Misreading Rubin misreading Marx


An  objection to the last post was  raised by Adam Zebegner who claimed that it was well known that Marx specifically stated that exchange is a necessary condition for the existence of abstract labor. To justify this ‘well known’ position he cited Rubin to the effect that:

In the second edition of ‘Capital’, we find the famous phrase:

“The equalisation of the most different kinds of labour can be the result only of an abstraction from their inequalities, or of reducing them to their common denominator viz. expenditure of human labour power or human labour in the abstract” (cf. Kapital p.87).

In the French edition Marx replaces the full stop at the end of this sentence with a comma and adds “… and only exchange produces this reduction, by bringing the products of the most diverse kinds of labour into relation with each other on an equal footing” (Le Capital I p.70).

This insertion is highly indicative and shows clearly how far removed Marx was from the physiological conception of abstract labour. How can we reconcile these observations by Marx, of which there are dozens, with the basic thesis that value is created in production?” ( Rubin )


This passage by Adam is quoting Rubin in a text that has a lot to answer for in terms of the confusion it has given rise to.


I reread the relevant German and English passages before writing the previous article and assosciated video. I have never studied Capital in French.  So I went and looked at French translations. The first thing that became evident is that there is considerable controversy over the accuracy of the first French translation by Roy. In what follows I give the passage from Capital that I quoted, first in the English Aveling translation, then in the German original and then in two french translations.

Aveling passage 1.

If then we leave out of consideration the use value of commodities, they have only one common property left, that of being products of labour. But even the product of labour itself has undergone a change in our hands. If we make abstraction from its use value, we make abstraction at the same time from the material elements and shapes that make the product a use value; we see in it no longer a table, a house, yarn, or any other useful thing. Its existence as a material thing is put out of sight. Neither can it any longer be regarded as the product of the labour of the joiner, the mason, the spinner, or of any other definite kind of productive labour. Along with the useful qualities of the products themselves, we put out of sight both the useful character of the various kinds of labour embodied in them, and the concrete forms of that labour; there is nothing left but what is common to them all; all are reduced to one and the same sort of labour, human labour in the abstract. (Capital 1 Chap 1, page 28 )

German edition

Sieht man nun vom Gebrauchswert der Warenkörper ab, so bleibt ihnen nur noch eine Eigenschaft, die von Arbeitsprodukten. jedoch ist uns auch das Arbeitsprodukt bereits in der Hand verwandelt. Abstrahieren wir von seinem Gebrauchswert, so abstrahieren wir auch von den körperlichen Bestandteilen und Formen, die es zum Gebrauchswert machen. Es ist nicht länger Tisch oder Haus oder Garn oder sonst ein nützlich Ding. Alle seine sinnlichen Beschaffenheiten sind ausgelöscht. Es ist auch nicht länger das Produkt der Tischlerarbeit oder der Bauarbeit oder der Spinnarbeit oder sonst einer bestimmten produktiven Arbeit. Mit dem nützlichen Charakter der Arbeitsprodukte verschwindet der nützliche Charakter der in ihnen dargestellten Arbeiten, es verschwinden also auch die verschiedenen konkreten Formen dieser Arbeiten, sie unterscheiden sich nicht länger, sondern sind allzusamt reduziert auf gleiche menschliche Arbeit, abstrakt menschliche Arbeit.

Equivalent passage Roy

La valeur d’usage des marchandises une fois mise de côté, il ne leur reste plus qu’une qualité, celle d’être des produits du travail. Mais déjà le produit du travail lui-même est métamorphosé à notre insu. Si nous faisons abstraction de sa valeur d’usage, tous les éléments matériels et formels qui lui donnaient cette valeur disparaissent à la fois. Ce n’est plus, par exemple, une table, ou une maison, ou du fil, ou un objet utile quelconque ; ce n’est pas non plus le produit du travail du tourneur, du maçon, de n’importe quel travail productif déterminé. Avec les caractères utiles particuliers des produits du travail disparaissent en même temps, et le caractère utile des travaux qui y sont contenus, et les formes concrètes diverses qui distinguent une espèce de travail d’une autre espèce. Il ne reste donc plus que le caractère commun de ces travaux ; ils sont tous ramenés au même travail humain, à une dépense de force humaine de travail sans égard à la forme particulière sous laquelle cette force a été dépensée.

PUF edition 

Si l’on fait maintenant abstraction de la valeur d’usage du corps des marchandises , il ne leur reste plus qu’une seule propriété : celle d’être des produits du travail. Mais, même dans ce cas, ce produit du travail s’est déjà transformé dans nos mains. En faisant abstraction de sa valeur d’usage, nous faisons du même coup abstraction des composantes corporelles et des formes qui en font une valeur d’usage. Il cesse d’être table, maison ou fil, ou quelque autre chose utile que ce soit. Tous ses caractères sensibles sont effacés. Il cesse également d’être le produit du travail du menuisier, du maçon, du fileur, bref, d’un quelconque travail productif déterminé. En même temps que les caractères utiles des produits du travail, disparaissent ceux des travaux présents dans ces produits, et par là même les différentes formes concrètes de ces travaux, qui cessent d’être distincts les uns des autres, mais se confondent tous ensemble, se réduisent à du travail humain identique, à du travail humain abstrait.  


As you can see none of these texts, where Marx first introduces abstract labour, contain a passage equivalent to that cited in the Rubin text.  

It turns out that Rubin was not citing from section 1 of Chapter 1 of Capital where Marx defines abstract labour. Instead he was citing from the Roy edition of section 4 which is on the fetishism of commodities, that is to say on a section that deals with the ideological misrepresentation of real economic relations brought about by commodity exchange. In this process, the real cause of value -abstract labour – vanishes for the participants of capitalist society. Instead, value appears to be an intrinsic property of commodities rather than an indirect representation of the social cost of their production.. The whole of the passage is:

 “L’égalité de travaux qui diffèrent toto cœlo les uns des autres ne peut consister que dans une abstraction de leur inégalité réelle, que dans la réduction à leur caractère commun de dépense de force humaine, de travail humain en général, et c’est l’échange seul qui opère cette réduction en mettant en présence les uns des autres sur un pied d’égalité les produits des travaux les plus divers.

Le double caractère social des travaux privés ne se réfléchit dans le cerveau des producteurs que sous la forme que leur imprime le commerce pratique, l’échange des produits.”

Rubin only quotes the italicised section. He leaves out the bold section which makes it clear that Marx is not talking about the condition of existence of abstract labour, but the condition by which the existence of this labour forces itself into the brains of people in a capitalist economy. Marx is talking about how men become concious of abstract labour – which is not the same as the conditions of existence of abstract labour – it is the fetishised perception of it. In the Aveling version the context is even clearer :

 ” The equalisation of the most different kinds of labour can be the result only of an abstraction from their inequalities, or of reducing them to their common denominator, viz. expenditure of human labour power or human labour in the abstract. The twofold social character of the labour of the individual appears to him, when reflected in his brain, only under those forms which are impressed upon that labour in every-day practice by the exchange of products. “

It is verging on the mendacious for Rubin to have said  that the addendum to the French sentence “shows clearly how far removed Marx was from the physiological conception of abstract labour”. It is quite clear, once you read the whole passage, that Marx is not discussing the existence of abstract labour, but the form of representation this labour assumes in commodity producer’s brains.

Rubin goes beyond this and says :

This is not a question of an isolated comment by Marx. We will show that in the later editions of ‘Capital’, Marx increasingly stressed the idea that in commodity production only exchange reduces concrete labour to abstract labour.”

Whilst Rubin bends what Marx said slightly, at least Rubin is not claiming here that abstract labour only exists in commodity producing society – he is saying that if the society is commodity producing, then only exchange reduces concrete labour to abstract labour. Modern readers of Rubin go beyond this and claim that abstract labour can not exist in societies other than commodity producing ones. It is reasonable to say that in a commodity producing society men only become aware of abstract socially necessary labour time indirectly via exchange value, but that is neither the condition of its existence nor the only possible way in which it would be possible to be aware of it. In the communist society proposed by Marx products were to be directly labelled in the community warehouses with the hours required to produce them. 

The communist society would simply count the labours of the different trades as equivalent. The only distinction that, according to Marx, would apply is a distinction in speed and intensity of labour. But such distinctions are nothing to do with equating different concrete labours, instead they are distinctions between fast and slow workers within a given trade, between average mine workers and Stakanhov  to take a Soviet example.

The problem of people giving priority to interpreters when studying Capital, is that  these interpreters may have a particular axe to grind and be selective or misleading in their presentation of quotes from Marx. It is made worse when modern readers only have ready access to one side of the historical debate in which the arguments were developed. In the case of Rubin, his work is widely available in English, whereas most of those he was arguing with are only available, as Allin and I found, in fading microfiches of Russian journals of the inter-war years. 

For those interested I published on my blog the one translation that I have been able to find from Rubin’s opponents at this time. It is worth reading Isaak Dashkovskij to get some idea of the theoretical context in which Rubin was debating.


Abstract and Concrete Labour

Paul Cockshott 15/11/19

The issue of abstract and concrete labour is relatively minor. The two concepts dealt with in a few very clear paragraphs at the beginning of Capital. But unfortunately it has, over the last couple of decades, been mystified by some Marxist. Misleading claims have been put about to the effect that :

  • Abstract labour only exists under capitalism
  • In socialist economies there is only concrete labour
  • That there is no division of labour in non capitalist economies

Marx uses the concept on the second page of Capital where he writes:

If then we leave out of consideration the use value of commodities, they have only one common property left, that of being products of labour. But even the product of labour itself has undergone a change in our hands. If we make abstraction from its use value, we make abstraction at the same time from the material elements and shapes that make the product a use value; we see in it no longer a table, a house, yarn, or any other useful thing. Its existence as a material thing is put out of sight. Neither can it any longer be regarded as the product of the labour of the joiner, the mason, the spinner, or of any other definite kind of productive labour. Along with the useful qualities of the products themselves, we put out of sight both the useful character of the various kinds of labour embodied in them, and the concrete forms of that labour; there is nothing left but what is common to them all; all are reduced to one and the same sort of labour, human labour in the abstract. (Capital 1 Chap 1, page 28 )

So he is saying that each type of commodity has its own special physical qualities, and that these qualities are given to it by the special actions of the different types of labour : spinning, joinery, masonry. But if we consider commodities in general, bearing in mind that they exchange with one another, it can not be the specific character of labour the labour that made them that is important. It is the fact that they are all made by human labour. He says human labour in the abstract to emphasise that it is people doing it, whatever these people were doing.

It is a unique ability of our species, shared by no other species currently alive on this planet, to be able to apply ourselves readily to a vast variety of tasks. The combination of hands with large brains gives us this adaptability. It was only human labour that Marx considered as important in commodities.

At the time Marx was writing, we were not the only species working. There was a lot of horse labour going on in the English economy. In terms of physical effort probably more was done by horses than by people. I have seen figures for the horse population of late Victorian England as being 3.3 million, the human population was 21 million. A human male is hard put to sustain 75 watts of output, women and children considerably less. A horse power is 735 watts, so we can estimate that horses were delivering around twice as much work as people in Marx’s England.

But this work by our equine sisters was all traction. Horses were not spinning, engaging in cabinet making or bricklaying. There was no horse labour in the abstract; all they did was pull or carry riders.

The important thing to understand about commodities is that they were all produced by people working, irrespective of what kind of work people were doing. And because we are not concerned with exactly what they were doing, we can measure labour in units of time:

A use value, or useful article, therefore, has value only because human labour in the abstract has been embodied or materialised in it. How, then, is the magnitude of this value to be measured? Plainly, by the quantity of the value-creating substance, the labour, contained in the article. The quantity of labour, however, is measured by its duration, and labour time in its turn finds its standard in weeks, days, and hours. (Capital 1 Chap 1, page 29 )

Clearly if we are measuring labour in units of time, we are ignoring what the person was doing, and only taking into account that they were working at something.

The argument in Capital is in the context of commodities whose value, he says, comes from the division of labour. If we think about the division of labour, it is obviously human labour in general that is being divided between specific trades or professions. But the claim of some Marxists that abstract labour and the division of labour are something specific to capitalism does not follow. Just because Marx is writing about the division of labour under capitalism here, does not imply that capitalism is necessary for a division of labour. Indeed he explicitly makes this point:

To all the different varieties of values in use there correspond as many different kinds of useful labour, classified according to the order, genus, species, and variety to which they belong in the social division of labour. This division of labour is a necessary condition for the production of commodities, but it does not follow, conversely, that the production of commodities is a necessary condition for the division of labour. In the primitive Indian community there is social division of labour, without production of commodities. Or, to take an example nearer home, in every factory the labour is divided according to a system, but this division is not brought about by the operatives mutually exchanging their individual products. Only such products can become commodities with regard to each other, as result from different kinds of labour, each kind being carried on independently and for the account of private individuals. (Capital 1 Chap 1, page 30 )

So the argument goes that the division of human labour between different activities gives rise to the exchange value of commodities, but this only occurs if the division of labour occurs in a society of private individuals producing independently. In other social organisations, there can be a division of labour without commodities.

So there is every reason to suppose that a division of labour and therefore human work in the abstract will also exist in communist societies – even if there was no commodity production in them. We may hope that communist societies will tend to free people from a narrow subordination to this division of labour, so that people may vary their tasks either during the week or from year to year. This is what Marx was getting at when, many years earlier, he wrote

For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.(German Ideology, Ch 1)

The fact that one person may do different concrete tasks at different times abolishes neither the division of labour nor abstract labour as Marx points out in Capital :

There are, however, states of society in which one and the same man does tailoring and weaving alternately, in which case these two forms of labour are mere modifications of the labour of the same individual, and not special and fixed functions of different persons, just as the coat which our tailor makes one day, and the trousers which he makes another day, imply only a variation in the labour of one and the same individual. Moreover, we see at a glance that, in our capitalist society, a given portion of human labour is, in accordance with the varying demand, at one time supplied in the form of tailoring, at another in the form of weaving. This change may possibly not take place without friction, but take place it must.(Capital 1, page 31)

I am not quite sure where this prejudice about the abstract labour only existing under capitalism, and ceasing to exist in a future economy comes from. It clearly does not come from a straighforward reading of Capital. I suspect there exists a substantial number of Marxists who put off reading Capital for a while. In that period they ‘prepared themselves’ by reading commentators on Capital. Perhaps they read Heinrich, Rubin etc. But this means that by the time they read Marx, they already have certain ideas about what they should expect to find there. They read Marx through lenses they have borrowed. And these introduce a certain confirmation bias.

I always encourage people to read great thinkers in their own words first. Whether it is Einstein, Darwin or Marx you want to study, read them in the original first. Only read commentators afterwards. If you have read the original you are in a position to critically assess the commentators. If not, you may give excessive weight to the commentary.

Response to Horowitz

Every now and then I get requests to respond to specific criticisms of our1 work. I usually just make a brief response in an email when asked a question about what a critic has said. But like buses, you wait 20 years then three come at once. In the last week three people from three countries have asked me to respond to a 1996 article by Horowitz Money, money prices, and the socialist calculation debate2.

Here is a brief response. It is brief both because his own criticisms of us are short, and because we have replied at length in the past to the same or very similar points.

Horowitz accuses us of only focusing on von Mises critique of socialist calculation. He acknowledges that we have demonstrated that computationally the problem of socialist calculation is tractable, but that we have ignored the arguments of Hayek. Hayek, Horowitz wrote, made a distinct critique of socialism, not that millions of equations were too complex to solve, but that on epistemological grounds socialist calculation was impossible.

Horowitz is correct that the Hayek critique of socialism is not identical to that of Mises, but by the time Horowitz article was published in 1996 we had already produced a report3 dealing with Hayek’s arguments. As a technical report this had perhaps limited circulation but a journal article4 covering the same ground has also been published. Our response to Hayek was extended ten years later in more detail5.

Horowitz’s article touches only on one of all the points we raise against Hayek, that of so called ’tacit knowledge’. Hayek argued that a function of market incentives was to draw out from economic actors what he called tacit knowledge. By this he means knowledge that they did not know that they even had until the right monetary incentives drew it out from them.

We are very skeptical of this notion. Observe that the existence of tacit knowledge is so defined as to be unmeasurable and undetectable. Once any knowledge is writen down or communicated, then it no longer meets the criterion of being tacit. So how do we know that this tacit knowledge exists in the first place?

The hypothesis that explicit knowledge has tacit knowledge as its precondition is untestable by definition. Tacit knowledge like the existence of the soul, is an unfalsifiable proposition. The sorts of examples that Hayek gave – the particular and specialised knowledge that a shipping clerk has – are singularly unconvincing. As we wrote in 1994:

Further, even the sort of ‘particular’ knowledge which Hayek thought too localized to be susceptible to centralization is now routinely centralized. Take his example of the information possessed by shippers. In the 1970s American Airlines achieved the position of the world’s largest airline, to a great extent on the strength of their development of the SABRE system of computerized booking of flights (Gibbs, 1994). Since then we have come to take it for granted that our local travel agent will be able to tap into a computer network to determine where and when there are flights available from just about any A to any B across the world. Hayek’s appeal to localized knowledge in this sort of context may have been appropriate at the time of writing, but it is now clearly outdated.

Horowitz argues that production functions are not knowable because they are continuously in the process of being created by entrepreneurial activity. This he says, precludes planning in the absense of monetary economy.

The first point I should make here is that Marxist economists do not think that there is such a thing as a production function. It is a concept of bourgeois economics. We did say that the Austrian school is distinguished from other bourgeois economics schools by thinking that the production function is constantly mutable and subject to change. But Marxists reject the whole notion of a production function6. Instead socialist planning theory analyses production in terms of sets of techniques7.

These are two very different concepts.

The production function in neoclassical theory typically takes the form


where P is production, L is labour used, K is capital used. Clearly this is a non linear function, and a highly abstract one in that K and L are just sums of money. K is not broken down in to any concrete list of goods used. This abstraction was the focus of the Cambridge capital theory debates of the 1960s where Sraffian economists showed that even if one assumes perfect competition and uniform profit rates, you can not define the value of capital independently of both the concrete lists of components used in each technique or the distribution of national income between the working and capitalist classes.

The model used by Sraffa to critique the neoclassical model was a matrix specifying how much of each input is used by each production process. Sraffa uses only one production technique per process. This is itself a simplified version of what the mathematical planning theory of Kantorovich used, since Kantorovich allows multiple possible production techniques to make each product.

Now how does this collection of technique fit in with what Horowitz says?

How about his claim that the knowledge of how to produce things is only created or elicited by entrepreneurial activity?

Well he is certainly right in that the knowledge of the techniques needed to make things is itself the result of activity. But it is not the activity of the mythical entrepreneur. It is, in advanced industrial society, the collective effort of design teams and bureaus. And the process of knowledge production is very objective. It can not function without extensive documentation. As we wrote in 2007:

One component of a cybernetic control system has to be distributed. Clearly it is the Airbus factories that have the information about what parts are used to make an A340, the car plants have the information about what parts are used to make a Mondeo. This information approximates to what Hayek and the Austrian school of economics call contextual or tacit knowledge – but it is of course no longer human knowledge. Literally nobody knows what parts go into an A340. The information, too vast for a human to handle, is stored in a relational database. At an earlier stage of industrial development it would have been dealt with by a complex system of paper records. Again the knowledge would have been objective – residing in objects rather than in human brains. The very possibility of large scale, co-ordinated industrial activity rests upon the existence of such objectivised information. The information to construct the parts explosion is generated by a computerised design process within the collaborating factories of Airbus Industrie. In a cybernetically controlled socialist economy, the parts explosion data for the A340, along with the parts explosion data for other products would have to be computationally combined to arrive at a balanced production plan.

I suspect that the Austrian school writers have never actually worked in a modern design bureau. They certainly have a rather abstract idea about how the knowledge our industrial society depends on is actually produced.

When Horowitz says that without money prices experts would have no way of determining what was technically feasible but economically irrational, he is falling back from Hayek to Mises. This argument that only money provides a way of aggregating different inputs in order to chose the cheapest technique was the core of Mises argument. But at least Mises recognised that if one had access to labour values, these would serve just as well. Horowitz forgets this concession by Mises. He also seems unaware of Kantorovich’s Objective Valuation, arising out of linear programs, so this particular argument by Horowitz was already long obsolete in 1996.

1Cottrell, Cockshott and Michaleson’s

2Money, money prices, and the socialist calculation debate Steven Horwitz Advances in Austrian Economics,ISBN: 978-0-76230-055-6, eISBN: 978-1-84950-019-7, ISSN: 1529-2134, Publication date: 31 May 1996

3Cottrell, A., & Cockshott, W. P. (1994). Information and Economics: A Critique of Hayek. Department of Computer Science, University of Strathclyde.

4Cockshott, W. Paul, and Allin F. Cottrell. “Information and economics: a critique of Hayek.” Research in Political Economy 16 (1997): 177-202.

5Cottrell, Allin, and W. Paul Cockshott. “Against hayek.” (2007).

6The classic Marxist deconstruction of it is Shaikh, Anwar. “Humbug production function.” Capital Theory. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 1990. 191-194.

7Kantorovich, Leonid V. “Mathematical methods of organizing and planning production.” Management science 6.4 (1960): 366-422.

Socialist calculation: the computer engineering problem

In the same year that Allin Cottrell and I published Towards a New Socialism(TNS), I also brought out a couple of computer science books. The two CS books might seem to have little to do with the book on socialism but they are linked by an intellectual history of research over the decade that led up to TNS.

The first book was about the persistent programming language PS-algol
The second book was about how to implement PS-algol with 128 bit address spaces on PCs
The third book was on the computerised planning of socialist economies


Since around 1981 I had been thinking about the problem of socialist calculation from an engineering viewpoint and trying to come up with computer engineering solutions. The other books record part of that history. I bring it up now because I think that some of the engineering solutions that I worked on in the 1980s were sufficiently in advance of the then existing technology that they may still have some technical relevance to a future planned economy.

In particular, I will focus on the issues of the persistent store and the world wide address space machines that I was designing and prototyping.

The Data Curator

The data curator machine at Edinburgh university circa 1981. This was an object server for a network of client machines. The boxes to the right were 60MB disk drives – something considered quite state of the art at the time. The tall cabinet was a Perkin Elmer 32 bit computer that ran an Edinburgh Operating System Mouses.

From late 1980 to the summer of 82 I was working on my PhD. The research topic was how to incorporate the concept of data persistence into high level compiled languages in such a way as to allow it to work in a distributed networked environment.

Because of this background and also because I was a Marxist economist, a fellow PhD student from China, a CPC member and still in those days a Maoist, asked if I would be willing to come to work in the planning ministry in Beijing and introduce some of the techniques we had developed in Edinburgh to that ministry. As it happened, despite me agreeing, my Chinese comrade discovered that although foreign CS experts were being invited to China, the planning ministry was out of bounds for foreigners.

But let me first explain the context of our research in Edinburgh in the early 80s and why it was seen to be relevant.

The dominant paradigm in computing in 1980 divided computer memory into two logically distinct types: Random Access Store (RAM) and Filestore. Data in RAM vanished when you turned the machine off, whereas the Filestore was persistent. The conceptual distinction reflected two different technologies, semiconductor DRAM and rotating magnetic disks. These two technologies are still with us, but persistent semiconductor store (SSD) is rapidly replacing the old rotating disks in new computers.

Today, both RAM and SSD are made of silicon, and both allow rapid random access. But the conceptual legacy of the old disk filing systems persists. Files have to be opened and accessed by read and write system calls, and any data stored in the variables of programme vanishes when the programme ends.

But this distinction between persistent and volatile memory can in principle be hidden by smart virtual memory technology. The EMAS operating system that we used in Edinburgh in the late 70s and early 80s and the MIT Multics system had a different concept. A user’s files were mapped into the address space of their programme and accessed as array data with a programme. Some early interpretive languages like APL and Smalltalk also had the notion of a ‘workspace’ in which the variables of a programme could persist between login sessions.

Although memory mapped filestore has since been adopted in Windows NT, Windows 10 etc,  much current programming still takes place using the older read/write file paradigm.

Memory mapping of files only really works for array data types. Heap data: instances of classes, graphs, trees etc, is still non-persistent in most programming languages. A limited form of heap persistence is provided by Java serialisation, but this facility is not as consistent and orthogonal as that which was long ago available in Smalltalk.

The Xerox Alto, the world first personal workstation. Never made commercially available


The Advanced Personal Machine(APM), demonstrated by Richard Marshall

Our research in the early 80s was designed to allow existing compiled languages like Algols or Pascal to have persistent heap store. Moreover, we wanted this persistent store to be larger than that provided on the relatively small 16 bit Alto processors on which Xerox Parc had prototyped Smalltalk.

In 1980 commercial personal computers were puny Apple IIs or similar 8-bit machines. There was no World Wide Web, and the ethernet was still just a research system in Xerox Parc. So Edinburgh CS dept developed its own workstation : the APM, and its own locally designed ethernet.

The Data Curator project succeeded in demonstrating that you could implement a distributed persistent object structured virtual memory for compiled languages. Its first demonstration was for a dialect of Algol from St Andrews: S-algol.

The Edinburgh extension was termed PS-algol with the P standing for Persistent.  Subsequently, persistence was built into the languages  Napier88,  Fibonacci and the Java variant pJama.

When I was asked to go to China I started thinking about how the technology of persistence could be applied to planning an economy for a country as huge as China. The first point that struck me is that we were going to need a much large scale of distributed computing than anything we had experimented with. If one looked forward to a future automated Chinese economy the planning system would need to coordinate data originating in hundreds of millions of computers. It would have to integrate this into a single vast shared database that could coordinate the whole of social production.


Persistent store machines

This implied that we would need a computer architecture with a very much larger shared virtual address space than those available on 1980s computers, which maxed out at 32-bit virtual address space.  Furthermore,   remember this was before the collapse of the USSR, and socialism still seemed to be winning on a world scale, it struck me as obvious that a design for socialist planning should in principle be extendible to worldwide planning, for a day in the future when the number of computers rivalled the numbers of people.

The population of the world, around 4 billion, in those days would already exhaust 32 bits if there was one computer per person.

The first machine architecture I designed,  PSM had a 128 bit address space made up of a 48 bit host number, a 48 bit local object number and an offset of up to 32 bits within the object. That is to say, individual objects could be up to 4 Gigabytes in size.

The addressing mechanism proposed for the PSM, Photocopy from original Persistent Store Machine report.
The address was split into 48 bit Host number and a 48-bit Local Object Number on the machine. Photocopy from original Persistent Store Machine report.

Objects would migrate via a worldwide network from the source machine to any machine that had a copy of the Host/LON combination. This is very similar to the somewhat later concept of a URL used in the WWW, but with the difference that the identifiers were seen as being binary rather than textual.

The machine architecture seems, by modern standards, to have a rather sparse register set (shown below).

The register architecture, A is an accumulator, V, D, C are 128-bit base address registers, I and L are index registers and T is a transaction register for the nested transactional store. ( from original report)

The sparse set of registers was heavily influenced by the ICL 3900 series. We were in close collaboration with ICL with the view to the PSM being a successor architecture to the 3900. The single 128 bit accumulator,  already was there on the 3900. The segment registers we proposed were longer than those on the 3900. The intention was to prototype the PSM by microcode changes to an existing series 3900.

ICL supplied us with an early 3900 machine at Glasgow University to which the team had moved. But obstacles were placed in the way of accessing the microcode so the research platform at Glasgow was switched to a new machine that I will describe in a later post.

Concluding thoughts

For socialist calculation to be feasible certain engineering problems had to be solved. It had to become possible to access what is now termed ‘Big Data’. It had to be possible to unify information across millions of computers. It had to be possible to have databases very much larger than could be addressed by the 32-bit computers available at the start of the 1980s.

Today the technologies to do most of these things are well-established thanks to the Web and cloud data servers.

It is arguable, however, that the computing paradigm on which all of this is built, that of volatile ram combined with a distributed filespace is less amenable to high-performance computation over distributed graph structures than the sort of address architecture our team was working on in Glasgow in the mid-1980s.   With modern VLSI technology, it would be feasible to design a class of 128 bit addressed RISC processors. The ICL register architecture we proposed is clearly obsolete and would have to be replaced by something more modern.

What then is the escape from capitalism?


What would be the essential features of a socialist economy, one the would be really achievable?


If you go back to the 19th-century socialists like Marx they saw the elimination of a monetary economy as being absolutely essential. One can read the whole of Marx’s Capital as a prolonged argument to the effect that a monetary industrial economy leads inevitably to the whole set of capitalist institutions. From money and industry comes the buying of labour power, from this comes exploitation and the class system. From exploitation stem all the other evils of the system.

Any attempt to introduce a reformed monetary economy leaves the basic logic untouched. The underlying tendencies implicit in the monetary economy re-assert themselves. The experience of hitherto existing socialism which altered property ownership without eliminating money and monetary calculation are a testimony to this inner logic. There was a constant pressure to re-introduce more and more capitalist elements to the economy since these capitalist institutions are an inner necessity of monetary logic.


But what does getting rid of money imply? Is it even feasible? What is the alternative?


Marx was pretty clear that he saw the immediate alternative as being a system based on the use of personal labour accounts:

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 labor. For example, the social working day consists of the sum of the individual hours of work; the individual labor time of the individual producer is the part of the social working day contributed by him, his share in it. He receives a certificate from society that he has furnished such-and-such an amount of labor (after deducting his labor for the common funds); and with this certificate, he draws from the social stock of means of consumption as much as the same amount of labor cost. The same amount of labor which he has given to society in one form, he receives back in another. (Critique of the Gotha Programme)

With this institution there is no exploitation – the worker gets back what they have contributed. There is no surplus going to a property owner.

There still has to be something equivalent to an income tax, what Marx calls deduction of labour for common funds.  

But there is still a unit of account. Marx was not proposing an economic free for all. He was not saying that you simply go to the common store and remove as much as you want. Clearly, were this to be allowed you would be encouraging parasites no better than those in the old society. But how does this system of labour accounts actually differ from money?


Does it not, in the terminology of thinkers like Heinrich, not just ‘reproduce the value form’. Marx answers this in a footnote in Capital I.

The question — Why does not money directly represent labour-time, so that a piece of paper may represent, for instance, x hours’ labour, is at bottom the same as the question why, given the production of commodities, must products take the form of commodities? This is evident, since their taking the form of commodities implies their differentiation into commodities and money. Or, why cannot private labour — labour for the account of private individuals — be treated as its opposite, immediate social labour? I have elsewhere examined thoroughly the Utopian idea of “labour-money” in a society founded on the production of commodities (l. c., p. 61, seq.). On this point I will only say further, that Owen’s “labour-money,” for instance, is no more “money” than a ticket for the theatre. Owen pre-supposes directly associated labour, a form of production that is entirely inconsistent with the production of commodities. The certificate of labour is merely evidence of the part taken by the individual in the common labour, and of his right to a certain portion of the common produce destined for consumption. (Capital I Chap 3)


So here he is saying that the precondition for the sort of labour certificate he talks about is directly associated production, that is to say, production that is organised according to a common plan and not carried out by private businesses.  But would this not just re-create money?

Would these labour certificates not start to circulate like bank notes?

Well Marx was explicit that this would not happen.

In the case of socialised production the money-capital is eliminated. Society distributes labour-power and means of production to the different branches of production. The producers may, for all it matters, receive paper vouchers entitling them to withdraw from the social supplies of consumer goods a quantity corresponding to their labour-time. These vouchers are not money. They do not circulate.(Capital 2, Chap 18)


How, though, did he propose to prevent these certificates or paper vouchers from circulating. He does not spell it out but when you think of it, the implication is pretty clear. The vouchers would bear the name of the worker who had performed the x hours work. In the small mill towns of the 19th century, when store counter workers would know the other workers by name, this would have been enough. In a big city, a purchaser might have to produce an identity document. This would have prevented them from circulating and acting like money.

Hollerith card of the sort proposed by Bellamy for social credit

But all that is based on the technology of the early 19th century. By the late 19th century socialist authors like Bellamy were proposing to harness the then very modern punched card technology. Bellamy envisaged a socialist economy in which citizens would have social credit cards, punched cards, that they would use to buy things from common stores. When they bought something the credit would simply be canceled out by punching it away on the card. The goods would then be delivered in Amazon-style using pneumatic tubes that would run to every house.


What this shows is that an earlier generation of socialists had no hesitation about using the best technologies of their day when thinking of getting rid of money. Today, of course, we have the infrastructure of smart cards and their readers. Changing this over to a labour accounting system would be simply a matter of :

  1. Changing the unit of account from the Euro to the labour hour.
  2. Amending the software so that transfers between private accounts were impossible.
  3. Withdraw all Euro’s from circulation.

But in order to mark goods in terms of their labour content, you need both the direct association of production, its carrying out in accordance with a common plan, and the ability to do the necessary calculations.

Back in the 1920s the right wing economist Mises claimed that socialist calculation without money would be impossible. He did concede that Marx’s labour time would be an alternative way of reckoning but said that working out labour content was impossibly difficult. The economy was far to complex, far too many different types of labour were involved indirectly in the making of any one product, for this to be feasible.


Mises was writing before computers and before the internet. In his day calculations were done by clerks with paper and pen in ledgers. What was once daunting, becomes, with modern digital technology a relatively easy task. Even back in the 1980’s Allin Cottrell and I showed that with then available network technology and 8-bit microcomputers, you could maintain a system of social labour values that was updated daily. With modern equipment, the updating could be even more rapid.


The technical and theoretical problems associated with abolishing the capitalist monetary economy are readily solvable. The solutions have been public for years. The problem is political. It is promulgating and persuading the great bulk of the population that they stand to gain directly and in the short term from such a transition.


New website

 I have created a new, paid for, website to bring together material that I previously had spread over several other sites. I am in the process of trying to collect as many of my publications and draft publications together here as I  can.

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