Humourless political philosophers?

by Chris Bertram on October 3, 2003

A Guardian “profile of Al Franken”:,12271,1054951,00.html , comedian author of “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them”: has this

bq. “Well, probably the people taken most seriously down the ages have not been satirists,” Franken concedes. “Marx – there wasn’t much funny in Marx, I don’t think. John Stuart Mill? Not a laugh. Hobbes? Humourless.

False, false, false, I’d say. (Actually, come to think of it false, true, false – though if anyone _can_ find an intentionally funny passage in Mill, I’ll take that back.) Marx’s humour is mainly of the dry and sarcastic kind. His wit and erudition saturates just about every page of Capital – A good example would be the end of vol. 1, ch. 6 on “The sale and purchase of labour power” (but as Glenn Reynolds likes to say say — “read the whole thing”: ). As for Hobbes, I’d recommend the side-splitting final pages of “Leviathan”: ch. XLVII, “Of the BENEFIT that proceedeth from such Darknesse, and to whom it accreweth” where Hobbes compares the church of Rome to the Kingdome of Fairies.



Doug Muir 10.03.03 at 2:18 pm

Eh. You’re confusing witty and funny, and they are two different things, you know.

Marx’s wit is real, but I would call it scathing more often than dry. “Historical tradition gave rise to the French peasants’ belief in the miracle that a man named Napoleon would bring all glory back to them. And there turned up an individual who claims to be that man because he bears the name Napoleon, in consequence of the Code Napoleon, which decrees: ‘Inquiry into paternity is forbidden.'” That’s witty enough, but I wouldn’t call it /funny/. (It’s about what you’d expect of a law school dropout turned fulltime journalist, actually.)

Erudition… hrm. Well-read in history and philosophy, sure, and somewhat less so in law and literature. But it is a plain fact that he had little science, and that mostly pop, and less math. And as for his economics… handwaving, wishful thinking, and bafflegab. And he had the materials at hand to know better; Ricardo had been writing on the labor theory of value before Marx was out of short pants.

‘s’ part of what grates on me about Marx, actually. He was a good-to-excellent political scientist — an amateur, but so was everyone else back then — and a pretty good analytical historian, too. _Brumaire_, for instance, is full of extremely keen observations on the political economy of France in particular and 19th century peasant-king-bureacracy states generally, all set in a deeper historical context. If you can wade through the rhetoric, it’s still a fascinating read, and even relevant (since P-K-B states have not yet altogether disappeared from the world). There’s equally good stuff in his other works… yeah, even in _Capital_, if you’re really willing to dig.

If someone had been standing by to whack him on the toe with a hammer whenever he tried to write about economics, Things Might Have Been Different. But nobody did, and as a result the unhappy world was bequeathed, well, Marxist economics.

But I digress. Wit of a sort I grant you, but I’d like to see a passage from Marx that you’d characterize as actually /funny/.

Doug M.


Mike Van Winkle 10.03.03 at 2:32 pm

Certainly Marx is funny…but its that bitter political humor that one only laughs out load if one agrees with it in some fashion…like Franken, curiously enough.


Jacob T. Levy 10.03.03 at 2:37 pm

That as may be, Hobbes is *really* funny, and many of the best jokes pertain to religion, miracles, and the like. The puns (i.e. about the Christian act of witnessing) are less good, but the analogies and pseudo-explanations can be laugh-out-loud funny.

I think Mill tried to be funny at several moments on Rep. Gov., especially in his commentary on conservatism. It didn’t work out very well, though.


dsquared 10.03.03 at 2:38 pm

And as for his economics… handwaving, wishful thinking, and bafflegab.

Piero Sraffa disagreed with this assessment, so did JM Keynes (toward the end of his life) and so do I.


Chris 10.03.03 at 2:57 pm

“…somewhat less so in law and literature.”

An extraordinary judgement, if I may say so, Doug. Let me recommend to you S.S. Prawer’s _Karl Marx and World Literature_ , which documents Marx’s literary consumption and the use he makes of Goethe, Shakespeare, Schiller, Cervantes etc etc etc.


Doug Muir 10.03.03 at 3:25 pm

[shrug] I live in a post-Communist country. I’m not easily impressed by Marx these days.

Sreffa — yeah, he was a Marxist as a young man, and suffered for it accordingly: with exile for himself, and imprisonment or death for a number of his friends or colleagues. IMO this was a romantic rather than a rational choice, and one that he spent much of his subsequent career trying to work around intellectually.

Keynes — well, I can point to examples where Keynesian economic theory pretty clearly has worked. “Worked” in the most pragmatic sense: as a normative prescription for what to do to reach a desired result. I can’t point to a one where Marxist economics has. And it’s not for lack of opportunity — there have been more than forty states that have claimed to be “Marxist” at one time or another, and about a dozen or so that have tried to take that claim seriously.

As a normative system, it doesn’t work. It’s never worked. As a descriptive system… oh, you can make a number of Marxist statements ‘true’ if you loosen up the terms enough. “Profit is positive in the price system if and only if labor is exploited” — well, if you just wiggle the definitions of ‘profit’, ‘price system’, ‘labor’, and ‘exploited’, you can make it work. But as a description of how a real-world economy actually works, it ain’t much.

(And, honestly, it’s never seemed much to me intellectually. Classical micro and neoclassical macro may be counterintuitive, and they may be /hard/ — often they are hard. But neither of them gave me the feeling of epicycles being added on epicycles that I got from reading Marxist discussions of, say, the transformation problem. Which, I might add, Marx himself didn’t seem to see as a problem.)

But hey. I asked for an example of Marx being funny. I’ll be happy to add a request for the successful real-world application of Marxist economics.

N.B., Marx was fairly clear and specific on a lot of the practical applications of his theories. (To give just the most obvious example, collective farms. There are plenty of others.) So it shouldn’t be too hard to descend from the general to the specific, and say, “Marx said to add linseed oil to red dye to make muffins; and when this was done, muffins ensued!”

Although, truth to tell, I’d actually be more interested in the answer to the funny question.


Doug Muir 10.03.03 at 3:34 pm

I don’t see anything extraordinary about it. Left-handed compliment, in fact. Go back and look at what I actually said.

Can I assume then that you agree with me on pop science, no math, and the rest of it?

N.B., I’ve read most of Shakespeare and a fair bit of Goethe, Schiller and Cervantes. I certainly don’t consider myself “erudite”. Well-read at most. “Acquainted with the Western Canon and capable of making meaningful references to them” falls a long way short of “erudite” in my book.


Raenelle 10.03.03 at 4:27 pm

How about Lenin, Stalin, Mao.

Funny, not funny, not funny.


Shai 10.03.03 at 4:34 pm


Thanks. I’m glad to learn that marxism doesn’t work. I’m waiting to hear your less obvious thoughts on Hobbes state of nature. Sovereign boo! Democracy yay!


dsquared 10.03.03 at 4:45 pm

Doug, your comments about Sraffa and Marxism are just simply wrong. Regarding Keynes, I think that the important point is that Marx anticipated both Keynes’ argument against Say’s Law and his analysis of the effect on unemployment on the wage rate (the “reserve army of labour” argument in Marx is a direct ancestor of the “NAIRU”).


dsquared 10.03.03 at 4:48 pm

As GA Cohen pointed out, Marx also has just about the only convincing theory of why technological progress has not led to a shortening of the working day.


kevin quinn 10.03.03 at 4:52 pm

I don’t have Capital handy – it’s at home – but the footnotes have some hilarious stuff on other economists. There’s one where he’s commenting on Roscher, I believe. Whoever it was Marx quoted him as suggesting (anticipating the concept of externalities) that, since the wonderful smell of the bakery was a clear benefit to passers-by, they ought to pay for it. Marx the materialist comments: Yes, perhaps they should pay with “the clink” of a coin. That’s pretty good, no?


PJS 10.03.03 at 5:04 pm

I second Jacob T. Levy’s comment. Hobbes is *big* funny, and not just in his incidental asides. My favorite joke in *Leviathan* comes in Chapter 13, in the midst of his very important defense of the claim that “Nature hath made man so equall, in the faculties of body, and mind…”

About the latter sort of equality, he says:

“[S]uch is the nature of men, that howsoever they may acknowledge many others to be more witty, or more eloquent, or more learned; Yet they will hardly believe there be many so wise as themselves: …But this proveth rather that men are in that point equall, than unequall. For there is not ordinarily a greater signe of the equal distribution of any thing, than that every man is contented with his share.”

That’s just great stuff.


Mike 10.03.03 at 5:30 pm

That joke is lifted from the first line of Descartes’s Discourse on the Method:

“Good sense is, of all things among men, the most equally distributed; for every one thinks himself so abundantly provided with it, that those even who are the most difficult to satisfy in everything else, do not usually desire a larger measure of this quality than they already possess.”


Ophelia Benson 10.03.03 at 6:08 pm

I feel a need to speak up for Mill. Even though I’m not a bit sure I can bring it off. But there is a certain dry (very, very dry, of the desert dry) wit in places. Try this –

‘Persons require to possess a title, or some other badge of rank…to be able to indulge somewhat in the luxury of doing as they like without detriment to their estimation…[W]hoever allow themselves much of that indulgence, incur the risk of something worse than disparaging speeches – they are in peril of a commission *de lunatico,* and of having their property taken from them and given to their relations.’

On Liberty, Chapter III

Not a thigh-slapper, no, but witty. Sort of.


David 10.03.03 at 6:16 pm

The title of Karl Marx and Fredrick Engel’s “The Holy Family” could qualify as satire, according to this site:

They say:

“The foremost title line — “The Holy Family” — was added at the suggestion of the book publisher Lowenthal. It’s a sarcastic reference to the [Bruno] Bauer brothers and their supporters.”

Heck, the whole volume seems to be satirical. Take a look.


Jeremy Osner 10.03.03 at 6:21 pm

Descartes’ phrasing of this above observation is far wittier (and funnier) than Hobbes’


Tripp 10.03.03 at 7:26 pm

“At the Circus”

“Room Service”

“A Night at the Opera”

“Duck Soup”

You people obviously don’t know funny!


Matt Weiner 10.03.03 at 10:34 pm

I always liked the footnote about productive consumption in the “Simple Reproduction” chapter of Capital Vol. 1. Potty humor, though.


Doug Muit 10.03.03 at 11:17 pm

Dan, you started off by making a fairly unconvincing appeal to authority. If Piero Sraffa, believed in astrology, and so did Keynes (towards the end of his life) and so do you, should I be impressed?

You then tell me my view on Sraffa is “just plain wrong”. Dear me. Are you saying that he wasn’t a Marxist as a young man, or that he didn’t flee Mussolini’s Italy? Or are you just disagreeing with my interpretation of his later life and work — and if so, how?

Thirdly, even the blind pig finds the occasional acorn, and if a reasonably intelligent man writes a couple of million words on or around a topic, he’s bound to run across the occasional insight. That doeesn’t qualify him as a great economist, or even a particularly good one. Marx had more wrong notions than right ones — which wouldn’t be such a problem, except that he and his followers insisted that they were /all/ right.

I think your “reserve army of labor”/NAIRU comparison is pretty feeble, frankly. NAIRU includes structural unemployment, which the RAOL concept certainly does not. But let’s say that I’m wrong, you’re right, and it is a useful insight. I’ll still see RAOL and raise you collective farms. His contempt for the peasant caused Marx to get agriculture pretty consistently wrong… which, again, wouldn’t have been nearly such a big deal if he hadn’t been so very sure he was right, and his disciples hadn’t been so ready to put his views into effect.

Chris, one other point on Marx as “erudite”. As usual with this sort of discussion, terms have to be defined or we’re pretty quickly reduced to mutual ducktalk. Unfortunately erudition is somewhat in the eye of the beholder; like pornography, I know it when I see it. I find Isaiah Berlin erudite. Marx I just find well read, and a bit of a name-dropper.

But let me throw out a specific example. I mentioned the _Brumaire_, and the mildly humorous bit about Napoleon. Well, a page or two further on he talks about how the Revolution has moved ‘underground’ to complete ‘the second phase of its preliminary work’. And when it is done, he says, “Europe will leap from its seat and exult: Well burrowed, old mole!”

Now, that is a pretty clear reference to _Hamlet_. It’s even clearer when you recall that Hamlet refers to his father’s ghost as a mole — ‘How now, old mole, can’st thou prick in the earth so fast’ — and that Marx repeatedly refers to both the Revolution and the Social Republic as spirits, spectres, or ghosts. (He does that a lot. For a materialist atheist, his writing is awfully full of flapping sheets; the _Brumaire_ alone has enough to fill a modest haunted house.)

So far, so good; but if you look a second time, you’ll notice that it’s not really such a clever allusion. Do we really want to consider the Revolution as anything like the ghost of Hamlet’s father? Nothing good comes of that mole; nothing but tangled purposes, tragedy, and eventually an all-consuming bloodbath and the death of everyone the ghost held dear.

…hmm, on second thought, maybe it’s not such a bad image after all. But I very much doubt that Marx intended it to be apposite in the sense that I’m thinking. Frankly, it reads more like an off-the-cuff Shakespeare reference thrown in without much thought to salt up the text and make it seem a bit more, you know, erudite.

But anyhow. I dragged this off topic and — mea culpa — have continued to do so. So let us at least briefly return to humor. So far we’ve had one further example of Marxian wit: the smell of the bakery and the clink of the coin. While “witty” and “funny” are even more slippery than “erudite”, I think most of us would find that pretty witty, but not _funny_ at all.

For some reason I’m reminded of the sorceror in James Blish’s _Black Easter_. He mentions that he had to give up his sense of humor in order to practice black magic. “But you’re often humorous!” “No. I am never humourous. I am witty. Altogether different.”

And it is different. Wit evokes a response along the lines of “Damn, that’s cute. Wish I’d thought of it; have to remember that one.” Funny, well, funny makes us laugh.

Ergo, I’m inclined to think Chris is wrong and Franken right. But I could be wrong and I welcome correction. So if anyone has any funny passages from Marx to bring forward, I’d be interested.

Doug M.


Norman Geras 10.04.03 at 9:46 am

‘Go, and never darken my towels again’

‘Come and lodge with my fleas in the hills – I mean flee to my lodge in the hills.’

– Groucho tendency


cs 10.04.03 at 11:58 am

What a bunch of sobersides. The Brumaire always breaks me up … particularly part v, when he gets to the Society of December 10 … and the sausages …


Sue 10.05.03 at 4:32 am

You may have too narrow a view of the field of philosophy here. Plato gives quite a few funny stories, both in the mouths of various philosophers (Socrates gets a number, many others in the Symposium at least do as well) and in the settings he selects, sometimes. Russell is often scathingly funny – witty I suppose, but the occasional line in History of Western Philosophy had me laughing out loud. Okay, that’s not part of his philosophical work as much as his literary work, but it ought to speak to his reputation as someone to be taken seriously. Nozick had a charming and entertaining style, his choice of examples was lighthearted and his discussions fresh and sometimes silly.

A. J. Simmons has this line in his recent “On the territorial rights of states” (PAPA 2001) “[this view] has been widely criticized. To be perfectly honest, I have been unable to find a single other philosopher who supports it.”

Wasn’t Wittgenstein known as a quick wit? though beyond the “time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana” I cannot think of an example.

Umberto Eco – very clever, occasionally even in the first person. When his stuff makes sense at all.


Rob Schaap 10.05.03 at 5:21 am

I have to agree with Chris – Brumaire is a romp of a read. Marx knew the power of ridicule and rarely denied himself – from his youthful attacks on the young Hegelians (whom he cast somewhere as swimmers convinced they’d not sink so long as the discursive tyranny of gravity had not infected them). And Marx’s theory of value was hardly a lift from Ricardo. Did Marx not stress ‘abstract labour’ (‘socially necessary labour time’) to get around the fact that the particular time invested by a particular unit of labour did not typically affect the exchange value of the particular product under capitalism? That was new. Pretty compelling, too. And not unrelated to his answer to John Stuart Mill’s sad observation that our time-saving innovations never seem to lighten the burden on the worker. While I’m defending ol’ Karl, shouldn’t we remember that Marx was much more the critic of capitalist political economy than the prescriber of a communist economic system? Didn’t he say somewhere that he wasn’t about to produce recipes for the kitchens of an unknown future?


Zizka 10.06.03 at 12:16 am

Marx: “The mass of the German nation is formed by simple agglomeration, the way a sack of potatos is formed by putting potatos in a sack”.

Doug Muir’s reaction to Marx resembles various things I’ve read or hear by contemporary economists. Dismissal seems to be the starting point. Economists today seem uninterested in the history of economics anyway. (The “no-mathematics” criticism is ahistorical — few economists used much math then.) Did Marx contribute anything new, valuable, and permanent to economics per se (as opposed to history and philosophy)? My guess is Yes. Are there issues raised by Marx still relevant today? My guess is yes then too — the globalization of the reserve army of the unemployed sound like a candidate.

During the Vietnam War the Marxist critics said that the war really was a fight for the Asian markets. Now that’s what the retrospective supporters of the war say.


Miriam 10.06.03 at 5:56 pm

A rare example of humor from Mill, although not in the context of political philosophy. He’s commenting on the outcome of the November 1868 election:

Disraeli (to the working classes): I have given you the franchise.
The Working Classes: Thank you Mr. Gladstone.

(reprinted by Walter Arnstein, who neglects to source the original)


Doug Muir 10.07.03 at 7:53 am

[responding to zizka] I wouldn’t say dismissal is the starting point. I would say that I came to Marx late in life, and with a tendency to cast a cold eye. But that’s not the same thing, I think.

The no-math critique is ahistorical? I beg to differ. Mathematical analysis dates back to Ricardo, and by the 1870s was most definitely part of the field. True, by modern standards the “mathematization” of economics had barely begun at that point, and certainly mathematics was not compulsory as it is today. But it was already important enough that Marx’s avoidance of it is noteworthy.

J.H. von Thuenen was using heavy algebra to do production functions in the 1850s. Jevons and Menger were doing their marginal analysis stuff at the same time Marx was writing _Capital_, and Jevons’ elaborate quantititive analysis in _The Solar Period and the Price of Corn_ was published around 1870, nearly 20 years before Marx’s death. And Leon Walras did the seminal work on general equilibrium theory in [googles] 1874.

So, yes, it is legitimate to criticize Marx for his curious allergy to mathematical analysis. I don’t say it’s an absolutely devastating critique, or even a very strong one; after all, there were other economists from that period who were nearly as math-phobic. (And one who was more. Probably the least mathematical of late 19th century economists… Carl Menger, founder of the Austrian School, intellectual grandfather to to Mises and Hayek). I do say it’s a fair cop — most especially once you’re talking not about Marx per se but about Marxism, Marxists, and “scientific” socialism.

As to the “globalization of the reserve army of the unemployed” — wow, talk about assuming your conclusions. (But then, I’m still blinking in amazement at Dan Drezner’s comment on NAIRU. Putting aside the structural unemployment issue, I’ve tried in vain to find the bit where Marx makes an explicit connection between unemployment and inflation, as opposed to just wages. Had Marx realized U+I must be greater than 0, he surely would have made a pretty big deal of it.)


John Kozak 10.07.03 at 11:54 am

Poor old Graun. The Guardian today has a piece on Oliver Letwin which illustrates his grate brane by referring to the “volumes of Socrates” on his shelves.

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