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19 May 97
(notes for this file:) this document is part of "How to Build the Party of the Future"

How to Build the Party of the Future -- Chapter 2

The Alpha and Omega
of Communist Theory

 Contents:       TIP: Clicking on any of the paragraph numbers
 ---------            along the left margin
                      will take you back and forth
                      between the body of the article
                      and the table of contents.
number           chapters sections subheads
   5         The Omega 
   8         And the Alpha 
  16         Everything else is just details 
  19         Revolutionary practice is the engine 
  21     2a. My own views on the Omega 
  26         "Begin with the end in mind" 
  29         Markets 
  36         Central Planning 
  44     2b. Engels on the merger
               of the "Between" with the "Within" 
  52     2c. The dictatorship of the proletariat
               in the modern world 
  66     Notes 

Comrades and friends,
Before any group of people (forming a discussion group such as this one)--can act effectively as a whole--there must be a minimum degree of consensus on certain basic theoretical questions. Such a consensus certainly does not exist at present nor does it appear to be right over the horizon. Nonetheless I believe that such a consensus is "on its way" and I will speculate a bit about the shape it will take.
To begin with--the most important questions of theory concern organization.
The Omega
To start with our end point--we have the question of how humanity will organize itself, its resources and the creation of various forms of wealth. At present, pretty much all (or most) human economic, cultural and political organization is based on capitalism (ie: commodity production, money, capital, wages and exchange). A majority of the participants of this list consider themselves to be one or another shade of "Marxist". And there is already a "consensus" (unfortunately so vague as to be useless) that we need to somehow advance beyond capitalism to some kind of higher stage of human social organization, often called "socialism" (a word so hopelessly vague that I refuse to use it at all).
Debate on this question includes discussion of the relative merits of "central planning" vs. "market socialism" and discussion of such questions as whether Cuba, the former Soviet Union, North Korea and Iraq are (or ever were) "socialist".
And the Alpha
Even more contentious is the question of how should we (or, for that matter, the working class) organize our political efforts in order to (ultimately) get rid of the capitalist system and replace it with something better.
This question is related to whether we should try to build a "broad" or "narrow" party and also whether, to what degree and under what conditions different views should exist and compete against one another inside a common organization.
One valuable insight we must deal with is a highly interesting comment made by Chris Buford on December 27 that:
   "a more appropriate marxist organisation for today
   is a network, but [one] that does not preclude
   more disciplined parties or pressure groups
   working within that network."
Strongly related to this is the question of how "communists" (another word with no clearly defined meaning) should relate to the various strata under the influence of (or which actively promote) bourgeois ideology. Under this category there are a wide range of strata and associated political trends that sometimes go under the name "labor aristocracy", "liberalism", "social-democracy" and so forth.
All consideration of the forms by which (as workers or as revolutionary activists) we organize our activity--must be focused on the real nature of our tasks. Our tasks involve:
(a) mobilizing a particular class, the proletariat, and various other strata, to (b) achive unity in action to (c) defend their common interests and (d) shit-can the capitalist system and replace it with something better. These tasks require forms of organization (and an ideological life) that can (e) maintain ideological clarity and independence from bourgeois, reformist and opportunist conceptions and (f) avoid the tendencies toward degeneration into sectarian religious cults.
Everything else is just details
There are a good many other theoretical, political and economic questions on which we have strong disagreements amongst ourselves. My view however, is that, at least with respect to theory--it is the two questions above (the "alpha" and "omega") which are fundamental. When a critical mass of activists reach agreement on these two theoretical issues--all other issues relating to theory will begin to fall into place.
And I believe that this will happen.
Revolutionary practice is the engine
I do not wish here to negate the role of revolutionary practice, which is more fundamental than theory. Nor do I wish to imply that agreement in theory will be unrelated to lessons learned in practice. Many of the participants on this list already have a great many years of practical experience (both good and bad) in the class struggle. This list functions, partly, as a forum for activists to compare their experiences, sum things up and draw conclusions. The theory which is developed here is refined from practice and in turn guides practice. Hence, when I discuss here our collection motion towards theoretical consensus--I hope I am not seen as talking about a process which takes place in isolation from popular actions with deep roots in the class struggle. It is revolutionary practice which functions as the great engine driving this process forward.
2a. My own views on the Omega
We need a relatively clear vision of where we are going if we want to capture the imaginations and loyalties of the hundreds of millions of people who represent the only force that can bring us there.
I have written extensively on my own views of what communist society will look like. The bulk of this is posted on my web site and I will not at this point repeat it here. [note 2.1] As I have noted, I refuse to use the word "socialism". I am holding this word hostage. I use the term "transition period" to emphasize that such a period can only be understood as a period in which the working class has established political hegemony and is in the process of making a conscious and successful step-by-step transition to a communist economy, culture and political system (something that has never been done).
A communist economy, culture and political system is defined as being guided by the principle: "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need". Such an economy, culture and political system would operate entirely without money, capital, wages, commodity production or any kind of exchange other than the exchange of consumption for production (ie: the growers of a peach give the peach to workers, who, in exchange, eat the peach).
I emphasize the goal of communism because otherwise there is a strong tendency to fall into the trap of forgetting (on the level of theory) that this is our goal. This is why we have had discussion (from learned economists no less) that Iraq is "socialist" (ie: by this or that bullshit definition). Some have argued that we should focus on "socialism" because it is closer to being an achievable goal and easier to understand than communism. This is bullshit. Picture yourself walking across a tightrope. Now ask yourself--do you or do you not want the other end of the tightrope to be firmly secured at the correct location ?
"Begin with the end in mind"
Stephan Covey (a Morman, one of the more reactionary religions) knows more about this than many of us. The second of his seven famous principles is "Begin with the end in mind". The reason is fundamental. It is a lot easier to get somewhere if you have a clear conception of where you are going. Otherwise, you are likely to be making great progress in going nowhere--or just be drifting along in some random and unhelpful direction. And this has certainly been taking place on the level of theory.
I will say that I emphatically reject both "market socialism" and "central planning" as being "communism".
Markets will certain exist during the transition period, if only because a functioning economy will be necessary and non-market methods of effectively running an economy can only be learned over a period of time. Markets will exist so that the workers will have a functioning economy while they experiment with and learn how to run an economy without markets.
From time to time we also see various schemes that someone has devised that use markets and exchange (combined with special rules, cooperatives or what-not) in an economy--not as a temporary expedient during a period of transition--but as a cure for capitalism's ills.
I think we are in the same situation here as the U.S. patent office--which kept getting patent applications for "perpetual-motion machines". Everyone who understands the first two laws of thermodynamics (roughly speaking: "you can't win" and "you can't break even") knows that you cannot draw unlimited energy out of a closed system.
Yet the patent office kept getting all these applications because would-be geniuses continued to believe that they had outsmarted nature.
Similarly, we may never run into a shortage of "sharp" people who have devised a perfect plan to escape the laws of commodity production and exchange--while proposing--an economy based on commodity production and exchange.
The patent office, getting fed-up with this (and grasping that some people have greater respect for laws made by man than the laws of nature) finally instituted a new regulation: perpetual-motion machines, on the authority vested by the U.S. Congress, are, by law, no longer patentable.
Central Planning
There is a great deal of mythology about central planning and its relationship to communism or the transition period. Some small part of this mythology may be based on a remark by Engels in "Anti-Duhring" that is frequently misunderstood (I will get into this in just a bit). But I believe that the bulk of this mythology came up in the 1930's. At that time, history witnessed the stagnation of free-market capitalism (in the midst of the Depression) side by side with the rapid development and industrialization of the "workers' state", under Stalin, which utilized "central planning".
From the ideological war between capitalism and "communism" of this period--was born the absurd notion that the alternative to an economy guided by the "invisible hand" of the marketplace--must necessarily be an economy guided by a group of all-powerful central planners.
I will not try to define here what is or is not "genuine" central planning. I regard this as somewhat akin to the search for the "genuine" pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The problem with all forms of planning that involve a supreme central arbitrator--comes down to an information bottleneck. The center cannot possibly get and analyse all the information required to compare the outcomes of all the different possible decisions which must be made. As such, it is inevitable that all such forms break down in practice into something more closely resembling feudalism than free-market capitalism. The center inevitably must partition responsibility for various sectors to different departments--which from that point on are engaged in fierce turf wars (ie: competition and rivalry to cheat and take advantage of one another and outscore each other by manipulating whatever artificial system is inevitably used to measure their performance).
Such methods may work fine in simple or primitive economies in which technology can be imported from abroad--but reveal their weaknesses as the economy grows more complex.
This does not mean that various kinds and degrees of planning, or even various shades of central planning, will not play a useful (or even necessary) role in one or another aspect of the functioning of the economy during the transition period. This should be no great suprise. Even "free market" capitalism uses a degree of central planning (ie: central banks such as the "fed" in the U.S.) to regulate and influence credit markets.
What must, however, be most emphatically rejected--is the idea that all-powerful central planners are somehow necessary to run an advanced economy without markets.
Communist society will certainly utilize planning--but not in the sense of there being a single all-powerful center. Rather--there would be many centers. These centers would both coordinate their activity and, simultaneously, compete against one another for the support of alternate views on how best to serve the needs of the masses. Such forms of planning, in which the planning authority is distributed to many centers (without a single center necessarily having overall authority), are not usually refered to as "central planning".
2b. Engels on the merger
of the "Between" with the "Within"
In a very interesting passage in Anti-Duhring (about a third of the way thru Section II "Theoretical" of Part III "Socialism"), Engels discusses the inevitable merger between the forms of organization within a factory and the forms of organzation between factories. Just as the planets, left to themselves, will inevitably spiral into the sun, Engels notes, so also will these two forms of organization merge. Eventually, notes Engels, the entire economy would function as efficiently as a single factory--and this would allow the creation of sufficient wealth--that no one would ever again have to struggle merely to survive.
This is the passage by Engels which is often distorted by the advocates of central planning.
Engels noted that the form of organization inside a factory was far more rational and less wasteful than the form of organization between factories (which relied on the market and the principle that resources could only be transfered between the fundamental units of wealth-creation after first being transformed into commodities). In more modern terms, we can conceive of this as a "bandwidth limitation" restricting the flow of wealth from one wealth-producing center to another. [note 2.2]
Our modern day advocates of central planning reason that since most factories in Engels' day were highly centralized top-down systems of command and control--that Engels therefore must have envisioned the entire economy consisting of a highly centralized system of top-down control. I call this the "single point of control" theory. Usually, our advocates of such central planning add room at various places for the population to input suggestions and "intelligence" into the system to keep the central planners aware of the relative priorities of this and that--and to help prevent them from making too many stupid decisions.
But from a theoretical perspective this is utter nonsense.
Engels' argument was more simple, basic and fundamental than such silly arguments in favor of a single point of control. Engels was pointing out the utter inadequacy of market mechanisms to regulate production and coordinate the economic activity of a complex society. In fact, an examination of how large capitalist enterprises are organized today--shows that the highly hierarchical methods of the past are considered weak, inefficient and too slow, awkward and clumsy for many or most forms of wealth production. As the process of wealth creation has become more complex, what is more valued today are things such as flexibility, initiative from below, and the ability to put together self-moving teams which can be assembled, reassembled and rapidly adapted to meet changing needs.
Engels' point on the eventual coalescence of the organizational forms of wealth creation within units and between units--remains quite profound and valuable. We will run into this fundamental concept again when we examine the organization forms by which communists will organize themselves.
2c. The dictatorship of the proletariat
in the modern world
Finally we come to the central theoretical question which stands as the necessary and decisive link between the Alpha and the Omega: the nature of the "dictatorship of the proletariat" in the modern world. I have not seen much discussion of this topic on the Spoon's list. One could get the impression that this is not a popular topic or that it raises too many controversial issues or that it is too complex to deal with. But we are going to have to deal with it. This question cannot be avoided forever.
It is this question that is driving the (so-far) unresolvable debate on "Stalinism". The discussion on "Stalinism" has tended to present itself as a disagreement about the past. But the energy behind the discussion has its source--in different conceptions of the future.
Stalin is well-known for not permitting criticism by his political opponents. The system of rule he perfected suppressed the former bourgeoisie--but it also suppressed the working class as well. And because of this--it inevitably led to the rule of a new class of privileged functionaries.
The workers' movement to overthrow capitalism will never gain the support of millions until it can clearly demonstrate that it understands how the workers' dictatorship can suppress the bourgeoisie without at the same time suppressing the workers.
In particular, we have to deal with the nature of the proletarian dictatorship in the modern world--in terms of its relationship to the coming revolution in communications.
We are standing on the eve of the greatest communications revolution in history. This revolution in communications will transform every sphere of society. More to the point, it will profoundly transform the terrain on which is waged the class struggle.
After the rule of capital is overthrown, the communications revolution will continue to be part of every social movement, every struggle against everything backward and all motion to mobilize mass energy for development on the economic, cultural and political fronts.
Progressive activists, today, who wish to see the communications revolution harnessed to serve the real needs of humanity--will have questions that they will ask of any "marxist" that they encounter. Real marxists are (presumably) for the dictatorship of the proletariat. What will be the attitude of the dictatorship of the prolateriat toward the internet ? In particular, will a system of workers' rule attempt to CENSOR the internet ? No group of people, no organization, no political trend can be regarded seriously--as prepared to move humanity forward to communism--if it does not have a clear, concise and well-argued answer to this question.
Within the economically advanced countries--we will never be dangerous to the bourgeoisie--until we wrest from the reformist trends the banner of democracy.
Today it is the reformist political trends which claim to stand for a future in which all workers have the right to accuse their government of incompetence, hypocrisy, corruption or worse--and to openly state that it deserves to be done away with. Will such a right exist when workers rule ?
I believe that the answer to this question follows logically from consideration of the Alpha and Omega. Once we have sorted out the primary issues of the Alpha and the Omega--the answer to the question of whether the workers' dictatorship would attempt to censor the internet--will fall into place as easily and as naturally as a stone arch is completed when the central keystone falls into place. [note 2.3]
(to be continued)
   Next week:
   Communist Organization in the Modern World
[note 2.1]
            the Self-Organizing Moneyless Economy
                   (S.O.M.E.) Hypothesis"
available at:
It is currently available only in polemical (ie: lengthy) form (approximately one hundred thousand words). A popular (and much shorter) version will eventually be prepared.
Readers without web access can obtain my web pages by contacting me directly by e-mail at: Please include the word "PRIVATE" in the subject line to help insure that your note does not get lost in a sea of related e-mail.
[note 2.2] Bandwidth limitation restricting the flow of wealth:
(Note: because there is often so much confusion between "use-value" and "exchange-value", I am not using these words. I will use the word "wealth" to denote what, in classical Marxism, is often called use-value.)
In a modern economy, the creation of wealth requires the rapid flow of forms of wealth from one wealth-creation center to another. At each center, various forms of wealth (in the form of labor or parts or processes) are combined to create new wealth (ie: labor, either current/living or past/frozen, is added).
Under capitalism, wealth can only flow from center "A" to center "B" after this wealth has first been transformed into a commodity (or money--the universal commodity). But this transformation greatly distorts, slows down and obstructs the transfer of wealth.
Within a factory (and subject to the limitations of the factory authority) all resources flow to where they are most needed, to where they will do the most good. However outside the factory, the flow of wealth is restricted by the limitations of the system of commodity production. This is the contradiction illuminated by the depression era scenes in which food (for which there was no market--because people had no money) was soaked in gasoline and burned. Because conditions did not exist for this food to be transformed into a commodity--it could not be used--even though the distribution of this food would have created a type of social wealth (in the form of stronger, healthier people) there was no way to capture the necessary portion of this wealth and return it to the specific company that had the food.
One of the basic contradictions limiting the ability of the capitalist system to produce wealth--is that this wealth must be able to assume the form of a commodity. In this section of Anti-Duhring, Engels points out how, under capitalism, the ability to create wealth can always grow more rapidly than (and eventually outstrip) the capacity of the market to absorb it.
[note 2.3]
See: "The Digital Fire -- Will the Dictatorship of the Proletariat Censor the Internet?" at my website. (Approximately ten thousand words)
Readers without web access--please see Note 2.1 (above)