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Socialism and communism in the age of climate strikes

Sascha Engel

Platypus Review 121 | November 2019

ALTERNATIVES TO CAPITALISM, WHICH HAD LONG BEEN DORMANT after the collapse of the Soviet Union, are now everywhere enjoying a resurgence. Extinction rebellions, black blocs and cooperatives everywhere are on the ascent, resisting neoliberal attacks on the poor with as much vigor as they resist those on the environment. Congresswoman and social media darling Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders are not the only members of the American public to openly debate the merits of socialism. One can certainly doubt whether even the most generous health care reform can lay claim to the concept of ‘socialism.’ Nevertheless, the fact that lots of people all the way into the political mainstream are using the term presents an opportunity and opens terrain which a radical Left cannot afford to lose.

No climate strike achieves anything unless it is guided by the idea of a communist society. I make the case here that it is high time to set the record straight and to declare what socialism really is: a transition to communism. That is, socialism is not a discrete stage of economic development, as the Soviet Union had it and as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has it, but rather denotes only the transition towards a communist society. In turn, this means that it is necessary to discuss what such a communist society might look like. The time is ripe to take a stab at orienting ourselves to our goal.

2019 Climate Strikers, from https://www.flickr.com/photos/135433887@N02/33716537498

Returning to Marx, again and again, is imperative: Marx's central problem is today's central problem. Everywhere capitalist production wreaks havoc on the environment, impoverishes workers, enslaves and starves humans and animals, and — for the lucky few — provides equal parts boredom and cruelty. If wasteful, unjust, and inhumane production is the central regime of capitalism, then ecological, just, and humane production will be the central achievement of communism. Socialism — if the concept is to be worth anything — and climate strikes — if their action is to be worth anything — must take up this idea of ecological, just, and humane production. The concept of “production” is, after all, one readily understood by anyone unwilling or unable to conceive of alternatives to capitalism. It can therefore serve as a starting point in the transition to “the only society in which the genuine and free development of individuals ceases to be a mere phrase” and where “the necessary solidarity of the free development of all” leads to “the universal character of the activity of individuals on the basis of the existing productive forces.”[i]

“Planning” versus socialism

Above all, socialism has nothing to do with a planned economy. It would not even be necessary to combat this right-wing bogeyman if it were not for the unfortunate fact that even advocates of socialism often conflate the two. Thus in contemporary American debates about socialism, the latter is often characterized as “a system of completely marketless economic planning.”[ii] In the context of climate change, others advocate “the transformation of the entire economy, including transportation, industrial production, etc. through such planning” as will secure the future survival of humans and animals alike.[iii] Such planning may well be driven by worker cooperatives, and indeed is envisioned to be democratic rather than bureaucratic — but it remains planning nonetheless. The history of the Soviet Union, on the other hand, seems to likewise confirm that socialism is essentially a planned state economy, from Stalin's five-year plans to Gorbachev's ill-fated at attempts at reform from above in Glasnost and Perestroika.

Nevertheless, a planned economy is by no means the essence of socialism. Indeed, it is not even a constitutive aspect of it. Socialism cannot be defined in terms of “planning, economic rationality, social justice, the 'logic of needs', etc.”[iv] If it is defined as such, as it was when “the decadent bureaucracies of the Soviet bloc” reinforced “the only kind of centralized planning they [could] conceive of” in the 1968 crackdown on Czech dissent, it inevitably has “to turn once again to the methods of capitalism.”[v] A planned economy lapses back into a capitalist economy because its fundamental tenets — allocation of scarce resources, maximization of output, rational production — are those of the capitalist economy.[vi]

Indeed, the Soviet Union is the best example of this. Well into the 1970s and 1980s, its attempts to compete against Western countries were predicated upon output increases achieved by the ever-more efficient allocation of scarce resources in centralized planning.[vii] Amid this, alienation of workers from the means of production remained the case, only replacing these means' private ownership by ever-more distant state bureaucracies operating on the basis of supposedly scientific economic laws — the very same laws prevalent in capitalist countries.

As a radical Left goes about reappropriating the notion of socialism, it must unequivocally assert that socialism is nothing other than the movement towards communism. It is neither based on markets, nor a stage of economic development in its own right. There is no socialism except as continuous struggle towards communism; initially against the bourgeoisie and its state, then — perhaps — against the bureaucratic ossification of any previous vanguard. Socialism as a historical stage or mode of production is a fundamentally bourgeois concept.

Rather, socialism is the movement towards communism, the classless and stateless society where “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”[viii] Communism is thus not a goal of socialism, to be achieved at some future point, but is present in socialism from its inception. Control of the means of production does not transition from private hands to the state, but is rather seized to be transformed altogether. Present forms of this, such as cooperatives, communes, or even unions, demonstrate that such a transformation is possible. Yet the current form these transformations take remains fundamentally capitalist as long as a vision of communism does not inform the socialist struggle. It is good, for example, that zero-hour workers unionize. Yet without a goal linked to a totally altered structure of production, unionization can become a tool of capitalist control of workers in a heartbeat — as indeed it has numerous times. Likewise, it is good that there are climate strikes. Yet without a totally different form of production, the climate strike, too, becomes another advertising ploy.

Why a Marxian concept?

But why a concept of production? And why a Marxian concept of production? Turning to Marx’s concepts of production to inform one’s vision of communism seems to be a bad idea all the more since Marx's belief in the subjugation of nature by machinery led, in some ways, to the cavalier recklessness with which Soviet development treated nature. Distributive justice, too, was in short supply in the Soviet Union. Yet, there is, as Derrida pointed out right after the collapse of the Soviet Union, more than one Marx.[ix] Asserting that Soviet economic policy is a natural result of Marx's writing, and thus rejecting Marx along with the Soviet Union, is merely an ideological maneuver.

This is not to say that one can simply appropriate Marx's texts without reflection. Indeed, some have argued that a Marxist notion of production has become unable to provide useful critical concepts in today’s “informational society.” “Failing to conceive of a mode of social wealth other than that founded on labor and production,” Jean Baudrillard wrote in 1975, “Marxism no longer furnishes in the long run a real alternative to capitalism.”[x] For Baudrillard, Marx’s critical potential remained dependent on the very notion of productivity so characteristic of capitalism. Other critics have argued that Marx’s theoretical edifice is bound up in 19th-century notions of natural science and dominion over the natural world.[xi] Yet others have moved away from notions of production and towards notions of informational dissemination to analyze the nooks and crannies of contemporary relations of power.[xii]

Contemporary capitalist production is certainly, as these critics argue, embedded into relations of symbolic exchange and consumption which invite questioning of the specifically industrial character of Marx’s notion of production. Yet this does not mean that production is no longer the dominant issue of contemporary capitalism. The “information age” has by no means rendered industrial production obsolete. From sweatshops and maquiladoras in globalized outsourced production chains, to the wastelands of Agbogbloshie, where electronic remains poison the ground water, unjust and ecocidal industrial production exceed “informational” consumption everywhere. The Western world has outsourced industrial toil and labor elsewhere, but it has not abolished it. Marx’s critique of production continues to have its place. By the same token, a radically different vision of production continues to have its place in socialism: as focal point, incentive, and goal.

By thinking about communist production, a radical Left can provide concrete, direct and visible connections between the state of today and that of communism tomorrow. “Let us now picture to ourselves, by way of change, a community of free individuals, carrying on their work with the means of production in common… The total product of our community is a social product. One portion serves as fresh means of production and remains social. But another portion is consumed by the members as means of subsistence…”[xiii] Beyond analysis of capitalism, this radically altered notion of production allows the projection of the society of tomorrow, while keeping the concrete connection with that of today necessary to guide practical struggles.

Communist production

In his comments on James Mill’s Elemens D’economie Politique, written when he took up his study of political economy in earnest in 1844, Marx offers a few tantalizing glimpses of such a concept of production beyond that of the capitalist mode of production. As in the much more well-known Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of the same year, Marx contrasts in his comments on Mill a notion of production as capitalist profit with that of production alienating workers. Thus under capitalism, “my labour can appear in my object only [...] as the expression of my loss of self and of my powerlessness that is objective, sensuously perceptible, obvious and therefore put beyond all doubt.”[xiv]

In contrast to this, Marx uses as his foil the concept of communist production which goes beyond any analytical concept he later developed, and which can serve as a guidepost in socialism. I will first quote it here at length:

Let us suppose that we had carried out production as human beings. Each of us would have in two ways affirmed himself and the other person. 1) In my production I would have objectified my individuality, its specific character, and therefore enjoyed not only an individual manifestation of my life during the activity, but also when looking at the object I would have the individual pleasure of knowing my personality to be objective, visible to the senses and hence a power beyond all doubt. 2) In your enjoyment or use of my product I would have the direct enjoyment both of being conscious of having satisfied a human need by my work, that is, of having objectified man's essential nature, and of having thus created an object corresponding to the need of another man's essential nature. 3) I would have been for you the mediator between you and the species, and therefore would become recognised and felt by you yourself as a completion of your own essential nature and as a necessary part of yourself, and consequently would know myself to be confirmed both in your thought and your love. 4) In the individual expression of my life I would have directly created your expression of your life, and therefore in my individual activity I would have directly confirmed and realised my true nature, my human nature, my communal nature.[xv]

This notion can respond to both the critiques of the “mature” Marxist concept of production undertaken by Baudrillard, and the “actually existing” socialisms of Soviet satellites. It does not fall prey to the capitalist replacement of social relations with material things, and instead aims to affirm humans and animals, plants and artificial intelligences in the process of generating the material products necessary to live with some grace. I discuss the four elements Marx presents in turn.

1) In my production I would have objectified my individuality, its specific character, and therefore enjoyed not only an individual manifestation of my life during the activity, but also when looking at the object I would have the individual pleasure of knowing my personality to be objective, visible to the senses and hence a power beyond all doubt.[xvi]

This most elementary part of the concept of communist production describes the direct relation between the producing subject and the object produced. The producer finds herself manifest in what she produces. That is, she goes beyond looking upon it with the pride that comes with artisanal or do-it-yourself work. She rather comes to see it as a complete manifestation of herself in her labor: both process and product. Thus, this is not to be read as an advocacy of returning to artisanal manufacturing, as Marx has been misconstrued to do. Rather, both the production process and the product produced must affirm the producer.

That is, above all, the production process must make sense. This does not necessarily mean that every process of labor must make sense to everyone in itself. It must make sense, however, as part of a socially-affirmed and affirmative totality. Here, the question of what types of work are necessary can be consulted with gain. Even the least pleasant types of production, such as waste removal, can become a chance for the producer to affirm herself if they carry social recognition.

Still, the product itself must make at least some sense, too. It must be capable either to elicit recognition of the producer in itself — that is, it would have a direct relation to her life — or it must do so in a broader social context. Thus, even if communist production were to uphold the efficiency gains derived from local, regional, national, or even global divisions of labor, such divisions would have to rest upon solid social divisions of affirmation. Immediately, such affirmations can be recognitions. Where a producer is not recognized with love — say, because her product does not serve anyone in her immediate community — she can still be recognized with respect for her work, and at the very least with the social esteem of having contributed, however small that contribution might be.[xvii]

Thus, what is “visible to the senses and hence a power beyond all doubt,” as Marx put it, is not the product itself but the social relations into which it is embedded. These, in turn, do not become visible as they do under capitalism, as exploited and alienated productive relations. Rather, they come to be embedded into a social series of interactions: relations of recognition, respect, or esteem or, in more proximate settings, relations of personal intimacy, love, and free enjoyment of each other.

The first element of communist production thus immediately merges into the second.

2) In your enjoyment or use of my product I would have the direct enjoyment both of being conscious of having satisfied a human need by my work, that is, of having objectified man's essential nature, and of having thus created an object corresponding to the need of another man's essential nature.[xviii]

As in the first element of communist production, the producer affirms herself both in her product and in the process of producing it. In both cases, this affirmation is embedded into social relations of affirmation. As above, this works in two ways. First, the other is affirmed in the product produced. Communist production is production within a framework of knowing where products originate and where they are headed. Such chains of knowledgeable production are approximated, as much as is possible within capitalism, by attempts at “fair trade” supply chains.

Thus, the certification system set up by Fair Trade Labelling Organizations International (FLO) aims to “support democratic producer organizations, provide premiums for social development, improve labor rights, and facilitate long-term trading relationships” between traders and consumers.[xix] In practice, this is routinely thwarted by familiar tenets of present-day capitalist production, such as weak enforcement and oversight, as well as various more or less officially corrupt methods of shirking responsibility.[xx] Nevertheless, one might make an argument akin to Marx's own point that practices possible within capitalist production may well allow more seamless transitions to communist production.

Imperfect though such an approximation might be, it does show that relations of affirmation across regional, national, and indeed global productive chains can be approached even within alienated relations of exploitation. Even if communist production were to retain such global productive chains — and there may be little reason to do so once races to the bottom of labor standards fall by the wayside — across them the other can be affirmed in the product more fully than would ever be possible than under capitalism.

Even more so, secondly, is it possible to affirm the other immediately, in the process of production itself. Transnational labor activism shows that, even under globally organized alienation and exploitation, solidarity between artificially divided workers in the First and Third Worlds can hold sway. While, as has been pointed out many times, a cooperative economy would mostly be local, globally organized connections are possible wherever necessary — and in the age of climate catastrophe, the necessity is both patently obvious and permanent. Face-to-face knowledge of one another, along with the social relations of affirmation which come with such intimate acquaintance, is thus not the only means of allowing producers to affirm not just each other’s existence, but their personality and indeed their freedom, both in the products produced and in the productive process.

Affirming the other thus means, above all, affirming the needs of the other. Here, the notion of affirmation inherent in the communist notion of production goes beyond merely the recognition of the other. Recognizing the other entails love seemingly only on a face-to-face basis, with weaker notions of respect and esteem across further distances. Yet beyond this, affirming the other as a needful being entails the affirmation of the other’s vulnerabilities; of their essential finitude in time and space; of their personality in all aspects. Cooperating with others in this deeper sense means affective cooperation. This, too, exists in rudimentary form under capitalism, from support groups to informal judgment-free zones and indeed mental health-oriented shitposting groups on social media. If this is possible in capitalism, then moving beyond mere recognition to richer affirmation is a fortiori possible in communism.

It is, however, only possible in communist production. Within capitalist production, cooperation remains subject to the fundamentally antagonistic character of individual wage labor. To be sure, informational and affective labor have today modified industrial wage labor to the point where “it is, in a word, the development of the social individual which appears as the great foundation-stone of production and of wealth.”[xxi] The kind of emotional labor involved in customer service on the one hand, or mandated teamwork on the other, still remains individualized in its capitalist form. Employees require incentives to cooperate — workplace friendships are common (and commonly exploited) but cannot be expected.

Only when incentives give way to genuine mutual affirmation does alienation cease, and affective labor is performed between individuals or groups rather than presenting as an enforced addition to fundamentally antagonistic relations. Only then will “education, attitude, character, and ‘prosocial’ behavior” cease being seen as “the primary skills employees need” and become the fabric of genuine affective production.[xxii] The producer is thus not “incentivized,” as she would be in capitalism, but she affirms the other in her work on a deeper, visceral, intimate level, across great distances or small.

Here, it is crucial to go even further. For if Marx is to be taken at his word, the affirmation of the other is “conscious” and is an affirmation of “a human need.” These notions come close to those of recognition as described above: respect and esteem — the recognition of the other only inasmuch as they are human. This would exclude subhumans: animals, plants and artificial intelligences, not to mention potential leeways for other, racially or sexually delineated kinds of subhumans. But it only looks that way. Marx’s concept is even richer. Far from recognizing the other as something, a fellow human, a fellow producer, a much more far-reaching economy is set in motion here.

3) I would have been for you the mediator between you and the species, and therefore would become recognised and felt by you yourself as a completion of your own essential nature and as a necessary part of yourself, and consequently would know myself to be confirmed both in your thought and your love.[xxiii]

Affirming the other in the product does not merely resolve into affirming the other merely as a consumer — a fellow human being with needs. Were this the case, the argument would end up in capitalism again, where objects are part of a general circulation. Affirming one object here affirms all of them, but under capitalism, such affirmation is alienated and thus results in a differential appraisal of objects as status symbols for conspicuous consumption.[xxiv] In communist production, affirming objects is embedded in relations between producers approximating authenticity, and thus communism comes close to affirming objects in a non-alienated way. Indeed, the very notion of “object” ceases to apply.

It seems that, with the third element of communist production, Marx predominantly discusses the affirmation of producers by other producers in the process of production. Yet here, the static economy of recognizing each other as humans in a world of objects gives way to a dynamic process of affective affirmation. A producer affirms another producer in the process of producing. Yet the other producer is not static; their individuality, personality, and freedom, too, assert themselves in producing. This in turn can only be embedded in their own role as producing the other. The producer thus affirms the other as an unfolding entity. The producer affirms the other as a producer; which is to say, the producer affirms the other as affirming the other. The third other in turn is a producer, affirming the other in producing, and so on, rippling outward into eternity.

In communist production, therefore, the anonymity of the third entity, which occludes visions of the other as immediate other and renders her part of a faceless mass of third entities, does not arise. Each of us unfolds as producer of the other and thus immediately as producer of the producer of the other, and producer of the producer of the producer of the other, and so on. An infinite economy of affirmation unfolds as communist society, each and every day. As such, the first producer is always also the last producer, for the other produces the initial producer just as well. Affirmation never ceases to circulate. There is no reciprocity, but unfolding exuberance and exuberant unfolding. The producer is an essential part of the other inasmuch as the affirmation she gives is not just reciprocated but circulates through and beyond her, as she is affirmed, at once, as herself and as producing the other. Social relations of affirmation in communist production do not, therefore, resolve to economies of equality but rather resolve into affective more-than-economies of affirmation: each gives as they can, and each receives as they need, physically, emotionally, existentially.[xxv]

Marx’s description of the affirmation of the other as “species,” therefore, must be seen in the context of the affirmation of the other as exuberant unfolding, not vice versa. The other is never affirmed merely as the other individual, but rather as inexhaustible movement to-the-other-of-the-other. Communist production is not so much a production of objects but rather of others-towards-others; of gestures of love; of commitments of thought; of solidarity.

This extends to what capitalism treats as objects, too. First, it extends to animals which, in communist production, are produced as movements-to-the-other just as much as humans are. Thus, the animal is more than a companion or a set piece. It unfolds as exuberant affirmation in the social more-than-economy of exuberance; it, too, energizes and enjoys, saddens and suffers with us. Eventually, the term “animal” loses its meaning — an animal is in opposition to a human, after all. What remains is an unfolding, like us.

Likewise, “artificial intelligences” are produced, in communist production, only in that they are affirmed beyond recognition. Here, the legwork is at first conceptual, as capitalist recognition of “artificial intelligence” inevitably confines it to boundaries of inadequate ontological markers: humans, less-than-humans, more-than-humans; machines, more-than-machines, less-than-machines. Communism, by contrast, affirms them as unfolding more-than-others like ourselves.

The natural world, finally, loses its merely instrumental character in communist production. The first step here, as it is for “artificial intelligence” and “animals,” is to abandon trite categorizations. Like the notion of “animal,” that of “nature” portrays a passive realm in contradistinction to active humanity. Thus what was “nature” under capitalism, resource for exploitation and passive victim of climate crises, is affirmed in communist production as a realm of beings which, like producers, are beings-towards-others; affirming each other and us in an affective circulation of love and thought. Thus the entities which, under capitalist production, had been “humans” and “animals,” “artificial intelligence” and “nature,” come to affirm and be affirmed in the generalized ontological circulation of communist more-than-recognition:

4) In the individual expression of my life I would have directly created your expression of your life, and therefore in my individual activity I would have directly confirmed and realised my true nature, my human nature, my communal nature.[xxvi]

For us, then, communist production does not mean material abundance. It is quite evident that material abundance, or even the elevation of all human beings to the level of material consumption currently enjoyed in the Western world, is not ecologically sustainable and in any case is predicated upon the exploitation of non-Western Others, be these human, machinic, or animal. What communist production does promise, however, is a form of producing one another in social relations much more than in material goods. It is a production of each other outside of the state of war: as vulnerable, fragile, and finite beings in a vulnerable, fragile, and finite world.| P


[i]     Karl Marx, “The German Ideology,” in Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol. 5 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1975), 439.

[ii]    Ben Burgis, “Socialism and the Self-Checkout Machine.” Jacobin. September 2019. https://jacobinmag.com/2019/09/self-checkout-lanes-grocery-store-service-community-protection-act (accessed October 24, 2019).

[iii]    John Reimann, “Global Warming, ‘Grass’ Farming and a Planned Economy.” New Politics. September 19, 2019. https://newpol.org/global-warming-grass-farming-and-a-planned-economy/ (accessed October 24, 2019).

[iv]    Etienne Balibar, On the Dictatorship of the Proletariat (London: New Left Books, 1977), 139.

[v]    Paul Sweezy and Charles Bettelheim, On the Transition to Socialism (New York and London: Monthly Review Press, 1971), 10.

[vi]    Douglas Kellner, Critical Theory, Marxism, and Modernity (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 56.

[vii]   Thus see a contemporary defense in Nikolaj Inozemtsev, Contemporary Capitalism: New Development and Contradictions (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974), 24.

[viii]  Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert Tucker  (New York: W.W.Norton Co., 1978), 491.

[ix]   Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx (New York: Routledge, 1994).

[x]    Jean Baudrillard, The Mirror of Production (St. Louis: Telos Press, 1975), 29.

[xi]   One example is Mark Posner, Mode of Information (London: Polity, 1990), 30-33.

[xii]  See, for example, Tim Luke, Screens of Power (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989), 21-23.

[xiii] Karl Marx, Capital Vol I, in Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol. 35, 89.

[xiv] Karl Marx, “Comments on James Mill, Elemens d'economie politique,” in Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol. 3, 228.

[xv]  Marx, “Comments,” 227-228.

[xvi] Marx, “Comments,” 227.

[xvii] I take up here the tripartite differentiation of recognition into love, respect, and social esteem proposed by Axel Honneth. See Bart Van Leeuwen, “A Formal Recognition of Social Attachments: Expanding Axel Honneth’s Theory of Recognition.” Inquiry. An Interdisciplinary Journal of Philosophy 50(2), 180.

[xviii] Marx, “Comments,” 227-228.

[xix] Joni Valkila, Pertti Haaparanta, and Niina Niemi, “Empowering Coffee Traders? The Coffee Value Chain from Nacaraguan Fair Trade Farmers to Finnish Consumers.” Journal of Business Ethics 97(2), 257.

[xx]  Elizabeth Chang, “Your ethical chocolate might be only 20 percent ‘ethical.’” The Washington Post. April 10, 2017.

[xxi] Karl Marx, Grundrisse (New York: Penguin, 1993), 561.

[xxii]       Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude (New  York: Penguin, 2004), 108.

[xxiii] Marx, “Comments,” 228.

[xxiv] See Jean Baudrillard, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. (New York: Telos Press, 1981), 29-62.

[xxv] Karl Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Program,” in Marx-Engels Collected Works, Vol. 24, 87.

[xxvi] Marx, “Comments,” 228.

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