[Marxism] A ps on the importance of capital accumulation, philistinism and US exceptionalism

Philip Ferguson philip.ferguson at canterbury.ac.nz
Thu Feb 15 22:15:45 MST 2007

My friend Dave Walters writes:
>While pretty much agreeing with most of what Phil F has written of late 
on S. Africa and Ireland, I too was a little surprised that he thinks that 
the lack of investigation into the "accumulation of capital in the US" was 
some sort of major flaw of the SWP (and, by extension, the entire 
Marxist left in the US). Partly, the history of early Marxism (1870 
onward) was a study of this "in pactice", with little reason to examine it 
as it was so obvious in it's results.

But isn't this "in practice" precisely an aspect of American thought and politics which needs critiquing.  In fact, Novack - to his credit - often attacked precisely this trend among American intellectuals, the shying away from theory.  It is a major weakness of the left in a number of imperialist countries - most particularly North America, Australia, New Zealand and Britain.

>The reason to study this in Russia, as Joaquín suggests, was political 
for Lenin...and not only him, but *everyone* there and why it 
dominated the debates among Russian social-democrats. 

This is only part of the reason.  It is part of the practical reason for such an analysis.

But whether or not the Narodniks had existed it would still have been necessary to develop an analysis of capital accumulation.

>Capital accumulation, more importantly in it's fullest or broadest meaning "the development of capitalism", was the question of questions on political 
strategy in Russia. Every debate which way forward was predicated on 
ones position on this. Little of this was debated about Germany, one 
might note, because it was obvious there too, albeit different than the 

This isn't the full picture either.  Rosa Luxemburg's critique of Bernstein is actually predicated, at the theoretical level, on the Marxist understanding of capital accumulation.  And that work is one of the most important ever produced in the history of the German left and one of the most important products of debates within the German social democracy of the time and the Second International more generally.

Moreover, the whole analysis of imperialism, whether by Lenin or Luxemburg or Bukharin, is predicated an analysis of capital accumulation.

I might add that Marxists in a whole range of other countries have examined national capital accumulation.  Jaime Wheelock did this for Nicaragua back in the early 1970s, a number of SACP and other left writers did it for South Africa, etc etc.  Those daft old South African CPers and Trotskyists, eh, wasting their time analysing capital accumulation in South Africa when everyone could simply see the nature of apartheid by simple visual observation.  (What was it Marx said: if everything was at is appeared on the surface, there would be no need for science.)  

How amusing, then, that Joaquin thinks it possible to understand American imperialism while boasting he knows "shit" about "capital accumulation" after being a Marxist for 40 years.  I don't think I've ever witnessed someone who has been around so long boasting about their ignorance, and glorying in it, in this way.  And what a wonderful example of American exceptionalism.  People elsewhere might do studies of capital accumulation but we here in the US of A don't need any of that fancy foreign intellectual nonsense, we already know enough.  Still, you live and learn (or maybe not!).

>Perhaps I might diverge with Joaquín over the issue of genocide of 
Native Americans as being a perquisite for the accumulation of capital 
in the US. I think it was rather the parallel result of this process, but not a precondition for it, nor even necessary. 

Which is interesting because even here in a brief discussion about the dispossession of the Native Americans it turns out that two ex-SWP comrades have to turn to at least mentioning capital accumulation to make an analysis after all. . . 

>The most glaring aspect of the accumulation, and the most important, 
a result that effects our lives today: slavery, as it dominated capitalism 
North and South in the US, was the undisputed method of early capital 
accumulation into the 1840s. But few questioned the need for socialist 
revolution after Reconstruction was betrayed, it simply wasn't a debate, 

Ah, so in fact it turns out that it is impossible to understand slavery as a Marxist without understanding capital accumulation!  Moreover the debate about whether slavery in the US was essentially capitalist or pre-capitalist is an important one for the US left.

I would also argue that it is impossible to understand the civil war, Jim Crow and the abolition of formal legal segregation in the 1950s and 60s without understanding capital accumulation as well as the social movements and conflicts which led to the abolition of slavery and, a century later, the abolition of formal, legal segregation.  You need both, but I'm bemused that any Marxist in the US actually thinks it's a huge joke, like Joaquin does, to suggest an analysis of capital accumulation is important in the US.

Of course, the source for this side-debate is the argument over South Africa and the ANC and the point that you need to understand capital accumulation to understand the origins of apartheid otherwise you end up arse about face like Barnes who, according to Fred, thinks a "system of reserves" caused apartheid rather than the requirements of capital accumulation causing the system of reserves and their hardening into servicing the needs of (white) capital accumulation in South Africa.

One thing that struck me was that the argument was largely between three people from the US SWP tradition (Walter, Fred and Luko - I know LUko is in Germany but he draws largely from the American SWP) and people from other countries who had either never belonged to that tradition or broken with it.  So, naturally, I wondered why this might be the case.  Why people like Luko, Fred and Walter never mentioned the process of capital accumulation when discussing apartheid or the post-apartheid society and, when I thought about it, it struck me that the American SWP had never done this with the United States.  So, understandably, it wouldn't occur to them to do it with South Africa.


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