Maoist Rebel News and Muke had a debate on whether or not the Soviet Union was socialist. During this debate they had the following exchange:
MRN: Marx doesn’t necessarily stand against the existence of profit inside of socialism because Marx didn’t actually write very much about what socialism is, he wrote more about what communism is than what socialism is.
Muke: . . . Marx says quite specifically almost in the critique of the gotha programme, one of the few places where he does talk about lower phase and higher phase communism, which, by the way he never made a distinction between socialism and communism.
MRN: socialism, communism are two different things
Muke: Well for Marx they’re not, he never made that distinction. There’s only lower phase communism and there’s
MRN: That’s not true
Muke: Really? Where does he?
MRN: Mode of production of socialism is transitory period between the two.
Muke: Um… No. He never said that.
MRN: Do you want a quote?
Muke: I’d love a quote
MRN: “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.”
Muke: Yer so that’s from part 4 or 3 of critique of the Gotha? At no point does he use the term socialist there. I totally admit that there is a transitionary period between capitalism and lower phase communism and that is the dictatorship of the proletariat. But Marx never said that this phase was socialism. That’s something Lenin introduced himself.
MRN: Even if that were true, that its something which Lenin invented, which I don’t believe is true, it would be an irrelevant point.
After the debate Maoist Rebel News wrote a blog post in which he said,
“Communism and Socialism are not the same things. His assertion that they are, is totally false. While Marx did not specifically theorize both of these stages of development, it is clear he was referring to two different things.
Communism is a stateless classless society, while he specifically says, “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.” (Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program (1875))
This is clearly differentiating between two things. One cannot have a state and not have a state at the same time. This is referring to two different periods of development. The state is part of the development towards communism.”
“Finally, I will deal with the very core of Xexizy’s argument, which relies on one hugely incorrect idea: communism and socialism are the same things. This claim essentially erases the transitory period between capitalism and communism even if Xexizy claims he doesn’t. He has done so by refusing to acknowledge them as two different things. Essentially, if the society doesn’t conform to the end result of communism, then, therefore, it is capitalism. Such a transformation cannot be carried out instantaneously, this is utopian anarchist garbage. A transitory period in which perfection does not exist is necessary. A building under construction is still a building even if you want to nitpick that it is not the final product. This almost a Nirvana fallacy. If we take him at his word that they are the same, then a higher and lower stage doesn’t exist according to him. He would do well to study quantity into quality as well.”
Maoist Rebel New’s view can be summarized as follows: Muke is wrong to think that Marx does not distinguish between socialism and communism because if communism is a stateless society and if Marx advocates a revolutionary state during the transition from capitalism to communism then there must be a mode of production in-between capitalism and communism which has a state. A mode of production cannot after all simultaneously be stateless and have a state. The mode of production which contains the dictatorship of the proletariat is socialism. Given this, Marx holds that the achievement of communism is a three step process during which society transitions from the capitalist mode of production to the socialist mode of production and from the socialist mode of production to the communist mode of production.
In arguing this Maoist Rebel News is operating on the false assumption that the only way to conceptualize the transition from capitalism to fully fledged communism is through the notion of an intermediary mode of production called socialism. Marx himself, as Muke correctly pointed out, did not distinguish between socialism and communism. Marx instead held that there was a single mode of production – communism – at two different moments of its development: communism during its phase of becoming, when it is arising out of capitalism and contains the dictatorship of the proletariat, and communism during its phase of being, when it is stateless. To explain what this means I will have explain to a) how Marx thinks about society, b) what Marx thought about the transition from feudalism to capitalism and c) what Marx thought about the transition from capitalism to communism. I shall discuss each in turn. Before I do so its important to note that the ideas presented here do not stem entirely from my own original research but are rather largely based on the ideas presented by the Marxist theorist Michael Lebowitz in his books The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development and The Socialist Imperative: From Gotha to Now, which I highly recommend.
Marx’s View of Society
For Marx society is a totality, or as he sometimes calls it, an organic system, composed of parts which come together to form a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. The parts which form the whole are not separate independent entities but rather co-exist with one another, mutually determine one another, co-define one another and support, constrain or damage one another. This perspective can be seen in the Poverty of Philosophy where Marx writes that an organic system is one “in which all the elements co-exist simultaneously and support one another”. (Marx and Engels 1976, 167) Marx similarly claims in the Grundrisse that “production, distribution, exchange and consumption . . . all form the members of a totality” in which “[m]utual interaction takes place between the different moments”, as is “the case with every organic whole.” (Marx 1993, 99-100)
On this view, to understand one part of society you have to understand how it is related to other parts of society and visa versa. You cannot, for example, understand racism in isolation from the rest of society because racism permeates different aspects of society, such as how black women are depicted on television. To understand racism, you therefore have to understand the relations between racism and other parts of society, such as patriarchy and television. Likewise, you cannot fully understand what patriarchy or television are in our society unless you understand how they are related to racism. Crucially the relations that stand between different parts of society themselves constitute what these different parts are. It’s not just that there are relations between racism and patriarchy but that part of what racism is, is its relations with patriarchy and part of what patriarchy is, is its relations with racism. You cannot understand one without understanding the other.
Given this framework, Marx holds that we must think about economic systems as totalities composed of parts that presuppose one another because each part is constituted through its relations with all the other parts. This perspective can be seen throughout Marx’s work. In the Grundrisse Marx writes that,
“in the completed bourgeois system every economic relation presupposes every other in its bourgeois economic form, and everything posited is thus also a presupposition, this is the case with every organic system.” (Marx 1993, 278)
Marx similarly writes in Wage Labour and Capital that,
“capital presupposes wage labour; wage labour presupposes capital. They reciprocally condition the existence of each other; they reciprocally bring forth each other.” (Marx 2000, 283)
Capitalism is therefore reproduced in so far as a chain of interlocking parts, which presuppose one another, continually create the necessary social relations that not only stand between each part but in addition constitute them. For Marx one of the prime examples of this was the process whereby capitalism continually reproduces the division between capitalists and workers. As Marx writes in Capital Volume I,
“The capitalist relation presupposes a complete separation between the workers and the ownership of the conditions for the realization of their labour. As soon as capitalist production stands on its own feet, it not only maintains this separation but reproduces it on a constantly extending scale.” (Marx 1990, 874)
This process of reproduction begins with capitalists who own the means of production and seek to make profits, and workers, who do not own means of production and so must, in order to reproduce themselves, sell their labour to a capitalist in exchange for a wage. As a result, a worker enters the labour market and competes with other workers for jobs. Once a worker has a job they engage in labour under the direction of a capitalist, who in turn appropriates the products produced by the worker. The capitalist proceeds to sell these products as commodities and pays the worker less than the value that they produce. The worker uses up their wage to buy commodities and thereby reproduce themselves, while the capitalist re-invests their profits in the business and is thereby able to keep earning profits. The cycle then begins again with a worker needing a wage to reproduce themselves and a capitalist needing workers to make profits from.
This narrative can be seen in the Grundrisse where Marx writes that,
“the result of the process of production and realization is, above all, the reproduction and new production of the relation of capital and labour itself, of capitalist and worker. . . the worker produces himself as labour capacity, as well as the capital confronting him, while at the same time the capitalist produces himself as capital as well as the living labour capacity confronting him. Each reproduces itself, by reproducing its other, its negation. The capitalist produces labour as alien; labour produces the product as alien. The capitalist produces the worker, and the worker the capitalist etc.” (Marx 1993, 458)
Marx likewise writes in Capital Volume 1 that,
“Capitalist production therefore reproduces in the course of its own process the separation between labour-power and the conditions of labour. It thereby reproduces and perpetuates the conditions under which the worker is exploited. It incessantly forces him to sell his labour-power in order to live, and enables the capitalist to purchase labour power in order that he may enrich himself. It is no longer a mere accident that capitalist and worker confront each other in the market as buyer and seller. It is the alternative rhythm of the process itself which throws the worker back onto the market again and again as a seller of his labour-power and continually transforms his own product into a means by which another man can purchase him. In reality, the worker belongs to capital before he has sold himself to the capitalist. His economic bondage is at once mediated through, and concealed by, the periodic renewal of the act by which he sells himself, his change of masters, and the oscillations in the market-price of his labour.
The capitalist process of production, therefore, seen as a total, connected process, i.e. a process of reproduction, produces not only commodities, not only surplus value, but also produces and reproduces the capital-relation itself; on the one hand the capitalist, on the other the wage labourer.” (Marx 1990, 723-4)
For capitalism to be a dominant mode of production is therefore for every economic relation to presuppose every other in its capitalist form, such as the economic relation of selling labour power presupposing the existence of a labour market which in turn presupposes production for profit, the private ownership of the means of production by capitalists, and workers having nothing to sell but their labour power.
Marx on the Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism
Society has of course not always been capitalist. Rather, capitalism became the dominant mode of production by displacing a previous economic system – feudalism – in which a very different set of economic relations presupposed one another. To understand the development of capitalism is therefore to understand how it came to establish the chain of interlocking parts that simultaneously constitute and reproduce it as an economic system. From now I will refer to this process as an economy developing its own foundations.
In the Grundrisse Marx conceptualized an economy developing its own foundations as follows,
“This organic system itself, as a totality, has its presuppositions, and its development to its totality consists precisely in subordinating all elements of society to itself, or in creating out of it the organs which it still lacks. This is historically how it becomes a totality. The process of becoming this totality forms a moment of its process, of its development.” (Marx 1993, 278)
In this passage Marx distinguishes between two different moments: when an organic system is in the “process of becoming” a totality and when an organic system is a “totality” or, to use the language Marx uses later in the Grundrisse, is “being”, rather than “becoming”. What exactly Marx means by this can be seen in his discussion of the development of capitalism. When capitalism was in the phase of becoming it established new social relations within and in reaction to the previous organic system, feudalism. He writes that,
“It must be kept in mind that the new forces of production and relations of production do not develop out of nothing, nor drop from the sky, nor from the womb of the self-positing Idea; but from within and in antithesis to the existing development of production and the inherited, traditional relations of property.” (Marx 1993, 278)
This can be seen in continental Europe which suffered,
“not only from the development of capitalist production, but also from the incompleteness of that development. Alongside the modern evils, we are oppressed by a whole series of inherited evils, arising from the passive survival of archaic and outmoded modes of production, with their accompanying train of anachronistic social and political relations. We suffer not only from the living, but from the dead.” (Marx 1990, 91)
According to Marx when capitalism was becoming it rested on parts from the previous economic system but once it had reached the phase of being and developed its own foundations it rested on parts that it creates itself as an economic system. This perspective can be seen in the Grundrisse where he writes that a capitalist bringing “values into circulation which he created with his own labour”, as opposed to that of a wage labourer, belongs to capitalism’s “historic presuppositions, which, precisely as such historic presuppositions, are past and gone, and hence belong to the history of its formation, but in no way to its contemporary history, i.e. not to the real system of the mode of production ruled by it.” In a similar fashion, “the flight of serfs to the cities is one of the historic conditions and presuppositions of urbanism” but “is not a condition, not a moment of the reality of developed cities”. It “belongs rather to their past presuppositions, to the presuppositions of their becoming which are suspended in their being.” Given this, “[t]he conditions and presuppositions of the becoming, of the arising, of capital presuppose precisely that it is not yet in being but merely in becoming.” Such conditions and presuppositions of the becoming of capitalism “disappear as real capital arises” and capital “itself, on the basis of its own reality, posits the conditions for its realization.” (Marx 1993, 459)
Importantly, not all of the parts which acted as preconditions for the becoming of capitalism disappeared once capitalism reached the phase of being. Some parts that were once preconditions for its becoming were transformed into aspects of its being that it itself produces. To return to the earlier example, in order for capitalism to develop it was necessary for a division between capitalist and worker to be established. Once capitalism had reached the phase of being this division was continuously reproduced by capitalism itself. Marx states this explicitly in the Grundrisse, where he writes
“capital creates its own presuppositions. . . by means of its own productive process. These presuppositions, which originally appeared as conditions for its becoming – and hence could not spring from its actions as capital – now appear as results of its own realisation, reality, as posited by it – not as conditions of its arising but as results of its presence. It no longer proceeds from presuppositions in order to become, but rather is itself presupposed, and proceeds from itself to create the conditions of its maintenance and growth.” (Marx 1993, 460)
To become an organic system is therefore to undergo a process of development whereby the foundational parts of the system come to be produced by the system itself, rather than its foundation still resting on historical parts inherited from a previous organic system. For Marx one of the main foundational parts created during the becoming of capitalism was a working class who not only reproduce capitalism but also view capitalist social relations as an inevitable and natural part of life. Marx writes in Capital Volume 1 that,
“The advance of capitalist production develops a working class which by education, training and habit looks upon the requirement of that mode of production as self-evident natural laws. The organization of the capitalist process of production, once it is fully developed, breaks down all resistance. The constant generation of a relative surplus population keeps the law of the supply and demand of labour, and therefore wages, within narrow limits which correspond to capital’s valorization requirements. The silent compulsion of economic relations sets the seal on the domination of the capitalist over the worker. Direct extra-economic force is still of course used, but only in exceptional cases. In the ordinary run of things, the worker can be left to the ‘natural laws of production’, i.e. it is possible to rely on his dependence on capital, which springs from the conditions of production themselves, and is guaranteed in perpetuity by them.” (Marx 1990, 899)
The creation of a working class which meets the needs of capitalism as an organic system did not occur automatically. Instead, capitalism emerged out of a previous organic system, feudalism, in which workers did not look upon the requirements of capitalist production as “self-evident natural laws”. Instead, due to the education, training and habits they experienced under feudalism they considered the sale of their labour to a capitalist as unnatural. Given this,
“Centuries are required before the ‘free’ worker, owing to the greater development of the capitalist mode of production, makes a voluntary agreement, i.e. is compelled by social conditions to sell the whole of his active life, his very capacity to labour, in return for the price of his customary means of subsistence, to sell his birthright for a mess of pottage.” (Marx 1990, 382)
In other words, during its phase of becoming capitalism had yet to develop its own foundations and so lacked the interlocking chain of parts which through the “silent compulsion of economic relations” force people to be wage labourers. As a result, during its phase of becoming capitalism relied upon what Leibowitz terms the capitalist mode of regulation in order to make people conform to the needs of capitalism. This capitalist mode of regulation was the state. Marx writes in Capital Volume I that,
“capital in its embryonic state, in its state of becoming, when it cannot yet use the sheer force of economic relations to secure its right to absorb a sufficient quantity of surplus labour, but must be aided by the power of the state.” (Marx 1990, p382)
State violence was used to discipline the working class, remove alternatives to selling labour to a capitalist and crush working class resistance to the development of capitalism. Marx writes in Capital Volume I that,
“during the historical genesis of capitalist production. . . [t]he rising bourgeoise needs the power of the state, and uses it to ‘regulate’ wages, i.e to force them into the limits suitable for making a profit, to lengthen the working day, and to keep the worker himself at his normal level of dependence.” (Marx 1990, 899-900)
A few pages later Marx refers to,
“the forcible creation of a class of free and rightless proletarians, the bloody discipline that turned them into-wage labourers, the disgraceful proceedings of the state which employed police methods to accelerate the accumulation of capital by increasing the degree of exploitation of labour” (Marx 1990, 905)
Marx on the Transition from Capitalism to Communism
With Marx’s views on society and on the transition from feudalism to capitalism in mind we can now turn to what Marx thought about the transition from capitalism to communism. In the Critique of the Gotha programme Marx writes,
“What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birth marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.” (Marx 2000, 614)
In this passage Marx distinguishes between communist society when “it has developed on its own foundations” and communist society “just as it emerges from capitalist society” and is “still stamped with the birth marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges”. What Marx means by this can be understood by re-phrasing what Marx said about capitalism as an organic system so that it refers to communism. Re-phrasing Marx quotes in this way is a standard practice among Marx specialists, such as Michael Lebowitz and Istvan Meszaros. Doing so is not anachronistic in this case since Marx explicitly says that the conceptual points he makes about capitalism as an organic system are “the case with every organic system.” (Marx 1993, 278)
According to Marx, communism has “developed on its own foundations” when “every economic relation presupposes every other in its communist economic form, and everything posited is thus also a presupposition”. That is to say, it is composed of a chain of interlocking parts that simultaneously constitute and reproduce it as an economic system. Communism’s development into an organic system with its own foundations “consists precisely in subordinating all elements of society to itself, or in creating out of it the organs which it still lacks.” It must come to create “its own presuppositions. . . by means of its own productive process” such that “it no longer proceeds from presuppositions in order to become, but rather is itself presupposed, and proceeds from itself to create the conditions of its maintenance and growth.” It must in short become self-reproducing.
In order to do so communism must pass through a “process of becoming” in which it arises out of capitalism and so initially exists in “its embryonic state”. During this phase it is “still stamped with the birth marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges”. That is to say, during its phase of becoming the foundation of communism rests on parts inherited from capitalism. This results in communist society initially being “oppressed by a whole series of inherited evils, arising from the passive survival of archaic and outmoded modes of production, with their accompanying train of anachronistic social and political relations.” For Marx one of the primary evils communism would inherent from capitalism is people being paid with labour vouchers per amount of labour performed, rather than receiving freely according to need. Marx holds that “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.” (Marx 2000, 615) As communism develops into a phase of being and establishes its own foundations these defects are removed. Marx writes,
“In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labour, has vanished; after labour has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly – only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!” (Marx 2000, 615)
Communism will not of course develop its own foundations overnight. As a result, during its phase of becoming communism requires a communist mode of regulation which enables it to subordinate “all elements of society to itself” and create out of society “the organs which it still lacks”. For Marx the communist mode of regulation was the dictatorship of the proletariat. Marx writes,
“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 2000, 611)
Maoist Rebel News has read this passage as Marx describing a distinct mode of production called socialism. He has done so because he cannot see how a mode of production can simultaneously have a state and be stateless. If it is stateless it is communism, so if there is a state it cannot be communism and must be something else, namely socialism. This reading of Marx ignores his views on the being and becoming of an organic system. The dictatorship of the proletariat is a component of the becoming of communism which enables it to develop its own foundations and reach the phase of being. Once communism has developed into a phase of being the dictatorship of the proletariat will be dissolved. It is therefore a “historic presuppositions of communism, which, precisely as such historic presuppositions, are past and gone, and hence belong to the history of its formation, but in no way to its contemporary history, i.e. not to the real system of the mode of production ruled by it.” It “belongs rather to their past presuppositions, to the presuppositions of their becoming which are suspended in their being.”
Given this, there is no contradiction between saying that communism is a stateless society and saying that the dictatorship of the proletariat is part of communism. The dictatorship of the proletariat is a presupposition for the becoming of communism that is suspended in the being of communism and so is not a component of communism as an organic system which has developed its own foundations. It belongs to the “history of its formation” but not the “the real system of the mode of production ruled by it”. There is therefore no need to do as Maoist Rebel News has done and posit a distinct mode of production called socialism. Marx’s conceptual system enables us to simultaneously view communism as a stateless society and hold that a state will exist within communist society as it is emerging out of capitalist society.
Maoist Rebel News is, as I have shown, wrong to think that Marx posited a distinct intermediary mode of production called socialism. His error in part arises from his failure to understand the basic concepts through which Marx thinks about society, such as Marx’s notion of an organic system or his distinction between being and becoming or his views on how an economy becomes self-reproducing. This failure to understand Marx’s conceptual system is unfortunately widespread online. Internet Marxists consistently fail to read Marx on his own terms but instead read Marx through the lens constructed by later thinkers, such as Kautsky or Lenin. They are less concerned with understanding Marx himself and more concerned with perpetuating orthodoxy and intellectual stagnation. Marxism is, to re-phrase Marx, “oppressed by a whole series of inherited evils, arising from the passive survival of archaic and outmoded readings of Marx, with their accompanying train of anachronistic social and political relations.” If Marxism is to remain relevant it must engage in the “ruthless criticism of all that exists” (Marx 1843) and this includes a ruthless critique of those Marxists who have failed to understand Marx and spread only mis-information and stale theory.
Marx, Karl. Marx to Ruge, September 1843.
Marx, Karl. Capital Volume 1. Penguin Books, 1990.
Marx, Karl. Grundrisse. Penguin Books, 1993.
Marx, Karl. Karl Marx: Selected Writings. Edited by David McLellan. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 2000.
Marx, Karl and Engels, Frederick. Marx and Engels Collected Works, Volume 6. Laurence and Wishart, 1976.