Poverty or Misery?

In his book Contemporary Capitalism, Mr. Strachey echoes Bernstein in asserting that Marx held that the economic laws of Capitalism are such as to not only keep the standard of living of the working class down to a bare subsistence level but owing to the downward pressure which these “laws” exert, force this subsistence level even lower. This leads Marx to conclude, says Mr. Strachey again echoing Bernstein, that vast overproduction, leading to a final economic collapse and violent revolution would inevitably follow. Like Bernstein Mr. Strachey never offers to really explain what these laws are, nor how they are supposed to operate.

Mr. Strachey hangs his misrepresentation of Marx on the slender thread of two quotations of a few lines and isolated from the context in which they occur. The first is from the Communist Manifesto. It reads: “The modern labourer . . . instead of rising with the progress of industry, sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class. He becomes a pauper and pauperism develops more rapidly than population and wealth.”

But the Manifesto was largely a propagandist pamphlet written in highly generalised and scathing language, hardly the place a cull a few lines from as crucial proof of what Mr. Strachey deems the heart of Marxism, i.e., ever worsening poverty for the mass and ultimate economic collapse. Surely on “so vital a matter” Mr. Strachey had the whole of Marx’s detailed analysis from which to chose but he would not have found there what he so obviously wanted to find.

Actually what Marx and Engels were pointing out in the last but one paragraph in section one of the Manifesto from which Mr. Strachey quotes was that the industrial progress of Capitalism not only places the worker in economic jeopardy but one of its consequences is to deprive him of a livelihood and so compel him to live beneath the conditions of existence of his own class and as they add “instead of feeding the bourgeoisie he has to be fed by them.”

According to Mr. Strachey’s interpretation of this, Marx envisaged the end product of Capitalist development as the conversion of the mass of producers of surplus value, into idle consumers of surplus products that is if in such a state of affairs there was anything left to consume. Mr. Strachey cannot of course point to anything in Marx’s economic analysis of Capitalism which remotely suggests such a conclusion.

Marx in fact never speaks of a law of absolute poverty, nor does he make the growth of poverty a necessary outcome of Capitalist development. For Marx poverty is not something absolute and physical but something relative and social. That Marx left no room for doubt on this matter is seen in a work written incidentally before the Manifesto, Wage Labour and Capital. On (p 33) he states:

“A house may be large or small; as long as the neighbouring houses are likewise small it satisfies all social requirements. But let there arise next to the little house, a palace and the little house shrinks to a hut. The little house now makes it clear that its inmate has no social position to maintain or but a very insignificant one; and however high it may shoot up in the course of civilisation, if the neighbouring palace rises in equal or greater measure the occupant of the relatively little house will always find himself more uncomfortable, more dissatisfied, more cramped within his four walls.”

For Marx the social conditions of one class cannot be determined except by reference to some other class or classes. Thus he declares, “our wants and pleasures are measured in relation to society, not in the objects which serve their gratification.” In answer to the assertions in Mr. Strachey’s book (p. 101) that Marx held that Capitalism condemns the working class to a perpetual lowering of wages, Marx replies on (p. 33) in Wage Labour and Capital, by stating, that a rapid growth of productive capital involves an appreciable rise in wages. That he does not consider poverty an essential condition for Socialism is made quite clear on p. 39 of the same pamphlet when he declares, “the most rapid growth of capital however much it may improve the material life of the worker, does not abolish the antagonism between his interests and the interests of the Capitalist.”

To Mr. Strachey’s unwarrantable assertion that Marx believed in an iron or fixed law of wages, Marx in the work, Value, Price and Profit, says, “the value of labour (power) itself is not a fixed but a variable magnitude, even supposing the value of all other commodities to remain the same.”

On pages 87 and 88 of the same work, Marx, treating of the struggle between Capitalists and workers over the division of social wealth, states, although we can determine the minimum of wages i.e. the essentials necessary to maintain the worker physically, we cannot fix their maximum. The struggle between employers seeking to gain the greatest possible profit and workers striving for the highest possible wages, resolves itself, says Marx, “into a question of the respective powers of the combatants.”

To Mr. Strachey’s assertion that Marx held that workers’ wages represent bare subsistence, or to put alternatively are the cost of mere replacement of physical energies used up in the productive process, Mr. Strachey, if he cares to read Capital (p. 631), will find Marx stating the working class “can extend the circle of their enjoyments, can make some additions to their consumption fund of clothes, furniture, etc., and can lay by small reserve funds of money. But just as little do better clothes, food and a larger peculium do away with the exploitation of the slave, so little do they set aside that of the wage worker.”

Marx then made it crystal clear that the value of labour-power is determined by two elements; one merely physical and the other he calls, historical and moral. By the latter he meant that in different periods and in different countries—even in different localities, there is a traditional standard of life which workers feel is indispensable to their existence. Hence any attempt to lower it will provoke the strongest resistance. Thus, when workers combine in trade unions to maintain or increase wages, they are not fighting hopelessly against some iron law of wages, which must assert itself in the long run but are expressing the historical and moral element involved in the value of labour-power and so helping “to mould the traditional standards of the future.” Marx was aware of the tendency of wages to rise under the impact of capital accumulation. He certainly never believed, however, that wage increases would absorb the whole of profits, never reach a point “where the system itself is threatened.” (Capital, p. 632).

On the other hand, said Marx, there are tendencies in Capitalism which set up a strong counter resistance to rising wages. These tendencies include, the substitution of mechanical power for labour power, the recurring crises of the system and to a lesser degree the export of capital to places where cheaper sources of labour power are available. Thus increased unemployment will lead to increased competition for jobs and downward pressures on existing wage levels. While Marx believed that trade unions could have a retarding effect on these tendencies, he did not believe they could reverse their direction. (Value, Price and Profit, p. 93).

When Marx speaks in the same pamphlet (p. 92) of the general tendency in Capitalism to sink rather than raise wages it can be seen from the foregoing that such a tendency is a marked feature of Capitalism and inseparable from a wages system.

Marx, however, in spite of Mr. Strachey’s profound misunderstanding on the matter, never equates these tendencies to the totality of Capitalist social relations. Marx true to his own historic standpoint, reveals the powerful refracting effects on these tendencies by the social factor of the class struggle. For Marx there are no laws of motion of Capitalist society existing in isolation, there are only laws of motion as modified by human beings. Mr. Strachey not understanding this, does not understand the historical method of Marx.

Which brings us to Mr. Strachey’s other quotation, making a grand total of two. This quotation is from the Eden and Cedar Paul translation of Capital. Because Mr. Strachey has made his central point an assertion that Marx believed in some process of a growth of absolute poverty, he has good reasons for using this particular translation rather than the fourth German edition, translated by Samuel Moore and edited by Frederick Engels. In this last-named edition the quotation given by Mr. Strachey is: “Along with the constantly diminishing number of the magnates of capital who usurp and monopolise all advantages of this process of transformation, grows the mass of misery, slavery, degradation, exploitation . . .” (Capital, p. 789 Swan Sonnenchein edition). In the Eden and Cedar Paul translation the word “misery” is altered to poverty. One might also point out that in this same edition, several words are arbitrarily and erroneously changed. The word misery it might also be mentioned is used in the Kerr edition and in the Allen and Unwin edition translated by Dona Torr. This edition was highly praised by Mr. Strachey himself. Also in Value, Price and Profit (p. 93) Marx speaks of the miseries imposed by Capitalism not the poverty, etc.

It may also be noted that the quotation given by Mr. Strachey is merely the briefest of passing references on the subject of Marx. One wonders why Mr. Strachey didn’t quote from Capital (p. 661, Swan Sonnenchein edition) where Marx clearly and explicitly states what he means by misery. But then Mr. Strachey would not have been able to prove what he wanted to prove.

Dealing with the effects of capital accumulation on the working class, Marx states:

“They mutilate the labourer into a fragment of a man, degrade him to the level of the appendage of a machines destroy every remnant of charm in his work and turn it into a hateful toil; they estrange him from the intellectual potentialities of the labour-process in the same proportion as science is incorporated in it as an independent power. … It follows therefore in proportion as capital accumulates the lot of labourer, be his wages high or low, must grow worse. It establishes an accumulation of misery corresponding with the accumulation of capital. Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, accumulation of misery, agony, toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation at the opposite pole.” (Italics ours.)

Marx then does not relate misery to the sum of wages a worker gets but to the social conditions of his existence. Engels in a letter to Bebel (March 1875) rebukes those people who falsify Marx by stating he believed in an iron law of wages. Engels also says that “Marx showed in Capital that the laws regulating wages are very complicated . . . they are in no sense iron but very elastic.”

Mr. Strachey did not always accept the view that Marx equated the value of labour power with a bare subsistence level, or the mere physical replacement of working energies. In his book, The Nature of Capitalist Crisis (p. 197) he associated himself with the following: “the value of labour-power is the sum of commodities, necessary to keep the worker in health and strength and enable him to keep his children in equal health and strength and technical ability.” Neither are we given the slightest hint in that work of one of the central assertions which Mr. Strachey makes in his latest book which is that Marx held that such would be the level of poverty of the workers that they would be unable to efficiently perform their working tasks.

Must we conclude that when Mr. Strachey was a “Marxist” he did not really understand Marxism and only understands it now he isn’t? Or could it be truly said that he has never really understood Marxism at any time?

(In the next issue we shall deal with Mr. Strachey’s fantastic assertion that Marx was at bottom a Malthusian)

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