To: Collective Action Notes, POB 22962, Balto. MD 21203 (e-mail: email@example.com)
25 July 94.
Thanks for the first 2 issues of Collective Action Notes. It seems a worthwhile if unexciting effort. We would just like to reply to a comment you made about our perspectives for the class struggle in issue #2.
Talking about the downturn in the "revolt against work" you say:
To many people this is further proof that the working class is on a permanent downward spiral or even that "The American working class has been smashed" (as the WILDCAT UK group argued a few years ago in its journal, only to turn around a year later and hail the L.A. riots as proof of a new "proletarian" upsurge!)
There are several errors in this statement. Firstly, the statement The US working class has been smashed is located within an article (Wildcat 15, Fall '91) which briefly describes the international class struggle, and is not entirely pessimistic. It does not say the working class is on a permanent downward spiral, it says we don't know how long it will be before the international class struggle revives. Our enthusiastic response to the 1992 April/May uprisings was not a "turn around". It concludes it will take more than a few riots to overcome the massive defeat the working class in the US has suffered since the sixties. (Wildcat 16, Fall '92).
In the last three issues, we have developed an analysis of the state of the international class struggle which deserves a more serious response than distorting our argument by misquoting out of context. Although as you say it is worth listing the underground class struggle, this is not an analysis. The examples given in your journal hardly amount to a refutation of our gloomy prognosis.
Note: Collective Action Notes gets bigger and better, and each issue contains a longer list of strikes. Our letter was not published however, no doubt because it was too political. The declared aim of the publication is to publicise a minimum of facts about struggles around the world "independent of all interpretation".
To: Julio Wicks # 79367, Unit 32 B, Parchman MS 38738.
Julio Wicks was a prisoner in Mississippi who produces flyers opposing the corrupt prison regime. He has now been released. He was treated as a maximum security prisoner because of his agitation in favour of prisoners' rights. Find out more by contacting Raze the Walls at PO Box 22774, Seattle WA 98122-0774. This support group gave us the advice Never lie to a Prisoner. Be totally honest and blunt.
In his letter to us in October 1994, Julio described his situation as follows:
I've been in this Maximum Security Unit (MSU) for just about two and a half years. I'm locked in my cell approx. 23-24 hours a day. I'm allowed a "maximum" of 2 hrs. outside recreation every four (4) weeks. Inside recreation is non-existent - minimal. Whenever I'm to come out of my cell, I'm placed in leg irons and waist chains. Shower, doctor, reclassification, etc.. My chains follow me wherever I go! Imagine that type of existence for two and a half years. Don't ever try it!! And guess what? I've never killed anyone, not a rapist (they should be castrated) I am just not an ass kissing, bootlicking conformist. It eats me up daily to know that those "keeping me" are in need of keeping themselves!
Thanks for your letter.
I thought I'd quickly send you some stamps as it seems to be an urgent need.
I intend to get into more of a discussion with you about some of the issues you raise in your letter, but perhaps this can wait 'til later.
I just want to raise two points briefly. Firstly, I am not sure why you are concerned about corruption among the prison staff. Given that their job is keeping you in prison, does it really matter whether they are corrupt or as pure as the driven snow? Obviously, if that corruption adversely affects prisoners' conditions, it is important. I'd like to hear what you say about this.
Secondly, I don't think there is any point in being vindictive toward other prisoners. For example, you said that you think rapists ought to be castrated. Hopefully, you didn't mean that to be taken literally, but I thought I'd mention it. I and the group of people I am associated with (Wildcat) am interested in the concepts of Justice and Punishment. Briefly, we don't believe in them. We don't think it is possible to say anyone "ought" to receive any particular punishment for a crime, since this is not going to undo the crime. Justice is based on the same principles as capitalist society in general: the idea of equivalence between given quantities of dissimilar things. For example, a certain quantity of punishment equals a certain amount of crime.
Anyway, perhaps I am making too much of your offhand remark about what rapists "deserve".
Please let us know what you think of these comments, and if you need anything else.
December 27 1994.
Dear Friend and Comrade (I hope we can become comrades anyway)
I received your card and stamps today, thank you very much for both.
Since having received your letter (dated Nov. 15th) I have been going through a turmoil as to exactly where you were coming from, or, more importantly, what type of image of yourself you were trying to convey to me.
You stated that you read my "flyer". You wrote me with what I regard as pure antagonism and ridicule concerning something I wrote. You stated you couldn't understand my views on corruption because of my being confined. That's preposterous! I cannot think of a more asinine analogy. So I take it, Nixon and Watergate, the S & L bailout, etc., because we live in, are part of the system, it should not matter that the Heads of our State use corruption at any and all levels. So I must ask you, does it matter to you that those governing the Free World are corrupt? I'm interested in your reply.
At the risk of being blunt. Most certainly corruption has an adverse effect on prisoners' conditions! Example: the master menu will read "Cheese-burgers". We will receive soy patties. Why? The Free World man who is Director of Food Services has his "boy" who make up and sell hundreds of cheeseburgers on the black market. The "boy" is given a small cut, and the rest of the cash is splitted between administrators over that particular area. That type of corruption exists in each area of the prison to some degree. That being so, prisoners who have no funds to pay for food they righteously should be served are exploited by those officials that do the corrupting. That does make some sense to you I hope.
You went on to say that you are interested in the concepts of Justice and Punishment but you don't believe in them. One might ask, what is the purpose of the interest if you don't believe in either? Is it for the mere self knowledge or what?
Something else you wrote raised my eyebrows. What do you propose society does with child molesters, sodomizers, men who rape three year children and infect them with the Aids virus. The ninety year old blind woman who answers her doorbell to be greeted by two 3001b. robbers, who rob her, physically brutalize her, then put six bullets in her head. And don't forget the guy who uses explosives and blows up a family members house killing everyone. And those 200 children in the midst of prayer service at church who are Firebombed and murdered? What are you saying, that we live in a society (fairytale) where there is no law of any kind and no kind of order? You say because the crime doesn't undo the act, then it's alright? You need to be more specific. If you believe the aforementioned in that context, then I must seriously wonder who exactly is Richard Tate and his associates. Then again, perhaps I have misconstrued your intentions. I hope I have anyway. Now on to something else.
There are only a few brothers in lock-down with me (23-24 hours a day lock-up. Any move from cell is in restraints or hand-cuffs), who share my philosophy and ideology. Anyway, because the prison so heavily censors, delays and shreds my mail, my outside contacts are near nil. Cash on hand is non-existent! I am not allowed any food in packages which is a bummer. My nutrient and vitamin supplement is very low. We are losing weight because we are not eating right, and we are not eating properly because we have no money. We are in need of financial support. I've heard it said that people run like hell at the mere thought of sacrifice. We will see. The only way we can receive money in here is by US Postal Money Order only.
Pay to the order of: Book-keeping (for Julio Wicks, #79367). Address the envelope as such: MDOC Book keeping, PO Box 500, Parchman MS 38738.
Any funds you may send will be enormously appreciated. We would buy Spam, peanut butter, honey, noodles, crackers, brown bread, cheese, egg sandwiches, etc.. With $20 or so we could have a feast. We are all vegetarians (my comrades) and all lack vital nutritious vitamins and food. Have one (1) comrade who is making a slow transition from meat to non-meat diets. He is coming along though.
Please don't turn your back on us. We need you! Stay strong and stay strong! Forever forward, never backward,
10 April 95.
Sent to MDOC Book-keeping: $20 money order. Enclosed: receipt for money order.
Thanks for your letter of Dec 27. To answer the question whether it matters that those governing the Free World are corrupt - the short answer is no. A slightly longer answer is as follows. We are glad you raised Watergate, because this is a particularly clear example of corruption and crime at the highest level mattering not a bit to the poor. Bombing Vietnam and Cambodia, now that was something else. But Nixon was impeached for organizing the burglary of the Demos' HQ. What does it matter if one gang of criminal mass-murderers steal documents from another? The Savings & Loan bailout is a bit more complicated, because working people had their savings in companies that went bankrupt. Obviously, we support campaigns to force the state to reimburse these people. But corruption in general should not be opposed. The individuals who made a lot out of the S & Ls were no more guilty than anyone else who makes loads of money from the capitalist system. Only the law makes a distinction between legal and illegal profiteering. To us, it makes no difference.
In Italy at present, there is a big anti-corruption campaign. Traditionally, government contracts are awarded to someone who knows someone else's brother-in-law, or as a result of bribery, or less frequently, threats. If the anti-corruption campaign succeeds, contracts will be awarded to the companies that can do the work cheapest, in other words, those who exploit their workers more efficiently. Anti-corruption is part of privatization and the deregulation of sectors where workers don't have to work quite as hard, and where their jobs are more secure, in favor of a more American-style system.
On the other hand, as we said, if corruption adversely affects prisoners' conditions, it is important. It obviously affects prisoners if the prison kitchen department substitutes cheaper food for the official menu, reselling the original items.
To summarize, corruption some-times makes things worse for us, sometimes a bit better, and usually makes no difference.
We cannot understand your apparent concern about "where we are coming from". You may disagree with us about Justice, but we can assure you that it is a genuine position which we have worked out gradually through involvement around various prisoners' issues, and through reading about the history of punishment, etc.. If you want, we could send you a couple of issues of the magazine Wildcat in which we develop this discussion. We hope this makes it clear why we are interested in the concepts of Justice and Punishment - we oppose them because they are central to the workings of this society.
We are not impressed by your lurid tales of children being blown up by robbers with AIDS. Send these stories to the New York Post. Sure, there are some nasty people about. Perhaps it may be necessary to eliminate certain individuals who are beyond a cure. But this is not Justice. Justice means punishing people, making them pay for what they have done. They have to pay just the right amount of punishment for the quantity of crime they have committed. One of the reasons prison tended to replace other forms of punishment with the rise of capitalism is precisely that it is quantifiable according to the variable of time. Being able to measure punishment is one of the preconditions of Justice. The other is the ability to measure crime according to the same standard, so that the punishment can exactly equal the crime.
Instead, we would advocate using whatever methods work to deter anti-social elements, not those that equal the crime committed. This is an important distinction. For some people, it would be the difference between life and death.
Finally, we certainly did not write with "antagonism and ridicule". We don't think the idea of Justice is ridiculous, it is extremely widespread and quite understandable. We just don't happen to agree with it, that's all. Anyway, whatever disagreements we may have, be assured of our continued support.
20 April 95
Received your letter and MO receipt (which I'm returning). The only form they will accept a MO is it has to be a US Postal Money Order or a Certified Check. I imagine Bookkeeping has returned the MO to this receipt. I hated that because I'm dead broke and could certainly use the $20.
Your letter in itself, deserves an appropriate response. Can't say I'm in agreement with its entire substance, however, I can appreciate your convictions. I'm in the midst of a very important Federal trial of which I'm pro se. And between the Law Library and the Law Library I'm just smothered with legal work. This particular case is taking its toll on me. But that's my problem. Between now and the time I write back in answer to your letter, please do forward me with a copy or so of your magazine "Wildcat". I'm sure it will put me more in touch with your philosophy, thus, enabling me to better understand your position.
I'm still in the Control Unit (going on three (3) years). And have recently received a Court Order whereby I can make use of the Law Library for now; I'm taking full advantage. Hope you understand my brevity.
You take care and don't wait so long to get back in touch. I do appreciate enormously your input and support. Until then,
Struggle we must, Julio.
"Books will be written to tell readers that Leviathanic 'modes of production' rise in the West when 'productive forces ripen', that the manors of the Lords 'develop into' territorial mercantile States, with Churchmen serving as 'midwives'.
Many of these books will be like 'before' and 'after' pictures with an elaborate argument that demonstrates how the earlier structure 'developed into' the later one. Written by dialecticians adept at showing how things develop into their opposites, many of the arguments will be convincing and some positively elegant, but they will tell readers everything except the fact that the earlier structure burned down" - Fredy Perlman, Against His-story, Against Leviathan!
Aufheben issue 4 contains what at first sight appears to be a parody of mechanical Marxist thinking, in the form of a review of Perlman's Against His-story. It would be easy to do a hatchet-job on this book. On the other hand, if you wanted to do a serious critique of Perlman's grand narrative, a good starting point might be Jacques Derrida's critique of Levi-Strauss for idealising primitive society. But Aufheben could hardly do that, since it would undermine their attempt to amalgamate "post modernist scumbags" and the anti-Civilisation current.
The Brighton tendency claims it is unfair to cite Marx's published work to prove that he supported capitalist progress. But we repeat: "In the Communist Manifesto, The German Ideology, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, the Critique of Political Economy, through letters and articles supporting the American Civil War, to the Grundrisse, Marx was for most of his life, capitalism's most able apologist" (Wildcat 17, p24). If his theory "also points to the active negation of capital through thoroughgoing class struggle on all fronts", the contradictions in Marx's method are even more serious than we thought. Despite Aufheben's special pleading, The Manifesto of the Communist Party is just what its title implies: it is a clear statement of Marx's position. This rousing hymn to capitalist progress, more sophisticated than anything the philistine mill-owners themselves were capable of thinking up, claimed that the bourgeoisie had been "a most revolutionary class", and praised it for transforming the instruments of production, laying the foundations of the inevitable communist revolution, the next stage on the ladder of Progress. This error, we would argue, is not unconnected with some of the things which have been done in Marx's name.
Aufheben put the First International's support for the class struggle in the balance to outweigh putting out the flags for the American Civil War and other massacres. We would not judge an organisation today by saying "well, they supported the Gulf War, but on the other hand they did help organise the anti-Poll Tax struggle". So what has changed? When did cheer leading the slaughter of the proletariat change from being a mistake caused by "the limitations of the workers' movement" to a basic position? The only coherent answer to this is based on another theory they wish to avoid: Decadence, according to which it was necessary for Marxists to support capitalism when it was still Progressive. Without this absolution, Aufheben's excuses for Marx's backing for Sherman's march would be consistent with exonerating social democracy's support for world war one on the grounds that a lot of workers agreed with it. "The limitations of the workers' movement" is either a slander against the workers - there was plenty of resistance to the Civil War, despite the International's efforts to persuade workers to support the progressive side - or it is the claim that the limitations of the International were caused by the limitations of the International. The assumption that the workers' movement has progressed since the Luddites, and that this is a good thing, is another example of traditional Marxism which seems to have slipped past Aufheben's vigilance. Their unquestioning acceptance of progressive time is one of the reasons for their failure to understand the contemporary importance of the Conquest and the Civil War. These things didn't just happen: they continue. The other reason is Eurocentrism.
They claim that anti-Civilisation ideas blossomed in the USA because its benighted inhabitants lacked "the long history of struggle that characterises the transition from feudalism to capitalism (and the making of the proletariat)". In other words, they missed out on European history. The reason the indigenous people missed the struggle that characterises the transition from feudalism to capitalism, is because they succeeded in the struggle to resist the transition to Civilisation, until the arrival of Progress. The genocide which followed was not passively accepted, and the struggle continues. Aufheben ignore 500 years of resistance "over there", because the resisters were not European workers. Again, this lines them up with the worst of the mechanical Marxists they have supposedly exorcised with incantations from Marx's secret writings, though in the process they provide us with an elementary exercise in "deconstructing" the logical errors which can delude us into accepting the necessity of progress. The modern proletariat was, it is true, created in this struggle. But it is true by definition that any class was created by the "transitions" that preceded its existence.
If Aufheben are forced to overlook or excuse the bulk of Marx's work, they have a bigger problem with Engels, Marx's leading sponsor. He was in a particularly good position to read the sixth chapter of Capital, but this didn't stop him from continuing the progressive project of scientific socialism. Tragically, he and his successors all emphasised Marx's justifications for capitalist progress, missing such profundities as "proletarian subjectivity and self-activity".
Their failure to confront the central limitations of Marxism dooms them to repeat the mistakes of their forebears. Contemptuous of recent anthropological research, they are reduced to reciting the errors of Engels, assuring us that Agriculture was a product of population growth, when in fact it was the other way round. But their view of primitive people as helpless victims of Nature owes more to the progressive attitudes of Marxism than to a lack of factual research. Their determination to oppose academic fashions like post modernism has left them with a quaint Victorian view of prehistory. Their scenario of thousands dying in natural disasters would have been very infrequent events before Civilisation, but it seems embarrassingly obvious to point out the main weakness in this kind of argument. Whatever disasters primitive peoples experienced, they can hardly compare with those created by Civilisation, which routinely kills tens of thousands, and is rapidly destroying life on earth.
If Aufheben have difficulty with areas outside traditional Marxist concerns, we might expect them to be able to discuss perspectives for the class struggle. In the Fall of 91, we said the proletariat "now confronts one united world capitalist class, ruling a world with an increasingly homogenous culture and even one language, which potentially unites capitalism's gravediggers". Two years later, we said "it is difficult at present to see" how this would come about. For Aufheben, this is an example of swinging fixedly from unreasonable optimism to despair. The first citation above is an application of dialectics, according to which things turn into their opposites, and our later position a simple qualification of the initial one. You don't need a PhD. in Hegelian "logic" to realise that "defeat brings pessimism". They are throwing stones from glass houses when they accuse us of "resignation before Leviathan's irresistible progress". Surely Marxism has been more responsible for urging submission to Progress than our intransigent position? It was not Perlman but Engels who decreed "The power of these primordial communities had to be broken, and it was broken". We thought we had repeated this citation too often, but apparently not. Aufheben itself has nothing meaningful to say about current perspectives. To say we must avoid being unreasonably pessimistic or optimistic is a banality worthy of the British libertarian socialist milieu. Aufheben's contribution is to tart up the tautologies with twaddle. But a workerist from Wigan could penetrate such platitudes as "The desire to transcend civilisation seems itself to be a product of class society", which is like saying the desire to escape from prison is a product of imprisonment. Perhaps this is all that progressive theory amounts to.
Marxists usually explain their checkered history by referring to what Marxism might have been if it hadn't been distorted or betrayed by renegades and revisionists. In Aufheben's case, it's "objectivist" Marxism that led the flock astray. This is the idea that capitalism will eventually collapse from its economic contradictions, regardless of the class struggle, but this is hardly the main problem. The questions we have been trying to raise are the problems inherent in Marxist theory, such as its adherence to scientific materialism.
Our work on Progress has been generally regarded as eccentric. This piece confirms our concerns: here we see some of the more radical Marxists falling into precisely the most dangerous errors we have identified as implicit in the materialist conception of history, not the result of betrayal, misunderstanding, or the backwardness of the proles.
Aufheben's review is not bad. It is execrable. But let's not allow it to lull us into complacency. We are not "fixed" on our current position: we are aware of our "hesitations and contradictions" (Wildcat 17, p9). There is room for discussion. The problem, at least in Britain, is finding anyone to discuss with. Reading these amateurish amalgams is like being on the jury in a case in which the defence tries too hard. Marx did not go around advocating "self-activity", and the inanities of some of his disciples must not distract us from his matchless theoretical achievements, which we continue to use to analyse the world. The Labour Theory of Value deserves abler advocates than this.
We have however received a more coherent critique of our views, from a less fashionable corner of Sussex. Below, we give voice to the Hastings branch of the proletarian milieu, followed by our response:
The material in Wildcat 17 regarding your definitive break with Marxism and the adoption of an "anti-civilisation" stance made very interesting reading. As the 20th century grinds to a close and capitalism shows with increasing clarity that it is unable to "progress" anywhere except further into the inhuman nightmare it has created it is unsurprising that revolutionaries have adopted theories which reject civilisation in its entirety.
Personally I find these issues very difficult to get to grips with and I certainly haven't arrived at any sort of final position although I must say that in general I support the drift of what you are saying. Most importantly it is vital that revolutionaries realise and declare that class society has from its inception and in all its forms been a disaster for the majority of our species, for other species on this planet and for the biosphere as a whole. Theories of "progress", "development", "stages" etc. (Marxist and non- Marxist) have always been used by defenders of class society to apologise for and justify massacres, excesses and atrocities in the past and the present in terms of some pay-off in the future. In much the same way the ideology of wage labour urges sacrifice now in order to obtain satisfaction later and religion offers life after death as a compensation for the death in life which class- society imposes. As you point out Marxism does contain a theory of progress and leftists (both reformist and Stalinist) have used it for the same old purpose.
Having established (I hope) that we are basically on the same wave length I would like to explore briefly some of the problems I have with this perspective.
At the beginning of How Wild Is Wildcat you say "The central question we wish to address is this: was the development of class society in any sense a necessary precondition for its opposite?" and it is this idea of progress which is central. You see I think it is possible to argue that 10,000 years of civilisation/class- society for all its horrors and degradations has created a potential that did not exist before and that potential is for the real unification of the human species on a global level.
In pre-historic times people lived in bands, tribes or family groups (the details are debatable and contentious but the point I'm making is that they were limited groups with distinct boundaries) that may have been communist internally but that saw themselves in opposition to other groups of humans. This is not to suggest that they lived in some "nasty, brutish and short" "war of all against all" as depicted by Hobbes. It is simply to say that the community these people enjoyed was of a small group. Each group would be unaware of the existence of the majority of the human species, and would see around it other groups, other communities. While it would be purely speculative to say anything about relations between groups in those far distant times I think we must assume that they were relations between groups and that community, solidarity and co-operation existed at the level of the small group.
Part of what defines communism for me is that it is global and unifies the human species, another part is that the reproduction of the material conditions of life (how we live and reproduce) is transparent, unalienated. While in prehistoric times this second situation undoubtedly obtained it was because that was the only way that humans could live. I say this because I assume that classes and alienation cannot exist before a surplus can be produced. It was the communism of necessity, of small groups. The unification of the species on a global level was impossible and to me this means that communism before and after civilisation must be seen as being radically different whether or not we want to talk in terms of "higher" and "lower" "stages" or "primitive" and "fully developed" "forms" etc.
Maybe on this point we disagree since you refer to "....the once universal human culture which stretched from Australia to the Arctic". If you mean that this was a real, conscious unity then I must say that I think it unlikely.
I must emphasise that none of this is to say that I don't recognise that for real individual humans life in prehistoric times, or outside of class society was/is more pleasurable and meaningful than life in the work camp that class society makes of our planet.
The reason that our species is now capable of creating a world human community, a communism of desire rather than necessity, of the whole species rather than small groups, is because of the development of communication and transport technology. The possibility exists for unlimited discourse within the species, any person could in principal converse with any other person anywhere on the planet, people could travel to any point on the planet, live where they choose not where they are born, those things which need to be arranged on a global scale could be.
Obviously I am aware that all technology as it exists now serves capital rather than humanity and that transport and communications technology as it is now (cars, jet aeroplanes, mass public transport, mass media etc.) negates rather than enhances our freedoms to travel and communicate.
I suppose what I am trying to say is that the understanding and techniques we have now if put to use by a communist society, a liberated humanity could produce a life which would in some sense be an advance over what existed in pre-historic times. To give a few concrete examples: At the moment helicopters are used almost exclusively for military/police purposes or as playthings for the super rich but wouldn't a communist society retain a few to use for rescuing people from the sea or up mountains etc.? And isn't flight in itself a wonderful advance? - imagine floating across the Atlantic or the Amazon or the Antarctic in an airship. Again, at the moment submarines are almost exclusively used by the military but potentially they allow land creatures such as ourselves to explore, marvel at, understand and play in the oceans which form the majority of our biosphere.
You say that "...it will take incalculable efforts before we have even managed to regain the achievements of the pre-civilised community, never mind improving upon them." And I can agree with that since civilisation, and especially capitalism, is the negation of community; the task of recreating community, of learning to live as human beings again will be no small one but it won't be made any easier by totally rejecting every aspect of the technology that class- society has produced. In Wildcat 15, in the review of Fred Perlman's book, you said "An eclectic approach is needed to avoid this dead end." (turning Perlman's primitivism into a dogma) "In learning from the culture of primitive peoples, we are not obliged to abandon everything which has been developed since the waterworks of Mesopotamia." And this seems absolutely right to me.
If our species has an "essence" it is (as you point out in the review of Cohen's book) not labour.... in my view it is our ability to understand and manipulate nature, without getting mystical about it you could say that our species is the universe becoming aware of itself. After 10,000 years of class society our species knows incomparably more about the nature of the universe we inhabit and our place in it than we did before and I would say that this is a good thing, it is something that our species has achieved. To understand evolution, to work out that the earth goes round the sun rather than vice versa, to start to understand the development of the universe itself, to be able to think about the nature of matter and energy.... to me these are activities and achievements which are worth something, which are expressions of the potential our species holds.
Maybe you totally disagree with the above since you quote, with approval, the ICG to the effect that "Science, as knowledge subsumed by capitalist valorisation, is rotten to the core. Like all of Capital's productive forces, Science is fundamentally inhuman: not only in its applications, but in its foundations" [this refers to the article "AIDS, pure product of science!" in the Internationalist Communist Group's magazine Communism, No. 8] ... now to me this is a problematical formulation since I am unsure of the distinction being drawn between "knowledge" on the one hand and "science" on the other - I regard science as being the attempt to discover knowledge about the universe - technology is another matter, that is developed according to the perceived needs and desires of those who control the resources of society. Obviously it (technology) is based on scientific knowledge but (I think it is possible to argue that) scientific knowledge (or "Science") has a rational core which is not determined by social context so that, for example, the theory of evolution by natural selection is the best explanation we have of the rich diversity of living things and their development despite the use to which it is occasionally put as a justification for racism or the market or whatever.
So am I saying that yes "the development of class- society is a necessary pre-condition for its opposite"? I have a horrible feeling that this might be the case. Not in the sense that communism is impossible before class society, since a form of communism did exist before class- society, but in the sense that class society has made available the techniques and knowledge that will enable communism to maintain itself on a global level and indeed to progress, to take humanity forward.
If we accept that the technology developed by class society will play a part in enabling a future communist society to provide a life for our species even richer and more meaningful than that before civilisation then I think we are faced with the unpleasant fact that technology could not have been produced except by class society. This is because technology always emerges from and is dependent on previously existing technology. So... a great deal of what a global communist society might want to use (airships, submarines, radio, radar etc.) is dependent upon, for example, mining and the production and fabrication of metal. Now, in such a society I would expect that such activity would be carried on to a lesser degree than in the past and that automation etc. would ensure that it was not an unreasonable burden to anyone. But in the past this could not have been so - much of the activity involved in mining and the forging of metals in the beginning would, of necessity given the level of technology, have been extremely unpleasant and therefore no one would have performed it unless compelled.
"As one bushman (sic) told an anthropologist, 'why should we plant when there are so many mongongo nuts in the world'. Leisure time is valued very highly and preferred to increasing food supplies (which are already more than adequate) or producing more material goods (which can be a hindrance). Earlier this century the Siane tribe in New Guinea adopted modern steel axes instead of their traditional stone tools. This reduced the amount of time necessary to produce an adequate level of subsistence by about a third. The new spare time was not spent in increasing output but was devoted to ceremonies, leisure and warfare. Similarly in 16th Century Brazil the Portuguese found that the Indian tribes, if not enslaved, would only work for them until they had earned enough to buy metal tools and then they wanted to enjoy their extra leisure."
(Clive Ponting, A Green History of the World page 21 - a better book than you might expect.)
This business of technology is a real bastard to think about isn't it? When you walk out of the front door and are confronted by our world of concrete, cars, idiotic advertising and mass media, pollution and all the rest it is easy to see all the products of technology/the means of production as being one unified inhuman entity standing in total opposition to humanity and its needs and desires. And it is this acute alienation from a world of technology gone mad which makes the primitivist/ anti-civilisation critique so appealing. But, it seems to me, we simply can't reject technology totally since as you say we can't go back - "Without the waste of capitalism, the world could easily support its current population. The Stone Age couldn't." (review of Perlman's book in Wildcat 15)
It seems to me that a communist society that came into being now would have no choice but to use what exists now as a basis for the total transformation of the material conditions of the reproduction of the species.
I suppose the argument I am putting forward rests on two planks:
1) A certain level of transport and communications technology is necessary before our species can create communism on a global scale.
2) That level of technology could not have been reached except via compulsion of some sort.
Stated as baldly as this it does sound rather like an orthodox Marxist theory of progress, doesn't it? Unfortunately although I wouldn't like to say I am 100% certain of either of these propositions I can't bring myself to seriously doubt them either. If this leaves me uncomfortably close to "Marxism" then "so be it", it certainly doesn't lead me to support any aspect of capitalism now (or in the past - is this contradictory?), or to regard communist revolts of the past other than favourably. The fact is that all such revolts have failed in that they have not destroyed class society, our attitude to them should be one of a desire to learn. In particular it is interesting to consider the revolts in Europe in the 13th - 16th Centuries. If they had been more successful would they have prevented the rise of global capitalism? Could humanity have gone forward to global unity from that point? What would have happened if members of a communist community (rather than enslaving slaves and slave masters) had arrived on the shores of the "New World"?
1,000 years of class- society have not been progress in themselves, they have been a nightmare for our species and we have resisted all the way. But maybe they have provided tools which will be of use to us in the future?
From the point of view of a future communist society (should one exist) class- society, the whole of what we call history, will appear as a transition from humans living wild in the "state of nature" to humanity as a unified species.
I think I shall draw to a close now since I don't want this to become too repetitive, rambling and incoherent and also because I see that I am setting myself up to be shot down for defending "progress", "stages", "inevitability" and all the rest of it. However I think one last point is worth making.
You have attacked the idea that humanity progresses towards communism through the development of the productive forces by class society because it has been used by those defenders of capitalism who have adopted Marxism as an ideology. And it is true - it has. But at least it provides an explanation for the existence of class society. Its explanation goes something like this - "It is human nature to progress (= develop the productive forces) and progress is only possible at first through class society." If we reject this what is our explanation for the emergence of class society, Leviathan, call it what you will? I find Perlman's explanation unsatisfactory and I haven't heard anything more convincing anywhere else either.
Maybe I've been playing "Devil's Advocate" a bit (!) but I hope this contributes something to the debate.
15 May 95
Thanks for your letter of 12 Dec. 94. We've taken our time to reply because such a thought-provoking letter deserves a considered response.
Briefly, our main difference with your position is your distinction between the political natures of technology and knowledge. Technology is obviously not socially neutral. It is not the result of Man's striving to defend himself against Nature, but more the result of some men trying to control everybody and everything else. Knowledge is no different. Scientific knowledge is not something which "humanity" has discovered about the real world, it is part of the power which a particular civilisation has imposed on it. A good explanation of this can be found in Donna Haraway's masterpiece of monkey business Primate Visions (Routledge, NY 1989). Haraway is by no means an absolute relativist. She does however use deconstructive criticism to question the basic "facts" on which scientific knowledge is built.
In her Introduction, she explains how Linnaeus was able to classify and construct Nature by virtue of his time and place. He did not simply find out facts, he "inscribed" them, with European armies at his back, giving him the power to tell a particular story and eliminate the others.
However, Science is not just a "narrative", not just the viewpoint of Value, it is a tool of capitalist production and social control. The myths of science have to be continually tested against the real needs of capital accumulation, and therefore come up against the physical limits of the natural world as well as the social limits of what human beings will put up with. Despite the patronage of Stalin, the ideas of Lysenko (about the inheritance of acquired characteristics by, for example, strains of wheat) were eventually abandoned, not because they were "not really true" but because they did not play a useful enough role in modernising Soviet agriculture. Other theories of genetics have been far more successful in bringing about the dispossession of peasants and the industrialisation of the land.
It is in any case illogical to separate Science and Technology. The abstract equations of High Energy Physics would have no meaning whatsoever in a society which didn't possess cyclotrons and nuclear bombs. Theories about brain neurotransmitters would never have developed in the absence of a huge industry which drugs the masses into submission with "tranquillisers" and "anti-depressants".
So, Science is practical, but not in some absolute, ahistorical sense. The Big Lie about scientific knowledge is that it can be used for any purpose you choose.
This seems to be your implicit position when you admit "I think it is possible to argue that scientific knowledge (or 'Science') has a rational core which is not determined by social context" and even more when you assert "class society has made available the techniques and knowledge that will enable communism to maintain itself on a global level and indeed to progress, to take humanity forwards". Of course, for us revolutionary critics of science there is the problem that it's very hard to say a priori what science can and can't do, but we'll deal briefly with a couple of examples.
There is a familiar Progressive argument which says: "Well, of course, Science has given us nuclear bombs and poisoned rivers but one day it will give us a Cure for Cancer!". We don't actually know enough about the medical research industry to say whether it can one day find a cure for most of the complex range of diseases which it calls "cancer" (probably nobody does) but we're somewhat sceptical. In the US in the 1970s scientists and government launched an official War on Cancer designed to find a cure in time for the bicentenary of the colonial uprising in 1976. Since then scientists have devised thousands of ways (including, almost certainly, HIV) of inducing cancers but as for a cure, well, one day... just give us another few $billion.
We find it particularly ironic that there is a cancer research foundation named after Marie Curie, a woman who actually died from cancer, unfortunately not soon enough. Her cancer was caused by her contributions to a field of scientific progress, nuclear chemistry, which has since directly caused cancer in millions of other human beings.
A less dramatic illustration might be the construction industry's use of the science of materials. Using complex computer models of the behaviour of materials under stress it is possible to design, for example, bridges that stay up using the minimum quantities of materials. Is this not an example of the useful, rational core of Science? But first we must ask why anyone wants to minimise the quantities of materials used. Because we live in a society based on abstract labour, where life is divided between the work of making the materials and the leisure of driving over the bridge, that's why! Can such mathematical models tell us how to design a bridge which is fun to build and maintain, or nice to look at? Can they tell us whether we need a bridge at all?
These decisions can only be the result of the expression of human collective subjective desire in all its complexity and not just of the narrow desires of isolated individuals imprisoned in the market, which is what is embodied in Science.
We think it is probably pointless to discuss the technology which will exist "after the revolution". Each society creates the technology which serves its needs. But we would like to answer your question: but wouldn't a communist society retain a few [helicopters] to use for rescuing people from the sea or up mountains etc.? No. We are pretty sure there won't be any helicopters. These are a particularly noisome example of capitalist technology. They require armies of workers to build, maintain and fuel them. They are an extremely inefficient use of the infernal combustion engine, a waste of resources even in their own terms. If we wanted a populist argument for technology, washing machines would be a better example.
You do defend a rather orthodox theory of progress. The argument that the first communities that existed inevitably had to be defeated by the first civilisations is certainly a coherent one. During the Stone Age, though there was, we believe, a universal human culture, nobody knew that. Each group only knew of its local area. This is one of the reasons Civilisation was able to spread; the people it invaded were taken by surprise. This is one good reason why Civilisation seemed inevitable; it had such an advantage over Community as it existed at the time. The fact is, slaughtering and enslaving people often works.
The other inevitability you talk about is the idea that conscious communism could not happen on a global scale unless a certain level of technology had been reached, inevitably by compulsion. You say this does not lead you to support class society. Well it should do! He who wills the end, wills the means (Nietzsche). But we are not going to reject the argument because of its unpalatable consequences. The reason we reject it is because we think each society builds the technology it needs. A project to create world communism, at whatever point it had started, would simply have built what it needed. Transatlantic wooden ships need not necessarily have been built by slaves. The only sense in which Civilisation is inevitable is that, so far, it has been able to force its opponents to turn themselves into new Leviathans - or perish. Though there has always been resistance, there are times when the chances of resistance being successful were slim indeed. The 1490's, the creation of the New World, was once such time. The 1990's, the creation of the New World Order, is another. Perhaps we will never be able to work out whether Civilisation was inevitable in the sense that it was bound to win militarily; but in the sense of being necessary in order for communism to be realised - no, we reject this. At the beginning of your letter, you reject it too (sacrifice today, pie tomorrow), but later on, you make some major concessions to it.
We think there are many flaws in Perlman's Against His-story, Against Leviathan! We do not recommend it as a theoretically sound piece, more as an inspiration. In places the logic is circular, his view of primitive peoples a bit simplistic, and his Mother Nature fairy-tale sentimental. But we think the account of the origins of Civilisation is far more convincing than any alternative we have come across. Particularly, his theory squares with the fact that Civilisation did not arise in most places because humanity needed to develop the forces of production, as bourgeois apologists like Marx maintain, but was imposed by one Civilisation spreading from probably just one place, Mesopotamia.
The mystery is why the people who founded Sumer stayed in Mesopotamia given the violent extremes of its climate. For some reason they did stay. They depended on primitive agriculture, like many communities around the world who did not develop Civilisations. The only way to ensure a reasonable crop every year was to build extensive ditches. Violent floods force emergency ditch-digging. The elders cajole and pressurise the young men into digging the canals; the best organisers among the latter want to be recognised; the normal tendencies which defend communities against permanent leaders break down under the stress of frequent natural emergencies. Class society emerges. To preserve some aspects of the old society, it conquers and enslaves its neighbours, so that the original gangsters can avoid the curse of labour.
America is covered in abandoned proto-Civilisations. In the 15th century AD, large religious mounds were built in various locations in North America, with cities of labourers to service them. All of them were abandoned. Even the Aztecs were in trouble; the reason Cortés was able to beat them was because he could harness the resistance; malcontents joined the Spaniards; surely nothing could be worse than Tenochtitlan, reasoned the oppressed, and perhaps they were right.
But surely it was not inevitable that Civilisation spread across the Old World, when it was rejected time and again in the New? Of course, this is rather speculative. It is more fruitful to discuss what we're going to do about it now.