Standing Marx on his head: Critique of the Libretti Program
Protesters rally for an increase in the minimum wage at the New York state capitol in Albany on June 17, 2014 | Mike Groll / AP

Tim Libretti, in his article in People’s World, “Meritocracy Devalues All Work,” stands the work of Karl Marx on its head. Instead of focusing on the rulers of capitalist society and their role in siphoning off large portions of the value workers contribute to society, Libretti focuses on how we should fight against the terminology imposed on us by the bourgeoisie. In doing so, he attacks one of the most basic concepts of Marxian economists, surprisingly citing the Critique of the Gotha Program, one of Marx’s clearest statements about economics under socialism, as the basis for his wrong-headed thesis.

Libretti starts off with a particularly weak argument that in order to create a more just society we need to “interrogate” the system by which we put a value on work. No! To create a more just society we need to fight capitalism, be it through piecemeal reforms or through a socialist revolution that would get rid of the capitalist system itself. The system through which we assign value to labor is the same system that has prevailed from the first time that primitive people engaged in exchange with other people: the prevailing market for socially-useful labor. The way to fight for justice and equality remains the same as it always has: a political revolution to overthrow those dominant elements of society that are economically exploiting the majority of the society. The slaves had to overthrow slavery to get a less exploitive, and for its time revolutionary, system: feudalism. The capitalists had to overthrow feudalism in order to get a less exploitive, and for its time revolutionary, system: capitalism. Our goal today should be to overthrow capitalism, not to “interrogate” anything.

In Marxian economics, we determine the value of any good by the amount of socially-necessary labor involved in its production. This simply means that if I take 25 hours to lovingly handcraft a wooden rocking chair but a worker in a factory can produce a chair of the same quality in just one hour, the amount of labor necessary for the production of the chair will be 1 hour, not 25 hours. If I want to sell my chair on the open market, I will have to charge the equivalent of 1 hours’ work, even though it took me 25 hours of labor to produce the chair.

Similarly, we determine workers’ salaries and wages by how much money they need to survive on. This has a minimum: the amount the worker barely needs to get by on and raise a family. This minimum is determined both by the market and societal standards. In the 19th century, we calculated the minimum on the basis of the worker’s entire family being employed full time, including the children. In today’s society, we no longer believe, as a society, that it is acceptable for children to work. Therefore, the minimum wage salary takes that into account and provides enough for the worker to raise his/her family without having to put small children to work (yes, I realize that there is still child labor in the U.S. and the world over, but not to the extent it existed in the 19th century).

However, workers’ wages and salaries do not have to sink to the minimum (although Marx believed, and I agree, that the general tendency under capitalism is for wages to head downwards over time towards the minimum). Workers with skills and talents and education that are in demand can, and should, ask for and receive a higher wage or salary. For example, Big Papi, David Ortiz, of the Boston Red Sox, had a particular skill with a baseball bat that put him and his talents in very high demand. He received a salary of millions of dollars annually to wield that bat. I have no problem with that. And I believe that Ortiz deserves to have a better house, better cars, etc. than I do because as far as U.S. society is concerned he has way more talent than I do.

The market determined that David Ortiz should earn more than I do. Like Libretti, I am a college professor. I think we pay our athletes way too much and our educators way too little. I am sure Libretti probably agrees. Nonetheless, our society has voted with its dollars. Americans spend enough on baseball that athletes like Ortiz can earn their high salaries. The public demands it. I accept the verdict of the public. If I don’t like that verdict, I need to do something about it. I need to stop attending baseball games and stop watching them on television. I can even act politically and attempt to get laws passed that might restrict athletes’ salaries. But we have to remember, even Ortiz, with his huge salary, is being exploited. He probably generates double to triple his salary in revenue for the baseball owners.

In my previous critique of Libretti, I argued that doctors, lawyers, and bankers deserve more income because Americans are willing to pay more for their services. I stand by that. Society, via the market, determines what the value of individual work is. Keep in mind, I am talking about salaried workers. The wealthiest elements in our society, those who receive their income through their business earnings, by exploiting workers (e.g., the baseball owners), do not deserve their houses and cars. But that is a whole different story that we do not have time for here.

Libretti argues that Marx called for an equalitarian society, one where we will live by the principal “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” He then goes on the cite Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program as further support for his “instant communism” under capitalism. I cannot imagine a more incorrect reading of this important document, one of the very few where Marx talked about his vision for socialist society.

First, a program of giving each person what they need and asking each person to work to the best of their abilities is a program for when we have achieved communism, a utopia hundreds, if not thousands of years off, when production is so efficient that there is no longer economic scarcity and all humans have everything they need.

Second, Critique of the Gotha Program talks specifically about socialism and it being the “primitive” stage of communism. Under socialism the guiding principle is to each is given according to their contribution. Libretti quotes from the Critique as follows: “Further, one worker is married, another not; one has more children than another, and so on and so forth. Thus, with equal performance of labour, and hence an equal share in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, and so on. To avoid these defects, right instead of being equal would have to be unequal.” But he apparently failed to read the very next sentence: “But these defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society [read “socialism”] as it is when it has just emerged from prolonged birth-pangs from capitalist society. Right can never be higher than the economic structure of society and its cultural development which this determines.”

Marx’s point is that under socialism, we have just emerged from a capitalist society with all its cultural mores and prejudices. We are still in many ways infused with the economics, morals, and thinking of capitalist culture. Most importantly, we have not yet reached the level of economic

Karl Marx's Critique of the Gotha Program is available from International Publishers.
Karl Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Program is available from International Publishers.

production where society can satisfy all the needs of the people. Therefore, we cannot realize the principle of “each according to his needs” as of yet, even under socialism.

This is why under socialism the principle of “to each according to his/her contribution” is practiced. This aligns the private interests of the producers (us, society) with the goal of increasing production so that we can reach communism. And producers (again, us) receive only a portion of their contribution back from society. A portion is set aside by the state for a pubic fund to reinvest in industry and production and provide for the general welfare (public education, parks, museums, etc.). In effect, the state is “exploiting” us, but for our own benefit. This differs from the capitalist society where the exploiters skim off part of our contribution to society for themselves and their higher standards of living.

Libretti, by focusing on words and culture, misses the point and completely, utterly misreads Marx. We need political and economic struggle against the capitalist class to make working conditions better and create “quality” jobs. I will repeat my words from the last time I disagreed with Libretti: The problem in U.S. society is not so much that highly skilled workers earn too much money. The problem is that unskilled workers earn far too little. This is compounded by the extreme weakness of the U.S. safety net provided to low-income individuals. I think doctors, lawyers, politicians, and bankers who come upon their earnings honestly should be paid more than less-skilled workers. At the same time, all of us, doctors, postal workers, lawyers, and custodians, must fight to increase wages for less-skilled workers and increase the strength of our safety net.


Laurent Ross
Laurent Ross

Laurent Ross is a professor of philosophy and mathematics at the Technological University of Santiago in the Dominican Republic.