For a critique of the Soviet mode of production

Thomas Jones, Buildings in Naples, 1782.


Unthinkingly and unquestioningly, the social formation that emerged from the October Revolution was accepted, for better or for worse, as “real socialism”.

Not only in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), the left seems ideologically, theoretically and politically exhausted and dismantled, despite the global crisis of capitalism. The explanatory and mobilizing power of authentic Marxism, while never more adequate than it is today, can no longer be realised. Perhaps precisely because the left as a whole enthusiastically welcomed Eduard Bernstein's infamous motto according to which “the movement is everything; the final goal, nothing”. In a sense, this also applies to the revolutionary wing of the left, which has not tired of devising countless strategies to “reach the revolution”, but has always remained particularly vague about the content of the socialist objective.

Unthinkingly and unquestioningly, the social formation that emerged from the October Revolution was accepted, for better or for worse, as “real socialism”. The criticism of this “real socialism” remained external, moral or bourgeois-democratic; apologetic positions as well as criticisms have become entrenched in decades of repeated wars of position and are now festering together. But the process of social development continued at new and higher levels, behind the backs of not only the bourgeois theorists, but the theorists of the left as well. The fact that the world crisis of capitalism goes hand in hand with the world crisis of “real socialism” has paralyzed the left and led to a mass flight to reactionary and irrational middle-class ideologies. But a real way out of the crisis on the part of a new revolutionary workers' movement can only be found through the reformulation of the socialist objective, which must pass through a materialist critique of the old workers' movement.

What is on the agenda is neither the impotent maintenance of tradition nor the “tactical” flirtation with the middle-class movement now dominant on the social surface (or even the unfortunate union of both in the form of the NHT),3 but a ruthless clarification of the question why communism, despite a capitalist development beyond its maturity, has still not been able to triumph? A debate over the socialist goal is inevitable if the Marxist left is to find its way back to itself.


Economy of time and law of value

Contrary to the perception of popular belief, the founders of Marxism drew concrete conclusions from the critique of capital's political economy for the “construction of socialism”. Essential is the “economy of time”, which, according to Marx, is valid for all historical social formations. A limited amount of time funds are always available to people, both individually and socially, and must be distributed among the various necessary activities. In original societies, which do not produce commodities, with little material socialization of labor (generally small directly managed communities), this distribution of time funds is regulated naturally and by custom, it is “direct”, without any instances of social mediation.

It is different at the level of commodity production, which implies an expanded social division of labor and therefore greater social connection based on more developed productive forces. The distribution of the social time fund in the various partial jobs still occurs naturally, but it is no longer “direct”, since the regulation of the social work set, still closely related to the natural context, is divided into private works which, as we know, reveal the social division of labor only as exchange in the market. As the sociality of production does not directly exist in production itself, but can only exist in exchange, and therefore there is no social control of social development notwithstanding, in the exchange of separate private labors the problem of socialization arises. equivalence. Ideally-typically, equal amounts of average socially necessary (“abstract”) labor, objectified in products, would have to be exchanged.

Really, however, this happens only on average and through the frictions of the exchange process: the proportionality of the relationship between the social fund of time and the partial social work (known in economics as the resource allocation problem) is only established through of disproportionality. The reason for this is that the “economy of time” in commodity production no longer appears directly, as in natural communities, but only indirectly as a real reflection of goods on each other. Not so much: on a table, on the one hand, and two chairs, on the other hand, there are two hours of social work each, however: a table is “worth” two chairs. Even in the early stages of commodity production, this relation produced money as a “general commodity” (general equivalent), and every trace of the economy of time actually underlying social labor was erased from consciousness (commodity fetishism).

The law of value as the fundamental law of commodity production is therefore not identical with the general law of saving time applicable in all societies, but only its particular historical manifestation in commodity-producing societies. The law of value not only means that “value” is based on quantities of abstract human social labor (labor theory of value), but that the abstraction of labor is actually embodied as “real abstraction”, as a real reflection of commodities. each other and like money.

Capitalism is the continuation of commodity production by other means. Within the branches of social labor that exist as separate private workers, it drives a new "internal" level of division of labor that, on the one hand, enormously increases the productive power of labor and, on the other hand, transforms human labor power itself. into merchandise and generalizes the formerly marginal mercantile character of the products (destruction of subsistence production, transformation of peasants into industrial wage earners, capitalization of the rural economy). Through the use of the machinery mediated by competition, this process will be driven over the foundations of capitalism in ever higher forms. Capital establishes a contradiction that cannot be resolved on the basis of commodity production: on the one hand, production continues to be based on the law of value, whose domain is even generalized; On the other hand, it is the condition material of this same process that undermines the law of value, dissolves private labor separated on the material-technical level and unites social labor on a higher level. This new stage of socialization of work is evident on three levels:

a) The division of labor between individual branches of production is widened through the division of labor within the branches of production itself.

b) The different branches of production penetrate each other, the clear boundaries between them (still rigid in the guild system) get tangled up and dissolve.

c) Total production becomes increasingly dependent on a gigantic social infrastructure, whose performance cannot be understood (faβbar) in terms of value, but leads to a constant increase in the productivity of material work (science, training, communication, etc.). Thus, production based on value tends to collapse, capital itself carries a logical and historical limit that becomes visible in an escalation of devastating crises. The capitalist envelope must break.


The economic essence of socialism

Socialism cannot mean anything other than taking economic socialization into account. material of capital-led production. Technical-material socialization must also appear as socio-economic socialization. This means the overcoming of private or social partial production, maintained by force and formally by capital, and its replacement by the collectivity, as collective production, operated and controlled by society as a whole. With that, however, the law of value no longer holds as a particular historical form of the economy of time. The replacement of social production indirectly (commodity production) by social production direct (materially socialized) also requires that the economy of time not be represented indirectly as “value”, as a real reflection of commodities among themselves, as money (and therefore necessarily behind the backs of the producers), but that it be taken directly and managed by the self-conscious producers in their socialized production for what it is: distribution of the social time fund to the various activities according to a common plan. In this way, the universal law of the economy of time immediately reappears, although no longer as in natural communities and based on the mere natural context, but from the very socialization of people.

From this it follows that the law of value and socialism are completely incompatible. One of two things: either production becomes truly social, so that products can no longer be represented as “value” or appear phantasmagorically duplicated as money in its value form, or socialization continues indirectly, as a form of value. -value of products, without any common or direct social production. The overcoming of the law of value is not the upper limit of socialism, its transformation into “consummated communism”, but its limit less, your starting point. From an economic point of view, the abolition of the law of value is identical with the rupture of the capitalist envelope.

There is no doubt that such a vision – the only authentically Marxist one – is in flagrant contradiction with the “Marxist discussion” waged for decades under the diktat of the social formation that emerged from the October Revolution. As antagonistic as the positions in this debate are, in one respect they are remarkably similar: the abolition of the law of value is postponed to an increasingly distant future, and this formation is declared in one way or another as a “transitional society”. ” which extends over a period forever indefinite. For the most part, the validity of the law of value and the existence of commodity production are considered constitutive of the entire “lower stage of communism”, that is, of socialism. Grossly revisionist positions like these depart from Marxism.

Undoubtedly, transitional measures are necessary for the economic transformation of society, which in some respects take only a few months, in other respects perhaps a period of a few years. However, it is completely ridiculous to assume that, after almost seven decades (as in the Soviet Union) or after four decades (as in the "people's democratic" countries), the law of value and the mercantile character of production should be an expression of the "socialism". In light of the Marxian critique of political economy, such an idea is simply grotesque. This view cannot be justified even with reference to an unequal distribution based on Marx's "remnants of bourgeois right" in the transitional period of socialism (Gotha program critique). Distribution according to capacity is perfectly possible for labor time, which does not in the least require the law of value and the production of commodities. Sometimes, out of ignorance or against better judgment, it is claimed that Marx rejected performance pay through work coupons (payment certificates for social work) as an “anarchist utopia”.

It's just the opposite. Marx is criticizing Proudhon, Gray and others for confusing socialist labor coupons with “money” (“labour money”), because theoretically they do not go beyond the horizon of commodity production. Marx proves that a direct measurement of the social performance of labor in an exchange of separate private labors (as Gray had in mind, and then Proudhon, vulgarly speaking) is not possible; the consequence, however, is not the negation of coupon distribution but the abolition of commodity production. All theories that assert the compatibility of the law of value with socialism (or like the astute Ernst Mandel who, to avoid this difficulty, created the monstrous theory of a “transitional society” for the transitional society of socialism) are not just false and illogical, but at the same time a ideology of real circumstances.

The real validity of the law of value in the eastern bloc refers to the no less real existence of exploitation relations. It is not true that the general commodity character of production was limited by the fact that labor power was no longer a commodity, but rather the opposite: just because labor power itself remained a commodity (or became, as in most part of the peasant population of the East) is that products appear as commodities. If labor power is private, production cannot be common. The transformation of human labor power into a commodity and its utilization on the basis of general commodity production, however, remains the essence of a mode of production. capitalist, in which specific forms may occur. However, it remains to be clarified how this “Eastern capitalism” could develop contrary to the intentions of the Bolsheviks and in what way its form differs from that of Western capitalism.


The dilemma of the October Revolution

It follows logically from Marx's theory that, in economic terms, the socialist revolution is only possible after a certain degree of maturation of capitalist socialization. On the other hand, under specific conditions, the proletariat can take (relative) political power regardless of this degree of maturation of the material socialization process. In this relationship of tension, the dilemma of the October Revolution is resolved. Lenin and the Bolsheviks were fully aware of this. There could be no doubt that Russia as a whole had not even reached the minimum degree of maturity in the capitalist socialization of production. What Lenin developed (and therefore his doctrine was superior to that of Western Social Democracy) was, for the first time, an international political strategy of the revolution, based on the conditions of the imperialist First World War: the Russian revolution, directed against a totally outdated Tsarism. and as the weakest link in the chain of enemy classes, it would give the initial impulse to the proletarian revolution in the developed countries of Western Europe.

With the economic support of a Western socialism, and only with this support, the proletarian power in the East could then count on an economic chance of survival and skip the essential stages of the development of capitalism. The reckoning was near, but it did not come. Lenin had underestimated the breadth and depth of the Western labor movement's reformism and overestimated the level of maturity of the process of Western socialization of material production, as had, in part, Marx and Engels themselves. Thus, the tragedy of the October Revolution was announced. As soon as it became clear that the Soviet Union intended to bring about the original accumulation (industrialization) with its own efforts, without betting more on the revolution of the western workers, the socialist power was condemned to death. For socialized (socialist) production means collective management and control of production, and thus also the overcoming of at least the grossest forms of capitalist division of labor; otherwise the law of value cannot be overcome. However, the productive forces developed as a basis for a “surplus” social time fund are already a assumption for that. Originary accumulation is precisely the opposite, namely the permanent absorption of wage-dependent masses of surplus labor – and, in this sense, its essence it was integrally and necessarily capitalist.

The decay of socialist power in Russia, however, could not be achieved through a counterrevolution of the old Russian bourgeoisie. It was too weak, from dependence on tsarism and foreign capital to its complete destruction by the October Revolution. The inevitable counterrevolution could only come from within, from a process of transformation of the Bolshevik party itself. At only one stage in Soviet history did this roll back it was possible in a way cold and from the inside out, that is, in the stage after Lenin's death and after the end of the civil war, in the mid-1920s. Just as Lenin, close to death, had analyzed in articles and drafts during the last years and months of its life, the original and numerically small industrial proletariat had been destroyed and exhausted during this phase of the revolution and civil war. There was no longer any real social basis for socialist revolution as the ruling party quickly turned into a separate and “floating” power apparatus. Under Stalin, this apparatus was transformed, in its economic character, into the capitalist machine of original accumulation. In this sense, all theories of “restoration” are on the wrong track from the start, placing only Khrushchev's pseudo-reckoning with Stalinism in 1956 as the ominous date of a supposed counter-revolution.

It would also be very strange that a “workers' power”, after decades of dominance, suddenly went down without any noise, without any major collisions or riots. In fact, in economic terms, apart from some flashy emergency measures of “war communism”, there never was a socialist mode of production in the Soviet Union. In the phase of general exhaustion, after the civil war, the death of Lenin and in the face of the absence of revolution in the West, socialist political power was transformed in a “cold” way into an original capitalist accumulation machine. Stalinism is only the ideological reflection of this misunderstood development.


Soviet state capitalism

In the face of an already highly organized world market and developed imperialist countries, accumulation originating in the Soviet Union had to follow forms different from those in the West. Due to external economic pressure, it could no longer develop slowly from the competition movement of its own internal market, but had to be produced quickly through a centralized state capitalist administration. All forms designated as "socialist", such as the central plan, centralized state absorption of surplus value, centralized state investment authority, foreign trade monopoly, etc. State. On the basis of the law of value and the production of commodities, they could do nothing else. With the formation of this state capitalist mode of production, a state capitalist ruling class of production commanders and state appropriators of surplus value was inevitably formed.

Since then, this original capitalist accumulation and recovery became a model for all countries that intended to break out of the colonial or neo-colonial encirclement and move towards an autonomous base of accumulation. Hence the affinity of guerrilla movements, but also partly of “left” military coups d'état, dictators, etc. of the “Third World” with the Soviet Union. Such developments, which are always happening ideologically under this “socialist” mask, economically can only be a state capitalism of regenerative original accumulation, whose nature is in no way modified by euphemistic designations as “non-capitalist path of development”. According to the existing natural and human resources, state capitalist accumulation could continue to a certain extent, which until now was only possible in large countries like Russia and China, or it must return to a form of economic dependence. With the rise of state capitalism in the Soviet Union, however, new insoluble contradictions were established. These appeared only slightly in industrialization made out of thin air.

However, as soon as this process was completed in general terms, i.e. with the realization of its own heavy industrial base, an organized energy supply and electrification, as well as a transport and communication system, etc., this contradiction between the commodity production and state capitalist centralization began to assert itself. After achieving industrialization, for which it was actually functional, the state capitalist bureaucracy needed to become completely dysfunctional in the task of competitively entering the world market and starting a process of development. intensive (production of relative surplus value) under world market conditions. The task of "planning the market", i.e., all conscious control of functions by nature inaccessible to the society of commodity production (flow of exchange values, prices, wages), its conscious social “planning” (and nothing more than the planning mechanism in the eastern bloc), must become irremediably insoluble. On the surface, this is demonstrated by the fact that the Eastern bloc has lagged behind the West in terms of labor productivity since the 1950s, refusing to pay for expensive technology imports, and thus proving the sheer illusion of the West. “reach and surpass”.

In this context, the superficial critique of the Stalinist system since Khrushchev must be seen from then on as an endless debate about economic reforms, which always points only in the direction of a stronger development of market elements and competition. But true “market-based” reforms were neutralized through the expansion of the interests of the state capitalist apparatus itself and its own dynamics that meanwhile developed. From this context, it is clear that the forced transfer of the Soviet state capitalist system to already industrialized countries such as the GDR or Czechoslovakia was, from the beginning, dysfunctional and reactionary. The serious crisis of the entire Eastern bloc as capitalism driven, so to speak, with the handbrake on, must evolve inexorably and is likely to, moreover, lead to serious social collisions. Through the world market, the crisis of Eastern capitalism merges with that of the West, which runs unchecked towards the precipice of a collapse of the law of value. There is nothing left for humanity in the East and West but to stop the production of commodities or to go down with this mode of production.


The tasks of the revolutionary left

The real struggles of the working class in the current process of crisis and change in world capitalism have, finally, no place in this mode of production; they can only have a perspective if they are combined with the strategic orientation of a reformulation of the socialist objective. Such a perspective can be developed by the revolutionary left only through the critique of regressive middle-class ideology “criticism of the productive forces” and its reactionary nationalist or “regionalist” political implications. For the abolition of commodity production is only possible on the international level through a pan-European socialist workers' revolution. The rejection of all narrow-gauge reactionary “unification” fantasies of the nationalist left, on the one hand, and the reformulation of the socialist objective as a critique of the old labor movement and Soviet state capitalism, on the other, are two sides of the same coin. .

*Robert Kurz (1943-2012) was a Marxist activist and theorist. Author, among other books, of The Last Fights (Voices).

Translation: Marcos Barreira protocols for Boitempo's blog.

Originally published on Gemeinsame Beilage, No. 1, on November 30, 1984.



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