Marx’s vision

In his second article, Nick Rogers concludes that there is no basis in the writing of Marx for Lenin’s schema of socialism and communism. Marx wrote no blueprints for how the future society should be organised.

Does the concept of a “bourgeois state without the bourgeoisie”, as described by Lenin in chapter 5 of The state and revolution, find support in the Critique of the Gotha programme? Remember, the Critique explains that the “revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat” was the form taken by the state during the transition “between capitalist and communist society”. Well, Marx is very clear that the “first stage of communist society” - although, in his memorable phrase, “still stamped with the birth-marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges” - is nevertheless a communist society “based on common ownership of the means of production” that “does not acknowledge any class distinctions, because everyone is just a worker like everyone else”.1


Within the cooperative society based on common ownership of the means of production, the producers do not exchange their products; just as little does the labour employed on the products appear here as the value of these products, as a material quality possessed by them, since now, in contrast to capitalist society, individual labour no longer exists in an indirect fashion, but directly as a component part of total labour.

This is a society that has superseded commodity production, the law of value and markets. The “fetishism of commodities”2 that veils real social relations is no more.

Even the Critique’s first phase of communist society is a society which has made a complete transition away from capitalism. There is no logical basis to be found in the Critique for arguing for a continuing role for “the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat” (the proletariat no longer exists), let alone a surviving “bourgeois state” (the bourgeoisie no longer exists). Marx poses what is precisely the relevant question: “What transformation will the state undergo in a communist society? In other words, what social functions will remain that are analogous to the present functions of the state?”3

Marx was famously averse to setting out prescriptions for the future society (as Lenin emphasises in The state and revolution). Marx and Engels distinguished themselves from utopian socialists, such as Charles Fourier and Henri de Saint-Simon, who drew up detailed blueprints for how society could be reorganised. In Marx’s view, the most perfect plan for the future would not get humanity one jot closer to achieving it, unless there was a material basis in the existing society that made such a future viable and achievable. Marx focused on identifying that material basis in capitalism.

Marx’s single most important scholarly and scientific work is Capital. It is certainly the work to which he devoted the bulk of his intellectual life. Capital is an attempt to discover and describe the main laws of motion of the capitalist mode of production. It does not describe an actual capitalist society. A mode of production is an abstraction - what we would today call a scientific model that attempts to capture the most important features and dynamics of a particular type of society, which finds expression in a variety of different social formations. Critically for Marx, a mode of production is a historically limited phenomenon. Like everything in our universe, a mode of production has a beginning and an end. Its laws of motion not only describe its behaviour, but should say something about how it comes into being, evolves and ends.

So Capital contains a lot of historical material about the birth of capitalism and Marx constantly refers to modes of production that preceded it and continue to overlap with and interpenetrate it. It is not a surprise then that a fairly constant object of the discussion in Capital - often implicit, but not infrequently explicit - is the mode of production that Marx thought capitalism was bringing into being. That, after all, was the point of Marx’s approach to the communist society he discussed in the Critique, or what can be more scientifically described in Marxist terms as the communist mode of production: it could only come into being on the basis of the capitalist “laws of motion”: ie, the creation of a class of propertyless producers, the proletariat; the socialisation of labour and cooperation within the workforce, which brings workers together and unleashes the potential for ever increasing productivity; and the concentration and centralisation of production.

Nowhere in Capital does Marx talk about two distinct phases, stages or forms of communist society (nor much about the political transition, although obviously capitalism and the emerging mode of production would overlap and interpenetrate). Given his conception of what a mode of production is and what it is possible to say about a mode of production that does not yet exist, it would not have made sense for him to do so. However, Marx does see the future mode of production (as do all modes of production) as inevitably evolving.4 In the third volume of Capital Marx writes about the “realm of necessity” (which he stresses continues within the future communist society) that is to be replaced by the “realm of freedom”:

... the realm of freedom really begins only where labour determined by necessity and external expediency ends; it lies by its very nature beyond the sphere of material production proper … The shortening of the working day is the basic prerequisite.

And in the very first chapter of the first volume of Capital Marx writes of the society he describes as “an association of free men working with the means of production held in common, and expending their many different forms of labour-power in full self-awareness as one single social labour force”.5 This passage gives us a more balanced perspective on Marx’s discussion in the Critique of the distribution of consumer products. In the Critique he is making a polemical point against Lassallean formulas.6 In Capital, a strictly scientific work, it is clear that he is not setting out a blueprint of any kind.

Two phases

Marx makes virtually all the substantive points about the organisation of communist society that he later repeats in the passages dealing with that society’s “first phase” in the Critique: the need to allocate resources for social requirements before producing for consumption; distributing consumer goods according to the quantity of work producers have undertaken; how the role of labour-time in such a distribution nevertheless leaves social relations “transparent” (in contrast to the fetishism of commodity production). But he is not prescribing how a future society should distribute the things they produce. That will depend on “the level of social development attained by the producers”. The distribution of consumer goods according to labour-time is assumed “only for the sake of a parallel with the production of commodities”. There is no suggestion that such a distribution involves “bourgeois law”7.

Even in the Critique, Marx cautions against making distribution the basis of defining any given mode of production:

... it was in general a mistake to make a fuss about so-called distribution and put the principal stress on it.

Any distribution whatever of the means of consumption is only a consequence of the distribution of the conditions of production themselves. The latter distribution, however, is a feature of the mode of production itself ... If the material conditions of production are the cooperative property of the workers themselves, then there likewise results a distribution of the means of consumption different from the present one.8

Concepts such as “labour tokens” had been advocated by Robert Owen among others. In Capital Marx is generally sympathetic to Owen, his cooperatives and this proposal. He emphasises that Owen’s method of distribution (in contrast to the proposals of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon) would not be money:

On this point I will only say further that Owen’s ‘labour-money’, for instance, is no more ‘money’ than a theatre ticket is. Owen presupposes directly socialised labour, a form of production diametrically opposed to the production of commodities. The certificate of labour is merely evidence of the part taken by the individual in common labour … but Owen never made the mistake of presupposing the production of commodities.9

Similarly, the slogan, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”, which Marx does not use anywhere in Capital, was not an invention of his. Similar formulations (that in turn mirror biblical phrases) were in relatively common usage in the socialist movement. Nor is it clear that distribution “according to need” implies unrestricted access to consumer goods, as assumed by Lenin and most subsequent Marxists. After all, systems of rationing can take need into account - child benefits and the national health service being contemporary examples under British capitalism.

The point is that in Capital Marx only permits himself to draw the very broadest outlines of a future communist mode of production, basing himself solely on developments within capitalism. Thus an increase of production within a communist society is conceivable, given what capitalism has already achieved. The end of exploitation is conceivable, once its basis in the separation of the immediate producers from the means of production is ended.

Also conceivable is a shortening of the working day that would allow society to approach the “realm of freedom”, although Marx cautions that initially this will only be made feasible by reallocating the large number of workers who under capitalism perform functions that will have no use in the future society:

... if tomorrow morning labour were universally to be reduced to a rational amount, and proportioned to the different sections of the working class according to age and sex, the available working population would be absolutely insufficient to carry on the nation’s production on it present scale. The great majority of the now ‘unproductive’ workers would have to be turned into ‘productive’ ones.10

Somewhat in contrast with the more bucolic image in The German ideology11 of hunting, fishing, rearing cattle and writing all in the course of a single day, in Capital Marx discerns in machinery and large-scale industry the possibility of ending monotonous, repetitive work and the division of labour:

... large-scale industry, by its very nature, necessitates variation of labour, fluidity of functions and mobility of the worker in all directions. But, on the other hand, in its capitalist form it reproduces the old division of labour with its ossified peculiarities … This possibility of varying labour must become a general law of social production, and the existing relations must be adapted to permit its realisation in practice.12

From Marx’s perspective, the solution to Lenin’s barriers to the achievement of “full communism” - increasing production, ending inhuman, mindless specialisation (the “division of labour”) and creating purposeful work that people will want to do - already exist within the capitalist mode of production. However, when and how a future society overcomes those barriers, and what specific solutions it will devise to these and the other problems it encounters, can only be determined by the members of that society.

That precept applies also to the question of “what social functions will remain that are analogous to the present functions of the state”. The state, as defined by Marx and Engels (and also by Lenin for the bulk of The state and revolution), is an institution of class society and under the rule of the working class already in the process of becoming the administration of social processes by society as a whole (ie, not a state at all). To suggest, as Lenin does, that individual excesses - defined by Bukharin in his and Preobrazhensky’s 1919 The ABC of communism as “sloth, slackness, criminality, pride”13 - must wither away before the state can do so and that economically a condition of absolute and complete abundance must exist, is to turn Marx’s and Engels’ definition of the state on its head.

For now the state is no longer just a feature of class society, but is required in all societies where individual behaviour of which society does not approve might occur, or where society must in any way ration its use of social resources. Such conflicts and behaviours and the need to make economic choices are likely to be present in all human societies and, if society cannot design mechanisms to deal with them without relying on an institution separate from society and repressive of it, then the Marxist vision of a stateless society is utopian.14


There is not a straight line of historical causation between Lenin’s chapter 5 of The state and revolution and what became of the October revolution - by the 1930s the Soviet Union suffered under a repressive state seeking to control all aspects of society, applying a harsh labour discipline at work and sanctioning nothing in the way of political liberty or human emancipation. Lenin’s pamphlet was not published until 1918 and its ideas would have taken time to disseminate.

The intention of The state and revolution as a whole is to advocate a libertarian vision of post-revolutionary society. Indeed, the first months after October 1917 saw an explosion of popular democracy in soviets, factory committees and all aspects of society. Grassroots pressure forced the pace in social and economic developments until approximately June 1918, when a general nationalisation decree was issued from the centre in response to the start of the civil war, to be followed in short order by the harsh policies of ‘war communism’. It was the devastation of the civil war after the catastrophe of world war, the failure of revolution to spread to western Europe and the small size of Russia’s working class (on which the new regime depended) compared with the country’s peasantry that played the decisive roles in the degeneration.

Yet, since a workers’ revolution and the transition to a communist society is conceived by Marxists as a conscious political act - in contrast to transitions between previous modes of production - the conceptual framework that informs that political act matters and plays a material role in how events turn out.

The key problem with Lenin’s misreading and his addition of a stage he called ‘socialism’ to the Marxist conception of the transition to communism is that, during the decade between October and the final Stalinisation of Soviet society, it opened up a space for ideas that were inimical to making a priority of restoring and strengthening democratic forms. A focus on democracy during the period of transition to a new society would have been the only way of creating the preconditions for a society of freely associated producers.

But if the ultimate objective was building socialism,15 and socialism - as defined by Lenin in The state and revolution - retained a state, then it was legitimate to classify the state sector of the economy as socialist. Those were exactly the terms which informed the thinking of all sides during the economic debates of the 1920s. Such a conceptual framework made it more difficult to resist the post-1928 Stalinist programme of collectivising agriculture and forcing the pace of industrialisation (whatever the effect on respectively the peasants and the workers), for was not the extension of state control of the means of production progress towards socialism?

Indeed, Lenin in The state and revolution talks about the objective of making all citizens into the employees of “one huge syndicate” and of transforming the whole of society into “a single office and a single factory” - albeit under a democratic state, in which “accounting and control” is practised by the whole population.16 The problem of how it is possible to facilitate local control and initiative if the economy is treated as a single monolithic unit is seriously under-theorised by Lenin and remains a challenge for Marxists today. An economy that is effectively a single factory minus the commune state is at most a small step from the Stalinist model of society.

At the 18th congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1939 Stalin not only claimed to have built socialism in the Soviet Union, but declared that it was a mistake to believe that the state could even begin to wither away under socialism.17 It was something of an irony that a congress, declaring the achievement of socialism, was organised by a party that claimed to lead a class that, if a classless society really had been achieved, would no longer have existed. The logic that the withering away of the state should be accompanied by the withering away of parties of the working class is inescapable, but in my experience rarely, if ever, pursued by party theoreticians.

Stalin’s take on Lenin’s misreading was embedded in the programmes of parties under Stalinist influence and propagated around the world. It became most people’s idea of what socialism and communism were: particularly the conflation of state ownership and socialism. Any project that seeks to build on the original vision of Marx and Engels must take a critical approach to Lenin’s equivalent project of a hundred years ago.

Both parts of this article originally appeared in the Journal of Global Faultlines, Vol 4, No2, 2018, which is published by Pluto Journals.

  1. K Marx Critique of the Gotha programme: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/gotha/ch01.htm.↩︎

  2. K Marx Capital Vol 1, London 1990, pp163-77.↩︎

  3. K Marx Critique of the Gotha programme: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/gotha/ch04.htm.↩︎

  4. K Marx Capital Vol 3, London 1981, pp958-59.↩︎

  5. K Marx Capital Vol 1, pp171-72: “Let us finally imagine, for a change, an association of free men, working with the means of production held in common, and expending their many different forms of labour-power in full self-awareness as one single social labour force … The total product of our imagined association is a social product. One part of this product serves as fresh means of production and remains social. But another part is consumed by the members of the association as means of subsistence. This part must therefore be divided up among them. The way this division is made will vary with the particular kind of social organisation of production and the corresponding level of social development attained by the producers. We shall assume - but only for the sake of a parallel with the production of commodities - that the share of each individual producer in the means of subsistence is determined by his labour-time. Labour-time would in that case play a double part. Its apportionment in accordance with a definite social plan maintains the correct proportion between the different functions of labour and the various needs of the associations. On the other hand, labour-time also serves as a measure of the part taken by each individual in the common labour, and of his share in the part of the total product destined for individual consumption. The social relations of the individual producers - both towards their labour and the products of their labour - are here transparent in their simplicity, in production as well as in distribution.”↩︎

  6. K Marx Critique of the Gotha programme: “I have dealt more at length with the ‘undiminished’ proceeds of labour, on the one hand, and with ‘equal right’ and ‘fair distribution’, on the other, in order to show what a crime it is to attempt, on the one hand, to force on our party again, as dogmas, ideas which in a certain period had some meaning, but have now become obsolete verbal rubbish, while again perverting, on the other, the realistic outlook, which it cost so much effort to instil into the party, but which has now taken root in it, by means of ideological nonsense about right and other trash so common among the democrats and French socialists.”↩︎

  7. It is worth noting that the first volume of Capital went through several editions after first publication in 1867 that incorporated substantial edits by Marx. These include two German editions that came out after the 1875 Critique, an 1883 third German edition and an 1890 fourth German edition that were both published posthumously, but incorporated changes Marx had stipulated. It is not possible to claim that the Critique is Marx’s last word on the question we are investigating.↩︎

  8. K Marx Critique of the Gotha programme pp347-48.↩︎

  9. K Marx Capital Vol 1, p188, footnote 1. See also K Marx Capital Vol 2, London 1992, p434: “With collective production, money capital is completely dispensed with … There is no reason why the producers should not receive paper tokens permitting them to withdraw an amount corresponding to their labour-time from the social consumption stocks. But these tokens are not money; they do not circulate.”↩︎

  10. K Marx Capital Vol 1, p790.↩︎

  11. K Marx The German ideology (1845): www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology.↩︎

  12. K Marx Capital Vol 1, pp617-18.↩︎

  13. N I Bukharin and E Preobrazhensky The ABC of communism London 1922, p75: “Manifestly this will only happen in the fully developed and strongly established communist system, after the complete and definitive victory of the proletariat; nor will it follow immediately upon that victory. For a long time yet, the working class will have to fight against all its enemies, and in especial against the relics of the past, such as sloth, slackness, criminality, pride. All these will have to be stamped out. Two or three generations of persons will have to grow up under the new conditions before the need will pass for laws and punishments and for the use of repressive measures by the workers’ state. Not until then will all the vestiges of the capitalist past disappear. Though in the intervening period the existence of the workers’ state is indispensable, subsequently, in the fully developed communist system, when the vestiges of capitalism are extinct, the proletarian state authority will also pass away. The proletariat itself will become mingled with all the other strata of the population, for everyone will by degrees come to participate in the common labour. Within a few decades there will be quite a new world, with new people and new customs.”↩︎

  14. The fact that existing egalitarian hunter-gather societies manage without a state, while coping with errant individuals (on whom harsh sanctions are sometimes applied) and resource conditions short of absolute abundance, suggests that the vision of a society without a state is far from utopian.↩︎

  15. I leave to one side the critical question of how much progress was possible to a classless society in an isolated country with a peasant majority.↩︎

  16. VI Lenin The state and revolution pp475 and 478-79.↩︎

  17. Stalin’s ‘Report on the work of the central committee to the 18th Congress of the CPSU (B)’, delivered March 10 1939: www.marxists.org/reference/archive/stalin/works/1939/03/10.htm.↩︎