Sunday, June 23, 2019

Crises, Catastrophe and Mr. Strachey (1957)

From the March 1957 issue of the Socialist Standard

Did Marx really believe that crises would be so catastrophic in their effects as to ensure the economic collapse of Capitalism? It is a convention of many of his critics and the so-called Marxist revisionists to say he did. None of them have ever given substance to their assertions with any worthwhile evidence.

It is true that the young Marx in Wage Labour and Capital (p. 45), spoke of “crises becoming more frequent and violent.” And again in the Communist Manifesto (p. 18), we are told—”Crises by their periodical return put the existence of bourgeois society on its trial and each time more threateningly.” But it is to Marx’s detailed and mature economic investigation to which we must turn in order to estimate what he thought was the nature and role of Capitalist crises. And here we find no specific reference or concrete indication of a view that some mounting crescendo of crises will ultimately crash to economic ruin.

In point of fact, Marx never formulated a theory of crises, at least not in any systematic or cohesive form. Instead we get a treatment of the different aspects of crises, scattered through the 2nd and 3rd volumes of Capital and Theories of Surplus Value. So far from Marx laying down any hard and fast rules on the subject of crises, we get instead an analysis of a number of tendencies which are bound up with the production of crisis situations.

It seems fairly safe to assume then that Marx in his later and mature investigation of the actual trends in Capitalism, never regarded crises as the agent of the final destruction of extant society. On the contrary there is no little evidence to indicate that he saw crises as a normal but essential phase of the trade cycle which, he said, was peculiar to the Capitalist mode of production.

Indeed it was no other than Marx who pioneered the investigation into the nature of the antithetical yet mutually reciprocal trade cycle. It was Marx who showed one phase of the trade cycle is characterised by an acceleration of capital investment and as a corollary to this an increased tempo of industrial activity, rising employment, rising wages and increasing profits.

Because the different branches of industry are atomistically controlled or to state it alternatively because “anarchy of production,” prevails in Capitalism, decisions for capital investment are carried out by Capitalists without knowledge or regard for investment decisions being made at the same time by other Capitalists elsewhere.

As a result of these autonomous and unrelated decisions to invest in a period of expansion, it is hardly surprising that over-expansion of a particular line of industry takes place or what comes to the same thing disproportionality of industrial development between the various branches of production. Thus one industrial sphere may have over-expanded relatively to other spheres and as a result it will be unable to sell its goods at a remunerative price. Consequently there will be in this particular sphere a contraction of investment and hence production. This action will have cumulative effects by leading to a reduction of demand of products and services of those industries which are linked with this particular industrial branch and which in turn will reduce their orders to other concerns likewise linked with them. If the initial over-expansion or disproportionality of industrial development is big enough a general fall in the demand for goods and services will spread from point to point and a general relative over-production will ensue.

Thus the phase of the business cycle associated with accelerating investment, rising wages, rising employment and increasing profits, will come to an end and be replaced by the antithetical phase of reduced investment, falling employment and declining wages and profits.

The orthodox economists also treat of what is termed in modern economic usage the business cycle theory. For them a period of brisk trade activity is linked with a high return on invested capital. While the antithetical phase i.e. a recession, is associated with a decline in the rate of profit below the normal range for investment purposes. Thus for them crises are analysed from the formal level of the supply and demand of investment funds. Marx, however, probed deeper and showed that the behaviour of the Capitalist class springs from the basic features of Capitalist society which constitute a particular set of antagonistic class relations of production and gives rise to an antagonistic form of income distribution. From the general standpoint of the Capitalist class a “recession” is the outcome of an unfavourable distribution of income in that the form of income going to the working class as wages, is too high and that part of income going to them as profits is too low, to make it worth their while to maintain a high level of investment.

If Capitalism could operate on some master plan then the correct proportional expansion between the different branches of industry might be attempted and investment decisions synchronised in respect of the entire economy. But Capitalism does not work like that. Each Capitalist or group of Capitalists produce for a market of whose size they have only an imperfect knowledge, let alone the entire network of markets operating in Capitalism. Hence whether too little or too much is produced cannot be known until after the event and it is only a major upset in the price mechanism which reveals that a number of unrelated and separate investment decisions have brought about a rupture of equilibrium conditions.

Crises are not as some theorists of underconsumption imagine the outcome of expanded production, outstripping total consumption demand, and so bringing about some permanent market decline.

It was never Marx’s view that crises arise as the result of a chronic bias towards over-production and an ever-increasing inability of the Capitalists to dispose of their products in a perpetually shrinking market. In Capital, Vol. 3 (p. 299), Marx, commenting on the upward swing of the trade cycle ends thus: “And in this way the cycle would run once more. One portion of capital which had been depreciated by the stagnation of its function would recover its old value. For the rest the same vicious cycle would be described once more in an expanded market and with increased productive forces.” 

From what has been said it is evident that Marx never viewed crises as an ineluctable agent for the ultimate destruction of existing society but as an antithetical but inseparable phase of the trade cycle.

In the light of the foregoing it would seem that periods of prosperity for the Capitalists i.e., periods of accelerating capital investment bring nemesis in the way of rising wages, rising costs, etc., which sooner or later tend to appreciably diminish profit margins. Crises would then seem the specific remedy for the evils arising from “prosperity.” Stated from the more fundamental standpoint of Marx’s analysis, these evils are “a production of too many means of production and necessities of life to serve as a means of exploitation of the labourer at a certain rate of profit.”

Nevertheless if crises can be looked upon from one point of view as a retribution for prosperity they can also be regarded as acting as a purgative to the body economic, allowing it to be restored to the healthier state of equilibrium. To put the matter specifically, crises contain the germ of a trade recovery. In the first place the existence of a large industrial reserve army will serve to cheapen the price of labour-power and so raise the rate of profit and because of the cheapness of labour-power, tend to retard the introduction of machinery and new methods and so make possible the more primitive technical concerns to become profitable once more. At the same time the sharp depreciation of capital values will lower the organic composition of capital, i.e. lower the ratio of constant capital (means of production) to variable capital (wage payments) and so assist in raising the rate of profit. Again during a crisis there are cheap and abundant resources available, including large reserves of labour-power. Thus the conditions are prepared in a shorter or longer period, for a resumption of increased investment and rising profit margins.

Crises are not then incidental interludes between periods of high trade activity but an essential corrective for the uninhibited self-expansion of capital. As Marx states it: “Periodically the conflict of antagonistic agencies seek vent in crises. The crises are always but momentary and forcible solutions of the existing contradictions, violent eruptions which restore the disturbed equilibrium for a while.” (Capital, Vol. 3, p. 292).

To say then that Marx tied up his views on crises with an automatic breakdown theory is either to misunderstand or misrepresent him. While it is true that crises subject Capitalism to stresses and strains, to suggest that they will bring about the social and physical collapse of the system is something quite different. Marx so far as the present writer is aware never used the term “economic collapse of Capitalism.”

For Marx, however, crises were a significant part of the dynamics of Capitalism and he regarded his own treatment of them as an important contribution to the understanding of the system. He saw them as not only an outcome of antagonistic agencies but as a means of resolving the conflict in a new equilibrium. The crisis plays then a definite role in influencing the long term trends of the system.

Capitalism may thus be described as a system of unstable equilibrium. Which brings us to Mr. Strachey, who states in Contemporary Capitalism (p. 218) that “Marx regarded the instabilities of Capitalism as a secondary matter and did not expect them to prove fatal to the system.” But in that case the economic collapse theory which Mr. Strachey accuses Marx of holding, cannot be explained from Marx’s theory of the production cycle of Capitalism. Marx, says Mr. Strachey, formulated something different. Marx’s view of economic collapse is deduced from Marx’s contention, according to Mr. Strachey, that Capitalism undergoes a continuous process of mass under-consumption and thus an ever-increasing inability of Capitalists to dispose of their products in an ever-decreasing market. Intense mass poverty would result, the workers would revolt and Capitalism would perish.

We are asked to believe, minus any evidence, that Marx gave up his formulation of the trade cycle concept and substituted a view of permanent stagnation, i.e. of falling wages profits and investment, and ever increasing massive unemployment. Thus the system would run down like a clock. Crises would no longer play an active part; no new equilibrium could be established; capital accumulation would go on contracting and the basic feature of Capitalism, the self-expansion of capital would atrophy. Both employers and workers would become ever poorer, even if at different levels. Mr. Strachey, consistent in his confusion, would have us believe nevertheless that Marx thought that in all this process the Capitalists would in some way grow ever richer.

Mr. Strachey, however, flatly contradicts himself in the same paragraph by stating that the instabilities of the system and Marx’s alleged under-consumption views of crises are in some way clearly related. He adds lamely, “but Marx never fully elucidated the connection between them.” Marx did, of course, fully elucidate the connection between the instabilities of Capitalism and the emergence of crises. Mr. Strachey has never fully understood this connection, even though he wrote a book called The Nature of Capitalist Crisis. When Marx in the preface of Capital presupposed a reader willing to think for himself, he was perhaps a little optimistic. But a person who can state on one page that Marx regarded the instabilities of the system as secondary and then on the previous page aver that “Marx and Engels lived in the confident expectation that each crisis would be the system’s last” i.e. fatal, is incorrigible.

Marx never constructed a catastrophic theory of crises. Nor did he say, as Mr. Strachey avers, that crises are due to the inability of the workers to buy back what they have produced. Although Mr. Strachey was posing as a Marxist, he put this view forward in the name of Marx. Nevertheless Marx repudiated Rodbertus’ view that crises were caused by a lack of paying consumption and could be remedied by highering wages. Marx also showed that it was “high wages” which constituted a factor for producing a crisis and a plentiful supply of cheap labour-power as a factor for initiating a boom.

Mr. Strachey, however, is not really an economist. He is a politician trying to explain the errors and illusions of the past but in fact only explaining them away. It becomes necessary therefore to set up a lot of false assumptions and with great gusto, knock ’em down. Like most politicians, he has a favourite aunt called Sally.
Ted Wilmott

Marx, Malthus and Mr. Strachey (1957)

From the February 1957 issue of the Socialist Standard

Mr. Strachey in his book Contemporary Capitalism (pp. 88, 89), says, “Marx in spite of his dislike for Malthus and all his theories agreed that a rapidly rising population would help to depress the standard of life of the wage worker.” Natural fertility would always be increasing the number of workers competing for jobs and this would be further augmented by the displacement of workers by continuous mechanisation. Mr. Strachey asserts that not only did Marx say this but he also went on to deduce from it that a labour shortage could never arise. Moreover because or the ever-increasing deadweight of unwanted workers on the labour market, wages would not only be forced down to a bare subsistence level but even increasingly below it. Thus as the result of capital accumulation the mass of the population would come to exist on a semi-starvation diet insufficient for the replacement of their working energies.

Mr. Strachey offers nothing to support these astonishing statements. He merely tells us airily that it can all be found in “the central chapters of Vol. I. of Capital.” But where we are to look for actual quotations or specific references for Mr. Strachey’s claims, God alone knows and Mr. Strachey presumably shares the secret with him.

Our advice to Mr. Strachey is first catch your facts before you cook them. Perhaps a quotation from one of the central chapters in Vol. I. of Capital will show that Mr. Strachey can economise truth as well as evidence. In Vol. I. of Capital (p. 626, Swan Sonnenchein edition), Marx states: —
  “The requirements of accumulating capital may exceed the increase of labour-power or of the number of labourers; the demand for labourers may exceed the supply. This must ultimately be the case if the conditions supposed above continue. For since in each year more labourers are employed than in its predecessor, sooner or later a point must be reached at which the requirements of accumulation begin to surpass the customary supply of labour and therefore a rise of wages takes place.”
The challenge to Mr. Strachey is to show us where in Marx’s economic analysis of Capitalism his conclusions pointed to the depressing of wages to the barest physical level, as the outcome of capital accumulation. So far from that being true, Marx in a detailed analysis in one of the central chapters in Vol. I. of Capital, viz., “Capital Accumulation,” shows the tendency for wages to rise under the impact of accumulation. Nevertheless Marx also pointed out that the defensive mechanism of Capitalism is such as to prevent rising wages from absorbing the whole of profits.

In the first place capital accumulation tends to slacken off appreciably should there occur a sharp threat to profit margins—and rising wage levels can constitute such a threat.

Secondly a typical reaction to advancing wages is the substitution of mechanical power for labour power. The net effect of each concern in its efforts to reduce “labour costs,” will, by freeing workers, bring into being an industrial reserve army or as Marx alternatively calls it “relative over-population ” which by its active competition on the labour market, exerts a downward pressure on wage levels.

The Factors Affecting Wages
The impulse for wages to rise under the stimulus of expanding capital accumulation produces in turn a counter tendency for them to fall. It is this profit motivated expansion and contraction of capital accumulation with its expansion and contraction of the industrial reserve army which constitutes the regulating principle in determining the upper and lower limits of wage levels.

Marx’s solution to the way Capitalism deals with the threat of rising wage levels can be stated in his own words, Capital, Vol. I. (p. 653, Swan Sonnenchein Ed.).
  “The industrial reserve army during the period of stagnation and average prosperity weigh down the active labour army; during the periods of over-production it holds its pretensions in check. Relative surplus population is therefore the pivot upon which the law of demand and supply of labour works. It confines the field of action of this law within the limits absolutely convenient to the activity of exploitation and to the domination of capital.”
Marx’s concept of relative over-population does not rest then on the assumptions of any particular population theory. It is valid whether we are dealing with a rising population, a stationary population, or even a relatively declining one.

If, for instance, we examine a particular country where capital accumulation has historically got under way, we find that an increased working population is one of its necessary adjuncts. In the genesis of capital accumulation the labour force necessary for its expansion is historically recruited by means of land expropriation, the ruin of domestic industry and the elimination of the independent craftsman. Even so this may be inadequate for its needs and in that case an intensive and extensive recruitment for additional labour supplies may be resorted to both inside and outside the national area.

On the other hand in a country where economic development is retarded and capital accumulation lags as a result, although the population may be stationary or even relatively declining, there may be considerable unemployment i.e. relative over-population.

It can be seen then that the Malthusian theory of over-population affords no clue to the emergence of an industrial reserve army in Capitalism.

It might also be mentioned as a point of interest that the growth of capital accumulation in the latter half of the 19th century gave rise to labour shortages in various sections of industry. Moreover large bodies of workers were now organised in strong trade unions and were prepared to make the most of the conditions. Thus in place of flexibility certain rigidities were appearing on the labour market.

The Capitalist answer to this less easy situation in the labour market was more extensive mechanisation and the effect of this is redundancy of workers and the net result an increase in labour supply with its tendency to depress wages.

Through such economic agencies did Capitalism maintain, perpetuate and at times multiply relative over-population and this was going on when a relative decline in fertility rates was taking place, for it was round about the 1870’s that there began marked decline in population trends in the most advanced western countries. Thus the emergence and maintenance of an industrial reserve army, is a phenomenon of Capitalist society irrespective of changes in population trends and contrary to the foolish assertions of Mr. Strachey.

The Changing Composition of Capital
Now what Marx did point out was something quite different from Mr. Strachey’s interpretation of what he said. What Marx actually did say was that the concentration and growth of capital accumulation had certain consequences which affected the lot of the working class and expressed itself in what he termed the changing character of the composition of capital.

If, said Marx, we examine the total outlay of capital, we shall find that the part spent on the means of production i.e. plant, tools, buildings, etc., and called by him “constant capital,” tends to increase relatively to the part spent on wage payments or what he termed “variable capital.” Now seeing that the demand for labour-power is determined not by the total capital outlay of investment but by the variable part of it alone, then although the demand for labour-power increases absolutely, as total capital expenditure increases, the demand falls relatively to the magnitude of the total capital outlay.

Stated as a general theoretical proposition it is this process of capital accumulation as stated above which, as the history of Capitalism shows, has produced relative over-population, or as Marx states, “a population of greater extent than suffices for the average needs of the self-expansion of capital.”

Marx rejected Malthus in toto. “An abstract of law of population,” he said, “exists for plants and animals only, and only in so far as man has not interfered with them.” (Capital Vol. I., p. 645). He also referred to Malthus’s theory as the dogma of the economist and a libel on the human race. Marx categorically denied that population factors were in any way responsible for mass unemployment and poverty.

Rejecting eternal laws of population supposedly applicable to all societies, Marx formulated the proposition that every stage of historical development had its own laws of population. It was not merely that Marx asserted it but he set out to demonstrate it by a detailed investigation of the law of motion of Capitalist society. He was thus able to formulate a law of population peculiar to Capitalism, a law which fitted the facts of the contemporary situation in a way which the eternal laws of Malthus could not do.

The “Iron Law of Wages”
When, therefore, Mr. Strachey asserts that Marx accepted Lassalle’s iron law of wages (Contemporary Capitalism, p. 105), but for politically tactical reasons appeared to oppose it, one realises just how disingenuous Mr. Strachey can be.

In case anybody might be deceived by the pseudo-learned sophistry of Mr. Strachey, let us state that Lassalle took his concept of the iron law of wages from Malthus and Ricardo, not from Marx. In the Critique of the Gotha Programme, Marx repudiated in all its forms, the iron law of wages. He said, “If excess of population is the cause of poverty then Socialism can not abolish poverty which has its basis in nature.” For Marx poverty and mass unemployment in Capitalism cannot be explained wholly or in part as due to an increase in natural fertility rates.

Engels in a letter to Bebel (March, 1875) said categorically that Lassalle’s iron law of wages was “a false statement with a false basis.” He also said “Marx proved in detail in Capital that the laws regulating wages are very complicated  . . . they are in no sense iron but on the contrary very elastic.” Evidently Engels was unable to find in “these central chapters of Capital,” what Mr. Strachey found there.

Nothing exhibits Mr. Strachey’s obfuscation of Marx more than his assertion that if Marx had only diagnosed a tendency towards ever-increasing poverty and final economic collapse instead of making it the automatic outcome of the workings of Capitalism, he would have been justified instead of being falsified. This, itself, is a falsification of Marx’s views which is either due to sheer ineptitude or the bad intent of the apologetic.

The Automatic Breakdown of Capitalism
Marx’s economic analysis never indicates some automatic breakdown of Capitalism. Nor even a tendency towards that end. Thus Mr. Strachey accuses Marx of something he never said, then reproaches him for not saying what Mr. Strachey thinks he ought to have said. Again not only has Mr. Strachey confused notions in seeing in the system a tendency towards greater poverty and collapse, but he reproaches Marx for not sharing his confusion.

Mr. Strachey then blandly assures us that although such a tendency inheres in Capitalism the Labour Movement has overruled this tendency. Mr. Strachey makes central to the Labour Movement the franchise, social reforms and trade unions, whereas in actual fact they are the outcome of the development of Capitalism itself. Such things are not the counter-balance of the Labour Party against some non-existent tendency but an aspect of the normal regularisation necessary to an exploitative system.

Theoretically Mr. Strachey sees the possibilities of this inherent tendency to breakdown producing on a greater scale, slumps, lowered standards of living, etc., but believes that the Labour Party will so manage and regulate Capitalism as to confer on it all the advantages of Socialism. Lord Keynes has made all this possible. Mr. Strachey is, of course, a great admirer of Keynes, whose sole claim to economic originality was to plagiarise Malthus’s doctrine of effective demand.

But this is another story and here we must take leave of Mr. Strachey and Malthus—both in their different ways, shallow and false prophets.
Ted Wilmott

Poverty or Misery? (1957)

From the January 1957 issue of the Socialist Standard

In his book Contemporary Capitalism, Mr. Strachey echoes Bernstein in asserting that Marx held that the economic laws of Capitalism are such as to not only keep the standard of living of the working class down to a bare subsistence level but owing to the downward pressure which these “laws” exert, force this subsistence level even lower. This leads Marx to conclude, says Mr. Strachey again echoing Bernstein, that vast overproduction, leading to a final economic collapse and violent revolution would inevitably follow. Like Bernstein Mr. Strachey never offers to really explain what these laws are, nor how they are supposed to operate.

Mr. Strachey hangs his misrepresentation of Marx on the slender thread of two quotations of a few lines and isolated from the context in which they occur. The first is from the Communist Manifesto. It reads: “The modern labourer . . . instead of rising with the progress of industry, sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class. He becomes a pauper and pauperism develops more rapidly than population and wealth.”

But the Manifesto was largely a propagandist pamphlet written in highly generalised and scathing language, hardly the place a cull a few lines from as crucial proof of what Mr. Strachey deems the heart of Marxism, i.e., ever worsening poverty for the mass and ultimate economic collapse. Surely on “so vital a matter” Mr. Strachey had the whole of Marx’s detailed analysis from which to chose but he would not have found there what he so obviously wanted to find.

Actually what Marx and Engels were pointing out in the last but one paragraph in section one of the Manifesto from which Mr. Strachey quotes was that the industrial progress of Capitalism not only places the worker in economic jeopardy but one of its consequences is to deprive him of a livelihood and so compel him to live beneath the conditions of existence of his own class and as they add “instead of feeding the bourgeoisie he has to be fed by them.”

According to Mr. Strachey’s interpretation of this, Marx envisaged the end product of Capitalist development as the conversion of the mass of producers of surplus value, into idle consumers of surplus products that is if in such a state of affairs there was anything left to consume. Mr. Strachey cannot of course point to anything in Marx’s economic analysis of Capitalism which remotely suggests such a conclusion.

Marx in fact never speaks of a law of absolute poverty, nor does he make the growth of poverty a necessary outcome of Capitalist development. For Marx poverty is not something absolute and physical but something relative and social. That Marx left no room for doubt on this matter is seen in a work written incidentally before the Manifesto, Wage Labour and Capital. On (p 33) he states:
  “A house may be large or small; as long as the neighbouring houses are likewise small it satisfies all social requirements. But let there arise next to the little house, a palace and the little house shrinks to a hut. The little house now makes it clear that its inmate has no social position to maintain or but a very insignificant one; and however high it may shoot up in the course of civilisation, if the neighbouring palace rises in equal or greater measure the occupant of the relatively little house will always find himself more uncomfortable, more dissatisfied, more cramped within his four walls.”
For Marx the social conditions of one class cannot be determined except by reference to some other class or classes. Thus he declares, “our wants and pleasures are measured in relation to society, not in the objects which serve their gratification.” In answer to the assertions in Mr. Strachey’s book (p. 101) that Marx held that Capitalism condemns the working class to a perpetual lowering of wages, Marx replies on (p. 33) in Wage Labour and Capital, by stating, that a rapid growth of productive capital involves an appreciable rise in wages. That he does not consider poverty an essential condition for Socialism is made quite clear on p. 39 of the same pamphlet when he declares, “the most rapid growth of capital however much it may improve the material life of the worker, does not abolish the antagonism between his interests and the interests of the Capitalist.”

To Mr. Strachey’s unwarrantable assertion that Marx believed in an iron or fixed law of wages, Marx in the work, Value, Price and Profit, says, “the value of labour (power) itself is not a fixed but a variable magnitude, even supposing the value of all other commodities to remain the same.”

On pages 87 and 88 of the same work, Marx, treating of the struggle between Capitalists and workers over the division of social wealth, states, although we can determine the minimum of wages i.e. the essentials necessary to maintain the worker physically, we cannot fix their maximum. The struggle between employers seeking to gain the greatest possible profit and workers striving for the highest possible wages, resolves itself, says Marx, “into a question of the respective powers of the combatants.”

To Mr. Strachey’s assertion that Marx held that workers’ wages represent bare subsistence, or to put alternatively are the cost of mere replacement of physical energies used up in the productive process, Mr. Strachey, if he cares to read Capital (p. 631), will find Marx stating the working class “can extend the circle of their enjoyments, can make some additions to their consumption fund of clothes, furniture, etc., and can lay by small reserve funds of money. But just as little do better clothes, food and a larger peculium do away with the exploitation of the slave, so little do they set aside that of the wage worker.”

Marx then made it crystal clear that the value of labour-power is determined by two elements; one merely physical and the other he calls, historical and moral. By the latter he meant that in different periods and in different countries—even in different localities, there is a traditional standard of life which workers feel is indispensable to their existence. Hence any attempt to lower it will provoke the strongest resistance. Thus, when workers combine in trade unions to maintain or increase wages, they are not fighting hopelessly against some iron law of wages, which must assert itself in the long run but are expressing the historical and moral element involved in the value of labour-power and so helping “to mould the traditional standards of the future.” Marx was aware of the tendency of wages to rise under the impact of capital accumulation. He certainly never believed, however, that wage increases would absorb the whole of profits, never reach a point “where the system itself is threatened.” (Capital, p. 632).

On the other hand, said Marx, there are tendencies in Capitalism which set up a strong counter resistance to rising wages. These tendencies include, the substitution of mechanical power for labour power, the recurring crises of the system and to a lesser degree the export of capital to places where cheaper sources of labour power are available. Thus increased unemployment will lead to increased competition for jobs and downward pressures on existing wage levels. While Marx believed that trade unions could have a retarding effect on these tendencies, he did not believe they could reverse their direction. (Value, Price and Profit, p. 93).

When Marx speaks in the same pamphlet (p. 92) of the general tendency in Capitalism to sink rather than raise wages it can be seen from the foregoing that such a tendency is a marked feature of Capitalism and inseparable from a wages system.

Marx, however, in spite of Mr. Strachey’s profound misunderstanding on the matter, never equates these tendencies to the totality of Capitalist social relations. Marx true to his own historic standpoint, reveals the powerful refracting effects on these tendencies by the social factor of the class struggle. For Marx there are no laws of motion of Capitalist society existing in isolation, there are only laws of motion as modified by human beings. Mr. Strachey not understanding this, does not understand the historical method of Marx.

Which brings us to Mr. Strachey’s other quotation, making a grand total of two. This quotation is from the Eden and Cedar Paul translation of Capital. Because Mr. Strachey has made his central point an assertion that Marx believed in some process of a growth of absolute poverty, he has good reasons for using this particular translation rather than the fourth German edition, translated by Samuel Moore and edited by Frederick Engels. In this last-named edition the quotation given by Mr. Strachey is: “Along with the constantly diminishing number of the magnates of capital who usurp and monopolise all advantages of this process of transformation, grows the mass of misery, slavery, degradation, exploitation . . .” (Capital, p. 789 Swan Sonnenchein edition). In the Eden and Cedar Paul translation the word “misery” is altered to poverty. One might also point out that in this same edition, several words are arbitrarily and erroneously changed. The word misery it might also be mentioned is used in the Kerr edition and in the Allen and Unwin edition translated by Dona Torr. This edition was highly praised by Mr. Strachey himself. Also in Value, Price and Profit (p. 93) Marx speaks of the miseries imposed by Capitalism not the poverty, etc.

It may also be noted that the quotation given by Mr. Strachey is merely the briefest of passing references on the subject of Marx. One wonders why Mr. Strachey didn’t quote from Capital (p. 661, Swan Sonnenchein edition) where Marx clearly and explicitly states what he means by misery. But then Mr. Strachey would not have been able to prove what he wanted to prove.

Dealing with the effects of capital accumulation on the working class, Marx states:
  “They mutilate the labourer into a fragment of a man, degrade him to the level of the appendage of a machines destroy every remnant of charm in his work and turn it into a hateful toil; they estrange him from the intellectual potentialities of the labour-process in the same proportion as science is incorporated in it as an independent power. … It follows therefore in proportion as capital accumulates the lot of labourer, be his wages high or low, must grow worse. It establishes an accumulation of misery corresponding with the accumulation of capital. Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, accumulation of misery, agony, toil, slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation at the opposite pole.” (Italics ours.)
Marx then does not relate misery to the sum of wages a worker gets but to the social conditions of his existence. Engels in a letter to Bebel (March 1875) rebukes those people who falsify Marx by stating he believed in an iron law of wages. Engels also says that “Marx showed in Capital that the laws regulating wages are very complicated . . . they are in no sense iron but very elastic.”

Mr. Strachey did not always accept the view that Marx equated the value of labour power with a bare subsistence level, or the mere physical replacement of working energies. In his book, The Nature of Capitalist Crisis (p. 197) he associated himself with the following: “the value of labour-power is the sum of commodities, necessary to keep the worker in health and strength and enable him to keep his children in equal health and strength and technical ability.” Neither are we given the slightest hint in that work of one of the central assertions which Mr. Strachey makes in his latest book which is that Marx held that such would be the level of poverty of the workers that they would be unable to efficiently perform their working tasks.

Must we conclude that when Mr. Strachey was a “Marxist” he did not really understand Marxism and only understands it now he isn’t? Or could it be truly said that he has never really understood Marxism at any time?
Ted Wilmott

(In the next issue we shall deal with Mr. Strachey’s fantastic assertion that Marx was at bottom a Malthusian)

The Labour Party and the Suez Canal (1957)

From the January 1957 issue of the Socialist Standard

In view of the attitude taken up by the Labour Party in the Suez dispute it is worthwhile casting the mind back to the attitude of Labour Governments in 1924 and 1929 on this matter. 

The Labour Magazine for August, 1929, under the heading “Labour and Egypt,” contains the following quotation from a dispatch sent by Ramsay McDonald in 1924, as Labour Foreign Secretary:
 “No British Government in the light of these experiences (meaning the war) can divest itself wholly even in favour of an ally, of its interest in guarding such a vital link in British negotiations (meaning, of course, the Suez Canal). Such a security must be a feature of any agreement come to between the two Governments, and I see no reason why accommodation is impossible, given goodwill. The effective co-operation of Great Britain and Egypt in protecting these negotiations, might, in my view, have been ensured by a treaty of close alliance. The presence of a British force in Egypt provided for by such a treaty, freely entered into by both parties on an equal footing, would in no way be incompatible with Egyptian independence. Whilst it would be an indication of the special close and intimate relations between the two countries, and their determination to co-operate in a matter of vital concern to both. It is not the wish of His Majesty’s Government that the force should in any way interfere with the functions of the Egyptian Government or encroach upon Egyptian sovereignty, and I emphatically said so.” (Pages 176-177.)
It will be noticed that this outlook is much the same as that put forward by the present Tory Government. However, negotiations fell through but the problem came up again during Labour’s 1929-1930 period of office. The Labour Magazine for September, 1929, contains the proposals made to Egypt by Henderson, the Labour Foreign Minister. Here is an extract from these proposals:
  “An undertaking on the part of Egypt that if she requires military instructors these shall be British; when the British military forces now in Egypt are removed and certain British forces are permitted by Egypt to be maintained on Egyptian territory in the vicinity of the Suez Canal for the protection of that waterway, the presence of these forces is not to prejudice in any way the sovereign rights of Egypt; an undertaking that the Egyptian Government will, as a rule, when engaging the services of foreign officials, engage British subjects” (page 211)
The summary of the proposals concludes with the following:
 “modification of any treaty based on the proposals to be admissible only after the treaty has been in force for a period of 25 years.”
The article adds that Mr. Henderson said that these proposals are “the extreme limit to which the Government is prepared to go.”

Thus the Labour Governments of 1924 and 1929 wanted British forces to remain on Egyptian territory to safeguard the Suez Canal, and the 1929 treaty was to secure that this was so for the following 25 years—and it also included only British military instructors and British officials! What are the “sovereign rights” of a country in the eyes of Imperialists?

The November, 1929 issue of the Labour Magazine had an article on “The Labour Government’s offer to Egypt” containing a typical piece of Imperialist hypocrisy:
  “Later, in the detailed working out of the proposals, we find that, while the occupation of Egypt is to end, the occupation of the banks of the Suez Canal is to continue. The Canal is indisputably Egyptian territory In fact, however, Egypt sees little, and thinks, less of it The Canal is in Egypt, but not of Egypt. The Egyptian life in the main goes on unheeding of the vast international traffic that traverses the waterway from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean. The grip of a country’s capital by foreign troops is one thing; the policing of a vastly important international highway is quite another. The former makes a mockery of national independence; the other—except on doctrinaire grounds—has but little relevancy to the question of national independence” (pages 303-304).
You see it all depends upon whether you look at the question from the point of view of Egyptian nationalism or British Imperialism. The Egyptians contend that as the canal is in Egypt it is in Egypt and consequently they have been trying to kick the British out since 1880. We have been taught that the Thames is an International highway, but if the Egyptians suggested sending a force here to protect it we very much doubt if the Labour Party would argue that the Thames is in England but not of England.

Finally, puzzle; find the difference between the outlook of the Labour and the Tory parties on the Suez Canal question; or, alternatively, which is the greatest humbug.