Thinking the alternative pt. 2
Peter Hudis Marx’s concept of the alternative to capitalism Haymarket, 2013, pp241 Michal Polak Class, surplus, and the division of labour Palgrave Macmillan, 2013 (Kindle edition)
What is the final goal of communist political activity, or the strategic alternative to capitalism? The CPGB’s Draft programme, following communist tradition, identifies it as follows:
The higher stage of communism is a free association of producers. Everybody will contribute according to their ability and take according to their need. Real human history begins and society leaves behind the realm of necessity. In the realm of freedom people will become rounded, fully social individuals, who can for the first time truly develop their natural humanity.
But is this option really posed to us by capitalist development, or is it merely another utopia? And if it is posed to us by capitalist development, what are the implications of this final goal for present-day political orientation?
As I said in the first article in this series,1 I think that to approach these questions it is useful to begin by looking at two fairly recent books which bear on the issues. They are very different in character. Peter Hudis’s Marx’s concept of the alternative to capitalism is the book of his 2011 PhD at Loyola University, Chicago. It is a work of Marxology (working out what Karl Marx actually argued), albeit, in its ‘Introduction’, it engages critically with alternative approaches, which he calls ‘objectivist’ and ‘subjectivist’. A great deal of water has flowed under bridges in the 132 years since Marx’s death in 1883, so that it is foolish to suppose that ‘what Marx argued’ can be used as a direct guide to political orientation without consideration both of subsequent developments and of subsequent discoveries about matters from before and during Marx’s own times. But good Marxological work can help orient us in the present, if mainly by identifying clearly what Marx did argue, as opposed to the extraordinarily common bad Marxological work produced in the cold war period both by opponents of Marxism and by many self-identified Marxists.
Michal Polak’s Class, surplus and the division of labour is also a PhD thesis undertaken at the London School of Economics. It is almost the opposite of Hudis’s book. Polak’s investigation of Marx’s argument is at best skeletal. He offers, in fact, a criticism of Marx, which is heavily engaged with the (now near-defunct) ‘analytical Marxist’ school; but which, he suggests, at the end of the day reinstates the ideas of class and exploitation at a higher level of generality than that used by Marx. He is concerned precisely with the developments which have occurred since Marx’s time: in particular, the Soviet regime and its imitators, and their obvious failure to do away with class. A book of this sort asks questions which - whether or not we end up agreeing with its conclusions - can force us to think about the foundations of our ideas.
In both cases, this review will be primarily descriptive of what the books contain, with critical elements secondary. This is mainly a matter of space; but in the third part of the series, I will deploy issues which have arisen out of these reviews, and will add some further criticisms of the arguments.
Peter Hudis is a prominent leader of the International Marxist-Humanist Organisation, one of the several splinters which have emerged in the early 21st century from the US News and Letters Committee, originally led by Raya Dunayevskaya (1910-87). This background creates an inevitable risk that his account of Marx will be biased to ‘finding Dunayevskaya in Marx’. It would be illusory to expect an absence of bias - the point is, rather, to read Hudis with awareness of this possible bias.
The first issue is the ground covered by the book. Setting the introduction and conclusion for the moment on one side, the structure of the book is to review Marx’s major theoretical writings (whether published or unpublished in his lifetime) chronologically, looking for what, if anything, they contain on the image of the future society.
Chapter 1 - ‘The transcendence of alienation in the writings of the young Marx’ - begins with an attempt to work out the normative foundations of Marx’s arguments in his earliest writings before considering in the second section Marx’s partial drafts critiquing Hegel’s Philosophy of right (the unpublished draft on Staatsrecht,constitutional law, and the published ‘introduction’); in the third, the ‘Comments on James Mill’ and ‘Economic and philosophical manuscripts of 1844’; and in the fourth, the 1845 draft article on Friedrich List’s System of national economy, The German ideology; and (very briefly) the Communist manifesto. Use is not made of the 1848 Demands of the Communist Party in Germany, or of the 1850 Address of the central committee to the Communist League.2
Chapter 2 - ‘The conception of a post-capitalist society in the drafts of Capital’ - follows Samuel Hollander’s 2008 (marginalist) account of Marx’s economics3 in treating Marx’s Poverty of philosophy (Misère de la philosophie),4published in 1847, as the ‘first draft’ of Marx’s Capital. The ‘drafts’ treated then consist of this text; the 1858 Grundrisse; and the 1861-63 manuscripts, part of which was published by Kautsky in 1905-10 as Theories of surplus value. The published 1859 Contribution to the critique of political economy is not analysed on the ground that “many of the points contained ... are found in either the Grundrisse or Capital” (p133 - this is not a particularly strong argument).
Chapter 3 - ‘The vision of the new society in Marx’s Capital’ - is broadly based on the published state of the text in three volumes. Hence it starts with Volume 1 (first published in 1867, second edition 1872, and a revised French edition 1872-75, in Marx’s lifetime), and proceeds to Volume 2 (published by Engels in 1885 from a draft revised by Marx after the publication of Volume 1) and then to Volume 3, which was edited (not to the point of producing a coherent argument) by Engels, and published in 1894, on the basis of drafts Marx wrote before the publication of Volume 1. It might have fitted better with the chronological approach to the development of Marx’s thought for Hudis to have placed Capital Vol 3 with the drafts in chapter 2, and to have treated slightly more systematically the differences between the second German edition of 1872 and the first French edition, the last in Marx’s lifetime, of 1872-75.5 There is a brief reference (p164) to Marx’s ‘popular’ version of some of his core arguments in Value, price and profit (1865, published 1898).
Chapter 4 - ‘Marx’s late writings on post-capitalist society’ - covers The civil war in France (1871) and its drafts (as is characteristic of ‘new left’ and similar writers, no differentiation beyond the footnoting is made between the drafts and the published version); the 1875 Critique of the Gotha programme; and, very briefly, Marx’s ‘Conspectus of Bakunin’s Statism and anarchy’ (1874). Notably, no use is made of the draft programme of the Parti Ouvrier (1880).6
I add, more generally, that of Hal Draper’s Karl Marx’s Theory of revolution, Hudis cites in his bibliography only Vol 1, State and bureaucracy (1977), though Vol 3, The dictatorship of the proletariat (1986), and Vol 4, Critique of other socialisms (1990), are both clearly relevant to Hudis’s theme. This reflects a bias in his choices of ‘Marx material’ in favour of ‘major works’, as opposed to Draper’s method of attempting to use everything available.
It may also be related to a second issue, which is that of the use (or not) of Engels. Dunayevskaya was a supporter of the ‘Engels vulgarised Marx’ school of opinion. Hudis in general is committed to “investigate Marx’s theoretical corpus on its own terms. In doing so I will avoid conflating it with that of his close colleague and follower, Friedrich Engels ... Marx was, by Engels’ own admission, a far deeper and more rigorous thinker” (p8). He concedes (p8, note17) that there is “direct textual evidence” that “Marx approved of specific formulations of Engels” in relation to the discussion of “workers’ cooperatives and labour time in Anti-Dühring”. The evidence referred to (not cited here) actually amounts to Marx being for practical purposes a co-author of the Anti-Dühring, so that the book has as strong a claim to inclusion in the ‘Marx corpus’ as the Communist manifesto, also co-authored, and probably a stronger claim than TheGerman ideology, given that this latter text appears to have been constructed by Ryazanov out of several separate manuscripts.7
Having outlined the shape of the materials Hudis studied, let us now consider what he found in them as Marx’s vision of the alternative to capitalism - and how this developed (if at all).
The red thread which Hudis finds running through Marx’s arguments from the very beginning, in his doctoral dissertation, is the critique of alienation, or, more exactly, of the ‘inversion of subject and predicate’. Here, human beings’ own creative powers are ‘externalised’ into powers controlling humans and blocking or limiting human freedom.8 From the Critique of Hegel’s philosophy of right drafts and On the Jewish question Hudis draws the idea that emancipation is the reduction of social order to the truly human, while still cautioning that these texts date before Marx’s break with capitalism.
The Comments on James Mill and Economic and philosophical manuscripts, Hudis argues, represent this decisive shift beyond democratic to anti-capitalist ideas, with alienated labour central to the first, and the second showing philosophical foundations of political economy, grounded in a shift away from Feuerbach and a deeper appropriation of Hegel’s Phenomenology. This is a line of argument common to the Hegelian Marxists, which is directly criticised by David Leopold in his The young Marx; but, though Hudis cites Leopold, he does not reply directly to Leopold’s arguments as to Marx and Hegel (chapter 2) and Marx and Feuerbach (chapter 4).
The final substantive section of the first chapter, on the ‘Draft article on List’, The German ideology and the Communist manifesto, stresses the leading role of the proletariat as a class; and that the abolition of private property proposed in the Communist manifesto is merely a first step. Hudis takes the opportunity here to polemicise against “Kautsky and Lenin” on the issue of theory coming to the workers’ movement “from the outside” (p80), citing an article of his own from 1998; but he does not appear to respond to the point made by Lars Lih in Lenin rediscovered (2005), that Kautsky’s and Lenin’s arguments merely asserted a point Hudis himself accepts, that theoretical work is itself a form of labour; nor does he recognise the context of these arguments: ie, the claims of the rightwing trade union bureaucrats and their hangers-on that the bureaucrats’ working class background should overrule leftwing arguments offered by Marxist intellectuals. Here we get another signal of the ‘Marx leads to Dunayevskaya’ narrative.
The fundamental point of the chapter is drawn out in its conclusion, polemicising against Allan Megill’s Karl Marx: the burden of reason (New York 2001). While Megill is, Hudis argues, right to deny Marx was a materialist or broke with the fundamentals of Hegel, contrary to Megill, Hudis argues that Marx’s vision is not rationalist, but humanist. His vision is of the emancipation of humanity as such, including its sensuous experiences and subjective interactions.
It is worth commenting briefly that Leopold’s chapter 4, ‘Human flourishing’, addresses the same issue without the presupposition of a Marx breaking with Feuerbach’s ideas in the direction of Hegel and, consequently, with more discussion of Feuerbach’s ideas and of the relation of Marx’s ideas to them. The result is, in fact, a richer account of Marx’s early views of human emancipation than that offered by Hudis, and one which engages more directly with the standard liberal criticisms of these views.
The two chapters on “the drafts of Capital” and on Capital, while elaborate, add relatively little to the image Hudis paints of Marx’s vision of the alternative as fundamentally humanist, speaking more to the transition to this form. In substance, the point is the negative critique of forms of ‘Ricardian socialism’, especially Proudhonist versions, and of the associated proposals for ‘labour tokens’ as an alternative to money. The underlying point is there already in the ‘Comments on James Mill’ and ‘Economic and philosophical manuscripts’: that the requirement to ‘work for a living’ in the sense of wage-labour in itself entails the subordination of human ends to value-production, so that ‘purified’ forms of market order such as Proudhonist mutualism - and equally forms of ‘state capitalism’ - remain within this logic.
This negative critique leads to the conclusion, for Hudis, that the replacement of capitalism involves the immediate overthrow of value production, with a subsequent process of construction of the free human society. The immediate overthrow of value production is conceived in terms of a “communal network of associations, in which value production has been superseded on a systemic level” (p110). While this view is specifically attributed to the Grundrisse in Hudis’s text, the specific formulation in fact involves ‘reading back’ aspects of TheCivil war in France into the more indeterminate ones in the Grundrisse. I leave on one side the various formulations in Hudis’s text which are designed to ‘save the phenomena’ for the idea that the Soviet Union and its imitators were forms of ‘state capitalism’. This has the usual knock-on consequence of such theories: that it drives Marx’s critique of political economy towards a pure abstraction about the wage relation alone, which, as redesigned, would be unable to distinguish between capitalism and the late antique economy9 - so that Hudis has difficulty in handling or accounting for the historical elements of the Grundrisse and of Capital, and the Contribution to the critique of political economy has to be left on one side.
The chapter on ‘Marx’s late writings’ begins by reasserting the standard left point from Thecivil war in France: the claim there that the proletariat cannot simply take hold of and use the existing state machinery is a change from the formulations on the issue in the Communist manifesto. This is true enough, but poses the question of what Marx meant by the suggestions at the Hague congress and elsewhere that the British constitution would allow the proletariat to take over simply by winning an electoral majority. In my opinion these suggestions were mistaken - though comprehensible, given the weakness of the central domestic bureaucratic-coercive state apparatus and the high degree of freedom of local authorities in 19th century Britain. But, since they date after The civil war in France, this text cannot be treated as Marx’s last word on the issue. The larger part of the chapter wrestles with the Critique of the Gotha programme, and, in particular, the proposal for the use of labour tokens in the ‘lower stage of communism’ in this text, which - even as Hudis reinterprets it - does not sit terribly comfortably with Marx’s prior critiques of labour tokens proposals.
The conclusion begins with the statement:
This study has shown that a coherent and vital concept of a new society is contained in the works of Marx, present from his early works of the 1840s to his last writings. From the inception of his philosophical project, Marx expressed strong opposition to any formation or situation in which individuals become dominated by social relations and products of their own making. His criticism of the inversion of subject and predicate, which is evident from his early writings on the state and civil society, carries over into his critique of the economic formations of capitalism ... (p207).
Close to its end, comes the claim that
Given the absence of a viable alternative to capitalism, discontent with the many ills of existing society risks falling short of a serious challenge to the system as a whole. In this sense, a philosophically grounded alternative to capitalism is not only needed to further develop mass opposition; it is needed to actually inspire it (p215).
In spite of all the criticisms I have made of Hudis’s argument here, clearly he is right that Marx’s project is precisely one of general human emancipation - and hence of a society whose goal is the development of human capabilities both individual and collective.
However, it is very questionable indeed whether the problem with lack of inspiration is about the philosophical grounding of a socialist or communist alternative. It seems far more likely that the problem is a lack of belief that such a project is practically viable. Here Hudis’s Dunayevskayan commitments, and choice to proceed via Marxology, may well limit the value of the book.
Michal Polak’s politics are a great deal less visible, at least to this Anglophone reader, than Peter Hudis’s. His publishers, Palgrave, and various other links, advertise him as working as an advisor to the Slovak finance ministry (since 2012 the centre-left SMER Social Democrat party has formed the Slovak government); a 2004 article (in English) in the Austrian journal Kurswechsel on the evolution of Slovak politics since 1990 identifies him broadly with the left.10 The introduction (chapter 1) to Class, surplus, and the division of labour concludes with the comment:
Ultimately, of course, I hope to contribute in at least a minor way to that current of history which, despite the failure of one grand attempt, will nevertheless one day lead to an overcoming of the division into classes, making it possible for the first time to fully appreciate that which despite and across the class boundaries and barriers we glimpse uncertainly in a myriad ways even today: that great sense of shared belonging, our common humanity.
The book is an exploration of the basic theory of class, understood primarily as an economic phenomenon. The starting point is that Marx’s elementary accounts define classes (a) by relation to the means of production and (b) by antagonistic relations of exploitation. They also project a tendency for the class of small producers to disappear and society to become polarised between a small group of capitalists and a large group of proletarians.
These approaches have been ‘problematised’ by ‘revisionist’ writing since the time of Eduard Bernstein and a great deal of academic production. Polak identifies broadly three problems, the first of which is subdivided. The first point concerns classes in ‘advanced’ capitalism. As Bernstein identified, while the old class of small producers has indeed declined, polarisation in its full sense has not resulted, since capitalism has produced a new, employed, middle class, who cannot be simply identified as skilled workers (though some people who self-identify as ‘middle class’ clearly are simply skilled workers). Meanwhile, as Adolph Berle and Gardiner Means and, following them, James Burnham argued, modern capitalism is characterised by separation of ownership and control: ie, big corporations in the Anglosphere are characteristically ‘owned’ by dispersed groups of shareholders (often pension funds, etc), and actually controlled by senior executive managers (in recent years these managers have been distributees of a large share of the corporate profits, fraudulently identified as ‘salaries’ or ‘executive compensation’).11
The second point is, of course, Stalinism - ie, that, whatever the ‘Soviet mode of production’ was (if there was such a thing), it was certainly not the ‘free association of the producers’. The third is the extensive objections which have been made to the labour theory of value and hence the concept of exploitation associated with it. Polak addresses the solutions which have been proposed to these problems as problems of the theory of class; he suggests that this will, in the end, allow a superior concept of exploitation, which can more successfully handle the ‘managerial middle class’.
There are some fairly serious problems with Polak’s Marxology, and some problems with the range of literature used in other respects. As to the Marxology, as with Hudis, Hal Draper is underused - here not used at all, though Karl Marx’s theory of revolution Volume 2, The politics of social classes, would be plainly relevant to the argument. On the issue of the theory of classes and exploitation, GEM de Ste Croix’s Class struggle in the ancient Greek world (1981) is cited in the bibliography, but only used for a limited empirical point about the tendency of the class elite to intensify exploitation, not for de Ste Croix’s theorisation of what it means to attribute a particular class character to a society.
Similarly, on the issue of the labour theory of value and exploitation, a very limited range of literature has been used. Polak’s initial definition takes Marx to have adhered to something like Ferdinand Lassalle’s ‘iron law of wages’: ie, that wages cannot rise significantly above bare subsistence rates. Marx’s explicit denunciation of this view does not ‘solve’ the Marxological problem, since in places Marx himself wrote as if it was true; but it does problematise Polak’s basic assumption. Though Polak considers the ‘temporal single systems interpretation’ of Marx (TSSI) and uses Carchedi’s early work on class, he does not use Carchedi’s more recent work on the labour theory of value; nor does he consider the alternative line of reasoning, which deals with the ‘transformation problem’ by rejecting the arithmetical-average ‘general rate of profit’ in Capital Vol 3, and hence ‘prices of production’ - as in Farjoun’s and Machover’s Laws of chaos (1983) and the ‘probabilistic political economy’ school influenced by this book.
Polak’s arguments are, nonetheless, of interest, since, though the problems he identifies may not have been Marx’s problems, they were certainly problems with common interpretations of Marx; and the issues of Stalinism, of the managerial ‘middle class’ and of ‘ownership and control’ are real issues for Marxist policy and for the idea of a real strategic alternative to capitalism. In particular, Hudis’s approach, which blames post-Marx Marxists for philosophical errors leading to Stalinism, is vulnerable to the critiques referred to.
The resulting argument is fairly intricate - a great deal more complicated than Hudis’s argument - and I can only give a very sketchy and, probably, as a result partly misleading outline of it. Chapter 2 - ‘It’s not what you have, it’s what you do: the return of the division-of-labour theory of class’ - begins by arguing that Marx’s theory necessarily entails class as a form of polarisation of exploiters and exploited and therefore theoretically cannot account for intermediate classes. Meanwhile, however, the early Marx also analysed class in terms of the division of labour, and in particular the division between mental and manual labour. The problems already referred to have led, he argues, to a return of division-of-labour analysis. Polak reviews and critiques in depth variant versions offered by Nikos Poulantzas, Allin Cottrell, Erik Olin Wright, Guglielmo Carchedi, Rudolf Bahro, Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel, and Pierre Bordieu, concluding that division-of-labour approaches remain ad hoc and do not solve the ‘exploitation problem’.
Chapter 3 - ‘Exploitation is not a game: a critique of John Roemer’ - systematically reviews ‘analytical Marxist’ Roemer’s attempts to construct a theory of exploitation without the labour theory of value and by constructing counter-factuals about the distribution of property rights. The critique of Roemer then sets the stage for chapter 4 - ‘Back to basics: reproduction, subsistence, exploitation and class’ - which concludes that the essential core of Marx’s argument is the need to distinguish reproduction (reproducing the current state of the human individual, or of the economy) from surplus production, and then works through defining terms - distinguishing ‘exploitation’ from ‘poverty’ and ‘wealth’ - and concludes with a treatment of the issue of class as a structural position: class ‘awareness’ and ‘consciousness’ and class ‘agency’. Chapter 5 - ‘If profit is the answer, what is the question: income from capital and the labour theory of value’ - argues that neoclassical and Austrian-school theories of profit simply fail to explain the phenomenon, and the labour theory of value in some sense is essential to doing so.
Chapter 6 - ‘What price value? Beyond the transformation problem and the Sraffian critique’ - argues, broadly, that both the ‘New interpretation’ of Gerard Dumenil, Duncan Foley and others and the TSSI are logically incoherent. Instead, he argues that Marx’s account is a subset of cases, valid only if capitalists invest the whole surplus product rather than consuming any of it as luxury goods and services. If they consumed the entire surplus as luxury goods and services, this luxury sector of the economy would be characterised by ‘Walrasian’ subjective-utility prices and the law of value would not hold outside the ‘reproductive’ sector; with the result that produces the ‘transformation’ problem.
Necessity and freedom
Chapter 7 - ‘A beast of many faces: complex exploitation, the sphere of necessity and the sphere of freedom’ - ‘cashes’ the argument of the rest of the book in an attempt to synthesise the surplus-product and division-of-labour approaches to class. It is at this point that Polak’s argument becomes most directly relevant to the issue of visions of the future.
Polak has constructed an abstract model of class, which ignores issues of inheritance and social mobility. He makes the point that this is an explicit abstraction, in contrast to the commonplace practice of implicitly abstracting from these issues. When he comes to resynthesise, he begins with the proposition that most people receive some income above subsistence; and that class identification is not a matter of how much income, but of how income is received. The three basic classes are ‘capitalists’, who receive income from ownership of ‘non-human resources’; ‘professionals’ who receive, in addition to a wage, rents from naturally or artificially scarce skills; and proletarians, who receive only a wage.
The managers are characterised by the fact that they both perform the function of capital - by seeking profit - and do so by exercising hierarchical authority. Polak gives fairly extensive analytical arguments for supposing that hierarchical authority is not in itself exploitation; but that its existence will commonly entail exploitation.
Indeed, under a permanent managerial hierarchy, he argues, the managers are better off in the sort of work that they do, whether or not they are sufficiently well-paid to command luxury goods and services - and they are better off at the expense of the managed, who are stuck with doing boring/drudgery type work and/or working in unpleasant environments. Hence, his ‘generalisation’ of the concept of exploitation is that the exploiters do not need to be pure parasites or anything like it. He tags this phenomenon as ‘complexploitation’. Put another way, the ‘complexploited’ are, he argues, pushed into or held in ‘the realm of necessity’; while the ‘complexploiters’ have a degree of creativity and choice in their work which places them more in ‘the realm of freedom’ and allows them a degree of more all-round human development. The result is inherent class conflict between ‘complexploited’ and ‘complexploiters’.
The merit of this argument is precisely to pose the issues of ‘managerialism’ and ‘bureaucracy’ in ways which can beused to analyse the persistence of class and the politics of class in ‘developed’ capitalist society - and in the Stalinist regimes; and which can beaddressed to the question of general human emancipation. The book does not in itself address these questions. But its logic has large implications.
In particular, it returns us to two points I made in the first article. One is underdeveloped (though present) in Hudis: ie, that Marx’s vision of the new society involves the overcoming of the ‘division of labour’, meaning occupational specialisation. The second, and related, is the persistence of the middle classes, even if the immediate political power of capital is overthrown. I will return to these issues in the final article.
1. ‘Thinking the alternative’, part 1 Weekly Worker April 9.
2. The Marx texts referred to here and below are generally available on Marxists Internet Archive.
3. The economics of Karl Marx Cambridge 2008.
4. The title, which would at first sight not suggest a book about political economy, comes from its character as a polemic against Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s 1846 Philosophie de la misère.
5. Compare, for example, KB Anderson, ‘The “unknown” Marx’s Capital Vol 1’ Review of Radical Political Economics No15 (1983), pp71-80.
7. See Carver: http://marxismocritico.com/2013/05/06/the-german-ideology-never-took-place.
8. The idea in this form is quite similar to Ludwig Feuerbach’s critique of Christianity, but Hudis argues (pp42-43) that Marx’s dissertation was completed before Feuerbach published The essence of Christianity (1841); David Leopold, similarly but not identically, argues that the idea of the verkehrte Welt, the topsy-turvy world, was an intellectual commonplace of the period: The young Karl Marx Cambridge 2007, chapter 2, notes 131-32, addressing Marx’s slightly later Critique of Hegel’s philosophy of right.
9. Cf J Banaji Agrarian change in late antiquity Oxford 2001 - and contrast PF Bang The Roman bazaar Cambridge 2008.
10. ‘Slovakia: from “national capitalism” to EU liberalism (and beyond)’ Kurswechsel No1, 2004, pp70-77: www.beigewum.at/kurswechsel/jahresprogramm-2004/heft-12004.
11. A Berle and G Means The modern corporation and private property (1932) second edition, New York 1999; J Burnham The managerial revolution (1941) London 1945; cf B Cheffins and S Bank, ‘Is Berle and Means really a myth?’ Business History Review No83 (2009) pp443-74.