Bob Hancké of the LSE explains how Marx was capitalism’s greatest admirer as well as its sharpest critic
Imagine for a moment that Karl Marx had been born in 1806 instead of 1818. The 200th anniversary of his birth would have given rise to triumphant retrospectives in much of the right-wing press of the collapse of the Soviet system in 1989 and how capitalism ultimately proved its great critic wrong. Somewhat fortunately for the Left, however (if somewhat sadder for the world), he was born in May 1818 in the southern German town of Trier, which means that we commemorate his birthday with the recent experience of the financial and economic crisis in mind, and sharply rising wealth inequality, the spectre of ‘secular stagnation’, and emerging forms of populism that threatening the very foundations of western democracies.
The anniversary pieces reflected those twelve years: beside the predictable pieces in the Left-wing press, and a few of a more hagiographic nature (here, for example), even The Economist and the Financial Times published thoughtful, respectful articles about Marx’s intellectual legacy.
Most of these memorial pieces go over well-trodden ground. But a few raise two key points that have not always received the attention that they deserve. What is often forgotten is that Marx may have been the greatest critic of capitalism but not after having been its greatest admirer. He also said remarkably little about how the state and the economy would work under socialism, beside the state withering and people spending their time fishing and philosophising.
Take The Communist Manifesto, probably the most-read work by Marx and his friend, colleague and sponsor Friedrich Engels. Its first chapter is essentially one long tribute to modern industrial capitalism: how it rationalises everything, breaks feudal and other pre-modern bonds, and thus becomes the most efficient, widely integrated global economic system the world has ever seen, guided to that point by the revolutionary actor the bourgeoisie.
I often joke to my students that if you changed just a few words, this could have been an editorial in the Wall Street Journal in the mid-1990s praising the power of capitalism. It is worth re-reading, even today: it shows you the power of capitalism through the eyes of one of its most astute observers; and it reminds you where the sophisticated version of the idea of a single end point in history originated (all capitalisms will be the same soon, and then transcended by socialism).
Similarly, ‘socialism’ is not very well developed as an idea beyond some vague notions. Some editions of the Communist Manifesto include a chapter, taken from ‘The Civil War in France’, that analyses the Paris Commune – at the time of writing the only non-bourgeois post-feudal political regime – but with very little attention to the economics of the new economic model. As we discovered in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, building a socialist economy was a complex and ultimately self-defeating project, often combining falling standards of living with a disregard for basic human rights.
The key idea to ‘contribute according to ability, and to take according to need’ may not be dead, but the planned economy in the Soviet Union was clearly not the vehicle that got us there. Swedish social democracy was probably much closer to that ideal in the 1960s and 1970s: let markets do the heavy lifting and redistribute the economic gains through a developed welfare state and workers’ rights in companies.
Thus one of the supreme ironies of socialism: those who think of it as a future project, adore it, and with it Marx’s legacy. Those who experienced it prefer to forget all about it.
Bob Hancke is Associate Professor in the European Institute of the London School of Economics.