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New International, April 1949


Thompson Conley

The Inevitability of Socialism

Concluding Part of a Discussion of Marxist Theory


From The New International, Vol. XV No. 4, April 1949, pp. 114–115 & 128.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


(Continued from last month)

Trotsky’s comment also suggests the essential ingredients generating the inevitability. They are: (1) the economic development of society, and (2) existence determining consciousness. In other words, “the actual situation” refers to the economic development of society and, precisely because existence determines consciousness, the working class “will come to understand” that development. That is, since the mode of production has already become socialized under capitalism, the working class will unquestionably grasp the implication, turn that economic fact into a political reality.

From the very beginning, it seems, the doctrine of inevitability has always been a distinctly Russian commodity, gaining international prestige only after the victory of the Bolsheviks. And this is to say that even Marx had to repudiate the doctrine when it was attributed to him in a Russian review dealing with the first volume of Capital. Moreover, the passages usually cited to substantiate the doctrine, especially the passage generally used to support the conviction that the doctrine implies capitalism or socialism, completely fail to fulfill such purposes.

The passage proposing that existence determines consciousness is found in The Critique of Political Economy. Marx writes:

“In the social production which men carry on they enter definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will; these relations of production correspond to a definite stage of development of their material powers of production. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society – the real foundation, on which rise legal and political superstructures and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production in material life prescribes [bedingt] the general character of the social, political and intellectual process of life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines [bestimmen] their being but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.”

Only two interpretations of the passage can substantiate the inevitability of socialism. One is incompatible with the passage itself, and the other is implausible.

The implausible interpretation has already been used by Trotsky. In stating that the working class, at the cost of errors and defeats, will come to understand the actual situation and, sooner or later, will draw the imperative practical conclusions, Trotsky is assuming two things. They are: (1) only a limited number of errors is possible, and (2) they cannot be repeated forever. But, without the intervention of God, there is no reason to believe that the working class cannot repeat its errors even if the number be limited. Thus, the ground for making the assumptions is, at best, revolutionary optimism or, at worst, dogmatic. In either case, we are being asked to give our allegiance to a work of art.

The incompatible interpretation assumes determine to imply that, in time, a one-to-one correlation will come to pass between the mode of production and man’s consciousness, a correlation that would erase the possibility of error. Aside from the fact that the only ground for the assumption is to reject consciousness or, once again, to resort to dogmatism, it simply does not refer to a one-to-one correlation. The word indicates that the mode of production – rather than, as Hegel insists, the transformation of consciousness into self-consciousness – generates the social difficulties encountered by man, indicates their solution, and imposes the conditions under which they are to be surmounted. In other words, it is the mode of production, not the ratiocinations going on in his head, that man must come to terms with and that afford the material for thought, choice and action. That this is the fact for Marx, and not a one-to-one correlation, is verified by the insistence that the mode of production prescribes the general, not the particular, character of the social, political and intellectual processes of life. And certainly, without the mode of production prescribing their particular character, a one-to-one correlation is impossible.

The passage presumably suggesting that the economic development of society must culminate in socialism, that capitalism itself is to be immediately followed by socialism, is found in the first volume of Capital. Marx writes:

“The capitalist mode of appropriation, the result of the capitalist mode of production, produces capitalist private property. This is the first negation of individual private property, as founded on the labour of the proprietor. But capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a law of Nature, its own negation. It is the negation of negation. This does not re-establish private property for the producer, but gives him individual property based on the acquisitions of the capitalist era: i.e., on co-operation and the possession in common of the land and the means of production.”

The title of the chapter in which the passage occurs is The Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation. Since the passage comes at the end of the chapter, there can be no doubt that Marx wishes to indicate what the result of the tendency will be if, and only if, that tendency is realized. Thus, even though the passage does deal with the transition from capitalism to socialism, it simply indicates that socialism is only a possibility, never an inevitability. Had Marx intended the conclusion of the chapter to indicate that the transition from capitalism to socialism is inescapable, that socialism is inevitable rather than possible, then he would have entitled the chapter: The Historical Inevitability of Capitalist Accumulation. At least, if Marx had any pretensions about fulfilling the canons of accurate description, this should be the title.

The passage itself merely testifies to the possibility, not to the inevitability of socialism. For Marx states that capitalism negates itself, not that it is negated by socialism. Naturally, after making the statement about capitalism’s self-destruction, he does speak about socialism. But the fact that Marx finds capitalism can collapse of its own accord and not as a result of an effort to replace it with socialism, is a fact emphasizing that socialism is a tendency, a tendency that may even be realized, but not a preordained certainty.

Furthermore, in correcting a false interpretation of this chapter, Marx clearly indicates that he rejects Draper’s conviction that history never affords two realizable possibilities, the absurd conviction that every future event is inevitable or impossible. At least, Marx leaves no doubt that Russia, as late as 1877, had alternatives, either one of which could be realized and both of which would bring to pass the economic conditions making socialism possible.

Marx states the alternatives by means of a question: “must Russia, as her liberal economists insist, begin by destroying la commune rural in order to pass to the capitalist regime; or, on the contrary, can she, without experiencing the tortures of this regime, appropriate all its fruits by developing her own peculiar historical gifts?” Since either alternative can be realized and is adequate for socialism, not only does this fact pull the rug from under Draper’s conviction, but the latter alternative, the alternative of developing an agricultural economy based on la commune rural, also plays havoc with the fatuous opinion that socialism must be based on an industrial economy.

That alternatives are more than intellectual exercises and that socialism need not be based on an industrial economy become apparent in the following passage. After summarizing the misinterpreted chapter, Marx asks,

“Now what application to Russia can my critic make of this historical sketch? Only this: if Russia tries to become a capitalist nation like the nations of Western Europe, and in recent years she has taken a great deal of pains in this respect, she will not succeed without first transforming a good part of her peasants into proletarians; and after that, once placed in the lap of the capitalist regime, she will experience its pitiless laws like other profane nations. That is all. But this is too much for my critic. He feels himself obliged to metamorphose my historical sketch of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe into an historico-philosophic theory of a marche general, fatally imposed upon all peoples, regardless of the historical circumstances in which they find themselves placed, in order to arrive finally at that economic status which insures, together with the greatest expansion of the productive powers of social labor, the most complete development of man. But I beg his pardon.” [2]

Whether Marx, in scoffing at the idea that he is proposing an historico-philosophic theory, is also scoffing at the idea that socialism is inevitable, need not be a matter for speculation. For he explicitly repudiates the doctrine of inevitability in the preface to the second German edition of Capital. Marx observes that his method of presentation, a method which he describes as dialectical, has been little understood. One of the main difficulties has been that, even though he uses a dialectical method of presentation, this does not imply that either it or the subject-matter being presented possess the nature ascribed to them by Hegel. And it it just that misunderstanding that the writer of the previously mentioned Russian review is guilty of.

Since the review begins with the passage taken from The Critique of Political Economy, the writer is not under the illusion that Marx, like Hegel, regards the historical process as being determined by consciousness. But, even though recognizing this fact, the writer finds, as a result of Marx’s presentation, that the historical process still possesses the quality of inevitability attributed to it by Hegel. The review states:

“The one thing which is of moment to Marx is to find the law of the phenomena with whose investigation he is concerned ... This law once discovered, he investigates in detail the effects in which it manifests itself in social life. Consequently, Marx only troubles himself about one thing; to show, by rigid scientific investigation, the necessity of successive determinate orders of social conditions, and to establish, as impartially as possible, the facts that serve him for fundamental starting points. For this it is quite enough, if he proves, at the same time, both the necessity of the present order of things, and the necessity of another order into which the first must inevitably pass over; and this all the same, whether men believe or do not believe it, whether they are conscious or unconscious of it ...

“The scientific value of such an inquiry lies in disclosing the special laws that regulate the origin, existence, development and death of a given social organism and its replacement by another and higher one. And it is this value that, in point of fact, Marx’s book has.”

In order to indicate that the writer of the Russian review has understood the method of presentation, yet to leave no doubt that he has completely misjudged the results of the inquiry, Marx sarcastically asks:

“Whilst the writer pictures what he takes to be actually my method, in this striking and (as far as concerns my own application of it) generous way, what else is he picturing but the dialectic method?”

At least, the insertion of the parenthetical expression, “as far as concerns my own application of it,” before the words “generous way,” makes sense only if it is intended as sarcasm. And the sarcasm is obviously provoked by the Russian’s incredulous belief that Marx, like Hegel, actually knows what the next social order is going to be.

Not only does Marx’s next observation confirm that this is the reason for the sarcasm, but it also indicates why he is unable to determine the nature of the coming social order. After pointing out that the method of inquiry must obviously differ from the method of presentation, he writes:

“Only after this work [the inquiry] is done, can the actual movement [of the social phenomena] be adequately described. If this is done successfully, if the life of the subject- matter is ideally reflected as in a mirror, then it may appear as if we had before us a mere a priori construction.” [My emphasis – T.C.]

Thus, so far as Marx is concerned, the phantom of the a priori does not haunt the corridors of history. And, aside from a mechanical process of causality, the a priori alone can generate the necessity that could irrevocably control the course of human activity, the quality which, for Hegel, inevitably determines the sequence and nature of the successive orders of society. For this reason, even if an accurate presentation of the movement of the social phenomena does give the appearance of inevitability, Marx insists that it is a mere looking-glass hallucination, a verbal mirage.

Beside this explicit denial and the fact that the previously cited passages substantiate the denial, there is another reason for concluding that Marx rejects the doctrine of inevitability. He regrets that historical events “can be speculatively distorted so that later history is made the goal of earlier history.” The regret indicates that history is not a teleological process. But, without a teleological process, the conviction about socialism being inevitable is devoid of any content whatsoever. For to speak of the inevitability of socialism without socialism being the goal is a more lamentable speculative distortion than the one condemned by Marx.

Finally, even if Lenin and Trotsky, as well as Plekhanov, shared the erroneous conviction that the victory of the proletariat is unavoidable, the mistake scarcely means that they completely misunderstand the writings of Marx. On the contrary, it simply indicates that they, like Homer, occasionally nod. The very temper of their lives suggests that the doctrine of inevitability is a negligible part of their thought. And only a philistine worshipping the bitch goddess success would urge that the doctrine of inevitability is the reason leading them to accept the ideal of socialism.


[A brief reply by Hal Draper will appear in the next issue. – Ed.]

* * *


2. What Marx is saying here is thoroughly at odds with Trotsky’s laws of uneven and of combined development and, hence, with the theory of the permanent revolution. For example, both laws assume that a more advanced type of economy like capitalism is, by its very nature, compelled to enter a backward area like Russia or, what comes to the same thing, that a backward area like Russia, if it is to survive, must adopt the more advanced type of economy. But such an assumption destroys the plausibility of Marx’s conviction that Russia could succeed in escaping the tortures of the capitalist regime.

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