Marxist socialism or revisionist society?

By Mark Williams
(CV #35, March 15, 2005)

(Speech at a Detroit Workers' Voice discussion group meeting on June 13, edited for publication.)

Communist society according to Marxism-Leninism
The transition to socialism and workers' control
State enterprises under phony communist regimes mimic private capitalist businesses
Some features of state-capitalism in the Soviet Union
State-capitalism in Castro's Cuba
From state-capitalism to private capitalism
What determines if there's a real transition to socialism?


. Many workers dream about a society free from the ills of capitalism. But there are lots of questions among them as to whether the workers can become the masters of society and create a new world free from class oppression and the evils that go along with it. In most workers minds, socialism and communism are associated with the former Soviet Union, China, Cuba, etc. This is a big obstacle for reviving a revolutionary perspective among the workers. The societies that evolved after the revolutions in such countries were a far cry from the vision of liberation of the working class. In fact there was a new type of oppression. Clarifying what went on in these phony communist countries is important both for workers who are repulsed by these countries and those that have illusions in them.

, The last century saw a number of major revolutions where the workers rose up along with other sections of the oppressed, such as the peasant masses, to overturn the old order. The revolutionary struggles that broke out serve as inspirations to us even today as they show that the old order can indeed be destroyed when the workers and downtrodden are organized. These revolutions gave rise to progressive changes of various types and to alleviation from the old type of repression and exploitation. But these revolutions died after a period of time. Party and state leaders of countries, like the former Soviet Union, China, Cuba, Yugoslavia, Albania, etc. , insisted that they were in the process of building socialism and communism. But in reality, what was being built in these societies was a new form of state-capitalism, where the workers weren't the masters of society, but subordinate to a new elite of party/state bureaucrats and factory managers.

. While various opportunist leftists continued to paint up these societies as workers' states, socialist, etc. , the corruption and betrayal of revolutionary ideals in these societies could not be hidden from the eyes of the workers in general. The association of the noble goals of socialism and communism with these phony communist societies created innumerable problems for the development of a revolutionary workers' movement. As long as the association between these corrupt societies and communism remained, the choice given the workers was to support a so-called communism which didn't really liberate the workers, or one could give up on the possibility of a truly communist society.

. The capitalists of course had there own immense anti-communist campaign and did not hesitate to make up any lie to turn workers away from considering a revolutionary alternative to capitalism. They taught every school child, "have nothing to do with communism because the communists are cruel tyrants or, at best, hopeless dreamers who don't understand that capitalism is the greatest system that will ever exist". But the betrayal of communist ideals in various countries no doubt made their efforts to discourage the workers from a revolutionary outlook much easier.

. Thus, a lack of a revolutionary perspective has plagued the workers' movement here for many decades. This is why it is important to explain the difference between genuine communist society and its revisionist counterfeit. Only if this is done can the workers really again have a revolutionary perspective, a perspective that can inspire them. True, this alone will not itself lead to a big upsurge in the class struggle. But it will begin to revive a revolutionary anti-capitalist perspective and help bring together the most far-sighted workers today to campaign together for a genuine communist alternative.

. My comments today are aimed at bringing out a few of the main features of the revisionist societies and contrasting them to what a genuine Marxist-Leninist conception of communism is.

Communist society according to Marxism-Leninism

. What was the communist society according to the views of Marx and Engels, and later Lenin? It's a society that is the final goal of the revolutionary workers movement. It can be created only by the activity and initiative of the workers. The workers struggle must first of all bring about the overthrow of the present capitalist order. Following this, there is a more or less lengthy transition period during which the workers and other toilers face the task of abolishing private ownership of the productive resources of society and replacing this with ownership and management of production by all of society in a collective manner. Workers taking over production collectively involves not only the workers' initiative at their particular workplace, but that the workers as a whole decide national policies and carry out their efforts at a local level in accordance with the national policies. The economic chaos and ruin of capitalism is in this way replaced by a planned economy. As the overwhelming majority, the working masses, learn to collectively run society, the division of society into classes which exploit and rule and those who do the work breaks down, and the conditions are created for the elimination of classes. The state itself, which historically came about as the means for enforcing the domination of one class over another, would, as class distinctions faded, fade away as well. This does not mean that societal control of production would end, but that the state as a means of carrying out this control would be replaced by a mere administration without need for repressive institutions, even if the repression was aimed solely at a relative handful of exploiters.

. Marx, Engels and Lenin didn't believe that a fully communist society could be achieved in quick order after the revolution. The transition period would be protracted, and during this period, the workers needed to establish their own class domination through their own revolutionary state power. This state would not only exist for putting down attempts at restoring the old bourgeois rule, but was needed so that the collective will of the workers as a whole could be expressed and carried out. To do this the state would have to take over the significant economic enterprises. It would have to demonstrate to the small farmers, artisans, etc. , the advantages of combining their efforts and resources in a collective manner, eventually integrating these sectors too into the state-run economy.

. But this is not enough. Often socialism is thought to be merely state ownership itself. But mere state ownership is not socialist. Socialist state ownership requires the workers are actually in control of the state. It requires a state radically different than all previous states in that it's the representative of the vast majority and is therefore obliged to mobilize the working masses into running all the affairs of society. The process of workers taking responsibility for running things is connected to changes in the economy. Even under the most democratic capitalist order, the economic stranglehold of the capitalists gave them domination over society while the grind of the workplace and meager resources of the workers severely limited their participation. The placing of societal resources in the hands of the workers, and the ability of the collective planned economy to further develop the wealth of society free from the crises caused by capitalism, means the workers would have the means, and the time, via shorter working hours, to really concern themselves with societal matters and not just eking out an existence for themselves and their families. Over time, a new mentality would be created, where work was not a torture, necessary to maintain one's existence, but a welcome contribution to furthering the good of all, which allowed each individual's skills and talents to bloom. And the conditions would then exist for what seems only a dream now, namely, the needs of each individual would be met simply as a matter of course, not because they worked such and such number of hours and thus were entitled to some equivalent in return.

The transition to socialism and workers' control

. Our critique of the systems that eventually developed in the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, etc. is not that they didn't overnight have a fully developed communist society, but that they wound up on another road, and that they could no longer be said to be in transition to such a society. Their road led somewhere else, to the creation of a new type of state-capitalism. In these countries, it wasn't that the old private capitalists came back. Their power really was largely broken by the transformation of much capitalist property to state property. But when the revolutionary momentum died out, the type of state that was consolidated was not a workers' state but a state run by an elite of state and party bureaucrats for their own interests and not those of the workers. Legally, these bureaucrats didn't own the economic enterprises, but in reality there were a whole series of competing interests between the enterprises and the national ruling bodies and even between different sections of the ruling bodies. Private capitalists were overthrown, but private interests remained.

. A transition to socialism can only occur if the masses of workers are drawn into taking control over the institutions of society, only if they can increasingly assert their control over the economy and run it as a cohesive whole. A whole historic period is needed to transform the economy, and until that transformation is culminated, various capitalistic characteristics will still have an important influence in the economy including such things as money, exchange and financial criteria. Only if the workers can step-wise bring the economy more and more under their conscious control can these capitalistic methods be limited and eventually thrown aside as the economy increasingly is operated as a collective and cohesive whole.

. But as the revolutionary motion ebbed, the issue of workers' control was increasingly shoved to the side. Government ministries continued to issue plans and decrees, but the initiative of the workers in taking control over the economy faded. So the new transitional institutions became alien to the class they were supposedly serving. They became institutions lording over the masses. And the government and party higher-ups at the heads of these institutions became a new elite over the workers. The earlier revolutionary momentum led to some helpful reforms and social programs, but overall society was moving under the control not of the workers, but of a relative handful of bureaucrats running a state-capitalist economy. With the failure of the economy to really come under the conscious control of the working masses, the ills of capitalism were not overcome, but returned with increasing force, although in forms different than seen in the "normal" capitalist countries.

State enterprises under phony communist regimes
mimic private capitalist businesses

. Not only that, the way the individual enterprises were run in the state sector tended to imitate the fundamental characteristics of capitalist enterprises. Under private capitalism, enterprises must rely on their ability to produce profits. These profits don't just go to the personal wealth of the capitalist, but are also reinvested in the company, allowing it to purchase what it needs to operate and to modernize its technological base. Production halts unless there's a profit or a certain rate of profit higher than one's competitors. And capitalist competition leads to one company wiping out another, and anarchy and ruin for the workers. Only a planned socialist economy can overcome this anarchy, as resources can be allocated according to what's needed to fulfill societal needs, and the fate of each individual enterprise will not hinge on whether it's sufficiently profitable.

. But in the pseudo-communist countries, the economic enterprises were to a large extent required to be "self-financing", which means their success was to be judged by whether they showed a profit. Depending on circumstances, an economic enterprise may not necessarily be shut down for not turning a profit. Unprofitable enterprises were sometimes kept running with state aid. Nevertheless, the success of the careers of enterprise managers rested upon showing a profit. "Self-financing" came to be relied upon as something that would automatically insure the economic plan was met, ignoring that without the workers actively overseeing the economy, all plans would come to naught. Indeed, unless the workers were also assuming more control over the economy, self-financing couldn't help but lead to economic enterprises being out for themselves at the expense of others, to the squandering of resources, to massive deception in enterprise reports, to conflicting interests between the economic ministries and the individual factories and plants, etc. -- in short, to anarchy.

. This anarchy expressed itself differently than it did in the Western capitalist countries, but it was an elemental force all the same. It might not necessarily have led to the shutdown of unprofitable enterprises as in the West. But, in itself, this is hardly proof of socialism or undertaking the transition to it. After all, to a lesser extent even in the Western capitalist countries, there are state-financed industries or bailouts such as those given to the Chrysler auto capitalists in 1979, or more recently the U. S. airline industry.

. In itself, "self-financing" wouldn't have condemned the transition to socialism to death. It takes a good deal of time and effort to overcome many capitalistic features of the economy during the transition period. But for there to be progress toward socialism, such measures must be accompanied by progress in the workers learning how to run the economy according to their collective plan. If order in the economy can only be guaranteed by the quest for profit, and if there is not also a developing workers' control that can eventually eliminate the need for capitalistic methods, then the result would simply be a return to capitalism and the ills that go along with it. In that case, the pressure to show profit under the "self-financing" system was bound to lead to practices that served the enterprise managers or this or that part of the central bureaucracy, but hurt overall planning and the conditions of the workers.

. Thus, the situation was not that a few bad guys snuck into the state sector and corrupted everything. Rather, the general methods of the state sector were capitalist methods and bound, if unchecked, to reproduce, albeit in somewhat different form, the ills we see from private capitalism. The corrupting nature of the general lines along which the economy ran is also seen in the disgusting activities we see from our private capitalists today. The Enron-type scandals have their roots not in the flawed personal characteristics of this or that capitalist, but in the fact that anarchic competition forces capitalists to carry out ruthless measures to insure their victory over their rivals. The Enron-type scandals don't just show what scum the Enron execs were, but are a product of the profit-motive itself.

. In the phony communist regimes, not only were the enterprises run similar to private capitalist companies, the divergent interests of the managerial and bureaucratic capitalists were reflected in a growing set of economic privileges and perks. While we might not see the huge extremes we see in the U. S. today, in fact the incomes and other perks given to the high officials began to diverge significantly from those of the ordinary workers. The elite led relatively luxurious lifestyles while the workers continued to struggle to get by and faced shortages and other hardships. True, the hardships were sometimes mitigated by a relatively broad social safety net, but over time the holes in this safety net grew as well.

Some features of state-capitalism in the Soviet Union

. So let's look at some examples of how the state-capitalist economies actually worked. The Soviet Union is of particular importance since the state-capitalist system consolidated under Stalin has served as the basis for the systems in China, Cuba and some other countries despite certain local modifications and certain criticisms they had of the Soviet system.

. Here, I'll mention a few features described in a Communist Voice article from March 1997 entitled "The anarchy of production beneath the veneer of Soviet revisionist planning". The article points out that in the Soviet Union there was extensive state property and central economic plans. But beneath the appearances of a planned economy, anarchy reigned. For example:

. * Enterprises were supposed to meet planned production goals. But the factories faced shortages of supplies, and there was a mad scramble between plant managers over these resources. The resources grabbed by one enterprise might allow them to meet their production goals, but only at the cost of screwing another enterprise. This is a far cry from the type of collective spirit of real socialism. Rather it resembles the scramble for resources between capitalist competitors. As well, the prestige and payment of managers was based on fulfilling the plan (by hook or crook), thus putting them in a position similar to private capitalist managers who are rewarded on the basis of profitability, not on whether or not that quest for profits ruined other enterprises or another part of the economy.

. * Since enterprises were scrambling for their own resources, the practice of hoarding raw materials became wide spread. Each factory tended to rely more and more for its industrial supplies on itself. This undermined what could have been more efficient forms of production based on specialization, where factories produce a particular item used by many other factories, rather than each factory having to itself make the items they would otherwise procure from other enterprises. Enterprises often produced their own bricks or machine tools or whatever, at much greater cost than had there been factories specializing in these items supplying these items to them in a planned way.

. * There was slow and uncompleted construction. The state would allocate investment resources to start new construction projects. That's fine. But the number of projects started outstripped the actual resources available. And this overextension of projects was knowingly incorporated into the plan. So many projects are started and few are finished. And construction proceeds at a snail's pace. What explains such a thing? The local and regional officials overseeing projects benefited by garnering as many financial and other resources as possible regardless of whether this damaged the economy overall. It was profitable for them to start as many projects as possible while whether they were completed was a secondary matter.

. * Accurate accounting by the enterprises and economic ministries disappeared because it too ran counter to private interests in the economy. A plant manager would often send in proposals to government officials purposely overestimating the resources they would need and underestimating the production they could carry out. The managers were rewarded with bonuses according to whether or not they met production goals, and so it was to their advantage to downplay what they could produce and overstate the resources needed. Now the economic ministry overseeing the enterprise was well aware the managers were fudging their reports and they responded by setting production requirements on the assumption the enterprise manager lied. The result was the plan became a charade of mutual deception.

. The same anarchy also took place within the ministries themselves. Some section of officials might try to look good by covering up for the cheating going on by enterprises under their responsibility. Naturally this undermined coordination between different ministries, and to rivalries among them. And this anarchic pursuit of self-interest was always at the expense of the workers, whose real interests were tied to the development of a real planned socialist economy. Moreover, it wasn't that the Soviet officials did not come up with one reform after another to try and solve these problems. The fact that all these reforms failed however, shows the problem was rooted in the system itself, that a system of private capitalist interests had taken root within the forms of the state economy. It shows the lack of workers' control, for it's hard to see how a complete system of misinformation could have blossomed had there really been oversight by the workers over the managers and officials.

State-capitalism in Castro's Cuba

. One can find similar anarchy of production in Cuba. The Cuban revolution of 1959 ended U. S. domination and the cruel Batista dictatorship, but in the 60s the Cuban regime hitched its fate to the phony communism of the Soviet Union. By the 70s they had adopted much of the same "self-financing" system for enterprises, with similar results. State enterprises were treated like private property, and indeed in the 70s there was already an officially-approved trade between enterprises freely marketing their "surplus" production to each other. Here we have a clear example of the production of an enterprise treated as belonging only to the enterprise, and not to society. This led to the Castro regime being forced to admit that price-gouging in the dealings between enterprises was a big problem. And this further undermined planned distribution of resources. Production targets became a fiction because it was more profitable to undermine them. Construction projects would be started but not finished because the first stages of production were more profitable. Some enterprises abandoned producing their normal products not because they weren't needed, but because there were more profits in producing a different product.

. The "self-financing system" went hand in hand with creating greater disparities of living standards through such things as the spread of bonus systems for certain individuals and groups meeting production targets. The official basic wage scale already provided for high officials to make as much as 10 times the wages of ordinary workers, but the wages were only a part of the privileges of the bureaucratic party and state officials. An example of the disparities were the official "parallel markets" where state-produced goods not made readily available in the normal state markets were available, but at prices only the elite could afford. These markets were called the "rich peoples' markets" by the people, and through the 70s they expanded as affordable subsidized goods declined as a proportion of available goods.

. What we see in the revisionist countries is that private interests are rampant in the state sector, so that state property is in reality the property of a small class of bureaucrats in the ministries and enterprise managers, who treat their own sectors or plants as their own property and employ capitalist methods toward their workers. This position allows them to allocate wealth and privileges for themselves. The workers become mere beasts of burden once again. They have no control over the economy or the government and become cynical and hostile toward it. And, while I'm not concentrating on this issue here, the new ruling state-capitalist bureaucrats establish a very repressive police-state apparatus to keep the system afloat.

From state-capitalism to private capitalism

. The growth of private interests within the state sector in these countries was also accompanied generally with an expanded role for the private sector and the black market. And this growth of private interests within the old system, and particularly the state sector, is the key to understanding the collapse of the Soviet Union and other so-called "socialist" countries into Western-style free-market capitalism. A bunch of former government officials and managers are among the powerful new private capitalists in Russia today. The workers in these countries were largely glad to see the old system go, but since they lacked true class organization in these countries, they weren't in a position to impact what took place after the collapse of the old regime. So the collapse of these systems is the most conclusive evidence of the fact that they were rotting from the inside for a long time. Even where the old state bureaucrats hang on, like in China and Cuba, the private sector is growing by leaps and bounds, and there's been a huge invasion of multinational companies from the big imperialist countries. Market capitalism is the rage in these countries too, only the old bureaucrats think they can oversee and control this process.

What determines if there's a real transition to socialism?

. The period of transition to socialism is a protracted period during which the economy will necessarily retain a number of similarities to what existed in capitalism. So the mere existence of money, financial criteria, "self-financing" measures and other economic leftovers from capitalism does not in itself indicate the demise of the revolution. But unless the inevitable concessions to the old capitalist ways are accompanied by a growing ability of the working class to run the affairs of state and the economy, the capitalist methods cannot be overcome, and exert every greater influence. Unchecked the left-over capitalist features of the transition period develop into a new capitalist economy dominated not by the old capitalists, but by a new type of state-capitalism run by a bureaucratic elite.

. That's why for anti-revisionist communism, the issue is not mere state ownership, but whether the workers are in control; not whether there's a plan, but whether the workers are taking responsibility for the functions of the government and overseeing the entire economy as well as their particular workplaces.

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