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On Marx and Labor Certificates


Flirting with the Future

For a man widely regarded as the founder of “scientific socialism,” Karl Marx did not, in fact, write very much about it. It is true, of course, that all of his writings dwell upon socialism, in the sense of treating it as a terminus that the Victorian capitalism of the nineteenth century was rapidly barreling towards. But especially in his mature works — which Louis Althusser, in a widely-cited formulation, dates from 1845 onwards — he was conspicuously more invested in showing how capitalism’s internal contradictions would lead to its demise than in making forecasts about the utopic future that would arise therefrom. These contradictions, of course, are charted above all in Capital, in which we are told that the progressive replacement of workers by machines will — in so far as it is primarily the former that creates value — lead to a progressive decline in the rate of profit. And thus the breakdown of capitalism in the (vaguely specified) “long run” (1991, 337).

Marx’s hesitancy to speculate about what a socialist future would look like owed a great deal to the influence of G.F.W. Hegel. A more renowned philosopher but less perspicacious political thinker, Hegel rails in tomes like the Phenomenology of Spirit and the Science of Logic against those philosophers who postulate “abstract determinations,” purporting to know the intransitive nature of things. If you look at your watch, you’ll see what time it is, but in one minute, it will change. So, the goal of philosophy is not — as thinkers of the past conceived it — to describe the “timeless” structure of reality. Rather, it is to portray the immanent flux of human knowledge, which only progresses through discarding old hypotheses and assuming new ones. Marx’s signature gesture was to interpret this immanent flux of human knowledge,[2] the Geist or Logik, as the economic backbone of human society. Seen this way, the socialists who preceded Marx — utopians such as Robert Owen or Charles Fourier, the latter of whom infamously predicted that in their state of final perfection, the world’s seas will acquire the flavor of lemonade — could be analogized with the comparatively “unscientific” philosophers who preceded Hegel. That is to say, they were not wrong, but the atemporal character of their thought meant that they remained trapped within a specific conjuncture, unable to pass over into a larger consideration of the process of history.

This is all admirable intellectual stuff. The practical result of it, however, is that there are precious few passages in Marx that discuss what the communism of the future will entail. Exceptions include the Manifesto to some extent, comments on the “realm of freedom” (1991, 958) in the third volume of Capital, and others. Likely the most significant exposition of this subject is in the Critique of the Gotha Programme. Written in 1875 in order to repulse the influence of the followers of rival socialist intellectual Ferdinand Lasalle on the party platform of the nascent Socialist Workers’ Party of Germany (which later became the much-derided Social Democratic Party of Germany), Gotha was never intended for a general readership and had little impact even upon the audience of half a dozen socialist activists it was written for. Sixteen years later, though, in 1891, Engels made it public to influence the SDP (which at that point was on the cusp of adopting a new program) to come around to Marx’s position. Engels’ attempts to push the SDP in this direction were partially successful: While the 1891 Erfurt Program contained certain “opportunistic” and reformist elements, it still represented a marked improvement in his view over the one adopted at Gotha.

Marx’s Priceless Products

It is perhaps a testament to our relative intellectual immaturity when compared with Marx that so much of the interest in his work has condensed around what amounts to a provisional communiqué, one that Marx never thought important enough to publish, to boot. But as this seems to be our situation, it will be helpful to go through his comments on the communism of the future in Gotha step by step and to show its difficulties — and the dissensions it’s given rise to.

Apropos Hegelian obstetrics, Marx periodizes the shift into communism in Gotha into three steps: 1) “the period of the revolutionary transformation” from capitalism to communism (2010d, 95); 2) “the first phase of communist society”; and 3) “the higher phase of communist society” (2010d, 87). The first of these steps will entail “a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat” (2010d, 95), a term that, as Hal Draper has shown,[3] didn’t have the same anti-democratic connotations in the late nineteenth century. The second will entail the creation of a society defined by the actualization of the “bourgeois right” of “exchange of equivalents” (2010d, 86), more specifically, one in which certificates based on “labor time” are exchanged for “the same amount of labor costs” from the “social consumption fund” (2010d, 86) (after certain deductions — for schools, welfare, the replacement and expansion of the means of production, and so forth). This system is still far from perfect, though: as Marx points out, the provision of goods to workers based on the labor they supply ignores differences in their concrete conditions–the fact some have children, some are more physically able than others, and so on. It thus falls to workers in the third stage to cross “the narrow horizon of bourgeois right” (2010d, 87), creating a society in which the principle of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!” (a phrase that Marx borrows from Louis Blanc) prevails.

As the first and third “stages” described by Marx in Gotha are vague, it’s unsurprising that the second — in which labor certificates are diffused — has attracted the most interest. On the surface of things, Marx’s formulation seems simple: people work for a certain period of time, then they exchange certificates based on “labor time” for means of consumption “proportional to the labor they supply” (2010d, 86). This may seem clear. But in fact, this apparently transparent proposition is complex, even vexed. In the first phase of communism, Marx tells us, the labor “employed on the products” does not appear as “the value of these products” (2010d, 85). Okay: so what does it appear as? It “no longer exists in an indirect fashion but directly as a component part of the total labor” (2010d, 85). But isn’t this value? It is true, Marx admits, that “the same principle prevails as that which regulates the exchange of commodities, as far as this is an exchange of equal values” (2010d, 86). Don’t worry, though. Under these circumstances, “Content and form are changed, because. . . no one can give anything except his labor, and because, on the other hand, nothing can pass to the ownership of individuals, except individual means of consumption” (2010d, 86).

What Marx is proposing here is essentially value without value. Yes: value will exist, because the worker exchanges his labor time for individual means of consumption. No: value will not exist, because the exchange is strictly bilateral (between the worker and the “social consumption fund”) and because the worker receives the full “value,” or “labor cost,” for his toil.

To understand why this is problematic, we have to ask ourselves where, for Marx, value comes from. This is a somewhat complex matter. Marx oscillates in his work between, on one side, a substantial, quasi-Ricardian conception of value according to which the value of goods brought to market is trans-historically correspondent with the “socially necessary labor time” required to create them (that is, the industrial average time required for their creation (knitting a sweater at home doesn’t count). On the other side, Marx maintains a historical conception of value according to which it is only under capitalism, when the means of production are broadly equalized, that labor time comes to decisively govern the value of goods. At first glance, this second, mature proposition can seem a bit cryptic. But ask yourself this: how can machines create value if capitalists all have — generally[4] — access to the same ones? One could answer this question in different ways. For Marx, the answer has to do with the way that labor is under capitalist conditions structurally undervalued: while you receive the value of your “labor power,” the capitalist is able to produce more exchange value with this than is returned as wages to the worker.

Regardless of where one stands on this Marxological controversy, we can distill two important points from his critique of political economy that will be useful for us here: (1) that value is not price; rather, it is the substratum of price that regulates it; and (2) that value emerges through a socially mediated process of production and exchange. In the first phase of communism presented in Gotha, neither value nor price exists in the proper sense. The worker exchanges certificates of labor time for the goods they require to live in much the same way one would exchange a voucher for a free movie ticket to see a screening at the cinema. Furthermore, the only parties involved in this exchange are the worker and the “social consumption fund” — no external entity enters into the circle of exchange.

It’s here where Marx starts to get into tangles. If one exchanges a voucher for a free movie ticket, the transaction is simple: One has a voucher that stipulates exactly what they will receive. But what the exchange in Gotha entails is the equation of labor time with “the social stock of means of consumption.” Just how does one calculate this? Within capitalism, labor time is calculated by an ensemble of corporations. What is required of them in this context is to ensure that an adequate volume of surplus labor is provided so that a sufficient level of profit can be attained (so that, for instance, a worker who works twelve hours will receive the value of six of these). What is not required of them in this context is to know the exact amount of time that went into the creation of every productive input they apply. If the capitalist needs to purchase a blast furnace, a set of metal lathes, or processing equipment for making cheese, all they must be sure of is that the cost of these can be accounted for with the surplus value extracted from the workers. In this way, the process of temporal calculation is subject to an infinite regress, ascertained in each instance by a separate capitalist and thus attributable to the “collective intelligence” of capital.

The same can be said for the purchase of individual means of consumption. If one goes to a store and buys a loaf of bread, its price may reflect the duration of social labor necessary to produce it. Then again, it may not, since for Marx, price is at best a floating metric that — while grounded in value — is influenced by an array of other subsidiary concerns: fluctuations in supply and demand, the need to set prices or higher or lower so as to offset the ratio of (value-generating) labor inputs to (non-value generating) non-labor inputs, and so forth. In either case, what is clear is that all of this happens “behind the backs” of producer and consumer alike. There is no one behind the curtain that truly knows how much labor time went into every product. Yet if one were to adopt the novel time-based calculation Marx effectively proposes in Gotha, such knowledge would not be enough. One (and we do not know who this “one” is) would really have to know the “labor time” that goes into every product that is withdrawn from the social consumption fund. To illustrate the vast complexities involved, it will help to quote from the essay “Contours of the World Commune” by Friends of the Classless Society, in the latest issue of Endnotes:

. . . [T]he construction of an apartment building requires a certain number of people working for a certain number of months. Tying individual consumption to the number of working hours performed, however, is a different story, because it assumes that one could quantify the exact amount of time that has gone into making each product. Even with the most fastidious bookkeeping — which already requires a ridiculous amount of time and effort — counting the working hours embodied in even the simplest of products would be an extremely difficult task. Take a bread roll, for example. One would have to know not only how many hours of labor went into the making of the oven (into which a whole chain of preliminary products went as well) but also how many years the oven will be in operation and how many rolls it will churn out in that time. Plus, the more one takes into account things like the means of transportation and all the other general preconditions of production, the more difficult the task becomes (2019, 167).

In truth, these are just the beginnings of the difficulties associated with the first phase of communism proposed by Marx. How would one, for instance, account for shifts in supply? The worker may exercise some choice in the means of consumption he withdraws or he may not; Marx isn’t telling us either way. Regardless, it will help here to imagine a situation in which a product that was previously exchanged at the labor time required to create it, and was available to all, is affected by a shortage of supply (say, a natural disaster results in a shortage of chips required for a technological device). One has a choice here. They could attempt to divvy up the lessened supply amongst all the workers, accordingly exchanging these smaller parcels for a lesser “quantum of labor” (2010d, 86) than previously. This has its limits. One cannot, like a more insipid King Solomon, just cut a laptop in half. Alternatively, they could attempt to suss out which workers really need the products in question — an algorithmic nightmare that would likely imply a surveillance state. If none of this is thought acceptable, they could also alter the exchange ratio of the products in question so that products that have been affected by supply shortages exchange for a higher quantity of labor time.

The third solution seems the most practical. Let us be clear regarding what it entails. “Value” for Marx, or what is often called the “labor theory of value,” is a heuristic tool intended to explain the way the trading ratios of products reflect a real cost structure of production independent of temporary shifts of supply and demand. This is to say that it does not do the work of price. A cold wave in Spain may send up the price of fruits in vegetables, but if it does not alter the cost structure of production in the long run, the value of these products will not change. Because Marx’s self-transparent notion of labor time does not have recourse to the value/price opposition, because it is based on exchanges of the “same amount of labor,” short-term fluctuations that would normally manifest in price without affecting value here must somehow be factored into the labor-time goods exchange for. The problem is that, the moment the labor time goods exchange for is adjusted beyond the actual labor required for their creation so as to accommodate shortages of supply, this ceases to be an economy based on exchanges of equivalent labor times. And, of course, this problem becomes doubly serious if one permits workers to have any choice over the “means of consumption” — for, in that case, fluctuating demand for specific goods must be somehow taken into consideration.

The Dilettantism of Darimon (and Gray)

Given the impracticability of the calculation of the exchange ratios of labor-time, we might ask ourselves: why doesn’t Marx simply permit the generalized exchange of products in the first phase of communism? For would it not be the case that under these conditions, the “invisible hand” of the (“direct”) market would simply conspire to establish exchange ratios consonant with supply and demand? In fact, when we survey the scope of Marx’s oeuvre, we find that he had already definitively blocked this escape route as early as 1857. In the first “chapter” of the Grundrisse — the “Chapter on Money” — Marx launches a fusillade of attacks on the notion of “time-chits” advanced by followers of the French proto-anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. The “time-chits” of the Proudhonists, Marx argues, are defective because their critique of capital is defective. Economic crisis, the boom-bust cycle, is a consequence of the aporetic character of capitalism, which compels capitalists to automate jobs in order to remain competitive.[5] As surplus value within capitalism derives from the exploitation of labor, this proves fatal to their long-term ability to generate profits (to greatly simplify). For, by contrast, economic crisis issues not from the structure of capitalist exploitation, but from the asymmetry between the supply of bullion-backed money and the needs of circulation. As Proudhon protégé Alfred Darimon states, “The root of the evil is the predominance which opinion obstinately assigns to the role of the precious metals in circulation and exchange” (Marx, 1993, 115[6]). Indeed, for Darimon, the cause of crisis are gold bullion drains which reduce the amount of money available, drive interest rates up, and ultimately lead to economic collapse.

This is not an innocent error. Having misidentified the cause of capitalist crisis, many Proudhonists imagine that if money is replaced by generally exchangeable “time-chits” the problem of crisis can be overcome without the working class taking direct control of the means of production. Does this theory hold up? As regards predatory banking practices, Marx points out that this scheme would likely make things worse. Let’s go back here to the question of the exchange ratios of labor time. As society becomes more productive — because of developments in the field of automation, primarily — the quantity of goods that time-chits for exchange would have to rise correspondingly. Suppose that an individual whose job it is to pick apples is capable of picking 100 apples per hour. After an apple-picking machine is installed, of which the worker in question becomes the mere operator, they are now capable of picking 300 per hour. Suddenly a one-hour time-chit previously worth 100 apples is now worth 300. In this context, Marx points out, banks would have a heightened incentive to hoard the means of exchange, as just by sitting on time-chits they would the goods they exchange for treble. Similarly, if the worker were to borrow time-chits from the bank, the amouMarx establishes for the proper functioning of labor certificates — the calculation of exchange ratios, the achievement of “proportionate production,” the elevation of productivity — are here simply ignored. And by extension, so is the mechanism of transition, since the shift to the higher phase is conditioned by these. We are left with a strange, spontaneist fantasy: a non-administered administration for a system value without value.

From Das Kapital to Deus Ex Machina

One could ask with good reason how it is possible Marx would make this error given that he knew — better than anyone perhaps — the requisite conditions for the establishment of a labor certificate. To answer this question it is necessary to understand how Marx differentiates between different forms of labor certificates. Take these comments in the first volume of Capital on Robert Owen’s “labor money”:

On this point I will only say further that Owen’s “labour money,” for instance, is no more “money” than a theatre ticket is. Owen presupposes directly socialized labour, a form of production diametrically opposed to the production of commodities. The certificate of labour is merely evidence of the part taken by the individual in the common labour, and of his claim to a certain portion of the common product which has been set aside for consumption. But Owen never made the mistake of presupposing the production of commodities, while, at the same time, by juggling with money, trying to circumvent the necessary conditions of that form of production (1990, 188-189n1).

Because a commodity is something that by its very nature circulates on the market, Marx is pointing out here that Owen — in contrast to, so it would seem, the Proudhonists — got something right with his notion of labor money. Specifically in that it is not money. The Proudhonists want time-chits to serve as the means of exchange in a society in which commodity production remains unaltered. As one could not profitably produce commodities while paying workers for the full duration of their labor, let alone sell them, this is akin to wanting a date with a married bachelor. Owen, by contrast, understands that commodity production is not compatible with a system based upon “labor money.” Where he errs is in his false assumption that in this society free exchange between individuals could be permitted without disrupting the exchange ratios of labor-time (and thereby turning it into actual money). As Engels remarks passingly in Anti-Dühring: “[Owen] introduced labour bazaars for the exchange of the products of labor through the medium of labour-notes with the labor-hour as the unit; institutions necessarily doomed to failure, but completely anticipating Proudhon’s bank of exchange of a much later period” [10] (2010b, 251).

In what sense do Owen’s labor bazaars “completely anticipate” Proudhon’s bank of exchange? Proudhon himself did not — as certain commentators have failed to realize — actually propose time-chits. His idea was slightly different. Liberated from the exigencies of the gold standard, a “Bank of the People” could freely issue exchange notes so to mediate between producers and consumers. If one wanted to purchase a commodity, they would negotiate the rate of exchange with the producer. They would then either exchange a commodity they had created directly for the commodity in question, or — if the commodity could not be appropriately divided or they did not wish to exchange it at that moment — provide the other party with an exchange-note that would serve as a promissory note of future of delivery. This latter point, regarding deferred delivery, was particularly important. For according to this schema if crédit is gratuit there will be no need for anyone to seek “interest” on capital, by e.g. confiscating the value created by workers or predatory loaning. Capitalist exploitation will end because everyone will have capital.

There are plenty of problems with this idea — how, for instance, could the bank maintain the confidence of its clientele if near-conditionless credit was available? And if “crédit gratuit” was, alternatively, delegated more discriminatingly by exchangers, how could this not result in the reproduction of an iniquitous dispensation?[11] This, however, was not the line of attack most commonly resorted to by Marx. For him, the chief defect of Proudhon’s thought lay elsewhere, in its attempt to reform the circulation of commodities to ensure that they sold at their value. In this matter, Marx correctly discerned the influence of Owen’s labor money — as well as that of subsequent “Ricardian socialists” from Britain who attempted to theoretically legitimize this idea, such as the two Johns, Bray and Gray. As he caustically remarks in the “Chapter on Capital” of the Grundrisse:

Proudhon’s school believe it a great deed to demand that this identity be posited and that the price of commodities be expressed in labour time. The coincidence of price and value presupposes the equality of demand and supply, exchange solely of equivalents (hence not of capital for labour) etc.; in short, formulated economically, it reveals at once that this demand is the negation of the entire foundation of the relations of production based on exchange value […]The important thing is that this demand is here made from the standpoint of the bourgeois economy (thus also by Gray, who actually works out this matter to perfection, and of whom we will speak in a moment), not from the standpoint of the negation of the bourgeois economy, as e.g. with Bray. The Proudhonists (see e.g. Mr Darimon) have indeed succeeded in raising this demand both as one corresponding to the present relations of production and also as a demand which totally revolutionizes them, and a great innovation, since, as crapauds, they are of course not required to know anything of what has been written or thought on the other side of the Channel. At all events, already the simple fact that this demand was raised more than 50 years ago in England by a fraction of bourgeois economists shows to what extent the socialists who pretend thereby to advance something new and anti-bourgeois are on the wrong track. (1993, 795; 805).

This is just one example of Marx accusing the quintessentially French crapauds of Proudhon and Darimon (or, more generically, the “Proudhonists”) of copying their more illustrious British forebearers[12]; in fact, there are many more. And one can see here the fault line Marx uses to separate out the advocates of equivalent exchange. On one side are those such as Robert Owen and John Bray, who — while incorrect in thinking the free exchange of equal labor-times could ever be organized — at least understood that such a system was not compatible with commodity production. On the other side are those such as Proudhon and Darimon, who actually thought not just commodity exchange but also commodity production could be preserved without perverting the exchange ratios of products. The problem being that this binary, as binaries are wont to, obfuscates a rather crucial feature of Proudhon’s thought: that he did not actually oppose the operationalization of supply and demand. Market value, as Proudhon states in The Philosophy of Poverty, “reaches its positive determination by a series of oscillations between supply and demand” (2012, 126). Indeed for Proudhon the fixing of prices labor certificates would require expressly violates the liberty of individuals. What he sought to achieve was to realize this same result indirectly — by cutting out the middleman’s accrual of “interest,” he reasoned, the actual value of goods could be represented plus or minus fluctuations in supply and demand. Out of a lack of attentiveness or, worse, a desire to deliberately misrepresent his views, Marx consistently ignores this from The Poverty of Philosophy onward:

Once utility is admitted, labour is the source of all value. The measure of labour is time. The relative value of products is determined by the labour time required for their production. Price is the monetary expression of the relative value of a product. Finally, the constituted value of a product is purely and simply the value which is constituted by the labour time incorporated in it (2010e, 120).

With this misreading, Marx is able to — in one fell swoop — render Proudhon a mere vulgarizer of the Owenite lineage across the channel. Owen and the Ricardian socialists want the exchange of equivalents; so do Proudhon and his followers. But the latter retreat even further from its conditions of possibility, seeking to purify bourgeois society while preserving it. So pronounced is this conflation that Marx in The Poverty of Philosophy even takes the work of the Ricardian socialists — in this case, John Bray — as “supplanting” that of Proudhon:

We only need to reply in a few words to Mr. Bray who without us and in spite of us has managed to supplant M. Proudhon, except that Mr. Bray, far from claiming the last word on behalf of humanity, proposes merely measures which he thinks good for a period of transition between existing society and a community regime (2010e, 142).

What we find here is one of the first examples of a process, to become more emphatic in later works, in which Marx — having ceased to seriously engage with Proudhon — attempts to distill the rational kernel of the writings of the Ricardian socialists. Bray is valuable because, like Owen, he does not suppose the compatibility of the exchange of equivalents and commodity production. But also because — anticipating Marx’s comments in Gotha — he sees the exchange of equivalents as not an end in of itself but as a means to the attainment of a society in which the principle of free distribution prevails. The real key to Marx’s analysis in Gotha though is the other John — not Bray, but Gray. Gray regresses from Owen and Bray in so far as he presupposes the compatibility of commodity production with labor money. But the merit of his analysis lies in the way that — in order to erect an even partially coherent system atop this mistaken premise — he is forced to progressively jettison the basic axioms of commodity production:

[…][For Gray] 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. (2010c, 322).

Gray knows that for labor money to be realized it is necessary to achieve an equilibrium of supply and demand. He thus proposes that the national bank set production targets based on an estimation of the latter, furnishing individual producers with the quantity of labor money corresponding with the time expended in production. But in this matter he does not go far enough. Gray wants private firms to remain private; if they only subject themselves like a good “army” (1831, 233) to the will of the collective this will suffice. In practice this means that if demand exceeds supply and goods sell at a higher price than intended, the producer pockets the profit; if the inverse occurs, they pocket the loss. In this case labor money would — due to oscillations of supply and demand — just be a nominal unit of account. More than this, the fact that producers would bear responsibility for uncertain demand means that they would risk bankruptcy — something which could and would destabilize the planning of the productions. Drawing the logical conclusion Marx notes that, for Gray’s system to be successful, the bank would not only have to arrange all commercial exchanges. It would also need to control all the details of production. In the “Chapter on Money” in the Grundrisse he states that it would accordingly either be:

a despotic ruler of production and trustee of distribution, or it would indeed be nothing more than a board which keeps the books and accounts for a society producing in common. The common ownership of the means of production is presupposed, etc., etc. The Saint-Simonians made their bank into the papacy of production (1993, 55-56).

It is necessary to pay extremely close attention to this passage. It is here where Marx shows us his hand. For labor money to be viable, for it to directly represent labor time, would require nothing less than for the “bank” to function as a despotic ruler of production. It would need to “buy” and “sell” all products, as with the social consumption fund of Gotha. It would equally need to control all of production. But if Marx does not tell us how the latter would come to pass in that text we see here why. The control it would need to exercise would have to be “despotic.” Unless that is it would simply serve as a “a board which keeps the books and accounts for a society producing in common.” Exchange ratios. Proportionate production. Deductions. It will keep the books and accounts.

This is, at bottom, a deus ex machina — the proletariat who will serve as the x that will achieve the conditions of despotism without being despotic. And then this strange reference to Saint-Simon — avowed opponent of egalitarianism[13], who called for the governance of society by savants and industriels before attempting to reground Christianity as a cult better-suited to his productivism. Is it possible here that Marx glances the future of a twentieth-century socialism that didn’t even need labor certificates to sink to this, then turns away? Only to groundlessly foreground the spontaneous administration of society eighteen years later, when he returns to it in Gotha? Gray, he states elsewhere in the Grundrisse, “works out this matter to perfection.” What is this perfection? And what would it entail?

Of course, one could if they wished ignore all of this. They could declare that Marx wasn’t a statist; cite work written after the Paris Commune roused him to the heightened possibility of direct workers’ control; accuse Lenin of having committed a decisive misreading. But the problem is that proponents of this thesis tend to understand Marx’s work too superficially — they look at what his theory says rather than what his theory does, with the abandonment of strategy being the inevitable result. The communards of 1871 were more under the spell of Proudhon than of Marx; at their most rigorous, Marx’s positive proposals involve the scientizing of Ricardian socialism as a means of tempering — before finally transcending — the inequities of the value-form. If labor-certificates don’t ever fully jibe, this doesn’t fundamentally alter this centralizing trajectory — or mean that another mechanism couldn’t. This is what Lenin knew, when — in State and Revolution — he offered two crucial addendums to the first phase of communism (which he calls “socialism,” in contradistinction to the higher, “communist” phase). First, by extending the role of the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat into it, he lends an air of plausibility to the notion that the “accounting and control” (2014, 140) necessary for the establishment of labor certificates can be achieved. Second, by omitting any reference to time when he discusses them, he seems to imply that there may be other units of account with which quantity of labor could be equated. All necessary because, as we shall see, the notion of time-based labor certificates condemns anything it touches to incoherence.

Myths Outside the Kremlin

Before concluding we will survey three responses to Marx’s three-step transitional program in Gotha, each emblematic of a certain intellectual genre. These are (a) those who wish to defend Marx’s proposal for labor certificates, (b) those who think its contradictions are insoluble, and that we must therefore “skip” to the higher phase of communism, and (c) those who more or less openly revise the contents of Gotha so as to render it workable.

Exhibit A is a chapter from the 1956 book Myths of the Kremlin by the Japanese apostate Trotskyist Tadayuki Tsushima, “Understanding ‘Labor Certificates’ on the Basis of the Theory of Value.” Marx’s comments in Gotha, according to Tshushima, have been widely understood by those who think that the system of labor certificates he proposed would entail both the persistence of the value-form as well as the exchange of products. In truth it would entail neither. “Abstract labor” — “congealed quantities of homogeneous human labour,” (1990, 128) in Marx’s words — cannot appear as the value of a product until said product is exchanged on the market. But because Marx opposes the operationalization of exchange within the first phase of communism, because he proposes the distribution of labor certificates under the conditions of total social ownership, abstract labor in this context would never become value. This explains why Marx has a more favourable view of Owen than Gray or the Proudhonists, since the former — in spite of his misbegotten “labof somehow (1993, 25).

Here we can see that Cockshott and Cottrell have conflated two different problematics — the hoarding of labor certificates so as to augment the volume of products they can be exchanged for and the value/price distinction. Put bluntly the issue here is not whether labor certificates can serve as stores of value, it is whether they have value, in the sense that the labor-time contained within them is exchanged indirectly. This becomes apparent even if we think through the analogy in question: one does not arrive at the theatre with a ticket to be told that, due to the closure of theatres worldwide, your ticket now only exchanges for half a seat.

Okay, so Marx had a different idea than Cockshott and Cotrell. Why is this a problem? Cockshott has publicly lamented the omnipresence of mushy-headed humanities majors in Marxology. Aren’t we just proving his point by arguing on the basis of textual authority rather than practical efficacy? The truth is thought that their resurrection of value/price speaks to a large identity crisis within TNS. Cockshott and Cotrell want to show that Marx wasn’t a utopian, that his positive propositions can really work. So in addition to discussing how many ponies an “urban commune” might be able to afford, they dutifully set out to elaborate Marx’s notion of labor certificates, revising it so that it can adapt to fluctuations of supply and demand, the differential productivity of labor, and so forth. But what they’re left with at the end is just money. Take their comments on the delegation of wages within their imagined society:

[…] grades of labour would be regarded for planning purposes as “creating value” at different rates. Rates of pay would correspond to these differential productivities: grade “B” workers would receive one labour token per hour, “A” workers rather more, and “C” workers rather less. The rates of pay would have to be fixed in such proportions as to keep the total issue of labour tokens equal to the total hours worked. The exact rates of pay could be worked out automatically by computers once the number of people in each grade was known (1993, 34).

The problem Cockshott and Cottrell are attempting to deal with in this passage is the same one we brought up earlier in the commentary on Tsushima. Namely that Marx’s labor certificates, distributed in the form of wages, are ironically even less sensitive to qualitative differences in labor performed than money. This “solution” however ends up partially contravening Cockshott and Cottrell’s primary argument for why we should have labor certificates in the first place:

Socialist politicians, whether in the East or the West, are rarely keen on “leveling.” Whilst being opposed to extremes of wealth, they feel that some level of differentials should be maintained. It is much easier to justify differentials ideologically if everything is still done in money terms. If accounting is done in terms of labour time, then the fraud of professional differentials becomes a little too transparent (1993, 38).

Cockshott’s and Cottrell’s choice of words in this passage — “a little too transparent” — is telling. They are not really proposing, as Marx does, the “direct” flattening of wage differentials through temporal standardization. Rather they are proposing their partial flattening, through making labor-time the nominal unit of account which in practice is diverged from. Just how transparent is this? It is nice that in Cockshott and Cottrell’s preferred society “the total issue of labor tokens equal to the total hours worked” (1993, 34). Collective hours worked is decidedly not what is transparent to the worker though — what they see is how many hours they worked. So “C”-graded workers would be left with the decisive impression that they are being paid less than their rightful share. Which attests to just how awkward this mishmash system is. From Gotha, it takes the idea of time-based labor certificates. From capitalism, it takes the idea of differential payment for each hour worked. The result is a true work of diabolical genius that only Cockshott and Cottrell could produce: a system where classes still exist — but are made plainly visible!

Therein lies the essential problem with TNS. It sets out to translate Marx’s suggestions into a practical set of policies. To accomplish the latter it has to nullify the former, downgrading labor certificates into money. But given all of the difficulties associated with the use of hours worked as a unit of account — from black markets to punch-drunk foreign currency exchange to the fact “we can never hope to have an rational measure of the present costs of a painting by Leonardo”[16] (1993, 45) — the book never convincingly achieves this. And what’s interesting is that many of the ideas proposed in TNS do not require “labour tokens” at all. There is no reason why a society cannot without implementing labor money restrict hoarding, or ban ownership of absentee property, or organize communes. Just as — as Cockshott and Cottrell acknowledge — there’s no reason its working-class cannot seize the means of production, setting up a state which is not defined by the injunction to valorize private capital[17]. So why then expend so much energy arguing for the revolutionization of the means of exchange? The basic aporia of labor certificates is that while they may seem intuitive they are in truth anything but, due to the way they necessitate equivocating between units of labor-time without recourse to price. This in turn requires the extensive manipulation of the “hidden abode” of production to a degree that is, at least from the standpoint of the present, impossible. If Cockshott and Cottrell’s “labour tokens” are by contrast possible, this is for a specific reason: because they reprise the value/price distinction. But the irony is that by doing so they sever them from their productive basis, in a way that risks re-mystifying relations of production. When they discuss their A/B/C gradation of wage payment for instance the emphasis is not, as it would be in a system in which labor-time was the basis of the acquisition of the means of consumption, on the relative equalization of productivity in any given field (again, not strictly speaking a requirement of labor certificates, but important in a context in which hours are treated equally). Instead it is upon the pedagogical assignation of grade-school letters to workers; on the worker’s “productivity relative to the average for her trade or profession” (1993, 34). This is presented by Cockshott and Cottrell as a simple, common-sense measure to reward workers for “putting in more than the usual effort” (1993, 34). The problem is that productivity is just an individualized phenomenon. It also indexes — as one would know if they’d never read anything but TNS — to the differentiated productive conditions of specific regions[18] (workers in Uzbekistan, for instance, were and are less productive than workers in Moscow). So what would Cockshott and Cottrell propose? That we allot disproportionately lower-level payments for the same time to workers in less productive regions? That we adjust the criteria so that the question is the “trade or profession” of a given area? That we rapidly renovate the productive forces in less developed locales? Or some combination of these? Whatever the answer, what’s clear is that the strength of Cockshott and Cottrell’s “new socialism” when compared with that of Marx is that it affords different solutions to these problems — different solutions which in the last instance derive from the ability to use the distributive mechanism to slacken considerably the requirement to transform production. Still the resultant system is — by any normal standard — wildly counterintuitive. And do you know what would be even better for slackening this requirement within the actually existing socialism they envision? Actually existing money.

So again: why bother? Cockshott has in recent years decried the deleterious influence of “Western Marxism,” which he sees as having in some respects fatally distorted Marx’s ideas. There’s surely something to this — when he states that “the value form school” has erred in “tend[ing] to see value as a concept that only applies to capitalist economies,” (2020b, 14) for instance, we are inclined to agree. Yet is it not the case that — in assigning so much import to the domain of exchange — Cockshott and Cottrell risk succumbing to a different, older “Western” fallacy? The influence of both the English Ricardian socialists and the French Proudhonists continues to loom heavily over the left. It can be seen in the feckless “folk politics” of Occupy Wall Street, with its refusal of a final point of authority. It can also be seen in the wave of cryptocurrency utopism that has recently gripped it, according to which all we need to do is de-centralize the issue of money in order to overcome the malevolent forces of capital (or at least their excesses). Granted one cannot dismiss those thinkers who, with world-denying zeal, set out to solve the riddle that traversed the nineteenth century — of how to benefit from capitalist productivity while dispensing with the inequality it beckoned. But as Marx shows us at his most lucid, their significance derives not from their successes but from their failures — the way these demonstrate that, in the last instance, what matters is the means of production. As intellectual beneficiaries of the sweep of socialist history, Cockshott and Cottrell of course know this. But this isn’t enough to stop them from committing a milder version of the same error, shoe-horning labor certificates into a book that cannot fully justify them.

Of course, this was also Marx’s error, in Gotha. But his mistake is a self-confirming one. Obviously, in the sense that it validates his earlier writings on labor certificates. More subtly in another sense. For Marx, the value-form is “more than 2,000 years” (1990, 90) old, stretching through the entire history of the commodity trade. It is far more deeply insinuated into the annals of social existence than industrial capital, or the capitalist mode of production, or the law of value. If its decryption was incumbent upon the tendential exchange of equal labor proportions, upon the advent of capitalism, this does not change the fact that — as Deng Xiaoping points out — markets are far older than it (1991, 174). It is, therefore, not something one can sit around and plan their way out of in much the same one would plan a Mediterranean travel itinerary[19]. At his best, Marx knew this and showed humility in the face of the future’s aleatory upheavals. This is the Marx we should emulate. As he writes: “Mankind thus inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve” (2010c, 263). To which we might add: provided they’re socially necessary.


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