The innermost secret

Marx was critical of utopians who focused on the blueprint of a future society, but he did put forward conceptions of the alternative to capitalism, writes Mark Dickman.

Karl Marx

WHAT WILL socialism/communism be like?

Karl Marx, writing in The German Ideology, said, "Communism is for us not 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."

So for Marx, the future society was a "movement," rather than a "state of affairs"--and the Marxist tradition that followed him has largely sought to define the nature of that society in the study of the forces and material conditions of history, rather than in the utopias developed by philosophers.

Marx, for instance, writing notes on political economy that would be published as the Grundrisse, states: "[O]ur method indicates the points at which historical analysis must be introduced...These indications, together with the correct grasp of the present, then also offer the key to the understanding of the past...This correct approach, moreover, leads to points which indicate the transcendence of the present forms of production relations, the movement coming into being, thus foreshadowing the future."

Thus, Marxists typically describe socialism as a process: the class struggle of the working class for the democratic control of society. Once the working class has overthrown capitalism, the result will be what it decides democratically. Many would suggest that an additional principle will inform that decision-making: production for the needs of society, rather than for profit. Nevertheless, the nature of such a society will be the results arrived at democratically, which could assume any number of forms.

In apparent contrast to that tradition, Peter Hudis argues in his book Marx's Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism that "a coherent and vital concept of a new society is contained in the works of Marx." (p. 207). In examining those works, Hudis concludes, "Marx is not opposed to addressing the ultimate goal of a new society. What is at issue is how to go about doing so. Marx opposes any tendency to project a vision of a post-capitalist society that comes out of the theoretician's head, independent of the actual struggles of the proletariat." (p. 84).

Review: Books

Peter Hudis, Marx's Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism, Haymarket Books, Historical Materialism Book Series, 2013, 272 pages, $28.

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INFORMING MARX'S study of the actual struggles of the proletariat is historical materialism.

This building block of Marxism is a theory of human beings as both producers and the product of society. To satisfy their basic needs to survive, starting from birth, humans must act on their environment through cooperative labor. In so doing, they are further subject to environmental laws--for example, the availability of food, water and raw materials; the climate, the fertility of the soil.

The labor process is a universal condition, common to all of human history. Understanding the different components and stages of the labor process is the core of historical materialism, whose core concepts are Marx called the forces, relations and modes of production.

The forces of production are the means by which human beings produce what they need to survive. They consist of the means of production (tools, machines and raw materials) and labor power (knowledge, strengths and skills--that is, our ability to work). The relations of production are the ways that human beings are connected to each other through the collective use of the forces of production. The character of the connection at any point in history determines the structure of society, which Marx referred to as the mode of production.

In pre-class society, scarcity prevailed. Human beings lived at the level of bare subsistence because the forces of production had not developed to the point that allowed for surplus of necessities such as food. Without a social surplus, there could be no division of labor, and therefore no development of social classes.

Only when advances in the forces of production generated this first surplus was one part of society able to free itself from productive labor and, over many generations of social development, crystallize into a class that could obtain leisure at the expense of the remainder--that is, live off the unpaid labor of others.

At the heart of each class society from this point in history forward is the relationship between those who control the means of production and the direct producers--master to slave, feudal lord to serf, capitalist to worker). Each historical mode of production is centrally characterized by the manner in which the social surplus is extracted--that is, the form of exploitation--and each produces its own forms of class struggle.

In a famous passage of Capital, Marx described this relationship:

It is always the direct relationship of the owners of the conditions of production to the direct producers--a relation always naturally corresponding to a definite stage in the development of the methods of labor and thereby its social productivity--which reveals the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social structure and with it the political form of the relation of sovereignty and dependence, in short, the corresponding specific form of the state.

It is only with capitalism that we arrive at a society with both sufficiently advanced forces of production and a historical agent, the working class, that has the interest and capacity to fight for socialism/communism.

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HAVING SKETCHED the basics of the theory of historical materialism, let's look at Peter Hudis' examination of Marx's writings for their "foreshadowing" of a future society.

Surveying Marx's earlier writings, he concludes: "Our exploration indicates that his real object of critique was not the market or private property, but rather the social relations that underpin them." (p. 92). Thus, Hudis writes, "The heart of the problem is abolishing capital itself, by ending the estrangement in the very activity of laboring. We have reached the conceptual pivot of what Marx sees as the alternative to capitalism." (p. 63).

The social relations under capitalism--chiefly divided between bourgeoisie and proletariat--"[presuppose] a complete separation between the workers and the ownership of the conditions for the realization of their labor," Hudis writes. (p. 164). The agonizing historical process by which this occurred was described described by Marx in his chapter in Capital on "The So-Called Primitive Accumulation."

Once the working class is divorced from the means of production, it must either accept wage labor--the exploitation of labor power by the capitalist--or beg, steal or starve. Hudis explains that Marx concluded that chief among the goals of a socialist society must be to eliminate this "innermost secret," which constitutes capitalism's power over the working class. Only then will labor no longer be "only a means of life, but life's prime want," as Marx wrote.

From Marx's very first writings, he foresaw the possibility of people seeing their highest purpose as working for the good of their fellow human beings. In some early notebooks later published as "Comments on James Mill," Marx wrote:

Let us suppose that we had carried out production as human beings...I would now enjoy my activity as well as its products, since the products would express the specific character of my individuality...I would have the satisfaction of meeting another person's need...and so I would see the other person not as a hostile competitor, but as a necessary complement to myself.

Furthermore, Marx wrote in Capital, this labor would be controlled by "an association of free men, working with the means of production held in common."

What principle of distribution would exist under socialism/communism? In the initial phase of a socialist society, Marx stressed labor time, Hudis writes:

Labor-time is divided up or proportioned in accordance with the need to replenish the means of production as well as meet the consumption needs of individuals. [Marx] continues, "On the other hand, labor-time also serves as the measure of the part taken by each individual in the common labor, and of his share in the part of the total product destined for social consumption." (p. 157).

But, unlike capitalism, where labor-time is measured according to what is necessary for the capitalist to obtain a profit, under socialism, labor-time would be measured by the actual hours worked. "Some degree of social inequality would exist," Hudis writes, "since some individuals would work more hours than others and would therefore obtain a larger amount of the means of consumption." (p. 199).

Marx wrote in the Critique of the Gotha Program that "labor, to serve as a measure, must be defined by its duration or intensity." This introduces another factor, in addition to time, with which to evaluate an individual's contribution.

What Marx means by "intensity" isn't clear, but Hudis points out that some jobs may require a greater expenditure of energy than others. He provides the example of teaching autistic children, as compared with non-autistic children. Likewise, work requiring advanced knowledge and/or greater responsibility--for example, a brain surgeon--might be differently evaluated. But such matters would be the subject of democratic debate.

So in the initial phase of a future society, inequality would still prevail. Only when the forces of production have been further developed, and workers aren't measured by their contribution of labor time, will the principle "From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs" become the rule.

But even in the initial stage, Hudis argues that free time, not labor time, would be the measure of wealth, because the necessary labor required by society would be reduced to a minimum. And our very experience of free time would change since, as Hudis writes, "labor is no longer performed for someone else, but for myself, and...[therefore] acquires a quite different, a free character." (p. 145).

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MARX, IN a famous passage from Volume III of Capital, elaborates on the qualitatively different character of the experience of labor under socialism/communism:

[T]he realm of freedom really begins only when labor determined by necessity and external expediency ends; it lies by its very nature beyond the sphere of material production proper. Just as the savage must wrestle with nature to satisfy his needs, to maintain and reproduce his life, so must civilized man, and he must do so in all forms of society and under all possible modes of production. This realm of natural necessity expands with his development, because his needs do, too; but the productive forces to satisfy these expand at the same time.

Freedom in this sphere, can consist only in this, that socialized man, the associated producers, govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bringing under their collective control instead of being dominated by it as a blind power; accomplishing it with the least expenditure of energy and in conditions most worthy and appropriate of their human nature. But this always remains a realm of necessity. The true realm of freedom, the development of human powers as an end in itself, begins beyond it, though it can only flourish with this realm of necessity as its basis.

So "the development of human powers as an end in itself" is the final principle of socialism/communism.

But even under capitalism, there is a foreshadowing of the future society. For instance, those few of us privileged to be creative artists or scientists know what it is to truly love our work. Others, in professions like health care or education, understand how rewarding it is to help one another. Those in the midst of a long vacation--finally doing what we really want to do--know how it feels to momentarily forget about that dreaded Monday morning when we will have to return to our job.

Imagine what it's like to be a small child, completely absorbed in play. Or take the case of nationalized health care--those who recognize the criminal inadequacy of the American health care system and advocate a "single-payer" system are applying a variation of "From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs."

We know what capitalism is like. It is the root of all of our social problems--a crime against humanity. We know what we're fighting against. In Marx's Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism, Peter Hudis gives us an inspiring vision of the future we're fighting for. The more attractive that vision, the more others will wish to join us in the struggle.