Dialogue on Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program

Steven Colatrella,
Peter Hudis

The following exchange between Steven Colatrella and Peter Hudis is in response Hudis’s essay on “Directly and Indirectly Social Labor: What Kind of Human Relations Can Transcend Capitalism?” which appears on US Marxist-Humanists website: We would be glad to consider more contributions to this ongoing discussion. – Editors

1) From Steven Colatrella

Dear Peter,

One question and one comment:

First, on what basis is it likely that distribution for direct concrete labor can be carried out? I like your formulation (and Marx’s) and appreciate the difference, that someone working an hour say, cleaning an office would be rewarded – in material goods as well as commonly provided services, etc. — along with everyone else working an hour suggests a justice that makes one hungry to fight for it. But how do we know, without the law of value, how much access to goods and services corresponds to an hour of work? We could determine it politically, in the assemblies and councils and so forth, though even these will presumably seek a basis for whatever standard they would set. It seems inevitable that two things are likely: that we would set some kind of average based on overall production of wealth and that we would likely have to make three distinctions – those who work, those who can’t and don’t work, those who do highly specialized work (surgery) who may be unhappy at not receiving more reward for it than anyone working an hour, since an hour of concrete labor in the form of brain surgery is surely more stressful or taxing than say, an hour of raking leaves.

The risk I could see is that establishing an average amount could, along with distinguishing between types of labor, lead to a new version of the law of value.

The comment though is this: I can also imagine that the very distinctions made between groups of workers can provide an answer: since obviously those not working because of disability, old age, childhood, study, etc. are still to receive some of society’s wealth, some guaranteed “income” (perhaps the wrong word at this point) is needed. This is now easily taken care of using contemporary technologies and techniques – with the internet and social security numbers it is possible to “plan” without a planning apparatus – certainly nothing more elaborate than today’s Social Security administration and possibly less, much less even. Thus to require a minimum amount of labor of all able to do it, a minimum guarantee of access to wealth (which already begins to move toward a needs-based system) and merely distinguishing some concrete forms of labor (not abstract categories of professions such as doctor) as consisting of a certain intensity as to count somewhat more, allows for direct production, direct access, without a law of value.

A final point: while today’s Wal-Mart and other big box stores are awful, they also demonstrate the possibility of a common warehouse of the collective goods produced to be accessed collectively. We could even use some of the existing buildings immediately, since they already serve just this purpose though with the goods in commodity form.
 Some stores, such as Home Depot, Copy Shops of various sorts, Staples and so forth are already places where collectively the means of production are available to all – again in commodity form, and one goes there to gather those needed for production under one’s own, individual or cooperative, direction.

2) From Peter Hudis

Dear Steven,

Thanks for your very insightful comments and questions on our ongoing discussion of Marx’s “Critique of the Gotha Program.”

On how distribution according to direct SOCIAL labor could be carried out (I prefer that to the phrase “concrete labor,” to avoid any implication of the persistence of the dual character of labor) my understanding is that Marx is trying to avoid, at all costs, basing remuneration on a social average that operates irrespective of the direct conscious input and decision of the producers, for the reasons you suggest. Hence, it may take x amount of actual labor time to produce a good in cooperative or community A, and y amount to produce it in cooperative or community B. One would, within each respective cooperative or community, receive a quantum of goods of x or y based on the actual number of hours one works within that respective community. Hence, the material level of remuneration may well be different (or unequal) across cooperatives or communities, so long as the material level of remuneration based on actual labor time prevails (there will also be some degree of inequality within the respective communities, since some may choose to work longer hours than others, etc.). However, nothing prevents members of these respective communities from getting together and deciding, based on shared knowledge, skills obtained in the production process, etc., that the two communities should aim to produce the given product in greater or lesser amount of time than either x or y, or in the same amount of x or y. Notice that I emphasize greater OR lesser: in production based on socially necessary labor time, the pressure is always to produce in less time. But members of community B may argue that the product they create is of better quality than that of community A, and so even though it takes more time for their product to be produced, community A should consider operating at or near their level. The result of such a deliberation may well produce (mathematically speaking) a sort of “average” but it is one that is not dictated by a social force extraneous to the actions of the producers themselves.

Of course, numerous other contingencies apply given remuneration based on actual labor time: one community or cooperative may decide that, because of its location, available resources, skill levels of its workers, or some other factors, it needs less time to make a product than in another community. Hence, the members of that community would need to work fewer hours to obtain that particular product than in another community, where different conditions prevail. In this example, an average between communities is not being established at all. And I think is precisely what Marx is inferring in the Critique: that there would be no longer a social compulsion to produce according to a social average once alienated labor and indirectly social labor was abolished. The creation of an average may or may not be established, depending on the will of the members of the community. But even if one is established, it is reversible or capable of change at any time by the communities, and so it does not operate as a leveling factor behind the backs of the producers.

Surely, distinctions would need to be made between those who do and do not work. Someone who is incapable of engaging in labor (for whatever reason) would receive remuneration based on a deduction of x amount of goods that go to the producers laboring x hours. Ditto for putting aside funds for replenishing means of production, building roads, hospitals, schools, etc. Hence, the principle of obtaining remuneration based on actual labor time does not imply that one literally always receives the same amount in compensation as the hours of labor that it took to produce the product, for reasons Marx discusses in the first pages of the Critique (he does not discuss the specifics of arranging this, but one assumes it is decided based on the political decisions of the cooperative or community). But the principle holds nonetheless.

The issue of those engaged in highly specialized or taxing work is a tricky one. You are right that a brain surgeon may object to obtaining the same number of goods as someone who spends as much time picking flowers, and that could create social pressure to push for returning to some sort of abstract average to govern the “value” of a particular worker’s output. This may be why Marx, in the Critique, states, “Labor, to serve as measure, must be defined by its duration or intensity.” At issue is what he means, however, by “intensity.” It has been widely taken to mean, by almost all critics of Marx as well as post-Marx Marxists (the Stalinists especially), that by intensity Marx is referring to how MUCH is produced in a given unit of time (one worker who makes 3 shoes an hour would receive less goods from the common storehouse than one who makes 6 shoes an hour. And one who makes 12 shoes an hour would “earn” more than both). In this scenario, workers are not being remunerated for their labor time. They are being remunerated for their labor output. Which means that the governing principle of such a society would be “from each according to their ability, to each according to their work.” Of course, such a principle has nothing to do with Marx’s vision of a new society, either in the CGP or anywhere else. If workers are remunerated according to the amount of work performed, instead of by the amount of time that they work, it is hard to see how the lower phase of socialism or communism would be significantly different from what prevails under capitalism. In capitalism performance is measured by the intensity of labor, as seen in the wage relation (workers must conform to a given standard of output within a given unit of time in order to “deserve” their wage). Whether that standard is set by a political planning mechanism or by the “invisible” threads of compulsion of the market hardly seems to matter. In both cases, we are dealing with a form of wage labor.

So why does Marx state that “labor, to serve as a measure, must be defined by its intensity or duration”? One could read this is to say that it simply suggests that labor, regardless of the stage of society under discussion, can serve as measure only if it is computed in terms of duration and/or intensity–indicating that the latter may or may not imply intensity measured in the quantity of output, depending on the specific form of society under discussion. In a socialist or communist society, of course, intensity would not be measured in terms of quantity of output, for reasons noted above. So how would it be measured? It would be measured in terms of output of energy: that is, a brain surgeon expends much more energy in 4 hours doing surgery than someone picking flowers does in that same amount of time. Just as a teacher who instructs autistic children expends more energy in a given hour than one who does not. The difference in labor intensity therefore can be taken into account without violating the principle of remuneration according to actual labor time, so long as the output of energy and not the output of quantity of product is taken as the determining factor. Of course, here as well, the community–the society of freely associated producers–would be the one to make the determination if a given kind of labor requires more energy output than another, and if so, how much it should be quantified in terms of actual labor time. One can imagine that a good deal of discussion and debate would take place on such issues. But there would still not be any value production, because there would be no production in accordance with an abstract average that operates behind the backs of the producers.

I agree with your comments regarding the possibility of social planning without a social planning apparatus, given the developed state of technology and information. I also find your comments on the “big box stores” quite insightful: one can look at them as storehouses of products of labor that, if freed from their value integument, could supply the kind of “social storehouse” for remuneration based on actual labor time that Marx’s critics have for so long derided as “utopian” and even pastoral. Marx may, in the end, have the final word, especially when it comes to his repeated insistence that a new society can only emerge on the basis of the material conditions created by the presently existing one.

I look forward to more discussion and engagement on this most important issue.


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1 Comment

  1. A. Vasquez

    I think this is an interesting dialogue, but a little academic for my taste. The points made get to the heart of what bourgeois ideologues such as Mises and Hayek criticized in socialism: that is, the inability to plan a complex modern economy and the inability to determine the value of the output of labor without a market mechanism (the law of value). I don’t think any argument I have seen so far has been able to address these points at least on the level of abstraction. One has to go into the concrete realities to find out what is really going on.

    First, such bourgeois criticisms take the capitalist mode of production as an abstract, eternal category. The Marxist critique knows that capitalism produces crises, and hence, its own gravediggers. Thus, it is not possible to have these conversations in a social vacuum. It is not an issue of “what system is better”: socialism or capitalism. Capitalism will drive humanity into the ground sooner or later, and we have to address alternatives whether we like it or not.

    Tied into this is the issue of expectations. There are many things people used to expect in previous societies that we no longer expect now. White people in the South used to EXPECT black people to address them as “sir”, to move to the back of the bus, etc. Men used to EXPECT women to cook and clean for them, and to not “give her man lip”. The aristocracy of the ancien regime used to EXPECT that they would inherit wealth and power based purely on bloodlines, and so on and so forth. Whereas we EXPECT that those who do certain tasks will be better compensated for these tasks and enter into a special social class, this is an expectation formed by capitalist ideology.

    In terms of the surgeon, for example, it was not always the case that healers felt they needed to be compensated handsomely for their efforts. Having studied some “more primitive” societies, healing and medicine was often seen in the past as a public good from which the practitioner could not benefit. One example is the “treaters” of Cajun society, who while they often practiced faith healing and other forms of quakery, could nevertheless be very effective in what they did. It was also obligated that they not charge for this service, as the gift of healing was “from God”. A similar attitude towards indigenous medicine also took place in Mexico. The idea that the surgeon must necessarily be better compensated could just be a condition of historical determinism. If medical schools were opened to all, and not just those who could afford it, I would gather that the number of talented surgeons would increase significantly, and the exclusivity and prestige of such an office would decrease.

    Then again, our entire capitalist society is based off of what we do. That is inevitably the first question that comes out of one’s mouth when we meet someone: “What do you do [for a living]?” No one is going to say, “collect stamps”, “windsurfing”, or “karaoke”. But could one imagine what such an answer would have been like in another mode of production, or another society. In rural Mexico, where my family is from, or rural Louisiana, where my wife’s family is from, not so long ago, “what do you do?” would have been a redundant question. You were a farmer, and your dad was a farmer, and his dad was a farmer, etc. You could not determine your distinctive identity by what you did, because most people did the exact same thing (save for the landowners and the small-time craftsmen). Perhaps even Marxists cannot envision a society where labor will NOT determine who we are, and where we are in society. We just have to remember that we have been formed by the dominant ideology, though it is much more fluid than we could possibly imagine.