From Irish Political Review: May 2007
Das Kapital: A Critical Appreciation (Report of Book Launch)
On Friday 20th there was a book launch of Das Kapital Reviewed by John Martin. The launch began with a 40 minute talk by the author. He argued that Das Kapital remained relevant because capitalism still exists and that Marx's classic work was a description of the laws of motion of the capitalist system rather than an analysis of communism.
He proceeded to summarise the main ideas of Das Kapital, such as the labour theory of value and surplus value. Marx's theory on the primitive accumulation of capital and how capitalism developed in the USA by means of the state bankrupting small capitalists was most interesting. Martin's conclusion was that Marx believed that politics determined economics and that, while the economic system might produce a political culture which reinforced the system, a new economic system had to be preceded by the appropriate politics. Marx was not an economic determinist in the crude sense described by some commentators.
He also subjected Marx's classic work to criticism. He expressed the view that Marx's understanding of money was wrong in key parts. There are other errors such as his analysis of the turnover of capital in Volume 2 and the rate of profit in Volume 3. In both cases Engels's analysis was superior. The author did not apologise for such criticism and made the point that Marx's deification by sections of the left had disabled people from engaging with his ideas with the effect that his legacy had been interred.
The weaknesses of Marx's analysis notwithstanding, Martin felt that there were at least two themes in Das Kapital, which are more relevant in the twenty-first century than in the nineteenth century. The first is the idea that capitalism had the tendency to make itself into an international system and destroy other modes of production. This is known today as globalisation.
The second idea was that one of the historic tasks of capitalism was to "socialise production". Before capitalism a high proportion of the production of the individual producer was consumed by the producer himself and his family. Specialisation meant that less of his production was produced for himself and a greater proportion was produced for society through the market place. Capitalism brought this tendency towards socialisation to a new level. Under this system the mass of people did not have access to the means of production and therefore had no option but to sell their labour power. This put them completely at the mercy of society.
Marx described how even the individual character of labour was lost under capitalism. In the early stages of capitalism the worker became alienated from the product of his labour by performing a specialised task within the production process. This had the tendency of de-skilling labour and making it easier for it to be transferred across industries. In a later stage of capitalism Marx noticed that labour had to adapt to the production process. Martin described his own experience of business and suggested that this tendency had continued. All the elements of the system have become more integrated. Customers audited their suppliers' production processes. Information was shared across industries and between industries. The system has the appearance of a unified social mechanism.
Martin concluded by suggesting that, now that communism was no longer tied to the interests of powerful totalitarian states, it was time to look again at what Marx wrote. He hoped that his book would contribute to a revival of interest in Marx's economic theories.
The meeting was then opened to the floor. One speaker asked what Marx had to do with communism or socialism. He had very little to say about the state or trade unions. It was also said that much of Das Kapital, particularly Volume 2 and Volume 3, reads like a manual for the development of capitalism. It was thought that this might have reflected the influence of Engels who came from a capitalist background.
Martin conceded that in some ways Marx was an enthusiastic exponent of capitalism in the sense that he despised socialists who wished to halt its development and described those people as petit bourgeois reactionaries. Nevertheless Marx believed that there was a contradiction in the system in that capitalism had socialised production but it had remained in private hands. Marx was vague as to how the capitalist system would be transformed into communism but at least his description of capitalism had given an orientation to communist politics.
Another speaker suggested that the most political part of Das Kapital was Volume 1 and that maybe Volumes 2 and 3 should be dispensed with. It was also suggested that Marx had a damaging effect on German Social Democracy and that German socialism was developing at the beginning of the nineteenth century from feudal forms without going through the capitalist phase as described by Marx. This had disabled the orthodox German Marxists from developing socialism in Germany.
Another speaker remarked that capitalism had been most successful in Germany and Japan where the de-skilling process of labour as described by Marx had not taken place.
There also followed a discussion of what a capitalist was. Martin suggested that an entrepreneur was not a capitalist per se. A capitalist was a capitalist by virtue of his ownership of capital. This was what entitled him to profits. An entrepreneur might also be a capitalist but only because he owned capital and not by virtue of his entrepreneurial activities. Capitalists appoint a managerial class to look after their interests. In many cases they have no intellectual interest in the industries in which their managers were working. They were only interested in the dividends or capital gains. If a manager failed to produce the required return he was sacked.
A speaker suggested that under proposals for industrial democracy in Britain in the early 1970s there was a possibility of that country moving away from a system of capitalist control. A report by Lord Bullock had advocated worker participation on the Board of Directors. This proposal collapsed because of opposition from the left. Martin commented that in the 1970s the system was moving away from capitalist control in any case and that managers were running industry independently of the shareholders. This was described as "The Managerial Revolution" in a book by James Burnham. In the 1980s Thatcher in Britain and the neo-cons in the USA reasserted the rights of shareholders and were supported by people like James Goldsmith.
At an informal discussion after the public meeting the question arose as to how the working class interest could be advanced under current circumstances. Martin suggested that, just as labour had been de-skilled under capitalism, the running of the capitalist system had been also de-skilled. Managers, like workers could move from different branches of industry without difficulty. The weakness of the Bullock proposals was that the increased power of the working class was not underpinned by ownership of property.
The social ownership of the means of production might pass through an intervening period of collective ownership of property by workers in individual enterprises, which would be partly financed by the state. Such a transfer might occur in a similar fashion to the way land was transferred from British absentee landlords to Irish tenant farmers in the early part of the twentieth century. It was noted that the Irish Land League leader Michael Davitt wrote quite extensively on the subject of the British working class and that his writings should be re-visited.
Das Kapital Reviewed, A Modern Business Approach To Marxism by John Martin. Index. 124pp. ISBN 9-781903-2973-02. AB. 2007. E10, £7.50.
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