Tracing the roots of progressive views on the duty to work – Part 2

This is the second part in my historical excursion tracing where progressive forces adopted the idea that it was fair and reasonable for individuals who sought income support from the state to contribute to the collective well-being through work if they could. As I noted in Part 1, 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! Somewhere along the way in history, elements of the Left have departed from the collective vision that bound social classes with different interests and education levels into a ‘working class’ force. As identity politics has become a preoccupation of what were traditional working class parties, even the concept of the working class has been subjugated into a ‘social’ class (lowly educated with racist predilections if we consider the Brexit debate, for example) rather than an economic class. And that is why the Left is split and the traditional social democratic parties have become increasingly unable to win elections even though the conservative alternative have been terrible. And part of that new divide is over work – the lack of it, the duty to do it, the vast variations in quality, and all the rest. In Part 2, we see how the duty of work concept permeated progressive elements in the West and allowed the different social classes (in the C. Wright Mills meaning) on the progressive side to bind into a coherent political force. That coherence is now gone and the lower-income workers are in revolt.

I finished – Part 1 – discussing a seminar I went to during my postgraduate student days where two leading (and very well educated) Soviet economists were discussing their role in the – Gosplan (the State Planning Committee) in the U.S.S.R.

I mentioned that during the Q&A, I asked two questions, one relating to whether workers in Moscow were really better off than a worker in Melbourne – the intent being to probe the idea that being part of a ‘Socialist collective’ somehow eased the daily grind of getting up each day and working (especially in Winter!). I wanted to better understand the social norms (if any could be articulated) that bound that society together.

My second question related to 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.

This Law went to the heart of the way the Soviet system conceived of the duty of work concept, which they had derived from Marx’s Gotha Program insights “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!”

The response from commentators and social media that followed that blog post was rather interesting.

All sorts of self-righteous, self-styled Leftists were out there in force claiming I was a disgrace for using that terminology and that I obviously was advocating that people who wanted to express their maverick intentions not to work but still eat should starve.

Others claimed they knew I was a Stalinist all along and that I had finally come out and disclosed that Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and the Job Guarantee were hard right, authoritarian programs designed to restrict freedom of expression, freedom of everything really. Somehow, the absurdity of the conjunction between extreme Right and Stalin passed them by.

Then others, seemed to think it was their role to defend society from any person who would take us back to the Soviet gulags and thought police. They obviously thought they had a duty to eulogise about how free capitalism had made us all.

It was somewhat breathtaking, although I would acknowledge I have been in that state my whole career, given the nature of my work.

The vehemence of the resistance to an academic discussion where I simply went back in history and sought to trace a lineage of an idea that had been and remains very influential in our societies revealed deep insecurities.

But why the hostility – that is what academic researchers do – look into things.

There is a pattern on social media and it is pretty ugly.

When Thomas Fazi and I mentioned in our book – Reclaiming the State: A Progressive Vision of Sovereignty for a Post-Neoliberal World (Pluto Books, September 2017) – that Germany recorded strong growth after Hitler took power – the social media galoots went crazy accusing us of being Nazis and/or Nazi sympathisers.

Our paragraph was just reporting an historically factual statement – good academic research practice.

Now when I mention the USSR, I become a Stalinist.

Confused is not the word. Nazi one minute, Authoritarian Leftist the next. Oh how I change!

The other point is that the black and white – Soviet and USA – type reasoning evades obvious nuances.

Some years ago, I was working for an international organisation in Central Asia. In my travels as part of that work, I arrived in Kazakhstan one cold morning and after leaving the airport in Almaty, I asked my driver what all the buildings that looked like tin sheds were that seemed quite odd out on the periphery of the urban settlement.

He said they were shanty accommodation built after the fall of the Soviet system as older workers who had worked all their lives for the system and had a state pension and subsidised rent in modest apartments had lost everything. Market-based rents were introduced and pensions scrapped as the system embraced the free market. He told me that the older workers hated the new system.


There is a lot of research that explores these grey areas of the collapse of the Soviet system. It is not, however, an area I conduct research in other than look out of car windows and observe things.

Now back to the “parasite” question!

My question obviously pre-dated the Internet and the Political Compass – which is a useful (though not perfect) site for understanding non-binary Left-Right classifications.

They explain their approach in this way:

Our essential point is that Left and Right, although far from obsolete, are essentially a measure of economics. As political establishments adopt either enthusiastically or reluctantly the prevailing economic orthodoxy — the neo-liberal strain of capitalism — the Left-Right division between mainstream parties becomes increasingly blurred. Instead, party differences tend to be more about identity issues. In the narrowing debate, our social scale is more crucial than ever.

The four-axis are Left (Collectivism) to Right (Neo-liberalism) on the horizontal plane, and, Authoritarian (Fascism) to Libertarian (Anarchism) on the vertical scale.

One of their questions under attitudes about the ‘economy’ is: “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” is a fundamentally good idea”, which I clearly indicated I strongly agreed with.

Another question is: “Those who are able to work, and refuse the opportunity, should not expect society’s support.” You can guess my response.

I took the test again today (it takes about 5 minutes) and my results were pleasing – I passed with Honours (-:

Here is my chart (you can see a history of my examination results – Here).

Stalin and the dominant ideology during the early years of the USSR is found out towards the far North-West quadrant – Political Compass Analysis. I am in the far South-West quadrant – ideologically in another world.

The point is that my question at that workshop long ago was motivated by my disdain for the concept of a parasite – yes, Tweet that!

I was not (and am not) an expert on the culture prevailing in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, when their Constitution was formulated. But I wanted to know whether the sense of collective responsibility was a social norm especially given the State guaranteed full employment or whether it was just mindless authoritarianism.

I also wanted to explore the extent to which citizens (the workers) had discretion of where they worked and when, as a way of teasing out the differences between our systems in the West, which are hardly exemplified by unlimited free choice.

The sort of question a research student and aspiring academic would ask.

In 1963, Joan Fiss published an article that I had read as a student – Freedom and Occupational Choice in the Soviet Union in the journal Social Research (Vol. 30, No.1, pp 53-76) – where she explored conceptions of freedoms, particularly in relation to the labour market.

Joan Fiss wrote:

The ultimate purpose of this essay is an attempt to suggest in concrete terms the need for rethinking about both the nature of totalitarianism in Russia, and even more, the West’s conception of freedom.

That is, nuance.

Moreover, the social media heroes whose Tweet fingers jump at every shadow, could not possibly believe that things in the Soviet Union were anything but terrible and that workers were whipped into submission by a tyrannical regime.

Research suggests otherwise, which is not to say that there were not human rights abuses. But then what is Black Lives Matter about?

Joan Foss citing the work of Arthur P. Mendel (1961) said that it was not an exaggeration to conclude that in the Soviet Union of the 1950s and early 1960s there was:

– freedom from exploitation, unemployment and poverty, from discrimination on account of sex, origin, nationality, or race. Every member of society is provided with equal opportunities for education and creative labor … Each is guaranteed an equal and free choice of occupation and profession with due regard to the interests of society … As less and less time is spent on material production, the individual is afforded ever greater opportunities to develop his abilities, gifts, and talents in the fields of production, science, engineering, literature, and the arts …

It was that conception that I was exploring when I asked the question at that workshop about the “Parasite Law”, which by then (early 1980s) had been purged from the legislation in the USSR.

Joan Fiss’s article explores the question in some detail.

The point is that there was some choice but in the context of “the interests of society”, which is also not an alien concept in our Western societies.

For the Soviet system, Joan Fiss wrote:

Living on unearned income is a crime in the Soviet Union … By requiring all to engage in socially useful labor, even those people with the necessary means cannot choose a vocation of idleness. This is a legitimate vocation from the point of view of the individual, although its social inconvenience is obvious.

Clearly, their conception of society came out of the Marxist critique of capital – the unfairness of capitalists who own the material means of production being able to take surplus value from the system when they added nothing productive to the commonwealth.

As I wrote in Part 1, Marx recognised there were categories of people who should be supported materially even though they could not work either through age (young/old) or health (physical or mental). There was no hint in these systems that the duty to work meant that anyone who didn’t, for whatever reason, didn’t eat.

They were trying to expunge the role of the capitalist who they considered was surplus to requirements (excuse the pun!).

Interestingly, the development of neoclassical marginal productivity theory in the second-half of the C19th was in response to the growing awareness among workers, particularly in Europe, of the unjust nature of surplus value appropriation.

John Bates Clark, who is best known for introducing marginal productivity theory (MPT), which claims that all inputs to production – labour, land, capital and entrepreneurship – earn what they contribute at the margin to production.

Such a system is thus inherently fair. This work was promoted heavily by industrialists because they were facing revolts from workers who considered profits to be highway robbery.

Events, such as the – 1848 Revolts and the Paris Commune 1871 – signalled a growing surge of Marxist inspired unrest that was threatening capitalist control of production and distribution.

MPT was developed as an antidote to this unrest and Bates Clark layered the fraught technical analysis with heavy doses of morality and ethical judgements about fairness.

Readers who desire more detail on that might like John Henry’s 1995 book – John Bates Clark. Contemporary Economists – published by Palgrave.

Of course, MPT was thoroughly discredited in the 1960s during the so-called – Cambridge Capital Controversies – but like many orthodox propositions that are simply wrong, they linger because they have ideological weight.

So what about those “Parasite Laws”?

In his 1963 book – Justice in the U.S.S.R: An Interpretation of Soviet Law (Harvard Press) – Harold Berman wrote this:

… “adult, able-bodied citizens who do not wish to perform a major constitutional duty – to work honestly according to their abilities – and who avoid socially useful work, derive unearned income from the exploitation of land plots, automobiles, or housing, or commit other antisocial acts which enable them to lead a parasitic way of life, shall be subject … to resettlement in specially designated localities for a period of from two to five years, with confiscation of the property acquired by non-labor means, and to obligatory enlistment in work at the place of resettlement.

This law, of course, excluded the usual non-workers – pensioners, the sick, children, those looking after children (which was considered non-work in that era – perceptions change).

While the rules relating to these laws evolved over the years, the Soviet system still believed it was a constitutional responsibility of all citizens to contribute to the collective output if they could and in return the State would ensure that their would always be opportunities available to facilitate that contribution (jobs).

There were debates about whether such an obligation was justifiable and whether it should be enforced, but, in general, the dual responsibilities of citizens to contribute and the state to make that contribution possible, were strongly held views in the Post World War 2 period.

Lawrence Becker provides an excellent discussion of these points in his 1980 journal article – The Obligation to Work (library subscription needed)- published in Ethics (Vol. 91, No. 1, pp.35-49).

But it is important for the purposes of this discussion to understand that this type of thinking was not just found in the Soviet world.

Now, don’t think that because I have so far discussed the Soviet conception of the duty of work and introduced readers to these ‘parasite laws’ that I support sending people off to gulags if they refuse to work.

Keep those twitchy Tweet fingers quiet.

Go back to my Political Compass classification to see how absurd that proposition would be.

Part of the logic of these work requirements related to the fact that societies were much closer to the edge of food shortages and other material deficits than they are now.

Manual work for many communities was the difference between a viable food harvest and the production of basic necessities and famine and deprivation.

So while we might – in a sanctimonious and judgemental way – moralise about the shocking lack of freedom in the Soviet system and abuse those who offer any nuance to that view – it is better to appreciate that nuance and history and learn from it.

And the problem of material shortage was not confined to planned economies despite what the free marketeers might have us believe.

The early days after the Second World War were harsh for most people.

And, while the language and style of the Soviet laws regarding the duty to work were distinctive, and remember language is inherently cultural, the fact is that during the Post World War 2 period, most Western governments invoked similar requirements as they rebuilt their nations after the War.

As I will explain in Part 3, they were built on notions such as the ‘work ethic’, collective responsibility, reciprocity, and justice ideals. All of these concepts are indelibly etched in Western thought and progressive thought, in particular.

And while Western nations do not often invoke gulags and work camps as a means of social control, these ‘responsibilities’ are, nonetheless, coercive and reinforce social conformity.

And they are still widely held today if the work of social psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists is anything to go by.


We will come back to that next time.

In closing today, I just want to say how sad I am to hear the news that my friend Nguyễn văn Tuấn (aka Tuấn) has died overnight in Auckland. He was a tireless advocate for a better world and saw in MMT some of the answers to achieving that goal. We will miss him a lot. A wonderful life and a wonderful person. RIPower.

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2020 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved