Making sense with Marx

by Henry on February 3, 2004

Sasha Volokh cries out for some intelligent Marxist analysis in the blogosphere – right on! However, he seems to be arguing that Marxism and the kinds of methodological individualism beloved of modern economists are antithetical to each other. This isn’t necessarily so at all. A big chunk of interesting contemporary work in Marxist theory starts from the premise of methodological individualism, and very frequently from the kinds of rational choice microfoundations that economists are attached to. Jon Elster’s work on Marx is an obvious starting point; Adam Przeworski’s Capitalism and Social Democracy looks at exactly the relationship between class identity and collective action that Sasha is interested in, and how it shaped the turn to social democracy in the early decades of this century. I’m also very fond of John Bowman’s Capitalist Collective Action, which examines how capitalists have used trade unions in order to organize themselves collectively. While all Marxists haven’t become methodological individualists, a fair number of them have, and arguably have greatly improved the rigor and clarity of Marxist thinking by so doing.

{ 56 comments }

1

Micha Ghertner 02.03.04 at 8:36 pm

I took a seminar taught by John Bowman a year or so ago at Queens College, New York titled “Rethinking Capitalism.” He was an excellent professor – very tolerant of my libertarian leanings.

2

Chirag Kasbekar 02.03.04 at 8:40 pm

I think Fligsteinian ‘markets as politics’ type of analysis is a much more sophisticated version of the base/superstructure kind of approach.

I’ve just been reading Raghuram Rajan and Luigi Zingales’ Saving Capitalism from Capitalists, which is actually — without them realising it — pretty Fligsteinian. Their account relies on quite a bit on the distribution of wealth. It’s certainly a base/superstructure type of argument.

It’s interesting in that they explicitly recognise their proximity to both Marx and Stigler (they’re both from the University of Chicago).

Do CTites have any thoughts on what I thought to be a fascinating book. Espacially as free-market books go.

3

Chirag Kasbekar 02.03.04 at 8:41 pm

I think Fligsteinian ‘markets as politics’ type of analysis is a much more sophisticated version of the base/superstructure kind of approach.

I’ve just been reading Raghuram Rajan and Luigi Zingales’ Saving Capitalism from Capitalists, which is actually — without them realising it — pretty Fligsteinian. Their account relies on quite a bit on the distribution of wealth. It’s certainly a base/superstructure type of argument.

It’s interesting in that they explicitly recognise their proximity to both Marx and Stigler (they’re both from the University of Chicago).

Do CTites have any thoughts on what I thought to be a fascinating book — espacially as free-market books go?

4

Chirag Kasbekar 02.03.04 at 8:41 pm

I think Fligsteinian ‘markets as politics’ type of analysis is a much more sophisticated version of the base/superstructure kind of approach.

I’ve just been reading Raghuram Rajan and Luigi Zingales’ Saving Capitalism from Capitalists, which is actually — without them realising it — pretty Fligsteinian. Their account relies on quite a bit on the distribution of wealth. It’s certainly a base/superstructure type of argument.

It’s interesting in that they explicitly recognise their proximity to both Marx and Stigler (they’re both from the University of Chicago).

Do CTites have any thoughts on what I thought to be a fascinating book — especially as free-market books go?

5

Chirag Kasbekar 02.03.04 at 8:50 pm

Another book I find useful, though it isn’t really Marxist, is Berger and Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality.

Of course, I don’t think their phenomenological approach is popular anymore.

(sorry for the multiple posts the last time)

6

Bob 02.03.04 at 9:09 pm

When I go out to buy groceries I want to pay the lowest price for what I buy whereas the stores want to charge the highest price they can get away with. To expand that basic conflicting relationship between the interests of buyers and sellers in a market into a theory of class warfare seems extraordinarily naive to me.

Doubtless the recipients of corporate dividends collectively prefer a low rate of corporation tax to a high one but the notion that capitalists have a homogeneous class interest will seem a little peculiar to the shareholders of companies competing with Microsoft. Harold Wilson, a British prime minister in the 1960s and 1970s, once said that: “One man’s wage increase is another man’s price increase.”

Marx sought to avoid the conflicting interests of buyers and sellers in markets by devising the notion of a mythical state labelled “Communism” where workers worked according to their abilities and simply took what they needed. Does anyone still take that seriously?

I accept the suggestion that people will tend to act in what they perceive to be their personal or family interests and in some circumstances will act collectively to achieve their purpose. That is why we have political parties, trade unions, professional organisations and companies and probably why nation states continue to endure. But that rather trite observation doesn’t lead me to Marxism.

7

MQ 02.03.04 at 10:44 pm

Bob: calling Marx “trite” and “naive” just shows you have neither read him nor thought about the issues he raises very deeply. And your apparent belief that politics is not influenced by class interests makes you out as the naive one. The fact that capitalists have some competing interests with other capitalists no more shows that they do not share an overarching class interest than the fact that my mother and I have some competing interests shows that we do not share some common interests as a family.

I am not a Marxist but peoples’ willingness to be dismissive of him without understanding the first thing about what made him a great social thinker always irritates me.

8

humeidayer 02.04.04 at 12:03 am

I am more well versed in science than the humanities, but what I’ve seen from Marx and those who claim to be Marxists are perspectives based often on 19th century scientific theories, 19th century psychological theories and 19th century economic theories that are not merely old–they are also often wrong.

My inability to find much value in Marx (beyond his views on the ugly forms capitalism can take) may simply be a matter of exposure. I’m not trying to bait anyone–I am sincerely interested in references that might somehow enlighten or steer me the right direction.

Marshall’s economics was enough to undo Marx’s economic theories, and Marshall was a long time ago. I really connect with Popper’s criticisms of Marxism and his commentaries on self-reinforced dogma. Rational choice theory (in opposition to class interests) seems to be perpetually gaining ground in the social sciences.

The profound implications of Darwin, Crick & Watson and John von Neumann are still rippling through the sciences and social sciences. Evolutionary processes, nonlinear dynamic systems, game theory…

I think of Dawkins, E.O. Wilson, a whole slew of economists, and Marx seems seriously antiquated. It seems like Marx was two or three paradigm shifts ago. A lot of truly profound discoveries and insights have been made since Marx lived. In academia, it seems the the scientific side of the brain and the humanist side of the brain aren’t talking very much.

I would think humanists and the left would be eager to reformulate at this stage of the game. I have a hard time understanding Marx’s continued popularity.

Given how far this country continues to drift to the right, I hope the left can do something. I’ve never felt this way before, but I’m really beginning to feel concerned about the state of things here in America.

I think somebody needs to rewind the tape back up to Bentham and Mill or something, blockade Marx Avenue and choose a different path.

Then again, maybe I’m just blind to something that’s obvious to so many intelligent thinkers in the humanities, and that’s quite honestly said without sarcasm.

9

Conrad Barwa 02.04.04 at 12:28 am

While all Marxists haven’t become methodological individualists, a fair number of them have, and arguably have greatly improved the rigor and clarity of Marxist thinking by so doing.

Fair enough, but I do like the work done by some other Marxists who could said to be more dialectical in nature. I think David Harvey’s “Limits to Capital” is a good way to get into the bearded one’s systems-building; though it is a bit dated itself and some of Harvey’s later stuff is relatively light. Of course not all those influenced by Marxist theory and who use it would refer to themselves as ‘Marxists’ of any kind; Bourdieu’s work is an example that comes to my mind and I think his “Distinction” is a brilliant piece of sociological writing and Coling Ley’s “Market Driven Politics” is an excellent outline of the impact Capital and the accomadations the ‘Third Way’ have had on various aspects of public services taking the health and public broadcasting services in the UK as case studies – though neither would call themselves Marxists despite being steeped in Marxian theory. Nigel Thrift has done some good stuff with Andrew Leyshon on the role of money and the international financial economy; though I suppose he would call himself a “Post-Marxist”; some of the more theoretically inclined economists, have built on the old ‘Regulation School’ theory and done some interesting things with it – Kotz and McDonough’s “Social Structures of Accumalation” has provided a schema which other economists have applied to their own sub-fields in a rewarding fashion. There are odd bits and pieces here and there; Justin Rosenberg’s dissection of Globalisation, some of Bryan Turner’s writings, China Mieville Stephen Abercrombie all have genuine insights and gems while the occasional furtive genuflection most ‘post-structuralist’ thinkers throw in the way of homage indicate a troubled relationship that still hasn’t quite sorted itself out.

10

Sebastian Holsclaw 02.04.04 at 1:49 am

“…and arguably have greatly improved the rigor and clarity of Marxist thinking by so doing.”

I’m resisting, I really am….

:)

11

Decnavda 02.04.04 at 1:53 am

“I think somebody needs to rewind the tape back up to Bentham and Mill or something, blockade Marx Avenue and choose a different path.”

I agree. I would like to see an alternate reality where Henry George developed his ideas as a conceptual approach to differientiating between community-produced income vs. individual intiative – produced income rather than devolving into what Marx rightly called single-issue “panacea mongering”. If much of the Left followed a “generic” Georgist approach (giving George roughly the same deference that “Marxist” scholars give Marx) of demanding the socialization of legal priviledge and focusing on ecconomic justice rather than ecconomic equality, the Left would be a lot more popular with average Americans and we would have a lot more of both economic justice AND economic equality (justice demanding, not true equality, but a hell of a lot more equality than we have today).

12

MQ 02.04.04 at 2:15 am

Humeidayer, a couple of points. First of all, contemporary economics is not a well supported empirical science and should not be thought of as such. That does not mean it is entirely useless, but it has not been very successful in empirical prediction. Furthermore, the sociobiologically based theories you cite have also not had much success in empirical prediction in the context of human societies. What it means for a theory to be “obsolete” in this context is not really clear — yes, contemporary economists do not work within a Marxist paradigm, but that does not mean he is disproved or not valuable.

When people point to the shortcomings in Marx as an economic theorist, they cite the labor theory of value. But many classical economists — such as Ricardo and probably Adam Smith — followed the labor theory of value and can still be read with profit today. Marx in fact tried to work within the classical Ricardian economic tradition and because of this many of his insights can be reframed very well in terms of contempotary neoclassical economics (others cannot, but in some cases they are still valuable points — contemporary neoclassical economics has some problems explaining macro phenomena).

As I said above, I am by no means a Marxist, any more than I am a Smithian. But just as I think Adam Smith was an important thinker who still has some interesting things to say to us, I think the same of Marx. One way to look at Marx is to compare him to Smith. Smith was the first thinker to theorize the *market* side of capitalism — the way free markets coordinate economic activity. Marx was the first thinker to grasp capitalism as a cultural and social (institutional) system. Read the first part of the Communist manifesto — it was written in 1848 is full of stunningly accurate predictions about the development of capitalism that feel quite contemporary in many ways.

13

Reg 02.04.04 at 3:11 am

So what do you all think of this Proculian guy? (proculian.blogspot.com)

14

Walt Pohl 02.04.04 at 4:10 am

The Proculian blog looks to me like it’s not intended to be taken seriously.

15

John Landon 02.04.04 at 4:59 am

Marxist theory is really a late phenomenon, crystallizing in and after Marx’s Capital phase, then Engels’ redaction, then the Second Internationale.
One can admire the brilliance of the basic Marx but then fail to see the incoherence of his project as he got writer’s block (!), couldn’t finish the job, and handed the mess over to Engels. (read Siegel’s Marx’s Fate)
So what’s the best move now? Radical choice + Elster?(G.A.Cohen did the last gasp Marx repair,but is a Christian convert now!?) The Hegel Renaissance cookie jar? Not a rhetorical question. Somebody tell me.
There is another explanation, of course. Sometime during his Capital phase, Marx (secretly taking up Hegel again)realized that in fact the whole thing was a crock and that it didn’t matter much–as to theory. Marx in that regard is much overrated. Why not start over?
One answer is to start over at the beginning, the challenge to Hegel’s philosophy of right, and decide if it’s a good idea to abolish private property. The 1840’s. The theory, otherwise, isn’t relevant.
I note Bellamy’s Marx’s Ecology: the facts of the case are that Marx really saw a problem with Darwin. Then shut up and let Engels do his ‘science thing’. So either Marx is off the wall, or Darwinists are wrong. Marxism flunked its first test of ideology.

16

Reader 02.04.04 at 6:54 am

Bob, it strikes me as extraordinarily naive that you would condemn Marx as worthless while clearly never having read him. If you want to peddle that sort of crap, at least do it at some blog like LGF where the majority of other readers aren’t well-read enough to be able to tell that you’re making it up as you go along.

17

JD 02.04.04 at 6:57 am

A response to humeidayer, who wonders about Marx’s continued relevance and asks for suggestions on Marxist readings.

1. Marx is antiquated and important.

2. One place to go for interesting *economic* research in a Marxist vein is the work by Herb Gintis and Sam Bowles. John Roemer is another of the more famous ‘analytic’ Marxists. These characters made some headway reconstructing arguments along lines inspired by Marx using the tools of contemporary social science. They strip away much that is antiquated and erroneous. They use rational choice theory, sophisticated mathematics, and game theory. They are not so easily dismissed.

2. The idea that Marshall’s economics was enough to undo Marx’s economic theories is wanting. It may be true that Marshall’s economics displaced classical economics. But Marshall’s economics had very little to say about economic change — where Marx’s work had many striking insights. Marx combined an interesting microeconomics (e.g. his emphasis on principal-agent problems on the shop floor) with many insightful institutional arguments. This allowed him to explore questions Marshall’s work does not even address. From Marshall forwards, the Anglo-American tradition in economics largely abandoned its concern with economic growth and the-wealth-of-nations questions — until after the second war.

3. It is striking — at times amusing — how certain species of Marxism still flourish in the humanities. But Marxist ideas are rightly influential in sociology and history.

4. I’d suggest Popper’s arguments apply relatively well to a particular formalised flavor of Marxism. But Marx’s work is significantly more slippery and open then that stuff.

18

neil 02.04.04 at 7:09 am

I’m not that well-read in Marx, but from what I know, it seems like Sasha’s response wouldn’t make that much sense. Why write a Marxist blog? The majority of current events are irrelevant from a Marxist perspective. It would be like writing about day-to-day events in feudal Germany from a democratic capitalist perspective. There are a few interesting articles out there — for instance, a Marxian analysis of movie/music online filesharing would be pretty eye-opening — but for the most part there just isn’t much to say from a Marxist perspective. As P.M. points out, things like the Democratic primaries, Bush’s tax cut, and the price of gas, are not things that would be relevant “after the revolution.”

In this way, I don’t think a true-believer Marxist’s blog would look any different from a normal leftist blog, unless it looked like P.M.’s. Either you critique current events from the point of view of the society you live in, or every post is about how people don’t realize that all history is the history of class struggle today, but maybe they will tomorrow.

19

MQ 02.04.04 at 9:38 am

Neil, Marx would have made a *fantastic* blogger. His quick-turnaround topical journalism is some of his best stuff. Reading it, you realize what a powerful, useful and *flexible* predictive tool his class based analysis was. To take just one example, he more or less nailed the eventual course of the American civil war in 1861 — predicting the freeing of the slaves, the total military victory of the North, and the importance and greatness of Lincoln as a leader well before these things were clear to other onlookers. He was a terrific writer too. I would love to see his analysis of contemporary issues. Believe me, Marx was miles away from whatver dry, washed up 20th century “scientific Socialists” who you may have seen.

JD, you are right on point. Bowles and Roemer are very good. Contemporary economic theory (especially labor economics) is actually full of theories that lend themselves to thinking about the nature of exploitation in a rather Marxist sense. It is silly to obsess about whether one is Marxist in the sense of 19th century “scientific socialism”, which really is antiquated and useless. But the spirit of Marx’s insights into power relations in capitalism, and the relationships between economics, ideology, and politics can still I think inspire very useful work. Not to mention his broader vision of capitalism’s internal contradictions.

20

mq 02.04.04 at 9:41 am

Whoops — seem to have run afoul of some kind of formatting codes there.

21

Tads 02.04.04 at 10:43 am

Posted by BobI accept the suggestion that people will tend to act in what they perceive to be their personal or family interests and in some circumstances will act collectively to achieve their purpose. That is why we have political parties, trade unions, professional organisations and companies and probably why nation states continue to endure. But that rather trite observation doesn’t lead me to Marxism.

People don’t only act in their own best interests. Once their immediate survival and comfort needs are met they can and will frequently deny their own self interest and act collectively in ways that may reduce their personal wealth – be that supporting socialism, giving to charity, or not dodging their taxes – activities that seemingly have little or no personal reward.

People who are past the demands stage of their immediate survival needs, who are secure in their financial and social condition, act in the best interest of the species rather than of themselves.

In this we are good animals with instincts the same as any other animal – in our gut we know that personally we are all expendable but the race must endure, and whatever is best for the race as a whole individually we will embrace. This motivation makes up part of the allure and acceptance of the ideals of Marxism.

Btw – People who are still in the immediate survival fixation stage are usually conservatives ;)

22

Bob 02.04.04 at 11:25 am

Tads,

“People don’t only act in their own best interests.”

I agree with that and it gets us into the challenging philosophical debate about reconciling utilitarianism with altruism, which is troublesome for mainstream economics and games theory. According to Marxism, when anyone doesn’t (“objectively” ?) act according to their class interest they are said to be afflicted by “false consciousness”, of which there seems to be a lot about.

” . . the voice ought to be heard of a man whose whole theory is the result of a lifelong study of the economic history and condition of England, and whom that study led to the conclusion that, at least in Europe, England is the only country where the inevitable social revolution might be effected entirely by peaceful and legal means.” – from the preface by Engels to the English edition of Capital at: http://csf.colorado.edu/psn/marx/Archive/1867-C1/Part0/p6.htm

As we don’t seem to have had the “inevitable social revolution” yet in England, it seems opportune to ask whether Engels was objectively correct?

“This motivation makes up part of the allure and acceptance of the ideals of Marxism.”

“Ideals”? But I thought Marx made claim to his analysis being “scientific” and dismissed “ideals” as “utopianism”?

23

humeidayer 02.04.04 at 1:28 pm

Thanks for all the comments, everyone.

I’d suggest Popper’s arguments apply relatively well to a particular formalised flavor of Marxism. But Marx’s work is significantly more slippery and open then that stuff.

This reminds me of another subject I’d like to see discussed some time (Is there a CT suggestion box?).

George Soros has been in the news quite a bit lately. Soros is a very open follower of Popper, but in what I find an ironical twist, Soros believes that the greatest threat to the Open Society is not Marxism but rather capitalism.

I’m wondering what CT members and readers think of Soros (and while I’m thinkin about it, CBS refusing to air MoveOn.Org’s “Child’s Pay” ad).

24

Bob 02.04.04 at 2:19 pm

Dear Reader:

“Bob, it strikes me as extraordinarily naive that you would condemn Marx as worthless while clearly never having read him. If you want to peddle that sort of crap, at least do it at some blog like LGF where the majority of other readers aren’t well-read enough to be able to tell that you’re making it up as you go along.”

Thanks for your suggestion but please don’t be too offended when I don’t follow your advice. Btw I’d have been more impressed had you rebutted the argument made.

25

Stentor 02.04.04 at 4:15 pm

neil: Marx had very little to say about what things would look like “after the revolution.” The vast bulk of his work, and virtually everything that’s of significance to contemporary Marxists, is devoted to explaining and critiquing capitalism, not laying out a blueprint for a socialist society. This is consistent with his rejection of “utopian” socialist theories and with the explanation offered by some of my Marxist colleagues that the structure of socialism would be worked out through the process of revolution.

I think a Marxist blogger would have a lot to say, relating the “surface appearance” of political and economic events to the underlying structural contradictions of the capitalist system.

26

Twn 02.04.04 at 6:05 pm

Tads said:

In this we are good animals with instincts the same as any other animal – in our gut we know that personally we are all expendable but the race must endure, and whatever is best for the race as a whole individually we will embrace. This motivation makes up part of the allure and acceptance of the ideals of Marxism.

I suppose that goes a long way in explaining, say, a Palestinian suicide bomber. Of late more and more seem to be well educated with promising futures — married women with healthy children, even!! I guess they’re past grubbing for mere survival, and have moved on to the altruistic mode. If you just replace “Marxism” with “Islam” in the last sentence quoted above, it makes perfect sense.

:)

27

tbrosz 02.04.04 at 7:07 pm

My two cents worth:

Every society in the past century claiming to be founded on the principles of Marxism has wound up as a poverty-stricken totalitarian hellhole that has murdered its own citizens by the thousands or millions, and has had to erect barriers around its own nation to keep people from fleeing like animals from a forest fire.

Every single one.

Most Marxists puff up indignantly, and say something along the lines of this not being REAL Marxism, with said protests often accompanied by vast quantities of the verbal fog popular in academic circles.

Here’s how I see it:

If a doctor has killed every patient he has ever treated, it’s not that important to me that he has written forty books on medicine, has three medical degrees, and an IQ of 220. When I’m considering him for my own medical treatment, it’s certainly not important that I have read his books or not.

It’s long past time this particular form of collectivism was folded up and put on the shelf.

28

Bob 02.04.04 at 8:14 pm

Throsz,

Which only goes to “prove” that you are afflicted by false consciousness!

ROFL!

29

limberwulf 02.04.04 at 9:36 pm

stentor,
If indeed Marx was more concerned with ripping apart capitalism than anything else, then I have little need to study him with any depth. I can read about capitalist failings anywhere. I am interested in those who can give me a better solution, any old fool can point out imperfections. Dont tell my problems, give me solutions, and while youre at it, make sure your solutions actually function.

tads,
It is true that people do not only act on their own personal interests. It is also true that people do not only act on the interests of society, their class, or their community. The thing that makes a philosophy viable in the real world, is its versatility and real life function. There are no major philosophies that can make the world perfect. We live in an imperfect world, therefore we need a system that can function in spite of this.

In the utopian world, where you have a set ideal of humanity, you can make just about any philosophy work flawlessly and build arguments to support it and to tear down other philosophies. In the real world, you must have a system with checks and balances to counter corruption, and with the ability to function within the widely varied choices of the individuals that make up any society. Capitalism, when not interfered with by the government, comes closer to this than anything I have seen. In addition, one of the primary foundational concepts of capitalism is individual freedom, allowing for those that think only of their own interests, and those that think of others, to coincide in balance.

30

Carlos 02.04.04 at 11:36 pm

I wonder, ¿why there are so many people that, at the mere mention of Marx name, go pale and sputter nonsense about how evil he was?. The guy lived in the 19th century for chrissakes! Of course some of his theories are antiquated but so are some of Freud, Einstein, etc. It doesn’t mean that everything he said is useless, does it? ¿It’s so impossible for these people to think about Marx as just another thinker and stop the histerics?

31

Bob 02.04.04 at 11:51 pm

“It’s so impossible for these people to think about Marx as just another thinker and stop the histerics?”

The difference is that millions have been killed by governments claiming they were set on the path of building socialism to achieve communism because of the inspiration they got from reading Marx and the Marxists.

Estimates of the numbers of people killed by governments in socialist regimes are here: http://www.hawaii.edu/powerkills/20TH.HTM

But then, as Lenin said: You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.

32

tbrosz 02.05.04 at 12:03 am

Carlos: That’s an easy question to answer. Why do Jews get upset when somebody discusses Hitler as a serious philosopher? To see Marx in the same light, talk to someone who escaped over the Iron Curtain sometime.

Nobody’s worried about Marx himself. He’s dead. So is Hitler. But that doesn’t mean the ideas of both men can’t still do serious damage in the world.

Some of the people who have invoked the name of Marx have been responsible for almost a hundred million murders in the past century, and the destruction of many nations. I’m not sure what your criteria for “evil” is, but that sure meets mine. People go pale with less reason.

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MQ 02.05.04 at 1:07 am

Well, a little outbreak of anti-intellectual hysteria here. Marx wrote SCARY books, didn’t he? They can turn you EEEVVVIIILLL if you read them! Must not allow people to read them! Is he trite and uninteresting, or the devil incarnate? He can’t be both, can he?

The difference between Marx and Hitler is that Marx actually was a serious philosopher, and was dead long before any of the political movements which (mis)used his name to justify killing innocent people actually gained power. Hitler was not a serious philosopher, since he was too busy actually ordering the deaths of innocent people to do much philosophy. I know that’s one of those fuzzy academic distinctions, but it makes some sense if you hard think about it.

The bodies are stacked up like cordwood behind various capitalist modernizers too, but I don’t see anyone complaining about that. (If you want to cite a hundred million deaths in Marxist countries, that means you have to count every premature famine death in a capitalist run country too). For that matter, the Catholic Church committed genocide back in the day as well. I’m still gonna read the new testament, you can’t stop me.

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tads 02.05.04 at 1:07 am

Why do Jews get upset when somebody discusses Hitler as a serious philosopher? To see Marx in the same light, talk to someone who escaped over the Iron Curtain sometime.

Huh? Perhaps that would be true if we were talking about Stalin but it had nothing much to do with Marx. We have dictators who slaughtered hundreds of thousands in the name of controlling capitalist economies, and do we blame capitalism for that?

No. It’s the fault of the dictator taking advantage of their position and the power it brings not the system itself. I don’t believe Marx envisaged closed borders and secret police any more than Adam Smith saw the mass murder of communist dissidents, right?

It only takes a small amount of sense to work this out for yourself btw.

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MQ 02.05.04 at 1:09 am

If you want a guy who actually was a fairly serious intellectual (though nothing vaguely close to Marx) and also actively a murderer and a tyrant, try Lenin. A much more interesting case; the first true theorist of Communist totalitarianism.

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Donald Johnson 02.05.04 at 2:12 am

I’m a Christian and don’t really have a dog in this fight, though I do have a vague sense that I ought to read Marx someday, but let me just echo tads and mq–it ain’t hard to find examples of atrocities committed in the name of capitalism and Christianity and some of them rival anything attributable to Marxists. I think democratic capitalism is obviously far superior to totalitarian communism or totalitarian anythingism, but actually existing British capitalists still managed to stack up bodies by the millions in India, for instance.

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M. Simon 02.05.04 at 3:01 am

I think Marx was absolutely correct.

Before you can get to Marxism you capitalism has to reach the point where profits (improvements in the production process) are no longer possible.

Not having reached that stage yet any one who says that we ought to practice Marxism now is not a Marxist. Of couse neither was Marx.

I think the modern way to understand Marx is that he was a science fiction author talking about what some far off future could be like.

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M. Simon 02.05.04 at 3:12 am

Hundreds of millions killed in the name of science fiction. Oh the irony.

As to India: it was mainly Indians killing each other with one side having British officers. I put it all down to the Bagavad Gita where Krisna says that you do not have the choice of not fighting only the choice of what you will fight for.

In the end the Brits left India with a better system than Lennin/Stalin left Russia. The costs may have been similar. The results were not.

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tbrosz 02.05.04 at 3:22 am

Fine. You can study Marxist theory until you need bifocals. The rest of the world has left him behind. If the record of the last century of his followers hasn’t disillusioned you, I’m certainly not up to the job.

And if you really feel the need to tally body counts, I suggest this web site.

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neil 02.05.04 at 4:18 am

“The rest of the world has left him behind?” Well, in some ways; in other ways the rest of the world has adopted some of his more controversial ideas. For instance, he believe in racial equality a century before it was chic (yet another reason, by the way, to believe that the Soviet government was a poor representation of his ideas). For that matter, as I said earlier in the thread, I think that Marxists would have a positively jubilant reaction to the popular perception of the music and movie companies’ claim to intellectual property as false. And just yesterday there was a post from Jonah Goldberg on NRO’s Corner (no link, sorry) where he stated without batting an eyelash that global capitalism is built on the backs of the poor. (Presumably he thinks there are few enough of them that it’s OK.)

The decline of socialist labor unions, May Day marches and state Communism has little to do with the validity of Marxist theory, and surely has much more to do with the fallout from the Cold War. Besides, the decline in popular of Marxist theory would do nothing to discourage his believers; the revolution, remember, is going to happen eventually unless humanity destroys itself first.

Hmm, then again, that last bit may be relevant.

41

tbrosz 02.05.04 at 4:44 am

“The revolution will happen eventually.” Yeah, I hear from different true believers that Jesus is coming back too. I’m taking bets on which happens first.

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neil 02.05.04 at 7:01 am

What an unpredictable, witty comparison, which truly reflects a deep understanding of the flaws in Marxist thought.

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George Stewart 02.05.04 at 9:00 am

It’s true that Marx is an interesting read, a subtle thinker, and all the rest of it. The 1844 manuscripts can be read, as somebody said above, as a kind of science fiction – indeed, if you read Ian Banks’ science fiction, you can see the attractiveness of that vision. Capitalism as a system will not last forever; granted we survive, “better” things will replace it, probably involving high technology (although the fact that one can’t envisage an attractive socialism without the deus ex machina of such high techlology is telling).

But it’s also true, unfortunately, that whenever people have tried to, or claimed to try to implement socialism on any sort of large or complete scale, it has turned to shit.

This has to be faced.

It’s no good trying to make some trite “moral equivalence” argument at this point, becuase the strict equivalent – say, the implementation of Locke’s ideas in the American Revolution – have, by comparison, been a stunning success.

Let me put this in even plainer terms: classical liberalism was a successful revolutionary movement, Marxism – supposed to be an improvement, a shiny, newer, better revolution – has been a failure, an abject, miserable, total failure.

In even plainer terms: socialism was a blind alley. Those who are interested in the betterment of humankind should retrace their steps back to classical liberalism and try and improve that, make it work better, speed it up, etc.

(This same choice point can be seen in Marx’s life: what turned him to socialism was seeing how liberal principles had been misused. At that point, he could have tried to reform liberalism, make it work better. Instead, he went down the silly 19th century route of being fashionably “original”. Ah, everybody had to “overturn” everything else in those days: you weren’t anybody until you’d stood something on its head. In retrospect, it can be seen how silly that mania was. Truth can be found; it can also be lost in the search for novelty.)

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humeidayer 02.05.04 at 1:53 pm

In addition, one of the primary foundational concepts of capitalism is individual freedom, allowing for those that think only of their own interests, and those that think of others, to coincide in balance.

As far as the game of capitalism goes, a small few are born with most the game pieces while the great many are born with very few pieces, if any. The changes that have been made to the estate taxes here in America will only make this worse. Predictions for continued growth in the service industries are in order.

In addition, admittedly, some people can’t play the game very well, which without interference (seems to me a market truly free of government interference looks like Somalia), will relegate some individuals to working 16 hours a day 7 days a week just to stay alive. Many people don’t consider that a very just society, which is what led so many reformers to deviate away from it in the first place.

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Bob 02.05.04 at 2:32 pm

“Capitalism as a system will not last forever”

Hammurabi’s law code for Babylon in the 18th century BC is here: http://www.wsu.edu/~dee/MESO/CODE.HTM

The code contains elements of commerical law and a statutory prices and incomes policy besides family law. We can infer that markets and private property have been going a long time. I can’t foresee that ending anytime soon.

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tbrosz 02.05.04 at 6:46 pm

Neil: I don’t need a “deep understanding” of the flaws of Marxist thought any more than I need a degree in physics to know that if I drop an anvil off a cliff it will proceed downwards, or a medical doctorate to know that bashing someone repeatedly on the head with a crowbar will not be a good thing for them. The evidence on this philosophy has been in for a long, long time.

I understand the need of some people to keep defending Marx. They have a lot invested in it. I would expect similar behavior from someone who has spent twelve hard years getting an advanced degree in Phlogiston Chemistry, and spends most of his time hanging around with others who have done the same thing. He’s not going to want to hear anything about oxygen.

At some point, I suppose either these people will grow up and go out into the real world, or get tenure.

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MQ 02.05.04 at 8:57 pm

Bob: If you’d read either Marx or any of the great sociologists / historians influenced by him you’d understand why Babylon was not capitalist. Markets are old and universal; capitalism is not.

Tbrosz: Now you’ve fallen back on the silliest type of anti-intellectualism — I don’t know what I’m talking about and I’m proud of it, damnit! Marx was not a Communist and you don’t really read him to understand communism. You read him to improve your understanding of capitalism.

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Donald Johnson 02.05.04 at 9:23 pm

Actually, the Brits killed Indians by the millions in famines with their crackpot economic theories, much as Stalin or Mao did in their respective countries.

See Mike Davis’s book “Late Victorian Holocausts”, or if you don’t want to read it, track down the favorable review it got from Amartya Sen in the NYT, or the passing mention Simon Schama (sp?) gave it last summer in the New Yorker while reviewing a biography of Curzon.

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George Stewart 02.06.04 at 2:51 am

People are born unequal – unequal endowments in all sorts of areas. Is it just to treat people differently because of this? No, because justice treats people at a high level of abstraction (the level at which they are human beings). That’s what it means to have a humanistic view, a universalist view; that’s what gets us out of the swamp of tribalism, favouritism, prejudice, privilege. It is a distortion of the concept of justice to treat people differently based on whatever fruits they may obtain based on their varying endowments. To treat people differently in this way isn’t “social justice” because it isn’t any kind of justice. It’s simply bias: actually injustice. It would be more honest to take a Robin Hood approach and just admit you want to steal from the rich to give to the poor. But honesty has never been a socialist strong point.

As regards Victorian holocausts, it’s a subject I know little about, although I’m aware of several. However, I’m inclined to doubt Marxoid claims that they were perpetrated in pursuit of politico-economic theories. At any rate, even if they were, self-proclaimed Marxists have done their fare share of “ethnic cleansing” and the like in the name of their theories, so I rather think that side of things cancels out. What remains is the utter uselessness of Marxist or Marx-influenced remedies when it comes to putting bread on the table for the bulk of the populations where those remedies have been tried.

The point stands: the bourgeois revolution is the only revolution that has ever come even close to making good its claims. People claiming to be socialists who have taken political power have promised to do better: they have spectacularly failed to do so. Time to move on.

Therefore, improvement, refinement clarification of the bourgeois programme seems to be a more fruitful direction for progressive thought.

The early Marx is definitely worth reading as a kind of poetic, maybe even (in the very long run, a la Ian Banks’ s-f) prophetic philosophy; the later, pseudo-scientific (and in scientific terms, disproven) Marx is mere entertainment.

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Bob 02.06.04 at 4:32 am

Mg,

“Bob: If you’d read either Marx or any of the great sociologists / historians influenced by him you’d understand why Babylon was not capitalist. Markets are old and universal; capitalism is not.”

That comment is based on Marx’s typology of successive class struggles, which no one is obligated to accept as a framework beyond dispute.

Markets are an effective, institutional means of resolving the conflicting interests of buyers and sellers. That basic conflict of interest obviously worried Marx or he would not have said that the conflict would inevitably be superceded by communism, a mythical state in which everyone worked according to their ability and took what they needed.

As for just what constitutes what we choose to call capitalism and when that started, both are arguable. There was a substantial wool export trade out of England to mainland Europe in the 13th century. Towns like Norwich became affluent by it. By 1500, half the land in England had been enclosed. But long before that, the Phoenicians traded their way around the Mediterranean and beyond in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC. Whether we elect to label either capitalistic is a matter of choice. Marx did write: Philosophers [he might have used: economists] have sought to interpret the world but the real task is to change it, which rather makes it clear that his agenda was tendentious. It was Marx’s way of eking a family living from subventions by Engels, who ran a successful family textile business in Manchester, and occasional journalism.

Obviously, manufacturing products in factories, as developed in the industrial revolution, differs in respect of technology and business relationships from producing primary materials like the tin exported from Britain in Roman times or, again, the exports of wool in medieval times. The point is that factory production evolved in the context of a functioning market economy without state ownership, direction or even much control. It is not self-evident why that model can’t continue to be replicated.

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Tads 02.06.04 at 5:59 pm

To the few people saying Socialism doesn’t work – are you still saying that to people who live in mixed-market economies that have traditionally been called Socialist?

Because we’ll call you liars :)

A good blend of government market monitoring, analysis and direction, government responsibility in areas that should not be for profit enterprises like education, defence and health, and markets everywhere else is the best way to benefit from the strengths of both capitalism and socialist-style planning. That’s what most of us have.

Considering the fix or six countries that outrank the US as the best places in the world to live are also basically socialist it’s a strange view you have of socialism.

Or were you using socialism to mean communism when the two are not even close to the same thing ?

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limberwulf 02.06.04 at 10:28 pm

tads,
Best places to live according to whom? Based on what? Geographical location, availability of goods (something almost entirely preferential in nature), Physical beauty, freedom of choice and action, ability to succeed (unless the places are only best to live if you are independantly wealthy) and a hot of other things define the “best places” to live, and these things vary from person to person. I dont care what some guy wrote in a travel magazine or some other publication because personal preference is inarguably the biggest factor in a choice of that nature. It certainly has nothing to do with the viability of a politico-economic system.

Read “Of Paradise and Power” sometime, there are some interesting insights on why some places in the world have been able to operate in the manner they have so successfully. I find that there is a place for government to keep those that would use their resources to steal the freedoms of others from doing so. I find no place for government to be a charitable organization. Those of us who care about our fellowman can do a far better job caring for them by taking some personal responsibility and doing it as individuals and groups, not as voting masses forcing everyone with money to give to those who dont have any.

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Donald Johnson 02.06.04 at 11:12 pm

George, Amartya Sen and Simon Schama (sp?) aren’t “Marxoids”, and they endorsed the historical accuracy of the Davis book. There were massive famines under the British, who claimed to be free marketeers, (whatever Smith might have thought about them if he’d been around to see) and the extremely high death tolls were the consequence of their policies.

Anyway, Smith and Marx, whatever their flaws, aren’t to blame for the famines caused by their self-proclaimed followers.

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George Stewart 02.07.04 at 12:37 pm

Donald,

Well, it is an interesting subject for sure, and I’d have to check the book to make any more cogent statements, but you haven’t said anything to ease my scepticism that there’s any sort of equivalence between the two types of cases in terms of hardcore ideologues trying to implement their respective politico-economic ideals. (And I’m not so sure about Schama, but Sen is patently a kind of Leftist – or, put it this way, I’m sure, at the very least, he’d express the same kind of respect for Marx as a thinker as you guys here do – and you haven’t denied that this guy Davis is.)

Anyway, I don’t see that anyone has even touched the main point: when you have two societies with roughly similar cultures, try classical liberal prescriptions in one and Marxist, or Marx-influenced prescriptions in the other. Which do you think will prosper, given what happened last century? I mean, I hope we’re not naive enough to expect perfection in either case, but surely the record’s clear enough in broad terms? So: which revolutionary movement is it worth pursuing, expanding, refining, etc.? One which largely fulfilled its own promises, or one which failed to fulfil its own promises?

Once again: Marxism was supposed to improve things, to be a better kind of revolution. Marx started as a classical liberal and obviously believed his system was (at the very least) an improvement on classical liberalism. But however interesting Marxism may be intellectually, in practical terms, in terms of being a shinier, newer, better kind of revolution that brings prosperity to more people, as it was advertised to be, Marxism was an abject failure (at least, as practiced by people who evidently thought of themselves as Marxists, who seized political power).

So: why should anyone believe people calling themselves Marxists, or claiming to be influenced by Marx, now; why should they have any credibility at all? Why shouldn’t we rather laugh them off the stage?

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harry 02.07.04 at 4:24 pm

Why do the anti-Marxists have so much invested in attacking a view that they think has been so completely trounced?

bq. why should anyone believe people calling themselves Marxists, or claiming to be influenced by Marx, now; why should they have any credibility at all? Why shouldn’t we rather laugh them off the stage?

Or, why shouldn’t we do what we do with everyone else: judge their conclusions by the quality of their evidence and arguments? Very curious why we’d do otherwise.

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Donald Johnson 02.08.04 at 6:56 pm

George, if I were going to pin the blame for the 20th century communist death toll on one person, I’d choose Lenin. My impression is that most or all communist revolutions have venerated him and saw the Bolshevik model as something to be followed. Which would mean they’d think that secret police and concentration camps and torture and rule by a small inner circle who “knew” the correct path were all necessary to build utopia.

Oh, btw, I think Mike Davis (the “Late Victorian Holocausts” author) might be a Marxist, but I think he still makes a damning case against the British in India.

I haven’t read Marx, so I don’t know to what extent Lenin’s methods could be blamed on him. But as a Christian I know how the New Testament has been used to justify slavery, anti-semitism, witch trials, persecution of heretics, religious wars and so forth, so I’m at least inclined to listen when someone says Marx isn’t to blame for what his followers did.

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