My new book is ready. Called Marx 200 – a review of Marx’s economics 200 years after his birth, it is published by Lulu and is now available on Lulu’s site.
With the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birthday on 5 May, I thought it might be useful to attempt to explain Marx’s economic ideas and their relevance to modern economies 200 years after his birth.
So in this short book, I argue that Marx developed three key laws of motion of capitalism, around which a clear analysis of the nature of modern economies can be understood. From these laws, we can understand why capitalism cannot escape being subject to regular and recurring slumps; causes vicious rivalry among national states that leads to perpetual wars; and engenders uncontrolled and wasteful use of natural resources that now threatens the destruction of the planet itself.
Marx’s laws also tell us that capitalism is not here for eternity but has a finite existence. The question before us, 200 years after Marx’s birth, is what would replace it as a mode of production and social organisation for human beings on this planet?
The development of Marx’s economic thought can be divided into four parts: his childhood; as a young man; as a mature man; and the old Marx.
In his teenage years, he was under the influence of his father and his father’s friend, Count Von Westphalen. They were both men of the enlightenment, followers of the ideals of the French philosophers and revolution. Marx was born just after the end of the so-called Napoleonic wars and at the start of a gradual economic recovery in the petty German statelets. When Marx went to university in the late 1830s, he was a radical democrat in opinion, one of the ‘Young Hegelians’, who were philosophically opposed to religious superstition and autocracy.
The period of Marx as a young man from the point of him leaving university and without an academic post was one of radical upsurge in ideas and political action in Europe. Britain was in the midst of the ‘industrial revolution’ with all its expansion of machinery and goods and the accompanying dark exploitation of labour. The Reform Act of 1832 had given the middle classes the vote but now there was pressure from the Chartist working class movement for full franchise. In Germany, workers in the towns were organising for the first time and peasants in country were growing restive. Economically, in 1840 there was the establishment of the German Customs Union, the Zollverein, which brought an end to trade barriers within the Prussian sphere of influence and began a huge economic upsurge.
On leaving university, Marx became a radical journalist with a growing materialist conception of class struggle. Marx started to take an interest in economic developments under the encouragement of his new and eventually lifetime friend, Friedrich Engels. Engels lived in the heart of Capital, Britain’s industrial Manchester, and was already writing on the economic and social consequences of capitalist development. Marx and Engels became communists, an ideology designed to replace capitalism as a mode of production and social organisation with communal control, with the working class as the ‘gravediggers’ of capitalism to deliver this. They wrote the Communist Manifesto in 1848 (Marx was 29 years old), just before the outbreak of the revolutions against autocracy across Europe. The manifesto intuitively recognised the nature of capitalism, but without expounding any economic laws of motion.
The defeat of the 1848 revolutions and Marx’s eventual exile to Britain began the period of mature Marx (aged 32 in 1850) that lasted until the defeat of the Paris Commune in 1871 (aged 53). This turned out to be the period of the long boom in the European economies. Britain was the dominant economic and political power and thus the best placed to study the economics of capitalism. The boom revealed to Marx and Engels that there was no short-cut to revolution and capitalism still had some way to go in its spread across the globe. The first international slump in 1857 did not lead to the collapse of capitalism or to revolution. Marx concentrated on organising the first international party of the working class (the International Working Men’s Association) and on writing his main economic work, Capital.
The defeat of the Paris Commune in 1871, followed by the financial panic and crash of 1873 in the US, which spread to Europe, set the final phase of Marx’s life. It was also the start of what was eventually called the (first) Great Depression, where the major capitalist economies struggled to recover from crashes and became subject to a series of slumps. This was a vindication of Marx’s laws of motion. Marx died in 1883, in the depth of the latest slump in Britain.
Marx remained an obscure figure in economic and political thought after his death, except in the circles of the leaders of the burgeoning social democratic parties of Europe after the Great Depression came to an end. In this new period of economic recovery of the 1890s, unskilled workers formed trade unions and working class organisations built mass political parties with increasing voting power. Marx’s ideas now became more widespread. The victory of the ‘Bolshevik’ (majority) social democrats in the Russian revolution in 1917 then placed the works of Marx and Engels on the world stage through the 20th century.
The book will look back at Marx’s economic ideas and see just how relevant they are for 21st century.