Can we get to communism in one go?
A 2014 essay by Jasper Bernes and Joshua Clover, The Ends of the State, on the state and revolutionary strategy argues a proletarian revolution can’t achieve more than it initially accomplishes:
“As we and many of our contemporaries have argued, the immediate establishment of these new social conditions, to the greatest extent possible, is in the present not only the likely course a revolutionary unfolding might pursue, directly or indirectly, but, given the objective material conditions, its only hope for eventual success.”
As I read this passage, the authors of the essay, (who are associated with Endnotes), seem to be saying that a proletarian revolution is strictly limited to what it can initially accomplish by the sheer force of the revolution itself. After that initial shockwave, it settles down into a course of development typical of capitalist accumulation. If a proletarian revolution cannot get to full communism in a single go, it simply becomes a form of capitalist development?
To use an analogy: if a star doesn’t have sufficient mass, it does not produce a black hole, but settles down to live its remaining life as a dwarf star. Likewise, to reach communism in one go requires sufficient material development that is not necessarily given. Absent sufficient material conditions, the revolution must fail.
The hypothesis is provocative, so I will examine it here.
The essay by Bernes and Clover is interesting because it suggests that Social Democrat and Soviets failed not because of their peculiar shortcomings, but because not having been able to get to full communism in one leap, they had to retreat to capitalism.
Lenin admits as much with his introduction of the New Economic Policy. Having failed to make the leap to full communism, the soviet revolution had to retreat:
“The New Economic Policy means substituting a tax for the requisitioning of food; it means reverting to capitalism to a considerable extent—to what extent we do not know. Concessions to foreign capitalists (true, only very few have been accepted, especially when compared with the number we have offered) and leasing enterprises to private capitalists definitely mean restoring capitalism, and this is part and parcel of the New Economic Policy; for the abolition of the surplus-food appropriation system means allowing the peasants to trade freely in their surplus agricultural produce, in whatever is left over after the tax is collected—and the tax~ takes only a small share of that produce. The peasants constitute a huge section of our population and of our entire economy, and that is why capitalism must grow out of this soil of free trading.”
Basically, no matter which course was chosen — 2nd International or 3rd International — the result would have been the same: absent a leap to full communism in one go, further capitalist development would be necessary. The problem was that in neither case could the revolution have directly achieved communism and society had to undergo a period of further capitalistic development.
It is an interesting hypothesis. One that admits the lower stage of communism is simply a form of capitalist development. Marx says as much in his critique of the Gotha Program where he discusses the persistence of inequality among members of society after the revolution:
“Hence, equal right here is still in principle — bourgeois right, although principle and practice are no longer at loggerheads, while the exchange of equivalents in commodity exchange exists only on the average and not in the individual case. … In spite of this advance, this equal right is still constantly stigmatized by a bourgeois limitation. 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. … 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.”
The lower phase of communism entailed a period of time where these working class governments effectively would be acting as the capitalist. Insofar as the working class could not leap to full communism in one step, all its revolution would accomplish in its initial shockwave is to remove the impediments to further capitalist development.
Not surprisingly, this is essentially what Marx proposed in the Communist Manifesto. The proletarian revolution would not be a single even, but cover an entire historical epoch:
“The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.
Of course, in the beginning, this cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production; by means of measures, therefore, which appear economically insufficient and untenable, but which, in the course of the movement, outstrip themselves, necessitate further inroads upon the old social order, and are unavoidable as a means of entirely revolutionising the mode of production.”
Both theoretically and in practical experience, communists realize that we can’t bypass capitalism, we can only accelerate its development by removing the obstacles to its development of the productive forces. The problem with this presentation, however, is that it is altogether unclear what Jasper Bernes and Joshua Clover mean by full communism — a term they employed somewhat ironically in the text.
We need to remedy this.
Full communism means abolition of wage labor, money and the state. Using this definition as working placeholder, we can say that if the revolution cannot abolish wage labor, money and the state in one go a period of further capitalist development will be required. This period of further capitalist development will be required to create the material conditions for the abolition of wage labor, money and the state. According to Marx, it also constitutes the historical mission of capital..
The material conditions for communism assume a very high level of development of the productive forces, and that labor has been made superfluous to the production of material wealth. On the other hand, the extent to which communism is possible in one go is determined by the extent to which labor has already been rendered superfluous to the production of material wealth. If almost all labor at present is superfluous, the potential for full communism in one leap is very high.
For us, this is a good thing, because, as Marx explained in his 1859 Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, ” the material … economic conditions of production … can be determined with the precision of natural science”. It is possible that by employing Marx’s theory, we can objectively determine whether the material forces of production have developed to such an extent that full communism is possible in a single leap; which is to say, we should be able to determine whether we can put an end to wage labor, money and the state in one go.
The material premise for this sort of revolution is that almost all labor presently employed is entirely superfluous to the production of material wealth. If this is so, then we can abolish wage labor — and with it, money and the state — without in any way sacrificing our present material standard of living.
Unfortunately this question is never on the table for communists; instead, we have the exact opposite question always before us: how to prevent the workers from becoming superfluous to the production of material wealth; how to prevent automation from taking away our jobs; how to prevent unemployment and maintain full employment of labor.
Rather than admitting labor is now superfluous, we fight to maintain it. The working class thus now experiences the material conditions necessary for communism in one leap as the potential for an unprecedented economic catastrophe.
Can we get to communism in one go?
How would we know, since all communists seem to care about today is how to keep wage labor, money and the state from going away.