The Early Days of a Better Nation

Sunday, June 06, 2004

'What else, gentlemen, would it be but communism, "possible" communism?'
There is no middle path between these two, for a man must either be a free and true commonwealth's man, or a monarchical tyrannical royalist.
Gerard Winstanley, The Law of Freedom in a Platform, 1651.

From space you can see no borders. We, and previous generations, have built up a productive capacity that is more than sufficient to feed, clothe, shelter, educate and amuse everyone on the planet. The only barrier to its use for that purpose is that it exists as capital. The only basis for its continuing existence as capital is our continuing acceptance of capitalist and state property rights. From below, at the sharp end, in the worker's-eye view, these look as obsolete and obscene as property rights in people. Without those rights, capital would just be machinery, that we all together already operate and improve upon every day, every minute, collectively and globally. The only way in which these rights can be permanently abolished is consciously, politically, collectively and globally, at one fell swoop. Not on the same day all over the world of course, but in the space of a few years, in one historical moment. And why not? Slavery and feudalism were in the end abolished, with a stroke of the pen followed if necessary by a stroke of the sword.

Why should we not think, then, of the abolition of capitalism? We can't reform it out of existence. Long experience, as well as theory and common sense, tell us this. Neither 'socialist' governments nor 'communist' regimes have ever brought society a day nearer socialism or communism. There are many reasons why not, but the basic reason is simple. Production for exchange can't be gradually reformed into production directly for use. Nor, in a world where almost everything is produced as part of a global division of labour, can it be abolished locally in one community, or one country, or one continent. It's all or nothing.

Closely related to that reason is another. A society of conscious and voluntary co-operation can't be established unconsciously or unwillingly. It can't be imposed from above or from outside or from behind our backs. It must be established consciously and willingly - nay, intelligently and enthusiastically. Many will agree, if pressed, that the world co-operative commonwealth can be thus established eventually, but not now. In the meantime, they want something else: a society called socialism which retains wages, price, and profit but keeps them in the hands of the state - and the state, they hope, in the hands of the workers, which all too often means the hands of the workers' party, which all too often means in the hands of the correct leaders of the workers' party. They want that, or they want steps in that direction. The co-operative commonwealth itself is, they insist, for the distant future.

Why not now? We don't need to wait for capitalism to increase productive capacity to the point where the co-operative commonwealth is possible, because it's already done so, and it’s already the greatest barrier to the use and expansion of the productive capacity that exists. Why then should we vote for reforming governments to manage it, or 'progressive' regimes to develop it further? Especially when these reforming governments and these 'progressive' regimes waste so much of production, and so many of us, in war and slump.

We have to make up our minds, once and for all, that we want rid of this system, for good and all. Let those who want to keep it reform it and improve it and expand it. It's their job while it lasts. The job of those who want to end it is to give such people not a vote, not a gun, not a penny, not a person, not an inch, not an ounce of support. No political contender who is not a wage slavery abolitionist, nobody who advocates in word and deed anything less than, and anything other than, the speedy end of this system, and the consequent emancipation of the working class, deserves another minute of our time. To everyone who claims to want such an end eventually, but advocates something other or something less in the meantime, we can say we've lived already a long time in that meantime, and we're still no nearer.

All it would take to do away with this system and establish the world co-operative commonwealth is for most people in the world to agree to do it. It's no news that most people don't. The number who understand and want the commonwealth is tiny. The only revolutionary action worth the name is working to increase that number. Nothing more is needed, and nothing less will do.
When the worker recognises the products as being his own and and condemns the separation of the conditions of his realisation as an intolerable imposition, it will be an enormous progress in consciousness, itself the product of the method of production based on capital, and a death-knell of capital in the same way that once the slaves became aware that they were persons, that they did not need to be the property of others, the continued existence of slavery could only vegetate on as an artificial thing, and could not continue to be the basis of production.
Karl Marx, Grundrisse, translated by David McLellan, 1971.

So much for the impossibilist case, as I understand it. I don't, however, agree with it. One reason why I don't is that while it's quite easy to write an eloquent rant about non-market socialism, it's not at all easy to write a credible science fiction story, or even a scenario, of how it could come about and how it would work if it did. I've tried, and not succeeded. (The Cassini Division wasn't the attempt, by the way.)

I'm open to persuasion and example on this point, but until then I'll stick to 'hard left libertarianism' and co-operative market socialism with the possibility of further co-operation developing as and when, and close with one of Marx's more moderate suggestions:

If co-operative production is not to remain a sham and a snare; if it is to supersede the capitalist system; if united co-operative societies are to regulate national production upon a common plan, thus taking it under their own control, and putting an end to the constant anarchy and periodical convulsions which are the fatality of capitalist production - what else, gentlemen, would it be but communism, 'possible' communism?
Karl Marx, The Civil War in France, 1871.


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