Chris Harman


Return to Utopia

(Autumn 1965)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.22, Autumn 1965, p.28.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Modern Capitalism and Revolution
Paul Cardan
Solidarity, 197 Kings Cross Road London WC1, 3s 6d

One of the dispiriting things revolutionary socialists have to tolerate is the existence of individuals and groups possessing many of the attitudes we sympathise with, but with nothing to say in relation to theory and a tendency to say it at great length. Typical of these is Paul Cardan, at least as seen in his latest book. If he differs from the others it is only because there are few so slipshod in their approach, fruitless in their conclusions, pretentious in weir claims and acrimonious towards the rest of us.

Cardan’s first concern is to point out the faults of ‘traditional Marxism’, a category in which he lumps together virtually every socialist theorist who wrote between 1845 and the advent of Paul Cardan. Marx and Lassalle, Luxemburg and Kautsky, Trotsky and Stalin are all the same to him. The faults of any one of these thinkers is for him self-evidently the fault of any of the others.

Yet although the case depends for its efficacy upon the ‘amalgam’ technique pioneered by the hatchet-men of Stalin in their struggles against the Left, it would be wrong to accuse Cardan of bad faith for using it. It is evident from his criticism of Marx that he has no inkling of the way in which Marx’s theories are fundamentally different from those of his ‘official’ perverters in Moscow. Not only does he ascribe to Marx views which he explicity repudiated – for instance the Lassallean ‘Iron Law of Wages’ – but also, together with the theoretical heirs of Stalin, he demonstrates the same incapacity to understand what Capital is about. For him it has the same aims as any other work of economics: to find quasi-natural laws which determine the development of society. And ‘economic’ is interpreted to have the same narrow meaning that bourgeois economists assign to it For Cardan the only concern of economics is with statistical prediction. Thus, when he examines Marx’s ‘law’ of the declining rate of profit he is able to show that nothing in the technical process of production itself (for Cardan the social context of production is irrelevant here) makes it hold. But more fundamentally he argues that the whole attempt to see society as economically determined is wrong because it ignores ‘the actions of men, social groups and classes’.

Unfortunately for Cardan the view of economics as something separate from the actions of ‘men, social groups and classes’ is one of those ideological elements in bourgeois thought that Marxism must repudiate. Marx in Capital did not attempt to understand the development of society apart from the interaction of men. Rather economic facts and institutions are shown to be expressions of the historical development of human interaction. If Mr Cardan doubts this he should read the section in Capital on the fetishism of commodities. Of course Marx asserts that this development cannot be understood apart from the reproduction of human existence at each stage through material production of the prerequisites of life, but this does not make Marx into the ‘economic’ determinist Cardan sees him to be.

The formula for the determination of the rate of profit that Marx arrives at in Volume III of Capital will not, after the fashion of Cardan, yield immediate empirical predictions – although if correctly and carefully employed it might. What it does attempt to elucidate are the relationships between individuals that arise around a particular level of material production organised according to certain property relations. In this situation it shows what must be the relationships between accumulated labour, the labour necessary to sustain the labourer and the surplus labour – i.e. how the actions and needs of workers and capitalists impinge upon one another. When this is understood it can be seen that Cardan rejects the formula because he does not even understand its purpose. Far from the formula denying the relevance of human action, it is concerned with how this occurs in context and how only decisive class action can break this context.

All this is not to deny that Marx’s formulations of the problem are not open to correction – sometimes possibly even a fundamental correction. But any reformulation should be concerned with increasing understanding of the forces that bring men into relationship with one another, not, as in Cardan’s case, with denying the possibility of such an understanding.

After the ferocity of the attack upon ‘traditional Marxism’ one might expect Cardan to present an alternative total view of modern society. He does not, but rather gives a general, and not always accurate or convincing, description of certain facets of society. We are told that ‘the gradual increase in living standards is irreversible’ – the reason being, apparently, that without it, ‘Capital accumulation would be impossible’. Similarly, ‘The essential function of trade unions has become the maintenance of peace in industry’ – a statement that might express the desires of union leaders and bosses, but surely cannot sum up all union activities. Again, ‘Few union members are interested in union affairs’; ‘Depressions of the pre-war type are virtually excluded’ – here one would like to ask why, and also why only ‘virtually’ (it sounds like an attempt to guarantee irrefutability to the statement). But Cardan not only accepts so much of the glib liberal view of modern society but also fails to explain how it comes to have the features it has. The various aspects are not integrated into a total picture. Instead it is postulated that capitalism has no objective contradictions, and that its faults lie in a completely different sphere.

For Cardan the cardinal feature of modern capitalism is bureaucratisation, seen as everywhere growing in both extent and intensity, to make production more ‘rational’ and efficient – an impossible task because in a class society it has to exclude the workers from decision making in production. But nowhere does he show why the bureaucracy has continually to accumulate capital, make production more efficient, extend its own sphere of influence. Cardan assumes that something inherent in bureaucratic structures makes them drive to rationalisation of production, a proposition for which there is little historical evidence. Rather, if bureaucracies do drive to rationalisation, it is because they are subject to exigencies – ‘objective laws’ or not – beyond their control. If this is so the key to understanding the development of society lies in understanding the dynamic behind these exigencies – a task which Cardan condemns out of hand. The only alternative is to see the processes of bureaucratic rationalisation as dependent only upon the attitudes of the bureaucrats themselves.

In fact Cardan oscillates between seeing bureaucracy as a response to a situation (the existence of which he has previously denied) and seeing it as the consequence of a developing capitalist spirit. This theoretical inconsistency is matched in the discussion on practical activity. Cardan in places demonstrates a real concern with revolutionary working-class activity and organisation, but this is continually vitiated by his idealistic mode of analysis into mere moralising (’consumption’, for instance, is castigated in a manner that would do credit to a Christian ascetic). In this sense Cardan’s ‘revision’ of Marxism is nothing but a return to the elitist utopianism that preceded Marx.

Last updated on 15 November 2009