Making nonsense of Marx

by Henry on September 22, 2004

Joi Ito links approvingly to a short essay by Adina Levin, criticizing the Dan Hunter article on open source and Marxism that I discussed last week. Ms. Levin says that open source is not, in fact Marxist, a claim which may or may not be true, but which would be better supported if she knew more about what Marxism actually says.

First, she claims that Marxism argues for a form of “collective production where production is organized and rewards are distributed fairly through central planning.” Not true – Marx himself had almost nothing to say about what form the state or alternative distributional mechanism would take in a socialist or communist society. While one can reasonably contend that some later Marxists have believed in central planning, this is, for obvious reasons, a minority opinion among Marxists these days. Nor does it flow in any logical or necessary way from Marx’s basic ideas, which, as far as I can tell are just as compatible with decentralized distribution as with centralized distribution – “collective ownership” can take a variety of forms. Given all this, the identification of Marxism with “collective farming” is a bit of a straw man. Second, Levin seems to think that Marxists believe in “mandatory equality” and would be opposed to open source’s “meritocratic culture with dramatic inequality, where founding leaders and high-value contributors have greater prestige, influence, and sometimes financial reward.” Perhaps wisely, she doesn’t try to provide any empirical evidence or backing from Marx’s writings, or from the writings of prominent Marxists, to try to support this claim. As far as I know, there is no intellectually reputable strain of Marxist thought which suggests that “high-value contributors” shouldn’t receive greater prestige and influence as a point of principle. Simply put, this is not the sort of thing that serious Marxists are bothered with – they’re concerned with inequalities in the ownership of the means of production, not with the distribution of social brownie points. Finally, Levin is half right when she says that Marxists (or, to be more precise, the early Marx) are opposed to the money economy. But as she more-or-less admits, strictly money-based explanations of open source software don’t do a very good job at explaining open source programmers’ motivations – at most, the open source economy is complementary to the money economy.

None of this is to say that mainstream Marxism provides a good explanation of open source. Indeed, as I suggested in my earlier post, the open source movement has at least as much to teach lefties (including Marxists) as vice versa. Still, the degree of ignorance of Marxism among those who purport to criticize it is sometimes a little astonishing.

Update: In an earlier post, Levin says

For example, “a commons of any sort is inherently Marxian, even if other types of private property rights still operate within the commons.” Nope. Marxism argues that all property is theft, and all property is to be held in common. And “Marxism isn’t about society against the individual, but seeks to put the individual first, allowing him or her access to the aspects of life that make them complete.” Don’t think so. Marxism is collectivist, requiring individuals to give up personal ownership and personal benefit for the advantage of the group.

She simply doesn’t know what she’s talking about – not only does she hopelessly confuse Marx and Proudhon, but Marxism is emphatically about individual benefit. You may disagree with Marx’s ideas of what will benefit the individual, let alone how he suggests that you get there – but Hunter is right on this, and Levin is plain confused.



abb1 09.22.04 at 9:59 pm

My impression is that the essence of the marxist concept is collective ownership of the means of production. Which could be rephrased as no ‘work for hire’. Which could be rephrased as liberation of humanity from exploitation.

Basically, the next big evolutionary step after the abolition of slavery.

I think the ‘open source’ thing fits quite nicely as one component, marxist approach in one particular area, one subset of economic activity. You produce what you like and take what you need. You don’t even have to produce anything and still can take what you need. And there are no toilets to clean.


dsquared 09.22.04 at 10:02 pm

Come on, Henry! What about what Marx wrote in his “Wholehearted Endorsement of the Gotha Program” :-)


Kieran Healy 09.22.04 at 10:21 pm

[I]n communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, debug kernel sources after dinner, just as I have a mind…

— _The German Ideology_

Men make their own history, but they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from Redmond, WA.

— _The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte_.


djw 09.23.04 at 12:55 am

a commons of any sort is inherently Marxian

This makes about as much sense as saying “transportation of any sort is inherently a Honda”


djw 09.23.04 at 1:00 am

To be clear–assertion of Hunter’s is a howler, even if his larger point (Marx cares not one way or the other private property unless it’s MoP).

But you’re absolutely right that she’s substituted Proudhon for Marx. Which is an irritatingly common mistake.


jdw 09.23.04 at 1:15 am

_This makes about as much sense as saying “transportation of any sort is inherently a Honda”_

After the revolution — just wait!


Tom T. 09.23.04 at 1:21 am

Isn’t her error that she’s confusing Marxism with Leninism (or Stalinism)?


djw 09.23.04 at 1:54 am

About collectivism, yes. About ‘property is theft’, Proudhon. About equality, various other socialists.


Henry 09.23.04 at 2:17 am

Yep – you’re right that Hunter’s argument that any commons is inherently Marxist is at best problematic (although Levin’s criticism misses the point completely).


John Quiggin 09.23.04 at 7:49 am

Captain Jack Aubrey: marxist avant le nom


Dan Hunter 09.23.04 at 7:45 pm

Thanks for catching me on the commons=Marxism line. I think I can justify this pretty easily, but as it stands it’s too shorthanded. Will fix in final version.

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