I realise that the question of socialist exploitation may seem like an oxymoron, since socialism is supposed to abolish exploitation of one person or group by another. But I am interested in whether socialist exploitation is possible and perhaps necessary at certain times. The question arises from my examination of Ernst Bloch’s synchronicity of non-synchronicity, which I will not relate now, except to point out that it is exacerbated after a socialist revolution. It may provide the conditions for such a revolution – thereby providing a philosophical understanding of why socialist revolutions happened first in economically ‘backward’ places – but it also explains the profound dislocations of socialism in a context of emergent capitalism. I dealt with this issue at some length in a recent lecture at Fudan University in Shanghai, so the section that follows comes from that lecture.

The question of the synchronicity of non-synchronicity leads to the question of modes of production. I speak here of what is called the ‘narrative’ of modes of production: tribal society and hunter-gatherer existence are replaced by slavery, or perhaps by the ‘Asiatic mode of production’, which are in turn replaced by feudalism, which is replaced by capitalism, which is then overcome by socialism and communism. Each mode of production is both enabled by internal contradictions (which are thereby constitutive contradictions), but those same contradictions lead to its undoing. Thus, a subsequent mode of production overcomes those contradictions only to produce new ones that are simultaneously constitutive and disabling.

By contrast, I would like to pick up some new developments in Marxist theory (first suggested to me by Ken Surin), which challenge this narrative of successive modes of production. Instead of a narrative succession, determined by patterns of contradictions, this new approach – with seeds in Marx’s thought – argue that each new mode of production absorbs all those that have come before (this is really a different and perhaps more sophisticated form of dialectical understanding). Thus, we find that the earlier contradictions are now included within the new mode of production, creating multiple contradictions that remain unresolved. At the same time, the functions of those earlier modes of production are altered, so that they work within the new mode of production. I have found this approach very helpful in a recently completed study of the economies of ancient Southwest Asia, but here I would like to give the example of capitalism.

Capitalism may have its dynamics of financialised markets, with stock exchanges devising ever new ways to generate money from money (Marx’s ultimate formula for capitalism, M-M’). Large financial hubs provide the foci of such activities, such as New York, London, Singapore and Hong Kong. It may also have its bulk commodities production, where labour is cheap and for which shipping provides the means of moving about large amounts of ‘junk’ – as a ship’s engineer once said to me. At the same time, capitalism also includes forms of feudalism, with landlords (or oligarchs as they are called in Russia, or warlords in Africa and the Middle East) and indentured labourers. Further afield we find types of slavery, especially child slavery, in the production of goods for capitalist markets. We do not need to consider the slave states of the southern USA as the only example of such slavery within capitalism. Yet further afield, in areas of South America, the Pacific, Africa or Asia, there exist hunter-gatherer and tribal societies, who produce cultural trinkets for tourists who may happen to visit such areas. And it is also quiet feasible for socialism – in one or more countries – to be part of a global capitalist system. Indeed, it is perhaps necessary for socialist countries in a dominantly capitalist world to engage with capitalist countries in order to survive, if not thrive. The Soviet Union was the first but by no means the last to do so.

But now it becomes interesting, for the question is whether socialism and communism too may operate in this way. The usual understanding of socialism is a system diametrically opposed to capitalism, or indeed to any other mode of production. The ownership of the means of production passes from capitalists to workers and farmers. But is it possible that socialism may absorb all of the previous modes of production at yet a higher level of complexity. This suggestion has both significant potential, yet also profound dangers. Indeed, within socialist theory we find the argument that communism unleashes the forces of production hindered by capitalism. That is, capitalism fetters and binds the real potential of such forces. Yet, if they are unleashed – as happened in the Soviet Union during the 1930s – they must make use of capitalist mechanisms, refining them even further: technological innovation, modes of management and organisation for production, industrialised techniques, forms of agriculture and so on.

But what about other modes of production? Here lie the dangers. At a theoretical level, is it possible for feudal, slave-based, tribal and hunter-gatherer modes of production also to find altered roles in within a socialist framework? For example, in the border areas of Soviet Union, traditional landlord-style social and economic systems still functioned, although the government did its best to replace and modernise them. More significantly, with the massive process of industrialisation and collectivisation in the 1930s, the majority enthusiastically embraced the stunning changes taking place – think of Stakhanovism and the desire emulation the high achievers. However, many were not so enthusiastic, either dragging their feet or actively opposing the process. In this context, the labour camps played a significant role, especially in Siberia. To be sure, they were designed for rehabilitating the people sent to the labour camps, but they also functioned as a reshaped form of labour slavery. And in the areas of northern Russia, above the Arctic Circle, the native peoples still lived in forms of hunter-gatherer and tribal existence. All of this took place during the construction of socialism.

However, the Soviet Union was one state – a large one, it is true, which had the resources for its own internal development. The situation would change once again if socialism were the dominant global form of social and economic life. How would the earlier modes of production be reshaped in such a context? Indeed, how would a minority of capitalist countries relate to the majority of socialist ones? And would a dominant socialist framework alter the patterns of exploitation found within those modes of production, or would new forms of exploitation arise in order to enable socialism? I raise this proposal as a genuine question, although I have not yet thought through how it might work.