Communism: Ours, Not Theirs
By Bertell Ollman
Capitalism today occupies an increasingly narrow strip of land between the unnecessary and the impossible, with water from both sides washing over it in ever larger waves. But before the beleaguered population seeks the safety of higher ground, they have to be persuaded that the already colossal problems of capitalism are not only getting worse but are totally unnecessary, that there is indeed a higher ground to which they can decamp. The problem is not simply one of uncovering what such a future might look like, but of finding a way of investigating it that is so reasonable that it becomes an additional argument for the truth of what is uncovered.
In the socialist tradition, there are three main approaches that thinkers have used to inquire into the future, each approach associated with a different view as to where evidence for that future is to be found. Many have believed that socialism, at least in most of its essentials, already existed somewhere in the world. They had (or still have) a geographical model at hand. What needs to be done is go there, learn from it, and try to put what you've learned into practise back home. While the USSR served most of the people who thought in this manner as the model of choice, this role is sometimes taken by other countries or even by more modest socialist experiments, communes, workers' coops, and the like. What counts in this approach is that the substance of socialism is taken as already existing, and what remains is for us to find it and describe its workings. The problems that result from trying to transfer institutions from one social and material context to another quite different one are hardly treated, if at all.
A second major way in which many socialists have thought about the future is as a wish list, an intellectual construction made up of everything they wanted to do and have, or of all they considered good, or healthy, or human. By marrying the imagination to the id, and, for the moralistic, the super-ego, countless discontents both before and after Marx have built ideal homes away from home where they would have liked to live. In this case, the way to study the future is to look inward. Unfortunately, different people have found different things, and there is no way of deciding which of these utopian imaginings is better or of connecting them to the concrete means needed to bring them about.
If socialism is not to be viewed as a model, however incomplete, of something already in existence, or as a wish list of everything that one considers good and worthwhile, how are we to think of it? Marx's approach was to think of socialism as an unrealized potential within capitalism itself, as a way of life and being that could evolve out of the social transformation of conditions already present in capitalism. The place to look for it?
Inside capitalism, in its contradictory relations as they are developing and would develop further with the change of ruling class, social goals and priorities that would be brought about by a socialist revolution. But what forms does this potential for socialism take inside capitalism? And how exactly does Marx study them? The remainder of my talk will be devoted to a brief and no doubt overly schematic response to these questions.
First, two qualifications: there is a difference between explaining how to study the future and actually making such a study. In the first case, the details brought forward are meant to illustrate the approach and should not be taken as the results derived from using the approach, though I have taken some care to use only realistic examples. Second, Aristotle warned us long ago not to expect more precision than the nature of our subject permits. The potential within capitalism for socialism is real enough, but it is often unclear and always imprecise, both as regards the exact forms that will develop and as regards timing, the moment at which the expected changes will occur. In short, in investigating the future within the present, we must be careful not to insist on a standard for knowledge that can never be met.
With these qualifications kept clearly in mind, we can now say that Marx's approach to investigating the future breaks down into four main steps.
Whatever necessity (best grasped as likelihood) is found in Marx's vision of socialism and communism is the result of demonstrating that the conditions underlying capitalism have become more and more difficult to reproduce, that the conditions that make socialism possible have become more highly developed, more widespread, and increasingly evident, and that the people who have the greatest and most direct interest in making a change are under ever greater pressure to act. All this is contained in Marx's contradictions. And with all this, it is only a matter of time and opportunity before the then organization, consciousness, and tactics of the rising class brings about the expected transformation.
- He decides which stage of the future to focus on. There is a) the immediate future (or next few years), b) the near future (or the crisis in capitalism that precipitates a socialist revolution), c) the middle future (or socialism, the form of society that comes into being after the revolution), and d) the far future (or communism). How Marx uses the following steps varies depending on the stage of the future he is investigating. While our interest here is limited to what we've called the "middle" and "far" futures, Marx's treatment of the "immediate" and especially the "near" futures cannot be wholly ignored, since the outcomes he projects for them enter into his expectations for socialism and communism.
- Having settled upon a stage of the future, Marx tries to trace the main lines of the organic interaction that constitutes the present workings of our society. In terms of the time it took, this was undoubtedly his main activity. The most distinctive characteristics of this attempted reconstruction are as follows: a) the same interactions are examined from different vantage points; b) nonetheless, economic processes and relations, particularly in production, are privileged, both as vantage points and as material to be investigated; c) internal relations are taken to exist between all objective and subjective factors, so that conditions never enter into Marx's study without the people who affect and are affected by them, and the same applies to people (they are always grasped in context, such that the essentials of this context are taken as part of who and what they are); and d) the present, that is all that we have referred to so far, is abstracted into different levels of generality, so that all that
people are, do and create (their products in all areas of life) are divided according to whether they are distinctive of that particular person, apply to those like him in modern capitalism, apply to those like him throughout the capitalist era, apply to those like him throughout class history, or apply to everyone who belong to our species and for as long as our species has been around. As is evident, the time period brought into focus by these different levels of generality also varies considerably. The importance of the level of generality that Marx abstracts for our subject is due to the fact that each of the four stages of the future mentioned above are rooted in developments that can only be seen and studied on a particular level of generality, and this is different for each stage. It is also by isolating a particular level of generality in the present that Marx can see what aspects of society would disappear as we move beyond the era associated with that level (modern capitalism, capitalism, or class
- After reconstituting the present in this manner, the next step is backwards into history by examining the presuppositions of the present, just this present, in the past. The past, of course, takes place before the present, and in retelling the story one also usually begins at the beginning and moves forward. But the correct order in inquiry is present first, and it is what Marx uncovers in his reconstruction of the present that guides him in his search into the past. The question posed is what had to happen in the past for the present to have become what it did? The answer is derived both inductively and deductively. It is in this manner that his study of the origins of capitalism leads Marx to focus on the disintegration of feudalism and in particular of the feudal mode of production.
- After reconstructing the organic interaction of the present and establishing its origins in the past, Marx is ready to project the main tendencies that he finds (treating the relation between past and present now as an ongoing process) into one or another stages of the future that we mentioned earlier. Before he does this, he re-abstracts (re-thinks, reorganizes) these tendencies as "contradictions", which emphasizes their interaction as processes that are simultaneously mutually supporting and mutually undermining one another. Given the other steps taken in reconstituting the present and reinforced in examining its preconditions in the past, these contradictions are composed of both objective and subjective aspects and emphasize economic conditions. It is chiefly by projecting such contradictions forward to the point of resolution and beyond, where the character of the resolution gives shape to the elements of what follows, that Marx arrives at his ideas of socialism and communism.
Marx's vision of socialism is derived mainly from the projection of the chief contradictions in capitalism and the form that the resolution of these contradictions are likely to take in the hands of a new ruling class, the workers, who have already been significantly changed by their participation in a successful revolution, and who are now using their interests as a guide in making all important decisions. The material and social foundations inherited from capitalism, deprived of their capitalist forms, serve as the necessary means for undertaking most of the reforms of this period. The view held by some that saw socialism as an alternative to capitalism for purposes of industrializing society simply has no basis in Marx's texts.
Marx's vision of communism, on the other hand, is derived not only from the contradictions in capitalism, in this case projecting their resolution beyond the developments that occur in socialism, but also from the contradictions Marx sees in class history and even in socialism, in so far as it is a distinctive class formation. That is to say that after socialism has developed to a certain point, the contradictions that have existed in one form or another since the very beginning of classes (having to do with the division of labor, private property, the state, etc.) come to a resolution. At the same time and through the same processes, the contradictions that socialism still possesses as a class society (having to do with its own form of the division of labor, private property, state, etc.) are also resolved. It is the resolution of the contradictions from all these levels that marks the qualitative leap from socialism to communism, and which makes the latter so hard for most people to conceive, let alone evaluate.
To summarize: Marx begins to study the future by tracing the main organic interconnections in the present; he then looks for their preconditions in the past; and he concludes by projecting the main tendencies found in both, abstracted now as contradictions, to their resolution and beyond for the stage of the future with which he is concerned. The order of moves ispresent, past, future (unlike most attempts to uncover the future which move from the present to the future, as in the case of the "geographical model" approach mentioned above, or go directly to the future without even bothering to examine the present, as in the "utopian" approach that was also mentioned above). Finally, it is also worth noting that whatever content Marx is able to derive for the future through the use of this approach is then used as a new vantage point for looking back at the present and past, treated as the combined presuppositions of this future (as the past was earlier treated as the presuppositions of the present) in order to sharpen his analysis of the present and past. If what something becomes helps us grasp more clearly what it once wasin the past. What it becomes in the future, given we acquire some grasp of this, performs the same function for its earlier forms, which lie in our present. To the dance of the dialectic, which goes from the present to the past to the future, we can now add another step, the present, which allows the dance to begin all over again. Marx's study of capitalism is an ongoing process, which continues even today in the person of his followers, with every progress made in understanding the present leading to a more thorough investigation of its preconditions in the past, followed by projections into the future, followed in turn by a renewed look at the present-past as the preconditions of such a future.