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Cooking the Books 2: Capitalism for ever?

On 2 March Jacques Attali, author of a recent biography of Marx in French (and former top adviser to President Mitterrand and former head of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development), gave a talk with historian Eric Hobsbawn on “Marx for the 21st century” at the Jewish Book Fair in London.

Interviewed in the Guardian (25 February) he was reported as saying:

“Contrary to popular belief, Marx was not mistaken: capitalism will fall and be replaced by a socialist system. The only question is when. ‘For Marx the fall of the rate of profit will appear when capitalism has exhausted its capacity for growth, which is not the case,’ he says. ‘Socialism will come after this.’”

Marx did indeed think that capitalism would prepare the way for and eventually be replaced by socialism (which Attali correctly identifies, both in his book and in his talk, as a world non-market society in which money will have no place and in which goods and services will be freely available for people to take and use). And he could be interpreted as having argued (in the Grundrisse, in the section in Notebook VII on “Contradiction between the foundations of bourgeois production (value as measure) and its development“) that, if capitalism were to continue long enough, productivity would eventually rise to such a level that the unit price of goods would fall so low (their labour-time content being so small) that they would be virtually free and that the prospect of making a profit would therefore be so low that the economic mechanism of capitalism would seize up.

Attali’s reported answer here implies that Marx really thought that socialism would only come when capitalism had reached that stage. Which it clearly hasn’t. So, capitalism would still have some way to go, until in fact it had not only come to dominate the globe (as at present and for at least a century) but had come to exist everywhere including in the currently “undeveloped” parts of the world in Asia, Latin America and Africa. Until, in short, capitalist globalisation had run its full course.

Marx certainly thought that in his day capitalism still had some years to go before it could be replaced by socialism (which is why he supported non-socialist developments within capitalism which he thought would speed up the development of capitalism and with it the material basis for socialism, such as free trade, the victory of the North in the American Civil War, and German unity). But it is doubtful whether the passage from the Grundrisse was anything more than Marx saying what would eventually happen if capitalism were to go on for long enough. In other words, that there were theoretical reasons why capitalism could not literally go on forever. It did have an economic limit, even if this would be far into the future.

Marx can’t be interpreted as saying that capitalism would, or should, continue for that long. His activities as a revolutionary socialist clearly showed that, on the contrary, he thought that capitalism could, and should, be ended by conscious working class action long before it reached its theoretical limit.