Like What, Exactly? Part One: Kurz and the reformulation of Social Emancipation
Part One: Kurz and the reformulation of Social Emancipation
Marxist dishonesty on social emancipation
I happened upon this very interesting essay by Engels on the basic dishonesty of Marxists: “The Peasant Question in France and Germany”. Some among the Marxists might want to avoid the word dishonesty and substitute the term “opportunism” but it is just plain dishonesty.
In the 1890’s Marxists faced a very real and pressing political problem, which Engels explained this way:
“In one point our French comrades are absolutely right: No lasting revolutionary transformation is possible in France against the will of the small peasant.”
The peasants were the largest single class in France at the time, and it was clear to Engels and Marxists that no successful socialist effort could be made over the opposition of this class. However the class was not at all interested in the political aims of the social-democrats and preferred it own economic conditions. The problem posed by this opposition, therefore, was how to address the economic demands of this class to win state power. According to Engels, some Marxists thought this could be done by blatantly lying to peasantry on the policies of a future S-D government.
“This they can hope to achieve only by making very risky general assurances in defence of which they are compelled to set forth even much more risky theoretical considerations.”
Perhaps this effort by the liars was well-meaning — according to labor theory, the peasants were already dead as a class. Nothing could save them as a class, but it was possible a Marxist government might ease the pathway to their demise as a class. Even if this were true, however, Engels warned:
“[We] can win the mass of the small peasants forthwith only if we can make them a promise which we ourselves know we shall not be able to keep.”
Engels clearly warned the social-democrats not to write this critical majority a check their social-democrat asses could not cash. Nothing Marxists did could protect the small producer from its fate — at best, Marxists could only delay the inevitable.
“[It} is not in our interests to win the peasant overnight, only to lose him again on the morrow if we cannot keep our promise. “We have no more use for the peasant as a Party member, if he expects us to perpetuate his property in his small holding, than for the small handicraftsman who would fain be perpetuated as a master.”
Now you have to realize what this meant for France — and Engels had absolutely no hesitation to describe the result: The peasant would end up in the arms of parties expressing the worst political impulses imaginable.
“Let them go to the anti-Semites and obtain from the latter the promise to salvage their small enterprises.”
Engels had no illusion what would happen should the social-democrats treat the peasants honestly — but what choice did they have? All Marxists could honestly promise was to not make the inevitable demise of the small producer more onerous.
I am sorry to say Marxists today have lost this sense of honesty.
Even scholars like Carchedi can, on the one hand, demonstrate Keynesian policies do not work; while, on the other hand, advise the working class to fight for them anyways. Marxist routinely promise “real democracy” to the working class when they know the state must be abolished. Marxist routinely promise “decent paying jobs” to the working class, when they know capitalism abolishes the demand for labor. Marxists constantly make promises about Social Security and a host of similar programs when they know these programs must be abolished. Think about it: If capitalism is not abolished, Social Security is gone; if capitalism is abolished Social Security is unnecessary – either way it is gone.
Moreover, the working class is not just some alien class of small producers doomed by the progress of capitalism, it is capitalism’s own product and the heart of the social revolution. What possible reason is there to lie to the working class on these questions? What possible advantage is there to be gained by failing to disclose bto the working class what it must do? Unlike the social-democrats of Engels’ day, Marxists have absolutely no hope of displacing the two party monopoly on state power. So what is the fucking point of the lies and disinformation? I think the point is that, unlike Marxists of Engels’ time, for Marxists today the lies aren’t really lies at all: they actually believe their own political statements — they really believe Social Security or the minimum wage, or the Environmental Protection Agency can survive the end of capitalism.
All of it must be broken
Be that as it may, I think Robert Kurz wrote the best answer to the question “Like what, exactly?”
“The difficulty consists in the fact that the capitalist form of the functional division of society, as in the case of the capitalist structure of use value, cannot be assimilated, without alterations, into an emancipatory reproduction.”
When I first read that quote, I realized Kurz had broken out of the Marxist cul-de-sac completely. I wrote:
“If this argument sounds familiar to you, it should; it is precisely the difficulty the Communards faced in Paris when they took control of the old machinery of the state. They were compelled to dump that entire structure and create a new one on the fly to suit their specific needs.”
Essentially Kurz was taking the Communard experience on the state and extending it to the entire economic structure of society. To paraphrase Marx, the entire economic structure of society must be broken. The answer to “Like what, exactly?”, begins with the recognition nothing of present relations can be salvaged in any form. Kurz’s argument is so brutally absolute, it is necessary to understand it could not even be posed until now.
The last time this question was posed by the anarchist Bakunin, Marx replied that even after emancipation vestiges of the state would remain; it wasn’t a question of what we desired, but material processes that determined what could and could not be accomplished. From the standpoint of the mass of society, commodity production had not outlived its usefulness, and labor was still materially necessary as the Fordist revolution later demonstrated.
In much the same way Engels confronted the Marxists with their dishonesty toward the French peasants, Marx confronted Bakunin with his own dishonesty. Marx’s argument against anarchism was of the same character as Engels: stop writing checks your anarchist asses can’t cash. You can promise the working class the state could be abolished, but you would only make a promise that could no more be fulfilled than the Marxist dishonest promise to the peasants.
The argument I am making is simple: the state could not be abolished in its entirety so long as commodity production remained. Was Marx’s argument against the anarchists “right”? Was it a historically accurate conclusion? Two things should be distinguished: first the relation between the state and commodity production: it would be a complete folly to believe the state could be abolished so long as the means of production remained divided up among members of society, i.e., so long as economic basis of society rested on the production and exchange of commodities. I think Marx was absolutely correct on this point, and nothing has been advanced since his day that denies this relationship. The second question, however, is the necessity of commodity production itself: at what point does it become obsolete to society as a whole? Assuming Marx is correct that the state and commodity production each require the other, at what point can both be abolished? This is the question Kurz is examining — and the one Marxists want to ignore. There is nothing in Marx’s argument against Bakunin that suggests he thought his argument was the final answer to this question. Kurz gave his own answer: commodity production was now obsolete, hence none of present relations could remain.
If Kurz can be believed, he was making the argument that the entire lower phase of communism (the so-called dictatorship of the proletariat) could and must be bypassed. To understand the implications of Kurz’s argument, you have to revisit Engels’ argument in Socialism, Utopian and Scientific. In that book Engels makes the argument that the period of monopolization and trusts had to be succeeded by a higher mode of production. He offers two possibilities for how this would occur: the first, we know, was the conquest of political power by the proletariat. This path was followed by many countries and encountered their own difficulties — but were historically valid attempts to overcome capital.
The other path, however, was what Engels referred to as the assumption by the “present state” of the functions of the capitalist class. Engels was clear that this assumption would be forced on the capitalist state despite — and in large part as an expression of — the interests of individual members of the capitalist class. The entire class would be rendered superfluous in one stroke – reduced to a mass of superfluous capital alongside a mass of superfluous labor. Moreover — and Engels was equally clear about this — when it happened it would constitute an advance in the mode of production. In contrast to the prevailing Marxist interpretation, Engels emphasized that this would be an advance by including it in a separate footnote.
While, on the one hand, the Soviet revolution embarked on one path, the more advanced nations embarked on the latter path: fascism. Both paths sought to address the same problem: the transition to the higher stage of communism, i.e., the end of commodity production. Both, however, addressed this problem in a paradoxical form of an elevation of the state power over society, rather than its withering away. And both arrived at the same question: “How and by what relations is this abomination to be replaced?”
The answer to this question is not to be found in the laws of capitalism alone, but in the nature of the socialist and fascist transitions themselves. If the end-point of this process is the abolition of both commodity production and the state, the process itself must be its progressive realization. I think the paradoxical nature of these two forms of transition is that in them the transition appears as its opposite: the domination of both the state and commodity production over all social relations. I think this at least explains the empirical and historical evidence with which we are familiar.
A crisis of both capitalism and the state
Depending on your perspective, the final days of the Soviet Union looks either like a political crisis (Kotz) or an economic one (Kornai). Likewise, the present crisis of fascism looks either like a political crisis (Keynesians) or an economic one (Marxists). In both cases, however, it is both of these, as Kurz explains: a crisis of both commodity production itself and of the state, their final moments. Once the state is raised to the position of the national capitalist (i.e., as manager of the total social mechanism) it too must be subject to the law of value as any other form of capital. That is, it is as subject as any other form of capital to the concentration and centralization of capital that drives capital to its demise.
Kurz thus solves the riddle of the unified theory of politics and economics contained within Marx’s labor theory of value. In other words, Kurz (perhaps without knowing it) shows why, in Marx’s theory, the end of commodity production must necessarily lead to the end of the state. The crisis of capitalism must inevitably progress to become a crisis of the state itself — this is empirically demonstrated by the present crisis. The answer to Skapinker’s challenge to communists, therefore, must begin with the necessity to put an end to both capital and the state. However, this is clearly not enough — it is not even a good beginning.
Capital and the state are each only forms of surplus labor. Any attempt to abolish capital and the state, yet leave labor intact must fail. The condition for the abolition of surplus labor in the form of capital and in the form of the state can only be abolition of labor itself. If labor cannot be abolished, neither can commodity production or the state, but must continue to exist in a vestigial form as Marx explained in his critique of the Gotha Programme.
Labor, as i am employing the term, must be understood as compulsory productive activity by members of society aimed at the satisfaction of the material needs of society. The social dictatorship imposes this compulsory labor on the members of society equally, i.e., it abolishes non-labor for the minority. Everyone is made equally responsible for labor — ending the capacity of the billionaires to live on the labor of others. However, from the point of view of historical development, even this advance over wage slavery is defective. Even under the best of circumstances this is only the imposition of poverty on the whole of society, a reduction of members to the slaves of all. Each member is made a slave of all other members, and society is made the master over all. This crude communism is not and cannot be the goal of social development; it is a disgusting transit point that can only be made less odious because no longer can a handful live free of labor by living on the labor of others, but it is still disgusting.
Kurz’s argument is not only that this stage of development can be bypassed, but that, as things now stand, it must be bypassed entirely. The whole history of the Soviet socialist state and the fascist state has made bypassing the lower phase of communism possible. Kurz argues that going back to Marx’s formulation of the problem in the 1870s, as Marxists demand, is a theoretical regression. For this reason he arrives at the Commune’s starting point, but on a new basis: not only the existing state but the whole of present economic relations must be broken — commodity production and exchange in every form must be abolished.
The answer to the question, “Like what, exactly?”, really begins only when we assume the abolition of compulsory labor in every form. It is the question of how productive activity is to be organized in the absence of both state compulsion and wage labor. All forms of communist theory cannot answer this today, because they all assume only two forms of productive activity: political or economic compulsion. In the first form, the state undertakes the direction of production and imposes on members of society the requirement to labor. The state — society in the form of the state — rules as a despot over society and imposes its will on all the members of society. In its purest form this is accomplished through the economic mechanism of “the plan” or some variant of this mechanism. In the second form, capital imposes its despotic will and the requirement of labor on the producers of society. This imposition is accomplished by continuously reducing the value of labor power — wages — to the point of mere physical existence.
Both methods tie the consumption of the mass of society to the requirement that each of the members must perform labor. It is this tie — this compulsory requirement — in either of its despotic forms, that must be broken by the social revolution. Only on this basis can productive activity of the individual be established on the basis of the free self-activity of the individual. The end of all compulsory labor, and with it both the despotism of the state and capital, at this same time requires the voluntary — free — association of the producers of society, since it is only on this basis that the means of production, which have already acquired its universal form, and can only be placed in motion by the whole body of producers, can be placed into motion by their collective cooperative effort.
Cooperation on the present scale can only proceed on the basis of self-activity, and self-activity can only be realized through association. The self-activity of the producers is, therefore, immediately social and this fact reveals the obstacles to its realization created by both fascism and Sovietism. In both of these forms of despotism, the self-activity of the producers can never become directly social, while, at the same time, this self-activity demands to be realized, and is realized through a series of increasingly destructive crises. These crises are only the birth pangs of the social individual expressed as the progressive annihilation of all impediments to her emergence.
Society has already provided the answer, but Marxism is incapable of grasping it theoretically because this is not the answer it wants to find. Marxism is seeking an answer that begins with the assumption of a producer who only becomes directly social through the state and only after a long period of historical development. Marxism is looking, in other words, for an individual who becomes social theoretically, first; and only after this materially. Well, we already tried that path, and it ended up in gulags and Auschwitz. Do we really need a do-over on this? For the past eighty years, mankind has already paid the price of its stupidities; why would anyone want to repeat that shit?
The only argument advanced by fascists and socialists alike is that, without despotism of capital or the state, society must crumble and civilization collapse — we now have the historic task to prove theoretically that this prediction is not true.