The Dream Café

Steven Brust: “A masterful storyteller of contagious glee and self-deprecating badassery” —Skyler White

TRB #9 Chapter Four: The Productivity of Labor



Trotsky, Lenin, and Kamenev at the Party Conference in 1919


At the end of the previous chapter, Trotsky writes, “…the ‘root’ of every social organization is the productive forces, and … the Soviet root is just what is not mighty enough for the socialist trunk and for its crown: human welfare.” This correctly places human productivity at the center. To draw things to the point of absurdity, it is clear that in a society where the day’s labor of each individual is only sufficient to provide what is needed to sustain that individual for a day, there can be no question of everyone having plenty; whereas in a society where one individual’s labor for five minutes could sustain a hundred people for a year, the only question becomes: how much luxury should we create balanced with how much labor we feel inclined to engage in.

Of course, we are neither at the one extreme nor the other; my example is only to show the importance of productivity of labor. But the productivity of labor itself is complex and multi-faceted. It includes the average individual skill of workers in each of many industries, the level of technological development in each industry, the infrastructure that supports each and connects them, the quantity and quality of raw materials—and if that isn’t complex enough, each of these factors dialectically interconnects with all of the others.

“The deathblow to money fetishism will be struck only upon that stage when the steady growth of social wealth has made us bipeds forget our miserly attitude toward every excess minute of labor, and our humiliating fear about the size of our ration.” This is where a scientific, materialist approach to human society cuts through centuries of idealist rubbish. How much of the unhealthy, destructive attitudes toward each other and toward signs of wealth and other objects have at their root nothing more than the conditions of struggle to get by? Of course we get pissed off when our boss wants us to do extra work that we aren’t being paid for, and of course we need to scrape, and budget, and always be looking for how to get more for less; and of course these attitudes will naturally and painlessly vanish when labor is no longer a burden, and when satisfying our wants is no longer connected to arbitrary measures of how “valuable” we are, but rather dependent on the ever-increasing abundance of society and our own needs and wishes. Is there anyone who would deny that we have, today, the material and intellectual resources to make this happen? And the key element to it all is: the productivity of labor.

The point, however, is that the Soviet Union was most emphatically not in a position to do that, exactly because the productivity of labor had begun in such a handicapped position. So then, everything—the survival of the workers state, the creation of socialism—depended on raising it. The Soviet Union had many advantages in this campaign: public ownership of production, the capability for central planning, a state monopoly on trade, and so forth. It is hard to overstate the importance of these factors: consider that they provided the capability of going, in a mere 40 years, from one of the most backward countries on Earth to being the first to conquer space. But if one is to take a scientific approach to raising the productivity of labor, one important thing that is needed is a metric. Fortunately, a perfectly good metric had been inherited from the past: money. Money is many things at once: it is a commodity, it is an economic lubricant, and it is a measure of economic health. But in order to be useful for any of these, and especially the last, it must be stable. “For the regulation and application of [successful economic] plans, two levers are needed: a political lever in the form of real participation in leadership of the interested masses themselves, which unthinkable without Soviet democracy, and a financial lever, in the form of a real verification of a priori calculations with the help of a universal equivalent, which is unthinkable without a stable money system.”

Tying the value of money to a relatively stable commodity (ie, gold), in effect ties it to the value of labor-power, which, in the last analysis, actually determines its value. Hence the importance of tying the ruble to gold, and the reason the decision of the Stalin clique to break that connection made things so much more difficult. I mention this here mostly because it provides such a perfect example of the dialectical relationship between the two “levers” Trotsky speaks of. The lack of Soviet democracy leads to any number of other errors, because it removes the possibility of timely correction of policy errors.

And here, once again, we return to what I believe is, for contemporary readers, they key question: the failure of Soviet democracy. The simplistic notion of Stalin as a “bad guy” who overthrew the “good guys” answers exactly none of the questions. Unscientific nonsense about “revolutions always result in totalitarianism” tell us nothing, especially when we observe that essentially all of today’s democracies had their origin in revolution. We might, to be sure, spend a fair amount of time on the psychological characteristics of Stalin, distinguished by rigidity, lack of imagination, inability to generalize, and so on; but this also fails to address what I believe is the real question: how did an individual with these characteristics come to have so much power concentrated in his hands? Or, to put the question another way, how did it happen that an undemocratic bureaucracy usurped control of the Bolshevik Party, the Soviets, and the country?

That is the question I’ll be taking up next.


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Author: skzb

I play the drum.


  1. Back then, it probably made sense for Russia to tie its currency to gold (or silver) to keep inflation under control. But you did not want anybody actually claiming the gold or silver as that breaks the bank.

    Tying a currency to gold is problematic today. First, because there is not nearly enough gold in the world to back the currencies. Second, because speculators would just take all the gold and control the market.

    What has happened is that the price of gold goes up in current dollars as the dollar is devalued. So gold that used to be at $35 and oz., is now in the thousand dollar and oz. range. Tricky problem.

  2. I wonder what will happen when we no longer need labor to produce most goods and services.

  3. Good question. What happens when the last robot repair person dies of old age? There could be a story there.

    In a lot of the stories about a utopia where people have all their needs met, there is usually and underground (sometimes literally) work force enslaved to supply those needs. I think labor of some sort will always be needed. The trouble is that it might only take 10% of the population to supply those needs.

    Maybe skzb will come up with an answer as to how to distribute the wealth and still encourage those 10% to add value.

  4. skzb

    The thing I’ve never understood about that 10% thing is, why 10% of the people, instead of everyone working .01% of the time, or whatever it would come out to?

  5. Good point. It would be .01 of the time or 1% of the time. I think we have our minds (my mind?) thinking like traditional times where you either had a job or you didn’t and employers wanted at least 8 hours out of you. The primary reason being for the convenience of the employer and to keep things running smoothly.

    It is a problem coordinating tasks between people into small time tasks. Also, say you worked 1 hour every two weeks, how would you take up the task that many somebody elses had worked on since you last did. Tasks would be done very poorly, most likely.

    Half time can probably be pretty productive.

  6. Well, one reason is that you can’t do anything *well* if you do it only .01% of the time. Even the most menial of jobs have requirements, procedures, and a learning curve involved.

  7. skzb

    Yeah, I’m sure there will be additional problem as well that we haven’t even considered. I’m also sure we’ll be able to solve them.

  8. David Hajicek, by the time the last robot repair person dies of old age, the robots will have been self-repairing and/or self-replicating for some time.

  9. Maybe, maybe not. Yes, that was the first thought that came to mind, but things will likely not be that straightforward or simple. Robots may be able to swap parts like arms or legs, but not actually repair those things.

  10. But also there are limits to productivity increases that we won’t get around for a while. For example, attempts to educate entirely through robots, computers, on-line education etc have failed miserably. It is not that a person can’t learn subjects on their own without direct human involvement. Some manage, for example to learn languages entirely from computer courses. But attempts at giving people an entire education is something else again. For example, the home schooling movement which relies largely on computerized education, usually ends up with the kids not being well educated. Similarly. while I have no doubt that large lecture classes in universities could be replaced by computer courses with little loss, most college classes require extensive interaction with teachers. And again fully on-line colleges don’t really provide equivalent training to attending in person schools. (BTW when I describe “failures” i’m talking about as measured by various tests (which I admit are iffy) by the responses of employers and other academic institutions to the graduates of such institutions and to subjective impressions. )

    Now maybe someday we will get a robot that can handle a roomful of young kids who are dropped off at school about 40 minutes after they have breakfasted on honey-coated sugar bombs. as well as a live teacher. But if we do, that robot will probably be a person, deserving of full human rights and compensation for its labor.

  11. If it only requires 10% working full time, then everybody working 10% of the time is equivalent. But still, if you work say 1 hour a day, it is hard to have continuity. If somebody needs to talk to you directly, that could be a real scheduling problem if the hour for each of you didn’t match up.

  12. If we ever get to the point of needing that little labor, probably rather than a short work week we will have short work life. That is people would work 5 years (or because learning curves would probably lower productivity with that short a working life time) ten years. So people would start work from 25 to 35. Or 35 to 45. Except that some people might enjoy the work and want to continue working longer, which would leave less for everyone else. At that point, t he opportunity for certain kinds of work would be a common resource in short supply and divided up by fair means so that a few people did not get the chance to hog it all!.

  13. BTW, a gold standard makes some sense when dividing up fairly extreme scarcity – which the Soviet Union faced in early years leading to WWII and again post WWII because of the enormous destruction that war had left. Once you have not even plenty but modest scarcity – a gold standard no longer makes sense.

    A gold standard is a kind of tight money tool. In a capitalist society it suppresses consumption and investment both, In a society that is not socialist, but aspires to be, and makes extensive use of public investment, a gold standard suppresses consumption but not investment, and thus is a means of diverting output from consumption into investment – thus creating growth. Past a certain point, though, suppression of local demand, makes productive investment more difficult, because investment can only be productive if meets some sort of demand.

    In the early stages of an underdeveloped society, that investment can be in basic infrastructure – the infrastructure itself is the demand. But past a certain point even basic infrastructure has to meet consumer demand. That is roads can’t always be carrying material for more roads and for steel mills. At some point the roads have to carry something consumers want.

    And even before that point, unbalanced infrastructure development that under-emphasizes consumers goods, means you lack feedback to make sure you are building that infrastructure properly. To take the example of roads again. If you build out your entire highway system before it gets extensively used you may miss a construction flaw and replicate it across the whole system. Whereas, if a highway is used as soon as it is built, you may notice that you need more lanes or more better quality gravel or more exits whatever and correct the error in your next highway. Trotsky never put it exactly that way, but one of his big arguments with Stalin was that Trotsky wanted to build button factories as well as steel mills. And I suspect he understood that because production is ultimately for people, if you build infrastructure to long without creating the goods people actually use directly, the infrastructure will be screwed up – as ultimately happened in the Soviet Union.

    Again, this is me not Trotsky. Trotsky did not have access to as much history of attempts at socialist production as we have today. But if you look at the actual economic policies he advocated, they seem to reflect something along these lines.

  14. The gold standard – or any commodity standard used to constrict monetary supply – is useful only as a tool to fight inflation. Pegging your currency to another country’s currency today serves the same purpose. Trotsky’s belief that a gold standard was needed for *accounting* purposes is just insane.

    Jude Wanniski, one of the founders of Supply Side economics and advisor to numerous 1990s era GOP presidential candidates (e.g., Jack Kemp), said back then (1996):

    “First let us get our accounting unit squared away. To measure anything in the floating paper dollar will get us nowhere. We must convert all wealth into the measure employed by mankind for 6,000 years, i.e., ounces of gold. On this measure, the Dow Jones industrial average of 6,000 today is only 60 percent of the DJIA of 30 years ago, when it hit 1,000. Back then, gold was $35 per ounce. Today it is $380-plus. This is another way of saying that in the last 30 years, the people who owned America have lost 40 percent of their wealth held in the form of equity. … If you owned no part of corporate America 30 years ago, because you were poor, you lost nothing. If you owned lots of it, you lost your shirt in the general inflation.”

    Only the insane would agree with Wanniski. I see no difference between this insanity from Wanniski and that of Trotsky vis a vis the gold standard.

    An argument for currency stability or an argument based on fighting problems with inflation at least has some rational merit – an argument from an accounting perspective is just lazy.

    skzb writes: “Tying the value of money to a relatively stable commodity (ie, gold), in effect ties it to the value of labor-power, which, in the last analysis, actually determines its value…” This statement, depending on definitions, is either trivially true, irrelevant, or simply incorrect. At one time all countries currencies were pegged to gold. Labor conditions varied widely; from near-sefdom to burgeoning socialist democracies. The relevance to the gold-standard to labor-power is nebulous at best.

  15. It is hard to change the labor of writing a novel to 10 different people who need jobs.

  16. skzb

    Strawberry: Yeah, that would work–maybe ten or twenty hours a week for a few years, and adjusted according to how onerous the labor is. I dunno. I’ll bet we as a species can figure something out.

    Howard: Oh nos! Oh nos! Socialism won’t work because creating art will no longer have to be considered labor and that would mean, um, I don’t know, something bad that ruins everything.

  17. SKZB:

    Hopelessly off-topic, but… I just noticed that Book of Athyra and Book of Taltos are available for Kindle now, presumably with Book of Jhereg coming soon (I *DO* wish they’d published them as individual novels, but it’s better than never having them at all)…

    I just wanted to know if the source of these was scanned from hardcopy (I presume so, unless you have some VERY dedicated folks re-typing everything), and if so, if there have been any reports of errors creeping into the process. I’ve had some favorite authors with older works practically RUINED by cheap scanning and no error-checking…

    Thanks, and looking forward to finally getting to reread the older Vlad stories in my preferred format… 🙂

  18. skzb

    Greetings, Reed. I don’t want to derail this this conversation, but if you ask here:

    I’ll answer as best I can.

  19. The following link discusses primarily the irrationality of markets and economies. There is a mention of planned economies. The primary take is that most economists and planners generally have their head up their anal orifice because they deliberately do not and can not foresee events that will totally change things. Yet they assume their model is right even when it fails completely.

    I would say that the emotional reactions of people have huge effects on markets and economies, but too often this is simply dismissed.

  20. Paul Krugman pondered the failure of communism “in a column he wrote back in 1997. He lauds the Soviet Union’s productive capabilities during WWII as decisive in defeating Germany, then continues forward to question how it all fell apart. His final judgement: “In the end, then, capitalism triumphed because it is a system that is robust to cynicism, that assumes that each man is out for himself. For much of the past century and a half men have dreamed of something better, of an economy that drew on man’s better nature. But dreams, it turns out, can’t keep a system going over the long term; selfishness can.”

  21. skzb

    Yep, another one who likes to explain matter as a reflection of an idea. There are no shortage of them. The best of them provide theories that can be worked into the ideological soil to help other things grow.

  22. The problem with capitalism is that it needs enforced rules and limitations. Otherwise the logical outcome is that a few people own everything. Which is where we are going in America.

    People are willing to work together for the common good. All successful businesses have people like that doing the heavy lifting. The problem is that these people need to be properly rewarded for their efforts. Obviously this does not always or even mostly happen.

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