June 1978 issue of the Socialist Standard
Marx's Capital by Ben Fine (Macmillan)
Subject to certain reservations dealt with below, Marx's Capital by Ben Fine (Macmillan’s Studies in Economics, Paperback, 76 pages, £1.50) achieves what the author set out to do and should serve as a useful introduction to the three volumes of Capital.
The author, who is Lecturer in Economics at Birkbeck College, describes his work as both introduction and interpretation. His method is to summarise and simplify, in his own words, various aspects of Marx’s economics, including the labour theory of value and surplus value, commercial and interest-bearing capital, rent of land, crises and the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. On the last of these he writes (p.57) that it would be nonsense “to hypothesize a long-run tendency of the rate of profit to fall in the sense that over a period of one hundred years the rate of profit must have become lower”, and he stresses the relationship of a short-term fall to the cycle of booms and depressions.
He warns readers that his book must not be regarded as a substitute for reading Capital itself. Its merit is that, by clearing away some popular misconceptions, it should make it easier for the student to understand what Marx was getting at in his detailed treatment.
Marx’s Capital begins with an outline of the materialist conception of history and an account of the way Marx moved on from his early Hegelianism. It reminds the reader of the impossibility of separating economic theory from the class basis of society. Other economists’ attempts to explain profits are briefly dealt with, including “abstinence theories” and “marginal productivity” (pages 31-2).
In the treatment of Marx's economics a serious defect is that, although present-day inflation is several times referred to, there is no mention whatever of Marx’s explanation, based on the labour theory of value that inflation is caused by an excess issue of inconvertible paper currency. As the author can hardly be unaware of Marx’s explanation the possibility is that he rejects it (as some rather obscure remarks suggest), but he makes no attempt to disprove it or to offer an argued alternative explanation.
His treatment of the very low post-war unemployment is equally unsatisfactory. He writes (p.76) that capitalism has changed, as evidenced by the fact that “capitalism since the second world war has enjoyed an unprecedented boom, free from the shattering crises . . . that characterised the earlier laissez-faire period . . ."
Several things can be said about this. Did capitalism in general enjoy an unprecedented post-war boom? In the four years 1948-1951, for example, unemployment was at depression levels in several countries. The average for the four years was over 9 per cent in Belgium and 8 per cent in Germany. In Italy it was continuously over one and a half million.
As regards low post-war unemployment in Britain all that was unusual was that it lasted as long as it did. It was always normal for unemployment to be low in periods of expansion, and in the second half of the nineteenth century there were several periods of 3 to 5 years when the average was less than 3 per cent.
Nor is the enormous belief in permanent boom a new one. Kautsky, in his “Economic Doctrines of Karl Marx” (p. 230), after noting that there had been a belief in permanent depression, wrote:-
From 1895 to 1900 we had again a period of economic prosperity, which led not a few optimists to the opposite assumption, viz. that the period of crises had passed away.
Mr. Fine’s book was published first in 1975. If he had waited till unemployment rose above 1,600,000 in 1977 we may guess that he would have worded differently the passage quoted earlier.
The book contains two mentions of the dictatorship of the proletariat, the first a quotation from Marx, in the Foreword, and the second on the last page. It reads:-
The future will herald a new era founded on the revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat.
The author does not go into the question of what Marx meant by the phrase or explain what he (the author) means by it (the dictatorship in capitalist Russia?) or give his reasons for believing that it is a way to the classless society, Socialism.