“WITHOUT VISION THE PEOPLE PERISH”*
(By John Mackoviak)
These days hardly anybody but old time Marxists and some anarchists think it worthwhile to even discuss communism and the vision of a classless society as a meaningful prospect for human emancipation. Michael Parenti, in his book,”Blackshirts and Reds” written a few years after the fall of the Soviet Union, while cogently making the case for socialism dismisses the communist goal as millenarian or akin to the Christian prophesy of a heavenly kingdom on earth. He prefers Marx’s more objective economic analysis of capitalism’s crisis-laden contradictions which currently have undeniable relevance. And it is true that issues such as climate change and the limits to economic growth were not on the horizon when Marx wrote. Furthermore, in the light of the debacle that the re-emergence of capitalism created in the former USSR and other socialist countries, Parenti stresses the importance of the Soviet Union’s gains in the field of social welfare under incredibly difficult circumstances. He also cites the enormous human costs incurred in the course of that achievement. The nature of recent capitalist crises with their portents of permanence and devastating impact on vast numbers of people including those living in the most advanced capitalist nations indicates that old questions once thought finally put to rest might become increasingly relevant in a somewhat altered context.
Marx viewed capitalism as a system which ineluctably developed economic formations which bore the seeds of a future socialist transformation. Socialism itself was regarded as a half-way house between capitalism and communism. Socialism, through a revolutionary dynamic, having freed the capitalist engine of production from its mooring in the system of private profit could then lay the groundwork for an economy of abundance requiring only a short workday, where the age old dog fight for survival marked by exploitation and war could be replaced by a social harmony that maximized the range of individual pursuits; in short, the disappearance of the repressive state and the emergence of a communist society. This would be the beginning of an authentic human history: the ‘leap from the realm of necessity’ where alien economic factors dominated human behavior ‘to the realm of freedom’ or human autonomy.
The Neo-Malthusianism and post-modern currents of thought that gained ascendancy as the twentieth century wore on cast increasing doubt on the feasibility of Marx’s nineteenth century ‘grand narrative’ as it was understood or perhaps misunderstood. Robert Heilbronner’s prescient book, “An Enquiry into the Human Prospect” written in 1974 wrote about the imminence of resource scarcities in the context of a burgeoning world population that was more suggestive of Thomas Hobbes dictum about “life being nasty, brutish and short” than was Marx’s grandly optimistic projection.
Heilbronner, fully aware as he was of capitalism’s role in creating the crisis conditions that imperils the planet and its inhabitants believed that under conditions caused by coming scarcities, some form of socialism became the most likely option for surviving the coming austerity. He indicated however that under such conditions any social economy whether capitalist or socialist would necessarily possess the negative features associated with a command economy; there is no next stage of communist development. That’s it!
While it is true that Marx’s vision of communism underlined the importance of abundance as when he advanced the slogan “from each according to ability to each according to need” it is also important to recognize that Marx’s vision has nothing in common with capitalist consumer society which at so many levels is awash with obscene and toxic waste while leaving basic needs unmet for billions of human beings. For Marx, the role of abundance functions to make preoccupation with material goods as un-necessary as the need to accumulate air in order to breathe. It follows that the failure to achieve the kind of fulsome abundance here imagined qualifies or limits the communist prospect, perhaps necessitating the continuation of some form of state governance and an extension of the criminal law. Ingrained capitalistic acquisitiveness and the drive toward exploitation, as with all nasty habits, die hard. At the same time the absence of such abundance need not lead to despair and resignation. Marx’s concept of abundance was not restricted to material acquisitions. As earlier indicated material sufficiency is a prerequisite for something far more important. Only a slight shift of focus which Marx himself actually provides in many of his writings places the emphasis not on endless material supplies but on human beings’ freedom and creative potential. With adequate food, clothing, shelter and other amenities necessary for an existence that can be free of money grubbing and other unwholesome pursuits, something which arguably is attainable, the whole world of all varieties of individual expression hitherto stifled by monolithic capitalism and previous slave systems can for the first time in recorded history find fulfillment in fruitful interactions and exchanges enriching the social and cultural life of everyone, not just the few. That for Marx is the underlying premise of what it means to be human. That is the spiritual dimension of Marx’s materialism.
While it is true that his critique of capitalism compels most the attention it is Marx’s political vision of human emancipation that is needed to steady and steer human energies toward a goal that while it might never be fully reached or not reached at all is yet the north star by which the course is set.
One thing is almost beyond doubt, without a sustaining vision of human emancipation, a goal that inspires struggle, the all devouring system of greed driven private profit with most wealth concentrated in a few hands will permanently doom the vast majority of people on the planet to a state of conditioned and compliant servitude, characterized by a poverty of body and mind.
*Book of Proverbs, Old Testament