Capitalism treats people like machines

Society of abundance

What is our vision of socialism? Hillel Ticktin outlines the basic features

In Marx’s writings there are actually only two stages apart from capitalism: that is to say, a transitional period and then socialism (ie, communism). However, in the early period of the Soviet Union, ‘socialism’ came to mean something different from communism. Lenin and others were not really clear about the nature of this difference and whether therefore socialism was an additional stage.

While the historic Marxist viewpoint is one of two stages, the other view is one that emerged after 1917 and was dogmatised by Stalin, but I think it gives people the wrong impression as to what socialism would be. As far as I am concerned, there are only two stages. There is an introductory stage after capitalism has been overthrown - we do not know how long this period would last, but let us say anything between 10 and 50 years. After this we would arrive at a socialist (or if you like a communist) society. A distinguishing mark of socialism is that distribution would operate according to need, rather than input, whereas this would not be the case in the introductory phase.

In the 1930s there were debates as to what exactly socialism was and whether it was possible at all. Ludwig von Mises had argued that under socialism it was impossible to make economic calculations. For his part, the Polish economist, Oskar Lange, produced a long argument which basically asserted that market calculations could be applied to socialist society. So the debate was between an imputed market, on the one hand, and the argument of von Mises that said you simply could not calculate. The debate on ‘market socialism’ continues today.

In fact I believe von Mises was right (on a previous occasion when I made that point, the Ludwig von Mises Institute actually wrote to me, astounded that I could support his argument, being a Marxist). However, there must be relative abundance or else there cannot be socialism at all, and there can be no market. So this argument does not apply to the introductory phase, where distribution is according to a worker’s input.

Under capitalism we have abstract labour, and a contradiction exists between abstract labour and concrete labour. Abstract labour amounts to the control and imprisonment of the ordinary worker and for that reason we cannot have abstract labour under socialism/communism. If it continues to exist it means there is no socialism/communism or any higher form of society: the worker is still exploited and controlled. We cannot have this insistence on homogenous human labour - the reduction of the human being to something approximating a machine of production. This is not just a question of reward, but of the life of the ordinary worker. The point is that a socialist society is one in which work becomes humanity’s prime want.

From this it follows that you cannot measure labour exactly under socialism. You could say that a particular unit of production accounts roughly for so many units of labour time, but it is always going to be approximate. This means that, for example, things might be very different in one part of a particular country compared to another or between one unit of production and another. You cannot reduce people to machines and so each person will work in their own way - they will exercise control over the way they do so. Of course, we are not talking about the kind of mass production that exists today, particularly in China. There would have to be highly skilled production, where the skilled worker has a good deal of leeway as to how they work. In fact to a certain extent this is true even within capitalism.

An extreme example of where workers worked poorly was under Stalinism. In every unit of production each worker did what they wanted to do and no two workers worked the same way. In part this was a form of protest - a refusal to accept the system imposed from above. But the result was that you could not add things up (although they insisted on doing it anyway): you could not talk of abstract labour in the Soviet Union. This meant that the ‘plans’ failed, although this was not the only reason.

The working class always finds a way to protest and that is true not just of the Soviet Union. Under the generals in Argentina I remember a headline in The Economist which read, “Sad working” - workers also worked in the way they wanted in opposition to the junta. So this form of protest exists throughout the world: it is simply that it was most extreme in a country that could not control the working class as a class; where work took place under conditions where there was no abstract labour because there was no collectivity. Such protest did not result from workers combining together, but occurred individually. In the Soviet Union, contrary to the claims of totalitarian theorists, the ability to control workers was absent.


I have touched on labour under Stalinism, under which there is an absence of abstract labour, in order to contrast it to what could exist under socialism. In a socialist society you would expect workers to work in the way that they judge is correct. Since a worker’s incentive under socialism is not money, they work as best they can in order that they not only fulfil what they are doing for the collectivity, but for themselves. You would expect that they would work as well as they can, without any need for discipline from outside.

Of course, this would mean different things for each worker. It may be that the tendency would be similar among most workers, but equally it could be very different. You would expect it to vary in different parts of the world, in different regions, and even in different parts of the same city. While under such circumstances there can be no precise calculations, it is possible to produce an abstract average.

What I am talking about here is planning. The difference between a socialist society and a capitalist society lies above all in the fact that under socialism there is genuine planning, which is defined by Marx in chapter 1, volume 1 of Capital. Marx talks of the regulation of the economy under socialism by the associated producers themselves, meaning that society is controlled from below. Where this does not prevail there is no planning - the Soviet Union from that point of view was not planned. Looked at from a purely theoretical level, that is in one sense obvious, but it was equally obvious empirically when the absurdities that existed in the Soviet Union are examined.

The question then is, can socialism work? If there cannot be precise economic calculations, is it still possible to plan? Yes, it is, but, as I have pointed out, the first condition is relative abundance, so that if a mistake is made it will not result in a disaster. In other words, you must have a plan that allows for mistakes, but if there are inadequate reserves or stocks it obviously will not work. (The Soviet Union acts as a wonderful negative example here: it never had sufficient stocks and it always failed.) It is then possible to establish what is likely to happen over time: you will be able to see how often these mistakes occur, identify a tendency and then work on the basis of experience. You can interrelate different sectors, which in the Soviet Union was done in a completely insane way. Today this is done with input-output models, but these only go so far and ultimately we would hope that computing will get to the point where it can play an enormous role in this.

Crucially we have to be clear on the necessity of there being a democratic input at both ends - otherwise it will not work. In the Soviet Union a factory was supposed to produce x units of whatever, but the central ‘planners’ would know that nobody on the ground was telling the truth about what was being produced. The point is that, if ordinary workers interrelate with society as a whole and there is a degree of faith and support, there is not an issue. But if they do not it will not work - the process must be democratic. When it is not, the workers will not believe that the authorities will come up with a viable plan for them and they will be forced to do things they do not want to. So there has to be control by the population as a whole, and the periphery and the centre must trust each other.

Conditions of democratic control and relative abundance, under which workers are living happy lives, should lead to a situation where the orders coming from the centre are acceptable. Remember the famous example of the cartoon in the Krokodil magazine in the Soviet Union, where the central planners asked for one ton of nails and the factory manager displayed a single one-ton nail, allowing the plan to be ‘fulfilled’. That is the way the Soviet Union worked.

Under a situation of relative abundance, there will be a high level of production without shortages. In that case growth rates will be relatively low. The green demand for lower growth will be realised, because there will be no need to go on producing and producing for its own sake. The bourgeois concept of the human being having infinite needs is ridiculous, but it is the basis of bourgeois economics. Since they say there are infinite needs, growth could reach any level. In fact there is a limited amount that needs to be produced for a given society and consequently under socialism we will be able to identify the limited areas in which increased production is needed.

Planning, including central planning, would be entirely possible under socialism without a market: people will be able to walk into a distribution point and pick up what they need. Obviously there will be no such thing as finance, and whole sections of economic activity will no longer exist because they are completely wasteful and unnecessary. There will be no arms production, no advertising and, of course, no City of London - you can go through the different wasteful forms that will cease to exist. It is quite clear that the standard of living could very quickly be raised if such waste is removed.

The individual

I support decentralised planning, and so, for instance, we would expect parts of Britain to be decentralised in planning terms (Scotland, Wales, parts of England, etc). You cannot expect the central planners to have an opinion on some part of the world about which they know nothing. It would be far better if there were sub-planning units for particular regions and this is obviously necessary in order to plan at all. It would be ridiculous to plan the collection of dustbins in Wales from London - there are obvious limits to central planning. In the debate on the Scottish referendum I made this point - it is not a nationalist argument. Obviously, however, the central planners and local planners will interrelate and the whole mechanism will be quite complex.

In contrast to current society, where people are so far removed from decision-making, you would expect that the people as a whole will take part in running society when given the opportunity. It is not just a question of elections: you would expect administration roles to be rotated and no-one would perform such roles permanently. It is only in this way that there could be a truly democratic system - democracy would have to be fully incorporated into the economy of society and be present throughout social life.

Finally there is the argument about whether socialists should take the individual or the collective as their starting point. Stalinism insisted on the primacy of the collective and socialists have been tarred with the idea that they want to control individuals from above. It seems to me that we ought to stress the importance of the individual within socialism. Marx makes the point that only in a socialist society could the individual be fully free for the first time. For the first time the individual will be able to express themselves fully in their work, in their control of society and in their relationships with other people.

Personally I have started with the individual and worked my way towards the collective. You could try to do this the other way round and perhaps arrive at the same result, but the former method sounds much better, given the awful influence of Stalinism.