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Red Theory: What is socialism?

Analysis by J. Sykes |
October 31, 2022
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Marxism isn’t just a philosophical and analytical framework based on dialectical and historical materialism, or a critique of political economy. It is also a theory of revolutionizing society and building socialism. Based on the laws of motion of the capitalist societies that precede it, and the experiences of socialist construction from 1917 until today, Marxism-Leninism is able to give us a vision and roadmap for the socialist transformation of society. Of course, every country has its own concrete path to follow, based on its own time, place and conditions, but we can still draw some lessons from those experiences.

Marx and Engels didn’t invent socialism. Socialist theories existed before them, but they were the first to bring socialism down to earth. Before Marx and Engels put socialist theory on a materialist and scientific basis, the Utopian socialists cooked up all kinds of pie-in-the-sky ideas about utopian societies. But the main errors for the Utopians were that they didn’t understand that socialism required a certain material basis upon which to be built, and they didn’t understand the contradictions that drove the existing class forces, particularly the working class and the capitalist class, to struggle for and against socialism. Non-Marxist “socialist” tendencies today, like the social democrats and the anarchists, persist even now in these utopian errors.

Therefore, we need to examine what the Marxist theory of socialism entails. In that regard, there are two main points to understand about socialism. First, it is based on the state power of the working class, and second, its aim is to transition from capitalism to communism.

When we talk about working class state power, we mean what Marx and Lenin called “the dictatorship of the proletariat.” The working class must take state power in order to reshape society according to its interests, to revolutionize the forces of production and the relations of production, and to expropriate and suppress the defeated capitalist class. To take the power to shape society out of the strangling grip of a handful of billionaires and their agents, and to put into the hands of the working and oppressed people of this country, will not only make the country tremendously more democratic, but it will put this new, proletarian democracy to work in a way that can reshape society and uproot exploitation and oppression altogether.

The dictatorship of the proletariat has the task of organizing production and distribution in a way that can unleash the productive forces. Likewise, the proletarian state has the task of organizing the legal, political and cultural superstructure of society in such a way as to promote and reinforce the socialist mode of production. And finally, the proletarian state has the task of safeguarding the gains of the revolution against counter-revolution from within and imperialist intervention from without.

As Lenin pointed out, for Marx, socialism isn’t something that is just concocted, complete and fully formed at birth, but rather it is “something which develops out of capitalism.” In the “Critique of the Gotha Program,” Marx writes, “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; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.”

For this reason, according to Marx, socialism has to be understood as developing through stages. Marx explains that there are principles that can guide socialism during its lower and higher stages. During the first stage, which we’ve come to understand as the stage of socialist construction prior to the state’s “withering away,” the main organizing principle is “from each according to their ability, to each according to the work.” During this lower stage of socialism, “bourgeois right” still plays a major role. “The right of the producers is proportional to the labor they supply; the equality consists in the fact that measurement is made with an equal standard, labor.” The problem here, Marx says, is that one worker may be “superior to another physically, or mentally, and supplies more labor in the same time, or can labor for a longer time; and labor, to serve as a measure, must be defined by its duration or intensity, otherwise it ceases to be a standard of measurement. This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labor.”

Regarding the higher stage, Marx writes, “In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life's prime want; after 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 – only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”

In other words, the contradictions that are brought over from the previous mode of production must be eliminated step by step. This is the primary task of socialism, and the most important of those tasks is to eliminate the basis of class division and develop the productive forces to the point where scarcity is altogether eliminated, and the surplus allows for distribution according to need rather than according to labor.

Marx says “But these defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society as it is when it has just emerged after prolonged birth pangs from capitalist society. Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby.”

In our forthcoming articles we’ll look at some of the major contradictions at work in socialist society, in the base and the superstructure, and we’ll also look at the concrete experience of the socialist countries from 1917 until today.

Lenin was correct to say that the goal of socialism is communism. The purpose of the dictatorship of the proletariat is to eliminate the reason for its own existence. By advancing the forces of production and by developing on this basis socialist relations of production, the socialist state creates the conditions for it to wither away, bringing society ever closer to the higher, classless and stateless, stage of communism.