Marx the Prophet


BBC Radio 4 panel discussion on Marx

It seems to be a discernible trend: since the collapse of the financial market three years ago, Karl Marx is increasingly being cited once again as the prophet of capitalism’s self-destruction. From the BBC:

As a side-effect of the financial crisis, more and more people are starting to think Karl Marx was right. The great 19th Century German philosopher, economist and revolutionary believed that capitalism was radically unstable.

It had a built-in tendency to produce ever larger booms and busts, and over the longer term it was bound to destroy itself.

Marx welcomed capitalism’s self-destruction. He was confident that a popular revolution would occur and bring a communist system into being that would be more productive and far more humane.

Marx was wrong about communism. Where he was prophetically right was in his grasp of the revolution of capitalism. It’s not just capitalism’s endemic instability that he understood, though in this regard he was far more perceptive than most economists in his day and ours.

More profoundly, Marx understood how capitalism destroys its own social base – the middle-class way of life. The Marxist terminology of bourgeois and proletarian has an archaic ring.

But when he argued that capitalism would plunge the middle classes into something like the precarious existence of the hard-pressed workers of his time, Marx anticipated a change in the way we live that we’re only now struggling to cope with.

The whole article here.

Previous posts on Frye on Marx here, here, here, and here.


Part 2


Part 3


Part 4


Part 5

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3 thoughts on “Marx the Prophet

  1. Gene Phillips

    I have a simple motto as regards all political systems:

    “Any political system will work if its people do.”

    By which I mean not every single person in a society but those responsible for shaping it.

    I disagree with Marx’s claim that capitalism is inherently flawed. Like any system it works well as long as it gets proper maintenance. Our financial troubles result from an oligarchy within capitalism, not capitalism itself. The oligarchy has campaigned for the last thirty years to remove all regulatory controls in the short-sighted belief that they could keep all their capital to themselves because they were “job creators,” i.e. the new aristocracy.

    Did they plunder the middle class? Yes, without a doubt. But in a capitalistic democracy it was at least theoretically possible that the oligarchy could have been defeated. That they were not speaks to the lack of will on the part of that perhaps overly-comfortable middle class (to which, sadly, I’m no exception).

    I understand why Northrop Frye would recognize Marx’s sterling ability to see new mythic shapes in socioeconomic developments, but I would think he’d be put off by Marx’s extreme utilitarianism.

  2. Michael Happy Post author

    The couple of posts I’ve put up regarding Marx’s recent appearances in the popular press both note that he was wrong about communism. However, as a critic of capitalism, he evidently still has something to say, if only, as you put it, about the “mythic shapes of socioeconomic developments.”

    As for Frye, he was a lifelong social democrat. He also saw clearly the gravitational pull of laissez-faire in capitalism, as well as the shockingly broad oligarchic/fascistic streak in democracy. With regard to the former, see the last thirty years; with regard to the latter, see, well, the Tea Party, the Republican Party, corporate lobbyists, Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch, the Koch brothers, and just about everything you come across in the daily news, especially if it appears on Fox News. Frye was not sentimental about democracy. He did not think of it as a default expectation among most people in any social setting. He also believed that democracy is antagonistic, not complementary, to capitalism.

  3. Nicholas W. Graham


    My first insight into Marx’s economics was that fundamentally it is
    based on propriatory, not functional, distinctions. Liberation theology,Metz, et al, are handicapped for the want of theory and functional distinctions and Lonergan set about rectifying this with his economics manuscript in the 1940s. In 1970s Lonergan returned to economics at Boston College which is now published as part of his Collected Works vol. 15: MACROECONOMIC DYNAMICS: AN ESSAY INCIRCULATION ANALYSIS, U OF T PRESS, 1999.

    My first insight into Frye’s criticism was 1978 when I first encountered Bob Denham’s NORTHROP FRYE AND CRITICAL METHOD. The helpful charts in this book convinced me that literary criticism could rise above arbitrary and propriatory distinctions, limited to any particular school or critic, and present a unified coherent theory bolstered by theoretical distinctions to which all critics could contribute.

    Lonergan, similarly, found theology in disarray, which led him
    to write his book METHOD IN THEOLOGY, (1972). In ch. 5 of this book, Lonergan invites us to pull the whole of theology round in a circle. Similarly, Frye in ch. 5 of THE GREAT CODE invites us to pull the whole of the Bible round in a circle. Frye makes mention of this wish in FEARFUL SYMMETRY [1947]: “The final comprehension of the
    Bible’s meaning is in the spark of illumination between its closing
    anode and its opening cathode.” [p.386; CW. vol.14, p.375-6]
    “But the Jesus we attain by this process of pulling the Bible around
    in a circle is polarized by the Jesus who stands opposite him in the
    middle of the Biblical narrative”. [ibid.]

    Frye’s achievement is that of pulling the Bible and the whole of literature around in a comprehensible circle. [THE GREAT CODE, ch.5] Lonergan’s achievement is that of pulling the whole of theology around in a circle. [METHOD IN THEOLOGY, ch. 5] and
    lifting the whole of economics above arbitrary and propriatory distinctions to theoretical and functional distinctions.



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