Is an alternative possible?

What Marx had to say about the transition from capitalism to socialism

THE REMARKABLE emergence of the Occupy Wall Street movement in the closing months of 2011 has not only shifted the political debate in the United States, putting issues of inequality, poverty and class front and center, but has also raised the issue of whether there is an alternative to a society based on competition, exploitation and repeated economic crises. These questions have been made even more urgent by the inability of capitalist governments to deal with the threat of global warming and potential environmental catastrophe.

Even some mainstream economists now admit that Marx’s economic theories provide the best explanation of why capitalism is mired in an intractable crisis—but they are careful to add that Marx’s theories of an alternative to capitalism have been refuted because the Eastern Bloc collapsed and “Communist China” has embraced capitalism. But to anyone who has read what Marx wrote about post-capitalist society, it should be obvious that the “socialism” that existed in these countries had nothing to do with the kind of alternative that he was proposing.

For Marx, the transition to a different form of society has to begin with a revolution that overthrows the minority that currently runs society (call them the 1 percent, the capitalists, or the bourgeoisie) and brings the working class (wage laborers or the proletariat) and its class allies to power. Unless capitalist control of the state is broken, they will use the military and the police to maintain their power. Attempts at building alternative forms of society without challenging the capitalist state are doomed to failure.

The ultimate goal of a worker’s revolution is the abolition of classes and the creation of a society in which “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” But it is impossible for a classless society to emerge immediately after a revolution. A revolution will take state power away from the old ruling class, but the classes that existed the day before the revolution will still exist on the day after.

For this reason, society must go through a transition phase, in which working-class control of society is consolidated. This will then permit the gradual disappearance of class differences and class antagonisms. This transitional period of working-class control is what Marx meant by the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” 

In light of the many brutal dictatorships of the twentieth century (including Stalin’s dictatorship over the proletariat in soviet Russia), the phrase today has a slightly ominous ring. But for Marx “the dictatorship of the proletariat” simply meant a temporary period in which the working class and its allies—the vast majority of society—would use state power to protect the revolution from the counter-revolutionary attempts of the old ruling class and to make the gains of the revolution permanent. Since this is a “dictatorship” in which the majority class is finally in power, it would go along with a vast expansion of democracy.

The distinction that Marx draws between the early post-revolutionary phase during which the working class controls the state (albeit, as we shall see in a moment, a radically different and democratic state), and a later phase in which classes have been abolished, maps on to a second distinction that he draws, in the Critique of the Gotha Program (a critical response to the draft program of the United Workers’ Party in Germany), between stages in the evolving economic arrangements of a post-capitalist society.

In the first stage that Marx describes, individuals are rewarded in proportion to their work. In a second and higher phase, the governing principle will be “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!” Some people call the first of these stages “socialism” and the second “communism,” although these are not Marx’s labels. In this sense, socialism coincides with the dictatorship of the proletariat, i.e., with workers’ power and a radically democratic state, and communism refers to a fully classless society that will emerge after a potentially lengthy period of development, in which the state—conceived of as a coercive institution of class power—is no longer needed, because classes and class conflict no longer exist.

Marx’s account of socialism was based on the historical experience of the Paris Commune of 1871. This was the first time that workers actually held state power, albeit only in a single city and only for two months. The Commune emerged at the end of the Franco-Prussian war, when the defeated French bourgeoisie retreated from Paris, leaving the city in the hands of the working class. Sadly, this state of affairs was not to last. The ruling class reorganized at Versailles and then launched a brutal military attack on Paris, slaughtering 30,000 of the communards. But before this terrible end, the Commune offered an inspiring, if embryonic, example of how society could be organized differently.

Marx used the experience of the Commune to draw some conclusions about post-capitalist society. On an economic level, the working class would collectively control the means of production, which would be developed to meet human needs. To begin with, individual income would be determined by the amount of work each person contributes, adjusted to take skill into account. Surplus wealth would still be produced, but no one would make a living off the work of others. The surplus would be used to replace and expand the means of production, and to provide social insurance, state administration, social services, and provisions for those unable to work due to their age or state of health.

This first stage of a post-revolutionary society would thus still be like capitalism in some ways, but very different from it in others. Those who worked more would receive a higher income, and there would still be markets for many non-essential goods. But many other goods—including housing, health care, and food—would be made freely available, and this would help to mitigate income inequalities. As the range of goods available in this way gradually expanded, the principle of reward according to contribution would become less important. Eventually, when production had reached the level where everyone’s needs and wants could be met, the wage system—and presumably money—would disappear completely.

This can’t happen at once, however, because—as Marx noted—socialism emerges from capitalist society and “is thus in every respect, economically, morally and intellectually, still stamped with the birth marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.” Initially, for example, it is highly probably that individual incentives will still play an important role in motivating people to work, and this would prevent an immediate drastic curtailment of the wage system. But it is also reasonable to suppose that the level of solidarity needed to organize a successful revolution would produce enough collective cooperation to ensure that people would be prepared to work without the threat of unemployment.

At the political level, a society organized in the interests of workers would initially require a state—by which Marx understood an organized apparatus of coercion used by one class to enforce its rule. Socialism—the first phase of post revolutionary society—is thus a form of class dictatorship. However, unlike earlier forms of class rule (such as the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie,” which exists under capitalism), the ruling class will be in the majority and will not live by exploiting others.

A workers’ state would be necessary to prevent the bourgeoisie from returning to power. Every significant revolution has had to deal with counter-revolutionary attacks, and even when it has been overthrown, the old bourgeoisie would still be a dangerous threat. It would try to take advantage of ideologies that is has propagated for centuries, including individualism, racism, sexism and nationalism, and individual members of the bourgeoisie would still have extensive political contacts and skills to draw on. Just as importantly, they would obtain backing from capitalists in other countries. These factors, especially in a situation characterized by the inevitable turmoil and risks of revolution, would make a state to protect the interests of the working class essential.

A workers’ state might enact a variety of measures to disempower the old ruing class. Marx was not explicit about what such measures might be, but the experience of twentieth-century revolutions give us an idea of what might be on the agenda. For instance, there might be political restrictions on those who were major office-holders or army officers under capitalism. There might be preferential treatment for the children of workers in higher education and in employment.  And there may need to be restrictions on the advocacy of crucial bourgeois ideas, such as racism and sexism.

But the dictatorship of the proletariat would be no more than a necessary evil. Marx sees any state as dangerous, because it encourages the development of a permanent ruling class. For that reason alone, a workers’ state would have to be organized very differently from the kind of state that exists under capitalism. The lesson that Marx drew from the Paris Commune was that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.” Instead, a worker’s state would need to be based on radically democratic principles.

The Commune itself provided many examples of how to maximize the democratic nature of the state. The professional army would be abolished and replaced by an accountable workers’ militia. The scope of politics would be enlarged: all officials, including the police, would be elected and subject to immediate recall, and economic decisions would be democratically decided. No state officials would earn more than the average skilled worker. The experience of twentieth-century revolutions suggests that the basic political unit under socialism will be the workers’ council, based on delegates elected directly from workplaces. Political power would thus ultimately be based on the collective economic power of the working class.

The twentieth-century also shows what happens if workers’ democracy is undermined. The Russian Revolution of 1917 brought a workers’ government to power in an entire country for the first time. But Russia’s economic backwardness and the devastation caused by World War I, meant that the revolution could not survive without outside support. But revolutions in more advanced countries were defeated, and instead of support the new regime faced invasions by foreign armies, a brutal civil war, further destruction of the economy, and epidemics that killed millions. Many of the most militant and class conscious workers died in the civil war. As industry contracted, workers’ councils ceased to operate or became rubber stamps for orders from above. As the central state became more bureaucratic, a new minority ruling class emerged, which crushed the revolution’s initial impressive achievements.

What the defeat of the Russian Revolution showed was that socialism cannot be built in an isolated, economically backward country. Only if revolution spreads internationally will it be possible to maintain workers’ democracy and to look forward to the eventual disappearance of classes and the replacement of a coercive state apparatus with coordinating institutions based on voluntary participation. Of course critics will claim that such a society is a pipe dream, but if we consider what Marx actually had in mind, perhaps it will seem a little less fanciful.

A higher stage of post-capitalist society would emerge as class divisions and class antagonisms fade away. It would go against the grain for Marx to claim that historical change comes to an end, so communism should not be considered to be the final stage of society, but the problems of class conflict, central to all earlier societies (except the most primitive) would no longer exist, although argument, disagreement and conflict of less serious kinds will always be a part of human society.

Communism would be a more collective form of society. As we have noted, there would be no wages and no physically coercive state. How, then, would members of a communist society be motivated? The kind of society that Marx envisages would only be possible if humans are capable of developing a different kind of self-esteem from that which has previously existed. This new psychology would be based not on competition, but on the satisfaction of engaging in rewarding work and of doing things that benefit the whole community.

Marx believed this new psychology would emerge from the experience of co-operation and solidarity needed for a successful revolution. As Marx notes, “In revolutionary activity, the changing of oneself coincides with the changing of circumstances.” Living in a society under workers’ control would develop these characteristics further. But Marx didn’t claim that people would become pure altruists. Even under communism, people wouldn’t work collectively unless they found it personally satisfying. 

Socialists today can’t prove that such a society is a genuine possibility. But we can point to the ways in which people’s ideas and motivations actually do change as a result of collective action, and we can make the argument that a sustainable form of capitalism is even more far-fetched. As Engels once noted, capitalism’s “productive forces have grown beyond its control, and, as if necessitated by a law of nature, are driving the whole of bourgeois society towards ruin, or revolution.” If those are the choices, revolution is worth a try.


Issue #101

Summer 2016

Socialism in the Air

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