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Marxism without Revolution: repost

It was the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx a couple of days ago. I planned to repost my series from 2011 on “Marxism without Revolution”, but didn’t get to it. I was reminded when Matt Yglesias mentioned it on Twitter, so here it is, in three parts.


  1. Ikonoclast
    May 9th, 2018 at 13:54 | #1

    I’ll make just a few short observations at this point.

    Those three essays hold up well. I agree with a substantial amount while not quite agreeing with everything. To note general agreement and a few different nuances maybe;

    (A) The labour theory of value does not hold up, nor does any other theory of value developed from economic criteria, including those starting with the postulate of homo economicus. Market prices are a practice of value, not a theory, though there may be some theory behind the specific rules of each market. Post hoc justifications can be appended to justify market price outcomes as values but they are just that, post hoc justifications. Importantly, we have to look elsewhere to justify distributions and redistributions of economic rewards. I will expand on this line of thought when I get a chance.

    (B) The theory of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall does not hold up either, if by it more is meant than a tendency for which there a number of counterbalancing tendencies.

    (C) One value of Marxism lies in its being more of a complex system view of economics than was classical economics. That could do with a lot of expansion which I might get to. Also its value is as another viewpoint from which to do comparative political economy and comparative ideology.

    (D) “The creation of a democratic welfare state” during and after the combined effects of the depression, WW2 and reconstruction seemed to follow on from;

    (i) A greater feeling of solidarity among the ordinary people in each nation due to shared problems, shared hardships, shared fighting and shared work for survival. A common danger can make most people in a nation feel as if they belong to one class, however one might want to name such a class.

    (ii) Men recruited into armies and women recruited in industry and agriculture (WW2) experienced a feeling of combined strength, noting the real strength they had when they cooperated en masse.

    The elites noted this real solidarity and strength and were rationally afraid of it; afraid enough to grant significant concessions to the majority of the people. Any crisis which makes the masses more fully identify with each other is a threat to the elites. The elites will try to use or generate crises to divide the masses but this is not viable in the face of an external existential threat to all. Much more could be written on crisis theory too.

  2. KC
    May 10th, 2018 at 07:55 | #2

    Hi, thank you for the interesting summary of Marx’s insights into class, crisis and capital.

    I recently read a comment about the West’s confident expectation that China’s Communist Party would collapsed in a heap (per the Soviet Union) and the disappointed realisation that it won’t happen. Whereas Marx had expected capitalism to collapse in a heap and this too won’t happen!

    It seems that Western democracies heeded Marx’s warnings about the weakness of unbridled capitalism, and took measures to ensure broad-based growth. Similarly, the CCP heeded warnings about the weakness of totalitarian systems, and took measures to ensure broad-based growth in China.

    At this 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth, we can appreciate Marx’s warnings about the concentration of wealth and power, and the desirability of ensuring broad-based inclusive (and sustainable) growth.

  3. Ikonoclast
    May 10th, 2018 at 13:24 | #3

    Over at Crooked timber, the blogger MCMC’M’ has linked to Harry Cleaver’s paper “Karl Marx: Economist or Revolutionary?” The paper is offered as an intended pointed critique, by the blogger not by Cleaver, of J.Q.’s three essays. Cleaver’s paper is interesting and well worth reading. It doesn’t necessarily rebut J.Q’s general line of thinking and it draws a rather long bow in trying to retain or rehabilitate TRPF theory (Tendency of Rate of Profit to Fall).

    The substantive point Cleaver makes is valid. Work more and more is being obsoleted by technological progress. He sees the impulse for this progress (via automation etc.) as coming from worker resistance in the form of demands for higher wages and less hours. If the worker wants a lot of money for a short day replace him with a machine. This is true although there are further impetuses for technological progress such as environmental pressure and competition for the consumer dollar via better products, seemingly better products and mass advertising. Cleaver’s attempt to formulate the obsoleting of work as the fundamental form of TRPF law is subtle. It is ingenious at one level and a bit baffling at another level. It gives one a feeling that a fallacy has been slipped through at some point in the reasoning, perhaps as a category mistake. Anyway, his substantive point is much more important than the debate over the TRPF tendency.

    The issue of what happens to work is an important point of convergence. It appears in Marx and Keynes and reappears in Quiggin and Cleaver. The actual point of convergence is to do with the progress, especially the technological progress, towards the obsolescence of work. I think it would be fair to say that all four thinkers see this in a positive light as the removal of onerous, uncreative work as a disutility and impost on workers. Instead of laboring under conditions and at tasks which the harm or limit the worker and stifle his capacities, especially as under mass production capitalism, the worker will be freed to be more creative or just to enjoy free time.

    There are few problems with this idea and the above-mentioned thinkers may deal with these issues in other writing, I don’t know. From an evolutionary point of view, we evolved under conditions where work was necessary. The need for work is encoded in our DNA so to speak. This is not to say that there is any biological need for capitalist forms of work, which would be an absurd contention, but there is a biological need for work as such. Why is walking so beneficial? We evolved as nomadic hunter-gatherers. We covered distances on an almost daily basis to find food and shelter. A biological system evolved for an activity needs that activity and suffers when it does not perform it.

    It is very bad to pen large great white sharks in large aquariums. They soon die. It is very bad to pen killer whales in large aquariums. They become ill, unhappy and aggressive in new ways beyond their standard predator aggression which cannot be exercised. Humans are more adaptable perhaps but still suffer when penned into offices or in underground coal mines for that matter. The human immune system needs to work. Freed from the necessity to work hard against pathogens by living in more sterile and less “epidemic” conditions it turns on the body in the form of allergies and auto immune diseases. At least, this is one of the current theories about the increase of such diseases. This is not an argument to do away with immunization, sterilizing or antibiotics. It is certainly an argument to not over-use the latter two.

    Coming back to work for survival or a tolerable existence be it hunter-gathering, agriculture, industrial work or office work, what happens when humans are freed from all necessity to work? It turns out that we are left with creative work and recreation as work. This simply creates a new kind of existential crisis and again is no ultimate solution to the human condition. Some are happy in this new existential position and some are not. Some can be become profoundly unhappy when the new only options, enforced by default, are creation or recreation.

    We only have to look at the the old aristocracy; specifically the Whig aristocracy because they were the small “l” liberals of their time. The constructive options were reproduction work (getting the heirs), direct creative work like that of natural philosopher and scientist Henry Cavendish or using wealth to pay for artists and garden designers to do the creating. Enjoyment of wealth and idleness for their own sake only goes so far. Idleness is only truly enjoyable and healthy when it counterpoints periods of work or other purposeful activity. Otherwise, the options are destructive, involvonh excesses of hedonism, libertinism and dissipation.

    What of the Tory social position and attitude? This is still very much among us. It is my observation that many workers (working class and middle class semi-professional to professional) effectively become Tories if and when they become self-funded retirees. The self-funded retiree is the current apotheosis of the worker freed from work. What do he and she become? There are positive aspects and it would be wrong to pass over them. Less stress and more personal creative fulfillment might be one aspect. The opportunities to grandparent and do community work are other aspects.

    At this stage however (and it might be another manifestation of this stage of capitalism) one sees many drift to the right politically. Many become Tories if they were not so already. They support the LNP. They become in effect petite bourgeois surviving on self-funded income, so-called. They become a little bit like landed gentlemen and gentlewomen, though the land is usually of semi-rural acreage size or hobby farm size. The land is rarely truly productive and any production is heavily subsidised by investment income plus tax holidays and other incentives given to this class to buy their vote.

    Like the petty landed gentry of old, they have a comfortable home and a coach and four. A coach and four? You don’t believe me? They have a huge caravan and the horses up front in the form of a large, five litre diesel or petrol 4WD. This assemblage performs the same function for this new landed gentry as coach and four did for the old. They are not creative enough to entertain themselves at home. They are not wealthy enough to do extensive aesthetic improvements or to acquire much more land to improve. Sitting at home would expose their existential emptiness. So they most be on the move. Visiting relatives in another part of the country. Visiting man-made and natural wonders. The excitement of being on the move and seeing new things is an occupation. It artificially enforces forms of work: planning, navigation, driving, camping, hiking, sight-seeing. What will happen to this fun when it gets automated? For most of this can be automated. The first four can already conceivably be automated in the near future.

    In summary, I am saying what happens when man and woman are freed? They become free to contemplate their essential existential emptiness or to paper it over with non-purposive recreation. This could be one fate. And some of the new petty gentry find limits to their creativity and to their ability to self allocate constructive and fulfilling tasks and recreations. Not everyone can be a Gerald Murnane or a James Gleeson. Most of us are not gifted with nearly so much creativity. Not everyone is happy to make wobbly clay pots, sew folk quilts and plant cottage gardens or native plants. Those who are, are modest, folk-wise, kinda lucky and not so environmentally damaging. Other diversions mentioned above, like the caravan and 4WD as coach and four are very damaging environmentally, especially when these things become mass entertainments. How will people freed from work learn to have more modest expectations? They will need to do this not because of a lack of productivity when machines take over but because of environmental limitations on recreation rather than on production and because of internal creativity limitations. These latter are real and are not always conditioned limitations. They will need to have more modest expectations since when they become free to discover themselves they will discover they are not much. At least, that has been my experience.

  4. KC
    May 10th, 2018 at 13:39 | #4

    @ Iknoclast. Thanks for the interesting post.

    It seems helpful to distinguish between:
    – remunerated work vs unremunerated work; and
    – purely instrumental work with no intrinsic value (e.g., tedious factory work) vs work that has intrinsic value (e.g., creating a work of art)

    Some commentators (especially when debating universal basic income) seem to privilege remunerated work over unremunerated work. It seems better to take the view that all work is valuable, some are instrumentally valuable, while others are instrumentally valuable. Most work probably has a mixture of instrumental and intrinsic value.

  5. Peter T
    May 10th, 2018 at 21:41 | #5

    The labour theory of value has not held up well, but it does point to useful questions. If you take labour input as the starting point, then you ask about whose labour and – crucially – how the resulting money value is divided. It asks about what differentiates paid labour from unpaid, and the ability to extract surplus from the former much more than the latter. And that helps explain the drive to commoditise labour – to make all work work for money. It also points to the social consequences of de-commoditisng labour.

    Like seeing money as debt: it’s not the category but the angle of view.

  6. Ikonoclast
    May 11th, 2018 at 10:47 | #6

    Value Theory and Need Theory.

    A crude labour theory of value attempts to locate the creation of surplus value in human labour. A crude ownership theory of value attempts to locate the creation of surplus value in the favourable production conditions set up by ownership and entrepreneurship. Neither theory can provide any precise account of the origin(s) of surplus value. It is not possible to assign where discrete portions of surplus value are created in the complex stages and acts of production and consumption. The whole or any part of surplus value cannot be uniquely attributed to any one source. It is the totality of the system with its interacting sub-systems which produces surplus value. Value and thence surplus value are never merely products of production. Indeed, value is a compound of production meeting consumption (needs).

    Capitalism in practice, to its functionalist credit, simply cuts the Gordian knot of first principle value theory by substituting prices for values. Value is measured by the money-prices people are able and willing to pay. How much is an input, an impost or a risk worth? Because there is no way to deduce this forward from first principles, a formal system – the market and financial system – has been set up, or rather has arisen, to deduce value backwards. The system puts a price on things not to put a value on them, in any absolute or moral sense, but simply to put relative economic (money) values on things which come within the purview and operations of the economy. The money value (price) is deduced backwards via the commodity, goods or services, going to market and receiving a price there after production.

    “In essence, the market price of something reflects a collective judgment of the value of that thing. The idea of intrinsic value was always problematic because it was inherently relative and hard to observe or measure. But market prices are cold hard facts. If market prices provide a collective societal judgment of value and allocate goods to their most efficient and welfare-maximizing uses, then we no longer have to worry about squishy ideas like intrinsic value; we just need to look at the price of something to know its value.” – Nick Hanauer and Eric Beinhocker.

    However, it has to be said that this is not a true collective decision but a biased decision arising out of pre-existing inequalities in income and wealth distribution and liable under certain conditions to widen inequality. The construction of markets, the rules and regulations of markets along with issues of market failures will all have a bearing on this matter. Value theory and indeed prices fail to give us any more, at the level of intrinsic or moral value, than the tautology that price equals economic value equals price. That we set moral values which consistently overrule economic values can be shown by the simple fact that today we do not permit open, legal markets in certain goods and services, for example markets for slaves.

    Rather than waste time with economic value theory as justification for rewards, we should look at need theory. This is not an original thought. It is encapsulated in the statement, “From each according to ability, to each according to need.” We must look at needs, individual needs, social needs, ecological needs and so on. We must look at the proper needs and place of the economic system itself. The rights to value and surplus value must be deduced from need not from purported origins in labour or ownership.

    The discussion of “need” must occur at higher levels before economics and markets come into play. Economics needs to be relegated to a position subordinate to Moral Philosophy (Ethics), Democracy and Science. Using the methods of Ethics, Democracy and Science we must first determine needs. Does a child need to get the basic requirements of food, shelter, safety, care, education and even childhood rights? Does a billionaire or CEO really need all that wealth? Does the atmosphere need more CO2 pumped into it? Deploying Ethics, Democracy and Science, often in concert, we can answer these questions to the satisfaction of the majority. Then we must bend economics, markets and allocations of surpluses into the shapes and flows which deliver towards the needs determined in this manner. Economics must be the servant and the people, via their collective knowledge and decisions in the fields of Ethics, Democracy and Science, must be the masters.

  7. Ikonoclast
    May 12th, 2018 at 08:43 | #7

    The title of this thread is “Marxism without revolution”. It is a reasonable title given the subject matter. However, taking a wider focus “Marxism” is not the issue at all. J.Q. now subtitles his blog “Commentary… from a socialist and democratic perspective” which I think takes the correct perspective. I have argued elsewhere that we must make decisions at the ethical, democratic and scientific levels before making decisions at the economic level. Socialism is above all an ethical system based on ideas of human equality and democracy. In arguing against the terms “Marxism” and “Marxist” below I am not negatively criticising J.Q. at all.

    Now, to the issue of Marxism. Marx was a man. He wrote philosophy and political economy, not religion. He was fallible. He was limited, though less limited intellectually than most humans. He was located in a particular time and place. He didn’t finish his work. His ideas and analyses were still evolving up until he sickened and died. We don’t know what final conclusions he might have come to and even if he had come to such these still could not in any way bear the stamp of infallibility. Marx expressly disavowed the idea that he himself was a Marxist.

    We can point to other thinkers, from St. Augustine to Wittgenstein, who completely revised their early positions. We are left to ponder what Carl von Clausewitz’s final analysis of War might have been. “On War” is a profoundly unfinished work. What one finds if one reads such thinkers cover to cover over one or several volumes is the thesis-antithesis-synthesis approach. They come up with good and convincing ideas. They initially have themselves convinced. Then they realise their ideas have holes in them. They come up with countering ideas. They try to blend all these ideas into a new and better analysis which incorporates more factors. Then the process starts over again. With Hegel and then on to Marx, this process became much more conscious in the great thinkers’ minds.

    To adopt the terms “Marxist” or “Marxism” as a platform or rallying cry, is to commence on the age-old path of the cult of personality. It’s a mistake I have made myself and now disavow. Marx was a man; a good thinker but still a fallible thinker. Marxism today is a set of analyses and dogmas based on his work. Some avowed Marxists are outright dogmatists who will go through enormous convolutions and redefinitions of Marx’s ideas, reasoning like medieval schoolmen, to “prove” that Marx was always right. Nevertheless, Marx’s thought is philosophically subtle and has a number of levels of validity. Many modern critics, who no doubt have read little to no philosophy and less Marx in the original just don’t understand this side of Marx or Marx-Engels at all. In summary, it is better to talk about being a Socialist than talk about being a Marxist or even Marxian.

    When it comes to revolution… well, I should do another post soon. I hope I don’t remain the only one posting on this topic. Perhaps a topic on “What is Socialism?” will get more debate going?