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From the 19th to the 21st century:

A Marxist view of socialism

Published Feb 22, 2012 10:39 PM

LeiLani Dowell on a recent
speaking tour in Wisconsin
WW photo: Bryan G. Pfeifer

From a talk given by Workers World managing editor LeiLani Dowell at the Feb. 10 WW forum in New York City.

In the first talk in this series, Richard Kossaly discussed the contradiction in capitalist society between the means of production, which are socialized in this society, and private, not social, accumulation. This inherent contradiction is the basis of society’s division into classes, into the rich and poor. It’s also the source of the crises of capitalism.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ vision was that socialism would do away with this contradiction by doing away with private appropriation altogether. The idea was that in the capitalist countries where the level of production was high in comparison to the rest of world, the overthrow of capitalism in favor of a socialist society would improve the lot of the masses of people.

However, Marx and Engels both realized that you don’t just have a revolution one day, then wake up the next to a perfect socialist society. Even before revolutions began taking place, they were thinking and strategizing around the fact that in the beginning there would still be leftovers of bourgeois society.

Marx’s 1891 document, “The Critique of the Gotha Program,” challenged the proposed political program of the German Social Democratic Party at the time. In it Marx describes two stages of communism. In the first transitional stage, people would be compensated equally in relation to the amount of labor they do.

This sounds great compared to what we have now, right? Today, people are paid on some arbitrary pay scale that has more to do with what the capitalists think they can get away with paying workers — for the bosses, it’s the lower the better — than the actual time and effort a worker puts into the job.

Marx and Engels also envisioned the destruction of the arbitrary division between physical and mental labor. Think about it — is sanitation workers’ work any less taxing than the work a so-called “professional” puts in? Is it any less important to society? Yet sanitation workers are devalued in capitalist society and therefore paid less.

‘To each according to their work’

So the slogan envisioned for this first stage of socialist society — “From each according to their ability, to each according to their work” — is a big advance.

The idea of “equal rights,” however, is not the highest level of achievement possible. In capitalist society, it’s huge; it’s an advance against bigotry, against racism, against sexism, etc. And obviously we fight for equal rights all the time; I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea. But Marx and Engels envisioned more.

Consider this: Not everyone has the ability to work as much as others do. Moreover, different people have different needs — say, there’s two workers, but one is raising a family while the other is only supporting herself. Paying these workers the same amount isn’t exactly equality, even if they put in the same amount of work.

Marx wrote, “What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges. Accordingly, the individual producer receives back from society — after the deductions have been made [deductions needed to maintain equipment and provide for social welfare] — exactly what he gives to it. … Here … the same principle prevails as that which regulates the exchange of commodities, as far as this is the exchange of equal values.

“In spite of this advance,” Marx continues, “this equal right … tacitly recognizes unequal individual endowment, and thus productive capacity, as a natural privilege. It is, therefore, a right of inequality, in its content, like every right. … To avoid all these defects, rights, instead of being equal, would have to be unequal.”

Because there is not yet complete abundance, the first stage of socialism will have to initially progress along those lines. However, once society reaches full abundance, Marx and Engels said, we won’t have to measure people against each other based on the amount of work they do.

Marx concludes, “In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly — only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: from each according to his [and her] ability, to each according to his [and her] needs!”

Dictatorship of the people needed to transform society

The other part of this equation in the first stage of socialism is that the dictatorship of the capitalists, of the ruling class, would be replaced by a dictatorship of the proletariat, of the workers and oppressed. Now, similar to the idea of equal pay, this would obviously be an advance — a state set up to be truly “for the people,” with the people’s interests in mind rather than profits. But just like Marx and Engels saw the concept of equal pay under socialism as transitory, so did they see the dictatorship of the proletariat as transitory.

The dictatorship of the proletariat is necessary to transform society — to organize society so that the productive forces are utilized to meet people’s needs most effectively and to combat the bourgeois culture that will still need to be challenged once the revolution takes place. It would also be needed to combat the forces of counterrevolution — because nobody thinks the capitalists will simply walk away once we take what they think is theirs.

But once the productive forces are set up enough so that everyone is provided for according to their needs, the idea is that the state itself would become unnecessary, obsolete and wither away. That would be the highest stage of communism.

In “Socialism, Utopian and Scientific,” Engels writes: “Whilst the capitalist mode of production more and more completely transforms the great majority of the population into proletarians, it creates the power which … is forced to accomplish this revolution. … The proletariat seizes political power and turns the means of production into State property.

“But, in doing this, it abolishes itself as proletariat, abolishes all class distinction and class antagonisms, abolishes also the State as State. Society, thus far, based on class antagonisms, had need of the State. That is, of an organization of the particular class which was, pro tempore, the exploiting class, an organization for the purpose of preventing any interference from without with the existing conditions of production.

“When, at last, it becomes the real representative of the whole of society, it renders itself unnecessary. As soon as there is no longer any social class to be held in subjection, as soon as class rule and the individual struggle for existence based upon our present anarchy in production … are removed, nothing more remains to be repressed, and a special repressive force, a State, is no longer necessary. … State interference in social relations becomes, in one domain after another, superfluous, and then dies out of itself; the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things, and by the conduct of processes of production. The State is not ‘abolished.’ It dies out.”

What Marx and Engels did not anticipate is how socialist revolutions have gone down until now. They envisioned that the socialist revolutions would occur in the most developed capitalist countries — most developed in terms of productive forces, the capability to produce. In fact, the socialist revolutions have occurred in the less developed countries.

20th-century revolutions

When the 1917 revolution occurred in Russia, the country was one of the most underdeveloped in the world, with a huge population, a huge portion of which was peasantry. China, Vietnam, Korea, Cuba, Afghanistan, the African countries — Angola, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau — were all former colonies. All were saddled with a low level of productive forces. In fact colonialism had drained and stolen the countries’ resources. Once the revolutions happened, the former colonialists, the imperialists, of course wouldn’t leave them alone. This created incredible difficulties for the revolutions.

In the USSR, the Bolsheviks — the communist organization that carried out the revolution — never expected that the revolution could survive isolated from rest of the world. It was a time of revolutionary fervor, and it was assumed that revolutions would happen after World War I throughout Europe and that therefore the new socialist countries would have the resources and support of other socialist countries. But social democracy beat out revolutions in many places, and in the USSR, instead of receiving support from many socialist countries, it faced civil war and the destruction of industry.

We should note that Cuba, despite tremendous difficulties sustaining its own revolution, took this concept of internationalism to heart by sending thousands of soldiers to help fight in the uprisings for liberation throughout the African continent.

This idea makes it all the more important to fight for socialism and communism in the U.S. Just think of how the resources and productive forces in the U.S. could help successful socialist revolutions develop quickly — if such aid were requested.

As for the current socialist countries, we call them socialist out of solidarity with their struggles to build socialism and against all the attacks that have come down on them. But Engels and Marx make clear that until the productive forces develop sufficiently to promote life at a higher level than capitalism, then those countries are in a transitional period from capitalism to socialism. We sometimes also use the terms “workers’ state” or “dictatorship of the proletariat” to refer to them. But the basis for building developed socialist societies is to develop production so they can satisfy the needs of the entire population.

High tech means layoffs, low pay — under capitalism

Here’s a concrete example of the way in which the contradiction between socialized production (that is, production organized among many workers and sometimes across the globe) and private appropriation (that is, appropriation of all the products of the workers’ labor by the capitalists for their own profit) plays out in present-day capitalist countries. And how it could be vastly different under socialism and communism.

We’ve already discussed how the socialist revolutions of the 20th century took place where capitalism and imperialism were weakest and how they were all burdened by underdevelopment and colonial domination. Well, in the 21st century, the contradictions of the capitalist system have resulted in crises in the most advanced capitalist countries, as is apparent from their impact on our own lives.

The tremendous development of technology has dramatically raised the productivity of labor — that is, new machines and computerized systems have resulted in the use of fewer workers to produce more than ever before. However, under capitalism, this has resulted in the overproduction of goods that cannot be sold, and it’s resulted in mass layoffs.

The focus of the Occupy Wall Street movement — on rising inequality between the wealthy 1% and the 99%, representing the working class (both employed and unemployed) — is a popular expression of the conditions that Marx and Engels discussed when they described the growing poverty among the masses and the fabulous wealth of the capitalist class

Driven by this constant revolution in the means of production, high-tech, present-day capitalism is characterized more and more by low-wage jobs and a permanent and growing reserve army of the unemployed. So, for example, when a factory puts in robots to do the work of many workers, or when retail stores buy software that track sales and inventory and every second of the workers’ time, these advances in technology are a threat to the working class. They result in layoffs of many workers and speed-up of those who remain.

But what if the means of production were owned collectively by the workers and run for the purposes of providing for human needs? Then these advances in technology would be a liberating force for humanity. Everyone could be relieved of back-breaking labor and repetitive jobs. Instead of working 40, 50 or 60 hours per week, everyone could work a greatly reduced schedule, with time for leisure, advanced education and cultural activities.

Human beings could put their minds to solving the great challenges facing the global population, not only to raise the standard of living for all, but also to rescue the planet from the environmental degradation that has been imposed by capitalism and the profit system.

We could imagine that digging for oil and gas or mining for coal — all the things that are dangerous and toxic to workers and the planet — could be eliminated by the true development of renewable energy sources. These are the kinds of possibilities that Marx and Engels predicted when they described the socialist future.

We also believe that when the capitalist class is eliminated as a class and class distinctions are a thing of the past, when there is no longer a struggle for the existence of the individual, the capitalist culture of racism, of divide and conquer, of promoting divisions by country, nationality, race, gender and sexuality could be eliminated as well. Generalized want promotes divisions, and of course, the capitalists use it to their advantage. When that want is eliminated, it will be all the more clear that we don’t need to fight among ourselves or allow ourselves to be divided into other categories.

Of course, promoting that kind of unity helps the struggle for socialism move forward. That’s why the capitalists hate it so much. And this is precisely why Marxism as an ideology has persisted for more than 150 years and has been taken up by the workers and oppressed in every corner of the globe, wherever people struggle for their liberation.