The Transformation of Social Relations

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How Revolutionaries saw the question at the end of the 19th Century

In the last article in this series we showed that, contrary to the doubt raised by many self-professed "communists", the fundamental aim of the socialist parties of the late 19th century was indeed socialism - a society without commodity relations, classes, or a state. In this sequel we will examine how the authentic socialists of that time envisaged the way that the future communist society would tackle some of mankind's most pressing social problems: in this case, the relationship between man and woman and between humankind and the nature from which it has sprung. Here, once again in defending the communists of the Second International, we offer a more general defence of marxism against some its more recent "critics", above all the petty bourgeois radicalism that lies at the origins of feminism and ecologism, which have now become fully-fledged instruments of the dominant ideology.

Bebel and the "woman question ", or Marxism against feminism

We have already mentioned that the enormous popularity of Bebel's Woman and Socialism lay to a great extent in the fact that this work took the "woman question" as a point of embarkation for a theoretical journey towards a socialist society, whose geography was to be described in some detail. It was primarily as a guide to this socialist landscape that the book had such a powerful impact on the contemporary workers' movement. But this does not mean that the question of women's oppression was merely a convenient hook or artifice. On the contrary, it was a real and growing concern of the proletarian movement of that period: it is no accident that Bebel's book was more or less coterminous with Engels' Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State (see the article in this series in International Review no. 81).

It will be necessary to emphasis this point, because for certain crude versions of feminism - particularly the kind that has flowered among the radical intelligentsia in the USA - marxism itself is just another patriarchal ideology, an invention of those "Dead White Males" who have nothing to say about the oppression of women. The most thoroughgoing of these feminist-feminists will even argue that marxism can be dismissed instantly because Marx himself was a Victorian Husband and Father who secretly sired an illegitimate son on his housekeeper. We will not waste any time here refuting the latter argument since it amply reveals its own banality. But the idea that marxism has nothing to say on the "woman question" does need to be dealt with, not least because it has been leant some weight by certain economistic and mechanical interpretations of marxism itself.

We have placed the term "woman question" in inverted commas up till now not because this question does not exist for marxism, but because it can only be posed as a problem for humanity, as the problem of the relationship between men and women, and not as a question apart. From the very beginning of his work as a communist, legitimately inspired by Fourier's insights on this matter, Marx posed the question as follows: "The immediate, natural and necessary relation of human being to human being is also the relation of man to woman. In this natural species relationship man's relation to nature is directly his relation to man, and his relation to man is directly his relation to nature, to his own natural function. Thus, in this relation is sensuously revealed, reduced to an observable fact, the extent to which human nature has become nature for man and to which nature has become human nature for him. From this relationship man's whole level of development can be assessed. It follows from the character of this relationship how far man had become, and has understood himself as, a species being, a human being" (Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, "Private Property and Labour").

Here, the man-woman relationship is placed in its fundamental natural and historical framework. The passage was written against those misconceived notions of communism which argued for (or accused communists of arguing for) a "community of women", the total subordination of women to male lust. On the contrary, a really human life could only be attained when relations between men and women were free of all taint of domination and oppression - and this was only possible in a communist society.

This theme was constantly reiterated throughout the subsequent evolution of rnarxist thought. From the Communist Manifesto's denunciation of the hypocritical bourgeois cant about the eternal values of the family - values which capitalist exploitation was itself constantly undermining - to the historical analysis of the transformation of family structures in different social systems contained in Engels' Origins of the Family, marxism had sought to explain not only that the particular oppression of women was a reality, but also to locate its material and social origins in order to point the way to its supercession (see International Review no. 81). In the period of the Second International, these concerns were taken up by the likes of Eleanor Marx, Klara Zetkin, Alexandra Kollontai and Lenin. Opposed to bourgeois feminism which, like its latter day incarnations, aimed to dissolve class antagonisms into the gaseous concept of "sisterhood", the Socialist parties of this period also recognised the need for a particular effort to draw proletarian women, who were often cut off from productive and associated labour, into the struggle for the social revolution.

In tins context, Bebel's Woman and Socialism was a definite landmark in the marxist approach to the problem of women's oppression. The following first-hand account illustrates graphically the impact the book had in challenging the rigidities of the sexual division of labour in the "Victorian" age - rigidities which were also present and operational in the workers' movement itself: "Although I was not a Social democrat I had friends who belonged to the party. Through them I got the precious work. I read it nights through. It was my own fate and that of thousands of my sisters. Neither in the family nor in public life had I ever heard of all the pain the woman must endure. One ignored her life. Bebel's book courageously broke with the old secretiveness. I read the book not once but ten times. Because everything was so new, it took considerable effort to come to grips with Bebel's views. I had to break with so many things that I had previously regarded as correct" (Ottilie Baader, cited in Vogel, Marxism and the Oppression of Women, Pluto Press 1983, p 97).

Baader went on to join the party, which is of seminal importance: by laying bare the real origins of their oppression, Bebel's book had the effect of bringing proletarian women (and men) into the struggle of their class, the struggle for socialism. The immense impact the book had in its day can be measured by the number of editions it went through: 50 between 1879 and 1910, including a number of revisions and translations.

In its more developed editions, the book is divided into three parts - woman in the past, in the present and in the future, thereby conveying the essential strength of the marxist method: its capacity to situate all the questions it examines in a broad historical framework which also points the way to the future resolution of existing conflicts and contradictions.

The first part, "Woman in the past" does not add a great deal to what Engels put forward in his Origins of the Family. In fact, it was the publication of Engels' work which led Bebel to revise his first version, which had rather tended towards the idea that women had been "equally" oppressed in all previous societies. Engels, following Morgan, had demonstrated that this oppression had developed in a qualitative manner with the emergence of private property and class divisions. Thus Bebel's revised edition was able to show the link between the rise of the patriarchal family and that of private property: "With the dissolution of the old gentile organisation, the influence and position of women sank rapidly. The mother-right vanished; the father-right stepped into its shoes. Man now became a private property holder: he had an interest in children, whom he could look upon as legitimate and whom he made the heirs of his property: hence he forced upon woman the command of abstinence from intercourse with other men" (Bebel, Schocken paperback edition, 1971, p28).

The most important parts of the book are the next two sections: the third, as we have seen (see International Review no. 84) because it broadened out into a general vista of the future socialist society; the second because, on the basis of extensive research, it aimed to prove concretely how the existing bourgeois society, for all its pretensions about freedom and equality, ensured the perpetuation of woman's subordination. Bebel demonstrated this not only with regard to the immediately political sphere - women were denied the vote even in the majority of the" democratic" countries of the day, let alone in Junker-dominated Germany - but also in the social sphere, in particular the sphere of marriage, where woman was subordinate to the man in all matters - financial, legal, and sexual. This inequality applied to all classes but struck the proletarian wife with added force, since apart from all the pressures of poverty she also frequently suffered the dual obligation of daily wage labour and the unending demands of domestic work and childrearing. Bebel's detailed depiction of how the combined stresses of wage and domestic labour ruthlessly undermined the possibility of harmonious relationships between men and women has a remarkably contemporary feel, even in the age of the so-called "Liberated Woman" and of the "New Man".

Bebel also shows that if "marriage presents one side of the sexual life of the capitalist or bourgeois world, prostitution presents the other. Marriage is the obverse, prostitution the reverse of the medal" (p146). Bebel angrily denounces this society's hypocritical attitude to prostitution; not only because bourgeois marriage, in which the wife - above all in the upper classes - is virtually bought and owned by the husband, is itself akin to a legalised form of prostitution, but also because the majority of prostitutes are proletarian women forced "downwards" out of their class by the economic constraints of capitalism, by poverty and unemployment. And not only this: the respectable bourgeois society, which brings women to this state in the first place, unfailingly punishes the prostitute and protects the "client", especially if he is from the upper reaches of that society. Particularly odious were the police "hygiene" checks on prostitutes which not only humiliated the women under examination but had no worth whatever in halting the spread of venereal diseases.

Between marriage and prostitution, bourgeois society was completely unable to provide human beings with the bases of sexual fulfilment. No doubt some of Bebel's pronouncements on sexual behaviour reflect the prejudices of his day, but their underlying dynamic is definitely towards the future. Anticipating Freud, he argued forcefully that the repression of the sexual drive leads to neurosis: "It is a commandment of the human being to itself - a commandment that it must obey if it wishes to develop normally and in health - that it neglect the exercise of no member of its body, deny gratification to no natural impulse. The laws of the physical development of man must be studied and observed, the same as those of mental development. The mental activity of the human being is the expression of the physiological composition of its organs. The complete health of the former is intimately connected with the health of the latter. A disturbance of the one inevitably has a disturbing effect on the other. Nor do the so-called animal desires take lower rank than the so-called mental ones. This holds good for man as for woman" (p80). Freud, of course was to take such insights onto a much deeper level1. But the particular strength of marxism is that, on the basis of such scientific observations of human needs, it is able to show that a truly healthy human being can only exist in a healthy society, and that the real cure for neurosis lies in the social rather than the purely individual domain.

In the more directly "economic" sphere, Bebel shows that, for all the reforms achieved by the workers' movement, for all its gains in eliminating the early excesses of female and child labour, women workers continue to suffer particular hardships: precariousness of employment, lower wages, employment in unhealthy and dangerous trades. Like Engels, Bebel recognised that the extension and industrialisation of female labour was playing a progressive role in freeing women from the sterility and isolation of domestic chores, creating the bases for proletarian unity in the class struggle. But he also showed the negative side of this process - the particularly ruthless exploitation of female labour and the increasing difficulty faced by proletarian families in the care and education of their children.

Evidently, for Bebel, for Engels, in short for marxism, there is indeed a "woman question" and capitalism is unable to provide the answer to it. The seriousness with which the question was taken up by these marxists amply demonstrates the hollowness of the crude feminist idea that marxism has nothing to say on such matters. But there are much more sophisticated versions of feminism. The "socialist feminists", whose main mission was to draw the "women's liberation movement" of the 60s into the orbit of established leftism are perfectly capable of "recognising the marxist contribution" to the problem of women's liberation - only to "prove" the existence of gaps, flaws or errors in the classical marxist approach, so requiring the subtle admixture of feminism to arrive at a "total critique".

The criticisms such "socialist feminists" make of Bebel's work are fairly indicative of this approach. In Women's Estate, Juliet Mitchell, having acknowledged that Bebel had advanced Marx and Engels' understanding of woman's role by pointing out how her maternal function had served to place her in a position of dependency, then complains that "Bebel too was unable to do more than state that sexual equality was impossible without socialism. His vision of the future was a vague reverie, quite disconnected from his description of the past. The absence of a strategic concern forced him into voluntarist optimism divorced from reality" (p80, Penguin Books, 1971).

A similar charge is levelled in Lise Vogel's Marxism and the Oppression of Women, certainly one of the most sophisticated attempts to find a "marxist" justification for feminism: Bebel's vision of the future "reflects a utopian socialist outlook reminiscent of Fourier and the other early nineteenth-century socialists" (p101); his strategic approach is contradictory, so that Bebel could not "despite his best socialist intentions, sufficiently specify the relationship between the liberation of women in the communist future and the struggle for equality in the capitalist present" (p103). Not only is there no connection between today and tomorrow: even his view of tomorrow is flawed, since "socialism is pictured largely in terms of the redistribution of goods and services already available in capitalist society to independent individuals, rather than in terms of the wholesale reorganisation of production and social relations" (p102). This idea that "even socialism" doesn't go far enough in the direction of women's liberation is a common refrain amongst feminists: Mitchell for example, cites Engels on the necessity for society to collectivise domestic labour (through the provision of communal facilities for cooking, cleaning, childcare and so on) and concludes that both Marx and Engels had an "overly economistic stress" (opcit) to what is fundamentally a question of social relationships and their transformation.

We shall have something to say about the problem of "utopianism" during the period of the Second International. But let us make it perfectly clear that such a charge is inadmissible from the feminists. If a problem of utopianism emerges in the workers' movement of that time, it is because of the difficulties of seeing the link between the immediate defensive working class movement and the future communist goal. But for the feminists this connection is not provided at all by the movement of the proletariat, by a class movement, but by an "autonomous women's movement" which claims to cut across class divisions and provide the missing strategic link between the fight against women's inequality today and the construction of new social relations in the future. This is the most important "secret ingredient" which all the socialist feminists want to add to marxism. Unfortunately, it's an ingredient which can only spoil the dish.

The working class movement of the 19th century did not and could not take exactly the same form as it has in the 20th. Operating within a capitalist society which could still grant meaningful reforms, it was legitimate for the social democratic parties to put forward a minimum programme containing demands for economic, legal, and political improvements for women workers, including the granting of suffrage. It's true that the social democratic movement was not always precise in its distinction between immediate aims and final goals. There are ambiguous formulations in both The Origins of the Family and Woman and Socialism in this respect, and a well-read "socialist feminist" like Vogel does not hesitate to point these out. But fundamentally, the marxists of the day understood that the real significance of the fight for reforms was that it united and strengthened the working class and so schooled it in the historic struggle for a new society. It was for this reason above all that the proletarian movement always opposed bourgeois feminism: not merely because it limited its aims to the horizons of present-day society, but because far from aiding the unification of the working class, it sharpened divisions within it and led it off its own class terrain altogether.

This is truer than ever in the period of capitalism's decay, where bourgeois reform movements can no longer have any progressive content at all. In this period, the minimum programme no longer applies. The only real "strategic" question is how to forge the unity of the class movement against all the institutions of capitalist society in order to prepare for the latter's overthrow. Sexual divisions within the class, like all others (racial, religious, etc), evidently weaken the movement and have to be fought at every level. but they can only be fought with the methods of the class struggle - through unity in struggle and organisation. The feminists' demand for an autonomous women's movement can be seen as a direct assault on such methods; like black nationalism and other so-called "movements of the oppressed", it has become an instrument of capitalist society for exacerbating the divisions within the proletariat.

The perspective of a separate women's movement, seen as the only guarantee of a "nonsexist" future, actually turns its back on the future and ends up fixating on the most immediate and particular "women's" issues such as maternity and childcare - which in fact only have a real future when posed in class terms (for example, the demands of the Polish workers in 1980). It is thus fundamentally reformist. The same goes for that other "radical" feminist critique of marxism: that the marxist emphasis on the need to transfer childcare and domestic chores of all kinds from the individual to the communal sphere is "overly economist".

Throughout this series we have attacked the idea that communism is anything but the total transformation of social relationships. The feminist claim that communism does not go far enough, does not look beyond politics and economics to the true overcoming of alienation, is not merely false: it is a direct adjunct to the leftist programme of state capitalism, since the feminists unfailingly point to the existing "socialist" models (China, Cuba, formerly the USSR, etc) to prove that economic and political changes aren't enough without a conscious struggle for women's liberation. In short: the feminists set themselves up as a pressure group for state capitalism, its "anti-sexist" conscience. The symbiotic relationship between feminism and the "male dominated" capitalist left is proof enough of this.

For marxism, however, just as the political seizure of power by the working class is only the first step towards the inauguration of a communist society, so the destruction of commodity relations and the collectivisation of production and consumption, in short the "economic" content of the revolution, merely provides the material base for the creation of qualitatively new relations between human beings.

In his "Commentaries on the 1844 Manuscripts", Bordiga eloquently explains why this must be the case in a society that has completed the alienation of human relations, not least sexual relations, by subordinating them all to the domination of the market. "The relationship between the sexes in bourgeois society obliges the woman, starting from a passive position, to make an economic calculation each time she accedes to love. The male makes this calculation in an active fashion by making a balance sheet of a sum allotted against a need satisfied. Thus in bourgeois society not only are all needs expressed in money - as in the male's need for love - but, for the woman, the need for money kills the need for love" (Bordiga et la passion du communisme, Spartacus, 1972, p156). There can be no supercession of this alienation without the abolition of the commodity economy and the material insecurity which goes with it (an insecurity felt first and foremost by the female). But this also requires the elimination of all the social-economic structures that reflect and reproduce the market relationship, in particular the atomised family household which has become a barrier to the real fulfilment of love between the sexes: "In communism without money, love will, as a need, have the same weight for both sexes and the act which consecrates it will realise the social formula that the other's human need is my human need, to the extent that the need of one sex is realised as the need of the other. This cannot be proposed simply as a moral relationship founded on a certain physical connection, because the passage to a higher form of society is effected in the economic domain: the care of children is no longer just the concern of the two parents but of the community" (ibid).

Against this materialist programme for the genuine humanisation of sexual relationships, what do the feminists, with their claim that marxism doesn't go far enough, have to offer?By negating the question of revolution - of the absolute necessity for the political and economic overturn of capital - feminism "at best" can offer no more than a "moral relationship founded on a certain physical connection", in short, moralistic sermons against sexist attitudes or utopian experiments in new relationships inside the prison of bourgeois society. The true poverty of the feminist critique is probably best summed up in the atrocities of "political correctness", where the obsession to change words has exhausted all passion to change the world. Feminism thus reveals itself as yet another obstacle to the development of a truly radical consciousness and action.

The landscape of the future

a) False radicalism in green

Feminism is not alone in its "discovery" of marxism's failure to get to the root of things. Its close cousin, the "ecology" movement, makes the same claim. We have already summarised the "green" critique of marxism in a previous article in this Review ("It's capitalism that is poisoning the Earth", International Review no. 63): put simply, the argument is that marxism, like capitalism, is just another ideology of growth, expressing a "productionist" view of man and an alienated view of nature.

This trick is usually performed by assimilating marxism with Stalinism: the hideous state of the environment in the former "Communist" countries is cited as the true legacy of Marx and Engels. There are, however, more sophisticated versions of this trick. Disenchanted councilists, Bordigists and others who are now flirting with primitivism and other greeneries know that the Stalinist regimes were capitalist, not communist; and they are also aware of the profound insights into the relationship between man and nature contained in the writings of Marx, in particular the 1844 Manuscripts. Such currents therefore concentrate their fire on the period of the Second International, a period in which Marx's dialectical vision was allegedly buried without trace, to be replaced by a mechanistic approach which passively worshipped bourgeois science and technology and placed the abstract "development of the productive forces" above any real programme of human liberation. The intellectual snobs of Aufheben specialise in elaborating this view, particularly in their long series attacking the notion of capitalist decadence. Kautsky and Lenin are often cited as the chief offenders, but Engels himself does not escape the whip.

b) The universal dialectic

This is not the place to deal with these arguments in detail, particularly since we want to focus, in this article, not on philosophical issues but on what the socialists of the Second International said about socialism, about the society they were fighting for. Nevertheless, a few observations about "philosophy", about the general world view of marxism, would not go amiss, since it does connect to the way in which the workers' movement dealt with the more concrete question of the natural environment in a socialist society.

In previous articles in this series, we have already showed how Marx viewed the question, both in his early and his more mature work (see International Review nos. 70,71 and 75). In the dialectical view, man is a part of nature, not some" being squatting outside the world". Nature, as Marx put it, was man's body and he could as well live without it as a head without a body. But man was not "just" another animal, a passive product of nature. He was a uniquely active, creative being who alone among the animals was capable of transforming the world around him in accordance with his needs and desires.

It is true that tile dialectical view was not always clearly understood by Marx's followers, and that as various bourgeois ideologies infested the parties of the Second International, these viruses also expressed themselves on the "philosophical" terrain. In a period in which the bourgeoisie was marching triumphantly forward, the notion that science and technology, in themselves, contained the answer to all of humanity's problems became an adjunct to the development of reformist and revisionist theories within the movement. But even the more "orthodox" marxists were not immune: some of Kautsky's work, for example tends to reduce human history to a purely natural scientific process in which the victory of socialism becomes virtually automatic. Similarly, Pannekoek has shown that some of Lenin's philosophical conceptions reflected the mechanical materialism of the bourgeoisie. But, as the comrades of the Gauche Communiste de France pointed out in their series on Pannekoek's Lenin as Philosopher (see International Review nos. 25, 27,28, and 30), even if Pannekoek made some pertinent criticisms of Lenin's ideas about the relationship between human consciousness and the natural world, his basic method was flawed, because he himself made a mechanical link between Lenin's philosophical errors and the class nature of Bolshevism. The same applies to the Second International in general. Those who argue that it was a bourgeois movement because it was influenced by the dominant ideology have no understanding of the workers' movement in general, of its unceasing combat against the penetration of the ideas of the ruling class within its ranks, nor the particular conditions in which the parties of the Second International themselves waged this struggle. The social democratic parties were proletarian in spite of the bourgeois and petty bourgeois influences which affected them to a greater or lesser extent at different moments in their history.

We have already shown, in the previous article in this series, that Engels was certainly the foremost exponent and defender of the proletarian vision of socialism during the early years of social democracy, and that this vision was defended by other comrades against the deviations that evolved later on in this period. The same applies to the more abstract question of man's relationship to nature. From the early 1870s to the end of his life Engels was working on The Dialectics of Nature, in which he tried to encapsulate the marxist approach to this question. The essential thesis in this wide-ranging, but incomplete work, is that both the natural world and the world of human thought follow a dialectical movement. Far from placing humanity outside or above nature, Engels affirms that "at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like something standing outside nature - but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature,and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly" ("The part played by labour in the transition from ape to man", which is part of The Dialectics of Nature).

However, for a whole strand of academic "marxists" (the so-called Western Marxists, who are the real mentors of Aufheben and the like), The Dialectics of Nature is the theoretical source of all evil, the scientific justification for the mechanical materialism and reformism of the Second International. In a previous article in this series (see International Review no. 81) we have already given some elements of a response to these charges; that of reformism in particular was dealt with at more length in the article on the centenary of Engel's death in International Review no. 83 (see also the Communist Workers Organisation's rebuttal of the notion of a split between Marx and Engels in Revolutionary Perspectives no. 1, series 3). But restricting ourselves to the terrain of "philosophy", it is worth noting that for "Western Marxists" like Alfred Schmidt, Engels' argument that the "cosmic" and the "human" dialectic are at root one and the same is a species not merely of mechanical materialism but even of "pantheism" and "mysticism" (cf The Concept of Nature in Marx, 1962). Schmidt here was following the example of Lukacs, who also argued that the dialectic was restricted to the "realms of history and society" and criticised the fact that "Engels -following Hegel's mistaken lead - extended the method to apply also to nature" (note 6, p 24, in History and Class Consciousness, Merlin Press, 1971).

In fact this charge of "mysticism" is groundless. It is true, and Engels himself recognises this in The Dialectics of Nature, that some pre-scientific world outlooks, such as Buddhism, had developed genuine insights into the dialectical movement both in nature and in the human psyche. Hegel himself had been strongly influenced by such approaches. But while all these systems remained mystical in the sense that they could not go beyond a passive vision of the unity between man and nature. Engels' view, the view of the proletariat, is active and creative. Man is a product of the cosmic movement. But, as the above passage from "The part played by labour..." emphasises, he has the capacity - and this moreover as a species and not merely as an illuminated individual - to master the laws of this movement and so to use them to change and direct it.

At this level, Lukacs and the "Western Marxists" are wrong to counter-pose Engels to Marx, since both agreed with Hegel that the dialectical principle "holds good alike in history and natural science" (Marx, letter to Engels, cited in Revolutionary Perspectives, opcit). The inconsistency of Lukacs' criticism can moreover be seen in the fact that in this same work he approvingly cites two of Hegel's key sayings: that "truth must be understood and expressed not merely as substance but also as subject", and that "truth is not to treat objects as alien" (pp39 and 204 of History and Class Consciousness, quoting the preface from The Phenomenology of Mind and Werke, XII, p207). What Lukacs fails to see is that these sayings clarify the real relationship between man and nature. Whereas both pantheistic mysticism and mechanical materialism tend to see human consciousness as the passive reflection of the natural world, Marx and Engels grasped that it is in fact - above all, in its realised form as the self-awareness of social humanity - the dynamic subject of the natural movement. Such a viewpoint presages the communist future where man will no longer treat either the natural or the social world as a series of alien, hostile objects. We can only add that the developments of the natural sciences since Engels' day - particularly in the field of quantum physics - have added considerable weight to the notion of a dialectic of nature.

Civilisation, but not as we know it

As good idealists, the greens often explain capitalism's propensity for destroying the natural environment as the logical outcome of the bourgeoisie's alienated view of nature; for marxists, the latter is fundamentally the product of the capitalist mode of production itself. Thus the battle to "save the planet" from the disastrous consequences of this civilisation is situated first and foremost not at the level of philosophy, but at the level of politics, and demands a practical programme for the reorganisation of society. And even if, in the 19th century, the destruction of the environment had not yet reached the same catastrophic proportions that it has in the later part of the 20th, the marxist movement recognised from its inception that the communist revolution involved a very radical reshaping of the human and natural landscape to make up for the damage inflicted on both by the unrestrained onslaught of capitalist accumulation. From the Communist Manifesto to the later writings of Engels and Bebel's Woman and Socialism, this recognition was summarised in the formula: abolition of the separation between town and country. Engels, whose first major work, The Condition of the Working Class in England, had railed against the poisonous living conditions that capitalist industry and housing imposed on the proletariat, returned to this theme in Anti-Duhring: " ... abolition of the antithesis between town and country is not merely possible. It has become a direct necessity of industrial production itself, just as it has become a necessity of agricultural production and, besides, of public health. The present poisoning of the air, water and land can be put an end to only by the fusion of town and country; and only such fusion will change the situation of the masses now languishing in the towns, and enable their excrement to be used for the production of plants instead of for the production of disease. It is true that in the huge towns civilisation has bequeathed us a heritage which it will take much time and trouble to get rid of. But it must and will be got rid of, however protracted a process it may be. Whatever destiny may be in store for the German Empire of the Prussian nation. Bismarck can go to his grave proudly aware that the desire of his heart is sure to be fulfilled: the great towns will perish" (Anti-Duhring,Part III, third part: "Production", p 351-2 of 1975 Moscow edition).

The last remark, of course was not intended to give comfort to the reactionaries who dreamed of a return to the "simplicities of village life", or rather, the certainties of feudal exploitation, nor should it to their latter-day "green" incarnations whose model of an ecologically harmonious society is founded on the Proudhonist fantasy of local communes linked by exchange relations. Engels makes it clear that the dismantling of the giant cities is only possible on the basis of a globally planned community: "Only a society which makes it possible for its productive forces to dovetail harmoniously into each other on the basis of one single vast plan can allow industry to be distributed over the whole country in the way best adapted to its own development".

Furthermore, this "centralised decentralisation" is only possible because "capitalist industry has already made itself relatively independent of the local limitations arising from the location of sources of the raw materials it needs. Society liberated from the barriers of capitalist production can go much further still. By generating a race of producers with an all-round training who understand the scientific basis of industrial production as a whole, and each of whom has the practical experience in a whole series of branches of production from start to finish, this society will bring into being a new productive force which will abundantly compensate for the labour required to transport raw materials and fuel from great distances".

Thus, the elimination of the great cities is not the end of civilisation, unless we identify the latter with the division of society into classes. If marxism recognised that the populations of the future would flow away from the old urban centres, this would be no retreat into "rural cretinism", into the unchanging isolation and philistinism of peasant life. As Bebel puts it: "So soon as - due to the complete remodelling and equipment of the means of communication and transportation, and of the productive establishments, etc etc - the city populations will be enabled to transfer to the country all their acquired habits of culture, to find there their museums, theatres, concert halls, reading rooms. libraries etc - just so soon will the migration thither set in. All will then enjoy all the comforts of large cities without their disadvantages. The population will be housed more comfortably and sanitarily. The rural population will join in manufacturing. The manufacturing population in agricultural pursuits - a change of occupation enjoyed today by but few and then often under conditions of excessive exertion" (Woman and Socialism, p316).

Without putting into question the understanding that this new society will be based on the most advanced technical developments. Bebel also anticipates that "Each community will, in a way, constitute a zone of culture; it will, to a large extent, itself raise its necessaries of life. Horticulture, perhaps the most agreeable of all practical occupations, will then reach fullest bloom. The cultivation of vegetables. fruit trees and bushes of all nature, ornamental flowers and shrubs - all over an inexhaustible field for human activity in a field, moreover, whose nature excludes machinery almost wholly" (ibid, p317).

Thus Bebel looks forward to a society which is highly productive but which produces at a human pace: "The nerve-racking noise, crowding and rushing of our large cities with their thousands of vehicles of all sorts ceases substantially: society assumes an aspect of greater repose" (ibid, p 300).

Here Bebel's portrait of the future is very similar to that of William Morris, who also used the image of the garden and who gave his futuristic novel News from Nowhere the alternative title "An Epoch of Rest". In his characteristically straight-forward style, Morris explained that all the "disadvantages" of the modem cities, their filth, their crazy rush and hideous appearance, were the direct product of capitalist accumulation, and could only be eliminated by eliminating capital: "Again. the aggregation of the population having served its purpose of giving people opportunities of inter-communication and of making the workers feel their solidarity, will also come to an end; and the huge manufacturing districts will be broken up, and nature heal the horrible scars that man's heedless greed and stupid terror have made for it will no longer be a dire necessity that cotton cloth should be made a fraction of a farthing cheaper this year than last" ("The society of the future", Political Writings of William Morris. p 196).

We could add that, as an artist, Morris had a particularly sharp concern to overcome the sheer ugliness of the capitalist environment and to remould it according to the canons of artistic creativity. This is how he posed the question in a speech on "Art under Plutocracy": "And first I must ask you to extend the word art beyond those matters which are consciously works of art, to take in not only painting and sculpture, and architecture, but the shapes and colours of all household goods, nay even the arrangement of the fields for tillage and pasture, the management of towns and of our highways of all kinds; in a word, to extend it to the aspect of all the externals of our life. For I must ask you to believe that every one of the things that goes to make up the surroundings among which we live must be either beautiful or ugly, either elevating or degrading to us, either a torment and burden to the maker of it to make, or a pleasure and a solace to him. How does it fare therefore with our external surroundings in these days? What kind of an account shall we be able to give to those who come after us of our dealings with the earth, which our forefathers handed down to us still beautiful, in spite of all the thousands of years of strife and carelessness and selfishness?" (Political Writings of William Morris, p 58).

Here Morris poses the question in the only way a marxist can pose it: from the standpoint of communism, of the communist future: the degrading external appearance of bourgeois civilisation can only be judged with the greatest severity by a world in which every aspect of production, from the smallest household good to the design and laying out of the physical landscape, is carried out, as Marx put it in the 1844 Manuscripts, "in accordance with the law of beauty". In this vision, the associated producers have become the associated artists, creating a physical environment that answers to mankind's profound need for beauty and harmony.

c) The Stalinist perversion

We have mentioned that the ecologists' "critique" of marxism is based on the false identification between Stalinism and communism. Stalinism embodies the capitalist destruction of nature and justifies it with marxist rhetoric. But Stalinism has never been able to leave the basics of marxist theory untouched; it began by revising the marxist conception of internationalism and it has gone on to attack every other fundamental principle of the proletariat, more or less explicitly. It is the same with the demand for abolishing the distinction between town and country. The Stalinist hack who introduces the 1971 Moscow edition of The Society of the Future, an extract from Bebel's Woman and Socialism, explains how Bebel (and thus Marx and Engels) have been proved wrong on this point: "The experience of socialist construction also does not confirm Bebel's statement that with the abolition of the antithesis between town and country, the population will move from the big towns to the country. The abolition of the antithesis between town and country implies that ultimately there will be neither town nor country in the modern meaning of the word. At the same time it is to be expected that big towns, even though their nature will change in developed communist society, will preserve their importance as historically evolved cultural centres".

The "experience of socialist construction" in the Stalinist regimes merely confirms that it is the tendency of bourgeois civilisation, above all in its epoch of decline, to herd more and more human beings into cities which have swelled beyond all human proportions, far outstripping the worst nightmares of the founders of marxist theory, who already thought the cities of their day were bad enough. The Stalinists have turned marxism on its head here as everywhere else: thus Romania's despot Ceaucescu proclaimed that the bulldozing of ancient villages and their replacement by gigantic "workers' tower blocks" was the practical abolition of the antithesis between town and country. The most pertinent answer to these perversions is provided by Bordiga in his "Space against Cement", written in the early 1950s. This text is a passionate denunciation of the sardine-like conditions imposed on the majority of humanity by capitalist urbanism, and a clear reaffirmation of the original marxist position on this question: "When, after the forcible crushing of this ever-more obscene dictatorship, it will be possible to subordinate every solution and every plan to the amelioration of the conditions of living labouraathen the brutal verticalism of the cement monsters will be made ridiculous and will be suppressed, and in the immense expanses of horizontal space, once the giant cities have been deflated, the strength and intelligence of the human animal will progressively tend to render uniform the density of life and labour over the inhabitable parts of the earth; and these forces will henceforth be in harmony, and no longer ferocious enemies as they are in the deformed civilisation of today, where they are only brought together by the spectre of servitude and hunger" (published in Espece Humaine et Croute Terrestre, Petite Bibilotheque Payot, p168).

This truly radical transformation of the environment is more than ever necessary in today's period of capitalist decomposition, where the megacities have not only become more and more swollen and uninhabitable, but have become the nodal points of capitalism's growing threat to the whole of planetary life. The communist programme is, here as in all other domains, the best refutation of Stalinism. And it is also a slap in the face to the pseudo-radicalism of the "greens", which can never go beyond a perpetual dance between two false solutions: on the one hand, the nostalgic dream of a backward flight into the past, which finds its most logical expression in the apocalypses of the "green anarchists" and primitivists, whose "return to nature" can only be founded on the extermination of the majority of mankind; and, on the other hand, the small-scale tinkering "reforms" and experiments of ecology's more respectable wing (tactically supported by the primitivists in any case), who seek purely piecemeal solutions to all the particular problems of modem city life - noise, stress, pollution, overcrowding, traffic jams and the rest. But if human beings are dominated by the machines, transport systems and buildings that they themselves have erected, it is because they are trapped in a society where dead labour dominates living labour at every turn. Only when mankind regains control over its own productive activity can it create an environment compatible with its needs; but the premise for this is the forcible overthrow of the "increasingly obscene dictatorship" of capitalism - in short, the proletarian revolution.


In the next articles in this series, we will examine how the late 19th century revolutionaries foresaw the most crucial of all social transformations - the transformation of "useless toil" into "useful work", in other words the practical overcoming of alienated labour. We will then return to the charge that has been levelled at these visions of socialism - that they represent a relapse into pre-marxist utopianism. This in tum will lead us onto the issue that was to become the major preoccupation of the revolutionary movement in the first decade of this century: not so much the problem of the ultimate goal of the movement, but of the means to attain it.


1 In this passage by Bebel, the relationship between physiology and mental states is presented in a somewhat mechanical manner. Freud took the exploration of neurosis onto a new level by showing that the human being cannot be understood as a closed mental/physical unit, but extends outwards into the field of social reality. But it should be remembered that Freud himself started with a highly mechanical model of the psyche and only later developed towards a more social, and a more dialectical view, of man's mental development.