Andrew Glyn - Marxist economist and socialist fighter

Andrew Glyn died from a brain tumour on 22 December 2007.  He was 64 years old.  A fellow of Corpus Christi College in Oxford since 1969, he was a leading socialist economist for all that time.

Andrew GlynAndrew Glyn died from a brain tumour on 22 December 2007.  He was 64 years old.  A fellow of Corpus ChristiCollege in Oxford since 1969, he was a leading socialist economist for all that time.

Andrew left a wealth of important writing that analysed the development of post-war capitalism. His best-known works were British capitalism, workers and the profits squeeze with Bob Sutcliffe in 1972; Capitalism since 1945 with Phil Armstrong and the late John Harrison in 1984 and most recently, Capitalism Unleashed (2006), reviewed earlier.

 In those books, Andrew explained how capitalism expanded after 1945 and, in the case of Britain, eventually moved into crisis in the 1970s, leading to major confrontations between big business and the trade unions.  The 1970s were a period of social upheaval as big business tried to drive back the labour movement and restore its profitability from the low levels it was experiencing by then as the Golden Age of Capitalism (1948-74) came to an end. 

His later works dealt with how the capitalist ruling class (both big business and the politicians) organised to defeat the labour movement in Britain (the miners’ strike in 1984-5 being “the decisive turning point”, as Andrew correctly argued) and in the US (as Reagan and monetarism began to replace Keynesianism and the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson).  The gains of labour and the welfare state were brutally and callously reversed over the next two decades from the 1980s onwards.

But Andrew was no academic in an ivory tower.  Although he came from a privileged background – his father was banker and he went to Eton – he dedicated himself to the labour movement, participating in a practical way in many struggles over those years, including the miners’ strike, the anti-poll tax campaign and many others. 

Andrew became an advisor to the National Union of Mineworkers and developed research to defend their cause.  He wrote an excellent pamphlet that defended the position of the miners and exposed the false arguments of Thatcher about the finances of coal. 

As we now experience $100 per barrel oil prices and record high energy prices to heat our homes or get to work, while decades of coal reserves remain underneath us, we should consider the new technologies available to extract coal without damage to the environment and to miners.  Those technologies could have been developed then, instead of closing the mines, putting thousands out of work and ruining many families for many years. 

He became closely associated with the Marxist tendency in the Labour Party built around the Militant newspaper, which is where I came into contact with him.  And he came to be known by many Militant supporters at study meetings, conferences and in articles that he contributed to the development of the tendency.

In those early years of the 1970s, there were not many economists who considered themselves socialists (there are probably even less now!).  But those that did were usually wedded to reformist or stalinist ideas.  Andrew was one of the few that stood for workers’ democracy and Trotskyism.  It is this part of his contribution that has been quietly ignored by the obituaries you can read in the capitalist press (and even many of the socialist journals).

In the 1970s, Andrew also contributed to the debate about Marxist economic ideas.  The capitalist economists continued to dismiss Marxist explanations of capitalist development and particularly booms and slumps.  They preferred the explanation that crises could be evened out by government taxation or spending (as Keynes believed).  Others took the view the view that capitalist did not breed inherent crises. These only happened because trade unions and the labour movement held a ‘monopoly’ over wages levels.  So the best way to end a crisis was for workers to accept massive cuts in their living standards and for the government to do nothing but preserve ‘law and order’.

Andrew argued that capitalism was incompatible with decent conditions for workers and the end of poverty.  In this, of course, he was right.  However, his analysis of capitalism was flawed, in my view, by his conviction that the ‘classical’ capitalist economist, David Ricardo, was more theoretically right than Marx. 

By that I mean that Andrew argued that Marx’s categories to explain the booms and slumps in capitalism were wrong.  In his 1972 book (and in the debates that he had with many of us ‘orthodox’ Marxists in the 1970s), he argued that Marx’s view (that capitalism led to a rising organic composition of capital that would eventually squeeze capitalist profitability) was both wrong theoretically and empirically. 

As he said recently, just before he died, “I placed strong emphasis on the relations between capital and labour.  It is still my view that as labour’s position became stronger in the long boom… the strength of labour forced an increase in real wages at the expense of profits.  For me, that was the most important cause of the transition from the golden age to an era of instability”.  This is pure Ricardo, not Marx. 

Andrew adopted an approach that many socialist economists have done when convinced more by bourgeois economics than Marxist value theory: “I don't believe, as I used to, that Marx's concepts should be applied too literally to economic data.  I prefer the view... that Marx's analysis should inform one's way of looking at the world and the questions one asks".

Andrew’s position opens him up to the charge that capitalism could solve its problems if it could get wages (or the share of labour in national output) down – exactly what the followers of Ricardo argued.  Strong productivity growth through investment in new technology plus vicious attacks on the labour movement could do it – and was achieved in the 1980s and 1990s.  

But Marx argued that, even then, capitalism cannot grow without crises.  Rising productivity would come at the expense of falling profitability as the ratio of capital invested in machinery and plant mounted relative to that invested in the workforce – the only investment that generates new value.  For Marx, falling profitability leads to a rising share of labour in production, not vice versa.  Thus cutting wages will not save capitalism from crisis.

Subsequent research and debate among Marxist economists have now shown that Marx did have a consistent theory that was not flawed as Andrew thought (see my review of Kliman’s recent book)– and moreover, empirical evidence increasingly supports Marx’s analysis of capitalist crises (see recent pieces, for instance).

But these differences are secondary to the memory of Andrew as a great educator and fighter for socialism committed to the struggles of working people and the labour movement. We will miss him badly.

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