Communism means the elimination of the law of value and the unification of the productive process

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Contrary to the boasts made by western leaders at the time, the collapse of the imperialist bloc led by the USSR has not brought anything like prosperity to the world economy or to Russia itself. Nevertheless, since the disappearance of Stalinism, revolutionaries in the west have been able to make contact with internationalists in Russia and the Ukraine. At the same time the latter have been able to get to know the principles and analyses developed by the Communist Left in the West from the 1920s onwards. The Communist Left in Russia also participated in the elaboration of these principles, before they disappeared into the Stalinist gulags.[1] Following our interventions in the conferences organised in Moscow[2] and last year in Kiev, as well as the publication in Russian of some of our pamphlets, the ICC has begun to correspond with Russian comrades on various aspects of the principles of the Communist Left. In particular the question of self-management has been the theme of much correspondence with various comrades. We have decided to publish in the International Review, the following reply to a comrade in the Voronezh region (a town situated on the Don to the south of Moscow).[3] This is because we think that the questions raised deserve the attention generally of internationalists in Russia and elsewhere. The argumentation of the Russian comrade is very serious, even if we do not agree with all his conclusions.

Dear comrade,

We have received your last letter and we welcome once more your contribution on the law of value and self-management. We want to continue the discussion on these two questions. This is part of the discussion between communists that is indispensable if we are to define the programme for the proletarian revolution with maximum rigour.

You approach the problem in the following way:

In your book, The Decadence of Capitalism, you say that under socialism commodity production will be eliminated. But it is impossible to eliminate commodity production without abolishing the law of value. According to Marx’s theory, under socialism the produce of labour will be exchanged according to the amount of labour time necessary (according to the work). That is, it is in conformity with the law of value.”

In your pamphlet Platform and Manifesto, point 11 is entitled ‘Self-management: workers’ self-exploitation’. What does self-exploitation mean? Exploitation is the appropriation of the produce of another’s labour. If I understand correctly, self-exploitation is the appropriation of the produce of your own labour. If this is so, then Robinson Crusoe exploits himself when he consumes the produce of his own labour. Robinson Crusoe exploits himself.

We will try to reply to these two questions, showing the connection between them.

The historic and transitory nature of the law of value

In your letter of 26th December 2004, you quote a passage from Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme: “Society gives him (the individual producer) a certificate stating that he has done such and such an amount of work (after the labour done for the communal fund has been deducted), and with this certificate he can withdraw from the social supply of means of consumption as much as costs an equivalent amount of labour. The same amount of labour he has given to society in one form, he receives back in another. Clearly, the same principle is at work here as that which regulates the exchange of commodities as far as this is an exchange of equal values.[4]

The main idea defended by Marx here is that after the revolution, when the proletariat holds power, it is still necessary for a time to relate workers’ “wages” to labour time. Consequently the labour time contained in products must be calculated in order to find the “exchange value” of goods and this is expressed in terms of “labour time vouchers”. Production for the market, the law of value and therefore the market still exist. We completely agree with him. So we understand your surprise when you read in our book, The Decadence of Capitalism, that in socialism production for the market will disappear. It is a matter of a confusion of terms. In our press we always use the word socialism as a synonym for communism as the final goal of the proletariat. That is, a society without classes and without a state, in which the produce of labour will no longer be goods for the market, in which the law of value will have been abolished. As early as the period in which he wrote The Poverty of Philosophy, Marx was very clear about this; in communism exchange would no longer take place, goods for the market would no longer exist. “In a future society, in which class antagonism will have ceased, in which there will no longer be any classes, use will no longer be determined by the minimum time of production; but the time of production devoted to different articles will be determined by the degree of their social utility.[5]

At this stage, exchange value will have been abolished. The united human community will decide how much labour time should be devoted to the production of this or that product. It will do so by means of its administrative organs that have the job of planning production in a centralised way. But it will no longer be necessary “to do the rounds” of exchange as happens in capitalism because what matters is the social usefulness of the goods. This will be a society of abundance in which not only the most elementary needs of human beings are satisfied but in which needs in themselves undergo a great development. In such a society, work itself will change its very nature. The time devoted to creating what is necessary for subsistence will be reduced to a minimum, for the first time ever work will become a truly free activity. Distribution, as well as production, will be different in kind. It will no longer matter how much time the individual contributes to social production, the principle that counts is “From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs!

The identification and defence of this final goal of the proletarian struggle – a society without classes, with no state or national boundaries, without market production, flowed through all the works of Marx and Engels and of the revolutionaries of subsequent generations. It is important to remember this because this goal fundamentally determines the movement that leads to it and the means used to work towards it.

After the experience of the Russian revolution and then the Stalinist counter-revolution, we think it is politically clearer to talk of a “period of transition from capitalism to socialism” rather than “socialism” or of a “lower stage of communism”. Obviously this is not just a matter of terminology. In fact the dictatorship of the proletariat cannot be envisaged as a stable society or as a specific mode of production. It is a society that is evolving and in which the dynamic towards the future is vital. It is a period in which social upheavals maintain their political envelope, in which the old relations of production are under attack and weaken while new ones appear and gain in strength. Just before the passage in the “Critique of the Gotha Programme” quoted at the beginning of this text, Marx states that: “We are dealing here with a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but on the contrary (our emphasis), just as it emerges from capitalist society. In every respect, economically, morally, intellectually, it is thus still stamped with the birth-marks of the old society from whose womb it has emerged.”[6] A few pages later, he says clearly : “Between capitalist and communist society lies a period of revolutionary transformation from one to the other. There is a corresponding period of transition in the political sphere and in this period the state can only take the form of a revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat.

Our last letter seems to have made it possible to clear up this misunderstanding and your reply expresses a basic agreement: “In my understanding of marxism, this period of transition is called socialism. I am not talking about market communism but of market socialism. (...) With the development of the productive forces, distribution on the basis of labour becomes distribution according to needs, bit by bit socialism becomes communism and in time the market will disappear.”

In your letter of 26th December 2004, you stress that there are only three forms of distribution of goods based on the socially necessary labour time contained in them:

  • by the medium of money (M), in which case the exchange of goods (G) takes place in the form of G-M-G;
  • by the medium of the work token (T) that Marx talks about: G-T-G;
  • directly in the form of barter: G-G.

You go on to say that in all three cases there is an exchange of goods and therefore a market, that is a society which uses a general equivalent – money – to express labour time. This is so even though in the case of barter, money exists only potentially. As you say: “Money and tokens are almost the same thing because they measure the same thing – labour time. The difference between them is like that between a ruler marked out in centimetres and another marked out in inches.” We agree with you that this is the economic situation that the proletariat must face after it takes power and that to ignore this would be a regression from marxism. This is all the more so as the international civil war between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie will have given rise to a lot of destruction, so causing a drop in production. Communists must fight constantly against the illusion that there can be a rapid and problem-free elimination of the law of value. The way in which the proletariat will eliminate exchange and create the conditions for the state to wither away, means that the period of transition will be a period of revolutionary upheaval such as humanity has never known.

In spite of these particular points, it is clear that a disagreement still exists. You write, for example, in the same letter: “Under socialism, the product of labour will be exchanged according to the amount of labour time socially necessary. As long as the product of labour is exchanged according to the amount of labour time, the market and production for the market continue to exist. Therefore, in order to abolish production for the market, distribution based on labour time must be abolished. So, if you want to abolish production for the market, you have to abolish socialism. If you consider yourselves to be marxists, you must recognise that socialism is essentially based on the market. Otherwise off to the anarchists!

From the passage above, we suppose that by “socialism” you mean the period of transition from capitalism to communism. By its very nature, this period is unstable: either the proletariat is victorious and the “transitional economy” is transformed in the direction of communism, that is towards the abolition of the market economy. Or else the proletariat loses ground, the laws of the market strengthen and there is the danger that the way will be open to the counter-revolution.

The ignorance of the anarchists

In the same letter you write that we find the same ignorance among the anarchists. In fact, for them, the emancipation of humanity depends exclusively on an effort of will and consequently communism can come about in any historical period. At the same time, they reject a scientific analysis of social development and are unable to understand what role the class struggle and human will can really play. In his Preface to Capital, Marx replied, without actually naming them, to the anarchists, who denied the inevitability of the transition period: “even when a society has got upon the right track for the discovery of the natural laws of its movement – and it is the ultimate aim of this work, to lay bare the economic law of motion of modern society – it can neither clear by bold leaps, nor remove by legal enactments, the obstacles offered by the successive phases of its normal development. But it can shorten and lessen the birth pangs.[7]

According to Marx and Engels, the need for the dictatorship of the proletariat, that is a period of transition between the two “stable” modes of production, capitalism and communism, is based on two factors:

  • communism cannot flourish within capitalism (unlike capitalism which developed within feudalism);
  • the development of the productive forces brought about by capitalism, although dramatic, is nevertheless insufficient for the complete satisfaction of human needs, which is a characteristic of communism.

Not only are the anarchists clearly unable to understand this but what’s more, their “vision of communism” in no way transcends the narrow bourgeois horizon. This can already be seen in Proudhon’s works. For him, political economy is the supreme science and he sets out to identify the good and the bad side of every capitalist economic category. The good side of exchange is that it opposes two equal values. The good side of competition is emulation. Inevitably, he also finds a good side to private property: “But it is clear that, although inequality is one of the characteristics of property, that is not all that it is. What makes property delightful, in the words of some philosopher whose name I no longer remember, is that you can dispose at will, not only of the value of the goods, but also of its specific character. You can exploit it as you please, reinforce it or conclude and make what use of it as is suggested by your interest, passion and whim”.[8]

The reign of freedom is proclaimed but the limited and petty dreams of the small producer are dragged on board. For the anarchists, the ideal society is just an idealised capitalism whose masters are exchange and the law of value, in other words, the conditions for the exploitation of man by man. Marxism, on the contrary, is a radical critique of capitalism, which defends the perspective of a real emancipation of the proletariat and of the whole of humanity at the same time. Marx and Engels always fought against vulgar communism which restricts the revolution to the sphere of distribution and which ends up simply sharing out misery. They opposed the idea that there would be a spurt in the productive forces once they were freed from the constraints of capitalism. They called not only for the satisfaction of the elementary needs of human beings but also for the development of these needs, the transcending of the separation between the individual and the community, the development of all of the individual’s abilities, which are now stifled by the tentacles of the division of labour. “In a more advanced phase of communist society, when the enslaving subjugation of individuals to the division of labour, and thereby the antithesis between intellectual and physical labour, have disappeared, when labour is no longer just a means of keeping alive but has itself become a vital need; when the all-round development of individuals has also increased their productive powers and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly – only then can society wholly cross the narrow horizon of bourgeois right and inscribe on its banner : From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs![9]

Marxism does not give in to the windy phrases of petty bourgeois radicalism and utopianism. It knows that the only way to escape from capitalism is to eliminate wages and exchange. These encapsulate all the contradictions of capitalism and are the basic causes of the wars, crises and poverty that ravage society. The political economy to be established by the dictatorship of the proletariat is entirely directed towards this aim. According to this conception there is not a spontaneous transformation but rather the destruction of capitalist social relations.

In recalling this, we can see the extreme confusion with which the anarchists claim to overcome the separation of the worker from the product of his labour. From their point of view, by becoming the owners of the factory where they work, the workers automatically become the owners of the product of their labour. They dominate them, they even manage to enjoy them in full. The result is that property becomes eternal and sacred. What we have here is a federalist kind of regime that is heir to the pre-capitalist mode of production. Lassalle follows the same trajectory. He learnt from Marx that exploitation entails the extraction of surplus value. So the problem is to be solved by demanding for the worker the entire produce of his labour. By doing so, as Engels says in Anti-Duhring: “The most important progressive function of society, accumulation, is taken from society and put into the hands, placed at the arbitrary discretion, of individuals.[10] According to the works of Marx these confusions about labour, labour power and the product of labour are completely inadmissible. This theoretical gibberish, shared by Lassalle and the anarchists, is the basis for self-management conceptions. This is not an orientation for the abolition of exchange and towards communism. It rather increases the obstacles in its path. This is how Marx, once more in the Critique of the Gotha Programme, concluded the sharp critique of these conceptions: “If I have dealt at some length with the ‘undiminished proceeds of labour’ on the one hand, and ‘equal right’ and ‘just distribution’ on the other, it is in order to show the criminal nature of what is being attempted: on the one hand, our party is to be forced to re-accept as dogmas ideas which may have made some sense at a particular time but which are now only a load of obsolete verbal rubbish; on the other hand, the realistic outlook instilled in our party at the cost of immense effort, but now firmly rooted in it, is to be perverted by means of ideological, legal and other humbug so common among the democrats and the French socialists.[11]

From this point of view, it seems to us that you stop half way in your reasoning. You agree with us that during this period, the working class will not be exploited. This is because the proletariat holds power, because there will be a process of collectivisation of the means of production. It is also because excess labour no longer takes the form of surplus value to be used for the accumulation of capital but is to be used increasingly to satisfy the needs of society (once the reserve fund and the sum destined for unproductive members of society is deducted). You say, quite rightly: “The difference between socialism (the period of transition) and capitalism is that under socialism the work force is no longer a commodity (letter of 23rd January 2005). But in your next letter you say: “The law of value remains operative in its entirety, not partially”. This gives force to your expression “market socialism”. You see quite well the need to attack the wage but not the need to attack market exchange. However, the two are tightly linked.

The law of value expounded by Marx does not just elucidate the origin of market value, it solves the enigma of the enlarged reproduction of capital. Even if the proletariat receives a wage that corresponds to the real value of its labour power, it still creates much greater value by means of the productive process. The exploitation that allows this surplus value to be extracted from the proletariat’s labour already existed in simple market production, from which capitalism was born and developed. It is therefore impossible to eliminate the exploitation of the proletariat without attacking market exchange. Engels explains this clearly in The origin of the Family, Private Property and the State: “When the producers no longer directly consumed their product, but let it go out of their hands in the course of exchange, they lost control over it. They no longer knew what became of it, and the possibility arose that the product might some day be turned against the producers, used as a means of exploiting and oppressing them, Hence, no society can for any length of time remain master of its own production and continue to control the social effects of its process of production, unless it abolishes exchange between individuals.”[12]

If the law of value remains “operative in its entirety”, as you say, then the proletariat remains an exploited class. If exploitation is to cease during the period of transition it is not enough to expropriate the bourgeoisie. It is also necessary that the means of production cease to exist as capital. The capitalist principle of dead labour, of accumulated labour that dominates living labour in order to produce surplus value must be replaced. Its place must be taken by the principle of living labour that dominates accumulated labour in order to produce for the satisfaction of the needs of the members of society. The dictatorship of the proletariat will have to combat the absurd and catastrophic productivism of capitalism. As is stated in the French Communist Left,  at the beginning, the amount of surplus labour the proletariat has to perform will be as great as it was under capitalism. Thus the socialist economic principle will not, in its immediate application, be able to be measured quantitatively in the relation between paid and unpaid labour. Only the trajectory, the tendency towards altering this relationship can serve as an indication of which way the economy is going, as a barometer of the class nature of production.[13]

Self-management, a fatal trap for the proletariat

The second question under discussion is dealt with in point 11 of our platform: “Self-management: workers’ self-exploitation”. Here you express a clear disagreement with our position. It seems inconceivable to you that workers can exploit themselves. “But I do not at all understand”, you write, “how it is possible to exploit oneself. It’s like stealing from oneself.” Since the big workers’ struggles at the end of the 1960s, most of our sections have been confronted concretely with the question of the self-management by the workers of “their” enterprise within the framework of capitalist society. So they have been able to verify in practice that behind the self-management mask lurks the trap of isolation laid by the unions. There are numerous examples: the watchmaker Lip in France in 1973, Quaregnon and Salik in Belgium in 1978-79, Triumph in England in the same period and recently in the Welsh mining industry at Tower Colliery. The scenario is always the same: the threat of bankruptcy provokes workers’ struggle, the unions organise the isolation of the struggle and in the end manage to defeat it by inviting workers and management into buying out the factory, at the cost, if necessary, of redundancy pay or several months’ wages in order to increase the capital of the enterprise. In 1979, the Lip factory, which in the meantime had become a workers’ co-operative, went out of business under the pressure of its competitors. During the last general assembly, a worker gave vent to his rage and despair at the union representatives, who had become the real bosses of the factory: “You’re vile! Now it’s you who chuck us out the door... You lied to us![14] The slogan of self-management serves to get workers to accept the sacrifices imposed by the economic crisis and strangle at birth their struggle to resist them.

This principle is entirely in accordance with marxism. We should point out that we are not the first to use the idea of the self-exploitation of the workers. This is what Rosa Luxemburg wrote in 1898: “But in capitalist economy exchange dominates production (...) As a result of competition, the complete domination of the process of production by the interests of capital – that is, pitiless exploitation – becomes a condition for the survival of each enterprise. The domination of capital over the process of production expresses itself in the following ways. Labour is intensified. The work day is lengthened or shortened, according to the situation of the market. And, depending on the requirements of the market, labour is either employed or thrown back into the street. In other words, use is made of all methods that enable an enterprise to stand up against its competitors in the market. The workers forming a co-operative in the field of production are thus faced with the contradictory necessity of governing themselves with the utmost absolutism. They are obliged to take to themselves the role of capitalist entrepreneur – a contradiction that accounts for the usual failure of production co-operatives which either become pure capitalist enterprises or, if the workers’ interests continue to predominate, end by dissolving.”[15]

It is because the workers “take to themselves the role of capitalist entrepreneur” that we call it self-exploitation. Your defence of self-management is based on the experience of the workers’ co-operatives in the 19th century and you quote in particular the “Resolution on the work of the co-operatives” adopted at the first congress of the IWA. In fact, on several occasions Marx and Engels encouraged the co-operative movement, essentially the co-operatives of production. This was not so much for their practical results but rather because they confirmed the idea that the workers were perfectly able to do without the capitalists. This is why they were keen to stress their limits and the permanent risk of their coming more or less directly under the control of the bourgeoisie. They were concerned to prevent the co-operatives from diverting the workers from the revolutionary perspective, from the need for them to seize power over the whole of society. This resolution stipulates:

a) We recognise the co-operative movement as one of the forces for transformation in the present society, which is founded on class antagonisms. Its great merit is that it shows practically that the present system of the subordination of labour to capital, which is despotic and creates pauperisation, can be supplanted by the republican system of association between free and equal producers.

b) But the co-operative system is limited to minute examples coming out of the individual efforts of wage slaves. It is powerless in itself to transform capitalist society. In order to transform social production into a large and harmonious system of co-operative labour, general change is indispensable. Such change will never be obtained without the organised force of society. Therefore, state power must be torn from the hands of the capitalists and landed property owners and wielded by the producers themselves.[16]

You quote the first part of this passage but not the second, which offers an essential clarification and which reflects much more faithfully Marx’s real thinking. We know that Marx had to form the First International from various confused socialist schools, which he hoped to help evolve. Through the development of its consciousness the workers’ movement rid itself of “doctrinaire recipes” and Marx actively contributed to this. The co-operative associations belonged to this type of doctrine and tended to take the place of the class struggle, of workers’ protection, of the union struggle and even of the overthrow of capitalist society. For Marx it was indispensable that the working class rises to the level of a theoretical understanding of what it must do in practice. For this reason the formula, “ a large and harmonious system of co-operative labour” undoubtedly means communist society and not a federation of workers’ co-operatives.

For you the first part of the resolution means that the struggle for reforms is not in contradiction with the overthrow of capitalism, that it is in fact complimentary. But it could be so only in the period in which capitalism was progressive, when the bourgeoisie could still play a revolutionary role in relation to the vestiges of feudalism. This was the period in which the workers could participate in parliamentary and union struggles for the recognition of democratic rights, for the realisation of significant social reforms in order to hasten the maturation of the conditions for the communist revolution. Today on the other hand we are in the midst of the period of capitalist decadence. With the outbreak of the First World War, with the emergence of a new capitalist period, that of imperialism, of decadence, reforms have become impossible. If we fail to take account of this historic evolution in a marxist way, we end up forgetting Lenin’s warning in The Proletarian revolution and the renegade Kautsky: One of the most pernicious methods of opportunism is to reiterate a position that was valid in the past”.

You say that, according to Marx, “socialism is born out of the old and dying bourgeois society.” If we open the Communist Manifesto, for example, we find no such idea. In it Marx and Engels explain that the bourgeoisie gradually developed new relations of production within feudalism and that its political revolution completed the economic domination that it had already acquired. They showed that for the proletariat, the process is the opposite: All the preceding classes that got the upper hand, sought to fortify their already acquired status by subjecting society at large to their conditions of appropriation. The proletarians cannot become masters of the productive forces of society, except by abolishing their own previous mode of appropriation, and thereby also every other previous mode of appropriation. They have nothing of their own to secure and to fortify; their mission is to destroy all previous securities for, and insurances of, individual property.” (Manifesto of the Communist Party, “Bourgeois and Proletarians”). The political revolution of the proletariat is the indispensable condition for the emergence of new relations of production. What arises within bourgeois society are the conditions for socialism, not socialism itself.

The cruel laws of competition

To support your argument you develop the idea that “Decadence means economic stagnation, the flowering of delinquency, the increase of misery and unemployment. State power is weak and unstable (striking examples are the military empires of ancient Rome, which lasted only a few months). The class struggle becomes more acute. The most important thing, which you do not mention in your book, Decadence of Capitalism, is the appearance of new class relations within the old dying society. In the Roman Empire it was the colonists, the slaves used for agricultural work, serfs in essence. In the period of the destruction of bourgeois society it is self-managed enterprises, the co-operatives to be exact.” It is true that, in decadent capitalism, bourgeois society is marked by a high degree of instability. The bourgeoisie must confront unprecedented economic debility, it is ravaged by a crisis of over-production because there are not enough soluble markets at the international level. Imperialist rivalries intensify and erupt into world war. The bourgeoisie responds to this situation by strengthening the state. This is analogous to what happened with the decadence of the Roman Empire and with the absolutism of the monarchy in the case of feudalism. There is an increase of competition, the need for the intensification of the exploitation of the proletariat, the appearance of mass unemployment, a totalitarian state that reaches its tentacles into all aspects of civil society (and not a “weak and unstable” state). This is precisely what makes it impossible for workers co-operatives to survive today.

We completely agree with you that it is “the Left Communists who are right on this question (state capitalism) and not Lenin.” They understood intuitively that capitalism was strengthening in Russia even in the absence of a private bourgeoisie and that the power of the working class was in danger. In fact, under the pressure of the isolation of the revolution, the workers councils lost power to the state, with which the Bolshevik party had identified itself completely. But we do not at all agree with the remedies proposed by Kollontai’s Workers’ Opposition. Demanding that the management of the factories and the exchange of goods should be given into the hands of the workers of each factory would only have exacerbated the problem and made it even more complicated. Not only would the workers have obtained no more than symbolic power but they would also have lost their class unity, that had been so magnificently realised when the workers’ councils arose. They would also have lost the influence of a real vanguard party in their midst, the Bolshevik party.

On the contrary, you think that “It is much easier and more comfortable for the workers to control production at the level of the factories. (...) After October 1917 the economy was managed in a centralised way. Finally socialism degenerated into state capitalism against the will of the Bolsheviks. (...) So, under socialism, the workers’ councils will not have the job of managing the economy, they will not plan either the production or the distribution of goods. If these tasks are given to the workers’ councils, socialism will inevitably develop towards state capitalism.” For our part, we are convinced that centralisation is fundamental for workers’ power. If you remove the centralisation of socialism, you get the autonomous communities of the anarchists and a regression of the productive forces. What happened in Russia is that a centralised force, the state, supplanted another centralised force, the workers’ councils. Where did the bureaucracy and then the Stalinist bourgeoisie come from? It came from the state, not from the workers’ councils, which themselves underwent a process of decline that led to their death. It was not centralisation that led to the degeneration of the Russian revolution. If the workers’ councils were weakened at this point, if the Bolsheviks allowed themselves to become embroiled in the state, it is because the revolution was isolated. The machine guns that cut down the German proletariat also overcame the Russian proletariat, as if by ricochet. It was not long before the latter became no more than a wounded giant, weakened and bled dry. This confirms an important lesson of the Russian revolution: socialism is impossible in one country!

In conclusion, we will return to your conception of the self-management of factories under capitalism.[17]

In these co-operatives the workers decide on the division of the profits collectively. Wages no longer exist, “the workers receive the use value and not the exchange value of their labour power” To start with, we think that there is a confusion here between “exchange value” and “use value”. The latter expresses the usefulness of what is produced, the use that can be made of it. One of the fundamental specificities of the productive process operated by the modern proletariat, in comparison with other historical periods, is that the use values it produces can only be appropriated by society as a whole. Unlike the shoes, for example, produced by the artisan cobbler the hundreds of thousands of microchips produced by the workers of Intel or AMD have no “use value” in themselves. They have use value only as parts of other machines produced by other workers in other factories and which themselves are part of the production chain of still other factories. This is also true of the modern “cobblers”: the workers of Jinjiang in China, who produce 700,000 shoes per year. It is hard to imagine that they could wear all of them! By the same token, it is difficult to imagine one self-managed factory paying the workers in combine-harvesters, which are by definition indivisible, and another one in ball-point pens.

However, let’s suppose that, as you said, the workers do receive the equivalent of the variable capital and the surplus value produced. They still cannot consume the entire profit of the factory but only a relatively small part. The rest must be transformed into new means of production. The laws of competition (and we are in a competitive situation) are such that every business must expand and increase its productivity if it does not want to go under. So part of the profit is accumulated and converted into capital. Of necessity, the proportion will be more or less the same as in a factory that is not self-managed. Otherwise the self-managed business would not expand as fast as the others and would go under in the end. The cost price of the self-managed factory would have to be at least no higher than those of the rest of the capitalist economy. Otherwise it would not find buyers for its goods. This inevitably means that the workers of self-managed factories would have to align their wages and their work rhythm with those of the workers employed in capitalist enterprises. In other words, they would have to exploit themselves.

Moreover, we find ourselves in the same conditions of exploitation as in all the other enterprises because the workforce is still under submission, alienated from dead labour, from accumulated labour, from capital. At most they can take back that fraction of the profit that in traditional capitalist enterprises is set aside for the personal consumption of the boss or which constitutes the dividends of the shareholders. The workers who rejoiced at having obtained a supplement to their wages would soon change their tune. The bosses that they elected in all confidence would quickly convince them to hand back this supplement and even to agree to wage reductions.

But the transformation, either into joint-stock companies, or into state ownership, (or the transformation into self-managed enterprises, we could add) does not do away with the capitalistic nature of the productive forces”, Engels says in Anti-Dühring. Changing the legal status of an enterprise in no way changes its capitalist nature. This is because capital is not a form of property; it is a social relationship. Only the political revolution of the proletariat can eliminate capital by giving a new orientation to social production. It cannot do this by going backwards in terms of the level of international socialisation attained under capitalism. On the contrary, it must complete this socialisation by breaking through the national framework, the factory framework and the division of labour. Then the slogan of the Communist Manifesto will take on the full force of its meaning: “Workers of the world unite!”.

We await your reply. Accept our fraternal and communist greetings.

ICC, 22nd November 2005

[1] The work of the Communist Left in Russia is the subject of our book The Russian Communist Left 1918-1930. This is currently published in English and will soon be available in French and Russian.

[2] See the International Review n°119: “The ICC’s intervention into the internationalist milieu in Russia”. 

[3] This text has already been published on our Russian language web site.

[4] Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme. Point 3. 

[5] Karl Marx, Poverty of Philosophy, chapter one: “A scientific discovery”, part two: “Constituted value of synthetic value”.

[6] Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme

[7] Karl Marx, Preface to the first edition of the first book of Capital.

[8] Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, What is property? Quoted in Claude Harmel, History of Anarchism, Éditions Champ Libre, Paris, 1984, p. 149.

[9] Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme, point 3. 

[10] Frederick Engels, Anti-Dühring, Third part, Chapter IV: Distribution.

[11] Critique of the Gotha Programme, point 3.

[12] Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Chapter V: “The Rise of the Athenian State”. 

[13] “The Russian Experience”, Internationalisme n°10, May 1946, reprinted in International Review n°61, 2nd quarter 1990.

[14] Révolution Internationale n°67, November 1979. 

[15] Rosa Luxembourg, Reform or Revolution, Part two, Chapter VII. Co-operatives, Unions, Democracy.

[16] Karl Marx, Resolutions from the First Congress of the I.W.A (held in Geneva, September 1866).

[17] To quote your letter: “Self-management (in the full sense of the term) is when the workers themselves direct their own factory and also share the profits. In fact the factory has become the workers’ property.”

“In my opinion, the co-operative factories are characterised by the following:

  1. the complete absence of wages,
  2. the election of all officials,
  3. the distribution of profits by the workers of the factory collectively.”

“In factories where there is no wage, that is, where the workers receive the use value (variable capital + surplus value) and not the exchange value of their labour power (variable capital), production is ten times more efficient.”

“The workers produce the goods and they sell them on the market. With what they have earned they can buy the equivalent of the same quantity of labour of other workers. So distribution has taken place on the basis of the quantity of labour. In addition, part of the value goes towards the renewal of the means of production while the rest goes for the individual consumption of the workers.