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Reconstituted Socialist Party of Great Britain - Marx Studies - Getting Beyond the First Page of Capital (A Reprise)

Harold Wilson, one-time Prime Minister and leader of the Labour Party, once boasted that, as a clever economics graduate, he did not get beyond the first page of CAPITAL. He implied that the book was impenetrable and irrelevant at the time when all the major political parties were Keynesians.

In an interview published in the Observer in 1963, Harold Wilson said:

Quite honestly, I’ve never read ‘Das Kapital’; I only got as far as page two – that’s where the footnote is nearly a page long. I felt that the two sentences of the main text and a page of footnotes were too much” (From THE PASSING SHOW, SOCIALIST STANDARD, August 1963)

The SOCIALIST STANDARD reviewer was puzzled by Wilson’s remark. The footnotes Wilson was referring to begin at page fifty-two of the Willian Glaisher edition, not page two. The footnotes on page one referred to Marx’s previous work, A CRITIQUE OF POLITICAL ECONOMY along with two remarks made by the 17th century economist and building speculator, Nicholas Barbon. The footnotes on the second page are just as short as those on the first.

There is no puzzlement about Wilson’s statement; he was just being sarcastic. It was a put down remark. He had no interest in reading CAPITAL or in Marx. Keynes, for Wilson, had all the answers. Wilson’s comment about reading CAPITAL carried the same rhetorical weight as one of his other off-the-cuff remarks when he claimed that the Labour Party “owed more to Methodism than to Marx”.

Wilson may have been a clever student at Oxford but he was intellectually lazy. If he had bothered to read CAPITAL and understood what Marx was saying about economic crises and the contradictions found in a capitalist economy he would have realised that his own future political career as Labour Party leader and Prime Minister promising full employment and a crisis-free economy would be an abject failure. Which, of course it was.

What of Keynes? Sometimes he said he did not read CAPITAL while on other occasions he said he did. For instance, there is a letter he wrote to George Bernard Shaw on 2nd December 1934:

My feelings about Das Kapital are the same as my feelings about the Koran. I know that it is historically important and I know that many people, not all of whom are idiots, find it a sort of Rock of Ages and containing inspiration. Yet when I look into it, it is to me inexplicable that it can have this effect. Its dreary, out-of-date, academic controversialising seems so extraordinarily unsuitable as material for the purpose. But then, as I have said, I feel just the same about the Koran. How could either of these books carry fire and sword round half the world? It beats me. Clearly there is some defect in my understanding. Do you believe both Das Kapital and the Koran? Or only Das Kapital? But whatever the sociological value of the latter, I am sure that its contemporary economic value (apart from occasional but inconstructive and discontinuous flashes of insight) is nil. Will you promise to read it again, if I do?

The comparison of CAPITAL with the Koran and the Methodism associated with the hymn “rock of ages” was a deliberate smear. Keynes considered CAPITAL as being nothing more than a theological tract pursued by religious zealots rather than a book of any scientific importance.

And notice the conceit of the last sentence where Keynes dares G. B. Shaw, to read CAPITAL again. Shaw had long since repudiated Marx’s labour theory of value in favour of the vulgar and shallow economics of Jevons and was no more likely to read CAPITAL again than Keynes.

Keynes had a low opinion of the working class and held that the elitist belief that society was best ruled by people such as himself. He was also a eugenicist and racist, heading the Eugenics Society from 1937 to 1944. To all intents and purposes he was an economic snake oil salesman who thought he had “saved” capitalism. He did not “save” capitalism. Capitalism, as Marx showed, just went its own way; from crisis to depression to economic up-turn to boom and back again. By the 1970’s the “magic” of Keynesianism was history having no answer to the stagnation and rising unemployment following the 1973 economic crises.

Despite Keynes’s bile, Marx’s CAPITAL was being seriously considered by some professional economists and an increasing number of workers during the economic depression of the early 1930s. CAPITAL was not being read as a religious tract but as a scientific text to understand the reasons for the economic depression and subsequent mass unemployment. Yet that interest in Capital came to a grinding halt in 1936 with the publication of Keynes’s THE GENERAL THEORY OF EMPLOYMENT, INTEREST AND MONEY, two years after Keynes’s letter to G.B. Shaw.

Keynes claimed that the government could “manage” the economy while Marx’s Capital showed it could not because of the anarchy of commodity production and exchange for profit. Capitalism could neither attain conditions of full employment nor could governments prevent economic crises and trade depressions from occurring. So if Capital was so “dreary and out-of-date” and shot through with arcane “academic controversialising”, why was Marx so right about capitalism passing from one economic crisis to the next and Keynes so hopelessly wrong?

Marx said that the key to understanding capitalism lay in the nature of production, the selling of commodities on a market for profit. Profit was the key. CAPITAL, then, was “fit for purpose” as an explanation of capitalism. Meanwhile Keynes’s economic ideas were found wanting in the economic crisis of the 1970s when the government and its Keynesian advisers had no answer to the apparently inexplicable combination of rising inflation and rising unemployment.

Ironically, the former French Prime Minister, Nicholas Sarkozy was apparently photographed taking a copy of CAPITAL not the GENERAL THEORY on board a government jet as he prepared to fly out to a finance meeting to discuss the economic crisis of 2008 (Emma Duncan, Deputy editor of the ECONOMIST, EVENING STANDARD 30th March 2009). Was he about to set-up a CAPITAL reading group among the assembled financiers and government Ministers? Had he found an insight in CAPITAL for helping the political leaders to overcome the economic down-turn in the economy? We think not.

If Marx did not write the socialist equivalent of a Mrs Beaton cook-book for the future, then he certainly did not write economic manuals to help politicians in their vain and fruitless attempt to run capitalism. His conclusion about the profit system was the complete opposite. Capitalism runs and ultimately destroys politicians.

What about the economic rock-star Thomas Piketty? He wanted to be seen as the new Marx for the 21st century. He wrote on Marx but never really actually read him, particularly CAPITAL. In an interview with the journalist Isaac Chotiner he was asked about the effect of Marx’s CAPITAL on his thinking (NEW REPUBLIC MAGAZINE, 6th May 2014). Piketty said

I never managed to read it (Capital). I don’t know if you’ve tried to read it. Have you tried?

He went on to say that CAPITAL “is very difficult to read and for me was not very influential

And Piketty concluded his interview with the remark that in Marx’s CAPITAL “there is no data”. This was a nasty dig against Marx’s reputation by suggesting that he was not a social scientist, dealing with the facts of capitalism like Piketty but was instead a mere theoretician incapable of using statistical analysis and mathematical modelling to explain the profit system and its inherent contradictions and conflict .

There is no data” in CAPITAL is a crass and ignorant remark to make against Marx’s study and critique of capitalism when Marx used a vast amount of empirical data in the book. Just as an example, in part 5 of chapter 25, THE GENERAL LAW OF ACCUMULATION (pp 762 to 870 Penguin edition 1990), Marx illustrates the general law of capitalist accumulation from 1846 to 1866 in great detail with statistics, illustrative tables, facts and figures. So to accuse Marx of not using “data” in CAPITAL is as ridiculous as the Keynesian economist, Professor Paul Krugman pathetically linking CAPITAL to Hitler’s MEIN KAMPF.

Curiously, though, if you read Piketty’s book, someone has clearly read CAPITAL, for there are erroneous criticisms of Marx dotted at various points throughout the text, particularly over the question of the falling rate of profit (pp 227-30), a topic dealt with by Marx in the third volume of CAPITAL. We can only presume that Piketty either read Marx through a collection of quotations he had picked up, magpie-like, from elsewhere or he was dependent on one of his research students to provide him with the information on CAPITAL to use in his book.

Unlike Piketty, who wrote his book for the purpose of arguing for a utopian system of taxation on global profits in order to distribute social wealth more equitably, Marx set out to understand capitalism as a historical system moving by class struggle from one economic crisis to the next. Marx’s understanding of capitalism was not academic but was meant to assist the working class to replace capitalism with socialism.

Finally, there is the reading of CAPITAL by the French philosopher, Louis Althusser. His instructions on how to read CaAPITAL influenced many students during the 1960s even though he remained in the Stalinist French Communist Party as though Khrushchev’s speech exposing Stalin’s “excesses” and the up-risings in East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and several in Poland had never taken place.

At least Althusser admitted that he was an intellectual “trickster” and “deceiver”. Although he had read Marx’s earlier works he had not, at the age of 46, read the first volume of CAPITAL before giving a seminar in 1964 which was to make his name and bestow on him the accolade “intellectual of our time” with attendant fawning admirers and sycophants.

I was in a state of euphoria, having just published Pour Marx and Lire, Le Capital’ in October (1965). But then I became obsessed with the terrifying thought that these texts would expose me completely to the public at large as I really was, namely a trickster and a deceiver and nothing more, a philosopher who knew almost nothing about the history of philosophy or about Marx (though I had certainly made a close study of his early work, I had only seriously studied Book 1 of Capital in 1964 when I took a seminar which resulted in Lire ‘Le Capital’ (THE FUTURE LASTS FOREVER: A MEMOIR 1994 pp 147 – 148)

It was like someone producing a manual on the KARMA SUTRA without ever losing their virginity.

So beware politicians and intellectuals. What they often say about Marx and CAPITAL, to use the deep philosophical insight of Althusser’s work given to us by the late Jerry Cohen, author of KARLMARX'S THEORY OF HISTORY: A DEFENCE: A Defence, (1978), is usually “bullshit”.

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