Negative and Positive Visions, Full Communism, and Boats

I was struck by a thought of “wow, there’s more to this running joke we’ve got going then I or anyone else originally intended” while reading a bit of Harry Cleaver’s Reading Capital Politically last evening.  I’ve been making an in-depth study of it, as, like every other Marxist under the sun, in between reading other things, I’m re-reading Capital, Vol 1. So, the relevant quote (on p. 130-1 of the book, or findable at here) is:

In effect “zerowork” means the conversion of “useful labor” into one element of what Marx calls “the full development of activity itself.” Capitalist development, he wrote, has created the material elements to permit, after the revolution, “the development of the rich individuality which is all sided in its production as in its consumption, and whose labour also therefore appears no longer as labour, but as the full development of activity itself.”(7) What does “activity itself” mean? In what kind of a situation is work not work? Marx had little to say on this subject, largely out of principle.(8) He rejected the utopian socialist project of outlining in advance the nature of postcapitalist society. He clearly felt that it would be invented in the process of revolution by the mass of workers on the basis of their possibilities and desires and not on the basis of some intellectual’s fancy. When he did speak of the general nature of postcapitalist society, his most frequently reiterated comments evoked “the artistic, scientific, etc. development of the individuals in the time set free” by the reduction of necessary labor to a minimum.(9) Thus Marx saw the revolutionary process as both negative — freedom from capital and the end of a class defined by work — and positive — freedom for the development of a new stage in the evolution of humankind. His refusal to give more than the briefest comments on that new stage is the clearest evidence of his commitment to its openendedness. What comments he did make came mainly from periods of revolution in which he would look to the actions of the workers themselves for indications of the direction of their struggle (e.g., during the Commune).(10) Thus, although he rejected utopian speculation, we can surmise that within the revolutionary process Marx would have warmly embraced the slogan “All Power to the Imagination.”

I think, in general, we get to be pretty good about talking about the negative aspects of the revolutionary process: what we’re against in the here and now, and things we don’t see the revolutionary society as including. A lot of us are really good at articulating what we’re against in the here and now, whether it’s a concrete thing (being against a speed-up at work), or something more general (going all the way to the overarching “we’re anti-capitalists”). It’s on the positive aspects of the revolutionary process that we tend to fall all over ourselves.

There are two ways to fall all over ourselves: not acknowledge any positive aspects at all; or going into the mode of utopian socialism where we are handed a complete vision of a future society in accordance with some intellectual’s fancy, or even in accordance with years of rigorous effort by a bunch of intellectuals. Outside struggle actually achieving future society, society is a bit too complex to have any sort of exacting model of the future. There’s not as much need to get into the “not acknowledging any positive aspects”, that seems to be something that people who’ve stuck around a bit tend to move past, and I think the utopian project is a bigger danger.

Ultimately, we can be really limiting when we try to make exacting plans of what communism looks like, sometimes in dangerous ways. I think the whole history of Soviet economic planning, going all the way back to Lenin in 1918 is not only an instance of, as Cleaver points out shortly before the quoted bit, assuming that we simply eliminate just the bad stuff and don’t have to change anything we (the “intellectuals”, the “revolutionaries”) see as positive (the context here being that Lenin saw Taylorism as being “advanced” and “scientific”, and that the fact that it’s a highly developed form of capitalist exploitation would just vanish, Cleaver’s discussion of this is on p. 129), but also of how the obsession with planning led to just more efficient, highly developed forms of capitalism. In general, we can extend the critique, here, from saying that just as a “worker’s state” managing production (state capitalism) doesn’t get us any closer to communism, neither do co-ops or councils managing production – we can’t just limit our critique to the immediate surface negative aspects. Communism isn’t capitalism with a bunch of easily identifiable as negative traits excised, and more sharing and collective decision making added in.

It’s easy to imagine “democratic control of a workplace”, it’s far more difficult to imagine a fundamentally different, unalienated way of people achieving their needs and desires. Part of what is to be learned from Marx limiting his positive vision to pointing out that we’ll have a new stage in our evolution as people, is that he’s being smart enough here to realize that he’s not smart enough to know what that looks like, even if we can say what that won’t look like. Now, I don’t want to participate in putting Marx on a pedestal beyond saying “Marx was a really smart and insightful dude who wrote a lot and was heavily involved in discussions with other revolutionaries and such”, but I also  want to acknowledge that Marx not being smart enough to know what communism looks like (in a rigorously descriptive sense of “food will be obtained through this process and trips to Spain by this process”) isn’t my pointing out a deficiency in Marx’s intellect. None of us, as intellectuals or groups of intellectuals, is smart enough to provide a rigorous description of how the future communist society will function. However, what does it mean to “look to the actions of the workers themselves”? It means that we can and must recognize the liberatory potential in the actions everyday working class people already take to help themselves and their communities. And at high points of struggle, we see the beginnings of the future society. I know, for many of us, these high points of struggle may not be particularly high, and that makes this seem like a difficult and frustrating non-answer. However, we need to reach back to those struggles and the struggles of everyday life, and look at what we find truly liberating (and I can venture to guess, that, if you’re like me, people just starting a clinic, gathering up supplies, and helping people out is more infused with potential than debates on how we’re going to debate and make decisions).

In any case, I’ll close this with something I promised in the title, a discussion that includes Full Communism and Boats. We’ll start with an image:

The story of this image: in arguments over “after the rev” with an advocate of Parecon, said advocate would always point out how he would like a boat, but other people wouldn’t, and on how we needed a system to match up availability with varying desires, etc. And generally he would be met with a critique by communists of the flaws of his proposed system, how it failed to abolish various aspects of capitalism, such as the patriarchal division between reproductive and productive labor, and so on. Of course, the frustrating aspect for someone who is presenting a vision that is utopian (even if ultimately only a reorganization of capital), is that the positive responses were statements in the same category as Marx’s. In general, the arguments are only useful in the first place to debunk utopian visions (in the sense of “utopian socialism” of the 19th century).

Since FULL COMMUNISM had already become a meme, beyond the “what’s the logic of restricting ability to take a boat out on ‘how long and hard have you worked, comrade’?”, making some flippant claim about boats and communism, especially with the continued popularity of Lonely Island, seemed like the best idea to lay to rest the idea that this was a useful argument. As running jokes tend to do, this has taken off, and provided an illustration of the more serious points made earlier. When we start trying to dictate the exact structure of the future society, we tend to end up with a vision, that in its limited scope, is profoundly disappointing and flawed, or, we start to sound like we’re describing the Land of Cockaigne. Ultimately, rather than just providing a joke out of a shared experience of frustrating arguments, or even just a pop culture reference that led to a light-hearted running joke, we could expand it. Claims such as “in Full Communism, we’ll all spend all our time partying on boats, drinking strawberry margaritas and eating fruit from the food forests on deck” become a way of pointing out the ridiculousness of making detailed descriptions of exactly how various things will function “after the revolution”.  These detailed descriptions are about as useful as putting forward a vision where nothing can go wrong and every single want and desire is instantly fulfilled in an over the top fashion. On a boat.

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