BERTRAND RUSSELL ON MARX’S LAW OF CONCENTRATION OF CAPITAL
Russell thinks that “the most cardinal point” of Marx’s system is the “law of concentration of capital.” Russell gives a long quote from Chapter 32 of Das Kapital (“The Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation”) which boils down to this: as capitalism develops it grows and solidifies into larger and larger companies by way of concentrating wealth as a result of competition (“One capitalist always kills many.”) As capitalism grows so does the working class which it exploits. This is a social development and the end result is the big corporations are in effect socialized industries owned by private interests. Eventually you have a small percentage of capitalists controlling the wealth of the world vs a huge gigantic population dependent on the means of production they control for their livelihoods and existence. Finally, the masses will take over the means of production themselves, since private management leads to speculation and crises affecting the whole world and billions of people, and run them in a cooperative manner to provide for human need, not private profit. This will be possible when the concentration of capital reaches such a massive scale that it becomes possible, under cooperative ownership, to provide the necessaries of life for all.
Russell does see a tendency at work causing firms to become larger and larger-- but for different reasons than Marx. Marx overlooks the value of "the head work of capitalist management" because of his "glorification of manual labour." The capitalist needs time to think and be creative and this could lead to "management of all technically advanced businesses by a central authority, with no duties but to study the general conditions and the technical possibilities of the business in question." Russell, it would seem, is giving a premature argument for the central planning system of the future Soviet state.-- except the clever capitalists will be replaced by representatives of the working class.
By and large, Russell sees capitalism becoming more and concentrated and concedes, except for the working class taking over, that "Marx's law seems true." Russell thinks as science advances and business technique becomes more complex and refined the great concentrated business firms and corporations and their operations will "become co-extensive with the State." There doesn't seem to be any change in class relations as businessmen will be running the show (workers are not clever enough by half.)
But Russell had it backwards. He thinks monopoly concentration, that is the issue, will make businesses more profitable, and: "As soon as a business has reached this phase of development, State-management in general becomes profitable, and is likely to be brought about by the combined action of free competition and political forces."
But, what we have seen, at least in the workings of American capitalism, is that "free competition" leads to economic collapse and that political forces are called upon when corporations, etc., become unprofitable and even then State-management is resisted. Of course, if the working class in the U.S. were to take over the big corporations, banks, etc., in conjunction with a working class led government, State-management would be used to rationalize the economy and provide for human needs rather than putting profits before people.
Russell, of course, didn't see it that way because he didn't see a contradiction between the interests of the capitalist state and the workers. Russell does, however, make an interesting observation. The concentration of monopoly capitalism and the use of more and more machinery leads to the creation of a middle class "foremen, engineers, and skilled mechanics-- and this class destroys the increasingly sharp opposition of capitalist and proletariat on which Marx lays so much stress."
This leads us to the question of the embourgeoisement of parts of the working class and also that of the adoption of false consciousness by some workers. We note that some 40% of unionized workers supported Trump in the 2020 general election (the same as supported McCain in 2008) . In any event, this is a problem for a separate paper. Interested readers should check out the article on the "aristocracy of labor" to be found in A Dictionary of Marxist Thought edited by Tom Bottomore et al.
In a footnote Russell suggests that the growth of large industries leads to a socialization of production and while Marx noticed this "it does not seem to occur to him" that this could lead to a peaceful transition "to collective production." It is worth noting that Engels, in the Preface to the English Edition of Das Kapital (1887) wrote that after a lifetime of study of the English economy Marx thought that in England "the inevitable social revolution might be effected entirely by peaceful and legal means." So Russell was also wrong about this.
After some really outdated comments about agriculture, Russell finally concludes that, for the reasons he has given, "Marxian Socialism, as a body of proved doctrine, must therefore be rejected." This paper has attempted to show that all the reasons given by Russell were based either on a misreading of Marx or a misinterpretation of his theories and therefore his conclusion is not logically sound and does nor follow.
Next Up: Bertrand Russell on Bolshevism.
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association.