Communism Vol. 3, Part 7 - The problems of the period of transition (III)

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In the last two issues of the International Review, we published the previous articles in the series on the problems of the period of transition, written by Mitchell and published in the theoretical review of the Italian Communist Left, Bilan, in the 1930s. These two articles established the historic framework for the advent of the proletarian revolution - the "ripeness" of capitalism on a world scale, and not in a particular country or region - and then went on to examine the principal political lessons to be drawn from the isolation and degeneration of the revolution in Russia, paying particular attention to the relationship between the proletariat and the transitional state. The next two articles in Mitchell's series go on to consider the problem of the economic content of the proletarian revolution.

The article published below, which originally appeared in Bilan n° 34 (August-September 1934), is presented as a polemic with another internationalist current active at the time, the Dutch GIK, whose "Fundamental Principles of Communist Production and Distribution" had been published in 1930 and was summarised in French in Bilan by Hennaut of the Belgian group Ligue des Communistes Internationalistes. It was typical of the spirit of Bilan, its commitment to the principal of debate between revolutionaries, that it should publish this summary and initiate a discussion with the "Council Communist" tendency represented by the GIK. The article makes a number of criticisms of the GIK's approach to the transitional period but never loses sight of the fact that this was a debate within the proletarian camp.

In future, we will publish a more in-depth article that takes position on this debate. But for the moment we want to stress, as we have done many times before, that while we are not always in agreement with all the terms and conclusions put forward by Bilan, we entirely endorse its essential method: the insistence on referring to the contributions of our forebears in the revolutionary movement; the constant effort to re-examine these contributions in the light of the class struggle, in particular the gigantic experience bequeathed by the Russian revolution; and the rejection of all easy and simplistic solutions to the unprecedented problems that will be posed by the communist transformation of society. In this article in particular, there is a clear demarcation from any false radicalism that assumes that the law of value, and in general the whole heritage of bourgeois society, can be abolished by decree on the day after the seizure of power by the working class.


Bilan no 34 (August - September 1936): The stigmata of the proletarian economy

Marxism always bases its analyses and perspectives on dialectical materialism and not on idealistic aspirations. Marx said that "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".[1] In the same way, the proletariat, having taken society through a "leap" as a result of its political revolution, cannot help but put up with the natural laws of evolution, while at the same time doing all it can to speed up the process of social transformation. If it is to achieve its historic goals, the proletariat has to ensure that the intermediate, "hybrid" social forms which arise in the phase between capitalism and communism wither away; but it cannot abolish them by decree. The suppression of private property - even if it's a radical step - does not ipso facto get rid of bourgeois ideology or bourgeois right: "The traditions of the dead generations weigh like a nightmare on the brains of the living".[2]

The persistence of the law of value in the transitional period

In this part of our study we will be looking at some length at certain economic categories (labour-value, money, wages), which the proletarian economy will inherit from capitalism without the benefit of an inventory. This is important because there has been a tendency (we're thinking in particular of the Dutch internationalists, whose arguments we will be examining) to make these categories the agencies of the decomposition of the Russian revolution, when in fact the degeneration of the revolution occurred not so much at the economic but at the political level.

To begin with, what is an economic category?

Marx responds: "Economic categories are only the theoretical expressions, the abstractions of the social relations of production ...The same men who establish their social relations in conformity with the material productivity, produce also principles, ideas, and categories, in conformity with their social relations.

"Thus the ideas, these categories, are as little eternal as the relations they express. They are historical and transitory products".[3]

We might be tempted to deduce from this definition that a new mode of production (or the establishment of its foundations) automatically brings with it the new social relations and the corresponding categories: thus, the collective appropriation of the productive forces would immediately eliminate capitalist relations and the categories which are their expression. From the social point of view, this would imply the immediate disappearance of classes. But Marx made it clear in the same passage that that within society "there is a continual movement of growth in the productive forces, of destruction in social relations, of formation in ideas"; in other words, there is an interpenetration of two social processes; one, the diminution of the relations and categories belonging to the declining system of production, and secondly, the growth of relations and categories engendered by the new system. The dialectical movement imprinted on the evolution of societies is unchanging (even if this would take on different forms in a fully-formed communist society).

There's all the more reason for the whole process to be especially turbulent and powerful during a period of transition between two types of society.

Certain economic categories, which will have survived the revolutionary "catastrophe", will thus only disappear along with the class relations which have given rise to them, i.e. with classes themselves, when the communist phase of proletarian society has opened up. In the transitional phase, their vitality will be in inverse proportion to the specific weight of the "socialised" sectors of the proletarian economy, but above all in relation to the rhythm of development of the world revolution.

The fundamental category to consider is labour value, because it is the foundation of all the other capitalist categories.

We are not well endowed with marxist writings on the "future" of economic categories in the transitional period. We only have a few dispersed passages by Engels in Anti-Duhring and by Marx in Capital. From Marx too we have the Critique of the Gotha Programme, in which every mention of the questions we are examining here takes on considerable importance, but which can only be grasped in their full import by relating them to the theory of value itself.

Value possesses this strange characteristic that, while finding its source in the activity of a physical force - labour - it has no material reality in itself. Before analysing the substance of value, Marx, in his Preface to Capital, takes care to warn us about this: "The value-form, whose fully developed shape is the money-form, is very elementary and simple. Nevertheless, the human mind has for more than 2,000 years sought in vain to get to the bottom of it all, whilst on the other hand, to the successful analysis of much more composite and complex forms, there has been at least an approximation. Why? Because the body, as an organic whole, is more easy of study than are the cells of that body. In the analysis of economic forms, moreover, neither microscopes nor chemical reagents are of use. The force of abstraction must replace both".

And in the course of this analysis of value, Marx adds that "the value of commodities is the very opposite of the coarse materiality of their substance, not an atom of matter enters into its composition. Turn and examine a single commodity, by itself, as we will, yet in so far as it remains an object of value, it seems impossible to grasp it. If, however, we bear in mind that the value of commodities has a purely social reality, and that they acquire this reality only in so far as they are expressions or embodiments of one identical social substance, viz., human labour, it follows as a matter of course, that value can only manifest itself in the social relation of commodity to commodity".[4]

Moreover, as regards the substance of value, i.e. human labour, Marx always implies that the value of a product expresses a certain quantity of simple labour, when it affirms its social reality. The reduction of compound labour to simple labour is a fact that is being constantly realised "Skilled labour counts only as simple labour intensified, or rather, as multiplied simple labour, a given quantity of skilled being considered equal to a greater quantity of simple labour. Experience shows that this reduction is constantly being made. A commodity may be the product of the most skilled labour, but its value, by equating it to the product of simple unskilled labour, represents a definite quantity of the latter labour alone". But we also have to understand how this reduction takes place. But Marx was a man of science and he limited himself to replying: "The different proportions in which different sorts of labour are reduced to unskilled labour as their standard, are established by a social process that goes on behind the backs of the producers, and, consequently, appear to be fixed by custom".

This was a phenomenon which Marx noted but which he could not explain, because the state of his knowledge about value did not permit it. What we do know is that in the production of commodities, the market is the crucible in which you can find all individual acts of labour, all the qualities of labour, in which we see the crystallisation of average labour reduced to simple labour: "society does not form value from the accidental lack of skill of an individual, it recognises as general human labour only labour of a normal average degree of skill at the particular time...Individual labour contains general human labour only in so far as it is socially necessary".[5]

At all the historical stages of social development, it has been necessary for men to know with more or less precision the sum of labour expended in the production of the productive forces and the objects of consumption. Up till now, this evaluation has always taken empirical and anarchic forms; with capitalist production, and under the pressure of the fundamental contradiction of the system, the anarchic form has reached its extreme limits, but what is important to underline once again is that the measure of social labour is not established directly, in an absolute, mathematical manner, but relatively, via a relationship that is established on the market, with the aid of money: the quantity of social labour contained in an object is not really expressed in hours of labour, but in another commodity which, on the market, empirically appears to enclose the same quantity of social labour. In any case, the number of hours of social and simple labour required as an average for the production of an object remains unknown. Furthermore, Engels remarked that "the political economy of commodity production is by no means the only science which has to deal with factors known only relatively". And he drew a parallel with the natural sciences which use molecular calculations in physics and atomic calculations in chemistry: "Hence, just as commodity production and its economics obtain a relative expression for the unknown quantities of labour contained in the various commodities, by comparing these commodities on the basis of their relative labour content, so chemistry obtains a relative expression for the magnitude of the atomic weights unknown to it by comparing the various elements on the basis of their atomic weights, expressing the atomic weight of one element in multiples or fractions of the other (sulphur, oxygen, hydrogen). And just as commodity production elevates gold to the level of the absolute commodity, the general equivalent of all other commodities, the measure of all values, so chemistry promotes hydrogen to the rank of the chemical money commodity, by fixing its atomic weight at 1 and reducing the atomic weights of all other elements to hydrogen, expressing them in multiples of its atomic weight".[6] If we consider the essential characteristic of the transitional period, i.e. that it still expresses a certain economic deficiency which demands a greater development of the productivity of labour, we can easily deduce that there will still be a need to calculate the amount of labour consumed, not only with regard to a rational repartition of social labour, which is necessary in any society, but above all because there is a need for a regulator of social activities and relations.

The illusion of abolishing the law of value through the calculation of labour time

The central question is this: under what forms will labour time be measured? Will the value form subsist?

The answer is all the more difficult in that our teachers didn't completely develop their thinking on this matter and that it can itself appear rather contradictory.

In Anti-Duhring, Engels begins by saying that "From the moment when society enters into possession of the means of production and uses them in direct association for production, the labour of each individual, however varied its specifically useful character may be, becomes at the start and directly social labour. The quantity of social labour contained in a product need not then be established in a roundabout way; daily experience shows in a direct way how much of it is required on the average. Society can simply calculate how many hours of labour are contained in a steam-engine, a bushel of wheat of the last harvest, or a hundred square yards of cloth of a certain quality. It could therefore never occur to it still to express the quantities of labour put into the products, quantities which it will then know directly and in their absolute amounts, in a third product, in a measure which, besides, is only relative, fluctuating, inadequate, though formerly unavoidable for lack of a better one, rather than express them in their natural, adequate and absolute measure, time".[7] And Engels adds, supported by his affirmation about the possibilities of calculating in a direct and absolute manner, that "just as little as it would occur to chemical science still to express atomic weight in a roundabout way, relatively, by means of the hydrogen atom, if it were able to express them absolutely, in their adequate measure, namely in actual weights, in billionths or quadrillionths of a gram. Hence, on the assumptions we made above, society will not assign values to products".[8] But the problem here is knowing precisely whether the political act of collectivisation, even if this is a radical step, provides the proletariat with a new, absolute law for calculating labour time, which can immediately replace the law of value. No positive data authorise such a hypothesis, which is still excluded by the fact that the reduction of compound labour to simple labour (which is the real unit of measure) remains unexplained, and that as a result the elaboration of a scientific method for calculating labour time, which is a necessary function of this process of reduction, is impossible. Probably the conditions for the emergence of such a law will only come together when it is no longer of any use: i.e. when production can answer all needs and when, as a result, society will no longer need to calculate labour: the administration of things will only require a simple register of what has been produced. In the economic domain we can thus see an analogy with political life, when democracy will be superfluous at the moment that it has been fully realised.

Engels, in a complementary note to the expose cited above, implicitly accepts value when he says that "the balancing of useful effects and expenditure of labour on making decisions concerning production was all that would be left, in a communist society, of the politico-economic concept of value". We can complete this correction by Engels with what Marx says in Capital: "After the suppression of the capitalist mode of production, the determination of value, if social production is to be maintained, will still be of prime importance, because it will be more than ever necessary to regulate labour time, as well as the repartition of social labour between the different sectors of production, and to keep account of it".[9]

The conclusion which can be drawn from an understanding of what the proletariat faces when it overthrows capitalism is that the law of value will continue to exist in the transitional period, even though it will go through profound changes in nature and progressively disappear.

How and in what forms will this law exert itself? Once again, we have to start off with what exists in bourgeois economy where the reality of the value materialised in commodities only becomes manifest in exchange. We know that this reality of value is purely social, that it is expressed only in the relation that commodities have between each other and in these relations alone. It's in exchange that the products of labour are manifested as values, which is a social existence distinct from their material existence as use values. A commodity expresses its value by the fact that it can be exchanged against another commodity, that it can pose itself as an exchange value, but it can only do it in this manner. However, while value manifests itself in the exchange relation, it's not exchange which engenders value. This exists independently of exchange.

In the transitional phase, we can only talk about exchange value and not some kind of absolute, natural value, an idea which Engels rails against sarcastically in his polemic with Duhring: "To seek to abolish the capitalist form of production by establishing ‘true value' is therefore tantamount to attempting to abolish Catholicism by establishing the ‘true' Pope, or to set up a society in which at last the producers control their product, by consistently carrying into life an economic category which is the most comprehensive expression of the enslavement of the producers by their own product".[10]

The survival of the market expresses the survival of value

Exchange on the basis of value, in the proletarian economy, will be an inevitable fact for a more or less long period; but it is no less true that it has to be reduced and must tend to disappear the more the proletarian power succeeds in subordinating production to social needs and not the producers to production as in capitalism. Obviously, "no society will be able to master its own products for long, or retain control over the social effects of its system of production, without first getting rid of exchange between individuals".[11] But exchange can't be suppressed simply as a result of human will; it can only happen through a whole dialectical process. This is how Marx approaches the question in Critique of the Gotha Programme: "Within the co-operative society based on common ownership of the means of production, the producers do not exchange their products; just as little does the labour employed on the products appear here as the value of these products, as a material quality possessed by them, since now, in contrast to capitalist society, individual labour no longer exists in an indirect fashion but directly as a component part of total labour".[12] Marx obviously situates this evolution in a developed communist society and not "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" (ibid).

Collective appropriation on a more or less large scale makes it possible to transform the nature of economic relations to a degree corresponding to the specific weight of the collective sector in relation to the capitalist sector, but the bourgeois form of these relations remains, because the proletariat does not have other ready-made forms to replace them with and because it cannot abstract itself from a world economy which continues to evolve on a capitalist basis.

With regard to the tax in kind instituted by the NEP, Lenin said that "The tax in kind is one of the forms of transition from that peculiar War Communism, which was forced on us by extreme want, ruin and war, to regular socialist exchange of products. The latter, in its turn, is one of the forms of transition from socialism, with the peculiar features due to the predominantly small-peasant population, to communism".[13] And in his report on the NEP at the 4th Congress of the Communist International, Trotsky argued that in the transitional phase economic relations had to be regulated through the market and through money.

The practise of the Russian revolution in this respect confirms the theory: the survival of value and the market simply translates the impossibility for the proletarian state to immediately coordinate all aspects of production and social life and thus to immediately suppress "bourgeois right". But the evolution of the economy can only be oriented towards socialism if the proletarian dictatorship more and more extends its control over the market to the point of totally subordinating it to the socialist plan, i.e. to the point of abolishing it. Consequently, if the law of value, instead of developing the way it did by going from simple commodity production to capitalist production must go through the reverse process of regression and extinction which leads from the "mixed" economy to full communism.

We are not going to deal at length with the category of money or currency, since it is only a developed form of value. If we admit that value still exists, then we will have to admit that some kind of money will also exist, even if has lost its character as "abstract wealth" capable of appropriating any kind of wealth. The proletariat will annihilate the bourgeois power of money on the one hand through the collectivisation of the essential bases of wealth and of the land, which will become inalienable, and on the other hand through a class policy involving measures such as rationing, price controls etc. Thus money will effectively, if not formally, lose its function as a measure of value through a progressive alteration of the law of value; in reality it will only retain its function as an instrument of circulation and payment.

The Dutch internationalists in their essay on the development of the communist society (Foundations of Communist Production and Distribution, a resume of which by comrade Hennaut was published in Bilan n°s 18, 20 and 22) have been inspired more by an idealist train of thought than by historical materialism. Thus their analysis of the transitional period (which they don't distinguish with sufficient clarity from the communist phase) proceeds from an anti-dialectical appreciation of the social content of this period.

Certainly the Dutch comrades begin from a correct premise when they establish the marxist distinction between the period of transition and full communism. For them as well it is only in the first phase that the measure of labour time is valid.[14] But they begin to leave the solid ground of historical reality when they put forward an abstract method for the calculation of labour time. The truth is that they don't respond as marxists to the essential question: how, in the transitional phase, and through what social mechanisms will the costs of production be determined on the basis of labour time? Rather they avoid the question through their somewhat simplistic arithmetical demonstrations. They say that the unit of measurement for the quantity of labour needed for producing an object is: the average hour of social labour. But they don't offer any solution here: they simply assert what constitutes the foundation of the law of value by transposing the marxist formula: the socially necessary labour time. However, they do propose a solution: "Each enterprise calculates how much labour time is incorporated into its production " (p 56), but without indicating by what mathematical procedure the individual labour of each producer becomes social labour, or how we get compound or qualified labour from simple labour, which as we have seen is the common measure of human labour. Marx describes the social and economic process through which this reduction takes place under capitalist commodity production; for the Dutch comrades, you need only the revolution and the collectivisation of the means of production to bring in a law of "accounting" which arises from who knows where and about whose functioning we remain ignorant. For them, however, such a substitution is easily explained: since the revolution abolishes the private social relation of production, it simultaneously abolishes exchange, which is a function of private property (p 52).

"In the marxist sense, the suppression of the market is nothing other than the result of new relations of right" (p 109). They note however that "the suppression of the market must be interpreted in the sense that while the market appears to survive under communism, its social content as regards circulation is entirely different: the circulation of products on the basis of labour time is the basis of new social relations" (p 110). But if the market survives (even if its form and basis are different) it can only function on the basis of value. This is what the Dutch internationalists don't seem to see, "subjugated", as they are, to their formulation about "labour time", which in substance is nothing but value itself. Furthermore, for them it is not excluded that in "communism" we will still talk about "value"; but they refrain from drawing out the significance of this with regards to the mechanism of the social relations that result from maintaining labour time as a unit of measurement. Instead they conclude that since the content of value will have changed, all we need to do is replace the term value with the term production time. But this obviously doesn't change the economic reality at all; it's the same thing when they say that there is no longer any exchange of products, but only the passage of products (p 53-54). Equally: "instead of the function of money, we will have the registering of the movement of products, social accounting on the basis of the average social labour time" (p 55).

We will see how their misapprehension of historical reality leads the Dutch internationalists to other erroneous conclusions, when we examine the problem of the remuneration of work.

Mitchell (to be continued)

[1]. Preface to Capital, Vol. 1.


[2]. Marx. The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte , Collected Works, Vol. 11.


[3]. Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy , Collected Works, Vol. 6.


[4]. Capital, Vol.1, Chapter 1, section 3 .


[5]. Engels AntiDuhring, Chapter III, "Socialism", part IV, "Distribution" . Collected Works, Vol.25.


[6]. Ibid.


[7]. Ibid.


[8]. Ibid.


[9]. Our translation from the French


[10]. Anti-Duhring, ibid.


[11]. Engels, Origins of the Family. Our translation from the French.


[12]. Collected Works, Vol. 24.


[13]. "The tax in kind", 1921. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 32.


[14]. In this respect, we need to point to a lapse in comrade Hennaut's resume, when he says the following: "And contrary to what some people imagine, this method of accounting applies not only to communist society that has reached a very high level of development, but to any communist society - thus, from the moment that the workers expropriate the capitalists - whatever level it has reached" (Bilan p 657). [Footnote in original].



General and theoretical questions: