Black Orchid Collective is doing an ongoing study group on revolutionary theory, history, and biographies. We are taking turns giving presentations on key texts to the rest of the group and to a friend of ours, a worker militant who we organize with.
“ a lack of theoretic preparation for the day when the masses can actually abolish capitalism… I’m especially talking about your average person who wants to see another world, but thinks it can come about, if at all, by voting it in, or doing away with bosses, or paying everyone the same amount, or whatever political, legal, and administrative measures they have been led to believe can accomplish the redistribution of power and wealth and can really make their lives better”
Jaclard argues that the existing Leftist revolutionaries tends to reinforce naive visions of anti-capitalism, instead of providing theoretical clarity.
We can get at Marx’s understanding of how to transition out of capitalism by studying his critique of the Gotha Program which we read last week. This is part of his much longer argument against socialists who were influenced by the anarchist Proudhon. Proudhon’s ideas shaped the LaSallean socialists who wrote the Gotha program, so Marx is is attacking them and Proudhon at the same time when he makes is critique . As Jaclard puts it, Marx:
“demonstrated that their proposals for getting rid of capitalism [would actually] lead to a return to capitalism. He demonstrated over and over that the mode of distribution follows from the mode of production: distribution cannot act independently nor reverse cause and effect. We have only to look at Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program, his most explicit description of socialist society, to see him exposing, at every turn, the inadequacy of looking outside the mode of production for the path to socialism.”
This is key because Stalin and Mao thought you could just distribute goods more equally and call that “communism” and we saw how that became a disaster. Marx would have disagreed – he would have said those societies failed to actually attack capitalism at its root – in the work process itself, in production.
So, let’s go over a few common understandings of anti-capitalism out there today, and we’ll see how our authors Weiss and Jaclard use Marx to expose their limitations:
(I) the limits of “fair trade”
Discussion question: Can folks describe what activists usually mean when they talk about “fair trade?” Think about SLAP and United Students Against Sweatshops
Fair Trade perspectives are similar to the ideas that Proudhon and the Gotha Program were putting forward; Marx attacked them back then and would probably attack them today.
The key point here is that you can’t get equality by simply by making sure that some producers are paid better for their products. You have to change the way products are produced in the first place and the only way you can do that is if workers take over their work places and start producing goods for use instead of for exchange. So we should be advocating production for use instead of buying “equal exchange” coffee. Fair trade, a more humane capitalism, etc. is MORE Utopian, more unrealistic than overthrowing capitalism entirely, especially when capitalism itself is in crisis.
Proudon envisioned a system of fair trade where “one commodity which requires, for instance, four hours to produce will exchange with any other commodity that requires four hours to produce. ” Marx’s response was that you don’t have to wait for a utopian future to have this “equality”; in fact, that is already how capitalism works. The values of commodities on the market are set “equally” based on how much time it took to make them. But this process STILL produces social inequality between the people who produce things. Some workers end up better off than others in this “equal exchange” marketplace.
Weiss claims this inequality comes from the separation between concrete and abstract labor that Marx talks about in Ch. 1 of Capital. The value of commodities is based not on how much time specific workers put into making them. If that were the case, the value of chickens that a Mexican farmer raises by hand would be MORE than the value of chickens that workers raise in a factory farm in North Carolina. Under capitalism, instead, the value of something is based on how much time it takes for workers in general to make that type of commodity on average. The mechanical efficiency of the factories in North Carolina lowers the amount of average time it to grow chickens, which lowers the value of the chicken, which means that the farmer who puts more time into growing chickens in Mexico gets paid less – in many cases, not enough to survive. So under capitalism, all producers are equal, but some are “more equal” than others.
Weiss argues that this inequality can only be overcome when we start producing things to fulfil human needs, instead of producing them to fetch a value on the market. But this would require doing away with capitalism altogether, through revolution.
I find this section of Weiss’ article to be confusing, because the workers in Mexico AND North Carolina are not paid the full value of the chickens they produce, they are paid a wage in exchange for their labor power, which is something different. Weiss misses this point. I think that’s because Weiss is skipping a few steps here in his argument, steps which we need Jaclard’s peice to help us fill in. Both authors are assuming that their opponents are talking about “fair trade” between worker-run cooperatives, not fair trade between capitalist corporations. In other words, each author is assuming that his/her opponent is an old school Proudhonist, or the people who wrote the Gotha Programme, or maybe a modern-day anti-globalization activist. This opponent is saying : “all we need is to set up worker cooperatives around the world and then make sure that the goods they produce are traded fairly.” Marx is trying to say that they never will be traded fairly. As long as you have a market, period, you will have inequality built into the very structure of that market. That inequality emerges out of the very way goods are produced, on the shop floor, in the workplace… so it can’t be legislated away by regulating trade between workplaces.
(II) Problems with the idea of putting “politics is in command” (Maoism, anarchism, etc.)
Both authors’ basic point here is that you can’t just decide to change the economy by political force (by passing a law to set prices, etc. or by simply smashing corporate control). If you do that without building a new economy based on workers’ control, it just leads to bankruptcy, a black market, or forcing people to produce at gunpoint like in Russia. If you want political change, you need to make fundamental changes in the economy itself – in other words you have to replace capitalism with a new mode of production, which no existing socialist society ever managed to do. That’s what we need to figure out how to do if we want to seriously end capitalism in the future.
Jaclard explains what’s at stake here:
“we are battling prevailing Left concepts about how to change society from capitalism to socialism, concepts which rely first and foremost on political change: typically, first you change people’s consciousness, then you seize power by overthrowing the state and corporations, then you vote in (or impose) new economic and personal codes of conduct, and proceed to set up methods to distribute resources and goods fairly, to plan what to produce, protect the environment, etc. We get this sort of scenario from everyone from vanguardists to anarchists.
In fact, as the process of achieving a socialist society is commonly discussed, it seems we only need the will to have one, and the political power to enforce our will. In this scenario, it is assumed that politics is in the driver’s seat, able to override all existing economic relations and bad human relations as well…
I argue that Marx’s philosophy entails a different anticipation of what is crucial to socialism. For Marx, capitalism’s laws drive politics, not the other way around, and those laws must be smashed completely in order to begin to build a new society. Only a change in the mode of production will enable a new society to emerge and to be sustainable. While a break with the operation of law of value will not automatically ensure that all aspects of society will be made anew, it is an essential part of the process. It can create the material and social basis for women, for example, to continue their struggles until their ideas of liberation are fully developed and realized.”
Note: this idea of “politics in command” is a popular Maoist slogan; the authors are taking subtle aim at modern day Maoists. Mao thought that he could just change the economy if the party willed it hard enough. That’s why he thought he could force China through an industrial revolution in 5 years during the Great Leap forward. This lead to nothing but famine and massive speed up to the point of exhaustion for China’s workers.
(III) The problem with reducing Marx’s “transitional Communism” to some sort of half-assed Proudhonian “transitional society” which will never ever “wither away” because it is basically capitalist. (Maoism, Stalinism)
As we’ve seen, Marx strongly criticized Proudhon’s understanding of socialism. Proudhon wanted to get rid of money but to keep commodity production, in other words he wanted to keep a market economy where producers make goods in order to sell them. He just wanted people to exchange goods directly with each other instead of using money. He didn’t understand that commodity production basically creates money. For Marx, the “root of all evil” is not money, it is production for exchange on the market instead of for human use. Therefore, Marx replies that you can’t get rid of money without getting rid of commodity production altogether.
The reasons why money emerges out of commodity production come from Ch. 1 of capital, but they are too detailed to go into here. The basic point we can draw from this section has to do with Marx’s method: you can’t just get rid of one piece of capitalism, you have to get rid of the whole thing. The Soviet Union and China were not true Communist countries. They tried to get rid of only one part of capitalism – private property. This left the rest of the capitalist system going.
However, a lot of Marxists misunderstand this point, and they basically make it seem like Marx comes to the same conclusions at Proudhon eventually. The classic dogmatic Marxist position is that society goes through stages – 1) capitalism 2) socialism, 3) communism. The assumption is that the second one involves a “transitional society” based on some sort of better distribution of goods under a “transitional state” that will eventually wither away. Minus the “transitional state” , the economics of the socialist societies many Marxist advocate are not that different from the Proudhonist economics that Marx himself criticized.
Adrew Kliman is very critical of this whole idea of a “transitional society”; he argues that for Marx, “socialism” is just the first stage of communism, it is not a separate intermediate period that gradually shifts into a distant Communist future. Every time Marxists have tried to create socialism, it doesn’t wither away into Communism, it regenerates capitalism. One of the reasons why, is Marxists confuse what Marx meant by “socialism”. Instead of seeing it as the first steps of Communism breaking out of capitalism, they see it as a distribution scheme similar to Proudhon’s schemes.
Marx describes this “first stage of Communism” in the Critique of the Gotha Program:
“[T]he individual producer receives back from society…exactly what he gives to it…He receives a certificate from society that he has furnished such-and-such an amount of labor…and with this certificate he draws from the social stock of means of consumption as much as the same amount of labor costs. The same amount of labor which he has given to society in one form, he receives back in another.”
Weiss explains how it is different than Proudhonian socialism:
The difference is that, here, labor is “directly” or “immediately” social. Unlike in the formulations of Proudhon and unlike in our own commodity-producing society, where the exchange of equivalents exists only in the average, here there would actually be an exchange of equivalents in the individual case. So here, right from the beginning, Marx is telling us that the law of value will not hold.
To break this down, I’ll return to the comparison/ contrast exercise I suggested last week: looking at how you would “shop” or receive consumer goods under capitalism, under the system advocated by Marx’s opponents, and under Marx’s socialism.
1) In a capitalist society you are not paid the full value of your labor. You are just paid a wage – money, which you then go to buy things which are not worth the full value of the labor time you put in at work. Everyone’s wages are unequal.
2) in a Proudhonist society, or in a society based on the Gotha program, you would work at a cooperative where you are paid the full value of your labor. You would then go to another cooperative with a certificate representing the value of your labor and could get some stuff you need that is worth that value. The problem is the value of your labor would still be set by the market based on average, or socially necessary labor time needed to produce the goods your cooperative makes. If you make chicken and it’s a bad year for the chicken market you could still starve to death even if there are abundant food supplies just a few miles away. Also, the chicken farmers in North Carolina would be able to buy more stuff with their certificates then the chicken farmers in Mexico. So Proudhon’s anarchism or LaSalle’s Gotha Program actually PRESERVE inequality between different parts of the global working class and don’t ensure the abolition of poverty!
3) In Marx’s “socialism” or, “first stage of communism”, you would also work at a worker-run cooperative. You would also receive a certificate you would use to go exchange for goods you need. But that certificate would entitle you to a certain amount of goods based on how much time YOU as an individual actually worked, not just how much time it takes the “average” worker to do your job. So that means workers in the Mexican chicken farmer’s council and workers in the North Carolina chicken farmers’ council would be able to get exactly the same amount of goods per hour of labor they work.
This can happen, because under socialism workers are producing for human use, not exchange. The socially necessary labor time needed to produce goods is no longer their determinant of value on the market. As a result, there really is no “market” anymore.
As Jaclard puts it,
“the individuals contribution to society is no longer assessed in terms of the number of products she produces or their value….What the producer contributes to society is now, as he goes on to say, her ‘individual quantum of labor’–the actual amount of work she does.”
Marx’s vision of socialism starts to actually bring equality within the working class, for example, between the North Carolina and the Mexican workers. This is how it paves the way for full Communism; it builds trust, toward the point where everyone would trust each other enough to basically work for free and give away the products of our labor to each other based on folks’ needs. Proudhon and LaSalles theories, and the Gotha program, do not further this equality, which could be why Marx rejected them as possible “transitional” steps toward Communism.
Kliman warns that the “equality” between the Mexican and North Carolinian worker cant’ just be declared, it needs to be created in actual social reality:
Marx did not spell out what must be changed in order for directly social labor to be a sustainable reality. But one thing is certain. Just as the dogma that labor is directly social, and therefore equal, “does not become true because a bank believes in it and conducts its operations [accordingly],” it does not become true because the Central Committee of the Party or the federation of workers’ councils believes in it and conducts its operations accordingly. The equality of labors is not something one can impose by fiat, passing a law, or agreeing to count all labor equally. Again, lasting changes in the political realm must be grounded in changes in the mode of production, not the reverse. If the economic relations are such that different labors aren’t actually equal, counting them as equal will be a principle at loggerheads with practice. For instance, if we “declare” that the labor of a surgeon and a nurse’s aide are equal, it is almost inevitable that a black market for surgical services will quickly emerge. Either that, or “we’ll” have to enforce the equality through military-state power that has no prospect of withering away. So the issue is not whether we count different labors equally-politics is not in command, despite what Mao said-but whether the social relations are such that different labors actually count equally. The task is to work out what such social relations are, and what is required to make them real.
iv) problems with workers cooperatives
Some of these issues came up when a few of us went to a Seattle Solidarity Network discussion group. We were reading an anarcho-syndicalist piece that advocated workers take over their factories and each factory would be run as a separate cooperative in a decentralized way. I was wondering: how do we prevent a market emerging between these factories where the workers have to impose speed up on themselves in order to produce fast enough to satisfy market forces? It seems like an entirely new, and viable economic mode of production needs to be created from below, we can’t just “seize and transform” capitalist workplaces. Syndicalist perspectives of local cooperatives trading with each other don’t seem to answer this question.
As Jaclard puts it,
Workers’ control of the planning process is not sufficient by itself….. The issue is not who is in control, but what is. As Dunayevskaya wrote in Marxism and Freedom (p. 136):
“… Marx, throughout CAPITAL, insists that either you have the self-activity of the workers, the plan of freely associated labor, or you have the hierarchic structure of relations in the factory and the despotic Plan [of capital]. There is no in-between.
“The only possibility of avoiding capitalist crises is the abrogation of the law of value. That is to say, planning must be done according to the needs of the productive system as a human system. A system where human needs are not governed by the necessity to pay the laborer at minimum and to extract the maximum abstract labor for the purpose of keeping the productive system, as far as possible, within the lawless laws of the world market, dominated by the law of value.”
Otherwise, society remains under the despotic plan of capital – even if workers’ faces rather than corporate managers’ faces serve as the new personifications of capital. A cooperative must still buy its inputs and sell its outputs on the world market, competing with every other producer of the same product. It cannot decide to pay much more nor to greatly change conditions of work to implement more humane ones, without putting itself out of business. As long as capitalism exists, the world market will exist, and thus the law of value will exist. In other words, what will exist is the need to compete effectively, to produce as much as possible as cheaply as possible. There cannot be socialism in one country, much less in a single cooperative or network of cooperatives. Even if the members of a cooperative or network of cooperatives are nominally their own bosses, it follows from the continued existence of the value relation that, as Marx put it in his discussion of the fetishism of the commodity, “the process of production has mastery over [human beings], instead of the opposite.” (Capital, Vol. I, Peguin/Vintage ed.,p. 175)