The transition to socialism

Hillel Ticktin, editor of Critique, examines some of the central elements of Marx's theory about the future society

When the working class takes power, it cannot immediately introduce socialism. The process of transition towards socialism can only begin once power consolidates itself. In other words, there is a gap between the proletariat assuming power and consolidating that power - a period of striving to set up the institutions and the forms for such a transition. Certainly the transition period involving the phasing out the market will be much more difficult than has been thought.

Socialism and communism

The transition to what - socialism or communism? It is clear that Marx made no distinction between the two. In fact he really did not like the term 'socialism', because it was being used by people who, in our terms, were not socialists.

What difference does this terminology make? Well, it has made a great deal of difference, because it allowed the Stalinists to say that socialism is the lower phase of communism and, while in this lower phase all sorts of dreadful things can happen, we are still advancing to a communist society. Basically that was what Stalin's argument actually was.

Now it is true that the distinction between socialism and communism was actually made and employed by Lenin, Trotsky and so forth. But they put inverted commas around the word 'socialism': ie, so-called socialism. They knew, of course, that what existed in the USSR was not socialism, which could not be built in one country. However, it was Stalin and the Stalinists who removed the inverted commas and declared that what they were presiding over was socialism.

Because of that history, it does seem to me that there is no reason to retain that terminology - a corrupted version of what existed in the early years of the USSR. We should simply go back to Marx's use. The society we are striving to attain may be called communist or socialist, but in the transitional period it is neither. As far as I am concerned, 'socialist society' and 'communist society' refer to the same thing.

Alternative society

The Stalinists also claimed that Marx had nothing to say about socialism. They are wrong - he explicitly stated what a socialist society would actually be. It is true he said that we cannot know exactly what a socialist society will be like, which of course is correct. However, certain fundamental principles are clear.

If that were not the case, it would certainly reduce the effectiveness of one's criticism of the capitalist system - to advocate overthrowing capitalism without having an alternative in mind would be impossible. One could criticise what exists in a partial, limited way - this capitalist enterprise or that aspect of capitalism is inefficient. But one cannot argue that capitalism can be overthrown without proposing an alternative, a vision of the future.

That was what Marx did. He was absolutely conscious that various writers were falsely claiming to be socialist - the so-called utopian socialists referred to by Engels in Anti-Dühring. But Marx was able to show that socialism was a necessary stage in the development of humanity, that it was not a question of simply replacing what existed for some ideal or something that was 'ethically better'. Capitalism could not sustain itself, it would have to be overthrown and it would be overthrown. In other words, Marx's conception of the future was closely connected to his conception of a present that was coming to an end, although he never discussed the exact form in which that would occur.

Some might say that Marx's viewpoint was very similar to that of Gerry Healy! After 1848 he was constantly expecting another crisis and believed that capitalism would be unable to cope with its own contradictions. Of course, Marx was not stupid like Healy - he did not see capitalism simply collapsing by itself. What was absolutely essential was the development of the working class to the point where it could overthrow the system. He argued that new relations of production were required. The means of production must become increasingly socialised, which therefore demanded the removal of the market and its replacement by planning.

Elements of the future

Now some people, not least various Stalinists, argue that Marx was wrong, in that there was a big difference between the change from feudalism to capitalism and the change from capitalism to socialism. They say that the capitalist class was able to develop within feudalism, whereas it is impossible for socialist forms to develop inside capitalism.

Well, the argument is simply wrong. In the first place, it exaggerates the development of capitalism. In Holland in particular, or before that in Italy, early capitalism encountered a series of defeats. It took a long time before it finally established itself in Britain. In the second place, what of course is crucial to understand is that Marx is arguing that the working class is in capitalism, but is not of capitalism. In other words, it has come into being to overthrow the system - to achieve its own flowering and its own abolition at the same time.

Of course, what follows is that there is no way this can come about in an undeveloped country. The fact that a revolution took place in Russia meant it would have to be undemocratic. And, of course, it was undemocratic, insofar as it was a dictatorship over the peasantry - as we know, the peasantry never supported the revolution.

To say this is not to argue against Lenin or Trotsky. They never supposed that socialism could be built either in one country or in the former Russian empire. Their intention was to take a short cut in order to help the development of the working class in the west, particularly in Germany.

The development of the workers as a class does require a series of conditions, which can only exist in a highly developed country. Labour has to become abstract labour - a homogenised, partly integrated, but flexible workforce - and that is only possible with the industrialisation of the whole economy, where peasants in effect cease to exist and small enterprises or artisans no longer play any crucial role in the economy.

A great deal of Marx's time was spent in fighting Proudhon, whose 'socialism' consisted in a large number of individual artisans competing for a market. He also opposed Bakunin, who argued that one had to rely not on the class as a class, but the underclass, the unemployed. Their alternatives were not worth a candle.

The essential point is that Marx needed to sharply differentiate himself from a section of the socialist movement - both in terms of sincerity, honesty and, in relation to Bakunin and the anarchist movement, decency, and in terms of theory. He pointed out that socialism is not an arbitrary act. One cannot look to an underclass of unemployed, the poorest and most discontented people outside society. Marx argued exactly the reverse: one has to look to the majority class that is capable of developing the collectivity, the power to overthrow the society.

And it is in the nature of this power, in the nature of the class itself that has taken power, that it will begin to institute a socialist society.

Workers as a class

In other words, the embryo of the socialist society exists in the class itself - and there is a big difference between individual workers and the working class. The Stalinists, like the fascists, erected statues of muscle-bound workers and it is no accident that they promoted that kind of art. Stalinism necessarily worshipped a kind of ideal, non-existent worker in order to avoid confronting the question of the class as such. The point is not about the virtues of any particular worker from our point of view. It is only when the class comes into being as a class that we can talk about its power, its universal nature.

In order for that class to exist there must be large-scale industry and the development of abstract labour. It does not matter whether workers are white-collar or blue-collar - there is no distinction between them whatsoever for the purpose of abstract labour and the development of the class. Nor is there any reason to argue that a productive worker is somehow superior to an unproductive worker, although it is true that the basis of the power of the class exists within the productive sector.

The whole point is that it is insufficient to argue that socialism is something that is ethically superior. There must come into being a class that can and must take power in order to exist.

Of course, the bourgeoisie itself is well aware of that potentiality. The collective power of workers employed in a very large factory is enormous and the capitalists do their best to limit that power. That is why they no longer tend to have huge enterprises, but prefer smaller units. It is no accident, for example, that General Motors sold off its supplier, Delphi Automotive - it broke up the firm precisely in order to break up the organisation of the workers. Or for that matter it was no accident that British Rail was broken up. As we know, much of the privatisation that has taken place was driven politically rather than by any other consideration.

However, production today is internationalised and integrated, which acts to prevent a return to smaller and medium-sized enterprises. The fact is, big capital controls and dominates. And we can easily observe it at the consumer level: for instance, one eighth of all groceries consumed in Britain are bought at Tesco, which exerts monopoly control over its suppliers.

In Marxist terms monopoly results from a socialisation of production combined with an ever smaller number of controlling companies. Although today the trend towards ever bigger enterprises no longer applies, production throughout the world has become increasingly integrated.

A crucial element in this process has been finance capital, which can and does organise capital and capitalism itself. This is not planning, but it is proto-planning. It entails a conscious direction of the economy, even if this occurs through aspects of the market. So today there really does exist an apparatus of control which can be used as a basis for proletarian power.

Reinstating the market?

And today government is increasingly involved in the whole society, even when its policy is that of privatisation. It is true that there is an increasing amount of privatisation throughout the world, but for capital it is simply another form of management. Privatisation aids the process of increasing integration and conscious control - there is usually a regulator to ensure it.

It has, however, proved very difficult to privatise the needs-based sector - health, education and the military cannot be run efficiently using the market. This, of course, is a reflection of the fact that we are no longer in the time of Marx - capitalism has long gone beyond that point. It has long gone beyond the point where it needs to be overthrown. In other words, the forces of production are demanding that the capitalist form be overthrown. The result is an increasing internal conflict between proto-planning, or organisation, and the market itself. The future is conflicting with the present and sections of the capitalist class have tried to put the clock back by reinstating the market.

Apart from making the rich richer, privatisation has not accomplished its reactionary goals - as we can see by looking at the US government itself, which is bigger than it has ever been and is under attack from conservatives for that reason.

The future, however, demands the socialisation of production. It demands the removal of the dictatorial forms that exist at present (although these dictatorial forms result in people working in their own way, different from that which management intends). In other words, the modern forces of production are demanding socialism.

Marx's vision and human nature

In volume 1, chapter 1 of Capital Marx refers to the future society. He explicitly uses the word 'planning' and speaks of it as the form in which associated producers could control society itself. He write: "The life process of society, which is based on the process of material production, does not strip off its mystical veil until it is treated as production by freely associated men and is consciously regulated by them in accordance with a settled plan."

This directly answers those who say that Marx had no conception of socialism. He is saying very clearly socialism must be planned and that planning requires democracy. Without democracy, there can be no planning, he is effectively saying. That one sentence in fact represents a very deep conception of consciously regulated society, where labour is planned and control over nature is established.

I would now like to turn to the question of human nature and its connection with the contradiction between use value and exchange value.

There is an argument which states that human nature is plastic. According to Steven Pinker, for example, Marxists say that a fixed human nature does not exist. Well, there is certainly a part of human nature that can be changed with a socialist society, but it is simply untrue that Marx argued there is no such thing as fixed human nature. In fact he said there is a definite human nature which does not change over a period of thousands of years. Since all things change, human nature will eventually change too, but we can safely say, not in our lifetime.

The theory of alienation was based on this assumption. If man is alienated from himself, then what is 'himself'? His human nature. Marx was saying that it is inbuilt into our nature to be engaged in social labour. For him social labour makes us human and this basic aspect is unchangeable. So Steven Pinker is completely wrong. Stalin too talked about how the Soviet Union had succeeded in changing mankind, which was simply nonsense.

Use value

So there is a basic human nature. This is important when it comes to examining what underlies the contradiction between use value and exchange value. It has been said that basic human need takes the form of use value under capitalism and that in socialism we will still have use values after exchange value has been abolished.

Well, it is not as simple as that. With socialism we will switch directly to satisfying human needs. A fundamental human need is social labour, but this cannot be satisfied by use values under capitalism, which reflect much we would not want to retain in socialism. We are brought up in a particular society with particular demands, but it is because of capitalism that we actually demand them. Like other socio-economic formations or modes of production, capitalism over time has coped with and controlled human needs. The particular form this has taken in capitalism is that of value, exchange value. The point is that use values are partially determined by exchange value, which is the organising principle, the form, of capitalist society.

Humanity is gradually getting to the point where it can directly satisfy human needs. But human nature can only be fully satisfied in a socialist society. It will not need the indirect form of controls which exist through exchange value.

State and individual

In Capital Marx discussed the contradiction between use value and exchange value in great detail. The point, of course, is that the individual is controlled by the market, which stands between the individual and his nature. In other words, what is required is the removal of the market, so that the individual can actually stand as an individual in society, so that the individual can be a truly social individual, which he cannot be in any other society.

Under Stalinism, what was stressed was the smallness of the individual and the need to work for the 'greater good' embodied by the state. Because of that, Marxism was characterised, quite wrongly, as being against the individual. On the contrary, Marxism is the only philosophy which argues that the individual can be fully developed, as an individual, within society. Marx explicitly stresses the fact that for the first time the individual will be free in a socialist society. Before class society the individual was subject to nature, but in socialism the individual is able to stand out for the first time as genuinely free, able to control that society as a social being, as well as standing over nature.

So Karl Popper is plain stupid when he argues that Marx wanted to subordinate the individual to the state. If he had ever read any Marx he would not have said that, since Marx stood for the exact opposite. Marxism is the only philosophy which really does stand for the individual because it is the only philosophy which is able to reconcile the individual and society as a whole. It does not have to reconcile the individual and the state because it abolishes the state in order to create the truly free individual. The individual can be free in and through society. The division of labour must always remain, but human beings do not have to subject themselves to it, as opposed to using it.

In claiming that Marxism means the subordination of the individual to the state, Popper accidentally emphasises the difference between nationalisation and socialisation. Marx referred to this statisation, where everything is nationalised, as "barrack-room communism". In other words, it is authoritarian or totalitarian, but it is most certainly not socialism. In the Soviet Union, there was an elite in control of nationalised property. As a result it had enormous power, without any participation or consent of the workers, to the extent that the individual citizen was atomised in ways that were unimaginable before Stalin's time. Although Marx's phrase "barrack-room communism" does seem to foresee it.

Human society

The dialectic of both the individual and society reaches its end with socialism. The dialectic is a source of motion, but the form of the dialectic and motion itself changes. One form cannot be reduced to another. It has been said that, once communism or socialism has been attained, there will eventually be a need for a new society. That is the nature of change and dialectic.

Well, that is simply wrong. The dialectic of a particular kind has its own movement and it reaches a particular result. That is as far as it goes. The dialectic will then continue on another plane, which is quite different.

Marx makes the point that what distinguishes humanity is its consciousness, and it is its consciousness that is the greatest development of nature itself. But the logic of this is that humanity will subordinate nature. Consciousness and planning will take control.

This struggle to subordinate nature is therefore an infinite struggle and will continue in the socialist society, when technology is sufficient for the immediate needs of mankind. And that, of course, is only possible once social relations become adequate for mankind's purposes.

It is only possible to achieve a truly human society once the technology is available. But the technology can only be fully developed once we have a truly human society.