The transition to communism: An Intellectual Confusion

Spanish, German, Dutch

By Hermann Lueer

To the extent that the economic foundations of a communist society have been addressed at all after the writings of Marx and Engels, the ideas of a communist society are usually only negative provisions: no money, no value, no market, no wage labor, or superficial phrases, i.e., not elaborated in terms of content, such as: Socialization of the means of production, or the motto popular with the anarchists as well as with Lenin and even Stalin: from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.

Accordingly, the ideas about the transitional period look like this. Since the crucial aspect of the revolutionary transformation – the fundamental economic principles of a communist relation of production – is largely unclear, the challenge of the transition to a communist society seems to lie essentially in the political form of organization. The key words here are the leading role of the party versus all power to the councils.

Without an awareness of the economic foundations of the revolutionary transformation from capitalism to communism, the ideas about the transitional period that are widespread in radical left currents become, in various ways, a gateway to counterrevolution.

1. Fundamental Principles of Communist Production and Distribution

The transition period from capitalist to communist relations of production is the revolution, the overthrow of the relations of production, to which the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat corresponds as a political transition period.

The goal of the proletarian revolution can only be to establish a new relationship between the producer and the social product. In order to overcome the existing wage-labor relations, the separation of labor and the product of labor must be abolished, so that the right of disposal over the product of labor, and therefore over the means of production, belongs once again to the workers. This is the essence of communist production.

Or in other words:

“For the proletarian, the aim of the social revolution cannot be other than to determine at the same time, through his labor, his relation to the social product. This means:

Abolition of wage labor!

Labor is the measure of consumption!

It is the only condition for placing the direction and management of social production in the hands of the workers themselves”.[1]

With the enforcement of individual working time as the measure of the share in the product of social labor, the transformation from the capitalist to the communist relation of production is completed. The enforcement of the individual working time as a measure of the share in the product of social labor, by preventing the appropriation of other people’s labor, implies at the same time the socialization of the means of production. With the private ownership of the means of production, the exchange of goods based on private property disappears, and with it the exchange value and its general material form of money. People do everything very simply, without the intermediary of the much-vaunted “value”. Instead of valuing individual labor behind people’s backs through competition on the markets or through the deliberate regulation of state power in the form of price regulations for goods and labor, people set working time as the measure of their labor. The communist society is founded on the basis of the free producers’ communal planning of production on the basis of the calculation of labor time.

On this basis, where the ratio of labor input to output is open to all members of society, production planning is possible in which people decide for themselves what they want according to their individual weighing of input and output. This means that everyone can decide for themselves how much time to work and how much to consume. The individual needs are weighed against the social effort and accordingly brought into the social planning process through the desire to consume and the willingness to work. In terms of content, the work certificates are nothing more than a reconciliation of the division of labor determined in the joint planning process. The question of distribution thus dissolves into production planning through the calculation of labor time. Finally, planning the social context of reproduction means nothing more than linking the social labor time required to satisfy needs with the sum of available individual labor. On this basis, the individual cooperative labor organizations are able to network themselves horizontally and vertically, in relation to the needs of the members of society, within the framework of their supplier relations, to form a planned whole and to rationally organize the production and reproduction process.

The revolution stands and falls with the enforcement of individual working time as a measure of the share of the social product. The political form of the transitional period corresponds to the revolutionary transformation of the capitalist relations of production to the fundamental economic principles of communist society-not vice versa! The extent of the enforcement of economic principles, i.e. the ability to implement the working hour as a measure in all economic life, corresponds to the change of political form: the withering of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

All property derives from occupation and violence and becomes law through its enforcement. The essential difference between privatized and socialized ownership of the means of production is that privatization, unlike socialization, is based on the violence of a few against the majority. By enforcing individual labor time as the measure of one’s share in the product of social labor, communist society does not recognize the right of exploitation and, at the same time, subjects all economic life to the communist rules of production. Its social “dictatorship” consists essentially in carrying out the public accounting of labor time as the general basis of production and distribution. The factory organizations keep public accounts of the stocks of raw materials, semi-finished products and means of production entrusted to them by society within the framework of supply relations, and of the social working time contained therein. The average social production time (as a unit of productivity) proves to be the controller in the production cooperative. As a controller not only in relation to the individual supply relations, but in relation to the process of reproduction in society as a whole, which is open to all in the social average production time per unit. However, this “controller” is neither a superior subject nor the constraint of an economic law working behind their backs, but their own cooperative context, which they can control in consensus with each other for their common benefit. By carrying out the production and distribution of goods and services with the elimination of competition on the basis of labor-time calculation, the administration of things and the management of production processes take the place of government over persons. The state functions that develop from the antagonisms of the income order are not abolished, they die off. The abolition of the capitalist relation of production through the enforcement of the working time calculation and the death of the state functions are only two sides of one and the same action.

In other words:

“From the intolerable condition of the working masses, who as wage-laborers are exposed to absolute pauperization, there is only one salvation, that the wage-laborers themselves take possession of the means of production. But they can only do this if they unite in the councils to become the social power and at the same time use the means of production jointly, i.e. on a communist basis, for social needs.

The economic promotion of the working time account is politically expressed in the workers’ domination of society. One is not without the other. If the working class is incapable of implementing labor-time accounting, it means nothing more than that it is incapable of abolishing wage labor; incapable of usurping the direction and administration of social life. If labor-time does not become the measure of individual consumption, then wage labor is the only solution.

Therefore, we raise as a direct slogan of workers’ power: The workers bring all social functions under their direct administration. They will appoint and dismiss all functionaries. The workers take social production under their own management by uniting in factory organizations and workers’ councils. They themselves integrate their enterprises into the communist economy by calculating their production according to the average working time of society. In this way, the whole society is transferred to communist production.

This is the political and at the same time economic program of the wage workers; in this sense their councils will transform the economy. These are the highest demands we can make on these questions, but they are also the lowest, because it is a question of the existence or non-existence of the proletarian revolution. [2]

There is nothing to add to this with regard to the transition period from capitalist to communist society, because the extensive transformation from what capitalism has wrought over centuries to what people want on the basis of the communist relation of production is a matter that only they can decide for themselves.

Of course, communist society is now reorganizing itself over a long period of time according to its own criteria – whether in relation to the environment, in terms of the degree of automation of labor, in the relation of town and country, of head to hand labor, or in terms of its educational system, the family, etc. etc.  But this transformation takes place as a communist society, freed from wage labor, in which the right of disposal over the product of labor, and therefore over the means of production, once again belongs to the workers. The basis for this extensive transformation is the communist relation of production itself.

2. The higher phase of communism as the gateway of counterrevolution

Marx does mention a transitional period: the revolution. But that was it. Beyond that, there is no transitional period to communist society.

The idea of a higher phase of communist society in the sense of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs“, which is gladly misunderstood as the developed form of communism, is the gateway to counterrevolution.

The Marxist-Leninists rely on the dictatorship over the proletariat, on the distant horizon of which the higher phase of communist society appears, after the realm of necessity has been overcome under the leadership of the party through the long and complicated path of the development of the productive forces. The “libertarian communists” rely on the socialist morality, which floats freely above the economy, in order to establish the realm of freedom already in the realm of necessity, without the measure of the working-time calculation, which is unavoidable according to Marx.

a. Marxism-Leninism

The nationalization of the means of production in the name of the people does not abolish wage labor. A socialization of the means of production that does not at the same time abolish the separation between the worker and the product of his labor misses the point because it perpetuates the relationship of exploitation associated with wage labor. It lacks the economic basis of communist society, which enables the members of society to determine for themselves their working time and their consumption, i.e., what they want to have and how they want to work, according to their individual balance of effort and return.

The abolition of wage labor can only take place if the separation between the worker and the product of his labor is abolished, if the right of disposal over the product of his labor, and thus over the means of production, is returned to the workers as a result of the enforcement of the working hour as the standard in all economic life. For this, contrary to what most Marxists who rely on Marx think, there is no need for a long and complicated transition under the leadership of the party.

For the Marxist-Leninist parties contending for leadership, on the other hand, the idea that the workers seize power in the factories in order to hand it over to the intellectual vanguard so that the latter can then organize the new society “in the name and for the benefit of the working class” is completely self-evident.

“Not a mystical ‘rational organization’ of the productive forces, but the uninterrupted growth of all social production with a predominant increase in the production of the means of production” was necessary for the famous transition to communism. As Lenin also taught, a “long and complicated transition from capitalist society … to arrive at even one of the preliminary stages of communist society” is necessary.  For, as Trotsky wrote in his review of the allegedly betrayed revolution, “the material condition of communism is such a high development of man’s economic potential that productive labor ceases to be a burden and a drudgery and no longer requires the impulse; the distribution of consumer goods, which will then be in constant abundance (…) will require no other control than that of education, habit and public opinion”. 

Thus, according to Marxists who cite Lenin, it would be naive to expect the abolition of wage labor and the state after the social revolution. Wage labor and the state do die, but only on the distant horizon of human history. 

With this “communist” program, the Marxist-Leninist critics of capitalism join hands with the supporters of the capitalist economic order. According to its defenders, the capitalist economic order is also ultimately about prosperity for all. Nothing has changed the world so much in the last two centuries as the triumph of capitalism. Misery is the companion of progress, and inequality is part and parcel of capitalism, but in the long run capitalism brings greater prosperity to all.

This is the famous long and complicated transition to the land of milk and honey, when the “vanguard of the working class” implements its “communist” program in the “interests of the working class” over the heads of the working class. This higher value, the “interests of the working class,” in its abstraction from the needs of the individuals subordinated to it, already contains the potential for brutality against the people it departs from in its name. This terrible abstraction is further increased in its ruthlessness and brutality toward individuals when the assertion of the “interests of the working class” is at the same time declared to be a historical mission, that is, an abstraction from the concrete interests of individuals over generations. Then, even under socialism, a “wealth” can be produced for which working conditions and wages are a cost factor. Then, also in the so-called transition phase to communism, the functionality and quality of the goods, as well as the living conditions of the workers, must be degraded from an end to a means under the value standard of money. Then, also in the “first phase of communist society,” the productivity of labor can be increased by exhausting the workers in the interest of the working class for decades at the expense of the working population. Then, in the construction of “communist society” – similar to the cynical defenders of capitalist conditions – the sacrifices of generations will be worthwhile again and again for the coming generations.

Economically, this Marxist-Leninist program is to be implemented by opposing the anarchy of the markets with the conscious and systematic application of the law of value. Instead of valuing individual labor behind the backs of the producers through competition in the markets, a just valuation of labor, which at the same time unleashes the development of the productive forces, is to be carried out through the regulatory power of the state.

Wanting to consciously apply the law of value under conditions in which capitalist competition, through which the law of value asserts itself, no longer exists, means wanting to determine the “objectively correct” price of a non-existent variable.

By not abolishing the ownership of the means of production, wage labor, commodities and money, but by attempting to use them in a planned manner in a “conscious application of the law of value” for the implementation of the economic policy goals of real socialism, the real socialists replaced the resulting clashes of interests in market competition with just as many clashes of interests imposed by the state. The consequences of this contradictory value- and profit-oriented production planning are well known: On the basis of the prices set by the state authorities and the mandate to make profits, the enterprises of “real socialism” were correspondingly creative in their management. The optimization of the main planning indicators demanded by them – over fulfillment of quantity and profit – was consistently implemented in the ruthless use of the production factors of material and labor. Where profit was fixed in relation to predetermined purchase and selling prices, attempts to squeeze more product out of a given material were the order of the day. Poor product quality and the resulting supply shortages often frustrated efforts to achieve orderly production. As a result, individual companies attempted to become self-sufficient, hoarding key primary products and moving into the so-called shadow economy. Since prices set by the state ensured sales, even the production of useless goods could be a means of overfulfilling the plan. In addition to superfluous and defective consumer goods, environmental degradation and poor working conditions went hand in hand with the profit-driven over fulfillment of plan targets. The main achievement of socialism-the “conscious application of value categories,” i.e., the use of prices and profit targets to control production and distribution-turned out to be a practical obstacle to an adequate supply of consumer goods.

After all, Mikhail Gorbachev’s achievement was to want to overcome, seventy years after the October Revolution, the consequences of the “conscious application of the law of value” and the “conscious exploitation of the commodity-money relations”, according to the slogan “More market in socialism for him”. Thus, the transitional period of real socialism ended with the unconditional praise of economic freedom – the basic principle of the capitalist relations of production.

b. Libertarian Critics of Capitalism

The “libertarian critics of capitalism” also do not think much of the economic basis of the “association of free and equal people” pointed out by Marx and Engels. They want to live in a communist society and be free of it at the same time. Ignoring the economic preconditions, they dream of a self-determined society according to the principle “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” and of an immediate transition to a society of free and equal people, for which any binding economic basis seems to them a contradiction.

Since the “libertarian critics of capitalism” are not interested in the fundamental economic principles of communist society, they do not understand that distribution without economic measurement does not mean “taking according to need,” but ultimately counterrevolutionary distribution by a higher authority.

In this context, a widespread illusion in radical leftist currents, then as now, is the idea that one can replace the money account in the communist economy with an economy in kind. This idea was refuted in detail by the bourgeois economist Ludwig von Mises in 1922 in his Critique of Socialism, and the GIK also refers to it in its critique.

In very simple circumstances, the entire process from the beginning of production to its completion can perhaps be ignored and judged in terms of whether alternative processes require less effort or deliver more products for a given effort. This is no longer possible for more complex processes based on the division of labor. For example, when deciding between solar and wind power for electricity generation, the individual production processes and possible substitutes are so diverse that vague estimates are no longer sufficient; instead, more precise calculations are required to form an opinion about the economic viability of the project.

However, one can only calculate with units that are related to a scale. If one eliminates economic calculation, then one has no way of making a rational choice among the various alternatives in terms of the relationship between expenditure and return. Therefore, the in-kind economy is the abolition of rationality in economics. Considerations of the economy of things may show how, in technical terms, certain goals can be achieved by the expenditure of various means. But they do not provide any information about the relationship between effort and return. Engineers’ projects and designs would therefore remain incomplete if input and output could not be compared on a common basis.

With respect to production, it is still obvious to most that the rational planning and organization of production processes requires an abstract measure. However, the idea that production and consumption can be separated is false. Production and consumption are related. One produces in order to consume, and in order to consume, one needs to produce. If it were irrelevant to the desire to consume how much work is required to produce it, then it would also be irrelevant on the production side whether one production process is more costly than the other.

Needs are not the measure of themselves. Only when no more work is necessary to satisfy the need does the need become the measure of itself. It is like the famous land of milk and honey. As long as work is necessary for the satisfaction of needs, the needs are always in proportion to the social work necessary for their satisfaction, i.e. to the individual’s willingness to participate in production for this purpose. For the rationality of their economy based on the division of labor, people must therefore be able to weigh whether their needs are worth the effort. Without information about the social effort associated with the objects of need, it is impossible to rationally weigh whether the effort is at all proportional to the benefit. If members of society do not know about the effort associated with various products and services, they are left with only their subjective need as a measure of whether they want something or not. Without the economic measure of working time, the question of how much they want to work could not be answered in terms of the relationship between work and output, but only in terms of the desire to work. Thus, in addition to their subjective need for this or that, people also need an objective measure of their desire to consume, which can relate the intuitive need to the work required to satisfy it.

Working time, as a measure of the part of the social product to be consumed individually, is therefore not an antithesis to the satisfaction of needs, but the means of a rational consideration. Only with the help of economic calculation can means be put at the service of ends in an economic way. This applies to the organization of production, which cannot do without the determination of socially necessary working time, as well as to the rational consideration of the handling of the results of common production. Even in the case of infrastructural services that are necessary for everyone, such as water and electricity, it would be absurd to try to do without them.

The contrast between need and necessary work is not created by work certificates, but by nature itself. The realm of freedom begins only where the necessity of labor ends. By systematically disclosing the connection between need and necessary labor, society does not create an antagonism. On the contrary, a society will not be able to do without disclosing to its members the connection between effort and income on the basis of the calculation of working time, as well as their personal share in work and consumption, if its members want to determine work and consumption themselves according to their needs. The “association of free men” would not live up to its name if it ignored the material basis that allows it to direct and manage production and distribution itself. Distribution without economic measurement is not “taking according to need” but counterrevolutionary distribution by a superior authority.

Therefore, it is not enough merely to propagate the social revolution; one must also study how to carry it out economically.

[1] Group of International Communists, Fundamental Principles of Communist Production and Distribution, Red & Black Books 2020, p. 47.

[2] Group of International Communists, Workers’ Councils and Communist Organization of the Economy, in Group of International Communists, From Each According to His Ability, To Each According to His Needs, Red & Black Books 2021.

3 Comments on “The transition to communism: An Intellectual Confusion

  1. Pingback: Die Übergangsperiode zum Kommunismus: Eine intellektuelle Verwirrung – Arbeiterstimmen

  2. Pingback: Communism, too early? Or from delay to abandonment? | Left wing communism

  3. Pingback: Communisme, te vroeg? Of van uitstel naar afstel? | Left wing communism

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