Socialism from the State

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 43

Most organisations declaring themselves to be Marxist offer little or no role to the development of worker cooperatives as part of their programme. In one sense this is surprising given the striking declarations of Marx on their importance.  In another way it is not so unexpected.

The road to socialism was much debated in the 19th century with a number of currents putting forward a leading role for the state, including in sponsoring cooperatives.  Since that time the state has grown enormously, including for reasons that Marx and Engels set out. Its  prominence has often been obvious in less developed capitalisms where its role in industrialisation has been more direct from the start of its development.

The misplaced role for the state now current among socialists (nationalisation, income redistribution, state welfare etc.) arises as a reflection in ideology of the massively increased economic and social power of the state within capitalism, and the weight of that ideology transmitted into Marxism through social democracy and Stalinism.  All these have been too powerful in their effect on weak Marxist currents.  When we appreciate the ideological influence of the Russian revolution, the dominance of the idea of socialism as an expression of state power is unsurprising.

For this reason, it is important in setting out Marx’s alternative to capitalism to address not only what he positively advocated but also what he fought against, and one of his recurring battles was against the idea of some of his contemporaries that socialism would issue from the state.  Against this he also had to address the views of anarchism, which argued that the state could quickly be abolished.

Given the hold that this ‘state socialism’ continues to have on a wide variety of socialist and generally ‘left’ opinion, it is therefore necessary to set out Marx and Engels’ views on the role of the state in the creation of socialism.  In doing so we will leave aside the actual experience of attempts to implement such a view in the 20th century and will come back to some aspects of these in future posts.

As we have seen, the development of the socialisation of production lays the grounds for collective ownership of the means of production by the working class.  This socialisation is expressed through the development of joint stock companies, workers cooperatives and state ownership, following the concentration and centralisation of capital.

Capitalism is therefore a transitional form to socialism but it is necessary to understand the forms of this transition and their unfolding.  It is therefore not the case that because state ownership is one of the most developed forms of capitalism, and therefore of transition, it is by this fact also an early form of socialism.

In ‘Socialism: Utopian and Scientific’ Frederick Engels sums up the historical evolution of capitalism – from medieval society to capitalism – and the contradictions that lead to proletarian revolution:

‘Partial recognition of the social character of the productive forces forced upon the capitalists themselves. Taking over of the great institutions for production and communication, first by joint-stock companies, later on by trusts, then by the State. The bourgeoisie demonstrated to be a superfluous class. All its social functions are now performed by salaried employees.‘

Proletarian Revolution — Solution of the contradictions. The proletariat seizes the public power, and by means of this transforms the socialised means of production, slipping from the hands of the bourgeoisie, into public property. By this act, the proletariat frees the means of production from the character of capital they have thus far borne, and gives their socialised character complete freedom to work itself out. Socialised production upon a predetermined plan becomes henceforth possible. The development of production makes the existence of different classes of society thenceforth an anachronism. In proportion as anarchy in social production vanishes, the political authority of the State dies out.’

This formulation leaves open the view that seizure of the mean of production by the state – once itself seized by the working class – removes them as forms of capital, becomes the form of socialisation under the rule of the working class, and initiates their employment as means of satisfying the needs of the vast majority of society.  The same proposition appears in Anti-Duhring, from which the short pamphlet is derived.

In an earlier section of  ‘Socialism: Utopian and Scientific’ Engels addresses the Marxist view of the state in the transition to socialism by noting the planning that is involved in the development of Trusts and monopoly:

‘. . . with trusts or without, the official representative of capitalist society — the state — will ultimately have to undertake the direction of production. [4] 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.’

In the footnote within this passage Engels states that:

‘4. I say “have to”. For only when the means of production and distribution have actually outgrown the form of management by joint- stock companies, and when, therefore, the taking them over by the State has become economically inevitable, only then — even if it is the State of today that effects this — is there an economic advance, the attainment of another step preliminary to the taking over of all productive forces by society itself.’

‘But of late, since Bismarck went in for State-ownership of industrial establishments, a kind of spurious Socialism has arisen, degenerating, now and again, into something of flunkyism, that without more ado declares all State-ownership, even of the Bismarkian sort, to be socialistic. Certainly, if the taking over by the State of the tobacco industry is socialistic, then Napoleon and Metternich must be numbered among the founders of Socialism.’

‘If the Belgian State, for quite ordinary political and financial reasons, itself constructed its chief railway lines; if Bismarck, not under any economic compulsion, took over for the State the chief Prussian lines, simply to be the better able to have them in hand in case of war, to bring up the railway employees as voting cattle for the Government, and especially to create for himself a new source of income independent of parliamentary votes — this was, in no sense, a socialistic measure, directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously. Otherwise, the Royal Maritime Company, the Royal porcelain manufacture, and even the regimental tailor of the army would also be socialistic institutions, or even, as was seriously proposed by a sly dog in Frederick William III’s reign, the taking over by the State of the brothels.’

This footnote makes clear that Engels did not regard ownership by the capitalist state, often now euphemistically called public ownership, to be any sort of socialism.  As he goes on to say in the main body of the text:

‘But, the transformation — either into joint-stock companies and trusts, or into State-ownership — does not do away with the capitalistic nature of the productive forces. In the joint-stock companies and trusts, this is obvious. And 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. 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.’

He goes on to say that ‘This solution can only consist in the practical recognition of the social nature of the modern forces of production, and therefore in the harmonising with the socialised character of the means of production. And this can only come about by society openly and directly taking possession of the productive forces which have outgrown all control, except that of society as a whole.’

This ‘open and direct’ taking into possession cannot be by the state since this is a separate machine apart from the class.  Engels follows up the above remarks by stating that the productive forces that ‘work in spite of us, in opposition to us, so long they master us . . .  when once their nature is understood, they can, in the hands of the producers working together, be transformed from master demons into willing servants.’

The tendency for the state to more and more take over production is therefore posited as the dynamic development of capitalism and not of society ruled by the working class.  The state is not the true representative of society, a point made very early in Marx’s political development, and is as Engels says: ‘essentially a capitalist machine, the state of the capitalists, the ideal personification of the total national capital.’

So, if capitalist state ownership does not mean socialism, what does it mean for ‘society openly and directly taking possession of the productive forces’, a phrase repeated by Engels a number of times.  How is to be done and once done does ownership by the new workers’ state mean socialism?

Back to part 42

Forward to part 44

5 thoughts on “Socialism from the State

  1. Yet the writer of this blog tells us that the above is part 43 of Marx’s alternative to capitalism, meaning this is one more presentation of an ever expanding composition. Because of this, a 43 part composition I am surely entitled to try to relate what is said today to what was said yesterday.

    To be honest I am not a fan of this manner of broken up presentation of ideas, it is difficult to fair with comments when the presentation is still in the making. I hope that the writer will forsake this manner of writing for something more conventional.

    My understanding is that the writer is asking us readers to think of Marxist doctrine as combining libertarian philosophy and a socialist practice, expanded individual freedom and material abundance. In the past a similar sounding Marxist doctrine resulted in Actually Existing Communism.

    According to H.Ticktin ‘ Marxism became associated with Tyranny. And this is not because of Stalinism alone. After all, many people from Deutscher onwards, have found advantages in the USSR and similar countries like China, which turned out to be the opposite of what they thought.’

    If we start from the Idea that Marxism became associated with Tyranny and walk on to the next Idea and ‘not because of Stalinism alone’ then we have already went beyond Trotsky and his fellow followers, meaning the association of Marxism with Tyranny cannot be solely attributable to the doctrine of Socialism in One Country.

    It seems to me that the author of this blog commenced writing his thoughts with this point of view or something very close to within mind. The message of this blog is that Marx and his doctrine is not the basis of Actually Existing Socialism.

    Therefore to associate Marx with State Terror is a travesty of the facts. Part of the proof that Marx should not be associated with STATE terror is to go back to the texts of Marx. The texts of Marx prove that he was always for freedom and democracy, and more the young Marx was opposed to the very Idea of State Authority ( critique of Hegel’s State theory), and the older Marx was also against the State ownership of the means of production. (Gotha Programme)

    My comments such as they are imply something more ambiguous. For example, if one is still moved to action by the Communist Manifesto one might also wish to be guided by the ten measures proposed, that do smack of a strong State Authority.

    What this means is that some of the works of Marx at least are not free of what the Austrians call State Socialism.

    One other point is that I am not in principle opposed to all State Authority, the reasons for State Authority are plentiful, some are good and some are bad. In short I am not an anarchist. I suspect a Marx inspired theory of libertarian socialism is still to be formed and formulated, maybe the economic basis of it could be organised as
    workers cooperatives, but I remain unconvinced that even that could dispense with the principle of State Authority.

    • It doesn’t relate to what was said in Part 42 either, but if that was the intention, why not simply post the comment against Part 42 not 43?

      To be honest it all just looks like a self indulgent essay on the State, rather than a comment in response to the series of posts.

    • “My understanding is that the writer is asking us readers to think of Marxist doctrine as combining libertarian philosophy and a socialist practice, expanded individual freedom and material abundance. In the past a similar sounding Marxist doctrine resulted in Actually Existing Communism.”

      The concept of actually existing communism was an apologia for Stalinism, and I can think of nothing further from the premise and purpose of the series of posts being provided here!

  2. Let us investigation SOME things with one eye on the revival of political theory that began with a return to the study of the genesis of modern political theory, to the thought of Thomas Hobbes. THE POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY OF HOBBES: ITS BASIS AND GENESIS. 1936 ( LEO STRAUSS)

    Hobbes does not begin with a bias or presupposition about the historical reality of the German or the French State as Marx does. The State presupposes the Political as such. The Political as such is the State of Nature, that State of Nature is also a state of war and a state of anarchy, ie a society without one Law. Hobbes returns us to the first premises of the political as such.

    What Hobbes described as the State of Nature, his liberal critics, beginning with Locke identified as a state of rude Society. The critics of Hobbes said that his account of the State of Nature no more than a bleak hypothesis. Locke argued that the original State of Nature was much more civilised than the one depicted by Hobbes, the state of nature already contained morals in the forms of customs and even private property ownership, the hold on property was precarious because there was no State to transform customary private ownership into secure lawful Right.

    When Marx investigates bourgeois society, does he think of it as something like the State of Nature, in terms defined by Hobbes or in terms defined by Locke ie society in its ruder condition. Hobbes maintained that the State of Nature was marked by a war of all against all, a place of insecurity, a place where one could not be sure that one would not be killed suddenly. Certain passages of Marx seem to indicate that bourgeois society is indeed close to what Hobbes described, there is universal income insecurity, there is an anarchy of production, there is even a war of all against all in the form of a potential war of the social classes. On the other hand Marx can be said to be closer to Locke in his understanding of bourgeois society, there is already a great deal of the things of civility present before one needs to even think about the necessity of composing a State Leviathan.

    With Hobbes the rationality of State consists in the fear rising out of the State of nature, it has been argued that Hobbes lived during the period of the English civil war and this accounted for his political theory, the English civil war was in fact personal Hobbes’ experience of the State of Nature. Those who live in places were civil war is an immediate potential find sense in what Hobbes has to say about the political as such being something resembling a State of Nature.

    If the Political is defined as a potential for a return to the State of nature, which is no less a state of civil war, then reason must search as its very opposite, the State of Peace. With Hobbes the only guarantee of the State of peace is the contractual State. Hobbes became an intellectual outlaw due to his State advocacy, (that justly decried author Locke) it got somehow forgotten that this advocacy on behalf of the rational State was in the name of peace. The primary task of Government is to maintain the civil peace. Because of this emphasis on peace Leo Strauss referred to Hobbes as the real founder of Liberalism.

    The Marxism that you present seems to be at odds with the intellectual spirit of Hobbes, it is more in agreement with the intellectual spirit of Locke, that there is a great deal of civilisation to be discovered before any necessity or reason of State, what Locke called rude society you call social cooperation.

    Locke was in favour of a minimum State, his minimum State was intended to preserve private ownership, what did Marx have to say? Marx throughout all of his intellectual phases was opposed to private ownership, private ownership covers both private property of things and private ownership of the means of production. Marx was in favour of social ownership, it is somewhat unclear if this only included the means of production, I will assume that if one possessed books for example one did really own them exclusively.

    Did Marx think that social ownership of the means of production would require a minimal State, akin to the way Locke thought it did for private property? The texts are open to interpretation, but the most substantial document we have, his comments on the Paris Commune seem to be in favour of a political democracy of sorts. In his writings of 1871 the proposals of his literal or direct democracy were ; suppression of the standing army, police and bureaucracy, universal suffrage, brief duration and revocability of appointments; elective judges, and even these subject to immediate recall. These measures of the Commune furnished ‘the foundations of the true democratic institutions’

    However much Marx may have expressed reservation about the men of the Commune (ANARCHISTS) in his private letters about their tactical ability, he had no reservation whatever as to the exemplary value of that political experience, which in his opinion had shown us ‘the tendency of a government of the people on the part of the people….it was essentially a working-class government. The political form at last discovered under which to work out the economic emancipation of labour’.

    What about the controversial phrase the ‘dictatorship of the proletarian’. When Engels was asked about this after the death of Marx his answer was ‘The German philistine has later been thrown once again into wholesome paroxysms by the expression dictatorship of the proletariat.’ Well gentle sirs, would you like to know how this dictatorship looks? Then look at the Paris Commune. That was the dictatorship of the proletariat’,

    So our conclusion is that Marx basing it on the findings of modern political theory followed in the intellectual spirit of Locke rather than of Hobbes. Unlike Locke who favoured a very curtailed representative minimal State, Marx favoured a literal and direct democracy, a socialist minimal State to safeguard the principle of workers ownership.

    The conclusion may well be a different, if we investigate the thinking and behaviour of Lenin and the other Bolsheviks, we may find that because they formulated their political theory in the midst of a brutal civil war, they inherited the intellectual spirit of a Hobbes. There are already indications in Lenin’s State and Revolution of a change in perspective over Marx. Therein Lenin argues that democracy as such is only one variety of State Power, nothing special or different about it. If all States are dictatorships then all talk about a better democracy is escapist twaddle, this is closer to what Hobbes thought about democracy, he thought of it as the least acceptable political form because it was the one that most likely to return us to the State of nature. Hobbes typically lumps democracy in with anarchism. He argued that one of the greatest faults of political philosophy until now was that it led to anarchy, Socrates was an anarchist, because his dialectic subjected the Law to question after question. Lenin too had a problem with anarchism.

    • There is a lot that could be said in challenging the arguments put forward here, in the interpretations of Hobbes, Locke, Marx and Engels, but it would be beside the point because nothing in this comment has any bearing on the content of the actual post, which was about the attitude of Marxism to the role of the current state, via nationalisation, state aid, welfarism etc. to the development of Socialism!

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