The Human Future: Capitalism or Communism?

The pages of this journal are filled with reports which illustrate time and again the suffering degradation and alienation which exist in today’s world. Time and again we have argued that these things are the inevitable effects of the capitalist system of production. The reasons for this are derived from the fundamental fact that capitalism is economically dependent on exploitation leading to the deprivation of a large section of mankind and the operation of the system results in competition and imperialism and consequently war. Poverty, oppression and war are not isolated anomalies in the otherwise happy world created by capitalism as our rulers are for ever telling us. The deprivation of a class of people in society is the inevitable result of what is the defining relationship in capitalist society, that of wage labour. This system separates the class of people who have to sell their ability to work, since they have nothing else, from the means of production and from the products they produce. This separation is what Marx called alienation and it remains the root cause of all that is wrong in today’s world. In a previous text we showed how Marx envisaged that labour would be transformed under communism from its present form of being “unfree, alienating and inhuman” to labour which represents “a manifestation of life and therefore enjoyment of life.” (1) The present text examines how the emancipation of the working class, through the construction of communism, will be the emancipation of humanity in general. Marx showed how social relations between people are distorted under capitalist society. The earlier and hence more honest protagonists of capitalism, such as Hobbes (2), quite openly admitted that capitalist society was, “a state war of every man against every man” and its explosive forces could only be contained by violence imposed by dictatorship. Of course, the essence of capitalist society has not changed since the 17th century and still bases itself on egotism, competition and individualism. The “Rights of Man”, which the bourgeoisie pretends are the basis of their world order, are based on the separation of man from man not the association of men. Yet capitalism, like all human societies, requires association and cooperation, and on a more developed scale than ever before in history. Marx pointed to the essential dualism in the ideology of the capitalist class, since on the one hand they idealise the separation of man from man as the theoretical basis on which their society rests, while on the other requiring the association of men for the very existence of such a society. The association of man with man is produced in a way which is certainly not voluntary, namely through the market relations of capitalism, the most basic of these being the necessity for the working class to sell their labour power to survive. This relationship, as Hobbes correctly pointed out, is maintained and policed by force.

Capitalism has severed the umbilical cord which united man with his fellow men in primitive community or in direct relations of subjection, such as existed in ancient or feudal societies. The exchange value of commodities replaces the direct social relations which existed under earlier forms of society. In capitalist society the social connections between people exist through the relationships between things, the commodities. Mutual relations between individuals appear as social relations between the products of their labour. (3) Personal capacity is measured in the exchange value of an individual’s capacity to labour, the money for which it can be exchanged. In capitalist society the process of production has mastery over man rather than being controlled by man.

The following text looks at how the exchange values of commodities are determined and the fetishistic character of money. Under communist society, production will be for use and the products of labour will have use value only. Money will no longer be required. Thus, the basis of the alienation and much of the unhappiness of present society will be stripped away. With this change humanity’s pre-history will, as Marx argued, be concluded and its true history will begin.

Emancipation of working class and of mankind

Marx expresses his views with typical clarity in the preamble to the 1880 Programme of the French Workers’ Party:

“The emancipation of the productive class is that of all human beings without distinction of sex or race;
The producers can only be free when they are in possession of the means of production (land, factories, ships, banks, credit);
There are only two forms under which the means of production can belong to them:
1) The individual form which has never existed in a generalised way and which is increasingly eliminated by industrial progress;
2) The collective form, whose material and intellectual elements are being established by the very development of capitalist society;
... this collective appropriation can arise only from the revolutionary action of the productive class (or proletariat) organised in a distinct political party ...

Marx’s aims of worker emancipation and human liberation can first be seen in the Paris Manuscripts. They are restated in The Communist Manifesto, and in many texts from then on. The bulk of Marx’s writings are arguments for the social emancipation of the working class and through that the achievement of a truly human form of society. They are arguments for communism. He claims that the emancipation of the working class requires collective action. And there is an even grander goal, the emancipation of “all human beings without distinction of sex or race”.

In the brief sentences above Marx also gives us a fresh understanding of socialism as the emancipation of the proletariat and their collective possession of the means of life. We can see in them a restatement of one of Marx’s insights, that it is the proletariat’s separation from the means of production that forces the need for collective, voluntary organisation.


In this 1880 Programme and in his 1875 Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx returns to the foundational ideas that lay at the heart of his project from the early 1840’s: mankind’s relationship to nature and the relationships of people amongst themselves.

Even under communism, labour will continue. Marx sees labour as...

the appropriation of natural objects toward human needs, the general condition for material exchanges between nature and human beings, a permanent condition for human life ... independent of all its social forms, rather common to all its social forms. (4)

Except in the case of Robinson Crusoe, labour “takes place within and (is) mediated by a definite social form”.

So when humans moved from hunter gathering to the settled cultivation of crops and animals, what forms did social labour take? During his career Marx moved from repeating Smith’s progressive stages (slavery, feudalism and so on) model of history to a crisper periodisation that focused on social power. As he put it in Capital I, Chapter 7, there is just the question of whether the labour process is “under the brutal lash of the supervisor or the anxious eye of the capitalist”. (5)

Civil society

In both forms of society, the societies of personal dependence and of personal independence, a social distribution of labour has to be established and regulated. The allocation of workers to a range of productive tasks has to take place. How this is done varies. In a communist society, these decisions will be made by society’s members. In a society based on personal dependence there will be an authoritarian division of labour determined by the master. But in the lands of the free, the lands of property and Bentham, where private individuals are “grouped like atoms, independent, acting according to their free will” the distribution of social labour exists behind the markets in which privately produced products are exchanged (those who own them sell them for money and spend the money on other products. This is a staggered system of exchange. Market transactions are voluntary and are broadly based on equivalent exchange.

This is the realm of freedom, equality and property based on labour. (6)

It is under the form of exchange and commerce that political economy conceives the community of human beings and their reciprocal integration. (7)

Nature is transformed into private products which are then exchanged. It is only through the exchange process that individuals in this society can satisfy their natural need for food, clothing and so on. This is where Marx begins his magnum opus, Capital. He starts Capital with a microscopic investigation of the object produced for exchange, the commodity.

The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as “an immense accumulation of commodities,” its unit being a single commodity. Our investigation must therefore begin with the analysis of a commodity. (8)

Marx’s insight here is that the individual commodity in a society based on commodity production is above all a social phenomenon. Commodities are exchanged in markets. The market is the place not just where goods are exchanged. It is also where the labour of individual producers is brought into a relation with the labour of other producers. The market is a particular way of allocating the work that needs doing. It is the mechanism that structures social labour in a society in which individuals work independently of one another to produce goods for the use of others. The distribution of labour is not socially planned - this is neither communism nor a command economy. The organisation of the producers is conducted through the relationships between their commodities, between the goods they exchange for one another via the medium of money. The exchange ratio, or exchange value, of commodities, is more than a relation between the goods on sale in the markets. It is also the relation between the labours of the individuals who have produced those commodities. This idea is the basis of Marx’s theory of value.

Value expresses the fact that the commodity is the product of social labour. The labour spent on producing a commodity that is sold at market is part of the labour-time of society as a whole. It is not simply the private labour of a particular individual. Thus: the substance of value is “human labour power in the abstract”. (9) “The common substance that manifests itself in the exchange-relation ... of commodities is their value”; (the emphasis is in the original). (10) Social labour is ‘abstract’ as, when one thinks about the society in which commodity producing labour takes place, one is not considering the specific forms of labour that are being undertaken. Exchange organises production. Market prices ensure this occurs. They force the apparently independent producers to produce for social needs. If too much of a particular commodity is produced, the price of that commodity falls. Less is produced. If a producer is inefficient, the producer will be compelled to increase efficiency or face ruin. Uncompetitive businesses fail. This happens as the inefficient producer’s commodities are just one part of the total production of that kind of good. They are no more than a ‘sample’ of what is being socially produced. The production conditions that fix the price these goods can fetch are the normal, standard production conditions. Marx says ‘average’, and more often ‘socially necessary’, a phrase that seems obscure to most contemporary readers. The inefficient producer will get much less from the market for the hours put into production that his rivals receive.

In Chapter one of Capital, Marx states again and again that the abstract labour is social labour, i.e., the expenditure of human labour-power insofar as such expenditure is socially necessary. Social labour is not just a summing of the hours all producers spend in production. It is an accounting device, an analytical adjunct to the idea of the ‘normal conditions of production’, ‘socially necessary labour time’. Marx’s has to develop such intellectual tools as what actually happens in capitalist production and exchange, and the concepts political economy used to describe them, are verrüchte - insane. (11)

Marx defines for us how value is measured. The magnitude of value is fixed by...

the labour-time required to produce any use-value under the conditions of production normal for a given society and with the average degree of skill and intensity of labour prevalent in that society.

So the value of a commodity is not the amount of labour actually expended by a given individual producer. (12) It is the portion of social labour that is credited to that commodity. It is no use looking at the time spent producing a commodity to find its value. It is only at the market that the producer finds out how much of his or her labour-time is going to be paid for or, to use Marx’s language, was socially necessary.

This is what exchange does. It assigns the socially necessary character of the labour spent in producing a particular commodity. Commodities are compared in the market with other products. As products are compared, the specific commodity producing characteristics of the labours behind them are irrelevant. The price of the product will fetch is social recognition of the (appropriate part of the social) labour time spent in its production. (13)


Value is a concept developed to analyse a set of phenomena in a society of general commodity exchange - capitalist society. It does not exist in nature. It can only be inferred from, or expressed in, the relations that exist between commodities (i.e., in developed capitalism, this means the ratio between their prices.) The price ratio also sets the relationship between the different kinds of labour allocated to the different spheres of production. This allocation takes place behind the backs of the producers.

To the producers, therefore, the social relations between their private labours appear as what they are, i.e. they do not appear as direct social relations between persons in their work, but rather as material relations between persons and social relations between things. (14)

It is the things sitting on the supermarket shelves that are compared by shoppers. Those goods have a relationship with each other (sales figures, price and so on). And their relationship sets a relationship between the different forms of labour that produce those goods.

The ‘value of a commodity’ is simply a way of referring to the portion of social labour represented by the commodity. Recall that social labour does not refer to the particular labour done on the article, the actions of the worker. It really is an abstraction. The market equates labours through the price mechanism (one hour of dentistry = ten hours on the tills at Tesco = twenty hours as a postman = ten minutes with a City solicitor.) The market acts as if these equivalences can be made, as though all human labour is one homogenous stuff. The market is verrüchte.

Value appears to be an inherent and semi-natural property of the commodity. Value is manifested by price. The price ticket is as much a part of a commodity is it its colour and weight. Of course that car is valuable - look at what I paid for it! The exchange relation between commodities appears to be a relation that exists between the commodities in themselves, without reference to production or the producers. It is the commodities that wear price tags, not the abstract social labour of the producers. The fetishism of commodities arises from the fact that commodity producing labour is not directly social. The social character of labour only appears in exchange, and by exchanging products (selling their goods and buying others) producers exchange their labour time for that of others.

Value appears to be a quality of the product. It dictates to the producer. The exchange of commodities is simply one way of organising the division of labour, one way of relating individual labours to one another in society. Marx points out15 that a distinctive feature of his critique of political economy can be seen in his close examination of the form of value, that is to say his recognition that the market is the means by which the social division of labour is organised.

It is so important to be clear about what was Marx’s distinctive thrust, as ‘Marxism’ has often missed it. The idea that exchange relations reflect the amount of labour-time expended on particular commodities was not original to Marx. It was central to classical political economy. The idea that Marx introduced is the idea that exchange is a particular system of social relationships. It is not simply a means by which prices are derived from labour-time. For Marx, value is the stamp of a society in which the relations between producers are regulated through the market.

This has a fundamental effect on Marx’s notion of value. It is through his examination of the form of value that Marx was led to argue that exchange value is not an expression of the amount of time actually spent by the labourer. It is an expression of value. Value, in turn, does not mean the labour-time spent on producing the commodity. It is the socially-necessary labour-time, the portion of the total labour-time of the society allocated to that commodity, the labour-time of the individual producer in relation to the labour-time of society as a whole. This relationship cannot be found in the individual commodity, or in the relationship of the individual producer to that commodity, but only in the relationship between producers that is derived through the exchange relation between commodities. Value is not an economic concept. It is a social concept: value expresses the social relation between producers, a social relation that appears only in the exchange of commodities between producers - in reality in developed capitalism, in the sale of a commodity for money.

So the value of a commodity is not inherent in the isolated individual commodity, prior to exchange, for the process in which labours are equated is the process of exchange. So,

It is only the expression of equivalence between different sorts of commodities which brings to view the specific character of value-creating labour, by actually reducing the different kinds of labour embedded in the different kinds of commodity to their common quality of being human labour in general. (16)

The common social substance which merely manifests itself differently in different use-values is labour. (17)

Value is discovered through analysis. It is this analysis that shows us that behind the commodity is the labour of the interdependent producers, behind money is the social character of labour, and behind capital the relationship between capitalist and wage-labourer. (18)


As Marx explained, commodities have both use value and exchange value. As explained above the social character of the labour incorporated in a commodity determines its exchange value. The value relations between commodities have no inherent connection with their use values. The commodity appears to have an independent and inexplicable property of its own.

A definite social relation between men assumes in their eyes the fantastic form of a relation between things. (19)

As Marx says commodities appear as hieroglyphs whose meaning cannot be deciphered. This Marx calls the “fetishistic” nature of commodities.

The classic example of fetishism is the way people think about money. Not paper money, banknotes, which are obviously no more than coloured paper tokens that enable one to play a social game. But real money, bullion, the silver and gold bars stored around the world as a last-resort means of payment and as a vehicle for securing wealth.

The simple commodity form contains the whole secret of the money form and, thereby, in germ, the whole secret of all the bourgeois forms of the product of labour ... the economists have overlooked this simplest thing. (20)

How many people think gold is really valuable in itself because it costs a great deal - and will always be so (as long as this form of society continues)? The moment capitalist society ends, gold becomes no more than a yellowish metal with a number of very useful properties. It is just stuff, a thing.

Commodities are things, and therefore without power of resistance against man. (21)

At the present time, gold commands people’s lives. The abolition of the gold standard reflects the fact that, in Sir Alan Budd’s words (22), Marx was right. The metal ‘gold’ has no magic powers. It cannot anchor the world economy. That anchor is people quietly going to work day after day.

In Chapter XXVI of Capital, volume 1, Marx argues that we cannot find the origins of capitalist production in money. Money can only become capital through the purchase and exploitation of labour power. Money as a means of exchange and a store of value has existed in human societies for at least 2.5 millennia. It allowed merchants to trade commodities from the earliest times, however, the conversion of money into capital requires specific social conditions. It requires the existence of a class of people without property who are forced to sell their ability to work. Marx clearly points out that the development of this class is the key to the development of capitalism. Where does that class come from? In England, feudal exploitation had to be changed into capitalist exploitation through the dispossession of the village working population. It is only because this happened, and production was atomised firstly into capitalist farms, that generalised exchange began. Value depends on the class system which underlies private property in the means of production. Chapter XXVII looks in detail at the expulsion of the agricultural population from the land. Chapter XXVIII looks at the role of the state in the creation of a submissive working class, when extra-economic force had to be used to do what in a developed capitalist society is done by capital itself:

The organisation of the capitalist process of production, once it is fully developed, breaks down all resistance...The silent compulsion of economic relations sets the seal on the domination of the capitalist over the worker. (23)

Communist production

As Marx points out the separation of the producers from the means of production is a relatively recent historical development. Although the capitalist system began to develop within feudalism about 400 years ago, islands of social production remained in existence until fairly recent times. One of these which Marx contrasts with capitalist production is that of the patriarchal production in peasant families.

For an example of labour in common or directly associated labour ... we have the patriarchal industries of a peasant family, that produces corn, cattle, yarn, linen, and clothing for home use. These different articles are, as regards the family, so many products of its labour, but as between themselves, they are not commodities. The different kinds of labour, such as tillage, cattle tending, spinning, weaving and making clothes which result in the various products, are in themselves, and such as they are, direct social functions, because functions of the family, which, just as much as a society based on production of commodities, possesses a spontaneously developed system of division of labour. The distribution of the work within the family and the regulation of the labour time of the several members, depend as well as differences of age and sex as upon natural conditions varying with the seasons. The labour power of each individual, by its very nature, operates in this case merely as a definite portion of the whole labour power of the family, and therefore, the measure of the expenditure of individual labour power by its duration, appears here by its very nature as a social character of their labour. (24)

Communist society will replace these features in a more developed form. The total product will be a social product. It will be produced and distributed in accordance with a social plan. Such a plan would similarly provide a proper distribution of production between different kinds of work and the wants of the global community. Social relations between individuals and their labour will be perfectly intelligible in such a system. The process of production will, at last, be controlled by men and not the other way round. Men will no longer be separated from the means of production and production and work will be an expression of communal purpose and solidarity.


(1) See Revolutionary Perspectives 37 “The Communist manifesto of 1875”

(2) See T Hobbes Leviathan p185 (Penguin Ed.)

(3) See Capital, Vol I, Ch 1, Sect 4

(4) See

(5) More fully: In exchange value, the social connection between persons is transformed into a social relation between things; personal capacity into objective wealth. The less social power the medium of exchange possesses (and at this stage it is still closely bound to the nature of the direct product of labour and the direct needs of the partners in exchange) the greater must be the power of the community which binds the individuals together, the patriarchal relation, the community of antiquity, feudalism and the guild system. (See my Notebook XII, 34 B.) (19) Each individual possesses social power in the form of a thing. Rob the thing of this social power and you must give it to persons to exercise over persons. Relations of personal dependence (entirely spontaneous at the outset) are the first social forms, in which human productive capacity develops only to a slight extent and at isolated points. Personal independence founded on objective [sachlicher] dependence is the second great form, in which a system of general social metabolism, of universal relations, of all-round needs and universal capacities is formed for the first time. Free individuality, based on the universal development of individuals and on their subordination of their communal, social productivity as their social wealth, is the third stage. The second stage creates the conditions for the third. Patriarchal as well as ancient conditions (feudal, also) thus disintegrate with the development of commerce, of luxury, of money, of exchange value, while modern society arises and grows in the same measure.


(7) Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts

(8) These are the opening sentences of Capital I.

(9) Capital I:8


(11) Cyril Smith:

(12) This is a key difference between Marx and Ricardo

(13) This is discussed in I. Rubin: “Abstract Labour and Value in Marx’s System”, Capital and Class, 5, 1978




(17) Value Studies, p9

(18) Simon Clarke

(19) Marx, Capital, Vol I, Ch 4, Sect 4


(21) Capital I:2


(23) Capital I: p899, Penguin edition

(24) Marx, Capital, Vol I, Ch 1, Sect 4

Revolutionary Perspectives

Journal of the Communist Workers’ Organisation -- Why not subscribe to get the articles whilst they are still current and help the struggle for a society free from exploitation, war and misery? Joint subscriptions to Revolutionary Perspectives (3 issues) and Aurora (our agitational bulletin - 4 issues) are £15 in the UK, €24 in Europe and $30 in the rest of the World.