Let’s Get Real

By Andrew Kliman.

A correspondent from Canada has asked whether I think that “value”-oriented economic systems are a dead end, and that there should instead be production for need. I think the notion of “production for need” is a complex and difficult one, as I discuss in the middle of the following article I wrote a few years ago. (A veiled critique of the article and my reply follow the article itself.)

Let’s Get Real (About Alternatives to Capitalism)

Developing a philosophically grounded alternative to capitalism is vitally important in order to free our minds from the clutches of Margaret Thatcher’s slogan, “there is no alternative” (TINA)—and from its practical effects. Struggles for freedom continue but, given the widespread acceptance of TINA, they understandably stop short of trying to remake society totally. Just as it is rational to try to change what can be changed, it is rational to refrain from trying to change what cannot be changed. People who don’t want to hear about socialism because of the failures of what they believe to have been socialism are making perfect sense.

On the other side is a new global justice movement declaring that “Another World is Possible.” This slogan, too, is quite rational if one interprets it as a call to think through the possibility of another world and to prefigure another one. But ultimately, whether struggles for a completely different, non-capitalist, human society are rational depends upon whether another world is actually possible. This needs to be shown, and that requires showing how it is possible to break with capitalism and make that break sustainable.

At the present moment, I believe, no one can answer with confidence that another world is possible. But I do not think this is a reason to despair. The effort to work out how it might be possible is really just beginning. The whole problem was avoided for many, many decades, mostly because it was believed that state-capitalism was the “actually-existing” alternative, or that the state-capitalist mode of production could and would become socialist simply by virtue of one or another sort of political change—”democracy,” workers councils in control, etc.

Although it is commonly said that Marx was a theorist of capitalism, not of socialism, a lot of his work pertains, directly or indirectly, to the concept of a new society. We ignore it at our peril. Throughout his life, Marx battled Proudhonism and similar tendencies, showing that their proposed alternatives would not be viable and would lead back to capitalism. And he worked out to some extent what would actually be needed. That work needs to continue—Marx does not provide “the answer”— but it needs to continue on the foundation he laid, and that Raya Dunayevskaya built upon.

Above all, it is crucial to take seriously her identification of his Critique of the Gotha Program (CGP) as “New Ground for Organization.” (1) I don’t think she meant that the CGP was a treatise “on organization,” but that Marxist organizations need to make the actual content of the CGP their ground. In other words, they need to make their differentia specifica the projection and further development of the CGP’s vision of the new society, especially its analysis of what is required in order to make that vision a reality, the “whole theory of human development” that Dunayevskaya said was worked out in the CGP. (2)

In this critique, Marx theorized the future course of human development, from the dawn of revolution, through the revolutionary transformation of capitalism into communism, as well as the further development of the latter, on the new foundations established during its initial phase, into a “higher phase of communist society.” Dunayevskaya criticized Marxists for continually quoting the slogan “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”—which concludes the CGP’s discussion of the higher phase—but “never bother[ing] to study just how concretely that arose from the critique of the supposedly socialist program, and what would be required to make that real.” (3)

I believe that this statement puts in a nutshell the whole methodology of Marx’s critique. One key theoretical principle runs throughout his commentary on Paragraph 3 of the Gotha Program: relations of distribution correspond to and depend upon relations of production. Thus the “fair distribution” that the Program called for cannot be made real without a revolution, in permanance, in the mode of production—a revolution that, in its initial phase, makes labor directly social and thereby does away with the law of value and the commodification of labor-power, and then continues until the “higher phase” is reached. (4)

Simply being for “from each according to her ability, to each according to her needs” is a retrogression from what the CGP achieved. So is being “for” an end to value production without specifying what is required to make that real. It is precisely this sort of thing that got Marx so enraged about the Gotha Program. The Program ignored the theoretical achievements that had resulted from three decades of hard intellectual labor on his part, and that were finally available in Capital for all to study—if only they would do so. Instead, the Program spouted what he called “obsolete verbal rubbish” and “pervert[ed] … the realistic outlook, which it cost so much effort to instill into the Party but which has now taken root in it.”

But what is needed in order to make real the vision of a society without value production? Some people imagine that we simply need to “produce for need, not for profit.” This betrays an extremely superficial and inadequate conception of value production. The really crucial issue is the one that Dunayevskaya singled out in her critique of the Stalinist revision of the law of value: value production is characterized by “minimum costs and maximum production.” (5) It doesn’t matter what products you produce. Nor is workers’ control of the planning process sufficient in order to abrogate the law of value:

[E]ither you have the plan of freely associated labor, or you have the…despotic Plan.there is no in-between. The only possibility of avoiding capitalist crises is the abrogation of the law of value. That is to say, planning must be done according to the needs of the productive system as a human system. A system where human needs are not governed by the necessity to pay the laborer at minimum and to extract the maximum abstract labor…. (6)

Nothing short of this is the plan of freely associated labor. It remains the despotic Plan of capital—even if workers’ faces rather than corporate managers’ faces serve as the new personifications of capital. “There is no in-between.”

As long as the law of value exists, producers will need to compete effectively, and therefore to produce as much as possible as cheaply as possible. There cannot be socialism in one country, much less in a single cooperative or network of cooperatives. Even if the members of a cooperative or network of cooperatives are nominally their own bosses, it follows from the continued existence of the value relation that “the process of production has mastery over [human beings], instead of the opposite.” (7)

Thus as long as “[t]he co-operative factories run by workers themselves [exist within capitalism]…they naturally reproduce in all cases, in their present organization, all the defects of the existing system, and must reproduce them…the opposition between capital and labour is abolished here…only in the form that the workers in association become their own capitalist, i.e., they use the means of production to valorize their own labour.” (8) What was crucial to Marx wasn’t which human beings were nominally in control, but whether the process of production had mastery over human beings, or the opposite.

Some people suppose that qualitative matters are profound, while quantitative matters are beneath them. But without careful attention to the quantitative issues, we would give our Good HousekeepingSeal of Approval to a system of worker-run cooperatives that produce for human needs like health care, in which “the workers in association [are] their own capitalist.” That is, in order to compete effectively, they pay themselves the minimum and extract from themselves the maximum output.

Of course, a system like this wouldn’t really produce a lot of health care, because the great mass of humanity, paid at or near value, wouldn’t be able to afford much health care. And it wouldn’t really be run by workers, both because the law of value would really be in control, and because class divisions are the inevitable result of a system that seeks to minimize cost and maximize production. In such a system, you have to have some people whose job it is to guarantee maximum production from other people, and these other people are a “cost.” Marx was well aware that capitalist class rule follows from the capitalist mode of production, rather than the reverse. As he wrote in The Civil War in France, “The political rule of the producer cannot co-exist with the perpetuation of his social slavery. The [Paris] Commune was therefore to serve as a lever for uprooting the economical foundation upon which rests the existence of classes, and therefore of class rule.”

Now then, what is needed in order to end value production? Marx’s view, as expressed in the CGP, was that “Within the co-operative society based on common ownership of the means of production, the producers do not exchange their products; just as little does the labor employed on the products appear here as the value of these products, as a material quality possessed by them, since now, in contrast to capitalist society, individual labor no longer exists in an indirect fashion but directly as a component part of total labor.”

Question: Why doesn’t the labor employed on the products appear here as the value of these products? Marx’s answer: “since now, in contrast to capitalist society,” the individual’s labor is directly social— “directly …a component part of total labor.” Thus, in order to end the law of value, labor must become directly social.

This was not an isolated remark. In Chapter 1 of Capital, he showed that neither the commodity fetish nor the value-relation exist in non-capitalist societies because, in these societies, the individual’s labor is directly social. In the future free communist society, for instance, workers will act as “one single social labour force” and, once there are “direct social relations between persons in their work,” their social relations no longer need to be mediated by things that serve as “objective” representatives of the work they’ve done. And thus there are no longer “social relations between things”—social relations between commodities insofar as they are values, congealed quantities of labor in “objective” form. (9)

But what must be done in order to make labor directly social? It is tempting to answer “abolish exchange of the products.” This is, in essence, the answer given by the Stalinists in 1943, when they claimed that the contradiction between private and social labor had been overcome in Russia, thereby making it a non-capitalist society. The individual’s labor was supposedly recognized, without mediation, as social labor in the State Plan; it did not have to become social labor by its product first being sold, nor did it fail to count as social labor if its product could not be sold. (10)

But this answer puts the cart before the horse. The reason why there must be exchange of products is that labor is only indirectly social—not vice-versa. If labor were directly social, there would be no need to exchange products. For instance, Marx projects in the CGP that, in the lower phase of communism, “The same amount of labor which [an individual] has given to society in one form, he receives back in another.” If you work for an hour, you’re entitled to the product of an hour of other people’s work. There’s an exchange, to be sure, but it is directly an exchange of labor. The products don’t exchange, as Marx noted, quoted earlier.

Another way of putting the same point is that the Stalinists did not do away with exchange of products. Nominally, there was no exchange of products, only exchange of labors. But the amount of “labor” one did depended not only on how long and hard one worked, but on how much one produced, and the value of what one produced. As Dunayevskaya noted, the Stalinists wrongly equated “‘distribution according to labor’ with distribution according to value.” (11)

So what does need to be done in order to make labor directly social? I don’t know. I don’t think anyone knows at this point. But I am confident that remunerating expenditures of labor equally is not the solution. It is the consequence, not the cause, of the direct sociality of labor. Marx spent decades fighting the utopian-socialist/Proudhonist view that equal remuneration is the solution, arguing correctly that it is not even possible without a thorough revolution in the relations of production. It does no good to say, “let’s remunerate all labor equally,” or “let’s count all labor as equal.” If the economic relations are such that different labors aren’t actually equal, counting them as equal will be a principle at loggerheads with practice. For instance, if we “declare” that the labor of a surgeon and a nurse’s aide are equal, it is almost inevitable that a black market for surgical services will quickly emerge. Either that, or “we’ll” have to enforce the equality through military-state power that has no prospect of withering away.

So the issue is not whether we count different labors equally—politics is not in command—but whether the social relations are such that different labors actually count equally. The task is to work out what such social relations are, and what is required to make them real.


1. Raya Dunayevskaya, Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy Of Revolution, Urbana and Chicago: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1991, p. 153.

2. Raya Dunayevskaya, The Power of Negativity, Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2002, p. 261.

3. Raya Dunayevskaya, Rosa Luxemburg, Women’s Liberation, and Marx’s Philosophy Of Revolution, pp. 156-57, emphasis added.

4. If we want a free, human society in the here and now, we have to think seriously about the whole trajectory of the revolutionary process, not just the higher phase, because we remain extremely far from the point at which the principle “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” can prevail. A society in which we contribute according to our ability, and which satisfies our (basic) needs, may well be possible in the near term. But the principle in question is far more visionary, projecting a future in which society in effect imposes no obligations on its individual members. There’s no longer any connection between what one contributes to society (“from each”) and what one is entitled to receive (“to each”). You give according to your ability without regard to what you get in return, and others receive according to their needs without regard to whether they have contributed anything to society. This principle is practiced in some cases even now, but society cannot viably operate on this basis—it cannot become the governing principle of social life as a whole—until (a) we achieve levels of material, cultural, and individual development far in excess of those that currently exist, and (b) the nature of work is transformed so profoundly that it becomes “life’s prime want” rather than something to avoid when possible.

5. Raya Dunayevskaya, The Marxist-Humanist Theory of State-Capitalism, Chicago: News and Letters, 1992, p. 87.

6. Raya Dunayevskaya, Marxism and Freedom, Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 2000, p. 136, emphases in original.

7. Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I, London: Penguin, 1990, p. 175.

8. Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. III, London: Penguin, 1991, p. 571.

9. Marx, Capital, Vol. I, p, 171, p. 166.

10. “Teaching of Economics in the Soviet Union,” unsigned, American Economic Review 34:3, September 1944, p. 525.

11. The Marxist-Humanist Theory of State-Capitalism, p. 84.

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The veiled critique:

Bush’s disaster plan: how to create them

by Htun Lin

A recent cover of Business Week featured the iconic image of World War II’s “Rosie the Riveter” donning a nurse’s cap to signify that, while manufacturing has added zero jobs since 2001, health care has added 1.7 million. The untold part of the story is the struggle between workers and business in this growing sector.

As we have reported over the years, nurses in the California Nurses Association (CNA) have engaged in a protracted battle against health care restructuring (read commodification) and for quality care. Most recently, the nurses said they have learned from the experience of the government’s total failure to respond to Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita.

Nurses who went to help in the Gulf region were appalled by the government agencies’ inability to coordinate the delivery of urgent care (many were turned away, even as people were dying). But they were also appalled that much of the care needed was for chronic conditions neglected over the years such as diabetes and kidney failure.

Health care workers have started volunteer organizations such as Remote Area Medical, which conducts free health fairs in rural areas. They say they are overwhelmed by similar chronic problems all over the country, which they see as an indictment of the whole health care industry.

On Aug. 28, CNA launched a new initiative to organize nurses nationwide to respond, on the model of Doctors Without Borders, any time a disaster strikes. Taking the initiative through their own voluntary association, nurses announced the creation of Registered Nurses Response Network.

In effect they were saying “Let’s get real” about providing health care in emergencies. The nurses’ effort is a moment in the crucial opposition singled out by Karl Marx in Capital, the irreconcilable contradiction between the “despotic plan of capital” and the plan of freely associated workers.

Pitting Worker Against Worker

Not only can’t the government be counted on to respond in a disaster, but, especially under Bush, it is much more actively intervening to enforce that “despotic plan of capital.”  They are going after strong unions, like the one the nurses have created, trying to undercut workers’ collective power. Under a ruling expected from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), many workers could now be labeled supervisors and thus ineligible for union membership.

Until now, the definition of a supervisor, under the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, meant one who has the power to hire or fire. The new interpretation would classify as a supervisor anyone who delegates tasks.

The new ruling could affect an estimated 843,000 registered nurses and 123,000 licensed practical nurses, for whom advising, directing, training and delegating are routine. It could affect 180,700 cooks, 167,000 secretaries, and tens of thousands of cashiers, electricians, bank tellers, repairmen and pharmacists who are currently in unions.

It is we as workers who actually manage the workplace, get the job done, keep things moving, even as the capitalist controls the money and personifies capital’s need for accumulation at our expense.

Every worker knows firsthand what Marx was talking about in Capital, in the section on “Cooperation”: that workers guide and direct themselves in a cooperative fashion. In fact, that’s what really happens when the capitalist brings many workers into one shop and into one cooperative social workforce.

Workers’ Own Cooperation

The point is that, while capital brings them together, the cooperation is inherent in labor. It is that natural cooperation which capital usurps and expropriates towards its purpose of extracting more surplus value.

Many unions play management’s game and promote an active co-operation. In my shop they initiated a Labor-Management-Partnership, whose obsession is “teamwork,” cooperation that promotes corporate bottom-line goals. With the  expected NLRB ruling, any team leader may no longer be part of the union.

We workers already knew what Marx wrote in Capital, that it is the workers who can manage themselves in direct social cooperation. This direct social cooperation inevitably comes into an irreconcilable conflict with capital’s “despotic plan.”

Overcoming this opposition depends on the reality of value production being totally replaced by the reality of concrete labor that shapes workers’ own freely associated initiatives. Registered Nurses Response Network provides a glimpse of an aspect what that reality may look like.

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My response to the veiled critique:

Let Marx Speak for Himself

Htun Lin states, in the October-November “Workshop Talks” column in News & Letters, “Every worker knows firsthand what Marx was talking about in Capital, in the section on ‘Cooperation’:  that workers guide and direct themselves in a cooperative fashion.”  He also asserts, “workers actually manage the workplace … even as the capitalist controls the money and personifies capital’s need for accumulation at our expense.”

If he’s right, current production relations aren’t essentially capitalist, and the Marxist-Humanist Perspectives thesis errs when it stresses the need to abolish “alienated labor and the capitalist mode of production.”  We merely need to put investment under social control and transform distribution relations, eliminating the middlemen who skim off profits.

Far from arguing that workers currently “direct themselves,” Marx wrote in the chapter on “Cooperation” that their activity is directed by “the powerful will of a being outside them, who subjects their activity to his purpose” by employing “officers (managers) and NCOs (foremen, overseers), who command during the labor process in the name of capital.”

Contrary to what Lin seems to suggest, Marx was referring precisely to this subjection in the workplace itself––not money management, profit skimming, and investment––when he called the capitalist’s plan “purely despotic” in form.

At the dawn of capitalism, Marx noted, “the subjection of labour to capital was only formal.”  Although workers were employed by capitalists, they did manage the work process themselves. Later, however, “the command of capital develops intoŠa real condition of production.”

Marx goes on to trace the emergence of a “specifically capitalist mode of production,” in which “the formal subsumption of labor under capital [… is] replaced by a real subsumption.”  In other words, the problem is no longer merely that workers are under capitalist control. Their actual labor, activity, is wrested out of their control––fragmented, recombined, and dominated by the rhythms of the machine––in order to more adequately serve capital’s drive to expand itself. I suspect that this is more in keeping with what “every worker knows firsthand.”

As his alternative to the present state of affairs, Lin proposes “direct social cooperation” among workers. But if these are specifically capitalist relations, leaving them intact leaves capitalism intact, though with different faces at the top. This is why, when Marx envisioned what Lin calls “the plan of freely associated workers,” what he contrasted it to was the capitalist social formation, “in which the process of production has mastery over man, instead of the opposite.”

He was saying that the real relations of production can be brought under human control only by breaking with the laws of capitalist production to which we all, workers and capitalists alike, are currently subjected. This is why the Marxist-Humanist Perspectives, while appreciating that cooperatives and worker-run enterprises prefigure aspects of socialism, rightly cautions that they “do not constitute the abolition of capitalism” as long as the capitalist production relations haven’t been transformed.

Even within capitalist-owned firms, the cooperative labor process is a harbinger of socialism. And capitalism’s creation of a socialized labor force is the creation of a new social power that can bring it down. But as long as capitalism exists, cooperative labor is neither self-directed activity nor the partial emergence of the new society within the old one.

Labor can become freely associated only by breaking with the enslaving laws of capitalist production. There is no in-between.

This revolutionary perspective is absent from Lin’s piece. He does mention “the reality of value production being totally replaced by the reality of concrete labor.”  But “concrete labor” as Marx used the term is a “reality” even in capitalism––workers’ labor is both abstract and concrete––so what “replaced by the reality of concrete labor” means (if anything) is not clear. But clarity about the future is of utmost importance at a moment when, in order to challenge the dogma that there is no alternative to capitalism, and the accompanying despair, concretely theorizing an alternative is a crucial task.

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Note: The main article (“Let’s Get Real (About Alternatives to Capitalism)”) first appeared in the Oct.-Nov. 2006 issue of News & Letters, at that time a Marxist-Humanist publication, under the title “Demonstrating an alternative to capitalism.” The veiled critique was published in the same issue. My reply appeared in the Dec. 2006–Jan. 2007 issue under the title “How far can workers control their jobs?”

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