Daily Archives: November 23, 2011
Marx and Engels sometimes used a different formulation. Near the beginning of the Communist Manifesto, it says, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles….a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary re-constitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes” (in Draper, 1998; p. 105—107). Draper explains this as “either a revolution that remakes society or the collapse of the old order to a lower level” (1998; p. 200). Marx may have had the fate of ancient Rome in mind.
Engels restated this several times throughout his Anti-Duhring. He wrote that the modern working class must make the socialist revolution or else face “…sinking to the level of a Chinese coolie,” while the bourgeoisie is “a class under whose leadership society is racing to ruin like a locomotive [with a] jammed safety-valve…” (1954; pp. 217—218). For the capitalist class, “…its own productive forces have grown beyond its control, and…are driving the whole of bourgeois society toward ruin, or revolution” (p. 228). When the capitalist system turns most people into proletarians, “…it creates the power which, under penalty of its own destruction, is forced to accomplish this revolution” (p. 388).
Socialist revolution is not inevitable, Engels was saying here. It is a possible choice. But if it is not chosen, in the epoch of capitalist decay, society faces destruction, with the working class reduced to the level of the starving, super-exploited, Chinese workers of that time. Therefore the working class and its allies should consciously and deliberately decide to make the revolution (as we, the revolutionary minority, want it to).
Engels did not specifically state that this was a moral choice. That is implicit. There is no great ethical reasoning involved in preferring socialist revolution to the ruin of the working class and all society. The main issue is whether we agree with the political-economic analysis, as I do. Yet I regard it as a weakness that the ethical issues are not brought front and center.
Where Engels said the alternatives were “ruin or revolution,” the great, revolutionary-democratic, Marxist, Rosa Luxemburg, said the alternatives were “socialism or barbarism” (Geras, 1976). She believed that capitalism was in its final epoch, propping itself up by imperialism, which would lead to greater crises and devastating world wars. She foresaw that capitalism, if unhindered, would destroy culture and populations, would create deserts where there had been cities and nations. She was accused of believing that the economic collapse of capitalism was inevitable. What she believed was that if capitalism was left alone, to follow out its own dynamic laws of development, it would eventually collapse, and produce “barbarism.” This was “inevitable.” But she argued, if the working class chooses to intervene in history, it will be able to prevent barbarism and collapse; it will be able to save humanity through making socialist revolution.
The anarchist Murray Bookchin noted that the hierarchical structures of modern capitalism threaten human survival through nuclear war or ecological catastrophe (he wrote before global warming became so obvious). “No longer are we faced with Marx’s famous choice of socialism or barbarism; we are confronted with the more drastic alternatives of anarchism or annihilation. The problems of necessity and survival have become congruent with the problems of freedom and life” (1986; p.62).
In its epoch of decay, capitalism threatens humanity with terrible destruction. That is why a revolution is necessary. If this were not so, then socialism (of some sort) might be a nice ideal, a morally-attractive goal, but it would not be necessary. There would be no need to ask workers and others to engage in great struggles, to risk everything in a revolution, if capitalist society might continue on a course of gradual improvement, with ups and downs in the economy. Indeed, it would be wrong to advocate a revolution, with all its costs, in wealth and blood, and risky uncertainties.
While threatening destruction, capitalist industrialism has also made possible a new, non oppressive, classless society. Its technology is so immensely productive that it could provide plenty for everyone, with lots of leisure and only a minimum of labor. No doubt the technology would have to be redesigned to fit a sustainable ecology and a self-managed economy, but the potentials are there to do that.
Will the working class take up the challenge? Capitalist industrialism pushes them toward class consciousness and revolution. But some workers are (relatively) better off than the majority of the world’s workers. Marx and Engels sometimes called this layer of proletarians, the “labor aristocracy.” These workers may be bought off, corrupted, or just feel satisfied with the way things are. At the opposite pole, there is a mass of very poor workers, including the super-exploited (paid less than society’s standard for their labor-power commodity) and the unemployed. They may be exhausted, demoralized, and overwhelmed, feeling uninterested in economic or political struggle. There can be no guarantee that either layer of the working class, or any other, will engage in struggle at any particular time and place.
Marx believed that socialism was only possible when technology had become potentially productive enough. Only this made it possible to return to the equality and freedom of early human hunter-gatherer societies (“primitive communism”) but with a much higher standard of living. In the past socialism (communism) was simply not possible. There was not enough to go around. After previous revolutions, most people had to go back to the daily grind in order to keep everyone fed, while a few were able to spend full time being rulers, as well as artists or scientists. Various mass struggles could produce more freedom if they won, but they could not jump from a low level of productivity to socialist liberation.
But productivity has greatly expanded. For example, up until quite recently, as history goes, 95% of the population was committed to raising food, so that 5% or less could live in cities and have an urban culture. Today, in the industrialized nations, the proportions are reversed. Less than 5% of the population produces more than enough food to feed the rest of the nation. Even if we turned to fully organic methods of farming, the proportion of those who have to do farm work will be much smaller than they have been for most of history. It has finally become possible to have a society which satisfies the needs and wants of all its members, under socialism.
“Production by freely associated men [note]…,” wrote Marx, “demands for society a certain material groundwork or set of conditions for existence which in their turn are the spontaneous product of a long and painful process of development” (p. 92).
Similarly Kropotkin wrote that in the past, “…the power of production of food-stuffs and of all industrial commodities had not yet reached the perfection they have attained now. …Communism was truly considered as equivalent to general poverty and misery, and well-being was…accessible to a very small number only. But this quite real and extremely important obstacle to communism exists no more. Owing to the immense productivity of human labor…a very high degree of well-being can easily be obtained n a few years by communist work” (2002; p. 172).
This concept of Marx’s and Kropotkin’s cannot be proven or disproven (without access to an alternate universe). I hope it is true. If it is not true—if it was possible to achieve socialism any time since people began agriculture 10 thousand years ago—then humans have been failing to create socialism for 10 thousand years. This does not make our future chances look good. But if socialist freedom has only been possible for a century or two at most, due to the development at last of the necessary “material groundwork,” then this is not a long time as history goes. It suggests that we still have a chance to create a free and cooperative society–before catastrophe overtakes us.