Is there a political path to communism?

by Jehu

I got this question on my ask.fm:

“In a recent post you said you didn’t think there is a political path to communism. Can you elaborate on that some? What might a non-political path look like?”

The answer to this question has to begin with the basic premise of historical materialism taken from the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy:

“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. “

In my reading of this statement, I can only come to the conclusion that communism as a political movement can only arise if the real movement (trajectory) of society ends in communism. To put this another way, a political path to communism is only an expression of real historical changes in the mode of production. Communist politics are nothing more than an expression in political relations of material changes in the mode of production.

How can a political movement exist before the material relations?

Here is the practical problem with Marx and Engels formulation: It places a rather low probability on a political path to communism, because there must be some lag-time between the real relations of society and our consciousness of those relations. In effect, a political path to communism sets as its aim a set of material conditions of life that have not yet come into existence. Which is to say, we are forced to imagine a society that does not actually exist and cannot as yet exist.

Marx and Engels called their brand of communism scientific, because it is an attempt to solve this paradox of politics theoretically. If the trajectory of social development was actually to communism, the movement of society according to objective laws should disclose this. This is much the same way in which certain laws of physics allowed scientists to predict the existence of some particles long before they were discovered.

Based on this assumption, Marx and Engels argued capitalism was a transitional mode of production whose development had to end in communism. Capitalism was simply a path between individual commodity production and exchange, and directly social, cooperative, production.

Surprisingly, Marx and Engels brand of communist politics only proposed to do what capital would do in any case. And it would do it more quickly because it would not be subject to the barriers capital threw in its own path. The real barrier to development of the forces of production required for communism was capital itself, as Marx explains in chapter 15 of volume three:

“[Capitalist] production meets in the development of its productive forces a barrier which has nothing to do with the production of wealth as such; and this peculiar barrier testifies to the limitations and to the merely historical, transitory character of the capitalist mode of production; testifies that for the production of wealth, it is not an absolute mode, moreover, that at a certain stage it rather conflicts with its further development.”

The barrier, of course, is that capital is only concerned with its own self-expansion and not the social process of production. The development of the forces of production was not the aim of capital, but merely an unintended consequence of its self-expansion.

A possible conscious (political) path to communism

The solution to this was obvious: the working class should make development of the productive forces, (and thus communism), its conscious aim. As a class it alone had no interest in the self-expansion of capital and was thus ‘fit’ (in the sense of having no interest to defend in present society) to focus on creating the new society. What capital accomplished only by accident, the proletariat could accomplish as its conscious aim.

In historical materialism this is all a political path to communism ever meant. The working class would seize power and make development of the forces of production the conscious aim of society. The development of the forces of production would abolish labor and everything founded on labor: money, the state, property, etc.

The strategy devised by Marx and Engels was as simple as it was bold. And it rested on a simple prediction: at a certain point in the development of the productive forces, commodity production would collapse. What was left of individual commodity production and exchange would no longer be tenable and the state would be forced to step in and seize control of production.

Marx, in the Grundrisse, called this event the breakdown of production based on exchange value. If the proletariat was organized and prepared when this event occurred, it would be able to seize control of production and usher in a direct transition to communism. The event happened, just as Marx and Engels predicted, but we all know how it turned out: two world wars, 100 million dead, Europe in ruins.

The proletariat failed to capture power and, I believe, its moment passed — a world historical defeat of the proletarian political movement.

However, the defeat of the proletarian political movement is not the same as the defeat of communism. Remember, the proletarian political movement was never anything more than an attempt to do what capital is already doing without all the obstacles capital throws in its own path. In any case, the development of the productive forces remains the unintended consequence of capital’s incessant drive for self-expansion. Nothing in the defeat of the proletariat implied this drive halted; in fact, the defeat of the proletariat has always served to accelerate capital’s self-expansion.

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