Max Beer 1921

The Revival of Anti-Marxism[1]

Source: Labour Monthly, November 1921, pp. 417-427;
Transcribed: by Ted Crawford.


The news in the London Times of Marx’s death (March, 1883) consisted of a few lines, printed in brevier, and conveyed to it from Paris by M. De Blowitz. London itself was oblivious of the “red doctor” who had shocked some of its citizens in the days of the Paris Commune. About a dozen people, mostly foreigners, were present at his burial in Highgate Cemetery, so that “the most impressive demonstrations,” which Mr. Salter states (p.4.) to have taken place on that occasion, are but figments of a rather fertile imagination. But things have changed since that time and British writers are contributing their quota to the swelling Marxist literature, the rise and fall of which run parallel to the curves of the modern Socialist, Communist and Labour movements. The urge and surge of social revolutionary currents in any period or country since about 1880 has been accompanied by the growth and intensification of the controversy about Marxism.

Marx is the philosopher of the dissolution of the trading and commercial society which took its origin, in the latter part of the Middle Ages, in the cities and towns of Western and Central Europe, and which has reached its culminating point in the capitalist large-scale, centralised and concentrated industry. Marx, for all his philosophy of dissolution, was neither a woe-begone prophet, as Professor Nicholson asserts (p.136), nor the author of oracular sentences, as Mr. Salter is fain to believe (pp. 248-49), but a social student of penetrating vision, of savoir pour prévoir, and buoyant with optimism, since his Hegelian dialectical or evolutionary conception of human history led him to think that the dissolution was organically linked up with the rise of a new system of society, whose conditions, laws, and modes of emotion and thought will be shaped in accordance with the interests of Labour; the coming society, the birth-throes of which we are now witnessing, will be increasingly controlled by the possessors of productive capacity and skill; those who make the goods will make the laws, as the Chartists used to say.

Marx, early in life, discarding all the current ideological pretensions, penetrated into the social foundations and found them to consist, neither of brute force nor feudal chivalry, neither of monarchical authority nor middle-class legal contrivances, but of productive agents. Nowadays, after the shock of the world war has laid bare the foundations of society, even the solitary idealist and romantic poet is anxiously asking for production and more production, perceiving that without it, without the effort and labour to produce utilities, the whole structure of society, from the shrinking and crumbling of its foundations, would tumble about his ears. But in the ‘forties, when the problem of production appeared all but solved and the attention of the economists and statesmen was concentrated on exchange (free trade), it required no small amount of generalising power and realistic thinking to reduce the context and colour of the operations of the mind in all fields of human activity to the evolution and forms of organisation of material production. The successive ideological and political predominance of the various social classes in State and society depended, in the last analysis, on their respective functions in production. Any class that is able to set production in motion and keep it going in accordance with the general needs of a given phase of civilisation, will, sooner or later, govern society. This is, according to Marx, the real title to headship in the affairs of the polity. As long as any class is performing that function it is promoting the general advance of civilisation.

Professor Nicholson, in asserting that “Marx omits altogether any consideration of these beneficial influences (of opitalism) in his historical picture” (p.82) merely proves that he has not studied, with due care, the author at whom he is running full tilt. The “Communist Manifesto” leaves iii this respect nothing to be desired by any advocate of the capitalist system. It declares that capitalist industry “has achieved greater miracles than the construction of Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, or Gothic cathedrals ... The middle class has created more powerful and more gigantic forces of production than all generations put together”; furthermore, it has created national government, international trade, etc., etc. This eulogy in memory of capitalist achievements excels even the famous Disraelian rhapsody on Manchester. But the Marxian sentences read like an epitaph.

No less unjust is Professor Nicholson’s censure that “Marx, in his critique of orthodox political economists, left out of sight the elements of truth and strength in their teachings” (p.83). The same remark applies to Mr. Salter’s charge that Marx “concealed his great and for the most part unacknowledged debt to the English Socialist writers” (p.18). This severe attack on Marx’s literary ethics appears to be the effect of Professor Nicholson’s and Mr. Salter’s lack of familiarity with Marx’s “Theorien über der mehrwert,” a work in four volumes, written by its author in 1863-65 and published posthumously in 1905-11 by Karl Kautsky. In those four volumes, which, in my judgment, are the best extant history of British, French and German economic theory on labour, capital, wages, profit and rent, Mark does full justice to Petty, Dudley North, James Stewart, Quesnay, Adam Smith, Ricardo, the Mills (father and son), Ravenstone, Hodgskin, George Ramsay, Richard Jones, etc., etc. The orthodox political economists whom Marx delighted to honour were Petty, Stewart, Quesnay (with his famous Tableau économique Smith, and particularly Ricardo. Of the anti-capitalist writers, it is Hodgskin whose theories he analyses at length and with the utmost care. This extensive history of economic theory was intended by. Marx to form the fourth volume of “Capital” and to show the sources and authorities of his exposition of the economics of the capitalist system.


Marx, as political economist, had before himself the following theoretical results. The classical political economy of Great Britain had, up to the end of the eighteenth century, dealt with the problem of production more and more in the sense of natural freedom and natural rights as against the obsolescent State and police restraints of trade, and proceeded, through Ricardo, to the problem of distribution from the point of view of manufacturing, trading and commercial interests as against the landed interests. The conflicts and antagonisms which those economists had to deal with were either between the progressive, freedom-loving individual and the retrogressive, police-ridden State, or between manufacture and agriculture. On the other hand, the conflicts between Capital and Labour, though by no means of rare occurrence, were easily quelled and had no effect on the process of production. Adam Smith, in a somewhat prolonged fit of compassion, characteristic of the advocates of natural rights, took sides with Labour, as the producer of all wealth, deplored its helplessness, tried to moralise Capital, and passed on (“Wealth of Nations,” Book I, Chapters 6-9). Ricardo, who had a clear notion of the opposing interests of the various classes – his is the formula of the inverse ratio between wages and profits, and between both and rent – ascribed the whole mischief to the land-owners, whose rent-income was swallowing up the greatest part of the proceeds of labour in trade and manufacture. But on the heels of Ricardo came the anti-capitalist and Socialist critics (Ravenstone, Thompson, Hodgskin, etc.) who, on the strength of Smith’s and Ricardo’s own theories, claimed the whole produce of labour for the working classes, arguing that the accumulated wealth was the result of unpaid labour or surplus value.

Sociologically speaking, in the time of Ricardo, British society was on the point of entering into a class struggle. The Industrial Revolution had done its work in bringing the potentially antagonistic classes into clear relief. The middle classes, led by the Ricardians, marshalled their forces for free trade and Parliamentary reform, or for the capture of political power, while the awakening working class demonstrated for universal suffrage, factory legislation, freedom of combination, and finally set the Chartist movement on foot, for since about 1820 anti-capitalist and Socialist writers appeared on the scene, directing their shafts against the profiteers and demanding the whole produce of labour for the worker as the producer of all wealth. Periods of class struggle are generally prolific in great writers, and the years from 1776 to 1844 produced a host of political economists of great originality or boldness of thought, or painstaking commentators and popularisers of the leading minds. Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” (1776) marked the beginning; Ricardos “Principles” (1817) the middle; J.S. Mill’s “Essays on Some Unsettled Questions of Political Economy” (1844), the end of that period. All questions of labour and capital, production and exchange, were thrashed out, and for the most part, especially till about 1820, without conscious bias, without apologetic tendencies. The leading minds looked upon society as a natural phenomenon, whose underlying principles and the operating forces had to be found and defined by science, while the classes fought with their gloves off against one another.

Into this atmosphere came Marx, with his Hegelian dialectical, antagonistic evolution of society, for the first time in 1846, then in 1849, permanently to settle in London. He,
likewise, had been busy with a book on political economy, but after having made acquaintance with its vast literature at the British Museum, he destroyed his manuscripts on which he had been working in Paris and Brussels and settled down to study anew all that he found of British researches and disquisitions on the subject. Although a great admirer of the naturally prolific mind, vast learning and historic sense of Adam Smith, he was mainly attracted by Ricardo, whose scientific bent of mind, generalising capacity, grasp of the antagonistic character of society, and concentrated style of writing, particularly in the first chapter of the “Principles,” were so much allied to those of Marx. Indeed, what Ricardo accomplished for the British middle classes, Marx set himself to perform on a vaster scale, with greater learning and revolutionary energy, for the proletariat of the world. And we shall never be able to do justice to Marx, as an economist, unless we connect him with the achievements of British political economy from Petty to Richard Jones, for on them he built up his social criticism, his critique of political economy. There is not in Marxian economics a single proposition on labour and. capital, production and remuneration, value and surplus value, which in one form or another could not be found in the works of the leading British economists. And had Professor Nicholson and Mr. Salter but studied them a bit more carefully, their objections to Marx might have been of a more serious nature. Let us sample them.

Professor Nicholson is indignant at Marx for having said that “capital seeks to provide only commodities for sale. It cares nothing for their social uses. To make anything that will sell at a profit ....” (p.86).

That the only purpose of capital is to make profit is an opinion expressed by Adam Smith, when he states as a matter of course that the employer would have no interest in employing the workmen if he didn’t “expect from the sale of their work something more than what was sufficient to replace his stock to him” (“Wealth of Nations,” Book 1, Ch.6). And where does that “something more” come from? Smith replies: “Profit comes from the labour added to the value of the materials. The value which the workmen add to the material resolves itself into two parts, – of which one pays the wages, the other the profit to the employer upon the whole stock of materials and wages which he advanced” (ibid.).

Here we have also the source of what Marx calls surplus value. Profits may be justified and are justified by the post-classical British economic writers on the ground of the labour of inspection and direction by the capitalist. Professor Nicholson actually employs this argument against Marx (p.137), not knowing that his famous countryman had dealt with it some 150 years ago. For, Adam Smith, anticipating the objection, declares that profits have nothing to do with services. “They are regulated by quite different principles and bear no proportion to the quantity, the hardship, or the ingenuity of this supposed labour of inspection and direction.” They are regulated by the amount of capital invested in the business. “In many great works, almost the whole labour of this kind (inspection and direction) is committed to some principal clerk. His wages properly express the value of this labour of inspection and direction” (ibid.). Even Mill was constrained to admit that, strictly speaking, capital had no productive power; the only productive force was labour, assisted by tools, machinery, etc., applied to raw material (“Essays on Some Unsettled Questions,” 1844, pp. 90-91).

Professor Nicholson further believes that the argument most fatal to Marx’s attitude towards capitalism is that he paid no attention to demand, for there could be no profit unless there was a demand for the goods made to sell. “The goods must be got into the hands and the stomachs of the consumers” (pp. 86-87, 106). Well, I suppose that nature has taken pretty good care of that. The appetites and needs of the masses are not specially created by order of the capitalists. And in case of need, a clever advertiser can be got for a moderate salary to make the goods known to the public. Besides, Marx did pay attention to demand. He distinctly pointed out that individual and social demand determines the amount of exchange values to be produced, and if, through the anarchy of capitalist production, the supply is larger than the demand, then the superfluous commodities lose their exchange values; labour has been wasted.

Mr. Salter, who appears to have read little of Marx and still less of the classical economists, but a good deal of Boehm-Bawerk and other opponents of Marx, harps upon utility as the essence of value. Well, Smith and Ricardo knew something of utility, likewise Marx. All of them regarded utility as essential, but they could not accept it as the measure of exchange value, since, as any manufacturer could tell them, it was cost of production that determined exchange values or prices. And cost of production consisted of prime cost (wages, raw material, etc.) plus profit. Marx’s particular question in economic theory was, How did surplus value or profit arise? And he answered (1) by hiring labour on the basis of use-value and making it create exchange-value; (2) by producing utilities. To the immediate consumer the main object is utility, but for the manufacturer the main consideration is the means, i.e., labour, living and stored up – by which the goods are produced. And it is in the manufacturer’s office, where the prices (or exchange values) are calculated and fixed, and not in the consumer’s kitchen. Mr. Salter’s criticism of Marxian theories arises largely from the confusion of value and price, believing them to be identical. Marx follows here, as in most concepts, classical political economy, which clearly distinguished between natural price and market price, the former corresponding to Marx’s exchange value, the latter to price. The natural price was with Smith, Ricardo, Mill, etc, the real measure, based on labour, while the market price, influenced by supply and demand, etc., sometimes rises above, sometimes falls below, the natural price, but always gravitating towards it.

Marx’s main contribution to political economy consists in this, – he started where his predecessors left off. Smith inquired into the concept of value in order to show the source of wealth and how it could be made to flow more copiously; with Ricardo, value was the right principle which ought to regulate distribution; Ravenstone, Thompson, Hodgskin, Bray, regarded surplus-value as mere robbery, and they condemned any society which rested on robbing labour. With Marx, value and surplus-value became the key with which he unlocked the inner workings of capitalist society, moreover, showing capitalist society to be one of the many stages of social evolution. Marx dissolved the mechanical view of society, held by his predecessors, into an evolutionary conception of human history.

It is all so elementary. And it is deplorable that one has to deal again and again with economic categories which were so well defined by the greater minds in times when people really searched for knowledge of industrial life, and not for apologias. Indeed, no opponent of Marxism deserves any reply unless he first directs his criticism against Smith and Ricardo. Marx is, of course, more technical, at once more analytical and more synthetical, welding the various categories into a chain of evolutionary causation of the rise and dissolution of the capitalist industrial system; but, in the main, he stands on the shoulders of classical political economy and the theorists of cognition of modern times. He holds strictly to the view that behind the empirical movements and appearances there is a law, a principle, underlying and controlling them, and to which, despite all deviations and refractions, they conform. And science consists, not in describing empirical sensations, but in finding their law and causation, of grouping and interpreting them accordingly.

Marx, in adopting the results of his mental precursors, uses them in the light of his sociological theories. He sat down as a revolutionary Socialist to write his critique of the capitalist system from the point of view of dialectical evolution, materialist conception of history, and class struggle theory, which taught him also that in the domain of social and moral branches of knowledge the intellect is often swayed by class instincts, desires, and interests, that, therefore, even the greatest minds are not exempt from the danger of being influenced in their interpretation of facts and scientific findings either by their attitude towards the various classes or by general considerations, so that the same facts and findings will lead the non-Socialist and the Socialist to different conclusions, or might even induce them to stop short at drawing conclusions at all, if they instinctively, unconsciously fear lest the logical process might result in conclusions destructive of their general conception of what is good for their class or for society as a whole. There is, for instance, from the point of view of pure logic, no valid ground why Adam Smith, after having written the very remarkable Chapter 6, Book 1, should not have adopted the Socialist position, why he stopped short at condemning any society based on private property. And yet he did not draw any such conclusions, because his general disposition, born of the circumstances of his upbringing and surroundings and associations, led him to think that private property was more favourable to the development of production, to the growth of wealth. On the other hand, Marx came as a revolutionary Socialist, as a Communist, to study political economy, and saw at once where the results of classical political economy would lead him. And as soon as his teachings proved an effective force in the proletarian movement, they became the object of attacks, while Smith is left alone. I am not an unqualified admirer of Marx’s economics; but this I make bold to say, that he must be counted among the greatest economists of all nations. He sometimes stumbled, but, like a noble horse, striking the most sparks when stumbling.


Mr. Salter attacks also the sociology of Marx. He censures him for having failed to give any detailed forecast of the future society (pp. 248-49). This censure has no greater strength than any criticism of a scientific pioneer and discoverer for having omitted to describe the technical possibilities of his discovery. The scientist finds a new physical or chemical or biological law and leaves it to experiment and technology to apply it. This consideration is all the more valid in the domain of social science, as the requirements, proceeding from the conditions of life themselves, will sooner or later, in the storm and stress of controversy and conflict, bring forth the organs and organisations capable of performing the new functions. Certainly it is an expensive way, involving as it does sacrifice and martyrdom; but that is the way of organic life, and has so far been the way of social evolution. What practical good did Plato’s “Politeia,” or even the more moderate “Nomoi,” to Athens, More’s “Utopia” to England, Campanella’s “Civitas Solis” to Italy and Spain, Fourier’s, Proudhon’s and Louis Blanc’s constructive schemes to the French proletariat? Compare the barrenness and futility of the so-called constructive schemes with the results of Marx’s so-called destructive and negative teachings. The theories of class struggle, surplus value, economic and political action, socialisation of the means of production, have stirred and inspired the masses all over the world, everywhere moving forward, striving to translate them into practice, filling the forefront of the political stage. Professor Nicholson is quite astonished at the effect of the negative teaching of Marx, and he cries: “And yet he (Marx) moves – and just now moves more than ever – in spite of his arid hypothetical arithmetic and his old massive learning and his overbearing conceit” (p.13). Does that not remind us of the exclamation of the French sculptor in Rome, when comparing his anatomically correct marble horse with that of the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, “Et pourtant cette bête-là est vivante, et la mienne est morte!"? The lesson to be drawn from this outburst is surely that the old learning of Adam Smith proves to have been of greater solidity than the new learning of Professor Nicholson. The old Scottish massive learning and love of theory appears to have taken refuge under the wings of the Scottish proletariat.

1. J. Shield Nicholson, The Revival of Marxism, London, 1920. (John Murray.) J.R. Salter, Karl Marx and Modern Socialism, London, 1920. (Macmillan and Co.)