One of the recurring criticisms of communism from both indigenous peoples and exploited communities worldwide has concerned its historical emphasis on advancing the productive forces. Communist theorists, particularly intellectuals located in the ‘core’ of imperialist nations, or more broadly “the West,” tend to take their own material conditions for granted, and assume that it is the mission of global communism to “uplift” all nations to the same Western level of “abundance.”
By saying this, I am not endorsing “degrowth” or “overpopulation” theories, which suggest that the only way to avoid global ecological collapse is to either return to the level of subsistence that Marx and Engels referred to as “primitive communism,” or accept a massive reduction in population (which is usually banally assumed to be a normal consequence of ecological collapse and thus our own damn fault, despite the fact that it is likely to dis-proportionally impact people in the global south.) Such thinking is barely a step away from the Malthusian theories behind eugenics and genocide as vehicles of ecological preservation.
Furthermore, massive degrowth on the level suggested by many in the “green” movement – a “return to nature” as they call it – would either result in a massive increase in land use for farming, or mass starvation, due to the less productive techniques suggested. There are certainly valid criticisms of modern industrial farming practices: erosion, pesticide and fertilizer runoff, overgrazing of pastures, and destruction of habitat are some of its major issues. However, abandoning all the gains of industrial farming, like automation (which is certainly capable of being shifted away from fossil fuel power and adapting to more sustainable farming techniques) in favor of a return to some bucolic bygone era of small-scale settler-family farming, like Wendell Barry argues in “Farmland Without Farmers,” is ridiculous and reeks of bourgeois nostalgia.
First, such a return to “family” farming presupposes the existence of multi-generational families, something which capitalism has been steadily eradicating over the last hundred years.
Second, most of those farmers were able to grow only marginally more food than they consumed. Not only would the clock have to be turned back to an era that no longer exists, but this solution runs headlong into that other elephant in the room: settler-colonialism. Such dispersion of the urban masses into the countryside would do absolutely nothing to address the problem of the dispossession of indigenous peoples from their native lands. It would, instead, reinforce the petty-bourgeois system of land “ownership,” something that the Bolsheviks initially struggled to abolish in the Soviet Union.
For communists, there is however another alternative: collectivization. With the abolition of bourgeois notions of private ownership, land becomes a shared resource for the good of all rather than something to be hoarded for one’s exclusive benefit. In the case of the Soviet Union, where peasant-farmers could trace back many generations in the same area, this was a rather simple solution that involved reorganizing small landholdings into larger, more intensive collective farms. Simple does not mean easy, however, and they ran into numerous problems along the way.
For the United States, itself a settler colony, this problem becomes more acute when the subject of reparations to native Americans is included. As the original inhabitants of this land, their roots go back many thousands of years and are well documented both in their oral histories and in archaeological evidence. Anglo settler-colonialism uprooted them through violent genocide and dispersed and relocated the survivors into the least hospitable scraps of unwanted land that were left. Most of us living here today took no part in that process, but we still reap the blood-soaked rewards from the land that was stolen.
Further complicating matters are the millions of descendants of African slaves. They remain marginalized by a capitalist system that is still synonymous with white supremacy. With their ancestors having been violently uprooted and transported to America, their cultural ties to their homelands were broken. Sending African-Americans back to Africa remains as much of a non-starter as it was during the abolitionist period, when the colony of Liberia was created in a failed effort to do exactly that. For better or for worse, they have become inseparable from the indigenous land that was carved out by settlers on the backs of their ancestors.
These material realities pose an intractable problem that abolishing private property, while a necessary first step, is unsuited to solving alone. If communal relations are the solution, it becomes necessary to ask what it means to be a community. Fortunately, over a hundred years ago J.V. Stalin grappled with similar questions in his essay on “Marxism and the National Question.” First, he offers a concise definition of what constitutes a nation:
A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.
Then he raises the following points in his conclusion:
Thus the complete democratization of the country is the basis and condition for the solution of the national question.
Thus, the right of self-determination is an essential element in the solution of the national question.
Thus, national autonomy does not solve the problem.
Thus, regional autonomy is an essential element in the solution of the national question.
Thus, equal rights of nations in all forms (language, schools, etc.) is an essential element in the solution of the national question. Consequently, a state law based on complete democratization of the country is required, prohibiting all national privileges without exception and every kind of disability or restriction on the rights of national minorities.
These policies were carried out to great success in the Soviet Union, with full support from the state for education in regional languages that had been forcibly discouraged under the Tsarist russification policies. As a result, in today’s Russian Federation, there are “176 national groups and an almost equal number of languages spoken.”  This is somewhat comparable to the approximately 296 indigenous languages of North America, distributed in 29 families:
(It’s worth noting that the areas marked as “uninhabited, unknown, out of area” are almost certainly due to settler purges of traces of indigenous inhabitation, and/or failure to record any linguistic information about the inhabitants of those regions.)
One possible first step, therefore, in addressing the national question of a post-revolution North America, might consist of erasing the settler-colonial national and state borders, and establishing new regions based on the historic lands of the indigenous peoples. Within that framework of contiguous regions, it would then fall to the local communes, with their various settler and minority compositions, to work with the indigenous tribes of their region in establishing new systems for the use and care of the land and its resources.
I have already touched on some of the issues presented by agriculture under the capitalist mode of production, many of which are shared with the communist mode of production. However, agriculture is only one part of the mode of production itself. Similar problems are found in the industrial sector, which is primarily concerned with the reproduction of the means of production, the construction sector, and the consumer goods sector. Of the first two sectors, their ecological problems are largely the same under communism: there were a number of massive ecological disasters in the Soviet Union, most infamously exemplified by Chernobyl. Those issues have been elaborated on at length by many, most notably the American Indian Movement activist Russell Means:
Capitalists, at least, can be relied upon to develop uranium as fuel only at the rate which they can show a good profit. That’s their ethic, and maybe they will buy some time. Marxists, on the other hand, can be relied upon to develop uranium fuel as rapidly as possible simply because it’s the most “efficient” production fuel available. That’s their ethic, and I fail to see where it’s preferable. Like I said, Marxism is right smack in the middle of European tradition. It’s the same old song.
He’s not wrong. Nuclear energy is the most efficient means of generating power available today, and even under capitalism there is a consensus among a small group of environmentalists and futurists about its importance in addressing climate change. However efficient it is, communists would be wise to not blindly utilize it to replace existing power systems. The reason for this is tied to the final sector – consumer goods, and its relation to the topic of this essay.
Consider worldwide energy use per capita:
Cuba only needs to import around 16% of its total food, making it largely self-sufficient. Its people have adapted to limited resources forced by the US embargo, meaning that the excesses that we associate with capitalism simply do not exist there. One other interesting point from this chart is the relationship between Cuba and China. Until 2002, China’s per-capita energy usage was incredibly low, if slowly trending upward: this was partly due to its largely undeveloped rural nature until then, but also because it mostly produced goods for domestic use. US trade with China was “normalized” in 2000, and capitalists quickly rushed to exploit China’s resources and labor. Since the passage of PNTR, China’s industrial output has skyrocketed, and with it, energy usage.
Perhaps the “total energy consumption” figures below should be adjusted based on pre-PNTR figures, and the difference lumped in with US total energy consumption – since a large amount of China’s productive output is destined for the US market.
This last part is the legacy of imperial hegemony. The riches of the imperial core are highly dependent upon the exploitation of labor in the global south. Killing capitalism by attacking the profits that feed this imperial core – which is not strictly confined to North America, but also has branches spread out across Europe and parts of Asia like Japan – requires more than just ending wage slavery in the core itself. It also requires that the periphery deny empire of its profits.
The problem with that, historically, has been that the empire–in true colonial fashion–has used and continues to use its military as a bludgeon along with trade relations against any nations that dare deny those profits to empire. There is a long list of nations which attempted to stand up to the US empire and which were in turn felled by military means or coups: some examples are Argentina, Grenada, and most recently Libya in 2011. Other nations like the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea turned to arming themselves in response to this outright aggression.
It is my hope that these struggles against empire continue and succeed. At the same time, the “anti-imperialists” of the core have failed to do anything for years. Since the anti-war protests of the 1960s, there has been a focus on symbolic gestures, marches and the like, with corresponding petitions to the bourgeois dictatorship for redress of grievances. I would argue that these have in fact had a less than useful effect, offering a perception of change even as the dictatorship discovers new loopholes and material conditions continue to worsen.
Yet, even if there is a revival of the revolutionary labor movement, and the abolition of wage slavery in the core plus resistance in the periphery leads to the destruction of global imperial capitalism, we will be left with the consumer system built by capitalism here, and the bourgeois mindset that goes with it. A revolution is therefore necessary, not just to abolish private property and expropriate the riches of the bourgeoisie, but to change the very fabric of our society. The means of production that already exist must be employed by the post-revolution society in ways that avoid the wanton destruction of the environment associated with capitalism and even socialism.
In short, radicals here in the heart of the empire (especially those from the ranks of the settlers) should consider what life is like in Cuba, and recognize that it’s not necessarily a bad thing. As Marx said in his Critique of the Gotha Programme,
In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly — only then then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!
Abolishing wage slavery does not mean everyone will sit around and enjoy a life of luxury while robots wait on them. It simply means that the socially necessary portion of labor-time – that which is required to maintain whatever standard of living is accepted by the post-revolution society – will be the worker’s own activity to do as they please rather than being coerced by fear of exposure or starvation as it is now under capitalism.
This implicitly means that those in the imperial core cannot expect, as they do now, to receive all the resources empire currently steals from the periphery. That will be quite the shock for many.
- Leprêtre, Marc. LANGUAGE POLICIES IN THE SOVIET SUCCESSOR STATES: A BRIEF ASSESSMENT ON LANGUAGE, LINGUISTIC RIGHTS AND NATIONAL IDENTITY (2002)