Marx and economic nationalism

by Henry on March 4, 2006

An entertaining “howler”:http://www.economist.com/opinion/displayStory.cfm?story_id=5575262 at the _Economist_ this week; one of its leaders has the grand title:

bq.

From Karl Marx’s copybook: Efforts to block foreign takeovers rest on a deceit about ownership and interests

and continues:

bq. PATRIOTISM, said Samuel Johnson, is the last refuge of a scoundrel. That may be unfair to the proper sort of patriot, but it would be an entirely valid comment about politicians today who make a fuss about foreign takeovers in their countries, in the name of “national interests”. The truth is that they are not defending their nations’ interests at all. They are defending their own interests and (often) those of their cronies.

Rather unfortunately for the leader writer, who seems never to have read Marx, there’s no support in Marx’s writings for economic patriotism or for defending national interests. Indeed, if you care to consult the man’s works, Marx was enthusiastically in favour of the bourgeoisie’s penchant for ripping down barriers to international exchange. From the “Communist Manifesto”:http://www.anu.edu.au/polsci/marx/classics/manifesto.html:

bq. The bourgeoisie has, through its exploitation of the world market, given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of reactionaries, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilized nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.

Now, of course, “Karl Marx’s copybook” stands in the leader-writer’s vocabulary for “vaguely left-sounding ideas that I don’t like and want to discredit by association.” But Karl Marx’s actual copybook would suggest that if anyone’s ideas are to be discredited by association with the work of disreputable lefties here, it’s those of the _Economist_ (not that I personally consider Marx to be a disreputable leftie, of course, but I do enjoy seeing a lazy attempted smear boomerang right back into the face of the smearer).

{ 28 comments }

1

scott mclemee 03.04.06 at 10:37 am

There’s another pamphlet from 1848 in which Marx actually spells out very clearly what’s in his “copybook” on this topic. It’s called “On the Question of Free Trade” and it concludes as follows:

“In general, the protective system of our day is conservative, while the free trade system is destructive. It breaks up old nationalities and pushes the antagonism of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie to the extreme point. In a word, the free trade system hastens the social revolution. It is in this revolutionary sense alone, gentlemen, that I vote in favor of free trade.”

2

ab 03.04.06 at 10:53 am

Yeah, it’s quite a howler. Lazy journalism (which is quite untypical for the Economist).

In fairness, though, the main point of the Economist leader is about state intervention in economic affairs; and that would be largely along Marxian lines.

3

alexandre 03.04.06 at 11:01 am

This Karl Marx reference is strange. When I read the article and its title, I thought it was reffering to Marx’s idea of government as the “armed instrument” of the bourgeoisie and vested interests (Marx was never a statist, after all). In this case, the title may get it right, as the nationalistic reactions of governments really look like a caricature of the marxian model of the capitalist-corporatist state.
But your interpretation may be also right.

4

Jonathan 03.04.06 at 11:36 am

A question: which figure’s ideas do more people mistakenly think they understand: Marx or Adam Smith?

5

Louis Proyect 03.04.06 at 11:36 am

Since I don’t have access to the Economist article, I am not sure what they are trying to say. However, it would be a mistake to see Karl Marx as some kind of free trade absolutist in the Meghnad Desai mold. Marx was attacking the protectionist instincts of the European bourgeoisie, but this does not mean that he would be in favor of NAFTA, WTO, CAFTA et al. Marx’s focus was the European revolution. He could not really anticipate the anti-imperialist revolutions that took shape in the late Victorian era. In such cases, it is *progressive* for Venezuela to challenge free trade initiatives from the North since they are nothing but a pretext to subjugate the South. In 1848, Marx was confronting nations that were more or less on an even footing (France, Germany, England, etc.) but today such countries stand as a colossus to Bolivia, Jamaica, Ghana, et al. For a good critique of free trade orthodoxy, see “Life and Debt”, which deals with the Jamaican case.

6

Kevin Donoghue 03.04.06 at 11:56 am

#5: Since I don’t have access to the Economist article, I am not sure what they are trying to say.

Even with access it’s not obvious. Apparently the excuse for dragging Marx into the discussion is: “His view was that ownership, and hence the power to exploit, was all; hence socialist governments’ fateful desire to nationalise the “commanding heights” of their economies.”

So it looks as if the “reasoning” goes like this: Marx believed that ownership of the means of production confers power; various opponents of foreign takeovers think so too, so they are of Marx’s party without knowing it.

The writer slips into the lazy habit, which so annoys Jagdish Bhagwati, of confusing the case free trade with that for free movement of capital. Perhaps he will rebuke them in the letters column.

7

abb1 03.04.06 at 12:03 pm

Yes, and wasn’t it Henry Kissinger who said that “globalization” is just another name for “US domination”?

8

Walt Pohl 03.04.06 at 12:08 pm

Louis: I find your reaction odd. Marx thought what he thought. Perhaps if he lived now he would feel the way you suggest, or perhaps he would realize that with the benefit of time he now sees that capitalism is the best possible system. It seems unknowable to me what he’d think now.

9

abb1 03.04.06 at 12:16 pm

Perhaps Louis is saying that Marx’s “free trade” and Economist’s “free trade” are two different phenomena.

10

joel turnipseed 03.04.06 at 2:40 pm

jonathan–

I imagine both Marx and Smith are probably much less well understood than many people quoting them suppose. I don’t know either of them well (though I did plow through Smith’s Wealth and Moral Sentiments back in college… while didn’t get much further than Marx’s Communist Manifesto and a few essays mentioned by Cavell somewhere (e.g., 18th Brumaire). I was very supprised to see how strongly Smith disapproved of corporate and monopoly interests (including, on the one side, large corporations and government monopolies on contracts–and on the other, work-specific guilds).

One interesting thing to me, in my recollection, is how–at least on the diagnostic level–the two weren’t always that far apart. This statement, fromm Marx (from CM), could just about as well have come from Smith:

“The lower strata of the middle class — the small tradespeople,
shopkeepers, and retired tradesmen generally, the handicraftsmen and
peasants — all these sink gradually…, partly
because their diminutive capital does not suffice for the scale on which
Modern Industry is carried on, and is swamped in the competition with
the large capitalists, partly because their specialized skill is
rendered worthless by new methods of production.”

11

Louis Proyect 03.04.06 at 2:57 pm

If Marx were alive today, he would still be opposed to protectionist schemes *within* Europe, although he would regard the European Union as merely its dialectical opposite with no redeeming qualities. I don’t think it is hard to extrapolate what Marx would have thought about the WTO based on his *later* writings on India, around the time he was in contact with the Russian populists. Or what he wrote about Ireland. Although this was obviously developed fully in Lenin’s writings, Marx had a concept of oppressed nations. That’s the key.

12

John Quiggin 03.04.06 at 3:37 pm

Not only that, but the Johnson quotation does not mean what The Economist thinks. “Patriotism” when Johnson spoke this words was a party label used by the anti-government radicals led by Wilkes. Here’s his lengthy attack on them.

It’s rather as if a political quote from today on the sins of Republicans or Democrats was quoted in the context of a dispute about the merits of absolute monarchy.

13

eweininger 03.04.06 at 3:57 pm

It seems unknowable to me what he’d think now.

To find out what Marx would think of the events of our day, one need only consult Donald Sasoon’s superb interview with his ghost:

http://www.sds.cz/docs/prectete/rozhovor/sae_marx.htm

(and elsewhere on the web)

14

Colin Danby 03.04.06 at 4:45 pm

It’s a widespread confusion, one of whose roots may be the tendency for some contemporary antglobalizationists to mix rhetoric from the socialist, nationalist, and social-conservative traditions. I just had a weird exchange on Timothy Shortell’s blog with an anonymous economist who admitted he’d read no heterodox economics at all, but who was nonetheless convinced that its essence was hostility to markets.

Possibly some people also confuse Marx with central planning, and so construct a market-antimarket divide that way.

15

Robin Green 03.04.06 at 6:10 pm

“Marxism” is just a convenient smear to throw at people whose economic views they don’t like. It’s not rational. They wouldn’t associate Marxism with forms of state intervention that they like, like patents, or R&D subsidies disguised as “military spending”, because that would obviously be absurd.

16

Dan Kervick 03.04.06 at 7:08 pm

Rather unfortunately for the leader writer, who seems never to have read Marx, there’s no support in Marx’s writings for economic patriotism or for defending national interests. Indeed, if you care to consult the man’s works, Marx was enthusiastically in favour of the bourgeoisie’s penchant for ripping down barriers to international exchange.

I’m puzzled Henry. Isn’t that precisely the leader writer’s point? Granted, it is odd for The Economist, of all magazines, to trot out Marx to provide rhetorical ammunition in support of some point they want to make. But I took it that the writer was suggesting that, according to Marx, protectionist efforts to thwart foreign takeovers are not genuinely motivated by lofty conceptions of the “national interest”, but are really just dishonest and deceptive populist appeals by domestic capitalists aimed at protecting their own private interests.

The writer’s somewhat ham-handed rhetorical strategy here seems to be to resist economic nationalism coming from the left by noting that even a presumed “hero of the left” like Marx thought economic nationalism was a scam.

Of course The Economist wants to turn that point about the politics of domestic capitalism toward the defense of globlization, wheras Marx would have thought that globalized capitalism is no better, or less deceptive and exploitative, than the domestic variety.

17

Martin Wisse 03.04.06 at 9:46 pm

Yes, I’m with Dan; I didn’t see the howler either.

18

Colin Danby 03.04.06 at 11:16 pm

Granted, fully interpreting _The Economist_ requires years of austere training. Nonetheless this later passage from the same leader tells decisively for Henry’s reading and against Dan’s:

“The idea that it is somehow in the French national interest that a utility should not become owned by an Italian firm, or in the American interest that ports be kept out of Arab hands, is one to gladden the heart of Karl Marx. His view was that ownership, and hence the power to exploit, was all; hence socialist governments’ fateful desire to nationalise the ‘commanding heights’ of their own economies.”

How many historical and conceptual errors can be squeezed into a couple of sentences? We should have a contest.

19

theogon 03.05.06 at 1:34 am

How many historical and conceptual errors can be squeezed into a couple of sentences? We should have a contest.

Horowitz, et. al. would obviously win, especially if the subject veers anywhere near the views of leftist theoreticians. A more interesting contest would be exclusive to sources like The Economist, who should know better.

20

J. Goard 03.05.06 at 1:52 am

Strange how Marx has become to economics what Hitler is to ethics. True, relative to widespread advances in mathematics and philosophy, it does astound me that any version of the labor theory of value (and hence, the exploitation theory of capital) was taken seriously by the nineteenth century. But to see such a complex intellectual used as a totem of evil, is appalling.

21

Kenny Easwaran 03.05.06 at 4:33 am

But the Economist would never engage in the misinterpretation of Karl Marx!

Actually, seeing the quote there, I had the thought that Dan did in #16 – that quote looks to me to say that Marx is suggesting that blocking foreign takeovers is deceitful, and that thus we should support free trade. Of course, I haven’t either read the article or the Marx passage they’re quoting, so I shouldn’t say anything.

22

Steve 03.05.06 at 6:36 am

Good Lord. Am I really reading an academic blog that is still, 15 years after the wall, 50 years after Stalin, and 150 years after the old fool himself, defending Karl Marx? Next up: “no, really. Walter Duranty was right in his own way…” Sheesh. And they say conservatives are stuck in the past.

Steve

23

hirvi 03.05.06 at 6:57 am

“Lazy journalism (which is quite untypical for the Economist)”

Untypical?

Excuse me, but that rag encouraged Americans to vote GW Bush, and supported the Iraq war when it was still in the incubation phase (and thereafter).

Most people I know think many Economist articles are written by interns, and not read through by adults.

Needless to say, few of us subscribe any more.

24

Dan Kervick 03.05.06 at 11:10 am

Granted, fully interpreting The Economist requires years of austere training. Nonetheless this later passage from the same leader tells decisively for Henry’s reading and against Dan’s:

“The idea that it is somehow in the French national interest that a utility should not become owned by an Italian firm, or in the American interest that ports be kept out of Arab hands, is one to gladden the heart of Karl Marx. His view was that ownership, and hence the power to exploit, was all; hence socialist governments’ fateful desire to nationalise the ‘commanding heights’ of their own economies.”

That quote definitely does show the writer making a more typical Economist-style point: that any ideas of which Marx would approve are thereby bad. The title, however, seems aimed more at hoisting leftists on their own ideological petard, and pointing out that even the leftist Marx thought the argument for domestic vs. foreign ownership was based on a canard. Could it be that the title-writer and the author are not exactly on the same page?

25

Dan Kervick 03.05.06 at 11:12 am

Sorry about the garbled last paragraph in 24. Here it is again:

That quote definitely does show the writer making a more typical Economist-style point: that any ideas of which Marx would approve are thereby bad. The title, however, seems aimed more at hoisting leftists on their own ideological petard, and pointing out that even the leftist Marx thought the argument for domestic vs. foreign ownership was based on a canard. Could it be that the titlewriter and the author are not exactly on the same page?

26

Walt Pohl 03.05.06 at 2:47 pm

Steve: The truth means nothing to you, does it.

27

snuh 03.05.06 at 8:06 pm

steve, as a general rule, anyone who mentions walter duranty is living in the past.

28

Mr Ripley 03.06.06 at 1:17 am

Nine hundred years after the Crusades, Jesus still has His apologists: these things take a while.

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