Socialism is a form of class struggle

Why can't the proletariat abolish capitalism immediately on taking power? The answer lies in the need for transition, argues Mike Macnair

This is a rather belated reply to Paul Cockshott’s critique of my book Revolutionary strategy.[1] In spite of the lapse of time it is worth replying, because Cockshott’s is in a certain sense the most serious and substantial criticism of the book so far offered. It has the great merit of (mostly) addressing my actual arguments, rather than simply assuming that I am a Kautskyite, as several reviewers have. Comrade Cockshott makes some serious and valid points about the question of democracy and concludes with a point with which I entirely agree: “to abolish the wages system we must first win the battle of democracy.”

Comrade Cockshott makes, in substance, three general criticisms of my book. The first concerns its “the lack of a theory of socialism” - meaning both a theory of the USSR and similar regimes, and a theory of the economic forms we should be fighting for as the immediate replacement of capitalism. In this connection, he disagrees with my characterisation of bureaucrats, managers and so on, as a section of the social class of petty proprietors.

The second, which appears to be a small point but is actually much larger, concerns the theory of the bourgeois state: he says that my account of this misses the power to tax, the (connected) “monopoly of armed force” and the parliamentary form. A connected issue is that of the existence of an international hierarchy of capitalist states: he points to Sweden as a counter-example to the connection I make between the ability to grant reforms and state status in the global pecking order of states.

The third criticism and the most elaborated in his article is that - like Kautsky - I buy into the parliamentary form. This, he argues, is a form of oligarchy; and the word republic means a Roman-style oligarchy, as opposed to what communists should be fighting for, which is an Athenian-style democracy.

There is a fourth, underlying theoretical issue which affects all these questions. This is about how to understand the historical transitions between different social formations: antiquity to feudalism, feudalism to capitalism, capitalism to communism. In my view humanity’s experience of previous historical transitions should affect our understanding of the last of those listed, the historical transition now in process; and this understanding has implications for present programmatic proposals.

My response will be in two parts. Comrade Cockshott’s first criticism, the “lack of a theory of socialism”, is partially legitimate, but shows a misunderstanding of what the book is basically about. However, one of his points under this head - the question of the class character of the labour and Soviet bureaucracies - is a really important question. To respond to it demands addressing my fourth issue, the general nature of historical transitions between modes of production and social formations; then the question of the petty-proprietor class, and its general implications for proposals for post-capitalist economic order. From this follows the question why I call bureaucrats and managers ‘petty proprietors of intellectual property’, and the implications of this analysis for understanding the Soviet and similar regimes.

At this point it is necessary to return - in the second part - to comrade Cockshott’s second point, the issue of the nature of the capitalist state and the hierarchy of capitalist states. In this context and that of what has gone before it is finally possible to address the issue of present proposals for political order to replace the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.

Theory of socialism

Comrade Cockshott complains that my book is characterised by “a failure to have any positive theory of socialism. This lack of a theory of socialism is first evident in the non-treatment of the history of the USSR and China, and later in a failure to spell out what sort of economy the socialist movement should be fighting for.”

It is quite true that the book has not much to say about the USSR and its satellites and imitators, less about their economic arrangements than their politics, and still less about “what sort of economy the socialist movement should be fighting for”.

However, the reason for this is that I was not attempting in the book to write a general theory of everything. Rather, in the series of articles which formed the basis of the book, I was originally responding to the debate on strategy in the French Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire. This response developed into an attempt to discriminate the minimum elements of Marxist strategy which could form the basis of practical unity of the Marxists: as opposed, on the one hand, to sects formed on the basis of a theory of everything and, on the other, to ‘broad left’ formations which end up as tails of the social-liberals.

I am extremely cautious about creating a schema of “what sort of economy the socialist movement should be fighting for”. There are two reasons for this. The first I argued in an article three years ago on the maximum-minimum form of programme.[2] The point was drawn from a letter of Marx to Sorge in 1880 on the Programme of the Parti Ouvrier, which appears to be the first use of “minimum programme”.

Marx wrote: “With the exception of some trivialities ... the economic section of the very brief document consists solely of demands that have spontaneously arisen out of the labour movement itself”.[3] Why did Marx insist on the ‘economic section’ consisting of “demands that have spontaneously arisen out of the labour movement itself”? The answer is that this approach is counterposed to utopian schemes about the nature of the organisation of the future communist society and about the transition which were then current.

The essence of the ‘Marxist’ policy was that the working class needed to take political power, and for that purpose to struggle for the democratic republic - as opposed to the Proudhonists’ fetishism of cooperatives, the Lassalleans’ state-sponsored cooperatives, and the Bakuninists’ fetishised general strike. Given that the proposal was that the working class take over the running of society, it was the working class itself which had to decide on economic and other policy priorities.

This was the approach of the First International: it was founded on a minimal set of claims about the need of the working class to organise, and the First International itself then discussed what concrete working class policy should be in relation to several areas.

We are obviously not in this situation today: there are mass working class trade unions, parties and so on, but they are controlled by bureaucracies loyal to the capitalist state. Hence Marxists are forced to organise independently of the pro-capitalist labour bureaucracy. So, while we cannot substitute for the decisions of the working class as a whole on how to reshape the economy, we are forced to put forward our own proposals for discussion in the workers’ movement.

Within this framework, however, a second and less fundamental point remains. Today’s splintered, self-identified Marxist left argues for the overthrow of capitalism. It does so in diverse ways, often ones which abandon Marx’s and Engels’ class-political conception in favour of popular frontism. But there are also entirely legitimate differences within the self-identified Marxist left about political economy issues. These affect the immediate economic implications of the overthrow of the capitalist power. My book is - as I said before - about the potential minimum basis of Marxist unity: not about a global alternative on everything.

In relation to the USSR and its satellites and imitators, this same point about the book meant that I drew two, and only two, very basic lessons from their failure. The first lesson is that the proletariat needs to take power on a scale which can defeat a centralised imperialist financial and military blockade. I think that this point - that the proletariat needs to aim to take power on a continental scale, not in a single country which can be blockaded until it is forced to give in - is agreed with comrade Cockshott.

The second lesson is that - contrary to the ideas propagated by Lenin, Trotsky and others in 1918-21 - the proletariat needs political democracy if it is to control a state. I think this point is agreed, too, though we have significant differences on what is meant here by ‘political democracy’.

Beyond this point, in my opinion a wide range of opinions as to the nature of the Soviet regime and its satellites and imitators is consistent with a common party affiliation. For example, I personally think that ‘Cliff state capitalism’ involves false conceptions of both classes and capitalism which are corrosive of the theoretical fundamentals of Marxism. But I would not dream of arguing that holding this theory is inconsistent with membership in a common party.

That said, the question of the bureaucracy is not just a matter of the fate of the USSR and its satellites and imitators. It also concerns the fate of the Second International and of the trade union movement, and is a burning question affecting the left today. The larger question of the class nature of the professional and managerial ‘employed middle class’, and the question of the place of the petty proprietors in general, also has major implications for what we should be fighting for as the immediate successor of capitalist rule.

Social transitions

In another polemic posted on the Reality home page he maintains, comrade Cockshott remarks that his view of historical materialism is influenced by the fact that he is by profession an engineer.[4] I make no criticism at all of this. Rather, I have to admit that my view of historical materialism is also affected by my profession: that is, that I am a ‘lawyer legal historian’. This background means that I am not, as ‘proper historians’ mostly are, a ‘period specialist’. I routinely work with the longue durée (long-term historical phenomena as distinct from the play of short-term events).

This background means that I have never been even slightly tempted by what is now the very common ‘academic Marxist’ view that pre-capitalist social formations of class rule, though very varied in superstructural forms, are all one at the base - ‘tributary’ - and do not develop the forces of production. This view is in reality simply flatly inconsistent with the evidence available both from archaeology and from surviving records of lawsuits, and so on.

The converse is that I also reject the view that capitalism is so different and inherits so little from pre-capitalist development that the phenomena of capitalism can be fully explained by the abstract laws of motion of capital developed in Marx’s critique of political economy. Historical materialism - or at least the Mediterranean-European historical sequence from slaveowner urbanism, through feudalism, to capitalism - is essential to understanding ‘real existing capitalism’.

The pure forms of the abstract dynamics of a society of slaveowners and slaves, or of landowners/clerics and serfs, or of capitalists and workers, are never found in any actual society. They are abstractions from the complexity of real, historical social orders, which are essential to grasping the fundamental dynamics of these social orders, not direct descriptions.

Firstly, what is found in the historical evidence is rising slave-based urbanism mixed with earlier social forms; declining slave-based urbanism mixed with proto-feudalism; rising feudalism mixed with survivals of slave-based urbanism; declining feudalism mixed with proto-capitalism; rising capitalism mixed with feudal survivals; and declining capitalism mixed with proto-communism. It is only at its apogee moment that a class regime looks close to its abstract conception; even then, the social order is one dominated by slavery, feudalism, capitalism ... not one purely characterised by these relations.[5]

This is because, secondly, petty family production for immediate consumption is a feature of all societies after hunter-gatherer ‘primitive communism’. In the imperialist countries it is marginalised into the forms of supplementation of market provisioning through housework, vegetable gardens/allotments, and the ability of rural producers to take for consumption a portion of a product mainly intended for market for direct consumption.

Going along with this, gift exchange persists as an element of the organisation of production in class societies, and remains an important social form at the base even in the imperialist countries.[6] And petty family commodity production for sale into localised markets is an important element of all societies having money or proto-money forms. Again, in those imperialist countries that have not artificially preserved small peasants and artisan food producers (eg, Britain, US and the Netherlands, as opposed to France, Italy ...) it is a relatively marginal element.

Petty bourgeoisie

The objective, long-run tendency of capitalism is to marginalise petty family production, and this is a contrast with previous forms of class society. It is this tendency which forms the objective basis for both the possibility of communism and the necessity of communism. Capitalism actually socialises the means of production in its own way: dominance of corporate businesses, etc. It thus tends to render transparent the fact that these are actually common assets, worked by forms of cooperation between large numbers of workers, and the capitalists merely thieving managers pilfering from the collective till. This transparency appears precisely when basic or infrastructural firms are at risk of general bankruptcy - as with the banks in the ‘credit crunch’.

However, this long-term tendency of capitalism is a long way from being completed. This is because of the global scale of the question: still hundreds of millions of Chinese and of Indian peasants, for example. It is also because of counter-tendencies within capitalist dynamics. Luxury and niche markets are occupied by petty bourgeois. And (especially in the countries of the periphery) severe unemployment leads to deproletarianisation, as people abandon hope of finding jobs and scrape a living from gardening, as petty pedlars, from theft, and so on. There is also in every imperialist country substantial state intervention to preserve and promote the middle classes as a political bulwark against the proletariat.

Britain is historically perhaps the country in which capitalist development has gone furthest. Yet there are above 4.5 million small businesses, so that the ‘classic’ petty bourgeoisie and small capitalists together amount to at least 14.5% of the working-age population. This leaves aside altogether for the moment the question of skills as intellectual property rights and the employed middle classes. For reasons of differences of fertility and mortality between classes, the percentage of children and youth of the petty bourgeoisie is lower, and the percentage of petty bourgeois of pensionable age is higher.

In addition, by virtue of the occupational pensions arrangements in this country, both retired ‘classic’ petty-bourgeois and retired members of the employed middle class and the upper (skilled) working class become rentiers living on the proceeds of savings and investments. Hence in terms of social self-identification the percentage of pensioners identifying as small rentiers, as opposed to identifying as retired workers, is considerably higher than the combined percentage of ‘classic’ petty bourgeois and of small rentiers in the working-age population.

This is a minority, but it is a non-trivial minority. And the ‘classic’ petty bourgeoisie and small capitalists together have practical control of significant segments of the means of production which have as yet not been concentrated and thereby ‘socialised’ by capitalist development. Though the businesses in question are largely interstitial, there is considerable potential for economic disruption - ie the reduction of available use-values - if their owners were to take to sabotage, or even merely to abandon them, as a response to being expropriated or subjected to forced collectivisation.

Agriculture is on the edge of this sector. British ‘family farmers’ cannot be characterised as peasants or petty bourgeois, since agriculture is now characteristically operated by family members with very small numbers of permanent workers, but very large amounts of capital in the form of land values, farm buildings and machinery. Only some forms of agriculture - particularly market gardening and fruit-farming - use substantial amounts of casual migrant labour in the harvest period. Again, however, the absence of concentration and the potential for serious economic disruption if a policy of simple expropriation or forced collectivisation were to be adopted is clear.

Once we go beyond Britain to continental Europe, there are in several countries substantial real peasantries and groups of artisan producers, so that the problem is sharper than it is in Britain.

The conclusion from these points is that, assuming the proletariat takes political power in the next 40-50 years, there will still be a substantial period of transition which falls between the complete overthrow of the global capitalist state system and the fully collective appropriation of the means of production (communism). This period of transition is properly the dictatorship of the proletariat, the class rule of the proletariat over the surviving petty bourgeoisie and small capital, in a contradictory economic order in which those means of production which the capitalists have already ‘socialised’ are collectively appropriated, but the participants in this collective appropriation have to trade with substantial groups of petty bourgeois and some small capitalists, who are politically subordinated to the proletarian majority.

The period can also be called for short-hand ‘socialism’, as we do in the CPGB Draft programme, provided it is clear that by ‘socialism’ we mean this transitional period of working class rule over other subsisting classes, and not a separate stage standing between the dictatorship of the proletariat and communism. ‘Dictatorship of the proletariat’ is in my opinion scientifically superior because it expresses the fact that the petty bourgeoisie and small capital continue to exist in this period, but are institutionally subordinated to the proletariat as a class.

Knowledge can be power

The same is true of the employed middle classes - and with sharper immediate political consequences. I characterise this group as a segment of the class of petty proprietors (or, traditionally but less scientifically, petty bourgeois): ‘petty proprietors of intellectual property’. I argue that the state, corporate and labour (trade union, co-op, party and left group) bureaucracies - including the Soviet bureaucracy - are part of this class segment.

In the book I wrote of the USSR: “What happened instead was to render concrete the 1850s warnings of Marx and Engels against the premature seizure of power in Germany, which formed the basis of Kautsky’s caution in the 1890s and 1900s. By choosing to represent the peasantry and other petty proprietors (especially state bureaucrats), the workers’ party disabled itself from representing the working class, but instead became a sort of collective Bonaparte.”

Comrade Cockshott responds: “... so long as petty peasant production existed, it created wings within the CPs which defended its interest: Bukharin, Gomulka, Deng. But these were just one wing, and in most cases they did not come out on top.” And: “The crisis of the socialist system, Poland aside, was not generally precipitated by the demands of petty proprietors in agriculture, and the identification of state bureaucrats with petty proprietors is an unconvincing throwaway phrase, not justified by any argument.”

I did not write about this issue at length in the book for the reasons given above. But I have written about it elsewhere: in a review of some books on intellectual property rights in 2003, as a small point in a reply to John Robinson’s critique of the Strategy book in 2008, and most particularly in a review of David Priestland’s Stalinism and the politics of mobilisation, also in 2008, which formed part of a three-part reply to comrade Tony Clark’s defence of Stalinism.[7] Part of the last is worth repeating; but I would also refer readers to the whole series.

A substantial class of information and skills are part of the means of production. Going back to the stone age, knowing how knap flint gives you variety of tools once you can find a flint. Conversely, if someone gave me a capstan lathe, it would be - to me - a heap of junk, not a means of production, until I learned how to work it. Some ‘managerial’ skills, of coordinating the work of others, fall into this category: for example, in a car factory, if nobody works out how many screws need to be ordered from the supplier, the factory will run out of screws and cease production.

Capitalism tends to socialise information and skills - through general education, through publishing, through replacement of skills by machines and so on. But to the extent that information and skills are not socialised they are private property.

Large property in information takes the form of technical monopolies which receive technical rents (usually patents and other intellectual property rights; but there are also unpatented ‘trade secrets’ in many machines, which require ‘reverse engineering’ by skilled engineers to allow duplication of the machine). The tsarist empire specialised in exporting raw materials, mainly grain, in the hope of gaining access to Dutch and British, and later French, intellectual property in various forms. The USSR had to break its back exporting in 1928-31 in order to gain access to US intellectual property in the form of machines.[8]

Under capitalism, small private property in skills or information can in some cases be used to run a small business (like plumbers, dentists or practising lawyers). Similarly, a family farm (or peasant holding) does not just consist of land. It also involves movable capital (animals, etc) and a very wide range of skills. Adam Smith made the point that the farmer or farmworker needs more skills than the urban specialist artisan.[9]

In other cases, the collective monopoly of the skill held by a group of people allows them in wage bargaining to insist on some sort of premium over the wage. This premium can be in money; or it can be in better working conditions (white-collar workers), in partial freedom from managerial control, or in managerial control over others.

The classical petty bourgeois “self-exploit”: that is, they and their family members often work longer hours for less reward than employed workers. They do so partly in the hope of making the breakthrough to getting rich - for most as illusory as buying lottery tickets. But also, and perhaps mainly, they prefer the (limited) control which “running their own business” gives them to the subordination of working for wages. This includes control over family members who help in the business - hence petty bourgeois patriarchalism; it also involves the exclusion of others from decision-making.

The employed middle class share the classical petty bourgeois aspiration to ‘make it big’, in this case the hope of climbing the career pyramid to one of the few places at the top. They also share the preference for control over subordination. In their case, however, control is immediately exercised over others - their subordinates. And what others are to be excluded from is access to information and decision-making. Bureaucrats and managers defend their ‘turf’ against all-comers. Marx commented on the point in the Critique of Hegel’s philosophy of right.[10] The US government has found it expressed in the ‘war on terror’ in ‘turf wars’ between intelligence agencies.[11]

The proletariat as a class can only defend its interests by collective organisation. If bureaucracy and management are not to be instantly abolished - ie, everyone to take their turn for a month or two as chief of general staff, national statistician and so on - the proletariat needs to subordinate the employed middle class to itself. To do so it requires freedom to organise against the officials, ‘cadres’, and so on.

Under capitalism, ownership/possession of information and skills is subordinate to ownership/possession of money liquidity. (This is, in fact, also true of ownership/possession both of land and of ships, machinery and so on).

If we take away the capitalist market when there has not already been extensive socialisation of intellectual property (and other small production), we take away with it the dynamic which tends to socialise intellectual property rights, etc. The possessors of small property then confront the rest of the society as monopolists. Unless they are coerced, they will refuse to work until they get what they want - whether it is money, working conditions or being in charge.

Russian Revolution

This is part of what happened to the Russian Revolution. The Russian revolutionaries thought in October 1917 that they were starting the European revolution. When the German workers had not come to their aid by February-March 1918, they were in a situation like cartoon characters who have walked off a cliff and suddenly notice that nothing is holding them up: the economy was collapsing because the possessors of specialist information - whether they were civil servants and army officers, technicians, managers or peasant farmers - were withholding their services from the general economy. To meet this problem the Bolsheviks used coercion (Cheka, hostage-taking and so on). But they also had to provide a carrot: and this carrot was concessions to the spetsy, which meant the end of workers’ control and a return to the subordination of the working class to the managers.

They had also sucked most of the members of the Bolshevik Party into the new state apparatus. As of October 1917 the party had around 250,000 members, mostly workers. As of 1921 it had a slightly larger membership, but now two-thirds composed of state officials.[12] The ‘cadres’ had become a new section of the intelligentsia - petty private proprietors of information and skills.

Over 1918-21 the freedom of the working class to organise against the ‘cadres’ was taken away by successive bans on parties and then the ban on factions in the Communist Party. As long as formally illegal organising was still possible, the removal of power from the proletariat was not complete. Once the bans were actually carried into practical operation from the later 1920s and enforced by the new economic regime of the plans, nothing was possible but ‘court intrigue’ within the bureaucracy. Subsequent satellites and imitators of the Soviet regime copied this political order.

Of course - as comrade Cockshott says, citing J Arch Getty - sections of workers could mobilise behind one or another court clique and obtain at least temporary sectional gains by doing so. The same was true in the Chinese ‘cultural revolution’.[13] But that is no more workers’ political power than the similar ability of medieval peasants to play off parson against squire and so on was peasant political power.

Modern Europe

In modern Europe the level of capitalist socialisation of production is massively higher than in the early 20th century, and still more so than in Russia in 1917. The same is also true of the socialisation of information and skills. Literacy and some degree of formal education are pretty much general. Skills are made available through formal education and training more than by apprenticeship. Much is codified in books or available online.

Even so, however, we are not yet in a position - if capitalist rule was by a miracle overthrown tomorrow - to do without bureaucratic and managerial spetsy altogether: that is, for everyone to take their turn for a month or two as chief of general staff, national statistician and so on.

More immediately, there are many more people who are perfectly capable of doing managerial and bureaucratic jobs, of holding political leadership positions and so on than there are jobs for them to do. In the far left, the result is that people are less willing to defer for long periods to bureaucratic dictatorship. But the result is paradoxically negative: the endless splintering of the left groups and the cacophony of ‘independent’ voices. As long as we do not find ways to overcome this problem we will not even approach the ability to overthrow capitalism.

In sum. Suppose the working class takes power in Europe in the next period. The result will not be an immediate overcoming of class. It will be a contradictory regime. Though big capital will be collectivised, there will remain class conflict between the proletariat and what are now the middle classes: both the ‘classic’ petty bourgeoisie and small capital, and employed middle class. The political forms we fight for as the immediate alternative to capitalist rule have to be able to reflect that continuing class conflict and to allow the proletariat to organise for it - including against ‘its own’ state.


  1. P Cockshott, ‘Democracy or oligarchy?’ Weekly Worker October 8 2009. A slightly variant version is also available at reality.gn.apc.org/polemic/notesonmcnair.pdf
  2. ‘For a minimum programme!’ Weekly Worker August 30 2007.
  3. Marx to Sorge, November 5 1880: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1880/letters/80_11_05.htm
  4. ‘Historical materialism and the repudiation of subjectivism’: reality.gn.apc.org/polemic/op-phil.htm
  5. The appropriate Marxist method for approaching class orders is thus that of GEM de Ste Croix The class struggle in the ancient Greek world New York 1991.
  6. M Mauss The gift (1923-24) London 2001; M Sahlins Stone age economics Chicago 1972; RM Titmuss The gift relationship New York 1972; F Adloff, S Mau, ‘Giving social ties, reciprocity in modern society’ (2006) 68 European Journal of Sociology 93-123. I do not mean to endorse the general theoretical method of any of these texts, but only to rely on the point of the existence and persistence of gift exchange.
  7. ‘A bridge too far’ Weekly Worker December 18 2003; ‘Against philosopher kings’, December 11 2008; ‘Bureaucracy and terror’, September 11 2008 - to be read with ‘Taking Stalinism seriously’, September 4 2008, and ‘Stalinist illusions exposed’, September 18 2008.
  8. See B Kagarlitsky Empire of the periphery London 2008.
  9. A Smith Wealth of nations book 1, chapter 10, part 2: www.adamsmith.org/smith/won-b1-c10-pt-2.htm
  10. K Marx Critique of Hegel’s philosophy of right Cambridge 1970, pp41-54.
  11. For example, ‘Obama sacks intelligence chief after turf wars’ Financial Times May 21 2010.
  12. E Acton Rethinking the Russian Revolution London 1990, pp193-94, 207.
  13. D Priestland Stalinism and the politics of mobilisation Oxford 2007 (pp200-210) goes beyond Getty; cf also EJ Perry, Li Xun Proletarian power: Shanghai in the Cultural Revolution Boulder 1997.