The two phases of communism

Trying to explain Stalin’s counterrevolution within the revolution through literary exegesis is an obvious absurdity. Jack Conrad replies to Nick Rogers

According to his own account, Nick Rogers “first engaged with how Marx’s discussion in the Critique of the Gotha programme had been misinterpreted” back in 2010.1 Here, in this circular letter, Marx presented, maybe for the first time, the idea that communist society would have two phases - lower and higher. The first phase being communist society, “just as it emerges from capitalist society, which is thus in every respect, economically, morally and intellectually, still stamped with the birth-marks of the old society”.2

Comrade Rogers’ engagement with Marx’s Critique took place in the context of our debate over redrafting the CPGB’s Draft programme. He was a member then. Nearly a decade later, his arguments around socialism and communism seem to have worsened considerably - not least with the remarkably silly claim that Lenin’s State and revolution (1917) provided the “conceptual framework” for the Stalinite counterrevolution within the revolution in the late 1920s.3 He might as well blame Marx. After all, as we shall see, Lenin’s “conceptual framework” came directly from Marx’s.

There is no crime in lack of consistency, but what is telling, what is sad, is that comrade Rogers refuses to acknowledge or even reference the arguments that saw him go down to a resounding defeat within our ranks. I do not know if that ‘humiliation’ caused him to leave the CPGB. If it did, that response would have been profoundly irresponsible.

The main question in British politics is the ‘party question’. That is the necessity of building a mass revolutionary party based on a Marxist, minimum-maximum programme. Being in a minority is rarely a happy experience - I know. But we allow minorities considerable rights. Including, of course, the right to become the majority. But with that comes definite responsibilities and obligations. The left is cursed by premature, unprincipled, untheorised, often secretive resignations and splits. Either way, comrade Rogers’ two-part article has a sterile, disembodied, slightly odd feel to it.


Throughout history words have migrated, shifted meaning and sometimes turned into their opposites. Take ‘nice’. It began as a negative derived from the Latin nescius, meaning “unaware”, “ignorant.” Starting in the late 1300s, ‘nice’ referred to “conduct, a person or clothing that was considered excessively luxurious or lascivious”. By the late 1500s, ‘nice’ became softened somewhat, describing something “refined”. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries ‘nice’ became the positive term we all know. Nowadays, though, there appears to be another shift going on. ‘Nice’ used … ironically.4

The same has happened in politics. ‘Democracy’ counted as a swear word in polite society during the 17th and 18th centuries. An abomination, an affront, an invitation to chaos. Now every mainstream politician claims to be a democrat - as long as it is not extended to the workplace. The language of the left has changed too. ‘Dictatorship’ has gone from meaning ‘regime’, ‘rule’, ‘decisiveness’ - even ‘ruthlessness’. After the Russian Revolution it increasingly came to be used as the antithesis of ‘democracy’.

Similar migrations and switches can be seen with ‘communism’, ‘socialism’ and ‘social democracy.’ In the mid-1840s Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels declared themselves for communism (from the Latin communis). They persuaded the League of the Just to change its name to the Communist League. Included amongst their early opponents were socialists and social democrats. Yet by the mid-1870s the followers of Marx and Engels were calling themselves social democrats. In private correspondence Marx and Engels agreed - a “pig of a name”. Meanwhile, having once disguised themselves as social democrats, the anarchists began calling themselves communists.

In 1917 Lenin included in his ‘April theses’ the proposal that the Russian Social Democratic Party should call itself “Communist Party”.5 The “soiled shirt” of social democracy had to be discarded. The Socialist (Second) International had betrayed the working class. In 1919 the Communist (Third) International was founded in Moscow, each affiliate being required to change its name to Communist Party of … (eg, United States, Germany, Great Britain, Turkey, India).

In light of the horrors of the 1930s, many Trotskyites sought to establish a moral distance between themselves and ‘official communism’. They stopped calling themselves communists. They preferred to be known as socialists: the same as Labourites in Britain and rightwing social democrats in Europe.

Inevitably, all of this causes considerable confusion amongst the inexperienced, the unwary and the uneducated. After all, Marx and Engels authored the Communist manifesto and, needless to say, although the Soviet Union associated itself with ‘communism’ through its massive propaganda machine, the same can be said of ‘socialism’. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics should be a giveaway. Not surprisingly then, substituting ‘socialism’ for ‘communism’ did not provide protection from cold war red-baiting. Everyone was tarred with the same brush. However, linguistic retreat almost certainly compounded linguistic confusion.

Our approach is different: engage in an unremitting fight over ideas, including the fight over language (and thus meaning). Of course, we cannot issue decrees. Language, as illustrated with the word ‘nice’, is decided by actual usage. Nonetheless, communists can through their own efforts rediscover, reappropriate and re-establish in actual usage what is ours. The vocabulary of Marxism stolen, misused, fouled and discredited by ‘official communism’ can be cleansed and put back into good service.

The CPGB is determined to restore the emancipatory, inspiring, meaning given to the term ‘communism’ by classical Marxism. The same goes for how Lenin used the term ‘socialism’, not least in State and revolution (1917). If we are to succeed we need millions of people to understand the classic works of Marxism. True, until we have convincingly won the battle of ideas, not least through building mass communist parties, there can be little doubt that confusion will continue. Class enemies and false friends will ensure that.


Programmatically we envisage the successful workers’ revolution - perhaps with the main opening salient provided by Europe - growing into full communism. Beginning with working class rule over capitalism, the class struggle continues, albeit under radically altered circumstances, until the state, classes and the hierarchical division of labour wither away with the realisation of general freedom.

Anyway, here is how section five of our Draft programme, dealing with the ‘Transition to communism’, reads:

Socialism is not a mode of production. It is the transition from capitalism to communism. Socialism is communism which emerges from capitalist society. It begins as capitalism with a workers’ state. Socialism therefore bears the moral, economic and intellectual imprint of capitalism.

In general socialism is defined as the rule of the working class.

The division of labour cannot be abolished overnight. It manifests itself under socialism in the contradictions between mental and manual labour, town and country, men and women, as well as social, regional and national differences.

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

Class and social contradictions necessitate the continuation of the class struggle. However, this struggle is reshaped by the overthrow of the capitalist state and the transition towards communism.

The class struggle can, in the last analysis, go in two directions, depending on the global balance of forces. It can go backwards or it can advance towards communism.

While socialism creates the objective basis for solving social contradictions, these contradictions need to be solved with a correct political line and the development of mass, active democracy. This is essential, as communism is not a spontaneous development.

Social strata will only finally disappear with full communism.6

Back in 2010 comrade Rogers raised the bog-standard objection. Placing an “equals sign between workers’ political power and socialism” is “not correct”. “Otherwise,” he continued, “we are left with the nonsense of suggesting that the two months of the Paris Commune were socialism. Or that socialism began in Russia in October 1917.” Well, Marx wrote: “Working men’s Paris, with its Commune, will forever be celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society.”7 Its aim of “expropriating the expropriators”, organising workers into cooperative associations and combining those associations into one great union, must, necessarily end in “communism”.8 Real communism, not nonsense communism! As for Russia, Lenin concluded his speech to the 2nd Congress of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies with these immortal words: “We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order.”9

Instead of treating socialism as the transitionary phase, spanning the entire period from where working class rule first begins, all the way to the final realisation of full communism, comrade Rogers proposed three phases. The first being the dictatorship of the proletariat; only after this does the first phase of communism begin. Presumably his dictatorship of the proletariat exists purely to overcome capitalist threats of counterrevolution. It introduces no socialist measures. A scholastic, narrow and hopeless perspective. One must assume also that the first phase of communism functions without a state.

The comrade worried that our formulation carries the danger of “spreading a degree of confusion in the ranks of the Marxist left”. But, as I have already amply illustrated, there is enormous confusion already. Nonetheless, in an implicit defence of existing confusion, the comrade complained that our Draft programme “differs substantively from the conceptual framework most Marxists will bring to any discussion of these issues”. Maybe, but so what?

In 2010 comrade Rogers cited not only Marx’s Critique of the Gotha programme (1875) … but Lenin’s State and revolution (1917). In these two historically important works, one certainly finds the perspective of an evolution of “communist society” from a “first” to a “higher” phase. Comrade Rogers confidently maintained that both Marx and Lenin “clearly distinguish” all the phases of communism from the dictatorship of the proletariat and that this is what the “majority of Marxists have understood by ‘socialism’ ever since”.10

Leaving aside Marx and Lenin for the moment, it is quite erroneous to treat the “majority of Marxists” as if they are orthodox in their Marxism. Unfortunately, they are not. Over the course of a tumultuous century, the Marxist tradition has suffered opportunist infection, mutation, branched out in all manner of directions and produced the strangest fruits: exploitative state powers, conservative bureaucracies and weird revolutionary cults. As a result, not a few of today’s ‘Marxists’ are, in fact, eerily close, in terms of spirit, organisation and outcome, to anarchistic socialism; others to bourgeois socialism, and others still to religious socialism. Only by going back to the trunk - the central logic, method and programme - can we regrow a healthy Marxism.

Nonetheless, comrade Rogers was right in the sense that some who call themselves Marxists today consider it axiomatic that there must be an entirely separate stage before the lower phase of communism commences - a stage which they call the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’. Overwhelmingly, however, this - the so-called first of three phases - is understood in the anti-Marxist sense of violent methods, oppression, contempt for democracy, one-party rule, etc.

But then we in the CPGB do not agree with the “majority of Marxists”. Our Draft programme stands four-square with Marx and Engels, not the epigones. Here Hal Draper can be mentioned. His painstaking and illuminating intellectual labours proved beyond a shadow of doubt that when Marx-Engels used the term, ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’, that denoted winning the battle for democracy, the democratic republic and majoritarian rule by the working class. Nothing autocratic. Nothing sinister. Nothing elitist.11

Since the death of Marx and Engels the “majority” of Marxists have spectacularly got the dictatorship of the proletariat wrong. Plekhanov, Martov, Kautsky and Trotsky too. They counterposed the dictatorship (rule) of the proletariat to democracy. Amongst the greats Lenin was mostly sound. From 1905 onwards he stood for the revolutionary dictatorship (rule) of the workers and peasants: ie, majority rule. Only after the Brest-Litovsk treaty of March 3 1918, when the Lenin government became a minority in the soviets, due to the defection of the Left Socialist Revolutionaries, did he throw in his lot with the dictatorship (= proletarian rule) in contradistinction to democracy (= bourgeois rule) narrative. Rosa Luxemburg provides the only consistent exception, at least to my knowledge. But then she got lots of other things badly wrong (eg, the party - not to be examined here).


Now let us turn to Marx himself and see what he has to say about communism. Above all, that means examining his Critique. After all, here, Marx gave his fullest, though still extremely limited and brief, treatment of the subject. Both Marx and Engels studiously avoided detailed speculation about the future - unlike the utopian socialists, they eschewed futurist blueprints.

It should also be pointed out that Marx penned his Critique for a select group of comrades. Not only was it meant to stiffen the resolve of his compromising Eisenacher followers (eg, Wilhelm Liebknecht and August Bebel) as against the Lassallean General Association of German Workers. He was also trying to guard himself - and his historic reputation - against the ongoing attacks of Mikhail Bakunin: specifically his Statism and anarchy (1873). Bakunin portrayed Marxism as being synonymous with the “founding of a people’s [a free] state”.12 One of many Lassallean formulations, which, to secure unity, Liebknecht and Bebel were “cleverly” prepared to accept. And that is how things turned out. Liebknecht and Bebel refused to follow the advice of the “old men in London”. Thankfully - because they needed to, because they wanted to - the mass of German workers read the programme of the newly formed party in a communistic manner. The Social Democratic Party grew in leaps and bounds.

Marx did not want the ‘Marx party’ in Germany to play into the hands of his sworn enemies. Instead of a “free state” and other such twaddle, the party should champion the “democratic republic” as a minimum demand: ie, a demand to fight for under capitalism. As to the future society, readers will probably know this celebrated passage in the Critique backwards:

… what transformation will the state undergo in communist society? In other words, what social functions will remain in existence there that are analogous to present state functions? This question can only be answered scientifically, and one does not get a flea-hop nearer to the problem by a thousand-fold combination of the word ‘people’ with the word ‘state’.

Marx goes on:

Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period, in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.13

I take this to mean that the dictatorship of the proletariat is the state form that corresponds to the “transition period”. Self-evidentially, a period which begins with the working class assuming state power and ends when the working class state, the division of labour, the compulsion to work, and other capitalistic carry-overs, give way to freedom and the real beginning of human history (ie, full communism). So Marx envisages two, not three, stages.

The dictatorship of the proletariat is for Marxists a specific form of the state. To employ a well established metaphor, the workers’ state constitutes part of society’s superstructure. Ditto the slave-owning state, the feudal state, the bourgeois state. Each form corresponds to a particular society: ie, the ancient (slave) mode of production, the feudal mode of production, the capitalist mode of production, etc.

The dictatorship of the proletariat is, though, categorically distinguished from other forms of the state for two main reasons. One, the “first phase of communism” is not a mode of production. It is a transitional society containing both capitalist and communist elements. Two, the dictatorship of the proletariat differs from other class states because this (semi-) state is the oppressive apparatus in the hands of the majority of the population, a majority which positively seeks to wind down, to minimise state functions. Nevertheless, though itself a carryover from the past and slowly withering away in the first phase of communism, the workers’ state is a necessary feature of the transitionary society.

Yes, the dictatorship of the proletariat is needed in order to resist and overcome capitalist power nationally and internationally. Simultaneously the workers’ state persists so as to keep the petty bourgeoisie and middle classes in line. Though slowly being absorbed into the working class, these intermediate classes cannot be allowed to rebel. Nor should we forget the role of the workers’ state in maintaining discipline over the working class itself. In other words, even once capitalism has been superseded globally and the petty bourgeoisie and middle classes have been entirely absorbed into the working class, the workers’ state, though progressively diminishing in scope and power, remains an unavoidable necessity until all its residual functions are finally absorbed into society itself.


Marx explains that “bourgeois right” continues under the “first phase of communism”: ie, you receive back from society according to what labour you contribute. Such “defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society” admits Marx.

Years later Engels discussed the question of whether “distribution of products” in the society of the future will be carried out “according to the amount of work performed or in some other way”. Wisely, he says the answer “depends almost entirely upon how much there is to distribute”. The new society will introduce sweeping changes in methods of production and social organisation. What is available for socially useful consumption increases. He goes on to stress that all one can rationally do now is: (a) “discover what method of distribution should be used to start off with,” and (b) “find out what the general trend of future developments is likely to be.”14

Exactly what Marx did. After the subordination of the individual to the division of labour - and with that also the “antithesis between mental and physical labour” - has vanished; after labour has become not only a means of life, but “life’s prime want”; after the cultural level of the population has been qualitatively raised - then the narrow horizon of bourgeois right can be crossed in its entirety. Society inscribes on its banners: “From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs!”15

Until then, when it comes to consumption, while there exists the principle of need, it is at least partially checked by the “bourgeois” principle of work done. The reason I highlighted partially should be obvious. Even in present-day society there is the provision of all manner of services based on need: primary and secondary education, health services, social security, etc. Doubtlessly, the workers’ state would swiftly act to improve and greatly extend the scope of such provisions. Nonetheless, the principle of work done remains. Marx explains why. What we are “dealing with here” is a “communist society”, but - and this he emphasises - “not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society, which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birth-marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges”.

He goes on to discuss labour certificates (which, I would argue, could not work until the middle classes have been absorbed into the working class). But that is the subject for another day. Suffice to say, from the above quotations one thing is - or should be - perfectly clear. Marx considers that “communist society” emerges not from the dictatorship of the proletariat (a form of the state), but from capitalist society itself.

So, albeit with various qualifications, I would, yes, describe both the Paris Commune and the October revolution as aborted examples of communism. In and of themselves both revolutions were dreadfully premature. Neither in France nor in Russia was the working class anywhere near a majority. And in 1871 that was true across the whole of Europe - Britain alone excepted.

Working class rule in Paris lasted a mere two months. Politically it was dominated by the forces of petty bourgeois socialism - Blanquists and Proudhonists - and therefore suffered from severe limitations when it came to consistent democracy and aggressively pursuing the revolution. Nevertheless, because of proletarian revolutionary instinct, the Commune introduced many measures that mark out the transition from capitalism: abolition of the standing army and the police, the arming of the people, the election of all officials and limitation of their pay to that of a skilled worker, the removal of religion from public education, the transformation of clerical estates into public property, the recallability of delegates, cooperative production, etc.

The Russian Revolution carried on the tradition of the Commune - but taken to a higher, national, level. However, the Soviet regime suffered defeat too. Not through counterrevolutionary armies and mass butchery. Rather the Russian Revolution, having been isolated by imperialism, having failed to spread to Europe (crucially to Germany), having being forced into full-scale retreat with the New Economic Policy, turned in on itself. Stalin’s doctrine of socialism in one country was a nationalist adaptation to isolation. His first five-year plan unmistakably marked the horrendous counterrevolution within the revolution. After that, reform - even a political revolution - became impossible.


Clearly it was the Second International, most likely following the lead of the German SDP, which was responsible for rebranding ‘communism’ as ‘socialism’. Marx and Engels might not have liked it. But by and large they went along with it. The general acceptance of the future society having two stages - a lower and a higher stage - came, however, from what I can gather, through Engels’s Critique of the draft Social-Democratic programme of 1891 (aka Critique of the Erfurt programme).

Engels stresses that the “working class can only come to power under the form of a democratic republic. This is even the specific form for the dictatorship of the proletariat, as the Great French Revolution [ie, the Paris Commune] has already shown.”16 There can be no a “cosy” road to “communist society”.17 Interestingly, socialism is only referenced three times. All negatively.

The Critique of the Erfurt programme amounted to a double-barrelled blast against the opportunist forces in the German SDP. Engels insisted on the simultaneous publication of Marx’s Critique of the Gotha programme. Till then Marx’s letter was known only to a few top leaders. While those still in thrall to the memory of Ferdinand Lassalle objected, this time the surviving ‘old man’ in London was listened to. Even in draft form the Erfurt programme represented a considerable improvement over the Gotha programme. But Engels managed to further improve it. Not all his suggestions were incorporated, but many were. Globally the Erfurt programme became the model for other revolutionary social democrats - including, of course, the RSDLP.

Two societies

There are those who believe, or claim to believe, that, by calling the first phase of the future society ‘socialism’ and the second phase ‘communism’, Lenin committed some kind of heresy. Supposedly he was proposing two “entirely different” societies. A line of thought which joins Nick Rogers with the anarcho-communists and Adam Buick of the Socialist Party of Great Britain.18 But it is nonsense on stilts.

Suffice to say, when Lenin wrote State and revolution, he considered it entirely unproblematic to note that the “first phase of communism”, albeit in parenthesis, is “usually called socialism”.19 He was not being “original”. He was merely repeating Second International orthodoxy. August Bebel, Karl Kautsky, even Joseph Stalin can all be cited. They all write about the first phase of the future society and call it ‘socialism’. Take the then obscure Georgian Bolshevik, Joseph Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili. Writing against the anarchists, in 1905, he quotes Marx’s Critique and insists that there must be an “initial stage of socialism”. Under the “initial stage” there will still be survivals of capitalism that remain to be eradicated, etc.20

True, in Women in the past, present and future (1879 and 1883) Bebel refers mainly to the higher stage. Yes, mainly. Nonetheless, he does write about the transition - what he called socialism: hence we read that “state organisation as such gradually loses its foundations”.21

What Lenin did in State and revolution was to give the higher and lower phases two names. Returning to the Marx-Engels usage, he wrote about the higher phase as “communism”. But, given the existing common usage, he referred to the lower phase of the future society as “socialism”.

If that was an innovation, it is a pretty modest one. Lenin was not proposing two societies. No, he was reiterating the standard idea amongst Marxists of the time. There were two phases of the future society: a beginning and a full realisation. What Lenin was really doing was re-establishing the word ‘communism’ amongst Marxists, but, by continuing with the name ‘socialism’ for the first phase, he provided a bridge between the Socialist (Second) and the Communist (Third) International.

  1. N Rogers, ‘Communist transition’ Weekly Worker August 26 2010.↩︎

  2. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 24, London 1989, p85.↩︎

  3. N Rogers, ‘Lenin’s misreading of Marx’ Weekly Worker August 1 2019; ‘Marx’s vision’, August 8 2019. Both were originally published in the well known Journal of Global Faultlines.↩︎

  4. www.dictionary.com/e/nice-guys.↩︎

  5. VI Lenin CW Vol 24, Moscow 1977, p24.↩︎

  6. CPGB Draft programme London 2011, pp47-48.↩︎

  7. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 22, Moscow 1986, p355.↩︎

  8. Ibid.↩︎

  9. www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1917/oct/25-26/index.htm.↩︎

  10. N Rogers, ‘Communist transition’ Weekly Worker August 26 2010.↩︎

  11. See H Draper Karl Marx’s theory of revolution Vol 3, New York 1986, and The ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ from Marx and Engels New York 1987.↩︎

  12. www.marxists.org/reference/archive/bakunin/works/1873/statism-anarchy.htm.↩︎

  13. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 24, London 1989, p95.↩︎

  14. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 49 New York 2001, pp7-8.↩︎

  15. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 24, London 1989, pp85-87.↩︎

  16. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 27, London 1990, p227.↩︎

  17. Ibid.↩︎

  18. A Buick, Letters Weekly Worker December 15 2016.↩︎

  19. VI Lenin CW Vol 25, Moscow 1977, p472.↩︎

  20. JV Stalin Anarchism or socialism? Moscow 1950, p80.↩︎

  21. A Bebel Women and socialism London 1988, p178.↩︎