While the dominant view among the Bolsheviks was a statist one: that socialism would be the further development of the tendencies towards socialisation of production within capitalism – through centralisation and concentration of production by the state, including large private trusts supported by it, this was not the view of Marx.
For him it was not a task of replacing capitalist state ownership of the productive forces with ownership by a workers’ state, although some formulations of his would have led to this conclusion. Even for Lenin, the question could be asked – how on earth could the state wither away, as set out by Lenin in his 1917 work ‘State and Revolution’, if the economy was to be directed and developed as part of the state? As a body separate from, and on top of, society, the state could not be the representative of the community as a whole, a point Marx had argued from his earliest years. Neither could it play such a role by becoming totally predominant: it could not become one with society and erase its separate character.
The transitional road from capitalism to socialism was not to come through a new socialist state simply replacing and increasing the growing economic role of the capitalist state. As Marx explained:
“The co-operative factories of the labourers themselves represent within the old form the first sprouts of the new, although they naturally reproduce, and must reproduce, everywhere in their actual organisation all the shortcomings of the prevailing system. But the antithesis between capital and labour is overcome within them, if at first only by way of making the associated labourers into their own capitalist, i.e., by enabling them to use the means of production for the employment of their own labour.”
“They show how a new mode of production naturally grows out of an old one, when the development of the material forces of production and of the corresponding forms of social production have reached a particular stage. Without the factory system arising out of the capitalist mode of production there could have been no co-operative factories. Nor could these have developed without the credit system arising out of the same mode of production. The credit system is not only the principal basis for the gradual transformation of capitalist private enterprises into capitalist stock companies, but equally offers the means for the gradual extension of co-operative enterprises on a more or less national scale. The capitalist stock companies, as much as the co-operative factories, should be considered as transitional forms from the capitalist mode of production to the associated one, with the only distinction that the antagonism is resolved negatively in the one and positively in the other.” Marx Capital Vol III)
At the end of 1917 Lenin had declared that “The first step towards the emancipation of the people from this penal servitude is the confiscation of the landed estates, the introduction of workers’ control and the nationalisation of the banks. The next steps will be the nationalisation of the factories, the compulsory organisation of the whole population in consumers’ societies, which are at the same time societies for the sale of products, and the state monopoly of the trade in grain and other necessities.”
He announced that “accounting and control–this is the main economic task of every Soviet of Workers’, Soldiers’ and Peasant’ Deputies, of every consumers’ society, of every union or committee of supplies, of every factory committee or organ of workers’ control in general”.
He went on to say that “one of the most important tasks today, if not the most important, is to develop this independent initiative of the workers, and of all the working and exploited people generally, develop it as widely as possible in creative organisational work. At all costs we must break the old, absurd, savage, despicable and disgusting prejudice that only the so-called “upper classes”, only the rich, and those who have gone through the school of the rich, are capable of administering the state and directing the organisational development of socialist society . . . The workers and peasants are still “timid”, they have not yet become accustomed to the idea that they are now the ruling class; they are not yet resolute enough. The revolution could not at one stroke instill these qualities into millions and millions of people who all their lives had been compelled by want and hunger to work under the threat of the stick.”
The only way this can be read is that state control did not necessarily entail control and management by the working class itself.
But then, at the beginning of 1923, Lenin wrote that – “we have to admit that there has been a radical modification in our whole outlook on socialism”; which, on the face of it, is a pretty radical admission to have made.
Giving the phrase its fuller context explains how much of a change was involved –
“Now we are entitled to say that for us the mere growth of cooperation (with the “slight” exception mentioned above) is identical with the growth of socialism, and at the same time we have to admit that there has been a radical modification in our whole outlook on socialism.”
“The radical modification is this; formerly we placed, and had to place, the main emphasis on the political struggle, on revolution, on winning political power, etc. Now the emphasis is changing and shifting to peaceful, organisational, “cultural” work. I should say that emphasis is shifting to educational work, were it not for our international relations, were it not for the fact that we have to fight for our position on a worldscale. If we leave that aside, however, and confine ourselves to internal economic relations, the emphasis in our work is certainly shifting to education.”
“Two main tasks confront us, which constitute the epoch—to reorganise our machinery of state, which is utterly useless, in which we took over in its entirety from the preceding epoch; during the past five years of struggle we did not, and could not, drastically reorganise it.”
“Our second task is educational work among the peasants. And the economic object of this educational work among the peasants is to organise the latter in cooperative societies. If the whole of the peasantry had been organised in cooperatives, we would by now have been standing with both feet on the soil of socialism. But the organisation of the entire peasantry in cooperative societies presupposes a standard of culture, and the peasants (precisely among the peasants as the overwhelming mass) that cannot, in fact, be achieved without a cultural revolution.”
Lenin thus reevaluated the role of cooperatives:
“Why were the plans of the old cooperators, from Robert Owen onwards, fantastic? Because they dreamed of peacefully remodeling contemporary society into socialism without taking account of such fundamental questions as the class struggle, the capture of political power by the working-class, the overthrow of the rule of the exploiting class.”
“In the capitalist state, cooperatives are no doubt collective capitalist institutions. Nor is there any doubt that under our present economic conditions, when we combine private capitalist enterprises—but in no other way than nationalised land and in no other way than under the control of the working-class state—with enterprises of the consistently socialist type (the means of production, the land on which the enterprises are situated, and the enterprises as a whole belonging to the state), the question arises about a third type of enterprise, the cooperatives . . . Under our present system, cooperative enterprises differ from private capitalist enterprises because they are collective enterprises, but do not differ from socialist enterprises if the land on which they are situated and means of production belong to the state, i.e., the working-class.”
“It is forgotten that owing to the special features of our political system, our cooperatives acquire an altogether exceptional significance. If we exclude concessions, which, incidentally, have not developed on any considerable scale, cooperation under our conditions nearly always coincides fully with socialism.”
Lenin now put forward a different overall perspective arising within the New Economic Policy (NEP), which had been introduced as an admitted retreat on behalf of the Bolsheviks:
“All we actually need under NEP is to organise the population of Russia in cooperative societies on a sufficiently large-scale, for we have now found the degree of combination of private interest, of private commercial interest, with state supervision and control of this interest, that degree of its subordination to the common interests which was formerly the stumbling block for very many socialists. Indeed, the power of the state over all large-scale means of production, political power in the hands of the proletariat, the alliance of this proletariat with the many millions of small and very small peasants, the assured proletarian leadership of the peasantry, etc. — is this not all that is necessary to build a complete socialist society out of cooperatives, out of cooperatives alone, which we formerly ridiculed as huckstering and which from a certain aspect we have the right to treat as such now, under NEP? Is this not all that is necessary to build a complete socialist society? It is still not the building of socialist society, but it is all that is necessary and sufficient for it.”
“We went too far when we reintroduced NEP, but not because we attached too much importance to the principal of free enterprise and trade — we want too far because we lost sight of the cooperatives, because we now underrate cooperatives, because we are already beginning to forget the vast importance of the cooperatives from the above two points of view.”
However, cooperatives were not in themselves the answer to the backwardness of Russian economic development – “There are now no other devices needed to advance to socialism. But to achieve this “only”, there must be a veritable revolution—the entire people must go through a period of cultural development. . . . But it will take a whole historical epoch to get the entire population into the work of the cooperatives through NEP. At best we can achieve this in one or two decades. Nevertheless, it will be a distinct historical epoch, and without this historical epoch, without universal literacy, without a proper degree of efficiency, without training the population sufficiently to acquire the habit of book reading, and without the material basis for this, without a certain sufficiency to safeguard against, say, bad harvests, famine, etc.—without this we shall not achieve our object.”
The new importance given by Lenin to cooperatives was clear – “given social ownership of the means of production, given the class victory of the proletariat over the bourgeoisie, the system of civilised cooperators is the system of socialism.’
Today, unlike Russia in 1923, there has been no socialist revolution, in the sense that the capitalist state has been smashed and replaced, even if only by an unreconstructed one that Lenin admitted to in 1923. On the other hand, for many countries, the peasantry is small or insignificant, while for others it is larger but not so preponderant as it was in Russia one hundred years ago.
The mass of the population is also more advanced and cultured than one hundred years ago, so that any successful revolution will not suffer from the same debilitating backwardness that Lenin believed would require another revolution taking “a distinct historical epoch.”
But before that, the question of a socialist revolution does not even arise among today’s more advanced population, unless it becomes fully and completely committed to such a project. It is not therefore the objective conditions for socialism that today are absent, in the sense of the broad cultural development of the working class, although this is far from fully developed, but the subjective perspective of the working class, recognising that this too has its own objective basis.
Rather than cooperatives being the sequel to socialist revolution, it may be better now to think of cooperatives as vital preliminary grounds upon which can be developed the political consciousness necessary to make socialist revolution a practical proposition. The subjective ignorance of the working class of its interests in creating a new self-managed society might have its own objective roots in capitalist domination and in the lack of the prior development of cooperative production within existing class society.
In the final reflection on the Russian Revolution I will look at the key inspiration of that revolution – that it was a revolution desired and fought for by the majority of the working class.
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