1960s >> 1967 >> no-757-september-1967

“Capital” in its place

There was a song we used to sing, on Labour League of Youth outings:


Karl Marx’s body lies a-moulding in the grave,
Forgotten by the workers whom he gave his life to save
He wrote Das Kapital but never had a shave . . .


There is no need, of course, to take this sort of stuff seriously, except that it does signify a common attitude to Marx—usually by those who have not read a word of what he wrote, who think that anyone with a name and a beard like that must be a humourless, inflexible bigot, in love with remote theory and out of touch with the real world.


We young Labourites were going to reform the world—fill every stomach, banish disease, abolish war. It was all very simple. There were problems in the world because of faulty reasoning on the part of someone; or because of a lack of charity by Them; or greed; or a miscalculation. We would not have recognised the word, but we were idealists; we thought the deficiencies in society could be explained, and remedied, in terms of ideas. We had not read Engels, but he named those who had held similar concepts as Utopians:


If pure reason and justice have not hitherto ruled the world, this has been due only to the fact that men have not rightly understood them. What was lacking was just the individual man of genius, who has now arisen and has recognised the truth . . . (Socialism, Utopian and Scientific).


The question we never faced—the question no reformer ever faces—was, if society’s ideas are “bad”, what makes them so? Why are they not “good” ideas? Why is society so “unreasonable” that it accepts an arrangement which allows a few people to enjoy almost boundless wealth while the condition of the vast majority is never better than insistent poverty and can sink as low as outright starvation? Why is society so “foolish” as to waste so much of its resources on destruction? Such questions are endless but had we known, or cared, the one logical and consistent answer to them had already been found, by that man whose beard caused us so much amusement.


One of the essentials of the Marxist analysis of society is the Materialist Conception of History which, among other things, sees ideas in their place as the products of material conditions and not as the makers of those conditions:


. . . economic production and the structure of society of every historical epoch necessarily arising therefrom constitute the foundation for the political and intellectual history of that epoch . . . (Engels — Preface to the German edition of the Communist Manifesto, 1883).


From this viewpoint, history is not the jumble of accidents, personal misdeeds and romantic mysteries which was served to us as the staple diet of our schooldays. History is a continuous process of social development, passing from one system to another, marking its way with periods of social revolution and with each system giving rise to its own class antagonisms.


Man’s history, in other words, has been a process of class struggles which have brought him now to capitalism, a system with only two classes and therefore with only one class to struggle for its emancipation. Capitalism has done many things. It has broken the customs and taboos of earlier society, it has massed its people into great productive units. It has entirely separated one of its classes from the means of production and by so doing has brought into existence the most explicit of class divisions in human society. Capitalism has developed—and continues to develop—the process of extracting a surplus product, from the unprivileged class for the privileged class, into an unprecedented science.


This, then, is capitalism. But how do we examine the system, how explain its workings, its class relations, its method of exploitation? How do we come to an understanding of capitalism’s tendencies and the process by which it nourishes the seeds of its own destruction?


This analysis was the work of Marx’s Capital.


The first question Marx had to ask was—what is the mode of production in capitalist society? The answer was commodity production, that the mass of wealth under capitalism was produced as commodities. “Our investigation” said Marx, “must therefore begin with the analysis of a commodity.”


Marx’s method is to isolate the commodity, as “. . . in the first place, an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or another.” From this simple statement he goes on to examine the commodity in detail; the limits within which one will exchange with another, the implications of the social relationship of value, the way in which commodities perform their function of exchanging so as to realise a surplus value for the capitalist class.


Marx examined the nature of the commodity which all workers possess—human labour power—and he revealed the process by which the working class are exploited, he revealed the reasons for their alienation from the means of production and he charted the course of their ever-deepening misery and degradation:


. . . within the capitalist system all methods for raising the social productiveness of labour are brought about at the cost of the individual labourer; all means for the development of production transform themselves into means of domination over, and exploitation of, the producers; they mutilate the labourer into a fragment of a man, degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, destroy every remnant of charm in his work, and turn it into a hated toil . . . (Capital, p.661).


This passage, which ends with the famous statement that “Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole, i.e. on the side of the class that produces its own product in the form of capital,” has come in for much criticism from those who argue that the opposite tendency has taken place, that capitalism has solved its problems and makes its people ever happier in a flood of washing machines, cars and television sets.


But is what Marx said true? Misery? Agony? Join the rush-hour, take your place on a fast assembly line with everyone trying to keep up the bonus, have a go at finding somewhere to live which is bearable and within the pay packet of an average worker. Look into the figures of families who are suffering extremes of poverty amid the so-called Welfare State, which was another of those things which were supposed to have proved Marx wrong. [1]


Brutality? Look up the recent crime statistics, with their evidence that we live in times of almost unprecedented violence. [2] Consider the fact that men now earn their living by making the things which have the power almost to wipe out settled life on the earth. Mental degradation? This is the age when capital accumulation usually means the use of computers and automative techniques of production, when human beings are reduced to blips on a magnetic tape, metallic numbers to be scanned by an electronic eye, when exploitation is constantly being refined and intensified. This is 1967, when people are considered fit subjects for experiments by sonic booms, to see whether they can stand the noise made by the machines which the British aircraft industry hopes will bring it some big profits.


Capital probes the entire mechanism of capitalist society. While the “orthodox” economists grapple with their feeble expedients—their selective employments taxes, their import restrictions, their manipulations of Bank Rate—the Marxist analysis explains it all. And not at all in the popularly supposed manner of the unsmiling “Red Prussian.” Although he deals with a difficult and intricate subject, Marx never leaves his readers in doubt that he is a human being. His writing not only has power, but wit and movement as well:


Our capitalist, who is at home in his vulgar economy, exclaims: “Oh! but I advanced my money for the express purpose of making more money.” The way to Hell is paved with good intentions, and he might just as easily have intended to make money, without producing at all. He threatens all sorts of things. He won’t be caught napping again. In future he will buy the commodities in the market, instead of manufacturing them himself. But if all his brother capitalists were to do the same, where would he find his commodities in the market? And his money he cannot eat, (Capital, p.172).


Marx shows how capitalism develops and how and why it will end. He shows that there is now only one subject class, and that it is their historical function to abolish private property and build the new society of Socialism. All this is in his works, in Capital and others. But at the same time Marx was clear that none of this was inevitable; he knew that men make their own history and that, working within the society they find, they must carry out their historical task.


What this means is that capitalism is not a matter of mankind, in some blindingly tragic mistake, getting onto the wrong path. It is not a matter of incorrect or anti-social ideas. In the same way, Socialism will not happen simply because we think it is a “right” idea. Both systems are part of man’s social evolution, both have their own super-structure of institutions and ideas springing from a basis which can be scientifically examined and classified.


Socialists are distinguishable for their grasp of all this. Non-Socialists, however sincere they may be, however pressing the problems they protest against, can be identified by their failure to appreciate the scientific case for Socialism. We Labourites did not grasp it, as we jauntily sang about the dead revolutionary’s beard. But Marx had already had his say, on we the reformers and those who had gone before and were to come after us:


They all want the impossible, namely, the conditions of bourgeois life without the necessary consequences of those conditions. (Letter to Paul V. Annenkov, December 28, 1846).




All quotations from Capital are taken from the edition published by George Allen & Unwin Ltd. in 1946.
[1] According to a letter from Professor Peter Townsend in the Guardian (8/7/67), there are probably 450,000 families, with over 1,400,000 children, with resources less than the basic national assistance standards. Another 165,000 families, with 510,000 have resources up to £2 a week above this standard and another 130,000 families (370,000 children) have up to £3 a week more. Townsend gives the average standard as £15.
[2] The Annual Report of the Chief Inspector of Constabulary gives the figures for crime during 1966, compared to those for 1938. Some of these are:
                                                                                                                                                               1938    1966
Found guilty of offences against the person:                                                 1,583     16,036
Found guilty of malicious wounding (included in above figures):   1,195     14,198
The Chief Inspector comments that the increase in crimes of violence is “one of the most disturbing features in the present crime situation.”