Does capitalism still have a civilising mission? Marx’s alternative – part 4

huajian-shoe-factoryIn the last post on Marx’s alternative to capitalism I noted that he extolled the achievements of capitalism, without which socialism could not be built.  In the Grundrisse he noted “the great civilizing influence of capital; its production of a stage of society in comparison to which all earlier ones appear as mere local developments of humanity and as nature-idolatry.”

This is very far from the attitude of most Marxists today, who have a tendency to see crisis and decline everywhere.

Perhaps, as might be implied from the quote above, the progressiveness of capitalism is only in relation to previous society, and that today it is a wholly reactionary system from which no development is possible or at least none with any progressive features.  Its replacement must therefore arise from its contradictions and crisis and not from any progressive element within it.

The days of the progressive development of capitalism are over.

The Communist Manifesto is famous for its paean of praise to the wonders of capitalist achievements, and this at a time when capitalism hardy existed on most of the globe – “It has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades . . . The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. ”

But perhaps again this praise is purely relative to earlier epochs.  Capitalism has exhausted any progressive content it once may have had.  After all, didn’t Lenin refer to the highest stage of capitalism and did Trotsky not say that:

“the economic prerequisite for the proletarian revolution has already in general achieved the highest point of fruition that can be reached under capitalism. Mankind’s productive forces stagnate. Already new inventions and improvements fail to raise the level of material wealth . . . The objective prerequisites for the proletarian revolution have not only “ripened”; they have begun to get somewhat rotten. Without a socialist revolution, in the next historical period at that, a catastrophe threatens the whole culture of mankind.”

That catastrophe did of course arrive in the shape of the Second World War and the potential for catastrophe undoubtedly continues to exist within capitalism today.  The decline of the United States and the rise of new powers once again raise the spectre of economic competition that may drive rival nation states into war.

A couple of weeks ago I was reading the Guardian review of books and a review of a book by the BBC correspondent Mark Urban, who argued that new powers are developing conventional forces that can begin to rival those of the US. This means that in any conventional conflict the US may be tempted or driven to use nuclear weapons.  It’s not as if they haven’t used them before.

“Now, says Urban, Russia, China and India have such strong conventional forces, and America has cut its forces so much, that in the event of a conflict “the US would be left with the choice of nuclear escalation or backing down”.  He adds: “Against a full-scale invasion of South Korea, the US would have little choice but to go nuclear.” Russia, China, India, Israel, Pakistan, North Korea and some other countries could “mount a credible conventional defence that would leave the United States having to think the unthinkable, with profound implications for the world”.”

While there is a lot more to say about such a scenario the point is that under capitalism humanity has no rational control of its own development and no guarantee against the most irrational acts leading to its destruction.

However the view noted above – that capitalism can no longer be viewed in fundamentally the same way as Marx did in the 19th century is mistaken.

Straight after noting capitalism’s wonders far surpassing the Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts and Gothic cathedrals Marx states that “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.”

So the development of society continues under capitalism and the imperative to accumulate unpaid labour means the continued development of the forces and relations of production and growth of the working class.  As I will show in the next post this continues to require the phenomenon of the ‘great civilising influence of capital’ because if it did not, the development of capitalism would be away from a possible socialism and not towards it.

A working class more and more exploited and oppressed, more and more demoralised, despite the massively increased social division of labour and the cooperation required for it to function; and despite the undreamed of development of technology, would patently be unable to put itself forward as the new rulers of an even more advanced society.

A purely reactionary system without fundamental contradictions out of which a new society could emerge would not be that investigated by Marx.  A contradiction-ridden system on the other hand will combine development with retrogression, the potential for the new within the embrace of the old.

Crises will occur and must occur in some way if a new society is to be given birth out of the old but the nature of this crisis must be one that allows a new society to fully develop and not simply represent a process of decline of the old.  Under capitalism it is not crisis that create the contradictions of capitalism but crises which are the means of expressing these contradictions and resolving them in whatever way and for whatever period of time.

The importance of acknowledging this is apparent when we consider the ‘new’ phenomenon of anti-capitalism, as if being anti-capitalist is inherently progressive.  In the Communist Manifesto Marx was able to analyse various types of reactionary socialism, and various types of this exist today.  Much of the left is keen to retreat into nationalism and older forms of capitalist development in response to capitalist crises in their latest form, buttressed by the idea that there can be nothing progressive in its current development.

We see this today in much of the left’s opposition to the Euro for example, as if the drachma or punt were some sort of positive alternative.  In Ireland the nationalist and republican tradition has allowed many leftists to seek progress through assertion of a ‘national sovereignty’ that is simply impossible to achieve even if were desirable.

All seem to have forgotten that socialism is not the resistance of the working class to capitalism, which can continue ‘forever’ if it does not involve an alternative, and this alternative is a higher form of society, not a retreat into the past.

In the next post on Marx’s alternative I will look at the evidence that the development of capitalism that Marx thought provides the grounds for socialism continues to exist.

Back to Part 3

Forward to Part 5

2 thoughts on “Does capitalism still have a civilising mission? Marx’s alternative – part 4

  1. There are other accounts of the crisis of our civilisation that are not based on economic reasoning. The three that come to mind are expressed in the books of Nietzsche: historical optimism is the false God of Western rationalism, but the time of Socratic man is closing down. In the books of Heidegger: modern Technology is not something scientific or economical rather it is something metaphysical. No humans can take control of it. In the books of Leo Strauss: A world economy seems to requires a universal and homogeneous World State yet no national State would spark revolutions and rebellions against itself as much as a homogeneous World State would do. The national rage directed against Imperialism is only the forerunner of an implicit rage directed at the existence of a pending World State. I understand that the above are all streams of thought very foreign to Marxism but they have a wide sphere of influence. Despite his affiliation to the German National Socialists Heidegger remains the lead framer of our philosophical debates. Try reading an interview with Jacques Derrida covering the secret relationship French Marxism held to the works of Heidegger, especially Althusser who tactfully avoided referring to him in his published books. Politics and Friendship p182-321 ‘The Althusserian Legacy’ Edited by Ann Kaplan and Michael Sprinker. Marxism as an intellectual stream is in steady decline, it is all but extinguished in the Universities. Most students you meet are not interested in it. It lives on in a twilight world called the Blogospheer. It remains to be seen how substantial its mini revival is after the Great Recession recedes from our memory.

  2. More or less spot on, once again. The only quibble, is that Capitalism could not continue forever even without an alternative. At some point it would become historically reactionary in absolute terms. Unless workers are able to pose an alternative, the consequence then becomes “the destruction of the contending classes”.

    As Trotsky put it, if workers prove incapable of fulfilling their historic role, then for a time capitalism will reconstruct itself on their bones, but at some point, it would result in some form of return of slavery, and we would be limited to simply ameliorating the condition workers faced under that slavery. It seems to me that is still a long way off, and I am more hopeful that workers will get back on the right track. The global growth of co-operatives as a natural response of workers gives me hope that is the case.

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