From new introduction to ‘High Tech, Low Pay’
Today’s capitalist crisis in light of Marxist theory
Published Aug 21, 2009 7:51 PM
Here is the third installment of excerpts from a new introduction to
the ground-breaking work “High Tech, Low Pay.” The book, written by
Sam Marcy during the early stages of capitalist restructuring and first
published in 1986, has long been out of print and will soon be reissued. Fred
Goldstein, who wrote this introduction, is author of “Low-Wage
Capitalism: Colossus with Feet of Clay.” Parts one and two of the
excerpts from Goldstein’s introduction can be read in the Aug. 13 and
Aug. 20 issues of WW, available at www.workers.org.
Analyzing the present crisis
The meaning of the crisis and its ultimate direction are questions for the
ruling class and for the working class, from diametrically opposed points of
view. The bourgeoisie has no theoretical framework within which to begin to
approach the question. Their system is anarchic. Even government intervention
and some limited planning cannot eradicate the anarchy imposed on a system
based on private profit.
The bosses operate in competition and in secrecy. Their economists can really
only look backward over time at what has happened and hope to divine some
pattern that can be used for the future. But they cannot, dare not, analyze the
system; they can only describe its behavior in a pragmatic, strictly empirical
Marxists have a broad theoretical framework combined with powerful, scientific
analytical tools at their disposal. These tools must be wielded on behalf of
the struggle of the workers and therefore cannot be based upon wishful thinking
or pure speculation.
The broad theoretical framework within which to analyze the present situation
was laid out by Marx in 1857, in his Preface to “A Contribution to the
Critique of Political Economy”:
“In the social production of their life, men enter into definite
relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of
production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their
material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production
constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which
rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite
forms of social consciousness. ... At a certain stage of their development, the
material productive forces of society come in conflict with existing relations
of production, or—what is but a legal expression for the same
thing—with the property relations within which they have been at work
hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations
turn into their fetters. Then begins an epoch of social revolution. With the
change in the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or
less rapidly transformed.”
This is Marx’s most general statement about the basis for the
revolutionary transformation of society. In numerous places throughout his
writings he applies this theory to the capitalist system. He describes how
capitalism concentrates the proletariat into factories and workplaces, creating
an increasingly complex division of labor in the productive process that
involves more and varied types of labor from geographically diverse
Marx showed how capitalism, by constantly revolutionizing the means of
production under the internal compulsion of the system, socializes the
productive forces—bringing workers everywhere into objective cooperation
in the production of commodities. He scientifically demonstrated how this
socialized production comes into conflict with private property, resulting in
repetitive crises for the workers and, ultimately, for society in general.
The fundamental assertion implied by the paragraph quoted above is that sooner
or later, capitalist property relations become a “fetter,” a brake
on further development of the productive forces. Society cannot move forward
any longer because of the stranglehold of private property. Revolution then
ensues. The clash between socialized production and private ownership can only
be resolved by socializing the ownership—that is, by bringing socialized
ownership into harmony with socialized production and setting society on a new
course of planned production for human need.
Marx was referring not just to the periodic crises and suffering brought about
by capitalism. Nor does his point refer to capitalism holding back development
that would be of great benefit to society—such as environmentally safe
methods of production and green products. Nor is it a question of the enormous
waste and gross inefficiency produced by capitalism. These are relative brakes
Marx posits that at some point, capitalism inevitably becomes an absolute brake
on the development of the productive forces, with a consequent crisis for the
masses. Society is stymied by capitalist private property and cannot go on in
the old way.
It is always helpful for clarity and educational purposes to discuss this
fundamental premise put forward by Marx. It is the starting point of
understanding Marxism. But it is only at rare historical moments that the
discussion goes beyond making a general historical point and is raised in
relation to imminent developments.
This question arose at the end of World War I when the economies of Europe had
collapsed in the face of military devastation. There was revolutionary ferment
in Germany, Hungary and other countries in the wake of the Bolshevik
Revolution. Capitalism seemed to be on the ropes. World War I had signified the
beginning of the historic crisis of the capitalist system.
The development of imperialism soon resulted in the complete division of the
globe among the imperialist powers, as described by Lenin in 1916 in his book
“Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism.” It meant that
capitalism had outgrown the national state as a framework for development. Soon
it came to pass that even imperialist expansion could not give capitalism
sufficient room to grow by ordinary economic means. It had reached such an
impasse that it could only resolve its contradictions through a devastating
The ruling classes in Europe survived these post-war revolutionary crises, only
to soon be plunged into the Great Depression. It was during the world
depression of the 1930s that the question of the absolute decline of capitalism
was widely discussed in concrete terms pertaining to the immediate perspective
of proletarian revolution.
For the entire decade, save for a brief period in the mid 1930s, capitalist
society appeared to be in a downward spiral with no end in sight. Capitalism
had reached a dead end. It seemed to fulfill Marx’s general prognosis
that social revolution was on the agenda.
Capitalist property, private property in the means of production, the profit
system itself, had become a “fetter” on the further development of
the productive forces. Capitalism had brought about the socialization of the
productive process on a world scale. Yet a small group of property owners,
monopolists, owned and operated this global system for the narrow purposes of
enriching themselves through exploitation and profit.
The Great Depression seemed to be the end of the line. Capitalism was unable to
revive itself by economic means. In the mid thirties there was a slight upturn,
but then world production continued to decline. Massive unemployment remained.
The colonial countries staggered under the weight of the world depression,
which struck them even more drastically than the imperialist countries.
In the present period it is once again helpful from a working-class point of
view to revive this discussion in order to get an accurate estimate of the
period, clarify a perspective and prepare for struggle.
To be continued.
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