Friday, December 4, 2015

The legacy of 1917 and the material historical dialectic of production-reproduction

Chirashree Das Gupta

While contested opinion(s) on socialist experiences of the 20th century is all-pervasive, the academic literature on this has been relatively thinly spread. The quantum of views and opinion stand on a knowledge base that is narrow and the ‘known’ far exceed the ‘unknown’ in a literature highly charged by ideological standpoints defined largely by ‘ways of seeing’. The political economy focus has often been on questions around the organisation of production and productive forces. But, the reorganisation of social reproduction way beyond the tenets of welfarism had been socialism’s greatest promise of emancipation from patriarchy - the tyranny of family, private property and the state; and the conscious political attempt of collectivism rather than individualism forming the basis of new ‘individualities’.

Based on a Marxist-Feminist framework linking theory, perspective and method, this note is an endeavour to critically survey the methods by which the reorganisation of social production and reproduction in societies attempting a socialist transformation had been approached to extend and add to the contested terrain of the historicisation of socialist experiences of the twentieth century.

This is a relatively less explored area in the impressionistic literature around the socialist experiences that have gained credence especially since the 1990s. The scholarship on actual socialist transition(s) is thin. Access to works is also limited given both the political and cultural hegemony and limits of scholarship in a world structured by Anglophone imperial domination.

This forms the premise of the question on method. The denial of a materialist analysis and of social class as central objects of study in mainstream social science in US academia had been evident since the 1950s and 1960s in the shaping of disciplinary imperatives at the height of Cold War politics After the intellectual upheaval of ‘dependency theory’ and the ‘structuralist school’, mainstream social science in the USA consistently rejected the idea that social classes should be objects of study. There was substantial material and intellectual investment during the Reagan period in a particular strand of culture and area studies that took the lead in formulating ideas of ‘hybridity’ and ‘fragmented forms’ and ‘fluid identities’ rather than ‘structured social formations’ like race and class as the counter to different branches of cultural relativism, essentialism and idealism that emanated as ‘new’ theory from the mainstream of US academia[i]. These intellectual models ran a serious ‘risk that one’s subject would be deconstructed into fragments united only by the common experience of an incommunicable identity crisis’. This risk stems from the emphasis on ‘cultural collisions, confrontations and dialogues of the deaf ‘and statements ‘devoid of meaning’ rising from the separation of the ‘cultural’ from the ‘material’ in the recasting of ‘social history’ and ‘studies of society’ in a form where the ambiguity of the ‘narrator’ and the ‘non-specificity’ of ‘subject position’ were premised over earlier analytical narratives based on the material construction of social relations that defined the structures of society[ii].  

Moreover, the attempts at ‘theorising’ of the socialist experiences have largely been based on abstractions informed by fragmented readings of the developments in China and the erstwhile USSR which led Dunayevskaya to lament in 1944 in the American Economic Review that ‘theory’ had been replaced by ‘applied’ economics in the USSR[iii]. Thus apart from the lack of ‘newness’ in scholarship, the sociological genealogy of the attempts at ‘Marxist’ economic theorising in the judgment(s) of socialist attempts at social transformation is a task at hand in terms of the implications of the level of abstraction on which the critique rests and to what extent it helps us to understand the processes of social transformation towards the creation of an emancipatory society breaking free of alienation. In doing so, the attempt is not only to break away from the class basis of production relations, but also transform the domain of state-society relationships from the aegis of the nation-state.

Multiple strands of later Marxist interpretations have tried to locate the conflicts and contests of changing class relations in the attempts at social transformation. However, the abstract conceptualisation of conflict, contest and the dialectics of transformation have been limited to the sphere of production in a somewhat direct conflict with Marx’s and earlier Marxist understanding of the institutional unit(s) of organisation of society. In doing so, the individual and the collective get conceived in terms of a conceptualization of class relations that abstracts away from the role of the patriarchal family as the unit of organisation of society in a semi-feudal semi-capitalist context within a nation-state and the spatio-temporal location of that nation-state within the hierarchy of nation-states defined by imperialism. However, the transformative aspects of actually existing socialism(s) lay in not only the change in the institutional zone of production and appropriation of surplus, but the re-conceptualisation of the radical transformation needed in the sphere of social reproduction informed by a Marxist understanding of gender, patriarchy and ‘human nature’ in a context where the transformative potential of socialist revolution became historically limited to small pockets of the world[iv].

The disciplinary divides of power-knowledge diffused only in its manifestation but entrenched in structural root of the patriarchal reproduction(s) of social classes and their institutional units of organisation[v] has largely bypassed the so-called Marxian economics of actual socialist transition.  However, in Marx’s vision of the ‘rich individuality’, this was a defining aspect in the imagining of socialiam. In the socialist transitions of the 20th century in the USSR, China, Cuba and Tanzania, this had been central to the process of transformation[vi]. In each of these societies, right after the revolution, the securing of a new and secure material base had been severe -  largely attributable to the isolations and penalties associated with the breaking away from the imperial axes of material power. In the ‘conceptualisation of revolution within a revolution’,  collectivisation of production played an important role in raising new standards in food, health-care, housing, education and clothing and providing women visibility and better remuneration as  workers. This was accompanied by more and more political participation in public affairs at the level of the Soviets within the pyramidal structure of political power[vii]. At the same time, there was a thinning out of women’s political power at the topmost levels of the pyramid which was a significant reversal of the conditions that prevailed both in the making of the revolution and in the first few years after the revolution in the USSR[viii].

On the other hand, (except for the attempts in the USSR in its early phase (with the decriminalisation of homosexuality (1918 – 1933) and the conscious cultural attempt to create conditions for breaking the basis of the sexual division of labour), breaking away from the unit of organisation of society in terms of the reproduction of the patriarchal monogamous family became more and more difficult[ix] to the point where the Marriage Council of Philadelphia in the USA in 1948 celebrated aspects of women’s activities, standards of health-care and education in what they perceived as ‘fulfiling the vital function of strengthening of families in the Soviet Union’ as opposed to the situation in the USA at that time[x].

In the same year, the greatest problem facing Chinese families was identified as extreme poverty, very high child and adult mortality rates and health deprivation even among the more affluent sections of society. In October and November 1948, on the eve of the Chinese Revolution, 1492 children  were picked up from the streets and cremated in the Municipal Crematorium[xi].  China’s social transformation after the revolution was contingent on people’s communes and brigades as the ‘new’ institutional bases of enterprise in the spheres of both social production and reproduction[xii]

In Cuba, after the revolution, the emphasis was on employment, distribution and re-distribution with women and children as the locus of the system. A shift from material to moral incentives in the organisation of production was at the centre of socialist envisioning in Cuba. But by the 1970s, the material conditions of increasing problems of production given the blockade (despite Soviet assistance) led to the tying of distribution to wage and enterprises were expected to generate the surplus for re-distribution. The Cuban Federation of `Women rallied thousands of women for ‘volunteer work’ for both productive and reproductive labour (41 million women in five years) along with incorporation of women in the paid work-force (one hundred thousand every year). The proportion of women opting out of women from the paid workforce was very high (76% in a single year). Political participation was also very low in the early 1970s. This was the context of the adoption of the Family Code in 1975 which directly addressed inequality within the home. However, this intervention co-incided with the compulsions of the reversal from moral incentives to production to the wage-surplus enterprise system[xiii].

 In Tanzania, ujama after independence entailed the drawing in of women into the paid labour force in agriculture through the process of villagization. However the bulk of the land (70% in 1980) remained under private ownership[xiv]. In that sense, while it lasted, the first necessary condition of reorganisation of property relations which had been possible in the USSR, China and Cuba could not be achieved in Tanzania.

Cuba is an example where direct attempts to break the basis of the patriarchal family were muted by the compulsions of the enterprise based production system. China’s attempts on the other are an illustration of the opposite. Soviet History lies between these two. The relationship of the enterprise system with the family has been the twin locus of determination of the wage-surplus relationship in the organisation of societies attempting social transformation in which the sexual division of both productive and reproductive labour has paid a pivotal role in a. the determination of the wage-surplus relationship itself b. making the social basis of patriarchy mutable in progressive ways but reversal of that mutability in the face of crises of production and/or reproduction.

An attempt to answer as to why this was so is important for the envisioning of socialism in specific social contexts in specific epochs. This note does not propose answers but makes a plea for a Marxist Feminist conception of historically specific state-society relations which would help to unravel the institutional linkages between enterprise and family in the material historical dialectic of production-reproduction in the specific context of the attempted social transformations to socialism in and since the twentieth century. This is an urgent political task bequeathed by the legacy of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

[i] I L Gendzier, Managing Political Change: Social Scientists and the Third World, Westview Press 1985; C Leys, The Rise and Fall of Development Theory, James Currey 1996; D Roediger, The Retreat from Race and Class , Monthly Review, 58 (3).
[ii] E Hobsbawm, On History, Abacus 1998: 261
[iii] An early exposition of such an attempt can be seen in Raya Dunayevskaya’s, A New Revision of Marxian Economics, 1944, American Economic Review 34(3) and Counter-revolution from within the Revolution 1984
[iv] K Marx, 1944 manuscripts; A Bebel Woman and Socialism; A Kollontai The Social Basis of the Women’s Question; L Trotsky, Family Relations under the Soviets; H Brown, Marx on Gender and the Family; A Davis, Women, Race and Class; H Bannerji (ed) Of Property and Propriety: The Role of Gender and Class in Imperialism and Nationalism
[v] N Poulantzas, State, Power, Socialism, NLB 1978
[vi] E J Croll, Women in Rural Production and Reproduction in the Soviet Union, China, Cuba and Tanzania: Socialist Development Experiences Signs 7(1) 1981
[vii] G W Lapidus, Political Leadership, Participation and Leadership: Women in the Soviets, Comparative Politics 8(1) 1975
[viii] A Kollontai, Women Fighters in the Days of the Great October Revolution, Selected Articles and Speeches, Progress Publishers, 1984
[ix] Lapidus op.cit
[x] È H Mudd, The Family in the Soviet Union, Marriage and Family Living 10(1)
[xi] E G Osborne, Problems of the Chinese Family, Marriage and Family Living 10(1)
[xii] Z Dong, Mao Zedong and the Independent and Comprehensive Industrial System and the Modernization of New China, World Review of Political Economy 5(4) 2014
[xiii] M Nazzari, The ‘Woman Question’ in Cuba: An Analysis of Material Constraints in its Solution, Signs 9(2) 1983
[xiv] Croll op.cit

Chirashree Dasgupta is Associate Professor at  Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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