Source: The New International, Vol. 1 No. 4, November 1934, pp. 128–129.
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The Decline of American Capitalism
by Lewis Corey
622 pp. IX Graphs. New York. Covici, Friede, $4.00.
Lewis Corey has been unfortunate in his reviewers; the handful of radical and liberal papers which should have introduced his work to an audience which badly needs it have, indeed, but served to screen the book from the labor movement. Scarcely one of them gave even a hint of its quality and content. To what extent the reviewers alone were to blame for this, to what extent Corey himself is responsible, requires some discussion. It will help clear the ground for an adequate appreciation of Corey’s work if we begin by a consideration of the principal reviews.
The nasty review in The Nation, by the New Dealer, A.A. Berle, revealed more about how “impartial” an economist Berle is than it did about the quality of Corey’s thought. Nor is there anything in Corey’s book to justify the ill humor and economic illiteracy of the editor of Common Sense. Of the liberals, only George Soule in The New Republic gave some notion of the proportions of the book, though without seriously coming to grips with it. The only review so far in the socialist press was that of James Oneal in The New Leader, which lightly passed over the whole book in a gingerly fashion solely to denounce its revolutionary conclusions. On the whole, the reviews in the capitalist and reformist press merely revealed the ignorance and prejudice of these people, and it is only unfortunate that their readers were thus barred from learning how valuable a book the reviewers were tampering with.
The truly fantastic review of thirty-odd pages in The Communist was, if one needed such confirmation, a thorough revelation of the abysmal theoretical level of the Stalinists. It was a mosaic of quotations from Marx, Lenin, Stalin, etc., most of them quite irrelevant, and tied together by sentences at least half of which were wholly unintelligible. It was the work of men long bereft of any loyalty to ideas, and completely incompetent to discover whether the leading ideas of Corey on economics were or were not in conformity with Stalinism. Perhaps the very sanity of Corey made him sound like a heretic; and so, ever and anon, the Stalinists quoted at random and asked: Is this Trotskyism? Though the specific passages thus isolated were not at all significant, the Stalinists were right, however, in being suspicious; for Corey’s conception of the process of capitalist decline provides, like Lenin’s, for a continuation of capitalist production, though on continuously lower levels, until it is politically overthrown. In this Corey differs fundamentally from the apocalyptic theory of “the last crisis”, by which Stalinism revises Lenin and reverts to the Kautsky-Luxemburg theory of an internal collapse of capitalism.
Why did not the Stalinists merely vent their bile on the book in their usual fashion of dealing with non-Stalinists? They were instinctively uneasy and distrustful of the book; but they were not sure that a deal could not be made with Corey, as indicated by the closing chapter of his book. That chapter, hastily sketching the history of the radical movement and the necessary strategy and tactics, is ambiguous and hazy on those points – as Corey himself well knows – around which most controversy revolves (Negro trade unions, united front), ends the story of the radical movement with the communist party, and says that in the period 1923–29, “except for the communist party all labor organizations became more and more conservative” – thus ignoring that these were the years of the political degeneration of the party, and the rise of the oppositions (mention of which is apparently taboo). Undoubtedly this chapter raised hopes in the Stalinists for bringing Corey, into open captivity. This is made quite obvious by the ending of the Stalinist review, which abruptly closes with a promise to return next month to a consideration of the last short chapter, i.e., after waiting to see whether Corey will crawl to Canossa.
This last chapter is also, perhaps, a clue to some of the defects of the whole book. The avoidance of questions of economics controversial among Marxists, the lack of even a single reference to the writings of the local Stalinist or Comintern “experts” on America and, above all, the heavy, often even clumsy and repetitious style lacking all personality (Corey has evidenced elsewhere that he can write well), reveal, it may be, the marks of a man who is writing under a sense of restraint. Except for this sense of one not permitting himself complete intellectual freedom, however, the main body of the book is, in its scholarly integrity, in sharp contrast to the Jesuitical last chapter.
Another review which could only serve to prevent readers from coming to Corey was Paul Mattick’s in the Modern Monthly. Mattick continues the most repulsive aspects of the interpretation of Marxian economics, as a mechanistic conception of an automatic collapse of capitalism. His review disgraced the name of Marxism in its scholastic pettiness and, gave Corey no credit for even those sections of his book which Mattick must agree with. His accusation that Corey holds to the theory of underconsumption is preposterous, for on the fundamental issue which distinguishes the underconsumption theory front the Marxian overproduction theory – whether or no a balanced economy is theoretically possible within the social relations of capitalist production – Corey is most unambiguously a Marxist.
That Mattick could even raise this question does, however, reveal one weakness in Corey’s exposition; and this is substantiated by the readiness with which George Soule – who does follow the underconsumption theory – thinks himself in agreement with Corey as against other Marxists.
This weakness appears in Part Four. To the usual reader (and the not so usual, as Mattick and Soule testify), it may seem that the exposition appears to lead up to a consideration of the Antagonism Between Production and Consumption, as if that were the basic antagonism. Corey falls into some absurd errors, such as:
“The economic contradictions in the movement of production and consumption are necessarily expressed in class antagonisms:
“Struggle between the workers and employers over wages,” etc. (p. 156)
This is unforgivably slipshod. As Corey himself would no doubt be the first to admit, the correct statement of the capitalist contradictions is precisely the opposite of what he has stated. It is the class antagonisms which are expressed in, among other ways, the “antagonism between production and consumption”, which is a mere secondary effect of the class antagonisms. And the struggle between workers and employers, arising from the contradiction between wages and profits, is a struggle at the point of production, and can be described and understood without any reference to consumption.
What happened is that Corey has unthinkingly accommodated himself to the prevailing formulations of the liberal bourgeois economists. These, unconsciously but determinedly, limit their analysis of capitalism to the problems which trouble capitalists themselves. That capital itself, that is, the conditions of capitalist production, – production for the sake of capitalist accumulation – is the barrier which prevents an unrestricted extension of production, is an answer which is unthinkable for the capitalist and its economists. Hence they limit their analysis to that one of the results of this barrier which troubles capitalists most – not mass unemployment, mass starvation, imperialist war, cultural degeneration, etc., but the empirical observation that production does not continue because consumers goods are not sold. The only form in which they see the contradictions of capitalism is in the lack of balance between production and consumption. It is only when we go behind this mere appearance that we reach the fundamental nature of capitalism. For Corey to adapt himself to the superficial terminology of bourgeois economists aids him in no way, but rather involves him, sound though his general position is, in a number of absurd errors of which the above quotation is typical.
Marx himself was particularly careful at all times to demonstrate that the basic contradictions of capitalism are at the point of production itself. One of the effects of these contradictions is the phenomenon of a conflict between the tendency to unconditional development of the forces of production as contrasted with the limited consumption of consumers goods. This conflict, however, Marx always emphasizes, is merely the reflection, in the subsidiary realm of exchange, of the contradiction at the point of production, the “tendency to an absolute development of productive forces, a development which comes continually in conflict with the specific conditions of production in which capital moves and alone can move.” (Vol. III, p. 302)
Corey’s unthinking accommodation to the empiricistic formula of the liberal bourgeois economists is a serious mistake. Precisely because it is so prevalent, Corey should have sharply dissociated himself from it and used the Marxian formulations. There is no more reason for a Marxist to use the bourgeois formulation on this point, than the bourgeois definition of capital, value, etc.
Worse, still, Corey’s treatment of this subject makes it seem as though the fact that the forces of production are developed more highly than the forces of consumption is of itself a sufficient cause of economic crises. He thus obscures the fact that only under capitalist production is production over any given period dependent upon consumption. A socialist society, if it so willed, could go on producing for years tenfold what it consumed, without a dislocation of harmonious productive relations, for under socialist production there can be an absolute increase of the forces of production without any relation to consumption. This most significant aspect of a socialist economy is obscured, if one emphasizes the capitalist antagonism as one between production and consumption, as if one were a blind bourgeois economist instead of a Marxist.
Despite the lack of clarity evidenced by Corey on this question, his errors are mainly limited to Part IV, and even there, only to a series of passages; for his weakness, it is worth repeating, is due merely to taking over at this point the bourgeois formula of production versus consumption.
In considering Corey’s reviewers and the questions raised by them, we have also stated our main disagreements with him. Having thus cleared the decks, there remains to give a general estimation of The Decline of American Capitalism.
Its most obvious contribution is the astonishing wealth of statistical material marshalled together for the purposes of demonstrating that the facts of American capitalism offer “the fullest confirmation of the analysis Karl Marx made of the laws of capitalist production”. The wealth of statistics is not only organized for the reading text, but is constructed into tables and graphs which have their counterpart nowhere else and which, once seen, become indispensable for a Marxian exposition of the processes of American capitalism.
A work of such proportions in the Marxian literature is a rarity indeed, for many reasons. Few leading Marxists since the time of Marx himself have had the opportunity to assimilate the sheer volume of economic materials required for a large-scale statistical demonstration of the Marxian laws of capitalist production. Where the opportunity existed, there were other difficulties. Even the Germans had no such materials available as Corey used, for the American statistical material is more abundant, and far superior in scope and continuity, than any in the world. Moreover, with the general tendency riveted on the Marxian tradition by Kautsky, to treat Marxian economics as a closed deductive system, it was natural that Marxists should give more attention to deductive analysis than to statistical demonstration. It is a fact, therefore, that Corey’s work is the most comprehensive attempt yet made in the Marxian tradition to give a statistical-analytical demonstration of the working of the Marxian laws of capitalist production within a specific country.
Where does this book belong in the the Marxian tradition? It belongs, it is clear, with those who have understood that Marxian economics is a sociological economics; that the economic process is not analogical to that of a machine, of which political, cultural events, etc. are mere by-products; that the economic development of capitalism provides the objective conditions for the proletarian revolution and socialism, but that any talk of the automatic collapse of capitalism is either meaningless babble or derives from a thoroughgoing mechanism which is really a form of mysticism. Corey speaks of tendencies and processes. He never forgets that economic barriers to capitalism as a going concern may be broken down for a period by a non-economic category of action – imperialist war (politics, in its most aggressive form) – precarious and dangerous though such a method of blood-letting may be for capitalism itself. He might well have taken for the motto of his book Lenin’s famous thought, that there is always a way out for capitalism so long as the proletarian revolution does not overthrow it. The reactionary nature of declining capitalism, its consequences in moral suffering and degradation, slaughter and brutalization, does not provide the end of capitalism, it provides the opportunity for its overthrow.
Sharing none of its mechanistic conceptions, Corey belongs in another line of development than that of the German Social Democracy. He belongs with Lenin, whose sharp break with mechanistic Marxian economics is the foundation of most of his important contributions, most obviously in his theory of the role of the peasantry in imperialist and colonial countries. Less obvious, but equally susceptible of proof, is the fact that the Leninist theory of the role of the party and the nature of the proletarian dictatorship, also have their foundation in his sociological, anti-mechanistic Marxian economics.
The valuable direction that Corey’s work will give to the study of Marxian economics in this country is, I believe, peculiarly timely. Many now coming to the revolutionary movement come from non-Leninist traditions; they bring with them a baggage of dangerous theories of spontaneity: lack of understanding of the leading role of theory, confusion of trade union and political levels of activity, failure to comprehend the importance of the autonomy of the party, failure to understand that revolutionary confiscation of private property will not instantaneously wipe out class hostilities and attitudes, which can only disappear during a considerable period of proletarian dictatorship.
One of the most important correctives for such theories of spontaneity is a correct approach to economic phenomena. Most theories involving spontaneity can be traced, logically, back to a mechanistic economics, which makes social and political actions a mere reflex of economic change. Thus many of Rosa Luxemburg’s differences with Lenin flow from her mechanistic economics: her failure to understand the possibilities of the peasantry as proletarian allies; her failure to understand the progressive character of colonial revolutions; her unclarity on the autonomous role of the party. Luxemburg, despite her revolutionary instincts, is closer in her economic methodology to Kautsky than to Lenin.
Corey’s work, then, should serve as a sharp corrective to the mechanistic economics which is always implicit or explicit in theories of spontaneity. In his approach to economics, Corey understands Marx as Lenin understood him.
The Marxian exposition of the significance of changes in the composition of capital takes on added significance as Corey utilizes the statistics collected by conservatives and government agencies. The theory of the falling rate of profit has never to my knowledge before received such statistical demonstration and yet been handled with such a frank, recognition of the difficulties involved.
Last updated on: 21 August 2015