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International Socialism, Winter 1968/69


Joel Stein

Planned Exploitation


From International Socialism (1st series), No.35, Winter 1968/69, pp.41-42.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Papers on Capitalism, Development and Planning
Maurice Dobb
Routledge and Kegan Paul, 35s

There are essentially only two principles for organising social production in the modern world. Despite wide-ranging and important differences of form, one of these principles, capitalist, which asserts itself against the mass of real producers, dictates production throughout the world. The other, socialist, is still only potential, made concrete in the productive powers, needs and struggles of the working class.

According to the popular belief, however, there already exist two fundamentally different forms of society, the one capitalist, the other socialist. While ignoring the fundamental social relations of production and the rarely denied fact that in the ‘Communist’ countries the workers exercise no control over social production, this view maintains that the very form of production in these nations, nationalised under state-control, provides a fundamental difference from private capitalism in the actual content of production. Through the plan, it is maintained, the ‘Communist’ countries can provide a means for rationally determining the organisation and outcome of social production in contrast to capitalist anarchy. Just as bourgeois apologists explain market crises as mere accidents which will disappear as production develops, so the proponents of the ‘Communist’ world explain the short-comings, to be gentle, of production in these nations as mere accidents and mistakes which will disappear with time and the development of more refined techniques.

This collection of essays by Maurice Dobb covers a wide variety of subjects as its title implies. By far the dominant subject is the question of economic planning through state-determined production and particularly in contemporary Russia. Mr Dobb deals mainly with the development of planning techniques with particular emphasis upon price policy.

It might be thought that such an esoteric subject need not even be mentioned in a revolutionary socialist journal and I have no intention of seeking with Mr Dobb and the Soviet economists a more ‘rational’ price-policy for the ‘Communist’ economies. However, it is often in such esoteric discussions that class assumptions are most clearly revealed. Here the defenders of state-capitalism assume much that revolutionary socialist critics have always maintained. But while, for the latter, these assumptions offer a condemnation of state-capitalist society, for the former, they are ‘natural conditions’ similar to those which bourgeois economists have always found in the market-economies.

Before the Russian Revolution, Lenin, fearing for his life, scribbled down his first ‘last testament’, so to speak, for the Russian working class, the State and Revolution. Here he deals not only with the most important question of the Marxist attitude towards the state but also with problems of socialist planning. The main ideas on this subject which he stressed repeatedly after the revolution, revolved around a central point, socialist planning is essentially a very simple matter of ‘accounting’, bookkeeping, and workers control. P.J.D. Wiles, in his exhaustive compilation of errors on this subject, The Political Economy of Communism, quotes one of Lenin’s remarks on this subject as an example of Lenin’s extreme ignorance of the ‘complex’ etc. problems of the ‘real’ etc. world.

And so, from the point of view of contemporary Russian economics, this would appear to be the case. The Russians have discovered how very hard it really is to organise a ‘Socialist’ economy and undoubtedly they often smile to themselves when thinking of the prescriptions on this subject made by the mummy in Red Square. Mr Dobb gives a more-or-less comprehensive sketch of the various discussions concerning the ‘theory’ of price-policy and there is no need to go through it here. We need only mention that these involve seeking means for arriving at the ‘most efficient allocation of production resources’ which, in bourgeois economics as well, is held to be the ‘primary problem of economics’. There are essentially two schools of thought on this subject. The one, associated with Liberman, insists that price-policy must be tied to the artificial construction of a market-mechanism. In fact, however, it is not possible to simulate competitive conditions. The only way to do so is by actually creating a market economy. This proposal is of course concomitant with the complete transformation of Russian society. What is more, it is proposed at a time when the market mechanism is disappearing in the ‘market economies’ as well. The other school, around Kantorovitch and others, believes in computing prices centrally through linear programming and other mathematical-economic techniques.

What could be wrong with seeking a rational price policy? It is all very innocent. But why are prices necessary in a ‘socialist’ economy in the first place? Marx began Capital by answering a question which, he mentioned, the bourgeois economists never even asked. That is, why labour does not appear simply as labour. Why must it appear in the ‘fetishistic’ forms of value, money, prices? The Russian economists do not bother to ask the question either. And Mr Dobb speaks only of the ‘under-developed’ nature of the Russian economy without explaining why ‘under-development’ must be expressed in irrational forms.

The answer which Marx found is contained in Capital in the section on the ‘fetishism of commodities’. The price-form, among other value-forms, results from the fact that this form of production remains an unconscious one, that man’s labour products, through the exchange relations of production, determine the producer’s actions rather than the other way round. The state-capitalist economy maintains the fundamental exchange-relation of production, the class relation between labour and capital. The price-form is the necessary one for production because labour-power is a commodity. Money, prices, the wage-system, are the necessary forms in which, not socialist, but capitalist production must take place. It is a class necessity and has nothing to do with the rational organisation of production. Indeed, as the whole price-controversy reveals, it is precisely because state-capitalism can not be organised rationally that the price-form arises. Indeed, Dobb even goes so far as to speak of ‘an essential feature of socialism (regarded as “the first or lower stage of communism”): namely, its wage-system ...’! (164). For Marx, the wage-system is not the essential feature of any stage of socialism but of quite a different system, capitalism.

The discussants of planning techniques under state-capitalism all take as their point of departure the fact that labour is an object, manipulated and controlled by capital. Labour is directed by capital towards the expansion of surplus-value and accumulation of capital. In socialist society, necessary and surplus-labour are a single entity, the necessary labour-time of society, and the workers seek to lower this total. Regarded from the point of view of capital, labour is a ‘cost of production’. Capital seeks to raise the productivity of labour not in order to decrease total labour-time but to cut the cost of labour-power, to lessen capitalist necessary labour time, the workers wages, in order to expand surplus-labour time. It is for this reason that the problem of the ‘efficient’ use of production resources takes the form of a ‘price controversy’. The price form lumps together labour and labour-products into one mass because, from the point of view of capital these are the same, costs of production. The remarkable value-creating character of the labour can hardly be singled out without condemning the system as a whole.

The ‘Communist’ controversies on ‘planning techniques’ and ‘price-theory’ assume the position of the planners and therefore the existence of the planned. For this reason, its planning is not planning at all but the last refuge of the old ‘market principle’, the production of surplus-value. Marx spoke of the ‘free association of real producers’. It is through such a free association, when labour in all its aspects becomes controlled by the workers themselves that production will rest not upon decisions of the planners, but of the freely determined wishes of the producers themselves. Socialism will have no need of the irrational remnants of a past age, such as prices.

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