1940s >> 1944 >> no-473-january-1944

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.

A glaring example of Joan Robinson’s failure to present Marx’s views correctly occurs on p. 27. Quoting two sentences from Vol. III, p. 221, she omits a most important bracket and thus manages to make Marx appear to suggest that “the exchange, or sale, of commodities” will continue under Socialism in spite of the fact that the plain meaning of the first sentence is contrary to any such assumption. When society establishes “a direct relation between the quantity of social labour-time employed in the production of definite articles and the quantity of demand of society for them,” it will by that very act abolish the production and exchange of commodities, i.e., of articles of sale. Exchange is manifestly an indirect way of regulating the relationship between the labour-time spent and social demand.


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,


To the present writer it appears that Joan Robinson’s crowning audacity consists of her assertion on p. 42 that “Marx can only demonstrate a falling tendency in profits” (she means rate of profit) “by abandoning his argument that real wages tend to be constant.”


This is on the strength of Marx’s “assumption” of a constant rate of exploitation in his illustration on p. 247 of vol. III. An examination of this page shows clearly that Marx’s purpose here is simply to demonstrate that a given rate of surplus value will express itself in different rates of profit according to the different volumes of constant capital.


As one goes through the chapter one finds that Marx gives illustrations which completely refute Joan Robinson’s contention. On p. 253 Marx devotes half the page to showing that a higher rate of exploitation is consistent with a lower rate of profit. Instead of analysing Marx’s figures and showing wherein they are wrong, our academic guide trots out some hotch-potch of her own from which her bugbear, the concept of value, has been completely eliminated. This prevents her from showing even what the rate of profit actually is, but she is not to be deterred by mere trifles like that. She proceeds to assert that if (as a result of an increase in productivity) a 10 per cent. increase in constant capital leads to an equal increase in the mass of profit (in terms of “product” as distinct from value) then “the rate of profit on capital would be constant” (p. 44).


A consideration of the following figures should show the falsity of this remark. It will be observed that a principle which applies to a 10 per cent. increase applies equally to an increase of 200 per cent. in capital and profit in terms of “ product,” to avoid awkward fractions.


  1. Constant Capital £100. Variable Capital £50. Surplus value £50.
  2. 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.


In (2) productivity is assumed to have doubled, while real wages (in terms of “product”) have remained constant, falling in value by half. The capitalist’s share (whether expressed in terms of “product” or value) is now three times us large as that of the worker’s, just as the constant capital is three times as large as in the first instance. None the less the rate of profit (as distinct from its mass) has fallen by 10 per cent.


This illustration is not intended to do anything more than to show the unreliability of “the more precise and refined methods of modern analysis ” (Joan Robinson’s “ Foreword.” p. vi), and to point the suggestion that even academic economists might do worse than to read Marx for themselves.


This brief review does not profess to have dealt exhaustively with Joan Robinson’s misconceptions. It may be noted, however, that her unreliability is not confined to purely theoretical points. On p. 38 she says, “Marx’s argument requires modification if it is to be brought into line with the rise in real wages which has actually occurred in modern times.” Here is a magnificent opportunity for her to produce some practical evidence in support of a statement. One looks for it in vain, as we are merely referred to certain unnamed “conservative trade-anion leaders, who look back to their own ragged and barefoot childhood and count up the blessings which Capitalism has brought to the workers.” (Footnote to p. 39.)


In his small volume, “The Worker’s Share” (Allen A Unwin), Mr. A. W. Humphrey showed in 1930 that, ” accepting the estimate of Dr. Bowley and Sir Josiah Stamp, we may say that a problematical 5 per cent. was the only improvement in the average income of working-class households between 1914 and 1929 ” (p. 80). Has Joan Robinson forgotten the posters on the hoardings in the winter of 1928-9: ” A million of your fellow countrymen are in need of food and clothing”? This referred, moreover, only to the miners, at one time among the highest-paid workers. The fact that some of the lower-paid workers have risen towards the average level in living memory by no means offsets the lot which has overtaken others who were above the average; particularly noticeable being those in the export trades (such as the textiles), shipbuilding, etc. Increases in wage-rates by no means guarantees employment at those rates.


In spite of her academic outlook it must be conceded that Joan Robinson admits the exploitation of the workers, and here and there hints at expropriation of the capitalists as the remedy. She even credits Marx with penetrating insight. Her attempts to criticise his theories, however, fail just as effectively as those of her predecessors.

Eric Boden