Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: beyond class society

Thinking the alternative

Should the movement have a final goal? Mike Macnair argues for the maximum programme

In my recent article on the young women who ran away to become brides for Islamic State, I concluded that “the left needs to organise itself to fight for a really radical alternative to the present order”.1

This is not just a matter of the left standing for the revolutionary overthrow of the existing state system. To compete with the appeal of the utopian aspirations of reactionary anti-capitalism, an immediate defensive policy (‘no war’, ‘no austerity’, etc) is insufficient. Nostalgia for a more social democratic capitalism in the form of ‘back to 1945’ in Britain, ‘back to the New Deal’ in the US, and so on, are equally insufficient. We need to actively promote what was traditionally called the ‘maximum programme’: a vision of a possible long-term alternative to capitalism, in relation to which the overthrow of the existing state system in favour of working class rule is a step along the road.

This issue was also raised in my recent exchange with Chris Cutrone of Platypus in the letters column of this paper, and I said in my letters of January 15 and January 29 that I would return to it (“the questions of liberalism, its ‘promise’, the relation between the dictatorship of the proletariat, socialism and communism, and more broadly the nature of general human emancipation”) in more depth. (Comrade Cutrone himself has in a sense returned to the issue in a distorted form in his letter of February 10, where he accuses me of sharing Bernstein’s view that “the movement is everything and the goal nothing”.)

In this series of three articles I will approach the question in three steps. The first consists of some comments on comrade Cutrone’s argument and the obscure indications in his article and letters of his own approach; and a brief introduction to what the CPGB views, in our Draft programme, as the final goal of our political project. The second step is to review two recent books which approach the issue in very different ways: Peter Hudis’s Marx’s concept of the alternative to capitalism (2012) and Michal Polák’s Class, surplus and the division of labour (2013). The third step is to draw out some implications of the first two steps for the ways in which we should present the final goal as an inspiring aim - rather more elaborately than the brief summary in the Draft programme - and its implications for present-day (that is, near-future) political choices.


It should be obvious from what I have just said that the CPGB - and I - do not treat the movement as “everything” and the final goal “nothing”. Comrade Cutrone’s claim that I am a Bersteinist is merely a repetition of the cold war line most elaborately expressed in Peter Nettl’s biography of Luxemburg: that the only real choice is between Bernstein’s politics and Luxemburg’s; that Bebel’s politics (for which Kautsky argued) did not represent a real alternative. The cold warriors, including Nettl, of course, thought Luxemburg’s politics romantically inspiring, but utopian and doomed: hence Bernsteinism, which the US state was sedulously promoting in the European labour movement, was to be preferred. For Cutrone in his most recent letter only Luxemburg (as quoted by the cold warrior, Michael Harrington!) is Marxist in the debates before 1914; hence only ‘Luxemburgist’ theorists, starting with György Lukács and descending to the Frankfurt school, count as Marxist.

Luxemburg’s argument - “it is an illusion, then, to think that the proletariat can create economic power within capitalist society. It can only create political power and then transform capitalist society” - is flatly contrary to Marx’s actual policy in relation to trade unions, cooperatives and the struggle for a workers’ political party within capitalism, which are abundantly documented from both the young and the old Marx. It is, in fact, a version of Ferdinand Lassalle’s ‘iron law of wages’ argument against trade unions.

It is understandable in its context, since it is taken from Luxemburg’s speech at the 1899 Hanover Social Democratic Party congress.2 This speech is quite clearly extempore, rather than prepared, and the point is addressed to the argument of Eduard David earlier in the debate: that the proletariat had to win the level of economic power under capitalism which Marxists of the time imagined the capitalist class had under late feudalism, after which the state would naturally fall into its hands without ‘premature’ attempts on the state power. (I stress imagined, because it is now clear that the capitalist class, though it had some economic power under late feudal regimes, did not ‘first conquer economic power’ and the state then fell naturally into its hands: rather, the revolutionary overthrow of the late feudal states was necessary for a real ‘conquest of economic power’ for capital.3) In her 1900 book Reform or revolution,4 Luxemburg is a lot more careful in her expressions than in the 1899 speech to avoid suggesting that the proletariat cannot improve its economic situation in capitalist society; rather, there she correctly points out the limits of such improvements and that they will not gradually ‘grow over’ into socialism.

It is, in other words, perfectly possible for the proletariat to build powerful organisations under capitalism and to win real improvements in its conditions of existence, both through merely constructing these organisations and solidarity (cooperatives and mutuals), and through economic and political struggles. But, as long as the state order remains capitalist, these gains remain vulnerable to capitalist counteroffensives through the states (as we have seen since the 1980s); and, as long as the fundamental economic order remains capitalist, they remain vulnerable to the general destructive effects of cyclical crises, depressions and wars.

It is this circumstance which immediately requires us to put forward not merely reforms within capitalism, but a global alternative to capitalism: a ‘maximum programme’.

Transparent aims

There is, however, also a more profound ground. It is true that, as Luxemburg argues in the speech, the proletarian revolution is fundamentally different from prior revolutions - though it also, contrary to Luxemburg, as Trotsky pointed out (quoted in my December 18 article), contains elements common with these. However, the fundamental difference is not economic versus political power. It is, rather, based on the points made by Marx in the Programme of the Parti Ouvrier:

That the emancipation of the productive class is that of all human beings without distinction of sex or race;

That the producers can be free only when they are in possession of the means of production (land, factories, ships, banks, credit);

That there are only two forms under which the means of production can belong to them:

(1) The individual form which has never existed in a general state and which is increasingly eliminated by industrial progress;

(2) The collective form, the material and intellectual elements of which are constituted by the very development of capitalist society ...

That this collective appropriation can arise only from the revolutionary action of the productive class - or proletariat - organised in a distinct political party.

The problem is not just that of “the emancipation of the productive class”, but “that of all human beings without distinction of sex or race” Why?

Generalised commodity production - ie, private property + money + market relations in combination - appears toallow individuals or families to coordinate their diverse productive activities with only limited, explicit common decision-making. But the internal logic of private property + money + market relations has the effect that marginal differences of efficiency between family-scale producers under monetised market conditions will produce accumulation and polarisation of the producers into capitalists and proletarians: this is much of the point of the first part of Capital Vol 1.

In addition, though these are absences in Marx’s analysis due to the incomplete character of his critique of political economy (he never reached the state), (a) the ‘hidden hand’ does not actually work and free-market economies require more ‘public goods’, hence stronger states, than pre-capitalist social arrangements; and (b) even late-feudal interstitial market operations require credit money, which in turn requires routine debt enforcement, which requires the state that discriminates against ‘foreign’ nationals5 - which creates the recurring capitalist dynamic towards imperialism and war.

This set of infernal dynamics tends towards repeated disasters, not just for proletarians, but for all of us humans. Overcoming them is not a matter of getting rid of the existing big concentrations of capital to restore a lost Eden of small-business market society: this would only, more or less rapidly, by its own rules reproduce big capital. Rather, it requires the “collective appropriation” of the means of production. And this, in turn, requires us - all the humans, all the members of society as a whole - to think consciously about our common productive activities.

Put another way, what is new about the proletarian revolution is that it is a revolution of the majority, whose aim is not to transfer power to a different minority (feudal lords and clerics in place of slaveholder-urban literati; capitalists in place of feudal lords and clerics), but to emancipate the majority. And this in turn requires that its aims are conscious, rather than being ideological-apologetic.


How should we think this global alternative, these conscious aims? Comrade Cutrone argued in his January 9 letter:

If ideology eclipses promise in capitalism, the task is to find the socialist promise in capitalist ideology. It is not discontinuous with the liberal promise of bourgeois society. Otherwise, we are left with what Kant called mere “civilisation”, which is barbaric. It was bourgeois civil society that meant to transcend the rule of law - to transcend the state as such.6 Socialism, too, wants this.


The dialectical crisis and contradiction of liberalism and socialism means that they are inextricable from each other: socialism must, according to Marxist Hegelianism, be the Aufhebung (sublation) of - must realise, as well as overcome, complete as well as transcend - liberalism in modern democracy.

This might be a way of thinking the maximum programme. But it is mistaken. The problem is that liberalism is not non-ideological before the appearance of steam-driven industrial capitalism, then becoming ideological with the appearance of steam industry.7 Whiggism, liberalism’s precursor, is certainly revolutionary in John Locke in the late 1600s; but it is simultaneously apologetic, both against the non-possessing classes and for the dispossession of the native Americans.8 Already when Bernard Mandeville proposed it in 1714 in The fable of the bees, the ‘hidden hand’ was false, and early Whiggism as much as later liberalism both implied the strong state as its internal ‘other’, and promoted the Tory ‘party of order’ as its external other.

The idea is worsened by comrade Cutrone’s comments in his October 16 article: “By conflating the issue of government with “rule of law”, however, Macnair mistakes the contradiction of the modern state and its politics in capitalism.”

He goes on:

The issue, though, is his taking as a norm the parliamentary system of government in the European mode and thus neglecting the US constitutional system. For at issue is the potential disparity and antagonism between legislative and executive authority, or between the law and its enforcement. The American system of ‘checks and balances’ was meant to uphold liberal democracy and prevent the tyranny of either the executive or the legislature (or the judicial) aspects of government.

There is an important domain of political struggle already, between executive and legislative authority, and this would affect any struggle to transform politics. The question is the source of this antagonism. It is not merely formal. If the ‘separation of powers’ in the US constitutional system has served undemocratic ends, it is not essentially because it was intended to do so. The problem of adequate and proper democratic authority in society is not reducible to the issue of purported ‘mob rule’. Any form of government could be perverted to serve capitalism. So the issue is indeed one of politics as such - the social content of or what informs any form of political authority.


Indeed, for Marx, communism would be the completion and fulfilment of capitalism, and not in terms of one or some aspects over others, but rather in and through its central self-contradiction, which is political as well as economic, or ‘political-economic’.

What this requires is recognising the non-identity of various aspects of capitalism as bound up in and part and parcel of the process of capitalism’s potential transformation into communism. For example, the non-identity of law (as legislated), its (judicial) interpretation and (executive) enforcement, or the non-identity of civil society and the state, as expressed by the specific phenomenon of modern political parties. States are compulsory; political parties are voluntary, civil-society formations.

These points are deeply obscure; but if they express any positive claims, what is involved is a defence of rule-of-law liberalism in the particular and narrow form of US constitutional patriotism. Cutrone’s reliance on Dick Howard, who deploys a similar form of US constitutional patriotism to form a critique of French politics, tends to confirm this. But the US displays more strongly than European parliamentarism the problem of liberalism’s auto-development of its internal other (the hypertrophied US repressive apparatus) and its external other (Christian fundamentalism and related ‘party of order’ phenomena within the US, Salafi jihadism, Putinite Holy Rus-ism, Hindutva in India, and so on, as reactions to US-led liberalism’s world dominance outside it).

I have commented above that liberalism automatically produces its other because the hidden hand is false. But there is again another way of looking at the matter: this is Marx’s comment:

This sphere that we are deserting, within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labour-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man. There alone rule Freedom, Equality, Property and Bentham.9

When, however, Marx has passed through the work of analysing surplus labour, we come to this on the working day:

It must be acknowledged that our labourer comes out of the process of production other than he entered. In the market he stood as owner of the commodity ‘labour-power’ face to face with other owners of commodities, dealer against dealer. The contract by which he sold to the capitalist his labour-power proved, so to say, in black and white that he disposed of himself freely. The bargain concluded, it is discovered that he was no ‘free agent’, that the time for which he is free to sell his labour-power is the time for which he is forced to sell it, that in fact the vampire will not lose its hold on him “so long as there is a muscle, a nerve, a drop of blood to be exploited”. For “protection” against “the serpent of their agonies”, the labourers must put their heads together, and, as a class, compel the passing of a law, an all-powerful social barrier that shall prevent the very workers from selling, by voluntary contract with capital, themselves and their families into slavery and death. In place of the pompous catalogue of the “inalienable rights of man” comes the modest Magna Charta of a legally limited working-day, which shall make clear “when the time which the worker sells is ended, and when his own begins”.10

From this point of view, if liberalism ideologically represents market relationships, the ‘party of order’ ideologically represents the necessary hierarchy of the workplace: necessary because of the antagonism inherent in the labour relation. Both ideologies are then capitalist products, which will be overcome with the supersession of capitalism.

Now liberalism is, of course, an advance on Christian, Muslim or Buddhist clericalism (with its natural other, knights, sipahis, samurai and so on, and their ideologies of aristocratic birth, in fact a bifurcation of the exploiting class between landlord and clerical exploiters). But that is to say merely that capitalism is an advance on feudalism, as feudalism before it was an advance on slaveholder-urbanism.

Are we really to say that Marxism should build its aims on the basis that “the task is to find the socialist promise in capitalist ideology” (remember, these are aims in relation to which Cutrone damns me for abandoning the ‘goal’ in favour of the ‘movement’ like Bernstein)? If so, there is no real ground for us not to seek to “find the socialist promise” in the other side of “capitalist ideology”: that is, for example, in the egalitarianism, and social solidarity in the form of the congregation or umma, and of commitments to charity, of Christianity, Islam or Buddhism, or in the (equally delusive) promise of national social solidarity offered by conservative nationalism.

The task is not “to find the socialist promise” in any of the multiple capitalist ideologies. It is to look below the level of ideologies to the untheorised social practices which support these ideologies (all of them one-sided) and find the possibilities of socialism growing out of the objective contradictions/dynamics of capitalism at this lower level.


The CPGB’s Draft programme offers at its end our collective version of the ‘final goal’:

Socialism in the 21st century will start from a relatively high level of technique, output and culture. Once the hard task of winning working class state power has been achieved, we will advance towards full communism. The speed of that advance is dictated by the completion of the world revolution and the correctness of the policy of the working class and its party.

Through society reabsorbing the functions of the state the need for it withers away. Democracy (as a form of the state) negates itself and gives way to general freedom. The higher stage of communism is a free association of producers. Everybody will contribute according to their ability and take according to their need. Real human history begins and society leaves behind the realm of necessity. In the realm of freedom people will become rounded, fully social individuals, who can for the first time truly develop their natural humanity.

This is what we want to achieve. To win that prize we shall overcome all obstacles.

Like everything in the Draft programme, this is a bald summary rather than an argument. (We discussed at the time of the most recent redrafting of the Draft programme the idea of producing an explanatory book, to play the role Karl Kautsky’s The class struggle played for the 1891 Erfurt programme or Nikolai Bukharin’s and Evgeny Preobrazhensky’s The ABC of communism played for the 1919 Russian Communist Party programme. But limited resources and pressure of other tasks have meant that the idea has been taken no further.)

The summary is also based largely on ‘traditional’ readings of Marx and Engels. That said, there are significant differences from those readings current on the left. As can be seen here and from the preceding section (5) of the Draft programme,we use ‘socialism’ as a synonym for the dictatorship of the proletariat or period of transition between capitalism and communism under working class rule.

From this in turn: we use ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ or ‘socialism’ to mean a period of transition, in which the working class rules over the middle classes. This is a shift from Marx’s early usage, which used the ‘revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat’ in a sense close to the Roman dictatura, meaning a short episode of lawless reorganisation of the constitution: ie, political revolution.11

This judgment is based precisely on a sense of the nature of the final goal. As is explained in a very summary way in section 5 of the Draft programme,

Classes and social strata exist under socialism because of different positions occupied in relationship to the means of production, the roles played in society and the way they receive their income.


The repressive role of the state is not only connected with overcoming the capitalist class. There is also the division of labour. Until work becomes life’s prime want, laws, courts and state coercion will be required.

The global rule of the working class will make it possible for the state to begin to disappear in its entirety, as classes wither away on the basis of the socialisation of the productive forces on a global scale.

In other words, the transition from capitalism to communism requires a historical period rather than merely a brief period of revolution, because this transition goes to the deep structure of the society: not merely to the foundations of capital, but to the foundations of class in the ‘social division of labour’ (more exactly, in occupational specialisation).

Our vision of communism, then, is one of the sort which is presented, exaggeratedly, in the 1845-46 text printed as part of The German ideology:

... in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity, but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.12

Or, much later, in the 1877 Anti-Dühring:

And now see how puerile is Herr Dühring’s idea that society can take possession of all means of production in the aggregate without revolutionising from top to bottom the old method of production and first of all putting an end to the old division of labour; that everything will be in order once “natural opportunities and personal capabilities are taken into account” ... that therefore whole masses of entities will remain, as in the past, subjected to the production of one single article; whole “populations” ... will be engaged in a single branch of production, and humanity continue to be divided, as in the past, into a number of different crippled “economic species” ..., for there still are “porters” and “architects” ... Society is to become master of the means of production as a whole, in order that each individual may remain the slave of his means of production, and have only a choice as to which means of production are to enslave him.13

The image is, at a higher level of abstraction, one of a society which has not merely gone beyond profit as the fundamental social goal, but also beyond productivity or totalproductive output, to set its fundamental goal as enabling rounded development of the human individual and genuinely free individual choices: “an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” (Communist manifesto).14

But this truly radical and inspiring image invites questions. Is this alternative really posed for us by capitalist development, or is it just another utopia? And if it really is posed for us by capitalist development, it must follow that this ‘final goal’15 has implications for the concept of the transition from capitalism to communism (already mentioned), and, hence, of the ‘minimum programme’ of immediate proposals for change. What implications?

To approach these questions, I think, as I have already said, that it is useful to begin by looking at two (fairly) recent books which bear on the issues, which I will do in my next article.



1. ‘Wrong kind of radicalisation’ Weekly Worker February 26.

2. www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1899/10/11.htm; German at http://library.fes.de/parteitage/pdf/pt-jahr/pt-1899.pdf at pp171-76, this at p172: “Es is also eine Illusion, zu glauben, das Proletariat könne schon innerhalb der heutigen bürgerlichen Gesellschaft die wirthschafliche Macht sich verschaffen; es kann nur die politische Macht sich verschaffen und dann das kapitalistische Eigenthum aufheben.” Harrington’s translation, quoted by Cutrone and here, is not really satisfactory. “Verschaffen” in this context is to “gain” or “win” rather than to “create” (economic or political power). “Transcend” would be a better translation of aufheben than “transform” (the alternative “sublate” attempts to preserve the subtleties of preserving-in-transcending in Hegelian usage of aufheben, but does so at the price of creating a wholly artificial English academic term of art, which can only have meaning for those who pay attention to the views of Hegelian circles). And what is to be transcended is capitalist Eigenthum - ‘property’ - rather than “society”.

3. Eg, D Parker Class and state in ancien régime France London 1996; J Goodacre The transformation of a peasant economy Leicester1994 (state intervention to prop up decaying manors); S Pincus 1688 Yale 2009.

4. www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1900/reform-revolution/index.htm.

5. Cf Y Gonzalez de Lara, ‘The secret of Venetian success: a public-order, reputation-based institution’ (2008) 12 European Review of Economic History pp247-85.

6. I should comment here that the statement that “bourgeois civil society ... meant to transcend the rule of law” is certainly untrue, even if it had been true (it is very questionable) that ‘civil society’ “meant ... to transcend the state as such”. Liberal theory is grounded on the idea of a natural law which transcends the state, and even the anarcho-capitalists imagine law without the state. Law without the state is indeed possible, but takes the form of enforcement through the blood-feud (eg, WI Millar Bloodtaking and peacemaking Chicago 1990).

7. In fact, steam industry was still marginal in the politics of the most advanced part of Germany, the Rhineland, in 1848, Cutrone’s (and, here, Marx’s and many Marxists’) turning point: J Sperber Rhineland radicals Princeton 1992. The converse of this point is that the shipping and armaments industries already display the ‘real subsumption of labour to capital’ a long way before the ‘steam turn’, so that the existence of a period of ‘petty commodity production’ without existing concentrations of capital, for which liberalism might (in theory) be non-ideological, is, on the European scale or that of the world market, illusory: feudalism gives birth directly to (interstitial) capitalism.

8. Eg, CB Macpherson Possessive individualism Oxford 1962; O Feltham Anatomy of failure Bloomsbury 2013; B Arniel John Locke and America Oxford 1996; Dmenico Losurdo Liberalism: a counter-history London 2011.

9. K Marx Capital Vol 1, chapter 6.

10. Ibid chapter 10.

11. H Draper Karl Marx’s theory of revolution Vol 3: The dictatorship of the proletariat New York 1986.

12. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/ch01a.htm. “Exaggeratedly” because it is actually unlikely that even in an economy of abundance we could switch activities as rapidly as this passage suggests. “Text printed as part of The German ideology” because, as Terrell Carver has pointed out on the basis of the work of MEGA2, David Ryazanov in the 1920s stitched together several distinct manuscripts to produce the text we now know as GI: http://marxismocritico.com/2013/05/06/the-german-ideology-never-took-place. (I do not mean by recognition of the point to associate myself with Carver’s use of it to support stale ‘Marx versus Engels’ arguments: below next note.) It is sufficient for present purposes that this was written by Marx or Engels as of 1845-46.

13. www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1877/anti-duhring/ch25.htm. I have adverted in Revolutionary strategy November 2008, note 38, to literature directed against ‘Marx versus Engels’ readings’, which treat the Anti-Dühring as in some sense opposed to Marx’s ideas.

14.www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto/ch02.htm, at the end.

15. Itself, for Marx and Engels, the beginning of truly human history - that is, of real human choices, rather than obedience to blind laws. See K Marx Preface to the Contribution to the critique of political economy: “The prehistory of human society accordingly closes with this social formation [capitalism]” (www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/preface.htm). F Engels Anti-Dühring chapter 7: “... it should make us extremely distrustful of our present knowledge, inasmuch as in all probability we are just about at the beginning of human history, and the generations which will put us right are likely to be far more numerous than those whose knowledge we - often enough with a considerable degree of contempt - have the opportunity to correct ...” (www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1877/anti-duhring/ch07.htm).