The paper below was written over 40 years ago. It comes from a particularly rich time in the retrieval of Marx’s revolutionary critique of capital/ism. The paper grew out of discussions and debates on the Marxist left in Britain and within the Conference of Socialist Economists but first appeared in this form in Revolutionary Communist #3/4 (1975). This was a Marxist theoretical journal which, while produced by a new and very small group the Revolutionary Communist Group), one that had recently come out of the International Socialists organisation in Britain, had an influence far out of proportion to the size of the RCG. That same issue of RC contained another meaty paper which examined the end of the postwar boom and the forms taken by the new economic crisis – a model of how the tools of Marxism can be deployed to examine what appears at the surface (the forms that crises take and how ideological responses arise on the basis of these appearances and how what is really going on at the core of the system can be/is quite different). That paper also examined the inadequate theoretical and thus practical responses of most of the British left and suggested an alternative. The version we are putting up here is taken from the transcription by the RCG that appears on the Marxists Internet Archive, here.
by Peter Howell
In his Budget speech of April, 1975, Mr Denis Healey, echoing the sentiments of his ‘Right Honourable friend’, Mr Wedgwood Benn, announced measures which, hopefully, would reverse the process of ‘deindustrialisation’ which Britain has been experiencing in recent years. Mr Benn, of course, has made it clear that he has found particularly worrying the recent trend towards an absolute decline in the number of people employed in manufacturing. He has even warned – with a distinctly Smithian touch – that the more our manufacturing population contracts, the greater will be the gulf between what we can physicallyproduce and the minimum amount needed to pay our way as a great trading nation. If the Government is to maintain a competitive and profitable manufacturing sector, it must aim at nothing less than the preservation of our ‘industrial base’.
Sharing Benn’s concern, if not his prescriptions, Sir Keith Joseph has also called for measures which would restore vitality to our dwindling industrial base, even at the expense of the unproductive sector which is, after all, ‘wealth-consuming’ rather than ‘wealth-creating’. How lamentable that we should live in a society in which so many live off the ‘surplus’ created by so few. Rather, we should strive towards an economy of solid worth, founded upon manufacturing, manned by proletarians and headed by the entrepreneur, that ‘rare type of person, relatively, compared to your wage and salary-earner’. Above all, what we require in Britain now is a thorough-going bourgeois revolution out of which will emerge a sturdy bourgeoisie, unencumbered by ‘feudal’ fetters. Britain, alas has ‘never had a capitalist ruling class or a stable haute bourgeoisie….The great feudal families, together with the landed gentry, court, church and legal profession set their stamp so firmly on post-medieval British society that the merchant classes sought acceptance rather than challenging it, as they did in France….The tradition was too strong for the industrial revolution to shake, though the middle classes tried, in mid-Victorian days….You may remember Marx’s complaint that feudal-oriented opponents of nascent capitalism dressed up as socialists. He was concerned that they should be clearly differentiated from the real product.’
Replying to the Trade and Industry article, Samuel Brittan, writing in the Financial Times, lashed out at Benn for his ‘physiocratic’ distaste for ‘non-productive’ labour, for failing to consider the rise in industrial productivity which accompanied the drop in manufacturing employment and for not recognising that the shift from manufacturing to services is perfectly ‘normal’ in a modern economy. In a similar vein, although with different intentions, Labour MPs George Rodgers and Ivor Clemitson have argued that the decline in the numbers employed in manufacturing is an economic fact of life which we should learn to accept, and even welcome. What we should be doing, therefore, is ‘diverting more people into areas of public service – public transport, teaching, the health service, the social services, and so on down a long list….Our Socialist forefathers would have welcomed the chance which faces us. Why do we not grab it with both hands?’
Thus Benn is taken to task for upholding a work ethic suited more to the first Industrial Revolution than 20th century social democracy, while those such as Rodgers and Clemitson are castigated by Sir Keith for concealing a feudal intent behind socialist garb.
For those of us with more than just a passing interest in the course taken by bourgeois society, it comes as no surprise to find the ruling classes of this country again bringing to life an ever-recurrent theme of classical political economy – the distinction between productive and unproductive labour. In its decay, as in its infancy, capital seems intent on throwing up directly economic questions which shed special light on the condition not only of bourgeois society in general, but of British capital in particular. That the dwarfs of today should uphold the giants of the past is the prerogative of a ruling class in decay. For our part, we may take comfort in the realisation that as the history of British capital assumes its farcical dimension the end, of rather a new beginning, is surely in sight.
When Sir Keith calls for the consummation of the bourgeois revolution he is more than just an ideological stuntman. His aim is to divide the working-class- into the ‘wealth-producers’ and the ‘wealth-consumer’ – if only as a prelude to an attack on them all. Accordingly, it is the purpose of this paper to reaffirm the original intention behind Marx’s formulation of the concepts productive and unproductive labour, at both the level of theory and political struggle, so that we might isolate all the more easily the really parasitic element in our society, the ‘entrepreneur’, a very rare specimen indeed. This is made all the more necessary in the light of recent attempts to abandon altogether many of the basic categories developed by Marx, in the misguided belief that their use can only serve to confound a working class already divided and confused. Far from sowing the seeds of disunity, the categories of Marx’s Capital, if properly considered and used, will enable us to Read the rest of this entry »