Recent years have seen a surge of interest in Marxian political economy, particularly evident by the resurgence of readers picking up Marx’s most famous work, Capital. Now 150 years after its original publication, there are still fresh interpretations of Capital that can help readers find new pathways to progressive or revolutionary change.
Marking the 150th anniversary of its publication, Reading “Capital” Today offers a wide range of leading thinkers’ reflections on this influential text—its political legacy, its limitations, and its continuing relevance in our world. Highlighting issues such as ecology, gender, race, labor, communism, the Third World, and imperialism, contributors also identify the connections between Capital and various socialist projects of the past, drawing lessons from those experiences that might contribute to the reinvention of socialist politics today.
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About the Author
Ingo Schmidt is academic coordinator of the Labour Studies Program at Athabasca University, Canada. His books include Social Democracy after the Cold War and The Three Worlds of Social Democracy. Carlo Fanelli is an instructor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University, in Ontario.
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Capital and the History of Class Struggle
'[I]t is the ultimate aim of this work to reveal the law of motion of modern society', Marx explained to his German readers in the preface to the first edition of Capital. The first chapter of the actual text makes clear that he understands 'modern society' as one 'in which the capitalist mode of production prevails' (Marx 1976: 92, 125). Over the next 24 chapters he analyses commodity exchange, money and capital, the production of surplus value and capital accumulation, in a model in which only two classes exist: capitalists and workers. He illustrates this highly abstract model with experiences from England where, at the time, the capitalist mode of production had made deeper inroads into non-capitalist modes of production than anywhere else. England is also the example Marx uses to explain the historical origins of the division between workers and capitalists. The final eight chapters of Capital are devoted to this process of, in Marx's terms, 'so-called primitive accumulation'.
Yet, he derives the 'general law of capitalist accumulation' in Chapter 25 from an abstract model before looking into the historical origins of the capitalist mode of production. Moreover, in Capital we find workers struggling against capitalists' quest for lower wages, longer hours and harder work but, even when they had some success in these struggles, we see them failing in some other respect. From skilled workers they are downgraded to appendices of machines owned and controlled by capitalists, many are pushed into an industrial reserve army of labour that keeps a lid on the wage demands of the active army of workers. Although Marx sees workers as a 'class constantly increasing in numbers, ... trained, united and organized by the ... capitalist process of production' (1976: 899, 929), their 'dependence on capital' appears so overpowering that it is difficult to see how the same workers will ever be able to overthrow capitalist rule.
In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels declared that 'the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles' (1998: 2); in Capital we find abstract laws but little class struggle and history. Yet, despite being so strangely removed from history and class struggle, Capital, along with other of Marx's and Engels' writings, did inspire revolutionary movements – just not, as Marx had expected, in countries like England where industrial capitalism developed but in largely agrarian and non-capitalist countries from Russia to China, Cuba and Vietnam. The perceived threat from the 'Revolution Against Capital' (Gramsci 2000) in these countries, along with domestic pressure from unions and social democratic parties, led to the emergence of a welfare capitalism looking very different from the brutal exploitation of workers Marx described in Capital. Marx's speculations about workers' revolutions were turned upside down when capitalists felt that social reform had gone too far and turned to class struggle from above to restore their power. The collapse of Soviet communism looked like a late confirmation of Marx's original proposition that socialist revolutions can only succeed on the basis of an industrial economy. This collapse greatly facilitated capitalist efforts to roll back social reforms in the West and thereby recreate capitalism after the image of Capital, but with industrial working classes largely relocated from the North to the postcolonial South.
Even though actually existing capitalism today looks more like the capitalism Marx depicted in Capital, the latter is still, and probably will be as long as capitalism exists, an abstraction reminiscent of, but not identical with, capitalist realities. Maybe it is precisely this dissonance between empirical capitalism and the abstract laws revealed by Marx that made Capital attractive to generations of socialists who sought to understand capitalism in order to overcome it. This dissonance opened the space for them to adjust their interpretations to the changes coming with capitalist development and to adjust socialist strategies accordingly. This chapter outlines the key interpretations of Capital from 1867 until today, along with the strategies derived from them. It will show that ideas devised in Capital and other Marxist writings gripped the masses, to paraphrase Marx, and therefore became a material force. This is true for social democracy, even after shaking off its Marxist roots; for communism, even though Soviet realities replaced Marx's ideas about workers' self-liberation with the dictatorship of the politburo; and it is also true for some anti-colonial movements, even though Marx said hardly anything, and certainly not in Capital, about the colonial world. This outline will also show that dissident Marxists, whose ideas were never widely circulated enough to grip the masses, played important roles in unsettling dominant interpretations of Capital when the strategies linked to those interpretations became stuck in dead-ends. After all hitherto dominant interpretations of Capital and Marxist politics have been defeated, and while capitalism produces increasing levels of discontent, dissident voices of the past may provide starting points for the remaking of working-class politics in a way that Marx and his comrades envisioned during the First International, only now on a much more global scale.
Capital for the Socialist Workers' Movement
Marx begins his analysis of the inner workings of the capitalist mode of production with the most common and seemingly simple thing one finds in societies associated with the capitalist mode of production: the commodity. Searching for the laws governing commodity exchanges, Marx deciphers abstract labour as the source of value and surplus value that is produced by workers who have to sell their labour power to acquire their means of subsistence. The surplus value is appropriated by the buyers of labour power: as owners of the means of production and managers of the labour power they have bought, they pocket the revenue from the sale of commodities made by the workers. This revenue recovers the costs of labour power and means of production used in the production process and the creation of surplus value. This is so because the use value of labour power for the capitalist lies in the fact that it can produce a value greater than its exchange value or wage. Marx then shows why the accumulation of capital, i.e. the reinvestment of surplus value, leads to the concentration and centralization of capital, why it produces recurrent crises and deepening inequalities between workers and capitalists.
In Volume 2 of Capital, Marx looks at the conditions under which the exchange between producers of means of production and means of consumption, respectively, allow the continued accumulation of capital, but he also ponders the possibilities why these conditions may not be fulfilled, i.e. why crises may interrupt the process of accumulation. In Volume 3, Marx demonstrates how competition leads to a uniform rate of profit across industries operating under different economic conditions and discusses the question whether this profit rate has a tendency to fall. He then shows how commercial capital, money capital and landowners get their share of the surplus value produced under the command of productive capital. The final chapter on classes ends after a page and a half with a comment by Engels, who assembled Volumes 2 and 3 from Marx's unfinished manuscripts, saying: 'At this point the manuscript breaks off' (Marx 1981: 1025). As more of Marx's original manuscripts became accessible, beginning with the Grundrisse published in Moscow in 1939, Marxists spent much time pondering the degree to which Engels' editing of Volumes 2 and 3 changed their content compared to Marx's intentions, and whether Marx was still planning to write a book on wage labour as originally planned or whether his arguments about wage labour were actually moved into the three volumes of Capital (see, for example: Rosdolsky 1977; Lebowitz 1992).
Be that as it may, what we find in Capital, notably Volume 1, is a detailed analysis of the ways capital exploits workers in the production process and how a reserve army of labour is created that ensures that the supply of labour power is large and cheap enough to allow the continued production of surplus value. We also find hints at workers' struggles for shorter hours and higher wages. Yet, every victory in these struggles becomes a reason for capitalists to replace skilled workers and their workplace bargaining power with machines and unskilled workers who can easily be hired and fired. In short, we see the constant transformation of labour power into variable capital and the latter's key role in producing surplus value, but we don't see the possessors of this labour power, the workers, acting as individuals having ideas and aspirations cutting through the laws governing capitalist production. We also don't see workers acting outside the production process or hear anything about the lives of unemployed workers or family members performing unpaid household labour. Reading Capital tells us nothing about the making of working classes as collective agents of change. But it did help activists who read it in building workers movements that could, more or less legitimately, claim to articulate working-class interests. In fact, Marx himself was a part of this process. He started work on actual economic development and political economic theories, which formed the basis for Capital, after the defeat of the 1848 revolutions.
The dominance that an expanding capitalist mode of production had gained over its opponents is reflected in the subordinate role workers play in Capital. However, the world described in it rang true to many workers and thus provided fertile ground for socialist strategies that can be derived from it, even though such strategies are not presented in Capital. The First and Second Internationals created the organizational framework in which workers' experiences on the one hand and Marx's scientific analysis of the capitalist mode of production on the other could be mediated. This mediation process contributed to the formation of collective identities and a strategic vision for the industrial working classes of Western Europe (Steenson 1991). The long boom following the defeat of the 1848 revolutions confirmed Marx's argument that capital accumulation would turn increasing numbers of people into workers; his prediction of increasing working-class misery was confirmed by the subsequent depression of the early 1870s to the early 1890s.
That depression was followed by another long boom during which the factory regime that Marx had identified in Capital as the core of capitalist rule extended its hold over increasing sections of Western European populations. But at the same time, the real wages of skilled and organized workers were rising. The idea that union organizing would allow only temporary material gains but prepare workers for the final battle in the face of escalating working-class misery, with which Marx had concluded Volume 1 of Capital, lost its persuasiveness. Increasingly it was replaced by the idea that capitalism could gradually be transformed into socialism, one reform at a time. The new boom coincided with the last wave of colonial expansion that raised the question whether, and if so, to what degree, the exploitation of popular classes in the colonial world was the basis for rising real wages in the industrial world. Capital, narrowly focusing on industrial capitalism, had no answers to the questions of colonial exploitation and even less to the related question of imperialist rivalry that culminated in the First World War and another shift from long boom to long downturn. The Marxism around which the Second International was built faced two moments of crises: one when the long boom and rising real wages refuted the expectation of capitalist decline and increasing pauperization of the working class, and another when the boom was ended not by the unfolding of the general law of capitalist accumulation but by great power conflict and war.
Revolution Against Capital
Rosa Luxemburg (2003, 2011) offers the clearest example how reading Capital can help in finding new strategies when old ones are at an impasse. She reminded her comrades that Marx left non-capitalist modes of production out of his analysis. She argued that this was necessary to reveal the law of modern, i.e. capitalist, society but also that the image of capitalism arising from Capital should not be mistaken for capitalist reality. In order to bring insights derived from Capital closer to reality it would be necessary to analyse the relationships between the capitalist mode of production and non-capitalist modes of production, within which capitalism has developed historically. More specifically, she maintained that Marx, in order to show the conditions under which capital could continuously accumulate, had constructed numerical examples that illustrated such a possibility. Yet, according to Luxemburg, he had not shown why there would always have been enough effective demand to realize all of the surplus value that has been produced. In her view, such realization, and thus the accumulation of capital, depends on purchases from non-capitalist social strata. This argument allowed her to understand capital accumulation as a process progressively replacing non-capitalist modes of production. Considered from this angle, colonial expansion at the end of the nineteenth century was the means that overcame the depression from the 1870s to the early 1890s. Rising real wages, then, were reliant on working-class complicity with colonialism but came at the price of also fighting the wars of their respective national bourgeoisies, once the outward expansion turned into imperialist infighting. Based on this analysis, political strategy shifted from social reform to anti-imperialism and, once the First World War began, opposition to war and the revolutionary overthrow of political regimes.
In a more eclectic analysis, drawing on the Marxist Hilferding as much as the proto-Keynesian Hobson, Lenin (2010) arrived at similar conclusions. Luxemburg, writing in industrialized Germany, sought to reinvent working-class politics as an alternative to the class collaboration advocated and practised by revisionist social democrats and union leaders, a collaboration in which she saw the origins of social democracy's support for imperial war. Lenin, writing in agrarian Russia with only few pockets of industrial production, sought to establish a revolutionary form of class collaboration between workers and peasants. He went to great pains to demonstrate that capitalism had established roots in Russia's vast agricultural sector but that this agrarian capitalism was very different from the industrial capitalism Marx had analysed in Capital (Lenin 2004). The uneven development between industrial capitalism, applying the latest technology in firms much larger than most in industrialized England, and agrarian capitalism, still laden with remnants of feudal rule, made Russian capitalism more vulnerable to economic and political crisis. Lenin therefore identified Russia as the weakest link in the imperialist chain. He expected that the breaking of this chain would lead to the unravelling of capitalism in its most industrialized centres with their working-class majorities.
By seeing the development of industrial capitalism as part of a larger process of the penetration of non-capitalist social strata and regions Luxemburg and Lenin were able to understand the unevenness of capitalism on a world scale as much as within individual countries. By 'deprovincializing Marx' (Harootunian 2015), they departed from the mechanistic interpretations of Capital that had played such a big role in the making of First and, on a much larger scale, Second International socialism. However, they shared with Marx the conviction that the decisive battle for socialism would be fought in the centres, not the peripheries. The Marxism they had advanced was in crisis once it became clear that the Russian Revolution was not going to be followed by a successful revolution in the West. If Gramsci called the Russian Revolution a revolution against Capital, the failure of revolution in the West and the crisis of Marxism this failure triggered led to reinterpretations of Capital that were even further removed from Marx's abstract model of Western European capitalism than Luxemburg's and Lenin's.
Excerpted from "Reading Capital Today"
Copyright © 2017 Ingo Schmidt and Carlo Fanelli.
Excerpted by permission of Pluto Press.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Capital After 150 Years Ingo Schmidt Carlo Fanelli 1
1 Capital and the History of Class Struggle Ingo Schmidt 18
2 Capital and the First International William A. Pelz 36
3 Capital and Soviet Communism Anej Korsika 48
4 Capital and the Labour Theory of Value Prabhat Patnaik 64
5 Capital and Gender Silvia Federici 79
6 Capital and its 'Laws of Motion': Determination, Praxis and the Human Science/Natural Science Question Peter Gose Justin Paulson 97
7 Capital and the Labour Process Paul Thompson Chris Smith 116
8 Capital and Organized Labour Carlo Fanelli Jeff Noonan 138
9 Capital and Ecology Hannah Holleman 160
10 Imagining Society Beyond Capital Peter Hudis 181
Notes on Contributors 200