Chapter 3: The socialist experiment

As Tony Benn pointed out in our introduction, the natural inclination of most people stranded in a lifeboat with nothing to eat is to divide what food is available equally between them, perhaps even giving the weak or injured more to help them through the ordeal ahead. Caught in an emergency, we distribute precious resources according to need, rather than ability to pay; we each do what we can to help the group survive, without expectation of reward.

Families generally interact in this way, as do tribal groups in the Amazon jungle or the savannas of Africa. To quote a study of the Khoisan bushmen of southern Africa which is fairly typical: “Food, whether vegetable or animal, and water are also private property and belong to the person who has obtained them. Everyone who has food is, however, expected to give to all those who have none … The result is that practically all food obtained is evenly distributed through the whole camp.” (Sahlins, 1974, p. 264).

As society became more complex, trading patterns developed between one tribe and another, and by the time of the Greeks and Romans, money was certainly the predominant medium of exchange. However fully-fledged free markets as described in our first chapter are relatively recent. In medieval society, wages and the prices of staples such as bread and beer were usually set by tradition or fixed by statute, and raising prices so as to profit from temporary shortages was regarded as immoral or even illegal. When first introduced to English society in the 18th century, the idea that the pursuit of selfish ends could benefit society at large was considered distasteful.

The free market distributes resources according to ability to pay, and it is those least able to pay who often have the greatest need – something that was becoming increasingly apparent in Britain through the 19th century. What Marx found particularly inequitable was that the wealth which the Victorian entrepreneurs enjoyed was built on the toil of the very people who found themselves in such poverty. Like many before him, he believed the solution lay in the creation of a classless and stateless society in which resources were owned by the community as a whole, rather than by individuals through accidents of birth.

Marx’s Manifesto of the Communist Party, published in 1848 in an effort to clearly express the beliefs and aims of the Communist League, suggests that human history can be seen as an on-going series of class struggles:

“Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” (Marx & Engels, 1992, p. 3)

The struggle is between those who own “the means of production”, by which Marx meant capital assets capable of generating wealth such as property, land, private companies or natural resources; and those who don’t. For the latter, survival means labouring for the former in exchange for money or, in a feudal society, in exchange for the right to farm a plot of land and inhabit a small dwelling on the landowner’s property. The classes involved may change as one overthrows another, but the nature of the struggle remains the same.

In Marx’s view, the most recent of these struggles resulted in the overthrow of the feudal order by the ‘bourgeoisie’, by which he meant those who gained their capital assets not through birth but rather through commercial activity – and particularly those who had benefited from the industrial expansion that had taken place through the 19th century:

“The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground – what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?” (Marx & Engels, 1992, p. 7)

Marx continues in a vein that foreshadows modern critics of globalisation:

“Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

“The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the whole surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connexions everywhere.

“The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world-market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country…. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the productions of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations …

“The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of its commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst …  In one word, it creates a world after its own image.”

Also remarkably prescient, Marx foresaw the cycle of ‘boom and bust’ that has beset the global economy through this century and the last:

“Modern bourgeois society … is like the sorcerer, who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells …  It is enough to mention the commercial crises that by their periodical return put on its trial, each time more threateningly, the existence of the entire bourgeois society. In these crises a great part not only of the existing products, but also of the previously created productive forces, are periodically destroyed. In these crises there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity – the epidemic of over-production. Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed … And how does the bourgeoisie get over these crises?  On the one hand enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces; on the other, by the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones.  That is to say, by paving the way for more extensive and more destructive crises, and by diminishing the means whereby crises are prevented.”

However the wealth of the bourgeoisie is built on the labour of the ‘proletariat’, by whom Marx meant those who do not own assets that can generate income. Instead the value of their labour is determined by market forces which, as the bourgeois revolution progresses, will be driven lower and lower as jobs become more homogenised by advances in technology:

“In proportion as the bourgeoisie, i.e., capital, is developed, in the same proportion is the proletariat, the modern working class, developed – a class of labourers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital. These labourers, who must sell themselves piece-meal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market.”

Marx saw it as inevitable that the proletariat would rise up to overthrow such a destructive system, by force if necessary. However he saw the aim of the revolution as not simply the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, although this would be an inevitable part of the process, but to put an end to the class struggle altogether. What distinguishes the rulers from the ruled, and so perpetuates the conflict, is the ownership of assets that can generate wealth. So, as Marx himself put it, “… the theory of the Communists may be summed up in a single sentence: Abolition of private property.” (Marx & Engels, 1992, p. 18)

Marx argued that it is the ability of the private individual to own property that creates the class system by dividing the population into those who own property and those who don’t. Abolishing private property does not mean its destruction but rather the transfer of ownership to the population as a whole – or at least to the State who can then administer it on the people’s behalf:

“We have seen above, that the first step in the revolution by the working class, is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle of democracy.

“The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible.” (Marx & Engels, 1992, p. 25)

The function of the State is to organise the workforce so that such property – in other words the available housing, factories, farmland and natural resources – be exploited in the most efficient and sustainable manner, and to ensure that the fruits of their labour is distributed in as fair a manner as possible. Here Marx echoed a phrase first used in 1839 by French politician Louis Blanc, who took part in the February Revolution: “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” In the same document, Blanc expands on the functions of the State under such a regime:

“The government would be regarded as the supreme regulator of production, and would be given great power in order to accomplish its task. This task would be to make use of the very spirit of competition, in order to do away with competition itself.” (Blanc, 1839)

Marx’s analysis seemed vindicated when, in the very month that saw the publication of the Manifesto in London, revolution broke out across Europe. However, as we have seen, these proved short-lived – and indeed were as much conflicts between the rising bourgeoisie and entrenched aristocracy as they were attempts by the proletariat to seize power.

Undeterred, in the 1872 preface to the German Edition, Marx praises the Paris Commune “where the proletariat for the first time held political power for two whole months”. In the preface to the Russian Edition, published in 1882 following the assassination of Alexander II, Marx describes Russia as being at “the vanguard of revolutionary action in Europe”, and in the preface to the Italian Edition of 1893, published after Marx’s death, Engels wrote: “… if the Revolution of 1848 was not a socialist revolution, it paved the way, prepared the ground for the latter.” Both were to be proved right.

Revolution in Russia →