Lenin: State and Revolution: Chapter 5 - Withering Away the State (Part Two) Review by Thomas Riggins

Part Two (of Three) of a review of Chapter 5 of State and Revolution.

Lenin: State and Revolution: Chapter 5 - Withering Away the State (Part Two)
Thomas Riggins

Chapter 5 of State and Revolution  has a brief introduction and four sections. Part Two of this review covers section three. 

3. First Phase of Communist Society

To avoid confusion it must be pointed out that Marx speaks of two phases of "Communism"-- a lower and a higher. By convention the first or lower phase has become known as "Socialism" and the higher or advanced stage as "Communism" proper. Except for direct quotations, I shall use the term "Socialism" to denote what Marx calls the first phase of Communism and "Communism" to refer to what Marx calls the second phase of Communism.

In this section Lenin presents  Marx's remarks on the misguided views of Ferdinand Lassalle, one of the early leaders of the German working class, some of whose opinions he thought pernicious. Specifically, he wanted to disprove Lassalle's view that workers living under Socialism would get "the full product of their labour."

The idea here was workers would not be exploited because under Socialism: “to each according to his work’’ meant if  I created $100 of social wealth that’s what society would give back as part of my disposable income. Not so, according to Marx. The Socialist state has to deduct from wages money to put aside as a “reserve fund” to make improvements in production and maintain infrastructure. It also needs to deduct money for a social consumption fund to pay for schools, hospitals, pensions, aid to people who are sick or can’t work, salaries for public employees,  etc. If each fund got $10 then for every $100 of social wealth I created I would get back $80 for my disposable income.

The state, just as the former capitalist, would be taking $20 of the surplus value I created. This accounts for the “social” in Socialism. The difference is the capitalists would not be taking the wealth I created and using it for themselves and living high on the hog while I just made do; the State would be using it to do things for me that I really need but could not provide for myself— medical services, rent subsidies, price controls so that food was cheap and available, the secret police to keep the capitalists from making a comeback, etc. 

In Marx’s words: “What we are dealing with here is not a Communist society which has developed on its own foundations, but on the contrary, one which is just emerging from capitalist society, and which therefore in all respects — economic, moral and intellectual — still bears the birthmarks from the old society from whose womb it sprung.” This is the lower phase, right after the revolution, of “Communism”, AKA “Socialism.” Socialism covers this whole first phase out of which the second phase true Communism will hopefully emerge. Unfortunately none of the revolutions of the 20th century succeeded in even establishing the first phase, let alone the second phase of this project— although some countries are still trying to figure out how to get the first phase going.

Now, Lassalle thought that there must be a “just distribution” of the social wealth under Socialism— “the equal right of each to an equal product of labour.” There would be no inequality under Socialism (and nothing for Piketty and others to complain about). Marx is interested in this idea of “equal right.”  He agrees that we have in Socialism “equal rights” but we must understand that “rights” presuppose inequality.  I can demand the right to vote only if I don’t have it. What is the point of demanding what I have?

To demand a “right” is to demand equal standards be applied to all people and people are not really all equal to one another.  In the real world some are smarter, some are richer, some are better educated, some are. stronger, etc. In the words of Blake:

Every night and every morn
Some to misery are born,
Every morn and every night
Some are born to sweet delight.

Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night. (Auguries of Innocence)

Socialism wants to change these morns and nights, but only Communism will bring sweet delight. Marx says we are still haunted by the bourgeois order when we demand rights because rights are under the regime of “bourgeois right.”  As a good dialectician Marx says that equal rights violates the concept of equality and is actually a form of injustice. Lassalle is wrong and under Socialism justice demands “unequal rights.” Huh?

Suppose under Socialism we get equal pay for equal work. Laura and Judy both get paid the same. Laura is single and saves up some of her pay so she has money to go on trips or to buy extra goodies. Judy is a single mother of two and can’t save up money for trips and extra goodies as three people have to live on her pay. Equal pay results in an unequal outcome. This is the regime of from each according to his/her ability to each according to his/her work. 

While there is no capitalist exploitation of human beings (private property in the means of production having been abolished) Lenin nevertheless points out that Socialism “still cannot produce justice and equality.”  This is because under Socialism distribution is governed by  “work performed.”  Real “justice” and “equality” must await the second or higher form of the transition— Communism where distribution will be governed by need.

 “No justice, no peace” is therefore really a temporary slogan limited to the capitalist era since, while under Socialism there is still “no justice” ( in an absolute sense) there is nevertheless peace because “bourgeois right” is completely enforced and people understand that they are working together to achieve a future Communist society in which the bourgeois notions of justice and equality will have no meaning.

In the words of Marx: “These defects are unavoidable in the first phase of Communist society [Socialism], when after long travail, it first emerges from capitalist society. Justice can never rise superior to the economic conditions of society and the cultural development conditioned by them.” Critics of the 20th century failures and successes of the Socialist revolutions and their successor states still pursuing their goals in the 21st should be mindful of this insight given by Marx.

Lenin points out that Marx was aware (not being a Utopian) that with the initial overthrow of capitalism and the beginning of Socialism the only standard of fairness and the sense of what is “right” is what was learned under the old system— “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work”, “equal pay for equal work,” “a living wage,” etc. “Bourgeois right” is the only standard they will initially have and “a form of state will be necessary, which while maintaining public ownership of the means of production, would preserve the equality of labour and equality in the distribution of products.” 

The Socialist state, even as it sets in motion its own withering away, functions at this level to protect bourgeois right and enforces actual inequality. Even under Socialism we understand a better world is possible and that world is explained in the last section of Chapter 5: “Higher Phase of Communist Society.”

This will be discussed in part 3 of our review of Chapter 5 of State and Revolution.

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  • both the article and Nat Turner comments are very well taken. I would add simply that reality grounded socialism must look in the 20th century at the role of multinational military interventionism, economic warfare, and the effects especially of WWII on the struggles to construct Socialism in the Soviet Union particularly, but also in the Peoples Republic of China, along with the internal factors. I would say that beyond planned economy and production based for use and need, with social and economic privileges/ inequalities, permitted in order to foster those larger goals, that there is no model for either socialism or workers revolution, but real attempts to achieve and consolidate both in history

    Posted by norman markowitz, 09/29/2014 6:28pm (10 years ago)

  • Reality Grounded Socialism:
    Thomas Riggins makes a surprising statement. He says, “Unfortunately none of the revolutions of the 20th century succeeded in even establishing the first phase (socialism,) let alone the second phase (communism) of this project.” But Marx did leave a blueprint of the main features of the transitional stage of socialism. And he considered his version better than competing visions that were reactionary, utopian, or unachievable. Marx recognizes the socialism that emerges after the overthrow of capitalism contains many “defects” that cannot be rid of immediately. One has to just accept the baggage that workers will bring with them in the construction of socialism, as well as the scarcity of public goods and services. But while public ownership of the means of production and public goods predominate over private property and commodity production; perfect equality and perfect justice will not/ cannot exist under Marxian socialism. The ‘bourgeoisie regime’ will still prevail and determine distribution and consumption, hence the principle, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his work.” Riggins gives the example of two women workers, one a mother with two kids and the other one single. Perfect equality would do an injustice to the mother. Nor will the worker receive a 100% return on the product of his/her labor. The workers state, not the capitalist, would still expropriate a surplus but will use it to maintain infrastructure and subsidize public education, health care, housing, etc. By his criticism of Ferdinand Lassalle, Marx was arguing for a reality grounded socialism that was progressive but not utopian. Thomas Riggins statement about 20th century revolution and socialism begins to make sense. Those who wish to impose socialism from the top down must accept existing reality. The reality is that socialism, and ultimately communism, cannot be built any faster than the existing level of social, economic, and cultural development. Those who attempt to impose socialism on society faster than society is ready will fail to change neither society nor human behavior. NT

    Posted by Nat Turner, 09/22/2014 9:10am (10 years ago)

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