Are communists aiming to be better managers?

by Jehu

Here is an interesting discussion of the strategy for abolition of wage slavery in Canada, by the Communist Party, “What is the Role of Private Production in Getting to Socialism?” The 2010 paper, by Asad Ali, examines the role of the market in such a transition and focuses on whether the continuation of private ownership is compatible with a socialist transition.

project_managementAli’s discussion is a particularly interesting look at ideas for a post-capitalist organization of society from a conventional Leninist perspective. It should be compared to similar discussion of Mondragon, participatory economies, workplace democracy, cooperatives and lessons from now defunct “market socialist” economies like Yugoslavia.

Ali cites two questions he thinks are relevant to the discussion: First, should there be a unified plan for the national economy? Second, should production on the basis of exchange value be allowed to continue? These are, of course, absurd questions for an advanced country like Canada, but are addressed in response to another writer, CJ Atkins of the Communist Party, USA, who, apparently, argues:

“[Using] a socialist market economy to get to socialism can be traced to the policies Lenin introduced in the Soviet Union.”

The discussion figures as well on the diagnosis of the collapse of the Soviet Union itself. According to Ali, “some have even suggested that some socialist countries abandoned the market too quickly”. Additionally, Ali argues this was an on-going debate in the defunct Soviet Union and other European ‘socialist’ countries that later collapsed.

“Some in the Communist movement say this is partially because their economy was too centralized and was not run on a profit basis.”

Unfortunately, although taking this view of the facts to task, Ali never asks the question whether the task of an advanced country like Canada can be the same as that of Lenin’s Russia in 1917. As always, it is Lenin whose discussion forms the basis for the debate on what socialism would look like in two countries that could not be more unlike Russia in 1917, the United States and Canada. This is a peculiarity of the Leninist school, where every discussion begins not with the concrete conditions at hand, but is channeled through Lenin. What possible similarity Ali finds between Russia in 1917 and Canada or the US today such that anything Lenin wrote in that period would be relevant is just screaming out for an answer. Does either Ali or Atkins believe communism in North America today is still some sort of workers’ state plus electrification? By what criterion should the critical tasks of a socialist transition to communism be measured? Are we really still so backward in the United States and Canada that the development of the productive forces even figures in the mix?

In his critique of the Gotha Programme of the German Social Democratic Party, Marx made an argument that should be familiar to Leninists:

“What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.”

This argument by Marx cuts both ways: Yes, it is not possible to initially enjoy a higher level of communism than is already given in the development of the productive forces previously accomplished by capitalism. But Marx’s argument also has significant relevance to the discussion of what a socialist transition looks like in the United States, Canada and Mexico as well as for Europe for the simple fact that here development has long since eclipsed Russia in 1917 or Germany in 1870.

Where Germany in 1870 and Russia in 1917 could be characterized by great insufficiency of means of production and subsistence, Marxists in both North America and Europe today are discussing another problem: The massive expenditure of entirely superfluous labor in their respective national economies. By some estimates, this expenditure accounts for 65% of all labor expended by the working class. (See Harman) How does development of the productive forces in North America still figure as significant when the public sectors of Canada and the US (which produce nothing) account for at least 40% of the economy and require continuous deficit spending to maintain any capitalist growth at all? The state in the advanced countries literally has to create jobs to maintain full employment! Apple, the largest capitalist firm in the United States by valuation, is sitting on $170bn of excess capital it can find any use for. Labor force participation in the United States has been falling since 2001 and shows no signs of reversing — now lower than it was in 1977.

As Keynes put it, since 1929 the chief concern of the state has been to find new uses for a laboring population that is wholly superfluous. What are you going to do? Centralize the production of birthday emails and staff meetings?

We know capital reduces the labor time required for production of commodities, but we also know it does this only to lengthen labor time. It seems most Marxists have a beef with capital that it does not do enough of the latter; their complaint seems to be that not enough labor is being artificially created by the existing state and they promise to redouble this effort

Further, we know for a fact that the issue of the 21st century is not “centralization versus decentralization” of the economy, because the entire economy has already been “centralized” under the control of the state and managed through its economic policies. The state literally sets prices and interest rates through its economic policy tools, determines critical production decisions, controls national trade through so-called trade deals, etc.

That issue has already been decided by history and it is unlikely to be reversed. How much more centralized can production be without the state actually telling each factory what to produce? The only reason why the state doesn’t do this last is that it is the national capitalist and as such is not the least bit concerned with production of use values. The state as capitalist is only concerned with the production of surplus values, not use values. It is no surprise that the state doesn’t micro-manage each factory’s production, because it is concerned about the production of surplus value as a whole. It treat the whole of the national labor force as a single undifferentiated labor power, from which it extracts surplus value.

Ali’s discussion raises the question of whether communists have completely lost their focus. Are we not ultimately concerned with the abolition of wage labor or are we concerned with being better managers of production than the capitalist? According to Ali,

“The view of the Communist Party of China is that Marxism is, above all, about production and out-producing the old capitalist system”

Ali is correct to reject this argument. Even if we accept this formulation, it could only ever apply to China and countries in a similar situation, where 30-40% of the population is still engaged in farming. Raising the productiveness of agriculture labor and improving the lot of the farmers is an important aim for China, but what about the US, where less than on half of one percent of the population is engaged in agriculture? Almost half of all US farm production is concentrated in a thin slice of California and is almost entirely accomplished by machines.

Really, folks — wake up. We are not some backward, rural society looking forward to introduction of the light bulb as the next killer app. Even Mexico, the least developed of the 3 North American countries, is decades in development ahead of Lenin’s Russia in 1917.

With sufficient development of the productive forces the material basis for communism is basically achieved. The relevant question for communists in the advanced countries today is whether the productive forces are sufficiently developed to realize this. I have seen no credible argument suggesting this is not already the case today at least in North America (including Mexico) and Europe. What possible reason would there be to retain commodity production in the advanced countries when the state is forced to intervene in the economy to prevent deflation?

What does it mean when the state intervenes to prevent deflation? Doesn’t this mean prices are trying to go to zero? Doesn’t this mean commodity production is being propped up? The aim of communists is to get rid of labor, but the state intervenes to create jobs. Why? The aim of communists is a society based on the principle of “To each according to need”, but the state is trying to prevent deflation. Why?

The answer to all of these questions is that the state is desperately intervening in the economy to prevent the realization of communism, i.e., the abolition of labor.