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James Woudhuysen
professor of forecasting and innovation, De Montfort University.

The greatest innovation in my field, forecasting and innovation, was probably made by Karl Marx.

Bourgeois commentators insist that Marx’s forecasts about the inevitable advent of working class rule have been proved wrong. What they miss is how Marx never presented himself as a forecaster. He spoke of conflicting tendencies of development. When writing about the growth of the reserve army of unemployed, or what he called the absolute general law of capitalist accumulation (chapter XXV of volume One of Capital, Marx was quick to note: ‘Like all other laws it is modified in its working by many circumstances’.

While Marx was a subtle Hegelian, those who denigrate him lack any scholarship. In particular, to prove their point that he was a wrong-headed forecaster, they fall back on just one quotation to summarise a life’s work.  The quotation is from chapter XXXII of volume One of Capital, and reads:

‘Along with the constantly diminishing number of the magnates of capital, who usurp and monopolise all advantages of this process of transformation, grows the mass of misery, oppression, slavery, degradation, exploitation; but with this too grows the revolt of the working-class, a class always increasing in numbers, and disciplined, united, organised by the very mechanism of the process of capitalist production itself. The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter upon the mode of production, which has sprung up and flourished along with, and under it. Centralisation of the means of production and socialisation of labour at last reach a point where they become incompatible with their capitalist integument. Thus integument is burst asunder. The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.’

It is notable that Marx uses the present tense. He does not set a date on the great events to which he looks forward, except to say ‘at last’. His is an enthusiastic sketch of tendencies, not a black-and-white prediction.

Though he was, if anything, a more original student of technological innovation than Adam Smith, Marx never aspired to be a Nostradamus. He knew that human agency was infinitely more powerful than fate.

That intellectual innovation remains an unassimilated lesson to today’s forecasters!