Thursday, July 13, 2017

Unknown Marx (2003)

Book Review from the February 2003 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Unknown Marx. By Takahisa Oishi. Pluto Press. 214 pages

Actually, despite the title, some of this is old hat. Oishi goes through Marx to show that so-called “Soviet Marxism” had distorted his views; which of course we all knew. There is nothing “unknown” about the fact that Marx was not writing as a simple economist but was putting forward a “critique of political economy” (the title of one of his books as well as the sub-title of Capital), his main argument being that, whereas writers like Adam Smith and Ricardo regarded economic categories such as capital, wages, value, price, money, etc as eternal, natural features of human social existence, these were in fact categories of capitalism which would disappear when it did (but didn't in the ex-USSR, which showed it never got beyond capitalism).

Nor is it all that unknown that the mere abolition of the legal private property rights of individual capitalists is not the same thing as the abolition of capitalism, which is a social relationship between capital and wage-labour. What needs to be abolished to end the exploitation of workers is this social relationship; which never happened in Russia. Oishi, however, does make a rarely-heard point when he says that, for Marx, in socialism/communism (which he recognises Marx didn't distinguish between) “the immediate workers have free access to the means of production” and that they do not “belong to some institution independent of the workers themselves” (as in the ex-USSR and as Oishi rather unfairly accuses Engels of suggesting), i.e. that common ownership means no ownership not state ownership.

Although Oishi's style is off-putting and possibly counter-productive (he analyses Marx's writings as “texts” in the same sort of way that mediaeval monks analysed Paul's epistles), his book does have a certain interest as an analysis of the economic parts of Marx's Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 (most commentators concentrate on the philosophical aspects).

Oishi identifies the key economic concept put forward there by Marx as “estranged labour” in the sense of labour that doesn't control what it produces since this is the private property of someone else; capital is accumulated labour that has come to escape from the control of the direct producers and has come to dominate them as an alien, exploiting force. He also brings out that, already in 1844, Marx had reached his basic “critique of political economy” (that it took the economic categories of capitalism for eternal, natural features).

Oishi is able to argue plausibly that there is a continuity between these positions of the so-called “Early Marx” and the Marx who wrote Capital. This is to be expected as what Marx wrote when he was 26 and what he published when he was 49 were after all written by the same person. However, Oishi rather overstates his case. While it is true that the 1844 manuscripts do contain the concept of capital, wages, money, etc as categories of capitalism, the argument that wage workers are exploited by capitalists, and the criticism of money for its effect on human relations and the call to abolish it along with wages, there is a lot that is still not there.

Marx had not yet distinguished either between “value” and “exchange value” or between “labour” and “labour power” and so was not able to give an adequate theory of exploitation; in fact the whole concept of “surplus value” is absent from these manuscripts, as it was from The Poverty of Philosophy which Marx published in 1847 and which Oishi also submits to detailed textual analysis. At this time Marx still talked about workers selling their “labour” to the capitalists which presented him, as the other socialists of the time who based their theories on Ricardo's version of the labour theory of value, with the problem of explaining exploitation (the capitalists' profit) other than as a swindle (unequal exchange) or as a non-economic phenomenon (legalised robbery permitted by the state). Unlike Paul, Marx wasn't perfect. He didn't get it right the first time.
Adam Buick

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