The Writings of Bertell Ollman
to the Editor
Dance of the Dialectic: Steps in Marx's Method
Reviews of Ollman's Books
Featured article -
America Beyond Capitalism: A Socialist Stew Prepared for Liberals and Conservatives
Featured speech -
McCoy Award Acceptance Speech
Video: Marxism and Progress
Marxism (the cartoon version)
From Theory to Practice
Recommended Web Sites
NYU Course Bibliographies
Not To Dare
Kiki & Bubu explain the neoliberal shift in labor relations
Marx's Vision of Communism:
The First Stage
By Bertell Ollman
As is well known, Marx never wrote a book or even an essay on communism. Yet, as even casual readers of Marx know, descriptions of the future society are scattered throughout his writings. Over two decades ago, I gathered together the most important of these descriptions in a single place. Treating them like the pieces of a puzzle, I was able to construct a fuller (though far from complete) and more coherent vision of communism than most of Marx's readers thought to exist. My main purpose was to provide a more adequate answer to the question that we Marxists get asked so often"What is the alternative?". It is evident that social criticism can lead to radical political action only if one believes, however tentatively, that a qualitatively better society can be built. Unfortunately, most of those who criticize communism today do not believe this.
Some readers were quick to suggest that Marx would have frowned at my effort, often citing his well known remark, "Communism is for us not a stable state which is to be established, an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from premises now in existence". There is nothing in this comment (which I also quote in my essay), however, that forbids all attempts to clarify where this "real movement" is heading. Moreover, judging from an l85l outline of what was to become Capital, Marx intended to present his views on communism in a systematic manner in the final volume. The plan changed, in part because Marx never concluded his work on political economy proper, and what Engels in a letter to Marx refers to as "the famous 'positive', what you 'really' want" was never written. This incident does point up, however, that Marx's objection to discussing communist society was more of a strategic than of a principled sort. More specifically, and particularly in his earlier works, Marx was concerned to distinguish himself from other socialists for whom prescriptions of the future were the main stock-in-trade. He was also very aware that when people change their ways and views it is generally in reaction to an intolerable situation in the present and only to a small degree because of the attraction of a better life in the future. Consequently, emphasizing communism was not the most effective means of promoting proletarian class consciousness, his immediate political objective. Finally, with only the outline of the future visible from the present, Marx hesitated to burden his analysis of capitalism with material that could not be brought into focus without undermining in the minds of many the scientific character of his entire enterprise.
While such reasons may have kept Marx from presenting his views on communism in a more ordered fashion, however, I don't think they apply to us in the same way. No one today, for example, is likely to confuse Marxism, even with the addition of a more systematic vision of communism, with other socialist schools whose very names are difficult to recall. As for the role of communism in raising class consciousness, Marx was clearly right that helping workers understand their exploitation as a fundamental and necessary part of the capitalist system is the "high road" to class consciousness. It seems equally evident, however, that the inability to conceive of a humanly superior way of life, an inability fostered by this same exploitation, has contributed to the lassitude and cynicism that helps to thwart such consciousness. Viewed in this light, giving workers and indeed members of all oppressed classes a better notion of what their lives would be like under communism is essential to the success of the socialist project.
As for only being able to know the broad outlines of communism, this is as true now as it was in Marx's time. But whereas presenting this outline then might reflect negatively on Marxism as a whole, this is no longer the case, for the intervening century has brought pieces of Marx's horizon underfoot and made most of the rest easier to see and to comprehend. Consequently, I considered my effort to present a more systematic version of communism than any found in Marx's own writings fully in keeping with Marx's larger project.
Since the publication of my essay, the collapse of "actually existing socialism" (an Orwellian construction in the best of times) has led those dissatisfied with capitalism to intensify their search for an alternative. Unfortunatelyand somewhat surprisinglyeven socialists who never saw the Soviet Union as a model of anything seem to have drawn negative lessons from its demise for the possibility of communism. If communism was never before so possible materially, technologically, sociallyindeed, in every way but politicallynever before has it met with such widespread skepticism. What is the bearing of this changed situation on my effort to present Marx's vision of communism?
While it is probably more difficult today to get Marx's vision of communism taken seriously, there has never been a time when this vision was needed more than now. As the Cheshire Cat tells Aliceif you don't know where you want to go, then any path will do. Why give priority, we are asked again and again, to any one reform over others?
The first step in reestablishing Marx's vision and providing the oppressed of this world with a path to take into the future is to break the connection between communism and the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, this is how most people continue to think about communism. Instead, communism must be linked, as it was for Marx, to capitalism. Viewed in relation to the Soviet Union, communism cannot help but be sullied by the distortions that disfigured even the modest successes that occurred under that regime. But, perhaps even more important, when communism is viewed in connection with the Soviet experience (whether one approves or disapproves of the result), communism seems to be an alternative available to people anywhere, at any time, and under any conditions. What counts here are various subjective factors ranging from the intelligence and commitments of the leadership to the type of party they create and the strategy they adopt. Viewing communism in and through its ties to capitalism, on the other hand, brings to the fore the objective conditions responsible for the particular problems from which people suffer together with the related conditionsall of which were completely absent in the Soviet Unionthat provide a basis for their solution. It is this approach that allowed Marx to treat communism as an unrealized potential within capitalism.
But if this is so, thenlike Marxwe must give top priority to the analysis of capitalism, and not of market society, or industrial society, or the information society, or modern society, or post-modern society, or even American society. For our worst problemscrisis, economic exploitation, alienation, unemployment, social and economic inequality, and imperialismall arise from the natural workings of capitalism, as do the main elements for their solution. Substituting another way or organizing social life for capitalism as the privileged object of study leaves the origins of these problems out of focus or worse, and makes it difficult to see where their solutions might come from.
As our present economic crisis deepens, several non-Marxist writers have grudgingly admitted that Marx seems to have been right about capitalism, butthey are quick to addwrong about communism. In the celebration of the l50th anniversary of the Communist Manifesto, the Canadian-American psychologist, Bill Livant, has identified this as "coitus manifestus", sub-variety "communistus interruptus". For if Marx was right about capitalism, given all that he understands by "capitalism", then he had to be right about communism, for the latter resides inside the folds of the former. In which case, the only way to deny the possibility of communism is to reject the analysis of capitalism that portrays it as a possibility.
What is to be done, thencontra Leninat least in this gray interregnum through which the world Left is now passing, is to reestablish the necessary links between capitalism and communism. This is not the same as saying that communism is inevitable. Even Marx saw barbarism, "the common ruin of all classes", as a possible alternative to communism, though he considered it very unlikely and never studied it seriously. Today, after fascism and the civil wars in Lebanon, Yugoslavia, and Rwanda, we have a better idea of what barbarism might bring, and how great a danger it poses. The steady erosion of the ecological conditions necessary for the reproduction of human life and the growing destructive power of modern weaponry has presented us with two more possible outcomes to human history.
In presenting the choice before humanity in the coming period as between communism, barbarism, ecological suicide and nuclear annihilation, I am trying to make two main points: that the continuation of democratic capitalism, whose necessary preconditions are even now disappearing, is not one of the alternatives; and that none of the real alternatives to communism are acceptable to anyone. For people to choose communism, however, still requires that they recognize it as a realistic possibility, no matter how unlikely they believe it to be. For whereas communism will only be achieved if the majority of workers, which includes practically everyone nowadays, set out on this path, the other possible outcomes to human history can come about without anyone actually choosing them. As capitalist decline turns into a full scale rout, all that is required is that people put off choosing communism long enough.
There is still time to awaken people about the real possibility of communism. The preconditions for communism that lie inside capitalism are increasing in size and number and becoming more apparent everywhere. There can be few tasks more important today than to make these preconditions stand out in sharp relief and to publicize them as foreshadowings of communism. This is a task of many parts. In this essay, I will limit myself to outlining Marx's vision of socialism, or the first stage of communism. My main purpose is to show how relatively easy it is to conceive of the reforms Marx projects for this period. And if people have little difficulty imagining how these reforms would look and work, it is because most of their components, albeit in other forms and/or arranged differently, are found within capitalism. The way of life that emerges should strike most people as not only desirable but practical and doable. Further removed from our experience, Marx's picture of the second stage, or full communism, taxes the imagination as well as credulity far more. Fortunately, an understanding of the first stage of communism is generally enough to provide our side in the class struggle with all the direction it needs to get onto the right path. In any case, it is only after the construction of socialism is well underway that the possibility for advancing to full communism can be adequately appreciated. Hence, without intending to deny the essential ties between the two stages of communism, our account will focus on the first state, or what Marx thought could be done now with the means that capitalism has already provided.
Marx divides the communist future, as I've indicated, into halves, a first stage, or socialism, which is often referred to as the "dictatorship of the proletariat", and a second stage that is also called "full communism". The historical boundaries of the first stage are set in the claim that, "Between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. There corresponds to this also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat".
The overall character of this period is supplied by Marx's statement that "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 still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges". This first stage is the necessary gestation period for full communism: it is a time when the people who have destroyed capitalism are engaged in the task of total reconstruction. As a way of life and organization, it has traits in common with both capitalism and full communism and many which are uniquely its own. When its work is doneand Marx never indicates how long this may takethe first stage gives way gradually, almost imperceptibly, to the second.
Our main sources for Marx's views on the dictatorship of the proletariat are the Communist Manifesto, the "Critique of the Gotha Program", and "Civil War in France", in which he discusses the reforms of the Paris Commune. In the Communist Manifesto, there are ten measures that workers' parties are urged to put into effect immediately after their victory over the capitalists. By treating these suggestions as if they were already taken up, we can use this list as a basis for our picture of the first stage.
What Marx asks for are : "l) Abolition of property in land and application of all Rents on land to public purposes. 2) A heavy progressive or graduated income tax. 3) Abolition of all right of inheritance. 4) Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels. 5) Centralization of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with state capital and an exclusive monopoly. 6) Centralization of communication and transport in the hands of the state. 7) Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the state, the bringing in cultivation of waste lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan. 8) Equal liability of all to labor. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture. 9) Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, by a more equable distribution of population over the country. 10) Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children's factory labor in its resent form. Combination of education with industrial production, etc., etc."
It is conceded that "these measures will of course differ in different countries", but in the most advanced countries they "will be pretty generally applicable". No matter the variation in means, and it appears these variations would be modest ones, the goals remain the same: "to wrest… all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the state… and to increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible".
These demands will be examined singly in order to reveal the full measure of change projected by each one: l) "Abolition of property in land and application of all rents on land to public purposes". Rather than parceling out estates and giving land to the people who work on itthe reactionary dream of all peasantsland becomes the property of the state, which uses the rent it receives for public purposes. Judging from Marx's treatment of the land question in "Civil War in France", farmers would pay less rent to the state than they paid to their former landlords. Later in his life, faced with Bakunin's criticisms, Marx qualified this demand: "the proletariat", he now says, "must take measures, as a government, through which the peasant finds his position directly improved, which thus wins him for the revolution; measures, however, which facilitate in nucleus the transition from private property in the soil to collective property, so that the peasant comes to it of his own accord, economically. But it must not antagonize the peasant, by for instance, proclaiming the abolition of the right of inheritance or the abolition of his property: this is only possible where the capitalist tenant has ousted the peasant, and the real tiller of the soil is just as much a proletarian, a wage worker, as is the urban worker, and hence has directly, and not only indirectly, the same interests as he. One has even less right to strengthen small peasant property by simply enlarging the plots by the transfer of the larger estates to the peasants, as in Bakunin's revolutionary campaign".
This apparent contradiction can be explained by the fact that here Marx is primarily concerned with tactics and with those peasants who work their own plots of land, while in the Communist Manifesto he was speaking mainly about non-owning peasants. The two positions can be reconciles as follows: before, during and immediately after the revolution care should be taken not to frighten the small land-owning peasants, while the landless peasants (our farm workers) are to be collectivized at once on the estates of their former landlords and employers. Marx never wavered in his belief that if socialism is to "have any chance whatever of victory, it must at least be able to do as much immediately for the peasants, mutatis mutandis, as the French bourgeoisie did in its revolution".
For Marx, the peasant, despite his numerous delusions, is "above all a man of reckoning". He could not fail to be attracted by the tax benefits and material comforts, work conditions and cultural life available on collectives. All this, it would appear, without depriving the small-holding peasant of anything he already has, are the arguments that will convince him to collectivize his property. Marx did not envision great difficulty in making this transition, nor that it would take much time.
2) "A heavy progressive or graduated income tax". Apparently, significant differences of income still exist at this stage, or, at least, at the start of it. Many enterprises are privately owned, and their owners probably make more than they would working in a factory. Moreover, in a full employment economy with a scarcity of many essential skills, there are still occupations that have to pay high wages in order to attract workers. The inequality of incomes, therefore, is economically necessary, but because it is also socially undesirable an attempt is made through the income tax to render the real gap as narrow as possible. With the increasing equalization of incomes, the progressive income tax soon becomes outmoded.
3) "Abolition of all right of inheritance". Differences between personal incomes are deplored but accepted as necessary. The disparity in family fortunes, however, is not acceptable. Even those modest fortunes which result from wage differentials cannot be bequeathed to one's children. How this is to be reconciled with the intention, stated earlier, of letting small-holding peasants retain their land until they themselves decide to join collectives is nowhere made clear. Nor do we know for sure what Marx includes among the things that cannot be inherited.
While discussing wages, Marx declares "nothing can pass to the ownership of individuals except individual means of consumption". Something similar, no doubt, would be used to distinguish between what can and cannot be passed on to one's children. The purpose of the no-inheritance principle is to achieve wealth equality after the death of those now living. From this time forward everyone begins life with the same material advantages, and equality of opportunityan impossible dream under capitalismis finally realized. What people acquire over and above this will be what they have earned through their own efforts.
4) "Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels". This is a practical step intended not so much to aid the state in its drive toward public ownership as to serve as a warning to the bourgeoisie not to engage in counter-revolutionary activity. The proletariat's victory is not completed with the revolution, but must be fought over and won again with all those leftovers of the old society whose hostility impairs the process of social reconstruction. It is indicative of the humanity with which Marx confronts counter-revolutionaries that confiscation is the most severe punishment mentioned.
5) "Centralization of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with state capital and an exclusive monopoly". Carrying this measure into effect will deprive financiers of both their wealth and their power to direct the economy. With exclusive control of credit facilities, the state can decide what parts of the economy should be expanded and by how much. It will also enable the state to finance the "national workshops" that Marx calls for elsewhere. Meanwhile, what are considered useless or socially harmful enterprises will be squeezed out of existence by withholding needed funds. What is particularly striking about this demand is that it shows the degree of independence to be allowed individual enterprises, whether private or public., at the very beginnings of socialism. If all major decisions were made by some central authority, there would be no need for the state to use credit as a means of control.
6) "Centralization of communication and transport in the hands of the state". Like the previous one, this measure aims at depriving a few capitalists of their power to control the nation's economy, and allows the state to develop its internal communication system of the basis of social need. Another immediate result is that all transportation is made free to the poor. Again, the need to specify that communication and transport are taken over by the state suggests that most fields of endeavor are not at this time.
7) "Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the state, the bringing in cultivation of waste lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan". The involvement of the state in the economy is not concluded when it takes over enterprises and gains control of others through its monopoly of credit facilities. The state cannot sit on the production laurels of the capitalist economy which preceded it, as imposing as these may be. With the aid of a plan, every effort is made to increase nature's bounty by rapidly increasing and perfecting the means by which it is produced.
8) "Equal liability of all to labor. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture". The new order brings to an end the parasitic situation existing under capitalism, where the few who don't work are supported by the many who do. Everyone works in communism. Those who don't work don't eat: "Apart from surplus-labor for those who on account of age are not yet, or no longer able to take part in production, all labor to support those who do not work would cease". The freedom to choose one's work is not affected, as some critics assert; just the privilege of choosing not to work is abolished. With everyone working, "productive labor ceases to be a class attribute", allowing Marx to claim that communism "recognizes no class differences because everyone is a worker like everyone else".
In calling for the establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture, Marx is as concerned with changing the personalities of the people involved as he is with promoting greater economic efficiency.
9) "Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country". One of the least recognized of the harmful divisions Marx sees in the human species is between man the "restricted town animal" and man the "restricted country animal". We must remember that, for Marx, peasants are a "class of barbarians", whose way of existence he labels the "idiocy of rural life". People in the country, therefore, need the city and all that it represents in the way of advanced technology, culture, and education, just as people living in the city need the country, its fresh air, inspiring scenery, close contact with animals, and toil on the land itself in order to achieve their full stature as human beings. The first stage of communism sees an attempt to create new economic arrangements which will allow people to spend time in cities as well as in the country. The importance Marx attaches to this development can be gathered from his claim that, "The abolition of the antagonism between town and country is one of the first conditions of communal life".
Marx believes that the necessary means for healing the split between town and country have already been provided by the preceding mode of production: capitalism, he says, "creates the material conditions for a higher synthesis in the future, namely, the union of agriculture and industry on the basis of the more perfected forms they have each acquired during their temporary separation". We are left to guess what this "higher synthesis" actually looks like, but it appears to involve moving some industries to the country as well as greatly expanding the amount of unencumbered land inside cities for parks, woodland, and garden plots. I suspect, too, that Marx would like to see the number of people living in any one city reduced, and more small and medium size cities set up throughout the countryside, resulting in "a more equable distribution of population over the country", which would also make possible the establishment of industrial armies for agriculture.
10) "Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children's factory labor in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, etc., etc.". In l848, even elementary education had to be paid for in most countries, so we can easily understand why public education was a major reform.
By "public schools" Marx did not mean "state schools" as this expression is commonly understood. In his "Criticism of the Gotha Program", Marx opposes the German Social Democratic Party's demand for control of "elementary education by the state". He says, "Defining by a general law the expenditure on the elementary schools, the qualification of the teaching staff, the branches of instruction, etc., and, as is done in the United States, supervising the fulfillment of these legal specifications by state inspectors, is a very different thing from appointing the state as the educator or the people. Government and church should rather be totally excluded from any influence on the schools". The people themselves, directly or through social organs still unspecified, will supply the guidelines of their educational system.
In Marx's time, working class children spent the greater part of each day slaving in factories. Clearly, this had to cease immediately. However, Marx did not believe that all this time was better devoted to classroom learning. This, too, would stunt the child's development. Instead, he favors an education that "will, in the case of every child over a given age, combine productive labor with instruction and gymnastics, not only as one of the methods of adding to the efficiency of production but as the only method of producing fully developed human beings".
Not all of the information Marx supplies on the first stage of communism fits neatly into the list of demands found in the Communist Manifesto: the state, conditions and hours of work, planning for production, and the distribution of what is produced remain to be discussed.
As an instrument of working class rule, the state in this period is labeled, in what has proven to be an unfortunate turn of phrase, the "dictatorship of the proletariat". Hal Draper has demonstrated that "dictatorship" meant something very different to Marx and his contemporaries than it does to most of us. Marx did not use this concept to refer to the extra-legal and generally violent rule of one man or a small group of men. Before Hitler and Mussolini, the meaning of "dictatorship" was still influenced by its use in ancient Rome, republican Rome, where the constitution provided for the election of a dictator who was given power for a limited period to carry out certain specified tasks. It was in opposition to Blanqui's elitist views on the organization of the coming workers' state that Marx first introduced the expression "dictatorship of the proletariat", and by it he meant the democratic rule of the entire working class (including farm laborers), which made up the large majority of the population in all advanced countries. The ultimate power to build socialism was to reside not with a vanguard or a party claiming to represent the workers, but with the entire class.
In capitalism, there is the "dictatorship of the bourgeoisie" (political power is in the hands of the capitalists), and, despite the façade of popular rule, the mass of the workers have no real chance to participate in government and affect the way it serves the interests of the capitalist class. In the dictatorship of the proletariat, on the other hand, once the former capitalists and landlords get "honest" jobs they become workers and take full part in the political process along with the rest of the population. The dictatorship of the proletariat, therefore, is actually more democratic than democratic governments in capitalist societies, even by the latter's own definition of "democracy".
The dictatorship of the proletariat comes in the wake of the revolution and exists until the onset of full communism. Broadly speaking, its task is to transform the capitalism left behind in all its aspects, material and human, into the full communist society that lies ahead. It functions as a "permanent revolution". As a government, it has a singleness of aim as regards both the past, out of which old enemies are constantly reappearing, and the future, which it works for in a highly systematic way. Marx says, "as long as other classes, especially the capitalist class, still exist, as long as the proletariat is still struggling with it (because with its conquest of governmental power its enemies and the old organization of society have not disappeared), it must use coercive means, hence governmental means: it is still a class, and the economic conditions on which the class struggle and the existence of classes rest have not yet disappeared and must be removed by force, or transformed, their process of transformation must be speeded up by force".
Where remnants of the old order remain, they are to be removed, the state using all the force necessary for this purpose. Marx's comments elsewhere on the abolition of inheritance, the confiscation of the property of rebels, etc., give an indication of the kind of measures he favored to do away with capitalists as a class. Should individual members of this class prove incorrigible, his statement on the role of the proletarian dictatorship seems to provide a justification for using more extreme means. Marx, however, apparently believed that the economic and social measures introduced by the new regime would be sufficient to transform most capitalists, and that physical violence would only be used against those who resorted to violence themselves.
Most of our details on the workers' government come from Marx's laudatory account of the Paris Commune. The Commune was not a true dictatorship of the proletariat, but it was a close enough approximation to allow us to abstract the general lines, if not the exact configuration, of the workers' state. Marx says the "true secret" of the Commune is that "It was essentially a working class government, the product of the struggle of the producing class against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economic emancipation of labor".
How then was the Commune organized? "The Commune was formed of the municipal councilors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short terms… The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time. Instead of continuing to be the agent of the Central Government, the police was at once stripped of its political attributes, and turned into the responsible and at all times revocable agent of the Commune". The long arm of popular rule extended into the chambers of the judiciary, ending what Marx calls their "sham independence": "Like the rest of public servants, magistrates and judges were to be elective, responsible, and revocable". We also learn that a clear line was drawn between church and state, and that the army, like the police, was disbanded and replaced by the armed people.
The organization of the Paris Commune was to serve as a model not only for the other cities of France, but for small towns and rural districts as well. And at every level, the "delegates" (not representatives) elected were "to be at any time revocable and bound by the mandate imperatif (formal instructions) of his constituents". People's control over their elected officials was quite extensive. According to Marx, " Instead of deciding once in three or six years which member of the ruling class was to misrepresent the people in Parliament, universal suffrage was to serve the people, constituted in Communes, as individual suffrage serves every other employer in search for the workmen and managers in his business. And it is well known that companies, like individuals, in matters of real business generally know how to put the right man in the right place, and, if they for once make a mistake, to redress it promptly". Marx's defense of the Commune's program of frequent elections for all government functionariesmandated instructions from their constituents, and their easy recall whenever they prove unworthy reflect his belief that people of all classes recognize orin the absence of capitalist brain washing techniquescan easily be made to recognize their interests and to act upon them.
We have been discussing the dictatorship of the proletariat as if it were the government of a single country. This may be the case immediately after the first revolution, but it is evident that Marx expects this government, within a short space of time, to become world wide. Capitalism establishes a "universal intercourse" between people, creates the same classes with identical interests in each country and connects them in such a way that no ruling group, whether capitalist or socialist, can succeed on less than a universal basis. Marx states, "Empirically, communism is only possible as the act of the dominant people, 'all at once' or simultaneously". There is no need, therefore, to advise the workers' government on how to deal with the remaining capitalist powers, nor is there is any need to provide for a standing army. Thus, all the people and means of production currently going to waste in military ventures would become available for useful work almost immediately. Probably nothing is more responsible for the distortion Marx's vision of communism underwent in Russia than the fact that the "world revolution" of 1917 only succeeded in a small part of the world.
Marx's description of economic life in the new society is as general and incomplete as his discussion of its political forms. Still, the basic outline of what to expect is there. Inside factories and other enterprises, an immediate result of the revolution is an improvement in working conditions. Marx attacked the capitalist system for "the absence of all provisions to render the productive process human, agreeable, or at least bearable", and it is clear that the dictatorship of the proletariat gives top priority to correcting this situation. As well as an indictment of existing evils, the description of working conditions in Capital can be taken as a roll call of needed reforms. The aims of all action in this field is, first, to make work bearable, then agreeable, and finally, human.
Hand in hand with the amelioration of working conditions goes the shortening of the working day. This is accomplished without any decrease in the total social product. In the only instance where figures are given, it appears that the working day will be cut in half. Marx explains how this is possible: "If everybody must work, if the opposition between those who do work and those who don't disappears...and if moreover, one takes count of the development of the productive forces engendered by capital, society will produce in 6 hours the necessary surplus, even more than now in 12 hours; at the same time everybody will have 6 hours of 'time at his disposition', the true richness..." In communism, it is not material objects but free time, the time to pursue interests and to develop one's varied talents, that is the substance of wealth. Another basis for Marx's optimism is seen in his claim that shorter work days will mean greater intensity of labor for the time actually at work.
The very enormity of the cut in hours Marx proposes indicates how great, he believes, is the number of people not working or engaged in useless activity (9/10 of the labor in the circulation process, for example, is said to be necessary only under conditions of capitalism), and also the extent to which capitalism has not taken advantage of its opportunities for technical progress. How else could the revolution cut each work day in half while enabling society to produce more than before? In any case, it is clear that Marx's proletariat, unlike Lenin's, does not have to build an industrial base before it sets out to build communism. With all the technical advances made in the last hundred years, it is also worth noting that socialism today would require people to work many fewer hours than the number Marx projected.
Also in the area of production, Marx's views on planning occupy a key position. Marx believes, "The life process of society… does not strip off its mystical veil until it is treated by freely associated men in accordance with a settled plan". When that occurs, he says, "The social relations of the individual producers are...perfectly simple and intelligible, and that with respect not only to production but also to distribution". The immediate aim of all communist planning is the satisfaction of "social needs". In deciding how much of any given article to produce, the planners have to strike a balance between social need (including the need to replace and expand the facilities and materials used), available labor time, and the existing means of production. Although Marx recognized that demand is elastic, he never doubted that his proletarian plannerswhose actual planning mechanisms are never discussedwould make the right equations, and bring people a higher standard of life than all but a privileged few enjoyed under capitalism.
So far we have spoken as if all the people living in the first stage of communism receive equal shares of the social product. But this is only true if they work the same amount of time, since the measure guiding distribution for most of this periodit is introduced as soon as it is feasibleis labor-time. Marx claims that each person "receives back from societyafter the deductions have been madeexactly what he gives to it. What he has given to it is his individual quantum of labor...He receives a certificate from society that he has furnished such and such an amount of labor (after deducting his labor for the common funds), and with this certificate he draws from the social stock of means of consumption as much as constitutes the same amount of labor. The same amount of labor which he has given to society in one form he receives back in another". The Commune's practise of paying everyone in government service, from members of the Commune downwards, the same worker's wages is declared to be a practical expression of the principle, "equal pay for equal labor-time".
The uses of money are so limited in this period that Marx prefers to speak of "certificates" and "vouchers". Instead of money, what we have are pieces of paper which state how much labor-time one has contributed to the social fund. These simply entitle the individual to draw an equivalent from the fund in the form of consumption goods. Means of production and social means of consumptionsuch as scenic land and trainsare not for sale. As Marx says elsewhere, "These vouchers are not money. They do not circulate". Such limitations on the power and function of wage payments puts an end to the money system as we know it.
Marx's picture of life and organization in the first stage of communism is very incomplete. There is no discussion of such obviously important developments as workers' control. We can only guess how much power workers enjoy in their enterprises and through what mechanisms they exercise it on the basis of the democratic processes Marx favors for politics, keeping in mind the limits imposed by the central plan. Cultural institutions and practises are hardly mentioned. Nor is there much about how conflicts between individuals or between ethnic, racial, or gender groups are resolved, other than the insistence on proletarian democracy and on the equality enjoyed by all members of the working class.
Perhaps more significant is the absence of a list of priorities for the measures he favored, other than the ten demands made in the Communist Manifesto (quoted above). Politics is to a large extent the art of arranging priorities, but in what order are Marx's reforms to be introduced? Pointing out that this order is seriously affected by conditions in each country only serves to qualify the question; it doesn't answer it. One would be mistaken, therefore, to view what has been pieced together here as a blueprint or what to do and how to do it. It is but a vision, only one of the ingredients from which blueprints are madeand Marx would not have wanted it otherwise.
With the intensification and completion of the various aspects of life and organization associated with the first stage, the second stage of communism gradually makes its appearance. Marx's description of full communism, however, must be left for another time. What still needs to be addressed here is why the first stage, socialism, is likely to develop in the manner depicted above. Whence its certainty? Earlier I spoke of the possibility of a move toward communism. Now I would like to offer a brief defense of the particular vision of it found in Marx's writings.
First, as regards objective conditions: the debate over the role played by the advanced conditions inherited from capitalism is often distorted by raising the wrong question. We should not be asking, "What do these conditions make necessary?", but"What do they make unnecessary?". Clearly, it is not necessary at this time to sacrifice existing living standards in order to develop still underdeveloped forces of production. It is unnecessary, therefore, to adopt a code of military discipline for workers, or to squeeze a recalcitrant peasantry to obtain sufficient grain, or to press intellectuals into becoming cheer leaders for this process, or to organize bogus elections out of fear for honest ones. The "Soviet path", with all its heartbreaking twists, is not so much rejected as rendered irrelevant.
Second, as regards subjective conditions: here, too, the key question is often badly formulated. We should not be asking, "Why would the workers do what Marx thinks they will?", but "Why would they do otherwise?". As the new ruling class, the workers will simply try to do what every ruling class before them has done, which is to serve their class interests. And the workers' most important class interest is to abolish the conditions of their own exploitation, understod as everything that contributes to the extraction of surplus-value from their labor. All the reforms depicted in Marx's account of the first stagefrom the socialization of the means of production, to reducing hours of work, to tying distribution to labor time, to the thorough democratization of the polity, etc.combine to make such exploitation impossible.
Workers in capitalism have great difficulty, as we know, recognizing their class interests. Why would it be different under socialism? Since we are discussing what is likely to happen after a socialist revolution, we must factor into our answer all the changes that workers would undergo as part of the revolutionary process. Given the enormous power of the capitalist class, for a socialist revolution to succeed, the majority of workers would have had to attain a certain degree of class consciousness. This involves, among other things, grasping their common interests as workers, developing greater mutual concern for each other, becoming more cooperative, and acquiring a keener interest in political affairs as well as a stronger sense of personal responsibility for how they turn out. But these are the same qualities that make building socialism after the revolution, including democratic central planning, possible. Marx considered participation in a revolution the greatest education a person could have. Any evaluation of the what workers would want to do and be capable of doing after the revolution needs to take account of how much they will have been changed by such an education.
To this we must now add the disappearance of the capitalist consciousness industry, with its various ideological products, and the steady erosion of the market, with its accompanying mystification of money, commodities, social relations, and human nature itself. With these developments, the world in which people live, including all the relations between them, would soon acquire a transparency that capitalism had made impossible. Workers at this time, therefore, would not only be able to see more clearly and grasp more fully whatever pertains to them, but reality itself would become an open book that all can read. In this context, workers would have little difficulty recognizing their interests and what is required to serve them.
Take the example of central planning. When we consider the favorable conditions in which the socialist planning that Marx speaks of would take place and the altered character of the workers who would be involved in it, we can see just how spurious is the comparison that is so often made with Soviet planning. Would the workers in this post-capitalist socialist society give the planners the accurate information that they need? Would workers at this time exhibit the mutual concern to provide help to those who are worse off? Would they have sufficient flexibility and understanding to make the needed compromises among themselves? Would workers then do their best to make sure that the plan, which they played a role in making, succeeds? In his widely influential book, The Economics of Feasible Socialism, Alec Nove answers all these questions in the negative. But his answers are drawn entirely from the experience of the Soviet Union, where workers had no input into the plan or into choosing the planners, and never felt themselves fully integrated parts of the social whole. There is little, if anything, however, to learn from the fate of undemocratic planning functioning in a context of extreme scarcity, and with an increasingly skeptical and uncooperative working class, for a situation where none of these conditions would apply. Placed alongside all the elements that constitute Marx's socialist society, there should be no difficulty in seeing that democratic central planning can work.
Marx's vision of socialism, then, is an eminently reasonable projection of what is likely to occur if and when the workers succeed the capitalists as the dominant class. What is absolutely certain is the demise of capitalism. Whether this event will be triggered by a socialist revolution is not equally certain. Nor can we take it for granted that our side will win if such a revolution does occur. Barbarism, ecological suicide, and nuclear annihilation, as we noted earlier, stand in the wings awaiting our defeat. To avoid these horrendous alternatives, the majority of workers, that is all people who work for a living, have to develop a higher degree of class consciousness, and that has to happen pretty soon (in my opinion, within the next few decades). Socialists can quicken this process by extending our ongoing criticisms of capitalism to include more of what socialism would bring, what it could really bring, emphasizing how practical, reasonable, doable, andyeseven easy it would be to create a society in the interests of the workers, which is to say a society that is truly democratic, just, free, egalitarian, rational, and humane. (These are our words. Isn't it time to take them back from those who have stolen them from us?)
|Copyright © Bertell Ollman 2004-2014. All rights reserved.|