Karl Marx’s changing picture of the end of capitalism

by Gareth Stedman Jones

27 Jul 2018
Journal of the British Academy, volume 6 (2018)
20 (pp. 187-206)

Abstract: This essay examines three successive attempts Marx made to theorise his conception of the ‘value form’ or the capitalist mode of production. The first in the 1840s ascribed the destruction of an original human sociability to the institution of private property and looked forward to its destruction and transcendence in the coming revolution. This vision was shattered by the disenchanting failure of the 1848 revolutions.
The second attempt, belonging to the 1850s and outlined in the Grundrisse, attempted to chart the rise, global triumph, and the ultimate destruction of what Marx called the ‘value form’. Its model of global triumph and final disintegration was inspired by Hegel’s Logic. But the global economic crisis of 1857–8 did not lead to the return of revolution. Marx’s disturbed reaction to this failure was seen in his paranoia about the failure of his Critique of Political Economy (1859).
Marx’s third attempt to formulate his critique in Das Kapital in 1867 was much more successful. It was accompanied by a new conception of revolution as a transitional process rather than an event and was stimulated by his participation in the International Working Men’s Association and the accompanying growth of cooperatives, trade unions, and a political reform movement culminating in the Reform Bill of 1867. This multifaceted picture of transition took the place of the neo-Jacobin conception of revolution dominant in 1848.
In the 1870s, this optimistic sense of development was halted by the Franco-Prussian War, the Commune, trade union moves towards the Gladstone Liberal Pact, and the increasing repression of the Social Democrats in Germany. In this context, especially after Marx’s death, transition to socialism came to be considered the result of the collapse of capitalism rather than the political activity of progressive parties. This was the context in which so called ‘Marxism’ was born.

Keywords: value form, human sociability, Grundrisse, Hegel’s Logic, economic crisis, transitional process, Marxism, multifaceted picture of transition.

Master-Mind Lecture, read 21 November 2017

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