ANALYSIS: The Current Financial Crisis and the Future of Global Capitalism [Michael Heinrich]

The fact that Marx finally began with the composition of his long-planned economic work in the winter of 1857/1858 was directly occasioned by the economic crisis that broke out in the autumn of 1857 and the concomitant expectations of a deep trauma from which capitalism would no longer recover.  “I am working like mad all night and every night collating my economic studies so that I at least get the outlines clear before the deluge,” wrote Marx to Engels in a letter from December of 1857 (MECW 40, p.217).  The crisis of 1857/1858 was in fact the first true global economic crisis of modern capitalism, which involved all major capitalist countries of that time (England, the USA, France, and Germany).  In the Grundrisse that emerged during this period, one can find the sole unambiguous passage of Marx’s work that can be understood as a theory of capitalist collapse (MECW 29, p.90 et sqq.).  This collapse, Marx was convinced, would unleash revolutionary movements.  In a letter to Ferdinand Lassalle from February of 1858, he even expressed his fear that in light of the expected “turbulent movements” his work would be finished “too late” and thus “find the world no longer attentive to such subjects” (MECW 29, p. 271).  Marx was right about the fact that he wouldn’t finish his work (the first volume of Capital was published nine years later), but this first global crisis of capitalism led neither to a collapse of capitalism nor to any sort of revolutionary movement.  The crisis had already been overcome in the early summer of 1858, and the capitalist system even came out of it enormously strengthened.  Marx learned a lesson: in capitalism, crises function as brutal acts of purification.  The destruction wreaked by crises removes previous impediments to accumulation and frees up new possibilities for capitalist development.

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