Socialism represents in one sense a decisive break with the present. History has to be broken and remade – not because socialists arbitrarily prefer revolution to reform, being bloodthirsty beasts deaf to the voice of moderation, but because of the depths of the sickness that has to be cured. I say ‘history,’ but in fact Marx is reluctant to dignify everything that has happened so far with that title. For him, all we have known so far is 'prehistory’ – which is to say, one variation after another on human oppression and exploitation. The only truly historic act would be to break from this dreary narrative into history proper. As a socialist, you have to be prepared to spell out in some detail how this would be achieved, and what institutions it would involve. But if the new social order is to genuinely transformative, it follows that there is a strict limit on how much you can say about it right now. We can, after all, describe the future only in terms drawn from the past or present; and a future which broke radically from the present would have us straining at the limits of our language. As Marx himself comments in 'The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,’ 'There [in the socialist future] the content goes beyond the form.’ Raymond Williams makes essentially the same point in 'Culture and Society 1780-1950,’ when he writes: 'We have to plan what can be planned, according to our common decision. But the emphasis of the idea of culture is right when it reminds us that a culture, essentially, is unplannable. We have to ensure the means of life, and the means of community. But what will then, by these means, be lived, we cannot know or say.’
One can put the point in another way. If all that has happened so far is 'prehistory,’ then it is rather more predictable than what Marx would regard as history proper. If we slice through part of history at any point and inspect a cross-section of it, we know before we have even come to look something of what we will find there. We will find, for example, that the great majority of men and women at this period are living lives of largely fruitless toil for the benefit of a ruling elite. We will find that the political state, whatever form it takes, is prepared to use violence from time to time to maintain this situation. We will find that quite a lot of the myth, culture, and thought of the period provides some kind of legitimization of this situation. We will also probably find some form of resistance to this injustice among those who are exploited.
Once these shackles on human flourishing have been removed, however, it is far harder to say what will happen. For men and women are then a lot more free to behave as they wish, within the confines of their responsibility for one another. If they are able to spend more of their time in what we now call leisure activities rather than hard at work, their behavior becomes even harder to predict. I say 'what we now call leisure’ because if we really did use the resources accumulated by capitalism to release large numbers of people from work, we would not call what they did instead 'leisure.’ This is because the idea of leisure depends on the existence of its opposite (labor), rather as you could not define warfare without some conception of peace.
Take, as an analogy, the behavior of people in prison. It is fairly easy to say what prisoners get up to throughout the day because their activities are strictly regulated. The warders can predict with some certainty where they will be at five o'clock on a Wednesday, and if they cannot do so they might find themselves up before the governor. Once convicts are released back into society, however, it is much harder to keep tabs on them, unless the tabs are of an electronic kind. They have moved, so to speak, from the 'prehistory’ of their incarceration to history proper, meaning that they are now at liberty to determine their own existence, rather than to have it determined for them by external forces. For Marx, socialism is the point where we begin collectively to determine our own destinies. It is democracy taken with full seriousness, rather than democracy as (for the most part) a political charade. And the fact that people are more free means that it will be harder to say what they will be doing at five o'clock on Wednesday.