Pieter Lawrence

Socialism, Sudden and Gradual Change

Source: Socialist Standard, March 2002.
Transcription: Socialist Party of Great Britain
HTML Markup: Darren O'Neil
Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2009). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

In modern times the idea of a new society, or a change from capitalism to socialism, goes back to the turn of the 19th century when it was discussed by utopian writers. These ideas were developed by Marx and Engels as a political and economic criticism of the capitalist system and in 1848, in the Communist Manifesto, they set out a revolutionary programme for achieving this change. The pamphlet became a great influence on the growth of working class movements when the many Communist, Social Democratic and Labour Parties were founded. Some were eventually successful in winning power and forming governments. Even now, in China, a so-called Communist government wields power over nearly a quarter of the world's population.

As we now look back over the struggles of countless millions of working people throughout the world during the l9th and 20th centuries, which were dedicated to the idea of building a new society, it is important to ask what has been achieved? And if the aims that inspired all these movements have not been realised, what went wrong? It has to be accepted that they made no progress towards a socialist society, and it should now be asked why the methods and policies of these movements were doomed to failure.

Though it was a great influence it would be unjust to blame the failures on the Communist Manifesto. However, whilst we may still admire that great historical document we should also accept that the revolutionary programme it set out was fatally flawed. One problem with this programme was that it envisaged that socialism would be established after a period of time following the capture of power by a working class government:

“The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the state, i.e., of the proletariat organised as a ruling class, and to increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible.”

So the expropriation of the capitalists was to take place gradually and would include the continued use of such features of capitalism as money, rent from land, income tax, private property and a national bank with state capital. It was in effect, a recipe for state capitalism.

A process of change, by degrees, from capitalism to socialism is not possible. This would have to assume that at each stage there would be, side by side, wage labour producing commodities for sale on the markets with people co-operating voluntarily to produced goods solely for needs. It would also have to assume that sales of goods would operate side by side with free access to goods. But if the function of state capital was that it should be invested in labour, machinery and materials with a view to its circulation and accumulation throughout production and the sales of commodities, then this could only have resulted from the exploitation of workers. That this function of capital would gradually disappear from the system, and voluntary co-operation with free access to goods would displace wage labour producing commodities for sale, is, once again, just not credible.

Taking the works of Marx as a whole, we can understand that the productive relationships of capitalism and socialism are mutually exclusive and cannot operate together. In fact, a capitalist basis compels each part of the productive system to be profitable or at least solvent, and if they are not they tend to drop out because they are not viable. These are the pressures of economic selection which tend to maintain the system as an exclusively capitalist structure.

It is true that later in his political life Marx came to see the revolutionary programme of the Communist Manifesto differently, but by that time the idea of nationalisation and state control as providing a road to socialism had become the received wisdom of working class movements and tragically, it all was to lead to failure, disaster and disillusion. It was the founder members of the Socialist Party who insisted that the change from capitalism to socialism could only be achieved by a majority of socialists taking democratic control, bringing in the common ownership of the means of production and commencing the organisation of socialist society from that point.

On the face of it, this suggests that the change from capitalism to socialism would be a sudden leap from one social system to another. But, seen against the background of continuous development and the particular factors that would be involved, it would not be a total social change so much as a change in the social relationships through which society is operated. This would be the new basis on which people would reorganise society to meet their needs.

An example of a “sudden” and far-reaching change in social relationships was that carried out by the Bolsheviks as part of their state capitalist revolution in 1917. Not the nationalisation of industry and manufacture, which was not so much a basic change as a transfer of private ownership to the benefits of monopoly and control for a new class of state bosses. But, in the countryside, the Bolsheviks destroyed the landed aristocracy overnight. These feudal relationships had existed for centuries and involved millions of people over the entire land mass. This destruction of an entire class and its corresponding mode of agricultural production was enacted at 2.30 in the morning on 9 November 1917.

But this is not to suggest that this sudden change can be explained solely in terms of the events of 9 November 1917. Although the power of the landed aristocracy had remained barely unaltered for centuries, the pressures on it from a wide range of external sources had been gradually intensifying. In this broader context, the sudden destruction of the landed aristocracy in Russia is explained in relation to the slow pace of social development during the preceding century including the failure to develop more efficient capitalist agriculture compared with other European Powers. This lack of proportionate development meant that in the First World War Russia was unable to sustain its war effort on equal terms. The failures of the Russian Army, the bankruptcy of the state, and the desperate condition of the Russian masses in poverty and famine led to social and political breakdown, which gave the Bolsheviks their opportunity to seize power. So the sudden changes enacted by the Bolsheviks in l917 were the outcome of these tensions which acted as a more gradual build up of predisposing factors. Although the circumstances would be totally different this may be a useful analogy in considering sudden and gradual change as elements in a socialist revolution.

At the time of the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels believed that one of the limitations on what could be achieved was the relative lack of capitalist development. This meant that, though the political and economic arrangements were vague, the first thing the working class would have to do with its “political supremacy” would be to “increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible.” But 150 years later this has been massively achieved by capitalism itself. In fact it has done much more.

A key concept in the materialist view of change is what Marx referred to as the conflict between the “material productive forces of society” and the “existing relations of production”. Applying this to capitalist society, its productive relations of class ownership, wage labour and capital have not changed over more than two hundred years. These define capitalism as a system and cannot change. But its productive forces have changed enormously. These have increased and spread to every corner of the globe to become a world system. Means of production of every kind, transport and advanced technique have been developed together with instant world communications, administration and institutions. These developments over time now pre-dispose the ease with which a majority of socialists could stop the operation of capitalism and immediately commence the organisation of socialist society.

These changes have altered the conditions in which the work for socialism is carried on. For example, the existence of great powers of production which cannot be used for the benefit of all people because they are constrained to serve the interests of a few in a profit system sharpens the conflict between human needs and the prevailing class relations. We are also able to learn from the political experience of failure. Mainly the disastrous idea that socialism can be established over time by a “working class government” through nationalisation and state control.

In practical terms the change from capitalism to socialism will not mean the introduction of anything materially new so much as the immediate removal of redundant features of an existing structure of production and social organisation. The establishment of common ownership does not and could not imply a sudden transformation of all the material processes of living. There could be no sudden change in the actual work processes of people in mining, industry, manufacture, transport and distribution, farming, building and construction, energy supply, health services, etc. All these people would carry on with what they are doing but within the new relationships of voluntary co-operation. From this point a period of rapid re-organisation and development would also be commenced after production and administration has been released from the economic constraints of capitalism. This will necessarily take time. Seen in this practical perspective the change from capitalism to socialism can be seen as combining elements of both short and long-term change.