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Red Theory: Socialism and bourgeois right

By J. Sykes

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The task of socialism is to transition from capitalist society to communist society, from a society ruled by and for the rich, based on exploitation and oppression, to a society without classes and without exploitation and oppression. When the working class takes power and expropriates the wealth and power of the capitalist class, the dictatorship of the proletariat will have to eliminate the contradictions carried over from capitalist society in a planned, thoroughgoing, and step-by-step way. One of the most important tasks of the socialist state is the elimination of what Marx called “bourgeois right.” We already touched on bourgeois right in our previous article, “What is Socialism?” but it is a very important subject and needs to be understood clearly.

In his Critique of the Gotha Program, Marx says there are two stages to communist society, a lower and higher stage. To make things clearer, Marxism-Leninism has come to refer to the lower stage as socialism, and the higher stage as communism. In the lower stage, socialism, the guiding principle is “from each according to their ability, to each according to their work.” In the higher stage, communism, the guiding principle is “from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.” The goal of socialism is to transition to communism – to get from a society where distribution is based on work to a society where distribution is based on need.

In capitalist society, “bourgeois right” refers to the legal rights of property ownership and the social and political power that the capitalist derives from owning capital. Thus, in capitalist society, bourgeois right forms the basis of the capitalist relations of production, allowing for the capitalist to privately accumulate wealth from the exploitation of labor in the social process of production.

Socialist revolution intends to expropriate the expropriators – to do away with private ownership of the means of production, and therefore do away with private accumulation of wealth. However, as Marx says, socialism is born from the womb of capitalism and carries with it the birthmarks of capitalism. One of these birthmarks is bourgeois right. But bourgeois right is qualitatively different under socialism than under capitalism, since private ownership of the means of production has been abolished. So what remains of bourgeois right?

Lenin explains this very well in his book The State and Revolution:

“In the first phase of communist society (usually called Socialism) ‘bourgeois right’ is not abolished in its entirety, but only in part, only in proportion to the economic revolution so far attained, i.e., only in respect of the means of production. ‘Bourgeois right’ recognizes them as the private property of individuals. Socialism converts them into common property. To that extent—and to that extent alone— ‘bourgeois right’ disappears.

“However, it continues to exist as far as its other part is concerned; it continues to exist in the capacity of regulator (determining factor) in the distribution of products and the allotment of labor among the members of society. The socialist principle: ‘He who does not work, neither shall he eat,’ is already realized; the other socialist principle: ‘An equal amount of products for an equal amount of labor,’ is also already realized. But this is not yet Communism, and it does not yet abolish ‘bourgeois right,’ which gives to unequal individuals, in return for unequal (really unequal) amounts of labor, equal amounts of products.

“This is a ‘defect,’ says Marx, but it is unavoidable in the first phase of Communism [Socialism]; for if we are not to indulge in utopianism, we must not think that having overthrown capitalism people will at once learn to work for society without any standard of right; and indeed the abolition of capitalism does not immediately create the economic premises for such a change.

“And there is no other standard than that of ‘bourgeois right.’ To this extent, therefore, there still remains the need for a state, which, while safeguarding the public ownership of the means of production, would safeguard equality in labor and equality in the distribution of products.”

In other words, if the distribution of what is produced is measured by labor, then the problem that arises is that the labor input is unequal. Some people are more fit, or stronger. Some have children to take care of and other responsibilities while others don’t. Some workers may suffer from health issues while others don’t. Some may live farther from their place of work. Some may have better access to tools and machinery, some may work on land that is more or less suitable. Similarly, some may have an easier time learning and thus are able to attain higher levels of education. For some, networking and building connections may come naturally, or as a result of old family connections. All of these basic inequalities allow for uneven accumulation of wealth, and all of these basic inequalities require solutions.

Opponents of Marxism often put this basic inequality between individuals forward as a refutation of socialism, as if Marx didn’t understand or address this. On the contrary, this basic inequality between individuals is one of the most pressing issues that socialism can and must resolve. Marxism-Leninism understands very well that bourgeois right represents a danger, as it functions as a backwards drag on socialist development. If bourgeois right under socialism is left unchecked, then this uneven accumulation of wealth, power, and privilege can lead to corruption, the sharpening of class antagonism, and a material basis for bourgeois ideology and the revisionist degeneration of the proletarian dictatorship. Unchecked, bourgeois right functions as the material basis for the restoration of capitalism.

A fundamental task of the socialist state must be to combat and uproot bourgeois right. How is this accomplished? Lenin points to two factors in the citation above. First, people must learn to work for society without the bourgeois right of equal pay for equal work, and, second, the material basis that would allow for distribution based on need rather than work must be in place.

Transforming the way people think about labor and society is a long-term project, based on education and persuasion rooted in practical experience. This means dismantling the influence of bourgeois ideology and educating the masses of the people in the ideology of the working class, the science of Marxism-Leninism. Experience in the socialist countries has shown that this is possible, and that it takes time. Revolutionizing the productive forces to create a society where everyone can have what they need without any use for a distribution system based on work is also possible. It requires the elimination of scarcity, and thus, also takes time.

Ultimately, the transition through socialism to communism depends on solving the contradictions that linger in socialist society, both antagonistic and non-antagonistic. The class struggle continues under the dictatorship of the proletariat. The socialist state must resolve the contradictions that constrain the development of the productive forces, the contradiction between town and country, the contradiction between mental and manual labor, the contradictions rooted in the national question and patriarchy, and the contradiction between the leaders and the led. The correct handling of these contradictions and others are what keeps the proletarian dictatorship on track towards the goal of communism.

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