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Saturday, August 11, 2018


Once again, an interesting discussion has erupted in the comments section, this time triggered by a piece by Sheri Berman in the Washington Post.  [She is a member of the Barnard College Political Science Department, and I have just sent her an email suggesting that we meet for coffee some Tuesday in the fall.]  The comments here deal with her review of a book by Corey Robin, which I have not read, but one line in the Post piece prompts me to say a few words.  Early in the article, Berman writes: “Central to Marxism was the belief that capitalism’s internal contradictions would inevitably lead to its demise.” 

This is a standard line about Marx, repeated so often as to become little more than background music in discussions, but I think it betrays a deep misunderstanding of Marx’s analysis of capitalism, and the purpose of this post is to explore and clarify the matter.  [Some of you will have read my essay, The Future of Socialism, archived at  You may want to amuse yourself for the next few moments by contemplating the miraculous success of the Boston Red Sox.]

The problem, if I may get ahead of myself, is that Marx’s central idea has been so totally absorbed and internalized by absolutely everyone writing today about society and economics that no one recognizes it any more for the revolutionary idea that it was when Marx first advanced it.  It is rather like Freud’s discovery of the unconscious, which is simply assumed to be obviously true by everyone, including those engaged in bashing Freud.

Marx looked at the development of capitalism in England and saw a centuries-long process resulting from the decisions, choices, and struggles of countless men and women:  the enclosure of agricultural land to be used for pasturing wool-bearing sheep, which drove displaced peasants to flock to the big cities and become, in Marx’s evocative phrase, a “reserve army of the unemployed;” the movement of weavers and spinners from their cottages, where they were part of the “putting out system,” into large buildings called “make-eries” [i.e., factories];  the transformation of making-by-hand [“manufacturing”] into machine production, which robbed the workers of the hard-won traditional skills and reduced them to semi-skilled machine tenders; the gobbling up of small firms by larger firms in the competition of the market; the seemingly endless series of booms and busts produced by overproduction and underconsumption; the rising self-awareness of workers, made aware of one another by being brought together into the factories, and the consequent formation of labor unions, which would have been unthinkable during the period the putting-out system and cottage labor; and so on and on.

All of this was utterly new when Marx advanced it, but today it is part of the intellectual air we breathe, not at all the property of “the left.”

Writing when he was, and looking at the world as he saw it, Marx believed that these deep, broad developmental trends were moving in the direction of greater concentrations of capital, increased organization of labor, and ever more disruptive swings of the business cycle, all of which, he hoped and believed, were leading toward a trans-national upheaval.

This anticipated upheaval, be it noted, was not thought by him to be a behind-the-scenes metaphysical movement of world historical forces, a materialist version of the Immanent Unfolding of Reason or a secular version of God’s Plan for the Universe and Man.  What is more, Marx wrote surprisingly little about what he thought the outcome of these deep social and economic movements would be.  Capital, after all, taking into account the Theories of Surplus Value, which is officially Volume Four, runs to 5,000 pages.  One would be hard pressed to cobble together more than 100-200 pages by Marx on the post-capitalist world.  Marx did, however, tell us that the next stage after capitalism would grow “in the womb” of capitalism, just as capitalism had grown in the womb of feudalism.

Marx conceived of the “inevitability” of socialism in somewhat the way that modern climatologists conceive of global warming: as the slow working through of manifest present tendencies including the deliberate actions of human beings.

In my essay referenced above, I try to think about what those tendencies might be in capitalism as it is currently constituted.  I then identify three big tendencies that Marx got wrong, mistakes that, taken together, help to explain why things have not thus far turned out as Marx anticipated.

But none of this constitutes the claim that “capitalism’s internal contradictions would inevitably lead to its demise.”

Well, all of this may seem to have little or nothing to do with the debate between Berman and Robin, but I wanted to get it off my chest.  Now, about those Red Sox …


Anonymous said...

So, contrary to the popular misunderstanding, Marx's thoughts about a future, better state of society were not a piously held dogma, or an a priori deduction, or even the expression of his psychological make-up (a refusal to accept reality as Elster once suggested), but rather his thoughts about future developments were the result of careful observation and reflection upon the world around him, and those thoughts were, given the evidence available to him at the time, a reasonable conjecture.
Moreover, there's nothing of determinism in those thoughts. Marx's thoughts about where the world was heading were based upon observations of the actions of men and women, and it was because he saw women and men choosing as they chose that he thought there would come a future in which our current ways of social organization would naturally transform themselves.

A paraphrase of your remarks. (A pedantic exercise partially for my own amusement)

LFC said...

The comments here deal with her review of a book by Corey Robin

Um, no, not all of the comments. My comment said nothing about her review of Robin and was entirely about her Post piece. (I'm going to make the charitable assumption that perhaps you drafted this post before my comment posted or before wading through the whole comment thread.)

Anonymous said...

Let's all give a hand to LFC for his charitableness.

Dean said...

I made the reference to the review of Prof. Robin's book, and I did so in an effort to (uncharitably) discredit Prof. Berman. I apologize for derailing the discussion, even though one mitigating consequence of my having done so is this latest of Prof. Wolff's posts, which is, par for the course, instructive. I suppose I should apologize as well to Prof. Berman, whose scholarship I don't know at all. She might indeed be very good in that arena. However, I didn't much admire the WaPo op-ed or the review of Prof. Robin's book (as mediated by Prof. Robin's critical take-down). If there's a common thread to all of these aspects of this ongoing discussion, it has something to do with the scope of expertise and the function of public intellectuals. Even if Prof. Berman is obviously qualified to produce scholarship and teach (at Barnard, no less), it doesn't follow that she is best situated to opine on current affairs for mass consumption. Perhaps Prof. Robin has demonstrated talents in both arenas; certainly, Prof. Wolff has done so. Put another way, albeit crudely, if more people read Profs. Wolff and Robin than the WaPo, we might enjoy a more astute citizenry.

Daniel Langlois said...

While we are getting if off our chests, Capitalism (as the term is normally understood) obviously does exist, so it's not "contradictory". Of course somebody may reply that Hegelian and Marxist theory stipulates that the dialectic nature of history will lead to the sublation, or synthesis, of its contradictions. In the Marxian view, the capitalist class becomes the “thesis”. It creates the proletariat as its “antithesis”. Because I am hilarious, I'll quote Lenin:

'The enlightener believes in the present course of social development, because he fails to observe its inherent contradictions. The Narodnik fears the present course of social development, because he is already aware of these contradictions. The “disciple” [of dialectical materialism] believes in the present course of social development, because he sees the only earnest hope of a better future in the full development of these contradictions. The first and last trends therefore strive to support, accelerate, facilitate development along the present path, to remove all obstacles which hamper this development and retard it.'