Debate: CPGB’s theoretical confusion
The Socialist Platform statement for Left Unity is more scientifically correct than the amended version featured in the CPGBs Communist Platform, argues Nick Rogers
Members of Left Unity who attend the founding conference on November 30 will be confronted with a range of statements drafted by internal platforms proposing aims and principles for the whole organisation. Two of the statements will bear striking similarities, composed as they are of many identical sentiments and formulations: the statements of the Socialist Platform and the Communist Platform. The reason is simple. As readers of the Weekly Worker will know, the Communist Platform statement is an amended version of the Socialist Platform statement.
The CPGB proposed a number of amendments to the September 14 meeting of the Socialist Platform. Most were supported in an indicative vote, but the meeting had previously passed a proposal that the final decision should be deferred until a longer process of discussion had taken place. The CPGB, accusing the leadership of the Socialist Platform - and specifically Nick Wrack - of political collapse, proceeded to launch its own platform. Again the left provides its enemies with material for many a Life of Brian-sourced jibe.
I am not the best person to comment on the conduct of the meeting itself - I was catching a flight out of the country as these events unrolled. Extending discussion of the issues that the CPGB had raised with its amendments is not in itself illegitimate. But, as it turns out, the well-attended September 14 meeting was the last opportunity for the Socialist Platform to amend its statement of aims and principles prior to the deadline for submitting them to the founding conference. No further meeting of the Socialist Platform is proposed before that conference. The leadership of the Socialist Platform does, therefore, appear to have used a procedural manoeuvre to effectively block the membership of the platform from amending the statement before the November 30 conference.
However, it is the CPGB’s strategy in proposing the specific set of amendments tabled at the September 14 meeting that I want to question in this article. Some of the amendments I would have happily voted for. But I regard the main line of thinking behind them to have been misconceived.
The CPGB’s rationale for the amendments has not been argued in much detail in the pages of the Weekly Worker. The most cogent explanation comes in the edited version of Jack Conrad’s speech to this year’s Communist University.1 There Jack explains that the CPGB sought “to strengthen, clarify and bring to the fore” those elements of the Socialist Platform statement that deal with the maximum programme - specifically to inject a vision of what the CPGB calls “full communism” (although the word ‘communism’ is not explicitly used).
The Socialist Platform statement meets the CPGB’s usual criteria for a communist or Marxist programme: explicit commitment to the principles of working class independence, internationalism and the prioritisation of democracy. For the CPGB it is therefore a novel departure to seek to add sentiments to a programmatic statement such as: “Our ultimate aim is a society based on the principle of ‘From each according to their abilities; to each according to their needs’. A moneyless, classless, stateless society within which each individual can develop their fullest individuality”.
Now, I have no objection in principle to developing our vision of the future society that will replace capitalism. I certainly have no time for the argument of those organised around the Left Platform that the best way to coalesce a party of opposition to austerity and neoliberalism is to steer away from discussion of comprehensive alternatives to the social system that produced these attacks on living standards and social conditions for fear of narrowing the field of potential supporters. On the contrary, part of the explanation for the failure to mobilise a serious movement of opposition to 30 years of neoliberal assaults, including its most recent manifestations, is that we have failed to convince very many people (even among those who have suffered the most) that there is a different way to organise society that is both viable and better than the capitalist society that surrounds us. In fact the left has barely tried to make that argument. This collective loss of nerve leaves us defenceless against the remorseless logic of those who assert that ‘there is no alternative’.
The problem I have with the CPGB’s strategy to “strengthen” the statement of the Socialist Platform is that it replicates the theoretical confusion of the CPGB’s programme around the concepts of socialism and communism.
As is well known, the theoreticians of the Soviet Union and its allied states made a sharp distinction between the post-revolutionary stages of socialism and communism. Socialism was defined as nationalised property with a (purportedly) planned economy. According to this schema, the Soviet Union achieved socialism in the 1930s. Yet manifestly many of the features of the future society discussed by Marx and Engels - take just the withering away of the state as an example - bore no resemblance to the reality of Soviet life: eg, the bloated, bureaucratic, unaccountable and murderous state machine. Any who dared to highlight the dissonance with the thinking of classical Marxism were referred to Marx’s 1875 Critique of the Gotha programme, where he discussed a first and higher stage of communist society. In State and revolution Lenin applied the label socialism to the first stage and reserved communism for the higher stage. So, according to the regime’s defenders, the evident failures of Soviet society could only be overcome when the Soviet people advanced to communism. The conceptualisation of socialism and communism as two very different kinds of societies served to justify Stalinism.
Jack Conrad correctly argues that the Soviet Union and other states in the same mould were neither socialist nor effecting a transition to socialism under the rule of the working class. Without even the basic elements of democracy how can any except the minority who hold the levers of state power rule? But it is my contention that Jack confuses matters by arguing that socialism represents the rule of the working class and is transitional to communism. Jack maintains that only communism is “a globally organised society which knows no money, no state, no country, no women’s oppression, no limit to human achievement”. This formulation perpetuates a key aspect of Stalinised Soviet theory. It relegates the achievement of the most transformative aspect of the socialist vision to a future beyond the lifespan of anyone currently alive2 - Mike Macnair has argued that the transition will take one or two hundred years. This is a version of the maximum programme that is useless for holding to account the leadership of a Communist Party.
Above all, it radically distorts what Marx wrote. Only in the Critique does Marx discuss two phases of communist society. It is an over-interpretation to regard these phases as sharply different societies. For a start, they are clearly part of the same mode of production - both are phases of “communist society”. And even in the first phase capitalism has already been decisively superseded: “Within the cooperative society based on common ownership of the means of production, the producers do not exchange their products; just as little does the labour employed on the products appear here as the value of these products, as a material quality possessed by them, since now, in contrast to capitalist society, individual labour no longer exists in an indirect fashion, but directly as a component part of the total labour.”3
Marx is describing a society in which there is no longer private property in the means of production, class distinctions have been left behind (“it recognises no class differences because everyone is only a worker like everyone else”) and the law of value (and with it commodity fetishism, abstract labour, etc) has ceased to operate. Everyone may work, but in the absence of any other classes the working class itself dissolves.
Elsewhere in the Critique Marx discusses the transition from capitalism to communism: “Between capitalist and communist society 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.”4
The CPGB’s programme (and the CPGB’s proposed amendments to the Socialist Platform’s statement) conflate this transitional period and the first phase of communist society and apply the label ‘socialism’ to it. Therefore, in the Communist Platform statement references to the rule of the ‘working class’ and socialism are synonymous. Jack Conrad and I debated this question at length in the Weekly Worker three years ago,5 when the CPGB’s new Draft programme was being debated - I was then a member of the CPGB. The implications are not merely semantic.
The need for a transitional period between capitalism and new post-capitalist mode of production (called either socialism or communism by most Marxists) is real enough. After the working class has achieved political power many tasks will remain to be completed, including overcoming the political and economic resistance of the capitalist class; making the revolution global; creating more equal levels of economic development across the world; absorbing the petty bourgeoisie into the working class; bringing all the means of production into common ownership; and superseding the market with democratic planning. The working class organised into a Communist Party is the hegemonic force in society and takes the lead - over a period no doubt of some decades - in implementing this programme.
These are the essential elements of the communist maximum programme. For, once a new mode of production has been created, the dynamic of internal development takes on entirely new forms. The society may be “economically, morally and intellectually still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges”. It may be a society which has still to overcome the division of labour,6 which has still to fully release the potential of the productive forces it inherits and which has still to establish needs-based distribution on a universal basis. But this is a society without classes and therefore without a state in the sense of institutions existing to perpetuate class-based rule and (most pertinent for us as communist militants) without a Communist Party - defined as it is by its relationship with the working class.
As to how fast, to what extent and by what methods internal contradictions and conflicts are resolved in such a society we can only speculate. Only in the broadest sense can we answer Marx’s question, “What social functions will remain in existence there that are analogous to present state functions?”7 Or indeed what modes of popular organisation will develop that are analogous to the role of a mass Communist Party. Reality will not be as clean as even the most scientifically correct schema. Stages will overlap and interpenetrate. But there is no theoretical basis in Marx’s writings for saying, as does the CPGB’s programme: “In its first stages communism has not reached complete maturity or completely rid itself of the traditions and remnants of capitalism. The class struggle and private property continue and so does the need for the state” (my emphases in all quotes).
Or: “While socialism creates the objective basis for solving social contradictions, these contradictions need to be solved through a correct political line and the development of mass, active democracy. This is essential, as communism is not a spontaneous development.”
It is not only in the Critique that Marx discusses communist society. Throughout the three volumes of Capital Marx constantly makes reference to how society will be organised in a future he usually describes as a “free association of producers”. He always takes care never to be prescriptive - especially when it comes to methods of distribution (and, for that matter, never mentions the state or the law of value in relation to such a society). For instance: “Let us finally imagine, for a change, an association of free men, working with the means of production held in common, and expending their many different forms of labour-power in full self-awareness as one single social labour force … The total product of our imagined association is a social product. One part of this product serves as fresh means of production and remains social. But another part is consumed by members of the association as means of subsistence. This part must therefore be divided amongst them.
“The way this division is made will vary with the particular kind of social organisation of production and the corresponding level of social development attained by the producers.”8
The Communist Platform statement therefore goes beyond what can be said on a strictly scientific basis (and indeed beyond what the Weekly Worker’s own ‘What we fight for’ column says) when it asserts that “Our ultimate aim is a society based on the principle of ‘From each according to their abilities; to each according to their needs’”. Communists do seek to extend this principle as far as practicable (even within present-day capitalist society), but whether it is ever forms the basis for all economic relationships will not be the decision of a Communist Party. Communist society itself will determine that.
We should pay heed to what Marx said in the Critique about it being “in general a mistake to make a fuss about so-called distribution and put the principal stress on it, any distribution of the means of consumption is only a consequence of the distribution of the conditions of production themselves.”
In this regard paragraph 3 of the Socialist Platform statement already provides a perfectly adequate definition of what Marx meant by communism: “Socialism means complete political, social and economic democracy. It requires a fundamental breach with capitalism. It means a society in which the wealth and the means of production are no longer in private hands, but are owned in common. Everyone will have the right to participate in deciding how the wealth of society is used and how production is planned to meet the needs of all and to protect the natural world on which we depend …”
The Communist Platform statement carries over most of this paragraph with only minor amendments, but deletes the sentence about “a fundamental breach with capitalism”. I can only assume that this is because, according to the CPGB’s schema, a change in property relations and the fullest extension of democracy do not mark the completion of the transition away from capitalism.
Marx begged to differ. When he sat down in 1880 to draft the programme of the French Parti Ouvrier he thought it sufficient to say simply this about the society that would supersede capitalism: “That the producers can be free only when they are in possession of the means of production; that there are only two forms under which the means of production can belong to them: (1) the individual form which has never existed in a general state and which is increasingly eliminated by industrial progress; (2) the collective form, the material and intellectual elements of which are constituted by the very development of capitalist society.”
It goes without saying that we are allowed to build on what Marx wrote (or break with him where we disagree). And we can seek to say more about the society to which we aspire (for instance, it would be interesting to think about the different ways that work might be organised once commodity production ceases) but, as a general principle, in programmatic statements we should avoid speculation and strive for precision.
So is “a moneyless, classless, stateless society” a precise enough characterisation of the nature of the society socialists and communists aim to create? It is certainly concise. Whether we agree on the meaning of these terms is another matter. I think they are aspects of a society that qualifies as Marx’s ‘free association of producers’: ie, common ownership of the means of production, popular decision-making. Commodity production and the law of value have been left behind, but elements of rationing may still be required, attitudes to work might not have been completely transformed. Hence, Marx’s speculation about labour certificates (distributed in part in exchange for work undertaken) being required to share in society’s limited supply of products for personal consumption. He insists such a form of distribution is not money - in Marx’s vision labour certificates cannot be transferred or accumulated and therefore do not fulfil the function of reproducing capital. The belief that the abolition of money only happens under ‘full communism’ (and an entirely needs-based distribution of society’s production) is based on a different (and, again, non-scientific) understanding of what money is.
It is the same with the concepts of ‘classless’ and ‘stateless’. If these are aspects only of ‘full communism’ (and the proposed elimination of all social conflict and the potential for hierarchical relationships), then these ideas take on a utopian rather than a scientific flavour and do not contribute to programmatic clarity.
The Socialist Platform’s statement could be improved. The formulation, “a voluntary European federation of socialist societies”, appears predicated on a continuation of the current international state system. Our vision should be of a borderless world. Ironically, the CPGB amendment I would have most strongly supported - on Europe - in the indicative voting was the only one to be defeated.
Nor is the Socialist Platform statement clear enough about the leading role of the working class in the political and social transformations we seek. And the CPGB’s amendment to incorporate the phrase, “sweeping away the capitalist state”, would have added greater clarity to the statement’s existing discussion of radical political and institutional change.
Nevertheless, overall the Socialist Platform statement seems to me to be clearer, less confused and, from a Marxist perspective, more scientifically correct than the amended statement the CPGB is proposing .
1. J Conrad, ‘Communicating across the archipelago of isolation’ Weekly Worker August 29 2013.
2. To be fair, there is some support for this conceptualisation in Lenin’s State and revolution and a very strong basis in Bukharin’s and Preobrazhensky’s ABC of communism.
3. K Marx Critique of the Gotha programme Moscow 1976, p16.
4. Ibid p26.
5. N Rogers, ‘Communist transition’ Weekly Worker August 26 2010; J Conrad, ‘The phases of communism’ Weekly Worker September 23 2010; and N Rogers, ‘Debating transition and neoliberalism’ Weekly Worker October 28 2010.
6. The CPGB’s Draft programme by contrast asserts that “the full socialisation of production is dependent on and can only proceed in line with the withering away of skills monopolies of the middle class and hence the division of labour”.
7. K Marx, Critique of the Gotha programme p26.
8. K Marx Capital Vol 1, London 1990, pp171-72.