Friday, January 12, 2007


Extra note: crises

As Roger pointed out in our discussion on pages 533-690, Marx makes several different attempts at different points in his writings to sketch something like a theory of capitalist breakdown.
1. The famous theory of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (volume 3 of Capital; also mentioned in the Grundrisse, though never in anything Marx finalised for publication).
2. The tendency of capital to reduce necessary labour-time to a minimum.
Why this tendency should push capital into crises is not clear to me, but there are passages in the Grundrisse (nowhere else, as far as I know) where Marx suggests that this tendency should indeed push capital to breakdown.
3. The concentration and centralisation of capital, and, in counterpoint to it, the massification and concentration of the working class (in Capital volume 1).

To put my own cards on the table, I think that all breakdown theories are follies, even if tentatively suggested by Marx himself. No.3, above, the only published version, is not really a breakdown theory in the way the others are.
The issue was dealt with best by Kautsky in his unjustly neglected and excellent critique of Bernstein, written while Kautsky was still a revolutionary. Lenin summarised this point in an approving review.

Passing from the method to the results of its application, Kautsky deals with the so-called Zusammenbruchstheorie, the theory of collapse, of the sudden crash of West-European capitalism, a crash that Marx allegedly believed to be inevitable and connected with a gigantic economic crisis.
Kautsky says and proves that Marx and Engels never propounded a special Zusammenbruchstheorie, that they did not connect a Zusammenbruch necessarily with an economic crisis. This is a distortion chargeable to their opponents who expound Marx’s theory one-sidedly, tearing out of context odd passages from different writings in order thus triumphantly to refute the “one-sidedness” and “crudeness” of the theory. Actually Marx and Engels considered the transformation of West-European economic relations to be dependent on the maturity and strength of the classes brought to the fore by modern European history. Bernstein tries to assert that this is not the theory of Marx, but Kautsky’s interpretation and extension of it. Kautsky, however, with precise quotations from Marx’s writings of the forties and sixties, as well as by means of an analysis of the basic ideas of Marxism, has completely refuted this truly pettifogging trickery of the Bernstein...

Simon Clarke's book "Marx's theory of crisis" is also useful here, showing (conclusively, I think) that Marx moved away from his flirting with economic-breakdown theories as his thought developed.
In the discussion I also mentioned a study group we held on Marx's writings on the theory of crises a few years back. There are (incomplete) notes from that study group.

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