In Defense of the Anarchist Use of Marx’s Economic Theory

  • Posted on: 29 August 2015
  • By: rocinante

From Anarkismo by Wayne Price

Anarchist Views of Marx's Critique of Political Economy

Wayne Price has defended Marx's critique of political economy as useful for revolutionary anarchists. In the past many anarchists have agreed. But some have not, such as Kropotkin. Several topics in Marx's economic theory are discussed, criticisms reviewed, and responses given.

World capitalism is faced with deep and lengthy problems—economic stagnation and inequality, endless wars, and ecological catastrophe, not to mention oppressions involving gender, race, nationality, sexual orientation, and so on. In response, many radicals have shown interest in Karl Marx’s economic analysis of capitalism. This includes anarchists who are looking for a theoretical basis for their opposition to the system, even while they reject the authoritarianism of the Marxist movement and the (past and present) Marxist states. In various writings, I have been among those trying to speak to this interest.

One result was my book (Price 2013) introducing Marx’s economic theories from an anarchist perspective. Reviews have been primarily positive. For example, Brian Morris (2015) wrote in Anarchist Studies that the book was “lucidly and engagingly written” (105) and was “highly recommended.” (108). This was in spite of the book’s weaknesses (looking at it in hindsight), such as the inadequate discussion of money. Those who might dislike my book have probably not bothered to read it.

Over the years, a few anarchists have denounced me as “really” being a Marxist rather than a true-blue anarchist, because I value certain aspects of Marxism, especially its economic theories. This is even though I have clearly stated my opposition to Marx’s program of a “workers’ state”, nationalization and centralization of the economy, electoral party-building, etc. I have written of my opposition to all the “Marxist” states, regarding them as state-capitalist, to Marx’s determinism, and, indeed, to Marxism as a total worldview. “Wayne Price also highlights the serious limitations of Marx’s politics.” (Morris 2015; 105)

I regard myself as in the broad, mainstream, tradition of revolutionary, class-struggle, anarchist-socialism (Schmidt & van der Walt 2009). However, I do not really care whether others see me as an “orthodox anarchist,” whatever that would be. I have long since lost interest in being orthodox in anyone’s eyes. Of course, I am aware that I am imperfect and—I hope—I am capable of learning from criticism.

There has been one rather detailed attack on my anarchist appreciation of Marx’s political economy. I wrote a critical review (Price 2014) of Ron Tabor’s The Tyranny of Theory (2013), expressing my disagreement with Tabor’s rejection of most of Marx’s economic theory. Peter Rush (2014) also wrote an extensive (and highly laudatory) review of Tabor’s book, in the course of which he included a denunciation of my review and my opinions. Rush claimed that I believe “in some of Marx’s most absurd theories.” Because I was not persuaded by Tabor’s arguments, Rush concluded “that Price’s starting point includes a strong belief in a great deal of the Marxism that Tabor is criticizing, and that he is…ideologically committed to preserving these beliefs….” (12) You can’t win over everyone!

Other Anarchists on Marx’s Economic Theories

Many anarchists have agreed with Marx’s economic views, beginning with the founder of revolutionary anarchism, Mikhail Bakunin. Despite his bitter conflict with Marx in the First International, “Bakunin…still referred to Marx’s Capital as a ‘magnificent work’….Bakunin knew of no other work that contained ‘an analysis so profound, so luminous, so scientific, so decisive…and so merciless…of the formation of bourgeois capital and the systematic and cruel exploitation that capital continues over the work of the proletariat’.” (Graham 2015; 163-4) There were many “anarchists in the International who admired Marx’s critique of capitalism, while rejecting his politics….” (260) Again: “Marx’s analysis of the core features of capitalism deeply impressed the early anarchists.” (Schmidt & van der Walt 2009; 85)

Such opinions have continued to be held by various modern-day anarchists. Murray Bookchin wrote, “With Bakunin, I share the view that Marx made invaluable contributions to radical theory, contributions one can easily value without accepting his authoritarian politics or perspectives. For anarchists to foolishly demonize Marx…is to abandon a rich legacy of ideas that should be brought to the service of libertarian thought….Which does not mean that we have to accept Marx’s grave errors about centralism, his commitment to a ‘workers’ party,’ his support of the nation-state, and the like….” (1997; 54)

Not all anarchists liked Marx’s critique of political economy. Peter Kropotkin rejected it entirely. (He had a big argument with Carlo Cafiero about this.) I will discuss some of Kropotkin’s objections below. In any case, agreement with anarchists from Bakunin to Bookchin does not prove that I am right, only that seeing positive uses for Marx’s economic opinions may be consistent with anarchism.

There is also a minority tradition within Marxism which interprets it in a radically democratic, anti-statist, humanistic, and proletarian manner. Such views were held by William Morris, Rosa Luxemburg, C.L.R. James, Raya Dunayevskaya, Erich Fromm, Paul Mattick, and others. I would not argue that these libertarian (autonomous) Marxists were “correct” in their interpretation of Marx, as compared with the authoritarian mainstream of Marxism. I only note that some radicals found it possible to combine Marxist economic theory with politics which were very close to anarchism.

First Topic: Concentration of Capital

In my review (Price 2014) I acknowledged that capitalism had changed over the century and a half since Marx wrote Capital. But I believe that Marx’s overall understanding of capitalism has held up pretty well. Peter Rush denies this. As far as he (and, he says, Tabor) can see, Marx has been completely wrong and his views are of no worth whatsoever. I will now discuss a few of the topics raised by the Rush/Tabor argument—and also touch on the views of Kropotkin. (To respond to all the issues raised by Rush and Tabor would require another book.)

In my review I wrote that Marx predicted “the growth of larger and larger capitalist enterprises, in semi-monopolistic form….” which would lead to increased state intervention. He wrote in a time when almost all business firms were family enterprises, competing on a mostly free market. The classical political economists—like the neoclassical economists of today—used models of freely competing capitalist enterprises. Marx (and only Marx) predicted the rise of giant firms which would dominate the market, and would require increasing capital/state integration.

To which Rush (2014) responds, “Not really. The growth of the trusts in the 1890s was probably the closest capitalism has come to fulfilling Marx’s predictions, and countervailing tendencies have stopped the process of unlimited concentration that Marx actually predicted.… Only in banking would it be accurate that we have more concentration now than ever before. Marx’s prediction was fundamentally totally off….l don’t think Marx anticipated transnational conglomerates….” (14) He claims that, besides predicting “unlimited concentration,” Marx expected “the total concentration of all capitalist enterprises into fewer and fewer…and the takeover of the capitalist industries by the state….Wayne, hello, none of these things happened.” (15)

Similarly Tabor (2013) writes, “While many of the tendencies Marx discerned certainly do exist, they have been offset by various counter tendencies, so that the extreme economic concentration…that Marx envisioned has not come to pass. Thus, while capital does get concentrated and centralized, and many enterprises and corporate entities do get larger, capitalistic development also continually generates smaller capitals and smaller enterprises….The modern state certainly intervenes in the economy to a far greater extent than it did in Marx’s day, but it has by no means taken over anything approaching the majority of capitalist enterprises.” (164-5)

It should be clear from the above that Tabor and Rush are not really denying that capitalism has tendencies to concentration, centralization, monopolization, and statification—tendencies which have appeared in the past and which continue today. (This acknowledgement saves me from having to go through the major industries in the US and internationally, pointing out the many that are dominated by semi-monopolies of a few giant companies.) They merely insist that there are “counter tendencies” which modify and limit these centralizing tendencies. “Marx’s prediction was fundamentally totally off” only if they are right that he had predicted “unlimited concentration” of capital, “total concentration,” “extreme economic concentration,” and state takeover of a “majority of capitalist enterprises”—while overlooking the existence of “countervailing tendencies.”

What Did Marx Say About Centralization of Capital?

Marx actually discussed this topic, specifically in Volume 1 of Capital (1906), as part of “the general law of capital accumulation.” He predicted that there will be a general growth and accumulation of capital (wealth which can be used for production of more wealth). Capital is driven to carry out the laws of capitalism by competition. As capitals grow, the mass of total capital in the economy grows. This also causes decentralization and the spread of separate capitals (businesses). He wrote, “Portions of the original capitals disengage themselves and function as new independent capitals…[causing] the division of property….The number of capitalists grows to a greater or less extent….The increase of each functioning capital is thwarted by the formation of new and the subdivision of old capitals….This splitting up of the total social capital into many individual capitals or the revulsion of its fractions one from another, is counteracted by their attraction.” (685-6)

Individual capitals grow bigger (“concentration”) and they also merge and take over other capitals (“centralization”). This is “their attraction,” reflecting the increasing socialization of a modern economy. However, “smaller capitals…crowd into spheres of production which modern industry has only sporadically or incompletely got hold of.” (687) “The additional capitals formed in the course of normal accumulation (…) serve mainly as vehicles for the exploitation of new inventions and discoveries, or of industrial improvements in general.” (689) These enterprises in a new fields compete viciously until a few firms win out and dominate the industry. Meanwhile “the credit system…becomes a new and formidable weapon in the competitive struggle, and finally it transforms itself into an immense social mechanism for the centralization of capitals.” (687)

Marx’s summarized this trend: “Nowadays, then, the mutual attraction of individual capitals and the tendency to centralization are stronger than ever before…. Centralization in a certain line of industry would have reached its extreme limit if all the individual capitals invested in it would have been amalgamated into one single capital. This limit would not have been reached in any particular society until the entire social capital would be united, either in the hands of one single capitalist, or in those of one single corporation.” (687-8) He did not mention government ownership (although it is hard to imagine the unification of “the entire social capital” without a merger with the state).

Marx did not actually predict that capitalism would ever reach such a final limit—before a workers’ revolution, for example. He presented it as the conclusion of a certain tendency, without saying whether he expected it to ever be completed in reality. He did not say that there would be an end to the countervailing tendencies of competition among capitals, dividing property, splitting capital, or making investments in new areas of the economy—tendencies which (he wrote) thwarted the complete concentration of capital.

There was a further discussion of this topic, not by Marx but by his friend and co-thinker, Friedrich Engels (1954). Marx is known to have gone over this book by Engels and presumably agreed with it; however, they were two separate people and Engels explained their common views in simpler, even cruder, versions, in order to popularize them. In this discussion, he wrote that capital tends to merge into “different kinds of joint stock companies” and then into “trusts” (in which the different corporations within an industry agree on common prices and plans). (384) These, he expected, would be followed by eventual mergers within whole industries, each into a united “gigantic joint stock company”—a monopoly.

“In any case, with trusts or without, the official representative of capitalist society—the state—will ultimately have to undertake the direction of production. This necessity for conversion into state property is first felt in…the post office, the telegraph, the railways.” (384-5) The completion of this trend would be what we would today call “state capitalism” (or “statified capitalism”). According to Engels, it would not be directed by the bourgeoisie, who would become idle parasites, but by a class of managers or bureaucrats. “All the social functions of the capitalists are now performed by salaried employees.” (385) The society would remain capitalist because the capital/labor relation continues in the process of production. The workers would still be exploited by the state bureaucrats (“salaried employees”) who would serve as agents of capital, carrying out the “social functions of the capitalists.” (Marx and Engels agreed with the anarchists that economic ownership by a capitalist state would still be capitalism. The disagreement was that Marx thought that nationalization by some sort of “workers’ state” would be the beginning of socialism. The anarchists did not believe in the possibility of a “workers’ state,” and expected such a program to lead to state capitalism with a bureaucratic ruling class—which it did.)

In my opinion, Engels (as compared to Marx) understated the continuation of competition and the countervailing tendency of capital to split, even under conditions of monopoly and statification. However, he did point to the fragility of the centralization tendency. “Trusts…, as soon as business becomes bad, are generally liable to break up.” (384) Engels then pointed to countervailing tendencies of a political nature. With trusts and monopolies, “the exploitation is so palpable that it must break down. No nation will put up with production conducted by trusts, with so barefaced an exploitation of the community by a small band of dividend-mongers.” (384)

As we know, there have been limited anti-trust laws passed and used to keep monopoly within certain boundaries, for the sake of the overall capitalist system. In the Soviet Union this “break down” was postponed for a long time because there were no “dividend-mongers,” just “salaried employees,” and because the “barefaced exploitation” was masked by a pseudo-socialist ideology.

Of complete state-owned capitalism, Engels wrote, “The capitalist relation is not done away with. It is rather brought to a head. But, brought to a head, it topples over.” (386) Exactly what he meant by this is unclear (at least to me). Possibly he meant that there might be some sort of economic crisis would would cause the system to crash. Or he may have expected that if capitalism reached such a degree of unification, it would provoke a revolution. Nor is it clear whether Engels expected capitalism to actually evolve into a completely statified form, before there was a socialist revolution. When he wrote that “the state will ultimately have to” take over the capitalist economy, just what did he mean by “ultimately”? Did he expect capitalism to reach this “ultimate” development? What is clear, however, is that he saw capitalist centralization as a dominant trend but one which was also fragile and brittle.

In summary, Marx believed that there was a main, long-term, trend toward concentration and centralization of capital. This trend, he saw, developed in a zig-zag pattern—as it has. Contrary to Tabor and Rush, Marx did know that concentration was interfered with by counter trends toward the decentralization and splitting of capitals. Both tendencies co-exist and interact, dialectically. Even should a full state capitalism develop (as happened in the Soviet Union and Maoist China), it would have an underlying fragility, facing countervailing trends of internal competition and subdivision.

Most theorists of state capitalism did not understand the countervailing tendency of capital to split into many smaller capitals—in Engels’ words, of statified capitalism to eventually “break down” and “topple over.” This caused almost all of them to fail to foresee that the Soviet Union and similar states would eventually break down into traditional, overtly-market-based, forms of capitalism.

Kropotkin’s Criticism of Marx on Centralization of Capital

Interestingly, the influential anarchist Peter Kropotkin also criticized Marx’s ideas on the tendency of capital to centralize and expand. Kropotkin rejected the argument in “Marx’s Kapital…in which the author spoke of the concentration of capital and saw in it the ‘fatality of a natural law’.” (1985; 144) Kropotkin blamed this conception for the social democrats’ positive attitude toward capitalist centralization, which contributed to their centralized conception of socialism. Instead, he focused on the spread of small scale industry. A friend of his wrote a book, “The Concentration of Capital: A Marxian Fallacy.” (159) Kropotkin suspected that Marx would have changed his mind with more experience: “Very probably he would have mitigated the absoluteness of his early formulae….” (145) As I have demonstrated, Marx’s “formulae” of a tendency toward centralization were not “absolute.”

Kropotkin did not wholly deny the existence of such a tendency. Despite “the extreme slowness with which the wrecking of small industries goes on…a number of petty trades in Germany are already doomed to disappear…. The hand-loom against the power-loom is evidently nothing but a survival….The same [growth] is true with regard to many branches of the iron industries, hardware fabrication, pottery, and so on.” (145) “The great iron works and mining enterprises decidedly belong in this category; ocean steamers cannot be built in village factories.” (153)

However, he also argued that much of the economic centralization and concentration was not due to technology—not to increased productivity due to improved machinery. Rather it was due solely to reasons of capitalist profitability. There was increased cheapness in mass buying, decreased expenses in wholesale selling, better ability to dominate and organize the market, greater control over the work force, etc.. Such factors led to big firms and big factories regardless of technical improvements in productivity.
Marx’s analysis would not disagree with this important point. This is especially true in the epoch of monopoly-finance capital, of the financialized accumulation of fictitious capital, and of modern imperialism.

Kropotkin had a different approach to economics than Marx had, although both approaches are valuable. Marx was interested in showing the workers how capitalism worked and what factors within it could lead to a socialist revolution. But Kropotkin wrote, “Political economy…become[s] a science devoted to the study of the needs of men and of the means of satisfying them with the least possible waste of energy….” (17) That is, his focus was on what a future society could be like. Because of this perspective, he was mostly interested in demonstrating that a more decentralized, self-managed, society was technologically possible under communist-anarchism. And that is what he did.

Second Topic: The Labor Theory of Value and the Law of Value

A central part of Marx’s critique of political economy is the “labor theory of value.” Despite their many qualitative differences, all the goods and services of the economy may be evaluated quantitatively as worth certain amounts of (some sort of) money. Economically speaking, this is their “value.” Like almost all political economists before him (Smith, Ricardo, Proudhon, etc.), Marx regarded the basis of value to be the amount of labor that went into making each commodity. Commodities with equal amounts of labor have equal values and are exchanged for each other—via money (this is the “law of value”). All societies have ways of organizing their total supply of human labor. The law of value, enforced through competition, is the way in which capitalism organizes its total labor.

There is, however, a process by which values are expressed in money prices: what counts is not the actual labor which goes into each commodity but the average socially necessary amount of labor time it takes to make that commodity; competition causes the unpaid part of the labor (surplus value) of each commodity to be expressed in the average rate of profit; immediate supply-and-demand moves prices up and down in the short term; and monopoly power may raise or lower the prices. (This is gone into in more detail in Price 2013; also see its recommended further reading.) In any case, Marx is not really interested in predicting the specific prices of individual commodities, but in the overall movements of the economy.

Tabor rejects Marx’s view of value. “…Marx’s theory of value is either wrong or in need of considerable modification.” (2013; 135) Rush (2014) also feels that the labor theory of value “has no validity…it is effectively meaningless.” Tabor gives several reasons, but his main reason is that Marx does not take into consideration the value added by nonhuman natural resources. “The products of nature do have value behind what human labor may add to them….Human labor is not the sole source of value….” (2013; 135) This, or something like it, is a widespread criticism. “It is often argued that Marx’s value analysis understates nature’s importance as a condition of capitalist production…[but these] assertions are based on a fundamental misunderstanding of Marx’s value theory.” (Burkett 2014; 69)

As Tabor acknowledges, Marx did not deny the importance of nature. In his “Critique of the Gotha Program,” Marx attacked the statement that “Labor is the source of all wealth.” Instead, he wrote, “Labor is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use-values (and surely these are what make up material wealth!) as labor.” (1992; 341) The relation of natural resources and processes to value is covered repeatedly in Capital (Marx 1906).

Marx distinguishes between the use-value (utility) of a commodity, and its value (the main basis of price). Air has enormous use-value but no value. Capitalist manufacturers care only that the product they make has a use-value for someone else who has money to buy it. The manufacturers do not themselves care otherwise about the use-value of their product. All they care about is the value: that is, they spend money to make the product and hope to make back even more money after selling it. They care about their total wage bill, their total cost of materials, and the total amount of time it takes to make the things. Not what use their products are.

If they can get the workers to make more of the commodities in the same amount of time, this raises the total use-value (there are more of whatever they are making) but not necessarily the value. Suppose 10 hours of labor had been used to make 100 wickets, but now 10 hours can produce 200 wickets. They are using up more wicket-material in 10 hours, but not more labor time, so the wickets have each decreased in value. The material aside (which stays constant per wicket, let’s say)—where 100 wickets used to be worth 10 hours of labor, now 200 wickets are worth 10 hours of labor. Increased productivity results in cheaper products (inflation aside).

There is no value without use-value. Without the materials of nature, nothing could be worked on. This combination of use-value with value is called “exchange value” by Marx, which is necessary if a commodity is to have a price. So Marx insists on the importance of nature (and eventually, worked-up materials and machines) for the creation of exchange value.

Tabor criticizes Marx for a false conception of nature, that it has use-value but not value. He even blames Marx for the environmental destructiveness of the Soviet Union; it was because the bureaucrats were Marxists, he claims, that they ignored the real goodness of nature. He completely misses the point.

It was not Marx who turned natural resources and processes into a lack of economic value. Marx was not expressing his personal opinion of the valuelessness of nature. Instead, Marx was saying that capitalism treats nature as if it were valueless! This is his criticism of capitalism, not his program for socialism. Capitalism treats everything as a homogeneous and quantifiable substance, “value,” alienating nature socially from its actual qualities. Capitalism is driven to endlessly accumulate value, regardless of its effects on the world. Capitalism incorporates everything, regardless of how it starts out, into its system of commodities.

Is this an accurate depiction of capitalism’s approach to nature or isn’t it? Doesn’t capitalism treat nature as a bottomless mine pit? A resource to be used without regard to its regeneration? We know that it does. This is why Marx wrote about the ways capitalism depleted the soil and poisoned the environment, as well as wearing out the working class. It is why Marx and Engels stated that under socialism there had to be an integration of town and country, of industry and agriculture (Engels 1954)—similar in that regard to the vision of the anarchists (Kropotkin 1985).

As raw materials get used up and more difficult to access, they require more labor to mine and this raises their value. And, as natural materials become rarer, they become monopolies and semi-monopolies, permitting their owners to drain off value from the total value produced elsewhere. In fact, Marx had a lengthy discussion of how the landlords’ monopoly of natural land leads to various forms of (unproductive) rent, draining surplus value from the capitalist manufacturers.

Much more could be written about Marx’s approach to value (and has been). The point here is that Marx was fully aware of the contribution—and necessity—of nature, its materials and process, in creating exchange value. Marx used a value analysis to expose how capitalism misused nature. (There are a number of books which discuss Marx’s theories in relation to nature; Tabor and Rush should have looked at them before commenting on the topic. See Burkett 2005; 2014; Foster 2000; 2009.)

Kropotkin and Other Anarchists on Value

Kropotkin criticizes “certain economists [who] tell us that ‘in a perfectly free market the price of commodities is measured by the amount of labor socially necessary for their production’….Modern economists of both the middle class and the social-democratic camps…do not know that every law of nature has a conditional character….In every case there is an ‘if’—a condition.” (1975; 80-2)

While various Marxist writers may have expressed themselves in absolutist terms, Marx (1906) clearly explains that all his “laws” are best seen as “tendencies,” which are modified and interfered with by countervailing tendencies.

Schmidt & van der Walt (2009) summarize the criticisms of Marx’s value theory by Kropotkin, Alexander Berkman, and some other anarchists: “Prices were affected [not only] by labor time, [but also] by levels of supply and demand, and were also manipulated by powerful monopolies and the state.” (90) As I have already stated (in my very condensed explanation above), this is completely consistent with Marx’s economic theory. The labor time which goes into each commodity is altered by the transformation of its surplus value into the average profit, affected by overall demand (if more of a commodity has been produced than there was a demand for, a portion of the labor was wasted and thus not “socially necessary”), raised or lowered by the effects of monopoly (including state influence), and altered in the short run by the jerking around of immediate supply-and-demand—to become a commodity’s price.

Third Topic: The Working Class

The area where Marxism most clearly overlaps with class-struggle anarchism is in their mutual support for the modern working class—the proletariat (while advocating alliances of the working class with all oppressed classes and groupings). From Bakunin and Kropotkin to the anarchist-syndicalists and anarchist-communists, this has been the class-orientation of revolutionary anarchism.

In this Marxism has a contradictory position. For Marx and Engels and the early Marxists, its conscious goal was to champion the working class. Yet in practice, Marxism has led not to the triumph of the workers but to the victory of another class altogether, what Engels referred to (above) as the “salaried employees” (bureaucrats) who served capital-accumulating states. This was what anarchists had always predicted would be the result of the Marxist program.

Interpreting Marxism from the first, radically-democratic, perspective (focusing on its analysis and not on its statist program): “The heart of the theory is this proposition: that there is a social majority which has the interest and motivation to change the system….This is the exploited class, the working class, from which comes the eventual motive-force of revolution….even if they seem backward at a given time and place. Capital, after all, is nothing but the demonstration of the economic basis of this proposition.” (Draper 1992; 10)

Marx argued that capitalism has created a collectivized, cooperating, class of waged (and salaried) workers (and their families). This class grows from a large minority of the population to a majority (including “blue collar,” “white collar”, and “pink collar” workers). They are concentrated in factories and workplaces, and in cities. Potentially they have great strategic power, with their hands on the means of production, transportation, communication, and services. The system creates a mass of poverty, unemployment, and suffering at its lowest levels. Even the better-off workers are affected by exploitation, periodic depressions, job insecurity, and other evils (such as wars and ecological disasters). The workers tend to develop a consciousness of their common exploitation and then a revolutionary desire to transform society.

Is this perspective true? Tabor simply does not discuss it. Instead he focuses on the question of whether Marxism says that a proletarian revolution is inevitable. He concludes that Marx sometimes indicated that he thought it was inevitable but sometimes implied only that it was possible—but that the emphasis of Marx’s writing was on inevitability. Tabor argues—correctly, in my opinion—that the concept of socialism as inevitable points in a totalitarian direction. If revolution is inevitable, then there is no moral choice involved and no freedom; if history then produces mass-murdering totalitarian states which call themselves “socialist,” there is no moral reason allowed to reject them. This argument is valid, but Tabor does not discuss whether Marx has demonstrated that there are forces at least pushing in the direction of working class consciousness—forces which make a revolution of the working class and its allies possible, even if not inevitable.

Rush concludes, “Everything that Marx worked for his entire life…was aimed at bringing about the proletarian revolution that Marx forecast…. If such a revolution is not inevitable, nothing remains for a true Marxist to do….” I am not interested in being “a true Marxist.” However, I do agree that Marx worked his entire life to bring about a revolution of the working class and its allies—making some big mistakes but also some major contributions. “If such a revolution is not inevitable, nothing remains” for an antiauthoritarian socialist to do but to continue to work for a proletarian revolution.

This was also an issue among anarchists. Errico Maletesta criticized Kropotkin for his belief that anarchist communism was inevitable. I doubt that there are any anarchists today—and not that many Marxists—who would claim that a revolution is inevitable before nuclear war or global warming or other civilization-destroying catastrophe. And many anarchists (including Bookchin) have written off the working class. This is somewhat contradictory, since the proletariat is the majority in the imperialist (industrialized) countries and at least a large minority in the rest of the world. If the working class is not revolutionary there cannot be a popular revolution! It is true that the working class is not currently for socialist revolution, and many workers (in the U.S.) are quite conservative, but this was not always true and what is true today is not necessarily true forever. History is not over. “Nothing remains to do” but to work for a total social change. It is not a matter of prediction but of commitment.

Conclusion: “The Marxian Analysis is as Pertinent as Ever”

Paul Mattick, Sr., wrote a 1962 essay on Karl Korsch (both were libertarian Marxists—“council communists”—and Mattick joined the IWW in the U.S.). They criticized Marxist “philosophy,” namely, “The inflation of dialectical materialism into an eternal law of cosmic development, which Friedrich Engels initiated….” They felt that Marx’s rare statements about the transition to an eventual classless, stateless, communism actually permitted the development of state capitalism. “His pronouncements in this respect remained opaque….The planned economy controlled from above, the new state-apparatus which realized party dictatorship—all this…could well appear to conform to Marxian theory….The Marxism evolved by Marx and Engels…had not been able to rid itself of its bourgeois
inheritance….” (Mattick 2007; 153-4)

And yet, “the Marxian analysis of the capitalist mode of production and of its historical development is as pertinent as ever;…none of of the social problems that beset Marx’s world have ceased besetting the world of today and [they] are visibly driving it towards its own destruction….The proletariat not only exists but increases all over the globe with the capitalist industrialization of hitherto-underdeveloped nations….In brief, all capitalistic contradictions remain intact and require other than capitalistic solutions.” (154)

From the point of view of revolutionary class-struggle anarchist-socialism, I believe that this judgement remains true, both the negative statements about Marx’s Marxism as well as the positive ones. Marx’s critique of political economy remains useful for anarchists.


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Review of Ronald D. Tabor, The Tyranny of Theory. ” Anarkismo.

Rush, Peter (2014). “Review of Ronald Tabor’s The Tyranny of Theory.” The Utopian.

Schmidt, Michael, & van der Walt, Lucien (2009). Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism; Counterpower Vol. 1. Oakland CA: AK Press.

Tabor, Ron (2013). The Tyranny of Theory: A Contribution to the Anarchist Critique of Marxism. Edmonton, Alberta, Canada: Black Cat Press.

*written for



well isn't this just like deja vu all over again.

I know, how many times does Wayne Price have to write an article defending Marxist political economy? He already wrote a book about it. That really should be enough.

well just because you got a product doesn't mean people will buy it. you've got to market it, sell it, for people to buy it.

Just call it the "Wayne Price/Anarchismo disease". Same old analysis, repeated over and over, and over and over again. Till you get nauseated from anarchist theory.

Yeah -- come on! You can't expect intellectual engagement with stuff like this on, now, can you?

hey, Kevin, how's it going?

just a quick rebuttal. previously, there has been some intriguing dialogue in regards to Price's texts from commentators along with Price himself chiming in on some @news comments. get a grip, and stop trolling. if you'd like to have actual conversation and debate about the ideas herein please do, but refrain from silliness. cheers.

Marxian economics had a lot of useful insights for its time but it has been drastically overrated, both in terms of its effectiveness in describing how capitalism really works, and the fact that it isn't nearly as original as people think it is. Most of what Marx talked about could already be found in William Thompson, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, and David Ricardo.

Check out Nitzan and Bichler's capital-as-power framework for political economy.

It overcomes the blind spots of Marxian economics and fits anarchist politics and social theory far better than Marx ever did.

Also be sure to check out David Graeber's essay in which he proposes a new value theory he calls the "ethnographic theory of value" for understanding not just economics, but human society in general.

is the only economist ima take instruction from.

For reals!?

I was hoping for some sort of serious response from anarchist readers on this list. Unfortunately *not one person* has anything to say beyond that they do not like what I think (and what Bakunin and many other anarchists have thought). This makes me wonder why they bother to let the world know that they disapprove. Only Connor Owns seems to have thought about the subject, although he too has nothing to say about the actual essay. One reader even expresses loyalty to the right-wing market fetishist FA Hayek. Another appears to be "nauseated from anarchist theory." Thanks for trying Rocinante.

You got the response you deserved, is all. You repeat yourself over and over again, and yet think you're entitled to some kind of fresh critique of your stale re-hashings? Guess again.

Comrade Price, you are a two-trick pony. Trick #1: "Anarchists should embrace Marxist economics and organizational forms because, you know, I was a Marxist once, and I got a lot out of it." Trick #2: "Anarchists should stop criticizing the intrusion of Marxist economics and organizational forms because, you know, I was a Marxist once, and I got a lot out of it." This is the elevation of one person's subjective experience(s) into an analytic and strategic framework, in which that framework becomes more important than the subjective experiences of others; then the one person is constantly puzzled by the widespread questioning, criticism, and/or rejection of that elevation. This is one of the worst aspects of soft authoritarianism: questioning the good faith of others after you've shown yourself utterly incapable of doing so yourself. I suppose that's too psychological to grasp, but anarchists at their best have been far more aware of the pitfalls of analytical and strategic certitudes than Marxists. Even so, it's hard not to feel a little sorry for you; you keep trying to wake us principled anti-authoritarians out of our dogmatic slumber, but you can't quite manage it beyond the same small cluster of unimaginative left anarchists.

I didn't respond to the essay specifically because there really isn't much to respond to. You've frequently penned essays and articles presenting a case for why social anarchists should become Marxists with regard to economics (if they aren't already) and this is just yet another one of those.

Personally I find that Marx's own economic writings are a valuable contribution to political economy for their time; but they aren't nearly as original as people believe and in many cases have been shown to be just wrong.

With regard to Marxian economics as a tradition it's a similar story. Though at least Marx himself bothered to look at those economists whose work he was incorporating critically. Marxists have a habit of assuming (at worst) that everything Marx wrote was correct and that it's reality that gets it wrong sometimes. They keep trying to squint and readjust the world in their minds to fit the theory rather than throwing the theory out when it no longer adequately describes the world.

That's why I suggested in my very short comment that social anarchists ought to look to other sources for economic understanding - as Kropotkin and many other anarchists did; whose distinctly non-Marxian understanding of economics I don't find you covered well in the above article.

Here's what my essay says: I disagree with a range of Marx's views, enumerated from the beginning to the end of the essay. I note that Bakunin, Bookchin, and many other anarchists found Marx's political economy useful. I then go over three topics in which anarchists (Ron Tabor and Kropotkin) have criticized Marx's economic views and I write responses. Wow, I am then accused of saying nothing new or interesting!

I find these responses quite puzzling. After all, it has been some time since I wrote something on political economy, but the writers think that I "frequently" write on the subject. I am accused of not understanding "the widespread questioning, criticism, and/or rejection" of my views. But what I do not understand is the lack of questioning and criticism of my views. That is, of simple sneering rejection without serious discussion. I am accused of "questioning the good faith of others" which cannot be shown in anything I have written here. Connor Owens is the only one to raise an actual issue, namely that I did not "cover well" the views of Kropotkin "and many other anarchists" without a word of explanation of what (he thinks) I wrote incorrectly.

That anarchists disagree among ourselves is not a problem. That we do not engage in healthy discussion about the disagreements is a problem.

In order for there to be a discussion (healthy or otherwise), the topic needs to hold some kind if interest to those interested in discussion. Your lament reminds me of political science geeks who try to engage anarchists in "healthy discussions" about the nature of statecraft and its various forms. How can that be interesting to people whose philosophy posits the abolition of the state? So why is it necessary for people whose vision includes the abolition of economy to discuss the relative value of Marxist political economy? If you need a theory of World Historical Importance to explain to anarchists how capitalism is based on exploitation, knock yourself out -- nobody's stopping you. But you need to recognize that not all anarchists capable of engaging in "healthy discussions" will be interested in the same topics as you. If I wrote something about one of my hobbies (a hobby I found to be integral to my understanding of anarchism) I still wouldn't expect all other anarchists to engage in a discussion about it. I'd be ready to receive plenty of dismissals from people I might consider to have an insufficient understanding of my hobby, or ridicule for having the hobby in the first place...
A lack of interest will mean a lack of discussion. An economic analysis of capitalism is not required to recognize that capitalism is tucked up.

You have every right to be uninterested in my topic. Why then do you write comments? Just to declare that you are uninterested? Very strange.

My critics are correct. I do want to persuade people of my opinions. Don't you (I ask Anonymous)? I am not talking about hobbies here, or taste in art and music, or personal philosophy. I am talking about what we think is causing the world crisis and what are the social forces which can change it. This is important stuff and we should be discussing it. Or so I think.

Maybe that's just it Wayne. Who are you trying to persuade? The snarky cyber-nihilists who stink this place up? I take it as a given that there's a class war, the specifics of which can be broadly understood using the world views of many of the writers you mentioned.

At what point is it necessary to have a really in-depth analysis of economics when you're viewing the world from the perspective of a wage-slave, looking at a life-time of debt and more wage-slavery? You know you're getting fucked intuitively and I've done the reading and understand a lot of the how and why but I have comrades who don't bother and it barely matters cause here we all are, getting fucked just the same.

Unless you're a platformist, designing your castle-in-the-air for that ridiculous hypothetical of winning an election or total, prole revolution, what does the average anarchist gain by developing their economic analysis past the point of being able to understand why everyone who makes less than 100k a year should hate the status quo?

I reject rights, but thanks anyway.
"Why then do you write comments? Just to declare that you are uninterested?" Like most people who write comments, I do it because it amuses me. The topic you pick may be uninteresting to me, but the way you insist that your interests should be the same as all other anarchists is certainly interesting -- as a position to object to and reject as being authoritarian. Indeed, most of your published writing is in the same vein, and it is always interesting to me to point out the (b)latent authoritarianism of self-declared anarchists.

"I do want to persuade people of my opinions. Don't you?" Declaring my opinions are enough; I don't need or want to persuade other people that my opinions are correct or proper or important. That's for others to decide based on my arguments and observations. Once I've offered my opinions, it's up to others to use them or not. I'm not looking for recruits or converts.

"I am not talking about hobbies here..." Nobody who considers her/himself to be the possessor of some correct analysis of World Historical Importance believes that this analysis (and the sharing of it) is a hobby, but really Wayne, it looks an awful lot like a hobby from where I'm sitting. Plenty of anarchists have criticized and/or rejected Marx's economic theories and analyses, from Proudhon to Brian Morris (in his classic 1980s pamphlet "Marxism vs Reality"), and I maintain that anarchists don't need a Marxist analysis of capitalism to recognize that capitalism is fucked up. Your interest in Marxist economics is akin to my interest in Milgram's and Zimbardo's studies of obedience and power: neither is so crucial to anarchism that anarchists who ignore them do so at their own peril, not just as anarchists, but as human beings. To believe otherwise is ridiculous, and perhaps a little megalomaniacal. At the very least, there's an element of hyperbole to it.

You have every right to be interested in Marxist economic theory, but to elevate your analysis of it into World Historical Importance is just an unfortunate reminder of your earlier immersion in Marxism, and doesn't really add much to the analytical strength of anarchism.

Basically Marx is obsolete! His critique of capitalism is sound if approached from an aesthetic tangent, but the socioeconomic dynamics are almost inverted from what they were 150yrs ago. Certainly there still exists division of labor and wage value inequalities, but just by applying the modern bureaucratic computer management and mass identification data bases, people on basic wage with a steady job can take out a mortgage which in Marx's day would not have been possible. Thus, the former working class have become and adopted the values of the bourgeois class, and those without jobs, having increased, add to the prison/ homeless population. Marx was relevant for his era only!

"Thus, the former working class have become and adopted the values of the bourgeois class, and those without jobs, having increased, add to the prison/ homeless population. Marx was relevant for his era only!"

Wouldn't Marx just call those without jobs the "reserve army of labor?"

A few minutes remain! If he was alive today he would have seen that computerized mechanization has just as the early mills created a 'reserve army of labor' but would realize that the possibility of increasing productivity, which is also the capitalists mantra, in a finite market place, unless the population grows, to man the factories, thus the vicious cycle of overpopulation, the modern medicine for the quick hit to keep the worker functioning, the whole industrial structure resembling an ant farm! NO! No more labor, yes Marx would call it that, but now it is the 'reserve army of non-workerists'!

include not only our friends in the remaining " lumpen" labor force
but also other large swarths of peoples who are made and made
impotent by the State and all its apologists.
the struggle mainly centers on issues of Gender (Patriarchy), Migrancy( the "stranger), and Race ( , our corporeal bodies) as centers of containment , discipline, and control.
these are all characterized by fundamental attacks (frontal and otherwise) against the main Structures of Power
at this most recent phase of our post-modern, cybernetic historical period. With the industrial class of Globalized workplace history as a displaced arena of contest, these different and
widespread forces show key attributes including : movement, intensity , multiplicity, expressivity.
desire, deterritorialization , affirmation and with abilities to link up with one- and- other. They are in-situ expressions of peoples -yet-to-come. they are
always already here as emergent happenings which go far beyond the Binary structures of Marxist "categories".
Probably they are eruptions of response to our post-industrial developments, among other useful ways of looking at it.
The world is devolving into an experimental laboratory of creative connectivity. this new world( better:worlds) is on the move,
multifaceted, difficult to "get a fix on", and all easily dismissed as just the result of Marxist "Superstructures". Instead they actually create the map for
our potential to diagram with aesthetic rendition : the future of our new -earths to- be; right before our very eyes.
let's enjoy and enjoin all of the multiplicity of forces that we encounter and nurture them in their diversity and
and there ubiquity. there is no one "Cause". there is no one "Cure". There are instead many "goings-on".
let"s take every advantage we can have of these situations. remember the Three Musketeers: All for one, and one for @ll!!
Hope. Opportunity. Determination. Prescience. The Praxes of our time.

Touche! Its interesting also to see borders in Europe being reduced to what they actually are by migrations, the paper bureaucratic tape tearing from the power of collective nomadic journeys.

Price appears to be annoyed that none of the above comments addressed specific points in his essay. Well when people reject the entire premise of the essay to begin with - that anarchists should follow Bakunin/Bookchin/ect and become economic Marxists - what did he expect?

For my own part it just seemed to be making arguments from authority (Marx's economics were good enough for X, so they should be good enough for us), reviewing somebody else's rejection of Marx, then a short few words on Kropotkin which I took to basically be arguing "well, yeah, but Kropotkin's economics are still more or less compatible with Marx's because they focused on different areas". Maybe. But Marx's own economics are flawed to the point where I wouldn't regard such a project as worth pursuing in any case.

Many of us have already read your book on the subject and your essays/articles in which you push for a "Marxist-informed anarchism" (Marxo-anarchism if you will), so there really isn't anything worth going into further as I'm pretty sure it would just entail resurrecting decades-old debates about Marxian economics and historical materialism here in the comments section and be a waste of time on everyone's part.

That's why I instead used the space to offer suggestions - to anyone willing to look into them - on alternatives anarchists could use as a means of analysing and critiquing capitalism. Namely Jonathan Nitzan and Shimschon Bichler's capital-as-power framework and David Graeber's ethnographic theory of value as an alternative to the Marxian labour theory of value.

Wayne Price however refused to engage with these and simply ignored them. They very thing he himself complained about.

People who have already made up their mind that there is nothing to be gained for anarchists to look at Marx's political economy (some of whom, according to Connor Owens, have previously read my book or articles) certainly have no reason to engage with my essay. This is even though it was directly written as an answer to critics of my opinions, defending my views against criticisms. If you ain't interested, then you ain't interested. Why you would then write some wisecrack to declare your lack of interest is still beyond me, but not really important, I guess.

I did not respond to Conner's references to alternate theories of political economy because I know nothing about these theories at this time and did not want to go wandering off into a totally separate discussion. Perhaps another time.

Why do I write about political economy? Because I want to say nice things about Marx? Hardly. It is because, while anonymous may be convinced that capitalism is bad and exploitative, not everyone else is. In fact most people are not. One person on this list has identified with Hayek! Another reader, Le Way, does not believe that workers are exploited; they can buy houses with mortgages, he writes--after the burst housing bubble and the many who lost their homes, such as sister-in-law! I want to persuade them...not you. Further, I think that it is not enough to believe that capitalism is bad and exploitative. It is useful to understand how it works, for example, why there was a prosperous period after WWII and why it is over and will not return.

And it is important for developing a strategy. Many anarchists reject the important role of the working class in an eventual revolution, while others of us see the working class as important, if not the only force. All these are reasons for using political economy, and--I have argued--the most useful version is that of Marx. None of this is set in stone, but I do not think my views are absurd or just a personal "hobby."

Then would you please shut the fuck up? Thank you. Sheesh.

Now it just sounds like you're trying to convince yourself...

Fair enough if you're unfamiliar with those theories I mentioned. I recommended them because having gone through Marxian economics (including from an anarchist perspective in your book and through Kevin Carson's Marxian/Austrian synthesis) I've found David Graeber's new version of the labour theory of value to be a superior tool for analysing not just capitalism, but human society in general, than the Marx's classical labour theory of value.

It has too many blind spots and was slanted (understandibly) from the perspective of a middle class man surrounded by the factory system of England in the 19th century. Thus it couldn't help but give excessive focus to the then ascendant urban/industrial working class, the production of material commodities over ideational/affective labour, and ignore the crucial role of women's (usually unwaged) labour - relegated to the sphere of "reproduction".

I also recommended the capital-as-power framework because it's a fairly new body of theory for understanding capitalism which shares many of Marxian economics' concerns, but tries to look at the 150+ years since its inception and examine where it went wrong - as well as where neoclassical/liberal economics went wrong - and come up with a new understanding of capitalist political economy.

I actually find it far more compatible with social anarchism than Marxism in that it is concerned with all forms of hierarchical power, not just economic exploitation, does not separate the economic sphere from the political sphere as most economic schools (including Marxism) do, and tries to deduce from empirical data exactly what makes the ruling class tick and how we might better fight them.

Whether the "we" is the traditional working class, the "workers and oppressed", the people, the multitude, the masses or whatever else.

Even if you choose to stay within the Marxian tradition it's still worth exploring these ideas to gain an added understanding.

I can't speak for everybody here - most of them seem to be "post-left" anarchists which whom I have little in common - but yes, I at least have read your book and articles on Marxian economics, so my own response reflects that.

To reiterate, there didn't seem to be much purpose in engaging with the essay itself because it was just more of the same. I've already rejected Marxian economics as a framework for understanding capitalism (and yes, anarchists do need one, despite what Anonymous says) so I thought to go into detail about why it was wrong would just be resurrecting decades-old arguments around it which still haven't been settled.

Also, one final note, as something of a Bookchin aficionado, he may have accepted a large part of Marx's descriptive critique of capitalism, but completely rejected its conclusion that the working class (as traditionally understood) were a revolutionary subject as Marx claimed they were.

According to him, the proletariat, far from becoming the antagonist of capital, could only ever become integrated into it. The capitalist work process, far from making workers more revolutionary - more eager to break out of their chains - had the opposite effect; it had an adaptive function which dissolved them into the work routine and instilled the productivist work ethic.

Looking back at the history of revolutions, whenever proletarians revolted, it was when they were fairly new to the capitalist work process, being former independent artisans/peasants or the children of such. In other words, people who grew up having some idea of what economic autonomy was actually like and wanting it back from the dull hum of the factory system (or office/store system today).

That's why he felt the necessity of an expanded concept of class struggle; moving it beyond workplaces and into communities and into the culture (though he eventually went too far in his later years). The working class could only become revolutionary if they shed their very "worker-ness" and rejected the productivist work ethic and the logic of organising the economy that goes along with it.

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