What Is Socialism?
Socialism, as most Marxists agree, is an economic system based in public ownership over the means of production rather than private ownership, central planning rather than the anarchy of production, and social production for the use of society rather than commodity production for the purpose of exchange.
“What will this new social order have to be like? Above all, it will have to take the control of industry and of all branches of production out of the hands of mutually competing individuals, and instead institute a system in which all these branches of production are operated by society as a whole — that is, for the common account, according to a common plan, and with the participation of all members of society. It will, in other words, abolish competition and replace it with association.”
— Friedrich Engels, “The Principles of Communism”
Most Marxists will also agree that the next mode of production following capitalism is the “lower phase of communism,” or, as Lenin described in short-hand, socialism. Following this would be the “higher phase of communism,” or, again in Lenin’s short-hand, communism.
This definition, however, inevitably leads you into certain logical problems, which, the inability to resolve these problems dialectically, have led Marxism to split off into camps with absolutely absurd views of what socialism is. This post is specifically written a response to what others have said. If you are new and simply looking to understand socialism from a Marxian perspective, you would be better of starting with this post here.
I will split the subject of my critique into two camps: the Center and the Left. The Center is mostly comprised of Marxist-Leninists who view modern Marxist-Leninists as “revisionists” who have deviated away from the true principles of Marxism-Leninism, and therefore, “true socialism” had existed up until roughly the 1970s before being abandoned. The Left is mostly comprised of so-called “classical” Marxists who reject Marxism-Leninism and, from their point of view, assert that “true socialism” has, in fact, never even existed at all.
From the definition given above, it is clear that no socialist country has ever fit this definition perfectly. The Soviet Union contained elements of commodity production, mostly in the cooperative sector, but there was also well-documented cases of non-cooperative ownership in the black markets.
The Center camp will respond to this with a few arguments.
The first is that this does not negate the country being socialist because the overwhelmingly dominant system was that of socialism, and thus the markets in the Soviet Union were restricted to the common plan, and hardly even qualified as capitalist markets at all.
The second refers to the fact that the non-state sector was full of worker cooperatives. Cooperatives do not exploit, and therefore are not capitalist. The third is purely a legal argument. Socialism is the abolition of private property _in the legal sense,_ and since private property was not legalized, it therefore was abolished and qualified as socialism.
However, all these arguments, when taken as a whole, inevitably lead us to absolute absurdities.
The first argument would inevitably be compatible with private property. If it is true that commodity production, when existing in a restricted form within the context of a socialist society, does not negate socialism, then why must this form exist in the form of cooperatives as it did in the Soviet Union? Surely this argument would still apply if the market sector was private. A tiny, subordinated private sector would not negate socialism, either.
“Hold on!,” they will say. “The difference is exploitation! We have done away with it!” Maybe so, but the definition of socialism is not “the lack of exploitation.” Based in this definition, an economy of worker cooperatives would qualify as socialism. Which is clearly in no way what Marx and Engels meant. I also dismantle the idea that cooperatives count as socialist property at all in this post.
Socialism is public ownership, central planning, and social production. While there may be an argument to be had the capitalist mode of production was done away with (which Stalin himself makes, given the cooperatives could not buy and sell means of production), there is more to the definition of socialism than simply not being capitalism. It still had commodity production and decentralized property, and even more than this, the low level of development very quickly led to a rise in private ownership in the black market.
“But wait!,” they will retort. “Abolition of private property is a legal thing. The law says private property is illegal. Black markets don’t count!” No. This is a rejection of materialism and embracing idealism. The law alone does not determine your mode of production. The mode of production is a combination of the relations of production and the productive forces. The productive forces are material things, and the relations of production are determined by them, largely against our own free will. One cannot establish socialism in ancient times simply by decreeing it into existence.
Laws often come into existence long after the mode of production is already established to a large degree. Feudalism, for example, had existed as feudalism long before anyone conceived of feudal law. Feudal law was placed on top of an already existing system, but the relations of production had already come into existence naturally as a result of the development of the productive forces.
“It is a mistake to imagine that those territorial jurisdictions took their origin from the feudal law. Not only the highest jurisdictions both civil and criminal, but the power of levying troops, of coining money, and even that of making bye-laws for the government of their own people, were all rights possessed allodially by the great proprietors of land several centuries before even the name of the feudal law was known in Europe. The authority and jurisdiction of the Saxon lords in England appear to have been as great before the Conquest as that of any of the Norman lords after it. But the feudal law is not supposed to have become the common law of England till after the Conquest. That the most extensive authority and jurisdictions were possessed by the great lords in France allodially long before the feudal law was introduced into that country is a matter of fact that admits of no doubt. That authority and those jurisdictions all necessarily flowed from the state of property and manners just now described.”
— Adam Smith, “Wealth of Nations”
When Marx talked about the abolition of private property, it is quite clear he did not mean this simply as a legal thing, but a result of the development of the productive forces. I explain in detail in this post how Marx argued that changes in the relations of production inevitably flow from changes in the productive forces. I also explain in this post why he viewed the conditions for public property as inevitably flowing from the development of the productive forces under capitalism.
There would be a change in laws, surely, but the development of the productive forces must first proceed it. There is simply no way to claim that converting the private sector into a cooperative sector in any way is what Marx meant by the abolition of private property. This is an absurdity. Yet, this absurdity is repeated by many so-called Marxists.
Spontaneous small producers will appear naturally as a consequence of an underdeveloped economy. Marx clearly did not mean, when he talked of the abolition of private property, to simply use state power to disperse these small producers. In fact, this was a viewpoint Lenin was critical of. He did not advocate for a reversal of the historical process, but instead, these small producers could legally carry on their enterprise, as they will develop the productive forces necessary for socialism in the process.
“Inasmuch as we are as yet unable to pass directly from small production to socialism, some capitalism is inevitable as the elemental product of small production and exchange; so that we must utilise capitalism (particularly by directing it into the channels of state capitalism) as the intermediary link between small production and socialism, as a means, a path, and a method of increasing the productive forces.”
— Vladimir Lenin, “The Tax In Kind”
“Wait wait, sure private property may have existed and so did cooperatives with commodity production, but again, you miss the point that the dominant system was one of socialism and these were only minor forms!”
Here is where the biggest criticism I have of the Center comes in. They want to have their cake and eat it too. First, they will assert that these non-socialist characteristics of these countries do not count because the dominant system was socialist. But then they will turn around and say that the system was purely socialist because private property had been abolished legally.
They both, one one hand, deny the purity, but then on the other hand, insist on purity. They will allow for a system like the Soviet Union to qualify as socialist despite it being filled with internal contradictions, but then will turn around and claim countries like the Cuba, for example, was socialist all the way up until 2019 when they legally started to recognize private property in the constitution. The country is still dominated by public ownership and planning with the private sector making up only about 25% of the entire workforce, and most of these being the self-employed. Yet, still, the Center, which supposedly denies purity, will assert Cuba is no longer socialist for no longer being pure.
There is a massive contradiction between their two positions. Socialism, for them, is both determined by the dominant system, but also the purity of its system at the same time. If a hint of private property is recognized within an overwhelmingly dominant planned economy, it ceases to be socialist. Yet, large-scale commodity production and even private property in the black market do not count against it being socialist, because the overwhelming system is socialist.
This is a complete absurdity.
The Left faction, on the other hand, loves these absurdities, because it support their claim that “real socialism has never been tried,” and will instead claim the Soviet Union was capitalist. For them, the contradiction is resolved simply by asserting socialism must exist in its “pure form” and that the “dominant form” argument put forwards by the Center is incorrect. Any hint of commodity production, any hint of private property even in the black market, it all serves to prove the Soviet Union was not socialist but capitalist. If all these things are abolished, then, necessarily, so must the state, classes, and money be abolished as well. The Left faction will thus hold that socialism is a stateless, moneyless, and classless society, just as communism is.
However, this position, equally, leads to absurdities.
Let’s imagine trying to apply this line of thinking to any other mode of production. If any hint of private ownership, commodity production, and the anarchy of production in a socialist society would serve to prove it is not socialist, then, by logical necessity, any hint of public ownership, social production, and economic planning in a capitalist society would serve to prove it is not capitalist. Real capitalism, therefore, just like socialism, can be proven to have never been tried.
This also leads to another absurdity. There is an enormous gulf between these two systems. How, then, does one transition between capitalism and socialism? If a mode of production can only exist in its most pure form, then how does one mode of production transition into the next? Necessarily, it must be an instantaneous jump, from one pure form to another. It fundamentally cannot be any other way.
The Left will try to resolve this contradiction typically by inserting a “transition period” between capitalism and socialism. They will take Marx’s a quote from Marx supporting the idea that between these two periods, there is a new period of transition, this being the dictatorship of the proletariat.
“Between capitalist and communist society there 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.”
— Karl Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Programme”
Here the Left finds the “resolution” to its contradiction. Pure capitalism jumps to a “transition period” which is neither capitalism nor socialism. Then, at some point, this period becomes pure socialism, and it is at this moment that socialism is achieved.
This, however, again, leads us into absurdities.
First, in this diagram shown above, every box constitutes a mode of production except for the DOTP. The DOTP is clearly not a mode of production but refers to the form of the state. Marx does not say the transition period is the dictatorship of the proletariat, but that within this period, “the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.” This describes the state, not the mode of production. So placing it within a sequence like this makes no sense.
Second, it does not even fully resolve the problem we started with. It still inevitably leads you to the conclusion that “real capitalism has never been tried,” as this transition period only comes into existence after the proletarian revolution. Clearly, the United States, for example, does not have a dictatorship of the proletariat. Yet, it also has is covered in large-scale monopolies and oligopolies which plan a significant portion of its economy. It also has a public sector, with roughly 1 out of every 8 workers working in the public sector. The United States clearly is not an ideal, pure form of capitalism. It neither fits into the box for “capitalism” nor does it fit into the box for “DOTP.”
In fact, if we go back to Marx, this problem gets even worse.
Here are the transitions of prior systems. Marx explains in detail how one system evolved into the next, yet never in his descriptions does he claim that each system is only defined in its “pure” form. Feudal society still had slavery to some degree, which Marx clearly relegated as a defining characteristic of ancient society. Does that mean feudal society was still ancient?
What about the transition from feudalism to capitalism? Plenty of capitalist countries still retained a peasantry for a long time. Russia before the Bolshevik revolution is often described as “semifeudal.” When exactly does feudalism become capitalism? When the entirety of the peasantry is gone?
This viewpoint leads to even more confusion. Marx was calling for a workers’ revolution all throughout Europe. All of Europe.
“A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies.”
— Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party”
Yet, we also know that much of Europe still had a peasantry at this time.
“In the west of Germany, as in France and Belgium, there prevails the small-scale cultivations of small-holding peasants, the majority of whom own and the minority of whom rent their parcels of land.”
— Friedrich “The Peasant Question in France and Germany”
If not being “pure” capitalism means it must be feudalism, then this would mean most of Europe was feudal! Why would Marx call for a socialist revolution in feudal countries? This makes little sense. It is quite clear even from reading the Manifesto he viewed the capitalist transition as having been something that already took place.
“We see then: the means of production and of exchange, on whose foundation the bourgeoisie built itself up, were generated in feudal society. At a certain stage in the development of these means of production and of exchange, the conditions under which feudal society produced and exchanged, the feudal organisation of agriculture and manufacturing industry, in one word, the feudal relations of property became no longer compatible with the already developed productive forces; they became so many fetters. They had to be burst asunder; they were burst asunder. Into their place stepped free competition, accompanied by a social and political constitution adapted in it, and the economic and political sway of the bourgeois class.”
— Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party”
Those who insist that the transition period is capitalist all the way up until every vestige of capitalism has been dismantled, this interpretation makes little sense when trying to apply it to any other mode of production in history. Even Britain today still has a vestigial monarchy. If one were to say that this monarchy “really doesn’t have much power,” then it creates an internal contradiction. Clearly vestiges are not alone what determines a system, but what is ultimately in power.
Read the last quote. Marx did not describe the transition from feudalism to capitalism as the entirety of all vestiges of feudalism being dismantled. Rather, it is the economic and political sway of the bourgeois class. This new class becomes the dominant economic and political force.
How does the Left resolve this absurdity? They often will then try to make a special case for socialism. “Ah, you see, socialism is a special case! Only socialism has to be pure. No other system does!”
Never will you find anyone in the Left faction who can actually give any coherent reason to why socialism should be a special case, nor does any of Marx’s writings justify this. Often they will just constantly refer to quotes of the definition of socialism. For example, they will point to Engels’s definition of socialism, or even Lenin saying “socialism means the abolition of classes,” and use this as proof it must exist in the pure form.
However, I can use this same dishonest argumentation to prove any system must exist in its pure form. For example, Engels provides a definition for medieval feudal society.
“Mediaeval Society — Individual production on a small scale. Means of production adapted for individual use; hence primitive, ungainly, petty, dwarfed in action. Production for immediate consumption, either of the producer himself or his feudal lord. Only where an excess of production over this consumption occurs is such excess offered for sale, enters into exchange. Production of commodities, therefore, only in its infancy. But already it contains within itself, in embryo, anarchy in the production of society at large.”
— Friedrich Engels, “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific”
Here he defines feudalism as individual production on a small scale. This means that if I can find a single case of large-scale production, then I can prove the society was not “true feudalism.” Yet, even in feudal societies, large-scale projects were quite common. The construction of great castles, great walls, infrastructure projects to cultivate farmland or dig canals, etc. Of course, one could argue these are exceptions and not the rule, carried out as projects by the aristocracy but did not reflect the overall mode of production with society at large. However, by admitting this, you admit that definitions are general categories and do not have to exist in their pure form, thereby conceding that simply citing definitions of what socialism is does not prove it must exist in its pure form.
We can repeat this argument on Engels’s definition of capitalism as well.
“Capitalist Revolution — transformation of industry, at first be means of simple cooperation and manufacture. Concentration of the means of production, hitherto scattered, into great workshops. As a consequence, their transformation from individual to social means of production — a transformation which does not, on the whole, affect the form of exchange. The old forms of appropriation remain in force. The capitalist appears. In his capacity as owner of the means of production, he also appropriates the products and turns them into commodities. Production has become a social act. Exchange and appropriation continue to be individual acts, the acts of individuals. The social product is appropriated by the individual capitalist. Fundamental contradiction, whence arise all the contradictions in which our present-day society moves, and which modern industry brings to light.”
— Friedrich Engels, “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific”
Here, Engels specifically mentions that concentration of the means of production has brought the scattered individual producers into social producers, that they operate under large workshops, and appropriation is carried on by individual capitalists. Therefore, if peasantry still exists, or even public or cooperative ownership of enterprise, then we can prove that, according to Engels, it would not be “not true capitalism?”
Here I only seek to demonstrate that simply citing a definition of socialism, like the one shown at the beginning of this post, or Lenin saying “socialism means the abolition of classes,” does not, in any way, prove it must exist in its pure form. This inevitably leads one into absurdities. Categorical definitions are always generalities and not meant to describe the absolute pure state of affairs.
There is no reason to make socialism a special case apart from all other modes of production. There is no reason to insist it must exist in its pure form. Yet, the Center also insists it must exist in its pure form, at least legally, and only with regards to private property rights. So what is the solution here?
Very simply, to reject both the Left’s assertion that socialism must exist in its pure form, and the Center’s assertion that socialism must exist legally in its pure form, and instead embrace the idea that modes of production are defined by the dominant mode of production that actually materially exists within that system, regardless of laws.
This mode of thinking, the rejection of pure categories, is the basis of dialectical thinking. The assumption that we must stick to absolutely pure categories comes from a false metaphysical view that things in nature cannot contain contradictions within themselves. A socialist system that contains some level of private ownership, or a capitalist system that contains some level of public ownership, are contradictory, and therefore cannot exist. However, this is a false view, as contradictions do indeed exist in the real world.
“…contradiction=absurdity, and therefore cannot occur in the real world. People who in other respects show a fair degree of common sense may regard this statement as having the same self-evident validity as the statement that a straight line cannot be a curve and a curve cannot be straight. But, regardless of all protests made by common sense, the differential calculus under certain circumstances nevertheless equates straight lines and curves, and thus obtains results which common sense, insisting on the absurdity of straight lines being identical with curves, can never attain…True, so long as we consider things as at rest and lifeless, each one by itself, alongside and after each other, we do not run up against any contradictions in them…But the position is quite different as soon as we consider things in their motion, their change, their life, their reciprocal influence on one another. Then we immediately become involved in contradictions.”
— Friedrich Engels, “Anti-Durhing”
If we assume that a mode of production can, indeed, contain contradictory elements within itself, then we must also ask, if all systems are full of internal contradictions, then what defines the system? Very simply, whatever is dominant. Whatever is dominant within that simple will qualitatively define the system. All other subordinated aspects in the system will be unable to act to their fullest extent, will be restricted by the dominant system that exists above them.
Public ownership within a capitalist framework, for example, does not constitute socialism. While public ownership exists in contradiction with capitalism, it also is subordinated by capitalism. The state wields little power over the bourgeoisie who control the vast majority of all economic power, and the bourgeoisie end up controlling the state rather than the other way around. The weakness of the state also restricts its actions, as it must act within the confines of an overwhelming market economy which it has little control over. The state therefore is restricted and subordinated under the overall bourgeois society, and thus takes on characteristics of this bourgeois society.
“State-ownership…does not do away with the capitalistic nature of the productive forces…the modern State, again, is only the organization that bourgeois society takes on in order to support the external conditions of the capitalist mode of production against the encroachments as well of the workers as of individual capitalists. 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 does it actually become 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.”
— Friedrich Engels, “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific”
Capitalism does not need to exist in its pure form in order to be capitalism, because as long as it is the overwhelmingly dominant form, then any other form will become subordinated to it. The change in the dominant form leads to qualitative change from one economic system to the next. A change in the dominant system constitutes a qualitative change of the entire system as a whole. In the Soviet Union, the existence of commodity production did not negate its socialism, as commodity production was subordinated system that was restricted in how far it could act. It existed in contradiction to socialism, but did not negate the system as qualitatively socialist, because it was bound within the confines of the socialist system, and forced to serve the overall socialist system.
“Commodity production must not be regarded as something sufficient unto itself, something independent of the surrounding economic conditions. Commodity production is older than capitalist production. It existed in slave-owning society, and served it, but did not lead to capitalism. It existed in feudal society and served it, yet, although it prepared some of the conditions for capitalist production, it did not lead to capitalism. Why then, one asks, cannot commodity production similarly serve our socialist society for a certain period without leading to capitalism, bearing in mind that in our country commodity production is not so boundless and all-embracing as it is under capitalist conditions, being confined within strict bounds thanks to such decisive economic conditions as social ownership of the means of production, the abolition of the system of wage labour, and the elimination of the system of exploitation?”
— Joseph Stalin, “Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR”
If we were to accept this interpretation, that a system can indeed contain contradictions within itself, then we can also easily solve the problem which the Left has been incapable of forming a coherent solution for, of how capitalism transitions into socialism.
If a system can contain contradictions within itself, then it is possible for the first of two qualitatively different systems to transition into the second without asserting there must be a giant leap between two distinct, pure, and rigid categories.
“For a stage in the outlook on nature where all differences become merged in intermediate steps, and all opposites pass into one another through intermediate links, the old metaphysical method of thought no longer suffices. Dialectics, which likewise knows no hard and fast lines, no unconditional, universally valid ‘either-or’ and which bridges the fixed metaphysical differences, and besides ‘either-or’ recognises also in the right place ‘both this-and that”’and reconciles the opposites, is the sole method of thought appropriate in the highest degree to this stage.”
— Friedrich Engels, “Dialectics of Nature”
Rather, the solution is simple. Capitalism contains contradictions within itself. Such as, social production, public ownership, central planning, etc. The more capitalism develops, the more these contradictions grow, the more it replaces commodity production with social production, in the process, slowly eroding its own foundations.
“Then came the concentration of the means of production and of the producers in large workshops and manufactories, their transformation into actual socialized means of production and socialized producers. But the socialized producers and means of production and their products were still treated, after this change, just as they had been before — i.e., as the means of production and the products of individuals. Hitherto, the owner of the instruments of labor had himself appropriated the product, because, as a rule, it was his own product and the assistance of others was the exception. Now, the owner of the instruments of labor always appropriated to himself the product, although it was no longer his product but exclusively the product of the labor of others. Thus, the products now produced socially were not appropriated by those who had actually set in motion the means of production and actually produced the commodities, but by the capitalists. The means of production, and production itself, had become in essence socialized. But they were subjected to a form of appropriation which presupposes the private production of individuals, under which, therefore, every one owns his own product and brings it to market. The mode of production is subjected to this form of appropriation, although it abolishes the conditions upon which the latter rests.”
— Friedrich Engels, “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific”
At first, these changes do not change the system as a whole. They are small, quantitative changes, which accumulate more and more over a large period of time. However, eventually, they accumulate to such a degree that the entire system topples over, that a new mode of production is quickly replaced by it and takes the dominant form. It is at this point when he qualitative change occurs.
“In so far as in Measure quality and quantity are only in immediate unity, to that extent their difference presents itself in a manner equally immediate. Two cases are then possible. Either the specific quantum or measure is a bare quantum, and the definite being (there−and−then) is capable of an increase or a diminution, without Measure (which to that extent is a Rule) being thereby set completely aside. Or the alteration of the quantum is also an alteration of the quality. The identity between quantity and quality, which is found in Measure, is at first only implicit, and not yet explicitly realised. In other words, these two categories, which unite in Measure, each claim an independent authority. On the one hand, the quantitative features of existence may be altered, without affecting its quality. On the other hand, this increase and diminution, immaterial though it be, has its limit, by exceeding which the quality suffers change.”
— Georg Hegel, “The Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences”
This is the dialectical law of the transformation of quantity into quality.
Very easily, all the absurdities of the Left and the Center become resolved, and our conception of what socialism is, and how the transition period commences, becomes clear as noonday. Socialism does not need to exist in its “pure” form, rather, it only needs to be dominant system.
This also leads us into a rejection of another false conception held by the Center and the Left. Both share in the false conception that the contradictions of capitalism continue to build until capitalism topples over, and at this point, some form of “pure” socialism is built out of the rubble. The Center insists it is pure in the legal sense. The Left insists it is pure in all senses of the word.
Neither are true. The system that emerges by no means would be pure. There is absolutely no reason to assume that when the contradictions of capitalism have grown enough to topple the system, that at the same time, the material conditions are laid for the complete abolition of all private property.
As capitalism develops, it destroys its own foundations by converting commodity production into social production, by replacing competitive markets with centralized planned monopolies. It could very easily be the case that by the time capitalism is overthrown, there would exist enough productive forces to establish public ownership and planning as the basis of the economy, but not enough to establish socialism in its pure form.
Unless capitalism has developed to the degree that the entire economy is under one giant monopoly, then there is no reason to suspect that the overthrow of capitalism would lead to a pure socialist economy. But there is also no reason to believe capitalism would not be overthrown until it comes under the control of a single monopoly. It can easily fall before then.
It is clear, then, why Marx was calling for communist revolutions in countries that still had a peasantry. He did not expect them to fully abolish all private property. Rather, he expected only an “extension” of public ownership of the means of production , and then with a focus on rapid economic development, the rest of the private sector could be expropriated gradually, “by degree,” as the productive forces were prepared for it.
“The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible…Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State”
— Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, “Manifesto of the Communist Party”
To conclude, the qualitative change from capitalism to socialism occurs the moment when public ownership is able to take dominance, and the transition to a more and more complete form of socialism will only occur gradually. Defining socialism in terms of its purity and not in terms of a dominance of public ownership and central planning leads us to complete absurdities. At the same time, defining socialism purely in legal terms — that legal abolition of private property — leads us into even worse absurdities.
A dialectical understanding is the only understanding that paves the way out of these absurdities.
Some may criticize this as even though I showed the most rational interpretation is that there simply is no third economic system between capitalism and socialism, Marx did say there was a transition period in Critique of the Gotha Programme.
However, I would posit that this is simply a misinterpretation. A much more coherent interpretation is that the transition period does not refer to a position between capitalism and communism, but to the lower phase of communism itself. Let us take a look at some of the quote surrounding this passage.
“The question then arises: What transformation will the state undergo in communist society?…Now the program does not deal with this nor with the future state of communist society.”
— Karl Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Programme”
Of course, I know the common response. When Marx used the word “state” in the second sentence he meant “state” as in “state of affairs” not as in a “political state.” However, I doubt this interpretation.
“Das Programm nun hat es weder mit letzterer zu tun, noch mit dem zukünftigen Staatswesen der kommunistischen Gesellschaft.”
This is the same sentence in the German version. The word for “state” here is “Staatswesen,” which refers specifically to a political state and no other form. This also fits with the prior sentence, that Marx was indeed talking about the state within a communist society.
Prior to this, he also says, “…these defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society as it is when it has just emerged after prolonged birth pangs from capitalist society.” We know, then, that the first phase of a communist society will have defects, will have vestiges left over from the capitalist system. So it does not seem contradictory for Marx to then talk of the “state of communist society,” and to think the state would be one of these defects. This would lead us to the conclusion that the transition period here refers specifically to the lower phase itself.
“When, at last, it becomes the real representative of the whole of society, it renders itself unnecessary. 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 — 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 dies out 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 dies out. This gives the measure of the value of the phrase: “a free State”, both as to its justifiable use at times by agitators, and as to its ultimate scientific insufficiency; and also of the demands of the so-called anarchists for the abolition of the State out of hand.”
— Friedrich Engels, “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific”
This also helps us make sense of the concept of the state not simply “being abolished,” but “withering away.” The state still exists within socialism, but is in a process of dying out of itself. The more and more the vestiges of capitalism are destroyed within socialism, the more and more the state disappears.
“For the state to wither away completely, complete communism is necessary.”
— Vladimir Lenin, “The State and Revolution”
The interpretation of Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme here only makes logical and coherent sense if we were to interpret it as the transition period in of itself being the lower phase of communism, being socialism. There, again, is no third mode of production in between capitalism and socialism and no need to posit a jump from one pure system to the next.
Engels’s definition of socialism, as I provided at the top, is correct. But one must understand that systems can contain internal contradictions within itself. These internal contradictions lead to vestiges of prior systems, or even lay the foundations for a future system to come after it. The existence of internal contradictions do not disprove the system is one of socialism. Contradiction ≠ absurdity and can exist in the real world. Both positions I have critiqued here lead to nonsense conclusions, and only a dialectical interpretation of the transition from capitalism to socialism paves the way out.
It is important to understand my position here is not to say that things like commodity production or private property are compatible with socialism or communism, nor even is the state. Rather, these things, after a revolution, continue to exist in vestigial, subordinated, and minor forms, which will die down of themselves over time. The existence of the state especially is proof that all contradictions have yet to be resolved. It is not really a “socialist” state per say, but a vestige that exists in contradiction to socialism, and is a result of its low status of development.
“…the state is merely a transitional institution of which use is made in the struggle, in the revolution, to keep down one’s enemies by force, it is utter nonsense to speak of a free people’s state; so long as the proletariat still makes use of the state, it makes use of it, not for the purpose of freedom, but of keeping down its enemies and, as soon as there can be any question of freedom, the state as such ceases to exist.”
— Friedrich Engels, “Engels to August Bebel In Zwickau”
It would be a mistake to conclude that simply because one system can have contradictory and subordinated elements within itself, that means these elements are therefore compatible or desirable. While a socialist revolution may not immediately be able to fully eliminate the state or private property, and in fact can use these things only to further the construction of socialism, one should not the conclude that these things are socialist. They, in fact, exist in contradiction to it, and the transition to communism after socialism will be impossible until they are largely overcome.
The Left cannot help but seeing things metaphysically. All systems only exist in pure forms to them, and contradictions cannot exist, because it is absurd. Even though, as we have already discussed, contradictions do exist within every system. The Center can’t help but take an arbitrary legalist approach, where the definition of socialism simply comes down to what is written in laws. Both of these opinions are wrong and should be discarded.
Taking any other position than the one I have laid out here leads to logical absurdities which there is simply no way out of. Even if one were to assert my interpretation of Marx is wrong, this would not get you out of the logical conundrum, it would only lead you to the conclusion that Marx himself put forwards a logically fallacious idea of the transition of capitalism to socialism which should be discarded. Although, I think this is unfair to Marx, as most base these bad interpretations off of short works of Marx which could interpreted either way.
This point of view socialism can be summed up best by Mao Zedong.
“What is the method of synthesis? Is it possible that primitive society can exist side-by-side with slave-holding society? They do exist side-by-side, but this is only a small part of the whole. The overall picture is that primitive society is going to be eliminated…In a word, one devours another, one overthrows another, one class is eliminated, another class rises, one society is eliminated, another society rises. Naturally, in the process of development, everything is not all that pure. When it gets to feudal society, there still remains something of the slaveholding system, though the greater part of the social edifice is characterized by the feudal system. There are still some serfs, and also some bond-workers, such as handicraftsmen. Capitalist society isn’t all that pure either, and even in more advanced capitalist societies there is also a backward part. For example, there was the slave system in the Southern United States. Lincoln abolished the slave system, but there are still black slaves today, their struggle is very fierce. More than 20 million people are participating in it, and that’s quite a few. One thing destroys another, things emerge, develop, and are destroyed, everywhere is like this. If things are not destroyed by others, then they destroy themselves.”
— Mao Zedong, “Talk On Question of Philosophy”