Book Reviews: ‘Marx’s Das Kapital for Beginners’, ‘The Atheist’s Guide to Reality’
Marx’s Das Kapital for Beginners by Michael Wayne; Illustrations by Sungyoon Choi. www.forbeginnersbooks.com. US $16.99. 138pp.
This little book is on the whole an excellent and handy introduction to the ideas of Karl Marx. Most of it is quite readable and fairly easy to follow, and pretty accurate in its summary of Marx’s Das Kapital. It also touches on a number of his other books in passing. Its main virtue is that it succeeds in showing some of the ways in which Marx’s ideas are in fact as relevant as ever today, despite the widespread myth that he was discredited by the events of the twentieth century.
Marx analysed the social and economic system he lived under in studious, methodical detail by starting from the very categories used by the bourgeois economists themselves: the commodity, the exchange of commodities and then, most important, the buying and selling of labour power, which is at the core of the system of wage-slavery, a system we still live under in 2012 throughout the world. Marx solved the paradox of the origin of profit created in the production process. He did so, as explained very well by Wayne, by distinguishing labour from labour power. The latter is the worker’s ability to work for a given number of days, whereas simple labour is the work performed during this time. If you pay someone a wage of £500 per week, that is what they need to live on and carry on being fit for work. You have bought their labour power for the week. But they will be able to generate £500’s worth of value well before the week is over, and the surplus belongs not to them but to the employer.
The chapter on ‘Reproduction And Crises’ is both the weakest and most problematic, as Wayne allows himself to get bogged down in the tortuous debate as to exactly how it is that capitalism runs periodically into crisis, and whether there is an underlying tendency for such crises to get worse over time. Within the Socialist Party we have sometimes debated among ourselves about the precise mechanics of this. Wayne leans, at times, toward an ‘underconsumptionist’ description of capitalism, which is flawed as it neglects to take account of the “purchasing power” of capital itself. He also gets lost in some dubious mathematics and loses track of how little some of this matters as against the urgent need to end capitalism, however its crises are caused. He redeems himself, however, by the well-chosen summary that “the overall anarchy of the market” is the ultimate cause of crises.
Given the gross distortions and misrepresentations of Marx’s ideas sustained through the twentieth century Russian experience of Bolshevism, Leninism, Trotskyism and Stalinism, it might have been apt to devote at least a page or two to noting how Lenin twisted Marx’s ideas for socialist revolution into his manifesto for minority-led insurrection to establish industrial capitalism in Russia in the early twentieth century. This laid the groundwork for the Stalinist dictatorship which followed and did incalculable damage to the progress of genuine socialism in the world today because it was done under the banner of “socialism” and “Marxism” rather than being named more honestly as the capitalist revolution that it was.
Instead, Wayne devotes a disproportionate six pages of his 138-page book to extolling the virtues of the Italian intellectual Gramsci as a kind of missing link. This, like Wayne’s pessimism about the transformation to socialism (see below), arises from a lack of conviction that ‘ordinary’ members of the working class can have the ability to reach socialist consciousness themselves, as a simple and direct result of their own experience of capitalism. He shares with Gramsci the arrogant assumption that a special category of ‘intellectuals’ (including presumably Wayne as well as Gramsci) have the historical role of teaching the workers about the exploitation they are experiencing.
Perhaps the best and most thought-provoking chapter here is that on ‘Commodity Fetishism And Ideology’. Wayne explores Marx’s fascinating insights about the way in which social relationships in capitalism are skewed by the power given to objects and the force of economic imperatives. This is a very rich seam which Marx opened, and is still worthy of much further research and exploration. This is about the ways in which our present social system increasingly causes personal misery, alienation, depression and cultural implosion, all of which are becoming more and more pressing issues in our present era.
There is a grave disappointment in the final pages of Wayne’s book. Having usefully outlined some of the positive ways in which socialism will liberate humanity from the limitations of the market system, he then abandons the revolutionary agenda to state that once production for need and collective control of production arrives, ‘various forms of collective ownership and control would grow, while both the state and the market for labor power would diminish. This could only take place over what presumably would be a long period of transition, spanning many generations’ (page 135).
In support of this ‘gradualism’ he quotes Marx (page 132) saying that
“the time which society is bound to devote to material production is shorter…in proportion as the work is more and more evenly divided among all the able-bodied members of society, and as a particular class is more and more deprived of the power to shift the natural burden of labor from its own shoulders to those of another layer of society…”
Looking at the original German and the French translations of this passage (at the end of chapter 17 of Volume I of Capital), however, it appears most likely that Marx was not using the phrase “more and more” to imply a gradual change over generations, but simply to make a mathematical point about proportions. In much the same way it might be explained that the more you remove the air from a fragile container the lower its pressure, and the more and more likely it is to smash. This does not mean you are proposing that such a container might have a half-an-half vacuum for generations.
In fact, once we have a majority who understand that capitalism has outlived its usefulness, the change from capitalism to socialism will be enacted, pure and simple. You just cannot have the co-existence of socialist and capitalist relations of production in the world for any significant period of time, and certainly not for generations. This should be clear to Wayne and his readers from every observation throughout the rest of his book about the all-encompassing global nature of capitalism and, by extension, of the very different system which must replace it.
The Atheist’s Guide to Reality by Alex Rosenberg. Norton, 2011
A frustration shared by socialists and many scientists is the persistence of belief in a god to explain the world. This is partly because ‘god’ is such a quick and easy answer to so many important questions: How did we get here? Why should I behave morally? Why am I here? While science has provided a comprehensive explanation of how and when we got here, and what we are made of, it is less certain when answering the question, why? Instead, many people have turned to religious or other unfounded explanations. This potentially leaves a gap in the atheist’s belief system. How can the scientifically-minded atheist explain issues like morality and purpose? In The Atheist’s Guide To Reality, Alex Rosenberg aims to prove that science can explain these matters. He argues that a consequence of science – and physics, in particular – is that we should abandon many of our fundamental assumptions.
Science – especially neuroscience – has explained the workings of our brains, and this entails that we abandon the concept of a ‘soul’. Moreover, science requires that we should also jettison related concepts like ‘mind’ and even ‘self’. As our brains are organic machines, they function by responding to learned inputs with predictable behavioural outputs. So, it is wrong to describe the brain as a ‘soul’, ‘mind’ or ‘self’. Self-awareness and even consciousness are just by-products of non-conscious, involuntary functions of the brain. This also means that the thoughts, intentions and meanings we attach to ourselves aren’t really about anything; they’re just mechanical processes. And therefore we lack free will, as well as a mind and a self.
According to Rosenberg, evolution by natural selection has led to our false assumptions about ourselves. Our ancestors survived long enough to reproduce by using the most expedient beliefs and explanatory frameworks, regardless of whether they were correct. Now, science has exposed how wrong these assumptions are, and atheists should adopt a different way of thinking about life.
Rosenbergsays that this should lead to ‘nice nihilism’, a stance which combines niceness (which has been evolutionarily advantageous) with no longer believing in moral facts. He doesn’t devote quite enough space to discussing the political implications of his theory. He says that his science-based outlook should encourage “a fairly left-wing agenda” (p.292). But while he says we should act co-operatively and helpfully towards others, he also argues that we shouldn’t believe we have any purpose. This is not only because science doesn’t need non-physical concepts like ‘purpose’, but also because it doesn’t use narratives, like we use to explain how we live. So, history, sociology and politics are based on false premises, and should only be seen as a type of entertainment.
Rosenberg’s fascinating, imaginative theory is argued clearly and convincingly. If he is right, then science requires us to rethink all our beliefs about ourselves. He claims that future scientific developments won’t discredit his argument, as the basics of physics are already known. But if we’ve got the physics right, should we agree with what Rosenberg says? By downplaying the role of politics – and, by extension, economics – in favour of science to explain the world, he ignores how science is itself influenced by economic forces. It is these forces and their impact on our ideologies which shape science and how we view it. Rosenberg’s views are also influenced in this way. So, science is not the objective, all-encompassing explanatory framework he believes it to be. Despite this, his argument remains persuasive and important to all Marxists and atheists. Exercise your free will by reading it for yourself.