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Marx's economics for anarchists?

A review of Wayne Price, The Value of Radical Theory: an anarchist introduction to Marx's critique of political economy AK Press, 2013.

By Paul Rubnero, guest contributor.

Anarchists have generally been cautious about endorsing any part of Marxism – with good reason, considering the fractious and sometimes bloody history of relations between these two rival political traditions. However, despite deep political differences with Marxism, there are some anarchists who recognise the value of Marx’s critique of political economy and his approach to economic theory. Wayne Price is one of them.

In this handy, pocket-sized volume -- itself a revised, expanded and much improved version of his Marx’s Economics for Anarchists1 -- Wayne Price takes up the challenge of attempting to convince anarchists of the value of this particular part of Marx’s writings. At the very least, this involves showing that Marx’s critique of political economy is relevant to our times, is a solid basis for explaining the basic mechanisms of the capitalist system, and is compatible with libertarian forms of socialism -- more specifically, with anarchism. Price tackles each of these tasks in turn.

Although, as the title suggests, the book is addressed specifically to anarchists, it is also directed to a general audience interested in radical theory. In introducing Marx’s critique of political economy, the book outlines and explains Marx’s basic concepts, indicating some of their different interpretations, and shows the relevance of Marx’s ideas to understanding developments in today’s globalised capitalist system. In the course of his exposition, rather than attempting an exhaustive and impartial overview of Marx’s concepts and economic theories, Price opts for certain interpretations over others, and then uses these to present his own analysis of current economic developments.
Price notes that in Marx’s Capital and other writings, one of Marx’s main concerns is to develop a critical assessment of what was then known as “political economy”. In seeing the bourgeois political economists, e.g. Adam Smith, as apologists for capitalism, Marx was not only providing a critique of their writings, but was also opposing the capitalist system itself. It is out of this critique that Marx’s analysis of capitalism emerges, an analysis which Price regards as the best explanation available of how capitalism actually works.
However, despite his belief in the value of Marx’s economic theories, Price is definitely no Marxist. This book is not, and nor should be seen as, an attempt to persuade anarchists to become Marxists. A long-time activist, writer and theorist, Wayne Price is author of two other books: The Abolition of the State: Anarchist & Marxist Perspectives (2007) and Anarchism & Socialism: Reformism or Revolution (3rd ed., 2010). He is a frequent contributor to anarchist websites, e.g., anarkismo.org., and his political orientation is towards the platformist-inspired current within revolutionary class-struggle anarchism. 

Although, as the title suggests, the book is addressed specifically to anarchists, it is also directed to a general audience interested in radical theory. In marking out his position, Price is careful to distinguish Marx’s critique of political economy from those elements in Marx and the Marxist tradition he considers incompatible with anarchism. He takes a revolutionary position, arguing against the reformist varieties of anarchism, as represented, e.g., in the ideas of Paul Goodman, and in the Parecom program; as an anarchist, he endorses e.g., federalism against Marxist centralism, and direct action against electoral politics. The book criticises Marx’s state-oriented strategy (even as modified in the later writings), the poverty of Marx’s vision of post-capitalist society, and the lack of an explicitly ethical or moral dimension in Marx’s writings. While he notes a significant overlap in the views of libertarian Marxists and class-struggle anarchists, Price definitely believes the central issues of revolutionary politics are more adequately addressed from an anarchist perspective.

At the same time, Price contests the relevance of certain commonly-held anarchist attitudes in approaching Marx’s economic writings, attitudes coloured by the anarchist memory of the conflict between Marx and Bakunin in the Workers’ International, and between Marxists and anarchists in the Russian and Spanish Revolutions. Although we need to keep alive the memory of these historical experiences, the disputes involved have little direct bearing on assessing the current relevance and validity of Marx’s economic theories. 

On the whole, Price’s book succeeds in making accessible Marx’s basic concepts and economic theories. With a minimum of jargon, it sketches the main outlines of Capital, Marx’s three-volume magnum opus, and covers difficult topics in Marx’s economic writings, such as the organic composition of capital, the falling rate of profit, fictitious capital, etc., clearly and straightforwardly. Building on this basic foundation, Price broadens the discussion to focus on current economic problems, bringing in contemporary anarchist and Marxist writers. However, I cannot agree with his apparent endorsement of decadence theory – the view that capitalism has passed its zenith and is in irreversible decline – a theory which is problematic not least because of capitalism’s continued global expansion.2 Also problematic is the commonly-held claim, shared by Price, that Marx’s works lack a moral or ethical dimension. Admittedly, Marx nowhere presents an explicit theory of ethics, but the moral and ethical dimension of Marx’s ideas is implicit in his humanism: the view that human beings and their human potential are systematically deformed by capitalism. Price seems to dismiss the ethical significance of the humanist dimension in Marx’s writings because of the cynical ideological use of these ideas by “Stalinist totalitarians” to disguise a “monstrous reality”.3

Perhaps the most important limitations of Price’s book relate to aspects of its account of Marx’s method, and to what Price calls Marx’s “inevitabilism”. In relation to Marx’s method, Price’s emphasis on the role of abstraction to the exclusion of other aspects amounts to a one-sided and rather misleading interpretation which leaves out the equally important dialectical dimension. In Capital and the Grundrisse, Marx’s method is nothing if not dialectical. That Price does not bring out this aspect of Marx’s method is surprising, especially given that he explicitly acknowledges as one source of his knowledge of Marx’s economics, the Johnson-Forest Tendency (C.L.R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya), in whose version of Marxism ‘the dialectic’ is all-important. Perhaps a discussion of dialectics was considered out of place in an introductory work of this kind. Whatever the reason, this is an unfortunate omission, given the importance of the topic.

Marx developed his version of the dialectic from a critique of Hegel’s philosophical system and method.4 It differs from the Hegelian dialectic in important respects. But Marx never got to write his desired outline of the dialectical method.5 Probably the closest he came to doing this occurs in the Introduction to the Grundrisse,6 with its comments on what he regards as the preferable method of investigating political economy. In the absence of a definitive explication, Marx’s version of the dialectic has to be reconstructed from disparate passages in his work; however, its precise interpretation and role in Marx’s writings, remain highly controversial.

The one place where Price explicitly brings in ‘the dialectic’ is in relation to what he interprets as Marx’s “inevitabilism” – the thesis that capitalism necessarily leads to socialism. Price’s view that Marx’s “inevitabilism” is based on Hegel’s dialectic of history fails to recognise the important differences between Hegel’s view of history, and Marx’s. Despite material in both Marx’s early and mature writings supporting Price’s claim of Marx’s “inevitabilism”, the evidence is not as straightforward as Price suggests. So, e.g., while Marx and Engels declare in The Communist Manifesto that the bourgeoisie’s “fall, and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable”,7 there is the contention, attributed to Engels and later popularised by Rosa Luxemburg, that the ultimate outcome of the class struggle will be either “socialism or barbarism”. This implies an affirmation of the possibility of historical alternatives, rather than a dogmatic belief in the inevitability of socialism. It seems to me that whatever Marx (&/or Engels) actually believed, Marx’s “inevitabilism” boils down to at least an expression of triumphalism, i.e., a bullish faith in the eventual triumph of the socialist cause. Whatever the “correct” interpretation, if we have to say anything is inevitable, it is that capitalist exploitation usually evokes some form of worker resistance – whether active or passive, open or clandestine, etc. -- depending on circumstances and social-historical conditions. On this view, class struggle and worker resistance are to be understood as tendencies, intrinsic to both corporate and state capitalism – an interpretation consistent with Price’s recognition earlier in the book that when Marx speaks of economic “laws”, they are to be understood as tendencies, open to being “interfered with, mediated, and countered by other forces”.8 (How far working-class resistance and class struggle, as tendencies, can develop towards achieving socialism, is an open question; inevitability has little to do with it.) 

Similarly, in relation to decadence theory, quite apart from the fact of a still-expanding capitalism, when Marx in Capital, vol. 3 speaks of “counteracting factors” affecting the “laws” relating to capitalist decline, he is not so much speaking of strict laws operating in capitalism’s development, but rather of historical tendencies. This has serious implications for the cogency of decadence theory in that it challenges both our ability to determine both capitalism’s decline, and the point at which such decline is irreversible. 

In this review I have concentrated on a critical assessment of some of the more important points in Price’s account of Marx’s ideas. However, it would be misleading to see this book as solely concerned with Marx’s theories; the latter part of the book concentrates on the anarchist dimension. Here, Price focuses on anarchist critiques of Marx’s economic theories, citing the views of, among others, Kropotkin, and especially Malatesta, to whose views he devotes the appendix.

In the face of the ongoing anti-democratic bourgeois revolution and its accompanying massive increases in state surveillance and control, the need for cooperation and solidarity among left-libertarian radicals has become increasingly urgent. Wayne Price’s book, in integrating Marx’s economic critique and theories into a class-struggle anarchist position, can be seen as part of the growing recognition of this need. Price’s view that Marx’s critique of political economy, plus anarchist methods and post-capitalist vision constitute the basis for a viable radical theory, should provide a much-needed stimulus to the dialogue between class-struggle anarchists and libertarian Marxists.9

  1. Wayne Price, Marx’s Economics for Anarchists: An Anarchist’s Introduction to Marx’s Critique of Political Economy. Zabalaza Books, (orig. published on www.anarkismo.net/article/20585)
  2. See the Aufheben series in libcom.org for a critical Marxist analysis of decadence theory. See below for further critical remarks on problems with decadence theory.
  3. Wayne Price, The Value of Radical Theory, p. 6.
  4. See Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, final section, 3rd MS.
  5. “I should very much like to make accessible to the ordinary human intelligence – in two or three printer’s sheets – what is rational in the method Hegel discovered but at the same time enveloped in mysticism… .” Karl Marx  to Engels, 14 Jan., 1858. Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence. For Marx’s indication in the Postface to the Second Edition of Capital, of how his version of the dialectic differed from Hegel’s, see Capital, vol.1, (Penguin), p.102-103.
  6. Karl Marx, Grundrisse, (Penguin) p. 100 ff.
  7. Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, Ch. 1.
  8. Wayne Price, The Value of Radical Theory, p. 17.
  9. For recent material exploring themes of dialogue between sympathetic Marxists and anarchists, see, e.g., Alex Prichard et al., Libertarian Socialism: Politics in Red and Black, and the writings of Christos Memos. For Price’s view of the differences between anarchism and libertarian Marxism, see Wayne Price’s pamphlet, Libertarian Marxism’s Relation to Anarchism (http://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/wayne-price-libertarian-marxism-s...)