Chris Harman

Thinking it through

A brave new world?

(March 2001)

From Socialist Review, No.250, March 2001.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The struggles of today show a better future is possible, writes Chris Harman

The highly successful Globalise Resistance tour last month included workshops on Imagined Futures. People were enthusiastic about attending them because we have all been brought up in this society and we find it difficult to imagine things could be different. It is as if we had always worn pink tinted glasses and could not even imagine what something coloured white would be like.

Most people take for granted hierarchy, selfishness, a male desire to dominate women, competition in all its forms, various forms of racism. They regard these things as intrinsic to human nature. Industrial capitalism has only existed for just over 200 years. That’s less than 0.1 percent of the span of humanity on earth. None of these things characterised the foraging ‘band’ societies that existed everywhere for more than 90 percent of that span until 10,000 years ago.

Even for those who do try to imagine a different world, all too often it incorporates elements peculiar to capitalist society, or at least class society. In particular they often conceive of a future in which a minority that knows how humanity should live imposes its will on everyone else. This was the brunt of the criticism Marx and Engels made of the ‘utopian socialism’ which preceded them.

They recognised that it had played an important role in opening up a criticism of capitalism. But they also pointed out that its proponents, by trying to use the concepts given by capitalist society in order to try and imagine another sort of society, inevitably ended up building castles in the air – and sometimes grotesque ones at that. We can envisage the vague outlines of a future in which the enormous advances of the last two centuries would be detached from the money grubbing, selfishness and class divisions of capitalism. But we cannot fill in the details of those outlines. These would be the product of vast numbers of people applying their collective energies to reshaping society. In doing so they would discover things about the world around them and their own potentialities in ways which a small number of us trying, under capitalism, to draw up schemes for the future are quite incapable of foreshadowing.

Engels pointed out that people would be free to relate to each other in new, genuinely liberated ways once ‘we brought the means of production into common property’, ‘the individual family ceases to be the economic unit of society’, ‘private housekeeping is transformed into a social industry’, and ‘the care and education of children becomes a public matter’. But he also pointed out that we can only ‘conjecture’ about what the new relations would be like: ‘That will be settled after a new generation has grown up ... Once such people appear, they will care not a rap about what we today think they should do. They will establish their own practice and their own public opinion ... on the practice of each individual – and that’s the end of it.’

For us to lay down in advance what they should do would be to contradict the very goal of a society, as Marx once put it, where ‘the free development of each is the precondition of the free development of all’. There is, however, a way to begin to avoid the mistakes of the old utopians. That is to look at the way in which capitalism itself has repeatedly thrown up movements that want to go beyond it. They can do so because capitalism itself is based on the contradictory combination of ‘social production’ and individual appropriation.

On the one hand, there is a global productive system, drawing together the products of the labour of billions of people, on the other hand, vicious, selfish competition by firms and states to grab the fruits of that labour. So as well as incredible selfishness and brutality, it breeds a desire for cooperation and caring for each other. That is why in every workplace people cooperate as well as compete. That is why people rush to aid each other when catastrophes occur. The values of cooperation and mutual caring develop most fully when the people whose labour keeps the system going find themselves driven into practical struggle against it. Even in small scale, defensive battles they begin to embrace notions that challenge the values of capitalism – notions of solidarity, of collective endeavour, of unity across ethnic and national divides.

At high points of struggle they can go further. They can throw up new forms of social organisation that embody these new notions. This was especially true of the workers’ councils that made their appearance, even if sometimes only a fleeting, embryonic appearance, in many of the great struggles of the 20th century, from Russia in 1905 to Hungary in 1956 and Portugal in 1975. They give us a glimpse of how the journey from the present to the future can begin. Those whose labour embodies the dynamic of ‘social production’ began on each occasion to create counter-institutions to anti-social institutions of ruling classes based on exploitation and competitive accumulation.

Beginning the journey is important. Marx, toward the end of his life, made a distinction between ‘two stages’ of socialism. The higher stage would be that in which all the crap left over from class society had disappeared from human behaviour and human attitudes. It was the stage utopians speculate about.

But before that there was the ‘lower stage’, that of beginning to erect an alternative to capitalism. It would begin with a seizure of power whose immediate aims are the rather modest ones of eradicating the central, most noxious features of the present system, even while leaving certain lesser features temporarily intact.

Such aims today might be the taking of decisions on production, investment and job ‘creation’ out of the hands of shareholders and directors of the giant companies, ending the pillaging of the world by the debt collectors, stopping the drive to make people work harder and longer in the interests of profit, dismantling the old military and police hierarchies of the state.

Such demands flow naturally from people’s struggles against the present system. But at high points in the struggle to achieve them people can begin to create the counter-institutions like workers’ councils that lay down a different way of running society.

The class which has an objective interest in such struggles is much larger today than even 50 years ago. This is because capitalism today exploits the labour of more people across the world than ever before. That is what all the talk about ‘globalisation’ is really about. In fighting for such apparently limited demands people begin to tear at the physical chains that bind them to the present system. But that is not all. They also begin to break the ‘mental chains’ that make it difficult for them to envisage reorganising society as a whole on a new basis.

At high points in struggle, people begin to create their own counter-institutions

Last updated on 26 December 2009