Tag Archives: Marx

Brexit and ideology

Brexit continues to cause chaos in the British parliamentary system. As I write this, Theresa May has lost her second ‘meaningful’ vote on the deal negotiated with the European Union, and the debate over Brexit is almost the only thing the government and wider political class are able to focus on.

In a superb article, Aditya Chakrabortty writing in the Guardian connects this crisis of the political class to the policies of austerity implemented by coalition and Conservative governments since 2010. In endlessly arguing about how to manage Brexit, politicians are using up energy that would be more usefully employed in addressing the problems that persuaded people to vote for it in the first place. Even more ironically, the members new Independent Group, specifically set up as a home for those in both parties who deplore Brexit as a historic mistake, continue to express support for austerity and the economics that created the frustration that brought it about.

“As economics, Osborne’s cuts were always going to be a failure; as class war, however, they were a triumph. Until, that is, the Brexit vote came along and the victims of Osbornomics got a chance to take their revenge.”

“The great frustration of this age is that the political classes keep treating the deliberate immiseration of so many people and places in Britain as a sideshow to the high drama of Brexit.”

(Chakrabortty 2019)

Paul Mason has a similar analysis in the New Statesman, arguing that “the class dynamics that are emerging in most Western economies” are driving the breakdown of neoliberalism under the impact of the very policies that it’s advocates have implemented over the years.

“The economic system they’ve learned to operate no longer delivers, even for the small business owners, pensioners and professional classes that form Toryism’s grassroots.”

(Mason 2019)

The damage being inflicted on the Conservative Party by the attempt to deliver Brexit is symptomatic of the wider disintegration of the economic consensus they have managed over many years as the “natural party of government”. The government’s focus however remains on finding a way to implement Brexit, rather than tackle what caused 17.4 million people to vote for radical change in the first place, even though most Conservative MPs voted remain and likely think leaving the EU to be a strategic error.

Why then, does Brexit continue to consume all this political energy that could more usefully be channelled into addressing the actual problem? Marx addresses a similar point in “The German Ideology”, the early and probably most detailed working out of his materialistic approach to the analysis of history and society. Here Marx sets out the connection between the “relations of production” and the rest of society. Marx is often portrayed as suggesting this is a mechanically deterministic relationship. Where the economy leads, the rest of society will follow. In fact Marx’s argument is more complex than this, but for the purposes of this post it is enough to point out that there is a deep and strong interconnection between how the economy is structured and how politics works, what problems it is possible for politics to tackle. Along the way these ideas, philosophies, and laws which form the basis of civil society become separated in thought from the economic relations on which they were constructed.

“We saw earlier how a theory and history of pure thought could arise among philosophers owing to the divorce between ideas and the individuals and their empirical relations which serve as the basis of these ideas… On this account, political and civil history becomes ideologically merged in a history of the rule of successive laws. This is the specific illusion of lawyers and politicians.”

(Marx 1970, p.107)

Simplistically then, the ruling class get caught up in their own set of beliefs, their own philosophical view of how the world works. It is simply the natural order of things. And so, as Mason and Chakrabortty write, they are blinded by this to the impact of their own policy choices and to the changes in political economy they are contributing to. Brexit becomes a problem in its own right, something to be tackled in isolation, rather than inherently connected to wider society.

It is no accident that the totemic policy for The Independent Group, driving the decision that it could no longer tolerate Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, is opposition to Brexit under all circumstances. They give priority to the halting of Brexit ahead of any other policy – including prioritising halting Brexit over delivering a progressive Labour government. Their world view is that of the ruling class, and in that world view the problems impacting those areas likely to vote leave (wage stagnation, the degradation of public services etc.) either don’t exist or if they do they are ‘natural’ phenomena not appropriate for policy interventions. Instead they seek to preserve the system as it is, without seeing how that system has failed to deliver for large chunks of the population.

Chakrabortty, Aditya “Britain is trapped in the purposeless austerity that gave us Brexit.” The Guardian (12 March 2019, available at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/mar/12/britain-austerity-brexit-economy-recession-regions)

Mason, Paul “The Brexit crisis shows that the Conservatives have lost the ability to change”, New Statesman (13 March 2019, available at https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2019/03/brexit-crisis-shows-conservatives-have-lost-ability-change)

Marx, Karl The German Ideology (Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1970)


Opium of the People

Religion is the opium of the people” is a frequently quoted phrase by Marx whose meaning is more ambiguous than it is I suspect often taken for. In this short post I want to capture briefly the interpretation given it by Sven-Eric Liedman in his book “A World to Win” recently re-published by Verso in English translation.

The phrase, is often taken to mean that religion is used by the dominant forces in society as a mechanism of control over the working class, something manipulated cynically as a means to keep the working class quiescent. It seems more than likely that this is a view conditioned by the nineteenth century Opium Wars between the British Empire and China.

Liedman disagrees. He states that in fact Marx was using opium in what might be described as a more ‘self-medicating’ sense. Religion is the drug that allows the exploited and oppressed to

“It is thus the shortcomings of the earthly life that constitute the breeding ground of religion.”

(Liedman 2018, p.99)

He then goes on to quote a longer passage from Marx to demonstrate the point.

Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and also the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of spiritless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”

(Liedman 2018, p.99, quoting Marx “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right”)

There is an interesting example of a very similar phenomenon in the description by Cyril Mango of the world view of inhabitants of the medieval Greek Byzantine Empire. Mango describes the invisible world of demons and evil as felt to be very much part of reality by the average Byzantine. What’s more the existence of demons is used to make sense of the world around them, of things for which in the absence of modern science the existence of demons provides a ‘rational’ explanation. Mango notes that

“It would be a mistake to dismiss these as a product of superstition, unworthy of the historian’s consideration.”

(Mango 1998, p.159)

Mango quotes many examples from the lives of saints where ordinary people gain comfort from the intervention of monk or other holy man who drives the demons away. The medieval Byzantine experiencing ‘real distress’ searched for something that could make sense of the world around them, and found the answer in the invisible battle between good and evil, and the comfort of religious protection.

Marx is making a similar point. Superstition and religion are a rational response by ordinary people to the oppression and misery of their daily lives, something that can make sense of what they are experiencing and provide comfort.

Liedman, Sven-Eric A World To Win (Verso, London, 2018)

Mango, Cyril Byzantium: The Empire of the New Rome (Phoenix, London, 1998)

Marx, Karl Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (First published in 1844, available in translation at https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/critique-hpr/intro.htm)

Review: A World To Win

This book is billed as “the life and works of Karl Marx”. However despite it’s size it is not a comprehensive story of the life of Marx and his family. Liedman covers the basics, tracing Marx’s travels across Europe before ending in London, touching on the poverty of his early years there. As soon as the story reaches the beginning of the drafting of Capital, the personal side begins to fall away, and Liedman concentrates more closely on the construction of Marx’s master work. The story of Marx’s personal life is better told by Francis Wheen’s biography (“Karl Marx”), or possibly (and with more theoretical rigour) by David McClellan’s “Karl Marx, His Life and Thought”.

Liedman’s is better at working through the development of Marx’s theory. This he treats as a single continuous process and dismisses the idea of an “epistemological break” in his thought, as proposed by Althusser among others. Marx’s thought clearly did change, and Liedman does well at tracing how his use of constructions such as “essence” changed over time.

It takes a while for Liedman to get into his stride – the discussion of some of the earlier work feels somewhat cursory – but once he reaches the core economic work, beginning with the “Grundrisse”, the book hits its stride. While nowhere near as close or comprehensive reading as David Harvey’s “Companions” books, this is a well written outline of the development of Marx’s analysis of economy and society. Liedman does well at bringing out a number of crucial concepts, including internal relations, and the (in)famous dialectic, but also things like the contrast between form and content for example. He also seeks to place Marx within the contemporary intellectual context, including his relationship to Darwin, and developments in science which Liedman presents as having a significant influence on Marx’s thought. As an overview of Marx’s theoretical approach and method, the book broadly works albeit at a relatively high level.

Liedman’s evaluation of Marx is very obviously positive, and while this isn’t necessarily a problem in the discussion of Marx’s work itself it becomes more so in the chapter which covers his successors and “marxism” in general. For example Liedman clearly disavows Stalin as bearing no relation to Marx – a fairly standard line on the political left, but one which is (rightly in my view) challenged by Slavoj Zizek. The Stalinist terror remains one possible historical outcome from Marx’s work, and the modern followers of Marx have to find a way to deal with that.

It is marred by a small number of errors of either copy editing or translation, which jar the experience of the reader from time to time. Other than that, it is a coherent and useful introduction to Marx’s theoretical approach, with a bit of biographical detail attached.

Repeating the past

Received wisdom dictates that Marx’s theories have been wholly discredited by the attempt to implement them made by the Soviet Union. Capitalism won, the west declared the end of history, and the left accepted defeat and the necessity of capitalism under the “third way” of Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.

In “In Defense of Lost Causes” from 2008 Slavoj Zizek tackles the failures of a number of radical movements, from the Terror of the French Revolution to Stalinism and the Cultural Revolution in China. One thing Zizek challenges is the characterisation of the horrific consequences of these episodes as an inevitable consequence of revolutionary outbursts, that there was only one possible path forward. Does the path taken historically represent the only possible route out of the revolutionary situation?

Discussing Heidegger, Zizek notes that he “locates the future itself into the past”

“not, of course, in the sense that we live in a closed universe in which every future possibility is already contained in the past, so that we can only repeat, realize, what already is present in the inherited texture, but in the much more radical sense of the “openness” of the past itself: the past itself is not simply “what there was,” it contains hidden, non-realized potentials”

(Zizek 2009, p.188).

In other words history is not a deterministic linear process, but nor is it entirely contingent. There are only a limited range of future possibilities and these are built into the past. In this sense therefore we should not reject Stalinism as a ‘distortion’ of Marx or a betrayal of the revolution. We should fully accept it as a natural (but disastrous) path out of the situation in Russia after the revolution, but not the only possible one.

It is in this sense that Zizek suggests we should “repeat Lenin” (or Mao, or Robespierre etc.). Not so that we can repeat the same linear path of failure, but so that at the critical points we can take a different route in pursuit of a more equal society.

Five years after the revolution, Lenin himself seemingly understood this point. He wrote (although he did not finish) an article which was published in Pravda shortly after his death. Here he uses the analogy of a climber ascending a high peak but having climbed high realising that it is too difficult to reach the summit by continuing the path he has chosen.

“He is forced to turn back, descend, seek another path, longer, perhaps, but one that will enable him to reach the summit.”

(Lenin, 2002)

A similar point is made by Alain Badiou in “The Communist Hypothesis“. It is important to acknowledge that the attempts to put communist theory into practice have failed, and not only failed but also resulted in some of the greatest tragedies of the twentieth century. This is a conclusion that it should be possible even for partisans of the left to agree now that these attempts are safely in the past.

But this does not mean that we have to accept the conclusion drawn by the supporters of the “third way” with it’s acceptance that the attempt to create a more equal society is structurally doomed to failure.

All of which leads us back to Marx and one of his most famous lines, from “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte“:

“Men make their own history, but not of their own free will; not under circumstances they themselves have chosen but under the given and inherited circumstances with which they are directly confronted.”

(Marx 1973, p.146)

As Bertell Ollman suggests in “Dance of the Dialectic” (Ollman 2003), Marx is proposing that we “read history backwards” seeking the roots of the present in the past, and using that to develop our understanding of the future. The failure of Soviet communism does not invalidate this insight.

So progressives should continue to look for different pathways to the summit. As Zizek explains, the lesson is that of Samuel Beckett from Worstward Ho “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

Zizek, Slavoj In Defense of Lost Causes (Verso, London, 2009)

Marx, Karl (ed. David Fernbach) Surveys from Exile (Pelican, 1973)

Lenin, Vladimir Notes of a Publicist (https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1922/feb/x01.htm, 2002, accessed May 2018)

Badiou, Alain The Communist Hypothesis (Verso, London, 2015)

Ollman, Bertell Dance of the Dialectic (University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 2003)

Notes from Michael Heinrich on Capital

Michael Heinrich’s “Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital” is a fascinating short introduction to Marx’s ‘critique’. There are a number of key insights which I want to capture here.

Chapter three goes into detail on the nature of value. Heinrich draws a distinction between what he calls a traditional Marxist ‘substantialist’ view and value as developed as a social relation through the act of exchange. In the ‘substantialist’ view value is understood as a property of each individual commodity, created during production. In Heinrich’s view this is not what Marx is getting at. Instead value is determined by “socially necessary” labour time, and what is socially necessary can only be determined in exchange where the individual labour of producers is compared to the total labour of society.

“abstract labour is a relation of social validation existing only in exchange… value is not at all a property that an individual thing possesses in and of itself.”

“The substance of value… is something only obtained by things when they are set into relation with one another in exchange.”

(Heinrich 2012, p.53)

“this social relationship between people appears as a relationship between things: it is no longer people who stand in a specific relationship with one another, but commodities.”

(Heinrich 2012, p.73)

This emphasis on value as a social relation and not an eternal property of individual commodities chimes well with Marx’s statement that under capitalism, commodities represent:

“the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things.”

(Marx 1990, p.165)

Heinrich defines the substantialist view as a ‘pre-monetary’ theory of value, one which sees value as part of the commodity and money as a passive practical way to simplify the process of exchange. Marx’s theory is rather a ‘monetary’ one. Commodities cannot be related to each other without the value form that is money.

In chapter 7 Heinrich touches on the equalisation of the rate of profit, something which I felt I didn’t really understand on a first reading of Marx, defining the link between the amount of surplus value generated and the actual profit received by an individual capitalist. If commodities actually exchange at or near their true value then different rates of surplus value must mean that capitalists in different branches of production receive differing rates of profit.

As explained by Heinrich rates of profit are equalised in process similar to “supply and demand”. Assuming that capital is able to move between different branches of production, then individual capitalists will gravitate away from areas with lower rates of profit and towards those with higher rates. As supply increases in the areas with higher profit rates, prices will fall and vice versa. The result establishes an average or general rate of profit. To the individual capitalist this process disguises surplus value as the actual source of profit, making it appear that profit is a premium added to the cost of producing it.

“The actual profit of an individual capital… thus seems on the one hand to depend upon objective conditions (market prices) and on the other hand on the subjective skill of the capitalist in producing at a low cost of production. The fact that profit rests on the appropriation of surplus value is not apparent.”

(Heinrich 2012, p.147)

Most importantly of all, this transition from value to price is a transition from one level of description to another. To see the dialectic whole from a different angle. Value mediates the relationship of individual labour to the labour of the whole of society. Price and profit mediate the relationship of individual capital to the total social capital. They are different poles of the same social relationship.

Heinrich argues that Marx has not proven that the rate of profit is bound to fall over the long term (Heinrich 2012, p.151) on the basis that while it is likely that the organic composition of capital is increase, Marx assumes that the rate of surplus value will remain at least stable thereby leading to a falling rate of profit. In fact it is possible that the rate of surplus value may increase, or at least fall more slowly than the organic composition of capital rises either one of which will mean that the rate of profit does not fall.

On crises Heinrich outlines an “underconsumptionist” view. The unrestricted nature of production struggles to realise value in a world where the income of most people is constrained.

“The tendency for an unlimited extension of production confronts an ability to consume in society that is limited in a variety of ways.”

(Heinrich 2012, p.172)

“a potentially unlimited reproduction confronts a limited consumption… The consequence is a tendency towards the overproduction of commodities… and the over-accumulation of capital.”

(Heinrich 2012, p.173)

This leads to crisis as value cannot be realised in the market, leading to the destruction of social wealth but also conversely an increase in the rate of profit for the remaining capitals and a eventually a renewed upturn often driven by technological changes which improved profitability.

In the final chapter, Heinrich offers some thoughts on how Marx envisaged a communist society working. This is of interest as a rule Marx did not write much about what would come after capitalism. For Heinrich there are two key differences. First that society is no longer based on exchange. Capital, commodities, and money no longer exist. Second humanity is emancipated from a social structure that develops a life of it’s own and impose itself upon each individual. The social relations which generate fetishism must disappear with society organised as an “association of free men”.

Heinrich contrasts this with traditional Marxism-Leninism based on changing distribution patterns which remains dependent on a central authority, with the people becoming a passive object of the party’s policies.

Finally Marx:

“emphasises the massive development of productivity on the basis of science and technology, as well as the comprehensive development of the abilities of the workers as essential preconditions for the transition to a communist society.”

(Heinrich 2012, p.223)

Heinrich, Michael An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital (Monthly Review Press, New York, 2012).

Marx, Karl Capital, A Critique of Political Economy (Penguin, London, 1990)

Review: An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital

This is a superb summary of the key points made by Marx across the three volumes of Capital. Heinrich is clear from the start that he seeks to avoid the simplifications of the one-time ‘orthodox’ Marxism-Leninism of the defunct Soviet Union. The analysis is sharp, succinct, and up to date.

This is not a companion to the book itself, in the way that David Harvey’s two volume “Companion” is. What Harvey provides is a walkthrough, a genuine companion on the road as you work through each chapter. His goal is to encourage you to read Marx as a work of literature and on his own terms.

By contrast Heinrich takes you away from the book itself to summarise and draw out the principle conclusions. He looks beyond the debates of the past within organised communism to assess Marx’s analysis from a modern dispassionate perspective. His section on the development of value within capitalism as a social relation I found especially insightful. Heinrich also does an excellent job of drawing together the three volumes to explain what Marx is attempting in each, while showing how they join to create a overarching analysis.

The focus throughout is on the categories and structures of Marx’s economics rather than his philosophical approach. Heinrich specifically attacks the use of the word ‘dialectics’ in simple Marxism-Leninism as a way of saying ‘this is complex’. Bertell Ollman’s “Dance of the Dialectic” would make a useful companion work, covering as it does Marx’s method rather than the specifics of his economic analysis.

In brief, a superb short outline of Marx’s economic analysis as laid out in the three volumes of Capital.

Heinrich, Michael An Introduction to the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital (Monthly Review Press, New York, 2012).

The ‘moments’ of Marx

David Harvey’s most recent book is a superb short introduction to the analysis laid out by Marx in Capital, almost like a summary of his ‘Companion’ to the three volumes of Capital (Harvey 2010, Harvey 2013).

One of the concepts that I really like about Harvey’s analysis is the idea of there being seven different aspects or ‘moments’ to Marx’s analysis in Capital. I think this fits well with the outline of Marx’s use of dialectics given by Ollman. In particular, Harvey writes that to see any one aspect as dominant or determining misses the point:

The grand contest as to whether the productive forces or social relations should be viewed as the prime mover of capitalist development misses the point. It fails to situate Marx’s study of technology in the context of the totality of relations that constitute a capitalist social formation. It also assumes, for no good reason, that there must be a prime mover.

(Harvey 2017, p. 112).

The analysis of capital should be seen as a totality in all it’s complexity. To help with this Harvey takes a footnote from volume 1 (Marx 1990, p. 493 note 4) to identify seven ‘moments’, each representing a different angle from which to view the structure of capital.

These seven moments are:

  • Relation to nature;
  • Technology;
  • Modes of production;
  • Social relations;
  • Reproduction of daily life;
  • Mental conceptions of the world;
  • Institutional arrangements (added by Harvey).

(Harvey 2010, p. 195)

The most important thing here is to see these elements not as a list, but as the separate facets of a single structure. Something like the faces of a seven sided dice, or seven different windows onto the interior of the same building. The structure itself is a single building, a united whole, which we can view from each of these angles and gain a slightly different perspective through each. Each one interacts with all the others, and any comprehensive analysis must account for all of them.

To argue that any one of these determines the nature of society therefore misses the point. Each one expresses an element of the whole. As Harvey notes:

No one moment prevails over the others, even as there exists within each moment the possibility for autonomous development… All these elements coevolve and are subject to perpetual renewal and transformation as dynamic moments within the totality.

(Harvey 2010, p. 196).

This it seems to me is the essence of Marx’s dialectical analysis. A complex and multi-faceted whole, that can be approached from a number of different angles each of which provides insight and helps us to approach the whole but none of which actually constitute or determine that whole. It provides a framework or reference for analysis, and therefore a key element in Marx’s relevance for today.

Harvey, David Marx, Capital, and the Madness of Economic Reason (Profile Books, London, 2017).

Harvey, David A Companion to Marx’s Capital Volume 1 (Verso, London, 2010).

Harvey, David A Companion to Marx’s Capital Volume 2 (Verso, London, 2013).

Marx, Karl Capital, A Critique of Political Economy Volume 1 (Penguin, London, 1990).