Communism against 'State Socialism'

Printer-friendly versionSend by email

Class consciousness is a living thing. The fact that a part of the proletarian movement has attained a certain level of clarity does not mean that the whole movement has attained it, and even the clearest fractions can, in certain circumstances, fail to see all the implications of what they have seen, and even lose their grip on a previously-reached level of understanding.

This is certainly true for the question of the state and the lessons that Marx and Engels drew about the Paris Commune, which we analysed in the last article in this se­ries (IR 77). In the decades that followed the defeat of the Commune, the ascent of reformism and opportunism in the workers' movement led to the absurd situation, at the turn of the century, in which the 'orthodox' marxist position on the state, as preached by the likes of Karl Kautsky, was the one which asserted that the working class could come to power through parliamentary elections, ie through captur­ing the existing state. So that when Lenin in his State and Revolution, written during the revolutionary events of 1917, undertook the task of "excavating" the real heritage of Marx and Engels on this question, the 'orthodox' accused him of sliding back into Bakuninist anarchism!

In fact, the struggle to disseminate the real lessons of the Paris Commune, to keep the proletarian movement on the right track to the communist revolution, was already underway in the aftermath of the French workers' insurrec­tion. In this combat against the mephitic influence of bour­geois and petty bourgeois ideology on the workers' move­ment, marxism faced a battle on two fronts: against the 'state socialists' and reformists, who were particularly strong in the German party, and against Bakunin's anar­chist tendency, which had a powerful presence in the less developed capitalist countries.

In this three-sided conflict, many issues were in debate, or were the seeds of future debates. With the German party, there was already the problem of confusing the necessary fight for reforms with the ideology of reformism, in which the ultimate revolutionary goals of the movement are for­gotten altogether. The question of reforms was also posed by the Bakuninists, but from the other way round: they had nothing but contempt for the immediate defensive struggles of the class, and wanted to leap over them, straight into the grand "social liquidation". With the latter, as well, the question of the role and the internal functioning of the International was to become one of extreme acuity, hasten­ing the demise of the International itself.

In the next two articles, we shall be concerned mainly with the way these conflicts related to the conception of the revolution and of the future society, though there are inevitably numerous points of contact with the issues mentioned above.

'State socialism' is state capitalism

In the 20th century, the identification between socialism and state capitalism has been one of the most persistent ob­stacles to the development of class consciousness. The Stalinist regimes, in which a brutal totalitarian state has vi­olently assumed control of virtually the entire economic ap­paratus, arrogantly called themselves 'socialist', and the rest of the world bourgeoisie obligingly agreed. And of all Stalinism's more 'democratic' or 'revolutionary' cousins - from social democracy on its right to Trotskyism on its left - have devoted themselves to spreading the same basic falsehood.

No less pernicious than the Stalinist version of this lie is the social democratic idea that the working class can bene­fit from the activity and intervention of the state even in those regimes which are explicitly defined as 'capitalist': in this vision, local councils, central governments controlled by social democratic parties, the institutions of the welfare state, the nationalised industries, can all be used on behalf of the workers, and even as stepping stones towards a so­cialist society.

One of the reasons why these mystifications are so deeply ingrained is that the currents who advocate them were once part of the workers' movement. And many of the ideological tricks they peddle today have their origins in genuine confusions existing in an earlier phase of that movement. The marxist world outlook emerges out of a real combat against bourgeois ideology in the ranks of the proletarian movement, and for this very reason is inevitably faced with an unending struggle to free itself from the sub­tle influences of ruling class ideology. In the marxism of the ascendant period of capitalism, we can thus discern a re­curring difficulty in separating itself from the illusion that the statification of capital amounts to its suppression.

To a large extent, such illusions resulted from the con­ditions of the day, in which capitalism was still mainly per­ceived through the personality of individual capitalists, and where the concentration and centralisation of capital were still at an early stage. Faced with the evident anarchy cre­ated by a plethora of competing individual enterprises, it was easy enough to fall for the idea that the centralisation of capital in the hands of the national state would constitute a step forward. Indeed, many of the measures of state control put forward in the Communist Manifesto (a state bank, nationalisation of the land, etc  - see the article in this series in IR 72) are done so with the explicit aim of devel­oping capitalist production in a period when it still had a progressive role to play. Despite this, the issue remained clouded, even in the more mature writings of Marx and Engels. In the previous article in this series, for example, we cited one of Marx's comments on the economic mea­sures of the Paris Commune, in which he appears to say that if workers' co-operatives centralised and planned pro­duction on a national scale, this would be communism. Elsewhere, Marx seems to advocate, as a transitional mea­sure towards communism, the state administration of typi­cally capitalist operations such as credit (cf Capital, Vol 3, chap. XXXVI).

In pointing to these errors, we are not issuing any moral judgement on our political ancestors. The clarification of such questions has only been achieved by the 20th century revolutionary movement after many decades of painful ex­perience: in particular the Stalinist counter-revolution in Russia and, more generally, the growing role of the state as the organising agent of economic life in the epoch of capi­talist decadence. And the clarification that has been achieved today is entirely dependent on the method of anal­ysis elaborated by the founders of marxism, and on certain prophetic insights into the role that the state would, or could, assume in the evolution of capital.

What allowed later generations of marxists to correct some of the 'state capitalist' errors of the earlier ones was, above all Marx's insistence that capital is a social relation, and cannot be defined in a purely juridical manner. The whole thrust of Marx's work is to define capitalism as a system of exploitation founded on wage labour, on the ex­traction and realisation of surplus value. From this stand­point, it is entirely irrelevant whether the agent that sucks surplus value from the workers, which realises that value on the market in order to accrue a profit and expand its capital, is an individual bourgeois, a corporation, or a na­tion state. As the economic role of the state gradually in­creased and consequently fed the illusory expectations of parts of the workers' movement, it was this theoretical rigour which enabled Engels to formulate that oft-quoted passage in which he emphasises that "the transformation, either into joint-stock companies and trusts, or into state ownership, does not do away with the capitalistic nature of the productive forces. In the joint-stock companies and trusts this is obvious. And the modern state, again, is only the organisation that bourgeois society takes on in order to support the external conditions of the capitalist mode of production against the encroachments as well of the work­ers as of individual capitalists. The modern state, no matter what its form, is essentially a capitalist machine, the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total na­tional capital. The more it proceeds to the taking over of productive forces, the more does it actually become the na­tional capitalist, the more citizens does it exploit. The workers remain wage-workers - proletarians. The capitalist relation is not done away with. It is rather brought to a head" (Anti-Duhring)[1].

Among the more sophisticated apologists for Stalinism have been those currents, usually Trotskyists or their off­spring, who have argued that while the monstrous bureaucratic nightmare of the former USSR and similar regimes could not be called socialist, neither can it be called capi­talist, because when you have the total nationalisation of the economy (although, in fact, none of the Stalinist regimes ever reached this point), production and labour power lose their commodity character. Marx, by contrast, was able to theoretically envisage the possibility of a coun­try in which all social capital was in the hands of a single agency, without this country ceasing to be capitalist: "Capital can grow into powerful masses in a single hand because it has been withdrawn from many individual hands. In any given branch of industry centralisation would reach its extreme limit if all the individual capitals invested in it were fused into a single capital. In a given society the limit would be reached only when the entire social capital was united in the hands of either a single capitalist or a single capitalist company" (Capital, Vol 1, chap XXV, section 2).

From the point of view of the world market, 'nations' are in any case no more than particular capitalists or com­panies, and the social relations within them are entirely dictated by the global laws of capitalist accumulation. It makes little difference whether buying and selling has been done away with inside this or that national border: such countries are no more 'islands of non-capitalism' in the capitalist world economy than the kibbutzim are islands of socialism in Israel[2].

Thus, marxist theory contains all the necessary premises for rejecting the identification between state capitalism and socialism. Furthermore, Marx and Engels were already faced with the need to deal with this 'state socialist' devia­tion in their own day.

"German socialism"

Germany had never passed through a phase of liberal capitalism: the weaknesses of the native German bour­geoisie meant that the development of capitalism in Germany was largely overseen by a powerful bureaucratic state dominated by semi-feudal elements. As a result what Engels referred to as "the superstitious belief in the state" (Introduction to the Civil War in France) was particularly marked in Germany, and it strongly infected the emergent workers' movement there. This tendency was typified by Ferdinand Lasalle, whose faith in the possibility of using the existing state on behalf of the workers reached the point of making an alliance with the Bismarck regime against the capitalists. But the problem wasn't restricted to the 'Bismarckian state socialism' of Lasalle. There was a marxist current in the German work­ers' movement, led by Liebknecht and Bebel. But this ten­dency often fell into the kind of marxism that led Marx to declare that he wasn't a marxist: mechanistic, schematic, and above all, lacking in revolutionary audacity. The very fact that this current described itself as "social democratic" was in itself a backward step: in the 1840s, social democ­racy had been synonymous with the reformist 'socialism' of the petty bourgeoisie, and Marx and Engels had deliber­ately defined themselves as communist to emphasise the proletarian and revolutionary character of the politics they espoused.

The weaknesses of the Liebknecht-Bebel current were starkly revealed in 1875 when it fused with the Lasalle group to form the Social Democratic Workers Party (SDAP, later the SDP). The founding document of the new party, the 'Gotha Programme', made a number of totally unacceptable concessions to Lasalleanism. It was this that prompted Marx to write his Critique of the Gotha Programme in the same year.

This withering attack on the profound confusions con­tained in the new party's programme remained an 'internal' document until 1891: hitherto, Marx and Engels had feared that publishing it more widely would provoke a premature split in the SDP. In retrospect, one can debate the wisdom of this decision, but the logic behind it is clear enough: for all its faults, the SDP was a real expression of the proletar­ian movement - it had shown this in particular through the internationalist stand that Liebknecht and his current - and even many of the Lassaleans -  had taken during the Franco-Prussian war and the Paris Commune. What's more, the German party's rapid development had already demonstrated the growing importance of the movement in Germany for the whole international working class. Marx and Engels recognised the need to wage a long and patient fight against the ideological mistakes of the SDP, and they did so in a number of other important documents written after the Critique. But this fight was motivated by the effort to build the party, not destroy it. This was always the method that informed the struggle of the marxist left against the rise of opportunism within the class party: the struggle was for the party as long as that party has any proletarian life within it.

In the criticisms that Marx and Engels made of the German party, we can see in outline many of the issues that were later taken up by their successors, and which were to become matters of life or death in the great historical events of the early twentieth century. And it is by no means acci­dental that all of them were centered around the marxist conception of the proletarian revolution, which was always the key question that distinguished the revolutionaries from the reformists and utopians in the workers' movement.

Reform or revolution

The second half of the 19th century was the period of capitalism's greatest acceleration and world-wide develop­ment. Within this context, the working class was able to wrest significant concessions from the bourgeoisie, consid­erably ameliorating the terrible conditions that had presided over the previous phases of capitalisms' life (limitations on the working day, on child labour, increase in real wages, etc). Combined with this were gains of a more political nature - the right to assemble, to form trade unions, to par­ticipate in elections, etc - which enabled the class to organ­ise and express itself in the battle to improve its situation inside bourgeois society.

Marx and his tendency always insisted on the necessity for this fight for reforms, rejecting the sectarian arguments of elements such as Proudhon, and later Bakunin, who ar­gued that such struggles were futile or a diversion from the revolutionary path. Against such ideas, Marx affirmed that a class which was unable to organise to defend its most immediate interests would never be capable of organising a new society.

But the very success of the struggle for reforms had its negative consequences - the growth of currents who turned this struggle into the ideology of reformism, openly reject­ing the final communist goal in favour of concentrating on immediate gains, or mixing the two up into a confused and confusing medley. Marx and Engels may not have been able to see all the dangers involved in the growth of such currents  - i.e. that they would end up dragging the major­ity of working class organisations into the service of the bourgeoisie and its state - but the combat against reformism as a species of bourgeois ideology inside the proletarian movement, a combat which was to occupy so much of the energies of later revolutionaries like Lenin and Luxemburg, certainly begins in earnest with them.

Thus, in the Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx points out that not only are the immediate demands it con­tains (e.g. over education, child labour) formulated in a con­fused way; more importantly, the newly formed party com­pletely fails to distinguish between such immediate de­mands and the ultimate revolutionary goal. This is particu­larly marked in the call for "producers' co-operatives with state aid and under the democratic control of the working people", which would supposedly pave the way towards "the socialist organisation of labour". Marx mercilessly criticises this Lassallean "prophet's remedy": "Instead of being the result of the revolutionary process of social transformation in society, the 'socialist organisation of the whole of labour' 'arises' from 'state aid' to producers' co­operatives which the state, not the workers, is to 'call into being'. The notion that state loans can be used for the con­struction of a new society as easily as they can for the con­struction of a new railway is worthy of Lassalle's imagina­tion!". This is an explicit warning against listening to those who claim that the existing capitalist state can in some way be used as an instrument for creating socialism - even if they present it in more sophisticated terms than those of the Gotha Programme.

By the end of the 1870s, the advocates of reformism in the German party had become even more brazen, to the point of questioning whether the party should present itself as a working class organisation at all. In their 'Circular letter to Bebel, Liebknecht, Bracke et al', written in September 1879, Marx and Engels made what is probably their most lucid attack on the opportunist elements who were more and more infiltrating the  movement:

"The people who appeared as bourgeois democrats in 1848 can now just as well call themselves Social Democrats. Just as for the former the democratic republic was unattainably remote so, too, is the overthrow of the capitalist order for the latter, and it has therefore abso­lutely no significance for the political practise of the pre­sent day; one can mediate, compromise and philanthropise to one's heart's content. And it is just the same with the class struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. On paper it is acknowledged because its existence can no longer be denied; but in practise it is hushed up, watered down, attenuated. The Social Democratic Party is not to be a workers' party; it is not to incur the hatred of the bour­geoisie or of anyone; above all it should conduct energetic propaganda among the bourgeoisie; instead of stressing far-reaching goals which deter the bourgeoisie and are unattainable in our generation anyway, it should rather de­vote its whole strength and energy to those petty-bourgeois patchwork reforms which could provide the old social order with new supports and hence perhaps transform the final catastrophe into a gradual, piecemeal and, as far as possi­ble, peaceful process of dissolution".

Here in outline is the marxist critique of all the later variants of reformism that were to have such a disastrous effect within the ranks of the international working class.

Proletarian dictatorship versus the 'people's state'

The Gotha Programme's inability to define the real con­nection between the defensive and offensive phases of the proletarian movement was also embodied in its utter confu­sion about the state. Marx lambasted its call for a "free people's state and a socialist society" as a nonsensical phrase, since the state and freedom are two opposed princi­ples: "freedom consists in converting the state from an or­gan standing above society into one completely subordi­nated to it" (Critique). In a fully developed socialist soci­ety, there will be no state at all. But more important still is Marx's recognition that this call for a "people's state", to be realised by the granting of "democratic" reforms which a number of capitalist countries have already conceded, is a way of avoiding the crucial question of the dictatorship of the proletariat. It is in this context that Marx raises the question: "what transformation will the nature of the state undergo in communist society? In other words, what so­cial functions will remain in existence that are analogous to present functions of the state? The question can only be an­swered scientifically, and one does not get a flea-hop nearer to the problem by a thousand fold combination of the word people with the word state”.

Between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. There corresponds to this also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolution­ary dictatorship of the proletariat.

Now the programme does not deal with this nor with the nature of the future state of communist society" (ibid)[3].

As we saw in the last article in this series, this notion of a proletarian dictatorship was, in 1875, something very real for Marx and his tendency: the Paris Commune, only four years earlier, had been the first living episode of the work­ing class in power, and it had shown that such a vast politi­cal and social turn-around can only take place when the workers smash the existing state machine and replace it with their own organs of power. The Gotha Programme demonstrated that this lesson had not been assimilated by the workers' movement as a whole, and as the reformist current grew within the movement, it was to be forgotten more and more.

In the interests of historical accuracy, however, it is necessary to point out that even Marx and Engels them­selves had not fully assimilated this lesson. In a speech to the Hague congress of the International, in September 1872, Marx could still argue that "heed must be paid to the institutions, customs and traditions of the various coun­tries, and we do not deny that there are countries, such a America and England, and if I was familiar with its insti­tutions, Holland, where the workers may attain their goal by peaceful means. That being the case, we must recognise that in most continental countries the lever of the revolution will have to be force; a resort to force will be necessary one day in order to set up the rule of labour".

It has to be said that this idea was an illusion on Marx's part - a measure of the weight of democratic ideology on even the most advanced elements in the workers' move­ment. In the years that followed, all sorts of opportunists were to seize upon such illusions to give Marx's seal of ap­proval to their efforts to abandon any idea of a violent rev­olution and to lull the working class into believing that it could get rid of capitalism by legally and peacefully using the organs of bourgeois democracy. But the authentic marxist tradition does not lie with them: it lies with the likes of Pannekoek, Bukharin and Lenin, who took the most daring and revolutionary elements in Marx's thinking on the question, those which led inexorably to the conclu­sion that in order to establish the rule of labour in any country, the working class would have to use the lever of force, and first and foremost against the existing state ma­chine, no matter how democratic its forms. What's more, reality, the real evolution of the democratic state, had as­sisted them in reaching this conclusion, for as Lenin put it in State and Revolution:

"Today, in 1917, at the time of the first great imperial­ist war, this restriction made by Marx is no longer valid. Both Britain and America, the biggest and last representa­tives - in the whole world - of Anglo-Saxon 'liberty', in the sense that they had no militarist clique and bureaucracy, have completely sunk into the all-European filthy, bloody morass of bureaucratic-military institutions which subor­dinate everything to themselves. Today, in Britain and America, too, "the precondition for every people's revolu­tion" is the smashing, the destruction of the "ready-made state machinery"".

The critique of substitutionism

The International Workingmen's Association had proclaimed that "the emancipation of the working class must be conquered by the working classes themselves". Although it was not possible, in the workers' movement of the 19th century, to clarify all aspects of the relationship between the proletariat and its revolutionary minority, this affirmation is a basic premise of all subse­quent clarifications. And in the polemics within the move­ment after 1871, the marxist fraction had a number of occa­sions to take the issue further than the IWA's general as­sertion. Particularly in the combat against the out-and-out reformist elements infesting the German party, Marx and Engels were led to show that elitist and hierarchical views of the relationship between party and class were the result of the penetration into the movement of bourgeois and petty bourgeois ideology, which was carried in particular by middle class intellectuals who saw the workers' movement as a vehicle for their own schemes for improving society.

The marxist response to this danger was not to retreat into workerism, the idea that an organisation made up solely of industrial workers was the best guarantee against the penetration of alien class ideas. "It is an inevitable phe­nomenon which is rooted in the course of the development that people from the hitherto ruling class join the strug­gling proletariat and supply it with educative elements. We have already stated this clearly in the Manifesto. But two points must be noted here: firstly, in order to be of use to the proletarian movement, these people must bring real ed­ucative elements with them. But this is not the case with the great majority of the German bourgeois converts ... Secondly, when such people from other classes join the proletarian party the first requirement is that they do not bring any remnants of bourgeois, petty bourgeois etc prejudices with them, but that they adopt the proletarian outlook without prevarication. These gentlemen, however, as has been demonstrated, are chock full of bourgeois and petty bourgeois ideas ... We cannot ally ourselves, there­fore, with people who openly declare that the workers are too uneducated to free themselves and must first be liber­ated from above by philanthropic big bourgeois and petty bourgeois" ('Circular Letter to Bebel ... ').

The notion that the workers can only be emancipated by the benevolent actions of an all powerful state goes hand in hand with the idea of a party of 'benefactors' descending from the clouds to free the poor benighted workers from their ignorance and servitude. Both were part of the same reformist, state socialist package that Marx and his current fought with such energy. It should be said, however, that the delusion that a small elite could act on behalf of the class or in its place was not limited to these reformist ele­ments: it could also be held by genuinely proletarian and revolutionary currents, and the Blanquists were the prime example of this. The Blanquist version of substitutionism was a vestige of an earlier phase of the revolutionary move­ment; in his Introduction to The Civil War in France, Engels shows how the living experience of the Paris Commune had practically refuted the Blanquist conception of revolution:

"Brought up in the school of conspiracy, and held to­gether by the strict discipline which went with it, they started from the viewpoint that a relatively small number of resolute, well-organised men would be able, at a given moment, not only to seize the helm of state, but also by a display of great, ruthless energy, to maintain power until they succeeded in sweeping the mass of the people into the revolution and ranging them round the small band of lead­ers. This involved, above all, the strictest, dictatorial cen­tralisation of all power in the hands of the new revolution­ary government. And what did the Commune, with its ma­jority of these same Blanquists, actually do? In all its proclamations to the French in the provinces, it appealed to them to form a free federation of all French Communes with Paris, a national organisation which for the first time was really to be created by the nation itself. It was pre­cisely the oppressing power of the former centralised gov­ernment, army, political police, bureaucracy, which Napoleon had created in 1798 and which then had been taken over by every new government as a welcome instru­ment used against its opponents - it was precisely this power which was to fall everywhere, just as it had already fallen in Paris".

That the best of the Blanquists were obliged to go be­yond their own ideology was also confirmed in the debates within the Commune's central organ: when a significant el­ement in the Commune Council wanted to suspend the Commune's democratic norms and set up a dictatorial "Committee of Public Safety" on the model of the French bourgeois revolution, a considerable number of those who openly opposed this move were Blanquists - proof that a genuinely proletarian current can be influenced by the de­velopment of the real movement of the class, something that rarely happened in the case of the reformists, who rep­resented a very material tendency for the organisations of the class to fall into the hands of the class enemy.

The economic content of the communist transforma­tion

Although the Gotha Programme talked about the "abolition of the wages system", its underlying vision of the future society was one of 'state socialism'. We have seen how it contains the absurd notion of a movement towards socialism through state-assisted workers' cooperatives. But even when it talks more directly about the future socialist society (in which a "free state" still exists...), it is unable to go beyond the perspective of an essentially capitalist so­ciety run by the state for everyone's benefit. Marx is able to detect this under the cover of the Programme's fine phrases, in particular the sections which talk about the need for "the co-operative regulation of the total labour with a fair distribution of the proceeds of labour", and "the aboli­tion of the wage system together with the iron law of wages". These phrases reflect the Lassallean 'contribution' to economic theory, which was in fact a complete aban­donment of Marx's scientific view of the origins of surplus value in the unpaid labour time extracted from the workers. The programme's empty words about "just distribution" conceal the fact that it actually makes no provision to do away with the basic mechanisms of value production, which is the infallible source of all "injustice" in distributing the proceeds of labour.

Against these confusions, Marx affirms that "within the co-operative society based on common ownership of the means of production, the producers do not exchange their products; just as little does the labour employed on the products appear here as the value of these products, as an objective quality possessed by them, since now, in contrast to capitalist society, individual labour no longer exists in an indirect fashion but directly as a component part of the total labour. The phrase "proceeds of labour", objectionable also today on account of its ambiguity, thus loses all meaning".

But rather than offering a utopian vision of the immedi­ate abolition of all the categories of capitalist production, Marx points out the necessity to distinguish the lower from the higher phases of communism: "what we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, eco­nomically, morally and intellectually, still stamped with the birth marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges".

In this phase, there is still scarcity and still all the ves­tiges of capitalist 'normality'. On the economic level, the old wages system has been replaced by a system of labour-time vouchers: "the individual producer receives back from society ... exactly what he gives to it. What he has given to it is his individual quantum of labour... He receives a cer­tificate from society that he has furnished such and such an amount of labour (after deducting his labour for the com­mon funds). and with this certificate he draws from the so­cial stock of means of consumption as much as the same amount of labour costs". As Marx points out in Capital, these certificates are no longer money in the sense that they cannot circulate or be accumulated; they can only 'buy' in­dividual items of consumption. On the other hand, they are not entirely free of thee principles of commodity exchange:

"Here obviously the same principle prevails as that which regulates the exchange of commodities, as far as this is the exchange of equal values. Content and form are changed, because under the altered circumstances no one can give anything except his labour, and because, on the other hand, nothing can pass into the ownership of individ­uals except individual means of consumption. But, as far as the distribution of the latter among the individual producers is concerned, the same principle prevails as in the exchange of commodity equivalents: a given amount of labour in one form is exchanged for an equal amount of labour in another form. Hence equal right here is still  - in principle - bour­geois right...", because, as Marx ex­plains, workers have very differ­ent needs and capacities. It is only in the higher phase of commu­nist society when "all the springs of co-opera­tive wealth flow more abundantly" that "the narrow horizon of bourgeois right can be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!"

What is the exact target of this polemic? Lying behind it is the classical conception of communism not as a 'state' to be imposed but as "the real movement which abolishes the present state of affairs" as The German Ideology had put it thirty years earlier. Marx thus elaborates the vision of the proletarian dictatorship initiating a movement towards communism, of a communist society emerging from the collapse of capitalism and from the proletarian revolution. Against the state socialist view that capitalist society some­how transforms itself into communism through the action of a state acting as society's unique and benevolent employer, Marx envisages a dynamic towards communism founded on a communist basis.

The idea of labour-time vouchers has to be considered in this light. In the first instance they are conceived as an attack on value production, as a means of getting rid of money as a universal commodity, of halting the dynamic of accumulation. They are seen not as a goal but as a means to an end, one which could be immediately introduced by the proletarian dictatorship as a first step towards a society of abundance which will have no further need to measure the individual's consumption according to his individual out­put.

Within the revolutionary movement, there has been and will continue to be a debate on whether this system is the most appropriate way of achieving these ends. For a num­ber of reasons, we would argue that it is not. To begin with, the 'objective' socialisation of many aspects of con­sumption (electricity, gas, housing, transport etc) would in the future make it possible fairly rapidly to supply many such goods and services free of charge, subject only to the total reserves controlled by the workers; as for more indi­vidual items of consumption, a system of rationing con­trolled by the workers' councils would have the advantage of being more 'collective', less dominated by the conven­tions of value exchange. We will come back to these and other problems in a future article. Our main concern here is to uncover Marx's basic method: for him, the system of labour vouchers had its validity as a means of attacking the foundations of the wage labour system, and should be judged against this benchmark; at the same time, he clearly recognised its limitations, because integral communism cannot be introduced overnight but only after a "more or less long period of transition". In this sense, Marx is him­self the severest critic of the system of labour time vouchers, insisting that they do not escape "the narrow horizon of bourgeois right" and embody the persistence of the law of value. And in fact whatever method of distribution the proletariat introduces in the aftermath of the revolution, it will still be marked by the vestiges of the law of value. Any false radicalism here is fatal (and, in fact, conservative in practise) because it would lead the proletariat to confuse a temporary and contingent means with the real goal. This, as we shall see, is a mistake that many revolutionaries fell into during the so-called War Communism period of the revolu­tion in Russia. For Marx, the final communist aim always had to be kept in sight; otherwise the movement towards it would go astray and, in the end, be caught up once again in the orbit of the planet Capital.

The next article in this series will examine Marx's com­bat against the principal version of false radicalism in his day: the anarchist current around Bakunin.



[1] Engels goes on to say that "Whilst the capitalist mode of production ... forces on more and more the trans­formation of the vast means of production, already so­cialised, into state property, it shows itself the way to ac­complishing this revolution. The proletariat seizes political power and turns the means of production into state prop­erty", from which he concludes that "the first act by virtue of which the state really constitutes itself the representative of the whole of society - the taking possession of the means of production in the name of soci­ety - this is, at the same time, its last independent act as a state". Engels is doubtless referring here to the post-revo­lutionary state formed after the destruction of the old bour­geois state. The experience of the Russian revolution, how­ever, has led the revolutionary movement to question even this formulation: ownership of the means of production even by the 'Commune state' does not lead to the disap­pearance of the state, and can even contribute to its rein­forcement and perpetuation. But Engels could not have the benefit of such hindsight of course.

[2] Although Marx uses the term "society" here, he can only mean "country" and not capitalist society as a global whole: as he remarks elsewhere, a capital which does not confront other capitals is a "non-thing".

Capitalism cannot exist without competition between capitalist units. Moreover, history has shown that the na­tion-state is the highest level of effective unity that capital­ism can attain. This has been confirmed recently by the disintegration of the imperialist blocs formed in 1945: once the dominant nation was no longer able to impose the unity of the bloc, it broke up into its component, and competi­tive, national units.

[3] In the last article in this series we referred to the ex­perience of the Russian revolution, which for us has shown the need to make a distinction between the transitional state and the proletarian dictatorship, between the organ ema­nating out of the transitional society and charged with holding it together, and the actual instruments of proletar­ian power (workers' councils, factory committees, etc), which have the task of initiating and leading the pro­cess of communist transformation. On certain occasions, groups within the proletarian milieu have used this passage from the Critique of the Gotha Programme (ie. that the state can be nothing but the dictatorship of the proletariat) to argue that this distinction is at odds with Marx and marxism. In reply we can only assert that the real move­ment of the class has clarified this question in practise as well as theoretically; but it is also important to understand the historical context of the pas­sage, which was a polemic against those who wanted to leave the existing bourgeois state untouched and who shied away from the very idea of a proletarian revolution.