One-dimensional Marxism and proposition one

Why does the CPGB accuse the Socialist Workers Party of economism? Jack Conrad explains with a look at the 'where we stand column' in Socialist Worker and the comrades' attitude to nature, ecology and global warming

SWP: inspired by Ferdinand Lassalle?

Week in and week out, Socialist Worker carries a regular 'Where we stand' column. Apart from political novices, few will bother to read it. Fewer still, if any, cross-examine and seriously criticise the column proposition by proposition. A mistake.

When it comes to programme, 'Where we stand' is just about all the famished Socialist Workers Party possesses. As we have repeatedly, and surely conclusively, proven - not least when it comes to Respect, contesting elections and posing for governmental power - there is a growing cleavage, a gulf, developing between theory and practice.

Dominated, manipulated and heavily policed by the SWP machine, Respect was founded as, and continues to show all the morbid symptoms of, a classic unpopular popular front. Maintaining unity with a largely phantom muslim and social democratic right muffles, suffocates and kills leftwing principles. John Rees - the Tony Blair of Cliffism - marshals an increasingly sullen body of troops to vote down one principle after another implicitly or explicitly contained in Socialist Worker's own 'Where we stand' column.

Gay and women's rights, open borders, republicanism, a workers' representative taking only an average skilled worker's wage, secularism, proletarian socialism, etc. Many 'shibboleths' have been sacrificed. Each sacrifice has been a 'clause four' moment. Recruited as 'Where we stand' revolutionaries, rank and file members, once carded up and broken in, are reduced by the SWP bureaucracy into pliant speaking tools. Slaves. Theirs not to reason why. Theirs just to pay dues and to obey.

Once John Rees has one of his hunches, they are expected to serve as unthinking cannon fodder. That, or they are on their way out. Because of the revolving door, the ex-SWP is now a genuine small mass party. But the problem with the SWP is not to be found simply in the divergence between theory and practice. The problem runs deeper. Much deeper.

The SWP's theory is itself highly problematic. It is Marxist in outward appearance only. Packaging and presentation. But the content of SWP politics is economism. In the last analysis economism is a bourgeois world outlook which restricts and narrows down the horizons of the working class to mere trade unionism - that or more commonly it simply denies or belittles the essential role of high politics and democracy in the struggle for socialism and communism.

The SWP is hardly alone. Almost the whole spectrum of the left in the United Kingdom advocates economism in one form or another - Socialist Campaign Group, Scottish Socialist Party, Irish Republican Socialist Party, Socialist Party in England and Wales, International Socialist Group, Workers Power, Socialist Appeal, Labour Briefing, Alliance for Workers' Liberty, Revolutionary Democratic Group, Democratic Socialist Alliance, etc. Not that economism denies politics.

The problem is that, when the economistic left takes up politics, it is not the politics of the working class and necessarily, therefore, not orthodox Marxism. It is the politics of other classes and other ideological trends: left social democracy, bureaucratic socialism, stageist halfway houses, liberalism, greenism, feminism, black separatism, petty nationalism, etc. Economism is therefore a parody of Marxism. One-dimensional Marxism. Genuine Marxism strives on every front to bring about an understanding of the necessity of the working class mastering scientific theory and becoming the champion of all oppressed and exploited sections and strata of society.

Democracy and socialism are inseparable. Socialism is not the nationalisation of the top 200 monopolies or even the abolition of capitalism. Socialism is victory in the battle for democracy. Socialism is working class rule and the first stage in the transition to a communist society where the guarantee for the full development of each individual is the full development of all. In other words the Marxist project is about the realisation of universal freedom. It is that or nothing.


We need not delve into dark and dusty theoretical nooks and crannies in order to reveal the SWP's economism. Take proposition one of Socialist Worker's 'Where we stand' column. This is how it reads: "The workers create all the wealth under capitalism. A new society can only be constructed when they collectively seize control of that wealth and plan its production and distribution."

For those inexperienced in Marxism this might appear as a perfectly acceptable formulation. Yes, it is superficially anti-capitalist and apparently militantly pro-working class. What do we object to then? Where is the economism? It lies not in the call for the working class to "collectively seize" control of the wealth they create and then "plan its production and distribution". Economism announces itself in the first sentence: "The workers create all the wealth under capitalism."

The fault with this statement is twofold. Firstly, the proposition is simply untrue. Workers do not create all wealth under capitalism. Secondly, it treats workers merely as wage-slaves, the producers of commodities - not feeling, thinking, emotional human beings. Let us begin with wealth under capitalism. Wealth for capital concerns value, surplus value and accumulated surplus value - its general form being money. Karl Marx gives a simple algebraic formula for capital: M-C-M¹.

This movement involves the capitalist laying out money to purchase commodities in order to realise more money in the market place. When this takes the embryonic form of mercantile capitalism, the secret of making something out of nothing is to be found in the cheating of the immediate producers and the existence of isolated geographical zones, which are tenuously linked by the merchant's ships or caravans. Arab traders bought cheap in India and China and sold dear in Byzantium and feudal Europe. Merchants parasitically inserted themselves between these 'worlds'. There were no socially determining capitalist relations of production. Unequal exchange was the key to the merchant's wealth and capital accumulation.

Under industrial capitalism, however, surplus-value derives from the surplus-labour performed by workers who are forced to sell their ability to labour to a capitalist. By means of coercion direct producers have been separated from the means of production and as a result workers have to present themselves daily for hire. It is that or poverty and maybe even starvation. Yet on average workers sell their labour-power at a 'fair' market price. As sellers of a commodity - labour-power - they receive back its full worth. Wages buy the means of subsistence necessary for the reproduction of the worker as a wage-slave. Only as human beings are they robbed.

Capital - and therefore in the last analysis its personifications - has no concern for the worker. Capital would compel workers to work for 24 hours a day and seven days a week if such a feat were physically possible. Nor has capital any particular concern for the commodity created by the combination of labour-power, the instruments of labour and raw materials - albeit brought together under the auspices of capital. The resulting commodity could be of the highest quality or complete rubbish. But as long as it sells, and sells at a profit, that is what really matters. Value is what drives capitalism and drives it to constant expansion. Growth and overcoming all barriers to growth is inseparable from the system.

The capitalist lays out money at the beginning of the circuit in order to realise more money "¦ and not just once, but repeatedly. Hence for capital wealth comes in the form of value, surplus-value and above all money. In other words, exchange value. Of course, for the capitalists themselves wealth also comes in the form of use-values. Despite Weberian myths and the so-called protestant work ethic, no one should imagine them living a frugal, self-denying existence, which sees all takings ploughed back into the production process and using money to make more money. As individuals, capitalists indulge themselves - and often to extraordinary excess. They live in ostentatious luxury and cultivate all manner of louche habits and extravagant tastes.

When it comes to transnational companies, Lear jets, chauffeur-driven limos, Saville Row suits and an endless supply of female flesh are almost considered the birthright of every CEO. Use value For capital, wealth is self-expanding money or value. But for the human being, wealth is use-value - what fulfils some desire, what gives pleasure, what it useful. Because use-value so obviously relies on subjective judgement, Marx quite correctly gave the widest possible definition. Use-value, he said, must satisfy a human need of "some sort". Whether these needs arise from the "stomach or from fancy" makes no difference (K Marx Capital Vol 1, London 1970, p35). Use-value is therefore not just about physical needs: it encompasses the imagination too.

Indeed, a use-value may be purely imaginary. Its essence is to be found in the human being rather than the thing itself. The consumer determines utility or use-value. Obviously use-values are bought on the market for money and come in the form of commodities produced through the capitalist production process. However, it is vital to grasp the fact that capital has not only an interest, a drive, to exploit labour and maximise surplus labour. In pursuit of profit, capital also seeks to maximise sales and therefore to expand consumption. Capitalists sell raw materials and the instruments of labour to other capitalists: electricity, steel, machine tools, computer programmes, etc (department I).

They also, however, sell the means of consumption (department II) to other capitalists - and to workers too (food, clothing, housing, transport, drink, etc). While the individual capitalist, the particular capital, attempts to minimise the wages of the workers they employ, capital as many capitals, capital as a system, encourages, manufactures and even acts as the pimp for all manner of new or even artificial wants and needs. Hence advertising, special-offer promotions, celebrity culture and the endless transformation of luxuries into necessities. That, and the class struggle conducted by workers themselves, combines to constantly overcome the barrier represented by the limited consumption power of the working class. Part of what the working class produces is therefore sold back to the working class - and on an ever increasing scale.

That way workers manage to partially develop themselves as human beings. Not that their needs are ever fully satisfied. There is a steady stream of the latest must-haves. Moreover capital, capital accumulation and the lifestyles of the rich always run far ahead of the workers. Relative impoverishment, gnawing dissatisfaction and immiseration remain the lot of the working class. Workers and capitalists alike consume use-values that come in the form of commodities and from the sphere of capitalist relations of production and the exploitation of wage labour (there are non-commodity use-values such as domestic labour - cleaning, cooking, looking after the children, maintaining the car, putting up shelves, etc - and that form of wealth must be the subject of a separate article at some point in the near future).

Doubtless they also consume some commodities that come from peasant agriculture, the individual service-provider or the self-employed artisan. Eg, when visiting Greece, I enjoy drinking the rough village wines sold along the roadside by small farmers; I buy newspapers from my local British-muslim newsagent; and I get my shoes repaired by the British-Bengali cobbler over the road. Such little businesses produce use-values and therefore, by definition, wealth too. With such examples in mind, it is surely mistaken to baldly state that "workers create all the wealth under capitalism". In theoretical terms, forgetting or passing over petty bourgeois commodity production is a mote, a mere speck of dust, in the eye of the SWP's 'Where we stand' column. But there exists a beam. A bloody big one. In his Critique of the Gotha programme Marx is quite explicit. "Labour is not the source of all wealth" (K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 24, London 1989, p81).

There is nature too. Ghostly Marx writes here against the first paragraph of the draft programme of the newly established German Social Democratic Party. The Gotha unity congress in 1875 represented a rotten, unprincipled unification, joining together Lassallean state socialists and the Eisenachers - the Marxists, led by August Bebel and Wilhelm Liebknecht. The first paragraph of the Gotha programme has a strangely familiar ring. In fact it is a ghostly anticipation of Socialist Worker's 'Where we stand' proposition one: "Labour is the source of all wealth and culture, and since useful labour is possible only in society and through society, the proceeds of labour belong undiminished with equal right to all members of society." Did Ferdinand Lassalle inspire the SWP comrades? Did they secretly crib from German social democracy and the Gotha programme?

Of course, they did no such thing. They are transparently honest and frighteningly sincere in their economism. We have a classic case of historical reflux - opportunism recurring, economism spontaneously resurfacing, as it inevitably does, given the material conditions of capitalism and the oppressed position of the working class. Marx savaged the "hollow phrases" about "useful labour" and all members of society having an "equal right" to society's wealth. An underhand borrowing from Lassalle. An unwarranted concession to Lassallism. There is useless labour in society. Labour that fails to produce the intended result.

Furthermore, every society needs a surplus to reinvest in production and infrastructural projects or in case of emergencies. Hence not all production can be, or should be, returned "undiminished" to the producers. As to equality, people are not equal in their abilities. Nor in their needs. The first stage of communist society will operate according to the principle of work time done; but once fully mature it will inscribe onto its banner these splendid words: "From each according to their ability; to each according to their needs." What of the claim that "labour is the source of all wealth" serves as an indictment of capitalism? If anything the opposite is the case.

Displaying great insight, Marx argues that the "bourgeoisie have very good grounds for ascribing supernatural creative power to labour; since precisely from the fact that labour is determined by nature, it follows that man who possesses no other property than his labour-power must, in all conditions of society and culture, be the slave of other men who have made themselves the owners of the material conditions of labour. He can work only with their permission, hence live only with their permission" (K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 24, London 1989, p81).

However, we are mainly concerned here with what Marx had to say about nature. He emphasised: "Nature is just as much the source of wealth of use-values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labour, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labour-power." Marx goes on to explain that "insofar as man from the outset behaves towards nature" - what he calls the "primary source of all instruments and objects of labour" - as an "owner, treats her as belonging to him, his labour becomes the source of use-values, therefore also of wealth." The same gender metaphor occurs elsewhere in order to depict the twofold source of wealth. In Capital, he approvingly quotes William Petty: "Labour is its father and the earth its mother" (K Marx Capital Vol 1, London 1970, p43).

Sunshine and water, air and soil, plants and animals are all 'gifts from nature'. Human beings too are of nature and, just like every other living thing, rely on nature in order to survive. Humanity applies itself to nature and we often calculate on the direct actions of nature. Though a natural product, wheat is selected, sown and harvested by labour; yet it germinates in the soil and needs both rain and the warmth of the sun if it is to grow and duly ripen. So the two forms of wealth conjoin.

Yet, for the laws of capital, what gives the wheat value is not that which is supplied by nature. That has use-value, but no value. Value derives from the application of labour-power alone. There is a spiritual, or artistic, dimension to the use-value of nature that should never be underestimated or discounted. Humans live not by bread alone. I am constantly inspired, humbled, by the evening sunset I see through my office window, the mists that blanket autumn mornings, the thunderstorms as they roll over London. Then there is the stunning beauty of the star-studded night sky, the joy of walking over an ever changing Hampstead Heath, the awe-inspiring mountains and lochs of the Scottish highlands, the Atlantic waves as they crash into the Cornish coast. All are wealth for the human being.

So wealth cannot be limited to the products of human activity alone. Wealth must include every form of consumption, which produce human beings in one respect or another. Michael Lebowitz rightly considers this of particular significance: "Marx's identification of nature as a source of wealth is critical in identifying a concept of wealth that goes beyond capital's perspective" (M Lebowitz Beyond Capital Basingstoke 2003, pp130-31).

Capital, as we have shown, has but one interest - self-expansion. Capital has no intrinsic concern either for the worker or nature. Nature and the human being are nothing for capital, except as objects. Especially over the last 100 years, and increasingly so, capitalist exploitation of nature has resulted in wanton destruction. Deforestation, the erosion of topsoil, the spread of deserts and air and water pollution grow apace. Half the world's population has no ready access to clean drinking water. Countless species of plants and animals have been driven to extinction.

Instead of the cherishing of nature's resources, there is greed, plunder and recklessness. Oil is prodigally devoured and criminally depleted through the car economy, air travel booms while railway prices are hiked, nuclear power is presented as the salvation from global warming and the danger of dramatic climate change. Working class power presents the only viable alternative to the destructive reproduction of capital. First as a countervailing force within capitalism, one which has its own logic which pulls against that of capital. The political economy of the working class brings with it not only higher wages and shorter hours. It is responsible for health services, social security systems, pensions, universal primary and secondary education - and measures that protect the environment. Wealth, for the working class, is not merely about the accumulation and consumption of an ever greater range of commodities. Besides being of capitalism, the working class is uniquely opposed to capitalism.

The political economy of the working class more than challenges capital. As Michael Lebowitz suggests, it points beyond - to the total reorganisation of society and, with that, the ending of humanity's strained, brutalised and crisis-ridden relationship with nature. Custodian Socialism and communism do not raise the workers to the position where they own planet Earth. Mimicking the delusions associated with capitalism - as witnessed under bureaucratic socialism in the Soviet Union - brings disappointment, ecological degradation and the certain revenge of nature. Humanity can only be the custodian. Marx was amongst the first to theorise human dependence on nature and the fact that humanity and nature had co-evolved.

He warned, however, that a metabolic "rift" had occurred which threatened the nature-imposed conditions of human existence. Capitalism crowds vast numbers into polluted, soulless, crime-ridden concrete jungles. Simultaneously, the ever bigger farms of capitalist agriculture denude nature with mono-crops, the ripping up of hedgerows and, as highlighted by Rachel Carson back in the early 1960s, the chemical death meted out to "birds, mammals, fishes, and indeed practically every form of wildlife" (R Carson Silent spring Harmondsworth 1991, p87).

Marxism recognises the necessity of sustainable development and preserving nature for the sake of future generations. The Marx-Engels team wanted to re-establish an intimate connection between town and country, agriculture and industry, and rationally redistribute the population. Mega-cities are profoundly alienating and inhuman. Sprawling conurbations should be rolled back and space made for woods, parks, public gardens, allotments and little farms. As argued by John Bellamy Foster, this programme has "very little practical relevance to capitalist society", which, because of its short-termism and manic fixation on generating profits, is incapable of carrying through such far-reaching measures (J Bellamy Foster Marx's ecology New York 2000, p164).

But under conditions of socialism and communism such ideas will be put into practice. Our aim is not only to put a stop to destruction and preserve what remains. Of course, the great rain forests of Congo, Indonesia, Peru, Columbia and Brazil must be safeguarded. So must the much depleted life in the oceans and seas. But more can be done. Communism would restore and where possible enhance the riches of nature. Human activity - when it progresses spontaneously and not according to a conscious plan - leaves deserts in its wake. Mesopotamia - now dry and dusty - can be remade into the lush habitat it was in pre-Sumerian times.

The Sahara in Africa and Rajputana in India were once home to a wonderful variety of fauna and flora. The parched interior of Australia too. With sufficient resources and careful management they can bloom once again. The aim of such projects would not be to maximise production and churn out an endless flood of products. Hardly the Marxist version of abundance. On the contrary, the communist economy has every reason to rationally economise and minimise all necessary inputs. The "enormous waste" under capitalist social conditions outraged Marx. The by-products of industry, agriculture and human consumption are squandered and lead to pollution of the air and contamination of rivers. Capital volume three contains a section entitled 'Utilisation of the extractions of production'. Here Marx shows his commitment to the scientific "reduction" and "re-employment" of waste (K Marx Capital Vol 3, Moscow 1971, p101).

In place of capitalism's squandermania and Stalin's cult of steel, coal and cement, there comes with communism the human being who is rich in human needs. However, these needs are satisfied not merely by the supply of things: they are first and foremost satisfied through the concert of human interconnections and a readjusted and sustainable relationship with nature. At the heart of the Marxist project is therefore the richest development of human beings. Individuals who have developed their capabilities and capacities so that there is a full working out of all innate and acquired potentialities.

Note: under the influence of the Weeky Worker, the SWP has since changed it's 'Where we stand' column - not its economism, though.