Marx Lectures III: The Transition to Socialism

by Dr. Jan Garrett

Last revised: November 10, 2012

The handout Socialist Vision consists of passages from Michael Lebowitz, The Socialist Alternative (2010). It may be useful to have some further clarification of those remarks. Hence the following comments aim to assist your understanding.

Moving from one "organic system" to another

Marx understood, and the best thinkers in his tradition today understand, that capitalism is and has been what he calls an organic system, and that socialism, if it can ever be created, would be one too.

An "organic system" is an arrangement of structures each of which presupposes and is presupposed by the others, so that they make a totality that has a strong tendency toward self-perpetuation.

It's possible for one organic system to coexist with other organic systems for a while, even if they are in the long run incompatible.

Marx understood that the capitalism coexists with the biosphere (though he did not use the term), aka Nature or the environment. The biosphere itself is an organic system, and it was an organic system long before the emergence of capitalism.

It is part of the Marxist analysis that the capital system, with its endless drive to accumulate and its inability to value nature in its own right, is destructive of the biosphere. The endless drive to accumulate, at the expense of human well-being, is sometimes called the first contradiction of capitalism. The pronounced, and increasing, tendency to destroy the environment, the conditions of life on earth, humanity, and capitalism itself (since it presupposes these conditions) is sometimes called the second contradiction of capitalism. From the Marxist perspective, the second contradiction is an effect of the first, capital's drive to accumulate.

Some preconditions of capitalism, such as human beings, nature, production processes, and science, are also preconditions for socialism. The end of capital as an organic system would not require the end of nature, human beings, production, or science, quite the contrary in fact.

Socialism, as it is conceived by its advocates, must be conceived as an organic system too, but it is incompatible with capitalism; the defenders of Marxian socialism do not hide its incompatibility and the defenders of the capital system are not ignorant of it. The two organic system could coexist for an extended period of time—with capital weakened and socialism in an embryonic state but not yet fully developed. However, a mixed system would not be a stable one; the transitional period would be characterized by struggle between the old and the new, as was the period in which capitalism replaced feudalism and other tributary systems.

Comments on some of Lebowitz's specific terms and claims. (For the most part, they are directly motivated by passages in Marx's writings.)

Social ownership. Obviously, this is not private ownership, but it is also not state ownership. It can't be state ownership because that encourages a distinction between bureaucrats who have special privileges to control the property and others who lack them.

Ownership of our social heritage. This refers to the fact that the material wealth of society did not derive from a small group of "entrepreneurs" but from vast numbers of workers and researchers over hundreds of generations.

Real wealth. This is a reference to Marx's idea that the capital system impoverishes workers, not only by keeping their wages as low as possible or riding roughshod over our common heritage the earth, but by alienating us from each other and from our fellow human beings whom we are taught to distrust and, if we are able to become capitalists, to use as mere means. By contrast, according to Marxian socialism, the socialist aim is to produce "rich human beings," human beings rich in meaningful social connections (because we are able to respond to each other's needs for development, and are aware of each other as doing so). The "wealth" of "rich human beings" in Marx's sense also includes opportunities for creative expression.

Not limited to particular categories of producers. Not members of one nationality to the exclusion of others; not limited to one gender or sexual orientation to the exclusion of others. Not limited to one region: not limited to North America or Western Europe.

Organization of social production by workers includes shared governance of the workplace by the workers who work in them. Governance is a function of head labor (and social-political interaction) and the governed productive activity tends to be more physical, but if the same people are involved in both, the traditional head/hand division is breaking down. By crossing such traditional lines, workers will be motivated and able to redesign the production processes to avoid the deadening routines so common in production under capitalism. Workers who co-manage a company will learn how to communicate more effectively with each other. Reduction in the work week will free up time for the education of workers in what they need to know to intelligently govern their workplaces and coordinate those workplaces with other workplaces that produce inputs for their factories or take their factories' outputs as inputs. It will give them time to learn about the concerns of people in the region and elsewhere regarding possibly polluting consequences of their enterprise's production.

Satisfaction of communal needs as the goal. The goal is not maximizing abstract value in the search for the highest wage or profit possible for me or you as individuals. The goal is to meet human needs that our fellow human beings have. These are "communal needs" because they are not truly private needs. Yes, of course, other people have needs and they may differ from our own in specific details, but we all have needs to respond to other people's needs.

Perhaps only the smallest infants have purely private needs but even they very soon come to need the acknowledgement of others that they are contributing something positive to a project, a game, or a social encounter. There are also communal needs that can only be met by sizable numbers of people working together, such as the need to keep the shared environment interesting, aesthetically stimulating, and free of life-shortening chemicals; the need to enable movement (public transportation, a road or railroad system, ways of handling potential traffic congestion) around the community to take advantage of the opportunities various parts of it offer; the need to establish an education system to promote the integration of mind and body for everyone and to prepare people to contribute at a high level to society.

Other points mentioned in The Socialist Alternative:

Doing Away with Money

In the first period after parties promoting socialism come to power, it may be necessary to reward people according to their work contributions, but as soon as possible, this will be not from capitalists to employees, but from (socially owned and managed) stores to the workers who need what is in them.

The goal must be to replace payment in money that can be used to buy commodities with an exchange of activities. It's not a question of bartering—you do for me and I do for you— but all the members of the community contributing as needed (within their abilities) and all the members of the community receiving what they need, to the extent possible. Insofar as we are still concerned with fairness, we can keep track of contributions in terms of time. The accountancy based on money, exchange value, will be replaced by accountancy based on time.

The key reason for moving beyond money is that money serves to mystify what is going on. Reliance on money turns everything into commodities. On a lived level, people who encounter each other as buyer and purchaser end up confusing social relations with relationships between commodities. What you are in a commodifying society is a function of how much abstract value you possess or can sell your commodity for. Capitalism itself emerged from a society in which most things were becoming, or had become, commodities.

While the workweek will need to be reduced so that workers can educate themselves and be educated on how to actively co-manage their workplaces and communities, everyone who is physically and mentally able will be obligated to work.

Expanding the Commons

Lebowitz writes that

the thrust of capital is that we should pay for schools (and school supplies), health services (and medical supplies and medicines), and, indeed, everything else that it is possible to commodify. In short, nothing for people in their capacities as members of society, everything for them as owners of money. In contrast, the socialist alternative is to decommodify. Everything. (Lebowitz, 145-46)
How can the new society "make despotic inroad" on rights to property characteristic of the old society? The way, Lebowitz suggests, is by expanding the commons. "[Is there] any way other than by expanding systematically that which we are entitled to as human beings, in our capacity as members of society?" He continues:
Besides adequate schools and health services, there are many other premises for the development of people that can be made available to them as members of communities. Transit, food, shelter—all are requirements of people that could be the common property of the community. These can be introduced on a step-by-step basis in communities, and each step can strengthen both the communal institutions and the sense of solidarity within those communities. All this is part of a process of creating a new common sense, one in which expansion of the commons to provide more of people's needs in a non-commodity form as well as the taxation of capital to support the new distribution relations are increasingly seen as self-evident natural laws. (pp. 146-147)

The key [to avoiding the tragedy of the commons] is the existence of communal institutions-formal and informal arrangements by which common property is monitored and which provide sanctions for the abuse of the common interest by individuals. These communal institutions can be effective because Ö the individuals in these communities 'have shared a past and expect to share a future. It is important," Elinor Ostrom notes, "for individuals to maintain their reputations as reliable members of the community. (p. 147)

Expanding the commons acknowledges everyone's right to human development, and it thus produces social individuals who recognize their interdependence. But where will the resources that constitute the commons in each community come from? In [147/48] part, they will come from local workplaces as contributions to the community and from collective work within the community. And . . . they may be made available from . . . other communities. . . and the existing state. The solidarian society develops . . . by beginning at the neighborhood and community level, but it continues only by building solidarity between rich and poor communities-both within and between individual nations. And that, too, is an important part of the process of building rich human beings.