The Cooking the Books column from the June 2018 issue of the Socialist Standard
Yanis Varoufakis, the maverick former Greek finance minister, has written an introduction to a new edition of the Communist Manifesto (published by Vintage Classics), reproduced in the Guardian (20 April). It is actually quite good. Here he is writing about ‘the predicament in which we find ourselves today’:
‘While we owe capitalism for having reduced all class distinctions to the gulf between owners and non-owners, Marx and Engels want us to realise that capitalism is insufficiently evolved to survive the technologies it spawns. It is our duty to tear away at the old notion of privately owned means of production and force a metamorphosis, which must involve the social ownership of machinery, land and resources. Now, when new technologies are unleashed in societies bound by the primitive labour contract, wholesale misery follows. ... If we continue to subscribe to labour contracts between employer and employee, then private property rights will govern and drive capital to inhuman ends.’
When he was a member of the Greek government Varoufakis defended himself on the grounds that, as capitalism paved the way for socialism but socialism was not an immediate prospect, it was better to help capitalism out of its crisis than let it collapse – to save capitalism so as to be able to end it later in better circumstances.
He still hasn’t entirely escaped from this way of thinking, as he writes here:
‘Given that it is neither possible nor desirable to annul capitalism’s “energy”, the trick is to help speed up capital’s development (so that it burns up like a meteor rushing through the atmosphere) while, on the other hand, resisting (through rational, collective action) its tendency to steamroller our human spirit. In short, the manifesto’s recommendation is that we push capital to its limits while limiting its consequences and preparing for its socialisation.’
Actually, this is not what the Manifesto recommended (unrealistically, it envisaged that ‘the bourgeois revolution in Germany will be but the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution’). But it was what Leninists and Social Democrats tried to do in the 20th century, arguably unnecessarily prolonging the existence of capitalism.
Marx and Engels did hold that capitalism paved the way for socialism, by creating its material basis in the form of a worldwide productive network technologically capable of providing plenty for all. In 1848 Marx did argue in favour of free trade on the grounds that it ‘works destructively. It breaks up old nationalities and carries antagonism of proletariat and bourgeoisie to the uttermost point. In a word, the free trade system hastens the Social Revolution.' But that was in 1848, some 170 years ago now. At that time capitalism, as an economic system, was confined to parts of Western Europe. As Varoufakis points out, Marx and Engels predicted in the Manifesto that it would eventually come to dominate the whole world. He sees this as having come about in the 1990s. In fact, however, it had come about a century earlier in the 1890s, as reflected in the discussions about ‘imperialism’ that began at that time. By then capitalism had performed its historical role and had become historically unnecessary in that socialism, as a world system, could have been established in its place at any time since.
Capitalism’s continuation beyond its sell-by date has led to two world wars, countless smaller wars and massacres, and now a threat to the planet’s ecology. Who knows what its further development will bring? So, no, the task today is not to ‘speed up capital’s development’. It is to stop it, by establishing a world of common ownership, democratic control, production to directly satisfy people’s needs and not for profit, and distribution on the principle of ‘from each their ability, to each their needs’.