Religion and Capitalism: Second ebooklet published by CPB’s Culture Matters

The second ebooklet has been published by ‘Culture Matters‘, under the auspices of the Communist Party of Britain. This one is called ‘Religion and Capitalism’, with a focus on Marx. You can read it as a webpage or as an ebooklet.

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Engels and the tale of the cotton bale

Engels’s tale of the cotton bale was one he used often, especially in his speaking tour of Germany in 1845. It had a great effect in showing how ridiculous a capitalist market economy is:

Let us, however, discuss present-day trade in a little more detail. Consider through how many hands every product must go before it reaches the actual consumer. Consider, gentlemen, how many speculating, swindling superfluous middlemen have now forced themselves in between the producer and the consumer! Let us take, for example, a bale of cotton produced in North America. The bale passes from the hands of the planter into those of the agent on some station or other on the Mississippi and travels down the river to New Orleans. Here it is sold — for a second time, for the agent has already bought it from the planter — sold, it might well be, to the speculator, who sells it once again, to the exporter. The bale now travels to Liverpool where, once again, a greedy speculator stretches out his hands towards it and grabs it. This man then trades it to a commission agent who, let us assume, is a buyer for a German house. So the bale travels to Rotterdam, up the Rhine, through another dozen hands of forwarding agents, being unloaded and loaded a dozen times, and only then does it arrive in the hands, not of the consumer, but of the manufacturer, who first makes it into an article of consumption, and who perhaps sells his yarn to a weaver, who disposes of what he has woven to the textile printer, who then does business with the wholesaler, who then deals with the retailer, who finally sells the commodity to the consumer. And all these millions of intermediary swindlers, speculators, agents, exporters, commission agents, forwarding agents, wholesalers and retailers, who actually contribute nothing to the commodity itself — they all want to live and make a profit — and they do make it too, on the average, otherwise they could not subsist. Gentlemen, is there no simpler, cheaper way of bringing a bale of cotton from America to Germany and of getting the product manufactured from it into the hands of the real consumer than this complicated business of ten times selling and a hundred times loading, unloading and transporting it from one warehouse to another? Is this not a striking example of the manifold waste of labour power brought about by the divergence of interests?

MECW 4: 246-47.

The planned economy of the Soviet Union

Towards a more balanced understanding of Stalin: this time from a book called Towards a New Socialism by W. Paul Cockshott and Allin Cottrell.

They argue quite persuasively that the full implementation of a communist economic system happened under Stalin. Through the five year plans beginning in the late 1920s the capitalist mode of extracting surplus value was replaced by a planned economy, in which surplus was controlled and allocated by the planning mechanism.

Under Soviet planning, the division between the necessary and surplus portions of the social product was the result of political decisions. For the most part, goods and labour were physically allocated to enterprises by the planning authorities, who would always ensure that the enterprises had enough money to ‘pay for’ the real goods allocated to them. If an enterprise made monetary ‘losses’, and therefore had to have its money balances topped up with ‘subsidies’, that was no matter. On the other hand, possession of money as such was no guarantee of being able to get hold of real goods. By the same token, the resources going into production of consumer goods were centrally allocated. Suppose the workers won higher ruble wages: by itself this would achieve nothing, since the flow of production of consumer goods was not responsive to the monetary amount of consumer spending. Higher wages would simply mean higher prices or shortages in the shops. The rate of production of a surplus was fixed when the planners allocated resources to investment in heavy industry and to the production of consumer goods respectively (pp. 4-5).

The key to this momentous shift was the old issue of compulsion: how do you encourage workers and peasants to engage in the new system? Under the circumstances of such rapid change and in the face of a sustained threat from international capitalism, that compulsion took the form of carrot and stick. Genuine revolutionary fervour characterised much of the effort, but for those less inclined to engage, forced labour, exile and ‘terror’ were deployed. Crucial to this process was the personality cult of Stalin, who embodied the sheer grit (thereby making up for what he lacked in oratorical skill) of the revolutionary ‘miracle’ required to adopt such a radically new economic system. Stalin was thereby able both to promote a deep sense of ‘participation in a great historic endeavour’, but he was also the ‘stern and utterly ruthless liquidator of any who failed so to participate’. I would add that this combination, along with the deep strength of the communist economic system, enabled the extraordinary recovery during the Second World War and the eventual victory by the USSR over Germany and fascism.