John Quiggin, ‘Marxism without revolution’ and Left strategy: A response. (Part 1)

by · July 4, 2011

Greek workers march on Finance Ministry, finding common cause against austerity


Thanks to @liz_beths for her helpful comments and suggestions.

The economist John Quiggin — whose valuable book Zombie Economics I reviewed last October — has just completed a three part series on “Marxism without revolution” at his blog. The three posts cover Marx’s ideas on classcrisis and capital. In responding it is difficult to know where to start because the case he mounts is tautological, often well astray in its representations of what Marx said, and replays well-worn tropes about how Marx got it wrong in terms of the economics without seeming to have much awareness of the substantive debates.

I was a bit taken aback by John’s dismissive tone at his blog and in comments at Left Flank, especially after he’d so carefully engaged with what are (in my view and his) obscure and illogical neoliberal economic theories in Zombie Economics. I’d presumed he would at least have “gone to the source” more than is evident in these posts, but it seems that is not the case. The end result is another familiar theme in mainstream thinking, to reduce Marx to a guy with some nice insights but no general theoretical contribution, and certainly not someone to whom the Left could look for strategic orientation.

This is where the tautological aspect of John’s argument comes in, because he starts with the question of “what becomes of Marxism if you abandon belief in the likelihood or desirability of revolution?” and then seeks to interrogate the value of Marx’s ideas on that basis. The problem is that Marx’s theory makes little sense if you remove the revolutionary aspect — Marx specifically wrote Capital to present an analysis of the laws of motion of capitalism (both as they operate dynamically and in terms of the system’s historical development) for workers’ movements to understand what they were up against. For Marx a revolutionary political strategy first required penetrating the ideologies that portrayed capitalist social relations as eternal.

John’s approach effectively fragments Marx’s analysis of how capitalism works and then tests various parts for their suitability within a reformist (or social democratic) practice. On that count, I would have to agree that Marx is not well suited to developing reformist strategy precisely because reformism accepts capitalism as eternal. Whether Marx provides us with something useful in terms of strategy for winning genuinely progressive reforms within capitalism is a different question, to which I return in Part 2.

What Marx really said about class

Most troubling is John’s lack of engagement with what Marx actually said.

Let’s take the example of class. John makes the correct point that any serious progressive strategy needs to win the majority of the population to its program, yet he dismisses Marx’s view of the working class not by engaging with Marx but a four-point definition from the late Jerry Cohen. John elsewhere argues that Marx sees capital as a social relation, but his deployment of Cohen makes it clear that he doesn’t really grasp the specificity of Marx’s analysis.

Marx defined class not in Cohen’s terms, nor in those of accounts that focus on income level, schooling, culture, lifestyle or employment in heavy industry. Rather, he saw class as an objective product of a particular social relation, that of the capitalist organisation of production. The working class can therefore only be understood in its relationship to the class that controls the means of production — the capitalist class. Workers are defined as being “doubly free” as a result of this arrangement: Free to sell their labour power (ability to work) to capitalists and free of any productive private property to fall back on if they don’t manage to sell their labour-power. Marx is of course highlighting how this is faux freedom: as without an alternative means of subsistence people have no choice but to “freely” sell their labour power. This was a particularly important observation at a time the British state was enclosing lands to force people to be workers for a rising capitalism. It is a practice that continues today in some parts of the developing world. This double freedom is perpetuated through private property rights that see capitalists hold a near-monopoly of means of production.

Class is — as Marxist historian G.E.M. de Ste Croix put it — “the collective social expression of the fact of exploitation, the way in which exploitation is embodied in the social structure.” Where Marx differs from other political economists is that he rejects their analytical separation between a technical or strictly “economic” process of production and a political distribution of the revenues of production. Those who see such a separation argue that in one step capital, workers and raw materials come together and produce things which are then sold, and then in a separate step these revenues are unfairly apportioned due to class relations (with the bosses getting more than a fair share).  By contrast Marx locates exploitation as happening within production itself, identifying production as social and not simply technical.

The point is not that John needs to agree with Marx on this question, many economists don’t, but that to set aside this key and fundamental debate is really to ignore the foundation of Marx (and the foundation of debates with Marx by many that followed him).

Because production is social, and involves exploitation at the point of production, Marx and Engels point out that the potentially revolutionary nature of the working class derives not from workers’ ideas but their position within capitalism: “It is not a question of what this or that proletarian, or even the whole proletariat, at the moment regards as its aim. It is a question of what the proletariat is, and what, in accordance with this being, it will historically be compelled to do.” Here they are not making a determinist claim about the inevitability of successful revolution — if anything marks their work it is the centrality of political intervention to turn historical potentials into actualities. But they do see something inherent in capital as a social relation, with exploitation at its heart, leading to the growth of the working class and the class struggle.

The dynamic spread and expansion of the capital relation produces a working class that comes ever closer to being a majority, not just in rich countries like Australia but across the world. The experience of different groups of workers is variegated (divided by factors such as skill, position, industry, geography and nationality) but Marx’s point is that when the class struggle becomes more open there is a tendency for the two main classes in capitalist society to be in direct conflict. John mentions the class struggle in passing but there is no place for it in his approach because he rejects Marx’s idea of a ruling and ruled class in favour of more complex power relationships. It leaves unanswered the question of what view (or side) he takes when such struggles actually erupt, to which I also return in Part 2.

Marx’s focus on two main classes in capitalist society — capitalists and workers — did not mean that he believed all other classes would disappear completely:

[E]ven here [in England] the stratification of classes does not appear in its pure form. Middle and intermediate strata even here obliterate lines of demarcation everywhere (although incomparably less in rural districts than in the cities). However, this is immaterial for our analysis. We have seen that the continual tendency and law of development of the capitalist mode of production is more and more to divorce the means of production from labour, and more and more to concentrate the scattered means of production into large groups, thereby transforming labour into wage-labour and the means of production into capital.

Such intermediate layers (e.g. the modern middle class) play an invaluable role in cementing bourgeois hegemony because of both their relative economic privileges and their relatively greater control over capitalist production (e.g. as small business owners or managers). In addition, much of Marx’s political writing focuses on the way that the class struggle plays itself out in economic, political and ideological moments of that fundamental dynamic, its mediated expressions and not reducible to some “underlying” economic logic. Political parties and social movements, even if they claim to be of just one class, rarely represent class interests nakedly. Indeed, in periods of organic crisis they can appear to act in ways utterly divorced from their historic roles.

Value, prices, accumulation

John also misses most of Marx’s key points about how capitalism works, instead focusing on an unsatisfactory dismissal of his “value theory”. John argues the “notorious ‘transformation’ problem” disproves Marx’s contentions, presumably because if the transformation of values into prices of production falls down then Capital can be seen as an internally inconsistent theory. Yet the attacks on this aspect of Marx’s theory — most famously by Bortkiewicz — themselves rest on shoehorning Marx’s ideas into a static neoclassical model where inputs and outputs of production are simultaneously valued (rather than changing over time as in the real world), and where there is no accumulation of capital. This “disproof” has been torn to shreds for misrepresenting Marx’s argument, and there are interpretations of Capital that show that there is no logical inconsistency in Marx’s argument (see also here for a summary of Andrew Kliman’s excellent book on the subject).

The deeper problem with John’s attack on Marx’s “value theory” is that he doesn’t grasp its originality compared with theories proposed by other political economists. As discussed earlier, Marx doesn’t see the “expropriation of surplus value” as occurring in the distribution of revenues arising from the process of production. Marx’s theory is not a theory of distributive injustice. Rather, he shows that workers are paid for the cost of reproducing their labour power (their ability to work) but value is produced by labour itself. By getting workers to work for longer than is needed to reproduce their ability to work, capitalists thereby keep the extra fruits of labour for themselves (the source of profits). The injustice happens within the social organisation of production and therefore no amount of redistribution after the fact can alter this fundamental class relationship.

If capitalism is a particular social organisation of production, it forces us to view the state differently to John. Is it merely a generic body to manage the common affairs of society and that can redistribute in the common weal (despite currently being under too much sway of powerful vested interests), or is it a set of institutions that perpetuate the capital relation on a society-wide basis? The answer to that question has major implications for Left strategy, or even knowing who the good guys and bad guys are.

Now, once again, it’s fair enough for John to reject these propositions and mount arguments against them, as many other critics of Marx have. But there’s not much point dismissing them for something they aren’t.

John also praises capitalist “dynamism and innovation” without really interrogating what capitalist growth represents . Marx argues capitalism is a system of “accumulation for accumulation’s sake, production for production’s sake”, where inter-capitalist competition drives a restless accumulation of value as capital. Consider the pressing issue of climate change, where the accumulation of capital in carbon energy producing and utilising industries continues apace while much-needed renewable energy and public transit systems barely get a whiff of serious investment. The disconnect between production of capitalist value versus production of things people need (what Marx called the contradiction between values and use-values) is what lurks behind capitalism treating social and ecological needs as “externalities” to its operation. In effect John accepts this but hopes that social democrats can “keep the dynamism and innovation while delivering more stable and sustainable, and less unjust outcomes”.

It’s a hope that looks increasingly utopian in today’s world.

Tomorrow I’ll look at crisis, Keynesianism and the self-imposed limits of social democratic strategy.