Marx’s Revenge: The Resurgence of Capitalism and the Death of Statist Socialism by Meghnad Desai, Verso, pp. 372.
Reviewed by Thomas Riggins
Meghnad Desai is the Director of the Centre for the study of Global Governance at the London School of Economics, and Marx’s Revenge is his screed to the glories of globalization, free trade, and the everlastingness of capitalism. This is the on-line version of the review, slightly revised, from the print version.
Desai's thesis is not only that globalization is good for us, but if Marx were around today he would give it his blessing and reject as reactionary the anti-globalization movement that arose out of the demonstrations in Seattle. Marx’s “Revenge” is thus, while it may seem as if Marxism got a kick in the teeth with the collapse of Eastern European socialism and the U.S.S.R. and with the untrammeled rise of globalization, actually this is all happening in accord with Marx’s theory of the development of capitalism. It is a proof, not a refutation of Marxism. (But not your grandmother’s Marxism).
Briefly put, Desai’s argument goes like this. Marx saw capitalism expanding over the whole surface of the globe and it would not be replaced until it was no longer able to grow and develop. The attempt to build socialism in under developed areas resulted in the creation of distorted and backwards regimes which were actually forms of a primitive kind of state capitalism unable to successfully compete, over the long haul, with “free market” forms of advanced Western style capitalism. “[T]he USSR was a Third World country.”
Globilization is the historically necessary development of world wide capitalist integration and must be completed before “socialism” is even on the agenda. Globilization is thus progressive and humane in so far as it is the most advanced type of economic system for the foreseeable future. “Capitalism provides the means for eliminating poverty.” (War, famine, and AIDS will eliminate the poor, you can’t have poverty without them.)
In fact, socialism may never be on the agenda since capitalism will eventually collapse only if it has unsolvable internal contradictions which will make it break down and necessitate its replacement. But we have today a better understanding of the internal dynamics of capitalism than in Marx’s day, and ways have been found to eliminate or resolve such contradictions so that capitalism can hang around forever.
This interpretation is based on Desai’s understanding of Marxism and just what capitalism is and what socialism is (and isn’t). If he has a confused and screwed up understanding of these subjects his theory can be dismissed as just so much hot air and capitalist apologetics.
The following doesn’t bode well for him. Early on he tells us there were two main types of socialism in the 20th Century. They were communism (USSR) a “variant of social democracy” and fascism (Germany) “the other variant of socialism” [which] “for many, held out real promise.” It seems that all you have to do to qualify as a “socialist” for Desai is use the word in your party name “National Socialists”. This does not show a high level of analytical understanding.
Desai realizes that the future of capitalism depends upon the law of the declining rate of profit. It is this law which eventually dooms the system. For capitalism to survive it must suspend the operation of this law not merely, as Marx thought, retard it. The solution, according to Desai, is provided by Keynes. Demand can be stimulated by government spending which will allow for profitability and thus escape from the law. Governments have learned how to construct capitalism with a human face it seems.
We are further informed that. “By the late twentieth century, the imperialist episode in world history had passed.” As for Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, we are informed that it begins with “muddled thinking” and is “not by any means Lenin’s most cogent work.” Desai knows very well that if Lenin’s views in Imperialism are still relevant his own theory is off course. But who today, looking at US foreign policy and the continuing economic exploitation by both Europe and the US of the Third World (Desai says “alleged” exploitation), with any understanding of how capitalism works could believe that the era of imperialism has passed?
What else can we “learn” from Desai? That America’s “only imperial experience” in the nineteenth century “was the Spanish-American War.” But then how did two-thirds of Mexico end up American? Genocide against Native Americans doesn’t seem to rate as “imperial” behavior. We are also told that Black Americans have become “a full part of civil society.” Finally, the struggle is over!
More importantly, Desai often misreads Marx. An example from page 141 of his text where he completely misses the meaning Marx intends in the following passage from Capital. He quotes Marx as saying, “the degree of exploitation of [the] wage labourer remains indecently low” in America.
Desai makes much of this quote and wonders how American capitalists can make profits with “indecently low” rates of exploitation. But Marx’s comment is meant to be satirical not literal. He is making fun of the views expressed by E.G. Wakefield in his work "England and America" and its portrayal of “the abstemious capitalist.”
Desai gives Trotsky credit for the theory that revolution might break out in a country that is the “weakest link” in the capitalist system (which had already been put forth by Marx and Engels long before Trotsky).
I could go on, the book is replete with historical errors, misunderstandings of Marx’s writings, and perverse readings of contemporary history. Such as insinuating that the violence at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago was caused by student protesters (it was a police riot), or maintaining that the IMF can’t see to it that their economic policies don’t hurt the poor in developing countries because it has “to respect the sovereignty of these countries.”
Finally, the Great Depression is blamed on Stalin [there is no end to the evil of this man]! It was brought about by agricultural oversupply “thanks to Soviet collectivization and dumping by Russian farmers.”
In summary, Marx’s Revenge lacks credibility as a theoretical contribution to the understanding of the nature of the present day processes of globalization.