[OPE-L:1970] Marx and some Marxists on "increasing misery"?

Paul Zarembka (zarembka@acsu.buffalo.edu)
Tue, 21 Dec 1999 17:44:30

     Ajit has provided two cites from Marx to support an interpretation of
a "theory of increasing misery", one theoretical, from VPP and one
empirical, from Chapter 25 of "Capital". I have tried to address both in
a rather long posting [OPE-L:1881] and don't have much to add. He has
responded in part on the former while not on the latter. I think the
lines of demarcation between us are clearly enough drawn.

     I have undertaken a search for the word "misery" on the Marx-Engels
Internet Archive. The results for those interested are at
Not all of Marx's important writings are included through this search, and
many of the citations are for Engels and others, rather than Marx himself.
In any case, it comes clear enough to me that the word "misery" is not
well-defined for theoretical purposes.

     I disagree with Ajit that Samuelson should be taken seriously as a
Marxist scholar. If I have to spend focus time reading neoclassical
economists on Marx, I would rather choose Baumol (who doesn't support a
"theory of increasing misery") and Morishima (who does). I have turned,
instead, to leading turn-of-the-century Marxists to see how they read Marx
at a time when wages in the First World were much lower (if anyone knows
of good sources on long-term Third-World wages please pass them along),
i.e., when the environment was more conducive to interpreting Marx as an
"absolute increasing misery" theorist.

     Major figures of Marxist theory at that time included Bernstein,
Bukharin, Kautsky, Lenin, Luxemburg, and Plekhavnov. I would take any one
of these more seriously than Samuelson on Marx, even when I disagree with
them. Henryk Grossman, himself a supporter of a theory of increasing
misery in Marx, surveyed four of them on wage theory for his 1929 book
*The Law of Accumulation and Breakdown of the Capitalist System* (cites
from "History of Political Economy", Vol. 26, no. 2, 1994):

KAUTSKY--Grossmann's reading of Kautsky's position in "Bernstein und das
sozialdemokratische Programm", 1899:

"Kautsky...stresses the *elevating tendencies* as the characteristic
feature of Marx's doctrine....and only the workers' relative portion of
the produce of society decreases. In that sense only can one speak of the
increase of 'social immiseration'." (p. 249)

BERNSTEIN--Grossmann quoting Bernstein, "Theorie und Geschickte des
Sozialismus", 1901:

"'The *distribution* of society's wealth is always a question of power and
organization....The wage question is a sociological question, which pure
economics shall never explain'." (p. 249).

LUXEMBURG--Grossmann's reading of "Social Reform or Revolution", 1908, and
her posthumous "Einfuehrung in die Nationaloekonomie", 1925:

"We see that according to Luxemburg the level of wages depends only the
power and organization of the two opposing classes, whereby the tendency
toward impovishment is exclusively a thing of the past, whereas wages at
*present* and in the *future* exhibit an upward tendency due to the
arousal of new needs through labor unions...." (p. 252)

BUKHARIN--Grossmann's reading of Bukharin in *Neue Zeit*, 1914 and his
presentation to the 4th Congress of the Communist International, 1922:

"Kautsky and Luxemburg relegate to the past the tendency toward
impovishment, where only the upward tendency is retained for the
future...[Bukharin] adheres to the theory of impoverishment, with this
difference: as opposed to Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg, he removes it not in
time but in space". (p. 252)

     As to Lenin and Plekhavnov, I report the following:

PLEKHAVNOV: "[I]n the direct and clear meaning of his [Marx's] finalized
theory, a fall in the price of labor power, and a relative worsening in
the worker's condition may be accompanied by a rise in his pay" ("A
Critique of Our Critics", 1901, as quoted by Lapides, p. 254).

LENIN: Lenin's 1914 "Granat Encyclopaedia" article "Karl Marx" (his last
survey of Marxist theory) does not include a theory of increasing misery.
I have not found a place where Lenin could be interpreted as having argued
that Marx had a theory of increasing absolute misery (of course, there are
conjunctural references to wages being pushed down, but this is not what
is being argued here).


     These authors have very different legacies but only one in six
(Bukharin) seem to have found a theory of increasing misery in Marx. Of
course, there is no question of "majority" vote here. But I for one do
not accept Ajit's statement that "most of the serious historians of
thought would agree" that Marx had a "theory of increasing misery",
particularly if the category is delimited to "progressive historians of
thought, knowledgeable about Marx".

Paul Z. (with replies to Ajit below)

Paul Zarembka, supporting RESEARCH IN POLITICAL ECONOMY, web site
******************** http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/PZarembka

P.S. Some replies to Ajit:

1) In one posting yesterday, Ajit said that I [PZ] "haven't even begun to
critique [his] position" which, in the next posting, is that "marx's view
was that the bargaining strength of the workers over wages declines over a
secular time period because of the rising trend in the rate of
unemployment." I don't accept a rising trend in the rate of unemployment,
first, because Marx refers to "reserve army" (which is not the same as
unemployment) and, second, because capital accumulates (however, this is a
whole new area of discussion, as I argue in "Accumulation of Capital, its
Definition: A Century after Lenin and Luxemburg").

2) Ajit asks about wealth distribution in Marx; I haven't looked into it.
He also indicates that he doesn't understand the mathematics concerning
how the rate of profit could go down along with rising real wages. I
think I was clear enough in my answer. In words, if productivity
increases in the production of goods consumed by workers faster than
growth in real wages [s/v rises], and if that rising productivity is
associated with a sufficient increase in the organic composition of
capital [c/v rises], the rate of profit [(s/v) / (c/v + 1)] can decline.
[I am answering Ajit's initial statement, "So don't they owe us an
explanation to how does the workers relative condition deteriorate vis-a
vis the capitalists when the real wages of the workers are supposedly
rising and the rate of profit is supposedly falling?"]

3) In mentioning U.S., French, Brazilian, Mexican, and Spanish labor
history, I was indicating the kinds of organizing issues for understanding
wage levels Marx WOULD have looked at were he alive in the late 1930s from
my understanding of his 1865-1883 theoretical understandings of the
determination of wages.

4) I wrote: "I think Samuelson wants to DISCOURAGE careful study of Marx
as he thinks that 'answers' to questions in economics are best handled by
classical/neoclassical theory." Ajit replied that Samuelson "is serious
enough a scholar to not put his name to stupid statements simply to
'discourage' serious reading of Marx." In other words, Samuelson would
not put his name to "stupidities", and/or would not do so "simply to
discourage" serious reading of Marx?

Regarding "stupidities", the most intelligent are usually the most aware
of the potentialities for "stupidities"; Samuelson himself admitted one
with regard to reswitching. Regarding an attempt to discourage, basically
I stand by my statement except for the qualification that I don't know
Samuelson's state of mind when he wrote what he wrote. However, the
EFFECT for students reading his textbook is to DISCOURAGE careful study of
Marx. In fact, such types of statements as his that "the basic Marxian
conclusion" is that there is a "tendency for real wages rates to fall to a
*minimum subsistence level*" were thrown at many of us in our youth and
can be pretty successful in discouraging (I personally had to come to Marx
on my own, not through encouragement of economics textbooks).

5) Ajit comments as a conclusion: "May be if you look hard enough in
Ricardo as well as in Smith, you will find [class struggle] there too.
Most of the Sraffians are arguing that the classical wage theory is
basically a bargaining wage theory between the two classes."

This last comment leaves me speechless.

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