George Novack’s Understanding History


Part 2

The Great Fetishes Of Capitalism

Alienation, like all relations, is a two-sided affair and its operation has contradictory consequences. What is taken from the dispossessed is vested in the dispossessors. In religion the feebleness of men on earth is complemented by the omnipotence of the deity who is endowed with all the capacities real people lack. His representatives in society, from the shamans to the clergy, exploit this situation to their advantage.

In economies, the servitude of the labourer is the basis of the freedom of the master; the poverty of the many makes the wealth of the few. In politics, the absence of popular self-rule is made manifest in the despotism of the state.

In The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 Marx came to grips for the first time with the mysteries of money. In capitalist society, he remarks, money has displaced religion as the major source of alienation, just as it has displaced the deity as the major object of adoration and attraction. The money form of wealth stands like a whimsical tyrant between the needs of men and their fulfilment. The possessor of money can satisfy the most exorbitant desires while the penniless individual cannot take care of the most elementary needs of food, clothing and shelter.

Money has the magical power of turning things into their opposites. “Gold! Yellow, glittering, precious gold”, can, as Shakespeare said, “make black, white; foul, fair; wrong, right; base, noble; old, young; coward, valiant.” The person without artistic taste can buy and hang pictures in his mansion, or put them in a safety vault, while the creator and the genuine appreciator cannot view or enjoy them. The meanest scoundrel can purchase admiration from sycophants while worthy individuals go scorned and unnoticed.

Under capitalism, where everything enters the field of exchange and becomes the object of buying and selling, a man’s worth comes to be estimated, not by his really praiseworthy abilities or actions, but by his bank account. A man is “worth” what he owns and a millionaire is “worth” incomparably more than a pauper. A Rothschild is esteemed where a Marx is hated. In this cesspool of universal venality all genuine human values and standards are distorted and desecrated.

Later, in the first chapter of Capital , Marx unveiled the secrets of these magical powers of money by tracing them to the forms of value acquired by the commodity in the course of its evolution. The fetishistic character of money is derived from the fetishistic character of the commodity form of value which expresses the relations between independent producers through the medium of things. The fetish of capital which commands men’s lives and labour is the ultimate expression of this fetishism of commodities.

If money in the form of capital is the supreme fetish of bourgeois society, the state which enforces the economic conditions of capitalist exploitation comes a close second. State compulsion is most harshly manifested in its penal powers, its tax powers and in its power to conscript for military service. The identity of the ordinary citizen has to be validated by documents stamped by government officials. He needs a certificate to vouch for his birth and to prove that he graduated from school, that he is married or divorced, that he may travel to other countries.

The tyranny of money and the state over the lives of people is reducible in the last analysis to the relative poverty of the social order.

Alienation Between The State And Society

The alienations embedded in the economic foundations of capitalism manifest themselves in a myriad ways in other parts of the social structure. They are crystallised in the opposition between the state and the members of society. The unity of US capitalism, for example, is embodied in a state organisation which is dominated and directed by representatives of the ruling monopolists.

The alienation of this government from the people in our dollar democracy is the main theme of a study of the rulers and the ruled in the United States recently, made by Professor C. Wright Mills in The Power Elite . Its opening paragraph reads: “The powers of ordinary men are circumscribed by the everyday worlds in which they live, yet even in these rounds of job, family and neighbourhood, they often seem driven by forces they can neither understand nor govern. ‘Great changes’ are beyond their control, but affect their conduct and outlook none the less. The very framework of modern society confines them to projects not their own, but from every side, such changes now press upon the men and women of the mass society, who accordingly feel that they are without purpose in an epoch in which they are without power.”

Mills sums up the extreme polarisation of power in our society by declaring that the big business men, statesmen and brass hats composing the power elite appear to the impotent mass as “all that we are not”. To be sure, even under the current conformity, the population is not so stultified and inert as Mills and his fellow academic sociologists make out. The Negro struggle for equality and the periodic strikes among the industrial workers indicate that much is stirring below the surface.

But it cannot be denied that the power of labour is largely untapped, unorganised, and so misdirected that its potential remains hidden even from its possessors. The policies of the union leaders help the spokesmen for “the power elite” to keep the people from envisioning the immense political strength they could wield for their own cause. They thereby keep the working class alienated from its rightful place in American political life as leader and organiser of the whole nation. This role is handed over by default to the capitalist parties.

However, the dispossession of the working class from its historical functions will not be maintained forever. Sooner or later, the labour movement will be obliged to tear loose from its subordination to alien class political organisations and form its independent political party. This will be the beginning of a process of political self-realisation, an ascent to the position of supremacy now held by the capitalist minority. If today the plutocracy is, to the masses “all that we are not”, the struggle for socialism can bring about the Great Reversal when “we who have been naught, shall be all”.

Alienation Of Science From Society.

The basic class antagonisms in economics and politics distort the relations of people in all other domains of life under capitalism from their emotional responses to one another up to their most general ideas. This has been felt and expressed in much of the art and literature of the bourgeois epoch. The estrangement of the creative artist from the bourgeois environment, which buffets him between crass commercialism and cruel indifference, has been a perennial scandal. The cries of protest in the works of such contemporary American writers as Henry Miller and Norman Mailer testify that this remains a running sore.

Something new has been added to this schism between the intellectuals and the ruling class in our own day. This is the breach that suddenly opened up between the scientists and the monopolists with the advent of the atomic bomb.

Capitalist society in its progressive period was the foster father of modern natural science and for several centuries the two pulled forward together. Most scientists in the English-speaking world took the preestablished harmony of the two so much for granted that they went about their work without concern over its social applications and ultimate consequences. The chain reaction issuing from the release of nuclear energy blasted them out of this blind comfort.

From 1942 on, nuclear physicists have found themselves in the most excruciating dilemma. They were dedicated to the discovery and dissemination of the truth for the good of all mankind. Yet the militarists turned their labour and its results against everything which they, as scientists and scholars, most cherished. “Freedom of science” became a mockery when the results of their research were made top secret and atomic scientists were forcibly isolated “for reasons of state” from their fellows.

The scientists became vassalised to a military machine serving predatory imperialist purposes, just as the industrial workers form part of the profit-making apparatus. Instead of helping to create a better life, their achievements dealt quicker death. Their greater command over matter and energy was cancelled by a total lack of control over its social uses.

What could be more inhuman than for the scientist to become the unwilling agent of the destruction of his own kind and the poisoner of the unborn? No wonder the most sensitive and social-minded have cried out against this violation of their vocation, this impermissible injury to their inner selves. Some have refused as “conscientious objectors” to participate in war-work; others suffered nervous breakdowns; a few even committed suicide.

Those clustered around The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists have been searching—without success—for an effective political solution. Some speak of “their collective guilt”, although they are the victims and not the guilty ones. The responsibility for their intolerable predicament rests entirely upon the ruling imperialists who have thrust them into this alienated condition.

This diagnosis indicates the only way in which they can overcome that alienation. That is to join with those forces which are opposed to the imperialists and obliged to fight them.

The Humanism Of Erich Fromm

While the physical health of the populations in the Western world has been improving, their mental and emotional condition has been deteriorating. This is the thesis of the recent book The Sane Society in which Erich Fromm undertakes a study of the psychopathology of modern life. His work is particularly pertinent because the socialist humanism he advocates is a psychological counterpart of the more literary type of humanism found in Dissent and The New Reasoner . Fromm correctly takes issue with those analysts who proceed from the premise that capitalism is rational and the task of the individual is to “adjust”, that is, conform to its special requirements. On the contrary, he asserts, the system is inherently irrational, as its effects demonstrate. If men are to live productively and at peace with themselves and one another, capitalism has to go.

Fromm borrows the concept of alienation from Marx’s early writings as the central tool in his analysis of what is wrong with the sterile and standardised acquisitive society of the 20th century and the main characteristics it produces in people. He makes many astute observations on the ways in which capitalism mangles human personalities.

He professes to criticise capitalism from a socialist standpoint and as an admirer of Marx. But he turns Marx upside down by declaring that Marx had a concept of man “which was essentially a religious and moral one”. And Fromm himself tries to replace materialism with moralising as the theoretical basis for socialism.

This former psychoanalyst denies that the basic cause of the sickness of modern society is rooted in the relations of production, as Marxism teaches. They are just as much due to spiritual and psychological causes, he writes. Socialism has to be infused with the wisdom of the great religious leaders who taught that the inner nature of man has to be transformed as much as his external circumstances. He agrees with the Gospels that “the kingdom of heaven is within you Socialism, and especially Marxism, has stressed the necessity of the inner changes in human beings, without which economic change can never lead to the ‘good society’”.

Nothing less will do the job than “simultaneous changes in the spheres of industrial and political organisation, of spiritual and psychological orientation, of character structure and of cultural activities”. His practical program for curing the ills of modern society rejects the conquest of power by the workers and the nationalisation of industry and planned economy. That is the way to totalitarian regimentation, in his opinion.

He proposes the establishment of small agricultural and industrial “communities of work” as hothouses in which the laboratory conditions will be created for the cultivation of the good life. Capitalist society is to be reconstructed and humanity regenerated through utopian colonies like those advocated by Owen, Fourier, Proudhon and Kropotkin, which were tried and found wanting over a century ago in the United States.

Thus the “communitarian socialism” of this humanist turns out to be a faded copy of the utopian fantasies of the last century. It is a form of flight from the real facts of modern technology which demand large-scale production on a universal scale to sustain and elevate the expanding population of the globe. It is also an evasion of the pressing tasks involved in eliminating the evils of capitalist reaction and Stalinism, because it alienates itself in theory and in practice from revolutionary Marxism. This is the only social movement, class power and political program that can effectively abolish the rule of monopoly capitalism, uproot Stalinism, and create the material setting for a free and equal social system.

Is Alienation Everlasting?

Are the alienations from which man suffers incurable? This is the contention of the Catholic Church, pessimistic Protestant theologians like Reinhold Niebuhr, existentialist followers of Kierkegaard, and some interpreters of Freud. They picture man as eternally torn and tormented by irreconcilable aims and impulses, doomed to despair and disappointment in the unending war between his deepest spiritual aspirations and his insuperable limitations as an earthbound mortal.

The historical materialists squarely oppose all such preachers of original sin. Mankind does not have eternal insurmountable failings which have to be compensated for by the fictitious consolations of the church, the mystical intuitions of idealist philosophers, or the infinitely repeated but ever defeated efforts at self-transcendence of the existentialists. The real alienations which cripple and warp humanity have ascertainable historical roots and material causes. Far from being eternal, they have, as has been indicated, already shifted their axis in the course of social development from the contest between society and nature to the conflicts within the social structure.

These internal social antagonisms are not everlasting. They do not spring from any intrinsic and inescapable evil in the nature of mankind as a species. They were generated by specific historico-social conditions which have been uncovered and can be explained.

Now that mankind has acquired superiority over nature through triumphs of technology and science, the next great step is to gain collective control over the blind forces of society. There is only one conscious agency in present-day life strong enough and strategically placed to shoulder and carry through this imperative task, says Marxism. That is the force of alienated labour incorporated in the industrial working class.

The material means for liberating mankind can be brought into existence only through the world socialist revolution which will concentrate political and economic power in the hands of the working people. Planned economy of a socialist type on an international scale will not only enable mankind to regain mastery over the means of life; it will immeasurably enhance that collective control. The reconstruction of social relations will complete the mastery of nature for social purposes initiated under class society, and thereby abolish the conditions which in the past permitted, and even necessitated, the subjugation of man to man, the rule of the many by the few.

Once everyone’s primary needs are capable of satisfaction, abundance reigns, and the labour time required to produce the necessities of life is reduced to the minimum, then the stage will be set for the abolition of all forms of alienation and for the rounded development of all persons, not at the expense of one another, but in fraternal relation.

The abolition of private property must be followed by the wiping out of national barriers. The resultant increase in the productive capacities of society will prepare the way for the elimination of the traditional antagonisms between physical and intellectual workers, between the inhabitants of the city and the country, between the advanced and the undeveloped nations.

These are the indispensable prerequisites for building a harmonious, integrated, inwardly stable and constantly developing system of social relations. When all compulsory inequalities in social status, in conditions of life and labour, and in access to the means of self-development are done away with, then the manifestations of these material inequalities in the alienation of one section of society from another will wither away. This in turn will foster the conditions for the formation of harmonious individuals no longer at war with each other—or within themselves.

Such are the radiant prospects held out by the socialist revolution and its reorganisation of society as projected by the masters of Marxism.

Prime Cause Of Alienation In Deformed Workers’ States

This, too, was the goal toward which the Soviet Union, the product of the first successful workers’ revolution, was heading under the Stalinist regime, honest communists believed. Had they not been assured by Stalin that socialism had already been realised in the Soviet Union and it was on the way to the higher stage of communism?

Khrushchev has parroted these claims. But his own disclosures at the 20th Congress and the outbursts of opposition in the Soviet zone since then have ripped through the delusion that a socialist society has already been consummated there. The false ideological structure fabricated by the Communist Party machine lies shattered. How are the pieces to be put together again, and in what pattern?

The first thing that has to be done is to go back and cheek what actually exists in the Soviet Union at its present point of development with the fundamentals of Marxist theory. In their own way some of the “humane” socialists try to do this. “It was assumed”, Thompson, editor of the New Reasoner , writes, “that all forms of human oppression were rooted, ultimately, in the economic oppression arising from the private ownership of the means of production; and that once these were socialised, the ending of the other oppressions would rapidly ensue.” (My italics.)

This proposition of historical materialism retains its full validity, even though the humanist critics question it. What, then, went wrong? Taken by itself, this historical generalisation is an abstract standard which has to be wedded to existing facts and their state of development in order to become concrete and fruitful. The essence of the matter lies in the verbal modifier, “rapidly”. Between the ending of capitalist private ownership and the elevation of the nationalised means of production to the level of socialist abundance there has to be a transition period in which features carried over from the old bourgeois order are intermingled with the fundamental institutions of the new society in the making.

In the case of the Soviet Union this intermediate period was neither so short nor so favourable in its setting as the forecasts of Marx and Lenin anticipated. This historical stage has stretched out over four agonisingly difficult decades and is still far from concluded. The obligation of a scientific socialist is to study the real conditions of the economic and social development of the first workers’ state over these 40 years in the light of all the guiding generalisations of his method. He must inquire to what extent the material circumstances have approached the theoretical norm; wherein they fell short and why; and then determine the ways and means required to bridge the gap between the existing state of affairs and the ideal standard.

Thompson and his fellow humanists, however, dismayed by the filthy features of Stalinism suddenly bared to their vision, proceed quite differently. They carelessly toss out the historical generalisations, which condense within themselves an immense wealth of experience and analysis of social development, along with their disfigured expressions in real life. This is not the first time that well-intentioned radicals, thrown off balance by the contradiction between the standards of what a workers’ state should be and its political degeneration under the Stalinist regime, have rejected both the theoretical norm and the existing reality. After having been cradled so long in illusions, they cannot face the objective historical facts of the Soviet structure.

Marxist sociology, however, demands that the facts as they are be taken as the starting point for theory and action. What are these facts?

In June 1957 Khrushchev swore over TV that there are no contradictions in Soviet society. This was no more credible than his assertion that all was well with the new “collective leadership”—shortly before Molotov, Malenkov, Kaganovitch and other dignitaries were cashiered. The more prudent Mao Tse-tung admitted that certain types of contradiction can exist between the government and the people in the workers’ states but that those in China, and by inference the Soviet Union, are exclusively of the non-antagonistic, nonviolent kind.

The divergences between the bureaucrats and the masses in the Soviet Union which have produced the all-powerful states give the lie to these theoretical pretensions of the leaders in Moscow and Peking. How is this estrangement between the rulers and the ruled to be explained?

The taking of power by the workers and public ownership of the means of production, especially in backward countries, cannot in and of itself and all at once usher in socialism. These achievements simply lay down the political and legal conditions for the construction of the new society, In order to arrive at socialism, the productive forces have to be promoted to the point where consumer goods are cheaper and more plentiful than under the most beneficent capitalism.

This cannot be attained within the confines of a single country, as the orthodox Stalinists claim, or by adding up separated national units, each following “its own road to socialism”, as the dissident Stalinists maintain. The poverty in consumer goods arising from the inferior productivity of the economy divorced from world resources is the material source for the growth and maintenance of malignant bureaucratic tumours within the most “liberal” of the workers’ states.

In principle, in essence, the prime causes of the alienation of labour under capitalism —private property in the means of production and the anarchy of the profit system—have been eradicated in the Soviet countries. Thanks to nationalisation of basic industry, control of foreign trade and planned economy, the working people there are no longer separated from the material means of production but are reunited with them in a new and higher form.

However, these anticapitalist measures and methods do not dispose of the problems of Soviet economy. Far from it. To uproot the social alienations inherited from the barbarous past, the workers’ states require not only a powerful heavy industry but also a well-proportioned economy that can provide the necessities and comforts of life in increasing volume to all sections of the people.

Not one of the existing postcapitalist states has raised its economy anywhere near that point. These states have not yet even approached the productivity in the sphere of subsistence and the means of culture attained by the most advanced capitalist countries. The prevailing scarcities have resulted in tense struggles among the various sectors of their population over the division of the restricted national income. In these struggles the bureaucratic caste which has cornered all the instruments of political power plays the commanding role. The rulers decide who gets what and how much. They never forget to place themselves at the head of the table.

There is no exploitation of labour as in capitalist society. But there are sharp distinctions between the haves, who make up a small minority, and the have-nots, the majority of the working population. The manifest inequalities in the distribution of available goods and amenities erode the ties of solidarity between various parts of the population and dig deep-going differences in their living standards, even where these are somewhat improved. In this sense, the product of their labour still escapes the control of the producers themselves. When it enters the domain of distribution, their production passes under the control of the uncontrolled bureaucracy. In this way their own production, concentrated in the hands of omnipotent administrators, once again confronts the masses as an alien and opposing force.

Herein is the principal source, the material basis, of the alienation of rulers and ruled in the degenerated and deformed workers’ states of the Soviet zone. Their antagonisms express the growth of two opposing tendencies in the economic structure: one carried over from the bourgeois past, the other preparing the socialist future. The socialist foundations of nationalised industry and planned economy in the field of production are yoked to bureaucratically administered bourgeois standards which determine the maldistribution of the inadequate supplies of consumer goods.

The development of these two contradictory tendencies is responsible for the friction which threatens to flare up into explosive conflicts.

The Ultra-Bureaucratic State And The Workers

Why don’t the workers have control over the distribution of their product? Because they have either lost direct democratic control over the state apparatus, as in the Soviet Union, or have yet to acquire it, as in the Eastern European satellites and China. Just as the workers should enjoy higher living standards under socialism than under capitalism, so in a normal workers’ state they should participate far more fully in the administration of public functions, enjoy more freedom and have more rights than under the most democratic of the bourgeois regimes.

There was a foretaste, and a solemn pledge, that such would be the case in the seething democracy that characterised the first years of the Soviet Republic. The subsequent political victory of the bureaucratic upstarts reduced to zero the democratic functioning of the Communist Party, the trade unions, the Soviets, the youth and cultural organisations, the army and other institutions. The powers and rights supposedly guaranteed to the people by the Soviet Constitution were in practice nullified by the centralised caste governing through Stalin’s one-man dictatorship.

This autocratic system of political repression fortified the economic suppression. Through the spy system and the secret police, the jails and concentration camps, the penal powers of the state were directed far less against the forces of the overturned order than against the workers who were the bearers of the new order.

Instead of being an agency for carrying out the decisions of the people, the ultra-bureaucratised state confronted the workers and peasants, the intellectuals and youth, as well as the subject nationalities, as a parasitic, oppressive and hostile force which they yearn to throw off their backs.


Lenin envisaged, and the program of the Bolsheviks stated, that the workers would control and manage industry through their elected representatives. Instead, the division of economic functions which excludes the workers under capitalism from exercising their initiative, intelligence and will has been recreated in new forms under the bureaucratic maladministration of the Soviet economy.

“The universal brain” which supervises production is no longer the capitalists—but it is also not yet the workers as it should be under a genuine Soviet democracy. The hierarchy of bureaucrats arrogated all major powers of decision to themselves under the successive five-year plans. Orders were issued from the single centralised command post in Moscow, even on matters of detail. All science and judgment were vested in appointed officials. Khrushchev’s recent decentralisation of industrial management has modified but not essentially changed this setup.

The workers neither propose nor dispose freely of their energies in the labour process. They do not initiate the plan, participate in its formulation, decide its allotments, apply, oversee, and cheek up on its operation and results. They are relegated to the role of passive objects, subjected to unremitting exhortations and harsh forms of pressure to perform their tasks better.

The workers on the job are speeded up by means of piecework and arbitrary setting of work norms. Until the recent reforms they were chained to their jobs in the factories by workbooks and internal passports and liable to severe penalties for infractions of the rules and for being minutes late to work. They have no right to strike against intolerable conditions.

Meanwhile they see the multiplication of parasites in directing positions and gross mismanagement of the nation’s resources. Reports by Soviet officials themselves have cited many instances of such industrial waste and disorganisation.

Thus the plan of production which should be collectively adopted and carried through by the producing masses appears as an alien pattern imposed upon them by heartless functionaries in disregard of their wishes and welfare.

Dictatorship Of The Lie

The Soviet bureaucracy is itself the living embodiment of a gigantic fraud. This privileged, antisocialist force is obliged to parade as the representative and continuator of the greatest movement for equality and justice in history while riding roughshod over the most elementary needs and feelings of the working people. This immense disparity between its progressive pretensions and its reactionary course is at the bottom of the hypocrisy and deceit that mark Stalinised regimes.

Their dictatorship of the lie permeated every department of Soviet life. From the top to the lower depths the Soviet people were forced to lead double lives: one for public show conforming to the official line of the moment; the other, of suppressed resentment and frustration at their inability to express their real thoughts and emotions lest they be handed over to the Inquisition.

They became alienated from the regime which alienated them from their deepest thoughts and feelings and from one another. “The worst in our system was not the poverty, the lack of the most essential necessities, but the fact that this system made life one great big lie, having to listen to lies, to read lies every hour of the day, all day long, and being forced to lie oneself in turn”, a nameless Budapest intellectual complained to a German reporter.

The revulsion against such spiritual degradation was one of the main causes behind the uprising of Hungarian and Polish intellectuals and youth. It is also one of the main themes of the newly awakened, critical-minded generation of Soviet writers. They are articulating as best they can the rankling protest against regimentation of cultural, scientific and artistic activities; against the suffocating atmosphere of double-talking and double-dealing; against official impostures that not only stifle creative work but make even normalised existence difficult.

In the “People’s Democracies” of Eastern Europe, in the Baltic countries, the Ukraine and other oppressed nations within the Soviet Union itself there is another source of resentment: the grievance against a Great Russian regime which governs heedless of the special demands, traditions, autonomy and interests of the oppressed nationality.

Cult Of The Individual

Religion is primarily the product of mankind’s lack of control over the forces of nature and society. The socialist movement has as one of its objectives the abolition of the material conditions which permit such degrading fictions to stunt men’s outlooks and cramp their lives.

The influence of orthodox religion has been considerably curtailed by atheist education in the Soviet Union since the Revolution. But in its stead there arose that secular “cult of the individual,” the deification of Stalin. This revival of idolatry is all the more startling and paradoxical because it emerged, not from the most unenlightened strata of the population, but on the very heights of the ruling Communist Party which was avowedly guided by the materialist philosophy of Marxism. The working class anthem, the Internationale , says: “We need no god-given saviours.” Yet the Soviet peoples and the communist parties were indoctrinated with the myth of the infallibility of the all-wise “saviour” in the Kremlin.

How did the practices of the Roman and Byzantine empires, which deified its emperors, become duplicated in the first workers’ state?

The answer is not to be found in the exceptional virtues or vices of Stalin but rather in the role he performed for the privileged bureaucratic caste. Having elevated itself as the sole ruling power, it could no more practice democracy within its own circle than it could permit democracy in the country as a whole. It was necessary to find other means of solving the internal problems and conflicts. The means had to be in consonance with the methods of rule: autocratic, violent and deceitful.

Stalin took supreme command, and held it unchallenged for so long, because he best fulfilled the assigned function of the ruthless, all-powerful, omniscient arbiter. Just as the bureaucracy settled everything in the country, “the man of steel” decided everything within the bureaucracy and for it.

The power of the gods, indeed, their very existence, was at bottom derived from the powerlessness of the people in the face of society and nature. So the almighty power of the idolised Stalin was based upon the total usurpation of power from the people. The cult of the individual, so persistently inculcated for decades, was its end-product. The raising of Stalin to superhuman heights was the other side of the political degradation of the Soviet workers.

The breakup of the cult of the individual has been brought about by the reverse process: the growing strength of the Soviet working class and the weakening of the positions of the bureaucracy as a result of the postwar developments. Stalin’s heirs are trying—without much success—to substitute the more impersonal cult of the bureaucracy under the title of “the collective leadership” for the downgraded cult of the individual.

When the people get off their knees, the high and mighty rulers no longer loom so large. As the workers regain their self-confidence and feel their collective strength, their former prostration before fabricated idols vanishes. The outraged revolutionists of Budapest who pulled down the statue of Stalin on the first day of their uprising showed by that symbolic act the fate in store for all the bureaucratic overlords.

The Cure For Bureaucratism

The experience of the postcapitalist regimes over the past 40 years has shown that the danger of bureaucratic distortion and degeneration of the workers states in the transitional period from capitalism to socialism is genuine.

This danger does not flow from any innate evil in a human nature which has an unslakeable thirst for power, as the moralisers insist. It arises from the surrounding material conditions, from the inadequacy of the powers of production to satisfy the wants of the people, even under the most progressive social forms. This economic situation enables the specialists in administration to mount once more upon the backs of the masses and erect their regime, for a time, into an instrument of oppression. The more impoverished and undeveloped the country is, the more menacing this danger becomes. While overproduction is the curse of capitalist economy, underproduction is the curse of the socialised economies.

The causes and character of the malady which has infected the first workers’ states indicate the measures that must be taken to counteract it, so far as that is possible under the given circumstances. The prescription for the cure is nothing less than democratic control of both the government and the economy by the masses of working people.

The real power must be exercised through councils freely elected by the manual and intellectual workers of city and country. Their democratic rights should include freedom of organisation and propaganda by all parties which recognise and abide by the gains of the revolution; freedom of the press; all public functionaries to be under the control of the electorate with the right of recall of representatives on all levels.

There must be such political reforms as the restoration of democracy within the workers’ parties with control of the leadership and policies by their members; the restriction of the income of officials to that of the most skilled workers; the drawing of the people into the administration of public functions; the abolition of the secret police, internal passports, labour camps for political dissenters and other abominations.

In the economic domain the workers must have control over national planning and its execution on all levels and at all stages so that timely reviews can be made of results in the light of actual experience. Wage standards and other means of distribution must be revised so that inequalities can be reduced to the minimum. The trade unions should have the right to strike in order to safeguard the workers against mistakes and abuses of their government.

All nationalities should have the right to be independent or to federate, if desired, in a fraternal and equal association of states.

Such measures would add up to a revolutionary change in the structure and operation of the existing workers’ states, a salutary change from bureaucratic autocracy to workers’ democracy.

How is such a transformation to be accomplished’ Not by concessions doled out from above by “enlightened absolutism” or a frightened officialdom but through direct action by the working people themselves. They will have to take by revolutionary means the rights of rulership which belong to them, which were promised by the Marxist program, and which were denied them by the bureaucratic usurpers.

Stalinism And Capitalism

The “humane” Socialists bracket Stalinism with capitalism because both, they say, subjugate men to things and sacrifice the creative capacities of mankind to the Moloch of economic necessity. Let us agree that, despite their opposing economic foundations, the Stalinist regimes do exhibit many similarities with the states of the capitalist world. But these points of identity do not arise from their common exaltation of things above men. They have a different origin.

Under the guise of defending the free personality against the coercion of things, the neo-humanists are really rebelling against the facts of life formulated in the theory of historical materialism. All societies have been subject to severe economic constraint and must remain so up to the advent of future communism. The less productive a society is and the poorer in the means of subsistence and culture, the harsher these forms of constraint must be. The mass of mankind must labour under this lash until they raise the powers of production to the point where everyone’s needs can be taken care of in a work week of 10 hours or less.

This reduction of necessary labour will free people from the traditional social load that has weighed them down and enable them to devote most of their time to general social welfare activity and personal pursuits and pastimes. Recent developments in science, technology and industry from nuclear energy to automation place such a goal within sight. But our society is still quite a distance from this promised land.

The means for such freedom cannot be provided under capitalism. They have not yet been created in the transitional societies that have passed beyond capitalism. So long as the workers have to toil long hours daily to acquire the bare necessities of existence and compete with one another for them, they cannot administer the general affairs of society or properly develop their creative capacities as free human beings. Such social functions as government, the management of industry, the practice of science and the arts will continue to be vested in specialists. Taking advantage of their posts of command, these specialists have raised themselves above the masses and come to dominate them.

It is out of these economic and social conditions that the ultra-bureaucratic police regimes of the workers’ states have arisen. There, as under capitalism, though in different forms, the privileged minority prospers at the expense of the labours of the majority.

The evils of Stalinism do not come from recognising the material limitations of production or acting in accord with them. Even the healthiest workers’ regime would have to take these into account. The crimes of Stalinism consist in placing the interests and demands of favoured functionaries before the welfare of the people and above the needs of development towards socialism; in fostering inequalities instead of consciously and consistently diminishing them; in concealing both the privileges of aristocrats and the deprivations of plebeians; in stripping the workers of their democratic rights—and trying to pass off these abominations as “socialism”.

The task of eradicating the scourge of bureaucratism in the anticapitalist states is inseparable from the task of abolishing bourgeois rule in capitalist countries. The role of the Kremlin hierarchy has been no less pernicious in foreign affairs than at home. If the menace of imperialist intervention has helped the bureaucracy to maintain its power, its international policies in turn have been a prime political factor in saving capitalist rule from being overthrown by the workers.

By imposing policies of class collaboration upon the communist parties, Stalin rescued tottering capitalist regimes in Western Europe at the end of the Second World War. At the same congress where he made his secret report on Stalin’s crimes (omitting this one, among others) Khrushchev made a declaration of policy on “new roads to socialism” which was essentially Stalin’s old course rendered more explicit. He stated that Lenin’s analysis of the imperialist stage of capitalism and the revolutionary struggle of the workers against it was outmoded by new world-historical conditions. According to Khrushchev, not only are there no conflicts within Soviet society but even the contradictions between monopolist reaction and the workers which provoked revolutionary actions in the past have become softened. The existing capitalist regimes may now, under certain conditions, be magically transformed into People’s Democracies by reformist methods and through purely parliamentary channels.

The Stalinist bureaucracy, and the parties it controls do not propose to follow the path of leading the revolutionary activities of the masses to the conquest of power. They rather seek a general agreement with Western capitalists to freeze the present map of the world and its relationship of class forces.

This reciprocal reliance of capitalist rulership upon Stalinist opportunism, and Stalinist opportunism upon “peace loving” capitalists, whereby one sustains the other at the expense of the world working class, can be broken up only by an international movement of the masses which is both consistently anti-imperialist and anti-Stalinist.

Toward The Abolition Of Alienation

The question of alienation ultimately merges with the long-standing problem of the relation between human freedom and social necessity. Socialism promised freedom, cry the new humanists, but see what terrible despotism it has begotten under Stalinism. “Are men doomed to become the slaves of the times in which they live, even when, after irrepressible and tireless effort, they have climbed so high as to become the masters of the time?” asks the imprisoned ex-communist leader and newly-converted social-democrat Milovan Djilas in the autobiography of his youth, Land Without Justice .

How does historical materialism answer this question? The extent of man’s freedom in the past was rigidly circumscribed by the degree of effective control society exercised over the material conditions of life. The savage who had to spend most of his waking hours every day of the year chasing after food had little freedom to do anything else. This same restriction upon the scope of human action and cultural development has persisted through civilisation for the bulk of mankind—and for the same economic reasons.

If people suffer today from the tyranny of money or from the tyranny of the state, it is because their productive systems, regardless of its property forms, cannot at their present state of development take care of all their physical and cultural needs. In order to throw off these forms of social coercion, it is necessary to raise the powers of social production—and, in order to raise these powers, it is necessary to get rid of the reactionary social forces which hold them back.

Scientific socialists can agree with the new humanists that it is necessary to live up to the highest moral standards. They recognise that the desires for justice, tolerance, equality and self-respect have become as much a part of civilised life as the needs for food, clothing and shelter. Marxism would not be fit to serve as the philosophical guide of the most enlightened people of our time if it failed to take these demands into account.

But that is only one side of the problem. Until their basic material requirements are actually assured for everyone, the higher activities are stunted and social relations must remain un-humanised. The forces of reaction, whose codes and conduct are governed by the will to defend their power, property, and privileges at any price, determine the moral climate far more than their opponents who have more elevated aims and ideals.

It would be more “humane” for the Western imperialists to withdraw quietly from their colonial domains, instead of fighting to hold them. But the actions of the French in Algeria again prove that ruthless terror, not peaceful reason, is more likely to prevail.

From the economic, cultural and ethical standpoints, it would be preferable if the monied magnates would recognise that their usefulness is finished and consent to yield their possessions and power to the socialist workers movement by mutual agreement between the contending classes. So far history has not provided any such sensible and straightforward solution to the transition from capitalism to socialism.

The principal task before the Soviet people is to get rid of the archaic monstrosity of their totalitarian political structure. It would be best if the Stalinist leaders would give up their functions as an oppressive ruling caste, grant independence to their satellites, and return complete power to their own people. But the case of Hungary indicates that they are unlikely to cede their commanding positions gracefully, gradually or easily,

“Humane” and “reasonable” solutions to the fundamental social problems of our time are blocked by these bulwarks of reaction. That is why the anticapitalist revolutions in the advanced countries, the anti-imperialist movements in the colonies, and the antibureaucratic struggles in the Soviet zone will have to be brought to successful conclusions before the causes of the antagonisms which plague mankind can be eliminated.

Over a century ago Marx emphasised that men cannot behave according to truly human standards until they live under truly human conditions. Only when the material conditions of their existence are radically transformed, when all their time becomes available for freely chosen pursuits, can they throw off the contradictory relations which have tormented mankind with separatism and conflict.

The aim of socialism is to introduce the rule of reason into all human activities. The alienations from which men suffer have been produced and perpetuated by the unconscious operation of uncontrollable natural and social forces. Socialism will eradicate the sources of alienation by bringing under conscious control all those hitherto unmanageable forces which have crippled mankind, frustrated its deepest aspirations, and thwarted its full and free development in any desired direction.

This process will start by eliminating the irrationality, anarchy and inadequacy of the economic foundations through planned production of the necessities of life and the means of cultural development. In this age of nuclear energy, electronics and automation the linking up of the workers’ republics in the industrialised countries with those in less developed lands, can, within a measurable period, bring the productive powers of society to the point where there can be abundance for all, for the economically retarded as well as for the most advanced peoples.

As this economic goal is approached, the conditions will be prepared for the reduction of all governmental compulsions over the associations and actions of men, culminating in the abolition of man’s power over man. The universal elevation of living and educational standards will break down the opposition between workers and intellectuals so that all intelligence can be put to work and all work be performed with the utmost intelligence. In this new form of social production labour can become a joyous and significant enterprise instead of an ordeal.

The progress of science will be planned to create the most worthy conditions for the all-sided improvement of humanity. The supreme aim of socialism is humanistic in the highest and deepest sense. It is nothing less than the remaking of the human race in a thoroughly conscious and scientifically planned manner.

The scientists of socialism will not only penetrate into galactic space. They will invade the remotest hiding places of matter, and especially living matter. They will systematically seek out and subdue the obscure forces at work in their own bodies and psyches, the legacy of blind animal evolution.

With knowledge and power thus acquired, humanity will become the freely creative species it has the potential of becoming. Men will recreate their natural environment, their organisms and their mutual relations as they wish them to be. To human beings of that happier time the welfare of their fellows will be the first law of their own existence.

Labour Time And Free Time

All economy is economy of labour time and man’s freedom comes down in the last analysis to freedom from compulsory labour. The expenditure of time and energy in procuring the material means of existence is an inheritance from the animal state which prevents men from leading a completely human life. Mankind will suffer from this alienation so long as it must engage in socially necessary labour.

The Bible says: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.” This has been the lot of mankind throughout the ages. The members of primitive communities are the slaves of labour time as well as the members of class society. Savages, however, work only for themselves and not to enrich others.

The labouring force in class society has to produce extra wealth for the owners of the means of production in addition to their own upkeep. They are doubly enslaved by surplus labour time piled upon necessary labour time. The wage workers who are obliged to create an ever-expanding surplus of value for the masters of capital are more intensively sweated than any other class.

It is not the socialist but the capitalist who looks upon labour as the essence of humanity and its eternal fate. Under capitalism the wage worker is treated, not as a fellow human being, but as a mechanism useful for the production of surplus value. He is a prisoner with a lifetime sentence to hard labour.

Marxism assigns the highest importance to labour activity, recognising that production of wealth beyond the mere means of subsistence has been the material basis for all advancement in civilisation. But Marxism does not make an idol of labour. For all its mighty accomplishments, to work for a living is not the height of human evolution or the ultimate career of mankind. Quite the contrary. Compulsory labour is the mark of social poverty and oppression. Free time for all is the characteristic of a truly human existence.

The necessity for labour remains, and may even for a time become more imperious, after capitalist relations are abolished. Although people no longer work for exploiting classes but for a collective economy, they do not yet produce enough to escape the tyranny of labour time. Under such conditions labour time remains the measure of wealth and the regulator of its distribution.

But, contrary to the situation under capitalism, the greater their powers of production grow, the closer the workers come to the hour of their release from servitude to labour. When the production of all the material necessities of life and means of culture will be taken over by automatic methods and mechanisms, requiring the minimum of superintendence, humanity will be freed to develop its distinctively human capacities and relations to the full.

The prehistory of humanity will end and its development on a truly human basis begin, when wealth of all kinds flows as freely as water and is as abundant as air and compulsory labour is supplanted by free time. Then free time enjoyed by all will be the measure of wealth, the guarantee of equality and harmony, the source of unrestricted progress and the annihilator of alienation. This is the goal of socialism, the promise of communism.