The concept of association has its own history, which clearly informs the Marxian use of the term. With Rousseau the term “association” first enters the terminology of social philosophy; he uses the term to positively describe the linking between free and equal citizens. In the Second Discourse Rousseau speaks of “free association, which obliged none of its members,” (Rousseau 2002, 116) as a form of societal organization. In the Contrat Social it will be the contract itself that constitutes the association of a free society. In both cases association appears as self-determined connectivity of the members of a free and equal society.
With this tradition, the term association slowly gains specific connotations. They are linked to the idea of an emancipated society. After Rousseau, Claude Saint-Simon and Charles Fourier specified egalitarian forms of organization as “associations.” Saint-Simon reflected on associations as the form of organization of the classe productive, a professional organization for scientists, artists, and workers that should, in the end, reorganize society. Beyond social atomism, and beyond the market and the state, associations were considered as extrinsic systems of social organization which would not adequately represent the productive classes of society. The idea of an association of producers who would “work together and market their goods in common” (Beecher & Bienvenu 1971, 66) was the central idea of Fourier’s utopianism. Association, for Fourier, Saint-Simon, and their followers, stood for an alternative form of organization. Such associations were meant to connect with the separate field of social production directly, independently of market mediation.
In part related to the theoretical efforts of early socialists, so-called associations became the central element in the working class’s actual self-organization on the ground. Strikes during the French Revolution of 1830, for example, engendered a movement committed to the ideals of associationism. In 1848, Paris alone hosted around 300 of such associations with an approximate collective membership of some 50,000 people. The idea of common labor in self-organized associations, an idea that Charles Fourier had originally conceived for agricultural contexts, will become the leading slogan for urban craftsmen and the organizing industrial working-classes in the early and decisive years of struggle.
In this way, Marx, too, refers to these historical connotations in his use of the term “association,” famously so in the Communist Manifesto: “In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms,” Marx and Engels write, “we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” (Marx & Engels 1976, 506). In The Poverty of Philosophy Marx writes: “The working class, in the course of its development, will substitute for the old civil society an association which will exclude classes and their antagonism, and there will be no more political power properly so-called…” (Marx 1976a, 182). It will do so by spreading the idea and political form of the self-organization of producers, beginning with every productive unit, as broadly as possible.
Marx and Engels emphasize in the Communist Manifesto that within the bourgeois order a relation between the laborers emerges as its immanent product, something that is already present in a latent form. “The advance of industry,” they write, somewhat teleologically, “whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the labourers, due to competition, by the revolutionary combination, due to association.” (Marx & Engels 1976, 496). Time and again “association” describes a form of social organization which functions as means and end for the egalitarian organization of society. From The German Ideology and the Communist Manifesto to Capital (the “Verein freier Menschen” mentioned in the chapter on fetishism is presented to the English-speaking world as the “association of free men”, (see Marx 1976b, 171), this use of the term association can be found as a description of socialist politics and the working class’s self-organization, which transgresses the repressive and alienated organizational forms of state and capital.
Wherever Marx speaks about the organization of a future society, the term association is used to characterize the free and non-coercive form of social organization, through which goods are collectively produced and freely distributed. What Marx finds in the loose and voluntary structure of association is a representation of a collective potential of workers to communally manage the production and distribution of material wealth on both a small and large scale. That which is normally concealed by the socially necessary illusion generated by the commodity form, which is to say, labor, itself gains visibility and autonomy in and through associations.
When sketching outlines of a future society, Marx confronts the institutionalized spheres of state and capital with this self-organizing capacity of the material producers.
Association is a free form of coordination—it helps organize an intrinsic link between the social producers that might otherwise remain invisible. In and through associations the sphere of symbolic representation (the sphere of distribution, the state) is thus confronted with the hidden dynamic of production. In labor-struggles production articulates itself in a way that is normally excluded from an apparent logic of representation.
At least three layers that are crucial for any Marxian version of a future society are implied in the conception of association. First, the model of politics: associations help in articulating labor directly without separating the logics of material production from the sphere of politics (without separating, as in the terminology of Arendt or Habermas, work or labor from action or interaction, and thus, from politics). Second, the organization of social producers who, through the lens of the sphere of circulation, otherwise appear as isolated individuals, as mere owners of commodities. It is the method of free association that lays bare the inner connectivity of the various parts of social production. The particular dynamic and quality of labor associations is, in other words, to organize social elements that in the manifest structure of representation appear as isolated. Third, associations open up new dimensions of social life by re-arranging the conditions for social production. The satisfaction of social needs can directly be addressed in and through their collective articulation. By addressing the field of social production directly, associations help to imagine and produce new forms and conditions of social life. In other words, labor associations are means of poietic production which articulate the forces of a latent structure.
If you wish, you can call these three dynamics of associations (which sketch outlines of a Marxian version of a future society) aesthetic: they integrate muted elements of material practice (and thus, materiality) into the orders of representation, they form new meanings by bringing latent connections to the fore, and they open up new horizons of social practice. Politics can be beautiful.