Lucio Colletti

Bernstein and the Marxism of the Second International

    E Q U I V A L E N C E  A N D  S U R P L U S  V A L U E

    If we now turn to Bernstein, we can see that the first and most important consequence of his interpretation of 'value' as a mere 'mental construction' is that -- since he is quite incapable of explaining value, and a fortiori surplus value as a result of capitalist production -- he is obliged to transfer its point of origin from the sphere of production to the sphere of circulation and exchange, as though surplus value originated, in other

    words, in a violation of commutative justice, i.e. in a violation of the law of exchange on the basis of equivalents. He thus reinstated the old mercantilist conception of 'profit upon alienation', i.e. of the origin of profit in the difference between selling and buying prices (indeed, this is why 'consumer cooperatives' assume such importance in Bernstein's thought).

        This viewpoint, which restores the schema of 'utopian socialism', and in this case Proudhon's account of exploitation as theft and hence of the contradiction between exploitation and legality, constitutes the essential core of 'revisionism'. For Marx modern social inequality or capitalist exploitation occurs simultaneously with the fullest development of juridical-political equality ; here, on the contrary, juridical-political equality -- and hence the modern representative State -- becomes the instrument for the progressive elimination and dissolution of real inequalities, which seem arbitrarily produced rather than an organic consequence of the system as such.

        The importance of this connection between equality and inequality in Marx's thought deserves emphasis here; besides its repercussions in political philosophy, which we shall examine, it also contained one of Marx's most important scientific achievements, his solution of the so-called 'paradox' of the law of value.

        The law of value, according to Smith, is the law of the exchange of equivalents. It presupposes, besides the equal value of the commodities exchanged, the equality, as Marx pointed out, of the contracting parties in the act of exchange. In exchange the owners of commodities 'mutually recognize in each other the rights of private proprietors' establishing 'a juridical relation which thus expresses itself in a contract, whether such contract be part of a developed legal system or not'.[111] Now the 'paradox' is that the production of commodities (production for exchange) becomes dominant for the first time only under purely capitalist conditions; yet just when the law of value should find its fullest application it seems to be contradicted by the existence of surplus value and exploitation, in other words, the emergence of an unequal exchange.

        Smith, of course, reacted to this 'paradox' by turning away from a labour theory of value contained, to a theory of value based on command of labour, thus relegating the validity of the law of value to precapitalist conditions. Ricardo, while he showed the difference between equal exchange of commodities for commodities, and the inequality characterizing the exchange of commodities for labour-power (specifically capitalist exchange), failed to explain 'how this exception could be in accordance with the law of value'.[112] Marx's theory explains the phenomenon of expropriation or of modern inequality precisely through the generalization of property rights or purely juridical equality.

        Capitalism for Marx is the generalization of exchange; under capitalism all important social relations become exchange relations, starting with the productive relations themselves, which presuppose the buying and selling of labour-power. With this generalization of exchange a sphere of juridical equality is created, extended for the first time to all. The modern labourer is a holder of rights, a free person, and therefore is capable of entering into a contract, just as much as the employer of labour. 'Wage labour on a national scale, and hence also the capitalist mode of production, is not possible unless the labourer is personally free. It is based on the personal freedom of the labourer'.[113] Both the seller and buyer of labour-power are juridically equal persons because they are private-proprietors, owners of commodities.

        However, according to Marx, what makes this relation of equality formal and conceals the real inequality is the fact that the property at the disposal of the worker (his own labouring capacity ) is only property in appearance. In reality, it is the opposite, a state of need, so that 'if his capacity for labour remains unsold, the labourer derives no benefit from it, but rather he will feel it to be a cruel, nature-imposed necessity that this capacity has cost for its production a definite amount of the means of subsistence and that it will continue to do so for its reproduction'.[114]

        In short, 'in the concept of the free labourer, it is already implicit', Marx writes, 'that he is a pauper, or virtually a pauper. According to his economic conditions he is pure living working capacity ', which, since it is endowed with living requirements yet deprived of the means to satisfy them, is in itself not a good or form of property, but 'indigence from all points of view'.[115]

        Hence the generalization of exchange -- the typical phenomenon of modern capitalism -- not only for the first time extends to all the sphere of juridical equality, making even the modern labourer into a free person ; it achieves this liberation in a dual way, since the extension of contractual relations to production through the buying and selling of labour power means on the one hand that the labourer is free in the sense that he is 'a free owner of his own working capacity and of his own person' and on the other that he is free in the sense of expropriated from the means of production, i.e. 'deprived of everything necessary for the realization of his labour-power'.[116]

        Now the application of equal rights or property rights to two persons, of whom only one is really a property owner, explains why this formal equality of rights is in reality the law of the stronger. This is Marx's point when he writes that 'the bourgeois economists have merely in view that production proceeds more smoothly with modern police than, e.g. under club law. They forget, however . . . that the law of the stronger, only in a different form, still survives even in their "constitutional State".'[117]

        In conclusion: the law of value which is indeed a law of exchange of equivalents, as soon as it is realized and becomes dominant, reveals its true nature as the law of surplus value and capitalist appropriation.

    The exchange of equivalents, the original operation with which we started, has now become turned round in such a way that there is only an apparent exchange. This is owing to the fact, first, that the capital which is exchanged for labour power is itself but a portion of the product of others' labour appropriated without an equivalent ; and secondly, that this capital must not only be replaced by its producer but replaced together with an added surplus. . . . At first the rights of property seemed to us to be based on a man's own labour. At least, some such assumption was necessary since only commodity owners with equal rights confronted each other, and the sole means by which a man could become possessed of the commodities of others was by alienating his own commodities; and these could be replaced by labour alone. Now, however, property turns out to be the right on the part of the capitalist to appropriate the unpaid labour of others or its product and to be the impossibility on the part of the labourer of appropriating his own product. The separation of property from labour has become the necessary consequence of a law that apparently originated in their identity.[118]

        Hence Marx's opposition to 'utopian socialism' or 'revisionism' ante litteram, which, he claimed, 'especially in its French version' (Proudhon) saw socialism 'as the realization of the ideas of bourgeois society enunciated by the French Revolution'; as though the full realization of the 'rights of man', the principles of 1789 -- or, as we would now say, the republican Constitution -- could dissolve the modern social inequalities which these legal and constitutional principles have claimed were the precondition for their own appearance, and which they have reinforced ever since. These socialists

    affirm that exchange, exchange-value, etc. originally (in time) or in their concept (in their adequate form) are a system of liberty and equality for all, but have since been adulterated by money, capital, etc. . . . The answer to them is that exchange-value, or more precisely the monetary system, is in fact the system of equality and liberty, and that what seems to them to distort the subsequent development of the system is distortions immanent to that system itself, precisely the realization of the equality and freedom which reveal themselves as inequality and despotism. . . . To want exchange-value not to develop into capital, or the labour, which produces exchange-value, not to become wage labour, is as pious as it is stupid. What distinguishes these gentlemen from the bourgeois apologists is, firstly, their awareness of the contradictions contained in the system; but secondly, the utopianism which prevents them from discerning the necessary distinction between the real and ideal forms of bourgeois society, and hence makes them want to undertake the vain task of trying to re-realize the ideal expression itself, while in fact this is only a reflected image of existing reality.[119]

        Legal reforms cannot, therefore, grasp or transform the fundamental mechanisms of the system. This is so because, as Rosa Luxemburg acutely pointed out in the polemic against Bernstein, what distinguishes bourgeois society from preceding class societies, ancient or feudal, is the fact that class domination does not rest on 'inherited' or unequal rights as previously, but on real economic relations mediated by equality of rights.

    No law obliges the proletariat to submit itself to the yoke of capitalism. Poverty, the lack of means of production, obliges the proletariat to submit itself to capital. . . . And no law in the world can give to the proletariat the means of production while it remains in the framework of bourgeois society, for no laws, but economic development, has torn the means of production from the producers. . . . Neither is the exploitation inside the system of wage labour based on laws. The level of wages is not fixed by legislation but by economic factors. The phenomenon of capitalist exploitation does not rest on a legal disposition. . . . In short, the fundamental relation of domination of the capitalist class cannot be transformed by means of legislative reforms, on the basis of capitalist society because these relations have not been introduced by bourgeois laws, nor have they received the form of such laws.

        In our legislative system, as Rosa Luxemburg points out, not one legal formulation of the present class domination can be found. 'How then can one overcome wage slavery gradually, by legal means, when this has never been expressed in legislation?' That, she continues, is

    why people who pronounce themselves in favour of the method of legislative reform in place of and in contradistinction to the conquest of political power and social revolution, do not really choose a more tranquil, calmer and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal. Instead of taking a stand for the establishment of a new society, they stand for surface modifications of the old society. If we follow the political conceptions of revisionism, we arrive at the same conclusion that is reached when we follow the economic theories. They aim not towards the realization of socialism, but the reform of capitalism, not the suppression of the system of wage labour but the 'diminution' of exploitation, that is the suppression of the abuses of capitalism instead of the suppression of capitalism itself.[120]

     S O C I A L C A P I T A L '

        106 This point was developed by Lukács in History and Class Consciousness, op. cit.
        107 Marx, Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen Ökonomie, Berlin, 1953, p. 98: 'In conditions of communal production the determination of time obviously remains essential. The less time it takes society to produce corn, cattle, etc., the more time it gains for other forms of production, material or spiritual. As in the case of a single individual, the universality of his development, of his pleasures, of his activity, depends upon the way he economizes his time. The economy of time, ultimately all economy is reduced to this. Society must distribute its time functionally so as to obtain a production in accordance with all its needs; so the individual must also divide his time correctly to acquire knowledge in the right proportions and to fulfil the various demands on his activity. In conditions of production in common the first economic law remains, therefore, the economy of time, the planned distribution of labour-time between the different branches of production. This law becomes even more important under these conditions. But all this is quite distinct from the measurement of exchange-values (labours or labour products) by "labour-time".'

        108 G. della Volpe, Chiave della dialettica storica, Rome, 1964, p. 32 n.
        109 G. Pietranera, Capitalismo ed economia, Turin, 1966, p. 236.
        110 Lenin, Selected Works, op. cit., Vol. II, pp. 342-3.

        112 Marx, Theorien über den Mehrwert, Part III, op. cit., p. 170.
        113 ibid., p. 424.
        114 Marx, Capital, Vol. I, p. 173.       115 Marx, Grundrisse, op. cit., p. 497.

        116 Marx, Capital, Vol. I, p. 169.
        117 Marx, 'Introduction' to Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, op. cit., p. 199.
        118 Marx, Capital, Vol. I, pp. 583-4.

        119 Marx, Grundrisse, op. cit., p. 160.