Anti-Capitalism: A Marxist Introduction

Submitted by on 21 March, 2003 - 12:00

Anti-Capitalism: A Marxist Introduction, edited by Alfredo Saad-Filho (Pluto Press)

This book is well worth reading, but it could have been even better. The essays by a range of well-known Marxist academics include some important scholarship and many interesting insights, but it is an uneven book, with some chapters letting down an otherwise valuable collection.

The chief merit of the book is to explain that capitalism is necessarily a system in which wage labour is exploited by capital. Genuine anti-capitalism means understanding the exploitative nature of capitalism and opposing that, rather than the surface appearances of globalisation. There is a real sense that Marxist political economy is undergoing resurgence and this book is a powerful contribution to this revival.

The first chapter, by Alfredo Saad-Filho, provides a very clear and coherent account of Marxist political economy. Other chapters by Simon Mohun and Fred Moseley emphasise the distinction between productive labour (which produces surplus value) and unproductive labour (which does not). This enables us to better understand Marx’s labour theory of value and to explain the development of the world economy since 1945.

Another central message of the book is that anti-capitalists should be socialists. It clearly says the positive goal of those opposed to capitalism must be socialism, and explains coherently what a socialist society would be like and the kind of democratic self-rule it would entail. This vision has nothing whatsoever to do with the experience of Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China (and I would add Castro’s Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam and other societies that were not, or are still not, dominated by capitalist relations of production).

The book also engages with some of the discussions taking place at the Social Forums, over the internet and among activists. The book explains the class nature of capitalist states and their role in enforcing the exploitation of workers. The introduction by Alfredo Saad-Filho makes it clear that localisation, more (political) democracy and/or international Keynesian reformism will not solve global issues like poverty, oppression or exploitation.

Ellen Wood’s chapter criticises those anti-capitalists who focus on transnational corporations and international agencies such as the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO. Wood points out that many of the arguments used against these organisations are not anti-capitalist, but anti-global, whereas for Marxists, globalisation is a consequence of capitalism, not a cause of exploitation. Instead Wood forcefully argues that nation states are still the most reliable guarantors of capital accumulation, and therefore states should remain the focus of opposition movements. Her point is well made. “While we can imagine capital continuing its daily operations with barely a hiccup if the WTO were destroyed, it is inconceivable that those operations would long survive the destruction of the local state.”

The main weakness with the book is, ironically, the question of class. It does not spell out clearly that Marxist socialism means working-class self-emancipation. Neither the anti-capitalist movements nor any other collection of social movements are a substitute for the working class as the agency of socialism. Only the working class has the both the power (as the collective, direct producers of surplus value) and the interest (as the basic exploited class) to overthrow the system and replace it with something better. The experience of Stalinism shows that other forces can, at least temporarily, get rid of capitalism, but not replace it with a more progressive system.

Elizabeth Dore’s chapter on capitalism in the Third World summed up this ambiguity for me. Dore is one of those Marxists who has consistently demonstrated the failings of dependency theory, and even a repeat of those arguments would have been welcome, as some residual Third Worldism lives on in the new movements. Indeed the most powerful refutation of dependency theory has been the actual development of capitalism in parts of the Third World since 1950. I expected a discussion of countries like Brazil, South Africa and Korea, whose development has led to the creation of large working classes and militant labour movements. Unfortunately Dore prefers to view these issues through the lens of the Sandinistas, whose experience is hardly representative.

The weakest chapter is the one on class struggle, by John Holloway. He manages to avoid discussing actual class struggles, preferring to substitute everyday individual conflicts for collective actions. A better approach would have been to look at some major class battles, such as the miners’ strike in Britain, the struggle for independent unions in Brazil and Korea, or more recent struggles in Indonesia and China. A Marxist explanation would include why the working class has suffered a period of defeat, and hence the current low level of struggle. But it would also look to the conditions for the re-emergence of open class warfare. Sadly, Holloway does none of these things.

Similarly, little space is given to the organised labour movement and the role Marxists can play in it. Marxists should also be saying to anti-capitalist activists: turn to the labour movement, help rebuild the unions, and fight for working class representation in politics. The introduction quotes the SWP’s book on anti-capitalism, which says that putting a brick through the window of Starbucks is an ineffective gesture, whereas organising Starbucks workers is harder but more effective. Absolutely right, but pure demagogy. The SWP’s front Globalise Resistance has never attempted to unionise these workers, or others in sweatshops, or brand-name clothes shops. Yet this is precisely the kind of work Marxists should be doing with other anti-capitalists, bringing the energy of the recent movements to the labour movement that can end capitalism.

The book has something to offer anti-capitalists in terms of understanding capitalism, but less to say if they want to be Marxists in their everyday practice. The politics of anti-capitalism, the debates and the discussions within the movement are vital, but these ideas only become a material force when connected to the living class struggle. Hopefully, a further volume will address some of these questions.

Score: 7/10
Reviewer: Paul Hampton

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