Viable strategy

Allan Armstrong opposes what he essentially describes as Dave Craig's technological determinist approach in relation to the question of socialist transition (Weekly Worker January 13). His alternative is to call for the abolition of the wages system as the basis of workers' control, and he also places emphasis upon the transforming significance of the class struggle for understanding historical development.

His perspective seems to justify a radical stance, but it does not provide the objective basis for developing a strategy of socialist transition. Firstly, his emphasis upon the abolition of wages in the transition to communism locates the problem of overcoming exploitation within the realm of circulation and distribution, and so the necessary emphasis upon the class content of the relations of production is abstracted out and defined as a secondary question. Secondly, his conception of class struggle contains subjective and utopian elements.

In relation to the first problematical point it is necessary to analyse Marx's approach to the question of the abolition of wages. In Critique of the Gotha programme Marx calls for the abolition of the wages system in the transition period of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Wages should be replaced by certificates based upon the expenditure of labour time. This type of material remuneration would express 'bourgeois' inequality in relation to differential rewards for divergent skill levels. Marx is conceding that economic inequality would remain during the transition period, and material remuneration would occur on the basis of labour time expended during the process of production. This system of remuneration represents the same economic principle as the law of value (socially necessary labour time), but there is an important difference. For the dictatorship of the proletariat extracts and administers the application of surplus labour time in an emancipatory manner.

The possibility to develop an emancipatory economic process is connected to the political necessity for a commune state based upon the hegemony of workers' councils. On this basis it can be possible to oppose the redevelopment of exploitative relations of production, and thereby overcome the reproduction of capitalist expropriation of surplus labour time. It will also be possible to thwart the creation of new exploitative economic forms.

In this context of the emancipatory dictatorship of the proletariat, the labour certificates are still wages in the sense of being a monetary reward for work, and essentially they still act as money in terms of being a universal equivalent of the diverse use-values produced. It is doubtful whether there can ever be a economic situation of material abundance that enables money to be abolished as the main means to obtain goods. However, wages (labour certificates) no longer express the alienated and exploitative character of the class content of capitalist relations of production. If the political aspects of the dictatorship of the proletariat start to degenerate then the economic tendencies towards the exploitative extraction of a surplus will develop, and wages (labour certificates) will start to acquire an alienating and commodified character.

The October revolution was based upon the fragile rule of the soviets in a situation of terrible material scarcity and isolation. In other words the Bolsheviks had political domination within a degenerated workers' state. In 1918 the dominant Leninist faction of the Bolshevik Party essentially rejected the necessity to develop international revolution, and instead started to advocate an idealist and utopian national road to socialism. Lenin maintained that Soviet Russia should be considered the base of world revolution, and this meant priority was to be given to preserving it. The strategic aim of world revolution became subsumed into this task of constructing the 'Soviet socialist state'.

The first economic expression of this national utopianism was war communism. This was based upon the elitist hierarchy of one-man management, requisition of grain from the peasants, and material remuneration on the basis of barter and rations. Thus the development of the productive forces occurred through the forced extraction of surplus labour time from the working class and peasantry, and this created the objective economic basis for a potential new ruling class to systematically expropriate and exploit the producers in the future.

The wages system was abolished in this period of war communism, but because the commune state was degenerate from birth exploitation was developed in a new historical form. So while there was suppression of aspects of the law of value, such as the transcendence of wages as an expression of valorised socially necessary labour time, the conditions still remained for the renewal of exploitation, or the expropriation by the unaccountable state of social (surplus) labour time.

This situation showed that 'socialism in one country' represented a lack of the material conditions for overcoming economic exploitation and inequality, and therefore what resulted was a reproduction of the conditions for the exploitation of the working class and peasantry. Objectively, the process of realising the commune state, and abolishing the wages system as an expression of value-creating abstract labour, is connected to the success of international revolution. Formally the Soviet state abolished the wages system in accordance with the criteria of the Critique of the Gotha programme, but in reality this economic situation expressed regression to a barter system that was based upon compulsion, coercion, and an acute low level of development of the productive forces.

Between 1924 and 1929 the moribund workers' state (the declining and decaying degenerated workers' state) expressed contradictions and tensions of conflicting social interests. This contradiction was based upon the antagonisms between the bureaucratic state and the workers and peasants. The contradictions were resolved by the bureaucratic state expropriating the peasants through the introduction of forced collectivisation. This process inaugurated the extraction of surplus labour time from the workers and peasants on a predominantly non-value basis, in that commodity exchange and markets were effectively abolished.

Armstrong also maintains that revolutionary struggle is the main criterion of the ripeness of progressive historical change, and in particular the possibility for transition to communism. Armstrong mentions the Levellers and Diggers in the 17th century as an example of his standpoint. Certainly, if they had achieved victory over Cromwell, history would have been different. What might have happened would have been a more democratic bourgeois revolution, but the Levellers and Diggers did not have the consciousness, and the material conditions were lacking, to facilitate a proletarian revolution.

Armstrong may agree with this point, but what is important to emphasise is that his stress upon the subjective factors of class struggle glosses over the objective basis for proletarian revolution. For an interdependent world economy is the material basis for international proletarian revolution. If there is a situation of isolation, material scarcity and low level of productive forces, as in Russia, and no international proletarian revolution has occurred, then the conditions of exploitation will be reproduced. In contrast to this objective approach Armstrong has an idealist emphasis upon the transforming importance of revolutionary will, and so socialism becomes an expression of a good idea: namely, the absence of wages.

This standpoint is an inverted expression of Proudhon's view that socialism would be a good idea if it was based upon the equal exchange of commodities. For both Armstrong and Proudhon the capacity for humans to realise good ideas is abstracted from the objective conditions and the prospect for exploitation to reoccur. In order to oppose this idealism it is necessary to emphasise the importance of the objective, such as the state of development of the productive forces, balance of class forces and the international prospects for proletarian revolution.

In the 19th century there was a general low level of the productive forces, except for Britain, and so the working class was small and characterised by utopian socialist ideas of an idealist, voluntarist and elitist content. However, in the period 1870-1914 there was a rapid development of the productive forces, and a corresponding intensification in the contradictions of capitalism, such as between the limits of the nation state and the expansion of socialised production. This economic situation started to create the objective basis for proletarian revolution and international socialism.

The Russian October revolution was a dynamic product of the role of a revolutionary party in the specific conditions of workers' and peasants' unrest over poverty and the continuation of imperialist war, but the political effect of this revolution was unable to overcome the international defeat of the working class in 1914. Furthermore, the alienated consciousness of the leadership of the degenerated workers' state was not sufficient for establishing a principled Third International, and this was shown by the support given to the opportunist policy of a united front from above, adaptation to social democracy, plus the affirmation of vanguard party elitism.

These political problems created the ideological conditions for the durability of capitalism despite economic crisis and inter-imperialist conflict. The problem of the subjective, of creating a party committed to developing the class consciousness of the working class, was expressed in the objective expansion of the productive forces on the basis of consolidating capitalist relations of production. This process was also contradictory in that it led to the continued enhancement of the material and worldwide basis for communism, and the working class was still a crucial part of the development of the productive forces in a growing urbanised world.

Kautsky had argued that the October revolution was premature because Russia did not have the productive forces for socialist transition. This argument has become increasingly outdated in an era of globalised production.

This whole debate about the significance of the economic in the realisation of socialism is an expression of the theoretical problems involved in the understanding of the transition period. Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution was able to explain the class dynamics of the October revolution, but it could not explain how the revolution was to become international.

This theoretical problem facilitated the political domination of idealist opportunism. The marginalisation of Bukharin and Trotsky at the time of the Brest Litovsk treaty, and the hegemony of the theory of Soviet Russia as the base of world revolution, enabled the party to articulate its policies in increasingly nationalist terms. Thus by 1920 Lenin was advocating bureaucratic workers' governments based upon social democratic and Communist Party alliances, and therefore he justified the substitutionist stance of party elitism replacing the revolutionary role of the working class.

The temporary stabilisation of capitalism after the defeats of the working class in the 1920s, combined with the isolation of the Soviet state, led to an idealist conception of political economy within Bolshevism. This idealist view was that the political superstructure within the national dictatorship of the proletariat can generate socialism, via the consolidation of the proletariat and peasant alliance. Such a national approach represented the social interests of the consolidated party elite. The hostility shown towards workers' control of production by the party elite was connected to the view that socialism could be better built on the basis of developing a nationalised economy through commodity exchange between the state and peasantry.

In the mid-1920s the meagre development of the productive forces was directed by the party elite who increasingly expropriated surplus labour time from the working class. Subjectively both Bukharin and Trotsky did not want to exploit the working class, but objectively the social relations of production express the increasing subordination of the working class. If Trotsky had won in the inner-party struggle, the prospect of transition to a complete and systematic domination by a new ruling class would still have remained a problem.

The role of revolutionary will, combined with the actions of great leaders, was not able to stop the degeneration of the Soviet state. This was because the productive forces had not developed to a level that was sufficient to establish a democratic and planned socialist society. So, whilst Armstrong calls for the abolition of wages and the introduction of workers' control, this abstract stance represents subjective radicalism that does not address the central strategic question: namely, how do we develop an international revolution that can create the objective material conditions to overcome the national basis for economic subordination and exploitation?

Phil Sharpe