Marxism and needs
Does Marxism need to be reinterpreted in the light of the ecological problem faced by humanity?
Is the “world of abundance” traditionally advocated by socialists feasible? Not according to Claude Bitot, known as the author of a book on the future of the movement for communism (see Socialist Standard, December 1995), in his recent book Quel autre monde possible? (“What other world is possible”?). Echoing the ideas of some Greens but denying any affinity with them as “bobos” (trendies), Bitot argues that the only viable form of communism (or socialism) today is the austere pre-industrial communism advocated by Babeuf and his followers during the French Revolution and first part of the 19th century.
His criticism of Marx – that he accepted the development of capitalism as a necessary step towards socialism – can be traced back to the influence of a “productivist” or technological determinist reading of Marx, based on The Poverty of Philosophy and the Communist Manifesto, which the great man was considerably qualifying by the time he got round to writing the Grundrisse. According to this simplified version of Marxism – faithfully trotted out by Bitot – it is the development of the forces of production that drives history. Capitalism in the form of merchant capital develops in the pores of feudalism, notably in the towns. Over time the forces of production develop to the point where feudal relations become fetters on the possibilities of further development. Feudalism therefore disappears with the rise of the revolutionary bourgeoisie whose task it is to abolish lordly privilege so as to permit the further development of the forces of production. Eventually the enormous development of the forces of production – notably industrialisation and mass production – would enter into contradiction with the limitations placed on the restricted consumption capacity of the proletarians. The latter in their turn become the new revolutionary class capable whose “historic task” is to overthrow the capitalist class and unleash of the forces of production to meet a greatly expanded range of human needs.
To further add to the confusion, the building of what was falsely called ‘communism’ in Russia by the Soviet authorities popularized the idea that a long transition period – misleadingly called ‘socialism’ – was required in order to bring about the communist utopia. During the transition period working class consumption would be sidelined to allow the breakneck development of the forces of production, (tractor factories, dams, electrical power plants and the like). And there was of course doctrinal justification for such a position given that Marx was absolutely clear that in underdeveloped countries like early twentieth century Russia ‘communism’ was not in any way feasible. Although Marx never separated the ‘socialist’ stage from the ‘communist’ one, the early enthusiasm for the Soviet experiment led to the transitional stage idea sticking. Indeed, many left-leaning thinkers became obsessed with technological development as such, with Bordiga – as Bitot conveniently points out – in the uncomfortable position of trashing the need for further technical advance in capitalist Italy whilst recommending the rapid development of the forces of production in Soviet Russia. This has created a good deal of confusion about what progress towards socialism really means.
Bitot’s objection to capitalist development seems in many ways to be an attempt to overcome the legacy of these confusions in the light of what he rightly considers to be a looming ecological crisis. But he adds a few more confusions of his own. To begin with he goes back to the very origins of communism as a political movement: the agrarian communism of Buonarroti and Babeuf and he contrasts this with what he sees as the consumerist interpretations of socialism popularized during the twentieth century. As we know these pioneering communists were imprisoned and – in Babeuf’s case executed – in the years following the French revolution. Bitot sees in these interpretations an anticipation of the errors which socialists would make in the second half of the twentieth century.
Incorrectly believing that the emergence of agricultural capitalism could be largely explained by the immoderate expansion of needs and taste for luxury, the agrarian communists turned their backs on the unconstrained development of industry and championed a system based on fair but austere shares for all. In this communist utopia technological development in the shape of machinery would take place simply as a need to lighten manual labour, production being oriented toward the meeting of a fixed standard of living.
The development of English commerce depended, Bitot tells us, on the sharpening of acquisitive appetites and the introduction of machinery to meet an ever-expanding sphere of consumption: the upward spiral of capitalist production. This simplified depiction of capitalist development has the advantage of wrong-footing Marx who notoriously celebrated the technical achievements of the English industrial revolution in the Communist Manifesto and castigated the narrow material basis of the agrarian communists in France (he called them “crude communists”). Indeed, since Marx was prepared to admit that industrial capitalism provided the material preconditions for communism, he had in effect became a de facto fellow-traveller in the capitalist party, albeit a pretty unruly one. The solution, according to Bitot was to have nipped the capitalist weed in the bud by a bit of revolutionary action and Bitot appreciates the fact that French agrarian communism was an extension of the revolutionary political approach adopted earlier by Robespierre, the advocate of revolutionary terror. If only, one thinks, the English had read these thinkers rather than that scoundrel Adam Smith then they would have abandoned their silly economic ideas and got us to socialism a lot earlier.