All activists who fight for a world without exploitation of man by man have heard of the two stages, or phases, to get there. socialism, first, and communism.

By Marcos Margarido 

This is how Lenin uses these terms in his book State and Revolution. Socialism would be a transitional phase until communism is reached.

But what do these words mean?

We learn two definitions of socialism and communism: 

Socialism: from each according to his capacity, to each according to his work.

Communism: from each according to his capacity, to each according to his needs.

And the explanation is that in socialism, people will not have access to everything that is produced, not even to everything they need, but they will receive according to their work, while in communism, when abundance has been reached, everyone will have access to the products they need, whatever the nature of that need and the amount of work done by them.

That is, in the initial phase of the classless society, after the expropriation of the bourgeoisie, when the new social system still bears the heavy inheritance of the capitalist past, mainly its limited development of the productive forces, all people of adult age will have work available and will be obliged to work (with the exception of the elderly and the disabled), without this representing a burden for them.

Communism

However, what few people know is about the origin of the definitions. The definition of Communism is easier to find. It is part of an explanation by Marx in Critique of the Gotha Programme:

“In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labour, has vanished; after labour 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!” 

That is, when humanity frees itself from the locks of capitalism and can produce for its own needs without part of the work being appropriated by the bourgeoisie, generating an abundance that will eliminate the dispute between men to get the necessary means for their survival and for their well-being, such as culture, leisure, tourism, etc. then, work will cease to be a means of survival to be a necessary activity, but without obligation.

It is interesting to note that Marx says that in Communism the “narrow horizon of bourgeois right [will] be crossed.” Why? Because wage slavery – where the worker is paid according to the value of his or her labour-power, which corresponds to a small portion of the working day because the rest of the newly created value is taken by the bourgeoisie – will cease to exist. The amount of necessary labour (i.e., to reproduce the goods necessary for survival) will no longer be the measure of how much each person will earn because they will receive “according to his/her needs“.

Socialism according to Stalin

However, the origin of the definition of Socialism is more obscure. It is not found in the works of our masters, Marx and Engels, nor in Lenin’s book.

It was, actually, instituted by the 1936 constitution of the USSR, written under Stalin’s close supervision, to replace the 1924 constitution from the time of the revolutionary soviets. This was because, according to Stalin, the Soviet Union was already a “Socialist state”, on the road to Communism, and it was necessary to include this in the constitution.

So it is in the 1936 constitution that the definition of socialism given above is found.

Regarding this article of the constitution, Trotsky would say in his book The Revolution Betrayed:

“The first section, entitled Social Structure, concludes with these words: “In the Soviet Union, the principle of socialism is realized: From each according to his abilities to each according to his work.” This inwardly contradictory, not to say nonsensical, formula has entered, believe it or not, from speeches and journalistic articles into the carefully deliberated text of the fundamental state law. It bears witness not only to a complete lowering of theoretical level in the lawgivers but also to the lie with which, as a mirror of the ruling stratum, the new constitution is imbued.”[1]

Why does Trotsky say that this definition of socialism is inconsistent and contradictory and even nonsensical? Because socialism is still a transition between capitalism and communism and, it’s true, some bourgeois rights such as salary according to work will still be in force in socialism. But by establishing a static formula, taken from Marx’s definition of communism, the transition ceases to exist and socialism becomes an end in itself.

Stakhanovism

Stakhanov was a worker who toiled long hours after the usual working day to increase his production and thus help the Soviet state. The Soviet bureaucracy took advantage of this and launched Stakhanovism in the early 1930s, whose goal was driving workers to exhaustion as a way of increasing production.

This is the basis of the definition of socialism in the 1936 constitution. “To each according to his work” meant forcing Soviet workers to work far beyond their physical strength in order to receive in return the value of their labour-power, and not the total corresponding to working hours. In short, it was no different from the rights of bourgeois law.

Stakhanovism was almost included in the constitution, showing the true meaning of the “principle of socialism”, as a suggestion from Stalin:

“Labour in the USSR is an honest activity, a glorious activity, a valorous and heroic activity of socialist competition on the base of the spontaneous will of labourers and supported by the state. The state surrounds with honour and awards pacesetters of social work, as heroes and famous people.”[2]

According to Trotsky, the Soviet state was closer to backward capitalism than to communism, and was obliged to perform piecework (Stakhanovism), whereby the state would “get out of everybody as much as [it] can, and give in exchange as little as possible,” and where the wage gap between intellectual (i.e. bureaucracy) and manual (workers’) labour was enormous.

Trotsky recognised that at that stage of the Soviet Union, bourgeois right was still practised, so he concludes:

“Instead of frankly acknowledging that bourgeois norms of labour and distribution still prevail in the Soviet Union, the authors of the constitution have cut this integral Communist principle in two halves, postponed the second half to an indefinite future, declared the first half already realized, mechanically hitched on to it the capitalist norm of piecework payment, named the whole thing “principle of Socialism,” and upon this falsification erected the structure of their constitution!”

What, then, is the stage prior to the “higher stage of communist society?” It was elaborated by Marx himself, which can be read in the Critique of the Gotha Programme.

The Dictatorship of the Proletariat

The first conclusion we come to when reading Marx and Lenin’s explanations is that “socialism” and “dictatorship of the proletariat” are the same thing. Marx did not use the term socialism, but he said that the dictatorship of the proletariat was the first stage of communism. And this is how Lenin referred to socialism in State and Revolution, using all of Marx’s explanations.

But to speak of a socialist state is a contradiction since socialism supposes a classless society, where the existence of a state at the service of the ruling class would no longer be necessary. That is why Marx calls this phase of transition to communism the dictatorship of the proletariat, based on the experience of the Paris Commune, when the workers took power and built their own state on the rubble of the bourgeois state.

So if it is a state and, at the same time, a transition to a stateless society, how can we understand socialism? It would be a “non-state” state, because its role is to prepare the men of this new society without exploitation for the end of the state, where, according to Engels, administration over men will be replaced by the administration of things. Such a state would be as short-lived as the time needed to bury bourgeois right once and for all through the accelerated advance – for capitalism would no longer be a brake – of the productive forces. It would be a state that would prepare its own extinction, the span time of which is impossible to determine in advance.

What would be the principle of this first phase of communism, according to Marx?

“Within the co-operative society based on common ownership of the means of production, the producers do not exchange their products; just as little does the labour employed on the products appear here as the value of these products, as a material quality possessed by them, since now, in contrast to capitalist society, individual labour no longer exists in an indirect fashion but directly as a component part of total labour. The phrase “proceeds of labour”, objectionable also today on account of its ambiguity, thus loses all meaning.

“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.”[3]

In this society where the bourgeoisie is expropriated, but the inheritance of capitalist society still persist, the law of value for commodities exchange will no longer exist, because individual labour will be directly – not indirectly, through the market – social labour.

Therefore, just as Marx says that the expression “product of labour,” adopted by the German social democrats, is objectionable and ambiguous, Trotsky says that the expression “to each according to his work” is contradictory and nonsensical.

Notes:

1] Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed. https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1936/revbet/ch10.htm.

2] Lomb, Samantha, A Fundamental Conflict of Vision: Stalin’s Constitution and Popular Rejection. Ohio State University.

3] Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme. https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/gotha/ch01.htm