A University Professor on Marx.
A Review of “The Revival of Marxism,” by J. Shield Nicholson, Sc.D., L.L.D., Professor of Political Economy in the University of Edinburgh. London : John Murray, Albemarle Street, W. 1920.
In his 140 pages of ambiguous University jargon, Professor Nicholson pretends to deal with most of the socialist principles. His so-called arguments are not by any means new, and in some respects are quite inferior to those of the poorly-paid orators of the anti-socialist union and the property defence leagues. It is necessary, however, to examine the more important—if it is possible to choose anything that is important from a mass of quibbles and trivialities.
“The Materialist Conception of History” is one of the first principles which this professor attacks. Twice he attempts to destroy it. The first time, on page 8, he merely strengthens it by his admissions. He says :—
“Any manifestation of idealism at present seems to be associated with internationalism. Not that the internationalism that is now fashionable is free from the materialistic taint. On the contrary, it is mainly concerned with the restoration of trade and of sound monetary conditions.”
On page 119 a second attempt is made on the materialist conception of history in the following words :—
“Material fatalism of this kind is the suicide of reason—the deletion from humanity of its vital character.
“The history of progress—economic, as well as of other forms of progress—is the history of the conflict of great ideas. Moral progress is the history of the conflict of great ideals. Material fatalism of this kind is a reversion to intellectual .and moral barbarism.”
If Professor Nicholson were to enumerate some of his great ideas it would be possible to show him their obvious connection with economic conditions. If he told us of some of the great ideals that were in conflict in the moral sphere, we might easily point to their connection with material factors. He does neither of these things, nor does he attempt to show how ideas or ideals can exist apart from a materialistic basis. To put forward an opinion which is not substantiated in any way is one of the methods Professor Nicholson employs to shuffle out of the conflict he himself raises, but is neither criticism nor analysis.
On the “Marxian Theory of Value” Professor Nicholson is particularly illuminating. On page 26 he says :—
“The Marxian theory of value was soon shattered by destructive criticism. It is absurd to suppose that Marx discovered certain ideas of value which were neglected by subsequent economists.
“It is still more absurd to suppose that economists wilfully suppressed the teaching of Marx because they were supporters of Capital against Labour. From J. S. Mill onwards, the bias, if there has been any bias, has been the other way.”
Then in a footnote the Professor says :—
“Marshall shows that Ricardo and the eminent Ricardian economists were not opposed to the Factory Acts. Even Senior repented his first hasty disapproval.”
The average man will confess a difficulty in seeing the connection between Senior’s repentance and the Marxian theory of value ; yet Nicholson never gets much closer than this to the theory he promises to explode. Statements like the above and abusive remarks about the conceit of Marx take up quite a large portion of his work. Another charge that Nicholson makes against Marx is, that his reasoning is involved, contradictory, and difficult to understand. Let the reader examine the following from the Professor’s work and then try and find something in the works of Marx to equal it :—
“To measure the values of things in terms of labour would obviously be impossible unless we can reduce all the kinds of labour to one common kind. This leads up to the idea of ‘socially necessary labour,’ which is quite unintelligible unless expressed in unreal hypothesis.” (Page 75.)
How that which is “unintelligible” can become intelligible when expressed in “unreal hypothesis” the professor does not say. He missed a golden opportunity by failing to expose either the unreality or the fallacy of “socially necessary labour.” He does not do this, no doubt because directly anyone examines the idea of either “socially necessary labour” or the “reduction of all kinds of labour to one common kind” they are so clear and their applicability so apparent, that once stated it would puzzle even a University professor to controvert them.
Here is another example of Nicholson’s method. He says :—
“But labour with Marx is not only the real measure, but the real determinant of value.
“If, however, labour as the real measure of value is absurd, labour as the sole real determinant of value is still more absurd.”
It will be noticed that there is no attempt here, either at analysis or argument. Neither here, nor anywhere else in the book, does Nicholson show that the amount of socially necessary labour contained in a commodity does not determine its value. When he attempts to do so there is no “if'” about his absurdity. He says :—
“The exchange values of things, whether we take long periods or short periods, depend on a variety of real causes, and any change in one or more of them will bring about a change in the resultant value of the thing.
“Among these causes is the amount of labour required to produce the thing.
“In general, in any product, there are very different qualities of labour concerned.
“And not only is labour required, but all sorts of auxiliary capital.”
As can be seen at a glance, labour of different qualities can be reduced to labour of the simplest kind merely by comparison. If, for instance, a commodity were produced solely by two men, the labour-power of the one being paid for at the rate of two shillings per hour and the other at one shilling per hour, and if the two men each worked on the commodity two hours, the amount of labour-power contained could either be reckoned as two hours of skilled plus two hours simple labour or as six hours of simple labour. The wages paid, six shillings, would be the same either way. Marx contends that this is done whenever the prices of commodities are compared, no matter how diverse the qualities of the labour-power embodied in them. As Nicholson shirks this question, although referring toil in passing, it must be taken for granted that he could find no fault with it.
Next among the variety of real causes is “all sorts of auxiliary capital.” But whether capital is auxiliary or principal, it is capital just the same—that is, wealth used for exploitation. Thus of all the ”variety of real causes on which exchange value depends,” according to Nicholson, only two can be shown, i.e., different kinds of capital and different kinds of labour, or at bottom simply capital and labour. As capital, in whatever form it appears, is wealth, it follows that it must have been produced by the application of human energy to the nature-given material. Professor Nicholson’s enumeration of his variety of real causes, when advanced this one logical step further, lands him in the same boat with Marx. He knows that every intelligent reader will see this, so he promises to show the absurdity of it in his next chapter on the accumulation of capital and in the chapter on profits. In the first of these chapters he argues that capitalism is not all a black record of evil. “On the contrary,” he says, “the growth of capitalism through the ages has also been one of the agents in the general advance of civilisation.” Obviously, this does not disprove the statement that “capital in all its forms is congealed or crystallised labour.” Neither does it prove anything to the credit of capitalism. War is one of the agents in the general advance of civilisation, yet the sooner it is abolished the better for the human race.
The only thing in the chapter on accumulation of capital that can be construed into having any connection with capital as “concealed or crystallised labour” is the following quotation and certain deductions made by the professor : —
“The conditions of production are also those of reproduction. No society can go on producing; in other words, no society can reproduce, unless it constantly reconverts a part of its products into means of production. . . . Hence a definite portion of each year’s product belongs to the domain of production. Destined for productive consumption from the very first, this portion exists, for the most part, in the shape of articles totally unfitted for individual consumption.” Capital, vol. I., page 578.
Professor Nicholson comments on this as follows :—-
“Labour power must be devoted to the continuous upkeep of the means of production, if the flow of consumable goods is to be continually forthcoming.”
He then goes on to argue that there must be changes in the forms and amounts of “productive capital” just as in the forms of “productive labour” if we are to have improvement in the quality of things and continuous substitution of new forms of wealth for old, and then he says :—
“Many passages might be quoted from Marx in which he assents to these general propositions regarding the connection of labour and capital.”
With real cunning, however, Nicholson neglects to quote the short passage immediately following the previous quotation, which reads as follows : —
“If production be capitalistic in form, so, too, will be reproduction. Just as in the former the labour-process figures, but as a means towards the self-expansion of capital ; so in the latter, it figures, but as a means of reproducing as capital—i.e., as self-expanding value—the value advanced. It is only because his money constantly functions as capital that the economical guise of a capitalist attaches to a man.”
Thus, an attempt to use short passages from Marx to justify capitalist methods, or institutions, is frustrated at once by anyone who refers to “Das Capital,” and reads the passage together with its context.
In his chapter on profits, Nicholson, instead of exploding Marxian fallacies, as he promised, engages in a somewhat dreary discourse on the false economy of low wages, saying : —
“Everyone can see that a certain minimum must go to labour if its mass and its efficiency is to be kept up. If not. the labour will emigrate or die out.”
And, of course, capital must have its maximum, or that too will emigrate, from which Nicholson argues that:
“Insurance against risk is the second element in the usual analysis of gross profits.”
A principle which is developed to such an extent that the bulk of capitalist concerns run little or no risk of failure, and can no longer be described as enterprises.
Throughout the book Professor Nicholson drearily complains that Marx, in his analysis, takes no account of demand. Following in the path of Jevons and Hobson, he holds that supply and demand, marginal utility, etc., are the main factors in prices. Although he pretends to have read the works of Marx, and frequently quotes from them, he purposely shuns those portions where Marx explains, in scientific fashion, the real part played by supply and demand in causing temporary fluctuations in price.
The general attitude of Professor Nicholson throughout the book might be summed up in the following paragraph, written by himself and appearing on page 131 :—
“In the complications of modern industry the right of each to the product of his own labour takes the form of the right to the share he can bargain for with the other contributors. He may make his bargain collectively or individually, but the general rule is that the greater the gain the greater the exertion.”
In other words, those who work the hardest get the most. No wonder that Marx wrote :—
“Once for all I may here state, that by classical political economy, I understand that economy which, since the time of W. Petty, has investigated the real relations of production in bourgeois society, in contradistinction to vulgar economy, which deals with appearances only, ruminates without ceasing on the materials long since provided by scientific economy, and there seeks plausible explanations of the most obtrusive phenomena, for bourgeois daily use ; but for the rest, confines itself to systematising in a pedantic way, and proclaiming for everlasting truths, the trite ideas held by the self-complacent bourgeoisie with regard to their own world, to them the best of all possible worlds.”
Which sums up, in a single sentence, not only Professor Nicholson but Jevons, Hobson, Marshall, and all the crowd of professional sycophants who prostitute themselves for wealth and position because truth and science does not pay in the sphere of politics.
(Socialist Standard, May 1922)