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Hugo Oehler

Unemployed & Barter Exchange

Petty Bourgeois “Solution” Reflects Pressure of the Crisis

(January 1933)

From The Militant, Vol. VI No. 4, 28 January 1933, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The capitalist press has now picked up the “Self-Help” and “Barter Exchange” movements as remedies to solve the problem of the breakdown of capitalist production. Every new theory and new movement which claims to alleviate the desperate situation within the confines of capitalism is grasped by the press with the eagerness of a drowning man clutching a straw. This is the case with the widespread national movement of barter exchange.

Large sections of the middle class are participating in the movement. Exchange organizations have been set up by business interests in order to put their frozen assets into circulation. Otherwise these small business enterprises will fall into bankruptcy and thence the hands of the local bankers. The small business interests, taking the initiative in this field, hope to keep up a semblance of profit and prevent big business from taking its toll on the wave of the crisis. These movements first obtained a foothold in the West. Now they have been extended, in one form or another, to all parts of the country, drawing in large sections of the urban middle class, farmers and unemployed workers.

Whole layers of the working class have been drawn into the barter exchange movement. These unemployed workers, pressed between unemployment and starvation on the one hand and inadequate and, often, no relief on the other, have turned to the barter and self-help movements in an attempt to cheat hunger and starvation – until better times.

The barter exchange movement finds a working basis for the exchange of manufactured and farm products for the idle labor power of the worker’s. These movements take on varied forms, depending upon the initiative of local industries and organizations. The organizations vary from the business men’s “cooperatives” to the cooperatives of the workers, with hybrids and temporary class collaboration plans in between. The business men’s associations which have drawn in the workers as an auxiliary have by far been the most successful.

Under the guiding hand of the business men’s barter exchange associations, labor power takes on a form of charity.

The exploitation of labor power is still further disguised behind the “brotherhood of men”, “self-help” and “charity”. It becomes a substitute for social and unemployment insurance paid by the capitalists and their state. It “replaces” the class struggle; or, rather, becomes an inverted expression of the class struggle. This kind of charity is only given for a certain amount of labor power. The workers exchange their labor power at a discount for food and supplies. If this can be extended the local charity drive and the agitation for social insurance can be held in reserve – until the class pressure forces action.

These barter exchange organizations usually function of the basis of negotiable credit certificates or script. The smaller associations function on a pure barter base. The whole barter exchange movement, regardless of which way it leans – in the direction of the workers or the capitalists – is the result of the breakdown of commodity production and distribution under capitalism. It is a return to more elementary forms of exchange. This is no sense denotes a step forward. Socialism, not barter exchange, is the solution for the breakdown of capitalism. Barter exchange in a crisis, under the domination of the business interests, is not a step toward socialism. It is a class collaboration move to prevent the free play of the class struggle development of the working class. The barter exchange movement is an attempt to bridge through the crisis until normal exchange, which rests upon the capitalist mode of production, is re-established.

The barter exchange and self-help movement has more than one side for the workers too. Dominated by the business interests, the movement becomes a powerful lever of class collaboration. Where the self-help movement becomes a workers cooperative movement, subordinated to the interest and aims of the class and the party, it can be useful to the workers as an auxiliary movement. It cannot substitute for the class struggle. It cannot replace the struggle of the employed and unemployed for demands against the capitalists and their government, such as immediate relief, social and unemployment insurance, the six hour day and five day week with no reduction in pay; in short, it cannot replace the class struggle.

The workers who raise the slogan of “workers’ control” in relation to the barter exchange and self-help movement are suffering from the worst kind of ultra-Left sickness. Opportunist class collaboration ideas and ultra-Left slogans’ go hand in hand. The slogans of workers’ control are slogans for a period of the class struggle that we have not yet reached in America. When the class struggle and the relation of class forces reaches this stage, to delay issuing these slogans will be suicidal. In the dual power stage, when the working class and its organizations become the kernel and the capitalist class and its governmental and industrial administration becomes the shell, then the time is ripe. In the meantime, a revolutionary, international program with proper tactics in the day-to-day struggles of the workers is the order of the day.

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Last updated: 7 February 2015