This article is an RCN contribution to the growing desire to reclaim the idea of a genuine communist society, an idea badly damaged first by the experience of the USSR and later by subsequent totalitarian regimes. It is a further development of the paper Debating The Possibility Of Communism, posted earlier, which provided the basis for discussion and debate at the RCN weekend away in Perthshire, earlier this year.
Communism and Human Nature
One of the more common arguments put up in relation to the question ‘Is communism possible?’ goes like this: ‘Communism is great in theory but it won’t work in practice’. In fact, we are practising it all the time.
The claim is made that ‘human nature’ is such that the altruism and cooperation required would not be forthcoming. In reality, altruism and cooperation are underlying characteristics of human behaviour. It appears not to be the case because, ironically, of the perverse and parasitic nature of the very capitalism which claims, for all its faults, to truly embody the essence of human nature. It is capitalism that forces competition in place of cooperation. It is capitalism that maintains patriarchy in society, that imposes working practices that are damaging to the development of healthy relationships within families, and gives us the ‘rat race’ and the worship of money.
In contrast, it is communistic/cooperative relationships that have always existed in human societies that make living worthwhile. Capitalism is a parasitic economic system that sucks the life force out of us. It is the degree to which we behave in a communistic/cooperative fashion that determines the degree to which we can be human beings.
Let us look at an example from the ‘heart of the capitalist beast’, the USA. There is a huge gap (as in most countries) between the demand for organs for transplant and their supply. The capitalist ‘solution’ is to increase the price paid to donors until the supply matches demand. Two problems arise. First, those who cannot afford the price die. Most people cannot afford expensive human organs. Second, the majority of voters and, indeed, of capitalists themselves, are opposed on moral grounds to the sale of organs.
Yet hundreds of life-saving organ transplants are carried out every year in the USA. In 2011 an amazing chainReport in The Independent, 23 Feb 2012 involving 60 people allowed 30 lives to be saved through the altruistic donating of kidneys from 30 healthy, living people. Even more amazingly, none of these kidneys were given to a direct relative! It started with a single decision of one man to donate one of his kidneys to an unknown recipient. The recipients’ niece then felt moved to donate one of hers’ in return. Subsequently, 28 more people, wives, husbands, sisters, brothers, cousins, mothers-in-law, ex-boyfriends, friends, out of gratitude and altruism, donated a kidney to a complete stranger. The kidneys were given as a gift of life, not a commodity to be sold at a profit. This is communistic living in action in the here and now. Communism is not a future utopia, it is what sustains us today and helps us survive the distorting, parasitic economic system called capitalism. There are many examples of these human and humanising chains in other spheres of activity where no money exchanges hands, and no exploitation occurs. People with skills and trades cooperate in building each other’s houses and carrying out repairs.
In many early European settlements in the USA the people cooperated in building a schoolhouse and feeding and clothing the teacher. We also forget that before capitalism, before feudalism and slavery, and in those parts of the world where these perversions never occurred, communistic/cooperative life styles were the public lifestyles. In most parts of the world today these communistic/cooperative lifestyles have been made invisible. They go under the name of good neighbour schemes, some types of charity work, and a host of other names that deny their essence.
The reality is that communism as a way of life is very much in existence in the here and now. If it were not for this reality unfettered capitalism would have surely destroyed us by this stage. The real question is for how much longer can the underlying and latent communistic systems in our society withstand the destructive force of the capitalist economy?
We are trapped in a mind set schooled into us since birth. The Incas ripped the hearts out of children in a mistaken belief that only this would guarantee the rising of the sun. The children, their parents, the wider family, and society, had no answer to what the priests said so submitted themselves to the sacrifice. Today, we allow the heart to be ripped out of our society in the false belief that we need to ensure that profits will rise again (i.e. there will be another economic revival) because the politicians tells us so and we don’t recognise any alternative.
Communism and Abundance
In arguing for communism, one question we often face is, ‘What would a communist society look like?’ One of the many aspects we may consider when answering this question is that of abundance. We focus on abundance because, ultimately, if the material basis is not secured there is no sustainable society.
The basis of all societies is their ability to meet the material needs for food and shelter. Through cooperation and the division of labour the earliest societies were able to build up surpluses, which today under capitalism, along with most of the land, are in the control of and are the property of, a ruling class. Under their direction this surplus takes the form of huge military stockpiles, luxury cars, boats, planes and clothing, an ‘entertainment industry’ and the concomitant commodification of everything. The utilisation and distribution of resources to meet basic human needs does not happen. When we say that communism offers the opportunity to achieve abundance, the common perception will be much distorted, for the term will be understood through the refracting prism of capitalist experience and ideology. It will be taken to mean ‘as much as you want of everything you want’.
In fact, this overconsumption is exactly the consequence of capitalist production. One reaction in response to the inevitable environmental degradation is a form of ‘environmental protection’ known as Green Fascism which legitimises the strict control of human activity and levels of consumption through legal and fiscal controls. While under capitalist production some controls are necessary, perversely, under capitalism it will be those most in need who suffer the effects of any rationing. As capitalism continues on its destructive pursuit of profit, its need to externalise costs of production will lead to further environmental degradation and pollution. Furthermore some Greens’ solution to perceived overpopulation relies on the control of women’s fertility and wider lives. Our view is, on the contrary, that the issue of population can only be addressed when women have economic security and control of their fertility. Greens will increasingly be forced to choose between the socialist road or the fascist road. Remember, the alternative to a more cooperative/communist society is barbarism or worse.
At this point we should reflect on another dimension to the issue of abundance. Abundance could be understood both as a negative and a positive: it is the absence of poverty [food, heating, housing] and this could define its material dimension. But abundance implies a more positive presence -‘quality of life’ and emotional security. It is here that communism might begin to differentiate itself. For quality of life we might address those aspects of the human experience more usually monopolised by religion – an understanding of ourselves individually and socially, a knowledge of ourselves biologically, emotionally and psychologically – for us the ‘spiritual’ dimension to human experience is a very human quality rather than something bestowed upon us by a deity. For us it captures the material fact that we are part of nature. It incorporates the feeling of connection to other humans and the natural world so very much denied and degraded in the atomised ‘society’ of capitalism. Do we, as communists, feel embarrassed talking about ‘these human experiences’?
Anthropological studies suggests that under conditions of abundance much of human endeavour involves communicating with others and celebrating life. Capitalism involves the whittling away of holidays and popular celebrations.
A hugely important dimension to this is human social relationships, how they are distorted under capitalism and how these relationships can be repaired and developed. Perhaps one of the more subversive activities we can advocate in the here and now is to consciously change the way we relate to each other as friends, as families and as work colleagues and for socialists to commit to actually acting in a genuinely comradely manner.
We can act like Communists now. Once we do this in a conscious, organised way we will be better prepared to make the transition towards communism. However, there are also non-material barriers to this and this is where the insights of psychology/psychotherapy have to be integrated into our understanding and practice despite this being anathema to many on the Left. Such a conscious change would also have to include the lessons to be learned from feminism e.g. that the personal is political and that we can learn to act in an emotionally intelligent manner. We could travel even further leftfield here and talk about ‘Love’ meaning wanting to share in another’s growth, to promote their wellbeing alongside and as part of your own. Importantly, Love can be thought of action orientated i.e. it’s what we do more than what we feel, although ideally the two should be in harmony. This aspect of abundance – an abundance of quality in human relationships – should be one of our most powerful rallying cries.
Again, it is a demand we should make in the here and now and, in fact, is an ever present, communistic/cooperative approach to life that even David Cameron supports (if only he recognised it!). We should celebrate the example of David Cameron’s attitude to his disabled son. Mr Cameron, quite rightly wanted the best that society could provide so that his son could have the best quality of life possible. In this he acted like a Communist. If we all insisted on this in an organised militant fashion capitalism would crumble overnight. If Mr Cameron had insisted that his son was not economically viable or belonged to some undesirable sub class of humanity then he would have been acting as a true representative of inhuman Capital. This example also serves to illustrate the way that the capitalism/communism struggle is not only external but goes on within ourselves. Capitalism colonises our emotions and shapes our desires. It runs right through us and so does the negation of this – as Cameron’s feelings about his son demonstrate.
Through being more in contact with who and what we actually are the issues of ‘What is abundance and how can our environment support it?’ begin to resolve themselves. Abundance for most of us brought up in a capitalist society, is usually about owning as many consumer goods as possible and the ‘want’ is fuelled by the ads in the very commodities we consume.
People who have attained a level of ‘at-one-ness’ or contentment seem to be free from the compulsion to consume, to surround themselves with ‘things’. This has nothing to do with vows of poverty. A real understanding of communism requires an emotional maturity toward material possessions. Capitalism beguiles us with its Mountains of Things (from the album Tracy Chapman). Real communism is about providing a secure material base (enough) so that we can focus on individual and collective human development, self expression etc. It’s not about having and possessing. Who really needs 3 houses, 10 TVs and 4 cars? It’s about freedom from material scarcity, freedom from fear and the freedom to be and become.
Eric Fromm points to this distinction between “To Have or to Be” in his book of that name. Abundance can be seen as freedom – freedom from cravings that can never be satisfied, freedom from spending enormous amounts of our time earning money to satisfy the cravings. Watch the Channel 4 documentaryAlone in the Wild, Ch 4, 2009 about Ed Wardle who spent 50 days in the wilds of Alaska living off the land with no human contact. It was an experiment to see how long he could last. At 50 days, through lack of food and lack of human contact, he radioed to be rescued and cried at his ‘failure’. Next day, he looked around the hotel room, at the TV, electric kettle, telephone, the chair saying, ‘There is nothing I want here at all’. He began smiling. He had realised he hadn’t failed; he had learned something enormously important about himself and what his human ‘needs’ were.
Abundance is fundamentally an issue of ownership of time, literally, the time of our life. With time we can reconstruct ourselves, and our society. We have time to talk in social gatherings about what we need, about what we really want and whether the things we want are really worth the price in terms of time, in terms of the environment.
So, Communism involves rebalancing our relationship with the natural world. We are part of nature, we have co-evolved with planet earth, it is our natural home. One of the crimes of capitalism is to rip us out of this ‘natural’ relationship and alienate us from our ‘true’ selves (our species being as Marx called it).
Because of our social intelligence and technical skills, nature provides for us humans an environment of superabundance but we need to (re) learn how to work with the grain of nature in order to allow this superabundance to be permanently sustainable.
For example this requires organic farming methods and the creation of good quality furnished homes made from renewable/sustainable materials wood, bricks, earth, straw and natural stone. We can also use plastics/alloys but this needs to be done an extremely thought out, measured way.
What Communism won’t solve
We also need to be clear that Communism is not a magic wand. Some existential issues are not solvable e.g. mortality, relationship breakdown, damaging accidents, the ultimate meaning of existence.
We referred earlier to those aspects of the human experience more usually monopolised by religion – an understanding of ourselves individually and socially, a knowledge of ourselves biologically, emotionally and psychologically – for us the ‘spiritual’ dimension to human experience is a very human quality rather than something bestowed upon us by a deity.
Communism and ownership of time would allow us to address these issues and learn how to manage their effects. It is likely that this would lead to the developments of new social practices, (forms of rituals and celebrations) that help us negotiate these areas of life.
When we look at human history what do we find? Lo and behold we discover that such rituals were the central heart beat of pre-class societies even one step away from absolute poverty and insecurity, never mind material abundance.
It could be useful, then, to explore the content of the anti-capitalist uprisings led by indigenous peoples in Central and South America. Surely we have much to learn from these struggles and their 500 years of resistance.
It seems clear from the above that touching on any one aspect of what we think communism has to offer by way of abundance for human kind quickly leads on to a consideration of many others. Abundance in terms of material comfort tempered by a greater self knowledge (i.e., knowing what we need rather than being driven by what we have been made to feel we want) and by greater knowledge of what the environment can support. Abundance in terms of unstructured time to create the society we want. Abundance in terms of emotional/psychological well being.
So, in response to the question, ‘What would a communist society look like?’, we can say, ‘Imagine you had the time to spend bringing up your kids to be emotionally and psychologically saner and happier, the time to get in touch with yourself in order to find out what ‘things’ you really wanted, the time to think about agreeing and planning what and how much should be grown and manufactured to meet these needs, to think about the bigger questions in life and how our feelings can be given social expression.’
In presenting a vision of Communism through the prism of Abundance, perhaps we can rehabilitate its tarnished image (of the hammer and sickle, the union of workers and peasants,) by depicting lovers strolling in the company of friends and family carrying musical instruments on their way to a gig after a morning of socially useful work!
Republican Communist Network, 24th June 2012
Also see:- 1) Thoughts on the Transition from Capitalism to a Communist Society, by Eric Chester
2) Freedom Come All Ye – Why We Need a Truly Human and Democratic Communism, by Allan Armstrong & Bob Goupillot
These can be found below the first draft of the article above at:- Debating The Possibility Of Communism