Letter – Labour-time ‘money’?
Many thanks for the thoughtful review of the new edition of Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program. I wish to respond to just a few points:
My introduction explicitly rejects the idea that ’the Critique offers a model of exactly how a post-capitalist society ought to be constructed’ (p. 27) so I surely do not think that the labor tokens discussed by Marx is immediately applicable to the modern world. But we do have to ask why he poses remuneration based on actual (as against abstractly universal) labor time as flowing from the initial socialization of the means of production. Three issues are involved:
(1) Class society has drummed into us the notion that we give to others and society based on what we get in return. It is the very principle of commodity exchange, a quid pro quo. Attaining ‘from each according to one’s abilities, to each according to their needs,’ transcends this state of affairs. However, Marx is realistic enough to know that ‘the muck of the ages’ will still stick to us as a new society emerges; it will take time to learn how to fully treat others (and nature) as ends in themselves rather than as means to an end. Some kind of quid pro quo will undoubtedly persist, but hopefully, not for long.
(2) The question is what kind. Prior to a communist society proceeding ‘from its own foundations’ a unit of exchange will be needed to clear transactions without utilizing such value-forms as money. If the issue is ignored, there is the risk of regressing into relying on an abstract equivalent.
(3) To be sure, the forces of production are much more developed today than in Marx’s time. But this is precisely what makes his discussion of a lower phase of communism so pertinent. The immediate task facing any communist society will be taking down and dismantling much of the forces of production, which are by now embedded with technologies that are so inherently destructive as to undermine human existence itself. That is a problem that is surely not going to be resolved in the blink of an eye.
Lastly, innumerable revolutionary Marxists (beginning with Rosa Luxemburg) had a lot to say about the need to fight for reforms (the eight-hour day, broadening the electoral franchise, etc.) while advancing the cause of revolution—just as many anti-racist activists today emphasize fighting for “non-reformist reforms” (like defunding police) in challenging racial capitalism. It’s not just that today’s social movements need to learn from Marxism; Marxists also need to learn (and in some cases unlearn) based on the insights and perspectives of today’s social movements. Otherwise, our politics becomes a ‘painting of grey upon grey.’ I discuss this in a recent essay.
That ‘class society has drummed into us that we give to others and society based on what we get in return’ and that this will continue into socialist (or communist, the same thing) society suggests that socialism will be something that people will simply be transposed into with the ideas they now have. But socialism can only be brought into being by people who want it and understand its implications, one of which is that it will involve a wider reciprocity than the type you have in mind where something is given in the expectation that something of equal value will be returned.
People contribute to socialist society what they can with the expectation (and knowledge) that they will receive, from what is made available, what they need. In other words, from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs. Not that it is possible to calculate what an individual contributes to society. Production today is collective and all those who take part in production contribute collectively. Also, those unable to work are equally entitled to have their needs met.
Should there be temporary shortages of some things in the very early stages of socialism, as it is conceivable there might be, some more realistic way of dealing with this situation than distribution according to time worked would have to be found (not by us today but by those around at the time). Direct distribution of given amounts might be one. We don’t agree that ‘a unit of exchange will be needed to clear transactions without utilizing such value-forms as money’. It is such ‘labour money’, both as ‘remuneration’ (taxed to provide an income for those unable to work) and as the price of consumer goods and services, that would be much more likely to lead to a return to proper money.
Basing what people get on how long they work would infringe what you say ‘class society has drummed into us’ as that assumes that people accept that an hour’s contribution is the same whatever the particular work or skill. It, too, implies the rejection of ‘the muck of ages’
Marx probably mentioned a labour-time voucher scheme because it was a popular idea amongst German Social Democrats at the time. When, in 1891 the German Social Democrats adopted a new programme there was no mention of this (which only had an appeal for artisans making a whole product). Later in the same Notes, Marx made the more basic point that how goods are distributed in socialism would depend on how much and what there was to distribute. It is not necessary to list all the technological developments since 1875 which mean that there will be immensely more to distribute even in the early days of socialism than then and so the stage of ‘to each according to their needs’ can be reached fairly rapidly after the common ownership and democratic control of productive resources has been established.
We are not against such measures under capitalism as factory laws and the extension of the franchise that Luxemburg (and before her, Marx) campaigned for. Our position is that it is not the job of a socialist party to itself advocate them; its job is to advocate socialism. We don’t accept the concept of ‘non-reformist reforms’ as reforms that ‘challenge capitalism’. Reforms that undermined capitalism either won’t be enacted or, if they are, won’t work as intended as they would interfere with the operation of capitalism’s economic laws and provoke an economic crisis. To win enough support for them would involve as much time and energy as winning support for socialism. Another reason for concentrating on campaigning for socialism. Editors.