Book Review: ‘Contemporary Political Philosophy – Radical Studies’
‘Contemporary Political Philosophy: Radical Studies’. Edited by Keith Graham. Cambridge University Press. £4.50
This short book (160 pages) contains six essays by “young British philosophers”—professional university philosophy teachers. The essays are of varying quality and it is unfortunate for the other four that the first two are so weak as to risk deterring the reader from continuing. But this would be a mistake as the others are much more interesting, particularly the last two where Keith Graham refutes the “philosophical anarchist” view that no “rational moral agent” can accept majority, democratic decisions, and where Anthony Skillen states the case for the fullest freedom of speech against groups like the SWP who advocate physical violence (and, presumably, if ever they got power, state censorship and violence) to prevent certain views being expressed.
The two remaining essays, and it is these we concentrate here, deal with Marx’s views on political democracy under capitalism and on the democratic nature of socialism. They confirm that Marx did not denounce existing representative institutions (the vote, parliamentary control, civil rights) as “bourgeois democracy” fit only to be replaced by a one-party dictatorship, but regarded them as sufficiently democratic to be useful to the economic and political struggle of the working class.
The two authors also discover (much to their embarrassment) that Marx regarded socialism as necessarily a moneyless society. Russell Keat, whose essay analyses in detail a part of Marx’s The Jewish Question (written in 1843, just as he was becoming a socialist), is forced to admit:
“it seems that Marx is unwilling to accept that the social relationships involved in (economic) exchange can properly be said to display genuine freedom. This is so, whether or not these exchange relationships include the sale of labour-power itself.”
Adding in a footnote:
“It follows that, for Marx, full human autonomy cannot be achieved in “market socialism”, since, despite the absence of class exploitation, alienation continues through the existence of exchange relationships.”
Richard Norman comes to the same conclusion:
“There is a strand in socialist thought which seems to envisage the eventual abolition of money. This might seem to be encouraged by a passage in the “Critique of the Gotha Programme” where Marx suggests that true equality would be attainable only when there had been achieved an economic condition of sheer abundance.”
After this rather cautious and grudging admission that Marx stood for the abolition of money, Norman goes on to state that, while he can accept that “an appropriate egalitarian principle would be one of free provision of basic needs”, adding that “as well as health care these basic needs might include, say, housing, basic foodstuffs and education”, he cannot
“imagine that all needs and desires could be met on this principle of free provision. Marx’s vision of total abundance smacks too much of nineteenth-century optimism. There must be inescapable decisions about using limited resources for this purpose rather than for that, and therefore in any society there will be relative scarcity in at least some respects. One cannot realistically imagine a situation where people, whether individually or collectively, simply go and help themselves to a rare wine or an artistic masterpiece or an exquisitely carved piece of furniture whenever they feel like it.”
This objection to a moneyless society of free access is put to us every week, though the example used is more usually a luxury yacht or a Rolls Royce (we hope Norman does not take this as an insult since, after all, what has always been the task of philosophers if not to express more logically and more coherently points of view held by the population in general?).
There are two answers to this. The first is that the objector assumes that people would have suddenly been transformed from capitalist to socialist society without changing their ideas or attitudes. Thus the Hyde Park heckler would still dream of living like the rich he reads about in the papers (and the university lecturer would still dream about living a “cultured” life surrounded by beautiful things). But in fact, of course, socialism is not something that is going to be, or could be, introduced for people, but something that they are going to have to establish themselves in full awareness of what they are doing and why. The people who establish socialism, in other words, will no longer want to ape the rich and understand that, in a society where goods and services will be freely and permanently available in relative abundance, hoarding or grabbing (or investing in rare wines or masterpieces) will be pointless.
The second answer is that in a socialist society everybody will have a Rolls-Royce and the best wines! Not literally, of course, but in the sense that whatever is produced in socialism will be of the best quality, though, once again, without any of the prestige that attaches to the best things today just because they are out of reach of the vast majority and only available to the rich. The fact is that, while it is true that resources are limited in an absolute sense, it is not true that human wants are limitless. It is technically possible today (much more than it was in the “optimistic 19th century) to produce enough of what humans, as rational beings, are likely to reasonably want in a rationally-organised free and equal society.
Before examining Norman’s suggestion to keep money in a “socialist” society for certain purposes we are going to have to digress a little to explain what money is. Money is not, as Norman appears to think, some sort of voucher that can be used, at the discretion of the holder, to acquire particular goods according to choice. Money is a social relation in the sense that it is a product of a particular kind of socio-economic system, one where goods are produced as commodities; that is, as items produced to be sold on a market; which in turn presupposes non-social, or private, ownership of products since exchange can only take place between separate owners. Money is a special kind of commodity, the one which can be exchanged for all or any other commodity. Money and commodity production go together; they are parts of the same set of social relationships which also include exchange and private property.
But socialism is a system of society which outdates commodity-production and money precisely because it is a society based, as Norman himself puts it, on “the common ownership and popular control of the means of production”; in other words, a society where what is produced is also commonly owned and is directly appropriated by the community. Consumer goods produced under such circumstances cannot be sold to the members of the community which already owns them; all that can happen to them is that they can be shared, allocated, divided, handed out or made available to the members of the community in accordance with a democratic decision.
If Norman had understood the nature of money, it is in these terms that he could better have expressed his point of view, as an argument about how consumer goods should be allocated in a socialist society.
Marx, like us, realised that the essence of socialist distribution was free access according to needs as judged by the individual members of a socialist society, in other words, that consumer goods and services should be freely available for people to take and use as and when they needed them. With the fantastic development of the forces of production since Marx’s day, this stage could be reached fairly rapidly after the establishment of socialism.
Marx, as is understandable, given the lower level of development of the powers of production in the 19th century, envisaged this taking somewhat longer and suggested that, while awaiting the stage where full free access (“from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs” as Marx puts it in the passage from the Critique of the Gotha Programme Norman mentions) would have become possible, consumer goods in socialist society could be distributed by some system of voucher or tickets. He himself mentioned, following an idea of Robert Owen and others, a system of “labour-time” vouchers which would have linked the consumption of the individual members of socialist society to the number of hours of working time they had contributed to the common productive effort.
It is easy to think up drawbacks to such a system — and Marx only mentioned labour-time vouchers as one possible way of distributing consumer goods in the early days of socialist society — but Marx was clear that such vouchers would not be money, could not be money in fact, since money implied commodity-production which socialism precisely abolishes in favour of production directly and solely for use.
Thus when Norman doubts that full free access to all consumer goods and services will be possible and suggests as an alternative “satisfaction of the basic needs of all, plus equality of monetary incomes over and above that”, what he is suggesting is a distribution system where basic needs (housing, basic foodstuffs, education, health, transport) would be provided free, but where other less basic needs (what? Surely not rare wine, artistic masterpieces and exquisitely-carved furniture!) would only be satisfied on production of a voucher, equal amounts of which would be distributed to each member of a socialist society to use according to their individual choice. Put this way, Norman’s scheme would be an alternative to Marx’s, but the problem which Marx felt socialist society would certainly have had to face had it been established in his day has since been to all intents and purposes solved by the subsequent development of the forces of production.
Today there is no longer any need to think in terms of vouchers as a means of distributing goods in a socialist society. This is why we emphasise free access to consumer goods and services according to individual needs as the socialist mode of distribution and as something that could be implemented very rapidly once capitalism has been abolished.
Having said all this, it is nevertheless encouraging that “contemporary political philosophers” should have begun to discuss a moneyless society.