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Marx's Economics for Anarchists
international | economy | opinion / analysis Monday October 03, 2011 21:50 by Wayne Price - (personal opinion) drwdprice at aol dot com
An Anarchist's Introduction to Marx's Critique of Political Economy
Marx's Economics for Anarchists
An Anarchist's Introduction to Marx's Critique of Political Economy
The world is facing upsetting upheavals, with aspects which are political, military, ecological, cultural, and even spiritual. Clearly this includes a deep economic crisis, overlapping with all other problems. We need to understand the nature of the economic crisis if we are to deal with it.
Of the theories about the economy, the two main schools are bourgeois, in the sense that they advocate capitalism. Both the conservative, monetarist, unrestricted-free-market school and the liberal/social democratic Keynesian school exist to justify capitalism and to advise the government how to manage the capitalist economy.
The only developed alternate economic theory is that of Karl Marx's. His theory was thought out to guide the working class in understanding the capitalist system in order to end it (one reason he called his theory a "critique of political economy"). Other radicals, particularly anarchists, developed certain topics relating to economics, such as the possible nature of a post-capitalist economy. But no one, besides Marx, developed an overall analysis of how capitalism worked as an economic system. Therefore I have focused on Marx's work, even though I am an anarchist and not a Marxist (nor an economist for that matter). By this I mean I do not accept the total worldview developed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, even though I agree with large parts of it.
I make no claims for originality. At most, when there are differing interpretations of Marx's theory, I may take a minority position. But I am focusing on the theory of Marx, as expressed in the three main volumes of Capital, the Grundrisse, and a few other works, and in the work of his close collaborator and comrade, Friedrich Engels.
Otherwise I am not covering "Marxist" theory, which includes post-Marx commentators, some of whom disagree with fundamentals of Marx's views. For example, many self-styled Marxist political economists reject Marx's labor theory of value. Even more reject his tendency of the rate of profit to fall. Many reject the possibility of state capitalism. Most are de facto advocates of state capitalism! (Most social democratic/reformist Marxists call on the existing state to intervene in the economy, in order to bolster capitalism. Most revolutionary Marxists seek to overturn the existing state and to create a new state which would replace the bourgeoisie with state ownership — while maintaining the capital/labor replationship.) At most, I will have to touch on some post-Marx Marxists, as when discussing imperialism and the epoch of capitalist decay.
There have been many versions of Introductions to Marxist Economics, starting with Marx himself, in his Value, Price and Profit and Wage-Labor and Capital, not to mention vast numbers of more sophisticated works on the topic. Very rarely has there been anything on this topic by an anarchist, written for anarchists and other libertarian socialists, and I suspect it may be useful today.
Can Anarchists Learn from Marx?Yet how can anarchists learn anything from Marxists? The First International was torn apart in a bitter faction fight between the followers of Marx and those of Michael Bakunin, the founder of anarchism as a movement. The Second (Socialist) International did not let anarchists join. Following the Russian Revolution, the regime of Lenin and Trotsky had anarchists arrested and shot. In the Spanish revolution of the 1930s, the Stalinists betrayed and murdered the anarchists. More generally, the Marxist movement has led, first, to social-democratic reformism and support for Western imperialism, and, second, to mass-murdering, totalitarian, state capitalism (miscalled "Communism"). Finally it collapsed back into traditional capitalism.
But both Marxism and anarchism grew out of the 19th century socialist and working class movements. Both had the same goals of the end of capitalism, of classes, of the state, of war, and of all other oppressions. Both focused on the working class as the agent of revolutionary change, in alliance with other oppressed parts of the population.
Yet anarchists rejected Marx's concepts of the transitional state ("the dictatorship of the proletariat"), of a nationalized and centralized post-capitalist economy, of the strategy of building electoral parties, and of the tendency toward teleological determinism. Instead, anarchists sought to replace the state with non-state federations of workers' councils and community assemblies, to replace the military and police with a democratically-organized armed people (a militia), and to replace capitalism with federations of self-managed workplaces, industries and communes, democratically planned from the bottom-up.
However, many anarchists expressed appreciation for Marx's economic theory. This began with Bakunin and continues to today. They believed that it was possible to unhook it from Marx's political strategy. For example, Cindy Milstein, an influential US anarchist, wrote in Anarchism and its Aspirations, "More than anyone, Karl Marx grasped the essential character of what would become a hegemonic social structure — articulated most compellingly in his Capital..." (2010; p. 21).
Some radicals have argued that there was two sides to Marxism (Marx's Marxism that is) — and I agree. One side was libertarian, democratic, humanistic, and proletarian, and another side was authoritarian, statist, and bureaucratic; one side was scientific and one side was determinist and scientistic (pseudo-scientific). From this viewpoint, Stalinist totalitarians had used both sides of Marx's Marxism, not only the centralizing, authoritarian aspects, but even the positive, libertarian and humanistic aspects, in order to paint an attractive face over their monstrous reality. So they have misled hundreds of millions of workers and peasants in mass movements which thought they were fighting for a better world. But does that mean that libertarian socialists should reject all of Marx's work, even those positive aspects?
There has long been a minority trend within Marxism which has based itself on the humanistic and libertarian-democratic aspects of Marxism. This goes back to William Morris, the Britisher who worked with Engels while being a friend of Peter Kropotkin. It continues to today's "autonomist" Marxists. The version of Marxist economics I learned was heavily influenced by the "Johnson-Forrest Tendency" (C.L.R. James and Raya Dunayeskaya) and by Paul Mattick (of the "council communists").
I am not arguing here whether these libertarian Marxists were "correct" in their understanding of Marxism, as opposed to the authoritarianism of Marxist-Leninists. I am only pointing out, empirically, that it was possible for some to combine Marxist economics with a politics which was essentially the same as anarchism. I draw the conclusion that it is possible for anarchists to learn from Marx's critique of political economy.
Was Marx a Plagiarist?There is one other complaint about Marx's political economy sometimes raised by anarchists. Some argue that Marx did not invent his theory by himself but learned it mostly from other thinkers, including Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the first person to call himself an "anarchist." They denounce Marx as a plagiarist.
There is no question but that Marx made a thorough study of thinkers who went before him, including bourgeois political economists and socialist writers. His writings, published and unpublished, often read like dialogues between himself and earlier economists (e.g., his Theories of Surplus Value, the "fourth volume" of Capital). This is another part of what he meant by his "critique of political economy." He claimed to go beyond them but he never denied that he built on earlier thinkers. Some political economists he respected (particularly those in the line from Adam Smith to David Ricardo). Others he despised (the pure apologists whom he called "prizefighters").
When Marx and Engels first read Proudhon, and then met him in France, they were impressed. Coming from the background of a working artisan, Proudhon had developed a critique of capitalism and a concept of socialism. The two young, middle-class, radicals learned from him. In The Holy Family (the first really "Marxist" book), Marx and Engels commented on Proudhon's 1840 What is Property?:
"Proudhon makes a critical investigation — the first resolute, ruthless, and at the same time scientific investigation — of the basis of political economy, private property. This is the great scientific advance he has made, an advance which revolutionizes political economy and for the first time makes a real science of political economy possible." (quoted in Foster, 2000; p. 12).Later on, Marx and Engels became political and theoretical opponents of Proudhon. Marx attacked his views in The Poverty of Philosophy, as did Engels in The Housing Question. I am not going to get into the theoretical questions raised there; I believe that Marx and Engels learned from Proudhon and then developed past him in certain ways. Bakunin stated,
"There is a good deal of truth in the merciless critique [Marx] directed against Proudhon. ... Proudhon remained an idealist and a metaphysician. His starting point is the abstract idea of right. From right he proceeds to economic fact, while Marx, by contrast, advanced and proved the incontrovertible truth...that economic fact has always preceeded legal and political right. The exposition and demonstration of that truth constitutes one of Marx's principal contributions to science". (Leier, 2006: p.256).Beside immediate economic theory, Proudhon opposed labor unions and strikes, let alone working class revolution. But, Proudhon worked out a concept of decentralized-federalist socialism, which was contrary to Marx's centralist statism. This concept was important in the development of revolutionary anarchism.
However, the whole discussion is pointless. The key question should be whether or not Marx's economic theory is a good theory, useful for understanding the capitalist economy, and useful for developing political reactions to it. Whether or how much Marx learned from others is irrelevant. If he got good ideas from Proudhon, then good for him.
Critique of Political Economy?There is some dispute over whether to refer to "Marx's economics," "Marx's political economy", or "Marx's critique of political economy". As to the first, Marx discussed the production and distribution of commodities and other topics which are typical of subjects covered by texts on "economics". At the same time, his goals and interests were entirely different from those of bourgeois economists: not to make the system work better but to overthrow it.
As for "political economy", this was a term taken from Aristotle, who distinguished between "domestic economy" (of the household and the farm) and "political economy" (of the polis — the overall community). Early bourgeois economists picked up the term. They connected their analysis of economics with the role of classes and the state. Modern radicals often like to use the term in order to emphasize that they are integrating production and consumption with the role of the state and the social totality. Yet Marx himself generally used "political economy" as a synonym for bourgeois economics.
Marx preferred to use the phrase, "critique of political economy". It was the title or subtitle of several of his books (including Capital). The term "critique" meant "a critical analysis", examining the positive and negative aspects of something, in their interactions. He was the political enemy of the political economists, however much he respected a few of them for their insights. He was the opponent of the system he was examining, and exposing. Some Marxists today prefer to say they are furthering the "critique of political economy". Yet it does seem a lengthy and somewhat awkward phrase.
I use all three terms. But it is essential to keep in mind that what we are doing is an attack on bourgeois economic theory and on the capitalist economy. In a very real sense, the whole of Marx's Capital was a justification for what he wrote as the conclusion of the Communist Manifesto, "The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win. Workers of all countries unite!" and what he wrote as the first "rule" of the First International, "The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves".
Written for www.Anarkismo.net