Saturday, February 10, 2007


Extra note: debate on the Stalinist USSR

What light does Marx's discussion of the defining characteristics of capital shed on the debates about the nature of the Stalinist USSR?

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From notes on pages 743-882

Martin Thomas: "Exploitation by capital without the mode of production of capital"

As regards "backward branches of industry" on the margins of modern bourgeois economy, Marx writes:
The most odious exploitation of labour still takes place in them, without the relation of capital and labour here carrying within itself any basis whatever for the development of new forces of production, and the germ of newer historic forms... What takes place is exploitation by capital without the mode of production of capital. [p.853].
And earlier, he writes that in the development of English capitalism, wage-labour only became fully "free" at the end of the 18th century.
Absolute surplus value... appears determined by the absolute lengthening of the working day above and beyond necessary labour time. Necessary labour time works for mere use value, for subsistence. Surplus labour time is work for exchange value, for wealth...
At this stage the difference between the production of capital and earlier stages of production is still merely formal. With kidnapping, slavery, the slave trade and forced labour, the increase of these labouring machines, machines producing surplus product, is posited directly by force; with capital, it is mediated through exchange...
This form of surplus labour appears in the slave and serf modes of production etc., where use value is the chief and predominant concern, as well as in the mode of production of capital, which is oriented directly towards exchange value...
In... relative surplus value, which appears as the development of the workers' productive power, as the reduction of necessary labour time relative to the working day, and as the reduction of the necessary labouring population relative to the population (this is the antithetical form), in this form there directly appears the industrial and the distinguishing historic character of the mode of production founded on capital.
The forcible transformation of the greater part of the population into wage labourers, and the discipline which transforms their existence into that of mere labourers, correspond to the first form.... coercive measures employed to transform the mass of the population, after they had become propertyless and free, into free wage labourers... This is repeated in a similar fashion with the introduction of large industry, of factories operating with machines...
Only at a certain stage of the development of capital does the exchange of capital and labour become in fact formally free. One can say that wage labour is completely realized in form in England only at the end of the eighteenth century, with the repeal of the law of apprenticeship. [p.769-770].
In my view, these passages shed some light on Stalinist state capitalism as a system heavily oriented to "absolute surplus value".

Roger Clarke: "Exploitation by capital without the mode of production of capital"

This section heading heading shows the problem with describing the Stalinist USSR as "Stalinist state capitalism". Surely this description, even with the qualification "state", implies that the capitalist mode of production not only existed, but was dominant, in the USSR.
Marx makes a distinction between "free labour", i.e. propertyless non-bonded labour, and "wage labour", which is also "formally free" in its exchange with capital. Of course wage labour is ultimately compulsory labour, but the compulsion is not direct, as it was in earlier modes of production.
"Only at a certain stage of the development of capital does the exchange of capital and labour become in fact formally free. One can say that Wage labour is completely realized in form in England only at the end of The eighteenth century, with the repeal of the law of apprenticeship. [p.769-770]."
Thus Tudor England was "a stage in the development of capital", but was not yet capitalism. Nor does it make much sense to describe Tudor England as "still feudal", when the defining relationships of feudalism were already in an advanced state of dissolution. Yet I do not know of any serious attempt to define a "Tudor" mode of production. There are periods in history, which may last for centuries, where the concept of a definite mode of production is not useful. More light is cast on the Tudor period by looking back at the feudal system in dissolution and forward to the capitalist system yet to be developed than by attributing the events of this period to the dynamics of the "Tudor" mode.
I think something like this is the rational core of Ticktin's "no mode of production" view of the USSR. Unfortunately he spiced it up with cute "paradoxical" formulations - "the mode of no mode" etc. My friend in NZ propose instead to explore the idea that, although the Stalinist system was relatively short-lived, there was a distinct "Stalinist" mode that was constructed in the 1929-34 period. Of course the world capitalist system exerted a profound influence on the USSR, but it does not follow that the USSR was just a cork bobbing on the capitalist sea. Did the USSR also have its own inner spring and does it make sense to describe this inner spring as "capitalist"? Despite the use of railways, factory production and other "capitalist" technology, there were huge differences between the relations of production in the USSR in 1934, and anything that Marx would have described as capitalism.

From notes on pages 458-533

Martin Thomas: Capital without wage-workers? Wage-payment without capitalist wage-labour?

It is possible for capitalists to emerge without any large number of wage-workers. For example, merchant capitalists. Another example: "slavery is possible at individual points within the bourgeois system of production" [p.464]; "the plantation owners in America... are capitalists... based on their existence as anomalies within a world market based on free labour" [p.513].
Generalised wage-labour - wage-labour as the main form of deployment of labour - is impossible without capital; and generalised capital is impossible without wage-labour.
But sometimes large numbers of workers can be paid in the wage-form without being capitalist wage-workers. Workers living from a wage, salary, stipend, or fees are not necessarily wage-workers working for capital. For centuries there are many such workers, paid from revenue rather than capital.
"The entire class of so-called services from the bootblack up to the king falls into this category. Likewise the free day-labourer... In Asiatic societies... whole cities arise... from the exchange of [the monarch's] revenue with the 'free hands'... The pay of the common soldier is also reduced to a minimum... but he exchanges the performance of his services not for capital, but for the revenue of the state..." [p.467].
"In bourgeois society itself, all exchange of personal services for revenue - ... cooking, sewing etc., garden work etc., up to and including... civil servants, physicians, lawyers, scholars, etc. - belongs under this rubric, within this category..." [p.468]...

Relevance to debates about Stalinism

What light does this discussion shed on the debates about Stalinism? Your conclusion as to whether the workers in the Stalinist states were wage-workers or not depends, up to a point, on how much you reckon Marx's third condition, "a free exchange-relation - money-circulation - between both sides", must be understood as requiring a fully, or nearly fully, free market, or only as requiring that the relationship be mediated through money, perhaps on a very imperfect market.
In fact labour markets are extremely "imperfect" in almost all capitalist states - for varying reasons, sometimes to do with trade unions - and the basic development of the concept of wage-labour presupposes only the money-relationship, not any particular level of freely-competitive price-setting, nor any particular level of individual legal freedom going with the money-relationship beyond the requirement that the worker not be a slave or a serf legally annexed to another individual.
That the worker is a "slave" to "capital in general" does not contradict wage-labour. "The free worker... sells the particular expenditure of force to a particular capitalist, whom he confronts as an independent individual. It is clear that this is not his relation to the existence of capital as capital, i.e. to the capitalist class". [p.464].
Logically, you could build on Marx and argue that in the USSR the bureaucrats formed a state-capitalist class while exploiting by methods other than wage-labour, because of their "existence as anomalies within a world market based on free labour". (That was approximately Tony Cliff's idea, though his summary was that the whole economy was capitalist despite no wage-labour). The more common view (e.g. of some Regulation School writers) that the Stalinist USSR was a wage-labour society, but not a capitalist one, seems harder to mesh with Marx's argument.

Roger Clarke: Capitalist free labour

“A presupposition of wage labour, and one of the historic preconditions for capital, is free labour and the exchange of this free labour for money, in order to realize money, to consume the use value of labour not for individual consumption, but as use value for money.”
Grundrisse p.471
“When e.g. the great English landowners dismissed their retainers, who had, together with them, consumed the surplus product of the land; when further their tenants chased off the smaller cottagers etc., then, firstly, a mass of living labour powers was thereby thrown onto the labour market, a mass which was free in a double sense, free from the old relations of clientship, bondage and servitude, and secondly free of all belongings and possessions, and of every objective, material form of being, free of all property; dependent on the sale of its labour capacity or on begging, vagabondage and robbery as its only source of income.”
Grundrisse p.507
Here the “freedom” of the labourer appears merely as two negatives – absence of the old relationships and absence of labourers’ property.
Yet in Capital these same ideas are expressed more “positively”
“It [capital] can spring into life, only when the owner of the means of production and subsistence meets in the market with the free labourer selling his labour power. And this one historical condition comprises a world’s history. Capital, therefore, announces from its first appearance a new epoch in the process of social production.
Capital p.170
“The capitalist epoch is therefore characterized by this, that labour-power takes in the eyes of the labourer himself the form of a commodity which is his property; his labour consequently becomes wage-labour. On the other hand, it is only from this moment that the produce of labour universally becomes a commodity.”
Capital p.170 footnote
While “free” labour does not imply political rights such as the right to vote or the right to join a trade union, it does, in Marx’s finished exposition in Capital, mean something more than the mere absence of slavery or serfdom. That something is the effective ownership by the worker of his own labour power.
Thus the existence of a genuine (not necessarily “perfect”) labour market is a defining characteristic of a capitalist system. The “imperfection” introduced by trade unions shows that “perfection” can be a disadvantage to workers. However trade unionism is based on the existence of a genuine labour market and simply tries to obtain a better price for the sellers of labour power.
Direct compulsion can still occur under established capitalism, but only as an anomaly – eg the cotton plantation owners in the US were capitalists who exploited slaves, but they could only be capitalists because production by wage labour was the general rule in the US, i.e. the dominant mode of production in the US at the time was capitalism.
Cliff’s “state-capitalist” theory of full-blown Stalinism (the USSR from 1929-1956) is nonsense. Direct state compulsion in USSR was an anomaly in the world economy, but was the general rule in the USSR in this period. Therefore the dominant mode of production in the world was capitalist, but the dominant mode of production in the USSR was not.

From notes on pages 250-266

Martin Thomas: Marx identifies capitalism indiscriminately with a society where exchange-value dominates, and a society where wage-labour dominates. He bridges the gap by arguing that the domination of one must mean the domination of the other. For example, if exchange-value dominates, then the mass of the population have no direct access to the means of subsistence, but have to buy them for money. Since they do not own the means of subsistence, they can get that money only by selling what they do still own - their own labour-power.
On the very broadest scale this equation may work. But in actual history there is a lot of slippage.
Some societies may be more or less dominated by exchange-value while wage-labour is still secondary. In the countryside, the working population has some access to the land, but uses that more to grow cash-crops than to supply itself directly, and moreover every household depends on bits and pieces of paid labour for others as well as its own work on its own land. Paid labour takes place under a variety of relations, but rarely in straightforward capitalist forms. Some of it is tied into quasi-feudal relations of dependence, for example by "debt servitude". Some of it has more the character of an exchange of services between neighbours on not-very-different economic levels than of capitalist employment.
Conversely, take the Stalinist states. Some Marxists deny that wage-labour existed there at all. Leave that debate aside for a moment, and consider the debate among the large and diverse number who agree that wage-labour (in impure, distorted forms) did exist there. Many of them would still say that, because exchange-value did not dominate sufficiently there, the Stalinist states were not (state-)capitalist.
True, the workers were paid wages and had to buy their means of subsistence in the market, or rather in a variety of markets (official publicly-run markets; officially-licensed free markets; grey and black markets). Even if those markets were very far from a neo-classical economist's ideal, they were still markets. But for producer goods the role of the market was much smaller. There were grey markets operating between different enterprises, but to a large degree the enterprise's acquisition of consumer goods depended on government allocation rather than on straightforward purchasing-power. Therefore (they say) not capitalist. Some even argue that state capitalism, in contradistinction to competitive capitalism, is a contradiction in terms, because if the state dominates capital then exchange-value cannot dominate the distribution of producer goods.

From notes on pages 135-172

Martin Thomas: To work, a time-chit system presupposes a bank which would in fact be a general ruler of production. In which case, if that bank planned everything, what would be the purpose of the chits? The bank would have to be either "a despotic ruler of production and trustee of distribution" or "a board which keeps the books and accounts for a society producing in common" (notice, having in mind debates about the nature of Stalinism, that Marx assumes that these two possibilities are radically different from each other). (p.115-6).

From notes on the Introduction

Martin Thomas: In my view, also, the Introduction has had some bad effects on later "Marxism".
You can read it as saying that production is dominant a priori - that there is a structure called the relations of production which shapes society a priori without any intermediary of human action. You can see the harmful effects of that in the idea that the Stalinist USSR was a workers' state because of the supposed relations of production. (One of the problems with the approach is - actually in line with Marx's argument in the Introduction - it is tricky, or even impossible, to define "relations of production" in abstraction from everything else in society).

Furthe reading: link to past debates

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