The Preconditions of Socialism: a Critical Review (viii)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 23/06/2018 - 10:59am in


history, Marxism

“The period of the first globalization is as fascinating as it was prodigiously inegalitarian”. Thomas Piketty (Capital in the 21st Century, 2014. Kindle Locations 595-597. Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition.)

We finally made it to Chapter 3 of Preconditions (2 of Evolutionary). As the review will now deal with statistical data, this post contains an unusually large number of links to resources freely available over the Internet. Although readers may find the task daunting, I’ll invite them to carefully check those links. I personally visited each and every single one of those pages, and in my opinion they are educative.

Eduard Bernstein composed and published Preconditions during the late 1890s. The largest national capitalist economies had been experiencing a period of overall prosperity, punctuated by the usual downturns. In some places that bonanza started as early as the 1870s; in the US it would extend well into the Roaring Twenties.

Although there are more evocative names, Thomas Piketty, in his Capital refers to those times in general with the more neutral-sounding, but very appropriate, “‘first globalisation’ of finance and trade (1870-1914)” (Kindle Location 594).

And it’s not coincidental that Piketty mentioned Bernstein three times: both deal with some of the same subjects and variables, using tax return data [maybe other authors before Bernstein had studied tax returns, but Preconditions is the earliest example I could find (p. 60) and the most unfortunate].

But the usefulness of Capital to assess Preconditions goes far beyond periodisation or noticing that Bernstein and Piketty studied similar data for Europe, roughly during the same period.

Consider the table below (extracted from Piketty’s table 7.2: “Inequality of capital ownership across time and space”):

                                 Very high
Share of different groups       Inequality
in total capital             (Europe 1910)
The top 10% "upper class"              90%
    Top 1%
    ("dominant class")                 50%
    Next 9%
    ("well-to-do class")               40%
The middle 40% ("middle class")         5%
The bottom 50% ("lower class")          5%

From that table, it’s evident that the “dominant class” owns 10 times more stuff (“capital”, in Piketty’s broader sense) than the “lower class”, but it’s only 1/50th the size of the latter (1% versus 50%).

That was indeed a prodigiously inegalitarian period: it wouldn’t be too inaccurate to say 90% of the population of 1910s Europe owned little more than the shirts on their backs. So much for Sidney Hook’s breathtakingly disingenuous “the poor were not becoming poorer and the rich, richer”: don’t be silly, Sid, the rich could hardly get any richer, nor the poor any poorer (more on this next time).

What is apparently less evident is that that means your run-of-the-mill “dominant class” person owns as much stuff as 500 “lower class”. But there’s more: the stuff that 1-percenter owned included plenty of things, all of them nice, to be sure; it also included the much more important means of production, which afforded them hegemony over society.

Dividing equally that 1-percenter’s wealth among the 50 “lower class” actually present in the economy would not only have raised the latter’s wealth holdings ten-fold, it, much more importantly, would have freed them from that hegemony.

One could extend that calculation to the following -- barely distinguishable -- 40% “middle class”: 90% of the population would have found themselves freed from wage slavery and their wealth holdings multiplied by a little over five times.

Whatever spin anti-Marxist agenda-pushers might want to put in the situation, at the very least between the late 1890s and the early 1910s Europe one wouldn’t have been too misguided to say with Marx and Engels:

“Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses, however, this distinct feature: it has simplified class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other — Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.”

Moreover, one could also consider the effect of re-distributing the property of the 9% “well-to-do class” immediately under the 1% “dominant class”.

This may sound obvious to us now, but could people back then have had such a clear perspective? In order to consider that question, we’ll leave for now Piketty and his data to retake that in the next post.

A reviewer attempting to assess Preconditions 119 years after its publication faces the risk of underestimating the state of knowledge and intellectual ability prevailing in 1899. It’s the kind of self-serving arrogance born out of ignorance one often observes in modern casual commentators.

Preconditions only reinforces that risk, as it astonishingly contains no reference whatsoever to previous work in the field of economic inequality and allied subjects.

Before a brief account of relevant 19th century investigations, a little explanation about historical British currency is required. Currently, the pound sterling (£) follows the same universal decimal pattern other currencies adopt; say, one and a half pounds is represented like this: £1.50. It wasn’t always written like that. Before decimalisation (in 1971) a pound was equivalent to 20 shillings (s) and a shilling to 12 pence (d): one and a half pounds, therefore, was  £1s10. If one were to add pence, prices would be written thus: £XsYdZ. (For more details on that, wages and cost of living)

An early fledgling contribution to this literature is the pamphlet The Bitter Cry of Outcast London. Co-authored by the reverend Andrew Mearns and William Carnall Preston that exposé was published in 1883 (the same year Karl Marx died) and caused a bit of a sensation:

“Women, for the work of trousers finishing (i.e., sewing in linings, making button-holes and stitching on the buttons) receive 2½d. a pair, and have to find their own thread. We ask a woman who is making tweed trousers, how much she can earn in a day, and are told one shilling. But what does a day mean to this poor soul? Seventeen hours! From five in the morning to ten at night—no pause for meals. She eats her crust and drinks a little tea as she works, making in very truth, with her needle and thread, not her living only, but her shroud.”

More substantial contributions followed, such that by the late 1890s much information was available in Britain. Interested and impartial readers would have been able to suspect that Marxist predictions were much closer to the mark than a superficial examination would lead us moderns to believe.

The first and more rigorous contribution I’ll mention here came from a source ideologically acceptable to anti-Marxist critics, acting with the best of motivations: Charles J. Booth, a Liberal business man who gradually moved towards Toryism. It took the shape of two volumes: Life and Labour of the People, 1st ed., Vol. I and Labour and Life of the People, 1st ed., Vol II,  published in 1889 and 1891, respectively (although the Internet Archive provides files corresponding to this work, I found it impossible to assemble a list of links to a single edition).

Booth assembled, led and presumably funded a team to conduct what turned out to be pioneering sociological research. Apparently a claim made by Henry Hyndman (another wealthy business man and an Oxford graduate who became an early populariser of Marxism in Britain and founder of the first British socialist party) in the Pall Mall Gazette in 1885 angered him. Hyndman, the story goes, wrote that 25% of the East London population lived in abject poverty.

Booth set out to disprove Hyndman’s inconvenient and obviously wrong claim and disprove him he did: according to his own results, it was 35%, not the 25% Hyndman claimed, that lived in abject poverty. Remarkably and much to my surprise, Booth did not hide his own findings. This is a sample of his cartographic output:

“Poverty map of Old Nichol slum, 1889
(black indicates the lowest class…
occasional labourers, street sellers,
loafers, criminals and semi-criminals”)(Source)
Two things make this omission particularly curious. First: Over the years that report would be re-published, increasing in size up to 17 volumes, becoming very influential. Second: In Chapter 4 of Preconditions (3 of Evolutionary) Bernstein praised Beatrice Webb (née Potter) by name; she was a cousin of Booth, a member of his team and a leading Fabian socialist.

Another early British contribution was John A. Hobson’s 1889 Problems of Poverty: An Inquiry into the Industrial Condition of the Poor. Considering an aggregate national income for 1889 of £1.75 billion and estimating as 6.9 million the number of families in Britain, Hobson estimated the yearly average income per family as close to £182. However, given that only 37% of the aggregate national income went to wages, the yearly average wage income per family was only £94 (36s a week).

This establishes a first cause of income inequality, but does not account for the whole range of it: according to Booth’s study, which Hobson references, 35% of the 891,539 inhabitants of East London earned less than 21s a week: 2/3 of the average weekly wage income. Moreover, he adds, actual wages were highly volatile: no work, no wages. (Against what modern petty bourgeois intellectuals parrot as modern characteristics of “neoliberalism”, the casualisation of work, the gig economy, the free-lancer, are not modern things.)

From the other at the time more egalitarian side of the Atlantic came American journalist Jacob Riis’ 1890 How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York. As we’ve seen, it’s a very appropriately titled book (downloadable with low resolution images, online with higher resolution images).

A former inhabitant of the slums of New York, Riis’ own research was more scholarly modest than Booth’s, but, being among the first to collect photographic evidence, still managed to be innovative:

Bottle Alley, New York. Circa 1890 [A]

Lodgers in a Crowded Bayard Street Tenement--'Five Cents a Spot'. Circa 1890. [B]

Those one sees there belong in Piketty’s  50% “lower class”: there’s a difference between the clinical appearance of statistical data and the human reality they are supposed to reflect, uh?

A couple of years after Preconditions was published, the industrialist curiously named B. Seebohm Rowntree published Poverty, a Study of Town Life, focused on York, seemingly following Booth’s methodology: his team visited over 11 thousand families (about 47 K individuals), and his results largely confirm Booth’s (incidentally, given that economists seem to have difficulties understanding the concept: that’s what replication means), extending his results to other large cities. At the time, the usual Very Serious People, unable to refute Booth’s distasteful findings in toto, were claiming they applied to London, only. You know, the usual haggling that one sees among academics nowadays.

There was transatlantic cross-pollination too: Riis created a precedent in the kind of close-quarters, low-budget, research. In the summer of 1902 American writer and journalist Jack London visited the East End of London. The result was the book-length report The People of the Abyss. He went a step beyond Riis, and “embedded” himself in the medium he was studying. I suppose one could call that an ethnographic study, serving as precedent to George Orwell’s own The Road to Wigan Pier three decades later:

“From the slimy, spittle-drenched, sidewalk, they were picking up bits of orange peel, apple skin, and grape stems, and, they were eating them.  The pits of greengage plums they cracked between their teeth for the kernels inside.  They picked up stray bits of bread the size of peas, apple cores so black and dirty one would not take them to be apple cores, and these things these two men took into their mouths, and chewed them, and swallowed them; and this, between six and seven o’clock in the evening of August 20, year of our Lord 1902, in the heart of the greatest, wealthiest, and most powerful empire the world has ever seen.”

It’s worth reminding readers that all that literature was available in English to Bernstein, as it is available nowadays to anyone willing to search for it. That doesn’t mean the situation depicted was exclusive of Britain or of the English-speaking countries. It seems at the time there was a similar literature in German. As my German is not up to scratch, however, what I searched for was only what was partially translated into English. I hope this limitation may be forgiven, given that Preconditions was originally written while Bernstein lived in Britain.

This is what I found. Take for instance the phenomenon of strangers sharing not only the same room, but often the same bed, as seen in the second photo. All those English language publications mention it. Well, these data are from Wilhelmine Germany:

Breslau (1896): How many people
room tenants shared beds with?

bed-mates     tenants     %
        0       3,291  25.0
        1       8,428  64.1
        2       1,305   9.9
        3         104   0.8
        4          26   0.2
Total          13,154 100.0

Quoted from Hans Kurella, "Wohnung und Häuslichkeit" ["Dwelling and Domesticity“], Neue Deutsche Rundschau 10 (1899), pp. 816-19 (Source)

Scenes like this from Berlin's Liegnitzer Strasse (1910) look less depressing, as those sharing the smaller room appear to be members of the same family of three, but they had no internal plumbing or sanitation, exactly as in the English case (unfortunately, I can only link to the photos, as they are copyrighted).

And lack of plumbing and sewage were behind a seemingly biblical proportions epidemics in Hamburg in the early 1890s. By 1890 the population of that city was 323,923. A couple of years later, in 1892, cholera struck and 160,000 inhabitants were affected. “More than half died”, believe it or not. (That website offers a lot to the interested reader.)

One may understand modern bloviators ignoring that literature: it’s old. It’s beyond whatever it is they actually know. They would need to search for it and, whatt’s much worse, read it. Their laziness is harder to excuse, but perhaps one should learn to live with that.

It seems a lot harder to understand or forgive that in Bernstein. In his memoirs of exile Bernstein described his “life and work in Zürich”. Read that. He was too busy with life to be able to do much work.

To close this post just a reference to two slightly more recent works. One is Liberal MP L.G. Chiozza Money's Riches and Poverty. Originally published in 1905, it's fourth and cheaper edition (1908) is available from the Internet Archive. The other is the 1909 anonymous pamphlet The Case for the Labour Party, with a foreword by J. Keir Hardie, also available from the Internet Archive.

Both contain a wealth of data relevant to assess the Edwardian era.

Image Credits:
[A] Bottle Alley, New York. Circa 1890. Author: Jacob Riis. Source: Wikimedia. Image in the public domain.

[B] Lodgers in a Crowded Bayard Street Tenement--'Five Cents a Spot'. Circa 1890. Author: Jacob Riis. Source: Wikimedia. Image in the public domain.

The Preconditions of Socialism: a Critical Review (vii)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 16/06/2018 - 7:11am in


history, Marxism

“There are few writers or thinkers in history whose every word and grunt has been examined by hostile critics so minutely as Marx’s has”. Hal Draper.

The usual reference Marxists give those asking about “historical materialism” (aka the “materialist conception of history”) is Marx’s 1859 Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (example 1, example 2). If readers downloaded and printed it from the Marxists Internet Archive, depending on their printer settings, they’d get something like this:

Right-click to open a larger version in a different tab.
At least two things explain the Preface’s popularity.

For one, it’s a concise document: 1,977 words including title, source, footnote and hyperlinks. Remove that and other “accessories”, and what’s left (highlighted above) contains the exposition proper: 411 words. To put that in perspective: so far the Marx and Engels Collected Works (note well: collected, not complete) spans 50 thick volumes, at least 600 pages each.

For another, because, for all of Marx’s fame as a hard-to-read writer, it’s fairly straightforward: skeptic readers are invited to judge that by themselves.

There is another reason, however, to bring that document to the readers’ attention, after twice doing that last time. In Chapter 1 of Preconditions and Evolutionary (§ a and b) Eduard Bernstein discusses it. He understands its central role for Marxism and he is determined to inflict the maximum damage: “In principle, Marxism stands or falls with this theory” (p. 12). It’s a high-value target, one would say these days.

The trouble, from his perspective, is that, being such a well-known document, the Preface is also very hard to mess with, unlike the Circular Letter of 1879.

But Bernstein is ambitious, if nothing else.

As discussed in the previous post, in § a, after calling it “preliminary work” Bernstein uses the Preface to promote Marxism to pure science: Naturwissenschaft-like, Marxism is subject to the same precision requirements of a natural science, in accordance to Bernstein’s positivism.

In § b, which we’ll comment on here, Bernstein includes four quotes from it. Beginning in page 13 of Preconditions he discussed the 210 words that appear highlighted below:

Right-click to open a larger version in a different tab.
Compare that with the first illustration. Readers may be wondering about the green bit. We’ll see that soon.

Bernstein remarks on the “apodictic” (which Harvey inaccurately rendered as “dogmatic” in Evolutionary) wording of those 4 fragments in yellow. One may say, following Tudor (p. xxiv), that by that Bernstein meant those passages looked deterministic: because of them, Bernstein claims, Marxism produces precise outcomes much like Newtonian mechanics which, given initial velocities, accelerations, masses and directions, predicts, determines precisely how two billiard balls will move once one hits the other, for example.

One, of course, needs to guess what Bernstein had in his eccentric mind, but if that’s how he interpreted Marxism then he chose the wrong document to quote from. The way he found to mould the document’s content to match his “understanding” of it was to ignore the green passage. He just omitted it. In its place, ellipsis. As in the case of the Circular Letter of 1879, whatever is written there, Bernstein is not interested.

But I am. So, I reproduce it here:

“In studying such transformations it is always necessary to distinguish between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production, which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out.”

That explicitly contradicts Bernstein’s naturalistic interpretation of Marxism: “ideological forms”, in short, cannot “be determined with the precision of natural science”.

Considered in isolation, readers could oppose, that omission might be a gross oversight, but by itself is no conclusive proof of dishonesty: maybe Bernstein missed it. He could just have been careless.

But one doesn’t need to consider it in isolation. For one, because that’s not the first strategic omission Bernstein perpetrates (it isn’t the last either). For another because, in a stunningly boneheaded move, Bernstein admitted he did that intentionally.

Being such a well-known document, that “omission” would not have gone unnoticed (as the omission of the Circular Letter did). For once Bernstein was capable of anticipating an obvious objection; to pre-empt it he writes that that passage was “omitted here as immaterial” (rendered in Evolutionary as “omitted here as of secondary consideration”). His answer, however, makes things worse: he left it out intentionally; his excuse is that it was “immaterial” (Was Tudor showing a subtle sense of humour?)

Let’s be clear: He chose those 411 words, nobody forced him. He further reduced that to 210 words. A passage from the Preface he alternatively disqualified (“preliminary”) and praised contradicts his critique of historical materialism and that’s immaterial!? One must give Bernstein something: few could make that shit up.

He acknowledges the green passage is there and intentionally leaves it out? That passage, Bernstein alleges, was material only during “social revolutions”. Why? Beats me. For the second time I invite readers to re-read it. One is left to speculate that Bernstein is trying to shove down one’s throat his own deliberately deformed interpretation of historical materialism: ideological forms, Bernstein wants his readers to believe, fall out of the blue entire (or at least only become relevant) during social revolutions. Before that, in his rendition, there were no ideological forms: no laws, no political institutions, religions, art or philosophy.

But that’s not what’s written in that Preface.

Now, readers sympathetic to Bernstein may automatically discount my opinion, for I’m a Marxist. Pushed to justify that, they may claim I’m not giving him the goodwill, intelligence and cooperation he is entitled to. In other words, I’d be wrong to deny him what he was right to deny Marx, yes?

Well, rest easy, dear readers, because I can quote Schumpeter, a man who had little love for socialism and whose book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy featured in a previous post:

“It [Bernstein’s critique] would have been unbearable even if Bernstein had been incontestably right on every point, for creeds embodied in an organization cannot be reformed by means of holocausts. But he was not. He was an excellent man but he was not Marx’s intellectual peer. We have seen in Part I that he went too far in the matter of the economic interpretation of history which he can hardly have fully understood.” (p. 347)

But there’s more. That’s not the only place in § b (in fact, in the same page 13 of Preconditions), where Bernstein shuts his eyes, covers his ears with his hands, and recites frantically “happy thoughts, happy thoughts, happy thoughts” when something contradicts his straw man account of historical materialism.

I deliberately kept another example from the second “printout” above, to leave it as an exercise to the readers (Hint: Look for the two instances of the string “more slowly or more quickly”; “sooner or later” in Preconditions. Think now about what it means for Bernstein’s claim that Marxism makes precise predictions and how he deals with it).

There was a reason I said the man was no garden-variety liar, he was an inept liar. If the Preface didn’t suit his critique, he should have avoided it like the plague.

Retaking the metaphor of Preconditions as criminal trial: with the rope firmly placed around his neck, Tom Robinson hasn’t yet been told what’s the crime his been accused of. As evidence of some kind of unspecified crime, Bernstein, the prosecutor, brings the Preface as written confession.

Marxism, Bernstein contends, promises precise predictions, much like those of physics.

The problem is, the Preface does not say that. The places where the Preface explicitly contradicts Bernstein’s intentional misinterpretation of historical materialism, he wants readers to ignore as immaterial!

In Bernstein’s scheme only one thing remains: to prove beyond reasonable doubt Marxism failed to deliver its promise. That’s what his empirical argument is meant to do. That much even ill-faith critics like Sidney Hook would be ready to accept.

Mail Spikes Story about German Anti-Nazi Tennis Champ to Save Embarrassing Its Chiefs’ Grandfathers

This is another piece from Private Eye, which shows you once again how grotty the Daily Mail and its sister paper, the Mail on Sunday are, and their historic links with Fascism and anti-Semitism.

Paul Dacre, the editor of the Daily Mail, resigned last week to start a new job elsewhere in the company. He was succeeded by Geordie Grieg, who was previously the editor of the Mail on Sunday. This fortnight’s Private Eye for 15th-28th June 2018 therefore carried a special, two-page article paying suitable tribute to him and his editorship of the rag, on pages 8 and 9. On page 9, in the section ‘Good Sports Finally Agree’, the Eye describes how both Dacre and Grieg spiked a story about a 1930s German tennis player, Baron Gottfried von Cramm. Von Cramm was an opponent of the Nazis, and was imprisoned by them for having a gay affair. The Mail was considering running a story about this courageous and principled man, up to the point when one of its staff noticed a few lines in the article describing how he had been banned from participating in the 1939 Wimbledon tournament by the All England Club. One of those pushing for the ban was Harold, the first Viscount Rothermere. And so to avoid embarrassing the current Viscount Rothermre, the piece was spiked.

The story was then picked up the Mail on Sunday, which was also considering publishing it, until a hack dug up another connection between events then and the MoS’ editor. It turns out that the president of the All-England Club at the time von Cramm was banned was one Louis Grieg, Geordie Grieg’s grandfather. Who was also a member of Oswald Mosley’s January Club. And so the story was spiked again. This sorry tale was revealed, according to the Eye, in the ‘Mandrake’ column of the New European.

The Mail is infamous for the backing it gave Oswald Mosley’s legions with the headline ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts’. One of the great left-wing bloggers, I think it was Tom Pride at Pride’s Purge, a few years ago posted up the various headlines and articles the paper had run in the 1930s raving about Adolf Hitler, the Nazis, Mosley and fulminating against Jewish immigration. This was after the Mail did a hatchet piece on Ed Miliband, the then head of the Labour party, which attacked him through his father. The article was headlined ‘The Man Who Hated Britain’, and sought to portray Ralph Miliband, a Jewish Belgian immigrant and an important Marxist thinker, as someone who despised his adopted country. Well, he certainly despised its class institutions, like the public schools and monarchy, but as Tom Pride’s piece revealed, Miliband senior did his patriotic duty like millions of other people, and served in the army fighting the Nazis.

This was in sharp contrast to Dacre’s father or grandfather, I can’t remember which, who spent the war as a showbiz or society correspondent. So, more hypocrisy from the Mail. This won’t surprise anyone, as the Mail’s always been hypocritical in its nasty attitudes.

With all these murky little family secrets about their predecessors’ extreme right-wing views, the editors of the Mail and Mail on Sunday have got no business libelling anyone on the Left as anti-Semites or Holocaust Deniers.

The Preconditions of Socialism: a Critical Review (vi)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 09/06/2018 - 5:26am in


history, Marxism

“When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” Humpty Dumpty.

There’s a way to see Preconditions (or Evolutionary) that should help understand Eduard Bernstein’s argument: what goes where and why.

Imagine you are in Maycomb, Alabama. It’s the 1930s.

Preconditions is a criminal trial, with Marxism as defendant. The defendant can’t speak for itself; if it had defence attorneys things wouldn’t be so bad. Alas, commentators like Matt and Noah Smith don’t acknowledge its right to one. There’s a Tom Robinson in this movie, but no Atticus Finch.

Bernstein is the self-appointed judge, jury, and executioner, and -- Bernstein’s rhetoric and Matt’s convenient imprecision aside -- a hostile one at that. Judge Taylor, district attorney Gilmer, Mr. Cunningham, and Bob Ewell all rolled into one. But he is more: he is also the lawmaker. His 3 pages of home-brewed philosophy of science are the Law (pp. 9-12).

That’s what he gives his readers in P1§a (E1§a). Given the lack of bibliographic references, one must presume his Law is either (i) composed of abstract universal truths deduced from self-evident abstract axioms, which he never bothered to enunciate, (ii) the result of his original professional work in the philosophy of science, or (iii) Divine Revelation. Take your pick.

His mother tongue being German, one would have thought Bernstein was familiar with the use of the adjective “wissenschaftliche”. One would have been mistaken; either that or he had many words -- the best, in fact -- and they meant whatever he says they meant.

So, out of its several legitimate connotations (scientific, academic, scholarly, learned) Bernstein chose “scientific” as in Naturwissenschaften (noun, plural: natural sciences -- physics, chemistry, biology), the one least defensible for “wissenschaftliche Sozialismus”, no matter what Marxists mean by it.

I suspect Bernstein was not a believer in giving any “good will, intelligence, and cooperation”. Funny that, uh?

At any rate, one would have thought as well that “wissenschaftliche” as in Wirtschaftswissenschaft (singular, economics) or as in Sozialwissenschaften (plural, social sciences) would have been more appropriate; and that if one had to apply to “wissenschaftliche Sozialismus” the same criteria one applies to the natural sciences, then one would have to apply those criteria to Law, Linguistics or even Translation (all Wissenschaften).

In effect, the same criteria would apply to mainstream economics, yes? (Somehow I imagine my illustrious anti-Marxist readers suddenly having second thoughts).

Any way, Bernstein deploys his abstract, one-size-fits-all Law, universally applicable forever to all of science and scholarly fields, against Marxism. His account of science is naturalistic and he is a positivist: what he calls Science, in abstract, is in actuality Naturwissenschaft and Marxism must satisfy those criteria he dictated for Science. His immediate target is historical materialism.

Nineteenth century high school education, it appears, could put to shame contemporary tertiary and post- tertiary education, at least judging by Bernstein, a former banking clerk with a high school diploma.

Science, he adds, has a pure and an applied part. Agricultural chemistry and electrical technology (p. 10) are instances of pure sciences (?), or so his readers are told.

Applied and pure science differ. A given failing which in the applied part of science is an infraction or misdemeanor, in the pure part is a most grievous felony. In the former you get a fine, community service or mandatory medical treatment, in the latter you’ll hang. Think of defences based on the defendant being underage (or mentally incompetent).

His own rules in place, now Bernstein painted himself into a corner, to his readers’ utter astonishment: “A systematic extraction of the pure science of Marxist socialism from its applied part has not so far been attempted, although there is no lack of important preliminary work for it”, he writes (p. 10).

Marxism, then, only exists in its applied part. There’s no pure science of Marxism.

Well, then, if that’s the case, Marxism’s offences are infractions or misdemeanors, not felonies. But Bernstein wants the death sentence: “In principle, Marxism stands or falls with this theory” (p. 12). That’s not my interpretation. Tudor noticed that: “He went out of his way to reject this strategy.” (p. xxiii-xxiv). Tom Robinson’s got to hang.

You see the predicament Bernstein created for himself, don’t you?

Personally, I find it hard to explain that on rational grounds. Sure, I can understand Bernstein’s desire to say Marxism is only an applied science: he means that Marxism (Marxists, by extension) is “mentally incompetent” or “infantile”. “Half-baked” or “SNAFU” are similar although cruder descriptions Bernstein’s American contemporary peers enjoy (you don’t expect finesse from petty bourgeois Americans, do you?). It’s a display of their dominance over the great unwashed: cheap shots get them their kicks. Keeping in mind the different proportions and circumstances, sadistic criminals are known to enjoy taunting their victims.

What I can’t understand is the overwhelming compulsion of a cheap shot even if it derails one’s whole case, which is precisely what Bernstein did in the first 3 (yes, three) pages of his argument. (At this point I think I would have been justified in berating Bernstein. That’s exactly what I had done. Yet, I changed my mind and had to edit what I had already written: there's something pitiful in that man.)

To try and square the circle, Bernstein starts with a back-handed compliment:

“In the preface [to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1859)] just mentioned, Marx presents the general features of his philosophy of history or society in propositions so concise, definite, and free of all reference to particular forms and phenomena that nowhere else has it been done with equal clarity. No essential thought in Marx's philosophy of history is omitted.”

In the following paragraph, in the same page, moments after claiming that no systematic extraction of the pure science of Marxism had been attempted, Bernstein promotes that Preface (which moments earlier was “preliminary”) to the systematic extraction he needed: “the [Preface’s] exposition remains sufficiently general to qualify for the pure science of Marxism. This is also warranted, and required, by the fact that Marxism purports to be more than an abstract theory of history.”

That was the first line in the sand (brace yourselves: Preconditions doesn’t get any better). With that Bernstein promotes Marxism, from applied to pure science: it took no oven to get Marxism fully baked, Bernstein’s feverish mind was enough.

Incidentally, my metaphors may or not be good; my style no doubt idiosyncratic. The ideas expressed aren’t. Like I said, Tudor noticed that. So did Luxemburg.

In Bernstein’s kangaroo court, Tom Robinson was facing the death sentence before being charged with a crime. Sobering, uh?

Before moving on, a summary is in order:

  1. Bernstein intentionally chose the most indefensible understanding of “wissenschaftliche Sozialismus”.
  2. In spite of operating under the rules he himself pulled out of his own ass, a wholesale rejection of Marxism was still unwarranted.
  3. He moves the goal post; he re-draws the line in the sand.

When I use the term “argumental pirouettes” I refer to messes like that.

Rees Mogg Senior’s Support of Pinochet’s Fascist Coup in Chile

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the rising Tory star and archaic ‘minister for the 18th century’, as he’s been dubbed, last week seemed to show very clearly the extent of his ambitions. He bought a townhouse overlooking Downing Street. Despite his denials that this showed his intention of occupying No. 10, everyone else took it as a clear sign that he very definitely does have his sights on becoming Prime Minister.

Rees-Mogg is a true-blue Tory aristo, who began his career by campaigning to keep the unreformed, and unelected House of Lords. He has consistently voted to increase spending, tax cuts and other privileges for the rich, and to cut and deny state aid, welfare benefits and spending on the poor, the unemployed and the disabled. He has a vast income provided by his investment firms. And he’s also the son of William Rees-Mogg, the former editor of the Times and later columnist for the Independent.

I found this passage quoting and commenting on a piece Rees-Mogg senior wrote at the time, welcoming the Fascist coup by General Pinochet which overthrew Salvador Allende, in Colin Sparks’ article, ‘The Media and the State’ in James Curran, Jake Ecclestone, Giles Oakley and Alan Richardson, eds., Bending Reality: The State of the Media (London: Pluto Press 1986). Allende was a democratically elected Marxist, who enraged his country’s ruling elite by wishing to expropriate land from their estates to give to the peasants. He was also a danger to the American-led global campaign against Communism, simply because his regime had taken power through popular elections. It contradicted the view that Communism could only gain power through very undemocratic means, like revolutions and coups. And so the CIA backed Pinochet’s coup against Allende, which plunged the country into a brutal Fascist dictatorship that lasted from c. 1974 to the early 1990s.

Before quoting Rees-Mogg senior, Sparks also describes how the elite will try to bring down any government genuinely trying to create a more democratic, equal society, and eliminate poverty using ideological as well as other weapons, one of which will be the establishment press. He writes

Any government which seeks to get rid of poverty and inequality will come up against the opposition of those whose life has been built upon the fruits of poverty and inequality. Any government which seeks to establish democracy as the common norm for the conduct of human affairs will come up against the opposition of those whose whole life has been built upon the exercise of irresponsible and unaccountable power. The people who run the state, the media, industry and the banks will not just let us get on with changing the world because a temporary majority in the House of Commons tells them to. They will fight us with ideas and with weapons. It was, after all, that organ of ruling class opinion, the Times, then edited by the shameless Rees Mogg, that welcomed the bloody overthrow of Salvador Allende and the Chilean government with the words:

The failure of the Presidency of Allende was also a tragedy for Chile herself, not because the coup put an end to a government which never had a majority either in the country or in congress, but because it marks the end of a long period during which Chile’s peaceful and democratic political traditions were the envy of her neighbours. To apportion blame for this is no easy matter. Many Chileans will argue that the Unidad Popular government had itself made the coup inevitable by its hopeless mismanagement of the economy leading to a breakdown in public order, and at the same time had provided justification for it by its own unconstitutional acts. On the whole this would be our judgement; there is a limit to the ruin a country can be expected to tolerate…
At this state what a foreign commentator can say is that, whether or not the armed forces were right to do what they have done, the circumstances were such that a reasonable man could in good faith have thought it his constitutional duty to intervene.

No doubt Rees Mogg had discussed just such ‘circumstances’ with ‘reasonable military men’ at Pirbright and Aldershot. (Pp. 94-5).

The last sentence presumably refers to the attempts various members of the elite, including the Times and the then editor of the Mirror, to organise a coup in Britain against Harold Wilson’s minority Labour government in 1975. If this had gone ahead, the result would have been the mass internment, not just of MPs, but also of other political activists and journalists. The proposed location for their imprisonment was either in the Shetland Isles or the Hebrides. Ken Livingstone discusses this in his 1987 book, Livingstone’s Labour, as does Francis Wheen in his book about 70’s paranoia, Strange Days. As for Pinochet’s coup, this resulted in the mass imprisonment, rape, torture and execution of 40,000-60,000 people. Parents imprisoned and murdered by the Fascists had their children taken away, to be raised instead by members of Pinochet’s Fascists, who were childless.

And Sparks is absolutely right when he states that those, whose power and social position is built on poverty and inequality will try to bring down those governments trying to end it. The Conservatives’ entire economic strategy, and that of the ruling elites they represent, is based on increasing poverty through austerity, welfare cuts, the privatisation of the NHS, and the creation of insecure, low paid work with little, if anything, in the way of workers’ rights like pensions or sick pay. And he’s also right about the way the same elite uses the press in this. We’ve seen the way the British press and media has consistently vilified Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters as everything from Trotskyites and misogynists to anti-Semites, in order to prevent a genuinely reforming Labour government coming to power.

And the quotation from Rees-Mogg senior also shows how Jacob Rees-Mogg turned out the way he is. He’s the child of privilege, whose family owed its position to inherited wealth and inequality, and whose father dutifully supported the same establishment elite with his ideas and editorship of the Times. And Rees-Mogg senior’s approving comments about Pinochet’s coup also shows how easily other parts of the Tory party supported other Fascist thugs in Latin America. Like the Libertarian group, of which one Paul Staines, now Guido Fawkes, was a member, which invited the leader of one Central American death squad to be their guest of honour at their annual dinner.

The Preconditions of Socialism: a Critical Review (v)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 02/06/2018 - 8:09am in


history, Marxism

“For with what judgement ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.” (Matthew 7:2 KJV)

By now anti-Marxist readers (openly right-wing or reformists, it makes no difference) must have felt something of what Marxist readers of Preconditions felt in the late 1890s. What’s sauce for the goose, is sauce for the gander.

Unlike those Marxists, the more enterprising among anti-Marxists may even have discovered the trick I played them: unlike Bernstein, I explained it to them.

My impressionistic assessment of Preconditions is that it is what one would expect from a careerist who wanted an editorship job for which he was grossly underqualified. I intend to prove that beyond any reasonable doubt. Neither his mind nor his heart were on intellectual pursuits. His real talent was as a social climber. 

This has implications for us living more than one hundred years after that book was published: there’s no dearth of intellectually mediocre careerists in our own times. Take economists, within and without the mainstream, for instance: many seem to fit that profile to a T, yes?

Two different routes lead to conclude Preconditions is little more than a hoax.

It’s easier if one doesn’t lose sight of the forest for the trees. In that case, Austin F. Harrison’s assessment, ironically enough, already suggests it:

“Bernstein attacked the ‘surplus-value’ theory— though he admitted that its basis was, in the main, correct, even if the theory were in itself untenable.” (pp. 128-9)

Harrison -- and those illustrious anti-Marxists who joined Bernstein -- was evidently unaware of the question that deeply contradictory statement raises, so let me spell it out for them: if Marx’s law of value was “in the main, correct”, as Bernstein himself admitted, why was it “untenable”?

I cannot blame readers if that perplexes them. Petty bourgeois intellectuals like to claim their strict adherence to objective science: the correctness of a theory is what, the argument goes, justifies its tenability. Well, that evidently did not work for Bernstein or Harrison.

A way, the only one I can think of, to understand that is that the problem Bernstein and Harrison saw in Marxism is not its theoretical untenability but its political unpalatability.

They are not alone in that appraisal.

Faced with the contradiction “in the main, correct” (A) versus “untenable” [not(A)], a reformist social democrat with little skin in the political game, like Thorstein Veblen, was free to choose A. In the same situation, a reformist social democrat deeply committed to a centre-right political agenda (much like Bernstein), like Sidney Hook, chose to peddle not(A): thus his magnifying the reach of Bernstein’s attempt.

Based on Preconditions readers can pick and choose whatever is congenial to them, exactly like Veblen and Hook did, discarding what they don’t like. Last time we’ve pinpointed some of those contradictions in Preconditions. By itself, that should be more than enough to justify a poor review of Preconditions.

Joseph Schumpeter didn’t have the hindsight we have, but I suspect he shouldn’t have had much difficulty extending his views of Bernstein (“he was no profound thinker and especially no theorist”) to Bernstein’s work.

But I want to follow a harder path: to examine the trees, not just the forest. This requires an explanation.

Terrible Preconditions may be, that doesn’t make it unimportant for intellectually lazy bloviators, like Matt or Noah Smith (and frankly, a large majority of the petty bourgeois intelligentsia).

What matters to them is not whatever passes for reasoning in Preconditions (I’d say the anti-Marxist literature, in general, but I’ll limit myself to Preconditions) is its conclusion, which they recite as mantra: dump Marxism. Their fondness for the word dogma sounds suspiciously like Freudian slip.

That precisely should make it a target for socialists. But not for the reason readers might think.

No amount of reasoning, no matter how rigorous and humble and respectful, will ever change their attitude: reason is futile. As Upton Sinclair remarked: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it”. One might as well get things out of one’s chest and burn the bridge: Marx and Engels were right, there’s no dialogue, let alone common cause, with those people. They are as much the enemy as the capitalists themselves.

Let me put that visually. A salary of US$ 180K a year, not uncommon among the top tenured academics in US universities, may not qualify one as a genuine mover and shaker, but it still puts one comfortably within the top 10% of the US population by income. There is a long way to go to reach the two right-most bars in the chart below, but even from the middling locations those academics occupy everything starts looking distastefully far left.

Top jobs, too, have their social and psychological perks: the ability to command the public’s respect and admiration, for instance. One may even come to the friendly attention of real masters of the universe. Gratitude about the present and (questionable) optimism about the future may do wonders …

Worse still: to remind them that they are there because we produce so that they enjoy the product of our effort is a non-starter.

Zach Carter recently wrote that “the job, in other words, is to back up your team.” He was talking specifically about economists; but there are, evidently, many team players.

At any event, if you were in their shoes, wouldn’t you hate to lose all that and find yourself suddenly a member of the hoi polloi?

As socialists, therefore, we shouldn’t waste our time and effort attempting to persuade them: after years of giving him his guidance and friendship, Engels failed miserably with Bernstein. Let’s be blunt, Bebel tried bribing him into compliance, humiliating himself, the SPD, and the working class in the process. He also failed: every concession engendered a new demand, until one day it was the socialists who begged for concessions. When that day came, no concessions were made.

If we try, we’ll fail as well. If there is a lesson to draw from the Eduard Bernstein episode and its aftermath is this: there’s no alliance with those people.

My public, therefore, are the working class, the socialists, those who are still open to reason. It’s them who have something to learn from this episode.

Thus, my choice of the harder path. To carefully go through Preconditions presents little conceptual difficulty but is not the kind of thing one normally chooses to do in one’s spare time: the book is that bad. Hopefully, workers should find that instructive.

As I did last time with him, Bernstein selectively quotes from Marx and Engels. That’s one of his favourite techniques: to make two authors say whatever he wished them to say, whatever is most embarrassing to them and the positions they held. It’s not hard to pull that rabbit out of one’s hat. I quoted A: Bernstein admitted Marxism is “in the main, correct”. I did that with a clear conscience, because Bernstein was lying by concealing relevant information. I, on the other hand, did not create his contradictions, I only used them.

In effect, I’ve already demonstrated one case where Bernstein did that: he made no reference to the Circular Letter of September 1879 or to related previous correspondence, including letters Engels wrote him. But that’s not the only instance of that. I will tackle just another example in Chapter 1 of Preconditions and Evolutionary (§ b). It’s a critical one, astounding in its sheer clumsiness: the man wasn’t just a liar, he was inept too.

It’s not hard to understand the general gist of Bernstein’s argument (Marxism delenda est!); it’s much harder to understand what he was specifically trying to prove and why. Bernstein’s argumental pirouettes explain the mistaken interpretations of both Piketty and Hook: against their understandings and maybe even against his own understanding, Bernstein was actually arguing that Marx was wrong because the rich were getting richer: in Bernstein’s expert opinion there were too many rich for Marx to be right. If I am right, Bernstein rightfully deserves a place next to W. Nassau Senior in the compilation of human stupidity we call economics.

Strictly speaking I didn’t have to discover those pirouettes. Henry Tudor did the heavy lifting for me:

“At this point we would have expected Bernstein to characterise the theory of the inevitable collapse of capitalism as part of Marx’s applied science. This would have enabled him to reject the theory as having been superseded by recent economic and social developments while still insisting that the principles of Marx’s pure science (the materialist conception of history, the theory of surplus value, etc.) remained intact. He could then have vindicated himself as a good Marxist by arguing that he rejected, not the principles of Marxism, but only the obsolete applications of those principles to particular cases. This, however, he did not do. Indeed, he went out of his way to reject this strategy and to insist that Marx’s general theory of capitalist development belonged squarely ‘in the domain of pure science’. So to reject this theory was to reject a fundamental principle of scientific socialism.” (p. xxiii-xxiv)

Tudor is referring to Bernstein’s “scholastic” argument in Chapter 1 (both Preconditions and Evolutionary), but another excellent example comes from those two mysterious paragraphs missing in E2§2. This will be the subject of two of my posts.

What Tudor calls going out of his way to reject Marxism, I call Bernstein’s hanging judge attitude: time and again, after a formulaic hand waving intended to provide a cloak of justification, Bernstein draws arbitrary lines in the sand to show that Marxism falls short.

And, for Hanging Judge, any transgression earns the death sentence. His case against Marxism is based on denying it his goodwill, intelligence and cooperation, the same goodwill, intelligence and cooperation his fellow petty bourgeois intellectuals demand for him and themselves.

There are many more problems in Preconditions: (1) Like Harrison, I also say that book is a mess; unlike Harrison, I don’t applaud that: Bernstein jumps back and forth in his argument, takes unexpected turns. (2) In an attempt to discredit Marxism by Hook or by crook (pun intended), he undermines his own argument (industrial concentration is not proceeding as predicted, but monopolies are a stabilising feature of enlightened capitalism?). (3) What’s a mortal sin for Marx is not worth a remark in his own thought (abstraction?). (4) He plays all sorts of word games, some of them cartoonish, intended to exasperate (abstraction, again). (5) He writes about subjects he has no claim of expertise whatsoever (mainstream economics and the philosophy of science, to name two), with such wrong-headed views that financialisation, another of the “stabilising” features in his new stable capitalism, is the only source of endogenous instability mainstream economists cannot deny.

Preconditions, in other words, is a target-rich environment. This can be a blessing for his critics; it can also be a curse. With a little patience, one could score many hits at Bernstein’s expenses. The term “overkill” never seemed this appropriate and tempting.

But that can’t be healthy (readers, too, may lack the stomach for that).

There’s much previous work to draw on: no point repeating what others did (I couldn’t locate Kautsky’s or Bebel’s replies). Luxemburg did an excellent job. Plekhanov debated both Bernstein and Schmidt on methodological issues (chiefly historical materialism). I still think the Marx and Engels 1879 Circular Letter is the best general reply to Bernstein’s 1899 Preconditions.

So, I’ll try a more strategic approach, instead: KISS. Given Bernstein’s positivism, which he shares with his fans, I’ll focus on his empirical analysis. That’s a point his Marxist critics, Luxemburg included, mostly neglected. To the best of my knowledge, only a forgotten British socialist, Jack Fitzgerald, made an effort to engage with it (but I think he made some mistakes and could have gone further).

Regrettably (and I do honestly regret this) I won’t be able to avoid Bernstein’s “scholastic” argument entirely: an attempt to do that risks leading us into the same trap Piketty seems to have fallen into.

I’ll need to show first Bernstein drawing his “lines in the sand”. As mentioned above, Tudor himself pointed to a very important example (pp. xxiii-xxiv), involving his “philosophy of science” (P1§a, E1§a), which we’ll develop.

That “philosophy of science” is the foundation of his critique of historical materialism; that, according to the table of contents, is the subject of P1§b E1§b. That critique, however, is scattered all over his book, more or less at random, so, after wasting his readers’ time and patience with Preconditions Chapter 2 (“Marxism and the Hegelian dialectic”), Bernstein returns to historical materialism in P3§b E2§b. It contains the example of selective quoting I mentioned above: it’s so clumsy it can be demonstrated graphically. It’s also immediately relevant to his empirical analysis.

Only after those two subjects are dealt with we will be able to consider Bernstein’s empirical analysis: P3§b-c E2§b-c.

Alt Right Leader Richard Spencer Admits to Not Caring About Free Speech

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sun, 27/05/2018 - 10:25pm in

In this video from Sam Seder’s Majority Report, Seder’s co-host, Michael Brooks and his team comment on a video conversation Richard Spencer had a few month’s ago with another Fascist on a now defunct Alt Right website. The other Fascist isn’t well known, so Brooks doesn’t give his name. But in the conversation between the two, Spencer states very clearly that they – the Alt Right – aren’t in favour of free speech, but it’s important that they appear to be.

Brooks states that his show is very much in favour of free speech, both ideologically and programmatically. He also talks about other American journalists, who are also genuine supporters of free speech from Marxist and genuinely liberal viewpoints, and who therefore give space on their shows to people of opposing opinions. But this never happens with the Alt Right, and its supporters like Dave Rubin and Bari Weiss. He also states that much of the Alt Right’s rhetoric about free speech is them trying to garner support for their legal suit against the Southern Poverty Law Centre for calling them a racist or adjacent racist organisation.

Brooks goes on to mention the comments about the way the rhetoric about free speech and its defence has become inverted, so that it actually discredits real free speech from the Yugoslavian philosopher, Slavoj Zizek. Zizek states that free speech is under attack all over Europe. And the problem, says Brooks, is that whenever you hear someone stating that they’re in favour of free speech, it’s always because they’re expressing a Fascist or a soft-Fascist viewpoint.

But if others describe them as Fascists and racists, this is not suppressing their free speech. This is simply the opponents of Fascism expressing their right to a free opinion. Free speech does not mean going easily on Fascists, and screw everyone else.

This is quite an important piece, because it exposes the Far Right’s claim to be defending free speech for the cynical charade it is. As Brooks and his team drily comment in the video, Fascists don’t believe in free speech. But they claim to support it as part of their propaganda campaign to promote themselves and spread hatred against those of other races and ethnicities. They claim to be telling the truth about Blacks, Jews and Muslims that the liberals in power, ‘cultural Marxists’ and the multiculturalists want to suppress. While at the same time they wish to deny their opponents the right to express their opinions freely. There are problems with race and free speech, as in some cases the censorship of individuals for having allegedly racist or otherwise bigoted opinions has gone too far, and moved far into the realm of subjectivity than objective fact. But this shows the danger on the other side, of the way the real Fascists and racists are trying to exploit genuine concerns about restrictions on free speech to promote their bigotry and prejudice, while cynically planning to destroy it when they get the opportunity.

The Preconditions of Socialism: a Critical Review (iv)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 26/05/2018 - 5:54am in


history, Marxism

“What’s sauce for the goose, is sauce for the gander”. English proverb, 17th century.

After the last post, I think I am in position to offer a general -- impressionistic, if you like -- assessment of Preconditions, for those readers less than vitally interested in details. A real attempt to decipher his argument must of necessity take more time.

As we saw with the two anonymous quotes in the previous post, something surprising about Preconditions is that, although those better disposed towards Bernstein seem to agree with the general statement “Bernstein disproved Marx’s predictions”, they often disagree among themselves about what those predictions he allegedly disproved were exactly (or, as we’ll see, what Bernstein thought his achievement was).

I recently noticed that in Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. Piketty writes, in passing, that Bernstein was outvoted at the 1899 SPD Hannover Conference because he “had the temerity to argue that wages were increasing” (Kindle Locations 3809-3812). That surprised me because, as explained in the previous post, P3§b/E2§b (where Bernstein presented his empirical argument) doesn’t argue that.

The fruit salad presented as data in Preconditions, sometimes unsourced or undated, refers not to the wages grunts earn, but to incomes of the wealthy: “business profits, higher official posts”, “incomes from land and real estate (annuities, ground rent), house rents, and taxable capital investments” (p. 60). That is when they refer to income flows: often they refer to wealth levels.

It is true that in E2§b Bernstein finally added a table including explicitly nominal proletarian incomes (less than £80 pounds a year) in Saxony in 1879 and 1894: 15 years apart. But even then, he says nothing about wages. In particular, he did not suggest real proletarian incomes increased, as he suggested happened to real incomes above proletarian levels.

One can dismiss that as a mistaken but inconsequential comment from Piketty: something peripheral to his own argument.

Things however, are more serious with Sidney Hook (the author of the second quote), for one should suppose he actually read carefully the book whose glowing introduction he wrote:

“Bernstein argued that the economic tendencies, upon which Marx predicated the collapse of capitalism, had not been fulfilled. The poor were not becoming poorer and the rich, richer. The doctrines of the increasing misery of the working class, the constant growth in size of the mass army of unemployed, the uninterrupted development of monopolies defying all social regulation, were not established by the facts. On the contrary, history had falsified them”. (p. xii)

Hook both adds and subtracts from Bernstein: either way, he misrepresents. Although I could go to great lengths to explain why that’s spectacularly wrong-headed, I’ll highlight but three things.

First. Upon noticing the bits I emphasised above, the astute reader, in touch with recent economic best-sellers, must have felt something sounds very wrong. But if he/she didn’t, don’t worry. In the near future, for once in this series, I’ll have a good time explaining that.

Second. Bernstein just does not argue either way about “the increasing misery of the working class” or “the mass army of the unemployed”, for instance. No argument, empirical or “scholastic”: nada. In the whole book there’s one reference to each. That’s it. He simply made no attempt to justify his views on those subjects.

Third. Against Hook’s “the uninterrupted development of monopolies defying all social regulation, were not established by the facts”, I’ll repeat Bernstein’s own answer:

“It is correct, above all, as a tendency. The forces described exist, and they operate in the given direction. And the processes are also taken from reality. The fall in the rate of profit is a fact, the occurrence of overproduction and crises is a fact, periodic destruction of capital is a fact, the concentration and centralisation of industrial capital is a fact, and the increase in the rate of surplus value is a fact. So far, the account remains, in principle, unshaken.”  (p. 57/E2§b)

Had we forgotten that already, Sidney?

How should one explain Hook’s spectacularly obtuse views? Mere reading disability or deliberate ignorance?

I’ll leave this preliminary assessment here. Readers can mull over that (comments, reactions, guesses, will be particularly welcome). I’ll retake this in the next post.

Solution to last week’s exercise.

This is the list of things Bernstein admitted are facts in E2§b, copied and pasted from that text:

  1. “The fall of the profit rate is a fact”.
  2. “The advent of over-production and crises is a fact”. 
  3. “Periodic diminution of capital is a fact”.
  4. “The concentration and centralisation of industrial capital is a fact”.
  5. “The increase of the rate of surplus value is a fact”.

This is what Bernstein wrote about value and surplus value in E2§a, third paragraph:

“In this way, as far as single commodities or a category of commodities comes into consideration, value loses every concrete quality and becomes a pure abstract concept. But what becomes of the surplus value under these circumstances?”

In Evolutionary it may take a little thinking, but if non-Marxist readers know the meaning of the word abstraction they shall understand that what is a fact in § b was a mere abstraction, speculation, something which exists only as an idea in § a.

But it gets better. Non-Marxist readers, if they read Preconditions, don’t need to think. Edith C. Harvey diplomatically softened Bernstein’s tone in Evolutionary. Henry Tudor’s more scholarly translation is blunter and reflects what Bernstein’s German readers understood:

“So far as individual commodities or categories of commodities are concerned, value is thus bereft of all concrete content and becomes a purely mental construct. But what becomes of 'surplus value' under these circumstances?” (p. 48)

Whatever the translation, anyone reading that book understands Bernstein used the word abstraction eleven times in § a in the sense Tudor employed: something bereft of all concrete content, a purely mental construct, a speculation. I don't believe value is what Bernstein claimed, but if he believed that in § a, is it too much to demand of him coherence in § b?

Or must one also suffer the random imbecility of a second rate swindler?

On the URPE Blog - The Video Edition

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 22/05/2018 - 1:17pm in

Pedagogy and Heterodox Economics
This round-table discusses a range of topics on teaching heterodox economics, including MMT.

The Dynamics of Capitalism: Money and Financialization
Greta Krippner – The Power of Abstraction: Marx on Money and Credit
Aaron Sahr – From Pen Strokes to Keystrokes: the Production of Money in Early and Contemporary Capitalism

Michael Löwy: Marxism and Romantic Anticapitalism
Michael Löwy is Emeritus Research Director at the CNRS (French National Center for Scientific Research) Lecturer, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales.

Immanuel Wallerstein: The Contemporary Relevance of Marx
Immanuel Wallerstein – Marx’s Capital ​after 150 Years: Critique and Alternative to Capitalism (York University, Canada)

Richard D. Wolff: Linking Trump and Marx’s Critique of Capitalism
Richard D. Wolff Professor of Economics Emeritus, University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and currently a Visiting Professor in the Graduate Program in International Affairs of the New School in New York.

Yanis Varoufakis: Is Capitalism Devouring Democracy?
Economist and fierce EU critic Yanis Varoufakis considers the need for a radically new way of thinking about the economy, finance and capitalism.

Das Kapital after 150 years – a lecture by Riccardo Bellofiore
Riccardo Bellofiore is professor of Political Economy at the University of Bergamo (Italy), where he teaches Macroeconomics, Monetary Economics, History of Economic thought and International Monetary Economics.

Robert Paul Wolff on Karl Marx – Lecture Series
A series of lectures by Robert Paul Wolff on the thought of Karl Marx:

Nancy Fraser: Marx and Feminism
Nancy Fraser on Marx’ and Engels’ view of social reproduction, the tension between class, gender, and race, and the need for a “Feminism for the 99%”.

Capitalism and the Expropriation of Nature: The Strategic Discourse of Ecosocialism
John Bellamy Foster on nature, capitalism, Marx, and the discourse of Ecosocialism.

The Preconditions of Socialism: a Critical Review (iii)

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Sat, 19/05/2018 - 8:01am in


history, Marxism

After a week’s pause, it’s time to go back to Preconditions. Last time we examined that book’s general content and its Cold War re-discovery.

Suppose the reader, intent on saving him/herself a time-consuming engagement with Bernstein’s “scholastic” (his own term) argument decided instead to jump straight in Chapter 3 of Preconditions (2 of Evolutionary) where he makes his empirical argument.

Although perhaps unfamiliar with details, the reader is, of course, aware of Bernstein’s general intent, and particularly of what his final goal (pun intended) is: he is there to fell Marxism, much like a logger fells an old tree [“In principle, Marxism stands or falls with this theory” (p. 12)]

In section b of that chapter (P3§b E2§b) after presenting his statement of what Marxism explains, Bernstein asked himself the following question: “Now, is all this correct?” (p. 57, "Now, is all that right?" in Evolutionary).

I’ll quote the whole paragraph immediately following that question, where he answers it:

“Yes and no. It is correct, above all, as a tendency. The forces described exist, and they operate in the given direction. And the processes are also taken from reality. The fall in the rate of profit is a fact, the occurrence of overproduction and crises is a fact, periodic destruction of capital is a fact, the concentration and centralisation of industrial capital is a fact, and the increase in the rate of surplus value is a fact. So far, the account remains, in principle, unshaken. If the picture does not agree with reality, then it is not because anything false has been said but because what is said is incomplete. Factors which have a limiting effect on the antagonisms described are either completely ignored in Marx or are, though dealt with here and there, later abandoned when the established facts are summed up and compared, so that the social effect of the antagonisms appears much stronger and direct than it is in reality.”

Setting aside Bernstein’s own astonishing earlier extended admission (P3§a/E3§a) about exploitation in the Marxist sense of the word of surplus labour being “clearly evident” (p. 50) before capitalism and even at the beginning of capitalism (for example, “when the slave had to produce for exchange, he was a simple surplus labour machine” and that “it never occurred to the rich of that epoch to represent their wealth as the fruit of their own labour”), that paragraph seems fairly clear: it would appear that in empirical, factual terms Marxism, in Bernstein’s critical appraisal, does okay, yes?

I am not the first to notice that: Bernstein’s Marxist critics and at least one of his British supporters, Austin Harrison, did: “Bernstein attacked the ‘surplus-value’ theory— though he admitted that its basis was, in the main, correct”, he wrote.

It seems that was the takeaway Thorstein Veblen, one of the great names of American Institutional economics and himself a critic, arguably close to revisionism/reformism, mistakenly found in Voraussetzungen, which he read in German.

Writing in 1906 Veblen opens his famous "The Socialist Economics of Karl Marx and his Followers, part 1" (part 1, part 2), with this paragraph:

“The system of doctrines worked out by Marx is characterized by a certain boldness of conception and a great logical consistency. Taken in detail, the constituent elements of the system are neither novel nor iconoclastic, nor does Marx at any point claim to have discovered previously hidden facts or to have invented recondite formulations of facts already known; but the system as a whole has an air of originality and initiative such as is rarely met with among the sciences that deal with any phase of human culture. How much of this distinctive character the Marxian system owes to the personal traits of its creator is not easy to say, but what marks it off from all other systems of economic theory is not a matter of personal idiosyncrasy. It differs characteristically from all systems of theory that had preceded it, both in its premises and in its aims. The (hostile) critics of Marx have not sufficiently appreciated the radical character of his departure in both of these respects, and have, therefore, commonly lost themselves in a tangled scrutiny of supposedly abstruse details; whereas those writers who have been in sympathy with his teachings have too commonly been disciples bent on exegesis and on confirming their fellow-disciples in the faith.” (Incidentally, in the second paragraph Veblen defends Marxism against Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk's criticism!)

I suspect neoclassical economists, constantly (and justly) pilloried for failing to predict the GFC or the effects of globalisation, even in tendential, approximate, general terms, would be happy if their critics expressed similar feelings. (Sorry, professors).

How, then, one fits that with Bernstein’s avowedly anti-Marxist stance? Because, make no mistake, that’s what people like Harrison (“the tendency was unmistakable”; Marxism was “in itself untenable”), Sidney Hook (“history had falsified them”), Noah Smith, and Matt loved about it.

I’ll ask readers to consider that carefully, at their leisure. Check the online version.

To understand that one needs to read the two paragraphs originally included in Preconditions but left out in Evolutionary as I mentioned earlier in this review. When they are ready, please continue reading below.

Now, I’ll introduce part of the data Bernstein presents a couple of pages later (p. 59), in P3§b (E2§b), to whet readers’ appetite.

This is the first data item, in German marks, apparently for 1899. I say apparently because it's undated in Preconditions; the date, however, was included in Evolutionary, where they appear, not as tabulation, but as a text passage with the average capital figures converted to British pounds:

English Sewing Thread Trust
Equity type        Owners    capital
Original shares     6,000      1,200
Preference shares   4,500      3,000
Debentures          1,800      6,300

Trust of Fine-Cotton Spinners
Equity type        Owners    capital
Original shares     2,904      6,000
Preference shares   1,870     10,000
Debentures            680     26,000

Additionally he mentions the Great Manchester Ship Canal plus two other firms, without presenting data. (Bernstein never explained why he converted from pounds to marks, at the rate of 20 marks/£, but one may presume he did that for the benefit of his German readers)

It's evident Bernstein considered that data important for his analysis, as he additionally went to greater lengths to introduce it, regretting that similar studies had not been extended to more joint-stock companies.

From that data Bernstein concludes:

“[T]he number of shareholders and their average holding of shares have seen a rapid growth. Altogether the number of shareholders in England is estimated at considerably more than a million, and that does not appear extravagant if one considers that in the year 1896 alone the number of joint-stock companies in the United Kingdom ran to over 21,223 with a paid-up capital of 22,290 million marks”. (My emphasis)

That’s all good and well, although a closer examination should reveal some details. Without going now into some well-known peculiarities of statistical wealth distributions (which more technically-minded readers should have little difficulty understanding: average), I'll mention two here.

First detail. A prominent economist has recently claimed that Marxists opposed Bernstein because he “had the temerity to argue that wages were increasing” (I’ll leave the origin of that and another anonymous quote for the next post). That data provide no evidence whatsoever to support conclusions like that. Those are financial asset levels; wages are flows. As a matter of fact, Bernstein just isn’t particularly interested on wages.

By 1899 the total British population, according to the ONS (XLS), was 40,774,300 people. Bernstein was writing about 2.5% of the population (4.9% if his vague “considerably more than a million” means two millions). He was writing about a tiny minority (this is another clue about where his argument leads to). Against another of Bernstein's commentators, it's hard to imagine that data meaning that “The poor were not becoming poorer and the rich, richer”

Which raises the question: why on earth would that falsify Marx's predictions?

With variations, the same applies to all the wealth/income data in Preconditions/Evolutionary.

His readers’ misunderstandings, of course, are no conclusive proof of Bernstein’s errors: maybe they did not read him carefully. But there's another possibility (in fact, a better explanation): as in the previous section, here too Bernstein’s labyrinthine argument (in Harrison's apt description) induces confusion in his readers, particularly if they are not careful enough and accept a priori his conclusions at face value. Text missing in Evolutionary but included in Preconditions can explain that, too.

But there is a second “detail” in that data, which not for obvious is less fundamental: wouldn’t one need at least one previous point of comparison to conclude from those figures that “the number of shareholders and their average holding of shares have seen a rapid growth”?

Unfortunately, one cannot understand that chapter in isolation, as I hoped.

If one re-reads the comments made on Bernstein’s work, one cannot but notice something missing: with just one exception (Jack Fitzgerald) his commentators, particularly those sympathetic to him, barely mention his data. Beyond something like “the data falsify Marxism” his supporters seldom offer anything. The few who incautiously venture into that, like those two anonymous commentators above, seem to run swiftly into shaky ground. (Yes, last week I intentionally sent my illustrious but sloppy anti-Marxist readers on a wild goose chase).

I believe that can be explained: an assessment of the empirical argument of Preconditions requires assessing previously his “scholastic” argument. One needs to “decipher” step-by-step, so to speak, Bernstein’s twisted, self-contradictory reasoning: there are many leaps of logic in it, many unstated assumptions (or sleights of hand, if you prefer). My initial hopes of avoiding that quagmire were dashed; time-consuming, soul-crushing, and unpleasant as it is, there is no way around it.

Having said that, in the next two posts I'll finally undertake a preliminary assessment of Preconditions, for those less obsessive than me about whys. I can advance that the argument before P3 (E2) was reverse-engineered to disqualify Marxism. Forced to admit Marxism's ability to describe reality, Bernstein disqualifies that ability as merely a tendency. Thanks to Preconditions this can be proven beyond reasonable doubt. The proof, lengthy and laborious, will come after the preliminary assessment.

At any event, today's post shall help readers understand both my journey through Preconditions and my argument in the following posts.

As a bonus, I'll issue a fun challenge to the readers (advice to illustrious but sloppy anti-Marxist readers: engage your brains as you read, don’t just smile in ovine agreement to every putdown, try to actually understand what the guy is saying). This is your task:

  1. Locate the equivalent of that long Bernstein quote in Evolutionary (E2§b).
  2. Write a list of the things Bernstein admits are facts.
  3. Go back to E2§a.

In the first four paragraphs of E2§a you'll find Bernstein contradicting himself. One of the items in your list which he admits as fact in §b, he claimed in §a a little earlier is mere abstraction, not fact. (The solution in the next post)

Happy hunting!