Human.liberation.com or Bill Gates rules?

Allan Armstrong of the Republican Communist Network takes issue with Dave Craig

Dave Craig's latest document, Human.Liberation.com (Weekly Worker December 16), appears to represent an advance in that, for the first time, he is forced to address the issue of communism directly. However, the purpose of the article is quite clearly to strip the notion of communism of any real dimension of human liberation. Instead of a fundamental transformation of social relations between human beings we are offered a vision of further "technological" and "economic revolution". But this will only occur after 'international socialism' is first achieved. Quite clearly this contribution falls into the long line of social democratic attempts to undermine communism as an operative concept for the here and now.

In support of the valid argument that "Communism is not a utopian scheme invented by ideologists", Dave quotes Lenin: "Communism 'has its origins in capitalism, that it develops historically from capitalism, that it is the action of a social force to which capitalism gave birth.'" Lenin thought that communism was possible in 1917 on the basis of the technology which existed then. Famously, he later equated communism with "electrification plus soviets". After the heady days of the 1848 Revolution and the Communist manifesto, in 1850 a more sober Marx still envisaged communism by the end of the 19th century at the latest. "You will have to go through 15, 20, 50 years of civil war and national struggles." (Revelations concerning the communist trial in Cologne). He saw steam power, the new technology of industrial capitalism, as an adequate technological basis for communism.

Although experience has shown that continuous technological revolution undergone by capitalism has strengthened capital's control, rather than weakening it, Dave is confident that we now at last have the right technological fix for communism. "The immense technological revolution on the basis of information technology ... that has given us the world wide web is the technology of communism." So far neither Bill Gates at Microsoft, nor all the myriad ideologues and apologists for the new world order of globalised capital appear to agree. It is a long time since capital's spokespersons have appeared so confident. The world's productive forces are still being increased, and directly capitalist economic relations are being extended to ever newer areas of the world and to ever more aspects of people's lives. For the overwhelming majority, this "technological revolution" is experienced as massive insecurity and uncertainty, a decrease in the quality of life, along with a stunting of our human potential. Depending on new technologies to provide the basis for human liberation is likely to see us still dominated by capital at the end of the 21st century.

It is worth remembering the reason why capitalism created new technologies and crushed other possibilities. When workers successfully struggled for and won the ten hour day in the last century, capitalists resorted to the large-scale introduction of steam-powered machine technology to intensify the exploitation of labour. This reduced human workers to 'hands' controlled by the discipline of the machine and the factory masters' foremen. Today's information technology has given us the call centre, the sweatshop of the new millennium.

In Marx's emancipatory vision of communism, technology is a subordinate element. The communist revolution is not essentially technological nor economic. Marx saw the voluntary cooperative and consciously planned efforts of freely associated labour as communism's basis for providing a qualitative step beyond capitalism. He certainly saw this as leading to a qualitative increase in the physical wealth necessary to live a truly human life. But an increasingly important contribution to the new social order resulting from freely associated human labour is the ability to incorporate non-economic, social, cultural and 'spiritual' elements into the production of human wealth. Socialism, the first phase of communism, would develop out of the capitalism we are attempting to supersede, so we will have to make use of its inherited technologies. But part of the communist revolution will be to 'take these technologies apart' and reassemble them so they are consistent with truly human productive activity.

However, there is another precondition for Dave's 'communism'. This is the existence of the "world market .[which] has given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country" (Communist manifesto). For Dave, this world market has a super-real character, which seems to place iron restraints on what is possible. In particular, the existence of 'the world market' definitively rules out any socialist advance short of workers achieving power over the whole world. But just as the multinational corporations have now, at last, come up with the necessary information technology, so Dave approvingly quotes D Rousset's The Legacy of the Bolshevik Revolution: "Monopoly capitalism has created an autonomous reality; the world market ... [which now allows] socialism to be built on the basis of the highest level of [international] development. The socialist revolution is not and cannot be a national one".

So let us look at the real attempts humankind has made to achieve human liberation, as opposed to Dave's dogmatic schema. First, D Rousset is wrong. Monopoly capitalism did not create the autonomous world market. The world market was begun under mercantile capitalism, as early as the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and, as Dave's quote from the Communist manifesto highlights, was well advanced before the development of monopoly capitalism from the 1870s. The significance of this is that every phase of capitalist development has been met with resistance and we cannot dogmatically say that emancipatory alternatives were only possible on the basis of the world market.

We now know that fully developed capitalist social relations could not provide the basis for human emancipation, but it was not classical capitalism these people were trying to create. Marx was later in life to disown the abstract historical schema which made slave society beget feudalism, which in turn begot capitalism and would finally give birth to socialism. The continued existence today of the Amish communities in the USA, despite all the pressures from later forms of capitalism, provided a dim and distant echo of just one possible alternative which might have generalised itself in the seventeenth century. For example, the Levellers fought for a real alternative to the large scale agrarian and mercantile capitalism and it was through their defeat in 1649 that this form of capitalism eventually triumphed in England.

However, there was another response which came from both the chattel and wage slaves (as well as the then 'reserve army of labour' - the vagabonds) of the time. The majority of chattel and wage slaves soon came to appreciate that they were doomed to remain outside the freedoms offered by the emerging property owning democracy. Some, therefore, sought to build alternative communal societies outside and beyond this new social order. Hence you had the numerous 'maroon' societies of runaway slaves in the Caribbean and Brazil and attempts by landless labourers, such as the Diggers, to build their 'proto-communist' order on St Georges Hill in 1649.

As capitalism moved beyond its agrarian and mercantile origins, through its industrial and free trade stage, its monopoly and imperial protection stage, to the current stratified and globalised new world order, it has been contested at every stage. Massive class struggles led to widespread resistance and attempts to set up or protect communal alternatives.

If, instead of concentrating on the real social relations of production and real class struggle, we move to Dave's more rarefied world market, we will see this has not developed in a continuous upward curve under capitalism. The period of industrial capitalism and free trade was dominated by British imperial power (so much that it has sometimes been termed 'free trade imperialism'). As a result, the new capitalists in other countries, such as Germany, felt it necessary to try and develop their infant capitalism behind protectionist barriers. Furthermore, the growth of the power and influence of the new industrial working class confronted the industrial capitalists with a choice. They could try to maintain or emulate the minimal state bureaucracy of the UK, which in the mid-19th century was at a historically low level. However, this might no longer prove powerful enough to contain the new challenges, domestically or internationally. Since workers had learned to combine and struggle in a legal climate far worse than that prevailing under today's anti-trade union laws, the capitalist state increasingly made another choice - to push for a more interventionist state. An imperialist vision was promoted, which soon made huge inroads into the politics of social democracy. State sponsored colonialism, which also provided a safety valve for still remaining social unrest, became the norm from the late 1870s. This is the beginning of the period Lenin characterised as monopoly capital dominated imperialism. Initially this extended the scope of the world market, as each state increased its economic linkages with its overseas colonies, but what was now increasingly being created was not a single world market, but several markets extending over the world. The development of the world market was not some pre-ordained working out of an abstract capitalist inner logic, but was a direct consequence of the course of class struggle.

From the outbreak of World War I we can see the shrinkage rather than the continued development of the world market. At the beginning of monopoly capital's new imperialist stage in the 1880s, the international legacy of free trade capitalism still ensured continuing and developing trade between the different imperialist metropoles. However, the world market became increasingly fragmented as the dominant imperial nations resorted to increasingly protective economic measures. The different political regimes all represented different ways of containing the challenges of the international revolutionary wave of 1916 to 1921 - 'counterrevolution within the revolution', a reinvigorated social democracy, nationalist populism, coalitions of the bourgeois parties, military or fascist terror. Despite their political diversity, all of these countries increasingly resorted to state capitalist measures behind protectionist barriers. This allowed for greater or lesser development of productive forces, despite the shrinking world market. The human cost of such economic development under capitalist social relations was usually horrific.

Who is to say that if working class revolution had been successful in the larger, more advanced imperialist powers, whether significant advances towards a new communist society could not have been made within these less than worldwide frameworks? It is worth pointing out that in 1915 Lenin thought it was perfectly possible to build socialism, even on a less than European scale, in countries such as Germany, Britain, France or the USA. In 1915, Lenin did not think such a leap could be made in the Russian empire at the time, because he thought its level of economic development was still too backward, despite its territorial extent and wealth of resources. But in the lead up to the international revolutionary wave of 1916-21, which did indeed both break down and cross the boundaries of the existing imperial territories, the last thing that was on most minds in the new communist movement was fear of the limitations of the world market.

The nature of the world market has changed again, and not because of any objective capitalist economic law determining its inevitable expansion. The working class, peasants and other oppressed took increasing advantage of the contradictions of the various post-World War II statified capitalist regimes. By taking independent action and putting pressure on their various official communist and social democratic parties and trade unions, the working class managed, to different degrees, to extend 'their' welfare states to meet more of their needs. The governments of the imperialist powers were able to finance this by imposing taxes on their industrial corporations. They could do this because they ran nationally integrated production units (even if some also had overseas supplier and production subsidiaries), which could be threatened with real sanctions if they fail to comply.

However, a capitalist counter-offensive started around 1975. This has been met with continuous, but overwhelmingly defensive, working class, peasant, and tribal resistance internationally. The multinationals' 'economic' response to the previous working class offensive was to fragment production and disperse facilities internationally. Once a certain threshold had been achieved, and once the main example of integrated statified production had collapsed in the USSR, the controllers of this new global production decided to eliminate all such remaining concentrations. This helped them to undermine the old working class social democratic methods of organisation associated with the previous period.

A genuine world market has been recreated on a new basis. The 19th century world market covered not only worldwide commerce, including trade in exotic crafts, it also led to the imperially managed production of primary products - the raw materials and foodstuffs necessary for the metropolitan manufacturing industries and their workforces. Today's world market is extending this much further - with global finance and commerce. Manufacturing and service industries are increasingly being located in the sub-imperial and neo-colonial states. However, care is being taken to ensure that it is lower order production facilities (particularly the environmentally destructive 'dirty' industries such as chemical and waste recycling) that are sent overseas and that no state should have nationally integrated production within its boundaries. Multinational corporations have utilised democratically unaccountable and exclusive 'clubs' such as the OECD, IMF and WTO, to try to coordinate this capitalist offensive. Their interests dominate the decision making of the US-dominated UN security council. They have directed their activities, in particular, against the various 'communities of resistance' which have stubbornly resisted becoming super-exploited enclaves for capital. Sometimes they have managed to create 'reservations for the oppressed' as in Palestine, Lebanon, Iraqi Kurdistan, Bosnia, Kosova and possibly East Timor. These are reduced to begging for multinational intervention to alleviate their misery. Yet resistance continues, whether from an older working class in France and the USA; the working class in newly industrialised Brazil and South Korea; or from peasants in Mexico (the Zapatistas) and throughout Indonesia, or on the streets of the USA's ultra-modern, north-west Pacific city, Seattle, in the very 'heart of the beast'.

For genuine communists, "the world is now our oyster" not because of the iron restraint of the world market, but because of the worldwide resistance to global capital. The world communism we seek to achieve aims to link up the majority of the world's workers and peasants who are now labouring directly or indirectly for capital. We see their struggle as linked to our struggle to recreate ourselves as humanised, rather than capitalised human beings. That is why we need to strengthen the existing 'internationalism from below', giving it a voice - a human emancipatory and genuine communism, before we can move to more permanent organisation.

Now Dave does not locate the real contradictions of capitalist production in the class struggles associated with the continuous clash between capital and labour. Instead, "It is within the world market that capitalism assumes the greatest contradictions". Does this mean that we should join those socialist Jeremiahs, that ever hopeful band of crash-gazers'? Despite the failure of previous predictions, it does not deter the 'true prophets'.

Gramsci hit upon the real significance of economic crises. It may be ruled out that immediate economic crises of themselves produce fundamental historic events; they can simply create a terrain more favourable to the dissemination of certain modes of thought" (Prison notebooks). When we look, however, to Dave's distant communism, we find him still trapped in the reified world of the categories of capitalist political economy and the sphere of distribution so loved by all social democrats. "Capitalism is an exploitative commodity producing society . regulated by value expressed in the relationship of wages, prices and profits". When Marx wrote Capital, he did not do this from the viewpoint of an objective social scientist/economist, but from the viewpoint of collective labour struggling to meet its human needs and create a new society, the possibility of which was latent within capitalism, but constantly suppressed by the controllers of capital. The prime political purpose of Capital was to get the working class to inscribe on its banners not "A fair day's work for a fair day's pay", nor even "We demand the full product of our labour", but "The abolition of the wages system". Yet even in Dave's postponed version of communism, the best he offers is "the power of productive labour to produce more socially useful goods and services" - nothing on the ending of wage slavery; no hint of transformed social relations between human beings. Dave's vision of communism, largely stripped of any wider prospect of human emancipation, provides a pretty narrow basis to oppose global capitalism's 'shop till you drop' view of our freedom. According to Dave, not only must we put away our finest banner until his 'international socialism' has almost been achieved, we should probably burn it now, since it will never be needed. In refusing to develop a genuine new communism for the millennium, Dave quietly drops a central feature of Marx's emancipatory vision of communism, just as Kautsky and all the centrists of the Second International did before him.

The real essence of capitalism, as Peter Hudis has pointed out, is "the reduction of concrete labouring activity into abstract labour through the medium of socially necessary labour time" (Conceptualisng an emancipatory alternative). This standpoint places class struggle at the very centre of capitalism - the constant struggle between 'living labour' and the representatives of 'dead labour' to extend or limit socially necessary human needs. Because it is our labour power which creates all new value for the capitalist, each of us must be rewarded with some of this value in the form of wages, if only to prepare ourselves for tomorrow's "daily grind at the mill". The capitalists try to reduce this socially necessary labour to the minimum, the better to extract the maximum surplus labour. As workers, however, we try individually and collectively, through industrial and political struggle, to maximise the proportion of value received as socially necessary labour time, the better to meet our needs. This creation of all new value, both the socially necessary and surplus labour, by the collective working class is the essence of the labour theory of value.

However, even a labour theory of value is still restricted to the viewpoint of capitalist political economy. What gave Marx the confidence to inscribe "The abolition of the wages system" on the communist banner was his adoption of the viewpoint of socialised humanity. By adopting such a viewpoint, Marx went beyond a classical political economy's labour theory of value and in effect argued a 'value theory of labour'. He showed why it was that the rewards of our labour are constantly being pushed down to what the capitalists think is 'socially necessary labour' and why political economy uses reified categories like wages, prices and profits. But he went further and showed us that under capitalist production relations labour is not only exploited but is the real creative pole of the capitalist production relationship. The capitalists' capital, formed by accumulating our past or 'dead' labour makes the capitalist class appear creative, to give them economic, social and political power. But their power is nothing but our own creative activity stolen and alienated. The major job for any workers' republic is to abolish wage slavery, and this, of course, is why Dave's undeclared programme of "revolutionary democracy" is not communist. His banner for a future workers' republic (if he was honestly to raise it) is "The wages system under workers' representative control".

If there is a distinction to be made between pre- and post-international revolutionary wave, revolutionary social democracy, it lies in the following. The older revolutionary social democracy clung to Marx's pre-Paris Commune view that socialism would come about by further perfecting and bringing the existing capitalist state 'under workers' control' - through socialist majorities in parliament and other levels of the state. Drawing on the experience of the Paris Commune, Marx later rejected his earlier view. He now boldly declared the need to smash the capitalist state machinery.

But in the period following the Paris Commune Marx went further, making his earlier slogan, "Abolish the wages system" more concrete. He showed us that workers' economic control could not be brought about just by placing the wages system under 'workers' control'. The whole wages system needed to be abolished. This requires a double mechanism. First, we have to take over direct control of production and distribution through combining as 'freely associated labour' - what was later understood as workers' councils. Secondly, our workers' councils must plan production and distribution directly on the basis of labour time. This eliminates the distinction between socially necessary and surplus labour and allows us collectively to agree what proportion of social labour is allocated to individuals (by means of labour certificates showing the hours we have worked) and what is reserved for the meeting of wider social needs, democratically decided by the workers' councils themselves.

If our workers' councils confine their role to 'political revolution', then the political 'representatives of labour' will develop a new power beyond our real control by mediating between what they see as the wider social interest and our 'local selfish' interests. It is only the direct collective control of labour time by each workers' council concerned which gives us the equivalent decisive power to that enjoyed by the owners and controllers of capital at present. This means 'political revolution' must be followed directly by 'economic revolution'. However, the purpose of this is not to continue these two separate spheres inherited from capitalism, but to unite them in what amounts to 'social revolution' and overcome this division created by capitalism.

The failure of the infant USSR to move beyond the first requirement to begin the transition to socialism - the abolition of the capitalist state and its replacement by workers' councils - to the second requirement - the abolition of wage slavery and the beginning of the uprooting of the law of value, is the main reason why this model has to be superseded today to create a genuine new communism for the millennium. If we go back to Lenin's State and revolution we can see the theoretical embryo of this failure. Lenin refers to Marx's Civil war in France, enabling him to advocate a new commune state based on soviets. Furthermore, he also quotes extensively from Marx's Critique of the Gotha programme, getting very close to the need for production and distribution planned by workers' councils on the basis of labour time.

However, it is precisely at this point that Lenin moves away from Marx. For, despite his monumental efforts since grappling with the Philosophical notebooks in 1914, Lenin still clung to some of the revolutionary social democratic views of the pre-World War I Second International. In particular, he shared the view of socialism as the culmination of the 'objective' concentration and centralisation of production undertaken by monopoly capitalism. This looked to the state to continue the centralising process until production was fully nationalised and hence ripe for socialisation. Viewing society as would-be socialist administrators running a centralised system of production, revolutionary social democrats rejected Marx's lower phase of communism, organised as 'freely associated labour' abolishing wage slavery. Lenin, still taking his lead from the earlier social democratic revolutionary legacy, took its logic one step further.

"All citizens are transformed into hired employees of the state, which consists of armed workers ... The whole society will have become a single office and a single factory, with equality of labour and pay." Thus it is that Lenin, coming so close to Marx's genuine communism, ended up advocating instead a 'barracks socialism'. Revolutionary social democracy viewed the economic organisation bequeathed by monopoly capitalism as progressive. It did not see the need to abolish wage slavery (and also began to view Henry Ford's capitalist assembly line technology and workplace organisation favourably, too). Instead it tried to put the wages system 'under workers' control'. The experience of the whole last century is that this has no more provided the basis for a successful communist (or even socialist) transition, than placing parliament 'under workers' control' (electing social democratic governments). Furthermore, if we look at Lenin's quotes, we can see just how close they come to anticipating the society which triumphed under Stalin. The supervision by armed workers soon gave way to supervision of unarmed workers by socialist administrators, backed by the regular army, regular and secret police, as well as Party placemen at every level. Needless to say, equality of labour and pay were never implemented. But the Stalinist USSR certainly came close to being a society organised as "one big office" and "factory".

German social democrats clung on to their Marxist label until the 1953 Bad Godesburg conference - as long as they only claimed Marx's pre-Paris Commune view of socialism as the fullest 'parliamentary democracy under workers' control', this had some legitimacy. The official communists claimed more of Marx's legacy and accepted the need to smash the capitalist state, but until official communism finally collapsed in 1991 they also clung to Marx's pre-1875 view of placing 'the wages system under workers' control'. Quite clearly, we can now see that both these views have led to disaster.

Yet Dave and others, in that shrinking band of dissident revolutionary social democrats, still want to cling on to a restricted vision of Marx, born out of the 'counter-revolution within the revolution'. Dave wants to refine this old revolutionary social democratic theory to make it more consistent. In complete opposition to Marx, who linked the need for 'freely associated labour' (workers' councils) with the abolition of wage slavery and the introduction of time labour accounting, Dave completely separates them. He protests vehemently against orthodox Trotskyist contributors to the Weekly Worker that his version of 'revolutionary democracy' in no way denies the need to move to a 'workers state' with workers' councils wherever that is possible, ie nationally. But then silence - what are these workers' states to do? Do they manage capitalism until the 'United States of the World' has been achieved? Now, orthodox Trotskyists quite rightly believe that to state such a thing openly would hardly inspire workers to make a revolution. That is why there is an alternative neo-Kautskyist face to Trotskyism. Maybe we should just wait until the capitalists have created a fully integrated world market and state before we attempt to build socialism. The irony is that, despite heated debates on terminology, Dave (provided he does not slide into the neo-Kautskyist paralysis which is latent in his politics), the orthodox Trotskyists and the old Stalinists have the same post-revolutionary programme - 'the wage system under workers' control'.

What went wrong according to Dave is that the communists tried to build communism in one country. Dave has it completely wrong. It was the failure to successfully move fully to the first phase of communism which forced the retreat from international communism to national Bolshevism and hence state capitalism in one country. This failure was at least partly due (international factors undoubtedly played their part) to the attempt to limit communism to the view that it involved placing the 'wages system under workers' control'. This is what Dave is arguing we should advocate today, whilst reassuring us that the "economic revolution" will take care of the communist future. The most politically articulate members of the Bolsheviks and the Third International, who most vociferously opposed Lenin and the Bolshevik majority's retreat to national Bolshevism, had a more internationalist perspective than those who now argued for NEP, the capitalist 'transition to socialism' or later for state capitalist 'socialism in one country'. The first task of any successful workers' revolution will be to extend the revolution internationally. Despite Dave's attempts to characterise the debate in the RCN as a debate between 'international socialism' and 'socialism in one country', history has shown these two false alternatives are but the two faces of 'socialism in no country'. Dave does not seem to appreciate that (as long as he is still arguing for workers to seize power nationally) we will face the same immediate economic problems of isolation, whether we confine our programme to setting up workers' councils or move on to abolish wage slavery. International capitalism is not going to like it either way and will attempt to crush such efforts militarily or by an economic blockade causing undoubted hardships. (We can go further and point out that the major imperialist players are not even happy with mildly reforming governments which threaten to nationalise some local multinational facilities, such as Arbenz's challenge to the United Fruit Company in Guatemala, or Mossadeq's challenge to Shell-BP in Iran). Therefore 'state capitalism under workers' control' faces the same problem as the first phase of genuine communism. The advantage of the latter is that workers have more effective and entrenched control of society. There is no separate state (whether it calls itself 'soviet', or is a party-state), which the imperialists can more easily focus their pressure on. Secondly, the example of genuine workers' control (as opposed to 'representative' or nominal workers' control) is a much greater inspiration to workers and the oppressed when it comes to spreading the international revolution.

The revolutionary social democratic vision no longer inspires confidence. Yet class struggle, often on an epic scale, continues today. What we lack is a genuine communist vision, rooted in today's realities. Whilst Marx insisted on winding up the first Communist League and then the First International, and working out the basis for a more adequate communist programme and organisation for periods 30 years apart, today we still face those who have retreated to a theological view disguised as science. There are various parties and sects claiming to be the true apostolic succession dating from 1917 or 1938. Dave cannot be accused of this. Instead he wants to edit and then preserve the resulting sacred texts as dogma.

The gospel according to Dave goes something like this:- 'Past attempts to achieve salvation (socialism/communism) have now revealed themselves to be false starts, because they have not found the necessary religious practice (technology) or taken sufficient account of god's will (the world market). However, information technology and the world market taken together form a beam of the perfect light. And true believers know that this perfect light is merely the opaque veil disguising the future 'international socialist' heaven on earth. However, we must be patient and show fortitude. At present we must follow Dave the sceptic and dismiss all premature attempts to move towards socialism. These can only be doomed to perdition (national socialism). But Dave still has faith in our salvation in the future, provided we follow him in the true religion. Now whilst Dave is clear as to the hell which awaits us if we try to seek a premature salvation, he is decidedly coy over the vales of tears and tribulation which millions of workers and oppressed have already experienced over the last century by giving unto Caesar what is Caesar's (continued capitalist production relations) whilst trying to seek mercy and tame his terrible anger through collective prayer ('workers' power').'

Dave is offering us a reconstruction of the 'Titanic'. He still has not come to terms with the events of the last century. "The brutality of Stalin's USSR, Mao's China, Kim Il Sung's North Korea, Ceasescu's Romania and Pol Pot's Kampuchea, along with the stifling of democracy, the bureaucratic privileges, the countless petty regulations, the economic waste and environmental destruction that characterised all the regimes where 'revolutionary' social democrats (calling themselves communists) have led to widespread distrust by workers towards those advocating a communist alternative. Despite the current crisis-ridden trajectory of international capitalism, with all the misery it brings in its train, the memory and failure of the official communist alternative remains the most important material factor preventing workers fighting for a new emancipatory alternative" (Draft programme of the Communist Tendency). Or, as Marx might have said, "The traditions of all the past generations (and the outdated thinking based on these) weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living" (Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon).