Is There a Socialist Mode of Production Separate from Communism?

Many people mean many different things when they use the term “socialism.” It has been incorrectly used to describe reforms under capitalism in the West, and Stalinist bureaucratic state capitalism in the East. Revolutionary socialists or communists must be clear about what they mean by a truly socialist society — and this means being clear about the revolutionary historical stages it will take to get there.

by | Jun 21, 2023

A specter is haunting communism: the specter of “socialism”

Reformists and Stalinists, social democrats and communists alike have invented “socialism” as a replacement for Karl Marx’s revolutionary communism. They try to divert the left-wing movement from its goal of total abolition of capitalism. Instead, they want a “surface modification” of capitalism (in the words of Rosa Luxemburg). Thus the new reformist goal blunts the drive for revolutionary transformation.

This diversion was originally accomplished in part by inventing a new distinct stage, a new mode of production between capitalism and communism. This mode of production was identified as “socialism”— the planning and nationalization of the economy, without all the other features of Marx’s communism. The transitional phase became the final goal for Stalinists and social democrats and even for some who identify as Trotskyists.

Marx’s radical vision for the transformation of society

Karl Marx was a revolutionary. His goal was not the superficial modification of capitalism, but the final replacement of capitalism by communism. His critique of capitalism was extremely radical, encompassing gender and sexuality, the environment, and all forms of oppression. He called for the radical democratization of all social relations, the abolition of all states, and the elimination of private productive property and private ownership of children. He foresaw an international society with no money, no prisons, no oppression, no exploitation, no economic classes, and no borders.

All this was connected at its core to the seizure of economic and political power by the working class — those who work for a wage or salary. This communist society that was the end goal of working-class struggle would be based on the principle that “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” Just as importantly, it would be an economy based on “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.”

As a revolutionary, Marx understood that the current capitalist or bourgeois state could not be used to bring about a communist society. Not only would the capitalists oppose communism with every weapon they had available, including their state power, but the essence of the transition to communism is the “self-emancipation of the working class.” At the core of the transformation of capitalism into communism is the transformation of relations of production at work and in all other aspects of society. Real democratization can only happen when the recipients of democracy are its creators. Even with the best intentions, legislators and other officials cannot change those relations between people. For Marx, the first step on the road to communism was for workers to “win the battle of democracy,” as Marx and Engels put it in The Communist Manifesto.

The distortion of scientific socialism

In the Critique of the Gotha Program, Marx defined communism this way:

In the higher stage of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of individuals under the division of labor and therewith also the antithesis between mental and manual labor, has vanished; after labor, from a mere means of life, has itself become the prime necessity of life; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly — only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois rights be fully left behind and society inscribe on its banners: from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.

It’s important to point out that Marx’s goal of communism was not something that he and Engels invented out of whole cloth. They saw the goal of communism as the ultimate result of successful class struggles. Workers fight to limit exploitation. A successful fight against exploitation could finally eliminate it. This would involve the elimination of the exploiting class and the complete democratization of the economy and society. This is the core of communism or scientific socialism. It was scientific because it was based on the actual conditions developing within capitalist society.

This “socialism from below” (as Hal Draper put it) differentiates the “real Marxist tradition” (per John Molyneux) from those who use some of Marx’s ideas as a justification for elite rule of one sort or another.

The two main forms of ruling class distortion of Marxism are Stalinism and social democracy. Each of these societies were or are in fact variations of capitalism. Both distortions of Marx’s ideas made use of their own modified concept of socialism as a justification for their societies.

Karl Marx was a revolutionary. His goal was the replacement of capitalism by communism, not the superficial modification of capitalism, but the final replacement of capitalism by communism.

In the case of Stalinism, the bureaucratic ruling class controlled industry through the state and paid the working class as a whole less than the full value of what it produced — i.e. it exploited the working class. The surplus created by the working class was controlled by the ruling class to accumulate capital and, secondarily, attain a luxurious lifestyle at the expense of workers. Social democracy left most of the economy in private hands and left workers exploited by private capitalists.

The Socialist and Labor parties in Europe and around the world identified the society they wanted to create as “socialist,” defined as public ownership of the core of the economy. For example, the Labor Party in Britain identified its goal in the famous Clause IV as:

To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.

The real goal of social democrats in preserving the essence of capitalism was expressed by Labor Party leader, Anthony Crossland:

The socialist sees a distribution of rewards, status and privileges egalitarian enough to minimize social resentment…to weaken the existing deep-seated class stratification, with its concomitant feelings of envy and inferiority… (quoted in Ian Birchall’s Bailing Out the System: Reformist Socialism in Europe, 1944–1985)

CERES, a left-wing group in the French Socialist Party, defined social democracy as:

a mass party bringing together… the working class and the middle classes so as to defend their interests without challenging the structures of capitalism.

As these statements show, all the social democrats meant by socialism was capitalism modified by nationalization of some industry under the still capitalist state, and an expansion of social programs. Social democracy has been in power off and on in Europe for nearly 100 years. In that time, it has shown in practice what it meant by socialism. In no country in the last hundred years has social democracy even seriously attempted to overthrow capitalism.

The social democratic and Stalinist goals were a far cry from the radical revolutionary concept of Marx. The Stalinists talked of the possibility of “socialism in one country”. They rejected a fundamental tenet of Marxism, internationalism. Likewise, they watered down socialism from self-emancipation of the working class to bureaucratic nationalization of the economy. As Trotsky explained in The Revolution Betrayed, the Seventh Congress of the Communist International, which took place in August 1935, declared “the final and irrevocable triumph of socialism…is achieved in the Soviet Union.” As Stalin put it in an interview with journalist Roy Howard in 1936:

Our Soviet society is a socialist society, because private ownership of the factories, works, the land, banks and the transport system has been abolished and public ownership put in its place. The foundation of this society is public property…

The Stalinists claimed that their bureaucratic distortion was the first stage of the transition to communism. There was a distinct phase, with its own mode of production, which they called “socialism.” The invention of a separate phase between capitalism and the “higher stage of communism” (per Marx) by the Stalinists was a justification for an oppressive and exploitative society. As with the social democrats, inventing a separate mode of production between capitalism and communism, and freezing the transition as its own form of economy, played a counterrevolutionary role.

Theoretical foundations for a new society

Unfortunately, some ambiguity in Marx’s writing helped lay the basis for the misuse of the term socialism. In Critique of the Gotha Program, Marx talked of the transition between capitalism and communism thus:

Between capitalist and communist society lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. There corresponds to this also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.

Engels reinforced this view of the post-insurrectionary society as a period of revolutionary transformation, and not socialist, when he said: “with the introduction of the socialist order of society, the state will of itself dissolve and disappear.”

This means that we cannot speak of socialism or communism until after the withering away of the workers’ state.

The two main forms of this ruling class distortion of Marxism were Stalinism and social democracy. Each of these societies were or are in fact variations of capitalism.

However, on many other occasions Marx talked of “the lower stage of communism,” implying that this was a separate type of society.

Critique of the Gotha Program is primarily a criticism of the idea that there can be a developed stage with its own laws of motion short of communism. In it, Marx wrote extensively about the limitations of the economy immediately after the seizure of power by the working class. At this stage the economy is not developed enough to allow “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”. “Bourgeois rights” still prevail. Money or some form of rationing is still necessary. Marx here criticizes the idea of an immediate transition from capitalism to communism, rejecting the anarchist view, but also the idea that the transition period is a separate stage with its own laws. Despite ambiguous wording, Marx is here putting forward the idea of the transition period being one of ”revolutionary transformation” rather than a fixed entity.

It is unfortunate that Marx’s use of the phrase “lower stage of communism” allowed many on the left to see it as a distinct mode of production. They gave this mode the name socialism. But despite using this wording, Marx always stressed the transitional nature of the period with the “the higher stage of communism” being a completely different society than capitalism or even the lower stage. He did not see the lower stage as a stand-alone, long-lasting, stable mode of production.

Historically, the distortion of Marx’s ideas that led to the invention of a “socialist” economic stage separate from both capitalism and communism came from the rise of social democracy and Stalinism. Even by Lenin’s time, the social democrats had gone a long way toward the invention of this new phase of society. In State and Revolution, Lenin describes the society arising from a workers’ revolution as “commonly called socialist.” Never in this work does he define socialism as the society immediately arising from a workers’ revolution. He does, however, recognize that this was then the common usage on the left. This usage was reinforced with the rise of Stalinism. Though not applying it to Russia, Lenin does generally accept Marx’s category of the lower stage of communism. He agrees with Trotsky that this stage had not been reached in Russia due to the low level of economic development.

Modes of production and social formations

Marx described modes of production as particular types of economies based on their own laws of motion. Modes of production after the demise of primitive communism each had their own method of exploitation. In archaic slave society, slave owners owned their workers and provided only their bare subsistence. Feudal lords exploited serfs by taking a portion of the crops they produced, or requiring money rent or labor services in return for “protection,” one of the earliest examples of a protection racket”.

Describing any given society requires concrete analysis. Often, a particular society will include different modes of production within it, though usually one mode of production is dominant. For example, modern capitalist society is dominated by the wage-labor capital relationship. The whole mode of production is formed around this relationship. The motive of production is profit necessitated by the competitive economy. Each unit must produce as cheaply as possible to survive. This enforces the law of value — that production of any good is pushed to the lowest socially necessary labor time technologically possible. Based on the law of value, the drive for profit regulates the allocation of resources and investment. The more profitable sectors obtain the most investment. Overinvestment in profitable sectors lowers the rate of profit and retards further investment. The raising and lowering of profit rates allocates investment.

Even with government regulation, the law of value ensures that capitalism cannot be fundamentally democratic. Instead the economy is ultimately controlled by the blind forces of the market.

Though capitalism dominates the world economy today, there are remnants of other modes of production within different national economies. Out-and-out slavery still exists in the world economy. There are remnants of feudal relations in particular areas. Especially in the Global South, subsistence farming is still dominant in some areas.

None of these modes of production exist in isolation. They are all conditioned by capitalism and,to the extent that they are part of the capitalist market, are forced to obey the law of value.

However, in non-capitalist modes of production, the full-scale domination of the drive for profit is limited by the lack of wage labor. Wage labor is the most adequate basis for the drive for profit. Only when owners can freely replace workers with machines does accumulation become the “Moses and the prophets” of the system (as Marx put it). Other relations of production only partially promote the drive for profit even when they are embedded in the capitalist mode of production.

Even after the bourgeois revolutions, remnants of feudalism remained for many years and sometimes decades. Understanding these societies takes concrete historical analysis, and not just slapping a label upon them. In fact, much of human history has been lived in transitional eras.

This economic eclecticism in social formations is especially pronounced in transitional economies. For example, the transition between feudalism and capitalism took hundreds of years. In all areas outside of Europe, the transition to capitalism was thwarted and pre-capitalist modes re-established their hegemony. Finally, European capitalism imposed itself through imperialism on the rest of the world.

During the transition, the new capitalist mode of production ran up against the limitations of the feudal system. At a certain point bourgeois revolutions were necessary to sweep away the political obstacles to the consolidation and growth of capitalist property relations. Even after the bourgeois revolutions, remnants of feudalism remained for many years and sometimes decades. Understanding these societies takes concrete historical analysis, and not just slapping a label upon them. In fact, much of human history has been lived in transitional eras.

What is the distinction between the dictatorship of the proletariat and the transition to communism?

Unfortunately, there has been some confusion on this point even among revolutionary socialists (“scientific socialists,” or communists in Marx’s sense). Within the Trotskyist tradition, there has been a debate between “orthodox Trotskyists,” who believe that Russia under Stalin was a “degenerated workers’ state,” and those in the International Socialist tradition that saw Stalin’s Russia as “bureaucratic state capitalist.” This is mixing apples and oranges. Trotsky recognized this in The Revolution Betrayed. “Soviets are a form of state, and socialism is a social regime. These designations are not identical.” One is political. The other is economic and social.

There is a dialectical relation between the political structure and the economy of any society. This is as true in the post-revolutionary society as in any other. A workers’ democracy is essential to the production of communism. No other class in power has the interest in producing communism. However, the transition can be derailed for any number of reasons.

In a working-class socialist revolution, as happened in Russia in 1917, workers overthrow the government, smash the old state, and create their own institutions of power. Dual power during the revolutionary process gives way after the insurrection to the sole domination of the working class. The workers’ councils, or soviets in Russian, take complete political power. They “win the battle of democracy” (per The Communist Manifesto). Workers are then able to use that political power to make inroads on the capitalist economy to “wrest capital by degrees” from the capitalists. There is a series of economic changes and processes that have to take place to turn this newly seized capitalist economy into a communist one, which this essay will discuss more in the next sections.

The political description of this period was provided by Marx in Critique of the Gotha Program: “There corresponds to this also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.” For Marx, the dictatorship of the proletariat meant full workers’ democracy. There is no absolute guarantee that workers’ democracy will lead to communism. It did not in Russia of course. Instead it degenerated, was overturned, and resulted in Stalinism — bureaucratic state capitalism.

There is a dialectical relation between the political structure and the economy of any society. This is as true in the post-revolutionary society as in any other. A workers’ democracy is essential to the production of communism. No other class in power has the interest in producing communism. However, the transition can be derailed for any number of reasons. If the transition is derailed, the political power of the working class will be undermined, and the economic power of other classes will assert itself over the political process. In Russia, the rising bureaucratic class was able to subvert the soviets and use them to consolidate its economic power.

How to describe the economy of the transition is a different question. A healthy workers’ state will make inroads into capitalism. It will rapidly seize the commanding heights of the economy and begin to plan production. However, for at least a period, there will still be small- and even medium-scale capitalists exploiting wage labor. The social formation of the transitional period will be made of different modes of production — remaining private capitalism, workers’ state controlled industry (best called state capitalism under the workers’ state), and the petit bourgeoisie. The workers’ state will have to maintain the drive to limit private capitalist production and turn it into social production. If it falters, the transition could fail as capitalists increase their economic power — and ultimately their political power.

A healthy workers’ state over the long term is only possible if the transition to communism is on track. If it is not, the political power will begin to reflect the actual economic power. The division between political and economic power immediately after the insurrection is only possible through revolutionary mass mobilization to destroy the economic power of the capitalists.. The tension between the two will continue until full communism arrives.

The International Socialist tradition sees Stalinism in economic terms as bureaucratic state capitalism, and politically speaking as the rule of the bureaucratic ruling class. Our shorthand of calling these societies bureaucratic state capitalist is good enough, but we should understand that this conveys two sides of the society, political and economic.

Because of the global and national capitalist limitations of the economy of the transition, Lenin said that for the Russian post-insurrectionary society, state capitalism under a workers’ state would be a step forward. The laws of capitalism were still not entirely overcome despite workers’ democracy. Some orthodox Trotskyists get this confused. They imply that calling Russia a degenerated workers’ state settles the question of the proper description of the economy.

In fact, the two aspects of society, though directly related, are also separate. The transitional economy is a social formation containing different modes of production, which modify each other. Even the rising elements of the potentially new communist mode of production are still limited during the transition by the continuation of world capitalism and therefore the law of value. This is why Lenin called workers’ state-run production during the transition period state-capitalist at best. Though the workers democratically control large parts of the economy, workers’ economic democracy is constrained by the capitalist law of value on the world scale. The state, even if run by workers, must still enforce the drive of capitalism. “Bourgeois rights” still prevail. Lenin went so far as to say that the enforcement of Bourgeois rights required a Bourgeois state without the bourgeoisie. This stamps the workers’ state from the beginning with contradictions.

As Trotsky said in The Revolution Betrayed:

The state assumes directly and from the beginning a dual character: socialistic insofar as it defends social property in the means of production; bourgeois, insofar as the distribution of life’s goods is carried out with a capitalist measure of value and all the consequences ensuing therefrom.

This state-capitalist industry can only attain fully communist relations of production when the law of value is finally extinguished by successful international revolution. Bourgeois rights can only be ended when the economy is productive enough to provide “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.”

State capitalism in the transition period is unique in history. It is a mode of production that arises during the transition and which will disappear when the transition is complete. Workers’ state capitalism will be transformed into full communism when the international spread of the revolution has extinguished the law of value, and when workers’ management has replaced workers’ control.

Contradictions of the transitional economy

The transition to communism has many facets. It is by no means a simple or easy process. Production must be raised to the point that the struggle for survival can end. To have a society based on human needs, those needs must be met. This must be done in the context of ecological sanity. The whole process of capitalist production will have to be re-tooled, both to overcome the alienation of workers and to ensure ecological sustainability. To overcome the fundamental basis of class division, the distinction between mental and manual labor must be abolished.

This process will begin with workers’ control of management in capitalist and state-run enterprises. Over time workers must learn not just to control the decisions of managers, but to make those decisions directly. Ultimately, this means workers’ self-management and the abolition of the managerial class.

To overcome racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression, in addition to massive educational campaigns, there will need to be fundamental structural transformation of work, housing, health care and education. This will in some ways resemble real affirmative action on steroids.

This will go along with the breakdown of set occupations so that a person “may be a fisher in the morning, a critic after lunch.” Planning will need to be democratically organized on a national and then international level.

The battle to overcome market domination will be ongoing. Until the market is finally overcome on a world scale, workers’ democracy will be limited. Even when workers make decisions democratically, the democratic choices on offer will be limited by continual market competition on a world scale. This will resemble what workers’ co-ops under capitalism face today — the necessity of self-exploitation. The law of value will partially impose itself at first, especially externally but internally to a degree as well, until all competitive decision making is overcome.

The spread of workers’ states will reduce the pressure of the law of value until the revolution has expanded throughout the world and finally eliminated it. This is an important deficiency in the orthodox Trotskyist understanding. Their analysis underestimates the law of value. Understanding the power of the law of value in competitive economies underlines the need to move against the market as quickly and forcefully as possible. Understanding all of this is important to understanding the dynamics of the transitional society. All the modes of production within it, the relations of production, the still-extant capitalist and petit bourgeois modes will be impacted by each other. The capitalist mode will be heavily regulated by the workers’ state and their drive for profit will be limited by it. The workers’ state capitalist mode will be influenced by the domination of capitalism on a world scale and somewhat by extant capitalism internally. This is why it is most accurate to describe the transitional period as a social formation made up of different and contesting modes of production, not one new mode of production called “socialism.”

The views of Lenin and Trotsky on the transition

There is a general misunderstanding of Lenin’s view of the transition. Lenin is supposed to have quipped that “socialism is soviet power with electrification.” Whether he made this offhand comment or not, his views on this question were much more developed than this statement implies. His opposition to the idea of socialism in one country is well known. He said that “Without Germany we are lost,” and, “Such a work as the development of socialism cannot be accomplished except from the combined effort of several countries.” He understood that Russia was part of the world capitalist economy and could not become socialist on its own. As he wrote in October Song:

Our Soviet Russia remains a solitary suburb of the whole capitalist world, during that time to think of our complete economic independence…would be an utterly ridiculous fantasy and utopianism…. We live not in a State but in a system of states and the existence of the Soviet Republic side by side with the imperialist states for an extended period is unthinkable.

Especially with the onset of the New Economic Policy, Lenin was clear that socialism had not arrived in his lifetime in the Soviet Union. For example, in a speech in January 1918, Lenin declared:

We know very little about socialism … We are not in a position to give a description of socialism … The bricks of which socialism will be composed have not yet been made. We cannot say anything further.

And again:

Nor is it difficult to visualize advanced socialist society. This problem has also been settled. But the most difficult task of all is how, in practice, to effect the transition from the old, customary, familiar capitalism to the new socialism, as yet unborn and without any firm foundations. At best this transition will take many years, in the course of which our policy will be divided into a. number of even smaller stages. And the whole difficulty of the task which falls to our lot, the whole difficulty of politics and the art of politics, lies in the ability to take into account the specific tasks of each of these transitions

Lenin stressed the lengthy nature of the transition: “Even the more developed generation of the immediate future will hardly achieve the complete transition to socialism.”

Over and over Lenin argued that state capitalism under a workers’ state would be a good thing: “Reality tells us that State Capitalism would be a step forward. If in a small space of time we could achieve state capitalism in Russia, it would be a victory.”

Until the market is finally overcome on a world scale, workers’ democracy will be limited. Even when workers make decisions democratically, the democratic choices on offer will be limited by continual market competition on a world scale. This will resemble what workers’ co-ops under capitalism face today — the necessity of self-exploitation.

Trotsky, of course, is known for his denunciation of the doctrine of socialism in one country. He called such an idea a “reactionary utopia.” Most people who support Trotsky’s position have focused on the “reactionary” part of his denunciation. This is of course an important part of Trotsky’s critique. Socialism in one country was the theoretical justification for a reactionary internal regime under Stalin — bureaucratic authoritarianism at the expense of workers’ power. Likewise, in foreign policy, it justified alliances with bourgeois states at the expense of workers’ revolution in China, Spain, and other places.

However, the other side of Trotsky’s criticism is just as important. Socialism in one country is a utopia — i.e. an impossibility. Communism requires full workers’ power, which necessitates the suppression of the law of value. This can only be accomplished when the revolution spreads internationally.

This certainly means that the first phase of the transition when workers seize power in one country, or a few countries, cannot be labeled socialist. If the dictatorship of the proletariat on its own was enough to label a society socialist, Trotsky would have little ground to totally reject socialism in one country. In The Revolution Betrayed, he wrote, “The proletarian dictatorship is a bridge between the bourgeois and socialist society.” rejecting the idea that the transition is identical to socialism.

Elsewhere in The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky says that communism in Marx’s sense must begin on the material basis of the highest development of the forces of production under capitalism, which of course the USSR had not attained . The implication of this is that a workers’ revolution in the most advanced countries could begin soon after the workers’ revolution to create the “lower stage of communism.” However, Trotsky’s stress on internationalism belies this interpretation. He notes that even a socialist revolution in the U.S. could not immediately provide fulfillment of all human needs. Even in the U.S., bourgeois rights would prevail initially.

Lenin and Trotsky’s position echoes that of Marx, who saw the transition period as “the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other.”

However, their position on the transition also partakes of the ambiguity of Marx’s position. While stressing the transitional nature of the society issuing from the proletarian revolution, they still accept Marx’s supposed definition of it as the “lower stage of communism.”

The reactionary implications of a separate socialist stage between capitalism and communism

A key part of the Stalinist edifice was the idea that socialism as a transitional stage to communism had arrived in the Soviet Union. Later this was used as a justification for supporting the Eastern Bloc in its contest with the West. The battle was framed as one between capitalism and communism. This led to communists in the West supporting the Russian and Chinese suppression of progressive social movements and even nascent workers’ revolutions in the Eastern Bloc — the East German uprising in 1953, the Polish and Hungarian movements of 1956, the Prague Spring in 1968, Solidarnoś in 1980 and the Tiananmen Square movement in 1989.

Not only was this support for repression a complete violation of the Marxist goal of self-emancipation of the working class, it was political suicide for winning workers to Marxism. It further miseducated radicalizing people about what Marxism really was. The result of “Marxists” supporting the destruction of workers’ movements reinforced the pro-capitalist outlook on the uprisings in Eastern Europe from 1989 to 1991. It would have been hard enough to win workers in the East to Marxism when the rulers they were rebelling against claimed to be Marxists and to be implementing “socialism.” Having “Marxist” rebels against the status quo also supporting the repression made it that much more difficult to reintegrate Marxism with workers’ movements in the East. The painful results of the transition from bureaucratic state capitalism to private capitalism were facilitated by “Marxist” support of the old repressive regimes.

A mirror image to this happened in the West. Parties that claimed to favor socialism, the Socialist and Labor parties of Western Europe, became avid supporters of Western imperialism. They sent troops to support the U.S. in its various ventures and sometimes supported their own governments in independent imperialist ventures and in maintaining formal colonies. Internally, they adopted policies which held down working-class living standards. In the age of neoliberalism, they supported austerity and massive budget cuts to social programs. For many years these reactionary policies were justified on the basis that these would somehow lead to socialism. Finally, in many cases, they abandoned even the nominal goal of socialism.


After workers seize political power in a revolution, they will need to make several overlapping fundamental changes in the economy and social structure that will likely take decades at least, and perhaps generations, to arrive at full communism. The transitional period will be a battle between different modes of production. A healthy workers’ state will try to undermine the capitalist mode and introduce democratic workers’ control and finally workers’ management. The transition will not develop its own stable mode of production, and certainly not one that can be accurately called socialist.

The “higher stage of communism” will sweep away all impediments to workers’ management of the economy. Until this happens, the driving force of capitalism , accumulation for the sake of accumulation, will contest with the principle of communism, the meeting of human needs.

It is inaccurate to call the transition period socialist. The transition period is not characterized by one coherent mode of production. More importantly, calling the period of the dictatorship of the proletariat “socialism” has and will continue to lend support to social democratic and Stalinist politics. It is far better to call the economy of the transition period just what it is: a contested transition between the capitalist and developing potential communist mode of production.

Of course, many of the goals of social democrats and Stalinists in a capitalist society are in the interests of workers. Marxists will continue to support such goals as universal health care, free education, public housing, and higher wages. The problem is not with having these reforms under capitalism, but with limiting the struggle of the working class to these reforms. True emancipation of the working class and all of humanity requires revolutionary communism, not mere reform of capitalism, no matter how radical.

Afterword: a note on terminology

Whether Marxists call themselves communists, scientific socialists or revolutionary socialists makes little difference. Marx and Engels adopted the name communist to differentiate themselves from utopian socialist middle-class reformers. However, Marx and Engels also use the term scientific socialists, as in Engels’ Socialism: Utopian and Scientific.” In 1919, the Bolshevik party jettisoned the label “social democratic” since this had become synonymous with the parties that supported their governments in World War I. During the Cold War, with “communism” being identified with Stalinism, communists often adopted the term revolutionary socialist. Scientific socialism or revolutionary socialism is synonymous with the communism of Karl Marx. Whichever term we choose to use depends on what best conveys our meaning depending on specific historical circumstances. Whatever term we use, we should be clear with those around us that our ultimate goal is communism in Marx’s sense, not a halfway house that has often been called “socialism” by those who are actually enemies of Marxism.

Steve Leigh
(he/him) is a founding member of Firebrand and the Seattle Revolutionary Socialists. He has been an active Marxist since 1971 and was a founding member of the International Socialist Organization. He was a shop steward in SEIU for 35 years and is a member of the retirees chapter of SEIU 925. Read more from Steve on his blog.

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