I find it helpful to think about the bourgeois epoch as a period of transition between individual production carried on separately and directly social production. This transition is essentially the replacement of the conditions of individual production with the conditions of directly social production.
Contrary to most Marxists who neatly divide up this transitional period into capitalism and socialism, I make no necessary division. The transition can unfold under the rule of the bourgeoisie or under the rule of the proletariat. If the transition takes place under the rule of the bourgeoisie, we call it capitalism; if it takes place under the rule of the proletariat, we call it socialism. This means in theory, at least, there is no sharp fixed or fast division between the two forms of transition. The distinction between capitalism and socialism is political: which class rules.
This makes it very hard to tell just by looking at various “socialisms” that have emerged in the 20th century and say with a fair degree of precision whether they were socialist or capitalist. To give an example of what I mean: Folks who know more about the subject than I do nevertheless sharply disagree whether the Soviet Union was socialist or capitalist or even a completely different animal altogether. There is no real consensus on how to classify the Soviet mode of production among Marxists.
I have tried to finesse this problem by suggesting the SU was a capital — not “capitalist”, but the thing itself: a giant capital.
The peculiar thing about a capital as a unit of production is that it has none of the features we normally associate with a capitalist economy. Internally, a capital has no money relations; production is carried on according to a plan; there is no tendency toward over-production, unemployment or crises we take as essential to the definition of capitalism.
These features of a capitalistic economy are expressed in the exchange relations between capitals, not in their internal operation.
All forms of directly social labor look alike
If you observed the operations of a capital internally , it would be hard decide whether it was a capitalist organization or a commune – both are essentially identical in their operation internally, forms of directly social labor.
To give an example: a cooperative managed by the workers essentially will function identically to a capitalist firm. This is so true that it only takes the briefest examination of the operation of a cooperative to understand how superfluous the capitalists are to modern capitalist production. There is nothing the capitalist does that the workers can’t do themselves cooperatively.
Assuming I am correct on this, it may be impossible to really tell whether the SU was a socialistic or a capitalistic society. In either case the SU would still have functioned pretty much the way it did.
This leads to a rather disturbing conclusion: Insofar as the actual operations of the Soviet mode of production was concerned it was entirely irrelevant which class was actually in power. In truth, there are only so many ways you can manage directly social production. Technically, both a capital and a commune work the same way. Politically, of course, it makes all the difference which class is actually calling the shots, but technically politics is irrelevant.
The ambiguity of class rule
This might explain why even as the classification of the SU as socialist or capitalist is very controversial, so has been the classification of what we call fascism. Even my personal working definition of fascism — a state managed capitalist economy — begins to look very ambiguous. Indeed, many communists define the SU as state-managed capitalism.
To nail down the difference between capitalism and socialism in practice, we now have to nail down things that are by their very nature fuzzy and ambiguous: class rule.
Honestly, how do you tell which class is actually in power? What evidence do you have that one or the other class is ruling class.
But there is a problem that is even more intractable than that one: Even if you could establish that a particular society is ruled by the working class, does the rule of the working class guarantee the society is socialist? In fact, we all know that the working class can act as its own capitalist? Is it possible to have capitalism without capitalists? Fascism without either capitalists or capitalist private property?
If the technical condition of directly social production do not allow us to differentiate between capitalism and socialism, the political conditions offer even shakier grounds for differentiation than the technical conditions. Literally, we could have a completely fascist society without either capitalists or capitalist private property.
We assume we can tell the difference between fascism and socialism, but the reality is that it is mostly a matter of individual prejudice. Look at the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or even the People’s Republic of China. There is no consensus even among communists over how to characterize these societies.
We just make it up as we go along. We talk a lot of shit about what a socialist society looks like, but the reality is that the markers most communists employ use to differentiate capitalism from socialism are pretty fuzzy.
I just want to put this out there because a lot of people think they know what communism is but actually rely on very fuzzy definitions. They can’t even agree on whether the defunct SU was socialism or not, much less classify China. The definitions most communists take as settled and obvious begins to break down the moment we apply any critique to it.
But let me state something else: every characteristic we think defines socialism is wrong. We are looking for socialism in the wrong place.
I think I have made the case that the alleged markers for a socialist community are not as persuasive as they appear. We can’t look at the technical conditions of production and tell whether the society in question is capitalist or socialist. Further, we cannot look at the political condition of the society as a whole, i.e., which class is actually ruling. and tell the difference.
Even if we discovered a society where production is based on a community of social producers, and even if these social producers ruled through their own association, we still could not determine with a high degree of confidence whether the society was in fact capitalist or socialist based solely on these characteristics.
Whether a society is capitalistic or socialistic has nothing to do either with its technical conditions of production nor the form of state. Certainly these characteristics are important — no society can be socialistic without them — but they are not, of themselves, sufficient for definitively classifying the society in question as socialistic.
Accumulation versus free development
If I am correct about this what additional characteristic is necessary for the society in question to be classified as socialistic? I think Marx offers a clue in his discussion in the so-called fragment on the machine. Socialism, Marx seems to be saying, aims for,
“The free development of individualities, and hence not the reduction of necessary labour time so as to posit surplus labour, but rather the general reduction of the necessary labour of society to a minimum, which then corresponds to the artistic, scientific etc. development of the individuals in the time set free, and with the means created, for all of them.”
What distinguishes a socialist community from a capitalist community is not its technical or political conditions, but whether labor time is reduced to a minimum to make room for the development of individuals, rather than accumulation. Marx actually doubles down on this assertion by quoting an anonymous writer:
“‘Truly wealthy a nation, when the working day is 6 rather than 12 hours. Wealth is not command over surplus labour time’ (real wealth),‘ but rather, disposable time outside that needed in direct production, for every individual and the whole society.’”
In my opinion, the only way to tell whether a particular society is socialist is whether or not labor time is being reduced for everyone.
Communism is free disposable time and nothing else.