Photo: Ismael Francisco/ Cubadebate.

One of the most discussed issues around the construction of socialism has referred over the years to the permanence of monetary-commodity relations in this process and its consequences for the new society that one wishes to develop.

The opinion of Marx and Engels on the subject was based on considering the disappearance of the market in socialism, taking into account the high socialization of production that had to be achieved in the process of capitalist development and, therefore, the possibility of a direct expression of the social character of labor when the means of production were nationalized. without the need for commercial exchange for it. In this regard, Engels would posit "As soon as society takes possession of the means of production and applies them to it, socializing them directly, the work of each individual, however much its specifically useful character differs, will acquire in advance and directly the character of social labor." [1]

Subsequently, Lenin's initial interpretation of the existence of monetary-commodity relations in socialism did not differ from that previously expressed by Marx and Engels.

However, with the triumph of the October Revolution, for the first time in history, the construction of a new society free from the exploitation of man by man began, posing – in practice – the issue of commodity monetary relations in the construction of socialism.

In these novel circumstances, although Marx in his 1875 work "Critique of the Gotha Program"[2] had already established the need for a period of transition between capitalism and socialism in which elements of capitalist society would still be present, he could not anticipate the high complexity that this process would entail. in the most backward country in Europe at the time.

A few months after the revolutionary triumph in Russia, the country was plunged into a bloody civil war, which would last for three years. At that stage the economy was necessarily put in function of defense, which demanded the application of expeditious extra-economic procedures to ensure, through the requisition of food and other vital resources, the survival of the Red Army, which entailed postponing -in practice- the beginning of socialist construction.

The economic policy applied at this stage – known as war communism – led, by imperative circumstances, to the almost total disappearance of commodity relations in the economy of that time. This created the illusion that the commercial categories could be dispensed with in the short term, even to the elimination of money. [3]

With the end of the civil war arose the need to restore the country's economy, which was completely devastated. The analysis developed by Lenin then took into account that the basic economic structure of Russia was the small production of a huge mass of peasants, who had to be encouraged through freedom of trade, together with the inevitable development of capitalism that would result, so that there was no other way out than to recognize monetary-commodity relations. , opening a space for its development to reach even a certain form of state capitalism as the only alternative in those circumstances, in which the support of the peasantry and financing were demanded to survive. [4]

Thus emerged in 1921 the so-called New Economic Policy (NEP for its acronym in English) which Lenin always conceived as an inevitable tactical setback to save the country in exceptional circumstances. In this regard, it would be pointed out "Exchange means freedom of trade, it is capitalism. This is useful for us insofar as it helps us to fight against the dispersion of the small producer, and to a certain degree, against bureaucratism. To what extent, practice, experience will prove it." [5] The transitory character of these concessions would also be clearly recognized when it was stated "We have retreated towards state capitalism. But we have retreated to the right extent. We now retreat into state regulation of trade. But we will retreat to the right extent. There are already signs that the end of this withdrawal is in sight, that the possibility of ceasing this withdrawal is glimpsed in the not too distant future." [6]

For many years after the introduction of the NEP it was intended to give this specific economic policy, of a concrete historical conjuncture, a universal character, as if it were a regularity of socialism. In this regard Ernesto Che Guevara would sharply point out "As you can see the economic and political situation of the Soviet Union made it necessary to withdraw from Lenin's speech. Therefore, this policy can be characterized as a tactic closely linked to the historical situation of the country, and, therefore, not all its statements should be given universal validity." [7]

After Lenin's death, the discussion on the action of the law of value in socialism and its relationship with planning continued for some years, linking this debate on economic policy with the one that developed around the development strategy to be implemented in the USSR.

As is known, various positions clashed. On the one hand there were the theses defended by the Bolshevik leader Nicholas Bukharin, who maintained a position that recognized in essence the validity of the law of value, while defending a gradual industrialization based on a non-confrontation with the peasantry which he considered (that) could even be enriched. [8] On the other hand, there were the ideas of Eugene Preobrazensky published in his 1926 book "The New Economy",[9] in which he defended the extraction of the agricultural economic surplus through a non-equivalent exchange with socialist industry, conforming what he called the law of original socialist accumulation, which would act imposing itself on the action of the law of value.

In these debates[10] in which many Soviet economists and politicians participated, however, the valuation of monetary-commodity relations as something inherited from capitalism and not essentially associated with the development of socialism itself prevailed.

Unfortunately, these discussions were cut short.

The solution to the contradictions that were generated by the application of the NEP and the tensions associated with them, did not receive the political treatment envisaged by Lenin,[11] but were faced with political measures of coercion that characterized the process of forced collectivization of the land carried out mainly between 1929 and 1936, based on a polemical interpretation of the class struggle raised in the party led by J. Stalin. This process coincided with an accelerated development of heavy industry, starting with the first five-year plan of the USSR approved for the period 1928-1932.

Thus, by coercive and extra-economic means, the capture of the resources of accumulation, generated to a greater extent by the peasant economy, took place in order to undertake Soviet industrialization.

While this development occurred, a space was not developed for the theoretical clarification of monetary-mercantile relations, limiting the discussion -from the 30s of the last century- to address separately the use of commodity categories, according to the principles of economic calculation. [12]

The conceptual vacuum that this represented would have important consequences for the construction of socialism in the USSR and in the countries that embarked on this path some time later.

It would not be until years later, once the Second World War ended, that a scientific debate on the subject was called again from the need to give a coherent response to a core issue in the construction of socialism, exposing the conclusions of that analysis by Stalin in his well-known work of 1952. "The Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR." This document gave an explanation to the permanence of monetary-mercantile relations in socialism from the existence of different forms of property, while the presence of mercantile categories within state property was attributed a formal character and only linked to the effects of statistical-accounting calculation.

This interpretation would only be gradually overcome in the course of the debates that took place in the context of the economic reform to be implemented some time later and that lasted in the USSR from 1958 to 1965.

An explanation of the permanence of monetary-commodity relations in socialism was thus achieved on the basis of the persistence of the social division of labour, the insufficient level of development of the productive forces and, therefore, the impossibility of achieving a direct expression of the social character of labour. , which caused the presence of a relative economic isolation between the producers, who even without private ownership of the means of production, had to confront through the market the social utility of the product of their labor, which thus appeared as an indirectly social labor. [13]

Although this explanation was a great conceptual contribution, its acceptance did not solve the problem associated with the correct interpretation of the contradictory character of the market in socialism.

(To be continued)

[1] Federico Engels Anti-Dühring, Ediciones Pueblos Unidos, Montevideo 1960,  p. 376.

[2] This work was published by Engels only in 1891.

[3] These ideas were plagued in the book "The ABCs of Communism" by Eugene Preobrazensky and Nicolas Bukharin, published in 1920.

[4] "The replacement of the quota system by the tax in kind is first and foremost a political question, since the essence of it lies in the attitude of the working class towards the peasants." V. I. Lenin Remarks at the Tenth Congress of the CP(b) of Russia, Selected Works in Three Volumes, Political Editor, Moscow, 1961, volume 3, p. 604.

[5] V.I. Lenin "On the Tax in Kind", Op. Cit., p. 659

[6] V.I. Lenin "On the Significance of Gold Now and After the Complete Victory of Socialism" Op. Cit. p. 697.

[7] Ernesto Che Guevara "Sobre el sistema presupuestaria de financiamiento", in El Gran Debate sobre la economía en Cuba 1963-1964, Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, Havana, 2004, p. 68.

[8] A summary of Bukharin's ideas can be found in Moshe Lewin "Stalinism and the Seeds of Soviet Reform" Pluto Press and M. E. Sharp, London and New York, 1991, Chapter 1. See also Stephen Cohen's "Bukharin and the Bolshevik Revolution. A Politial Biography 1888-1938" Oxford University Press, 1980.

[9] See E. Preobrazensky "La Nueva Económica", Editorial Polémica, Havana, 1968. It should also be seen by Nicolai Bukharin, August Thalheimer and Evgueni Preobrajenski "The controversy about industrialization in the USSR", Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, Havana, 1969, volume 2.

[10] A synthesis of these debates can be seen in José Luis Rodríguez "The collapse of socialism in Europe" Ruth Casa Editorial y Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, Havana, 2016, chapter 1, sections III and IV.

[11] See V.I. Lenin's "On Cooperation", Op. Cit.

[12] In essence, economic calculation involved covering expenses with income and generating a surplus; it gave greater operational independence to the company and was based on the stimulation and material responsibility of producers as well as indirect control through economic-financial mechanisms.

[13] An interpretation of the origin of monetary-commodity relations in socialism based on this approach is found in José Acosta Santana "Teoría y práctica de los mecanismos de dirección en Cuba", Editorial de Ciencias Sociales, Havana, 1982, chapter 1.

(Taken from Cubaperiodistas)