COMMUNISM and INDIVIDUALISM – A TROUBLED RELATIONSHIP

Concluding Tom’s notes…

A) Lenin On the Question of Dialectics

The relationship between the universal and the individual is just that, a relationship. When taken alone – abstracted – the universal is untrue. It is untrue because it is removed from its relationship with the individual, (its opposite) which alone is concrete. It is the relationship between each that gives each its truthfulness, its lived, actual reality.

I am reminded of Hegel’s “If something is abstract it must be untrue…” and how the communist movement has been alot more comfortable dealing or focusing on the universal – the group, class, people, nation than on the concrete – the individual. We have a problem with the individual; but if dialectics has meaning this must indicate that we also have a problem with the universal.

B) Marshall Berman

Berman’s procrustean role description also applies to the Industrial Revolution and to early periods of capitalism generally. Peasants/small farmers and land holders, rural, labourers and artisans were sucked into the factories of the Industrial Revolution and exploited mercilessly. In Dickens ‘Hard Times’ he describes these modern pegs as ‘hands’, an accurate description of that part of the body the bosses valued. Precious little space for the individual to unfold here. That’s the down side and there are clear parallels between this and pre capitalist peg fitting. The up side was seen over generations and caused by the dynamism of capitalism and the space it created for workers to organise, struggle and develop.

Two points re this:

a) the failure of most of the left to see the emergent role of the individual as a good thing; its tendency to praise in a one sided way collectivism and to associate individualism, again one sidedly, with bourgeois ideology.

b) the working class itself has made it clear through its actions and choices that it values individual growth and development and the economic development which facilitates this.

The question for communists is: do we?

Where the traditions and customs of others determine character and conduct of the individual “one of the principal ingredients of happiness” is wanting.

Marx: “liberal economy and politics generate a contradiction between the individuality of each proletarian and the condition of life forced upon him … labour.” And because the capitalist state (liberal or otherwise) reinforced and legitimised that condition, it had to go – be overthrown.

It seems to me that the conflating of that aspect of ‘liberal’ which speaks of freedom in a general political and personal sense with liberal economics (freedom of capital, of property rights and the rights of exploitation) is indicative of a major theoretical weakness and an opportunistic slide toward an authoritarian suppression of individuality. Marx and Engels were revolutionary democrats and communists. They were in the minority all their lives and much of their polemics were aimed not only at the wacky left ideas but at authoritarian ones.

xviii
The defeat of the revolutions of ‘48 generated alot of despair and from this time to the end of the 1950’s, in nearly all arguments between radicals and their opponents, both parties identified the capitalist economy and the liberal state with ‘individualism’ and equated radical aims with “a collectivism that negated individuality.”

I think he is onto something, especially “a collectivism that negated individuality”. The separation, or negation is metaphysical, one sided. Collectivism thus understood will never get anywhere in advanced capitalist societies as it attempts to negate our ‘new fangledness’. It also conflates as per para above.
The group and personal discipline necessary in a party is thus seen as coerced, a top down crushing of individuality rather than a free act from below, of authentic action undertaken by the individuals concerned, in limiting individuality, where this individuality comes into conflict with the cause or the group’s purpose. One can also identify precisely the same dynamic – and duality – in any group endeavour.

The Marxist Archive entry for collectivism is a case in point. It speaks of collectivism transcending or sublating individualism (a collectivism which does not suppress the individualism of bourgeois society). This seems confused. They get collectivism and individuality right historically and in their definition, but the socialist bit clearly gives primacy to collectivism (without individuality being suppressed) and the transcendent, or dialectical leap, only relates to collectivism. Individualism, which remains ‘bourgeois’, or consistent with the individuality that emerged under capitalism, remains unsuppressed but also untransformed. It is as though dialectics has had a senior’s moment and forgotten that individuality too, must transcend its bourgeois limits.

This ambivalence has been characteristic of ostensibly Marxist theory although not of Marx himself. The bods at the Archive clearly understand that individuality is important but are unable to understand it as dynamic.

“Liberation from the standpoint of the bourgeoisie, i.e. competition, was, of course, for the eighteenth century the only possible way of offering the individuals a new career for freer development.” Marx (SW McLellan p186)

The free development of the bourgeoisie destroyed rural communities, threw millions off the land, thereby depriving them of their livelihoods, and forced them into the hands of the bourgeoisie itself. There was nothing pretty or humane about it. Yet, as Christopher Hill shows, it was not entirely, or even principally, negative. It led, among other things, to much greater economic and productive efficiencies, less expensive and more readily available food and better clothing. It also led to the IR, the consequences of which, as O’Flinn positively observed, we are still getting used to twelve generations later.
“…private property can be abolished only on condition of an all round development of individuals, because the existing character of intercourse and productive forces is an all round one, and only individuals that are developing in an all round fashion can appropriate them, i.e. can turn them into free manifestations of their lives.” Ibid p 191

As with spirituality, we have left the field of individuality and authenticity to the right – which is why we find some of their libertarian ideas attractive (presumably this must also apply to the Spiked crew).

This 50+ year old quote from Barry Goldwater is a case in point: “Every man, both for his own individual good and for the good of society, is responsible for his own development. The choices that govern his life are choices he must make: They cannot be made by any other human being, or by a collectivity of human beings.” (The Conscience of a Conservative, 1960). It’s like Nietzsche with a southern twang.

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Development of the Individual, and the individual in pre-modern society

Continuing Tom’s notes on the individual in communist thought…

“As a man is, so is his philosophy” – Fichte.

The characteristics of individuals are products of social relations. An individual’s character is a factor in social development only where, when, and to the extent that social relations permit it to be.

Self Alienation in Traditional Society

People derived their feelings of personal identity from ascribed roles – assigned without reference to individual differences or abilities – predicted and trained for from the moment of birth. Charles 2nd was pointedly informed that Oliver sought people on the basis of merit and not status, a reflection of two very different world outlooks.

“The domination of the land as an alien power over men is already inherent in feudal landed property. The serf is an adjunct of the land. In the same way the lord of an entailed estate, the first born son, belongs to the land. It inherits him.” – Marx, ‘Rent of Land’ in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, 1844.

Advantages: conducive to social stability and shields the undeveloped self from expectations (and disappointments) beyond its station.

Disadvantages: stifles energy and initiative of individuals slotted into ascribed roles.

Individually the scope for disappointment is narrow as expectations are limited to the role one is born into – an emotional security blanket and an emotional and intellectual straight jacket. Now the scope is much wider because there are no limits placed on expectations.

Rousseau lived at a time when feudal ascribed identities had reached unbearable limits for a large number of people. He understood the psychic costs and urged that feudal traditions in habits and manners, for example, be abandoned.

“Individual thought or feeling, insight or initiative, could only be destructive to these traditions and routines. Marshall Berman, ‘The Politics of Authenticity: Radical Individualism and the Emergence of Modern Society’, p100 [Berman had spent the last couple of pages describing how the dead hand of the past weighted down on the aristocracy and the peasants – differently to be sure and advantageous to the aristocracy,- “it was easy to see why the upper classes were willing to make the sacrifice of self which their social roles demanded” he adds next page – but equally limiting in their own way] Hence it was essential for traditional society to keep individuality from developing, at the bottom as well as at the top.” (p101)

”Every man was reduced to a function of the rank which he acquired at birth – or, perhaps more accurately, to paraphrase Marx, the rank which acquired him.” It is perhaps more accurate to say “limited” as reduced implies a ‘from what’ which did not exist.

Marx’s Grundrisse
pp83-4

Pre-capitalist periods see the individual as an accessory to definite and limited human conglomerates. That is, limited, stunted, unable to develop.

The individual of our epoch is a historical result. The individual arises historically and is not posited by nature.

The individual of Smith and Ricardo – the result of the dissolution of feudalism on the one hand and the new forces of production developed since the 16th C on the other. This individual appears as an ideal whose existence they project into the past – not as the result of historical development, but posited by nature, the so-called “natural man”. This “natural man” was appropriate to their notion of human nature. It persists and remains a dominant view.

The more we go back “in history the more the individual is dependent, as belonging to a greater whole”. The epoch that produces this idea of the isolated individual is that which is most developed viz social relations. This is not a paradox as the human individual can only individuate in the midst of society – ie, the more complex the society the greater is the scope for individuation and complex individuals. This process is ongoing.

The Individual in Pre-Modern Society

Authenticity (and hence individualism) is not a problem or even on the radar in closed, static societies governed by fixed norms and traditions. Here, people are satisfied with the roles given, experiencing themselves as pegs, aspiring “only to fit the holes that fit them best.” A static equilibrium. (Berman p xxvii)

This aspect is foundational in Plato’s Republic and why Platonic idealism is reactionary (because so out of step).

Once a man is fitted into the niche he was born for, the loose ends in his nature fall away, “each part of his nature is exercising its proper function” and he takes on that perfect balance Plato calls justice. This niche fitting gives a person their identity (butcher, baker, tailor etc. That these and a host of other occupational descriptions survive today as surnames speak, historically, of prescribed generational roles…)

“Violent class struggles may go on: but they concern only the allocation of particular holes to particular pegs. The board itself, the closely knit but rigidly stratified system of the Greek polis, which defines men precisely by their functions, remains unquestioned and intact.”

And Kautsky thought of Plato as a prototype socialist?? The fact that he did and the fact that he was seen as the leading theoretician of the Second International indicates the depth of the problem for the left around the individual. This idea needs developing.

Pre capitalist societies (and less developed capitalist ones) fit individuals into Procrustean roles and acts as if human individuality didn’t exist – at least not for the masses.

The Stoics rebelled against the procrustean nature of the polis but did so mystically. They didn’t oppose particular orderings of the world, but the world itself. People were alienated from the world and self was to be found beyond the world, transcendentally. They therefore complied with Plato’s polis in their external relations, but not internally and cut their internal world off from an engagement with the external. And a fat lot of good that did!

“Thus the search for authenticity began with a negative interpretation of the world “ [with no positive attempt to change it] – thus was born disengaged conformity/internal ‘liberation’ which, Berman says, has since passed into mainstream western culture.