Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Finance and Industry: Was Lenin an O. & M. Man? (1967)

The Finance and Industry column from the February 1968 issue of the Socialist Standard

Was Lenin an O. & M. Man?
The Russian governors have got themselves into the position of having to justify everything they do by what Lenin said. Thus a recent pamphlet put out by the Novosti Press Agency called Material and Moral Incentives under Socialism by Mikhail Laptin attacks “wage-levelling” with quotes from Lenin. The problem the Russian propaganda machine faces here is the vague link in many people’s minds between Socialism and equality while in Russia inequality flourishes.

The titles of some of the chapters of this pamphlet are revealing enough: Wage Levelling or Material Incentive? Improving the Wage System; Differentiation of Wages; Rate Fixing; Bonuses for the Best. But let Laptin speak for himself.
  Wage levelling is incompatible with scientific progress and the wellbeing of all members of society. Should an honest worker and an idler receive the same wages, this would frustrate personal interest in raising labour productivity. in expanding and improving social production. Wage levelling would hamper the workers’ initiative, encourage passive attitudes and adversely affect production.
  The wage-rate policy of the first years of Soviet power resulted in unwarranted restrictions on the earnings of certain workers, thus creating artificial barriers to raising labour productivity. Wage rates were brought so close that most workers had no desire to improve their skill or to do complicated or physically difficult work. On the contrary, workers sought to get a quiet job, such as factory watchman, or leave the factory altogether.
  Lenin wrote that it was necessary to study scientific achievements in analyzing mechanical motions during work, so as to eliminate superfluous and awkward movements, find the most efficient ways of doing the work and introduce the best system of control and recording of results.
If these passages show nothing else they show that the Russian employers look on their workers in the same way as our employers look on us: as lazy and greedy people who will only work when forced or enticed to. Time and motion, speed-up, Taylorism and the like have always been looked on with suspicion — and rightly — by workers. Laptin says this suspicion is not justified in Russia as the means of production there belong to the people. But if this were so, why don't Russian workers recognise it? Why do they have to be convinced of it? Why do they need “material incentives” to work for themselves? Of course the answer is that this is not so. The worker in Russia does not own the means of production; he is a wage-worker selling his labour power to live. Where labour power is a commodity its price is governed by definite economic laws. Over a hundred years ago. in an address to the International Working Men's Association (later published as Value, Price and Profit), Marx explained this on the very point we are discussing:
  . . . as the costs of producing labouring powers of different quality differ, so must differ the values of the labouring powers employed in different trades. The cry for an equality of wages rests, therefore, upon a mistake, is an insane wish never to be fulfilled. It is an offspring of that false and superficial radicalism that accepts premises and tries to evade conclusions. Upon the basis of the wages system the value of labouring power is settled like that of every other commodity; and as different kinds of labouring power have different values, or require different quantities of labour for their production, they must fetch different prices in the labour market. To clamour for equal or even equitable redistribution on the basis of the wages system is the same as to clamour for freedom on the basis of the slavery system. What you think just or equitable is out of the question. The question is: What is necessary and unavoidable with a given system of production?
Given the wages system equality of wages (or wage levelling) is impossible. The early utopian experiments of the Bolsheviks failed as the economic laws of capitalism asserted themselves. Lenin admitted that this was a retreat. His successors have made a virtue of necessity. For Laptin is not one of those Marx was getting at. He thinks that it is equality of wages that is not “just and equitable”! He likes the wages system as it is, inequalities and all!

Marx was not for equal or for unequal wages. He was against the whole wages system and ended his address with this appeal to the working class:
  Instead of the conservative motto, “A fair day's wage for a fair days work!“ they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword. “Abolition of the wages system!"

What is Money?
The recent White Paper on decimal currency means that by 1971 the money tokens, inherited in a simplified form from feudal times, will be replaced by tokens based on a decimal system (They’re still arguing over which). The government will merely be changing the face-values and names of the paper notes and metallic coins that circulate as money. This it can do as these values and, names are matters of convention.

It is impossible to understand the role of money tokens today without realising the origin of money as a commodity. Out of the simple exchange of commodities one commodity became money, that is, the prices of the other commodities came to be expressed in terms of this money-commodity which could be exchanged for any of them. Various things, including cattle and even human beings, have functioned as money. But the most convenient in the end have always been the precious metals silver and gold. These can express a high value with a little weight and are easily divisible. The price of other commodities was at first expressed directly as a weight of the precious metal, as with shekels in the bible. This too is the origin of the name “pound”. Later the metals were coined by being stamped with the mark of the state that issued them. From this point on exists the possibility of a divergence between the face-value and the real value of the metal. This happened both as the coin lost weight through wear and tear and through deliberate debasement by the state. So that, over the years, the names like pound, crown, florin, shilling and penny ceased to signify actual measures of weight and became the names given to certain weights of the metal in coinage as fixed by the state.

The next step in the evolution of money is the substitution in circulation of tokens for the money-commodity. First underweight coins circulated for the full-weight coins and then subsidiary metals like copper and finally almost worthless paper. This is so at present where as tokens for gold, the international money-commodity, paper notes and metallic coins circulate. In Britain the basic coin metal is copper alloyed with zinc, tin or nickel.

It would be wrong to think of money as merely a medium of exchange. The tokens can do this well enough on their own. Another function of money is that of being a standard of price. This, however, since they are almost worthless, the tokens cannot do. It is only because they are tokens for gold that they perform this function. Gold of course is by no means worthless. It is a commodity having a value of its own independent of human will. The value of gold is fixed in the same way as that of other commodities by the amount of socially-necessary labour embodied in it and exchanges with them on this basis.

To say that the paper notes and metallic coins that circulate at present are tokens for gold is not to say that there is the equivalent in gold of their face-values lying in the vaults of the Bank of England. This is not, nor need it be, so. However, the law of value can no more be defied than the law of gravity. If the face-value of the tokens is more than the amount of gold needed to circulate what commodities there are, then the tokens will come to represent a smaller amount of gold. Which means that prices will rise, or, as they say today, the “purchasing power of money” will decline. This in fact is one of the reasons for the rise in internal prices that has been going on in Britain since the beginning of the last war. The pound note of today is not equivalent to the pound note of 1947 or 1957 or even 1966.

The recent craze for gold memorial medals well shows what the money-commodity is. Until the government put a stop to it these gold metals were sold as an “investment”. Apart from speculation about a possible rise in the price of gold, capitalists know that gold can be expected to keep its value while its tokens can not. It is the same in France. Over Christmas there was heavy buying of gold. One of the reasons was a fear that the Gaullists might lose the coming election for, as one paper put it, “gold remains the traditional hedge against political uncertainty in this country”. If they have to hold their wealth idle as money capitalists prefer the real stuff.
Adam Buick