The Affluent Society pt.1

Professor Galbraith, the author of The Affluent Society, is an urbane and incisive commentator of contemporary Capitalism, especially its American version. As an iconoclast he is in the Veblen tradition. We shall, however, leave for a subsequent article, his views in general and only concern ourselves, here, with his comments on Marx in particular.

Marx (long dead) still wears a contemporary larger-than-life look—Professor Galbraith warily measures him up before seeking to cut him down to size. Marx, he notes, was a powerful and subtle thinker, a great deviationist from the stock ideas and sentiments of his age— called by the author “the conventional wisdom.” His influence, he thinks, both direct and indirect, has been enormous.

Marxism dead but won’t lie down

But, says the author, it is not only Marx who is dead, the main body of his doctrine has also atrophied, having presumably no further useful function to perform. It would appear from Professor Galbraith’s interpretation that Marxists have long resorted to artificial respiration in the belief that the body still breathes. Marxism, the author holds, has exhausted its impetus and originality and hardened into a dogma. It is now an article of faith which has acquired a religious quality. That is why for Marxists their opponents are not only in error but in sin. That is why, says Professor Galbraith, you cannot discuss Marxism with Marxists, at least not rationally. Marxists, he says, will always assure their opponents that whatever their criticism of Marx they have failed to understand him. One can at least reply to Professor Galbraith by saying that the history of anti-Marxist argument goes some way to confirm the accusation. For our part we, as Marxists, are eccentric enough to welcome any rational discussion on Marxism with anybody and everybody.

Who are the Marxists ?

Professor Galbraith’s description of Marxists as those who assume the role of hard-headed realists, facing the unlovely prospect of ever-greater immiseration (poverty) of the workers, ever-greater slumps, leading to final economic collapse and bloody revolution is certainly concise, clear cut—and wrong. To fasten on Marx such catastrophic views shows how catastrophically Professor Galbraith himself has misunderstood Marx, and regretfully he must be included among the legions who simply cannot discriminate between the “Marxism” of Moscow and the Marxism of Marx.

That the Bolsheviks and latter-day Communists never made Marxism the basis of their activities and yet made it their official creed, is sheer historical irony. Yet the paradox loses its enigmatical character if we know what precisely the role that theory had for them. Theory was not something acceptable, because it provides a systematic and logical picture of social events, theory for them was an ideological instrument, pressed into the services of political strategy and struggles. In this sense and only in this sense are we to understand the cardinal Communist dictum: “Theory must be a guide to practice.”

There were, however, good Bolshevik reasons for claiming Marxist paternity for their views. Unable or unwilling to father a theory of their own, they took over an established and ready-made doctrine which not only gave a semblance of authority to their views, but an ideological basis to which shifts and changes in policy could be ultimately referred and, of course, justified.

And so the dialectic which made all things possible, turned Marxism into its opposite. From a method of free scientific enquiry it was transformed into an authoritative dogma unsurpassed even by the Holy Catholic Church. Its high priests dispensed official Marxist decrees with encyclical infallibility. It was the greatest “negation of the negation” of all time. In Communist hands Historical Materialism became Dialectical Materialism, and Marxist economic doctrines were taken apart and reassembled for the construction of the “Communist model.”

As formulated by Marx, “the law of the tendency of the falling rate of profit,” which he said was a tendency annulled by counter tendencies was converted by the Communists from a tendency to an iron law which had the terrifying and remorseless character of the law of gravitation. Given this iron law of the falling rate of profit, there would go a continuous and progressive decline in the fields of capital investment. This decline in turn would produce slumps of an ever more massive order, more massive unemployment and a greater mass of poverty for the workers. Out of this economic chaos the Proletarian Dictatorship would emerge and give rise to Communist “law and order.”

This was Communist theory, but never Marxist fact.

Marxism and the Intellectuals

Communist theory was then nicely attuned to Communist propaganda whose source of inspiration and direction was Russia. Communist Parties all over the world attempted to follow the Leninist pattern, viz., creation of a mass organization, conditional collaboration with Social Democratic parties, etc. It sought to undermine Western Capitalism by fermenting and organising mass discontent. It inspired its adherents with a belief in the inevitable break-down of Capitalism and inculcated the feeling of a tough realism which not only required that Communism must by all means expedite the decline of Capitalism, but be the organised force to take over power from the bourgeois or left parties.

This was the essence of the Communist ideology, an ideology which created many Communists among its victims. With its insistence on an intellectual elite it sought and at least to some extent succeeded in making an impact on some sections of the intelligentsia. For intellectuals in the twenties and thirties who were in despair, Communism gave them hope. For many in doubt it provided invincible certainty. To the tougher minded the Communists dared them to walk the plank of Communist realism. Many did, although they walked back afterwards.

And so Moscow Marxism provided many of the angry young men of the thirties with an escape route via Russia. In their angry youth they violently proclaimed it. In their mild middle they violently repudiated it.

Enter Mr. Strachey

It is not surprising that when Professor Galbraith, who takes these once angry young men seriously, turns his eyes from East to West, he discovers that angry young man of old, Mr. Strachey, as the most articulate Marxist of the thirties. Mr. Strachey certainly had a flair for writing a lot about which he knew little. No doubt the Communist intelligentsia had groomed him for “Marxist” stardom. Like many other stars groomed by Communists, Mr. Strachey severed his contacts and transferred his talents to rival producers. His Theory of Capitalist Crises merely repeats the Communist economic errors on an expanded scale.

No doubt Moscow Marxism and people like Mr. Strachey provide a barn door of such dimensions that nobody would miss even at a distance. That is why perhaps so many pundits are indulging this pedestrian pastime. One hoped that Professor Galbraith was made of sterner stuff. It is so easy to set up skittles like a Marxist theory of absolute poverty. Of workers living for the most part on the margin of destitution. A Marxist stark under-consumption theory of ever increasing wealth and ever increasing poverty. Of a Marxist “law of the falling rate of profit” where the system comes to a sudden end like an engine with not enough steam pressure behind the piston. It is easy to scatter that lot and walk jauntily into the next chapter.

But we are ready to yell after him, hi, professor, in the hope he hears us, Marx never formulated such propositions. In actual fact not only did he say different things to what Professor Galbraith thinks he said, but even in some respects the opposite.

In the next article we shall discuss rationally and in detail not the errors of Marx but the errors of Professor Galbraith in respect of Marx.

(To be continued)

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