Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Karl Marx in Current Criticism: The Verdict of a Generation (1913)

From the March 1913 issue of the Socialist Standard 

The Test of Time
Just thirty year have passed since the body of the great path-finder was laid to rest in the grave upon Highgate Hill. Thirty years – the life-time of a generation  – yields a fair test of the truth of the theories advanced by a thinker, and should offer an opportunity to judge a man’s work in something approaching true perspective.

I cannot attempt in these lines a comprehensive survey of the work of Karl Marx. A life of sixty-five years of stress and struggle is not to be examined in a column or two. But some of the main points in Marx’s work may be briefly yet profitably reviewed in the light of our present knowledge.

All kinds of opponents of Socialism profess to offer us something “more in keeping with the times.” But whether it by Syndicalism or Revisionism, Co-partnership or State Capitalism, each and every one of these is seen to be fallacious when tested by the scientific theories put forward by Marx.

Karl Marx is best known, perhaps, by his work Das Capital, a treatise on the production and circulation of commodities which, although  “criticised” in hundreds of volumes by professors and other leading lights of modern society, has never been refuted.

Professor Böhm-Bawerk, the Finance Minister of Austria, urged in his Marx and the Close of his System, that the labour system of value is wrong because Marx failed to take into account scarcity as a factor in fixing value! This expert economist might have seen in the first seven pages of Capital how well scarcity was allowed for. “Diamonds are of very rare oc-currence on the earth’s surface,” wrote Marx (Capital, p. 7), “and hence their discovery costs on an average a great deal of labour time. Consequently much labour is represented in small compass. . .  If we could succeed at a small expenditure of labour in converting carbon into diamonds, their value might fall below that of bricks.” By saying a thing is scarce you can only suggest that it takes a great deal more time to get than if it was plentiful.

Marx’s Awkward Question
All the economists who have blossomed forth since Marx wrote have merely revived theories that were abandoned as useless a century ago by men like Adam Smith and David Ricardo. John Stuart Mill, who pieced together portions of many economists and gave them to the world as his Principles of Political Economy, Prof. Stanley Jevons, with his “Final Utility” theory, the whole Austrian school of economists with their “Marginal Utility” notions; all these, together with the more modem “seers” like Professor Marshall, really base their economics on the old theory of  “Supply and Demand.” The value of an article, in their ides, is fixed by the difference between the supply of that class of goods and the demand for the same.

But Marx asked what fixes the value of an article when supply and demand are equal, and to this question no answer has yet been vouchsafed by the capitalist hacks.

No wonder the well-known German social reformer and critic of Marx, Prof. Werner Sombart, has to confess that “Marx’s theory of Value may perhaps be refuted, but that has not yet been done.”

A Grudging Tribute
This Berlin Professor of political economy writes thus of Marx: “There was reason enough why Marx was able to rank so high among the social philosophers of the nineteenth century and to exercise by the side of Hegel and Darwin so great an influence on the thought of our day. He combined within himself the best philosophy of history current in his time with the knowledge of the highest forms of social life. He knew his Hegel, and he knew his Western Europe, more especially France and England. He gathered all the lines of thought that had preceded from thinkers of previous ages, and was clever enough, perhaps because of his international experience, to pay but little heed to what was accidental in national development and to lay stress on what was typical in the life of society to-day.” (Socialism and the Social Movement, p. 52).

Marx, together with his great co-worker, Frederick Engels, came to the conclusion that the whole of past history since the passing of primitive communism, had been a history of class struggles. These classes – at one time chattel slave owners against the helots, later barons against burghers, now capitalists against wage-labourers – all had their roots in the changing conditions of wealth production and exchange.

The material conditions, says Marx, are the foundation upon which rise all social institutions and when material conditions change so also do the institutions of society.

In his books upon capital Marx laid bare the method of robbing the wage-labourers. He showed that out of the value created by the worker’s energies, the worker receives merely enough to barely subsist on. The surplus of the value created goes to the exploiting employer. Hence there is a conflict of interests between the wage workers and the employers. The latter try to increase the amount of surplus-value and the workers struggle unceasingly against their masters, and must do so while the employers have the power to extract this surplus over the wages paid.

Almost Like Prophecy
This class struggle is the cardinal principle of the Socialist policy. And just as it was opposed in Marx’s day, so now the class struggle theory is fought against by all those who wish to blind the toilers to their true interests. Just as it was true when Marx and Engels wrote the Manifesto of the Communist Party, so now it bears the stamp of irrefutable fact. Marx showed that the progress of  modern capitalism would result in a widening of the gulf that divides the employing class from the working class. He pointed out “in words which seem to many even non-Socialists like prophecy” (wrote Professor R. T. Ely in his Studies in the Evolution of Industrial Society) that wealth would concentrate into fewer bands the more the system grew.

Professor Werner Sombart, the Revisionist of Revisionists previously quoted, says on this point:–
“During the last 20 years, as we know, there has been a concentration of capital by the formation of trusts such as Marx in his boldest flights of imagination could never have dreamed of. Especially is this the case in the United States of America, where we get the best examples of these giant undertakings. According to the latest statistics, no less than 8,664 concerns which were formerly independent are now amalgamated in a few Trusts with a capital of 20,000 million dollars. Of these seven of the ‘greater’ industrial trusts contain 1,528 concerns formerly independent, and possess a capital of 2,663 million dollars. The six largest railway trusts are even better placed; they have a capital of 9,017 million dollars! ”
The truth of the class struggle has been driven home with more tragic emphasis than ever during the last few years. The wide-spread , strikes and lock-outs, the fiendish cruelty of the employers toward their rebellious slaves all over the capitalist world, has induced even capitalist authorities to “lament” the growth of “labour unrest” and of class strife.

Marx’s Magnificent Achievement
Socialism became in Marx’s hands a part of social science. The schemes of St. Simon Fourier, Cabet, and Owen were based upon abstract principles like “justice,” “truth,” and “right.” They appealed to the “moral” side of the wealthy, and hoped to see communities established in accord with their ideals. Cabet with his “Icarie”, Robert Owen with his “New Harmony” community, each thought to solve the social problem and end the social strife by his carefully planned colonies. But their failure serves as a lesson accentuating the need for science in social action instead of Utopian ideas.

Marx rescued Socialism from the hands of the Utopian and placed it upon a foundation of scientific fact. Not moral appeals, but organised political action was the way to fight the capitalists. Society, said Marx, moved not because of changing morals, but under the pressure of growing economic forces making a change in social forms inevitable.

Even such an opponent of Marx as Mr. J. Ramsay Macdonald has made the admission (Socialism and Society, preface) that “Marx’s co-ordination of historical facts and explanation of historical movement from the point of view of the Hegelian left wing brought the whole theory of Socialism from the misty dreams of vague desire to the clearly defined empire of science.”

It used to be the regular custom in the party to which the above labour “leader” belongs to anathematise Marx and consign him to oblivion as a sociologist. But the place of prominence which history has tardily given Marx, the esteem which he has won in the minds of serious working men and women, have forced the I.L.P. to change their tactics and hence they cling to the name of Marx whilst outraging every principle for which Marx stood.

Mr. Keir Hardie, who derives his “economics” from Jesus Christ, says in his My Confession of Faith in the Labour Alliance: “The Labour Party practices the Marxian policy of the Class Struggle”. Such a statement, of course, is utterly false. the alliance with the most bitter enemies of the working class such as the Liberal manufacturers, for the purpose of “getting in”, is certainly part of the class struggle, but the Labour Party take sides in that struggle with the masters. Even their own members such as Philip Snowden and F.W. Jowett, have confessed to the reactionary position of their party.

Marx’s whole life was guided by the principle of “No Compromise”. Because of his refusal to truckle to the rulers of Germany he was hunted down and put on trial for sedition. Paper after paper was suppressed, and in their effort to crush “the terrible Marx”, the German powers even incited the French and Belgian Governments to thrust him from their shores. But how different did the leader of the British Labour Party get treated!

Karl Marx was persecuted with all the force of the law, but Mr. Macdonald is especially invited to lunch with the German Emperor, an invitation which he gladly accepted.

Doesn’t this alone show how false to the toilers’ interest is this Labour Party? Defiance, not deference to capitalism, was Marx’s motto, and he always opposed any flirting with the enemies of the Red Flag. In the early days of the International he strenuously fought against the attempts of Charles Bradlaugh to enter the organisation, because even then Bradlaugh was showing signs of joining hands with the Liberals.

Marx’s exposure of the Liberal Labour leader George Howell brings home his hatred of those who acted as decoys for the masters. He did not hesitate in 1875 to oppose the union of the followers of Lassalle with the Workingmen’s Party of Germany at Gotha, even though he lost many friends thereby. The Lassalleans were Utopians, and desired to inscribe on the Unity programme State Co-operation in Industry as the policy of the party. The trenchant attack of Marx remains a beacon for the toilers to-day, when men talk of “Socialist unity”, but want us to sacrifice our Socialism in order to become “united”.

Now and again the reactionary “leaders of Labour” to-day admit the soundness of Marx’s revolutionary policy. For instance, Mr. Ramsay Macdonald says in Socialism and Society (page 9):–
“We seem to have reached the maximum improvement which the present system can yield. Further ameliorative efforts of a purely reforming character can produce little fruit”.
The main theory of the Labour leaders at present is for a legal minimum wage. Talking of his late wife’s advocacy of this nostrum Mr. R. Macdonald tells us (“Margaret Ethel McDonald: a Memoir”): “Once she said with a whimsical smile: ‘when the last Wages Board will have given its last decision, we shall still have to go upon the housetops and shout with Marx ‘Workers of the World, Unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains’”.

Marx laboured to keep the working class upon the right road to their salvation. Amidst deepest poverty, hunted across frontiers, turned out of doors because of failure to find the rent, refused work even as a manual labourer, the mighty proletarian thinker never wavered from the work of his life. The story of his struggles has never been fully told, but the glimpses we get of his life are sufficient to stimulate us to the fullest extent to prosecute the work of educating our fellows in Socialism with the material he placed ready to our hands, and organising them for its realisation on the basis which he so clearly indicated.
Adolph Kohn

What about art? (2004)

From the August 2004 issue of the Socialist Standard

Among the perennial questions asked of socialists are some concerning the likely attitude to art in socialism. For example, how would Socialist society treat any artistic elite, and who would have access to famous works? Names like Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci are likely to figure in such questions.
    
The appreciation of works of art today can be tempered by what they would fetch in the sale room, at which time they take the form of commodities. The identity of the artist is then of greater moment than the aesthetic appeal of a work. If a painting is reassigned by specialists as being the work of a studio assistant its value can be totally undermined. Museums house interesting and beautiful works (and some to hurry past), not all of them on display. Or we can see pictures and antique furnishings displayed in the grand surroundings of some stately home, all serving as a reminder that ownership of ‘great’ works of art has long been the prerogative of the rich and powerful. It was for example no accident that the wealthy city states of Northern Italy were also influential artistic centres, and the setting for the Renaissance. In fact in all the regions where there was financial prosperity through trade, and “wealthy entrepreneurs to purchase”, important artists were to be found.

Renaissance Italy
It was a time of expansion in trade and banking, including credit facilities. What Lisa Jardine refers to as the “dawning of a high culture of commodities” meant that those who prospered from their banking and trading activities, like the Medici family, were able to indulge in conspicuous consumption (Worldly Goods, p. 124). Art works were part of this display of wealth and position. Objects appear in paintings, including those with religious themes, which reflect the luxurious lifestyles of the patrons and their families. Both patrons and artists were inspired by the revival of interest in classical art and in science and learning.
    
Dignitaries from church and state commissioned buildings, sculpture and paintings from masters which were then designed in their workshops. Artists, painters and sculptors learned their trade in the workshops of an established master, often a goldsmith. Taken on as apprentices to provide cheap labour, or because they were paying for their tuition, they would begin with cleaning and preparation of materials and in due course progress to assisting with commissioned works. The master might leave his assistants to finish a work, or might finish a work that had been started by others. Artists could also attend at the workshops of other masters. It is likely that Leonardo da Vinci, as well as the workshop of Verrocchio, also attended at that of Antonio and Piero Pollaiuollo who “flayed cadavers to study the anatomy and function of the muscles” (Leonardo The Artist and the Man, Serge Bramly, p. 98). Piero was at the forefront in the use of sketching to capture aspects of the human figure. This peculiarly Florentine development in the use of drawing “was the basis for a new understanding of the human figure”.  Leonardo benefited from the development and carried it forward, “in his hands it became a major tool of exploration of the human figure . . . and many other subjects” (Man and the Renaissance, Andrew Martindale, p.47).
    
Individual artists made ‘extraordinary imaginative leaps’, but genius did not just drop from the sky. Michelangelo may have had sudden inspiration about how to fulfil the commission in the Sistine Chapel, but as a youth he had served a three-year apprenticeship in the workshop of Domenico Ghirlandaio before turning to the study of the great masters of the past, including Greek and Roman sculptors. His drawings reflect his considerable ability as a sculptor, as well as his study of human anatomy which, like that of Leonardo da Vinci, included the dissection of bodies. Once a breakthrough had been made, such as the working out of linear perspective or in the way materials could be used, it would be emulated by other artists and pupils. A clarification of some of the sources for the discoveries and inventions credited to Leonardo showed that he had “precursors and masters whose thoughts he pursued or revived” (Serge Bramly, Introduction, p.11)
    
If the Renaissance was a time of a flowering in the arts, what might we expect of the period following the establishment of common ownership and democratic control of the earth and its resources?

Socialism 
We do not claim perfection for a socialist world, only that it will be possible to first clear up the mess left by capitalism, and then to deal with new challenges as they arise by the unfettered application of human knowledge, imagination and ingenuity. Socialism is not just about providing for material needs, it is a whole life proposition. Consider the situation where all production is solely for use, with leisure and entertainment no longer industries, but simply activities necessary to human well-being; work and recreation not as now separate parts of life but viewed as an integrated whole. The need to be creative, to expend mental and physical energies, which is part of our identity as human beings, could be fulfilled by different aspects of work and leisure according to individual choice. People living in free association will be able to choose the kind of contribution they wish to make to the common good, undertaking study and training as necessary.
    
Clearly it would not do if too many chose to make an artistic contribution to the exclusion of the more practical occupations. But it is likely that relatively few would choose to undertake artistic work only. Socialism can only happen if the majority of the working class make the conscious decision to implement it; implicit in this decision is a willingness to co-operate in order to fulfil the totality of needs.
    
The idea of an elite in artistic achievement is in line with the ethos of capitalism that the inequality in society is there because human beings are unequal. We would not expect everyone to have identical aptitudes, tastes and skills, but where the social aim is human happiness individuals will be able to discover just what their abilities are and to realise their full potential as human beings. The way will be open for a far greater involvement in art, and for the blossoming of all kinds of talent, with the achievement of excellence perhaps being considered as normal. The idea of an elite could be turned on its head.
    
Still there will be some whose work in art and architecture, as in other fields, earn the extra esteem of the community. It is worth remembering that artists did not always attach great importance to individual recognition. Artists have not always put signatures on their work. The names of the masters responsible for the sculptures of Chartres, Strasbourg and Naumburg are not known. “No doubt they were appreciated in their time, but they gave the honour to the cathedral in which they worked” (The Story of Art, E. H. Grombrich, p. 205).
    
In former times it was the fashionable young men who made the Grand Tour, perhaps accompanied by a water colour artist, now many with more modest means are able to travel and see architectural wonders and gaze upon the vault in the Sistine Chapel, though it is probably from books and television programmes that many ‘great’ art works have become more familiar. Recognising that most people would see his Pearblossom Hwy (1986) in the form of a poster – the work is 10ft across – David Hockney printed 5,000 copies for an exhibition, taking great care with the production of the poster (That’s the way I see it, David Hockney, 1993, p. 115).
    
A world of common ownership will not make it more difficult to enjoy works of art. Museums could still have a useful role in this, and computer-generated copies could be made available. There will be no special kudos attached to the ‘possession’ of items. The idea of what constitutes great art can change through time, though some works continue to have an appeal long after the age which produced them. Those who live in a time when the sole purpose of art is to enrich life will be able to judge the art works produced in previous eras from an enhanced perspective.
    
The story of art, which is as old as Homo sapiens, will continue to unfold, and will no doubt include achievements which equal and even surpass those of the great artists of the past.  Developments in the choice of materials, in styles of building, and in the choice of subject matter for sculpture and painting are for that future to discover. If problems concerning attitudes to art should arise they will be of a kind that a society of equals will be very capable of resolving.
Pat Deutz

Capitalism . . . The Sick Society (1995)

From the December 1995 issue of the Socialist Standard
Hardly a week passes now without capitalism giving rise to some event - real, fictional or imaginery - which generates a debate about violence - though, as usual, the system itself is rarely indicted.
The Mail on Sunday called it "The sick face of British fashion" when Wayne Hemingway, the millionaire who runs the fashion house, Red or Dead, had two fashion models fighting on the catwalk, another brandishing a bloody kitchen knife, and another licking blood from the edge of scissors.

Hemingway defended his show on the grounds that he was making a statement about "the future prospects for the world if we continue to abuse the environment and allow the French to carry on nuclear testing".

He's making money
No such defences are offered for explicitly violent films such as Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs or recent gory episodes of the British television series, Cracker, or an increasing torrent of novels and comic books dealing with gruesome murder, rape and torture. All of these have been produced as entertainment—to give pleasure—and to make a profit. In this fashionable splurge of fictional violence, Hemingway's claim that he is expressing a social conscience sounds a bit specious when he is making so much money.

It is the fact that such cruelty and destructiveness appears to be gratuitous, so pornographic, that gives religious evangelists the opportunity to talk loudly of wickedness and the work of the devil in our irreligious modern society. In one sense, they are partly right. Long-standing moral prohibitions against a wide range of activities from gambling to unusual sexual gratifications certainly have been pushed aside in the name of freedom in the past few years.

In theory, capitalism today is a much more tolerant society than it used to be, but in fact the level of intolerance between individuals has increased alarmingly. In some ways we have more liberty than our parents and grandparents, but that liberty has turned into licentiousness on numerous occasions, as the tabloid papers lose no opportunity to report. For reasons like this, freedom and tolerance are ridiculed and condemned by the "law and order" enthusiasts. "Right wing" politicians attack the proposals of "left wing" reformers as being naive or unrealistic. As with the religious evangelists, the hard-line conservatives have more truth on their side than their opponents.

It is true that in twentieth century capitalism liberties are frequently abused and generosity is exploited. It is true that peace and prosperity for everyone is a utopian illusion within this society. However, this says nothing about freedom and tolerance themselves. What it does throw harsh light upon is the fundamental nature of the society we live in. The very structure and day-to-day management of capitalism is designed to prevent to prevent peace and prosperity for everyone from coming about. Whatever capitalism may say about itself, liberty, equality and fraternity are not the values it develops.

The power of the capitalist class in Britain, as elsewhere, was established by bloody revolution and and violence. The sort of society this produces is therefore one of oppression and exploitation. The working class is ruled, not only by law, police, prisons and armed forces, but by its dependence upon working for the capitalist class and upon the amount of money workers receive in wages and salaries. Because money controls freedom.

Bottled anger
But money also hides the oppressors. With a money system and a market in which everything is for sale, the homeless and destitute cannot point to anyone who is denying them somewhere to live or a share in the mountains of goods on sale.

The unemployed can feel inadequate when they are rejected in the labour market. And those of us who are lucky enough to escape the extremes of poverty which pervades capitalist society can only feel frustrated and stultified at having to spend the whole of our active lives working hard just to stay alive.

All these aspects of our oppression and exploitation produce anger. The more irrational the situation—such as unemployment for some and overwork for others, or sleeping in cardboard boxes only yards away from the most opulent hotels—the greater the anger.

Capitalist society demands that we should "bottle it up" and suffer in silence, be subdued and ashamed if we are destitute. For those who hold this point of view, the smashing of windows in bus shelters and telephone kiosks is seen as "mindless violence". The battering of old ladies in the street or the, often fatal, street fights outside pubs and clubs are regarded as the work of delinquents who need violent treatment in boot camps or prisons to cure them. The fact is that these criminals have already grown up immersed in violence. More violence will not change them.

There is a direct correlation between poverty and the committing of violent crime by juveniles. And the crucible in which such behaviour is smelted is the nuclear family. The commonest pattern is for the low-paid or unemployed rather his frustration and anger through violence towards his wife in front of the children, and for both parents to nag and thrash the children irritably and inconsistently.

One-parent families
One-parent families have an even worse record of producing violent youngsters—but only when they are also poor. Then they are usually even poorer than poor two-parent families. Robert Thompson, one of Jamie Bulger's killers, came from a poor, violent, one-parent home. His mother once knocked a man down with a single punch in her local pub.

It is in the family, also, that our sexual behaviour and feelings are moulded. Like the tendency to be violent, aberrant sexual behaviour, once established, tends to persist throughout life. If sexual feelings have been associated repeatedly with experience of shame or violence or any other strong influence, these experiences remain tangled together for that individual.

Sexual urges are almost impossibly strong for most healthy young people to suppress. When the sex drive is mixed up with childhood feelings of humiliation and adult experiences of economic oppression it is not a good basis for a caring sexual relationship. When it is the experience daily for human beings to be thrown on the social scrap heap like discarded commodities, it is hard to prevent that attitude from leaking into personal relationships.

Rape, sadism, gratuitous violence and sexual murder are not inexplicable exceptions in an otherwise harmonious society. They are behavioural patterns which are consistent with our war-torn, crime-ridden, ruthless competitive, class-dominated, social system. The pornography of sex and violence is selling so well in films and books and videotapes because the innate violence at the heart of capitalist society permeates every aspect of our lives. It explains us to ourselves in exaggerated terms. It is the mythology of our times.
Ron Cook




Obituary: E. C. Kersley (1976)

Obituary from the May 1976 issue of the Socialist Standard

Ted Kersley died on March 18th after a short acute illness. He was in his 88th year. A number of members and ex-members of the party attended his funeral at Harlow cemetery on a grey and chilly afternoon, March 25th.

His career was remarkable. He had little formal education, and spent some of his early years in an orphanage. Before he was twelve years old he was at work, supplementing the meagre family income. A conscientious objector on Socialist grounds when war broke out in 1914 when war broke out in 1914, he was rejected and sent into the army. In France he owed his life to his wits, employment as a regimental cook, and a relative disregard for military obligations and procedure. After his discharge he became a dealer and "runner" in the art trade. A tribute to him and his achievement in this filed appeared in The Times of March 31st. Perhaps the most glowing acknowledgment of all those he was accorded must be that in the late Sir Arthur Elton's edition of Klingender's Art and the Industrial Revolution.

He joined the Party in 1910, and must therefore have been the oldest surviving member of that vintage. We do not remember him as the holder of long office, as a public speaker or writer — though no-one who heard them will forget his inimitable lectures on his chosen subject illustrated with original material. But there will be few of his time who do not remember him. He was always around — when something was to be done, to take the chair, to put up notices, at elections, at public meetings. In later years after an illness he lost his old energy, but his interest never wavered. He took a generous view of the Party's case — though he suffered no dilution or attrition — because he brought a many-sided attitude to it. Controversy never rankled with him, though he could be vehement in disagreement. One can say of Ted that the Party, its principles, its Marxism informed all his activities. Yet he was one of those for whom the party's views was not merely a statement touching capitalism, its cause and cure, but more profoundly on his life a philosophy and purpose. Many will recall the radio programme "The Art Trade Runner" which was widely regarded as a classic of broadcasting. In it, Ted insisted on declaring himself a lifelong revolutionary Socialist. The Times obituary contained no reference to his Socialism, showing that if some aspects of a man's life are recognizable by the Establishment others are not.

We share our regrets at his passing with Nancy his wife, who participated in the hard work and struggles of earlier days, and is still a member of the Party.
C.D.


Is the Marxian theory of history still relevant? (1984)

From the February 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

Like Marx, we take the view that human existence is social existence which changes as an historical process. This is the very broad base from which we set out to explain human activity both now and in the past. Such a process of change owes its continuity to the fact that each decision and action sets the social stage for succeeding decisions and actions. Thus the nature of the problems we face now rests importantly on the decisions and actions taken by past generations.

In our own time we are involved with these problems and also thereby with the potential conditions of society to come. Within the actions that we advocate now exists the promise of a better future or its opposite — continuing disaster. Therefore at no time is the past completely dead; it lives on in thought and action and contributes, as a unified structure of past, present and future, to the way we function now.

It is in this way that socialist understand present day problems in the light of history. In respect of present day problems it is useful to ask three questions, the answers to which are critically important. 

They are:
  1. Why is it that as a society we do not do the things we say we want to do?
  2. if we are not doing these things, what are we actually doing?
  3. By what process of history did we arrive in this position?
The given aspirations of this century have been peace and material security, and this assumes that our society is concerned with the material well-being and happiness of the whole community. But the very fact that the claims of political manifestoes have not basically changed over 100 years is evidence that we have not been able to do the things we say we want to do. The social problems of poverty still exist, the threat of annihilation in war is greater than a century ago, and the population bears a harrowing burden of stress.

An obvious feature of our society is that we live with a continuing gap between the aspirations, and the reality, of life. What, then, are we actually doing, and how did we come to be in this mess? The Materialist Conception of History provides a method of enquiry which leads directly to the most significant facts. It puts forward the proposition that to understand a society—how it works, what its problems are, and the key factors behind its development—there are basic aspects which must be examined.

Most importantly, we have to understand how society sustains its material existence. We have to answer the question — how does this society produce and distribute its wealth, who gets what and how do they get it? This means that we must identify the productive relationships of society — the particular classes have different interests in relation to each other about production and the ownership of productive apparatus and resources. Of crucial importance is the question of who controls the centres of decision making, which under capitalism is the state machinery and the forces of power which ensure that decisions are carried out. Also important are the external relationships of society in respect of other political groupings; geographical factors; its ideas and history. The combination of all these factors will reveal the inner tensions and conflicts of interest which exist between classes.

There are two main parts to Marxian theory which are dependent on each other. These are the Labour Theory of Value and the Materialist Conception of History. The Labour Theory of value sets out the economic laws which regulate commodity production under capitalism. The Materialist Conception of History places the productive relationships of commodity production, wage labour and capital in the setting of history.

In what way does Marxian theory answer our original question — why can't we do the things we say we want to do? The question makes definite assumptions about our society; it assumes that we should provide for peace, material security and happiness. But clarification of the nature of capitalism in the light of the important questions that Marxism asks reveals that peace, material security and happiness are unrealistic expectations. They are at odds with the real objectives of capitalism. It is impossible to find a direct link between productive relationships, the economic and social organisation of capitalism, and human needs.

The most important decisions that society makes are those about the production and distribution of goods and the provision of services, but under capitalism these are not primarily concerned with human needs. We find that the motive initiating production is profit. The reason why capitalism does not provide material security is that it is dominated by the profit motive, which is hostile to material security.

Marx was careful to point out that this profit motive made no particular comment on the individual or group of capitalists who make this kind of decision. The profit motive is part of the definite economic laws of commodity production which cannot be ignored at will. Unlimited unprofitable production is impossible; capitalist production as a whole must be profitable.

As a social form of wealth the commodity, obeying the laws of value in an exchange economy, is of recent historical appearance. It is produced for sale on the market and its distribution is limited to those who are able and willing to buy it. Its sale on the market is the realisation of the object of its production which is profit and therefore the commodity is an anti-social form of wealth because it serves privileged class interest.

But Marx drew our attention to the act that what makes the commodity as socially nasty as it is, is not something inherited in the physical form of the commodity itself. This was entirely due to the particular  productive relationship between people which, under capitalism, is the class relationship between wage labour and capital; the capitalists and the workers. The capitalist class own the means of production and resources and on this basis buy the labour power of workers for wages or salaries. By exploiting this labour power, they accumulate capital and maintain their class domination of society.

This relationship of wage labour and capital did not suddenly appear out of the historical blue. It was preceded by such different historical forms as serf and feudal overlord and slave and slave owner. We know that societies previous to slave societies included group privileges arising from division of labour and that these were incipient class divisions. Before this we know in palaeolithic tribalism a primitive equality with little or no division of labour.

These have been different patterns of social productive relationships and from these historical origins society is now based world wide on the wage labour — capital relationship. Commodity production begins with an exchange of the worker's labour power for wages and exploitation takes place because when put to work by the capitalist, the workers produce values over and above the value of their own wages. This surplus value is realised in money form when commodities are sold on the market, which is then available for recirculation as accumulated capital. Thus commodity production is locked into a circular system of exchange and governed by profit and the class accumulation of capital.

Under capitalism wage labour time is a commodity, bought and sold on the labour market. As with all commodities it is split between usefulness and exchange value. In pre-capitalist societies labour was not split in this way and only the usefulness of labour was brought into play. Every society must live by the products of useful labour, but under capitalist production the usefulness of labour is subordinate to its exchange value. This is to say that under capitalism the usefulness of labour can only be activated within a viable economic exchange between labour time and capital. What we mean by viable is profitable from the capitalist's point of view.

This split between labour in its use form and labour in its value form and the constraints of profit and class interest which limit the use of labour tells us a great deal about the contradictions of capitalism. There is no other credible theory available which clarifies, for example, the fact that millions are unemployed while the world desperately needs more goods and services. Marxian theory clarifies the reasons why capitalism can neither solve its problems nor work in the interests of the whole community. It clarifies persistent protest and continuing disillusion. The subordination of useful labour to the wage labour-capital relationship is the surrender of human needs to profit and class interests. All the protests of our time are the protests of useful labour screaming to be released from its domination by capital. In the world of thought and consciousness this split between usefulness and exchange manifests itself as a confusion of identity. We are exchange values yearning to be socially useful and pretending most of the time that we are. This is the economic basis for our loss of connection between thought and the reality of our experience.

Marxism and Determinism
It is often argued that Marxism is a theory of economic determinism which diminishes the importance of ideas and decision making. There can be no doubt that under capitalist society the production and distribution of commodities is regulated by the laws of value and the effects of these laws cannot be set aside merely by political good intention within the framework of capitalism.

This matter touches on the question "why can we not do what we say we want to do?" The Labour Party, for example, has always put itself forward as being against unemployment and has always claimed to be able to solve this problem. But in practice every Labour government has left office with more unemployment than when they took office. In 1974 when the last Labour government took office the unemployed stood at over 600,000 and when they left in 1979 the number was 1,300,000. Similarly during the 1979 election the Conservatives said that they would reduce the unemployment figures, but in fact they have double since that time.

Unemployment reflects the pattern of capitalist trade and this cannot be controlled by governments. Here then we have a social problem, arising from commodity production, which is an example of economic forces which cannot be controlled and therefore appear to be independent of human will. However, it is entirely wrong to to assume from this experience, that we are confronted with a social position about which we have no choice or ultimate control. Obviously, while the workers support capitalism and fail to act on a realistic understanding of the cause of the problem, then it will continue.

Unemployment, together with many other problems, is inevitable under capitalism. But this is not to say that we cannot think and act decisively about problems. What is demonstrated is the value of Marxian theory, that on the basis of certain economic premises certain consequences will follow. No Labour government, nor any other, could run capitalism without a reserve of unemployed workers.

Marxian theory, therefore does not diminish the importance of thought and human responsibility: it emphasises these things. Whether we like it or not, and whether we recognise it or not, the lessons of Marxist theory are present in every social conflict and every argument about what we can or cannot do.
Pieter Lawrence