[Marxism] What is capitalism? Reply to Jurriaan part 2

Tom O'Lincoln suarsos at alphalink.com.au
Sat Dec 11 20:06:54 MST 2004

Cliff's treatment of wage labour in the USSR was contradictory. In an
early polemic against Max Schactman, he warned that if we think the
Soviet Union is a society without wage labour (slave labour, so to
speak) we may fall into the trap of thinking it more reactionary than
the west, as Schachtman ultimately did. Yet "State Capitalism in
Russia", Cliff' main book on state capitalism, seemed to say there was
no wage labour there. First it paraphrased Marx as follows:

"In order to see whether labour power in Russia is really a commodity 

it is necessary to see what specific conditions are necessary for it to
be so. Marx states two conditions for this: first that the labourer must
sell his labour power as he has no other means of subsistence, being
'free' of the means of production; secondly, that the labourer can sell
his labour power as he is the sole owner of it, that is, he is free to
do so."

This ironically defined freedom is shown, Cliff continued, by the
"periodic sale of himself, by his change of masters, and by the
oscillations in the market price of labour power.."  The phrase "change
of masters" refers to a worker's ability to move from one employer to

Turning to Russia, Cliff argued that these conditions do not apply:

"If there is only one employer [the state- TOL], a 'change of masters'
is impossible, and the 'periodic sale of himself' becomes a mere
formality. The contract also becomes only a formality when there are
many sellers and only one buyer 
 There is no doubt that 'oscillations
in the market prices of labour power' take place in Russia, perhaps more
so than in other countires. But here, too, the essence contradicts the

Cliff went on to argue that wage levels are ultimately determined by
government planning rather than the operations of the market. From the
logic of his treatment, we can only conclude that the Russian workers
were not proletarians in Marx's sense.

Alex Callinicos and Duncan Hallas made attempts to correct this line of
argument. Hallas pointed out that wage premiums were used to attract
workers to especially unpleasant places in the USSR. Callinicos
qualified Cliff's usual analogy that Russia was like one big firm ("USSR
Ltd") which would mean there was no "choice of masters". Callinicos
pointed out that "in no advanced capitalist country is the mobilisity of
labour-power in practice unrestricted" and pointed to the extreme
example of war economies: "Ernest Bevin's dictatorial powers as Minister
of Labour did not mean that between 1940 and 1945 Britain ceased to be
a capitalist country." This is true but not sufficient to resolve the
issue since in Bevin's Britain there were still multiple employers.

Callinicos added that the USSR's economy was an articulated system of
different productive activities, and distributed labour-power via a
labour market and wage labour. This is also true, and I'd say the
Hallas-Callinicos line of argument is sufficient to refute Jurriaan's
black-and-white contrast between the Soviet economy and the west. They
could also have pointed to the existence of actual private capitalists
in the USSR, operating legally and via the black economy.

But still the theoretical problem remains: what about the hypothetical
pure case where the stalinist state is the one and only employer? In
such a situation there can't be a "change of masters". There is no way
out of this dilemma if we accept Cliff's logic. But I think his logic
was mistaken. To see why let's look at what Marx really said about it.
Here is the passage from chapter 6 of Capital that Cliff took as his
starting point:

"labour-power can appear upon the market as a commodity, only if, and so
far as, its possessor, the individual whose labour-power it is, offers
it for sale, or sells it, as a commodity. In order that he may be able
to do this, he must have it at his disposal, must be the untrammeled
owner of his capacity for labour, i.e. of his person. He and the owner
of money meet in the market, and deal with each other as on the basis of
equal rights, with this difference alone, that one is buyer, the other
 The continuance of this relation demands that the owner of the
labour-power should sell it only for a definite period, for is he were
to sell it rump and stump, once for all, he would be selling himself,
converting himself from a free man into a slave, from an owner of a
commodity into a commodity."

Firstly, please note there is no reference here to a "change of
masters", the point that was so important for Cliff. That appears nearly
400 pages later, in a different context. Secondly, Marx certainly does
insist on the need for labour to be "free" in the sense that workers
must have the choice of selling or not selling their labour-power at any
given time, that they must sell it not forever but installments, etc.
However it's clear he's discussing the realm of EXCHANGE of commodities
- in this case the commodity labour-power - rather than the realmof
PRODUCTION. This apparently minor consideration is actually very

Marx uses the opening sections of Capital to develop his theoretical
categories. He begins with the single commodity, then moves along to
circulation of commodities and to the exchange process. Finally he
discusses the exchange of that special commodity, labour-power. The
above passage occurs right at this point. It's inevitable that a section
focussing on the forms of exchange will emphasize the specific forms of
exchange of labour-power.

At the same time, however, there's a clear warning that Marx didn't
intend his discussion of exchange to be theoretically central. Worker
and employer "meet in the market, and deal with each other as on the
basis of equal rights." But of course capitalism doesn't really provide
equal rights. These exist formallly in the realm of exchange, but are
immediately abrogated in the process of the production. And it's
production which is central to Marx's analysis.

The real of exchange is the realm of all the ILLUSIONS of bourgeois
society. It is "a very Eden of the innate rights of man". Here the
"freedom" of labour is a defining characteristic. But his emphasis
changes when Marx discusses wage labour in the context of production.
Now the illusions are dispelled. Chapter 23 of Capital says:

"Capitalist production 
 reproduces the conditions for exploiting the
labourer. It incessantly forces him to sell his labour-power in order to
 It is no longer a mere accident, that capitalist and labourer
confront each other in the market as buyer and seller. It is the process
itself that incessantly hurls back the labourer onto the market as a
vendor of his labour-power, and that incessantly converts his own
product into a means by which which another man can purchase him. In
reality, the labourer belongs to capital before he has sold himself to
capital. His economic bondage is both brought about and concealed by the
periodic sale of himself, by his change of massters, and by the
oscillations in the market-price of labour-power."

Here we finally come to the "change of masters" and also to the
"oscillations in the market-price of labour", but in a context where
they are clearly only two of many considerations, and hardly the central
ones. What is more, their role is primarily one of mystification,
creating the APPEARANCE of free labour while concealing the labourer's
"economic bondage". The central matter is not the "change of masters"
nor yet the periodic resale of labour-power, but the "separation between
labour and the means of labour" which "forces (the labourer) to sell his
labour power". The REALITY, as opposed to the appearances which arise in
the process of exchange, is that the worker in his "bondage" is rather
like a slave: "another man can purchase him" !

Another point about the "oscillations of labourer power". Cliff assumed
that the price of labour-power was determined in competition between
capitals and that was all. Actually the class struggle also plays a
role. Workers in the stalinist states did go on strike for better wages
and conditions, and sometimes legally as with the rise of Solidarity in
Poland or the Gorbachev-era miners' strikes in the Soviet Union.

None of this is to say the partial suppression of standard capitalist
exchange forms in the USSR wasn't significant. Cliff saw state
capitalism as a "transition stage to socialism, this side of the
socialist revolution", so it would be surprising if some capitalist
forms weren't suppressed. Nevertheless, we shouldn't doubt that Soviet
workers were proletarians in Marx's sense.

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