Book Review from the February 1971 issue of the Socialist Standard
Where Marx went Wrong, by Robert Conquest. Tom Stacey. 30s.
In this very readable book Robert Conquest presents his views on Russia. China and the other countries under Communist Party Rule, contrasts them with the Western World and attempts a criticism of Marxian theories. Many years ago, he was. for a short period, a member of the Communist Party: now his main concern is to attack the lies, pretensions, failures and savageries of the Communist Party regimes. In this he is very much made at home but unfortunately his wide knowledge of what goes on under the Communist Party dictatorship is not backed up by an equal understanding of the long-term trends at work behind the facade of “Marxist” slogans. Instead of seeing Russia as it really is, a great capitalist power bearing features derived from the history and social structure of pre-1917 Tsarist Russia, he sees it as a kind of corrupt and degenerate ‘Socialism’, more or less influenced by Marx; this in spite of his own recognition that much Communist policy is in flat contradiction to Marxist theory.
It follows that only a small part of the book actually deals with Conquest’s criticisms of Marx. The title, in order to fit the major part, should be Where the Communists Went Wrong and it would have only the most tenuous connection with Marx.
Some of the author’s criticisms of Marxist theory raise issues worth consideration but his treatment is marred by a peculiar defect of vision: he cannot see the Socialist Party of Great Britain.
It is not that Mr. Conquest does not know of us; he has on occasions paid tribute to the Party’s freedom from the dishonesty and cant that is a hall mark of the “Leftwing” parties. When therefore he deals with the attitudes of various bodies claiming to be Marxist and attacks what he regards as their errors and illusions why does he not notice our distinctive attitude? We can appreciate his difficulty. If he had done so he would have had to qualify a dozen or so of his remarks about Marxists by adding "This does not apply to the Socialist Party of Great Britain.”
When he was planning his book, and if the thought of including the SPGB ever crossed his mind, he would have had to plan us out of it. Voltaire said: “If God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him.” Conquest, in order to make his criticisms of Marxian theory credible simply had to disinvent the SPGB.
This is not just a question of acknowledging our existence; it is crucial to the kind of case he makes against Marxism. He writes for example that his “Main objection to the whole Marxist attitude is . . . that it is a system of dogmas and. as such opposed to the Western tradition of independent thinking.” He can justify this as a criticism of Russia but it is quite invalid for us.
At its formation and since, the Socialist Party of Great Britain has not followed a set of dogmas but has evolved lines of its own not to be found elsewhere — its attitude to war and violence, its insistence on the need for the development of working-class understanding and acceptance of Socialist principles, slow though this must be, its open democratic organisation, its attitude to the conquest of the machinery of government, its rejection of a programme of reforms, its attitude to nationalisation (State capitalism), and to leadership.
A general acceptance of Marxism if compatible with these attitudes it is not open to the charge Conquest levels against it.
There is little that is original in Conquest’s approach to the criticism of Marxism. He takes what is now a common attitude, that of conceding some value to Marx’s historical materialism while dismissing his economics as being hardly worth bothering about. He disposes of the economic theories in less than three pages.
He makes the point that the essence of Marxian economics had already been stated before his day by “all the great economists of the English school’’, not noticing that among other things, Marx made the important new contribution of recognising that what the worker sells is not his labour (an idea which ran into a dead end and explained nothing) but his labour power.
Conquest’s “disproof” of the Labour Theory of Value is the following:—
it was clearly untrue — as has been pointed out, an oil well jetting suddenly in one’s garden has an instant exchange-value without any work being done at all.
If Conquest would look at what Marx wrote he would realise that Marx, very sensibly, was dealing with the normal conditions of the production of commodities in a capitalist system, not with things "passing strange and wonderful”.
The normal procurement of oil does not consist of oil wells jetting suddenly out of gardens all over the place. If it did in accordance with the Marxian labour theory, the value and price of oil would drop very sharply and Royal Dutch and Shell would not need to spend upwards of £100 million a year on oil exploration.
Another of Conquest’s criticisms is that Marx, in Volume I of Capital, came up against the dilemma that surplus value is created by the workers but the trend is towards a decline in the number of workers relative to the amount of capital invested in plant and machinery etc., and therefore the rate of profit must fall. He writes: “This was plainly untrue at the time and Marx himself finally noted the difficulty but set it aside for later treatment which he never gave it”.
Almost all of this is wrong. Long before Marx, economists were trying in vain to understand the tendency for the rate of profit to fall. It was Marx who found the logical explanation, and Marx who also explained why that tendency was partly offset by counteracting influences. This was done in Volume III of Capital and, as Louis Boudin pointed out in his Theoretical System of Karl Marx,
Most of the third volume, and particularly those portions which are supposed to modify the first volume, were actually written down by Marx, in its present form, before the publication of the first volume.
Conquest also has a go at what Marx wrote about “increasing misery” — or rather he has a go at what Marx did not write.
What Marx wrote was
as capital accumulates, the condition of the worker, be his wages high or low, necessarily grows worse.
In Conquest’s version this becomes “the more the capital invested and the greater the production, the less will be the wages paid for labour”. (Italics ours in both quotations).
It is possible to agree without reservation with one of Conquest’s observations about Marx’s Labour Theory of Value that “its influence on modern economic thought has long been negligible”— but so much the worse for modern economic thought.
He has complete confidence in modern economists. Is it not due to them that "the standard of living has gone up enormously in all the Western countries and. though no economy can be called crisis-proof in any general sense they show themselves able to control the allegedly inevitable cyclic crises”.
Conquest appears not to be looking at the same world that we see. We see the British, American and other governments fumbling along from one crisis to another, not knowing what to do, with the economists giving contradictory advice or admitting that they are baffled, or saying, with economist Galbraith, that of course there will be another 1929 crash and depression.
If he believes that these are evidences of capitalism being under control he will believe anything.
One development of thought among economists should particularly interest Conquest and others who accepted the claims of the successors to Marx. Thirty years ago Keynes warned the capitalists that the only way to save capitalism was to create full employment. Now, faced with the manifest failure of the Keynesian dream, a new school of economists is emerging, telling the capitalists that their system is in peril from inflation and the only way to save it is to have more unemployment.