Books / Digital Text

Socialism and Imperialism

3. Centralist and Syndicalist Socialism

The question whether or not our economic development is already "ripe" for socialism originates in the Marxian idea of the development of the productive forces. Socialism can be realized only when its time has come. A form of society cannot perish before it has developed all the productive forces that it is capable of developing; only then is it replaced by another, higher, form. Before capitalism has lived out its course, socialism cannot take over its inheritance.

Marxism likes to compare the social revolution with birth. Premature births are failures; they lead to the death of the new creature.18 From this point of view Marxists inquire whether the attempts of the Bolsheviks in Russia to establish a socialist commonwealth are not premature. It must be difficult indeed for the Marxist, who regards a definite degree of development of the capitalistic mode of production and of heavy industry as a necessary condition for the appearance of socialism, to understand why socialism has achieved victory precisely in the Russia of small peasants and not in highly industrialized Western Europe or in the United States.

It is different when the question is raised whether or not this or that branch of production is ripe for socialization. This question is as a rule posed in such a way that the very posing of the question basically admits that socialized enterprises in general yield smaller outputs than those operating under private ownership and that, therefore, only particular branches of production should be socialized in which no excessive disadvantages are to be expected from this lesser productivity. Thus it is explained that mines, above all coal mines, are already ripe for socialization. Obviously people thus proceed from the view that it is easier to operate a mine than, say, a factory producing for the fashion market; people evidently believe that mining only involves exploiting the gifts of nature, which even the ponderous socialist enterprise can manage. And, again, when others regard the large industrial enterprise as above all ripe for socialization, they are proceeding from the idea that in the large enterprise, which already is working with a certain bureaucratic apparatus anyway, the organizational preconditions for socialization are given. Such ideas involve a serious fallacy. To prove the necessity of the socialization of particular enterprises, it is not enough to show that socialization does little harm in them because they still would not fail then even if they did work more poorly than would be the case under the administration of private enterprise. Whoever does not believe that socialization brings a rise of productivity would, to be consistent, have to consider any socialization as mistaken.

We can also find a hidden admission of the lesser productivity of the economy in a socialist social order in the idea on which many writers base the proposition that the war has set us back in development and has, therefore, further postponed the time of ripeness for socialism. Thus, Kautsky says: "Socialism, that is, general welfare within modern civilization, becomes possible only through the great development of productive forces that capitalism brings, through the enormous riches that it creates and that are concentrated in the hands of the capitalist class. A state that has squandered these riches through a senseless policy, perhaps an unsuccessful war, offers from the outset no favorable point of departure for the quickest diffusion of welfare in all classes."19 Whoever—like Kautsky—expects a multiplication of productivity from socialistic production would, however, really have to see one more reason for hastening socialization precisely in the fact that we have become poorer because of the war.

The liberals are much more consistent in this. They are not waiting for another mode of production, perhaps the socialist one, to make the world ripe for liberalism; they see the time for liberalism as always and everywhere given, since, in general and without exception, they assert the superiority of the mode of production resting on private ownership of the means of production and on the free competition of producers.

The way that the socialization of enterprises would have to take place is clearly and distinctly indicated by the public ownership measures of the states and municipalities. One could even say that the administrative art of German states and cities is no more familiar than this practice, which has been followed for many years. With regard to administrative technique, socialization is nothing new, and the socialist governments that are now at work everywhere would have to do nothing beyond continuing what their predecessors in state and communal socialism have already done before.

Of course, neither the new power-holders nor their constituents want to hear anything about that. The masses, which today stormily demand the most rapid accomplishment of socialism, imagine it as something quite different from the extension of state and municipal enterprise. Indeed, they have heard from their leaders again and again that these public enterprises have nothing in common with socialism. What socialization should be, however, if not state and municipal ownership, no one can say.20 What Social Democracy previously cultivated is now bitterly taking revenge on it, namely, its always engaging for decades only in demagogic everyday politics and not in principled politics for the final triumph. In fact, Social Democracy has long since given up centralist socialism; in daily politics it has ever more and more become union- oriented, syndicalistic, and, in the Marxian sense, "petty bourgeois." Now syndicalism raises its demands, which stand in irreconcilable contradiction to the program of centralist socialism.

Both orientations have one point in common: they want to make the worker the owner of the means of production again. Centralist socialism wants to achieve this by making the whole working class of the entire world or at least of an entire country the owner of the means of production; syndicalism wants to make the work forces of individual enterprises or individual branches of production the owners of the means of production that they use. The ideal of centralist socialism is at least discussible; that of syndicalism is so absurd that one need waste few words on it.

One of the great ideas of liberalism is that it lets the consumer interest count alone and disregards the producer interest. No production is worth maintaining if it is not suited to bring about the cheapest and best supply. No producer is recognized as having a right to oppose any change in the conditions of production because it runs counter to his interest as a producer. The highest goal of all economic activity is the achievement of the best and most abundant satisfaction of wants at the smallest cost.

This position follows with compelling logic from the consideration that all production is carried on only for the sake of consumption, that it is never a goal but always only a means. The reproach made against liberalism that it thereby takes account only of the consumer viewpoint and disdains labor is so stupid that it scarcely needs refutation. Preferring the producer interest over the consumer interest, which is characteristic of antiliberalism, means nothing other than striving artificially to maintain conditions of production that have been rendered inefficient by continuing progress. Such a system may seem discussible when the special interests of small groups are protected against the great mass of others, since the privileged party then gains more from his privilege as a producer than he loses on the other hand as a consumer; it becomes absurd when it is raised to a general principle, since then every individual loses infinitely more as a consumer than he may be able to gain as a producer. The victory of the producer interest over the consumer interest means turning away from rational economic organization and impeding all economic progress.

Centralist socialism knows this very well. It joins liberalism in fighting all traditional producer privileges. It proceeds from the view that there would he no producer interest at all in the socialist commonwealth, since each one would recognize there that the consumer interest alone is worth considering. Whether or not this assumption is justified will not be discussed here; it is immediately evident that if it should not hold true, socialism could not be what it pretends to be.

Syndicalism deliberately places the producer interest of the workers in the foreground. In making worker groups owners of the means of production (not in so many words but in substance), it does not abolish private property. It also does not assure equality. It does remove the existing inequality of distribution but introduces a new one, for the value of the capital invested in individual enterprises or sectors of production does not correspond at all to the number of workers employed in them. The income of each single worker will be all the greater, the smaller the number of fellow workers employed in his enterprise or sector of production and the greater the value of the material means of production employed in it. The syndicalistically organized state would be no socialist state but a state of worker capitalism, since the individual worker groups would be owners of the capital. Syndicalism would make all repatterning of production impossible; it leaves no room free for economic progress. In its entire intellectual character it suits the age of peasants and craftsmen, in which economic relations are rather stationary.

The centralist socialism of Karl Marx, which once had triumphed over Proudhon and Lassalle, has, in the course of development of recent decades, been pushed back step by step by syndicalism. The struggle between the two views, which outwardly occurred in the form of a struggle between the political-party organization and the labor-union organization and behind the scenes took on the shape of a struggle of leaders risen from the working class against intellectual leaders, has ended with a complete victory of syndicalism. The theories and writings of the party chiefs still outwardly wear the garment of centralist socialism, but the practice of the party has gradually become syndicalist, and in the consciousness of the masses the syndicalist ideology lives exclusively. The theoreticians of centralist socialism have not had the courage—out of tactical concerns, because they wanted to avoid an open breach between the two positions, as in France—to take a decisive stand against the syndicalist policy; if they had mustered the courage for that, they would doubtless have been defeated in this struggle. In many respects they have directly furthered the development of the syndicalist line of thinking, since they fought the development toward centralist socialism that was taking place under the leadership of statist socialism. They had to do this, on the one hand to mark a sharp distinction between their position and that of the authoritarian state, and on the other hand because the economic failures being caused by state and municipal ownership were, after all, becoming so broadly and generally visible that they could become dangerous to the ardent enthusiasm with which the masses were following the obscure ideal of socialism. If one kept pointing out again and again that state railroads and city lighting works were in no way a first step toward realizing the state of the future, one could not educate the population in favor of centralist socialism.

As workers had become unemployed through introduction of improved methods of work, it was syndicalism that sought to destroy the new machines. Sabotage is syndicalistic; in the final analysis, however, every strike is also syndicalistic; the demand for introduction of the social protective tariff is syndicalistic. In a word, all those means of the class struggle that the Social Democratic Party did not want to give up because it feared losing influence on the working masses only stimulated the syndicalistic—Marx would have said "petty-bourgeois"—instincts of the masses. If centralist socialism has any adherents at all today, this is not the accomplishment of Social Democratic agitation but of statism. State and municipal socialism provided publicity for centralist socialism by putting socialism into practice; academic socialism provided literary propaganda for it.

What is going on before our eyes today is of course neither centralist socialism nor syndicalism; it is not organization of production at all and also not organization of distribution, but rather distribution and consumption of consumer goods already on hand and annihilation and destruction of means of production already on hand. Whatever is still being produced is being produced by the remnants of the free economy that are still allowed to exist; wherever this socialism of today has already penetrated, there is no longer any question of production. The forms in which this process is occurring are manifold. Strikes shut enterprises down, and where work is still being done, the ca' canny system itself sees to it that the output is only slight. By high taxes and by compulsion to pay high wages to the workers even when there is no work for them, the entrepreneur is forced to consume his capital. Working in the same direction is inflationism, which, as has been shown, conceals and thereby fosters capital consumption. Acts of sabotage by the workers and inept interventions by the authorities destroy the material apparatus of production and complete the work that war and revolutionary struggles began.

In the midst of all this destruction only agriculture remains, above all small farms. It too has suffered severely under the circumstances, and here too much of the working capital has already been consumed, and ever more of it is being consumed. The large units will probably be socialized or even broken up into small farms. In any case, their productive power will thereby suffer, even apart from the impairment of their capital. Still, the devastation of agriculture remains relatively slight in comparison with the ever-worsening dissolution of the apparatus of industrial production.

The dying out of the spirit of social cooperation, which constitutes the essence of the social revolutionary process that is occurring before our eyes, must entail different consequences in industry, in transport, and in trade—in short, in the city—than in agriculture. A railroad, a factory, a mine simply cannot be operated without that spirit, on which the division of labor and the coordination of labor rest. It is otherwise in agriculture. If the peasant withdraws from exchange and shifts his production back to the autarky of the self-sufficient household economy, he does live worse than he once lived, but he can keep on living anyway. Thus we see the peasantry becoming ever more and more self-sufficient. The peasant is again beginning to produce everything that he wishes to consume in his household and, on the other hand, to cut back his production for the needs of the city-dweller.21

What that means for the future of the city population is clear. The industry of Germany and German-Austria has largely lost its foreign market; now it is losing the domestic market also. When work in the workshops is again resumed, the peasants will face the question whether it is not more advantageous for them to obtain industrial products cheaper and better from abroad. The German peasant will again be a free-trader, as he had been up to 40 years ago.

It is scarcely thinkable that this process should go on in Germany without the greatest disruptions. For it does signify no less than the decay of German urban civilization, the slow starvation of millions of German city-dwellers.

If revolutionary syndicalism and destructionism should not remain limited to Germany but instead should spread over all Europe and even to America also, then we would face a catastrophe comparable only with the collapse of the ancient world. Ancient civilization also was built on a far-reaching division of labor and coordination of labor; in it too the—even if limited22—operation of the liberal principle had brought about a great flourishing of material and intellectual culture. All that disappeared as the immaterial bond that held this whole system together, the spirit of social cooperation, disappeared. In the dying Roman Empire also the cities were depopulated; the man who owned no land sank into misery; whoever could somehow do so moved to the countryside to escape starvation.23 Then, too, there occurred, accompanied outwardly by the most severe disturbances of the monetary system, the process of reversion of the monetary economy to a barter economy, the exchange economy to the economy without exchange. The modern process would differ from the decline of ancient civilization only in that what once occurred over centuries would now complete itself in an incomparably more rapid tempo.

  • 18. Cf. Kautsky, Die Soziale Revolution, loc. cit., I, pp. 13 ff.
  • 19. Cf. Kautsky, Die Diktatur des Proletariats, second edition, (Vienna: 1918), p. 40.
  • 20. According to Engels (Herrn Eugen Dührings Umwälzung der Wissenschaft, seventh edition [Stuttgart: 11910], p. 299 n.), referring to "the case in which the means of production or of transport and communications have really outgrown the control by corporations and in which state ownership has thus become economically imperative," state ownership means economic progress and "the attainment of a new stage in the taking possession of all productive forces by society itself, even when the state of today carries it out."
  • 21. That holds true of German-Austria especially. In the Reich the conditions are still different for the time being.
  • 22. We too have never really had "free competition."
  • 23. Numerous documents in late Roman legal sources. Cf., e.g., 1. un. C. Si curialis relicta civitate rus habitare maluerit, X, 37.