Socialism: Lassallean and Leninist

by Jehu

One of the difficulties of the so-called struggle for socialism is the proliferation of definitions of socialism. These differences fall into two broad categories.

In the first group, we have those socialists who trace their intellectual lineage to Lassalle, including the modern social democracy movement, like the Democratic Socialists in the United States (DSA). The folks in this group typically identify socialism with the existing state, the capitalist state, the dictatorship of capital.

In the second group, we have the socialists who trace their intellectual lineage to Marx. This includes a bewildering array of groups from so-called orthodox Leninist parties like the Communist Party in the United States historically (although not at present) and an even more bewildering array of splinter groups. Folks in this group typically identify socialism with the overthrow of the existing state, and its replacement by a self-governing commune.

(NOTE: I didn’t include anarchists and similar tendencies in the discussion at this point, because they don’t envision any sort of state. Anarchists envision the direct establishment of a stateless, classless society that I here will refer to as full communism. I will address the anarchist view later)

Thus between the first and the second group of socialists we have a difference over whether socialism is possible under the existing state. Lassalleans, like the DSA, assume the existing state is a neutral body that can serve to implement a fully socialist program. Marxists, like most communist parties and their splinter offshoots, assume the state is a dictatorship of capital and must be overthrown prior to the establishment of a fully socialist program.

Capital, Socialism and the state

The differences between these two formulations of socialism would be easy enough to understand, were it not for capital itself. Capital evolves. And this evolution over time has a independent impact on what constitutes socialism as defined by the two views. Even as the two variants of socialism are disputing the fate of the state in socialism, capitalist development is forcing the state to assume more of the functions of the capitalists in capitalism.

As production becomes more ‘socialized’, the management of production becomes more ‘socialized’ as well. (I put the term ‘socialized’ in quotes in order to distinguish it from socialism the political movement.) The management of production becomes socialized not because of these socialist movement directly, (although they may influence the process), but because material production now requires comprehensive management of the entire national capital. According to Marx and Engels (see: Socialism, chapter 3), the regulation of national capital by exchange value would have to be succeeded by direct state management.

This material change had to have its impact on the dispute between the two conceptions of socialism, Lassallean and Marxist. The state was now imposing its control over more or less extensive sections of the national economy and the Lassallean view seemed to be confirmed by this taking.

Lassalleans asserted socialists could employ the state itself to achieve their aims. Marx asserted socialists would be required to overthrow the state. However, the progress of capital itself forced the state to assume the role of social manager of the national capital, appearing to confirm Lassalle. (I’m leaving out all the unpleasantness like two world wars, 100 million dead, colonial conquests, and catastrophic economic collapse for the sake of brevity.)

The Lassallean socialist ideal was realized. Or was it?

Socialism or Barbarism?

If history had ended at this point, all would be good. We all would be living in the Lassallean utopia. Capital delivered on everything Lassallean socialism promised: the end of depressions, regulation of monopolies, continuous economic growth.

We have now gone almost 90 years without a single depression of the 1930’s type, an event that once was as regular as clockwork. Yes, crises of various sort still erupt, but these crises are nowhere near the catastrophic events of pre-1940s. To be honest, this is as good as it gets for Lassallean socialism. This is it.

But let me go further: this Lassallean socialism is the only sort of socialism we are ever going to get. Likely, there is not going to be a socialism of the sort Marx described; a period of transition marked by a dictatorship of the proletariat. The point of Marx and Engels discussion in “Socialism” is the point made by Luxemburg: we had a choice and society has made it. We chose barbarism, i.e., Lassallean socialism.

Some people think we still have time to make that choice. No. We already made that choice. Luxemburg’s polemic was aimed at the Lassallean socialists but the Lassalleans won. At the beginning of this mess there were two distinct schools of thought and the one that identified socialism with the bourgeois state triumphed. Anything beyond this point has to address Marx’s critique of Lassallean socialism.

In Lassallean socialism, socialism is an end in itself, the ultimate destination of history. Marx’s critique of Lassallean socialism was that socialism was merely the revolutionary transformation of capitalism into communism. (See: Critique of the Gotha Program.)

Socialism was not and could not be an end in itself because, as Marx and Engels explained as far back as 1848, its measures would be economically insufficient. One encroachment on capitalistic relations of production would necessitate another until the entire mode of production was uprooted. (See: Communist Manifesto, chapter 2.) Socialism basically undermined capitalism and could not stop until it reached full communism. This implies that the state, upon taking control of production as the Lassalleans envisioned and Marx predicted, would be forced to progressively overturn capitalist relations.

The Leninist critique

The response of the Marxists to the Lassallean idea of socialism was the October revolution the overthrow of the bourgeois state. In contrast to the Lassallean view that the bourgeois state would become the skeletal infrastructure of socialism, the Marxists immediately did away with this state and imposed a commune composed of workers’ councils.

A number of problems immediately confronted the Marxists that should be noted.

While the Marxists held that the state had to be immediately abolished and replaced with a commune, they also maintained, following Marx. that this event would be global. It wasn’t and to a large extent this demonstrated the limited character of the revolution. A revolution of such limited character had no significant probability of surviving in a capitalist world market. As early as 1846, Marx and Engels had considered such a possibility and declared it economically insufficient. (See: German Ideology.) Such a commune could only exist as a local event; surrounded by superstition; and progressively undermined by extension of world intercourse

Second, the October revolution occurred in one of the more backward regions of the world market. The population was composed of a massive majority of persons who had not yet undergone the dissolution of capitalist accumulation. Marx and Engels considering this situation predicted that under such circumstances want would merely be made a general condition of society. Theirs was not a communism of want, but of abundance. With the resulting destitution, they wrote, “the struggle for necessities and all the old filthy business would necessarily be reproduced.” Facing the encroachments of the world market and suffering a mean impoverished existence internally the commune had little chance of success.

Even if we abstracted from all the real or imagined mistakes made by Lenin and the Bolsheviks — the disputes, internecine conflicts and despotism — Marx’s verdict was clear: the commune likely could not survive. That it not only survived but flourished for 70 years is a testament to the stubbornness and determination of the working class. Having taken control of society and created a huge instrument of production from scratch, the working class refused to relinquish this control until its potential was completely exhausted.

“It topples over”

We have then two views of socialism — the Lassallean view and what came to be known as the Leninist view — each of which arrived at their separate denouement. By the 1980s, both Lassallean socialism and Leninist socialism were collapsing in ruins — much to the dismay of their defenders.

It might appear that the two had nothing in common with one another, but the coincidence of the two events suggests another story. It suggests that the collapse of Lassallean socialism and the collapse of Leninist socialism can be traced to a common trigger. (See: Postone.)

In the absence of another suitable explanatory candidate, I propose the very same mechanism Marx employed to explain why local communisms collapse: the world market dissolves or abolishes them. The same forces that made the October revolution predictably collapse, also worked to undermine Lassallean socialism.

Both forms of socialism — Lassallean and Leninist — largely relied on a certain degree of insulation from the disintegrative effects of the world market, on a certain level of national autarky, self-sufficiency. The development of the capitalist mode of production, however, has the same impact on national capitals that it has on the numerous strata of small independent producers. We could (although I hesitate to propose this) assume there is a third site of capitalist expropriation.

What do I mean by this?

In chapter 32 of volume 1 of Capital, Marx discusses the historical tendency of capitalist accumulation. In this chapter, Marx’s discusses the progress of the capitalist mode of production this way: Primitive accumulation only means the expropriation of the immediate producers, i.e., the dissolution of private property based on the labour of its owner. As soon as this process of transformation has sufficiently decomposed the old society from top to bottom, further expropriation of private property owners, takes a new form: the expropriation of capitalists who exploit many workers. (One capitalist, says Marx, kills many other capitalists.)

The process now continues on this path until the state expropriates the remaining few capitalist. (NOTE: Marx actually never says this directly. I am extrapolating Marx’s argument here. He never actually says the state does anything. He just never tells us who expropriates the few remaining capitalists?)

If I am right and it is the state that actually expropriates the few remaining capitalists, there is no reason in principle that the process need end there. In fact, we have every reason to assume that with the growing dependence of national states on trade, the deepening dependence of one state on another should lead to just the sort of catastrophic wars that marked the 20th century. As trade increases, the production of each nation state becomes increasingly intertwined with the others as one nation’s output is a growing portion of many other nations’ consumption. This growing dependence among nation states may be the trigger that explains the near-simultaneous collapse of both Lassallean and Leninist socialisms.

I may be overstating the impact of the world market or describing that impact incorrectly, but I think it deserves investigation.