Monday, November 24, 2014

Marx was righter than this (2011)

Book Review from the November 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Why Marx Was Right. By Terry Eagleton (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011) £16.99


Was Marx right? As Terry Eagleton points out in the preface to this book, of course he wasn’t. No thinker gets everything right, nor can any reasonable person expect them to. But was Marx “right enough of the time about enough important issues to make calling oneself a Marxist a reasonable self-description”? In this sense, Eagleton says the answer is yes. And Eagleton is right.


As Eagleton puts it, you can tell capitalism is in trouble when people start talking about capitalism – people become aware of capitalism in crisis, just as an illness or injury makes you newly aware of the body you always took for granted. Thanks to the crisis, people all around the world are talking about capitalism again. How can this discussion become deeper and better-informed? Well, in all kinds of ways, but we can hardly ignore Marx’s body of work, which has “for long [been] the most theoretically rich, politically uncompromising critique of that system”, as Eagleton puts it. Marx was the first person to “identify the historical object known as capitalism – to show how it arose, by what laws it worked, and how it might be brought to an end”. That must surely be of interest to those who are wondering whether capitalism has a future.


What, then, could be more welcome and timely than a book that demonstrates why Marx was right, in what ways he was right, and the relevance of his ideas for political action? And who could be more relied upon to write a witty, engaging and accessible account of this than Terry Eagleton, the author of many justly popular books on subjects related to Marxism, and of regular witty essays and polemics pricking the pomposity of many of our culture’s most unjustly respected liberal thinkers? It would seem to be the perfect book for our time, written by the person perfectly placed to do the subject justice. Sadly, Eagleton lets us down.


Marxists reading this book may think twice about just what it is they’ve signed up for. Virulent anti-Marxists will wonder where all (what they consider to be) the most devastating arguments against Marxism are to be found. But most importantly, non-Marxists, politically interested, anti-capitalist or disillusioned working-class readers, are highly unlikely to be convinced by it either. Eagleton makes no effort to carefully define what Marx’s thought was, nor to compare it with the reality of everyday life under capitalism. Marx’s supreme achievement, as Eagleton says at the start of his book, was to identify an historical object known as capitalism, and show how it worked. But in the book’s 258 pages, we do not hear a word about Marx’s thought on that subject. We do not hear once just what capitalism is, or how it works. Instead, we are just exhorted to believe, from various vague pronouncements and polemical swipes, that capitalism is mostly a very bad and unjust thing. Quite why it is bad, or quite why it leads to such results, we are none the wiser.


As for what socialism is, we hear much more about that. But anyone who is familiar with Marx’s arguments about what capitalism is will wonder just what the difference between capitalism and the various forms of “socialism” Eagleton champions is supposed to be. Even if you’re not familiar with Marx’s arguments on this, anyone who reads Eagleton’s apologias for the Bolshevik dictatorship in Russia and Mao’s China would be quite justified in snapping the book shut and concluding that their prejudices were quite correct after all: that Marx and socialism were things to be avoided at all costs. For Eagleton, these “socialisms” were “botched experiments”, a disgustingly coy way to describe the blood-soaked, anti-working-class tyrannies that imposed state-led, capitalist industrial development on economically backward countries. Whenever Eagleton does bump up against the occasional sensible argument, he quickly dismisses it as “ultra-left”, and veers off to the right – to the rightwing deviation, the senile disorder, of Leninism. Perhaps that’s why Eagleton can find room to mention approvingly or critically just about everything that has ever been dignified with the name of socialism apart from the idea, put forward by Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto, of the “communistic abolition of buying and selling”. Genuine socialism is just too ultra-left for him.


This book is, then, a bitter disappointment and a wasted opportunity. The capitalist West is just emerging from a long period of illusion. As Eagleton points out, the illusion was not so much a deep belief in capitalism, but a disillusion about the possibility of changing it. “What helped to discredit Marxism above all, then,” says Eagleton, “was a creeping sense of political impotence. It is hard to sustain your faith in change when change seems off the agenda…” Change is back on the agenda. Marx’s analysis of capitalism remains as astute and relevant as ever. But if you want to know why, you’ll have to go to better sources than this book.
Stuart Watkins

Is the 'Manual' Worker the Only 'Producer'? (1930)

From the April 1930 issue of the Socialist Standard
A book recommended by the translators of Marx's "Capital" (E. and C. Paul) is the Marxian Economic Handbook, by W. H. Emmett. This is one of the books supposed to simplify Marx, but it makes Marx more difficult than it is supposed to be. It contains also many errors. The author was prominent at one time in the Socialist Labour Party in Australia, and seems anxious to attack De Leon's explanation of Marx's "theories."
Dealing with that fine chapter of Marx on "Co-operation," Mr. Emmett says :
“In a pamphlet entitled "Marx on Mallock," Daniel de Leon implies that, according to Marx, managers and superintendents, by virtue of their brain work, are productive of wealth." (P.343.)
Mr. Emmett quotes Marx but leaves out the essential quotation. The advantages of division of labour and the necessary cooperation of producers in the modern factory are well brought out by Marx, who explains the necessity of "directive labour" in the following words : —
"Labour that is directly social, community labour on a large scale, always stands more or less in need of guidance, of a management which can establish harmony among the individual activities, and fulfil the general functions that belong to the movement of the unified productive organism as contrasted with the movements of the independent organs out of which the organism is made up. An individual violinist manages his own affairs ; an orchestra needs a conductor. This function of guidance, superintendence, and arrangement devolves upon capital as soon as the labour subordinated to it becomes co-operative. As a specific function of capital, the function of management acquires special characteristics." ("Capital," page 346 Everyman Ed.)
Mr. Emmett makes the following statement :—
"If the increased yield of modern wealth be not the exclusive yield of the manual labour employed, then this will mean that the labourers productive power is not (neither individually nor collectively) increased at all by the co-operation." (Page 343.)
The co-operation of workers does increase the output by means of the cooperative method in production, but does that mean that the work of foremen, superintendents, etc., in directing the division of labour and the co-operation of the various parts of the process, does not play a part in the increased output?
Mr. Emmett fails to take note of Marx's point in the quotation we give.
Marx clearly shows that the functions of guidance, superintendence and arrangement are essential to the co-operative labour process.
Mr. Emmett makes a further point. He. says : —
"If the managers and overlookers were a part of the co-operation (or that "collective power that resides in the manual workers and their direction, collectively ") how could Marx tell us that, "while the work is being done" these managers, etc. "command in the name of the capitalist " (Page 343.)
Naturally, under capitalism the foremen, managers, etc., command in the capitalists' name, but does that mean that they do not perform an essential part of the producing process ? Marx clearly -shows that management acquires "special characteristics" to-day, because of the "twofold nature" of production, "being, on the one hand, a social labour process intended to produce use-values, and, on the other hand, a process for promoting the self-expansion of Capital, a process for making surplus value." ("Capital," page 348.)
That two-fold character of modern production explains why the foremen, superintendents, etc., of industry are essential to the increased production of wealth in social production, and also "command in the name of the capitalist" for the purpose of producing- more surplus value.
Adolph Kohn

Rise and Fall (1967)

Book Review from the January 1967 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Clydesiders by R. K. Middlemas (Hutchinson, 50s.)

In the general election of 1922 twenty Independent Labour Party members were elected from Glasgow and the West of Scotland alone. As a vast, hymn-singing crowd saw the new MPs onto the London train one of them, Emmanuel Shinwell, was aware that "they had a frightening faith is us . . . we had been elected because it was believed we could perform miracles and miracles were needed to relieve the tragedy of Clydeside in 1922." (Conflict Without Malice by E. Shinwell) The miracles, of course, failed to come. Capitalism proved more than a match for the reforms of the Independent Labour Party. Mr. Middlemas traces the gradual decline of that organisation.

The cover announces his book as "an important contribution to contemporary political history." This claim would not be so wide of the mark if he had got a few more of his facts right. Take, for example, his confusion of the founding of the Socialist Party of Gt. Britain with that the British Socialist Party on page 32:
The impossibilists', the hard core of followers of the American Daniel De Leon broke off in Scotland in 1903 to form the extremist Socialist Labour Party (SLP), and two years later in London to form the British Socialist Party.
Let us make it clear that our founder members were opposed to the confused industrial-unionism if De Leon and that the date of formation was 1904, not 1905 as he suggests. He is plainly mixing up the SPGB with the so-called 'British Socialist Party' (BSP), the inaugural meeting of which was held on 30th September, 1911—with Hyndman in the chair. (See H. M. Hyndman and British Socialism by C. Tsuzuki and the Socialist Standard, November 1912). The BSP held negotiations with sections of the SLP and of the ILP, and others, in 1920-21 and it was this reformist cocktail which eventually became the 'Communist' Party.

Despite the unfortunate mistakes, there are some interesting passages in this book. One of these, on page 276, gives a classic example of policy reversal by the Communists. In October 1932 the CP and ILP were co-operating and they organised the first Hunger March. Yet, only a year before, a Communist Party manifesto had referred to "the struggle against the ILP which is an inseparable part of British social fascism." Elsewhere we find that Shinwell gained his 'socialist' education by reading "the German Socialist Bernstein" and that Maxton, with unconscious schizophrenia, claimed to recognise the class struggle and the labour theory of value—but not the materialist conception of history!

Mr. Middlemas has little to say about the present little group, all that remains of the once powerful ILP. He merely reflects that "like the old-time SDF and the contemporary 'Impossibilists', the ILP was on the inverted road of splinter groups for whom it is more important to decide the details of the socialist millenium than the present methods of achieving it." But it is quite wrong to imply that the ILP sacrificed numbers for the sake of socialist understanding. They have been strongly influenced by anarchist ideas and, now that the great days of Maxton, Brockway and Wheatley have gone, feel that "parliamentary action . . . has many limitations, and its members cannot adequately represent the interests of the working class." Their demands include the extension of the "comprehensive system of education and abolition of the Grammar School system: and the introduction of "differential rent schemes", although "only a socialist society will be able to bring down the rents"! Finally, they have pledged themselves "to fight within the capitalist system" so that "commodity production (can) be organised for the benefit of the community." Could confusion go any further.

From the start the ILP followed an opportunist line and sneered at the 'impossibilists' in the Socialist Party of Gt. Britain. Never having Socialist principles, it could at least boast of a fair body of working class support. Now that that is gone, there is nothing left. It should be a lesson to all those who preach reformism.
John Crump


Socialism: a world of free access

Editorial from the Winter 1986-7 issue of the World Socialist

We inhabit a world of potential abundance for all, but it is also the case that we have trapped ourselves within a social system of mass deprivation. Throughout the world millions and millions of our fellow men and women are denied the satisfaction of their basic needs. Millions die each year from starvation (635 million live on or below l,600 calories per day) and millions more are blinded, crippled or made lethargic and socially wasted because they lack food, clean water, any medical care. Even in the so-called rich countries poverty is the lot of the majority: not just official 'poverty' which means that the government concedes that you are proof, but the poverty which characterises the life of every worker who is deprived of access to what society could provide for them, but they cannot afford to buy. The reader of this journal whose needs are fulfilled may be an eccentric millionaire, but more likely such a claim of fulfilment is a self-deception - an attempt to hide one's own poverty from one's own consciousness. Let us be honest as workers: our lives, our parents' lives and the lives of our children, however hard the struggle has been to make them 'decent' or 'prosperous', have been less than satisfactory in relation to the level of need-satisfaction, comfort and happiness which society could allow us to enjoy. The working class are confined by the present social system to cut-price lives.

In a socialist society the means of wealth production (the factories, land, offices, mines, transport, media and all the resources required to satisfy human needs) will belong to the entire human community, all of us owning and all of us controlling what will be our world. Production will no longer be for sale and profit; no longer will needs be ignored if there is no money to convert them into 'purchasing power'. In a socialist system of worldwide production the only reason for producing goods and services will be to satisfy needs. Production will be solely for use.

Having scrapped the present system of only producing goods and services if there is an expectation of profit for the parasitical minority who monopolise the earth's resources, socialism will forget the old rules of the buying and selling game (the market) and will distribute what is needed on the basis of free and equal access. Money will be abolished: you cannot buy from yourself what you commonly own. The satisfaction of human needs will involve people giving according to their abilities and taking according to their needs.

Free access means that no human being will need to buy anything. Anything that society can produce will be there for the taking. Decent food; the best houses possible to build; gas, electricity, water; TVs, radios, entertainment; all medical and educational services - all completely free and available for all.

Socialists do not have a narrow conception of need. We would not wish to give the impression that socialism will do no more than satisfy basic living requirements - although doing that alone will be a momentous step forward for the millions of workers now denied the satisfaction of their most elementary needs. More than that, socialism will allow humans to be creative and to explore our wider needs. For too long our needs have been over-influenced by the selling process and the crude mind manipulation of the advertisers: in a socialist society we can begin to think about what we really require to be happy human beings and we shall set about supplying ourselves with the resources needed to live as fully as we can. In answer to the opponent of socialist ideas who asks, 'But will you be able to provide a colour TV for every man and woman in a socialist society?' we answer 'Yes, indeed: a world which can provide enough weapons to murder every person alive could be transformed into one which will provide a colour TV for every person alive, but we feel somehow that once such a new system is established the desire to see ultimate luxury in an escape into technicolour fantasy will not be the ultimate goal which men and women will express.' In short, socialism will not only be able to satisfy our existing needs, but it will enable us to question and challenge those needs - to escape from the poverty of capitalist-determined needs.

Needs are social. We are only free to have goods and services to use if it is technically possible to produce them and if there are people ready to do so. In a socialist society there is not going to be a sudden, utopian-like abundance of everything: the skies will not rain with goodies. Socialism will release from the constraints of profit the abundant resources of the planet and these will be used to allow us to live decently and well. There can be no socialism without socialists, and conscious socialists will have to realise that living in a world of cooperation entails giving as well as taking. Under capitalism most of us do plenty of giving (to the profits of our bosses) and an impoverished degree of taking. In a world of free access it will be a pleasure to fulfill the necessity of working to produce goods and services, sure in the knowledge that one is not doing so to make a boss rich, but to make all of our fellow inhabitants of the global village rich in life. In a worldwide human family there will be no shortage of willing volunteers to ensure that those who cannot work are cared for; there will be no problem of people refusing to do what cooperation demands of their humanity. To be sure, no person will be made to do anything as a matter of compulsion in a socialist society: if they refuse to work and insist upon the glorious right to sleep all day they will be regarded as very odd, perverse sorts. The last thing an intelligent social animal of the human species will do once he or she is free to live in cooperative equality will be to sleep as a form of luxury - indeed, what a perverse system capitalism is when it regards the man or woman who enjoys the freedom to sleep all day as having made a success of life.

Socialism will be a stateless society. No government will be present to tell people what they may or may not have. Free access means precisely what it says: people will be quite free to decide for themselves what they want and to take it. Production will be totally geared to that objective. If people want what cannot yet be produced - what is beyond social resources as developed at that stage - then they cannot have that particular need satisfied. But that will be a very different situation from the kind of mass denial of basic needs which characterises the profit system.

A world of production solely for use and free access for all is there for the making. All it requires is a majority of workers who understand and want it to join together for the purpose of bringing it about. For years a minority of workers have argued the case for such an exciting social alternative. For how much longer we will remain a minority is up to our fellow workers. Will they accept a world of misery and insecurity and poverty in the midst of potential plenty, or will they unite for the creation of a system where never again will the pained cry of a hungry child whose parents lack the money to feed it be heard on our planet?

What Goes Up Must Come Down (2002)

Editorial from the August 2002 issue of the Socialist Standard
It's funny how often people only believe what they want to believe. For instance, it might suit their interests for property prices to go up, so they convince themselves that, over the long run, they always do. It's the same with shares. Individual shares may go up and down, so the thinking goes, but across the board – as an investment – they're a fairly safe bet if you're lucky enough to have some cash to spare and can play at being a capitalist for a day.
However, recent events have served to shatter some of these illusions. Stock markets across the world have tumbled and a fully-fledged “bear market“ has been pushing shares steadily lower week after week. The series of financial scandals that have been unfolding in the United States (such as at WorldCom) have dented the confidence of investors and the capitalists are now taking flight from the stock market casino. The recent symbolic decision by one investor to spend £50 million buying a lost Rubens masterpiece says it all – fine paintings and antiques are now seen as safer investments than shares.
In reality, the stock market falls are not just a recent phenomenon and they haven't just developed since the catastrophic events of 11 September either. The bear market has been in existence for the best part of three years as financial reality has triumphed (as eventually it always does) over the baseless optimism engendered by a speculative boom. But why should this always be the case?
As legendary Wall Street investor Warren Buffett once said, in the short-term the stock market is like a voting machine – but in the long-run it acts more like a weighing machine. The growth in the paper value of shares (and property too) tends in the long-term to reflect the slow growth, over time, of the real economy, where goods and services are produced and distributed and not just bought and sold. However, two factors serve to complicate matters.
One is that the capitalist economy does not grow in a steady fashion but is periodically beset by economic convulsions which lead to notable periods of decline. The capitalist economy is not on a smooth upward curve but is a roller-coaster ride of booms and slumps. Slumps follow when companies over-invest because of their competitive drive to acquire more profits, a phenomenon which leads them to produce more than the markets they are selling to can absorb. This does not initially happen across the board, but in key sectors that have typically seen huge growth during the boom and in which, for a time, expansion seems limitless. The knock-on effect from this over-expansion can be enough to produce a slump, with falling output, rising unemployment and wage cuts for those still in work.
The second factor working against the steady growth of stock markets is that they can in some ways become de-coupled from the workings of the real economy for short periods. This can occur for all sorts of reasons, such as when shares seem a particularly risky option in an unstable economic environment (e.g. the 1930s and 1970s) or, conversely and most notably, when they become a vehicle for speculation as the act of successfully buying and selling them becomes a more profitable means of investment than long-term investment in the real economy itself.
As an example of the former situation – when share prices seem artificially low for long periods – an investor in the US share market buying their shares just before the Great Depression of the early 1930s would have had to wait well over over twenty years to see them reach their former value despite the big increases in production during that period overall as the US economy recovered from the slump. Similarly, while US Gross National Product rose by 373 percent between 1964 and 1981 the Dow Jones Index of US stocks stood at 875 – less than one point higher than 17 years earlier (Sunday Times, 15 July).
Conversely, however, in the 17 years after 1981 the US economy grew by less than half as much while at the same time the Dow Jones ballooned more than tenfold to over 9,000 points. What happened over this period in particular (not only in the US but in most other markets) is that there was a flight towards speculation, especially in the once-booming hi-tech “dotcom” and telecommunications sectors, which pushed share prices to levels where they bore no relationship whatsoever to the real underlying values of the companies involved. That speculative bubble – based on over-confidence – has now been shattered by the realisation that the profits of these companies were an ephemera. And the situation has since made worse by the discovery that many of them have been cooking the books to buy themselves a bit of time before the inevitable happened.
The fall in world stock markets is already significant (in Britain the FTSE 100 has lost over 40 percent of its value as we write, wiping tens of billions off paper share values). However, past experience from similar speculative bubbles suggest that the markets may have some way to go yet before they start to recover, prompting a serious slump in production as investors save or hoard their cash. Historically, it is not unusual for shares to fall between 70-80 per cent from their peak. That is what they did after the Wall Street Crash, it is what happened in the early 1970s during the last really sustained bear market in countries like Britain (when the FTSE fell 73 percent) and it is what has happened in Japan in recent years as the Nikkei Dow has fallen from its peak at over 39,000 points to around the 10,000 mark.
Surreal as the capitalist system may appear to be, its ridiculous speculative bubbles are always burst sooner or later – and the larger the bubble, the greater the correction that usually follows. And unfortunately, the consequences are typically worst for the most vulnerable section of society – the wage and salary earners who have nothing of real worth to sell except their ability to work for the employers. In truth, we can pretty much leave the capitalists to look after themselves – but for the workers there is only one solution to the economic crises and slumps of capitalism: a socialist revolution that will sweep away the fetters of the market economy for good.