An Economist Misses Her Marx
“An Essay on Marxian Economics,” Joan Robinson (McMillan, 7s. 6d)
Those who have read Robert Tressell’s sketch of working-class existence, “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists,” will remember the chapter entitled “The Oblong,” in which Owen, the house painter, tried to explain to his mates the division of wealth among the classes in modern society. Although nicknamed “the Professor,” Owen would hardly have passed first-class in an examination in Marxian economics. None the less, he expressed the gist of the matter fairly clearly in the remark, “As the money they get in wages is not equal in value to the things they produce, they find that they are only able to buy back a very-small part.” (P. 177.)
It is noteworthy that he used the idea of value. Though his two dozen fellow-workers made no pretence of culture, they were not so simple as to imagine that they were reconditioning and re-decorating that most desirable residence, “The Cave,” for the accommodation of any working-class family. So many ceilings sloshed with whitewash, so many walls stripped of old paper, so many rotten floorboards replaced by new ones, new fire-grates for old—all these things had to be brought into relation to the items of subsistence of those who could hardly aspire to a council house in the days of which Tressell wrote. In spite of their obvious differences push-bikes have something in common with Rolls-Royces. Shoddy is akin to broadcloth and black-puddings can be expressed in the same terms as the best grills at the Savoy, i.e., coin of the realm; for all have value. All have occupied a certain portion of the labour-time of society. In this respect they differ only in the quantity of value, in the amount of time which is necessary to produce them. The workers spend more time in producing for their masters than they spend in producing for themselves. This simple fact is hidden by wage-contracts. Like Owen’s mates, the majority of the workers think that they are paid for their labour. The “great money trick,” as Owen called it, has to be analysed before the fallacy of their ideas can be grasped.
Any student of Marx knows that he based his analysis of Capitalism upon his analysis of value. Incredible though it may seem, an economist has “discovered” that “none of the important ideas which he [Marx] expresses in terms of the concept of value cannot be better expressed without it.” “An Essay on Marxian Economics,” Joan Robinson (McMillan, 7s. 6d.; page 24). ‘Again, “No point of substance in Marx’s argument depends upon the labour theory of value” (p. 27). Once more, “The concept of value has no more application in the economics of Socialism than it has in the economics of the capitalist system” (p. 33). Readers of Marx may well wonder why such an insult is offered to them, .loan Robinson offers the following explanation: “The chief difficulty in learning from him [Marx] arises from the peculiar language and the crabbed method of argument which he used, and my purpose is to explain what I understand Marx to have been saying in language intelligible to the academic economist” (pp. v and vi), “Foreword.” The result is that, in spite of 114 references to “Capital” (Vols. I, II and III). “as a gauge of good faith” (p. vii), she manages to falsify Marx’s meaning on his most fundamental points. Marx, of course, did not write specifically for academic economists. He merely presupposed “a reader who is willing to learn something new and therefore to think for himself” (p. xvi. Author’s Preface, “Capital,” Vol. I, Sonnenschein Edition). He had therefore no use for the slick professional jargon current among the above-mentioned gentry, but preferred to express his meaning in terms which he was careful to define. Joan Robinson is equally careful not to define the terms which she coolly substitutes for those of Marx. One can only infer the sense in which she uses a term from the conclusions at which she arrives. Thus she persists in using the term “capital” to refer to what Marx defines as “constant capital,” i.e., the money invested in the factors of production (other than human labour-power); such as machinery, raw material, etc.; and has the cool impudence to put forward the following travesty of Marx’s views: “Land and capital produce no value, for value is the product of labour-time” (p. 20). Marx sub-entitled his first volume “A Critical Analysis of Capitalist Production.” The second chapter of volume II is entitled “The Rotation of Productive Capital.” Lastly, in volume I (p. 383), he wrote: ”Machinery, like every other component of constant capital, creates no new value, but yields up its own value to the product that it serves to beget.”
Marx went to considerable pains to make it clear that before the worker can indulge in labour-time he must sell his labour-power to the capitalist; whereupon it becomes just as much a part of productive capital as the machinery, raw materials, etc. Under Capitalism, therefore, production, that is, the labour-process, is a function of capital. It is capital’s means of self-expansion.
Money makes money only because labour-power, fraught and sold for money, creates a value greater than its own. It does this by transforming the raw materials, by means of the machinery provided, into articles of consumption; thus preserving their value and adding further value to them at the same time. The process does not end with the bare re-production of their wages by the workers. It goes on in order that they may produce profit. Hence, the struggle between the workers (who are not interested in the production of profit) and their masters (who are) arises from the conditions of production under Capitalism.
Joan Robinson misconceives capital as a material thing. On p. 22 she attempts to distinguish between “capital” and “ownership of capital”; but: what is capital if not a particular form of ownership?
Machinery is not, in itself, capital, any more than is labour-power. Both productive factors have to be purchased by the capitalist and set in motion with a view to the production of profit. We may readily agree that “capital is necessary to make labour productive ” (p. 21) beyond a certain point; but only in the sense that the whip is necessary in order to make the chattel-slave produce. When the means of production have been converted into the common property of society they will have lost their capitalistic character. They will be used for the common good instead of being instruments of exploitation.
On this flimsy basis our. authoress proceeds to juggle with alleged “problems of Socialism.” These have been neatly exposed by Mr. T. A. Jackson in his criticism of her work (see “Plebs,” May, 1943),, though it is to be regretted that even he lapses, however momentarily,’ into her jargon when he refers to ” increases in capital” in a socialist community,
- Constant Capital £100. Variable Capital £50. Surplus value £50.
- Constant Capital £300. Variable Capital £25. Surplus value £75.
In (1) the rate of exploitation is 100 per cent., that of profit 33-1/3 per cent.
In (2) the rate of exploitation is 300 per cent., that of profit 23-1/13 per cent.