Hermann Duncker 1930

Book Review

N. Bukharin: "The Economic Theory of the Leisure Class"

Sources: International Press Correspondence, Vol 10, No. 33, July 17, 1930, p. 607.
Online Version: Marxists Internet Archive 2021
HTML Markup: Zdravko Saveski

Marx gave to the total presentation of his economic theory the subtitle: "The Critique of Political Economic". He developed his own system in a penetrating examination of the shortcomings and limitations of bourgeois economy, and this in its completest form, i. e. the classical school of political economy (Adam Smith and David Ricardo).

After Marx's death Marxism practically confined itself to popularising the economic fundamental teachings of Marx and defending them against the various bourgeois attacks. The "Critique of Political Economy", that is the further development of bourgeois economic doctrines, came to occupy quite a second place. Even the works of some former Marxists such as Hilferding, Eckstein, Parvus, Boudin and others, which were directed specially against the Austrian exponent of bourgeois political economy, against the lion of anti-Marxism, Böhm-Bawerk, were restricted right from the outset by their purely apologetic character.

Thus Bukharin's work, "The Economic Theory of the Leisure Class", which was written in 1914, published in Russian in 1919, and has since appeared in English,[1] is a very valuable extension and deepening of these older Marxist criticisms of Böhm-Bawerk. Bukharin subjects this celebrated bourgeois theory to a most thorough criticism. He dissolves the system from within by exposing, step by step, the faulty logic, false reasoning and absurdities of Böhm-Bawerk's positive theory. Thus, not only is Böhm-Bawerk's attack on Marx repelled (as has been done by others before Bukharin), but by demonstrating the fundamentally false structure of Böhm-Bawerk's system itself, the correctness of Marxist economy is confirmed. For Böhm-Bawerk furnishes the exact antithesis to Marx. And this very antithesis is revealed as impossible and ridiculous.

The theory of value and surplus value forms the nucleus of the whole of economic science - that is the only point on which Marx and Böhm-Bawerk agree. But for Marx, the exchange value of a commodity arises from the (to the purchaser and consumer) objectively given social character of production, and this in its specially historical form of commodity production. For Böhm-Bawerk, on the other hand, value is determined by the purely subjective valuation of an article on the part of the consumer.

"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" (Bukharin, page 36).

Thus, Böhm-Bawerk - he is the great master of the Austrian School - embodies a complete antithesis to the ideology of the proletariat (Bukharin, page 32). The Böhm-Bawerk ideology, as Bukharin clearly shows, is the political economy of the Rentier whose "sphere of activities" is the sphere of consumption, of the one-time factory owner who has become a mere parasitic shareholder and is thus removed from the sphere of production. The coupon-clipping Rentier is thereby at the same time estranged from real social life. He is therefore a pronounced individualist, for individualism has always been the moral philosophy of the bourgeoisie: Every man for himself, and God for us all! For this bourgeois world there must not be any historical change. Such phenomena as profit, interest on capital, etc., are regarded by it as eternal attributes of human society.

Bukharin shows how, out of the economic conditions there develops the economic consciousness, i. e. the political economy of the Rentier. From the actual conditions of life of the bourgeoisie he explains their idealised forms in the political "economy" of Böhm-Bawerk, which is rightly described by him as "the scientific weapon of the international Rentier" (Page 34), and which therefore merits the critical study which Bukharin devotes to it. Even today after Böhm-Bawerk's death, anti-marxist economy still follows mainly the ideas of the Austrian School.

What, however, is the celebrated theory of marginal utility, which Böhm-Bawerk laid down as the foundation of his economic theories? A psychological playing with ideas, which in the best case can only explain the valuation of a stock of goods which cannot be increased and for which there exists no possibility of exchange. It should be further added that Böhm-Bawerk only succeeds in maintaining his subjective theory of value by smuggling into his solution of the problem the objective price, which is something he is unable to explain.

For Böhm-Bawerk the problem of value is only the bridge to the theory of profit. He represents profit as being an absolute phenomenon of all economic life. For in the world of Böhm-Bawerk profit has nothing to do with exploitation! And therefore the scientific rentier makes the deduction that, any employment of means of production - which, of course, right from pre-historic times have always been "capital" - means a profitable "roundabout way", a "sacrifice of time". Means of production such as labour are future goods, as they are only converted into consumable goods in a definite future. But the Rentier estimates the present higher than the future. The difference between the estimation of the value of such present "future goods" and of the future "present goods" derived from them is profit. One always buys means of production and labour "cheap", as one has thereby secured the future "increase of value".

Bukharin folows Böhm-Bawerk like a bloodhound through his labyrinth of sophistry in order to demonstrate the nonsensical character of this structure. A truly tedious job! But it had to be undertaken in order to expose for all time the hollowness of the most celebrated bourgeois attempt to justify profit.

The appearrance of this work in English is to be particularly welcomed as being a valuable addition to the Marxist literature accessible to English and American workers, and the publishers have done well in including it in their "Marxist Library" Series. The book calls for a certain amount of practice in deciphering economic abstractions. But those who enjoy a game of mental chess will follow with increasing interest the way in which the Marxist skilfully places the bourgeois savant in check at every move and utterly routs him. In comparing the fundamental teachings of the classical school of bourgeois Economy with the work of Böhm-Bawerk, however, one is reminded of the well known words of Engels: "The nearer the Economists approach the present, the farther they depart from honesty."


[1] International Publishers, New York. Price 2,50 Dollar.