Marx’s Conception of Socialism – Part 1

(The following is a transcript of a talk given earlier this year)

As Marx envisaged society moving forward from capitalism to socialism, anything he had to say about the society of the future is of interest, but it is important to notice two things about what he said. Firstly, he never set out a comprehensive outline of socialist society. Secondly, he made scattered incidental references to the society of the future at different times in his life and in dealing with different subjects, so a lot of these ideas are in the air, as it were, and we have to do our own thinking about them.

About never having set out a comprehensive view of socialism, one of his French critics of Capital asked Marx why he didn’t write “recipes for the cook shops of the future”. Marx accepted that he was not doing so. Marx was not outlining future society and he explained what he meant about this. In The German Ideology he said this: communism (by which we mean socialism) “is not for us a state of affairs, an ideal to which reality will have to adapt itself. We call Communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things, and the conditions for this movement result from the premises now in existence”. What Marx meant by “movements” we find in what he set out in his introduction to Capital. This “movement” was the economic laws of motion of modern society and he explained that his purpose in writing Capital was to discover these economic laws. So the only worthwhile ideas you can have about socialist society have got to be related to what Marx insisted was the existing state of society. You cannot just pluck these ideas out of the air.

This introduces an immediate complication. You have Marx or Engels writing in 1848 or even earlier, producing ideas about the socialist future, but the existing state of affairs is very different now to what it was in 1848 and also different to what it was in 1875. In his 1867 preface to Capital, where he referred to the progress of the Trade Unions. Marx talked about “a radical change in the existing relations between Capital and Labour”. They show that the present society (that is capitalism) is no solid crystal but an organisation capable of change, and is constantly changing. So whatever was in Marx’s mind in 1848, he would have thought differently in 1875, and we of course would have to think differently now.

One thing to notice about this in the Communist Manifesto is that Marx and Engels talked about the “spectre of communism haunting Europe”, but in fact they did not think that there was the slightest possibility of communism being established at that time. This is clear from a reference they made in the Communist Manifesto to the “utopians”. They criticised the “utopians” on the ground that “the economic situation does not as yet offer to them the material conditions for the emancipation of the proletariat”. What was true of the “utopians” was also true of Marx and Engels. They were looking in the future in the light of the unready conditions of the time. So, in fact, socialism was not a practical proposition at that time.

In 1848 there was inadequate development of the productive forces, which is one of the things Marx meant when he said that the material conditions were not present for the establishment of communism. In addition to this, in Europe as a whole in 1848, the peasants vastly outnumbered the workers, so the working class was not in a position to do anything democratically anyway. They were outnumbered, and as well as this the working class were not socialists: they had not reached the level of maturity to make it possible to contemplate introducing socialism. This is what Marx and Engels meant when they criticised the “utopians”.

I want here to throw in a suggestion of my own and in excusing doing it I would say that this whole field is speculative and therefore one person’s speculation is as good as anybody else’s. You have the idea put forward by Marx of “the dictatorship of the proletariat”. They anticipated this in the Communist Manifesto and they also put it forward in 1875. I would say that the obvious explanation was that they were looking at a world in which the material conditions did not exist for the emancipation of the proletariat. As late as 1891 you will find Engels in a letter to Bebel, writing about the possibility that the working class might get power prematurely. He did not rule this out. He said that in the event that we might take power prematurely we shall have to use “terror”. It was directed in this case against what he called the technicians, as he described the people with technical training. My own comment on this is that we should throw the whole thing overboard and have nothing to do with it in any circumstances. It does not matter how Marx or Engels may have later on tried to interpret or explain away “the dictatorship of the proletariat”, we do not contemplate that the working class shall take power prematurely to get socialism, so I think we should write the whole thing off and have nothing whatever to do with it.

I have mentioned the fact that, as Marx said, capitalism changes and conditions develop, but in the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels wrote about some things which they said existed but which in fact did not exist. They talked about for example the world market being established and it had not. It has been a slow development for the world market to really become a world market. They also talked about society being divided into two great classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. It was developing that way, and you could have said it about some countries, but they were anticipating something that would happen later.

In the Communist Manifesto you will find Marx and Engels putting the view, for which they have been often criticised, that average wages were nothing more than bare subsistence. This was a legitimate comment on capitalism at that time but it has long ceased to be true. Marx and Engels recognised this fact. You will find Engels in 1895 in the preface to the Condition of the Working Class in 1844 looking back and saying that there had been a remarkable improvement in the standard of living of the workers in the big trade unions.

Marx, of course, allowed for this to happen. In Value, Price and Profit he says that the division between wages and profit depends upon the “respective powers of the combatants”. The fact that there has been a change in the distribution of the national income since 1865 when Marx wrote about it has a bearing on how you get from capitalism to socialism and I will explain later why I think this is important.

In coming to the question of production under socialism, in the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels said that the first task of socialist society would be “to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible”. Marx returned to this again in the Critique of the Gotha Programme in 1875, where he attacked what he called “vulgar socialism” for thinking that the question of socialism turns mainly on the question of distribution. Marx developed his view on this in volume 3 of Capital and he also touched on it elsewhere. Marx described depressions in which a certain number of industries overproduce in relation to their particular market. Marx went out of his way to demonstrate that the fact that capitalists produce more than they can sell at a profit has nothing whatever to do with the quite different question: “Do they produce enough for the needs of the population?”

Marx said that capitalism never had produced enough to meet what he called the wants of the whole population “decently and humanely”. It is still true that capitalism does not produce enough for the mass of the population. This is as true now as it was when Marx wrote about it. The point is that the first task of socialism would be as Marx and Engels said, to increase as rapidly as possible the production of socially useful consumption goods and services. Undoubtedly, powers of production have increased since 1848 and they have increased since 1867, but if we look at the fact that since 1867 the working class share of national income has increased, the problem has not become less important, it has become more important, because there is less available for the working class to take out of the existing level of production.

There is another question here. Marx in his early life, and Engels in his later life, greatly exaggerated what the existing powers of production are. Marx corrected himself, more or less, but he still had an exaggerated idea. The relevance of this is that if you have an idea of the existing powers of production and the rate at which they are increasing which is greatly exaggerated, you are on very dangerous ground when you try to look at what has to be done in socialism. You are assuming that you have got productive powers which don’t exist.

Getting the needle

In his early days Marx was quite wrong, but this was before he had worked out his labour theory of value. In The Poverty of Philosophy in 1847, he accepted a statement by Proudhon, that in the 70 years between 1770 and 1840, the average output of each worker had been multiplied 27 times. In fact it might have perhaps doubled. It is understandable that Marx should think like this because a whole lot of economists were in the same error. If any of you take the trouble to look up Adam Smith’s fairy story about the pin factory in the first chapter of the Wealth of Nations you will find Adam Smith talking through his hat about productivity.

He was talking about the supposed increase of production that comes through division of labour. He goes through his pin factory and imagines pin workers, taking the wire and dividing the cutting and sharpening into 18 separate operations. Adam Smith ends up by saying that it will be seen that the output of the worker has been multiplied by 240 or possibly 4,800 times. If you were to ask somebody for a quotation for a job and he were to say. “Well, £240 — or perhaps £4.800,” you would say that he does not know anything about it. and Adam Smith didn’t know anything about it!

Where Marx went wrong in his early life, and Engels went wrong afterwards, was that they worked out productivity as Adam Smith did — that is, they worked on the assumption that pins are made in pin factories. But they are not. Pin factory workers started with wire and at a guess about nine-tenths of all the labour involved in making pins has already been embodied in the wire before it gets to the pin factory. Imagine that there are 100 workers producing millions of pins, and that ten of them work in pin factories. If you can cut the number of workers in the pin factories from 10 to 5, Adam Smith would say that this is a 100 per cent increase in productivity. But the real reduction in the number of workers is from 100 to 95, in other words it is an increase of about 5 per cent.

This is a vital question because if you are going into what socialism has got to do you have got to know what the productive powers are. Concerning the real rate of increase in production, taking 1970 to 1980, the official overall figure is that productivity per worker in those ten years increased at the rate of about 1¼ per cent per year. This is something that you can work with. The important thing to notice is that Marx, in Value, Price & Profit, explained the real basis for calculating productivity. He emphasised that in any production you must not only look at what he called the final process like the making of pins from wire. You have to look at the whole process from the beginning, the mining of the ore. the smelting, the transport, the engineering, buildings and therefore the whole lot. That was the way to look at productivity and its increase.

Arising out of this idea of how you are going to increase productivity, and what the powers of production are. Marx also looked at the question of work and leisure.

In Capital, Vol. 1, page 581 (Kerr edition), Marx emphasised that the capitalist had unlimited leisure, achieved by “converting the whole life time of the masses into labour time”. He contrasted this with socialist society in which the time that society is bound to devote to material production is shorter. As a consequence, the time at its disposal for “the full development intellectual and moral of the individual” is greater. Under capitalism the workers work and the capitalists are idle, their time is leisure. With socialism everybody works so that the amount that each needs to work is less. But Marx did not look at this as a simple proposition, as some people would have it, that in socialism we will simply aim to work less and less and have more time for leisure. He did not take this view at all.

You will find that in the Critique of the Gotha Programme Marx used the phrase “when labour is no longer the means to live, but is in itself the first of vital needs”. Marx is saying that labour is a vital need along with food, clothing and shelter and education. It will be remembered that with this phrase “from each according to his ability — to each according to his needs”, the original version had put the need first. Marx reversed it, and he did so because he attached great importance to “from each according to his ability” which is in line with this statement that “labour is in itself the first of vital needs”.

Marx also made some reference to the problem of the extent to which socialist society will have to choose between what in the capitalist world would be producing consumption goods and producing capital goods. In socialist society there will not be capital goods but the problem will still remain. Under capitalism, if you want to expand some industries you have to withdraw labour and material from producing consumption goods. It’s true that later on you can increase productivity and get more consumption goods, but in the first place you have capital investment by withdrawing labour and materials from the production of consumption goods. Marx pointed out that the same problem will exist in socialism.

Socialist society will have the problem of deciding how much of its productive resources will be devoted to consumption goods and how much will be withdrawn from producing consumption goods to be devoted to long term projects designed to increase the production of consumption goods in the future. Marx used as an example the railways, which he said “do not produce any useful effect for a long time — a year or more.” Marx didn’t know about modern capitalism, they would take far longer than a year if they were at it now. A similar idea was put in the Critique of the Gotha Programme where Marx points out the amount of annual production that has to be provided for the maintenance and extension of the means of production, and also the provision of reserves of goods to meet destruction arising out of natural catastrophes. He pointed out that capitalism always has to produce more of everything than actually reaches the market. Some of it gets destroyed by deterioration, there are earthquakes and floods and so on, and Marx is saying that with socialism you will have the same problem. You won’t be able to abolish earthquakes by resolution. So society will have to set aside labour and resources for developing its productive forces and also to maintain a reserve against natural catastrophe.

Another remark made in the Communist Manifesto which has got a very modern ring, is that socialist society will have to devote some of its energy to bringing into cultivation waste lands and the improvement of the soil generally. Marx and Engels had already put on record in 1848. in the Communist Manifesto, that socialism involves the abolition of buying and selling, it involves the abolition of the wages system, and that in other words, socialism means what we would describe as having “free access”. But in the Critique of the Gotha Programme Marx also put forward the idea that you could not go straight into what he called the higher phase of communism. Society, as it emerged from capitalism had to go into a lower phase, when as he said, it was suffering from what he called a narrow bourgeois outlook. He wasn’t talking about the narrow bourgeois outlook of the capitalist, he was talking about the narrow’ bourgeois outlook of everybody, including the workers. Marx said from this that you would have to have a labour voucher system.

Labour vouchers?

He said that in this “lower phase”, because production wasn’t enough for “free access” that is unrestricted free access, and also because people would suffer from a “narrow bourgeois outlook” and would not know how to run socialist society, you would have to have a labour voucher system. Every individual would work and would be issued with a labour voucher according to either the duration or intensity of the work. On the strength of whatever was marked on the paper the individual would withdraw consumer goods from the communal store.

My reaction is this, I know a lot of people treat it seriously, but I think we should throw the whole thing overboard for various reasons. We do not contemplate that the working class will take power for socialism while they are all suffering from a “narrow bourgeois outlook”. In 1875, Marx and Engels knew that the material conditions for socialism did not exist, not in our sense of the word, nor in their long term sense of the word. Therefore they were saying that we would have a “dictatorship of the proletariat” which however way you interpret it means that you are basing it on the fact that there is a “narrow bourgeois outlook”.

Marx dodged all the real questions here. He says that you give people labour vouchers based either on duration or intensity of work. In spite of all the experts who deal with job evaluation and so on. I do not know for most industries any way at all by which you can measure the intensity of every individual’s work. There are some industries where you can look at the quantity produced in a day or a week or something like this, but Marx himself then goes on to say that this will result in some people having a higher standard of living than others because, to use his words, some individuals are mentally or physically superior to others and can therefore produce more in a given time or work longer hours.

I think we should reject the idea. Who is going to have the authority for issuing these tickets, how is it going to be done, and how is it going to satisfy these workers with a “narrow bourgeois outlook”? Imagine saying to half the workers, “of course you are going to have a higher standard of living than the other half”.

Marx also mentioned that, apart from some people being mentally and physically superior to others, some would have larger families than others, so that as for 40 hours work, they both get the same, the ones with the larger families would all be on a lower standard of living. How did Marx contemplate making the dissatisfied workers accept this; how is he going to prevent them from raiding the food store or forging tickets or something like this? I would say that as we are not contemplating socialism coming when there is a “narrow bourgeois outlook”, we should have nothing whatever to do with it.

However, we do not get rid of one problem. This is the problem that in the early stage of socialism there will be not enough produced to have “free access” in our sense of the term. We have got to accept that there won’t be enough for free access all over the world.

We have also got to accept that sometimes there are big differences between the standard of living of some workers and the standard of living of others.

I read from The Times correspondent that he reckons that the highest paid craftsmen in this country are what he calls compositors working with obsolescent lino type machines who are getting £548 a week and they are working alongside people who are getting £70 or £80 a week. Well, imagine Marx with his labour voucher system going to these compositors and saying: “Well, of course, you will have to come down to some more realistic level for the time being”.

I would suggest that as we don’t accept that there will be a “narrow bourgeois outlook” we are saying that the workers in the mass understand socialism, know what they are doing and know what their responsibilities are. That faced with the problem that there are 1,000 million people in the world in absolute poverty and that there are workers ranging from quite high standards of living down to a very low one, that with the advent of socialism, the obvious thing to do with the production problem is this. That it would be put to the workers that we are going to have free access, but the administrative organisation, whatever it is. appeals to the workers on a high standard of living: “Don’t take advantage of it”. In fact, ask them, in the early days of socialism, not only “don’t take advantage of it” but accept a lower standard of living and devote your energies, if necessary work longer, to try to help the people in the rest of the world who are on a standard of living far below you. This is the only socialist answer to this problem.

Edgar Hardcastle

(To be concluded next month)

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