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.




Engels and the cotton bale

I was reminded of this great little story by an email request, since I mention it in an article in Philosophers for Change. Engels used it in his speaking tour of Germany in 1845. It had a great effect in showing how ridiculous a capitalist system 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.

Stalin and the planned economy

Stalin has not had a great press, although I have suggested once or twice that the man was a little more ambivalent than the standard accounts would have it. So something more to add to the mix. It comes 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.

Using capitalism to build socialism?

One to stir up the romantic Western Marxists full of resentment at successful socialist revolutions in the East:

Socialism is inconceivable without large-scale capitalist engineering based on the latest discoveries of modern science. It is inconceivable without planned state organisation which keeps tens of millions of people to the strictest observance of a unified standard in production and distribution. We Marxists have always spoken of this, and it is not worth while wasting two seconds talking to people who do not understand even this (anarchists and a good half of the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries) (Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 32, p. 334, 1921).

Lenin and the Trans-Siberian Railway

Lenin had a fascination with the Trans-Siberian Railway line, built in 1895. Not only did he travel on the line to get to and from ‘exile’ in Shushenskoye village, let alone during his life constantly on the move, but he also knew it was a key component in development of capitalism in Russia.

The Transcaspian Railway began to “open up” Central Asia for the capitalists; the “Great Siberian Railway” (great, not only because of its length, but because of the unrestricted plunder of the Treasury by contractors and the unrestricted exploitation of the workers who built it) opened up Siberia (Lenin: Collected Works, vol. 5, p. 90).

Lenin in Siberia

I have just completed the 600-page work by Lenin called The Development of Capitalism in Russia (vol 3 of the Collected Works), written while he was in exile in Shushenskoye village in eastern Siberia. Nothing like ‘exile’ for some productive work! Before a few wayward comments on this text, I realised when reading it that I have been in this area, on the Trans-Siberian train. Shushenskoye is in the region of Krasnoyarsk and that city is a stop on the railway line. It’s a long way from Petersburg:

Here’s the house, or rather shack, in which he lived for three years, from 1897-1900:

And today:

Not bad, really, although it gets a little chilly in winter:

Not quite the same village, but you get the picture.

But travelling through the area, it strikes you that the infamous ‘exile’ to Siberia, often for mere misdemeanours, was actually a large-scale resettlement program. Begun in the 18th century, the populous west was encouraged by whatever means to move to the sparsely-populated east. For example, during World War Two, whole populations, industries and universities were moved to Siberia, out of harm’s way and a big boon for resettlement. The result: in 1709 the total population was 230,000; now it is over 36 million. And cities such as Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, Omsk and Perm  have populations of a million or more each.

As for the book, it covers in very sober detail (minus Lenin’s usual polemic and love of exclamations) the shifts in agriculture, handicraft and manufacturing that manifest the growth of capitalist relations. I must admit to being intrigued by discussions of the ‘melon crisis’, ‘pulling squirrels’, Lacanian-style diagrams, the measuring of horse-shit in ‘poods’ (as a feature of the economy), and the tendency to classify peasants as no-horse, one-horse or many-horse, so much so that he uses the intriguing term ‘horse employments’.

But above all a very Hegelian Lenin appears in this book, even before he had systematically studied Hegel (he knew Marx back-to-front by this stage). Hegelian? Like a bass-line, an underlying dialectical theme keeps re-emerging: capitalism is the best and worst thing that happened to Russia. So we find statements like:

Capitalism for the first time broke down these purely medieval barriers – and it was a very good thing that it did (p. 316).

Alongside assessments of working conditions:

People have to work in a stifling atmosphere filled with the harmful vapours emanating from accumulated horse-dung (p. 420).

The agricultural workers … travel on foot, since they lack the money for a rail fare … The journey takes from 10 to 12 days, and after such a long tramp (sometimes undertaken barefoot in the cold spring mud), the travellers’ feet swell and become calloused and bruised (p. 242).

How to make sense of such a contradiction?

Recognition of the progressiveness of this role is quite compatible (as we have tried to show in detail at every stage in our exposition of the facts) with the full recognition of the negative and dark sides of capitalism, with the full recognition of the profound and all-round social contradictions which are inevitably inherent in capitalism (p. 596).

Wouldn’t be bad reading in today’s Russia, it seems to me, although a post-script would need to be added on the transition from communism back to capitalism…

Lenin’s immediate theoretical targets in the book are the Narodniks, liberal romantics who saw the development of capitalism as completely evil. These Narodniks stressed the uniqueness of Russian history (which Lenin counters), the evils of multi-national industry, the value of small producers, communal bonds in villages and towns, the attachment of people to place, the great boon of cottage industries and mutual co-operation between master and servant. In short, they espouse locality, family, moral economy, virtuous elites and common popular customs – just like Alasdair Maclagan and the Red Tories.