The Problem of Communism, the Contradictions of Historical Materialism, and the Contributions of the Frankfort School

Humanity seems, once again, poised to turn the gate of hope into a valley of despair. The material conditions for a genuinely human life, in which all of humanity is gradually freed by technological progress from the burden of the necessary labor of merely reproducing social life, and set free to create and explore, have at long last begun to mature. And it is just precisely at this moment that the people seem most ready to sacrifice everything, including their hard won freedom, and the capacity for democratic, collective self-determination, for the opportunity to sell their labor power, fueling support for the Dark Enlightenment and its paradoxically populist ethnonationalist/social/religiousconservative base, making a fascist resurgence a clear and present danger.

It would be easy to write off this phenomenon as driven by economic necessity. We have driven down the demand for human labor power, but have not found a way to share the wealth created by industrial and information technology. Perhaps it is must a matter of redistribution? This is clearly the answer of the new populist left, represented by parties and movements such as Podemos, Syrizia, La France Insoumise, Our Revolution, and, to the extent that it can still be regarded as having a significant “left” membership, the Italian Cinque Stelle.

But history suggests that the problem is not so simple. Rising standards of living for the people, whether the product of social liberal or social democratic reforms or socialist revolution have not, by and large, led to demands for the decommodification of labor power, but simply to increased levels of consumption or when, as in the Soviet Union, investment was directed towards continued civilizational progress rather than individual consumption, stagnating productivity and rising absenteeism.

There is, in fact a well defined body of theory addressing this problem. Indeed, it is the problem of communist theory, and bears on both political strategy and on what has historically been called “socialist construction,” the process of creating, under communist leadership, the conditions for the decommodification of labor power.

This paper will analyze in some depth the development of this debate, beginning with Marx, looking at social democratic and communist contributions, and concluding with a look at arguments within the Frankfurt School, for which this was, in a sense, the fundamental question. I will conclude by arguing that the failure of the communist movement to find a way forward notwithstanding, decommodification is in fact possible. I will conclude by looking briefly at how we need to proceed in this regard.

What is Communism?

It is important, to begin with, to acknowledge a fundamental ambiguity within the socialist and communist movement regarding its ultimate aim. There is, on the one hand, a very strong trend running through both social democratic and communist theory which understands socialism as first and foremost a way of resolving the economic contradictions of capitalism in order to unleash the development of the productive forces –what Samir Amin calls the “economistic” reading of Marxism and what Maoism called the “theory of the productive forces” (Amin 1978/2010, 1979/1980, 1988/1989). This emphasis on the development of the productive forces has some basis in Marx’s work.

…it is only possible to achieve real liberation in the real world… by employing real means… slavery cannot be abolished without the steam-engine and the mule and spinning-jenny, serfdom cannot be abolished without improved agriculture, and… in general, people cannot be liberated as long as they are unable to obtain food and drink, housing and clothing in adequate quality and quantity. “Liberation” is a historical and not a mental act, and it is brought about by historical conditions, the development of industry, commerce, agriculture, the conditions of intercourse (Marx 1846/1932)

The task of developing the productive forces is, furthermore, not unrelated to the humanistic and emancipatory aims of communism. On the contrary, the argument runs, we must transcend scarcity if we are to decommodify labor power and set humanity free from necessary labor (production of the means of subsistence) and exploitation (the creation of the surplus which supports the unproductive luxury consumption of the ruling classes) and allow human creativity to flourish. In practice, however, this communist “parousia” has been repeatedly postponed and actually existing socialism has focused, with only few exceptions (themselves very problematic, for reasons we will come to understand) on promoting scientific, technological, and economic. progress. Give the trajectory of both the Soviet Union and China there is a very strong case to be made that historic socialism, far from being a transition to communism, is actually a strategy for capitalist development in countries on the periphery of the capitalist world system, which lack external colonial empires to exploit and which must therefore use a strong state to carry out primitive accumulation through forced collectivization which maintaining sufficient support among the people to ensure political stability.

There are, however, other texts in which Marx seems to argue that simply resolving the internal contradictions of capitalism by the nationalization of industry and unleashing the development of the productive forces, is at best a very ambiguous first step towards communism.As Marx makes clear in his manuscript on Private Property and Communism the abolition of private property is,

in its first form only a generalisation and consummation of it [of this relation]. As such it appears in a two-fold form: on the one hand, the dominion of material property bulks so large that it wants to destroy everything which is not capable of being possessed by all as private property. It wants to disregard talent, etc., in an arbitrary manner. For it the sole purpose of life and existence is direct, physical possession. The category of the worker is not done away with, but extended to all men (Marx 1844/2009).

This does, indeed, look like a rather sharp indictment of historic socialism, in which the proletarian condition became essentially universal while inequality, while restricted, was far from being abolished.

On the contrary, whatever Marx said or believed about the material (technological) conditions for communism, he is quite clear that communism itself consists in the decommodification of labor power. In order to understand why this condition is so essential, we need to situate it in the context of Marx’s larger analysis which, we must remember, is a critique not just of political economy but of “religion” and of philosophy which claimed to have grasped religion’s inner, rational truth (as well as of the French democratic and socialist revolutionary experience, cf Lenin 1913/2008). And while the Marxist critique of philosophy is usually understood as a critique specifically of Hegel, there is good reason to trace the roots of the tradition which Marx critically engages back to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, and especially to the medieval Jewish, Christian, and Muslim commentators on Aristotle, a connection which drew the focused attention of a handful of Soviet scholars in the late 1950s and early 1960s (Dahm 1987:94).

I have traced out the lineage which leads from the Radical Aristotelians of medieval Europe, through Gersonides and Spinoza, up through Kant, Hegel, and Marx in other contexts (Mansueto 2010b). Here I just summarize. According to Aristotle, the aim of human life was the cultivation of intellectual and moral virtue. This was theorized by the Jewish and Muslim commentators of the middle ages as achieving identity with the Agent Intellect, the collective intelligence which governs earth and the entire sublunar sphere, something which was increasingly understood by later Averroists such as Dante Alighieri and Marsiglio of Padua as involving a collective, historical dimension. We achieve identity with Agent Intellect through civilizational progress.

Christianity, however, suggested a further possibility: actual theosis, or identity with God. This was, to be sure, understood by the Church as the product of grace, which created capacities which transcend those natural to humanity, and was understood as an accidental perfection rather than a substantial transformation. In effect, by coming, with the help of grace, to love God for God’s own sake and with God’s own love, humanity became connatural with God, a state known as caritative wisdom (Mansueto 2010b), so that in the late middle ages the tension was between the Radical Aristotelians, who sought identity with the Agent Intellect through the human cultivation of virtue and through inner worldly civilizational progress, the Thomistic Center which affirmed the value of this project, but stressed that it was subordinated to the higher goal of full theosis which was possible only through grace and caritative wisdom, and the Augustinian “right” which stressed the priority of faith and of submission to the divine will (this latter tradition leading eventually, by way of Scotus and Occam into the Reformation) . But somewhere between the Latin Averroists and Spinoza the distinction between identity with the Agent Intellect and full theosis dropped away, and we begin to see the emergence of an ideal centered on full theosis by means of innerworldly civilizational progress. This ideal is most clearly stated by Hegel.

The divine spirit must interpenetrate the entire secular life: whereby wisdom is concrete within it, and carries the terms of its own justification. But that concrete indwelling is only … ethical organization (Hegel, G.W.F. 1830/1971 3: 552).

This divine spirit is ultimately embodied, for Hegel, in a state which integrates liberal, democratic, feudal, and monarchic elements (with the church, since the divine has fully interpenetrated the secular, now an arm of the state) with a hidden architectonic cadre in the “universal class” of civil servants of which the university based sapiential intelligentsia is the core.

When Marx, following Feuerbach, takes the criticism of religion as “the beginning of all criticism” he is, in fact, embracing this aim of theosis, and making an argument regarding the conditions for its realization. Transcending religion is a first step, but only a first step. If the divine spirit can be realized in the secular order then there is no longer a need for religion as a separate institution. This is not because the aims of religion are wrong, but because religion seeks to realize these aims in the wrong place and in the wrong way.

Religion is the fantastic realization of a human essence that has yet to attain its true realization.

Man, who sought a superhuman being in the fantastic reality of heaven and found nothing there but a reflection of himself, will no longer be inclined to find a mere nonhuman semblance of himself where he seeks and must seek his true reality.

But Marx goes one step further. While for Hegel it is enough for “the divine spirit to interpenetrate the entire secular world, wherein it becomes conscious of itself,” in the state, for Marx

The task of history is thus to establish the truth about this world once the otherworld has proved illusory. The immediate task of philosophy, which is in the service of history, is to unmask human self-alienation in its secular forms now that it has been unmasked in its sacred forms. Thus the critique of heaven is transformed into a critique of earth, the critique of religion into the critique of law, and the critique of theology into the critique of politics. (Marx 1843/2009)

More specifically, for Marx, it is necessary to transcend the alienation of the specific capacity which links the human essence to the divine, i.e. to Being as such: our labor power. And this alienation is a result of the commodification of labor power, or the wage relation

This fact expresses merely that the object which labor produces – labor’s product – confronts it as something alien, as a power independent of the producer. The product of labor is labor which has been embodied in an object, which has become material: it is the objectification of labor. Labor’s realization is its objectification. Under these economic conditions this realization of labor appears as loss of realization for the workers; objectification as loss of the object and bondage to it; appropriation as estrangement, as alienation. (Marx 1844/2009)
Transcending this alienation results in nothing less than the effective deification of humanity.

Communism as the positive transcendence of private property as human self-estrangement, and therefore as the real appropriation of the human essence by and for man; communism therefore as the complete return of man to himself as a social (i.e., human) being – a return accomplished consciously and embracing the entire wealth of previous development. This communism, as fully developed naturalism, equals humanism, and as fully developed humanism equals naturalism; it is the genuine resolution of the conflict between man and nature and between man and man – the true resolution of the strife between existence and essence, between objectification and self-confirmation, between freedom and necessity, between the individual and the species. Communism is the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution. (Marx 1844/2009)

Humanity’s essence is, in other words, nothing less than existence, or Being as Such: what the dialectical tradition has understood historically to be God. Religion seeks the realization of this essence beyond history, in a mystical union with the divine. Philosophy, by which Marx means the tradition of Radical Aristotelianism which reaches from the Latin Averroists through Spinoza and Hegel, up to his own work, teaches us to seek it in this world. Liberal philosophy sought deification in the rationally autonomous individual. Democratic philosophy sought deification in the democratic state. Communism seeks it in human creativity itself, liberated from the chains of commodification.
How do we get there?

But if Marx is clear that communism consists not in collectivization of the means of production in order to unleash the development of the productive forces, but rather in the decommodification of labor power, he is much less clear on how we get there. Marx, to be sure, wanted to distinguish his communism from that of the utopians who developed complex schemes with little regard for social conditions. A scientific socialism, he believed, had to be rooted in the material conditions of social life. But while Marx discovered contradictions within capitalism which would –or at least could– lead to socialism, he never succeeded in identifying conditions which would lead from socialism to communism, or even sustain a strong mass base for the decommodification of labor power.

This is apparent from a reading of the first section of the Communist Manifesto, where Marx makes his first attempt at analyzing the contradictions of capitalism and at identifying the stages in the development of the class struggle.

A similar movement is going on before our own eyes. Modern bourgeois society, with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells. … It is enough to mention the commercial crises that by their periodical return put the existence of the entire bourgeois society on its trial, each time more threateningly. In these crises, a great part not only of the existing products, but also of the previously created productive forces, are periodically destroyed. … The productive forces at the disposal of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property; on the contrary, they have become too powerful for these conditions, by which they are fettered, and so soon as they overcome these fetters, they bring disorder into the whole of bourgeois society, endanger the existence of bourgeois property … (Marx 1848/2000)

As a result of these contradictions, the proletariat begins to organize:

The proletariat goes through various stages of development …

These stages are, according to Marx, 1) sabotage, with the rage of workers directed against the machines which are replacing them rather than Capital which owns the machines; 2) trade unionism, organized collective bargaining for improved wages and working conditions, and finally, 3) the formation of a workers party which vies for political power.

Even so, Marx is clear that this is not enough. Workers will not by themselves come to understand the need to transcend the commodification of labor power. Thus the need for philosophy.

As philosophy finds its material weapon in the proletariat, so the proletariat finds its spiritual weapon in philosophy … The liberation of Germany will be the liberation of man. The head of this liberation is philosophy, its heart is the proletariat. Philosophy cannot be realized without abolishing the proletariat, and the proletariat cannot be abolished without realizing philosophy. (Marx 1843/2009)

What this means concretely is the creation of an intellectual vanguard.

Finally, in times when the class struggle nears the decisive hour, the progress of dissolution going on within the ruling class, in fact within the whole range of old society, assumes such a violent, glaring character, that a small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift, and joins the revolutionary class, the class that holds the future in its hands. Just as, therefore, at an earlier period, a section of the nobility went over to the bourgeoisie, so now a portion of the bourgeoisie goes over to the proletariat, and in particular, a portion of the bourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole …

The Communists … have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement (Marx 1848/2000)

This, despite various comments on specific political programs at specific historic junctures, is very much where Marx leaves us in terms of a general theory of a transition. He does not explain how we go from the formation of a philosophical vanguard to the decommodification of labor power. That task was left to later commentators.
Historic Socialism

Given the ambiguity in his own work, it should come as no surprise that Marx’s interpreters are sharply divided along two lines of demarcation. Some emphasize the economic, some the political, and some the ideological, cultural, and spiritual conditions for communism, both in building a movement towards socialism and in the process of socialist construction. And among each of these groups some argue that the conditions for creation of a mass socialist movement will develop spontaneously; others emphasize need for conscious leadership.

Thus economistic social democrats (who largely reject the idea of a philosophical vanguard) such as Engels and Kautsky argue that industrialization itself will create a proletarian majority that will then win elections. The resulting social democratic government will then nationalize industry, eliminating the contradictions of capitalism and setting in motion rapid economic development, presumably resulting in an end to scarcity and thus the material conditions for communism. More idealistic social democrats such as Hermann Cohen and Eduard Bernstein, while not discounting economic factors, see socialism as in significant measure the product of a gradual Enlightenment in the Kantian sense.

Similarly, among communists (those who argue for the necessity of an intellectual vanguard), including all who followed Lenin into the Bolshevik faction and those who see Lenin as part of their theoretical heritage, it is possible to identify:

  • those who argue that the basis for socialist revolution lies in the fact that imperialism, while it does not make capitalist development impossible, vastly retards it, creating an opening for a vanguard of professional revolutionaries to seize power by advancing “transitional demands” such as “land, bread, and peace” or national liberation and land reform and
  • those who, following Bodganov, Gorky, and Lunarcharsky (the so-called god-builders; cf Rowley 1978)) understood “conscious leadership” primarily in ideological terms, running what amounted to liberal arts programs for workers at Gorky’s home in Capri, so that an ever larger fraction of the proletariat would come to share the humanistic intelligentsia’s understanding of the “line of march, conditions, and ultimately general result” of the revolutionary project.

But Communists then divided over what to do “after the revolution.”

  • Trotskyists argued that the revolution is permanent and global. After seizing power the party should implement a strategy of primitive socialist accumulation and forced collectivization (even militarization) in order to position technologically, economically, and militarily itself to spread the revolution globally.
  • Stalinists ultimately accepted the theory of primitive socialist accumulation and forced collectivization, but largely because of the need to prepare for war against Germany, arguing that “socialism in one country” was, in fact, both possible and necessary.
  • Bukharin, on the other hand, defended rural demand led strategy in which land reform created peasant demand for manufactured goods, catalyzing industrialization. But Bukharin, who had been close to Bogdanov and the “god-builders” before the revolution, was also keenly aware of cultural and spiritual conditions for communism, and wrote both about the way in which the crisis of capitalism was eroding the ideological basis for socialist revolution and the ways in which Stalin’s strategy of primitive socialist accumulation deformed the party spiritually.

It was out of the Bukharinist “right opposition” that the two great theorists of the cultural conditions for communism emerged. Antonio Gramsci (Gramsci 1948, 1949a, 1949b, 1949c, 1950, 1951, 1954, 1966) developed a complex analysis of the cultural dimensions of class struggle, arguing that successful ruling classes ruled not by coercion (“dictatorship”) or co-optation (“transformism”) but rather by cultural hegemony –by rewriting the cultural rules of the game and by drawing on popular ideological, cultural, and religious traditions as transitional or “linking ideologies” which build support for socialism among those who had not yet achieved a fully dialectical perspective. Mao, on the other hand, focused on the fact that the persistence of commodity relations under socialism reproduced the bourgeoisie economically, politically, and ideologically, and argued for the necessity of “cultural revolution,” which consisted largely in a combination of study with “struggle sessions” and public self-criticism in which cadre were challenged to confess, analyze, and correct their own “petty bourgeois tendencies.”

Rather outside of the stream of “official” historical materialism, but also quite influential, lies “populism,” not in the sense of the amorphous global anti-elitism which has emerged in recent decades on both the right and the left, in many ways recapitulating the broader political culture out of which fascism emerged, but rather the nineteenth and early twentieth century movement which looked not to the industrial proletariat but rather to the peasantry as the leading revolutionary class. These narodniki, as they were called in Russia, argued that capitalist development was impossible in colonial or semicolonial countries, because of the lack of an internal market for manufactured goods (a thesis largely seconded in the later twentieth century by dependency theory) but that the peasant community, with its tradition of redistributional land tenure, created a basis in experience for the transition to socialism. The resulting movements, as Eric Wolf demonstrated in Peasant Movements of the Twentieth Century (Wolf 1969) often drew on religious language and symbolism to articulate their aims. The strategic power of these movements gradually forced the communist movement to reassess the role of both the peasantry and of religion, so that by the second half of the twentieth century significant trends within the communist movement, both on the Gramscian “right” and the Maoist “left” increasingly accepted the peasantry as an equal partner with with the proletariat in the revolutionary process and understood popular religion as at the very least a “bridging ideology” leading (Lancaster 1988) to dialectical and historical materialism or even, increasingly, as integral to the revolutionary project itself (Mansueto 2002a).

This is, in many ways, a very rich tradition of engagement with the problems posed by communist strategy but the very problem it aims to resolve: the alienation, generated by the commodification of labor power, which makes the achievement of communist consciousness difficult at best. But there are some very serious limitations. First, the “solution” to this problem has generally been to draw on the support of those whose labor power, like that of peasants and intellectuals, is not yet fully commodified. No significant trend within the movement ever advanced a strategy for cultivating communist consciousness among full proletarianized workers, wither agrarian, industrial, or intellectual. And even the most advanced attempts to draw on these less commodified and alienated sectors of society as revolutionary base produced limited success at best. While the Latin American Left has proven itself far more resilient than many expected after its decline in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, they have fall far short of creating the “spiritual conditinos for communism.” Those of us who hoped that the synthesis between dependency theory, Gramscian (or Mariateguista) communism and liberation theology which drove the Latin American Left of the 1970s and 1980s would usher in the New Humanity have, instead, been treated to, among other things, the spectacle of Daniel Ortega parading around in designer glasses imposing classic neoliberal austerity measures on the people who brought him to power.

Second, only one of trend within the communist movement (Maoism) engages directly the impact of the persistence of commodity production after the revolution. And the Maoist approach, reflected in the Cultural Revolution, was more a strategy for containing the effects of commodification (with rather catastrophic collateral damage) rather than for overcoming it. The idea that study (actually the rote memorization of slogans) and struggle (often abusive criticism and self-criticism sessions practiced under less than consensual conditions) could heal the wounds of commodification and cultivate high order intellectual and moral capacities is simply preposterous.

The Hotel Abyss … and Beyond?

Long before the global failure of historic socialism to address the implications of the commodification of labor power for both revolutionary strategy and socialist construction was fully apparent, though, a major school of revolutionary theorists –the Frankfurt School– analyze the problem and its implications thoroughly. Emerging out of the effort to understand why so many workers lent their support to fascism, the school focused its attention on the the complex forms of ideological and cultural domination which characterize capitalist society. The result was not just one but a number of competing theories of the “authoritarian personality” (Fromm 1941, Adorno 1950) which argued that the socialization necessary for survival in a capitalist society produces a working class which is not so much revolutionary as authoritarian. After the war, Erich Fromm went further to argue that even when authoritarian parenting gives way to more permissive models, people in capitalist societies are raised to sell themselves, cultivating a “marketing orientation” in which people quite literally lose themselves and their connection to their underlying creative, social, and sapiential drives (Fromm 1947). Herbert Marcuse (Marcuse 1964) developed a similar argument showing that the ideological apparatus of consumer societies effectively integrated the working classes into the capitalist order, so that it was only the marginalized –ethnic minorities and the humanistic intelligentsia– which were likely to resist.

In the end, however, the Frankfurt School divided sharply, with the majority arriving ultimately at the conclusion that revolution, at least in the sense that Marx had understood, was in fact impossible. Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (Adorno and Horkheimer 1944/2002), Adorno’s Minima Moralia (Adorno 1951/2002), and ultimately Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man (Marcuse 1964) refocused the object of criticism from the commodification of labor power to instrumental rationality and technopolitical domination, reflecting an orientation which was as much Heideggerian as it was Marxist, even if Marcuse along had direct connections with Heidegger.

We will explore in another context the social basis and political valence of the apostasy of the humanistic intelligentsia (and much of the religious intelligentsia), even that nominally on the “left” from Marx to Heidegger. For here it is enough to remind readers that Heidegger was a committed NAZI and that his philosophy clearly points towards fascism (Lukacs 1953/1980, Bourdieu 1988/1991, Mansueto 2010b). Of more importance for our current argument is that, whatever its relationship to Heidegger and through him to the very NAZI tradition they were born to resist, the dominant wing of the Frankfurt School ended up promoting despair. As Lukacs put it:

A considerable part of the leading German intelligentsia, including Adorno, have taken up residence in the Grand Hotel Abyss which I described in connection with my critique of Schopenhauer as “a beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity. And the daily contemplation of the abyss between excellent meals or artistic entertainments, can only heighten the enjoyment of the subtle comforts offered (Lukacs 1971).

There are, however, two figures close to the Frankfurt School who avoided both refined despair: Walter Benjamin and Erich Fromm. This said they find hope in two very different places. Benjamin effectively rejects the whole project of a scientific socialism in which communism is the product of a more or less necessary process of technological and economic progress and class struggle.

Social democratic theory, and still more the praxis, was determined by a concept of progress which did not hold to reality, but had a dogmatic claim. Progress, as it was painted in the minds of the social democrats, was once upon a time the progress of humanity itself (not only that of its abilities and knowledges). It was, secondly, something unending (something corresponding to an endless perfectibility of humanity). It counted, thirdly, as something essentially unstoppable (as something self-activating, pursuing a straight or spiral path). Each of these predicates is controversial, and critique could be applied to each of them. This latter must, however, when push comes to shove, go behind all these predicates and direct itself at what they all have in common. The concept of the progress of the human race in history is not to be separated from the concept of its progression through a homogenous and empty time. The critique of the concept of this progress must ground the basis of its critique on the concept of progress itself. (Benjamin 1940/2005).

This concept of history, he suggests, is itself, fundamentally hegemonized by the principles and values of Capital itself.

The conformism which has dwelt within social democracy from the very beginning rests not merely on its political tactics, but also on its economic conceptions. It is a fundamental cause of the later collapse. There is nothing which has corrupted the German working-class so much as the opinion that they were swimming with the tide. Technical developments counted to them as the course of the stream, which they thought they were swimming in. From this, it was only a step to the illusion that the factory-labor set forth by the path of technological progress represented a political achievement. The old Protestant work ethic celebrated its resurrection among German workers in secularized form. (Benjamin 1940/2005).

But this is not all. This concept of history is not only inadequate to the task of creating the conditions for communism; it is behind the collapse of social democracy and the rise of fascism.

… the politicians in whom the opponents of Fascism had placed their hopes have been knocked supine, and have sealed their downfall by the betrayal of their own cause … (Benjamin 1940/2005).

This is due to a

:… stubborn faith in progress … in their “mass basis” … (Benjamin 1940/2005).

The struggle against fascism, he suggests, requires an entirely different forma mentis, an entirely different spirituality and above all a new concept of history which is no longer progressive but rather messianic.

History is the object of a construction whose place is formed not in homogenous and empty time, but in that which is fulfilled by the here-and-now … (Benjamin 1940/2005).

The consciousness of exploding the continuum of history is peculiar to the revolutionary classes in the moment of their action … (Benjamin 1940/2005).

Revolutionaries must

… establish a concept of the present as that of the here-and-now, in which splinters of messianic time are shot through … (Benjamin 1940/2005).

Surely the time of the soothsayers, who divined what lay hidden in the lap of the future, was experienced neither as homogenous nor as empty. Whoever keeps this in mind will perhaps have an idea of how past time was experienced as remembrance: namely, just the same way. It is well-known that the Jews were forbidden to look into the future. The Torah and the prayers instructed them, by contrast, in remembrance. This disenchanted those who fell prey to the future, who sought advice from the soothsayers. For that reason the future did not, however, turn into a homogenous and empty time for the Jews. For in it every second was the narrow gate, through which the Messiah could enter. (Benjamin 1940/2005).

It is easy to see why Benjamin would have taken this route. There was even less reason to trust the idea of progress in 1940 than there is now. He was not the only one to argue instead to that “the unity of the poor creates, in certain times and places, an eschatological power” (Silone 1968:31) which is the real foundation of revolutionary hope. But this eschatological power did not appear –and Benjamin committed suicide. It was ultimately an alliance between the progressive sectors of Capital and the Soviet State which defeated fascism, though not without help from the resistance.

The problem with this “eschatological communism” is simple. It divorces the communist project from the real lives and aspirations of the working classes, who are its subject, and makes it quite impossible to advance any kind of revolutionary strategy. It is one thing to reject a concept of history and a strategic orientation which make socialism into a strategy of primitive accumulation –something which also alienates communism from the working classes; it is quite another to to reject strategy grounded into social reality altogether. Eschatological communism channels the energy of the vast majority of its adherents, who are far from messianic themselves, into meaningless symbolic protest, while condemning its best leaders to either suicide or the cross.

Fromm (Fromm 1947) takes a different path. First he has a more complex and nuanced anthropology than Marx. He shares Marx’s view that humanity is defined by our capacity for creative labor and by our sociality, but emphasizes the latter a bit more and is clearer than Marx about our drive to seek meaning. And is clearer than Marx ever was about the underlying contradictions of the human situation. Reading the Paris Manuscripts one gets the impression that Marx actually believed that communism would put an end to all human suffering, spiritual as well as material. Fromm knew better. He was aware that our most profound suffering comes from our finitude and contingency, from the fact that we are aware of the possibility of the Infinite and of Necessary Being, but cannot achieve it. And he situates creative human labor, the formation of challenging and nurturing relationships, and the search for meaning as ways to partially come to terms with this challenge.

Second, drawing on but also radically transforming psychoanalytic theory, Fromm develops a far more nuanced theory of alienation than Marx, arguing that human creativity, sociality, and desire for meaning are channeled by the family during the course of the socialization process in a way which meets survival needs under the prevailing social conditions. This was how he explained the formation of the autohritarian personality under fascism and it is how he explains the enduring hegemony of Capital in advanced capitalist societies. Specifically, his theory of the “marketing orientation” explains the process by which, forced to sell ourselves in order to survive, human beings under capitalism actually lose touch with who they are and what they actually want.

Third, while he does not fully develop this aspect of his theory, Fromm leaves us with a way to theorize the social basis for communism even when we cannot “see” it with the naked eye. That basis is, precisely, humanity’s drive towards creativity, sociality, and meaning. It is something we all share, and in this sense all human beings are ordered towards communism. The principal strategic task of communism thus becomes tapping into this “deep spiritual root” of communism, something which certainly requires conscious leadership but also profound listening, so that we can dulled roots stir and know how, precisely to respond.

Finally (and this is simply to say that he is fully conscious of the philosophical and theological implications of these earlier moves) Fromm also goes furthest in engaging the religious question of any of the Frankfurt School. He does this from the vantage point of the common Jewish heritage which many of them shared. Specifically, he argues that Marxist atheism is just a radical extension of the traditional Jewish rejection of idolatry and of the emphasis on orthopraxis over orthodoxy. It makes very little difference from a Jewish vantage point whether or not God exists. What matters is that we participate in the creative, loving, and wise power which believers have historically called God. In this sense we neither “seek” nor “build” God, to use the language of the old Russian debate; we live God.

I am more inclined that Fromm to argue both that the question of God matters and that it can be resolved (in the affirmative) by dialectical philosophy. But it is not the most important question. On the contrary, Fromm arrives by a pure via negativa so radical that it becomes atheistic at the same conclusion at which most mystics arrive after a journey which takes them through a dialectical ascent, a dark night of the soul, theological illumination, and yet another dark night. Advanced spirituality consists not in knowing that God will be there for us, but in transcending such infantile self-concern and knowing God first and foremost in being God, however partially and imperfectly, in the midst of our own brokenness, for others.
Sanctuary and Commons

So what does this suggest for the way in which we understand —and act— on the challenges of the present period?

First, it should be clear that the problem of the commodification of labor power and the alienation it engenders is the principal contradiction of the communist movement. Communism consists in transcending this commodification and alienation and unleashing human creativity, sociality, wisdom. But the alienation engendered by commodification effectively undercuts the social basis for the communist project.

Second, there has been no shortage of attempts to confront this problem. But none of these attempts have been adequate to the task at hand. Errors on the right (the theory of the productive forces, which relies on technological progress alone to create the conditions for communism) effectively liquidate the communist project; errors and on the left (Maoism) simply repress rather and addressing alienation, with catastrophic, anticivilizational effects. Along the way there have been some promising insights (e.g. from the Frankfort School) and strategic initiatives (Gramsci’s strategy of cultural hegemony), but none have gone far enough.

Third, alienation is best understood as a spiritual problem with a material basis. As such, both the material and spiritual dimensions of the problem must be addressed simultaneously. We are very far from having created the material conditions for transcending commodification entirely, but we can move to restrict it. This means restoring the commons which, while it may not release people from the need to work, or even from drudgery, will at least release them from the necessity of selling their labor power —and will increase their bargaining power when they do. The most sustainable way to do this is by creating autonomous enterprises held by local communities directly or by sponsoring entities at which people have a right to work and from which they have a right to revenue and which have a practice hospitality for those who cannot work  –much like the monastic communities of old. These enterprises might be anything from farms (in rural areas) and community gardens through advanced high technology industrial or information sector enterprises.

At the same time we must make the opportunity for intellectual, moral, and spiritual growth accessible to everyone —and radically disconnect it from the struggle for upward social mobility which has come to define “higher education” —and the promise of salvation which has come to define religion. Art, music, and literature, history, science, and philosophy, theology and worship and contemplative practice, carried out in the context of a community which stretches us, nurtures us, and holds us accountable, are their own rewards, and the first step towards transcending commodification. A restored commons must be be complemented, in other words, by renewed sanctuaries which nurture the capacities through which we participate in the power of Being as such –the power of the divine. We must, in other words, create spiritual “lures” which attract people to the work of seeking wisdom, doing justice, and ripening being.

This does not, to be sure, eliminate the need for political struggle in the more ordinary sense, whether electoral, armed, or otherwise. Now as in the time when Fromm wrote there is a great tide of darkness which we must resist, even at the cost of our lives. Indeed, this work of resistance remains the principal task in the current conjuncture. And beyond that, an increased social wage (free transportation, education, health care, etc.) and a guaranteed basic income funded through steeply progressive taxation would change conditions more rapidly and create a context in which experiments of the kind we have suggested could flourish. But the resistance to the Dark Enlightenment takes place in the context of a broad popular front against fascism in the context of which we find ourselves uniting not just with the progressive sectors of the bourgeoisie, but also with “liberal conservatives” who are not likely to support even partial and indirect decommodification, especially by way of an increased social wage and a guaranteed basic income. Or, as we have already seen in Europe, where they do support such measures, it is with conditions which tend to keep the market pressures on labor, on which the less advanced sectors of Capital depend, in place. Integrating a broad popular resistance to fascism with the work of restoring the commons and renewing our sanctuaries allows us to get around this problem. And it allows us to be engaged now, in the midst of the darkness, in the work of building a future which will make the Hotel Abyss seem like the necrotic place it really is, a future which, even if it falls far short of true communism, much less of full theosis, is full of love and full of life and pregnant with the God who, whether we believe in Her or not, we all desire.

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