Economic Theory of the Leisure Class. Nikolai Bukharin 1919

Chapter VI

If we consider Böhm-Bawerk’s “system” as a whole and then seek to determine the specific weight of its various parts, it becomes apparent that his theory of value constitutes the basis for his theory of profits. His theory of value is therefore a mere subterfuge; and this is not true only of Böhm-Bawerk. The theory of “assignment” (imputation) in Friedrich von Wieser serves the latter in deriving the share of capital, of labour, and of the soil, from which he thereupon, by a confusion of conceptions, derives the shares of the capitalists, the workers, and the landed proprietors, as if the latter were “natural” quantities, independent of the condition of the social exploitation of the proletariat. We find the same situation again in John Bates Clark, the most prominent representative of the American School. Everywhere we encounter the same motive: the theory of value is used as a theoretical starting point in order to justify the modern order of society; in this lies the “social value” of the theory of marginal utility for those classes which have an interest in maintaining this social order. The weaker the logical foundations of this theory, the stronger is one’s psychological attachment to it, since one does not wish to desert the narrow mental sphere defined by the static conception of capitalism. But Marxism is characterised particularly by the broad view constituting the basis of its entire structure, namely, the dynamic point of view which considers capitalism as merely a phase of the social evolution. The Marxian political economy makes use even of the law of value as an epistemological aid in the revelation of the laws of motion of the entire capitalist mechanism. The fact that the category of price, for the explanation of which we need particularly a theory of value, constitutes a general category of the commodities universe, is by no means sufficient to make political economy as such a mere science of “chrematistics”; on the contrary, the analysis of the exchange relations leads us far beyond the limits of exchange, if the problem is rightly formulated. From the point of view of Marxism, exchange itself is merely one of the historically temporary forms of the distribution of commodities. But since any form of distribution occupies a definite place in the process of reproduction of the production conditions which this form of distribution involves, it is obvious that only the narrow-minded attitude characteristic of all the trends of bourgeois theoretical thought could limit the discussion to the market relations or to the available “supply of commodities” as a basis for study. The functional role of exchange, as a necessary natural law phenomenon, immanent in any society of producers of commodities, cannot be understood either by those who limit their attention to an analysis of the “richesses vénales” with which the market deals, or by those whose eyes are fixed on the relation between the consumption object given in advance, the “goods,” and the economic individual. Yet it is perfectly clear how the problem may be correctly formulated.

“In the operation of all the exchange transactions possible in this [i.e., a commodities-producing — N.B.] society, there must ultimately emerge an element which, in the case of a communist society, consciously regulated, is consciously determined by the social central organ, namely, what is to be produced and how much, where and by whom. In short, the exchange must give to the producers of commodities the same thing which is given to the members of the socialist society by their authorities, consciously regulating production, determining the order of labour, etc. It is the task of theoretical economy to determine the law of the exchange transactions thus determined. From this law, we must likewise derive the regulation of production in the commodities-producing societies; just as we must derive the undisturbed progress of the socialist economy from the laws, ordinances and regulations of socialist authorities. But this law does not directly and consciously prescribe human conduct in production, but rather operates after the fashion of a natural law, with ‘social inevitability’.” (R. Hilferding: Das Finanzkapital, pp. 2, 3.)

In other words, we are faced with the problem of analysing an inorganically constructed society of commodities producers in course of evolution and growth, i.e., a definite subjective system operating under the conditions of dynamic equilibrium. The question is how is this equilibrium possible under these conditions? The labour value theory has an answer to this question. The evolution of human society is possible only when its productive forces are expanding, i.e., when social labour is productive.[151] In a commodities economy, this fundamental fact must find expression on the surface of phenomena, i.e., on the commodities market. It is an empirical observation constituting the basis of the labour value theory, that prices fall as the productivity of labour increases. On the other hand, it is precisely the fluctuations of prices in a social commodities economy which produces the redistribution of the productive forces. Thus the phenomena of the market are connected with those of reproduction, i.e., with the dynamics of the entire capitalist mechanism in its social bearings.

Again, assuming that there is a connection between the fundamental phenomenon, namely, the evolution of the productive forces, and the objectively realised prices, the problem is to find the characteristic traits of this connection. A careful analysis will show that this connection is quite complicated; the entire third volume of Karl Marx’s Capital is devoted to the treatment of this connection. The theory of value here appears as an objective law expressing the connection between various series of social phenomena. There is nothing more ridiculous, therefore, than the attempt to make Marx’s theory an “ethical” theory. Marx’s theory knows no other natural law than that of cause and effect, and can admit no other such law. The value theory discloses these causal relations, which express not only the logical sequence of the market, but of the entire mechanism of the system.

The case with distribution is similar. The process of distribution proceeds by means of formulations of value, the “social” relation between the capitalist and the worker is expressed in an “economic” formula, for labour power becomes a commodity. But having once become a commodity, and having been drawn into the cycle of the circulation of commodities, it becomes at once subject, if for no other reason, to the elemental law of price and value. As little as the capitalist system could continue to exist at all in the field of commodities circulation without the regulative effect of the theory of value, so little also could capital reproduce its own domination were it not for the existence of laws immanent in the reproduction of labour power as such. But since the expended labour power develops more social labour energy than is necessary for its social reproduction, the conditions are realised for a possible surplus value which accrues constantly to the purchasers of labour power by virtue of the laws of the circulation of commodities, i.e., to the owners of the means of production. The evolution of the productive forces, which is accomplished in capitalist society by the mechanism of competition, here assumes the form of the accumulation of capitals, on which depends also the movement of labour power; the evolution of the productive forces, furthermore, is constantly accompanied by a displacement and a dying out of whole production groups, in which the individual labour value of the commodities exceeds their social labour value.

Thus the theory of value is the fundamental law of the entire working of the capitalist system. It is obvious that this law manifests itself to the accompaniment of constant “disturbances,” since it constitutes an expression of the contradictory nature of capitalist society. It is self-evident that the contradictory nature of capitalist society, which is leading the latter to an inevitable debacle, will ultimately cause the collapse of the “normal” capitalist law, the law of value also.[152] In the new society, however, value will lose its fetish character; it will no longer be the blind law of a planless society, i.e., it will cease to be value.

Such are the general outlines of the Marxian theory, the political economy of the proletariat, which derives the “laws of motion” of the specific social structure in a truly scientific manner.

But precisely because Marxism goes beyond the limited outlines of the bourgeois mentality, it is becoming more and more hateful to the bourgeoisie. The social collaboration in the field of the social sciences — particularly in the field of economics — has by no means improved; on the contrary, more and more difficulties are making themselves felt. Bourgeois economics can at present advance only by keeping within the outlines of a purely descriptive science. Within these limits, it may and does discharge a socially useful work. To be sure, not everything that is done in this field must be accepted without question, for even the “merest” description has a certain point of view behind it: the choice of material, the emphasis of one factor and insufficient attention paid to another, etc. — all these are determined by the so called “general views” of the authors in question. Yet, with a sufficiently critical attitude, it is possible to obtain from such performances abundant material for making one’s own conclusions. As for the actual theoretical work of the bourgeoisie, the example of Böhm-Bawerk has revealed it to be a barren desert. But it does not follow that Marxists must entirely ignore this field, for the process of evolution of the proletarian ideology is a process of struggle. Just as the proletariat advances on the economic and political field by means of countless struggles against hostile elements, so it must be also on the higher levels of ideology. Ideology does not descend from the sky, a system perfect in all its parts, but is gradually and painfully built up in a hard and toilsome process of evolution. By means of our criticism of hostile views, we not only ward off the enemy’s attacks, but also sharpen our own weapons; a criticism of the systems of our opponents is equivalent to a clarification of our own system.

We have another reason also for devoting attentive study to bourgeois economics. The ideological struggle, like any other direct practical struggle, must make use of the rule: utilise all the oppositions within the ranks of the enemy, all their disagreements between themselves. The fact is that, in spite of the uniformity of their goal — an apology for capitalism — there still exists a considerable difference of views among bourgeois scholars. While a certain unity has been attained in the field of the value theory on the foundations created by the Austrian School, when it comes to distribution almost every theoretician will set up his own theory and justify himself by a “generally valid” theory of value. But this again proves only how difficult — from a purely logical standpoint — is the problem, and how great the “mental labour” it requires of the modern scholastic. This circumstance, however, simultaneously renders much easier the task of criticism and affords an opportunity to disclose the general logical blunders and the other weak points of the opponent. Thus a criticism of bourgeois economics aids the development of the proletariat’s own economic science. Bourgeois science has now ceased to see its goal in an understanding of the social relations, being occupied now only with an apology for them. The scientific field of battle is left to Marxism alone, for the latter does not hesitate to analyse the social laws of evolution, even though they may lead to an inevitable destruction of present-day society. In this sense. Marxism remains, as ever, the red thread of theory, the emblem about which gather all those with courage enough boldly to face the impending storm.