Is the NEP or the welfare state socialism?

James Lawler PHIJIML at
Wed Apr 12 18:10:09 MDT 1995

Referring to my paper at the Socialist Scholars Conference, Louis
Proyect writes:

"The  central idea in it is that the NEP was actually the type of
socialism that Lenin would have preferred to seen built in the
USSR had he lived.  Furthermore, the NEP was more consistent with
classical Marxist notions of the transition to communism than the
latter model adopted  by Stalin (but supported by Trotsky as
well) that incorporated 5 year plans, extensive state ownership,
etc. Of course, to get the full  dimensions of Lawler's thoughts
on the matter, I suggest FTP'ing his paper [in the Marxism

After this summary, he then criticizes my paper and that of Phil
Harvey (the third paper, with a similar orientation, was by
Sidney Gluck):

"Both speakers drew analogies with the transition from feudalism
to  capitalism. This transition took centuries and the 2 property
forms co-existed for a long time. In the transition from
capitalism to socialism,  we will see something of the same
nature. There will be state-owned  enterprises, worker buy-outs
of private companies, state regulation of  the market, etc. This
will increase until the capitalist is squeezed out, in the same
manner as the feudal baron was eventually squeezed out."

"I reject this notion since it is based on a false analogy.
Capitalism took root and spread for a very simple reason. It was
a  more dynamic system than feudalism. Since it is based on
commodity  exchange, it overturns existing social relations in
its relentless drive  for profit. It tends to revolutionize the
means of production and uproot traditional social relations. In
essence, it is like an avalanche whose  thrust is nearly
impossible to resist.

"No such case can be made for the type of "socialist" forms that
Lawler and the other speaker upheld as models. Workers'
cooperatives in  Spain, Sweden or Nicaragua are not the
equivalent of the Italian city-states of the 14th and 15th
centuries. There is no internal economic law which will fuel the
growth of such forms as was the case in the early stages of
capitalism. Such forms are weak, evanescent and totally
dependent on the relationship of class forces in a given country
at a  given time. For example, in Nicaragua, the cooperatives
that sprang to life under the Sandinista government are now
evaporating. So, for that  matter, are the main features of the
welfare state in the advanced  capitalist countries. The Gingrich
revolution's goal is to dismantle the legacy of the New Deal,
while in Europe Social Democracy is evolving in a Clintonian
direction. The welfare state is in jeopardy.

"There is no analogy between the transition from feudalism to
capitalism and the transition from capitalism to socialism. All
capitalism does is create a larger and larger mass of
proletarians. It throws them together in larger and larger
industrial enterprises, in larger and larger urban
concentrations, while increasing the rate of exploitation day by
day. The global restructuring along the lines of GATT and NAFTA
that is taking place today is nothing less than the continuing
march of capital that began in the 15th century and was only
briefly interrupted in the period from 1917 to 1987. Socialism
will not come into existence gradually with the introduction of
cooperatives, social legislation, etc. It will come into
existence through the violent but defensive revolutionary
struggle of the oppressed who will then use the power of the
state to consciously regulate economic production and
distribution. Any other notions of the transition from
capitalism to socialism are simply self-deceptions.

Louis Proyect (unrepentant Bolshevik)"

     I agree that socialist developments will not come to
fruition in a purely spontaneous manner, without political
struggle, without a proletarian-based, socialist state.  But I
disagree that there is no analogy between the transition from
capitalism to socialism, and that from feudalism and capitalism.
Political revolutions were also necessary for the bourgeoisie to
consolidate its own economic progress.

     In my paper I tried to expound the thought of another
Bolshevik, V.I. Lenin.  I argue that there was a split in the
Bolshevik party between proponents of what I call "dialectical
socialism" (especially Lenin) and those who represent what I call
"nihilistic socialism".

     The essence of dialectical socialism is the idea that
socialism (or communism) emerges from within capitalism.  This
was Marx's idea when he said, in the German Ideology, that
"Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be
established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust
itself.  We call communism the real movement which abolishes the
present state of things."  In connection with the Paris Commune,
Marx wrote that the working people "have no ideals to realize,
but to set free elements of the new society with which old
collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant."  So communism
is not something for the future, but a present actuality,
emerging within capitalism.  It is a product of capitalism that
needs to be liberated from the confines of capitalism.  It is not
something that we make up or decide on later, but something that
is coming into existence now.

     Marx's Capital was not just a negative refutation of
capitalism.  It was also an "ultrasound" outline of the elements
of the new society with which the old is pregnant.  This is what
Marx was doing when he wrote that the Factory Acts, limiting
child labor and the length of the working day, constituted "the
first conscious and methodical reaction of society against the
spontaneously developed form of the process of production".  In
Volume III, he went further, writing of "The co-operative
factories of the labourers themselves represent within the old
form the first sprouts of the new".

     In his late essay "On Cooperatives", Lenin reexamined the
idea of cooperatives:   "to build a complete socialist society
out of co-operatives, out of co-operatives alone, which we
formerly ridiculed as huckstering..."  Both Marx and Lenin were
clear that no socialism would come into existence simply through
the spontaneous growth of cooperatives.  A working-class state is
needed to prevent the bourgeoisie from "fettering" the
developments occurring within bourgeois society -- cooperatives,
regulations of the working day, etc., scientific and
technological advances making labor more many-sided and creative,
etc.  Louis Project gives a summary of the fettering activities,
the roadblocks placed in the way of the emergence of socialism.
In my paper I argued that capitalist globalization is tearing
apart the achievements of the welfare state.  That workers of the
world must unite is finally, in our times, more than a noble

     But these acts of fettering should not obscure the emergence
of those elements that contradict capitalist property relations.
Socialists should identify, defend and promote them.  The role of
the working class state is to facilitate these developments, not
to substitute its own state-controlled system of economic
management.  Recognition of the importance of gaining political
power should not be confused with the idea of a state-run

     Louis Proyect does not see any positive developments
occurring within capitalism, any outlines of the new society,
other than the mere fact of growing concentrations of workers,
who will eventually have the power of organized numbers to sweep
away capitalism and create something different.  This is an
essentially negative attitude to capitalism.  It is the idea that
capitalism is producing nothing that is worth preserving under
socialism, that it is only producing its gravediggers.  This
approach is what I mean by "nihilistic socialism".  It was the
attitude of many Bolsheviks who had little patience with the
complex economy of the NEP and consequently, under Stalin's
leadership, finally decided to create some kind of "pure"
socialism.  But this wasn't Lenin's basic idea.  Hence he
proposed the scandalous -- to nihilistic socialists -- idea of
"building socialism with bourgeois hands".

     I did not argue that socialism will emerge through some kind
of automatic process, independent of struggle and the relation of
class forces.  Of course, worker-owned cooperatives will be weak
in a capitalist world.  But this does not mean there is no
"internal economic law" that pushes workers and society in this
direction.  I picked up a paper by Seymore Melman, who
participated at the conference, in which he argued that workers
are being forced to consider buy-outs as a final resort to run-
away companies under global capitalism.  But with experience,
this option appears in a more and more favorable light.  The
predominance of the state-socialist model has led socialists to
look down on cooperatives as mere "huckstering", as too
contaminated with bourgeois features, and so not worthy of our
support.  The discredit into which the state-socialist model has
fallen is leading many socialists to reemphasize this idea of
cooperatives.  There is certainly the danger that some will
regard this as a panacea and as an automatic process.  Against
this we should be appreciative of the warnings of Comrade

--Jim Lawler
phijiml at

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