Does communism have to be boring — Even in Canada?
The election programme of the Communist Party of Canada (CPoC) is, unfortunately mostly mediocre and incoherent because of the way it is organized. It is a collection of nice ideas with no apparent internal logic.
By “nice ideas’ I mean who can argue with a higher minimum wage, affordable housing, eliminating taxes on income under $40,000, and getting out of NATO. As a Left (radical) party platform of attractive reforms it is not bad overall, but hardly anything that screams “Vote Communist!”
It is necessary to ask whether this platform offers any real reason for people to stop voting for whichever party they vote for now and take a chance on communists? Given that communism as a political idea and as a model for society has huge negatives in polling among voters, what is offered in this platform? The answer to that question is literally nothing at all that probably could not be found in any other vaguely radical party platform.
Think of this conversation between two workers:
Worker 1: “So, who are you voting for?”
Worker 2: “I’m thinking of voting communist.
Worker 1: “Communist? Are you insane?”
Worker 2: “No. I gave it a lot of thought and finally decided I want a higher minimum wage.”
Worker 1: “Really? A higher minimum wage? Communists really stand for that? I think I’ll vote communist too.”
Not very likely, right? No one takes a chance on an untested old line Stalinist party because they want a higher minimum wage.
I know communists aren’t usually known for this sort of thing, but the programme has no ‘pop’. There is nothing in this programme that really says, “When you have finally had enough of tinkering with capitalism, check us out.”
Just think about the sort of voter who seriously considers a vote for the communists. Is this the sort of person who wants marginally radical change; or is this the sort of person who is totally fed up with what passes for civilized society under the existing mode of production? Is this the sort of person who wants a higher minimum wage or the end to wage slavery?
Think of this from the other angle. After what has happened in Greece this year when SYRIZA came to power with a mandate to end austerity, but no real idea of what that even meant practically. , Does any communist party want to enter government with a mandate for better unemployment payouts; or does it want the voters to send it to Ottawa with a mandate to do whatever it takes to abolish unemployment?
How Marx and Engels approached the problem
It seems to me that any radical party wants to come to office with a mandate for making radical changes. This sort of radical change is not reflected in this party platform. There is a long history of debate over the role of reforms and revolutionary measures in party platforms. Most of it is not interesting and needn’t concern us here.
However, the Communist Manifesto approached this problem in a completely different way. Rather than spending time detailing a platform of reforms and a separate platform of revolutionary measures, Marx and Engels devised a single platform they thought was achievable, yet had revolutionary implications. One thing you will notice about the platform in the Manifesto is it never speaks about things like wages, pensions, unemployment compensation, or income. The platform speaks of nationalizing land, banks, roads, factories, etc.
There is a reason for this and it likely isn’t that Marx and Engels felt discussion of wages was ‘reformist’ or unimportant. Rather, I think, Marx and Engels were briefly outlining a bare-bones plan for comprehensive development of the national economy as a whole. This plan is set forth with an eye, as they put it, “to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.” So there was a certain logic to the things they offered as planks in the programmatic section of the Manifesto: Since the Europe of their day was poor by present standards, they chose those things they thought would speed up economic development.
By and large, this is not the problem the CPoC faces today. And this difference is reflected in the programme the communists offer, which is titled “A Program for a People’s Recovery”. Essentially, the CPoC is saying the problem today is different than the one faced by Marx and Engels. It is about recovery from crisis, not development.
This is understandable. Since we are almost 170 years from the original Manifesto, our society is much different, much more advanced. So advanced relative to the Europe of that day, we no longer talk about the need to establish industrial armies for agriculture. Instead, the programme of the CPoC promises to “support Canada’s food sovereignty”. Which is to say, food is now so plentiful, imported foods may wipe out domestic farms. The excess output of modern farms has reduced the profitability of agriculture everywhere.
Basically, the problem faced by the CPoC upon coming into office is not to speed up development of the productive forces, but to address the crisis caused by a very high level of development of the productive forces. I think the CPoC is exactly right in this, but their programme is not adequate to the job.
The internal coherence of the Manifesto
One thing that might be noticed about the 1848 Manifesto programme is its internal coherence. The emphasis is on the state concentrating all the productive resources of society under its control. (I think we can leave aside for the moment what Marx and Engels meant by “the state”, which evolved over many years.) Concentrating the national capital — land, banks, communications, industry, etc. — in the hands of the state played a big role in their scheme for developing the national economy for good reason: Once the national capital was deployed on the largest possible scale, productivity could be rapidly improved.
Nationalization figures large in their development scheme because increasing the scale of production is one of the easiest ways to increase the productivity of labor. By increasing the productivity of labor, more output could be produced in a given period of time and, conversely, less labor would be required per unit of output. Their entire scheme was about increasing the production of material wealth while requiring as little labor as possible for production of this material wealth.
In this vein, one aspect of the Manifesto’s platform that is rarely mentioned is that everyone was required to work. Initially at least, the commune would impose the burden of labor on all of its members. Of course, some would be unable to work due to one or another circumstances, but these folks would not be abandoned. Marx discussed this later in his critique of the Gotha Programme; they would be supported by the commune as a whole. However, the ‘leisure classes’ would find they could no longer live on the labor of others and would have to find real jobs like everyone else.
Labor, in other words, was a compulsory condition of the commune; equally required on all the able bodied adults. It should be clear that compulsory labor is a form of state: “He who does not work, neither shall he eat.” This is how it is stated in the bible and the commune would enforce this rule on all equally. If you don’t want to work? Fine. No one will force you, but you can’t have anything produced by the commune. We are no longer here for parasites to live on.
If I am correct to call this requirement a state (at least loosely), ‘abolishing the state’ cannot mean anything but abolishing this requirement for compulsory labor. To replace the requirement for labor with another principle: “To each according to need”.
It is no coincidence, then, that in the CPoC’s programme we find a proposal for a “guaranteed annual income (GAI)”. This reflects changing requirements for labor in a society where there is a very high level of development of the productive forces. And it is no surprise that we find alongside the GAI, a proposal to reduce labor hours generally. If the CPoC had organized their platform in a coherent way they would have highlighted the greatly reduced need for labor in present society.
Too little labor or too much?
Labor in capitalist society has two aspects: its useful side and its value producing side. If there is a glut of food commodities such that the agriculture sector has to be protected, clearly there is too much labor in the form of agricultural labor. If the CPoC has to promise to “introduce tough plant closure legislation”, clearly there is too much industrial labor. If the CPoC has to promise to “pull out of NATO & Norad”, clearly there is too much labor going into unnecessary state defense spending. If the CPoC has to promise a mandatory 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in Canada, clearly too much labor is being wasted back into the environment in the form of pollutants.
How do you end all this waste of labor?
You simply reduce the quantity of labor expended in the economy. And this is key, because, if compulsory labor is a form of state, you can progressively abolish this state by reducing the amount of compulsory labor required by the commune. If labor in these various forms is no longer necessary, why continue to require working people to perform it?
Remember that the Manifesto programme contains this compulsory labor requirement, which means forcing people to work was part of the original platform of communists. This might be shocking to most folks today, but it was true: Marx and Engels believed society had to force all of its members to labor. The force would be directed particularly at the capitalists and aristocrats, who never labored, but it was also incumbent on everyone else.
Under what conditions would this compulsion be relaxed? It would be relaxed once the labor performed no longer produced anything materially useful. In other words, once labor only produced food gluts, environmental pollution, a heavily armed state, and chronic unemployment and poverty. Judging by the programme of the CPoC, this is what almost all labor is producing in Canada today.
Think about what the CPoC programme is pointing to as social ills in its programme: There is a need for an increased minimum wage, side by side with the need for a solution to a massive glut of food. Is it likely these two problems coexist side by side because there is too little labor? Or because there is too much labor? Do you have to ban scabbing because there are too many jobs to go around or too few? Do you have to cut military spending because there is a shortage of resources in the hands of the state? All of these ills mentioned in the CPoC program point to a very large surfeit of labor available in the economy of Canada. Under the present level of development of the productive forces, workers are being expected to perform too much compulsory labor.
Burying the communist lede
It should never be forgotten that all labor in present society is performed under social compulsion, not material necessity. Communism puts an end to compulsory labor. Under communism, each labors as he or she sees fit and their right to the common product is not determined by their labor contribution. The CPoC is ham-handedly trying to incorporate this idea into their platform through the artifice of the GAI, but, for some very odd reason, they never state openly: “Our aim is to end all compulsory labor in Canada.”
If you are looking for ‘pop’ in your election platform — something communists stand for that no other party does, something that makes it worth a voter’s time to think about voting for you — tell them you stand for an end to all compulsory labor. At the very minimum, this idea will be so bizarre to them they have to ask you how it is possible.
Thus you have already changed the debate from what any pedestrian radical Left party can offer.
For some very strange reason, the CPoC program buries its lede by relegating the reduction of compulsory labor to the middle of its programme. This proposal is the only plank that separates it from every other party in society, but they treat it is just another reformist measure. Their entire programme should be organized around this proposal instead of being organized as a laundry list of vaguely nice ideas. They need to show why many of the social ills they highlight, militarism, pollution, poverty, etc., can all be traced to long hours of labor.
This does not require them to change a single item on the list, but to show the common thread of the list: too much unnecessary labor.