Value, Labour Time & Communism: Re-Reading Marx (2014)

Going back to Marx has nothing to do with digging into layers of thought and balancing merit: a few essential abstract notions – value, work, time, labour time and productivity – indicate what we wish to change in this world, and how.

1) The Origin of Value  

     CapitalVolume I does not begin with a definition of what capitalism is, but how it “presents itself”: “an immense accumulation of commodities”. This approach points to a particular choice of perspective. Marx broaches the issue with the encounter of independent producers who meet on the market to exchange their wares. Since capital/labour is the heart of the matter, as Marx himself points out, and since he is not writing a history book, why not start with the encounter of the wage-earner and the capitalist ? His enquiry into wage-labour is initiated from the point of view of a division of labour between self-employed producers (farmer meets cloth-maker), and proceeds to analyse the dual nature of labour: concrete (labour has use value) and abstract (it produces exchange value).

      If we follow the logic of the Capital first chapter, use value takes on the character of exchange value once it enters the market. Although Marx gives us the keys to understand that in the “use value + exchange value” relation, use is determined by exchange, because production is standardized in such a way as to create an exchangeable item, he describes the process as if value, instead of being born out of a very specific type of production, came after the productive moment and imposed itself upon work as an exterior constraint.

     If this was so, the task of revolution would be to free the producers from this constraint. 

     Though Marx constantly relates value to labour, he does not insist upon its origin in production, from a certain type of production, in which each item is made for and according to the labour time necessary to make it.

     Communism as Marx sees it is a moneyless world based on communal work: the trouble is, work is a lot more than people getting together in a workshop to manufacture objects. Producing these objects is ruled by the average labour time incorporated in them. This implies quantifying the average labour time necessary to produce this or that item : in other words, what Marx rightly calls value. Value is time, and production is ruled by time, i.e. by productivity: manufacturing procedures are organized to get the greatest possible output per unit of time. Work is an activity based on time-counting, and counting entails shortening.

     Yet Marx treats use value like a natural result of human activity, and would like to have use values without exchange value. But use value is an analytic category both opposed to and encompassed by exchange value: it is impossible to do away with one without doing away with the other.

     Human emancipation means putting an end to time constraints over productive activity (and over the whole of life).

     Why the variation (or contradiction) in the development of Marx’s thinking ?

     “Marx has offered much more than was directly essential for the practical conduct of the class war. [..] It is not true that Marx no longer suffices for our needs. On the contrary, our needs are not yet adequate for the utilization of Marx’s ideas.” (Rosa Luxemburg, Stagnation and Progress of Marxism, 1903)

     That not-so-obvious idea suggested by R. Luxemburg over a century ago is even more  relevant than she thought. Because of the historical limits of the proletarian movement in his time, because “mankind always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve”, Marx could not take his own intuitions to their ultimate conclusions. He gave all the elements to understand that value originates in production and manifests itself in exchange, but he still presented exchange – the market – as if it determined the whole process: therefore a market-less production, namely associated work, would be the key to emancipation. Hence the variations in Marx’s critique of work: 

2) Work Abolished, or Work as Our Prime Want ?           

    In 1846, Marx argued that “the communist revolution is directed against the preceding mode of activity” and “does away with labour” (German Ideology, Part I, D).  

      This was a long way from identifying man as homo faber, or  a “toolmaker” (B. Franklin).    

      Twenty years later, there is a shift in emphasis : “So far therefore as labour is a creator of use value, is useful labour, it is a necessary condition, independent of all forms of society, for the existence of the human race; it is an eternal nature-imposed necessity, without which there can be no material exchanges between man and Nature, and therefore no life.” (Capital, 1867, Chap. 1, 2). 

     Capital’s first chapter regards labour (not wage-labour, labour in general) as something that has existed since the dawn of mankind and in nearly every society. As the “man and nature” metabolism becomes an object of enquiry under the category of “labour”, labour turns work into an eternal natural fact. We are left with the idea that work, not work as we know it now, but what it may have been in very old times, before private property, before money, classes, etc., and what it could become in communism, i.e. work without a labour market, is positive and necessary.

     The Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875) described “[..] a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labour, has vanished; after labour has become not only a means of life but life's prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly [..]”

      Here Marx launched what was to be the ABC of Marxism: the proletarian ceases to be a proletarian (i.e. a wage-earner exploited by a boss) when everyone works. Now, which work ? wage-labour ? Marx proceeds as if the question was irrelevant: as soon as we all belong to the work community and there are no bourgeois, extending work to everyone solves the social question. Getting rid of capitalism is not perceived of as abolishing the capital/labour reunion, but as liberating work from capital, from its alienated prison.

     In the 1840s, Marx started from a radical standpoint that was utterly unacceptable in his time (and has remained so up to now). Thirty years and a few proletarian defeats later, by labour becoming “life’s prime want”, he certainly meant a complete reconfiguration of creative activity but, if he rejected what is now called “productivism”, he did not make his rejection explicit. For him, the emancipation of the working classes required more development of “the productive forces”. The historical thread Marx was weaving in the 1840s proved in contradiction to the working class movement as it was really developing (unions, parties, parliamentary action, etc.). Sadly but logically, Marx’s late vision remained hampered by capitalist pictures of the future: only a worker-led economic growth would ultimately free mankind.

3) Time as Measure  

      Measuring (= shortening) derives from the exploitation of labour: productivity means getting more value per unit of time. Marx is perfectly aware that in capitalism, competition forces each firm to be more competitive than its rivals, viz. better at labour cost-cutting. Yet he writes as if quantifying the ratio of output to input was a human constant :   

     “In all states of society, the labour time that it costs to produce the means of subsistence, must necessarily be an object of interest to mankind, though not of equal interest in different stages of development.” (Capital, Volume I, Chap.1, 4)

     The 1857-58 manuscripts (the Grundrisse) are reputed to be quite different from Capital. In many respects they are, especially because they link exploitation to alienation. Still, one can read in those pages the same contradictions as in Marx’s published writings, on work as well as on time, and both concepts are indeed interlocked. Work is exploitation. Time measures the performance of exploitation.

     “Real economy – saving – consists of the saving of labour time (minimum (and minimization) of production costs) [..] The saving of labour time [is] equal to an increase of free time, i.e. time for the full development of the individual [..]”

     “It goes without saying [..] that direct labour time itself cannot remain in the abstract antithesis to free time in which it appears from the perspective of bourgeois economy. Labour cannot become play, as Fourier would like, although it remains his great contribution to have expressed the suspension not of distribution, but of the mode of production itself, in a higher form, as the ultimate object.”

     True, life, and of course productive acts, require “practical use of the hands and free bodily movement”, and imply effort and exertion, and we must bear this in mind, especially against the myth of automation-induced freedom. Nevertheless, the work v. play opposition is a dead-end: these are historical, not natural, categories.

     Not everything can be turned into fun. Quite. But as there is a difference between production and economy, the necessity of effort does not mean that it has to take the form of work. It is not always more pleasant to eat than to cook. And what about washing up ? It only becomes a chore because of the mechanical nature of housework (80% of which are still performed by women in Western Europe and North America), that has to be done under double pressure from time-saving and family life as we know it. Re-appropriating and altering our conditions of existence involve new relationships between man/woman, but also parent/child, adult/youth, which call for another habitat, another education, etc.

     What we read in the Grundrisse is as profound as ambiguous:

     “Capital itself is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth.”

     “The more this contradiction develops, the more does it become evident that the growth of the forces of production can no longer be bound up with the appropriation of alien labour, but that the mass of workers must themselves appropriate their own surplus labour. Once they have done so – and disposable time thereby ceases to have an antithetical existence – then, on one side, necessary labour time will be measured by the needs of the social individual, and, on the other, the development of the power of social production will grow so rapidly that, even though production is now calculated for the wealth of all, disposable time will grow for all.”

     Capitalism “is thus, despite itself, instrumental in creating the means of social disposable time, in order to reduce labour time for the whole society to a diminishing minimum, and thus to free everyone’s time for their own development. But its tendency is always, on the one side, to create disposable time, on the other, to convert it into surplus labour.”

     “For real wealth is the developed productive power of all individuals. The measure of wealth is then not any longer, in any way, labour time, but rather disposable time.”

     By definition, disposable time has not been employed yet, is still potential, therefore  impossible to measure. There is a difference between saying: “I’ll work in your garden tomorrow from 2 to 4”, as a local exchange trading system partner would say (as an interest-free credit swap, LETS is based on labour-time count), and saying: “I’ll help you gardening tomorrow afternoon”, as a friend might say. So Marx’s disposabletime seems to break with value. But the question remains: in a future society, will this disposable time become the totality of time, or will it be simplyadded to an always present labour-time, even reduced to a couple of hours a day ?...   Further on, Marx defines “free time” as “both idle time and time for higher activity”, so we are not any wiser.

     Marx posed the “time-count” issue (which is fundamental to the question of work), but could not solve it because he was addressing it without questioning everything that time (and time calculation) involves.

     Time is indeed the dimension of human liberation, providing the measure of time does not turn into measuring the world and us according to time.

     On the first evening of the Paris 1830 insurrection, “the dials on clock-towers were being fired at simultaneously and independently from several locations” (W. Benjamin), as poetically reported by an eyewitness who wrote about “firing on clock faces to make the day stand still”. Nowadays, primitivists sometimes refuse to wear a watch and won’t arrange a meeting time at 10 am or 4 pm, only at sunrise or sunset. A future society may still prefer to use watches, street clocks or sundials, but the 1830 insurgents had an insight of the coming tyranny of computed time.

 4) Community Planning        

     “Let us now picture [..] a community of free individuals, carrying on their work with the means of production in common, in which the labour power of all the different individuals is consciously applied as the combined labour power of the community. [..] The total product of our community is a social product. [..]  We will assume, but merely for the sake of a parallel with the production of commodities, that the share of each individual producer in the means of subsistence is determined by his labour time.” (Capital, vol. I, chap. 1, 4)

     If Marx assumes that labour time will regulate production, “merely for the sake of a parallel with the production of commodities”, this is because the opposite assumption would be near unthinkable. Though this is for the sake of a comparison, his perspective is indeed to replace small private producers by social work, bourgeois rule by community rule, and anarchy and waste by democratic planning.

     The whole plan hinges on transparency and self-understanding: in future, human beings will be conscious of what they do. At present, the bourgeois do not know what labour time amounts to, and they don’t want to know, because an accurate reckoning of labour time would reveal the extent of the exploitation of labour. Exact opposite in communism: in Marx’s view, associated producers will be able to compute the labour time necessary to whatever they manufacture.

   Marx repeatedly refused to draw blueprints for the future. So it is significant that when he did elaborate on the subject in hisCritique of the Gotha Programme (1875), his suggestion for the “lower phase” of communism, labour vouchers, amounted to value without money.

 5) Council Communism & Labour Time

     In 1930, the Dutch council communist group GIK (Group of Internationalist Communists of Holland) published Fundamental Principles of Communist Production and Distribution.

     After being active in the KAPD, German-born Jan Appel (1890-1985) had to move to Holland where he joined the GIK. He had done the first draft of the text, and later the scheme was laid down in more details, by Paul Mattick in particular.

     Its main principle is the “introduction of the Average Social Hour of Labour as a unit of economic regulation and control. [..] all money will be declared worthless and only labour certificates will give entitlement to social product. It will be possible to exchange this "certificate money" only at the cooperative shops and warehouses. The sudden abolition of money will bring about a situation in which, equally suddenly, all products must have their appropriate ASRT (Average Social Reproduction Time) stamped upon them.” (1930 edition, Epilogue, § 2:  “From Money to Labour-Time Computation”)

     Now, if the GIK gave a key role to labour time counting, it was not from an economist’s or a technician’s point of view, because that method would be more efficient or better adapted to modern industry. In a short autobiographical note (readable on libcom) written in 1966, Jan Appel made it clear what the idea that underpinned the plan was :  

      “[..] the most profound and intense contradiction in human society resides in the fact that [..] the right of decision over the conditions of production, over what and how much is produced and in what quantity, is taken away from the producers themselves and placed in the hands of highly centralised organs of power. [..] This basic division in human society can only be overcome when the producers finally assume their right of control over the conditions of their labour, over what they produce and how they produce it. [..] It was likewise a wholly new conception to concentrate one's attention [..] upon the exercise of power by the factory organisations, the Workers' Councils, in their assumption of control over the factories and places of work; in order that flowing from this, the unit of the average social hour of labour, as the measure of the production times of all goods and services in both production and distribution, might be introduced.”

     This highlights the prime purpose of the scheme : to make sure all producers would be able to understand how production functions, so they can take authentic collective decisions. Nobody else but the producers is in the best position to know what production implies in terms of material and human resources, and the only way of synthesizing all productive factors is to reduce them to their common denominator: human labour, measured in time,  ASRT, the great and fair simplifier. So it will be necessary to “adopt as the nodal point of all economic activity the duration of labour time expended in the production of all use values, as the equivalent measure replacing money values, and around which the whole of economic life would revolve.”

     As seen above in § 1 and 3, Marx was in contradiction with himself when he presented social labour time as something different from and opposed to value, but his notes did not elaborate the idea into a full definitive plan. Council communism’s ASRT brings this contradiction to a stage where it is untenable : 

     The bourgeois does not know what value is : he only bothers aboutprofit, interest or rent, and when economists discuss value, it is these three forms they are talking about, not Marxian value. Yet, according to council communists, the associated producers would be able to evaluate the individual and the collective physical-mental energy necessary to produce objects, and to measure that exertion in time. This is forgetting that labour time, because it is a social average, is hardly computable for a specific task or object. Value does exist, but not as a management technique instrument. 

     The money-less utopia goes a long way: whereas money is the natural tool of the rich, the common people want a standard that comes from them, from those who do the real thing, who create riches. After all, any effort can be reduced to a certain exertion measurable in time (considering the intensity of the task and skill involved). In order to expand « free » time, the aim is to locate “working hours” and reduce them as much as possible.

     Council communists proposed a proletarian variation on that theme. To avoid utopia, the plan starts from three postulates: production has to be done, cannot be turned into play, and its process is so complex that it requires planning. The labour time-based economy meets all three requisites. It would make worker management possible and exploitation impossible: gold, coins or notes can be accumulated to hire labour, labour-time vouchers can’t. Besides, a labour time-based economy would eliminate waste and reconcile fairness with efficiency.

     A 1994 essay describes “a society based on labour time” :

     “The only way time can become 'free' is by making the products of that time free as well. The products of our work can all be compared with one another in terms of the time taken or spent producing them. So now we can, if we choose, suppress prices, markets and so on and make distribution of all products 'free' in exchange for the 'time' of the producers. [..] Only when the producers themselves know the true costs of production can they take control of or manage the production process.”(The content of Socialism/Communism, by D.G.: readable  on

     In such plans, in spite of complete political and economic worker democracy, work is not abolished as such, as something distinct from the rest of life. Neither is the economy abolished as the social system that endlessly opposes and reconciles resources and needs. The Dutch-German Left disregarded the fact that the economy is not production: it is the domination of production (for value) over society.

    For the GIK, the company explicitly stood as an economic unit at the centre of the system. Of course, council communists were aware of the inescapable fact that some companies, and some workers within each company, would be more productive than others: they thought this would be compensated for by a complex regulating mechanism detailed by Mattick in What is Communism ? (International Council Correspondence, # 1, Oct. 1934). Productivity differentials would be smoothly counterbalanced without forcing any company to increase its productive efficiency, because the whole plan is based on the assumption that no worker council in charge of a company would cheat on its results and figures: when labour is in command, it acts well and is fair.  

     Unfortunately, if the regulator is labour time, this entails the imperative of being productive, and productivity is no servant : it rules over production. The shop-floor would soon lose control over its elected supervisors, and democratically designated co-organizers would act as bosses. The system of councils would survive as an illusion, and workers' management result in capitalism, or rather… capitalism would never have disappeared. We can’t have it both ways: either we keep the foundation of value, or we dispense with it. The circle can’t be squared. 

     Such a scheme goes as close as one can get to keeping the essentials of capitalism yet putting them under full worker control.

6) Bordiga’s Critique

     The GIK and Pannekoek’s vision was born as a counterpoint to Leninist and then Stalinist Russia, and owed a lot to a prevailing mood created by the 1930s Depression. Across the political spectrum, Otto Rühle, Bruno Rizzi, dissident Trotskyists Burnham and Schachtman, non-Marxists Berle and Means and many others thought capitalism was on its way to planning, bureaucratization and nationalization. During the war, J. Schumpeter announced the end of the age of private entrepreneurs, and for him the question was whether a new socialized economy would come under democratic or dictatorial rule. After 1945, this perception was reinforced by the growing power of the USSR and Mao’s victory in China. Socialisme ou Barbarie is now well-known as an eminent theorist of world bureaucratization, but similar views were common at the time. Karl Korsch wrote in 1950 :

     “The control of the workers over the production of their own lives will not come from their occupying the positions, on the international and world markets, abandoned by the self-destroying and so-called free competition of the monopolistic owners of the means of production. This control can only result from a planned intervention by all the classes today excluded from it into a production which today is already tending in every way to be regulated in a monopolistic and planned fashion.” (Ten Theses on Marxism Today)

     For council communists, the revolutionary question became how labour could take over the management of a more and more “organized” capitalism and thereby transform it in a socialist/communist economy. Russia played the part of a counter-model. To quote one of the editions of the GIK’s text, the objective was that “once the workers have won power through their mass organisations”, they “will be able to hold on to that power”.

     Bordiga stood apart because he refused the concept of « bureaucracy » as a new social agent which would play in the 20th century an epochal role comparable to the bourgeoisie before.

      Though his theory of the party differed from Lenin’s, he maintained a constant pro-Lenin stand. Such persistency paradoxically helped him grasp the nature of capitalism and of communism. The main reason why it took him so long to analyse Russia as capitalist and the Comintern as anti-revolutionary, is for him the bureaucracy/rank and file opposition was never a key issue. He rejected the theory of “bureaucratic” capitalism : the Russian command economy run by the party-State did not differ in nature from western bourgeois-led capitalism. The enigma was not the bureaucracy, but the essential economic laws which the bureaucracy had to obey, and he saw these laws as described in Capital: value accumulation, exchange of commodities, declining rate of profit, etc. Only relative backwardness prevented Russia from the “usual” manifestations of over-production, which asserted itself anyhow, particularly by waste. During the Cold War, when many a council communist depicted bureaucratic regimes as the likely future of capitalist evolution, Bordiga foresaw the US dollar would penetrate Russia, and ultimately crack the Kremlin walls.

     The Dutch-German Left was right to define the USSR as capitalist: the reason why it defined it as capitalist was flawed. Because there were no private bourgeois, no privately owned business and because competition seemed inexistent, council communists believed that Stalin’s Russia had altered at least some of the fundamentals set down by Marx. The Dutch-German Left insisted on the control of the economy by the bureaucracy, to which it opposed the slogan of worker management. Bordiga said there was no need for a new programme : worker management is a secondary matter, and workers will only be able to manage the economy if market and value relations are abolished.

    Needless to say, Bordiga’s cogent objections were left unanswered, partly because they came from a staunch defender of Lenin.

     The debate goes far beyond the analysis of bureaucratic or State capitalism.

     In his Marxist days, C. Castoriadis (then writing as P. Chaulieu) regarded value as a mere instrument of measure, a useful concept, not as the reality of capital. In Marx and Keynes (1969), Mattick interpreted the analysis of value as a critique of the superficial nature of classical economics : he did not see it as a social mechanism characteristic of capitalism.

     Though essential to capitalism, value was not born with it. Value results from the social division of labour between independent private producers. It enables product exchangeability. In the capitalist world of competing companies each trying to maximize its profits, value functions as a regulating mechanism.

     Because wage-labour and value were essential to Bordiga’s definition of capitalism, he better understood what the USSR was. At the same time, as he dismissed the bureaucratic or State capitalist theories, he missed the bureaucratic issue, which is a real one, not in the German-Dutch sense which gives it pre-eminence, but in the sense that there will be no revolution without proletarian self-action. “The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority.” (Communist Manifesto, chap. 1: our emphasis) The Dutch-German Left was among the few who took these words seriously. In short, Bordiga thought communism could be achieved top down. Councilism prioritized worker democracy (and some like Castoriadis, in the end, just democracy). Bordiga prioritized dictatorship. However, his consistency in defining communism neither as a matter of consciousness nor as a matter of management remains valid and essential. (Keeping in mind that Bordiga’s communism differs from ours. He wanted to do away with value but missed out on the connection between value and time, value and productivity. His vision remains a producers’ community which manages to adjust resources and needs thanks to efficient overall planning. There is no critique of the economy as such in Bordiga.)

7) Does Value Abolish Itself ?

     One more episode in the value saga...

     If revolution is a complete break with capitalism, this begs the question of what causes it.  The proletariat makes the revolution, no doubt, but Marx often presents proletarian action as a side-effect of industrialization, as if the development of productive forces not only contributed to revolution, but was its major cause. This is what Marx suggests in relation to the first automated machines, with special reference to computing pioneer Ch. Babbage :    

     “As the basis on which large industry rests, the appropriation of alien labour time, ceases, with its development, to make up or to create wealth, so does direct labour as such cease to be the basis of production, since, in one respect, it is transformed more into a supervisory and regulatory activity; but then also because the product ceases to be the product of isolated direct labour, and the combination of social activity appears, rather, as the producer.”(Grundrisse)

     “As soon as labour in the direct form has ceased to be the great well-spring of wealth, labour time ceases and must cease to be its measure, and hence exchange value [must cease to be the measure] of use value. [..] With that, production based on exchange value breaks down, and the direct, material production process is stripped of the form of penury and antithesis.”

     In other words, when it becomes impossible to trace the personal contribution of an individual worker to wealth creation, the law of value (the regulation of production and circulation of goods by the amount of average labour time necessary to produce them) hinders economic progress and mutates into an absurdity which triggers historical change.

    In the past, the growing merchant power had exploded feudal shackles and replaced aristocratic by bourgeois rule. Soon the industrial thrust, the economic socialization and the concentrated masses of workers would prove incompatible with private property and bourgeois domination. Proletarian revolution was thought of on the model of democratic bourgeois revolution. The author of Capital partook of his time’s belief in historical progress, and added a revolutionary twist: capitalist development led to communism. 

     Marx cannot be simplified into this position, but there is enough in his work to warrant it. Present in his analysis is the tension of the time of bourgeois triumph. “Social labour” implies the possibility of rejecting all forms of alienated practice, but the concept oscillated between utopia in the 1840s and practical politics in later years. At about the same time as the Grundrisse, he was writing that

     “At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production [..] From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.” (preface to his Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy, published in 1859)

     In that lineage, much has been made of the inevitable change that the productive forces versus productive relations would cause. Whether in its old version (private owners can’t manage huge industrial concerns, so labour is bound to take over), or in more modern terms (financiers and traders can’t manage the knowledge economy, so we, the 99%, are soon to take over the world), this contradiction continues to be presented as the driving force of history and the ultimate inescapable means of emancipation. This can lay claim to Marx’s and Engels’ writing: as explained in the conclusion of Capital volume I, “ [..] capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a law of Nature, its own negation.”

     This “expropriation of a few usurpers by the mass of the people” will be possible when capitalist development ( = the development of productive forces) renders useless and absurd the coexistence of exploiting and exploited classes. The Grundrisse expounds the same dialectic:

     “As the system of bourgeois economy has developed for us only by degrees, so too its negation, which is its ultimate result.”

     Many a thinker (their name is legion) has taken pains to demonstrate how the “law of value” was tending to abolish itself (the word law is typical of the decline of critique into science). These theorists herald the advent of a time when the average social labour time would mutate into an inadequate measuring rod and ineffective regulator. Sooner or later, wage-labour’s own socialization would tear the system apart as an outmoded frame.   

     This amounts to revolutionary change without revolution.

     No. There is no tipping point when the wage-labour system would render itself null and void. Let us not expect capitalist contradictions to solve those of the proletariat, because the proletariat also is a contradiction: it is situated both at the inner heart and outside of capitalism. Theories of (violent or gradual) capital self-destruction dodge this contradiction, which has to do with class struggle. In particular, as no expenditure of physical or mental effort can be accurately broken down to seconds and minutes, complete submission of labour by capital is impossible. The proletarians’ fight against capital is based on their resistance to what the bourgeois turns them into: an activity bound in and forced into productive time.

8) Marx as a Marxist   

     In order to distinguish between Marx and his many non-revolutionary successors, radicals have often contended that Marx himself was the first and probably best critique of Marxism. (I did it too.)

     Sometimes the road to a mistake is paved with good intentions.

     As soon as “Marxism” emerged, Marxists started looking over Marx’s writings to find the demonstration that one day capitalist socialization would prevent capitalism from perpetuating itself. This might be a good definition of Marxism, actually: replacing proletarian action by fairly peaceful evolution or by a beneficial catastrophe, but in any case a quasi-natural process. At the end of the 19th century, this structural limit was perceived in the contradiction between bourgeois property and such a huge productive blossoming that even cartels and trusts would be incapable of mastering it. As volumes II and III of Das Kapital  came out, they were read as proof that enlarged reproduction of capital would inevitably reach breaking point.

     Nowadays, the analysis shifts from the economic to the social crisis, and from the worker to the people as an agent of change. Thanks to the 1857-58 manuscripts being available, the limitation is now said to be in the contemporary sources of wealth, which supposedly exceed so much capitalist structure that they call for its suppression, like a fabric bursting at the seams. Toni Negri will not be the last one to read in the Grundrisse that value (the regulation of production by labour time, by the hunt for minimal production cost) is already ceasing to rule modern society : according to T. Negri, the world now depends on the general orsocial intellect (Marx beyond Marx. Lessons on the Grundrisse, Autonomedia, 1991). All we (a we likely to include about 99% of the population) would have to do is grow aware of this historical discrepancy, turn potential evolution into effective change, and society would be transformed. 

     In plain English, in the 21st century as in 1900, productive forces are portrayed as if they were antagonistic to value and wage-labour, and on the verge of spiralling out of bourgeois control.

     This interpretation is biased but, as explained before, not unfaithful to Marx’s letter and spirit.

     There is more to it than simply contrasting young Marx to the old. Contradictions abounded in (and drove forward) his writings from beginning to end. He followed a consistent and discontinued path from the 1840s unpublished manuscripts to the (often equally unpublished) manuscripts of later years. In the 1860s, at the same time as he was having far-reaching insights in what is known as the Grundrisse, he was never-finishing his masterwork, Capital. The title is significant of Marx’s priority : a 20 or 30-year effort to immerse himself in the ins and outs of capitalism in order to understand its possible overthrow. The means turned into an end: the more he wanted to get to the essentials of the proletariat, the deeper he went into studying capitalism. Procrastination is often a sign that problem and solution are indissolubly mixed.

     Undoubtedly, we criticize Marx with the help of Marx, and Marxian texts have to be read as a “description of the features of communist society”, as Bordiga wrote more than 50 years ago. One of the most enlightening comments ever made on Marx, with the caveat that we can no longer envisage communism as Bordiga did (see our remark at the end of § 6).  That being said, what dominated Marx’s life and work ? Not only did he leave his literally blinding intuitions aside, but even those insights mixed the supersession of the economy with the project of a community economy (see above § 4). Marx is more a critic of money and commodity than of work and productivity. If he gave a minor place to a communist revitalization of the Russian peasant commune compared to worldwide industrialization, it was because capitalist headway went along with an ascending worker movement which was essential to him.

    “[..] the free trade system is destructive. It breaks up old nationalities and pushes the antagonism of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie to the extreme point. In a word, the free trade system hastens the social revolution. It is in this revolutionary sense alone, gentlemen, that I vote in favour of free trade.”(Speech on the Question of Free Trade, January 1848)

     No-one sets himself free from the limits of the period he happens to live in, and we are as time-bound as Marx and Engels were.

     Understanding communism implies distinguishing Marx from Marxism without denying the link between the two. Otherwise, we would risk making up Marx in accordance to our wishes, or (worse) with the winds of time. We can already read about a Marx who was an ecologist before ecology. Maybe soon we will be told about an esoteric Marx who theorized gender.


For further reading :

Several essential points made in this text derive from Bruno Astarian’s stimulating Feuilleton(serial) on value, chapters 1 and 2 (on the Hic Salta site, so far only in French).

Oddly enough first published in Moscow in the maelstrom of WW II, the Grundrisse remained virtually unknown until the second German edition (1953), were made available in French only in 1967, and English readers had to wait until 1973 for a full translation.

All Grundrisse quotes are taken from Notebook VII, § “Contradiction between the foundation of bourgeois production (value as measure) and its development. Machines, etc.”.

If the GIK and Mattick could have read the then-unpublished Grundrisse in the 30s, it is likely that Marx’s pages would have fuelled their thesis rather than thrown cold water on it. When they consider the Grundrisse, contemporary councilists like D.G. find confirmation in Marx’s passages on time.    

For example, in Marx’s Critique of Socialist Labor-Money Schemes & the Myth of Council Communism’s Proudhonism, libcom, 2013, David Adam rebuts my former critique of the councilist vision of communism on the ground that the GIK’s notion of value is the same as Marx’s. The discussion is becoming rather tricky, no fault of D. Adam or mine, it is just that the question is complicated. In the past, I wished to refute the GIK in the name of Marx’s analysis of value, with special reference to the Grundrisse. I now make the point that there is something highly debatable in Marx’s vision itself, both in Capital and the Grundrisse, and that the GIK did follow Marx’s footsteps and was wrong to do so: far from being a useful and fair instrument of measure, labour time is capitalist blood. This is more than a causative link: labour time is the substance of value. Marx was indeed a forerunner of the councilist project. Let it be clear, however, that our present critique of Marx is also possible because of what we read in his writings.

The shooting at clocks in 1830 is reported by Walter Benjamin, On the Concept of History (written in the late 1930s or 1940). 

On the popularity of the “planning” and “organized capitalism” themes in the 1930s:

In 1932, under the name of Carl Steuermann, O. Rühle published a book (available in French, not in English) the title of which translates as: “World Crisis or: Towards State Capitalism”.

Although his 1939 book (first published in French) remained in obscurity for thirty years, Bruno Rizzi (1901-77) was one of the first to theorize the Bureaucratization of the world.

In 1939-40, in the American Trotskyist SWP, J. Burnham and M. Schachtman rejected Trotsky’s thesis of the USSR as a “degenerated workers’ State”, and demonstrated that the bureaucracy was an exploiting class and the Russian State imperialist. Burnham soon turned arch-conservative and became a dedicated Cold Warrior. Schachtman evolved towards a more and more moderate social democracy.

A. Berle and G. Means were among those who promoted the theory of corporate governance  (The Modern Corporation & Private Property, 1932). A. Berle was involved in the New Deal.

J. Schumpeter’s influential book was Capitalism, Socialism & Democracy (1942).   

On Marx and the Russian mir, see his letter to Vera Zasulich, March 8, 1881; and : “If the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other, the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for a communist development.” (preface to the 1882 edition of the Communist Manifesto);  also Engels’ prescient remarks in his letter to V. Zasulich, April 23, 1985.

This is a slightly modified chapter from a new edition of Eclipse & Re-Emergence of the Communist Movement (PM Press, Autumn 2014). A more detailedcritique of work and the economy will be found in the first chapter of the book, and in another forthcoming book, From Crisis to Communisation, to be published by PM Press in 2015.