LeftEast was a cosponsor of an online conference on non-capitalist mixed economies from June 23–26 2021. Co-sponsors of the conference included the Karl Polanyi Center, Eszmélet Journal, Social Theory College in Budapest, Polanyi Institute, Geopolitical Economy Research Group, Institute of Political History Social Theory Research Group, The Study Group on Global Labour History and Social Conflicts – IHC Universidade Nova de Lisboa, Left East, Institutul pentru Solidaritate Socială, Working Group for Public Policy, Helyzet, Fordulat, CriticAtac, Transform Europe, and the International Karl Polanyi Society. A selection of the talks has been published by the Eszmélet Foundation in a special issue of Eszmélet (2021), entitled “In Need of Alternatives: Problems and Issues of Non-capitalist Mixed Economies”. We offer our readers the chapters of this volume as a special series on LeftEast, which will be published on Wednesdays of the following weeks. In this post, Radhika Desai proposes a Marxist perspective on money and dwells on its role in a socialist society.
As theorized by Marx, money performs many functions under capitalism. It is a measure of value or unit of account, means of circulation, means of payment, store of value and world money. In this short paper, I argue that money returns to its original form, a form of account keeping, in socialism. Understanding its working there provides us a unique ringside seat on its abuse in contemporary capitalism to facilitate rentier activity and strangle productive activity and the pervasive misunderstandings about money that pervade not only mainstream but also ‘Marxist Economics’.
This paper is preliminary and exploratory. It looks at the role of money in the Soviet economic system with a perspective developed in my writings on geopolitical economy and on money, financialization and its role in the gold and dollar systems aided by the understandings developed by Marx, Polanyi and Keynes. It is also related to a planned work on Marx as a monetary theorist. In researching and writing these works, I have come to question the widespread assumption that money in capitalism is a commodity and that Marx believed it was so.
Marx, Money and Commodities
I began questioning this understanding through several readings of Capital. Elements of the historical discussion of gold and silver coined money in the chapter on money may appear to give superficial support for these views. However, in reality, Marx made it clear that even precious metal coins are money, have currency and acceptance, because they are issued by legitimate political authority, not because of their commodity, that is, gold content. This meant that even gold coins are ‘symbols of themselves’, capable of being replaced by other symbols, including paper notes (Marx 1867/1977, 222–223).
Moreover, Marx’s critique of Say’s Law directly opposes money and commodities. The views that money is a commodity and that Marx thought it was, became even less tenable in my later work. I wrote about the workings of the two principal international monetary systems, the gold-sterling system and the dollar system in my Geopolitical Economy: After US Hegemony, Globalization and Empire (Desai 2013, see also Desai – Hudson 2021) and explored the subjects further in other works on aspects of the thought of Keynes and Polanyi’s (Desai 2009; 2018b; 2020a). This is particularly important given that these mistaken ideas hinge centrally on Marx’s discussion of the centrality of gold in international payments. What most writers fail to understand is that the reason why Marx underlines this is that precisely because money is not a commodity, but a state-organized institution. As such, it cannot exist at the world level because there is no world state. Precisely because there is no world money, international trade amounts to barter between commodities, with gold bullion, a commodity, serving as the means of exchange.
My work on Karl Polanyi clarified matters further. Like land and labor, Polanyi insisted that money was a ‘fictitious commodity’. Many imagine that the critique of capitalism Polanyi founded on this view was unconnected with, if not fundamentally opposed to, Marx’s analysis of capitalism. This could not be farther from the truth. Marx, like the classical tradition of political economy, took for granted that land, labor and money were not ordinary commodities and devoted considerable effort to discovering the special laws that determined their prices (Desai 2018a), laws that were unlike those that determined the prices of commodities based on their value. Not being produced for sale as commodities were, these ‘special’ commodities did not have value.
Further research showed that the term ‘fictitious commodities’, first used by Ferdinand Tönnies (Dale 2010, 71), became necessary only after the advent of neoclassical economics in the 1870s. It treated everything that was bought and sold as a commodity, irrespective of whether it was produced for sale, let alone whether it was produced at all. Those, like Tönnies, who knew their Marx and their classical political economy, could only look askance at this theoretical move and qualified it by coining the term ‘fictitious commodities’ (Desai 2020a).
Moreover, Polanyi’s understanding of capitalism’s problems as being rooted in the treatment of land, labor and money as commodities is no stranger to Marx’s discussion of the contradictions of capitalism arising from value production. In this analysis, Marx focused on the core realms of production and realization, exploring the contradictions generated there and how they led to crises. However, there is plenty of evidence that he was aware that imposing commodity dynamics on fictitious commodities also involved capitalism in further contradictions, which also became sources of crises (Desai 2021a). While Marx did not get down to exploring these, famously leaving his work unfinished, Karl Polanyi’s signature work, The Great Transformation, I have argued, is a vast rumination on the commodification of money and its role in the collapse of nineteenth century civilization. This theme is not incidental but central to that work. It opens with the sentence “Nineteenth Century civilization has collapsed”.
“Though the gold standard, the apex structure commodifying money, was only one of four institutions whose collapse brought down nineteenth-century civilization (the others being the selfregulating market, the liberal state and the balance of power), its collapse was ‘the proximate cause of the catastrophe’. By the time it failed, most of the other institutions ‘had been sacrificed in a vain effort to save it’. So, money’s commodification structured the book’s master narrative.
Commodified money’s rigours being intolerable for societies, central banks created and controlled national token or fiat moneys for domestic circulation. However, central banks also commodified money, tying token moneys to the gold standard. They transmitted as well as moderated commodified money’s pressures on national money. As such, central banks both enabled the (only partial) commodification of money and then provided (only partial) protection against it” (Desai 2021a, 78, quoting Polanyi 1944/1957, 3).
This, in the briefest outline, is the route through which I have come to grasp that Marx rightly understood that money is an ancient social and political institution that capitalism inherits. Having done so, it must adapt it to its own needs and these needs are contradictory. On the one hand, it must force money to behave as if it were a commodity and there is considerable historical evidence that this has never been entirely successful. On the other hand, it must make it serve the needs of ever expanding accumulation. And there is also much historical evidence to show that the more it does so, the more it configures it in ways that anticipate socialism. Both these things are beyond the grasp of most ‘Marxist economists’ who have historically chosen to retreat from Marx’s insights into neoclassical economics, little more than what Marx called ‘vulgar economy’ tricked out in academically respectable garb.
Money and ‘Marxist Economics’
Gladstone said that “even love has not turned more men into fools than has meditation on the nature of money” (quoted by Marx 1857/1970, 64). Keynes is supposed to have said “I know of only three people who really understand money. A professor at another university, one of my students and a rather junior clerk at the Bank of England”. If money has been particularly hard to understand in modern times, it is precisely because capitalism requires contradictory things from money. Economists who seek to understand money and bankers and central bankers who seek to create and operate it in and for capitalism must, therefore, necessarily misunderstand it and mis- and dis-organize it, leading to crises.
That is why such real insights we have into the nature and functioning of money do not amount to theory so much as elements of a history. John Hicks rightly pointed out that “monetary theory” is “less abstract than most economic theory. It cannot avoid a relation to reality, which in other economic theory is missing. It belongs to monetary history, in a way that economic theory does not always belong to economic history” (Hicks, 1967, 136).
While bourgeois economists and bankers must necessarily misunderstand money, ‘Marxist economists’ have historically elected to do so, despite having options. As I have long argued (Desai 2010; 2016; 2017; 2020b: for this paragraph and the next), no sooner had neoclassical economics emerged to counter the radical implications of classical political economy and eventually Marxism in the late nineteenth century, rather than attacking it, most Marxists pursued what Bukharin criticized as “a policy of theoretical reconciliation” (Bukharin 1914/1972, 163). It involved vainly attempting to fit Marxism into the theoretically and methodologically antithetical framework of neoclassical economics.
The result is what we know as ‘Marxist economics’ (Marx was not an ‘economist’ but a critical political economist). It systematically misunderstands Marx’s historical analysis of capitalism as contradictory value production. They cannot appreciate the historical as well as the holistic approach that Marx inherited from classical political economy and which he massively improved with his Hegelian method of placing dialectics, and therefore contradiction, at its core. If Marx’s genius lay in identifying the contradictions of value production, Marxist economists have tried to erase them and, in the process, questioned the utility of Marx’s analysis of value itself. They claim, quite incredibly (Desai 2010) that Marx did not believe the paucity of demand is a (let alone the) contradiction of capitalism. They also claim that he was wrong to think that the rate of profit falls (on the absurd grounds that capitalists would not invest if they expected their profits to fall even though Marx fended off precisely this objection). Finally, they claim that his value analysis suffers from a ‘transformation problem’: the problem was Ricardo’s, and it was actually resolved by Marx.
If this were not enough, like neoclassical economists, most Marxist economists also treat money as just another commodity and insist, even more mistakenly, that Marx believed it was one. Not only do they speak as if modern capitalist economies were barter economies, which they would be if money was a commodity, but they ignore Marx’s critique of Say’s Law on precisely this point (a point also made by Keynes in his discussion of a monetary economy).
The denial of contradictions also led to the near complete neglect of the role of the state in managing them both in domestic and international spheres, and to the paucity of a specifically Marxist theorization of capitalism’s geopolitical economy, the international struggles in which capitalism’s contradictions systematically involve capitalist countries. I have shown in several writings, most recently in my reflections on Marx’s remarks on the US protectionist economist Henry Carey (Desai 2021b, following up on my analysis of Marx’s treatment of the German protectionist economist Friedrich List, Desai 2012), Marx well understood international struggles and its material basis. He simply did not have time to develop his ideas about them. It is also little appreciated that the works of the next generation of Marxists on imperialism were the first major works on the international relations of the capitalist world.
The failure to understand Marx’s geopolitical economy, ‘the relations of producing nations’ driven by what Trotsky would later call uneven and combined development (Trotsky 1932) has combined with the failure to follow Marx’s historical understanding of money to a final important misunderstanding. Most Marxist economists consider contemporary Anglo-American financial systems as the acme of financial sophistication when Marx’s view was the exact opposite. According to Marx, capitalism inherited an archaic, essentially medieval, financial system privileging the lender and suited to speculation, usury and plunder. Capitalism needed to, and would, Marx argued, convert it into a system that privileged the (capitalist) borrower and was designed to facilitate capitalist production (Hudson 2010).
Elaborating on Marx’s anticipations, Hilferding analyzed the full flowering of this adaptation in his Finance Capital (Desai 2021c; 2021d) and its geopolitical economy of uneven and combined development. The adaptation of finance to the needs of capital accumulation took place not in the original homeland of capitalism, Britain, but in the contender industrialisers who challenged Britain’s original industrial dominance, developing most fully in Germany. By contrast, the British financial system, though it presided over the imperial gold-sterling system of world money, remained archaic, contributing to Britain’s relative industrial decline (Ingham 1984 remains the key source here).
The end of the sterling system in the Thirty Years’ Crisis (1914– 1945, see Mayer 1981) of capitalism and imperialism may have completed the transition, requiring Britain to eventually adopt it as the costs of relative decline mounted. However, a twist of history prevented the completion of this transformation. US policy-making and business elites had desired since the early twentieth century to establish a world dominance of the sort Britain had enjoyed in the nineteenth century, if not by acquiring a territorial empire of comparable size, impossible in the already multi- and pluripolar world, then at least by making the US dollar the world’s money. The failure of this project, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, I have analyzed in my Geopolitical Economy (Desai 2013). Suffice it to say here that US attempts to continue trying to achieve this objective after the first post-war attempt failed in 1971 involved transforming its financial sector.
Hilferding had analyzed it, alongside the German case, as an instance of ‘finance capital’, of a financial sector designed for productive expansion, not speculation. Depression Era regulation had made it even more so. After 1971, however, re-constructing the dollar’s world role involved the US financial sector presiding over what I have elsewhere called the series of dollar denominated financializations and that required the transformation of US finance back to the British style archaic financial sector (Desai 2013, Desai – Hudson 2021).
The inability to understand this has led mainstream economists and their Marxist followers to see the Anglo-American financial system as the acme of financial sophistication when, in fact, it was those of the contender industrialisers that were far more historically advanced. So much so that in both Marx’s anticipations and Hilferding’s analysis, they were beginning to form the foundation for socialism. In effect, they lay the foundation for understanding how the pressures created by dialectic of uneven and combined development in the geopolitical economy of capitalism themselves force capitalist economies to create the institutions that lead towards the foundations of a socialist economy, including in the realms of money and finance.
Money and Socialism
Given how routinely the Soviet economy is rubbished and dismissed in our time, it is interesting to note that the Soviet monetary system was so successful that it prompted a study published in 1977 by the US National Bureau of Economic Research. It asked how the Soviet system created and maintained “the impressive degree of price stability since the middle fifties” largely through “the successful management of money” (Garvey 1977, 1). Though Garvey does not mention it, the traumatic inflation of the 1970s in his own country could hardly have been far from his mind. Meanwhile, Stefan Varga noted in his remarkable reflections on the Marxist theory of money and Soviet monetary institutions and practices, the Soviet Union arrived at its techniques of monetary management only after “years of experimentation”, rather than through any theoretical preparation (Varga 1957, 246). While such experimentation was based on insights, such as Lenin’s on the necessity of the nationalization and unification of the financial sector immediately after the October Revolution (Garvey 1977, 3), it also involved the substantial modification of theoretical expectations that money would be abolished in socialism (Varga 1957, 237–238).
So how did money function in the Soviet Union and what might this tell us about money in societies that are building socialism? Will it be abolished in Communism? One thing that follows from the foregoing is that as societies advance toward socialism, money will be liberated from the contradictions capitalism involves it in by forcing commodity dynamics on it. It will increasingly become a means, not an end. In a capitalist economy, the independence and spontaneity of money reflects the vesting of production decisions in the hands of capitalists (in the private sector at least, and many public sector spending decisions are also made in accordance with the wishes of the capitalist class). So, in the words of Garvey,
“… the crucial difference between the Soviet Union and nonsocialist countries is not the absence of mechanisms linking extension of credit and thus the creation of money to liquidity of banks or the use of interest rates as a means of controlling the volume and the use of credit, but, rather, the basically different role assigned to money and credit for achieving economic goals. The implementary role of credit and the derivative nature of money flows are inherent in a system in which production objectives are stipulated in physical terms, and money and credit are supplied in quantities and through channels designed to achieve output patterns and uses determined by planners” (Garvey 1977, 4).
Or, as Varga has it, “the value of money in socialism is secured through state-determined prices and economic balance. It is clear: this manner of securing the value of money is fundamentally different from that used in capitalism. Of course, this does not mean that the money of socialism could perform its functions worse than the money of capitalism. The changed economic structure has led to a change in the functions to be carried out by money, and these could not be fulfilled at all under socialism in the case of a real gold standard” (Varga 1957, 232) or, for that matter today under central banks’ efforts to impose commodity dynamics on money.
Money in socialism is “needed as the universal accounting equivalent and as a medium for achieving planners’ objectives with greater flexibility than direct barter would permit”, though it cannot be used by private actors to interfere with planning (Garvey 1977, 4). As socialism advances, money will progressively cease representing command over abstract labor and value because, increasingly, the economy will produce use values with concrete labor not of wage workers but citizen producers whose incomes will not be the price of their labor power but the discharge of the state’s obligation to them. Hence Varga’s insistence that the payment of wages will not use money in its function as a medium of circulation (in this case purchasing a fictitious commodity) but a means of payment, discharging an obligation (Varga 1957, 247). Not only will money not be required to behave like a commodity but it will no longer be a form of holding wealth (Varga 1957, 251–252) since all ‘accumulation’ in socialist societies takes the form of production of producers’ goods and money only serves here to keep an account of it.
Money, therefore, will be reduced, or should we say elevated, to its most rational function: as a unit of account. As such, it will facilitate planned production. It will function as a system for determining administered prices, reflecting on the one hand, conscious social valuation on the goods that its productive enterprises and consumers need and, on the other hand, the natural/technical constraints of their costs and supply. Prices will essentially signal the terms on which producers and consumers will access production and consumption goods, respectively.
Money will also function as a means of payment that distributes the social product among workers for their consumption and it will serve as a means of circulation when the workers and citizens purchase the goods and services of their choice with the money so allotted to them. Meanwhile, the allocation of the social product to productive enterprises as inputs will see money functioning as a unit of account. In these ways, money will express the relations among and, in the form of corrected administered prices, serve to correct imbalances among these three spheres of production, investment and consumption.
In light of the discussion in the first two sections of this paper, we may make five further observations about the differences between money under capitalism and under socialism.
Firstly, as Marx understood, money was an ancient social and political institution. We know today it goes back to the clay tablets recording debts in the ancient Near East. It will survive well into the transition to socialism as it did and does in societies building socialism. Marx’s distinction between labor, which exists ‘independently of any specific social formation’ and is, therefore, a transhistorical category, and capitalist wage labor, which is a historical category referring to the form labor takes in a specific historical form of society, can be analogously applied to money and capitalist money. Like labor, money is transhistorical, like wage labor, capitalist money is the form money must take in societies that are organized on a capitalist basis.
Without referring to Marx’s distinction between transhistorical and historical categories, Varga distinguishes not only between capitalist and socialist money but also capitalist and late capitalist money (Varga 1957, 242–244. Further discussion of the latter distinction must await another work).
As we have seen, Marx was clear that money was not a commodity, noting that even gold and silver coins are accepted not because they contain this or that amount of the precious metal, but because they are minted by the political authority that guarantees their worth in metal. Money was, at best, a ‘special commodity’. However, capitalism required it to function as a commodity and sought compel it to do so through its laws and institutions but it never quite succeeds.
Capitalist systems have only the bluntest instruments – such as the disastrous currency school restriction on the issue of money in the era of what even Varga erroneously calls gold money or monetarism today – to impose commodity dynamics on money. They need to make ‘fiat money’ behave like a commodity (in reality, the adjective is redundant as there is no other kind of money). However, such means incurred the dangers of inflation and deflation. Moreover, there is no world state in capitalism and thus no world money can come into being. So world trade is either barter, with precious metal bullion serving to settle imbalances, as Marx described, or national currencies such as sterling and the post-1971 dollar become unstable and volatile currencies on a heavily contrived basis: on imperial surpluses and on a series of unsustainable and volatile financializations, respectively (Desai 2018b, Desai 2013, Desai – Hudson 2021).
One may mention here that the present monetary system does not differ from the one before 1914 or 1971 because of the role of gold. The real issue is whether monetary policy favors the preservation of the value of previously produced goods and money, that is to say, assets, or favors the expansion of the production of new goods. In other words, whether it is oriented towards dead labor or whether it favors the employment of living labor. Whereas the monetary and financial systems of the contender nations, such as Germany and Japan, favored the latter, as did nearly all of the heavily regulated financial systems of the post-war golden age, and, even more clearly and determinedly, those of socialism, the pre-1914 sterling system and the post-1971 dollar system favor the former.
Secondly, as we have seen, Marx knew that the monetary and financial system of capitalism inherited was suited to medieval purposes – usury, speculation and rentier activity. In early capitalism, it provided only short-term commercial credit. Personal fortunes had to and could suffice for productive investment thanks to the lower capital requirements of early capitalism and the First Industrial Revolution. Later, as we have seen, the productively vigorous finance capitalisms of Germany and the US stood in contrast to the productively enervated economy of the UK. In general, since the 1870s, the most productive economies have not been those of the UK or, after 1971, of the US but of the contender states. After 1917, they included socialist countries. Contrasting financial systems have been core factors in explaining contrasting industrial performance of the ‘liberal’ Anglo-American economies on the one hand and the productively more powerful contender economies of Japan and Germany or socialist China (Desai 2022, forthcoming) on the other.
Thirdly, Hilferding is ridiculed for saying the nationalization of five Berlin banks would constitute a major advance towards socialism. However, he was simply developing Marx’s argument in chapter 27 of Vol III about the credit system being “the form of the transition towards a new mode of production” (Marx 1894/1981). Moreover, Hilferding was referring not to six London Banks, with no relation to production but to six Berlin banks, intimately involved with productive firms in long-term credit relations (see also Feis 1930). Interestingly, all historians of the Soviet monetary system emphasize its continuities with that of the Russian Developmental State: though not the most successful but the attempt had its legacy.
Fourthly, in the Soviet system, money functioned chiefly as a unit of account and a means of payment. The function of measure of value was rendered unimportant in a system of administered prices: they had to reflect relative inputs, particularly labor, to ensure efficiency but also reflected conscious social valuation and supply and demand contingencies. The means of circulation function was performed when people purchased consumer goods but ‘wages’ were actually not a payment for a (fictitious) commodity but a discharge of the state’s obligation to working people. While price stability was important, and ensured by planning rather than interest rate or exchange rate policies, the store of value function was not important for an economy in which individual fortunes played no role and property was personal not private, that is to say, it could not be accumulated to any significant extent by depriving others. Moreover, ‘hoards’ for social investment were actual capital goods whose monetary value was just an entry in the accounts for planning. That being the case, there is no need for hoards of money per se, as unconditional command over abstract labor, not even for pensions.
Dysfunctions in the system could be easily managed by the state, as they are in China today. Similar systems, which do not one-sidedly privilege creditors, have co-existed with the heavily planned and regulated forms of capitalism such as Germany or Japan and nearly universally during the golden age.
Finally, for world money, the Soviet convertible ruble served as the principal currency in Eastern Europe and the Comecon where accounts were settled on the basis of world prices as well as considerations of inter-socialist solidarity. Beyond that, the USSR used US dollars or gold for purchasing US products. The Americans were famously disappointed when they were paid for their 1970s grain exports with their own valueless dollars.
Money as an accounting aid to planning can today be more successful than ever. Advances in information and communication technology came too late for the USSR and its planning system. Today their feedback loops enable large corporations to do the most minute and detailed forms of planning. They use it, however, to offshore production while controlling it, aid the concentration and centralization of capital, indulge in plunder and financial speculation, increase control over employees and manipulate customers into buying what they have to sell, short-circuiting rather than addressing the demand problem through proliferating simulacra of false needs in oceans of unfulfilled real need. Money can, instead, be used for rational planning in which it returns to its original use, an instrument for accounting, to aid in planning rationally.
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