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Economic and Social History Blog

58. Was Marx a Marxist? (8-6-2020)

Was Marx a Marxist? (8-6-2020)

Written by: Jan Luiten van Zanden

Marx was without doubt the most influential social scientist of the 19th century, whose ideas played a large role in social movements and revolutionary upheavals of the 20th century, and in the ideologies and policies carried out by the communist countries that emerged from these revolutions. He was the founder of an ideology which has shaped the social and political struggles of the past century, and Das Kapital was the ‘bible’ of the movement. In the 1970s, when I studied economics, there were special reading groups linked to the radical student movement aimed at trying to digest his ideas and apply them to contemporary issues. The plan was to read volume I of Capital, which was already quite a challenge, and the ultimate aim was to also study Volumes II and II, which were even less accessible. I have to admit that after a few sessions I dropped out of the group, and never made it to volume II or III.

These volumes II and III had been edited by Engels, after Marx’ death, on the basis of the basic structure designed by Marx and the huge collection of fragments and notes made by him. How exactly he did this, and how he revised the first editions of Das Kapital as well, has only recently become clear. It has taken more than 120 years after Marx death in 1883 to publish all his manuscripts – it is a bit ironic that this MEGA (Marx Engels GesamtAusgabe)  project only came on speed after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But perhaps it is only natural that we now, after 1989, can take a fresh look at the genesis of these influential ideas.

An important issue that has emerged from the renewed study of these sources is that there are signs that Marx may have developed doubts about the laws of capitalist development as originally formulated in Capital I (first edition, 1867). In the French edition, published in 1872, he nuanced crucial parts of the argument, but whereas Marx himself thought that the French version was the final one, Engels did not like it. He argued that French was too ‘smooth’ as a language and not as precise as German, and he therefore ignored most additions to the text. A related argument is that Marx was unable to finish volumes II and III because he increasingly struggled with the underlying ideas. Instead of focusing on the core message, which was based on data related to the political economy of the UK in the 19th century, he drifted to other continents and countries (America, Russia), other periods (original communism), and began to speculate about different development paths, instead of the classical order of modes of production based on the English model.

The core theory that was at stake was the ‘law’ of the falling rate of profit in capitalism, which Marx at some point had seen as his main contribution to political economy, but which he started to perhaps reconsider later on in his career.  It was based on the labour theory of value (taken form Ricardo), which Marx had reformulated. If labour was the single source of value, the problem was how to explain the existence of profit income. The answer was that capitalists forced, through their monopoly of the means of production, labourers to work more hours than was necessary for reproduction. But capital accumulation – the crucial historic process of capitalism – meant that the number of workers per unit of capital continually declined, so an increasing number of days or hours of surplus labour was necessary to keep profits up. There were limits to the degree of exploitation, however, and the natural tendency of capitalism was therefore the decline of the rate of profit due to capital accumulation. This was the cause – to put it simply – of the recurring crises in the capitalist economy, and ultimately, the breakdown of the capitalist system, and the appearance of socialism.

There was something paradoxical in this theory. On the one hand Marx hailed capitalism as the system that developed the means of production in a revolutionary way – we would now say, set in motion a process of unprecedented economic growth. But at the same time the labourers were expected to be subject to a process of Verelendung, and capitalist’ profits were increasingly squeezed by the law of the declining profit rate. You wonder what might have happened to these ideas if they had a clearer idea about GDP, its growth and distribution, and had been able to really measure these variables and changes in a systematic way. Marx was not only a brilliant theoretician, but he did also collect a lot of data, mainly about the British economy, but his studies seem to have convinced him that his ‘law’ was not universally true, and needed to be qualified. Engels respectfully disagreed, or thought that it was not politically opportune to reconsider these ideas. And to make things even more complex: Marx was a poor journalist, who did not manage to earn an income on the basis of his writings. He became increasingly dependent on gifts by Engels, who was from a wealthy family and had ample resources. There are no clues that this financial imbalance has affected their academic cooperation in a material way, but it would be very un-Marxian to assume that money did not matter.

This is my layman’s summary of a highly complex and nuanced debate – read more about this in  the fine volume by Marcel van der Linden and Gerald Hubmann, Marx’s Capital. An unfinishable project? Back in the 1970s the distinction was made between the young Marx (who was daring philosopher and theoretician) and the old Marx (a ‘boring’ political economist – but the founder of Marxism); now we perhaps have to conclude that there was also the mature Marx, who was not a builder of a theoretical system, but again an adventurous, nuanced scholar. Would the development of the ideology of Marxism have been different if he had succeeded in reformulating his ideas and finish parts II and II himself? Or is there only a very weak link between the ideas of the founder and the beliefs and actions of his followers?

Continue reading: The end… for the moment (10-6-2020)


Also good to read: Gareth Stedman Jones, Karl Marx, Greatness and Illusion.