Abolishing money

An Old Debate

It is quite difficult to envisage a world without money. It requires a considerable imagination to think of life without, pound-notes, coins, banks and financial worries over paying the next bill. From birth to the grave, workers’ lives are conditioned by money. People grow old before their time because of it. Without money we starve; because of it we are poor; to get it we are forced into wage slavery; if we steal it we can be locked away.

In the Chartist journal, The Red Republican, 27 July 1850, a letter, from George Smith of Salford, was published under the heading “ABOLITION OF MONEY” He argues that:

“ . . in order . . . to prepare the way for the absolute supremacy of the working classes, preparatory to the abolition of the system of classes, what should be done? Evidently something more than getting possession of political rights, or even destroying those twin monsters, rent and usury; for had we possession of the one and had successfully destroyed the other, there would yet remain in existence a monster which would reproduce its kind to torment humanity; and that monster is money! Sir, in my opinion, so long as mankind will agree to have a circulating medium — will allow everything in life to be measured by money — so long will they suffer the evil consequences springing therefrom . . .”

By 10 August, Smith’s letter had provoked a response. The writer, who signed himself “A Wage Slave”, opposes the need to abolish money, stating that “What society wants is just social institutions”. He argued that capitalism survives because workers are not paid the full value of their labour power and that the real need is for an equitable distribution of money. (The Left has not advanced beyond such theoretical fallacies.)

The Red Republican of 24 August contains two letters on the money question, taking up three columns. The first is from RPP, who states that the abolition of money “is the most important subject for discussion at the present time”. He goes on to agree that money should be abolished:

I would root out and abolish a system that compels man to give the sweat of his heart’s blood to the great money-mongers, wasting his own time, strength and happiness, as wealth may command. It is the slavery of the many for the sake of the few. Such a state of things must no longer exist, for man was made to enjoy all things equally with his fellow-man”

But — just as the reader is thinking that the correspondent has hit the nail very close to its head — RPP proceeds to argue that “the working classes must return to barter”. The second letter is from George Smith, who initiated the correspondence, and contains some excellent answers to the arguments of “Wage Slave”:

Strange, that in the 19th century, any wage slave should be found to advocate the continuance, in any shape, of that which, whilst it shall last, must perpetuate his vassalage, to its “fortunate possessors”. Does not my friend see both the craft and the hellishness of money? Who produces everything which sustains life, and feeds our desires for luxuries? The workers! Through the instrumentality of their labour, and by no other means can these things be produced. Then by what chicanery do those who “work not, neither do they spin” obtain all they want to superfluity, whilst those who produce are kept almost without? Why, by the crafty invention and use of money, with which they, like true “philanthropists”, come to the producer, and assure him that the food he is taking home is not “the stuff of life” but that which they will give him in return for his food is the real sustainer of existence, and thus he is cheated out of his produce for a shadow.”

Smith rather confuses cause and effect — it is not money which produces class division, but the other way round — but nevertheless he is clearly moving in the direction of the ideas later to be elaborated by Marx. Responding to “Wage Slave’s” advocacy of a “just commercial system”, Smith rightly states that:

For a man to dispose (or sell) of his labour at the “public mart” presupposes a buyer of that labour, and, according to our friend’s just commercial system, I am afraid that no buyers would purchase unless they could live out of such purchases. To live by buying and selling is to live nefariously.

“Wage Slave” replies on 7 September, stating that he can now see the importance of Smith’s idea, but doubts whether everyone else will be intelligent enough to live in a moneyless society. (A familiar argument from modern Leftists.) “Why propose to do that which is impossible at the present time?” asks “Wage Slave”. This question was asked of the SPGB when it was formed in 1904 and it was for this reason that our members were labelled “the impossibilists”. If those who took this view in 1850 and 1904 had spent less time running away from the need to convince people of a good idea, and telling its advocates that they were wasting their time, we would have achieved the seemingly impossible long ago.

On 14 September Alexander Bill contributed a letter to the correspondence, in which he argued (rather confusedly) that he was opposed to “the total and unconditional abolition of money”, although he did agree with Smith “when he says that our present monetary system is the basis of all those social evils under which we labour”. His answer was to introduce a “prohibition of private trading” and “the establishment of public marts”. Effectively, this was an argument for state capitalism.

The final letter on the subject was published on 28 September and came from George Smith. To “Wage Slave’s” claim that workers could not arrive at the point of intelligence which would make a moneyless society possible, Smith responds:

Intelligence! What is it? Walker says intelligence is “perception, understanding”. Now, will my friend say that it is impossible for the intelligent to excite the perception of the, at present, ignorant, and give them understanding?”

No further letter appeared on the subject. Smith’s question remained unanswered. But since 1850, the post-Chartist Left has responded to the question in the negative. While claiming to be fully committed Marxists, they refuse to advocate the case for the abolition of money because they consider the working class too stupified by capitalist conservatism ever to accept or understand it. Instead, they argue in favour of state capitalism. It is because of this that socialists are fundamentally hostile to the left-wing parties and groups.

Genuine socialists stand for a society in which all factories, farms, offices, docks, mines — indeed, the entire means of producing and distributing wealth — will be owned by the entire world community. The resources of the earth will belong to everyone. No laws will exist to preserve the right of one section of society to use things and another section to be denied the use of them. World socialism will be a social order based on free access for all people to all the goods of the earth. In such a society money would by an out-dated relic. Nobody will buy anything or sell anything or pay for anything. Those who cannot easily imagine such an arrangement should remember that people in pre-capitalist societies would have found our present social order equally difficult to comprehend. Those who have made the mental leap from the prison of the money system to the freedom of world socialism are urged to join us now in our struggle to create the society of tomorrow. The objective is urgent; we have waited for too long.

Steve Coleman

Who needs money?

…We live in a society where almost everything is bought and sold. That which you need in order to live is a commodity; you must buy it from someone who will make a profit out of selling it to you. Our minds are dominated by money. It is our passport to existence. No money, no access to what we need. Too little money, no comfort. Money drives people crazy: contrary to the words of the song, money does not make the world go round – money makes the world go mad.

It turns the white-coated scientist into the unprincipled servant of commerce. It converts the caring doctor into the grasping private practitioner. Money makes pathetic liars out of salesmen and robotic paper counters out of bank clerks. Money leads young men to beat up old women. Money is the source of the poor man’s scheme to have a fat wallet which ends too often in a cold prison cell. Money is the rich man’s god. Children beg for money. Not a day passes when we do not think about it. Have I enough money for…If only this cost less…I must now pay my money for…Bills, tokens, threatening reminders, final demands, security locks, bank queues, exchange rates, newsreaders announcing the pound has fallen, as if the sun has fallen out of the sky. It is a vast, mentally corrupting, emotionally destructive money madness.  

Why Money?

Money is the universally accepted means of exchange. It is a universal equivalent. Instead of me giving you three toasters for your armchair, I pay in an accepted, legal currency. Sounds sensible. Who wants to return to the awkward system of bartering goods? It seems sensible as long as we have a property-based system of society where wealth is owned by some and sold to others.

The two main uses of money by most people are for tood and housing. You need money to buy food from the corner store or, more probably, the supermarket. In effect, you are paying the owners of food production for the right to have access to what they possess. These millionaire food manufacturers did not produce the food. But you must buy it from them so they may profit. You pay money for housing to the landlord or the building society. They own the land that you live on and they own the means of producing the buildings in which you dwell. Directors of building societies are not to be found on building sites making houses. They are too busy getting drunk in their clubs or playing golf.

Now, imagine that all these things that you need were owned and controlled in common. By everyone. All of us – you included. There is no body to buy food from – it is common property. There are no rents or mortgages to pay because land and buildings belong to us all. There is no need to buy anything from any other person because society has done away with the absurd division between the owning minority (the capitalists) and the non-owning majority (the workers). You would not need money. In a society of common ownership money would have no role. It would be like the tramlines in a city which has done away with trams. No longer would money exist.

The money test 1

“But we need money – couldn’t live without it”. That is what most well-conditioned readers will say. In our society people learn to turn money into a fetish. In primitive societies certain objects were invested with magical powers. For example, in Ancient Egypt cats were regarded as sacred animals which had to be treated with great respect or they would turn the world upside-down. Modern people are taught to believe that money contains intrinsic powers. Where would we be without it? Beware of dethroning the money-god. Let us put this to the test.

Take a pile of money. Three fivers and a couple of pound coins. Leave them in a dark room and see what happens. Will they dig coal? Will factories be built or homes furnished? Well, at least they could cook you a good dinner: you can get good food for seventeen quid. Nothing will happen. Humans make money powerful. Left to itself it is just a pile of tokens of no worth. Even the picture of the Queen is ugly.

The money test 2

But is money that important to you? Perhaps it is less intrusive in your daily life than has been suggested. Try one more test.

Stop selling yourself for money for three months. That is what you do every time you go out to work in return for a wage or salary. You put yourself on the shelf along with the baked beans and the canned tuna fish and you say ‘Buy me!’. The wages system, which turns the vast majority of people into exploited workers, is a process of selling your mental and physical energies in return for some money. For most of us, if we do not sell ourselves we will have little or no access to what we need in order to live. We devote most of our waking lives to trying to obtain money. Our work is devalued by money: if we enjoy working, the pleasure is diminished by the knowledge that we are only really engaging in a sordid transaction – and how many workers hate the miserable work that they are forced to do in order to get money?

Give it a try: stop selling your labour power for money. You will give up on the test long before three months – or three weeks – or even three days. Most wage slaves are too petrified of losing their jobs – their chance to be bought for money -to even contemplate such an exercise. And rightly so, for under the wages system we are lost if we do not sell ourselves for money.

Abolish money

Socialists stand for a world without money. All wealth will be commonly owned, so there will be nobody to buy what you need from. The right to live, and to be comfortable and happy, will not depend upon your pocket-book. Freedom will not be costed by accountants who will only give you liberty if you can pay for it.

In a socialist society people will work according to their abilities and take according to their needs. Who will decide what their needs are? Not their bosses or the state or a cunning advertising industry-none of these will exist. People will decide for themselves. Who but humans ourselves are able to decide what we need?

There will be no “socialist market’. Contrary to the economic babble of certain “theorists'” on the Left, it is quite obvious that the market, which is a mechanism for buying and selling commodities and realising a profit for the sellers, will have absolutely no function in a community where nobody is buying or selling or making profits. In a society where production is solely for use people will have free and equal access to take what they need from the common store.

Are people capable of living in a society of free access without making a mess of it? Will they take too much? Will they all refuse ever to work? Will they go to sleep for a thousand years and refuse to move a muscle? These are the fears about the nature of human beings that we in this money-mad society are urged to have. Socialists do not share such fears. We know just how co-operative and sharing and intelligent workers are capable of being. After all, we are a party of workers.

Given a society of moneyless, free access men, women and children will co-operate together to make and to take what they commonly need and desire. They will do so democratically. And we could do so tomorrow if the vision of a moneyless society grabs hold of enough imaginations and penetrates the consciousness of enough of those millions of workers who are currently crying out, openly or quietly to themselves, under the strain of the enormous and often unbearable pressures of the money system. Without money, humans will be free to relate in ways which we have forgotten or only half-remember. The banks can close down, the cash machines put in museums and the children who cry because their parents have too little money to pay for them to grow up can stop.


Socialist Standard November 1990