The (partial) unoriginality of Marx’s anticapitalism

Much commentary lately on the Pope’s critique of capitalism. Some even describe it as ‘Marxist’, this is silly, but so also are many of the evocations of the Marxist legacy on the left. Marx wasn’t the first or the last critic of capitalism. The originality of Marx’s work does not lie in his moral critique of capitalism, or even his description of capitalism. In 1852 Marx declared:

And now as to myself, no credit is due to me for discovering the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them. Long before me bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this class struggle and bourgeois economists, the economic economy of the classes. What I did that was new was to prove: (1) that the existence of classes is only bound up with particular historical phases in the development of production , (2) that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat (3) that this dictatorship itself only constitutes the transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society

Proposition (1) stands up, (2) and (3) definitely not, we should not be surprised, most 19th century thinkers were very often wrong in retrospectbut the point is the project of understanding politics as an aspect of a social totality should be continued. The political conclusions to be drawn from will be very different from those which Marx reached.

The legacy of Louis Althusser is very mixed and he is particularly prone to try to describe his own original ideas as merely true Marxism-Leninism. Althusser’s ‘materialism’ has only a very distant relation to Lenin’s reflection theory. However Althusser was right to argue that Marx’s true distinctiveness emerges later in his career long after he first proposes a critique of capitalism. The same also for Marx’s political theory his early critique of representative government is drawn from Rousseau it is not fundamentally original as Lucio Colleti noted long ago.

It’s a similar pattern with economic theory. Marx thought capitalism was prone to systemic crises, but so did Sismondi, J A Hobson, Robertus etc., there is nothing distinctively ‘Marxist’ about this assertion. Do Marx’s specific assertions about the nature of capitalist crisis largely rank with propositions (2) and (3) in the quote above? Orthodox economic theories of crisis don’t work very well, but orthodox economics does some things well. Perhaps Oskar Lange was on the right track when in 1935 he declared:

let us imagine two persons: one who has learned his economics only from the Austrian School, Pareto and Marshall, without ever having seen or even heard a sentence of Marx or his disciples; the other one who, on the contrary, knows his economics exclusively from Marx and the Marxists and does not even suspect that there may have been economists outside the Marxist School. Which of the two will be able to account better for the fundamental tendencies of the evolution of Capitalism? To put the question is to answer it. But this superiority of Marxian economics is only a partial one. There are some problems before which Marxian economics is quite powerless, while ‘bourgeois’ economics solves them easily. What can Marxian economics say about monopoly prices? What has it to say on the fundamental problems of monetary and credit theory? What apparatus has it to offer for analysing the incidence of a tax, or the effect of a certain technical innovation on wages? And (irony of fate!) what can Marxian economics contribute to the problem of the optimum distribution of productive resources in a socialist economy?


Contemporary critics of economics, such as here and here should take note. Was Marx as Desai argues was ‘an astronomer of history, not an astrologer’?

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