Utopianism, Lenin, etc.
PHIJIML at ubvms.cc.buffalo.edu
Thu Oct 13 20:24:02 MDT 1994
Thanks to Philip Goldstein and Paul Cockshott for their detailed
responses to my posting on Lenin. I will try to reply to some of
the points raised. No doubt my answers will create more problems
than they solve, if they solve any.
1. Philip Goldstein asks about the "dictatorship of the
proletariat" and writes: "I thought that this notion originated
with Lenin, not Marx, who favored various forms of worker's
Lenin simply cites Marx's words in the Critique of the Gotha
Program: "Between capitalist and communist society lies the period
of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other.
Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in
which the state can be nothing but *the revolutionary dictatorship
of the proletariat*." (Marx Engels Collected Works, Vol. 24, 95;
stress by Marx.)
Lenin's idea was that the "dictatorship of the proletariat"
was a form of democracy, workers' democracy instead of "bourgeois
democracy", which is also, in substance, a bourgeois dictatorship.
The bourgeoisie exercize a de facto dictatorship even where they
use de jure democratic forms. I don't think there was a
significant difference between Marx and Lenin on this idea. The
proletarian dictatorship, exercized over the bourgeoisie, uses
forms of democracy. Both Marx and Lenin favored the "council"
("soviet") form of democracy over parliamentary democracy, where
representation is more removed from a "natural" electoral
constituency. Lenin agreed with Marx that the proletariat can come
to power, in some countries at least, through the exercize of
2. Phil asks whether one should adopt an "Hegelian theory of
history", seeing the future as growing up in the present, or take
a purely negative, "critical" approach to the existing society. I
have a strong opinion on this question, which I have elaborated in
"Marx's Theory of Socialisms: Nihilistic and Dialectical" (in
Louis Patsouras, ed., Debating Marx, Edwin Mellen Press, Lewiston,
New York, 1994.) I mentioned in my posting that one of the
theoretical consequences of the collapse of the socialist states
("state socialist" in my terminology) should be better attention
paid to Marx's critique of utopianism, understood as the proposal
to negate the existing society and replace it with something better
in accordance with some ideal.
I call this the nihilistic approach to socialism, and believe
that Stalinism expresses the spirit of such nihilistic socialism.
The non-nihilistic, "dialectical" approach emphasizes the idea of
the new coming into existence out of the old. Hence, transitional
forms between capitalism and mature communism should be stressed:
communism emerging within capitalism, the revolutionary
transformation of capitalism into communism, and communism still
dependent on elements of capitalism. This does not mean there is
no qualitative break, but there is also continuity. The new
communist society is still an immature one, and consequently still
dependent on "elements" of the old society. All of this does not
mean that we have to buy the whole Hegelian theory, with its
"teleological" conception of history that was criticized by
Althusser. But there is this "rational kernel".
Lenin was thinking in this spirit, and if he didn't reproduce
Marx's exact ideas, he was approaching the subject with the same
basic understanding of the need to facilitate a process of
emergence of a new society in the heart of the old. The problem
Lenin faced was that the "old" society in Russia was only recently
coming into existence itself. So if there is a "double transition"
in Marx -- the revolutionary transformation period in which there
is still a capitalist class, and the first phase of communism, as
communism stamped with the birthmarks of capitalism -- Lenin was
faced with a third transition, from a precapitalist society,
through capitalism as a tool of the pro-socialist state, to
socialism, as the first phase of communism, and then the maturing
of this socialist society into a developed communist one.
3. Paul Cockshott writes: "Lenin identified what Marx called
the first stage of communism with socialism - something that
Marx did not do." I see this as a question of terminology, at
least for Lenin. Conceptually, Lenin understood that what he
called "socialism" was what Marx called "the first phase of
communism". The distinction in terminology opened up the
possibility of a distinction in substance, however. Later Soviet
theory developed the idea of socialism as a separate mode of
production: no longer capitalist and not yet communist. Marx's
first phase of communism was already the communist mode of
production, but emerging out of capitalism and so still requiring
elements of or institutions of the old order.
Similarly, capitalism had a first phase when what had become
primarily capitalist economies still required a feudal form of the
state. Developed capitalism then jettisoned, or substantially
modified, the institutions of the old order that served to
facilitate its own development, and adopted other institutions that
reflected its distinctive characteristics -- such as the
parliamentary state. So I don't see any conceptual difference,
only a terminological one, between Lenin and Marx on this score.
Marx's use of one term for two phases of the single mode of
production -- whether that term is socialism or communism -- seems
to be the more appropriate one because less subject to distortion.
4. Paul argues that while Lenin, following Kautsky, thought that
the first phase of communism ("socialism") would have a money
economy, Marx proposed the idea of labor tokens representing the
hours of work a worker performed. I appreciate Paul's references
on this topic, and I am happy to read that he has an article, which
I plan to read as soon as I can get a copy.
In State and Revolution Lenin accepts Marx's idea of labor
coupons. In my paper I call this, I think, a quasi-monetary
system, or something to that effect. The point I make is that
goods are still bought and sold. In that sense, there must still
be "exchange". But this is not exchange as in the capitalist
society. Exchange does not *dominate* the economy. Exchange is
"used" by a society which is *predominantly* not based on exchange.
In the evolution from money to capital there are stages. My idea,
which I think corresponds to the idea of labor tokens, is just
this: In the transition from a capitalist economy to communism,
there should be a transitional form of money which is no longer
money in the full sense -- just as the proletarian state is a state
in the process of cancelling itself out as a state. So if Marx
does not think labor tokens should be called money, what should we
call them? They still perform some of the functions of historical
The essential feature of the "socialist" society is the
elimination of labor power as a commodity, the paying of workers
according to the value of their labor. This, it seems to me, is
the essence of "planning" (the conscious expression of the will of
society in economic relations) in the first phase of communism --
not control by the state over the quantity, quality and prices of
4. Paul writes: "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
The main idea I find in Marx is that between capitalism and
communism there is not a sudden break, the elimination of the old
society and the creation of something radically different. The new
society emerges from within the old. Marx, also in Capital, writes
of cooperatives, which he calls shoots of the new society already
in the old one. The cooperatives were producing for exchange, in
competition with capitalist enterprises. If this is already the
"shoots" of communism, then we don't have to wait until every
distinctive feature of capitalism has been eliminated before we can
start talking about communism.
For the shoots of communism to flourish, Marx insisted, a
workers state was necessary. A bourgeois state would not allow
such a development to reach its natural fulfilment. This is a
qualitative break on the political level, the "dictatorship of the
proletariat", which Marx and Engels once called "winning the battle
of democracy". The qualitative break on the economic level is a
shift of the balance of economic forces such that workers on the
whole no longer sell their labor power, but are paid on the basis
of the value of their labor (though not the whole of that value).
Granting that the logic of commodity production leads to all
the contradictions of capitalism, is it necessary that the solution
to these contradictions takes place all at once, in one fell swoop?
Paul writes of doing away with capitalism once and for all. What
does that mean in practice? Does it mean that this goal of
communists has to be accomplished all at once, or not at all? Why
is it impossible to eliminate the decisive problem with capitalist
commodity production, i.e., the treatment of labor power as a
commodity, as a first step in solving the contradictions of
commodity production? The solution to that problem, it seems to
me, will make it very unlikely that the remaining aspects of
commodity production will regenerate the whole system once again.
Of course that is possible. But the attempt to eliminate commodity
production *in one step* may be even more likely to lead to a
regeneration of capitalism.
5. Paul Cockshott asks: "Does Marx actually write of the
transformation period being one `of a market-place competition
between capitalist and proletarian industries'?"
No. The idea, as I think I stated in my first posting, comes
from Engels' "The Principles of Communism", which was a sort of
first draft of the Communist Manifesto. Engels wrote the following
plank of the Communist program: "2. Gradual expropriation of
landed proprietors, factory owners, railway and shipping magnates,
partly through competition on the part of the state industry and
partly directly through compensation in assignations." (MECW, Vol.
6, 350.) In a letter to Marx, Engels assures Marx that there is
nothing in the "Principles" that they hadn't agreed on. The
Manifesto, written a few months later, neither affirms not denies
this idea. By the way, "confiscation" of property, Engels writes,
should occur only in the case of rebels or emigrants. Again, this
idea is not stated so clearly in the Manifesto, but is compatible
with what is said in the Manifesto. (Or so it seems to me.)
The Manifesto does speak of the expropriation of capitalist
property "by degrees". It is a gradual process -- though often
expressed in "nihilistic" language that misleadingly evokes an
image of rapid confiscation of property by force. The fact that
one of the measures in the Manifesto program is an inheritance tax
implies that capitalism is expected to last at least one or two
generations after the proletarian revolution.
6. I can't go into Marx's idea of buying out the capitalists,
which I cited from Lenin, because I haven't been able to find the
reference. If it's spurious then we have Lenin to blame. The
Progress edition of the Tax in Kind cites "Engels' work, The
Peasant Question in France and Germany, from the Marx-Engels
Selected Works, Vol II, Moscow 1958, p. 438." I haven't been able
to find this in the Collected Works, and haven't yet looked through
the German edition. Does anyone know the dates of this work?
7. Paul's reference to China is indeed to the point. My paper is
a kind of justification of the economical aspects of the current
Chinese approach, which I think has been written off prematurely by
much of the left. He writes that "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." I am not able to refute Paul's empirical claims about
what is going on in China, but I hear also different reports and
scenarios. The Chinese state benefits from the capitalist profit-
making, taking a substantial share for itself. If it uses this
money to strengthen the public economy, then it is being returned
to the Chinese people. There is also the issue of municipal
cooperatives, which are I understand a growing and dynamic feature
of the present situation. I have read recently that 7% of the
Chinese work force is in the self-employed or capitalist sector
(Beijing Review, March 14-20, 1994.) A Chinese "dissident" who is
working as an economist in the U.S. described in a lecture
considerable improvement of the lot of Chinese peasants in a
village to which he was expelled during the Cultural revolution.
The point Paul makes depends on existence of unemployment.
Capitalists can undercut the socialist sector if there is
unemployment. Once more Engels' "Principles" seems to me to be
most revealing. Another of the planks of the Communist program is:
"4. Organization of the labour or employment of the proletarians
on national estates, in national factories and workshops, thereby
putting an end to competition among the workers themselves and
compelling the factory owners, as long as they still exist, to pay
the same increased wages as the State." (MECW, vol. 6, 350.) If
the socialist sector is able to put the unemployed to work, at
relatively high pay rates, this would force the capitalists to pay
higher wages as well. It is not inevitable that the reverse
process occurs in the competition between capitalist and socialist
In the current U.S. economy it seems to me that there are
inherent economic advantages to worker-owned cooperatives. They
should be able to compete with capitalist firms of comparable size
while the worker-owners earn better incomes. Isn't this what the
Mondragon system of cooperatives in Spain shows?
8. Paul's detailed discussion of War Communism merits close
consideration. I am sceptical of the idea that the reason War
Communism failed was that it didn't go far enough in the
elimination of capitalist features of the society. His critique of
War Communism and the later methods of planning under Stalin are
very plausible. The thrust of his argument depends, however, on
there being an alternative model, depending, it seems, on labor
tokens being used instead of "money". I hope to read Paul's
article on this soon.
phijiml at ubvms.cc.buffalo.edu
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