The third volume of Capital is dangerous stuff. Just look at what happened to those who originally dealt with it.
Its posthumous publication, the personal project of Friedrich Engels, drove him to desperation—to illness and even, ultimately, to death. Originally a project slated to be finished in months, its compilation ended up lasting a decade. Engels descended into bizarre neuroses. He promised repeatedly that it would be finished in months, even as the years wore on. Unable to fathom Marx’s implications, he announced a ‘prize competition’ for the best solution of the transformation problem before the book’s publication. A range of Marxian and non-Marxian economists participated, including Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk. But the ‘competition’, in reality, was a call for help, Engels’s claim to a superior understanding of Marx’s theory a pretense, and there was little sign of a ‘prize’—all Engels awarded were vicious letters attacking the entrants for personal flaws.
Soon after the book finally appeared—and soon after Engels’s death—the Second International virtually annihilated itself. Eduard Bernstein and Karl Kautsky, the two men Engels had trusted enough to consider entrusting them to edit a fourth volume, exploded international Marxism in a dispute labelled the Revisionist Controversy that approached insanity in its viciousness (Kautsky declared he had lost ‘the last shred of sentimentality’, pronouncing, repeatedly, that he ‘hated Bernstein’; the leader of the German Social Democratic Party, August Bebel, thought Bernstein should ‘stew in Hell for his heresies’). So profound was the fear and loathing the fight generated among Social Democrats that ‘revisionist’ would echo for more than a century onwards as the slur of choice of official Marxism.
What exactly was going on?
There are some received readings of this chapter of intellectual history. One is that Marxism needed to accommodate itself to the unforeseen rise of a middle class that violently disrupted the niceties of socialist dogma up to that point. This is true enough of the socialist movement as a whole, but Marx himself had been comfortable with this phenomenon as a time-limited contingency of capitalist development: it had been Lassalle and Guesde, not Marx, who thought that capitalism enforced an ‘iron law of wages’ that inevitably made the majority of people poorer, all of the time. In view of the history of nineteenth-century development this was obvious nonsense, and Marx attacked them for the idea in the ‘Critique of the Gotha Programme’.
This very reference, however, suggests that something more going on. For a long time, after all, the leaders of the Social Democracy suppressed the ‘Critique’: it was treated as forbidden knowledge. What did they think was so scary about it?
The basic reason for this nineteenth- and early twentieth-century socialist neurosis is, I think, something more fundamental. Marx’s late works amount, in their intellectual direction, to an uncompromising rejection of socialism as a regulatory political project. In the ‘Critique’, he already mocks viciously the idea of the ‘sovereignty of the people’ and of redirecting state institutions to serve the working class:
After the Lassallean “iron law of wages”, the physic of the prophet. The way to it is “paved” in worthy fashion. In place of the existing class struggle appears a newspaper scribbler’s phrase: “the social question”, to the “solution” of which one “paves the way”. […] From the remnants of a sense of shame, “state aid” has been put—under the democratic control of the “toiling people”. […] One does not get a flea-hop nearer to the problem [of the transformation of the state] by a thousand-fold combination of the word ‘people’ with the word ‘state’.
Now, this part of the problem will not, conceptually, come as news to many Marxists. Marx is still insisting here on the future inevitability of a ‘revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat’, and of course Marx was not a utopian socialist—the transition to socialism is a social revolution, not a coup d’état! The state is an instrument of class domination, so of course a ‘democratic republic’ is nonsense! (We’re only left to wonder why so many Marxists continue to insist both on the need for formal democracy and on the tactic of the vanguard coup d’état.)
But Capital III, where humanist Marx has been forgotten and terminal Marx rules everything, takes the argument to its conclusion: the ‘revolutionary process of transformation of society’ is not being undertaken by well-meaning socialists like the Lassalleans in resistance to capitalism. The revolutionary process is capitalism itself. The ‘organisation of labour’ is simply a ‘cardinal fact of capitalist production’. In some delirious way, legitimate socialism is, radically, an identity with the evolutionary process of capitalism.
Put the question another way: Given his prior rejection of state-socialism as a political project, how does terminal Marx think we can end capitalism? In Capital III, this is where we truly enter the heart of darkness.
The explanation of the ‘law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall’ in this volume, a favourite bugbear of economists and in some ways the climax of the book, does not seem to offer much of a solution. In fact, at the grimmest points of its logic in Chapter 15, it seems to reject the idea of a solution as such. Before it gives way—if it gives way—capitalist production must fulfil its historical mission. It must overwhelm everything.
Let’s recall first of all that when Marx is talking about the ‘development of productivity’ or the ‘productive force of labour’ he is really talking about something very like mechanisation, the marginalisation of the human as an element in the production process. In technical Marx terms this is the rise of the organic composition of capital which causes the rate of profit to fall.
Marx’s voice speeds up into an insect buzz as he speaks:
The development of the productivity of labour creates out of the falling rate of profit a law which at a certain point comes into antagonistic conflict with this development and must be overcome constantly through crises…
… but it is overcome. In fact:
[Following each crisis], part of the capital, depreciated by its functional stagnation, would recover its old value. For the rest, the same vicious circle would be described once more under expanded conditions of production, with an expanded market and increased productive forces.
Capitalism tends towards exponentialism, growth begetting growth. But:
If the rate of profit falls … there appears swindling and a general promotion of swindling by recourse to frenzied ventures with new methods of production, new investments of capital, new adventures, all for the sake of securing a shred of extra profit which is independent of the general average and rises above it.
Capitalists, as the human motors of the concentration of capital, are driven insane. They are subjugated to the process. And as human labour on the other end of the scale is also subjugated to capital and humanity itself is sidelined more and more, pathologies result:
In the first place, too large a portion of the produced population is not really capable of working, and is through force of circumstances made dependent on exploiting the labour of others, or on labour which can pass under this name only under a miserable mode of production. In the second place, not enough means of production are produced to permit the employment of the entire able-bodied population under the most productive conditions, so that their absolute working period could be shortened by the mass and effectiveness of the constant capital employed during working-hours.
Now we reach the climax:
[Capital] becomes an alienated, independent, social power, which stands opposed to society as an object, and as an object that is the capitalist’s source of power. The contradiction between the general social power into which capital develops, on the one hand, and the private power of the individual capitalists over these social conditions of production, on the other, becomes ever more irreconcilable…
The cyberpunk circuitry of self-organizing planetary commoditronics escaped nominal bourgeois control in the late nineteenth century…
Marx’s whole analysis on this point, in fact, is accelerationist to the core. What Marx is saying is that if there is a postcapitalism, it consists precisely in the progressive divorcing of capital itself from capitalism as a human social formation. Two further conclusions result from this sequence of passages—and I admit this is a deliberately biased selection, and that it is worth reading the chapter in full—which ought to shake any ‘postcapitalist’ praxis to its foundations.
Firstly, the ‘contradictions’ of capitalism are precisely its strength as a productive force: crises are a way for capitalism to overcome the declining rate of profit, and this is not a sequence of decay where with each crisis capitalism becomes weaker and weaker but quite the opposite: it is a process of exponential expansion.
Secondly, the road to ‘postcapitalism’ is over the corpse of nonalienated humanity. Now this, precisely, is the root of Marx’s inhumanism, which he puts explicitly as a reading of Ricardo in this chapter:
It is [Ricardo’s] unconcern about “human beings” … which is held against him … and his having an eye solely for the development of the productive forces, whatever the cost in human beings and capital-values … [But] it is precisely that which is the important thing about him. Development of the productive forces of social labour is the historical task and justification of capital.