Che Guevara and Marx’s Law of Labor Value (Pt 3)

April 26, 2015

The Cuban Revolution

As the Cuban presidential and congressional elections of 1952 approached, it appeared that the democratic-nationalist Party of the Cuban People, more commonly known as the Orthodox Party, was about to capture the Cuban presidency. This set off alarm bells in Washington. The U.S. government feared the election of a democratic-nationalist government in Cuba would encourage democratic anti-imperialist forces throughout Latin America. In response, Washington supported a coup d’etat by another presidential candidate, one who had no chance of winning a democratic presidential election.

That was Colonial Fulgencio Batista (1901-1973). Batista had headed the Cuban military during the 1930s and 1940s, dominating the Cuban government from behind the scenes. Between 1940 and 1944, Batista served one term as elected legal president of Cuba. After completing his term, Batista left Cuba and moved to the United States. He later returned to Cuba to run what appeared to be a doomed presidential bid. In reality, Batista was preparing with Washington’s support to seize power illegally to block a victory by the Orthodox Party. Batista’s coup cut off any hope for democratic change in Cuba through electoral methods.

The young Fidel Castro (1926-), a former radical student leader, had run for Congress on the Orthodox ticket during the aborted 1952 election campaign. Castro, a lawyer by profession, then sued Batista for overthrowing the legal government of Cuba, but that failed to dislodge the dictator. Fidel then organized, along with other young Cubans, an uprising on July 26, 1953, at the Moncada Barracks, hoping it would develop into an island-wide insurrection that would bring down the Batista dictatorship. Many of Castro’s associates were killed in the abortive uprising, but Fidel survived.

The Batista government then tried Castro on the charge of attempting to overthrow the Cuban government by force and violence. Castro’s defense was brilliant. At the trial, he pointed out that the Batista government itself was guilty of precisely the charge that it made against him. Fidel’s defense was published under the title “History Will Absolve Me” and circulated within Cuba.

While Batista’s judges found Castro guilty and sentenced him to 15 years in prison, Batista effectively lost the case before the Cuban people. As a result, in 1955 the Batista government was forced to release Castro. Unable to do much within the legality of the Batista dictatorship, Castro went into exile, where he was to meet a young left-wing Argentinian medical doctor named Ernesto Guevara (1928-1967). Guevara went by his Argentinian nickname “Che”.

The young Guevara had been in Guatemala when the democratically elected government of Colonel Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán (1913-1971) was overthrown in a Washington-organized coup in 1954. President Arbenz, who had won the 1951 Guatemalan elections, had attempted to carry out a land-reform program that was bitterly opposed by the infamous U.S.-based United Fruit Company. United Fruit had long dominated the Guatemalan economy and was bitterly opposed to President Árbenz’s reforms.

In response, Washington falsely claimed that the democratically elected Arbenz government was “communist.” The CIA-organized coup that overthrew him resembled the Cuban coup of 1952. The result was decades of brutal dictatorship that cost the lives of thousands of Guatemalans. The experience of witnessing a Washington-organized coup against a democratically elected government further radicalized the young Che Guevara.

In 1955, in Mexico, Guevara met Fidel Castro, who had just been released from prison in Cuba. In 1956, the two men and a few supporters including Fidel’s younger brother Raul rented a yacht called the Granma. They set sail to Cuba with the intention of launching a guerrilla war aimed at overthrowing the Batista dictatorship. To accomplish this, Fidel had organized a multi-class organization, the July 26 movement, that combined militant young workers and bourgeois democrats who were prepared to struggle arms in hand against the dictatorship.

At first, the landing proved to be a disaster, but Fidel, Raul, Che and few other survivors managed to escape into the Sierra Maestra mountain range and began to organize the peasants who lived there into a rebel army.

Though in terms of numbers and arms the guerrilla forces were no match for the far more numerous professionally trained forces of Batista’s army, the latter had one disadvantage that was to prove fatal to them. Most of the rank and file had no desire to die for the cause of the Cuban “pseudo-republic,” which had lost all pretext of legitimacy as a result of Batista’s 1952 coup. As a result, toward the end of 1958 Batista’s army began to disintegrate. As New Year’s Eve approached, the dictator prepared to flee the island with as much loot as he could take with him.

There were last-minute attempts to save the Cuban military and police apparatus by setting up a junta that would negotiate with the rebel army. However, Fidel insisted on the dismantling of the so-called Cuban army that failed to defend Cuba from its only real enemy—the United States—but instead served as a police force—and a very brutal and corrupt one at that—for U.S. imperialism. Therefore, when Batista fled on New Year’s Eve, not only did Batista’s personal dictatorship collapse but the entire, thoroughly rotten, military-police apparatus of the Cuban bourgeois state as well.

Read more …

Che Guevara and Marx’s Law of Labor Value (Pt 2)

March 29, 2015

Bourgeois value theory after Ricardo

As I explained last month, the rising tide of struggle of the British working class obliged Ricardo’s bourgeois successors to abandon the concept of value based on the quantity of labor necessary on average to produce a commodity of a given use value and quality. They were forced to do this because any concept of labor value implies that profits and rents—surplus value—are produced by the unpaid labor performed by the working class. The challenge confronting Ricardo’s bourgeois successors was to come up with a coherent economic theory that was not based on labor value. Let’s look at some of the options open to them.

Malthus, borrowing from certain passages in Adam Smith, held that the capitalists simply added profit onto their wage costs. Like Smith and Ricardo, Malthus assumed that what Marx was to call constant capital could be reduced to wages if you went back far enough. Therefore, constant capital really consisted of wages with a prolonged turnover period—what the 20th-century “neo-Ricardian” Pierro Sraffa (1898-1983) was to call in his “Commodities Produced by Means of Commodities” “dated labor.”

Malthus held that since capitalists are in business to make a profit, they simply added the profit onto their costs—ultimately reducible to the price of “dated labor,” to use Sraffa’s terminology.

The idea that profits are simply added onto the cost price of a commodity is known as “profit upon alienation.” This notion was first put forward by the mercantilists in the earliest days of political economy. In this period, preceding the industrial revolution, merchant capital still dominated industrial capital. After all, don’t merchants make their profits by buying cheap and selling dear?

But what determined the magnitude of the charge above and beyond the cost of the commodity to the capitalist? And even more devastating for Malthus, since every capitalist was overcharging every other capitalist—as well as working-class consumers who bought the means of subsistence from the capitalists—how could the capitalists as a class make a profit? If Malthus was right, the average rate of profit would be zero!

But perhaps we don’t need the concept of “value” at all? Why not simply say that the natural prices of commodities are determined by the cost of production that includes a profit? But then what determines the prices of the commodities that entered into the production costs of a given commodity? Following this logic to its end, the natural prices of commodities are determined by the natural prices of commodities. This is called circular reasoning.

We haven’t moved an inch forward from our starting point. To avoid a circle, we have to determine the prices of commodities by something other than price. There is no escaping some concept of value after all.

Read more …

Che Guevara and Marx’s Law of Labor Value

March 1, 2015

This March marks the 30th anniversary of the election of Mikhail Gorbachev to the post of general secretary of the then-ruling Communist Party of the Soviet Union. At first, the election of Gorbachev seemed to involve a long overdue shift of power to a new generation of Soviet leaders. As we now know, it involved a lot more.

A process was unleashed that was soon to be called “Perestroika.” In the name of “radical economic reforms,” the Soviet planned economy was progressively dismantled. Perestroika ended not only with the restoration of capitalism but the breakup of what had been the Soviet federation.

The combined process of the restoration of capitalism and breakup of the Soviet federation was accompanied by a massive collapse of both industrial and agricultural production. The living standards and life expectancy of the working class plummeted. A generation later, the economies of not only the Russian federation but the economies of the other former republics are yet to recover.

Perestroika led to a wave of capitalist counterrevolutions that in 1989 swept through eastern Europe with the active support not only of imperialism, as would be expected, but also the Gorbachev government. As part of this process, Germany was reunited on a capitalist basis while staying in NATO. The former socialist countries that had been members of the now dissolved Warsaw Pact joined NATO as did the former Soviet Baltic republics of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. The Georgia Republic—Stalin’s homeland—is very close to NATO and openly striving to become a formal member, while the new right-wing government in Ukraine has joined NATO in all but name.

Perestroika, therefore, resulted in a massive expansion of the U.S. world empire into the one area of the planet—the Soviet Union and its allies—that remained outside the Empire after World War II.

The destruction of the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc and their planned economies would have been enough if that was all that was involved. But it was not. The capitalists and their spokespeople everywhere pointed to the Soviet collapse as final proof that “socialism had failed.” The result was a wave of demoralization that spread through a workers’ movement that was already in retreat before the neoliberal capitalist offensive symbolized by such political figures as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

National liberation movements were also pushed back, though the hopes of political figures such as Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush that the old-fashioned colonialism that had dominated the world in 1914 would return—with the difference that the United States and not Britain or France would be the chief colonizer—has not been so easy to achieve.

Between November 7, 1917, when the Bolshevik-led Congress of Soviets seized power, and the election of Gorbachev as general secretary of the CPSU Central Committee in March 1985, the peoples of the oppressed nations got accustomed to the idea that they should be independent and not colonial slaves of the West. Therefore, attempts by the U.S. world empire to push these nations and peoples back into something like pre-1914 colonial relationships have met, to the chagrin of the imperialists, unexpected and growing resistance.

Read more …

Update on Status of eBook

February 13, 2015

Back in 2010, I announced my intention to begin drafting an ebook based on the posts in the main section of this blog. See here for the initial announcement.

Subsequently, I reported on the status of this project here.

Late last year, a reader asked about the current status of the project. So here is an update.

The first draft of the book is finished. It consists of 37 chapters divided into seven sections plus a general introduction and introductions for each section. Editing of the first draft is more than half completed. This editing will continue while work begins on a final draft. The second draft will then undergo a final edit.

I hope this project can be completed and the work published sometime next year (2016).

Sam Williams
February 12, 2015

David Harvey, Michael Roberts, Michael Heinrich and the Crisis Theory Debate

February 1, 2015

Recently David Harvey, the well-known writer on Marxist economics, criticized Marxist economics blogger Michael Roberts’ views on crisis theory. According to Harvey, Roberts has a “monocausal” crisis theory. What Harvey objects to is Roberts’ emphasis on Marx’s theory of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (FRP for short) as the underlying cause of capitalist crises.

Harvey goes further than simply criticizing Roberts’ FRP-centered crisis theory. He says that he is skeptical that a tendency of the rate of profit to fall even exists. He indicates that he agrees with the views of the German Marxist economist Michael Heinrich on the invalidity of Marx’s theory of the falling rate of profit. Heinrich’s views are developed in “An Introduction of the Three Volumes of Karl Marx’s Capital” (Monthly Review Press, 2004). He elaborated them in this article.

In this work, Heinrich tries to demonstrate that Marx himself in the final years of his life moved away from his own theory of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. Heinrich holds that an examination of Marx’s manuscripts that form the basis of Volume III of “Capital” show that Marx had moved toward a theory of crises centered on credit. Heinrich accuses Frederick Engels of editing the manuscripts in such a way as to hide Marx’s alleged movement away from an FRP-centered theory of crises to a credit-centered theory of crises.

In his defense of the falling rate of profit school from the criticism leveled by Harvey, Roberts makes an indirect reference to this blog: “… recently, one Marxist economist from the overproduction school called me a monomaniac in my attachment to Marx’s law of profitability as the main/underlying cause of capitalist crises (see Mike Treen, national director of the New Zealand Unite Union, at the annual conference of the socialist organization Fightback, held in Wellington, May 31-June 1, 2014, and a seminar hosted by Socialist Aotearoa in Auckland in November 10, 2014 http://links.org.au/node/4156).”

Mike Treen, a New Zealand Marxist, is indeed an organizer of the New Zealand trade union Unite (not to be confused with the U.S. trade union of a similar name, UNITE HERE, which also organizes fast food and other low-wage workers). The “overproduction school” Roberts refers to is actually the position of this blog, of which Mike is an editor.

Read more …

Russia, Oil, the ‘Strong Dollar’ and the Economic Conjuncture

January 11, 2015

A major feature of the current global economic conjuncture is the financial-economic crisis that has hit Russia.

On Dec. 16, 2014, the central bank of the Russian Federation raised its benchmark interest rate to 17 percent from 10.5 percent. This is a far cry from the zero to .25 percent the U.S. Federal Reserve System maintains for its key interest rate, the federal funds rate. During 2014, the Russian ruble fell 45 percent against the U.S. dollar, while the Russian central bank sold some $80 billion of its foreign reserves in an attempt to halt the fall.

By raising its benchmark interest rate to 17 percent, the Russian central bank hopes to stem the bleeding of its reserves while checking the ruble’s decline. The catch is that such a dramatic and sudden rise in interest rates is almost certain to plunge the Russian economy into recession in 2015, with rising unemployment. As demand contracts within the home market, Russian businesses will be forced to sell more of their national production on the world market and import less of the production of other countries, causing a decline in Russia’s standard of living. Eventually, the balance of trade will swing back in Russia’s favor but on the backs of the Russian working class and other Russian working people.

The current financial-economic crisis in Russia is made worse by the sanctions the U.S. and its West European satellites have imposed on Russia. These sanctions are in response to Russia’s defensive move in the Crimean Peninsula. Responding to widespread demands within Crimea in the wake of the seizure of power by far-right anti-Russian forces in Kiev in February 2014, Russia agreed to allow Crimea to rejoin the Russia Federation. The crisis in Ukraine, which at times reached the level of civil war during 2014, resulted from the U.S.-supported neo-liberal/fascist coup after months of right-wing demonstrations in Kiev.

The coup government has severely restricted civil liberties in Ukraine, forcing Ukrainian working-class parties underground while re-orienting the Ukrainian economy towards Western Europe. In addition, Ukraine has all but in name joined NATO, the main military wing of the U.S. imperialist world empire. Kiev hopes to make its NATO membership official at the earliest possible date.

Rising tension between the U.S. empire and Russia

The move by the U.S. empire to draw Ukraine into its military and economic domain has increased tension between Russia and the U.S. to its highest level since the restoration of capitalism in Russia a quarter of a century ago.

The imperialist media and certain people on the left have pictured present-day Russia as a virtual “second coming” of Nazi Germany. Russia, it is claimed, attacked Ukraine without provocation. As a result, a resurgent Russia is now threatening virtually all the countries of eastern and central Europe and ultimately “the West” itself. Unless something is done to check Putin’s “aggression,” it is claimed by imperialist propagandists, there is a danger of all of Europe falling under the Kremlin’s domination.

Other people on the left have drawn a quite different conclusion. They argue that far from a resurgent Russian imperialism, the U.S. and its European satellites have launched a new “cold war” against Russia.

Read more …

The Marxist Theory of Ground Rent (Pt 2)

December 14, 2014

Landed property and the housing crisis

In its Dec. 5, 2014, editorial, the San José Mercury News commented on the city of San José’s heartless move to close down once and for all a homeless camp. “The dismantling of San Jose’s Story Road homeless encampment known as the Jungle has drawn national attention,” the Mercury News noted. “Once again, it’s those crazy Californians—in the middle of one of the wealthiest regions in the United States, they managed to amass what may well have been the country’s largest homeless encampment, with estimates as high as 300 residents.”

The Mercury News went on to observe: “The ranks of the homeless increased dramatically during and since the recession because so many individuals and families lost jobs and homes. Then, when the economy picked up, rents quickly soared—but many of the jobless had to re-enter the workforce at lower pay.”

The closing of San Jose’s “Jungle” encampment is part of a much larger housing crisis many workers and even middle-class people are feeling. For many workers, the crisis takes the form of rapidly rising apartment rents, which force workers to move to distant suburbs, perhaps a hundred or more kilometers from their places of work. In the worse cases, workers like unfortunate former residents of San José’s “Jungle” are facing complete homelessness.

Nor are the homeless necessarily among the unemployed. (1) Low-wage workers are often unable to afford the rent on even substandard apartments. Some are forced to live in their cars, which end up serving the dual use values as means of transportation and means of shelter. Or low-paid workers are forced to divide up their apartments with other low-paid workers. It’s either that, their automobile—if they have one—or the street.

Frederick Engels on the ‘housing question’

In the early 1870s, articles appeared in the press of the German Social Democratic Party claiming that the relationship between house owners and tenants was analogous to the relationship between industrial workers who sell their labor power and industrial capitalists who buy it. According to these articles, the key to the “social question” was workers’ ownership, whether individual or collective, of their own housing.

Karl Marx’s co-worker Fredrick Engels sounded the alarm and wrote his booklet “The Housing Question” to refute this view. Engels’ basic point was that the key to the “social problem”—the evils caused by the capitalist mode of production including the lack of housing—is to be found not in the ownership of the means of shelter but in the ownership of the means of production.

In his booklet, Engels gave many examples of the housing crisis of the 19th century. A lot of this material is necessarily dated and largely of historical interest. But there is still much in the booklet that is all too familiar for today’s workers. Once again, the housing question is growing acute with rising homelessness, unaffordable house rents and “gentrification.”

Read more …

The Marxist Theory of Ground Rent (Pt 1)

November 16, 2014

Mike Treen, a good friend and an editor of this blog who lives in New Zealand, suggested during a visit to the U.S. last May that I examine the question of real estate and house rents. I promised him that I would try to get to it. I couldn’t do it immediately because the 100th anniversary of World War I was fast approaching and demanded the blog’s immediate attention. But with no anniversary of similar importance approaching over the next few months, I now have some time to examine the question of real estate, rents and landed property in general.

I will begin with an examination of Marx’s theory of ground rent that he develops in Volume III of “Capital.” I will then examine how Marx’s theory relates to the related but different question of house rents, prices and mortgages, which Marx gave relatively little attention to.

After that, I hope to examine the latest developments in the world economy, which I have neglected recently because of the needs arising from the World War I anniversary. While much has been written over the years on the theme of the “decline of the dollar,” we now have the opposite phenomenon of the “strong dollar.”

The strong dollar refers to the U.S. dollar’s current rise against gold, the money commodity, and other currencies. These developments raise important theoretical questions on the nature and function of money, as well as a series of practical questions. For example, what does the current strong dollar imply for the evolution of the world economic situation, the new war in the Middle East, and the war danger in general?

Finally, another important anniversary is approaching early next year. Next March will mark the 30th anniversary of the election of Mikhail Gorbachev to the post of general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. Long before the Gorbachev election, a debate had been raging within the socialist countries around these questions: If and too what extent are the products of socialist industry commodities? How relevant, if at all, is the law of value and commodity-money relationships to the construction of socialism? What are the historical limits to the law of value?

With the election of Gorbachev, the economists who strongly defended the view that commodity-money relations and the law of value either do or rather should prevail during the construction of socialism won the day. The consequences of their victory are all too obvious today.

The famed Argentinian-Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara, who was killed by the CIA in 1967, many years before the election of Gorbachev, defended what even then was the minority opinion among economists in the socialist countries on this matter.

Read more …

World War I—Its Causes and Consequences (Pt 4)

October 19, 2014

Could it happen again?

This August marked the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I. Could it happen again? Before exploring this question, I should review how the world has changed since those European summer days of a century ago.

I have already examined in this blog the changes in imperialism—the underlying cause of the “Great War”—over the last hundred years. But before I explore the question of whether something like the Great War could happen again, I should briefly summarize these changes.

The main powers in Europe

At the start of 1914, there were a number of independent imperialist “powers,” as they were called, that were in economic, political and, as events were soon to demonstrate, military competition with one another. In Europe, the main powers were Britain, Germany, France, Russia and Austria.

Britain had been for the preceding century—since the defeat of Napoleon—the most powerful country in the world. Britain’s military power was largely naval. As the British chauvinists put it, Britannia ruled the waves. It was naval power that held the English empire—“where the sun never set”—together. In turn, British naval power was made possible by its highly advanced—for the time—industry.

France, which had been Britain’s primary rival in the world war that followed the French Revolution, was a significant imperialist power in its own right. It had a large empire in Africa, Indochina and elsewhere. Its industrialization, however, had always lagged behind that of Great Britain.

As a result, large amounts of idle money capital tended to pile up in France compared to the situation in the more dynamic capitalist countries. Since the French capitalists converted a relatively smaller amount of their money capital into industrial capital, a relatively larger amount was converted into loan capital—finance capital. Much of this capital was loaned abroad, especially in Russia.

By the beginning of the 20th century, however, France was no longer Britain’s most important rival within Europe. Germany, due to its rapid industrialization, had replaced France in that role. In Germany, capitalist production based on the latest technology was developing fast. Because its industrialization had come later than Britain or France’s—Germany wasn’t even unified as a country until the 1870s—Germany had relatively few colonies.

However, unlike the case in France and increasingly Britain, the German capitalists tended to quickly convert the money capital that passed through their hands into productive capital—both constant and variable. Therefore, finance capital developed somewhat differently in Germany than it did in Britain and France. In Germany, there was a need to mobilize every spare penny and place it in the hands of the industrial capitalists. As a result, Germany’s banking system was ultra-modern, with both commercial and investment banking centralized in a small number of huge “universal banks.”

This stood in contrast to the older British and to a large extent even the U.S. pattern, where commercial and investment banking were conducted by separate companies. The biggest of the German universal banks was the Deutsch Bank, which remains to this day Germany’s most powerful bank.

Read more …

World War I—Its Causes and Consequences (Pt 3)

September 21, 2014

Some particularly unpleasant consequences of the ‘Great War’

During July and August, 2014, Israel waged a brutal one-sided “war”—if it can be called a war—against tiny Gaza. More than 2,200 Palestinians, the vast majority civilians, and around 500 children were killed. The Israeli slaughter created a worldwide wave of outrage. Demonstrations against the Israeli actions were held around the world.

This latest Israeli assault on the Palestinian people is part of a long-running conflict rooted in what the Palestinians call al Nakba—“the catastrophe,” in Arabic—that occurred in 1948. In that year, Jewish settlers systematically drove the majority of the residents of Arab Palestine out of their native country into refugee camps, where survivors and their descendants are still to be found 65 years later.

There have been many attempts by well-meaning people to solve this conflict. Why can’t the Israeli Jews and the Palestinians, both Muslims and Christians, learn to live together in peace? Though “historic Palestine” is a small country, there is room enough for all present Jewish residents of Israel and all Palestinians in the refugee camps and the Diaspora to live happily together. The real question is not why can’t they live together but why don’t they?

Read more …


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