Vision without theory is blind

Debate: Inspiring view of future society

Is the distinction between socialism and communism necessarily Stalinist? Mike Macnair replies to Nick Rogers

It is not the usual practice of this paper to print an immediate reply alongside polemical articles critical of the paper or of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Usually, we prefer to let the article stand on its own and reply, if necessary, in a future issue; to help the discussion to develop over time.

The present case is different. When this issue appears we will be just over two weeks away from the Left Unity founding conference. For that conference, the CPGB and this paper are advocating a vote in the first place for a draft statement of aims proposed by the Communist Platform of Left Unity. We assume that the conference vote will be conducted democratically: that is, that there will be some form of preference or exhaustive voting to ensure that there is an actual majority for the statement of aims eventually adopted. On this assumption, we will urge comrades at the conference to cast their second-preference vote in favour of the Socialist Platform.

Comrade Nick Rogers’ article (pp6- 7) argues that the Socialist Platform is preferable to the Communist Platform. Given that we are engaged in an immediate discussion about how to vote in 16 days’ time, we think that it is necessary to print comrade Rogers’ article with an immediate reply. Nonetheless, this article is only partly a reply on behalf of the CPGB Provisional Central Committee. The comments which follow on ‘Why two platforms?’ reflect CPGB PCC and aggregate discussions. Beyond this, I am engaged in defending the formulations of the CPGB’s agreed Draft programme - though I should say, as usual and as the title indicates, that this is a draft programme. However, for the particular direct response to comrade Rogers’ arguments I am individually responsible.

Why two platforms?

Since comrade Rogers begins with the similarity of the two platforms and “material for many a Life of Brian-sourced jibe”, I should begin by restating the reason why there are two platforms. Comrade Rogers recognises that the Socialist Platform leadership at the September 14 meeting “used a procedural manoeuvre to effectively block the membership from amending the statement”, but from his tone he clearly regards this matter as less serious than we do.

In my September 8 email to the Socialist Platform organising group on behalf of the CPGB PCC, printed in this paper on September 12, I wrote that the proposal to take indicative votes only on the basis that the meeting would be insufficiently representative was “an error of principle in relation to democratic functioning, which is considerably more serious than any decision one way or another about any of the proposed amendments could be”.

Nonetheless, on September 14 the organising group insisted on a ‘take it or leave it’ approach to their draft; and backed this up by an appeal to absent signatories (in a meeting which, with around 40% of signatories present, was unusually ‘representative’ relative to labour-movement meetings generally) and to those who might in future be persuaded. It was this that we characterised as a political collapse into the methods of the labour bureaucracy.

Unamendable, ‘take it or leave it’ documents, referenda, directly elected presidents, party leaders, and officers - all these are components of one political method, originally developed by Louis Bonaparte: a means of neutering universal-suffrage majority voting and making it serve as an instrument of deception. It is the method used by the Blairites to neuter internal discussion in the Labour Party.

Comrade Rogers writes: “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.” His formulation “the prioritisation of democracy” tones down what CPGB has in fact said in the past on this front: “radical democracy both in the state and in the workers’ movement”. When we say now that the Socialist Platform leaders on September 14 collapsed into the methods of the labour bureaucracy, what we are saying is - mainly - that they wrote into the platform a commitment to radical democracy, but then immediately advertised in practice that they have no intention of implementing this commitment, but instead would stick by ‘all the old crap’. The same goes for the agreed formulation opposing all imperialist war and adventures. The comrades defended the presence of the social-imperialist Alliance for Workers’ Liberty on September 14 and are happy to have them serving on the steering committee. Indeed there has been a golden silence observed over the recent furore following the Islamophobic article penned by the AWL’s guru, Sean Matgamna. So we are saying, precisely, that in spite of the apparent advance represented by the draft platform, the conduct of September 14 shows that comrades have collapsed into the rotten old methods.

Since the comrades have not deigned to argue directly and politically against the amendments, but have instead offered arguments of the type used by Neil Kinnock in Labour, John Rees in Respect, and so on, it is unavoidable for us to infer that what is actually involved is a desire to preserve ambiguity in relation to left Labourism: that is, that it should remain possible to interpret the platform as offering ‘clause four socialism’, and - on Europe - that it should remain possible to interpret the platform in a way consistent with participation in social-nationalist campaigns for British withdrawal from the European Union. The overall effect is to make the reality of all the positive political commitments of the platform at best severely problematic.


The main burden of comrade Rogers’ critique of the Communist Platform is, however, substantive. He objects to the formulations of basic aims, which he says reproduces what he regards as confusion in the CPGB’s own Draft programme. In the first place, he argues that the CPGB’s formulations about the transition to communism are Stalinistic and unduly postpone “the most transformative aspect of the socialist vision to a future beyond the lifespan of anyone currently alive”. Secondly, he argues that they are inconsistent with what Marx wrote (chiefly in the 1875 Critique of the Gotha programme, but also elsewhere) and, in particular, unduly speculative.

Hence, he says, paragraph 3 of the Socialist Platform’s draft aims “already provides a perfectly adequate definition of what Marx meant by communism” when it states: “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 …”

My response to these arguments necessarily has two levels. The first level is why the left, including Left Unity, needs to say more about aims and the nature of socialism than Marx was willing to say in the 19th century. The second level is in defence of the CPGB’s Draft programme, rather than of the very summary statement of aims that is the Communist Platform statement: it is about why the Critique of the Gotha programme (and Marx’s side comments elsewhere) are only a limited guide to what we should be saying on this issue in the 21st century.


The first issue is why it is necessary to set out strategic aims as well as immediate ones. One aspect of the answer was given by comrade Nick Wrack in his speech to Communist University in August, when he talked about the importance of an alternative vision.1 Comrade Rogers himself makes the point that “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”.

An equally fundamental point is the core of our present problems - crisis, growing inequality both within and between nations, the inability to reach international agreements about human-induced global warming - are problems of capitalism as such, so that it is quite impossible - or at least extraordinarily difficult - to think of solutions which would not damage the (limited) functionality of capitalism. Conversely, traditional projects of reducing inequality and other reforms by redistribution within a single capitalist state produce flight of capital, worsening the economy to allow the right to get back into the governmental saddle (as in France today), even where they do not produce something worse (sanctions, etc).

There is, however, an even more basic problem. We live in a world after, and marked by, the eventual failure of the Russian Revolution to produce anything more than the post-1991 ‘capitalism with Russian characteristics’, absorption of eastern Europe as periphery countries in the European Union, a China engaged in fleet-building and a new scramble for Africa, and so on. This is the real source of the ideology of ‘there is no alternative’. On the one hand, it leads most of the organised Marxist left to attempt to hide behind one or another sort of pretences to be ‘really’ the old Labour left. On the other, it leads many young people who are hostile to the capitalist world order to ‘anything but Marxism’ or ‘anything but socialism’ - whether this ‘anything but’ is new variants on Bakuninist ‘direct action’ politics, which achieve episodic spectaculars leading nowhere, or forms of reactionary anti-liberalism, like Islamism and jihad.

This circumstance requires us to say more about aims, and the alternative to capitalism, than Marx and his contemporaries had to. We need to be able to explain, clearly and without fudging or dodging the issue (as, for example, the Socialist Workers Party does), how what we propose is different, not only from full Stalinism, but also from what Lenin in 1921 already called “a workers’ state with bureaucratic deformations”. Moreover, given the enormous weight of negative history, we need to be able to demonstrate the beginnings of democratic decision-making in practice, in the workers’ movement and the organisations of the left.

How this bears on aims can be seen in the interlocking of two of our amendments. The first amendment, to the first point, is the one comrade Rogers criticises: “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.” But this interlocks with part of the second amendment, to the second point, to replace “Capitalism does not and cannot be made to work in the interests of the majority. Its state and institutions will have to be replaced by ones that act in the interests of the majority” with “Neither capitalism nor its state apparatus can be made to work in the interests of the mass of the population. The rule of the working class requires a state to defend itself, but a state that is withering away, a semi-state.” Comrade Rogers does not criticise this amendment.

The interconnection is that the second amendment - based, of course, on a phrase in Lenin’s State and revolution - makes no sense without the initial strategic aim of a “moneyless, classless, stateless society”. But the concept is the clearest possible counterposition to both the Stalinist and Labourite forms of state socialism that is available without falling into the Bakuninist idea of the immediate ‘abolition of the state’ and its modern equivalents (for example, John Holloway’s Change the world without taking power).

Lenin, of course, imagined that the Soviet form would provide a state that begins to wither away from the outset. This turned out to be mistaken under Russian conditions: most clearly because there was an actual shortage of people qualified to do administrative, military, policing, etc tasks, so that the Bolsheviks had both to compromise with the professional middle class (spetsy) and to turn a lot of their own cadre into state bureaucrats. Apart from military skills, this is less of a problem in the ‘developed countries’ in the 21st century. But the idea also ignored the practical problems of accountability in central decision-making for those issues which cannot practically be decided locally; and this issue requires of socialists much more thought about constitution-making, drawing on the democratic-republican tradition: freedom of communication (speech, etc), of association and of assembly, information transparency, term limits on public officials at all levels, universal military training and the militia, generalised trial by jury, self-government of the localities, and so on.

However, we are not here concerned with the details (which anyhow belong in the minimum programme or immediate proposals rather than in the statement of aims), but with what the aims should be. And here our basic aim is clearly stated: we are for general human emancipation, which does mean a “moneyless, classless, stateless society”.

Transition to communism

Comrade Rogers’ argument for not stating as an aim “a moneyless, classless, stateless society” is based on the limited character of Marx’s observations about the future society (as avoiding speculation) and, more specifically, on the one place where Marx does talk to some extent about how he sees the transition: The critique of the Gotha programme. In effect (in dispersed places) Marx projects three phases. The first is the dictatorship of the proletariat:

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.2

Though, as Hal Draper has shown,3 Marx’s usual usage of ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ means merely ‘political rule by the working class’, the formula here suggests (as contemporaneous usage, drawn from the Roman republican idea, did) a short period of radical reforms as the transition, not a more or less prolonged coexistence of the working class with the petty bourgeoisie under working class political rule.

The second phase is:

a communist society, 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 birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.

This second phase is the context of “labour tokens”. This society “recognises no class differences, because everyone is only a worker like everyone else; but it tacitly recognises unequal individual endowment, and thus productive capacity, as a natural privilege”.4

The third phase is described thus:

In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, and therewith 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 productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of cooperative wealth flow more abundantly - only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!5

Nick’s argument is that we should not put into a programme anything beyond the second phase in this conception, on the grounds that, first, to do so is speculative, and second, that Marx’s distinction between the two phases of communism was used by the Stalinist bureaucracy to allow it to characterise its own regime as socialist (meaning the second phase) and to put off communism (the “higher phase”) to the indefinite future.

138 years on

The Critique of the Gotha programme was written in the year 1875, very nearly 140 years ago. During that 140 years a number of developments of great importance to the conception of the transition from capitalism to communism have taken place, to put it mildly. In the first place, capitalism has continued to revolutionise the forces of production. Technology and the productivity of labour have advanced immensely. Just for a single (but important) example, in 1870 the share of employment in agriculture in Europe was 51.7%, in Britain 11%. Today it is 5% in Europe, less than 1% in the UK.6 This increase in the productivity of labour carries with it a long-term increase in unemployment and ‘underemployment’. It has also implied a massive expansion of education.

A secondary effect of these developments is that it is now seriously problematic to identify, as Marx did in 1875, differential individual productive capacity as mainly a result of “unequal individual endowment”. To the extent that there are “unequal individual endowment[s]” affecting wages, and not related to serious disabilities, these are now very visibly a component of the class structure; while in the UK at least we expect unequal endowments in the form of disabilities to be ‘adjusted for’ by employers, and so on.

Secondly, the growth of human productive activities has become such as to begin to press on the habitability of the biosphere (human-induced global warming, overfishing and so on). It should, therefore, be clear that the transition to communism is not a matter of incentivising massive future growth of the sort of productive activities in which we are now engaged. One hundred and forty years ago, while Marx paid attention to issues of soil exhaustion and contemporaries discussed ‘peak coal’ as a limit to growth, this was not obvious. The ‘labour tokens’ approach to distribution is precisely one which incentivises increased individual labour time (problematic, given endemic unemployment, and antithetical to the interest in human self-development) and precisely because it in this sense mimics the capitalist work incentive and would drive a tendency to undirected ‘growth’.7

Third, in the 20th century the Stalinists experimented with forced collectivisation to ‘deal with’ the petty bourgeoisie. The results were terrible. There is not the slightest reason to suppose that a ‘non- Stalinist’ forced collectivisation is possible (forced collectivisation implies the police state) or that it would have any superior results. As of 2009 there were in the UK, a very advanced and long-standing capitalist country, 4.75 million small and medium-sized businesses.8 While the top end of these are capitalist operations, and some of the smallest are ‘sham self-employment,’ we are still concerned with a large chunk of the economically active population of around 31 million. The problem is, of course, all the more significant for countries with subsisting peasantries, and so on. It is therefore necessary to contemplate a significant period of working class rule with a subsisting petty bourgeoisie, therefore implying only partial demonetisation of the economy.

Fourth, and very much secondary, since Marx’s time there has been a massive production of historical knowledge (published manuscripts, archaeological results and so on) and of historical work by Marxists of various sorts (and by partially Marxisant historians) on prior transitions between modes of production. Whatever the theoretical approach to transition, on the basis of the historical evidence it would be extraordinarily unlikely to find in a post-revolutionary transitional period a simple model like the communist society “just as it emerges from capitalist society” in the Critique of the Gotha programme. The transitional society is more likely to be a complex combination of interpenetrated, contradictory capitalist and communist features.

Moreover, two at least of Marx’s features of the “higher phase of communist society” are quite clearly presently posed by the problems of ‘late capitalism’. They are “the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labour”; and “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”.

To take the second first, I have already referred to the capitalist state’s current efforts on disability discrimination. Stingy as they are, these still involve substantial direction of resources to people with disabilities over and above those without, on the basis of needs to enable maximum autonomy and individual development and participation. Allocation of resources according to need, not according to labour contributed. But this is only the tip of an iceberg. The whole apparatus of the national health service is needs-based, although Conservative and New Labour governments have been trying to force it in the direction of marketisation. 21st century socialists certainly do not advocate access to medical treatment based on labour contributed. Exactly the same applies to education.

“[E]nslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour”, meaning, more exactly, the specialisation of function - some people get to spend their whole lives engaged in agreeable work, while others get landed with shit jobs or none at all - is a tougher problem and less obvious, since capitalism continues to multiply specialisms of one sort and another. But overcoming this problem is precisely posed by two issues.

The first is the endemic unemployment and underemployment of current capitalist society; the fact that the high productivity of labour means that this does not lead to mass starvation, but rather to demoralisation; and in the ‘advanced’ countries the extent of ‘make-work’ jobs. That is, that (worthwhile) work is already “life’s prime want”, and access to it needs to be rationed (shorter working week, etc).

The second is that the specialisation of function - the division of labour between the permanent leaders and the permanent led - is one of the most immediate problems of the labour movement and the left. The crisis in the SWP is no more than a superficial symptom of the fact that bureaucratic centralism, with permanent leaders and petty cults of the personality, is increasingly untenable. And this in itself is no more than a species of the “enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labour” - except that the real antithesis is not between mental and physical labour (most ‘physical’ jobs need considerable brainwork), but between the labour of doing as you are told and the labour of decision-making.


Comrade Rogers argues that “The conceptualisation of socialism and communism as two very different kinds of societies served to justify Stalinism.” And that our characterisation of communism “is a version of the maximum programme that is useless for holding to account the leadership of a Communist Party”.

It should be apparent from what I have just said that this is just a smear. My argument here is that - precisely because of the development of the forces of production between 1875 and now - the transition to communism begins to go beyond Marx’s “first phase” from the outset, while it also initially retains contradictory market forms surviving from capitalism, due to the rejection of forced collectivisation.

This perspective quite clearly does pose immediate tasks, against which the leadership of a Communist Party in the transitional period can be held to account. How far are you progressing with needs-based production? With getting beyond the division of labour, through increased access to education, through rotational employment, through term limits for public officials and managers?

The fact that the Stalinists used a distinction between ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’ as an ideological cover and backing for calling the grotesque Soviet regime ‘socialist’ is quite irrelevant. The Stalinists used the whole of Marxism to one extent or another as ideological cover for their regime. Should we therefore repudiate all the categories which they used in this way? The question is, rather, what policy represents a real alternative to the Stalinist ideology?

In other words, the questions of transition beyond the division of labour/specialisation of function, and of production with a view to human needs and human self-development, not to ‘growth’, are presently posed by the development of capitalism since 1875, not put off to the indefinite future. And this concept of transition and communism offers a far more inspiring view of the future society than any variant of Marx’s 1875 “first phase” .


1. ‘Self-liberation, not manipulationWeekly Worker August 29.

2. K Marx Critique of the Gotha programme chapter 4: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/ works/1875/gotha/ch04.htm.

3. http://marxmyths.org/hal-draper/article2.htm.

4. K Marx Critique of the Gotha programme, chapter 1: www.marxists.org/archive/marx/ works/1875/gotha/ch01.htm.

5. Ibid.

6. S Broadberry, G Federico and A Klein Unifying the European experience: an economic history of modern Europe Vol 2, chapter 3: ‘Sectoral developments, 1870-1914’ (www2.warwick. ac.uk/fac/soc/economics/staff/.../wp/eurosector5a. pdf) ; EU Agricultural Economics Briefs No8, July 2013; ‘Less than 1% of British workers now employed in agriculture for first time in history’: The Independent June 5.

7. I have criticised Cockshott’s and Cottrell’s vari­ant on the ‘labour tokens’ scheme broadly in these terms, but in much more depth, in ‘Transition and abundanceWeekly Worker September 2 2010.

8. http://stats.bis.gov.uk/ed/sme/Stats_Press_re­lease_2009.pdf.