Karl Marx in the 21st Century

Against the Current, No. 197, November/December 2018

Hillel Ticktin

ON HIS 200th anniversary, Karl Marx has received probably his best reception ever- for his birthday, in the English-speaking press, right wing as it is.* This is partly because he is no longer perceived as the same threat, but also because the time is propitious.

We are in a global crisis and the Soviet Union has ceased to exist. The Stalinist tragedy and nonsense is no longer dominant on the intellectual left. Even if center-left and center-right intellectuals do not agree with Marx, more of them accept the profundity of thought, the wide influence and the need to have a reply to Marxist ideas.

Marx took political economy, essentially developed by Adam Smith and David Ricardo, to a new level. In fact, his writings cover the “materialist interpretation of history,” interpretations of the history of capitalism, political commentaries and more, but it is Das Kapital in its four volumes plus the Grundrisse which is the core of his work.

He explored a vein of thought in political economy in a depth and extent that has not been rivalled since. One might have expected Marxists who had the income and time to produce a new volume of Capital, but only Lenin can really be said to have continued his scholarly work in political economy, with the same penetration.

In the years before writing Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism, Lenin rightly pointed to the importance of Hegel and very few Marxist economists have worked through Hegel in that way. The centenary of that work was indeed only last year.

There are many Marxist political economy textbooks, but few are usable. That is for a number of reasons. The Soviet-type textbook is wooden and re-interprets Marx in the interests of the elite of that former state. On the other hand, the Western textbooks fall into a number of categories, those produced by Stalinists or their fellow travellers, those influenced by orthodox economics, or both.

In addition, there are the textbooks produced by those who are part of the non-Stalinist or Trotskyist left which are definitely Marxist and a contribution to understanding, but tend to be superficial. One could argue that a textbook has to be relatively superficial. The point, however, is that Marxist theory is not at a high level. For a beginner there is no real alternative to reading Marx himself.

Marx effectively sacrificed his life and that of his family to his discovery of the realities of capitalism, its origins, its development and its potential downfall. His output was prodigious even if very little was actually published in his lifetime, as opposed to the present when the collected works are translated in 50 volumes in English, Russian, etc. with more being published.

Marx’s Grundrisse is probably his most profound work. However, the Soviet/East German translation was not always first-rate. The work done in Amsterdam on the other hand is of a very high standard.

Seeking Capital’s Essence

Marx effectively stopped at the point where Lenin took off in Imperialism. The words “decline of capitalism” are not in his work. Even in his famous afterword to Capital when he endorses the view that he was looking at capitalism in its process of growth from birth to maturity and death, he leaves out the world decline.

Marx was searching for the essence of capitalism underlying its growth and eventual replacement. For this purpose he developed powerful concepts that transformed those used at that time. In particular, the concept of “abstract labor” is crucial in reformulating the labor theory of value, taken over from Ricardo. [This means the universal quality of human labor, where “in its character of identical abstract human labour, it creates and forms the value of commodities” that can be exchanged in a system of generalized commodity production. Capital Volume I, chapter 1 — ed.]

To understand that measurement of labor time is both an advance and an imposition on humanity was a huge leap forward. Capital can then be seen as built by workers under the control of a ruling class. At the same time, capital has its own independent dynamic driving the class itself both individually and collectively.

Capital as self-expanding value is a brilliant concept, clearly derived from a materialization of Hegelianism. It is a statement that in its essence capital has to satisfy its own needs in order to survive (to produce an inadequate translation). One can, of course, translate this into an even more pedestrian statement but only by losing its brevity and the strength of its compelling dynamic.

Through this concept, combined with those of labor power and abstract labor, Marx was able to explain value production and profit.

Throughout Marx was using a method antithetical to modern economic thought. He sought the crucial underlying source of movement in the essence of the part of society he was examining. From its progress he could chart its interaction with its opposite, either interpenetrating or in conflict. That did not mean that he saw capitalism in a caricature form; rather, the interpenetration of capital and labor produced value, while a standoff produced conflict.

In the long term, interpenetration necessarily led to change. The forces of production were developing to the point where their socialization became inevitable.

Capitalist Crisis

It should be noted that Marx’s theory of crisis has three elements — the falling rate of profit, underconsumption, and excess production of producer goods relative to consumer goods. Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg explored the theory of crisis, but Marx left it in an unsatisfactory state. He is not as clear as some people want on the falling rate of profit. Indeed, it is not used by Lenin or Trotsky.

In the second place, capitalism had been through many of these crises as Marx knew, so one needed a theory of their importance as capitalism developed. The implication, otherwise, appears to be that there is an automatic movement to overproduction and crisis from which change might come. Indeed, Marx was hoping for great change coming from the anticipated 1857 crisis.

Marx was not so stupid as to think that a straightforward downturn would bring a socialist revolution. Some people do, of course, and they may read Marx’s writings with that in mind. In reality, Marx is arguing a sophisticated if implied theory in which the increasing socialization of production provides the conditions for change. Crises may help that change.

In contemporary capitalism, we have monopolistic competition which allows control over the market. In turn, this allows the buildup of finance capital with all its consequences. At the present time investment is limited in order to maintain profits and reduce risk. In turn, crisis may be regarded as under limited control. A whole series of consequences follow. Society has changed but the fundamentals remain.

We live in a transitional period in which the forms themselves are changing. By understanding these concepts in their origins, we can try to adapt them to the present.

Abstract labor requires large-scale competitive production, where the labor force is driven to an imposed collective form, while politically and industrially atomized within production. The factory itself constitutes a collective in its goal to manufacture a product but capital needs profits to survive.

The contradiction between the workers’ sale of their labor power and the collective form of abstract labor allows the formation of value in the form of commodities, whose sale provides the income for wages and profits. In turn the profits form the basis of further accumulation. This is essentially the basis of Marxist economic theory.

Transformation through Socialization

Above all, Marx developed the argument that capitalism was transforming itself even against the interests of the capitalist class. The socialization of production transforms society as a whole from an atomised/ competitive into a socialized form, away from a competitive one, where the society is the fight of all against all, into a collaborative and cooperative form.

In modern times we can see this in the growth of free education, free health services, provision of social housing, social care, subsidized transport and nationalized and subsidized heating and electricity in various countries. In reality it goes beyond this to the high degree of regulation in modern developed capitalist societies.

The capitalist class is aware of this and does its best to undo this elemental force by privatizing what it can, from prisons onwards.

Today we frequently hear that automation will revolutionize production. That has indeed been obvious for over a century. The capitalist class has been very slow in introducing automation, far slower than Marx expected when he coined the slogan that socialism is the society in which work becomes humanity’s prime want.

That goes further, of course, than that other favorite slogan: “From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs.” Both express the political understanding that society has to be governed from below, with the abolition of class itself. Implicitly it is argued that humanity can reach a relative abundance. At the present time, we can see that it is possible, provided our political system becomes more democratic, that political-economic institutions can come to express the will of the majority.

*The Economist, May 3, 2018: “Rulers of the world: read Karl Marx!” They point out that Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, went to visit Trier, Marx’s birthplace, in tribute. They call him brilliant, but awful as a human being, good at producing aphorisms. They are ridiculous in their critique and even wrong in personal accusations but still consider him worthwhile. They lay the responsibility for Stalinism on Marx, which is absurd, but it may be necessary to respond to them.

November-December 2018, ATC 197