by Andrew Kliman
Author’s Note: This article was written on August 29, 2006, and entitled “No Trace of Utopianism?” It was a response to comments from members of a spontaneist, experimentalist, and misologist clique that wrested control of News and Letters Committees soon thereafter. However, the article is not just about the specific ideology of this clique; it focuses especially on Lenin’s The State and Revolution. Despite the clique’s differences with Lenin, what they have in common is the same underlying economic theory (explictly in Lenin’s case, implicitly in the case of the clique). I regard that economic theory as seriously inadequate and wrong-headed.
There are many others who have explicitly or implicitly held the same economic theory. For example, both Lenin’s The State and Revolution and Fundamental Principles of Communist Production and Distribution, by Jan Appel, a council communist, heavily emphasize “accounting and control” as the central economic task of a socialist society.
No Trace of Utopianism?
In the 2nd Pre-Convention Discussion Bulletin, a comrade from Memphis wrote,
a Marxist-Humanist perspective … has never appealed abstractly to logic to make the argument for a new society. … [T]he self-development of the Subject … is the rhythm that will create practical and theoretical forms for overthrowing capitalism. Following this self-development at every step, and following the Idea of freedom in every step of its self-development is the way that youth can practice dialectics.”
What is being said here, I believe, is that our proper philosophical-theoretical task is not to speculate “abstractly” about the new society. Real human Subjects in their “self-development … will create practical and theoretical forms for overthrowing capitalism,” and thus our task is instead to passively “follow” the movement of these real Subjects (and, for good measure, to “follow” the self-development of the Idea of freedom, whatever that might mean).
One thing we can say about this conception is that it is not uniquely Marxist-Humanist, nor is it unique to anti-vanguardists. It is a very old conception in the movement, to which vanguardists such as Lenin have subscribed as well. In The State and Revolution, he expressed it as follows:
There is no trace of utopianism in Marx, in the sense that he made up or invented a “new” society. No, he studied the birth of the new society out of the old, and the forms of transition from the latter to the former, as a natural-historical process. He examined the actual experience of a mass proletarian movement and tried to draw practical lessons from it. [Chapter III, sect. 3, emphases in original]
Here again, we have a Darwinian–evolutionary view, according to which we have only one theoretical task vis-à-vis the new society––to passively “study” and “examine” it in its ongoing process of development. There are, to be sure, other tasks––practical, organizational, educational, inspirational––but this is our sole theoretical task vis-à-vis the new society.
Now as we shall see presently, it is clear from Lenin’s text that this passive “follow/study” view rests upon a particular conception of the new society, especially in the economic sphere – namely that socialism is essentially just like capitalism, except that the masses have “taken over.” The State and Revolution was a pathbreaking work in that––with respect to the state––it repudiated the notion of “taking over,” [instead] reinstating and concretizing Marx’s understanding that the state machine is inherently capitalistic, not neutral, and must therefore be “smashed.” Yet there was no similar break in Lenin’s thought with respect to the economic sphere. The State and Revolution continues to adhere to the standard-issue conception of Second-International Marxism, which Raya Dunayevkaya later characterized as follows.
Hilferding[ ] … describes monopolistic control as if it overcame anarchy instead of deepening the contradictions of both “control” and “anarchy of the market.” His theoretical conceptions are of a smooth, well-oiled mechanism of events. … As monopoly capitalism brought “order” into the national market, so the workers will “take over” and bring order out of the anarchy of the international market.
… Capitalism seemed to [Second International Marxists] to be “organizing the economy,” removing “planlessness,” and thus making it easier for the workers to “take over”––as if it were merely a matter of replacing one set of office holders with another. [Marxism and Freedom, pp. 162, 170, emphasis in original]
Now listen to Lenin in The State and Revolution, less than a page after he has told us that Marx simply “studied” the emergence of socialism:
We, the workers, shall organise large-scale production on the basis of what capitalism has already created, … backed up by the state power of the armed workers. ….
A witty German Social-Democrat of the seventies of the last century called the postal service an example of the socialist economic system. This is very true. At the present the postal service is a … state-capitalist monopoly. … But the mechanism of social management is here already to hand. Once we have overthrown the capitalists … we shall have a splendidly-equipped mechanism … which can very well be set going by the united workers themselves ….
To organise the whole economy on the lines of the postal service so that the technicians, foremen and accountants, as well as all officials, shall receive salaries no higher than “a workman’s wage”, all under the control and leadership of the armed proletariat––that is our immediate aim. [Chapter III, sect. 3, emphases in original]
Clearly Lenin was not familiar with “going postal,” so his example undoubtedly does not sit well with contemporary advocates of so-called “workers’ control.” But it seems to me that they fully share Lenin’s view that the defining difference between capitalism and socialism is workers’ political-managerial control of “the economy.” And the reason the defining difference becomes “who is in control?” is that “the economy” is conceived of as an essentially neutral set of “mechanisms.” Once the workers “manage” these “mechanisms” in their own interests, and “organize” them even more fully, the automatic result is a socialist economy.
Although Lenin recognized the need to “smash” the state, not merely take it over, he did not similarly recognize the need to “smash” capitalist production. (I am indebted to Josh Skolnik for the latter concept.) The concept of value is absent from The State and Revolution, and thus what is absent as well is any sense that capital’s aim, the ceaseless self-expansion of value, has transformed economic relations to such an extent that the present-day economy is not a neutral “mechanism,” but an essentially capitalistic process. There is a reason, after all, why workers “go postal,” and it isn’t that sorting mail is inherently alienating. Nor is the reason simply that the managers get paid more or that the workers themselves aren’t the managers. The core reason is that, given ceaseless self-expansion of value as the aim, it is necessary to minimize costs and to extract the maximum work from the workers.
Even apart from this, however, Lenin’s conception of a socialist economy is naïve in that he fails to recognize any specifically economic problems. He conceives of the economic sphere as a subset of the political sphere, i.e., as if all economic problems were really just problems of governance or “management.” For instance, he evinces no recognition of tradeoffs, of incentives, or of economic coordination among the different economic units. Even if the whole national or international economy were organized as a single monopoly (trust), problems of internal coordination would remain. In capitalism, coordination takes place on the basis of the law of value, primarily through markets; when that doesn’t work, unemployment and economic crisis are always there to solve the coordination problem, i.e., to forcibly equate the quantities supplied with the quantities demanded. What is the socialist alternative?
If the answer is “the State Plan,” well, what will make the “Plan … more than a disguise for the actual relations of [capitalist] production”? (Dunayevskaya, Marxism and Freedom, p. 239). What needs to change such that the armed workers in charge of planning aren’t in fact bowing down to and merely codifying the objective operation of the law of value? Even though Stalinist Russia “planned,” it had a massive coordination problem, as Raya Dunayevskaya stressed: it was “absolutely impossible … to guide the productive system without sudden stagnation and crises due to the constant necessity of adjusting the individual components of total capital to one another and to the world market” (ibid., pp. 235-36).
Such concerns are absent from The State and Revolution. Conceiving of economic problems as problems of management, Lenin took his new conception of political governance––bureaucracy, parliamentarism, and the privileges of officialdom must be ended, the armed workers themselves must govern––and applied it formulaically to the economy. As the passage quoted above makes clear, his conception was that capitalism is overcome, and socialism is created, simply by extending the smashing of the state into the economic sphere. This is the reason why, although The State and Revolution breaks from the Second International’s conception of “taking over” the state, it continues to project “taking over”––“organis[ing] large-scale production on the basis of what capitalism has already created … under the control and leadership of the armed proletariat”––as the solution in the economic sphere.
Haymarket Books edition of The State and Revolution
Having reducing all economic problems to matters of governance and management, Lenin went on to argue that the progress of capitalism had already created conditions that made it easy for the workers to take over and manage the economy themselves:
Accounting and control––that is mainly what is needed for the … proper functioning … of the first phase of communist society. … All citizens become employees and workers of a single countrywide state “syndicate”. All that is required is that they should work equally, do their proper share of work, and get equal pay. The accounting and control necessary for this have been simplified by capitalism to the utmost and reduced to the extraordinarily simple operations––which any literate person can perform––of supervising and recording, knowledge of the four rules of arithmetic, and issuing appropriate receipts.
… The whole of society will have become a single office and a single factory, with equality of labor and pay. [The State and Revolution, Ch. 5, Section 4, emphasis in original]
This is precisely the basis of Lenin’s repudiation of any “trace of utopianism” with respect to the new society, i.e., the basis of his view that it is sufficient to “study” and “examine” the emergence of the new society from within the old one. Planlessness is already ending within capitalism; monopoly has emerged. The progress of capitalism has reduced economic problems to the problem of managing the economic mechanism. Thus the economy simply needs to be taken over and further organized. Moreover, the progress of capitalism has simplified the problem of economic management, turning it into a mere administrative task that any literate person can perform. The proletariat is thereby well situated, not only to take political power, but to take over the “extraordinarily simple” task of managing the (neutral) economic mechanism.
Hell, with everything so simple and ready-to-hand, what else is there for a theorist to do but kick back and watch, “study” and “examine” the real movement of the masses as they self-develop and mature on the historic stage? Since everything now boils down to management and governance, the only theoretical questions are: (1) Have the masses become capable, objectively, of running things themselves, without bosses, bureaucrats, and experts? (2) Are the masses ready, subjectively, to assume this historic task? And (3) What new forms of organization in the political and economic spheres have they created and will they create in order replace state-bureaucratic governance with mass-democratic governance?
Yet if we repudiate the bedrock foundation of this conception––the mechanistic, naïve, and plain incorrect economic theory upon which it rest[s]––the whole thing collapses like a house of cards. I have no doubt that the masses are capable of running things themselves, without bosses, bureaucrats, and experts. But if we repudiate the Second International’s and Lenin’s economic theory, we repudiate the assumption that everything boils down to this. There are specifically economic problems. A socialist economy is not the postal service with the workers in control. The transformation of the old society into the new one is not a natural-historical process of transition. Thus, there are philosophical and theoretical tasks that face us other than “following” and “studying” the self-development of the Subject at every step. To get to the new society, there does need to be a trace, and more than a trace, of “utopianism.” In other words, there needs to be more than a trace of thinking through what is needed in order to “smash” capitalist production and reconstruct society on the totally new, humanist, beginnings of the lower phase of communism, where labor will be directly social, and thus the law of value will no longer be in command and workers will not be commodities.
Putting it another way: “the masses [can] revolutionize society and therefore another world is possible” is not a valid syllogism. It’s missing a second premise, namely “the masses’ ability to revolutionize society is the only thing needed for another world.” Now the Second International and Lenin had an economic theory that supplied them with this second premise. Given the conditions that capitalism had supposedly already created, only one more thing was needed for there to be another world––the masses’ objective and subjective ability to revolutionize society. But if we repudiate that economic theory, what we can say is this: the masses can revolutionize society, and so whether another world is possible or not depends upon whether the additional conditions needed for another world can be achieved. And that is what we have to attend to now. It is an urgent task, because the widespread acceptance of the view that “there is no alternative” is creating barriers in practice. In the perceived absence of an alternative, practical struggles have proven to be self-limiting at best. They stop short of even trying to remake society totally––and for good reason.
At least one comrade has suggested that my discussion of alternatives to capitalism needs to look at the “history of actual revolutions.” So, in conclusion, let me say a few words about that. The State and Revolution was written in August and September of 1917. At that point, as we saw, Lenin argued that “Accounting and control … is mainly what is needed for the … proper functioning … of the first phase of communist society,” and that such “accounting and control … have been … reduced to … extraordinarily simple operations.” The Bolshevik Revolution occurred in October. Six months later, in April 1918, Lenin continued to assert the primacy of “accounting and control,” but what he now meant by this phrase was something quite different from keeping books, doing a bit of arithmetic, and handing out receipts – and it no longer seemed to be such an extraordinarily simple matter:
The decisive thing is the organization of the strictest and country-wide accounting and control of production and distribution of goods. And yet, we have not yet introduced accounting and control in those enterprises and in those branches and fields of economy which we have taken away from the bourgeoisie ….
… the bourgeoisie––and particularly the numerous petty and peasant bourgeoisie––are putting up the most serious fight, disrupting the control that is already being organized, disrupting the grain monopoly, for example, and gaining positions for profiteering and speculative trade. …
… we must first of all … achieve real success in … catching and shooting bribe-takers and rogues, etc. [“The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government,” emphasis in original]
And the following month, May 1918, Lenin wrote,
… state capitalism would be a step forward as compared with the present state of affairs in our Soviet Republic. …
… We still have too little of that ruthlessness which is indispensable for the success of socialism, [… but] not because we lack determination. … What we do lack is the ability to catch quickly enough a sufficient number of profiteers, racketeers and capitalists …. The ‘ability’ to do this can only be acquired by establishing accounting and control! [“‘Left-Wing’ Childishness and the Petty-Bourgeois Mentality,” emphases in original]
The civil war was of course responsible for much of the disruption. My point is not to assign blame, but to use the actual experience of the revolution to illustrate the naïveté of the idea of “taking over” the economy that Lenin had repeated seven months earlier. It seems to me he learned the hard way that breaking with capitalist production isn’t really like putting workers in charge of “accounting and control” at the post office.
The failure of things to work out right had to be dealt with. As will always be the case until we really have a new society, not just a new government, it was dealt with on the backs of the workers. In his April essay, Lenin wrote,
We must raise the question of piece-work and apply and test it in practice; we must raise the question of applying much of what is scientific and progressive in the Taylor system; we must make wages correspond to the total amount of goods turned out ….
… unquestioning subordination to a single will is absolutely necessary for the success of processes organized on the pattern of large-scale machine industry. On the railways it is twice and three times as necessary. [“The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government,” emphasis in original]
All of this was contrary to what Lenin originally intended. But when the problematic of “what happens after?” does not resolve itself in as spontaneous and natural a way as one had presumed, there is often a tendency to resolve it through authoritarianism, brute force, etc. Those who put their faith in practice and experimentation during the revolution, and in what they imagine to be the automatic and inevitable consequences of “workers’ control,” in order to avoid grappling now with “what happens after,” might wish to keep this historical experience in mind.
The crucial lesson to be learned here, it seems to me, is to “face[ ] the harsh reality that, unless th[e] inseparability between the dialectics of thought and of revolution does exist, any country that does succeed in its revolution may retrogress, since the world revolution cannot occur at one stroke everywhere and world capitalism continues to exist” (Raya Dunayevskaya, “Marxist-Humanist Perspectives, 1985-86”). If progress were automatic and inevitable, as Second-International Marxism taught, it would be sufficient to kick back and “follow” the dialectic of revolution. But the last century should have made us oppressively aware of the harsh reality that retrogression is possible. It should thus have made us oppressively aware, as well, of the need for the dialectic of thought as an active Subject that molds the revolutionary experience – before, during, and after the revolution.
 Brown Douglas, “Thoughts on Josh Skolnik’s Draft Youth Report,” Pre-Convention Discussion Bulletin No. 2, August 2006, p. 4, emphasis in original.
 Franklin, “Not by Politics Alone,” Pre-Convention Bulletin No. 1, July 2006, p. 2, emphasis added.
 Terry Moon, in Memphis Local minutes of 7/30/06, p. 7.
I thought that handing power over to the workers’ councils automatically results in the smashing or transformation from the capitalist mode of production to a different sort of production, since the profit motive is killed. Lenin’s idea in State and Rev. to run the whole economy as one big monopoly might have capitalist barebones, but since there should be no competition or profit motive, it is a different structure than e.g. the example of the current postal office system. It wouldn’t be necessary to “minimize costs and to extract the maximum work from the workers” anymore. Same way that any other industry wouldn’t have to compete, since they would all be coordinated cooperatively, therefore no “ceaseless self-expansion of value”.
I mean, if Lenin calls for the destruction of the State and for political-managerial power to be given to the workers, I suppose that barebones remain, but aren’t these economic ideas such as the law of value necessary to coordinate? As in, there will always be inputs and outputs to different spheres of the economy, which will be governed by some sort of law. And if the State plan coordinates, it might be a “disguise for the actual relations of [capitalist] production”, but only those barebones which do not result in exploitation yet are necessary to coordinate large-scale national production.
Or, how would the alternative actually look like? What “additional conditions” need to be introduced to smash capitalist production too? And most importantly, who should introduce these conditions? The workers themselves, I suppose? Considering that there are these “problems of coordination”, how would they be solved without using the labour theory of value system? And exactly, what changes would have to be made to move from workers purely taking accounting and control roles to actually directing the economy towards socialism? “What needs to change such that the armed workers in charge of planning aren’t in fact bowing down to and merely codifying the objective operation of the law of value?”.
Does this have anything to do with Neue Marx-Lektüre ideas (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neue_Marx-Lekt%C3%BCre) , which reject the law of value in favour of the social character of work? What are these specifically economic problems, tradeoffs and incentives which make coordination difficult and more than a simple accounting-control issue?
The perspective I put forward here, and that MHI puts forward, is based primarily on Marx’s Capital, and secondarily on writings by Dunayevskaya (and some others). It may or may not be similar to some later Neue Marx-Lektüre stuff. I don’t know the latter well enough to say, but I have doubts about how similar it is, given that people like Michael Heinrich have a market-centered (so-called value-form) conception of capitalism.
We tend to avoid terms like “profit motive,” because the word “motive” is ambiguous. The ambiguity is about the key question here: what causes the ceaseless self-expansion of value? Is it caused only by the subjective purpose of capitalists, to get rich (etc.)? Or does that subjective purpose correspond to a more fundamental, objective purpose, the purpose of capital itself (i.e., a purpose that stems from the structure and operation of the capitalist economy)? Marx thought the latter was the case, and so do we.
We’ve written a fair amount about this in various pieces on our website (in the “Alternatives of Capital” section of our publication), but I thought I’d share just one of these with you now: https://www.marxisthumanistinitiative.org/alternatives-to-capital/on-the-relevance-of-marxs-capital-for-today.html (the short section on “Personifications of Capital”).
So I don’t agree that “handing power over to the workers’ councils automatically results in the smashing or transformation from the capitalist mode of production to a different sort of production, since the profit motive is killed.” What isn’t automatically “killed” is the objective compulsion to make capital expand to the maximum degree possible. Similarly, I don’t agree that, if a subjective profit motive is eliminated, the automatic consequence is that “industr[ies] wouldn’t have to compete, since they would all be coordinated cooperatively.” Units of capital compete because they are, objectively, parts of a competitive system (and a system with the objective purpose of expanding capital to the utmost), not because individuals desire to compete.
And similarly, I don’t agree that eliminating a profit motive ensures that only “barebones” of capitalism remain. In my view, Dunayevskaya’s point that Plans (under capitalism) are merely a “disguise for the actual relations of [capitalist] production” can’t be “tamed” by saying that, if a subjective profit motive is eliminated, the point is only about those relations “which do not result in exploitation.” I think that the case the USSR and its “Plans” made clear that, if one’s country is locked into an international capitalist system (and threatened by other state powers), the (capitalist) rulers must strive to catch up with and outdistance them, as Stalin put it––this is a form taken by the “ceaseless self-expansion of value” even when there is no subjective profit motive––and this requires that the country “minimize costs and to extract the maximum work from the workers.”
You raise a whole set of important questions concerning an actual alternative to capitalism. We’ve written a fair amount about this in the “Alternatives of Capital” section of our publication, but I don’t think that anyone yet has a complete answer. But the most important thing, IMO, is to recognize that there are real questions here, unanswered questions, because answers that seem obvious and that have been taken for granted–like putting different people with different priorities in “control”==should not in fact be taken for granted.
The idea of “Smash Capitalist Production” is not great at all, but incredibly unfortunate, because capitalist production is both the production of use value and value, it is a process of labor and valorization. Therefore, “Smash Capitalist Production” suggests a mechanical negation rather than a dialectical one. Where I live populist regimes have certainly crushed capitalist production, but they have not replaced it with anything superior. But Marx explicitly indicates that both the objective and subjective conditions of the transition to socialism are generated by the very development of the capitalist mode of production. The international socialization of labour, for example, is the economic basis for the ultimate extinction of national states. So, it is not about crushing anything but about transforming the relations of production.
And no, crushing the state is not the same as crushing capitalist production. Because under the capitalist mode of production the state is only marginally a producer of surplus value, and it is basically a consumer of surplus value. So certainly most of the capitalist state machinery is useless for the socialist transition and must be crushed. While the productive forces must only adopt a new form of social organization. A form that affects the content, naturally.