Theory: Marxist economics

Marxist economics

The economic system we live under today is capitalism: based on competition, private ownership and the production for profit. Karl Marx revolutionised our understanding of the capitalist system. With his vast collection of economic writings – including the three volumes of Capital – Marx stripped away the mysticism surrounding capitalism, uncovering and explaining its inner processes, emergent laws, and intrinsic contradictions.

Marx built upon the work of his ‘classical’ predecessors – in particular the British economists Adam Smith and David Ricardo. These enlightenment thinkers had attempted to examine capitalism on a scientific basis. In doing so, they hit upon the idea that labour was the source of all new value within society.

By developing this ‘labour theory of value’, Marx was able to explain an enigma that had eluded the classical economists: that of profit. This, Marx demonstrated, arises from exploitation – that is, from the surplus value produced by the working class. Simply put, the capitalists’ profits are obtained from the unpaid labour of the workers.

But this fact, in turn, led Marx to an even more shattering conclusion: that the capitalist system is inherently prone to periodic crisis of overproduction – crises that break out and paralyse the entirely of society, as the forces of production crash up against the narrow limits of the market.

This is the picture we find ourselves in today, as workers and youth are forced to pay for the crisis of capitalism. Armed with the ideas of Marxism, we can see that there is no way out of this crisis within the confines of capitalism. The only solution is socialist revolution.

Before we examine the economic theories of comrade Dieterich, we will attempt to provide the reader with a brief summary of the basic economic laws of capitalism, which Marx explained long ago.

Marxists approach economics from a particular perspective. We have to accept that wealth is concentrated in the hands of a very small number of people, the capitalist class. The overwhelming majority of people have no wealth. All in essence they have is themselves and their ability to work, which they have to sell on the open market. Marx called these people the proletariat. Steve Jones, of the Socialist Appeal editorial board, talks on the basics of Marxists economics.

At a Youth School of the Socialist Appeal late last year Mick Brooks introduced a discussion on 'What is money?'. Given the current financial turmoil many are asking what is behind the jargon given by economic commentators today. This serves as a useful introduction to the idea and concept of money.

The capitalist system moves in a never-ending cycle of booms and slumps. That has been the case for the last two hundred years. The cycle of booms and slumps, however, does not have a fixed and regular character. To begin with, the length of the cycle has always been somewhat flexible. In Marx's day it was an average of 10 years, but in the years of upswing after the second world war it was considerably less, something like 5-6 years, or even less. The exact length of the cycle is therefore not a principled question for Marxists. What is necessary is to analyse concretely the nature of the cycle, and try to establish how it will most likely evolve. 

We are reproducing a slightly edited version of What is Marxism? by Rob Sewell and Alan Woods, last published in 1983 to celebrate the centenary of the death of Karl Marx. The three articles on the fundamental aspects of Marxism, Marxist Economics, Dialectical Materialism and Historical Materialism were originally published separately in the 1970s. These articles are a good, brief introduction to the basic methods of Marxism and can serve as a first approach to the ideas developed by Marx and Engels.

At the time of the struggle against pit closures in Britain in 1992/93 the old argument in favour of import controls to save British Coal was raised. Phil Mitchinson explains why this is not an "alternative" that socialists would put forward.

In 1971, the economy was growing sluggishly and was rife with inflationary problems. Ted Grant disproves the bourgeois myth that an increase in the wages of the working class causes price increases and examines the real causes of inflation.

Ted Grant's perspective that the seemingly endless boom of the post 2nd World War period would actually end and 'be followed by a catastrophic downswing, which cannot but have a profound effect on the political thinking of the enormously strengthened ranks of the labour movement' must have seen like madness to some at the time. However, as we have seen, the Marxist analysis has been proven to be more than correct in predicting the continuing crisis of capitalism over the last few decades. This text remains even today an excellent riposte to all those who thought that capitalism could by magic avoid crisis and enter a period of non-stop plenty.

In 1958 there were fears of a slump spreading from the US economy. British CP leader Campbell started a campaign in consonance with Russian foreign policy to put the blame for the slump on the "Americans" and protested against the bankers' behaviour and the shortsighted British government's attempt to "create a slump" in the UK. Ted Grant argued against this nonsense that it is not the "obsessions" of the bankers nor the "stupidity" of the capitalists and their representatives which cause them to act in a certain way, but the economic laws of the capitalist system.

Cutting through the superficiality of the Fabian theories, Ted Grant defends the basic Marxist position, that as long as the market dominated the economy, then there would inevitably be cycles of boom and slump. Explaining the causes for the longevity of the boom, he also points out its limitation and the inevitability, at a later stage, of new recessions and slumps. This article, although directed particularly towards the British economy, was no less relevant to the other main capitalist countries, where similar conditions prevailed and similar arguments raged.

Lenin's masterpiece Imperialism is an immortal monument to his work in the vital field of theory. No book has ever explained the phenomenon of modern capitalism better. Indeed, all of Lenin’s predictions concerning the concentration of capital, the dominance of the banks and finance capital, the growing antagonism between nation states and the inevitability of war arising out of the contradictions of imperialism have been shown to be true by the entire history of the last 100 years.

A classic of Marxism, Anti-Dühring was highly recommended by Lenin as a ‘text book’ of scientific socialism. It was originally written as a polemic against Eugen Dühring, a German revisionist who challenged the basic ideas of Marxism by counterposing his own ‘scientific’ theories within the Social Democratic Party of Germany. Very reluctantly, Engels was forced to take up these ideas and in doing so explained in the clearest fashion the revolutionary theories of Marxism.

Value, Price and Profit 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.