[OPE-L:2750] Re: More on abstract labour

Murray Smith (msmith@spartan.ac.brocku.ca)
Mon, 29 Jul 1996 10:55:11 -0700 (PDT)

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This is in response to Andrew Kliman's ope-l 2731.

On Sat, 27 Jul 1996, andrew kliman wrote:

> A reply to Murray Smith's ope-l 2697.
> [Murray] wrote:
> "At best one can characterize the USSR as a social formation transitional to
> socialism,
> and it therefore was more profoundly marked by the "old crap" of class society
> than even Marx's "lower stage" of communism (as described in Critique of the
> Gotha Prorgramme). But the survival of elements of the law of value in such a
> transitional formation in no way licenses the notion
> that it is "state capitalist" -- a formulation that Raya Dunayevskaya sought
> to bolster by arguing that "value" and "capitalism" are inextricably linked.
> It is really rather surprising that so "dialectical"
> a Marxist as Dunayevskaya could have authored such a formalist and
> non-dialectical argument. But then "program" often determines theory more
> strongly than does "method" -- and Dunayevskaya was above all concerned to
> justify her break from Trotsky's "defensist" position toward the USSR."
> Andrew:
> (1) I find it perplexing that in 1996 anyone would claim that Stalinist
> Russia was "transitional" to anything other than free-fall collapse and
> domination by thugs.

Murray: To recognize with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight that the
transition to socialism was never completed in the USSR is not to deny
the scientific merit of characterizing the USSR as a transitional
formation. Adherents of this analysis of the USSR and the other
putatively "socialist" countries, begining with Trotsky and including
most of his followers, never saw the transition to socialism as a sure thing.
Far from it. Trotsky recognized that the condition for a successful
transition to socialism would not merely be a workers revolution to create
a vibrant socialist democracy and a regime committed to revolutionary
internationalism; it would require the success of socialist revolutions
in a number of the advanced capitalist countries and the creation of an
international socialist division of labor. To believe otherwise is to
accept Stalin's dogma of the possibility of building "socialism in one
country" even if you believe that all he succeeded in establishing was
"state capitalism."

> (2) That the prevailing mode of production in Lenin's Russia was still state
> capitalism was well understood by some of the Bolshevik's, especially Lenin,
> who considered this and bureaucratic deformation of the worker's state as its
> two foremost problems.

Jerry and Paul have both made comments on this passage that are worth
studying. I would merely add that Lenin never developed a theory of
state capitalism, much less of a state-capitalist mode of production. In
the context of the NEP, following the difficult years of War Communism,
Lenin was simply acknowledging that a retreat had to be made from the
goal of establishing a planned economy, and that the market relations
opened up by NEP obliged the "workers state with a bureaucractic
deformation" to manage its nationalized industries as a "state capitalist."
None of this is very relevant to the analysis of the "economics of
transition" after the abandonment of NEP and in particular after the
inauguration of the first Five Year Plan. (Andrew goes on to point out
that Dunayevskaya's theory of state capitalism, to which he apparently
subscribes, was predicated on an "analysis of the 5-year plans" not on an
off-hand comment made by Lenin in the early 20s.)

> (3) I don't find Murray's grasp of Dunayevska's theory of state-capitalism,
> or her philosophy, very adequate:
> (a) It was not by arguing that capitalism and value are inextricably linked
> that Dunayevskaya grounded her theory that Russia was state-capitalist. This
> inextricable link was, rather, the basis of her contention that the Russian
> Stalinist claim that the law of value operates under "socialism" was
> tantamount to an *admission* that theirs was a state-capitalist society. The
> Stalinist revision of the law of value and thus her critique of it came *after
> she had completed* her analysis of Russia as a state-capitalist society.


I don't claim to be an expert on Dunayevskaya. However I never
said that she "grounded" her theory that Russia was state-capitalist on
the notion that capitalism and value are inextricably linked; I simply
said that this notion served to "bolster" her theory of state capitalism.
Andrew admits as much in the preceding passage. First, Dundayevskaya
adopted a state-capitalist analysis of the USSR (and this in the context of
a break from Trotsky over the significance of Russia's "imperialist"
occupation of Finland, the Hitler-Stalin pact, etc); then she came across
the arguments of pro-Stalinist economists according to which the law
of value continues to prevail under socialism, which she then used to
"bolster" her state-capitalist thesis in her article "A New Revision of
Marxian Economics" published in the American Economic Review (Sept.1944).

> (b) The basis of her theory that Russia was state-capitalist was, rather,
> that the direction of development in Russia was capitalist. First, through an
> analysis of the 5-year plans, she uncovered that the "law of motion" was that
> of an increasing preponderance of means of production over means of
> consumption. I would have thought that someone who calls himself a "humanist"
> and argues for a continuity between the "early" and "mature" Marx would have a
> better appreciation of the significance of the increasing domination of dead
> over living labor.

Here Andrew equates the "law of motion" of capitalism with "an increasing
preponderance of means of production over means of consumption." In other
words any policy of industrializing the Soviet economy (in the context of
imperialist encirclement and extreme economic backwardness!) could only
signify the presence of capital accumulation! Dunayevskaya does indeed
develop this idea in her book Marxism and Freedom first published in
1958, and Andrew might consider this to be an eminently "humanist"
observation, but it has little in common with Marxism, including an
authentic Marxist-humanism (which recognizes that human emancipation
requires a substantial development of the productive forces in order to
effect a transition from the realm of necessity to the realm of freedom).
Andrew's stance would have placed him in the Tomsky wing of the Bukharin
faction in the CPSU in the late-20s -- semi-syndicalist elements who
against the Joint Left Opposition that a policy of "primitive socialist
accumulation" would not only be anti-peasant but anti-proletarian as well.
But the modest proposals of the Left Opposition for a policy of
industrialization (as well as for an end to the NEP and the restoration
of some democratic forms) were, in my opinion, the best hope that the USSR
had to avoid the twin dangers of capitalist restoration or the
Stalinist "model" of planned economy that began with the first 5-year plan.


Murray's claim that Dunayevskaya's theory of state-capitalism was merely
> an excuse to justify her opposition to all state powers in WWII is
> preposterous. Had that been her concern, she could have gone along with Max
> Shachtman's or Joseph Carter's view of Russia as a "bureaucratic collectivist"
> of "bureaucratic imperialist" society, etc., especially since these were the
> dominant positions in the group she belonged to at the time, she was young, a
> woman!, and heretofore no "theoretician." Instead, two years *after* breaking
> from Trotsky, she opposed them, and went on to do the detailed economic
> analysis and theory needed to substantiate her view that Russia was
> capitalist. Why? Because she felt that in equating capitalism and private
> property, they, as well as Trotsky, failed fully to understand either
> capitalism or Marx, and thus failed fully to understand all that needs to be
> overcome.

Dunayevskaya was a member of a group within the anti-defensist faction of
the Socialist Workers Party (U.S.) that split from that party over the
programmatic issue of whether Russia should be defended as a "degenerated
worker state" against imperialist agression and/or internal capitalist
counter-revolution, as well as over complaints about the SWP's
"bureaucratic" internal regime. Some members of this faction developed a
"bureaucratic collectivist" analysis of the Soviet Union (Shachtman,
Burnham)-- a theory originally proposed by the Italian Bruno Rizzi -- and
others embraced the notion of "state capitalism" (which had already been
advanced by Amadeo Bordiga and the Spanish Trotskyist Grandizo Munis,
among others). Dunayevskaya's co-thinkers included C.L.R. James. This
group left Shachtman's Workers Party after World War II, rejoining the
SWP and therein launching a tendency known as Johnson-Forrest that fought
for a perspective based on the theory of state capitalism. Ultimately
they left the SWP and the Fourth International, establishing the "Facing
Reality" group of the 1950s. The debates surrounding state-capitalism
within the FI are well-known and well-documented. I see little point in
rehashing them here. Suffice to say that Andrew's comment that Trotsky
equated private property and capitalism is a serious injustice to Trotsky
and that, however unsymapthetic I am to Dunayevskaya's ideas, I did my
best not to represent them.

Murray also seems to imply that theory and method should be
> separate from politics and practice, which I suppose *is* "dialectical."


I don't understand this inference. In fact, I hold the position that
there is a dialectical interplay between theory and program; this holds
no less for "good" programs and theories than for bad ones -- it's just
that the "bad" ones often expose themselves as methodologically flawed or

> (4) Murray's opposition to the view that "value" and "capitalism" are
> inextricably linked is based on the following: 'The "abstract labour" that is
> fundamental to the capitalist value-form is historically specific; but this
> abstract labour ... is also but one historical form of "the
> social-equalization of labour".... what if "abstract labor" is not intrinsic
> to "value" in all its historical forms? Marx's insistence that abstract labor
> is the substance of value under capitalism is then in no way contradictory to
> the idea that earlier (and simpler) forms of value might possess a less
> developed "social substance."' Yet what Marx meant by "values" were,
> specifically, "commodity values" (_Warenwerte_). Dunayevskaya followed him in
> this.

Murray: Agreed.


[Marx] simply had no theory of '"value' in all its historical forms,"
> whatever this may mean. Murray's method here seems quite similar to that of
> Adolph Wagner, who wished to conduct economic analysis through a discourse on
> the abstract term "value," instead of through an analysis of the concretum
> "commodity." Marx himself stressed this in his notes on Wagner, as well as
> the fact that neither "value" nor "exchange-value" was the subject-matter of
> his analysis, but, rather, "the commodity." Murray is *presupposing* the
> transhistorical nature of value, whereas for Marx all social forms and laws
> were historically specific.


I would have thought that my two earlier posts would have made it clear
that I do not subscribe to a transhistorical conception of value. Value
is specific to commodity-producing societies, and not all human societies,
historically, have been commodity-producing. But neither are all
commodity-producing societies capitalist; it therefore follows that
certain historical forms of value are expressions of non-capitalist social
relations of production. This is the burden of what Ben Fine argues in
the passage I quoted in my second post. My method (and Fine's as well) is
not at all one of beginning with the "concept" of value (Marx's complaint
against Wagner); it is to start with the "commodity" in
its concrete historical form(s).


> (5) Murray claims that Ted's '"all-or-nothing" stance prevents him from
> seeing that "abstract labor" is something that develops through a protracted
> historical process." Apparently, this refers to Ted's view that value and
> capitalism are inextricably linked. Yet this inextricable link does not imply
> a lack of recognition of historical development of abstract labor, for two
> reasons. First, abstract labor is synonymous with value-producing labor,
> commodity-producing labor. But this predates capitalism, capitalism is fully
> generalized commodity production. (To recognize an inextricable conceptual
> link is not necessarily to imply anything about chronology.)


Yes and no. Ted's position was not fleshed out in his post. But many Marxists
(including Colletti and especially John Weeks) have taken the sort of
"all-or-nothing" position that I thought Ted was espousing. Weeks claims
that there is no commodity production before capitalism! For me, there is
an inextricable conceptual link only between capitalism and the
"capitalist law of value" (admittedly a tautology), not between capitalism
and value (unless you assume that once commodity production emerges, and
with it value, capitalism must inevitably appear -- an assumption that I
do not accept and which strikes me as teleological). Incidentally, Andrew
in this last passage defines capitalism as "generalized commodity production"
-- a definition which I accept but which is not used by most supporters
of the theory of "state capitalism" for the simple reason that you cannot
credibly argue that the Soviet economy was one in which commodity
production was generalized (for example, means of production were not
commodities in the Soviet economy: they could not be bought and sold on a
market; indeed, the "sale" of means of production my enterprise managers
was strictly illegal).


Second, the
> abstraction of labor develops within capitalism, as the formal subsumption of
> labor under capital is replaced by machinofacture, time-motion study, etc.,
> the real subsumption of labor under capital. This relation unfortunately is
> continuing to develop even in our own day.
Murray: I'm in full agreement with this.
Comradely greetings,

Murray Smith