On the Thread of Time – Capitalism – The Agrarian Revolution

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Focusing on the situation

The presentation, which we have undertaken on the essential and very rich material available to Marxism on the subject of the agrarian revolution, having not yet reached the present day, nor even the burning political problem concerning the revolutionary function of the masses of the countryside, it may have given some readers the impression that it gives too much prominence to economic theory, which cannot be developed, even in a rather limited framework, without resorting to some of these so horrifying “figures”. However, without figures, there is no politics, and even less revolution.

Unfortunately, it was printed as a five (written more in letters, out of respect for the maniacs of “light music”) instead of a ten, in the second issue of this study, entitled “The Sorcery of the Ground Rent”, before going on to the paragraph “Interest and Annuity”. Any reader will have realised this blunder, even if he does not have the competence of an illiterate peasant, who knows how to calculate in a surprising way. It is absolutely necessary to put one foot on the interest-rate march (which is much more urgent than unleashing the great activist stir). It was simply a land which, with a purchase value of one million, has a gross annuity of ten per cent and a net annuity of five (printing error: here again ten) per cent, i. e. one hundred thousand and fifty thousand lira. Walk not too steep for those who feel ready to fly thirty meters high with the trapeze of the irresistible action. The good farmer can explain the following theorem: the net rent is lower than the gross rent, from the moment when he has separated from the grain to be ground, the grain necessary to make the bread, and to reseed.

Not being able to serve immediately the dessert[1] of politics (it is Nenni who imposes the formula on the cook: dessert first[2]; what we give you are appetisers, even if they have a strong sour taste), all that remains for us is to take you into the field of philosophy, using a striking sentence by Marx in the chapter on Physiocrats to which we have given very great importance. Will you have some respite: because who among the lovers of light music is not a philosopher?

Marx does not analyse the historical transition in which capitalist agrarian rent appears only in the “Theories of Surplus Value”, a work that we have used until now, and which he could have more appropriately entitled “Theories of Surplus Labour”, as he says when he explains the structure of “Capital”. He also analyses this question in depth in one of the concluding chapters of Book III, Chapter XLVII, whose title is precisely – Genesis of the capitalist ground rent.

This chapter contains all the analysis we have drawn from the current but serious treaties on this subject. And it ends with a rather atrocious definition of the small farmer, owner and worker, (which we quoted at the Milan meeting).

“small landed property creates a class of barbarians standing halfway outside of society, a class combining all the crudeness of primitive forms of society with the anguish and misery of civilised countries.”

There is therefore no ambiguity in Marx regarding the alleged superiority over the ancient barbarism of modern civilisation! The first is only crude, the second is infamous. The rest of the passage castigates great land ownership, and the great capitalist industry in the end, “they join hands” in the exploitation, until the exhaustion, of Labour and the Earth.

However, this same chapter contains a warning that answers at the same time the question that the “pragmatists” obviously ask: can’t workers revolution launch these barbarians, companions of exploitation and servitude, against the civilisation of capital? We will come to this answer later, and there we will have the rich pool of material that Lenin has developed on the agrarian question: we must be patient!

“All critique of small landed property resolves itself in the final analysis into a criticism of private ownership as a barrier and hindrance to agriculture. And similarly all counter-criticism of large landed property. In either case, of course, we leave aside (obviously, dear Karl, but we had to sweat blood and water for that!) all secondary political considerations. This barrier and hindrance, which are erected by all private landed property vis-à-vis agricultural production and the rational cultivation, maintenance and improvement of the soil itself, develop on both sides merely in different forms, and in wrangling over the specific forms of this evil its ultimate cause is forgotten”.

The image employed by Marx is not new but it is useful. It is a slap in the face, not only for renegades in search of renovated structures for the legal distribution of agricultural property, but also for maniacs who, unable to bear the titanic work of restoring the skeleton of doctrine, which the counter-revolution constantly attempts to torpedo, cannot help but demand, at any time, because of their irresistible itching need, that the clownish frills of “political conditions” be restored. There were millions of them, and we half a dozen of us turned our backs on them and said with Dante, who Marx likes to quote: let them scratch where they itch!

Always the same old story

[3]Theory and action. Old quarrel over how to approach their relationship. The alleged contradiction between them, in the sense that giving too much importance to theory could compromise the success of the action, is the worst invention and the fundamental enormity of any opportunism. The first is essential to the second, even if half a century can separate their time. If our determinism is not a sham, it is absurd to propose to choose between one and the other. And if by chance this choice were given to us, we would not hesitate – and that in a state of turmoil whoever wants – to drop the action, but never the doctrine.

The reviews of a book by the French communist Rosmer have just been published: “In Moscow, in Lenin’s time”. Rosmer is a man of perfect loyalty: we do not despise this quality in a revolutionary, but we consider that it alone is far from sufficient. Rosmer, an old union organiser and militant devoted to the proletarian cause, was a trade unionist of the Sorelian type, and has now become a Trotskyist (moreover, he has repudiated the curious movement that is weakening itself with this term and that has not understood that the evil in Stalinism lies in this contortionism that he obviously takes up again in an even broader way). But if Rosmer, in addition to being an ardent revolutionary and a friend of Lenin and Trotsky, had been a true Marxist, he would never have defined Lenin’s historical writings as books of circumstance, which constitutes a serious offence, even unintentional, to Lenin’s memory.

This is not a sentence that escaped him by chance, Rosmer sees Lenin as the brilliant manoeuvrer of the communist revolution, but he is not able to see in him the much larger figure, now that we can draw a certain historical balance sheet, of the restorer of revolutionary doctrine. But an incorrigible Sorel-style voluntarist cannot reason otherwise: for him, the supreme dream is the armful, open to all kinds of revolts, of all the uprisings of the moment, the party is a secondary thing, discipline an unnecessary obstacle, and theory a simple malleable myth, a pimento which one can change as one wishes and intended to ignite crowds during the struggle.

Only in this way can it be explained that Rosmer lets himself go by saying that “Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder” was written with the intention of bringing the socialists of the “two and a half” type, opposed to the 21 points, into the international arena (in reality, not being in possession of Rosmer’s book, we are suspicious of this reported statement: that Lenin worked, by skill – a term contained in a quotation from this text – to violate the conditions he himself dictated, is not only absurd but also false); and also that “The State and Revolution” was another book of circumstance written to attract anarchists with the promise of the abolition of the State, whereas on the contrary it was a question of strongly denouncing the social-democratic forgetting of the Marxist thesis and the whole of the integral doctrine.

And it will be precisely by retracing the history of the “agrarian policy” followed by the Marxist parties that we will be able to see how Lenin, in the particular and complex problem of Russia, has never ceased, on a rigorous basis, to reaffirm Marx’s orthodox doctrine in this matter.

All this is in accordance with the thesis, which we systematically defended during the meeting, mentioned above, of our movement in Milan: according to historical materialism, the doctrine of a revolutionary class can only be formed as a single unit and at a determined turning point in history. In other words, it is only at certain rare “moments” in the human cycle that, to put it briefly, new truths emerge, new knowledge is acquired, which becomes the heritage of a class, the programme of a movement that extends its struggle and advent over an arc of time that is measured over centuries. The bridge of this conquest has no intermediate pillars, as it is launched from a single “flight” over the enemy abyss; This is why we mercilessly reject the conception of a core of doctrine that would be “in continuous elaboration”, a continuous elaboration that we deny both under the influence of contributions from disciples and – even worse – by the use of contributions from “science in general” or “culture in general”, which belong to a society and an era that are called upon to be outdated and overthrown.

If we continuously go back to Marx’s texts, it is because they correspond in their first draft formulation (even if other hands were able to contribute to their immediate and material writing and presentation), to the use of this fertile and dynamic turning point in history, in which the formation of the proletarian class and the criticism of bourgeois doctrine (still fresh from its revolution) emerged together, inseparable, from the material basis of society. And not because Karl Marx would have been a more powerful brain than all his predecessors or successors, as well as those who would like to scratch the parallel thesis of the negation of the leading role of personalities in history.

There are three paths that lead to the conquest of a common heritage of knowledge by the human community. The first places knowledge completely outside the physical world, in a supernatural brain which, from time to time, manifests a feature of its enlightenment by making a human mouth speak; and it must be admitted that, in this case, it may be the mouth of a great wise man or a humble creature: this is the path of religions. The second considers that knowledge is conquered by the brains of living men who gradually accumulate the results of the work of their thinking; and, from time to time, a personality of greater importance and power takes the common heritage of science a step forward; so that each era knows more than the previous one: it is the rationalist and evolutionary path. The third way, revolutionary, is ours. Without the intervention of any divinity, doctrine, like any other social form, emerges during a violent crisis of history when the material subsoil is disrupted, and it crystallises into a common baggage, consisting of norms of action, which will last, in compact form, centuries and centuries of history; it does not result from the subjective efforts of one or several great thinkers or leaders, but from general facts of the way of life and collective production. And this is how we explain, as social superstructures, the old religions, and even modern bourgeois philosophy, while carefully considering the formidable historical class potential that results from the observance of old myths, as well as the agitation of the modern principles of democracy, freedom and equality, which are those of our enemy classes.

A helping hand from Friedrich

The whole of Marx’s immense work contains the demonstration, obtained on the basis of a formidable task of collecting materials, not only that, from a certain moment on, social theory no longer progresses, but that it also regresses inexorably in relation to its initial luminous visions (following the example of that of classical economists of the 17th century); it also shows that the one who magnificently exposes the new theory is not the inventor but that he is lucky enough to have found it as the gold digger who falls on a nugget, when Marx proves that his truths are already contained, even in approximate form, in very old texts. All the notes of “Capital”, in particular in Book 1, and all the material of the “Theories of Surplus-Value”, aim at this goal: to prove that the solutions which seem original are truths which are obvious to all, and that they have been observed and formulated in an increasingly precise way in the past. They are therefore not finally stated organically when the genius descends to earth, but when the conditions are ripe and all contribute to the appearance of this result.

If we do not grasp this conception, it is impossible to convince ourselves that we are perfectly comfortable when we affirm that communism would have appeared in the same way if there had not been a Mr. Karl Marx, and when we throw ourselves like mad dogs on those who would like to change a line in Marx’s writings, defending ourselves, by the same occasion, with no less anger at the accusation of having added anything of our own.

The great men who have declared fundamental “revolutions in science” have, moreover, proceeded no differently than Marx. In their polemics and their generous struggle against those who wanted to stifle them, whether Galileo or Copernicus, for example, did a gigantic amount of work on ancient texts and the history of science in order to obtain countless proofs that had already been admitted, at various earlier times, as plausible and even certain the movement of the planets around the sun, as well as, at other times, the roundness of the Earth. The subtle dialectician Zeno of Elena in ancient Greece not only demonstrated, with the help of his sophisms, that he had established the theory of infinitesimal calculation, but he affirmed much more so that this theory is inherent in the logic, resulting from experience, according to which every man, even the uncultivated, knows full well that an arrow is never motionless at any time, even infinitely short, in its trajectory, and that the man who moves on the deck of a ship in the opposite direction to the movement of the latter while looking at the shore, no matter what he does, he cannot deny the movement of the ship and that of his body, and therefore, from there, by immediate inference, not the movement of the shoreline itself! And therefore the one of the earth. Einstein came to say that there was there, in germ, the whole of relativity: that of Gauls, and also his own…. Given the cycle of biological evolution and that of production technology, this should be the cycle of human thought, which is its “superstructure”. For this reason, any copyright patents must be denied to the above-mentioned persons Zeno, Copernicus, Galileo, Einstein… and Marx.

Only the fool is swollen, imbued with his Person. This is where Engels will intervene by putting poor Dühring through the ordeal of the wheel: but first, here are some confirmations of what we have just said in the pages of Marx that we have opened today.

Precisely, in Chapter XLVII of “Capital” that we have mentioned above, Marx demonstrates, by quickly reviewing the authors on whom he will expand more extensively in the “Theories of Surplus-Value”, that the right thesis is better seen by economists who are closest to the emergence of capitalism outside the feudal gang, and that, the further we go, the more official economic science denies the conquered truths and pleases itself in stupidity.

What is difficult about the ground rent problem, Marx tells us, is to see where this surplus of profit from the farm business comes from compared to the average profit of businesses in general, a surplus that is intended to pay the landowner’s monopoly right; it is to see that this surplus does not result from the natural productivity of the land, but that it is only a share of the surplus value added to the commodity because of human work over time. The annuity is not a plus added to the profit but, if you can say so, a minus deducted from the profit. Therefore, as we keep repeating, all value comes from work, not from nature.

So:

“For the older economists, who in general merely begin analysing the capitalist mode of production, still undeveloped in their day, the analysis of rent offers either no difficulty at all…;….those writers who are closer to feudal times, assume (in agriculture the predominant form of production) ground-rent (to be normal profit and therefore) to be the normal form of surplus-value in general…

The physiocrats are troubled by difficulties of another nature. As the actually first systematic spokesmen of capital,…. (they believe that) rent-yielding, or agricultural, capital to be the only capital producing surplus-value and (that), the agricultural labour set in motion by it, the only labour producing surplus-value…

But what can be said of more recent writers on economics, such as Daire, Passy, etc., who parrot the most primitive conceptions concerning the natural conditions of surplus-labour and thereby surplus-value in general, in the twilight of classical economy, indeed on its very death-bed, and who imagine that they are thus propounding something new and striking on ground-rent long after this ground-rent has been investigated (and basically understood by classical economists like Ricardo, before Marx) as a special form and become a specific portion of surplus-value? It is particularly characteristic of vulgar economy that it echoes what was new, original, profound and justified during a specific outgrown stage of development, in a period when it has turned platitudinous, stale, and false”.

Thus, it is useless to go and see if the major journals, academic texts and official treatises have finally enriched Marx’s doctrine; with this sentence, we are liquidating not only economics but also sociology and philosophy since the middle of the 19th century until today with a single blow.

Those who are the epoch-makers

As we know, Engels, who is now entering into the game, attached immense importance to Marx’s brilliant explanation of Quesnay’s famous “Tableau économique”[4], which we have already mentioned. This can be seen in a famous letter exchange between Engels and his friend, and in a chapter of the “Antidühring”, where Dühring himself provokes Engels’ anger when, convinced to say new things on the Tableau and on Quesnay, he falls miserably into old and perfectly ordinary positions.

Dühring claims to be accomplishing “an absolutely unprecedented undertaking” when he discovers that economic doctrine is “an enormously modern phenomenon”. But Engels replied that Marx had already stated: “Political economy … as an independent science, first sprang into being during the period of manufacture”; and “classical political economy … dates from William Petty in England and Boisguillebert in France, and closes with Ricardo in the former country and Sismondi in the latter”. Engels added, “Herr Dühring follows the path thus laid down for him, except that in his view higher economics begins only with the wretched abortions brought into existence by bourgeois science after the close of its classical period”. Therefore, the idea that any class science, after a brilliant and explosive beginning, declines inexorably when this class ceases to be revolutionary and becomes conservative, is quite clear also in Engels.

When Dühring, in his “Critical History” of the economists… of the past, comes to Quesnay and his “Tableau”, he declares it incomprehensible, thereby showing that he ignores that the key that Marx had already given him: and Engels to re-expose in a clear manner the construction of the Tableau[5], thus smoothing the way for those who find too difficult the substantial explanation Marx had given (“Theroies”, Chap. XIV). Only then does Marx proceed to the effective critical explanation of the failures of the “Tableau”; yet Dühring, who inflicts harsh treatment on this “Tableau”, begins by not understanding what it means for its author himself.

We will not follow the scrupulous vivisection to which Engels subjected the enormity of Mr. Dühring, because what interests us here is to show the miserable end of the method of updating, the scientific overtaking of any predecessor. There are thousands of Dührings who, like him, wanting to go beyond Marx, remain below not only the brilliant Quesnay but also even older naive authors whose criticism they undertake with sufficiency. Dürhing – indeed – had, from the outset, claimed to bring “a new system that is not only sufficient for the time, but authoritative for the time”.

Authors of new systems, pioneering authors, our polemic with each of you will be brief: we will reduce it to a word and an act as soon as you have presented yourself: turn around… right!

How to book a less expensive treatment…. Down to earth to similar clutter when, once again, Mr. Dühring, after having dealt with the difficulty of explaining the farmer’s profit and its relationship to the landowner’s income, because they sometimes coincide (and Engels opposes him with a clear passage relating to Adam Smith, to whom this analysis is conducted, quite undoubtedly, at its conclusion, as in the academic treaties we have recalled), comes to a conclusion of this type: the farmer’s gain is based on the exploitation of the labour power of the land! And therefore constitutes “a part of the rent”!

Quesnay’s conception: the rent of the land is a part of the surplus value and therefore of the surplus labour, but there is surplus value and surplus labour only in the agricultural enterprise, is well below Marx’s conception: the rent is a specific part of the total surplus value. And the naive conception: the rent comes from natural fertility and not from human surplus labour, is still below Quesnay’s. But Dühring’s surpassing with his formula: labour power of the earth, in which there is good work, but not human arms, brings us back to the slogan, which was not addressed to him: “you can sleep, Kinglax works for you”.

And, in the early morning, this surplus labour, scientifically discovered in such a way as to represent an epoch, is collected in a place that has only a small opening. Remember him, oh pages from a “just published”[6]!

Rent and capitalism

The second Marxist source to which we have referred, Chapter XLVII of Book III of “Capital” (another, which we can indicate, is found in the chapters of Book I on primitive accumulation and, in particular, on “the genesis of the capitalist farmer”), still allows us, by going back, before continuing, since this subject is as considerable as it is delicate, to shed light on the historical cycle of feudalism – agrarian capitalism – state manufacturing capitalism – private industrialism, the order of which will not please the various layers of shady people at all.

We must understand that, when the modern problem of ground rent arises, we are already in the middle of a capitalist economy. And indeed, Quesnay puts it in such an environment. The total agricultural product (i.e. no less than the conditions of agricultural work: land, tools, stocks, etc.) is already totally separate from the productive worker. The five billion to which Quesnay assesses the total national product are obtained from the sale of food and are in the hands of farmers and therefore capitalists. All products have therefore passed through the market, none have been consumed by the direct producer (as in the surviving small crop, or as in the natural economy of feudalism). Two-fifths of this money is paid by farmers as an annuity to landowners, and the rest of the traffic between Quesnay’s “three classes”: productive (agricultural workers and farmers), owner and sterile (industrialists and their employees) is shown in the “Tableau”, but we will not explain it here. The important thing is that even agricultural workers buy their subsistence goods with money, but for Quesnay, it happens “within the productive class”.

We therefore have five billion of gross agricultural product, three billion of net product, two of which constitute the owners’ income and one the return on the working capital held entirely by farmers, which is estimated at ten billion and generates an income of ten percent: the remaining two billion is used to replace working capital advances and to compensate for the wear and tear of equipment. In any case, we are already at the capitalist criteria: 1) all the product is commodity; 2) all the overproduction results from surplus labour, i.e. agricultural workers consume two and produce five; 3) all the profit is in the hands of the farmers, the agricultural capitalists, even if they are obliged to return two thirds of it to the landowners: the proceeds of their rent.

This conception, which does not see any extortion of surplus labour of non-agricultural labourers, is explained by the predominance of agriculture over industry. In the bold physiocratic hypothesis, agriculture as a whole has ceased to be feudal, but industrial production is still secondary to agricultural production.

As manufacturing and industry become more important, the “Tableau” will become inadequate. But the society described in it is already the “de Marx” society, with the three classes sharing the net product: workers, wages; capitalists, whether farmers or industrialists, profit; property owners, rent. Profit and rent constitute the surplus value.

In this “abstract” society, there are neither craftsmen nor small peasants: indeed, if these classes are still present everywhere today, they are “non-characteristic” classes of bourgeois society, “surviving” classes of pre-capitalist times, insofar as they already existed before there were workers, entrepreneurial capitalists, and landowners in a mercantile and bourgeois way, and not of the feudal lord type.

However, all this is confirmed by Marx’s text.

Expressive passages

“Rent is paid out of the price of agricultural produce”; and therefore the rent must be explained as part of the price paid in the market for the commodity. From this sum of money, the price, it is necessary to take out the reconstitution of the working capital for the farmer entrepreneur – the payment of wages to agricultural workers, for an amount that corresponds, at a minimum, to their subsistence and reproduction – the farmer’s earnings (profit from the agricultural enterprise) – the owner’s income. So we are in the midst of mercantilism and capitalism.

While physiocrats are productive, as we have said, in denying everything to manufacturing labour, for them “productive capital for rent, namely agricultural capital, produces surplus value”. Thus, the question then arises: what is ground rent, when agriculture is entirely under the control of capital, managed in a capitalist way? Hence our thesis: capitalism is born in agriculture, and its first revolutionary doctrine is the physiocratic doctrine, an embryo of the doctrine of classical economics.

Marx, here too, prefers the physiocratic system to the monetary system which does not reach the conception of surplus value, but which nevertheless announces

“that the monetary system correctly proclaims production for the world-market and the transformation of the output into commodities, and thus into money, as the prerequisite and condition of capitalist production. In this system’s further development into the mercantile system, it is no longer the transformation of commodity-value into money, but the creation of surplus-value which is decisive — but from the meaningless viewpoint of the circulation sphere and, at the same time, in such manner that this surplus value is represented as surplus money, as the balance of trade surplus”,

That is to say, as an surplus profit in the money-commodity-money transformation that takes place only in the market. While it is true that it was the physiocrats who were the first to locate the origin of any surplus value (and therefore any subsequent accumulation) in the sphere of production, the mercantilist system contains elements that are

“the characteristic feature of the interested merchants and manufacturers of that period, which is in keeping with the stage of capitalist development represented by them, is that the transformation of feudal agricultural societies into industrial ones and the corresponding industrial struggle of nations on the world-market depends on an accelerated development of capital, which is not to be arrived at along the so-called natural path, but rather by means of coercive measures. It makes a tremendous difference whether national capital (accumulation of money in state coffers) is gradually and slowly transformed into industrial capital, or whether this development is accelerated by means of a tax which they impose through protective duties mainly upon landowners, middle and small peasants, and handicraftsmen… Hence the national character of the mercantile system is not merely a phrase on the lips of its spokesmen. Under the pretext of concern solely for the wealth of the nation and the resources of the state, they, in fact, pronounce the interests of the capitalist class and the amassing of riches in general to be the ultimate aim of the state, and thus proclaim bourgeois society in place of the old divine state”.

When we read these passages, we think of the process, which is now repeating itself from Europe to Russia and China with a delay of two centuries, as we said, among other things, in a recent report in Florence.

We insist once again on the fact that this first form of capitalism, which concerned the agricultural enterprise and not yet the manufacturing and exporting enterprise, had already exceeded the existing relations in pre-bourgeois agriculture; and we also insist on the fact that, as usual, we are not issuing there (shame be[7] who thinks of Kinglax) absolutely nothing original.

“In natural economy proper, when no part of the agricultural product, or but a very insignificant portion, enters into the process of circulation, and then only a relatively small portion of that part of the product which represents the landlord’s revenue (in kind), as, e.g., in many Roman latifundia, or upon the villas of Charlemagne, or more or less during the entire Middle Ages, the product and surplus-product of the large estates consists by no means purely of products of agricultural labour. It encompasses equally well the products of industrial labour. Domestic handicrafts and manufacturing labour as secondary occupations of agriculture, which forms the basis, are the prerequisite of that mode of production upon which natural economy rests — in European antiquity and the Middle Ages as well as in the present-day Indian community, in which the traditional organisation has not yet been destroyed. The capitalist mode of production completely abolishes this relationship; a process which may be studied on a large scale particularly in England during the last third of the 18th century. Thinkers like Herrenschwand, who had grown up in more or less semi-feudal societies, still consider, e.g., as late as the close of the 18th century”.

We add that it will also be observed in China in the next thirty years of this 20th century.

The historical shortcut that Marx then makes by citing Carthage, Rome and China of the last century tends to establish that there is no real rent, as Quesnay describes it, unless the entire product is sold on the market and the capital is invested in the farm business, when the separation between agriculture and manufacturing, between city and countryside, is now a fait accompli.

At this stage, however, industrial capital is only in the early stages of what will be its impetuous race to accumulation and concentration; and the first area in which the capitalist revolution was carried out was that of agricultural enterprises.

Labour-foodstuffs-money

In this form, which is still weakly industrial but where the land is now free and capable of being marketed, where the serf is detached from the turf and the capital invested in agriculture, where the product belongs entirely to the farmer and is sold entirely on the market, we already have the capitalist surplus value and ground rent defined by Marxism, namely coming entirely from human surplus labour.

Could we talk about rent before? In a certain sense, yes, since it was a question of an rent from surplus labour, that is to say, the exploitation of the work of others for the benefit of the rentier; but it was not a cash rent, nor – in the strict sense – a surplus value, because this only crystallises when the whole product turns into currency, and constitutes an aliquot part of this value currency into which the final product is fully convertible.

Marx explains this in three paragraphs of Chapter XLVII: Labour Rent – Rent in Kind – Money Rent.

Labour rent. The immediate producer has his field and tools, and therefore the conditions of his work. But he is obliged, by the social mechanism, to provide, in addition to the work on his own field, the products of which he consumes with his family, a certain number of hours in the day and days in the week to work the Lord’s land. Surplus work is obvious here, its immediate analysis: we find the first germ of future surplus value. These are the social forms of medieval and asiatic serfdom. In ancient slavery and in the current slavery of plantations, rent absorbs profit and the latter merges with it if only their food is paid to workers. In other cases, after fulfilling the obligations of his servile work, the immediate producer may have a certain amount of margin for his consumption, and even for what will later be his wage, i.e. the equivalent of the necessary work.

Rent in kind. The agricultural worker no longer provides work (the corvée) but must bring to the lord or religious institution a part of the product of his field (the tithe). The condition of the immediate producer has changed in that, in addition to the conditions of his work, he possesses all his working time, although it is possible to determine, on the basis of the weight of the product he is required to supply to the lord, the part of the surplus labour which is extorted from him. This type of worker remains a serf if he is attached to the land, and in this case, one is completely in the personal relationship that defines feudalism, since what matters most to the lord is not the extent of the land he owns directly, but the number of labour units that are subjected to him. It is still a natural economy: the tendency to move manufacturing work away from the countryside does not exist, and all surplus labour is transformed into rent.

Money rent. The quantity of products that the small producer supplied in kind is now represented by a sum of money. However, as long as a farmer does not intervene between the worker and the owner, we cannot yet speak of a capitalist ground rent, but it is still true that the predominant form of surplus labour is the ground rent. Whether paid to a private individual or to the State, this form does not easily replace the tribute in products (at the time of Marx again, this passage is being accomplished in Eastern Europe: one remembers Lenin’s tax in kind).

It is only after the advent of this form, which presupposes a certain technical development and a modification of working conditions and relationships, that the capitalist farmer begins to appear with the expropriation and expulsion (= total liberation) of the peasant, who is transformed into a wage earner detached from the land and the work instruments.

Marx then continues his analysis by examining the colonisation system (share-cropping) and small parcel property, which leads him to the conviction we have already mentioned. But we have reached the developed form of capitalist rent, which confirms that a social revolution has taken place, even before, in many countries, industry has developed. “[Share-cropping can be considered] as a transitory form from the original form of rent to capitalist rent… But, essentially, rent no longer appears here as the normal form of surplus-value in general”. The fully capitalist rent appears when the immediate worker no longer possesses any of the conditions of his work or the soil, even over a limited area, nor any tools or reserves, but only his personal labour power: he is an employee. From that moment on, surplus labour is shared in profit and ground rent, and, from then on, the capitalist revolution in the mode of production is accomplished.

Philosophy at last!

[8]We had promised a little philosophy to make the economy less burdensome, but we had to summarise what had already been said about the different theories designed to explain the “mystery” of ground rent. We carried out this analysis without formulas or figures, but it was appropriate to confirm what we drew from one of the Marxist texts with other theses taken elsewhere in Marx and Engels, in order to confuse later those who delude themselves about doctrinal corrections to the texts that occurred during the lifetime of the two founders of critical communism. Not only the theory, as we could present it in the form of a system of mathematical relations, but also the rigour of terminology and verbal formulation, are definitively founded and not subject to revision.

Thus, in rural production, every time a class of non-working people receive an income, all this surplus comes from work and not from a gift of nature that would not cost any human effort.

Everything therefore comes from the total labour that produces the total product. The latter is reduced to a net product, available for human consumption, after reconstituting what is needed in reserves for a new working year.

Part of the net product is consumed by the immediate worker so that he can reconstitute his human productive power. The other part, which we call overproduction and therefore surplus labour, is consumed by the class of non-workers.

In the natural economy, surplus labour is entirely rent. The feudal lord takes it in the form of work, when the worker provides labour time on the seigneurial estate – he takes it in kind, when the worker transfers part of the product to him. The worker is a serf.

A form of transition between the natural economy and the fully mercantile-capitalist economy is the one where a) the worker is free; b) rent begins to be paid in money (small tenant farming) or even in kind (petty share-cropping); c) the enterprise is still fragmented (very small farming), but it is sufficient for the farmer’s or tenant farmer’s work capacity. To this form can be added the small emancipated property in which the parcel worker does not owe a rent to anyone, although he is subject to different charges (taxes, etc.). However, we have reached the point where a large part of the product ends up on the market and is converted into money.

In the capitalist agricultural economy, which generally precedes the industrial economy, small parcels of land are brought together in a single enterprise, run by a farmer entrepreneur who has working capital and reduces the workers dispossessed of their plot of land to mere wage labourers.

The ideal of the physiocrats is a society entirely based on large land-based enterprises, managed in a capitalist way, with a circulation of goods and money based on a predominantly agricultural production, whose manufacturing is an accessory that does not produce accumulated wealth (due to the mistaken assumption that the latter generates neither surplus labour nor surplus value).

How can this economic school be classified, historically, ideologically? What is its position in relation to the modern philosophies of the “Encyclopedia” that preceded the great bourgeois revolution?

A common opinion (based on the mistaken model: the agriculture-industry antithesis corresponds to the feudalism-capitalist antithesis, and the divine right-popular sovereignty antithesis) leads most people to see in physiocrats reactionaries, defenders of the old regime against the new revolutionary forms. It is this false belief that Marx is demolishing.

It is true that Quesnay, who is one of the most prominent physiocrats, supported the absolute monarchy, but his criticism of the parliamentary system based on the balance of forces and counter-forces is remarkable, given that he claims that it leads to the division of the great and the oppression of the small. Mercier de la Rivière, for his part, wrote that man, insofar as he is destined to live in society, is thus destined to live under despotism. And with this thesis we may be ahead of, not behind, the libertarian ramblings of Enlightenment philosophy. And then there was Mirabeau the priest and Turgot, politicians, radical and bourgeois ministers, who anticipated the revolution. What is remarkable from a social point of view is that they succeed the systems of Colbert, Minister of Louis XIV, and Law, representatives under the former dynastic regime of the interests of commercial and manufacturing capital, supporters of State intervention in the economy, protectionism, and the accumulation by the State of important finances for capitalist investment. This economic policy of state and directed capitalism led to collapse and bankruptcy, while, on the contrary, in the capitalist form, agriculture flourished again: physiocrats express this economic phase, and therefore, the fact that they have been for free trade and the non-economic intervention by the state, a fact which is retained by their critics as a coincidental occurrence, is only the logical consequence of this situation.

This does not prevent Marx from believing that the physiocratic system contains serious contradictions that stem from the fundamental contradiction: they have discovered surplus value, but only in the form of a difference between pure values of use, inherent in the material of the food produced and the food consumed: “they have discovered that capitalist production and capital production are conditioned by the separation of the worker from the land”, and that surplus value is the excess over the wage paid in money, but they have not understood that wherever there is a sale of labour power, there is a realisation of surplus value and capital accumulation. But, in reality, they accompanied the transformation of the feudal owner into a bourgeois capitalist when they defended the freedom of action of the capitalist enterprise.

“At the same time it is understandable how the feudal semblance of this system, in the same way as the aristocratic tone of the Enlightenment, was bound to win a number of feudal lords as enthusiastic supporters and propagandists of a system which, in its essence, proclaimed the rise of the bourgeois system of production on the ruins of the feudal system'”.

Bourgeois pre-consciousness

The contradictions, just mentioned, of the physiocrats

“are contradictions of capitalist production as it works its way out of feudal society, and interprets feudal society itself only in a bourgeois way, but has not yet discovered its own peculiar form — somewhat as philosophy first builds itself up within the religious form of consciousness, and in so doing on the one hand destroys religion as such, while on the other hand, in its positive content, it still moves only within this religious sphere, idealised and reduced to terms of thought”.

This short and concise paragraph can serve as an exegesis to the famous thesis of the Preface to the “Critique of the Political Economy”: an era of revolutionary transition cannot be judged on its self-awareness.

We know the great case that Marx made of French classical materialism, whose victory accompanied the great revolution which, in addition to its social and political tasks, added, in the revolutionary period, that of “destroying religion”.

Naturally, our theory of bourgeois revolution, based on proletarian dialectical materialism, is quite different from the one given by this first materialism.

It denied that man’s consciousness is constituted by the contributions of divine revelation, and that it must, according to and by the grace of these contributions, solve the problems not only of individual behaviour, but also of social life and public power; thus it had consistently denied the monarchy of divine right. But, to replace this spiritual source, consciousness had been transferred within the individual, and it became the basis, naturally reasoning, for the decisions of the individual on his behaviour both in his private and public life, as well as on his free and elective choice of the men and groups who govern. This detached consciousness of divinity nevertheless continued to precede human action in its mental form: it was therefore “idealised and ideal”, and did not cease to move “in a religious sphere”.

Although many classical French materialists proclaimed themselves atheists, Voltaire, despite being a fierce enemy of the Church’s doctrinal and civil authority, was a deist: the revolution raised veritable altars to the “Goddess Reason”. Subsequent history would then confirm the complete reconciliation of society and the bourgeois state with the official and declared forms of religion.

It is not possible to get out of the mists of religion, as was said in Germany at the time of Feuerbach’s bourgeois anti-Christianity, if we do not dethrone the personal “consciousness” (and not the collective consciousness) of its place as a precursor to give it, as developed and dialectical materialism does, its rightful place: that of the last arrival, of a passive recorder of events that it neither determines nor provokes, but that it cannot even understand before or during their development.

From the example of the physiocrats and the incompleteness of their vision, although it was brilliant and ahead of their time, Marx confirms the inadequacy and transience of the consciousness of any revolution in its successive static forms, and therefore confirms the validity of historical materialism, which sees in the theoretical consciousness of the different classes a superstructure built on the material basis of economic facts, which does not detract from the importance of studying and understanding all the successive “schools” and “systems”, which become so many historical forces.

Systems that claim to present absolute truth, even when they are real and alive and have nothing to do with the personal elucubrations of misguided and presumptuous authors, are all the more efficient because they contain contradictions and the vigorous denial of what they believe is their declared content.

“the ostensible veneration of landed property becomes transformed into the economic negation of it and the affirmation of capitalist production.”

And, indeed, the legislators of the Revolution attempted to achieve the confiscation of land ownership by the bourgeois state, and this was fully theorised by Ricardo, representing a more advanced form of bourgeois consciousness, the pre-eminence of the industrial capitalist over the landowner.

In all these systems, however, doctrine is not presented as the consciousness of the ruling class of society, but as an “ideal” to improve the lot of all men in society.

And, indeed, for physiocrats “capitalists are only capitalists in the interests of the landowner, just as political economy in its later development would have them be capitalists only in the interests of the working class”. Both of them believe that they are pure economic scientists, but they move “only within this religious sphere, idealised and reduced to terms of thought”.

The dialectical and revolutionary materialism of the communist movement has no power as a theory – and theory is the first revolutionary weapon – unless it links human action to a consciousness, and rejects any demagogy based on this illusory and ridiculous basis.

Source: “Il Programma Comunista” Nr. 1, 1954.

[1] In French in the text.

[2] In French in the text.

[3] Literally: Toccata with the same string.

[4] In French in the text.

[5] In French in the text.

[6] In French in the text; Kinglax was a laxative. (Editor’s note)

[7] In French in the text.

[8] In French in the text.

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