The collapse by century’s end of most of the post-revolutionary social experiments of the twentieth century put socialists nearly everywhere on the defensive. Today’s call for a “socialism for the twenty-first century” is an attempt to transcend this defensive posture and to engage fully with the most urgent problem of our time: the creation of a sustainable socialist order. In this respect, “István Mészáros,” in the words of President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, “is someone who lights up the road. He points to the core of the argument we must make in order to go beyond the defensive attitude in which the world’s peoples and revolutionary movements find themselves, and to take the offensive, throughout the world, in moving toward socialism” (quoted from back cover of Mészáros, O desafio e o fardo do tempo histórico [Sáo Paulo: Boitempo Editorial, 2007]; English edition, The Challenge and Burden of Historical Time [forthcoming from Monthly Review Press, 2008]).
The following article, “The Communal System and the Principle of Self-Critique,” by Mészáros is much more difficult to read than what we normally publish in MR. It is included here because we believe that the issue it addresses is vitally important to the future of socialism and hence to the future of the world. The very demanding nature of this article is mainly due to the inherent challenges of the problem it addresses. This has led Mészáros to reach out to unfamiliar concepts, building on hitherto neglected aspects of Marx’s thought. A brief introduction to his conceptual framework and vocabulary is therefore necessary.
For those influenced by the Hegelian and Marxist critical traditions, the term “critique” has a specific meaning and should not be confused with mere “criticism.” To engage in critique is to uncover the essence underlying appearance, the historical conditions that make a particular set of social ideas and arrangements seem necessary and rational. Critique is most commonly exercised in relation to the historical past. For example, bourgeois society as a result of its own development is able to see the historical underpinnings and limitations of the feudal society that preceded it. It is normal for any given class society to suspend critique with respect to its own social formation. Instead it seeks to eternalize its own social relations. Hence, it is only to a limited extent (and only in its ascending phase) that a dominant class formation will engage in self-critique.
This is particularly the case with capital as a social order, which operates on a post festum basis, where decisions on the reproduction of society are determined by the blind workings of the so-called market mechanism (capital’s logic of commodity exchange) and all social decisions thus take place after the fact of for-profit economic determinations. This leaves no room for rational social decisions or planning, and no space for self-critique.
For Mészáros, as for Marx, the regime of capital is an organic system in the sense that all of its components are reciprocal and reinforcing, tending to reproduce the dominant social relations as a whole. Capitalism thus operates by what Mészáros calls a kind of “unconscious consciousness” working behind the backs of individuals—Adam Smith’s famous “invisible hand.” It is reinforced at every point by a hierarchal division of labor. Under these circumstances, equality, democracy, and self-critique are at best mere mockeries of what they might be. As a particular social metabolic order the organic system of capitalism creates all sorts of vicious circles by which it reproduces its exploitative relations.
To make a communal system of production based on substantive equality possible, and not to fall into the twin errors of “command socialism” and “market socialism”—both of which mean the effective restoration of the capital-labor relations characteristic of the regime of capital (if not capitalism per se)—it is necessary that socialism itself be constituted as an organic system or social metabolic order, whereby its productive relations and decision-making relations reinforce each other. A more collective organization of production makes possible, but also necessary—if a truly organic communal mode is to develop—the activation of the principle of self-critique, directed at the present, as a constitutive element in society. Genuine planning under conditions of substantive democracy cannot occur without the continual, active engagement of individuals in self-critique that involves non-stop learning from changing historical experience. As Marx wrote, proletarian revolutions “criticize themselves constantly, interrupt themselves continually in their course, come back to the apparently accomplished in order to begin it afresh, deride with unmerciful thoroughness the inadequacies, weaknesses and paltriness of their first attempts….” Hence for Mészáros the activation of the principle of self-critique, just as much as the collective organization of production, is what distinguishes genuine socialism (the communal order of production) as an organic system.
The Necessity of Self-Critique
The conscious adoption and successful maintenance of the orienting principle of self-critique is an absolutely fundamental requirement of the historically sustainable hegemonic alternative to capital’s social metabolic order as an organic system.
Since it cannot be allowed to conflict in any way with the necessarily open-ended historical determinations of labor’s alternative reproductive order—on the contrary, it must be a vital guarantee against all temptations to relapse into a self-complacent closure, and thereby into the reproduction of vitiating vested interests, corresponding to the traditional pattern of the past—the envisaged and knowingly pursued faithfulness to the theoretical as well as practical operative methodological principle of self-critique needs to be embraced as a permanent feature of the new, positively enduring, social formation. For precisely through the genuine and continuing exercise of that orienting principle it becomes possible to correct in good time the tendencies that might otherwise not only appear but, worse than that, also consolidate themselves in favor of the ossification of a given stage of the present, undermining thereby the prospects of a sustainable future.
This is so because the flexible coordination and consensual integration of the necessarily varied but at first only locally/partially adopted measures and, as a result, potentially conflicting decisions, into a coherent whole is inconceivable without real self-critique. The kind of potential conflict we are here concerned with, due to the circumstance that some important measures and decisions are taken at first only locally/partially before they can be assessed on a comprehensive basis, must be in fact more unavoidable in the socialist modality of the societal reproduction process than ever before. This is because of its substantively democratic character based on the supersession of the vertical/hierarchical division of labor. For that reason a proper way of guarding—through consciously embraced self-critique by the people concerned—against the dangers that might result from such would-be conflicts is a matter of great importance.
The qualitatively different organic system of labor’s necessary hegemonic alternative to the established mode of social metabolic reproduction is unthinkable without the conscious espousal of self-critique as its vital orienting principle. At the same time, it is impossible to envisage the conscious adoption and operation of self-critique as an enduring orienting principle without a certain type of societal reproduction which must successfully maintain itself as a veritable organic system without the danger of being derailed from its consistently open-ended historical course of development. For we are talking about a dialectical correlation between the qualitatively different type of organic system needed in the future and the necessary orienting principle of self-critique in conjunction with which that new type becomes feasible at all.
Neither the qualitatively different new type of organic system, nor the orienting and operative principle of genuine self-critique can fully unfold and positively function without the other. However, this dialectical reciprocity cannot be allowed to constitute a convenient circle, let alone a ready-made excuse for justifying the absence of both, by apologetically asserting on each side that without the full-scale availability of the other no progress can be made in the realization of the one in question, or vice versa. For, as we know, that is how an assumed convenient circle becomes an utterly vicious circle. In truth the dialectical correlation between the new organic system and the organ of self-critique defines itself precisely as the mutuality of helping each other even at a very early stage of their historical development, once the need for instituting labor’s hegemonic alternative arises from the profound structural crisis of capital’s increasingly destructive societal reproductive order.
In view of the fact that the necessary alternative to capital’s—in our time—ubiquitously destructive organic system must be a qualitatively different but nonetheless organic system, only the communal mode of societal reproduction can truly qualify in this respect. In other words, only the communally organized system is capable of providing the overall framework for the continuing development of the multifaceted and substantively equitable constitutive parts of the socialist mode of integration of all creative individual and collective forces into a coherent whole as a historically viable organic system of social metabolic reproduction. And the success of this enterprise is feasible only if the envisaged integration into the new type of organic system is accomplished in such a way that the parts reciprocally support and enhance each other on a positively open-ended basis, in the spirit of conscious self-determination, providing thereby to the freely associated producers the scope needed for their self-realization as “rich social individuals” (in Marx’s words) through their fully sustainable form of social metabolic interaction among themselves and with nature.
This is a seminal requirement of “the new historic form” as labor’s necessary hegemonic alternative to capital’s social metabolic order. Evidently, the principle of self-critique is integral to the necessary spirit of conscious self-determination of the freely associated producers. But just as evidently, the self-determination of the social individuals deserves its name only if their application of the vital orienting principle of self-critique is the result of a consciously chosen voluntary act. Any arbitrary attempt at imposing the ritual of self-critique on the people from above, as we know it from the Stalinist past, can amount to no more than the painful mockery of it, with far-reaching counter-productive consequences and reversals in actual historical development.
Limited Self-Critique and the Capital System
Since the communal system—in total contrast to capital’s unalterable, even if destructively blind, self-expansionary logic—cannot count on economic determinations which “work behind the back of the individuals,” its only feasible way of ordering its affairs, in accordance with the voluntary determinations of the freely associated individuals, is by fully activating the orienting and operative principle of self-critique at all levels. This means positively activating it in accordance with the particular individual concerns all the way to the highest and most complex decision-making processes of comprehensive societal interaction, with its unavoidable impact on nature. And the inevitability of that impact deeply implicates not simply the obvious time-determinations of the present but also the longest term historical dimension of the qualitatively new communal organic system’s consciously designed mode of overall social metabolic control.
We have to return later to the discussion of some of the contrasting determinations of the radically different communal system as the only sustainable historical alternative to capital’s increasingly destructive organic system. But first it is necessary to consider the possibilities and limitations of self-critique in general terms, and not in relation to its considerably modified potentialities for contributing to the operation of the communal system.
It goes without saying that self-critique is (or at least ought-to-be) an integral part of the particular intellectuals’ activity. When we think of some great intellectual achievements, irrespective of the social setting with which they are associated—like the Hegelian philosophical synthesis, for instance—the creative contribution of self-critique is clear enough, at times even explicitly stated.
However, the limitations are also clearly in evidence when we consider the negative impact of problematical social determinations even in the case of such monumental philosophical undertaking as the Hegelian synthesis. But this should be by no means surprising. For there are some historical situations and associated social constraints when even a great thinker finds it impossible “to jump over Rhodes,” in Hegel’s own words. The French Revolution and the ascending phase of the capital system’s historical development offered a positive scope for the Hegelian achievement. However, the insuperable exploitative dimension of the capital system’s innermost determinations became increasingly more dominant as time went by, asserting itself with grave implications for the future in the bourgeois order’s descending phase of development Hence, the uncritical acceptance of the system’s contradictions and the defense of its ultimately explosive structural antagonisms became more evident, bringing with it in the Hegelian philosophy a speculatively-articulated conservative reconciliation.
Accordingly, Marx rightly characterized the social limitation intervening against the self-critical—and in its own way also critical—intent of this great philosopher by underlining that “Hegel’s standpoint is that of modern political economy.”1 The acceptance of such a standpoint brings with it, of course, far-reaching consequences. For in its spirit the unavoidable reconciliatory presuppositions and complicated practical imperatives of capital’s political economy enter the picture, even if they are transubstantiated by Hegel with great consistency. This deeply affects in a speculative way the general character of an earlier quite inconceivable synthesis of philosophy based on the French Revoluton. We can find many instances of this reconciliatory approach presented by Hegel in the name of the “World Spirit” from the vantage point of capital’s political economy. But, inevitably, such limitations corresponding to capital’s vantage point enter the picture and undermine the critical intent—not only of the Hegelian system but also of the work of the other major thinkers who conceptualize the world from the standpoint of capital’s political economy, including a giant of the Scottish Enlightenment movement, Adam Smith. The result of such limitations is to more or less consciously internalize the system’s most problematical practical presuppositions and objective imperatives, articulating in that way the position which embodies the fundamental socioeconomic interests, as well as the central values, of a societal reproductive order with which they identify themselves. This is what sets the ultimate limits even to their best intentioned self-critique.
This failure of self-critque is not simply fatalistically determined by the class positions of the thinkers concerned. There are many intellectual and political figures, including some outstanding ones, who have successfully broken their ties with their class and have produced their radical strategic systems, with powerful revolutionary practical implications and corresponding social movements, in irreconcilable contradiction to the fundamental interests of the class into which they have been born and in relation to which they had to define their position in the course of their upbringing. It is enough to recall the names of Marx and Engels in this respect.
Of course it is true that in periods of major social turmoil and great upheavals the personal motivation of many individuals for reexamining in a radical way their own class belonging—together with the role which their privileged class happens to play under the given historical circumstances—and doing so to the point of committing themselves to a struggle for the rest of their life against the repressive functions of the class in which they have been brought up, is considerably greater than under normal circumstances. The opposite is also true, in the sense that periods of conservative political and economic success in society at large—with a small c, sustaining even the so-called neoliberal phase of deeply reactionary developments in the last three decades of twentieth-century history, for instance—tend to coincide with wholesale intellectual reversals and with the acceptance of rather absurd pseudo-theoretical fashions. And the latter follow at humiliatingly short intervals one another in a vain search of the people concerned for ephemerally self-serving irrational evasion.
The truth of the matter is, though, that such conjunctural events and correlations cannot settle the fundamental historical issues. Not even when we have in mind some of the outstanding representatives of political economy and philosophy who in their time identified themselves with capital’s vantage point, like Adam Smith and Hegel. For the limits of a thinker’s ability to assume a real critical stance, on the basis of his or her readiness to exercise the required self-critique in the process, is ultimately decided by the overall historical configuration of the interacting social forces. They necessarily involve all dimensions of development, including the elementary conditions of humanity’s survival on this planet in the midst of the established order’s deepening structural crisis and the concomitant destruction of nature.
With regard to this correlation it was by no means accidental that capital’s ascending phase of development—to some extent favoring the adoption of a critical stance, even if a limited and selective one—resulted in the great achievements of classical political economy. By contrast the same capital system’s descending phase had brought with it the painful theoretical impoverishment and the crass social apologetics of vulgar economy, which confined itself “to systematizing in a pedantic way, and proclaiming for everlasting truths, the trite ideas held by the self-complacent bourgeoisie with regard to their own world, to them the best of all possible worlds,” as sharply criticized by Marx.2 Thus, disconcerting and potentially tragic as it happens to be, in the course of the capital system’s historical unfolding even the limited scope for self-critique characteristic of the earlier phase had to leave its space for the ideology of the system’s “eternalization” and for the authoritarian practical imposition of the most retrograde policies over all actively dissenting forces, no matter how dangerous for humankind the consequences.
From Limited Self-Critique to Apologetics
The original scope for self-critique at the ascending phase of the capital system’s historical unfolding was quite important, despite its obvious class limitations. The relevance of this connection is far from negligible because in terms of the requirements of scientific advancement in general—without which the achievements of classical political economy would be unthinkable—an element of self-critique is a necessary condition for a critical understanding of the overall subject of enquiry.
This is why Marx puts into relief the analogy between the critical element in the historical development of Christianity and a somewhat better understanding by the bourgeoisie of its reproductive order when it assumed a less mythologizing attitude towards its own mode of production. We can see this connection stressed in an important passage of Marx’s Grundrisse in which he links the general theoretical point—concerning the principal economic categories of a more advanced historical stage of societal reproduction—and the necessary but usually neglected qualifications of that general theoretical point for the proper conceptualization of capital’s socioeconomic order itself, as the most advanced form. This is how he puts it:
The bourgeois economy supplies the key to the ancient, etc. But not at all in the manner of those economists who smudge over all historical differences and see bourgeois relations in all forms of society. One can understand tribute, tithe, etc., if one is acquainted with ground rent. But one must not identify them. Further, since bourgeois society is itself only a contradictory form of development, relations derived from earlier forms will often be found within it only in an entirely stunted form, or even travestied. For example, communal property. Although it is true, therefore, that the categories of bourgeois economics possess a truth for all other forms of society, this is to be taken only with a grain of salt. They can contain them in a developed, or stunted, or caricatured form, etc., but always with an essential difference. The so-called historical presentation of development is founded, as a rule, on the fact that the latest form regards the previous ones as steps leading up to itself, and, since it is only rarely and only under quite specific conditions able to criticize itself—leaving aside, of course, the historical periods which appear to themselves as times of decadence—it always conceives them one-sidedly. The Christian religion was able to be of assistance in reaching an objective understanding of earlier mythologies only when its own self-criticism had been accomplished to a certain degree, so to speak dynamei [potentially]. Likewise, bourgeois economics arrived at an understanding of feudal, ancient, oriental economics only after the self-criticism of bourgeois society had begun. In so far as the bourgeois economy did not mythologically identify itself altogether with the past, its critique of the previous economies, notably of feudalism, with which it was still engaged in direct struggle, resembled the critique which Christianity levelled against paganism, or also that of Protestantism against Catholicism.3
The “anatomy of civil society” was produced by classical political economy on this basis, once the earlier mythologizing vision of the emerging bourgeois order became pointless in the aftermath of the victory over feudalism. This was a historical phase of boundless optimism in the new conceptions, incorporating the hopeful anticipations as well as the illusions of the Enlightenment movement in Europe. As one of Adam Smith’s Scottish Enlightenment comrades, Henry Home wrote with great optimism and enthusiasm: “Reason, resuming her sovereign authority, will banish [persecution] altogether….Within the next century it will be thought strange, that persecution should have prevailed among social beings. It will perhaps even be doubted, whether it ever was seriously put into practice.”4 And he was equally enthusiastic about the potentialities of the new work ethos, in contrast to the idleness of the former ruling personnel, insisting that “Activity is essential to a social being: to a selfish being it is of no use, after procuring the means of living. A selfish man, who by his opulence has all the luxuries of life at command, and dependents without number, has no occasion for activity.”5
The self-confidence of the new approach, which produced real scientific achievements in understanding the production of wealth, fully corresponded to capital’s from that historic phase onwards irresistible vantage point.6 There seemed to be no need for further self-critique in other than secondary or marginal detail. The power of capital successfully asserted itself in all domains—to the point that additional exercises in self-critique were suspended. Not even the once troublesome political dimension could exercise any significant resistance to its advancement. On the contrary, the state itself had progressively become an integral part of the capital system’s overall determinations, under the primacy of the material reproduction process. In this way everything had been subsumed and consolidated under the rule of capital as the most powerful self-expansionary organic system, notwithstanding its inherent but unacknowledged antagonisms. And given its unchallenged systemic dominance in actuality, it seemed obvious to all those who conceptualized the world from capital’s vantage point that their organic system constituted the one and only natural system. This is why Adam Smith could sum it all up by saying that capital embodied “the natural system of perfect liberty and justice.”7
Self-Critique and the Two Opposing Organic Systems
The communal organic system, as the only historically feasible hegemonic alternative to capital’s social metabolic order, cannot afford the luxury of the once boundless self-confidence and self-complacency of its predecessor. For it cannot even begin to assert and sustain itself, from the moment of its attempted self-constitution, without the conscious adoption of self-critique appropriate to the ongoing (and necessarily changing) conditions of development.
The self-constituting communal system cannot count on economic determinations which “work behind the back of the individuals”: the obvious mode of operation of capital’s social metabolic order throughout its history. This kind of economic determination is well in tune with the unconscious character of the specific parts of capital’s reproduction process—inherent in the plurality of relatively autonomous and self-assertively expansionary capitals—and fulfils a paradoxical corrective function in the system. For the individual capitalists can pursue up to a point their own design, in expectation of successfully achieving their particular interests, but they cannot do that against the fundamental systemic determinations of their shared mode of production. The fundamental systemic determinations and objective practical imperatives—which must work behind the back of the individual capitalists—forcefully impose themselves over against the particular excessively self-seeking decisions. For beyond a certain point the self-seeking decisions would tend to undermine the overall viability of the system itself as the historically dominant organic system, in view of the insuperably centrifugal tendency of unconscious (unalterably self-oriented) individual capitalist consciousness.
Moreover, the unconscious consciousness in question is simultaneously also the manifestation of incurably adversarial/conflictual interests and corresponding strategies. The pursuit of such interests necessarily intensifies the unconscious character of the whole process. For they render to the particular capitalists the possibility of anticipating the adversary’s design and his or her responses to one’s own moves—by each reciprocally attempting to outwit the other as competitors through firmly established (and even legally sanctified) concealment—making the whole societal process that much more opaque. This is one of the significant reasons why the adversariality itself is structurally insuperable. Still, thanks to the earlier mentioned paradoxical corrective function of the fundamental systemic imperatives which assert themselves behind the back of the individual, the centrifugal tendency of particularistic pursuits is not allowed to get completely out of hand, since that would endanger the survival of the system as a whole.
Naturally, the insuperable adversariality inherent in the capital system is not confined to the confrontation and potential collision of particular capitalist interests. If it was only for that, some significant improvements would be feasible, as they are indeed often postulated in the form of ideological rationalizations of imaginary remedies: from the constantly propagandized fiction of “people’s capitalism” to the projection of “all-embracing capitalist planning” and to John Kenneth Galbraith’s universally reconciliatory “techno-structure.”
However, underneath the adversariality of particular capitalist interests—indeed directly affecting also the unfolding of the individual capitalist confrontations—we find the structurally ineliminable fundamental antagonism between capital and labor as the rival bearers of the hegemonic alternative modes of controlling the overall social metabolic process. Capital can carry on its hegemonic mode of control only on condition—and only so long as—it is capable of preserving and enforcing the deep-seated structural antagonism which constitutes the necessary material and ideological presupposition of its social reproductive order. And labor, on the contrary, can advance its genuine alternative only if it succeeds in instituting a qualitatively different mode of societal reproduction—the communal organic system—through historically overcoming antagonistic adversariality altogether, and thereby consigning on a permanent basis to the past the structurally secured hierarchical domination of the overwhelming majority of human beings by a tiny minority, as inherited from the capital system.
The institution and successful operation of such a hegemonic alternative is, of course, inconceivable without the conscious control of their life-activity by the freely associated social individuals. In this regard the individual and the social dimensions of our problem are inextricably intertwined.
It is self-evident that there can be no question of a conscious societal control of the necessary decision-making processes unless the particular individuals themselves—who are expected to introduce, and in a responsible way to carry out, the decisions involved—fully identify themselves with the pursued objectives. But that circumstance does not make the issue itself a purely, or even a predominantly, personal matter. The individual and the social constituents of genuine socialist consciousness would be altogether failing in their much needed role unless they could positively enhance one another. For the real personal involvement of the particular individuals in the realization of the chosen objectives and strategies is conceivable only if the general social conditions themselves actively favor the process, instead of tending in the opposite direction, which would allow some form of adversariality to creep in and undermine the articulation of comprehensively cohesive social consciousness.
This is why only a certain type of social metabolic order—emphatically: the communal organic system—could qualify as truly compatible with the production and the continuing positive enhancement of the required individual and social consciousness. For the institution and self-determined consolidation of that type of reproductive system is the only feasible way to overcome adversariality altogether, providing thereby full scope for the cooperative realization of their freely adopted conscious decisions by the individuals.
The meaning of “cooperative,” in the full sense of the term—which is absolutely essential for sustainable socialist action—implies the ability as well as the determination of the social individuals not only to dedicate themselves to the implementation of determinate tasks but also autonomously to modify their actions in the light of the jointly evaluated consequences. This mode of self-corrective action could not be more different from the known varieties of being overruled by a separate hierarchical authority, imposed upon them from above, or by the blind impact and unwanted consequences of their “unconscious consciousness” —i.e. the “invisible hand” of the capital system. Such unwanted consequences inevitably arise in the social metabolic order in which economic laws and determinations work behind the back of the individuals, in the interest of the capital system’s survival, even if they directly imperil the survival of humanity.
Thus consciousness and self-critique are inseparable from one another as the orienting and operative principles of decision making and action in the communal organic system. This is easily understandable. For proper self-consciousness, individuals must incorporate their positively disposed awareness of the real and potential impacts of their decisions and actions on their fellow human beings, which is inconceivable without freely undertaken self-critique. At the same time, the conscious guard in the communal type of societal interaction process as a whole against the establishment and consolidation of self-perpetuating vested interests, which would inevitably reproduce adversariality of one kind or another, and the positive way of preventing the formation of such vested interests through the cooperative promotion and maintenance of substantive equality, constitute the necessary condition for the conscious and positively inclined self-critical awareness of the social individuals in their interactions among themselves.
Moreover, there is also a dimension of this problem which transcends the direct experience of the particular individuals both in time and in space. For, obviously, they have a limited life-span, compared to humanity’s historically unfolding overall development. And while the individuals are, of course, constitutive parts of the actually given stage of humanity’s advancement, they are at the same time active members of a particular community, with its own specific history and diverse problems from which significantly different tasks may arise for them to fulfill. The problem of the contradiction between the time-spans of individuals and of the community is especially acute at a relatively early stage in the development of the communal system in question, when the need for overcoming the major inequalities inherited from the past represents a much more difficult problem. Also with regard to the general time scale of development, there are some consequences of earlier determined forms of action which can be—and have to be—modified on a longer time-scale, well beyond the life-span of the generation which was responsible for consciously adopting under the once prevailing circumstances the original decisions.
However, these considerations do not undermine the vital importance of the orienting and operative principles of conscious decision making—and the appropriate self-critique closely associated with it—by the individuals in their social metabolic interchange with nature and among themselves. They only underline the need for real solidarity extending over the most diverse communities and across the succeeding generations. Besides, learning from the lessons of the past cannot cease to be relevant because of the adoption of the principles of conscious self-critical action. On the contrary, it can really come into its own only under circumstances when the perversely derailing adversariality of vested interests is no longer dominating societal interchange itself. It is notorious how often tragic historical events and circumstances reappear and cause further devastation, due to the refusal of the interested parties to face up to the challenge of critically reassessing them, including their own role in allowing such developments to prevail in the first place. The implosion of the Soviet-type system was one of the most tragic historical experiences of the twentieth century for the socialist movement. It would be even more tragic if we could not draw the appropriate lessons from it.
Self-Critique and Socialist Transition
The constitution of the communal system, through the conscious adoption and continued enhancement of self-critique, is undoubtedly a most difficult learning process. Marx anticipated the importance of such self-critique in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte by saying that proletarian revolutions
criticize themselves constantly, interrupt themselves continually in their own course, come back to the apparently accomplished in order to begin it afresh, deride with unmerciful thoroughness the inadequacies, weaknesses and paltrinesses of their first attempts, seem to throw down their adversary only in order that he may draw new strength from the earth and rise again, more gigantic, before them, and they recoil again and again from the indefinite prodigiousness of their own aims, until a situation has been created which makes all turning back impossible, and the conditions themselves cry out:
Hic Rhodus, hic salta!
Here is Rhodes, leap here!8
In this sense, learning from historical experience is an important part of the process of self-critique. Especially when we are concerned with actual historical developments associated with socialist claims, as made by the Soviet system. Understandably, Marx was no contemporary to them and therefore could in no way take into account the historical specificities under which the bewildering postrevolutionary developments unfolded under Stalin in the name of “socialism in one country,” and in the end have brought about the implosion of the Soviet-type postcapitalist capital system. Nevertheless the way in which Marx characterized capital’s fully developed order as an organic system, because its constituents reciprocally sustain one another—and thus calling for change far exceeding its juridical relations while maintaining in many respects more or less intact the capital relation, including its new form of self-assertive personifications—helps to throw light on what went wrong and offers important indications of necessary self-critique for the future. Likewise Gorbachev’s grotesquely uncritical conception of “market socialism” could offer only fantasy remedy to the system and was right from the beginning doomed to failure, paving the road to capitalist restoration.
The issue resembling the uncritical projection of “market socialism” surfaced much earlier and, understandably, it is visible again in China.9 In fact, the fantasy of market socialism appeared already in Marx’s lifetime, even if then it was not called by that name. Marx made it absolutely clear what he thought of it when he stressed in the Grundrisse that “the idea held by some socialists that we need capital but not the capitalists is altogether wrong. It is posited within the concept of capital that the objective conditions of labor—and these are its own product—take on a personality toward it.”10 And he added in another passage in the same work that “capital in its being-for-itself is the capitalist. Of course, socialists sometimes say, we need capital, but not the capitalist. Then capital appears as a pure thing, not as a relation of production which, reflected in itself, is precisely the capitalist. I may well separate capital from a given individual capitalist, and it can be transferred to another. But, in losing capital, he loses the quality of being a capitalist. Thus capital is indeed separable from an individual capitalist, but not from the capitalist who, as such, controls the worker.”11
It is a similarly mystifying and self-disarming conception when the relationship of capital and labor is described, in the most superficial way, as one between buyers and sellers, hypostatizing thereby a fictitious equality in place of the actually existing structurally secured and safeguarded domination and subordination. The total absence of critical—and self-critical—assessment of this relationship had a great deal to do with Gorbachev and others adopting the absurd strategy of market socialism, bringing with it necessary failure. For in reality the relationship we are talking about is not at all a genuine market relation, like that between particular capitalist enterprises exchanging their products, but only its deceptive semblance, the imposition of a deceptive “invisible hand.” For the innermost substantive determination of the fundamental interchange between capital and labor is an actual relationship of power under the supremacy of capital. The real substance—as the firmly established actual presupposition of the relationship in question in the sphere of production—is deeply hidden beneath the deceptive semblance of the pseudo-equitative transactions in the sphere of circulation. As Marx had made it amply clear: “It is not a mere buyer and a mere seller who face each other, it is a capitalist and a worker; it is a capitalist and a worker, who face each other in the sphere of circulation, on the market, as buyer and seller. The relation as capitalist and worker is the presupposition for their relation as buyer and seller.”12
Thus, from the strategically derailing and self-disarming conceptions of this kind the overall framework of sustainable social transformation—the socialist vision of a necessary historical alternative to capital’s organic system—is totally missing. Its place is taken by an eclectic mixture of voluntaristic tactical political projections (misconceived as proper strategic measures) and some elements of capital’s established material order. Like the wishful adoption of the so-called market mechanism, which is no simple mechanism at all but an integral constitutent of capital’s organic system, its very nature is quite incompatible with the envisaged change. And since the necessary strategic orienting framework of the communal organic system is nowhere even hinted at in such conceptions, there can be no room at all in them for conscious self-critique: the elementary condition of success of the socialist enterprise. No one should be surprised, therefore, by the restoration of capitalism.
Contradictions of the Post Festum System of Control
One of the overwhelmingly important reasons why only the communal organic system can meet the challenge of adopting as its normal and indefinitely sustainable mode of operation the orienting principle of conscious self-critique concerns the insuperable post festum character of capital’s organic system of social metabolic control.
This is so even if only some of the defining characteristics of the old system are retained among the guiding principles of postrevolutionary developments, for whatever reason. It is, of course, well understandable that some tempting constraints and responses are bound to arise on the basis of capitalist enmity, due to the well-known encirclement of a country which attempts to break its former links with the global capital system. However, they cannot provide an excuse, as it was done in Stalin’s Russia, for incorporating disruptive and alienating characteristics of the once prevailing mode of management—like the control of the productive enterprises strictly from above, as inherited from the capitalist “authoritarianism of the workshop”—into the new system. For in capital’s organic system that characteristic itself is an integral part of some overall systemic determinations, and therefore cannot be—and indeed they are not—sustained in isolation. In the case of its capitalist version, the authoritarianism of the workshop is inseparable from, and is also greatly strengthened and enforced by, the tyranny of the market.
If, therefore, the management of the “socialist enterprise from above” (a veritable contradiction in terms) fails to produce the voluntaristically projected positive results, as it is bound to do, ever repeated calls for legitimating its twin brother are bound to surface. That is, calls for the establishment of the “socialist market economy” (another incorrigible contradiction in terms), with its own kind of uncontrollable tyranny on top of those now happily embraced through the postrevolutionary society’s renewed links with the global capitalist market. As indeed they actually did.
It is a rather uncomfortable truth in this respect that the tendency to capitalist restoration in the Soviet Union did not start with Gorbachev. He only consummated it in its final variety. And it did not even start with Khrushchev, several decades earlier. Khrushchev only gave it a more pronounced form of practice, with its corresponding ideological legitimation. In fact the long drawn out tendency for capitalist restoration was started by none other than Stalin himself, as I have discussed and documented in considerable detail in Beyond Capital.13 That fateful road, with its ultimately uncontrollable implications, was embarked upon more than half a century ago, when the earlier state of emergency, linked to the Second World War and to the most urgent tasks of postwar reconstruction, outlived its usefulness and had to be abandoned.
With regard to the issue of the necessary conscious self-critique for sustainable socialist development, as discussed above in relation to the individuals and their social strategies, the fact is that even partially retaining the inherited determinations of the past carries with it great difficulties for the future. This can be highlighted with the problem that the incorrigibly post festum character of such determinations represent a fundamental challenge for socialist transformation. This is a challenge that cannot be avoided, sidestepped, or postponed, but must be directly confronted right from the beginning.
For Marx “the social character of production is posited only post festum” in the form of exchange values under the capital system. Hence, the more universal, social characteristics of production appear as mere indirect byproducts, alienated manifestations of capital’s own self-expansion. Out of this arises the pervasive irrationality of the system, which is forced by its total incapacity to plan for social ends and the endless contradictions that this generates to restort to innumerable make-shift arrangements after the fact of the production of commodified values. Under capital’s fully developed organic system this post festum character of societal interchange and the contradictions it generates are therefore increasingly in evidence. This has four principal aspects.
First, the post festum social character of productive activity itself cannot even be imagined apart from capital’s historically established exchange relations asserted within the framework of generalized commodity production, strictly subordinating use-value to the absolute requirement of profitable exchange-value. Only through such, highly problematical, and ultimately quite unsustainable, mediation can the production process of the capital system qualify as the most developed form of social production in history.
Second, there is the inalterably post festum character of the potential corrective function feasible in such a post festum social productive system, with regard to the incurably adversarial/irrationalistic interchanges of capital’s productive enterprises through the market. Although the latter is idealized as the universally benevolent “invisible hand,” even this idealization misses a vital dimension of the problem. For in its post festum determinations the market itself, as a set of attempted corrective socioeconomic and political power relations (characteristically misrepresented as a straightforward “mechanism”), can only partially cover the relevant terrain in need of remedy, even when it is hypostatized as the rationally operative “global market.” It could never turn the post festum sociality of the productive practices themselves into the controllably (rationally) social.
The third principal aspect is the necessarily post festum character of planning even in the most gigantic quasi-monopolistic enterprises. This is partly due to the overall market framework of generalized commodity production, underlined in the previous point. But not only to that. An even more important factor is the fundamental structural antagonism between capital and labor, which is ineliminable from the capital system no matter how many and how varied might be the attempted remedies. They range from technical and technological as well as organizational devices, including the practices of “Toyotism” and the strategy of securing “lean supply lines” in the transnational industrial enterprises, all the way to the most authoritarian forms of anti-labor legislation even in the so-called “democratic” countries.14
And fourth, the post festum nature of the feasible adjustments becomes evident when some major conflicts and complications erupt in the sociopolitical arena, whether in a given national setting or across international boundaries. Activating the openly repressive functions of the capitalist state was always the normal way of dealing with this kind of problem. In the most acute international cases this involved embarking even on major wars, including the catastrophically destructive two world wars in the twentieth century. For it always belonged to the normality of capital to operate on the basis of “war if the other ways of subduing the adversary fail.” While obviously this devastating general principle has not been abandoned, as witnessed by the countless postwar military adventures in which the dominant imperialist power, the United States of America, often with its allies, has been engaged in the last few decades, including the Vietnam War and the ongoing Middle East genocide, the prospects foreshadowed by a potential third world war for the annihilation of humankind represent here a rationally insuperable constraint, underlining also in that way the total untenability of this kind of post festum remedy in the capital system.
To be sure, Soviet-type postrevolutionary formations did not retain all four of these post festum characteristics in their mode of controlling the societal reproduction process. Tragically, however, some of them remained operative throughout their seven-decades-long history, including the failure to make the production process itself directly social. In the same way, the authoritarian retroactive character of their highly bureaucratized mode of planning and its arbitrary modification and reimposition after their regular failure put into relief the contradictory character of their post festum mode of operation. Moreover, as we all know, the eventual acceptance of the tyranny of the market—mind-bogglingly even proclaimed by Gorbachev’s officially named “ideology chief” as nothing less than “the guarantee of the renewal of socialism”—sealed their fate on the road to unreserved capitalist restoration.15
The grave problem in this context is that the post festum determination of the social metabolic processes makes it impossible to adopt the orienting and operative principle of conscious self-critique. And sooner or later the absence of that vital principle from the societies that make the first steps through their anti-capitalist political revolution in the direction of a socialist transformation is bound to derail them.
It is relatively easy to be critical vis-à-vis the justifiably negated aspects of the past, or even of a determinate phase of the unfolding present. However, the real test for the viability of the attempted socialist course of action is to be able to put into critical historical perspective the presently affirmed and accepted circumstances of social development. Not gratuitously, for the sake of fulfilling some formal requirement peremptorily prescribed to the individuals, as often happened in the past, but in order to cooperatively overcome the real challenges as they are bound to arise from the given conditions of societal interchange. And, of course, that kind of critique is conceivable only through the consistent exercise of genuine self-criticism, on the basis of soberly assessing the specific time-bound determinations and the corresponding relatively limited validity of the already accomplished part in the—necessarily changing—dynamic whole, with its real and potential contradictions as well as with its all too frequent temptations to follow “the line of least resistance.”
Self-Critical Planning and the Communal System of Production
We may limit ourselves here to the consideration of only one, but one absolutely crucial issue: the genuine planning process. For among its inherent characteristics we can clearly perceive the inseparability of the critical and the equally important self-critical mode of evaluating the tasks and the associated difficulties, together with the feasible forms of remedial action whenever there may be a need for it.
It goes without saying, the socialist type of sustainable decision making and the corresponding practical management of social metabolic interchanges are inconceivable without all-embracing planning. This is a type of planning which can consensually bring together, and in a lasting way integrate in a coherent whole, the particular concerns and the consciously taken decisions of the freely associated individuals.
Inevitably this means that the “crutch” of the inherited hierarchical social division of labor—which admittedly “simplifies” for the commanding personnel many things—carries with it a heavy price for the rest. It simplifies matters for the controllers of the decision-making process through the system’s preestablished economic determinism which, however, deprives at the same time the working individuals of their power of decision making in the related field. Naturally, that crutch must be discarded and replaced by the exercise of the faculty of voluntarily/consciously assumed self-critical action by the social individuals, involving at the same time the acceptance of full responsibility for their action. This way of redefining the decision-making process must be the case because the “helpful crutch” is not simply a convenient crutch but also inseparable from a heavy chain that firmly shackles the arms of the individuals to itself.
Accordingly, labor’s necessary hegemonic alternative implies a radical shift from the social/hierarchical division of labor, with its preestablished practical imperatives, to an appropriate combination and organization of labor, to be accomplished within the framework of a qualitatively different communal organic system. In such a system, thanks to its ability to overcome the vitiating post festum determinations of reproductive interchange, in Marx’s words:
the product does not first have to be transposed into a particular form in order to attain a general character for the individual. Instead of a division of labour, such as is necessarily created with the exchange of exchange values, there would take place an organization of labour whose consequences would be the participation of the individual in communal consumption. In the first case the social character of production is posited only post festum with the elevation of products to exchange values and the exchange of these exchange values. In the second case the social character of production is presupposed, and participation in the world of products, in consumption, is not mediated by the exchange of mutually independent labours or products of labour. It is mediated, rather, by the social conditions of production within which the individual is active.16
Thus we are concerned here with a matter of fundamental importance. For in the only historically sustainable hegemonic alternative to capital’s social metabolic order it is necessary to secure the conditions for the irreversible supersession of adversariality, which would otherwise be bound to resurface—and assert its power in the direction of capitalist restoration—from the more or less blind post festum determinations of societal reproduction. And that vital condition of superseding adversariality, on which so much else depends, can be secured only through the proper maintenance of the conscious and self-critical—that is, on a continuing basis rationally readjusted, rather than in a voluntaristic way on the recalcitrant individuals from above superimposed—all-embracing planning process.
In this sense consciousness, self-critique, the supersession of adversariality, and the genuine planning of societal reproduction in harmony with the autonomous determination of their meaningful life-activity by the social individuals themselves, are inextricably combined in making possible—beyond the anachronistic post festum mode of operating humanity’s social metabolic interchange with nature and among the individuals—the positive institution of the communal organic system as the necessary historical alternative to capital’s increasingly destructive organic system.
None of the conditions mentioned here can be disregarded or even partially neglected. Without the permanently maintained conscious self-critique of their forms of interchange by the freely associated individuals the communal system is inconceivable. At the same time, without the positively sustained reality of the communal system itself, which cannot be allowed to be in any way burdened with structurally sustained adversariality, the orienting principle of conscious self-critique can amount to nothing more than an empty postulate. For the qualitatively different new organic system cannot function at all without the freely adopted conscious planning of its vital reproductive practices—on the basis of the evaluation of the legitimately enduring elements of the past and the present, free from the dead weight of vested interests—by the social individuals. And, of course, such planning is feasible only through the positively determined self-critique of all individuals who in that way can fully identify themselves with the overall objectives of their social development—that is the necessary precondition for real foresight towards an open-ended future, in sharp contrast to the closure forced upon the working individuals by the incorrigible retroactive post festum determinations of their former societal reproduction.
Understandably, the move from the existing forms of society to the communal mode of social metabolic control is the most difficult one to make, with great obstacles and resistances on the way. Transition, by its very nature, is always difficult, since deeply embedded ways of societal interaction and individual behavior must be significantly modified or altogether abandoned in its course of realization. In the case of a radically different way of ordering the life of the people by themselves, appropriate to the communal system, the difference is incommensurable with anything accomplished in the past.
But all that can provide no excuse for abandoning the perspective, or to water down the objective and subjective requirements of a transition to the communal system. Its full development is, no doubt, bound to take a long time. However, even at the earliest stage of its realization it is necessary to adopt the overall vision of the system, with its clearly definable criteria and characteristics some of which have been indicated above, as the real target of social transformation and the necessary compass of the journey. The orienting principles of critique and self-critique are directly relevant in this respect.
1. Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1959), 152. Marx’s emphases.
2. Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1 (Moscow: Foreign Languages Press, 1958), 81.
3. Marx, Grundrisse (Hammondsworth: Penguin Books Ltd., 1973), 105–06.
4. Henry Home (Lord Kames), Loose Hints upon Education, chiefly concerning the Culture of the Heart (Edinburgh & London, 1781), 284.
5. Home, Loose Hints upon Education, 257.
6. Marx stressed in this regard that “It was an immense step forward for Adam Smith to throw out every limiting specification of wealth-creating activity—not only manufacturing, or commercial or agricultural labour, but one as well as the other, labour in general….As a rule, the most general abstractions arise only in the midst of the richest possible concrete development, where one thing appears as common to many, to all. Then it ceases to be thinkable in a particular form alone….Indifference towards specific labours corresponds to a form of society in which individuals can with ease transfer from one to another, and where the specific kind is a matter of chance for them, hence of indifference. Not only the category, labour, but labour in reality has here become the means of creating wealth in general, and has ceased to be organically linked with particular individuals in any specific form.” Marx, Grundrisse, 104.
7. Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (Edinburgh: Adam and Charles Black, 1863), 273.
8. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works (MECW), vol. 11 (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1994), 106–07.
9. As an article on a conference in Beijing reported recently in Monthly Review, some Chinese participants argued that “When a State Owned Enterprise is turned into a joint stock corporation with many shareholders, it represents socialization of ownership as Marx and Engels described it, since ownership goes from a single owner to a large number of owners [among others, this was stated by someone from the Central Party School]. If State Owned Enterprises are turned into joint stock corporations and the employees are given some shares of the stock, then this would achieve ‘Marx’s objective of private property.’ In dealing with the State Owned Enterprises, we must follow ‘international norms’ and establish a ‘modern property rights system’. [As in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s, the terms in quotes were euphemisms for capitalist norms and capitalist property rights.] Enterprises can be efficient in our socialist market economy only if they are privately owned. [This statement, voiced by several people, comes directly from Western ‘neoclassical’ economic theory.]” David Kotz, “The State of Official Marxism in China Today,” Monthly Review 59, no. 4, (September 2007): 60–61.
10. Marx, Grundrisse, 512,
11. Marx, Grundrisse, 303, Marx’s emphases. The socialist writings referred to by Marx are John Gray, The Social System (36), and J. F. Bray, Labour’s Wrongs (157–76).
12. Marx, Economic Works: 1861–64, MECW, vol. 34, 422, Marx’s emphases.
13. See in particular Sections 17.2 (“Socialism in One Country”), 17.3 (“The Failure of De-Stalinization and the Collapse of Really Existing Socialism”), and 17.4 (“The Attempted Switch from Political to Economic Extraction of Surplus-Labour: ‘Glasnost’ and ‘Perestroika’ without the People”) of Beyond Capital, pages 622–72 in English.
14. See, for instance, the writings of Ricardo Antunes—including Adeus ao trabalho? (São Paulo: Cortez, 1995) and Os sentidos do trabalho (São Paulo: Boitempo, 1999)—in this respect.
15. Vadim Medvedev, “The Ideology of Perestroika,” in Perestroika Annual, vol. 2, edited by Abel Aganbegyan (London: Futura/Macdonald, 1989), 32.
16. Marx, Grundrisse, 172.