Communist Society - Value, Labour and Time: A reply to Gilles Dauvé | Leftcom

Communist Society - Value, Labour and Time: A reply to Gilles Dauvé

In all social systems of production the social relations of production are primary while those of distribution are derived from them. The defining characteristic of communist society will be that it has communist, (or socialist) (1), relations of production. The key task in the replacement of capitalist society by communist society is therefore to establish communist relations of production. Once communist relations of production have been created communist relations of distribution will follow. The relations of distribution are, consequently, a secondary issue while those of production are primary. Much of the recent discussion on the transition to communist society has focussed on the system of distribution in the lower phases of communism as if this was the key issue whereas it is, in fact, a derivative issue. As Marx notes:

The communal character of production would from the outset make the product into a communal, general one. The exchange initially occurring in production, which would not be an exchange of exchange values but of activities determined by communal needs and communal purposes, would include from the beginning the individual’s participation in the communal world of products .. Labour would be posited as general labour prior to exchange, i.e. the exchange of products would not in any way be the medium mediating the participation of the individual in general production (2).

Once relations of production become communal, products become communal also. They are common property of the freely associated producers and in full communism they will be distributed free on the basis of need. The distribution of products is the outcome of the conditions of production themselves. As Marx emphasises in his Critique of the Gotha Programme:

Any distribution whatever of the means of consumption is only a consequence of the distribution of the conditions of production themselves. The latter distribution, however, is a feature of the mode of production itself. The capitalist mode of production, for example, rests on the fact that the material conditions of production are in the hands of non-workers in the form of property in capital and land, while the masses are only owners of the personal condition of production, of labour power. If the elements of production are so distributed, then the present-day distribution of the means of consumption results automatically (3).

To change the mode of production the nature of labour itself must be changed. Wage labour, which is a defining feature of capitalism, must be abolished. Under the system of wage labour, as pointed out in the quotation above, a worker owns nothing but his labour power. Under capitalism this labour power takes the form of a commodity which the worker is forced to exchange for wages, which are, in turn, exchanged for food, shelter and other means of consumption. These serve to reproduce the worker’s labour power and allow the cycle to start again. However, the actual labour, produced by workers’ labour power, belongs to the capitalist class. Labour is embodied in the products of the production process. When these products are exchanged they become commodities and the abstract labour embodied in them is attached to them as their value. Labour in this process takes the form of value.

Since workers’ labour becomes embodied in the commodities produced and these are the property of the capitalist class workers’ labour also becomes the property of the capitalist class. This process is one in which workers’ labour is alienated. Marx points out that, under capitalist production relations, labour can only become social labour because it is alienated. In the Critique of Political Economy he writes:

Commodities are the direct products of isolated independent individual kinds of labour, and through their alienation in the course of individual exchange they must prove that they are general social labour, in other words, on the basis of commodity production, labour becomes social labour only as a result of the universal alienation of individual kinds of labour (4).

This alienation of labour allows it to become “labour in the abstract.” In the same work, Marx criticises the proposal of Benjamin Franklin’s to use labour time instead of metallic money. Marx notes that labour can only serve as a measure of value if it is alienated labour:

… the labour contained in exchange value is abstract universal social labour, which is brought about by the universal alienation of individual labour, he (Franklin) necessarily fails to recognize in money the direct embodiment of this alienated labour (5).

Money represents exchange value of labour in the abstract and can only do this since it is the embodiment of alienated labour.

In communist society labour must be directly social, producing social products which will be freely distributed on the basis of social need. Labour will therefore produce social use-values but not exchange-values. Labour, therefore, cannot take the form of value, nor can products of labour take the form of commodities. If labour cannot take the form of value, money cannot exist as a medium of circulation. The premise that labour cannot take the form of value under communism is a fundamental tenet of Marxism. If labour does take the form of value the new society will remain a type of capitalism, as occurred in Russia and all its later imitators. This axiom is generally expressed in the statement that in communist society the Law of Value (LOV) will no longer operate.

Despite these being fundamental tenets of Marxism, various critics of Marx’s writings about future communist society claim his prescriptions for this society preserve the value form and are at best contradictory or at worst prescriptions for new forms of capitalism. That is to say they preserve the Law of Value. That such a penetrating analyst of value, as Marx, should have made such a fundamental error is implausible but not, of course, impossible. It is therefore necessary to review the basis of these criticisms. What follows is based on one of these critics, Gilles Dauvé and his text “Value, Time and Communism” (6).

Use-value and exchange-value

Gilles Dauvé (GD) argues Marx is confused about the abolition of value and criticises his view of labour and labour time. He correctly states that Marx wants communist society to be one in which production is production of use-values without exchange-values. Although GD recognises that Marx was clear that the LOV was the key determinant of exchange values he claims his proposals for post-capitalist society amounts to a retention of the LOV.

GD employs two main lines of argument to support this.

Firstly he argues that Marx saw value as arising in the market after production is complete but not in the production process.

[Marx] describes the process as if value, instead of being born out of a very specific type of production, came after the productive moment and imposed itself upon work as an exterior constraint (7).

He argues that since value arises in production, all labour necessarily produces value, and hence exchange-value. Further, he notes that Marx asserts;

Labour is a necessary condition, independent of all forms of society, for the existence of the human race.

Capital Volume 1 chapter 1

If this is the case, it follows that communist society will require labour. If communist society requires labour, then value will be produced in the labour process, and the LOV will operate. If the LOV operates the system of production will lead straight back to capitalist production. Consequently GD reproaches Marx for saying that labour is necessary in all forms of society. He claims, in the text mentioned above, that Marx did not want to;

Abolish the labour/capital reunion but only wanted to liberate work from capital (8).

GD wants communism to eliminate labour itself and claims this was the view of the young Marx in the 1840s but was a view contradicted by the older Marx of the 1870s.

To support this he quotes from The _German Ideology_

The communist revolution is directed against the preceding mode of activity, does away with labour, and abolishes the rule of all classes...

German Ideology part 1 D

Whereas in the Critique of the Gotha Programme we read that:

In a higher form of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour and with it the antithesis between mental and physical labour has vanished; labour has become not only a means of life but itself life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-round development of the individual and the springs of cooperative wealth flow more abundantly – only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.

The second line of argument GD advances is a theoretical one. GD implies that Marx made a theoretical mistake in imagining that exchange-value could be abolished without abolishing use-value. Exchange-value, GD asserts, encompasses use-value.

But use value is an analytic category both opposed to and encompassed by exchange value: it is impossible to do away with one without doing away with the other (9).

Since use-value is an analytic category, exchange-value, which encompasses it, must also be an analytic category and consequently cannot be abolished without abolishing use-value.

Both these arguments are wrong.

The first argument that starts with the premise that Marx saw value as arising in the process of circulation, that is, the market. This premise is simply incorrect. The principal postulate of the labour theory of value is that values are determined by labour time, and labour time is the time devoted to production. What the market does is convert value into exchange-value by relating commodities to each other in terms of their abstract value. Marx shows in the first chapter of Capital that exchange-values are crystallisations of homogeneous human labour. Exchange-value is the phenomenal form of human labour in the abstract and is measured by labour-time. Value is clearly seen as created in production and as Marx states,

It is not the exchange of commodities which regulates the magnitude of their value, but the magnitude of their value which determines their exchange proportions.

Capital Volume 1 Chapter 1

The market, under capitalism, equates various types of labour to each other by reducing them to human labour in the abstract. A certain amount of weaving is equal to a certain amount of fishing etc. and this proportion is what the market manifests. The value of the labour which has gone into the production process is congealed in the commodities produced. When these commodities are brought to market, the market carries out the social function of relating various labour activities to each other. It does this by assigning an exchange-value to each commodity in accordance with amount of abstract human labour congealed in it. The aggregate sum of human labour in society is consequently divided up by the market and human activities are related to each other by the exchange-values which the market assigns to commodities. Marx, contrary to GD’s assertion, does “insist” that value is produced in production by labour. The market forms the role of equating various types of labour by reducing all to the measure of human labour in the abstract. If human labour in the abstract did not exist in the commodities when commodities were brought to market the market could not equate them. Human labour in the abstract is therefore produced by labour in the production process and not by the market.

GD claims that Marx did not wish to abolish the labour/capital relationship. This is such an extraordinary statement one can only conclude that it must be the result of careless writing. Marx’s entire work, including his study of capitalist society, was directed towards the abolition of capitalist society and the ending of the capital/labour relationship. Marx wished to abolish wage labour but recognised that labour was needed in all forms of human society and would be needed in communism. In the Grundrisse Marx for the first time drew a distinction between labour power and labour. This was a key theoretical advance. It led to his realisation that labour power appeared as a commodity in capitalist society and like other commodities had an exchange value and was exchanged in the market. However, the labour produced by this labour power when incorporated in the product of labour had a greater exchange value than the labour power which produced it. This exposes the secret of surplus value and exploitation which lies at the heart of capitalism. It is important to realise that when Marx wrote his earlier works, such as The German Ideology this discovery had not been made and his ideas were less developed.

As GD noted, Marx in The German Ideology writes that the revolution will do away with labour. But even though the distinction between labour power and labour had not been made, it is still quite clear that it is labour under capitalism, namely, wage-labour, which Marx wishes to see abolished. A page before the quotation GD cites we read:

In a revolution … the proletariat rids itself of everything that still clings to it from its previous position in society. Only at this stage does self-activity coincide with material life, which corresponds to the development of individuals into complete individuals and the casting off of all limitations. The transformation of labour into self-activity corresponds to the transformation of the earlier limited intercourse into the intercourse of individuals as such (10).

It can be seen, from the quotation above, that Marx envisages a society where labour is self-activity, self-development and development of human potential. In the Critique of the Gotha Programme, quoted above, Marx indicates how some of these things could be achieved. He speaks of the ending of the division of labour and the antithesis of physical and mental labour and a situation where the springs of cooperative wealth flow abundantly. As Marx states labour is a necessary condition for the existence of humanity, but labour in communist society will be labour of a different quality, self-expression and self-development and self-fulfilment instead of the antagonistic, brutal and mentally degrading labour of capitalism.

In the later works it is more clearly labour under capitalist relations of production and its existence as labour power which Marx wishes to see abolished. Throughout his works Marx returns to his hypothetical society of freely associated producers who produce communal products and whose labour is directly social. Yet labour exists nonetheless. GD sees all labour as producing value and the social relations of production are simply irrelevant. He wishes to see labour, as such, abolished.

However, it is somewhat perverse to look to Marx’s early writings to find support for this position, when his later studies led him to produce more precise and developed analyses, and, consequently, more developed prescriptions of what needed to be done to replace capitalism.

The second argument advanced by GD also appears extraordinary, not only from the perspective of the greater works of Marx, but in view of Chapter 1 of Capital Volume 1 from which GD himself quotes extensively in his text. In this chapter Marx takes great pains to show that exchange-value does not encompass use-value but that it is attached to use-value because of the social relations of capitalist production.

The existence of commodities as values is purely social.

Capital Volume 1 Chapter 1 3C

Value is the result of the form which human labour takes under capitalism. Labour appears as a property of commodities themselves, since it assumes a form which permits commodities to exchange. It becomes attached to them as exchange-value. The social relations between producers appear as social relations between commodities by virtue of their exchange-values. To view exchange-value as attached to use-value by labour in the production process, and consequently as a property of the product, as GD does, is to make the mistake for which Marx criticised Smith and Ricardo. It is the failure to go beyond appearances and to accept the fetishistic nature of commodities which results from capitalist production.

At the end of Capital Volume 1 Chapter 1 Marx considers other social forms in which products of labour neither take the form of commodities nor have exchange-value. He points out that use-values which a person makes for himself, as the famous Robinson Crusoe does, are not commodities and do not have exchange values. A further example he gives is that of the peasant patriarchal household, which preceded capitalism. Here we find a division of labour which results in the production of use-values for the family, but the clothes, food and other products are not commodities and do not have exchange-value. The final, and certainly the most significant example from our point of view, is a society of associated producers. This society is almost identical to that which Marx identified as the lower stage of communism in his Critique of the Gotha Programme, where associated producers produce social products which are use-values but not exchange values. In all these examples we see use-values produced by labour which do not have exchange-values stamped on them.

By saying use-value is an analytic category GD is asserting that an analysis of the products of human labour would reveal that they contained the quality use-value. In philosophical terms the subject, namely the products of human labour, contains the predicate use-value. While this is correct, GD goes on to simply assert, without explanation, that this subject also contains the predicate exchange-value. Hence, he concludes, the abolition of the predicate, exchange-value, cannot be achieved without abolition of the subject, namely labour. Or to put it simply, only by the abolition of labour can exchange-value be abolished which is the conclusion GD is aiming for. GD is consequently claiming Marx made a fundamental philosophical mistake in arguing that use-value could be produced without exchange-value. Marx had not realised, he implies, that both use-value and exchange-value are predicates of human labour. It is again implausible to argue that Marx, whose entire works are underpinned by the philosophical studies of his early life, would have made such egregious error. But has he, in fact, made this error? Marx himself shows in the examples given above the products of human labour do not necessarily contain exchange-value. They only do so under capitalist production relations. Exchange-value does not, therefore, as GD asserts, encompass use-value nor is it an analytic category of the products of human labour. Exchange-value is a social category and will disappear with new social production relations.

Labour time and disposable time

We have seen from the discussion above that labour in itself does not entail the production of value. It only does so under capitalist relations of production. GD claims that not only labour but also the measuring of labour in terms of time ensures labour will express itself in the form of value as in capitalism. He concludes:

Labour time is capitalist blood labour time it is the substance of value (11).

Value, Time and Communism

If labour itself ensures the production of value, as GD argues, the question of how it is measured is a somewhat irrelevant. However it is measured, and even if it is not measured at all, we will end up with production of value, and hence with capitalist relations of production. Such an absurd and ahistorical position, which is the conclusion of GD’s arguments, is not, of course, the outcome he is aiming for. His unstated implication is that only labour, which is not measured by time, could be considered as free and could lead to communist production. This, of course, is in contradiction to Marx’s writings on post-capitalist society. In the Grundrisse Marx writes:

On the basis of communal production, the determination of time remains, of course, essential. The less time the society requires to produce wheat, cattle etc., the more time it wins for other production, material or mental. … Economy of time, to this all economy ultimately reduces itself. Society likewise has to distribute its time in a purposeful way, in order to achieve a production adequate to its overall needs; …. Thus, economy of time, along with the planned distribution of labour time among the various branches of production, remains the first economic law on the basis of communal production. It becomes law, there, to an even higher degree. However, this is essentially different from a measurement of exchange values (labour or products) by labour time (12).

Marx considers it as axiomatic that communist society will require planning and labour will have to be distributed in accordance with a social plan. To plan effectively it will be necessary to have a measure of labour and this will be by labour time. He also points out that this is essentially different from a measurement of exchange values by labour time. Why is it essentially different? It is essentially different because the social relations of production are essentially different. The similarity is only formal.

GD, completely ignores the social relations under which labour is carried out. This leads him to the ridiculous, and again ahistorical, assertion that any measurement of labour time leads back to capitalism. This leads him to also reject any planning in communist society.

Marx saw planning of production in terms of labour time a means, not only to ensure society’s needs are met, but also to bring about the reduction of necessary labour time, and increase the disposable time for human development, as the quotation above indicates. In communism, he sees the development of human capacities and powers as ends in themselves and as representing the true wealth of society. But these ends will be achieved by social allocation of labour time. As communist society progresses from the lower to the higher stages the antithesis between direct labour time and disposable time, which exists in bourgeois society, will be eroded and disappear. Direct labour time will come to serve the development of the individual as much as disposable labour time.

Distribution of the social product

We have noted above that the relations of production are primary and once they become communal the relations of distribution will become communal also and that communal production does not entail production of value. Marx, in his Critique of the Gotha Programme, makes this point clearly:

Within the cooperative society based on common ownership of the means of production, the producers do not exchange their products; just as little does the labour employed on the products appear here as the value of these products, as an objective quality possessed by them, since now, in contrast to capitalist society, individual labour no longer exists in an indirect fashion but directly as a component part of the total labour.

Clearly, in Marx’s view, once communal production is established, labour does not take the form of value and hence the law of value no longer exists. However, writing about the initial phases of communist society as it emerges from the womb of bourgeois society Marx suggested that distribution should be controlled by labour time certificates, or vouchers. He proposed this as an initial means of bringing relations of distribution into harmony with those of production.

The individual producer receives back from society – after deductions have been made – exactly what he gives to it. What he has given to it is his individual quantum of labour. For example, the social working day consists of the sum of the individual hours of work; the individual labour time of the individual producer is part of the social working day contributed by him, his share of it. He receives a certificate from society that he has furnished such and such an amount of labour (after deducting his labour for the common funds), and with this certificate he draws from the social stock of means of consumption as much as the same amount of labour costs (13).

Much of the discussion of transitional society has been taken up with this proposal. It has been attacked from many quarters as either as a disguised system of money or a value system without money which retains the Law of Value. GD takes the second view. What these critics are really arguing is that the system of distribution will determine that of production. As we have argued above this is inverting the relationship between relations of production and those of distribution. Is this a possibility?

We have argued above that in the initial phases of communism retaining money would be suicidal. Because money represents exchange value, and since it circulates and can be accumulated, it is a direct path back to capitalist production. Labour time vouchers are not, however, money nor can they be accumulated. In a short passage in Capital Volume 2 Marx writes:

In the case of socialised production the money capital is eliminated. Society distributes labour power and means of production to the different branches of production. The producers may, for all it matters, receive paper vouchers entitling them to withdraw from the social supplies of consumer goods a quantity corresponding to their labour time. These vouchers are not money. They do not circulate (14).

Marx is clear that these tokens are no more money than a theatre ticket. (15) Rather than retaining value production the labour time vouchers complement socialised production relations and represent a break with value production.

It can be seen from the quotation above that Marx categorically denies that products take the form of value in the in the lower phases of communist society. There are a number of reasons for this.

Labour in transitional society is not alienated labour

As we have mentioned above in a society of freely associated workers based on common ownership of the means of production and control of the entire production process, an individual’s labour is socially owned. It is directly social in character and belongs to the freely associated workers themselves. It is therefore not alienated labour. We have noted above how Marx showed that in earlier historical systems of production where labour was not alienated, but remained the property of the labourers, labour did not take the form of value and become attached to the products of labour as exchange-value. Labour can serve as the substance of value only if it is alienated labour. Consequently, in the transitional society described by Marx labour will not take the form of value because it is not alienated and the law of value will not operate.

Average socially necessary labour is abolished

If labour does not take the form of value products will not take the form of commodities. However, Marx’s critics assert that the actual exchange of labour time for equivalent labour time products operates on the basis of the exchange of equivalent values and amounts to a retention of the value system. Exchange-value value will, they assert, creep back through this distribution system and undermine the socialist production system.

The exchange of values is, however, only formally similar to that under capitalism. The content of the exchange is entirely different. Under capitalist production relations it is human labour in the abstract which serves as the substance of value, and it is only the socially necessary labour which determines the exchange value of commodities. Under the labour certificate distribution system, outlined by Marx, the exchange of labour and means of consumption is based on the actual labour time. Hence in the lower phases of communist society, although there is exchange it is an exchange of activities measured by actual time, not socially necessary time. The socially necessary labour time, which determines exchange value under capitalism will not exist. If socially necessary labour time is abolished, human labour in the abstract, which is the component of socially necessary time, will also be abolished. The components of exchange-value, abstract labour time and socially necessary labour time, will therefore no longer exist. Exchange-value will therefore cease to exist. Money, because it represents human labour in the abstract, will also cease to exist.

Labour becomes directly social

In capitalism, since labour takes the form of value because of its alienated nature, and the social character of labour only appears when commodities confront each other in the market. The social character of labour is therefore indirect since it is manifested behind the backs of the producers in the process of exchange within the capitalist market. The result of this is that the social character of labour appears to belong to the products of labour themselves. As Marx points out social relations in capitalism are crazy. Instead of social relations between producers, capitalism creates social relations between products or things. In Capital Volume 1 Chapter 1 he writes:

In other words, the labour of the individual asserts itself as part of the labour of society, only by means of the relations which the act of exchange establishes directly between producers. To the latter, therefore, the relations connecting the labour of one individual with that of the rest appear, not as direct social relations between individuals at work, but as what they really are, material relations between persons and social relations between things (16).

Marx’s critique of capitalism is directed primarily at the alienated nature of human relations under the system. Dead labour in the form of capital dominates living labour, exchange value dominates use value, and abstract labour dominates concrete labour. The world is upside down! In communist society, as described by Marx, things are turned the right way up. Here an individual’s labour is clearly part of the social aggregate labour, and is therefore directly social. Relationships are transparent. There is exchange of activities. So many hours of one type of work, less deductions, are exchanged for an equivalent amount of work producing food, shelter, energy etc. The social nature of work is directly apparent.

Dual character of labour abolished

Labour under capitalism exists as both concrete labour and as abstract labour. The concrete labour is that which produces use-values, such as steel, fishing, electricity etc. while labour in the abstract produces the exchange-values of these things. Human labour in the abstract is the content of abstract value. The abolition of abstract value, therefore, means the abolition of abstract labour. Only concrete labour remains. The labour employed in the production of products cannot, therefore, appear as the value of these products. The products will simply be use-values. Thus we will have production of use-values without the production of exchange-values. Something which, as we have seen, GD argues is impossible.

Labour certificates and the higher phase of communism

Labour certificates as a means of distribution is something Marx proposed for the lower phases of communism as it emerges from capitalist society. It is important to understand that this is a transitional measure which operates as a link between the initial phases of communism and full communism. It will disappear in the higher phase of communism. As more products become distributed freely increases the labour hours deducted for the social fund will increase, and the exchangeable labour hours will reduce. The value of the labour certificate will therefore reduce until it finally disappears entirely in the higher stage of communism. This distribution system is a comprehensible link from the lower phases of communism to the higher phase. Of course, as Marx puts it once the “springs of cooperative wealth flow abundantly” the actual hours of labour will also reduce.

In full communism each person will contribute according to their ability and each receive according to their needs. Such a society can only be created after a period of radical change in which the productive forces are refashioned to meet mankind’s needs, controls over population and environmental degradation established and the hangovers from capitalist society are stripped away. The defects of transitional society in general, and the labour certificate distribution method in particular, have been pointed out by many critics. Marx himself pointed out that distribution according to labour time was unjust as it took no account of an individual’s needs. Such defects, he argued, were an inevitable result of the new society having to be born out of the womb of capitalist society. However, it is completely incorrect to argue as Stalin, Trotsky (17) and others have done, in attempting to camouflage the true nature of Russian state capitalism, that Marx considered wage labour and value production would be an inevitable feature of the lower phase of communism. This is utterly untrue. The numerous quotations given above and the critical section of the Critique of the Gotha Programme refute this.

All this is, of course, not to deny that there remain a host of practical problems which transitional society will need to solve. Workers councils will have to continually struggle to plan for human needs, to increase free distribution of products and to stamp out attempts at reinstating value production. What we have at present is only a general outline of the transition from capitalist to communist society and some pointers to guide us, but this outline remains theoretically correct despite attempts to discredit it.


(1) The words communist and socialist are equivalent. Marx and Engels did not distinguish between them.

(2) Grundrisse

(3) Critique of the Gotha Programme

(4) Marx Critique of Political Economy Quoted by David Adam


(6) See “Value Time and Communism”

(7) Ibid

(8) Ibid

(9) Ibid

(10) German Ideology 1D

(11) See “Value Time and Communism”

(12) Grundrisse

(13) Marx Critique of the Gotha Programme

(14) Capital Volume 2 Chapter 18

(15) Marx praises Owen for assuming associated labour and notes the labour money token Owen proposes for workers is no more money than a theatre ticket: _“The certificate of labour is merely evidence of the part taken by the individual in the common labour and his right to a certain portion of the common produce destined for consumption.” Capital Volume 1 Chapter 3_

(16) Marx Capital Volume 1 Chapter 1, 4

(17) For example Trotsky Revolution Betrayed "The communist structure cannot, however, immediately replace bourgeois society. (…) In order to increase the productive forces it is necessary to resort to the customary norms of wage payment.”

Sunday, February 15, 2015

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