Harry Cleaver replies

June 2024 Forums Comments Harry Cleaver replies

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    Harry Cleaver has replied to this book review in this month’s Socialist Standard:

    “(1)   First, I never argue that capitalists are not interested in profits, on the contrary precisely because I argue their system is based on putting people to work, profits are essential to maintaining and expanding the imposition of work. Second, writing ‘It’s a point of view but not that of Marx’ is simple assertion but makes no argument to convince the reader. It also smacks of sectarianism: all Marxists whose interpretations differ from mine are not Marxists at all.

    (2)   First, the superficiality of the reading is apparent in ascribing to me the “classic error” of underconsumptionism (i.e., ‘workers not being able to buy back all they produce as the cause of crises’) given that the inadequacy of consumption demand is clearly treated as only one of many causes of ruptures in the circuits of capital, not ‘the’ cause of crises. Second, saying that I make the mistake of seeing taxes as simply a burden on workers, while ignoring the discussion in the book of how some of what taxes pay for is not only of use to workers but are programs and services we have fought for, is a another misrepresentation.

    (3)   First, it’s odd that you seem to accept the idea of getting rid of money and markets are essential elements in getting rid of capitalism, but dismiss efforts to marginalize money. In the absence of an actual argument against ‘marginalizing money’ I’m left with the impression that the dismissal is based on the oh-so-revolutionary rejection of “reformism”. Second, leaving aside evaluation of your list of reforms as accurate representation of the struggles I discuss in the book, I must say that simply dismissing struggles for reforms of use to workers with no rationale hardly constitutes an argument. At least Weston – mentioned on page 235 of the book, in the section on ‘Reform or Revolution’ – made a case for dismissing struggles for higher wages – a case that Marx refuted with counterarguments as to why such struggles were important. Arguments with which I agree in the book – one of those many moments that you would have to counter to make a convincing argument that what I have written is ‘not Marx’. Third, there’s no ‘paradox’ in supporting both lower costs of living and higher wages, they are complementary and both buy time (and energy) for struggle.

    (4)   First, the assertion that success in lowering consumer prices or making some goods and services free automatically implies that wages will fall just doesn’t hold water. This assertion ignores how both the value of labor power and the level of wages/income are determined by struggle. I do not ‘assume’ workers ‘could successfully resist’ efforts to lower wages, only that they generally try to resist. There are plenty of historical examples in the book of workers failing to resist as well as of successful resistance.  Second, the last line about one idea of autonomist Marxists contains, once again, only pure assertions with no demonstration or argument that might lead the reader to take them seriously, i.e., the assertion about what they think/imagine and the assertion about the idea being a ‘mistake’.

    Had I been editor of your newsletter, I would have sent the published text back when still a draft along with comments like the above – and suggestions about how to do the job in a more convincing manner.”


    Not having read Cleaver’s book, I  am limited in what I can say about his comments above. Perhaps what lies behind the criticism of Cleaver’s point about the capitalists imposing work on the workers is that it, inadvertently or otherwise, gives credence to the politicians’ constant mantra about need for investment to “create jobs”.  Investment is not undertaken by capitalists  so that workers can have jobs and earn a living.  Investment is undertaken by capitalists essentially with a view to securing a financial return.  No Profit, No Production.


    Cleaver’s comments on class struggle, reform and revolution seem a little confused.  No one is suggesting that the struggle for higher wages is not something workers should engage in.   But that is not reformism.  Like so many on the Left, Cleaver is conflating trade union struggle with reformism  and coming to quite the wrong conclusion – that opposition to reformism (which is essentially a political struggle) means opposition to workers struggling for higher wages – an economic struggle waged by trade unions.  Marx himself made this distinction in his letter to Bracke and it is a crucial one


    On the question of wage levels,   while it true that this is influenced by the intensity of class struggle,  it is also true that the intensity of class struggle is, in turn, influenced by other factors over which workers or indeed capitalists, have no control – notably capitalism’s tendency towards periodic recessions.   As for the “social wage” there is no such thing as a free lunch in capitalism.   Insofar as free services and forms of state welfare have to be paid for, the money obviously has to come from somewhere.  Ultimately it derives from the capitalists’ profits through taxation.


    Being a deduction from profits which Cleaver seems to agree “are essential to maintaining and expanding the imposition of work”, this must logically express itself as  a compensating downward pressure on wages as a key component of the capitalists’  cost of production .   Or does Cleaver imagine the capitalists through their political representatives in the capitalist state extend to the workers a  social wage out of the goodness of their hearts? Of course not.  Capitalists are in competition with each other domestically and on the international stage.   To that end they have to cut costs to minimum and the question of social wage must therefore be organically linked to the question of the money wages worker receive, insofar as they both impact on profit levels .  These things are not hermetically sealed off from each other but interact through the whole system of capitalist financing.


    Of course, it does not follow that, if the social wage goes up, the money wage will automatically go down.   No one is saying that.  Obviously this tendency is mediated by the class struggle even if the efficacy of this struggle is constrained by other factors such as the onset of recessions.  But if Cleaver is suggesting that there is NOT a long term tendency for the social wage and the money wage to relate to each in an inverse fashion then I think he is wrong and I dont think it is a view that Marx would have endorsed either.  It would render his entire labour theory of value incoherent.




    Actually, the passages about profits and imposing work which the review was criticising are these:

     ‘… socially and politically speaking, profit making is merely the capitalist means to its social aim of controlling us by forcing us to work’ (p. 83)

    ‘Marx focussed on the dialectical character of the struggle within capitalism between those who impose work and those who resist’ (p. 72).

    And the review never said he said that the capitalists weren’t interested in profits, only that he said that they were more interested in controlling workers and that making profits was a means towards this end.

    Dave B

    Not read the review or the book and just read the comment.


    Might do a fuller response to cleavers response.


    But just on this albeit with its caveat ; ‘automatically’


    …..First, the assertion that success in lowering consumer prices or making some goods and services free automatically implies that wages will fall just doesn’t hold water. This assertion ignores how both the value of labor power and the level of wages/income are determined by struggle. ….


    There is this little read but great article by Fred on the [anticipated ‘automatic’ ] and realised impact on wages of the reduction in the price of bread after the removal of tariffs etc.


    The Wages Theory of the Anti-Corn Law League


    by Engels in the Labour Standard 1881


    ……… And when you pressed the subject further it usually came out that the money rate of wages might even fall while the comforts supplied for this reduced sum of money to the working man would still be superior to what he enjoyed at the time. And if you asked a few more close questions as to the way, how the expected immense extension of trade was to be brought about, you would very soon hear that it was this last contingency upon which they mainly relied: a reduction in the money rate of wages combined with a fall in the price of bread, etc., more than compensating for this fall.



    Moreover, there were plenty to be met who did not even try to disguise their opinion that cheap bread was wanted simply to bring down the money rate of wages, and thus knock foreign competition on the head. And that this, in reality, was the end and aim of the bulk of the manufacturers and merchants forming the great body of the League, it was not so very difficult to make out for any one in the habit of dealing with commercial men, and therefore in the habit of not always taking their word for gospel. This is what we said and we repeat it. Of the official doctrine of the League we did not say a word. It was economically a “fallacy”, and practically a mere cloak for interested purposes, though some of the leaders may have repeated it often enough to believe it finally themselves…..





    Before even starting on the value of labour power and wages etc there is a deeper problem as you usually have to have this discussion with people who aren’t scientists and thus can’t understand how to properly approach the problem.


    There are simplified ideal theories or models, as in science.


    And there is the real empirical world.


    You take the model or theory derived from the empirical world that has a logical consistency and defies further simplification.


    And use that to go back an analyse the empirical world to obtain a deeper understanding.


    In fact the model has to contradict certain aspects or differing aspects of the empirical world otherwise it wouldn’t be a model or theory.



    His reply along with a reply back will be printed in the March SS, correct?
    (In the back of my mind is a back-and-forth with Mr Parecon in the April 2006 SS (I think), which was highly instructive. )
    Dave B

    ….appears not to understand the effect of free or subsidised goods and services on wage levels: that if workers don’t have to pay the full price of something then they don’t need to be paid so much by their employer to recreate their labour power and so their money wage will tend to fall (even if their standard of living won’t). …


    This isn’t exactly advanced school stuff.

    It is kindergarten E. P Thompson stuff


    ………In 1834, the Report of the Royal Commission into the Operation of the Poor Laws 1832 called the Speenhamland System a “universal system of pauperism”. The system allowed employers, including farmers and the nascent industrialists of the town, to pay below subsistence wages, because the parish would make up the difference and keep their workers alive. So the workers’ low income was unchanged and the poor rate contributors subsidised the farmers…….




    …Cleaver’s view is that interest is a payment for a service and that it is derived from the surplus value produced by bank workers….



    This isn’t a revision; it is outrageous




    re my #183319: Correct?


    Yes, his email and editorial committee’s reply will be on page 5 of the March Socialist Standard.


    Despite his basic position of reformism by direct action (as opposed to through Parliament) mysteriously morphing into a struggle to end capitalism, he is still arguing that post-capitalist society must be one without money.

    In a preface dated May 2021 to a re-edition of George Caffentzis’s 1989 book on John Locke’s theory of money, Cleaver writes:

    “This last objective — escaping money — has only recently returned to the agenda of revolutionaries . . . a combination of factors . . . have made a growing number of those looking beyond capitalism conclude that the decommodification of life and escape from money are essential to the conceptualization and building of new, non-capitalist worlds. . . It is not a call for all of us to ‘drop out of club of money users’ into some isolated, demonetized commune, it is a call to free society from a money (and even labor) measure of the value of all things and to celebrate the diversity and richness both of “needs/desires” and of our abilities to satisfy them — creating a multiplicity of values of an imposed and impoverished single one.”

    Not bad. Of course it never left the agenda of some revolutionaries . . .

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