Socialism Lost: The hopes of the Marxist movement of the past
Extracts from a text by H. Canne-Mejer
The certitude of the coming of communism
Marx never actually gave a description of communist society. He simply demonstrated that production organized on the basis of private property would become an unbearable burden to the vast majority of the population, so that they would put the means of production in common and eliminate exploitation due to social classes. To Marx, describing the future society would be falling into utopianism. According to him, a new society would emerge from the bowels of the old because of the actions of the real forces governing social labor. Marx noted that private ownership of the means of production developed a process of collective work by gathering together thousands and thousands of workers. These workers would then become the gravediggers of the private ownership of the means of production because while misery, oppression, slavery, degradation and exploitation increased, the revolt of the working class, unified and organized by the process of work itself, would also increase.1
“The centralization of the means of production and its social character has reached a point where they are incompatible with the capitalist envelope. This envelope will burst. The last hour of private property has sounded”.2 According to Marx the capitalist mode of production produces its own negation “with the inevitability of a law of nature”.3
This formulation of Marx with its allusion to the “inevitability of the laws of nature” caused a lot of misunderstanding.
It led many marxists to a mechanistic interference of social development. They believed in an automatic collapse of the capitalist system, either because of crises, or because of the decline in the profit rate or because of a lack of markets to realize surplus value. In a time of collapse, the working class would simply take over the means of production for themselves. It would be enough for the working class to observe what Marx called “the inevitable and increasingly visible decomposition....”4 of the system. The changes that the intellectual capacities of the working class would have to undergo during a continuous struggle to make it capable of politically and economically dominating social life seem superfluous in this approach.
But this conception of a definitive collapse is in contradiction with Marx’s method of thought. For him, this ‘inevitability’ is not a necessity outside of mankind, an imminent necessity which happens despite men in the sense that certain bourgeois thinkers, for example, often speak about the immanent development of the idea as the motor force of the world. For Marx, inevitability is imposed by men themselves as a result of their experience of social life. Marx was convinced that workers must constantly and violently resist the oppressive tendencies of capitalism and that this struggle carries on until they have defeated capitalism. Thus the ‘inevitability’ Marx talked about flowed from the natural necessity to struggle against capitalism.
Marxism as social psychology
Marx not only developed a theory which identified the material motor forces of the capitalist system, he also gave a theory of social psychology which predicted changes in the ideas, the will, the feelings and the actions of workers. The concentrated pressures of capitalist domination would be counteracted by organized struggle where solidarity and the spirit of sacrifice would be forged and the working class would form a solid unity of purpose, thought and action. The development of the individuality of a worker would be possible only as a part of an active and larger whole, as a part of his organization of struggle. The idea of right and wrong in social life would be redefined in accord with the necessities of this struggle. These new ideas, which could be called ‘ethical values’, would in turn serve as a motor force for new struggles. Each struggle would become an ethical value and these new ethical values would lead to new struggles. The new ethic would be both mother and daughter of the struggle.
The birth of the new society
Marx founded his certitude in the coming of a society without exploitation or classes in the certitude of a fierce struggle against capitalism. Through this struggle the new society would emerge from the bowels of the old. This struggle would be carried out by means of unions improving working conditions and the socialist parties developing class consciousness. On the practical level, to begin this process, there had to be a struggle for the improvement of the bourgeois parliamentary system (universal suffrage) and a struggle for social reforms.
Marx did not expect great practical successes from the parliamentary and union struggle. For him, the movement of wages was a prime function of the accumulation of capital. In a period of prosperity, the economy developed a growing need for labor, and the unions could obtain higher wages. But if wages rose to a point where production would cease to be profitable, accumulation would decrease with its concomitants of unemployment, ‘overpopulation’ and decline in wages. Subsequently, the profit base would grow again5. “Thus the increase in the price of labor not only remains restricted within limits which do not touch the foundations of capital, but these limits also provide the certitude of an extension on a greater scale.”6. For Marx, the meaning of class struggle was to be found above all in the development of the intellectual characteristics which would lead to the fall of capitalism.
Marx thought that unions by themselves could never defeat capitalism as long as the capitalist class held the state. The cardinal point in the political struggle must be looked for in the conquest of state power, either via parliament (Marx considered this possible for Britain and Holland) or revolutionary methods. But after the Paris Commune he was convinced that the state had to be destroyed not conquered. In any case, the task of the revolutionary government would not be to ‘establish’ communism, for example by statification of the means of production (although the nationalization of some sectors was not excluded). Marx did not prescribe what revolutionaries should do in the case of revolution. He thought that developments should be decided by the revolutionary forces at work in society. “When a genuine revolution breaks out”, he said, “we will see the conditions appear at that time (no doubt not idyllic ones) that will allow the most urgent immediate measures to be realized”.7
Many marxists of this period held the opinion that the task of a revolutionary government was basically not to hinder in any way the struggle of the workers against the capitalists. Its duty was in fact to extend this struggle. Unions would thus have a free rein to arrange social life as they wished. Capitalists would be expropriated not via nationalizations but because profits would not be paid. Thus capital would lose all value and at the same time the management of social life would fall into the hands of the association of free and equal producers. On the one hand the birth of the new society within the old is linked to the flowering of political consciousness which leads to political power in one form or another. On the other hand, it is linked to the process of development of the forces fighting against the capitalists and, at the same time, preparing and building the new instruments of social organization.
As an illustration of the above, we can quote a historical fact cited by the well-known marxist, A.Pannekoek. In 1911 there was a strike in Germany and the strikers tried to prevent strikebreakers from coming in. The bourgeois press called this action ‘terrorism’. The courts intervened and tried to charge some strikers with kidnapping. According to the accusation, the strikers forced the strikebreakers to follow them before the strike committee where they were cross-questioned as though they were before their judges. After a warning, they were released. But when they went before ‘official justice’, the strikebreakers declared that there was no question of kidnapping.
They followed the strikers of their own free will. The judge was astonished and said, “So you admit that this organization which is hostile to you is such a competent authority that you dare not disobey the strikers’ order to follow them?”
For Pannekoek in 1911 this anecdote was an example of the way workers’ organizations would function later as independent bodies opposed to the old organs of the state. It would be enough to break the power of the state and then autonomous workers’ organizations would flourish.
What Marx expected from the development of capitalism has, generally, come about in reality. But his predictions about class struggle have up to now proved false. The concentration of capital and the centralization of economic (and political) life has been accomplished. The class of wage earners became preponderant. Thousands of workers were grouped in factories, millions of them were organized into unions. Economic crises kept coming faster and faster until in 1939 they showed their greatest destructive power. The First and then the Second World War, the consequences of capitalist competition were responsible for the death of millions of workers and brought European production to its knees. Although these predictions of the old marxists came true, we cannot say as much for the prediction about the pauperization of the laboring classes, at least if we look at the question from the angle of consumption and social security. The quantity and diversity of articles of consumption have increased over the years. Social security dealing with unemployment, disablement, sickness, old age, etc, has become a meaningful support for existence. The reduction in hours of work, the introduction of vacations, the radio, the cinema and TV as well as the possibility of travel have provided leisure activities that the old marxists could not have dreamed of.
But this increase in the standard of living and this greater security are not the only reasons why workers’ perspective for a society without classes and exploitation has disappeared. The reason lies in the way this improvement was obtained. If this improvement had been gained over the years by mass struggles of workers faced with fierce resistance from the capitalists, the process of developing the new mental characteristics mentioned above would have come about. The certitude of communism, its inevitability, was to be found in the need for a permanent, fierce struggle to realize the force of labor at the level of the value of labor, with as a psychological consequence, the will to realize communism. The workers’ conceptions of solidarity and a solid class discipline, the expression of new social values, of a new moral consciousness, all of this was linked to an active struggle of the workers themselves, as had been the case in Marx’s time.
Herein lies Marx’s mistake. He underestimated the consequences of the prodigious increase in productivity which opened the way to a rise in the standard of living. Especially after the First World War, the character of class struggle changed. Collaboration between capital and labor through parliaments and unions became possible on the basis of the increased productivity of labor and provided an answer; to the situation without the masses being forced to intervene. The violent struggle of the masses themselves has not been absolutely necessary and it follows that the predictions of a social-psychological nature were not realized.
Mental and manual labor
Before ending this section, we would like to say that the increase in the standard of living is not contrary to the law of the value of labor power formulated by Marx. At first sight this increase, epitomized in radios, cinema, television, possibilities for travel, etc, seems to contradict the law. But this is only appearance. This law says that the value of labor is determined by the cost of reproducing labor power including reproducing the next generation. In the old days, these costs were limited to the cost of miserable housing, clothing and food. The tavern and the Church took care of distraction anal relaxation there was. Today, reproduction demands much more and this is because of the change in the nature of work.
Machines are responsible for this. As long as work was done with uncomplicated machines or none at all, work had mostly a physical, manual aspect. Muscles were what counted; intellectual effort or nervous energy played a secondary role. Thus, the costs of reproducing labor power were limited to restoring physical capacities and to the physical education of children. With the widespread development of mechanized work, of more and more complicated machines, intellectual effort, a constant attention span, led to a change in the nature; of work (among drivers, railway men, in clothes factories, an assembly lines, in offices, etc). Instead of physical labor exhausting only the body, both mind and body were now exhausted. This led to a shortening of the working day and the growth of entertainment like cinema, radios, vacations, etc. In other words: mental and physical exhaustion led to an increase in the value of labor which was expressed in an increase in the cost of reproducing of labor. The rise in the standard of living far from being in contradiction to the law of the value of labor power is its confirmation.
But it certain that, today, the working class has not managed to realize the new value of its labor power despite the so-called power of the unions and parliamentary socialist parties. In relation to the pace of economic life, there has been a regression which is not expressed in consumer goods but in general stress and nervous disorders. That is not what Marx expected.
1 Capital 1, ch 24.
2 See note 1
4 Marx, Letter to Domela Nienwenhuis 22.2.1880. p.317, Ed Institut Marx-Engels-Lenine.
5 Capital 1 ch 23 no. 1
6 Capital 1 ch 23 no. 2
7 See note (4)