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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 33, New Delhi, August 1, 2020

Paresh Chattopadhyay on Socialism and Commodity Production | Review by Sankar Ray

Friday 31 July 2020

Book Review:

Socialism and Commodity Production: Essay in Marx Revival (Historical Materialism) by Paresh Chattopadhyay | Haymarket Books (19 September 2019)
ISBN-10: 1642590509
ISBN-13: 978-1642590500

Review by Sankar Ray

The rarity of scholarship, taken randomly, is manifest in the manner Chattopadhyay reads Marx’s magnum opus, ‎’Das Kapital:Kritik der politischen’ (Capital: A Critique of Political Economy). He compares this with the French version, Le Capital, written by Marx, as also English edition. Some differences, he identifies very interesting and instructive. For instance, in the first edition of Capital Vol 1 , Marx wrote, ‘the specific social function of private labours appears within these exchanges ( between products and between producers, directly or indirectly-SR) ’ while the French version states, ‘ it is only within the limits of this exchange that the specific social character of [the producers’] labour is affirmed (Chattopadhyay,op cit 147). In refuting Lenin’s theory of state capitalism, Chattopadhyay quotes vol I of Le Capital which defines state capitalism means ‘ total national capital constituting a single capital in the hands of a single capitalist’(p 256)..

The most original chapter of the book is in my opinion ‘On Socialist Accounting’. In the now-defunct Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and the German Democratic Republic, economists ostensibly developed one or the other form of socialist accounting which, eventually, was not socialist as commodity production remained intact and moreover the centrally planned economies were a brazen deviation from Marx’s unconditional demolition of state (whatever form it were) in contrast to those totalitarian states. Marx-delineated socialist society in Capital was completely different. Robert Bryer in his otherwise well-written book, ‘ Accounting for Value in Marx’s Capital: The Invisible Hand,( New York 2017) too misses out that Marx categorically wanted replacement of ‘the capital market and wage labor and with a system of social accountability. Marx himself was very interested in accounting, which is manifested in his correspondence with Engels. At the time of their correspondence, Engels was managing his father’s textile business in Manchester. Bryer examines their letters, in which Marx asks Engels to provide him with information on how capitalists account for capital used in production, the turnover of capital and profit. An interest in accounting is also clear in Marx’s investigation of Quesnay’s Tableau in the second volume of Capital.

On the issue of commodity production which several socialist thinkers were of the view that commodity production existed in pre-capitalist societies ( implying applicability of the law of value Chattopadhyay thinks differently arguing that commodity production was partial in pre-capitalist societies alike Marx, ‘involving the exchange of surplus over immediate consumption, and the basic aim of production was use value and not exchange value’ (p 230). But the law of value cannot apply to pre-capitalist societies. It becomes applicable with the generalisation of commodity production towards the grooming of ‘modern bourgeois society under the capitalist mode of production. Marx states succinctly, ‘the law of value for its full development presupposes a society of big industrial production and free competition, that is, the modern bourgeois society’ (p 149). The author draws our attention relevantly to Grundrisse, ‘Product becomes exchange value; the exchange value of the commodity is its immanent monetary property (Geldeigenschaft) which is severed form from exchange value as money, gaining a universal(general) social existence separated from particular commodities…..just as the real exchange of products generates its exchange value, in the same way exchange value generates money’ (p 87). Such was the clarity in Marx who wrote for the working people in the main.

The post-capitalist society where emancipation of individuals will take place replacing ‘exchange of commodities’ through ‘‘exchange of activities’ and human individual Human individuals will form a society “with neither personal or material dependence in which would prevail what Marx calls ‘free individuality.’ ”. Marx introduced the concept of ‘labour time’ as ‘the creative substance of wealth and the measurement of cost of production’, given the abolition of exchange value. The original exchange of production in the Association of free individuals in a collective basis will implement exchange of activities, to be ‘determined by common needs and common ends’ while ‘the social character of production is posited only post festum by the promotion of products to the rank of exchange values’(pp 145-148). In his rebuttal to M Proudhon’à la Philosophie de la misère de (Philosophy of Poverty), Marx wrote Misère de la philosophie (Poverty of Philosophy) where too he stated that under ‘associated mode of production (AMP)’ replacing and terminating the capitalist mode of production (CMP) is to be ‘directly social, creating use value’ sans ‘mediation of exchange’ and determination of value therein will be dominant along with essential weightage in ‘regulation of labour time, distribution of social labour among different branches of production, finally the book keeping’.

In other words, ‘collectivities’ necessitate individual labour-power to create useful articles for ‘social function’ (ibid, pp 149-50), as elaborated in Capital Vol III or Ökonomische Manuskripte 1863-67 ( Economic Manuscripts -1863-67) in Marx/Engels Gesamtausgabe ( Marx-Engels Complete Works in original (MEGA 2). Under capitalism, real wealth thrives on hugely disproportionate hiatus between labour time, put in, and the product. Marx termed this as ‘theft of labour time’ on which ‘wealth depends’. Which is why ‘as soon as labour time ceases to be the great source of wealth’ it will also cease to be the measure of labour, just as exchange-value would cease to be the measure of use value’, leading to the oppressive system of production, based on exchange value along with cessation of attendant ‘misery and contradiction’ ( pp 154-55)

But the genesis and historical relevance of commodity production, beginning of simple commodity production, law of value as also value form and value theory are explained and elaborated by Chattopadhyay. Needless to stress, without a formidable understanding commodity production, use value, exchange value –especially the behavior of mediation of exchange, political economy of capitalism remains unfathomed. Take the inter-relationship between use value and exchange value. There comes also ‘abstract labour’ and alienation, the latter distinguishes capitalism from all pre-capitalist societies, and money. Use value which gets transferred into commodity ‘being the bearer of exchange value’ that apparently is ‘quantitative relation’ making use values reciprocally exchangeable.’ Commodity is dependent on exchange value, But ‘Value of commodity is distinct from the commodity itself. Value is (rather becomes-SR) in exchange’, Chattopadhyay quotes Marx’s Grundrisse. Furthermore, the commodity, while being realised in exchange value, the possessor being unrelated to the use-value, but appropriates the use-value through externalisation and by alienation – ‘ basic form of the social system of production whose exchange value is the simplest and the most abstract form’. This helps one perceive what abstract labour is. Marx states, “As exchange-values they present themselves, however, as equal, indistinguishable labour, that is, labour in which the individuality of labour is dissolved. Therefore, labour positing exchange value is abstract general labour’ in the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859, original in English) as also in Ökonomische Manuskripte und Scriften (1858-61) , MEGA 2,section 2,vol 2. Every commodity itself, Marx in Theories of Surplus Value (1861-83) is money (pp 64-67).

Marx’s well-known description of ‘the value-form of the commodity’ as the economic cell-form of the bourgeois society’ helps one understand why he opposed political economy as ‘bourgeois science’ ( although hard scientists profoundly reject any prefix to science be it bourgeois, progressive, people’s or proletarian). Furthermore, Chattopadhyay quotes Marx’s letter to Engels on 2 April 1868 where value is defined as ‘the most bourgeois wealth’ which again is a ‘theoretical abstraction’, based on ‘a definite economic development of society.’ In contrast, value as an economic concept was alien to ancient society (p 86).

The aggregate labour time of society may be divided into two parts: one portion devoted to the reproduction of its own material conditions (necessary labour ) and another other to producing a surplus over and above, needed for its own reproduction through time (surplus labour). Under capitalist social relations, the latter took the form of surplus-value and expressed itself as profit. From an aggregate labour theory of value perspective, therefore, it made sense to define the rate of profit as the ratio of the aggregate surplus value and the stock of capital advanced at the aggregate level, as Marx did.

In his previous book, Marx’s Associated Mode of Production: A Critique of Marxism (a Palgrave Macmillan title, published in 2016), Chattopadhyay found that Marx while discussing the labour process where ‘products do not take commodity form’ quotes from vol I of Capital, ‘ this is the purposeful activity for the creation of use-values, the appropriation of the objects of nature for human needs, the global condition of material exchange between human and nature, an everlasting natural condition of human existence and thus independent of all forms of this existence, rather equally common to all social forms’. But Chattopadhyay detects that in French edition, ‘material condition’ is replaced by ‘physical necessity’ and the word ‘ever-lasting’ is dropped’ (p 198).

He has repeatedly questioned Lenin’s formulation of socialism as the ‘first’ or ‘lower’ stage of communism as a basic deviation of Marx who described the post-capitalist society alternatively as or equivalently Socialism, Communism (Re)union of Free Individuals, Republic of Labour, Cooperative Society, Society of Free and Associated Producers’ or the like as ‘Associated Mode of Production’ as opposed to the ‘capitalist mode of production’. Twentieth-century socialism, refuted repeatedly in his essays and two books, scholastically updated, was one or the other form of ‘Party-State regimes’. Alike most of the new breed of Marx scholars whose strength is through study of MEGA, unlike ideologues of official Marxist parties which have been uncritically committed to Leninist socialism, Chattopadhay refuses to be called a Marxist (nor does he want to be called a Marxologist). One is reminded of Marx’s disapproval of ‘Marxism’-first coined by Frantz Mehring, the first biographer of Marx in 1881- in the same year in chaste French to two top socialist leaders of France, Paul Lafargue and Jules Guesde for their silent endorsement when tendentiously marked as ‘Marxist’ at a session of the First International- “Ce qu’il y a de certain c’est que moi, je ne suis pas Marxiste” - (If anything is certain, it is that I myself am not a Marxist).

Chattopadhyay introduces to theoreticians which are probably not known to at least Indian readers. Consider Russian dissident Marx scholar Vladimir Shkredov’s who focuses uniquely to Engel’s treatment of ‘simple commodity production’ pointing out to ‘explanation-clarification of materialist character of Marx’s method and snaps fingers saying that ‘dogmatics’ have made Engels into a founder of ‘political economy of socialism’ (pp 106-7). Political economy, Marx clearly stated, can only be of bourgeois variant, a basic understanding that not only Stalin, but Gramsci lacked too. Shkredov’s works are in Russian and largely unknown to western scholars. Chattopadhyay read the Russian texts. Or take Peter Kropotkin’s and Carlo Cafiero’s theoretical works on ‘anarchist communism’ in a separate chapter that will enlighten those who take Bakunin’s anti-proletarian and divisive revolutionism. The entire chapter is a very educative read. Maximillien Rubel, second only to David Borisovich Riazanov as a Marx scholar in the 20th Century wrote a highly rated paper, ‘Marx as a Theoretician of Anarchism.

Reading Chattodhyay is a painstaking but rewarding experience, provided one does so critically. In the preface he puts it unequivocally that the so-called socialist states were ‘commodity societies’ where ‘ producer does not dominate the product’ and hence, producer is alienated from product alike in a capitalist society. “The very basis of Marx’socialism’, he states in the prologue is ‘human emancipation, a dealienated society.’ But all of his four books are published abroad. He is extensively quoted in the West, but ignored in India.

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