Gareth Stedman Jones Monday August 12, 2002 The Guardian
The myriad scandals currently rocking corporate America would have come as little surprise to Karl Marx. The unchecked expansion and corrupt practices of Enron, Xerox and WorldCom were, for Marx, part and parcel of the capitalist mode of production. Indeed, the modern world economy looks more like the capitalism he described in the Communist Manifesto in 1848 than at any time since.
Marx was the first to capture capitalism's incessantly restless, compulsively innovatory character; its iconoclastic subversion of all cultures, practices and beliefs. In more respectful terms, the financial press of 2002 perfectly echoes his account. The picture of contemporary capitalism that emerges from the Economist is of a deregulated world economy dominated by multinational companies and continually reshaped by the pressures of international finance.
Nor would Marx have been surprised by the political reaction to this current "crisis of capitalism". The free-market right blithely regards the corruption as the work of a few rotten corporate apples - declaring that, besides, there is no alternative. The anti-globalisation left is equally sceptical about the serious reform of capitalism and so advocates its abolition. But whether Marx - theorist of a post-capitalist order of communism, rather than sustainable development - would have joined the protesters of Genoa and Seattle is more questionable.
Coherent anti-capitalism certainly begins with Marx. Before him, opposition was largely limited to machine-breaking and incendiarism. It was only with the manifesto, which so clearly outlined the self-destructive progress of capitalism, that organised antagonism emerged. Capitalist development, Marx maintained, would end in a world revolution driven by the exploited masses of the new economic order and spearheaded by the factory proletariat of the industrial cities. Although this world revolution never occurred, the growth of a labour movement and spread of socialist ideas did pose real obstacles to capitalist advance. Until the seismic events of 1989, socialism and communism hampered capitalist development both politically and geographically.
Now many of Marx's erstwhile followers, who have switched their attention to the anti-globalisation movement, appear to share the same world view as the Economist. Both assume that the optimal functioning of a capitalist economy requires an amicable partnership between a minimal state and deregulated economy. As the Communist Manifesto put it, the "executive of the modern state" is "but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie". And while, for the moment, socialism may have been defeated, Marx correctly predicted a global polarisation between wealth and poverty. Hence the position Terry Eagleton, who recently argued in these pages that the only thing that has changed is that while once the uprising of the dispossessed was expected in Bradford or the Bronx, now it is coming from "the souks of Tripoli and Damascus".
In the present climate, it is not difficult to understand why there should be such widespread despair of meaningful reform. Marxian assumptions do not seem unreasonable in a world in which the Italian state is in the pocket of its largest entrepreneur, and in which the election of the American president was bankrolled by Enron. But there is no need to accept either the right's vision of a capitalism triumphant or the anti-globalisation left's assumption that Marx has been proved correct. Their contrary yet righteous certainty is the product of an ideological hostility to a mixed economy that the previous social democratic movement did not share.
Capitalism more usually refers to a question of degree than of kind. The unrestricted exchange of commodities together with a free labour market is compatible with a broad range of political regimes. Yet what Marx initially promised was a post-capitalist society. It would be as dynamic as capitalism itself, but no longer subject to an arbitrary market, freed from scarcity and its class-bound polarities of wealth and poverty.
Marx's manifesto vision was driven by a conviction that the capitalist "cash-nexus" distorted the expression of human need. Drawing upon German legal historians, he concluded that the modern form of private property and the exchange economy based upon it was only one in a historical succession of different property forms. Capitalist private property had produced the unparalleled productivity gains of the 19th-century industrial revolution. But this prospect of the end of scarcity also suggested that capitalism had completed its historical task.
After the failed 1848 revolution Marx searched in vain for a non-market model capable of rivalling the dynamism of capitalism. He had originally distinguished human beings from animals by their capacity to create new needs. This innovatory potential was to be a feature of the rational mode of production that would replace regulation by the market. But without the market, he found no way to replicate the innovatory energy of capitalism. Only the freedom and dynamism of market-based capitalism had a built-in interest in the expansion of new needs. In effect, he had only constructed a regulated non-capitalist society, not the post-capitalist society of which he dreamed.
Eagleton and other anti-capitalists searching for an answer from Marx might therefore ask whether he ever succeeded in constructing a coherent theory in the first place. The practical failure of 20th-century communism was preceded by Marx's theoretical failure to create a viable conception of modern communism. The 20th century showed that in periods of war and political upheaval, it was certainly possible to create non-capitalist societies, though usually with authoritarian consequences. But the notion of a post-capitalist society was a hollow promise. The point was ruefully expressed by the socialist economist, Michal Kalecki, after his return to postwar communist Poland. Asked about Poland's transition from capitalism to socialism, he replied: "Yes, we have successfully abolished capitalism; all we have to do now is to abolish feudalism."
What has stultified the thinking of the left has been its continued belief that capitalism is to be wholly accepted or rejected as a single system. It retains a lingering conviction that capitalism is all of one piece and can be rejected in the name of a non-existent communist system destined some time to form the basis of an alternative world order.
But if there is no post-capitalist society in the name of which we can despise all attempts to reform the existing political and economic system, we should embrace the only alternative. That is the progressive relationship between pressure from without and reforming activity within the political system. For it was this interaction between protesters and reformers that transformed the lives of those working in advanced capitalist societies. Inside and outside parliament, the forces of progressive social reform improved working conditions, secured education and achieved decent pay levels. Cynicism or silence about the possibility of reform merely reinforces the rightwing fantasy of a global capitalism without politics: a world made ever safer for Enron and Berlusconi.
Gareth Stedman Jones is professor of political science at Cambridge University. He has written the introduction to the new Penguin Classics edition of the Communist Manifesto
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