“Marxism is not a closed book”: Prabhat Patnaik on ‘Reading Capital’

Even after nearly 150 years since the first volume was published, ‘Das Kapital’ (‘Capital’) has remained a widely cited, extensively debated and critiqued work of economic theory. Even in a world of globalization – much different from the epoch in which it was produced – academicians, activists and the working class find relevance in ideas expounded in the three volumes of ‘Das Kapital’. To the Marxists political leaders and a wide range of leftists, the understanding of its multiple layers of meaning has been the difference between knowledge and ignorance. The economic crisis and the capitalist predicament have only fuelled a further interest in the theories of Marx and his seminal contribution, ‘Das Kapital’. It is in this context that the Indian School of Social Science has initiated the ‘Das Kapital Study Forum’.

Com. Prabhat Patnaik, an eminent economist and Marxists theoretician, launched the study forum on the 29th of September 2012 with an inaugural lecture on the relevance and salient features of ‘Das Kapital’. Here is a brief summary of his lecture.

(The write up below are interpretations of the author from the lecture and might not wholly reflect the views of Com. Prabhat Patnaik. The Full lecture can be heard here: 

For information on the study forum,  contact Com. Razik 9444082004)

The Nature of ‘Das Kapital’

Marx, in producing ‘Das Kapital’ was trying to understand the workings of the dominant political economic  system of his epoch – ‘Capitalism’. His enquiry and his analysis, while drawing largely from the information and experiences of British capitalism (which was the most developed in that time) discusses the intrinsic tendencies of capitalism and points to the trajectories of evolution of this economic system. Thus ‘Das Kapital’ by laying bare the abstract workings of capitalist system, aids as theoretical base for us to understand capitalist development in specific temporal and spatial settings. In this sense Das Kapital is open to reconstruction.

The theories and ideas of Marxism engage with and remain sensitive to all scientific advancement and are reconstructed as new ideas emerge. In this, it is again an open system of knowledge that incorporates theoretical and analytical ideas that emerge from all including non Marxist theoreticians (Theoreticians who do not allude to or build from Marxists theoretical paradigms).

The other major strength of ‘Das Kapital’ is its ability to explicate the relationships between different entities and processes. Marx, by elucidating that all commodities, hold in them both use values and exchange values, was able to unravel the duality of commodity, in them being both ‘things’ and as relationships between labour (as expressed by their exchange value). This allows Marx to analyse other elements of capitalism in their duality. One of the cornerstones of Marxist theory is the pervasiveness of duality among all elements. Through this method, Marx is able to address and explain the paradoxes that arise in the operation of capitalist economy by explicating the ‘relationships’ that are masked within the ‘things’.

The Paradoxes in Capitalism

The emergence of profit from the production process remains mystified until we are able to understand the duality of labour in being a value creating process, while also being a commodity in exchange through which people satisfy their living needs. The difference between the value created (use of labour) and the value exchanged (labour power) gives rise to surplus value and forms the basis for profit even as equivalence of products forms the basis for commodity exchange.

The second and less discussed paradox in the system is the coexistence of high levels of autonomy enjoyed by individuals in the choices they make and yet the ease with which capitalist system continues to function and grow on the basis of certain unchanging set of tendencies. This paradox of freedom of agency co existing with a set economic framework is achieved as those who do not comply with the logic of capitalism, in other words people including the capitalist who do not play according to the rules of capital, simply lose out, only to be replaced. Thus an inherent coercion is built into the system that is apparently liberal.

Another interesting paradox is that of change and continuity within capitalism. Marx had maintained that capitalism was a coherent system whose immanent tendencies operated in manner to perpetuate the system, but moments of crisis were clearly moments of incoherence within the system. Marx maintained that capitalism had an inherent tendency to grow out of the crisis. This was construed to mean that capitalism goes through periodic crisis and growth, corresponding to the business cycles. But what Marx intended to state was that capitalism will go through a process of restructuring which will allow it to come out of the crisis. One of the ways in which this is achieved is ofcourse through the process of centralization of capital, where big capital drives out or assimilates small capital during business downturn. But that is not the only process. A restructuring of class relations also occurs that restructures the manner in which capitalism works entailing a change but the continuity of the system whose immanent tendencies remain the same. The class struggle, that might even take the form of imperialist or nationalist struggle is fraught with conflicts and entails a great deal of violence and destruction of productive forces.

This brings us to yet another paradox wherethe development and destruction of productive forces happen simultaneously and systhemically. While Marx had not allured to this or explained this feature, subsequent works have hinted at this process. Engels has mentioned how the development of capitalism and its tendency to concentrate capital and develop productive forces through consolidation results in the destruction of previous forms of production and with it the productive forces thus involved. (For example, the growth of ‘flex banner’ industry decimating the ‘hand painted banner’ industry and with it also the skills and talents that were developed over time.)

The Present Crisis

The present economic crisis is an expression of one such paradox – called the realisation problem – where the surplus value imbued at the point of production does not find its realization at the point of consumption, leading to a fall in profits and economic crisis. This occurs when the workers, whose real incomes stagnate or fall during the periods of capitalist growth, are unable to consume the products thus leading to loss. The existence of a large reserve army of labour (unemployed people) will keep the incomes low and near subsistence level. As productive forces improve, labour power increases while the cost of labour power remains unchanged leading to more produce while demand stagnates causing the realization crisis. While credit can create short term bubbles in the long run the economy is severely damaged and much of productive forces and the products created need to be destroyed.


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