Marx 200

Gaps, Real or Perceived, in the Marxian Theory


Marx's theory has been subject to many attacks by the defenders of capitalism. But even among those who share his hatred for exploitation and oppression, his theory has been faulted for failing to provide an account of three important questions in relation to capitalism: nature; gender; and colonialism. The criticisms are along the following lines.

One criticism is that Marx, in focusing on human productive activities, failed to take into account the contribution of natural wealth, as well as the 'side' effects of the capitalist production process, in particular the irreversible degradation of nature as a result of human activities. Recent studies have confirmed that this accusation is not valid : Marx had in fact theorised the relation between human beings and nature, and had shown how capitalism sets human productive activity against nature.1 Capitalism, based on the accumulation drive, is blind to all damage which can be externalised from its short-term costs. Nor was Marx unaware of the contribution of nature to wealth : rather, he emphatically refuted those who ignored this, pointing out that "Labour is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labour, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human a labour power." (Marx 1875)

Capital spells out the method by which capitalist society measures value, which excludes costs that it can shove off onto others (including nature) without competition. But Capital no more endorses that capitalist method than it endorses capitalist society. Its goal is a society in which society is not ruled by the individual drive for the accumulation of exchange values; instead, the members of society freely associate to bring about the full development of human abilities to meet human needs, material and spiritual.

A second criticism is that, in Marx's model of capitalism, the source of surplus value is shown to be the labour of the worker. However, such a focus ignores the labour of reproduction of labour power, in which women have the main role. Indeed the labour of reproduction is not sufficiently elaborated in Marx's writings. But his frame and method provide readers with much of the equipment needed to take fuller and continuing account of thirst. In fact, Marx's concept of 'cost of reproduction' can be used to show how the oppressed condition of women aids the capitalist: For this helps obscure and systematically devalue women's unpaid household labour, and thereby helps the capitalist keep down the wages of the worker.2

Finally, Marx's model is criticised for not incorporating the considerable, perhaps key contribution of flows of colonial plunder (and slavery) to the development of capitalism. To the extent Marx takes account for this contribution, it appears to be restricted to gathering capital for the launch of capitalism but in fact the flows of colonial/neo-colonial surplus were and are required for the sustenance of capitalism.

Let us look at how four aspects are dealt with by Marx: the role of colonial plunder in the process of primitive (primary) accumulation of capital in Europe; the impact of colonial rule on the colonial societies; its impact on the consciousness of the workers in the colonising countries; and the importance of colonial exploitation to the very sustenance and reproduction of capitalism.

(i)  Capital is explicit about the importance of colonial plunder to the development of capitalism in Europe. And there can scarcely be a more scathing depiction of the orgy of loot and bloodshed that was colonialism than is found in Charter 31 of Capital vol. I, which ends: "If money, according to Augier, comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek, capital comes dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and dirt." (Marx 1990, 926)

(ii) At first, in his article in the New York Daily Tribune "The Future Results of British Rule in India" (1853), Marx imagined that the destruction and horrors wrought by British rule would precipitate an industrial revolution in India. But by the time he wrote Capital, Marx instead remarked that colonialism creates a worldwide division of labour, by destroying native industry in the colonies, and thus forcing them to turn into producers of raw materials for the coloniser. Marx, in his later writings, came to the view that colonial rule cast development backward, and that for their progress the colonised people would have to overthrow colonial rule. (Ghosh 1985, 91-108) In a draft of a letter to Vera Zasulich written in 1881, Marx wrote that in India 'the suppression of communal land ownership was nothing but an act of English vandalism which drove the indigenous population backward rather than forward." (Marx 1881) By this point, Marx's critique had become deep and damning : British rule was not developing India but bleeding it "with a vengeance".3 He looked forward to the people of the colonised countries freeing themselves from British rule, not waiting for a proletarian revolution in Britain to free them.

(iii)          In Capital he states a very important proposition : "Labour in a white skin cannot emancipate itself where it is branded in a black skin." (Marx 1990, 414) While this is said with reference to the impact of slavery on the working class in the United States, he came to apply the same principle to quest on of Britain's colonies and the British working class. Just three years after the publication of Capital vol. I. Marx wrote (in a circular to the International Workingmen's Association) that "to hasten the social revolution in England... the decisive blow must be struck in [the British colony] Ireland;" and here, too, he reiterates the principle : "A nation that enslaves another forges its own chains." (Lenin would later apply this invaluable principle not only to various dimensions of the national question, but to the woman's question too4; and it can be applied to caste domination in India as well.)

(iv) In Marx's original plan for Capital, two entire volumes were to deal with foreign trade and with the world market and crisis. He later changed his plan but it is possible that, had he been able to complete his theoretical work, he would have spelled out the continuing contribution of colonial exploitation to sustaining capitalism after the stage of primitive accumulation as well. At any rate, his remarks on the scale of Britain's "bleeding" of India, and the fact that this bleeding was a continuing enrichment of Britain in the 1880s, clearly indicate his views by the end of his life. It fell to Lenin, deeply immersed in Marx's method, to analyse the rise of finance capital and imperialism by the turn of the century.

In the current phase of imperialism, with the massive growth of outsourcing from the imperialist countries in the North to low-wage countries like China and India, Marx's revelation that surplus value is generated in the course of production is an invaluable weapon. Bourgeois economics preaches that most of the 'value added' in goods outsourced to the low-wage countries is actually added in the course of transporting, insuring and retailing the goods in the imperialist countries, since the bulk of the income from the goods accrues in the latter. But this is a mere bourgeois obfuscation which covers up imperialist exploitation. Basing on Marx's analysis (see Smith 2016), one can see that the surplus value actually generated in the course of production in the low-wage country is then captured by firms in the imperialist countries. Thus a Bangladeshi garment worker who sews a shirt may receive a pittance as wages, and the Bangladeshi capitalist who gets the shirt sewn may receive a small share of the surplus value generated, but Walmart and other firms in the imperialist countries grab the overwhelming share of that surplus value, in the name of 'value added' in retailing and the like. ooo

1.      In particular, this has been brought out in the work of John Bellamy Foster and others, in several books as well as articles in Monthly Review and elsewhere.

2.      Engles said that, "The modem individual family is founded on the open or concealed domestic slavery of the wife, and modern society is a mass composed of these individual families as its molecules." (Engles, 1884, Chapter II) There were several reasons Marx did not pursue this line of inquiry in Capital. Among them was the fact that, at the time Marx was writing, the capitalist production process was thrusting women and children into the industrial workforce in huge numbers, working long hours in extremely degraded conditions. It thus appeared that capitalism would virtually demolish the working class marriage and family toward the later part of the 19th century, however, capitalist society, forced by working class struggles to limit the working day, and fattened by its exploitation of the colonies, systematically restored the working class family as an institution in the imperialist strongholds. It began paying the male worker a wage that apparently would suffice sustain the entire household—but at the same time keeping the wage down with the unpaid household labour of the woman, a role now re-sanctified by bourgeois ideology. See Foster and Clark, 2018.

3.      "What the English take from them [the Indians] annually in the form of rent, dividends for railways useless to the Hindus; pensions for military and civil servicemen, for Afghanistan and other wars etc.—what they take from them without any equivalent and quite apart from—what they appropriate to themselves annually within India speaking only of the value of the commodities the Indians have gratuitously and annually to send over to England—it amounts to more than the total sum of income of the 60 millions of agricultural and industrial labourers of India! This is a bleeding process with a vengeance!'—Marx, 1881a.

4.      Zetkin, 1934. Lenin refers to how the "old master right of the man" undermines their revolutionary spirit.

[Excerpted from ‘‘Introduction...’’, Aspects of India’s Economy,’ Nos. 70 & 71]

Vol. 50, No.47, May 27 - June 2, 2018