The proletariat, on the other hand, is obliged, as proletariat, to abolish itself, and along with it private property, its conditioned antithesis, which makes it the proletariat. – Karl Marx, On Proudhon
The above quote from Marx’s essay on Proudhon is the central dictum of his long career. In the same essay is a key that many forget as did Lenin, Stalin and others to their own destruction: “If the proletariat triumphs, it does not thereby become the absolute side of society, for it triumphs only by abolishing itself and its opposite. In this way both the proletariat and its conditioned opposite, private property, are done away with.” Those that believe otherwise misunderstand Marx.
The abolishment of labor, private property, and the proletariat itself as a class. Without the destruction of private property wealth would remain in the hands of private interests. Without the destruction of the proletariat as a class the very notion of wealth would remain. For it is against its antithesis (the accumulation of wealth in private property) that the proletariat first recognized itself as a class, the class of workers, of labour. The point was to do away with both wealth-private property and its antithesis, the proletariat, and thereby create a free and classless society in which “each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” would become the basis of a new social world. Marx never spoke of vanguard’s of the party, none of the notions of Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky. These were men who feared the peasants, the real proletariat and refused to relinquish power or class privilege. They formed a State, rather than a classless society of communism. They were a Socialist State, not a communist socialism. There is a great difference. They kept power in the hands of a few elite leaders, while the vast proletariat remained rather than being abolished. So that wealth remained, too. Wealth in the hands of the leaders. We can remember from Marx’s statement of the creed in the ‘Critique of the Gotha Program’ is as follows:
In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly—only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!
Many people miss that first statement “in a higher phase of communist society”: communism doesn’t come about from day one, it’s something that one strives toward, not as an ideal, but rather as a project, a conditioned form, a way of organizing life – a material existence in a real world of struggle. Marx was no idiot idealist who thought up pipe-dream Utopias as many critiques would have you believe. He knew both the risks and the challenges of creating such a society based on freedom of free and creative humans.
Marx knew humans could be stingy, selfish, and nasty, and even brutish at times and not always cooperative, kind, or forgiving. He knew there would be stages and protections that would need to be put in place to advance toward the goal of a fully creative communist society. The key here is the vanished antithesis between mental and physical labor: a labor as the creative fount not of wealth creation but of a sustainable existence in which humans could begin to build and construct a well-rounded social life and world. The need for both collective responsibility toward others, and also a unique and individual life based on trust and integrity; one that is thereby given the opportunity to share and contribute abilities, skills, and knowledge within the social field of a responsible citizen of society. This is not some strange idealism, this is a materialist life as it should be – a pragmatic realization of humans working together in a world that seeks to sponsor the creative capacity of each to each, while also preserving the ability to sustain life on an equal and egalitarian basis within a community of free individuals under no Master’s rule. Yet, this does not mean no rules at all: this is not anarchy or anything goes. This is the point of that last statement: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!” That is the Golden Rule of Communism; there need be no other.
But as usual one’s detractors will ask: “Ah, you sly old devil, you! How will you enforce this Golden Rule of yours?,” says the belligerent one, thinking he has us in a logical quandary. One can imagine that young fisherman in Galilee who was confronted by a crowd of angry citizens ready to stone a young woman who had committed adultery, ready to stone her to death. He kneels down and picks up a stone, looks around and spots a slinky figure, a cowardly creature standing there like a defiant judge, a Pharisee, dressed in black head to toe – and pitches the stone at him, saying: “He who is without sin cast the first stone!” Then he reaches down and begins to write something in the sand with a stick. One by one each of these angry members of the crowd slowly slink away till all that is left is the young woman who was the accused. He looks at her and simply says: “Sin no more!”
Can you not imagine the power of that? So think hard on a community bonded to the rule of using one’s talents and abilities to the good of a community, while at the same time receiving back from that community all that one needs to perform one’s tasks, creative life, and existence as a human, equitably and fairly (i.e., ““From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”). What if a member of that community decided not to contribute? How would the community react? Would they be ready to stone this person, or would they begin to seek a way to understand the problem and resolve the issues through sharing and caring. And if this did not work, would they resort to harsh punishment such as these old societies? No. Simply put if one continues to refuse to contribute then one will cease to receive back what one needs to sustain one’s health and existence. Very simple and powerful. Nothing spectacular. Just the way of things. If one so chooses to refuse a contribution, this is your choice; but, it is also true that based on the Golden Rule that if one chooses not to contribute to the good of the community, the community need no longer concern itself about your well-being or existence.
There have been societies that have been based on such an existence. It was just the way of life. In all societies there has been a give and take form of normativity. This is the basis of civil life. One give’s, then one receives back. One cares, one gets care back. One loves, one receives love. Nothing new under the sun in this. Obviously it is more complex that this, and I will not at this time outline the details of a normative social system. As in all things this is a community based decision, a collective enterprise and will enact many strands of give in take based upon the actual needs of the society itself. One could write several books on such topics as ethics within such a society as communism. One could get bogged down quite fast in such debates as atheism and religion. There is one thing in Marx that is almost there from the beginning: the notion that there is no harmony in nature, only contradiction. Reality is not some completed creation, but an ongoing process full of surprise and strangeness, unpredictable and indeterminate. One remembers that Marx was a man not a god, his works are not like religious documents as the Torah, Bible, Koran, etc. They were economic and political treatises describing the age he lived in. We live in a different time, yet we have his works that can help us understand both his age and our own. We can carry on the project without being locked into its systems like slaves ourselves. We all have minds, intellects and material lives that have a history, and we must use those in moving forward. Communism is not some static substance, not Ideal notion situated outside time waiting to be implemented. It is a living thought, one that has a history, shaped not just by Marx, but by many humans, artists, intellectuals, activists, etc. It is a tradition worth investing time in learning. Do not be dissuade by those of the present capitalist conservative world from understanding this history. It is a world of thought worth discovering and debating, a living realm of struggle in an ongoing project of building a future, not some dead artifact of a dead and dying people.
Even if we live in a Financial capitalism or as Bifo Berardi terms it “semiocapitalism” of immaterial goods and wealth creation, the basic principles are the same even if the proletariat as defined by Marx has transformed in our time into the precariot worker or service workers, the cognitariat – or, knowledge-workers (as our new bourgeoisie), and the upper-managerial class of corporate managers and then the top-tier of CEO’s and Investment Bankers and other Financiers. The basic formula of the truth he conveyed has not changed. Just the way property is screened in its new invisible virtual worlds of networks, etc. It still exists. As do we who slave away at menial service jobs day by day in a life-in-death from paycheck to paycheck, bound to boring work that is repetitive and without creativity other than what we bring to it. Yet, the safety-nets that once protected such precarious workers is gone so that if they lose their jobs or livelihoods they have no recourse, no place to turn for help but the life of the streets. The worlds of slums and homeless around the world, refugee camps, and realms of war and famine. Sites of exclusion and degradation. Time to stop the wheel, get off the bus of corporate and service ladder, abolish the power of capital’s ability to keep us bound to its illusionary power. Time to live again. Time to be born again into the future of our lives as free women and men. To discover lives worth living in a world we can create together if we only will.
Fragments from Marx’s Proudhon Essay
Proletariat and wealth are antitheses. As such they constitute a whole; both are manifestations of the world of private property. The question to be considered is the specific position which both occupy in the antithesis. To describe them as two sides of a whole is not a sufficient explanation. Private property as private property, as wealth, is compelled to preserve its own existence, and along with it that of its antithesis, the proletariat. Private property satisfied in itself is the positive side of the antithesis. The proletariat, on the other hand, is obliged, as proletariat, to abolish itself, and along with it private property, its conditioned antithesis, which makes it the proletariat.
It is a negative side of the antithesis, the internal source of unrest, the disintegrated and disintegrating proletariat.
The possessing class and the proletarian class represent the same human self-estrangement. But the former class feels perfectly satisfied with this self-estrangement, knowing that in this estrangement resides its own power, and possesses therein the semblance of a human existence; the latter class feels itself to be destroyed by the estrangement, perceives therein its impotence and the reality of an inhuman existence.
Within the antithesis, therefore, the owner of private property is the conservative, and the proletarian is the destructive party. From the former proceeds the action of maintaining the antithesis, from the latter the action of destroying it. From the point of view of its national, economic movement, private property is, of course, continually being driven towards its own dissolution, but only by an unconscious development which is independent of it, and which exists against its will, and is limited by the nature of things; only, that is, by creating the proletariat as proletariat, poverty conscious of its own physical and spiritual poverty, and demoralized humanity conscious of its own demoralization and consequently striving against it.
The proletariat fulfils the judgment which private property by the creation of the proletariat suspends over itself, just as it fulfils the judgment which wage-labour suspends over itself in creating alien riches and its own condemnation. If the proletariat triumphs, it does not thereby become the absolute side of society, for it triumphs only by abolishing itself and its opposite. In this way both the proletariat and its conditioned opposite, private property, are done away with.1
Jehu has an excellent overview of Moishe Postone and the abolition of labor: here.
1. Marx, Karl (2012-05-12). Selected Essays (Kindle Locations 1477-1495). . Kindle Edition.