Marx, the 20th century economist

Response to Tom Streithorst’s ‘Marginal Marx’, a book review of Karl Marx: a nineteenth century life.

Leftists everywhere must have enjoyed the moment yesterday when they realised it was the 195th birthday of Karl Marx. It’s a meaningless anniversary of course, but this kind of thing serves as a reminder for how relevant and applicable some aged political theory can be. I was rudely interrupted from this line of thought when I stumbled across a piece by a five-year-old journalist who has never read anything by Karl Marx and who dismisses supporters of the labour theory of value as ‘tedious’.

Streithorst points out that Marx’s philosophy is indebted to Hegel, Ricardo, Adam Smith, and others. This is no secret and Marxists, as far as I’ve seen, have no illusions about this. The mistake is in saying that the labour theory of value was already outdated by the time Capital was being written. If this was about the Ricardist model then there might have been a fraction of a point. But Marx brought his own substantial changes to the theory, most notably the concept of abstract social labour. The theory of value and surplus value explains how uncompensated labour allows a section of society to become a ruling class and alleviate itself from the burden of its own necessary labour. This was true in different ways in feudal society, plantation slavery, 19th century capitalism, and remains an injustice  and the backbone of capitalism today.

One common reason for dismissing Marxism as irrelevant and unhelpful is the staggering development of capitalist technology since the 1850s, which has made it possible for workers to lose the burden of dangerous and repetitive work. As impressive as these industrial achievements are, they have lead to further polarisation of wealth. More and more capital is concentrated in the hands of fewer and fewer. For this reason Ernest Mandel, writing in 1976, reckoned, “Today’s Western world is much nearer to the ‘pure’ model of Capital than was the world in which it was composed.” So, in an odd way, Marx’s writing is often a better critique for today than for when it was being researched. Nevertheless the development of industry and globalisation leaves some questions unanswered by Marx and Engels, making the work of modern Marxian economists like Samir Amin all the more important.

Particularly annoying is the writer’s attempt to paint Marx as immovable in his opinions, only revolutionary when it suited him, and merely going where the money was. As someone usually uninterested in biographies of Marx or his personality, even I can see how this cariacature is wrong. He didn’t “remain wedded to the theories of his student days.” The Marx of 1848 is very different to the chap who wrote Capital. One particular theoretical change that he abandoned, that is found in the Communist Manifesto, is a ‘theory of absolute impoverishment of workers undercapitalism,’ to which the mature Marx was continuously misattributed. Even in the Manifesto though, he criticises other kinds of socialism that he must have known about as a student, studying at a time when lazy criticisms of capitalism and bosses were popular. In particular, ‘anti-capitalism’ that worked in favour of the petty bourgeoisie was not in the interests of a proletarian revolution. Until the age of 24 Marx still considered himself a radical liberal. His time as editor of the radical newspaper Rheinische Zeitung led to his intellectual decision to become a communist. Newspaper censors suppressed the Rheinische Zeitung in 1843. This goes some way to explaining Marx’s contempt for the Prussian state, so the implication that this was just childish folly also doesn’t hold. After this, Marx was consistently a revolutionary. During the nine years of study, mainly in the British library, that formed Capital, he had to cope with the illness and death of three of his children, and some health issues of his own. So he can possibly be excused for at times focussing more on his own material wellbeing than his research. Marx was not only a theorist in this period. He was actively involved in current political and social studies, notably with the International Working Men’s Association.

The article ends by telling us to read Keynes and Hyman Minsky to understand where we are today. Both Marxian and the most orthodox free-market economists acknowledge that Keynesian policies cause crises of their own and slow down capitalist recovery of these crises. Keynesian government spending can create a better standard of living for a while, which slows down and distracts from the need for, anti-capitalist revolt, but the same contradictions inherent in capitalism remain. [more] No kind of capitalism, Keynesian or otherwise, deals with the problem of overproduction or the periodic economic crises, which with our soft language we are now calling “recessions.” Mandel describes overproduction as the reason capitalism is condemned to eventually die, and the cause of a society that has thousands of empty houses existing at the same time as homelessness. His way of understanding it is, “The unemployed die of hunger not because there is too little to eat but because there is relatively too great a supply of foodstuffs.” Go ahead advocating for “reform not revolution,” but I wouldn’t want to be the one telling Greek anti-fascists, Portugese strikers, American ecosocialists, or the Kurdish movement to calm down, not be so utopian, and read Keynes. Part one of The Manifesto of the Communist Party opened with the words, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” That has not changed, and neither social democracy or conscious capitalism gives us the tools to end this struggle.

Further reading:

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