attaining salvation behind society’s back, privately (#marxtheory)

Amongst other things it [the Paris proletariat] throws itself into doctrinaire experiments, cooperative banks and workers’ associations, hence into a movement renouncing an overthrow of the old world by means of its own great resources, and instead seeks to attain its salvation behind society’s back, privately, within its own limited conditions of existence, and hence necessarily coming to naught. It seems unable to rediscover revolutionary prowess or to renew its energy from fresh alliances… [emphasis in the original]

Marx Later Political Writings (p.39)

It seems to me that in describing the feeble Paris proletariat, Marx was also critiquing a pattern wherein would-be political actors opt to build their own alternative projects from scratch instead of claiming and contesting existing structures, resources, social spaces, and cultures. That is to say they opt out of politics in favor of something far smaller; something that is consequential only to its self-selecting participants, and which can usually be ignored—perhaps not even noticed—by the rest of society and the existing power structures.

It is interesting to me that he names “cooperative banks and workers associations” specifically. I can imagine political potentials—not just cloistered alternatives—in such organizational forms.

marx-ozThis reminds me of some of the radical buzz today about “prefigurative politics” — a concept that I find useful through a strategic communications lens in the context of political struggle, but which is far too often treated as an article of faith; as if the prefigurative act will magically, by itself, without a larger strategic framework, bring about the new society. The allure of such projects can be self-expressive to the point of self-indulgence. It is fueled by a purism that seeks to avoid messes; a feeble longing to construct a more controllable, less contaminated, albeit miniaturized, microcosm of one’s Utopian vision.

3 responses to “attaining salvation behind society’s back, privately (#marxtheory)”

  1. I think Marx got it seriously wrong here by framing this as an “either-or” issue. Today, I consider efforts to build alternative systems of mutual support (co-ops, worker-run enterprises, community supported farms, publicly owned renewable energy, etc.) as one part of a larger struggle against petro-powered corporate capitalism. Much like a war, this kind of activity functions as the “home front.” This home front activity is necessary to build material and moral support for those at the battle front–the folks directly resisting the planet & people trashing agenda of the petro-military-industrial complex. In order to kick the system in the nuts, one foot has to remain on the ground.

    1. I agree that it’s not either/or. Given the brevity of this excerpt, however—and the fact that he was describing a particular group in a particular historical context—it’s unclear that Marx did see the general concept in either/or terms. I too have at times been guilty of understating the value of constructive projects and “prefigurative” elements within political struggles. But usually I am guilty of this out of frustration at the (sometimes narcissistic) fetishization of these things within movements I have been part of.

      With respect to worker cooperatives, collectives, etc., I struggled with this (in my head) during the years that I worked at a worker collective restaurant in Minneapolis. Within the Twin Cities there were several such worker collectives and many more cooperatives. These had exploded in the 1970s, and then imploded, and I was part of it in a phase where the remaining collectives were mostly self-sustaining, but struggling and lacking a growth trajectory. The model struck me as essentially contained. It was a great place to work—without a boss!—but I also felt that it was a kind of “private” liberation, unless and until we related to a broader political struggle. I could go on at length about examples of when I felt we succeeded in this, and when we didn’t. I suppose my point is that the accomplishment of such a project, while valuable for its members, is not inherently political—in the sense of politics as a contestation of larger social and structural forces. I agree, wholeheartedly with you though that it is a mistake to think about these dynamics as either/or.

      1. In the 20th century, when economic growth was a continuing reality…during the periods when you & I were involved with these kinds of left/alternative groups (me earlier than you)…these endeavors could never blossom into any significant response to a collapsing system–because the system was NOT collapsing, or even contracting.

        This is no longer the case. Industrial capitalism has peaked. It’s running out of abundant, cheap energy and trashing the planet’s life support systems at (historically speaking) an accelerating pace. Growth capitalism is morphing into catabolic (self-cannibalizing) capitalism. In the coming decades, alternative survival responses to a stagnant, contracting system will become vital necessities–even for many middle class people. Detroit is the wave of the future.

        If a corrupt, authoritarian state uses its repressive power to keep catabolic capitalists at the economic helm, everyday life will be sheer misery for most people and disastrous for the planet. But, if grassroots social movements break the grip of corporate authoritarianism and constitute decentralized participatory democracies and regional economies based on ecological sustainability and social equity, the long descent from peak oil may be a hard–but exciting & fulfilling–period to live in. In reality, great historical transformations are always an unpredictable, uneven mix of disaster and triumph. But we must fight hard to prevent the worst case scenario.

        My point is: only when dominant systems begin to fall under their own contradictions do previously marginal alternatives have the chance to emerge from the shadows and become the home front for those trying to bring down the old system as soon as possible.


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