utopianism, Lenin, etc.

James Lawler PHIJIML at ubvms.cc.buffalo.edu
Tue Oct 11 17:31:49 MDT 1994

     This is my first intervention on the Marxism network, so I
will first introduce myself, before attempting to respond to some
of the postings that have spurred me into commentary.

     I am a philosophy professor at SUNY Buffalo, working
presently on the Marxist theory of socialism/communism, with
special reference to the philosophical background of Marx's
thought in German philosophy, especially Kant and Hegel.  I
recently succeeded Howard Parsons as President of the Society for
the Philosophical Study of Marxism (SPSM), a society in the
American Philosophical Association.  This society was founded by
John Sommerville about 1960, and was always a voice against the
cold war in philosophy.  We are presently interested in getting
involvement by new people, and I hope to use this network to
recruit interested parties.  But anything I say below should not
be taken to reflect any particular bias of SPSM, which is open to
membership determination.  For purposes of SPSM, "philosophy"
should be understood broadly;  we are not restricted to people
working in the discipline of philosophy.

     The discussion of Marxism and utopianism is one I have been
interested in for some time.  In Russia now it is popular to say
that Marx was a utopian, or a "romantic".  Hayek, by the way, is
very much cited as a luminary of the West, though sometimes
critically with respect to the current capitalist drive.  I think
that the collapse of socialism makes the question of Marx's
critique of utopianism especially important.

     In a number of the recent postings by Chris Scribarra and in
responses, the idea has been mentioned that for Marx, communism
(the second phase of communism, developed communism) is a society
of the future, the remote future.  This idea, true enough in some
sense, should be balanced against Marx's idea that communism is
not an ideal, but the real movement of the existing world.  The
germs or sprouts of that future society are real processes going
on in the current world, from which the developed form of
communism was extrapolated.

     But between the present in the future there have to be a
series of transitions.  A paper I have just written, which I
would like to share with interested parties, is entitled, "Lenin
and the Socialist Transition in Russia".  One of the points I
make there differs from the idea expressed by someone that Lenin
was a utopian because the conditions of socialism were not
present in Russia at the time of the revolution.  But this was
also the belief of Lenin.  In State and Revolution, he clearly
stated that the conditions for a *socialist* revolution were
present only in the developed capitalist countries, not in
Russia.  In his early study on the Development of Capitalism in
Russia, Lenin argued that capitalism was already relatively
advanced in Russia.  This idea was in response to populists, like
his late brother Alexandr, who believed that Russia could take a
different path to socialism, without passing through a capitalist
phase.  This idea was supported by Marx, who qualified it by
saying that such a possibility would be cancelled once capitalism
developed to a certain point.  By the way, Marx's idea of a non-
European path to socialism might be of interest to the person who
wrote about African socialism recently.  So Lenin was arguing
with Marx in this matter.

     However, later, after the 1905 revolution, Lenin revised his
estimates of Russian development, stressing its backwardness, its
pre-capitalist character.  Both the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks
were pessimistic about the ability of the Russian bourgeoisie to
engage in a serious bourgeois revolution, without compromise with
feudal landlords and Tsarism, and concluded that socialists would
have to play a main role in the development of capitalism.  Where
the Bolsheviks differed from the Mensheviks is in the Bolshevik-
Leninist idea that socialists could "use" capitalism without
becoming a society dominated by capitalism.  The Mensheviks were
prepared to hand power over to the representatives of capitalism,
once they got capitalism on the road -- with a lot of pro-worker

     Someone recently said that Lenin was a pragmatist, switching
from War Communism to the New Economic Policy looking for
something that worked.  My own view is that the New Economic
Policy was consistent with Lenin's long-term view, while War
Communism was an aberration -- an outgrowth of the military
requirements of the Civil War that temporarily captivated the
Bolshevik leadership, including, apparently Lenin.

     The main idea for Lenin was that Russia should undergo a
series of transitions.  In his analysis of Marx, in State and
Revolution, Lenin emphasizes the notion that the first phase of
communism continues to have "bourgeois defects" -- i.e., a state
(he even called it a bourgeois state) and a monetary, market
system.  The market is limited in connection with capitalism,
because labor power is not a commodity.  But a market in consumer
goods remains.  Hence the first phase of communism is a
transitional one.  It is communism that still "mixed" with

     But that is not all.  Before the first phase of communism,
there should be, according to Marx, the revolutionary
transformation of capitalism into communism, to which
corresponded a "political transition period", the dictatorship of
the proletariat.  But this, even more clearly, was a market
society.  In 1918, as he promoted the idea of "State Capitalism",
Lenin referred to Marx's idea that the proletariat should "buy
out the capitalists".  Marx was repeating Engels' idea in "The
Principles of Communism", written in 1947 as a preparation for
the Communist Manifesto, that some industry should be purchased
by the proletariat, and other capitalist industry would come to
the proletariat through competition.  The economics of the
transformation period, then, was of a market-place competition
between capitalist and proletarian industries. The proletarian
state only ensures the political conditions for such a

     Consequently, the idea that the socialist state should run
the economy (what Marx and Engels called "state socialism") was
not defended either by Marx, Engels or Lenin -- although the
latter was susceptible to such a "premature" approach as a result
of circumstances arising in the Civil War, and rendering State
Capitalism nearly impossible.  With the evident failure of War
Communism, Lenin then significantly revised his understanding of
the Russian path to socialism (to the first phase of communism),
and saw the growth of trading cooperatives as the way.  He
changed his view of cooperatives, seeing them as already
"elements of socialism", not "elements of capitalism", as he once
thought.  In this he returned to Marx's idea in the third volume
of Capital, that cooperatives were the first shoots of the new
order developing in the old one.

     The state socialism that emerged in War Communism, and then
was reimposed by Stalin in 1929 with the collectivization of
agriculture, breaks radically with the dialectical-transitional
conception of the emergence of socialism.  So it is Stalinism
that embodies the "utopian" approach to socialism, short-
circuiting the complex process, mediated by market forces, which
would, Marx thought, gradually introduce a society in which
consciousness, freedom, is the main determinant of social life.

Jim Lawler
phijiml at ubvms.cc.buffalo.edu
phijiml at ubvms.bitnet


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