Friday, October 22, 2010

Socialism explained

Josh Lees
Socialist Alternative
22 October 2010

Frederick Engels’ Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1880) is a marvellous explanation of what “modern Socialism” – which today we call Marxism – is all about. Engels traces the historical development of capitalism out of feudalism and along with it the development of socialist thought from utopianism to historical materialism – from an ideal based on moral outrage and wishful thinking, to a science based on working class struggle.

His third section, “Historical Materialism”, brilliantly outlines all the contradictions of capitalism which lead to the world we find ourselves in today – a world of immense wealth alongside immense poverty, hardship and endless crises. Thankfully, Engels also lays out the solution to this contradiction: workers’ revolution and socialism.

The development of Utopian Socialism
“Like every new theory, modern Socialism had, at first, to connect itself with the intellectual stock-in-trade ready to its hand…”

Marxists are often accused of being “utopians” or “idealists”. The reality is that Marxism developed in opposition to the utopian theories prevalent up to the 19th century. The 18th century had witnessed in western Europe the overthrow, in thought and practice, of previous feudal relations, culminating in the French Revolution of 1789. Engels commented:

“Now, for the first time, appeared the light of day, the kingdom of reason… We know now that this kingdom of reason was nothing more than the idealised kingdom of the bourgeoisie.”

Soon the contradictions within bourgeois democracy became all too evident. While a rising class of capitalists had been liberated by the revolution and were now the masters of society, so too a new class of propertyless wage-workers, upon whose continued exploitation and oppression the capitalists depended, was beginning to develop. Into the ideological breach stepped the utopian socialists – Saint-Simon, Fourier and Robert Owen.

Engels praises these three for their unrelenting attacks on the inequality and hypocrisy of the new capitalist order. But their criticism was limited by the prevailing social conditions:

“At this time, however, the capitalist mode of production, and with it the antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, was still very incompletely developed. The proletariat… as yet quite incapable of independent political action, appeared as an oppressed, suffering order, to whom, in its incapacity to help itself, help could, at best, be brought in from without or down from above.”

So while the utopian socialists were highly critical of the new order, they could not transcend its theoretical limitations. In the absence, at this stage, of a material force which could challenge the new rulers and pose an alternative, they instead appealed to reason and morality (like so many liberal reformers today). They constructed fantastic visions of how society could and should be, and tried to establish model communes as an example for society to replicate. The capitalists, then as now, were deaf to such calls. These entrepreneurial gentlemen were more interested in cramming their factories with workers – young and old, heavily pregnant, sick, malnourished, homeless – all ripe for 14 hours a day of exploitation.

The basis for the theoretical breakthroughs of Marx and Engels lay in the philosophy of dialectics, especially that of Hegel. As Engels explains:

“When we consider and reflect upon Nature at large, or the history of mankind, [we see] at first the picture as a whole, with its individual parts still more or less kept in the background…”

But in order to understand the whole picture we need to understand the details which make it up, which must therefore be detached from the whole and studied individually – “the task of natural science and historical research”.

“But this method of work has also left us as legacy the habit of observing natural objects and processes in isolation, apart from their connection with the vast whole; of observing them in repose, not in motion; …in their death, not in their life.”

When this approach was transferred “from natural science to philosophy, it begot the narrow, metaphysical mode of thought peculiar to the last century.” Today, two centuries later, it is still the dominant mode of thought in academia.

“To the metaphysician…a thing either exists or does not exist; a thing cannot at the same time be itself and something else. Positive and negative absolutely exclude one another; cause and effect stand in a rigid antithesis, one to the other… In the contemplation of individual things, it forgets the connection between them… It cannot see the woods for the trees.”

What Marx and Engels found revolutionary in Hegel’s dialectical philosophy was that “for the first time the whole world, natural, historical, intellectual, is represented as a process – i.e. as in constant motion, change, transformation, development”. The totality of nature and society – the whole picture – could only be understood by looking at how the individual parts interrelated with each other and with the totality, and by understanding the contradictions of that totality which drove its constant evolution.

Despite all this, however, Hegel was still an idealist; he still viewed the driving force of history as being reason, the mystical unfolding of the “Idea”. But something else was happening. As Engels explains:

“In 1831, the first working class uprising took place in Lyon; between 1838 and 1842, the first national working-class movement, that of the English Chartists, reached its height… But the old idealist conception of history…knew nothing of class struggles based upon economic interests…”

All the lies that capital and labour had the same interests were exposed. The dialectic was now placed by Marx on a materialist footing:

“The new facts made imperative a new examination of all past history. Then it was seen that all past history, with the exception of its primitive stages, was the history of class struggles; …that the economic structure of society always furnishes the real basis, starting from which we can alone work out the ultimate explanation of the whole superstructure of juridical and political institutions as well as of the religious, philosophical, and other ideas of a given historical period.”

A crucial theoretical discovery of Marx’s was that the capitalist mode of production was based on the extraction of surplus value from the working class. In other words, capital itself came only from the exploitation of labour, with workers being paid only a portion of the value they actually produced. “With these discoveries”, writes Engels, “Socialism became a science.”

Historical materialism
“The materialist conception of history starts from the proposition that the production of the means to support human life and, next to production, the exchange of things produced, is the basis of all social structure… From this point of view, the final causes of all social changes and political revolutions are to be sought, not in men’s brains, not in men’s better insights into eternal truth and justice, but in changes in the modes of production and exchange.”

The development of the capitalist mode of production, which had destroyed previous feudal relations, was beset with its own contradictions. Capitalist production developed out of medieval conditions, in which individual producers utilised their own instruments of production – tools, land, etc. – to produce commodities for exchange.

“Then came the concentration of the means of production and of the producers in large workshops and manufactories… Thus, the products now produced socially were not appropriated by those who had actually set in motion the means of production and actually produced the commodities [the workers], but by the capitalists.”

As the capitalist mode of production developed it more and more drove any remaining individual producers into the ranks of the working class, as they could not compete with the modern factories, and as more peasants were driven off the land. This is a process which continues today in developing countries like India and China, more and more splitting society into two hostile camps – workers and capitalists.

Previously, commodity production and exchange had taken place merely to satisfy the needs of the individual producer. With the massive extension of commodity production for exchange on the market, all the forces of anarchic competition were unleashed. The capitalists have no coordinated plan of who is going to produce what and are engaged in a ruthless struggle for survival.

This competition drives the capitalists to constantly be investing in new technology. But this creates systemic unemployment, “the creation of a complete industrial reserve army…available at the times when industry is working at high pressure, to be cast out upon the street when the inevitable crash comes”. As Marx wrote in Capital, “Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole.”

Competition demands that capital be constantly expanding. But this only leads to crises, as Engels argues:

“The extension of the markets cannot keep pace with the extension of production… Their economic bankruptcy recurs regularly every 10 years. In every crisis, society is suffocated beneath the weight of its own productive forces and products, which it cannot use, and stands helpless, face-to-face with the absurd contradiction that the producers have nothing to consume, because consumers are wanting.”

The capitalists try to overcome these problems by merging into larger and larger corporations and through state property and regulation. But this transformation “does not do away with the capitalistic nature of the productive forces… The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine [and] is not the solution of the conflict”.

The solution
Engels is very matter-of-fact about the solution to capitalism’s contradictions:

“All the social functions of the capitalist have no further social function than that of pocketing dividends…and gambling on the stock exchange… [The] solution can only consist in the practical recognition of the social nature of the modern forces of production… And this can only come about by society openly and directly taking possession of the productive forces…”

How is this to be achieved? Capitalism “creates the power which, under penalty of its own destruction, is forced to accomplish this revolution” – the working class. And keep in mind that this was written 130 years ago:

“The possibility of securing for every member of society, by means of socialised production, an existence not only fully sufficient materially, and becoming day-by-day more full, but an existence guaranteeing to all the free development and exercise of their physical and mental faculties – this possibility is now, for the first time, here, but it is here.”

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