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.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

THE WINDS OF CHANGE – CULTURAL REVOLUTION IN EUROPE AND THE INDIVIDUAL

Continuing with Tom’s notes…

Gramsci describes as a cultural revolution the period ushered in by the Renaissance and the Reformation. I’d not previously thought of these events, or movements, as cultural revolutions before, but he was right. They sounded the death knell of medievalism and it is worth remembering that the war was protracted, often bloody and characterised by what we have come to realise as historical transformations with their obligatory twists and turns. (This latter point should serve to reassure.)

It was from this cultural revolution that the modern individual arose.

There was a Cultural Revolution (CR) in Europe and it was accompanied by political struggle, war and revolution. It ushered in the modern era. Because of poor historical and theoretical understandings we are content to think that a CR is something that is launched – as it was by Mao in China. Communists in power will indeed launch GPCRs – its surely part of the job description, part of the deal in waging revolution. It is a conscious attempt to push things forward. Prior to this CRs were not prescribed or consciously directed and were more like a dogs breakfast (could do with a better description). They moved forward in fits and starts, often suffering defeats and being impossible to distinguish from the political and social turmoil that spewed it up. A slow moving but unstoppable tsunami, creeping forward here, being held back there, leaving untouched some remnants and swallowing up others. One way of reading Christopher Hill’s histories is through a cultural lens.

From the times of the English Revolution the big bourgeoisie in Britain only recognised a political personality, an individual, if they had property. This itself was clearly reflected in the franchise which, at the time of the revolution, was given to only about 3% of the population, a situation that changed only very slowly due to a franchise version of ‘bracket creep’ rather than reform. Gramsci makes this point regarding recognition in relation to the Catholic Church (no doubt he was right) but my thinking took me to the English Revolution and the rise of the capitalist class in Europe generally. The point is that a person is not worthy in their own sake, but only insofar as one is accompanied by wealth and the power implicit in wealth. The masses (and many pejorative terms exist to describe them) are the counterpoint to the valued, wealthy man of property and they arouse disdain and a strange mixture of indifference and fear. So long as they have no power and are accepting of this, it is the former; when they cease to accept their proscribed role and seek redress, it is the latter.

The primitivist appeal to the state of nature made during the revolution’s century saw man as a rational but isolated, atomized individual, set free from society. The appeal to the individual conscience, the religion of the heart, was ultimately an appeal to changing social norms. (Hill, Change and Continuity in 17th C England p 116). This too is the appeal of Locke’s tabula rasa.

Reactions to the French Revolution and their implications for individuality.

1. “… Semblance, I assert, must actually not divorce itself from Reality. If semblance do – why then, there must be men found to rebel against Semblance, for it has become a lie.” Carlyle, “The French Revolution.”

Marshall Berman’s page on this raises the matter stated by Marx that the dominant ideas of any epoch are those of the ruling class ->
xxxi Burke saw in 1790, before the revolution’s direction was clear, that the Enlightenment – the multitude of “ sophisters, economists and calculators”, had seized the initiative and “extinguished forever” “the glory of Europe”.

“All the pleasing illusions which made power gentle and obedience liberal, which harmonised the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics all the sentiments that beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by the new conquering empire of light and reason. All decent drapery of life is to be torn off …”

Beautifully written tripe and an admission that the ”whole social system of Europe was essentially a system of lies.” The artifices of ruling class life and the ideological justifications of it were laid bare. Once again the emperor had no clothes – but this time they had been torn off. Semblance had not only become a lie, it had been seen to become so.

This masquerade, as Berman calls it, may well have been subtle for its beneficiaries (here straight jacketing the self expression of those within it) but it was hardly subtle for the peasants or the emerging proletarians. In Britain it was brutal (the Industrial Revolution) although Burke’s prose applies equally to the draperies employed by the capitalist ruling class in Britain as it did for the decadent feudal ones of Europe.

THE EMERGING INDIVIDUAL

a) in England – the role of Puritanism

Hill makes the point that the transition from tribal to village society involved a shift from kinship (blood bond) to neighbourhood – ie, tribalism to feudalism; and that the transition from parish to sect was a shift from local community to voluntary organisation.

Voluntary organisation cannot occur to any significant degree without the existence of self motivated individuals. Today this is everywhere around us. If we exclude work from our reckoning (it is a necessity and as such limits the ground in which voluntary organisation can operate) we see a plethora of activities, clubs, associations and the like which people engage in freely. It covers all classes, ages and tastes and could not occur without freely choosing individuals, all taking responsibility for fulfilling certain of their needs.

The communist movement has struggled with this aspect, that is, the ‘free’ aspect of the individual. A difficulty I see is that the free individual, as he/she emerged from the medieval quagmire, has been associated with the development of capitalism. In other words the free individual has more than likely been one of the ‘industrious sort’ so central and instrumental in the development of capitalism, in England especially (Tawney’s depiction makes this connection a defining characteristic). Bourgeois individualism has ‘form’ and communist movements have rightly identified these social elements (and the economic relations which generate them) as self serving and willing (and needing, more to the point) to exploit others.

This aspect of the individual’s development, while true, is also one sided. And it’s with the other side that we have had trouble understanding, coming to terms with and more importantly, relating to. Berman, in ‘The Politics of Authenticity’ and ‘All That is Solid…’ has, I think, attempted to correct this by focusing on the other side, that which deals with the emergence of the individual due to the development of modernity.
From a different discipline so too has the English Marxist historian Christopher Hill. One of Hill’s great contributions has been his determination to track and expose the development of both sides or aspects of the individual’s development in England from the 16th to the 18th centuries. That is, the individuals connection to bourgeois economic and social development, the aspect that has ‘form’, and the individuals development caused by modernity (although I cannot recall him using that term).

The Levellers wanted to extend voting rights to all adult men with a proprietary stake in the realm. While limited re today’s understanding, this demand was radical and aimed against their class enemy. The bourgeoisie, for its part, successfully sought to deny the common people this right. What is significant about this struggle is that it indicates that two streams of individuality/individualism had emerged – one was that of the bourgeoisie proper and the other that of the common people, the latter being led at this historical stage by the Levellers. (Paine’s ‘Rights of Man’ represent the logical development of the Levellers position.) This latter represents the historical tradition that we need to identify with. Its development took, what we could call, petty bourgeois and proletarian directions; Paine on the one side, Marx on the other. Figures like Goethe and Shelley sit somewhere in between, but much closer to Marx, I think.

Capitalism and modernity are not the same. Each has developed together and each has, within itself, contained the possibility of the other. This is best seen and summed up in the “all that is solid melts into air’” aspect, the dynamism, that is common to both.

By the early 19th C it was becoming possible to clearly distinguish between the two and to see that the development of one frustrated, distorted and held up the development of the other. Marx’s writings were very much concerned with this distinction; indeed he and Engels were key figures in making it. In effect they were saying: I like this part, the dynamism, the restlessness, the urge to develop, which in turn enables the individual to develop; but not this part, the tying of labour in perpetuity to market relations and the exploitation and alienation that goes with this. Marx and Engels spent most of their lives demonstrating that capitalist economic and social development will materially create the conditions where it can be superseded. Where, iow, (in other words) modernity can be fully transformed and shed itself of its capitalist aspect.

b) The 18th C Enlightenment

xiv
‘To be authentic, authentically “oneself”, is to see critically through the forces that twist and constrict our being and to strive to overcome them” In this sense we see Burke as not authentic, just true to his class (see comments on Burke’s take on the French Rev).

We are affected ourselves by the twistings and constrictions as we do this. We may move toward authenticity through willingly taking on (or perhaps even maintaining) other twistings as we identify and seek to overcome or overthrow the main source of that which twists and constricts us. (This needs some thinking through).

p41
The notion of virtue draws a sharp line between the self and society: the self is virtuous only when it surrenders its freedom and submits to the laws of the society that imposes them. Yep; and clearly an important reason for women in particular to not be virtuous. When Berman wrote that sentence – the second is mine – he could not have imagined how prescient it would turn out to be for Muslim women in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

p16
In the Persian Letters Montesquieu tries to show that no social system can provide human happiness unless it posits – and its Government guarantees, a basic human right: the right of every person to be oneself.
My Comment:
a) this seems self evident as one needs a ‘self’ to get this.
b) the link between this idea and the American Rev, and its emphasis, well developed by the Revolution and crystal clear by the 19th C, on individualism.
c) The floods of migration from Europe to the Americas and a little later to Australia and other areas of the new world indicate a strong drive for economic betterment for family and for self. This often took the form of a sacrifice for one’s children, for the next generation, and it bore fruit. This drive has been overwhelmingly positive and progressive.
d) The self, oneself, is not a static entity. The self evolves, develops according to the constraints and possibilities of the level of social development in a given society. This applies between social systems and within them. This is especially so with capitalism
e) If communists don’t ‘get’ this, respond to it, work with it (not against it) we will be relegated to the margins of history, a curio blip, like a number of historically redundant beliefs and trends.

p22
“The basic question, now, is how much freedom do the members of any state or society have to be the individuals they are – how far, in other words, is human authenticity allowed to unfold?”
Comment: This is historically and socially mediated, constructed even. As ‘they are’, the degree of unfoldingness, is developmental. This also applies within a historical epoch, to movements.
It applies to us on two levels:
1. The general, the historical.
2. The demands, impacts on oneself of the movement, group, whatever.

p31
A repressive society – and this covers all pre capitalist societies and non democratic capitalist societies – creates a radical gap between people’s social identities (the roles they are forced into) and their real selves/identities. Personal identities must therefore be achieved. People cannot be themselves within the system but must strive to become themselves in spite of the system. This can take private, even mystical forms (see above) where the contradiction is maintained and where, therefore, authenticity cannot be achieved; or against the system. Here people cannot be themselves within the system and strive to become themselves against the system. Thus, Berman argues, revolt is the only mode of authenticity a repressive society allows (a variant of where there is oppression there will be resistance to that oppression, where our true nature is oppressed, revolt is inevitable).

The theory of revolution grows out of, and develops alongside, the idea of authenticity. This is consistent with our revolutionary history going back to the English Revolution. The question is: how well have proletarian parties, especially the successful ones – Bolsheviks, CCP being foremost – fulfilled this – or sought to fulfil – within the boundaries of what was historically and socially achievable? Within the west I think we’ve been mainly bench warmers and not players. Revolutions in the undeveloped economies led by communist parties present a more complex picture. With 80/90% of the population in China, for example, being peasant and where feudal practises, ideas and habits predominated, the communists had to work with the raw materials at hand and an emphasis on a collectivism that downplayed individuality was probably inevitable and necessary. (This did not mean that individuality did not develop – it did, in leaps and bounds – but that this aspect was not overtly promoted.) What I find disappointing is the lack (or maybe it’s an apparent lack?) of theoretical material from either the CCP or the Bolsheviks that laid the realities on the table in such a way that indicated that they knew the growth of the individual was an important goal, and a Marxist one to boot, but that circumstances did not allow them to focus on this. This distinction, the rationale, does not strike me as complex or beyond the ability of most people to ‘get’. That there does not appear to have been much written about this indicates that it was not seen as a problem. This reinforces my hunch that there is a deep ambivalence about the individual/individuality in revolutionary movements generally that has been dealt with through avoidance and a one-sided focus on notions of collectivism.

p36
A comment on the romantic yearnings for an idealised, Arcadian past. What is yearned for is an equality of a simple, static, face to face agrarian economy based on scarcity and frugality.
And this is what makes it a reactionary yearning – it looks to the past, an idealised and non-existent one at that – and posits it as the future. Its most modern form can be seen amongst extremist greens and Islamic fundamentalists like the Taliban. It certainly had a presence in the English Revolution and re-emerged as a current of the Romantic movement which coincided with and responded to the Industrial Revolution.
We, however, envision, as Berman states, equality (and authenticity) within an urban, dynamic economy based on growth and abundance. And Amen to that!

p85
Montaigne: (16th C) Nothing within the range of human experience was alien to him – anticipating Marx in the 19th who was no doubt paying tribute when he said it.

Rousseau’s alienation:
was self alienation. This was new. Rousseau: “they transform themselves into totally different men” (Confessions); in other words, the source of this alienation was men themselves. Philosophers had hitherto enjoined people to “know thyself”. Rousseau deepened this – not just to know, but to be oneself. His Confessions were aimed to bring his authentic self into being. The injunction to know oneself assumes a core self, an inner reality that, while masked, shrouded, hidden beneath layers of socially prescribed falsities (hypocrisies, two facedness) existed and was ready for development. The idea of a true self/false self dualism fits into this. Rousseau’s idea was much more radical. He posited that the inner self itself was a problem – that the self was only potentiality, something yet to be attained.

While stripping away the layers of the false self was a valid ‘work in progress’, the more important task was the actual creation of the self – a ‘work in progress’ from go to woe.

“It is no longer necessary for the self to go back into the past to search for its source. Its source is here and now, in the present moment”. This is a radical idea and one picked up within the psychotherapy field in the last century. Its truth, its value needs to be counter-posed to the observation made by Marx: “we suffer not only from the development of capitalist production, but also from the incompleteness of that development. Alongside modern evils, a whole series of inherited evils oppress us, arising from the passive survival of antiquated modes of production, with their inevitable train of social and political anachronisms. We suffer not only from the living but from the dead.” Capital 1 13. Together these views form a dialectical whole.

p88
“…Rousseau showed how all the modes of personal identity – both traditional and modern – were actually modes of depersonalization, stumbling blocks which kept the individual self from coming into its own.” Marx would not have a problem with this.
“Servitude is so unnatural to man” writes Rousseau in Julie, “that it could not exist without some discontent”. He is grappling with a truth (let’s leave aside the unnatural bit as this is both true and untrue) that Mao was able to articulate in full force 200 years later – it is right to rebel against reactionaries.
p102
Rousseau comments on his experience of servitude when, as a young man he was employed by the Countess de Vercellis. “She judged me less by what I was than by what she had made me; and since she saw in me nothing but a lackey, she prevented me appearing to her in any other light.” “But” continues Berman, “he himself had collaborated in the falsification, by acting as if her image were true.”
This objectification, and creation of a demeaned other in the process, continues today in all areas of life. What is different is that the individual has assumed centre stage and demands expression in ways unimaginable 250 years ago. How the individual exists or is portrayed in media etc – their central role in soaps, for example, are indicators of this development. While the ‘making’ aspect still applies it is now done much more consciously (because there is no other solution). This needs more teasing out………
p103
That the Countess could have this effect underscored to Rousseau that he needed recognition – that he could be himself only to the degree that his self identity was confirmed by others. That which they did not recognise he could not assert. To Rousseau this suggested that others could mould people into whatever shape one wanted, and in a traditional hierarchy this power was held by the hereditary ruling classes – those at the bottom were forced to define themselves according to the terms dictated from above.
While this seems obvious, Rousseau’s conclusions came from a very personal experience via an examination of self. His conclusions indicate that he already had a well established self capable of self reflection and autonomous action. His ability to be self analytical and to resist sprang from that well.
It also indicates that resistance to ruling class pressure that distorts identity a la Rousseau’s experience begins in the individual (there must be formed individuals of which modern societies generate by the truck load) and then taken to a mass arena.
Another take on this: OK, so one can be moulded by the ruling class; this is old news. The interesting bit is the resistance. This was based upon the existence of an autonomous self, who drew the lessons and grew in strength. Today we are a much harder bunch to mould. The autonomous individual is churned out by the truck load. But this means that ‘we’ or, rather, ‘they’ will resist being moulded by us too. If we pigeon-hole whole bunches of people along simplistic class lines without recognising and respecting their individuality, we will be making a rod for our own individual and collective back.
Another aspect here springs from our social nature. We define ourselves in relation to the other. Developmentally the self is created through the interplay of the infant/child and external ‘objects’/subjects. Without recognition there is no self and therefore no individual. The question is not whether recognition is needed, but from whom/what and with what aim.
p114
Traditional societies pigeon hole people; their identities are ascribed and fixed within very narrow limits
Modern societies enable identities to be achieved and transcended. Limits, roles are transcended regularly and to such a degree we barely notice. Your average Joe at work transcends himself out of work – is he a junior sports coach, team manager, assistant this or that, the secretary of a club, an amateur whatever, a blogger etc. How about a revolutionary? Now, that’s a novel idea!
Modern society has made it possible for the first time in our history for people to be themselves, to define and create their lives as they see fit, to create lives authentically their own. And modern capitalist society both enables and prevents this.

p129
Cultural authoritarianism of the 18th C – Berman mentions the political Newtonian physics, used to promote ideas of clockwork perfection in science, everything in its place etc and neo-Classicism in the arts – was aimed at accustoming people to submit to fixed, eternal rules, externally imposed, closed to scrutiny… It’s an interesting idea – a defacto, partial, ideological united front between a decaying French feudalism and an ascendant British capitalism. The point of unity was the need for social stability. The British ruling class was largely successful in this quest because they had had a revolution; their French counterparts were not because they hadn’t. It’s also a consequence of the ER being forcibly stopped where it was. As social/economic developments continued to gather pace, the ruling class was attracted to and also had a need, to dust off ideas of stability and of permanently fixed social roles that they had challenged so successfully when the feudalists held sway.
This following quote has relevance for today:
By teaching to order and evaluate their experience according to received conventions, culture was depriving them of their strongest weapon against political oppression and social exploitation: their sense of self.
This was made regarding Rousseau’s evaluation of pre revolutionary France, albeit a Paris in the early throws of modernity. But the comment regarding culture stands alone. Culture that draws its authority from a closed and oppressive past cannot prepare or aid its members to negotiate the permanently turbulent waters that modernity throws up. For such cultures, the future has already happened and all it does is prepare people for another round of the same.

p131
Rousseau saw modernity as possessing a paradoxical character: “as both the nadir of man’s self alienation and, simultaneously, the medium for his full self-liberation.” Yep, got it in one – well, almost. Seeing it as a paradox denies its dialectical nature although it is unfair to be critical of Rousseau here as he precedes Hegel. He deserves our gratitude for seeing both aspects of this ‘paradox’ which, as an 18th C thinker puts him one up on most the left thinkers of the following two, for, with notable exceptions, only one aspect or the other has been focused upon and only very rarely has their dialectical nature been understood. The left has been particularly guilty of this as it is they who have claimed the mantle of Marx’s critique. This includes the revolutionary left as well as the reformist.

pp158-9
Some interesting ideas here:
To overcome self alienation Rousseau understood that this (modern) social system (although I don’t think he understood it as capitalist), in the course of its own development, had created a mode of consciousness that was capable of transcending it. (He gets a cigar for this very profound insight). Re this, Rousseau drew upon his view that modern men inherently strove to transform their thoughts into practise (another cigar) and that, therefore, their alienation could be overcome via their consciousness being transformed into self consciousness (half a cigar because of the link to individuality and autonomy). In this way they may be able to solve their personal and social problems through reforms from within (no cigar). He hoped “to draw from the evil itself the remedy that can cure it.” (A dialectical view, but not a sophisticated one – a few puffs on somebody else’s cigar for this one).
It seems to me that Rousseau is swinging between idealist and materialist frameworks, anticipating, in some ways, Hegel. His dialectical thinking comes close, but there is no cigar because he is unable (by nearly a century) to link his observations and analysis of modernity to the economic relations driving it. Without this the slide into idealist solutions becomes seductive.

(to be continued)…

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.

Human Nature?

This is the first part of some notes prepared a while ago by ‘Tom’ on the topic of ‘The Individual in communist thought’.

Human nature is not purely biological, nor an abstraction; it unfolds, develops. As we make our history, so we make ourselves.

“Human nature is not a machine to be built like a model, and set to exactly the work proscribed to it, but a tree, which requires to grow and develop itself on all sides, according to the tendency of inward forces that make it a living thing.” J.S.Mill ‘On Liberty’

Human nature is the result of the meeting place between biology and historical processes. It is therefore capable of change.

“We cannot wait for favours from Nature, our task is to wrest them from her” Ivan Michurin, Soviet scientist

The idea to “give history a push”, cited by Christopher Hill ‘God’s Englishman’ (p 218) referring to 19th C Russian conspirator Zhelyabov.

This idea captures a dilemma of proletarian parties which led successful revolutions in backward societies. These revolutions were obviously on the side of historical development but the ‘push’ was not solely directed at proletarian revolution. There was first the not so small problem of the bourgeois revolution to complete – and in vast areas in both Russia and China – to actually get it started.

This both facilitated the opportunity for transforming the revolution from a bourgeois to a proletarian one and also frustrated and undermined it.

It is inherent in our nature to make all things new – including ourselves. (Marshall Berman, ‘The Politics of Authenticity: Radical Individualism and the Emergence of Modern Society’, p165)

(Next instalment: ‘The development of the individual’).