Are the contradictions described by Marx in the capitalist mode of production only overcome by the establishment of socialism as a higher form of production? Many Marxists have always believed that the answer to this question is "yes."
Does this mean, then, that socialism is inevitable? This, I think, is a different question entirely, and the answer to this question is " no." Many critics of Marxism have, however, confused these two questions and have maintained that Marxists hold that socialism is "inevitable."
There are certainly quotes to be found in Marx, Engels and Lenin which could lead one to that conclusion. In the Communist Manifesto, for example, we are told "the victory of the proletariat" is "inevitable." Also, in the preface to the first German edition of Capital Marx says, regarding the laws of capitalist production, that they work "with iron necessity towards inevitable results." And Capitalism may inevitably break down-but the question is - is socialism the inevitable result of the capitalist breakdown? Engels, in his 1886 preface to the English edition of Capital, wrote, "at least in Europe, England is the only country where the inevitable social revolution might be affected entirely by peaceful and legal means." So we have here mention of inevitable victory, inevitable results, and an inevitable social revolution.
Lenin also seems to subscribe to the notion of inevitability. In an article he wrote in 1914 on Karl Marx for The Granat Encyclopedia (Collected Works. vol. 21) he wrote that Marx deduces the inevitability of the transformation of capitalist society into socialist society wholly and exclusively from the economic law of the development of contemporary society. And further. "The proletariat's struggle against the bourgeoisie... inevitably becomes a political struggle directed towards the conquest of political power by the proletariat ('the dictatorship of the proletariat').
This same notion of "Inevitability" pops up six years later in 1920 (Left Wing' Communism an Infantile Disorder, Collected Works vol. 31) where Lenin writes apropos of the Russian Revolution; "At the present moment in history, however, it is the Russian model that reveals to all countries something - and something highly significant - of their near and inevitable future."
Ninety-three years down the road, and in a new century, if not a new historical epoch, we may be permitted to have a different outlook on what the "near future" bodes and perhaps doubt the accuracy of Lenin's words. Ninety-three years is a long time considered from the point of view of an individual, but from an historical perspective we may, nevertheless, still be waiting for that "near future." But what we are interested in determining is if we are talking about an "inevitable" future.
In an attempt to answer this question, I will rely on the speculations of Istvan Meszaros, an Anglo-Hungarian philosopher, who deals with this issue in his Beyond Capital: Towards a Theory of Transition.
Within the system of capitalism there are inevitabilities it makes sense to talk about. For example, as capital expands globally it seeks out the cheapest possible labor market and attempts to reduce as much as possible the necessary labor time it takes to create its products.
These actions result in a redundancy of workers - an increase in the numbers of the unemployed, because of unnecessary workers. Thus the growth of a surplus population Is an inevitable result (all things being equal) of the inner workings of the capitalist system. The system also leads to monopoly and imperial rivalries and war. This is just how the system works.
It is not this type of inevitability we are seeking to determine. Capitalism may inevitably break down - but the question is - is socialism the inevitable result of the capitalist breakdown? It is one thing to say that socialism is the inevitable logical solution to the problems of capitalism, but quite another to hold that it is the historically inevitable solution - that is, that it will really come about.
Meszaros quotes the late Hungarian Marxist Georg Lukacs who wrote “The objective economic evolution could do no more than create the position of the proletariat in the production process. It was this position that determined its point of view. But the objective evolution could only give the proletariat the opportunity and the necessity to change society. Any transformation can only come about as the product of the free-action of the proletariat itself." The workers have the opportunity to move towards socialism - but there is no guarantee they will take it.
Meszaros also quotes Marx's remark from his famous preface to A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy. In this work Marx maintains that humanity only confronts the task it can solve (or must solve), "when the material conditions for its solution are already present or at least in the process of formation."
But to "confront" a task is not the same as "solving" it. According to Meszaros this means that Marx realized that socialism is not inevitable. He concludes that deducing from this preface, as some have, the "vulgar-fatalist view that Marx was maintaining that socialism was therefore inevitable "is nothing short of preposterous."
Meszaros claims that the best Marxists can hope for is to analyze economic reality and state the case for the workers being the only agency or social force capable of "eradicating capital." But, "if that agency proves to be unequal to the task there can be no hope for the socialist project."
Therefore, the use of the term "inevitability" with respect to the establishment of socialism by Marx, Engels and Lenin should, I conclude, be seen as hyperbole, or more as an optimistic assessment of the future than as an absolute claim of an historically necessary outcome. There is always the possibility put forth in the Communist Manifesto of "the common ruin of the contending classes."
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association. He is the author of Reading the Classical Texts of Marxism.