His failures with the crystal ball are well known. Capitalism reformed since his death rather than collapsing in a sorry heap. The industrial proletariat moved into the middle class as real wages went up, while the nature of work was radically transformed in economies led by services. The profit rate did not fall to create the material conditions for a communist revolution.
Economists such as Joan Robinson and Paul Samuelson later pointed out the fundamental accounting incompatibility between the twin Marxist beliefs of a falling rate of profit on the one hand and immiseration of the working class on the other.
The point of madness
Capitalism not only survived; it actually prospered despite its problems. Welfare states dulled the rough edges in the more developed economies. Absolute poverty receded in large parts of the world. Innovation helped capitalism escape not only the economic collapse that communists were told to prepare for, but even the stationary state that classical economists such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo had expected.
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Eventually, the socialist revolutions did not come to advanced countries such as Germany or France, as Marx had predicted, but underdeveloped ones such as Russia and China. The wicked joke is that communism has been just a milestone in the long march of these countries from feudalism to capitalism.
Few intellectuals can match him in terms of a deep impact on history. The Marxist challenge to the established order was a profound one, and perhaps the shock that social democrats needed to push through reforms. The communist regimes that claimed to be inspired by him were not only terrible economic failures but also throttled the human spirit.
Marxism eventually provided intellectual cover for totalitarianism. Reforms within a system of exploitation are possible, but do not affect its character as a system of exploitation. This can only be done on the basis of the abolition of the private ownership of the means of production.
Class domination and class conflict are two sides of the same coin. Now acute and violent, now latent and subdued, class conflict is the driving force of history, the way in which men make their history; its extreme manifestation is revolution.
Karl Marx - Wikipedia
In class conflict, the state is not neutral. On the contrary, its principal purpose is to offer protection to the economically and socially dominant class. Marx was a remarkably flexible thinker, save in one respect—his absolute certainty that capitalism was no more permanent than the social systems which had gone before it. Centralization of the means of production and socialization of labor at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. This integument is burst asunder.
The troubled legacy of Karl Marx
The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated. Marx did not exclude the possibility that the proletarian revolution he announced might be peaceful, but it is quite clear that he expected it to be violent.
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It is equally clear that revolution, for him, is above all the business of the class-conscious proletariat, whose dictatorship it installs. The model depends upon the existence of the class-conscious proletariat as a dominant force: in the absence of such a force, it undergoes fundamental modifications.
As for the character of that truly human, classless, society, Marx consistently refused to speculate on it: it is for those who will make that society to define its features. But the vision which underlies his whole work, from the early s to the end, is the vision of human liberation, of which material fulfilment is the condition but not the sum. The collapse of this petrified orthodoxy has revealed that Marx was a much more interesting man than his interpreters have implied. His grand certainties were a response to grand doubts. His sweeping theories were the result of endless reversals. Toward the end of his life he questioned many of his central convictions.
He worried that he might have been wrong about the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. He puzzled over the fact that, far from immiserating the poor, Victorian England was providing them with growing prosperity. The chief reason for the continuing interest in Marx, however, is that his ideas are more relevant than they have been for decades.
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Globalisation and the rise of a virtual economy are producing a version of capitalism that once more seems to be out of control. The backwards flow of power from labour to capital is finally beginning to produce a popular—and often populist—reaction. Marx argued that capitalism is in essence a system of rent-seeking: rather than creating wealth from nothing, as they like to imagine, capitalists are in the business of expropriating the wealth of others. Marx was wrong about capitalism in the raw: great entrepreneurs do amass fortunes by dreaming up new products or new ways of organising production.
But he had a point about capitalism in its bureaucratic form. They work hand in glove with a growing crowd of other rent-seekers, such as management consultants who dream up new excuses for rent-seeking , professional board members who get where they are by not rocking the boat and retired politicians who spend their twilight years sponging off firms they once regulated. The two most striking developments of the past 30 years are the progressive dismantling of barriers to the free movement of the factors of production—goods, capital and to some extent people—and the rise of the emerging world.
Global firms plant their flags wherever it is most convenient. Borderless CEOs shuttle from one country to another in pursuit of efficiencies. He thought capitalism had a tendency towards monopoly, as successful capitalists drive their weaker rivals out of business in a prelude to extracting monopoly rents. Again this seems to be a reasonable description of the commercial world that is being shaped by globalisation and the internet.
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Not only is the medium the message but the platform is also the market. During the long post-war boom this seemed like a nonsense. Far from having nothing to lose but their chains, the workers of the world—at least the rich world—had secure jobs, houses in the suburbs and a cornucopia of possessions. Marxists such as Herbert Marcuse were forced to denounce capitalism on the grounds that it produced too much wealth for the workers rather than too little. In Britain house prices are so high that people under 45 have little hope of buying them.
Most American workers say they have just a few hundred dollars in the bank. Still, the rehabilitation ought not to go too far.