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Tracing the roots of progressive views on the duty to work – Part 1

This will be a multi-part series and is part of the new book that Thomas Fazi and I are finalising. The series could have easily been sub-titled: How the middle-class Left abandoned the class fundamentals, became obsessed with individualism, and steadily descended into political obscurity, so much so, that the parties they now dominate, are largely unelectable! Because the discussion largely covers that problem. I have been thinking about why a modern so-called ‘progressive’ position draws a line in the sand about retaining a pernicious unemployment benefits system, which provides below poverty rate payments coupled with a harsh system of work tests, despite there never being enough jobs, and think that a guaranteed employment commitment from government with benefits that allow for a decent life, is somehow offensive. The corollary is that somehow the educated Left think that a duty to contribute to society through work is also offensive and they would rather people who can work be able to have the right to output when they are not prepared to contribute to the production of that output. None of these people would approve of a person walking into their homes and raiding their fridge for food. None would approve of some person taking their expensive racing bike parked outside some cafe while they were inside sipping latte! And yet, they do not seem to seem to appreciate the contradiction, when they also rail against capitalists who access the distribution system without contributing to the generation of output. It is no wonder that the traditional working class find the modern ‘Left manifesto’ repugnant and vote accordingly. This is Part 1 of an extended discussion that is the product of some months of research (work!).

Critique of the Gotha Programme 1875

I spent many hours in my teenage years sifting through all sorts of radical books at the – International Bookshop (operated by the now defunct Communist Party of Australia) in Elizabeth Street, Melbourne.

It offered a magnificent array of Marxist literature among other wonderful books.

I used to split from school (truancy) and head into the city and read for hours.

Later, when I was a university student without much cash at all, one – great staff member – there used to give me an orange on a regular basis – she always had one available and I guess she knew I haunted the place. She thought I was malnourished.

One of the influential books (document) I read during those formative years was the – Critique of the Gotha Programme 1875 – which was one of Karl Marx’s last important works.

It was written in May 1875 to the Social Democratic Workers’ party of Germany and it was the most authoritative statement by Marx on how he viewed the transition to socialism and communism, which he saw as a two-stage process as economic and social changes adapted.

Marx died before the document was made public.

His commentary on the – Gotha Program – which formed the manifesto of what has become the German Social Democratic party, were critical as he considered the proposed merger between two political groups to create the SPD compromised too much on workers’ rights for political expediency.

Ever the ‘progressive’ way it seems.

The importance of that document, though, for progressive socialist thought, is that it outlined what the appropriate duty of workers would be and what distributional expectations workers might reasonably have.

In Part I, Marx disclosed early ‘green’ credentials by disputing the claim that “Labour is the source of all wealth and all culture”. He recognised that “Nature is just as much the source of use values”.


He understood that the basics of life, stripped of celebrity, fashion, discourse, and whatever – is about transforming nature.

That is a fancy term for work.

He wrote:

… man was a savage after he had ceased to be an ape – who kills an animal with a stone, who collects fruit, etc., performs “useful” labour.

He also considered that ‘labour’ contributed to ‘society’ and clearly had a well articulated construction of what we now call the collective will (more about which later).

In determining the different claimants on the current output produced by the workers, Marx discussed the idea of whether those who did not work should have access to the “product of labour”.

He was opposed to that prospect.

He discussed various ‘deductions’:

1. Depreciation of existing machinery and equipment, new working capital, insurance against accidents, calamities, etc

2. Administrative costs – overhead labour etc.

3. “that which is intended for the common satisfaction of needs, such as schools, health services, etc. From the outset, this part grows considerably in comparison with present-day society, and it grows in proportion as the new society develops.”

4. “funds for those unable to work, etc., in short, for what is included under so-called official poor relief today” – aged, under-age, sick and mentally ill, etc.

We recognise all these categories in the modern debate.

Marx clearly considered a progressive society would be one where all those who could work would contribute their efforts to advancing society, while creating surpluses, which would ensure that all those who could not work, would still enjoy a material prosperity in line with the nations’ resources and productivity.

He conceptualised the distributional principles that might apply in transition from capitalism to socialism, the first stage towards a communist society, which he said would still be “stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges”.

In other words, social changes were slow moving and there was path-dependency involved.

Accordingly, he considered that:

… the individual producer receives back from society – after the deductions have been made – exactly what he gives to it. What he has given to it is his individual quantum of labour.

He understood there were problems with this – for example – how does one assess the contribution of labour, given that “one man is superior to another physically, or mentally, and supplies more labor in the same time, or can labor for a longer time”, if we aim to establish an equal right principle in dsitribution.

In other words, the distribution of the output had to be “unequal” to address the heterogeneity of the workers (capacity, marital status, children, etc).

But once society is ready to make the full transition to communism (where the means of production are the “co-operative property of the workers”) and:

… labour has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-around development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly – only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!

That last phrase became the classic statement of progressive aspiration.

Each person should work if they can and contribute to the social product, which would then be distributed according to material need.

People who couldn’t work, would still have their material needs covered.

That distributional principle was seen as the exemplar of a just state.

Individuals had a duty in a progressive state to contribute to the commonwealth as best they could.

The principle, of course, predated Marx’s Gotha publication.

You can trace it back to utopian manifestos in the C18th and religious statements from the early 1600s. In other words, one did not have to be a Marxist to consider that principle the appropriate benchmark for a progressive society.

For example, the French writer – Étienne-Gabriel Morelly – is attributed to the 1755 publication The Code of Nature – which laid the foundations for socialist thinking and the progressive critique of French society of the time.

He wrote:

Every citizen will make his particular contribution to the activities of the community according to his capacity, his talent and his age; it is on this basis that his duties will be determined, in conformity with the distributive laws.

Louis Jean Joseph Blanc, in his 1851 book – Plus de Girondins – referred to Marx’s later articulation “De chacun selon ses facultés, à chacum selon ses besoins” (from each according to his ability” etc) as the “base fondamentale de la société future, pierre angulaire du monde nouveu” (the “fundamental basis of the future society, cornerstone of the new world”).

Surplus output production and distribution

This all made further sense to me as I progressed through other literature as a young scholar – Michał Kalecki, Oskar Lange, Mykhailo Tuhan-Baranovskyi, Joan Robinson, Roy Harrod, Evsey Domar, John Hobson, Maurice Dobb – to name a few.

I pondered the question about work responsibilities and distribution – and I was also reading sociology and psychology literature to place this thinking in a broader concept of humanity and society.

In a technical sense, I was also very interested in the dynamics of two-sector economic models: capital and consumption goods sectors – and the implications of the production of surpluses within each sector for the accumulation of capital, full employment and the possibility of crises.

That agenda has driven my work over the years.

Establishing the framework for full employment and analysing how societies depart from that desired state.

The point was that it was clear that workers in the consumption goods sector had to produce surpluses which were expropriated from them, irrespective of who owned the material means of production.


So the workers in the capital goods sector (making machines etc) can eat food! To put it in the most obvious way.

They were getting food expropriated from the labour of the consumption sector workers. But they were not getting it for nothing. They were contributing their own time and skills to producing plant and equipment that was used within to produce the food.

But it was an important point. The path to socialism does not stop surplus production and expropriation.

Many young socialists of the day used to wax lyrical about the end to exploitation and expropriation. But it was clear that in a progressive state, workers would still be exploited.

This understanding then led me on a journey to think about the principles of justice and how surpluses were to be distributed among those who relied on them for survival.

As an aside, when I was a postgraduate student, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a workshop held by two senior economists from the – Gosplan (the State Planning Committee) – which was the central planning agency in the Soviet Union that implemented the five-year economic plans across the USSR.

It was a really interesting seminar and it was at a time that I was working through all this justice stuff.

I asked a question during that workshop along the lines of: What is the difference between a worker who gets up on freezing Moscow morning to go to work and works all day creating a surplus which is then expropriated by the Soviet State and a worker who gets up on a freezing Melbourne morning and works all day creating a surplus which is then expropriated from them? In both cases, the product is alienated from the producer.

The answer was that while they acknowledged the expropriation existed in the Soviet system, in the former case the surplus was a ‘public good’ whereas in the latter it was privatised and taken by the capitalist.

They said that under socialism ‘workers exploited themselves’ with the capitalist removed.

I also asked them about the so-called ‘Parasite Laws’ that prevailed in the USSR and followed on from the Article 12 of the 1936 – Constitution (Fundamental Law) of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Article 12 of the old constitution read as:

In the U.S.S.R. work is a duty and a matter of honour for every able-bodied citizen, in accordance with the principle: “He who does not work, neither shall he eat.”

The principle applied in the U.S.S.R. is that of socialism : “From each according to his ability, to each according to his work.”

That was a pretty blunt statement, which reflected the times and the fact that the USSR, after helping the West defeat the Germans, and taking massive losses in the process, were then under siege from the West, who toyed with the idea of continuing the military push east.

The last version of the – Constitution (Fundamental Law) of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (1977) – changed the wording to suit the times.

Article 14:

The source of the growth of social wealth and of the well-being of the people, and of each individual, is the labour, free from exploitation, of Soviet people.

The state exercises control over the measure of labour and of consumption in accordance with the principle of socialism: “From each according to his
ability, to each according to his work” …

Socially useful work and its results determine a person’s status in society. By combining material and moral incentives and encouraging innovation and a creative attitude to work, the state helps transform labour into the prime vital need of every Soviet citizen.

And significantly, Article 60:

It is the duty of, and a matter of honour for, every able-bodied citizen of the USSR to work conscientiously in his chosen, socially useful occupation, and strictly to observe labour discipline. Evasion of socially useful work is incompatible with the principles of socialist society.

And what was the State’s responsibility?

Article 40:

Citizens of the USSR have the right to work (that is, to guaranteed employment and pay in accordance with the quantity and quality of then work, and not below the state-established minimum), including the right to choose their trade or profession, type of job and work in accordance with their inclinations, abilities, training and education, with due account of the needs of society.

This right is ensured by the socialist economic system, steady growth of the productive forces, free vocational and professional training, improvement of skills, training in new trades or professions, and development of the systems of vocational guidance and job placement.

That is, the system recognised the concept of reciprocity and social responsibility within a mutually obliged system.

The state would generate and maintain full employment and those who could work were expected to, not as punishment, but as the means to improve the material prosperity of everyone – of society.

This was the statement of collective will, which I will return to.

What we will learn in Part 2 was that these principles – centred on a duty to work and the aspiration that everyone would contribute to society if able – were not confined to Stalinist USSR.

There are many examples in the West where official statements and constitutions had these requirements.

I will also discuss the ‘parasite laws’ in the USSR, which relate to the question of duty to work.


For now though, consider the Left-wing anthem sung by progressives everywhere – The Internationale.

How many leftists still get up with their hands on their hearts and sing the song with gusto and feel good that they are representing the grand progressive tradition?

This is what they are singing about:

And here is our battle cry:
All the power to the people of labour!
And away with all the parasites!

Only we, the workers of the world
The great army of labor,
We have the right to own land,
But parasites never!

How many know they are actually articulating a view in the song that decries ‘parasites’ who do not want to work but still want access to the production of others?

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2020 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

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    This Post Has 103 Comments
    1. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his work,” What exactly does the second part mean? It’s an indefinite statement. As such I take it as indication of desire to deceive.

    2. @ Henry Rech writes:

      “What I can’t fathom is how so few can dominate so many. It’s been that way through all of history. Socialism, capitalism, feudalism, whatever”.

      Humans have widely differing capacities to compete in an economic system, so economic power naturally becomes concentrated in fewer hands (…and look at the blood bath which that economic competition has involved throughout history…..)

      Communism was an attempt to ameliorate the negative effects of this competition….but Stalinism failed to successfully channel the competitive greed of humans into community-wide harmonious creativity.

      I look forward to private sector free markets overseen by MMT-aware governments with public sector money creation, to achieve co-operative community systems.

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