Capitalism's Successors - Socialism

Capitalism's Successors - Socialism and Communism

Marx held that the culmination of the internal contradictions generated by capitalist production would be the breaking up of the entire capitalist system and its adjunct, the political state. The proletariat could seize power, establish its own state, crush all capitalist employers and their class ideology, and subject all economic processes to the proletarian state machinery. This would be socialism, or the first stage of communism. With the liquidation of capitalist property, institutions, and surplus value, there would develop a new socialized or communized psychology, permitting the gradual liquidation of the proletarian state and its agencies of oppression, which had been directed against the former capitalists. Each person then would be motivated to work in accord with his full capacity and to consume from the common product merely in accord with his needs. The era of full communism would be ushered in. This latter Marx held to be the best possible form of economic society. And, since economic institutions give the tone to all institutions, society would have reached its highest possible state of perfection.

Transition By Revolution

What degree of force and violence will accompany the fall of capitalist production and the assumption of economic and political power by the proletariat? Can the change be accomplished by peaceful, evolutionary, parliamentary methods, or is a revolutionary coup accompanied by substantial measures of violence inherent in such a change? Students of Marxian theory have waged wordy battles over these matters, and international working-class movements have been wrecked again and again by disagreements among their adherents as to what transitional pattern is implicit in Marxian theory.

In several respects Marxian theory bearing upon this point is unmistakably clear. State power in a capitalist system is possessed by the owning class and used to support and defend that system. This means, according to Marxian theory, that the proletariat cannot acquire power over the economic system without gaining possession of the political state. As Lenin put it, "Every economic fight of necessity turns into a political fight, and social democracy must indissolubly combine the economic with the political fight into a united class struggle of the proletariat." Unquestionably, Marx held that the proletariat should seize political power when the "death knell" of capitalism sounded.

Moreover, Marxian theory places much stress on the role force has played in history. Capitalist private property and the accumulation of capital are rooted in that forceful disruption of institutions and relationships Marx called primitive accumulation. Engels criticized Diihring (a German philosopher and political scientist, contemporary of Marx and Engels) for holding that "force is the absolute evil" and "the original sin."

That force, however, plays another role in history, a revolutionary role; that, in the words of Marx, it is the midwife of every old society which is pregnant with the new, that it is the instrument by the aid of which social movement forces its way through and shatters the dead, fossilized, political forms—of this there is not a word in Herr Diihring. . . . And this in spite of the immense moral and spiritual impetus which has resulted from every victorious revolution!
The writings of Marx and Engels give ample basis for Lenin's contention that "the replacement of the bourgeois state is impossible without a violent revolution." A number of the more concise statements of this revolutionary doctrine may be noted:


He [Marx] certainly never forgot to add that he hardly expected the English ruling classes to submit, without a "pro-Slavery rebellion," to this peaceful and legal revolution.
With us it is not a matter of reforming private property, but of abolishing it; not of hushing up the class antagonism, but of abolishing the classes; not of ameliorating the existing society, but of establishing a new one.


The arming of the whole proletariat with rifles, guns, and ammunition must be carried out at once; we must prevent the revival of the old bourgeois militia, which has always been directed against the workers. Where the latter measure cannot be carried out, the workers must try to organize themselves into an independent guard, with their own chiefs and general staff, to put themselves under the order, not of the government,, but of the revolutionary authorities set up by the workers. Where workers are employed in state service they must arm and organize in special corps, with chiefs chosen by themselves, or form part of the proletarian guard. Under no pretext must they give up their arms and equipment, and any attempt at disarmament must be forcibly resisted."

In short, the communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things. . . . The communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling class tremble at the communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Working men of all countries, unite!

It is to force that in due time the workers will have to appeal if the dominion of labor is at long last to be established.

These tenets of course do not make the revolution inevitable. As Sidney Hook points out, Marxian theory logically permits chaos to be the successor to and the result of the breakup of capitalist production—provided the proletariat is not organized and equipped to take over the reins of political and economic control." Short of this, however, if organized society is to continue to exist, the change must be revolutionary, accompanied by organized force and probably by violent acts.

This does not mean that the revolution must follow some standardized course in every country at the same time. Marx and Engels admitted that the specifiic revolutionary tactics and weapons of combat would have to fit the time and place of revolutionary activity. Nor could the revolution be successful unless certain objective conditions prevailed. The transition to a new society "becomes realizable not through the perception that the existence of classes is in contradiction with justice, equality, etc., not through the mere will to abolish these classes, but through certain new economic conditions." Sidney Hook has summarized these conditions to include, first, "the breakdown of the forces of production and distribution" in the capitalist system; second, "lack of immediate political homogeneity on the part of the ruling classes," such as would be brought about by a crisis, a war, some natural calamity, or disagreement among the bourgeoisie over policy, any of which might cause a substantial loss of bourgeois prestige; and third, "spontaneous manifestations of class consciousness and struggle" such as strikes, riots, or mass demonstrations.

When such conditions developed, they were expected to be obvious to Marxians, although their actual discernibility becomes doubtful when one recalls that Engels, writing about England in 1886, felt that "we can almost calculate the moment when the unemployed, losing patience, will take their own fate into their own hands" and that the "Communist Manifesto" referred to Germany as being "on the eve of a bourgeois revolution" that "will be but the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution."

To initiate a revolution at a time or in a place lacking these objective prerequisites to its success, rather than to await their creation, was to engage in "mad adventurism" rather than a true communist revolution.15 Nor was the ultimate necessity for revolution to prevent the cooperation of those who saw its necessity with social reformers who did not. The "Communist Manifesto" called upon communists to "labor everywhere for the union and agreement of the democratic parties of all countries."10 Such cooperation would strengthen and better organize the proletariat for its postrevolutionary tasks.

Shift of Emphasis to Nonrevolutionary Change

In contrast with the "odes to physical violence" noted previously is the following much-quoted passage from Marx:


But we do not assert that the way to reach this goal it the same everywhere. We know that the institutions, the manners and the customs of the various countries must be considered, and we do not deny that there are countries like England and America, and, if I understood your arrangements better, I might even add Holland, where the worker may attain his object by peaceful means. But not in all countries is this the case.

In the later writings of Marx and Engels, other statements, less direct but nonetheless meaningful, disclose a certain shift of emphasis from revolutionary to evolutionary processes of social change. Marx and Engels appeared to rely less on the inevitable necessity of revolutionary transformation and to place more hope in social-reform measures as means to the end of ultimate control by the proletariat.

Professor Bober, while admitting that "it is hard to tell" why Marx and Engels made this shift, ventures some "suggestions":

In the early period [prior to 1848-1851] they were fiery men in their thirties, smarting in exile, fresh with the memories of abuses dealt out to them by various governments, while, later, older age brought a cooler attitude and a calmer way of looking at things. There were doctrines of evolution before and throughout the first half of the nineteenth century, but Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859 impressed people's minds with the idea of gradual development; and Marx and Engels were eager followers of the achievements of science. Actual experience of the uprisings of '48 and later convinced them that a few enthusiasts cannot prevail against bullets and cannon balls directed by skilled hands. Again, in the 1840's, and for a while afterward, the plight of the workers appeared to be serious. There were no effective factory laws and no public opinion favoring the laborer to any considerable extent. He was helpless. It was a time when so judicious a person as John Stuart Mill was pessimistic about capitalism, doubted whether all the inventions lightened human toil, and wondered at times whether socialism held better promise. A brutal conflict seemed to Marx and Engels the inevitable means of emancipation. But later, when the worker gained dignity, power, and suffrage, they began to see hope in other expedients.

Marxian Theory Is Basically Revolutionary


What can be concluded as to the place of revolution in Marxian theory?
If one tries to strike a balance between the portions of the theory emphasizing the inevitability of revolutionary change and those implying an evolutionary and parliamentary transition to socialism, the former appear more weighty. Marxian theory is saturated with reasoning that can lead to no other conclusion than a violent death for capitalist production. To interpret Marx as really expecting or urging anything other than this would actually necessitate rewriting to the point of inanity a large portion of Marxian thought. Suggestions in Marx that imply the possibility of effective non-revolutionary change from capitalism to something better are found to be cursory, superficial, and hastily formulated when compared with the basic fabric of Marxism. The latter is wholly revolutionary and, to say the least, not unsuspecting of the necessity of violence as a phase of the coming revolution.


The existence of statements contradicting the revolutionary thesis must be accounted for by the piecemeal way in which Marx and Engels often wrote, the temporary and passing uses (notably, various speeches and newspaper articles) to which they thought much of their writing would be put, and the pressure of somewhat inconsistent but surface influences the events of the time brought to bear on them. No comprehensive nonrevolutionary interpretation of Marx has stood the test of consistency that careful students of Marxian theory impose upon it; in all likelihood none ever will.