Is the “world of abundance” traditionally advocated by socialists feasible? Not according to Claude Bitot, known as the author of a book on the future of the movement for communism (see Socialist Standard, December 1995), in his recent book Quel autre monde possible? (“What other world is possible”?). Echoing the ideas of some Greens but denying any affinity with them as “bobos” (trendies), Bitot argues that the only viable form of communism (or socialism) today is the austere pre-industrial communism advocated by Babeuf and his followers during the French Revolution and first part of the 19th century.
His criticism of Marx – that he accepted the development of capitalism as a necessary step towards socialism – can be traced back to the influence of a “productivist” or technological determinist reading of Marx, based on The Poverty of Philosophy and the Communist Manifesto, which the great man was considerably qualifying by the time he got round to writing the Grundrisse. According to this simplified version of Marxism – faithfully trotted out by Bitot – it is the development of the forces of production that drives history. Capitalism in the form of merchant capital develops in the pores of feudalism, notably in the towns. Over time the forces of production develop to the point where feudal relations become fetters on the possibilities of further development. Feudalism therefore disappears with the rise of the revolutionary bourgeoisie whose task it is to abolish lordly privilege so as to permit the further development of the forces of production. Eventually the enormous development of the forces of production – notably industrialisation and mass production – would enter into contradiction with the limitations placed on the restricted consumption capacity of the proletarians. The latter in their turn become the new revolutionary class capable whose “historic task” is to overthrow the capitalist class and unleash of the forces of production to meet a greatly expanded range of human needs.
To further add to the confusion, the building of what was falsely called ‘communism’ in Russia by the Soviet authorities popularized the idea that a long transition period – misleadingly called ‘socialism’ – was required in order to bring about the communist utopia. During the transition period working class consumption would be sidelined to allow the breakneck development of the forces of production, (tractor factories, dams, electrical power plants and the like). And there was of course doctrinal justification for such a position given that Marx was absolutely clear that in underdeveloped countries like early twentieth century Russia ‘communism’ was not in any way feasible. Although Marx never separated the ‘socialist’ stage from the ‘communist’ one, the early enthusiasm for the Soviet experiment led to the transitional stage idea sticking. Indeed, many left-leaning thinkers became obsessed with technological development as such, with Bordiga – as Bitot conveniently points out – in the uncomfortable position of trashing the need for further technical advance in capitalist Italy whilst recommending the rapid development of the forces of production in Soviet Russia. This has created a good deal of confusion about what progress towards socialism really means.
Bitot’s objection to capitalist development seems in many ways to be an attempt to overcome the legacy of these confusions in the light of what he rightly considers to be a looming ecological crisis. But he adds a few more confusions of his own. To begin with he goes back to the very origins of communism as a political movement: the agrarian communism of Buonarroti and Babeuf and he contrasts this with what he sees as the consumerist interpretations of socialism popularized during the twentieth century. As we know these pioneering communists were imprisoned and – in Babeuf’s case executed – in the years following the French revolution. Bitot sees in these interpretations an anticipation of the errors which socialists would make in the second half of the twentieth century.
Incorrectly believing that the emergence of agricultural capitalism could be largely explained by the immoderate expansion of needs and taste for luxury, the agrarian communists turned their backs on the unconstrained development of industry and championed a system based on fair but austere shares for all. In this communist utopia technological development in the shape of machinery would take place simply as a need to lighten manual labour, production being oriented toward the meeting of a fixed standard of living.
The development of English commerce depended, Bitot tells us, on the sharpening of acquisitive appetites and the introduction of machinery to meet an ever-expanding sphere of consumption: the upward spiral of capitalist production. This simplified depiction of capitalist development has the advantage of wrong-footing Marx who notoriously celebrated the technical achievements of the English industrial revolution in the Communist Manifesto and castigated the narrow material basis of the agrarian communists in France (he called them “crude communists”). Indeed, since Marx was prepared to admit that industrial capitalism provided the material preconditions for communism, he had in effect became a de facto fellow-traveller in the capitalist party, albeit a pretty unruly one. The solution, according to Bitot was to have nipped the capitalist weed in the bud by a bit of revolutionary action and Bitot appreciates the fact that French agrarian communism was an extension of the revolutionary political approach adopted earlier by Robespierre, the advocate of revolutionary terror. If only, one thinks, the English had read these thinkers rather than that scoundrel Adam Smith then they would have abandoned their silly economic ideas and got us to socialism a lot earlier.
Bitot’s French communists may have been poor but they were neither wage-labourers nor serfs. Subsistence with only limited participation in the monetary economy still remained a possibility and the village could still operate as a community. In this sense, the emergence of capitalism could all too easily be identified with the inability of individuals to control their own desires once faced with the temptations of the marketplace. But however admirable their thinking was on any number of issues – and they were interesting thinkers - they were nonetheless not faced with the peculiar economic system which we now call capitalism. Furthermore, even if agrarian communist communities could have resisted the advent of a world market in agricultural products it is more than likely that an ever-more powerful capitalist class would have found a way to break them up as they have always done and continue to do today.
The problem with Bitot’s interpretation of the communist tradition is that it facilitates the treatment of technological development as a force which develops in a social vacuum justified by a largely ahistorical appreciation of the development of needs. In fact, the aim of the mature Marx was always to demonstrate that the ‘immutable laws’ of political economy were in fact nothing more than the expression of highly specific social and historical relations. The hothouse development of technology under capitalism, for example, was simply a vector of its unremitting search for new markets and its insatiable appetite for profits. As Bitot himself concedes, Marx shows how the needs of the wage labourer under capitalism contain a historical and relative element beyond the purely physiological necessities which also have to be satisfied: in other words my wages now allow me to obtain some commodities which used to be considered as luxuries but I can still be ‘poor’ in the (Marxist) sense that I still have to sell my labour-power to another. Dependence on the capitalist is neither based on being starved nor reduced by the possession of a few luxuries; it resides in the fact that my access to the means of subsistence has become indirect in that it is mediated by the possession of money.
Thus, although Bitot seems to have discovered a convenient jumping off point for the criticism of capitalism, his ideas provide few clues about how to find a way out. In the terms of this critique socialists who continue to believe in the possibility of open access to the means of consumption under socialism can be too easily accused of wanting to continue the consumerist game and Bitot doesn’t hesitate to tar the SPGB. with this brush. On the other hand, Bitot seems to accept that a fairly austere socialism is possible following the abolition of commodity production. But with the wants created by consumer society unconnected to the overall functioning of production, he is left with the difficulty of defining ‘moderate needs’ and showing how they would emerge within a society where commodity production no longer existed. After all, even if we can all agree that socialism will place more emphasis on meeting essential needs over the satisfaction of the trivial desires excited by capitalism, one still has the difficulty of defining these ‘essential needs’ no matter how austere one believes that socialism should be. But the problem of ‘austere’ or ‘abundant’ socialism is perhaps in the final analysis something of a quibble over words. As anyone who has argued the socialist case on a street corner will know, the ‘abundance’ referred to by socialists has never referred to the open-ended consumerism encouraged by the advertisers but has rather as its target a stable and more satisfying way of life in which the scramble to get things is no longer central. With material survival removed from the casino of the marketplace by the abolition of commodity production we can expect that individuals will calm down their acquisitive desires and pursue more satisfying activities.
Fortunately even though he rehearses the usual arguments against socialism brought up by conservatives, Bitot seems reluctant to abandon the revolutionary idea altogether. He remains committed to the abolition of commodity production and has adopted the notion that production under socialism needs to be co-ordinated and de-centralized. (The SPGB can tell him how to do this without the price system). On the down side, he has now taken up the Third World population problem as a factor which he claims has been totally neglected by socialists. Regardless of the charge of inconsistency he then argues that further industrial development in these countries is necessary presumably on the grounds that the Third World exists on another planet. But capitalism is now more than ever a global system – witness the avalanche of books on the ills of globalization. The green beans in our plates come from Kenya, the knives and forks from China and the shirts on our backs from India. Subsidized crops from the advanced countries are killing peasant production in Africa. But the Third World industrial proletariat now outstrips that of the so-called First World. Bitot’s argument here is clearly self-defeating: If there is already a major population problem, then socialism as a world system is not only impossible but it is getting more impossible with every day which passes. So why write a book on the subject? Whilst there is clearly a need to deal with this problem lucidly, Bitot seems to have accepted the Malthusian legend at face value. But he gives only one statistic to prove the case about agricultural production in the Third World whilst First World production is subject to a statistical over-kill. Even Malthus, whose jeremiads have so far proved disastrously wrong, provided more substance to his arguments.
One is left with a curious diatribe against the word ‘abundance’ coupled to an off-centre accusation that socialists advocate a world of passive consumerism and idleness; a picture of the Third World as a boundless reservoir of illegal immigrants associated with the conviction that the abolition of commodity production is nonetheless possible.