Chapter IV Capitalism and the State

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Image: State Capitalism: How It Works. [Source:]

The second condition of the gradual realisation of socialism is according to Bernstein, the evolution of the State in society. It has become a commonplace to say that the present State is a class State. This, too, like referring to capitalist society, should not be understood in a rigorous absolute manner, but dialectically.

The State became capitalist with the political victory of the bourgeoisie. Capitalist development modifies essentially the nature of the State, widening its sphere of action, constantly imposing on it new functions (especially those affecting economic life), making more and more necessary its intervention and control in society. In this sense, capitalist development prepares little by little the future fusion of the State to society. It prepares, so to say, the return of the function of the state to society. Following this line of thought, one can speak of an evolution of the capitalist State into society, and it is undoubtedly what Marx had in mind when he referred to labour legislation as the first conscious intervention of “society” in the vital social process, a phrase upon which Bernstein leans heavily.

But on the other hand the same capitalist development realises another transformation in the nature of the State. The present State is, first of all, an organisation of the ruling class. It assumes functions favouring social developments specifically because, and in the measure that, these interests and social developments coincide, in a general fashion, with the interests of the dominant class. Labour legislation is enacted as much in the immediate interest of the capitalist class as in the interest of society in general. But this harmony endures only up to a certain point of capitalist development. When capitalist development has reached a certain level, the interests of the bourgeoisie, as a class, and the needs of economic progress begin to clash even in the capitalist sense. We believe that this phase has already begun. It shows itself in two extremely important phenomena of contemporary social life: on the one hand, the policy of tariff barriers, and on the other, militarism. These two phenomena have played an indispensable, and in that sense a progressive and revolutionary role in the history of capitalism. Without tariff protection the development of large industry would have been impossible in several countries. But now the situation is different.

At present, protection does not serve so much to develop young industry as to maintain artificially certain aged forms of production.

From the angle of capitalist development, that is, from the point of view of world economy, it matters little whether Germany exports more merchandise into England or England exports more merchandise into Germany. From the viewpoint of this development it may be said that the blackamoor has done his work and it is time for him to go his way. Given the condition of reciprocal dependence in which the various branches of industry find themselves, a protectionist tariff on any commodity necessarily results in raising the cost of production of other commodities inside the country. It therefore impedes industrial development. But this is not so from the viewpoint of the interests of the capitalist class. While industry does not need tariff barriers for its development, the entrepreneurs need tariffs to protect their markets. This signifies that at present tariffs no longer serve as a means of protecting a developing capitalist section against a more advanced section. They are now the arm used by one national group of capitalists against another group. Furthermore, tariffs are no longer necessary as an instrument of protection for industry in its movement to create and conquer the home market. They are now indispensable means for the cartelisation of industry, that is, means used in the struggle of capitalist producers against consuming society in the aggregate. What brings out in an emphatic manner the specific character of contemporary customs policies is the fact that today not industry, but agriculture plays the predominant role in the making of tariffs. The policy of customs protection has become a tool for converting and expressing the feudal interests in capitalist form.

The same change has taken place in militarism. If we consider history as it was – not as it could have been or should have been – we must agree that war has been an indispensable feature of capitalist development. The United States, Germany, Italy, the Balkan States, Poland, all owe the condition or the rise of their capitalist development to wars, whether resulting in victory or defeat. As long as there were countries marked by internal political division or economic isolation which had to be destroyed, militarism played a revolutionary role, considered from the viewpoint of capitalism. But at present the situation is different. If world politics have become the stage of menacing conflicts, it is not so much a question of the opening of new countries to capitalism. It is a question of already existing European antagonisms, which, transported into other lands, have exploded there. The armed opponents we see today in Europe and on other continents do not range themselves as capitalist countries on one side and backward countries on the other. They are States pushed to war especially as a result of their similarly advanced capitalist development. In view of this, an explosion is certain to be fatal to this development, in the sense that it must provoke an extremely profound disturbance and transformation of economic life in all countries.

However, the matter appears entirely different when considered from the standpoint of the capitalist class. For the latter militarism has become indispensable. First, as a means of struggle for the defence of “national” interests in competition against other “national” groups. Second, as a method of placement for financial and industrial capital. Third, as an instrument of class domination over the labouring population inside the country. In themselves, these interests have nothing in common with the development of the capitalist mode of production. What demonstrates best the specific character of present day militarism is the fact that it develops generally in all countries as an effect, so to speak, of its own internal, mechanical, motive power, a phenomenon that was completely unknown several decades ago. We recognise this in the fatal character of the impending explosion which is inevitable in spite of the complete impending explosion which is inevitable in spite of the complete indecisiveness of the objectives and motives of the conflict. From a motor of capitalist development militarism has changed into a capitalist malady.

In the clash between capitalist development and the interest of the dominant class, the State takes a position alongside of the latter. Its policy, like that of the bourgeoisie, comes into conflict with social development. It thus loses more and more of its character as a representative of the whole of society and is transformed, at the same rate into a pure class state. Or, to speak more exactly, these two qualities distinguish themselves more from each other and find themselves in a contradictory relation in the very nature of the State. This contradiction becomes progressively sharper. For on one hand, we have the growth of the functions of a general interest on the part of the State, its intervention in social life, its “control” over society. But on the other hand, its class character obliges the State to move the pivot of its activity and its means of coercion more and more into domains which are useful only to the class character of the bourgeoisie and have for society as a whole only a negative importance, as in the case of militarism and tariff and colonial policies. Moreover, the “social control” exercised by this State is at the same time penetrated with and dominated by its class character (see how labour legislation is applied in all countries).

The extension of democracy, which Bernstein sees as a means of realising socialism by degrees, does not contradict but, on the contrary, corresponds perfectly to the transformation realised in the nature of the State.

Konrad Schmidt declares that the conquest of a social-democratic majority in Parliament leads directly to the gradual “socialisation” of society. Now, the democratic forms of political life are without a question a phenomenon expressing clearly the evolution of the State in society. They constitute, to that extent, a move toward a socialist transformation. But the conflict within the capitalist State, described above, manifests itself even more emphatically in modern parliamentarism. Indeed, in accordance with its form, parliamentarism serves to express, within the organisation of the State, the interests of the whole society. But what parliamentarism expresses here is capitalist society, that is to say, a society in which capitalist interests predominate. In this society, the representative institutions, democratic in form, are in content the instruments of the interests of the ruling class. This manifests itself in a tangible fashion in the fact that as soon as democracy shows the tendency to negate its class character and become transformed into an instrument of the real interests of the population, the democratic forms are sacrificed by the bourgeoisie, and by its State representatives. That is why the idea of the conquest of a parliamentary reformist majority is a calculation which, entirely in the spirit of bourgeois liberalism, pre-occupies itself only with one side – the formal side – of democracy, but does not take into account the other side, its real content. All in all, parliamentarism is not a directly socialist element impregnating gradually the whole capitalist society. It is, on the contrary, a specific form of the bourgeois class State, helping to ripen and develop the existing antagonisms of capitalism.

In the light of the history of the objective development of the State, Bernstein’s and Konrad Schmidt’s belief that increased “social control” results in the direct introduction of socialism is transformed into a formula that finds itself from day to day in greater contradiction with reality.

The theory of the gradual introduction of socialism proposes progressive reform of capitalist property and the capitalist State in the direction of socialism. But in consequence of the objective laws of existing society, one and the other develop in a precisely opposite direction. The process of production is increasingly socialised, and State intervention, the control of the State over the process of production, is extended. But at the same time, private property becomes more and more the form of open capitalist exploitation of the labour of others, and State control is penetrated with the exclusive interests of the ruling class. The State, that is to say the politicalorganisation of capitalism, and the property relations, that is to say the juridical organisation of capitalism, become more capitalist and not more socialist, opposing to the theory of the progressive introduction of socialism two insurmountable difficulties.

Fourier’s scheme of changing, by means of a system of phalansteries, the water of all the seas into tasty lemonade was surely a fantastic idea. But Bernstein, proposing to change the sea of capitalist bitterness into a sea of socialist sweetness, by progressively pouring into it bottles of social reformist lemonade, presents an idea that is merely more insipid but no less fantastic.

The production relations of capitalist society approach more and more the production relations of socialist society. But on the other hand, its political and juridical relations established between capitalist society and socialist society a steadily rising wall. This wall is not overthrown, but is on the contrary strengthened and consolidated by the development of social reforms and the course of democracy. Only the hammer blow of revolution, that is to day, the conquest of political power by the proletariat can break down this wall.


Chapter II The Adaptation of Capital

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Image: Sim City. [Source:]

According to Bernstein, the credit system, the perfected means of communication and the new capitalist combines are the important factors that forward the adaptation of capitalist economy.

Credit has diverse applications in capitalism. Its two most important functions are to extend production and to facilitate exchange. When the inner tendency of capitalist production to extend boundlessly strikes against the restricted dimensions of private property, credit appears as a means of surmounting these limits in a particular capitalist manner. Credit, through shareholding, combines in one magnitude of capital a large number of individual capitals. It makes available to each capitalist the use of other capitalists’ money – in the form of industrial credit. As commercial credit it accelerates the exchange of commodities and therefore the return of capital into production, and thus aids the entire cycle of the process of production. The manner in which these two principle functions of credit influence the formation of crises is quite obvious. If it is true that crises appear as a result of the contradiction existing between the capacity of extension, the tendency of production to increase, and the restricted consumption capacity of the market, credit is precisely, in view of what was stated above, the specific means that makes this contradiction break out as often as possible. To begin with, it increases disproportionately the capacity of the extension of production and thus constitutes an inner motive force that is constantly pushing production to exceed the limits of the market. But credit strikes from two sides. After having (as a factor of the process of production) provoked overproduction, credit (as a factor of exchange) destroys, during the crisis, the very productive forces it itself created. At the first symptom of the crisis, credit melts away. It abandons exchange where it would still be found indispensable, and appearing instead, ineffective and useless, there where some exchange still continues, it reduces to a minimum the consumption capacity of the market.

Besides having these two principal results, credit also influences the formation of crises in the following ways. It constitutes the technical means of making available to an entrepreneur the capital of other owners. It stimulates at the same time the bold and unscrupulous utilisation of the property of others. That is, it leads to speculation. Credit not only aggravates the crisis in its capacity as a dissembled means of exchange, it also helps to bring and extend the crisis by transforming all exchange into an extremely complex and artificial mechanism that, having a minimum of metallic money as a real base, is easily disarranged at the slightest occasion.

We see that credit, instead of being an instrument for the suppression or the attenuation of crises, is on the contrary a particularly mighty instrument for the formation of crises. It cannot be anything else. Credit eliminates the remaining rigidity of capitalist relationships. It introduces everywhere the greatest elasticity possible. It renders all capitalist forces extensible, relative and mutually sensitive to the highest degree. Doing this, it facilitates and aggravates crises, which are nothing more or less than the periodic collisions of the contradictory forces of capitalist economy.

That leads us to another question. Why does credit generally have the appearance of a “means of adaptation” of capitalism? No matter what the relation or form in which this “adaptation” is represented by certain people, it can obviously consist only of the power to suppress one of the several antagonistic relations of capitalist economy, that is, of the power to suppress or weaken one of these contradictions, and allow liberty of movement, at one point or another, to the other fettered productive forces. In fact, it is precisely credit that aggravates these contradictions to the highest degree. It aggravates the antagonism between the mode of production and the mode of exchange by stretching production to the limit and at the same time paralysing exchange at the smallest pretext. It aggravates the antagonism between the mode of production and the mode of appropriation by separating production from ownership, that is, by transforming the capital employed in production into “social” capital and at the same time transforming a part of the profit, in the form of interest on capital, into a simple title of ownership. It aggravates the antagonism existing between the property relations (ownership) and the relations of production by putting into a small number of hands immense productive forces and expropriating large numbers of small capitalists. Lastly, it aggravates the antagonism existing between social character of production and private capitalist ownership by rendering necessary the intervention of the State in production.

In short, credit reproduces all the fundamental antagonisms of the capitalist world. It accentuates them. It precipitates their development and thus pushes the capitalist world forward to its own destruction. The prime act of capitalist adaptation, as far as credit is concerned, should really consist in breaking and suppressing credit. In fact, credit is far from being a means of capitalist adaptation. It is, on the contrary, a means of destruction of the most extreme revolutionary significance. Has not this revolutionary character of credit actually inspired plans of “socialist” reform? As such, it has had some distinguished proponents, some of whom (Isaac Pereira in France), were, as Marx put it, half prophets, half rogues.

Just as fragile is the second “means of adaptation”: employers’ organisations. According to Bernstein, such organisations will put an end to anarchy of production and do away with crises through their regulation of production. The multiple repercussions of the development of cartels and trusts have not been considered too carefully up to now. But they predict a problem that can only be solved with the aid of Marxist theory.

One thing is certain. We could speak of a damming up of capitalist anarchy through the agency of capitalist combines only in the measure that cartels, trusts, etc., become, even approximately, the dominant form of production. But such a possibility is excluded by the very nature of cartles. The final economic aim and result of combines is the following. Through the suppression of competition in a given branch of production, the distribution of the mass of profit realised on the market is influenced in such a manner that there is an increase of the share going to this branch of industry. Such organisation of the field can increase the rate of profit in one branch of industry at the expense of another. That is precisely why it cannot be generalised, for when it is extended to all important branches of industry, this tendency suppresses its own influence.

Furthermore, within the limits of their practical application the result of combines is the very opposite of suppression of industrial anarchy. Cartels ordinarily succeed in obtaining an increase of profit, in the home market, by producing at a lower rate of profit for the foreign market, thus utilising the supplementary portions of capital which they cannot utilise for domestic needs. That is to say, they sell abroad cheaper than at home. The result is the sharpening of competition abroad – the very opposite of what certain people want to find. That is well demonstrated by the history of the world sugar industry.

Generally speaking, combines treated as a manifestation of the capitalist mode of production, can only be considered a definite phase of capitalist development. Cartels are fundamentally nothing else than a means resorted to by the capitalist mode of production for the purpose of holding back the fatal fall of the rate of profit in certain branches of production. What method do cartels employ for this end? That of keeping inactive a part of the accumulated capital. That is, they use the same method which in another form is employed in crises. The remedy and the illness resemble each other like two drops of water. Indeed the first can be considered the lesser evil only up to a certain point. When the outlets of disposal begin to shrink, and the world market has been extended to its limit and has become exhausted through the competition of the capitalist countries – and sooner or later that is bound to come – then the forced partial idleness of capital will reach such dimensions that the remedy will become transformed into a malady, and capital, already pretty much “socialised” through regulation, will tend to revert again to the form of individual capital. In the face of the increased difficulties of finding markets, each individual portion of capital will prefer to take its chances alone. At that time, the large regulating organisations will burst like soap bubbles and give way to aggravated competition.

In a general way, cartels, just like credit, appear therefore as a determined phase of capitalist development, which in the last analysis aggravates the anarchy of the capitalist world and expresses and ripens its internal contradictions. Cartels aggravate the antagonism existing between the mode of production and exchange by sharpening the struggle between the producer and consumer, as is the case especially in the United States. They aggravate, furthermore, the antagonism existing between the mode of production and the mode of appropriation by opposing, in the most brutal fashion, to the working class the superior force of organised capital, and thus increasing the antagonism between Capital and Labour.

Finally, capitalist combinations aggravate the contradiction existing between the international character of capitalist world economy and the national character of the State – insofar as they are always accompanied by a general tariff war, which sharpens the differences among the capitalist States. We must add to this the decidedly revolutionary influence exercised by cartels on the concentration of production, technical progress, etc.

In other words, when evaluated from the angle of their final effect on capitalist economy, cartels and trusts fail as “means of adaptation.” They fail to attenuate the contradictions of capitalism. On the contrary, they appear to be an instrument of greater anarchy. They encourage the further development of the internal contradictions of capitalism. They accelerate the coming of a general decline of capitalism.

But if the credit system, cartels, and the rest do not suppress the anarchy of capitalism, why have we not had a major commercial crisis for two decades, since 1873? Is this not a sign that, contrary to Marx’s analysis the capitalist mode of production has adapted itself – at least, in a general way – to the needs of society? Hardly had Bernstein rejected, in 1898, Marx’s theory of crises, when a profound general crisis broke out in 1900, while seven years later, a new crisis beginning in the United States, hit the world market. Facts proved the theory of “adaptation” to be false. They showed at the same time that the people who abandoned Marx’s theory of crisis only because no crisis occurred within a certain space of time merely confused the essence of this theory with one of its secondary exterior aspects – the ten-year cycle. The description of the cycle of modern capitalist industry as a ten-year period was to Marx and Engels, in 1860 and 1870, only a simple statement of facts. It was not based on a natural law but on a series of given historic circumstances that were connected with the rapidly spreading activity of young capitalism.

The crisis of 1825 was in effect, the result of extensive investment of capital in the construction of roads, canals, gas works, which took place during the preceding decade, particularly in England, where the crisis broke out. The following crisis of 1836-1839 was similarly the result of heavy investments in the construction of means of transportation. The crisis of 1847 was provoked by the feverish building of railroads in England (from 1844 to 1847, in three years, the British Parliament gave railway concessions to the value of 15 billion dollars). In each of the three mentioned cases, a crisis came after new bases for capitalist development were established. In 1857, the same result was brought by the abrupt opening of new markets for European industry in America and Australia, after the discovery of the gold mines, and the extensive construction of railway lines, especially in France, where the example of England was then closely imitated. (From 1852 to 1856, new railway lines to the value of 1,250 million francs were built in France alone). And finally we have the great crisis of 1873 – a direct consequence of the firm boom of large industry in Germany and Austria, which followed the political events of 1866 and 1871.

So that up to now, the sudden extension of the domain of capitalist economy, and not its shrinking, was each time the cause of the commercial crisis. That the international crisis repeated themselves precisely every ten years was a purely exterior fact, a matter of chance. The Marxist formula for crises as presented by Engels in Anti-Dühring and by Marx in the first and third volumes of Capital, applies to all crises only in the measure that it uncovers their international mechanism and their general basic causes.

Crises may repeat themselves every five or ten years, or even every eight or twenty years. But what proves best the falseness of Bernstein’s theory is that it is in the countries having the greatest development of the famous “means of adaptation” – credit, perfected communications and trusts – that the last crisis (1907-1908) was most violent.

The belief that capitalist production could “adapt” itself to exchange presupposes one of two things: either the world market can spread unlimitedly, or on the contrary the development of the productive forces is so fettered that it cannot pass beyond the bounds of the market. The first hypothesis constitutes a material impossibility. The second is rendered just as impossible by the constant technical progress that daily creates new productive forces in all branches.

There remains still another phenomenon which, says Bernstein, contradicts the course of capitalist development as it is indicated above. In the “steadfast phalanx” of middle-size enterprises, Bernstein sees a sign that the development of large industry does not move in a revolutionary direction, and is not as effective from the angle of the concentration of industry as was expected by the “theory” of collapse. He is here, however, the victim of his own lack of understanding. For to see the progressive disappearance of large industry is to misunderstand sadly the nature of this process.

According to Marxist theory, small capitalists play in the general course of capitalist development the role of pioneers of technical change. They possess that role in a double sense. They initiate new methods of production in well-established branches of industry; they are instrumental in the creation of new branches of production not yet exploited by the big capitalist. It is false to imagine that the history of the middle-size capitalist establishments proceeds rectilinearly in the direction of their progressive disappearance. The course of this development is on the contrary purely dialectical and moves constantly among contradictions. The middle capitalist layers find themselves, just like the workers, under the influence of two antagonistic tendencies, one ascendant, the other descendant. In this case, the descendent tendency is the continued rise of the scale of production, which overflows periodically the dimensions of the average size parcels of capital and removes them repeatedly from the terrain of world competition.

The ascendant tendency is, first, the periodic depreciation of the existing capital, which lowers again, for a certain time, the scale of production in proportion to the value of the necessary minimum amount of capital. It is represented, besides, by the penetration of capitalist production into new spheres. The struggle of the average size enterprise against big Capital cannot be considered a regularly proceeding battle in which the troops of the weaker party continue to melt away directly and quantitatively. It should be rather regarded as a periodic mowing down of the small enterprises, which rapidly grow up again, only to be mowed down once more by large industry. The two tendencies play ball with the middle capitalist layers. The descending tendency must win in the end.

The very opposite is true about the development of the working class. The victory of the descending tendency must not necessarily show itself in an absolute numerical diminution of the middle-size enterprises. It must show itself, first in the progressive increase of the minimum amount of capital necessary for the functioning of the enterprises in the old branches of production; second in the constant diminution of the interval of time during which the small capitalists conserve the opportunity to exploit the new branches of production. The result as far as the small capitalist is concerned, is a progressively shorter duration of his stay in the new industry and a progressively more rapid change in the methods of production as a field for investment. For the average capitalist strata, taken as a whole, there is a process of more and more rapid social assimilation and dissimilation.

Bernstein knows this perfectly well. He himself comments on this. But what he seems to forget is that this very thing is the law of the movement of the average capitalist enterprise. If one admits that small capitalists are pioneers of technical progress, and if it true that the latter is the vital pulse of the capitalist economy, then it is manifest that small capitalists are an integral part of capitalist development, which can only disappear together with it [capitalist development]. The progressive disappearance of the middle-size enterprise – in the absolute sense considered by Bernstein – means not, as he thinks, the revolutionary course of capitalist development, but precisely the contrary, the cessation, the slowing up of development. “The rate of profit, that is to say, the relative increase of capital,” said Marx, “is important first of all for new investors of capital, grouping themselves independently. And as soon as the formation of capital falls exclusively into a handful of big capitalists, the revivifying fire of production is extinguished. It dies away.”

Chapter I The Opportunist Method

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Image: Defending the Russian Revolution. [Source:]

If it is true that theories are only the images of the phenomena of the exterior world in the human consciousness, it must be added, concerning Eduard Bernstein’s system, that theories are sometimes inverted images. Think of a theory of instituting socialism by means of social reforms in the face of the complete stagnation of the reform movement in Germany. Think of a theory of trade union control. Consider the theory of winning a majority in Parliament, after the revision of the constitution of Saxony and in view of the most recent attempts against universal suffrage. However, the pivotal point of Bernstein’s system is not located in his conception of the practical tasks of the Social-Democracy. It is found in his stand on the course of the objective development of capitalist society, which, in turn is closely bound to his conception of the practical tasks of the Social-Democracy.

According to Bernstein, a general decline of capitalism seems to be increasingly improbable because, on the one hand, capitalism shows a greater capacity of adaptation, and, on the other hand, capitalist production becomes more and more varied.

The capacity of capitalism to adapt itself, says Bernstein, is manifested first in the disappearance of general crises, resulting from the development of the credit system, employers’ organisations, wider means of communication and informational services. It shows itself secondly, in the tenacity of the middle classes, which hails from the growing differentiation of the branches of production and the elevation of vast layers of the proletariat to the level of the middle class. It is furthermore proved, argues Bernstein, by the amelioration of the economic and political situation of the proletariat as a result of its trade union activity.

From this theoretic stand is derived the following general conclusion about the practical work of the Social-Democracy. The latter must not direct its daily activity toward the conquest of political power, but toward the betterment of the condition of the working class, within the existing order. It must not expect to institute socialism as a result of a political and social crisis, but should build socialism by means of the progressive extension of social control and the gradual application of the principle of co-operation.

Bernstein himself sees nothing new in his theories. On the contrary, he believes them to be in agreement with certain declarations of Marx and Engels. Nevertheless, it seems to us that it is difficult to deny that they are in formal contradiction with the conceptions of scientific socialism.

If Bernstein’s revisionism merely consisted in affirming that the march of capitalist development is slower than was thought before, he would merely be presenting an argument for adjourning the conquest of power by the proletariat, on which everybody agreed up to now. Its only consequence would be a slowing up of the pace of the struggle.

But that is not the case. What Bernstein questions is not the rapidity of the development of capitalist society, but the march of the development itself and, consequently, the very possibility of a change to socialism.

Socialist theory up to now declared that the point of departure for a transformation to socialism would be a general and catastrophic crisis. We must distinguish in this outlook two things: the fundamental idea and its exterior form.

The fundamental idea consists of the affirmation that capitalism, as a result of its own inner contradictions, moves toward a point when it will be unbalanced, when it will simply become impossible. There were good reasons for conceiving that juncture in the form of a catastrophic general commercial crisis. But that is of secondary importance when the fundamental idea is considered.

The scientific basis of socialism rests, as is well known, on three principal results of capitalist development. First, on the growing anarchy of capitalist economy, leading inevitably to its ruin. Second, on the progressive socialisation of the process of production, which creates the germs of the future social order. And third, on the increased organisation and consciousness of the proletarian class, which constitutes the active factor in the coming revolution.

Bernstein pulls away from the first of the three fundamental supports of scientific socialism. He says that capitalist development does not lead to a general economic collapse.

He does not merely reject a certain form of the collapse. He rejects the very possibility of collapse. He says textually: “One could claim that by collapse of the present society is meant something else than a general commercial crisis, worse than all others, that is a complete collapse of the capitalist system brought about as a result of its own contradictions.” And to this he replies: “With the growing development of society a complete and almost general collapse of the present system of production becomes more and more improbable, because capitalist development increases on the one hand the capacity of adaptation and, on the other – that is at the same time, the differentiation of industry.” (Neue Zeit, 1897-98, vol.18, pg.555)

But then the question arises: Why and how, in that case, can we attain the final goal? According to scientific socialism, the historic necessity of the socialist revolution manifests itself above all in the growing anarchy of capitalism, which drives the system into an impasse. But if one admits with Bernstein that capitalist development does not move in the direction of its own ruin, then socialism ceases to be objectively necessary. There remain the other two mainstays of the scientific explanation of socialism, which are also said to be consequences of capitalism itself: the socialisation of the process of production and the growing consciousness of the proletariat. It is these two matters that Bernstein has in mind when he says: “The suppression of the theory of collapse does not in any way deprive socialist doctrine of the power of persuasion. For, examined closely, what are all factors enumerated by us that make for the suppression or the modification of the former crises? Nothing else, in fact, than the conditions, or even in party the germs, of the socialisation of production and exchange.” (Ibid., pg.554)

Very little reflection is needed to understand that here too we face a false conclusion. Where lies the importance of all the phenomena that are said by Bernstein to be the means of capitalist adaptation – cartels, the credit system, the development of means of communication, the amelioration of the situation of the working class, etc.? Obviously, in that they suppress or, at least, attenuate the internal contradictions of capitalist economy, and stop the development or the aggravation of these contradictions. Thus the suppression of crises can only mean the suppression of the antagonism between production and exchange on the capitalist base. The amelioration of the situation of the working class, or the penetration of certain fractions of the class into middle layers, can only mean the attenuation of the antagonism between Capital and Labour. But if the mention factors suppress the capitalist contradictions and consequently save the system from ruin, if they enable capitalism to maintain itself – and that is why Bernstein calls them “means of adaptation” – how can cartels, the credit system, trade unions, etc., be at the same time “the conditions and even, in part, the germs” of socialism? Obviously only in the sense that they express most clearly the social character of production.

But by presenting it in its capitalist form, the same factors render superfluous, inversely, in the same measure, the transformation of this socialised production into socialist production. That is why they can be the germs or conditions of a socialist order only in a theoretic sense and not in an historic sense. They are phenomena which, in the light of our conception of socialism, we know to be related to socialism but which, in fact, not only do not lead to a socialist revolution but render it, on the contrary, superfluous.

There remains one force making for socialism – the class consciousness of the proletariat. But it, too, is in the given case no the simple intellectual reflection of the growing contradictions of capitalism and its approaching decline. It is now no more than an ideal whose force of persuasion rests only on the perfection attributed to it.

We have here, in brief, the explanation of the socialist programme by means of “pure reason.” We have here, to use simpler language, an idealist explanation of socialism. The objective necessity of socialism, the explanation of socialism as the result of the material development of society, falls to the ground.

Revisionist theory thus places itself in a dilemma. Either the socialist transformation is, as was admitted up to now, the consequence of the internal contradictions of capitalism, and with the growth of capitalism will develop its inner contradictions, resulting inevitably, at some point, in its collapse, (in that case the “means of adaptation” are ineffective and the theory of collapse is correct); or the “means of adaptation” will really stop the collapse of the capitalist system and thereby enable capitalism to maintain itself by suppressing its own contradictions. In that case socialism ceases to be an historic necessity. It then becomes anything you want to call it, but it is no longer the result of the material development of society.

The dilemma leads to another. Either revisionism is correct in its position on the course of capitalist development, and therefore the socialist transformation of society is only a utopia, or socialism is not a utopia, and the theory of “means of adaptation” is false. There is the question in a nutshell.

Class struggles, climate change, and the origins of modern agriculture

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Image: Climate, Class and the Neolithic Revolution. [Source:]

Class conflicts and colonial expansion in the context of the Little Ice Age lead to the emergence of capitalist agriculture and the transformation of social relations on a world scale.

The last half-millennium of the Earth’s natural history has been a time of dramatic and accelerating change. One has to look to the beginning of the Holocene, with the climatic amelioration after the last ice age and the Neolithic agricultural revolution, to find a period which produced changes of comparable significance for human-environmental relations.1

A diverse range of agricultural practices and social relations proliferated between the Neolithic origins of farming and the early modern period which began some 500 years ago. But in order to explore the future of food production under climate change, it is this transition to modern agriculture which is of most interest. This question is intimately bound up with the origins of capitalism. Here, climate change and class relations combined, and through a series of food crises led to the transformation of world agriculture through enclosures and colonialism.

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Image: Little Ice Age. [Source:]

The Little Ice Age and global agrarian crises

The Little Ice Age of 1550-1850, while not a true ice age, was a period of global climatic cooling which was most pronounced in the northern hemisphere. Cold summers and freezing winters caused crop failures, chronic food crises, and famines across the world. In the Ottoman empire (centred in modern-day Turkey), this exacerbated conflicts over land, peasant rights, and agrarian taxation, and provoked flight to the towns and food riots.

In the Mughal empire (a Persian empire extending into most of modern-day India), the Little Ice Age saw a series of famines and food crises, the worst of which occurred in 1630-1632. The Shah (in)famously began building the Taj Mahal in 1631 to commemorate his dead wife, diverting huge resources which could have been used for famine relief. Mounting rebellions and rural conflicts weakened the Mughal hold on India, and contributed to the relative ease with which the British took control of the region from the mid 18th century.

Famines and peasant rebellions also wracked China during the late Ming dynasty:

…in 1630, a famine in the central province of Shaanxi led peasants to support the peasant rebel leader Li Zicheng. During the 14 years of Li Zhicheng’s rebellion, his forces equalised land between rich and poor in the provinces they controlled, killed many rich landlords, and plundered and destroyed many estates. His rebellion overthrew the Ming dynasty in 1644, but then lost power to the Manchu invasion a few years later.2

In the Americas, both the Aztec and Inca empires had developed sustainable agricultural systems, but imperial expansion overstretched their food production capacities. This provoked agrarian rebellions and internal political conflicts. When the Spanish arrived from the early 16th century, they encountered empires in crisis, wracked by civil wars. This greatly aided the conquistadors, who were able to ally with rebel factions before taking control.

In Europe, reactions to the Little Ice Age were polarised on an east-west axis. In the east, the balance of class forces favoured the landed aristocracy, who were able to reimpose a ‘second serfdom’ on the peasantry. Servile practices were reimposed, and “Russian nobles sold serfs just as American planters sold slaves.”3 But in the west, the balance of class forces was more favourable to the peasantry, who won emancipation in numerous kingdoms and republics. While Spain was busy constructing the largest slave-based agricultural system in history in its American colonies, its domestic peasantry and Moorish slaves won emancipation.

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Image: A family of slaves outside their quarters. Cockspur Island, GA. [Source:]

The Atlantic, American, and Pacific plantation complexes

The Western European maritime powers, principally the Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch, followed by the British, French, and others, were busy constructing colonial empires across the globe from the late 15th/early 16th century. This involved the construction of plantation complexes oriented to cash crops for export. The interest-bearing and merchant’s capital which funded these conquests belonged to what Marx called “the antediluvian forms of capital, which long precede the capitalist mode of production.”4 That is to say that in themselves, the circuits of colonial capital served to reproduce the feudal social relations of their home countries. The emergence of a distinctly capitalist mode of production would coalesce only later.

The Dutch were most active in colonising the Western Pacific. Where the colonialists encountered hierarchical social systems, they were often able to co-opt local elites and thus formally incorporate local labour into their trading empires. However, when they encountered more egalitarian societies, this option was not available. One such society was the Banda Islands in modern day Indonesia. Here, village life was governed via assemblies, which limited the power of would-be elites, the orang kaya (‘moneymen’). When the orang kaya made contracts with the Dutch, the village assemblies promptly ignored them. The civilised Dutch set out to teach these savages a lesson in the rule of law, and proceeded to slaughter them.

Through military action, the VOC [Dutch East India Company] killed most of the population in 1621. Of the population of approximately 15,000, only several hundred survived.5

This was a pattern often repeated, prompting Karl Marx to note that:

…wherever they set foot, devastation and depopulation followed. Banjuwangi, a province of Java, in 1750 numbered over 80,000 inhabitants, in 1811 only 18,000. Sweet commerce!6

Genocide, through a combination of disease and intentional slaughter, was a recurring feature of European colonialism. The massive depopulation lead to the importation of slaves to work the land. In Portuguese Brazil:

Smallpox killed so many natives that by the 1580s the planters shifted to African slaves. By 1620 the plantations relied almost exclusively on the labour of Africans or their American descendants.7

The net effect of the plantation complexes in the Atlantic, Americas, and Western Pacific, was dramatic depopulation and the replacement of subsistence modes of agriculture with cash crop production for the world market.

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Image: Robert Kett, yeoman farmer who sided with the peasantry against enclosures.[ Source:]

Capitalist agriculture

Meanwhile in Western Europe, class conflicts in the countryside were driving agrarian change. In England, the balance of class forces favoured the landed classes. Freed from their obligations to the peasantry, they evicted them from the land. Peasant emancipation here meant being ‘freed’ from the land through clearances and enclosures. Richer peasants became tenant farmers, and hired landless peasants as wage labourers to work the land. The landed nobility were transformed into capitalist landlords.8

Thus accumulated capital met landless workers, kick-starting a cycle or rural accumulation and dispossession which would provide both the labour force and some of the capital which fuelled the industrial revolution a century or so later. In effect, this transformation meant a shift from politically appropriated surpluses in kind or in taxes and tithes which sustained the feudal ruling class, to economically appropriated surpluses accruing to the owners of agricultural capital as surplus value – a shift synonymous with the emergence of the capitalist mode of production.

But this development was not simply an English peculiarity, or rather, this peculiarity was not a wholly English development. That is to say, the balance of class forces that favoured the emergence of free wage labour in England had an irreducibly geopolitical dimension. European geopolitics in the early modern period were significantly structured around the power of the Ottoman Empire. Europe’s military powers were thus oriented to the east, with little heed paid to the English backwater.

It was “the upsurge in Euro-Ottoman trade [that] contributed to the preconditions of rural revolt and the primitive accumulation of capital in Northwest Europe.”9 Furthermore, it was the Ottoman control of trade routes to the east which drove the Atlantic powers to the sea in search of alternative routes. The rise of European banking and merchant capital was a side-effect of feudal war-making, but it was one which fuelled colonial expansion, which in time would feed back into capitalist development.10

As other European powers emulated the English example, capital flows from the colonial plantation complexes found productive investment opportunities, given the newly emerging European proletariat. Cleared from the land, Europe’s proletarians had little choice but to accept whatever wages they could find, on farms or in the fledgling manufactures. Even then, they resisted. Vagabonds were criminalised and soldiers deployed to clear the land and put down rural revolts.

Through this process, global circuits of capital emerged. Agricultural commodities such as sugar from the American plantations and tea and opium from Asia began to flow into Europe, while slave-picked cotton would fuel Lancashire’s rise to workshop of the world. Hence Marx writes that “the veiled slavery of the wage workers in Europe needed, for its pedestal, slavery pure and simple in the new world.”11 This connection between plantation slavery and the reproduction of free labour power is elaborated further by Silvia Federici:

The plantation system was crucial for capitalist development not only because of the immense amount of surplus labour that was accumulated from it, but because it set a model of labour management, export-oriented production, economic integration, and international division of labour that have since become paradigmatic for capitalist class relations. (…) On one side, a global assembly line was created that cut the cost of the commodities necessary to produce labour-power in Europe (…) On the other side, the metropolitan wage became the vehicle by which the goods produced by enslaved workers went to the market, and the value of the products of enslaved-labour was realized.12

While political economists made arguments for the superior economics of free wage labour – after all, a capitalist is no longer responsible for the reproduction of his ‘hands’13 – it was revolt which proved a major driving force in the transition to free labour outside Europe. Slave revolts put abolition and emancipation on the agenda, most notably the Haitian revolution of 1791. Here, insurgent slaves scandalously took the universalist proclamations of the liberty emanating from the French Revolution two years prior to apply to all, including themselves.

The growth in support for abolitionism among sections of the ruling class is best understood as a response to such bloody insurrections, which lead to growing acceptance of the arguments of political economists. As such, the emancipation from slave to wage labour should only be considered tendential, with counter-tendencies always throwing up forms of unfree labour across the capitalist world, such as debt-bondage or prison labour. Indeed, following the American civil war of 1861-65: “the former slaves ended up working on the old plantations as sharecroppers, in reality debt peons, forced to work at extremely low wages to retain their plots.”14

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Image: Support the agricultural transformation agenda. [Source:]


From the point of view of agricultural transformation, the European enclosures and the plantation complexes in the Atlantic, Americas, and Western Pacific formed two sides of the same historical process. This was a widespread shift from subsistence to commodity production, entailing the bloody separation of the rural population from the soil. Climate change, in the form of the Little Ice Age, had caused crop failures, chronic food crises, and famines around the world. The societal responses to these crises were mediated by the extant social relations, institutions, and the balance of class forces. As the circuits of European merchant and banking capital sought new profits in the colonies, enclosures and clearances created a landless proletariat in Europe.

As the European empires expanded, they encountered empires facing crises of their own. This facilitated the conquests, which were invariably followed by massive depopulation through disease and intentional mass slaughter. Colonial genocide provided returns on capital which flowed back to Europe, finding profitable investment in the employment of the new proletariat. Thus the colonialism of the late feudal period and the transformations of early modern agriculture formed a feedback loop which gave rise to a new capitalist mode of production.

Henceforth agricultural production became increasingly commodity production, as subsistence producers were expropriated, exterminated, or pushed to the margins. While the story of capitalist agriculture certainly does not end here, the basic contours of the contemporary world agricultural system were all in place by the end of the Little Ice Age.

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Image: Chinese Agricultural Propoganda Poster: Chairman Mao inspecting the country of Guangdong. [Source:]


  • 1.Neil Roberts (1997), The Holocene: an environmental history, Blackwell, p.155.
  • 2.Mark Tauger (2011), Agriculture in world history, Routledge, p.60.
  • 3.Tauger, op cit, p.68.
  • 4.Karl Marx, Capital volume 3.
  • 5.J L van Zanden (1993), The rise and decline of Holland’s economy, University of Manchester Press, pp.76-77.
  • 6.Karl Marx, Capital volume 1.
  • 7.Tauger, op cit, p.76.
  • 8.For the classic account, see: Robert Brenner. Marx recounts this process here.
  • 9.Kerem Nisancioglu (2012), Before the deluge, the Ottoman origins of capitalism.
  • 10.Nisancioglu, op cit.
  • 11.Karl Marx, Capital volume 1.
  • 12.Silvia Federici, Caliban and the witch, p.104.
  • 13.For example see Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations: “From the experience of all ages and nations, I believe, that the work done by free men comes cheaper in the end than the work performed by slaves. Whatever work he does, beyond what is sufficient to purchase his own maintenance, can be squeezed out of him by violence only, and not by any interest of his own.”
  • 14.Tauger, op cit, p.89.


Marxism & the Class Struggle

intense looking man with thick glasses

Image: Cliff Slaughter. [Source:]

Cliff Slaughter (1975)

VII Marxist theory and class consciousness

Marxism is not a ‘sociology’. It only appears to be so, because, from the point of view of every other particular section of the intellectual division of labour-philosophy, economics, history, history of ideas, etc.-Marxism goes beyond their defined subject-matter, insisting that the real content of each of them is to be found in the contradictory totality of social economic relations from which flow the forms of activity and thought to which the separate disciplines address themselves. Political economy, for example, is ‘negated’ by Marxism, in the Hegelian sense. Marx’s treatment of political economy takes to their limit the contradictory developments of classical political economy. To do this requires the explanation of political economy’s concepts and their real content as the ‘alienated’ consciousness of the development of bourgeois society itself. Thus we find in the Critique of Political Economy and in Capital itself a negation of political economy, which is demonstrated as being an adequate reflection of the sphere of exchange values and their behaviour. But this sphere is shown to be the real world of appearances or illusions as necessarily created by a historically limited social order, capitalism.

Marx’s rejection of bourgeois philosophy is a similar materialist critique. His analysis of political and historical thought and their material sources was the third element of the synthesis achieved by Marx.

Why then do we say that Marxism only appears to be a sociology? Because sociology originated and developed, not as the dialectical negation, the overcoming of the contradictions, of each of the alienated spheres of thought, but as their definition anew in relation to some supposedly more ‘general’ science of the ‘the social as such’ (Durkheim’s ‘le social en soi‘ and ‘social facts’ constitute the acme of this approach). Comte, first to use the term ‘sociology’, invented the word in order to indicate: ‘. . . under one single heading that integral part of natural philosophy which concerns itself with the positive study of the totality of fundamental laws proper to social phenomena.’

Instead of the dynamic synthesis constituted by Marx’s negation of the separated and alienated fields of philosophy, political economy and history (class struggle), we have the static and uncritical synthesis of Comte, to be followed by a century of sterile debate in sociology about ‘metaphysics or empiricism’, ‘generalisation or specialised monographs’, ‘system or action’. Instead of the consistent materialism made possible by Marx’s historical or dialectical approach, we have the pseudo-scientific reliance on ‘experience’, which in Comte’s case ended in the purest mysticism, since his ‘spiritual’ experience was granted just as much validity as any other. Bourgeois sociology in the 20th century is tied, philosophically and methodologically, to the pragmatism of the ruling class. Sociology continues to oscillate between idealism and mechanical materialism: ‘social facts as things’ on the one hand, freedom of the individual on the other; the classical dichotomy of bourgeois ideology. Instead of social analysis in terms of the contradictory development and struggle of opposites in each specific, historically limited, socioeconomic formation, we have in sociology the search for general principles or sociological laws which transcend specific historical stages. Talcott Parsons’ rejection of Marxism, on the grounds that it is a series of ‘genetic’ explanations, sums up this functionalist barrenness.

These aspects of the split in social theory between Marxism and sociology since the second quarter of the last century are of course inseparably linked with the fact that, as against Marx and Marxism’s concern with capitalist society, Comte is the father (though he himself is only the bastard son of Saint-Simon in this and many other respects) of the sociologists’ insistence that they are concerned with ‘industrial’ or ‘modern’ society. This is only a ‘sociological’ version of the political economists’ recognition of the ‘natural’ character of the laws of capitalist economy, which they could not accept as only the laws of a definite and historically limited socio-economic formation. When Marx insisted on the ‘social’ dimension of all spheres of activity and thought, it was with a dual emphasis: first, to grasp each sphere as only one ‘moment’ of a contradictory social whole; second, to put an end to the alienation resulting from exploitation, to give a new life to each activity by making it the conscious activity of the associated producers in a classless society; for this, theory must unite with and develop in unity with the proletarian revolution. Sociology, by contrast, accepts and describes the alienation and even dignifies it by presenting it systematically as the ‘differentiation and integration of roles’ and the ‘structuring of orientations’. A Marxist analysis of sociology would demonstrate in what way these supposedly ‘general’ social phenomena and mechanisms are but an ideological reflection of the surface of capitalist society itself.

The revolutionary political orientation of Marxist social theory, as contrasted with the professed ‘value-freedom’ of sociology, is fundamental to Marxism. And the perennial pleas for separating Marx’s politics from his sociological ‘insights’ are as absurdity misplaced as the similar attempts to cleanse Marx’s social theories of philosophy.

Marxism is then the dialectical negation of the highest developments in bourgeois thought, and through this of the reality from which that thought flows and of which it forms a necessary part. It is this conception which lies behind Lenin’s famous dictum:

The workers can acquire political consciousness only from without, i.e., only outside of the economic struggle, outside of the sphere of relations between workers and employers. The sphere from which alone it is possible to obtain this knowledge is the sphere of relationships between all classes and the state and the government-the sphere of the interrelations between all classes. (Lenin, What is to be Done?)

Here Lenin expresses politically (i.e. in conflict with political opponents who based themselves on the supposed ‘spontaneous’ development of socialist consciousness from the experience of the working class) the implications for working-class consciousness of the discoveries of Marx. Scientific thought (in the philosophy of Hegel) had arrived at the point where it must accept the conclusion that it could advance further only by grasping activity its real place in the struggle to end the conditions of its own alienated character; this was only possible, Marx said, by grasping the nature of the working class as the agent of the necessary revolutionary change. The working class itself, however, could arrive at the necessary consciousness and thereby the unity necessary for social revolution only by understanding the full historical implications of its role in production and its capacity for abolishing class society. Besides the conclusion that the economic structure is ‘basic’, and that the class struggle of the proletariat is an objective necessity creating the conditions for socialist revolution, there was necessary the whole theory of historical materialism, the understanding of social development as a unified process, with revolutionary consciousness seizing hold of the meaning of the contradictions at the base of society in order to overthrow it. This body of theory could not come from the working class but only ‘from the outside, from bourgeois intellectuals’. From that point on, the development of Marxism takes definite forms in relation to the struggle of the working class, its internal political conflicts, strategy, tactics and organisation, nationally and internationally. While Marx and Engels themselves made great contributions in this field, it has of course been most enriched in the twentieth century, above all by the work of Lenin and Trotsky.

Marx and Engels began their communist political careers with a series of thoroughgoing polemics against other schools of socialism (e.g., in The Comnunist Manifesto). Immediately after the 1848 revolutions they combated the impatience and what amounted to rejection of theory by those who wanted to continue an insurrectionist struggle in unfavourable conditions. They never ceased to participate in and advise the labour movement in every country with which they could establish contact. They insisted – for example, in correspondence with Russian and North American socialists – on a very close and detailed attention to the specific conditions of the history, economy and working-class movement of each particular country. But they always were vigilant against eclecticism and attempts to put aside the theoretical conquests they had made. Writing to Bebel and other leaders of the German Social-Democratic Party in 1879, Marx and Engels returned to a theme which had concerned them as long ago as 1848: the role of bourgeois intellectuals in the revolutionary movement. Then, in the Manifesto, they had written: ‘ . . . a small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift, and joins the revolutionary class . . . in particular, a portion of the bourgeois ideologists.’

Now, in 1879, they make a very different emphasis, and one which shows that Lenin was not inconsistent when he combined his insistence on the decisive importance of intellectuals in the development of revolutionary theory with an implacable struggle against every manifestation of revisionism and intellectual light-mindedness with theory. Marx and Engels go out of their way to warn Bebel and the party leaders that bourgeois and petty-bourgeois intellectuals joining the movement must show that they are willing to learn from the party its theory of scientific socialism in the first place. If this is not done, then they inevitably bring with them elements of the now decaying and disintegrating German bourgeois culture and philosophy. (In other words, what could be gained from bourgeois development before 1848 was the opposite of what flowed from it in 1789.)

Lenin stressed that the fight against revisionism (so called after the celebrated controversy in the German Social Democracy over Bernstein’s criticisms of Marx in the 1890s) was a recurring and inevitable one. He explained that not only individual thinkers in the working class or the revolutionary Marxist party were affected by particular aspects of bourgeois ideology, but that the development of capitalism constantly modified the relations between the proletariat and the middle classes, the latter carrying into the former their ideas, the ideas of capitalism. Revisionism in the labour movement reflected these class pressures. The nearer a revolutionary situation, the more these ideological differences would be expressed in political and organisational differences. Hence the vital importance in a pre-revolutionary period of consciously combating revisionism. This theoretical fight is the anticipation of all the problems and divisions which the working class will have to overcome in its actual struggle for power.

The problem of proletarian class-consciousness is often discussed in a very abstract and general manner, instead of through the analysis of the actual historical process by which the Marxist movement and the working-class movement have developed. These are not two distinct processes: the conscious building of revolutionary parties is the highest form of the process by which the proletariat becomes a class ‘for itself’. In the proper place, there is needed a critical analysis of all those writings on the working class and its consciousness which rely on concepts lie ‘affluence’, ‘prosperity’, ‘embourgeoisement‘, ‘social mobility’, and so on; and this analysis would have to deal with all the superficially very different and ‘radical’ approaches of writers like Marcuse. For the Marxist, such an analysis is of interest as an insight into the ideology of the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie, reflecting their own historical situation and its changes, but it would at the same time be important in relation to the development of Marxism itself, because it bears directly on the most characteristic ‘revision’ of Marxism in our epoch: the rejection of the revolutionary role of the working class and of the need for revolutionary parties.

Class, for Marx, is rooted in social relations of production, and cannot be referred in the first place to relations of distribution and consumption or their ideological reflections. In considering the class consciousness of the proletariat, Marxists are therefore not concerned with the ideas of individual workers about their position in society (no matter how many examples are collected and classified) so much as with the following series of categories: relations of production (sale of labour-power, exploitation); conflict of workers and employers on this basis (economic struggles, trade unions, elementary political battles for economic ends); conflict at the level of class (economic struggles which merge into the conflict between classes, which is organised through the political parties and the struggle for state power); the theoretical and practical struggle to build revolutionary parties of the working class, in conflict with non-revolutionary and counter-revolutionary tendencies in the class and their reflection inside the revolutionary party.

Thus, for example, a worker in the motor car industry will move through his elemental experience to an understanding of the gap between his own standard of life, income and conditions of work, on the one hand, and the mass of wealth to whose production he contributes, on the other. He will recognise an identity of interest, on this basis, with other wage-workers. ‘Combinations’ or trade unions are the adequate expression of this level of consciousness. To this ‘trade union consciousness’ may correspond other ideological, critical views on various aspects of capitalist society: for example, such consciousness can easily co-exist with that view which lays all the stress on differences or similarities in patterns of consumption; thus, elementary socialistic propaganda of the moralising type, and modern pessimistic speculation about the workers’ consciousness being dulled by the abundance of consumer goods, are types of consciousness which do not penetrate to the basis of class differences and class struggle and therefore cannot facilitate the development of political consciousness.

More ‘sophisticated’ socialist views of class-consciousness often refer to a process of more or less spontaneous political maturing through a series of economic struggles which take on greater and greater magnitude, finally posing demands which the system cannot meet. Here again the same basic error, from the Marxist standpoint, is made. In all such approaches, the class and its consciousness are seen in terms of a pre-Marxist theory of knowledge and of history. Those who put forward these ideas are unable to escape from a conception in which the separate individuals in the class move from their own working and other everyday experience to a higher level of consciousness, in this case political consciousness.

In point of fast an individual worker does not arrive through his own experience at a scientific consciousness of the actual relationships at work, let alone the political relationships. It u only when a worker comes into contact with the products, in political programme and action, of Marxist theory in politics – i.e., with the outcome of theoretical works produced in the first place by non-proletarian – that he can conceive of even his own working experience in terms which go beyond those of the prevailing bourgeois ideology. These works take the essence of the experience of the proletariat as well as all developments in economy, politics, science, the arts, etc.

Only a historical view of the working class and of the theory of Marxism, in their mutual interrelations, can produce a theory of class consciousness. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Marx and Engels, working on various fields of learning, as well as analysing the experience of the struggle of the working class to that date, elaborated their theory of socialism. The theory is henceforth the essential component of the process by which the working class becomes a class ‘for itself’. As a theory, it had first to penetrate beneath the day-to-day phenomenal form of capitalist society to the social relations of production. It demonstrated that production under capitalism continues, and society develops, not through any conscious plan, but through the drive to produce surplus value, consequent upon the reduction of labour-power to a commodity, to units of ‘abstract labour’. This is the essence of the worker’s exploitation, rather than the fact, say, that he does not own the cars he produces. What he produces is essentially surplus value, the augmentation of that same capital which oppresses him.

From these basic relationships, Marx demonstrated the reality of the history of capitalism, the way in which private ownership came to a revolutionary clash with the further development of the forces of production. For a political or socialist consciousness of the struggle against the capitalist class, there is necessary the understanding of this historical tendency of the capitalist system. This means not just an abstract knowledge of the theory of historical materialism, but the concrete analysis of, and active engagement in, the development of the class struggle in all its forms and at all levels, in the period of capitalism’s historical decline.

It was” Lenin’s major special contribution to Marxism to elaborate this theory of leadership and the revolutionary party, first of all in What is to be Done? and One Step Forward, Two Steps Back. But the whole of Lenin’s work is an expression of this central concern. Later, Trotsky devoted a series of books and articles to the defence and development of the ideas worked out by Lenin (cf. particularly his In Defence of Marxism and Lessons of October). Gramsci also worked on important aspects of the relationship between Marxist theory and class consciousness, and developed further the critique of notions of spontaneity.

We have seen that even though the mass of workers experience capitalist exploitation, it is necessary for a struggle to take place between their existing consciousness, on the one hand, and Marxism on the other. This struggle is conducted, as part of the struggle of material forces, by the revolutionary Marxist party. The socialist revolution, like every social revolution, occupies an entire epoch. Its outcome is decided by a series of battles in every country, requiring the developed strategy and tactics of revolutionary parties and a revolutionary international whose whole outlook and experience is guided by the theoretical foundations laid by Marx.

Through the socialist revolution, men will enter ‘the realm of freedom’, says Marx. Consciousness will then not be the distorted ideology of oppressive social relations, resulting from the product’s domination over the producer, but will be the expression of the scientifically-orientated will of the collective producers, of ‘socialised humanity’. ‘The free development of each will be the condition of the free development of all.’

Already the struggle of the working class against capitalism raises this fundamental question of the relation between subject and object, thus bringing Marx to say that philosophy can realize itself only through the proletariat. Capitalism poses the question in generalised from for the whole class in its relation to the rest of society, and thus demands nothing less than a revolutionary solution: ‘… the labour employed on the products appears here as the value of those products, au a material quality possessed by them.’ (Marx, ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme‘)

This ‘reification’, the value-form, in which a social relation between men in their most fundamental activity is transformed into a ‘thing’ standing outside and against men, is specific to the way in which the capitalist system continues the enslavement of man by man. This ‘topsy-turvy world’ becomes in sociology a world of ‘social facts’, of ‘roles’, faithfully recorded as the necessary framework of experience.

Just as the working class in its struggle must reject this split between subject and object as a threat to its very humanity, so must Marxist theory penetrate beneath it and point the way to its internal contradictions and historical fate. The real relation between the working class and its product is obscured in the first place by the fact that the labour appears to have been paid for in wages, and that there the matter ends. Marx says that this illusion of wages as the proper reward for labour is the key to all the ideology of capitalism (Capital, Vol . I, p. 550). Marx exploded this illusion in theory, and thus opened the path for its being exploded in practice. That path leads from trade union consciousness (a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work!) to socialist consciousness.

Working-class consciousness is then, for Marxists, the comprehending in struggle of the process through which the proletariat develops from its identity as formed by capitalism (the mass of exploited wage-labourers, the class ‘in itself’) to the working class organised as a revolutionary force for the taking of power and the building of socialism (the class ‘for itself’). This process must be grasped dialectically, i.e., as a conflict of opposites, a real conflict between the class as it is and as the Marxist movement fights for it to be, on the basis of analysing the objective developments in society. It is the failure to recognise and to begin from this conflict which restricts, for example, the work of Lukacs in his History and Class Consciousness (1923-1924). Lukacs cannot get beyond the concept of ‘adjudged’ or ‘adequate’ consciousness, which is abstracted by the investigator according to his scientific estimation of the needs of the class historically. This remains at the level of the type of concepts developed by bourgeois sociology (particularly Max Weber), and fails to reach the level of dialectical materialism, at the centre of which is the unity of theory and practice as a contradictory process. Lukacs’ own subsequent capitulation to Stalinism, whatever other causes it had, was rooted in this static and essentially idealist conception of class consciousness, imported from neo-Kantian philosophy. It helped him in a very crude way to accept and become an apologist for Stalinist orthodoxy in the communist movement.

Lukacs asserted that the central concept of dialectics is ‘totality’; and here again he shows the inadequacy of his outlook for a theory of class consciousness. For Marx, the struggle, the unity and the interpenetration of opposites is the essence of dialectics, and this dialectic is materialist, so that for Marxists the notion of totality must have a meaning different from that presented by Lukacs. ‘The unity of the world consists in its materiality,’ wrote Engels. It is characteristic of Lukacs’ agnosticism on the question of the objective nature of the external world (in History and Class Consciousness) that he must take ‘totality’ and the proletariat’s grasp of this totality as an abstraction. Only a view of the ‘unity’ or ‘totality’ of the objective world of nature and society which sees this unity as arising continuously from a changing conflict of material opposites can form the basis of ‘revolutionary practice’, the sine qua non of Marx’s theory of knowledge.

Henri Lefebvre (in his The Sociology of Marx, 1968, and elsewhere) has criticised Lukacs for his stress on ‘totality’ and has argued that ‘the conflict of opposites’ is in fact the core of dialectics. However, in Lefebvre’s work this correct criticism remains purely abstract, and leads him eventually to Utopianism. He starts from the concept of a struggle of opposites, but leaves it at the level of the very general concepts of praxis and alienation. These terms, taken from Marx’s early work, enable Lefebvre to make often penetrating exposés of capitalist culture, but they remain altogether too abstract for a revolutionary theory of class consciousness. The theory remains purely critical, aloof from practice, i.e., from the activity of the class and the fight for a working-class leadership on a Marxist basis.

Lefebvre criticises, for example, Lucien Goldmann, because the latter, developing the work of Lukacs, over-emphasises the phenomenon of ‘reification’ so much that his argument amounts to a virtual acceptance, rather than a criticism, of the forms of objectivity imposed on consciousness by capitalist society. But this criticism is inadequate, and needs in the end to be turned against Lefebvre himself. Goldmann in the period between 1957 and his death in 1973, expressed complete scepticism about the revolutionary role of the working class under modern capitalism. He did so on the grounds that, besides certain economic and political changes in the capitalist system, such as the part played by state intervention in the economy, the ability of capitalism to supply an ever-increasing amount of consumer goods had eroded working class consciousness. This suggests immediately that Goldmann’s original reasons for accepting the revolutionary character of the proletariat were unsound, from the Marxist standpoint (see his articles in Les Temps Modernes for 1957 and 1958, reprinted in Recherches Dialectiques, Paris, 1959). Goldmann conceives of ideas and ideologies as mental translations of economic and social patterns, rather than as the outcome of the struggles of the class at all levels of social reality (see chapter VI above), and this has provided an avenue for him to accept the fashionable ‘structuralist’ school of idealism in France.

The actual contradictory process of the struggle for revolutionary consciousness, the conflicts between theory and practice, between party and class and, concretely, the struggle of tendencies within the labour movement and within the revolutionary party, and the class bases of these struggles-all these are almost completely lacking in any of the often interesting commentaries of these writers, whose works appeal so much to those who look for some pure or ‘restored’ Marxism, rediscovered by removing all the results of a century and more of bitter struggle as the theory has taken on flesh and blood. The ‘young Marx’ is the usual gospel of this faith. It would be in the spirit of Marx himself to aim for a Marxism which is rich and concrete, and at the same time warlike, having worked over and ‘negated’ all the contradictory developments in the proletarian revolution, and above all in the communist movement itself. For the various ‘schools’ of Marxism in France and their faint echoes outside, the issue is indeed presented much more concretely than they would like: to really develop the Marxist method and concepts for the analysis of modern capitalist society and of the USSR, it is necessary to start from a conscious reintegration with the whole actual past struggle for Marxism against the social democrats and then the Stalinists and revisionists who distorted it. That means an identification with the continuity of the fight for Marxism of Lenin and Trotsky, and in particular against the Stalinist domination of working-class politics and of ‘Marxism’ in France.

In the most fundamental theoretical terms, Lefebvre has missed out what was potentially correct in Lukacs’ insistence on ‘totality’: the struggle of opposites in society must be taken as first and foremost a class conflict, at the level of the social whole. To analyse, and to start in all social analyses from this, requires of course a concentration on the specific contradictions of capitalism and of the development of the working class and its revolutionary consciousness within capitalism. Marx himself developed his ideas from the general notions of praxis and alienation of humanity in his early works to the specific analysis of the historically developing social relations of capitalism, out of which grew all the ‘praxis’ and ‘alienation’ of modern man. By returning to the early Marx for the key to capitalist society today, Lefebvre opens the door to a reformist and Utopian critique of culture, instead of a consistent and revolutionary theory and practice, in conflict with the Stalinist distortion of Marxism in every field. His works Critique de la Vie Quotidienne (Vol II, 1960, Editions de L’Arche) and Introduction a la Modernite (Editions de Minuit, 1962) reveal this tendency very clearly: a searching for a ‘poetic’ quality in particular aspects of life, a contrast between creative and repetitive actions which is made a more general and important distinction than the specific historical contradictions of capitalism and the tasks of revolutionary transformation which they pose to the working class and to Marxists.

Our argument here does not simplify the question of class consciousness. On the contrary, it opens up a prospect which cannot be settled purely by words. Theory must become conscious of its real relationship with its subject-matter, and consciously guide the revolutionary struggle to transform it. This is the essence of dialectical materialism in Marx’s work. For the working class to become a class ‘for itself’ requires not simply the absorption of the experience of capitalist society, but the critical struggle against this experience by a party armed with the whole theory of Marxism. Party and class are two interpenetrating opposites at one level (the class ‘for itself’ and the class ‘in itself’). These two poles at the same time constitute a whole (the working class) which itself is one pole as against its opposite (the capitalist class) in another contradictory whole (capitalist society). Society confronts nature as its ‘opposite’. The working class must realize itself, against capitalism, subsuming all the historical gains for humanity made by capitalism at the same time as overthrowing it. This it can do only when the outlook, strategy and tactics of a Marxist party predominate in the actions of the class as a class, in revolutionary struggles. A similar process is necessary within the party: only if it can study, unify and transform through struggle all the experiences of the class can its theory be saved from one-sidedness, dogma and idealism. Within the Marxist party, once again we have a struggle of opposites, a struggle for the development of Marxist theory and its application to the struggles of the proletariat, in constant struggle against every mode of adaptation to the existing position of the working class, its disunity, fragmentation, etc., those aspects of its situation which predispose it towards acceptance of its oppression. Then theory itself must also be considered as a struggle of opposites. We have seen that at every level, each pole of a unity of opposites contains a recapitulation of the total opposition within itself (e.g. the party has both its own essence and its opposite within it and not only as an external opposite, etc.). Marxist theory develops by proving the ‘concreteness’ of its abstractions against the apparent concreteness (really abstractness, because abstracted from the changing forces which produce them) of uncritically accepted empirical reality. It does this through a struggle to change that reality, capitalism, by placing itself politically in a relation of political consciousness, leadership, with the working class. That means the struggle to build revolutionary parties able to lead the working class to power. Marxism is this struggle: it is not a sociology or an abstract theoretical system of any kind.

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Image: FOR MARXISTS, the division of modern socioeconomic classes is not the cause of the problem of capitalism but rather its effect. [Source:]


Marxism & the Class Struggle, publ. by New Park Publications. Last chapter reproduced here.


Has Socialism Failed?

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South African Communist Party
Joe Slovo 1989

1. Introduction

Socialism is undoubtedly in the throes of a crisis greater than at any time since 1917. The last half of 1989 saw the dramatic collapse of most of the communist party governments of Eastern Europe. Their downfall was brought about through massive upsurges which had the support not only of the majority of the working class but also a large slice of the membership of the ruling parties themselves. These were popular revolts against unpopular regimes; if socialists are unable to come to terms with this reality, the future of socialism is indeed bleak.

The mounting chronicle of crimes and distortions in the history of existing socialism, its economic failures and the divide which developed between socialism and democracy, have raised doubts in the minds of many former supporters of the socialist cause as to whether socialism can work at all. Indeed, we must expect that, for a time, many in the affected countries will be easy targets for those aiming to achieve a reversion to capitalism, including an embrace of its external policies.(1)

Shock-waves of very necessary self-examination have also been triggered off among communists both inside and outside the socialist world. For our part, we firmly believe in the future of socialism; and we do not dismiss its whole past as an unmitigated failure.(2) Socialism certainly produced a Stalin and a Ceaucescu, but it also produced a Lenin and a Gorbachev. Despite the distortions at the top, the nobility of socialism’s basic objectives inspired millions upon millions to devote themselves selflessly to building it on the ground. And, no one can doubt that if humanity is today poised to enter an unprecedented era of peace and civilised international relations, it is in the first place due to the efforts of the socialist world.

But it is more vital than ever to subject the past of existing socialism to an unsparing critique in order to draw the necessary lessons. To do so openly is an assertion of justified confidence in the future of socialism and its inherent moral superiority. And we should not allow ourselves to be inhibited merely because an exposure of failures will inevitably provide ammunition to the traditional enemies of socialism: our silence will, in any case, present them with even more powerful ammunition.

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2. Ideological Responses

The ideological responses to the crisis of existing socialism by constituents of what was previously known as the International Communist and Workers’ movement (and among our own members) is still so varied and tentative that it is early days to attempt a neat categorisation. But at the risk of over-simplification, we identify a number of broad tendencies against which we must guard:

  1. Finding excuses for Stalinism;
  2. Attributing the crisis to the pace of perestroika;
  3. Acting as if we have declared a moratorium on socialist criticism of capitalism and imperialism and, worst of all,
  4. Concluding that socialist theory made the distortions inevitable.

A. Sticking to Stalinism

The term ‘Stalinism’ is used to denote the bureaucratic-authoritarian style of leadership (of parties both in and out of power) which denuded the party and the practice of socialism of most of its democratic content and concentrated power in the hands of a tiny, self-perpetuating elite.

While the mould for Stalinism was cast under Stalin’s leadership it is not suggested that he bears sole responsibility for its negative practices. The essential content of Stalinism — socialism without democracy — was retained even after Stalin in the Soviet Union (until Gorbachev’s intervention), albeit without some of the terror, brutality and judicial distortions associated with Stalin himself.

Among a diminishing minority there is still a reluctance to look squarely in the mirror of history and to concede that the socialism it reflects has, on balance, been so distorted that an appeal to its positive achievements (and of course there have been many) sounds hollow and very much like special pleading. It is surely now obvious that if the socialist world stands in tatters at this historic moment it is due to the Stalinist distortions.

We should have little patience with the plea in mitigation that, in the circumstances, the Stalinist excesses (such as forced collectivisation) brought about some positive economic achievements. Statistics showing high growth rates during Stalin’s time prove only that methods of primitive accumulation can stimulate purely quantitative growth in the early stages of capitalism or socialism — but at what human cost? In any case, more and more evidence is emerging daily that, in the long run, the excesses inhibited the economic potential of socialism.

Another familiar plea in mitigation is that the mobilising effect of the Stalin cult helped save socialism from military defeat. It is, however, now becoming clear that the virtual destruction of the command personnel of the Red Army, the lack of effective preparation against Hitler’s onslaught and Stalin’s dictatorial and damaging interventions in the conduct of the war could have cost the Soviet Union its victory.

Vigilance is clearly needed against the pre-perestroika styles of work and thinking which infected virtually every party (including ours) and moulded its members for so many decades. It is not enough merely to engage in the self-pitying cry: ‘we were misled’; we should rather ask why so many communists allowed themselves to become so blinded for so long. And, more importantly, why they behaved like Stalinists towards those of their comrades who raised even the slightest doubt about the ‘purity’ of Stalin’s brand of socialism.

In the socialist world there are still outposts which unashamedly mourn the retreat from Stalinism and use its dogmas to ‘justify’ undemocratic and tyrannical practices. It is clearly a matter of time before popular revulsion leads to a transformation. In general, those who still defend the Stalinist model — even in a qualified way — are a dying breed; at the ideological level they will undoubtedly be left behind and they need not detain us here.

B. Blaming Gorbachev

Most communists, of course, concede that a great deal ‘went wrong’ and needs to be corrected. Some, however, fear that the corrective methods are so hasty and extreme that, in the end, they may do more harm than good. The enemies of socialism, so it is argued, are being given new powerful weapons with which to destroy socialism and to return to capitalism. The pace of Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost are, either directly or indirectly, blamed for the ‘collapse’ of communist political hegemony in countries like Poland, Hungary, GDR and Czechoslovakia.

In the countries mentioned, despite the advantage of over 40 years of a monopoly of education, the media, etc., the parties in power could not find a significant section of the class they claimed to represent (or, for that matter, even a majority of their own membership) to defend them or their version of socialism. To blame perestroika and glasnost for the ailments of socialism is like blaming the diagnosis and the prescription for the illness. Indeed, the only way to ensure the future of socialism is to grasp the nettle with the political courage of a Gorbachev. When things go badly wrong (whether it be in a movement or a country) it is inevitable that some who have ulterior motives jump on to the bandwagon. When a gap develops between the leadership and the led, it always provides openings for real enemies. But to deal with the gap in terms only of enemy conspiracies is an ancient and discredited device. Equally, to fail to tackle mistakes or crimes merely because their exposure will give comfort to our adversaries is both short-sighted and counter-productive.

In any case, a number of additional questions still go begging:

Firstly, have we the right to conclude that the enemies of a discredited party leadership are the same as the enemies of socialism? If the type of socialism which the people have experienced has been rubbished in their eyes and they begin to question it, are they necessarily questioning socialism or are they rejecting its perversion?

Secondly, what doctrine of pre-Stalinism and pre-Mao Marxism gives a communist party (or any other party for that matter) the moral or political right to impose its hegemony or to maintain it in the face of popular rejection?

Thirdly, who has appointed us to impose and defend at all costs our version of socialism even if the overwhelming majority have become disillusioned with it?

In general, it is our view that the fact that the processes of perestroika and glasnost came too slowly, too little and too late in Eastern Europe did more than anything else to endanger the socialist perspective there. It is through these processes — and they must be implemented with all possible speed — that socialism has any hope of showing its essentially human face. When socialism as a world system comes into its own again — as it undoubtedly will — the ‘Gorbachev revolution’ will have played a seminal role.

C. Abandoning the Ideological Contest

We are impressed with the contribution which crusading pro-perestroika journals (such as Moscow News and New Times) are making to the renovation of socialism. At the same time, we must not overlook the alarming tendency among many media partisans of perestroika to focus so exclusively on the blemishes of the socialist experience that the socialist critique of capitalism and imperialism finds little, if any, place.

In keeping with this excessive defensiveness, there is a tendency to underplay some of the most graphic pointers to the superior moral potential of socialist civilisation. For instance, it is a sad commentary on earlier socialist history that the Soviet people are now moved to erect monuments to the victims of the Stalin period. But the capitalist world is planning no monuments to those of its citizens ravaged by its cruelties nor to millions of victims of its colonial terror.

The transformations which have occurred in Poland, Hungary, the German Democratic Republic, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria are revolutionary in scope. With the exception of Romania, is there another example in human history in which those in power have responded to the inevitable with such a civilised and pacific resignation?

We should remember De Gaulle’s military response in 1968 when ten million workers and students filled the streets of Paris. It is not difficult to forecast how Bush or Thatcher would deal with millions in their streets supported by general strikes demanding the overthrow of their system of rule.

Some Soviet journals have become so exclusively focused on self-criticism that the social inequalities within capitalism and the continuing plunder by international capital of the resources of the developing world through neo-colonial manipulation, unequal trade and the debt burden, receive little emphasis. Middle class elements, including many journalists within socialist societies, seem mesmerised by pure technocracy; the glitter of Western consumerism, and the quality of up-market goods, appear to overshadow the quality of life for society as a whole.(4) There is less visible than at any time a critique of imperialism’s continuing human rights violations and its gross interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states through surrogates and direct aggression, and its continuing support for banditry and racist and military dictatorships.

The gloss which is put in some of these journals on social and political conditions inside the capitalist West itself has been described by Jonathan Steele in the British Guardian as little less than ‘grotesque’. In some contributions capitalism is prettified in the same generalised and unscholarly way as it used to be condemned, i.e. without researched statistics and with dogma taking the place of information. The borderline between socialism and what is called welfare capitalism is increasingly blurred.

In contrast to all this, whatever else may be happening in international relations, the ideological offensive by the representatives of capitalism against socialism is certainly at full blast. The Western media gloat repeatedly with headlines such as ‘Communism — R.I.P.’. Professor Robert Heilbroner, a luminary of the New York New School, has already raised his champagne glass with a victory toast for capitalism. Asserting that the Soviet Union, China and Eastern Europe have proved that capitalism organises the material affairs of humankind more satisfactorily than socialism, he goes on to proclaim:

‘Less than 75 years after it officially began, the contest between capitalism and socialism is over; capitalism has won … the great question now seems how rapid will be the transformation of socialism into capitalism, and not the other way around.'(5)

Just in case more is needed to fulfil this prediction, some of capitalism’s most powerful representatives are there to give history a helping hand. Reagan’s final boast for his eight years in office was that he saw to it that not one more inch of territory in the world ‘went communist’. Bush takes up the baton with: ‘We can now move from containment to bring the socialist countries into the community of free nations’. The Guardian (2/6/89, United Kingdom) reports a multi-million pound initiative, endorsed by British ministers, to encourage change in Eastern Europe. And so on.

In the face of all this, it is no exaggeration to claim that, for the moment, the socialist critique of capitalism and the drive to win the hearts and minds of humanity for socialism have been virtually abandoned. The unprecedented offensive by capitalist ideologues against socialism has indeed been met by a unilateral ideological disarmament.

To the extent that this has come about through the need to concentrate on putting our own house in order it is, at least, understandable. But, in many cases, there is an inability to distinguish between socialism in general and the incorrect methods which were used to translate it on the ground. This has led to an unjustified flirtation with certain economic and political values of capitalism.

The perversion of democracy in the socialist experience is falsely contrasted to its practice in the capitalist West as if the latter gives adequate scope for the fulfilment of democratic ideals. The economic ravages caused by excessive centralisation and commandism under socialism seem also to have pushed into the background the basic socialist critique of capitalism that a society cannot be democratic which is ruled by profit and social inequality and in which power over the most vital areas of life is outside public control.

D: Losing Faith in the Socialist Objective

Some communists have been completely overwhelmed by the soiled image of socialism which they see in the mirror of history. They conclude that it reflects not only what was (and in the case of some countries, what still is), but, in addition, what inevitably had to be in the attempts to build a socialist society as understood by the founding fathers of socialist doctrine.

If, indeed, what happened in the socialist world had to happen because of some or all of our theoretical starting points, if the Stalin-type perversion is unavoidable, then there is no more to be said; we must clearly either seek an alternative to socialism or throw overboard, or at least qualify, some of its postulates.(6)

We believe, however, that the theory of Marxism, in all its essential respects, remains valid and provides an indispensable theoretical guide to achieve a society free of all forms of exploitation of person by person. The major weaknesses which have emerged in the practice of socialism are the results of distortions and misapplications. They do not flow naturally from the basic concepts of Marxism whose core is essentially humane and democratic and which project a social order with an economic potential vastly superior to that of capitalism.

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3. Marxist Theory Under Fire

Let us touch on some of the concepts which have come under fire in the post-perestroika polemics:

  • Marxism maintains that the class struggle is the motor of human history.(7) Some commentators in the socialist media are showing a temptation to jettison this theory merely because Stalin and the bureaucracy around him distorted it to rationalise tyrannical practices. But it remains valid both as an explanation of past social transformations and as a guide to the strategy and tactics of the struggle to win a socialist order; a struggle in which the working class plays the dominant role.
  • The economic stagnation of socialism and its poor technological performance as compared to the capitalist world sector cannot be attributed to the ineffectiveness of socialist relations of production but rather to their distortion. Socialist relations of production provide the most effective framework for maximising humanity’s productive capacity and using its products in the interests of the whole society.
  • Marxist ethical doctrine sees no conflict between the contention that all morality is class-related and the assertion that working class values are concerned, above all, with the supremacy of human values.(8) The separation of these inter-dependent concepts (in later theory and practice) provided the context in which crimes against the people were rationalised in the name of the class. We continue to assert that it is only in a non-exploitative, communist, classless society that human values will find their ultimate expression and be freed of all class-related morality. In the meanwhile the socialist transition has the potential of progressively asserting the values of the whole people over those of classes.
  • The great divide which developed between socialism and political democracy should not be treated as flowing naturally from key aspects of socialist doctrine. This approach is fuelled by the sullied human rights record and the barrack-room collectivism of some of the experiences of existing socialism. We believe that Marxism clearly projects a system anchored in deep-seated political democracy and the rights of the individual which can only be truly attained when society as a whole assumes control and direction of all its riches and resources.
  • The crucial connection between socialism and internationalism and the importance of world working-class solidarity should not be underplayed as a result of the distortions which were experienced. These included excessive centralisation in the era of the Comintern, subordination of legitimate national aspirations to a distorted concept of ‘internationalism’, national rivalries between and within socialist states (including examples of armed confrontation). Working class internationalism remains one of the most liberating concepts in Marxism and needs to find effective expression in the new world conditions.

In summary, we believe that Marxism is a social science whose fundamental postulates and basic insights into the historical processes remain a powerful (because accurate) theoretical weapon. But this is not to say that every word of Marx, Engels and Lenin must be taken as gospel; they were not infallible and they were not always correct in their projections.

Lenin, for example, believed that capitalism was about to collapse worldwide in the post-October period.

It was a belief based on the incorrect premise that, as a system, capitalism was in an irreversible crisis and that capitalist relations of production constituted an obstacle to the further all-round development of the forces of production.

This was combined with a belief in the imminence of global socialist transformation, which undoubtedly infected much of the earlier thinking about the perspectives of socialist construction in the Soviet Union.

Also, it could well be argued that the classical description of bourgeois democracy(9) was an over-simplification and tended to underestimate the historic achievements of working class struggle in imposing and defending aspects of a real democratic culture on the capitalist state; a culture which should not disappear but rather needs to be expanded under true socialism.

But we emphasise again that the fundamental distortions which emerged in the practice of existing socialism cannot be traced to the essential tenets of Marxist revolutionary science. If we are looking for culprits, we must look at ourselves and not at the founders of Marxism.

The Fault Lies with us, not with Socialism

In some cases, the deformations experienced by existing socialist states were the results of bureaucratic distortions which were rationalised at the ideological level by a mechanical and out-of-context invocation of Marxist dogma. In other cases they were the results of a genuinely-motivated but tragic misapplication of socialist theory in new realities which were not foreseen by the founders of Marxism.

The fact that socialist power was first won in the most backward outpost of European capitalism, without a democratic political tradition, played no small part in the way it was shaped. To this must be added the years of isolation, economic siege and armed intervention which, in the immediate post-October period, led to the virtual decimation of the Soviet Union’s relatively small working class. In the course of time the party leadership was transformed into a command post with an overbearing centralism and very little democracy, even in relation to its own membership.

Most of the other socialist countries emerged 30 years later in the shadow of the cold war. Some of them owed a great deal to Soviet power for their very creation and survival, and the majority, for a great part of their history, followed the Stalinist economic and political model. Communists outside the socialist world and revolutionaries engaged in anti-colonial movements were the beneficiaries of generous aid and consistent acts of internationalist solidarity. They correctly saw in Soviet power a bulwark against their enemies and either did not believe, or did not want to believe, the way in which aspects of socialism were being debased.

All this helps to explain, but in no way to justify, the awful grip which Stalinism came to exercise in every sector of the socialist world and over the whole international communist movement. It was a grip which, if loosened by either parties (e.g. Yugoslavia) or individuals within parties, usually led to isolation and excommunication.

We make no attempt here to answer the complex question of why so many millions of genuine socialists and revolutionaries became such blind worshippers in the temple of the cult of the personality. Suffice it to say that the strength of this conformism lay, partly, in an ideological conviction that those whom history had appointed as the custodians of humankind’s communist future seemed to be building on foundations prepared by the founding fathers of Marxism. And there was not enough in classical Marxist theory about the nature of the transition period to provide a detailed guide to the future.

This under-developed state of classical Marxist theory in relation to the form and structure of future socialist society lent itself easily to the elaboration of dogma which could claim general ‘legitimacy’ from a selection of quotes from the masters. But the founders of Marxism ‘never invented specific forms and mechanisms for the development of the new society. They elaborated its socialist ideal … they provided the historically transient character of capitalism and the historical need for transition to a new stage of social development. As for the structure of the future society to replace capitalism, they discussed it in the most general terms and mostly from the point of view of fundamental principles’ (my emphasis).(10)

In particular, let us consider two issues:

  1. socialism and democracy, and the related question
  2. social and economic alienation under socialism.

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4. Socialism and Democracy

Marxist ideology saw the future state as ‘a direct democracy in which the task of governing would not be the preserve of a state bureaucracy’ and as ‘an association in which the free development of each is a condition for the free development of all’.(11) How did it happen that, in the name of this most humane and liberating ideology, the bureaucracy became so all-powerful and the individual was so suffocated?

To find, at least, the beginnings of an answer we need to look at four related areas:

  1. The thesis of the ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ which was used as the theoretical rationalisation for unbridled authoritarianism.
  2. The steady erosion of people’s power both at the level of government and mass social organisations.
  3. The perversion of the concept of the party as a vanguard of the working class, and
  4. Whether, at the end of the day, socialist democracy can find real expression in a single-party state.

A. Dictatorship of the Proletariat

The concept of the ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ was dealt with rather thinly by Marx as ‘a transition to a classless society’ without much further definition.(12) For his part Engels, drawing on Marx’s analysis of the Paris Commune, claimed that it indeed ‘was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat’.(13) The Paris Commune of 1871 was an exceptional social experience which brought into being a kind of workers’ city-state (by no means socialist-led) in which, for a brief moment, most functions of the state (both legislative and executive) were directly exercised by a popular democratic assembly.

The concept of the ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ was elaborated by Lenin in State and Revolution in the very heat of the revolutionary transformation in 1917. Lenin quoted Engels approvingly when he said that ‘the proletariat needs the state, not in the interests of freedom but in order to hold down its adversaries, and as soon as it becomes possible to speak of freedom the state as such ceases to exist’ (Engels, Letter to Bebel). In the meanwhile, in contrast to capitalist democracy which is ‘curtailed, wretched, false … for the rich, for the minority … the dictatorship of the proletariat, the period of transition to communism, will, for the first time, create democracy … for the majority … along with the necessary suppression of the exploiters, of the minority.'(14)

Lenin envisaged that working-class power would be based on the kind of democracy of the Commune, but he did not address, in any detail, the nature of established socialist civil society, including fundamental questions such as the relationship between the party, state, people’s elected representatives, social organisations, etc. Understandably, the dominant preoccupation at the time was with the seizure of power, its protection in the face of the expected counter-revolutionary assault, the creation of ‘democracy for the majority’ and the ‘suppression of the minority of exploiters’.

Rosa Luxemburg said, in a polemic with Lenin:

‘Freedom only for the supporters of the government, only for the members of one party — however numerous they may be — is not freedom at all. Freedom is always and exclusively freedom for the one who thinks differently … its effectiveness vanishes when “freedom” becomes a special privilege.'(15)

These words may not have been appropriate as policy (which is what Luxemburg argued for) in the special conditions of the phase immediately after the seizure of power in October 1917. Without a limitation on democracy there was no way the revolution could have defended itself in the civil war and the direct intervention by the whole of the capitalist world. But Luxemburg’s concept of freedom is surely incontrovertible once a society has achieved stability.

Lenin clearly assumed that whatever repression may be necessary in the immediate aftermath of the revolution would be relatively mild and short-lived. The state and its traditional instruments of force would begin to ‘wither away’ almost as soon as socialist power had been won and the process of widening and deepening democracy would begin. Lenin was referring to the transitional socialist state (and not to the future communist society) when he emphasised that there would be an extension of ‘democracy to such an overwhelming majority of the population that the need for a special machine of suppression will begin to disappear … it is no longer a state in the proper sense of the word (because) the suppression of the minority of exploiters … is easy, simple’, entailing relatively little bloodshed, and hardly needing a machine or a special apparatus other than ‘the simple organisation of the armed people (such as the Soviets) …'(16)

We know that all this is a far cry from what happened in the decades which followed. The whole process was put in reverse. The complete ‘suppression of the exploiters’ was followed by the strengthening of the instruments of state suppression and the narrowing of democracy for the majority of the population, including the working class.

The anti-Leninist theory advanced (in the name of Lenin) to ‘justify’ this process was that the class struggle becomes more rather than less intense with the entrenchment of socialism. In some respects this became a self-fulfilling prophecy; a retreat from democratic norms intensified social contradictions which, in turn, became the excuse for an intensification of the ‘class struggle’.

One of the key rationalisations for this thesis was the undoubted threat, even after the end of the civil war, posed by imperialism and fascism to the very survival of the Soviet Union and the continuing Western conspiracies to prevent the spread of socialist power after 1945. But events have demonstrated that if the survival of the Soviet Union was at risk from the fascist onslaught it was, among other reasons, also the result of damage wrought to the whole Soviet social fabric (including its army) by the authoritarian bureaucracy. And if Western ‘conspiracies’ have succeeded in threatening the very survival of socialism in places like Eastern Europe, it is the narrowing rather than the extension of democracy which has played into their hands.

The term ‘Dictatorship of the Proletariat’ reflected the historical truth that in class-divided social formations state power is ultimately exercised by, and in the interests of, the class which owns and controls the means of production. It is in this sense that capitalist formations were described as a ‘dictatorship of the bourgeoisie’ whose rule would be replaced by a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ during the socialist transition period. In the latter case power would, however, be exercised in the interests of the overwhelming majority of the people and should lead to an ever-expanding genuine democracy — both political and economic.(17).

On reflection, the choice of the word ‘dictatorship’ to describe this type of society certainly opens the way to ambiguities and distortions.

The abandonment of the term by most communist parties, including ours, does not, in all cases, imply a rejection of the historical validity of its essential content. But, the way the term came to be abused bore little resemblance to Lenin’s original concept. It was progressively denuded of its intrinsic democratic content and came to signify, in practice, a dictatorship of a party bureaucracy. For Lenin the repressive aspect of the concept had impending relevance in relation to the need for the revolution to defend itself against counter-revolutionary terror in the immediate post-revolution period.(18) He was defending, against the utopianism of the anarchists, the limited retention of repressive apparatus.

But, unfortunately, practices justified by the exigencies of the earlier phases became a permanent feature of the new society. As time went on the gap between socialism and democracy widened; the nature and role of the social institutions (such as the Soviets, the party and mass organisations) which had previously given substance to popular power and socialist democracy, were steadily eroded.

B. Elected Bodies and Mass Organisations

The steady erosion of the powers and representative character of elected institutions led to the alienation of a considerable portion of society from political life. The electorate had no effective right to choose its representatives. Gone were the days when the party had to engage in a political contest to win a majority in the Soviets. The legislative organs did not, in any case, have genuine control over legislation; by their nature they could only act as rubber stamps for decisions which had already been taken by party structures. The executive and judicial organs were, for all practical purposes, under the direct control of the party bureaucracy. In practice the majority of the people had very few levers with which to determine the course of economic or social life.

Democracy in the mass organisations was also more formal than real. The enormous membership figures told us very little about the extent to which the individual trade unionist, youth or woman was able to participate in the control or direction of their respective organisations. At the end of the day these organisations were turned into transmission belts for decisions taken elsewhere and the individual members were little more than cogs of the vast bureaucratic machine.

The trade union movement became an adjunct of the state and party. Workers had no meaningful role in determining the composition of the top leadership which was, in substance, answerable to the party apparatus. For all practical purposes the right to strike did not exist. The extremely thin dividing line between management and the trade union collective on the factory floor detracted from the real autonomy of trade unions. Apart from certain welfare functions, they tended, more and more, to act like Western-style production councils, but without the advantage of having to answer for their role to an independent trade union under the democratic control of its membership.

Much of the above applied to the women’s and youth organisations. Instead of being guided by the aspirations and interests of their constituencies, they were turned into support bases for the ongoing dictates of the state and party apparatus.(19)

The Party

In the immediate aftermath of the October revolution, the Bolshevik party shared power with other political and social tendencies, including Mensheviks and a section of the left Social Revolutionaries. In the elections for the constituent assembly in 1918, the Bolsheviks received less than a third of the popular vote.(20)

There may be moments in the life of a revolution which justify a postponement of full democratic processes. And we do not address the question of whether the Bolsheviks were justified in taking a monopoly of state power during the extraordinary period of both internal and external assault on the gains of the revolution. Suffice it to say that the single-party state and the guiding and leading role of the party subsequently became permanent features of socialist rule and were entrenched in the constitutions of most socialist states.(21) Henceforth the parties were ‘vanguards’ by law and not necessarily by virtue of social endorsement.

This was accompanied by negative transformations within the party itself. Under the guise of ‘democratic centralism’ inner-party democracy was almost completely suffocated by centralism. All effective power was concentrated in the hands of a Political Bureau or, in some cases, a single, all-powerful personality. The control of this ‘leadership’ by the party as a whole was purely formal. In most cases the composition of the highest organ — the congress which finalised policy and elected the leadership — was manipulated from the top. The Central Committee (elected by variations of a ‘list’ system emanating from the top) had only the most tenuous jurisdiction over the Political Bureau. Within this latter body a change of leaders resembled a palace coup rather than a democratic process; invariably the changes were later unanimously endorsed.

The invigorating impact of the contest of ideas in Marxist culture was stifled. In practice, the basic party unit was there to explain, defend, exhort and support policies in whose formulation they rarely participated. The concept of consensus effectively stifled dissent and promoted the completely unnatural appearance of unanimity on everything. Fundamental differences were either suppressed or silenced by the self-imposed discipline of so-called democratic centralism. In these conditions the democratic development of party policy became a virtual impossibility.

D. The Single-Party State

Hegel coined the profound aphorism that truth is usually born as a heresy and dies as a superstition. With no real right to dissent by citizens or even by the mass of the party membership, truth became more and more inhibited by deadening dogma; a sort of catechism took the place of creative thought. And, within the confines of a single-party state, the alternative to active conformism was either silence or the risk of punishment as ‘an enemy of the people’. Is this suppression of the right to dissent inherent in the single-party state? Gorbachev recently made the point that:

‘Developing the independent activities of the masses and prompting democratisation of all spheres of life under a one-party system is a noble but very difficult mission for the party. And a great deal will depend on how we deal with it’.(22)

Gorbachev’s thought has special relevance to many parts of our own continent where the one-party system abounds. It straddles both capitalist and socialist-oriented countries and in most of them it is used to prevent, among other things, the democratic organisation of the working people either politically or in trade unions.

This is not to say that all one-party states in our continent have in fact turned out to be authoritarian; indeed some of them are headed by the most humane leaders ho passionately believe in democratic processes. Nor can we discuss the role they have played in preventing tribal, ethnic and regional fragmentation, combatting externally inspired banditry, and correcting some of the grave distortions we inherited from the colonial period.

In relation to the socialist perspective, it is sometimes forgotten that the concept of the single-party state is nowhere to be found in classical Marxist theory. And we have had sufficient experience of one-party rule in various parts of the world to perhaps conclude that the ‘mission’ to promote real democracy under a one-party system is not just difficult but, in the long run, impossible.

But, in any case, where a single-party state is in place and there is not even democracy and accountability within the party, it becomes a short-cut to a political tyranny over the whole of society. And at different points in time this is what happened in most socialist states.

The resulting sense of political alienation of the great majority of the people was not the only negative feature of existing socialism. Of equal importance was the failure to overcome the sense of economic alienation inherited from the capitalist past.

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5. Socialist Economic Alienation

The concept of alienation expressed ‘the objective transformation of the activity of man and of its results into an independent force, dominating him and inimical to him …'(23) Alienation has its origins in class-dominated society based on private property. Under capitalism, in the course of the production process, the worker himself ‘always produces objective wealth, in the form of capital, an alien power that dominates and exploits him’.(24) Thus, the exploited classes objectively create and recreate the conditions of their own domination and exploitation. Consciousness of this fuels the class struggle against capitalist relations of production.

The aim of communism is to achieve the complete mastery and control over social forces which humanity itself has generated but which, under capitalism, have become objectified as alien power which is seen to stand above society and exercises mastery over it. Communism, according to Marx, involves the creation of a society in which ‘socialised humanity, the associated producers, regulate their interchange with nature rationally, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by some blind power’.(25)

The relevance of all this for our discussion is that only genuine socialist relations of production can begin the process which will lead to the de-alienation of society as a whole and generate the formation of a new ‘socialist person’. The process of de-alienation — whose completion must await the stage of communism — cannot be advanced by education and ideology alone; conditions must be created which lead progressively to real participation and control by each individual (as part of ‘socialised humanity’) over social life in all its aspects.

The destruction of the political and economic power of capital are merely first steps in the direction of de-alienation. The transfer of legal ownership of productive property from private capital to the state does not, on its own, create fully socialist relations of production, nor does it always significantly change the work-life of the producer. The power to control the producers’ work-life and to dispose of the products of labour is now in the hands of a ‘committee’ rather than a board of directors. And if the ‘committee’ separates itself from the producers by a bureaucratic wall without democratic accountability, its role is perceived no differently from that of the board of directors. It remains a force over which the producer has no real control and which (despite the absence of economic exploitation of the capitalist variety) dominates him as an alien power.

State property itself has to be transformed into social property. This involves reorganising social life as a whole so that the producers, at least as a collective, have a real say not only in the production of social wealth but also in its disposal. In the words of Gorbachev, what is required is ‘not only formal but also real socialisation and the real turning of the working people into the masters of all socialised production’.(26)

De-alienation requires that the separation between social wealth creation and social wealth appropriation and distribution is ended and society as a whole is in control of all three processes. A degree of self-management (at the level of individual enterprises) is only one ingredient in the process of de-alienation; conditions must be created making possible full popular control over all society’s institutions of power not just as a ‘constitutional right’ but as a reality.

Alienation in Existing Socialism

The unavoidable inheritance from the past and the most serious distortions of socialist norms in most of the socialist countries combined to perpetuate alienation, albeit in a new form. Private ownership of the main means of production was replaced by state ownership. Private capital, as an alien power, no longer dominated or exploited the producer. But without real socialisation the key condition for de-alienation continued to be absent.

The immediate producers were given very little real control or participation in economic life beyond their own personal physical and/or mental exertions. In general, the over-centralised and commandist economies of the socialist world helped to entrench a form of ‘socialist’ alienation. At the purely economic level this form of alienation often turned out to be the worst of both worlds.

Under capitalism economic compulsion sanctified by the rule of capital (threatened unemployment, etc.) plays an important role in providing the ‘incentive’ for rising productivity despite alienation by(4) workers from the products of their labour. Capitalist economic levers based on the sanctity of private property are, at the end of the day, not over-concerned with the problems of alienation and more easily provide the incentive (in relation to the workers) that ‘he who does not work, neither shall he eat’.

Under socialism guaranteed employment and the amount of remuneration did not always depend upon quality, productivity or efficiency, opening the way to parasitism at the point of production. Reward based on the socialist maxim of ‘to each according to his contribution’ can obviously play a part in increasing productivity. But for socialist society as a whole to really come into its own requires an incentive based on the producer’s real participation in the mechanisms of social control over the products of his/her labour; a feeling that the means of production and its products are his or hers as part of society. This incentive was too often absent and stood in the way of the process of de-alienation.

Episodes of direct compulsion against producers, such as the forced collectivisation of the early 1930’s and the extensive use of convict labour as a direct state and party exercise, made things worse. Like all forms of primitive accumulation, these episodes created a most profound sense of alienation whose negative consequences are still being felt. Pure exhortation and political ‘mobilisation’ did not, in the long run, prevent the onset of stagnation. Alienation, albeit in a different form, continued and inhibited the full potential of socialist economic advance.

There were, of course, other negative factors which require more extensive examination than is possible here. These include policies based on what has been called the ‘big bang theory of socialism’ which ignored the historical fact that many of the ingredients of social systems which succeed one another — and this includes the change from capitalism to socialism — cannot be separated by a Chinese Wall.

The economy of a country the day after the workers take over is exactly the same was it was the day before, and it cannot be transformed merely by proclamation. The neglect of this truism resulted, now and then, in a primitive egalitarianism which reached lunatic proportions under the Pol Pot regime, the absence of cost-accounting, a dismissive attitude to commodity production and the law of value during the transition period, the premature abandonment of any role for market forces, a doctrinaire approach to the question of collectivisation, etc.

But rectification of these areas alone would not establish the material and moral superiority of socialism as a way of life for humanity. Only the creation of real socialist relations of production will give birth to the socialist man and woman whose active participation in all the social processes will ensure that socialism reaches its full potential and moves towards a classless communist society. Under existing socialism alienation has persisted because of a less than full control and participation by the people in these processes.

In short, the way forward is through thorough-going democratic socialism; a way which can only be charted by a party which wins its support through democratic persuasion and ideological contest and not, as has too often happened up to now, by a claim of right.

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6. A Look at Ourselves

The commandist and bureaucratic approaches which took root during Stalin’s time affected communist parties throughout the world, including our own. We cannot disclaim our share of the responsibility for the spread of the personality cult and a mechanical embrace of Soviet domestic and foreign policies, some of which discredited the cause of socialism. We kept silent for too long after the 1956 Khruschev revelations.

It would, of course, be naive to imagine that a movement can, at a stroke, shed all the mental baggage it has carried from the past. And our 7th Congress emphasised the need for on-going vigilance. It noted some isolated reversions to the past, including attempts to engage in intrigue and factional activity in fraternal organisations, sectarian attitudes towards some non-party colleagues, and sloganised dismissals of views which do not completely accord with ours.

The implications for socialism of the Stalinist distortions have not yet been evenly understood throughout our ranks. We need to continue the search for a better balance between advancing party policy as a collective and the toleration of on-going debate and even constructive dissent. We do not pretend that our party’s changing postures in the direction of democratic socialism are the results only of our own independent evolution. Our shift undoubtedly owes a prime debt to the process of perestroika and glasnost which was so courageously unleashed under Gorbachev’s inspiration. Closer to home, the democratic spirit which dominated in the re-emerged trade union movement from the early 1970’s onwards, also made its impact.

But we can legitimately claim that in certain fundamental respects our indigenous revolutionary practice long ago ceased to be guided by Stalinist concepts. This is the case particularly in relation to the way the party performed its role as a working class vanguard, its relations with fraternal organisations and representatives of other social forces and, above all, its approach to the question of democracy in the post-apartheid state and in a future socialist South Africa.

The Party as a Vanguard and Inner-Party Democracy

We have always believed (and we continue to do so) that it is indispensable for the working class to have an independent political instrument which safeguards its role in the democratic revolution and which leads it towards an eventual classless society. But such leadership must be won rather than imposed. Our claim to represent the historic aspirations of the workers does not give us an absolute right to lead them or to exercise control over society as a whole in their name.

Our new programme asserts that a communist party does not earn the title of vanguard merely by proclaiming it. Nor does its claim to be the upholder of Marxism give it a monopoly of political wisdom or a natural right to exclusive control of the struggle. We can only earn our place as a vanguard force by superior efforts of leadership and devotion to the cause of liberation and socialism. And we can only win adherence to our ideology by demonstrating its superiority as a theoretical guide to revolutionary practice.

This approach to the vanguard concept has not, as we know, always been adhered to in world revolutionary practice and in an earlier period we too were infected by the distortion. But, in our case, the shift which has taken place in our conception of ‘vanguard’ is by no means a post-Gorbachev phenomenon. The wording on this question in our new programme is taken almost verbatim from our Central Committee’s 1970 report on organisation.

The 1970 document reiterated the need to safeguard, both in the letter and the spirit, the independence of the political expressions of other social forces whether economic or national. It rejected the old purist and domineering concept that all those who do not agree with the party are necessarily enemies of the working class. And it saw no conflict between our understanding of the concept of vanguard and the acceptance of the African National Congress as the head of the liberation alliance.

Despite the inevitable limitations which illegality imposed on our inner-party democratic processes, the principles of accountability and electivity of all higher organs were substantially adhered to. Seven underground Congresses of our party have been held since 1953. The delegates to Congress from the lower organs were elected without lists from above and always constituted a majority. The incoming Central Committees were elected by a secret ballot without any form of direct or indirect ‘guidance’ to the delegates. In other words, the Leninist concept of democratic centralism has not been abused to entrench authoritarian leadership practices.

Our structures, down to the lowest units, have been increasingly encouraged to assess and question leadership pronouncements in a critical spirit and the views of the membership are invariably canvassed before finalising basic policy documents. Our 7th Congress, which adopted our new programme, The Path to Power, was a model of democratic consultation and spirited debate. Special procedures designed to exclude suspected enemy agents as delegates to Congress limited complete free choice. But, in practice, these limitations affected a negligible percentage. Overall, despite the security risks involved in the clandestine conditions, the will of our membership finds democratic expression. This spirit of democracy also informs our relationship with fraternal political forces and our approach to the political framework of a post-liberation South Africa.

Relations with Fraternal Organisations

As we have already noted, one of the most serious casualties in the divide which developed between democracy and socialism was in the one-sided relationship between the ruling parties and the mass organisations. In order to prevent such a distortion in a post-apartheid South Africa we have, for example, set out in our draft Workers’ Charter that:

‘Trade unions and their federation shall be completely independent and answerable only to the decisions of their members or affiliates, democratically arrived at. No political party, state organ or enterprise, whether public, private or mixed, shall directly or indirectly interfere with such independence.’

The substance of this approach is reflected in the way our party has in fact conducted itself for most of its underground existence.

Our 1970 extended Central Committee meeting reiterated the guidelines which inform our relations with fraternal organisations and other social forces. Special emphasis was once again given to the need to safeguard, both in the letter and in the spirit, the independence of the political expressions of other social forces, whether economic or national.

We do not regard the trade unions or the national movement as mere conduits for our policies. Nor do we attempt to advance our policy positions through intrigue or manipulation. Our relationship with these organisations is based on complete respect for their independence, integrity and inner-democracy. In so far as our influence is felt, it is the result of open submissions of policy positions and the impact of individual communists who win respect as among the most loyal, the most devoted and ideologically clear members of these organisations.

Old habits die hard and among the most pernicious of these is the purist concept that all those who do not agree with the party are necessarily enemies of socialism. This leads to a substitution of name-calling and jargon for healthy debate with non-party activists. As already mentioned, our 7th Congress noted some isolated reversions along these lines and resolved to combat such tendencies. But, in general, the long-established and appreciable move away from old-style commandism and sectarianism has won for our party the admiration and support of a growing number of non-communist revolutionary activists in the broad workers’ and national movement. We also consider it appropriate to canvass the views of such activists in the formulation of certain aspects of our policy. For example, we submitted our preliminary conception of the contents of a Workers’ Charter for critical discussion not only in our own ranks but throughout the national and trade union movements.

Democracy and the Future

Our party’s programme holds firmly to a post-apartheid state which will guarantee all citizens the basic rights and freedoms of organisation, speech, thought, press, movement, residence, conscience and religion; full trade union rights for all workers including the right to strike, and one person one vote in free and democratic elections. These freedoms constitute the very essence of our national liberation and socialist objectives and they clearly imply political pluralism.

Both for these historical reasons and because experience has shown that an institutionalised one-party state has a strong propensity for authoritarianism, we remain protagonists of multi-party post-apartheid democracy both in the national democratic and socialist phases, is desirable.

We believe that post-apartheid state power must clearly vest in the elected representatives of the people and not, directly or indirectly, in the administrative command of a party. The relationship which evolves between political parties and state structures must not, in any way, undermine the sovereignty of elected bodies.

We also believe that if there is real democracy in the post-apartheid state, the way will be open for a peaceful progression towards our ultimate objective — a socialist South Africa. This approach is consistent with the Marxist view — not always adhered to in practice — that the working class must win the majority to its side: as long as no violence is used against the people there is no other road to power.(27)

It follows that, in truly democratic conditions, it is perfectly legitimate and desirable for a party claiming to be the political instrument of the working class to attempt to lead its constituency in democratic contest for political power against other parties and groups representing other social forces. And if it wins, it must be constitutionally required, from time to time, to go back to the people for a renewed mandate. The alternative to this is self-perpetuating power with all its implications for corruption and dictatorship.

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We dare not underestimate the damage that has been wrought to the cause of socialism by the distortions we have touched upon. We, however, continue to have complete faith that socialism represents the most rational, just and democratic way for human beings to relate to one another.

  • Humankind can never attain real freedom until a society has been built in which no person has the freedom to exploit another person.
  • The bulk of humanity’s resources will never be used for the good of humanity until they are in public ownership and under democratic control.
  • The ultimate aim of socialism to eliminate all class inequalities occupies a prime place in the body of civilised ethics even before Marx.
  • The all-round development of the individual and the creation of opportunities for every person to express his or her talents to the full can only find ultimate expression in a society which dedicates itself to people rather than profit.

The opponents of socialism are very vocal about what they call the failure of socialism in Africa.(28) But they say little, if anything, about Africa’s real failure; the failures of capitalism. Over 90 percent of our continent’s people live out their wretched and repressed lives in stagnating and declining capitalist-oriented economies. International capital, to whom most of these countries are mortgaged, virtually regards cheap bread, free education and full employment as economic crimes. Western outcries against violations of human rights are muted when they occur in countries with a capitalist orientation.

The way forward for the whole of humanity lies within a socialist framework guided by genuine socialist humanitarianism and not within a capitalist system which entrenches economic and social inequalities as a way of life. Socialism can undoubtedly be made to work without the negative practices which have distorted many of its key objectives.

But mere faith in the future of socialism is not enough. The lessons of past failures have to be learnt. Above all, we have to ensure that its fundamental tenet — socialist democracy — occupies a rightful place in all future practice.

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1. It is, for example, sad to record that among the early foreign policy initiatives of the new government in Hungary was to play host to South Africa’s foreign minister. By doing this it has, without even the diplomatic niceties of consulting with the representatives of the repressed and dominated majority, moved away from one of the most humanitarian aspects of the policies of the socialist world, i.e. to be in the vanguard of those who shun apartheid.

2. Among other things, statistics recently published in The Economist (UK) show that in the Soviet Union — after only 70 years of socialist endeavour in what was one of the most backward countries in the capitalist world — there are more graduate engineers than in the US, more graduate research scientists than in Japan and more medical doctors per head than in Western Europe. It also produces more steel, fuel and energy than any other country (The World in the 1990s; Economist publication). How many capitalist countries can match the achievements of most of the socialist world in the provision of social security, child care, the ending of cultural backwardness, and so on? There is certainly no country in the world which can beat Cuba’s record in the sphere of health care.

3. Marx used the term ‘primitive accumulation’ to describe the original process of capitalist accumulation which, he maintained, was not the result of abstinence but rather of acts (including brigandage) such as the expropriation of the peasantry as happened during the British Enclosures (Capital Volume 1, Part VII). Preobrazhensky in The New Economics (1926) talked about ‘primitive socialist accumulation’ involving the expropriation of resources from the better-off classes to generate capital for socialist industrial development. Here, the term is used to describe the arbitrary measures taken against the Soviet peasantry to forcibly ‘enclose’ them into collectives.

4. Socialism, as a transition phase to communism, is not based on full egalitarianism. But clearly the socialist maxim ‘to each according to his contribution’ is not applied absolutely in a socialist society which devotes a large slice of its resources to social services, subsidising basic necessities, and implementing the human right of guaranteed employment. The middle strata in socialist society are inevitably worse off than their counterparts in the West. Access to the flesh-pots of consumer goods (which the West produces for the upper crust in almost mind-bending variations) is more restricted when society tries to use its surplus to achieve a more just distribution of wealth.

5. The New Yorker, January 23, 1989.

6. In the recent period a number of European and African political parties have ‘officially’ abandoned Marxism-Leninism as a theoretical guide. In the case of FRELIMO, the decision appears to be the result of second thoughts on what may, in the circumstances, have been a premature transformation of the movement into a communist vanguard. But in the case of some Western parties the decision seems to be a response (with undoubted electoral implications) to the distortions of the socialist experience rather than a reasoned conclusion that Marxism is not a viable tool in the socialist endeavour. A leading Soviet academic (reported in Work in Progress No.48, July 1987, p.7) has predicted that South Africa has no chance of becoming socialist for a century.

7. This must be understood as providing the immediate explanation of the way major social change manifests itself in a situation in which the relations of production have become obstacles to the development of productive forces.

8. This type of formulation is preferred to the one occasionally used by Gorbachev that there are certain universal human values which take priority over class values. This latter formulation tends to detract from the inter-dependence of working class and human morality. It also perhaps goes too far in separating morality from its class connection, even though it is clear that the assertion of certain values can be in the mutual interests of otherwise contending classes.

9. See Lenin, State and Revolution, Selected Works pp 203-4.

10. M. Gorbachev in Pravda November 26th, 1989.

11. Marx, Capital, Volume 1, p.716, Penguin Books Edition.

12. AP Ogurtsov, Soviet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

13. Capital, Volume 3, Chapter 48.

14. Pravda, September 30, 1989.

15. Marx: Civil War in France

16. Communist Manifesto

17. Letter to J. Wademeyer, see also ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’, Selected Works, p.331

18. Introduction to Civil War in France

19. Selected Works, Volume Two, pp 302-3

20. The Russian Revolution, p.79 14

21. Selected Works, Volume Two, pp 303-4 15

22. It is instructive to note how Western anti-Marxists and liberals understood and even welcomed the imposition of the most blatant dictatorial methods to deal with the counter-revolutionaries in the immediate aftermath of the overthrow of the Ceaucescu regime.

23. A stark illustration of this is the failure of any of the women’s organisations in the socialist countries to mount agitation against the continuing inequalities between men and women in key social and political sectors. It is utterly inconceivable that the women’s organisations could have failed to notice the continuing male-oriented structure of the family and the overwhelming male domination (more so than even in the capitalist West) of all structures of political power.

24. The total number of votes cast was 36.26 million. Of the major parties, the Social Revolutionaries received 20.9 million, the Bolsheviks 9.02 million, the Cadets 1.8 million, the Mensheviks 0.6 million and the rest was shared between 20 other parties.

25. Some of the socialist countries were ruled by a front but in substance the allies of the communist parties had little, if any, power or effective autonomy.

26. Pravda November 26, 1989 18

27. Lenin, Selected Works, Volume 2, p36.

28. They conveniently ignore the fact that most of the countries which tried to create conditions for the building of socialism faced unending civil war, aggression and externally-inspired banditry; a situation in which it is hardly possible to build any kind of stable social formation — capitalist or socialist.

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Political Finance and Funding Reform

[The State of Campaign Finance in the United States. Source:]

“Under private property … Each tries to establish over the other an alien power, so as thereby to find satisfaction of his own selfish need. The increase in the quantity of objects is therefore accompanied by an extension of the realm of the alien powers to which man is subjected, and every new product represents a new potentiality of mutual swindling and mutual plundering.” [Marx. Human Requirements and Division of Labour. 1844]

A strong democracy requires healthy political parties. In turn, political parties require resources to sustain and operate a basic party structure sufficient to represent people, develop the capacity to contest elections and contribute creatively to policy debate.

Yet, how parties raise money and how transparent they are regarding the sources of funding remains crucial if policy-making is to be open and principled. Given the high levels of inequality in South Africa, those who are able to buy influence through political donations are more likely to do so, thereby drowning out the voices of the poor and marginalized.

There is a real danger that anti-progressive and anti-revolutionary forces are going to try and buy the 2019 elections through finance of the opposition in parliament. Think of the financing raised in the United States: in the last elections just passed, Republican candidate Donald Trump and Democrat candidate Hilary Clinton collectively raised over 2.5 billion dollars. The DA in our country continues to improve its electoral performance because of its access to networks of patronage and power across big capital. The DA spin-machine has done an admittedly excellent job in hiding this funding. If you want any evidence that the DA is beholden to big finance, take note of its muted response to the events at Marikana. Think of how the DA is trying to change labour laws to reward big business who would like to fire people, lower ages and get rid of the legal protections that are currently afforded to workers.

Private funding of political parties is a contentious issue in South African politics, with no applicable legislation existing that regulates the conduct of political parties in relation to private donations and funding. The only mention of private funding of political parties in the relevant legislation simply states that this practice is permitted in South Africa. However, no conditions are attached to the receipt of such contributions. Political parties are also permitted to obtain funds from their members, as well as businesses and civil society groups. In relation to public funding, all represented political parties receive public funding. Moreover, the regulations are silent on the subtle use of state resources in campaigning, by definition by governing parties.


We can more broadly outline the problem of ‘money in politics’:

  • No Legislation regulating private donations to political parties:

The Democratic Alliance and other anti-progressive, anti-revolutionary forces are able to raise large sums of campaign finance in order to pursue their agenda. This has been enabled by the lack of regulation or legislation in this area. Private individuals and companies are able to donate as much as they wish to in secret, leaving the door open for corruption, buying of influence and allows these donors to sink their claws into the state.

 Lack of political party finance reform enforces poverty and marginalization:

In a country already divided by high levels of inequality, wealthy individuals are able to influence policy in myriad ways thus ‘drowning out’ the voices of those living in poverty and the marginalized.

  • Political parties do need to raise finance:

Political parties do need to raise money for much-needed activities, from building research capacity to electioneering.

  • The missing link is transparency:

The major problem with getting money out of politics is that there is a strong need for transparency. In 2005 the Institute for a Democratic South Africa (IDASA) took five major political parties to court to reveal their sources of funding in terms of the Promotion of Access to Information Act. The narrow judgement from Judge Griessel in the Cape Town High Court found that political parties are private bodies and therefore there is no need for them to disclose their source of funding. However concerns about events like the Harksen issue in the Western Cape show that a lack of transparency allows companies or wealthy individuals to secretly buy influence. Knowing where political donations are coming from is crucial if political parties are serious about stated commitments to transparency in tender processes and conflicts of interest.

  • Influence of Media:

The influence of big money also plays a crucial role in determining the range of news and opinion that voters are exposed to. Given the ownership of media by largely white monopoly capital (notably in the form of Naspers-Media24) it is not difficult to make the step to acknowledging that the media is controlled by the same interests that control the opposition. Further to this the private media make most of their profits by selling advertising to businesses deeply invested in the ideology of the free market. The news reports and opinions in the media might be critical of individual companies, but will seldom threaten the hegemonic interests of big business. Moreover, the private media must target the audience whom advertisers would like to sell their products to. These middle class consumers of mainstream media are often steeped in a ‘safe consensus’, holding self-serving ‘common sense’ opinions about the desirable economic system and about a range of other policy issues (without always knowing that they do so). This allows private media outlets wanting to make a profit to provide a narrow spectrum of “diverse opinion” that cleaves narrowly to the middle ground. Reporting and complaining about ANC corruption is safe because many of the high-end consumers of news want to know about this, while many business leaders are instinctively suspicious of the ANC. But how often would the media point out that the logic of the free market condemns millions of South Africans to hunger and poverty? The mainstream media will also seldom report extensively on the lives of people living in rural areas, while often depicting the poor and marginalized as dangerous, irrational and violent, welfare scroungers or as pitiful but powerless victims in need of our patronizing, LeadSA-inspired sympathy and our handouts. 

  • The Public Funding of Represented Political Parties Act is insufficient:

The PFRPPA needs to be amended so that it includes some regulation of private donations to political parties. The PFRPPA makes provision for money from the public coffers to be allocated to political parties on a 90:10 split. Ninety percent of the funding is therefore allocated proportionately, i.e. according to the percentage of votes received in elections. The remaining ten percent is distributed equitably between parties represented in Parliament. Public funding, however, amounting to R104.8-million is insufficient and this creates the need to raise money from private sources, especially at election time. The public money spent on political parties is demonstrably insufficient as big political parties need to finance their myriad activities. South Africa is a particularly challenging country within which to contest an election – a sprawling land mass, large rural areas, eleven languages and a low literacy rate. There is already substantial public funding of political parties, and has been ever since the 1997 Public Funding of Represented Political Parties Act was passed – around R70 million in the current financial year. There have been muted calls for an increase in this figure from across the political spectrum. Some believe that this will result in less dependence on either corporate or dodgy donors. Minority parties hope that it will increase the overall amount available and therefore enhance their ability to compete. While there is a respectable case for increasing public funding as a result of the various scandals related to the funding of political parties, it is hard to imagine that the taxpayer would have much appetite for increased public funding in the continued absence of a broader framework of regulation and governance. In 2007, the ANC resolved to ‘champion the introduction of a comprehensive system of public funding of representative political parties… as part of strengthening the tenets of our new democracy. This should include putting in place an effective regulatory architecture for private funding of political parties… The incoming NEC must urgently develop guidelines and policy on public and private funding, including how to regulate investment vehicles’. 

What is to be done?

There are some specific interventions and actions we take at the present moment:

  • Implementing the Polokwane Resolution on Party Financing and Funding Transparency

The ANC’s commitment to transparency in relation to party funding was articulated in the Polokwane Resolutions.

  • Amending the Public Funding of Represented Political Parties Act:

The PFRPPA will need amendment so that private donations to public parties is regulated. Such regulation will be to ensure that donations and donors are declared. Such an amendment will also need to put into place regulations that limit donation size. Regulation should also include measures such as ensuring that public disclosure of contributions is publicly disclosed; political parties must submit funding reports on an annual basis to the National Assembly. 

  • Increasing Public Spending on Political Parties:

One of the ways in which we can fix the problem of private donations is to increase the overall amount of funding that political parties receive from the fiscus.

  • Finance raised through private donations to political parties needs to be capped:

We are not suggesting that the overall donations of private funders should be capped. Rather, what we are suggesting is that company and individual donations to political parties needs to be capped. We need to create a situation in which wealthy companies and individuals are able to put forward large amounts of financing into political parties to achieve their own ends; rather it would be preferable that political parties raise financing off of a broad base of support. 

  • Establishment of a Democracy Fund:

The Democracy Fund would act as a vehicle for all non-public sector financing. All non-public funds would have to be deposited in the democracy fund. Funding would still be earmarked for specific political parties. However, the fund would take a nominal percentage (perhaps 20%) and move this back to the public purse to be allocated to political parties in terms of the PFRPPA. Furthermore, all donations going through the Democracy Fund would need to be openly declared. A Democracy Fund will create an environment in which companies and individuals are able to make political donations and in which there is transparency regarding the amount of the donation and the donor. This will go a long way to diluting the buying of influence.

Image result for Human Requirements and Division of Labour

[The Division of Labour. Source:]