The Coming Storm…
Most of the stuff I read on Marxism today seems to miss a very significant point: The entire context of the debate has changed.
These writings can be divided into two groups:
- Those who continue as if nothing has changed, and
- Those who state everything before was a failure.
In the first group are the Leninists, soc-dems, assorted types, who approach the problem of social emancipation more or less the way the generation immediately following Engels approached it. The second group really emerges out of the interwar period and after. It is probably easier to think about this if I just state what I am thinking here.
Capitalism develops the productive power of the total labor power of society. What Marx and Engels realized is that ultimately this improvement would lead to the reduction of necessary labor for all of society. When they realized it, this idea was in its infancy, but it became the commonsense assumption of everyone. Even Keynes, the intellectual godfather of fascism, made this assumption.
Capitalism is basically constantly trying to outrun this long-term imperative: it is constantly seeking ways to expand production and overcome the effects of constant improvement in the productivity of labor by the export of capital to the outlying field of production within the world market. At first it is really easy to overcome the improvement of productivity, but over time it becomes increasingly more difficult. Once machines are employed to build improved machines, of course, the productivity of labor rockets. At some point along this trajectory, expansion of the employment of labor power itself becomes the problem that must be addressed.
Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, this point was reached on Monday, October 28, 1929. I am not arguing this was what actually happened on that day. I only want to supposed it did for the sake of this argument. On this day, then, Monday, October 28, 1929, the problem labor theory sought to solve, flipped on its head.
And what problem might this be?
There are two distinct problems actually: the proletarian revolution and the historical trajectory of the capitalist mode of production. These are not the same problems, but we tend to lump them together in our minds. Elmar Flatschart, in his speech before the Platypus conference explained that the abolition of value is not itself social emancipation. The abolition of value is one problem, the social emancipation of the working class is another problem.
Before, Monday, October 28, 1929, it was thought the social emancipation of the working class would be realized before value was abolished. After Monday, October 28, 1929, it appears likely value would be abolished before the social emancipation was realized.
We tend to treat the proletarian political revolution and the abolition of value as one and the same thing, but wertkritik says otherwise. The poles of the relation between the proletarian revolution and the abolition of value flipped, but nobody noticed it. And when it flipped the old Marxism became obsolete. By Marxism, I mean the politics of working class emancipation from capitalism.
What was this old Marxism? It can be seen in the Communist Manifesto:
“We have seen above, that the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class to win the battle of democracy. The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.”
In this passage, Marx suggested the working class should win the political struggle and proceed to abolish all labor. Winning the political struggle — social emancipation — was not the same as abolition of labor itself; it was only the means to that end. Social emancipation in this form was provisional, i.e., the emancipation of labor from capital had to be followed by the emancipation of all society from labor.
On Monday, October 28, 1929, the Communist Manifesto programme became obsolete.
What replaced it?
Well, notice in the Manifesto Marx says the working class would win the “battle for democracy”. Notice he does not say, the working class would overthrow democracy, it would win the battle for it. By simply winning democracy the working class had to win in the long run because it would become the largest single class in society.
The peasants would over time be thrown into the ranks of the working class by capitalism itself. A democratic society would, of necessity, become a working class society. Winning “the battle for democracy” is nowhere near as exciting as it sounds, since all capitalism does is throw all other classes into the proletariat. Over any given period of time, the majority of society had to become working class — it’s the way capitalism works. Not only this, capitalism also constantly reduces the number of capitalists. So the way the mode of production works is that almost everybody in 19th century society was going to end up in the working class. The “battle for democracy” would be won mostly because no one else would be left but the working class and a handful of capitalist exploiters — and we could out-vote them on every public policy issue.
Winning the battle for democracy, however, is not the important part — although in contemporary Marxist literature you would think this was the beginning and end of all history. Ask a Leninist what she thinks we should be doing and she will tell you we need to replace the present state with a new one. Why? Since the working class is already the only real class in the present state, why can’t we just take control of this one? What is to stop the working class from completely controlling the present state by democratic means.
The Leninist has no answer for this. Or else, she recycles Lenin’s insane argument that the working class is dominated by bourgeois ideology in some form. Bullshit. Everyone is an adult here. If you can’t figure it out, then you deserve to be a slave. The fact is feudal society was dominated by its very own peculiar ideology, but this never prevented the formation of bourgeois ideology or a bourgeois state. The Leninist argument on this is complete hogwash, and they know it. And if they don’t know it, why would you trust them in political power — they clearly are idiots.
Winning the battle for democracy is just a matter of the impact capitalism has on the demographics of society: we all become working class. In other words, even if the working class did not seize power outright, the development of the capitalist mode of production would give them the political power.
The really significant part of the quote from the Manifesto is what they would do with this power when handed it.
“The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.”
So, with power in their hands, outright or effectively, the control of the total capital of society would be concentrated in the hands of the state. This would happen, mind you, even if society was completely unaware of the significance of these actions. There is nothing in Marx’s argument to suggest society is even aware of what it is doing as it is doing it — it is driven to these actions solely by necessity.
Just as the working class is completely unaware that it is effectively the rulers of society, by reason of its mass, so society is driven to wrest control of the total capital from the capitalists without this ever being understood as a communistic impulse.
Marx has no concern that we are or are not aware of the significance of our actions, since he is only addressing what we must do because of who we are. His argument is always grounded in who we are materially and, based on this, what we will find it necessary to do — no matter how we justify it in whatever bizarre ideologies that prevail at any moment.
A society of individuals engaged in directly social production must, of necessity, manage their activities cooperatively. How they justify this cooperation is of no concern to historical materialism whatsoever. People will do what they have to do, and then they will try to explain why they are actually doing something else altogether. You don’t focus on the explanation, you have to look at what they are doing.
Going back to our event horizon, Monday, October 28, 1929: As I stated, on this day the poles of the relation between social emancipation and the abolition of value flipped. In the Communist Manifesto, the working class first seizes power outright and proceeds to abolish value, to abolish socially necessary labor time. Now, after that Monday, the task is different: the abolition of value precedes social emancipation.
Why does this happen?
Remember: Capitalism is always trying to outrun the long-term imperative to reduce hours of labor. On that particular Monday, capitalism finally lost that race — the productive forces of society acquired the capacity to outstrip any and all needs for productive employment of labor power. In Marxist parlance, the directly social productive forces burst their capitalist private property integument. The point was reached, as predicted by labor theory, that labor time had to be reduced.
This was because, no matter to what capitalist ends labor power could be put, it would necessarily produce more than could be productively consumed in the capitalist production process. To be clear: we are only speaking of the capitalist production process, not production of material wealth itself. The production of material wealth encountered no limits by this event, however the further increase in the production of material wealth would no longer be profitable. Any attempt to increase the production of material wealth at this point, would result not in the expansion of the total social capital, but in its contraction. This contraction was nothing but the contraction of productive employment of labor power — of the expenditure of labor, of hours of labor.
To say an increase in the production of material wealth would result in the contraction of capital was to say it would result in a reduction of hours of labor. The contraction of the total capital of society would be a negative rate of profit — which means all further increase in the productivity of labor must lead to a further reduction in the mass of profits. On Monday, October 28, 1929, society encountered the point where all further increase in the productivity of labor had to lead to a fall in the mass of profits.
If as a Marxist this argument is new to you, the reason this is so is simple: there is almost no trace of this event in Marxist literature. For the most part, Marxist theorists never even noticed it, and no one recognized its significance. Henryk Grossman predicted it (in theory) in a paper in 1929, on the eve of the event:
“Beyond a definite point of time the system cannot survive at the postulated rate of surplus value of 100 per cent. There is a growing shortage of surplus value and, under the given conditions, a continuous overaccumulation. the only alternative is to violate the conditions postulated. Wages have to be cut in order to push the rate of surplus value even higher. This cut in wages would not be a purely temporary phenomenon that vanishes once equilibrium is re-established; it will have to be continuous. After year 36 either wages have to be cut continually and periodically or a reserve army must come into being.”
In the literature between the time Engels died and the Great Depression, this is the single instance I can find of anyone actually predicting what is now called “capitalist breakdown”. And no one I know of has ever understood the connection between this “breakdown” and hours of productive labor: that the two are identical.
What Grossman was predicting, in the simplest possible words, is that from the point of capitalist breakdown forward, hours of labor had to be continuously reduced. The problem in his particular formulation is that he sets this reduction entirely in the form of capitalist relations of production. So rather than saying ‘hours of labor had to be reduced’, he says, “wages have to be cut continually and periodically or a reserve army must come into being.”
After Grossman is where things get entirely confused: people (Marxists) never realize Grossman’s event has happened. And these Marxists are themselves divided into a group of folks who think things are still the same as they were before the Great Depression and a group who thinks things were always the same as they were after the Great Depression.
This is somewhat confusing for me, since when I am reading someone’s argument, I have to first figure out which group they are in. You get people like David Harvey, Dumenil and Levy, or Chris Harman who are clearly in the pre-Great Depression mode of analysis. These are the people who think the task of the day is to seize political power and establish a proletarian dictatorship or something like that. Then you have folks like Holloway, Postone, Kurz, Flatschart, who warn seizing political power is a pointless dead end.
The latter group are in the post-Great Depression mode of analysis, but falsely think this mode of analysis also applies to the earlier period. These post-Great Depression thinkers believe it was always a mistake to focus on seizing state power and Engels was a revisionist.
So you have these two schools of Marxism existing side by side — one thinks we are still living in the 19th Century and the other thinks Marx and Engels lived in the 20th century. Neither side recognizes that the conditions of the 19th century are not at all the same as the conditions of the 20th century. Capitalism has moved on, while theory lags behind — as usual. And not just theory — the consciousness of the working class also lags behind the development of the mode of production too.
Is this unusual? Of course not. We should expect this lag in the consciousness of society, since it is predicted by historical materialism. What this means is that there is a huge gap between the real progress of social production and the recognition of this practical progress in the consciousness of society. If historical materialism has any truth in it at all, this gap must and will be closed in a rather shocking leap of social consciousness.
This event will be staggering and will, in a matter of days or weeks, sweep aside everything we think we know right now.