Transition Period to Socialism?
Marx and Engels argued that socialism (or communism, as they called it) could not have been established at any historical time but only when the material conditions for its existence, large-scale industry capable of producing plenty for all, had come into existence. They were well aware that these conditions had only just begun to appear in the 1840s and that they were not then sufficiently developed to have allowed the immediate establishment of socialism. The point was specifically made by Engels in reply to another of the questions (“Will it be possible for private property to be abolished at one stroke?”) in his draft for the Communist Manifesto:
“No, no more than existing forces of production can at one stroke be multiplied to the extent necessary for the creation of communal society. In all probability, the proletarian revolution will transform existing society gradually and will be able to abolish private property only when the means of production are available in sufficient quantity.” (Engels, Principles of Communism, Pluto Press, p.13).
In other words, Engels was saying that at that time conditions were not ripe for the establishment of socialism as the forces of production were not sufficiently developed. So what could be done? The Communist Manifesto (at the end of the section “Proletarians and Communists”), as the programme of the German League of Communists in 1848, envisaged the following “transition to communism”:
1. An insurrection to establish political democracy which would put effective control of political power into the hands of the wage-working class.
2. The use by the wage-working class of the control of political power thus acquired to:
(i) immediately expropriate the landlord class and sections of the capitalist class with capital invested in banking, transport (railways, ships, canals) and communications (posts, telegraph);
(ii) gradually expropriate the rest of the private capitalist class;
(iii) develop the means of production by setting up and expanding state-owned factories and farms.
3. When all the means of production had been acquired by the state, then classes would have been abolished and the state as an instrument of political rule would disappear; state ownership would give way to common ownership by society as a whole and a classless, moneyless, stateless society would then have come into being.
No indication was given as to how long this “period of revolutionary transformation” as Marx later described it, could be expected to last, but it seems reasonable to conclude that Marx, Engels and the other members of the League of Communists were thinking, in the 1840s, in terms of a longer rather than a shorter period, perhaps even as long as a generation.
So, at this time, Marx and Engels envisaged a longish “transition period” during which there would be, on the one hand, a declining, but at the beginning a fairly considerable, private capitalist sector employing wage-labour and producing commodities and on the other hand, a growing state sector, financed by a state bank, also employing wage-labour and producing commodities in competition with the private sector. Wages, prices, profits, money, banks, taxes, would all continue to exist. There is only one name for such an economic system: capitalism.
In other words, the economy during the proposed transition period would remain capitalist. This was only logical since if socialism was not possible then capitalism could only continue in one form or another. What the League of Communists was proposing, in the absence of the possibility of immediately or even quickly establishing socialism in the 1840s, was a period of up to thirty years of what might be called “proletarian-administered state capitalism”.
This programme was completely unrealistic. For not only was the immediate establishment of socialism impossible in the 1840s but so was the coming to power of the wage-working class which was then still numerically weak and politically immature. The proposal for a transition period of state capitalist development supposedly under working class political control was essentially only an artificial invention thought up by mid-19th century socialists to try to compensate for the fact that, whatever they did, they could not have established a world classless, stateless, moneyless society in their day.
Today, however, this problem no longer exists. The further development of capitalism did eventually create the material basis for world socialist society, as Engels recognised in 1891 when, in contrast to what he said in 1847 about the impossibility of establishing socialism then “at one stroke”, he now spoke in terms of socialism being possible “perhaps after a short transition period”. In the same introduction to the republication of Marx’s 1847 talk on Wage Labour and Capital Engels referred to the technological developments of his day and wrote of the productivity of human labour increasing “day by day to an extent previously unheard of”.
Engels was writing in the middle of a period which had been called the second industrial revolution which saw the invention and application to industry and production of the electric motor and the internal combustion engine. These and other technological advances showed that it had become possible to produce enough to eliminate want throughout the world and to satisfy people’s needs, as Engels put it, “in ever-increasing fullness”. At the same time the imperialist expansion of the European powers into the other continents meant that capitalism had come to embrace the whole world in its system. Then in 1914 came the aptly-named first world war which marked the clear emergence of capitalism as the unchallenged and predominating world system.
From this time on world socialism could have been established at any time, without society passing first through a period of state capitalist development of the means of production. The means of production had become sufficiently developed for society to pass directly from capitalism to socialism, once the political conditions for the establishment of socialism were fulfilled.
In other words, the very concept of a “transition period” has become redundant and can be abandoned.