Sunday, August 18, 2013

Karl Marx - A Nineteenth Century Life - Review by Eric Aarons

above: A photograph of a young Karl Marx

In this article former National Secretary of the Communist Party of Australia Eric Aarons reviews a new book on the life and work of Karl Marx.  Eric explores this new title in light of his vast experience as a socialist activist.  Amongst the themes Aarons explores are: Marxism determinism,  the Hegelian connection, the historical context of Marx's work, and the question of class as the central category for socialism.
by Eric Aarons;  August 2013

The publication of Jonathon Sperber’s new book Karl Marx: A Nineteenth Century Life is a notable and welcome event.  It is very well written, and uses the new MEGA (Marx and Engels’ Collected Works) which corrects and replaces, on the basis of meticulous research, older translations, and even whole books such as The German Ideology, never published by Marx or Engels.   It is not suggested that such errors were deliberate, but correcting them provides a more reliable basis for scholarship.  

Another feature, which the author himself supplies, is a relatively short and, in my view, correct account of the thoughts and theories of writers who influenced Marx, for instance Georg Hegel.   Hegel is often hard to interpret because his reasoning, especially concerning the journeys of ‘the world spirit’, is difficult for most of us to penetrate or accept.   And, though Marx may have been somewhat influenced by the positivism of his day, he was far from embracing it.  Re Marx’s article On the Jewish Question, often held to contain anti-Semitism, I concur with Sperber’s view that this is erroneous and misses the point.

I don’t think anyone will be able to fault the author on matters of fact; but there will always be issues of judgment, priorities, omissions and the like, some instances of which I will raise.

I had read a number of books about Marx’s early life, but was particularly taken with his essay on the high-school one: ‘Observation of a Young Man on the Choice of Profession’.  Marx wrote: ‘… it did not suffice to follow an occupation for which one had both the inclination and ability. Rather, the chosen occupation should be one that “grants us the highest dignity, that is founded on ideas, about whose truth we are convinced, that offers the greatest field in which to act for humanity, and even to approach the universal goal, completeness and perfection. Every occupation is just a means to that goal”’. Marx suggested that such completeness and perfection occurs at the intersection of the fulfillment                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   of individual inclinations and abilities, and the improvement of the human condition (page 31). Most of the many communists I have known have been motivated by that social value. 

Sperber generously evaluates the Manifesto of the Communist Party as ‘a literary masterpiece: compact, pithy, elegant, powerful and sarcastically amusing all at once, and was a deeply personal expression of Marx’s own experiences and intellectual development.’      (p. 203). But he did not comment on the fact that it included the words: ‘if selling and buying disappears, free selling and buying disappears also’, which was clearly what Marx had in mind for a socialist society, and came to be a major negative factor in the Soviet and later Maoist economies.

Radical Democracy
In chapter 3, Sperber presents an interesting account of Marx’s deepest view of democracy, which is centered on his long-term view of a degree of unity between private and public property. In his Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law, (written in France) Marx went further than he had before about a new arrangement of state and society. This he described (after reading Rousseau) as ‘a union of the private interests in which the particular private  concerns with the general would simultaneously articulate the universal common good, since both would be manifestations of the people, the basis of democracy’. Marx emphasized his view that ‘the universal common good would no longer be the exclusive property of the state standing against and opposed to society. Instead there would be a regime in which the particular private concerns of civil society would simultaneously articulate the universal common good since both would be manifestations of the people, the basis of democracy’ (page 115)

It was in France also that Marx entered his first real relationships with the actual working class, when consciousness of its own suffering, aspirations and ideas were just emerging, but nevertheless then saw in it the class force that could carry through his revolutionary hopes.

There, too, Marx wrote his article on liberation of the Jews: ‘having identified Jews with capitalism, he conversely identified capitalism with the Jews. If egoism and practical need were principles of Judaism, they were also principles of civil society. These principles were articulated as money “which is the essence of man’s labour and his being that has been alienated from him. That alienated being dominates him and he worships it.” (p. 131)

Neo-liberal doctrine holds, on the contrary, that ‘most people are still reluctant to accept the fact that it should be the disdained ‘cash-nexus’ which holds the Great Society together, that the great ideal of the unity of mankind should in the last resort depend on the relations between the parts being governed by the striving for the better satisfaction of their material needs’. * (Law Legislation and LIiberty ,vol, 2, page 112).

Where I come in

My interest in Sperber’s book did not stem from a desire to try to protect Marx from criticism. Though my father and his parents were members of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), I personally had little interest in politics, though I had experienced, through observation, some of the human wreckage among those who had survived the Great War, then lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s.

But in 1938, at age 19, when I entered university and a new world war loomed, I joined the CPA, avidly studied Marx, and engaged in university politics. At war’s end, I became a Party Functionary (apparatchik) specializing in party education, then in general party work. In 1951, at Chinese invitation, I lead a group of young members to a school on ‘Marxism and the Thought of Mao Zedong.’ It lasted 3years.

The high expectations of rapid ‘left’ progress following the crucial role of Soviet forces in ‘tearing the guts out of the Germany Army’, as Churchill put it, then the victory of the Chinese Revolution and the demise of colonialism, nevertheless did not materialize. More truths about socialist economic and democratic failures emerged, China and the Soviet Union fell out and Communist Parties split.

To cap it all, Soviet and satellite forces in 1968 invaded a Czechoslovakia that had developed a program to create ‘socialism with a human face’. I did not and do not believe that Marxism, as such, had anything to do with those reprehensible events, but I felt deeply an obligation, to myself and those I had taught, to re-examine the founding beliefs, ideas and theories of the movement that had set out to replace the very flawed capitalist system that is now spawning ever more dangers to the planet itself, and to its dependent inhabitants, human and otherwise.



Though this concept became one of the greatest and oft repeated faults in the theoretical system that Marx built, Professor Sperber does not deal with it. In Marx’s Preface to the first edition of Capital, he wrote: ‘… even when a society has got upon the right track for the discovery of the natural laws of its movement – and it is the ultimate aim of this work, to lay bare the economic law of motion of modern society – it can neither clear by bold leaps, nor remove by legal enactments, the obstacles offered by the successive phases of its natural. development. But it can shorten and lessen the birth pangs’. (emphasis added)          t

He made another, even stronger, appeal to the ‘inevitability’ of human advance to socialism, and to the dialectical method, in his enthusiastic welcome to the review of Capital in the St.Petersburg European Messenger (May, 1872). This said:

The one thing which is of moment to Marx is to find the law of the phenomena with whose investigation he is concerned; and not only is that law of motion of moment to him, which governs these phenomena … Of still greater moment to him is the law of their variation, of their development, i.e., of their transition from one form into another, from one series of connections into a different one … and this all the same, whether men believe or do not believe it, whether they are conscious or unconscious of it. Marx treats the social movement as a process of natural history governed by laws not only independent of human will, consciousness and intelligence, but rather, on the contrary, determining that will, consciousness and intelligence. (emphasis added)

Marx comments: ‘Whilst the writer pictures what he takes to be actually my method, in this striking and [as far as concerns my own application of it] generous way, what else is he picturing but the dialectical method?’

How to study human society?

Long ago, as the humans originating in Africa migrated around the world, establishing along the way some settlements that became permanently different types of society, the issue arose of how to study those differences in a systematic way. There may be others, including some of the Greek and Roman thinkers, but one set of outstanding precursors of Marx in this area were the Scottish Historians, the most famous of whom is Adam Smith.  Another member of that group was William Robertson, who summed up their orientation: ‘In every inquiry covering the operations of men when united in society, the first object of attention should be their mode of subsistence. Accordingly as that varies, their laws and policy must be different.’ (Collected Works, 1812, vol. 5, p.111; quoted by Andrew Skinner in his Introduction to the Penguin edition of The Wealth of Nations Books 1- 3).

{Smith devised a four-stage set of social developments, using what became (perhaps from the above source) Marx’s ‘mode of production’ concept  to establish guiding lines between them, together with a corresponding degree of development of property relations. The first featured hunting and gathering, as with the native tribes of North America, where private property was negligible.

The next stage, pasture, featured a nomadic existence and a distinctive form of private property – cattle – along with the beginnings of class divisions between rich and poor, and the origins of civil government to ‘establish peace’ between them.

The third stage, in Smith’s scheme, is the agrarian one, following the decline of Rome, where ownership of great landed estates was for the rich, and tillage activities for the poor – that is, the feudal system. This existed also in South America and the Meso-American area that connected it with the North.

The last stage was the commercial one, in which private property in the rapidly developing means of production was the primary feature, and capitalists made commodities to sell them at a profit.  Concerning this, another of the Scottish Historians, David Hume, wrote that: ‘Unlike other passions, which are quite inconstant, material interests are constant and difficult to restrain: this avidity alone, of acquiring goods and possessions for ourselves and our nearest friends, is insatiable, perpetual, universal and directly destructive of society.’ (Stephen Buckle, Natural Law and the Theory of Property: Grotius to Hume, 1991 page 294)

A little History

It is difficult to write about a history book, without writing about history. Yet I have no historical knowledge of the period under review that could add to what Professor Sperber has so thoroughly researched. But I point out for the reader some of the facts he unearthed that particularly impressed me.

For instance: ‘the extent of the newspaper articles written by Marx between 1853 and 1862 was greater than everything else he published during his lifetime put together.’ (page 296)

‘Three major topics dominated his writing: the Crimean War of 1853-56, and its implications for the foreign policies of the great powers and the domestic politics of Great Britain; the conditions and conflicts  of the British Empire in Asia, including the Second Opium War with China in 1856-60, along with the massive Indian uprising against British imperial rule in 1857, and the implications of these conflicts for global capitalism; and the causes and consequences of the worldwide recession of 1857, including what Marx hoped would be a new wave of revolutions in Europe’. (page 302)

A few years ahead, we find Marx active in the affairs of the International Working Men’s Association. Known as The First International, this was ‘a loose federation of affiliated  workers’ societies. Twenty three English trade unions with upward of 25,000 members, were the backbone of the group.’ They were particularly involved in solidarity movements, for instance convincing German artisans not to be recruited as strikebreakers during the London tailors’ strike of 1866 (page 358), and indirectly playing a significant role in the Paris Commune of 1871.

Marx also helped to wind the organization up in 1864.This centred on the fact that the anarchist Russian, Bakunin, and others of like mind favored above all the setting up of ‘secret societies’ which Marx rightly opposed, because politics,  even then, had come to require open public views, as with the Manifesto which proclaimed ‘The communists disdain to conceal their views and aims.’ To fail to do so and to rely on ‘secret societies’ and conspiratorial groups is, in effect, to accept defeat in advance, because radical new ideas have to ‘win the battle of democracy’ by winning over a large body of the active citizens.

Is there an alternative to confiscating all private means of production

Marx said in the Manifesto: ‘In all these movements against the existing social and political order of things [the communists] bring to the front, as the leading question in each, the property question, no matter what its degree of development at the time.’  And, achieving power in 1917 in the midst of the ‘Great’ First World War, the communists built and operated, for seven decades, a society based on state-ownership of all the main means of production, along with suppression of small businesses. But they never succeeded in creating, on that basis, a permanently viable economy or a democratic polity.

There were three main reasons for this failure: First, that the concentration of ownership (actually ‘control’, because the means of production couldn’t be sold) of all the means of production by the government gave the leaders virtually uncontestable power, which both Stalin and Mao took for themselves.  Others following them, particularly Mikhail Gorbachev, tried hard to radically amend the system, but were unable to curb the power of the overblown government apparatus that had developed, or reverse the resentment, inertia and ‘look after yourself’ attitudes of the workforce. Second, there was no way open in which individuals could better themselves and have an opportunity to wield a modicum of influence on economic and/or political power.  Third, the ideology (as it had now become, see below) buttressing that state of affairs, claiming to be Marxist or ‘Marxist-Leninist’, was rigidly enforced, leaving no opportunity for alternative views and practices to develop, or theoretical advances and corrections to be made.

Human will, consciousness and intelligence

These precious characteristics are indeed inborn (genetic) aspects of the human species, but as we all know, they are modified (increased, diminished, fixated, in particular directions …)  by our associations: family, occupation, experiences in life, education, and media impacting our eyes, ears, tastes and other senses…

Consciousness and self-consciousness, though found in embryonic forms in other species, is particularly significant; it developed in the human species, and is exhibited in sociability, cooperation, empathy, morality, social values, inventiveness, science, the arts and sport …

Reason suggests that in the limitless universe in which we exist, there must be other species with similar characteristics with whom we could connect and learn from.   But, despite many years of search by various means, no such beings have yet been found. It’s early days; but at the same time, increasingly worrying signs appear of possible human self-destruction through global warming and the stress on the resource-providing base of the planet we now impose, is now being escalated by the melting of billions of tons of now frozen methane, which is a stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

 The Labour Theory of Value

Many economic theories developed quite early as capitalism gained the ascendancy.  Among them was the question of the worth, or value of any particular commodity among a host of others. The first and most extensively held view was that the value of any commodity depended on the quantity of socially necessary labour expended in producing it.  This view had connections with the earlier feudal system where artisan guilds controlled production, then executed with small manual tools. There seemed to be no other common feature invested in commodities other than labour and the time it spent in producing them.  The early economists, Adam Smith and David Ricardo, held to that view, as did Marx and many others. Capital, Vol.1, Chapter 1, featured it in a big way, often cracking the heads of those reading it.

But the issue became serious as the Industrial Revolution got under way at the beginning of the 19th century, when large quantities of capital had to be laid out on machines, buildings and ancillaries.  This capital produced no extra profit, it was held, though a portion of its own value was passed on in the product (depreciation).  The rub was that the ‘rate of profit’ – profit divided by total capital – must fall.  Many pamphlets at that time lamented that fall while Marx regarded it as another addition to the inevitability of capitalism’s demise.

I won’t go into the details of other views finding fault with this theory, but Marx himself developed a telling one, not noted by our author. It occurs in the Grundrisse:

… to the degree that large industry develops, the creation of real wealth comes to depend less on labour time and on the amount of labour employed than on the power of the agencies set in motion during labour time, whose ‘powerful effectiveness’ is itself in turn out of all proportion to the direct labour time spent on their production, but depends rather on the general state of science and on the progress of technology, or the application of this science to production.   (The development of this science, especially natural science, and all others with the latter, is itself in turn related to the development of material production.)   … Real wealth manifests itself,  rather – and large industry reveals this – in the monstrous disproportion between the labour time applied, and its product, as well as in the qualitative imbalance between labour, reduced to a pure abstraction, and the power of the production process it superintends. Labour no longer appears so much to be included within the production process; rather, the human being comes to relate more as a watchman and regulator to the production process itself… As soon as labour in the direct form has ceased to be the great well-spring of wealth, labour time ceases and must cease to be its measure.

Marx then returns to a renewed emphasis on his guiding values and the ultimate aim of his theoretical and political activity:  ‘real wealth is the developed productive power of all individuals. The measure of wealth is then no longer, in any way, labour time, but rather disposable time’ ((p. 708) in which all humans can develop to a fuller extent their individual capacities.

Today, unemployment in many countries is nearly as high (in some places even higher) than it was in the 1930s, and looks likely to be so for longer. Socialism ‘as it existed’ clearly is no longer conceivable.  The challenge is to find new ways in which to change capitalism in the social direction suggested above by Marx.

The Hegelian Connection

Though Marx always remained respectful of Hegel’s erudition, he fairly early in his career came to reject the idealist philosophy involved, and adopted a materialist outlook. He  rejected the idea that changes in the history of human societies emanated from the journeys of the  world spirit which nevertheless occurred ‘dialectically’, as both Marx and Engel averred. It may be the case that ideas and concepts do develop in that way, with each connected to all others, causes change places with effects, quantitative changes causing qualitative ones, and negations being in turn themselves negated…

I give an example of my doubts from Chapter 32 of Capital 1, titled Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation.  Its theme or proposition is that, if the current form of accumulation continues, a (probably revolutionary) change will occur. No substantiation is given, only the following assertion:

The capitalist mode of appropriation, the result of the capitalist mode of production, produces capitalist private property.  This is the first negation of individual private property as founded on the labour of the proprietor.  But capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a Law of Nature, its own negation.  It is the negation of the negation. This does not re-establish private property for the producer, but gives him individual property based on the acquisitions of the capitalist era, i.e., on co-operation and the possession in common of the land and of the means of production.(emphasis added)

‘Dialectics’ can prove nothing by itself.  There must be a concrete analysis of any particular transition in nature or society; after that, the adjective ‘dialectical’ can be added, if applicable.


Part 3 of Sperber’s book deals with Marx’s legacy, beginning with his theoretical work, and it was rather surprising to learn (through the new MEGA) that the three volumes of Das Kapital had been destined to appear together .  The contents of volume 3 and 2 had been largely completed first, while volume 1 was excerpted from the whole for first publication. We all know that volumes 2 and 3 were not published while Marx was alive, but were later put together and edited by Engels.  This provides more than enough evidence for Sperber’s observation that Marx had difficulty (undoubtedly with reasons) in completing his projects.  It also feeds the prevalent eclecticism, whereby support (or condemnation) for almost any political-theoretical proposition of Marx’s can be drawn.

The property question

Marx always put this in the first place, as in the Manifesto: ‘ in all [mass movements] against the existing order of social and political things, communists bring to the front, as the leading question in each, the property question, no matter what its degree of development at the time.’ And still to this day public ownership of all the main means of production, distribution and exchange is the core of what socialism means to most people, so far as they consider it at all.

But this ignores another fruitful insight of Marx – the concept of base and superstructure –  articulated at some length in his Preface to ‘A contribution to the Critique of Political Ecconomy.(1859). Here Marx wrote:

At a certain stage of development the material forces of production in society come into conflict with the  existing relations of production, or with the relations of property, (the latter being just a legal expression of the former) … from being forms of development of the forces of production, these relations are transformed into their shackles. An era of social revolution begins … one must always differentiate between the material upheaval in the economic determinants of production, which can be observed exactly by means of the natural sciences, and the juridical, political, religious, artistic or philosophical, in short, ideological forms in which they fight it out. . .  (page 400)

This brings in a welcome variation to the earlier assertions that social change is driven by natural laws* (pp. 3-4 above  ) and that will and consciousness are but expressions of the social facts outside them. It gives us a much more realistic Marx, and a more effective basis for conducting socialist politics, raising again the property question.

Confiscation of all significant private property in means of production became the base from which developed a dictatorial, socially repulsive and economically ineffective superstructure, which few would now accept. Yet it is big, even monstrously large, private property that now has the (money) power to dominate much of political decision on what is to be produced, *(coal is the awful example today, see: BIG COAL: Ausralia’s Dirtiest Habit, by Pearce, McKnight and Burton) Note also the unprecedented gap between the top few per cent and all the rest:  The top I per cent now get 24 per cent of total wealth compared with 9 per in 1970; BHP-Billiton’s top executives now get 200 times the average worker’s wage, compared with 6-7 times 20 years ago.

The top few welcome and seek to build on the already outrageous gaps between themselves  and the declining middle and, (with a few exceptions) take no action to deal with the key issues of climate change and the growing threat to the capacity of the planet to provide indefinitely the quantities and quality of resources required to meet the needs of human and other living species.

A possible alternative to confiscation?

In view of the fact that a system with this economic base failed, and that large numbers of working people now possess some important property, it is difficult to see a way in which majority support for confiscation could now be built. But consider instead the possibilities of custodiandship.  This was an early view in human history, namely that people were not owners, but custodians, of the land they occupied, used and lived from. Owners of big property could retain possession, but with legal responsibilities for the preservation of its riches. (Mining would be a particular problem, but offsets could be found).

Marx’s view of human nature

Marx should be included among the humanitarians, but he had a rather strange view of human nature.  He avowed that ‘nothing human is alien to me’, and his relationships to his own and other children were often quite touching.  But he wrote that ‘the human essence … is the ensemble of the social relations.’ *(6th of his Theses on Feurerbach). He also said, regarding trade, that ‘men making exchanges do not relate to one another as men’  *(Excerpt Notes of1844), though he said also that this connection was better than none at all.) More important still, was the fact that feelings, emotions and the moral sense, which feature in human values, and are a crucial part of life in general, not excluding political life, were neglected, as Antonio Gramsci so emphatically emphasized. Perhaps they were not ‘material’ enough for Marx? Humans are multi-facetted creatures and cannot be simplified to suit classifiers, organizers or manipulators.

People who participate in social movements, and particularly those leading them, need to study (difficult as it may be) what is going on in people’s heads, and avoid assuming that a worker, (a proletarian if you like) is, by that classification, already at least half-way to being a militant rebel.  One of the main things I learned from my time in China is the attention they gave to this aspect of ‘knowledge’ (not always for good purposes, be it said).  But much of the left in the West seems to pay far more attention to the externals than to the internals, as a recent book by Jonathan Haidt has emphasized * (,.).though the efforts of the right-wing media and their successes in this field should be accepted by the left as a constant caution. }


This term is often used by Marx, and Sperber gives a fair definition of how Marx saw and used it: ‘that social conditions shaped individuals’ ideas so as to further the interest of the social group to which they belonged.’ (p. 103)  Existing in most social professions, ideology is particularly prevalent in economics.  Marx was rather more forthright regarding the sequel to the first major capitalist economic crisis ca1830 (after the death of Ricardo) when it ‘was no longer a question of whether this theorem or that was true, but whether it was useful to capital or harmful, expedient or inexpedient, politically dangerous or not.   In place of disinterested inquirers, there were hired prize-fighters … * (Preface to 2nd German edition)

This is not all in the past, and Rose Friedman (an economist and partner of Milton Friedman)      recalls that she had ‘always been impressed by her ability to predict an economist’s  positive views from my knowledge of his political orientation, and have never been able to persuade myself that the political orientation was the consequence of the positive views.’  Later, Mllton moved in her direction . * (Hayek’s Challenge by Bruce Caldwell, page 380)

Sperber’s sub-title: A Nineteenth Century Life

We could cut things short by saying ‘of course Marx was a nineteenth century man’.  I am old enough to remember the now antique tiny ‘cat’s whiskers’ radios early in the 20th century, followed by large valve ones, and the Ford and Buick automobiles. There followed a virtually endless variety of great inventions, ranging from miniturization with transistors, television, the personal computer and the internet, communication satellites circling round the globe, the beginnings of space travel… The slums I saw in the cities of Melbourne and Sydney have disappeared, and bedbugs are now a dying species, while a relative material abundance for the majority of people in the economically developed countries is developing.

There have also been some cultural advances, notably in the ‘gay’ area, but not many others, while the would-be scientific area of economics has again revealed its damning and destructive potential.  Virtually none of the economists who followed the current economic doctrine predicted the crash that was impending, though they had adopted some new doctrines with impressive names, such as DSGE – Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium.  (In plainer English it means ‘Ever-changing Conjectural General Equilibrium’ , a condition  that capitalism has been unable to reliably provide.)

It has brought us to the point where producing energy by burning fossil fuels is warming the atmosphere of the whole planet to a dangerous extent, causing extreme weather events, and, as we saw earlier, now beginning, as predicted, to melt the methane hydrate or clathyrate lyng  at the bottom of cold arctic seas and threatening to melt the frozen soils of the tundra, releasing huge quantities of the now inert greenhouse gas methane, which, science tells us, could cause untold – and expensive (in the trillions) – catastrophes.

Natural laws, as discussed earlier in this piece, are about inevitabilities; and I suggested that we cannot accept the view that any existing set of human relationships, including the current tones, are destined to remain dominant. A new alternative cannot be plucked out of the air, but must be built by sustained human effort.

Not a ‘class’, but a ‘peoples’ movement

It is not the purpose of this piece to discuss at any length what could replace capitalism. But change will only come about through the ideas, thoughts, motivations and actions of large numbers of people who, like the young Marx, wanted to act for the benefit of humanity; and we should think more about custodianship. It cannot succeed as a ‘class’, but can do so as a ‘peoples’ movement’ of the kind shown in the last quarter or one third of the 20th  and the beginnings of this century.

The hardest part of all is to change habits of thought and behavior, which have formerly been achieved only in circumstances where the ‘mode of production’, and thus of thinking and acting, has begun to spread widely in all sections of society. Unfortunately, because the ‘socialist’ alternative failed so badly, and with no other in sight, we have to try to politically defeat or neutralize the worst of the inveterate contributors to the now deadly – both naturally and financially – new, virulent, stage of the global warming saga humanity has been, far too comfortably, living with for well over a quarter of a century.

It has brought us to the point where producing energy by burning fossil fuels is warming the atmosphere of the whole planet to a dangerous extent, causing extreme weather events and beginning to melt the frozen ice cages at the bottom of cold northern oceans and frozen soils of the tundra which contain huge quantities of the presently inert greenhouse gas methane.

Geology Professor, Mike Sandiford, of Melbourne University recently revealed yet another indication of the (too often misplaced) power of human effort:

Rivers and glaciers have moved about 10 billion tons of sediment from mountain to sea each year on average over geological time. Each year humans mine about 7 billion tons of coal and 2.3 billion tons of iron ore. We shift about the same amount again of overburden to access these resources, along with construction aggregate and other excavations. In short we are now one of the main agents shaping the earth’s surface.(Sydney Morning Herald, May 23, 2011)

And the sea, with the looming destruction of the world’s largest living entity – The Great Barrier Reef, and general over-fishing.

Natural laws, as discussed at the beginning of this piece, are about inevitablities; and I suggested that we cannot accept the view that any set of human relationships, including the current ones, are destined to remain dominant. A new alternative cannot be plucked out of the air, but can be built by human effort.

It is not the purpose of this piece to discuss at any length what could replace it. But change will only come about through the ideas, thoughts, motivations and actions of large numbers of people who, like the young Marx, wanted to act for the benefit of humanity.





  1. Marxists do not equate socialism with public ownership of means of production.

    Socialism equates to "from each according to their ability, to each according to their contribution". This is the negation of the specific foundation of bourgeois production which always gives to some more than they themselves ever produced (fuedalism, merchantilism, capitalism).

    Public ownership may have advantages, but private ownership of means of production, where the owner only obtains a socially necessary wage, is entirely compatible with socialism.

    You achieve nothing by bellowing for public ownership, if the public enterprise then tries to maximise its profits using all the typical commercial and financial games we are witnessing today.

    Eric's recourse to Grundrisse (p704 - 705) to supposedly use Marx's private,unauthorised, draft notes to counter his public, published, final texts over the labour theory of value, is totally mistaken.

    The section Eric cites, concerns how machinery creates a contradiction between the development of bourgeois production and it foundation. It does not range over labour value theory, but considers the vast expansion of wealth and productive capacity and damage done to the relationship between use value and exchange value.

    Naturally, under capitalism, machinery is introduced because it creates a competitive advantage. However, when everyone adopts the same machinery, society still has the vast new quantities of wealth, but value relations are now normalised.

    Those seeking to destroy the labour theory of value - in fact - just destroy our hopes and our future.

    1. The key to Marx's analysis of the falling rate of profit-- Das Kapital, not the Grundrisse -- is that the proportion of the value of a commodity contributed by labour over that contributed by fixed capital reduces as a result of technical innovation. So I don't get your claim 'value relations normalise'. What 'normalises' is the immediate profit advantage which accrued to the innovator of the technical innovation.

      The remark in the Grundrisse was in reference to a time when the (final) labour component of the commodity would become so small as to be almost irrelevant to exchange value.

  2. Another really good piece from a 'reflexive' Marxist, thanks. Although the moving to a meaningful effort to formulate alternative social, political and economic systems that takes into account the problems of 20th-century socialist efforts is perhaps the focus of many readers of this blog, but Eric can't do that work for us ;)

  3. Even under capitalism, at equilibrium, there is no "profit advantage accuring to any innovator of technical

    innovation". This is always competed away, and the innovator only receives a wage plus whatever other socially

    necessary costs apply, such as replacing tools and materials used in R&D.

    While all workers in society may gain continuous increases in wealth (and utility), the amount of value remains the same.

    The fact that bourgeois businesses use politics to expropriate wealth should not tempt Australian Marxists to accept such distortions.

    Within a cooperative enterprise, the technical innovator will only receive the wage that is due, on the same basis as everyone else (ie "socially necessary labour"). The proceeds of the innovation are shared by all. Otherwise the cooperative is disrupted as one class emerges out from the rest.

  4. Chris, you probably have a better understanding of Marx's own definitions - as personally I haven't read beyond the Introduction to Capital and that was a long time ago; Mostly I've done my reading from the 'Selected Works' of Marx and Engels from Progress Publishers; as well as various works by Bernstein, Luxemburg, Lenin, Trotsky and Kautsky; I would love to really get stuck into Capital one day though. Sometimes I find myself struggling with the falling rate of profit and labour theory of value; and econometrics scare me for the time being. :-) I bought a 'student's edition' of Capital for the purpose of filling the gaps in my knowledge and understanding... I think I will finally get around to it when I finish my PhD. Though maybe I'll read Kautsky's 'The Economic Doctrines of Karl Marx' first.

    But for me socialism in practice can involve a mixture of meritocratic and communist principles - ie: a mixture of provision in return for contribution - and redistribution on the basis of need. In many instances social democracy in practice has involved a mixture of those principles... Hence the advanced welfare states - the Nordics, Denmark, Holland etc. I think we need to be flexible with our definitions also because there are many valid Left traditions....

    I'm also wondering: If innovation does not deliver a significant return to the individual innovator under capitalism how can we explain Bill Gates?

    But re: public ownership there are a range of arguments and benefits that I think socialists today should keep in mind.

    firstly: we should recognise the benefit of socialising profits and redistributing the proceeds for social wage and infrastructure provision; of factoring in redistributive cross-subsidies for disadvantaged groups; and a competitive footing to prevent monopolism and collusion which hurts consumers...

    secondly: Even though adding to the survivability of capitalism strategic and 'natural' public monopolies can provide benefits for us in our capacities as workers, citizens and consumers - because the material gains from structural economic efficiencies are passed on... ie:

    thirdly: We don't need to be locked into an 'either/or' model - ie: either co-operativism or an expanded public sector... The above arguments provide arguments to have a mixture of both... Hence my use of the term "democratic mixed economy".

    But co-operatives attack capitalist exploitation at its roots; And small scale co-operatives especially can also have the benefit of greatly ameliorating alienation... As it is a model which gives workers more immediate creative control of their labours, and over the products of their labours.....

  5. Innovation brings immense, obscene, illegitimate, returns to innovators under capitalism. But this is not equilibrium.

    Microsoft just has to ensure that there is restricted competition - then all the wealth flows their way. If I own a bridge across the river and I can prevent others building bridges, then I will see my bridge, my "innovation", earning huge returns. This applies to all innovations under capitalism.

    You only get equilibrium with perfect competition, and as every microeconomic textbook explains, profits are always competed down to zero. At this point, prices = values.

    As long as Microsoft can block competition, it maintains profits. The real value of computer software and operating systems is in fact just around what you have to pay for something like Ubuntu.

    In the 1980-90's, Microsoft was able to sell software with packaging and manuals, worth relatively little, for exorbitant amounts - around $600 to $800. This created a flow of wealth from practically every country on earth to the United States so that Gates now has wealth in fact larger than some nations. All due to capitalist politics.

    People need to be very careful and rigorous when proposing that we "socialise profits". The word profit is quite vague.

    Why would you socialise self-earned individual profits. Anyone can profit from their own labour.

    Why would you socialise windfall profits.

    Even when there is sufficient competition, markets take time to adjust, so a period of profit will emerge naturally before being competed away. I do not see any great need to socialise such transitory profits.

    The profits that come from capitalism, cannot be socialised. They must be abolished. We have capitalist profits today because society has "alllowed" (?) the population and debt to steadily increase. Also, across the globe, the share of wealth going to wages has steadily fallen - see:

    Modern capitalist profits are destroying the environment, the global economy, and our futures.

  6. Yes it would be great to be able to abolish capitalist profits and wage labour and replace them with a system of co-operative labour without exploitation - and yet somehow maintaining dynamics of constant innovation and checks upon efficiency and quality. But the question is how we could get there from where we are right now. (if we can at all) Economic interdependence means any radical attempts to 'abolish capitalism' would be met with capital strike, diplomatic isolation etc. And we are also in a situation where such notions are thought discredited by the general public. Finally, change should be gradual - because too much is at stake -and previous self-avowed socialist societies failed when it came to mass nationalisation and central planning.

    That leads to the question what IS possible in the here and now; and that's where I think a 'democratic mixed economy' comes in. Basically like the old mixed economy, but with a strong emphasis on supporting and encouraging non-exploitative co-operative and mutalist enterprise and self employment via state aid, tax breaks and the like.

    It would not be a perfect system - but it would involve a curtailment of exploitation in many sectors; while delivering dividends to the public to be employed for social purposes, and sometimes to be redirected for cross-subsidisation. Establishing a state sector mining company could be especially helping in socialising the gains from mining in their tens and billions - and redirecting those for social purposes.

    And as argued earlier: such reforms could add to the survivability of capitalism in some respects, while also gradually 'peeling away' the prerogatives of the capitalist class. (see: Nils Karleby; though unlike Karleby I would put more emphasis of strategic socialisation via public ownership)

    If the result was, say, socialisation of dividends providing an extra $50 billion (in today's terms) in revenue to be directed into the social wage the gains for disadvantaged and working class people could be very significant. And then add to that the benefits of a more robust progressive tax system.

    Another issue is how we review social democratic and democratic socialist internationalism in the face of world-wide capitalist hegemony - to develop 'openings' to challenge and transform the system via international solidarity, co-ordination and co-operation. But again: that is more easily said than done - as the world's social democratic parties have mainly abandoned internationalism - supposing for a long time that the gains of the Keynesian welfare state were permanent - and then capitulating when global capital retaliated from the 1970s onward...

  7. A quick response. There are several issues with this post. Certainly capital strike and diplomatic isolation are serious threats, however the supposed “failure of socialist societies” needs understanding in the context of Western economic warfare, Cold War, arms race, and massive covert spending by Western secret agencies.

    In this context, the supposed failure of nationalisation and central planning is a furphy. All of Warsaw Pact, Cuban and Yugoslavia economies achieved long-run stable growth that outpaced all capitalist economies starting from the same point – ie complete destruction after World War 2. However this is apparent only after you adjust post-war growth trends to remove the impact of the United States subsidising Western European and Japanese reconstruction. You also have to take into account the ongoing artificial buoyancy in the United States through exploitation of the Third World.

    What sort of society would Australia be if we were unable to export products and had to spend divert 50% of productive capacity on socially useless armaments and military?

    Every single major global corporation uses central planning and operates as a single corporation owned by a pseudo-nation of shareholders. The decision to close Australian car factories and food production in Australia was taken by company executives in the United States and Japan as part of their “central planning”. Coles and Woolworths are controlled by central planners. Australian post-war reconstruction and the Snowy Mountains Scheme were all centrally planned. Every government department across the land is centrally planned. Presumably the ABC and SBS are centrally planned as, presumably, is Murdoch’s empire. There is no problem with central planning, it is just a matter of how it is implemented and what mechanisms of governance and accountability exist. Why wouldn’t any cooperative want central planning for its operations? And then why wouldn’t a regional centre want central planning of the local economy? As we learnt in the Nineteenth century, if you don’t central plan your railways they all end-up with different standards and utter confusion. How is single-desk marketing not representative of central planning?

    Any fiasco under central planning can just as easily erupt under anarchical commercial conditions and the cry for better regulation echoing around the world today is a belated cry for central planning. The only alternative is self-regulation and who really wants that?

    The only issue is the level at which central planning operates and its form and function. Judging, or associating, socialist central planning by or with yesterdays Cold War standards only panders to outdated Cold War prejudices. You need central planning to construct competent cooperatives and obtain the necessary public funding for external social services.

    1. Recent avowals of the social wage and superannuation structures are reaching their limits. Both are based on reducing current wages in the expectation of a benefit later on. But the real purpose was to create better conditions for businesses particularly concerning unemployment. However these particular responses do not address the cause for business’s failures to fund jobs or, more fundamentally, to maintain wages factor share in the economy. Under capitalism, wages share is now plummeting across the globe; see: . Also workers wages are falling further and further below productivity; see If this is not a reputable source, what is?

      Pretending that workers should cop falling wages now, because they receive later compensation through the social wage and superannuation is farcical in the long-run. Social wages should be paid out of profits. Superannuation only works if the funds that should have appeared as wages now appear as accumulating capital. This just makes things worse in the long-run, particularly when society must now use debt to maintain final consumption levels. If social wages are paid out of profits, final consumption levels are automatically protected and the demand for consumer debt dissipates.

      Why construct social wages for the disadvantaged, when the disadvantage is caused by the structure of capitalism? Excluding medical conditions, a disadvantaged person under capitalism is no longer disadvantaged when they have the same access to employment as the rest of society. It is capitalism that cherry-picks its workforce thereby artificially creating this pool of supposed disadvantaged.

  8. Chris I agree that the Cold War and the Arms Race limited what the USSR could achieve; and I agree that US living standards were enhanced by exploitation of the Third World. But I also think that competition sometimes drives innovation and market responsiveness - So the question is how to democratise the economy without losing this. I also agree that corporations plan - But again that is in the context of market responsiveness and competition driving quality and innovation. So again: "how can we get the best of both worlds"?

    Also note that I argue for a social wage for both the disadvantaged AND the working class. Collective consumption and where appropriate public provision can drive both efficiency and provision of services on the basis of need.

    Chris; What you say about the falling wage share of the economy is also true. If you take the example of Sweden there was salary sacrifice for years: "solidaristic wages"; But when the Social Democrats attempted to effectively reclaim some of that lost wags share the Swedish capitalists responded savagely. Also the structure of the wage earner funds scheme did not appeal to all people: Many wanted more personal control; and others were concerned that people only had control in their capacity as trade unionists -rather than as citizens. Ultimately business won, and the Social Democrats lost government for a time.

    What all that shows is that we need to be realistic about the scope for expropriation; and the likelihood of resistance should workers attempt to law back labour share of the economy via collective capital share or wages... (Collective capital share at least can be pursued in an economically stable way under capitalism - even if not politically sustainable because of the backlash)

    My personal preference - were the organised working class strong enough - would be to demand collective capital share in return for wage restraint... But this would not work in instances where capital flight and capital mobility applied... And there would have to be a cap - lest the capitalist class saw it as a 'life and death' struggle... (which I do not think we could win)

    Another alternative would be very gradual socialisation paid for through progressive personal and corporate taxation; and support for co-operatives and mutual associations - supported via state aid; cheap loans; advice, tax credits etc. And again: with long term caps on the extent of such socialisation.

    And always to talk openly about the obstacles to change; and the desirability of change; as the precedent for reviving socialist politics and a socialist critique in this country....

  9. Swedish capitalists responding savagely to attempts to reclaim wages is obviously "class struggle", and needs to be recognised as such.

    Innovation is facilitated by normal commercial activity. Capitalists restrict innovation by politics (ie rules over copyright, patents and IP with punative sanctions).

    Cooperatives will be just as eager for innovation because it will increase their incomes and living standard. They could be even more enthused over innovation and selling innovative goods, because without wage-labour, they will always own the proceeds. This is the whole point of the labour theory of value, and this is precisely the mechanism Eric Aarons (and others) puts at risk by suggesting that capital itself needs a return, or produces value.

    Co-operatives working together, will be able to arrange any scale of research and development and will have every incentive to do so. Provided a new technique or innovation is shared, there should be no structural unemployment, just generally rising incomes and a rock stable economy. If the innovation is not shared, this means it is capitalised, and then enters the market with false above value prices, and extracts economic profits. This leads to structural unemployment.

  10. Chris - sorry for the typos in my other posts BTW; I agree that theoretically there's nothing to say that large scale co-operatives competing with each other on the world market couldn't innovate and respond to market signals as effectively as any capitalist enterprise. Whether a co-operative model could work without competition is another question entirely; There is the practical question of how to create a culture of innovation and responsiveness which is not dependent on competition... ie: It would require a fundamental cultural transformation.

    But again the question is HOW we get to there from here... How can we develop co-operative enterprise with the knowledge and skill base, with the economies of scale and capital reserves etc, say, of Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Sony, Samsung etc? The Ideological obstacles alone are enormous... And surely it would be near impossible without some for of state aid and facilitation... But a good start might be encouraging co-operatives on a smaller scale - with state aid - and on a larger scale with mutualist credit unions etc.

    Here both public infrastructure and enterprise AND co-operative and mutualist enterprise could chip away at capitalist economic hegemony. Reasserting the role for public infrastructure and strategic natural public monopolies would be a good start too for the reasons I have already given in previous comments here...

    But as you correctly argue - there is a class struggle dimension to all this - So to avoid getting into a fight we cannot win at this point, we might have to agree to 'caps' on the extent of various forms of socialisation over a long period. (eg: like the 20% cap finally agreed to in Sweden on wage earner funds - though that was too late to save the initiative....) Remember the Swedish trade unions had over 80 per cent coverage - and still they lost the wage earner funds struggle...

    Re: labour theory of value - I agree that on top of the value embedded in resources naturally, that all added value is derived from labour... But the extent and quality of an object's value is also subjective... There's the objective fact that labour is necessary to add value; But then there's the subjective question of what different kinds of labour are worth; and the subjective use values of the final products... I'd agree, though, that 'demand and supply' is not a fair way of determining the value of labour...

    Finally in order to get rid of obstructions to sharing innovation there would need to be some kind of international agreement, organisation and co-ordination... Again the problem is how to get to such a global model from where we are now... It would require an genuinely international socialism; and again with a culture whereby all the participants were animated by a spirit of co-operative innovation... Such a shift in culture - and the organisational basis to bring it to fruition - seems very far away...

    Hence it is more realistic - and perhaps more productive - to aim at a more modest 'beach-head' for a democratic mixed economy - in a way which could conceivably succeed in the foreseeable future... Such a model would concede the reality of a global economy with a central role for the multinationals - simply because the means of transcending that arrangement are not present in existing society... And because the 'great economic powers' would retaliate against any sweeping program of expropriation. But a return to a mixed economy, with strategic public enterprise, services and infrastructure; and with a role for 'democratic funds' - maybe up to 20% of the stock exchange for now; As well as state aid for co-operative enterprise - maybe up to $10 billion a year to start - is a program of socialisation which I think would have a hope of being implemented. Again: it would comprise a 'beach-head' rather than a thorough-going transformation... But establishing such a 'beach-head' could well be the precondition for further challenges later down the track...

  11. The HOW is determined by the majority of society. However, as Marx was aware, while there is general prosperity there can be no talk of real revolution. As Engels realised, in a nation that exploits the whole world the domestic proletariat actually became more and more bourgois. All that we have today is a remnant of a workers movement, but mostly adulterated with bourgois radical elements who seem more interested in finding causes to agitate over than trying to understand the real forces underpinning economic development. Some have been manipulating their ideology to ingratiate themselves to various mass movements.

    In Australia where much of the exploitation and low wages necessary for capitalism is hidden in rancid offshore regimes is, for the beneficiaries in Australia it appears they inhabit "the best of all possible worlds".

    This is the over-arching reality, and replicates the same predicament Marx and Engels found themselves in over the Ernest Jones' Chartist development.

    However as workers are finding out in Japan and Europe, it all comes to a catastrophe eventually.

    Then the HOW can be reassessed provided not too much damage has been done in the meantime.

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