The following article was sent to The Marxist-Leninist by Professor Toad, and is the first part of a series of articles on China:
The term socialism and the term dictatorship of the proletariat refer to two different concepts. Socialism describes a particular relation of production in which the means of production are socially owned and the exploitation of man by man is abolished. The dictatorship of the proletariat is a political situation in which the working class — in all known cases, acting in alliance with the peasantry — has seized political power in a country. In the real world the two are very closely linked, and if you find one, the other is not far off. But in analyzing countries very near in time to a revolution, the failure to understand this difference can lead to confusion.
Socialism Before And After Marx
The book Socialism: From Dream To Reality, written by Evgenii Mikhailovich Koveshnikov and published by Novosti in Moscow in 1979, discusses the history of socialist literature prior to Marx. According to this book, the first example of socialist literature is the book Utopia, by Thomas Moore, written in 1516. Thomas Moore was an English chancellor who made a name in his day for law reform and his support of the burning of heretics. Executed by Henry VIII because he would not support Protestantism, Moore was later made a saint by the Catholic Church. The name Utopia is taken from Greek words meaning no place, and it concerns a fictional society on a distant island which Moore uses to explain his ideas on a better organization of society. To give an idea of the concept of socialism in this book, we can look at a few quotes from the description of Utopian society:
Their doors have all two leaves, which, as they are easily opened, so they shut of their own accord; and there being no property among them, every man may freely enter into any house whatsoever. At every ten years’ end they shift their houses by lots.
AGRICULTURE is that which is so universally understood among them that no person, either man or woman, is ignorant of it; they are instructed in it from their childhood, partly by what they learn at school and partly by practice; they being led out often into the fields, about the town, where they not only see others at work, but are likewise exercised in it themselves. Besides agriculture, which is so common to them all, every man has some peculiar trade to which he applies himself, such as the manufacture of wool, or flax, masonry, smith’s work, or carpenter’s work; for there is no sort of trade that is not in great esteem among them. Throughout the island they wear the same sort of clothes without any other distinction, except what is necessary to distinguish the two sexes, and the married and unmarried. The fashion never alters; and as it is neither disagreeable nor uneasy, so it is suited to the climate, and calculated both for their summers and winters. Every family makes their own clothes; but all among them, women as well as men, learn one or other of the trades formerly mentioned.
The chief, and almost the only business of the syphogrants, is to take care that no man may live idle, but that every one may follow his trade diligently: yet they do not wear themselves out with perpetual toil, from morning to night, as if they were beasts of burden, which, as it is indeed a heavy slavery, so it is everywhere the common course of life among all mechanics except the Utopians; but they dividing the day and night into twenty-four hours, appoint six of these for work; three of which are before dinner, and three after.
And thus from the great numbers among them that are neither suffered to be idle, nor to be employed in any fruitless labor, you may easily make the estimate how much may be done in those few hours in which they are obliged to labor.
Every city is divided into four equal parts, and in the middle of each there is a marketplace: what is brought thither, and manufactured by the several families, is carried from thence to houses appointed for that purpose, in which all things of a sort are laid by themselves; and thither every father goes and takes whatsoever he or his family stand in need of, without either paying for it or leaving anything in exchange.
Thus, we can see in this very early work by a man in no way connected to the proletariat many shades of what we now understand as socialism. Whether this is in fact the earliest socialist literature is debatable. Marx and Engels saw shades of socialist thinking even in the Christian Gospels.
Prior to Marx there were even various attempts to put socialism into practice. During the English Civil War, the Diggers, or True Levellers, briefly established a communal society in England. Another political sect of the time called the Levellers insisted on universal male political equality. The True Levellers distinguished themselves by calling also for economic equality. The Digger settlement was soon destroyed by the English ruling class.
There were also the Utopian Socialists, such as Charles Fourier, who set up small scale communal societies in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
The different varieties of socialists which existed before Marxism are explained in the Communist Manifesto: Feudal Socialists; Petty Bourgeois Socialists; German or “True” Socialists; Bourgeois or Conservative Socialists; and Critical-Utopian Socialists or Communists.
Marx’s concept of socialism was more developed and more materialistic than earlier concepts. It involved a much clearer statement of, how, for instance, the rules of distribution would work in socialism. Most importantly, of course, it involved a practical route to socialism. But by socialism Marx still meant a society based on the common ownership of the means of production. Thus we have the following from the Communist Manifesto:
In this sense, the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.
And from Engels’s Principles of Communism we get:
Question 14 : What kind of a new social order will this have to be?
Answer : Above all, it will generally have to take the running of industry and of all branches of production out of the hands of mutually competing individuals and instead institute a system in which all these branches of production are operated by society as a whole, that is, for the common account, according to a common plan and with the participation of all members of society. It will, in other words, abolish competition and replace it with association. Moreover, since the management of industry by individuals has private property as its inevitable result, and since competition is merely the manner and form in which industry is run by individual private owners, it follows that private property cannot be separated from the individual management of industry and from competition. Hence, private property will also have to be abolished, and in its place must come the common utilization of all instruments of production and the distribution of all products according to common agreement — in a word, the so-called communal ownership of goods. In fact, the abolition of private property is the shortest and most significant way to characterize the transformation of the whole social order which has been made necessary by the development of industry, and for this reason it is rightly advanced by communists as their main demand.
Thus, socialism at its base means the collective ownership of the means of production. Of course, to Marxists this concept brings on its heels many, many other improvements, but the economic reorganization of society is the foundation of the other changes. And the Marxist concept of socialism has indeed been followed by socialist societies.
Chapter 1 of the 1936 Constitution of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics — the so-called Stalin Constitution — is entitled “the Organization of Soviet Society.” Marx wrote that economics is the motor of history. As is appropriate in a constitution written by Marxists, most of this chapter deals with the economic organization of Soviet society. Article four of that Chaper reads:
ARTICLE 4. The socialist system of economy and the socialist ownership of the means and instruments of production firmly established as a result of the abolition of the capitalist system of economy, the abrogation of private ownership of the means and instruments of production and the abolition of the exploitation of man by man, constitute’ the economic foundation of the U.S.S.R.
The same chapter goes on to explain that generally the means of production are to be collectively owned. This means either owned by the state as the organization of the whole working people; owned by cooperative associations; or owned by collective farms. The right of individuals to own furnishings and personal effects and even to leave these to their heirs is protected, but only very limited private ownership of the means of production is allowed:
ARTICLE 9. Alongside the socialist system of economy, which is the predominant form of economy in the U.S.S.R., the law permits the small private economy of individual peasants and handicraftsman based on their personal labor and precluding the exploitation of the labor of others
Even at that, the Stalin Constitution recognizes that private ownership of the means of production, even by small producers working on their own or in a family farm, is not socialist.
This Constitution came into force in 1936, nineteen years after the seizure of power in Russia, and is a set of rules for a country in which socialism is firmly in place.
Similar rules apply today in Cuba. Recently, the capitalist press has made much of the new rules allowing barbers to cut hair on their own account in Cuba. Others in Cuba run restaurants or drive taxis as a sort of small business. But neither barbers nor anyone else in Cuba is allowed to employ anyone to work for them. In short, although some private small production exists, the exploitation of man by man is banned in Cuba, and the law is stringently enforced.
Thus, the concept of socialism was greatly deepened by Marx, but it was not invented by Marx, and what Marx meant by socialism, is, at base, much the same as what many earlier thinkers meant by it. Of course, we have to keep in mind that no socialist of the utopian dreamer or reformist stripe has ever succeeded in establishing a lasting socialist society.
The Dictatorship of the Proletariat
Marx and Engels did not teach utopian socialism or reformist socialism, but rather scientific socialism. For Marx and Engels, socialism would come about only as a result of the seizure of power by the proletariat. Thus, in Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, Engels explains the difference between scientific socialism and utopian socialism in these terms:
From that time forward, Socialism was no longer an accidental discovery of this or that ingenious brain, but the necessary outcome of the struggle between two historically developed classes — the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. Its task was no longer to manufacture a system of society as perfect as possible, but to examine the historico-economic succession of events from which these classes and their antagonism had of necessity sprung, and to discover in the economic conditions thus created the means of ending the conflict.
And in the Manifesto, we have this:
We have seen above, that the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class to win the battle of democracy.
The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.
Thus, Marx and Engels taught that socialism would come only when the proletariat seized political power — the dictatorship of the proletariat — and built socialism.
And, indeed, history has born this out. Every single example of a socialist society which the world has seen has been a result of a proletarian revolution.
How the Proletariat Builds Socialism
We have seen already how Marx and Engels described how the proletariat will “wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie.” Further in the Manifesto, Marx and Engels discuss concrete steps by which the proletariat might go about this:
These measures will, of course, be different in different countries.
Nevertheless, in most advanced countries, the following will be pretty generally applicable.
1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.
2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.
3. Abolition of all rights of inheritance.
4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.
5. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.
6. Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State.
7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.
8. Equal liability of all to work. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.
9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country.
10. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, &c, &c.
Thus, we see that the process is indeed gradual — not in the sense that European “socialist” parties set out for socialism so gradually that the goal is never actually reached — but gradual in the sense of taking years or even decades to complete, even in advanced countries.
And, once again, the theoretical projections of Marx and Engels have been very exactly born out in practice.
In the Soviet Union, for instance, the struggle against kulaks — who were peasants who exploited other peasants and not, as people who only read the bourgeois media may think, an oppressed ethnic group — was ongoing two decades after the seizure of power by the proletariat.
And, in the Foundations of Leninism lectures given by Stalin in 1924, we find a warning about the problem of small production:
Wherein lies the strength of the overthrown bourgeoisie?
Thirdly, “in the force of habit, in the strength of small production. For, unfortunately, small production is still very, very widespread in the world, and small production engenders capitalism and the bourgeoisie continuously, daily, hourly, spontaneously, and on a mass scale” . . . for “the abolition of classes means not only driving out the landlords and capitalists — that we accomplished with comparative ease — it also means abolishing the small commodity producers, and they cannot be driven out, or crushed; we must live in harmony with them, they can (and must) be remoulded and re-educated only by very prolonged, slow, cautious organizational work.”(See Vol. XXV [of the Collected Works of Lenin], pp. 173 and l89.)
The Stalin Constitution, which we saw before, forbids the private ownership of the means of production in most cases. But that constitution was not an immediate product of the seizure of power by the proletariat. It was promulgated 19 years after the October Revolution. Even then, it was not a description of Soviet life as much as a legal tool to combat the vestiges of capitalism which still existed. And even at that, it contemplated the continuation for a considerable period still of small production.
Thus, when the proletariat seizes power, it inherits a society in which the prevailing mode of production is capitalism. It then sets about reorganizing society on socialist lines. This is done over the course of years or even decades. The seizure of power by the proletariat is a necessary step towards the establishment of socialism, but the two are not the same thing.
Conversely, we now unfortunately have a considerable amount of experience in what happens in case of a counterrevolution. When the bourgeoisie seizes power in a socialist country, the bourgeoisie inherits a society organized on socialist lines. Thus in these cases for a period of a few months at least socialism even exists under the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. It is well worth noting that the known cases of transition from socialism back to capitalism show that it nearly always happens extremely quickly. While the proletarian state builds socialism gradually and carefully, working to minimize the disruption and pain to the toilers who make up most of society, the bourgeoisie has no such qualms.
When Yeltsin took power in Russia, nearly the whole economy was still organized along socialist lines. Within a few years, the Yeltsin government had destroyed the socialist order of the economy as crudely as with an axe, resulting, of course, in the most terrible hardships and widespread death. The Russian Communists are well-justified in accusing Yeltsin of genocide for his actions in this period.
When talking about socialist and capitalist economies here, we must keep in mind that in the real world we rarely meet anything which is absolutely pure. In early capitalist societies, there were considerable holdovers from feudalism, for instance. And communists in the United States are all aware that even in this most capitalist of countries slavery played an economically important role for nearly a century.
Thus, to say that a country is capitalist is not to say that the entire economy is organized along capitalist lines, but only that capitalism is the dominant means of organizing the economy. Similarly, it is not necessary that every shred of capitalist production be abolished before we can call a country socialist. If we were to apply the terms capitalism and socialism in such an academic manner, they would become nearly useless because they would fail to describe almost everything we find in the real world.