To begin with, what does it mean that a decrease in the workers’ share is bound immediately to engender overproduction and commercial crises? Such a view can only make sense provided Rodbertus takes the ‘national product’ to consist of two parts, vide the shares of the workers and of the capitalists, in short of v + s, one share being exchangeable for the other. And that is more or less what he actually seems to say on occasions, e.g. in his first Letter on Social Problems:
‘The poverty of the working classes precludes their income from giving scope to increasing production. The additional amount of products from the entrepreneurs’ point of view lowers the value of the aggregate product so far as to bar production on the former scale, leaving the workers at best to their accustomed straits, though, if it could be made available to the workers, it would not only improve their lot but would further act as a counterweight by increasing the value of what is retained by the capitalists (and so enable the latter to keep their enterprises at the same level).’(1)
The ‘counterweight’ which in the hand of the workers increases the ‘value’ of ‘what is retained’ by the entrepreneurs, can in this context only be the demand. Once again, we have landed happily at the familiar Ort of v. Kirchmann’s where workers and capitalists exchange their incomes for the surplus product, and where the crises arise because variable capital is small and the surplus value large. This peculiar notion has already been dealt with above. There are other occasions, however, when Rodbertus advances a somewhat different conception. The interpretation of his theory in the fourth Letter on Social Problems is that the continual shifts in the relations of demand, evident in the share of the working class and caused by the share of the capitalist class, must result in a chronic disproportion between production and consumption.
‘What if the entrepreneurs endeavour to keep always within the limits of those shares, yet the shares themselves are all the time on the decline for the great majority of the society, the workers, decreasing gradually, unnoticeably, but with relentless force? – What if the share of these classes is continually decreasing to the same extent as their productivity is increasing?’ – ‘Is it not really the fact that the capitalists of necessity organise production in accordance with the present volume of shares in order to make wealth universal, and that yet they always produce over and above this volume (of previous shares), thereby perpetuating dissatisfaction which culminates in this stagnation of trade?’(2)
On this showing, the explanation of crises should be as follows: the national product consists of a number of ‘common goods’, as v. Kirchmann puts it, for the workers, and of superior goods for the capitalists. The wages represent the quantity of the former, and aggregate surplus value that of the latter. If the capitalists organise their production on this footing, and if at the same time there is progressive productivity, a lack of proportion will immediately ensue. For the share of the workers to-day is no longer that of yesterday, but less. If the demand for ‘common goods’ had involved, say, six-sevenths of the national product yesterday, then to-day it involves only five-sevenths, and the entrepreneurs, having provided for six-sevenths of ‘common goods’, will find to their painful surprise that they overproduced by one-seventh. Now, wiser by this experience, they try to organise to-morrow’s output of ‘common goods’ to a mere five-sevenths of the total value of the national product, but they have a new disappointment coming to them, since the share of the national product falling to wages to-morrow is bound to be only four-sevenths, and so on.
In this ingenious theory there are quite a few points to make us wonder. If our commercial crises are entirely due to the fact that the workers’ ‘wage rate’, the variable capital, represents a constantly diminishing portion of the total value of the national product, then this unfortunate law brings with it the cure for the evil it has caused, since it must be an ever smaller part of the aggregate product for which there is over-production. Although Rodbertus delights in such terms as ‘an overwhelming majority’, the large popular masses of consumers, it is not the number of heads that make up the demand, but the value they represent which is relevant. This value, if Rodbertus is to be believed, forms a more and more trifling part of the aggregate product. Crises are thus made to rest on an ever narrowing economic basis, and all that remains to discover is how in spite of it all it can still happen that the crises are universal and increasingly severe besides, as Rodbertus is fully aware. The purchasing power lost by the working classes should be gained by the capitalist class; if v decreases, s must grow larger to make up for it. On this crude scheme, the purchasing power of society as a whole cannot change, as Rodbertus says in so many words:
‘I know very well that what is taken from the workers’ share goes ultimately to swell that of the “rentiers” (rent and surplus value are used as synonyms, R.L.), and that purchasing power remains constant on the whole and in the long run. But as far as the product on the market is concerned, the crisis always sets in before this increase can make itself felt.’(3)
In short, the most it can amount to is that there is ‘too much’ of ‘common goods’ and ‘too little’ of superior goods for the capitalists. Quite unawares, and by devious ways, Rodbertus here falls in with the Say-Ricardian theory he so ardently contested, the theory that over-production on one side always corresponds to under-production on the other. Seeing that the ratio of the two shares is persistently shifting to the advantage of the capitalists, our commercial crises might be expected on the whole to take on increasingly the character of periodical under instead of over-production! Enough of this exercise in logic. The upshot of it all is that Rodbertus conceives the national product in respect of its value as made up of two parts only, of s and v, thus wholly subscribing to the views and traditions of the classical school he is fighting tooth and nail, and even adding his own flourish that the capitalists consume the entire surplus value. That is why he repeatedly says without mincing his words, as in the fourth Letter on Social Problems:
‘Accordingly, we must abstract from, the reasons which cause the division of rent in general into rent: proper fixed capital rent, to find the basic principle underlying the division of rent (surplus value) in general, the principle underlying the division of the labour product into wage and rent.’(4)
And, in the third Letter:
‘Ground rent, capital profit and the wage of labour are, let me repeat, revenue. By this means landlords, capitalists and workers must live, must satisfy, that is to say, their immediate human necessities. They must therefore draw their income in the form of goods suitable for this purpose.’(5)
The misrepresentation of capitalist economy has never been formulated more crudely, and there is no doubt that Rodbertus claims the palm of ‘priority’ – not so much over Marx as over all popular economists – with full justification. To leave the reader in no doubt about the utter muddle he has made, he goes on, in the same letter, to rank capitalist surplus value as an economic category on the same level as the revenue of the ancient slave-owner:
‘The first state (that of slavery) goes with the most primitive natural economy: that portion of the labour product which is withheld from the income of workers or slaves and forms the master’s or owner’s property, will undividedly accrue to the one man who owns the land, the capital, the worker and the labour product; there is not even a distinction of thought between rent and capital profits. – The second state entails the most complicated money economy: that portion of the labour product, withheld from the income of the now emancipated workers, and accruing to the respective owners of land, and capital, will be further divided among the owners of the raw material and the manufactured product respectively; the one rent of the former state will be split up into ground rent and capital profits, and will have to be differentiated accordingly.’(6)
Rodbertus regards the splitting-up of the surplus value ‘withheld’ from the workers’ ‘income’ as the most striking difference between exploitation by slavery and modern capitalist exploitation. It is not the specific historical form of sharing out newly created value among labour and capital, but the distribution of the surplus value among the various people it benefits, which, irrelevant to the productive process, is yet the decisive fact in the capitalist mode of production. In all other respects, capitalist surplus value remains just the same as the old ‘single rent’ of the slave-owner: a private fund for the exploiter’s own consumption!
Yet Rodbertus again contradicts himself in other places, remembering all of a sudden the constant capital and the necessity for its renewal in the reproductive process. Thus, instead, of bisecting the aggregate product into v and s, he posits a triple division: c, v, and s. In his third Letter on Social Problems he argues on the forms of reproduction in a slave-economy:
‘Since the master will see to it that part of the slave labour is employed in maintaining or even improving the fields, herds, agricultural and manufacturing tools, there will be “capital replacement”, to use a modern term, in which part of the national economic product is immediately used for the upkeep of the estate, without any mediation by exchange or even by exchange value.’(7)
And, passing on to capitalist reproduction, he continues:
‘Now, in terms of value, one portion of the labour product, is used or set aside for the maintenance of the estate, for “capital replacement”, another, for the workers’ subsistence as their money wage; and the owners of the land, of capital, and of the labour product retain the last as their revenue or rent.’(8)
This, then, is an explicit expression of the triple division into constant capital, variable capital, and surplus value. Again, in this third Letter, he formulates the peculiarity of his ‘new’ theory with equal precision:
‘On this theory, then, and under conditions of adequate labour productivity, the portion of the product which remains for wages after the replacement of capital, will be distributed among workers and owners as wages and rent, on the basis of the ownership in land and capital.’(9)
It does seem now as if Rodbertus’ analysis of the value of the aggregate product represents a distinct advance over the classical school. Even Adam Smith’s ‘dogma’ is openly criticised a little further on, and it is really surprising, that Rodbertus’ learned admirers, Messrs. Wagner, Dietzel, Diehl & Co. failed to claim their white-headed boy’s ‘priority’ over Marx on such an important point of economic theory. As a matter of fact, in this respect no less than in the general theory of value, Rodbertus’ priority is of a somewhat dubious character. If he seems on occasion to gain true insight, it immediately turns out to be a misunderstanding, or at best a wrong approach. His criticism of Adam Smith’s dogma affords a supreme example of his failure to cope with the triple division of the national product towards which he had groped his way. He says literally:
‘You know that all economists since Adam Smith already divided the value of the product into wage of labour, rent, and capital profit, that it is therefore not a new idea to ground the incomes of the various classes, and especially the various items of the rent, in a division of the product. But the economists at once go off the track. All of them, not even excepting Ricardo’s school, make the mistake, first, not to recognise that the aggregate product, the finished good, the national product as a whole, is an entity in which workers, landowners, and capitalists all share, but conceiving the division of the unfinished product to be of one kind shared among three partners, and that of the manufactured product as of another kind again, shared between only two partners. For these theories both the unfinished product and the manufactured product constitute as such separate items of revenue. Secondly, – though both Sismondi and Ricardo are free from this particular error – they regard the natural fact that labour cannot produce goods without material help, i.e. without the land, as an economic fact, and take the social fact for a primary datum that capital as understood to-day is required by the division of labour. Thus they set up the fiction of a fundamental economic relationship on which they base also for the shares of the various owners, ground rent springing from the contribution of the land lent by the owner to production, capital profits from the contribution of capital employed by the capitalist to this end, and the wages finally from labour’s contribution, seeing that there are separate owners of land, capital, and labour in the society. Say’s school, elaborating on this mistake with much ingenuity, even invented the concept of productive service of land, capital, and labour in conformity with the shares in the product of their respective owners, so as to explain these shares as the result of productive service. – Thirdly, they are caught up in the ultimate folly of deriving the wage of labour and the items of rent from the value of the product, the value of the product in turn being derived from the wage of labour and the items of rent, so that the one is made to depend on the other and vice versa. This absurdity is quite unmistakable when some of these authors attempt to expound The Influence of Rent Upon Production Prices and The Influence of Production Prices Upon Rent in two consecutive chapters.’(10)
Yet for all these excellent critical comments – the last, particularly acute, actually does to some extent anticipate Marx’s criticism of this point in Capital, volume ii – Rodbertus calmly falls in with the fundamental blunder of the classical school and its vulgar followers: to ignore altogether that part of the value of the aggregate product which is needed to replace the constant capital of the society. This way it was easier for him to keep up the singular fight against the ‘declining wage rate’.
Under capitalist forms of production, the value of the aggregate social product is divided into three parts: one corresponding to the value of the constant capital, the second to the wage total, .i.e. the variable capital, and the third to the aggregate surplus value of the capitalist class. In this composition, the portion corresponding to the variable capital is relatively on the decline, and this for two reasons. To begin with, the relation of c to (v + s) within c + v + s changes all the time in the direction of a relative increase of c and a relative decrease of v + s. This is the simple law for a progressive efficiency of human labour, valid for all societies of economic progress, independently of their historical forms, a formula which only states that living labour is increasingly able to convert more means of production into objects for use in an ever shorter time. And if (v + s) decreases as a whole, so must v, as its part, decrease in relation to the total value of the product. To kick against this, to try and stop the decrease, would be tantamount to contending against the general effects of a growing labour productivity. Further, there is within (v + s) as well a change in the direction of a relative decrease in v and a relative increase in s, that is to say, an ever smaller part of the newly created value is spent on wages and an ever greater part is appropriated as surplus value. This is the specifically capitalist formula of progressive labour productivity which, under capitalist conditions of production, is no less valid than the general law. To use the power of the state to prevent a decrease of v as against s would mean that the fundamental commodity of labour power is debarred from this progress which decreases production costs for all commodities; it would mean the exemption of this one commodity from the economic effects of technical progress. More than that: the ‘declining wage rate’ is only another expression of the rising rate of surplus value which forms the most powerful and effective means of checking a decline of the profit rate, and which therefore represents the prime incentive for capitalist production in general, and for technical progress within this system of production in particular. Doing away with the ‘declining wage rate’ by way of legislation would be as much as to do away with the raison d’être of capitalist society, to deal a crippling blow to its entire system. Let us face the facts: the individual capitalist, just like capitalist society as a whole, has no glimmering that the value of the product is made up from the sum total of labour necessary in the society, and this is actually beyond his grasp. Value, as the capitalist understands it, is the derivative form, reversed by competition as production costs. While in truth the value of the product is broken down into the values of its component fragments c, v and s, the capitalist mind conceives of it as the summation of v and s. These, in addition, also appear to him from a distorted perspective and in a secondary form, as
How, then, is the capitalist to be compelled by a law, say of the kind envisaged by Rodbertus, to maintain a ‘fixed wage rate’ in the face of the aggregate value of the product? It would be quite as brilliant to stipulate by law for exactly one-third, no more, no less, of the total price of the product to be payable for the raw materials employed in the manufacture of any commodity. Obviously, Rodbertus’ supreme notion, of which he was so proud, on which he built as if it were a new Archimedean discovery, which was to be the specific for all the ills of capitalist production, is arrant nonsense from all aspects of the capitalist mode of production. It could only result from the muddle in the theory of value which is brought to a head in Rodbertus’ inimitable phrase: that ‘now, in a capitalist society, the product must have value-in-exchange just as it had to have value-in-use in ancient economy’.(11) People in ancient society had to eat bread and meat in order to live, but we of to-day are already satisfied with knowing the price of bread and of meat. The most obvious inference from Rodbertus’ monomania about a ‘fixed wage rate’ is that he is quite incapable of understanding capitalist accumulation.
Previous quotations have already shown that Rodbertus thinks solely of simple commodity, production, quite in keeping with his mistaken doctrine that the purpose of capitalist production is the manufacture of consumer goods for the satisfaction of ‘human wants’. For he always talks of ‘capital replacements’, of the need to enable the capitalists to ‘continue their enterprise on the previous scale’. His principal argument, however, is directly opposed to the accumulation of capital. To fix the rate of the surplus value, to prevent its growth, is tantamount to paralysing the accumulation of capital. Both Sismondi and v. Kirchmann had recognised the problem of balancing production and consumption to be indeed a problem of accumulation, that is to say of enlarged capitalist reproduction. Both traced the disturbances in the equilibrium of reproduction to accumulative tendencies denying the possibility of accumulation, with the only difference that the one recommended a damper on the productive forces as a remedy, while the other favoured their increasing employment to produce luxuries, the entire surplus value to be consumed. In this field, too, Rodbertus follows his own solitary path. The others might try with more or less success to comprehend the fact of capitalist accumulation, but Rodbertus prefers to fight the very concept. ‘Economists since Adam Smith have one after the other echoed the principle, setting it up as a universal and absolute truth, that capital could only come about by saving and accumulating.’(12)
Rodbertus is up in arms against this ‘deluded judgment’. Over sixty pages of print he sets, out in detail that (a) it is not saving which is the source of capital but labour, that (b) the economists’ ‘delusion’ about ‘saving’ hails from the extravagant view that capital is itself productive, and that (c) this delusion is ultimately due to another: the error that capital is – capital.
v. Kirchmann for his part understood quite well what is at the bottom of capitalist ‘savings’. He had the pretty argument:
‘Everyone knows that the accumulation of capital is not a mere hoarding of reserves, an amassing of metal and monies to remain idle in the owners’ vaults. Those who want to save do it for the sake of re-employing their savings either personally or through the agency of others as capital, in order to yield them revenue. That is only possible if these capitals are used in new enterprises which can produce so as to provide the required interest. One may build a ship, another a barn, a third may reclaim a desolate swamp, a fourth may order a new spinning frame, while a fifth, in order to enlarge his shoe-making business, would buy more leather and employ more hands – and so on. Only if the capital that has been saved is employed in this way, can it yield interest (teaming profit), and the latter is the ultimate object of all saving.’(13)
That is how v. Kirchmann described somewhat clumsily, but on the whole correctly, what is in fact the capitalisation of surplus value, the process of capitalist accumulation, which constitutes the whole significance of saving, advocated by classical economists ‘since Adam Smith’ with unerring instinct. Declaring war on saving and accumulation was quite in keeping with v. Kirchmann’s premises, considering that he, like Sismondi, saw the immediate cause of the crises in accumulation. Here, too, Rodbertus is more ‘thorough’. Having learned from Ricardo’s theory of value that labour is the source of all value, and consequently of capital, too, he is completely blinded by this elementary piece of knowledge to the entire complexity of capitalist production and capital movements. Since capital is generated by labour, both the accumulation of capital, i.e. ‘saving’, and the capitalisation of the surplus value are nothing but eyewash.
In order to untangle this intricate network of errors by ‘economists since Adam Smith’, he takes, as we might expect, the example of the ‘isolated husbandman’ and proves all that he needs by a long-drawn vivisection of the unhappy creature. Here already he discovers ‘capital’, that is to say, of course, that famous ‘original stick’ with which ‘economists since Adam Smith’ have hooked the fruits of a theory of capital from the tree of knowledge. ‘Would saving be able to produce this stick?’ is his query. And since every normal person will understand that ‘saving’ cannot produce any stick, that Robinson [Crusoe] must have made it of wood, we have already proved that the ‘savings’ theory is quite mistaken. Presently the isolated husbandman hooks a fruit from the tree with the stick, and this fruit is his ‘income’.
‘If capital were the source of income, already this most elementary and primitive event would have to give evidence of this relation. Would it be true to say, then, without doing violence to facts and concepts, that the stick is a source of income or of part of the income consisting in the fruit brought down? can we trace income, wholly or in part, back to the stick as its cause, may we consider it, wholly or in parts, as a product of the stick?’(14)
Surely not. And since the fruit is the product, not of the stick which brought it down, but of the tree which grew it, Rodbertus has already proved that all ‘economists since Adam Smith’ are grossly mistaken if they maintain that income derives from capital. After a clear exposition of all fundamental concepts of economics on the example of Robinson [Crusoe]’s ‘economy’, Rodbertus transfers the knowledge thus acquired first to a fictitious society ‘without ownership in capital or land’, that is to say to a society with a communist mode of possession, and then to a society ‘with ownership in capital and land’, that is to say contemporary society, and, lo and behold – all the laws of Robinson [Crusoe]’s economy apply point for point to these two forms of society as well. Rodbertus contrives here a theory of capital and income which is the very crown of his Utopian imagination. Since he has discovered that Robinson [Crusoe]’s ‘capital’ is the means of production pure and simple, he identifies capital with the means of production in capitalist economy as well. Thus reducing capital, with a wave of his hand, to constant capital, he protests in the name of justice and morality against the fact that the wages, the workers’ means of subsistence, are also considered capital. He contends furiously against the concept of variable capital, seeing in it the cause of every disaster. ‘If only’, he grieves, ‘economists would pay attention to what I say, if only they would examine without prejudice whether they are right or I. This is the focal point of all errors about capital in the ruling system, this is the ultimate source of injustice against the working classes, in theory and practice alike.’(15)
For ‘justice’ demands that the goods constituting the ‘real wages’ of the workers be counted, not as part of capital, but as belonging to the category of income. Though Rodbertus knows very well that the capitalist must regard the wages he has ‘advanced’ as part of his capital, just like the other part laid out on immediate means of production, yet in his opinion this applies only to individual capitals. As soon as it is a question of the social aggregate product, of reproduction as a whole, he declares the capitalist categories of production an illusion, a malicious lie and a ‘wrong’. ‘Capital per se (properly so-called), the items which make up capital, capital from the nation’s point of view, is something quite different from private capital, capital assets, capital property, all that “capital” in the modern use of the term usually stands for.’(16)
An individual capitalist produces by capitalist methods, but society as a whole must produce like Robinson [Crusoe], as a collective owner employing communist methods.
‘It makes no difference from this general and national point of view that greater or smaller parts of the aggregate national product are now owned in all the various phases of production by private persons who must not be numbered among the producers proper, and that the latter always manufacture this national aggregate product as servants – without sharing in the ownership of their own product – of these few owners.’
Certain peculiarities of the relations within the society as a whole no doubt result from this, namely (1) the institution of ‘exchange’ as an intermediary, and (2) the inequality in the distribution of the product.
‘Yet all these consequences do not affect the movements of national production and the shaping of the national product which are always the same, now as ever (under the rule of communism), no more than they alter in any respect, as far as the national point of view is concerned, the contrast between capital and income so far established.’
Sismondi had laboured in the sweat of his brow, as had Smith and many others to disentangle the concepts of capital and income from the contradictions of capitalist production. Rodbertus has a simpler method and abstracts from the specific forms determined by capitalist production for society as a whole; he simply calls the means of production ‘capital’ and the article of consumption ‘revenue’ and leaves it at that.
‘The essential influence of ownership in land and capital applies only to individuals having traffic with one another. If the nation is taken as a unit, the effects of such ownership upon the individuals completely disappear.’(17)
We see that as soon as Rodbertus comes up against the real problem, the capitalist aggregate product and its movements, he exhibits the Utopian’s characteristic obtuseness in respect of the historical peculiarities of production. Marx’s comment on Proudhon, that ‘speaking of society as a whole, he pretends that this society is no longer capitalist’ therefore fits him like a glove. The case of Rodbertus again exemplifies how every economist before Marx had been at a loss when it came to harmonising the concrete aspects of the labour process with the perspective of capitalist production which regards everything in terms of value, to mediating between the forms of movement performed by individual capitals and the movement of social capital. Such efforts as a rule vacillate from one extreme to another: the shallow approach of Say and MacCulloch, recognising only the conceptions of individual capital, and the Utopian approach of Proudhon and Rodbertus who recognise only those of the process of labour. That is the context in which Marx’s penetration appears in its true light. His diagram of simple reproduction illuminates the entire problem by gathering up all these perspectives in their harmony and their contradictions, and so resolves the hopeless obscurities of innumerable tomes into two rows of figures of striking simplicity.
On the strength of such views on capital and income as these, capitalist appropriation is clearly quite impossible to understand. Indeed, Rodbertus simply brands it as ‘robbery’ and indicts it before the forum of the rights of property it so blatantly violates.
‘This personal freedom of the workers which ought legally to involve ownership in the value of the labour product, leads in practice to their renunciation of the proprietary claims extorted under pressure of ownership in land and capital; but the owners do not admit to this great and universal wrong, almost as though they were instinctively afraid that history might follow its own stern and inexorable logic.’(18)
Rodbertus’ ‘theory in all its details is therefore conclusive proof that those who praise present-day relations of ownership without being able at the same time to ground ownership in anything but labour, completely contradict their own principle. It proves that the property relations of to-day are in fact founded on a universal violation of this principle, that the great individual fortunes being amassed in society nowadays are the result of cumulative robbery mounting up in society with every newborn worker since time immemorial.’(19)
Since surplus value is thus branded as ‘robbery’, an increasing rate of surplus value must appear as a strange error of present day economic ‘organisation’. Brissot’s crude paradox with its revolutionary ring – ‘property is theft’ – had been the starting point for Proudhon’s first pamphlet, but Rodbertus’ thesis is quite another matter, arguing that capital is theft perpetrated on property. It need only be set side by side with Marx’s chapter on the transformation of the laws of ownership into the laws of capitalist appropriation – this triumph of historical dialectics in vol.i of Marx’s Capital – in order to show up Rodbertus’ ‘priority’. By ranting against capitalist appropriation under the aspect of the ‘right of property’, Rodbertus closed his mind to capital as the source of surplus value just as effectively as he had previously been prevented by his tirades against ‘saving’ from seeing the surplus value as a source of capital. He is thus in alt even worse position than v. Kirchmann, lacking all qualifications for understanding capitalist accumulation.
What it amounts to is that Rodbertus wants unrestricted expansion of production without saving, that is to say without capitalist accumulation! He wants an unlimited growth of the productive forces, and at the same time a rate of surplus value stabilised by an act of law. In short, he shows himself quite unable to grasp the real foundations of capitalist production he wishes to reform, and to understand the most important results of the classical economics he criticises so adversely.
It is no more than to be expected, therefore, that Prof. Diehl should declare Rodbertus a pioneer of economic theory on the strength of his ‘new theory of income’ and of the distinction between the logical and the historical categories of capital (capital properly so-called in contrast to individual capital), that Prof. Adolf Wagner should call him the ‘Ricardo of economic socialism’, proving himself ignorant at once of Ricardo, Rodbertus and socialism alike. Lexis even judges that Rodbertus is at least the equal of ‘his British rival’ in power of abstract thinking, and by far his superior in ‘virtuosity to Say bare the phenomena in their ultimate connections’, in ‘imaginative vitality’, and above all in his ‘ethical approach to economic life’. Rodbertus’ real achievements in economic theory however, other than his critique of Ricardo’s ground-rent, his at times quite clear-cut distinction between surplus value and profit, his treatment of the surplus value as a whole in deliberate contrast with its partial manifestations, his critique of Smith’s dogma concerning the analysis of commodities in terms of value, his precise formulation of the periodical character of the crises and his analysis of their manifestations – all these attempts to carry the investigation beyond Smith, Ricardo and Say, promising as such, though doomed to failure because of the confused basic concepts, are rather above the heads of Rodbertus’ official admirers. As Franz Mehring already pointed out, it was Rodbertus’ strange fortune to be lauded to heaven for his alleged prowess in economics, by the same people who called him to task for his real merits in politics. This contrast between economic and political achievements, however, does not concern us here: in the realm of economic theory, his admirers built him a grand memorial on the barren field he had dug with the hopeless zeal of the visionary, while the modest beds where he had sown a few fertile seeds, were allowed to be smothered with weeds and forgotten.(20)
It cannot be said that the problem of accumulation had on the whole been much advanced beyond the first controversy by this Prusso-Pomeranian treatment. If in the interim the economic theory of harmony had dropped from the level of Ricardo to that of a Bastiat-Schultze, social criticism had correspondingly declined from Sismondi to Rodbertus. Sismondi’s critique of 1819 had been an historical event, but Rodbertus’ ideas of reform, even on their first appearance, were a miserable regression – still more so on their subsequent reiteration.
In the controversy between Sismondi on the one hand and Say and Ricardo on the other, one party proved that accumulation was impossible because of the crises, and therefore warned against full development of the productive forces. The other party proved that crises were impossible and advocated an unlimited development of accumulation. Though all argued from wrong premises, each was logically consistent.
v. Kirchmann and Rodbertus both started, were bound to start, from the fact of crises. Here the problem of enlarged reproduction of aggregate capital, the problem of accumulation, was completely identified with the problem of crises and side-tracked in an attempt to find a remedy for the crises, although the historical experience of fifty years had shown all too clearly that crises, as witnessed by their periodical recurrence, are a necessary phase in capitalist reproduction. One side now sees the remedy in the complete consumption of the surplus value by the capitalist, that is to say in refraining from accumulation, the other in stabilisation of the rate of surplus value by legislative measures which comes to the same thing, i.e. renouncing accumulation altogether. This special fad of Rodbertus’ sprang from his fervent and explicit belief in an unlimited capitalist expansion of the productive forces and of wealth, without accumulation of capital. At a time when capitalist production was developed to a degree which was soon to enable Marx to make his fundamental analysis, the last attempt of bourgeois economics to cope with the problem of reproduction degenerated into absurd and puerile Utopianism.
(1) Schriften, vol.iii, p.176.
(2) Op. cit., vol.i, pp.53, 57.
(3) Ibid., p.206.
(4) Ibid., p.19.
(5) Op. cit., vol.ii, p.110.
(6) Ibid., p.144.
(7) Ibid., p.146.
(8) Ibid., p.155.
(9) Ibid., p.223.
(10) Ibid., p.226.
(11) Ibid., p.156.
(12) Op. cit., vol.i, p.40.
(13) Op. cit., vol.ii, p.25.
(14) Op. cit., vol.i, p.250.
(15) Ibid., p.295. Rodbertus reiterates during a lifetime the ideas he had evolved as early as 1842 in his Towards the Understanding of Our Politico-Economic Conditions.
‘Under present conditions, we have, however, gone so far as to consider not only the wage of labour part of the costs of the goods, but also rents and capital profits. We must therefore refute this opinion in detail. It has a twofold foundation: (a) a wrong conception of capital which counts the wage of labour as part of the capital just like materials and tools, while it is on the same level as rent and profit; (b) a confusion of the costs of the commodity and the advances of the entrepreneur or the costs of the enterprise’ (Towards the Understanding of Our Politico-Economic Conditions, Neubrandenburg & Friedland, G. Barnovitz, 1842, p.14).
(16) Schriften, vol.i, p.304. Just so already in Towards the Understanding of Our Politico-Economic Conditions,
‘We must distinguish between capital in its narrow or proper sense, and the fund of enterprise, or capital in a wider sense. The former comprises the actual reserves in tools and materials, the latter the find necessary for running an enterprise under present conditions of division of labour. The former is capital absolutely necessary to production, and the latter achieves such relative necessity only by force of present conditions. Hence only the former is capital in the strict and proper meaning of the term; this alone is completely congruent with the concept of national capital’ (ibid., pp. 23-4).
(17) Schriften, vol.i, p.292.
(18) Op. cit., vol.ii, p.136.
(19) Ibid., p.225.
(20) A memorial of the worst kind, by the way, was that of the editors who published his works after his death. These learned gentlemen, Messrs. Wagner, Kozak, Moritz Wuertz & Co., quarrelled in the prefaces to his posthumous writings like a rough crowd of ill-mannered servants in an antechamber, fighting out publicly their petty personal feuds and jealousies, and slanging one another. They did not even bother in common decency to establish the dates for the individual manuscripts they had found. To take an instance, it needed Mehring to observe that the oldest manuscript of Rodbertus that had been found was not published in 1837, as laid down autocratically by Prof. Wagner, but in 1839 at the earliest, since it refers in its opening paragraphs to historical events connected with the Chartist movement belonging, as a professor of economics really ought to know, in the year 1839. In Professor Wagner’s introduction to Rodbertus we are constantly bored by his pomposity, his harping on the excessive demands on his time; in any ease Wagner addresses himself solely to his learned colleagues and talks above the heads of the common crowd; he passes over in silence, as befits a great man, Mehring’s elegant correction before the assembled experts. Just as silently, Professor Diehl altered the date of 1837 to 1839 in the Handwörterbuch der Staatswissenschaften, without a word to say when and by whom he had been thus enlightened.
But the final touch is provided, by the ‘popular’, ‘new and inexpensive’ edition of Puttkamer and Muehlbrecht (1899). Some of the quarrelling editors collaborated on it but still continue their disputes in the introductions. Wagner’s former vol.ii has become vol.i in this edition, yet Wagner still refers to vol.ii in the introduction to vol.i. The first Letter on Social Problems is placed in vol.iii, the second and third in vol.ii and the fourth in vol.i. The order of the Letters on Social Problems, of the Controversies, of the parts of Towards the Understanding ..., chronological and logical sequence, the dates of publication and of writing are hopelessly mixed up, making a chaos more impenetrable than the stratification of the soil after repeated volcanic eruptions. 1837 is maintained as the date of Rodbertus’ earliest MS., probably out of respect to Professor Wagner – and this in 1899, although Mehring’s rectification had been made in 1894. If we compare this with Marx’s literary heritage in Mehring’s and Kautsky’s edition, published by Dietz, we see how such apparently superficial matters but reflect deeper connections: one kind of care for the scientific heritage of the authority of the class-conscious proletariat, and quite another in which the official experts of the bourgeoisie squander the heritage of a man who, in their own self interested legends, had been a first-rate genius. Suum cuique – had this not been the motto of Rodbertus?
Last updated on: 12.12.2008