From Primitive Communism to Utopian Socialism

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Since its foundation, but above all since the momentous events that have brought about the collapse of the eastern imperialist bloc and of the USSR itself, the ICC has published numerous articles attacking the lie that the Stalinist regimes were an example of ‘communism', and consequently that the death of Stalinism means the death of communism.

We have demonstrated the enormity of the lie by contrasting the reality of Stalinism with the real aims and principles of communism. Communism is international and internationalist and aims at a world without nation states; Stalinism is ferociously nationalist and imperialist. Communism means the abolition of wage labor and all forms of exploitation; Stalinism imposes the most savage levels of exploitation precisely through the wage labor system; communism means a society without a state, a classless society in which human beings freely control their own social powers; Stalinism means the overwhelming presence of a totalitarian state, a militaristic and hierarchical discipline imposed on the majority by a privileged minority of bureaucrats. And so on[1]. In sum, Stalinism is nothing but a brutal, aberrant expression of decadent capitalism.

We have also shown how this campaign of lies has been used to disorient and confuse the only social force capable of constructing a genuine communist society: the working class. In the east, the working class has lived directly under the shadow of the Stalinist lie, and this has had the disastrous effect of filling the vast majority of them with hatred for everything to do with marxism, communism, and the proletarian revolution of 1917. As a result, with the downfall of the Stalinist prison-house, they have fallen into the clutches of the most reactionary ideologies - nationalism, racism, religion, and the pernicious belief that salvation lies in following the ways of the ‘democratic west'. In the west itself, this campaign has above all been used to block the maturation of consciousness that was going on in the working class throughout the 80s. The essential trick has been to deprive the working class of any perspective for its combats. Much of the triumphant blather about the victory of capitalism, the ‘new order' of peace and harmony following the end of the ‘Cold War' may already be ringing very hollow in the wake of the catastrophic events of the last two years (Gulf war, Yugoslavia, famine, recession ... ). But what really matters for capitalism is that the negative side of this message gets through: that the end of communism 'means the end of any hope of changing the present order of things; that revolutions inevitably end in creating something even worse than what you started off with; that there's nothing to do but submit to the dog-eat-dog ideology of decomposing capitalism. In this bourgeois philosophy of despair, not only communism, but class struggle itself is an outmoded, discredited utopia.

The strength of bourgeois ideology lies mainly in the fact that the bourgeoisie monopolizes the means of mass dissemination, endlessly repeats the same lies and allows no real alternative views to be aired. In this sense Goebbels is indeed the ‘theoretician' of bourgeois propaganda: a lie repeated often enough becomes a truth, and the bigger the lie the better it works. And the lie that Stalinism equals communism certainly is a big lie - on the face of it, a stupid, obvious, despicable lie at that.

So evident is the lie to anyone who stops to think for a' few minutes that the bourgeoisie can't afford to leave it unprotected. In all kinds of political discourse, people who are extremely confused about the Stalinist regimes, who refer to them as communist and contrast them with capitalism, will in the next breath admit ‘of course, that's not real communism, that's not the idea that Karl Marx had about communism'. This contradiction is potentially dangerous for the ruling class, and that's why it needs to nip such things in the bud before they can lead to any real clarifications.

It does this in various ways. Faced with the more politically conscious elements, it offers sophisticated ‘marxist' alternatives like Trotskyism, which specialize in denouncing the ‘counter revolutionary role of Stalinism' - only to argue simultaneously that there are still ‘conquests of the workers' to be defended in the Stalinist regimes, such as the state ownership of the means of production, which for some obscure reason is supposed to mean that these regimes are ‘in transition' towards authentic communism. In other words, the same lie about the identity between Stalinism and communism, but in a ‘revolutionary' wrapping.

But we live in a world where the majority of workers want little or nothing to do with politics (in no small measure this is itself a result of the Stalinist nightmare, which has for decades served to turn workers in disgust from any kind of political activity). Bourgeois ideology, if it is to buttress its great lie about Stalinism, needs something a little more mass produced, a lot less overtly political than Trotskyism or its variants. And what it offers most of all is a benign cliche which can be relied on to entrap even, and especially, those who have seen that Stalinism is not communism: we refer to that oft-repeated refrain - ‘it's a nice idea, but it could  never work' .

The first aim of the series of articles we are beginning here is to reaffirm the marxist position that communism is not a nice idea. As Marx put it in The German Ideology, "Communism is not for us a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself.

We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The condition of this movement result from premises now in existence".

Twenty five years later, Marx expressed the same thought in his reflections on the experience of the Paris Commune:

"The working class has no readymade utopias to introduce par decret du peuple. They know that in order to work out their own emancipation, and along with it that higher form to which present society is irresistibly tending by its own economical agencies, they will have to pass through long struggles, through a series of historic processes, trans- forming circumstances and men. They have no ideals to realize, but to set free the elements of the new society with which old collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant" (The Civil War in France).

Against the notion that communism is no more than a "readymade utopia" invented by Marx or other good souls, marxism insists that the tendency towards communism is already contained in this society. Just before the passage from the GI cited above, Marx outlines the "premises now in existence" for the communist transformation:

  • the development of the productive forces brought about by capital itself, without which there can be no abundance, no all-round satisfaction of human needs; without which, in other words, "want is merely made general, and with destitution the struggle for necessities and all the old filthy business would necessarily be reproduced";
  • the existence of a world market on the basis of this development, without which "communism could only exist as a local event", whereas "communism is only possible as the act of the dominant peoples ‘all at once' and simultaneously, which presupposes the universal development of productive forces and the world intercourse bound up with communism";
  • the creation of a great propertyless mass, the proletariat, which confronts this world market as an intolerable, alien power;
  • the growing contradiction between the capitalist system's capacity for producing wealth and the misery experienced by the proletariat.

In the passage from the Civil War in France, Marx strikes another note which is more than ever relevant today: the proletariat has merely to set free the potential contained in the "old collapsing bourgeois society". As we will develop elsewhere, communism here is revealed both as a possibility and a necessity: a possibility because it has created the productive capacities that can satisfy the material needs of humanity, and the social force; the proletariat, which has a direct and ‘selfish' interest in overturning capitalism and creating communism; and a necessity, because at a certain point in their development, these very productive forces revolt against the capitalist relations within which they previously developed and prospered, and inaugurate a period of catastrophe which threatens the very existence of society, of humanity itself.

In 1871 Marx was premature in declaring bourgeois society to be in state of collapse; today, in the last stages of decadent capitalism, the collapse is all around us, and the necessity for the communist revolution has never been greater.

Communism before the proletariat

Communism is the real movement, and the real movement is the movement of the proletariat. A movement which begins on the terrain of the defense of material interests against the encroachments of capital, but which is compelled to call into question and ultimately confront the very foundations of bourgeois society. A movement which becomes conscious of itself through its own practice, advances towards its goal by constant self-criticism. Communism is thus "scientific" (Engels); it is "critical communism" (Labriola). The main purpose of these articles will be to demonstrate precisely that, for the proletariat, communism is not a ready made utopia, a static idea, but an evolving, developing conception which has grown older and wiser both with the objective development of the productive forces and the subjective maturation of the proletariat through its· accumulated historical experience. We will therefore examine how the notion of communism and the means to achieve" gained in depth and in clarity through the work of Marx and Engels, through the contributions of the left wing of social democracy, through the reflections on the triumph and failure of the October revolution by the left communist fractions, . and so on. But communism is older than the proletariat: according to Marx, we can even say that "the entire movement of history is the act of genesis" of communism (Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts). To show that communism is more than an ideal, it is necessary to show that communism arises from the proletarian movement and thus predates Marx; but to understand what is specific to ‘modem', proletarian communism, it is also necessary to compare and contrast it with the forms of communism that predated the proletariat, and with the first immature forms of proletarian communism itself, which mark a process of transition between pre-proletarian communism and its modem, scientific form. As Labriola put it,

"Critical communism has never refused, and does not refuse, to welcome the rich and multiple ideological, ethical, psychological and pedagogical suggestions which can come from the knowledge and study of all forms of communism, from Phales the Calcedonian to Caber. What's more, it's through the study and knowledge of these forms that we can develop and establish an understanding of the separation of scientific socialism from all the rest" (In Memory of the Communist Manifesto, 1895).

Class society: a passing in the history of humanity

According to the conventional wisdom, communism can never work because it is ‘against human nature'. Competition, greed, the need to do better than the next man, the desire to accumulate wealth, the need for the state - these, we are told, are inherent in human nature, as basic as the need for food or the sexual drive. The slightest acquaintance with human history dispels this version of human nature.

For the longest part of its history, for hundreds of tho.~ L sands, perhaps millions of years, humanity lived in a classless society, formed by communities where the essentials of wealth were shared without the medium of exchange and money; a society organized not by kings, priests, nobles or a state machine but by the tribal assembly. This society is what marxists refer to as primitive communism.

This notion of primitive communism is profoundly dis- concerting for the bourgeoisie and its ideology, and so it does everything it can to deny it or minimize its significance. Aware that the marxist conception of primitive society was greatly influenced by the work of Lewis Henry Morgan on the Iroquois and other ‘American Indian' tribes, modem academic anthropologists pour scorn on Morgan's work by discovering this or that factual inconsistency in his findings, this or that secondary error, and thus call the whole of his contribution into question. Or, again lapsing into the most narrow- minded empiricism, they deny that it is possible to know anything at all about human prehistory from the study of surviving primitive peoples. Or they point to the many and various limitations and shortcomings of primitive societies in order to knock down a straw man: the idea that these societies were a kind of paradise free of suffering and alienation.

Marxism, however, does not idealize these societies. It is aware that they were a necessary result not of some innate human goodness but of the low development of the productive forces, which compelled the earliest human communities to adopt a ‘communist' structure simply in order to survive. The appropriation of surplus labor by a particular part of society would have meant the disappearance pure and simple of the other part. In these conditions, it was impossible to produce a sufficient surplus to nourish the existence of a privileged class. Marxism is aware that this communism was, as a result, a restrictive one which did not allow the full flowering of the human individual. That is why, having spoken about the "personal dignity, straightforwardness, strength of character and bravery" of the surviving primitive peoples, Engels in his seminal work The Origin of the Family, Private Property And the State added the qualification that in these communities "the tribe remained the boundary for man, in relation to himself as well as to outsiders: the tribe, the gens and their institutions were sacred and inviolable, a superior power, instituted by nature, to which the individual remained absolutely subject in feeling, thought and deed. Impressive as the people of this epoch may appear to us, they differ in no way from one another, they are still bound, as Marx says, to the umbilical cord of the primordial community."

This communism of small groups, often hostile to other tribal groupings; this communism in which the individual was dominated by the community; this communism of scarcity is very different from the more advanced communism of tomorrow, which will be the unification of the human species, the mutual realization of individual and society, and a communism of abundance. This is why marxism has nothing in common with the various ‘primitivist' ideologies which idealize the archaic condition of man and express a nostalgic yearning to go back to it[2].

Nevertheless, the very fact that these communities existed, and existed as a result of material necessity, provides further proof that communism is neither a mere ‘good idea' , nor something that could ‘never work'. This point was stressed by Rosa Luxemburg in her Introduction to Political Economy:

"Morgan has provided new and powerful support to scientific socialism. Whereas Marx and Engels, through their economic analysis of capitalism, demonstrated the inevitable passage of society, in the near future, to a world communist economy, and thus gave a solid scientific foundation to socialist aspirations, Morgan has to a certain extent emphatically underlined the work of Marx and Engels by demonstrating that democratic communist society, albeit in its primitive forms, has encompassed all the long past of human history before the present civilization. The noble tradition of the distant past thus extends its hand to the revolutionary aspirations of the future, the circle of knowledge is harmoniously completed, and in this perspective, the existing world of class rule and exploitation, which pretends to be the nec plus ultra of civilization, the supreme goal of universal history, is simply a miniscule, passing stage in the great forward movement of humanity".

Communism as the dream of the oppressed

Primitive communism was not static. It evolved through various stages, and finally, faced with irresolvable contradictions, dissolved and gave birth to the first class societies. But the inequities of class society in turn gave rise to myths and philosophies that expressed a more or less conscious desire to do away with class antagonisms and private property. Classical mythographers such as Hesiod and Ovid recounted the myth of the Golden Age when there was no distinction be- tween ‘mine' and ‘thine'; some of the later Greek philosophers ‘invented' perfect societies where all things were held in common. In these musings, the not-so-ancient memory of a real tribal community was fused together with far older myths about man's fall from a primordial paradise.

But communistic ideas always became more widespread and more popular, and gave rise to actual attempts to realize them in practice, during times of social crisis and of mass re- volt against the class system of the day. In the great Spartacus revolt against the decadent Roman Empire, the rebellious slaves made some desperate, short-lived attempts to set up communities based on brotherhood and equality; but the paradigmatic ‘communist' trend of this epoch was of course Christianity, which, as Engels and Luxemburg have pointed out, began as a revolt of the slaves and other classes crushed by the Roman system before it was adopted by the decadent Roman Empire and then became the official ideology of the emerging feudal order. The early Christian communities preached universal human brotherhood and tried to institute a thorough-going communism of possessions. But as Luxemburg argued in her text ‘Socialism and the Churches', this was precisely the limitation of Christian communism: it was not posited on the revolutionary expropriation of the ruling class and the communisation of production, like modem communism. It merely advocated that the rich be charitable and share out their goods with the poor; it was a doctrine of social pacifism and class collaboration that could easily be adapted to the needs of a ruling class. The immaturity of this vision of communism was a product of the immaturity of the productive forces. This applies both to the productive capacities of the time, because in a society dying from a crisis of underproduction those rebelling against it could envisage nothing better than a sharing out of poverty; and to the character of the exploited and oppressed classes who were the original motor force behind the Christian revolt. These were classes with no common objectives and no historical perspective. "There was absolutely no common road to emancipation for all these elements. For all of them paradise lay lost be- hind them; for the ruined free men it was the former polis, the town and the state at the same time, of which their forefathers had been free citizens; for the war-captive slaves the time of freedom; for the small peasants the abolished gentile social system and communal landownership." This is how Engels, in ‘On the history of early Christianity' (Die Neue Zeit, Vol 1, 1894-5), points to the essentially backward-looking, nostalgic vision of the Christian revolt. It is true that Christianity, in continuity with the Hebrew religion, had marked a step forward from the various pagan mythologies in that it embodied a rupture with the old cyclical visions of time and asserted that humanity was caught up in a forward- moving, historical drama. But the inbuilt limitations of the classes behind the revolt ensured that this history was still seen in mystified, messianic terms, and the future salvation it promised was an Eschaton, an absolute and final end beyond the borders of this world.

Broadly the same can be said of the numerous peasant revolts against feudalism, although the fiery Lollard preacher John Ball, one of the leaders of the great Peasants' Revolt in England in 1381, was reported to have said that "matters cannot go well in England until all things be held in common; when there shall be neither vassals nor lords ...": such demands take us a step beyond a mere communism of possessions towards a vision of all social wealth becoming common property (this may well be because the Lollards were already a forerunner of later movements characteristic of the emergence of capitalism). But in general the revolts of the peas- ants suffered the same fundamental limitations as the rebel- lions of the slaves. The famous motto of the 1381 revolt - "When Adam delved and Eve span, who then was the gentleman?" - had a marvelous poetic power, but it also summed up the limitations of peasant communism, which like the early Christian revolt was condemned. To look back to an idyllic past - to Eden itself, to the first Christians, to ‘true English freedom before the Norman yoke'[3] ... Or, if it did look forward, it looked with the eyes of the first Christians to an apocalyptic millennium that would be installed by Christ returning in his glory. The peasants were not the revolutionary class of feudal society, even if their revolts could help to undermine the foundations of feudal order and so pave the way for the emergence of capitalism. And since they themselves carried no project for the reorganization of society, they could only see salvation coming from the outside - from Jesus, from the ‘Good Kings' misadvised by treacherous counselors, from people's heroes like Robin Hood.

The fact that these communistic dreams could grip the masses shows that they corresponded to real material needs, in the same way that the dreams of the individual express deep if unfulfilled desires. But because the conditions of history could not permit their realization, they were condemned to be no more than dreams.

The first stirrings of the proletariat

"From its origin the bourgeoisie was saddled with its antithesis: capitalists cannot exist without wage workers, and in the same proportion as the medieval burgher of the guild developed into the modern bourgeois, the guild journeyman and the day-laborer, outside the guilds, developed into the proletarian. And although, upon the whole, the bourgeoisie, in their struggle with the nobility, could claim to represent at the same time the interests of the different working classes of the period, yet in every great bourgeois movement there were independent outbursts of that class which was the forerunner, more or less developed, of the modern proletariat. For example, at the time of the German Reformation and the Peasants' War, the Anabaptists and Thomas Munzer.' in the great English Revolution, the Levellers; in the great French Revolution, Babeuf" (Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific).

Munzer and the Kingdom of God

In The Peasant War in Germany, Engels elaborates his thesis about Munzer and the Anabaptists. He considered that they represented an embryonic proletarian current within a much more eclectic ‘plebeian-peasant' movement. The Anabaptists were still a Christian sect, but an extremely heretical one, and Munzer's ‘theological' teachings veered dangerously close to a form of atheism, in continuity with previous mystical trends in Germany and elsewhere (eg Meister Eckhart). On the social and political level, "his political program approached communism, and even on the eve of the February Revolution more than one present-day communist sect lacked as comprehensive a theoretical article as was ‘Munzer's' in the sixteenth century. This program, less a compilation of the demands of the plebeians of that day than a visionary anticipation of the conditions for the emancipation of the proletarian elements that had scarcely begun to develop among the plebeians - this program demanded the immediate establishment of the kingdom of God, the prophesied millennium, by restoring the Church to its original condition and abolishing all the institutions that conflicted with this allegedly early-Christian but , in fact, very novel church. By the kingdom of God Munzer understood a society in which there would be no class differences or private property and no state authority independent of or foreign to the members of society. All the existing authorities, in so far as they re- fused to submit and join the revolution, were to be over- thrown, all work and all property shared in common, and complete equality introduced. A union was to be established to implement all this, not only throughout Germany, but throughout Christendom. "

Needless to say, since this was only the dawn of bourgeois society itself, the material conditions for so radical a transformation were completely lacking. Subjectively this was reflected in the grip that messianic-religious conceptions still defined the ideology of this movement. On the objective side, the ineluctable approach of capital's domination twisted all of its radical communist demands into practical suggestions for the development of bourgeois society. This was demonstrated beyond a doubt when Munzer's party was catapulted into power in the city of Muhlhausen in March 1525:

"Munzer's position at the head of the ‘eternal council' of Muhlhausen was indeed much more precarious than that of any modern revolutionary agent. Not only the movement of his time, but the age was not ripe for the ideas of which he himself had only a faint notion. The class which he represented was in its birth throes. It was not yet capable of assuming leadership over, and transforming society. The social changes that his fancy evoked had little ground in the then existing conditions. What is more, these conditions were paving the way for a social system that was diametrically opposite to what he aspired to. Nevertheless, he was bound to his early sermon of Christian equality and evangelical com- munity of ownership, and was compelled at least to attempt its realization. Community of ownership, universal and equal labor, and abolition of all rights to exercise authority were proclaimed. But in reality Muhlhausen remained a republican imperial city with a somewhat democratized constitution, a senate elected by universal suffrage and controlled by a forum, and with a hastily improvised system of care for the poor. The social upheaval that so horrified its Protestant burgher contemporaries actually never transcended a feeble, unconscious and premature attempt to establish the bourgeois society of a later period" (ibid).

Winstanley and the True Commonwealth

The founders of marxism were not so well acquainted with the English bourgeois revolution as with the German reformation or the French revolution. This is a pity because as historians like Christopher Hill have shown, this revolution gave rise to a tremendous outburst of creative thought, to a dazzling profusion of audaciously radical parties, sects and movements. The Levellers to whom Engels refers were a heterogeneous movement rather than a formal party. Their moderate wing were no more than radical democrats who ardently defended the right of the individual to dispose of his property. But given the depth of the social mobilization that pushed the bourgeoisie's revolution forward, it inevitably gave birth to a left wing that concerned itself more and more with the needs of the propertyless masses and which took on a clearly communist character. This wing was represented by the ‘True Levellers' or Diggers, and their most coherent spokesman was Gerrard Winstanley.

In the writings of Winstanley, especially his later work, there is a much clearer move away from religious-messianic conceptions than Munzer could ever have made. His most important work, The Law of Freedom in Platform, represents, as its name implies, a definite shift onto the terrain of explicitly political discourse: the subsisting references to the Bible, particularly to the myth of the fall are essentially allegorical or symbolic in their function. Above all, for Winstanley, as opposed to the moderate Levellers, "there cannot be universal liberty till this universal community be established" (cited by Hill in his introduction to The Law of Freedom and other Writings, 1973 Penguin edition, p 49): political-constitutional rights that left the existing property relations untouched were a sham. And thus he outlines, in very great detail, his vision of a true commonwealth where all wage labor and buying and selling have been abolished, where education and science are promoted in place of religious obscurantism and a state church, and where the functions of the state have been reduced to a bare minimum. He even looked forward to the time when the entire "earth be- comes a common treasury again, as it must ... then this enmity of all lands will cease, and none shall dare to seek dominion over others", since "pleading for property and single interest divides the people of a land and the whole world into parties, and is the cause of all wars and bloodshed and contention everywhere" (cited by Hill in The World Turned Upside Down, p 139, 1984 Peregrine edition).

And yet, of course, what Engels says about Munzer remains the case with Winstanley: the new society emerging out of this great revolution was not the "universal community", but the society of capitalism. Winstanley's vision was a further step towards ‘modem' communism, but it remained entirely utopian. This was expressed above all in the inability of the True Levellers to see how the great transformation could come about. The Digger movement which appeared during the civil war restricted itself to attempts by small bands of poor and landless people to cultivate the wastes and commons. The Digger communities were to serve as a non- violent example to all the poor and dispossessed, but they were soon dispersed by the forces of Cromwellian order, and in any case their horizons did not really go beyond the time- honored assertion of ancient communal rights. Following the suppression of this movement, and of the Leveller current in general, Winstanley wrote the Law of Freedom in order to draw the lessons of the defeat. But it was a significant irony that while this work expressed the highpoint of communist theory at the time, it was dedicated to none other than Oliver Cromwell, who only three years before, in 1649, had crushed the Leveller revolt by force of arms in order to safeguard bourgeois property and order. Seeing no homogeneous force able to bring about the revolution from below, Winstanley was reduced to the vain hope of a revolution from above.

Babeuf and the Republic of the Equals

A very similar pattern appeared in the great French revolution: in the ebb tide of the movement there emerged an extreme left wing which expressed its dissatisfaction with the purely political freedoms allegedly enshrined in the new constitution, since they above all favored the freedom of capital to exploit the propertyless majority. The ‘Babeuvist' current expressed the efforts of the emerging urban proletariat, which had made so many sacrifices for the bourgeoisie I s revolution, to strike out in favor of its own class interests, and thus it ineluctably arrived at the demand for communism. In the Manifesto of the Equals it proclaimed the perspective of a new and final revolution: "The French Revolution is but the forerunner of another revolution, far more grand, far more solemn, and which will be the last ... ".

On the theoretical level, the Equals were a more mature expression of the communist impulse than the True Levellers of a century and a half before. Not only were they almost completely free of the old religious terminology, they also groped towards a materialist conception of history as the history of class struggle. Perhaps more significantly, they recognized the inevitability of armed insurrection against the power of the ruling class: the ‘Conspiracy of the Equals' in 1796 was the concretization of this understanding. Basing themselves on the experiences of direct democracy which had developed in the Paris sections and the ‘Commune' of 93, they also envisaged a revolutionary state that went beyond conventional parliamentarism by imposing the principle of revocability on its elected officials.

And yet, once again, the immaturity of the material conditions could not help but find their expression in the political immaturity of the Babeuvist ‘party'. Since the proletariat of Paris had not yet clearly emerged as a distinct force among the ‘sans culottes', the urban poor in general, the Babeuvists themselves were unclear about who the revolutionary subject could be: the Manifesto of the Equals was addressed not to the proletariat, but to the ‘People of France'. Lacking any clear vision of the revolutionary subject, the Babeuvist view of insurrection and revolutionary dictatorship was essentially elitist: a select few would seize power on behalf of the form- less masses, and would subsequently hold onto the power until these masses were truly able to .govern themselves (views of this kind were to persist in the workers' movement for some decades after the French revolution, above all in the Blanquist tendency which was organically descended from Babeuvism, particularly through the person of Buonarroti).

But the immaturity of Babeuvism was expressed not only in the means it advocated (which in any case ended in the total fiasco of the 1796 putsch), but also in the crudeness of its conception of communist society. In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts. Marx lambasted the heirs of Babeuf as expressions of this "crude and thoughtless communism"; which is "only the culmination of this envy and of this level- ling-down proceeding from the preconceived minimum ... How little this annulment of private property is really an appropriation is in fact proved by the abstract negation of the entire world of culture and civilization, the regression to the unnatural simplicity of the poor and undemanding man who has not only failed to go beyond private property, but has not even reached it" (from the chapter ‘Private Property and Communism'). Marx even went so far as to say that this crude communism would really be a continuation of capital- ism: "The community is only a community of labor, and of equality of wages paid out by communal capital - the com- munity as the universal capitalist."[4] Marx was quite justified in attacking Babeuf s heirs whose views were by now quite obsolete, but the original problem was an objective one. At the end of the 18th century France was still largely an agricultural society and the communists of the day could not easily have seen the possibility of a society of abundance. Hence their communism could only be "ascetic, denouncing all the pleasures of life, Spartan" (Engels, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific), a mere "leveling down proceeding from the preconceived minimum". It was another irony of history that it took the immense deprivations of the industrial revolution to awaken the exploited class to the possibility of a society in which sensuous enjoyment would replace Spartan self-denial.

The Inventors of Utopia

The retreat of the great revolutionary tide at the end of the 1790s, the incapacity of the proletariat to act as an independent political force, did not mean that the virus of communism had been eradicated. It took on a new form - that of the Utopian Socialists. The Utopians - Saint-Simon, Fourier, Owen and others - were far less insurrectionary, far less related to the revolutionary struggle of the masses than the Babeuvists had been. At first sight they could therefore look like a step backwards. It is true that they were the characteristic product of a period of reaction, and represented a flight away from the world of political combat. Nevertheless Marx
and Engels always recognized their debt to the Utopians, and considered them to have made. Significant advances over the ‘crude communism' of the Equals, above all in their criticisms of capitalist civilization and their elaboration of a possible communist alternative:

"These Socialist and Communist publications contain' also a critical element. They attack every principle of existing society. Hence they are full of the most valuable material for the enlightenment of the working class. The practical measures proposed in them - such as the abolition of the distinction between town and country, of the family, of the carrying on of industries for the account of private individuals, and of the wage system, the proclamation of social harmony, the conversion of the functions of the state into a mere superintendence of production, all these proposals point solely to the disappearance of class antagonisms which were, at that time, only just cropping ‘up, and which, in these publications, are recognized in their earliest and undejiite4 forms only" (Communist Manifesto, section on ‘Critical-Utopian Socialism and Communism').

In Socialism: Utopian and Scientific Engels goes into more detail about the specific contributions of the main Utopian thinkers: Saint-Simon is credited with recognizing the French revolution as a class war, and with foretelling the complete absorption of politics by economics, and thus the eventual abolition of the state. Fourier is presented as a brilliant critic and satirist of bourgeois hypocrisy, misery and alienation, and with having made masterly use of the dialectical method to uncover the principal stages of historical development. We might add that with Fourier in particular there is a definite rupture with the ascetic communism of the Equals, above all in his profound concern to replace alienated labor with joyful, creative activity. Engels' brief biography of Robert Owen focuses on his more practical, Anglo-Saxon search for an alternative to capitalist exploitation, whether in the ‘ideal' cotton mills at New Lanark or in his various experiments in cooperative and communal living. But Engels also recognizes Owen's bravery in breaking away from his own class and throwing in his lot with the proletariat; his later efforts to set up a grand trade union for all the workers of England marked a step beyond benevolent philanthropy in favor of participating in the proletariat's earliest attempts to find its own class identity and organization.

But in the final analysis, what applied to the earlier stirrings of proletarian communism applied in equal measure to the Utopians: the crudeness of their theories was the result of the crude conditions of capitalist production in which they emerged. Unable to see the social and economic contradictions that would ultimately lead to the downfall of capitalist exploitation, they could only envisage the new society coming about as the result of plans and inventions hatched in their own brains. Unable to recognize the revolutionary potential of the working class, they "consider themselves far superior to all class antagonisms. They want to improve the condition of every member of society even that of the most favored. Hence they habitually appeal to society at large, without distinction of class; nay, by preference, to the ruling class. For how can people, when once they understand their system, fail to see in. it the best possible plan of the best possible state of society. Hence, they reject all political and especially all revolutionary, action; they wish to attain their ends by peaceful means, and endeavor, by small experiments, necessarily doomed to failure, and by the force of example, to pave the way for the new social gospel" (Communist Manifesto, op cit).

Thus the Utopians ended up not only building castles in the air, but also preaching class collaboration and social pacifism. And what was understandable given the immaturity of the objective conditions in the first decades of the 19th century was no longer forgivable when the Communist Manifesto was being written. By this time, the descendants of Utopianism constituted a major obstacle to the development of the scientific communism embodied in the Marx-Engels fraction of the Communist League.

In the next article in this series we will examine the emergence and maturation of the marxist vision of communist society and of the road that leads to it. CDW.

[1] See for example the editorial to International Review 67, ‘It's not communism that's collapsing but the chaos of capitalism that's accelerating'; the article ‘Stalinism is the negation of communism' in World Revolution no. 148 and Revolution Internationale 205); and the Manifesto of the 9th Congress of the ICC: ‘Communist revolution or the destruction of humanity'.

[2] Today these ideologies are most often the characteristic expression of the decomposing petty bourgeoisie, in particular of anarchist currents disillusioned not only with the working class, but with the whole of history since the dawn if civilization, and seeking solace in a projecting the myth of the lost paradise onto the first human communities. Typical examples are the American paper The Fifth Estate and Freddy Perlman's book Against Leviathan. Against His-story. An irony often lost on these elements is that once you investigate the beliefs of the primitive peoples themselves, it be- comes clear that they too had their ‘lost paradise' buried in a far-past mythic age. If we take such myths to reflect an unresolved desire to transcend the boundaries of alienation, then it is obvious that primitive man also experienced a form of alienation, a conclusion consistent with the marxist view of these societies.

[3] The conservative nature of these revolts was reinforced by the fact that in all the class societies that preceded capitalism, vestiges of the old primordial communal bonds remained in existence to a greater or lesser extent. This meant that the revolts of the exploited classes were always heavily influenced by a desire to defend and preserve traditional communal rights that had been usurped by the extension of private property.

[4] In this critique of Babouvism, we can see that Marx already emphasized that capitalism was not just based on individual private property, since he talked about "collective capital". We can thus measure how far his conception of communism has nothing to do with the greatest lie of the 20th century, which tells us that state capitalism in the USSR was ‘communist' simply because the private bourgeoisie had been expropriated.


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