Six points on Kontra Klasa’s “Notes on the Transition”
I have been reading this interesting piece by Kontra Klasa, Notes on the transition to communism. The essay, reprinted in the July 2018 issue of INTRANSIGENCE, tries to update communist strategy to meet the conditions of the 21st century. I thought it had some ideas worth considering, so I will highlight them here in a short note.
There has also been a reply to this piece which I am in the process of reading. I will post some notes on that reply at a later time.
This piece begins with the assertion that little has been added of substance to what has already been written on the transition between capitalism and communism by classical communists prior to World War II:
“Communist treatments of the transition between capitalist society and communism are not as numerous as one might perhaps imagine. Despite the importance of the subject, it seems many theoreticians are content to repeat or elaborate on the scarce few lines that Marx or Lenin have devoted to the subject. … And often, those treatments that exist are quite unconvincing. First of all, because many of them involve a very “thin” conception of communism (or socialism), as in the famous Leninist dictum that socialism is state capitalism made to serve the entire people. (Of course, we are never told how capitalism, of any sort, can serve “the people,” and who “the people” might be.)”
The assertion, although startling, is important. The conception of the transition from capitalism to communism offered by most communists has changed little since the days of classical communism.
What then is Kontra Klasa’s conception of the transition from capitalism to communism in the 21st century? Burying their lede well down in paragraph ten of the essay for some strange reason, Kontra Klasa offer this statement:
“Members of the society in transition will have access to goods regardless whether or how much they labor …. there is no need to further develop the productive forces, at least in the metropolitan regions where revolution will most likely to break out. For the principle of distribution, we see nothing else as adequate except the classic ‘to each according to his needs.’”
In other words, as Kontra Klasa sees things in the 21st century, a fully developed communist society — one in which all the basic needs of the members of society can be met with only voluntary labor — is possible right now, at least in the most developed regions of the world market. To be sure, such a society will not be able to meet every fanciful whim of every member of society, but all basic needs, (which might be defined in terms of a basket of basic goods), can be met without requiring labor of anyone as their basic right as member of the commune.
Thus Kontra Klasa adds its name to a growing list of communists who believe there is no reason for a long period of transition between capitalism and communism. Capitalist development has laid the material foundation for a fully developed communist society from day one of the revolution. The long period of transition between capitalism and communism, so long held to be a fundamental precept of communist strategy, is at last being widely challenged.
This new strategy allows us to avoid many of the pitfalls that arise from the previous one, which was based on the progressive encroachment of proletarian communal power over the forces of production as envisioned in the Communist Manifesto and the strategies proposed by the Second and Third Internationals:
“The classical expression of this is the belief that statification of the capitalist economy is equal to movement toward communism, and that in the communist society instruments remarkably similar to money — whether called labor notes, certificates, or something else is irrelevant — will operate.
“Modern capitalism, however, is unlike prior modes of production in that it comprises a total system: i.e., a whole whose general character and laws of motion imbue every part with nothing accidental or extraneous. From wage labor to parliamentary politics, every aspect of capitalist society is capitalist, and remains such when it is translated into an ambiguous situation. This, as well as the immense pressures of near-universal support for capitalism and the sheer social inertia acting in its favor, means that any ambiguous or transitional situation will eventually be resolved in a capitalist manner. One might without much exaggeration question if it is possible to exit a total system…”
Thus, according to Kontra Klasa, the 1848 strategy advocated in the Communist Manifesto appears to be obsolete, as does the strategy of the Social Democrats and the Leninists.
But, surprisingly, Kontra Klasa also appears to deny the possibility that capitalist accumulation can lead to its own self-negation:
“…(and let us note that collapse is not a possibility short of the extinction of the species; modes of production do not collapse into nothing, but rather are replaced by other arrangements of productive activity)”
In this parenthetical statement, and contrary to Marx, Kontra Klasa seems to conflate capitalism with the production of material wealth. This is a typical amateur’s mistake. Kontra Klasa should know that capitalism is not the production of material wealth; it is the production of surplus value, production for profit. Production of material wealth and production of profit are not the same thing. Production for profit is merely a relative, historical form of production of material wealth. This distinction always must be kept in mind. Contrary to Kontra Klasa, production for profit can indeed collapse without bringing about the extinction of the species.
Since Kontra Klasa has ruled out all the usual paths to communism, it is not clear at this point exactly how Kontra Klasa’s commune comes into existence beyond a few cryptic statements:
“The only remaining hope for the species is thus that a consciously-inflicted, sufficiently severe and rapid blow struck against exchange society would be capable of doing just that.
“But the aforementioned blow — the revolution or general insurrection against value and property — must then induce as complete a break as possible with capitalist forms of society.”
Of what this “insurrection” consists, and how it imposes a complete break with capitalism is left unsaid by the authors.
The term, insurrection, is itself ambiguous — perhaps deliberately so. What do they propose concretely? This idea has to be fleshed out.
The insurrection is held to be a conscious act. It is rapid, aimed against exchange, value and property and is said to constitute a complete break with capitalist forms. According to Kontra Klasa, it would immediately realize a society founded on the principle of “to each according to need.”
The insurrection immediately puts an end to capitalist society. In the previous section, however, Kontra Klasa told us that this must lead to extinction of the species. Capitalism can’t just be replaced by nothing. (Or does this only apply to a collapse, but not to an insurrection?)
We can only conclude that this insurrection differs from all previous insurrections by immediately replacing capitalism with itself.
In the 21st Century, the insurrection itself is communism!
Kontra Klasa has led us to this unambiguous conclusion. Now let’s see them explain their results.
Moreover, it appears Kontra Klasa believes that this communism, however constituted, will still be economically insufficient, at least initially. I am not sure why they think this must be true.
Of course, the communism will be dependent on commodities that are produced outside its zone of influence. Both the United States and Europe are dependent on many commodities they lack that are produced elsewhere within the world market. A communism emerging within either territory will be no less dependent.
But note here that, in the thinking of the authors, the communism is most likely to emerge in the most capitalistically developed regions of the world market. Fully developed communist relations will be possible immediately in the commune precisely because the communism will most likely emerge in the most capitalistically developed regions of the world market.
It doesn’t take a lot of intuition to realize that these more developed regions of the world market also serve as the markets for many of the commodities produced in the less developed regions of the world market — as the United States and Europe do for China.
But if the more developed regions of the world market suddenly withdraw from world trade bound up with capital, what then happens to the commodity production and exchange in the less developed regions? Won’t a revolution in the United States or Europe immediately push the less developed regions of the world market into a deep and prolonged crisis?
Imagine, for instance, how difficult it would be for China to fill an annual $506 billion hole, (2017 figure based on US Census Bureau data), in its economy if the US suddenly withdrew from the world market following a communist revolution.
Meanwhile, the commune in the United States would be putting an end to all compulsory labor and allocating basic consumer goods to its members based on need or on the basis of such a minimal requirement of necessary labor — five or six hours per week — that it amounts to this.
As China collapsed into a deep and prolonged crisis, the working class of the United States would emancipate itself from wage slavery. This would have to have a profound moral impact on social relations in China.
Kontra Klasa has not thought through the material economic implications of the emergence of a communism in the most capitalistically developed regions of the world market. Had they done so, it would have been obvious that most of their thinking on trade was based on irrelevant Soviet-era experience. They need to go back an re-examine many of their assumptions in this section.