To each according to their needs…

The principle of distribution under communism is: from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs. The separation of work performed and income is clear. However, there is misunderstanding on what is meant by ‘to each according to their needs’.

David McMullen elaborates…

Are property rights essential to prosperity and liberty? The ‘No’ case.

This is a presentation by socialist economist David McMullen at a Melbourne Argument debate at the Royal Oak Hotel, North Fitzroy, Melbourne, on February 8, 2017. His opponent was Ted Lapkin, a former adviser in the Abbott government.

Private Property Rights are Essential not only to Economic Prosperity but to Political Liberty – The No Case

February 12, 2017 via Different Wavelength

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When looking at economic prosperity and political liberty, the private property rights we are concerned about are the ownership rights of the capitalist class over the means of production or productive assets. We are not arguing about private property rights over items of consumption. So I acknowledge everyone’s right to their own toothbrush.

What I want to contend is that in the future we will get by very nicely without private ownership of the means of production. We will do this by creating a class free society where the means of production are socially rather than privately owned. This will free the economy of the many shackles placed on it by capitalism and at the same time create a society that requires the fullest political freedom for its proper functioning.This future system is generally referred to as communism.

OK why do I take this singularly unpopular position which everyone knows has been totally discredited? Well, I subscribe to the Marxist view that capitalism creates the conditions for this new more advanced system.In a nutshell, capitalism eliminates the need for the profit motive and hence the need for its own existence. It does this through the creation of modern industry and technology which open up the prospect of universal prosperity, and of robots and computers doing all the work that we really don’t want to do. Under these new conditions we can begin to imagine people working because they like what they are doing and they want to contribute, while at the same time being happy with an equal share of an increasing level of prosperity. In other words we can see social ownership having a totally different and better form of motivation than the profit motive that is associated with private ownership.

This means that what was previously impossible becomes possible.Past history already tells us that sharing poverty and laborious work is impossible. You cannot create equality under those conditions. It is a utopian dream. For example, as the Middle Ages illustrate it only requires a small band of thugs who would prefer to live off everybody else’s hard work and you end up with a very nasty class society. Also when assessing the experience of the Soviet Union, and the various regimes derived from it, it is important to keep in mind their backward economic conditions as a factor in determining how things turned out there.

Now, favorable economic conditions presently only exist in the rich countries where less than 20 per cent of the world’s people reside. What about the rest of the world? It looks like it is going to take a number of generations for them to develop. It is hard to be any more definite than that. However, I would suggest that the prospects are best if there is a healthy global economy and a willingness to provide well directed economic aid and also to offer diplomatic and military assistance to those resisting the forces of tyranny and corruption.

Anyway, why do I consider that social ownership will bring greater economic prosperity and progress? There are five reasons that strike me as being particularly important.

  1. Firstly capitalist firms cannot match the work performance that would be achieved where workers unprompted want to do the job to the best of their ability.Capitalist firms have to apply various rewards and penalties to get their employees to do their bidding. However, if a job is in any way complex it becomes difficult to correctly assess how well people are doing their job. And jobs are becoming increasingly complex so this is becoming more and more of a problem.
  2. Secondly once we get rid of private ownership and private debt we will also get rid of economic crises, stock market crashes, bank collapses and extended periods of depressions or recessions that lead to unemployment and reduced production.
  3. Thirdly we will get rid of the waste of human labor that Marx called pauperization where a large number of people are thrown on the scrap heap and survive on welfare. They are not equipped to develop work skills or they are psychologically maimed from living in this society.
  4. Fourthly, we will not have capitalism’s sluggishness in terms of what are arguably the main drivers of economic progress, namely,science, research and development, and technological innovation. There are a number of reasons for capitalism’s lack of vigor in this area. If I can beg your indulgence I will list six that I am aware of. Firstly, capitalists are not interested in major technological breakthroughs that will make their present investments less valuable or even obsolete. They just want incremental improvements that increase their value. Secondly, benefits from spending on R&D are long term but capitalists tend to have a short term perspective. Thirdly because of the public good nature of new knowledge, firms cannot capture all the benefits and so underspend on it. Fourthly, where intellectual property right laws are applied, access to knowledge is restricted. Fifthly, government funding for R&D is the first thing to go when there are government budget cuts. And also there is huge wastage as researchers game the funding system and personal prestige and career take precedence over outcomes. And sixthly, capitalism generates an anti-technology and anti-science attitude among the alienated masses. People see the modern industry created by capitalism as the problem rather than capitalism itself. We have people whose livelihood is threatened by new technologies. And there are the greenies who have a romantic view of the pre-industrial past.
  5. Now the last but by no means least on my list of capitalism’s economic problems that will be overcome under communism is what economists like to call government failure.Capitalism tolerates a lot of bureaucracy and regulation.Much of it is devoted to catering to the needs of vested interests in ways that harm the economy. Vested interest is just another term for private property. And as well as this there is of course empire building by career minded bureaucrats.

OK those are my arguments for why I think that private ownership of the means of production is a fetter on the economy. Now I want to address what I think are the two main arguments against what I’ve been saying. Firstly, we are told that social ownership would require excessive centralization and secondly that you can’t change human nature.

Economists argue that all this well-intentioned motivation would come to very little because an economy based on social ownership has an inherent economic calculation problem: in the absence of market transactions between enterprises it could not have a properly functioning price system. And as a consequence social ownership would require clumsy centralized resource allocation of the kind that existed in the Soviet Union. I am not going to speculate on how economic decisions will be made in the future under communism. However, we can say that there is nothing about the non-market transfers of custody over components from producer to user enterprises that would prevent them from making decentralized decisions based on prices. Furthermore, we could hardly do a worse job of allocating investment funds than do highly fluctuating interest rates and exchange rates produced by capitalist finance. Indeed, there are good reasons for thinking that economic decision-making would be far superior to that under capitalism. To begin with, because of the absence of ownership barriers, there would be far more scope for coordination, and less scope for secrecy and deception.

Human nature and mutual regard

Now what about human nature? A society based on social ownership requires far more than simply state ownership, although that is a prerequisite. There need to fundamental changes in people’s behavior and abilities.

The behavior change can be best summed up in the expression ‘mutual regard’.You do the right thing because you want to contribute and you know that your efforts are not futile because a large and increasing section of society is doing likewise. As well as being the basis of morality and what is considered honorable it is also enlightened self-interest. By everybody serving others we are all served. This altruism is not the self-denial that Ayn Rand made it out to be.

Many would doubt the ability of rank and file workers to do the complex kinds of work required in the future. However, I would suggest that people have greatly untapped potential. There are many ways that they are presently held back or find themselves unchallenged.

The kinds of changes we are talking about here will not happen overnight. There will have to be a transition period that will take a generation or more and is generally referred to as socialism. It will take time to totally eliminate private ownership, starting with the big fish, and it will take time to move completely away from the old capitalist work incentives. And it won’t be smooth sailing. Good behavior will only win out once the good majority gain the confidence and moral courage to stand up to those who behave badly. And there will be lots of old management types trying to run things in the old way and convincing workers that the new ways are futile. So it will be touch and go for a while and we may need more than one stab at it.

Now let’s look at political liberty

With the emergence of capitalism we have seen for the first time a degree of political liberty. We have constitutions limiting the power of government, we have elections, the separation of powers, habeas corpus. These would have been unimaginable in the Middle Ages or in any other pre-capitalist society.

The main problem however is that the capitalist system tends to abandon political liberty in times of crisis. Also a big test of political freedom is our freedom to confiscate the means of production from the capitalists and convert them into social property. In the face of a serious revolutionary movement one would expect to see states of emergency, unofficial death squads, and well-resourced propaganda campaigns spreading fascism and xenophobia.

Historical accidents

What conclusions should we draw about the lack of democracy in the so-called communist bloc countries? The Soviet Union etc? The first thing to note is that we dealing with an historical accident. By virtue of some rather specific or contingent circumstances,communists found themselves in charge in countries that with few exceptions were economically and socially backward, and totally unsuited to undertaking a communist revolution. Also, the regimes did not arise as a result of popular support for communism. In the revolutions in the Soviet Union and China the primary concern of the peasant masses was nothing more than land reform. In Eastern Europe the regimes were due to the arrival of the Soviet Red Army at the end of WWII rather than popular revolutions. So I think it is safe to say that these regimes would not have survived if they had been democratic.

However, it is important to keep in mind the alternative in most cases was right-wing tyranny rather than democracy. And of course these regimes eventually lost the minimal revolutionary content they may have originally had.So their authoritarian nature could no longer be blamed on communists. Instead we just had phonies like Vladimir Putin who pretended to be communists until the collapse of the Soviet Union and we presently have people like Xi Jinping in China who still pretend to be communists. The take-home message here is that the conditions were very different from what we would expect in the future when revolutionary regimes come to power in highly developed societies on the back of widespread support for their political program.

Freedom of speech

Now, the economist Milton Friedman famously argued that freedom of speech and the emergence of diverse political groups require the decentralization of resource ownership that only capitalism can deliver.He argued that under capitalism you have the possibility of finding a rich patron. Marx and Frederick Engels and the Bolsheviks received money from anonymous benefactors as well as from robbing banks. Under social ownership, however, resources would be centralized in the hands of the very authorities that you may want to criticize. However, I would argue that with everyone having very high disposable incomes and access to the Internet you would not have to rely on central authorities providing resources. Also I do not see any insurmountable obstacles to ensuring open access for various resources needed for a vibrant political life.

I do not want to paint too rosy a picture.A revolutionary government during its initial phase may have to declare a state of emergency if there is a rebellion by supporters of the old order. Their rebellion could take the form of civil war, terrorism and sabotage, and dealing with it will not be easy. At the same time, for success, we will need the freedom to criticize those in positions of authority when they display incompetence or lack of revolutionary politics. Bottom up supervision will be a critical part of the system. Indeed, a social system that relies on people taking the initiative without external prompting, could not function if people are not able to say what they think is wrong and what they think should be done about it.

Summing up

I will now make two points to briefly sum up.

Firstly, capitalism creates the very economic conditions required for a more advanced classless society that will be based on social ownership of the means of production.

Secondly, a primary task for the present period is ensuring economic and political progress in the more backward regions of the world. For this we need a liberal global economic order, well directed economic aid, and diplomatic and military support in fighting the battle for democracy. And critical to this is beating back the nationalist anti-globalist wind that is blowing at the moment.

 

Hasn’t communism already failed?

There is a thoroughly entrenched view that the experience of revolutions during the 20th century shows that communism has failed. It is true. There was a failure. However, it was not of communism, but rather of an attempt to sustain a path towards it when its preconditions were absent.

Another section from Rescuing the message of The Communist Manifesto

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There is a thoroughly entrenched view that the experience of revolutions during the 20th century shows that communism has failed. It is true. There was a failure. However, it was not of communism, but rather of an attempt to sustain a path towards it when its preconditions were absent. Russia in 1917 and virtually all the “communist” regimes established mid-century were essentially backward pre-capitalist societies. Most people were peasants rather than proletarians, and they were more interested in land for the tiller than social ownership. There was little modern industry and thinking was more medieval than modern. They had not passed through the capitalist stage, which is necessary for a successful communist revolution. As the experience of other backward countries shows, even getting capitalism off the ground under these circumstances is hard enough, let alone a society that aims to supersede it.

This peculiar state of affairs arose because the bourgeoisie was too weak, cowardly or treacherous to carry out its own tasks. Instead, in the first half of the 20th century, communists found themselves at the head of both anti-feudal modernist revolutions and patriotic resistance to fascist aggression and occupation.

After World War II, the Bolshevik regime in the Soviet Union was joined  by a host of other countries in what became ‘the socialist camp’. It included China, Vietnam and Yugoslavia where their own revolutionary forces had taken power, and eastern and central Europe and northern Korea where regimes were established by virtue of Soviet military occupation in the aftermath of the defeat of Germany and Japan. So, by historical accident communists found themselves burdened with the task of raising their societies out of social and economic backwardness. They had to perform the work of capitalism. They had to create an industrial base and a trained workforce virtually from scratch. The “failure of communism” was a consequence of the tardiness, perhaps even failure, of capitalism.

 

“It is true. There was a failure. However, it was not of communism, but rather of an attempt to sustain a path towards it when its preconditions were absent.”

 

Under these conditions the move in a communist direction could only be quite limited and eventually proved unsustainable. They took important preliminary steps but did not achieve the real substance. Industry was placed under state ownership which meant that capitalist industry was expropriated and the new accumulation of private wealth thwarted. At the same time there was a degree of economic security for workers. The system was described as socialism, the first stage on the road to communism. However, the weakness of the proletariat placed severe limits on what could be achieved. With a couple of exceptions in central Europe, it only began to become a significant section of society with the industrialization that followed the revolution. Proletarians were former peasants engaged mainly in the low paid toil that you would expect at this stage of development. They were simply not ready to be a ruling class. There was not the basis for a society based on mutual regard. Enthusiasm and unprompted initiative was limited in these harsh conditions and so there was a heavy reliance on material incentives and top down command with all kinds of perverse results. The freedom and democracy required for the full development of the proletariat was not possible given the intensity of external and internal opposition and the weakness of the revolutionary forces.

Because most work was arduous and repetitive manual labor, and the education level and background of the typical worker left them ill-equipped for involvement in the mental aspects of production, there was a minority who did the thinking and deciding. These were the managers, engineers and officials – generally referred to as ‘cadres’. Members of this elite had a vested interest in entrenching their privileged position and were unlikely to encourage an invasion of their domain as workers became more skilled and educated, and industry more mechanized, nor to willingly start to take upon themselves a share of the more routine forms of labor.

Once career, income and position are the primary impulse, economic results take a second place to empire building, undermining rivals, promoting loyal followers, scamming the system and concealing one’s poor performance from superiors. The opportunity for workers to resist these developments was limited by the lack of freedom and the culture of subordination which drains away confidence and the courage to act. This culture can be very strong even in the absence of political tyranny as we can see in any “liberal” capitalist society. At the same time, one can imagine that, under these conditions, rank and file workers with special abilities or talents would tend to be more interested in escaping the workers’ lot by becoming one of the privileged rather than in struggling against it.

 

“… after a crash industrialization in the 1930s, the Soviet Union was able to defeat the fascist Axis powers through the largest military mobilization in human history. This is something for which the world should be eternally grateful.”

 

Mao Zedong, the head of the Chinese Communist Party until his death in 1976, referred to this process, once fully entrenched and endorsed at the top, as capitalist restoration and those encouraging it as revisionists and capitalist roaders. The Chinese Cultural Revolution that he led in the late 1960s was an attempt to beat back this trend. However, that revolution was sabotaged and defeated, and the capitalist roaders were able to seize supreme power in China after his death.

The Soviet Union and similar regimes in Eastern Europe ended up as a distinctive type of dead-end economically, politically and socially, and their demise in 1989-90 is one of the celebrated advances of the late 20th century. At the same time, by discarding much of the empty and dysfunctional formal shell of socialism and operating more like normal capitalist economies, both China and Vietnam have managed to achieve considerable economic development in recent decades. Cuba is now beginning to take this route. The monstrosity in North Korea survives throught mass terror and the support of the Chinese. All these regimes are an affront to freedom and democracy, and will share the same fate as those in other countries where the capitalist “Communist Parties” have already been overthrown.

 

“This peculiar state of affairs arose because the bourgeoisie was too weak, cowardly or treacherous to carry out its own tasks. Instead, in the first half of the 20th century, communists found themselves at the head of both anti-feudal modernist revolutions and patriotic resistance to fascist aggression and occupation.”

 

Notwithstanding this grim picture, there were still some significant achievements. In a large part of the world, landlords and feudal relations were swept from the countryside. Industrialization was raised from a very low base and generally outperformed the backward countries in the capitalist camp. Most importantly, after a crash industrialization in the 1930s, the Soviet Union was able to defeat the fascist Axis powers through the largest military mobilization in human history. This is something for which the world should be eternally grateful.

The dilemma faced by 20th century communists was anticipated by Engels in the following passage from chapter 6 of The Peasant War in Germany, published in 1850:

The worst thing that can befall a leader of an extreme party is to be compelled to take over a government in an epoch when the movement is not yet ripe for the domination of the class which he represents and for the realization of the measures which that domination would imply. What he can do depends not upon his will but upon the sharpness of the clash of interests between the various classes, and upon the degree of development of the material means of existence, the relations of production and means of communication upon which the clash of interests of the classes is based every time. What he ought to do, what his party demands of him, again depends not upon him, or upon the degree of development of the class struggle and its conditions. He is bound to his doctrines and the demands hitherto propounded which do not emanate from the interrelations of the social classes at a given moment, or from the more or less accidental level of relations of production and means of communication, but from his more or less penetrating insight into the general result of the social and political movement. Thus he necessarily finds himself in a dilemma. What he can do is in contrast to all his actions as hitherto practised, to all his principles and to the present interests of his party; what he ought to do cannot be achieved. In a word, he is compelled to represent not his party or his class, but the class for whom conditions are ripe for domination. In the interests of the movement itself, he is compelled to defend the interests of an alien class, and to feed his own class with phrases and promises, with the assertion that the interests of that alien class are their own interests. Whoever puts himself in this awkward position is irrevocably lost.

*****

This discussion of the “failure of communism” in backward countries certainly does not imply that the process of communist revolution would be easy in countries that have reached the developed stage of capitalism. While capitalism has created conditions that make communism possible, there is nothing automatic about it. Indeed it will require an entire epoch of struggle to make the transition to a society based on mutual regard rather than profit. There cannot be any notion of ‘socialism’ that does not see it as a revolutionary transition that is prone to capitalist restoration. The initial threat from the old bourgeoisie is followed by a threat from a new bourgeoisie emerging among cadres, who wave the red flag in order to oppose it.

The initial period of the revolution will have many problems. A large number of people will  be hostile, neutral or lukewarm in their support. New revolutionary governments will be far less experienced than their opponents, and will face many difficulties getting into power and holding onto it. The old management cannot be dispensed with overnight and will be in a position to sabotage output and efforts to change things. Defeat could result from revolutionaries making mistakes or the counter-revolution recovering from temporary disarray.

There has to be a fundamental change in human behavior and the way society operates. The bourgeoisie, and the habits and ways of thinking of its society will prove tenacious, and the proletariat will have to transform itself in the struggle against them.

We will have to learn new ways and cast off old ones. We will have to unlearn passive, submissive and weak-spirited habits engendered by capitalism, and develop the new morality of mutual regard and steadfast resistance to the old forms of behavior. Mutual regard is enlightened self-interest where everyone does the right thing knowing that a large and increasing section of society is doing the same. It will be the basis of morality and what is honorable. We will all share in the ‘pool’ of greater prosperity and good-will that results. Such a culture is totally at odds with capitalism where the rich exploit everyone else and a large number of people are simply thrown on the scrap heap.

Critical for success is the emergence of a large and increasing number of people who see the revolutionary transformation of the conditions around them as a prime mission in life.

Freedom from want and toil – and the capitalist social revolution

From the Communist Manifesto Project‘s pamphlet: Rescuing the Message.

 

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Freedom from want and toil

The industrial revolution that began over two centuries ago is transforming the material conditions of life in ways that make capitalism obsolete. In the most developed regions of the world it is providing something approaching a modest level of material abundance and removing much of the necessary toil from work. These conditions make it possible to contemplate social ownership where the motivation is no longer profit, or some reward derived from it, but rather mutual regard and the satisfaction obtained from labor.

At the moment, the rich countries are home to only 15-20 per cent of the world’s population. However, the middle income countries such as China, India, Mexico, Turkey and Brazil could well achieve high levels of development over the next two or three generations, while the poorer half of the world should catch up later this century or early in the next. The pace of development will depend on a range of factors including the prevalence of political crises, wars and economic depressions.

With increasing productivity under capitalism, a stage is reached where an equal share of the social product ceases to be shared poverty. Under less developed conditions, the prospect of shared hunger and distress impels those who are in a position to do so to exploit others through plunder, slavery, serfdom or the ownership of the means of production. However, as the average share begins to promise an increasing degree of prosperity, the imperative to fare better than others diminishes. Marx and Engels make this point in part II, section 5 of The German  Ideology:

… this development of productive forces … is an absolutely necessary practical premise, because without it privation, want is merely made general, and with want the struggle for necessities would begin again, and all the old filthy business would necessarily be restored …

Under developed capitalism, mechanization and automation have done much to reduce the odious or toilsome nature of work. Pick and shovel work and carrying heavy loads are things of the past and much of the remaining menial and routine work in the manufacturing and service sectors will be automated in the next generation. The work we are left with will be primarily intellectual in nature and potentially interesting and challenging.

“With increasing productivity under capitalism, a stage is reached where an equal share of the social product ceases to be shared poverty.”

Some doubt the ability of workers to keep up with the requirements of the new work. Certainly capitalism leaves a lot of workers behind and on the scrap heap. Nevertheless, the level of training of workers is higher than ever and should increase over time. In developed countries about a quarter of young proletarians graduate from university and a similar proportion have other forms of training.

We can also expect improved ability to perform complex work in a future communist society as many of the conditions that cause stunted development are eliminated. These include lack of family support, peer pressure to under-perform and an inadequate education system. Social ownership will end the isolation of education from production and other activities, so uniting learning and doing. Workers will help each other to learn. We will also benefit from an increasing understanding of human development and what causes learning difficulties. And over the longer term we can expect to see artificial improvements through mind-enhancing drugs, genetic engineering (induced evolution) and brain link-ups to computers.

The Capitalist Social Revolution

The dominance of capitalist market relations brings a social as well as an industrial revolution. The outcome is frightful in many ways but vastly better than what it replaces. In particular, the revolution casts off many ancient shackles and replaces them with weaker capitalist ones.

Proletarians are employees not slaves or serfs. As wage workers they only have a contractual arrangement for part of the day with their capitalist master and are free to move from one job to another. Their boss, unlike the peasants’ lord, is probably not the local political chief or magistrate.

Their position in the labor market also frees them from subordination to the extended family, tribe or local community. It provides economic independence and the opportunity to physically escape from these sources of oppression and conservatism.

“Their position in the labor market also frees them from subordination to the extended family, tribe or local community. It provides economic independence and the opportunity to physically escape from these sources of oppression and conservatism.”

The new market-based class relations also raise women from their age old subordinate position. The nuclear family replaces the extended family as the economic unit so that women only have to deal with their freely chosen husband and not his relatives. Then comes the independence of employment for a wage. The changing conditions plus struggles by women lead to the removal of legal discrimination, new divorce laws and various forms of government child support. Even the nuclear family becomes optional. These changes cut away much, although not all, of the legacies of women’s oppression and create the conditions where men and women can begin to understand their differences and similarities, and better meet their mutual needs.

The emergence of capitalism has been accompanied by the bourgeois democratic revolution that brings equality before the law, freedom of speech and assembly, due process and constitutional rule. People now expect these political conditions and feel aggrieved by their absence. They could not imagine being ruled by the bejewelled thugs of earlier times. This provides space for the proletariat to organize itself and for a revolutionary movement to emerge and develop. Although when the capitalists feel sufficiently threatened they dispense with these arrangements. This may involve goons and death squads, a state of emergency,  a military coup or the coming to power of a fascist tyrant. However, such drastic measures cannot permanently put the genie back in the bottle and they are bound to provoke resistance.

Overcoming both submissive and oppressive behavior will be at the core of the struggle for communism.  Individuals will require the boldness to stand up to people who act in a harmful manner either to them or to others, while expecting other people to submit to you is completely at odds with a culture of mutual regard. Overcoming the submissive and oppressive forms of behavior found under capitalism will prove difficult enough. Having to at the same time overcome their far more extreme pre-capitalist forms would be unimaginably difficult.

The experience of constant flux experienced under capitalism is also important for communism. Pre-capitalist societies are static. The way of life in your old age is the same as that in your youth. In keeping with this there are set and unchanging ways of thinking and general acceptance of how things are. Under capitalism there is constant change and increasing uncertainty in the conditions of life and the prevailing ways of thinking. It then becomes possible for people to look at where they are and where they are going. This is expressed well in The Communist Manifesto as follows:

All fixed, fast-frozen relationships, with their train of venerable ideas and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become obsolete before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and men at last are forced to face with sober senses the real conditions of their lives and their relations with their fellow men.

Hasn’t Communism Already Failed? (More from The Communist Manifesto Project)

There is a lot to be done on the democratic front. This includes:

supporting freedom of speech and assembly, government transparency, right to due process and freedom from government harassment and surveillance;

helping neutralize any emerging fascists trends;

struggling for a democratic political culture within the communist movement that effectively deals with controlling personalities, sycophants and attempts to close down critical thinking;

being better than others at exposing the folly of professional politicians;

proposing changes to the constitution and system of representation that would open up politics to greater scrutiny and participation;

and showing how vested economic interests under capitalism have a corrupting effect on government.

(More from The Communist Manifesto Project)

****

There is a thoroughly entrenched view that the experience of revolutions during the 20th century shows that communism has failed. There was indeed a failure. However, it was not of communism, but of an attempt to sustain a path towards it when its preconditions were absent. Russia in 1917 and China in 1949 were essentially backward pre-capitalist societies. Most people were peasants rather than proletarians, and they were more interested in land for the tiller than social ownership. There was little modern industry and thinking was medieval. They had not passed through the capitalist stage, which is required for a successful communist revolution. As the experience of other backward countries shows, even getting capitalism off the ground under these circumstances is hard enough, let alone a society that is supposed to supersede it.

This peculiar state of affairs arose because the bourgeoisie was too weak, cowardly or treacherous to carry out its own tasks. Instead, communists found themselves at the head of both anti-feudal modernist revolutions and patriotic resistance to fascist aggression and occupation. The Bolshevik regime in the Soviet Union was joined after World War II by a host of other countries in what became ‘the socialist camp’. It included China, Vietnam and Yugoslavia that had taken power with their own revolutionary forces, and eastern and central Europe and northern Korea where regimes were established by virtue of Soviet military occupation in the aftermath of the defeat of Germany and Japan. So, by historical accident communists found themselves burdened with the task of raising their societies out of social and economic backwardness. They had to perform the work of capitalism. They had to create an industrial base and trained work force virtually from scratch. The “failure of communism” was a consequence of the failure of capitalism.

Under these conditions the move in a communist direction could only be quite limited and proved unsustainable. They took important preliminary measures but did not achieve the real substance. Industry was placed under state ownership which meant that capitalist industry was expropriated and the new accumulation of private wealth prevented. At the same time there was a degree of economic security for workers. The system was described as socialism, the first stage on the road to communism. However, the weakness of the proletariat placed severe limits on what could be achieved. With some minor exceptions in Europe, it only began to become a significant section of society with the industrialization that followed the revolution. Proletarians were former peasants engaged mainly in the low paid toil that you would expect at this stage of development. They were simply not ready to be a ruling class. There was not the basis for a society based on mutual regard. Enthusiasm and unprompted initiative was limited in the harsh conditions and so there was a heavy reliance on material incentives and top down command with all kinds of perverse results. The freedom and democracy required for the full development of the proletariat was not possible given the intensity of external and internal opposition and the weakness of the revolutionary forces. Conditions also dictated a heavy reliance on a “revolutionary vanguard”.

Because most work was arduous and repetitive manual labor, and the education level and background of typical workers left them ill-equipped for involvement in the mental aspects of production, there was a minority who did the thinking and deciding. These were the managers, engineers and officials – generally referred to as ‘cadres’. Members of this elite had a vested interest in entrenching their privileged position and were unlikely to encourage an invasion of their domain as workers became more skilled and educated, and industry more mechanized, nor to willingly start to take upon themselves a share of the more routine forms of labor.

Once career, income and position are the primary impulse, economic results take a second place to empire building, undermining rivals, promoting loyal followers, scamming the system and concealing one’s poor performance from superiors. The opportunity for workers to resist these developments was limited by the lack of freedom and the culture of subordination which drains away confidence and the courage to act. This can be very strong even in the absence of political tyranny as we can see in any liberal capitalist society. At the same time, one can imagine that any rank and file worker with special abilities or talents would tend to be more interested in escaping the workers’ lot by becoming one of the privileged rather than struggling against them.

Mao Zedong, the head of the Chinese Communist Party until his death in 1976, referred to this process, once fully entrenched and endorsed at the top, as capitalist restoration and those encouraging it as revisionists and capitalist roaders. The Chinese Cultural Revolution that he led in the late 1960s is the only attempt to beat back this trend. However, that revolution was sabotaged and defeated, and the capitalist roaders were able to seize supreme power in China after his death.

The Soviet Union and like regimes in Eastern Europe represented a distinctive type of dead-end economically, politically and socially, and their demise in 1989-90 is one of the celebrated events of the late 20th centuries. By discarding much of the empty and dysfunctional formal shell of socialism and operating more like normal capitalist economies both China and Vietnam have managed to achieve considerable economic development in recent decades. Cuba is now beginning to take this route. The monstrosity in North Korea relies on mass terror and the support of the Chinese. All these regimes are an affront to freedom and democracy, and must be overthrown.

Notwithstanding this grim picture, there were still some significant achievements. In a large part of the world landlords and feudal relations were swept from the countryside. Industrialization was raised from a very low base and generally outperformed the backward countries in the capitalist camp. Most importantly, after a crash industrialization in the 1930s, the Soviet Union was able to defeat Nazi Germany. This is something for which the world should be eternally grateful.

The dilemma faced by 20th century communists was anticipated by Engels in the following passage from chapter 6 of The Peasant War in Germany, published in 1850:

The worst thing that can befall a leader of an extreme party is to be compelled to take over a government in an epoch when the movement is not yet ripe for the domination of the class which he represents and for the realization of the measures which that domination would imply. What he can do depends not upon his will but upon the sharpness of the clash of interests between the various classes, and upon the degree of development of the material means of existence, the relations of production and means of communication upon which the clash of interests of the classes is based every time. What he ought to do, what his party demands of him, again depends not upon him, or upon the degree of development of the class struggle and its conditions. He is bound to his doctrines and the demands hitherto propounded which do not emanate from the interrelations of the social classes at a given moment, or from the more or less accidental level of relations of production and means of communication, but from his more or less penetrating insight into the general result of the social and political movement. Thus he necessarily finds himself in a dilemma. What he can do is in contrast to all his actions as hitherto practised, to all his principles and to the present interests of his party; what he ought to do cannot be achieved. In a word, he is compelled to represent not his party or his class, but the class for whom conditions are ripe for domination. In the interests of the movement itself, he is compelled to defend the interests of an alien class, and to feed his own class with phrases and promises, with the assertion that the interests of that alien class are their own interests. Whoever puts himself in this awkward position is irrevocably lost.

What is to be Done?

At the moment when inquiring minds seek to learn about communism they will encounter a range of appalling nonsense from various tiny groups claiming to be communist or Marxist. Some support the regimes in Cuba and China, and there are even the occasional North Korea supporters. The absurd regime in Venezuela inspires many of them. They all cling onto the once true but now outdated view that US imperialism is the main problem in the world today, and for this reason some even see a good side to Daesh, Al Qaeda and the Taliban. They all share the mainstream view that regime change in Iraq has been a disaster and the fascist Baath Party should have been left in power. These groups never talk about how capitalism is creating the conditions for communism but simply whine about how terrible the system is, and often do this in a reactionary way particularly in their opposition to “globalization” and acceptance of green views on virtually everything. They rarely talk about and scarcely understand communism, and they simply see it as something in never-never land rather than their real purpose.

It will be up to the now very young or yet to be born to rediscover communism. For older people it would require too much of a break from their entrenched ways of thinking. Only then can we expect to see the beginnings of a communist movement.

As well as understanding and conveying the ultimate aims of communism and social ownership, with its elimination of market relations and the full development of the individual, they will also need to come to grips with how we get there. This has a number of phases. Listing them in reverse chronological order they are: the period of revolutionary transition when we shake off all the “muck of the ages”; the initial phase of the revolution, day one so to speak; and the here and now.

On the transition phase it will be particularly important to understand the tenacity of the bourgeoisie and old bad habits and thinking, and the need for the proletariat to transforms itself in the struggle. The new society cannot be created overnight. A vigorous mass movement will be critical for the transition because a passive population means certain defeat at the hands of a new bourgeoisie. In this context there would need to be a firm rebuttal to any idea of ‘socialism’ that is not seen as a revolutionary transition stage on the road to communism. There has to be a fundamental change in human behavior and the way society operates. It is that or capitalism. Any halfway stage has to proceed to communism or revert to capitalism.

During the initial phase, one of the first tasks of the revolution will be the neutralization of the bourgeoisie by expropriating their assets. This could be done fairly quickly and would not have to await more fundamental changes in economic arrangements. It could be achieved with a 100 per cent wealth tax on all wealth over a certain level. All the company stock, bonds, bank deposits and other income earning assets belonging to the bourgeoisie would become the property of the state. This would in an instant drastically reduce their economic and political power. People in executive positions would simply be instructed to keep doing their job under threat of dismissal. Some capable executives are indeed capitalists so some concessions may need to be made to them if they are prepared to cooperate.

During the pre-revolutionary period there are many matters that the communist movement will need to deal with. It is important to connect with those resisting the various symptoms of the existing order because they would be among the more amenable to communist ideas and there is much to be achieved in the here and now that is necessary for communism.

There is a lot to be done on the democratic front. This includes: supporting freedom of speech and assembly, government transparency, right to due process and freedom from government harassment and surveillance; helping neutralize any emerging fascists trends; struggling for a democratic political culture within the communist movement that effectively deals with controlling personalities, sycophants and attempts to close down critical thinking; being better than others at exposing the folly of professional politicians; proposing changes to the constitution and system of representation that would open up politics to greater scrutiny and participation; and showing how vested economic interests under capitalism have a corrupting effect on government.

People are seeking remedies to the various ills of the present system. They seek the alleviation of poverty, better healthcare and education. While helping to pursue improvements in the here and now communists would be there explaining the limitations of what can be achieved under the system. They would not simply be demanding the same things but in a more militant in tone. Their central focus would not be on denouncing governments for under-spending in these areas or for pursuing this policy or that. Rather, they would stress that only communism can ensure jobs and economic security and explain how it would lead to better healthcare and education through the fundamental changes in human behavior.

Communists must advocate rapid scientific advance and denounce capitalism for its tardiness in this area. It is critical to both our ability to thrive on this planet and to create the material conditions for communism. In the process they will have to lock horns with the green opponents of “technofix” who think that science just creates new problems. For the greens, the “solution” is less consumption and a population collapse.

Communists will need to be vocally demanding that the international bourgeoisie do far more to further what Marx called the bourgeois democratic revolution. Their tardiness in this area is legendary. For example, if a communist movement existed at this very moment it would be vigorously demanding that the powers that be quickly sort out the appalling situation in Syria and Iraq. Their failure to give effective assistance to the legitimate rebel forces in Syria meant that Daesh was able to thrive with appalling results. US President Barak Obama’s inaction in the early phase of the Syrian civil war should be condemned as should that country’s ongoing underwriting of Israeli oppression of the Palestinians. Generally we should be demanding that our rulers do everything possible to re-spark the Arab Spring.

Part of the problem is a prevailing pacifism both within the ruling class and society at large. A communist movement would be particularly concerned that the liberal democracies retain their military supremacy and stay well ahead of Russia and China. A large defense reserve should play a role, and would ensure that professionals are not the only ones with military training.

The Communist Manifesto Project – opposing the ‘reactionists’. Some annotations.

“The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part” – Karl Marx 1848

Marx considered capitalism revolutionary, an advance on all previous societies. Most contemporary “Marxists” and the pseudo left more broadly either disagree or are highly ambivalent… For example, they bemoan “corporate globalization” and believe that the very far from complete process of economic development is ecologically unsustainable and we need to revert to a something “simpler”. Marx refers to these people as “reactionists”.

(Via The Communist Manifesto Project)

 

communist-manifesto

 

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Annotations

These are some comments to consider while reading The Communist Manifesto. Most of them highlight the many instances where Marx’s views are contrary to those of present-day “Marxists”. Marx is referred to as the writer here. While Engels was a co-author, the final writing was the work of Marx.

Chapter 1: Bourgeois and Proletarians

“The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part.”

Marx then goes on to elaborate on this point in the subsequent 11 paragraphs. He considered capitalism revolutionary, an advance on all previous societies. Most contemporary “Marxists” and the pseudo left more broadly either disagree or are highly ambivalent. They do not see the capitalist transformation of the economy and society as the launching pad for communism. Rather, the society they want requires a retreat from this process. For example, they bemoan “corporate globalization” and believe that the very far from complete process of economic development is ecologically unsustainable and we need to revert to a something “simpler”. Marx refers to these people as “reactionists”.

” We see then: the means of production and of exchange, on whose foundation the bourgeoisie built itself up, were generated in feudal society. At a certain stage in the development of these means of production and of exchange, the conditions under which feudal society produced and exchanged, the feudal organisation of agriculture and manufacturing industry, in one word, the feudal relations of property became no longer compatible with the already developed productive forces; they became so many fetters. They had to be burst asunder; they were burst asunder.”

So the transition from capitalism to communism will not be unique. As well as the transition from feudalism to capitalism there was also the transition from hunter-gathering to agriculture based society. In each case there was a total change in thinking and doing – “human nature”.

” For many a decade past the history of industry and commerce is but the history of the revolt of modern productive forces against modern conditions of production, against the property relations that are the conditions for the existence of the bourgeois and of its rule. ”

Marx goes on to cite capitalist economic crises as a prime example of the system’s obsolescence. Some claim that crises are not inevitable under capitalism. However, the evidence seems to suggest that they can only be delayed and at the cost of making them worse.

Other economic failings of the system include its slowness to innovate [see here] and its inability to tap the enthusiasm and initiative of workers [see here].

” Owing to the extensive use of machinery, ……. according to their age and sex.”

This is an accurate description of machine tending where work becomes confined to simple repetition. However, this should not be taken to be Marx’s overall assessment of work under capitalism. In Capital Vol. I Chapter Fifteen Section 9, he has two paragraphs that gives his general view of the labor process under capitalism. These are quoted in full below.

“Modern industry never looks upon and treats the existing form of a process as final. The technical basis of that industry is therefore revolutionary, while all earlier modes of production were essentially conservative. [225] By means of machinery, chemical processes and other methods, it is continually causing changes not only in the technical basis of production, but also in the functions of the labourer, and in the social combinations of the labour-process. At the same time, it thereby also revolutionises the division of labour within the society, and incessantly launches masses of capital and of workpeople from one branch of production to another. But if modern industry, by its very nature, therefore necessitates variation of labour, fluency of function, universal mobility of the labourer, on the other hand, in its capitalistic form, it reproduces the old division of labour with its ossified particularisations.We have seen how this absolute contradiction between the technical necessities of modern industry, and the social character inherent in its capitalistic form, dispels all fixity and security in the situation of the labourer; how it constantly threatens, by taking away the instruments of labour, to snatch from his hands his means of subsistence, [226] and, by suppressing his detail-function, to make him superfluous, we have seen, too, how this antagonism vents its rage in the creation of that monstrosity, an industrial reserve army, kept in misery in order to be always at the disposal of capital; in the incessant human sacrifices from among the working-class, in the most reckless squandering of labour-power and in the devastation caused by a social anarchy which turns every economic progress into a social calamity. This is the negative side. But if, on the one hand, variation of work at present imposes itself after the manner of an overpowering natural law, and with the blindly destructive action of a natural law that meets with resistance [227] at all points, modern industry, on the other hand, through its catastrophes imposes the necessity of recognising, as a fundamental law of production, variation of work, consequently fitness of the labourer for varied work, consequently the greatest possible development of his varied aptitudes. It becomes a question of life and death for society to adapt the mode of production to the normal functioning of this law. Modern Industry, indeed, compels society, under penalty of death, to replace the detail-worker of to-day, grappled by life-long repetition of one and the same trivial operation, and thus reduced to the mere fragment of a man, by the fully developed individual, fit for a variety of labours, ready to face any change of production, and to whom the different social functions he performs, are but so many modes of giving free scope to his own natural and acquired powers.

“One step already spontaneously taken towards effecting this revolution is the establishment of technical and agricultural schools, and of “écoles d’enseignement professionnel,” in which the children of the working-men receive some little instruction in technology and in the practical handling of the various implements of labour. Though the Factory Act, that first and meagre concession wrung from capital, is limited to combining elementary education with work in the factory, there can be no doubt that when the working-class comes into power, as inevitably it must, technical instruction, both theoretical and practical, will take its proper place in the working-class schools. There is also no doubt that such revolutionary ferments, the final result of which is the abolition of the old division of labour, are diametrically opposed to the capitalistic form of production, and to the economic status of the labourer corresponding to that form. But the historical development of the antagonisms, immanent in a given form of production, is the only way in which that form of production can be dissolved and a new form established. “Ne sutor ultra crepidam” — this nec plus ultra of handicraft wisdom became sheer nonsense, from the moment the watchmaker Watt invented the steam-engine, the barber Arkwright, the throstle, and the working-jeweller, Fulton, the steamship. [228]”

“226.
“You take my life
When you do take the means whereby I live.”
Shakespeare.

227. A French workman, on his return from San-Francisco, writes as follows: “I never could have believed, that I was capable of working at the various occupations I was employed on in California. I was firmly convinced that I was fit for nothing but letter-press printing…. Once in the midst of this world of adventurers, who change their occupation as often as they do their shirt, egad, I did as the others. As mining did not turn out remunerative enough, I left it for the town, where in succession I became typographer, slater, plumber, &c. In consequence of thus finding out that I am fit to any sort of work, I feel less of a mollusk and more of a man.” (A. Corbon, “De l’enseignement professionnel,” 2ème ed., p. 50.)

228. John Bellers, a very phenomenon in the history of Political Economy, saw most clearly at the end of the 17th century, the necessity for abolishing the present system of education and division of labour, which beget hypertrophy and atrophy at the two opposite extremities of society. Amongst other things he says this: “An idle learning being little better than the learning of idleness…. Bodily labour, it’s a primitive institution of God…. Labour being as proper for the bodies’ health as eating is for its living; for what pains a man saves by ease, he will find in disease…. Labour adds oil to the lamp of life, when thinking inflames it…. A childish silly employ” (a warning this, by presentiment, against the Basedows and their modern imitators) “leaves the children’s minds silly,” (“Proposals for Raising a Colledge of Industry of all Useful Trades and Husbandry.” Lond., 1696, pp. 12, 14, 18.)”

The basic message is that despite the tendency for capitalism to impose a narrow division of labor, the objective conditions of modern industry limit the extent they can do that.

This view is very much at odds with Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital, The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century. This book has had a very unfortunate influence of how people on the left view the labor process under capitalism. It claims that capitalism tends to increasingly degrade work and deskill workers. The present situation totally refutes this view given that 15-20 per cent of the workforce have university degrees and a larger number have vocational training. If it were true that capitalism was simply reducing the workforce to automatons, it would be hard to see how they could ever get rid of, and then manage without, the bourgeoisie. For a full refutation of Braverman see Deskilling Debunked.

” The various interests and conditions of life within the ranks of the proletariat are more and more equalized, in proportion as machinery obliterates all distinctions of labour, and nearly everywhere reduces wages to the same low level. ”

While proletarians are no longer mainly machine tenders, the point about equalization is still quite valid.
The wage disparity among the vast majority of workers is not enough to generate major differences in material conditions of life. There is a mass mainstream, with perhaps 10 per cent at the top and 10 per cent at the bottom living in different worlds. This is important from the point of view of overall solidarity and individuals identifying with most other people. The way that the vast bulk of people think of themselves as ‘middle class’ is one reflection of this.

” Finally, in times when the class struggle nears the decisive hour, the progress of dissolution going on within the ruling class, in fact within the whole range of old society, assumes such a violent, glaring character, that a small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift, and joins the revolutionary class, the class that holds the future in its hands. Just as, therefore, at an earlier period, a section of the nobility went over the bourgeoisie, so now a portion of the bourgeoisie goes over to the proletariat, and in particular, a portion of the bourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole.”

Now most members of the intelligentsia are part of the proletariat. They come from proletarian families and works for a salary. Unfortunately, because of their employee status most are hacks working in the service of the bourgeoisie. This includes the pseudo left in the social sciences who have done much to stifle young inquiring minds. Under these circumstances independent thinkers with independent means would be most valuable.

” Of all the classes that stand face to face with the bourgeoisie today, the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class. The other classes decay and finally disappear in the face of Modern Industry; the proletariat is its special and essential product.”

In modern capitalist societies the vast majority of people are members of the proletariat. They are either wage or salary earners or on welfare. They have no means of production of their own. The capitalists are a tiny minority and the petty bourgeoisie comprise around 10 per cent. The proletariat is revolutionary because it has no interest in the present system and can do without the bourgeoisie. For more on the modern proletariat go here.

“All the preceding classes that got the upper hand sought to fortify their already acquired status by subjecting society at large to their conditions of appropriation. The proletarians cannot become masters of the productive forces of society, except by abolishing their own previous mode of appropriation, and thereby also every other previous mode of appropriation. They have nothing of their own to secure and to fortify; their mission is to destroy all previous securities for, and insurances of, individual property.

“All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority. The proletariat, the lowest stratum of our present society, cannot stir, cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air.”

The proletariat has to own all the means of production in common. Parceling them out to separate groups of workers would simply bring you back to capitalism.

” The modern labourer, on the contrary, instead of rising with the process of industry, sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class. He becomes a pauper, and pauperism develops more rapidly than population and wealth. And here it becomes evident, that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society, and to impose its conditions of existence upon society as an over-riding law. It is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state, that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him. Society can no longer live under this bourgeoisie, in other words, its existence is no longer compatible with society.”

This is still indeed the case for a significant section of the proletariat. A pauper is someone who cannot support them-self. In the present context that means being on the dole or invalid pension. Pauperism occurs because capitalism fails to ensure that everyone is equipped with the abilities required for the workforce and also leaves many people the psychological casualties of a dog eat dog society.

Chapter 2: Proletarians and Communists

“In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality.’

A lot of the pseudo left demand protection from “cheap foreign labor”.

“Communistic abolition of buying and selling”
This means no more markets. Most “Marxists” have gone to water on this and agree with the bourgeoisie that it is impossible. For a discussion of how communism would thrive without markets go here.

” The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State,i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.”

This is totally at odds with the green anti-growth view that is now so widely held.

” In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”

Another way of expressing this is to say – each person’s free development depends on the free development of everyone else. This is obvious if you think about how difficult it would be to fully thrive if those around you are hopelessly inadequate.

Chapter 3: Socialist and Communist Literature

​In this chapter Marx lists the various types of “anti -capitalism” that prevailed at that time. A new list for the present time needs to be prepared. There will be significant similarities and they will be as equally reactionary.

Chapter 4: Position of the Communists in Relation to the Various Existing Opposition Parties

This chapter looks at immediate tasks for communists at that time. At the present moment the big issue is the Arab Spring. This revolution, no matter however totally bourgeois, is in the interest of the proletariat and people, both of the region and internationally. The major capitalist powers must be placed under the greatest possible pressure to do all they can assist, including militarily. The “Marxists” and other pseudo leftists have done all they can to oppose this and are a total disgrace.