Source: Socialist Standard, March 1999.
Transcription: Socialist Party of Great Britain.
HTML Markup: Darren O'Neil
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2009). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.
Marx referred to early society as “primitive communism” because throughout the Stone Age our ancestors co-operated to provide for their needs. With this in mind the socialist revolution can be seen as a long cycle of change from co-operation at a primitive level to co-operation in a more conscious, technically advanced society.
Anyone who visits the sites of upper Palaeolithic cultures in the Dordogne, France, can see in the museum at Les Eyzies the flint tools and the conditions in which they were used by the Magdalenian people about 20,000 years ago. It appears that life during this time was not necessarily “nasty, brutish and short”. They developed art amidst abundant game, fish, wild vegetables, fruits, nuts and berries. All these things were there for the taking, it was natural wealth which did not have to be produced. Time had no economic value. There was no wage working, profits, bosses or economic crises. The whole community had free access to what was available and if one could avoid toothache, the living could well have been pleasant.
But sometime before 8,000BC conditions developed in which farming began and with it began the treadmill of hard work. For cereals this required ground preparation, sowing, watering, weeding, harvesting, threshing, storage and grinding. Also there were animals to tend. This was surely the beginning of the long working day. But farming brought more than hard work. With the emergence of dominant classes it brought exploitation of slaves who have done all the hard work ever since.
In his short book, Neanderthals, Bandits and Farmers: How Agriculture Really Began, Colin Tudge suggests that the development of farming took much longer than has been commonly supposed and was preceded by along period of “proto-farming”. Writing recently in the Independent under the heading “All this hard graft no longer makes sense”, he suggests that the once necessary long working day is outdated. He says, “We should see our industriousness not as an inveterate, “objective” good but as an adaptation geared to different times, and one that no longer makes sense; a mental vestige; virtually a psycho-pathology. We and the world would be much pleasanter and safer if we did.”
But our situation is much worse than this. Most hard work has little connection with real human needs and a lot of it is actually lethal. The modern age has seen enormous gains in productivity of labour but where are the benefits for the working population? Do factory workers or farm workers or those in building and construction work less hours after having provided for the needs of the community? Of course they don’t. Despite the much predicted society of leisure workers still work long hours and productivity means they are exploited more intensely.
There are thousands of people in supermarkets working long, poorly paid mind-blowingly boring hours operating the tills. They hold you up when all you want to do is leave the store after collecting what you want. They are there to make you pay so their bosses can get their profits. They are there to serve the profit system and their work has nothing to do with needs.
A great deal of hard work is done by the vast numbers of workers in the world’s armament industries. The countless millions killed or wounded in the wars of this century were the casualties of every kind of weapon from bayonets, bullets and bombs to high-tech ballistic missiles and all these required long hours to produce. So when we ask whether we need to do all this hard work, the answer must be that it is not just unnecessary, much of it brings about great misery and suffering. So we can certainly do without it.
We can estimate that at least half of all the workers running the capitalist system would be redundant in a sane society where work would be organised economically solely for the needs of the community. This means that, including the present millions who are unemployed, socialism would more than double the numbers of people available to do useful work. Also, these vastly increased numbers would be free to use and further develop the most advanced techniques of production. All this would add up to a huge increase in our powers of production.
At first, to solve problems, production in socialism would have to be expanded. The priority would be to ensure that every person is comfortably housed and supplied with good quality food of their choice. The construction of a safe world energy system would be another urgent project. The present great differences in the world distribution of machinery, plant and up-to-date production methods would need to be evened out. But with an adequate structure of production in place we can anticipate that in socialism, we would soon be in a position to relax in the necessary work of providing for needs.
The idea of producing enough for the community and then relaxing to enjoy many other kinds of activity which may interest people is impossible under a capitalist system. Capitalist production is not primarily about supplying needs it is about making profit and accumulating capital. It can only work with a constant market pressure to renew its capacity for sales. Under capitalism a surplus of commodities, in excess of market capacity means they cannot be sold for a profit. This can bring about recession, workers thrown out of jobs, governments having to pay out more in doles when strapped for cash trying to finance a reasonable health service, it means companies going bankrupt. It means the whole mad market system being thrown into yet another crisis simply because the goods cannot be sold. These are some of the destructive features of a money-driven economy which is long past its sell-by date.
In socialism, with the abolition of the market, and acting with voluntary co-operation, people will produce goods and distribute them to stores without any of the barriers of buying and selling. The cash tills will disappear, shoppers won’t be held up and the operators won’t have to do their boring, meaningless jobs.
What it also means is that for the production of component parts of machinery or household goods, etc, intense production runs using automated systems could supply not just sufficient components for immediate use but also stocks for anticipated future demand. These could be distributed as and when required and this would be an economical use of production facilities which could then be either shut down until when required again or with different tooling used for other production runs. The important point being that in socialism this could happen without any of the problems and chaos that an oversupply of commodities for the market causes under capitalism.
The idea of having enough for needs and then relaxing to enjoy it is perhaps an echo of the best times had by hunters and gatherers. But this way of life was never viable for larger populations who are compelled to produce what they consume. To begin with, during the advent of farming this inevitably required a lot of hard graft, but with the enormous increase in the powers of labour since then, this is no longer necessary. We can learn other lessons from hunter/gatherers. Until recently the aborigines of Australia held the land in common and co-operated to sustain a way of life that was in balance with their environment and had lasted for at least 40,000 years. The modern world has an urgent need to imitate that example.
To re-establish common ownership and co-operation would in fact revert to relationships which were normal for humanity for the very long period of pre-history. Now, of course, we would enjoy these relationships with all the advantages of modern technology and know-how. But, by being aware of history and the great mistakes of the past we would also be aware of the need to use these powers wisely.