Exchange on Socialist Labour Vouchers

March 5, 2013 at 11:55 pm (Uncategorized)

This post originally appeared on the Internationalist Perspective blog. To read the article which prompted the threeat, follow the link below.


The controversy on libcom surrounding the publication of David Adam’s text “Marx’s Critique of Socialist Labor-Money Schemes and the Myth of Council Communism’s Proudhonism” began January 24, 2013: It’s a rich debate and still going strong with several interesting posts on the pro’s and con’s of labor vouchers in communism. This debate reflects a huge gap in the pro-revolutionary milieu between the Ortho-Marxists, on the one side, who agree with Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program, specifically the need for a lower and a higher stage of communism, and on the other side, the communizer tendencies, who see revolution as a process of communisation, and who see a ‘period of transition’ as an obstacle to that process. This debate also demonstrates the urgency of the question of how a revolutionary society will deal with scarcity.

Simultaneous to that discussion, another ‘informal’ discussion was underway in a Grundrisse reading group in Seattle. That discussion, about what a post-capitalist world would look like, was stimulated by the reading of the Grundrisse itself, by the “Critique of the Gotha Program” (CGP) and partly by communization theory and the libcom debate, (in which IP participated). A communisation theory text, written by MacIntosh, “Communism and the Abolition of the Value-Form”, was a further basis for discussion in the reading group. In this text MacIntosh directly disagrees with Marx’s position in the CGP:

“For Marx, then the value-form will preside over both production and distribution in the lower stage of communism, and only in its higher stage can society wholly cross the narrow horizon of bourgeois right and inscribe on its banner: From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs. Communisation then, as the abolition of the value-form in all it modes, would be preceded by a post capitalist stage in which the law of value still regulated production and consumption.” p. 12 IP #57
There were concerns expressed by Kingzog,around MacIntosh’s text; these concerns were initially and partially discussed between Kingzog and C. (IP member and participant in reading group), and eventually with J., (participant in reading group). Kingzog’s concerns appear to be primarily around issues of “coordination” and organization in a post-capitalist world. For C., the CGP appeared like a complete reversal to what Marx had written in the Grundrisse, and what the reading group had been discussing in “notebook 1″ i.e., that labor vouchers would not solve the “social problem” (not an exact quote.. but a discussion related to money or time chits in notebook I appears as argumentation against labor time accounting).

In the interim some of us in the reading group read another text by MacIntosh, “Communisation and the Abolition of Labor”. Eventually the initial exchange in the reading group widened to include two more IP members (MacIntosh and Sander).

Email thread:

C: I’m forwarding this point made by MacIntosh (see point below) relating to the abstract “Communisation and the Abolition of Labor” sent to you earlier, simply because it relates to much of what’s been discussed on libcom re: David A’s. text.
I disagree with “Batman ” (participant on libcom debate) when he says: “…All economy, including a communist economy, is economy of time. Labor time playing some part in the economy is a necessity. Whether it appears in the specific form of a property of things is contingent upon the division of labor.

For me, what MacIntosh explains in “Communisation and the Abolishment of Labor” [“But the removal of the traditional capitalist veil does not eliminate the value-form, or the subjection of humankind to its laws of motion. Indeed, the very reduction of all labor to abstract labor, the very universalization of the proletarian condition and its modes of labor , risks the perpetuation of capital and its social relations”] is along the line of my own thinking (even though not yet explained in detail). Dauve talks about “disposable time” as did Marx, and that being the real wealth of a communist society, and Dauve talks about communism having a different relation to time. This is something I would like to discuss more.

Kingzog: Like I said in an earlier e-mail, I think Marx’s more qualified version of laborcertificate’s, as laid out in the CGP, is highly questionable. But, I am truly concerned about how unevenly developed the world is and how a transformation from a capitalist society to a communist would work- or if it even could. It is perhaps easier for us, having grown up and lived in the west, to imagine a transformation to a whole world of abundance and security for all, but right now, most of the world is quite under-developed and relatively impoverished- obviously, we all acknowledge this, but still…

Now, the argument can and has been made that much of production is geared towards useless articles and services. The argument follows that this state of affairs proves that all basic needs could be easily met on a world-wide with some adjustments. However this might actually complicate things rather than simplify them. How are superfluous industries dismantled, re-geared, transformed? What happens to the communities of people who worked in them? This whole process would be highly disruptive and if not properly managed, could be disastrous for all of society, world-wide.

The “lower stage” of communism- being one part of the same movement of the transformation of capitalist society to communist society- appears to be necessary in order to prevent people from taking too freely from societies storehouse’s, thus leading to disastrous shortages during critical moments when abundance has yet to be achieved.

I think this concern is not unjustifiable. to have concerns with issue’s like how production and distribution will be coordinated, world-wide, without any sort of price-mechanism is extremely common among average people. Will we be able to have a system, right away, where everyone will be able to take freely from the public store-house, every type of good? Must it be this way and this way only, lest we get capitalism? I lean strongly toward communization theories idea’s on this, yet sometimes I struggle with it. Also, at the same time, I don’t know if the communisateurs have (as well as many others on libcom, for instance) adequately dealt with some of the more sophisticated arguments for Marx’s “lower stage” made by the Marxist-Humanists. So I feel it is necessary to try and give a clearer picture for how they, MHI, see it happening, since I am fairly familiar with their work.
I hope this furthers along the conversation in a productive way,
Sander (of IP): Kingzog is right in warning against underestimating the problems, to point to the need to radically transform production rather than just use it for different purposes, and I share his skepticism of the communisateurs’ almost magical view of instant transformation.But these problems imo are an argument against the continuation of measuring value based on abstract labor time, which is what labor vouchers do. If we need labor vouchers to prevent people from looting storehouses, it would seem that fundamentally nothing has changed. If we continue to measure products by abstract labor time we set the table for corruption, bureaucracy, the re-emergence of class society. Would the revolutionary class set up a bureaucracy to measure the labor time of each and everyone and give them access to consumption accordingly?

We have to spell put the dire implications of such a vision and point to the fact that, if a revolutionary dynamic develops within the context of a capitalist society decomposing as a result of its crisis, a new praxis of production and consumption not based on the measuring of labor time will already emerge in the struggle.

That said, the libcom debate and Kingzog’sremarks point to the need to descend from the highly abstract level of value-form theory to concrete matters. Such as, how will the revolutionary society deal with scarcity? It can be assumed that its priority would be to meet the basic human needs. Regardless how much labor time anyone spend, we want no more people starving, lacking a home or medical care. And if everybody wants cellphones and i-pads, they could be produced for everyone. There will be scarcity, imposed by ecological necessity (limits on air and automobile travel for instance), and other natural conditions (houses at prime locations). I don’t know how we will solve these issues but labor vouchers is not the way. But we need to discuss these issues.

J: I have some brief thoughts on the matter…
The first issue I have with a lot of this stuff is that it’s all very a priori speculative “systems-building” that seems analogous to building model trains in one’s basement (e.g. ParEcon). A revolution that gets rid of capitalism will be very disruptive to the social fabric globally, I mean aside from matters of civil war, we need to take seriously the contingency that will give rise to questions of production and distribution amidst all this. Scarcity of necessary goods and services will be a real issue that people will have to deal with, and how it’s dealt with will vary by region and need; the scarcity of bananas in the Pacific Northwest will be dealt with in a manner completely different than fresh/clean water in Pakistan. This sorta stuff needs to be kept in mind when approaching this problem.

Adam’s characterization of Dauve’s critique of ‘self- management’ as glib is a little disingenuous and the whole thing seems to read as though these practices(distribution tied to labor-time accounting) pose no threat of an emergent bureaucratized labor-regime… as though the magic ingredient “democracy” or “transparency” will cast all of the bad spirits out, the secret of the fetish-character of the commodity is not merely that the calculation and direction of human productive activity is obscured by the market. The author goes to great lengths to defend the GIC’s[Group of international communist based in the Netherlands which published in 1930, “The Fundamental Principles of Communist Production and Distribution”] scheme:[“The sole role of labor certificates is to function as the means to enable individual consumption in all its variety to be regulated according to the measure of labor-time.”] But never once pauses to ask “How does this help us here and now?” and I feel like that’s the whole point of Dauve’s critique: That we can and should break from the value form wherever we can and find ways to satisfy each other’s needs without resorting to exchanging with each other on the basis of abstract labor. It was a decent starting point and was an earnest attempt to tackle an enormous problem of their day, but we don’t live in their day and face different obstacles and new potentialities. Whether or not some schema is consistent/faithful with what Marx wrote at some point in time should not be the barometer for evaluating these things IMO.
The Troploin article on Communization had a great quote regarding this:

“It is obvious that such a deep and all-encompassing transformation as communism will span decades, perhaps several generations before it takes over the world. Until then, it will be straddling two eras, and remain vulnerable to internal decay and/or destruction from outside, all the more so as various countries and continents will not be developing new relationships at the same pace. Some areas may lag behind for a long time. Others may go through temporary chaos. But the main point is that the communising process has to start as soon as possible. The closer to Day One the transformation begins and the deeper it goes from the beginning, the greater the likelihood of its success.
So there will a “transition” in the sense that communism will not be achieved overnight. But there will not be a “transition period” in what has become the traditional Marxist sense: a period that is no longer capitalist but not yet communist, a period in which the working class would still work, but not for profit or for the boss any more, only for themselves: they would go on developing the “productive forces” (factories, consumer goods, etc.) before being able to enjoy the then fully-matured fruit of industrialization. This is not the program of a communist revolution. It was not in the past and it is not now.”

C: Absolutely, I agree! Both with you, and with Dauve. The important issues, raised by Kingzog are serious concerns too, and a discussion around how a post-capitalist society would handle scarcity is a discussion worth having. Thanks for the input; glad to hear it from you.

Sander:I totally agree with J.

J: All that said though, I am not entirely opposed to a sort of remuneration based on ‘uneven’ contribution. I’m not so set on any particular form, and I could imagine situations where a particular community or population decides to “reward” people for doing a particularly undesirable ‘job’ or something that requires an extraordinary level of expertise. But while I don’t have the answer for the exact ‘how’, I am certain that there are ways to go about this and protecting the communal storehouse from anti-social looting in a truly ‘directly social’ manner. Drawing from Troploin’s conception of communisation as a prolonged process, I think that perhaps this kind of labor voucher system may be appropriate in specific contexts(without advocating its generalization), as a short-term provisional measure on the backdrop of a conscious movement to go beyond it, during which there’s no guarantees of success and the role of pro-revolutionaries(or full-fledged revolutionaries at that point) would be to intervene on that basis.

Kingzog : Sander, do you agree with what J. said?

Sander: I disagree with J. where he states: “this kind of labor voucher system may be appropriate in specific contexts”. Maybe he could elaborate which contexts would make that appropriate, than we can discuss this less abstractly. It is true that scarcity will surely be a reality during the revolutionary process if, as seems likely, it will take place in a context of a growing decomposition of capitalist society. That implies the need to limit and thus measure people’s access to consumption. This need needs to be reduced as much as possible. That’s why things like urban and interurban transportation, basic foodstuff, shelter, internet and media access, medical care etc., must become free if not immediately, asap as revolutionary power extends. But where there are not enough goods available for the people who need them -which will surely be the case until an internationally triumphant revolution reshapes the global patterns (and ways) of production and consumption- limits are inevitable. But they should be based on needs, not labor time. Because that is the essence of the revolution. Goods are means to meet human needs, instead of a quantity of labor time. That’s the project. That is what history is pushing towards, at least as an ‘objective possibility’. We won’t have people eating less because (for whatever reason) they worked less. We won’t have people working long hours so that they get more vouchers and thus more goods. That would be a road to corruption, black markets, capitalist recovery.

As for the rationing, which would be inevitable, we hope that the self-organization engendered by the struggle will take care of it, making an extensive bureaucracy unnecessary. We should also take in account the possibilities opened by IT to communicate and organize.

I don’t want to simplify things, to ignore the obstacles, only to point to the essence of the revolutionary possibility of our times, which imo is incompatible with labor vouchers, in all contexts.

C: I think u have expressed the idea of revolution as communization “perfecto”, moving towards the objective possibility “from each … to each” is the essence of the project … and the goal. Thanks (to all).

J: I was thinking along the lines of as a form of rationing of non-essential specialty or craft goods(fine wines for example), a fairly narrow section of goods with the general movement of society making it even more narrow as social relations and practices shift from individual consumption of use values to more communal consumption practices. It wouldn’t be ideal but I can imagine some form of labor-voucher being a way to provisionally handle such things.

MacIntosh: On the very broad question of scarcity, which needs to be addressed, it seems to me that any discussion of communization needs to avoid two dangers: a vision of communization as instantaneous, which seems to me to be an example of the magical thinking to which Sander has referred, and a recourse to the vision that Marx articulated in his “Critique of the Gotha Program” of a lower stage of communism in which the worker receives the full value of his labor (through some kind of labor-time accounting, like labor vouchers). Traditional Marxism, in my view, is guilty of both visions, the former because it assumes that communism will arise on the basis of so advanced a technology, such a development of the productive forces, that a seamless and virtually immediate transition to communism will be possible once the political and state power of capital is overthrown, the latter because it fails to see that labor-time accounting will preserve not abolish the value-form. It’s the first danger that I want to focus on in this post, a danger to which I think both Kingzog and J. have pointed. Quite apart from the possible destructiveness of a revolutionary upheaval, the present stage of capitalism, with its massive expulsion of living labor from the production process in the most industrialized countries — a necessity for capital — and the resultant creation of a planet of slums, and the ecological devastation wrought by a technology that is bound to capital, not just in its use, but in the very bases of modern science, will demand a veritable reconstruction of the foundations of human sociality. Moreover, not despite, but in many ways because of, the very “development” and globalization of capital in the past century, we have seen the destruction of the communities that might have been a possible basis – along with the most industrialized parts of the world — for communization in what even at the beginning of the twentieth century still contained large swathes of a pre-capitalist world (See Marx’s correspondence with the Russian Populist Vera Zasulich). Today, even within a global capitalist world, different “historical temporalities” exist: Pre-Fordist production in much of the industries of the Third World, such as – to take just two examples – the textile industries of Bangladesh or Cambodia where production for the world market is organized in a fashion just like the garment industries of New York city or New England at the beginning of the twentieth century, or the mining industry of South Africa where conditions are little different than they were in the copper mines of Montana in the 1890′s. In large parts of the world, then, both in labor conditions, and in consumption, scarcity in several forms will complicate the task of the creation of a human community, communism. And, yet, that social task, in my view, despite the huge weight of scarcity in the world that capital has created, cannot be achieved on the basis of any kind of labor-time accounting. How to respond to the existence of that very scarcity, then, is a question that discussions like this one must begin to address.

Kingzog:Thank you for the responses everyone. I just want to re-iterate that I’m not advocating labor vouchers or any sort of scheme which would maintain wage-labor. However, the issue’s I raised lead a lot of people in that direction…

Now, the MHI people maintain that Marx’s proposal in the CGP would not be tied to value and it would not be a system which measures everyone’s abstract labor time. They assert (but, again, not necessarily me!) that labor would become “directly social”, right away in the lower stage, and I believe they say that “labor” would become “concrete.” Further, everyone would be remunerated the same based on hours worked, no matter the quality of that work or the “value” of the products or services produced. It would be making a sort of “equality of labors.” Society would decide how to divide the social product, per hour. Kliman says that skill’s would have to be radically dispersed. This somehow negates the law of value.

I believe the reason why they insist on this sort of program is because of the fear of problems of coordination. I don’t think they believe that the world is productive enough, or too unevenly developed for there to be world-wide communism building from the existing means of production.

The discussion around David Adam’s text and the issues raised by a reading of Marx’s “Critique of the Gotha Program,” a discussion that needs to continue in order to clarify just how we understand communism, seems to entail two provisional conclusions. First, this is not simply a question of conflicting interpretations of Marx, a matter of who is the “real” Marx. As IP raises questions about traditional or “orthodox” Marxism, it is not our intention to simply separate Marx from his purported epigones, whether, Engels, Kautsky, Plekhanov or Lenin. In certain respects Marx himself was a traditional Marxist, even as he also laid the theoretical bases for a critique of core elements of traditional Marxism (e.g. economic determinism, a base/superstructure model of society, a teleological philosophy of history). Any criticism of the “Critique of the Gotha Program,” and its vision of labor vouchers in the purported lower stage of communism, is a critique of the Marx of 1875 in the light of Marx’s own critique of political economy, the actual historical unfolding of capitalism and its contradictions today. Second, Inasmuch as Marx’s vision of a lower stage of communism was based on time as a measure of value, and a worker’s labor time as the basis for his/her remuneration or right to consume, that vision perpetuates the same homogeneous, quantitative, measure of (labor) time that is the basis of the commodity form. It excludes a qualitative understanding of both time and human activity, which is one of the bases for the very distinction between capitalism and Marx’s vision of a human community, communism. In that sense, it risks the danger of preserving the value form rather than abolishing it.


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