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  Theoretical fix?
Launch event for Reclaiming Marx’s ‘Capital’, by Andrew Kliman, SOAS, London, 6 July 2007

Robin Walsh
posted 27 July 2007

The launch of Andrew Kliman’s new book Reclaiming Marx’s ‘Capital’: A Refutation of the Myth of Inconsistency was greeted by a number of prominent British Marxists, in a display of non-sectarian unity. The panel discussing the book was made up of such luminaries as Chris Harman, Socialist Workers’ Party theorist and editor of the journal International Socialism, Martin Graham, review editor of the Communist Party of Britain’s Communist Review, Michael Roberts of Marxist.com, website of Militant splinter the International Marxist Tendency, and Alan Freeman, co-editor of the book Marx and Non Equilibrium Economics, as well as the book’s author himself.

Such a public burying of hatchets in different times might have caused a stir. Not nowadays, however: the audience of around 40 mainly greying people filled only a small seminar room in London’s SOAS. And the elephant in the room was seemingly terminal irrelevance of Marxists and Marxism to anyone beyond the few dwindling loyalists in the baby-boomer demographic. The book itself is an attempt to rescue Marx’s critique of capitalism from these contemporary doldrums. The book lays at least some of these woes at the feet of two theoretical misinterpretations (wilful or otherwise) of what Marx had to say, promulgated by both enemies of Marxism and numerous ‘academic’ Marxists and Marxian economists.

The first of these concerns Marx’s ‘law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall’, according to which the internal logic of capitalism prevents it from developing stably. The theory has attracted a number of free-market knights errant to joust against it over the years, in the hope that by disproving it, they can defeat the dragon of Marxism itself, and Kliman sets out to deal with their critiques. The other theoretical point taken up in the book is the complicated relationship between value and prices in Capital: Kliman argues for a ‘single system’ interpretation, against various revisions. (For a review of the book and a clearer explanation of the theory, have a look at Joseph Choonara’s article in International Socialism). The panellists all agreed that Kliman’s work would be a useful tool against the a priori dismissal of Marx by many on the basis that he had been ‘disproved’. And as far as it goes, this book’s attempt to reassert the internal logical consistency of Capital could be both intellectually and perhaps politically useful.

However, it doesn’t take a genius to realise that the left has some far, far deeper problems than can be solves by rather pedantic nit picking with right-wing economists; and the book launch itself was revealing of this. There was a sense of expectation that this book would somehow redeem the entire left project, rescue it from its ‘downturn’, of which even the most optimistic revolutionary must be getting an inkling.

Placing so much onus on a couple of points of theory is a strangely un-Marxist position for leaders of groups sometimes guilty of the crudest materialism; why did these theoretical heresies (which have been around a long time) not scupper the left-wing movement in the 1910s say, or the early 1970s? There was no recognition at the meeting of the effect of the historic defeat of the trades unions, or of the collapse of the USSR, or even of the ‘subjective factor’ of 30 years of cack-handed leadership. Blaming the contemporary distortions of Marxism on the machinations of the ‘academic Marxists’ of the 1970s is dubious enough, but to have a panel of leading ideologues effectively say ‘not me guv!’ en masse really stretches credulity. Any number of theoretical ‘corrections’ (or even calculations of the organic composition of capital, which one panellist went into at some length) won’t resuscitate the left.

Whilst the book may contain some useful theoretical insights for Marxologists, the time at which it (or even Capital for that matter) might be a tool for a powerful left wing movement is unfortunately a long way off.


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