[Marxism] Excursus scholasticus - state capitalism redux

Jurriaan Bendien andromeda246 at hetnet.nl
Thu Dec 30 15:24:14 MST 2004

(thought I would post this item of exegetical scholasticism,
written in response to the state capitalism debate, at the risk
of restating the obvious).

Interesting quote from Marx, in Theories of Surplus Value 3 (1863):

"The effects of things as materialised aspects of the labour process are
attributed to them in capital, in their personification, their independence
in respect of labour.  They would cease to have these effects if they were
to cease to confront labour in this alienated form.  The capitalist, as
capitalist, is simply the personification of capital, that creation of
labour endowed with its own will and personality which stands in opposition
to labour.  Hodgskin regards this as a pure subjective illusion which
conceals the deceit and the interests of the exploiting classes.  He does
not see that the way of looking at things arises out of the actual
relationship itself; the latter is not an expression of the former, but vice
versa.  In the same way, English socialists say "We need capital, but not
the capitalists".  But if one eliminates the capitalists, the means of
production cease to be capital."

(Thomas Hodgskin  (1787-1869) was an officer in the British Navy
who left because of his opposition to the brutal treatment of
sailors. He worked for the free trade magazine The Economist and
wrote and lectured on laissez-faire economic ideas to working men's

Notice how Marx's statement directly contradicts the notion of
state capitalism as applied to Soviet-type societies, where the
capitalist class was expropriated and liquidated.

Yet logically, what Marx says does not exclude the possibility that
if capitalists are eliminated, and the means of production therefore
"cease to be capital" as Marx says, the "materialised aspects of
the labour process" nevertheless still continue to confront labour
in an "alienated form". They would cease to have these effects,
says Marx,  only IF they "were to cease to confront labour in
this alienated form".

But alienation is not unique to capitalism or even market economy;
it is rooted in the whole history of civil society based on a class
hierarchy. A new alienated form is conceivable which would
not be capital, but another form of domination based on
specific property relations of a different kind, for example
state-owned property combined with waged labour or
slavery of some description, with some or other despotic

The very simple point which can be made here is that the abolition of
capital by itself does not automatically or necessarily entail an end to
alienation or, for that matter, exploitation. More is required. It is
for Marx a necessary condition, but the point is, that it is not a
sufficient one. Equally important are the specific property relations
which supplant capital, and the new forms of association or social
organisation that would replace capitalist forms.

It might well be argued that the abolition of capital could, in principle,
yield an oppressive situation worse than exists under capitalism; many have
said this was true of the Stalinist system.  Socialism might be necessary,
but it is not inevitable, and once we break with the stagist view of
history, the abolition of capitalism does not automatically yield socialism.
At best, the former is only one precondition for the latter.

What this really implies is that a socialist ought to support what is
progressive within the current system, distinguishing rationally between
what is progressive, and what is not. For better or worse, that
is what Marx did himself. If however everything that does not
express an ideal 'proletarian socialism' is regarded as (state-) capitalist
and therefore to be opposed, we aren't in a very good position to do
this. We might in that case prove a need for socialism ex negativo,
without however being able to understand how it could come into
being - in which case we are left only with a reality which does
not conform to an ideal... in short, an idealism, which only
expresses a dissatisfaction with the status quo, and blames
capitalism for it. That might also be a necessary precondition
for socialism, but again not a sufficient one.


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