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Book Reviews: 'The Unknown Marx', 'Debunking Economics', 'Murdering the Dead: Amadeo Bordiga on Capitalism and Other Disasters', & 'An Anthology of Marxism'

'The Unknown Marx'. By Takahisa Oishi. (Pluto Press. 214 pages)

Actually, despite the title, some of this is old hat. Oishi goes through Marx to show that so-called “Soviet Marxism” had distorted his views; which of course we all knew. There is nothing “unknown” about the fact that Marx was not writing as a simple economist but was putting forward a “critique of political economy” (the title of one of his books as well as the sub-title of Capital), his main argument being that, whereas writers like Adam Smith and Ricardo regarded economic categories such as capital, wages, value, price, money, etc as eternal, natural features of human social existence, these were in fact categories of capitalism which would disappear when it did (but didn't in the ex-USSR, which showed it never got beyond capitalism).

Nor is it all that unknown that the mere abolition of the legal private property rights of individual capitalists is not the same thing as the abolition of capitalism, which is a social relationship between capital and wage-labour. What needs to be abolished to end the exploitation of workers is this social relationship; which never happened in Russia. Oishi, however, does make a rarely-heard point when he says that, for Marx, in socialism/communism (which he recognises Marx didn't distinguish between) “the immediate workers have free access to the means of production” and that they do not “belong to some institution independent of the workers themselves” (as in the ex-USSR and as Oishi rather unfairly accuses Engels of suggesting), i.e. that common ownership means no ownership not state ownership.

Although Oishi's style is off-putting and possibly counter-productive (he analyses Marx's writings as “texts” in the same sort of way that mediaeval monks analysed Paul's epistles), his book does have a certain interest as an analysis of the economic parts of Marx's Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 (most commentators concentrate on the philosophical aspects).

Oishi identifies the key economic concept put forward there by Marx as “estranged labour” in the sense of labour that doesn't control what it produces since this is the private property of someone else; capital is accumulated labour that has come to escape from the control of the direct producers and has come to dominate them as an alien, exploiting force. He also brings out that, already in 1844, Marx had reached his basic “critique of political economy” (that it took the economic categories of capitalism for eternal, natural features).

Oishi is able to argue plausibly that there is a continuity between these positions of the so-called “Early Marx” and the Marx who wrote Capital. This is to be expected as what Marx wrote when he was 26 and what he published when he was 49 were after all written by the same person. However, Oishi rather overstates his case. While it is true that the 1844 manuscripts do contain the concept of capital, wages, money, etc as categories of capitalism, the argument that wage workers are exploited by capitalists, and the criticism of money for its effect on human relations and the call to abolish it along with wages, there is a lot that is still not there.

Marx had not yet distinguished either between “value” and “exchange value” or between “labour” and “labour power” and so was not able to give an adequate theory of exploitation; in fact the whole concept of “surplus value” is absent from these manuscripts, as it was from The Poverty of Philosophy which Marx published in 1847 and which Oishi also submits to detailed textual analysis. At this time Marx still talked about workers selling their “labour” to the capitalists which presented him, as the other socialists of the time who based their theories on Ricardo's version of the labour theory of value, with the problem of explaining exploitation (the capitalists' profit) other than as a swindle (unequal exchange) or as a non-economic phenomenon (legalised robbery permitted by the state). Unlike Paul, Marx wasn't perfect. He didn't get it right the first time.



'Debunking Economics'. By Steve Keen, (Pluto/Zed Books, 2001)

Most schools of economic thought accept Say's “Law of Markets” as a fundamental principle of economics. This “Law” has been interpreted as saying that “supply creates its own demand”, or more precisely, that the normal state of an economy is equilibrium in which total demand equals total supply. However, if this were a valid explanation of how the economy works there would never be crises and mass unemployment. As Marx pointed out, “no one directly needs to purchase because they have just sold” (Capital, Volume 1, Penguin edition, pp208-209). Moreover, capitalism is not static but is based on the competitive accumulation of profits. A competitive disequilibrium between sales and purchases is the normal state of the economy, and with it goes capitalism's crises, unemployment and the anarchy of the market.

Keen explains why, according to its own assumptions, conventional (“neoclassical”) economics is mostly untenable. Keen offers his own solution to what ails economics, which partly involves a return to a “true” Keynes. The economist Keynes accepted Marx's insight that Say's Law is false. Keynes' remedy – basically, that governments should spend their way out of trouble – has been shown to repeatedly fail. But what Keen appears unwilling to consider is the possibility that economics as a whole is irrelevant to most people. Economics generally and Keen in particular is mainly concerned with theories of price: the study of how market prices are established. Keen treats Marx as though he was another economist, like a radical version of Keynes. Keen therefore dismisses Marx and his theory of value on the mathematical issue of whether values can be successfully transformed into prices, as though Marx's critique of capitalism and the socialist alternative can be dismissed by a mathematical objection.

It would be a serious misunderstanding to interpret Marx as providing an alternative economics, a different or more “correct” theory of price. Marx's explanation of how capitalism functions does include an account of how prices are formed, but that is incidental to his main purpose. For this reason the term “Marxist economics” is something of a misnomer. The subtitle of Marx's most famous work, Capital, is “A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy”. Marx's analysis of political economy (the older term for economics) reveals it to be concerned with the relationship between things. He was interested in the social relations between people in capitalist society and the economic categories it gives rise to, such as generalized commodity production. It was not Marx's purpose to explain why commodities are sold at a particular price, but why wealth is produced in the form of commodities. Economics is not the most important key for an understanding of capitalist society.



'Murdering the Dead: Amadeo Bordiga on Capitalism and Other Disasters'.  (Antagonism Press GBP5. Available from Antagonism Press, c/o BM Makhno, London, WC1N 3XX. Website:

It would hardly be controversial to argue that capitalism, with its emphasis on profit and short-term considerations, provides fertile ground for accidents and disasters of various kinds. It also means that any accidents which do happen are likely to be more serious and harmful than would otherwise be the case. Cutting corners and ignoring safety matters is part and parcel of a profit-oriented system. However, in the essays collected in this book, originally dating from between 1951 and 1963, Amadeo Bordiga argues that capitalism actually benefits from disasters.

Bordiga (1889-1970) was the first general secretary of the Italian `Communist' Party, but soon broke with the politics of the Third International. After being jailed under Mussolini, he went on to advocate a moneyless non-market society. This might seem to put Bordiga in the same political tradition as the Socialist Party, but unfortunately he saw Socialism as being managed by an elitist central administration and was thus opposed to a truly democratic society.

His argument here is basically that disasters are profitable, far more so than simple maintenance of existing buildings, machines, etc. Contracts for rebuilding and replacement involve much larger sums than those for keeping an existing dam (or whatever) up and running. Natural disasters are therefore insufficient, and must be supplemented by human-made cataclysms. Destruction means bigger profits than mere depreciation, with built-in obsolescence just being a special case of destruction. Disasters, then, are not just made more likely by capitalism's emphasis on profits at the expense of safety, but are actually welcome in the pursuit of surplus value.

A possible objection to this approach is that it regards capitalism too much as a single entity, rather than as a system with a variety of competing capitalists. Certainly, some companies will benefit from a huge rebuilding contract, but others will not. And when the state pays in the case of `public' works, the costs fall on all the capitalist class. So it is not at all clear that capitalism as a whole does well from such a situation. In addition, if it really were just a matter of making money from disasters, capitalism could surely use this as a means of escaping from any kind of recession, along the lines that (some claim) can be done via arms-expenditure. In all cases, such spending has to come out of taxes and so out of profits.

Despite these reservations, though, this is a worthwhile volume devoted to a writer and activist who deserves to be better-known than he is. And it helps to show up the hypocrisy of the capitalists and their political supporters when they shed tears for the victims of disasters.



'An Anthology of Marxism'. By Cedric J. Robinson. (Ashgate, 2001)

In this short book (160 pages) Robinson sets out again his thesis that Marxism is a “Eurocentric” doctrine that doesn't take into account conditions in Africa and Asia. Writing as if he were an outside anthropologist investigating a set of beliefs developed by people inhabiting Europe, he traces back socialism and Marxism to views on the worthiness of the poor held by various mediaeval Christian groups. It's an easy read for those who want to familiarise themselves with this particular criticism of Marx, and Robinson is right in seeing Black Nationalism as incompatible with Marxism. But be warned: the 20-page introduction by Avery F. Gordon is just gobbledegook.