In his book, Le bicentenaire de Marx, Samir Amin reflect on the work of the man who has immensely influenced his own work and life.
Marx is a giant thinker, not for the 19th century, but even more for understanding our contemporary time. No other attempt to develop an understanding of society has been as fertile. Provided “marxists” move beyond “marxology” – repeating what Marx could write in his time – by pursuing his method in accordance with new developments in history. Marx himself continuously developed and revised his views in his lifetime.
Marx never reduced capitalism to a new mode of production. He considered all the dimensions of modern capitalist society, understanding that the law of value does not regulate only capitalist accumulation, but rules all aspects of modern civilisation. That unique vision allowed him to offer the first scientific approach relating social relations to anthropology. In that perspective he included in his analyses what is today called “ecology”, re-discovered a century after Marx. It leads to the understanding that communism is not a new and more advanced mode of production but a higher stage in human civilisation (utopia becomes a reality); and that the road through the socialist transition is a very long road.
Marx’s major work—Capital—presents a rigorous scientific analysis of the capitalist society and how they differ qualitatively from earlier society forms. It directly clarifies the meaning of the generalisation of commodity exchanges between private property owners specifically the emergence and dominance of value and abstract social labour. From that foundation, Marx leads us to understand how the proletarian’s sale of his or her labour power to the “man with money” ensures the production of surplus value that the capitalist expropriates, and which, in turn, is the condition for the accumulation of capital. The dominance of value governs not only the reproduction of the economic system of capitalism; it governs every aspect of modern social and political life. The concept of commodity alienation points to the ideological mechanism through which the overall unity of social reproduction is expressed. This exceptional intellectual and political instrument demonstrated itself to be the best for predicting in a correct way the general line of the historical evolution of the capitalist reality.
No text written in the mid-nineteenth century has held the road until today as well as the Communist Manifesto of 1848. Even today entire paragraphs of the text correspond to the contemporary reality even better than in 1848.
The capitalist system has always been and remains globalised
Marx, more than anyone, understood that capitalism had the mission to conquer the world. He wrote about it at a time when this conquest was far from being completed. He considered this mission from its origins, the conquest of the Americas, which inaugurated the transition of the three centuries of mercantilism to the final full- fledged form of capitalism.
Yet Marx and Engels, in The Communist Manifesto and even later still hesitate: could the worldwide deployment of capitalism operate as a homogenising force giving to the conquered East its chance to become similar to Western advanced countries? Late Marx reached the intuition that polarisation, inherent to the global expansion of capitalism, will make impossible catching up in the frame of globalised capitalism and on the basis of capitalist essential rules.
I gave priority to that intuition of Marx, related to the future of globalisation and devoted my efforts to formulate the laws of unequal development resulting from a globalised formulation of the law of accumulation. I derived from it an explanation for the revolutions in the name of socialism starting from the peripheries of the global system.
Marx thus did have the intuition that the revolutionary transformation could begin starting from the periphery of the system – the “weak links” in the ulterior language of Lenin.
This conclusion calls for another: socialist transitions will happen necessarily “in one country”, which will additionally remain fatally “isolated” through the counter-attack of world imperialism. There is no alternative; there will be no “world revolution”.
Capitalism, a short bracket in history
I also share another intuition of Marx –expressed clearly as early as 1848 and further reformulated until his last writings – according to which capitalism represents only a short bracket in history; its historical function being to have created in a short time (a century) the conditions calling for moving beyond to communism, understood as a higher stage of civilisation.
The systemic crises of senile capitalism
Capitalism took on its finished form only with the industrial revolution starting as of 1800. From that time onward the social contradiction immanent in the capitalist mode of production has involved a permanent tendency of the system to “produce more than can be consumed”: downward pressure on wages has tended to generate a volume of profits which, under competitive forces, flow into a volume of investment relatively in excess of the investment level required to satisfy the effective demand for the system’s products. From this viewpoint, the threat of relative stagnation is the chronic ailment of capitalism. Crises and depressions do not need to be explained by specific causes. On the contrary, it is the expansion phases that are each produced by their own particular circumstances. The history since 1800 of “really existing capitalism” is the history of a prodigious development of productive forces, unparalleled in earlier epochs. The tendency to stagnate inherent in capitalism has thus been overcome time and again.
That inherent instability of capitalism is also its strength: during the expansion phases between the slumps it has fostered an extraordinary expansion of productive forces, incomparably greater than the slow growth prevailing in previous epochs. Nevertheless, precisely because its growth is exponential (like cancer, sustained exponential growth can lead only to death) that growth cannot be sustained indefinitely. Capitalism is fated to be surpassed and, without doubt, it will show up in history as a short transition period during which the accumulation of productive forces will have created the material and human conditions for a better form of mastery over nature and social development.
Capitalist crises and the crisis of capitalism
The contemporary imperialist system is a system of centralisation of the surplus on the world scale. The imperialist system for the centralisation of value is characterised by the acceleration of accumulation and by the development of the productive forces in the centre of the system, while in the periphery these latter are held back and deformed. Development and underdevelopment are two sides of the same coin. Facing this challenge there is no alternative to the de-construction of the present global imperialist system, creating the conditions for another pattern of negotiated global relations.
The massive depression toward the close of the 19th century, intensifying competitive pressures, sped up the process of concentration and centralisation of capital until the capitalist system was qualitatively transformed: the competitive industrial capitalism that prevailed from 1800 to 1890 gave way to oligopolistic (shared monopoly) capitalism. These oligopolies were still groups organised on an essentially national basis, despite the expansion of their activities abroad and the occasional interpenetration and cosmopolitanism of their strategies. At that time their competition sharpened the rivalry among national states, putting an end to the previously dominant position of Great Britain. This period is that in which the world was divided up among rival imperialist powers.
Our current and second long slump, which began with the seventies of last century followed an expansion that, from immediately after the Second World War, was based on three factors arising from the defeat of fascism: (a) historic capital-labour compromise maintained, in the developed capitalist countries, by Keynesian national policies that put a new form of governance over capital accumulation in place of the wage-depressing competitive regime; (b) the “Soviet” system, called an attempt to build socialism, although it really was an attempt to build “capitalism without capitalists,” which nevertheless set itself up as a challenge to capitalism and so stimulated it; and (c) the attempts at national-capitalist development in the peripheral countries, which were made possible by the victories of national liberation movements.
At the origin of our current slump is the progressive exhaustion of these three social models, which followed from the fact that their very successes deepened global interdependence. This slump thus unfolds in an environment of deepened imperialist globalisation, the more so since the Soviet alternative has collapsed and the national-capitalist project in the third world could not resist the offensive of the dominant capitalisms which aimed at reducing the bourgeoisies of the peripheral continents to their former status as dependent intermediaries.
The current slump, again, is expressed through surplus capital unable to find sufficiently profitable outlets in the expansion of productive capacity. Capitalist management of the slump has therefore aimed at providing alternative profitable outlets in the financial arena, and by that very fact has made the preservation of capital values its main priority, even when this is detrimental to economic growth. This new hegemony of the capital markets has acted through a variety of means, notably floating exchange rates, high interest rates, privatisation of formerly state-owned enterprises, huge deficits in the US balance of payments, and policies by international financial institutions forcing third world countries to put service of their foreign debt above all other considerations.
As usual, such policies confine the world economy to a stagnant, vicious circle out of which they offer no escape. In fact, this stubborn stagnation affects only that half of the world—the United States, Europe, and Japan with their Latin American, African, and Middle Eastern dependencies—, which is forced to undergo the measures, adopted by the capital markets to manage the slump. East Asia (especially China), followed by Southeast Asia and, to some degree, India, have in contrast experienced a speeding up of their economic growth and to that extent they have escaped the impact of the slump.
Systemic crises in contemporary monopoly capital
The challenge to day is therefore not to attempt moving out of the crisis of capitalism, but starting moving out of capitalism in crisis. Critical social thought should take a special interest in this question, based as it is on the distinction between this sort of crisis of the system and the crises within the system.
These new development of the pattern of accumulation simply means that capitalism has entered the era of its historical decline and has become a destructive senile system.
Revolutionary advances on the long road to socialism or decadence of civilisation?
Socialist transitions happen necessarily « in one country ». Therefore the nations and states engaged on this road will be confronted with the double challenge: resist to the permanent war (hot or cold) conducted by the imperialist forces, and associate successfully the peasant majority in the advances on the new road to socialism.
These reflections lead me to assess the considerations which Marx and Engels developed concerning the peasants. Marx situates himself within his time, which was still the time of bourgeois unfinished revolutions in Europe itself. Therefore whenever the bourgeois revolution gave the land to the peasants as shown in the exemplary case of France in particular the peasantry in its great majority becomes the ally of the bourgeoisie within the camp of the defenders of the sacred character of private property and becomes the adversary of the proletariat. However, the transfer of the centre of gravity of the socialist transformation of the world, emigrating from dominant imperialist centres to dominated peripheries radically modifies the peasant question. Nevertheless revolutionary advances become possible in the conditions of societies, which remained still in great part peasant only if socialist vanguards are able to implement strategies, which integrate the majority of peasantry within the fighting block against imperialistic capitalism.
Marx writes in The Communist Manifesto (1848), with respect to class struggles: “a war which always ends by a revolutionary transformation of the society or by destruction of the classes in conflict”. That sentence attracted my attention since long time.
This is the reason for which we propose to differentiate two qualitatively different types of transition from one mode of production to another. If this transition envelops in unconsciousness, or with alienated consciousness, that is if ideology which influences classes does not allow them to control the process of change, this process appears as if it operates in the way analogous to natural change, while ideology becomes part of this nature. For this type of transition we reserve the expression “model of decadence”. On the other hand, if ideology manages to offer total and real dimension of the desired change, and only then, we can speak of revolution.
I also mention other important contributions of Marx, in particular with respect to the views of Marx on “unity and diversity” in the long transition. These views are responding to contemporary challenges more than ever.
* Professor Samir Amin was a Marxian economist and founder of the Third World Forum
*This is a short summary of my book on the Bicentenary of Marx, coming soon in English at Monthly Review Press (NY), as well as in some other languages. The book was published in French under the title of “Le bicentenaire de Marx” (Delga 2018).
*This article was first published on Samir Amin’s blog http://samiramin1931.blogspot.com/ in May 2018