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LAST year saw the 150th anniversary of Das Kapital, otherwise known as Volume I of Capital, coinciding with a period in which the systemic crisis tendencies of the capitalist system are only too apparent.
The work of Marx and Engels is receiving renewed attention. Crowds of people from all backgrounds have queued up to attend lectures and discussions at the Marx Memorial Library in London.
New editions of classic works have appeared and new works have hit the shelves. Most of these are academic works and some of them are deservedly revered.
But Robert Griffiths’s new book for Manifesto Press deserves to be widely read, not just by students but throughout the left and the labour movement more widely.
Marx’s Das Kapital and Capitalism Today couples great clarity of exposition with an absolutely contemporary focus on what Marx’s great work tells us about our world. Das Kapital is explained in clear, simple language which does not shy away from the great controversies in Marxist thought.
The great debates are all here — what did Marx mean by productive and unproductive labour, how do values transform into prices, how do the crisis tendencies in capitalism work? All these questions are addressed here and in a way that explains to the reader what exactly is at stake in each case.
Particularly valuable is the discussion of whether Marx’s general law of capitalist accumulation meant that workers would be absolutely or only relatively immiserated.
Griffiths argues convincingly that the immiseration of the working class envisaged in Marx’s theory is both absolute — for the industrial reserve army in particular — and relative and that the tendencies to create both are always at work. As he points out, a look at the current immiseration of the actual working class across the globe reinforces this view. Widening inequality and the erosion of the quality of life are coupled with stark examples of absolute pauperisation across the global working class.
The book’s greatest merit lies in the way the author has worked to show exactly how reading Das Kapital sheds light on the immediately obvious appearances of capitalist crisis today.
The discussion of self-employment, for example, is located in value theory. The discussion of the reserve army of labour shows that the current anxiety about precarious work is, in fact, symptomatic of the reassertion of capital’s tendency to create a reserve army of labour in the advanced capitalist world “after the freak period brought on by world war and the destruction of value on an epic scale, capitalism has returned to normal,” Griffiths says, “complete with its reserve army of labour, its migrant worker battalions and its temporary, casual, flexible and zero-hour contracts.”
Similarly, the discussion of capital’s tendencies to concentration and centralisation is brought bang up to date with a discussion of the dominance of transnational corporations in the global economy.
Marx’s theory of the emergence of interest-bearing capital dealing in proliferating fictitious capital is applied to the financial crisis, together with a fair discussion of Marxist debates about whether this was a crisis of overproduction or something more nuanced in which financialisation interacted with falling rates of profit.
In a particularly valuable section, Griffiths takes time to show that Das Kapital contains far more discussion than Marx is often given credit for of the position of women in capitalist society.
Capitalist industry, as Marx shows, sucks women workers into industrial production, into the factory system and into the domestic putting-out system as part of its endless struggle raise the rate of exploitation bringing horrific conditions and lower wages in its wake.
Yet at the same time Marx never lost sight of the dialectics of historical development. Just as capitalism brought into being massive forces of socially organised production, so capitalism began laying the basis for a higher form of relationship between men and women.
He quotes Marx thus: “However terrible and disgusting the dissolution, under the capitalist system, of the old family ties may appear, nevertheless modern industry, by assigning as it does an important part of the process of production, outside the domestic sphere, to women, to young persons and to children of both sexes, creates a new economic foundation for a higher form of the family and of the relations between the sexes.”
The final section of the book, and one of the most valuable at this particular time, discusses how Das Kapital sheds light on 20th century and contemporary attempts to build socialism.
Marx was always seeking to uncover the germinal forms of the possible socialist future within capitalism and Griffiths picks out these passages well.
This is important because it reminds us that Das Kapital is not simply a critique of political economy but a scientific attempt to uncover the forces working to bring about the possible transcendence of capitalism.
The book makes a trenchant and invaluable defence of Soviet and Chinese socialism but critically it does so not by tallying up their achievements but by doing what Marx would have done, looking at the fundamental relations of production at their basis.
As he argues in relation to the Soviet Union, “political deficiencies in the ways in which state power was exercised can be combined with selected quotations from Marx to question whether this new system was indeed ‘socialism.’ But economically, from the standpoint of capital, it most certainly was.”
It’s no accident that the record of actually existing socialism is under renewed attack at the moment. It’s another symptom of the current political crisis. At such a time, it’s vital to have the case for examining these experiments with a slightly more sophisticated conceptual armoury than is used in mainstream political discourse.
In a short book, designed to be easily accessible, hard choices have to be made about what to stress.
Personally, I’d have liked more discussion of the centrality of alienation and estrangement to Das Kapital. Perhaps inevitably too, Marx’s dialectical materialist methodology and historical materialist approach are only lightly referred to in passing.
But these are minor quibbles. The real force and great value of the book is its resolutely contemporary focus and the way it helps us to see immediate issues on the left and in the labour movement in relation to the dynamics of the capitalist mode of production. This will make it a great teaching and discussion text.
Coming at a time when the labour movement needs to rebuild its political education, that’s a really good thing to have around.
Marx’s Das Kapital and Capitalism Today (88pp, pbk, £8) is available from Manifesto Press, Ruskin House, 23 Coombe Road, Croydon CR0 1BD at £10 (incl p&p) per copy. Visit manifestopress.org.uk for more details.
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