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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 34, New Delhi, August 8, 2020

Understanding The Myth of ‘Socialist Commodity Production’: A Response To Sankar Ray | Murzban Jal

Friday 7 August 2020

by Murzban Jal

Sankar Ray’s review of Paresh Chattopadhyay’s book Socialism and Commodity production. Essays in Marx Revival (a book dedicated to the great Marxologist Maximilien Rubel) is not only a timely intervention in understanding Marx’s critique of political economy, but also serves as a reminder as to how post-Marx Marxism lost its moorings because it was more bothered with the secondary texts on Marx’s critique of capitalism than with the original ones penned by Marx. It was Lenin in What is to be Done? who reminded us that the task of the revolutionaries was to produce a theory, a scientific theory to be precise which is most modern and most democratic, from which a communist political programme can be organized. [1] His very famous statement from this 1902 text, “without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement” [2], points to the direction that theoretical praxis is of great importance in the left movement. Likewise Lenin (after the First Imperialist World War breaks out and when he is betrayed by his own comrades in the Second International to support the war efforts of their respective imperialist governments) takes to the seriously reading of Hegel which leads him to the statement:

It is impossible completely to understand Marx’s Capital, and especially the first chapter, without having thoroughly studied and understood the whole of Hegel’s Logic. Consequently half a century later none of the Marxists understood Marx!! [3]

A philosophically inspired theoretical basis was thus a pre-requisite for communist politics. Yet there was a brazen revisionism, if not a counterrevolution in ideas, where Marx’s original humanistic alternative to capitalism was made to stand on its head. State capitalism replaced what Marx calls the “union of free humanity” (Verein freier Menschen) [4], or “community of free individuals” as rendered by the classical Moore-Aveling translation of Capital, Vol. I. [5], translated also as the “association of free men” [6].

The problem is that arguments for establishing the reign of free humanity was replaced with mundane capitalist bargaining. Consider the following which has led writers to say that “the communists are the most honest, decent people in Indian politics. They are also the most irrelevant” [7]:

The party programme, updated in 2000, explicitly states that the CPI(M) does not only want and accept a multiparty democracy at present, but it also has a programmatic understanding of a multiparty political system following the People’s Democratic Revolution. It is why the party viewed the talk of a multiparty system by the Maoist leadership in Nepal in 2005 as an important advance. [8]

The above quote is from Prakas Karat. Note that it purely mundane capitalist politics of capturing political power with the even more mundane idea of People’s Democratic Revolution. That Karat’s idea is complete surrender to capitalist hegemony has to be mentioned where even the earlier left-wing strategies of the Randive line are not only totally forgotten, but buried forever. Plato in his Republic talked of chained people who relish the world of shadows, while real light and real life is just round the corner. Our contemporary comrades are like Plato’s imprisoned people refusing to see light, refusing to see truth. The truth is that if one has to save humanity and the planet, capitalism has to be transcended. But for our political comrades arguing for People’s Democratic Revolution, capitalism does not have to be transcended. Instead it has to be organized in a better way. The entire Soviet economics, which was followed by Maoist China, was about organizing capitalism, not transcending it. Chattopadhyay’s book and Ray’s article is about this fallacy of our so-called “Marxists” who to recall Lenin have not understood Marx!!

Chattopadhya’s book, as his earlier works point out, is that there is a great fallacy in being tied down to non-originals and duplicates. He argues that we must look into the originals to understand that Marx’s critique of capitalism, exposed as an exploitative system which degrades humanity and destroys humanity, offers a real alternative. He talks of the minute nuances in Capital, the different translations, and why Marx preferred the French translation. The fact that the translations of Capital are a living reality must be pointed out. One must point out to Hassan Mortazavi’s new Persian translation of Marx’s Capital Vol. I (2008) and how the earlier 1974 translation was marred by Stalinist dictates and glaring mistakes. Consider Frieda Afary the Iranian American Marxist who says the following:

The first translation of Capital which was published in 1974 (and about which more details will be provided below) was marred by the Stalinist views of its translator, Iraj Eskandari, the chairman of the USSR affiliated Tudeh Party...... It is very significant that, in his translation, Hassan Mortazavi chose to include the additions to the French edition which Marx thought had “a scientific value independent of the [German] original”. Those additions can give readers a deeper understanding of Marx’s dialectical process of thinking.  [9]

It is this deeper dialectical process of thinking which not only envisions, but puts into practice a different society, where the violence of capitalist economy is forever put to an end. Chattopadhyay points out that the Soviet Union could not put an end to capitalism, but merely replace one form of class society with another form, which was state capitalism governed by the dictator (Stalin)). He clearly differentiates the so-called “socialist regimes” of the 20th century and the alternative offered by Marx. What socialism does is that it necessarily transcends the commodity principle and the entire process of capitalist accounting. For Ray:

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. [10]

What is important to understand is that for Marx, there can be no commodity production in socialism. Yet for certain reasons the votaries of Soviet economics have never bothered to even raise this issue. For them (which includes even the Trotskyites) the Soviet Union was socialist (even “degenerated form” as Trotsky thought it to be). If then these state capitalist models of Stalin and Mao are the models of socialism, then the Left would very strangely be arguing only for a different model of capitalism. For the Stalinists and Maoists, it is the Yankee model which they find distasteful. So they create their own almost Platonic version of state capitalism and pose it as “socialist”. What then becomes disastrous is that the advocates of Soviet economics, which includes the entire spectrum of the Indian political left led by the CPI (M), is that the capitalists who are bad (crony capitalists). Capitalism is in itself never seriously critiqued!

Let us begin with the main myth—that of socialist commodity production, the myth that tore the Soviet Union into infinite pieces. It must be noted that the Soviet dream collapsed in 1928 with Stalin’s consolidation of complete power and not in 1991. 1991 was only the culmination that began with Stalinism. Thus with the myth of “socialist commodity production” is tied the terror of Stalinism. In my In the Name of Marx I talked of this myth of “socialist commodity production” and said that this myth has been a burden on our heads [11]. What is necessary to understand is that for Marx, socialism (even in its alleged 1st stage), as he says in the Critique of the Gotha Programme, is not built on commodity production. Note what Marx said in 1875:

Within the co-operative society based on common ownership of the means of production, the producers do not exchange their products; just as little does the labour employed on the products appear here as the value of these products, as a material quality possessed by them, since now, in contrast to capitalist society, individual labour no longer exists in an indirect fashion but directly as a component part of total labour. The phrase “proceeds of labour”, objectionable also today on account of its ambiguity, thus loses all meaning. What we have to deal with here is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, just as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally, and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges. Accordingly, the individual producer receives back from society—after the deductions have been made—exactly what he gives to it. What he has given to it is his individual quantum of labour. For example, the social working day consists of the sum of the individual hours of work; the individual labour time of the individual producer is the part of the social working day contributed by him, his share in it. He receives a certificate from society that he has furnished such-and-such an amount of labour (after deducting his labour for the common funds); and with this certificate, he draws from the social stock of means of consumption as much as the same amount of labor cost. The same amount of labour which he has given to society in one form, he receives back in another. [12]

The same is said by Engels in his Anti-Dühring. Note Engels:

From the moment when society enters into possession of the means of production and uses them in direct association for production, the labour of each individual, however varied its specifically useful character may be, becomes at the start and directly social labour. The quantity of social labour contained in a product need not then be established in a roundabout way (my emphasis, M.J.); daily experience shows in a direct way how much of it is required on the average. Society can simply calculate how many hours of labour are contained in a steam-engine, a bushel of wheat of the last harvest, or a hundred square yards of cloth of a certain quality. It could therefore never occur to it still to express the quantities of labour put into the products, quantities which it will then know directly and in their absolute amounts, in a third product, in a measure which, besides, is only relative, fluctuating, inadequate, though formerly unavoidable for lack of a better one, rather than express them in their natural, adequate and absolute measure, time. Just as little as it would occur to chemical science still to express atomic weight in a roundabout way, relatively, by means of the hydrogen atom, if it were able to express them absolutely, in their adequate measure, namely in actual weights, in billionths or quadrillionths of a gramme. Hence, on the assumptions we made above, society will not assign values to products. It will not express the simple fact that the hundred square yards of cloth have required for their production, say, a thousand hours of labour in the oblique and meaningless way, stating that they have the value of a thousand hours of labour. It is true that even then it will still be necessary for society to know how much labour each article of consumption requires for its production. It will have to arrange its plan of production in accordance with its means of production, which include, in particular, its labour-powers. The useful effects of the various articles of consumption, compared with one another and with the quantities of labour required for their production, will in the end determine the plan. People will be able to manage everything very simply, without the intervention of much-vaunted “value”. [13]

Note one does not need this much vaunted “value” in socialism. There is one more very important paragraph of Engels that one needs to note and understand:

The concept of value is the most general and therefore the most comprehensive expression of the economic conditions of commodity production. Consequently, this concept contains the germ, not only of money, but also of all the more developed forms of the production and exchange of commodities. The fact that value is the expression of the social labour contained in the privately produced products itself creates the possibility of a difference arising between this social labour and the private labour contained in these same products. If therefore a private producer continues to produce in the old way, while the social mode of production develops this difference will become palpably evident to him. The same result follows when the aggregate of private producers of a particular class of goods produces a quantity of them which exceeds the requirements of society. The fact that the value of a commodity is expressed only in terms of another commodity, and can only be realized in exchange for it, admits of the possibility that the exchange may never take place altogether, or at least may not realize the correct value. Finally, when the specific commodity labour-power appears on the market, its value is determined, like that of any other commodity, by the labour-time socially necessary for its production. The value form of products therefore already contains in embryo the whole capitalist form of production, the antagonism between capitalists and wage-workers, the industrial reserve army, crises. To seek to abolish the capitalist form of production by establishing “true value” is therefore tantamount to attempting to abolish Catholicism by establishing the “true” Pope, or to set up a society in which at last the producers control their product, by consistently carrying into life an economic category which is the most comprehensive expression of the enslavement of the producers by their own product. [14]

Note the last eight words of Engels’ sentence: “enslavement of the producers by their own product”. This idea of the fetish character of commodity production, where commodities (realised as the value-form, exchange value, money and capital) control people, was totally alien to Stalin and Mao. For how could messiahs be controlled by anyone and anything? Note that for Marx, the commodity besides being a necromantic artist and metaphysician [15] is also a “born leveller and cynic” (Geborner Leveller und Zyniker) [16]. In contrast to Marx and Engels, look at what Mao said. According to Mao (and note his extremely unscientific observations):

There are those who fear commodities. Without exception they fear capitalism, not realising that with the elimination of capitalists it is allowable to expand commodity production vastly. We are still backward in commodity production, behind Brazil and India. Commodity production is not an isolated thing. Look at the context: capitalism or socialism. In a capitalist context it is capitalist commodity production. In a socialist context it is socialist commodity production. [17]

And since the Indian Left stubbornly reads only this form of revisionism and since the Indian Left is predicated on the revisionism of socialist commodity production and refuses to look into the deeper structures that Marx and Engels had critiqued, their politics can only be reformist (reforming capitalism by transforming capitalist commodity to so-called socialist commodity production).

This act of completely transcending commodity production, one must note, remains the crux of the problem for Marxists to solve. When one talks of Marxist socialism, one essentially means non-commodity socialism. Ignoring this very important part of Marxism (critique of commodity production and the value-form) and then merely talking of collective and public ownership of means of production merely replaces the Marxist language of the critique of political economy with legalist concepts. The Indian Left not only duplicates the false language of Stalin and Mao. They actually go back to Proudhon and Dühring, forgetting that Marx in The Poverty of Philosophy and Engels in Anti-Dühring had critiqued both Proudhon and Dühring. What was critiqued by Marx and Engels was taken as the essential repertoire by the Stalinists and Maoists. Note Marx here who says how for Proudhon and the John Gray school of utopian socialism:

Goods are to be produced as commodities but not exchanged as commodities. Gray entrusts the realisation of this pious wish to a national bank. On the one hand, society in the shape of the bank makes the individuals independent of the conditions of private exchange, and, on the other hand, it causes them to continue to produce on the basis of private exchange. Although Gray merely wants “to reform” the money evolved by commodity exchange, he is compelled by the intrinsic logic of the subject-matter to repudiate one condition of bourgeois production after another. Thus he turns capital into national capital, and land into national property and if his bank is examined carefully it will be seen that it not only receives commodities with one hand and issues certificates for labour supplied with the other, but that it directs production itself. [18]

What then is this revisionism based on? It is based on the idea of “the degradation of money and the exaltation of commodities” which is expressed as “the essence of socialism” [19] Note also the utopian socialists who have the pious wish for the national bank to oversee how commodity production takes place. If Gray had this fantasy of the national-utopian bank, Stalin and Mao transformed this utopian bank into the even more utopian state which would work as the socialist bank. This I call the essence of utopian revisionism which went from Proudhon and Gray to Stalin and Mao. The Indian Left took over these utopian fantasies. Science, or to be precise Marxist science, would be far away from their utopian minds.

Let us note another structure of this revisionist fantasy. Note what Stalin says in his Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR:

Our commodity production is not of the ordinary type, but a special kind of commodity production. Commodity production without capitalists.... [20]

Note two things: (1) Stalin’s idea of commodity production without the capitalists which has now become the signature of the Indian Parliamentary Left: capitalism without the capitalists, and (2) how Stalin’s revisionism (where he decides to abolish Marx’s essential ideas) becomes firstly totally absurd and then absolutely authoritarian:

More, I think that we must also discard certain other concepts taken from Marx’s Capital—where Marx was concerned with an analysis of capitalism—and artificially applied to our socialist relations. I am referring to such concepts, among others, as “necessary” and “surplus” labour, “necessary” and “surplus” product, “necessary” and “surplus” time. Marx analysed capitalism in order to elucidate the source of exploitation of the working class—surplus value—and to arm the working class, which was bereft of means of production, with an intellectual weapon for the overthrow of capitalism. It is natural that Marx used concepts (categories) which fully corresponded to capitalist relations. But it is strange, to say the least, to use these concepts now, when the working class is not only not bereft of power and means of production, but, on the contrary, is in possession of the power and controls the means of production. Talk of labour power being a commodity, and of “hiring” of workers sounds rather absurd now, under our system: as though the working class, which possesses means of production, hires itself and sells its labour power to itself. It is just as strange to speak now of “necessary” and “surplus” labour: as though, under our conditions, the labour contributed by the workers to society for the extension of production, the promotion of education and public health, the organisation of defence, etc., is not just as necessary to the working class, now in power, as the labour expended to supply the personal needs of the worker and his family.......I think that our economists should put an end to this in-congruity between the old concepts and the new state of affairs in our socialist country, by replacing the old concepts with new ones that correspond to the new situation. We could tolerate this incongruity for a certain period, but the time has come to put an end to it. [21]

If it becomes clear that Stalin and Mao did indeed tamper and manipulate Marx’s essential ideas by replacing Marx’s “old concepts” with Stalin’s “new ones” which correspond to a “new state of affairs”, then it becomes clear that the Marxism that we have inherited is a tampered and manipulated form of Marxism. Chattopadhyay and Sankar Ray remind us of this fact. But then our political comrades are too busy to read Marx, forget understanding him. It is in this sense that Lenin’s phrase rings out once again: “none of the Marxists understood Marx!!” [22]

[1V.I. Lenin, What is to be Done? (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1978), pp. 24-9, 98, 105.

[2Ibid., p. 25.

[3V.I. Lenin, Philosophical Notebooks, Collected Works, Vol. 38 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1961), p. 180.

[4Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Erster Band, , (Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1993), p. 92.

[5Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I, trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1983), p. 82.

[6Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin Books, 1990), p. 171.

[7Meghnad Desai, ‘The Strange Death of Indian Communism’ in The Indian Express, Friday, June 19, 2020

[8Prakash Karat, ‘Theory and Practice’, in The Caravan, November 1, 2011.

[9Frieda Afary, ‘The New Persian Translation of Marx’s Capital and the Iranian Economy’ in Iranian Progressives in Translation,{

[10Sankar Ray, ‘Paresh Chattopadhyay on Socialism and Commodity Production’ in Mainstream, Vol. LVIII No 33, August 1, 2020

[11See my In the Name of Marx (Delhi: Aakar Books, 2018).

[12Karl Marx, ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’, in Marx. Engels. Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975), p. 319.

[13Frederick Engels, Anti-Dühring. Herr Dühring’s Revolution in Science (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1975), pp. 374-5.

[14Ibid., p. 376.

[15Karl Marx, Capital, Vol. I, trans. Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1983), p. 76, 80.

[16Ibid., 89; Das Kapital, Ertser Band, (Berlin: Dietz Verlag, 1993), p. 100.

[17Mao-Tse-Tung, A Critique of Soviet Economics (London: Monthly Review Press, 1977), p. 144.

[18Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1978), p. 85.

[19]Ibid., p. 86.

[20J. V. Stalin, ‘Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR’, in J.V. Stalin. Selected Writings, Vol. II (Calcutta: National Book Agency, 1976), p. 299.

[21Ibid., p. 300.

[22V.I. Lenin, Philosophical Notebooks, Collected Works, Vol. 38 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1961), p. 180.

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