Monday, 6 January 2014

The Expropriation Of The Expropriators

In Capital I, Chapter 32 Marx says,

“The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with, and under it. Centralization of the means of production and socialization of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.” (p 714-5)

In the light of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, and the domination of the Labour Movement by various forms of Lassallean and Fabian statism over the period, at least since Engels' death, this phrase about the expropriation of the expropriators has been interpreted as meaning something completely different from what Marx meant, and from what he actually says in this and related passages. These statist interpretations stand Marx and his theory on their head, turning it from being a materialist into an idealist doctrine.

The Chapter in which Marx makes this statement is even entitled “The Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation”, and its analysis is about the evolution of the form of capitalist property. That evolution can be summarised as being:

  1. The scattered private property of the petty producers (peasants, artisans etc.), is expropriated by capitalist producers.

    “Self-earned private property, that is based, so to say, on the fusing together of the isolated, independent labouring individual with the conditions of his labour, is supplanted by capitalistic private property, which rests on exploitation of the nominally free labour of others, i.e., on wage labour.” (p 714)
  2. The natural operation of capitalist competition creates a process of concentration – individual capitals become larger through accumulation – and centralisation – individual capitals become larger, because large capitals buy up the capital of smaller capitals. This process creates a form of capital where it is dominated by large, privately owned firms. The need to have a large amount of capital in order to establish a firm of the minimum efficient size, means that a monopoly of private capital is established, in the hands of a few very large capitalists.

    “This expropriation is accomplished by the action of the immanent laws of capitalistic production itself, by the centralization of capital. One capitalist always kills many.” (p 714)
  3. But, this monopoly of private capital, i.e. the ownership of capitalist firms by this small number of individual capitalists and their families, itself represents a fetter on its further development, precisely because the establishment of new firms is thereby restricted to these individual capitalists, and as capitalist production becomes ever more characterised by socialised production based on co-operative labour, that must be carried on under an even larger scale, so the resources of even the largest private capitalists, becomes insufficient for its needs. The demands of capital require that the provision of capital itself become socialised.

    This socialised capital is provided in a number of forms – co-operative enterprises established by workers, joint-stock companies in which a range of investors buy shares to pool their capital, and later the establishment of trusts and cartels, and of state capital. These socialised forms of capital come into conflict with the old private monopoly of capital, and just as the private capitalists had expropriated the petty producers, so these new socialised forms of capital, expropriate the private capitalists. This is the process Marx refers to when he speaks about the expropriation of the expropriators.

But, the phrase about the expropriation of the expropriators has been reinterpreted by the statists to be the equivalent of the socialist revolution. It is a process whereby the state expropriates capital from above. Not only is this contrary to what Marx actually says in describing this process, but it is also contrary to his method and his philosophy.

In Capital III, Marx returns to this process of the expropriation of the expropriators and makes even more clear what he means by it. He says of these forms of socialised capital that expropriate the property of the individual private capitalist monopolists,

“The capitalist stock companies, as much as the co-operative factories, should be considered as transitional forms from the capitalist mode of production to the associated one, with the only distinction that the antagonism is resolved negatively in the one and positively in the other.”

As Engels puts it in his Critique of the Erfurt Programme

“What is capitalist private production? Production by separate entrepreneurs, which is increasingly becoming an exception. Capitalist production by joint-stock companies is no longer private production but production on behalf of many associated people. And when we pass on from joint-stock companies to trusts, which dominate and monopolise whole branches of industry, this puts an end not only to private production but also to planlessness.””

This process of the development of these forms of socialised capital standing in opposition to the monopoly of private capitalist property arises naturally from within the nature of capitalist development rather than having to be imposed upon it from outside by the actions of the state.

For the Co-operatives,

“The co-operative factories of the labourers themselves represent within the old form the first sprouts of the new, although they naturally reproduce, and must reproduce, everywhere in their actual organisation all the shortcomings of the prevailing system. But the antithesis between capital and labour is overcome within them, if at first only by way of making the associated labourers into their own capitalist, i.e., by enabling them to use the means of production for the employment of their own labour. They show how a new mode of production naturally grows out of an old one, when the development of the material forces of production and of the corresponding forms of social production have reached a particular stage.”

And for the Joint Stock companies,

“1) An enormous expansion of the scale of production and of enterprises, that was impossible for individual capitals. At the same time, enterprises that were formerly government enterprises, become public.

2) The capital, which in itself rests on a social mode of production and presupposes a social concentration of means of production and labour-power, is here directly endowed with the form of social capital (capital of directly associated individuals) as distinct from private capital, and its undertakings assume the form of social undertakings as distinct from private undertakings. It is the abolition of capital as private property within the framework of capitalist production itself.

3) Transformation of the actually functioning capitalist into a mere manager, administrator of other people's capital, and of the owner of capital into a mere owner, a mere money-capitalist...

This result of the ultimate development of capitalist production is a necessary transitional phase towards the reconversion of capital into the property of producers, although no longer as the private property of the individual producers, but rather as the property of associated producers, as outright social property. On the other hand, the stock company is a transition toward the conversion of all functions in the reproduction process which still remain linked with capitalist property, into mere functions of associated producers, into social functions." 

But, there is a difference between the socialised capital represented by the workers' co-operatives and the socialised capital of the Joint Stock Companies, and their successors, the trusts, cartels and state capital - “the antagonism (between capital and labour)is resolved negatively in the one and positively in the other.”

In relation to the Workers Co-operatives each member of the Co-operative is a worker and each has a single vote. As Marx describes it in his Programme for the First International,

“In order to prevent co-operative societies from degenerating into ordinary middle-class joint stock companies (societes par actions), all workmen employed, whether shareholders or not, ought to share alike. As a mere temporary expedient, we are willing to allow shareholders a low rate of interest.”

The Joint Stock companies on the other hand are a socialised form of capital, which are able to mobilise far greater sums of capital than was the monopoly of private capital because they are able to pool the resources of millions of investors, including those of the rising middle class, and even some better paid workers, but each shareholder has multiple votes based upon their share ownership, and so the same processes of the concentration of wealth are reproduced within them.

“Since property here exists in the form of stock, its movement and transfer become purely a result of gambling on the stock exchange, where the little fish are swallowed by the sharks and the lambs by the stock-exchange wolves. There is antagonism against the old form in the stock companies, in which social means of production appear as private property; but the conversion to the form of stock still remains ensnared in the trammels of capitalism; hence, instead of overcoming the antithesis between the character of wealth as social and as private wealth, the stock companies merely develop it in a new form."

The “antagonism against the old form”, i.e. the form of private capitalist property leads to the “expropriation of the expropriators” by these new large Joint Stock companies.

“Success and failure both lead here to a centralisation of capital, and thus to expropriation on the most enormous scale. Expropriation extends here from the direct producers to the smaller and the medium-sized capitalists themselves. It is the point of departure for the capitalist mode of production; its accomplishment is the goal of this production. In the last instance, it aims at the expropriation of the means of production from all individuals. With the development of social production the means of production cease to be means of private production and products of private production, and can thereafter be only means of production in the hands of associated producers, i.e., the latter's social property, much as they are their social products. However, this expropriation appears within the capitalist system in a contradictory form, as appropriation of social property by a few; and credit lends the latter more and more the aspect of pure adventurers.”

But, credit is not just the means by which the joint stock companies are developed, it is also the means by which the workers co-operatives can be developed on a national basis. And, the fact that Marx talks about this development of the workers co-operatives on a national basis by the utilisation of credit, demonstrates clearly that he was far from having a conception of the “expropriation of the expropriators” as being some top down process driven by the state.

“They (the co-operatives and the joint stock companies) show how a new mode of production naturally grows out of an old one, when the development of the material forces of production and of the corresponding forms of social production have reached a particular stage. Without the factory system arising out of the capitalist mode of production there could have been no co-operative factories. Nor could these have developed without the credit system arising out of the same mode of production. The credit system is not only the principal basis for the gradual transformation of capitalist private enterprises. into capitalist stock companies, but equally offers the means for the gradual extension of co-operative enterprises on a more or less national scale.” (Capital III)

If the “expropriation of the expropriators” was merely an act of expropriation of all capital conducted from above by the state then there would be no reason for credit to have to perform any role within this process of the gradual extension of worker owned property. Yet, the statists have turned this phrase into meaning exactly that. A further examination demonstrates why such an interpretation is at odds with Marx's method and philosophy.

Marx's method is based upon his theory of historical materialism. That is it understands all current phenomena in relation to their historical development. That method thereby explains the material basis of current phenomena, how they have arisen, and limits itself to a description of how that process is currently unfolding. Going further than that into offering up predictions or schema of how historical development may proceed in the more distant future is anathema to Marx's method and philosophy. In fact, in the Programme for the First International, Marx would not even set down prescriptions as to how workers should go about creating co-ops outside advice based upon his analysis.

“It is the business of the International Working Men's Association to combine and generalise the spontaneous movements of the working classes, but not to dictate or impose any doctrinary system whatever. The Congress should, therefore, proclaim no special system of co-operation, but limit itself to the enunciation of a few general principles.”

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels rail against schema mongering by those who would try to dictate the course of history from above.

“Historical action is to yield to their personal inventive action; historically created conditions of emancipation to fantastic ones; and the gradual, spontaneous class organisation of the proletariat to an organisation of society especially contrived by these inventors. Future history resolves itself, in their eyes, into the propaganda and the practical carrying out of their social plans. 

In the formation of their plans, they are conscious of caring chiefly for the interests of the working class, as being the most suffering class. Only from the point of view of being the most suffering class does the proletariat exist for them.”

This view of socialist transformation, therefore, springs not from the real development of the material conditions, and the changes in consciousness of the workers this engenders, but is necessarily idealist and elitist. Socialism becomes something brought to the workers from above by an elite that has uncovered the truth of the revelation of the Idea. That elite might be Lassalle's Royal Prussian Government, or it might be the Fabian's intellectual elite, or it may be Lenin's Vanguard Party, or else it might be Stalin's bureaucratic state apparatus.

In Capital, therefore, the process he is describing of the “expropriation of the expropriators” cannot be a description of some future political revolution, but can only be a description of the processes, Marx saw having already unfolded, and continuing to unfold around him. The expropriation of the expropriators he is describing could only be a description of the expropriation of private capitalist property by socialised forms of capitalist property, such as the co-operatives and joint stock companies. Anything else would have involved Marx in speculation and schema mongering about future events that would have been wholly at odds with his method.

In fact, as Engels points out, they had made that very mistake in 1848. At that point, witnessing the bourgeois revolutions, they anticipated them being quickly followed in a process of permanent revolution, by proletarian revolutions. But, Engels in later life points out that such a process was impossible, because at the time the only country with a sizeable working-class was England, and even there it was not mature. As late as 1870, ahead of the Paris Commune, Marx warned the Paris workers against rising in rebellion, because they were not yet ready to take on the role of ruling class. As Engels points out in The Peasant War in Germany

“The worst thing that can befall a leader of an extreme party is to be compelled to take over a government in an epoch when the movement is not yet ripe for the domination of the class which he represents and for the realisation of the measures which that domination would imply. What he can do depends not upon his will but upon the sharpness of the clash of interests between the various classes, and upon the degree of development of the material means of existence, the relations of production and means of communication upon which the clash of interests of the classes is based every time. What he ought to do, what his party demands of him, again depends not upon him, or upon the degree of development of the class struggle and its conditions. He is bound to his doctrines and the demands hitherto propounded which do not emanate from the interrelations of the social classes at a given moment, or from the more or less accidental level of relations of production and means of communication, but from his more or less penetrating insight into the general result of the social and political movement. Thus he necessarily finds himself in a dilemma. What he can do is in contrast to all his actions as hitherto practised, to all his principles and to the present interests of his party; what he ought to do cannot be achieved. In a word, he is compelled to represent not his party or his class, but the class for whom conditions are ripe for domination. In the interests of the movement itself, he is compelled to defend the interests of an alien class, and to feed his own class with phrases and promises, with the assertion that the interests of that alien class are their own interests. Whoever puts himself in this awkward position is irrevocably lost. We have seen examples of this in recent times. We need only be reminded of the position taken in the last French provisional government by the representatives of the proletariat, though they represented only a very low level of proletarian development. Whoever can still look forward to official positions after having become familiar with the experiences of the February government — not to speak of our own noble German provisional governments and imperial regencies — is either foolish beyond measure, or at best pays only lip service to the extreme revolutionary party.”

The statist version of the “expropriation of the expropriators”, thereby stands Marx on his head.

The Fabian conception involves the workers subordinating their interests to those of capital, as the process is to unfold only gradually by means of the actions of the capitalist state. The Stalinist conception within capitalism is no different, but within systems where capitalism has been overthrown it involves the workers subordinating their interests to those of the bureaucratic state. The Leninist conception involves the workers acting as merely foot soldiers for the vanguard party.

Instead of the political revolution flowing from the social revolution resulting from the transformation of social relations on the back of the change in material conditions, instead the change in material conditions, and the social revolution arising from it, is to flow from a political revolution, that results from “ the propaganda and the practical carrying out of their social plans” of one of these elites.

The consequence of this is that even under Lenin the self-government of the workers is not to be allowed where it conflicts with the vision of the Idea developed by the Party; under Trotsky it results in the militarisation of labour; under Stalin in forced collectivisation; under Mao in The Great Leap Forwards.

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