South)

Hank said...

Why on earth would anyone spend their time and energy toiling in the timber industry (or mines for a better example) if they're not nearly as valued as someone who spent their youth hanging out?

Michael said...


I think the answer to that first question might be trial and error. If we accept that democracy is the belief that people know what they want and deserve to get it, then simply put resource allocation would follow to those jobs most people consider useful or necessarry which I imagine would change radically in the first few years of a socialist society as people come to realize what they think is valuable and what needs to be done are to different things.

As to why socialism has not yet appeared i'd say that there are two responses to that. The first is that marxism relies to a certain extent on technological determinism. If someone had discovered socialism 400 years ago in the feudal era, it wouldn'ty have saved us from 400 years of exploitation since the social relations of feudalism were products of the level of technological development, and It's only with the development of newer technologies which undermined this system and helped birth the capitalist system of relations that helped bring about the conditions that make socialism possible: an efficient productive system and technologies that could provide not just a decent standard of living but leisure time to do other things as well.

What's notable is that the first socialist revolution ocurred in that country which was precisely least suited for it; Russia which from a technological viewpoint was one of the least industrialized of the great powers and still hobbled by the legacy of feudalism. It should be noted that even the bolsheviks at the time were not expecting to build socialism in one country but were in fact waiting for relief from the industrialixed core of western europe, which had both the latest technologies and the most educated populations. Once it became clear the western revolutions weren't coming the bolsheviks went into damage control, instituting the NEP to get grain to the cities and the economy restarted.

Stalinism arose as a reaction to this crisis that hit revolutionary russia and was in part a product of the centralization of power to deal with the civil war and in part an attempt to forcible industrialize russia to bring it on par with the west.

Unfortunately this was the situation in many of the colonies gaining their independence from europe do to the policy of underdevelopmenrt (even the U.S. had been a victim of this back when it was still a colony of the british empire.) Because of the relative weakness of the industrial development in many countries were socialist revolutions took place and their reliance on the USSR as both a source for supplies and a model for development, stalinism unfortunatey became the default model for "socialism" in much of the planet.

I don't want to reduce everything to determinism, as Zizek argued in his foreword to "In Defence of Revolutionary Terror and Communism" the russian revolution did not have to become stalinist, it was possible the internal struggle between trotsky and stalin mioght have ended up differently and that even if what emerged was not a liberal democracy it would still have been something qualitatively different than what emerged under stalin. Perhaps a combination between the centralized management that characterized the civil war and the direct democracy of semi autonomous workers soviets running individual factories, farms, and villages.

As for the last point, I will grant you we've yet to see a succesful socialist society. I'd just like to remind you that compared to the long reign of feudalism capitalism is a relatively young system. We might yet live to see the rise of a new social system in it's place.


Anonymous said...

On a related subject, did you ever finish that book on democratic planning t?

What did you think of it, and will you be posting a follow up to your earlier post?

Anonymous said...

The only answer to complicated historical questions are complicated historical answers. A cheap equation of marxism, as such, with Stalinism is just that: cheap. The US ruling class claims to stand for freedom, equality and the universal pursuit of happiness. Anyone with a brain knows that these values have nothing to do with US capitalism. Does this admission cast doubt on the value of freedom? Or genuine equality?