Rohini Hensman


Socialism and Commodity Production: Essay in Marx Revival by Paresh Chattopadhyay, Leiden, and Boston: Brill, 2018.


The subtitle of this book is unduly modest: it is not really an “essay” but a substantial and extremely scholarly exploration of what Marx, Engels, and others have written about socialism in several different languages. Above all, it is an extremely timely critique of Marx’s followers who use the term “socialism” and “socialist revolution” in a very different and even opposite sense to what Marx means by these.


Marx’s Analysis of Capitalism


In Chapter 2 on commodity production, Paresh Chattopadhyay explains that the question of commodity production is relevant to Marx’s conception of socialism, because socialism is the negation of capitalism, and the commodity, combining use value with exchange value, is the cell-form of bourgeois society. He outlines Marx’s analysis of capitalism. Concrete labour produces the commodity as a particular product with a particular use, but the very same labour is also abstract labour, because through exchange it is qualitatively equalised with the labour embodied in every other commodity. This equality is expressed by money, the general equivalent and measure of value.


Generalised commodity production or capitalism is marked by the fact that labour-power itself—the workers’ capacity to labour—becomes a commodity which has to be sold to the capitalist for wages, because workers themselves do not possess the means of production. Workers are then forced to work under the direction of the capitalist to produce more value than they are paid as wages, and this surplus value or profit is used for expanded production—that is, accumulation of capital—by the capitalist. Accumulation becomes the driving force of production under capitalism, while workers suffer alienation from their own products, which do not belong to them, and their own labour, which is performed under the command of others.


In Chapter 3 on simple commodity production, Chattopadhyay shows that Marx recognises the existence, under both capitalism and pre-capitalist modes of production, of producers like small peasants and artisans who produce for the market but are neither employees nor employers. However, he does not characterise this as a distinct mode of production.


Compared with this detailed exegesis of Marx’s analysis of capitalist relations of production, Chattopadhyay says very little about Marx’s conception of the bourgeois state, apart from mentioning that it is a centralised apparatus with a bureaucracy and standing army.


Marx and Engels on Socialism


Chapter 1 on socialism in some ways is the heart of the book. Chattopadhyay begins by explaining that Marx uses the term “socialism” interchangeably with “communism” (pp 27–28) and that Marx saw capitalism as a preparation for and even a “transitional phase” to socialism. He divided socialism into two phases. In both, classes have been abolished, and production is carried out by “associations of free individuals” (p 47) among whom there is “free exchange of activities … determined by collective social needs and aims” (p 51). Collective decisions will be made to allocate society’s available labour time in such a way as to meet the need for replacing and expanding the means of production, as well as meeting individual needs. Engels makes a helpful distinction between rule over persons (which is what the state is for) and the administration of things and direction of the processes of production (which can be called government); he concludes that there will be no state in a socialist society (p 46), but government decision-making will be radically democratic. The whole of Chapter 5 is devoted to the problem of socialist accounting—calculating how to allocate resources for production in such a society—and refers to Marx’s important observation that in a socialist society, labour time will be minimised and free time maximised (pp 152–53).


In the lower phase of communism/socialism, according to Marx, workers will receive a token indicating how much labour time they have contributed to total social labour time after a deduction has been made to contribute to the costs of replacing and extending society’s productive apparatus, maintaining a reserve fund, paying for healthcare and education, and providing for those who cannot work. The tokens will allow them to withdraw an equivalent amount of labour time in the form of consumption goods (p 55). Chattopadhyay does not quote what Marx goes on to say in the Critique of the Gotha Programme: that the person who is physically and intellectually superior will receive more than the person who is inferior, and the worker who is unmarried and has no children will be richer than the married worker with children (Marx 1974: 346–47). Marx could not know, but now it is known that the best bourgeois welfare states do better than this, providing benefits like allowances for children and people with disabilities. One might comment that even in this lower phase, at least the basic needs of all members of society should be provided for regardless of how much they work, plus something more for discretionary spending.


In the higher phase, individuals will contribute according to their ability and receive according to their need, and work will be transformed into a source of satisfaction and pleasure (p 55, 58). Although, as was said earlier, they should receive according to their need even in the lower phase, Marx is right to think that it would take time to transform work into “life’s first need.” Automation and robotisation would have to eliminate all work that is hazardous and unpleasant (like cleaning sewers), working conditions would have to be radically improved, the division between intellectual and manual labour abolished, and people matched with the jobs they do best and enjoy doing.


This is indeed an attractive vision of socialism, but how do we get there? Obviously, it requires a revolution—overthrow of the existing power and dissolution of the old relations—which, according to Marx, is “a political act” (p 27). Who will achieve this revolution? Marx and Engels were very clear that the proletariat as a whole would carry it out: “the emancipation of the working class must be achieved by the working class itself” (p 37). But how? Chattopadhyay establishes that they conceived of it not as a momentary event but as an epochal process (pp 38–41). What political form will the transition take? There is considerable confusion in answering this question. According to the Manifesto, the first step is raising the working class to the position of the ruling class (p 39), but this could well mean a democratic republic with universal suffrage in a country where the proletariat constitutes the majority of the population. Marx later refers to the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” but what does he mean by this?


The Paris Commune seemed to clarify but also complicate this question. In The Civil War in France (1871), Marx describes the “commune” both as a working-class government and as a form of class rule. Consisting of elected representatives who were paid no more than workers’ wages and could be recalled at short notice, it was legislative and executive at the same time. It dissolved the standing army and replaced it with a “national guard” consisting mainly of working people (pp 43–44). As a government, therefore, it was radically more democratic than a democratic republic, but its national guard was no match for the standing army of its enemies: the commune was defeated, the communards slaughtered. In subsequent writings, Marx refers to the transition period as “the “prolonged birth pangs” within the womb of capitalist society” (pp 39–40), suggesting that it takes place under capitalism. This is confirmed in his 1875 Critique of the Gotha Programme, where he observes that


vulgar democracy, which sees the millennium in the democratic republic … has no suspicion that it is precisely in this last form of state of bourgeois society that the class struggle has to be fought out to a conclusion. (p 44)


Finally, Engels wrote in 1891 that “the working class can only come to power under the form of a democratic republic. This is the specific form of dictatorship of the proletariat” (p 44).


Other Conceptions of Socialism


Chapter 6 on anarchist communism is noteworthy because it points out, contrary to popular belief that anarchist conceptions of communism have a great deal in common with Marx’s conception. There are also chapters on guild socialism and market socialism, which Chattopadhyay classifies as forms of capitalism on the grounds that commodity production and wage-labour persist under them. But the running thread in the book, from the prologue through the chapters on socialism and Marx’s followers, to the epilogue, is the argument that what is claimed by many Marxists to be “socialism” in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and other countries is emphatically not socialism in Marx’s sense.


This argument can broadly be divided into two. One part of it is that almost immediately after the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, instituted a regime of “minority rule” (as opposed to the rule of the working class as a whole), which, therefore “could not afford to be democratic but had to be repressive in order to survive” (p 4). They refused to share power with other socialists, with Trotsky accusing the Workers’ Opposition of making “afetish of democratic principles” and placing “the workers’ right to elect representatives above the party” (p 9), although Marx and Engels never allowed for a party to substitute for the working class, even during the transition to socialism. Coercion was used against dissenters as well as the peasantry; the Soviets were gradually reduced to being a mere rubber-stamp for party policies (pp 254–55); and when members of the Kronstadt Soviet fought for the original revolutionary slogan of “All Power to the Soviets,” they were massacred (pp 262–63). Even the demand for a constituent assembly—a key democratic demand for over a century, which the Bolsheviks too had fought for—was subverted. When Lenin found that less than a quarter of the elected representatives to the assembly were Bolsheviks, the assembly was dissolved and a peaceful demonstration in support of it was fired on, killing and injuring several people (pp 11–13).


The other part of the argument is that production relations remained capitalist throughout the existence of the USSR. Chattopadhyay contrasts socialist production, carried out by an association of free individuals, with the centralisation of all capital in the hands of the state (pp 16–17). During Lenin’s lifetime, the economy of the USSR was still seen as being in transition to socialism, and only in 1936, under Stalin, was it proclaimed to have achieved socialism. Yet commodity production, wage-labour and the law of value persisted (pp 132–38). Chattopadhyay concludes that


All the post-1917 régimes calling themselves “socialist” have been characterised by the separation of workers from the conditions of production, resulting in the existence of the commodity mode of production (with wage labour) as the basis of production. In a word, their mode of production is capitalist. (p 276)


A limitation of the book is Chattopadhyay’s reluctance to criticise Marx in any way. He changes masculine pronouns in the original to gender-neutral formulations, but making women visible is not just a matter of semantics. For example, Marx’s analysis of the production of labour-power leaves out the crucial role of domestic labour, performed mostly by women, and this introduces a mistake in the way he calculates the value of labour-power under capitalism; but Chattopadhyay does not point this out, although a discussion of domestic labour is relevant to any vision of socialism. Again, while quoting Marx’s dictum that the class struggle will be fought out to a conclusion, that is, socialism or communism, “under the (bourgeois) democratic republic,” he avoids pointing out that this is contradicted by Marx’s assertion that there will be “a long period of transition between capitalist and communist society,” during which the state will take the form of the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat. Clarity about this issue is important for revolutionary socialists, and it cannot be achieved without pointing out that Marx himself was unclear about how the transition would take place.


Chattopadhyay also seems unfamiliar with the debate among Trotskyists on the characterisation of the Soviet Union, assuming they all agree that the USSR under Stalin was state capitalist (whereas in fact, this is a minority position), and never mentions Cliff’s (1974) analysis. However, he is right to criticise them for believing that the Bolshevik regime before Stalin took over, was a workers’ state, and to praise Gorbachev’s attempt to introduce democratic reforms (pp 278–80).


Propagation of the belief that the repressive and exploitative regime in the Soviet Union constituted an example of actually existing socialism/communism has done more to discredit socialism than all the anti-communist propaganda of the West. At a time when there is renewed interest in socialism, this book is an excellent and much-needed attempt to lay that myth to rest.


Rohini Hensman ( is the author of Workers, Unions, and Global Capitalism: Lessons from India and Indefensible: Democracy, Counter-Revolution and the Rhetoric of Anti-Imperialism.

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