Question Period : Labor Time Vouchers

Oct. 19, 1991

Question Period

Why do you believe that a system of exchange based on labor-time vouchers is needed in a socialist society? Since there would be no need to force workers to produce the necessaries of life, what's wrong with free access, pure and simple?


The idea that a socialist society would initially use a system of exchange based on labor-time vouchers (or a similar means of accounting for labor time), and the idea that "exchange" as such would be superseded by the free access of all to the products of labor, are not in contradiction. These two conceptions of how labor's product would be distributed simply reflect two phases of socialist development.

It is unrealistic to expect that, as soon as the organized workers dispossess the capitalist class from ownership and control of the means of production, they can immediately proceed to a system of distribution based on the principle, "from everyone according to their faculties, to everyone according to their needs."

Capitalism's Aftereffects

Although the overwhelming majority of workers will undergo a profound change in the course of becoming classconscious and carrying out the struggle for socialism, it cannot reasonably be expected that every member of society will have transcended years of social conditioning by capitalist ideology and the effects of living in a cut-throat, competitive, harsh social environment. Selfishness, avarice, personal ambition and hunger for power, mistrust, elitism -- these potential sources of trouble would be largely destroyed among classconscious workers, but it would be folly to expect them to be completely destroyed throughout society at the moment of the workers' triumph. Certainly the recently deposed capitalists and their hangers-on would still possess these characteristics.

At the same time, it is impossible to know in advance how prolonged, wrenching and/or violent the struggle to establish socialism will become. The SLP's program is aimed at makine the transition to socialism as smoothly and as peacefully as ruling-class resistance permits. We call for socialism to be established in a manner befitting its civilized aims, using the existing democratic process. But there is no way of knowing at what point in the development of a socialist movement that ruling-class forces will seek to suppress or crush it, how uncommitted workers will respond at that time, how much destruction of means of production might occur, etc.

The point we're driving at is that socialism, when it first emerges, "still retains, in every respect, economic, moral and intellectual, the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it is issuing," as Karl Marx once noted. For workers to immediately open up the social stores to all, to simply take as much as they please, regardless of whether or not they worked for it, would be to invite the ex-capitalists and other reactionary elements to indulge in hoarding and other abuses, create shortages and chaos and promote economic and social retrogression.

Given these circumstances, it is a reasonable supposition that the new-born socialist industrial government would find it necessary and prudent to at first base distribution on the principle, "From everyone according to their faculties, to everyone according to their work."

This does not contradict any of the basic conditions that define a socialist society: classes will be vanquished, no one individual or group could come to possess means of social production or exploit anyone, and decisions on the scope and content of social production would be made by the collective associations encompassing all of society's producers (the socialist industrial unions and their representative governing councils). The workers would, directly or indirectly, enjoy the full fruits of their labor. And such a system of distribution would be infinitely more equitable than that which exists today -- in which ownership or nonownership of the means of production creates extremes ranging from obscene opulence to utter destitution and starvation.

When the socialist society has become well established, all the former capitalists and their allies have become integrated into the system as producers, and the social environment of economic security and abundance for all has had time to negate such characteristics as selfishness, avarice, individual hunger for power, etc., then the need to measure individual work contributions and individual consumption will become obsolete.

At that point, a system of distribution based on the principle, "from everyone according to their faculties, to everyone according to their needs," could be established.

A Reasonable Projection

We are not irrevocably wedded to the idea of "labor-time vouchers" as such. A system of distribution using them, or some other form of accounting for labor contributed and labor product received, is not a fundamental point of socialist principle. If the workers' self-government, at the moment of triumph over capitalism, determined that a system of distribution based on "free access" was, somehow, feasible immediately, it could of course establish such a system. But it is a more reasonable projection that an accountable system of distribution, based on labor time, will prove necessary and desirable for a period. In this, we are in accord with the reasoning presented by Marx in his Critique of the Gotha Program.

In any case, the most important consideration is that the workers will be making the decisions governing distribution, collectively and democratically. And the most important task before workers today is to build the socialist political and economic organizations through which they can overthrow class rule and gain the power to make such decisions in the first place.