What Is Marxism?. Emile Burns 1939


Nowhere in Marx’s writings is there to be found a detailed account of the new social system which was to follow capitalism. Marx wrote no “Utopia” of the kind that earlier writers had produced – writings based only on the general idea of a society from which the more obvious evils of the society in which they lived had been removed. But from the general laws of social development Marx was able to outline the features of the new society and the way in which it would develop.

Perhaps the most a sense the most obvious, point made by Marx was that the organisation of the new society would not begin, so to speak, on a clearer field. Therefore it was futile to think in terms of a society “which has developed on its own foundations.” It was not a question of thinking out the highest possible number of good features and mixing them together to get the conception of a socialist society which we would then create out of nothing. Such an approach was totally unscientific, and the result could not possibly conform to reality.

On the contrary, an actual socialist society, like all previous forms of society, would only come into existence on the basis of what already existed before it; that is to say, it would be a society “just emerging from capitalist society, and which therefore in all respects – economic, moral and intellectual – still bears the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it sprung.”

In fact, it is the actual development within capitalist society which prepares the way for socialism, and indicates the character of the change. Production becomes increasingly social, in the sense that more and more people are associated in the making of every single thing; factories get larger and larger, and the process of production links together a very large number of people in the course of transforming raw materials into the finished article. There is greater and greater interdependence between people; the old feudal ties and connections have long been broken by capitalism, but in its development capitalism has built new connections of a far wider character – so wide that every individual becomes more or less dependent on what happens to society as a whole.

But although this is the steady tendency of capitalist production, the fact is that the product, made by the co-operative work of society, is the property of an individual or group and not the property of society. The first step in building up a socialist society must therefore be to give society the product which it has made; and this means that society as a whole must own the means of production – the factories, mines, machinery, ships, etc., which under capitalism are privately owned.

But this socialisation of the means of production itself takes place only on the basis of what the new society inherits from the old. And it is only the relatively large concerns which are so to speak ready to be taken over by society. Capitalist development has prepared them for this. There is already a complete divorce between the owners and the production process in such concerns; the only link is the dividend or interest paid by the concern to the shareholders. Production is carried on by a staff of workers and employees; the transfer of ownership to society as a whole does not alter their work. Therefore these large concerns can be taken over immediately.

The position is different in the case of smaller enterprises, especially in those where the owner himself plays an important part in production. It is obvious that the management of a large number of separate small factories is a very difficult thing – in fact, it is impossible in the early stages of a working-class government. What is essential is to prepare the way for the centralised management of these smaller enterprises, including both town industries and small farms.

What practical steps in this direction can be taken? The general method is to encourage co-operation, as a first step, so that these small producers learn to produce in common, and one productive unit takes the place of scores of smaller ones. Engels showed this in relation to small-holders, in regard to whom he wrote:

“Our task will first of all consist in transforming their individual production and individual ownership into cooperative production and co-operative ownership, not forcibly, but by way of example, and by offering social aid for this purpose.” (Handbook of Marxism, p. 564).

This transformation, “not forcibly, but by way of example, and by offering social aid,” is the essential basis of the Marxist approach to the building up of a socialist society. Of course, as shown in the previous chapter, Marx saw that the former ruling class would not quietly accept the changed conditions, and would carry on the class struggle as long as they could in the effort to restore the old order; the working class therefore needed a State apparatus of force to meet such attacks and defeat them. But the process, of building the new society was an economic process, not dependent on the use of force.

Hence it follows that, once the working class has broken the resistance of the former ruling class and has established its own control, it over the larger enterprises, the banks, the railways and other “commanding height:..” of industry and trade, but does not at once take over all and trade, and therefore does not force everyone ‘to accept socialism on the morrow of the revolution. What fire revolution immediately achieves therefore is not and could not be socialism, but working-class power to build socialism. And it must Le many years before the building is completed, and all production and distribution is on a socialist basis.

The first essential feature of socialism is that the of production are taken from private ownership and used for society as, a whole. But the Marxist basis or this is not any ethical “principle.” It is simply that private ownership of the means of production in fact checks production, prevents the full use of the productive powers which man has created. Therefore the transfer of ownership to society as a whole is only the clearing of the ground; the next step is the conscious, planned development of the productive forces.

It is a mistake to think that this development is only necessary in a backward industrial country such as Russia was in 1917. Marx was thinking of advanced industrial countries when he wrote that after taking power “the proletariat will use its political supremacy . . . to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.” And although these productive resources, for example in Britain, have increased enormously since Marx’s day, the fact is that they are still backward in relation to, what scientific knowledge today makes possible. They are backward because of the capitalist system – because economic crises constantly cheek production; because production is for the market, and as the market is restricted under capitalism, the growth of the productive forces is restricted; because monopoly buys up technical inventions, and prevents them from being widely used; because production cannot be planned, and so there is no systematic growth; because capitalism has kept agriculture separate and backward; because capitalism has to devote enormous resources for wars between rival groups, wars against the colonial peoples; because capitalism separates manual from mental work, and therefore does not open the floodgates of invention; because the class struggle absorbs an enormous amount of human energy; because capitalism leaves millions unemployed.

Therefore the factories and the mines, the power-stations and the railways, agriculture and fishing can and must be reorganised and made more up-to-date, so that a far higher level of production can be reached. What is the object of this? To raise the standard of living of the people.

One of the favorite arguments of the anti-socialists used to be that if everything produced in Britain was divided up equally, this would make very little difference in the standard of living of the workers. Even if this were true – and it is not – it has absolutely nothing to do with Marx’s conception of socialism. Marx saw that socialism would raise the level of production to undreamed-of heights. It is not merely because Tsarist Russia was backward that industrial production in the Soviet Union in 1938 was over eight times the pre-war level; even in industrial Britain an enormous increase could and would be made.

This increase in the level of production, and therefore in the standard of living of the people, is the material basis on which the intellectual and cultural level of the people will be raised.

But the whole development requires planned production. In capitalist society, new factories are built and production of any particular article is increased when a higher profit can be made by this increase. And it does not by any means follow that the higher profit means that the article in question is needed by the people. The demand may come from a tiny section of very rich people; or some exceptional circumstances may raise prices for one article. Where profit is the motive force, there can be only anarchy in production, and the result is constant over-production in one direction and under-production in another.

In socialist society, where production is not for profit but for use, a plan of production is possible. In fact, it is possible even before industry is fully socialised. As soon as the main enterprises are socialised, and the others are more or less regulated, a plan of production can be made – a plan that grows more accurate every year.

So we see that Marx saw socialism as implying, in the economic field, ownership of the means of production by society as a whole; a rapid increase in the productive forces, planned production. And it is the character of the plan of production that contains the secret of why there cannot be any over-production under socialism in spite of the fact that the means of production are always being increased.

The national plan of production consists of two parts: the plan for new means of production – buildings, machinery, raw materials, etc., – and the plan for articles of consumption, not only food and clothing but also education, health services, entertainment, sport and so on, besides administration. So long as defence forces are required, these must also be provided for in the plan.

There can never be over-production, because the total output of articles of consumption is then allocated. to the people – that is to say, total wages and allowances of all kinds are fixed to equal the total price of articles of consumption. There may, of course, be bad planning – provision may be made one year for more bicycles than the people want and too few boots. But such defects are easily remedied by an adjustment of the next plan, so that the balance is righted. It is always only a case of adjusting production between one thing and another – never of reducing total production, for total consumption never falls short of total production of consumption goods. As planned production of these rises, so does their planned distribution.

But they are not divided out in kind among the people. The machinery used is the distribution of money to the people, in the form of wages or allowances. As the prices of the consumption goods are fixed, the total wages and allowances paid can be made equal to the total price of the consumption goods. There is never any discrepancy between production and consumption – the people have everything that is available. Increased production means increasing the quantity of goods available and therefore the quantity taken by the people.

The part played by prices in socialist society is often misunderstood. In the capitalist system, price fluctuations indicate the relation between supply and demand. If prices rise, this means the supply is too small; if prices fall, the supply is too great and must be reduced. Prices therefore act as the regulator of production. But in socialist society prices are simply a regulator of consumption; production goes according to plan. and prices are deliberately fixed, so that what is produced will be consumed.

How is the total output of consumption goods shared out among the people? It is a complete misconception to think that Marx ever held that the products would be shared out equally. Why not? Because a socialist society is not built up completely new, but on the foundations it inherits from capitalism. To share out equally would be to penalise everyone whose standard of living had been above the average. The skilled workers, whose work in increasing production is in fact more important for society than the work of the unskilled labourer, would be penalised. Equality based on the unequal conditions left by capitalism would therefore not be just, but unjust. Marx was quite clear on this point; he wrote: “Rights, instead of being equal, must be unequal ... Justice can never rise superior to the economic conditions of society and the cultural development conditioned by them.”

Men who have just emerged from capitalist society are in fact unequal, and must be treated unequally if society is to be fair to them. On the other hand, society only has this obligation to them if they serve society. Therefore “he that does not work, neither shall he eat.” And it follows also from this that the man who does more useful work for society also is given a higher standard of living. The distribution of the total products available for consumption is therefore based on the principle: from each according to his ability, to each according to his work.

But socialist society does not remain at the level inherited from capitalism; it raises production each year, and at the same time it raises the technical skill and the cultural development of the people. And the inequality of wages – the fact that skilled and culturally developed people get more than the unskilled – acts as an incentive to everyone to raise his or her qualifications. In turn the higher skill means more production – there is more to go round, and this enables everyone’s standard of living to be raised. Inequality in a socialist society is therefore a lever by which the whole social level is raised, not, as in capitalism, a weapon for increasing the wealth of the few and the poverty of the many.

Did Marx consider that this inequality would be a permanent feature of the future society? No, in the sense that a stage would be reached when it was no longer necessary to give people a share proportionate to the service they render to society.

After all, to divide up the product according to work done or any other principle is to confess that there is not enough to satisfy everyone’s needs. In capitalist society a family which is able to afford as much bread as all members of the family need does not share out a loaf on any principle: every member of the family takes what he or she needs. And when production in a socialist society has risen to such a height that all citizens can take what they need without anyone going short, there is no longer the slightest point in measuring and limiting what anyone takes. When that stage is reached, the principle on which production and distribution are based becomes: from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.

It is the point at which this becomes possible that distinguishes communism from socialism. Socialism, as Marx used the term, is the first stage, when the means of production are owned by the people and therefore there is no longer any exploitation of man by man, but before planned socialist production has raised the country’s output to such a height that everyone can have what he needs.

But the stage of communism implies much more than merely material sufficiency. From the time when the working class takes power and begins the change to socialism, a change also begins to take place in the outlook of the people. All kinds of barriers which under capitalism seemed rigid grow weaker and are finally broken down. Education and all opportunities for development are open to. all children equally, no matter what the status or income of their parents may be. “Caste” differences no longer count. Children learn to use their hands as well as their brains. And this equalisation of physical and mental work gradually spreads through the whole people. Everyone becomes an “intellectual,” while intellectuals no longer separate themselves off from physical work.

Women are no longer looked on as inferior or unable to play their part in every sphere of the life of society. Special measures are taken to make it easier for them to work. Creches are established at the factories, in the blocks of flats, and so on, so that mothers can have greater freedom. The work of women in the home is reduced by communal kitchens, laundries and restaurants. There is no compulsion on women to work, but they are given facilities which make work easy for them.

The barriers between national groups are broken down. There are no “subject races” in a socialist society; no one is treated as superior or inferior because of his colour or nationality. All national groups are helped to develop their economic resources as well as their literary and artistic traditions.

Democracy is not limited to voting for a representative in parliament every five years. In every factory, in every block of flats, in every aspect of life, men and women are shaping their own lives and the destiny of their country. More and more people are drawn into some sphere of public life, given responsibility for helping themselves and others. This is a much fuller, more real democracy than exists anywhere else.

The difference between the town and the countryside is broken down. The workers in the villages learn to use machinery and raise their technical skill to the level of the town workers. Educational and cultural facilities formerly available only in the towns grow up in the countryside.

In a word, on the basis of the changes in material conditions which socialism brings, vast changes also take place in the development and outlook of men and women. They will be people with “an all-round development, an all-round training, people who will be able to do everything.”

Above all, the self-seeking, individualist outlook bred by capitalism will have been replaced by a really social outlook, a sense of responsibility to society; as Marx put it: “labour has become not only a means of living, but itself the first necessity of life.” In that stage of society, Communist society, there will no longer be any need for incentives or inducements to work, because the men and women of that day will have no other outlook than playing their part in the further development of society.

Is this Utopian? It could only be regarded as Utopian by people who do not understand the materialist basis of Marxism, which has been touched on in Chapter II. Human beings have no fixed characteristics and outlook, eternally permanent. In primitive tribal society, even in those forms of it which have survived to recent times, the sense of responsibility to the tribe is very great. In later society, after the division of society into classes, the sense of social responsibility was broken down, but still showed itself in a certain feeling of responsibility to the class. In capitalist society there is the most extreme disintegation of social responsibility: the system makes “every man for himself” the main principle of life.

But even within capitalist society there is what is known as “solidarity” among the workers – the sense of a common interest, a common responsibility. This is not an idea which someone has thought of and put into the heads of workers: it is an idea which arises out of the material conditions of working-class life, the fact that they get their living in the same way, working alongside each other. The typical grasping individualist, on the other hand, the man with no sense of social or collective responsibility, is the capitalist surrounded by competitors, all struggling to survive by killing each other. Of course, the ideas of the dominant class – the competition and rivalry instead of solidarity – tend to spread among the workers, especially among those who are picked out by the employers for special advancement of any kind. But the fundamental basis for the outlook of any class (as distinct from individuals) is the material conditions of life, the way it gets its living.

Hence it follows that the outlook of people can be changed by changing their material conditions, the way in which they get their living. No example could be better than the change which has been brought about in the outlook of the peasantry in the Soviet Union. Everyone who wrote of the peasant in Tsarist Russia described his self-seeking, grasping individualism. Critics of the revolution used to assert that the peasant could never be converted to socialism, that the revolution would he broken by the peasantry. And it is perfectly true that the outlook of the peasantry was so limited, so fixed by their old conditions of life, that they could never have been “converted” to socialism by arguments, or forced into socialism by compulsion. What these critics did not understand, as they were not Marxists, was that a model farm, a tractor station near them, would make them see in practice that better crops were got by large-scale methods. They were won for machinery and methods which could only be operated by breaking down their individual landmarks and working the land collectively. And this in turn broke down the separatism of their outlook. Now they are settling down to a collective basis of living, and they are becoming a new type of peasantry – a collective peasantry, with a sense of collective responsibility, which is already some distance along the road to a social outlook.

When therefore the material basis in any country is socialist production and distribution, when the way in which all the people get their living is by working for society as a whole, then the sense of social responsibility so to speak develops naturally; people no longer need to be convinced that the social principle is right. It is not a question of an abstract moral duty having to establish itself over the instinctive desires of “human nature;” human nature itself is transformed by practice, by custom.

Up to this point we have not considered the implications of socialist or communist society covering the whole world. But Marx’s whole account of socialist society shows that it will mean the end of wars. When production and distribution in each country are organised on a socialist basis, there will be no group in any country which will have the slightest interest in conquering other countries. A’ capitalist country conquers some relatively backward country to extend the capitalist system, to open up new chances for profitable investments by the finance-capital group; to get new contracts for railways and docks, perhaps for new mining machinery; to obtain new sources of cheap raw materials and new markets. But for an advanced industrial socialist country to conquer by force of arms some backward country would be simply ridiculous; to extend the socialist system to that backward country would mean lowering the standard of living of the advanced socialist country. Once again, it is not a question of morals; socialist societies will not make war because there is nothing they, or any groups within them, can gain from war.

For the same reason no socialist State is in the least interested in holding back any backward country. On the contrary, the more every country develops its industry and cultural level, the better it will be for all the other socialist countries, the higher the standard of living throughout the world, the richer the content of life. Therefore those socialist countries which are industrially advanced will help the more backward countries to develop, not hold them back and, of course, not exploit them in any way.

In such a world socialist system the further advance that man could make defies the imagination. With all economic life planned in every country, and a world plan co-ordinating the plans of each separate country, with scientific discoveries and technical inventions shared out at once between all countries, with the exchange of every form of cultural achievement, man would indeed take giant’s strides forward.

Towards what? Marx never attempted to foretell, because the conditions are too unknown for any scientific forecast. But this much is clear: with the establishment of communism throughout the world, the long chapter of man’s history of class divisions and class struggles will have come to an end. There will be no new division into classes, chiefly because in a communist society there is nothing to give rise to it. The division into classes at a time when men’s output was low served to provide organisers and discoverers of higher productive forces; the class division continued to fulfil this function, and under capitalism it helped the concentration of production and the vast improvements in technique.

But at the stage when man has equipped himself with such vast productive forces that only a couple of hours’ work a day is necessary, the division into classes can well end, and must end. From that point on, man will resume his struggle with nature, but with the odds on his side. No longer trying to win nature with magic, or avert natural disasters with prayer, no longer blindly groping his way through class struggles and wars, but sure of himself, confident of his power to control the forces of nature and to march on – that is man in communist society as pictured by Marx.