Karl Marx in Current Criticism: The Verdict of a Generation
The Test of Time
Just thirty year have passed since the body of the great path-finder was laid to rest in the grave upon Highgate Hill. Thirty years – the life-time of a generation – yields a fair test of the truth of the theories advanced by a thinker, and should offer an opportunity to judge a man’s work in something approaching true perspective.
I cannot attempt in these lines a comprehensive survey of the work of Karl Marx. A life of sixty-five years of stress and struggle is not to be examined in a column or two. But some of the main points in Marx’s work may be briefly yet profitably reviewed in the light of our present knowledge.
All kinds of opponents of Socialism profess to offer us something “more in keeping with the times.” But whether it by Syndicalism or Revisionism, Co-partnership or State Capitalism, each and every one of these is seen to be fallacious when tested by the scientific theories put forward by Marx.
Karl Marx is best known, perhaps, by his work Das Capital, a treatise on the production and circulation of commodities which, although “criticised” in hundreds of volumes by professors and other leading lights of modern society, has never been refuted.
Professor Böhm-Bawerk, the Finance Minister of Austria, urged in his Marx and the Close of his System, that the labour system of value is wrong because Marx failed to take into account scarcity as a factor in fixing value! This expert economist might have seen in the first seven pages of Capital how well scarcity was allowed for. “Diamonds are of very rare oc-currence on the earth’s surface,” wrote Marx (Capital, p. 7), “and hence their discovery costs on an average a great deal of labour time. Consequently much labour is represented in small compass. . . If we could succeed at a small expenditure of labour in converting carbon into diamonds, their value might fall below that of bricks.” By saying a thing is scarce you can only suggest that it takes a great deal more time to get than if it was plentiful.
Marx’s Awkward Question
All the economists who have blossomed forth since Marx wrote have merely revived theories that were abandoned as useless a century ago by men like Adam Smith and David Ricardo. John Stuart Mill, who pieced together portions of many economists and gave them to the world as his Principles of Political Economy, Prof. Stanley Jevons, with his “Final Utility” theory, the whole Austrian school of economists with their “Marginal Utility” notions; all these, together with the more modem “seers” like Professor Marshall, really base their economics on the old theory of “Supply and Demand.” The value of an article, in their ides, is fixed by the difference between the supply of that class of goods and the demand for the same.
But Marx asked what fixes the value of an article when supply and demand are equal, and to this question no answer has yet been vouchsafed by the capitalist hacks.
No wonder the well-known German social reformer and critic of Marx, Prof. Werner Sombart, has to confess that “Marx’s theory of Value may perhaps be refuted, but that has not yet been done.”
A Grudging Tribute
This Berlin Professor of political economy writes thus of Marx: “There was reason enough why Marx was able to rank so high among the social philosophers of the nineteenth century and to exercise by the side of Hegel and Darwin so great an influence on the thought of our day. He combined within himself the best philosophy of history current in his time with the knowledge of the highest forms of social life. He knew his Hegel, and he knew his Western Europe, more especially France and England. He gathered all the lines of thought that had preceded from thinkers of previous ages, and was clever enough, perhaps because of his international experience, to pay but little heed to what was accidental in national development and to lay stress on what was typical in the life of society to-day.” (Socialism and the Social Movement, p. 52).
Marx, together with his great co-worker, Frederick Engels, came to the conclusion that the whole of past history since the passing of primitive communism, had been a history of class struggles. These classes – at one time chattel slave owners against the helots, later barons against burghers, now capitalists against wage-labourers – all had their roots in the changing conditions of wealth production and exchange.
The material conditions, says Marx, are the foundation upon which rise all social institutions and when material conditions change so also do the institutions of society.
In his books upon capital Marx laid bare the method of robbing the wage-labourers. He showed that out of the value created by the worker’s energies, the worker receives merely enough to barely subsist on. The surplus of the value created goes to the exploiting employer. Hence there is a conflict of interests between the wage workers and the employers. The latter try to increase the amount of surplus-value and the workers struggle unceasingly against their masters, and must do so while the employers have the power to extract this surplus over the wages paid.
Almost Like Prophecy
This class struggle is the cardinal principle of the Socialist policy. And just as it was opposed in Marx’s day, so now the class struggle theory is fought against by all those who wish to blind the toilers to their true interests. Just as it was true when Marx and Engels wrote the Manifesto of the Communist Party, so now it bears the stamp of irrefutable fact. Marx showed that the progress of modern capitalism would result in a widening of the gulf that divides the employing class from the working class. He pointed out “in words which seem to many even non-Socialists like prophecy” (wrote Professor R. T. Ely in his Studies in the Evolution of Industrial Society) that wealth would concentrate into fewer bands the more the system grew.
Professor Werner Sombart, the Revisionist of Revisionists previously quoted, says on this point:–
“During the last 20 years, as we know, there has been a concentration of capital by the formation of trusts such as Marx in his boldest flights of imagination could never have dreamed of. Especially is this the case in the United States of America, where we get the best examples of these giant undertakings. According to the latest statistics, no less than 8,664 concerns which were formerly independent are now amalgamated in a few Trusts with a capital of 20,000 million dollars. Of these seven of the ‘greater’ industrial trusts contain 1,528 concerns formerly independent, and possess a capital of 2,663 million dollars. The six largest railway trusts are even better placed; they have a capital of 9,017 million dollars! ”
The truth of the class struggle has been driven home with more tragic emphasis than ever during the last few years. The wide-spread , strikes and lock-outs, the fiendish cruelty of the employers toward their rebellious slaves all over the capitalist world, has induced even capitalist authorities to “lament” the growth of “labour unrest” and of class strife.
Marx’s Magnificent Achievement
Socialism became in Marx’s hands a part of social science. The schemes of St. Simon Fourier, Cabet, and Owen were based upon abstract principles like “justice,” “truth,” and “right.” They appealed to the “moral” side of the wealthy, and hoped to see communities established in accord with their ideals. Cabet with his “Icarie”, Robert Owen with his “New Harmony” community, each thought to solve the social problem and end the social strife by his carefully planned colonies. But their failure serves as a lesson accentuating the need for science in social action instead of Utopian ideas.
Marx rescued Socialism from the hands of the Utopian and placed it upon a foundation of scientific fact. Not moral appeals, but organised political action was the way to fight the capitalists. Society, said Marx, moved not because of changing morals, but under the pressure of growing economic forces making a change in social forms inevitable.
Even such an opponent of Marx as Mr. J. Ramsay Macdonald has made the admission (Socialism and Society, preface) that “Marx’s co-ordination of historical facts and explanation of historical movement from the point of view of the Hegelian left wing brought the whole theory of Socialism from the misty dreams of vague desire to the clearly defined empire of science.”
It used to be the regular custom in the party to which the above labour “leader” belongs to anathematise Marx and consign him to oblivion as a sociologist. But the place of prominence which history has tardily given Marx, the esteem which he has won in the minds of serious working men and women, have forced the I.L.P. to change their tactics and hence they cling to the name of Marx whilst outraging every principle for which Marx stood.
Mr. Keir Hardie, who derives his “economics” from Jesus Christ, says in his My Confession of Faith in the Labour Alliance: “The Labour Party practices the Marxian policy of the Class Struggle”. Such a statement, of course, is utterly false. the alliance with the most bitter enemies of the working class such as the Liberal manufacturers, for the purpose of “getting in”, is certainly part of the class struggle, but the Labour Party take sides in that struggle with the masters. Even their own members such as Philip Snowden and F.W. Jowett, have confessed to the reactionary position of their party.
Marx’s whole life was guided by the principle of “No Compromise”. Because of his refusal to truckle to the rulers of Germany he was hunted down and put on trial for sedition. Paper after paper was suppressed, and in their effort to crush “the terrible Marx”, the German powers even incited the French and Belgian Governments to thrust him from their shores. But how different did the leader of the British Labour Party get treated!
Karl Marx was persecuted with all the force of the law, but Mr. Macdonald is especially invited to lunch with the German Emperor, an invitation which he gladly accepted.
Doesn’t this alone show how false to the toilers’ interest is this Labour Party? Defiance, not deference to capitalism, was Marx’s motto, and he always opposed any flirting with the enemies of the Red Flag. In the early days of the International he strenuously fought against the attempts of Charles Bradlaugh to enter the organisation, because even then Bradlaugh was showing signs of joining hands with the Liberals.
Marx’s exposure of the Liberal Labour leader George Howell brings home his hatred of those who acted as decoys for the masters. He did not hesitate in 1875 to oppose the union of the followers of Lassalle with the Workingmen’s Party of Germany at Gotha, even though he lost many friends thereby. The Lassalleans were Utopians, and desired to inscribe on the Unity programme State Co-operation in Industry as the policy of the party. The trenchant attack of Marx remains a beacon for the toilers to-day, when men talk of “Socialist unity”, but want us to sacrifice our Socialism in order to become “united”.
Now and again the reactionary “leaders of Labour” to-day admit the soundness of Marx’s revolutionary policy. For instance, Mr. Ramsay Macdonald says in Socialism and Society (page 9):–
“We seem to have reached the maximum improvement which the present system can yield. Further ameliorative efforts of a purely reforming character can produce little fruit”.
The main theory of the Labour leaders at present is for a legal minimum wage. Talking of his late wife’s advocacy of this nostrum Mr. R. Macdonald tells us (“Margaret Ethel McDonald: a Memoir”): “Once she said with a whimsical smile: ‘when the last Wages Board will have given its last decision, we shall still have to go upon the housetops and shout with Marx ‘Workers of the World, Unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains’”.
Marx laboured to keep the working class upon the right road to their salvation. Amidst deepest poverty, hunted across frontiers, turned out of doors because of failure to find the rent, refused work even as a manual labourer, the mighty proletarian thinker never wavered from the work of his life. The story of his struggles has never been fully told, but the glimpses we get of his life are sufficient to stimulate us to the fullest extent to prosecute the work of educating our fellows in Socialism with the material he placed ready to our hands, and organising them for its realisation on the basis which he so clearly indicated.