The University Bookman


Fall 2015

The Meaning of Capitalism


Russell Kirk

Did you know that “capitalism” is a term coined by Karl Marx? Like most Marxist terms, it is loaded, and misleading to employ. So I never advocate or defend the abstraction called “capitalism”: rather, I favor a reasonably free economy, honest competition governed by moral principles, and the institution of private property.

Marx argued that capitalists are men who have obtained control of the capital assets of society, and make a profit out of what should be the common wealth, exploiting the proletariat. He thought that capitalism would work its own destruction, for the most part, by excessive profits (making it impossible for the workers to buy), monopolistic consolidation, and wars caused by trade rivalries. By the twentieth century, he believed, society would be divided into two hostile classes; a tiny band of immensely rich capitalists, and the impoverished masses.

But that has not happened. Instead, we have more “capitalists” than ever before, and less of a proletariat in the Marxist sense. Capital is this: goods used to produce other goods and services. Any civilized society must have capital; even savages must have some sort of primitive capital. Today the ownership of capital, in the West, is more widely distributed than ever before, chiefly through stocks, bonds, bank deposits, insurance policies, and occupier-owned houses. So in America, at least, the average man has become a capitalist.

Yet it will not do to make “capitalism” the symbol of our civilization. A few years ago, two gentlemen published a slim volume called The Capitalist Manifesto, as an answer of sorts to Marxism. Their book did not catch the public’s fancy, nor did it deserve to. For civilized beings cannot live by capital alone. Religion, art, humane letters, and ordered freedom are more important than interest on investment—when one gets above the subsistence-level, anyway. One cannot refute Marx by becoming an inverted Marxist. It will not do to substitute a kind of capitalist-commissar for a communist commissar.

Our American economic system, characterized by private ownership and competition, has been highly successful; yet it is not the great achievement of our civilization. There is no guarantee that a high standard of living will produce happiness or virtue. For Christian orthodoxy, poverty is a state peculiarly blessed, while riches bring temptation and heavy responsibility. Any society which prides itself upon its economic triumph grows complacent, slack, and eventually decadent. The rate of economic growth is no adequate index to the state of a nation.

Marx was a thoroughgoing materialist—the worst aspect of his system. If we are only “capitalists,” then we embrace Marxism without knowing that we accomplish our own downfall.  

Posted: November 22, 2015 in To the Point.

Mere unthinking negative opposition to the current of events, clutching in despair at what we still retain, will not suffice in this age. A conservatism of instinct must be reinforced by a conservatism of thought and imagination.

Russell Kirk


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