COMMUNISM and INDIVIDUALISM – A TROUBLED RELATIONSHIP

Concluding Tom’s notes…

A) Lenin On the Question of Dialectics

The relationship between the universal and the individual is just that, a relationship. When taken alone – abstracted – the universal is untrue. It is untrue because it is removed from its relationship with the individual, (its opposite) which alone is concrete. It is the relationship between each that gives each its truthfulness, its lived, actual reality.

I am reminded of Hegel’s “If something is abstract it must be untrue…” and how the communist movement has been alot more comfortable dealing or focusing on the universal – the group, class, people, nation than on the concrete – the individual. We have a problem with the individual; but if dialectics has meaning this must indicate that we also have a problem with the universal.

B) Marshall Berman

Berman’s procrustean role description also applies to the Industrial Revolution and to early periods of capitalism generally. Peasants/small farmers and land holders, rural, labourers and artisans were sucked into the factories of the Industrial Revolution and exploited mercilessly. In Dickens ‘Hard Times’ he describes these modern pegs as ‘hands’, an accurate description of that part of the body the bosses valued. Precious little space for the individual to unfold here. That’s the down side and there are clear parallels between this and pre capitalist peg fitting. The up side was seen over generations and caused by the dynamism of capitalism and the space it created for workers to organise, struggle and develop.

Two points re this:

a) the failure of most of the left to see the emergent role of the individual as a good thing; its tendency to praise in a one sided way collectivism and to associate individualism, again one sidedly, with bourgeois ideology.

b) the working class itself has made it clear through its actions and choices that it values individual growth and development and the economic development which facilitates this.

The question for communists is: do we?

Where the traditions and customs of others determine character and conduct of the individual “one of the principal ingredients of happiness” is wanting.

Marx: “liberal economy and politics generate a contradiction between the individuality of each proletarian and the condition of life forced upon him … labour.” And because the capitalist state (liberal or otherwise) reinforced and legitimised that condition, it had to go – be overthrown.

It seems to me that the conflating of that aspect of ‘liberal’ which speaks of freedom in a general political and personal sense with liberal economics (freedom of capital, of property rights and the rights of exploitation) is indicative of a major theoretical weakness and an opportunistic slide toward an authoritarian suppression of individuality. Marx and Engels were revolutionary democrats and communists. They were in the minority all their lives and much of their polemics were aimed not only at the wacky left ideas but at authoritarian ones.

xviii
The defeat of the revolutions of ‘48 generated alot of despair and from this time to the end of the 1950’s, in nearly all arguments between radicals and their opponents, both parties identified the capitalist economy and the liberal state with ‘individualism’ and equated radical aims with “a collectivism that negated individuality.”

I think he is onto something, especially “a collectivism that negated individuality”. The separation, or negation is metaphysical, one sided. Collectivism thus understood will never get anywhere in advanced capitalist societies as it attempts to negate our ‘new fangledness’. It also conflates as per para above.
The group and personal discipline necessary in a party is thus seen as coerced, a top down crushing of individuality rather than a free act from below, of authentic action undertaken by the individuals concerned, in limiting individuality, where this individuality comes into conflict with the cause or the group’s purpose. One can also identify precisely the same dynamic – and duality – in any group endeavour.

The Marxist Archive entry for collectivism is a case in point. It speaks of collectivism transcending or sublating individualism (a collectivism which does not suppress the individualism of bourgeois society). This seems confused. They get collectivism and individuality right historically and in their definition, but the socialist bit clearly gives primacy to collectivism (without individuality being suppressed) and the transcendent, or dialectical leap, only relates to collectivism. Individualism, which remains ‘bourgeois’, or consistent with the individuality that emerged under capitalism, remains unsuppressed but also untransformed. It is as though dialectics has had a senior’s moment and forgotten that individuality too, must transcend its bourgeois limits.

This ambivalence has been characteristic of ostensibly Marxist theory although not of Marx himself. The bods at the Archive clearly understand that individuality is important but are unable to understand it as dynamic.

“Liberation from the standpoint of the bourgeoisie, i.e. competition, was, of course, for the eighteenth century the only possible way of offering the individuals a new career for freer development.” Marx (SW McLellan p186)

The free development of the bourgeoisie destroyed rural communities, threw millions off the land, thereby depriving them of their livelihoods, and forced them into the hands of the bourgeoisie itself. There was nothing pretty or humane about it. Yet, as Christopher Hill shows, it was not entirely, or even principally, negative. It led, among other things, to much greater economic and productive efficiencies, less expensive and more readily available food and better clothing. It also led to the IR, the consequences of which, as O’Flinn positively observed, we are still getting used to twelve generations later.
“…private property can be abolished only on condition of an all round development of individuals, because the existing character of intercourse and productive forces is an all round one, and only individuals that are developing in an all round fashion can appropriate them, i.e. can turn them into free manifestations of their lives.” Ibid p 191

As with spirituality, we have left the field of individuality and authenticity to the right – which is why we find some of their libertarian ideas attractive (presumably this must also apply to the Spiked crew).

This 50+ year old quote from Barry Goldwater is a case in point: “Every man, both for his own individual good and for the good of society, is responsible for his own development. The choices that govern his life are choices he must make: They cannot be made by any other human being, or by a collectivity of human beings.” (The Conscience of a Conservative, 1960). It’s like Nietzsche with a southern twang.

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10 thoughts on “COMMUNISM and INDIVIDUALISM – A TROUBLED RELATIONSHIP

  1. Individual happiness is important, but this may mean different things to different people. Good government will strive to keep the electorate happy, within their capacity, and private property is here to stay.

    I also agree with Hunter.

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  2. Yet the progress that has been made over the centuries has come through revolutions, the overthrow of the old regimes and ruling classes. This is as true of the English revolution in mid-C17th as it was of the American, French and Russian and Chinese revolutions. The latter two failed but the English revolution achieved the sovereignty of parliament over the no-longer divine (ie, beheaded) monarch. As for the late C18th French revolution, when China’s communist Premier, Zhou En Lai, was asked for his opinion of it in the 1960s, he replied: “It is too early to say”.

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    • It is possible that Zhou was being cryptic although I’m inclined to think not. The thing is, is that there is the Revolution and then there is the Revolution. The former is about the seizure of power the establishment of government and policy implimentation and we tend to attach this to particular dates – 1640, 1776, 1789 etc. The latter deals with what Norbet Elias, in his The Society of Individuals termed “the unfolding synthesis,” the ongoing and often unpredictable development in all its myriad forms, especially in what we would now term the cultural arena – in the way we think, feel and act. Both Gramsci and Mao used the term cultural revolution (Gramsci was speaking of the ongoing effect of the Renaissance and the growth of Humanism in Europe).

      The revolution, as seizure of power, does not give us a cultural revolution, it creates the arena in which cultural revolutions can be fought. We forget that the law, be that set up by a victorious revolutionary movement or laws that develop as part of the ‘unfolding synthesis’ after a revolution invariably play catch up to changes that have occurred and continue to occur within society, changes that then demand legal recognition where the law has previously stood in their way.

      Social practises and beliefs, cultural norms if you like, pertaining to the individual are very much of this type. As feudalism degenerated in England masterless men, thrown off the land, trapsed the highways; From the 16thC Puritanism fired salvos over the feudal boughs and undermining authority by proposing that one’s relationship with God was personal and not requiring the mediation and control of Anglican or Catholic hierarchy. These two developments alone indicate that the individual had arrived and was fighting for public space and recognition free of oppression. Charles and his ilk may have tried to call a halt to these and other developments but his beheading was more than just a flesh wound and the restoration was unable to get the cat back in the bag. The American and French revolutions then pushed things along further, creating further space for cultural revolution to unfold. The individual had well and truely emerged, not without birthmarks, but capable of taking things to the next level.

      I suspect this is what Zhou was getting at, that revolutions create space to confront and struggle against the cultural drag effect, the obstinance of differnt types of traditional beliefs and practises, long after the soil that enabled them to grow and which they, in turn reflected, has been swept away. But Egg, this is not evolutionary, if by that you mean it’ll happen by itself if we wait long enough. In philisophical jargon we can call this the primacy of the objective over the subjective. It is as well that we humans are subjective and ornery as well as objective entities because it gives us the freedom (or do we just take it?) to give history a push, to make trouble and to rebel against reactionaries.

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  3. I think we can safely dispatch that one Egg, Gramsci made the observation from a prison cell he was never able to leave, circumstances ill inclined to promote prevarication about the need for revolution. As I had mentioned in the notes I had never thought of the Renaissance and its sequalae as a cultural revolution, but in hindsight its a no brainer. The humanist hopes it spawned, the initial salvos fired accross the bows of medievalism, raced accross Europe, as did the dark reaction to it which followed.

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