Envisioning Communism: An Interview with Peter Hudis

Recently, the first volume of The Complete Works of Rosa Luxemburg was published, and you are one of the editors of this collection. What was the reaction to the first volume, what are the publication plans for the collection, and what, in your estimation, is the importance of her Complete Works?

We have so far actually published two volumes of an envisioned 14-volume collection: one is a companion volume, The Letters of Rosa Luxemburg (Verso Books, 2011), which represents (at 600 pages) the most extensive collection of her correspondence ever published in English; the second is Volume 1: Economic Writings 1 (Verso Books, 2013). At no time in the last 50 years did Luxemburg receive as much attention in the English-speaking world as in the reviews and commentaries that appeared on the volume of letters. The reviews included those by Jacqueline Rose (London Review of Books); Sheila Rowbotham (The Guardian); Vivian Gornick (The Nation); Christopher Hitchens (Atlantic Monthly); Joel Schalit (The Jewish Daily Forward); Adam Kirsch (The Jewish Review of Books); George Fish (New Politics); Lesley Chamberlain (New Statesman), in addition to several dozen others. It is very rare that a Marxist thinker is discussed so publicly, especially in the US, and its reception has been quite remarkable.

The first volume of Economic Writings, which was published in November 2013, contains the first-ever complete English translation of the Introduction to Political Economy, which is her second most important book (after The Accumulation of Capital).

The Introduction to Political Economy represents a wonderful overview of the nature, origins, history, and internal contradictions of capitalism. It offers one of the best surveys of Marxist political economy ever written. In addition, the volume contains seven heretofore unpublished manuscripts (although several have recently appeared in French translation) consisting of lectures and research from her work at the Social-Democratic Party school (from 1907 to 1914) that were found by Professor Narihiko Ito, and a manuscript on the theory of the wages fund, which has been identified as being composed while she was at the University of Zurich in 1897. We are confident that this volume will garner considerable interest, for several reasons. The manuscripts and lectures from the party school show how intensely Luxemburg studied not only economic and political phenomena but also made important contributions to the then-emerging fields of anthropology and ethnology. The interest among many anti-capitalist activists in communal social and property relations that pre-date capitalism is spoken to eloquently in Luxemburg’s appreciation for “their extraordinary tenacity and stability … their elasticity and adaptability.” Her appreciation for such pre-capitalist social formations speaks to today’s search for an alternative to capitalism, which is one of the foremost theoretical and practical issues of the day. The volume will also help reclaim Luxemburg as a major economic historian—especially because of the insights contained in her manuscripts on the Middle Ages and slavery in ancient Greece and Rome. A paperback edition of the volume came off the press this fall, and we expect it will generate considerable interest.

If we take in account how Marx, writing against utopian socialism, wrote against writers who create blueprints for future societies, the following question arises: why do you, as Marxist writer, pay so much attention to it? We can find one answer to that question in your book Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism. However, could you explain it here for us and tell us what draws your attention to this subject? 

Marx objected to utopian blueprints that come out of the heads of theoreticians irrespective of the material conditions of society and the specific nature of the social forces opposing them. But he was not against envisioning the future itself. As I show in my book, Marx’s work contains numerous discussions of the specific form of social relations that are needed to overcome capitalist value production. To be sure, Marx never devoted a specific work to the alternative to capitalism, since he saw his task as discerning the “law of motion” of capitalist society. However, Marx consistently examines this law of motion in terms of what he called the processes of dissolution inherent in capitalism that point to a new, liberated form of human existence. As he wrote in the Grundrisse, his approach “leads to points which indicate the transcendence of the present form of production relations, the movement coming into being, thus foreshadowing the future.”

In general, post-Marx Marxists have taken Marx’s strictures against utopianism (to use a phrase of Hegel) as “a pillow for intellectual sloth.” Marx did not object to envisioning the future; he objected to the abstract, arbitrary way it had been envisioned by those who failed to take the trouble of unraveling the complexities of a society dominated by capital. But he would never have embarked on his systematic critique of capital unless he had a notion of what constitutes a society freed from its domination.

What draws my attention to this subject is that both critics and followers have Marx have put forward “alternatives” to capitalism that that have failed to overcome the social relations that Marx considered the hallmark of capitalism—such as alienated labor, production for the sake of value and exchange value, and statist domination. The narrow concept of socialism propagated by “Soviet-type” societies is one of many such examples. This failure to envision the transcendence of capital has given global capitalism a new lease on life that threatens the very existence of humanity. I can therefore think of no more important theoretic task than envisioning a viable alternative to the present system.

If, according to Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program, post-capitalist socialist society is marked by the absence of value production, the market, and the hierarchical social control of labor, what do you think of the usual leftist blueprints for future society, i.e., a nationalized economy, some type of state socialism or “socialism in one country,” and state ownership of the means of production?

Marx never defined socialism as state ownership of the economy, any more than he defined it as private ownership of the economy. Forms of property ownership, Marx held, are juridical relations; they do not define the inner core of society. Marx envisioned a society in which the separation of the producers from control of the productive process is overcome through a democratic system of workers’ councils, cooperatives, and democratic form of decision-making. However, as he noted as early as his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, private ownership of the means of production does not cause alienated labor; instead, alienated labor causes private property. We can add that the same holds for statist or collective property. A transformation of property forms is socially significant, according to Marx, only if it involves an uprooting of alienated human relations. That begins with a fundamental transformation in relations at the point of production, but it surely does not end there. In sum, the nationalization of the means of production is no more than a step (albeit an important one) in the creation of a socialist society; but it does not constitute socialism itself. The “nationalized economies” of the twentieth century were not socialist, but state-capitalist. The same holds for those who claimed to create “socialism in one country”—an oxymoron according to any Marxian analysis, which holds that it is impossible to create a socialist society in one locale.

So, how does post-capitalist society look according to Marx? Does he give us any hints other than the negative ones, i.e., “what not to do”?

He provides more than indications; he has a specific concept as to what is needed to surmount a society dominated by the capital relation. A concept, however, is not a blueprint; it illuminates the form of social relations needed to surmount capital without presuming that the alternative to capitalism can be fully answered independent of the self-activity of subjects of revolt who strive to overcome it. My book examines this concept in great detail in a way that is not possible in a simple summary. The basis, however, is a system of communal production and distribution in which social relations are not governed by abstract universal labor time (as is the case in capitalism) but by the actual amount of time that a community of freely associated individuals determines is needed to provide their means of subsistence and luxuries. In capitalism, it is not the actual labor time employed in forming a product that creates value, but rather abstract, undifferentiated labor. We are forced to produce in accordance with an external, abstract standard—namely, the average amount of time that it takes on the world market to produce a given commodity. We become prisoners of this standard, irrespective of our will or needs—and this holds regardless of whether property forms are privately owned or state owned. Marx seeks to reverse this “tyranny of abstract time” by envisioning social relations in which “time is the space for human development.”

You’ve also written an article on Rosa Luxemburg’s view of post-capitalist society. What is her input on this subject?

Luxemburg had many important things to say about the inseparability of democracy and socialism that speak to us today. She formulated these notions in the course of criticizing the repression of democracy and the formation of a single-party state by the Bolsheviks after the 1917 Russian Revolution. For Luxemburg, the integrality of democracy and socialism addresses the central economic content of socialism itself. Capital, she well understood, is not a mere epiphenomenon; it is a deeply entrenched form of social domination. So deep do its roots extend into the fabric of everyday life—into politics, economics, culture, even the most intimate thoughts and human relations—that it cannot be uprooted from above, even if the most enlightened individuals happen to be “leading” the revolutionary process. Luxemburg’s critique of the Russian Revolution also addresses how to create a society based on the common ownership of the means of production. Collective or social ownership of the means of production is surely a necessary pre-condition for forging an exit from capitalist society. It is by no means self-evident, however, what is needed to achieve this. It may seem sufficient to simply abolish private property and transfer the ownership of the means of production to the state. But what happens if this state is not democratic? What happens if the masses are not in actual control of the means of production? Property forms, after all, are a secondary, epiphenomenal consideration. The fundamental issue is the nature of production relations. And if production relations are controlled by a bureaucratic clique instead of by the masses, it is hard to see how the collective ownership of the means of production in the Marxian sense can be said to exist.

With that said, however, it is important to recognize that Luxemburg was a product of the Second International, which was based on the virtually unquestioned dogma that capitalism is defined by “market anarchy” and socialism is defined by “planned production.” She therefore did not sufficiently recognize the extent to which capitalism also involves planning, and that the suppression of “market anarchy” is in some cases consistent with a capitalist mode of production (albeit a rather distorted one!). Her work therefore only takes us so far when it comes to envisioning the alternative to capitalism, even though it remains a vitally critical resource in the twenty-first century.

Which other Marxists do you believe had original thoughts on what a post-capitalist society might look like?

This issue has been the least theorized among Marxists, in my view, although some have made important contributions that are worth reconsidering. I am especially thinking of those in the Marxist Humanist tradition, such as Raya Dunayevskaya in the US. She wrote a considerable amount on the issue of “what happens after the seizure of power,” and her work has been my major philosophic influence.

Are you familiar with the “communization current” and its views of post-capitalist society? If so, can you offer a critique or analysis of it?

I have read several different versions of communization, and I am interested in developing a more detailed response to it at some point. I am in sympathy with many of its overall goals, such as forming cooperative associations and trying to envision forms of association that dispense with exchange value and traditional property relations. One problem I find in this tendency is a reluctance (or inability) to identify specific revolutionary forces that can bring such alternative forms of association into being. We cannot simply posit the need for communal forms on the margins of the system, as they will likely be overwhelmed in due course by the logic of capital. It is therefore important to identify what is immanent in the struggles of workers, women, national minorities and others that point to a possible alternative to the system—without neglecting the need for a philosophically grounded alternative to capitalism in doing so.

What relation does the notion of the dictatorship of proletariat have to post-capitalist society and how it should look? We all know that Engels said the closest example of what the dictatorship of the proletariat looks like was the Paris Commune. Are there any other examples? Perhaps the early days of the Russian Revolution?

It is crucial to keep in mind that a dictatorship of a party is not the same thing as Marx’s concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat. In the few cases in which Marx uses the term “dictatorship” of the proletariat, he meant not the imposition of draconian rule by a minority but rather the rule of the vast majority—the working class itself. Marx held that the Paris Commune of 1871 placed “the whole initiative hitherto exercised by the State into the hands of the Commune. It compelled the ‘old centralized government’ to ‘give way to the self-government of the producers.’” All of this was achieved without a single party or political tendency monopolizing power. Whereas earlier revolutions stressed the need for the centralization and organization of state power, the Commune sought to dismantle the machinery of the state through decentralized, democratic control of society. It imposed the will of society upon the state instead of vice-versa.

Although there is much to learn from the early years of the Russian Revolution, I do not see it as an example of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The fetish of the “party to lead” tended to overshadow, and ultimately to undermine, the liberatory promise of the February and October Revolutions—especially when the Bolsheviks began suppressing the soviets in the name of preserving the hegemony of the party. A better instantiation—albeit an incomplete one—was the Spanish Revolution of 1936-37. In some ways this revolution was much in advance of Russia 1917, since instead of first seizing state power and then seeking to achieve workers’ and peasants’ control of production, Spain operated in reverse: the occupations of the factories and farms served as the prelude to contesting state power. There is much to learn from the Spanish Revolution for our efforts to envision an alternative to capitalism today. And for that reason, I think we have as much to learn from certain currents of anarchism as from the Marxist tradition. My own work is centered on the notion that there is a world of difference between Marx and “Marxism.” Surely, Marx was no prophet and he cannot provide answers for all of our problems, but there is a world of concepts in his work that we pass over at our peril.

Image by tomislav medak [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Juraj Katalenac Written by:

Juraj Katalenac is a Marxist activist from Croatia. He has been involved in various student and social movements in Croatia and was one of the editors of the student movement website Slobodni Filozofski. He also has written numerous articles for Zarez, Insurgent Notes, Slobodni Filozofski, H-alter, and others. Currently he is involved in the Marxist collective Svjetska revolucija.