Reply to James Daly - additional comment
J.Bendien at wolmail.nl
Thu Dec 12 15:56:36 MST 2002
A few notes - Resnick and Wolff fall in the same category as Cliff - "words
mean what I want them to mean" at any time. They have a moral critique of
the Soviet Union which they try to bolster with Marxist phrases. But that is
not economic theory or analysis. It is not an effective reply to the
Marx himself explicitly acknowledges that economic categories such as
surplus-labour and surplus-product are not unique to capitalism, they are
general economic categories. What Marx is concerned with, is rather "the
specific economic form in which surplus-labour is pumped out of the direct
producers" as he puts it in Capital Vol. 3. That is, there are many
different economic forms of surplus-labour. For Marx, surplus-labour comes
into being as soon as producers are sufficiently productive that they can
produce more than is required for their own survival. Whether and how this
surplus-labour is exploited, is a separate question. That depends on the
prevailing social relations.
When Resnick and Wolff say that there was surplus-labour in the Soviet
Union, this says nothing about the socialist or capitalist characteristics
of the Soviet economy, at least not from a Marxist point of view. The
"specific economic form" of Soviet production was not capitalist, because
there were almost no privately owned means of production and because
labour-power was partially decommodified.
But obviously, if you do not have capitalism, you can still have a different
society which is just as exploitative or alienating, no serious and
intellectually honest person denies that. The real point however is to
develop a positive programme for socialist construction, including a theory
of economic efficiency, a theory of socialist management, the relative
merits of different property forms, a theory of efficient democratic forms,
and so on, based on more than a century of experience with these things.
Even in socialist society there would be surplus-labour performed, in the
sense, that a part of the net output functions as a social investment fund
for enlarged economic reproduction (economic growth) and does not go to
individual consumers. If you abolish surplus-labour, then you cannot have
economic growth, since there are no social savings that can be applied for
systematic economic development. Effectively you have a sort of subsistence
economy. The savings are then only individual savings, disposed of according
to individual choice.
In this regard, Ernest Mandel's pioneering work "Marxist Economic Theory" is
a vast improvement on the previous discussion, because it clearly
conceptualises the general economic categories of Marx's theory. Where
Mandel fails is mainly in underestimating the political, cultural and moral
impact of Stalinist despotism, and that this despotism ruins the morale
(and, to an extent, the moral fibre) of the working class, generating
cynicism and crime.
Mandel does stress that popular democracy and civil/human rights are vital
for economic efficiency, but he doesn't recognise properly that if you don't
have those, and if you have a bureaucratic dictatorship, that the result may
be WORSE in important respects than a conventional capitalist market
economy. Mandel's argument is in effect that "any contemporary alternative
to capitalism is better than capitalism", but few people would follow him
that far. Most people would acknowledge that there are alternative economic
arrangements possible today, which are worse than liberal capitalism. Most
people would prefer, let's say, Dutch capitalism to Khmer socialism.
Harry Cleaver argues "The workers [in the Soviet Union] alienated their
labour. As such they did not produce for
their own immediate needs but worked for the management of the state
enterprise". But in a socialist society, the direct producers would not be
producing for their own immediate needs either, in that they would be
producing goods for the benefit of their fellow human beings, they would be
engaging in directly social production. At best the producers would get more
satisfaction and enjoyment out of their work.
The idea that you can remove alienation from factory production, as Cleaver
suggests, beyond reducing it through better work relations or different
forms of organisation, is an illusion. The most effective method to reduce
alienation is to automate mass production as much as possible, and reduce
the number of working hours worked per week for all, so that workers have
more free time to do "non-alienating" things in which they can express
themselves. Even so, the concept of "alienation" itself needs a critical
reworking in the light of modern experience. Marx's comments are not
sufficient, they are just one critique.
"Producing for own immediate needs" is subsistence production, or
petty-bourgeois production, but the whole aim of socialism is to get beyond
those, as much as possible.
The Yugoslav experience proves that managers are still necessary even if you
have workers self-management, although you can reduce the number of
functions necessary for enterprise co-ordination with modern communications
technology and "self-steering teams". But if workers can elect managers or
work to rule, this does not eliminate alienation, that is naive.
The biggest reduction in alienation comes about, when participation in all
spheres of society is no longer dependent on having money, and when the time
and opportunity exists for people to participate fully. But because
alienation is rooted in 10,000 years of class society, you cannot expect it
to wither away quickly, not even in socialist society. Socialist society is
necessary, not primarily because of the problem of alienation, but for
general human survival in an acceptable way.
The basic problem with Resnick and Wolff as well as Cleaver is that they
focus mainly on relations within the workplace (Cleaver regards Wassily
Leontief's contributions to economics as "bourgeois ideology"). But work
relations are only one aspect of socialist construction. What they largely
ignore, is the relationships between enterprises. So then essentially they
fall back ideologically into the viewpoint of the self-employed operator,
the petty bourgeoisie: "I would rather work for myself, than work for a boss
in an alienating enterprise". But the petty bourgeoisie can only exist,
because the working class produces all the goods for the petty bourgeoisie,
which the petty bourgeoisie cannot provide for itself, at least not at an
Many autonomists prefer not to be employed at all, because of the alienating
features of employment - but then they still rely on workers to produce
means of subsistence for them, they rely on a surplus produced elsewhere.
They would like all the benefits of society without incurring any of the
costs, they would like to have all the rights and entitlements of living in
society, without having any social obligations or duties imposed on them. I
don't blame them, since capitalist society is alienating in many respects,
but for an alternative society to come into being people have to take on
real social responsibilities.
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