The Laws of Motion of Socialism
In a previous blog entry ("Laws of Motion, Capacities, and Principles"), we discussed the concept of laws of motion of a system, with examples drawn from physics and from capitalism. In this entry, we apply this idea to the laws of motion of socialist systems, and draw some conclusions about the feasibility of socialism and the socialist movement.
For most of the history of Marxism, the communist movement fought for socialism, hoping that it would be a stepping-stone to communism, a classless, stateless society in which the results of collective production are distributed according to need. The term “socialism” is now used to mean somewhat different things. Social Democratic parties like those in Germany and France call themselves socialist although they support capitalism wholeheartedly. Socialism, as we use the term here, means the first social system that Marx and Engels expected to follow the overthrow of capitalism, a system that was eventually to develop into communism.
Marx and Engels spelled out their “two-stage” theory of the establishment of communism in a number of writings, especially in the “Communist Manifesto” (1847) and “Critique of the Gotha Program” (1875). The first (socialist) stage meant a system in which political power is in the hands of the working class (the so-called “dictatorship of the proletariat”), but with many institutions of capitalism are retained. The most important of these capitalist institutions are (1) a wage system, in which people are paid for the amount and type of work they do, (2) production for exchange, not directly to meet human needs, (3) a hierarchical state, and (4) the extensive use of money.
Socialist systems were set up in the Soviet Union, China, and Eastern Europe that had these features and others that resulted from them. They had a lot of inequality in income and privileges, and a state and party apparatus whose elites had great power and a high standard of living. There were also some movements that opposed this inequality. In the late ‘20s and early ‘30s, many industrial workers in the USSR formed “communes” and “collectives” that pooled wages as a communist measure that also dealt practically with the uncertainties of unemployment during industrialization. These communes were eventually forbidden by the party leadership, which was committed to individual “material incentives” to promote economic development. In China, the entire Red Army and the party apparatus lived on an egalitarian “supply system” during the struggle for power, but replaced this system with a multi-level wage system in 1955.
The socialist systems of the USSR, China, Eastern Europe did not merely promote inequality and fail to develop into communism, however, they all turned into open capitalism. Thus the most important question about socialism is whether this had to happen or could it have been avoided by “doing socialism right.” A previous blog discussed the idea of the laws of motion of capitalism (click here), that is, regularities like repeated economic crises that must happen within the capitalist system. Here we argue that the transition of socialism to capitalism is a law of motion of socialism.
Socialism is a Form of Capitalism
The reason that socialism must revert to capitalism is that socialism is best understood as a form of capitalism. Socialism is capitalism without capitalists, at least initially, but its fundamentally capitalist features guarantee that it does not remain without a capitalist class for long. Analysis of the operation of actual socialist systems shows that their wage systems, inequalities and state organization lead to the rapid rise of a new capitalist ruling class, which takes over the government and the former communist party. The political power of the working class (where that power actually exists) can’t be maintained against the capitalist institutions of socialism. Once the new class is firmly in control, however, socialism is no longer the best way for it to rule, and open capitalism eventually returns. If socialism were created again, the result would be the same. This is a law of motion of socialism.
What Should Be Learned From Socialism
The conclusion that socialism can’t be “done right” is not a council of despair. Analyzing the features of socialism that make the return of open capitalism a law of its motion provides critical information about how the working class movement can advance without the reverses that socialism necessarily produces. A major source of the new ruling class that is created under socialism is the high income and special privileges of the top party and government leaders. Thus a movement that can succeed in finally ending capitalism cannot allow privileges for anyone. This also means it cannot have a wage system, since wages always mean that some get much more than others. The history of socialism also shows that armed force of the state can defeat workers struggles against the new ruling class, as happened in the Cultural Revolution in China. Hence there must be no armed force separate from the masses.
Mass political understanding of and agreement with Marxism and the lessons of the failure of socialism is a critical factor in getting to a genuinely communal society and keeping capitalism from returning. Political consciousness is certainly not enough, however. Socialism in China used the idea that the party and the government should be “supervised by the masses.” This meant that the masses were supposed to keep the party and government honest by protesting when these institutions did not serve them. Mass struggles in the Cultural Revolution show, however, that the masses can never supervise from the outside. Only the actual participation by masses of politically conscious people can do this. Only mass participation inside all institutions of society can prevent those institutions from being turned against the working class. Figuring out just how to do this is not simple, but much can be learned by organizing mass participation inside the the political movement that fights to end capitalism, and making that movement a model for the new society.
Historical experience also shows that markets, money, trade and private appropriation of wealth lead to destructive conflicts even in societies with no classes. The indigenous peoples of North America fought an endless series of wars over trade routes and resources even before Europeans arrived. Mass mobilization in collective production and distribution, aimed at meeting needs of the working class, are necessary to overcome inequalities and prevent conflicts between different regions of the world.
Marxism is not over, but socialism is. Marx and Engels were profoundly mistaken in their two-stage theory of post-capitalist society, but we do not have to repeat that mistake. Analyzing historical experience not only teaches us specific features of socialism that prevented it from ending capitalism permanently, it shows the way forward.
 See Lewis Siegelbaum, “Production Collectives and Communes and the ‘Imperatives’ of Soviet Industrialization, 1929-1931,” Slavic Review, vol. 45, no. 1 (1986), pp. 65-84.
 On the supply system, see “The Wage Grade System—Breeding Ground of Revisionism,” by “A Fictitious Old Man,” http://marxistphilosophy.org/Fictious.pdf
May 24, 2012