Thursday, May 14, 2020

Marx’s world view (2020)

Book Review from the May 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

A Promethean Vision: The Formation of Karl Marx’s Worldview. By Eric Rahim, Praxis Press, 2020.

In Greek mythology Prometheus defied the gods by stealing fire and giving it to humanity, as a symbol of civilisation. Zeus then punished him by having him tied to a rock with an eagle eating his liver. In the forward to his doctoral dissertation Marx quotes from Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound where Prometheus tells Hermes, the servant of the gods:
Be sure of this, I would not change my state
Of evil fortune for your servitude.
Better to be the servant of this rock
Than to be faithful boy to Father Zeus.
In this short book Eric Rahim wonders if the 23-year-old Marx was beginning to think of himself as a latter-day Prometheus. At this stage Marx was not yet a communist. Rahim argues that Marx’s communist worldview ‘was fully formulated before he was 30 years old’, and the focus of this study is on the development of his thought up to that point with his writing of the Communist Manifesto in 1848. This is a bold claim. In his defence Rahim cites the economist Joseph Schumpeter who said that, at the age of 29, Marx ‘was in possession of all the essentials’ that make up Marxism.

Rahim is not the first writer to present Marx’s philosophy of history independently of his theory of value, but this creates problems for his conception of Marx’s worldview. For instance, in the Communist Manifesto Marx tells us that the ‘average price of wage-labour is the minimum wage’ required ‘to keep the labourer in bare existence as a labourer’. This is known as the Wage-Fund theory, according to which there is only a fixed pot of capital to pay out as wages, and so wages cannot rise above that amount. Marx only began to develop his own theory of value in the 1850s. In 1865 he gave a talk (published after his death as a pamphlet called Value, Price and Profit) which emphatically rejected the Wage-Fund theory and argued for a class struggle theory of value, according to which wage levels are determined by ‘the respective powers of the combatants’. This is no minor alteration of Marx’s worldview and it makes Rahim’s focus in this book look arbitrary.

Still, this could have joined the long list of ‘What Marx Really Meant’ books if it were not for a section near the end entitled ‘After the Revolution’. At this point Rahim substitutes Lenin for Marx without admitting it or possibly without being aware of it. Rahim asserts that, after the revolution, there is a long transitional phase of communism in which the state is the dictatorship of the proletariat. For Rahim it follows from this that distribution will be governed by ‘the same principles that govern income distribution under capitalism… During this phase we will still have wage labour’. Rahim refers to this as ‘to each according to his work’. His use of quotation marks here suggests that he is quoting Marx.

What Marx really said is that when the working class ‘win the battle of democracy’ (the dictatorship of the proletariat) they will use this political power to establish communism. In the early phase of communism there will be restrictions due to the conditions of the time (1875 when Marx wrote this). With progress these restrictions will fall away in the later phase of communism. It is important to note however that in both phases of communism there is no state, money economy or wages system. ‘To each according to his work’ is a later Leninist fabrication, although Lenin himself, in State and Revolution (1917), used the Biblical injunction: ‘He who does not work shall not eat’.

This point should be seen in conjunction with Lenin’s insistence on the leading role of the vanguard party. This is important because whenever and wherever the Leninist model has been followed it has always ended in a state capitalist dictatorship over the proletariat, and Marx’s worldview gets dragged through the mud.
Lew Higgins

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