Why revolution could be back on the agenda

A thought-provoking article, arguing that social movements could eventually “return us to a higher form of the communistic relations of our hunter-gatherer ancestors”, is published here, and I recommend it. The article, by Mark Kosman, is quite short but covers a huge amount of ground – too much to flesh out its points in detail, but enough to raise some gigantic questions about the meaning of “socialism” or “communism” that are too often taken for granted. It ends with a call to rethink “all aspects of the Marxist, feminist and anarchist traditions” to develop ideas relevant to the revolutionary movements of the 21st century.

Kosman spurns the usual explanations for the failure of revolutions in the 20th century, and says that the central problem is that those revolutions, again and again, not only failed to overcome alienated wage labour, but ended up finding new ways of imposing it. He argues that today “humanity has the potential to transform technology, in harmony with nature, to end all significant scarcity and to start creating a global communist society. Anything short of this, any attempt to democratically organise wage labour, as the Bolsheviks and Spanish anarchists tried to do, is far too contradictory to succeed. Workers will always resist such alienated labour, so it can never be organised rationally.”

Women marching on Versailles, October 1789

I have several questions. Here I’ll focus on one: the role of material scarcity in producing or limiting social change, which is a theme that runs through the article. Primitive communist relations broke down “probably due to a scarcity of resources caused by over-hunting, overpopulation and climate change”, Kosman argues. Scarcity produced the need for leaders to adjudicate between different interests. In the various hierarchical forms of agriculturally-based society that followed, there was resistance to domination, but it was not until people could undertake resistance “in conditions of reduced scarcity” that a “genuinely freer form of society”, capitalism, could be created. And then revolutions that attempted to push the quest for freedom further, such as the French and Russian revolutions, again foundered due to hunger and scarcity. While past centuries were characterised by scarcity, the 20th century brought the potential to end it: since the second world war “industrial production was approaching levels that could end scarcity and create the basis for genuine communism”.

I certainly accept that, as a result of the development of science and technology, humans are potentially better able to feed and clothe themselves than at any time in their history. Many are not fed and clothed, due to the way that society is organised rather than to any overall shortage of food or clothes; those that are may also enjoy other benefits of higher living standards, e.g. literacy and other forms of education, technical skills, free time and cultural experiences that might make them more prone to participate in transformative social movements.

Having said that, I think that the different types of material scarcity suffered by humanity at different times in its history need to be unpicked. Today’s scarcity may be attributed primarily to social factors (i.e. capitalism and private property), rather than to natural or technological limits – but does that not also apply, to some degree or another, to the types of scarcity suffered at the times of the French and Russian revolutions? And if scarcity was not some absolute, objective limitation, but something produced by a complex of social, technological and natural conditions, then what does it mean to say that it was scarcity that caused the reimposition of wage labour? Surely there were other factors at work too.

On the other hand Kosman attributes scarcity at the time of the transition from communistic hunter-gatherer societies to settled agricultural societies primarily to the effect of natural limits (shortage of hunting resources, climate change, etc) rather than social or technological factors. Could it not have been a more complex combination? Clearly the forms taken historically by scarcity could not have been unravelled in such a short article – but to give teeth to the argument, I think they need to be. Otherwise “scarcity” could be a catch-all reason for why revolutions failed before, and its absence a deterministic guarantee of future success.

Certainly energy would be better spent considering some of the big questions raised in this article than on some of the narrow political issues about which some socialists and communists obsess endlessly.

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