Notes on the transition to communism

Communist treatments of the transition between capitalist society and communism are not as numerous as one might perhaps imagine. Despite the importance of the subject, it seems many theoreticians are content to repeat or elaborate on the scarce few lines that Marx or Lenin have devoted to the subject. (Communization theory, in some of its forms at least, stands as an exception to this general trend. Yet, despite our sympathy with their general standpoint, we cannot avoid the impression that the communizers intend to do away with capitalism by shouting slogans at it.) And often, those treatments that exist are quite unconvincing. First of all, because many of them involve a very “thin” conception of communism (or socialism), as in the famous Leninist dictum that socialism is state capitalism made to serve the entire people. (Of course, we are never told how capitalism, of any sort, can serve “the people,” and who “the people” might be.) In general, this thin conception of communism is most readily apparent in Stalinist and Trotskyist texts, but the “ultraleft” is not exempt from it, as witnessed by the GIK conception of communism in its “Fundamental Principles…,” a communism where autonomous workplaces calculate “the labor-time absorbed in each product” so that each worker may have “their” share. Salva nos, Domine!

The other problem, shared by most of the texts in question, is an odd inability to take capitalism seriously. Capitalism is portrayed as impotent and incoherent, a pale shadow which can coexist with incipient socialism and slowly give way to it, and whose parts can be isolated and instrumentalized by the transitional, or even the communist society. The classical expression of this is the belief that statification of the capitalist economy is equal to movement toward communism, and that in the communist society instruments remarkably similar to money — whether called labor notes, certificates, or something else is irrelevant — will operate.

Modern capitalism, however, is unlike prior modes of production in that it comprises a total system: i.e., a whole whose general character and laws of motion imbue every part with nothing accidental or extraneous. From wage labor to parliamentary politics, every aspect of capitalist society is capitalist, and remains such when it is translated into an ambiguous situation. This, as well as the immense pressures of near-universal support for capitalism and the sheer social inertia acting in its favor, means that any ambiguous or transitional situation will eventually be resolved in a capitalist manner. One might without much exaggeration question if it is possible to exit a total system (and let us note that collapse is not a possibility short of the extinction of the species; modes of production do not collapse into nothing, but rather are replaced by other arrangements of productive activity). The only remaining hope for the species is thus that a consciously-inflicted, sufficiently severe and rapid blow struck against exchange society would be capable of doing just that.

If this turns out not to be the case, the best human society can hope for is that some kind reformist might contrive to make euthanasia available on the cheap. For it is important to emphasize, against those who would have the revolution be a remote dream, that industrial society in its current form is nearing an end one way or another. Already it is impossible to stop anthropogenic climate change. Perhaps a communist society would be able to mitigate some of its effects by instituting a rapid slowdown of production, but not capitalism. Until then, capitalist society will continue to overproduce from the standpoint of markets and the planetary environment. Therefore, the choice is socialism (a return to a barbarism of sorts) or extinction.

But the aforementioned blow — the revolution or general insurrection against value and property — must then induce as complete a break as possible with capitalist forms of society. In those territories isolated from the rest of the globe, there can be no question of anything short of immediately imposing communism. Such areas no longer exist, though, apart from North Sentinel Island and a few patches of the Amazon which have as of yet not received the blessings of modern civilization. Everywhere else, crucial production processes, including the ones that are necessary for the provision of food, shelter, medicine, and infrastructure, require inputs that come from outside of the area in question. In all but the most exceptional circumstances, these inputs will have to be traded for.

There are two possibilities for a communist dictatorship trading on the world market. The first we may broadly term an extractive approach, and involves the sale of existing objects and more abstract goods. Anticipating the second half of this text slightly, it is clear that the revolution would imply immediate abolition of most forms of property. Yet a certain distinction between the objects and territories under the control of communist dictatorship and any outside this control would remain, as well as certain rules for usufructory use. A sale, then, would in this case mean the alienation of certain objects in exchange for (foreign) currency. Depending on the area in question, there might well be lots of objects that could be alienated in this manner with little trouble, for example luxury items of the former bourgeoisie and all associated strata (this would also remove objects which have no function other than signaling social status from the community), expensive cultural objects, intellectual property, money, and savings accounts. The communist dictatorship will do things states today cannot dream of doing, because it cannot, and indeed must not, operate as a “legitimate” state.

Such an approach can only last a definite amount of time, to be sure. Yet, even if it just endures for a very short period, it provides the society in transition with a highly beneficial discontinuity in production for sale. And because this is the sole alternative, a transitional society will sooner or later have to resort to it. To most this is of course old news, since it is one of the simplest (and therefore most cogent) arguments against “socialism in one country.” That said, we acknowledge that this line of argument is often taken much too far. It follows from the interdependence of various areas of the globe via a world market that, even in the revolutionary area under communist dictatorship, some production for sale must exist. It does not at all follow from this, however, that one hundred percent of production must be for sale, or that internal markets still need to exist.

In fact, apart from this production for sale, there is no reason why production and distribution should not, immediately, be organized so that a scientific social plan based on human need regulates both. Then, instead of a mostly exchange economy giving way, through some ill-defined process, to the planned system of provisioning that characterizes communism, the general structure of the communist system of provisioning will already be in place, albeit deformed by the necessity of participating in the world market. Needless to say, these distortions will not be insignificant. But as the revolutionary zone expands and brings more resources under its direct administrative control they will become less significant, until they cease to exist altogether with the fall of the last holdouts of capitalism.

Now, let us change track here slightly and consider the experience of the individual member of the society in transition — a person who perhaps labors but is no longer a worker or proletarian. One of two things will be true: either the choice of whether to labor and, if so, in what capacity, will be a personal prerogative, or else individuals will have to fulfill a labor obligation, imposed as much as possible on all available members of society equally. In the latter case, compulsion will be open and direct. We know that, even in communist circles, there is a tendency to prefer the indirect compulsion of the market — the vaunted “incentives” of bourgeois economics. Yet this indicative of nothing but the continued influence of market ideology. Direct, open compulsion is of course far from pleasant, but it is a sharp pain that disappears quickly. Market compulsion and competition on the other hand represent constant psychological and organic stress. It stands to reason that the only incentives during the transitional phase will be incentives for market fetishists to emigrate.

Members of the society in transition will have access to goods regardless whether or how much they labor. The suggestions in the Gothakritik must be rejected. First of all because a system of labor vouchers, where goods are received in proportion to the time spent laboring, would not lead to any development of the productive forces, only Stakhanovism. Second, because there is no need to further develop the productive forces, at least in the metropolitan regions where revolution will most likely to break out. For the principle of distribution, we see nothing else as adequate except the classic “to each according to his needs.”

Of course, the society in transition will not be able to fulfill every errant desire on the part of its members (neither will communist society), and at first it will not be possible to fulfill every genuine need either, particularly when the necessity of winding down production is taken into account. But it will be possible, at any rate, to prioritize the most pressing needs first, and to organize a system of rationing which would allocate to everyone necessary goods, based on culture or circumstances of life (as such, it will not allocate cow’s milk to the Chinese, or casu marzu to the sane), so that the elderly and those with compromised immune systems will receive priority treatment when it comes to the administration of flu vaccines, the physical laborer will receive priority in the allocation of calories (compared with the clerical laborer), and so on. These goods would of course be given out for personal use, but would not become the possessions of those who are using them. Nor would it be possible to accumulate them.

Basing distribution on need will, we think, also help solve the problem of the social position of technicians, specialists, and whatnot. In the immediate aftermath of revolution, not everyone will be able to perform tasks associated with management and planning. After a time this may be remedied by an extensive and sustained skill transfer program. Yet the immediate danger remains of a stratum of specialists setting itself up as a privileged caste. But that possibility is considerably less likely if this new caste bases its privilege not on the premise that it deserves more (since the nexus between allocation and compensation is broken), but that it needs more.

At first, it will be possible to meet some of these needs from the preexisting mass of goods under the direct control of the communist dictatorship. Following the insurrection, redistribution will undoubtedly be an important mechanism. In time, however, it will become necessary to produce more vital goods. Production will be planned, in mostly material terms — the production of so many tons of wheat necessitates the production of so many tons of fertilizer, water, and so on — by a “central” organ of society, that is, one whose full range of competence coincides with the entire territory under the communist dictatorship. (In the case that there are several disconnected territories under this dictatorship, such that communication and movement of goods between them are difficult, there would then presumably be multiple dictatorships and multiple organs that carry out directive planning, though these would not take the antiquated form of the nation-states, and would strive to merge as soon as circumstances permit.) Organs of lesser scope, whether sectoral or local, could not take into account the interdependence of modern industrial production, and their separate existence would lead to forms of exchange and enterprise independence reappearing. There would of course be other organs of the dictatorship, as well as less permanent groups, but this exceeds the scope of the current text.

Labor-time, to the extent that it would figure at all into planning calculations, would simply be one of many inputs considered, and administrative organs would not aim to minimize labor-time expenditure, as is so often proposed, because the resulting laws of motion would then be essentially the same as the laws of motion that govern capitalism. Besides, it is not probable that labor will be scarce, even in the period of transition, since not only would many jobs become superfluous, from maids and nannies to cashiers and finance ministers, but with the end of market discipline, labor will itself become an expression of the human personality, the prime “need” for the new man.

Finally, we can briefly sketch how trade between a communist dictatorship and a world market will occur. Production of trade goods would proceed along roughly the same lines as production of other goods, even if these are only necessary because of the realities of the world market. Since the revolutionary zone presumably would have no currency of its own, either because such currency was never necessary to begin with, or because the short time in which currency is issued will be hyperinflationary to pay whatever debts might hinder access to the world market, it would set its prices in whichever “foreign” currency proves most convenient. And to an extent it could set those prices at will, administratively, since there would be no costs of production. We are talking, then, of goods which have a price, but not value in the full sense since no abstract labor is embodied in them. This will enable the revolutionary dictatorship to consistently undercut other sellers. Contracts drawn up will not be for single purchases, we imagine, since these are more affected by the anarchy of the market. Rather, the revolutionary dictatorship and the buyers or sellers with whom it engages with would conclude a contract for continuing provision of goods at fixed prices, for at least one planning cycle. Then it will be possible for the planning organs to take the quantity of the trade goods to be produced as fixed and proceed with calculating the total quantity of producer goods, raw materials, and necessary labor accordingly. Nonetheless, all these plans will at least in part be monetary and in that regard will not be communist.

But this production of trade goods — and here we apologize if we are belaboring the point — no matter how significant its impact on the overall system, will be a minor sector of a much broader communal, planned network of provisioning, an irritant of sorts, even if it is necessary in the short term. As soon as the opportunity presents itself, the organism will expel the irritant. The revolutionary zone thus expands strategically, targeting crucial resources. Elsewhere other uprisings over time will break out. New areas can then join the communist dictatorship. Whatever trade-good production remains will be purposefully wound down as the dictatorship, in an increasingly better negotiating position, thus imposes harsher and harsher terms of exchange. Finally, with the end of the last vestiges of the world market, the need for any production for exchange passes, and the first directive plan is drawn up in exclusively material terms. After a short period of transition, human society enters integral communism.

Kontra Klasa (Croatia)