Communism Vol. 3, Part 8 - The problems of the period of transition (IV)

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With this article from Bilan n° 35 (September-October 1936), the theoretical publication of the Italian left communists, we continue our re-publication of the series of studies on the period of transition by Mitchell. The previous article in the series (International Review n° 130) began the discussion on the economic tasks of a proletarian dictatorship, responding to the efforts of the Dutch left communists of the GIK to outline the ‘fundamentals of communist production and distribution' in the light of the experience in Russia. The debate between these two currents of the communist left has to a large extent been buried by history, above all by the weight of the counter-revolution, and needs to be re-excavated as a new generation searches for answers about a real alternative to the capitalist system.

We will be returning in more depth to the issues raised by this debate. The article that follows focuses in particular on the problem of the repartition of the social product during the transition towards a fully communist society, a period in which it is not yet possible to universally apply the principle "to each according to his needs, from each according to his means". As we said in our introduction to the previous article, we do not share all of Mitchell's (and Bilan's) views on this question, for example their view that the USSR had in some sense eliminated capitalism by formally abolishing the private ownership of the means of production; and there is certainly a discussion to be had about whether the principal transitional economic measure advocated by Marx, the GIK and the Italian left - the system of labour time vouchers - is the most adequate basis for the development of communist social relations after the destruction of the capitalist state. But the article still conveys many of the best qualities of the Italian left:

- its insistence on basing its investigations on a critical re-examination of the marxist tradition, in particular Marx's Critique of the Gotha Programme;

- its capacity to examine the problem of distribution in some theoretical depth, notably by invoking the problem of the law of value;

- its avoidance of all easy solutions to the immense tasks that will confront the proletariat once it takes control of society. It is particularly striking, for example, that where for the GIK the remuneration of work according to a calculation of the ‘hour of social labour' guaranteed a virtually automatic progression towards integral communism (when not being identified with communism itself), for Mitchell the persistence of such a system was proof that the proletariat had not yet freed itself from the law of value and in that sense represented a survival of wage labour. The difference may seem to be between that of a glass half empty and a glass half full, but it is nevertheless symptomatic of a very different approach to the reality of the proletarian revolution.


Bilan no 35 (September - October 1936)

There has been a lot of chatter about "the product of social labour" and its "full" and "equitable" distribution, confused formulations which can easily be taken over by demagogues. But the essential question of the destination of the social product, i.e. of the sum of the activities of labour, is concentrated around two basic issues: how is the total product to be distributed? And how should the fraction of that product which enters immediately into individual consumption be distributed?

Distribution of the products of labour destined for consumption

Obviously we know that there is no one response valid for all societies and the mode of distribution is conditioned by the mode of production. But we also know that there are certain fundamental rules which any social organisation has to keep to if it wants to survive: societies, like the men that make them up, are subject to the laws of preservation, which requires not just simple reproduction but enlarged reproduction. This is a truism that we have to remind ourselves of.

At the same time, as soon as an economy breaks through its natural, domestic framework and generalises into a commodity economy, it acquires a social character which, with the capitalist system, takes on an immense significance, through the conflict which irreducibly opposes it to the private character of the appropriation of wealth.

With the "socialised" production of capitalism, we are in the presence not of isolated individual products, but of social products, i.e, products which not only don't respond to the immediate use of the producers, but which are also the common result of their activity: "The thread, the cloth, the metal objects that come from the factory are from that point on the common product of numerous workers, through whose hands it has to pass in succession before it can be completed. No individual can say about it that I made that, this is my product."[1]

In other words, social production is the synthesis of individual activities and not simply their juxtaposition; consequently, "in society, the relation of the producer to the product after its completion is extrinsic, and the return of the product

to the subject depends on his relations to other individuals. The product does not immediately come into his possession. Its immediate appropriation, moreover, is not his aim, if he produces within society. Distribution, which on the basis of social laws determines the individual's share in the world of products, intervenes between the producer and the products, i.e., between production and consumption."[2]

This remains true in socialist society; and when we say that the producers must re-establish their domination over production, which capitalism has taken away from them, we are not talking about the overthrow of the natural course of social life, but of the relations of production and repartition.

In his Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx, in denouncing the reactionary utopianism of Lassalle's idea of "the products of labour", poses the question in these terms: "What are the ‘proceeds of labour'? The product of labour, or its value? And in the latter case, is it the total value of the product, or only that part of the value which labour has newly added to the value of the means of production consumed?" (our emphasis - Mitchell).

Marx indicates how in social production - which is dominated not by the individual producer but by the social producer - the concept of the "product of labour" differs essentially from the product of the independent worker: "Let us take, first of all, the words 'proceeds of labour' in the sense of the product of labour; then the co-operative proceeds of labour are the total social product.

"From this must now be deducted: First, cover for replacement of the means of production used up. Second, additional portion for expansion of production. Third, reserve or insurance funds to provide against accidents, dislocations caused by natural calamities, etc".

This transforms the "full product of labour" into a partial product, i.e., that fraction of the objects of consumption which are distributed individually among the collective producers. In sum, this "partial product" not only does not include the part materialised in former labour provided by previous productive cycles, and which is absorbed by the replacement of the means of production that have been consumed; it also does not represent the entirety of the new labour added to social capital, since we have to take into account the deductions we have just mentioned. This boils down to saying that the "partial product" is equivalent to the net income of society, or the fraction of gross income which has to return to the individual consumption of the producer, but which bourgeois society does not integrally restore to him.

Here then is the response to the first question: "how is the total product distributed?" The simple conclusion is that surplus labour, i.e. the fraction of new or living labour required by the totality of collective needs, cannot be abolished in any kind of social system. But whereas under capitalism it is a barrier to the development of the individual, in a communist society it has to be the condition for the latter's all-round development. "In the capitalist as well as in the slave system, etc., it merely assumes an antagonistic form and is supplemented by complete idleness of a stratum of society."[3]

What in effect determines the rates of capitalist surplus labour are the necessities of the production of surplus value, which is the motor force of social production; the domination of exchange value over use value subordinates the needs of enlarged reproduction and of consumption to the needs of the accumulation of capital; the development of the productivity of labour results in an increase in the rate and the mass of surplus labour.

By contrast, socialist surplus labour has to be kept to the minimum required by the needs of the proletarian economy and to the necessities of the class struggle that continues on a national and international scale. In reality, fixing the rate of accumulation and the rate of administrative and unproductive costs (absorbed by the bureaucracy) will be located at the centre of the proletariat's concerns; but we will examine this aspect of the problem in a subsequent chapter.

We must now respond to the second question: "how is the partial product then distributed?" i.e. that fraction of the total product which immediately falls under individual consumption, and thus into the wage fund, since the capitalist form of the remuneration of labour persists during the transitional period.

Collective appropriation, equalisation and disappearance of wages

Let's begin by saying that there is a conception among certain revolutionaries that has been adopted rather too easily: the idea that if collective appropriation is to mean anything, it must ipso facto result in the disappearance of wages and the installation of equal remuneration for all; the corollary to this is the idea that the inequality of wages presupposes the exploitation of labour power.

This conception, which we will find when we examine the arguments of the Dutch internationalists, proceeds on the one hand - we have to emphasise this again - from a denial of the contradictory movement of historical materialism, and on the other hand from a confusion between two different categories: labour and labour power; between the value of labour power, i.e. the quantity of labour needed to reproduce this labour power, and the total quantity of labour which this labour power can supply in a given time.

It is exact to say that to the political content of the dictatorship of the proletariat there has to correspond a new social content to the remuneration of labour, which can no longer be no more than the equivalent of the products strictly necessary for the reproduction of labour power. In other words, what constitutes the essence of capitalist exploitation, the opposition between the use value and the exchange value of this particular commodity we call labour power, disappears with the suppression of the private ownership of the means of production, and consequently the private use of labour power also disappears. Obviously the new utilisation of this labour power and of the mass of surplus labour which derives from it can indeed be turned away from their proletarian objectives (the Soviet experience demonstrates this), and in this way there can arise a mode of exploitation of a particular nature, which strictly speaking is not capitalist. But this is another story that we will come back to elsewhere. For the moment we don't have to remain at this proposition; the fact that in a proletarian economy the basic motive force is no longer the ceaselessly enlarged production of surplus value and of capital but the unlimited production of use values does not mean that the conditions are right for a levelling of "wages" that translates into equality in consumption. In fact, such an equality can exist neither at the beginning of the transitional period nor in the communist phase, which is based on the formula "to each according to his needs". In reality, formal equality can never exist, while communism will finally realise a real equality in natural inequality.

It remains however to explain why the differentiation of wages subsists in the transitional phase despite the fact that the wage, while preserving its bourgeois envelope, has lost its antagonistic content. The question is immediately posed: what will be the juridical norms of repartition prevailing in this period?

In the Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx responds: "Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development conditioned thereby". When he notes that the mode of distribution of the objects of consumption can only be the reflection of the mode of repartition of the means of production and of the mode of production itself, for him this is only a schema which is realised gradually. Capitalism did not install its relations of distribution immediately; it did it by stages, on the accumulated ruins of the feudal system. The proletariat cannot also not immediately regulate distribution according to socialist norms. It has to do it by virtue of "rights", which can only be those of "a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges". But there is a major difference between the conditions for the development of capitalism and those for the development of socialism. The bourgeoisie, by developing its economic positions inside feudal society, was also constructing the bases for the future juridical superstructure of its system of production; and its political revolution codified these economic and juridical gains. The proletariat does not benefit from any similar evolution and cannot base itself on any economic privilege or any concrete embryo of "socialist right", because for a marxist there can be no question of seeing the "social conquests" of reformism as such a right. It has to thus temporarily apply bourgeois right, albeit in a limited way, to the mechanisms of distribution. This is what Marx meant when, in the Critique of the Gotha Programme, he talked about equal rights; and in turn, Lenin, in his State and Revolution, noted with his clear and powerful realism "the interesting phenomenon that communism in its first phase retains ‘the narrow horizon of bourgeois right'. Of course, bourgeois right in regard to the distribution of consumer goods inevitably presupposes the existence of the bourgeois state, for law is nothing without an apparatus capable of enforcing the observance of the rules of law.

"It follows that under communism there remains for a time not only bourgeois right, but even the bourgeois state, without the bourgeoisie!"

Marx, again in the Critique of the Gotha Programme analyses how and in relation to which principles bourgeois equal rights are applied: "The right of the producers is proportional to the labour they supply; the equality consists in the fact that measurement is made with an equal standard, labour".[4]

And the remuneration of labour is carried out in the following way: "Accordingly, the individual producer receives back from society -- after the deductions have been made - exactly what he gives to it. What he has given to it is his individual quantum of labour [our emphasis]. For example, the social working day consists of the sum of the individual hours of work; the individual labour time of the individual producer is the part of the social working day contributed by him, his share in it. He receives a certificate from society that he has furnished such-and-such an amount of labour (after deducting his labour for the common funds); and with this certificate, he draws from the social stock of means of consumption as much as the same amount of labour cost. The same amount of labour which he has given to society in one form, he receives back in another.

"Here, obviously, the same principle prevails as that which regulates the exchange of commodities, as far as this is exchange of equal values. Content and form are changed, because under the altered circumstances no one can give anything except his labour, and because, on the other hand, nothing can pass to the ownership of individuals, except individual means of consumption. But as far as the distribution of the latter among the individual producers is concerned, the same principle prevails as in the exchange of commodity equivalents: a given amount of labour in one form is exchanged for an equal amount of labour in another form".[5]

The unequal distribution of consumer goods according to labour performed, rather than need

When Marx talks about a principle analogous to the one which regulates the exchange of commodities and of the individual quantum of labour, he undoubtedly meant simple labour, the substance of value, which means that all individual labour has to be reduced to a common measure in order to be compared, evaluated, and consequently remunerated through the application of "right that is proportional to the labour supplied". We have already noted that there is still no scientific way of reducing simple labour and, as a result, the law of value persists in this function, although only within certain limits determined by the new political and economic conditions. Marx also dispels any doubts about this when he analyses the measurement of labour:

"But one man is superior to another physically, or mentally, and supplies more labour in the same time, or can labour for a longer time; and labour, to serve as a measure, must be defined by its duration or intensity, otherwise it ceases to be a standard of measurement. This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labour. It recognizes no class differences, because everyone is only a worker like everyone else; but it tacitly recognizes unequal individual endowment, and thus productive capacity, as a natural privilege. It is, therefore, a right of inequality, in its content, like every right. Right, by its very nature, can consist only in the application of an equal standard; but unequal individuals (and they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal) are measurable only by an equal standard insofar as they are brought under an equal point of view, are taken from one definite side only - for instance, in the present case, are regarded only as workers and nothing more is seen in them, everything else being ignored. Further, one worker is married, another is not; one has more children than another, and so on and so forth. Thus, with an equal performance of labour, and hence an equal in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, and so on. To avoid all these defects, right, instead of being equal, would have to be unequal.

"But these defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society as it is when it has just emerged after prolonged birth pangs from capitalist society".

From this analysis, it emerges clearly that, on the one hand, the existence of bourgeois equal rights is indissolubly linked to the existence of value; and on the other hand, the mode of distribution hides a dual inequality: one, which is an expression of the diversity of "individual gifts", of "productive capacities", of "natural privileges"; and the other which, on the basis of equal labour, arises from differences of social condition (family, etc): "In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labour, has vanished; after labour has become not only a means of life but life's prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly - only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!"[6]

But in the transitional phase, bourgeois right installs a de facto inequality which is inevitable because the first phase of communism "cannot yet provide justice and equality; differences, and unjust differences, in wealth will still persist, but the exploitation of man by man will have become impossible because it will be impossible to seize the means of production--the factories, machines, land, etc.--and make them private property. In smashing Lassalle's petty-bourgeois, vague phrases about ‘equality' and ‘justice' in general, Marx shows the course of development of communist society, which is compelled to abolish at first only the ‘injustice' of the means of production seized by individuals, and which is unable at once to eliminate the other injustice, which consists in the distribution of consumer goods ‘according to the amount of labour performed' (and not according to needs)."[7]

The exchange of equal quantities of labour, although in fact translating into inequality in distribution, does not at all imply exploitation, since the foundation and form of the exchange have been modified and the political conditions which determined this change continue to exist, ie the real maintenance of the dictatorship of the proletariat. It would thus be absurd to invoke marxist theory to argue that the degeneration of this dictatorship results in a kind of exploitation. On the contrary, the thesis that the differentiation of wages, the demarcation between qualified labour and unqualified labour, simple and compound labour, are sure signs of degeneration within the proletarian state and indications of the existence of an exploiting class, this thesis has to be categorically rejected, on the one hand because it implies that this degeneration is inevitable, and on the other hand because it can in no way serve to explain the evolution of the Russian revolution.

We have already made it clear that the Dutch internationalists, in their attempt to analyse the problems of the period of transition, are inspired much more by their desires than by historical reality. Their abstract schema, in which as people who are perfectly consistent with their principles, they exclude the law of value, the market and money, must logically entail an "ideal" distribution of products as well. This is because for them "The proletarian revolution collectivises the means of production and thus opens the way to communist life; the dynamic laws of individual consumption must absolutely and necessarily be linked together because they are indissolubly linked to the laws of production. This link is made ‘by itself' though the passage to communist production" ( p72 of their work).

The Dutch comrades thus consider that the new relation of production, thanks to collectivisation, automatically determines a new right over the products "This right will be expressed through equal conditions for individual consumption which resides solely in an equal measure of consumption. Just as the hour of individual labour is the measure of individual labour, it is at the same time the measure of individual consumption. In this way consumption is socially regulated and is cast in the right direction. The passage to the social revolution is nothing else than the application of the measure of the average hour of social labour to the whole of economic life. It serves as a measure for production and also as a right of the producers over the social product" (p 25).

The reactionary development of the USSR: economic causes or a result of abandoning internationalism

But once again, this affirmation can only become a positive one if we draw out its concrete significance, which is to say that when you talk about labour time and the measurement of labour, you are talking about value. This is what the Dutch comrades leave out and this leads them to adopt a false judgment of the Russian revolution, and above all to severely curtail the scope of their research into the underlying causes of the reactionary evolution of the USSR. They don't seek the explanation for the latter in the subsoil of the national and international class struggle (one of the negative characteristics of their study is that they more or less remove any consideration of political problems), but in the economic mechanism, as when they say: "When the Russians restored production on the basis of value, they proclaimed there and then the expropriation of the workers, their separation from the means of production, ensuring that there would be no relationship between the growth of the mass of products and the workers' share in this mass" (p 19).

For them maintaining value was the equivalent of maintaining the exploitation of labour power, but we think we have shown, on the basis of marxist theory, that value can subsist without its antagonistic content, i.e. without the remuneration of the value of labour power.

But apart from this, the Dutch internationalists falsify the significance of Marx's words about the repartition of products. When they say that the worker receives from the process of distribution a pro rata of the quantity of labour he has given, they only discover one aspect of the dual inequality which we have underlined, and it is the one which results from the social situation of the worker (p 81); but they don't dwell on the other aspect, which expresses the fact that the workers, in the same amount of labour time, provide different quantities of simple labour (simple labour which is the common measure exerted through the play of value), thus giving rise to unequal repartition. They prefer to stick with their demand for the suppression of inequality in wages, which remains hanging in mid air because the suppression of capitalist wage labour does not immediately result in the disappearance of the differences in the remuneration of labour.

Comrade Hennaut comes up with a similar solution to the problem of distribution in the period of transition, a solution which he also draws from a mistaken, because incomplete, interpretation of Marx's Critique of the Gotha Programme. In Bilan, p 747, he said: "the inequality which still exists in the first phase of socialism results not from an unequal remuneration being applied to various kinds of labour: the simple work of the labourer or the compound work of the engineer, with all the stages in between. No, all these types of labour are of equal worth, only their duration and intensity has to be measured; inequality results from the fact that men who have different capacities and needs are carrying out the same tasks with the same resources". And Hennaut inverses Marx's thinking when he locates inequality in the fact that "the part of the social profit remains equal - an equal amount of remuneration of course - for each individual, whereas their needs and the effort made to achieve the same remuneration are different"; whereas, as we have indicated, Marx saw inequality in the fact that individuals received unequal shares because they provided unequal shares of labour and this is the basis for the application of bourgeois equal rights.

A policy of equalisation of wages cannot be adopted in the transition phase, not only because it would be inapplicable, but because it would lead inevitably to the collapse of labour productivity.

If, during "war communism", the Bolsheviks applied the system of equal rations, independent of qualification and of the amount of labour provided, this was not an economic method capable of ensuring the systematic development of the economy; it was the regime of a people under siege and concentrating all its energies on the civil war.

If we begin from the general consideration that variations and differences in the qualification of labour (and its remuneration) are in inverse proposition to the technical level of production, we can understand why in the USSR after the NEP very large variations in wages between qualified and non-qualified workers[8] were the result of the greater importance of the individual qualification of the worker in comparison to the highly developed capitalist countries. In the latter, after the revolution, wage categories could be much more uniform than in the USSR, by the virtue of the law that the development of labour productivity tends to level out the qualities of labour. But marxists should not forget that the "enslaving subordination of individuals to the division of labour" can only disappear through a prodigious technical development placed at the service of the producers (to be continued).



[1]. Engels, Anti-Duhring.


[2]. Marx, Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, "Production, consumption, distribution, exchange".


[3]. Capital Vol 3 ch 48.


[4]. We have judged it useful to reproduce the full text of the Gotha Programme as regards distribution, because we see every part of it to be extremely important


[5]. Here Marx understands by ‘value of labour' the quantity of social labour furnished by the producer, since it goes without saying that since it is labour that creates value, that it forms its substance, there is no such thing as value in itself, as Engels remarked, otherwise we would be talking about a value of value, which would be like talking about the weight of weight or the temperature of heat.


[6]. Marx Critique of the Gotha programme.


[7]. Lenin, State and Revolution.


[8]. We are obviously not thinking here about the forms of "Stakhanovism" which are simply the monstrous product of centrism.