“Between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.” – Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program (1875)
“We shall have socialism when there are no classes, when all the means of production belong to the working people. We still have classes, it will take many, many years to abolish them, and only a quack will promise to do it overnight.” – Lenin, Speech Delivered at an Enlarged Conference of Moscow Metalworkers (1920)
“The dictatorship of the proletariat, the period of transition to communism, will for the first time create democracy for the people, for the majority, along with the necessary suppression of the exploiters, of the minority…. But the scientific distinction between socialism and communism is clear. What is usually called socialism was termed by Marx the “first”, or lower, phase of communist society.” – Lenin, The State and Revolution (1917)
It seems that the International Marxist Tendency (IMT) has been having some issues distinguishing the transitional society under the dictatorship of the proletariat, the lower phase of communism (referred to by Lenin in The State and Revolution as “socialism”), and communism proper (the higher phase). Not just recent issues, but confusion that extends back years. For a group that attempts to recruit people at a comparatively low political level, focusing opportunistically on supporters of Bernie Sanders’ “democratic socialist” politics, such confusion or inexactitude, whether deliberate or not, makes a deeply problematic situation even worse, as socialism assumes any number of meanings opportunistically tailored to suit the audience.
The main IMT website is home to an article published four years ago explaining what socialism means. In a moment of inspired creativity, the editorial staff decided to title it “What will socialism look like?” Midway through the piece, the reader encounters quite a curious passage, which says:
“If money plays little role in incentivising people under socialism, does this mean wages will be abolished? The answer to this is no – not immediately; but what it does mean is that wages could gradually disappear as the economy develops. Workers will still be paid in money (the value of which, in turn, is linked to the real economy) at first – this is not something than can simply be abolished by decree overnight. Indeed, pay differentials will likely exist in a transitional socialist period, as consciousness and the forces of production are changing and developing.”
“Transitional socialist period”? Do they mean the transitional society from capitalism to socialism? Or do they mean socialist society? The passage mashes together these two phases of post-revolutionary development and, in typical IMT fashion, avoids mentioning the key qualitative distinction between the transitional economy and the socialist economy. In the first, production relations pertaining to the central plan continue to be mediated systematically by the institutions and exigencies of class struggle (international and domestic) under a dictatorship of the proletariat, whereas in the latter, they are not.
Generalized wage labor, at least as it is currently understood, will definitely not exist under socialism in any of its phases, in contrast to the quote’s unqualified association of wages with “work” in socialism’s opening stages. Money wages, a function of the value relation, reflect the competitive and planless nature of a society of atomistic property-owners. A kind of exchange will persist in communism’s lower phase. But as Lenin explains, this will consist of “certificate[s] from society to the effect that he has done a certain amount of work.” That is, certificates or other symbolic accounting markers will directly reflect the social weight assigned to socially planned labor, and it will not contain a “value” validated as social via after-the-fact market exchanges among independent producers. In the early stages of socialism, then, some exchanges will assume a “commodity” form, at least insofar as they involve exactly measured payments as a way of sharing what remains of scarcity in the consumer sector. So too, as Trotsky explained in The Revolution Betrayed, will the function of fiduciary “money” remain as a means of exactly measuring those scarcity-borne payments (e.g., via ration certificates or labor tokens). Only in a fully mature communist society will these functions cease to exist. But the IMT piece uses these terms carelessly, blurring the lines between capitalist and socialist economics.
Tellingly, the aforementioned IMT article is not the only instance of the group’s confusion over perhaps the most basic and fundamentally important group of Marxist categories. There is also this recent article, published in the American section’s newspaper, which similarly confuses socialism with the transition period: “As for socialism, Marxists understand it as the transitional period bridging capitalism and the classless, moneyless, stateless society known as communism. It is the period ushered in once the workers have won political power and begin to move against private property of the means of production.”
No, Marxists understand that the transitional period bridging capitalism and communist society is — wait for it — the transitional society under the dictatorship of the proletariat, as Marx indicated in the Critique of the Gotha Program. Socialism is the lower stage of communism, wherein the payment of labor tokens will continue to ensure the requisite amount of labor is contributed to the globally planned economy. There will be no class of workers “beginning to move against private property in the means of production” under socialism, because workers will already have “begun to move” that way immediately after seizing state power and inaugurating the transitional period.
But wait, there’s more! In an ironically titled article “Marxism Basics,” which actually cites the very texts that contradict what the IMT is saying, the group informs us: “Communism is based on being able to provide more than needed for everyone—and though in the US we could reach that level fairly quickly, it is still not there right now. This is why a transitional period, which we often refer to as socialism, is necessary.”
Yes, the IMT certainly does refer to the transitional period as socialism. In the process, they follow Stalinists (“Marxist-Leninists”) in suggesting that there will be a dictatorship of the proletariat under socialism (the dictatorship of a class in a classless society!). Marx, Engels, and Lenin never suggested such an understanding, however. On issue after issue – most notably their disgusting position that the police and prison guards can in some instances be considered “workers in uniform” – the IMT’s publications evince a proven need to go back to the basics and familiarize themselves with the ABCs of Marxism. For a group that focuses so strongly on selling books (along with other merch), they seem to spend a surprisingly small amount of time actually reading and learning.