The Theoretical and Political Role of the “Left” in Response to the Historical Crises of Capitalism

Confronted by what is the most devastating economic crisis of capitalism since the 1930’s, the “left,” from organized labor to the “progressive’ intelligentsia, from Social Democrats to avowed Marxists, has responded with a variety of programs, proposals, and demands. These have ranged from the “moderate” demands for a vast economic stimulus plan to eliminate unemployment and re-build the decaying economic infrastructure, a national health plan (the “public option”), and strict government regulation of “Wall Street,” to more “radical” demands for the outright nationalization of the banking and financial sector, a planned economy, and even calls for “socialism” based on transforming enterprises into self-managed worker-owned cooperatives, with decisions on how to determine wages and allocate profits decided by the workers themselves. Such proposals were rife during the great depression of the 1930’s, and some were even instituted by Popular Front governments. In the re-construction that followed World War Two, such programs became law in a number of Western European countries (e.g. Britain, France, Italy), under the auspices of left or coalition governments. The effect of such programs and policies then was not to strike a blow against capitalism, but rather in the 1930’s the mobilization for imperialist world war, and after 1945 the stabilization, the reconsolidation of capitalism for a half century. Indeed all these programs and demands had a long history dating back to the 19th century where their theoretical provenance is to be found in Proudhon and Mutualism, in the Ricardian socialism of a John Gray, in the Lassalleanism that permeated the German workers movement, and in the Gotha program adopted by German Social Democracy, and subjected to a withering critique by Karl Marx.

These political programs, proposals, and demands, are themselves rooted in a certain understanding of the fundamental structuration and mode of production of capitalism, and in a specific vision of its crisis tendencies. That understanding has produced what its contemporary proponents term a Marxist “political economy,” a Marxist economics, elaborated by such theorists as Paul Sweezy, Maurice Dobb, Ernest Mandel, or Wolfgang Fritz Haug. That vision has been based on the understanding of capitalism as an expression of trans-historical laws, a teleological philosophy of history, in which the abstract labor that produces value, for example, is – as Paul Sweezy argued – “equivalent to ‘labor in general;’ it is what is common to all productive human activity.” (The Theory of Capitalist Development, p.30) Socialism, then, is not the elimination of abstract labor, but simply a transformation in the mode in which it is organized, managed, and extracted. For abstract labor so understood is simply an expenditure of human energy. The same substantialist analysis is transposed to the understanding of value itself, which is also naturalized and understood as trans-historical in nature, so that socialism again simply modifies the phenomenal modes in which value appears. In such a vision of “socialism” there is neither a need nor a possibility of abolishing wage-labor. Rather it must be retained, albeit in a mode that is compatible with central planning and state ownership.

Without the “original thought” for which this Conference has called, without a renaissance of Marxism based on an analysis of the value-form, of abstract labor, of the commodity and its fetish, for which Marx’s own project as a critique of political economy (not a revised version of Smithian and Ricardian political economy) has provided a firm basis, neither an understanding of capitalism and its immanent tendencies and contradictions, nor a revolutionary alternative to its continued existence will be possible. The categories, the social forms, that shape capitalism, are not universal, but rather historically specific to that mode of production. Thus, for example, abstract labor arises only with capitalist social relations and will disappear with them. Indeed as Patrick Murray has argued, value is “the target of Marx’s critique and his revolutionary intentions. Marx’s goal is not to redistribute surplus-value; it is to replace value with a new social form of wealth.” And that means, as Chris Arthur has put it, the aim of revolution is “emancipation from, rather than of, wage-labour.” The path to a revolutionary response to the present crisis, then, begins with a Marxist theory that can develop on just such a theoretical basis.

Mac Intosh has been active in revolutionary politics since the late 60’s and is active in Internationalist Perspective. He teaches political science and has written extensively on Marxist theory.

Return to Conference Program

October 19, 2010