Economic Theory of the Leisure Class. Nikolai Bukharin 1927
1. Objectivism and Subjectivism in Political Economy.
2. The Historical Point of View and the Unhistorical Point of View.
3. The Point of View of Production, and the Point of View of Consumption.
Any fairly well organized theory must present a definite whole whose parts are united by a sound logical bond. Therefore a consistent criticism must inevitably deal with the basis of the theory, with its method, for it is this and nothing else which unites the various parts of the theoretical structure. We are therefore beginning with a criticism of the methodological presuppositions of the theory of marginal utility, by which we do not understand its deductive character, but its characteristic traits within the frame of the abstract deductive method. In our opinion, any theory of political economy — if it be a theory at all — is an abstract thing; to this extent Marxism completely agrees with the Austrian School. But this agreement is only formal in character; if there were no such agreement, there would be no means of comparing the Austrian theory with that of Karl Marx. For we are interested here in the concrete contents of the abstract method peculiar to the Austrian School, and making it so strikingly different from Marxism.
Political economy is a social science and its presupposition — whether the theorists of political economy are conscious of this fact or not — is some conception or other as to the essence of society and its laws of evolution. In other words, any economic theory depends on certain presuppositions having a sociological character and serving as the basis of an investigation of the economic phase of social life. Such presuppositions may be clearly expressed or may remain unformulated; they may be enunciated as an orderly system, or they may remain an “indefinite general view” — but they cannot be absent. The political economy of Karl Marx possesses such a basis in the sociological theory of historical materialism. The Austrian School, however, possesses no well-rounded or even fairly defined sociological basis: it is necessary for us to reconstruct the vestiges of such a basis out of the economic theory of the Austrians. In this process, we repeatedly encounter contradictions between general fundamental thoughts as to the nature of “political economy” and the actual basis of the Austrian economic theory. It is the latter, therefore, that will receive our chief attention. The following sociological bases of economic science are characteristic of Marxism: recognition of the priority of society over the individual; recognition of the historical, temporary nature of any social structure; and finally, recognition of the dominant part played by production. The Austrian School, on the other hand, is characterised by extreme individualism in methodology, by an unhistorical point of view, and by its taking consumption as its point of departure. In our Introduction, we have attempted to furnish a social-genetic explanation for this fundamental difference between Marxism and the Austrian School; this difference, or rather, this opposition, we have characterised as a social psychological contrast. We shall now analyse this contrast from the point of view of logic.
Werner Sombart, in the well known article in which he reviewed the third volume of Marx’s Capital, after having contrasted the two methods of political economy, the subjective method and the objective method, designates Marx’s system as an outgrowth of “extreme objectivism”; while the Austrian School, in his opinion, was “the most consistent development in the opposite direction.  We consider this characterisation perfectly accurate. It is true that the study of social phenomena in general and of economic phenomena in particular may be approached in either one of two ways: we may assume that science proceeds from the analysis of society as a whole, which at any given moment determines the manifestations of the individual economic life, in which case it is the task of science to reveal the connections and the causal chain obtaining between the various phenomena of social type and determining the individual phenomena; or, it may be assumed that science should proceed from an analysis of the causal nexus in the individual life, since the social phenomena are a certain resultant of individual phenomena — in which case it would be the task of science to begin with the phenomena of the causal relation in the individual economic life from which the phenomena and the causation of the social economy must be derived.
No doubt Marx is an “extreme objectivist” in this sense, not only in sociology, but also in political economy. For this reason his fundamental economic doctrine — the doctrine of value — must be sharply distinguished from that of the classical economists, particularly Adam Smith. The latter’s labour due theory is based on an individual estimate of commodities, corresponding to the quantity and quality of the used labour. This is a subjective labour value theory, as compared with which Marx’s theory of value is objective; i.e.. Marx’s theory is a social law of prices. Marx’s theory is accordingly an objective theory of labour value, based by no means on any individual evaluation, but expressing only the connection between the given social productive forces and the prices of commodities as the latter are determined on the market. In fact, it is with the example of the theory of value and price that Sombart best shows the difference between the two methods. “Marx does not for a moment concern himself,” says Sombart, “with the individual motives of those engaging in the exchange, or with assuming as his starting point considerations as to production costs. No, his reasoning is as follows: prices are made by competition; how they are made, that is another matter. But competition, in turn, is regulated by the rate of profit: the rate of profit by the rate of surplus value; the rate of surplus value by the value, which is itself the expression of a socially conditioned fact, the social productive forces. Marx’s system now enumerates these elements in the reverse order: value — surplus value — profit -competition — prices, etc. If we must formulate the situation in a single crisp sentence, we may say that Marx is never concerned with motivating, but always with defining (limiting) the individual caprice of the economic person.” (Werner Sombart, op. cit., p. 591) Quite different is the subjective school. We find “nothing but ‘motivation’ everywhere, for each [individual] economic transaction.” (Ibid., p.592.)
The difference is here beautifully expressed. As a matter of fact, while Marx considers “the social movement as a process of natural history governed by laws not only independent of the human will, consciousness and intelligence, but rather, on the contrary, determining that will, consciousness, and intelligence,” the point of departure for Böhm-Bawerk is an analysis of the individual consciousness of the economic person.
“The social laws,” writes Böhm-Bawerk, “whose investigation is the task of political economy, depend on coinciding transactions of individuals. Such uniformity of action is in turn a consequence of the operation of like motives determining action. Under these circumstances, it is not easy to admit a doubt as to the propriety of explaining social laws by tracing them back to the impelling motives determining the actions of individuals, or, by starting with these motives." The difference, therefore, between the objective and the subjective method is nothing more nor less than the contrast between the social and the individualist methods. (R. Stolzmann: Der Zweck in der Volkszwirtschaftslehre, Berlin, 1909, p.59.) Yet the above quoted definition of the two methods needs still to be amplified. We must emphasise above all the unimportance of the will, the consciousness or the intentions of men, of which Marx speaks. In the second place, the “economic individual” must be more clearly defined, since it is the point of departure of the Austrian School. “These determined social relations are as much produced by men as are the cloth, the linen, etc.” (Karl Marx: The Poverty of Philosophy, Chicago, Charles H. Kerr, p.119.) It by no means follows, however, that the social consequences, that “social product” of which Marx speaks, is contained within the consciousness of these individuals as a goal or an impelling motive. Modern society, with its anarchic structure (the theory of political economy makes precisely this society the object of its study); with its market forces and their elemental action (competition, fluctuation of prices, stock exchange, etc.), offers numerous illustrations in favour of the assumption that the “social product” predominates over its creators, that the result of the motives of the individual (yet not isolated) economic men, not only does not correspond to these motives, but at times even enters into direct opposition to them. This may best be explained by the example of the formation of prices. A number of buyers and sellers go to market with a certain (approximate) idea of the value of their own goods as well as of each other’s goods; the result of their struggle is a certain market price, which will not coincide with the individual estimates of the great majority of the contracting parties. Furthermore, in the case of a number of “economic individuals” the established price may actually operate with destructive effect; low prices may force them to go out of business; they are “ruined.” This phenomenon is even more striking on the stock exchange, where gambling is the rule. In all these cases, which are typical for the modern social-economic organisation, we may speak of the “independence” of social phenomena of the will, the consciousness and the intentions of men; yet this independence should by no means be understood as involving two different phenomena, completely independent of each other. It would be absurd to assume that human history is not being made by the will of men, but regardless of this will (this “materialist conception of history” is a bourgeois caricature of Marxism); precisely the opposite is the case. Both series of phenomena — individual transactions and social phenomena — are in the closest genetic relation with each other. This independence must be understood only in the sense that such results of individual acts as have become objective are supreme over all other partial elements. The “product” dominates its creator; at any given moment, the individual will is determined by the already achieved resultant of the clash of wills of the various “economic individuals.” The entrepreneur defeated in the competitive struggle, the bankrupt financier, are forced to clear the field of battle, although a moment ago they served as active quantities, as “creators” of the social process which finally turned against them. This phenomenon is an expression of the irrationality of the “elemental” character of the economic process within the frame of the commodities economy, which is clearly expressed in the psychology of commodities fetishism, as first exposed and brilliantly analysed by Marx. It is precisely in a commodities economy that the process of “objectivism,” of relations between human beings, takes place, in which these “thing-expressions” lead a specific “independent” existence by reason of the elemental character of the evolution, an existence subject to a specific law of its own.
We are thus dealing with various series of individual phenomena and with a number of series of social types: no doubt a certain causal connection obtains both between these two categories (individual and social) and between the various series of the same category, particularly between the various series of social phenomena dependent on each other. Marx’s method consists precisely in ascertaining the causal law of relations between the various social phenomena. In other words, Marx examines the causal nature of the resultants of the various individual wills, without examining the latter in themselves; he investigates the laws underlying social phenomena, paying no attention to their relation with the phenomena of the individual consciousness.
Let us now turn to the “economic subjects” of Böhm-Bawerk.
In his article on Karl Menger’s book (Untersuchungen, etc.), Böhm-Bawerk, in agreement with the opponents of the Austrian School and with Menger himself, admits that the “economic subjects” advanced by the representatives of the new School are nothing more nor less than the atoms of society. The task of the new School is “the elimination of the historical and organic methods as the dominant methods of theoretical investigation in the social sciences ..... and ...... the restoration of the precise atomistic tendency.” (Böhm-Bawerk: Zeitschrift für Privat- und öfftentlickcs Recht der Gegenwart, Vienna, 1884, vol. XI, p.220.)
The starting point of the analysis is evidently not the individual member of a given society, in his social relations with his fellow men, but the isolated “atom,” the economic Robinson Crusoe. The examples chosen by Böhm-Bawerk in order to clarify his views are also of this type. “A man is seated by a spring of water which is gushing profusely” — such is Böhm-Bawerk’s introduction to his analysis of the theory of value. Böhm-Bawerk: “Grundzüge der Theorie des wirtschaftlichen Güterwerts.” Hildebrandt’s Jahrücher für Nationalökonomie und Statistik, vol. XIII, p.9.) He then introduces: a traveller in the desert (ibid., p.9), a farmer isolated from all the rest of the world (ibid., p.9), a colonist, “whose log-cabin stands lonely in the primeval forest” (ibid., p.30), etc. We encounter similar examples in Karl Menger: “the inhabitant of the forest primeval” (Karl Menger: Grunsätze tee der Volkswirtschaftslehre, Vienna, 1871, p.82), “the dwellers in an oasis” (ibid., p.88), “a nearsighted individual on a lonely island” (ibid., p.95), “an isolated farmer” (ibid., p.96), “shipwrecked people” (ibid., p.104).
We here find the standpoint once so neatly formulated by Bastiat, the “sweetest” of all economists. In his Economic Harmonies, Bastiat says: “The economic laws operate in a uniform manner, whether we are dealing with a totality of lonely persons or with only two persons, or with a single individual, obliged by circumstances to live in isolation. If the individual could live for a period in isolation, this individual would simultaneously be a capitalist, an entrepreneur, a worker, a producer, and a consumer. The entire economic evolution would be realised in him. By reason of his opportunity to observe every step in this evolution, namely: the need, the effort, the satisfaction of the need, enjoying the free use of profit of labour, he would be able to form an idea of the entire mechanism, even though it might be in its simplest form.” (Frederic Bastiat, Harmonies économiques, Bruxelles, 1850, p.213.)
Earlier in the same book, Bastiat says: “I maintain that political economy would attain its goal and fulfill its mission if it had finally proved the following fact: that which is right with regard to one person is also right with regard to society."(Ibid., p.74.)
Jevons makes an equivalent declaration: “The general form of the laws of economy is the same in the case of individuals and nations."
However venerable this point of view may have become by reason of its age, it is nevertheless entirely fallacious. Society (as is consciously or unconsciously assumed) is not an arithmetical aggregate of isolated individuals; on the contrary, the economic activity of each specific individual pre-supposes a definite social environment in which the social relation of the individual economies finds its expression. The motives of the individual living in isolation are entirely different from those of the “social animal” (zoon politikon). The former lives in an environment consisting of nature, of things in their pristine simplicity; the latter is surrounded not only by “matter” but also by a peculiar social milieu. The transition from the isolated human to society is possible only by way of the social milieu. And indeed, if we were dealing only with an aggregate of individual economies, without any points of contact between them, if the specific milieu which Rodbertus has so appropriately termed the “economic community” should be absent, there would be no society. Of course, it is theoretically quite possible to embrace a number of isolated and remote economies in a single conception, to force them into a “totality” as it were. But this totality or aggregate would not be a society, a system of economies closely connected with each other with constant interaction between them. While the former aggregate would be one we had artificially constructed, the second is one that is truly present. Therefore the individual economic subject may be regarded only as a member of a social economic system, not as an isolated atom. The economic subject, in its actions, adapts itself to the given condition of the social phenomena; the latter impose barriers upon his individual motives, or, to use Sombart’s words, “limit them.” This holds true not only of the “economic structure of society,” i.e., of the production conditions, but also of the social-economic phenomena arising on the basis of a given structure. Thus, for example, the individual estimates of price always start with prices that have already been fixed; the desire to invest capital in a bank depends on the interest rate at the time; the investment of capital in this industry or that is determined by the profit yielded by the industry; the estimate of the value of a plot of land depends on its rent and on the rate of interest, etc. No doubt, individual motives have their “opposite effects”; but it must be emphasised that these motives from the start are permeated with a social content, and therefore no “social laws” can be derived from the motives of the isolated subject. But if we do not begin with the isolated individual in our investigation, but consider the social factor in his motives as given, we shall find ourselves involved in a vicious circle: in our attempt to derive the “social,” i.e., the “objective,” from the “individual,” i.e., the “subjective,” we are actually deriving it from the “social,” or doing somewhat worse than robbing Peter to pay Paul.
As we have seen above, the motives of the isolated individual constitute the point of departure for the Austrian School (Böhm-Bawerk). To be sure, the works of the representatives of this School sometimes present quite correct conceptions of the essence of the social structure as a whole. But, as a matter of fact, this School begins at once with an analysis of the motives of the economic subjects, disregarding any social connection between them. This point of view is quite characteristic of the latest theorists of the bourgeoisie. And it is precisely this point of view that the Austrian School consistently applies in all its development. It follows that the School will be inevitably obliged to smuggle the notion of the “social” into the individual motives of its “social atoms,” as soon as it attempts to derive any social phenomena at all. But this situation will force it into an inescapable and monstrous circulus vitiosus.
In fact, this inevitable logical fallacy is already apparent in the analysis of the Austrian School’s theory of subjective value, that cornerstone of the entire theoretical structure of which its representatives are so proud. Yet this fallacy alone is sufficient to destroy the significance of this scientific economic ideology of the modern bourgeoisie, constructed with so much ingenuity, “for,” as Böhm-Bawerk himself rightly observes, “it is a mortal sin of method to ignore that which one should explain, in a scientific investigation." “We thus arrive at the conclusion that the “subjectivism” of the Austrian School, the intentional isolation of the “economic subject,” the ignoring of the social relations, must inevitably lead to a logical bankruptcy of the entire system; this system is as unsatisfactory as the ancient theory of the costs of production, which also revolved helplessly in its magic circle. There now arises the question whether it is possible to set up a theoretical formulation of the economic life, to determine its causal laws, without involving the causal laws of individual motives; in other words, is the “objectivism” possible which constitutes the basis of the Marxian theory? Even Böhm-Bawerk admits this possibility: “Not, to be sure, causally conditioned actions without causal motivation, but indeed a recognition of causally conditioned actions without a recognition of the attending motivation!" But Böhm-Bawerk assumes that “the objectivistic source of knowledge ... can contribute at best only a very small part, and one especially insufficient for its own purposes, or the total attainable knowledge, since we are concerned in the economic field particularly with conscious, calculated human actions.” (Zum Abschluss der Marxschen System, p.202, translated into English under the title: Marx and the Close of His System, — references are to the German edition). We have already seen, as opposed to the above, that it is precisely the individualistic psychological abstractions promulgated by the Austrian School that yield so sparse a harvest. And we are speaking, here not of abstraction as such. In fact we have emphasised above that abstraction is a necessary element in any acquisition of knowledge. The fallacy of the Austrians consists in their ignoring precisely the social phenomena which they are studying. This condition is excellently formulated by R. Stolzmann: “The types of economy may be simplified by means of isolation and abstraction as much as you like, but they must be social types; they must be concerned with a social economy.” (R. Stolzmann, op. cit., p.63; also his Soziale Kategorie, pp. 291, 292; cf. also D. Lifschitz: Zur Kritik der Böhm-Bawerkschen Werttheorie, Leipzig, 1908, chapter iv, particularly pp. 90, 91.) For it is not possible to proceed from the purely individual to the social; even if there had once existed in reality such an historical process of transition, i.e., even if human beings had actually — even in this case — would be an historical and a concrete description of this process, a purely idiographic (cinematographic) solution of the problem. Even in this case, it would be impossible to set up a nomographic theory. Let us assume, for example, that certain isolated producers enter into relations with each other, are united in an exchange of goods and gradually construct a society of exchange on the modern model. Now let us examine the subjective evaluations made by modern man. These evaluations are based on prices formerly established (as will be shown in detail below); these prices would, in turn, be shaped out of the motives of the economic subjects of some former epoch; but those prices also have been dependent on prices established at a still earlier period; these again have been the result of subjective evaluations based on still more ancient prices, etc. We thus finally encounter the evaluations of the individual producers, evaluations which in reality no longer involve any element of price, since all social bonds, all society itself, are lacking in them. But such an analysis of subjective evaluations, beginning with modern man and ending with an hypothetical Robinson Crusoe, would mean nothing more or less than a simple historical description of the process of transformation of the motives of isolated man into the motives of modern man, with the difference that the process proceeded in the opposite direction. Such an analysis is merely a description; it is just as impossible to base a general theory of prices or a theory of exchange on such foundations. Any attempts at such a construction of a theory must inevitably lead to fallacious circles in the system, for so long as we wish to remain within the framework of a general theory, we must — instead of explaining the social element — begin with it as the given quantity. To advance beyond this quantity would be equivalent, as we have seen, to a transformation of theory into history, i.e., to entering into an entirely different field of scholarly work. There remains for us, therefore, but a single mode of studying, namely, a combination of abstract deduction and objective method; this combination is extremely characteristic of the Marxian political economy. Only by this method will it be possible to set up a theory that will not involve repeated self-contradictions, but will actually constitute a means of examination of capitalist reality.
Karl Marx, in his Theorien über den Mehrwert (vol. I, p.34 said about the Physiocrats: “It was their great achievement to have conceived these forms [i.e., the forms of the capitalist mode of production] as physiological forms of society: as forms emanating from the natural necessity of production itself, and independent of the will, politics, etc. They are material laws; the fallacy of the Physiocrats consists in having conceived the material law of a specific historical stage of society as an abstract law dominating all the forms of society in a uniform manner.”
This is an excellent formulation of the difference between the purely social point of view and the historico-social point of view. It is possible to consider the “social economy as a whole” and yet misunderstand the entire significance of the specific forms of society as they have developed historically. Of course, the unhistorical point of view in modern times frequently appears coupled with a lack of understanding for social connections; yet, we must distinguish between these two methodological questions, for the possibility of “objective treatment” alone affords no guarantee that problems are to be put historically. An example of this is furnished by the Physiocrats. The case recurs, in modern economic literature, in Tugan-Baranovsky, whose “social distribution theory” is applicable to any society built up of classes (and therefore explains nothing at all).
Marx strictly emphasises the historical character of his economic theory and the relativity of its laws. “According to his opinion, each historical period has its own laws. ..... As soon as life has gone beyond a given period of evolution, has passed from one given stage into another, it also begins to be guided by other laws." Of course it does not necessarily follow that Marx denied the existence of any general laws dominating the course of social life in all its various evolutionary phases. The materialist theory of history, for example, formulates certain laws intended as explanations of the social evolution at every point. But they do not exclude the specific historical laws of political economy, which, as opposed to the sociological laws, express the essence of a specific social structure, namely, that of capitalist society.
We shall here anticipate an objection that might be raised; it might be urged that the acceptance of the historical principle would lead directly to an idiographic, purely descriptive type of theory, i.e., precisely the point of view defended by the so-called Historical School. But this objection would be equivalent to a confusion of a number of things. Let us take at random any general method of the idiographic sciences par excellence, for example, statistics: we have the “empirical law” of population statistics that there are between 105 and 108 male births to every 100 female births. This “law” is purely descriptive in character; it indicates no causal relation. On the other hand, any theoretical law of political economy must be capable of formulation as follows: if A, B, C, are present, D also must ensue; in other words, the presence of certain conditions, “causes,” involves the appearance of certain consequences. It is obvious that these “consequences” may also be of historical character, i.e., they may actually supervene only at the given time. From a purely logical point of view, it is quite immaterial where and when these conditions actually occur, even more immaterial whether they occur at all — in this case “we are dealing with eternal laws”; but, insofar as they occur in reality, they are “historical laws,” for they are connected with “conditions” occurring only at a certain stage in historical development. But once these conditions are present, their consequences are also indicated. Precisely this character of the theoretical economic laws makes possible their application to countries and epochs in which the social evolution has already attained a corresponding level; it was possible, therefore, for the Russian Marxists to prophesy correctly the “destinies of capitalism in Russia,” although the Marxian analysis was actually based on concrete empirical material gathered with reference to England.
In other words, the “historical” character of the laws of political economy by no means transforms the latter into a science of the idiographic type. On the other hand, only the historical point of view can be of any scientific value in this field.
Political economy as a science can have as its object only a commodities society, — a capitalist society. If we were dealing with an economy organised in any way at all, for instance, with the oikos economy of Rodbertus, or with the primitive communist society, with feudal landholding or with the organised socialised economy of the socialist “state,” we should not encounter a single problem whose solution could be found in the domain of theoretical political economy. These problems are connected with the commodities economy, particularly with its capitalist form: the problems of value, price, capital, profits, crisis, etc. This is of course no accident; it is just at this moment, in view of the more or less pronounced prevalence of the system of “free competition,” that the elemental nature of the economic process obtains particularly striking expressions, the individual will and the individual purpose being relegated entirely to the background as opposed to the objectively developing chain of social phenomena. It is only to commodities production as such, and to its highest form, capitalist production, that we may apply the phenomenon described by Marx as the “fetishism of commodities” and analysed by him in Capital. Just at this point the personal relation of human beings themselves in the production process becomes an impersonal relation between things, whereby the latter assume the form of a “social hieroglyphic” of value (Karl Marx: Capital, vol. I, p.85). Thence the “enigmatical” character peculiar to the capitalist mode of production and the characteristic traits of the problems here for the first time subjected to theoretical investigation. The analysis of capitalist society affords particular interest and bestows a special logical form on economic science, which investigates the causal connections in the elemental life of modern society, formulates laws that are independent of the human consciousness, “regulative natural laws,” similar to the law of gravitation “when one’s house comes tumbling down about one’s ears,” “not because of the caractère typique de la liberté économique, but because of the epistemological peculiarity of the competitive system, involving, as it does, the greatest number of theoretical enigmas, as well as the greatest difficulty in their solution.” (Heinrich Dietzel: Theoretische Sozialökonomik, p.90.)
This rudimentary character, a consequence of extremely complicated conditions, is itself a historical phenomenon peculiar to commodities production alone. Only unorganised social economy presents such specific phenomena in which the mutual adaptation of the various parts of the production organism proceeds independently of the human will consciously turned to that end. In a planful guidance of the social economy, the distribution and redistribution of the social production forces constitute a conscious process based on statistical data. In the present anarchy of production, this process takes place through a transfer mechanism of prices, by means of the fall and rise of prices, by their pressure on profits, by a whole series of crises, etc., in a word, not by a conscious calculation by the community, but by the blind power of the social element, evidencing itself in a whole chain of social-economic phenomena, particularly in the market price. All these are characteristic of modern society and constitute the subject of political economy. In a socialist society, political economy will lose its raison d'être: there will remain only an “economic geography” — a science of the idiographic type; and an “economic politics” — a normative science; for the relations between men will be simple and clear, the fetishist objective formulation of these relations will disappear and the causal consequences in the life of the unbridled elements will be replaced by the causal consequences of the conscious performances of society. This fact alone is sufficient to show that an investigation of capitalism must take into account its fundamental traits, those distinguishing the capitalist “production organism” from any other; for the study of capitalism is the study of that which distinguishes capitalism from any other social structure. Once we ignore the typical peculiarities of capitalism, we arrive at general categories that may be applied to any social production conditions and may therefore not explain the historically conditioned peculiar evolutionary process of “modern capitalism.” It is precisely in their ability to forget this principle, says Marx, that there “lies the entire wisdom of modern economists, who prove the eternity and harmony of the existing social conditions." It must also be noted that capitalism is the developed form of commodities production, characterised not by exchange per se, but by capitalist exchange. In this system, labour power appears on the market as a commodity, and the production conditions (“the economic structure of society”) include not only the relations among the producers of commodities, but also those between the capitalist class and the wage-earning class. An analysis of capitalism therefore involves not only an investigation of the general conditions of the commodities economy (this element unmodified would be equivalent to the theory of simple commodities production) but also an investigation of the specific structure of capitalism itself. A truly scientific economic theory cannot be devised unless the questions be formulated as above. Only if the object is to glorify and perpetuate the capitalist conditions, and not investigate them theoretically, may one omit an analysis and emphasis of their typical characteristics. Accordingly, Marx introduces his Capital with the following words: “The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails presents itself as ‘an immense accumulation of commodities’, its unit being a single commodity. Our investigation must therefore begin with the analysis of a commodity.” (Capital, vol. I, p.41.)
From the outset, therefore, Marx’s investigation proceeds along the historical path; his subsequent analysis shows that all the fundamental economic concepts are historical in character. “Every product of labour,” says Marx on the subject of value, “is, in all states of society, a use-value; but it is only at a definite historical epoch in a society’s development that such a product becomes a commodity, viz., at the epoch when the labour spent on the production of a useful article becomes expressed as one of the objective qualities of that article, i.e., as its value.” (Capital, vol. I, p.71.)
Marx’s words on capital are similar: “But capital is not a thing. It is a definite interrelation in social production belonging to a definite historical formation of society. This interrelation expresses itself through a certain thing and gives to this thing a specific social character. Capital is not the sum of the material and produced means of production. Capital means rather the means of production converted into capital, and means of production by themselves are no more capital than gold or silver are money in themselves.” (Capital, vol. III, part VII, pp. 947, 948.)
It will be interesting to compare with this the definition of capital offered by Böhm-Bawerk:
“Capital as such is the term we assign to a sum total of products serving as means for the acquisition of commodities. The narrower concept of social capital may be detached from this general conception of capital. We assign the term social capital to a congeries of products serving as a means for the acquisition of social-economic commodities; or, in short, a group of intermediate products."
It is obvious that these two definitions proceed from entirely different points of departure. While Marx emphasises the historical character of a certain category as its principal trait, Böhm-Bawerk ignores the historical element entirely; while Marx is concerned with historically determined relations between men, Böhm-Bawerk presents universal forms of the relations between men and things. In fact, once one ignores the relations between men, subject as they are to historical change, there remain only the relations between men and nature; in other words, in place of the social-historical categories, we have left only the “natural” categories. Yet it is clear that the “natural” categories cannot in any way explain the social-historical categories, for, as Stolzmann very properly observes, “the natural categories may only afford technical possibilities for the development of economic phenomena.” (R. Stolzmann: Der Zweck in der Volkswirtschaftslehre, 1909, p.131.)
And as a matter of fact, the labour process, the process of production and distribution of commodities, always assumes certain varying historical forms, alone capable of producing specific social-economic phenomena. Quite untenable is the point of view of such men as “Colonel Torrens” and Böhm-Bawerk, who regard the “stone of the savage as the origin of capital" and the savage himself as a capitalist. Only after the means of production resulting on the basis of the commodities production, have been monopolised by a single class as opposed to the only commodity still remaining in the possession of the workers — their labour power — do we have the peculiar phenomenon known as capital; and of course the “profit of the capitalist” begins only at this point. The same is true of rent. The fact of a varying yield of the soil in various parcels of land, or, as the famous formula puts it, “the law of diminishing returns from the soil” should by no means result (even if met with in the form favoured by the most radical Malthusians ), in the phenomenon of land rent. Rent begins only after real estate, built up on the foundation of the commodities production, has been monopolised in the form of property by the class of landed proprietors. As for the difference in the yield of the various parcels and for the “law” in question, they are merely technical conditions, since it is they which make possible the social phenomenon of rent. Therefore Böhm-Bawerk’s laments over many of his critics, whom he upbraids for failing to distinguish the “essence of the matter” from its “manifestation,” are without foundation. The essence of capitalism is not in the fact that it constitutes an “aggregate of intermediate products” (the “essence” of the means of production), but in its constituting a peculiar social relation resulting in a number of economic phenomena entirely unknown to other epochs. It may, of course, be maintained that capital is a manifestation of the means of production in present-day society, but it may not be maintained that modern capital is the universal manifestation of capital and that the latter is identical with the means of production.
Even the phenomenon of value is historical in character. Even if we admit the correctness of the individualistic method of the Austrian School, and seek to derive value outright from “subjective value,” i.e., from the individual evaluations of various persons, we must also consider the fact that in modern economy the psyche of the “producer” has an entirely different content from the psyche of the producer in a natural economy (particularly, from the psyche of the man “sitting by the brook” or “starving in the desert”). The modern capitalist, regardless of whether he be a representative of industrial or of commercial capital, is not at all interested in the consumption value of products; he “works” with the aid of “hired hands” for profit exclusively; he is interested only in exchange value. It is obvious that even the fundamental phenomenon of political economy, that of value, cannot be explained on the basis of the circumstance common to all times and peoples, that commodities satisfy some human need; yet this is the method” of the Austrian School. We therefore reach the conclusion that the Austrian School pursuing an absolutely erroneous methodological course in ignoring the peculiarities of capitalism. A political economy aiming to explain the social-economic relations, i.e., the relations between men, must be an historical science. “Any one attempting to class the political economy of Tierra del Fuego,” Engels observes with appropriate malice, “under the same laws with those of present-day England, would obviously arrive at nothing but the most trivial commonplaces." “These commonplaces” may be constructed on a more or less ingenious foundation, but even this cannot explain the peculiarities of the capitalist order of society, once they have been eliminated in advance. And thus the “hypothetical economy,” “constructed” by Böhm-Bawerk, whose “laws” he investigates, is so far removed from our sinful reality that it refuses to yield to any yardstick of reality. And the creators of this new tendency are not entirely unconscious of this condition. For example, Böhm-Bawerk, in the latest edition of his book, says: “I should particularly have liked to fill the gap still left in the investigation of the nature and importance of the influences of the so called ‘social category’, of the relations of power and authority flowing from social institutions .... This chapter of social economy has not yet been satisfactorily written ...... not even by the theory of marginal utility.” (Preface to the third edition of Kapital und Kapitalzins, vol. II, pp. 16, 17) Of course, we may predict that this ‘"chapter” cannot be written “satisfactorily” by the representatives of the theory of marginal utility, since they do not consider the “social category” as an organic ingredient of the purely “economic category,” but regard it as a foreign substance outside of economy. Böhm-Bawerk is here again opposed by Stolzmann, one of the representatives of the “social-organic” method, to whom we have repeatedly referred: “The so-called ‘objectivism’ thus enters into a new stage, becoming not only social but also ‘historical'; there is no longer any gulf between the systematic-logical science and the historical-realistic science; they now have a common field of labour; both are concerned with the study of historical reality." But this task of uniting the abstract classical method with “objectivism” and “historicism” was solved long before Stolzmann’s day by Karl Marx and without any ethical trimmings. It would appear that the “antiquated” theory of the proletariat is superior to all others on this point also.
“The first theoretical treatment of modern modes of production,” says Karl Marx, “started out necessarily from the superficial phenomena of the process of circulation .... The real science of modern economy does not begin, until theoretical analysis passes from the process of circulation to the process of production.” (Capital, vol. III, p.396.) On the other hand, Böhm-Bawerk and the entire Austrian School take consumption as the point of departure in their analysis.
While Marx considers society above all as a “production organism” and economy as a “production process,” Böhm-Bawerk relegates production to the background entirely; for him the analysis of consumption, of the needs and desires of the economic man, takes first place. We are therefore not surprised to find him taking as his point of departure not the economic commodities considered as products, but a given quantity of such products a priori, a “supply” as to the origin of which one is very uncertain. This also fixes the entire value theory as the central point of the entire theoretical system.
Since the factor of production is excluded from the outset, it is obvious that the resulting theory of value must be entirely independent of production. Quite similar is the peculiar application of the method of “isolating abstraction”; for instance, instead of having his Robinson Crusoes — in his analysis of value — produce commodities, he has them lose them, “dispense with them.” This causes the possibility of production or reproduction to be regarded not as a phenomenon requiring analysis above all, but as a disturbing factor. It is therefore only natural that “utility” should become the fundamental concept of the Austrian School, from which the concept of subjective, later also objective, value, is derived in due course. The concept of utility really implies neither an “expenditure of labour” nor production; it expresses no active relation to things, but a passive relation; no “objective activity” but a certain relation to a uniform given state. It is for this reason that this concept of utility may be so successfully applied in such important situations as those involving as their active agents: castaways, “near-sighted persons on uninhabitated islands,” “starving travellers” and other monstrous constructions of the professorial imagination.
But it is quite clear that this point of view precludes in advance any possibility of grasping social phenomena or their evolution. The motive force in the latter is the increase in the production forces, in the productivity of social labour, the extension of the productive functions of society. Without consumption there is no production; no one doubts this; needs are always the motive for any economic activity. On the other hand, production also has a very decisive influence on consumption. Marx explains this influence as making itself felt in three ways: first, in that production creates the material for consumption; second, in that it determines the mode of the latter, i.e., its qualitative character; third, in that it creates new needs.
Such are the facts if we consider the mutual relations between production and consumption in general, without reference to a specific historically given structure. In the study of capitalism, an added factor must be considered, namely, in the words of Karl Marx: “ ..... The ‘social demand,’ in other words, that which regulates the principle of demand, is essentially conditioned on the mutual relations of the different economic classes and their relative economic position, that is to say, first, on the proportion of the total surplus value to the wages, and secondly, on the proportion of the various parts into which surplus-value is divided (profit, interest, ground-rent, taxes, etc.).” (Capital, vol. III, Part I, p.124.) This relation between the classes is in turn, however, shaped and altered under the influence of the growth of the productive forces.
We thus observe chiefly: the dynamics of the requirements are determined by the dynamics of production. It follows first, that the point of departure in an analysis of the dynamics of requirements must be the dynamics of production; second, that the given quantity of products necessary to secure a static production also involves a static consumption, in other words, a static condition in the aggregate of the economic life, therefore of life altogether.
Marx gave first place to the “evolution of the productive forces”; for the goal of all his huge theoretical labours was, to use his own words, “to lay bare the economic law of motion of modern society.” (Capital, vol. I, p.14.) Of course, it must be rather difficult to reveal the “law of motion” where there is no motion, where an aggregate of products is assumed as “descending from the sky.” It may therefore be assumed in advance that the point of view of consumption which underlies the whole Austrian system will turn out to be entirely unfruitful in all questions involving social dynamics, i.e., the most important problems of political economy. “They [the representatives of the Austrian School. — N.B.] are incapable of even formulating, to say nothing of solving, such fundamental questions as the evolution of technique in a capitalist society, the origin of capitalist profit, etc.,” says Charasoff. In this connection, the confessions of one of the principal representatives of the Austrian School, Josef Schumpeter, will be found of interest. Schumpeter was courageous enough to state frankly that the Austrian School has nothing to contribute in all cases dealing with evolutionary processes. “We see, therefore, that our static system,” says Schumpeter, “does not by any means explain all economic phenomena, e.g., interest and the profit of the entrepreneur.” (Josef Schumpeter: Des Wesen und der Hauptinhalt der theoretischen National-ökonomie, Leipzig, 1908, p.564.)
“... Our theory breaks down, in spite of its firm foundations, before the most important phenomena of the modern economic life.” (Ibid., p.587.)
“It again breaks down in the face of any phenomenon that can ... be understood only from the point of view of evolution. Among these are the problems of the formation of capital, and other problems, particularly that of economic progress and crises.” (Ibid., p.587.)
It is apparent that the latest theory of the bourgeois scholars fails precisely in the most important fundamental questions of our day. The enormous and speedy accumulation of capital, its concentration and centralisation, the uncommonly rapid progress in technology, and finally, the regular recurrence of industrial crises — this specifically capitalistic phenomenon which shakes the social-economic system to its foundations — all these things are a “book with seven seals,” according to Schumpeter’s admission. And just where the philosophy of the learned bourgeois ceases, the Marxian theory comes into its own, to such an extent, in fact, that mutilated fragments of the Marxian doctrine are accepted as the last word of wisdom even by the bitterest enemies of Marxism.
We have investigated the three initial fallacies of the Austrian School: its subjectivism, its unhistorical point of view, its beginning with consumption. These three logical points of departure, connected, as they are, with the three basic mental traits of the bourgeois rentier, inevitably involve also the three fundamental errors in the theory of the Austrian School, which are found repeated again and again in the various sections of the general theoretical “system”: the “vicious circles” resulting from the subjectivist method; their inability to explain the specifically historical forms of capitalism, because of their unhistorical point of view, and, finally, their complete failure in dealing with all the problems of economic evolution — a failure necessarily connected with their consumption philosophy. But it would be erroneous to assume that all these “motives” operate independently; both their psychic and logical systems are complicated quantities in which various elements are variously united and fused, their effects becoming now stronger, now weaker, depending on the other concomitant factors.
Therefore every concrete fallacy to be unveiled in the subsequent exhaustive analysis of Böhm-Bawerk’s theory will not be the result merely of a single “thought-motif” of the new theoreticians of the rentiers, but always of several simultaneously. Yet this must not prevent us from selecting out of all the related factors the three fundamental factors constituting in their various composition a source of Böhm-Bawerk’s countless “blunders.” These “blunders” are an evidence of the complete incapacity of the fin de siècle bourgeoisie for theoretical thinking.