On March 23, 2017, the Platypus Affiliated Society organized a panel discussion, “What is Socialism? International Social Democracy,” at the London School of Economics. Moderated by Nunzia Faes of Platypus, the event brought together the following speakers: Jack Conrad of the Communist Party of Great Britain and the Weekly Worker; Adam Buick of the Socialist Party of Great Britain; and Robin Halpin, translator of works by the Exit! group.
This is Comrade Buick's contribution
This is Comrade Buick's contribution
Adam Buick: We in the SPGB are well qualified to speak about the Second International because we’re a breakaway from it. We are, if you like, pre-Leninist Marxism. We don’t accept Marxist-Leninism. In fact, we are a breakaway from the Social Democratic Federation in 1904. The Socialist Party sent the delegation to a congress of the Second International in that year and, when we found we had to sit next to people like Keir Hardie, we said, “no, this organization’s no good, and we want nothing more to do with it.”
Anyway, what is socialism? What did the parties of the pre-First World War Second International mean when they said, what we want to replace capitalism with socialism? In 1893, William Morris, who himself had been a delegate to the Second International, took the initiative to draw up a manifesto for the English socialists. And this is what it said: “On this point, all socialists agree: our aim, one and all, is to obtain for the whole community, complete ownership, and control of the means of transport, the means of manufacture, the mines, and the land. Thus we look to put an end forever to the wage-system, to sweep away all distinction of class, and eventually to establish national and international communism on a sound basis.” Now the fact that this manifesto was signed by such non-Marxists as George Bernard Shaw and Sidney Webb shows that, at that time, the disagreements between reformists and revolutionaries—between possibilists and impossibilists—were not so much over the aim, the sort of society they wanted to see established, as they were over how to get there. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels shared this idea of socialism. They didn’t invent it; they got it from groups of workers that they met in Paris and in Manchester, who called themselves socialists or communists. This is reflected in the text of the Communist Manifesto where Marx talks about the communistic abolition of buying and selling, and when he endorses the “Critical-Utopian Socialists and Communists.” He endorsed their stand on the abolition of the wages system and the view that the state should be converted into the mere superintendence of production. What you’re talking about, the definition of socialism, is classless, stateless, wageless, moneyless, society based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production, by and in the interests of the whole community—that is what socialism meant at the time, and that’s also what socialism meant to the parties of the Second International. You can read any lieutenants of those parties, such as August Bebel, Karl Kautsky, Rudolf Hilferding, or Rosa Luxemburg, or even Bolsheviks such as Alexander Bogdanov, Stalin, and Lenin himself—they all had this conception of socialism. They regarded socialism as being what the Germans called “natural economy,” which is one where goods are produced purely and simply to be used, not to be sold on the market, not to be bought. Now, I’ll back this up with a quote from August Bebel—the actual face of German Social Democracy. Kautsky was just an intellectual theoretician, the editor of the theoretical newspaper, but Bebel was a worker who was prominent amongst other workers. He wrote a book called Women and Socialism, and part of that book is a description of future society where he says, “It does not produce commodities to be bought and sold, but produces the necessities of life, to be used up, consumed, and have no other purpose.” He goes on: “there’ll be no commodities, in the future society, neither can there be any money.” And for the benefit of our Bolshevik friend here, Alexander Bogdanov, in his book called A Short Course of Economic Science, which was used as a textbook by the Bolsheviks both before and after the seizure of power, says, “The new society will be based not on exchange, but on natural self-sufficing economy. Between production and consumption of products, there will not be the market buying or selling, but consciously and systematically organized distribution.” This was the common view as to what socialism meant at that time.
When the Communist Manifesto was first translated into English in 1888, Engels explained in his preface why it wasn't called the Socialist Manifesto. In 1848, the word socialism was associated with all sorts of utopian projects by people who rejected the working class struggle for political power. But the implication is that, had the Communist Manifesto been written in 1888, it could easily have been called the Socialist Manifesto. What this shows is that the words socialism and communism were used interchangeably by Marx and Engels and the other members of the Second International. Now the big change in the meaning of the word socialism came in 1917 when the Bolsheviks were preparing to seize power. Up until then, the Bolsheviks, apart from the question of organization, had been orthodox social democrats. They shared the definition of socialism I’ve just given, but they also shared the view that a socialist revolution was impossible in backward Russia.
When Lenin returned from exile in Switzerland in April 1917, he shocked even the members of his own party when he declared that, from now on the immediate aim of the Bolsheviks is to seize power—not to complete the bourgeois revolution, which had been their previous policy, but for socialism, to make a socialist revolution. Many Russians still adhered to the previous definition of socialism, and they said, “What do you mean? You can’t have socialism in Russia, it’s too backward.” Lenin had a quite clever and dishonest answer. He said, “You’re talking about communism, I’m talking about socialism.” This brings us to the question of the scientific difference between communism and socialism. No one even thought there was a difference between communism and socialism before, let alone a scientific distinction. Now it is true, as Jack has mentioned, that in 1875 Marx talked about a first phase of communist society, and a higher phase of communist society. But he could have equally talked about the first phase of socialist society, and a higher phase of socialist society. The important thing is that they were two phases of the same society, not two different societies. They were phases of a classless, stateless, moneyless, and wageless society, based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production. But Lenin didn’t even have the same view as Marx’s first phase of communist or socialist society. Here is a quote from State and Revolution on the correct functioning of the first phase of communist society: “All citizens are transformed into hired employees of the state, which consists of the armed workers, all citizens become employees and workers of a single, nationwide syndicate. All that’s required is you work equally, do their proper share of work, and get paid equally.” This is not the abolition of the wages system, which socialists in the Second International had stood for up till then. This is the integration of the wages system. It is, in fact, state capitalism—the wages system under new management, by state bureaucrats. It was state capitalism, which is what the Bolsheviks went on to establish. Lenin said this in 1918. It is alright to talk about 1928, but right from 1918 it was state capitalism. Because the Bolsheviks stayed in power, because they had a certain prestige amongst militant workers, and, of course, because they had the propaganda machine of the Russian state, their definition of socialism, which was really state capitalism, was able to triumph, and hence the confusion that’s with us.
Now, this isn’t a meeting to discuss the failures of Bolshevism. This is a meeting to discuss the failures of social democracy. So what were the failings of social democracy? Well what they had as their objective in their maximum program, socialism, but they also had a minimum program, which involved economic, social, and democratic reforms to capitalism. What this meant is that they were the prisoners of their non-socialist supporters and, eventually, they became simple bourgeois-democratic reform parties. At the turn of the century, the revisionist Eduard Bernstein said, “listen, what we are—you might as well come out and recognize that that’s what the German Social Democratic Party is—is a bourgeois-democratic party of reform.” This was rejected, but it made no difference to the practice of the German Social Democratic Party. Of course, what demonstrated that these parties were built on an unsound basis was the outbreak of the First World War, when the members of the Social Democratic Party in the Reichstag voted for the war just as their counterparts in France voted to join the coalition of national unity.
It has been downhill ever since. After World War One, the social democratic parties of Europe frequently participated in bourgeois coalition government. Bernstein was vindicated. But they claimed, or their theoreticians claimed, that what they were trying to do was gradually transform capitalism into a different type of society. But, of course, what happened was the opposite. They gradually got transformed into parties no different from those that they were competing against. In time they did not even claim to be socialist, just better managers of capitalism. Of course, when they got a chance they frequently failed. I agree with what Jack said about denouncing the Labour Party, but in his paper I’m sure it says “Vote Labour” at election time.
What do we do today? What William Morris said, actually: make socialists. What we should do is not keep socialism under a bush, but shout it from the rooftops: “We are socialists. Socialism is the only viable alternative to capitalism. It provides the only lasting framework within which the problem which capitalism serves up can be dealt with.” If we don’t do this, then we just analyze what politics could be, or has been. And we have an endless series of demonstrations and protests—not even to get more reforms of capitalism, but to stop existing reforms being taken away. This is no way to work toward a socialist society. If you are a socialist, what you should be doing is proclaiming and propagating socialism, which is what we do in the Socialist Party.
To come to your point about social democracy, or reformism: The Labour Party in this country, like social democratic parties elsewhere, thought that there is a national solution to social problems, but there isn’t! Capitalism is a worldwide system, it’s an international capitalist system. So if they get state power in one particular country, what they can do is limited. They cannot introduce more and more social reforms. They can’t increase social benefits or wages because that would undermine the competitiveness of the capitalist industries of the country on the world market. Jeremy Corbyn is just Harold Wilson the Second.
Capitalism cannot be reformed to work in the interests of the majority of the working class. So everything you say about why social democracy failed to us, it’s even worse today. Reformists today are not even campaigning for new reforms. I suppose we can go back to the 1970s and have arguments about what Lenin said and did, and how he was wrong, but there is never going to be another Bolshevik-type revolution in Western capitalist countries.
Lenin knew in 1917 that if he seized power, he would have a problem organizing industry and production. What he looked to was not what Marx had written 40 or 50 years previously, but to the German war economy. He said, “That is what we should do. We want state monopoly controlling the economy, controlled not by the Junkers but by the Bolshevik Party.” This is what he said in 1917-1918. In 1921, they developed the New Economic Policy. What was it? It was the development of capitalism under the control of what he called the proletarian state, in other words, the development of capitalism under the Bolshevik state. And, of course, you give the standard justification as to why he thought he could get away with seizing power in the name of socialism: He was expecting a socialist revolution in Germany. But that was never on the cards. What was on the cards was a democratic revolution. Lenin made a complete miscalculation.
There was then a Question and Answer session
Question For Marx and Engels, the potential for social democracy was the potential of the proletariat’s leadership of the reconstitution of the democratic republic, itself the result of the bourgeois revolution, in order to go to beyond it and overcome it on its own basis. By contrast, often on the Left today, the working class is actually an object of administration. It seems to be rackets in production, or worse, an aggregate interest group. Why does Stalinism or the welfare state seems to mean social democracy today? What kinds of potential lies in presently trying to transform the Labour Party into a socialist party? And why is it the case that Lenin could have believed in 1920 that Labour entryism into the Second International was a win-win situation, and why, in the 1930s, when the CPGB was rejected from the party, was the working class not convinced of the Labour leadership’s bankruptcy? What’s changed between 1920 and 1930? What has changed from 1920 to 2015? Another way of putting that question is actually, what is the potential, if any, of Corbyn?
AB's Answer The title of this meeting is “What is socialism?” We’ve now come to the second part, “What is not socialism?” I’ll go through it: socialism is not nationalization, socialism is not government ownership, socialism is not what existed in Russia or Cuba, and socialism is not the Labour government. As Willie said, the Labour Party is not a socialist party, has never been a socialist party, and will never be. Socialists should not join the Labour Party and should not have anything to do with it. It is a reform party that thinks that you can make capitalism better for workers. You can’t. So, the Labour Party is a waste of time. I have never voted for the Labour Party, though I’m sure Jack has. That’s up to him.
There is not going to be a civil war. That is not going to be how we get to socialism. Even in the 19th century, Marx and Engels thought it was possible under certain circumstances to have a peaceful transition to socialism. They were in favor of a democratic republic, of universal suffrage. And, under certain circumstances, the socialist working class could use universal suffrage to win control of the republic and then use that control to abolish capitalism.
Before Marx and Engels were socialists, both were bourgeois democrats. This is the 21st century and we don’t have any barricades. A socialist revolution is going to come about when the majority of people want to understand it, and organize democratically to achieve it. Robin says that capitalism will collapse. I don’t think it will. But if it did and there were no socialist majority, the result is not going to be socialism. Herman Cahn wrote a book in 1920, The Collapse of Capitalism, saying that capitalism was going to collapse in the 1920s. James Maxton of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in the 1930s said capitalism has only got a few weeks to go. Capitalism is still here! Capitalism won’t collapse. It can stagger on from crisis to crisis until people decide consciously to put an end to it.
Question Jack talked about how socialism itself is a word that came up in 19th century. Adam talked about lower and higher forms of communism, that they are both a continuation of, and a change from, the previous form of society. These points raise the questions of working class continuation or transformation of bourgeois revolution, the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the role of parties. Robin negatively characterized the relationship between party and state, in terms of the failure of struggles for socialism in the 20th century: the party becoming dependent on the state, and the state becoming dependent on the party. What ought to be the relationship between capitalism and socialism, and the party and state?
AB Answer I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the materialist conception of history. It explains both the transition from feudalism to capitalism, and the transition from capitalism to socialism. It’s through the development of the means of production that different classes come into existence.
The party is not separate from the workers or from socialism. The party is the working class organized politically to get rid of capitalism and replace it by socialism. I am opposed to the idea of a vanguard party that could lead the workers, opposed to the idea of a parliamentary party that is going to lead the workers. We accept the old Chartist slogan, “Peacefully if we may, forcibly if we must.”
What happens after socialism has been established? I don’t think Marx used the words “lower stage” and “higher stage.” He talked about the “first stage.” In the first stage, it will not be possible to attain the full implications of the principle, “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.” There will need to be restrictions on consumption, because the priority is going to be stopping starvation and people living in slums. But that will be society already based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production of society—without class society, without state society, without money, without people working for wages.
On the party and the state: You know, after we, the working class, abolish the monarchy and the House of Lords, the next thing they abolish is the socialist party. You don’t need a party in a socialist system. Why would you need it? There’d be no socialist party in a socialist society. It would not be needed.
Question In The Class Struggle in France, Marx says,“Socialism is the declaration of the permanence of the revolution. The class dictatorship of the proletariat as the necessary transit point to the abolition of class distinctions generally, of the production relations on which those class distinctions rest, to the abolition of all the social relations that correspond to those relations of production, and to the revolutionizing of all the ideas that correspond to all that came before.” The question is not whether you need the state or not—it’s there. The only question is: Is it a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie that’s reinforcing the tremendously lopsided distribution of the productive forces on a global scale, thousands of years of the division of mental and labor, patriarchy and everything else, or is it the dictatorship of the proletariat that’s trying to do away with all that?
AB: But Engels, in 1895, wrote a preface to that pamphlet, and said, “Look, we were wrong. We thought there was going to be an immediate bourgeois revolution followed by a proletarian revolution.” He also said that “the days of barricades and street fighting are over, an unconscious minority leading—those days are over, we’ve got universal suffrage now.” He was wrong. He had illusions about the German Social Democratic Party. It was winning elections and getting more and more votes, and he had the illusion that this would eventually lead to the establishment of socialism.
So let’s make that point with Engels. In fact, he didn’t refute Marx but put it in its historical context. Marx only saw eighty days of the Paris Commune. Marx never saw a telephone, a radio, a motorcar, plastics. Things have moved on since that time. The means of production have developed much more, which means that we can easily go over straight away to socialism if people want it. We don’t need transitional periods and so on. In fact, that’s what’s happening now, the transition is taking place right now. When people’s ideas gradually change in a socialist direction, that’s the transition.
Question The Abbé Sieyès said, “The Third Estate was nothing, but it will be everything.” The increasing obsolescence of labor still leads to social relations based upon labor and people’s demand for their bourgeois right. My understanding of State and Revolution is that, even when all the capitalists have been expropriated by the dictatorship of the proletariat, problems would continue because the workers—who equally function on the bourgeois ideology of labor—would be demanding that bourgeois right. So, why did Marx think that there needed to be a transition period—as Engels put it, a “semi-state”—that would wither away. What would its function be?
AB: You say first phase of communist or socialist society is the same as the dictatorship of the proletariat, but it can’t be, because if it is genuinely a phase of socialist or communist society, then there would be no longer any proletariat, no longer any classes. Marx has, if you like, three stages. One is the revolutionary transformation of capitalism into socialism. That’s the bit that takes the proletariat. Once that’s over, there’s no more state, there’s no more proletariat. We’ve got socialism or communism. From then on, capitalism, private property rights, no longer exists. The means of production are now available under democratic control to the whole community. Once you’ve done that, you’ve abolished classes, the state doesn’t exist, and you don’t have wages.
Question So what is the distinction then, in your conception, between the second and third stage?
AB: Well Lenin conflates the first stage and the first phase of communism. They all do it—all the Trotskyists do it. Ernest Mandel did it in his book In the Defense of a New Society. Marx does not talk about a transitional society, he talks about transitional period—from one society to another—which would be more or less rapid.
Question On the subject of reform and a minimum program: do the speakers think that there is a use for something similar to those minimum programs today for a socialist party? Was the idea of a minimum program of reforms wrong even in the Second International?
AB: Socialists today should not make the same mistake that the social-democratic parties of the Second International made: campaigning for socialism by campaigning for a minimum program of reforms. Because that way you attract support not for socialism, but for the various reform measures. This idea is still popular with the Trotskyites or Trotskyists. They call the minimum program the transitional program, but it is the same thing. The Trotskyists are more honest than the social democrats. They hold it out as bait to try to get people to follow them. But that is a mistake. What we should do as socialists is propagating socialism. Nobody else is doing this. If you read the Weekly Worker today, you’ll find all these sorts of campaigns that are going on, “stop this” and “don’t do that.” These are not campaigns for socialism.
Question When Marx writes his Critique of the Gotha Program, the first thing he says is that that program fails to call for the democratic republic. In that respect, it goes no further than the free-trade liberal party. Fast forward to Rosa Luxemburg’s argument against Lenin that the Bolsheviks were going to abolish the bourgeois state without replacing it with anything more democratic. So my question is who do you prefer, Lenin or Luxemburg, in regards to socialist democracy?
AB: Rosa Luxemburg wins hands down. When Lenin wrote What is to be Done? this was the idea of the vanguard party with military command and structure. She wrote a thing accusing Lenin of being a Blanquist and of seeking to seize power by a vanguard party.
AB: Doom and gloom, isn’t it? On a general note, one of the first things that will end in a socialist society is the link between work and consumption: What people will consume will not depend on the amount of work that they do. But I’m not so sure about the disappearance of labor. Work would continue to exist in a socialist society. That was, in fact, one of William Morris’s main points in a pamphlet called Mutual Work vs. Useless Toil. What will disappear in a socialist system will not be work as such. It could be wage labor, it could be employment.
Jack was describing a meeting not far from here in 1880 when Marx had the French socialists draw up their program. One thing that program called for was “Converting universal suffrage from an instrument… of trickery into an instrument of emancipation.” That, in fact, is in the declaration of principles of the Socialist Party.
The full transcribed meeting of the other speakers' contributions can be read here