[Book] The Classics of Marxism: Volume Two


Alan Woods

Following the great success of the first volume of the Classics of Marxism, a second volume is now published containing five more important titles: Marx’s pioneering works on economics, Wage Labour and Capital and Value, Price and Profit; Lenin’s Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder and In Defence of October and Stalinism and Bolshevism by Trotsky.

Broadly speaking, Marxism can be split into three distinct yet interconnected parts – what Lenin called the three sources and three component parts of Marxism. These generally go under the headings of Marxist economics, dialectical materialism and historical materialism. Each of these stands in a dialectical relation to the others and they cannot be understood in isolation from one another.

The present work opens with two of Karl Marx’s best-known works on economics. Wage Labour and Capital is based on lectures delivered by Marx at the German Workingmen’s Club of Brussels in 1847, that is, before the Communist Manifesto and at a time when Marx had not yet fully developed his theories of political economy. Engels later explained that if Marx had had the opportunity to have revised this text he “would unquestionably have brought the old work, dating from 1849, into harmony with his new point of view.”

Engels nevertheless decided to publish it unchanged – with one important exception. When he gave these lectures, Marx said that what the worker “sold” to the capitalist was his or her labour (that was the accepted theory of the time as put forward by classical bourgeois economists like Ricardo). But in reality what the worker sells is not labour, but labour-power, as Marx explains in Capital and Engels points out in his introduction to Wage Labour and Capital:

“My alterations centre about one point. According to the original reading, the worker sells his labour for wages, which he receives from the capitalist; according to the present text, he sells his labour-power. And for this change, I must render an explanation: to the workers, in order that they may understand that we are not quibbling or word-juggling, but are dealing here with one of the most important points in the whole range of political economy; to the bourgeois, in order that they may convince themselves how greatly the uneducated workers, who can be easily made to grasp the most difficult economic analyses, excel our supercilious “cultured” folk, for whom such ticklish problems remain insoluble their whole life long.

“Classical political economy borrowed from the industrial practice the current notion of the manufacturer that he buys and pays for the labour of his employees. This conception had been quite serviceable for the business purposes of the manufacturer, his book-keeping and price calculation. But naively carried over into political economy, it there produced truly wonderful errors and confusions.”

Although it is an early work, Wage Labour and Capital contains the outline of the Labour Theory of Value and many important insights into the workings of the capitalist system and the way in which workers are exploited. It is well worth reading. Value, Price and Profit, however, was produced at a time when the labour theory of value had already matured in Marx’s brain. It was first delivered as a speech delivered by Marx to the International Working Men's Association (The First International) in June 1865, while he was working on the first volume of Capital that was published two years later. Marx writes in Capital:

“In order to be able to extract value from the consumption of a commodity, our friend Money Bags must be so lucky as to find in the market a commodity whose use-value possesses the peculiar property of being a source of value, and consequently a creation of value. This special commodity is labour-power and other as seller of the commodity labour-power. This is the difference between wage labour and other forms of exploitation. In slavery it appears as if the owner of the slave gets the entire value of the labour of the slave (of course this is not so). Under serfdom, the relation between serfs and lords, and the division of labour of the serfs, was clear.” (Capital Volume I, Chapter 6)

When the worker accepts employment he or she arrives at a “voluntary” contract whereby the worker advances the use-value of labour-power to the capitalist. The workers give their labour-power to the capitalists, but only receive payment after it is used, in the form of a monthly or weekly salary. Thus, the workers extend free credit to the bosses. Moreover, the value of labour-power (wages) has nothing to do with the real value of labour. Once the worker has agreed to sell labour-power, the boss can use it for as long as he wants.

The value of labour-power is determined by the labour-time necessary for production and reproduction of the labourer. It is the value of the means of subsistence necessary for the maintenance of the labourer in his normal state. The value of labour-power, however, differs from that of other commodities insofar as it has a moral and historical element. As Marx explains:

“It is the product of historical development and depends therefore, to a great extent, on the degree of civilisation of a country.” (Ibid)

What was an acceptable level of sustenance to a worker in Victorian England is not the same as what it is today. What may be an acceptable level of sustenance to an agricultural labourer in India today will not be for a farm worker in the USA. However, in a given country, in a given period, at different times, the average quantity of the means of subsistence necessary for the labourer, in practice, is known.

Through the consumption of labour-power the capitalists produce commodities, but also surplus value, which is nothing more than the unpaid labour of the working class. The aim of the capitalist is to produce the maximum surplus value from the labour-power of the workers. This he achieves by a number of means: lengthening the working day, intensifying the labour process, productivity incentives, etc.

The process of the extraction of surplus value takes place in the field of production – within the four walls of the workplace. The value of labour-power (wages) is what the worker receives, but the product of the workers’ labour is the property of the capitalist, not the worker. However, in order to convert the commodities produced by the workers into actual profit, the capitalist must find a market for them. New contradictions arise as soon as the commodity leaves the factory and enters the anarchy of the market. The greed of the capitalists for surplus value knows no limits. But the power of capitalist society to absorb the mass of commodities produced is limited by the poverty of the masses. Moreover, the individual capitalist has to compete with many other capitalists for a share of the market. In the end the inevitable result is periodic crises of overproduction.

The class struggle under capitalism is the struggle for the division of the surplus value created by the labour of the working class. As long as the capitalists are extracting surplus value in sufficient quantities, they can buy social peace. But that is not the case now. The present crisis has an unprecedented character. Even the most modest demands of the workers are met with stubborn resistance. This is a finished recipe for an intensification of the class struggle. Sooner or later the workers will come to understand that the only solution is a complete transformation of society – a revolution.

Until recently the accepted wisdom was that the market, if left to itself, was capable of solving all the problems. According to the bourgeois economists, crises of overproduction were not supposed to happen. The university professors were convinced that that the free market forces of supply and demand would automatically arrive at equilibrium (the “efficient market hypothesis”). The bourgeois economists never tire of repeating that Marx’s economic theories were outdated “ideas of the 19th century”. But the economic collapse of 2008 completely demolished the smug assertions of the alleged superiority of market economics. Nothing that has happened since then gives us any reason to doubt it. As I write these lines China, which was one of the main motor forces of the world economy, is facing a serious crisis of overproduction that can very easily turn into a deep slump that will drag down the whole world.

For further reading on economics, go to the first volume of Capital. My friend and comrade Ted Grant used to say that you could then go straight to Volume III. I would also recommend The Living Thoughts of Karl Marx, a condensed version of Capital Volume I with a brilliant introduction by Trotsky (an extract of which is available in the economics section of Wellred Books’ What Is Marxism?). Normally I would not recommend selections, but the Penguin Marx on Economics is very well done. We hope that by reading these works, the reader will be encouraged to study Marx’s writings themselves. After all, nobody has ever expounded Marx’s ideas better than Marx himself.

Lenin’s “Left-Wing” Communism

The International Marxist Tendency has been formed in a constant struggle against sectarian or opportunist tendencies. In this we continue in the footsteps of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. Ever since it was born, Marxism has had to wage a continual war to free itself of ultraleftism and opportunism. Marx and Engels waged a stubborn struggle against the ultraleft Bakunin. And the whole history of Bolshevism was a history of sharp ideological battles. Lenin was obliged more than once to combat ultraleft tendencies within the ranks of Bolshevism – for example after the defeat of the 1905 Revolution, when he found himself in a minority in the leadership on the question of the need to participate in elections to a rigged tsarist parliament and work in the trade unions and other legal and semi-legal organizations.

Lenin and Trotsky explained many times that a revolutionary must be patient. They also emphasized that every Party member must be obliged to join the trade unions. They stressed the need for the revolutionaries to establish closer links to the mass organizations, above all the unions. However, not everyone who called themselves Marxists (and even Leninists) understood this. In the difficult years of the First World War, when Lenin once again found himself isolated in exile, he wrote many articles condemning the Social Democracy, demanding a break with opportunism and social chauvinism. He saw that the Second International was dead as an organization for carrying out the socialist revolution, and he was absolutely correct in this. But it is one thing for the Marxists to understand this, and quite another thing how the politically uneducated masses see the mass reformist organizations.

This distinction has never been understood by the ultraleft sectarians. For them, the independence of the revolutionary party is a principle – whether it be a party of ten or ten million. This sectarianism was answered by Trotsky when he wrote:

“But Lenin had in mind a break with reformists as the inevitable consequence of a struggle against them, and not an act of salvation regardless of time and place. He required a split with the social patriots not in order to save his own soul but in order to tear the masses away from social patriotism.” (Trotsky, Writings 1935-36, p156)

The Leninist tactic of the united front was a concrete policy for establishing links between the advanced Communist workers and the masses who were still under the influence of the reformist leaders. The flexible, dialectical method of Lenin presents a stark contrast with the sterile formalism of the sects, who imagine that in order to create a revolutionary party all that they have to do is call upon the working class to join them. Unfortunately all history shows that the masses do not understand small organizations, even if their programme is 100 percent correct. In order to win the masses it is necessary to combine theoretical firmness with tactical and organizational flexibility. That was always Lenin’s way and in Left-Wing Communism we have a splendid example of this:

“If you want to help the 'masses' and win the sympathy and support of the 'masses', you should not fear difficulties or pin-pricks, chicanery, insults and persecution from the 'leaders' (who, being opportunists and social-chauvinists, are in most cases directly or indirectly connected with the bourgeoisie and the police), but must absolutely work wherever the masses are to be found. You must be capable of any sacrifice, of overcoming the greatest obstacles, in order to carry on agitation and propaganda systematically, perseveringly, persistently and patiently in those institutions, societies and associations - even the most reactionary - in which proletarian or semi-proletarian masses are to be found.” (Lenin, Collected Works, Vol 31, p53)

The period through which we are now passing is one of great turbulence. Since 2008 the bourgeoisie has been struggling to restore the old equilibrium. But every attempt to restore the economic equilibrium only serves to destroy the social and political equilibrium. Seven years later, they have not succeeded in restoring anything remotely resembling economic equilibrium, but everywhere there is a social and political crisis of an unprecedented character.

The crisis of capitalism is also the crisis of reformism. The reformists have the illusion that it is possible to go back to the situation that existed before. But this is ruled out. The right reformist leaders imagine that it was their “clever” and “realistic” policies that enabled them to win elections. In reality, wherever they have won elections it has been in spite of their policies, not because of them. They were helped by the boom of capitalism and the lack of an alternative to their left. But now here is a deep crisis, their policies stand exposed as bankrupt.

Everywhere the masses are looking for a way out of the crisis. They are testing parties, leaders and programmes one by one, and they are learning many lessons. Parties that appeared to be stable and fixed for all time have been plunged into crisis, split or destroyed. The fate of PASOK in Greece is just one example of this. There are clear signs of sudden changes in consciousness in Greece, in Spain, in Ireland, in Scotland and lately also in the rest of Britain.

In the heat of great events the old right wing leaders will be vomited out and replaced by others, standing further to the left, who reflect the discontent of the masses, in however a confused, partial or inconsistent way. This is an inevitable stage. The Marxist tendency, following Lenin’s advice, will be part of this movement, actively encouraging it, pushing it to go further and criticising the hesitancy, vacillations and inconsistency of its leaders. Only in this way can we build a solid bridge that will unite the proletarian advanced guard with the mass of leftward-moving workers.

In Defence of October

Trotsky’s work In Defence of October is the title of a speech delivered to a meeting of Social Democratic students in Copenhagen, Denmark in November 1932. At that time Trotsky was living in exile on the tiny island of Prinkipo in Turkey where he was like a caged tiger. He applied to various countries for a visa, but one after another the “democratic” countries of Europe refused to grant asylum to the revolutionary, who they still regarded as a threat.

Isolated from the mainstream of world politics, he continued to influence the course of the class struggle through the building of the International Left Opposition. Under these difficult conditions, Trotsky eagerly seized an invitation he had received to come to Denmark, and used every opportunity to speak to the press and activists in the Danish labour movement.

But Trotsky's hope that his stay in Denmark might lead to the granting of asylum were soon dashed. The Stalinist leaders of the Danish Communist Party organised demonstrations against him in a kind of united front with the Danish Royal Family, who protested against the decision to permit the visit, accusing Trotsky as being responsible for the death of the Russian Tsar and his family, who were their relatives.

After the meeting, in Copenhagen just as before it, Trotsky found himself a prisoner of the Planet without a visa. Nevertheless, it has left us with one priceless asset – the text of his speech, which we reproduce here. It is possibly the best concise work one can read on the subject. For Marxists, the October Revolution of 1917 was the greatest single event in human history. If we exclude the brief but glorious episode of the Paris Commune, for the first time the working class succeeded in overthrowing its oppressors and at least began the task of the socialist transformation of society.

Trotsky later pointed out in The Revolution Betrayed that the October Revolution demonstrated for the viability of socialism the first time, not in the language of dialectics, but in the language of steel, coal, electricity and cement. The nationalised planned economy established by the October Revolution succeeded in a remarkably short time in transforming an economy as backward as Pakistan today into the second most powerful nation on earth.

The Bolshevik Revolution has therefore been completely justified by history. However, the Revolution took place not in an advanced capitalist country as Marx had expected but in semi-feudal tsarist Russia, on the basis of the most frightful backwardness. To give an approximate idea of the conditions that confronted the Bolsheviks, it is sufficient to point out that in just one year, 1920, six million people starved to death in Soviet Russia.

The possibility of real socialism depends on the development of the means of production to a level far in excess of even the most developed capitalist societies, like the USA, Germany or Japan. This was explained by Marx even before he wrote the Communist Manifesto. In the German Ideology he wrote that “where want is generalised all the old crap revives.” And by “all the old crap” he meant class oppression, inequality and exploitation. The reason why the October Revolution degenerated into Stalinism was that it remained isolated in a backward country where the material conditions for building socialism were absent.

The low level of the productive forces and culture in Russia were the objective reasons for the bureaucratic degeneration of the Revolution, which finally ended with Stalin’s totalitarian dictatorship – the very antithesis of the democratic workers’ state established by Lenin and Trotsky. The productive forces in the USSR had developed to a tremendous extent thanks to the nationalised planned economy, but came up against the obstacle of bureaucratic control, which inevitably led to colossal mismanagement, waste, corruption and inefficiency.

In the end the bureaucratic overlords preferred to return to capitalism rather than hand power back to the working class. Trotsky had already warned that the bureaucrats would not be satisfied with their enormous privileges, luxurious cars, dachas and servants. Because all this was based upon state property, they could not pass these things on to their children. Sooner or later, therefore, they would seek to transform state property into private property. And that was just what occurred.

Contrary to the predictions of the bourgeoisie and its hired agents in the universities and the media, the fall of Stalinism was neither the end of socialism nor the end of history. What failed in the USSR was not socialism in any sense that would be recognised by Marx or Lenin, but a bureaucratic and totalitarian caricature of socialism. That certainly failed and it was bound to fail for reasons that Trotsky explained decades in advance.

Now history has taken its revenge on the advocates of the “free market economy”, which has plunged the whole world into a bottomless abyss. Twenty five years ago the bourgeois economists predicted a world of peace and prosperity after the fall of “Communism”. But instead of peace there is war after war. Instead of prosperity there is economic collapse, mass unemployment, huge and unsustainable levels of debt, mass unemployment and growing misery alongside the most obscene wealth and luxury.

The collapse of Stalinism was undoubtedly a historical drama of the first magnitude. But it will be seen by future historians as merely the prelude to a far greater drama: the downfall of capitalism. The present socio-economic system is displaying all the symptoms of senile decay. The old order has outlived its usefulness and exhausted any progressive potential it may once have possessed. It is rotten-ripe for overthrow.

Let the pessimists and sceptics tremble for the future. Let them weep and wail about the present state of the world. What we are witnessing are the symptoms of the death agony of an outmoded, reactionary and barbarous system. Its overthrow is the prior condition for the preservation of civilization, culture and the human race itself. We Marxists look forward to that day, we welcome it with enthusiasm and we will do everything in our power to hasten it, to put an end to the nightmare into which it has plunged our world and to open a new and glorious page in the history of humanity.