Intro to Marxist Economics Book Reviews

Review of Ernest Mandel -
Introduction to Marxist Economics

Ernest Mandel was a Marxist politician and theorist throughout the 20th century, living in many Northern and Eastern European countries during that time. He published an enormous number of writings in his lifetime, mostly analyzing different parts of Marxist economic theory, including his book “An Introduction to Marxist Economic Theory” published in 1967. In regard to his participation in the Fourth International, European followers of Trotsky after his outcasting by Stalin, he is quoted as having said that, “The working class’s periodic upsurges into direct action create at the same time the conditions for resolving the crisis of the subjective factor, on condition that revolutionaries have been active in the movement for long enough, effectively enough and on a sufficiently wide enough scale. They must simultaneously aim to build new national revolutionary parties and a new International.” He believed the existing conditions for the building of communism as in Russia were moving away from being a sufficient revolution - that it would stop short of its aims. Therefore, we must explain why the revolution was not taking place nearly on the timeline that Marx would have projected for it to, and basically not in an accumulating fashion culminating first in a state that could challenge capitalist empire as Russia might have been. Rather, the conditions for revolution must arise time and time again, and it is up to the revolutionaries in each place to arise to the challenge they are faced with before them. It could always lead to failure or in partial, temporary success end up being succeeded by yet another revolution. He was eventually banned from entering multiple countries for his associations to Marxism.

This writing attempts a complex analysis of multiple different concepts drawn largely from Marx’s dense text “Capital”. It is not clear exactly how this is supposed to consist in an Introduction unless it was made for novices… in a much more advanced position than myself. Nonetheless, it is divided up into three parts. The first part goes over the production of surplus value, the alienation that it necessarily creates, and whether these can be grounded in what he calls a valid labor theory of value. Such a theory would account for labor so that all of the commodities produced in a society match up with the desires of the group of individuals in that society. The labor value of a commodity is the division of labor from exactly this perspective that it takes to produce one unit of that particular commodity. It is neither the number of hours of labor that are performed to produce the commodity, nor the final consumer purchase price attached to it. Firstly, because we must account for the kind of factory machine technology that labor is being invested in to before we can know at what rate production is taking place, and secondly because price also includes a surplus value that did not ever go into the production of the commodity.

Mandel raises two interesting points here. All commodities share in the quality of having a labor value that determines what is required for their production. It would appear that none of their other qualities are shared universally, including weight, color, shape, or any other physical quantities. It is not absolutely clear though that there are no other qualities whatsoever that are universally determinate of the commodity form, and if there were one to be found it would obviously complicate in some manner their existing relationship with labor value. Next, if all human labor input into the machines that determines labor value is removed from the work that the machines would potentially do entirely on their own, there would be no such thing as exchange value. No humans would take income from the production, and so they wouldn’t have it to instigate economic forms of decision making such as in simple trade or through capital investment.

The second part of the book is a pretty basic overview of the origin of capitalism and a history of growing precapitalist societies. He does note that the most fundamental contradiction inherent to capitalism is the tendency of the average rate of profit to decline. Because of this, capitalists must constantly scour for ways to increase profit but will hit limitations which after accumulating enough across industries and nations leads to warfare and the destruction of mass amounts of the prior economy resettling forces back to a sustainable pace for another short time. It is a Marxist belief that within these gaps the conditions for the possibility of revolution may be advanced but they aren’t always taken up. They aren’t simply created by disorder but that the system must produce enough resources to stage a revolution first and then a period of disorder must arise, which makes this cyclic tendency seem to almost be an inevitable cause of revolution itself. In another text, “Late Capitalism”, Mandel disagrees with the short time span most theorists including Marx believe these cycles will take place on and says that they more often happen on the order of 20-40 years. This means that under his view there are far fewer opportunities for revolutionaries to take action and that they are under more obligation to fulfill their demands each time the opportunity does ultimately arise.

The third and last section is titled “Neo-Capitalism” and discusses various strange conditions of the advanced stage of capitalism we are presently living in. These include the appearance of permanent technological revolution, accelerating armament expenditures due to multiple World Wars and later on in the Cold War, and the government-based planning that effects a persistent capitalist economy which many people refer to now as “state capitalism” that occurs in different forms in Russia, China, and also in regard to whatever wavering form of socialist tendencies taken up by Western nations. During this period we will be forced to witness basically the long growth that will appear to be the form of the final stage of capitalism as it will ever continue to exist, but in a way that will seem from within its limitations to be almost neverending.

Review of Karl Marx -
Early Writings

Because it is the portion of the text I expect myself to be most personally concerned with, this review focuses primarily on “The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts” from a collection of Marx’s published writings titled, “Early Writings”. The book was released in the 20th century as a bundled edition of largely unedited works from Marx’s early life that had not widely been published or circulated before that time. For this reason, it does not seem entirely problematic to view the content from a part of the text as being appropriately interpreted potentially without much direct comparison made to the rest within the same review. As the title suggests, it is the work from the period of Marx’s early life in which he most explicitly lays out what he would have considered and at least provisionally allowed for to be his set of foundational beliefs he was working from in his various economic and sociological analyses. Some imprudent readers will be quick to suggest this culminates in an unnecessary essentialism he had later rejected for the better as his views matured, when really his foundational beliefs would only end up becoming more complex and carefully negotiated against economic evidence and never were made to be wholly non-existent.

At the time, Marx was still inventing the methodology he would be working from in the inarguably more powerful critical writings of his later career. Since this difference in his writing over time is so apparent, it has resulted in widespread debate about whether the “Young Marx” held somewhat clashing views with the “Old Marx”, and if these differences can be mined for valuable corrective argument that may have for a time been lost from some of the hidden writings of “Young Marx”. This problem likely encouraged mass publication of the works from Marx’s early life that a broad audience had not yet encountered. A main part of the argument stems from a certain stylistic mannerism of the “Old Marx” to write his economic analyses so that they would seem to be describing deterministic or even fatalistic laws. The class war between the proletariat and the bourgiousie is rooted in the material basis of reality in such a way as that it could not possibly have failed to arise, and since it has come about it can only lead to producing contradictions which will end up in the proletariat revolting. Marx can not say very much about what that revolt will look like or how the people who were stripped of their power will become victorious in the end, except that the clearly existing contradictions of society make it so that we must inevitably move in such a direction.

In the Manuscripts, Marx describes how abstract value can only eb known from its production by labor and is not simply to be found already presently concretely by the good grace of nature. He argues that the institution of private property is in fact a violence committed against the worker instead of being his most significant freedom. Furthermore, labor as it presently exists is inherently alienating for the very reason that an artificial and arbitrary distance is placed between the worker and the product of their work that is just a normal element of the process of privatizing property, allegedly done for the benefit of both the worker and society at large. It is misleading to attempt to view alienation that may apparently occur by other means, as in the case of political or religious dimensions, without relating these processes directly back to their basis in such an underlying economic reality.

Finally, Marx argues that critics of Hegel have taken up problems with his metaphysics but they have generally only fallen into and ended up repeating the same metaphysical naiveties which Hegel had worked so hard to carefully overcome. Instead, Marx himself opposes contradictions in parts of Hegel’s metaphysics with evidence from readily apparent economic processes. Since they are occurring presently and with great force, there can be no question about their mere existence. What Hegel had missed was that the material basis of economics can define the underlying drive of our formulation of philosophical beliefs, rather than suspiciously legalistic “natural laws” arrived at through the historical operations of philosophy allowing for economic forms of behavior to originate and begin occuring. Hegel therefore views religion as the same movement as philosophy, wherein they both are activities we tend to perform after we end up in a space of negativity and attempt to reach back to the natural beautiful order God had originally instilled and which we have inexplicably some how fallen from. Hegel does not see how religion is the immediate result of economic despair, and that philosophy can be used as a means of producing this critique - but also not for overcoming it on its own without the movement of the proletariat.

We should not view ourselves as alienated from God and in need of salvation, without seeing how this is more distinctively a matter of our being alienated from our work and the community of human beings instead. Additionally, and most problematically, in order to establish a communism that does not succumb to deficiency, we can not simply destroy the institution of private property but must elevate everybody so far above it that we transcend its limits on human life and behavior. To put an end to it immediately would also prevent ourselves from even being able to move into a future where any possible notion of private property had eventually been left behind permanently out of an actual interest with progress. It remains unclear at this stage, however, how the workers’ alienation from nature can be immediately reconfigured into the means of establishing a new power of the proletariat over both nature and the other previously dominant classes all in one fell swoop. Ultimately, it is more useful to read the “Young Marx” on his own terms and as a natural progression tending toward his later writing, rather than for some mysterious way in which he ends up completely disproving himself. His early writing is equally not revealing of a youthful revitalizing energy that was lost later in life, since the “Young Marx” was already writing with too much intelligence for that to be a correct reduction of his work.