Tag Archives: Karl Marx

Wolff in Sheep’s Clothing

by Anne Archist, who apologises for the terrible pun in the title.

Lately I’ve been following Professor Richard D. Wolff’s “online classes” on Marxian economics (I’d recommend that people who follow The Great Unrest should skip over the “intensive introduction” course, because the applied course basically covers the same things anyway, and unless you’ve never encountered Marxist thought before, you’ll probably find he moves slowly a lot of the time even in the latter course).

He’s an interesting figure, and probably one of a handful of Marxists in history to have been educated at Harvard, Stanford and Yale (although he says his teachers, with the exception of one Marxist, never had any interest in or knowledge of Marx’s ideas, and that he essentially studied Marx in his own time). Wolff makes several points that set him apart from standard ‘Marxist’ academics – some of which are more significant or original than others – which I’ll summarise and address here; please do look into his work if you’re interested in hearing his own words or taking the ideas further. A side note: apparently his interpretation of Marx comes via Reading Capital – a book which is only partially available in English, though Wolff is fluent in French, so may have read the original – and many of the following ideas may therefore have come from Althusser or his students, for all I know.

Labour-Centric Analysis

The major point of departure that separates Wolff from a lot of other Marxist theorists or Marxian-influenced economists is that he conceives of class in terms of relations to surplus-labour rather than relations to the means of production. Rather than building up an analysis which includes concepts like the social relations to the means of production, or the labour theory of value, he uses an arguably simpler conceptualisation: “‘productive’ labour is required to live but it also produces a surplus; in our society many people carry out ‘productive’ labour but do not distribute the surplus themselves, allowing those who do distribute it to appropriate a portion of it for themselves without carrying out any labour”.

When I first heard this I thought it was just a strange and idiosyncratic way of explaining classical Marxist economic theory (particularly the critique of ‘bourgeois economics’ in Capital). After thinking about it some more and seeing how the analysis was applied, I realised that it actually has some major conceptual differences (even if they can be shown only to be differences of emphasis or explaining the same thing in different terms, which I’m not sure of). For instance, Marx’s theory of exploitation is generally taken to rest on the labour theory of value, whereas Wolff’s version of exploitation doesn’t even seem to require asking the question of what causes things to have the value they do; this question was a concern for bourgeois economics but shouldn’t necessarily be one for someone criticising capitalism (remember: Capital was Marx’s critique of already-existing economics, not a critique of capitalism).

Another example: the concept of economic democracy is quite widespread among socialists (to the point that Peter Tatchell, who nowadays tends to steer clear of socialistic language, issued a call for economic democracy), but the link between it and the labour-theory-of-value construction of Marxist theory has often been tenuous or indirect; the steps from demands about the distribution of property to demands about economic decision-making processes have rarely been well articulated. Wolff’s presentation of Marx’s argument makes this immediate and obvious – economic democracy is equivalent to the demand that the surplus should be distributed by those who produce it, an issue directly addressed by Wolff’s notion of class.

Exploitation and Surplus Production

According to Wolff, exploitation is merely what happens when one person labours so as to produce a surplus – that is, produces more than the labourer needs to sustain themselves – enough, in fact, to sustain other people too – and someone else appropriates and distributes that surplus rather than the worker distributing it themselves. Exploitation, then, is not about someone receiving more than they have contributed, as Roemer would have it (Roemer has offered different definitions of exploitation, but at least one of them amounts to “consuming more than you produce”). This is important because it heads off a serious problem with Roemer-style definitions, which is that they identify children, disabled people, pensioners and others who do not work as exploiters; on the contrary, Wolff identifies them neither as exploiters nor as exploited.

On Wolff’s view of things, these people are allocated (and consume) a portion of the surplus, but the important factor is not that they are consuming it but that someone else is allocating it. This seems to fit with a relatively superficial and intuitive exploration of human emotional and moral reaction – namely, we begrudge people who take things (that we have not offered) from us and give them to others, even if we believe that the others receiving them should have them. An example: If you were planning on buying someone a book as a present and someone else stole some of your money, bought the book with it, and then gave it to the person, you would be justifiably upset and morally offended by the thief’s behaviour, even though the endgame is the same.

Another advantage of this way of looking at things is that it illustrates an important continuity between capitalists and government officials which is often assumed by Marxists but rarely explained; both take part in the appropriation and distribution of surplus they have not themselves produced. Capitalists appropriate surplus in the form of profit (in fact, capitalists can appropriate surplus without making any profit, since  on Wolff’s view surplus must also be used to pay for ‘unproductive’ labour such as that performed by security guards), and the government (at all levels) makes decisions about taxation and spending which represent a further form of appropriated surplus. The state retains a unique position within the economy, however, in that it is capable of extracting surplus from more than just workers within capitalist relations – as well as ‘productive’ employed workers, it also claims taxes from capitalists, self-employed workers, ‘unproductive’ employed workers, etc.

The Feudal Home

Following on from the above points, Wolff also identifies husbands in the traditional family structure as exploiters within the home (whether or not they are exploited outside the home). Production takes place within the home as well as outside it (for instance, the wife transforms raw food into cooked food), and the wife produces a surplus for the husband (she cooks dinner for both of them, not just herself).  Specifically, he argues that the class structure within the traditional family household is essentially a feudal one, for two reasons.

Firstly,  the wife is not owned by the husband like a slave, does not contract her labour for pay like a capitalist worker, and does not distribute the surplus herself as in the communist and ancient modes. Wolff seems to function on the assumption that there are only five modes of production, so if you eliminate four then whatever you are analysing must be the fifth. Secondly, the marriage ceremony is apparently itself derived from a feudal ceremony in which the serf and the lord pledged to ‘love, honour and obey’ one another (I haven’t been able to verify this, and would be interested to see a source and read more).

Now, personally I’m not entirely convinced by this. That one ceremony grew out of another is an interesting and potentially informative historical fact, but it certainly doesn’t establish that both ceremonies establish the same ‘surplus relations’ (if you’re not convinced by that, consider the fact that Wolff has to refer specifically to “traditional” marriage because other modes of production exist within married households – therefore the exact same ceremony can be used to set up multiple different class structures). As for the other reason Wolff gives, it’s a bit of a stretch to suggest that there can only be the five modes of production that Marx discusses, and even if you do so, you could eliminate feudalism first on the basis that the woman is not ‘tied to the house’, or something similar, and therefore conclude by elimination that it was another mode of production.

The Revolution on the Home Front

I don’t have a concrete suggestion at the moment for what kind of class structure we should consider traditional families to have, but it seems to me that it may be more enlightening to identify it as a patriarchal mode distinct from the others, as some socialist-feminists such as Delphy have done. At any rate we can conclude that the family unit, though it operates in a society we consider to be ‘capitalist’, actually traditionally operates according to another economic model (and very rarely, if ever, operates according to the capitalist one – modern exceptions generally operate on the communist or ‘ancient’ modes). What is of great historical importance regarding this analysis, as far as Wolff is concerned, is not necessarily what the mode of production within the family should be called, but rather that it has changed and is continuing to change.

The ‘traditional’ marriage or family was much more common two centuries ago (though other forms existed even then), but the USA (and many countries) has seen a solid and consistent decline in the number of people living under this kind of arrangement for the last half-century. Some of this has been in the form of rising demands for sharing the burden of housework within marriages, but it has also taken the form of rising numbers of ‘single-person families’, groups of friends sharing houses (and the housework), etc.

In addition to this change, the labour force and the person-hours at the command of the market has swelled with increasing numbers of women who traditionally would not have worked, or would have worked less, or would have been self-employed, etc – this has taken place over a longer period, of course, and is perhaps more of a varied and complex picture, but it is a real change nonetheless. Wolff argues that these changes are important historical shifts – a class revolution, according to Marxian analysis – that have passed the left by, and that the political fallout of this is that the (religious) right have seized on them and used the negative aspects (like increasing levels of social alienation and isolation, or women’s low pay and harassment at work) to push their own agendas.

Immediate Alternatives

What should the left be doing? Wolff is less precise on this point, as are so many academics. His strong point is analysing what has happened and what is happening, not what should happen next. Nevertheless he has some comments on this topic, which tend to contradict or bypass much accepted Marxist doctrine; rather than dealing with demands on the state and suchlike, he harkens back to early socialist and classical Marxist ideas.

The first suggestion is that the left should aim to make explicit to people the class shift that has taken place within the home, and that Marxist theory can understand both what was going on before and what happened to get to where we are now (and perhaps why it happened); this, he argues, would put us in a much stronger position to argue to working women that they should oppose exploitation (in the Wolffian sense) on the job as well as in the home. This would raise class consciousness and have a kind of detoxifying effect concerning people’s fears around Marxist theory and concepts like class struggle or revolution.

Wolff’s other major suggestion is that the left should take a more sustained and pro-active interest in cooperatives (and presumably communes). Rather than seeing a society which has an essentially monolithic capitalist culture and structure, he sees a world in which many class relations co-exist, intertwine, intermingle and contradict either other (such as the working-class husband who is an exploiter at home despite being exploited on the job); therefore he places less of an emphasis on ‘overthrowing’ or ‘abolishing’ capitalism in the sense that is common in the Marxist left today. This also links back to some criticisms he makes of Marxist figureheads such as Lenin and Trotsky with regard to their Marxian economic analysis, which he considers to have been poor at best due to their failure to properly change relations to the surplus (he considers the USSR to have been a kind of state capitalism because the state extracted and distributed surplus in basically the same way as private capitalists do).

A specific consequence of this is that he considers it a high priority to relate to forms of producing (at home and at work, presumably) which avoid the extraction and distribution of the surplus by another party or a minority of producers. His proposals are vague at best, and shouldn’t be taken as a solid political programme, but he seems to suggest that socialists and the labour movement should get behind cooperative enterprises partially for obvious reasons that this would be free of exploitation and show that it is possible to produce without capitalist arrangements and so forth.

An interesting elaboration on his thoughts on cooperatives involves an argument that attributes at least a portion of capitalist hegemony to the extraction of the surplus; specifically, if private companies can extract a surplus from their labourers and accumulate vast amounts of wealth in this way, they gain more control over the media, political campaigns, lobbying, etc. If, on the other hand, workers enter into cooperative enterprises and deny capitalists this surplus, that surplus stays within the working class, both diminishing the wealth available to the capitalists to carry out a programme of class struggle against workers and increasing the wealth available to the workers to carry out a programme of class struggle against capitalists.


In short, Wolff has some original ideas, an interesting spin on old ideas and some interesting analysis gained by applying old methods to current and historical events. I’d recommend that people interested in Marxist class analysis, whether or not you are a Marxist yourself, take a look at him and his interpretation of Marx. It’s certainly made me re-think my understanding of Marxian economics and given me a useful new tool to my belt of Marxian interpretations, analyses and concepts.

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Filed under Economics, Liberation issues, Marxism, Political Strategy, Reviews, Uncategorized

Marx doesn’t have all the answers

by Anne Archist

There is a tendency on the left towards reductive theories and models; this is most pronounced in Marxism, versions of which often place massive emphasis on the development of technology, or imbue one form of oppression with strategic and ontological primacy, etc. Other ideas that can be strictly or broadly said to be on the ‘left’ are guilty of this on occasion too, to varying ideas – some anarchists are highly materialist, some feminists think that the lot of women in life can be understood from the standpoint of one particular factor such as the belief that women are made vulnerable by their potential for pregnancy, or whatever it may be. In this post I’ll talk specifically about Marxism, although much of it is applicable to other movements and theories to some extent.

This kind of analysis leaves much to be desired, however, as it lacks the subtle nuances and detailed models that have been developed often within liberal discourse. Materialist analysis should not be based on totally superseding the pre-existing explanations we have available, but on correcting, refining and supplementing them as appropriate. Obviously large sections of liberal theory are ‘ideological’ in the Marxist sense – they are flawed ways of understanding the world perpetuated because they serve certain interests and perhaps contain some ‘partial truth’ or ‘mirror’ something real.

But this approach of throwing the baby out with the bathwater is a totally unjustifiable approach that it itself ideological – it begins with the true proposition that liberal theory is flawed, and promotes the myth that Marxism is holistic and ‘scientific’ and so can explain everything. It is important to note that this approach is not that taken by Marx himself or people like Althusser, Cohen or Gramsci. For these theorists, the method was to adjust and expand prior ideas about the world; Marx began with classical economics and produced his own take on it while later writers aimed to expand the scope of Marx’s methods, refine his claims to render them consistent, etc.

There are often things to be learnt from non-materialist analysis and disciplines other than history or economics. It is interesting to note, for instance, how few Marxists seem to take social psychology seriously, despite the fact that it has provided a great deal of insight into the (re)production of racism in society, military discipline and other forms of proletarian obedience, etc. Another example is the distaste of some Marxists towards philosophy (and particularly logic) as if philosophers expected to be able to explain the whole world from the comfort of their armchair; I have heard people seriously express the notion that logic is bourgeois and is the philosophical antithesis of materialism, an idea which is totally wrong-headed to say the least.

If we want to understand the world in order to change it, we will need to keep our minds open about different disciplines, theories, models and propositions. The world cannot be changed by someone who understands only economics and has no concept of history outside of this. The world cannot be changed by someone who understands only history and has no notion of the complexities involved in ‘democracy’ as a concept and a goal. Any revolutionary or even reformist ‘progressive’ movement must be polymathic if it is to achieve its goals; we have to be able, for instance, to look at the social-psychological, philosophical, historical, economic, political and practical aspects of a question like how to achieve industrial democracy.

If we’re blind to the dangers and flaws of our strategies then we will screw up all over again, just as many movements have in the past. The failure of the USSR or Cuba cannot be put down solely to grand historical factors like the Cold War, however vital these are to understanding the context in which they existed and the pressures that shaped them. They took the shapes they did partly also as a result of decisions that were made by individuals and groups – decisions that may have been influenced by individuals personalities, incorrect theories or predictions, one-off historical events, logical fallacies, and conformity or fear.


Filed under Marxism, Philosophy, Political Strategy, Uncategorized

The Apprentice and Das Kapital

by nineteensixtyseven

Following on from this blog’s last unlikely titular juxtaposition,  I have been following the latest series of the BBC’s The Apprentice and have reached the conclusion that the show demonstrates, in a nutshell, many of the insights about capitalism to be found in Marx’s Capital. No, it is not down to the fact that both involve a bearded man of Jewish descent.  Neither is it because Marx’s capitalists and Alan Sugar’s contestants are the most selfish, debased and downright disagreeable creatures on earth.  Outrageous as it may seem, The Apprentice really does demonstrate the absurdities of the capitalist mode of production.

First, let us take the very premise of the show.  Competitive individuals are instructed to set up a business selling a seemingly random product (sausages, cakes, book-stands for reading on the beach etc)  to random people on the street for the sole purposes of making maximum profits.  Ironically, they are instructed to do so by a man who made his name selling antiquated computers which made the Sega Megadrive look like a NASA spacerocket and who famously predicted that the iPod wouldn’t survive its first Christmas.  But let us set that aside for now.

Last week the teams commandeered an industrial bakery and viewers were informed that one contestant was basing his strategy on producing ‘best-sellery’ things.  Not for the love of fine cakes and the satisfaction of human taste-buds did these entrepreneurial spirits whirr into action.  Nothing so quaint.  As Marx would say, ‘These budding Apprentices have something to make besides cake.  Cake-baking is merely a pretext for surplus-value making.’  Quite so, for ‘it is not use-values and their enjoyment, but exchange-value and its increase, that spur the capitalist into action.’

In Marxist economics there are several inter-related elements which may contribute to an economic crisis. In the latest episode of the Apprentice we saw a a full-blown realisation crisis. One team produced a vast amount of cherry muffin commodities but when they entered the anarchy of the market system they found no buyers for said muffins.  Tragic.  But let me explain the significant of this.  In simple (non-capitalist) production, the producer sells a product in order to purchase other products which satisfy specific needs or wants.  The potential Apprentice would start with a cherry muffin, sell that particular delicacy for money capital which he or she would then use to purchase, say, a can of Pepsi.  Simple: C-M-C.  If the Apprentices can’t sell the muffin then they can eat it and quench their thirst by alternative means, like from a stream.

Under capitalism, however, the capitalist starts with Money, uses this money to purchase Commodities (labour power and means of production), and then after the process of production sells the Commodities for more Money:  M-C-M.  The Apprentice, therefore, invests Alan Sugar’s money in the industrial bakery, the flour, eggs, cherries and so on.  However, if the Apprentice does not make a profit then he or she shall face Alan in the boardroom, and that would not do at all.  Therefore, under pressure from the objective laws of capitalist accumulation, the value of M must be made larger at the end of the process than it was at the beginning or the capitalist will be driven from business and will never win Sir Alan’s £250,000.

Unfortunately for our muffin producers the consumer was not interested in the cherry muffins.  They were passé and he was not for having any.   Suddenly, the surplus-value contained within each muffin could not be realised. As our intrepid Apprentices were not interested in the use-values of the muffins (their ability to satisfy one’s hunger or sweet tooth) and were only concerned with their exchange-values, the muffins were worse than useless.  They sat, uneaten and unwanted in a heap and much of the capital invested in their production was wasted.  This also happened with the other team whose muffins were popular but whose bread was left over at the market stall, its surplus-value also never realised in the act of exchange.  We even had a crisis of disproportionality when a team’s means of production could not generate enough bread roll commodities to satisfy the requirements of a hotelier.  This in turn threatened to damage his business if clients stayed a way due to this induced bread roll famine.

Thus, The Apprentice demonstrates quite clearly capitalism’s tendencies towards crisis in all their vivid colours.  To be sure, the entrepreneurial drive so exhilaratingly characterised in the prose of the Communist Manifesto is also on display in buckets, as contests scrap with one another to design the best products.  This, however, is overshadowed by the boardroom bollocking dispensed by Sir Alan when the contestants fail miserably.  It is this latter phenomenon, if we are honest, which makes people tune in.

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L’Internationale, Sera le genre humain!

by nineteensixtyseven

‘The Internationale unites the human race’.  That was the dream; sadly, the reality has been somewhat different.  Ever since Marx helped to found the International Workingmen’s Association (sometimes called the First International) in 1864 the international socialist movement has been riven by splits, internecine arguments, expulsions and rival claims to legitimacy.

In 1872 Bakunin and the anarchists were expelled from the IWA at the Hague Congress in Holland- in no small part due to the former’s relationship with Sergey Nechayev.  As a consequence, anarchists set up the St. Imier International, which was followed in 1881 by the International Working People’s Association (not to be confused, of course, with Burnette G. Haskell’s new IWA formed in the same year), which was itself superseded in 1922 by the formation of the International Workers’ Association, which still, in various incarnations, exists today.

Meanwhile, as the anarchists carried on their understanding of the legacy of the IWA, Social Democratic groups (in the 19th century meaning of the word) formed the Second International in 1889.  The largest section of the Second International was the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) formed by Wilhelm Liebknecht, the famous father of Karl Liebknecht who himself was murdered along with Rosa Luxemburg in 1919.  The Second International disgraced itself in 1914 when the majority of its parties backed the imperialist war, and the beginning of the end came at the Zimmerwald Conference in 1915 when revolutionary socialists such as Lenin, Luxemburg and Clara Zetkin failed to pass a resolution and manifesto which, in Lenin’s view ” [indicated] a step toward the ideological and practical break with opportunism and social chauvinism”.  Nevertheless, the Second International arguably provided the model for subsequent internationals in organising a body of mass workers’ parties with a more or less similar ideological outlook (which admittedly ranged from Bernstein’s ‘revisionism’ to Leninism) and it established May 1st as International Workers’ Day.

One would think that the Second International was then automatically superseded by the Third International (the Comintern) but that would be to underestimate the fractious nature of the Left.  No, instead the Second International continued in skeletal form as the International Socialist Commission (the Berne International) and a conference was called in 1919 to discuss the October Revolution and hopefully reform  the Second International.  However, not all parties were amenable to this suggestion and some, including the newly formed Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (which originally included such prominent former SPD members as Rudolf Hilferding, author of the 1910 work Finance Capital which heavily influenced Lenin’s own Imperialism), created the International Working Union of Socialist Parties.  The IWUSP was also know as- and I’m not making this up- the Second and a Half International, and it was strongly influenced by the Austromarxism of Victor Adler and Otto Bauer.  Due to this it was known too by the name the Vienna International.  In 1923 the Vienna and Berne Internationals merged to form the Labour and Socialist International which was the main rival to the Third International, and existed until 1940.  It is the predecessor of the Socialist International which exists today as the organisation for contemporary Labour and Social Democratic parties.

Just to make things more interesting, the ‘London Bureau’ which was formed in 1931 as a third way between Stalinism and Social Democracy, included parties such as the Spanish POUM and the British Independent Labour Party (ILP).  It was through the ILP and the London Bureau that George Orwell, having been refused help by Harry Pollitt of the Communist Party of Great Britain, ended up fighting in Spain with the POUM.  The London Bureau, also known as the Third and a Half International, was for a period loosely linked to the International Left Opposition but not all its members supported the latter’s call in 1935 for a Fourth International.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, the Third International had been in existence since 1919, with the Bolsheviks as the leading party.  Affiliated to it were the recently formed German Communist Party (which was created in the wake of the Spartacist Uprising) and assorted other Communist Parties.  The Italian Socialist Party attended the Founding Congress but was refused entry by Lenin as it did not meet the necessary criteria.  The ‘Maximalist’ faction eventually went on to join the London Bureau, whilst Antonio Gramsci and Amadeo Bordiga led the split to form the Communist Party of Italy in 1921.  As Stalin cemented his control over the Bolsheviks, the ideological zig-zagging of his faction affected the party line of Comintern members.  The disorientating shift from NEP to the ultra-left Third Period in 1928 and then, in 1935 after the Seventh World Congress, to the Popular Front policy saw Communist Parties take seemingly self-contradictory positions from Moscow.  Joe Glazer’s song ‘Our Line’s Been Changed Again’ makes the point well:

Firstly, ‘United Fronts are what we love/Our line’s been changed again/From below and from above/Our line’s been changed again’

Then,  ‘We’re now a Party with finesse/Our line’s been changed again/With bourgeois groups we coalesce/Our line’s been changed again’

And finally, ‘We’re simply Communists devot/Our line’s been changed again/We’re not sure what it’s all about/Our line’s been changed again.’

Meanwhile, Leon Trotsky belatedly came to the conclusion that the Third International, to which the Left Opposition still claimed overall loyalty to, had become impossible to reform.  The call went out for the formation of a Fourth International which opens up a whole new chapter in our story.  Glazer once sang, ‘We are members of the Last International/There can’t be any more!’ How wrong he was.  More on the Fourth (and Fifth) Internationals another day!


Filed under History, Labour History, Marxism