The Basic Contradiction in Socialist Society (Part One) — Dimitris Kaltsonis

[This is the first of two posts by Dimitris Kaltsonis.]

Marxist theory has provided the basic element for the interpretation of social evolution. That is, the contradiction –a dialectical relation between productive forces and relations of production which drives evolution. This contradiction is not the only one. Yet it is the fundamental one throughout the course of mankind. Thus, in order to analyze and comprehend the societies that arose from twentieth century revolutions —especially that which arose from the October 1917 revolution in Russia— we ought to start from precisely this point.

This is also the case if we wish to comprehend the subsequent development of these societies, including the restoration of capitalism. A lot has been written with regards to this subject; some seek the causes in economy, politics, ideology, while others in a complex nexus, or in a single, or multiple factors. In order to keep in line with the scientific Marxist methodology we ought to pinpoint the basic contradiction and subsequently define its relation to other contradictions. Therefore, it is imperative that one start with the relation between productive forces and relations of production.

Productive Forces and Division of Labor

The development of the productive forces, primarily tools, labor experience and human knowledge is what urged early human societies towards the social division of labor and thus to the increase of the productive potential and the production of surplus. The social division of labor (along with the production of surplus and therefore the possibility to exploit labor power) in turn led to the emergence of private ownership and the social division into antagonistic classes. In this manner, the development of the productive forces led to new relations of production, which were qualitatively different than those of early human communities.[1] This analysis by the founders of Marxism has been repeatedly confirmed by later historical and anthropological findings.

The crucial question that begs our attention here is that the social division of labor (some administer and direct, some are involved in one field of production, others engage in another field of production, etc.) was the thing that led to the emergence of private ownership and classes. Social classes constitute the completed, qualitatively differentiated expression of the division of labor. That is why, the founders of Marxism, in their analyses, predict in a theoretically consistent way that in the communist mode of production, which will replace the capitalist mode of production, both social classes and the social division of labor will be eradicated.

The prerequisite for this is the rise of the productive forces in such a level so that the basic needs of humans are met and a relevant consciousness is established. Therefore, we see that the complete elimination of the classes is bound to lead, historically speaking, to the end of the “enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor”.[2] For Marx, this means that the technical division of labor shall continue to exist in the communist society but there will be no social division. In Lenin’s words,  “in socialism all shall administrate in turn and they will soon get used to no administration”.[3]

Social division (especially the division between administrators and administrated) is an element that can, among others, lead to the reappearance of classes. This is obvious in the remarks of the founders of Marxism, who, by studying the experience of the Paris Commune they observed that the working class may lose its power after the socialist revolution if the “special interests” of the state’s authority prevail. That is, the special interests of those who, concerning the division of labor, are engaged with the state administration in a permanent and professional basis.[4]

Revolution and productive relations

The socialist revolution creates the conditions –only the conditions- for the emancipation of the productive forces from the bonds of capitalist property. It creates the conditions so that the social character of production corresponds to the social way of the appropriation of the social product.

The formation of new relations of production is not a day’s work but a process that begins with the first, decisive action: the revolution and the abolition of private ownership of basic means of production. The creation of the new relations of production begins with the establishment of state ownership (the new state resulting from the revolution). It is integrated when the socialization of the means of production becomes not only typical (by means of state ownership) but essential, immediate, i.e. when the society truly participates in the control of the whole production process.

It has been historically proved that the beginning of founding new relations of the new relations of production emancipated the productive dynamics of the countries where the revolution prevailed. It is well known that the USSR, China and other countries, during the first decades of the transition to socialism, moved ahead-made a leap from a profound backwardness and underdevelopment to modern productive structures.[5]

Τhis forward-leap of the first period was due to the new relations of production, which enabled planned development and enhanced the workers’ interest in their work and its outcome. Lenin claimed that the strength of the new relations of production might be the huge productivity growth of work that could greatly overcome the respective/relevant one in capitalism: “Capitalism can be definitely destroyed and will be definitely destroyed because socialism creates a new, much higher labor productivity”.[6] The growth of labor productivity may be based on the workers’ interest in their work and the feeling that they are the owners of the means of production and economy. 

How would the growth of productive forces interact with the relations of production? By enabling the transition to a degree where the socialization of the means of production would be less typical and more essential than in the beginning of the post-revolutionary period. That is, the growth of productive forces, thus the possibility for a higher standard of living for the workers, higher educational and cultural level, more and more creative free time, allow a more substantive participation in the administration of the state and the economy. 

This possibility could have been realized if the relations of production were consciously readjusted to this direction. This would entail an even more genuine democracy. But this never happened – exactly the opposite. Not only in the USSR but also in other ex-socialist countries the new relations of production were gradually unraveled, especially after the introduction of market solutions to problems of delay in the growth of the forces of production, and this resulted in the restoration of capitalism. 

The basic contradiction

In order to explain this experience we must examine the contradiction between the productive forces and the relations of production from the perspective of society and its class structure. This contradiction, in the frame of capitalism, means that the basic social contradiction is the one between the bourgeoisie and the working class. But, what does this mean for the post-revolutionary society? Although the classes are eliminated, this is not the case for the social division of labor. The focal point of the social division of labor is the division between the administrators and the administrated. The contradiction between the working and the middle class is deleted and it gives its place to another contradiction that is to be overcome. 

As mentioned above, administration is the historical outcome of the growth of the productive forces. It was both an advance and a step before the division of society into classes. The administrative work that is our focus here, is not administration at its lowest level, the level of the unit of production, or the community industry, but at the level of the nationwide administration of labor and society in general.

This division exists in all class societies. It is defined and colored by the basic class contradiction. The administrative work across the whole society or, in other words, the elite of the state bureaucracy is done by the ruling class or its representatives or by its members or followers.

The building of new relations of production after the socialist revolution demands a new handling of this matter. It is not sufficient that the working-class members or the representatives or those under its control do the administrative work. It is not sufficient that the elite of the state bureaucracy arise from the working class.

It may be sufficient for the first phase of building the new social system, but not for the follow up. The nature of the new relations of production itself presupposes the full participation of the working class to manage its affairs. The crucial matter for the establishment of the communist relations of production is the gradual growth, both qualitative and quantitative, of the people’s participation in the administration of production and generally of all the social issues.

Why is the existence of a separate administrators’ stratum in the field of politics and economy inevitable for a certain historical period? First and foremost, not all productive forces are equally developed, for all individuals to be able to concern themselves with just about everything in a collective manner, and to take turns in different sorts of tasks, including directorial positions. Therefore, it is inevitable that they still need the aid of professionalism in politics. At the same time, the level of knowledge, education, experiences, political and social consciousness is different for each worker. Conclusively, the potential and/or the will to participate in community matters are differentiated as well.

The construction of those new social relations demands the gradual transcendence of all the above limits and obstacles. A cook should learn how to be an efficient leader and should be able indeed to preside over state matters as well. In such an attempt of transcending the limits and, at the same time, creating the prerequisites necessary for building up the future, social revolutions and Marxist theorists emphasized the importance of a new revolutionary democracy, which should be governed by five fundamental principles:

1. Eligibility of all accountable officers of the state, so that the working class and the people in general be able to choose themselves to whom they will entrust these duties.

2. Immediate revocation, so that the working class and the body politic in general be able to withdraw whoever proved unworthy of their trust, such as the capitalist fires his/her manager if proved anti-productive, incompetent or thief. 

3. Succession of people in all accountable positions, so as to avoid «authorities», «irreplaceable» people, but, on the contrary, all shall learn in action the duties of state administration.

4. A bottom-up, constant and effective inspection. This requires debate and criticism, basic information and knowledge, abolition of “truisms”, the alleged state secrets.

5. Abolition of every privilege for professional politicians and a simple labor paycheck for state employees, so as to reduce patronage relations in job hunting and careerism. This issue was of great importance for Marx, Engels and Lenin.[7]

These measures are an effective means to lessen the negative effects of the division of labor, especially the division between administrators and administrated. The revolutionary democracy is an essential part not only of the superstructure but of the new relations of production as well. Socialist relations of production do not only mean state ownership of the means of production, but participatory democracy for the people.

From a historical perspective, the revolutionary democracy may lead to the elimination of labor division. However, as mentioned earlier, at the same time it is necessary to strengthen the productive forces and upgrade the living standard and the knowledge of the people, and many other factors. Subsequently, the stabilization and development of the revolutionary democracy is a key for the advance of the social development and the resolution of the basic contradiction between administrators and administrated.

As Lenin has noted, “by taking this road”, that is, by applying policy measures of the Commune-like revolutionary democracy, “we shall achieve the abolition of bureaucracy”, in such conditions “that shall allow absolutely everybody to undertake ”state operations” and this shall lead to the withering away of the State as such”.[8]

The possibility of turning the contradiction into an antagonistic one

The division of labor, objectively, requires a relative autonomy of administrative work. This is the case in class and socialist societies. This relative autonomy may be tolerated or even desirable in capitalist society.

However, this toleration and desirability is not suitable for socialist societies. The nature of a socialist society is fundamentally different. It demands a constant move forward, for the elimination of the division. Therefore, any expansion of self-efficiency endangers the process to the total abolition of the social division of labor, and undermines the march towards the increasingly inclusive participation of workers.

As mentioned above, administrative work is not unnecessary in socialist society. The contrary has been proved not only theoretically by major thinkers, but also historically.[9] The socialist society needs administrators. However, their role in socialist society is subject to transformation, and finally, from a historic point of view, shall be eliminated.

Therefore, in socialist society, after the elimination of the contradiction between the bourgeois and the working class, the next important contradiction that remains to be resolved is the one between the working class and the administrators of its economy, and its State.

The relative self-efficiency of the ruling state bureaucracy expands when:

1. the revolutionary democracy does not function properly, the aforementioned principles are not actually observed, and, as a result, the political and economic decisions are made by the aforementioned bureaucracy without the true participation of the workers, 2. the ruling managerial stratum tends to attain a bigger share of the social product than the one according to the services it provides. To be sure, I refer to the salary and other privileges (legal or illegal, this is not the point here) that the administrators of the socialist states gradually accumulated. In those cases, the contradiction tends to become antagonistic, and, as we shall see, under certain circumstances, it becomes indeed.

The soviet and other experiences

In the Soviet Union and other historic socialist states those phenomena were observed and finally prevailed. The democratic institutions of direct and representative democracy gradually weakened. The assemblies, the electoral procedures, the principles of eligibility, the power of the people to control their representatives, revocation, became formal procedures, usually dictated by the governing communist party. 

This did not apply in every socialist state in the same way and at the same degree. Nor did it apply in the same way and at the same degree in different chronological periods. However, it was a common feature, a common, more or less, tendency.

For example, the practice of one-candidate elections prevailed.[10] This meant that the communist party submitted, directly or through a trade or other union, one candidate. The electorates were not able to choose someone else, only to approve or disapprove of the particular candidate. This applied even in those states which by law allowed many candidacies. In this way, the revolutionary parties lost their vigor and their connection with the people who had been forged in revolutionary conditions. The electoral procedure became pretentious. The debate and the control over the representatives faded away or ended up as pure formality.

It is significant that, since 1937, the Soviet leaders themselves mentioned certain degenerative phenomena, due to which all democratic procedures of the Soviets had become merely a pretext for patronage relations, where the representatives of the people were uncontrollable.[11] They did not answer for their actions or when they did, they were not sincere and genuine, while at the same time they felt that their reelection was guaranteed. There are other similar testimonies. For example, a Cuban reporter in Moscow, who was there during the last phase of the Soviet Union, spoke about «corrupted electoral procedures».[12]

All the Constitutions of the socialist countries provided for the revocation of the representatives. However, this right was barely exercised, at least at the level of the supreme representative institutions.[13] Hence, election and revocation, along with the people’s bottom-up control and the interchange of individuals in public positions weakened dramatically.

There were similar developments in another crucial sector of socialist democracy: the workplaces. The participation of workers in public discussions, in order to make important economic decisions became largely a formality as well. As Carlos Tablada, a Cuban economist, observes, the burden fell unilaterally to the implementation of decisions that had already been taken by the governmental ranks and not to the participation of the workers in discussing and evaluating the policies.[14] Che Guevara made similar observations many years ago.[15]

Historical experience has also shown that the administrators did not enjoy only political but also material privileges. The fact that the administrators were responsible for decision making gave them material self-sufficiency, concerning living conditions and standards. The abolition of the bourgeois state by the revolutions and the establishment of socialist states had been characterized by the abolition of material privileges for the administrators. 

However, a reestablishment of such privileges gradually became evident. For example, in the Soviet Union this tendency appeared from scratch. Lenin soon realized this problem. When he wrote State and Revolution he had already felt the need to intervene, by emphasizing that “all those Bolsheviks who take action” proposing salary increase for state officials, instead of cutting it down to the standard worker’s level “are totally unpardonable”.[16] It is interesting to notice that this procedure is recorded in the soviet literature, even in the officially accepted one by Stalin’s government.[17]

The ratio between the basic salary and the salaries of the highest official ranks in the Soviet Union had already been shaped during the 1930s into 1:10 and later into 1:15 or even 1:20. Similar were the developments in other socialist countries. In China, this income gap had already reached a 1:10 ratio during the 1950s and 1960s and a 1:15 during other periods.[18]

Along with wage benefits came other material benefits such as, for instance, access to special services in health, education, accommodation and so on. It is indicative that the high-ranking members of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union had at their disposal, at least in the latter period, service staff, gardeners and so on. These lawful privileges were actually supplemented by other, illegal ones that were allowed though by the highest administrative stratum.[19]

In such conditions, the contradiction has tended to become antagonistic. This tendency is enhanced firstly by the residues of the opposition between labor and capital that remain in every country, and secondly by the antagonism between capitalist and socialist states.

Dimitris Kaltsonis is Associate Professor of State and Legal Theory at Panteion University of Social and Political Science


[1] See for instance F. Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, [Greek Edition, Σύγχρονη Εποχή, 1981]), pp. 167 ff..

[2] See K. Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program, [Greek edition, Athens, εκδ. Σύγχρονη Εποχή, 1983], p. 214.

[3] See V.I. Lenin, “State and Revolution”, Collected Works, v. 33, [Greek edition, Σύγχρονη Εποχή, 1985], p. 116.

[4] See K. Marx, The Civil War in France, [Greek Edition, Athens, Σύγχρονη Εποχή, 2000], p. 20.

[5] See D. Kotz, “Socialism and capitalism: Lessons from the demise of state socialism in the Soviet Union and China”, in R. Pollin (edit.), Socialism and radical political economy: Essays in honor of Howard Sherman, Cheltenham and Northampton, Edward Elgar, 2000, p. 300-317. See also relevant tables for the Soviet Union in G. Polimeridis,Scientific Socialism: a criticism to its critics, [Greek Edition, Athens, εκδ. Εντός, 2011], p.43 ff. On China, see J. Guillermaz, Le Parti communiste chinois au pouvoir, v. 1, Paris, Payot, 1979, p. 247 ff. and M.-C. Bergère, La République populaire de Chine de 1949 a nos jours, Paris, Armand Colin, 1987, p. 51 ff.

[6] See V.I. Lenin, “The Great Initiative”, Collected Works, v. 39, [Greek Edition, Σύγχρονη Εποχή, 1985], p. 21.

[7] See indicatively, K. Μarx, The Civil War in France [Greek Edition,Athens, εκδ. Σύγχρονη Εποχή, 2000] and Lenin, “State and Revolution”, Collected Works, v. 33, [Greek Edition, Σύγχρονη Εποχή, 1985], p. 44.

[8] See V.I. Lenin, “State and Revolution”, Collected Works, v. 33, [Greek Edition, Σύγχρονη Εποχή, 1985], p. 117. (note: emphasis by Lenin himself)

[9] See indicatively F. Engels, “On Authority”, Selective Works, v. 1, [Greek Edition, εκδ. ΚΕ του ΚΚΕ], pp. 767.

[10] See Chtchiglik, L’ autogestion socialiste, Moscou, éd. Progrès, 1989, pp. 88 ff.

[11] See Α. Zhdanov, “Address in the Plenary of the Central Committee of Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), 29/2/1937”, [Greek edition, Κομμουνιστική Επιθεώρηση, 4/2008], pp. 145 ff.

[12] See P. Prada, “Por que cayo el sosialismo en Europa? Por que no cayo Cuba?”, 9/9/2015, http://www.cubadebate.cu

[13] See indicatively M. Miaille, L’État du droit, [Greek Edition, Thessaloniki, εκδ. Παρατηρητής, 1989], pp. 188 ff and Β.Ι. Lenin, Report on the Right of Recall at a Meeting of the All-Russia Central Executive Committee, 21 November 1917”, Collected Works, v. 35, [Greek Edition, Σύγχρονη Εποχή, 1985], pp. 106-107 and 109-111.

[14] See Carlos Tablada, Che Guevara, Economics and Politics in the Transition to Socialism, [Greek translation, Athens, εκδ. Διεθνές βήμα, 2014], p. 305 and Charles Bettelheim, Class Struggles in the USSR,  [Greek Edition,  v. 2 (1923-1930), Athens, εκδ. Κέδρος, 1974], pp. 204 ff..

[15] See the similar views of Che Guevara in D. Kaltsonis, Che on State and Revolution, [Greek Edition, Athens, εκδ. Τόπος, 2012], pp. 152 ff.. as well as the bibliography.

[16] See Β.Ι. Lenin, “State and Revolution”, v. 33, [Greek Edition, Athens, Σύγχρονη Εποχή, 1985], p. 78 and, by the same author, “The salaries of high Ranking Employees and Officials”, Collected Works, v. 35, [Greek Edition, Athens, Σύγχρονη Εποχή, 1985], p. 105.

[17] See Vsevolod Anissimovich Kochetov, The Brothers Yershov (1958).

[18] See Ε. Μandel, Power and Money, [Greek Edition, Athens, εκδ. Πρωτοποριακή βιβλιοθήκη, 1994], p. 112 ff. and Charles Bettelheim, Class Struggles in USSR, op.c., v. 1 (1917-1923), p. 107 and v. 2 (1923-1930), p. 247 [Greek Editions] and Μihailo Markovic, Self Organization, [Greek Edition, Athens, εκδ. Επίκουρος, 1975], p. 51 and Α. Vlahou – P. Maurokefalos, The socialistic transformation in China, [Greek Edition, Athens, εκδ. Ίδρυμα Μεσογειακών Μελετών, 1989], pp. 169-170 and P. Trolliet, La Chine et son économie, Paris, Armand Colin, 1981, p. 264.

[19] For more, see D. Kaltsonis, Estado y democracia en el siglo XXI, Madrid, Munoz Moya Editores, 2018, p. 69 ff.