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Karl Marx—a powerful mind, a very learned man, and a good German writer—died 119 years ago. He lived in the age of steam; never in his life did he see a car, a telephone, or an electric light, to say nothing of later technological devices. His admirers and followers used to say and some keep saying: it doesn’t matter, his teaching is still perfectly relevant to our time because the system he analyzed and attacked—capitalism—is still here. That Marx is worth reading is certain. The question is, however: Does his theory truly explain anything in our world and does it provide a ground for any predictions? The answer is, No. Another question is whether or not his theories were useful at one time. The answer is, obviously, Yes: they operated successfully as a set of slogans that were supposed to justify and glorify communism and the slavery that inevitably goes along with it.

When we ask what those theories explain or what Marx discovered, we may ask only about ideas that were specific to him, and not commonsense banalities. We should not make a laughingstock out of Marx by attributing to him the discovery that in all non-primitive societies there are social groups or classes having conflicting interests that lead them to fight with one another; this was known to ancient historians. Marx himself did not pretend to have made this kind of discovery; as he wrote in a letter to Joseph Weydemeyer in 1852, he had not discovered the class struggle but rather had proved that it leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat, which in turn leads ultimately to the abolition of classes. It is impossible to say where and how he “proved” this grandiose claim in his pre-1852 writings. To “explain” something means to subsume events or processes under laws; but “laws” in the Marxist sense are not the same as laws in the natural sciences, where they are understood as formulas stating that in well-defined conditions, well-defined phenomena always occur. What Marx called “laws” are rather historical tendencies. There is thus no clear-cut distinction in his theories between explanation and prophecy. Besides, he believed that the meaning of both past and present may be understood only by reference to the future, of which he claimed to have knowledge. Hence, for Marx, only what does not (yet) exist can explain what does exist. But it should be added that for Marx the future does exist, in a peculiar, Hegelian manner, even though it is unknowable.

All of Marx’s important prophecies, however, have turned out to be false. First, he predicted growing class polarization and the disappearance of the middle class in societies based on a market economy. Karl Kautsky rightly stressed that if this prediction were wrong, the entire Marxist theory would be in ruins. It is clear that this prediction has proved to be wrong; rather, the opposite is the case. The middle classes are growing, whereas the working class in the sense Marx meant it has been dwindling in capitalist societies in the midst of technological progress.

Second, he predicted not only the relative but also the absolute impoverishment of the working class. This prediction was already wrong in his lifetime. As a matter of fact, it should be noticed that the author of Capital updated in the second edition various statistics and figures but not those relating to workers’ wages; those figures, if updated, would have contradicted his theory. Not even the most doctrinaire Marxists have tried to cling to this obviously false prediction in recent decades.

Third, and most importantly, Marx’s theory predicted the inevitability of the proletarian revolution. Such a revolution has never occurred anywhere. The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia had nothing to do with Marxian prophesies. Its driving force was not a conflict between the industrial working class and capital, but rather was carried out under slogans that had no socialist, let alone Marxist, content: Peace and land for peasants. There is no need to mention that these slogans were to be subsequently turned into their opposite. What in the twentieth century perhaps comes closest to the working class revolution were the events in Poland of 1980-81: the revolutionary movement of industrial workers (very strongly supported by the intelligentsia) against the exploiters, that is to say, the state. And this solitary example of a working class revolution (if even this may be counted) was directed against a socialist state, and carried out under the sign of the cross, with the blessing of the Pope.

In the fourth place, one must mention Marx’s prediction concerning the inevitable fall of the profit rate, a process that was supposed to lead ultimately to the collapse of the capitalist economy. Not unlike the others, this prediction proved to be simply wrong. Even according to Marx’s theory, this could not be an inevitably operating regularity, because the same technical development that lowers the part of the variable capital in production costs is supposed to lower the value of the constant capital. Therefore the profit rate might remain stable or increase even if what Marx called “living labor” declines for a given unit of output. And even if this “law” were true, the mechanism whereby its operation would cause the decline and demise of capitalism is inconceivable, since the collapse of the profit rate can very well occur in conditions in which the absolute amount of profit is growing. This was noticed, for what it’s worth, by Rosa Luxemburg, who invented a theory of her own about the inescapable collapse of capitalism, which proved to be no less wrong.

The fifth tenet of Marxism that has turned out to be erroneous is the prediction that the market will hamper technical progress. The exact opposite has quite obviously proved to be the case. Market economies have been shown to be extremely efficient in stimulating technological progress, whereas “real socialism” turned out to be technologically stagnating. Since it is undeniable that the market has created the greatest abundance ever known in human history, some neo-Marxists have felt compelled to change their approach. At one time, capitalism appeared horrifying because it produced misery; later, it turned out to be horrifying because it produces such abundance that it kills culture.

Neo-Marxists deplore what is called “consumerism,” or “consumerist society.” In our civilization there are indeed many alarming and deplorable phenomena associated with the growth of consumption. The point is, however, that what we know as the alternative to this civilization is incomparably worse. In all Communist societies, economic reforms (to the extent that they yielded any results at all) led invariably in the same direction: the partial restoration of the market, that is to say, of “capitalism.”

As for the so-called materialist interpretation of history, it has provided us with a number of interesting insights and suggestions, but it has no explanatory value. In its strong, rigid version, for which one may find considerable support in many classical texts, it implies that social development depends entirely on the class struggle that ultimately, through the intermediary of changing “modes of production,” is determined by the technological level of the society in question. It implies, moreover, that law, religion, philosophy, and other elements of culture have no history of their own, since their history is the history of the relations of production. This is an absurd claim, completely lacking in historical support.

If, on the other hand, the theory is taken in a weak, limited sense, it merely says that the history of culture has to be investigated in such a way that one should take account of social struggles and conflicting interests, that political institutions depend in part, at least negatively, on technological development and on social conflicts. This, however, is an uncontroversial banality that was known long before Marx. And so, the materialist interpretation of history is either nonsense or a banality.

Another component of Marx’s theory that lacks explanatory power is his labor theory. Marx made two important additions to the theories of Adam Smith and David Ricardo. First, he stated that in relationships between workers and capital, the labor force, rather than labor, is being sold; secondly, he made a distinction between abstract and concrete labor. Neither of these principles has any empirical basis, and neither is needed to explain crises, competition, and conflict of interest. Crises and economic cycles are understandable by analyzing the movement of prices, and the theory of value adds nothing to our understanding of them. It seems that contemporary economics—as distinct from economical ideologies—would not differ much from what it is today if Marx had never been born.

The tenets I have mentioned are not chosen at random: they constitute the skeleton of the Marxian doctrine. Instead, there is hardly anything in Marxism that provides solutions to the many problems of our time, mainly because they were not urgent a century ago. As for ecological questions, we will find in Marx no more than a few romantic banalities about the unity of man with nature. Demographic problems are completely absent, apart from Marx’s refusal to believe that anything like overpopulation in the absolute sense could ever occur. Neither may the dramatic problems of the Third World find help in his theory. Marx and Engels were strongly Eurocentric; they held other civilizations in contempt, and they praised the progressive effects of colonialism and imperialism (in India, Algeria, and Mexico). What mattered to them was the victory of higher civilization over backward ones; the idea of national determination was to Engels a matter for derision.

What Marxism is the least capable of explaining is the totalitarian socialism that appointed Marx as its prophet. Many Western Marxists used to repeat that socialism such as it existed in the Soviet Union had nothing to do with Marxist theory and that, deplorable as it might be, it was best explained by some specific conditions in Russia. If this is the case, how could it have happened that so many people in the nineteenth century, especially the anarchists, predicted fairly exactly what socialism based on Marxist principles would turn out to be—namely, state slavery? Proudhon argued that Marx’s ideal is to make human beings state property. According to Bakunin, Marxian socialism would consist in the rule of the renegades of the ruling class, and it would be based on exploitation and oppression worse than anything previously known. According to the Polish anarcho-syndicalist Edward Abramowski, if communism were by some miracle to win in the moral conditions of contemporary society, it would result in class division and exploitation worse than what existed at the time (because institutional changes do not alter human motivations and moral behavior). Benjamin Tucker said that Marxism knows only one cure for monopolies, and that is a single monopoly.

These predictions were made in the nineteenth century, decades before the Russian Revolution. Were these people clairvoyant? No. Rather, one could make such predictions rationally, and infer from Marxian anticipations the system of socialized serfdom. It would be silly to say, of course, that this was the prophet’s intention or that Marxism produced twentieth-century communism as its efficient cause. The victory of Russian communism resulted from a series of extraordinary accidents. But it might be said that Marx’s theory contributed strongly to the emergence of totalitarianism, and that it provided its ideological form. It anticipated the universal nationalization of everything, and thus the nationalization of human beings. To be sure, Marx took from the Saint-Simonists the slogan that in the future there would be no government, only the administration of things; it did not occur to him, however, that one cannot administer things without employing people for that purpose, so the total administration of things means the total administration of people.

None of this means that Marx’s work is not worth reading; it is a part of European culture and one should read it as one reads many classics. One should read Descartes’ works on physics, but it would be silly to read them as a valid handbook of how to do physics today. Even though in the formerly Communist countries Marx and Marxist texts are now treated with repugnance, this might pass; even there they will eventually be read as remnants of the past. One of the causes of the popularity of Marxism among educated people was the fact that in its simple form it was very easy; even Sartre noticed that Marxists are lazy. Indeed, they enjoyed having one key to open all doors, one universally applicable explanation for everything, an instrument that makes it possible to master all of history and economics without actually having to study either.

Does the demise of Marxism automatically mean the end of the socialist tradition? Not necessarily. Everything, of course, depends on the meaning of the word “socialism,” and those who still use it as their own profession of faith are usually reluctant to say what they mean, apart from empty generalities. And so some distinctions have to be made. The trouble is that the desire to detect “historical laws” has led many people to conceive of “capitalism” and “socialism” as global “systems,” diametrically opposed to each other. But there is no comparison. Capitalism developed spontaneously and organically from the spread of commerce. Nobody planned it and it did not need an all-embracing ideology, whereas socialism was an ideological construction. Ultimately, capitalism is human nature at work—that is, man’s greediness allowed to follow its course—whereas socialism is an attempt to institutionalize and enforce fraternity. It seems obvious by now that a society in which greed is the main motivation of human acts, for all of its repugnant and deplorable aspects, is incomparably better than a society based on compulsory brotherhood, whether in national or international socialism.

The idea of socialism as an “alternative society” to capitalism amounts to the idea of totalitarian serfdom; the abolition of the market and overall nationalization cannot yield any other result. The belief that one can establish perfect equality by institutional means is no less malignant. The world has known pockets of voluntary equality, practiced in some monasteries and in a handful of secular cooperatives. However, equality under compulsion inevitably requires totalitarian means, and totalitarianism implies extreme inequality, since it entails unequal access to information and power. Nor, practically speaking, is equality in the distribution of material goods possible once power is concentrated in the hands of an uncontrollable oligarchy; this is why nothing remotely close to equality has ever been in existence in socialist countries. The ideal is therefore self-defeating. Why the idea of all-encompassing planning is economically catastrophic we know well, and Friedrich von Hayek’s criticism on this point has been amply borne out by evidence from the experience of all Communist countries without exception. Socialism in this sense means that people are prevented by repression from engaging in any socially useful activity unless on orders from the state.

However, the socialist tradition is rich and differentiated, and it includes many varieties apart from Marxism. Some socialist ideas had indeed a built-in totalitarian tendency. This applies to most of the Renaissance and Enlightenment utopias, as well as to Saint-Simon. Yet some espoused liberal values. Once socialism, which started as an innocent fantasy, became a real political movement, not all of its variants included the idea of an “alternative society,” and of those that did, many did not take the idea seriously.

Everything was clearer before the First World War. Socialists and the left in general wanted not only equal, universal, and obligatory schools, social health service, progressive taxation, and religious tolerance, but also secular education, the abolition of national and racial discrimination, the equality of women, the freedom of press and assembly, the legal regulation of labor conditions, and a social insurance system. They fought against militarism and chauvinism. European socialist leaders of the period of the Second International, such people as Jaurès, Babel, Turati, Vandervelle, and Martov, embodied what was best in European political life.

But everything changed after World War I, when the word “socialism” (and to a large extent “the left”) began to be almost completely monopolized by Leninist-Stalinist socialism, which skewed most of these demands and slogans to mean their opposite. At the same time, most of these “socialist” ideals were in fact realized in democratic countries operating within market economies. Alas, the nontotalitarian socialist movements suffered for decades from ideological inhibitions and lacked the courage to denounce and fight consistently against the most despotic and murderous political system in the world (apart from Nazism). Soviet communism was supposed to be a kind of socialism, after all, and it embellished itself with the internationalist and humanist phraseology inherited from the socialist tradition. Leninist tyranny thus succeeded in stealing the word “socialism,” and the nontotalitarian socialists were complicit in the theft. There were some exceptions to this rule, but not many.

Be that as it may, socialist movements strongly contributed to changing the political landscape for the better. They inspired a number of social reforms without which the contemporary welfare state—which most of us take for granted—would be unthinkable. It would thus be a pity if the collapse of Communist socialism resulted in the demise of the socialist tradition as a whole and the triumph of Social Darwinism as the dominant ideology.

While acknowledging that a perfect society will never be within reach and that people will always find reasons to treat each other badly, we should not discard the concept of “social justice,” much as it might have been ridiculed by Hayek and his followers. Certainly, it cannot be defined in economic terms. One cannot infer from the expression “social justice” the answer to questions about what particular taxation system is desirable and economically sound in given conditions, what social benefits are justified, or what is the best way for rich countries to aid the poorer parts of the world. “Social justice” merely expresses an attitude toward social problems. It is true that more often than not the expression “social justice” is employed by individuals or entire societies who refuse to take responsibility for their own lives. But, as the old saying goes, the abuse does not abrogate the use.

In its vagueness, “social justice” resembles the concept of human dignity. It is difficult to define what human dignity is. It is not an organ to be discovered in our body, it is not an empirical notion, but without it we would be unable to answer the simple question: What is wrong with slavery? Likewise, the concept of social justice is vague and it can be used as an ideological tool of totalitarian socialism. Yet the concept is a useful intermediary between an exhortation to charity, to almsgiving, and the concept of distributive justice; it is not the same as distributive justice because it does not necessarily imply reciprocal recognition. Nor is it simply an appeal to charity, because it implies, however imprecisely, that some claims may be deserved. The concept of social justice does not imply that there is such a thing as the common destiny of mankind in which everybody takes part, but it does suggest that the concept of humanity makes sense—not so much as a zoological category but as a moral one.

Without the market, the economy would collapse (in fact, in “real socialism” there is no economy at all, only economic policy). But it is also generally recognized that the market does not automatically solve all pressing human problems. The concept of social justice is needed to justify the belief that there is a “humanity””and that we must look on other individuals as belonging to this collectivity, toward which we have certain moral duties.

Socialism as a social or moral philosophy was based on the ideal of human brotherhood, which can never be implemented by institutional means. There has never been, and there will never be, an institutional means of making people brothers. Fraternity under compulsion is the most malignant idea devised in modern times; it is a perfect path to totalitarian tyranny. Socialism in this sense is tantamount to a kingdom of lies. This is not reason, however, to scrap the idea of human fraternity. If it is not something that can be effectively achieved by means of social engineering, it is useful as a statement of goals. The socialist idea is dead as the project for an “alternative society.” But as a statement of solidarity with the underdogs and the oppressed, as a motivation to oppose Social Darwinism, as a light that keeps before our eyes something higher than competition and greed—for all of these reasons, socialism, the ideal not the system, still has its uses.

Leszek Kolakowski, Senior Research Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford, is the author most recently of The Two Eyes of Spinoza and Other Essays on Philosophers and Freedom, Fame, Lying, and Betrayal.This article will appear in his forthcoming book, My Correct Views on Everything.

Image by Af John Jabez Edwin Mayal licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.