Where is Marx's ‘capital’ error?

So I think there are a number of different things to consider here, and that they often get conflated into a single, overarching criticism of Marx. They include:

1. The issue of Marx’s LTV itself, and of what constitutes surplus value.

2. The issue of Marx’s definition of (and solution to ) “the transformation problem” of how commodity LTV-based values convert into exchange values.

3. The conclusions that Marx draws, in part from these first two issues, about the inevitability of workers rebelling against the capitalist system, and the form that will take.

Now IMO there is a lot of incoherent blathering focused around these subjects — particularly from the Austrian School folks. It is easy to become mightily distracted by the irrational, ideologically fervent dog-barking of the Austrian School and other free-market fundamentalists (Randian objectivists, neoliberals, right-libertarians, etc.), so I would advise against any engagement with those folks around this topic; their reasoning is simply too clouded with bias and incomplete information. There are also plenty of Marxists who have sought to refine, clarify or resolve some of the perceived problems with the above issues as well. Here again, there is fervent ideological bias (including an inability to admit that Marx made any kind of mistake) that can occlude some of the simpler approaches to understanding and resolving Marx’s “errors.” However, in this case, much of the thinking is still considerably more coherent than the Austrian School perspectives. Lastly, there are other, non-ideologically-based discussions of Marx that are probably worth exploring…especially if you enjoy diving into some fairly intricate math.

Okay…with all of this said, I’ll offer what I believe is a contrasting approach that attempts to “cut through the noise:” in this case just ignoring Marx’s mathematical models, ignoring the ideology that motivates his critics, and ignoring attempts to “post-rationalize” Marx’s claims by other Marxists. Instead, we can just look at the actual course of capitalism over time, then compare its practices, problems and trajectories to what Marx predicted (in terms of intermediate consequences). That is…examine the evolution of markets, monopolies, global trade, the impact of automation, the continued antagonisms of poor working conditions and low wages, the societal impact of consumerism and commodification, and so on, through a Marxian lens. And if we do so…when we examine the fundamental spirit of Marx’s critiques of capitalism…what do we find?

We find that Marx was absolutely correct in both his observation of how fundamental problems of capitalism manifest in political economy, and his anticipation of future negative evolutions that have resulted from capitalism. Is the math he used to justify his conclusions sound? IMO the math often falls short. Are his conclusions sound? IMO absolutely yes, on the whole, they are quite sound. So the challenge is really avoiding getting lost in the weeds of particular arguments or mathematical proofs — a focus which is often what both Marx’s loudest critics and most passionate proponents prefer to focus upon. But if we can resist that impulse…if we can observe the massive forest that Marx paints for us in very broad brush strokes, instead of obsessing over the pattern of bark on a particular tree…there are some very valuable insights and lessons we can learn from good old Karl.

Now…about point #3, Marx’s “inevitable conclusions.” This is where I personally disagree with Marx the most. I don’t think violent revolution is necessary — and I feel it was a fatal mistake for Marx to predict (and thus promote) this flavor of expropriation, as it led to some of the darkest — and unnecessary, IMO — moments in socialism’s history. There are other reasons why I believe this was and is a general error in thinking about change, which I discuss here: Revolutionary Integrity. However, once again this shouldn’t be conflated with his other conclusions and reasoning. Marx is complex enough that, if we are willing to take the time and effort, we can tease out the many different and fascinating threads in his writing and thought.

My 2 cents.

Comment from Matias Gimenez: "Marx proposes that eventually, capital owners would absorb everything, creating a ever shrinking pool of rich people, or bourgeois, and a ever growing mass of poor people, growing poorer generation after generation. Capitalism proved Marx wrong. Poverty descenced worldwide and wealth is at its highest for all humans, all of this without taking into account that the amount of rich people is actually growing."

Thanks for the feedback, Matias. I have heard this objection before, and think it fails to take something rather important into account: the impact that civil society (comprised of many socialist institutions and policies) has had on capitalism in terms of wealth production and distribution. When you remove the institutions and policies that strengthen civil society — and we have plenty of examples of places in the world and times in history where this was the case — Marx completely nails the outcome. When you factor those variables back in, they have indeed softened the outcomes Marx predicted, even though there is significant statistical support for growing wealth concentrations and disparities despite that softening. But the point is that without the mitigation of all sorts of structures that contain, restrict, regulate and “egalitarianize” capitalism, it would follow (and has followed) the trajectory Marx predicts. Socialism has manifested in many forms to ensure the slowing of the capitalist self-destructive spiral, in the form of unions and collective bargaining, wage laws, worker protections, child labor laws, etc. Add to these things consumer protections, environmental regulations, and the general rule of law in commerce…then add central controls (monetary policy, economic policy, financial regulations, etc.), and that completes the slowing down of many negative externalities as well as skyrocketing wealth disparity…and indeed encourages a broader platform of economic mobility. But make no mistake, the laissez-faire folks have always fought tooth-and-nail against these “socialist” intrusions into markets. This is the irony of modern neoliberalism: capturing the government and reversing socialistic reforms is what indeed improves short-term profits and wealth retainment for the owner-shareholder class…but it devastates the economic mobility and stable civil society that ensures a thriving, growing economy over the long-run. It’s why trickle-down supply-side economics never works, and why it always has to be rescued from itself (again, via socialistic reforms and stronger civil society). So again…Marx was actually correct about capitalism, but socialism has helped address the worst offenses. That is why “mixed” economies around the globe are the only ones that have consistently thrived over time.

Comment by Ian Rae: "Neither did Marx think violent revolution was necessary as he said in those countries which were developed enough it wasn’t necessary, England for one."

Ian I think you are splitting hairs. Yes, England is cited as a singular European example where “social revolution might be effected entirely by peaceful and legal means” (Engels re: Marx. Vol.1). This implies, in contrast with Marx’s frequent use of more violent language throughout all three volumes regarding both recurring crises and inevitable disruptions, catastrophes, attacks, rebellions, revolutions, etc. that England would be among very few exceptions. The historical and predictive picture Marx paints is otherwise pretty grim (in terms of revolution, counterrevolution, the degradation of the working class, inevitable conflict, etc.). But, more specifically, Marx’s violent-conflict-centric language here is striking: Neue Rheinische Zeitung No. 136 November 1848. And of course the Communist Manifesto itself states plainly:

“Though not in substance, yet in form, the struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie is at first a national struggle. The proletariat of each country must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie. In depicting the most general phases of the development of the proletariat, we traced the more or less veiled civil war, raging within existing society, up to the point where that war breaks out into open revolution, and where the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie lays the foundation for the sway of the proletariat.” And, later in the Manifesto: “The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.”

Of course, later on Marx softened his tone, seeming to appreciate the potential role of democratic reforms more acutely. Frankly, I think he recognized his error. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t make that error earlier on…though it was an understandable one in the context of his times.

Admittedly, Lenin entirely abandoned any reformist mechanisms or tone in favor of wholesale slaughter of all bourgeoisie resistance. This was an unfortunate evolution in Marxist-Leninism. But we cannot say that the seeds for this more egregious mistake weren’t sewn earlier by the language and attitudes of both Marx and Engels.

Follow up from Ian Rae: "At the time Marx wrote about violent revolution , the working class didn’t have the vote , so how else could they achieved power and even then Marx and Engels realised an overwhelming majority would need to understand the concept of socialism and want to organise for its inception."

That is simply not true, Ian. Aside from what was occurring in Great Britain, see: Corsican Constitution, Polish-Lithuanian Constitution, French Revolution & National Convention (male suffrage, etc.), and of course the U.S. Constitution…all of which occurred prior to first publications of Das Kapital, the Communist Manifesto, etc. You could argue that Marx “awoke” to the power of democratic agency by observing the Paris Commune…sure. But lots of stuff was going on throughout Europe and all around the globe in terms of “revolutionary” democratic changes prior to that. Marx just wasn’t paying attention…or didn’t think those changes would be sufficient (at first). Hence Marx made a mistake. That’s all it was. Just a simple, human mistake. Which is why I find it a little bit silly that anyone would try to defend Marx’s choices as anything but that.


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