All of Marx’s important prophecies have turned out to be false.
First, he predicted growing class polarization and the disappearance of the middle class in societies based on a market economy. Karl Kautsky rightly stressed that if this prediction were wrong, the entire Marxist theory would be in ruins. It is clear that this prediction has proved to be wrong; rather, the opposite is the case. The middle classes are growing, whereas the working class in the sense Marx meant it has been dwindling in capitalist societies in the midst of technological progress.
Second, he predicted not only the relative but also the absolute impoverishment of the working class. This prediction was already wrong in his lifetime. As a matter of fact, it should be noticed that the author of Capital updated in the second edition various statistics and figures but not those relating to workers’ wages; those figures, if updated, would have contradicted his theory. Not even the most doctrinaire Marxists have tried to cling to this obviously false prediction in recent decades.
Third, and most importantly, Marx’s theory predicted the inevitability of the proletarian revolution. Such a revolution has never occurred anywhere. The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia had nothing to do with Marxian prophesies. Its driving force was not a conflict between the industrial working class and capital, but rather was carried out under slogans that had no socialist, let alone Marxist, content: Peace and land for peasants. There is no need to mention that these slogans were to be subsequently turned into their opposite. What in the twentieth century perhaps comes closest to the working class revolution were the events in Poland of 1980-81: the revolutionary movement of industrial workers (very strongly supported by the intelligentsia) against the exploiters, that is to say, the state. And this solitary example of a working class revolution (if even this may be counted) was directed against a socialist state, and carried out under the sign of the cross, with the blessing of the Pope.
In the fourth place, one must mention Marx’s prediction concerning the inevitable fall of the profit rate, a process that was supposed to lead ultimately to the collapse of the capitalist economy. Not unlike the others, this prediction proved to be simply wrong. Even according to Marx’s theory, this could not be an inevitably operating regularity, because the same technical development that lowers the part of the variable capital in production costs is supposed to lower the value of the constant capitaý. Therefore the profit rate might remain stable or increase even if what Marx called “living labor” declines for a given unit of output. And even if this “law” were true, the mechanism whereby its operation would cause the decline and demise of capitalism is inconceivable, since the collapse of the profit rate can very well occur in conditions in which the absolute amount of profit is growing. This was noticed, for what it’s worth, by Rosa Luxemburg, who invented a theory of her own about the inescapable collapse of capitalism, which proved to be no less wrong.
The fifth tenet of Marxism that has turned out to be erroneous is the prediction that the market will hamper technical progress. The exact opposite has quite obviously proved to be the case. Market economies have been shown to be extremely efficient in stimulating technological progress, whereas “real socialism” turned out to be technologically stagnating. Since it is undeniable that the market has created the greatest abundance ever known in human history, some neo-Marxists have felt compelled to change their approach. At one time, capitalism appeared horrifying because it produced misery; later, it turned out to be horrifying because it produces such abundance that it kills culture.
Neo-Marxists deplore what is called “consumerism,” or “consumerist society.” In our civilization there are indeed many alarming and deplorable phenomena associated with the growth of consumption. The point is, however, that what we know as the alternative to this civilization is incomparably worse. In all Communist societies, economic reforms (to the extent that they yielded any results at all) led invariably in the same direction: the partial restoration of the market, that is to say, of “capitalism.”
As for the so-called materialist interpretation of history, it has provided us with a number of interesting insights and suggestions, but it has no explanatory value. In its strong, rigid version, for which one may find considerable support in many classical texts, it implies that social development depends entirely on the class struggle that ultimately, through the intermediary of changing “modes of production,” is determined by the technological level of the society in question. It implies, moreover, that law, religion, philosophy, and other elements of culture have no history of their own, since their history is the history of the relations of production. This is an absurd claim, completely lacking in historical support.
If, on the other hand, the theory is taken in a weak, limited sense, it merely says that the history of culture has to be investigated in such a way that one should take account of social struggles and conflicting interests, that political institutions depend in part, at least negatively, on technological development and on social conflicts. This, however, is an uncontroversial banality that was known long before Marx. And so, the materialist interpretation of history is either nonsense or a banality.
Another component of Marx’s theory that lacks explanatory power is his labor theory. Marx made two important additions to the theories of Adam Smith and David Ricardo. First, he stated that in relationships between workers and capital, the labor force, rather than labor, is being sold; secondly, he made a distinction between abstract and concrete labor. Neither of these principles has any empirical basis, and neither is needed to explain crises, competition, and conflict of interest. Crises and economic cycles are understandable by analyzing the movement of prices, and the theory of value adds nothing to our understanding of them. It seems that contemporary economics—as distinct from economical ideologies—would not differ much from what it is today if Marx had never been born.
The tenets I have mentioned are not chosen at random: they constitute the skeleton of the Marxian doctrine.
—Leszek Kolakowski, “What Is Left of Socialism?” First Things (2002)