[Marxism] Reply to Tom on the meaning of capitalism and state capitalism

Jurriaan Bendien andromeda246 at hetnet.nl
Mon Dec 13 17:36:53 MST 2004

Personally I prefer, as a guide, the theoretical framework sketched by Marx 
in the introduction to his Grundrisse manuscript. Thus, the social economy 

- relations of production
- relations of circulation
- relations of distribution
- relations of consumption

We could add to that list relations of communication, which are of course 
indispensable for social labour.

Marx's own analysis focused mainly on relations of production, and only 
summarily discussed the other spheres. Especially consumption was an aspect 
which he discussed very little at all. As Louis Althusser quite correctly 
noted, Marx's analysis is "radically unfinished". In addition, the first two 
volumes of Capital aimed to analyse the production and reproduction of 
capital in the theoretical "pure case", assuming for the most part equal 
exchange (or price=value, or supply=demand). Only in the third volume does 
Marx begin to consider cases of unequal exchange, the financial circuits, 
and the effects of different supply and demand conditions. This is still far 
away from an analysis of the functioning of a real economy, it's more an 
analysis of the "deep structure" of capitalism, and the basic developmental 
dynamics which it creates. We only have some clues about how he would have 
pursued the analysis, from his articles on various specific economic and 
political topics.

The more stultified Marxisms try to turn Marx's unfinished work into a 
finished doctrine or system (at worst, a theology) which must not be altered 
or developed, but that is obviously not what Marx himself had in mind; he 
encouraged people do do their own thinking and welcomed genuine scientific 
criticism. He himself had constantly studied the most advanced economic and 
political thought of his time, as well as the available facts, and sought to 
integrate the important insights into his own analysis. If "Marxism" 
prevents this process from continuing, we are left with a 19th century 
theory to understand 21st century capitalism. That can obviously only result 
in deformed theory and a deformed political practice.

Marx himself was admittedly far ahead of his time. For example, towards the 
end of his life, he wanted to analyse the ups and downs of the business 
cycle mathematically, but this project could not go ahead, since the 
economic statistics to do it were only created about 50 years later. Up to 
the 1930s, the vast majority of people who called themselves Marxists had 
not actually read Capital Vol. 2 and 3 or the manuscripts on Theories of 
Surplus-Value, and many other economic manuscripts Marx wrote did not become 
available until much later. Substantive free scientific discussions aiming 
to develop Marx's theory further only really began in the late 1960s and 

I don't think the concept of surplus-value (as distinct from 
surplus-product) can be validly applied to the economy of the Soviet Union, 
simply because in large part the surplus-product was not even monetised, and 
insofar as it was monetised in non-convertible roubles, it did not 
constitute tradeable capital. There simply existed no genuine capital 
markets worth mentioning in the Soviet Union.

If theories of state capitalism are scrutinised, it becomes very evident 
that they often lack even the most elementary insights of economic science, 
Marxian or otherwise. In their moral urge to prove that exploitation existed 
in the USSR (which undoubtedly it did) the theorists invented superficial 
analogies between concepts used by Marx in his economic writings, and the 
economic realities in the USSR. The main reason why this happened is that 
the authors did not really know how to analyse the Soviet economy and mostly 
knew little about it (most of them were not trained economists either, did 
not speak Russian, had little contact with Soviet people, and did not travel 
in the USSR).

Paul Mattick provides a good illustration of all this. While Cliff still 
attempted to make it plausible that the USSR was governed by all the laws of 
motion of capitalism formulated by Marx (the tendency of the rate of profit 
to fall, profit maximization, and so on), Mattick in his theory of state 
capitalism no longer believed this was necessary. Consequently, he had no 
qualms about asserting that the surplus-product in Russian "state 
capitalism" did not have to be realized as profit. So in his theory, profit 
is not even a necessary feature of state capitalism. You have here a 
capitalism which lacks all the characteristics of capitalism.

On balance, none of the main critical theories which Western Marxists 
developed since the 1930s (state capitalism, bureaucratised workers' state, 
bureaucratic collectivism) are satisfactory or really credible, although all 
contain useful and important critical insights. None of them enabled the 
theorists to predict the collapse of the Soviet Union. In part, that is also 
due to a deficient analysis of world capitalism and the real strategic 
objectives of the haute bourgeoisie.

As a consequence, there is still only a very small literature about feasible 
forms of socialist economy or intelligent discussion about what is required, 
economically and politically, for a real transition to socialism. Sometimes 
it is argued that socialism is something which has yet to be invented. But 
that is of course not true; the experience of post-capitalist economies does 
provide a lot of insight into what happens, practically, when capitalist 
markets are abolished, and what problems arise. Unfortunately, however, if 
superficial moral theories about "state capitalism" are adhered to, nothing 
can really be learnt from the experience of attempts at non-capitalist 
economic development, and the real social progress that was achieved there, 
despite many setbacks and suffering. We are left with a moral critique of 
capitalism, but without socialist alternatives - an endless repetition of 
old arguments which increasingly fall on deaf ears.


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