utopianism, Lenin, etc.
Paul W. Cockshott
cockshpw at wfu.edu
Wed Oct 12 09:34:09 MDT 1994
James Lawlers post on the differences between Lenin and
Marx's on the transition to socialism was interesting but
I feel that it misses an important distinction between
what Marx had to say in the critique of the Gotha Program
of German Social Democracy, and Lenins interpretation of
it in the State and Revolution.
> 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
This seems a pretty accurate account of what Lenin said, but
Lenin here is carrying out, probably without being aware of it
a fundamental revision of Marx. Lenin identified what Marx called
the first stage of communism with socialism - something that
Marx did not do. In so doing, Lenin assimilated Marx's first
stage of communism into the orthodox Kautskyist definition of
socialism as a monetary society. In the Critique, Marx refers
not to payment in terms of money but in terms of labour tokens,
a notion that originates with Owen. In Capital I, Marx discusses
the idea of labour tokens:
'On this point I will only say that Owen's `labour money', for
instance is no more `money' than is a theatre ticket. Owen
presupposes directly socialised labour, a form of production
diametrically opposed to the production of commodities.
The certificate of labour is merely evidence of the part
taken by the individual in the common labour, and of his
claim to a certain portion of the common product which has
been set aside for consumption. But Owen never made the mistake
of presupposing the production of commodities, while at the same
time, by juggling with money, trying to circumvent the
necessary conditions of that form of production.' (Capital I pp188-9)
It is clear from this that Marx, like Owen, saw a system of payment
by labour tokens as being quite distinct from commodity production,
and that labour tokens were not money. On the contrary they presupposed
'directly socialised labour', that is to say, labour socialised under
a plan rather than indirectly through the market. But when Lenin
read Marx he read him through Kautsky, whose Social Revolution argued
that socialism would be a monetary system.
The idea that Communism could be based on commodity production,
even in its first phase seems an unlikely belief to foist upon Marx.
The whole structure of Capital, starting as it does with the commodity
is devoted to showing that the logic of commodity production leads
to all the contradictions of capitalism. Amadeo Bordiga said that
Capital was not a work of political economy but a Communist Programme,
by which he meant that by showing the contradictions inherent in
commodity production it was meant to do away once and for all with
the idea that commodity production could be reformed. Capitalism
was the logical result of the self development of the commodity form.
James writes that
>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
I think that this is reading too much into the phrase buy out
the capitalists. Does Marx actually write of the transformation
period being one 'of a market-place competition
between capitalist and proletarian industries'?
I would suggest that a more sensible interpretation of the phrase
'buy out' would be that it would be a question of political expediency,
that to reduce the opposition of the capitalists to expropriation they
be given state bonds. In due course these bonds would have to be
canceled or they would be incompatible with Marx's assumption that
the only source of income was to be labour.
I would admit that Lenin probably did try the idea that socialism
could develop through market competition with capitalism during
the NEP period, but this was fundamentally unrealistic and based
on poor political economy.
How is a proletarian factory to compete with a private one?
It can only do so by adopting the normal capitalist methods of
intensifying labour, trying to hold down wages and laying off
workers. If it does this, what makes it a 'proletarian' factory.
If socialism offers workers no benefits over what they would face
under capitalism why should they defend it. If on the other hand
socialism attempts to improve wages and working conditions, it will
lose out in the competition.
This is what in fact happens. In China where this process is going on,
the capitalist firms offering poorer working conditions prosper,
whilst the nationalised ones can only compete by being subsidised.
The inevitable political effect is for the state to be increasingly
dominated by capital and for demands to be raised that the 'iron rice
bowl' be broken. In other words that the working class of China be
converted back into a classical proletariat - impoverished and forced
to sell their labour power for whatever pittance it will fetch.
Thus I feel that James is mistaken when he writes:
> 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.
The proponents of war communism and of the 5 year plans were
both politically more realistic and economically closer to Marx
than those who thought communism could arise out of economic
competition with capital. Where they failed was in not breaking
far enough with commodity production. Although the regulating
mechanism of the economy became the plan rather than the market,
money and the commodity form was retained.
This had a number of consequences.
1. Since competition no longer occured, money prices no longer
needed to approximate to values as they do under capitalism.
As such they ceased to provide even the restricted information about
the relative social costs of alternative production techniques
that prices do under capitalism. This meant that at the factory
level it was difficult to take a rational decision about
what was the most efficient technology to use.
2. Since wages continued to represent only a portion of the value
created by labour, the old labour/labour power distinction remained.
Working class pressure to improve living standards led to many
basic commodities being sold well under their value - food and
heating being obvious examples.
3. This then led to the price of labour power being systematically
below its value, which aggravated the tendancy which already
exists under capitalism for labour saving machinery to be fore
gone because only part of the labour cost enters into calculation.
What they should have done if they had followed the logic of Marx's
economic writings was to replace roubles with labour credits, and pay
all workers for the number of hours worked. The public expenditure
would then have had to have been met by an explicit tax on workers
incomes rather than the turnover tax on factories that was in fact
This defence of Marx's ideas on labour credits will raise certain
predictable objections, I will deal with them if they arise.
A detailed account of the argument is given in 'Calculation, complexity
and planning: the socialist calculation debate once again' in
the Review of Political Economy, Vol 5, No 1, and again in
'Towards a New Socialism' from Spokesman Books.
More information about the Marxism