I recently visited Berlin, staying in what had been East Berlin not far from Karl-Marx Allee (formerly Stalin Allee) and visiting the remains of the Berlin Wall and a museum showing what life was like in the DDR. The reminder of the failures and repression of the Soviet regime, the basic inability to create an environment in which its citizens could thrive, was striking.
It is well known that Marx said very little about what he thought was to come in the communist future. It’s therefore difficult to know whether the Soviet attempt to implement his theories was close to what he had in mind or not. Reading some of the brief moments where Marx does write about the future it is hard to believe that he would have agreed that this outcome is what communism should aim for.
For example in a section from “Precapitalist Economic Formations” (part of the “Grundrisse” notebooks published separately with a superb opening essay by Eric Hobsbawm) Marx describes capitalism as a system which prioritises the creation and accumulation of wealth for its own sake, that this is the goal of the production. The modern world is one “in which production is the aim of man and wealth the aim of production” (Marx 1964, p.84). Things are made because they help capitalists accumulate, rather than because they are necessarily useful to people. The modern capitalist world is one in which ordinary people cannot develop to their potential because their needs are subordinated to the accumulation of wealth.
Marx describes the world of the past in very different terms. That of ‘the ancients’ is described as taking little interest in maximising production. Instead the ancient world is one where “man always appears… as the aim of production” something which “seems very much more exalted than the modern world”. Creating the conditions for the development of society in the desired direction is the priority.
“Wealth does not appear as the aim of production… The enquiry is always about what kind of property creates the best citizens.”
(Marx 1964, p.84)
“Hence in one way the child like world of the ancients appears to be superior.”
(Marx 1964, p.85)
Marx then goes on to describe how after “peeling away the bourgeois form” true wealth consists of the full development of human “creative dispositions… unmeasured by any previously established yardstick”. That the evolution of “all human powers as such… [is] an end in itself.” (Marx 1964, p.84-85).
“What is this, if not a situation where man does not reproduce himself in any determined form, but produces his totality? Where he does not seek to remain something formed by the past, but is in the absolute movement of becoming?”
(Marx 1964, p.85)
Unpicking the Hegelian language this is making a similar point to a well known passage from the German Ideology of 1845.
“in communist society… society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd, or critic. This fixation of social activity, this consolidation of what we ourselves produce into an objective power above us, growing out of our control, thwarting our expectations, bringing to naught our calculations, is one of the chief factors in historical development up till now.”
(Marx 1970, p.53)
The controlling power of capital prevents the majority of people from realising their true potential. It acts as a power over them to feed the needs of the productive machinery, whose only goal is to accumulate more wealth.
It seems odd then to associate the Marx who believes in removing barriers to human development with the Marx of the Soviet bloc. The two don’t seem connected, although it would certainly be argued by some that whatever Marx suggested repression is the natural outcome of attempting to implement socialist economic policies.
I don’t accept that the Soviet period can be dismissed as “not real communism”. As I’ve written before, the progressive left have to accept that Soviet communism was one attempt to implement Marx’s theories in practice and create a more just society, and what’s more accept that that attempt failed in dictatorship and repression.
It is however the focus on creating the conditions for the development of human capability that is one of the things that makes Marx an interesting thinker. As suggested by Alain Badiou in “The Communist Hypothesis” despite the visible failures of communism, we can’t stop believing that a more just and equal society is possible. Even if we haven’t found how to get there yet that’s no reason to give up.
Marx, Karl Precapitalist Economic Formations (Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1964)
Marx, Karl The German Ideology (Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1970)
Badiou, Alain The Communist Hypothesis (Verso, London, 2015)