There is this recurrent theme in communist literature that portrays communism as if it were a commodity to be produced and it goes something like: We have to build communism. Communism, in this proposal, is conceptualized as a the product of decades of constructive effort.
Here are some examples of what I mean:
- A book by Michael Lebowitz, who proposes we “Build It Now: Socialism for the 21st Century”.
- Deng Xiaoping proposed the China needed to “Build socialism with chinese characteristics”.
- Saul Alinsky couldn’t quite bring himself to propose we build socialism, but some allege he proposed we “Create a Social State”.
- In the UK, and indeed all across Europe there are a bunch of young folks who want to instruct us on “Building a Socialist Society”.
- According to The Nation, Kshama Sawant wants to, “Build an Actual Socialist City in America”.
- While Cuba, we are told, is actually trying to “Build Socialism in a Neoliberal World”.
- Finally, Cockshott and Cottrell don’t just want to build socialism, they want to build a New Socialism. (I guess the old socialism wasn’t good enough — a Model T — when we need a Tesla-class socialism today.)
Anyways, you get the idea: socialism is not a set of social relations but product, essentially the iPhone 7 of historical development. If we want this new fancy society, iSocialism, we will have to build it from scratch beginning now or some time in the not too distant future.
Visions of what this imaginary future will look like once constructed can range anywhere from a banal Capitalism-without-poverty-and-inequality, to something akin to Jodi Dean’s endless general assembly, where everyone has to discuss every detail of management of society before we all get to work.
Like constructing a bridge or designing a new mall, various models for this new product are displayed. Most of these ideas are dead on arrival, of course; producing more questions than answers and descending into eye-rolling levels of minutiae: How is the production stuff organized? How are things to be distributed? Who will build the roads, take out the trash, get widgets from Guangdong Province to Capetown?
There are 7 billion people on this planet who have to be fed, clothed and sheltered under any mode of production, while simultaneously we are pulling back our species from the brink of a self-inflicted extinction event. These 7 billion people each have their own interests and their own ideas on how to satisfy those interests that may or may not (mostly not) be addressed by any or all of the various blueprints floating around. To make things worse, we have to make critical life and death decisions about basic necessities under a threatening environmental deadline and battered by ruthless economic competition. These are hardly the optimal conditions for making this sort of deliberate, highly complex decisions that would then have to be ratified by billions.
But the model of socialism as a thing to be constructed, built, manufactured, coded or otherwise produced, an analogy borrowed from commodity production, is fatally flawed: communism is not product, it is not a commodity that rolls off an assembly line. You can manufacture an iPhone, assemble a car, construct a house, but you can’t get to communism by any of these methods.
The entire analogy that conceptualizes communism as something to be built has to be rejected: Communism is not soviet power plus electrification of the whole country.
Lenin. Was. Wrong.
If communism is not a product — a commodity — to be built, what is it? Communism is free, disposable time away from production, from labor, from building; time for individuals to realize their own self-development through their self-activity and in association with others. Communism places the entire wealth of mankind at the disposal of fully rounded individuals. There is no blueprint for self-development, no model for self-activity, no necessary form of association — all of these flow directly from individuals who have the sum wealth of humanity at their disposal. You can’t get to communism through a construction project, but only through free disposable time.
To be honest, the radical implications of communism as free disposable time for the mass of society deeply troubles communists. They are so used to thinking of communism as a massive construction project, stretching over decades and involving billions of people, where they serve as project managers, owing to their theoretical clarity. The idea that the new higher society flows directly from the self-activity of individuals is difficult for even the most radical communist to grasp. It seems only right that a billion individuals, motivated by a common will, marching in lock step, can breach the barrier between capitalism and communism far more quickly than a billion self-directed individuals.
The analogy collapses, however, once you realize that the self-directed activity of individuals is itself communism. There is no way individuals marching in lock step can breach this barrier because its the marching in lock step part that has to be abolished. Capitalism trains us to march in lock step, in ever larger phalanxes, precisely to appropriate our surplus labor time as profit. We don’t have to march in lock step to produce what we require, but only to produce surplus value for the capitalists. The expropriators of our surplus labor require us to organized in this way, not to meet our needs, but theirs. In fact, for communism to appear as an empirical necessity, almost all labor must be undertaken solely for this purpose.
In other words, for communism to appear as free time and nothing else, the only real purpose of labor must be the production of surplus value. This is where we are now.
The most deadening conception of communism possible is, thus, the idea that it is something to be constructed, a commodity, product. Historically, this conception of communism might have been justified in early 20th century Russia, but it is now entirely destructive to the idea of communism. Lenin was justified in defining communism as soviet power plus electrification of the whole country, in the same way capitalist exploitation was historically justified by rapid development of the forces of production of material wealth. Both sought to create what Marx calls the material basis for a higher mode of production.
However, we are no more confined to backward forces of production today than the characters in Star Trek — if anything we are threatened by the ever growing superfluity of labor power and means of production. There is no justification whatsoever to remain wedded to Lenin’s conception of communism. We are free to define communism as what it is, free disposable time for the vast majority of society and nothing more. What individuals do with their free time is no more our concern than how they spend their weekends, nor does this free activity require any necessary form apart from their particular aims.
Any definition of communism (or socialism) contrary to free time should be condemned. Communism is free time and nothing else. If you’re not fighting for free time, you are not a communist.