The preconditions for socialism

Utopian socialism, such as this imagined image of Robert Owen’s short lived utopian community of New Harmony, Indiana was based on ideas. Karl Marx’s was based on existing reality and its development.

Karl Marx’s Alternative to Capitalism – Part 37

Marx said that “new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the framework of the old society.”  (1859 Preface). So what are these material conditions that must have matured?

We have already seen that these involve sufficient development of the forces of production so that society is potentially productive enough to abolish the inequalities upon which class relations rest.  Such relations before the development of capitalism resided within and supported productive forces that hitherto could not be held in common, therefore providing the grounds for a class that owned the means of production and a class that did not.  In capitalism it is capitalists that own the means of production as private property, which is always the right to exclude others from ownership, and the working class that is so excluded. However, as we have also seen, capitalism provides the grounds to go beyond this division.

Ownership and exclusion in production necessarily entails ownership and exclusion of the products of that production, of consumption.  The growth in the mass of profit, distributed as profit of enterprise or as dividends, interest, rent etc. is obviously conditioned by ownership just as salaries and wages are also so conditioned.  The means of consumption cannot be equitably distributed because the ownership of the means of production entails ownership of what is produced. Insufficient development of production imposes constraints and restrictions on the distribution of consumption so that common ownership of the means of production is equally not possible.  

Such inequalities have developed historically through different forms of class society and utopian schemes to wipe the slate clean and impose a more equal society have been doomed to failure unless the material grounds for such equality can be created.  This involves a sufficient level of productivity of labour that everyone can have their consumption needs met, and that these needs can be developed without also developing gross inequalities in their distribution.

So what level is this?

While it is clear that pre-capitalist and early capitalist societies could not provide the grounds for common ownership of production and growing equality of consumption, it is also clear that capitalist development now offers such a prospect. ‘Clear’, not just because of the level of the productive forces already achieved in a growing number of countries but also because of the waste generated by capitalism and its potential for more rational organisation (and the fact that this more rational organisation is also taking place, albeit also disfigured by its own continuing capitalist irrationality).

It would however be unhistorical to state some absolute level, since needs develop historically as a function of the development of the forces of production which create them.  It is therefore the latter development that determines this level.

For Frederick Engels in ‘Anti-Dühring’ this level had been reached by the late 1870s:

“The possibility of securing for every member of society, by means of socialised production, an existence not only fully sufficient materially, and becoming day by day more full, but an existence guaranteeing to all the free development and exercise of their physical and mental faculties – this possibility is now for the first time here, but it is here.”

The appropriation of the means of production is therefore key to the satisfaction of needs and its equitable distribution.  Appropriation by society as a whole, by its associated producers – the working class (those who work) – provides the grounds for the appropriation of the fruits of that production. 

As Frederick Engels again pointed out in ‘Anti-Dühring’:

“Before capitalistic production, i.e., in the Middle Ages, the system of petty industry obtained generally, based upon the private property of the labourers in their means of production; {in the country,} the agriculture of the small peasant, freeman or serf; in the towns, the handicrafts. The instruments of labour – land, agricultural implements, the workshop, the tool – were the instruments of labour of single individuals, adapted for the use of one worker, and, therefore, of necessity, small, dwarfish, circumscribed. But, for this very reason they belonged, as a rule, to the producer himself.”

“To concentrate these scattered, limited means of production, to enlarge them, to turn them into the powerful levers of production of the present day – this was precisely the historic role of capitalist production and of its upholder, the bourgeoisie. . . But the bourgeoisie . . . could not transform these puny means of production into mighty productive forces without transforming them, at the same time, from means of production of the individual into social means of production only workable by a collectivity of men.”

“The spinning-wheel, the hand-loom, the blacksmith’s hammer, were replaced by the spinning- machine, the power-loom, the steam-hammer; the individual workshop by the factory implying the co-operation of hundreds and thousands of workmen. In like manner, production itself changed from a series of individual into a series of social acts, and the products from individual to social products. The yarn, the cloth, the metal articles that now came out of the factory were the joint product of many workers, through whose hands they had successively to pass before they were ready. No one person could say of them: “I made that; this is my product.” 

Capitalism has thus developed the forces of production in such a way that they can be appropriated by society as a whole; in fact it has started this process itself:

“On the one hand, therefore, the capitalistic mode of production stands convicted of its own incapacity to further direct these productive forces. On the other, these productive forces themselves, with increasing energy, press forward to the removal of the existing contradiction, to the abolition of their quality as capital, to the practical recognition of their character as social productive forces.” 

“This rebellion of the productive forces, as they grow more and more powerful, against their quality as capital, this stronger and stronger command that their social character shall be recognised, forces the capitalist class itself to treat them more and more as social productive forces, so far as this is possible under capitalist conditions. The period of industrial high pressure, with its unbounded inflation of credit, not less than the crash itself, by the collapse of great capitalist establishments, tends to bring about that form of the socialisation of great masses of means of production which we meet with in the different kinds of joint-stock companies.”

“Many of these means of production and of communication are, from the outset, so colossal that, like the railways, they exclude all other forms of capitalistic exploitation. At a further stage of evolution this form also becomes insufficient: the official representative of capitalist society – the state – will ultimately have to undertake the direction of production. This necessity for conversion into state property is felt first in the great institutions for intercourse and communication – the post office, the telegraphs, the railways.”

“If the crises demonstrate the incapacity of the bourgeoisie for managing any longer modern productive forces, the transformation of the great establishments for production and distribution into joint-stock companies and state property shows how unnecessary the bourgeoisie are for that purpose. All the social functions of the capitalist are now performed by salaried employees. The capitalist has no further social function than that of pocketing dividends, tearing off coupons, and gambling on the Stock Exchange, where the different capitalists despoil one another of their capital. At first the capitalist mode of production forces out the workers. Now it forces out the capitalists, and reduces them, just as it reduced the workers, to the ranks of the surplus population, although not immediately into those of the industrial reserve army.” 

“But the transformation, either into joint-stock companies, or into state ownership, does not do away with the capitalistic nature of the productive forces.” 

Of course, legions of socialists are able to see capitalism as wholly reactionary, of being in decline and permanent crisis while failing to recognise that through these crises and renewed periods of accelerated accumulation capitalism continues to play the role of preparing for socialism in this ‘positive’ fashion.

They sometimes make the further mistake, inconsistent with their first, that state ownership is not only positive in this sense but progressive in the sense of being the germ of socialism that only needs to continue its growth.  This is best summed up in demands to nationalise the top monopolies or whatever capitalist enterprise is currently failing.

But as Engels immediately goes on to say in Anti-Dühring:

“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. But, brought to a head, it topples over. State ownership of the productive forces is not the solution of the conflict, but concealed within it are the technical conditions that form the elements of that solution.” 

So the technical elements of the material conditions for the new superior relations of production have matured within the framework of the old society.

This leads Marx to say that:

“This result of the ultimate development of capitalist production is a necessary transitional phase towards the reconversion of capital into the property of producers, although no longer as the private property of the individual producers, but rather as the property of associated producers, as outright social property” (Capital Vol 3 Chapter 27)

Capitalism is thus transitional to socialism but this is also, like capitalism before it, the creation of human beings, and not just human beings as agents of some disembodied socialisation of capitalism.  For Marx, ultimately these material conditions require workers themselves being agents of socialisation of production and agents of political change that guarantees the new relations of production.

Future posts will look at this working class agency but the next posts will look in more detail at the socialisation of production and how it heralds the potential of socialism.

back to part 36

Forward to part 38

5 thoughts on “The preconditions for socialism

  1. I hate to be picky, and I know the point you are trying to make, which is absolutely correct that without the sufficient development of the productive forces, and thereby of consumption, Socialism is not possible, because scarcity will drive competition, which will lead to division and stratification. However, that is a necessary, but not sufficient condition. The reason I have to be picky about this is that the argument as it stands actually copies an argument that was put forward by Malthus, and that Marx refuted for this same reason.

    Malthus and others like Struve after him put forward the argument that a determining factor was the production of means of consumption. If the means of consumption are increased significantly they argued this equates to an increase in workers living standards, because the capitalists will not simply increase their own unproductive consumption of necessaries – falling marginal utility as economists would now say – and because such consumption is not their aim, but accumulation. An increase in such production of consumption goods would then, necessarily result in an oversupply, falling prices of such goods, which would then lead to workers buying more of them at these cheaper prices, thereby raising their living standards. This is also a basic element of Malthus’ under-consumptionist theory, adopted later by Keynes.

    But, Marx – Lenin repeats the argument against Struve and the Narodniks – says that this argument is false. A large rise in the production of means of consumption is certainly a necessary condition for raising workers’ living standards, but is not a sufficient condition. The capitalists, for example, although they will not simply consume more and more necessaries themselves, may simply employ additional domestic servants, and other such unproductive labour, and the additional consumption goods are then just consumed vicariously by the capitalist via the consumption of their unproductive labourers, with no rise in wages/living standards resulting. Alternatively, the capitalists may export the additional consumption goods, in exchange for producer goods, or luxury goods.

    The problem is not the inadequate level of productive capacity, but the fact that whatever is produced, no matter how bountiful it may be continues to be divided into a necessary product and surplus product. Just because productive capacity increases massively making it possible to provide for everyone adequately does not at all mean that will be the case, because ownership, or today control rather than ownership, of the means of production simply means that a larger surplus product is appropriated by the controllers of those means of production.

    There are other reasons related to the Civilising Mission of Capital that means that these changes cause living standards to rise, but its important not to simply see rising productivity as somehow translating automatically into higher living standards for workers (which Marx criticised Carey for doing), which can also then lead towards a sort of Keynesian/Bernsteinian notion of an automatic growing over of capitalism to socialism. I know that is not what you are arguing or intending, which is why I’m loathe to be picky in this way.

    Trotsky made the point that global productive capacity already was sufficient for global socialism, if the production was used to enable equitable distribution across the world’s population. I’ve written elsewhere, that, even in the 1950’s Colin Clark showed that, if the same capitalistic methods of agricultural production used in Denmark, were used across the globe, without any additional land being cultivated, every person on Earth could have the same level of food consumption as the citizens of Denmark. The problem really is not any longer any global inadequacy of absolute productive capacity, but is one of unequal distribution, resulting from unequal ownership/control of the means of production. Its why I find the arguments of the “anti-imperialists” who seek to oppose the investment of multinational capital in poor countries simply on the basis that it is monopoly-capitalist investment, i.e. imperialist so reactionary and objectionable.

    Its true that on the basis of the current pre-capitalist, or at best small capitalist/petty-bourgeois production in much of the LDC’s, productive capacity is inadequate for even a decent standard of living, let alone socialism, and that is why such investment by multinational capital is required as the fastest means of raising that productive capacity, short of a socialist revolution in the developed economies. But, that is not a result of an absolute deficiency of global capacity, only of skewed distribution of that capacity, and so of the revenues and consumption determined by it. The fact is that capitalism itself is slowly changing that, as imperialism does invest capital in these LDC’s, and raises their capacity and living standards. In the last thirty years, its there that the largest increases in living standards have occurred.

    That, of course does not prevent socialism being possible now in developed economies on the basis of their existing productive capacity. Socialism is not possible in one country, but nor does it need to be global simultaneously either. Industrial democracy, giving workers the rightful control over their companies, eradicating the artificial difference between them and workers cooperatives, would immediately result in a huge increase in production, accumulation, and living standards, as money profits currently wasted in gambling in financial markets went to accumulate real capital instead. The increase in cross company cooperation and planning would further result in savings and efficiency increasing output, and revenues for workers, as well as increasing productive employment for additional workers. And, this growing socialisation and control of the means of production in these economies would enable the more rapid development of the poorer regions of the globe, recreating those conditions there too.

    But, the determinant in this is, now, control over those means of production. That is the class struggle.

  2. “It would however be unhistorical to state some absolute level, since needs develop historically as a function of the development of the forces of production which create them. It is therefore the latter development that determines this level.”

    This is not the only issue. Suppose country A reaches some absolute level required for Socialism, but Country B, or also C and D etc. are way beyond it. Its not the absolute level of A that is determinant, but its relative position in relation to B, C and so on, because A will have to trade with these other economies, who will exploit it as a result of comparative advantage, i.e. their higher productivity means they will give less labour in exchange for more labour. More importantly, in the real world, as Lenin and Trotsky pointed out – and even Stalin before he was led to adopt Socialism In Once Country so as to distinguish himself from Trotsky – competition is not just economic but also military/strategic. A will not be able to support the military required to defend itself from attack, as its economy although adequate for sustaining even a high level of equitable distribution, falls back against these competitors.

    B, C and so on, will expand their military and its presence around A’s borders, forcing A to reduce consumption and spend unproductively on arms. B, C and so on will flagrantly display their higher consumption levels – even as inequality leaves some of their population as paupers – as something for A’s citizens to aspire to, thereby undermining their support for an equitable, but only adequate living standard, and so on.

    • This is absolutely correct. I was recently reading Trotsky’s 1925 article ‘Towards Capitalism or Socialism’ where he makes precisely these points. It was not simply that the Soviet Union had made massive strides in economic growth in rather few years but that what was key was its rate of development in comparison with the more advanced capitalist states – it was facing a moving target.

      It was not enough therefore to seek the most advanced machinery from the West or seek to attract their best mechanics and technicians but to go beyond them, with superior social and political relations also making it more attractive to workers under capitalism. The benchmark was therefore the world market and the superior productive power of the most advanced capitalism which any more or less isolated workers’ state would have to face.

      It is interesting that Trotsky allowed for the possibility that a new ‘dynamic equilibrium’ might be achieved by capitalism, specifically European capitalism, and that this would then mean that ‘the socialist state’ would be obliged to move from ‘our slow freight train that was becoming a ‘faster passenger train’ to facing the task of catching up with a ‘first-class express’ train.

      As he goes on to say:

      “Putting the matter more simply, this would mean that we were mistaken in our fundamental historical judgements. It would mean that capitalism has not yet exhausted its historic “mission”, and that the imperialist phase now unfolding before us does not constitute a phase of capitalist disintegration, its death struggle, but rather the necessary precondition for a new period of prosperity.”

      This proved to be the case, although humanity had to face a World War before it happened.

  3. Just a minor point.

    “The means of consumption cannot be equitably distributed because their production is insufficient for the needs of all of society and the ownership of the means of production entails ownership of what is produced.”

    I think you might want to rephrase this as it sounds a bit underconsumptionist. Its not the insufficiency of production of consumption goods that prevents their equitable distribution – we have far more production of means of consumption today than ever, and much higher living standards for all – but the fact itself of the unequal ownership (actually today control rather than ownership) of means of production, and so of the revenues that flow from such ownership/control.

    • I have edited the sentence to remove possible misinterpretation while keeping the point I wanted to make. There is an additional point that I have now left out (as I don’t want to go into any detail here), which is the overall insufficiency of production to meet the needs of everyone equitably, which is most obviously still the case in world terms.

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