1990s >> 1998 >> no-1124-april-1998

Book Reviews: ‘Reflections on Marx’s Critique of Political Economy’, & ‘The Stone Canal’

Revisiting Marx

Reflections on Marx’s Critique of Political Economy. Collectivities, Faridabad, India, 1997

This 48-page A4 pamphlet produced by a “council communist” group in India focuses on five elements of Marxian economics although the authors prefer to use the term “Marx’s critique of political economy”. This is specifically what Marx wrote as the subtitle of Capital and is in large part what he set out to provide. However, in elaborating this critique he went beyond a mere criticism of bourgeois economics and developed his own analysis of how the capitalist system actually works–or, as he put it–of “the laws of motion of the capitalist system of production”. The five elements discussed here–each with its own chapter–are Marx’s basic characterisation of capital; the extent of the domination of the capitalist mode of production; the significance of the tendency for the rate of profit to fall; the problem of extended reproduction; and monopoly capitalism and imperialism.

The coherence of the analysis offered in each chapter varies. The best is the last one where the position of revolutionaries is taken up unequivocally against the Leninists who have attached themselves to the Marxian framework this century while in reality abandoning the working class viewpoint and supporting “anti-imperialist” states against imperialist powers and proclaiming the so-called “right of nations to self-determination”.

Unfortunately some of the specifically economic analysis in the other four chapters is less good. There is an odd chapter denying that there is any tendency at all for the average rate of profit to fall in capitalism, argued principally on the strength of a misreading of a passage in Volume Three of Capital about the effect of the growth of joint-stock companies on the rate of profit. This is a point answered comprehensively enough by another council communist type group called Internationalist Perspectives in the latest edition of their journal.

The main problem though with this pamphlet is its seeming insistence that the cause of capitalist crises is the inability of the working class and capitalist class combined to buy back the entire product of industry. This is a dangerous theory to hold, on two grounds. One is that it explicitly leads to the view that capitalism is somehow going to collapse as a mode of production, thus encouraging crude determinism and a fatalism within the working class movement. The other is that it is simply, and demonstrably, incorrect.

In essence the view Collectivities put forward here appears to be the one elaborated by Rosa Luxemburg in her work The Accumulation of Capital, published in 1914. In this theory, the growth (and survival) of “pure” capitalism is impossible as it is unable to realise on its markets all the value that has been added in the sphere of production; hence capitalist growth is only possible when a non-capitalist periphery exists for the system to use as a source of additional markets. This is an argument based on a complete misreading of Marx’s reproduction schemas for both “simple” and “extended” reproduction. Indeed, Marx himself furnished the theoretical disproof of this view that growth in “pure” capitalism would be impossible, in Chapter 49 of Volume Three of Capital.

However, fundamentally the disproof of this theory is practical rather than just theoretical, based on the actuality of capitalist development this century. If growth in “pure” capitalism or at least something near to “pure” capitalism is impossible, the system just wouldn’t have been able to expand the forces of production in the way that it has been doing. If capitalism has been in a state of market saturation for decades (and according to Luxemburg as far back as 1914) its long-term growth in the years since would have been impossible. And, although its rate of expansion has slowed in recent years, it has still continued to enjoy considerable long-term growth ever since Luxemburg wrote–and without selling sizeable quantities of commodities to undeveloped non-capitalist areas of the planet (if anything the opposite has been the case–it has attempted to plunder the small remaining non-capitalist periphery, rather than attempt to sell products to people with no money to buy them anyway).

Frankly, the idea that a serious revolutionary organisation locating itself in the Marxian tradition can still hold this view is more than faintly ridiculous. But it does illustrate another key problem with this pamphlet. Though there is much to commend it, from its definition of capitalism as a world system based on the exploitation of wage labour through to its largely excellent analysis of imperialism, it tends to lack a grounding in some of the realities of contemporary capitalist production. There are, for instance, in several thousand words of text, very few statistics or references to back-up what are sometimes rather grandiose and sometimes over-confidently stated claims. Interestingly, Collectivities claim that “obsession with the significance of the rate of profit and its tendency to fall in the present results in very sad and shabby attempts in force-fitting data to outdated concepts”. Unfortunately, this equally applies to Collectivities own “market saturation” view of capitalist crises, for which–conveniently–they do not bother to provide any data at all.


News from Mars

The Stone Canal by Ken MacLeod. Legend £5.99.

Here is an unusual novel, and not just because one of the major characters is the son of life-long members of the Socialist Party. It is a political science-fiction novel (like MacLeod’s previous book The Star Fraction), with scenes ranging from recent student politics to a future “anarcho-capitalist” Mars.

Let’s look as some of the passages relating to the Socialist Party. At one point the narrator meets his parents at that old Socialist stomping-ground, Speakers’ Corner:

” . . . they were doing a respectable trade in a pamphlet. In between keeping half an eye on the demo and chatting to whichever of them wasn’t in full flow, I flipped through ‘Is a Third World War Inevitable?’: its cover as lurid as any peace-movement propaganda, its contents a frosty dismissal of two centuries of peace campaigns—all of which had failed to prevent (where they hadn’t actively endorsed) increasingly destructive wars.”

This presents a reasonable description of the pamphlet in question, and gives a good idea of MacLeod’s basic attitude to the Socialist Party: poking gentle fun at us, but in a basically friendly way. Elsewhere, the same character recalls some of his childhood memories:

“The Russians were in my mind a vague, vast menace. They had done something unpleasant and unfair to a friend of my father’s, an old gentleman whose photograph was framed above the fireplace: Karl Marx. The Russians had distorted him. Whatever that was, it sounded painful.”

A chance finding of the Russia today pamphlet Soviet Millionaires in a bookshop leads to the observation that “It hadn’t stayed in circulation long, not after the SPGB had seized on it as irrefutable proof that behind the socialist façade the USSR concealed a class of wealthy property-owners.”

In an article in the science-fiction journal Matrix, MacLeod has discussed his political activities and ideas. He was for many years a Trotskyist, but also acknowledges that he was influenced by “thinking about the implications of the ‘non-market socialism’ associated with the few but persistent propagandists of the Socialist Party of Great Britain”. And he mentions with approval William Morris’s idea of Socialism as “a world-wide classless, stateless, moneyless society”, using language rarely found outside the pages of the Socialist Standard. It is plain, too, that he now has little time for the traditional left.

However, he also refers to having learned from the so-called libertarians, professed advocates of capitalism with a “free” market and a minimal state. These are the ideas that have influenced the Martian society depicted here, though it still has room for authoritarian legal structures but “privatised” ones, so perhaps that’s OK.

MacLeod describes The Stone Canal as “a communist novel about libertarians”, but frankly its communist/socialist viewpoint is not explicit enough for this. Despite his apparent sympathy for the Socialist Party’s view of the world, he has not written a communist/socialist novel. But he has written a highly-interesting one that may get some readers interested in knowing more about us. Read it—and hope that in future novels he may write more about the moneyless, classless society he states he wants.


Leave a Reply