It’s not long before any discussion about the fight for a better society raises the questions: “What do you mean by socialism?” “Is it the same as communism?” Communism has a long pedigree as a vision of society where property is held in common and a just social order prevails.
The 19th century revolutionaries Karl Marx and Frederick Engels defined the goal of the workers’ movement as communism. Later they preferred the term socialism.
The Russian Bolshevik Party changed from being “social democrats”, the word generally used in the late 19th century to describe socialist parties, to “communists”.
After the dominance of Stalinism turned communism into a dirty word, most left wingers preferred to be known as socialists
Are we just arguing about labels? At one level it doesn’t matter two hoots which label we use.
But we have to be clear that a future socialist or communist society can only come into existence “from below”, as the result of mass activity by the majority of working people and the poor.
When Marx talked in 1852 about the “dictatorship of the proletariat” he did not mean tyranny of the sort exercised by Joseph Stalin in the Soviet Union, after his counter-revolution took power in the 1920s.
Marx meant that workers should create their own state to defeat the old exploiting classes. The emancipation of the working class would be the act of the working class itself, as Marx put it.
Marx and Engels turned their backs on “socialism from above” – the idea that workers neither can, nor should, bring about change for themselves.
In the early 19th century the utopian socialists developed a brilliant critique of capitalism and an inspiring vision of how society could be reorganised.
But their assumption was that workers were powerless victims. Workers therefore required an enlightened few to act on their behalf. Marx and Engels charged the utopian socialists with elitism.
Socialism, or communism, was not some idea dreamed up by clever people to be imposed on society. It expressed the reality of the class struggle between bosses and workers. When achieved it would be the successful outcome of that struggle for the working class.
So the argument is – in part – about the nature of the movement for change itself. We cannot dictate to those who will bring about revolutionary change what kind of society they will build.
But does that mean there is nothing to be said about the kind of society that would emerge from a revolution and what it would have to do to advance to a socialist, or communist, society?
Marx grappled with the problem of what was possible in the immediate aftermath of revolution. He looked at how you could advance towards a truly free and cooperative society that would be classless, without a state and able to develop the human personality to its fullest potential.
In 1917, the Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin wrote a pamphlet State and Revolution, which discussed the relationship between the first phase of communist society as it emerges from revolution and a higher phase of communism. This could be seen as the difference between socialism and communism.
Marx started with what a victorious working class would do with “the proceeds of labour” it had inherited from capitalist society. This is the total production of society which would now be under its control.
This couldn’t simply be divvied up and distributed to individuals. A socialist society would have to think about how much would have to go toward replacing and expanding equipment and materials, on administration costs and emergencies, and toward spending on welfare.
It would then be able to think about what portion of production could go to the individual producers. That would require a centrally organised, but thoroughly democratic, workers’ state to plan the use of economic resources.
This socialist society would have one great advantage over capitalism. The relationship between individuals and what they produce would change.
Under capitalism, the relationship is indirect – individuals don’t control what they produce. They are subjected to the anarchy of the market, which prioritises profit over need.
They exchange their labour power for a wage, which gives them very limited access to a tiny proportion of what is produced.
Under socialism, the relationship would be direct. Individuals would collectively control the things they produce. They would no longer be forced to exchange their labour power for wages.
They would collectively decide how to apportion the things society produces in a way that would begin to satisfy social and individual needs.
They could begin to do this because the capitalist class had been dispossessed in a revolution from below. This process would have to be completed in a relatively short period of time, as a capitalist class cannot be gradually removed from power.
The power of working people would be guaranteed because they had built a very different kind of state from the capitalist state in the course of the revolution, as occurred in the 1917 Russian Revolution with the creation of workers’ councils, known as soviets.
This state would mean that working people would exercise control over all aspects of society.
But if revolution takes place rapidly, building a new society does not. The capacity to move from the first stage to a higher stage is a much slower process.
Marx wrote, “What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society.”
This new society would be “in every respect, economically, morally and intellectually, still stamped with the birth marks of the old society from whose womb it emerges”.
Consequently, some of the old relationships would persist, particularly when it comes to the individual’s right to a share in society’s products.
The individual would contribute his or her labour to society and get back in exchange a certificate which would entitle them to draw an equivalent from society to satisfy their needs.
In form the new society would still, for a time, reflect the wage relationship of the old society.
But in content the relationship would have changed. No one could “earn” some inflated “salary” that reflected, not their “labour”, but their ability to exploit. No one could use their “income” to buy the means of production and therefore the means to exploit.
For the first time, there would be real equality, which capitalist society speaks of but never practises. There would be a fair distribution of the social product to the individual, based on everyone contributing their labour.
It’s easy to see how we might apply all this today. First, there could be a massive switch in resources from all the waste produced under capitalism – arms, advertising, management – to producing the kinds of things that would benefit the vast mass of citizens – better housing, schools, healthcare.
Second, there could be a massive redistribution of wealth to those who do not work, either because they are too young, too old or too ill. That would involve a huge increase in nursery care, family benefits, pensions, sickness benefits. Finally, the new society could guarantee a high fixed basic income.
All this would allow the working day to be cut and so increase the ability of people to participate in decision making and to develop themselves culturally.
Some of these reforms were carried out in Russia after the 1917 revolution, even though it was a poor country. In economically advanced countries such as Britain this process would be incomparably easier to carry out.
But this would only be a start. As production developed in line with social and individual need, so human beings could begin to develop their humanity. Abundance would abolish competition between individuals for the necessities of life.
The ugly form this takes in the shape of racism and sexism would disappear. The division of labour – which condemns people to one kind of job all their lives – and the stultifying opposition between mental and physical labour would come to an end.
With the achievement of real equality would come the necessity to respond to the fact that individuals are unequal in their capacities and needs.
The workers’ state itself would begin to wither away. In all previous class societies, the minority exploited the majority and could only guarantee its domination through the state.
With the end of exploitation, and the majority class in control, coercion as a feature of society, and hence the need for any form of state, disappears. So even “the dictatorship of the proletariat” starts to dissolve as society ceases to be a class society and becomes the associated power of the producers.
The higher form of communism would emerge.
The youthful Marx talked about how in this higher stage of communist society anyone can “become accomplished in any branch” they like.
Society will regulate “the general production and thus make it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic”.
Most of us can probably think of better things to do. Once society has developed the means of production sufficiently then work itself ceases to be a chore from which we crave release.
It would become, as Marx put it, “life’s prime want” – a necessary but fulfilling relationship with our fellow human beings and the world around us.
Then it becomes possible to move to a situation in which the all-round development of individuals is possible and society inscribes on its banners, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”