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Review: Peter Hudis, Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism

Review: Peter Hudis, Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism (Chicago: Haymarket, 2013)

Perhaps the most commonly-repeated cliché in regards to the writings of Karl Marx is that whatever the merits of his analysis of capitalism, he had little-to-nothing to say about what might replace it. Serious readers of Marx know this to be nonsense, of course, and there has been more than one attempt to clarify the nature of the post-capitalist classless society, which Marx alternately labeled “socialism” or “communism.”[1] But Peter Hudis’s book certainly represents the most comprehensive explanation of what Marx also called “the associated mode of production,” and it is therefore the most useful one. While many writers have, in Hudis’s words, analyzed “one aspect of [Marx’s] oeuvre at the expense of others” and have thus “made it all the harder to discern whether he has a distinct concept of a new society that addresses the reality of the twenty-first century” (35), Hudis utilizes virtually all of the Marxian corpus to make his case.

Hudis makes plain from the beginning of Marx’s Concept that he will not be visualizing the technical details of socialist society, nor does he pretend that Marx ever offered a comprehensive blueprint for such. His aim is modest: “to see what implicit or explicit indications [Marx’s work] contains about a future, non-alienating society.” (5) Hudis makes it clear that—contrary to those who would enlist Marx’s support for an imagined “market socialism”—that value, or the computation of wealth in monetary terms, is seen by Marx as specific to capitalism and as incompatible with a classless society. The retention of value-production would render “socialist” society unable to overcome capitalism’s “inversion of subject and predicate, in which the products as well as the actions of people take on the form of an autonomous power that determine and constrain the will of the subjects that engender them.” (42) As early as his 1844 “Comments on James Mill, Éléments D’économie Politique,” Marx critiqued the depersonalized exchange relations of capitalist society, in which “all products, regardless of their material content and the needs that they may fulfil, are treated as expressions of an abstract equivalent—money. Generalised commodity-exchange [inevitably] leads to wage-labour.” (57) Such labor is alienated (estranged) labor, but Hudis is at pains to clarify that alienated labor is not the result of market-exchange relations but the prerequisite for such relations, contrary to what many Marxists have believed. Hudis explains that for Marx capital itself is a congealment of alienated (and abstract) labor, a result of workers’ lack of a direct connection to the means of production. In Marx’s words from the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, it follows that “Private property is thus the product, the result, the necessary consequence, of alienated labour, of the external relation of the worker to nature and to himself.”[2] It follows that the object of Marx’s critique of capitalism is not, directly, the market—it is “the relations of production and the distribution of the conditions of production” which make it possible for the market to dominate society (192). He opposes the existence of a generalized commodity-market because it necessarily acts as an autonomous power independent of the will of the producers.

Marx famously criticized other anti-capitalists of his day, most notably anarchist forefather Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, for their failure to acknowledge the centrality of alienated labor to capitalism, and Hudis stresses the importance of alienated labor in explaining the oppressive and defective nature of the official Communisms of the 20th century, which he claims merely changed wage- and property-relations in order to produce a “state capitalism” wherein a ruling class imposed forced labor on workers. Such “communism” was “crude”; in Hegelian terms, it represented only “the first negation” and not, to use the Hegelian phrase that Marx appropriated, “the negation of negation… [which] gives [workers] individual property based on the acquisition of the capitalist era: i.e., on cooperation and the possession in common of the land and of the means of production.”[3] If alienated labor is not overcome, Hudis believes, then neither is private property—and by extension state property in the Stalinist world was de facto private ownership by the relevant bureaucrats.[4]

In the process of delineating Marx’s principles for the classless society, Hudis dispels various myths. Marx did not actually believe that history necessarily unfolds in progressive stages; he did not believe, contrary to official Communist doctrine, that socialism could be created in a single isolated country, but only on a global scale; contra Allan Megill in The Burden of Reason, Marx did not see “science and technology” as an “intentional agent” (87); against Leszek Kolokowski’s dismissal of Marx’s vision of socialism as “a society of perfect unity,” Hudis illustrates that “Marx’s emphasis on achieving a ‘totality of manifestations of life’ does not imply a life free of pain, contradiction, and suffering. It only implies a life in which we are able to come to terms with such afflictions, once we are no longer alienated from ourselves.” (91) (Given how frequently ideologues of the Right repeat Kolokowski’s assertion, pointing out this truth is rather important and commendable.) Hudis also proves that Marx’s operative principle for the initial stage of communism is not “from each according to their ability, to each according to their work,” which of course was the administrative formula used by the elites of Stalinist and Maoist societies; rather, remuneration would be based on “the individual labour time of the individual producer,” instead of the capitalist basis where “remuneration is based on socially-necessary labour time.” In such a society “one hour of actual labour is exchanged for goods or services produced in the same amount of time” (194), though “the output of energy in a given unit of time” may be taken into account (197). This is quite different from remuneration based on the amount of productive output within a given unit of time, which is what prevails (for workers) under capitalism.

Hudis’s chapter on “The Conception of a Postcapitalist Society” draws upon major works from various points in Marx’s life: The Poverty of Philosophy, the Grundrisse, the “third draft” of Capital from 1861-3, and then—in an ensuing chapter—Capital itself. He finds the hints that Marx provides regarding the nature of socialist society in all of these writings to be consistent with one another. He is convincing on this score, and he proves that Marx said far more about what a classless society would be like than is popularly believed. However, he stumbles on a few matters. In analyzing Marx’s writings on the Paris Commune, he attributes to Marx an exaggerated, quasi-anarchist anti-statism which results from conflating the published version of The Civil War in France with its draft form. The published version—which is far more consistent with Marx’s subsequent notes on Mikhail Bakunin’s Statism and Anarchy—strongly suggests that the proletarian revolution is “merely” a point in time when the working class becomes strong enough to utilize general means of coercion against anti-socialist forces.[5] Hudis himself later admits that Marx believed in the necessity of the working class making use of “governmental power, insofar as the social transformations that can lead to the abolition of the state itself are not yet fully achieved” (205), but this is inconsistent with his earlier remarks.

Also, Hudis claims that the organizational theories of Karl Kautsky and V.I. Lenin, the two most prominent post-Marx Marxists of their day, were influenced by Marx’s rival Ferdinand Lassalle in that they believed “that the vehicle of ‘science’ was not the proletariat, but rather the radicalised bourgeois intelligentsia,” (89) and hence that revolutionary consciousness is brought to the working class “from without.” A selective reading of Kautsky may support this conclusion, but as early as 1903 Kautsky distanced himself from Lasalle’s

aphorism on science and the proletariat [that] science…stands above the class struggle. […]When brought to the proletariat from the capitalist class, science is invariably adapted to suit capitalist interests. What the proletariat needs is a scientific understanding of its own position in society. That kind of science a worker cannot obtain in the officially and socially approved manner. The proletarian himself must develop his own theory. [emphasis added] For this reason he must be completely self-taught, no matter whether his origin is academic or proletarian. The object of study is the activity of the proletariat itself, its role in the process of production, its role in the class struggle. Only from this activity can the theory, the self-consciousness of the proletariat, arise.[6]

As to Lenin, there has been much reconsideration of his political thought and the history of Bolshevism since the publication of Lars T. Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered: ‘What Is to Be Done?’ in Context (Chicago: Haymarket, 2008). It appears that Lenin was not, at least initially, the elitist-minded reviser of Marx that he is generally thought to be, nor was Bolshevism an authoritarian political trend prior to the Russian Civil War. Lih demonstrates that Lenin’s famous pamphlet has been broadly misinterpreted, largely due to mistranslations of key terms. All Kautsky and Lenin were arguing, Lih maintains, is that it was the task of Marxists to bring about a “merger of socialism and the worker movement” which would not arise automatically.[7]

Finally, as noted above, Hudis believes that all of the societies ruled by “Marxist-Leninist” parties were “state capitalist.” I used to believe this as well. But it is not the case. Hudis’ analysis of official Communism rests on his belief that in such societies concrete labor—labor directed towards satisfying real human needs—was “still reduced to a monotonous, routinized activity through the dominance of abstract labour. Abstract labour continued to serve as the substance of value.” (104) As Hillel Ticktin explains, abstract labor is “the imposition of the specific social form of homogeneous human labour on the labour force in order to ensure a uniform rate of exchange. Without workers working at similar rates there is no basis for value and so price.”[8] But under the Stalinist states each person and each section of the enterprise and each enterprise effectively worked in their own way at their own rates. Hence, though alienated labour existed in such societies, abstract labour did not, and hence “profit” was at most a minor indicator in a system of success indicators. Workers in the USSR, Eastern Europe, etc. did not actually sell their labor power: workers had to work by law, on pain of imprisonment; there was only one employer (the state); and housing, health, education and the utilities were outside the “wage” system.[9] I say “wage” because the wage in the USSR was something more like a pension (“we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us”). In reality the relationship of the worker to the Soviet firm was analogous to the serf industrial production of 18th century Russia. There was no mode of production at all in the USSR—that is, no “stable, relatively harmonious, combination of a social form and a material content.”[10] Hudis’ misunderstanding of the political economy of Stalinist society results from a conflation of alienated and abstract labor. He does not delineate between “the Marx of 1844 who assimilated feudalism and capitalism under the general category of alienation of the conditions of labour from the worker, and the Marx of 1857 who was concerned to sharply demarcate capitalist from pre-capitalist forms on the grounds that in capitalism the worker was at the mercy of the decisions of the private owner in finding work, whereas in feudalism the communal system of production was prior to and included the immediate producer.”[11]

This topic, of course, has been at the center of a million sectarian debates on the anti-Stalinist left. But the reason it matters is that it simply will not do to brush off all of the USSR’s problems—all the deficiencies of bureaucratic “planning”—as having been capitalist problems. They were of a very different nature. It follows that socialists have a task which we did not have one hundred-plus years ago. We have to be fairly precise about how participatory socialist planning could work; we need to provide technical details that Marx, for understandable reasons, did not believe that he should provide. Hudis, perhaps surprisingly, agrees; he writes that Marx’s vision “must be developed and projected today in a far more comprehensive manner than appeared necessary in the nineteenth century.” (214) I am glad that he says this, but it seems to me that holding onto a “state capitalist” analysis of official Communism opens the door to a great deal of hand-waving about socialist planning, aside from its general inaccuracy.

That said, Hudis has written a superb book. Given all the misconceptions that abound over what Marx truly advocated, one hopes that Marx’s Concept will reach the widest possible audience.

 

Notes

[1] Bertell Ollman, “Marx’s Vision of Communism: A Reconstruction,” Critique Vol. 8No. 1 (1977); Hillel H. Ticktin, “What Will a Socialist Society Be Like?,” Critique Vol.25 No. 1 (1997).

[2] Karl Marx, “Estranged Labour” (1844), http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/labour.htm.

[3] Karl Marx, Capital Vol. 1 (1867), Ch. 32, http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch32.htm.

[4] See more on the issue of “state capitalism” below. I believe that Hudis’s understanding of the USSR and like states is faulty. What existed there was not capitalist ownership (which would be subject to the law of value—Adam Smith’s “invisible hand”) but essentially pre-capitalist ownership.

[5] “The working class did not expect miracles from the Commune. They have no ready-made utopias to introduce par decret du peuple. They know that in order to work out their own emancipation, and along with it that higher form to which present society is irresistibly tending by its own economical agencies, they will have to pass through long struggles, through a series of historic processes [emphasis added], transforming circumstances and men. They have no ideals to realize, but to set free the elements of the new society with which old collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant.” Karl Marx, The Civil War in France, Ch. 5, http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1871/civil-war-france/ch05.htm. Hudis quotes this passage but does not seem to realize its full significance.

[6] Karl Kautsky, “The Intellectuals and the Workers,” Die Neue Zeit Volume XXII, No.4 (1903), http://www.marxists.org/archive/kautsky/1903/xx/int-work.htm.

[7] Lars T. Lih, Lenin Rediscovered: ‘What Is to Be Done?’ in Context (Chicago: Haymarket, 2008), p. 41.

[8] Ticktin, op. cit., p. 153.

[9] Hillel Ticktin, “Stalinism—Its Nature and Role,” Critique 39 No. 4 (December 2011), p. 504.

[10] Chris Arthur, The New Dialectic and Marx’s ‘Capital’ (Leiden: Brill, 2002), p. 210.

[11] Ibid, pp. 218-19. There was also simply no capitalist class in the USSR. Members of the “bureaucracy”—itself a too-vague term—could not guarantee their privileges would pass on to their children. They did not have an inheritable relation to the means of production.

 

Jason Schulman teaches political science at Lehman College in the Bronx. He is the editor of Rosa Luxemburg: Her Life and Legacy (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

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