Marx Myths and Legends. Paresh Chattopadhyay
This is a substantially revised and enlarged version of the paper that Paresh Chattopadhyay presented earlier in Berlin and London, copied from http://ricardo.ecn.wfu.edu/~cottrell/OPE/.
The basic theme of the paper is the passage from the “pre-history of human society” to humanity’s history through revolutionary transformation of the old society. This passage is considered as humanity’s progress in the sense of contradictory movement, as a manifestation of the dialectic of negativity. First, the paper restates and discusses Marx’s central proposition that capital through its inherent contradictions creates the conditions of its own demise as well as the elements for building a union of free individuals. Then, in the light of Marx’s correspondence with the Russians in his later years, the paper goes into the question, if the capitalist mode of production (CMP) is the necessary precondition for building the new society, or the old society in the absence of the CMP could, on its own, generate the necessary conditions for passage to the new society. Finally, the whole question of the revolutionary transformation of society is discussed within the broad Marxian purview of human progress where it is argued that Marx is a great ‘rethinker’ of progress, that his perspective has nothing in common with any unilateral view (positive or negative) of human advancement (or regression) and that progress in this view is an aspect of the dialectic of negativity pervading the critique of political economy.
The whole of Marx’s ‘Critique of Political Economy’ (‘Critique’ for short) is informed, one could say, by what he wrote in two texts referring, respectively, to two great philosophers: Spinoza and Hegel. In his Parisian manuscripts (1844), referring to Hegel’s Phenomenology, Marx underlined that its “greatness” lay in the “dialectic of negativity as the moving and creating principle” (1966a: 67). Many years later, in the first manuscript of Capital, vol. 2, Marx completed Spinoza’s well-known phrase thus: “all determination is negation and all negation is determination” (1988: 316. This manuscript is not included in Engels’s edition of Capital, vol. 2). Marx shows how capital creates the subjective and objective conditions of its own negation and, simultaneously, the elements of the new society destined to supersede it – socialism. In the ‘Critique’ socialism (equivalently communism) signifies a “society of free and associated producers” based on the “associated mode of production (AMP).” This “union of free individuals,” the crowning point of the producers’ act of self-emancipation where individuals are subject neither to personal dependence – as in pre-capitalism – nor to material dependence – as in commodity (capitalist) society – excludes, by definition, private property in the means of production, commodity form of the product of labor, wage labor and state. Here the freely associated “social individuals” are the masters of their own social movement, subjecting their social relations to their own control (Marx 1987: 110; 1965: 614).
The individual’s freedom from material dependence, necessarily associated with the collective (social) domination of the conditions of production by the “union of free individuals,” depends first of all on the existence of an abundance of material wealth based on a high degree of development of the productive forces at the universal level including the quantitative and qualitative development of the “greatest productive force,” the proletariat – the revolutionary class – in its “world-historical existence” (Marx 1965: 135; in Marx and Engels 1973: 34). First, the development of productive forces, which is basically the “development of the wealth of human nature as an end in itself,” is an absolutely necessary “practical (pre)condition of human emancipation because without it only the penury and the necessity will be generalized and, with the need, shall also start the struggle for necessity” (1973: 34-35; Marx 1959: 107). Not only this. With the growth in the productive powers of labor, also increases the disposable time beyond the necessary labor time – that is, the increase in society’s free time as the basis of all creative activities of the individuals. On the other hand, “only with this universal development of the productive powers can universal intercourse (Verkehr) of human beings be posited” (in Marx and Engels 1973: 33). Society’s (collective) domination over the conditions of production in its turn implies the mastery of the social individuals of their own social relations. However, the existence of universally developed individuals subordinating their social relations to their own control is not something naturally given, it is a “product of history” presupposing a whole series of material conditions, themselves the product of a “long and painful history of development” (1953: 77; 1987: 110). And if the material conditions of production and the corresponding relations of circulation for a classless society do not exist in a latent form in the society as it is, (then) “all attempts at exploding the society would be Don Quixotism” (1953: 77). Precisely it is capital which creates the requisite material conditions of the proletarian (and thereby human) emancipation.
First, the contradictory character of the necessary labor – surplus labor relation, true for all class societies, takes on a special meaning with labor’s subsumption under capital. In the pre-capitalist modes of production where use values and not exchange values dominate, surplus labor is circumscribed by a definite circle of needs. In the earlier class societies labor time is extended to produce, beyond the subsistence of the immediate producers, a certain amount of use values for the masters. The importance of surplus labor beyond the labor necessary for the natural needs of subsistence assumes a far greater importance when exchange value becomes the determining element of production. Under capital, which is basically generalized commodity production, the constraint on labor to extend labor time beyond necessary labor time is maximum (1976: 174). Compared with earlier class societies based on the extraction of surplus labor from the immediate producers, capital extracts surplus labor in a way and in the conditions which are more advantageous for the development of productive forces and of social relations as well as for the creation of the elements of “a new and higher type of society” – which constitutes “one of the civilising sides of capital” (1992: 837; 1964: 827). “Production for production’s sake as an end in itself (als Selbstzweck),” writes Marx, “already appears with the formal subsumption of labor under capital as soon as the immediate goal of production becomes the production of as big a surplus value as possible (and) exchange value of products becomes the decisive aim ... This is a production which is not bound either by limited needs nor by needs which limit it. This is one side, positive side if you like, as distinguished from the earlier modes of production” (1988: 107; the expression “if you like” appears in English in the text). Along with the ceaseless striving to drive society’s majority to labor beyond what is required to satisfy the immediate needs, capital pushes labor to a greater diversity of production toward an enlargement of the circle of needs and the means to satisfy them and thereby the exercise of the human faculties in all directions. To the extent that it is capital’s coercion which compels society’s masses to labor beyond their immediate needs, “capital creates culture, it performs a historical-social function” (1976: 173, 175). Thus the degree and the universality of the development of the faculties (Vermögen) necessary to create “universally developed individuals” precisely (pre)suppose production based on exchange values which contradictorily creates, for the first time, along with the general alienation of the individual in relation to oneself and to others, the universality and totality of the individual’s relations and faculties (1953: 79-80). This is the “historical justification” of labor’s separation from property.
Wealth in its autonomous being exists only for either directly forced labor – slavery – or indirectly forced labor – wage labour. The directly forced labour does not confront wealth as capital, but only as a relation of (personal) domination. Therefore on the basis of directly forced labor there will only be the reproduction of the relation of (personal) domination for which wealth itself has value only as enjoyment, not as wealth as such, “a relation, therefore, which can never create universal industry” (1953:232). “The original unity between the laborer and the conditions of production,” writes Marx, “has two main forms (leaving aside slavery where the laborer himself is a part of the objective conditions of production): the Asiatic community (natural communism) and the small family agriculture (bound with household industry) in one or the other forms. Both are infantile forms and equally little suited to develop labor as social labor and productive power of social labor, whence the necessity of separation, of rupture, of the opposition between labor and ownership (in the conditions of production). The extreme form of this rupture within which at the same time the productive forces of social labour are most powerfully developed is the form of capital. On the material basis which it creates and by the means of the revolutions which the working class and the whole society undergoes in the process of creating it can the original unity be restored” (1962: 419; emphasis in the text. The expressions “the productive forces ... developed,” and “the whole society undergoes “are in English in the text).
Needless to add, production for production’s sake takes place under capitalism “at the cost of the human individual” along with the general alienation of the individual in relation to oneself and to others, as mentioned earlier. The economy of the social means of production, the economy of cost becomes, in the hands of capital, simultaneously “a system of robbery, during work, of the conditions of life of the worker, of space, air, light and the personal conditions of safety against the dangers and the unhealthy environment of the productive process,” merciless dissipation of labor power, and the most “shameless robbery” of the normal conditions of labor’s functioning (1987: 413, 443; 1965: 959-60, 983; 1988: 107). “The capitalist production is most economical of realized labor, labor realized in commodities. It is a greater spendthrift than any other mode of production of man, of living labor, spendthrift not only of flesh and blood and muscles, but also of brains and nerves” (1976: 324. Both the sentences are in English in the text). While the capitalist mode of production (CMP) never considers and never holds – contrary to the earlier modes of production – the existing form of a productive process as definitive, rendering its technical basis revolutionary, it, at the same time, generates the monstrosity of the reserve army of labor, creates “incessant hecatombs (Opferfest) of the laboring class, reckless dilapidation of powers of labor, and gives full vent to the ravages of social anarchy,” making “each economic progress a public calamity” (1987: 466; 1965: 991). Thus under capital the “productive forces know only a unilateral development and becomes the destructive forces for the majority” (in Marx and Engels 1973: 60).
Now, the development of antagonisms of a social form of production is the “only historical (real) way toward its dissolution and metamorphosis” (1987: 467; 1965: 993). It is capital itself which creates the conditions of its own negation. In an early text, addressed to the workers, Marx clearly underlines what he calls the “positive side of capital,” that is, without the big industry, free competition, the world market and the corresponding means of production there would be no material resources for the emancipation of the proletariat and the creation of the new society. He adds that without these conditions the proletariat would not have taken the road of union nor known the development which makes it capable of revolutionizing the old society as well as itself” (1973: 555). At the same time capital transforms the dispersed, isolated, small-scale labor into large scale socially organized combined labor under its direct domination and thereby also generalizes workers’ direct struggle against this domination. With the material conditions and social combinations of production” capital develops, simultaneously, the contradictions and antagonisms, “the forces of destruction of the old society and the elements of formation of a new society.” Along with the increasing misery oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation, there also grows the “resistance of the working class more and more disciplined, united and organized by the mechanism of the capitalist production itself” (1987: 475, 682; 1965: 995-96, 1239). While the capitalist mode of production, in contrast with the earlier modes of production, generates immense progress as regards the development of the productive powers of social labor, “it also includes within its antagonistic form, ... the necessity of its downfall” (1962: 426).
On the other hand, capital itself comes to constitute a material barrier to the capitalist production. The limits within which alone can the conservation and valorization of capital values move enter continually into contradiction with the methods of production which capital must employ toward its aim and which drive it toward unlimited increase in production, production as an end in itself, unconditional development of social productive powers of labor. The means – the unconditional development of the social productive powers – runs into continual conflict with the limited end - the valorization of existing capital. “If, therefore, the capitalist mode of production is a historical means to develop the material productive power and to create world market corresponding to it, it is at the same time a perpetual contradiction between this historical task and the corresponding social relations of production” (1964: 260; 1992: 324). Thus it is clear that “the material and intellectual (geistigen) conditions of the negation of wage labor and capital, which themselves are the negation of the earlier forms of unfree social production, are themselves the results of its (capital’s) process of production.” The increasing inadequacy of the productive development of society in relation to its hitherto existing production relations is expressed in sharp contradictions, crises, convulsions. “The violent destruction of capital, not through the relations external to it, but as the condition of its self preservation (is) the most striking form in which advice is given to it to be gone and to give room to a higher state of social production” (1953: 635-16; the word “advice” and the whole expression starting with “to be gone” is in English in the text). In this profound sense the capitalist mode of production constitutes the transition to the socialist or the “associated mode of production” (1962: 426; 1992: 504, 662; 1964: 456, 621). In the well-known words of the Gothakritik, the socialist (communist) society “comes out of the womb” of the capitalist society (Marx 1966b: 178).
It has been widely held that Marx in his last years particularly and notably in his writings on Russia – did fundamentally change, if not contradict, his earlier central position that the elements of the new society are generated within capital through a process of creating the conditions of its own negation. This was specially emphasized not so long ago by Teodor Shanin and Haruki Wada in a book which has exercised a certain influence on scholars – Marxist or otherwise (Shanin 1983). Later a Latin American Marx scholar basically held, with some qualifications, the same idea (Dussel 1990). Let us examine this argument.
Now, in these writings, Marx was reacting to a question posed to him by his Russian correspondents: could the already existing Russian rural communes be the basis for building socialism (communism) in Russia without going through the capitalist mode of production, or must Russia pass through a capitalist stage in order to arrive at the new society?
In his reply Marx first observed that in Capital he had underlined that his analysis of CMP – its genesis and development generating, in the process, the elements of its own negation – was confined strictly to “Western Europe,” He derisively rejected any claim to possess a “master key of a general historical-philosophical theory fatally imposable” on all peoples irrespective of the specific historical circumstances in which they found themselves (to Mikhailovsky 1968: 1555). Thus the analysis in Capital could not offer either a positive or a negative answer to the question posed by the Russian correspondents. But, added Marx, from his independent studies on Russia he had concluded that the Russian rural commune could serve as the point of departure of “social regeneration” in Russia. However, this transition will not be automatic. The communal ownership in land, the point of departure of this “regeneration,” has already been affected by adverse forces – working inside and outside the commune – tending to undermine the system. On the one hand, parcellary cultivation of land and private appropriation of its fruits by its members, and, on the other hand, States’ fiscal exactions, fraudulent exploitation by usury and merchant capital happening since 1861 when the Tsarist State adopted measures for the “so-called emancipation of the peasants.” Hence, “social regeneration” is possible provided the negative factors are eliminated, most importantly by a “Russian Revolution” by the peasant masses. In the process the commune could benefit from the scientific and technological acquisitions of the existing capitalism of the west.
According to Shanin, Marx’s new familiarity with the Russian situation would as if make Marx uphold the position that a peasant revolution in Russia towards its immediate socialist transformation would serve as the prototype of revolution towards immediate transition to socialism from the peasant societies in the backward countries like the way England served as the prototype for the capitalist world (1983: 18). Following Shanin, the Russian case added a fourth dimension to “Marx’s analytical thought” where to the “triple origin suggested by Engels – German philosophy, French socialism and English political economy” should be added “a fourth one, that of Russian revolutionary populism” (1983: 20). If this is the reading of Marx’s correspondence (on Russia) by a non-Marxist, a Marx scholar from Mexico asserted that Marx, confronted with the Russian communes, underwent a “change of direction” (viraje). Though it does not mean a “fundamental change in Marx’s theoretical position,” it signifies the “opening up of a broad road for the development of Marx’s discourse on the different ways” (to socialism) – one for the central, more developed capitalism, the other for the less developed countries of the periphery (Dussel 1990: 260-261). An eminent Marxist, in her turn, read this correspondence as if it signified that the Russian case lent itself to a “concept of revolution which changed everything, including economic laws” as if it was on a par with the Western European case, “choosing a different path” (Dunayevskaya 2002: 259. Emphasis in text).
Let us now put Marx’s discussion on Russia in the proper perspective to see on the basis of his relevant texts, what exactly Marx was saying in 1877 and 1881. At the outset it is necessary to refer to the emphasis Marx put on what he called the “uniqueness” of the Russian case, which of course automatically excludes its generalization into some kind of a ‘law’ applicable to the backward peasant societies, as, for example, the “law of motion of capital” would apply to the capitalist societies in general. To Marx the Russian “agricultural communes” offered a “unique situation, without any precedent in history” (Marx 1968: 1566, our emphasis). First, contrary to India, the victim of a foreign conqueror who had violently destroyed its rural communes with “common land ownership,” Russia had no foreign conqueror, and it was the “only European country” where “till today” its communes “have maintained themselves on a national scale.” Secondly, along with communal property of the soil, its historical environment, the contemporaneity of the capitalist production in Western Europe offer it “ready made the material conditions of cooperative labour on a vast scale” which allows it to incorporate all the “positive acquisitions of the capitalist system,” the “fruits with which capitalist production has enriched humanity” avoiding it to go through the capitalist regime” (Marx 1968: 1561, 1565, 1566).
However, while considering the positive side, Marx emphasizes, one has to reckon with the negative side contained in the “dualism inherent in the Russian communal constitution” namely, along with the communal ownership of land there is also “parcellary labour, the source of private appropriation,” enabling the communes’ members to “accumulate moveable property, money and sometimes even slaves and serfs, uncontrolled by the commune” – which constituted the “dissolvent of the original social and economic equality” (1564). Thus the “dualism” of the communes offers an alternative: “either its (private) ownership element will prevail (l’emportera) over its collective element or its collective element will prevail over the (private) ownership element” (1565). One should not forget that the “agricultural commune” constituting the “last phase of the primitive formation of society” is “at the same time the phase of transition to the society based on private property including the series of societies founded on slavery and serfdom” (1564-1565). “Theoretically speaking,” the Russian commune could conserve its soil by developing its base, the communal ownership of the land, and by eliminating the “principle of private ownership which it also implies,” and thereby “become a direct point of departure of the economic system to which the modern society tends” (1565). However, “coming down from the theory to reality,” nobody can hide the fact that the “Russian commune today is facing a conspiracy of powerful forces and interests.” Besides exercising “incessant exploitation on the peasants, the State has facilitated the domination (within the commune) of a certain part of the capitalist system, stock market, bank, railway, commerce.” Similarly, the commune is “exploited fraudulously by the intruding capitalists, merchants, landed ‘proprietors’ as well as undermined by usury.” These different factors have “unleashed inside the commune itself the conflict of interest already present and rapidly developed its germs of decomposition.” This “concourse of destructive influences, unless smashed by a powerful reaction will naturally end in the death of the rural commune” (1570, 1571, 1572). Hence Marx’s emphasis on the need of a “Russian Revolution” (1573). However, even if this “Revolution” is victorious and defeats the commune’s transformation into capitalism, the building of communism in the peasant (and technologically backward) Russia would absolutely require the help of the advanced productive forces, the “positive acquisition elaborated by the capitalist system” (1566). This material aid Russia could obtain almost certainly not from the capitalist regimes but only from the victorious proletariat in Western Europe which naturally would also serve as a bulwark against any attempted capitalist armed intervention in Russia from outside. This seems to be the clear message that we get from the ‘Preface’ to the Russian edition of the Manifesto, the last to appear under the joint signatures of its authors. There, observing that though the Russian commune had already been “seriously undermined” (stark untergrebene), it could still directly go over to the “communist form of collective ownership” provided that there is a “revolution” in Russia which gives signal to a “proletarian revolution” in the West and that the one complements the other (Marx, Engels 1972b: 576).
Shanin imputes uniquely to Engels the position that the Russian revolution needed a proletarian revolution as a complement and asserts that “Marx was moving away from such views” (22). Wada, in his turn, in an otherwise well researched paper, adds that the ‘Preface’ of 1882 “expresses the opinion of Engels, more directly that of Marx.” Marx being “in low spirits (due to his wife’s death) asked Engels to make the draft and simply put his signature to it” (Wada in Shanin 1983: 70). As if Marx resigned himself to putting his name to whatever Engels wanted to draft. Unbelievable! Dussel, in his turn, though not going to Wada’s extreme extent, wrote: “(the 1882 Preface) is a text of compromise between Marx and Engels on the question of the Russian commune (that is, writing Marx’s Russian Revolution’ and Engels’s proletarian revolution’) and the ‘compromise’ contained a contradiction indicative of the future” (Dussel 1990: 262). Let us be more serious. True, in his different drafts and the final version of his letter to Zassulitch as well as in his letter to Mikhailovsky, Marx does not explicitly refer to ‘proletarian revolution’ (by name) in the West as a complement to the Russian (peasant) revolution, so that ‘proletarian revolution’ in the 1882 ‘Preface’ seems to come uniquely from Engels who had, in a polemic in 1875 “at Marx’s demand and developing their common point of view” (Rubel in Marx 1968: 1552) – had explicitly spoken of the necessity of this complement for successfully transforming the existing commune system into a higher form. However, a careful reading of Marx’s drafts shows that the question of a ‘proletarian revolution’ in the West as an aid to the peasant revolution in Russia is very much present there, though the specific term is not there. In the very first draft (Engels was not aware of these drafts, later discovered by Riazanov) Marx considers as a “very favourable circumstance” for the agricultural commune to go over to a higher form of society without passing through capitalism the fact that, after having survived a period when the capitalist system still appeared intact, bearing its technological fruits, the commune is now witness to this (capitalist) system “struggling, on the one hand with its labouring masses and, on the other, with science and the productive forces which it has itself engendered, in a word, in a fatal crisis which will end in the system’s elimination by a return of the present society to a higher form of the most ‘archaïque’ type of collective ownership and production” (1568, 1570; our emphasis). What else is he saying here but indicating – as if paraphrasing his famous, much misunderstood, ‘Preface’ of 1859 – a situation of acute contradiction between the relations of production and the material forces of production within western capitalism ending in a “fatal crisis” of the whole system and leading to its elimination and its substitution by a society of a higher type – obviously only possible through a revolution by its “labouring masses,” that is, the proletariat. If our textual reading of Marx is correct, Marx’s position here is basically the same as that of the ‘Preface’ (1882) - only expressed in a different way – and certainly not very different from Engels’s which is easily verified when one reads Engels’s two texts closely, those of 1875 and of 1894, the first published at Marx’s demand and with his full accord (Rubel asserts this and even Wada concedes this [in Shanin 1983:53-54]) and the second without its author being aware of Marx’s drafts (Engels in Marx and Engels 1964 and 1972).
A couple of points should be stressed here concerning Marx’s depicting the future society (after capital) as a return, in a higher form, of the most ‘archaïque’ type. This is in fact a paraphrase of a sentence from Morgan – whom Marx mentions as an “American author” - where this author speaks of a ‘new system’ as ‘a revival in a superior form of an archaïque type’ towards which the modern society tends. Now, Shanin cites Marx’s expression (1983:17) and argues (without mentioning Marx’s source) that this represents a kind of (new) enlightenment for Marx confronted with the Russian commune. We would, however, submit that the idea underlying Marx’s expression here does not really represent a new position for Marx. Rather he found in Morgan’s statement a re-affirmation of his and Engels’s (Yes, Engels’s pace Shanin, Wada e tutti quanti) earlier position, held, it is true, in a more condensed theoretical manner without much of an empirical reference. Thus in his 1865 lectures to the workers Marx speaks of three “historical processes” of the relation between what he calls the “Man of Labour and the Means of Labour” – first, their “Original Union,” then their “Separation” through the “Decomposition of the Original Union,” third, the “restoration of the original union in a new historical form” through a “fundamental revolution in the mode of production” (1988: 412; emphasis in original). Earlier we referred to a passage from Marx’s 1861-63 manuscript where Marx in the same way, speaks of the “Original unity between the labourer and the conditions of production,” as in family agriculture and ‘natural communism,’ separation between them under capital and the “restoration of the original unity by means of a working class revolution” (along with the rest of society). Engels in his turn, in his preparatory notes towards Anti-Dühring, writes: “All Indo-Germanic peoples started with common ownership. In course of social development, in almost all of these, this common ownership was eliminated, negated, thrust aside by these forms ... It is the task of the social revolution to negate this negation and to restore (wieder herzustellen) the common ownership to a higher stage of development” (Marx, Engels 1962: 583).
Another point in the draft has to be noted in this connection. In the draft we find an interesting representation of the most archaïque type of community. This representation in a ‘right form’ broadly corresponds to Marx’s configuration of the society envisaged as succeeding capitalism long before Marx had read Kovalevsky and Morgan. We mean the portrait of communism drawn in a few bold strokes particularly in Capital (1867) and later in somewhat greater detail in the Gotha-Critique (1875). Here is the laconic sentence in the draft characterizing the most archaïque type (as opposed to its derivative, the ‘agricultural commune’): “in the more primitive communities (besides the common ownership of land) labour is done in common and the product, which is also common, is distributed (to the members) according to the needs of consumption after having put aside the part reserved for reproduction” (1563). Now, with this text in front of us when we read in Capital (volume 1) about the “union of free individuals” labouring with the common means of production where the product of labour is a “social product” of which one part is reserved in order to serve again as means of production while the rest is distributed among the members for consumption (1987: 109) – when we read this, does not this look like the primitive archaïque society appearing at a higher level in a new form which Marx reaffirms in his 1881 draft citing Morgan?
Now the crucial question: does Marx’s position on the Russian commune constitute a fundamental departure as regards his basic point of view on the question of the transition to a society of free and associated labour? We have already referred to the singularity and “uniqueness” of the Russian case (underlined by Marx more than once) sufficient to exclude any generalization of this case (as a prototype) to the pre-capitalist peasant society anywhere else in the world. In this sense this unique example naturally does not affect Marx’s general position. It is quite clear from Marx’s correspondence that in its effort to go over to a higher type of society, assuming a successful “Russian Revolution,” the commune cannot, after all, avoid capitalism, developed elsewhere, which, through the proletarian revolution produced by capitalism itself by its own contradictions, and the advanced forces of production which it had created and which would be made available precisely by the victorious proletariat in the West, would be indispensable for the commune’s survival as well as its extended reproduction. Thus the commune’s transformation into a higher type of society would be impossible in the absence of capitalism elsewhere. All this of course assumes a successful “Russian Revolution.” However, even before arriving at this point the Russian commune already faces a sombre future which Marx discerns in his dissection of the elements of its decomposition, contained integrally in its “dualism,” on the basis of the “Russian reality,” as we saw earlier. Even before he had composed his drafts of letter to Zassulitch, Marx’s letter to Mikhailovsky (1877) already indicates the possibility of decomposition of the commune and clearly emphasized that the path of 1861 which the commune was already traversing, if continued, would exactly fall within the general case of Capital, which in fact turned out to be the case.
The Russian case also, far from invalidating, rather confirms Marx’s 1860s assertion – referred to above – that the two basic pre-conditions of building the new, “free association” namely, the development of labour as social labour and a high development of the productive powers of labour, could not be generated by the “original unity” between the labour and the conditions of production as manifested in the different forms of natural “communism” (and small family mode of production).
In Russia not only the productive powers of labor were very backward but also the rural commune was “struck by a weakness, hostile in every sense” – besides the paracellary mode of labour - namely, its existence as a “localised microcosm,” the isolation and the “lack of contact of its life with the life of the other communes” (far from developing labor as social labor) (1968: 1567).
Now this “weakness” of the commune system – even with common ownership of land – constituting an obstacle to its transformation into a society of a new type Marx had earlier put theoretically in the first edition of Capital (1867) (reiterating his 1860s position) that is, before his exposure to Chernishevsky in 1870 which, according to Wada, was a “turning point for Marx (in Shanin 1983: 45). Very interestingly, in the second edition of Capital (1872) as well as in its French version (1875) Marx retained the same passage word for word. Here is the passage: “The ancient social organisms, of production (in the “modes of production of ancient Asia, of antiquity” etc.) are extraordinarily much simpler and more transparent than the bourgeois (mode). But they are based either on the immaturity of the individual human who has not yet severed his umbilical chord connecting him with others in a natural community (of a primitive tribe), or the direct relations of lordship and bondage. They are conditioned by a low level of development of the productive powers of labour and correspondingly the narrowness of the relations of human beings as between themselves and with nature in the process of production of material life” (1983: 48; 1987: 109-110; 1965: 614). As we see much of this central idea about the old communal system is carried over and gets confirmed in the concrete case of Russia, as seen in Marx’s 1881 correspondence (after he has read Kovalevaky and Morgan).
It would of course be wrong to affirm that there was nothing new in Marx’s thought in his reflections on the Russian communes. Marx and Engels were undoubtedly impressed by the vitality of these communes still having about half the land under communal ownership which existed nowhere else at that period. This is seen in their continued interest in the question for at least two decades beginning with the early 1870s. Common ownership of the means of production by the producers themselves, being the very basis of the new society, its existence in the Russian communal system – absent elsewhere - would indeed be, so thought Marx (and Engels), a very favourable factor enabling, to that extent, the Russian peasant to skip the stage of capitalist private ownership and start right away with this great asset, provided of course they eliminate beforehand the Tsarist régime, the system’s principal enemy, and are helped by capitalism’s positive achievements, necessarily mediated by the victorious proletariat in the West. However, the reason why we hold that this does not change fundamentally, Marx’s thought in general, is simply because it does not affect Marx’s general position on the transition to a “reunion of free individuals” at a higher level whose indispensable (pre) conditions are first, the existence of social labour (with socialization of production) not at a local level but at the level of the whole society and, secondly, a high level of the productive powers of social labour contributing not only to an abundance of material wealth in order to free the “social individuals” from the struggle for necessity, as mentioned earlier, but also contributing to the increasing availability of “free time” beyond labour time, thus enabling the individuals to enjoy the wealth produced, as well as showing them time for “free activity” undetermined by the “compulsion of an external necessity” (Marx 1962: 255. The expressions “free time,” “free activity” are in English in the text in the original MS). Ideally, capitalism need not be the system where these conditions are created, and it would certainly be better if it were not. Historically, however, as Marx never tires of repeating, it is only capital which, through its contradictions, generates these conditions. The Russian communal system – abstracting from its factors of decomposition already operating – even as an exceptional case due solely to its communal land ownership, had to depend on capitalism’s positive achievements, particularly the “ready made material conditions of cooperative labour” (Marx 1968: 1566), that is, the conditions of socialising labour and production at the level of society. Finally, it is only the western proletariat, itself a product of capital, which could, through its own revolution, stand as a bulwark against all intervention from outside in order to ensure, a successful Russian Revolution against the Tsarist regime, the traditional reserve and “head of European reaction,” as the 1882 ‘Preface’ observes (Marx, Engels 1972: 576). In short, what was new in Marx’s thinking, confronted with the Russian commune, was his theoretical non-exclusion of the possibility for a society to go over directly to socialism without passing through capitalism, though not without the help of capitalism prevailing elsewhere which would both generate a proletarian revolution and make available to the society in question, precisely mediated by the victorious proletariat, the fruits of its advanced technology. At the same time Marx severely qualified this idea by emphasizing the uniqueness of the Russian case and underlining the negative factors inherent in the communal’s “dualism” working steadily towards its decomposition with the possibility of transforming the situation into the general case as depicted in Capital. In the event history, the ‘greatest of all Marxists,’ as Hilferding used to say, vindicated Marx’s dire prognostic.
At this point let us dispose of a serious confusion resulting from an ideological reading of Marx’s writings on Russia in 1881-1882. A number of distinguished people have read Marx’s idea of a “Russian Revolution” in his correspondence and in the ‘Preface’ (1882) to the Manifesto as the prefiguration of the twentieth century revolutions, particularly those led by the Marxists, beginning with the Bolshevik seizure of power. Thus, according to Shanin, Marx’s new position was vindicated by “victorious revolution led by the Marxists “in the backward countries, some of which starting with Russia and led by “Lenin, Mao and Ho, proved socialist in leadership and results, whereas “no socialist revolution came in the West” (1983: 25, 254). Similarly Dussel has written: “Russia has certainly followed the road foreseen by Marx (siguio el camino previsto por Marx). Without passing through capitalism it has realized its revolution allowing the rural Russian commune to pass, in great measure, directly from the communal ownership to the social ownership ... since the revolution of 1917” (1990: 261; emphasis in text). Michael Löwy, in his turn, writes: it is often forgotten that, in their preface to the Russian translation of the Manifesto, Marx and Engels envisaged a hypothetical situation in which socialist revolution could begin in Russia and then spread to western Europe” (Löwy, 1998: 18-19). Similarly Raya Dunayevskaya interpreted the 1882 ‘Preface’ as “projecting the idea that Russia could be the first to have a proletarian revolution ahead of the West” (Dunayevskaya 1991: 187)
Now, if one reads Marx’s writings under consideration non-ideologically it is easy to see that the mentioned texts contain no reference to a ‘proletarian’ or ‘socialist’ revolution in Russia. In the relevant texts it is always a question of “Russian Revolution” tout court. It is a question of a revolution by Russian communal peasants against the principal enemy of the communal system – the Tsarist régime. Naturally, in the thinking of Marx (and Engels), following the materialist conception of history, there could be no question of a proletarian revolution in the quasi absence of a proletariat (unless Marx’s Russian experience had made him abandon his materialism for which there is no textual evidence). The idea of the possibility of a proletarian revolution occurring in a technologically backward society where the proletariat constitutes at most a very small part of society gained its droit de cité through a theory propagated around the time of the first world war advancing the specious idea of the possibility of a proletarian revolution breaking out in the ‘weakest link’ in the world capitalist chain, supposed to be not foreseen by Marx and Engels, according to the principal proponent of this theory.
Apart from the absence of any idea of such a revolution existing in Marx’s texts, there is a more important point that should be stressed in this connection. There is in fact an unbridgeable gulf between the Marx envisaged socialist revolution led by the producers themselves towards a society of free and associated labour as what Marx calls producers’ “self activity” (Selbstbetätigung) and the revolutions in the twentieth century taking place under the leadership, not of the producers themselves, but of a small compact group in their name beginning with the Bolshevik seizure of power which from the start excluded the immediate producers from all real powers excepting in name. Even taking Marx’s correspondence in question one is struck by the emphasis Marx puts in the text on the creative power of the immediate producers in the transformation of their society. Absolutely nowhere Marx mentions the need of a special apparatus to substitute for the spontaneous self activity of the masses toward their own emancipation. Thus Marx stresses the need of “substituting the governmental institution volost' by an assembly of peasants elected by the communes themselves and serving as the economic and administrative organ of their interests” (1968: 1567). This is clearly in stark contrast with the systematic elimination of the producers’ organs of self rule almost from the start of the Bolshevik régime and culminating in the bloody liquidation of Kronstadt’s soviet democracy, “bustling, self-governing, egalitarian and highly politicized, the like of which had not been seen in Europe since the Paris commune (of 1871),” in the words of perhaps the most authoritative academic historian of the question (Getzler, 1983: 246). What would, a contrario, have broadly corresponded to Marx’s idea of a “Russian Revolution” was Russia’s popular uprising of February, 1917, initiated by the producers themselves without any party guidance, as an immense revolutionary mass movement in an open-ended, plural revolutionary process. The Bolshevik seizure of power, putting a brake on the process, destroyed this revolutionary democracy (see in particular, on the whole question, Anweiler 1958, Daniels 1967, Ferro 1967, 1980).
Marx, it is well known, places the “bourgeois mode of production” – that is, CMP – as the last of the “progressive epochs of the economic-social formation” before its replacement by the AMP. In which sense does Marx view (human) ‘progress’? More precisely put, could Marx be placed among the partisans of the idea of ‘progress,’ conceived basically as a cumulative and continuing improvement in the situation of the human beings thanks notably to the continuing advances in science and technology – a conception associated with Bacon, Descartes, Pascal, the Encyclopedists and the positivists of the nineteenth century – the very idea that is coming under increasing scrutiny today?
Far from answering this question in the positive we submit that Marx, on the contrary, ‘rethought’ progress more profoundly than almost any of those who reflected on progress. Marx firmly placed (human) progress in its historical context, never as an absolute, abstract category, never unilaterally. He warns against taking the “concept of progress in the commonplace (customary) abstract” sense (1953: 29). Progress was always considered by him as a contradictory movement, simultaneously positive and negative. Indeed, most of the criticisms of progress made today could be shown to apply to the pre-Marxian unilateral idea of progress. As a matter of fact, the all-round misdeeds of the capitalist progress were already emphasized by Marx, and in a more penetrating way compared to most of the modern critics of progress. But unlike these critics whose ideas on progress are also equally unilateral as the ideas of their opponents, Marx clearly saw the profoundly contradictory character of progress under capital.
Given the extraction of unpaid surplus labor as the common basis of all hitherto existing social formations (at least beginning with a certain period), Marx considers the capitalist social formation superior to the earlier social formations precisely because with its specific mode of extracting surplus labor from the immediate producers, capital – unlike any earlier mode of production - contributes to the universal development of the productive powers of labor, a basic condition for building the new society. This is achieved of course at a tremendous cost to society undergoing “a long and painful history of development” (1987: 110). This tendency of capital toward universal development of the productive powers of labor, unconstrained by any particular limit, Marx calls the “positive side” of capital only in comparison with the pre-capitalist modes of production or as opposed to the earlier modes of production the “human development in which had only a limited and local character” (1953: 313; 1988: 107). However, Marx underlines, more than any other critic of capital, the antagonistic character of this “positive side” of the capitalist progress.
Marx’s position on progress follows from his rejection of the “dogmatic distinction between the good and the bad” in favor of the “dialectical movement” which consists of the necessary “coexistence of two contradictory sides and their fusion into a new category”(1965: 81). We mentioned already in the opening section of this paper how Marx highlights the devastating misdeeds of capital necessarily co-existing with its “positive side” (as compared with the pre-capitalist modes of production). Thus, approvingly citing a passage from Richard Jones where the latter, speaking precisely of “progress” under modern society as certainly “not the most desirable state of things” (as regards the relation between the laborers and the “accumulated stock”) but which nevertheless has to be viewed as “constituting a stage in the march of industry which has hitherto marked the progress of advancing nations,” Marx interprets Jones as asserting, on the one hand, that CMP constitutes an “immense progress as opposed to all the earlier forms when one considers the productive powers of social labor,” while underlining, on the other hand, the “antagonistic form” of this progress which contains also the “necessity of its downfall” (1962: 425).
The very principle of production for production’s sake, the recognition of wealth for its own sake as supreme virtue, leading to the universal development of the productive powers of social labor which marks the “positive side” of the “modern world,” also shows, at the same time, the other side of progress, its backward and inferior character in the “modern world” as compared with the “ancient world,” whatever the different types of narrowness which otherwise mark the latter. Thus the idea of the ancients that the human being is the aim of production, not production the aim of the human being appears “very lofty against the modern world.” Compared with the form of “complete emptiness” which the “full elaboration of the human essence (des menschlichen Innern)” assumes in the modern world (the “bourgeois economy”), the “childlike ancient world appears superior” (1953: 387). In his comments on Morgan, referring to the early period of human evolution, Marx contrasts the absence of passion for possession in the early humans with possession being “such a commanding force in the human mind now” (in Krader 1974: 128; emphasis in the text. This expression appears in English.) Again, in the first draft of his letter to Zassulitch Marx asserts that “one should not be afraid of the word ‘archaic’,” that the “vitality of the primitive communities was incomparably greater” not only compared to the Semitic, Greek, Roman, but “even more so compared to the modern capitalist societies,” and adds that some bourgeois writers “infatuated (épris) with the capitalist system and aiming to praise this system and show its superiority are incapable of understanding (this)” (Marx 1968: 1568).
Years earlier Marx had written sarcastically the following: “Antipatros, a Greek poet of Cicero’s time, greeted the discovery of the watermill as the liberator (Befreierin) of the female slaves and the builder of the golden age. Oh those pagans! They, as the learned Bastiat and, before him, still more gifted MacCulloch have discovered, understood nothing of political economy and Christianity. Among other, things. they did not grasp that the machine is the most tested means for prolonging the working day. These pagans excused the slavery of one as the means towards the full human development of another. But they lacked the specific Christian charity of preaching the slavery of the masses for turning the crude or half educated upstarts into ‘eminent spinners,’ ‘extensive sausage makers’ and ‘influential shoe black dealers’” (1987: 396-97; words under single quotation marks appear in English in the text).
Marx’s view of progress under capital as eminently contradictory (antagonistic) also clearly comes out in his observations on the two great classical economists – Ricardo and Sismondi – regarding their respective point of view on the development of productive powers of labor under the CMP. Ricardo, who considered the capitalist production as the absolute form of production and who insisted on the creation of wealth for the sake of wealth, production for the sake of production which has no barriers and which encounters no contradiction, showed a “profound understanding of the positive nature of capital.” Sismondi, in his turn, “profoundly grasped” capital’s “limitedness” (Borniertheit), its “negative unilaterality” with his “profound sentiment that capitalist production is contradictory” and that the contradictions grow with the growth of the productive powers of labor. Ricardo understood more the universal tendency of capital, Sismondi more its limitedness. Whereas Ricardo’s viewpoint was “revolutionary” in relation to the old society, Sismondi’s was “reactionary” in relation to the capitalist society (1953: 314; 1962: 48, 50; emphasis ours).
It would be completely wrong to depict Marx – as some ecologists often do – as a productionist par excellence, a high priest of production for production’s sake. Everybody knows the Communist Manifesto’s ‘compliments’ to the bourgeoisie for their material achievements, the immense development of the productive powers of labor. We also earlier referred to the great importance Marx attaches to the growth of these powers as a condition of human emancipation. Indeed, Marx considers Ricardo’s insistence on the need for unlimited production without any regard for individuals as “just” and considers Ricardo’s critics in this regard as “reactionaries.” However, we should be careful to note that when, in this connection, Marx refers to Ricardo’s position of “equating the proletariat with machines or beasts of burden or a commodity,” and goes so far as to say that this point of view is “not mean of Ricardo” and that this is “stoic, scientific, objective,” Marx is doing this, as he makes clear, because “from his (Ricardo’s) point of view ‘production’ is enhanced this way,” because the proletarians are “merely machines or beasts of burden or they are really simple commodities in bourgeois production.” In other words, “Ricardo’s ruthlessness (Rücksichtslosigkeit) was not only scientifically honest, but also scientifically necessary for his point of view,” inasmuch as Ricardo, “rightly for his time,” considering the “capitalist production as the most advantageous for creating wealth” gave a scientifically honest representation of the bourgeois reality (1959: 106, 107, 108; emphasis in Marx’s statement is ours). Of course this praise for Ricardo goes hand in hand with Marx’s severe critique of Ricardo for the latter’s “unilaterality,” his denial of the contradictory character of the CMP, taken by him as the “absolute form of production.”
Thus, far from advancing the productionist principle as his own, Marx is highlighting the principle as reflecting the reality of capital’s ceaseless striving for producing and appropriating riches, mediated by the unlimited development of the productive powers of labor. Of course, Marx emphasizes that the development of the productive powers of labor ultimately signifies the “development of wealth of human nature as an end in itself” (1959:107; emphasis in the text). CMP shows its “civilising side” only to the extent that, compared with the preceding modes of production it is this mode which contributes most to this process. At the same time, as Marx never fails to emphasize this process, following from the very nature of capital, cannot but be inherently antagonistic, cannot but have profoundly destructive dimensions. For Marx, the “negative or the contradictory character of capitalist production (is that) this production is indifferent and in opposition to the producers. The producer (is) a simple means of production, the material wealth is the end in itself. Therefore the development of this material wealth (is) in opposition to and at the cost of the human individual” (1988: 107; emphasis ours). However, as long as capital continues, we cannot have one without the other. In general, given a society divided in classes, “if there is no antagonism, there is no progress.” This is the “law that civilisation has followed till our times. Till now the productive forces have developed thanks to the antagonistic regime of classes” (Marx 1965: 35-36; our emphasis).
While Marx praises Sismondi for his profound analysis of capital’s contradiction (which Ricardo could not understand), Marx also reproaches Sismondi for trying to eliminate these contradictions by setting “moral and legal limits” to capital “from outside,” which, as “external and artificial barriers” capital necessarily throws overboard (1953: 314) (How astonishingly modern this sounds!). Indeed, the critics of capital’s tendency toward unlimited development of the human productive powers fail to realise that though this development is effected “at first at the cost of the majority of human individuals and even of the entire classes,” it “ends up by breaking through this antagonism and coincides with the development of the singular individuals,” that the “higher development of the individuality is brought only through a historical process in which the individuals are sacrificed” (1959: 107: emphasis ours). This catastrophic situation – the destruction of the majority as a cost of ‘progress’ – Marx certainly does not posit as a universal law valid for all times. This is valid only during what Marx famously calls the “pre-history of human society.” Marx puts this very clearly in almost identical terms in two texts: “It is in fact only at the greatest waste of individual development that the development of general men is secured in the epochs of history which preludes to a socialist constitution of mankind” (1976: 327; 1992: 124-25; the whole sentence appears in English almost identically in the two manuscripts; emphasis ours).
Let us conclude. It is the old society itself which contradictorily creates the conditions of its own negation together with the conditions of building a society of free and associated producers. Two basic material conditions in this regard are an immense development of productive powers of labor and the development of labor as social labor. The CMP alone, among all the hitherto existing modes of production, creates these conditions. Even though socialism could arise in an essentially non-capitalist society, given some form of communal ownership in the means of production not already undermined from within, the process would prove unviable unless helped by the material acquisitions of the CMP from outside. Such help is difficult to conceive in the absence of a victorious proletarian revolution in capitalist countries.
However, the creation of the material conditions in question – commonly called material progress – under capital is necessarily bought at a tremendous cost to human beings including their surroundings, given the specific nature of capital. Capital cannot create the conditions of its own negation and those for building the new society except by devouring, à la Timur, myriads of human souls. Many have stressed unilaterally the regressive or negative progress under capital just as many have stressed equally unilaterally its positive side. Marx ‘rethought’ progress more profoundly and more clearly than perhaps anyone else by underlining the non-separability of these contradictory aspects belonging to the same process of capitalist development. You cannot simply have only the ‘good’ side and not the ‘bad’ side of progress under this tremendously antagonistic social formation. In fact the negative side itself proves to be positive by generating as necessarily as it generates the bad side – massive resistance and struggle by capital’s victims to uproot the basic cause itself. As Marx emphasizes in the French version of Capital, “in history, as in nature, putrefaction is the laboratory of life” (1965: 995; not reproduced in the German version).
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