The Twilight of Capitalism
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“There is something in the American character,” said Jefferson to his daughter as she struggled with her studies, “that regards nothing as desperate.” Thus he observed, whether with irony or admiration is unclear, the essence of a religion that would later be called Americanism; a religion that finds nothing tragic in human endeavor, for which evil is always external, for which thoughts are the same as things, and which regards despair as the ultimate sin. So Jefferson anticipated our glory and our folly to the present day as President Carter promises a politics of love and justice, together with a balanced budget, full employment, and a chastened bureaucracy, while Americans by the millions trample the accelerators of their jumbo cars as if the fossilized forests had been as vast as their own zealous optimism.
Michael Harrington is a leading American socialist who shares this native optimism. Though he feels that capitalism has already settled into its grave, a second coming is on the way. “That human life will be radically transformed in the medium range of the future cannot be questioned any longer,” he writes with prophetic conviction. The only question left is whether this “collectivist society which is emerging even now [will] repress or liberate men and women.” To this discouraging question he supplies what he takes to be a hopeful answer. “If the spirit of the new Karl Marx [is] our companion in the struggle,” liberty will probably prevail.
What he means by the “new Karl Marx” is the subject of his current book, a book that has less to do with economics, as one might suppose from its title, than with theology. The premises of The Twilight of Capitalism are that Marx lives and that human freedom depends upon understanding his true gospel, a gospel much mangled by his vulgar apostates. “Before Marx can be restored to the future,” Harrington writes, “he must be rescued from a murky past.” The first half of his book he devotes to this project. These pages are in effect an anthology of Marxian writings in the form of a dialogue between Harrington and such contemporary Marxists as Louis Althusser, Jurgen Habermas, and Herbert Marcuse, among others, and their aim is to “rescue” Marx from the “murky past” of Stalinism and its vulgar materialism.
For readers who like to follow scholastic arguments over the meanings of disputed texts, these pages may have much to offer. But for readers interested, as Marx himself was, in the actual problems of contemporary capitalism—in the declining rate of profit, for example, or inflation, or in limited resources and the outlook for rational planning under such difficult circumstances as prevail in the industrial countries, whether capitalist or socialist, The Twilight of Capitalism offers little that is original.
The second half of his book Harrington calls “The Secret History of the Contemporary Crisis.” In these chapters he promises to show that modern capitalism “can be understood only [sic] in the light of the themes developed by Karl…
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