Crises, Catastrophe and Mr. Strachey

Did Marx really believe that crises would be so catastrophic in their effects as to ensure the economic collapse of Capitalism? It is a convention of many of his critics and the so-called Marxist revisionists to say he did. None of them have ever given substance to their assertions with any worthwhile evidence.

It is true that the young Marx in Wage Labour and Capital (p. 45), spoke of “crises becoming more frequent and violent.” And again in the Communist Manifesto (p. 18), we are told—”Crises by their periodical return put the existence of bourgeois society on its trial and each time more threateningly.” But it is to Marx’s detailed and mature economic investigation to which we must turn in order to estimate what he thought was the nature and role of Capitalist crises. And here we find no specific reference or concrete indication of a view that some mounting crescendo of crises will ultimately crash to economic ruin.

In point of fact, Marx never formulated a theory of crises, at least not in any systematic or cohesive form. Instead we get a treatment of the different aspects of crises, scattered through the 2nd and 3rd volumes of Capital and Theories of Surplus Value. So far from Marx laying down any hard and fast rules on the subject of crises, we get instead an analysis of a number of tendencies which are bound up with the production of crisis situations.

It seems fairly safe to assume then that Marx in his later and mature investigation of the actual trends in Capitalism, never regarded crises as the agent of the final destruction of extant society. On the contrary there is no little evidence to indicate that he saw crises as a normal but essential phase of the trade cycle which, he said, was peculiar to the Capitalist mode of production.

Indeed it was no other than Marx who pioneered the investigation into the nature of the antithetical yet mutually reciprocal trade cycle. It was Marx who showed one phase of the trade cycle is characterised by an acceleration of capital investment and as a corollary to this an increased tempo of industrial activity, rising employment, rising wages and increasing profits.

Because the different branches of industry are atomistically controlled or to state it alternatively because “anarchy of production,” prevails in Capitalism, decisions for capital investment are carried out by Capitalists without knowledge or regard for investment decisions being made at the same time by other Capitalists elsewhere.

As a result of these autonomous and unrelated decisions to invest in a period of expansion, it is hardly surprising that over-expansion of a particular line of industry takes place or what comes to the same thing disproportionality of industrial development between the various branches of production. Thus one industrial sphere may have over-expanded relatively to other spheres and as a result it will be unable to sell its goods at a remunerative price. Consequently there will be in this particular sphere a contraction of investment and hence production. This action will have cumulative effects by leading to a reduction of demand of products and services of those industries which are linked with this particular industrial branch and which in turn will reduce their orders to other concerns likewise linked with them. If the initial over-expansion or disproportionality of industrial development is big enough a general fall in the demand for goods and services will spread from point to point and a general relative over-production will ensue.

Thus the phase of the business cycle associated with accelerating investment, rising wages, rising employment and increasing profits, will come to an end and be replaced by the antithetical phase of reduced investment, falling employment and declining wages and profits.

The orthodox economists also treat of what is termed in modern economic usage the business cycle theory. For them a period of brisk trade activity is linked with a high return on invested capital. While the antithetical phase i.e. a recession, is associated with a decline in the rate of profit below the normal range for investment purposes. Thus for them crises are analysed from the formal level of the supply and demand of investment funds. Marx, however, probed deeper and showed that the behaviour of the Capitalist class springs from the basic features of Capitalist society which constitute a particular set of antagonistic class relations of production and gives rise to an antagonistic form of income distribution. From the general standpoint of the Capitalist class a “recession” is the outcome of an unfavourable distribution of income in that the form of income going to the working class as wages, is too high and that part of income going to them as profits is too low, to make it worth their while to maintain a high level of investment.

If Capitalism could operate on some master plan then the correct proportional expansion between the different branches of industry might be attempted and investment decisions synchronised in respect of the entire economy. But Capitalism does not work like that. Each Capitalist or group of Capitalists produce for a market of whose size they have only an imperfect knowledge, let alone the entire network of markets operating in Capitalism. Hence whether too little or too much is produced cannot be known until after the event and it is only a major upset in the price mechanism which reveals that a number of unrelated and separate investment decisions have brought about a rupture of equilibrium conditions.

Crises are not as some theorists of underconsumption imagine the outcome of expanded production, outstripping total consumption demand, and so bringing about some permanent market decline.

It was never Marx’s view that crises arise as the result of a chronic bias towards over-production and an ever-increasing inability of the Capitalists to dispose of their products in a perpetually shrinking market. In Capital, Vol. 3 (p. 299), Marx, commenting on the upward swing of the trade cycle ends thus: “And in this way the cycle would run once more. One portion of capital which had been depreciated by the stagnation of its function would recover its old value. For the rest the same vicious cycle would be described once more in an expanded market and with increased productive forces.” From what has been said it is evident that Marx never viewed crises as an ineluctable agent for the ultimate destruction of existing society but as an antithetical but inseparable phase of the trade cycle.

In the light of the foregoing it would seem that periods of prosperity for the Capitalists i.e., periods of accelerating capital investment bring nemesis in the way of rising wages, rising costs, etc., which sooner or later tend to appreciably diminish profit margins. Crises would then seem the specific remedy for the evils arising from “prosperity.” Stated from the more fundamental standpoint of Marx’s analysis, these evils are “a production of too many means of production and necessities of life to serve as a means of exploitation of the labourer at a certain rate of profit.”

Nevertheless if crises can be looked upon from one point of view as a retribution for prosperity they can also be regarded as acting as a purgative to the body economic, allowing it to be restored to the healthier state of equilibrium. To put the matter specifically, crises contain the germ of a trade recovery. In the first place the existence of a large industrial reserve army will serve to cheapen the price of labour-power and so raise the rate of profit and because of the cheapness of labour-power, tend to retard the introduction of machinery and new methods and so make possible the more primitive technical concerns to become profitable once more. At the same time the sharp depreciation of capital values will lower the organic composition of capital, i.e. lower the ratio of constant capital (means of production) to variable capital (wage payments) and so assist in raising the rate of profit. Again during a crisis there are cheap and abundant resources available, including large reserves of labour-power. Thus the conditions are prepared in a shorter or longer period, for a resumption of increased investment and rising profit margins.

Crises are not then incidental interludes between periods of high trade activity but an essential corrective for the uninhibited self-expansion of capital. As Marx states it: “Periodically the conflict of antagonistic agencies seek vent in crises. The crises are always but momentary and forcible solutions of the existing contradictions, violent eruptions which restore the disturbed equilibrium for a while.” (Capital, Vol. 3, p. 292).

To say then that Marx tied up his views on crises with an automatic breakdown theory is either to misunderstand or misrepresent him. While it is true that crises subject Capitalism to stresses and strains, to suggest that they will bring about the social and physical collapse of the system is something quite different. Marx so far as the present writer is aware never used the term “economic collapse of Capitalism.”

For Marx, however, crises were a significant part of the dynamics of Capitalism and he regarded his own treatment of them as an important contribution to the understanding of the system. He saw them as not only an outcome of antagonistic agencies but as a means of resolving the conflict in a new equilibrium. The crisis plays then a definite role in influencing the long term trends of the system.

Capitalism may thus be described as a system of unstable equilibrium. Which brings us to Mr. Strachey, who states in Contemporary Capitalism (p. 218) that “Marx regarded the instabilities of Capitalism as a secondary matter and did not expect them to prove fatal to the system.” But in that case the economic collapse theory which Mr. Strachey accuses Marx of holding, cannot be explained from Marx’s theory of the production cycle of Capitalism. Marx, says Mr. Strachey, formulated something different. Marx’s view of economic collapse is deduced from Marx’s contention, according to Mr. Strachey, that Capitalism undergoes a continuous process of mass under-consumption and thus an ever-increasing inability of Capitalists to dispose of their products in an ever-decreasing market. Intense mass poverty would result, the workers would revolt and Capitalism would perish.

We are asked to believe, minus any evidence, that Marx gave up his formulation of the trade cycle concept and substituted a view of permanent stagnation, i.e. of falling wages profits and investment, and ever increasing massive unemployment. Thus the system would run down like a clock. Crises would no longer play an active part; no new equilibrium could be established; capital accumulation would go on contracting and the basic feature of Capitalism, the self-expansion of capital would atrophy. Both employers and workers would become ever poorer, even if at different levels. Mr. Strachey, consistent in his confusion, would have us believe nevertheless that Marx thought that in all this process the Capitalists would in some way grow ever richer.

Mr. Strachey, however, flatly contradicts himself in the same paragraph by stating that the instabilities of the system and Marx’s alleged under-consumption views of crises are in some way clearly related. He adds lamely, “but Marx never fully elucidated the connection between them.” Marx did, of course, fully elucidate the connection between the instabilities of Capitalism and the emergence of crises. Mr. Strachey has never fully understood this connection, even though he wrote a book called The Nature of Capitalist Crisis. When Marx in the preface of Capital presupposed a reader willing to think for himself, he was perhaps a little optimistic. But a person who can state on one page that Marx regarded the instabilities of the system as secondary and then on the previous page aver that “Marx and Engels lived in the confident expectation that each crisis would be the system’s last” i.e. fatal, is incorrigible.

Marx never constructed a catastrophic theory of crises. Nor did he say, as Mr. Strachey avers, that crises are due to the inability of the workers to buy back what they have produced. Although Mr. Strachey was posing as a Marxist, he put this view forward in the name of Marx. Nevertheless Marx repudiated Rodbertus’ view that crises were caused by a lack of paying consumption and could be remedied by highering wages. Marx also showed that it was “high wages” which constituted a factor for producing a crisis and a plentiful supply of cheap labour-power as a factor for initiating a boom.

Mr. Strachey, however, is not really an economist. He is a politician trying to explain the errors and illusions of the past but in fact only explaining them away. It becomes necessary therefore to set up a lot of false assumptions and with great gusto, knock ’em down. Like most politicians, he has a favourite aunt called Sally.

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