LeftEast was a co-sponsor of an online conference on non-capitalist mixed economies from June 23–26 2021. Co-sponsors of the conference included the Karl Polanyi Center, Eszmélet Journal, Social Theory College in Budapest, Polanyi Institute, Geopolitical Economy Research Group, Institute of Political History Social Theory Research Group, The Study Group on Global Labour History and Social Conflicts – IHC Universidade Nova de Lisboa, Left East, Institutul pentru Solidaritate Socială, Working Group for Public Policy, Helyzet, Fordulat, CriticAtac, Transform Europe, and the International Karl Polanyi Society. A selection of the talks has been published by the Eszmélet Foundation in a special issue of Eszmélet (2021), entitled “In Need of Alternatives: Problems and Issues of Non-capitalist Mixed Economies”. We offer our readers the chapters of this volume as a special series on LeftEast, published on Wednesdays over the past few weeks.
In this paper I attempt to provide a short overview of the subject. Words like democracy, freedom, anarchist, Marxist, communist are used in so many different meanings that they become meaningless. One such word is “socialist.”
A fundamental characteristic of free market capitalism is that it sees humans only as tools of economic growth. Capital is the subject, and employees are objects. Another important trait is that it individualizes and atomizes society and forces people to compete with each other in their struggle for survival. In this system, the only merit a human being can have in society is that he/she produces surplus value and realizes it as profit. (That is, people can be only as valuable as the profit they generate in the economy.)
The Communist Manifesto mentions feudal, petit bourgeois, bourgeois, and utopian socialisms. These terms denote ideas and pragmatic efforts fighting against free market capitalism. Negation is their common trait. This text uses the term “socialism” as the denial of free market capitalism (Marx – Engels 1848/2011).
All this negation leads to the question: can “socialism” mean something positive? Is it possible for this term to convey a positive meaning? Such a meaning cannot be separated from the view on history. While the above-mentioned, structurally static forms of socialism in fact preserve a hierarchic social structure (at least in practice), Marx’s theory of history points toward the perspective of a society without classes. This perspective provides a possibility to arrive at a historical synthesis: connecting the so-called industrial civilization that came into being as a consequence of capitalist economy with (individual) freedom, in which the human factor is the predominant element, and industrial technology functions only as an instrument (raw material). (The limitations of this short overview keep me from dwelling on the historically useful anthropological consequences that followed from the rise of industrial civilization.) Wage workers, whose interests this viewpoint represents, come into the picture as the addressees of this perspective and the subjects (sociological carriers) of its implementation.
In this view, a society can be called socialist only if it enables the workers to create and maintain a long-term, structurally safe social environment for their own subsistence. This means a social network organized by individuals interested in cooperation, which they shape by forming associations and entering cooperatives. (To avoid confusion, it is important to note that I am talking about the lower phase of a society’s communist development in the sense of the Critique of the Gotha Programme, and not about a “society of abundance” [Marx 1875/1972]).
George Lukács, commissary of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, uses an unusual vocabulary in one of his writings published in the spring of 1919; he calls classless society “the society of mutual love and understanding.” (As a side note, the term “love” also belongs to those words that have no obvious meaning on their own.) Later on, Lukács’s text defines this as a society based on mutual understanding, a sense of belonging, and solidarity. He writes, “The transformation of the economy and society alone cannot bring forth this new order. It remains a mere possibility if people are not ready” (Lukács 1919). Therefore, it is an inescapable duty to “bring people close to each other.” (On second thought, what could connect people more than cooperation, a teamwork that is based on common interest, the most basic form of which is when “freely associated individuals are involved in production to meet common needs”?) In this text, Lukács focuses his attention on the subjective element, the psychological condition (which is, in fact, the human factor also emphasized by Marx) (Lukács 1919).
Why does Lukács underscore the importance of the sense of belonging and solidarity? Because without cooperation that is based on solidarity (that is, without rising to the challenge and seeing it as a task to accomplish), the technological conditions of industrial civilization can only function in a capitalist way and cannot be transformed into tools that serve producers and workers.
When Vera Zasulich asked Marx about the chances of socialism in Russia, he answered that in an ideal case, the obshchina-type communes that were based on cooperation between peasants may foster a socialist transformation. Marx’s answer involves, among other things, the relationship between the two sides that have to be synthesized. In these terms, if the sense (and knowledge) of belonging and interdependency, and the social activity that arises from it, is there, then it is possible to catch up on the “material,” the ingredients of industrial civilization. The indispensable foundation is the human factor, humans’ tendency to cooperate and the acquisition (development and cultivation) of these skills (Shanin 2018).
That the human factor is not brought into the spotlight for the sake of some theoretical guesswork or speculative (or ethical) humanism can be nicely demonstrated by a – partially economic – component of this subject.
In a story for the youth, a class goes camping in summer. While the others pitch the tents, the poet of the class writes a “poem”: “Pitching tents is really fun: / if snow comes, in there we will run…”
In all societies (communities) there is some form of surplus labor. Typically, caring for those incapacitated for work (the elderly, the sick, and the children), and ensuring financial means to facilitate common projects are in this category. It is, however, a key question whether surplus labor is voluntary or forced. The question of who has the competence and authority to define the tasks (activities) that can draw on the surplus labor of producers and workers, is fundamental and specific to the given historical conditions.
A society (community) can be called socialist only if the producers and workers can decide whose consumption (needs) they promote with their surplus labor. This is one of the reasons why it is crucial for the producers to have a say in whom they want to integrate into the community and whom they are willing to look after.
I remember a political comedy show from the 1980s in Hungary. A somewhat tipsy worker is talking to a statue of Marx, saying, “You wrote that proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. But what about my Trabant?” (For those who are unfamiliar with this word: Trabant was practically the only available car brand in those times, and the brand’s name was used almost as a synonym for car.)
I cite this scene here because for a long time, the situation in Europe has been remarkably similar. Apparently, the masses are not eager to leave behind their existence as wage workers. Although they are discontented with their conditions, they are also attached to the system that exploits them. In fact European capitalism has successfully integrated into the system the producers it exploits. They do have something to lose, and therefore they rarely want to take the risk and revolt against their own vulnerable situation.
Rousseau once reprimanded Moliére because in his plays the good ones are just talking while the evil characters take action. Although this is obviously an oversimplification of Moliére’s plays, the anatomy of incapacity is an interesting issue here.
It is by mere accident that I have to cite George Lukács again. In his 1933 paper “Grand Hotel Abyss” he portrays the intellectual critics of capitalism as guests of a luxury hotel. They criticize the system that is drifting from one crisis to another, but they never take the leap to confront it. They move into Grand Hotel Abyss that stands on the brink of the chasm and enjoy the comfort it offers. Lukács concludes that the inability to transcend the theoretical or artistic criticism of the system, in fact, helps to sustain it. As these intellectuals do nothing that could result in their “eviction,” the system provides for them, making use of the surplus labor of producers and workers (Lukács 1971).
The difference between them and paid agents is that they serve capitalism with a sense of dissatisfaction, hiding behind a pretentious feeling evoked by their own condemning remarks. Seeing themselves as members of a heroic resistance, they in fact serve the same apologetic functions as paid agents, but they reach a group of consumers whom the latter fail to have access to. By creating an atmosphere of resistance through persuasive theoretical and artistic means, they satisfy the audience’s demand for discontent, and so – as unintended consequence – they become a source of entertainment for certain strata of the society.
Tamás Bárány writes in his novel Város esti fényben (City in evening lights), published in Hungary in 1968, that the intellectual élite is transformed into a new bourgeoisie and their lifestyle will serve as a model. So to say, they introduce values and consumption patterns into the working class. When we organize a conference, our role is much humbler: here the intellectuals can present ideas only to themselves and not to the working class.
If the observation is correct that capitalism (at least, in Europe) integrates wage workers into the system, one has to face the following issues.
Is it possible in this situation to carry out any action that does not contribute to the neoliberal economy?
Of course, it is feasible to consciously prefer lifestyles and behavioral patterns that refrain from actively financing the present system, that is, they do not make it richer than it already is. For example, there are certain forms of consumer behavior that contribute to the decrease of tax revenues of the state by deliberately avoiding paying value-added tax.
This is, however, only a negative form of action, that is, a mere negation: an effort to minimize activities feeding capitalism. When done on a large scale, it may hamper the effectiveness of the capitalist system, but this method only brings harm without offering a viable alternative. It is by no means a socialist endeavor.
In case of a “positive negation,” superseding the capitalist system must point to the emancipation and independence of people, that is, it must facilitate the liberation of the human factor. This is what happens when certain needs are met through the voluntary cooperation of individuals, even in the sphere of production.
The voluntary cooperation of individuals may have two functions: it can be defensive or offensive, although this is not a strict black-and white division.
a) Regardless of how one assesses present-day capitalism, various forms of communal self-defense are viable. In many cases there is not only interest in these but there are also specific opportunities when certain needs can be met through joint production or through endeavors of individuals organized into cooperatives. Such local communities, small-scale farming cooperatives, etc. do exist. There is nothing that could keep individuals from cooperating upon their own initiative in a wide range of spheres, in order to escape the restraints of the market and politics (partly transgressing the regulations set by capital and state) and to establish elements of self-government through social solidarity; to acquire and cultivate the skills of communal self-defense and self-organization.
b) The offensive form of negation goes beyond simple self-defense. It may reflect both the need for direct human relationships and the desire to dismiss (transcend) the impersonal, objectifying relations of capitalist economy.
Well-known examples of communal economy are, among others, the P2P movement, or the growing network of the Transition Towns grassroot community projects. Of course, I do not wish to idealize small communities. I mention them here because they bear the potential to offer alternatives even if they fail to supersede commodity relations, that is, reification. Members of such communities have relationships outside of the framework set by the present system.
They experience their own power and the superiority of direct human cooperation. They internalize the need and ability to act and make decisions independently, as well as to create human bonds and rely on them during production. Voluntary association and cooperation teach one to act of his own volition, and to exercise mental autonomy and responsible conduct. These abilities and skills are a precondition to such cooperation, and are acquired through a learning process.
Such endeavors, which I see as socialist, have a dubious fate. Such projects obviously help participants to find their true potentials and develop their personality, and they also contribute to a communal experience (which means that these activities significantly contribute to the well-being of those involved). However, it is possible that some participants will lose interest or even burn out. Sometimes such experiments wither away and come to naught, but under favorable conditions these collaborative projects may serve as the school of the future on a historic scale, in the sense Lukács envisioned it.
Marx, Karl – Engels, Friedrich 1848/2011: The Communist Manifesto. New York: Penguin Books, 2011.
Marx, Karl 1875/1972: Critique of the Gotha Programme. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press.
Lukács, Georg 1919: A kommunizmus erkölcsi alapja [The moral basis of communism]. Ifjú proletár, 13 April 1919.
Lukács, Georg 1971: Preface. In: The Theory of the Novel. A Historico-philosophical Essay on the Forms of Great Epic Literature. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Shanin, Teodor 2018: 1881 Letters of Vera Zasulich and Karl Marx. The Journal of Peasant Studies 45 (7), 1183–1202.
Tütő, László 2021: What Makes a Socialist? In: A. Melegh (ed.), In Need of Alternatives. Problems and Issues of Non-capitalist Mixed Economies. Budapest: Eszmélet Foundation, pp. 51–56.
László Tütő is a Hungarian historian of philosophy and philosopher of economics. Born in 1949, he worked as a locksmith after finishing high school and after receiving his university degree he taught in the History of Philosophy department at Loránd Eötvös University in Budapest (1975-2006). He is a member of the public body of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and a founding editor of the Hungarian journals Medvetánc and Eszmélet. His research is primarily on the work of György Lukács and Karl Marx.