Marx: The Problem of Production and Distribution

More than one hundred and fifty years ago Karl Marx made two seemingly contradictory statements:

it is not a fact that too many necessities of life are produced in proportion to the existing population. The reverse is true. Nit enough is produced to satisfy the wants of the great mass decently and humanely…It is not a fact that too much wealth is produced. But it is true that there is periodical overproduction of wealth in its capitalistic and self-contradictory form

The Statements are not contradictory, and both are still true.

In the world as a whole and in separate parts of it there are always masses of people not receiving enough “to satisfy wants…decently and humanely”. United Nation sources estimate that more than 700 million people — or 10 per cent of the global population — still live in extreme poverty, which means they are surviving on less than $1.90 a day. Experts predict these figures will continue to rise as a result of the COVID-19 crisis alongside the ongoing impacts of conflicts and climate change.

And in the industrialized countries, including the United Kingdom with its precarious employment, “food banks”, and “warm spaces”, there are large numbers of people on low wages, unemployment pay, pensions or social security payments insufficient to meet the cost of a decent, humane standard of living.

Capitalism: “A fetter on production”.

Marx also claimed that capitalism was “a fetter on production”. He wrote:

At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or – this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms – with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters
(‘Preface: Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy’ 1859).

Capitalism is still a constraint on production. The basic contradiction of capitalism is between co-operative social production and class ownership of the means of production. We can illustrate why capitalism is a “fetter on production” by considering the potential of solar energy.

Professor Mehran Moalem of UC Berkeley an expert on nuclear materials and nuclear fuel cycle, amongst other engineering specialisms, stated in a recent article that:

If we cover an area of the Earth 335 kilometres by 335 kilometres with solar panels, even with moderate efficiencies achievable easily today, it will provide more than 17,4 TW power. This area is 43,000 square miles. The Great Saharan Desert in Africa is 3.6 million square miles and is prime for solar power (more than twelve hours per day). That means 1.2% of the Sahara Desert is sufficient to cover all of the energy needs of the world in solar energy.”

Professor Moalem uses capitalism’s price mechanism to illustrate the cost of this project as being around $5 trillion. Although there would be no prices or money in socialism where production will be undertaken by free voluntary labour, Professor Moalem’s cost of universal solar energy can be contrasted with military spending and “fast-food” consumption under capitalism.

According to Professor Moalem, universal solar energy production is the same amount of money that the world’s competing nation states spends on the military and its weapons over three years ($1.7 trillion per year/$5.1 trillion), what the U.S. spent on Wars in the Middle East and Asia since 2001 ($5.6 trillion) and the amount of money Americans spend on fast food over 13 years ($5.08 trillion).

The article asks what prevents solar energy being developed in this way. For a start the Sahara Desert straddles several competing nation states including Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Niger, Sudan, and Tunisia. Most are wracked by civil war and social disability. The politics of capitalism gets in the way. The means of production like the raw resources and machinery which make up the solar panels, the transport and so on including solar energy technology and its production, is like all the means of production under capitalism, privately owned to the exclusion of most of society.

In socialism, a world-wide social system, without artificial borders protected by armed guards, barbed wire and passport controls, this would not be a problem. The forces of production including social and co-operative labour would be developed to its full capacity. There would be no barriers preventing the use of global systems of power and energy.

Marx made this point in the ‘Grundrisse’:

Capital itself is the moving contradiction…In the one side, it calls to life all the powers of science and of nature, as of social combination and of social intercourse, in order to make the creation of wealth independent (relatively) of the labour time employed on it. On the other side, it wants to use labour time as the measuring rod for the giant social force thereby created, and to confine them within the limits required to maintain the already created value as value. Forces of production and social relations – two different sides of the development of the social individual – appear to capital as mere means, and are merely means for it to produce on its limited foundation. In fact, however, they are the material conditions to blow this foundation sky high
(Penguin p. 706).

Marx, Ecology, and the Environment

Marx has been accused of being a “productivist”; someone who thinks production can carry on without any detrimental harm to the environment. This is not so as Saito Kohei, an associate professor at the University of Tokyo, has shown in his recent book MARX IN THE ANTHROPOCENE (Cambridge University Press 2020).

Kohei Saito made a detailed examination of Marx’s notebooks on the natural sciences. Marx clearly showed the damaging relationship between nature and capitalism which was fundamentally unsustainable. Marx was not a “productivist” but was concerned with the “metabolic rift” between production and nature that commodity production and exchange for profit caused by not returning to nature elements it extracted from it. Saito writes:

Marx consistently problematized the capitalist squandering of two fundamental factors of production: ‘labour power’ (…) and ‘natural’ forces (…). The alienation of labour and of nature are mutually constitutive of each other. In other words, capital no only exploits labour power but also subsumes the whole world, significantly affecting ‘space (scale)’ and ‘time (rate),. With its ever-expanding and accelerating scale of economy, capital bring about spatiotemporal transformations on an unprecedented level” (p.24).

Marx spent some time in CAPITAL showing the destructive which followed capitalism’s plunder of the natural environment, particularly with reference to soil erosion. What he did say – and this was his fundamental contribution to socialism – is that the social relations of capitalism – the class relations – prevents the productive forces, which includes co-operative and social labour, from being used and developed to end social problems like poverty and energy. We do not have to endure poverty, homelessness, and hunger. The means exists to solves these problems and capitalism prevents them from being solved. The profit system, though, acts as a barrier. Only socialism can overcome that barrier.

The Purpose of Socialist Production

The purpose of socialist production will be solely and directly to satisfy human needs considering the impact of production on the environment and biosphere. Capitalist production cannot do this since it is driven by the profit motive.

What Marx understood by capitalist production was that its technology and social productivity could satisfy wants “…decently and humanely” under the right social conditions and in a responsive social system. A society producing sufficiently to meet human need throughout the world is possible. There is no reason why sufficient decent housing could be constructed, adequate health and care provided to all, and enough food, clothing, communication, and transport delivered throughout the whole planet. Capitalism, driven by the profit-motive, cannot meet the needs of all society but socialism, freed from private property ownership, would be able to meet these needs.

Socialism, making full use of techniques of production will also have at its disposal creative social and co-operative labour freed from the exploitive wages system. Men and women will be producing and distributing social wealth solely and directly to meet the needs of humanity, and not for the profit of a privileged few.

From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs” is the fundamental socialist principle which will guide socialist society. Men and women will freely take part in social production to the best of their abilities, and freely take what the need to flourish and take part in the democratic affairs of society.

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Object and Declaration of Principles


The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.

Declaration of Principles


1. That society as at present constituted is based upon the ownership of the means of living (ie land, factories, railways, etc.) by the capitalist or master class, and the consequent enslavement of the working class, by whose labour alone wealth is produced.

2. That in society, therefore, there is an antagonism of interests, manifesting itself as a class struggle, between those who possess but do not produce and those who produce but do not possess.

3.That this antagonism can be abolished only by the emancipation of the working class from the domination of the master class, by the conversion into common property of society of the means of production and distribution, and their democratic control by the whole people.

4. That as in the order of social evolution the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom, the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex.

5. That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself.

6. That as the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the nation, exists only to conserve the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers, the working class must organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government, national and local, in order that this machinery, including these forces, may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation and the overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic.

7. That as all political parties are but the expression of class interests, and as the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class, the party seeking working class emancipation must be hostile to every other party.

8. The Socialist Party of Great Britain, therefore, enters the field of political action determined to wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist, and calls upon the members of the working class of this country to muster under its banner to the end that a speedy termination may be wrought to the system which deprives them of the fruits of their labour, and that poverty may give place to comfort, privilege to equality, and slavery to freedom.