by Tony Norfield
In some recent events, I have given my views on world developments and heard what others have had to say. One theme of these was Marxist theory, and here I sum up my views on how to develop it.
Marx was a genius in many respects, not least in the way that he had a clear perspective on the dynamics of the capitalist economic system from the earliest stages of its industrial development. So why is it that some key elements of his theory are still being debated or disputed, or sometimes expounded as if read from a holy book? Surely, this is a little odd, more than 120-150 years after the theory was first set out. Was Marx such an astonishing genius that his ideas cannot be fully understood even today? Considering why this has been the case also leads to my perspective on what should be done next.
Marx’s theory shows how social labour, ie the work that people do as part of their social cooperation to survive, takes a peculiar form under capitalism. This peculiar form – where workers are employed by capitalists to produce commodities for the market – obscures the underlying relationships. For example, it will appear that there can be a ‘fair wage’ for work done at the same time that the worker also provides the employing capitalist with a profit. Where does the profit come from? Mainstream economics does not recognise that it comes from the surplus labour workers perform. While surplus labour is evident under social systems such as slavery or feudalism, under capitalism the riches of those running the system are supposed to come from the magical powers of ownership and the ‘entrepreneurial spirit’. Such beliefs persist, despite the fact that many capitalists also gain their extravagant revenues these days from government spending.
The previous points would probably find agreement among almost all those who have studied the basic elements of Marx’s theory. But most soon fall into a ditch when other issues are raised. In particular, there is chronic misunderstanding of the structure of Marx’s arguments in the three volumes of Capital. I confess to finding this depressing, rather than amusing. Despite the clear, readable exposition of Marx’s approach in Roman Rosdolsky’s The Making of Marx’s Capital, published more than three decades ago, the result of the subsequent decades of much ‘Marxist’ writing can be more accurately described as cacophony rather than it having achieved much clarity or having made much progress.
However, there is a more fundamental problem, not simply a failure to get to grips with the theory. The problem is that an understanding the world does not easily develop in the absence of an active political debate, where questions are raised and demand to be answered, with consequences that follow from what has been said. Marx, Engels and Lenin developed their theories in such political turmoil, which provided them with fertile ground on which to build their outlook on the world. Today, the opponents of capitalism still have its destruction and disasters to provide raw material for their views. But, in the rich countries at least, they must also find a way through the quicksand left by widespread illusions in the potentially progressive character of the capitalist state. This dates back to the late 19th century, and was attacked by Marx in his 1875, unfortunately semi-private, Critique of the Gotha Programme. Such illusions have been given more substance from the welfare systems established in the post-1945 period.
Even though a deep crisis is now dismantling these forms of political cohesion in richer countries, most radicals today respond by arguing for a return to the status quo ante, not by explaining that the game is up. Consider the following examples of Marxist cognitive dissonance.
A longstanding one in Britain has been where many self-described ‘revolutionaries’ would argue to vote for the Labour Party as the least bad alternative in an election (better than the Conservatives), despite Labour’s consistent role as a supporter of British imperialism. (For those less familiar with this history, Labour’s pro-imperial strategy is part of a more general national-welfarist outlook, one that is to be paid for, as far as possible, by other countries) Not surprisingly, this trend has been strengthened with the elevation of Jeremy Corbyn as the Labour leader-saviour for gullible dissidents.
Another is how many of those who would claim to adhere to a Marxist perspective, for example on the trend fall in the rate of profit resulting from capital accumulation, see no problem in also advocating the nationalisation of banks. A demand to nationalise banks is not a challenge to the power of the capitalist state; it endorses illusions in that state as the potential saviour of the national economy and the mass of people. Nevertheless, they see no problem with this because they too believe that the capitalist state can be used in this way – given the right amount of popular pressure, of course. Surely, there are some problems here for anyone who wants to build a revolutionary movement, based on the power of the working class and opposed to the national state?
Probably worst of all, however, is the fact that most radicals ignore the division of the world between rich and poor, oppressed and oppressor, as outlined by Lenin. This is the major difference in political perspective between Lenin and Marx. But Lenin’s view reflects the development of capitalism into imperialism and this rightly contradicts Marx and Engels’s optimism expressed in the earlier, 1848 Communist Manifesto slogan: ‘Workers of the world unite!’. Lenin did not work out the point fully, but the logical conclusion is something that has been borne out by decades of disappointment: the mass of the populace in most of the richer countries is politically tied to their own state and not in the least interested in a revolution. This goes well beyond the narrow, unconvincing notion that such a political outlook is the fault of a ‘labour aristocracy’.
My view on the development of Marxist theory is quite simple: develop it! Analyse the way that the world works today and expose the exploitation and oppression that hides behind what is otherwise seen as the abstract, natural workings of the market. Analyse the forms taken by capitalist rule in the imperialist world economy today. This is the way to develop Marx’s ‘law of value’. Observation and experience have convinced me that while disputes on the so-called ‘transformation problem’ and the falling rate of profit, etc, cannot be completely ignored, there isnothing to be gained from prolonged debates on these issues with those who have every incentive not to learn. Not to push the cynical boat out too far, there is a lot of truth in the old saying that it is not possible to convince people of something when their salaries depend upon them not understanding it.
At this weak stage of development, I also think that there is little point in spending a lot of time honing the finer points of Marxist theory with those who are roughly along the correct lines, although that does not preclude my willingness to share views and engage with interesting ideas.
In recent years, I have paid particular attention to analysing the global financial system. This is at the forefront of popular misunderstanding, and a particular feature of the pro-imperialist reform initiatives from those who want to save the capitalist/imperialist system. Many, of course, will not admit that this is their underlying objective, or that it is an outcome with which they would be quite comfortable.
Tony is a London-based Marxist and blogs at economics of imperialism, where this piece appeared last month.