Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The return of Karl Marx

From the December 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

Marx is again enjoying something of a revival. After his views on the globalising tendencies of capitalism, it is now his theory of crises that is attracting interest and being discussed in the media. Unfortunately not always accurately. For instance, in an article headlined “BANKING CRISIS GIVES ADDED CAPITAL TO MARX’S WRITINGS”, Roger Boyes, the Berlin correspondent of the (London) Times wrote (20 October):

“Marx’s new relevance relates mainly to his warning about the creation of an exploitative capitalism that ends up destroying itself: ‘An over-expansion of credit can enable the capitalist system to sell temporarily more goods than the sum of real incomes in created current production, plus past savings, could buy,’ said Ernest Mandel, the Marxist scholar, quoting his guru, ‘but in the long run, debts must be paid’. Since these debts cannot be automatically paid through expanded output and income, capitalism is destined for a ‘Krach’ - Marx’s word for a crash.”

If the suggestion is here, as it seems to be, that it was Marx’s view that capitalism will end up destroying itself in one big Krach, then it is wrong as Marx never argued that there was some flaw in the economic or financial mechanism of capitalism that would lead to it collapsing for purely economic reasons. In his view, as expressed in the last-but-one chapter of Capital on “The Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation”, capitalism would come to an end by the working class becoming more and more organised and eventually expropriating the expropriators and ushering in a society based on “co-operation and the possession in common of the land and the means of production produced by labour itself”. In the meantime capitalism would continue being subjected to an ever-repeating cycle of boom and slump, with each boom ending in a Krach which would eventually create the conditions for a recovery of production and the next boom . . . and the next Krach.

The following day the (London) Times2 section of the paper had a full-page photo of Marx on its front page saying “He’s back. Does the financial crisis prove that Karl Marx was right all along?”. The main article, by a Philip Collins, was just silly, but some of those asked to comment did have something sensible to say, in particular Mick Hume (introduced as “The Times’s libertarian Marxist columnist, launched and edited Living Marxism magazine 20 years ago” who said on this issue:

“Marx was right to identify and analyse the tendency towards crises within capitalism, but he did not predict the system’s ‘inevitable’ collapse. Today too many people who have never read or understood Marx are trying to turn him into an anti-capitalist Nostradamus who supposedly predicted it all, a soothsayer rather than revolutionary social scientist. Marx always emphasised that the resolution of a crisis would ultimately depend on political factors: that man makes his own history, although not in circumstances of his own choosing.”

Hume has come a long way since, as the Trotskyist editor of what we used to call Dead Leninism, he advocated that workers should follow a vanguard party.

One of the others asked to comment was the Labour MP John McDonnell who proposed that “Das Kapital and Wages, Prices and Profit should be issued to all government ministers as the definitive guides to the causes of capitalism in crisis”. He also recommended a book by Ernest Mandel and another by David Miliband’s father who considered himself a Marxist. If he re-reads Wages, Prices and Profit himself he will see that Marx urges workers to adopt the revolutionary watchword “Abolition of the Wages System”, which is the last thing the party he represents in Parliament wants.

Mandel was in fact writing above only about credit crises, not economic crises. And he wasn’t quoting from his “guru”. The passage Boyes quotes is not from Marx but from Mandel (see Mandel, who died in 1995 was another Trotskyist, the leader for many years of one of the many “Fourth Internationals”, did, despite this, have a grasp of Marxian economics (at least, as applied to the West since he mistakenly thought Russia wasn’t capitalist). Even so, it is not clear that Marx would have expressed himself in the same terms. For instance, credit - if it is genuinely credit and not just the issue of more paper currency by the central bank - can’t exceed “past savings” plus savings from “real incomes created in current production” since these are precisely the source of any credit, i.e. of the money that is loaned.

Of course debts do have to be repaid and if for some reason (such as overproduction in relation to the market for some key product) they can’t be, the banks and other financial institutions will be in trouble and a financial Krach or, as we say nowadays, a credit crunch will result. Marx wrote quite a bit about these and, to give Boyes his due, he recognises this even mentioning the articles Marx wrote in the New York Daily Tribune in 1857 on “The Financial Crisis in Europe” of that year.

But then he goes on:

“In the manifesto, published in 1848, he lists the ten essential steps to communism. Step five was ‘Centralisation of credit in the hands of the state . . .”

It is true that one of the ten immediate measures, listed at the end of section two of the Communist Manifesto, that the Communist League of Germany advocated should be taken if political power in Germany was to fall into the hands of the working class in the course of the anti-feudal and anti-dynastic revolutions of 1848, did include

“Centralisation of credit in the hands of the State, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly”.

But there was no chance of the working class gaining control of political power at that time, as Marx and Engels later came to realise. In their preface to the first reprint of the pamphlet in 1872 they wrote that “no special stress should be laid” on the ten proposed measures which had “in some details become antiquated”. So to describe them today, in 2008 over a 150 years later, as “the essential” “steps to communism” is absurd.

No doubt the working class, when it does come to win control of political power, will have to have drawn up a programme of immediate measures, but they won’t include setting up a single State Bank as, given the development of the forces of production, society can now move straight to socialism (or communism, the same thing) where there will be no need for banks as there will be no need for money. What the manifesto elsewhere called “the Communistic abolition of buying and selling” can now be achieved immediately.

Adam Buick

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