Maoist Rebel News Does Not Understand Marx

Maoist Rebel News and Muke had a debate on whether or not the Soviet Union was socialist. During this debate they had the following exchange:

MRN: Marx doesn’t necessarily stand against the existence of profit inside of socialism because Marx didn’t actually write very much about what socialism is, he wrote more about what communism is than what socialism is.

Muke: . . . Marx says quite specifically almost in the critique of the gotha programme, one of the few places where he does talk about lower phase and higher phase communism, which, by the way he never made a distinction between socialism and communism.

MRN: socialism, communism are two different things

Muke: Well for Marx they’re not, he never made that distinction. There’s only lower phase communism and there’s

MRN: That’s not true

Muke: Really? Where does he?

MRN: Mode of production of socialism is transitory period between the two.

Muke: Um… No. He never said that.

MRN: Do you want a quote?

Muke: I’d love a quote

MRN: “Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.”

Muke: Yer so that’s from part 4 or 3 of critique of the Gotha? At no point does he use the term socialist there. I totally admit that there is a transitionary period between capitalism and lower phase communism and that is the dictatorship of the proletariat. But Marx never said that this phase was socialism. That’s something Lenin introduced himself.

MRN: Even if that were true, that its something which Lenin invented, which I don’t believe is true, it would be an irrelevant point.

After the debate Maoist Rebel News wrote a blog post in which he said,

“Communism and Socialism are not the same things. His assertion that they are, is totally false. While Marx did not specifically theorize both of these stages of development, it is clear he was referring to two different things.

Communism is a stateless classless society, while he specifically says, “Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.” (Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program (1875))

This is clearly differentiating between two things. One cannot have a state and not have a state at the same time. This is referring to two different periods of development. The state is part of the development towards communism.”

He continues,

“Finally, I will deal with the very core of Xexizy’s argument, which relies on one hugely incorrect idea: communism and socialism are the same things. This claim essentially erases the transitory period between capitalism and communism even if Xexizy claims he doesn’t. He has done so by refusing to acknowledge them as two different things. Essentially, if the society doesn’t conform to the end result of communism, then, therefore, it is capitalism. Such a transformation cannot be carried out instantaneously, this is utopian anarchist garbage. A transitory period in which perfection does not exist is necessary. A building under construction is still a building even if you want to nitpick that it is not the final product. This almost a Nirvana fallacy. If we take him at his word that they are the same, then a higher and lower stage doesn’t exist according to him. He would do well to study quantity into quality as well.”

Maoist Rebel New’s view can be summarized as follows: Muke is wrong to think that Marx does not distinguish between socialism and communism because if communism is a stateless society and if Marx advocates a revolutionary state during the transition from capitalism to communism then there must be a mode of production in-between capitalism and communism which has a state. A mode of production cannot after all simultaneously be stateless and have a state. The mode of production which contains the dictatorship of the proletariat is socialism. Given this, Marx holds that the achievement of communism is a three step process during which society transitions from the capitalist mode of production to the socialist mode of production and from the socialist mode of production to the communist mode of production.

In arguing this Maoist Rebel News is operating on the false assumption that the only way to conceptualize the transition from capitalism to fully fledged communism is through the notion of an intermediary mode of production called socialism. Marx himself, as Muke correctly pointed out, did not distinguish between socialism and communism. Marx instead held that there was a single mode of production – communism – at two different moments of its development: communism during its phase of becoming, when it is arising out of capitalism and contains the dictatorship of the proletariat, and communism during its phase of being, when it is stateless. To explain what this means I will have explain to a) how Marx thinks about society, b) what Marx thought about the transition from feudalism to capitalism and c) what Marx thought about the transition from capitalism to communism. I shall discuss each in turn. Before I do so its important to note that the ideas presented here do not stem entirely from my own original research but are rather largely based on the ideas presented by the Marxist theorist Michael Lebowitz in his books The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development and The Socialist Imperative: From Gotha to Now, which I highly recommend.

Marx’s View of Society

For Marx society is a totality, or as he sometimes calls it, an organic system, composed of parts which come together to form a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. The parts which form the whole are not separate independent entities but rather co-exist with one another, mutually determine one another, co-define one another and support, constrain or damage one another. This perspective can be seen in the Poverty of Philosophy where Marx writes that an organic system is one “in which all the elements co-exist simultaneously and support one another”. (Marx and Engels 1976, 167) Marx similarly claims in the Grundrisse that “production, distribution, exchange and consumption . . . all form the members of a totality” in which “[m]utual interaction takes place between the different moments”, as is “the case with every organic whole.” (Marx 1993, 99-100)

On this view, to understand one part of society you have to understand how it is related to other parts of society and visa versa. You cannot, for example, understand racism in isolation from the rest of society because racism permeates different aspects of society, such as how black women are depicted on television. To understand racism, you therefore have to understand the relations between racism and other parts of society, such as patriarchy and television. Likewise, you cannot fully understand what patriarchy or television are in our society unless you understand how they are related to racism. Crucially the relations that stand between different parts of society themselves constitute what these different parts are. It’s not just that there are relations between racism and patriarchy but that part of what racism is, is its relations with patriarchy and part of what patriarchy is, is its relations with racism. You cannot understand one without understanding the other.

Given this framework, Marx holds that we must think about economic systems as totalities composed of parts that presuppose one another because each part is constituted through its relations with all the other parts. This perspective can be seen throughout Marx’s work. In the Grundrisse Marx writes that,

 “in the completed bourgeois system every economic relation presupposes every other in its bourgeois economic form, and everything posited is thus also a presupposition, this is the case with every organic system.” (Marx 1993, 278)

Marx similarly writes in Wage Labour and Capital that,

 “capital presupposes wage labour; wage labour presupposes capital. They reciprocally condition the existence of each other; they reciprocally bring forth each other.” (Marx 2000, 283)

Capitalism is therefore reproduced in so far as a chain of interlocking parts, which presuppose one another, continually create the necessary social relations that not only stand between each part but in addition constitute them. For Marx one of the prime examples of this was the process whereby capitalism continually reproduces the division between capitalists and workers. As Marx writes in Capital Volume I,

“The capitalist relation presupposes a complete separation between the workers and the ownership of the conditions for the realization of their labour. As soon as capitalist production stands on its own feet, it not only maintains this separation but reproduces it on a constantly extending scale.” (Marx 1990, 874)

This process of reproduction begins with capitalists who own the means of production and seek to make profits, and workers, who do not own means of production and so must, in order to reproduce themselves, sell their labour to a capitalist in exchange for a wage. As a result, a worker enters the labour market and competes with other workers for jobs. Once a worker has a job they engage in labour under the direction of a capitalist, who in turn appropriates the products produced by the worker. The capitalist proceeds to sell these products as commodities and pays the worker less than the value that they produce. The worker uses up their wage to buy commodities and thereby reproduce themselves, while the capitalist re-invests their profits in the business and is thereby able to keep earning profits. The cycle then begins again with a worker needing a wage to reproduce themselves and a capitalist needing workers to make profits from.

This narrative can be seen in the Grundrisse where Marx writes that,

 “the result of the process of production and realization is, above all, the reproduction and new production of the relation of capital and labour itself, of capitalist and worker. . . the worker produces himself as labour capacity, as well as the capital confronting him, while at the same time the capitalist produces himself as capital as well as the living labour capacity confronting him. Each reproduces itself, by reproducing its other, its negation. The capitalist produces labour as alien; labour produces the product as alien. The capitalist produces the worker, and the worker the capitalist etc.” (Marx 1993, 458)

Marx likewise writes in Capital Volume 1 that,

 “Capitalist production therefore reproduces in the course of its own process the separation between labour-power and the conditions of labour. It thereby reproduces and perpetuates the conditions under which the worker is exploited. It incessantly forces him to sell his labour-power in order to live, and enables the capitalist to purchase labour power in order that he may enrich himself. It is no longer a mere accident that capitalist and worker confront each other in the market as buyer and seller. It is the alternative rhythm of the process itself which throws the worker back onto the market again and again as a seller of his labour-power and continually transforms his own product into a means by which another man can purchase him. In reality, the worker belongs to capital before he has sold himself to the capitalist. His economic bondage is at once mediated through, and concealed by, the periodic renewal of the act by which he sells himself, his change of masters, and the oscillations in the market-price of his labour.

The capitalist process of production, therefore, seen as a total, connected process, i.e. a process of reproduction, produces not only commodities, not only surplus value, but also produces and reproduces the capital-relation itself; on the one hand the capitalist, on the other the wage labourer.” (Marx 1990, 723-4)

For capitalism to be a dominant mode of production is therefore for every economic relation to presuppose every other in its capitalist form, such as the economic relation of selling labour power presupposing the existence of a labour market which in turn presupposes production for profit, the private ownership of the means of production by capitalists, and workers having nothing to sell but their labour power.

Marx on the Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism

Society has of course not always been capitalist. Rather, capitalism became the dominant mode of production by displacing a previous economic system – feudalism – in which a very different set of economic relations presupposed one another. To understand the development of capitalism is therefore to understand how it came to establish the chain of interlocking parts that simultaneously constitute and reproduce it as an economic system. From now I will refer to this process as an economy developing its own foundations.

In the Grundrisse Marx conceptualized an economy developing its own foundations as follows,

“This organic system itself, as a totality, has its presuppositions, and its development to its totality consists precisely in subordinating all elements of society to itself, or in creating out of it the organs which it still lacks. This is historically how it becomes a totality. The process of becoming this totality forms a moment of its process, of its development.” (Marx 1993, 278)

In this passage Marx distinguishes between two different moments: when an organic system is in the “process of becoming” a totality and when an organic system is a “totality” or, to use the language Marx uses later in the Grundrisse, is “being”, rather than “becoming”. What exactly Marx means by this can be seen in his discussion of the development of capitalism. When capitalism was in the phase of becoming it established new social relations within and in reaction to the previous organic system, feudalism. He writes that,

“It must be kept in mind that the new forces of production and relations of production do not develop out of nothing, nor drop from the sky, nor from the womb of the self-positing Idea; but from within and in antithesis to the existing development of production and the inherited, traditional relations of property.” (Marx 1993, 278)

This can be seen in continental Europe which suffered,

“not only from the development of capitalist production, but also from the incompleteness of that development. Alongside the modern evils, we are oppressed by a whole series of inherited evils, arising from the passive survival of archaic and outmoded modes of production, with their accompanying train of anachronistic social and political relations. We suffer not only from the living, but from the dead.” (Marx 1990, 91)

According to Marx when capitalism was becoming it rested on parts from the previous economic system but once it had reached the phase of being and developed its own foundations it rested on parts that it creates itself as an economic system. This perspective can be seen in the Grundrisse where he writes that a capitalist bringing “values into circulation which he created with his own labour”, as opposed to that of a wage labourer, belongs to capitalism’s “historic presuppositions, which, precisely as such historic presuppositions, are past and gone, and hence belong to the history of its formation, but in no way to its contemporary history, i.e. not to the real system of the mode of production ruled by it.” In a similar fashion, “the flight of serfs to the cities is one of the historic conditions and presuppositions of urbanism” but “is not a condition, not a moment of the reality of developed cities”. It “belongs rather to their past presuppositions, to the presuppositions of their becoming which are suspended in their being.” Given this, “[t]he conditions and presuppositions of the becoming, of the arising, of capital presuppose precisely that it is not yet in being but merely in becoming.” Such conditions and presuppositions of the becoming of capitalism “disappear as real capital arises” and capital “itself, on the basis of its own reality, posits the conditions for its realization.” (Marx 1993, 459)

Importantly, not all of the parts which acted as preconditions for the becoming of capitalism disappeared once capitalism reached the phase of being. Some parts that were once preconditions for its becoming were transformed into aspects of its being that it itself produces. To return to the earlier example, in order for capitalism to develop it was necessary for a division between capitalist and worker to be established. Once capitalism had reached the phase of being this division was continuously reproduced by capitalism itself. Marx states this explicitly in the Grundrisse, where he writes

“capital creates its own presuppositions. . . by means of its own productive process. These presuppositions, which originally appeared as conditions for its becoming – and hence could not spring from its actions as capital – now appear as results of its own realisation, reality, as posited by it – not as conditions of its arising but as results of its presence. It no longer proceeds from presuppositions in order to become, but rather is itself presupposed, and proceeds from itself to create the conditions of its maintenance and growth.” (Marx 1993, 460)

To become an organic system is therefore to undergo a process of development whereby the foundational parts of the system come to be produced by the system itself, rather than its foundation still resting on historical parts inherited from a previous organic system. For Marx one of the main foundational parts created during the becoming of capitalism was a working class who not only reproduce capitalism but also view capitalist social relations as an inevitable and natural part of life. Marx writes in Capital Volume 1 that,

“The advance of capitalist production develops a working class which by education, training and habit looks upon the requirement of that mode of production as self-evident natural laws. The organization of the capitalist process of production, once it is fully developed, breaks down all resistance. The constant generation of a relative surplus population keeps the law of the supply and demand of labour, and therefore wages, within narrow limits which correspond to capital’s valorization requirements. The silent compulsion of economic relations sets the seal on the domination of the capitalist over the worker. Direct extra-economic force is still of course used, but only in exceptional cases. In the ordinary run of things, the worker can be left to the ‘natural laws of production’, i.e. it is possible to rely on his dependence on capital, which springs from the conditions of production themselves, and is guaranteed in perpetuity by them.” (Marx 1990, 899)

The creation of a working class which meets the needs of capitalism as an organic system did not occur automatically. Instead, capitalism emerged out of a previous organic system, feudalism, in which workers did not look upon the requirements of capitalist production as “self-evident natural laws”. Instead, due to the education, training and habits they experienced under feudalism they considered the sale of their labour to a capitalist as unnatural. Given this,

“Centuries are required before the ‘free’ worker, owing to the greater development of the capitalist mode of production, makes a voluntary agreement, i.e. is compelled by social conditions to sell the whole of his active life, his very capacity to labour, in return for the price of his customary means of subsistence, to sell his birthright for a mess of pottage.” (Marx 1990, 382)

In other words, during its phase of becoming capitalism had yet to develop its own foundations and so lacked the interlocking chain of parts which through the “silent compulsion of economic relations” force people to be wage labourers. As a result, during its phase of becoming capitalism relied upon what Leibowitz terms the capitalist mode of regulation in order to make people conform to the needs of capitalism. This capitalist mode of regulation was the state. Marx writes in Capital Volume I that,

“capital in its embryonic state, in its state of becoming, when it cannot yet use the sheer force of economic relations to secure its right to absorb a sufficient quantity of surplus labour, but must be aided by the power of the state.” (Marx 1990, p382)

State violence was used to discipline the working class, remove alternatives to selling labour to a capitalist and crush working class resistance to the development of capitalism. Marx writes in Capital Volume I that,

“during the historical genesis of capitalist production. . . [t]he rising bourgeoise needs the power of the state, and uses it to ‘regulate’ wages, i.e to force them into the limits suitable for making a profit, to lengthen the working day, and to keep the worker himself at his normal level of dependence.” (Marx 1990, 899-900)

A few pages later Marx refers to,

“the forcible creation of a class of free and rightless proletarians, the bloody discipline that turned them into-wage labourers, the disgraceful proceedings of the state which employed police methods to accelerate the accumulation of capital by increasing the degree of exploitation of labour” (Marx 1990, 905)

Marx on the Transition from Capitalism to Communism

With Marx’s views on society and on the transition from feudalism to capitalism in mind we can now turn to what Marx thought about the transition from capitalism to communism. In the Critique of the Gotha programme Marx writes,

“What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birth marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.” (Marx 2000, 614)

In this passage Marx distinguishes between communist society when “it has developed on its own foundations” and communist society “just as it emerges from capitalist society” and is “still stamped with the birth marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges”. What Marx means by this can be understood by re-phrasing what Marx said about capitalism as an organic system so that it refers to communism. Re-phrasing Marx quotes in this way is a standard practice among Marx specialists, such as Michael Lebowitz and Istvan Meszaros. Doing so is not anachronistic in this case since Marx explicitly says that the conceptual points he makes about capitalism as an organic system are “the case with every organic system.” (Marx 1993, 278)

According to Marx, communism has “developed on its own foundations” when “every economic relation presupposes every other in its communist economic form, and everything posited is thus also a presupposition”. That is to say, it is composed of a chain of interlocking parts that simultaneously constitute and reproduce it as an economic system. Communism’s development into an organic system with its own foundations “consists precisely in subordinating all elements of society to itself, or in creating out of it the organs which it still lacks.” It must come to create “its own presuppositions. . . by means of its own productive process” such that “it no longer proceeds from presuppositions in order to become, but rather is itself presupposed, and proceeds from itself to create the conditions of its maintenance and growth.” It must in short become self-reproducing.

In order to do so communism must pass through a “process of becoming” in which it arises out of capitalism and so initially exists in “its embryonic state”. During this phase it is “still stamped with the birth marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges”. That is to say, during its phase of becoming the foundation of communism rests on parts inherited from capitalism. This results in communist society initially being “oppressed by a whole series of inherited evils, arising from the passive survival of archaic and outmoded modes of production, with their accompanying train of anachronistic social and political relations.” For Marx one of the primary evils communism would inherent from capitalism is people being paid with labour vouchers per amount of labour performed, rather than receiving freely according to need. Marx holds that “these defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society as it is when it has just emerged after prolonged birth pangs from capitalist society.” (Marx 2000, 615) As communism develops into a phase of being and establishes its own foundations these defects are removed. Marx writes,

“In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labour, has vanished; after labour has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly – only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!” (Marx 2000, 615)

Communism will not of course develop its own foundations overnight. As a result, during its phase of becoming communism requires a communist mode of regulation which enables it to subordinate “all elements of society to itself” and create out of society “the organs which it still lacks”. For Marx the communist mode of regulation was the dictatorship of the proletariat. Marx writes,

“Between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.” (Marx 2000, 611)

Maoist Rebel News has read this passage as Marx describing a distinct mode of production called socialism. He has done so because he cannot see how a mode of production can simultaneously have a state and be stateless. If it is stateless it is communism, so if there is a state it cannot be communism and must be something else, namely socialism. This reading of Marx ignores his views on the being and becoming of an organic system. The dictatorship of the proletariat is a component of the becoming of communism which enables it to develop its own foundations and reach the phase of being. Once communism has developed into a phase of being the dictatorship of the proletariat will be dissolved. It is therefore a “historic presuppositions of communism, which, precisely as such historic presuppositions, are past and gone, and hence belong to the history of its formation, but in no way to its contemporary history, i.e. not to the real system of the mode of production ruled by it.” It “belongs rather to their past presuppositions, to the presuppositions of their becoming which are suspended in their being.”

Given this, there is no contradiction between saying that communism is a stateless society and saying that the dictatorship of the proletariat is part of communism. The dictatorship of the proletariat is a presupposition for the becoming of communism that is suspended in the being of communism and so is not a component of communism as an organic system which has developed its own foundations. It belongs to the “history of its formation” but not the “the real system of the mode of production ruled by it”. There is therefore no need to do as Maoist Rebel News has done and posit a distinct mode of production called socialism. Marx’s conceptual system enables us to simultaneously view communism as a stateless society and hold that a state will exist within communist society as it is emerging out of capitalist society.

Conclusion

Maoist Rebel News is, as I have shown, wrong to think that Marx posited a distinct intermediary mode of production called socialism. His error in part arises from his failure to understand the basic concepts through which Marx thinks about society, such as Marx’s notion of an organic system or his distinction between being and becoming or his views on how an economy becomes self-reproducing. This failure to understand Marx’s conceptual system is unfortunately widespread online. Internet Marxists consistently fail to read Marx on his own terms but instead read Marx through the lens constructed by later thinkers, such as Kautsky or Lenin. They are less concerned with understanding Marx himself and more concerned with perpetuating orthodoxy and intellectual stagnation. Marxism is, to re-phrase Marx, “oppressed by a whole series of inherited evils, arising from the passive survival of archaic and outmoded readings of Marx, with their accompanying train of anachronistic social and political relations.” If Marxism is to remain relevant it must engage in the “ruthless criticism of all that exists” (Marx 1843) and this includes a ruthless critique of those Marxists who have failed to understand Marx and spread only mis-information and stale theory.

Bibliography

Marx, Karl. Marx to Ruge, September 1843.

Marx, Karl. Capital Volume 1. Penguin Books, 1990.

Marx, Karl. Grundrisse. Penguin Books, 1993.

Marx, Karl. Karl Marx: Selected Writings. Edited by David McLellan. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 2000.

Marx, Karl and Engels, Frederick. Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 6. Laurence and Wishart, 1976.

 

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Why Socialists Care About Non Economic Issues

Contemporary socialists generally advocate both the abolition of capitalism and the abolition of other oppressive structures which are not strictly economic, such as sexism, racism, ableism and queerphobia. This raises the question: why should socialists place importance on abolishing non-economic forms of oppression? Isn’t socialism just meant to focus on class struggle?

A common answer to this question is that non-economic and economic struggles are inherently connected because capitalism reproduces itself through racism, sexism and so on. For example, capitalists divide the working class by pitting white workers against black workers and thereby prevent the working class from becoming a united bloc capable of emancipating itself. Or capitalists rely on the gender pay gap to pay women workers less and thereby increase their exploitation of the working class. Given this, if socialists are to abolish capitalism then they must fight the non-economic forms of oppression which capitalism reproduces itself through. This answer is correct to point to the ways in which different systems of oppression are interconnected. It however goes wrong in both viewing socialism as intrinsically valuable and in conceptualising the abolition of other forms of oppression as being mere means to achieve the end of socialism.

Socialist authors do not after all argue that we should achieve a socialist society because of its intrinsic value. Instead they argue that human beings should be free to engage in self-directed activity and thereby develop themselves as individuals. For Mikhail Bakunin, freedom meant “the full development of all the material, intellectual and moral powers which are found in the form of latent capabilities in every individual.” (Bakunin 1973, 196) Rudolf Rocker likewise held that, “freedom is not an abstract philosophical concept, but the vital concrete possibility for every human being to bring to full development all the powers, capacities, and talents with which nature has endowed him, and turn them to social account.” (Rocker 2004, 16)

The free and harmonious development of human beings was taken by socialists to be incompatible with a capitalist society because it is a social system in which, to quote Errico Malatesta, “a few individuals have hoarded the land and all the instruments of production and can impose their will on the workers, in such a fashion that instead of producing to satisfy people’s needs and with these needs in view, production is geared towards making a profit for the employers.” (Malatesta 2005, 32) For Emma Goldman this social system “condemns millions of people to be mere nonentities, living corpses without originality or power of initiative, human machines of flesh and blood who pile up mountains of wealth for others and pay for it with a gray, dull, and wretched existence for themselves.” (Goldman 1996, 50). The wage labourer, as Marx argued, “does not confirm himself in his work, he denies himself, feels miserable instead of happy, deploys no free physical and intellectual energy, but mortifies his body and ruins his mind.” (Marx 2000, 88)

The achievement of true human development therefore requires the abolition of capitalism. Its replacement, socialism, is to be a society in which the communal ownership of the means of production provides each individual with the real possibility to flourish. In Henri Saint-Simon’s words the goal of socialism is “to afford to all members of society the greatest possible opportunity for the development of their faculties.” (Quoted in Lebowitz 2006, 13) Or as Bakunin phrased it, the goal of the socialist revolution is to “ensure that all who are born on this earth become fully human in the fullest sense of the word, that all should have not just the right but the means necessary to develop their faculties, to be free and happy, in equality and through fraternity!” (Bakunin 2016, 100)

This same emphasis on human development can be seen in Marx and Engels. Engels writes in his Draft of a Communist Confession of Faith that the aim of a communist society is “[t]o organise society in such a way that every member of it can develop and use all his capabilities and powers in complete freedom and without thereby infringing the basic conditions of this society.” (Engels 1847) This was re-formulated in the Communist Manifesto as the notion that communism is “an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” (Marx and Engels 2008, 66) Communism is a society in which, as Marx wrote in the Grundrisse, the “development of all human powers as such [is] the end in itself” since each individual is able to achieve the “absolute working-out of his creative potentialities”. (Marx 1993, 488)

If human development is at the core of why socialists advocate the abolition of capitalism in favour of socialism, then it follows that the actual reason why socialists should advocate and engage in the abolition of non-economic forms of oppression is that doing so enables real human beings to develop themselves more fully. Racism, sexism, queerphobia and ableism not only maintain or interact with capitalism but also stifle human development in just the same way that capitalism does. The socialist objection to racism therefore is not only that it prevents working class unity but also that a pre-condition for the human development of people of colour is them not being subordinated and marginalised on the basis of their skin colour. Or socialists should oppose queerphobia because a pre-condition for the human development of queers is them being free to develop themselves as sexual and gendered beings, rather than being forced by bigotry to suppress and attack a core aspect of their humanity. Marx famously defined the “true realm of freedom” as the “development of human powers as an end in itself” and this realm cannot be said to exist if it does not include the development of gay powers and the satisfaction of gay needs. (Marx 1991, 959) The consequence of this is that unless socialists abolish non-economic forms of oppression then they will never achieve their actual main goals of human emancipation and human development. Non-economic issues are, far from being unrelated to socialist politics, absolutely integral to it.

Bibliography

Bakunin, Mikhail. 1973. Michael Bakunin: Selected Writings. Edited by Arthur Lehning. Jonathan Cape.
Bakunin, Mikhail. 2016. Bakunin: Selected Texts 1868-1875. Edited by A W Zurbrugg. Anarres Editions
Engels, Friedrich. 1847. Draft of a Communist Confession of Faith.
Goldman, Emma. 1996. Red Emma Speaks: An Emma Goldman Reader, 3rd Edition. Humanities Press
Lebowitz, Michael. 2006. Build It Now: Socialism for the Twenty-First Century. Monthly Review Press
Malatesta, Errico. 2005. At The Café: Conversations on Anarchism. Freedom Press
Marx, Karl. 1991. Capital: Volume III. Penguin Books
Marx, Karl. 1993. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft). Penguin Books
Marx, Karl. 2000. Selected Writings. Edited by David McLellan. Oxford University Press.
Marx, Karl, and Engels, Friedrich. 2008. The Manifesto of the Communist Party. Pluto Press
Rocker, Rudolf. 2004. Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory and Practice. AK Press

 

We Must Bring Socialism to Identity Politics

The political reality is that identity politics, at least within English speaking countries, is far more popular and influential than socialist politics, especially among younger people. Therefore, there exists a large body of people who, while not socialists, are nonetheless politically engaged, understand many of the problems with modern society, such as white supremacy or patriarchy, and value equality and freedom. The problem is that these people generally speaking lack a good understanding of class politics. This can be seen in the fact that they often understand class oppression in terms of classism, such as middle class people talking down to working class people, and don’t advocate worker self-management or the abolition of the state.

The task of socialists in such a political climate is not to try and persuade people to drop identity politics in favour of socialism. This is for two reasons. Firstly, there is a huge amount of good ideas within mainstream identity politics, such as understanding the connection between police brutality and racism, or holding that victims are not to blame for being raped. This goodness is incredibly important when one considers how widespread racism and sexism is in our societies, especially historically. In other words, the problem with liberal identity politics is not the identity politics, but the liberalism. Secondly, critiquing identity politics is not an effective way of persuading people to develop socialist politics. People generally stop listening once you start attacking their core belief system. This is especially true if it is a belief system that they are emotionally invested in, such as a traumatised queer who learned to love herself by spending time on tumblr and reading about liberal feminism.

Reflecting on my own political development I cannot remember many cases in which a critique of my ideas made me change my mind. Instead, what consistently happened was that I read about a new political perspective, found it interesting, thought about the ideas a lot, and gradually over time dropped my previous political beliefs as I began to see flaws in them. I think part of the reason for this is that as you learn about new ideas you transform your mental landscape and become able to understand things you could not before. For example, I didn’t understand queer perspectives on gender until I’d read more widely on feminist views on gender and so understood the larger conceptual framework that queer feminists were coming from. In a similar fashion, it is unsurprising that many liberals do not understand socialist critiques of their politics. To understand these criticisms, they must first have a general understanding of socialist theory. But if they had an understanding of socialist theory then they would themselves be in a position to critique liberal identity politics from a socialist perspective.

Given this, instead of attacking identity politics, socialists should produce socialist identity politics which combines the good elements of mainstream identity politics with a solid class politics based in Marxism or anarchism.  In particular, socialists should show how the core values which underpin identity politics, such as empathy for the oppressed or the belief that people should be free from domination, entail a Marxist or anarchist politics if they are consistently applied. For example, we could argue that if you support black lives matter then you should also support the abolition of the police and prisons. From there we could further argue that the police and prisons play a larger role in perpetuating class society and that, given this, the working class as a whole, regardless of race, has a shared interest in fighting state violence.

On this approach, socialist engagement with liberals consists in telling them the ways in which their politics could be better, rather than attacking them for having bad politics. The idea being that liberal feminists will, when presented with a better and more developed version of identity politics, work out for themselves the flaws with their old politics. Socialists should not expect such a transformation to happen overnight. They must be patient and understand that it takes time for people to learn a whole new approach to politics and to discard previous beliefs in favour of better ones.

To conclude, socialists must bring class politics to identity politics, rather than expecting liberals to drop identity politics in favour of socialism. We must try to blow people’s minds with socialist theory and have interesting conversations with them, rather than using socialist theory as a weapon with which to attack people for having bad politics and thereby prove our inherent superiority and radicalism. We must build a movement, not a sect.

‘Identity Politics Divides The Left’ – A Response

If capitalism is to be overthrown it is essential that a mass working class movement is created and developed during the course of struggle. In other words, the working class must unite and organise together as a class if they are to liberate themselves. Some socialist critics of identity politics argue that given the importance of working class unity, we should reject identity politics because it fragments and dis-unifies the working class. For the purposes of this article, it should be kept in mind that when I speak of identity politics I do not mean terrible liberal feminism or politics which relies on essentialist notions of what it is to be a ‘women’ or ‘gay’. Instead I mean a kind of politics which emerged in the new left and organised along lines of identity, such as being a ‘women’, ‘gay’, or ‘black’, in order to fight the forms of oppression distinct to these groups, such as patriarchy or white supremacy. Given this definition, I have lots of points to make in response to the argument that identity politics is a barrier to working class unity

Point 1.

The fragmentation of left wing social movements which identity politics does cause is not inherent to identity politics, but is rather part of a particular way of doing identity politics. For example, an overzealous call out culture is a harmful feature of many identity politics movements, but you can do identity politics without an overzealous call out culture. This has been demonstrated by discussions within identity politics itself, such as Asam Ahmad’s critique of bad call out culture or this everyday feminism article on calling in as an alternative to calling out. In short, the solution to bad identity politics is not no identity politics, it is good identity politics. Just as the solution to bad bureaucratic unions is good syndicalist unions, rather than no unions.

Point 2.

One of the main reasons why identity politics historically caused division within the left was angry arguments over whose oppression was primary or most important. For example, radical feminists would claim that gender oppression is most important, while black nationalists would argue that racial oppression is most important. This then led in turn to great hostility between different political groups divided along lines of identity. These arguments over whose oppression was primary led to the formation of intersectionality theory, which holds that “oppression cannot be reduced to one fundamental type”. (Collins 2000, 18) According to intersectionality, systems of oppression are not distinct separate entities that interact with one another. Instead, systems of oppression interlock and intersect with one another to form a totality which is greater than the sum of its parts. For example, racism and sexism as they really exist in our society are not separate social structures which interact, but are instead inter-twinned to such an extent that one cannot be separated from the other. Given this, “all struggles against domination are necessary components for the creation of a liberatory society. It is unnecessary to create a totem pole of importance out of social struggles and suggest that some are “primary” while others are “secondary” or “peripheral” because of the complete ways that they intersect and inform one another.” (Shannon and Rogue 2009)

Point 3.

The formation of women only, or lesbian only, or black only etc groups do not in and of themselves fragment the left. Such groups can be formed but be part of wider organisations, such as the IWW’s African people’s caucus, or can form alliances and co-operate with other organisations and movements, such as the black panthers being a black only group but organising with other working class movements, or black lives matter organising with Fight for 15.

Point 4.

If you are concerned with the fragmentation of left wing social movements then there is a lot more to be concerned about than identity politics. Historically the primary driver of fragmentation within the left has been tactical disputes, such as those between anti-state socialists and state socialists, and different splits within left wing organisations. The history of the UK left in the 20th century, for example, is a history of a huge number of splits within communist parties which has led to the formation of a myriad of organisations who have almost exactly the same name and spend most of their time arguing with one another. Despite this history, I do not see socialist critics of identity politics arguing that Trotskyism or Maoism fragments the working class and so should be rejected.

Point 5.

Capitalism is not the only oppressive structure. We live in a society which is patriarchal, racist, queerphobic and ableist. As a result of this, the working class is not an amorphous blob but is divided along lines of gender, race, sexuality, and disability. These divisions are not merely the product of the capitalist class dividing the working class. They are actively perpetuated by the working class themselves through the process of different working class people oppressing one another, such as straight workers attacking gay workers when they hold hands in public, or working class men sexually harassing working class women.

These structures of domination in turn produce identities among the oppressed and link these identities to negative self-conceptions, such as racism producing the notion of black identity and the notion that black skin is unattractive or that black people are inherently criminal. In reaction to this, oppressed groups construct positive notions of group identity, such as ‘black is beautiful’ or ‘black girl magic’, and through doing so un-learn the internalisation of their oppression. People not subject to systemic oppression on the basis of their gender, race, sexuality or ability often do not understand the importance of these positive group identities because they have not gone through their life being othered and oppressed on the basis of these features. When you have been, say, taught through violence and oppression to hate your sexuality, then you might understand why it is important to someone’s sense of self that they are gay and proud.

Given this reality, working class unity cannot take the form of differences of gender, sexuality, race, and ability being ignored. Most obviously, if we ignore these differences, then we are not in a position to understand oppressive behaviour that occurs within the left or society at large. We will merely see one human being oppressing another human being and thereby ignore the more important reality of a man oppressing a women and thereby perpetuating patriarchy.

Furthermore, ignoring the distinctiveness of marginalised groups because we are all human beings does not, under present conditions, result in a humanistic utopia. It results in cis, or straight, or white, or male people presenting themselves as the default human being or worker and so mistaking their experiences, interests and outlooks for universally human or working class experiences, interests and outlooks. If we are to abolish patriarchy, racism, queerphobia, and ableism then we must acknowledge and prioritise the distinct experiences, outlooks, and interests of marginalised groups, rather than assuming that cis, straight, white or male people speak for the whole of the human family or the whole of the working class.

This is a lesson which much of feminism has already learned. The reason why so much contemporary feminism emphasizes multiple forms of oppression is that historically the feminist movement had a tendency to equate womanhood with the particular experiences, outlooks, and identities of middle class, cis, straight, white women.  For example, in her book ‘The Feminine Mystique’ Betty Friedan, “made her plight and the plight of white women like herself synonymous with a condition affecting all American women”. Her famous phrase, “the problem that has no name” does not, as it is often alleged, describe the condition of all women in this society but instead refers “to the plight of a select group of college-educated, middle- and upper-class, married white women – housewives bored with leisure, with the home, with children, with buying products, who wanted more out of life.” (Hooks 2015, 1-2) If feminism has been attempting to be inclusive to differences of class, race, gender and sexuality within a women’s movement, then socialism must likewise attempt to be inclusive to such differences within a workers’ movement.

Point 6.

Socialist critics of identity politics should be weary of confusing unity with silencing and side lining. In practice, what is often considered to be working class unity is in fact cis-straight white men running the show and claiming to be acting in the interests of the working class, while at the same time oppressing women, people of colour, queers and the disabled. This false unity is then viewed as the default setting and resistance to this state of affairs is labelled as divisive and a breakdown of unity. To see things this way is to take the point of view of the oppressor, such as a cis-man viewing the creation of women only spaces as exclusionary and divisive. When of course, from the point of view of women it is cis-men claiming that women only spaces are sexist which causes division. In other words, a key source of division on the left is marginalised people being oppressed in the spaces which should be fighting for their liberation.

It is therefore bizarre that socialists who are critical of identity politics spend far more time attacking identity politics than the sexism, racism, ableism and queerphobia which permeates the left. For example, left wing organisations lacking good procedures to deal appropriately with sexual assault or sexual harassment accusations is a serious problem which causes far more division than women loudly complaining about rape culture and sexual violence within the left.

Point 7.

The left will not be able to build a truly mass working class movement without the participation of women, people of colour, queers and the disabled. Therefore, the left must ensure that its practices are inclusive and do not push away people from these groups. After all, women, for example, will not remain active within socialist organisations if they consistently experience sexism within these organisations, or have their emancipatory goals dismissed as un-important. Unsurprisingly, one of the main reasons behind the formation of women only, or lesbian only, or black only political groups which are separate from the wider left has and continues to be experiences of oppression and exclusion within left wing organisations and movements.

Given this, one of the main factors fragmenting left wing movements is a) the existence of patriarchy, racism, ableism and queerphobia within the left in particular and society in general, and (b) the failure of left wing movements to take these forms of oppression seriously. Therefore, if one was concerned with preventing the fragmentation of the left, one’s primary concern would be working to end oppression within left wing movements themselves and ensuring that left wing movements place importance on the emancipation of all of humanity from all structures of domination. Doing so creates a situation in which marginalised groups feel included and are therefore far less likely to leave movements or organisations due to experiences of oppression and marginalisation.

Point 8.

Throughout this piece I have been arguing for the importance of constructing a unity which respects difference. I think this notion has already been beautifully expressed by the Martiniquean poet Aimé Césaire in his 1956 resignation letter to the French Communist Party. He wrote,

“I am not burying myself in a narrow particularism. But neither do I want to lose myself in an emaciated universalism. There are two ways to lose oneself: walled segregation in the particular or dilution in the universal.

My conception of the universal is that of a universal enriched by all that is particular, a universal enriched by every particular: the deepening and coexistence of all particulars.” (Césaire 2010, 152)

I could not have put it better myself.

Bibliography

Césaire, Aimé. 2010. Letter to Maurice Thorez. Social Text 103, Vol. 28, No. 2
Collins, Patricia Hill. 2000. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Routledge.
Hooks, Bell. 2015. Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. Routledge.
Shannon, Deric and Rogue, J. Refusing to Wait: Anarchism and Intersectionality.

3 Reasons Why Radical Education Matters

I want to suggest three reasons why radical education matters.

The first reason emerges from the fact that we have all been and continue to be socialised by this society. Socialisation refers to the process whereby human beings learn the norms and values which exist in their society. When people speak of socialisation they often limit their discussion to the socialisation of children, such as children learning table manners or children learning to associate pink with girls and blue with boys. While the socialisation of children is really important, we should not act as if socialisation is only something which happens to children. The truth is that since we always live in society we never stop being socialised by our society. We are always being conditioned. For example, daily workplace experiences, listening to the news, seeing adverts, going shopping etc have an effect on our consciousness, whether we want to admit it or not. Likewise, sexism, racism, homophobia etc are not just things that we learn as children, but are rather constantly being taught to us as we go about our day. For example, Arabic people or Muslims being regularly depicted as terrorists on TV, in the news, and in films.

Radical education is therefore important because it equips people with the knowledge and tools that are needed to oppose this on-going socialisation. After all, if we’re constantly being socialised into harmful norms and values by this society, then unlearning what this society teaches us must be a never ending process. Prior to learning about socialism a person may watch a film in which unions are depicted as the enemy and allow this idea to drift unopposed into their mind. While once this person has learned about socialism they are able to see the ways in which the film contains pro-capitalist messages which attack working class people for resisting their oppression. Radical education, in short, enables people to engage in intellectual self-defence.

The second reason why radical education matters is that intellectual self-defence must occur not only at the level of opposing negative messages projected by others, but also at the level of one’s own thoughts. For example, a non-binary person may have constant mental arguments with themselves over whether or not they should be proud or ashamed of their gender identity. The knowledge that comes with reading feminist and queer theory will help such a non-binary person resist their tendency to hate themselves due to the internalisation of queerphobia. This will in turn help them learn to love themselves and to feel comfortable being who they are. Radical education in such situations is not then a purely academic or theoretical affair, but is instead necessary for survival and well-being.

The third reason why radical education matters is that learning theory enables people to change how they act towards others. For example, an able-bodied person learns that lots of people have disabilities which are not immediately obvious from looking at them, such as chronic fatigue or legg-calve perthes disease (which is what I have). This in turn stops the able-bodied person assuming that a person isn’t disabled if they’re not in a wheelchair or are not missing limbs. Or, to take a more class war example, a worker interacts with management differently after reading the communist manifesto. They no longer see a manager as just another worker, but instead view them as a class enemy whose institutional role is subordinating labour to the control of capital.

It is often the case that theory changes a person both internally and in terms of how they interact with others. For example, a women reads a feminist article on why women shouldn’t shave their body hair if they don’t want to. This not only leads them to stop shaving, but also helps them learn to stand up to men who tell them that they should shave their body hair. In so doing they are both resisting a given individual man and reclaiming their body as their own, rather than as something which exists purely for men to find sexually attractive, and thereby changing their own relationship with their body.

Marx Believed in Human Nature

It is commonly thought that Karl Marx rejected the idea of human nature. As I will show, this is false. What Marx rejected was the idea that there is such a thing as an abstract eternal human essence which exists outside of society. Rejecting a specific conception of human nature is not however the same is rejecting human nature in and of itself. Marx in fact has his own particular conception of human nature.

Marx holds that there are certain characteristics which, except in cases of pathology, all humans across all societies have in common. These are things like the fact that humans need food, water and sleep to survive, that humans reproduce through sex, that humans have brains and so on.

For Marx one of the most important of these common characteristics is that humans have consciousness. With this consciousness humans think about themselves, other people, and the world in which they live. They make plans for the future and reflect on past events. In the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1848, Marx writes

“The animal is immediately one with its life activity. It is not distinct from that activity; it is that activity. Man makes his life activity itself an object of his will and consciousness. He has conscious life activity. It is not a determination with which he directly merges. Conscious life activity directly distinguishes man from animal life activity. Only because of that is he a species-being. Or rather, he is a conscious being, i.e. his own life is an object for him, only because he is a species-being.” (Marx, Early Writings, p328)

One of the most important forms consciousness takes is humans consciously using their capacities in a creative self-directed manner in order to satisfy their desires for certain states of affairs, such as no longer being hungry or making a beautiful statue. In volume 1 of Capital Marx writes,

“A spider conducts operations which resemble those of the weaver, and a bee would put many a human architect to shame by the construction of its honeycomb cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is that the architect builds the cells in his mind before he constructs it in wax. At the end of every labour process, a result emerges which had been conceived by the worker at the beginning, hence already existed ideally. Man not only effects a change in the form of the materials of nature; he also realizes his own purpose in those materials. And this is a purpose he is conscious of, determines the mode of his activity with the rigidity of a law, and he must subordinate his will to it. This subordination is no momentary act. Apart from the exertion of the working organs, a purposeful will is required for the entire duration of the work. (Marx 1990, Capital Vol 1, p284)

Labour so understood is for Marx “an exclusively human characteristic” which “is the universal condition for the metabolic interaction between man and nature, the everlasting nature-imposed condition of human existence, and it is therefore independent of every form of that existence, or rather it is common to all forms of society in which human beings live.” (Marx 1990, Capital Vol 1, p284, p290) Or as Marx puts it in volume 3 of Capital, human beings must “wrestle with nature to satisfy his needs, to maintain and reproduce his life. . .and he must do so in all forms of society and under all possible modes of production.” (Marx, Capital Vol 3, p959)

Since these common characteristics are constant across all human beings (excluding cases of pathology) they must stem from certain basic facts about human biology. It is this human biology, alongside nature itself, which are the starting points for human activity and so the parameters in which it occurs. As Marx and Engels write,

“we cannot here go either into the actual physical nature of man, or into the natural conditions in which man finds himself — geological, hydrographical, climatic and so on. The writing of history must always set out from these natural bases and their modification in the course of history through the action of men.” (Marx & Engels, German Ideology, First Premises of Materialist Method)

Crucially, these “natural bases” – human nature and the natural environment – are modified “in the course of history through the actions of men”. Hence Marx’s distinction between “human nature in general” and “human nature as historically modified in each epoch.” (Marx 1990, Capital Vol 1, p759). Marx’s idea simply put then is that humans are all composed of the same fundamental raw materials but what these raw materials are shaped into differs across time and place. Importantly, the nature of the raw materials places definite limits on what they can be shaped into.

One of the main factors which modifies and develops the raw materials of human nature is society itself. This occurs because humans are social animals who are born into and live within societies. Human nature thus cannot be conceived of outside of society since it is always within and through society that human nature is expressed. Importantly, these societies differ hugely from one another and are themselves composed of diverse elements. Each individual human therefore experiences a particular historically specific social world which shapes them as people in distinct ways.

Let us take hunger. All humans experience hunger. However, humans always experience hunger through social relations and so people in different societies experience hunger differently. A human living in contemporary England is hungry for chips bought from their local chicken cottage. A human living in a Comanche society in the eighteenth century will, in contrast, be hungry for buffalo killed last hunting season. As Marx notes in the Grundrisse,

“Hunger is hunger, but the hunger gratified by cooked meat eaten with a knife and fork is a different hunger from that which bolts down raw meat with the aid of hand, nail, and tooth” (Marx, Grundrisse, p92)

The same point can be made with countless other examples. So, yes humans reproduce through sex but how they reproduce through sex differs across societies and within societies. There’s a fundamental difference between sexual reproduction within a protestant nuclear family and a hippie free love orgy during the 1960s. Both of these are in turn different to sexual reproduction within the bedroom of a 15th century Ming emperor. And so on.

Society is not the only thing which modifies humans. Individual humans also develop the raw materials of their physical brain and body as they engage in actions. On Marx’s view, when a human labours they not only change the natural world but also change themselves. For example, when I make a sandwich I not only change the natural world by slicing up bread and cheese, but also develop my sandwich making abilities. As Marx writes famously in volume 1 of Capital,

“By thus acting on the external world and changing it, he at the same time changes his own nature. He develops his slumbering powers and compels them to act in obedience to his sway.” (Marx 1887, Capital Vol 1, The Labour Process or the Production of Use Values)

Through engaging in labour we also develop new wants, desires, and motivations. When I first eat a sandwich I’m merely trying to satisfy my need for food. But upon eating the sandwich, and realising I like the experience, I develop a new need for sandwiches in and of themselves. My sandwich based desires are in turn shaped by the development of my sandwich making skills. I may start off being perfectly content with a plain boring sandwich, but as my sandwich making powers grow I find myself becoming aware of new sandwich possibilities and wanting sandwiches with different ingredients, or sandwiches of different sizes, or sandwiches which are cut up in different ways. As Marx writes in the German Ideology, “the satisfaction of the first need. . . leads to new needs”. (Marx & Engels, German Ideology, First Premises of Materialist Method)

In summary, Marx holds that there is such a thing as human nature but that this human nature is always mediated through society and so how human nature is expressed is different across and within societies. Thus, if we’re looking for things all humans have in common we can notice certain cross-cultural and trans-historical features. But we can also look at these same universal human features in a different light and notice the varied and distinct ways they exist within different societies at different moments in history. Marx lets us view humans as both unchanging and changing at the same time.

Bibliography

Marx, Karl (1990). Capital Volume 1. Penguin
Marx, Karl (1887). Capital Volume 1. Moscow: Progress Publishers. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/index.htm
Marx, Karl (1991). Capital Volume 3. Penguin.
Marx, Karl (1992). Early Writings. Penguin
Marx, Karl (1993). Grundrisse. Penguin
Marx, Karl & Engels, Friedrich (1968). The German Ideology. Moscow: Progress Publishers. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/

‘But Wage Labour Is Voluntary!’ – A Response

Anarcho-capitalists argue that wage labour does not limit freedom because it is voluntary. In this essay I shall examine a number of socialist responses to the anarcho-capitalst argument, and conclude that the anarcho-capitalist argument is not convincing.

The traditional socialist response to the capitalist is to deny that wage labour is voluntary and therefore that one is free under capitalism to sell one’s labour. Socialists instead insist that under capitalism workers are forced to sell their labour to capitalists. The argument is as follows. The reason why workers sell their labour to capitalists in the first place is that they have no other choice. In a capitalist society one needs money in order to purchase the essentials of life, such as food, shelter and clothing. Thus in order to avoid starvation or at best extreme poverty one must accumulate money. In order to accumulate money the vast majority of people in a capitalist society sell their labour to capitalists in exchange for a wage. This is because most people do not own capital or receive a large inheritance with which to start a business. It is true that some workers manage to create their own businesses but in order to do this they must accumulate the money required to buy the necessary capital and means of production for their business and thus at some point must partake in wage labour. Therefore the vast majority of individuals who engage in wage labour do so because if they do not they cannot purchase the goods and services required to survive.

The socialist argues that since workers engage in wage labour because they have no other choice it follows that wage labour is not voluntary. This is due to their belief that a choice lacking a meaningful alternative is no choice at all. If a person walked up to you and asked you for money, your choice to give them money would be voluntary since one can meaningfully choose between giving the person money or not giving the person money. In this example, you have realistic options to choose from. While if a robber walked up to you holding a gun and gave you the choice between giving them money or being shot to death then clearly one lacks a meaningful choice. The alternative to giving money is death and therefore when one chooses to perform the action of giving money to the robber one is not making this choice voluntarily. The victim in this instance is forced to hand over their money because they lack a realistic alternative to doing so. The socialist argues that workers are in the same position. Their choice is between working for a capitalist or extreme poverty and the possibility of death from starvation, illness etc. Workers thus lack a meaningful alternative to working for a capitalist and consequently are, under capitalism, forced to sell their labour just as the victim is forced to hand over their money to the robber. Therefore, wage labour is not voluntary and if wage labour is not voluntary it follows that it is not the case that wage labour does not limit freedom.

A few possible criticisms of the traditional socialist argument are as follows. The first argument is that the worker has the right to work for other capitalists than their current employer or to become self-employed. Since the worker has the right to leave their current employment as a wage labourer, but chooses not to leave, it follows that they voluntarily choose to work for their employer. Therefore, wage labour is voluntary. The problem with this argument is that it conflates rights with means. The socialist does not deny that wage labourers have the right to seek employment elsewhere, rather they deny that wage labourers have the means to be anything other than wage labourers. One would not argue that a homeless person’s freedom is not limited by their poverty because they have the right to buy a house or food or a car. Since while in poverty they lack the means to exercise their rights and their freedom to perform a wide variety of actions are consequently greatly limited. If one took the view that one is free on the condition that one has the right to freedom, irrespective of one’s own means to exercise said rights, then one would have to conclude that a homeless person and a billionaire are equally free, since the homeless person and the billionaire both have the right to be free. Yet clearly the billionaire is freer than the homeless person since the billionaire has far greater freedom to act as he or she wishes simple because they have the means to act. It is also therefore the case that a person who has meaningful alternatives to working as a wage labourer, but nonetheless chooses to work as a wage labourer, is freer than the person who has no choice but to be a wage labourer. Since the former meaningfully consents while the later does not.

The second argument is that every action a human performs is limited by the circumstances in which they make their choices, yet these choices do not limit our freedom and are not necessarily involuntary. For example, if a person only has £5 with which to buy a present for a friend, then their choice of present is restricted to those presents that are £5 or less. But it does not follow from the fact that their choice is restricted by their circumstances that they did not voluntarily purchase the present for their friend. The problem with this argument is that in the example of a person buying a present they have the realistic choice of whether to buy or not buy the present while a person entering into a wage contract is far more restricted in their choice. Thus while it is the case that a wage labourer is less restricted in their choices than the victim in the robbery, they are nonetheless more restricted then people engaging in the wide variety of choices that humans make on a daily basis, such as purchasing presents on a tight budget.

The third argument is that people engage in activities in order to survive, and as a result lack meaningful alternatives to engaging in these activities, since not performing these activities results in death. Yet these activities do not limit freedom despite their involuntary nature. People, for example, lack a meaningful alternative to eating, since if one does not eat one dies from starvation, and therefore eating is not voluntary. Since it is not voluntary, it follows that the socialist must conclude that eating limits freedom, which is an incredibly odd conclusion to make.

This, however, does not follow because the argument conflates political freedom with mere inability. To illustrate the difference between the two concepts, bad weather may be an obstacle to a person leaving their house, but it does not follow from the fact that bad weather makes people unable to leave their houses that bad weather makes people un-free. This is because it seems that freedom is an essentially social concept, which is only meaningful within the context of relations between individuals. Thus, a person is rendered un-free by their inability to leave their house if the reason for this is the actions of another person, such as someone blocking all exists from their house. Therefore, while it is true that people are unable to not eat and survive, this fact does not make people un-free because it is not caused by the actions of other individuals. Indeed, it is only because people work for a capitalist as a result of the arrangements of other human beings that socialists can claim that capitalism limits freedom.

The fourth argument is that there is a large difference, and therefore dis-analogy between, the robbery and entering into a wage contract. The first difference is that in the robbery the consequence of death is immediate and directly as a result of the robber’s actions. While in the case of wage labour, the consequence of death is distant and an in-direct result of the action of the capitalist, who did not purposely choose that the wage labourer dies but instead reproduced a social system whose consequences are workers dying from starvation or illness. This first difference is not particularly problematic since the socialist can argue that the threat of death in the robbery and the threat of death to the wage labourer are similar since in both examples the end result, death, is the same. Thus while they are different types of threats of death they are nonetheless both threats of death, and it is this shared feature that ensures that in both instances one lacks meaningful alternatives.

The second difference is related to the first difference but is not identical with it. It is that in the instance of the robbery one cannot simply walk away, since doing so will result in being killed immediately, while a worker can leave a particular workplace whenever they want and seek employment elsewhere. The robbery is an instance of immediate and almost certain death. While the worker who is unable to find employment, and so falls into extreme poverty, experiences the more distant and less likely possibility of death via starvation or illness, since they may survive off charity, the mutual aid of friends and family and in many modern capitalist nations, the welfare state. The point being that while the workers choices are limited by the possibility of poverty and starvation they are not as greatly limited as the victim in the robbery. Moreover, the victim in the robbery is more certain that if they do not make their un-meaningful choice they will die than the wage labourer is. It is more likely that the wage labourer will find another job, become self-employed or survive on the welfare of others or the state than it is that the victim in the robbery will escape. As a result, it is questionable whether or not workers experience the same lack of meaningful consent as the victim in the robbery. The argument is that while the constraints in the robbery are sufficient to negate the possibility of meaningful consent, since one is certain of the consequences of not complying with the robber, the constraints faced by wage labourers are not sufficient to negate the possibility of meaningful consent, since one is less certain of the consequences of not entering into a wage contract. The analogy is therefore not as conclusive as the socialist would hope.

The socialist can however respond to this argument. In the robbery example it is not entirely certain that one will be killed since the robber could be a bad shot, shoot to wound or one could be saved by modern medicine. What is certain though is that one will suffer if one does not comply with the demands of the robber. The same is true of the wage labourer. Even if the wage labourer cannot be certain that they will die or experience extreme poverty they will nonetheless significantly suffer if they do not enter into a wage contract. Therefore, their choice is between working for a capitalist or almost certainly suffering, with the very strong possibility of experiencing poverty and the less strong possibility of death via starvation or illness. Thus while their choice is not as absolute as ‘work for a boss or die’ it is nonetheless a decision in which one lacks meaningful options due to the high probability of poverty and therefore significant suffering.

The fifth argument is that if wage labour is not voluntary then socialism is not voluntary either. This is due to the belief that under socialism one’s choice is work for the collective, in order to receive the essentials of life, or experience poverty and die. Even if people under socialism receive considerable welfare, in order for society to function and provide said welfare some people are going to have to work. The problem with this argument is that  socialists are not claiming that they are exempt from their criticism. It is the capitalist who claims exemption when they argue that workers voluntarily enter into wage labour and that an anarcho-capitalist society is an entirely voluntary one. It is these two claims that the socialist is responding to. To argue that the socialists’ argument applies to socialism does not refute the socialists argument and thus any capitalist who argues this must immediately cease to argue that wage labour is voluntary and therefore justified and that anarcho-capitalism is an entirely voluntary society.

Socialists in comparison to capitalists argue that socialism maximises autonomy more than capitalism, not that socialism is a society in which individuals are completely autonomous. Or to put it differently, socialism is a society that is more voluntary than capitalism, not a society that is completely voluntary. It is the capitalists who are the Utopians who believe their society would be entirely free and not the socialists who have the far more humble claim that their society is freer than a capitalist society.

Despite these arguments, a capitalist may not be convinced of the socialists conclusion that under capitalism workers are not free to sell their labour. Even if this is so, the socialist still has a strong case to make. This is because It is not necessary to deny the capitalist’s claim that under capitalism people are free to sell their labour. This is because the socialist’s claim, that one is forced to sell one’s labour, is entirely compatible with the capitalists’ claim. As G.A Cohen notes, workers are both free to sell their labour and are not free not to sell their labour. He writes that “before you are forced to do A, you are, except in unusual cases, free to do A and free not to do A. The force removes the second freedom, not the first. It puts no obstacle in the path of your doing A, so you are still free to.” Capitalism therefore promotes one freedom, the freedom to sell one’s labour, but also reproduces and rests on the material conditions which ensure that workers are not free not to sell their labour, since while they have the right not to sell their labour, they fundamentally lack the means to exercise this right.

Those who object that it cannot be the case that a person is both free and not free to do x at the same time confuse freedom to with doing an action freely. Cohen is not claiming that workers perform wage labour freely but rather that they are free to sell their labour. This is an incredible important point, since if workers were not free to sell their labour it would follow that modern workers are no different than chattel slaves who had no choice in who they worked for and lacked the right to leave their owner. Yet modern workers do have the right to choose among employers and the right to leave their workplace when they choose to do so. Admitting this truth does not mean that the socialist must concede that wage labour does not limit freedom. This is because liberty is not the capacity to choose between masters but is instead the absence of masters, it is autonomy over one’s self. The ability to choose a new master is not freedom but is instead a form of democratic tyranny as rather than being forced to accept the will of one ruler you are given the choice between several different rulers.

Furthermore, even if we ignore these arguments and concede that the capitalist is correct to insist that one is free to sell one’s labour and free not to sell one’s labour it still does not follow that wage labour does not limit freedom. My central point is that while it is the case that something being voluntary is a necessary condition for it being a domain of freedom, it is not a sufficient condition because something can be voluntary but nonetheless limit freedom. Or to put differently, a person may voluntarily enter an institution, group or organisation but it does not follow from this fact that while within it their freedom is not being limited. To support this argument let us imagine a woman who voluntarily enters into a marriage and proceeds to be verbally, but never physically, abused by her husband, have no say in household decisions and be ordered around by her husband. While it is true that she has the right to leave the marriage she lacks the means to do so. This is because she does not have good qualifications and previous work experience and so cannot gain access to a job with a large enough salary to support both her and her children. She therefore stays in the marriage for purely financial reasons relating to the economic safety of herself and her children. But it does not follow from the fact that she chooses to stay in the marriage because it is the best option available to her that her husband is a) treating here justly and b) that her husband is not limiting her freedom. All that follows is that the woman believes that staying with her husband is superior to the alternatives available to her.

The socialist argues that many workers are in a similar position. Workers have the right to leave their job but they lack the means due to the predictable result of them leaving their job being poverty and at worst death as a result of illness or starvation. But the fact that they choose to stay in their job, as it is the best option available to them, does not entail the conclusion that a) their company, boss, manager and co-workers treat them justly and b) that their company, boss, manager and co-workers are not limiting his or her freedom. Even if we alter the marriage scenario such that the woman has the means of leaving, it does not follow from this that her husband does not limit her freedom since it is still the case that she is verbally abused, has no say in decision making and is ordered about by her husband. The same is true of an employee who has the means to work for another firm, or perhaps even create their own firm, since they still have little to no say in decisions and simply take orders from above irrespective of their own thoughts on the matter. In short, the fact that a person has the right and at best the means to leave x does not entail the proposition that while within x their freedom is not being limited. Therefore, to justify something as a domain of freedom one must offer further reasons beyond ‘x is voluntary’.

To conclude, the anarcho-capitalist’s argument fails. If the traditional socialist argument is correct it follows that one is not free to sell one’s labour. If one accepts the premise that one Is free to sell one’s labour then if G.A Cohen is correct this freedom is compatible with not being free not to sell one’s labour. Even if one were to claim that one is entirely free to sell one’s labour it still would not follow that wage labour does not limit freedom since ‘x’ being voluntary is a necessary condition for it being a domain of freedom, not a sufficient condition. Thus the anarcho-capitalist argument does not manage to show that wage labour does not limit freedom.