Left goes back to school
Michael Copestake reports on the CPGB’s Marxist political economy weekend event
As the present crisis of capitalism rolls relentlessly into its fourth year, there is still no sign of the ostensibly revolutionary left taking political advantage of this situation. Across Europe social democratic governments have been given the electoral boot and the left has not benefited at all in terms of masses of new recruits determined to fight for socialism in the belly of an obviously malfunctioning capitalism.
There was unprecedented public sympathy for the striking workers on November 30 and even papers such as the Financial Times feel compelled to fill their pages with systematic apologia for capitalism in spite of the utter absence of any prospect of working class power. For its part in the struggle the revolutionary left in its larger organisations such as the Socialist Party in England and Wales and the Socialist Workers Party have a ‘no to all cuts’ line as a defensive shield, on the one hand, and the useless rubber sword of economistic, Keynesian-style programmes (sometimes dressed up as being ‘transitional’), on the other. It is against this background that the CPGB organised a school held over the weekend of January 21-22 at the University of London Union on the ‘Fundamentals of political economy’, to which the left clearly must return.
The school itself was an unqualified success, with just over 70 attending over the weekend. The first session was led by comrade Moshé Machover – socialist, mathematician and philosopher – on his and Emmanuel Farjoun’s interpretation of the labour theory of value, the foundation of Marxist political economy. This session was perhaps the most theoretically ‘heavy’ of the weekend and less algebraically minded comrades may have struggled with some of the equations drawn on the white board by Machover (despite his own dead-pan assurances that they were “childishly simple”), but overall his argument was clear, precise and comprehensible even to those such as the present writer.
The essence of his position was that Marx’s “prices of production” introduced in volume 3 of Capital do not work as a method for directly comprehending the connection between the price of a commodity and its value, its socially necessary labour content. Such a method could work only in a system of perfect equilibrium, which also remained completely static. Capitalism is, of course, a dynamic system, where innovation, competition and so on constantly work to redefine the value of any given commodity. Thus one finds that there cannot be a direct relationship between prices and values.
However, comrade Machover stated that his version of the labour theory of value was precisely to accept that there can be no exact equilibrium in capitalism and yet there can still be a very strong relationship between values and prices. Comparing the individual values produced under capitalism to molecules in a cloud of gas, he explained that, just as the molecules in the gas cloud do not all move at the same speed, neither do they go flying off all over the place and become separate. This is because the speeds of the individual gas molecules are spread across a certain mathematical distribution, with upper and lower limits around an average, giving the cloud a dynamic equilibrium, a coherence, as opposed to a static equilibrium or rapid disaggregation. In Machover’s and Farjoun’s analogy the individual gas molecules represent the individual values produced by competing capitals under capitalism – a system of dynamic equilibrium, with upper and lower bounds of an average, around which values and prices will fluctuate, whilst retaining a strong statistical relationship with each other at the global level.
This was perhaps the most demanding session – as reflected in the debate and questions which followed. Questions included whether or not the ‘temporal single-system interpretation’ of the volumes of Capital, a school associated with Andrew Kliman, may resolve the problems in Marx’s theory in a more ‘orthodox’ way. Other comrades asked about the nature of commodities which are supposed to have exchanged ‘at their labour value’ in pre-capitalist social formations, about how the theory deals with the differing organic compositions of capital and the formation of a general rate of profit, as well as about simpler questions, such as the nature of ‘productive’ and ‘unproductive’ labour under capitalism and the difference between labour and labour-power. In short a session of tremendous value, if you’ll excuse the pun, to either the beginner or the expert in political economy.
Capital and money
Editor of Critique and Marxist political-economist Hillel Ticktin gave an account of the power of money and its various semi-developed forms through history until it could blossom as full capitalist money. The present crisis, he contended, is characterised by an excess of money in the possession of the capitalist class which cannot function as capital due to a lack of productive outlets for investment – a form of stagnation which is apparent alongside the seemingly contradictory phenomenon of record profits for some firms.
As always, the angrier comrade Ticktin gets about capitalism, the better speaker he becomes and the second half of his presentation and his responses to the debate were undoubtedly the highlight of his session after a somewhat hesitant start. In response to questions about China as a potential new hegemonic state, Ticktin ruled out a major inter-imperialist war occurring in the near future due to its weakness and social instability, though some comrades believed that the increasing tensions around Iran could trigger something along these lines. Comrade Ticktin’s optimism that, even if there were a major war, the capitalists would refrain from the use of nuclear weapons, was also criticised by some.
Werner Bonefeld, radical academic and co-founder of the ‘Open Marxism’ school, gave an illuminating talk on the nature of the bourgeois state and its place in liberal political thought. Bonefeld began with Adam Smith’s thoughts on the state, seeing it as a strong interventionist body against capital when it became monopolistic, and labour when it became rebellious.
The origins of neoliberalism as a doctrine can be traced to 1920s Germany and the ‘ordo-liberals’ – the pioneering neoliberals who went on to interest Hayek and others, and first theorised the strong state and the free market as the solution to the generalised social crisis and the threat of working class power that engulfed Germany during that period.
On the one hand, this can take the form of the withdrawal of services previously provided by the state – for example, as part of the Conservatives’ ‘Big Society’ under the banner of ‘freedom’, ‘entrepreneurship’ and so on; and the encouragement of ‘self-reliance’, as opposed to collectivism – even the peculiar ‘collectivism’ of the capitalist state. On the other hand, it is judicious for the capitalists to actually integrate workers into the state/market with mortgage debt, small-scale share ownership, etc. This is the capitalist ‘citizen’ who is given a stake of some sort in order to prevent them from becoming dangerous ‘proletarians’ who have nothing and may seek to self-organise or make demands on the state. Bonefeld concluded that we must think about politics and our tasks in a way that is not bound up with the logic of the system if we are to avoid becoming part of it – categories such as ‘the working class’ and ‘state power’ are those of capitalism itself, he said.
The last words of the weekend were left to the CPGB’s own Mike Macnair on the subject of Keynesianism. Comrade Macnair modestly noted that he was giving this presentation at the request of the CPGB’s Provisional Central Committee and not because he was an expert of Keynes – he confessed that The general theory of employment, interest and money had made for pretty dismal Christmas reading. But he need not have worried.
Comrade Macnair began by noting that the left, from Labour to the SWP, was advocating Keynesianism of one sort or another. Instead of seeing Keynesianism as an alternative to capitalism, which it most certainly is not, or as an effective palliative for capitalist ills, which it probably is not, the left needs to develop new ways of thinking about politics and its project for society that do not tie us to capitalism’s own premises. Keynesianism definitely does not fit this bill.
Keynesian demands are nationalist by their very nature, as their implementation is predicated on the relative economic success of one nation-state against others on the world market. This creates an obstacle to the independent political organisation of the working class and its action internationally. Alternatives to capitalism, said Macnair, are only viable insofar as they reflect the real extent of the division of labour in the world economy – for example, large-scale worker cooperative federations organised politically would be required in order to prevent them lapsing back into mere capitalist competition. The same reasoning applies to the CPGB’s demands for Europe-wide trade unions, a Communist Party of the EU and so on.
Aiming to slaughter one sacred cow of parts of the left, the comrade questioned whether Keynesianism was even responsible for the so-called ‘golden age’ of the welfare state, full employment and so on in the two decades after World War II in parts of Europe and North America. Answering in the negative, he listed instead the end of the British empire and the freeing of a world economy ripe for American expansion and a new boom period; the bourgeoisie’s fear of its populations turning socialist; the presence of the Red Army deep within Europe; and the mass ‘official communist’ parties to be found in most countries.
So what sort of measures should Marxists be demanding, if not Keynesianism? Comrade Macnair’s own suggestions were that Marxists can fight for the defence of existing levels of state benefits and wages. We can demand the shortening of the working day, we can make demands for health and safety legislation, we can make demands on how the existing state budget is collected/allocated in addition to our political demands. But we do so not because we think the winning of such demands would resolve the crisis. We do so because they are what the working class needs and what a workers’ government would implement in the short term.
The debate around Keynesianism and Marxism was probably the liveliest of the weekend, given how close it is to the hearts of liberals, social democrats and even parts of the ‘revolutionary’ left everywhere. Comrades from the floor brought up the experience of the Allende and Mitterand governments in Chile and France respectively as examples of Keynesian-type disasters similar to what parts of the left advocate today. Moshé Machover made the point that even to the extent that Keynesianism had worked in the developed countries post-war, it required bigger and bigger doses every time until it failed and blew up. Other comrades brought up the repudiation of Keynesianism by the Callaghan government, which took the first steps down the road of monetarism in Britain. Other comrades wondered if, in a crisis such as the current one, all that is feasible it to call for outright revolution – a suggestion rejected strongly by others.
All in all, the weekend school was a comradely, interesting, diverse and even humorous event, in which Marxists and lefts were free to debate and exchange views on some of the most fundamental elements of our political economy – elements which are decisive in our understanding of and approach to capitalism and the way we go about creating a new society. An example of open debate between contending ideas, the school stands distinctly apart from many left educational events, where dissenting views – particularly those voiced from the left – are unwelcome and ‘high theory’ is left to the party ‘experts’.
The video files from the school will shortly be available on the internet, allowing a wider audience to access these ideas – hopefully the school took a small, but important step towards rehabilitating Marxism and combating the political degeneration of the left. The CPGB intends to organise more of the same – a highlight of 2012 is sure to be our annual Communist University, a week-long educational event to be held from August 20-26, to which all are welcome.