Communism or "Socialism"?
A Return to Marx and Engels

Paul Robeson, Jr.

[from New Politics, vol. 6, no. 4 (new series), whole no. 24, Winter 1998]

Paul Robeson, Jr. is a Brooklyn-based writer and lecturer. Copyright (c)1997, by Paul Robeson, Jr.

THE 150TH ANNIVERSARY OF The Communist Manifesto, written jointly by Marx and Engels, is a fitting historical moment at which to compare Marx's communist theory with the socialist theory developed by Lenin and his successors, all of whom are called (I believe erroneously) Marxists. This comparison is all the more pertinent as the world reaches the threshold of the 21st century, since it is the onset of the high-tech information age that, for the first time, makes possible the transition from capitalism to communism envisioned by the founders of Marxism.

First, Marx's definitions of socialism and communism differed greatly from Lenin's. Second, the relationship between socialism and communism specified by Marx and Engels differs fundamentally from the one elaborated by Lenin and other radical socialists who became communists.

Third, the distinction between communist and socialist theory is critical because The Communist Manifesto was a powerful rebuttal to the socialist theory of that time, and socialist theory since then has been proven sorely inadequate. The present historical time demands a modern theory of communism to replace a failed socialist ideology, and, in my opinion, the only solid ideological foundation for a communist movement today is to be found in The Manifesto and in other writings by Marx and Engels.

Today's paralyzing ideological disarray on the left stems primarily from more than a century of confusion about three fundamental issues: 1. Marx's definitions of communism and socialism; 2. Marx's definition of the political system that must be established in order to eliminate capitalism after a workers' revolution; 3. the thorough refutation by Marx and Engels of the ideas upon which the social order commonly called socialism is based.

Engels, in his introduction to the 1888 English edition of The Manifesto, wrote: "We could not have called it a socialist manifesto." He went on to describe socialists as "adherents of various utopian systems" and as "the most multifarious social quacks." He described socialism as "a middle-class movement," contrasted to communism which he defined as "a working-class movement." And he added: "As our notion, from the very beginning, was that 'the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself,' there could be no doubt as to which of the names we must take." In other words, socialists were missionaries to the working class, whereas communists were empowerers of the working class.

Both Marx and Engels consistently criticized the ideology and program of their contemporary proponents of what is still called socialism. Marx's famous Critique of the Gotha Program was a landmark in their campaign to replace socialist programs with communist ones. Nevertheless, all of the major socialist and communist leaders since Marx and Engels, including Lenin, were unable to break free of the socialist ideas that the two founders of communism fought against so hard. Now is the time to discard what is commonly called socialism, since history has demonstrated this ideology and this social order to be a failure. And in discarding the familiar but failed socialism, it will be necessary to discard most of Lenin and to reclaim most of Marx and Engels.

MARX DEFINED SOCIALISM AS THE human condition established after two phases of communism have overcome the need of and desire for private property. Lenin defined socialism as a socioeconomic system whose political and economic foundations are merely transitional to Marx's first phase of communism.

As Marx put it in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844:

Socialism is man's positive self-consciousness, no longer mediated through the annulment of religion, just as real life is man's positive reality, no longer mediated through the annulment of private property, through communism. . . . Communism is the . . . actual phase necessary for the next stage of historical development in the process of human emancipation. . . .Communism is the necessary pattern and dynamic principle of the immediate future, but communism as such is not the goal of human development - which goal is the structure of human society. (emphasis in original)

Here "human society" means socialist-minded society; Marx is saying that socialism is the end, whereas communism is the means. Communism is an "actual phase" of society prior to the next historical stage of human development, whereas socialism is "man's positive self-consciousness." Communism is about economic and political systems, whereas socialism is about human development. Communism is about classes and parties, but socialism is about people.

Thus, contrary to the current belief in both socialist and communist circles that socialism is the transition to communism, Marx wrote the opposite: communism is the transition to socialism.

Lenin departed fundamentally from this Marxist description of the relationship between socialism and communism. In The State and Revolution, Lenin merged socialism with the first phase of communism by quoting selectively from Marx's Critique of the Gotha Program and then claiming, incorrectly, that "the social order termed by Marx the first phase of communism" was "usually called socialism." In an attempt to substantiate this erroneous claim, Lenin reduced Marx's first phase of communism to three principles: 1. common ownership of the means of production; 2. "from each according to his ability, and to each according to his labor"; 3. "the distribution of products" is not yet equal. All three concepts differ from counterparts in Marx's Critique of the Gotha Program.

First, Marx specified that the means of production must be owned by "the association of producers," whereas Lenin's imprecise term "common ownership" has consistently been interpreted to mean state ownership -- something that Marx and Engels rejected out of hand.

Second, Marx's formulation is "from each according to his ability, and to each according to his labor power." This is quite different from Lenin's "to each according to his labor": Marx's "labor power" is measured solely by the length and intensity of labor, whereas Lenin's "labor" is measured by the value of the commodities it produces. According to Marx, payment for labor is the hallmark of capitalism, whereas payment for labor power is the hallmark of the first stage of communism. Therefore the "socialist" society Lenin described has a basic capitalist feature because it pays wages for labor.

Third, Marx was critical of the socialist idea, repeated by Lenin, that distribution of products is central; Marx's view was that conditions of production are more essential, and it is incorrect to "make a fuss" about distribution:

The distribution of the means of consumption at any time is only a consequence of the distribution of the conditions of production themselves. The latter distribution, however, is a feature of the mode of production itself. . . . If the material conditions of production are the co-operative property of the workers themselves, then this . . . results in a different distribution of the means of production . . . .

Put another way, the most important thing is the direct control of the means and conditions of production by the producers themselves, rather than by the State or by the Party.

THE Communist Manifesto WAS A MAJOR TURNING POINT in the history of communism because it proposed a transition to the first phase of communism by way of direct workers' power instead of through government power. The program of The Manifesto advanced far beyond the previous socialist ones, since those were aimed at making the transition only to what is commonly called socialism. They did not call for rule by the workers as a class and therefore could not, according to Marx, eliminate capitalism. They called only for a popular government, based on a parliamentary majority led by a workers' Party, which would nationalize the privately owned means of production and establish Lenin's principle of "from each according to his ability, from each according to his labor." However, the government, and not the workers themselves, would control the means of production.

The Manifesto calls for a communist revolution in place of a socialist revolution, and aims at transition to the first phase of communism rather than to what is called socialism. Thus, direct workers' power would guarantee Marx's principle: "from each according to his ability, to each according to his labor power." Marx and Engels described direct political rule by workers as follows:

. . . The first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy. The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organized as ruling class . . . .

The definition of the State as "the proletariat organized as ruling class" is incompatible with Lenin's rule by a workers' Party. Both Marx and Engels left no doubt as to their opposition to the concept of Party rule.

Marx, in a speech to a delegation of German workers in 1869, declared:

. . . Trade unions ought never to be attached to a political association or place themselves under its tutelage; to do so would be to deal themselves a mortal blow . . . . Any political party, whatever its nature and without exception, can only hold the enthusiasm of the workers for a short time; unions, on the other hand, lay hold on the masses in a more enduring way; they alone re capable of representing a true working-class party. (emphasis in original)

Engels was emphatic in describing Marx's "dictatorship of the proletariat" as rule by a democratically elected popular majority. In his 1890 introduction to Marx's The Civil War In France he wrote: "Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. . . ." In a letter written to Karl Kautsky in 1891 criticizing the "Erfurt Program," Engels categorically sided with democracy over dictatorship:

Our party and the working class cannot achieve rule except under the form of a democratic republic. The latter is even the specific form of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

It is important to note the meaning both Marx and Engels attached to the word "dictatorship" in the phrase "dictatorship of the proletariat." They meant a dictatorship of a workers' parliamentary majority under constitutional rules -- a dictatorship only in the sense of unrestricted majority rule. This is in principle the same as the dictatorship of a town meeting or of a parliamentary majority; although its weakness lies in a lack of permanent guarantees of the rights of individuals and minorities, such a dictatorship has little in common with a Party dictatorship or a one-man dictatorship.

THE CUMULATIVE EVIDENCE THAT LENIN DEPARTED FROM THE THEORY OF Marx and Engels is overwhelming, and therefore the term "Marxism-Leninism" is an artificial theoretical term. Originally, the name was invented by Stalin to serve as an ideological cover for his one-man dictatorship; today it serves as the last ideological refuge for the remnants of Stalinism. However, its origins lie in Lenin's departures from Marxist principles; Stalin merely magnified these departures until they became grotesque.

It was obvious to Lenin that the socio-political conditions of backward Russia precluded any possibility of making the transition to Marx's first phase of communism. Its requirements of 1) political rule by workers as a class, rather than through a workers' party, and 2) the payment of all workers for their labor power, rather than for the value of their labor (that is, everyone would have to be paid strictly according to the time and intensity of their labor, rather than according to the value of what they produce) remain wildly utopian even today. Consequently, Lenin developed a new, non-Marxist theoretical framework for a transition from private capitalism under a Tsarist autocracy to a social order he considered achievable under the social conditions of Russia in 1917-1918.

Lenin himself described this system as state capitalism under a Communist Party dictatorship. From this "threshold" he proposed to advance via "what is commonly called socialism" to Marx's actual first phase of communism by gradually transferring power from the Party to the workers. The workers themselves would gradually take over control of the means of production. The outlines of this latter reform program can be seen in his "New Economic Policy" of 1921-1922, and especially in his famous "Testament" of 1923.

These reform attempts failed so badly that Lenin's entire program for making a Soviet transition to what is called socialism must be called into question. My view is that both Marx s first phase of communism and what is called socialism were unattainable at the time of the 1917 revolutions in Russia. Lenin acted on his mistaken belief that what is called socialism could be imposed by a temporary Party dictatorship. Tragically, the Party dictatorship became a one-man dictatorship, and state capitalism became permanent under the name of "socialism in one country."

With the benefit of hindsight, it can now be said that the only viable option which could have been pursued successfully from the outset of the October Revolution was social democracy -- a coalition workers' and peasants' government with a mixed economy similar to the economic system developed under Lenin's "New Economic Policy." However, this system did not last because its reforms were destroyed by the evolution of the Party dictatorship into Stalin's personal despotism. It could have lasted only in a popular democratic republic in which power was shared in accordance with free elections. And to exercise this option the Bolshevik Party would have had to accept a junior partnership in a coalition if it lost an election. This is something Lenin, in my opinion mistakenly, refused to do under any circumstances.

The historical lesson of this experience is that The Manifesto's admonition to "establish democracy" was correct under all conditions and the establishment of a party dictatorship was wrong under all conditions. Put another way, capitalism can never be overcome except by democratic political rule through (using Marx's words) an association of producers. According to Marx and Engels, the foremost task of any workers' revolution must be to establish direct popular democracy within the political framework of a democratic republic.

The failure of the Party dictatorship places in question the society produced by this dictatorship -- the society which disintegrated along with the Soviet Union. Soviet historians have called it "command socialism," "real socialism," and just plain "socialism," but, revealingly, not "democratic socialism." Gorbachev's "democratic socialism" is a democratic republic and a mixed economy with both state and private ownership of property. This socialism is what should be called socialism today; it is also what was called socialism before Lenin and the Soviet experience altered its content. In short, it is traditional social democracy.

At the same time, it is the social order that Marx and Engels envisioned as the main prerequisite for the communist revolution aimed at establishing Marx's "dictatorship of the proletariat." In Marxist terms, the attempt to make the transition from capitalism to the first stage of communism can begin only after rule by "the association of producers" has been instituted through the dictatorship of the proletariat. And even then, says Marx, the transition is long, arduous and by no means certain. History has now demonstrated that any attempt to circumvent or shorten the process of establishing social democracy (or "democratic socialism") as the indispensable prerequisite for the communist revolution always leads to failure.

This explains the decisive role of political reform, rather than economic reform, in the Soviet Union; this is why "glasnost," rather than "perestroika," caused the undoing of the Stalinist system. What remains, however, is the question of how to define that system in Marxist terms. Here Lenin has, perhaps inadvertently, provided a clear answer.

On the eve of the Bolshevik Party's seizure of power in October of 1917, Lenin spoke about "workers' control" under a "state" ruled by the Party; his address was titled "Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?," rather than "Can the Workers Retain State Power?"

Two years later, in the midst of civil war and famine, Lenin acknowledged that even the "workers' participation" acceptable to Constitutional Democrats had not been achieved under the Bolshevik Party dictatorship. He added the criticism that "The Soviets, which by virtue of their program are organs of government by the working people, are in fact organs for the working people by the advanced section of the proletariat."

Three years after that, in 1922, when the civil war had been won and the ensuing famine was over, Lenin admitted that even "socialism's threshold" -- state capitalism -- had not been reached, and he advocated an even closer identification of the Party with the state. Addressing the Eleventh Party Congress, he said:

. . . We refuse to understand that when we say "state" we mean ourselves . . . . State capitalism is capitalism which we shall be able to restrain and the limits of which we shall be able to fix. This state capitalism is connected with the state, and . . . we are the state.

This speech signaled Lenin's decision to intensify the Party dictatorship by fusing the Party apparatus with the state apparatus. And since he spoke these words just two months after appointing Stalin General Secretary of the Party, he handed Stalin control of an all-powerful bureaucracy. This was the apparatus used by Stalin to impose his personal dictatorship, and it was the same apparatus that Lenin attacked too late in his "Last Testament." The result was that Stalin imposed a ferociously dictatorial state capitalism (erroneously called "command socialism") on the Soviet Union -- a state capitalism that lasted until Gorbachev destroyed its political roots in 1988-1990.

CONTEMPORARY MARXISM FIRST SURFACED AS A MASS PHENOMENON in Poland in 1980 when the "Solidarity" workers' movement temporarily seized political power. It is worth noting that when President Gorbachev replied to Foreign Minister Shevardnadze's dramatic resignation speech to the Soviet Parliament in December of 1990, he recalled that: "Ten years ago . . . life called for us to go through . . . heated debates in order to arrive at an understanding that we must use the chance to start changing everything in society."

"Ten years ago" coincided with the rise of "Solidarity" -- Marx had penetrated the top level of the Soviet Communist Party. Later, he traveled farther East to rise in the persons of Chinese reform Communists like the late Hu Yaobang who was hounded to death, and Zhao Ziyang who paid with his political life for his sympathetic visit to the demonstrators in Tiananmen Square.

Today, having stopped in Lithuania, in Poland for a second time, and most recently in Hungary, Marx is traveling inexorably westward. Right now he is probably stirring things up in East Germany, and he will inevitably cross the English Channel and even the Atlantic Ocean. For the 21st Century is Marx's time.

Lenin pushed a revolution too far and died a decade too soon; Khrushchev seized his time and risked his physical life to end Stalinism's terror; Gorbachev came at the right time and sacrificed his political life to return political power to the people. But Marx was a century and a half before his time. Lenin was Russia's great revolutionary; Khrushchev was her great reformer; Gorbachev will be remembered as her great liberator. But Marx and Engels founded the theory of a popular parliamentary democracy which is destined to challenge liberal democracy around the world in the 21st century.

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