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The State and the Future of Socialism

Rather than expansion of the means of production or direction by the state, human beings must be at the centre of the new socialist society.

Michael A. Lebowitz

We are in the midst of a class war. That’s not unusual. There is always class war in capitalism – although sometimes it is hidden and sometimes there is the interlude of an apparent Carthaginian Peace. But the class war has intensified now because of the crisis in capitalism – a crisis rooted in the over-accumulation of capital. And, in this crisis, capital has intensified the class war against the working class. Austerity, cutbacks, the need to sacrifice – these are the demands of capital as it calls upon workers to bear the burden of capital’s own failures. This is a war conducted by capitalist states against workers to compel them to give up their achievements from past struggles. And, in some places (but, unfortunately, not all), we see that the working class is saying, ‘no’. In some cases, we see that workers are fighting to defend their past successes within capitalism and that they are fighting against the racism and xenophobia which are the default position when workers are under attack but are not in struggle against capital. Such struggles, as Marx knew, are ‘indispensable’ – they are the only means of preventing workers ‘from becoming apathetic, thoughtless, more or less well-fed instruments of production’.1 But, who will win this class war?

In his recent book, The Communist Hypothesis, Alain Badiou describes the past defeats of May 1968, the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the Paris Commune as well as those of factory occupations and other such struggles as defeats ‘covered with glory’.2 Because they remain in our memory as inspirations, they must be contrasted, he insists, to the ‘defeat without glory’ that social democracy brings.3 This is certainly true. However, we need to acknowledge that the current struggles against capital’s attempt to make the working class rescue it from yet another of its crises may yet be added to the list of glorious defeats. Of course, it is necessary to try to stop the cutbacks and to communicate to capital how high its costs will be for attempting to shift the burden of its own failures to workers. And, of course, we must celebrate those struggles taking place wherever the working class has not been anesthetised as a result of previous defeats without glory, leaving only what Marx once described as ‘a heart-broken, a weak-minded, a worn-out, unresisting mass’.4

But it is not enough to say ‘no’. There are those who think that an accumulation of loudly screamed no’s can be sufficient – let alone the ‘silent farts’ celebrated by John Holloway.5 These poets of negation demonstrate thereby that they don’t understand why and how capital reproduces itself. Why is it that after so many defeats so many still cannot see what Marx grasped in the nineteenth century – that capital has the tendency to produce a working class which views the existence of capital as necessary? ‘The advance of capitalist production,’ he stressed, ‘develops a working class which by education, tradition and habit looks upon the requirements of this mode of production as self-evident natural laws.’6

Marx understood that capitalism tends to produce the workers it needs, workers who look upon capitalism as common sense. Given the mystification of capital (arising from the sale of labour-power) which makes productivity, profits and progress appear as the result of the capitalist’s contribution, it followed that ‘the organization of the capitalist process of production, once it is fully developed, breaks down all resistance’.

And, Marx added that capital’s generation of a reserve army of the unemployed ‘sets the seal on the domination of the capitalist over the worker’ and that the capitalist can rely upon the worker’s ‘dependence on capital, which springs from the conditions of production themselves, and is guaranteed in perpetuity by them’.7 Obviously, for Marx, capital’s walls will never be brought down by loud screams or silent farts.

Even with a certain resistance marked by struggles over wages, working conditions and the defence of past gains, as long as workers look upon the requirements of capital as ‘self-evident natural laws’, those struggles occur within the bounds of the capitalist relation. In the end, workers’ subordination to the logic of capital means that faced with capitalism’s crises they sooner or later act to ensure the conditions for the expanded reproduction of capital. Nowhere is this clearer than in the defeats without glory of social democracy.

And, defeat when capitalism is in crisis means that capital can emerge from the crisis by restructuring itself – as it did internationally with the Bretton Woods package after the crises of the 1930s and the 1970s. As is often noted, there is a big difference between a crisis in capitalism and a crisis of capitalism. The latter requires conscious actors prepared to put an end to capitalism, prepared to challenge and defeat the logic of capital. But this requires a vision which can appear to workers as an alternative common sense, as their common sense.

Like the ‘worst architect’, we must build our goal in our minds before we can construct it in reality; only this conscious focus can ensure the ‘purposeful will’ required to complete the defeat of the logic of capital.8 To struggle against a situation in which workers ‘by education, tradition and habit’ look upon capital’s needs ‘as self-evident natural laws’, we must struggle for an alternative common sense. But what is the vision of a new society whose requirements workers may look upon as ‘self-evident natural laws’? Clearly, it won’t be found in the results of twentieth century attempts to build socialism, which, to use Marx’s phrase, ended ‘in a miserable fit of the blues’.9

The ‘Key Link’ for Twenty-First Century Socialism

‘We have to reinvent socialism’. With this statement, Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuela, electrified activists in his closing speech at the January 2005 World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil. ‘It can’t be the kind of socialism that we saw in the Soviet Union,’ he stressed, ‘but it will emerge as we develop new systems that are built on cooperation, not competition.’ If we are ever going to end the poverty of the majority of the world, capitalism must be transcended, Chavez argued. ‘But we cannot resort to state capitalism, which would be the same perversion of the Soviet Union. We must reclaim socialism as a thesis, a project and a path, but a new type of socialism, a humanist one, which puts humans and not machines or the state ahead of everything’.10

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There, at its core, is the vision of socialism for the twenty-first century. Rather than expansion of the means of production or direction by the state, human beings must be at the centre of the new socialist society. This marks a return to Marx’s vision – to the contrast he drew in Capital between a society subordinate to the logic of capital (where ‘the worker exists to satisfy the need of the existing values for valorization’) and the logic of a new society, that ‘inverse situation, in which objective wealth is there to satisfy the worker’s own need for development’.11 This concept of the worker’s need for development is the culmination of Marx’s consistent stress upon the centrality of the development of human capacity – the ‘development of the rich individuality’, as the real wealth and explicit goal of the new society. Here was the ‘inverse situation’ which would allow for ‘the all-round development of the individual’, the ‘complete working out of the human content’, the ‘development of all human powers as such the end in itself’, a society of associated producers in which ‘the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’.12

But this is only one side of Marx’s perspective. A focus upon the full development of human potential was characteristic of much socialist thought in the nineteenth century.13 What Marx added to this emphasis upon human development was his understanding of how that development of human capacities occurs. In his Theses on Feuerbach, he was quite clear that it is not by giving people gifts, not by changing circumstances for them. Rather, we change only through real practice, by changing circumstances ourselves. Marx’s concept of ‘revolutionary practice’, that concept of ‘the coincidence of the changing of circumstances and of human activity or self-change’, is the red thread that runs throughout his work.14 Marx was most consistent on this point when talking about the struggles of workers against capital and how this revolutionary practice transforms ‘circumstances and men’, expanding their capabilities and making them fit to create a new world.15

But this process of changing ourselves is not at all limited to the sphere of political and economic struggle. In the very act of producing, Marx indicated, ‘the producers change, too, in that they bring out new qualities in themselves, develop themselves in production, transform themselves, develop new powers and new ideas, new modes of intercourse, new needs and new language’.16 And, certainly, the relations within which workers produce affect the nature of the workers produced. After all, that was Marx’s point about how capitalist productive relations ‘distort the worker into a fragment of a man’ and degrade him and ‘alienate from him the intellectual potentialities of the labour process’.17 It is essential to recognise that every human activity has as its result a joint product – both the change in the object of labour and the change in the labourer herself.18 Unfortunately, that second product is often forgotten.

Marx’s combination of human development and practice constitutes the key link. Taken seriously, it has definite implications for relations within the workplace – rather than capitalism’s joint product (the fragmented, crippled human being whose enjoyment consists in possessing and consuming things), it implies a person who is able to develop all her potential through her activity. Taken seriously, that key link has definite implications for the nature of the state – rather than allowing us every few years to elect those who misrule us as our representatives to a state which stands over and above us, it implies what Marx called the ‘self-government of the producers’, the ‘reabsorption of the state power by society as its own living forces’.19 Taken seriously, that key link has definite implications for the nature of the party – rather than a body that sees itself as superior to social movements and whose members are meant to learn the merits of discipline in following the decisions made by infallible central committees, it implies a party which learns from popular initiative and unleashes the creative energy of masses through their own practice. Taken seriously, that key link has obvious implications for building socialism.

Consider the characteristic of socialist production implicit in this key link.20 What are the circumstances that have as their joint product ‘the totally developed individual, for whom the different social functions are different modes of activity he takes up in turn’?21 Given the ‘dialectical inversion’ peculiar to capitalist production that cripples the body and mind of the worker and alienates her from ‘the intellectual potentialities of the labour process’, it is clear that to develop the capacities of people the producers must put an end to what Marx called, in his Critique of the Gotha Programme, ‘the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labour’.22

For the development of rich human beings, the worker must be able to call ‘his own muscles into play under the control of his own brain’. Expanding the capabilities of people requires both mental and manual activity. Not only does the combination of education with productive labour make it possible to increase the efficiency of production; this is also, as Marx pointed out in Capital, ‘the only method of producing fully developed human beings’.23 Here, then, is the way to ensure that ‘the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly’.24

The activity through which people develop their capacities, however, is not limited to the sphere of production as narrowly defined within capitalism. Every activity with the goal of providing inputs into the development of human beings needs be understood as an aspect of production. And the goals that guide production must be democratically established so that people can transform both their circumstances and themselves and thereby produce themselves as subjects in the new society.25 The implication is obvious – every aspect of production must be a site for the collective decision-making and variety of activity that develops human capacities and builds solidarity among the particular associated producers.

When workers act in workplaces and communities in conscious cooperation with others, they produce themselves as people conscious of their interdependence and of their own collective power. The joint product of their activity is the development of the capacities of the producers – precisely Marx’s point when he says that ‘when the worker cooperates in a planned way with others, he strips off the fetters of his individuality, and develops the capabilities of his species’.26 Creating the conditions in workplaces and communities by which people can develop their capacities is an essential aspect of the concept of socialism for the twenty-first century. But it is only one element. How can the worker’s own need for development be realised if capital owns our social heritage – the products of the social brain and the social hand? And, how can we develop our own potential if we look upon other producers as enemies or as our markets – i.e., if individual material self-interest is our motivation?

Capitalism is an organic system, one which has the tendency to reproduce the conditions of its existence (including a working class which looks upon its requirements as ‘self-evident natural laws’). That is its strength. To counter that and to satisfy ‘the worker’s own need for development’, the socialist alternative also must be an organic system, a particular combination of production, distribution and consumption, a system of reproduction. What Chavez named in January 2007 as ‘the elementary triangle of socialism’ (social property, social production and satisfaction of social needs) is a step forward toward a conception of such a system.27

Consider the logic of this socialist combination, this conception of socialism for the twenty-first century:

1. Social ownership of the means of production is critical within this structure because it is the only way to ensure that our communal, social productivity is directed to the free development of all rather than used to satisfy the private goals of capitalists, groups of producers or state bureaucrats. But, this concerns more than our current activity. Social ownership of our social heritage, the results of past social labour, is an assertion that all living human beings have the right to the full development of their potential – to real wealth, the development of human capacity. It is the recognition that ‘the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’.

2. Social production organized by workers builds new relations among producers – relations of cooperation and solidarity. It allows workers to end ‘the crippling of body and mind’ and the loss of ‘every atom of freedom, both in bodily and in intellectual activity’ that comes from the separation of head and hand. Organization of production in all spheres by workers, thus, is a condition for the full development of the producers, for the development of their capabilities – a condition for the production of rich human beings.

3. Satisfaction of communal needs and purposes as the goal of productive activity means that, instead of interacting as separate and indifferent individuals, we function as members of a community. Rather than looking upon our own capacity as our property and as a means of securing as much as possible in an exchange, we start from the recognition of our common humanity and, thus, of the importance of conditions in which everyone is able to develop her full potential. When our productive activity is oriented to the needs of others, it both builds solidarity among people and produces socialist human beings.

These three sides of the ‘socialist triangle’ mutually interact to form a structure in which ‘all the elements coexist simultaneously and support one another’, as Marx put it. ‘This is the case with every organic whole.’28 Yet, the very interdependence of the three sides suggests that realization of each element depends upon the existence of the other two. Without production for social needs, no real social property; without social property, no worker decision-making oriented toward society’s needs; without worker decision-making, no transformation of people and their needs.

The State’s Place Within ‘Socialism as an Organic System’

Is there a place for the state in socialism as an organic system? In the absence of a mechanism by which this particular combination of production, distribution and consumption can be realized, it remains purely a vision. Thus, implicit in the concept of socialism as an organic system is a set of institutions and practices through which all members of society can share the fruits of social labour and are able to satisfy their ‘own need for development’. To produce and reproduce ‘rich human beings’ in a society based upon solidarity requires a conscious attempt to ensure that the necessary conditions for full human development infuse all levels of society.

Consider one possible scenario for a process of participatory diagnosis and planning.29 At the level of an individual neighbourhood, it is possible for neighbours to discuss directly the kind of community they want to live in and what they see as necessary for the development of their capacities and that of those around them.30 While this process identifies needs, the discussion also allows this community to explore its own ability to satisfy those needs itself; in other words, it identifies the capabilities of the community. Thus, at the level of the community, there is a direct attempt to coordinate the system of needs and the system of labours. In addition to being able to identify its needs and the extent to which those can be satisfied locally through the labour of community members, this process (which occurs under the guidance of elected neighbourhood councils) has a second product. By sharing and attempting to reconcile views of the most urgent needs of members of this community, there is a learning process – one in which protagonism builds and reinforces solidarity – i.e., the process of participatory diagnosis produces particular people, a particular joint product. At the core of this process, thus, is revolutionary practice – the simultaneous changing of circumstances and human activity or self-change.

Of course, the probability of a precise match between capabilities and needs within this community is negligible. The community is likely to have needs it cannot satisfy locally and capacities it does not need. In this situation, autarky supports neither the ability of people to secure the use-values they identify as important for their development nor the satisfaction in meaningful activity that can come from meeting the needs of others outside their immediate neighbourhood. Thus, to satisfy ‘the worker’s own need for development’, the community needs to go beyond this barrier in order to coordinate with other communities in a larger body.

The commune represents a further step, bringing together the information transmitted by local neighbourhood councils about the needs and capabilities of their communities as well as drawing upon the knowledge of workers within units of production in this geographical area.31 Do workers have the capacity to satisfy the needs identified by the communities? By exploring this question in their workers councils, workers engage in conscious consideration of production options within their workplaces and focus upon the logic of producing for communal needs; however, to answer this question adequately requires more than responses from individual production units taken separately. By combining their knowledge and capabilities, workers in particular workplaces can achieve results which are greater than the sum of their individual parts taken separately. But, here again, more than a process of producing for communal needs and purposes occurs. Cooperation within and between units of production for this purpose generates solidarity among the combined workers and reinforces their understanding of the goals of production.

Throughout this process, community members and workers can interact through communal meetings and a communal parliament. And, the result of the process is that the commune councils have at their disposal data on (a) needs that can be satisfied from within the commune and (b) the needs which cannot be satisfied locally. Further, there is information on (c) the potential output of workplaces that can be provisionally utilized within the commune, and (d) the potential output of workplaces that is unutilized. Thus, there is both an indication of the level of needs that provisionally can be satisfied locally as well as identification of the excess demand and excess supply within each commune.

To stop here would reproduce the problem of remaining at the level of the individual neighbourhood. To create the conditions for the free development of all, it is necessary to go beyond geographical barriers. Thus, this process is extended to larger areas: the data from communes is transmitted upward to cities (communal cities), to the states or provinces and ultimately to the national level – to bodies composed of delegates from the communes, cities and the states, respectively. At the national level, then, it is possible to identify (a) provisionally satisfied needs, (b) unsatisfied needs, (c) provisionally assigned output and (d) provisionally unassigned output. It is fair to assume that there will not be a balance between needs and capacities at the first iteration.

Accordingly, the process of reconciling the system of needs and the system of labours is an essential requirement of the set of institutions and practices characteristic of socialism as an organic system. If there are excess needs, there are two logical resorts: (1) find a way to increase output (a question for workers councils to explore), and (2) recognise the necessity to reduce satisfaction of some needs.32 Thus, a critical discussion must occur here – what is to be unsatisfied? Exploration of this question requires a discussion of the relative requirements of different areas and the different types of needs to be given priority. It is only at this level that identification of national and regional inequality occurs as well as a discussion of priorities and choices for the society as a whole. This dialogue needs to take place not only at the national level but at every level down to the neighbourhood. Such a discussion is absolutely essential because, through such a process of participatory planning, people learn about the needs and capacities of others elsewhere in the society. There is no other way to build solidarity than to put faces upon other members of society. Thus, throughout this process, there are two products: development of the plan and the development of the people who participate in its construction.

The result of this scenario is a process of production for communal needs and communal purposes in which protagonism within the workplace and community ensures that this is social production organized by the producers. Obviously, too, the third side of the socialist triangle, social ownership, is present in that there is neither production for capital nor production for any particular group, i.e. a process of group ownership. In each workplace, workers are conscious that their productive activity is for society. In short, begin with communality, and the product of our activity is ‘a communal, general product from the outset’.33

How, though, could the concept of socialism as an organic system be made real in the absence of institutions and practices such as these? This combination and articulation of councils and delegates at different levels of society is necessary to ensure the reproduction of a society in which the ‘free development of each is the condition for the free development of all’. And, it is a state – a particular type of state, a state from below, a state of the commune-type. This state does not wither away – rather, it is an integral part of socialism as an organic system.

Of course, some people may not wish to call this set of institutions a state because these are society’s ‘own living forces’ – i.e., not ‘an organ standing above society’ but ‘one completely subordinate to it’.34 How would designation of this as a state be compatible with the view that, by definition, as Holloway puts it, ‘the state is the assassin of hope’?35 Like those who conceive of labour as inherently a burden (and thus can think of nothing better than to reduce it to zero), those who reject these institutions as a state demonstrate that they are trapped in the categories of old societies.

Old habits die slowly, though. And, taxonomy should not trump content. So, if some people prefer to call these articulated councils a non-state or the ‘Unstate’, this should not present a problem – as long as they agree that socialism as an organic system requires these institutions and practices in order to be real.

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