Well, my big sister read my reply to her questions and she commented that she was left puzzled by my deep pessimism. Let me briefly explain the source of my pessimism about the future of socialism. I shall be rehearsing things that I said in my paper of that title, but as Socrates replies when Callicles complains that Socrates says the same things over and over, “yes, and in the same way too.”
Marx was optimistic about the prospects for socialism not because he had a religious faith or was an incurable optimist but because he believed he saw structural developments within capitalism that were leading naturally to an evolution that would make socialism genuinely possible – not inevitable, not happening behind the backs of people as it were, but genuinely possible in the way that the fantasies of the Utopian Socialists were not.
Specifically, he believed that he was looking at six or more developments in mid-19th century capitalism that taken together constituted what he elsewhere described as the new order growing in the womb of the old. What were these developments?
First, Marx believed that capitalism would continue to drive out all pre-capitalist modes of production and spread across the entire world. Second, he believed that as this happened capitalist firms would grow larger and larger, become international in their organization and scope and operations, marginalizing or even destroying small local firms. Third, he believed that the cycle of booms and busts that had afflicted mid-19th century capitalism would continue and grow ever more violent and international in their scope. Fourth, he believed that governments in capitalist countries would be unable to control these booms and busts, that the vicious competition among capitalists would block them from taking the cooperative state actions that might serve to control the roller coaster movements of the economy or at least to modify them and make them manageable. Fifth, he believed that capitalism was eating away at and destroying the complex system of trades and crafts and transforming workers into a mass of semiskilled factory operatives whose common conditions of employment would foster and strengthen worker organization, first within single factories, then within entire industries, then within entire nations, and finally worldwide. And finally, sixth, he believed that capitalism was destroying traditional bonds of family, religion, ethnicity, race, and nationality, making it more and more likely that workers across nations and across the world would recognize their common interest and build bonds of fraternity that would strengthen their struggle against capitalists.
The effect of the working out of these structural changes, Marx was convinced, would lead on the one side to a worldwide economic crisis or crash and on the other side to the formation of a worldwide labor movement that would result finally in the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement by collective ownership of the means of production, which is to say by socialism.
Marx believed that this world historical transformation would not happen automatically, as it were, but would be the result, if it did happen, of tremendous effort and struggle by workers against powerful, wealthy, politically well entrenched capitalist forces, but because he believed that these tendencies were intrinsic to the evolution of capitalism and did not depend on the goodwill of enlightened capitalists or anything of that sort, he believed he was looking at a moment of transition from one system of social relations of production to another.
Marx was right about much of what he anticipated but, alas, he was also wrong about a good deal. He was obviously right about the tendency of capitalism to conquer the world, and he was equally correct that as it did so capitalist firms would grow to enormous size and power, of a sort that had never been seen before in the history of the world. He was also right that the ever greater booms and busts would lead to a worldwide crash, although I suspect he anticipated that it would come a bit earlier than in the end it did.
But Marx was wrong about three big things, and these three taken together have, in my judgment, undermined the real possibility of a transition to socialism.
The first thing he got wrong was his failure to anticipate that capitalists would find a way through the governments that they controlled to work together and manage the destructive fluctuations of the economy. In effect, he failed to anticipate Keynes.
The second thing Marx got wrong was his failure to anticipate that mature capitalism (what we old lefties in happier days used to call late capitalism) would develop a steeply pyramidal and apparently permanent structure of compensation and privileges among employees that would defeat efforts to achieve widespread worker solidarity. The shirts and suits in modern corporations, as we used to refer to them, are objectively all exploited workers but the reality of their actual lives is entirely different. There is very little that can form the basis for solidarity between a day laborer making $15 an hour and a white-collar worker making $40 or $50 an hour and neither of them has much subjectively in common with a middle manager making $150,000 a year, regardless of what an “objective” analysis tells us.
The third thing Marx got wrong was his failure to realize the persistence of religious, ethnic, regional, racial, and national self – identifications of the sort that stand in the way of genuine international worker solidarity.
For all these reasons, I am, as my sister correctly observed, deeply pessimistic about the prospects for a transition to genuine socialism. I am not for moment suggesting that we should give up on our endless efforts to make the conditions of working people better, but I would be lying if I denied that that struggle is easier when you believe that history is on your side.