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What Will Communism Look Like in New York City?

The new novel Everything for Everyone tells the story of a global insurrection against capitalism starting in 2052. It’s not only entertaining — it’s a good opportunity to think about revolutionary strategy.

Nathaniel Flakin

November 23, 2022
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The novel World War Z came out 15 years ago. In it, Max Brooks tells the story of a global zombie apocalypse via personal accounts by different survivors — science fiction in the form of oral history. The new novel Everything for Everyone by M.E. O’Brien and Eman Abdelhadi uses a very similar format. Twelve different people give long interviews about their memories of a global insurrection against capitalism that began in 2052. Twenty years later, they are all living in communes. It’s particularly entertaining when young people in this communist future struggle to understand concepts from the bad old days, such as “rent” and “police.”

Comparing these two novels, why does it feel more realistic to see the undead eating brains, than to see people building a new economic system based on collaboration? Helping us to imagine what is possible is what makes Everything for Everyone such a great read.

Marx famously refused to dedicate more than a few lines to the description of what communism would look like.1Communism “makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, to fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have in mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.” — Marx, The German Ideology. Trotsky was almost as reticent about what communism might look like, trusting that future generations would be far smarter than us.

But speculative fiction about life after the revolution can be more than just fun. Personally, I am a big fan of Banks’s The Culture series about a pan-galactic communist civilization, as well as Le Guin’s The Dispossessed about anarchy on the moon. In a time when it’s so easy to be hopeless, O’Brien and Abdelhadi have done the Left a great service in encouraging readers to dream. It is particularly inspiring to imagine what New York City, currently a playground for billionaires, could be like if it were run by its residents.

To appreciate this book, a good starting point is a contrast to the speculative fiction of Jacobin’s founder, Bhaskar Sunkara, who opened his 2019 book The Socialist Manifesto with a long thought experiment about a socialist transformation from 2018 to 2038. Sunkara’s vision was based on electoral victories by progressive Democrats who then pass a series of reforms. In line with his theory of “evolutionary socialism,” Sunkara predicted two decades of capitalist development uninterrupted by crises, wars, or climate change. Looking back from just three years later, this piece has not aged well (to put it mildly).

Victor Serge, reporting from crisis-ridden Germany in the late 1920s, said that the social democrats were the only ones who believed in the future of capitalism. Today we can say the same thing about Sunkara, who seems to have more faith in capitalism’s ability to deliver progress than most capitalists do.

Everything for Everyone is far more realistic: the authors understand that the coming decades will see terrible catastrophes. Socialism, if it is to come about, will be a product of working people’s life-or-death struggles to survive.

Looking back from 2072, characters recall that one of the initial battles in the war to liberate New York City took place at the Hunts Point Market in the Bronx. Clearly, the authors were just as inspired by the Hunts Point Strike in 2021 as we at Left Voice were. Thirty years from now, working people are suffering from famine and military occupation, and in pitched battles against the NYPD and the U.S. military, they manage to take over food distribution.

This novel describes the 2030s and 2040s marked by “dead zones” stretching across California, an imperialist war against Iran, nuclear bombs in Mississippi, internment camps, and a pandemic called LARS-47. When people begin to rise up against mass death, the result is anything but peaceful. Beating the capitalists requires revolutionary armies (including a North American Liberation Front) defeating U.S. federal troops, police forces, fascist groups, and religious cults. The book’s characters, while describing relatively stress-free lives, are all processing their traumas in different ways.

The authors are being honest about what the coming period might very well look like: It was never going to be easy to get rid of a ruling class willing to burn the entire planet in order to maximize their profits. And even once we’ve beaten them, it won’t be easy to manage the havoc they leave behind.

Communism Without Transition

In their vision of revolution, the authors of Everything for Everyone follow the ideas of the current we might call autonomism or abolitionism. They imagine “communism without transition”: on the day of the insurrection, money and all forms of power are eliminated entirely. People live together in communes of a few hundred people and coordinate their work in a decentralized way via the internet and artificial intelligence. While this is a vision we share for what a communist society would look like, it is not something that will fall from the sky — as Marx argued,2Marx wrote that he had discovered that “(1) that the existence of classes is only bound up with particular historical phases in the development of production, (2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat, (3) that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.” — Marx, “Letter to J. Weydemeyer.” a transitional society will first overcome the legacies of capitalism.  

In a way, the authors sound like classical anarchists. But anarchism at least had mass organizations like the CNT-FAI, an anarchosyndicalist union with a million members in Spain in the first decades of the 20th century. In this novel, revolutionary organization is something that happens more or less spontaneously. As a result, questions of political leadership — crucial for every revolutionary process in history — are erased.

To name just one example, an important precursor of the global insurrection is the fight to liberate Palestine — which, again, seems completely realistic. How are the Palestinians, after a century of colonization, able to finally break the power of the Zionist state and its imperialist backers? We are told that there is a really big demonstration to the border of Gaza, and many Israeli soldiers drop their weapons and flee, eventually emigrating from the Levante. It sounds too easy. The Palestinians’ liberation struggle is led by a “council of elders” — which would imply that the different bourgeois factions who have led the Palestinian movement for decades had simply disappeared, and Palestinian communists had won leadership without the least kind of struggle.

This boundless faith in revolutionary spontaneity, without a need for any kind of preparatory work — what Daniel Bensaïd referred to as the “Zero Point of Strategy” — is where the book loses its sense of realism. The insurrection happens without any kind of theory, or any lessons from previous centuries of class struggle. The authors are not ashamed of this utopian approach. There is no mention at all of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, or Luxemburg — or even Mao, Ho Chi Minh, or Guevara. (A faction called the “Zetkinistas” is briefly mentioned, as if Zetkin were any less an advocate of a centralized communist party than Lenin was.)

Instead, the utopian socialist Charles Fourier is the only classical thinker who is quoted. Fourier postulated that if enough people simply were convinced that an equal society were possible and necessary, then “four or five months” would be enough to start building communes and quickly create “universal harmony.” In other words: move out to the countryside and start building socialist communes. The autonomist/abolitionist tendency today is taking up this utopian mantle. 

If revolution were this easy, though — if we just needed enough people to rise up when capitalism enters into crisis — then we would have won socialism many decades ago. If two world wars weren’t enough to lead a spontaneous global uprising to victory, then what is?

Where Are the Workers?

Struggles against capitalism have been going on for almost 200 years. But diverse experiences, from the Paris Commune in 1871 to the global revolt of 1968, lead to the same conclusion: massive self-organization of working people is a condition for radical change — but self-organization by itself can’t be victorious, unless it is accompanied by a revolutionary organization with a clear program. To use the language of the Russian Revolution, both soviets and Bolsheviks are necessary.

One element that is completely missing from this book is the working class, and more generally all the labor needed to keep human civilization running. There are brief references to pharmaceutical factories — one in Lima, Peru, and the other near Jackson, Mississippi — that get taken over by workers who begin producing medical supplies for the common good. This is similar to the real-life experience of Zanon in Argentina, a ceramics factory taken over by workers — a process where Trotskyists played a big role.

Reading about the New York Commune, one wonders: What actually happened to humanity’s productive apparatus? People have advanced technology — but who is manufacturing the semiconductors? The main forms of labor that are mentioned are social reproduction of different kinds.

It’s not even clear where food is coming from to feed the millions of people who must have survived. There is talk of people going upstate and finding farmers happy to collaborate. But the history of revolutions shows that the relations between city and country are never going to be as simple as asking nicely — especially at the vast scale that is necessary. Farmers need political and material incentives to become part of a socialist project — besides the fact that U.S. agriculture has already been “collectivized” to a large extent by mega corporations.

If we think about the vast challenges of keeping the modern economy running, much less radically transforming it, we understand why the working class needs organization  — and why it ultimately needs a kind state power. As socialist society develops, such a state power will become increasingly unnecessary and the new workers’ state will “whither away.” But it seems dangerous to hope that everyone, absolutely everyone, will become communists on Day 1. This kind of utopian socialism is a formula for defeat.

Just like we study the German Revolution of 1918/19 to understand the limits of spontaneous self-organization and the need for a revolutionary party, the novel Everything for Everyone provides lots of inspiring ideas, but also reveals important limits of neo-utopian socialism. This book can help us dream. But in order to make the dream of global communism a reality, we are going to need a revolutionary strategy based on the lessons of the past — which we call Marxism.

M.E. O’Brien and Eman Abdelhadi, Everything for Everyone: An Oral History of the New York Commune 2052-2072 (Brooklyn, Common Notions, 2022), 256pp., $18.

Notes

Notes
1 Communism “makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, to fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have in mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic.” — Marx, The German Ideology.
2 Marx wrote that he had discovered that “(1) that the existence of classes is only bound up with particular historical phases in the development of production, (2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat, (3) that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.” — Marx, “Letter to J. Weydemeyer.”
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Nathaniel Flakin

Nathaniel is a freelance journalist and historian from Berlin. He is on the editorial board of Left Voice and our German sister site Klasse Gegen Klasse. Nathaniel, also known by the nickname Wladek, has written a biography of Martin Monath, a Trotskyist resistance fighter in France during World War II, which has appeared in German, in English, and in French, and in Spanish. He has also written an anticapitalist guide book called Revolutionary Berlin. He is on the autism spectrum.

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