Alan Johnson writes:
I think the special theory of Marxism - the theory of the capitalist mode of production - was wrong from the start, and is now, 150 years on, definitively falsified. So there is no objective basis for the proletarian revolution.
He's right. But what's not sufficiently appreciated is that Marx's theory here was not particularly original. Underneath the sectarian wibble - much of which came from Marx himself - his analysis of capitalism followed his predecessors. For example:
1. The theory of the "increasing misery" of the working class is evident not only in Marx but in Malthus. The idea is that the supply of labour would rise to offset increasing demand, keeping real wages down; Marx and Malthus differed mainly upon the cause of the supply of labour.
2. The tendency for the rate of profit to fall comes straight from Ricardo - it's just the law of diminishing returns. Ricardo - and indeed Smith before him - thought this would lead to a "stationary state (pdf)" in which economic growth ceased.
3. The notion of ever-increasing severity of capitalist crises follows directly from (2), allied to increasing operational gearing, caused by the rise in the capital-labour ratio which Marx thought a central feature of capitalism.
But why were Marx and his predecessors wrong on these points?
Mainly, it's because they all failed - arguably, Marx less so than the others - to foresee the speed and extent of technical progress. Economic growth is a race between technical progress and diminishing returns. And technical progress has won.
However, the classical economists, of whom Marx was just one, shouldn't be criticized too harshly for this. Standard neoclassical economics had little idea about technical progress either: in the Solow growth model which economists of my age were brought up on, technical progress was exogenous "manna from heaven."
It's only quite recently - in endogenous growth theory and in books like this (and I hope this) - that we've begun to understand the origins of technical progress. Marx was refuted long before people knew why he was refuted.