The Self as Totality

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The most common bourgeois portrayal of Communists is that of a human-being stripped of its individual identity. Instead of a society of fully-formed, unique, personalities – that is, Capitalism to the bourgeoisie – Communism, we are told, is based upon servility & obedience. The cadre plotting such a heinous organisation of humanity are, apparently, themselves merely deluded disciples of a certain, singular personage – the Lenins, the Stalins, the Maos & the Castros of this world. Thus, the bourgeoisie present us with a painting: “Communism is a society entirely based upon the mindless recitation of dogma, headed by an individual possessed of a grand, duplicitous self; for the mass of humanity, Communism is the utter extinction of that most sacred commodity – the self.”

Let’s take a contemporary example. The Socialist movement in Venezuela provides us with ample material. Rather than daring to discuss the process itself – that which is taking place in the barrios, in working-class communities across the country & in the building of communas – the bourgeois media has entirely focused upon the parliamentary representation of this process, the PSUV. Moreover, they have focused upon 2 personalities within the PSUV: Hugo Chávez &, since his death, Nicolas Maduro. In both instances, the bourgeoisie have been unable to maintain their usual lie; the bourgeois media have been unsuccessful as portraying the Venezuela as an “autocracy”, with an “undemocratic” & singular dictator. This is largely due to empirical evidence. In the 15 years since Hugo Chávez came to power, in 1998, Venezuela has held 19 elections. The presidential elections in October, 2012, saw Chávez take a clear majority of 55% – bear in mind, 81% of Venezuelans voted in the election. Even members of the bourgeoisie in the US admit that Venezuela has a democratic system. Jimmy Carter said that ‘As a matter of fact, of the 92 elections that we’ve monitored, I would say that the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world.’ Once again, the bourgeoisie have not found themselves able to sustain an outright claim that Chávez or Maduro are dictators. This is not to say that they have not tried, merely that they have been beaten off by reality.

Instead of utilising their favourite concept, the “solo-dictator”, the bourgeoisie have adopted a new(-ish) propaganda strategy – with only a subtle difference. Chávez & Maduro are not painted as dictators but, rather, as “demagogues”. This carries with it the same autocratic connotations as “dictator”, without necessarily needing to claim that the election process is “undemocratic”. The premise is implicitly based upon notions of the Cult of Personality; in other words, the suggestion that Maduro & Chávez are “demagogues” is implying that the Venezuelan population have been coerced or tricked into voting for them. Alongside the transparent racism in this suggestion (that Venezuela is incapable of democracy & that Venezuelans cannot understand the concept until it is taught to them through the barrel of a gun or, otherwise, starved into them – “civilising the savages”), the mass-participation in the Bolivarian Revolution is obscured. This allows the bourgeois media to paint us the picture of an autocratic state, which utterly denies individual freedom. Equally, it means that an attack upon Maduro or Chávez is an attack upon the Bolivarian Revolution.

‘Hugo Chávez’s politicized necrophilia’ – this is how they describe the symbol of the Bolivarian Revolution. This is how they portray a social movement which has brought free healthcare & free education to the population of Venezuela! This is how the portray the movement which has brought into being the city of Caribia! This is how they describe the movement which has strengthened links between the grassroots & the government beyond anything ever achieved in Venezuela before! This is how they paint the revolution which has lowered poverty rates in Venezuela astronomically in 15 years (1999 – 80% poverty rate; 2014 – 19.6% poverty rate)! This is how they describe the Bolivarian Revolution, which has built 551,000 homes between 2011 & 2014, under 3 years! Aren’t they grotesque?

(For more information, see the video below, this pamphlet & the Viva Venezuela! blog.)

Viva Venezuela: Fighting for Socialism (produced by the Revolutionary Communist Group, 2013.)

This has much in common with the bourgeois portrayal of history in general. As we have already covered, bourgeois idealism posits that history is driven forward by ideas, not by human labour or material reality. The consequence of this, for an understanding of history, is that history becomes the remit of “great individuals”, possessed of some genius, divinity or clarity; in other words, an idealist understanding of history posits that history is driven forward by great individuals, possessed of great ideas, with the mass of humanity serving only as a form of engine for the realisation of this individual’s ideas. Ergo, the proletariat in nearly all bourgeois portrayals of Capitalist history shares a commonality with bourgeois portrayals of the proletariat under Socialism. The mass of humanity is painted as an inert force, a pack of followers with no intellectual capability beyond servility & useful for nothing more than the realisation of bourgeois abstraction. The bourgeois “self” is, therefore, the great individual – not a panoramic of individuals, unique in every manner possible.[1] It is a trite & pithy individualism, built upon a throne of commodities.

We must then ask, what is the Communist conception of “the self”?

#logicalstartingpoint
#logicalstartingpoint

Individuals always proceeded, and always proceed, from themselves. Their relations are the relations of their real life-process.‘ – Karl Marx, The German Ideology [italics mine].

The above quotation is a note made by Marx in his notebooks on The German Ideology. He was not able to expand upon the point. However, 1 may understand this given an understanding of the Marxist method in general. The 1st, & most important point, is that ideas arise from material circumstance: ‘The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.’ (Marx, Preface to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy).  From this starting point – that ideas arise from material circumstance – human beings also enter into relationships. These relationships are 2-fold. 1stly, there is the economic relationship: ‘In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production.’ 2ndly, there is social existence: ‘The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.’ (Marx, ibid) From this, we can understand “the self” is not an internal creation, inherent to a human-being, it is something given birth by the economic & ideological conditions of their society, the totality.

From this framework, we return to Marx’s quote. 1stly, we highlight the portion of the quotation italicised by myself: ‘Their relations are the relations of their real life process.’ This is important to understand, it underlines that which has already been said. The relations experienced & established by an individual come from real life experience; in other words, “the self” arises from real & actual interaction with real & actual objects or people. There is, in fact, no alternate proposal to this, once 1 has considered it, save for the ludicrous preposition of magic. The quotation also highlights a further point in Marx’s use of the word ‘process’. The word implies motion. It implies development. From this, we may take that – as relations are not static – “the self” is not static. It is incorrect to assert that 1 is determined in any given moment, to isolate phenomena & to treat this as the whole. This demonstrates for us that a Marxist conception of “the self” is, in fact, in direct opposition to the conception put forward by the bourgeoisie. Individualism, by its very nature, isolates a personality from its social context; in essence, individualism alienates “the self” from an individual. Individualism – that is, the bourgeois & idealist understanding of “the self” – is a Cartesian fetish. A Marxist understanding studies “the self” as a reflection of matter & society in motion. In the same manner as the commodity is ‘the economic unit’ of Capitalist society, “the self” is the social unit. By this, we must understand that “the self” is created by human labour.

The line ‘Individuals always proceed, and always proceeded, from themselves’ can be considered in a similar manner. However, in order to understand this, we must set it in the context of agency; in point of fact, the motion implied by the word ‘proceed’ can only by understood to in this context. At its inception, “the self” is created more or less entirely by material circumstance. In order to realise agency, human beings must, in Marx’s terms, ‘proceed […] from themselves.’ This requires a conscious movement from the self, a conscious abstraction, criticism & action. A crude description: “the self” is conditioned, “the self” appears to condition agency, agency is enacted & thus “the self” is changed, in motion: ‘Individuals proceed, and always proceeded, from themselves.’ There is further scope to discuss the additions made by Marx to this note, but not here.

With this, we may consider that Socialism, far from destroying “the self”, can in fact only enhance it. Human beings may only realise identity in a social context – this may only be enhanced by the deepening proletarianisation of thought & action: collectivisation, participative democracy etc can only enhance “the self” of a conscious, social being. To claims that the individual is subjugated to the collective under Socialism, 1 need only raise a rather simplistic observation. The collective, the masses, are ‘an aggregate of individuals’ (Guevara) – any individual has every chance to participate within this.


[1] Note: It might benefit the reader to highlight a feature of the bourgeois “self” not otherwise discussed in the article – that is, class mobility. The bourgeois “self” is, absolutely, regulated to the bourgeoisie as a class. The proletariat is equally denied a “self”, as we have described. Consider this in relation to how the bourgeoisie treat any form of divergence in the proletarian class: the individual in question inevitably has their “mental health” called into question – they are at fault, as they are not subservient. Class mobility is the counter to this – 1 is presented with the possibility of possessing a great “self”, if they are “hard-working”, a “genius” or have some equally ludicrous personality trait. This is bile. Che Guevara describes it in the article Socialism and Man in Cuba: ‘The laws of capitalism, which are blind and are invisible to ordinary people, act upon the individual without he or she being aware of it. One sees only the vastness of a seemingly infinite horizon ahead. That is how it is painted by capitalist propagandists who purport to draw a lesson from the example of Rockefeller — whether or not it is true — about the possibilities of individual success. The amount of poverty and suffering required for a Rockefeller to emerge, and the amount of depravity entailed in the accumulation of a fortune of such magnitude, are left out of the picture, and it is not always possible for the popular forces to expose this clearly.’

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