There's an interesting essay by Robert Paul Wolff on 'The Future of Socialism' [pdf]. Introduced with a wry, self-deprecating comment that casts doubt on how many people will take the topic seriously, it sets out what Wolff thinks Marx can still 'teach us about the world', as well as three failures on Marx's part to anticipate the direction in which capitalism would develop. What Marx can teach us Wolff develops from a famous sentence of Marx's from 1859, namely:
No social order disappears before all of the productive forces for which there is room in it have been developed, and new, higher relations of production never appear before the material components of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society.
As Wolff extrapolates this thought, the reason socialism has until now remained essentially premature, impossible to achieve, is that 'efficient techniques of central planning' were not yet available. But the further history of capitalism has begun to make them available. The following excerpt gives something of the flavour of Wolff's argument:
[W]hen Marx talks about socialism, he has in mind an economy whose stage of development of technology and organization is so far advanced that national planning is technically possible. Such a stage exhibits both a certain level of technology of production, of data generation and retrieval, and of communication, and also a corresponding level of knowledge and skill on the part of workers at every level, not merely at the top. Although Marx failed to foresee the digital computer, it is not farfetched to say that his conception of socialism presupposed it, or something equivalent.
Marx expected, for sound reasons, that the technology of production, communication, and management required for the central planning and control of an entire economy would develop first within capitalist firms, in direct response to the pressures of competition and the demands of profitability. And so they have. An immediate consequence of this process is the transformation of economic calculations into political decisions, within the firm. Thus, if by socialism we mean the rationally coordinated planning of an entire national economy in such a way as to transform the major economic choices of the society into political choices, responsive to the will of the people, then it is true that socialism has been growing within the womb of capitalism, or at least that the technical preconditions... of socialism can be seen to be developing there.
What, then, is the fundamental difference between socialism and capitalism at its most advanced, rationalized, and centralized? Under socialism, economic decisions would be treated [I use the subjunctive because there does not yet exist a socialist society] as collective political decisions, to be made democratically on the basis of the aggregated will of the entire people. In a capitalist society, decisions are taken privately, within the firm, in response only to the interests, the will, or the pressures of those who occupy positions of power within the firm.
That there are these developing technical preconditions for socialism doesn't mean Wolff is optimistic about the current prospects of socialism. He isn't. This is because of what he takes to be Marx's three misdiagnoses of capitalism's future. First, Marx failed to anticipate the capacity of the capitalist state to manage economic crises. The second obstacle is 'the persistence of pre-capitalist passions and attachments that Marx was convinced capitalism's invasive rationalization of economic life would weaken and ultimately destroy - nationalist loyalties, ethnic identifications, racial antagonisms, and religious faiths'. Third, Marx foresaw a progressive homogenization of the labour force that could serve as the economic basis of political solidarity and dynamism; this has been undermined by the diversification of functions and rewards, so that now 'a fruitful solidarity [is] out of the question'. Wolff's conclusion is pessimistic:
If socialism is the achievement, at long last, of justice and equality, it is a dream that has been aborted in the womb of the old order.
The dream of justice and equality, however (and whatever their detailed description, whether this is a socialist description or not), cannot die. Just as, for their part, particularist identifications, 'non-rational' attachments, group animosities and localized hatreds, cannot be expected to. This was something else wrong with the Marxist vision: the idea of a linear chronology in which some (for all that we know) permanent aspects of the human condition are conceptualized as being pre-capitalist and therefore belonging to the past. In any case, the sketching of possibilities and analysis of the preconditions of progress remain a necessary exercise in pursuit of the dream of justice, as of the task of restraining injustice as best we can, the tendencies to conflict, wrong-doing, exploitation and unfreedom.