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Cooking the Books: Oh No He Didn't

Andrew Marr, in his 7 May Sunday morning show on BBC1, interviewed Labour's Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell. One of the questions Marr put to him was about his alleged 'Marxism'. McDonnell, who has moved in Trotskyist circles, fended off the question by saying that many non-Marxists thought Marx's Capital worth reading. Then, the following exchange took place:

'Marr: The great prediction in Capital ….is that capitalism as a system will come down with an enormous crash. There will be a crisis and the entire system will fail.

McDonnell: That's where Marx got it wrong.'

Marx never predicted any such thing. So where did Marr and McDonnell get the mistaken idea that he did? Marr himself used to move in Trotskyist circles too, and one possibility is that they got it from the time in the 1980s when the both of them were members of a Trotskyoid front organisation, the 'Socialist Campaign for Labour Victory'. Trotskyists have been known to hold some strange ideas about what Marx thought.

This exchange made Marx a minor election issue and prompted BBC journalist, Brian Wheeler, to write an idiot's guide to Marx's Das Kapital (www.bbc.co.uk/news/election-2017-39837515). He didn't explain why Marx should have become an election issue, though something he wrote hinted at it. Marxism, he wrote, 'also became a byword for totalitarianism – as one-party states and dictators proclaimed Marxism as their guiding philosophy'.

This was why sections of the media brought Marx in. They wanted to smear the leadership of the Labour Party, Corbyn and McDonnell in particular, as 'Marxists' seeking to establish in Britain something similar to what used to exist in Russia, with for example cartoons showing them sporting hammer-and-sickle badges.

It is unlikely to work these days. Wheeler himself went on to point out that 'some argued that this was a perversion of Marx's ideas and that the Soviet Union … was really just a form of state capitalism, where the factory owners had been replaced by government bureaucrats.' Some did indeed.

Wheeler summarised Marx's views:

'In simple terms, Marx argues that an economic system based on private profit is inherently unstable. Workers are exploited by factory owners and don't own the products of their labour, making them little better than machines. The factory owners and other capitalists hold all the power because they control the means of production, allowing them to amass vast fortunes while the workers fall deeper into poverty. This is an unsustainable way to organise society and it will eventually collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, Marx argues.'

Marx did see capitalism as based on the exploitation of the workers for profit, but not that under it workers would 'fall deeper into poverty' (only that the capitalists would get richer relatively to the workers). He did also see capitalism as an unstable system under which production continuously veered from boom to slump and back again. But Wheeler seems to have been influenced by the exchange between Marr and McDonnell about Marx allegedly being wrong to say that capitalism will eventually 'come down with an enormous crash'.

Marx certainly thought that capitalism was riven by contractions, the two main ones being that between the already socialised nature of the process of production and the sectional ownership of what was produced and the class struggle between the producers and the owners. It was this struggle, ending in the 'expropriation of the expropriators' (as he put it in the last-but-one chapter of Capital) by conscious political action, that would, he thought, bring about the demise of capitalism, not some catastrophic economic collapse.