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The Political Tragedy of Capitalist Rule


Harry Magdoff was coeditor of Monthly Review from 1969 until 2006. Paul M. Sweezy was a founding editor of Monthly Review (along with Leo Huberman) and coedited the magazine from 1949 until 2004.

This article originally appeared in the “Notes from the Editors” in the January 1995 issue of Monthly Review.

Toward the end of his life, Engels wrote: “It is a peculiarity of the bourgeoisie, distinguishing it from all other ruling classes, that there is a turning point in its development after which every increase in its means of power, that is in the first place every increase in its capital, only tends to make it more and more incapable of ruling politically.” Whatever may have been the validity of this statement a hundred years ago (Engels died in 1895), there can be no doubt that it applies with uncanny accuracy to the world of the late twentieth century.

Society is made up of parts that work together, sometimes more and sometimes less successfully, to produce its livelihood and reproduce itself. The master insight of Marxism is that during that period of human history that has been recorded (some four millennia) the decisive parts have been classes, one dominant and exploitative, the other dominated and productive. For most of this period both parts have been necessary: the brains above, the brawn below. They have also been in continuous conflict over the division of their joint product. The vision of Marxism has been that with increases in human knowledge and growth in the productivity of human labor, the necessity for this split tends to disappear. Brains and brawn tend to come together in the far more numerous productive class. From being a struggle over the division of a joint product, the conflict between the classes becomes increasingly concerned about what will be produced and for what ends. Making these decisions is surely what Engels had in mind when he spoke of “ruling politically.”

Successful political rule in a class society is far from being guaranteed. It involves on the part of the ruling class not only effective protection for its own power but also an understanding of the design of the system as a whole and action to see that the essential parts are maintained in working order and able to perform their respective functions. If a ruling class acquires a monopoly of power and used it exclusively for its own advantage, the result will be certain disaster. The historical record is replete with such tragedies. What is required for successful political rule, therefore, is either wisdom and self-restraint or counter-pressure from a non-ruling but powerful class or alliance of classes. Whatever may have been true of earlier times, it is pretty clear that no modern capitalist ruling class has ever been blessed with wisdom or self-restraint, from which it follows that such successes as may have been achieved in the way of political rule are the result of effective counter-pressure from other classes.

Many examples, we believe, could be cited in support of this conclusion. One of the best and probably the most famous is the story as told by Marx in Volume 1 of Capital of how bourgeois governments in England, protesting and screaming all the way, finally came during a centuries-long struggle to accept the necessity of a comprehensive regime of labor legislation (prohibition of child labor, conditions of work, length of the working day, etc.). Similar stories could be, indeed have been, told about most of the other developed capitalist countries, including the United States. As for the underdeveloped capitalist countries of the world, most of them, sadly, have little or nothing in the way of successful political rule to boast of.

What has all of this, you may ask, to do with our opening quotation from Engels? His contention, you will recall, was that there is a point in the development of capitalist power after which its capacity for political rule declines. Our contention is that history has proved him absolutely right.

The last two decades have seen an unprecedented increase in the amount and power of capital on a global scale. Common sense tells us that capital has never been in a better position to rule politically, i.e., to do the things that need to be done for society to function reasonably effectively and with a minimum of destructive conflict and disturbance. In reality, of course, nothing of this kind has happened. Instead, capital has used its power exclusively in its own interest, and in doing so has set the world on the road to the disaster history should have taught us to expect.

What should we learn from this experience? First and foremost, that as the second millennium and the twentieth century draw to a close, capital has totally lost its capacity for political rule. Now more than ever what is needed is organized, militant struggle to check and reverse capital’s onslaught on the earning power and living standards of the world’s working and oppressed classes and on the natural environment that is the indispensable foundation for civilized life on an already endangered planet. And the final lesson surely is that success in this struggle must eventually lead to the definitive overthrow of the rule of capital.

2023, Volume 75, Number 01 (May 2023)
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