Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 15 December 2020



The reason for us recalling this quite remarkable Introduction by Engels is once again that it presciently referred, with unmatchable perspicacity, to the essential ingredients of the origin and formation of proto-totalitarian regimes in accordance with our thesis on “the primacy of economics” in the first phase – comprising the first two stages – of the historical evolution of these regimes. To repeat, these ingredients are: - (a) the spread of capitalist enterprise; (b) the rise of the bourgeoisie as the hegemonic political force within integrated economic regions; (c) the formation of powerful nation-states with their pervasive bureaucratic apparatus to govern and administer these economic regions, including (d) sizeable standing armies capable of putting down any uprising with overwhelming force. Yet, what Engels leaves out is what his summary of the developments he lists actively implies about the politico-economic evolution of class antagonism within advanced industrial capitalist industry and society. These are crucial omissions the analysis of which, had Engels adverted to them, would have greatly enhanced our understanding of the epochal upheavals that were to afflict Europe and the entire world shortly after his death in 1895 – the same year in which this Introduction was written.

The first major omission relates to Engels’s patent and perhaps ingenuous triumphalism concerning what he thought was the relentless and unstoppable rise of social democracy as a party-political force that would lead inexorably not just to the triumph of socialism in a particular nation, but indeed to its almost imminent triumph in all of Western Europe. In his fatidic forecast, Engels exhibited further “errors” to be added to those he had already conceded with regard to the development of capitalist bourgeois rule and the formation of nation-states with powerful anti-insurrectionary standing armies. Essentially, Engels failed to recognize that, despite their expanding parliamentary institutions, the very bourgeois nation-states with their standing armies that Engels had identified as the primary reason for the suppression of the 1848 insurrections and the 1871 Paris Commune – these same nation-states could and would incite even more powerful nationalist movements able to defeat the progressive social-democratic proletarian parties and indeed to divide them along nationalistic lines, overriding thereby any “internationalist” solidarity then existing between European working-class and proletarian organizations, both party-political and syndicalist. In his Introduction Engels grossly overstates the ecumenical internationalist strength and solidarity of the European workers’ and proletarian movement whilst wholly neglecting the ability of bourgeois nation-states to instigate, organize and orchestrate nationalist movements capable of exploiting economic tensions between national bourgeoisies that could then erupt into open military conflict. Indeed, the Franco-Prussian War ought to have been foremost in his mind as a redoubtable omen of this quite open possibility.

Furthermore, and this is the second omission, Engels – and in this he had at least the partial excuse that Marx himself had never addressed specifically this essential aspect of capitalist industrial strategy as an aspect of class antagonism – entirely failed to grasp the implications of the tremendous transformation of the industrial capitalist labour process which was to form the basis of became known as the Second Industrial Revolution – namely, the rapid rise of the “mass worker” (Ungelernt, unskilled) to replace the “artisanal worker” (Gelernt, skilled) exacerbated by the rapid expansion of Taylorism and then Fordism early in the twentieth century. Again, not just Engels, but Marx himself had failed to address in any great detail the importance of the class composition of the working class as the driving force of capitalist industry reflected in the labour process.

Two levels of omissions, then, one driving the other, representing the combined ability of the capitalist bourgeoisie to drive divisions within the global working class through what Marx himself called “the real subsumption of living labour” in the process of production, and therefrom of distribution itself through income policies. And then the ability of the capitalist bourgeoisies organized around existing nation-states as optimal currency areas with separate industrial and financial hinterlands, to sow and spread divisions between separate working classes and their party-political organizations in their external inter-national relations through the exasperation of nationalisms around trade and cultural conflicts.

But a corollary to these failures concerning (a) the potential division and segmentation of the European working-class and proletarian movement along labour-process industrial policies affecting its class composition – skilled, unskilled, unemployed, petty-bourgeois -, and (b) the division within and between proletarian movements along nationalist lines dictated by the organic division of the capitalist class itself along economic regions governed by nation-states – as a corollary and consequence of these realities, Engels failed to perceive how the social-democratic political parties themselves would become entangled and enlisted by the national bourgeoisies by means of the existing nation-state institutions and bureaucracies in the administration of the tremendous processes of industrial re-organization vital to the transformation of capitalist industry broadly comprising what has come to be known as the Second Industrial Revolution! Broadly described, then, we can now number three levels of failures and errors to be added to the ones already identified by Engels in his 1895 Introduction – failures and errors of analysis that, and this is most important, were equally committed not just by Marx and Engels themselves but indeed by the entirety of the European working-class and proletarian movements from the First to the Second Socialist International to the Third or Communist International under the auspices of the Bolshevist-Leninist Party of the Soviet Union.

Our next task will be therefore to draw the historico-materialist thread that leads the political concentrate of the capitalist mode of production through its economic categories, from the valorization of capital via the production process to its realization in the circulation process, from the “formal subsumption of labour” to its “real subsumption” utilizing the labour process as an antagonistic strategy to weaken the composition of the working class and subject it to capitalist command.  Next, we trace the subsequent evolution of capitalist enterprise from the concentration of workers under one factory roof, to the concentration of capitals and the formation of social capital by means of credit, finance and the average rate of profit. These organic institutional features of capitalist command over living labour in the production and distribution processes need to be linked next to the establishment of capitalist command over a determinate territorial hinterland related principally to the mobility of the labour force and the availability of other resources for production as well as “markets” for the sale of commodities. Control over this hinterland enables the formation of a bourgeois class and the erection of a state-form or nation-state equipped with a strong centralized bureaucracy and above all an imponent standing army to police the economic hinterland. The obvious aim of this complex tracing of politico-economic links is to establish a historical relation between incipient capitalist enterprise and nation-state, and then between nation-state and nationalism to enable us to present and enucleate a comprehensive theory of the development of capitalist industry and society.

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