How Karl Marx was wrong and yet right about Capitalism

On Marx’s 204th birth anniversary, let us revisit once more about how Marx was wrong about capitalism

How Karl Marx was wrong and yet right about Capitalism


From the day Karl Marx emerged as a prominent critic of capitalism and private property in the second half of the nineteenth century, philosophers, scholars, politicians and academicians have critically examined Marx’s work in an attempt to prove how and why he was wrong. In the last 150 years, a vast amount of work has been produced on the theme of how and why Marx was wrong. On Marx’s 204th birth anniversary, let us revisit once more about how Marx was wrong about capitalism.

Contrary to the popular view, that Karl Marx was an enemy of capitalism and hated it from the core of his heart, Marx in fact praised capitalism. He saw the bourgeoise, the harbinger of capitalism as the most revolutionary force in history and capitalism as a progressive economic system as compared to preceding systems of slavery and feudalism. His position on capitalism was more nuanced than generally understood.

Capitalism in his view played a revolutionary role not only in restructuring economic system and brining globalisation but also in the cultural sphere of human society. According to him the bourgeoise played the most revolutionary part in the history of human civilization by showing the true potential of human capabilities.

In the mid nineteenth century, highlighting this revolutionary role of bourgeoise in the economic sphere Marx and Engels wrote; “The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground…It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades”. Capitalism not only produced immense wealth but also made humans the master of nature.

Marx and Engels also acknowledged the cosmopolitan character of capitalism by emphasising on how modern market was on its way to establish a truly globalised and connected world as the bourgeoise in order to extract resources and sell commodities was constantly looking for new spaces where it could expand. Highlighting this, they write; “Modern industry has established the world market…This market has given an immense development to commerce, to navigation, to communication by land. The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation.” They called ‘commodities’ the artillery of capitalism through which it battered down the Chinese walls secluding nations from the world market and one another. As cheap commodities produced by capitalism penetrated secluded nations and destroyed national industries and self-sufficiency, nations were forced to adopt capitalist mode of production and integrate themselves with the developing world market.

Marx and Engels recognised that capitalism was truly a revolutionary mode of production as the basic motive of generating profit made it necessary to consistently revolutionise means of production and communication. In order to keep running, capitalism must find ways to produce cheaper and cheaper commodities for which it needs to consistently improve technology as well as create demands for the new commodities.

Marx and Engels were also in full praise for the cultural revolution brought in by the bourgeoise and capitalism. In their view, and rightly so, capitalism destroyed national one-sidedness and narrow mindedness, a characteristic feature of previous eras; it also generated world literature in place of national and local literature as creative productions of individual nations became common property.

However, the most revolutionary change brought by capitalism in the realm of culture was the freeing of Individuals by capitalism from feudal bondages. In the Manifesto they write; “The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors” …It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation…” Capitalism in their view had freed all form of exploitation from the ideological justifications found in religious and political institutions.

Since capitalism consistently revolutionises the economic sphere, it disrupts social relations and cultural forms. Capturing this tendency of capitalism beautifully in the manifesto, Marx and Engels write; “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned…”

We can see how Marx and Engels saw the revolutionary role of capitalism in destroying feudal culture and related forms of domination. They were of the view that as capitalism progresses, feudal forms of domination like patriarchy, race, serfdom and caste etc will be swept away in its wave. In their view, capitalism was a progressive system as compared to feudalism, from whose womb it was born.

Marx and Engels were truly hopeful that Capitalism will destroy all previous forms of domination and exploitation. And they were right to a certain extent. Capitalism did bring women out of seclusion who were confined to the household. It did bring the idea of universal human rights irrespective of gender, race, religion and caste. It did bring the idea of universal franchise. But, what Marx and Engels thought as natural outcome of progression of capitalism had instead to be fought for. The above developments did not happen out of any good will of the ruling bourgeoise class. The working class, the women, the oppressed races and ethnicities had to fight vigorously and sacrifice their lives to change these ideas into reality.

Marx and Engels were wrong when they generalised that capitalism as a progressive force will annihilate feudal culture/consciousness. Instead, capitalism proved to be more cunning and allied with feudal structure/consciousness in its quest for profit. Today, instead of sweeping away the structures and institutions of caste, gender, race and religion etc, capitalism has developed an alliance with these structures. Since profit in capitalism depends upon the exploitation of labour, it is now using these exploitative structures to facilitate exploitation of labour.

Women are paid less for similar jobs; so-called lower castes are paid less than their so-called upper caste peers for similar jobs; same stands true for blacks and migrants in the western world; national boundaries are reasserting themselves in much more vitriolic forms; religious identities often leading to brutal and gruesome violence are only growing with each passing day.

Instead of showing any sign of dying down, feudal consciousness expressed in form of caste, racial and religious pride are only increasing day by day in the era of capitalism in its pure avatar (neo-liberalism).

Marx and Engels were wrong as far as revolutionary role of capitalism in cultural sphere is concerned. To paraphrase his quote; all that was solid did not melt into the air. But this also proves that Marx and Engels were right about the logic of capitalism. Capitalism which champions the principles of equality, liberty and fraternity at the level of ideas will never shy away from sacrificing them at the altar of profit; its primary and only concern.

The history of capitalism since the fall of Berlin wall and the Soviet Union has been nothing but the history of unbridled growth in the wealth of the capitalist class on the one hand and rise of extreme forms of racial, casteist, religious, ethnic and gender-based violence and exploitation on the other.

(The writer is a doctoral student at Jawaharlal Nehru University)

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