Marxist Theory and Socialist Politics: a reply to Michael Bleaney Anthony Cutler, Barry Hindess, Paul Hirst and Athar Hussain

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1 358 MARXISM TODAY, NOVEMBER, 1978 Marxist Theory and Socialist Politics: a reply to Michael Bleaney Anthony Cutler, Barry Hindess, Paul Hirst and Athar Hussain One of the most important issues raised by Bleaney's review article on Marx's Capital and Capitalism Today (MCCT) in the September issue of Marxism Today concerns the relations between Marxist theory and socialist politics. What is the point for socialists of theoretical work which tries to develop Marxist theory by means of argument and criticism? Bleaney recognises that theoretical work may be fruitful and he recognises the importance of its relation to socialist politics when he says that the concepts developed in MCCT are very weak, meaning that "they will offer little support to the revolutionary theorist lost in the bog of concrete analysis". So, one way of assessing the point of theoretical work is to ask what it has to offer concrete analysis. Fine, but the "weakness" of our concepts is dogmatically asserted. Bleaney doesn't tell us what are the problems of concrete analysis faced by socialists in Britain today and he doesn't bother to show that our concepts are "weak" in relation to those problems, apparently because he disagrees with our critique of classical Marxist concepts. The implication is that classical Marxism does provide us with the "strong" concepts that we need. Because classical Marxism is able to deal with the problems of concrete analysis anything which departs from it can be brushed aside as unworthy of serious consideration. Inadequacies * But is is precisely the adequacy of Marxist theory to concrete analysis that we disputed in MCCT. Despite the renaissance of Marxist theory in the last fifteen years there is in modern Marxism little serious analysis of the structure of particular advanced capitalist economies. Marxist economic theory is dominated by debates concerning the structure and intepretation of Capital while, for example, discussion of modern financial systems has not significantly advanced beyond the work of Hilferding, Bukharin and Lenin. All too many works on Britain or contemporary capitalism in fact treat capitalist economies merely as examples of a common structure, the capitalist mode of production, and of the tendencies inherent in that structure. For example, Mandel's Late Capitalism is little more than an argument that the terminal tendencies are still with us, that they have been counteracted temporarily and reinforced by the post-war expansion. This approach reduces the distinctive structures and problems of particular capitalist economies to insignificance compared to the common underlying structure. Marxist economic theory has no adequate analysis of modern monetary forms, of financial institutions and the differing types of financial systems of capitalist national economies, or of the forms of organisation of largescale capitalist enterprise and the types of economic calculation they employ. It is important to recognise that the problems of Capital and of modern Marxism cannot be confined to a few limited technical errors and areas requiring further development. They concern some of the central features of Marxist theory itself, the conception of the capitalist mode of production as generating necessary effects and tendencies as a result of its structure, and the treatment of politics and ideology in terms of class struggle. These and other deficiencies are discussed at length in MCCT and there is no space to deal with them here. Their effect has been that Marxist theory has all too little to say on many of the crucial problems of socialist politics. Marxist Theory and Socialist Politics For example, any serious strategy for socialism in Britain must involve the election of left Labour governments, which obviously depends on the transformation of the Labour Party. But that requires detailed analyses of the forces and interests that make up the Labour Party and of its relationship with the wider Labour Movement and other elements of British politics. Or again, the practical problems of constructing a mass base of popular organisations and practices, a broad democratic alliance, require the construction of alliances with diverse groups many of which do not have explicitly socialist objectives, for example, sections of the women's movement, nationalist movements and environmental groups. Here too the need for detailed

2 MARXISM TODAY, NOVEMBER, analysis is clear. But, in the absence of fundamental reconstruction, Marxist theory is an obstacle to such urgent tasks of political analysis. At this point it is important to be clear what we are not saying. We are not saying that deficiencies in concrete analysis are reducible to deficiencies in Marxist theory. On the contrary, they also depend on the practical strengths and weaknesses of socialist politics, its relation or lack of relation to popular organisations and struggles, and on the internal struggles and organisation of socialist parties themselves. Indeed, one of the reasons for the lack of development of serious Marxist analyses of important contemporary issues in Britain is the marginality of the Marxist left in relation to current British politics. What is Bleaney's response to our argument that there are crucial deficiencies in Marxist theory and that they are an obstacle to effective analysis of the problems confronted by socialists in Britain today? It consists of three main elements: 1. an inadequate and dismissive summary of our conclusions; 2. gross distortions of some of our arguments and simplistic attacks on them. For example, referring to our discussion of value Bleaney uses the neo-classical critique of the Marxist theory of value which he dismisses as "nothing new". But there are two problems with this. First, to say that there is nothing new in an argument is not enough to show that it is wrong. There is "nothing new" in the socialist critique of capitalist production and distribution as wasteful and undemocratic, but that doesn't mean the critique is wrong. Secondly, MCCT does not support the neoclassical critique and is in fact explicitly opposed to it; 3. numerous unsubstantiated assertions and insults. For example, the accusation of "vulgar empiricism" or the "guilt by association" argument where Bleaney identifies our arguments with those of right-wing polemics against Marxism. Marxists will be only too familiar with this style of argument, by distortion, unsubstantiated assertion and insult. It has played an unfortunate but important part in the history of Marxist politics and it is still a serious obstacle to the advance of socialist politics in Britain and other advanced capitalist democracies. But what is so striking about Bleaney's response is that he has nothing at all to say about the fundamental political issue of the adequacy of classical Marxism to the problems of political analysis confronting socialists in Britain and other modern capitalist societies. If anything his discussion trivialises politics but more of that later. On the matter of the relations between Marxist theory and socialist politics some of Bleaney's concluding remarks are very revealing. He claims that "in the present state of social science" there is no point in specialising in Marxist theory as such and further that specialist philosophers, historians and economists "have the edge because they are forced to confront directly both the practical weaknesses of Marxist concepts and the progress of non-marxist thought". In other words, leave the basic structure of Marxist theory alone and let the specialists concentrate on technical details and problems in their respective disciplines. This Claim There are three things to notice about this claim. First, it involves a clear view of where the problems for Marxist theory arise and how they are to be dealt with. According to Bleaney they arise in particular social sciences and they are to be dealt with by specialists in those disciplines. Of course no one would deny that there are problems of this kind but what Bleaney ignores is precisely what socialists should regard as the major source of problems for Marxist theory, namely, the difficulties confronting socialist politics in coming to terms with the major social and political issues of their society. Secondly, Bleaney implies that there may be "practical weaknesses" of Marxist concepts. But he doesn't tell us what they are or consider their significance for the problems of concrete analysis faced by socialists in Britain today. Since he doesn't regard politics as a source of problems for Marxist theory his silence on this point is not surprising. Thirdly, Bleaney is the worst possible advertisement for his own case. In criticising our discussion of value he chides us with not knowing that Marx and Ricardo assume constant returns to scale. This is an amazing error for a specialist economist to make. Has Bleaney ever read Ricardo's Principles of Political Economy and Taxation! Anyone who has, or has read Marx's criticisms of it, will know that Ricardo assumes that there must be diminishing returns on investment in agriculture and that this is the foundation for his theory of the falling rate of profit. But the real problem with Bleaney's assertion is that the notion of "returns to scale" in relation to changes in demand belongs to marginalist and neo-classical economics, not to the theory of value and production prices developed by Marx and the classical economists. As Sraffa points out in The Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities that theory requires no assumption whatever about returns to scale. The Substantive Arguments In short, Bleaney's comments display a carelessness with the elementary facts of his discipline that is unforgiveable in a specialist. But, what is far more important, he displays a truly amazing complacency both about the basic structure of Marxist theory and

3 360 MARXISM TODAY, NOVEMBER, 1978 about its relationship to the central problems of socialist politics in modern Britain. But what of Bleaney's discussion of the substantive arguments of MCCT? We have already noted that he doesn't even present, let alone criticise, our arguments on value. Instead he gives a hackneyed and dismissive account of the neo-classical critique of Marx's value theory. And he has nothing at all to say about our discussion of money and finance. Does Bleaney really believe that the Lenin/Hilferding model of finance capital, developed in relation to the forms of industrial cartelisation and control by banking capital prevailing in Germany in the early part of this century, gives an adequate theory of modern monetary forms and financial systems? As for what Bleaney does say, the main point concerns his discussions of relative automony, mode of production and laws of motion. His technique is to say, first, that we set up straw men, crude simplifications that no-one takes seriously, and proceed to knock them down, and, secondly, that the Marxist notion of relative autonomy, and so on, is actually more complicated than what we criticise. Consider, for example, his treatment of relative autonomy and of laws of motion. Relative Autonomy In discussing our critique of the treatment of politics and ideology in terms of class struggle, Bleaney blithely ignores several chapters in vol. 1 of MCCT and announces that "we do not stop to think what the concept of relative autonomy might mean". We are entirely correct to reject crude economism but because we don't seriously consider any other possibility we mistakenly conclude that politics is not fundamentally a clash of class interests. In fact, says Bleaney, politics is fundamentally a clash of interests but that doesn't mean that every detail is determined by class interests. For example, decisions as to "how many copies of a leaflet the Communist Party should print" are not simply reflections of class interests. Or again, the class nature of Tory politics "does not change because Mrs. Thatcher has a headache". Notice how Bleaney's examples seem to trivialise politics. Is he saying that it is only such trivia that are not determined by class interests? What about other hotly debated issues like the Communist Party's attitude on socialist democracy, incomes policy or the Common Market or, for that matter, the British Road to Socialism where there were profound disagreements over both short and long term issues of wide-ranging importance? Are decisions on these matters simply reflections of class interests or do they too escape such determination? Bleaney's treatment of laws of motion is similar. Of course, he says, it is obvious that the decisions of capitalists "cannot be determined simply from a general concept of mode of production". However, he argues, what we don't understand is that laws of motion are simply pressures on capitalists which induce them to act in certain ways in accordance with their interests. But that doesn't mean that every capitalist enterprise will react in precisely the same way. So what Marxist theory has to say is more complex than the positions MCCT disputes and our criticisms can therefore be ignored. Let us pass over the fact that Bleaney's account of our arguments is a travesty and ask where does his argument get us. Basically it tries to preserve determination by the economy, laws of motion and other formulae by saying that of course there are other sources of variation but fundamentally the economy does determine politics and ideology and it is governed by definite laws of motion. Notice first that Bleaney merely asserts determination by the economy, relative autonomy and so on. He doesn't tell us what relative autonomy is or how determination by the economy is supposed to work, except that it is not a matter of Margaret Thatcher's state of health. What are the mechanisms which ensure that the basic strategies of political parties are classdetermined while some other features of politics are not? Since political stragety is the outcome of a complex process of struggle and debate within a party it seems that class interests must somehow control this process so that the right outcome is reached. But how is that control supposed to work? No answer. Nor does Bleaney explain how "pressures" on capitalist enterprises somehow add up into laws of motion of an economy in spite of considerable differences in the conditions faced by capitalists and in the structure of enterprises. Notice, secondly, that Bleaney tries to preserve determination by the economy and the rest by immunising them from criticism. Any difficulties can be explained away by the face-saving formula of "relative autonomy" or by saying that, of course, the laws of motion don't mean that there are no differences in the way capitalists behave. But that immunisation has to be paid for at a very heavy cost because it makes the notions of determination by the economy and the class-determination of politics and ideology irrelevant to the major problems confronting socialist politics. A Face-Saving Formula For example, although he doesn't bother to explain how class-interests do fundamentally determine politics, Bleaney relies on the formula of relative autonomy to say that they don't determine every detail. We have seen what trivia he uses to illustrate his point. But what about the more serious political issues indicated above? To take another example, what of the strategy of the PCF regarding its relations with the Socialist Party in the period

4 MARXISM TODAY, NOVEMBER, leading up to the last elections, a strategy that is now widely acknowledged to have been an error. Was that strategy, with all its consequences for the future of French politics, a detail? Or would Bleaney seriously maintain that it was fundamentally determined by the interests of the French working class? The problem with Bleaney's attempt to save "relative autonomy" is clear as soon as we move on from his trivial examples to matters of major political importance. Many political decisions, organisations and events can in no way be reduced to simple expressions of class-interests. But to invoke relative autonomy is to say precisely that. It is to say that although politics is fundamentally class-determined nevertheless crucial features of modern politics are not actually determined by class interests. "Relative autonomy" is a face-saving formula used to cover over the fact that the Marxist analysis of politics in terms of class struggle cannot cope with crucial struggles and issues of modern politics. Laws of Motion Bleaney's defence of laws of motion runs into the same difficulty. He pours scorn on our proposals that it is necessary to investigate differences in the forms of enterprise calculation, the structures of large-scale capitalist enterprises or the conditions of competition faced by such enterprises. The laws of motion operate in spite of those differences. They describe "pressures" on capitalists but they do not imply that every capitalist will react in precisely the same way. The problem is that the differences between one enterprise and another can be of crucial importance for the jobs and livelihoods of thousands of workers. So, the laws of motion don't imply that Ford of Europe and Chrysler-Europe will react in exactly the same way to competitive pressures. Well, thank you very much for that vital information. But what we need is to analyse the differences, to develop political and economic strategies that take account of the behaviour and organisation of particular large-scale enterprises, policies that relate, for example, to the consequences of the take-over of Chrysler-Europe by Peugeot-Citroen, to the specific problems of British Leyland, and so on. Bleaney implies that these differences between enterprises will all come out in the wash of the laws of motion. But that is also to say that the laws of motion have nothing to offer on these vital issues. Does this mean that socialists needn't worry about analysing them adequately and that socialists involved should simply follow their socialist noses? So the effects of Bleaney's arguments is to preserve what he regards as the basic concepts of classical Marxism by divorcing them from any relation to the major problems of socialist political analysis and strategy. There is however one wellknown form of socialist analysis to which Bleaney's immunised Marxism is admirably suited. We refer to the analysis that regards differences in the structure and practices of large-scale capitalist enterprises as insignificant in the light of their fundamental capitalist character, that regards participation in political struggles that cannot be readily interpreted in class terms as a diversion from the main task, that regards the major social problems of our society as hopelessly insoluble without the prior overthrow of capitalism, and finally that regards the laws of motion of capitalist society as moving inexorably to produce the conditions for that overthrow to take place. This is the analysis of the ultra-left and of fundamentalist economism. It bears much of the responsibility for the isolation of the Marxist left from the major issues and organisations of British politics. The Central Political Problems Now it may well be that Bleaney would reject much of the ultra-left analysis and the political strategies which flow from it. But the fact remains that the classical Marxism he is so concerned to defend has little to offer precisely with regard to the problems that the ultra-left analysis ignores and the concept of relative autonomy is a half-baked recognition of that failure. But this point returns us to the relationship between Marxist theory and socialist politics discussed in the first part of our reply. Since Bleaney's immunised Marxism has nothing to say about the crucial problems confronting socialist politics in Britain it is not surprising that he is content to relegate Marxist theory to the realm of learned disputes among specialist philosophers, historians and economists. Meanwhile the central political problems remain for socialists in Britain and other advanced capitalist societies governed by relatively stable forms of parliamentary democracy. As we argue in our conclusion these problems concern "how to build the political conditions for socialist construction within the limits set by parliamentary forms, and in particular how, within those limits, to build a mass base of popular organisations and practices which can support and extend the struggle for socialism". We argued that there are fundamental deficiencies in Marxist theory and that they are an obstacle to the political and economic analyses required if socialists are to resolve these central political problems. MCCT tries to identify those deficiences and to begin the process of rectifying them. It may well be that our arguments are inadequate, although Bleaney's distortions and unfounded assertions do nothing to establish that, and they may well need to be corrected or developed further. But any serious Marxist review has to confront the political challenge of our argument that the classical Marxism Bleaney tries so hard to defend is inadequate to the problems of political and economic analysis

5 362 MARXISM TODAY, NOVEMBER, 1978 that confront us. Bleaney manifestly fails to take up that challenge. But what he does say confirms our diagnosis: it offers a "Marxism" of technical debates among specialist social scientists on the one hand and venerable slogans with no bearing on the concrete problems of socialist politics on the other.

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