Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Kieran Allen - Marx and the Alternative to Capitalism

According to the blurb on the back cover of Kieran Allen's latest book, it "provides a crucial alternative introduction to Marx for undergraduates in sociology and politics". I have no idea what passes for discussion about Marx and Marxism in university departments but I have no doubt that this book will prove useful for anyone trying to get to grips with Marxist ideas for the first time. However to reduce the target audience down to university undergraduates, would in my opinion be a great shame.

Allen's book is a clear and detailed explanation of the ideas of Karl Marx. An early chapter puts Marx into the context of his times, and describes his revolutionary life, but rapidly Allen gets to the meat of the story. Allen demonstrates how Marx explained the driving force of capitalism was the need to accumulate wealth for the sake of accumulation. This wealth comes from the exploitation of workers, and Allen's explanation of the Labour Theory of Value is particularly clear. For those approaching Marx's ideas at first, the LToV can often be a stumbling block. Marx explains that it is from the work of men and women that all wealth originates. In this, he was following Adam Smith and other classical economists. Smith wrote that it is from "labour, that all wealth of the world was originally purchased; and its value to those who possess it, and who want to exchange it for some new production is precisely equal to the quantity of labour it can enable them to purchase or command."

What Allen is particularly good at getting across is an explanation of why it is that say a car is worth a certain number of bicycles. As he puts it the "reason why a suit of clothes now exchanges with a chair in a certain proportion is that both contain a distinct quantity of abstract labour." Abstract labour being a "quantitative measurement of human labour for the purposes of exchange... general, human labour that is not marked by specific feathres and can be reduced to a common denominator so that units of labour can be compared to one another".

In other words, what is important is the way that amounts of human labour average out across industries and economies. This helps explain why for instance, my inabilities at carpentry mean that a chair I manufacture (taking 10 times the length of time as a worker in an Ikea factory) isn't worth ten times more.

Now Allen's explanation of Marxist ideas goes much further than the LToV. Short snappy chapters on Alienation, Class, "How We Are Kept in Line" detail much of Marxist thought. Their length perhaps betrays that this is primarily a university text book, but don't let that put you off. These are useful introductions that will help direct the reader to a more detailed reading of these ideas, particularly if they follow up with the useful section of further reading at the end.

Finally Allen's last two chapters take Marxist thought and look at the future. This is unusual. Most introductions to Marx avoid placing too much emphasis on what a future, socialist society might look like. In the penultimate chapter, Allen looks at "The Economics of Socialism". Here he distances himself from the bureaucratic command economies of the former Eastern Bloc, which labelled itself socialist, and instead looks at how a democratic, planned economy might work, and why we need it. He looks at the potential for worker's self management, drawing on historical examples, such as the Paris Commune, that inspired Marx and Engels. He draws a useful picture of a world were representatives are elected and accountable to the electorate. Were decisions are taking in a collective interest, rather than that of a tiny number at the top of society. Allen also looks at the question of environmental destruction and climate change in the context of a society that is able to solve the question through a rational system of production, rather than simply hoping the market might deliver.

The final chapter, aptly titled "Into The Beyond" then looks at what happens as the old order vanishes, as a new generation grow up without the distortions that capitalism has imposed on us. It is an optimistic chapter and one that will inspire readers.

The criticisms I have are mainly typographical though the price is ridiculous, £16.99 for a 233 page book (including notes & biography) seems to me very steep. There are a number of errors including the miss-spelling of the Marxist John Molyneux's name several times (including in the acknowledgements) and the NASA climate scientist (Hansen not Hanson).
But these are pedantic moans from me and should not impinge on the enjoyment of the vast majority of readers. If you are new to revolutionary ideas and want to explore things further, in particular if you want to explore thoughts on what comes after the revolution, then this is an ideal book for you and I recommend it.

Note that as I post this review, I find a video of Kieran Allen speaking on the current economic situation in Ireland which is worth watching.

Related Reviews

Choonara - Unravelling Cpitalism; A Guide to Marxist Political Economy
Perry - Marxism and History
Choonara & Kimber - Arguments for Revolution

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