The core cultural values of a revolutionary
Science, imagination, education and democracy are core values for any revolutionary movement which aims for an ecologically sustainable civilization.
Our reference to science, of course, is to scientific inquiry and its results, not to the institutions of science as limited by capitalist rule. Likewise, our reference to education is to the learning and sharing of skills and knowledge, not educational institutions largely constrained by the capitalist class and its ideological representatives. With respect to democracy, we mean much more than periodic participation in the election of candidates for public office.
While political and academic representatives of the ruling class frequently claimed science, imagination, education and democracy as their own values and accomplishments during their war against humanity’s first efforts to move beyond capitalism, the reality of a system now well past its best before date is more accurately represented by the core cultural values of the 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump, the antithesis of a commitment to these values.
Essential roles in the transition to a more just, democratic and sustainable society belong to the arts, sciences and education. These aims can only be achieved if there is scientifically informed public participation on all matters of public concern. For this there also needs to be a corresponding development of human imagination so that all can envision alternatives to those institutions and practices that need to be repurposed.
Such cultural change begins in the course of political struggle. Characterized by human solidarity and voluntary participation, the fight for a more just, democratic and sustainable society fuels the inherent human desire for artistic expression, scientific knowledge, and inclusion in democratic decision making and the political demand that participation in all these aspects of human culture be made more readily available to everyone, not dependent on exceptional personal wealth and circumstances.
Also essential to the achievement of a society beyond capitalism is consideration of the relationships between science, technology and society.
Science and Society. The practice of science cannot be isolated from the nature of the society in which scientists conduct their research, especially not from the priorities of those societies, as established by its laws. The priority assigned by the legal system of capitalist nation-states to the managers of the transnational corporations that dominate economic life under capitalism is the accumulation of private wealth, an aim which capitalist competition makes necessary. Our revolutionary commitment, however, is to a society whose laws prioritize a just, democratic and sustainable relationship among people and with nature. To the extent that private wealth accumulation is incompatible with these aims, such an outcome would be unlawful in the future to which revolutionaries are dedicated. Investment in science would be made in the public interest. Scientific research would be undertaken by publicly supported scientific institutions and organizations, not by private-for-profit corporations.
Technology. To science, imagination, education and democracy as core values of revolutionaries should be added technological innovation in the public interest, applying the broadest definition of technology. Sometimes mistakenly understood to include only the physical tools we use for changing our environment, technology should also be understood to include the intellectual tools. Understood in this broader sense, technology includes, for example, not only carpenters’tools, but methods of construction management, not only computers, but teaching methods that utilize computers.
Science and Technology. Technology responds to such questions as how to build a better mousetrap or how to more effectively educate our children. Science and technology, of course, are related, but they are not the same. To build a better mouse trap, scientific knowledge of mouse behavior can be utilized. To develop more effective teaching methods, scientific knowledge of human learning can be applied. Technology can precede as well as follow science. The science of thermodynamics (heat as a form of energy), for example, largely followed the invention of methods of using heat for doing work (such as the steam engine). On the other hand, most modern technology, including electronic devices and educational methods, are the result of direct application of advances in scientific knowledge. These include in the case of electronic devices, the application of electromagnetic theory and quantum mechanics, and in the case of education, application of educational psychology.
Science, Technology and Society Whereas the primary motivation for technological innovation under capitalist rule is private profit, the necessary alternative is investment in technological innovation which prioritizes human well-being and a sustainable relationship with the rest of nature. The longer capitalism prevails, the greater will be the existential challenge humanity faces. This recognition underscores the urgency of revolutionary transformation.
It should also be underscored that capitalism is itself a technology, created by human beings, institutionalized and constrained by laws also made by human beings. The creation of a more just, democratic, environmentally sustainable society is the task now facing humanity.
Drawing from history
Every revolution in human history has been characterized by a change in property relationships. As a reminder for comparative purposes, historically recent examples include, among others:
- the establishment in 1688 of a constitutional monarchy in England, decisively moving the locus of economic and political power from the feudal landlord class to capitalist property owners, who have served as England’s ruling class ever since;
- the similar, but later French Revolution of 1789;
- the revolutionary independence of the United States of America from British colonial rule in 1803, establishing in the United States the pre-eminence of its national capitalist economy over colonial economic ties;
- the civil war in the United States, ending the practice there of slavery, i.e. human beings as a legal form of property;
- the Russian Revolutions of 1905 and 1917, the first of these decisively transferring political power from a feudal landowning class to a then recently emergent and growing capitalist class, and the second replacing the leading role of the capitalists and their representatives by the communists, who instituted state “socialism”;
- the successful anti-imperialist revolutions following World War II, establishing nominally independent nation-states, including the two most populated countries on earth, China and India; and
- the counter-revolution in the former Soviet Union in 1991, replacing state “socialism” with capitalist property relationships.
The latter is a recent illustration that a system of property relationships and associated governance is a choice, not God given. Having chosen capitalism over state “socialism”, the victorious Russian revolutionaries of 1991 literally had to select individuals for the role of capitalist property owners. Reflecting in part the composition of the new government, many, if not most, of the new capitalists were chosen from among the former managers of state socialist enterprises. Also, this change was made relatively peacefully, illustrating that revolutions can be non-violent, as needs to be the case if humanity is to be spared the use of contemporary weapons of mass destruction.
This story is not over, however. The hopes of the former Soviet people for the kind of prosperity they imagined prevailed in the leading capitalist countries and their aspiration for relief from the threat of nuclear annihilation at the hands of the USA and its NATO allies have both turned out to be short-lived, the former for the vast majority of its people, the latter for everyone. This experience notably included the destruction by their new pro-capitalist government of their welfare system, which once served as a global inspiration to people everywhere to struggle – often successfully - for similar provisions even within the most ruthless of capitalist states.
The experience of the people of the former Soviet Union may turn out to be an illustration of the likelihood that the transition from global capitalism to a global ecological civilization will, in at least some countries, involve a period in which the dominant form of property relationships will pass back and forth between private and communal forms, at least until either the communal (ecological) form becomes dominant globally, or, to the contrary, capitalism is given the time and opportunity to irretrievably alter the Earth’s biosphere to such an extent that it is no longer able to sustain human existence.
In the face of an ecological collapse of human civilization if capitalism continues to prevail, the responsible course to take is, once again, a revolutionary one. A renewed revolutionary movement on a global scale in the 21st Century is not without historical precedent. But if such an effort is to succeed, there is immediate need for rapid learning from the accumulated anti-capitalist revolutionary experience of the past two centuries.
It is particularly from the past failures of the revolutionary movements that we must learn. This learning begins with the lessons recorded by Karl Marx and his nineteenth century contemporaries. It continues with the lessons to be learned from more recent anti-capitalist revolutionary movements. It includes identification of the recognizable barriers to success, and current conditions that can be utilized to overcome them.
An enduring strategic perspective
The centuries old ideal of a fully cooperative society has sustained human struggle through the worst tribulations of recent centuries, even though no enduring model was achieved during this period. Karl Marx (Critique of the Gotha Programme, 1875) argued that the operative ethical principle of such a system is “from each according to [their] ability to each according to [their] needs.” Although tarnished by the failure of the revolutions of the 20th Century to live up to this ideal, it remains the logical alternative to systems of private appropriation of what were once resources held in common by all people (land, air, water, natural resources, and ideas).
For those interested in the more comprehensive vision of Karl Marx, we highly recommend Peter Hudis (Haymarket Books, 2012) Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism.
Favorable conditions and barriers to success
Most, if not all, of the pre-conditions for the establishment of a global ecological civilization now exist. These include, among other developments, a relatively high level of popular education by comparison with prior centuries, a phenomenal increase in labor productivity and a veritable revolution in electronic control and communications technology.
The private-for-profit use of these developments is itself the main barrier to taking full advantage of them for the welfare of people and the maintenance of a healthy, mutually sustaining relationship with the rest of nature.
Perhaps the most significant development over the past century has been the growth in the proportion of the population, in each nation and globally, which is engaged as employees, directly or indirectly, of the ruling capitalist class. The middle-class buffer between the expanding number of billionaires and those who need to work for a living income has rapidly declined and may in time evaporate. It is now primarily the middle-class aspirations and illusions of the majority which maintains the capitalist system and the dominance of the owning class that profits from it.
The first response of working people world-wide is understandably the hope that the human and environmental emergencies they face can be resolved by a gentler, kinder capitalism – a hope that is sustained by a part of the capitalist class itself. The problem, however, is the necessary response of the members of the capitalist class to competition and the long-term trend towards a falling rate of capitalist profit as technology becomes an increasingly significant fraction of the cost of continuing production. This response is to continue to expand the very crisis that threatens humanity’s continued existence – and now rules out even the remote prospect of a kinder gentler capitalism on any enduring basis.
Particularly troubling are the continuing illusions of many of our fellow environmentalists in green capitalism as a satisfactory response to the environmental crisis. If capitalism is itself the main driving force expanding the environmental crisis, green capitalism is certainly not the alternative. Even a form of capitalism reduced to the smallest, most community, worker and consumer friendly capitalist enterprises can only reproduce the conditions for its own survival by the maintenance of laws, regulations and customary practices which prioritize private property rights over communal rights, such as the right to a healthy natural environment and supportive working conditions.
For further argumentation on the relationship between capitalism and the environmental crisis, we recommend Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster (Monthly Review Press, 2011) What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism
A revolutionary perspective must be a global one
All past efforts to achieve a system beyond capitalism have been constrained within local to at most regional boundaries by an externally dominant capitalism and internal pro-capitalist opposition. The most thoughtful and knowledgeable of the revolutionaries realized that they would need supportive revolutions in those countries they depended on for mutually beneficial trade. This, so far, has not materialized on the scale necessary for enduring success. Prior attempts were undermined by behavior – however necessary for short term success – that undermined the revolutionary objective of a communal, democratic alternative to capitalism. The economic and consequently political and military dominance of capitalism has so far prevailed, continuing to represent an existential threat to all those who challenge it.
The current global environmental and social crisis, even more than those crises of the past century, threatens the very existence of human civilization – and in the present case even most, if not all, life on Earth. No effort to meet this challenge can now be anything less than global. Thankfully, there are circumstances that favor success, most of all the will of people to continued existence, but necessarily including the technology that puts us in ready communication with people in every corner of the Earth, enabling us to quickly recognize our common humanity and the biosphere we share and to cooperate in the struggle against any recognized threat to our common existence.
Perhaps the greatest barrier to cooperation is uneven sharing within and between nations of the Earth’s resources and the products of human work and imagination, including scientific and technical knowledge. A commitment to the global sharing of these resources and products is the essential condition for an ecologically sustainable future for humanity. Every revolutionary must share in this commitment, including assigning it priority in all political and economic activity.
Above all else, time is of the essence. The longer a moribund capitalism prevails, the greater the resulting destruction of life, including essential human bonds to nature and to each other. The capitalist class itself, by increasing its own relative wealth and privilege while engaging in reckless destruction of nature, is undoing any reason people might once have had to extend it a further social license. Let’s put an end to this class-based system before it puts an end to human life itself.
For those interested in a more comprehensive understanding of the global nature of the capitalist system and the challenge and opportunities this presents to revolutionaries, we recommend both William I. Robinson (Cambridge University Press, 2014) Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Humanity and Samir Amin (Monthly Review Press, 2013) The Implosion of Contemporary Capitalism.
Charles Posa McFadden and Karen Howell McFadden
Fredericton, New Brunswick, CANADA