Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism

Marx’s Concept of the Alternative to Capitalism, by Peter Hudis, reviewed by Michael Calderbank

February 1, 2014 · 2 min read

Another world is possible – perhaps. But we don’t possess a concrete sense of how a post-capitalist society would look or how it can be brought into being. Can we find in the writings of Marx an alternative to capitalism that wouldn’t follow the same flawed logic of what passed for ‘Marxism’ in the 20th century, with the bureaucratic attempt at state-run, centrally-planned economies operated on behalf of the workers?

Marx consciously resisted ‘writing recipes for the cookshops of the future’, or incorporating into his thought a directly speculative image what it would look like – but neither was he indifferent on the question. As Peter Hudis demonstrates in this powerful and unusually wide-ranging survey, Marx’s economic critique of capitalism emerges, and cannot be understood in isolation, from normative commitments (inherited from German idealist philosophy) that sustain a coherent vision of a future postcapitalist alternative.

Marx followed Kant and his successors in believing that human beings must have the freedom to develop and realise our own potential as an end in itself, rather than allowing ourselves to be treated as means to some externally driven end. Hegel’s dialectical logic gave Marx the essential insight into the economic structure of capitalist development. The critical point of difference is that where Hegel’s system was based on thought returning to itself, Marx’s dialectic concerned human activity in all its embodied nature. This enabled Marx to take the step of seeing the working class, those forced to sell their labour power as a commodity, as necessarily coming into conflict with the reproduction of capital and its logic of mystification, and rediscovering its own alienated capacity to freely produce the conditions of its own flourishing.

Fundamental to Hudis’s presentation of Marx’s alternative are the transcendence of value production and the overcoming of wage labour. Without these steps, the logic of capital would continue – even if production were nationalised, collectivised and centrally-planned. As Hudis indicates, at times Marx seems to predict with horror that socialists would erroneously embrace a society in which the state becomes one giant capitalist. By contrast, we see how Marx himself, following the Paris Commune, emphasised the importance of the free association of workers in planning production without external constraint. This is not a ready-and-waiting blueprint for what follows capitalism, but offers a valuable orientation for re-imagining what might be possible.

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