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Marxism and free-software
Raoul Victor [dorax at club-internet.fr]
I will deal with three questions:
1. To which extent is Marxism confirmed by the reality of
2. To which extent is Marxism questioned by this reality?
3. Which relation between class struggle and free-software?
But, first I want to make some remarks on the meaning I give to these
concepts: free-software and Marxism.
Here I understand by free-software an "ethic" with specific attitudes
towards software. I take 4 characteristics:
1. No merchant/trade relations;
2. No fatherlands;
3. Cooperation as the basis of activity;
4. The pleasure of being useful to the community as a goal of
Marxism can be more complicated to summarize. Raymond Aron, used to
say that Marxism has the specificity that it can be explained in 5
minutes, 5 hours, 5 years or half a century. Here I only want to make
o I don't call Marxism the Stalinist ideologies. Stalinism is not
Marxism, or it is a falsification that leads to the opposite of
the Marxist project: instead of a non-merchant worldwide economy
Stalinism defend a nationalist state capitalism. The Marxist left
communists in Germany and Holland knew that since the 20s.
o I understand by Marxism the theory that says, among others, that
the evolution of capitalism leads to the creation of the
possibility of a post-capitalist new society,
o without merchant relations (and first of all without
o without fatherlands ("The working men have no country.");
o based on the free association of producers (without
o where "the free development of each is the condition for the
free development of all".
The parallel between Marxism and free-software is striking. And that
leads us to the first question:
To which extent is Marxism confirmed by the development of free-software?
Marx did not invent communism. In a primitive form, communism is a
very old idea: the slaves of the antiquity dreamed it, as some of the
first Christians, or the revolted peasants of the Middle age. I do not
know all the religions that believe in a heaven, but I do not know any
for which merchant relations and money rule the heaven.
What Marx developed is the idea that for the first time in history the
material possibility of that dream was created by the development of
capitalism, as the possibility of capitalism had been produced
centuries before by the development of feudalism. The new society will
be the result of the revolt of the productive forces against the
capitalist relations of production.
For Marx, history has not a goal, but a direction of movement: the
development of the productive forces, the human and material means of
producing social life. The relations of production are the relations
that men establish between them in order to use these forces. "In last
instance" these relations are determined by the need of the
development of these forces. A well-known sentence of Marx says: "The
hand mill gives you society with the feudal lord, the steam-mill with
the industrial capitalist".
This evolution is not harmonious. Its flow is irregular,
contradictory, with great leaps forward and periods of drawing back.
It is the result of the pressure of contradictions. For example:
feudalism allowed the development of trade. But, at a certain degree
of development, feudal relations became a hindrance to trade. Within
feudalism, any merchant transporting goods through a fief had to pay a
toll to the local lord. But, the more trade developed in quantity and
distances the more the tolls appeared as an absurdity, a hindrance to
its development. To allow this advance the movement of trade itself
and the men who defended the interests of trade rebelled against the
Free-software result from the development of technologies created
within capitalism: transistors, computers, etc. Software is a
tremendous advance in productive forces. It is a human product, which
can be a means of production like a system driving an assembly line,
or a means of consumption like a film or a game, and has the new and
specific capacity of being reproducible without significant cost. But
capitalist laws prevent the full development of this capacity:
copyright, private intellectual property, etc. Free-software is a
revolt of the new productive forces against the old capitalist
relations of production.
Marx did not know computers, nor software. But the reality of the
contradictions that gave birth to free-software is a perfect
confirmation of his vision of history.
But that is not all. Free-software is also an evidence of the Marxist
idea that the post-capitalist society can be a worldwide non-merchant
society, and not a bureaucratic wage-slave society, for example.
Finally, it confirms the Marxist conviction that communist ideas are
not the product of some brilliant individual brain but the movement of
capitalist society itself. Even if many hackers still think that
"Marxism" means a hundred million deaths in the 20th century, they are
acting, without knowing it, some of the basic ideas of the true
To which extent is Marxism questioned by the reality of free-software?
For Marxism there is no possibility of development of a communist
economic form within capitalism. The revolutionary class, the working
class, is an exploited class, without power on the economy. It cannot
have the power to build a new social organization without making first
a political revolution, contrary to the past where the revolutionary
class, the bourgeoisie, for example, had built its economic power
within feudalism, within the old society.
Graham Seaman, in a mail in the English list said that this idea
"doesn't seem to be ever explicit in Marx. But it certainly seems to
be taken for granted by every communist after Marx".
Marx wrote about the workers cooperatives, which were an important
part of the workers movement in the 19th century. He said that the
capitalist-worker relation was to a certain degree eliminated inside
the cooperative. But he insisted on the fact that they remained
prisoners of the surrounding capitalist world, that the workers were
in fact their own collective capitalists and that they would not
resist to the development of the trusts and monopolies. Marx never
developed a theory about a possible coexistence between capitalism and
lasting, stable germs of communism.
In that sense, if we understand free-software as germs of a communist
society, it contradicts a specific aspect of Marxism.
But many questions remain:
o Can these germs easily coexist with capitalism?
o Is a war between the two worlds avoidable?
o Can these germs develop to the point of supplanting capitalism?
o Is this possible without a political revolution?
After a certain degree of development of the free-software reality,
maybe in 10 years, or 20, the question will be openly posed.
Personally I think that a revolution remains necessary. There will be
a war. It has already started, as we can see with all the new laws to
protect the copyright, etc.
Before going to the third question, it may be interesting to look into
the difference between the world of cooperatives and the one of
free-software. Will free-software be integrated, swallowed by the
capitalist world as were the cooperatives? Cooperatives stay on the
terrain of trade, of commercial exchange at least in relation to the
"external" world. They sell what they produce and buy what they need.
The possible "non-capitalist" nature remains locked up within the
relations between the members of the cooperative. The free-software
community is the opposite. It is not only between its members that
social relations are different from capitalism. Free-software is open
to the external world. The hackers' community "gives" its products
outside its world and in doing so tend to export a new economic
relationship. This is a most powerful "weapon" to survive and develop.
It is, and it will be difficult for capitalism to fight against this
development. Free software is "free", cheap, and this is important for
a system where production is based on competitiveness through low
costs. IBM, for example, adopted Linux mainly to escape to Microsoft
monopoly but also to be more competitive. But, by doing so it allows
and stimulates the development of free-software. To a certain extent,
a parallel can be drawn with the situation of feudalism fighting
against capitalism. Capitalism developed mainly in the feudal cities.
But the kings, in France for example, in their fights against the
other landlords, had to support the cities, which in its turn
facilitated the development of capitalism. At the end, the cities
destroyed by a revolution the power of the kings.
The reality of free software contradicts Marx on a specific question:
the possibility of the emergence of germs of communism within
capitalism. But the idea of the inevitability of a political
confrontation, a revolution, to allow these germs to become the basis
of a new society, I think, remains valid.
Which relation between class struggle and free-software?
The third issue I wanted to deal with is the relation between
free-software and class struggle.
According to Marx' theory, the post-capitalist society will be built
by the working class, i.e. by the humans exploited according to the
capitalist laws: wage-labor and profit. Since the Commune of Paris, in
1871, this idea has been confirmed by history in different occasions.
At least partially, as we could see millions, or hundred of thousands,
of workers defending anti-capitalist ideas and the need of a new
society: Russia 1905, Russia 1917, Germany 1918-19, Hungary 1919,
Italy 1920, Spain 1936, Hungary 1956, during the end of the 60s and
the 70s in France, Italy, Argentina, Portugal, etc. But all these
movements ended in defeats. There are many reasons to explain that.
But, in all of them, there was an enormous weakness: the lack of a
clear, concrete vision of what could be a post-capitalist society. The
Russian model, the Stalinist model was and is still a misleading
model, a repulsive one.
In the past transitions from one society to another, humans had more
or less the possibility to see in practice the forms of the new
society. Feudal economic relations developed within ancient slavery,
capitalist relations within the feudal society. For example, a serf
man could escape his fief, run into a "free city" and become a "free
man". To a certain extent, he had a "choice". The "free cities" were a
sort of practical model of what a new society could be.
Free-software could represent in some years also a kind of "model",
even if partial, of a post-capitalist society. Free software can only
be "germs" of a new society, as it cannot involve the total
production. But it proves, in practical terms, that humans can produce
the most modern and advanced products without merchant relations and
without a State.
For the moment, only a very small minority of the world population
knows what is free-software, even in the most developed countries. It
can hardly play that role yet. But it may in the future.
A good example is the "Oscar project". It is a project to design a car
with open source software. It began in Germany and developed to
integrate also American professional designers. (Last year they seem
to have interrupted their work. The web site said first that they had
to stop and that they could not say anything else. Later it announced
that it would be back beginning of 2004. But till now, it is silent).
Just imagine that the project is realized and that you could see it in
the street and tell: "look at this car, its is one of the best and it
has been designed without the spirit of profit, just for the pleasure
of making something good and beautiful for the community". That kind
of realizations can make more for the development of the conviction of
the possibility of a new society than thousands of books and
In every social struggle of the wage-earners (as for example in the
strikes and demonstrations which developed in France during the spring
of 2003 against the pensions reforms), there is a double tendency. One
is to ask for higher wages or refuse the worsening of the conditions
of work and life but remaining on the capitalist terrain. The other is
the tendency to put into question the logic of capitalism itself,
questioning the fact that the conditions of life depend on the laws of
profit. These two tendencies coexist, even if the second one is
generally very minor. The latter appears more easily when the movement
expands to different sectors of workers (as it happened in France
during the spring movement). But it is immediately hindered, stopped
by the lack of perspective, the absence of conviction that a new
post-capitalist society is possible.
Some "Marxists", especially after the defeats of the the struggles of
the 80s and the 90s, concluded that class struggle had become a
dead-end, a part of capital auto-regulation. But I think that is
wrong. The development of the free-software reality, the fact that it
may become an important and visible experience can open and stimulate
the revolutionary content, which appears in any social important
Class struggle and free-software do not exclude each other; they may
fertilize each other.
Many hackers ignore Marxism, or, worst, they assimilate it to
Stalinism. They would reject the idea that, to some extent, they work
in a Marxist perspective when they develop free-software. Is that
important? No that much, for the moment. The most important is the
real work they do. But, as free-software will increase its presence in
social life, the radical problems will arise and then this ignorance
will be a weakness.
On Marx's gravestone one can read: "Philosophers have interpreted the
world in different ways. The point is however to change it". Hackers
are changing the world. Sooner or later they will need to have a
general philosophy of history to understand all the dimensions and
perspectives of their actions. Maybe then they will discover and
develop Marxism as a tool for their practice.
21, may 2004
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