Can Communism Contribute to Culture?

Can Communism Contribute to Culture? (after giving birth to it)

            The question of culture within a communist mode of production is a highly speculative one. Not least due to the historical facts; there has never been an authentically communist society. Engels sought to close the circle on history itself, by reprising ‘primitive communism’ writ large and sourced in the largesse of rationalized industrial production. Social contract societies are the original human cultures, so in one sense, culture is itself a child of communism, or perhaps less ideologically, communalism. These types of social organization, referred to as having ‘mechanical solidarity’ by Durkheim and being pre-political in Pierre Clastres’ sensibility – here, only the presence of surplus generates social hierarchy and all that this radically novel form of social relations entails and has, in the interim, entailed – seem taken quite unawares by Engels’ appropriation of them as a test model for the future of humanity. This moment represents best the 18th century Rousseauist sense that Marx and Engels brought to 19th century social thought. And there is a dose of early romanticism, healthy or no, in all such utopian imaginings, from Plato’s ideal state to the relatively stateless vision of Ayn Rand. Such a moment is reiterative when examined through the lens of the arts, the chief contributor to culture in its narrower sense.

            For fraudulent communism, the cases are mostly negative. From Shostakovich’s serial house arrests, to Brecht’s remorseful disillusionment, to the official non-personhood of Nicolae Bretan and many others, the arts tend to suffer, often ignominiously, under pseudo-communist regimes of all stripes and hues. Just as does fraudulent religion contribute nothing to the value and history of belief, a fraudulent politics can offer nothing to the culture and dynamic of ‘political man’. But Marx singles out the artist, among all other possible social roles, in his early examination of the merits of industrial or technocratic communism. One of the arguments he makes is both rational and ethical; give everyone the opportunity to evidence whether or not they have the artistic genius. In China, there is a piano school wherein thousands of pre-selected students study. In the closing scenes of the wincingly intimate documentary of Yo Yo Ma, he is shown speechless and with eyes glinting, standing in a studio listening to a ten-year-old Chinese girl play Chopin. The legendary cellist, one of the greatest artists of our time, is in awe. For the young lady is not merely reproducing Chopin with utter perfection, and doing so sporting an oversize pink plastic watch on her wrist to boot, she is Chopin. Aside from such extramundane factors such as speculative reincarnation, her very being speaks volumes regarding Marx’s suggestion. For him, it was simply a question of available numbers. Only by extending the opportunity stream and structure of universal education can we identify such talents.

            China too is hardly communist in Marx and Engels’ sense, but unlike other social experiments of similar type, it has realized that its apical intellectual ancestors – both very much Western of course, in direct contradiction to all the nonsense emanating from Beijing about China being non-Western or even anti-Western in some whole-souled fashion – were correct; one had to have consistent and highly rationalized industrial means of production before any communist relations of production could take hold. And the only manner of reaching the former status is through capitalism, not communism, as Marx himself clearly stated. China backed into Engels’ historical curve, as it were, with the seeming inevitability that a controlled economy is either a dead-end regarding the dialectical fulfillment of history through the demise of class conflict – and ultimately the ‘withering away’ of the state itself – or that what we are witnessing, with dubious privilege, is just another transition point along the way to authentic communist relations. This latter claim seems to me to be fraught with potential rationalization, even abuse. For primitive communism, the first society, was also the most radically democratic, and this without surplus of any kind, which is probably the more germane aspect of any of this. The hypothetical communism of Marx and Engels presumes upon variables that on the ground feel almost as extramundane as does reincarnation: one, that an entire large-scale populace would have an equal and representative say in the doings of a skeleton government; two, that such leaders as they may be would themselves be Platonic ideals, ‘philosopher-kings’ politburo style; and three, that politics would continue to be of interest at all, in a society that on the one hand cannot imagine even the question of God, as Marx once again states, and on the other, accepts and endorses the sensibility that politics should wholly replace religion with regard to human passion and interest, as well as ‘belief’.

            But there is no need to believe in something which is factual, in the world as it is, and without the credulous. We may not know all there is to potentially know about our own political doings, but there is never a true mystery in the sense that some part of politics has itself departed from the quotidian in some irruptive manner. Even hypothetical communism appears otherworldly given that its goal is to eliminate itself, end history, vanquish ideology, transform individual will into that collective, and install a world ‘government’ that governs without itself being a state! All of this together does indeed require a leap of faith, enormous and enchanted at once. But the question of political alternatives, no matter how stylized and romantic, is yet quite salient to our time, when democracies, partial as they may be, seem disenchanted with themselves, and many appear to long for authoritarian practices in power as well as in personal relations. The tired adage ’be careful what you wish for’ seems to make no impression on such persons. Far from the mostly long mute ideologues of post-war versions of Neo-Marxism, it is rather the unstudied and uncultured franchises who desire to be dominated and told what to do – in spite of their rhetoric of freedom and individual responsibility; the only consistency here is the truer call to ‘let me be responsible for dominating and dictating to my own children et al’ – that present to contemporary historical relations its gravest threat.

            For history too does end within any authoritarian circle. The opposite of that sidereal, this enclosure pens its own history, ‘rewrites’ itself, as we saw in the Reich then and in Florida now, and thus pens itself inside it. That said, reactionary pseudo-history is likely no less a fraud than much of the ‘politically correct’ rewrites that equally scan the career of human endeavor for examples and exemplars favorable only to their narrowed and ideologically inclined druthers. PragerU has its corresponding entity in the DEI sensitivity; one might well say that they deserve one another, just as did, at least at the level of statehood, the Soviet Union deserve the Third Reich and vice-versa, however awful this may be to contemplate. Do then the actual Taliban deserve the self-proclaimed ‘American Taliban’? Does the Third-Wave ‘Feminist’ deserve the neo-liberal economist? One could go on of course, but the point here is that it is commonplace for the political pendulum, to borrow another cliché, once pulled back in one direction, to entail an equal and opposite swing. The oscillation thence initiated cannot be halted in any rapid manner, and we find ourselves swinging to and fro along with everything else. The pendulum is its own metronome, setting the pace of public discourse and the level of political interest. Dialogue is absent, as well as is historical consciousness. One does not understand history, or the history of thought, on purpose. In this, we also may say that we deserve our own shared ignorance.

            For Marx, the question of culture was, as ever, a dialectical one. It is just that, as perceptive as he was of the reality of the social conditions in which he found himself alive, he yet seems unable to extend this same profundity within his own analytic. If he had, he would have noted its inconsistencies, which in turn have allowed, and perhaps even prevaricated, the light readings both Lenin and Mao brought to their early studies, not to mention their personal vendettas projected onto a mostly unknowing social world. It is always possible, of course, that both Marx and Engels knew full well of the challenges to their own logic inherent in their claims, and simply ignored them in order to further revolutionary ambitions. I would like to doubt this was truly the case, as in any major thinker, there can be found lapses of both reason and imagination alike. That it would take such a lapse, perhaps calculated and controlled, in order for communism to recreate culture anew, as in the Chopin example – and is this an authentic contribution to culture? – and especially so, to actually give birth to a new culture entirely, suggests that any future attempt approaching the vision of Marx and Engels should hope that it never achieves its political goals.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of 59 book in ethics, education, religion, aesthetics, health and social theory, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.

Very Late Capitalism?

Very Late Capitalism?

            Late capitalism is the epoch in history of the development of the capitalist mode of production in which the contradiction between the growth of forces of production and the survival of the capitalist relations of production assumes an explosive form. This contradiction leads to a spreading crisis of these relations of production. (Ernst Mandel, 1972:500).

                It is a delicate operation to discern what, within any social critique, is itself ideology, is itself millennialism, is itself despair, is itself anxiety. Greta Thunberg’s first book calls for a sea-change in world systems, but specifically in that economic. And while it is certainly the case that humanitarian crises as well as those environmental have been exacerbated by a cut-throat dog-eat-dog system of exchanges and values, it is also equally the case that, as Marx himself suggested much closer to its advent, Bourgeois capitalism has been ‘the best system yet invented’. It has created unprecedented levels of wealth and spread that wealth far wider than any other economic dynamic in human history. It has levelled both systems of caste and class. It has elevated the Bourgeois class to political power. It has made the genders far more equal. It has invented technologies that can aid a radical democracy of the kind Thunberg envisages, and most importantly, in its dogged doggerel of individuated ideology, it has exhibited no respect for either gods or kings alike.

            And all of this Marx realized in his own day. For he and Engels, communism would surpass its predecessor in both its humanity and its equalizing force. Thunberg’s too easy dismissal of such an idea that has never been tested at a national level contradicts the entire heritage of her own critique. With some minor local exceptions, the communism authentic to Marx and Engels is as yet an untried device. Given the remainder of her basic suggestions for change, her own view is essentially the same as was theirs.

            Now this is not necessarily a terrible thing. ‘Communism’ is, at least in theory, simply a more equitable and humane version of capitalism, for in the transition from one mode of production to the next, in this case, the means of production remain unchanged. Indeed, Marx had himself to understate this issue within his own dialectical modeling due to two problems: One, purely theoretical, which had Engels’ historical evolutionary scale-level model cohere on the basis of a double change; both means and relations of production were altered in each of the world-shifting limens that had preceded the proposed, and still hypothetical, ‘communist revolution’. And two, purely political; Marx and Engels could not afford to extoll overmuch the system they desired to overthrow.

            And thus neither can Thunberg. Overcoming capitalism is made possible only by the presence of the dynamic forces within capitalism itself, just as Marx understood the case to be for the potential communist outlook. For him, the nation in which he was eventually exiled was in fact the ‘closest to communism’, that of Victorian England, replete with its world-wide colonial empire so derided by Thunberg. That pseudo-communist revolutions occurred in backward, non-capitalistic nations such as Russia and China were world-historical events, to be sure, but ones doomed to failure on Marx’s rubric alone. The ‘small is beautiful Star Trek technocratic humanism’ which settles down like a light drizzle upon the umbrella of future visions of a better world could only be had with the high technologies that capitalism invented. This is not capital ‘selling the communist the rope’ by which the latter will hang the former, but rather presents a series of opportunities for the more ethical use and deployment of resources unimaginable in any other economic system, in any other mode of production.

            And it is not a case of mere technology. The greatest triumph of capital rests not in its products nor its wealth, but in its human liberation, the very human freedom Thunberg so casually denigrates as being delusional within capital. Not quite so. Freedom is a modern construct that is ‘value neutral’, in that it can be manipulated as a sacred ideological cow – and all political parties in the Bourgeois state do this – or it can be realized by the individual in his or her own existential journey, and indeed, only there. The ‘pathless land’ of Krishnamurti is our unwitting and perhaps ironic guide to this kind of authenticity, and the very idea that a human being, fragile, mortal, subject to both ‘the insolence of officials’ and ‘the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’ alike, should even be able to dream of such an existential business is nothing if not astonishing. And this dream, realized in a yet few persons but available in theory to all humanity, is the central dream not of communism, but of capitalism.

            Why so? Because along with the idea of freedom comes the conception of the individual. Though its Enlightenment sovereignty and holism is long gone, even in its fragmented and fractured ‘postmodern’ form it is yet more free. Gone are its loyalties to family, to credo, to crowd, even to vocation. The modern self replaces only itself with a further, hopefully wiser, guise of itself. We do ‘die many times to become immortal’, as Nietzsche intoned. That capital places the privileged in a position where they may exercise this basic human freedom on the backs of others makes most attempts at such unfree. Hence the alienation that Marx stated was a hallmark of Bourgeois relations of production. Even in our radical freedom, we are divorced from our shared birthright, our common humanity. So much so, that we do not tend to think of the distant others who are yet enslaved by our very attempts to end the slavery of the modern self.

            This much is true of capital. Even so, the idea that it must be overthrown as its own dialectical force is likely overblown and premature. For within it lie the keys to its own evolution, not revolution. An equitable taxation policy, a surcharge on stock trades of the Tobin variety, an emphasis on sharing innovations, especially in the climate and medical fields, an awareness that we are one species and one world, an adherence to Ricoeur’s dictum that ‘the love we have for our own children does not exempt us from loving the children of the world’, none of these need be sought in a system other than the one we have today. In his day, Marx was understandably coy about his discovery that the essential characteristic of communism were already present in capitalism, but we today have no need to be so. For Thunberg and others to be ignoring this historical insight makes it much less likely that their vision of the future will indeed occur at all.

            G.V. Loewen is the author of over fifty books in ethics, education, social theory, health and aesthetics, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.