The following article, by Istvan Meszaros, is copied from the Socialist
Register listserve. The title as stated in that list is, "Communism Is No

Best wishes,

Jim Lawler


Is Communism a utopia? The answer to the question depends on what we
mean by communism and what we mean by utopia. My own attitude is that it
is not a utopia. Communism concerns control. It envisages a different
way of controlling our social interchanges, our relationship to nature.
The moment I speak of control, the question arises: what sort of
control? In the past it was assumed that political control would do
the trick. Now we know from bitter experience that it did not, that it
could not succeed.

If you look around the world today, most of the former communist parties
have abandoned the name 'communist'. The original CPGB now calls itself
the 'Democratic Left'. God knows how long that will stay. And if you
think of one of the most important communist parties of the past, the
Italian CP, it has disintegrated. It has become reduced to something
meaningless, a government party. The prime minister of Italy today is a
former communist, but he would run away from any suggestion that he
might have anything to do with communism.

That is the reality of what happened in the last 10 years. If we look at
the former Soviet Union and the east European countries, there has been
a complete change, a complete abandonment of all principles. The former
communist leaders of eastern Europe have turned themselves into
capitalists, who parasitically profit from former state property,
transferring it to themselves or their offspring. It is quite
scandalous, but this is what happened.

The problem goes deeper when we think of how Stalin defined communism.
For him, communism meant overtaking the United States in coal, pig iron
and steel production. How seriously can you take any notion of
'communism' which defines the idea in such totally vacuous and utterly
fetishistic terms. You can double the United States pig iron production,
and you have not moved one inch in the direction of communism. This
shows the difficulty. Even if you have a political organisation which
calls itself communist, as the former Soviet Communist Party and others
did, that does not give you any guarantee that its ideas can be taken

On the other side - the utopia side - you have serious problems. In one
sense I sympathise with the people who say we definitely have to accept
that utopia has value. That under the present miserable conditions, we
have to envisage a social transformation which shows something beyond
it. And if they call us utopian for that reason, so be it. We accept it.
One of those who took this position was Marcuse. Some of his writings on
the subject are brilliant. But what happened later? Poor Marcuse
realised that the kind of strategy he envisaged, and his way of talking
about the agency of social transformation which could take us to this
idealised state of utopia, were identified with students and outsiders
in general. His theorem turned out to be very utopian in another sense -
he became an extreme pessimist. Towards the end of his life, in his last
works, such as *The aesthetic dimension*, he embraced a totally
pessimistic view of the world, saying that it was not made for man, that
it had not become more human, that there are only islands of good in the
sea of evil, to which one can escape for only short moments of time.

In the Marxist tradition, from the beginning, utopia was questioned and
criticised. The most sustained work was Engels's long essay on the
development of socialism from utopia to science. Engels stressed that
the utopian conception of socialism - found in Owen and the French
socialists - envisaged a way of establishing a new social order
which would be the product of enlightened, far-sighted people capable of
persuading others that such a society was good and worth striving for.
It was a sort of moral appeal, a set of ideas that would produce a great
change in society. Marx asked the question, who is going to educate the
educators, what are the circumstances under which the conditions become
favourable for this kind of enormous leap from the existing social

There are those who would throw out the baby with the bathwater. If you
think of more recent approaches, this idea - from utopia to science -
was carried to the extreme by those who dismissed any element of social
value. Moral values became labelled as negative and unscientific. A
false opposition was made between science and values. Yet there is no
way of avoiding the realisation that when we talk about a different kind
of society - communist society - that involves values. The realm of
freedom is not something that simply falls out of the sky and hits us,
and then everything is all right. It is a very complex social
transformation, and at the same time involves a certain conception of
humanity and its conditions of existence. Take this quotation, where
Marx is talking about the realm of freedom:

"The realm of freedom actually begins only where labour determined by
necessity and external expediency ends; it lies by its very nature
beyond the sphere of material production proper. Just as the savage must
wrestle with nature to satisfy his needs, to maintain and reproduce his
life, so must civilised man, and he must do so in all forms of society
and under all possible modes of production. This realm of natural
necessity expands with his development, because his needs do too; but
the productive forces to satisfy these expand at the same time. Freedom,
in this field, can consist only in this, that socialised man, the
associated producers, govern the human metabolism with nature in a
rational way, bringing it under their collective control instead of
being dominated by it as a blind power; accomplishing it with the least
expenditure of energy and in conditions most worthy and appropriate for
their human nature. But this always remains a realm of necessity. The
true realm of freedom, the development of human powers as an end in
itself, begins beyond it, though it can only flourish with this realm
of necessity as its basis" (K Marx Capital Vol 3, London 1981, pp958-9).

Here you have a total contrast to what we experience today. It is
value-laden, an aspiration towards which we have to strive. Unless you
do that, you remain imprisoned by so many shackles of the realm of
necessity. The notion that science by itself can achieve it is
fetishistic and technol-istic. Even the greatest achievements of science
can be turned to the most negative use. Just think of what is happening
to our society today. We have tremendous production powers at our
disposal. But they are not at our disposal. They are at the disposal of
capital, which manipulates them and regulates our life. Capitalism has
become a system of destructive production. So much of what we could have
is dissipated and wasted. Unless society is orientated in the direction
of overcoming such terrible legacies, such terrible determinations of
the system, there is no hope that we can move forward.

The passage I just quoted is, as I remarked, replete with value: that
is, a distinctive moral vision. Marx is talking about our doing things
in the realm of freedom in a way which is worthy of our human nature.
What does "worthy" mean, if morality does not enter the picture? You
cannot run away from it, even though there might indeed be some people
for whom the phrase 'Marxism and morality' already reeks of a tendency
to bourgeois deviation. Morality certainly has an individual dimension,
but some vital aspects of it are collective and relate to the question
of solidarity. The emancipation of the working class from wage slavery -
and with it the emancipation of society as a whole - is central to the
Marxist conceptualisation of the problem. Labour cannot simply
emancipate itself, and take over the role of the previous ruling classes
which subordinated the rest of society. There are too many people
involved in the category of 'labour' to make that feasible. So
emancipation is absolutely vital, and the individual moral dimension is
absolutely essential, given that it is social determination through
interchange with other human beings that determines the matter. Real
emancipation means not just emancipation from wage slavery, but the
freedom to be as you are.

The society in which we live compels people not to pay any attention to
morality, because the morality in question is pseudo-morality - a
morality imposed from outside, from above. The predicament of our life
is that we are controlled from outside, and morality in this sense,
taking the form of the various creeds - whether religious or other
creeds - is an external imposition.

It would, however, be a very poor form of socialism which would want to
disengage from moral value. In this connection, it is, of course, not
accidental that Stalin used to lash out against morality as mere
'moralising', which then could be condemned as something a priori evil.
At the same time, he dictated from outside what your moral values or
your aspirations ought to be.

The control I am talking about involves the only possible, the only
feasible mode of control which is really sustainable. We have to think
in terms of time. Sustainability is a very important category here. We
cannot simply say we will solve these problems in 10 or 20 years. The
only solution that is feasible is sustainable control - control which
can underpin human efforts in the direction in which we want to go.
There is no way you can define it other than self-control, the only
valid and feasible mode of control. And that is where so many political
forces in the past have failed in their efforts: and we have seen
the result - the collapses, the transformations which have led to so
much tragedy.

In *The eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte*, Marx talks about the
fundamental difference between bourgeois and proletarian revolutions.
The whole thing climaxes with reference to what he calls
"prodigiousness" of aims. Let me quote this passage: "Proletarian
revolutions, like those of the 19th century, criticise themselves
constantly, interrupt themselves continually in their own course, come
back to the apparently accomplished in order to begin it afresh, deride
with unmerciful thoroughness the inadequacies, weaknesses, and
paltri-nesses of their first attempts, seem to throw down their
adversary only in order that he may draw new strength from the earth,
and rise again, more gigantic, before them, recoil ever and anon from
the indefinite prodigiousness of their own aims."

Now this is very important, because the prodigiousness of aims is what
we mean when we talk about communism. These prodigious aims - and again
I must emphasise that this implies an orientation of value - are what we
have to try and realise, no matter how unfavourable the circumstances.
Yet Marx adds that there comes a point where there is no turning back,
where you simply cannot recoil and make compromises - sadly a
characteristic of the greater part of the 20th century working class
movement. Understandable, but not justifiable.

The defensive determination of the socialist movement - given
unfavourable power relations between capital and labour - has meant that
taking the line of least resistance has been dominant and still
dominates today. We can have no illusions about this, but the
prodigiousness of aims remains. At the same time, the system of
destructive production ever more strongly dominates and determines the
conditions of our existence. No infinity of time is available in which
we can evade this phenomenon.

The conditions are presenting themselves in which we must confront the
alternative of adopting a different form of social metabolic control.
This is what Marx means, when he says that turning back is no longer
possible - when destructiveness is accumulating to such a degree that
evasion means, in a sense, advocating suicide.

You are all familiar with the Luxemburgist idea of socialism or
barbarism, a very important notion. It originated in Marx, even if not
in exactly the same words. You find it in *The German ideology*, where
it is clearly indicated that the conditions of development come to a
point where the alternative is either destroying yourself or taking a
radically new course. The idea of communism is, in that sense, not
something suspended in mid-air, but a necessity, a need, a
transformation without which the existence of humanity itself is in

The present mode of social control - the way in which our social
metabolism is regulated, our relationship among ourselves and with
nature - is characterised by the most awful kind of inequality. You
could not invent a worse one. Inequality is at the root of it, as are
domination and hierarchy. Capital cannot share anything with anybody.
Reformism was bound to be a failure, because it worked on the assumption
that capital was capable of sharing its resources in the interests of
the working class, so that, sooner or later, through small reformist
transformations we arrive at the stage when we realise socialism. That
is a complete absurdity, because capital either controls, or it has to
be eliminated. Decision-making capital is the mode of making decisions
for all of us, and we cannot escape from it. This is one aspect of what
makes it a system of the most awful kind of inequality.

The second is that it is an adversarial system. It is a system of
contradictions, antagonisms, a centrifugal system, whose elements pull
in different directions. So in order to keep the system under control,
we find the most awful kind of authoritarianism. The adversarial nature
of the system means that from the smallest microcosm to the most
gigantic transnational corporation, it always remains torn by internal
contradictions. All the fantasies about 'people's capitalism' - give the
workers a few shares and they will be happy - and about 'partnership',
of the kind proposed by New Labour, amount to this: the public giving
the funds for private robbery, private expropriation, of whatever can be
in that way expropriated. It is simply absurd to expect that this kind
of nonsense can lead to a happy, harmonious relationship which could
overcome the adversarial nature of the capitalist system.

So we have to ask the question: what is the communist alternative? Some
people claim that communism cannot be realised, but it is a value worth
striving for. But if it can never be realised, how can you persuade
people to adopt it and struggle for it? Communism must constitute a new
kind of social framework, in which society can function in a radically
different and sustainable way. It must embody a well defined, tangible
and practicable set of regulating principles.

The first thing that comes to mind is that the communist system has to
be an advanced communal system. Such systems existed in the past, but
they were constrained by the conditions of production and development
under which they had to operate rather miserably. A few years ago I
remember seeing a documentary about a tribe living in the Sahara Desert.
Completely communal, but in the greatest possible misery, where the
hardship of their conditions of life would be for us completely
unimaginable. There is, of course, nothing to be valued in such a model.
Marx also referred to this situation in *The German ideology*, when he
said that unless productive forces develop to the highest degree, all
that we can do is share out misery, and that would mean inevitably
that the old "filth" - as it is politely translated into English - would
start all over again.

So it has to be an advanced communal system - advanced in terms of the
way in which it produces its livelihood. It must be able to set aside
enough free time for the members of society. But then the question
immediately arises, what do you do with the rest of your time? Unless
time is meaningfully employed, it becomes social dynamite. The advanced
communal system has to be capable of both satisfying the basic needs
of its people, and doing it with the least expenditure of energy so as
to leave time for other, "worthy", pursuits.

Equality is the other fundamental condition - substantive equality.
There is so much talk in our society about equality, freedom, justice
and all that, but it is laughable, it is scandalous. This kind of
'equality' is hammered home, and mystifies people's minds, because, if
we have 'equality', there is nothing we can object to. But in reality we
have the most abject form of inequality, coupled with some rather flimsy
shades of formal equality, like being able to go once in five years and
vote either Tony Blair or - shall I say - William Hague into 10 Downing
Street. And you can do it with equality. So substantive equality is the
only thing we can take seriously.

Needless to say, the 'equality' of bourgeois right must be unequal,
because people are not equal in such a sense: they are individuals, they
are all different. But from their differences, it does not follow that
they have to be structurally subordinate to one another in a social
framework. The originator of the idea of equality according to need
was Babeuf, the great French thinker and political activist, who was
actually killed in the aftermath of the French Revolution, because he
set out and argued for the society of equals. He put it beautifully -
real equality, substantive equality in that sense, is when the
differences of people, in relation to their needs, are satisfied: if one
person can lift up a heavy weight, and another one, a smaller person,
can only lift up a third of it, so long as they are doing what they can,
they are equal, and from society's point of view they are of equal
merit. And then he adds to it another image, a comparison: namely
that the man or woman whose thirst is satisfied only with a pitcher of
water should have it, and the other one, for whom a cupful or a glassful
is enough to satisfy them, should have that too, and that is equality.
Now if you compare a pitcher with a glassful, you see inequality, but in
relation to the need there is no inequality, because the appropriate
measure is applied.

Next, planning. Again, a society which wants to be sustainable cannot
function without genuine planning. The planning which we experienced in
Soviet-type societies was absolutely farcical. It was a planning
superimposed from the top down, by the state bureaucracy, upon the rest
of the population. There are some people who say that the capitalist
system has now adopted planning. One of the most prominent proponents of
this theory - if you can call it a theory - is professor Kenneth
Galbraith, who was recently in the Ritz, celebrating his notion of
equality, and launching the 40th anniversary edition of *The affluent
society*. To speak of 'planning' in connection with the capitalist
system is a complete absurdity: partial planning processes, no matter
how gigantic an enterprise may be, still remain a mere fraction of the
totality of society. Moreover this 'planning' is imposed from above.
Another feature that is completely farcical is the fact that it is a
post facto process, carried out in the light of greater or smaller

Real, substantive planning is not feasible on such a basis, precisely
because it can only operate on the basis of substantive equality, when
the participants in the process can really present their views, their
aspirations and determinations, and accept responsibility for them.
Unless it is carried out by the people, planning is utterly meaningless.

Questions of time and sustainability are central. We plan in order to
consider problems which may arise on the horizon, and because we want to
attain the prodigious aims Marx was talking about. So long-term
sustainability and planning are inseparable from one another. A further
important question concerns the complex of problems referred to by
scarcity and abundance. Scarcity dominates us and is something which has
to be overcome. It cannot simply be dismissed. Remember what I set out
in the first quotation, when Marx was saying that necessity is always
with us, that necessity increases as we advance. We are not only
producing goods for the satisfaction of human needs and wants, but also
producing new wants and needs with every advance in production. Our
aspirations and characteristics change, become enlarged. So unless there
is a rational policy of production, you could go on ad infinitum, merely
producing waste in a variety of forms.

The key to resolving the problem of scarcity, which is crucial to the
idea of communism, is economising. We have forgotten the meaning of
economy, the rational process which relates the objectives of production
- human needs - to the human and material resources available for their

We need to remember the famous sentence in the *Critique of the Gotha
programme*, where Marx compares the two phases of socialism or
communism. The earlier phase, which is the phase inherited from the
existing system, is characterised by the principle, "From each according
to their ability; to each according to their contribution to the total
social product". The more advanced phase - the communal system - is
characterised by the principle, "From each according to their ability,
to each according to their needs". It is the second phase that is
crucial to us.

Scarcity is a relative conception. Without education, without a rational
insight into what we consume, how we consume it, the whole thing is
meaningless, and becomes a vicious circle. You can go on ad infinitum,
multiplying wants and capricious needs, and therefore multiplying
scarcity. Because in our society so much is wasted, not only in the
way in which things are thrown away, but also in the way we consume.
Needs are not something that you can determine from outside, because
your needs can only be determined by yourself. But you do not live on an
island of your own. So when you determine your needs, your own needs,
you determine them in relation to the social setting in which you
operate, which also implies the elimination of all that waste on
which our social reproduction nowadays hinges. So, the need-orientated
system has to get rid of the tyranny of, the domination of, use value by
exchange value, which is characteristic of our present conditions.

There is another feature which is of crucial importance in
characterising the kind of communist society which is feasible and
practical: the coordination of the production processes. What we have in
capitalist society is the division of labour - both a technological
division, let us say a lateral division of labour, and a hierarchical,
structural division of labour, whereby capital always commands and
labour always obeys. That is its only function. In place of this
division of labour, the new type of society, the new type of regulating
social metabolic control, is concerned not simply with the division of
labour. Division in a lateral, technological sense is a necessity
obviously: it is part of the advancing process. But it is not enough.
First of all it has to be made impossible that it should turn into a
hierarchical social division. That is to say, certain characteristics,
certain types of activity become equivalent to a certain level of
social status.

Marx describes the capitalist enterprise as a military operation, where
you have the officers, sergeants, and corporals - hierarchies of
decision-making on the authority of capital - and then the mass, who
simply execute the orders given to them. All that has to be blown away,
and the lateral division of labour has to be complemented by the
coordination of labour, the conscious coordination of labour from the
local to the global. It is a very difficult question, but it becomes an
impossible question if you do not eliminate from the picture the
adversarial nature of the whole process.

The last point I want to mention is the nature of exchange. Exchange
cannot be eliminated from our life. If we had a little smallholding, a
garden in which we could produce everything, then there would be no need
for exchange. But that is not the world in which we live. Exchange is
absolutely vital, in the sense of how it orients social activity and the
determination of our own life processes. But what sort of exchange? In
capitalist society, exchange is the exchange of commodities, exchange of
products, the exchange from which everything already falls in an
authoritarian fashion. If exchange dominates our lives, as it does in
so-called market society, it does so in the sense that what is brought
to the market will have its feedback to the production process and so on
- it is a vicious circle.

Marx insists that in a socialist society, you cannot have the exchange
of goods: you can only have the exchange of activities. Of course, we
cannot envisage a society in which everybody does everything, where
everybody can do everything. Activities can be most varied, provided
they are treated equally. It means treating activities as not being
superior one to another. The division today between manual workers - the
overwhelming majority - and so-called 'brain workers' in whatever
capacity is again a violation of the principle of substantive equality.

The exchange of activities remains a vital criterion, and a vital
activity in a socialist society, but it is not an exchange of
commodities or even products. The total social product is regulated on
the basis of exchange of activities, and the individuals directly
participate in this total social product, both through their activities
and through the share they acquire in accordance with their needs. These
are roughly the criteria which you find in various contexts in Marx's
writings. As is that prodigious aim which designates the society of
communists, the new society which is also a society that we cannot
avoid. We cannot avoid it, not in the sense that it will come without
our doing, without our participation in achieving it, but in the sense
that unless we do achieve it we are in deep trouble.

When Marx wrote - for example the *Critique of the Gotha programme*,
where he speaks most explicitly about this communist society, or in
parts of *Capital* and *Grundrisse* - he uses the expression "when" this
and that comes or happens. Now, we have here to make a qualification. We
cannot in the light of our experience, and the dangers immediately on
our horizon simply use "when". We can use 'if _ then'. If such
and such conditions are satisfied, then we can achieve our aspirations.
But I would say the 'if _ then' qualification does not turn the idea of
communism into what is dismissed as hopeless. Because the qualification
is strengthened by the reality of our situation. Trouble is accumulating
everywhere: you cannot find in the world today any part which is not
deeply laden with problems. And unless these problems are faced, then
the conditions can only be downhill towards catastrophe. Today we have
the means by which humanity can totally destroy itself.

Now obviously Marx could not envisage these things. There was nothing
like this on the horizon. But we do not have to envisage it. We can see
it. We cannot ignore the militarism which dominates, which is on the
horizons of our lives, with events constantly erupting and leading
potentially towards the most devastating of conflicts.

These are part of our reality. And the strategies aiming towards the
establishment of this radically new mode of social metabolic
reproduction are tangible enough to be rationally adopted by the society
of producers.
Dr. James Lawler
Philosophy Department
SUNY at Buffalo
Buffalo, NY
USA  14260
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