1883-95: Social-Democracy Advances the Communist Cause

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This series has now reached the period that followed the death of Karl Marx in 1883; coincidentally, the bulk of the material that will be examined in the following two articles is located in the years between Marx’s death and the passing of Engels, which took place 100 years ago this year. The immensity of Marx’s contribution to the scientific understanding of communism has meant that a considerable part of this series has been devoted to the work of this one great figure in the workers’ movement. But just as Marx did not invent communism (see the second article in this series “How the proletariat won Marx to communism”, in International Review no.69), the communist movement did not cease elaborating and clarifying its historic goals once Marx had died. This task was taken on by the Social Democratic or Socialist parties which began to become a considerable force in the last two decades of the 19th century; Marx’s lifelong friend and comrade Engels naturally played a key role in the continuation of this work. As we shall see, he was not alone in this; but we can certainly offer Engels no more fitting tribute than to show the importance of his own share in defining the communist project of the working class.

There are many currents today who think that to claim the mantle of revolutionary communism means throwing off the garments of Social Democracy - disowning the whole period from Marx’s death until World War I (at least) as a kind of Dark Age, or an evolutionary blind alley in the road that leads from Marx to themselves. Councilists, modernists, anarcho-Bordigists like the Groupe Communiste Internationaliste and a host of other swamp-inhabiting sub-species insist that far from adding anything to our understanding of the communist revolution, the Socialist parties were no more than instruments for integrating the proletariat into bourgeois society. They “prove” this in the main by pointing to Social Democracy’s parliamentary and trade union activities, but at the same time they usually inform us that the very goal of these parties - the society which they most frequently referred to as “socialism” - was in reality no more than a form of state capitalism. In short, the parties which call themselves “socialist” today - Blair’s Labour party, Mitterand’s or Gonzales’ Socialist parties - are indeed the legitimate heirs of the Social Democratic parties of the 1880s, 90s and 1900s.

For some of these “anti-social-democratic” currents, authentic communism was only restored by the likes of Lenin and Luxemburg after World War I, the definitive death of the Second International and the betrayal of its parties. Others, more “radical”, have discovered that the Bolsheviks and the Spartacists were themselves no more than left social democrats: the first true revolutionaries of the 20th century were thus the left communists of the 20s and 30s. But since there is a direct line of continuity between the social democratic lefts (ie not only Lenin and Luxemburg, but also Pannekoek, Gorter, Bordiga and others) and the later communist left, our ultra-radicals often play safe by identifying none but themselves as the century’s first real communists. What’s more, this remorseless retrospective radicalism is applied to the precursors of Social Democracy as well: initially to Engels who, we are told, never really grasped Marx’s method and certainly became a bit of an old reformist in later life; then, not infrequently, the axe falls on Marx himself, with his tedious insistence on “bourgeois” notions like science, or historical progress and decline. By a strange coincidence, the final discovery is often this: that the true revolutionary tradition lies with the fiery insurrectionism of the Luddites or ... Mikhail Bakunin.

The ICC has already devoted an entire article to arguments of this type in International Review no.50, in our series in defence of the notion of capitalist decadence. We don’t intend to repeat all our counter-arguments here. Suffice it to say for now that the “method” behind such arguments is precisely that of ahistorical, idealist, moralising anarchism. For anarchism, consciousness is not seen as the product of a collective and historically evolving movement, so that the real lines of continuity and discontinuity in the real movement of the working class are of no interest to it. Thus, revolutionary ideas cease to be the product of a revolutionary class and its organisations, but become, in essence, the brainwave of brilliant individuals or circles of initiates. Hence the pathetic inability of the anti-social-democrats to see that today’s revolutionary groups and concepts have not sprung fully formed like Athene from the brow of Zeus, but are the organic descendants of a long process of gestation, of a whole series of struggles within the workers’ movement: the struggle to form the Communist League against the vestiges of utopianism and sectarianism; the struggle of the marxist tendency in the First International against “state socialism” on the one hand and anarchism on the other; the struggle to form the Second International on a marxist basis and the later struggle of the lefts to keep it on a marxist basis against the development of revisionism and centrism; the struggle of these same lefts to form the Third International after the death of the Second, and the struggle of the left fractions against the degeneration of the Communist International in the reflux of the post-war revolutionary wave; the struggle of these fractions to preserve communist principles and develop communist theory during the dark years of the counter-revolution; the struggle for the reappropriation of communist positions with the historical resurgence of the proletariat at the end of the 1960s. And indeed the central theme of this series has been that our very understanding of the means and goals of the communist revolution would not exist without these struggles.

But an understanding of what communist society is, and the means to reach it, cannot exist in a vacuum, in the heads of privileged individuals. It is developed and defended above all in the collective organisations of the working class: and the struggles listed above were nothing if not struggles for the revolutionary organisation, struggles for the party. The communist consciousness of the present would not exist without the chain of proletarian political organisations that connects us to the very beginnings of the workers’ movement.

For anarchists, by contrast, the struggle that connects them to the past is a struggle against the party, since anarchist ideology reflects the petty bourgeoisie’s despairing resistance against the precious organisational acquisitions of the working class. The marxist combat against the destructive actions of the Bakuninists in the First International took a heavy toll on the latter. But the fact that this combat was a historical, if not an immediate, success, was confirmed by the formation of the Social Democratic parties and the Second International on a more advanced basis than the International Workingmen’s Association. Whereas the latter was a heterogeneous collection of different political tendencies, the Socialist parties were explicitly founded on the basis of marxism; whereas the First International combined political tasks with those of the unitary organisations of the class, the parties of the Second International were quite distinct from the unitary organisations of the class of that time - the trade unions. All this is why, for all their criticisms of its programmatic weaknesses, the main Social Democratic party of the time, the German SPD, received the enthusiastic support of Marx and Engels.

We will not go further into the specific question of organisation here, although, precisely because it is so fundamental, such a sine qua non for any kind of revolutionary activity, it will inevitably reappear in the next phase of this study as it has in previous phases. Nor can we spend much time answering the arguments of the anti-social-democrats about the trade union and parliamentary questions, although we will be compelled to return to the latter in particular later on. The one thing that should be said here is that there is no common ground between the blanket condemnations of our ultra-radicals and the genuine criticisms that have to be made of the practises and theories of the Socialist parties. Whereas the latter come from inside the same movement, the former come from a totally divergent starting point. Thus, the anti-social-democrats will not listen to the marxist argument that trade union and parliamentary activities did have a sense for the working class last century, when capitalism was still in the ascendant and could still grant meaningful reforms, but lost this sense and became anti-working class in the period of decadence, when the proletarian revolution is on the historical agenda. This argument is rejected because the notion of decadence is rejected; the notion of decadence, in an increasing number of cases, is rejected, because it implies that capitalism was once ascendant; and this is rejected because it implies some concession to the notion of historical progress, which in the case of “consistent” anti-decadentists like the GCI or Wildcat, is an utterly bourgeois notion. But by now it has become clear that these hyper-ultra radicals have rejected any notion of historical materialism and have again lined up with the anarchists, for whom the social revolution has been possible for as long as there has been any suffering in the world.

The central aim of the next phase in this study, in order to maintain its continuity with the previous articles in the series, must be to show that the “society of the future” defined by the Socialist parties was indeed a communist society; that despite Marx’s death, the communist vision did not disappear or stagnate during this period, but advanced and deepened. It is only on this basis that we can examine the limitations of this vision and the weaknesses of these parties - particularly when it came to elaborating the “road to power”, the way the working class would arrive at the communist revolution.

Engels’ definition of socialism

In a previous article in this series (International Review no.78, “Communism against state socialism’), we saw that Marx and Engels were extremely critical of the programmatic bases of he SPD, formed in 1875 through the fusion of Bebel’s and Liebknecht’s marxist fraction with the Lassalean General Workers Association. Even the name of the new party irritated them: “Social Democratic” being a completely inadequate term for a party “whose economic programme is not just completely socialist, but directly communist, and whose final goal is the disappearance of the state, and thus also of democracy” (Engels, 1875). More significantly, Marx wrote his thorough-going Critique of the Gotha Programme to highlight the SPD’s shallow grasp of what the communist transformation actually entailed, showing that the German marxists had made altogether too many concessions to the Lassalean “state socialist” ideology. Engels did not water down these criticisms in later years. Indeed, his dissatisfaction with the SPD’s Erfurt Programme of 1891 prompted him to push through the publication of the Critique of the Gotha Programme. The latter had originally been “blocked” by Liebknecht, and Marx and Engels had not pursued the matter for fear of breaking the unity of the new party. But Engels obviously felt that the criticisms of the old programme were still relevant to the new one. We shall return to the question of the Erfurt programme later on, when we pay particular attention to the Social Democrats’ attitude to parliamentarism and bourgeois democracy.

Nevertheless, Engels’ writings on socialism in this period provide the clearest proof that, in the final analysis, the programme of Social Democracy was indeed “directly communist”. Engels’ most important theoretical work during this time was Anti-Dühring, first written in 1878 but revised, republished and translated several times during the 1880s and 90s. A section of the book was also published as a popular pamphlet in 1892, entitled Socialism: Utopian and Scientific; and this was without doubt one of the most widely read and influential marxist works of the day. And of course, Anti-Dühring was eminently a “party” text, since it was written in response to the grandiose claims of the German academic Dr Dühring that he had founded a complete “socialist system” far in advance of any hitherto existing theory of socialism, from the utopians to Marx himself. In particular, Marx and Engels had been concerned that “Dr Dühring openly proceeded to form around himself a sect, the nucleus of a future separate party. It thus became necessary to take up the gauntlet thrown down to us, and to fight out the struggle whether we liked it or not” (Introduction to the English edition of Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, 1892). The first motivation of the text was thus to defend the unity of the party against the destructive effects of sectarianism. This led Engels to dwell at great length on Duhring’s pretentious “discoveries” in the fields of science, philosophy and history, defending the historical materialist method against Duhring’s new brew of stale idealism and vulgar materialism. At the same time, and particularly in the section that appeared as a separate pamphlet, Engels was also obliged to reaffirm a fundamental postulate of the Communist Manifesto: that socialist or communist ideas were not the invention of “would-be universal reformers” like professor Dühring, but were the product of a real historical movement, the movement of the proletariat. Dühring considered himself to be far above this prosaic movement of the masses; but in fact his “system” was an utter regression vis-à-vis the scientific socialism developed by Marx; indeed, even compared to utopians like Fourier, for whom Dühring had only disdain but who was greatly respected by Marx and Engels, Dühring was an intellectual dwarf.

Most pertinent to the context of this study is the fact that, against Duhring’s false vision of a “socialism” operating on the basis of commodity exchange, ie of the existing relations of production, Engels was led to reaffirm certain communist fundamentals, in particular:

- that capitalist commodity relations, once a factor of unprecedented material progress, could ultimately only lead bourgeois society into insoluble contradictions, crises and self-destruction: “the mode of production is in rebellion against the mode of exchange ... On the one hand, therefore, the capitalistic mode of production stands convicted of its own incapacity to further direct these productive forces. On the other, these productive forces themselves, with increasing energy, press forward to the removal of the existing contradiction, to the abolition of their quality as capital, to the practical recognition of their character as social productive forces” (Anti-Dühring, Part III, Theoretical, Moscow edition, first printed in 1947, p327-8);

- that the take over of the means of production by the capitalist state was the bourgeoisie’s response to this situation, but not its solution. There could be no question of confusing this bourgeois statification with communist socialisation: “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 it actually becomes 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” (ibid, p330-1). Communists today are understandably fond of using this prophetic passage against all the modern varieties of state “socialism” - in fact, state capitalism - propagated today by those who claim to be the heirs of the 19th century workers’ movement - Labourites, Stalinists, Trotskyists, with their endless song and dance about the progressive nature of nationalisations and the need to “defend Clause 4” as the Labour Party’s socialist promise. Engels’ words show that clarity on this question existed in the workers movement a hundred years ago and more;

 - that, against Duhring’s Prussian socialism where all citizens will be happy underneath a paternalistic state, the state has no place at all in a genuinely socialist society [1]: “As soon as there is no longer any social class to be held in subjection; as soon as class rule, and the individual struggle for existence based upon our present anarchy in production, with the collisions and excesses arising from these, are removed, nothing more remains to be repressed, and a special repressive force, a state, is no longer necessary. 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 [2] - this is, at the same time, its last independent act as a state. State interference in social relations becomes, in one domain after another, superfluous, and then withers away of itself; the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things, and by the conduct of processes of production. The state is not “abolished”. It withers away” (ibid, p333);

 - and, finally, against all attempts to manage the existing relations of production, socialism requires the abolition of commodity production: “With the seizing of the means of production by society, production of commodities is done away with, and, simultaneously, the mastery of the product over the producer. Anarchy in social production is replaced by plan-conforming, conscious organisation. The struggle for individual existence disappears. Then, for the first time man, in a certain sense, is finally marked off from the rest of the animal kingdom, and emerges from mere animal conditions of existence into really human ones. The whole sphere of the conditions of life which environ man, and which have hitherto ruled man, now comes under the dominion and control of man, who for the first time becomes the real, conscious lord of nature, because he has now become master of his own social organisation. The laws of his own social action, hitherto standing face to face with man as laws of nature foreign to, and dominating him, will then be used with full understanding, and so mastered by him. Man’s own social organisation, hitherto confronting him as a necessity imposed by nature and history, now becomes the result of his own free action. The extraneous objective forces that have hitherto governed history pass under the control of man himself. Only from that time will man himself, with full consciousness, make his own history - only from that time will the social causes set in movement by him have, in the main and in a constantly growing measure, the results intended by him. It is the ascent of man from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom” (ibid, p335-6). In this exalted passage, Engels is clearly looking ahead to a very advanced stage of the communist future. But it certainly shows, against all those who try to drive a wedge between Marx and Engels, that the “General” shared the “Moor’s” conviction that the highest imaginable goal of communism is to cast off the scourge of alienation and begin a truly human life, where man’s social and creative powers no longer turn against him, but serve his true needs and desires. 

But elsewhere in the same work, Engels returns from these “cosmic” reflections to a more earthly issue: the “ground principles of communist production and distribution” as the Dutch left was later to call them. After lambasting Duhring’s neo-Proudhonist fantasy of establishing “true value” and returning to the workers “the full value of what they produce”, Engels explains:

From the moment when society enters into possession of the means of production and uses them in direct association for production, the labour of each individual, however varied its specifically useful character may be, becomes at the start and directly social labour. The quantity of social labour contained in a product need not then be established in a roundabout way; daily experience shows in a direct way how much of it is required on the average. Society can simply calculate how many hours of labour are contained in a steam engine, a bushel of wheat of the last harvest, or a hundred square yards of cloth of a certain quality. It could therefore never occur to it still to express the quantities of labour put into the products, quantities which it will then know directly and in their absolute amounts, in a third product, in a measure which, besides, is only relative, fluctuating, inadequate, though formerly unavoidable for lack of a better, rather than express them in their natural, adequate and absolute measure, time....Hence, on the assumptions we made above, society will not assign values to products. It will not express the simple fact that the hundred square yards of cloth have required for their production, say, a thousand hours of labour in the oblique and meaningless way, stating that they have the value of a thousand hours of labour. It is true that even then it will still be necessary for society to know how much labour each article of consumption requires for its production. It will have to arrange its plan of production in accordance with its means of production, which include, in particular, its labour power. The useful effects of the various articles of consumption, compared with one another and with the quantities of labour required for their production, will in the end determine the plan. People will be able to manage everything very simply, without the intervention of much-vaunted “value’” (ibid, “Distribution”, p 367)

This was Engels’ conception of socialist or communist society; but it was not his personal property. His position expressed all that was best in the Social Democratic parties, even if the latter contained elements and currents who did not see things so clearly.

To demonstrate that Engels’ views were not some individual exception, but the patrimony of a collective movement, we intend to examine the positions taken up by other figures in this movement who showed a particular preoccupation with the shape of the future society. And we do not think it accidental that the period we are considering is unusually rich in reflections about what a communist society might look like. We should recall that the 1880s and 1890s were the “swan song” of bourgeois society, the zenith of its imperial glory, the last phase of capitalist optimism before the darkling years that led up to the first world war. A period of tremendous economic and colonial conquests in which the last “uncivilised” areas of the globe were being opened up by the imperialist giants; a period too of rapid technological progress which saw the massive development of electricity, the coming of the telephone, the automobile and much else besides. It was a period in which painting pictures of the future became a stock in trade for numerous writers, scientists, historians ... and not a few out and out hucksters [3]. Although this dizzying bourgeois “progress” fascinated and turned the heads of many elements in the socialist movement, giving rise to the illusions of revisionism, the clearest elements in the movement, as we shall see shortly, were not taken in: they could see the storm clouds gathering in the distance. But while they did not lose their conviction that the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism would still be a necessity, they did begin to envisage the immense possibilities contained in the productive forces that capitalism had developed. They thus began to inquire into how these potentialities might be realised by socialist society in a more detailed manner than Marx or Engels had ever attempted - to the point indeed, where much of their work has been dismissed as “utopian”. This is a charge that we will consider carefully, but we can state forthwith that, even if there is some truth to the charge, it does not render all these reflections useless to us.

To be more specific, we intend to concentrate on three major figures in the socialist movement: August Bebel, William Morris, and Karl Kautsky. The latter we will look at in a future article, not at all because he is a lesser figure, but because his most important work was written in a slightly later period; and because he, more than the other two, raises the question of the means towards the social revolution. The first two, on the other hand, can be looked at mainly from the angle of determining how the late 19th century socialists defined the ultimate goals of their movement

The choice of these two is by no means arbitrary. Bebel, as we have seen, was a founding member of the SPD, a close associate of Marx and Engels for many years, and a figure of considerable authority in the international socialist movement. His best known political work, Woman and Socialism (first published in 1883, but substantially revised and developed over the next two decades) became one of the most influential documents of the workers’ movement in the late 19th century, not only because it dealt with the woman question, but above all because it contains a clear exposition of how things might operate in a socialist society, in all the main areas of life: not only the relation between the sexes, but also in the areas of work, of education, of the relationship between town and country ... Bebel’s book was an inspiration for hundreds of thousands of class conscious workers, eager to learn and to discuss how life could be lived in a truly human society. It is thus a very precise yardstick for measuring the Social Democratic movement’s understanding of its goals during this period.

William Morris is a far less well-known figure outside of Britain, but we still think it important to include some of his contributions on the question. A very “English” socialist, some marxists have been made wary of him by the fact that he is probably known more widely not as a socialist but as an artist and designer, as a poet and writer of heroic romances; Engels himself tended to dismiss him as a “sentimental socialist” and no doubt many comrades have, like Engels, been put off his book News from Nowhere (1890) not only because it approaches the question of communist society in the form of a “dream journey” to the future, but also by the tinge of mediaevalist nostalgia which hangs over this and much of his other work. But if William Morris began his criticism of bourgeois civilisation form  the point of view of an artist, he became a genuine disciple of marxism and gave the whole of his later life to the cause of the class war and to the building a of a socialist organisation in Britain; and it was on this basis that he was able to develop a particularly strong insight into the alienation of labour under capitalism, and was able to make a real contribution to showing how this alienation might be overcome.

Once again, Socialism against state capitalism

In the next article in this series, we will examine in greater depth the portraits of socialist society painted by Engels, Bebel and Morris, in particular the points they make about the more “social” aspects of the revolutionary transformation, such as the relations between men and women, and humanity’s interaction with the natural environment. But before doing that, it is necessary to add further proof that these mouthpieces of Social Democracy understood the fundamental characteristics of communist society, and that this understanding was in all essential features in accord with that of Marx and Engels.

The basic trick of the anti-social-democrats in their argument that social democracy was an instrument of capitalist recuperation from the start is to identify the Socialist parties with the reformist currents which arose within them. But these currents arose not as their organic product, but as a parasitic growth, nurtured by the noxious fumes of the surrounding bourgeois society. It is well known, for example, that the first thing the revisionist Bernstein “revised” was the marxist theory of crisis. Theorising the long period of capitalist “prosperity” at the end of the last century, revisionism declared crises to be a thing of the past and thus opened the door to the prospect of a gradual and peaceful transition to socialism. Later on in the history of the SPD, some of the former defenders of marxist “orthodoxy” on such questions, such as Kautsky, and Bebel himself, were indeed to make all kinds of concessions to these reformist perspectives. But at the time when Woman and Socialism was being written, this is what Bebel was saying: “the future of bourgeois society is threatened from all sides with grave dangers, and there is no way to escape them. Thus the crisis becomes permanent and international. It is a result of all the markets being overstocked with goods. And yet, still more could be produced; but the large majority of people suffer want in the necessaries of life because they have no income wherewith to satisfy their wants by purchase. They lack clothing, underwear, furniture, homes, food for the body and mind, and means of enjoyment, all of which they could consume in large quantities. But all that does not exist for them. Hundreds of thousands of workingmen are even thrown upon the sidewalk, and rendered wholly unable to consume because their labour power has become “superfluous” to the capitalists. Is it not obvious that our social system suffers of serious aliments? How could there be any “overproduction” when there is no lack of capacity to consume, ie of wants that crave satisfaction? Obviously, it is not production, in and of itself, that breeds these unhallowed conditions and contradictions: it is the system under which production is carried on, and the product is distributed” (Woman and Socialism, chapter VI, p252 of the 1904 English edition, reprinted as a Schocken paperback in 1971).

Far from repudiating the notion of capitalist crisis, Bebel here reaffirms that it is rooted in the basic contradictions of the system itself; furthermore, by introducing the concept of a “permanent” crisis, Bebel anticipates the onset of the historic decline of the system. And, like Engels who, shortly before his death, expressed his fears that the growth of militarism was dragging Europe towards a devastating war, Bebel also saw that the economic downfall of the system must bring about a military disaster:

The political and military state of Europe has taken a development that cannot but end in a catastrophe, which will drag capitalist society down to its ruin. Having reached the height of its development, it produces conditions that end with rendering its own existence impossible; it digs its own grave; it slays itself with the identical means that itself, as the most revolutionary of all previous social systems, has called into life” (ibid, p 238).

It is precisely capitalism’s course towards catastrophe that makes the revolutionary overthrow of the system an absolute necessity:

Accordingly, we suppose the arrival of a day when all the evils described will have reached such maturity that they will have become oppressingly sensible to the feeling as to the sight of the vast majority, to the extent of no longer being bearable; whereupon a general irresistible desire for radical change will seize society, and then the quickest will be regarded as the most effective remedy” (ibid, p 271).

Bebel also echoes Engels in making it clear that the statification of the economy by the existing regime is not the answer to the crisis of the system, still less a step towards socialism:

... these institutions (telegraph, railway, post office, etc), administered by the state, are not socialist institutions, as they are mistakenly taken for. They are business plants that are exploited as capitalistically as if they were in private hands ... the socialist guards against allowing the present state ownership being regarded as socialism, as the realisation of socialist aspirations” (ibid, chap VII, p299).

William Morris wrote many diatribes against the encroaching tendencies towards “state socialism”, which in Britain were represented in particular by the reformist Fabian Society of Bernard Shaw, the Webbs, HG Wells and others. And News from Nowhere was written as a riposte to Edward Bellamy’s novel Looking Backward, which also purported to describe a socialist future, but one which came about quite pacifically, as the huge capitalist trusts evolved into “socialist” bodies; not surprisingly, this was a “socialism” where every detail of the individual’s life was planned by an omnipotent bureaucracy; in News from Nowhere, by contrast, the great revolution (set in 1952 ...) came about as the workers’ reaction against a long period of “state socialism”, when the latter was no longer able to stave off the contradictions of the system.

Against the apostles of “state socialism”, Bebel and Morris affirmed the basic tenet of marxism that socialism is a society without a state:

The state is, accordingly, the inevitably necessary organisation of a social order that rests upon class rule. The moment class antagonisms fall through the abolition of private property, the state loses both the necessity and possibility for its existence...” (Woman and Socialism, chap VII, p 273). The old state machine, for Bebel, was to be replaced by a system of popular self-administration obviously modelled upon the Paris Commune:

As in primitive society, all members of the community who are of age participate in the elections, without distinction of sex, and have a voice in the choice of persons who are to be entrusted with the administration. At the head of all the local administrations stands the central administration - as will be noted, not a Government, with power to rule, but an executive college of administrative functions. Whether the central administration shall be chosen directly by popular vote or appointed by the local administration is immaterial. These questions will not then have the importance they have today; the question is the no longer one of filling posts that bestow special honour, or that vest the incumbent with greater power and influence, or that yield larger incomes; it is then a question of filling positions of trust, for which the fittest, whether male or female, are taken; and these may be recalled or re-elected as circumstances may demand, or the electors may deem preferable. All posts are for given terms. The incumbents are, accordingly, clothed with no special “official qualities’; the feature of continuity of office is absent, likewise a hierarchical order of promotion” (ibid, p276). Similarly, in News from Nowhere, Morris envisions a society operating from a basis of local assemblies where all debate has the aim of achieving unanimity, but which uses the principle of majority rule where this cannot be reached. All this was diametrically opposed to the paternalistic conceptions of the Fabians and other “state socialists”, who, in their dotage, were horrified by the direct democracy of the October 1917 revolution, but found Stalin’s way of doing things quite to their taste: “we have seen the future, and it works”, as the Webbs put it after their trip to a Russia where the counter-revolution had done its work on all that troublesome “rule from below” nonsense.

Equally in accord with Engels’ definition of the new society, both Morris and Bebel affirm that socialism means the end of commodity production. Much of the humour  in News from Nowhere consists in the visitor from the bad old days getting used to a society where neither goods nor labour have any “value”. Bebel puts it as follows: “Socialist society produces not “merchandise” in order to “buy” and to “sell’; it produces necessaries of life, that are used, consumed, and otherwise have no object. In socialist society, accordingly, the capacity to consume is not bounded, as in bourgeois society, by the individual’s capacity to buy; it is bounded by the collective capacity to produce. If labour and instruments of labour are in existence, all wants can be satisfied; the social capacity to consume is bounded only by the satisfaction of the consumers” (Woman and Socialism, chap VII, p 291).

And Bebel goes on to say that “there being no “merchandise” in socialist society, neither can there be any “money””(ibid); elsewhere, he talks about the system of labour time vouchers as a medium of distribution. This expresses a definite weakness in the way that Bebel presents the future society, making little or no distinction between the fully developed communist society and the transitional period towards it: for Marx, (and also for Morris, cf his notes to the Socialist League Manifesto, 1885), labour time vouchers were simply a transitional form towards completely free distribution, and carried certain of the scars of bourgeois society with them (see “Communism against state socialism”, International Review no.78). The full significance of this theoretical weakness will be examined in another article. What is important here is to establish that the Social Democratic movement was basically clear about its overall goals, even if the means to attain them often caused it much deeper problems.

“Revolutionary International Socialism”

In “Communism against state socialism” we noted that, in certain passages, even Marx and Engels made concessions to the idea that communism could, at least for a while, exist within the boundaries of a nation state. But such confusions were not hardened into a theory of “national” socialism; the overwhelming thrust of their thought is towards demonstrating that both the proletarian revolution itself, and the construction of communism, are only possible on an international scale.

The same can be said for the Socialist parties in the period we are considering. Even though a party like the SPD was weakened from the start by a programme which made far too many concessions in the direction of a “national” road to socialism, and even though such conceptions were to be theorised, with fatal consequences, as the Socialist parties became a more “respectable” part of national political life, the writings of Bebel and Morris are informed by an essentially international, and internationalist, vision of socialism:

The new social system will then rear itself upon an international basis. The peoples will fraternise; they will reach one another the hand, and they will endeavour to gradually extend the new conditions over all the races of the earth” (Woman and Socialism, “Internationality”, p 352).

The Manifesto of Morris’ Socialist League, written in 1885, introduces the organisation as “advocating the principles of Revolutionary International Socialism; that is we seek a change in the basis of society - a change which would destroy the distinctions of classes and nationalities” (published in EP Thompson, William Morris, Romantic to Revolutionary, 1955). The Manifesto goes on to stress that “complete Revolutionary Socialism ... can never happen in any one country without the help of the workers of all civilisation. For us neither geographical boundaries, political history, race nor creed makes rivals or enemies; for us there are no nations, but only varied masses of workers and friends, whose mutual sympathies are checked or perverted by groups of masters and fleecers whose interest it is to stir up rivalries and hatreds between the dwellers in different lands”.

In an article published in The Commonweal, the League’s paper, in 1887, Morris links this international perspective with the question of production for use; in socialist society “all civilised [4] nations would form one great community, agreeing together as to the kind and amount of production and distribution needed; working at such and such production where it could be best produced; avoiding waste by all means. Please to think of the amount of waste which they would avoid, how much such a revolution would add to the wealth of the world!” (“How we live and how we might live”, republished in The Political Writings of William Morris, Lawrence and Wishart, 1973). Production for use can only be established when the world market has been replaced by a global community. It is possible to find passages where all the great socialist militants “forget” this. But these lapses did not express the real dynamic of their thought.

Furthermore, this international vision was not restricted to the distant revolutionary future; as can be seen from the passage from the Socialist League Manifesto, the vision also demanded an active opposition to the bourgeoisie’s present-day efforts to stir up national rivalries between workers. It demanded above all a concrete and intransigent attitude to inter-capitalist war.

For Marx and Engels, the internationalist position taken up by Bebel and Liebknecht during the Franco-Prussian war was the proof of their socialist credentials and convinced them of the  need to persevere with the German comrades for all their theoretical shortcomings. Similarly, one of the reasons why Engels originally supported the group that was to form the Socialist League in their split with Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation in 1884 was the former’s principled opposition to Hyndman’s “Jingo socialism”, which approved of British imperialism’s colonial conquests and massacres under the pretext that they were bringing civilisation to the “barbarous” and “savage” peoples. And as the threat grew that the great imperialist powers would soon be fighting each other directly, Morris and the League took a clear internationalist position on the question of war:

If war really becomes imminent our duties as socialists are clear enough, and do not differ from those we have to act on ordinarily. To further the spread of international feeling between the workers by all means possible; to point out to our own workmen that foreign competition and rivalry, or commercial war, culminating at last in open war, are necessities of the plundering classes, and that the race and commercial quarrels of these classes only concern us so far as we can use them as opportunities for fostering discontent and revolution; that the interests of the workmen are the same in all countries and they can never really be enemies of each other; that the men of our labouring classes, therefore, should turn a deaf ear to the recruiting sergeant, and refuse to allow themselves to be dressed up in red and taught to form a part of the modern killing machine for the honour and glory of a country in which they have only a dog’s share of many kicks and few halfpence - all this we have to preach always, though in the event of imminent war we may have to preach it more emphatically” (Commonweal, January 1, 1887, cited in EP Thompson, p 684).

There is no continuity whatever between such a declaration and the outpourings of the social-chauvinists who, in 1914, themselves became the recruiting sergeants of the bourgeoisie. Between one and the other there is a class rupture, a betrayal of the working class and its communist mission, which had been defended for three decades by the Socialist parties and the Second International.


[1] Engels makes little or no distinction between “socialism” or “communism” in this work, even if the latter, owing to its more proletarian and insurrectionary connotations, had generally been Marx’s and Engels’ preferred term for the future classless society. It was above all Stalinism which, picking on this or that phrase in the work of previous revolutionaries, was most concerned to make a hard and fast distinction between socialism and communism, since it had to be able to prove that a society dominated by an all-powerful bureaucracy and functioning on the basis of wage labour was indeed “socialism” or “the lower stage of communism”. And in fact the Stalinist hack who introduces the 1971 Moscow edition of The Society of the Future, a pamphlet drawn from the concluding sections of Bebel’s Woman and Socialism, is very anxious to criticise Bebel for calling his stateless, moneyless future society “socialism”. It’s also worth pointing out that an “anti-social democratic” group like Radical Chains also drives a wedge between socialism and communism: the latter is the real thing; the former accurately defines the programme of Stalinism, 20th century social democracy  and the leftists. Radical Chains kindly informs us that this socialism has “failed”. This formulation thus saves Radical Chains’ fundamentally Trotskyist view that Stalinism and other forms of totalitarian state capitalism are not really capitalist at all. For all its criticisms of this horrible “socialism”, Radical Chains is still handcuffed to it.

[2] Here we should repeat the qualification made when we cited this passage in International Review no.78: “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 had the benefit of such hindsight of course”.

[3] This was a period in which the future, above all the future as both apparently and genuinely revealed by science, had a powerful gravitational pull. In the literary sphere, these years saw a rapid development of the “science fiction” genre (HG Wells being the most significant example).

[4] The use of the word “civilised” in this context reflects the fact that there were still areas of the globe that capitalism had only just begun to penetrate. It did not have any chauvinist connotations of superiority over indigenous peoples. We have already noted that Morris was a relentless critic of colonial oppression. And in his footnotes to the Manifesto of the Socialist League, written along with Belfort Bax, he demonstrates a clear grasp of the marxist historical dialectic, explaining that future communist society is the return to “a point which represents the older principle elevated to a higher plane” - the older principle being that of primitive communism (cited in Thompson, p739). See “Communism of the past and future” in International Review no.81 for a further elaboration of this theme.



Development of proletarian consciousness and organisation: