The Twilight of Capitalism

In the long and wonderful tradition of Lenin’s Imperialism, The Last Stage of Capitalism, and Nkrumah’s Neo-colonialism, The Last Stage of Imperialism, we are now treated to what might be called “Welfare Capitalism: The Last Stage of Capitalism.” Or, to quote George Lichtheim, what we have here is only another pathetic addition to “the caput mortuum of a gigantic intellectual construction whose living essence has [already] been appropriated by the historical consciousness of the modern world.” Or, to put it another way, Harrington’s tour de force can be viewed as the last stage of moribund Marxism.

The general reader should note the almost total absence of laughter in Marxist circles; everything is terribly, terribly serious. Marxists take themselves and their ideas as if they were “the people,” and wisdom was in danger of dying with them. They tend to engage in an enormous amount of ideological nitpicking, and become easily incensed—“morally outraged”—when others cannot understand what they are so exercised about. They tend to be “true believers,” which seems to make their pronouncements occasionally perceptive, frequently obtuse, but rarely witty. They tend to be grim, econometricious prophets of doom, or hysterical celebrants of the new order. Occasionally, one may encounter a happy, vivacious Marxist landowner in Orange County; but not very often.

For one thing, anyone with a modicum of historical consciousness who reads The Twilight of Capitalism will tend to be outraged by the author’s repeated claim that he has proved that capitalism responded inevitably to the twentieth century crises as it did. Marvelous! Dr. Pangloss—with a Marxist mentality—lives. What escapes Harrington, of course (but did not escape Voltaire’s good doctor) is the self-consciousness that Harrington’s own mentality inevitably produced this work. The general reader will note, from time to time, that the adoption of the Marxist paradigm saves the Marxist thinker from the sociocultural blindness which afflicts every non-Marxist; it is apparently not possible that Marxism is every bit as much a child of its times as every other explanation, although it is possible, Harrington admits, that an individual Marxist may be “stupid or inept.”

The other major curiosity of the book occurs in Part II, “The Future Karl Marx, or The Secret History of the Contemporary Crisis” (a nice play on Procopius’ Secret History), which concludes with an astounding stay of execution. After three hundred pages devoted to showing how capitalism is “outrageously unjust” and “also self-destructive,” we are reminded that this has lasted more than “four centuries.” But, writes Harrington,I do not want to suggest for a moment that the crisis of the 1970s is a final breakdown of the system, its Götterdämmerung. I fully expect it to recover from this cruel and unnecessary depression. The event is only a moment in a complex process of decline and fall that will certainly go on for some time to come and just as certainly will end with the collapse of the bourgeois order.

Incredible. Isn’t this a little like saying that the next four hundred years will certainly see a lot of changes? Or, if the bourgeois order has already lasted for four hundred years, and it is still in surprisingly good health, shouldn’t we expect it to last for another century or two? Or three? After all, its unusual adaptability—in the face of its supposedly inherent self-destructive capacity—is certainly interesting. Perhaps capitalism is inevitably adaptable. Perhaps capitalism—“welfare capitalism”—will create that long-sought, classless, utopian society. Or, perhaps it is simply stupid to try to show that either Marxism or capitalism has exclusive answers to the contemporary crisis.

Another irritation that may afflict the general reader is the gradual realization that, no matter what happens, Marxists are congenitally revisionist; thus, if events do not corroborate Marxist theories, then the theories will be...

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Harper’s Magazine. CCLII, June, 1976, p. 102.

National Review. XXVIII, September 3, 1976, p. 963.

New Republic. CLXXV, August 7, 1976, p. 34.

Progressive. XL, September, 1976, p. 55.

Saturday Review. III, July 10, 1976, p. 46.