Marx’s Conception of Socialism – Part 2

The second part of a talk transcribed from a recent conference. [Part 1 can be read here]

There is a useful book — David McLellan’s Thought of Karl Marx, (Macmillan 1971) — which has a chapter in which has been brought together a number of Marx’s references to socialist society. One of the points mentioned is Marx’s view that in socialist society you would not have workers tied to one job all their lives, that it would be possible to change from one job to another. Marx used a very fanciful example. He said it would be possible to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening and criticise after dinner. But I don’t think we should take this literally. (I don’t know if he put in the hunting because Engels was fond of fox hunting, but the basic idea is alright.)

You will have noticed that British capitalism has been moving in this way. In the last ten or fifteen years you have had members of governments saying to workers, “You have got to forget the idea that you started as a steel worker and you end as a steel worker. You are going to have to learn the skills of two or three careers in your lifetime because your job is not going to last that long.” Marx carried this idea a stage further. In the German Ideology he developed the same idea, that as the gulf between mental and physical work disappeared and the division of labour disappeared, people would become capable of doing all sorts of things. He extended this to the art field, where he suggested that artists should cease to be confined to separate activities such as painting and sculpture, and would be able to do the lot. This is an interesting idea.

I now come to the question of the. “withering away of the state”. Engels in Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, wrote about the state in these terms: “State interference in social relations becomes in one domain after another superfluous, and then dies out of itself. The government of persons is replaced by the administration of things, and by the conduct and processes of production, the state is not abolished, it dies out.” Marx and Engels had dealt with the same idea in the Communist Manifesto where they wrote: “When in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared and all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation, the public power will lose its political character. Political power, properly so called, is merely the organised power of one class for the oppressing of another.”

You have got to read both these statements in the light of Marx’s belief that you start off with a lower phase of communism where, initially, you suffer from all sorts of disabilities that will not exist later on. I don’t recall that the Socialist Party has ever discussed it. We have certainly had articles in the Socialist Standard, by implication repudiating Engels’ idea that you have got to have a long period in which the state disappears. If you don’t accept the idea of a fairly prolonged lower phase of communism, then you don’t accept this idea that you have got to have a state which continues for a long time.

Also in the Communist Manifesto, and again in the light of Marx and Engels’ recognition that the material conditions did not exist then for the emancipation of the proletariat, you have them laying down the idea that you wrest by degrees all capital from the bourgeoisie. I would say that this is another idea that we don’t have to accept. It does not fit in with our conception of a working class taking power for socialism when they are ready to do it and not before. In The Poverty of Philosophy, answering a question which was being argued. Marx put his idea that society evolves by class struggle. That you have feudalism followed by capitalism and then socialism. The question was put: “Does this mean that future socialist society will be stagnant and will not develop any more?” Marx said: “It will only be in the order of things in which there will no longer be classes and class antagonisms, that social evolutions will cease to be political revolutions.’’ In other words he was saying that social evolution will continue but that it will no longer be, as in class society, settled by political revolutions and by class conflict.

Marx, or rather McLellan, has an observation about crime which is rather interesting. McLellan, on page 214 of his book, is explaining Marx’s view of the coercive power of the state, and he says this: “The (coercive) forces it seems, would not be needed by communist governments, certainly not exterior force. For the revolution would be nothing if not international and not even inside the state would there be need for coercive forces, for punishment would be,” (and then he puts in quotation marks) “’the judgement of the criminal upon himself.” McLellan does not say where Marx said this, and I cannot find it. But it does seem quite likely to me that Marx may have said it.

Marx and Engels made some references to war and its abolition. In the Communist Manifesto they said that at all times the bourgeoisie was in constant battle with the bourgeoisie of other countries. In The Civil War in France, Marx referred to society: “Whose international rule would be peace because this national rule would be everywhere the same — labour.” What he was saying was that when socialists are in control everywhere, they do not go to war. because they have no cause for doing so.

I want to come back to the question of production in socialist society and to the idea of free access and how it would be worked out. Again, as I have said, this is speculation. First of all you will require a very big increase in the productive forces of society to increase the production of useful goods and services. When the SPGB was formed, in some early articles and pamphlets, they made a calculation (I imagine they were assisted by some of the material published by Chiozza Money) that with the abolition of armaments and war and all the activities of capitalism, financial and otherwise, and the bureaucracies necessary to capitalism but not to socialism, socialist society could look to a doubling of its labour force and materials. There would be twice as many people available to carry on production in socialist society because they would no longer be required for all these purely capitalist activities.

Some two or three years ago I had another look at the material on which this was based. This means looking at the production census and also the occupational census. If you find in the production census that there are two million people in distribution you can then look at the occupation census to see what those two million people are doing. You can then form your own idea about the number who are engaged in purely capitalist operations and also the number who are not. It seems to me that the position is very much what it was when the early members looked at it. Socialist society can reckon that, having got rid of all the armaments and war, of the finance workers of capitalism and the needless bureaucracy, they will have double the labour available for production. This will be the main way in which production will be rapidly increased, as it will need to be.

But there are other factors entering into this. I have mentioned the rate at which the output per worker has increased in this country by 1¼ per cent a year. This has no doubt been stepped up considerably in this depression, because a lot of what the capitalist class regard as passengers have been squeezed out of industry — in other words work is being intensified. The figure for productivity increase has been higher than 1¼ per cent a year in some countries and for short periods it has been very much higher. But for socialist society I suggest that you could reckon on the increase being greater than 1¼ per cent for one reason which is that you will get rid of the restrictive practices by a trade union and periodical curtailments of production by capitalists.

On the other hand there is a fact that society has to reckon with already, and socialist society also would have to reckon with it. In the extractive industries — that is coal, oil, metals and agriculture — there has been and there is likely to be a tendency for production to fall. It was put very graphically by the Chief Planning Officer of the National Coal Hoard a few years ago when he said: “In the coal industry you have to keep running faster and faster just to stay where you are”. You have to go deeper and deeper in the mines and it takes more labour. I reckon that it takes as much labour to mine a ton of coal now as it did one hundred years ago. There is a new pit being opened at Selby where they have been working on it for five years and they have spent over £1,000 million developing the pit and they have not yet got a single ton of coal out of it. All the labour represented by the £1,000 million is part of the labour required to produce coal in the future.

The agricultural correspondent of The Times has said that recent reports by the FAO dismiss the idea that world hunger at the present time merely exists because of bad distribution. The FAO also draw attention to the fact that an additional 200 million hectares of cultivable land, that is about 8 times the area of the UK, will be needed by the end of the century just to stay where they are because soil is being eroded at this rate over the world. In other words they have got this same problem in agriculture, and it is a problem which exists in many ways.

On the other hand, as a plus to this, there will not be the destruction of resources that goes on under capitalism. Marx pointed out that in every depression enormous amounts of equipment and machinery are scrapped. A firm might go bust and they sell their equipment as scrap, and it is not used for its original purpose. In socialist society this would not happen. Socialist society will use out its plant for the length of its useful life. The capitalists do not do this. Quite apart from depressions, if somebody comes along with a new modernised form a capitalist concern, which has got plenty of capital, will buy it and scrap what they have got because they can make more profit by doing this than if they use out the life of their existing plant.

Free access

I want to say something more about free access. What exactly do we mean by “free access”? It is all very well to say that society co-operates to produce things and that we go along to what Marx called the consumer stores and take out what we want. But what is society going to decide about what it is going to put into these stores? Marx used the phrase about meeting the wants of the masses ‘‘decently and humanely”, but this does not really get you very far. In modern terms I would say it means this: everywhere you would have water services, sewer services, education and health services, transport, housing, food and all of the things that people want. But human needs are not all the same all over the world. In a tropical climate some things are materially different to what they are in a temperate climate or in a cold climate.

If “free access” is interpreted by saying that in a socialist society whatever you think you would like to have you can have, I would say that it does not make sense. In a socialist society you will only be able to have free access to the things which society decides it will make available for free access. I read recently that there is a company in America advising people to register now for trips to the moon, and they have had hundreds of thousands of applications. Well, if we had socialism tomorrow I assure these people that they can want to go to the moon as much as they like — they won’t go. The amount of labour and materials required to do it is simply fantastic and no sensible society, in present circumstances, would dream of doing something like this while so many prior needs have to be met.

In socialism you will provide means of entertainment, you will have a lot of theatres, theatre companies and ballet companies and so on, but if on some particular night there is a theatre holding 2,000 people and Nureyev is dancing there, and 10,000 people decided that they want to go. they won’t be able to go whether it is under capitalism or socialism.

Bringing this down to the way I think socialism ought to look at it. I would say that the idea that you have production all over the world administered from a central office like the United Nations building in New York is out. I see no sense in it at all. I would say that the emphasis ought to be in the opposite direction. As far as is possible, naturally and sensibly, you leave it to local people to take the initiative in everything, that is in producing what they want and deciding what they are going to make available for free access where they are in the locality.

In this case, where does the central administration come in? I would say firstly that it functions as a centre of information, statistical and otherwise. Secondly, any locality which says they can’t reasonably produce certain things which are wanted conveys the information to the central administration and they pass it on to the people who could do it. They say, there is a shortage of something in Abyssinia which can reasonably be produced in England, we will tell the British administrative people and they would do what is necessary. In other words, you rely on local initiatives and you don’t have to have a great central administrative organisation which is going to organise all these things. I don’t see any reason why it should. It would seem to me that relying on the local initiatives is the sensible and practical and economic point of view.

Edgar Hardcastle


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