Since Marx is famous as an author of The Communist Manifesto, it is often assumed that ‘communism’ was his preferred term for a post-capitalist society. But in the scattered sketches that can be found in his writings it is more common to find his image of a future society described as an ‘association’. 

For example, in The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels describe how the ‘classes and class antagonisms’ of bourgeois society would be replaced by ‘an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’. And this is a manner of expression he stuck to in his later works. In Capital, for example, he imagines ‘an association of free men (sic), working with the means of production held in common, and expending their many different forms of labour-power in full self-awareness as a one single social labour force’; and describes a ‘higher form of society . . . in which the free development of every individual forms the ruling principle’. 

The image here is not of citizens ‘sacrificing’ themselves for the ‘good of society’ but of individuals thoroughly at home in their social world, which is governed by the principle, ‘From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs’. 

The social connection between these ‘associated individuals’ is clear from the outset, unlike the situation under capitalism, where the starting point is private capitalist firms pursuing their own profit in competition against each other. And the means of production are held in common, rather than confronting workers as the private property of other people. The connection between the individuals, and their relation to the means of production, is much like the situation among members of a family engaged in some project together through the use of their collective labour and commonly held resources. The relations between persons in such a case is not mediated by the exchange of things (money and commodities), and the interests of each individual are not in conflict. 

Of course, we can also see such ‘associated’ behaviour to some extent under capitalism, as in the case of the various relationships and organisations people enter to pursue their interests and hobbies. But the scope of these associations are limited, since the vast majority of productive activities are done to receive the wages needed to survive—making them coercive rather than free. Every worker knows quite well the stark difference between freely entering into an association with others to pursue some interest and being compelled to work for wages. 

The word ‘free’ shows up often when Marx describes a future society, using expressions like ‘free and equal producers’ and ‘free men’. Moreover, there is no contradiction or conflict between the different pursuits of individuals, who are no longer divided by the competition imposed by capitalism, thus resulting in a ‘large and harmonious system of free and co-operative labour’.

Such passages on a future association emphasise how human beings would freely and consciously interact with each other in pursuit of common goals that also benefit each other. The emphasis on the central role of individuals within a future society runs quite counter to the stereotypes that many people have of Marx’s ideas and of the concepts of ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’. 

A great misfortune of the 20th century is that those terms became distorted by their association with state-capitalist countries that labelled themselves as socialist or communist to conceal their class-divided reality. A conceit that the foes of those countries were only too happy to oblige in as a convenient way to discredit all revolutionary ideas. Even today, when the term ‘democratic socialism’ has become trendy among younger generations, many still mistake the essence of socialism as economic intervention and regulation by the state.

From the passages quoted from Marx above, however, it should be clear that there is little need for a government and the actions of its politicians and bureaucrats when the subjects of society are free individuals consciously carrying out productive activities to meet common and individual goals. Quite unlike the state-capitalist model of a monolithic state that mobilises the ‘masses’ for its own aims, this would be an organic society made up of countless associations engaging in their respective activities and coordinating with each other to meet democratically determined needs. A ‘state’ would be completely superfluous to such free, associated individuals. 

Some Marxian scholars like Paresh Chattopadhyay and Teinosuke Otani have used the term ‘Association’ or the ‘associated mode of production’ rather than ‘socialism’ or ‘communism’ to refer to a future society. The debate over what term to use is not that important, since one is still left with the task of explaining its fundamental content. But the image of Association (or a global collective of associations) may help counter views that have emphasised the collective at the expense of the individual—or viewed the gains on one side as a loss on the other. The perspective of Association also reveals how capitalism, for all its championing of individualism, in fact stifles the possibility of each worker to freely pursue personal interests and fulfil individual potential. 

Michael Schauerte

First published in The Socialist Standard, April 2020