In his book The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State Frederick Engels presents a brilliant summary of the development of human society up to the present time. He wrote:
… what had originally been a naturally grown democracy (in the gentile associations) was transformed into a hateful aristocracy. The gentile constitution had grown out of a society that knew no internal antagonisms, and was adapted only for such a society. It had no coercive power except public opinion. But now a society had come into being that by the force of its economic conditions of existence had to split up into freemen and slaves, into exploiting rich and exploited poor; a society that was not only incapable of reconciling these antagonisms, but had to drive them more and more to a head. Such a society could only exist either in a state of continuous, open struggle of these classes against one another or under the rule of a third power which, while ostensibly standing above the classes struggling with each other, suppressed their open conflict and permitted a class struggle at most in the economic field, in a so-called legal form. The gentile constitution had outlived its usefulness. It was burst asunder by the division of labour and by its result, the division of society into classes. Its place was taken by the state.
[The state] is a product of society at a certain stage of development; it is the admission that this society had become entangled in an insoluble contradiction with itself, that it has split into irreconcilable antagonisms which it is powerless to dispel. But in order that these antagonisms, classes with conflicting economic interests, might not consume themselves and society in fruitless struggle, it becomes necessary to have a power seemingly standing above society that would alleviate the conflict, and keep it within the bounds of “order”… This public power exists in every state; it consists not merely of armed men but also of material adjuncts, prisons and institutions of coercion of all kinds, of which gentile society knew nothing.
In concluding his analysis of the history of the development of human societies Engels quotes American anthropologist Lewis Morgan who devoted his life to a study of American Indian society. Morgan wrote:
The time which has passed away since civilisation began is but a fragment of the past duration of man’s existence; and but a fragment of the ages yet to come. The dissolution of society bids fair to become the termination of a career of which property is the end and aim, because such a career contains the elements of self-destruction. Democracy in government, brotherhood in society, equality in rights and privileges, and universal education, foreshadow the next higher plane of society to which experience, intelligence and knowledge are steadily tending. It will be a revival, in a higher form, of the liberty, equality and fraternity of the ancient gentes.
On the same theme Engels writes:
The highest form of the state, the democratic republic, which under our modern conditions of society is more and more becoming an inevitable necessity, and is the form of state in which alone the last decisive struggle between proletariat and bourgeoisie can be fought out — the democratic republic officially knows nothing any more of property distinctions.
In describing the differences between gentile society and civilisation, Engels writes that:
while among barbarians … hardly any distinction could be made between rights and duties, civilisation makes the difference and antithesis between these two plain even to the dullest mind by assigning to one class pretty nearly all the rights, and to the other class pretty nearly all the duties.
Naked greed has been the moving spirit of civilisation from its first day to the present time; wealth, wealth and wealth again; wealth, not of society, but of this shabby individual was its sole determining aim …
A study of this work by Engels, particularly the chapter entitled “Barbarism and Civilisation”, is essential reading for all communists.
It is socialist society and socialist society alone, which inscribes the principles of “democracy in government, brotherhood in society, equality in rights and privileges, and universal education” on its banners.
In innumerable references Marx and Engels and other communist writers have outlined the principles of the future socialist society.
The proletariat seizes the public power and by virtue of this power transforms the social means of production, slipping from the hands of the bourgeoisie, into public property. By this act, the proletariat frees the means of production from the character of capital they have thus far borne, and gives their socialised character complete freedom to work itself out. Socialised production upon a predetermined plan becomes henceforth possible.
Lenin emphasised the importance of philosophical materialism:
Marx’s philosophical materialism has alone shown the proletariat the way out of the spiritual slavery in which all oppressed classes have hitherto languished.
Not a single victory of political freedom over the feudal class was won except against desperate resistance. Not a single capitalist country evolved on a more or less free and democratic basis except by a life and death struggle between the various classes of capitalist society.
Engels speaking at the graveside of Karl Marx, who died in March 1883, said that:
… Marx discovered the law of evolution in human history … the simple fact, hitherto concealed by an overgrowth of ideology, that mankind must first of all eat and drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc … His real mission in life was to contribute in one way or another to the overthrow of capitalist society and of the state institutions which it had brought into being, to contribute to the liberation of the present-day proletariat, which he was the first to make conscious of its own position and its needs [and] of the conditions under which it could win its emancipation.
This rather long introduction is necessary to put into perspective the millennia-long and often painful struggles of humankind to win its liberation. Today this struggle is taking its next strides forward with the creation of socialist societies, where the working class and its allies are becoming the ruling class and where the capitalist system is being relegated and replaced by socialist economic, political and social institutions and structures.
The writings of Marx, Engels and Lenin in particular, show that the historic changes taking place do not arise as a consequence of the ideas of these great scientists but are the inevitable result of the progression of human society. It is on the basis of their scientific discoveries that we assert the inevitability of the transition on a world scale of capitalist societies into socialist ones.
It is not yet even 100 years since the first socialist societies came into existence — a mere snap of the fingers in terms of the first historical formation and development of human societies. (This year marks only the 80th anniversary of the November 7th, 1917 Great October Socialist Revolution in Russia and the subsequent formation of the USSR — the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics).
But it is sufficient time to allow a first evaluation of the achievements of these societies and to ascertain whether humanity has generally taken the road that Marx, Engels and Lenin expected.
The Russian revolution brought to power the working class of Russia in alliance with the peasantry. It proceeded to bring about the public ownership of the means of production and turned all land into collectively owned public property. On this basis it became possible to introduce economic planning and to rapidly improve the living standards of the people of both town and country. For the first time ever, poverty was being eliminated, education and health services became available to all, equal rights for women in society were implemented, national and ethnic antagonisms were in the process of being eliminated and a policy of international peace became the foremost principle in international relations.
It fell to the Soviet Union to play the principle part in the destruction of Nazism in Germany, a historic achievement that will reverberate down through time for centuries to come. The victory over Nazism was an enormous blow against capitalism and imperialism and against all class societies. This victory led to the destruction of the colonial system and the subjugation of the less developed countries by the powerful imperialist industrial states. It also opened the way for the victory of the Chinese revolution which, in the modern era, is rapidly overtaking the developed capitalist countries in the field of production and demonstrating for all to see the advantages of the socialist form of society.
The socialist form of society in Russia and China both demonstrated that socialist public ownership achieves a much more rapid rate of economic development than has been achieved by any of the capitalist states. Furthermore, their industrial development did not lead to the pauperisation of the working people but to a much greater proportion of the value of production going to lift the living standards of the people.
These achievements were not free of difficulties and setbacks as have overtaken the USSR and the other socialist countries of Eastern Europe. In China, the period of the Cultural Revolution also seriously delayed the development of the socialist economy of the People’s Republic of China for many years.
The communist parties throughout the world are learning from the setbacks and errors of these first efforts to build socialist societies. There are many issues in this regard — the overestimation of the rapidity of change and an underestimation of the resources and determination of the overthrown capitalist power, insufficient attention to the educational work necessary to root out the centuries of ideological indoctrination by all previous class societies, developing correct relationships between the party, the state, the working class and the people, how to develop new institutions and forms which draw all the working people into becoming the real masters of society while controlling bureaucratic forms of government as well as corruption, the long struggle to overcome national and ethnic differences which have been fanned by the previous class power, etc.
Without slipping into nationalistic positions we must recognise that each country has its differences and historical experiences and will build the new socialist society taking into account these characteristics. This is what is meant when the Communist Party of China speaks about “building socialism with Chinese characteristics”.
But, the same principles of historical materialism that allow one to conclude that the transition from capitalism to socialism is inevitable, so it is also inevitable that the construction of socialism will not be free of difficulties, errors and setbacks.
Initially, the centre of the world-wide revolutionary movement resided in the USSR. It then shifted to Asia with the Chinese and Vietnamese revolutions and the struggles of the colonial countries for their national liberation. Today it is centred on the continent of Latin America with the victory of people’s governments in Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Argentina, Uruguay and several other countries.
In the transformation of the world situation, the remarkable role played by the leadership of socialist Cuba cannot be underestimated. It is reflected in the answers implemented by the Communist Party of Cuba to the many questions which arise in the construction of a socialist society. It is also reflected in the epic struggle waged by the Cuban people and government against the continual interference and threats by its near neighbour — US imperialism.
Conversely, the centre of counter-revolution, which formerly resided in the power of British, German and French imperialism in the 18th, 19th and in the first half of the 20th Century, has now passed to the United States as the most powerful economic, political and military power in the remaining capitalist world.
The new governments of both Venezuela and Bolivia have proclaimed their objective to be the building of socialist societies although they are only at the very beginning of this process. However, already these countries are proceeding to turn the private ownership of enterprises into public ownership and to implement fundamental land reform programs. They are developing new institutions which express the democratic participation of the ordinary people as the owners of the economy and the political masters of society. The rich resources and other forms of wealth of these countries are being channeled to the working class, the peasantry and the indigenous peoples.
Nothing (except a nuclear war or dramatic climate change) is now capable of stopping the forward march of human society towards a socialist outcome. This is more and more apparent as the deep crisis of capitalism and imperialism becomes the main characteristic of the capitalist and imperialist societies. This process of disintegration is also inevitable although it will occupy several centuries — once again, only a small period in the total life of human society.
The Communist Party of Australia has attempted to take the past experiences of socialist states and the finest objectives of humanity into account in formulating its Program, recognising that a socialist society in Australia will take into account the particular progressive characteristics of the Australian people and Australian society so far achieved.
Our Program says that “the idea that a society should be developed on the basis of ‘everything for the good of the people’ and on a co-operative basis started to become a reality [in the 20th Century].”
In the 20th Century a number of states showed that it was possible to build a new society in which the working class became the ruling class. The means of production were turned into public property and the exploitation of working people by capital was abolished and fundamental steps taken to end racial and sexual discrimination. Unemployment was reduced or eliminated, illiteracy was eradicated and free education made available to all. Extensive public health and social security services were created and national identity and culture promoted. Socialist states gained a foremost place in space technology and in other fields of science says the CPA Program.
New concepts of democracy — socialist participatory democracy — were advanced. Priority was given to the right to work and leisure, the right to an education and health care, the right of women to economic and social equality. New forms of international economic relations based on mutual benefit and assistance, co-operation, specialisation and integration were established. The countries of the socialist world, through mutually beneficial trade arrangements, greatly assisted the economic development of many developing countries.
The party Program says that “for the first time in history, a number of states arose which adopted the struggle for peace as a responsibility of the state itself with their foreign policies being based on the concept of the peaceful co-existence of states having different social systems.” The socialist states “repeatedly advanced proposals to eliminate the danger of war, settle disputes without recourse to arms and to scrap all weapons of mass destruction as a step towards complete disarmament.
These policies are motivated by the highest human aspirations that once existed, but only in primitive forms, before the advent of private property in slave ownership, land ownership and then in the form of the private ownership of the means of production, money supply, natural resources and so on. On this basis an exploiting class arose which accumulated vast wealth and power by exploiting the majority of the population.
The American anthropologist Lewis Morgan, foresaw future developments when he wrote, more than 100 years ago, the lines already quoted:
Democracy in government, brotherhood in society, equality in rights and privileges, and universal education, foreshadow the next higher plane of society to which experience, intelligence and knowledge are steadily tending. It will be a revival, in a higher form, of the liberty, equality and fraternity of the ancient gentes.
This new period in human society will probably be called socialist civilisation. Humanity has already put its foot on the ladder to this higher order.