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Marx (Illustrator: Anastasya Eliseeva)

The commons as the fulcrum for social regeneration

Originally published: New Frame by Peter Linebaugh (November 12, 2020)   | 

Historian Peter Linebaugh has written an afterword to the new edition and translation of Karl Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program published by PM Press. This is a lightly edited version of the afterword.

Dixi et salvavi animam meam. With these Latin words Karl Marx concludes his Critique of the Gotha Program (1875)–“I have spoken and saved my soul.” One is unaccustomed to religious expression from the great communist, unless it be sarcastic, yet here he uses it to conclude a devastating analysis of the programme of the German workers’ party. What is Marx’s soul? How did he save it? And what about ours?

These Latin words from two and a half millennia before were distilled from a “brazen and stubborn” prophet, Ezekiel, who with bizarre, way-out visions of animals, jewels and wheels within wheels heard these words whispered from the heavenly vault.

If I pronounce sentence of death on a wicked person and you have not warned him or spoken out to dissuade him from his wicked ways and so save his life, that person will die because of his sin, but I shall hold you answerable for his death. But if you have warned him and he persists in his wicked ways, he will die because of his sin, but you will have discharged your duty.

Perhaps Marx learned this in childhood. The oracular voice and the prophetic role came easily to him. Dixi et salvavi was used by Friedrich Engels too, writing 30 years earlier in The Condition of the Working Class in England (1844) when it expressed bourgeois contempt. The phrase from Ezekiel became part of pompous boss talk as the boss clears his conscience and walks away. And for a moment Marx and Engels considered walking away from the nascent German socialist party but hung on in there, despite his criticisms. Marx, however, at this moment of obligation refers to capitalism and its wicked ways.

Speaking out

Salvation depends on speaking; it is the moral imperative. Black Lives Matter speaks truth to power; Extinction Rebellion’s slogan is “to tell the truth”; and women in North America form “speak-outs” in recovering from male violence. Indispensable to the revolutionary project is calling out the wicked ways. Black Lives Matter has pointed to the murderous effects of white supremacy. #MeToo has pointed to the violent degradations inherent to patriarchy. Extinction Rebellion has taken direct action against the political and economic causes of planetary warming. At Standing Rock, indigenous people attempt to prevent pollution of the waters. Racism, patriarchy, settler colonialism and destruction of the planetary earth system are the “wicked ways”. These are four destructive structures of capitalism. With them in mind, we look back to select what is useful from Marx’s Critique, bearing in mind, so to speak, that Marx also looks to us.

Engels published (and revealed) the Condition of the English Working Class in 1844. That year, too, found Marx publishing an earlier “critique”, not of a political programme but of a political philosophy–A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, in which he described religion as “the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions”. “Criticism has plucked,” he writes, “the imaginary flowers on the chain not in order that man shall continue to bear that chain without fantasy or consolation but so that he shall throw off the chain and pluck the living flower.” To unmask self-estrangement he must turn to the criticism of actualities, and turn to history “to establish the truth of this world”. The two revolutionaries, Marx and Engels, one a critical philosopher and the other an empirical investigator, formed a partnership as revolutionary communists.

A year or so later they write, “Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real  movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence. And that real movement in dissolving the world market abolishes alien property relations and restores mutual human relations. It is for us to see that real movement.” He makes the point again in The Critique of the Gotha Program: “Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programmes.”

The commons and the proletariat

The goal is the commons, the means is the proletariat. What did these words–commons, proletariat–actually mean to him or to us? How are they part of the “real movement which abolishes the present state of things”?

Instead of a proletariat he will write of producers or labour power. He’ll refer to serfs, to slaves; he’ll include employed and unemployed (the active army, the reserve army); he’ll refer to peasants, to artisans, to small manufacturers. All people who have lost their organic connections to nature, that is, to land, its creatures, its grains; to the waters and pastures; as well as to the geological resources lying beneath the land. All people who have been expropriated from the means of life, the means of production, the means of subsistence, this is what he means. It only remains to organise. “It is altogether self-evident that to be able to fight at all the working class must organise itself at home as a class…,” he states in this Critique. Yet this “class” is constantly changing in its composition.

By the 1860s, as the worker’s movement revived after the defeats that followed 1848, socialist parties were formed in Germany, and Marx helped to organise in 1864 the International Workingmen’s Association, or the First International. It culminates with the Paris Commune of 1871, two months of self-rule by the French working class, the first proletarian revolution.

The Gotha programme says that labour is the source of all wealth. No, it’s not, says Marx. Nature is just as much a source of material wealth as labour. The single negation, right at the beginning with the little word “no”, is the key that opens the door, for us in the 21st century, to planetary warming and the sixth extinction. We walk right in with the eco-socialism of Joel Kovel, Michael Löwy and John Foster Bellamy. We are present at the edge of the abyss staring into the “ecological rift”. Marx wrote of the “irreparable break” between nature and society. Or, he’d call the nature-humanity relation “metabolism”. The mass slaughter of the bison, the deforestation of the Great Lakes, the depletion of nutrients from the soil were some of the underlying phenomena of “the metabolic rift” in his day. The concept from Das Kapital of “the organic composition of capital” expresses in terms of economic quantities this rupture or rift.

Looking back to 1875, we see hints of nature becoming self-conscious (as Elisée Reclus might say). About the time Marx was composing this critique, the first Arbor Day (22 April 1875), celebrated by planting trees, was announced in the United States and John Muir was walking in the Rockies and asking “how shall we preserve our trees”? While these were only “flea-hops”, as Marx might say, they were signs of what lay ahead.

Nature and capitalism

Nature is the beginning both of life and of capitalism. “The bourgeois have very good grounds for falsely ascribing supernatural creative power to labour since it follows precisely from the fact that labour depends on nature, that the human being who possesses no other property than his labour power must, in all conditions of society and culture, be the slave of other human beings who have made themselves the owners of the material conditions of labour. He can only work by their permission, hence live only with their permission.” In Das Kapital, this will be called expropriation and exploitation. In the young Marx, it will be called alienation. Marx lifts the veil to our world, to nature, to the biosphere, to creation, to the commons. Only the working class, he writes in the Gotha critique, can “lift this historical curse”.

Between the two critiques, 1844-1875, lay 30 years of class struggle, revolution, war, empire and massive constructions of iron and steel, and Marx indeed threw away the imaginary flower to pluck the living flower. After the failures of the revolutions of 1848, he turned his attention to the demolition of the bourgeois divisions of politics from economics in perhaps the greatest critique ever made–in theGrundrisse (1857) and Das Kapital (1867). These outlined the “wicked ways” of capital and established “the truth of this world”. They provided the means of plucking the living flower.

Could this critique become the soul, the heart, the sigh of the oppressed? It is no longer a philosophical or spiritual question; it is a political question.

One of his principle forms of critique is to describe the arguments of his opponent as “words” or “phrases”, denying to them any substance in reason or factual evidence. He does this repeatedly in the Critique of the Gotha Program. A sentence “limps”, “hollow phrases”, “bungled in style”, “mere phrases”, “obsolete verbal rubbish”, “false Lassallean formulation”, “a newspaper scribbler’s phrase”. Yet the critique contains two signature phrases of the Marxist outlook. One of them is both a profound summary of the fundamental opposition to capitalism and a fighting slogan for the banners of revolution: “From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.” This is the seed of the living flower.

The physician Luke describes these early Christians who “had all things common” (Acts 4: 32) and “distribution was made unto every man according as he had need” (Acts 4:35). When threatened with famine during the reign of Claudius, relief was obtained from “every man according to his ability” (Acts 11:29).

Abilities and needs

What is it that abilities are creating? What is it that needs are accepting? Are we to interpret these two processes as production and consumption? In capitalist society, production and consumption form a whole, the economy, regulated by the market, whose unit is the commodity and whose lingo is money. This is “the historical curse”.

If you think about it, there seems to be some mysterious agent who measures out those abilities (senior management? human resources?) or doles out according to needs (Amazon? retail?). It is this mystery which can only be described in the future, “after the revolution”. Is it traditional institutions of civil society–family, work, government? Is it revolutionary assemblies–the congregation, the city, the square, the soviet, some new version of the tribe? Is it some other social organisation? Elinor Ostrom formulated it as “the governance of the commons”. Marx relies neither on providence nor on progress for the realisation of the future. The mystical former relies on divine agency and the abstract latter depends on Victorian technological and utilitarian belief. It does not happen automatically or inevitably. Earlier in the Grundrisse (p. 325) he had written “of the rich individuality which is as all-sided in its production as in its consumption, and whose labour also therefore appears no longer as labour, but as the full development of activity itself”.

He refers to the “the common satisfaction of needs such as schools, health services, etc”. He refers to “the common stock”. The French revolutionary socialist Jean Jaurès said: “Just as all citizens exercise political power in a democratic manner in common, so they must exercise economic power in common as well.” Communist society, Marx writes, “emerges from capitalist society, which is thus in every respect, economically, morally and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges”.

What is the relationship between the statement of principles and the enumerated points of the programme? In The Communist Manifesto(1848), the relationship was mediated by the history of class struggle. In the Critique of the Gotha Program, the relationship depends on that critique of political economy found in Capital (1867) and the Grundrisse (1857).

Three versions of Marx

In analysing Marx’s thought, we remind ourselves that thought is in motion. His ideas at any one time are not fixed in an eternity of truth. On the contrary, they are very much of his time. So, in understanding the problems of 1875 in the Gotha programme, we can both think back to earlier phases of his thinking and forward to their subsequent development. We go back to the “young Marx” and forwards to the “old Marx”.

The “young Marx” is all about alienation; he gives us both a spiritual and philosophical lens. The “old Marx” is all about the commons; he gives us a lens in revolutionary anthropology and immersion in the so-called backward countries where indeed the air is better. Together, the ideas of the young and the old Marx provide us with a way to read The Critique of the Gotha Program. We are no longer confined to the realm of political economy. We can approach both the meaning of communism and the anti-capitalist transition to it in ways that might be helpful in the 21st century.

The “mature Marx” remains central, which is to say that the critical analysis of the capitalist mode of production and the critique of political economy are what he is all about as he disentangles the hopeless web of error and bad politics found in the Gotha programme. Its guiding author, Ferdinand Lassalle, was formerly a follower of Marx who, however, allied with the Junkers, the German landlord class. Yet the lords of the land turned nature into a commodity, a means of constant capital, and thus an instrument of extraction and exploitation. Such are the wicked ways.

The preface (1867) to Das Kapital, volume one, boldly proclaims: “Just as in the 18th century the American War of Independence sounded the tocsin for the European middle class, so in the 19th century the American Civil War did the same for the European working class.” The American Civil War sounded the death knell of slavery with the horn of the jubilee. That tocsin will ring to the European working class with the Paris Commune (1871) and reverberate with the working classes of the world ongoing.

In the Paris Commune, the abolition of the death penalty and the burning of the guillotine, the destruction of the Vendôme column that commemorated the Napoleonic empire and the formation of the Women’s Union provide during the 72 days of its life an idea of working-class self-government, or the political imaginary of commune. Said Marx: “The great social measure of the Commune was its own working existence.” As a result of the Paris Commune, Marx revised The Communist Manifesto to include the sentence “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for their own purpose”.

Worldwide revolt

In the summer of 1871, Peter Kropotkin (“mutual aid”) was in Finland, William Morris (“fellowship”) was in Iceland and Karl Marx, in London, was studying the Russian language and reading Chernyshevsky’s Essays on the Communal Ownership of Land. His guide was the young Russian exile and Communard Elisabeth Dmitrieff, who besides leading Marx to the study of the peasant commune in Russia (the obshchina) was also the organiser of the seamstresses, laundresses and dressmakers of Paris into the Women’s Union for the Defense of Paris and Aid to the Wounded. In Geneva, discussions took place among veterans and exiles during the 1870s that produced the idea of “anarchist communism” or the dissolution of state, nation and capital.

The Paris Commune was at the center of worldwide revolt. The writing of The Critique of the Gotha Program coincided with the hanging of 19 coal miners (the “Molly Maguires”), with the police riot at Tompkins Square in New York, with the internment of the Navajo nation, the expropriation of the Comanches, the cultural war (“kill the Indian, save the man”), Geronimo (“I was born where there were no enclosures”) escaping the San Carlos reservation, and the African American military mobilisation as “buffalo soldiers” to annihilate the bison that had provided subsistence for the indigenous people of the plains. Thus did capital create and then utilise our divisions. The path was cleared for the global seizures and massacres in Africa, Asia and at Wounded Knee.

The Kabylie revolt in Algeria against French conquest and confiscation of the common lands occurred at the same time as the Paris Commune. Two hundred and fifty tribes rose up, with village assemblies providing the base along the coast, up the mountains, to the desert. It was led by Cheikh Mokrani. The infamous law of 1873 expropriated communal lands in Algeria, “tearing away the Arabs from their nature bond to the soil…” At the end of his life in 1882, Marx spent two months in Algeria hoping that the commons of air in north Africa would heal the damage done to his lungs by capitalist externalities, i.e. London smog. Marx expressed his admiration of the Algerian Muslims for “the absolute equality of their social intercourse”.

Likewise, the defeat of the European working class (the two-month Paris Commune concluded with the bloody massacre of 20 000 to 30 000 communards) and signalled the advent of Jim Crow, the end of Reconstruction, the Klu Klux Klan, the Colfax massacre and the betrayals of the 1875 Hayes-Tilden presidential election the following year. There were virulent counter-revolution and violent suppression of textile workers of the north and railway workers of the west. “A new slavery arose,” wrote WEB du Bois. “The system of wage labour is a system of slavery,” wrote Marx in his Gotha Critique.

In a letter to Bebel in March 1875, Engels proposed replacing “state” everywhere by “Gemeinwesen, a good old German word which can very well convey the meaning of the French word “commune”. The Paris Commune four years earlier was, they said, “the glorious harbinger of a new society”. The mixture of commune, commons and communism was a heady semantic mix concealing a revolutionary riddle not yet solved.

“The question then arises, what transformation will the body politic undergo in communist society? In other words, what social functions analogous to present state functions will remain at that juncture? The question can only be answered scientifically, and one does not get a flea-hop nearer to the problem by a thousand-fold combination of the word people with the word state [as Lassalle did in the Gotha programme]. Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.” We can say that this is, at least, a flea-hop.

Dictatorship of the proletariat

The second key phrase in The Critique of the Gotha Program is “the dictatorship of the proletariat”. In 2020, Mike Stout, the Pittsburgh steelworker and singer-songwriter, gave one explanation: “[T]he only ‘dictatorship’ I envision is one that doesn’t let the greedy 1% and their class drive us into indebted servitude, while squandering and hoarding our wealth and natural resources, and stops them from destroying the whole planet.” Engels gave a similar explanation. In the same year that Engels published Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program (1891), he asked, “Do you want to know what the dictatorship of the proletariat looks like?” and answered, “Look at the Paris Commune. That was the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

Marx had used the phrase once before in a letter (5 March 1852) to Joseph Weydemeyer (1818-1866). “My own contribution,” wrote Marx, “was (1) to show that the existence of classes is merely bound up with certain historical phases in the development of production; (2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat; [and] (3) that this dictatorship, itself, constitutes no more than a transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.”

Weydemeyer went to America and became a lieutenant colonel in the Union Army. He surveyed Central Park and he designed the defenses of St. Louis while distributing copies of Marx’s inaugural address to the International Workingmen’s Association. Marx’s address addressed the ditch diggers and hod carriers of these earthen works, pointing to the day “like slave labour, like serf labour, hired labour is but a transitory and inferior form, destined to disappear before associated labour plying its toil with a willing hand, a ready mind, and a joyous heart”!

“To conquer political power has therefore become the great duty of the working classes,” he wrote just as Black Reconstruction was beginning. Success depended not on numbers alone, but on knowledge particularly of solidarity, and that led to the formation in 1864 of the International. Emancipation of the working classes entailed “the abolition of all class rule”.

We are familiar with the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie: the democratic Levellers of the 1640s were followed by the dictator Cromwell, the insurgent Jacobins of the 1790s were followed by the emperor Napoleon, the Russian Bolsheviks of the 1920s were followed by Stalin. Marx had learned from the Paris Commune that the proletariat cannot simply take over the state and use it for its own purposes. It must smash the state.

Du Bois intended to call his chapter on Black Reconstruction in South Carolina “The Dictatorship of the Black Proletariat in South Carolina”, but changed it simply to “The Black Proletariat in South Carolina”. He made this change after it was brought to his attention that “universal suffrage does not lead to a real dictatorship until workers use their votes consciously to rid themselves of the dominion of private capital. There were signs of such an object among South Carolina Negroes, but it was always coupled with the idea of that day, that the only real escape for a labourer was himself to own capital.” Dictatorship is a “stopgap pending the work of universal education, equitable income, and strong character”. He writes of the “dictatorship of capital” in the North, a plutocracy. When Du Bois chose not to use the phrase “dictatorship of the proletariat”, it was because the suffrage was used to promote individual rather than collective ownership.

History from below

We now write “history from below”. The expression includes histories of the oppressed, whether that is labour history or women’s history or indigenous people’s history or African-American history or even (to use an old term) natural history. In every example, the “below” implies an “above”. It implies a contrast or an unspoken opposite, namely ruling-class history, which is reified as economic history, then history of the state, then history of war. These are aspects of what the Zapatistas call “the war of oblivion”. Indeed, deliberate forgetting is one of capital’s wicked ways.

The anarchist Mikhail Bakunin asked: “Will perhaps the proletariat as a whole head the government?” Marx answers: “There will in fact be no below then.” History from below comes to an end just as class rule comes to an end. Class rule over the resisting strata continues “until the economic basis that makes the existence of classes possible has been destroyed”.

The view that Marx and Engels “rigidly refused to paint pictures of future communist society”, as Eric Hobsbawm says, is only a half-truth. Marx did not paint pictures with brush and oil; he took photographs. That is to say, he sought the commune in the real movement. This is the significance of Chernyshevsky, of Henry Lewis Morgan, of his stay in Algeria, of his letters to Zasulich. Hobsbawm says that Marx was provoked “into a theoretical statement which, if probably not new, had at any rate not been publicly formulated by him before”. It wasn’t a question of “new” or not. To Marx, theory generated the project of revolutionary investigation.

The Ethnological Notebooks are one of the major works of the “late Marx”. They contain, among other things, close study from Lewis Henry Morgan of the five nations of the Iroquois, or the Haudenosaunee. The notebooks delighted the Chicago surrealist Franklin Rosemont, who took joy in Marx’s multiple references by the Iroquois and Muscokees to the species of “Turtle Island”–elk, raccoon, buffalo, turtle, eagle and wolf. Marx insists on the importance of imagination to the elevation of human beings. It and the poetic spirit, the spiritual as such, lead us to the real movement.

Marx took note of the Iroquois whose “democratic assembly where every adult male and female member had a voice upon all questions brought before it”.“The women were the great power among the clans,” he copies into his notebook. The same text inspired Engels to refer in The Origin of the Family to “the world-historic defeat of the female sex”.

In February 1881, Vera Zasulich initiated a correspondence with Marx on whether the rural commune, the obshchina, could “develop in a socialist direction” or whether it was “destined to perish as an archaism”. Marx wrote several draft replies, including a lengthy consideration of common property in history as a constitutive form (assembly, kinship, clan) and in various ecologies of forest, pasture, meadow. He concluded “that the commune is the fulcrum for social regeneration in Russia”.

“The rebuilding, whether it comes now or a century later, will and must go back to the basic principles of Reconstruction in the United States during 1867-1876–Land, Light and Leading for slaves black, brown, yellow and white, under a dictatorship of the proletariat.” It is not quite synonymous with “proletarian hegemony”. The values of the material institutions of society have to change to become the ground of government. Hence, the decisive importance of the northern “schoolmarms” or the women who went south during Reconstruction to arm former slaves with the tools of reading, writing and criticism.

Return to community

Marx did not publish his Critique of the Gotha Program. But five years after he wrote it, the French socialist Jules Guesde visited him in London in May 1880 and asked him to write the preamble to the programme of the French Parti Ouvrier, or Workers’ Party. Marx did so in a dense sentence with many thoughts: the productive class will emancipate all human beings without distinction of sex or race. They can be free only by possessing the means of production collectively. This must be accomplished by revolutionary action, which may include universal suffrage as an instrument of emancipation rather than deception. The aim is “the political and economic expropriation of the capitalist class and the return to community of all the means of production…”

Here is the commons, here is democracy and universal suffrage, here the phrase “return to the community” implies something lost or expropriated. The term community refers to the collective, cooperative social forms that Marx was studying at the time (the Iroquois, the obshchina, Algeria), or what we might call the commons. It is not the state, the market, or the nation. The door is always open for the “real movement”.

Labour is organised by capital to work. When labour, employed or unemployed, organises for itself, it becomes a class and thus able to save its soul. So, the four structures of capitalism and their wicked ways–white supremacy, patriarchy, settler colonialism and privatisation–have caused risings among Black and Brown people, women, indigenous peoples and the rebels against extinctions. The immanent possibility arises of these insurgencies becoming components of “the real movement which abolishes the present state of things…” This is not just an electoral or economic process. We can pluck the living flower to recreate the commons.

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