Philosophy, recent, The Totalitarian Philosophers

Why We Should Read Marx

This the third instalment in a series of essays by Matt McManus examining the work and legacies of the totalitarian philosophers.

If Plato was a philosopher who wanted to use his ideas to change the world in practical ways, but had to settle for a towering intellectual legacy instead, then Marx’s writing had the opposite effect. In his youthful “Theses on Feuerbach,” Marx wrote that the “philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world; the point is to change it.” While he had to settle for a posthumous influence, it was fewer than 40 years after his death that the Marxist-inspired Bolshevik party seized power in Russia during the October Revolution and inaugurated a sequence of Communist revolutions and takeovers which swept the world for decades. At its peak, billions lived under often brutal governments which professed allegiance to Marx’s ideas. 

Although many of these regimes began to collapse in 1989, leading some to assume Marx was finished as an intellectual influence, his specter never went away. And in the decade following the 2008 Recession, his reputation has enjoyed something of a renaissance in spite of the atrocities associated with his name. Indeed, even pro-capitalist outlets such as the Economist have begun to concede there is much we might learn from Marx’s analyses, even if we must discard much that is anachronistic or tarnished by association with totalitarianism. 

In what follows, I will argue that there is much that even opponents can learn from a careful look at Marx’s work.

The Controversy Surrounding Marx

The bourgeoisie has disclosed how it came to pass that the brutal display of vigour in the Middle Ages, which reactionaries so much admire, found its fitting complement in the most slothful indolence. It has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades. The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

~Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto

Karl Marx is a difficult thinker to analyze, not least because so very much has been written about him, a great deal of which is so biased on one side or another that it abstains from all regular standards of interpretation. This is in part due to the tremendous influence his work has had, for good, and as many know, for ill. If nothing else, this influence is a testament to the tremendous power of both his writing and his arguments. Like Rousseau, Marx was often an excellent writer. His work is filled with stinging denouements, striking metaphors (capital as a vampire comes to mind), and revolutionary turns of phrase. Moreover, unlike Rousseau, Marx’s thinking is a paradigm case of systematicity. Inspired chiefly by the idealism of Georg Hegel and the logical approach to political economy pioneered by David Ricardo, Marx’s mature works are immensely architectural. Virtually any topic of interest in the humanities finds its place within the Marxist system: history, philosophy, sociology (Marx was a founding figure of the discipline along with Durkheim and Weber), political economy and more all have their place. From a purely intellectual standpoint this can be very impressive, but it also becomes clear how such systematic grandeur can become a serious weakness. The attempt to assimilate so many strands of thought into a systematic whole can give the impression that the important ontological differences between them are sometimes being abandoned; an criticism which even some Marxist thinkers such as Adorno and Žižek have been willing to concede. This flaw has practical consequences, since many accuse Marxism of being a kind of dogma forced onto the world by its adherents, with the tragic consequence of millions dying beneath the boots of totalitarian regimes.

This accusation may be levelled against many Marxists, but it has less weight when applied to Marx himself. This isn’t just because Marx’s approach was more nuanced than that of his followers, but because that approach often evolved and changed in ways that are both interesting and frustrating. The early Marx’s work is very much that of a Young Hegelian. His Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right and “On the Jewish Question” are very much concerned with what constitutes real freedom in modern society, with the conclusion being that stark inequalities in political power substantially restrict the capacity of most people to have a meaningful say in how they are governed. This is at the heart of Marx’s critique of liberal rights in “On the Jewish Question”; his concern isn’t that they grant too much freedom, but that they only grant meaningful freedom to a select few. Consider, for instance, the right to freedom of expression. Marx was a man who detested the censors constantly agitating against his work, so he was certainly not opposed to free expression. But he was well aware that this right meant a great deal more to individuals with the power and resources to have their voices heard by a great multitude. In that respect he was undoubtedly right, and recent empirical studies by figures like Martin Gilens have borne out his claim that wealthy and powerful individuals have far more opportunities to have their interest heard and reflected by political authorities than the poor. The more serious problems emerge when one moves from what Althusser characterized as Marx’s humanist phase to his more ambitious period, during which he sought to develop what Engels called a “science” of history. This project really picked up steam in the 1850s, when Marx was living as a poor exile in London with his family, dependent on handouts from Engels and the occasional lifeline provided by journalism. This was Marx’s most creative period, resulting in unpublished works such as the Grundrisse and the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.

These efforts culminated in the 1867 publication of the first part of Marx’s magnum opus Capital: Volume One. This book systematically incorporates all the different strands of Marx’s thought into a singular whole for the first time, and contains many of his most original ideas. The most insightful is the reorientation of Marx’s earlier theory of alienation into an account of what he called “commodity fetishism.” But it is also a book which is woefully unclear about the kind of society meant to replace capitalism when the system’s insolvable contradictions invariably catch up to it. According to Marx, capitalism generates the highest form of social organization seen thus far. But it is also beset by contradictory dynamics which it cannot resolve without ceasing to be capitalism.

Consider the following simplified scenario: It is in the interest of individual capitalists to pay their workers as little as possible for their labor, since doing so increases competitiveness and can result in a higher rate of profit. But the aggregated consequence of all capitalists paying low wages to increase competition is that consumption declines because the mass of people do not have enough money to pay for the goods produced under capitalism. This leads to a crisis of overproduction during which capitalists produce more goods than people are able to buy, eventually leading to a recession rather like the one we experienced in 2008. In these circumstances, Marxists would claim that low wages inhibit people’s ability to buy all the real estate available in the United States. The system tried to compensate by offering low interest loans hedged against the expectation that the value of housing would continue to increase. But once it became clear that the real estate bubble was going to burst, the possibility of such repayments collapsed, and the whole system broke down for a time.

Here I will put aside the technical accuracy of such an analysis to describe the bigger picture.   For Marx, these contradictory dynamics were inevitable and would ultimately lead to capitalism’s replacement by a more rational form of society. Despite living for almost another 20 years, what form this new society would take was never elaborated upon. Passing remarks appear in The Critique of the Gotha Program, his various correspondences, and of course the posthumous volumes of Capital. But these fragmentary comments never went much beyond his far earlier claim in The German Ideology that under communism, human beings would be able to realize all aspects of their nature through hunting, fishing, and philosophizing without becoming a hunter, fisher, or philosopher. Most damningly, he did call for the formation of a post-revolutionary “dictatorship of the proletariat” to assume control of the state to redistribute resources and bring about a classless society in preparation for communism. But, again, what form that would take was unclear.

This lack of specificity demonstrates Marx’s fundamental limitations as a constructive theory next to his acute skills as a critic. It also has had far more profound consequences, as many figures inspired by his critique of capitalism saw fit to interpret how the revolution and a new society would come about in ways that differed quite strikingly from Marx. Perhaps the most obvious was the Leninist interpretation of Marxism as less concerned with scientific historical processes, and more as an account of political praxis. For Lenin and others, the point of Marxism was to change the world and not simply to interpret it and wait for the contradictory dynamics of capitalism to bring itself down. This necessitated that a vanguard party seize control of the state and institute dramatic reforms. In theory, Marx proposed that the dictatorship would simply be a transitory phase before the “withering away of the state.” In practice, of course, virtually every dictatorship erected in Marx’s name had little inclination to give up power, and the state never began to wither away. Many explanations have been given for this, from flaws in Marx’s understanding of human nature to his failure to take the problems of relative scarcity seriously enough. I will not dwell on this well tilled soil here. Instead, I will conclude this piece with a brief analysis of what Marx still has to teach us today.

Conclusion: What Can We Learn From Marx?

Marx was an acute social analyst whose insights have appeared in novel places. Even conservative and pro-capitalist figures—from Max Weber to Joseph Schumpeter—have at times grudgingly conceded the accuracy of his analysis on many points of importance. Here I will highlight three.

Firstly, Marx was correct to describe capitalism as a “revolutionary mode of production.” This insight was well captured in the passage from the Manifesto quoted above, in which he discusses how, even in the nineteenth century, capitalism was transforming everything from the physical landscape to the cultures around him. In today’s world, defined by globalization and its discontents, not to mention the immense transformations wrought by profit-driven technological change, it is clear that Marx was right about this. Capitalism transforms human relations along countless metrics. The question then becomes how we should respond to these transformations. This is why some conservatives, notably Weber, have pointed out that Marx has much to offer traditionalists. To the extent a society becomes increasingly driven by an impetus for technological innovation and the satisfaction of consumer desires, it becomes more and more difficult to preserve traditional cultures and mores against the drive for profit. A good example highlighted by Patrick Deneen is the recent capitalist embrace of LGBTQ rights. It is likely that Starbucks and Wal Mart are not doing this out of some sincere commitment, but because the cultural capital they accrue by appearing to be on the “right” side of history can be valuable. Marx was a pioneer in examining how the sacred traditions of a society can become “profaned” under pressure by capitalization, and this analysis has been vindicated today.

Secondly, Marx’s examination of consumption remains highly interesting and informative. This appears most clearly in Capital: Volume One when he discusses the “festishism of the commodities.” According to Marx, outside of our basic necessities, many of the objects we acquire are not desired because of the individual satisfaction we will get from them. We desire them for the value associated with those objects as a matter of social prestige and status. Consider a diamond. While it certainly has certain functions as an exceptionally hard mineral that can be used in industry, that cannot explain the value placed on diamonds as objects of aesthetic ornamentation. The reason we buy jewelry and wear it may be partially explained by its purely aesthetic qualities—being luminous and attractive—but it is also because diamonds display wealth and affluence. They are purchased and displayed as examples of what Veblen would later call “conspicuous consumption”; to be displayed as signifiers of our status and worth relative to other people. Beyond that, Marx made a sound point in observing that while consumption of such fetishized commodities may provide temporary gratification, it can only do so because a mere object can never actually provide us with the sense of status and respect we desire. Indeed, capitalist firms have a vested interest in creating new anxieties which they claim can be relieved through the satisfaction of new needs, meaning consumption of fetishized objects will never deliver the final happiness they promise.

Finally, Marx made poignant observations about the problems which emerge through wage suppression, automation of labor, and so on. These are especially pertinent today, when many people have seen their wages stagnate for decades and feel that their jobs are increasingly threatened by globalization and automation. How these problems should be addressed has become a major political issue in our time, with some calling for the wholesale replacement of capitalism and others seeking to amend it through policies such as the institution of a universal basic income. Which type of solutions may be better is a question I will set aside for now. I will conclude instead by observing that on this point Marx still provides useful guidance, which is valuable in these unstable times.

 

Matt McManus is currently Visiting Professor of Politics and International Relations at Tec de Monterrey. His forthcoming books are Overcoming False Necessity: Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law and What is Post-Modern Conservatism? He can be reached at garion9@yorku.ca or followed on Twitter @MattPolProf

103 Comments

  1. The New Zealand shooter was into left wing rubbish.
    He thought that was fine for White people, everyone else?
    Not so good.
    May they all RIP, with God’s blessings.

    • Luke says

      I would love to know the evidence that the NZ shooter was into ‘left wing rubbish’. If you say that because he professed to be an ‘eco-fascist’ – please rethink your comment LOL.

      • Barnpot says

        The shooter was a radical environmentalist and an ‘anti-imperialist’ America hater. Sounds pretty leftwing to me.

  2. Softclocks says

    I feel for any man who does not, in his heart, consider “each according to ability and each according to need” a beautiful sentiment.

    Granted, it is a sentiment that capitalism has already made reality in most western countries.

    • Jim Gorman says

      It may be a “beautiful sentiment”, but it is ignorant of human nature. We don’t live in a utopia. You will always have takers that could also be producers but lack the will to work and are therefore a drag on society. You will never have sufficient producers who do so regardless of how much the takers take. The whole sentiment is wasted until human nature changes!

      • Alastair says

        In a modern capitalist society the only ‘drag’ is someone who doesn’t spend money (and it’s well known that wealthier people spend less money as a percentage of their income than poorer people, so as far as consumption goes, they’re the drags).. We need some people to work in order to generate capital, but we need people to spend so that the economy doesn’t dry up. Anyone who believes in capitalism must abandon the old-fashioned idea that if you don’t work, you shouldn’t get paid. If anything, the consumer capitalist motto should be “to each according to their willingness to spend it”.

        Also, ‘human nature’ is a very bad idea to base an argument on, as well as a society. Humans are complex creatures, capable of generosity and malevolence, patience and impatience, kindness and cruelty, selfishness and cooperation. Human nature cannot ‘change’ because the only truly fundamental thing about us is that we always find a way to adapt.

        If we’re going to keep capitalism going, we’d do well to give all the ‘drags’ money to spend, so that they increase demand for jobs. Better them spending all their money in the economy than some rich guy saving most of his.

        • Will says

          “In a modern capitalist society the only ‘drag’ is someone who doesn’t spend money”

          This kind of nonsense is why a single-minded focus on consumption, without taking other general equilibrium effects that arise from saving and investment, never leads to a coherent analysis.

        • Saw file says

          @Alastair

          ” (and it’s well known that wealthier people spend less money as a percentage of their income than poorer people, so as far as consumption goes, they’re the drags)..”

          A person with a $1000 spends %30 = $300.
          A person with $1000000 spends %20=$200000

          I’m not sure what your point is?

          • 1000 people with $1000 spend %30 = $300,000
            1 person with $1000000 spends %20 = $200,000
            would be more accurate.

        • Luke Showalter says

          Alastair, you’ve fallen for the myth that spending drives economies.

          Tomorrow isn’t improved by a poor person buying another tattoo, Joe Sixpack buying a $60k pickup truck, or a rich guy buying a yacht. When the rich guy—or any guy— saves his money, that money can then be invested to say, find a cure for a disease or build a better mousetrap.

          • Andrew says

            What do you mean that Joe 6pack isn’t driving the economy?

            Are you equating economics with the advancement of human knowledge?

          • Alistair M. says

            Luke,

            Agreed. Investment from savings, not consumption spending, grows economies over time (Ceteris Paribus). This is all fairly basic stuff. Alastair is wrong.

            I blame the voodoo Keynesianism taught in schools and media today.

        • Barnpot says

          @Alistair — What you write is typical pseudo-economics favored by people who don’t understand economics. Economics has little to do with the flow of money. Economics is about production, productivity, and reducing waste. “we need people to spend so that the economy does not dry up” – and then you propose essentially printing money and giving it to the poor so they may spend and get the economy going. Voodoo economics. By doing this, you are in effect taxing people to pay the poor. This is not economics and it does not grow the economy. It is redistribution of wealth. The idea that by printing money you can fly by the bootstraps is hilarious.

          If only the left could understand economics or if they would only work for a year in a private enterprise where you have to EARN your income, then the left would not come up with pseudo-economic rubbish so common in their echo-chambers.

        • Alastair :In a modern capitalist society the only ‘drag’ is someone who doesn’t spend money (and it’s well known that wealthier people spend less money as a percentage of their income than poorer people, so as far as consumption goes, they’re the drags).

          No, not even slightly. Wealthy people spend just as much of their money as poor people. They just spend it on the means of production. The wealthy’s spending on the means of production creates just as many jobs as spending on consumption – their money is not stored under the bed, it goes on wages, buildings, computer programs, optical fibres – rather than on beer and skittles. (This is of course why capitalist societies are much richer than non capitalist societies – they have a lot more by way of the means of production.)

          The notion that the money that the wealthy don’t spend on consumption doesn’t get spent at all is one of the more ludicrous ideas that anti free market scribblers have come up with.

          Moeover, a lot of the money that the wealthy do spend directly on consumption also serves as R&D spending on the next generation of cheap high quality consumption goods for the masses. A rich man pays $10,000 for a clunky poor quality mobile phone. That provides the cash flow for the manufacturer to create better cheaper phones for you and me a few years later.

    • John Sirko says

      Works well in the rest of the animal kingdom don’t you think? It’s complete, utter total BS meant to manipulate you into doing stupid stuff you’d never otherwise do.

    • Barney Doran says

      When you put ‘from’ and ‘to’ in their proper place in that statement (as in the original), the ‘sentiment’ takes on a very different meaning.

    • David of Kirkland says

      Indeed, Marxism is much like other religious thought, based on utopian ideals rather than reality.
      Belief and faith are wonderful, but they are no way to run a country.
      People are not saintly. They are not mostly rational. They do judge others, and they won’t turn the other cheek often. We want more in life than meeting our basic needs for survival. Jealousy is natural, as is tribalism and even the desire to submit to authority.

    • Taylor says

      The sentiment applies to the poet, the artist, the composer…a centralised state cannot apply this sentiment.

  3. E. Olson says

    The only question for a reader of Marx is whether his total lack of understanding of human nature and economics should be seen as tragedy or comedy.

    • David of Kirkland says

      In a free and capitalist society, people can organize and purchase land and mostly live a communistic life, just as they can create religious communes whether other utopian ideals can be attempted. Yet we see this rarely, and never successfully.
      But you can do that the other way around. There is no way for a communist nation to allow a segment of liberty+capitalism to live within.

  4. Philip Davies says

    The sad truth is that historically Marxism cannot be separated from totalitarianism. Anyone who thinks Marxism should be given another try because it wasn’t implemented properly should ask the hundred million who are dead because it, whether it is worth the risk of giving it another just in case it might usher in the utopia next time.

    • Anja Böttcher says

      Reading many of the comments here and taking up as well some of the, for me a bit alienating, allusions in the above article, I would like to make one majour point:

      It is not only a misjudgement of Marx’ theory, but of all philosophical approaches, if one mistakes them as a kind of religion. When once addressed, by a follower, as the “first and most noble Marxist”, Karl Marx returned upset, that he was no Marxist, but a scientist. And Marx’ topic was basically capitalism, not any kind of “Marxism”. In analysing it, he did not only focus on the inner crises of a dynamic system driven by the accumulation of capital, but as well on the question what the labour in that accumulation process did with human subjectivity: that man under the condition of capitalism could only percieve himself as its function: as the cause of a increase of value through labour and as money as the fetish into which labour was exchanged.

      This process of self-alienation, which cannot be properly understood without its Hegelian base, has been driven today to the utmost extreme. Revolution thus is not primarily and solely the grip of power, but undoing of alienation, when concentration and accumulation have reached a point, when the majority of people can no loner find any sustainable existence, not even a poor and alienated existence, through labour. If we properly reflect the consequences for example of digitalization, this may be pretty soon the case.

      Thus the question whether Marx is right is not the question, if any group of people large enough thinks “Marxism” “cool” and therefore presses through a dogmatic view of “Marxism”. It depends on the state of capitalism and people’s struggling to find new forms to base their existence on, in mutual social interaction, which form of society emerges out of dealing with dysfunactional develpments in a situation capitalism has eaten up its own natural and human base.

      Therefore it is nonsense to assume that analysing the current dynamic of capitalism through Marx’ eyes bears any danger of automatically following totalitarian role models. Nor are historically real societies that referred to Marx, like the Soviet Union, be reduced to being viewed as prototypical and dogmatic realization of Marx’ theory. Russia up to the October Revolution was a feudal and basically agricultural society, till an authoritarian and bloody enforced attempt of industrialisation and a mismanaged and badly equipped participation in WW1 fuelled unrest, wich had before already popped up in 1905 after the Blood Sunday of St Petersburg. As Russians were sick of their Tsarist leadership, February Revolution first brought the socialrevolutionary Kerensky government to power, which, however, was so much under influence of Brits and the US, that wanted to keep Russia in war against Germany – while the Russian people wanted an end of war. Plus, they failed to tackle necesary social reforms. As the subsequent Bolshevik Revolution was accompanied with escalating interferences from outside (including German initial report for Bolsheviks, as they wanted an end of war at the eastern front, but support of Whites in Ukraine; Czech interference in Siberia, Anglosaxon invasions at various front, and, largest, Japanese invation), it turned into a bloody civil war, in which both sides committed bloody atrocities and brutal confiscation of food for fighting troops. Russian casualties in WW1 and the Civil War, then the subsequent aggressive war by Poles, who considered Russia weakened, mounted up to incredible 20 million people. Later, since 1941, the genocidal Nazi German war cost 27 casualties. That frame of exceeding suffering alone, then the fact that the later attempt of “socialism in one country” under Stalin, as war devastation had even destroyed the industrial potential build up under the Tsar, makes it impossible to judge from the Soviet Union as a very specific country, what post-capitalist societies might be like, who meet criterai Marx vaguely sketched as ideas for a society which no longer followed the necessities of permanent accumulation of capital, while during a preceding capitalist period tecnological potential could be enfolded, which, however, swallowed up labour.

      The two above comments thus mix philosophical, political and historical judgement in a way, which leads away from any real analysis of the problems we face today. While it is right to learn from history, the past still must be viewed in its due historical context. Shortened ideological judgements, however, fail the criteria of productive reflection.

      Nevertheless, in a certain way this was already pre-shaped in the above article, that – for my taste – mixed bographical and philosophical aspect too much. And finally, neither past societies, like the Soviet Union, nor a theoretical approach like Marx’ writing can be used in a productive way, if we do not analyse our own reality properly.

        • Arthur Peña says

          The phrase “frame of exceeding suffering” was especially appreciated. It’s astonishing how a-historical most criticism of so-called “Marxist” experiments is. Thank you for providing a bit of that historical context.

      • Anja Bottcher

        “And finally, neither past societies, like the Soviet Union, nor a theoretical approach like Marx’ writing can be used in a productive way, if we do not analyse our own reality properly.”

        Thoughtful response. But what does “analyze our own reality properly” suggest? Is the issue coming up with new ways of articulating the relationship of labor to capital? New ways of redistributing wealth? Or are there deeper issues?

        I agree with the author that the problem of alienation persists. Modern philosophers have been struggling with this for the past couple of centuries – Marx is only one of many who claim to have a solution. But I think the problem of alienation is far deeper than a question of economic relations which can be solved by some new and improved ideology.

        Capitalism is a way of being, an orientation to nature . . . or in the words of the great Roberto Calasso, Capitalism represents “an upheaval of the brain”.

        • Anja Böttcher says

          CA As all other factors are interelated, the point is of course to re-think deeper issues – or to start deep-reflection for the first time again.

          If capitalism makes man define his capacities within the frame of the relation between labour and capital accumulation, and finally that capital accumulation does not any longer rely on labour (for example through replacement of most labour through digitalization and artificial intelligence), man needs to rethink about himself.

          And btw – Marx has not at all thought he had “a solution” to the problem of alienation. Not at all. He did not develop any dogmatic view, but solely left vague sketches of what a state of existence without alienation could imply, while I think you underrate to which degree man’s subjection to a mode of existence dictated by an economical frame changed his whole perception of himself. It even took a religious form in the “protestant work ethik” (Max Weber) – which trivialised older stages of ontological awareness.

          Just an example: David Hume is definitely an intelligent and thorough thiker, but the subjective foundation of his philosophy is ontologically highly paradoxical. It is put down in his statement: “We can never reach beyond ourselves.” However, if we couldn’t, we could not even form such a statement, If subjectivity was all, we could not climb on a meta-position to state it. Nor woulld we be. Our mere existence, which precedes our subjectivity points “beyond ourselves”, as subjectivity occurs within ourselves.

          The ideological shift towards subjectivity, is happened already in the protestant reformation. Since then indispensable constiuents of what we are has fallen apart in false dichotomies, like the subjective versus the objective, individualism versus collectivism ect. Reformation was a reduction of ontological understanding of man. The void it left, may have caused activitiy – but rather as if people were in a permanent state of escaping from themselves.

          This leads to your last statement, which is not only a pure mystification of capitalism, but even definitely wrong. Technological or creative inventions are production. The logic of capitalism, however, is accumulation, eve exponential accumulations. It makes use of productivity, but solely as long as capitalist accumulation depends primarily on products – which it does, at the current state of capital concentration, to an exponentially declining degree. And with nature, capitalism has nothing to do anyway. Nature means only resources for it – and we face the consequences of that now. Nor is Rober Calasso right: In a certain historical situation, capitalism gave room for a limited group of people’s brains’ activity. Most labour for capitalist production has been pretty brainless – and one replaced by machine intelligence, it will leave nothing for brains to do any longer.

          If you think that material supply for all would be easily to achieve in a sustainable way – just tell us. Basically, this was then a rather technical and pragmatic, not an ideological question. However, why we are so little able to overcome self-made obstacles to solve even the apparently ‘easy’ material needs, is a much more deeper question than you admit.

          While we all know that with our current way of existence we are killing out planet, there is not the slightest indication that we are capable of changing our lives. And while we all know that wars between nuclear powers could lead to a homocide, USAmericans can bear to live under a leadership, whose leading militaries state boastfully that a war against China and Russia were inevitable within the next couple of years (literally this was uttered by US generals like Ben Hodges and Curtis Scapparotti). How could there be more alienation.

          Identifying capitalism with human nature is against all evidence: More than 90% of human history, humanity did without capitalism. This is a simple empirical fact.

      • To say that Marx was no kind of Marxist is to deny that he wrote the Communist Manifesto.

        Marx was not some simple scientist. Simple, maybe, but a philosopher and agitator with naive and damaging ideas.

        • Anja Böttcher says

          “Idea” is a platonic term. Marx has never referred to “ideas”. His whole ontological understanding in completely non-Platonic.

          Are you shure you have understood a single word of his writing? Or are you just parotting prejudices?

          • ‘“Idea” is a platonic term. Marx has never referred to “ideas”.’

            I don’t know whether to despair or laugh.
            I am happy that you an I become better strangers.

          • Taylor says

            Augusto Del Noce wrote of the New Totalitarianism and of how it was a radical anti Platonism, @anja. You are radiant evidence of how insightful he was.

      • Barnpot says

        @Anja — Marx indeed was a prophet of a new secular religion. His appeal to the science was simply a smokescreen and a parody. The parody of historical determinism is anything but scientific. Science was in vogue at his time, so he latched on that, and claimed that he was following scientific precepts to arrive at his demented historical determinism. Marxism is based on belief and not empirical knowledge of facts. Self-righteous emotion-based belief in a utopian ideal – a religion without a deity – or maybe it was the proletariat (whatever this stupid thing is) that is the god.

        And then his greatest weakness was critiquing capitalism while offering nothing coherent in return. Unlike what you imply that Marx was foremostly a critic and that is to his credit — I say no — that is not creditable to slash and burn and bash and destroy, and when asked well what do you suggest in replacement, that we get more slash and burn and bash and destroy of private ownership and a free markets.

        No thanks for your orthodox communist party apologism for communism.

        • Anja Böttcher says

          I have no idea what you have smoked, Mister. Sure that you have a remote idea what philosophy is? Nothing what I wrote has anything to do with anything what members of parties intend, but rather with people who use their brains for thought.

          Have you ever achieved to work yourself through a book that is demands a minimum of education and intellect?

      • EEA says

        Thank you for returning the comment section to rational argument.

  5. dirk says

    What I missed in the analysis and exposures of Marx: the setting in 19th century Germany, with its preoccupations with ” Stufen”, Steps. Especially in German antrhopology (first hunting, then agriculture, then citylife and culture), history (Hegel’s steps and progress) and even agriculture (self sufficiency, commercial), whereby always the last steps, the ones we live in here and now, are the best ones, the ultimum. Marx saw feodalism completely vanished and changed into bourgeoisie, he even saw many good and necessary features in that bourgeoisie of the Western cities. So, he just adapted such Stufen to capitalism and socialism. Alas, whereas in many aspects he had it right (even Weber and Schumpeter, both strict adherents to the “Stufentheory” had to admit this, indeed), the final situation would become a concoction of capitalism and socialism. But how could he know that at the time?? Totalitarianism? Not more than in any other philosophy or political treatise at the time.

    • Anja Böttcher says

      Mmmh, Schumpeter thought about a free market model that could no longer accumulate capital properly. Thus I would not call his model capitalist. The idea of a market is not identical with a capitalist system. The same with Gsell.

  6. This essay is unconvincing. If you write a lot, as Marx did, some of your observations will seem sensible to some. Capitalism does produce some very rich people who then have too much political influence. Economists are not able to predict the effects of innovations in technology.

  7. Daniel says

    Or in lieu of Marx, we have good old McManus. 😉

  8. “Marx was correct to describe capitalism as a ‘revolutionary mode of production.'” – Correct, but also obvious, even at the time.

    “outside of our basic necessities, many of the objects we acquire are not desired because of the individual satisfaction we will get from them. We desire them for the value associated with those objects as a matter of social prestige and status.” – Again, correct, but not particularly insightful: since the dawn of civilization, people have worn status symbols of various kinds to signal their power or wealth. This has never been a secret.

    “wage suppression, automation of labor, and so on.” – real take home wages have been falling due to the burden of taxation: while taxation causes net welfare loss, massive under taxation (relative to government spending) in the past has created a situation where much of today’s work only goes to pay the debts of the socialist programs of our parents, rather than for the benefit of ourselves. A most astonishing transfer of wealth to one generation from the next. Ironically, it is the socialist policies that created the problems that they were purported to prevent. His “poignant observations” were exactly backward.

    We can do better than trying to raise this corpse from the dead.

  9. Bill Miller says

    Why we should read Marx?
    Sun Tzu: “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

    • dirk says

      That’s not what Carl von Clausewits wrote in Vom Kriege, Bill, his idea was that you never can know the enemy well, neither yourself. But that , nevertheless, you have to proceed, and might be successful, or not! BTW, what he said about the war situation, can without any problem be changed into any managerial or political one.

    • I’m pleased to read that from someone else. Yes, we need to understand Marx and Marxist writings. Not to emulate them or implement them but because it is so obvious that the young man, along with his young aristocrat friend, came up with some ultimately very damaging concepts.

  10. Farris says

    “It is in the interest of individual capitalists to pay their workers as little as possible for their labor, since doing so increases competitiveness and can result in a higher rate of profit.”

    The problem with this statement is it is a half truth. It is not in the interest of individual capitalist to pay workers as little as possible to increase profitability. It is in the interest of capitalist to pay the MOST PRODUCTIVE workers as little as possible. Yet the demand for highly productive workers is high, meaning those workers can command higher wages. Paying unproductive or minimally productive workers even paltry amounts will result in losses.

  11. Serenity says

    “ …even pro-capitalist outlets such as the Economist have begun to concede there is much we might learn from Marx’s analyses…”

    Since Zanny Minton Beddoes became The Economist’s “first female editor-in-chief on 2 February 2015”, this outlet joined mainstream media in non-stop progressive propaganda.

    No surprise they want us to “learn from Marx’s analyses…”

  12. TheSnark says

    Marx had some good insights into the nature of capitalism, ie, the then-current situation and the process leading up to it. But he completely misunderstood human nature and hence his predictions of the future were worse than useless.

    His belief in class solidarity and the utopia that it will lead to sounds wonderful, but was simply wrong. When the real test came in 1914, the workers of the world flocked to their national colors, not the red flag of the revolution. And when the revolution was tried, it was driven by a gang of bourgeois intellectuals who had to use terrorism and oppression to force the workers and peasants into their supposed paradise.

    Marxism truly is the opium of the intellectuals.

    • Olbrog says

      Good last line.

      Marxism for the type of person who tries to feel powerful via words and sweeping descriptions that put people in their place. Then when the world doesn’t cooperate with said descriptions they resolve the dissonance by throwing increasingly desparate tantrums.

      Capitalists don’t feel the addictive allure of words and instead focus on solving problems.

      • Jason Langford says

        Let’s take the Boeing 737 Max as an example of capitalist expression- they solved the problem “How do we upgrade the 737 as cheaply as possible” all the while resisting the allure of words such as “airworthiness” or “passenger safety”
        My point being, a capitalist’s idea of which things are problems to be solved and which problems can be ignored has little to do with the good of society or the well-being of average citizens.

        • Alexander Cutler says

          The only way a capitalist can succeed (make a profit) is by trading a good of service which someone considers worth the price. Therefore, by definition, everything a capitalist produces is for the good of the individual or party which acquires it – as decided by themselves.

          The Boeing 737 Max is (ironically for you) a good example of the success of capitalism, as when an inferior product is produced in a free market, the market punishes that producer and preferences superior products and producers.

          Through the operation of competition, capitalist systems produce better goods, more cheaply, and allow consumer to make their own choices as to ‘the good of society’ or the ‘well-being of average citizens’. It has the great virtue of allowing choice.

          My point is, a capitalist system presents the market with multiple solutions to problems, the utility or benefits of which the people who pay for those solutions can decide. Though this is not a perfect system, I challenge you to come up with another which advances the good of society or the well-being of average citizens better.

  13. Robert Franklin says

    Two things. First, Marx’s major failing was his perception of capitalist economies as strictly matters of capital and labor. Given that, he considered capitalism’s problem of overproduction to be fatal to it. But of course Keynes demonstrated how government can and does ameliorate that problem via redistribution of wealth via taxation and spending, the whole purpose of which is to increase aggregate demand, support prices and reduce inventories. It’s the fatal flaw in Marx’s analysis of capitalism.

    Second, the problem with this piece is that it never mentions surplus value. Capitalism creates huge amounts of surplus value that end up dramatically altering lives for the better. The flood tide of surplus value means vast numbers of people are free to do things like make art, make music, practice medicine, be college professors, seek spiritual grace, write poetry, retire, etc. Far from the oppressor Marx imagined, capitalism is enormously freeing for many, many people. That’s why it’s so popular not just among the wealthy, but among the far less well-to-do as well. That’s why the main force against the student movements of the 60s consisted of blue-collar workers. How can you write a piece about Marx without mentioning surplus value?

    • Matt says

      Largely because he had a very different interpretation of it linked to his theory of exploitation. Elaborating on that would take an entirely different article. Since I tend to reject both Marx’s account and the more charitable one you described, I decided to focus on other topics.

  14. ga gamba says

    Marx said all kinds of things. Some true. Some goofy. Here’s one: “Communism is the riddle of history solved, and it knows itself to be this solution.”

    Francis Fukuyama was (incorrectly) ridiculed for declaring that history had ended (w/ the victory of secular, liberal capitalism, which actually happened), yet Marx gets a pass for declaring it solved despite at the time having absolutely no evidence of this. And he called this science to boot. There was no functioning and successful communist society in existence that Marx count point to and declare, “Eureka, there it is. Proof of my model. I’m vindicated!”

    Noyes’s Oneida and Cadbury’s Bournville were communities of his time that certainly didn’t practice the scientific socialism that Marx preached. Cadbury was a benevolent capitalist who provide some of his workers nice homes, a public library, and park grounds. Noyesian communities were religiously based, the largest being about 300 people, and once Noyes died it all fell apart quickly, which suggests his charismatic leadership held things together and not the science of socialism. Further, they were primarily agricultural, thus not the proletariat who are the vanguard of the revolution.

    Marx called them utopian, which was a criticism. These societies wanted to uplift everyone rather than uplift the working-class, so they were not class conscious. Socialism was the necessary and inevitable outcome of the struggle between two historically developed classes – the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.

    Marx also claimed money is a commodity, but to get around the fallacy of that he called it a special commodity because it has the ability to metamorphosise. Does oil not have the ability to metamorphosise to petrol, kerosine, and even plastic as well as fertiliser? Silica can metamorphosise into silicon chips, yes? Money is not a commodity; it not subject to being scarce. It may be scare for you, the individual, but it’s not subject to the same scarcity whale oil is. More money may be printed. There is no department of whale creation. Money has no inherent value in and of itself. It is a logical entity not a physical one, it is nothing more than a record of value and a means of transaction. Money is a promise to redeem by you what was already forsaken by you.

    Why would Marx declare money a commodity, special or not? I think because in the minds of many people commodities are natural wealth simply extracted from the earth and ought to belong to no one other than the people or the state. These are primed minds, receptive to the idea of appropriation and looking for the justification to do so. What are often the first businesses nationalised by an anti-business government declaring its intent to implement socialism? Resource extraction, land, and utilities. By declaring money a commodity, Marx establishes it too is something that may be seized. Marx then went beyond the conventional meaning of commodity declaring all goods and services are commodities.

    Marx declared: “There could be no capitalist production at all if it had to develop simultaneously and evenly in all spheres.” Golly, that’s quite a requirement to establish. Does anything “develop simultaneously and evenly in all spheres”? Hell, even the sun doesn’t shine simultaneously and evenly in all spheres. Is everyone to wait in a holding pattern until the means to develop are distributed evenly? Oh, and simultaneously as well? Could socialism pull off such a feat?

    Marx is correct workers are not paid the full value of what they produce. Marx only recognises the value of labour, so the surplus value that the capitalist gets is for “free”. But, what does Marx have to say about the acquiring of the tools used by labour, the building of workshops and factories used by workers, etc.? Where do these come from? They just magically appear? Marx waves away the importance of this by arguing a plant containing machines and raw materials, if left idle, will simply rust away and eventually ruin. This is true. As soon as human labour is applied to these things, new commodities and new values are created. Possibly true; they could make unwanted, defect-riddled rubbish too. Still, Marx asserts, this labour is the source, and the only source, of surplus value. But, and this is important, without the tools, machines, and facilities, what could labour produce? If I gather a group of men in a field and tell them “Build me a car”, could they do so? They couldn’t even build me a bench. It is under capitalism that both the value of labour and the value of capital is recognised. Marx himself recognised the importance of this relationship by telling workers to seize the means of production. For all the emphasis he placed on the importance and dignity of human labour, both of body and mind, he still directed the worker to steal the tools. Tools are important. And what did Marx have to say when what labour produces remains unsold or sold at less than the cost of production? Ought wages be reduced for this failure? If the logic is workers are entirely responsible for the profit earned, then by the same logic they are entirely responsible for the losses as well, are they not?

  15. Alastair says

    The question of whether Marx was/is right or wrong is redundant. We should instead ask whether his ideas can be put to use, and whether they can be re-interpreted both to help with the problems we currently face, and to give us a way to recognise what the problems are in the first place. There are countless thinkers who have attempted to do exactly this in the years since Marx published his writings, and attempting to evaluate left-wing ideas by going back to Marx is a bit like trying to evaluate Christianity by reading The Bible; yes, that’s where it began, but so much more has been done since then.

    Read Lenin, Marcuse, Eagleton, Deleuze and Guattari, Negri; each of them, along with many others, took what Marx wrote and worked with it. Don’t take the word of a 19th Century Hegelian without a little critical reading.

  16. Marx’s theory of classes saw them as having hard walls. He didn’t yet see that there could be social mobility. Today’s immigrant who sweeps a factory floor and goes to night school can do something better in a few years’ time, and his/her children can go even further. Once capitalism permitted that, together with universal voting in election, it changed, and avoided one of the contradictions he described. I don’t blame him for seeing the future incorrectly. Crystal ball gazing is seldom accurate.

    He also misunderstood what happens when a revolutionary group seizes the “means of production”, or seizes anything else. As the French revolution (pre-Marx) showed us, it seldom stops there: https://quillette.com/2019/03/10/the-french-genocide-that-has-been-air-brushed-from-history/. Those who want to change the world through seizure and preservation of political power rather than letting the world evolve as it will (revolution rather than evolution) do so from motives of personal power rather than benevolent protection of the downtrodden.

  17. Chuck Berger says

    Many thanks for this important and well-written piece!

    Sophomore year of Social Studies at Wesleyan was an intensive crash-course in Western economic and political thought. We had to write two essays a week, it was brutal… the subjects of our clumsy analyses ranged from Smith to Marx, Weber, Veblen, Friedman and lots in between.

    I’ve always valued what reading the original texts of those thinkers, and having to engage with them in detail. We read them not because they are “right” or “wrong”, but because they can show us different ways to think about the world.

  18. “Virtually any topic of interest in the humanities finds its place within the Marxist system”

    I agree that studying Marx is very helpful in getting a handle on our current reality – if only because his influence persists with great political consequences to this day. However, I think many of the problems with Marx are revealed in his weak understanding of the nature of the human imagination and the nature of art. In fact latter correctives of Marx have tried, to some degree, to replace the alienated worker with the alienated artist.

    I think a good way of approaching Marx is by way of Hegel. Marx of course is a particular appropriation of Hegel – Marx more or less secularizes Hegel – he replaces the movement of spirit (Geist) in history and the achievement of transcendence (Aufhebung) with a revolution in economic relations.

    Marx is a kind of vulgarization of Hegel. And not only is Hegel essential in understanding Marx, I believe current progressive ideological excesses are themselves illuminated as more recent vulgarizations of Hegel. What is “Wokeness” other than the democratization of Aufhebung – reality is a manifestation of the self? Hegel writes:

    “Subjectivity is insatiably greedy to concentrate and drown everything in this single spring of the pure ego”

    No one believes anymore in Marx’s ideas of economic revolution yet millions manifest an implicit if not fanatical belief in an historical dialectic which ends in being Woke. What is being Woke other than a hyperawareness of oneself as subective power and a hypersensitivity to the harm caused by even mere thoughts and words? The world apparently consists of the Woke, the Not-Yet-Woke and, unfortunately, the deplorable and hopelessly Unwoke . . .

    By all means read Marx, but it is Hegel who articulates the most ambitious description of the radically peculiar modern phenomenon of human hyperconsciousness. Hegel’s sublimated ego which becomes I am the World is democratized as We are the World. Get it?

    • Matt says

      Yes CA. Hegel is undoubtedly the greater thinker; though personally I find his relational account of subjectivity more interesting than his work on art.

  19. David says

    I agree with TR that “capitalism as a ‘revolutionary mode of production’ ” and “commodity fetishism” were neither insightful nor original.

    The third alleged reason — that “Marx made poignant observations about the problems which emerge through wage suppression, automation of labor, and so on” — was not substantiated in any way.

    Thus, no good reason was given here to read Marx.

    It rather seems to be an initiation into Marxist mythology or far-left politics in general.

    Marshall McLuhan wrote, “Marxism is quite unable to cope with any twentieth-century problem.”

    It is even less able to cope with twenty-first century problems.

    It seems to lead people away from reasoned discussions and into agonistic forms of discourse.

    • Matt says

      Why do you not think the first two observations were novel and insightful? Moreover the entire discussion about contradictory dynamics within capitalism concerned wage suppression. So I hardly see how the point was unsubstantiated.

      • David says

        Hi, Matt.

        Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson, both of whom Marx read, also wrote about capitalism as a revolutionary mode of production.

        That people buy things not necessarily for their utility but for status seems like an obvious point.

        With regard to wage suppression, you say:

        “It is in the interest of individual capitalists to pay their workers as little as possible for their labor, since doing so increases competitiveness and can result in a higher rate of profit.”

        This is not necessarily the case.

        Henry Ford, for example, thought it was in his interest to pay his employees more than twice the going rate.

        https://www.npr.org/2014/01/27/267145552/the-middle-class-took-off-100-years-ago-thanks-to-henry-ford

        • Matt says

          Sure. But again it is the way he analyzed these subjects that was novel and insightful. Smith’s approach to capitalism emphasized its transformative effects individually and locally. As mentioned in the quote from the Manifesto, and recognized by Weber and Schumpter, what Marx recognized was that the transformative impact of capitalism ran much deeper. It not only geographically upended the world, but fundamentally changed traditions and practices with a speed and efficiency no one could predict. To the second point, as mentioned, what was novel in his analysis of commodity fetishism was not just the observation that people attributed mysterious powers to objects. Many were aware of this, and Marx discussed them when invoking the term fetish. What was original was the observation that capitalism creates rather than just satisfies preexisting needs, and it does this by appealing not to put individual desires but our longing for status. This was highly original, particularly at a time when Utilitarian theories dominated much of political economy. Lastly, I think he was obviously wrong that capital will always press down on wages. But in certain circumstances it can, and whether there are good reasons for this or not, the insight pioneered by Marx was helpful in understanding these dynamics.

          • David says

            I wrote my response with the Hermann Strasser quote before I read your last.

            It seems to me that Adam Smith’s remarks about foreign commerce and the diamond buckles suggest the same basic idea you’re attributing to Marx.

            “But what all the violence of the feudal institutions could never have effected, the silent and insensible operation of foreign commerce and manufactures gradually brought about. These gradually furnished the great proprietors with something for which they could exchange the whole surplus produce of their lands, and which they could consume themselves without sharing it either with tenants or retainers. All for ourselves and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind. As soon, therefore, as they could find a method of consuming the whole value of their rents themselves, they had no disposition to share them with any other persons. For a pair of diamond buckles, perhaps, or for something as frivolous and useless, they exchanged the maintenance, or what is the same thing, the price of the maintenance of a thousand men for a year, and with it the whole weight and authority which it could give them. The buckles, however, were to be all their own, and no other human creature was to have any share of them; whereas in the more ancient method of expense they must have shared with at least a thousand people. With the judges that were to determine the preference this difference was perfectly decisive; and thus, for the gratification of the most childish, the meanest, and the most sordid of all vanities, they gradually bartered their whole power and authority.”

            https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/smith-adam/works/wealth-of-nations/book03/ch04.htm

          • Harbinger says

            @Matt.

            All your contributions to date on historical philosophy have been valuable thank you Matt, including this one. But the rather minor positive contributions of Mr Marx you remark on, are not a sufficient explanation of the prominence and endurance of Marxist thought amongst the generations which have followed. The main reason his ideas haven’t deservedly faded into obscurity, is that he made it okay to hate the competent and successful and steal their stuff.

        • Sean says

          The reason Henry Ford increased wages is because the employees were leaving for other companies who would pay them more. This is a process completely at odds with Marxist analysis. It is not even considered. Marx’s analysis of this issue is so idiotically one sided that it is impossible to take it remotely seriously. He simply assumes out of hand that employers do not compete for workers by raising wages (or other benefits).

  20. Locketopus says

    Firstly, Marx as a social scientist:

    Part I: Marxian economics

    Scientific theories are judged based on explanatory and predictive value. Marxian economics fails miserably on both aspects. Every country that has remade its economy along Marxist lines has soon found itself hungry and oppressed. In no such country has the promised “worker’s paradise”, or anything like it, obtained.

    While it is rare that we actually have anything akin to a real scientific control in the social sciences, here we have two: the former East and West Germany, and the present North and South Korea. In each case, the people, land, and culture were virtually homogeneous, yet the free market half wound up as an advanced, prosperous, and (relatively) free country while the Marxist half wound up as a hellhole so repugnant that people had to be kept from leaving at the point of a gun.

    We also have examples such as India and China, where the country has improved considerably after the abandonment or, in the case of China, partial abandonment, of a strict Marxist economic model.

    What we don’t have is even one example where remaking a country’s economy along Marxist lines has led to success. It’s slavery and starvation all the way down, often with a generous side dish of mass murder.

    Part II: Marxian sociology

    Marx’s theory of rigid class was being refuted even as he wrote. Ancien regimes were crumbling everywhere, and the new capitalist class often came from humble beginnings. One can easily find pictures of Andrew Carnegie’s childhood home on the web. It’s pretty spartan, especially when one considers that the Carnegie family only had half of the cottage (the family of another weaver lived in the other room).

    Even Marx’s latter-day fans/heretics appear to have largely abandoned his “class” nonsense, replacing it with other concepts such as “race” and “gender”, which, while equally risible and pernicious, at least have the advantage of (until recently) actually being innate characteristics of the person. Of course, even that is now under attack, with people claiming that gender and race are fluid.

    As a social scientist, then, Marx is an utter failure.

    I conclude that studying Marx from a social science perspective makes about as much sense as requiring chemists to spend weeks studying phlogiston, lawyers to take courses on the rules of trial by combat and trial by ordeal, or medical doctors to familiarize themselves with the theory that various ailments are caused by being shot with invisible arrows by elves. While I have not checked, I feel confident that (e.g.) Harvard Medical School devotes little or no curriculum time nowadays to the Doctrine of Elf-Shot.

    Secondly: Marx from a historical perspective. Certainly Marxism has had a major effect on today’s world, and certainly it could be argued that Marx warrants study for that reason alone.

    However, the effects of Marxism are uniformly evil. If one is to take a historical approach to Das Kapital, it should be in the same spirit that one would approach, say, Mein Kampf or the various works of Goebbels — something akin to “The ideas in these books have been shown not to work, time and time again, and on top of that, were used to justify the murder of millions of people. Let us study them that we may never be fooled by them again.”

    As Bill Miller notes above, quoting Sun Tzu, one must know the enemy, and Marxism is the enemy of the human race as a whole. It is utterly evil.

    • Andrew says

      Was manifest destiny used to justify the death of millions to the advantage of capitalists?

      Appealing to the unblemished innocence of capitalism again Mr. Locke?

      • Locketopus says

        Don’t give yourself a hernia setting up those straw men, Andrew.

        Of course the history of capitalism isn’t “unblemished”.

        But neither do capitalist countries need to have armed guards to keep people from leaving.

        Quite the contrary.

        • Softclocks says

          No, but they certainly do need armed security when travelling all the countries they’ve helped raze…

          • Locketopus says

            We literally dropped nukes on Japan. No one needs “armed security” to visit there, because it is a civilized capitalist country, not a socialist hellhole. Nor in South Korea. Nor in Germany. Nor in…

            Sell it somewhere else, commie. No one is buying it here.

        • Anja Böttcher says

          “[H]istory of capitalism isn’t “unblemished””?

          No history has been bloodier than that of capitalism! Especially Anglosaxon capitalism. The African League named victims of English capitalism on their soil alone 100 million people only in the 19th century. As The Guardian reported, raising that claim alone led to the shredding of fact files of 100 metre shelves of 3 metres height in British archives. Asian victims of the same beast were more than 40 million. Victims of US post-WW2 mostly illegal wars till 2002 were 30 million. Capitalist England has decimated three times in its capitalistic history the population of its neighbour country by 50%. Last time in the 1840s, during the potatoe famine.Now add colonial atrocities of other aggresively emerging capitalist powers in the 19th century to that bloodtoll, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Portugal, and then you receive only a proportion of capitalists’ victims, altough already many times those of all non-capitalist regimes together.

          And don not fool yourself, by pretending, Hitler, Mussolini and Franco were anti-capitalist, Fascism and Nazism were capitalism driven to its most repressive (Mussolini) and massmurderous (Hitler) extreme. Hitler’s aggressive attempt of colonisation of the east of Europe up to the Ural, followed the role model of English colonization.

          Apoligists of capitalism simply outsource the inherent colonial bloodtoll of their own regimes in their own perception. How convenient!

          And they even blame the victims of anti-communism to communist regimes.

          However, most ironical is to take as argument for capitalism the fact, that robbed out populations leave their own shores and go exactly where their never properly paid resources have gone before.

          Everyboody who soberly looks at the trace of human bloodshed knows that none other has produced more casualties than victims first of English than of US capitalism.

  21. David says

    Marx’s originality is often overstated.

    Hermann Strasser offers a list of insights that are often associated with Marx but in fact preceded Marx in his book The Normative Structure of Sociology:

    “Robert Malthus, John Locke, Adam Smith and David Ricardo had already greatly developed economic science, having formulated the labor theory of value. Adam Ferguson had written extensively on the functions of the social divisions of labor and of social conflict; Charles Fourier had forwarded the theory of exploitation and surplus value; Saint-Simon had observed that each epoch was accompanied by appropriate institutions for the functioning of its particular society as well as continuing struggles between the classes; French communists had heralded the rise of the Fourth Estate; Lorenz von Stein had discussed the role of the proletariat; the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat was developed by Weitling and Blanqui, and the theory of the recurrence of economic crisis was formulated by Sismondi. Robert Owen, a factory owner interested in the problems of labor, had hoped to set standards of welfare for workers and to organize a co-operative organization of production. The theory of alienation of the proletarians was proclaimed by Max Stirner one year before Marx. Moreover, the doctrine of communal ownership founded upon the abolition of private property had been expounded for the last 2,000 years. More specifically, materialism was developed in a treatise by d’Holbach and restated by Feuerbach. Herder and Hegel posited the philosophy of the Spirit in reaction to eighteenth-century rationalism.” (p. 98)

    https://www.amazon.com/Normative-Structure-Sociology-Routledge-Editions/dp/1138989614

  22. “philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world; the point is to change it.”

    We tend to forget how radical a concept this was and is. Marx’s contempt for religion reflects his disdain for recognizing any power beyond the human mind. Marx has nothing but praise for Prometheus’ theft of fire and defiance of Zeus:

    “Prometheus’ admission: “In sooth all gods I hate” is [philosophy’s] own admission, its own motto against all gods, heavenly and earthly, who do not acknowledge the consciousness of man as the supreme divinity.”

    Marx is the posterboy for philosophies of liberation which are peculiar to the modern world (Plato never really expected his imaginary Republic to change the world). The philosopher emerges as a kind of intellectual ruling elite who will lead the masses to liberation:

    “The head of this emancipation is philosophy, its heart is the proletariat”

    To this day philosophers, or more properly “theorists”, can’t resist imagining themselves as champions and liberators of some designated underclass. Astride great stallions of intellectual cleverness theorist can set the world right. How boring, how pedestrian for a philosopher to merely try to understand the world.

  23. There were lots of socialists around in a revolutionary mood before Marx. He provided them with an ideology that galvanized them into a powerful force, much as Jesus and Muhammed did before him. If you want to understand how that happened, you really need to have a basic knowledge of what the man actually wrote. That said, he isn’t the easiest writer to read. I find him insufferably dull. It’s too bad Trotsky wasn’t around to serve as his sidekick instead of Engels. He might have taught him something about how to write. At least Trotsky’s books aren’t the intellectual equivalent of a trip to the dentist.

  24. Real Marxist says

    The modern day progressives and “socialists” in the USA have very little in common with Marx. For Marx the most important driver of human behavior are the economic interests that people have. Therefore, the social classes are defined by the common economic interests they have. They are defined not by skin color, gender, sexual orientation, etc. but by the way they relate to the means of production. The modern left in the USA is consumed by identity politics which is incredibly simplistic and completely neglects the nature of the social classes as defined by Marx. They pay lip service to Marx without even understanding what his Historical Materialism means.
    Marxism is about protecting the economic interests of the working class, the class that has been completely abandoned by the modern left. The modern “left” is an interesting union of the rich and the powerful, on the one hand, and a variety of different minority interest groups, on the other hand. The minority groups provide a cover of legitimacy for the most reactionary interests of the capitalist class in America. It is not a coincidence that the corporate executives are firmly behind the “progressives”. They think the progressives are their “useful idiots”, a role that I think the progressives play with gusto.

    • Locketopus says

      The modern left in the USA is consumed by identity politics which is incredibly simplistic and completely neglects the nature of the social classes as defined by Marx.

      That is because Marx’s ridiculous notion of “class” became untenable when the capitalist economy made it possible for the working class to move to the suburbs, buy SUVs and take vacations to Disney World, whereupon they immediately began voting Republican.

      The modern “left” (which, to a first approximation, is made up of privileged white academics with a sprinkling of minority race hustlers) had to come up with new victim classes that they could claim to “speak for”. Note that while the alleged victims have changed, the basic scam has not: gain power by claiming to “speak for” an oppressed group of which one is not even a member, and with which one is likely not even all that familiar. Note that Marx never had a real job in his life, any more than Barack Obama or Kamala Harris have ever lived in the hood.

      Why the oppressed group needs someone to “speak for” them is, of course, never examined.

      • Alistair says

        The oppressed groups probably suffer from false consciousness, or something, and are insufficiently woke. Or maybe not aligned enough with LGBTQ liberation. That’s why they need White Knights to act/be outraged on their behalf. 🙂

  25. Rick Martinez says

    Congratulations to Matt McManus for an excellent and insightful article on not only why it is significant to read Marx, but not to be fearful of socialism per se. No, we don’t want or need it here in America, yet the more we learn and know–the stronger, more confident, and more emotionally healthy we are that free enterprise capitalism is what keeps us as individuals more creative, more contributory, more enterprising and ultimately FREER. I have read Marx on Capitalism many times for years over and over again, yet not truly grasped its relevance and applicability to America today.
    Matt McManus brief and concise overview helped me “see” (understand) how people can be taken in by its so-called values.

  26. Dan says

    Marx was a terrible writer who obfuscated and confused as opposed to illuminate. If he had an insight buried inside thousands of pages of writing, well, congratulations. Too many people interpret his confused ramblings as evidence of his brilliance.

  27. Alan J Green says

    Sorry, but those three ideas don’t make up for all the nonsense Marx came up with.

    First, lots of people have criticized consumer culture going back to the Old Testament. And sure, the dynamism of modern free enterprise is destabilizing. But it also brings opportunity. I’d rather be in today’s capitalist system than be a medieval peasant with a stable “career” (assuming the weather is good) but absolutely no opportunity. Finally, rising wages isn’t the only road to wealth. During the period you reference most consumer products became less expensive (in real dollars). Productivity is the real key to wealth for any nation.

    His advocacy of socialism by itself disqualifies him as a fool, not to mention the phrase “dictatorship of the proletariat”, one of the great BS phrases of all time, since only one tailbone can sit in that dictator chair at a time. When it comes to BS phrases, it’s right up there with “inconsistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”.Historical determinism? Fine as an article of faith for Christians and Zoroastrians, but in science, no one can predict the future. Finally, the state will “wither away”. Maybe we’ll all get along in heaven, but as long as we have thieves, cheats, & murderers, we’ll need a state.

    But the final strike against Marx is his labor theory of value, which was completely debunk during his lifetime by the Marginal Utility Revolution.

  28. dirk says

    The climate on Quillette of course is: whatever or whoever even has a minor affinity towards socialism (the backbone of all European nations, even of their conservative political parties, and quite a few other nations) can simply have no positive characteristics at all. Never. This is what I realised, to my surprise, entering this platform. It looks like that socialism, communism and hell itself sounds all the same in the ears of many. Very strange indeed. What can be the psychological reason for that?

    • Alistair says

      This platform has had many rather kind and subtle treatments of both Marxism and its modern offshoots in Post-Modernism and Cultural Marxism.

      Many readers aren’t too impressed, but hey, it’s Quillette, so we value the diversity of another POV.

      • dirk says

        I realise that of course, Alistair, and it also amuses me sometimes. But I see the identity politics and trends getting a strong foothold. Diversity, Okay, so we can call it. And the virtues of free speech of course. It doesn’t keep me from sleeping quietly.

    • David says

      @dirk, I don’t think it’s accurate to say that socialism is “the backbone of all European nations.”

      I’m not discounting the role of social programs in their economic success or in their success in developing a high quality of life for their citizens, but the backbone of their success would have to be their market economies.

      Socialism was the backbone of Eastern Europe during the Cold War era, and this is why their economies failed to grow as much as their counterparts in the West.

      This dynamic is expressed beautifully in what Jonathan Haidt called the “most important graph in the world.”

      Of course, there have been some downsides — for example, environmental degradation — but even there Haidt argues that capitalism also led to an evolution in values, so we have begun to address these issues.

      https://www.humansandnature.org/culture-how-capitalism-changes-conscience

    • Alan J Green says

      dirk,

      I would argue that our differences are semantic. Merriam-Webster defines socialism as “any of various economic and political theories advocating collective or governmental ownership and administration of the means of production and distribution of goods”.

      This does not describe any European country today. Most Europeans refer to themselves as social democrats – they believe in (and have) a more robust welfare state than the US, but they all have market-based economies. Democratic socialists in the US (such as AOC), however, actually advocate the elimination of the free market.

      Despite the similarities in the names, the differences between the two systems are enormous. It’s the difference between Sweden & Cuba.

      • dirk says

        David and Alan: yesterday our prime minister on TV (belonging to the only relevant rightwing party we have, 1 of the 12 we have): ” our biggest mistake is that we have gone too much to the left since 10 yrs”. So, even he admitted this. If Marx still would have lived, and seen Holland, he would have directed his outrage and philosophy to other issues than the class struggle.

  29. peanut gallery says

    If you want to increase the political power of the individual, we should focus on dismantling the amount of power the federal has stolen of the history of the US. Local voting should be where people focus their energy. You should know your community better than Trump or Hillary.

    Stolen from someone smarter than I.

    TLP
    And only in America do we want the system to force us to do the right thing so we can take the credit.

    When you want a child to become something– you first teach him how to master his impulses, how to live with frustration. But when a temptation arose Narcissus’s parents either let him have it or hid it from him so he wouldn’t be tempted, so they wouldn’t have to tell him no. They didn’t teach him how to resist temptation, how to deal with lack. And they most certainly didn’t teach him how NOT to want what he couldn’t have. They didn’t teach him how to want.

    You say: but I can’t be a football star just because I want to. But that’s wanting someone else to see you in a certain way. Do you want to play ball? Go play ball. “But I won’t get on the team.” Again, that’s wanting to change someone else. Change you first.

    But what about– identity? That’s the mistake, that’s bad faith. Thinking that our past is us; what we did defines us. Our past can be judged– what else is there to judge?- but it can’t– shouldn’t– define us, because at any moment we are free to change into something, anything else. And so, too, we can be judged for not changing.
    Ultimately, you are responsible for everything you do and think. Not for what happens to you, but for how you choose to react. Nothing else made you be. Nothing else made you do.

    “…if they’re poor or unintelligent, we will never be able to alter their chaotic environment, increase their insight or improve their judgment. However, such massive societal failure can not be confronted head on; we must leave them with the illusion that behavior is not entirely under volitional control; that their circumstances are independent of their will; that their inability to progress, and our inability to help them isn’t their (or our) fault; that all men are not created equal. Because without the buffer psychiatry offers, they will demand communism.”

    It’s a logically inconsistent to say “doctors prescribe drugs people don’t need” and also “people can’t afford their medications.” Perhaps they don’t need the drugs they can’t afford?
    What these articles are unable to state clearly is the idea that medications can be valued differently– blood pressure med more valuable than reflux med– but that price is no longer a reflection of this value.
    Why not? Well, price controls and 3rd party payers, thank you very much Comrade. There’s no incentive for Pharma to reduce prices, and no economic incentive for the doctor or the patient not to take more pills. Why not add Nexium? No reason not to. So Nexium becomes priced like tamoxifen– in some cases, is more expensive than tamoxifen, even though it is less valuable.

    I’m tempted to conclue that the problem of redshirting is analogous to abortion: instead of trying to convince people it is a good or bad thing, we should just try to eliminate the need for it.

    A real solution would be to cut college down to 2 years. Or even zero: straight to professional school or work. College is reducing our country’s productivity and infantilizing young adults. Hi. Is this thing on?

    Politics, I need not point out, is worse. The most asinine questions are expected to generate meaningful responses. “Should we bail out General Motors?” Which one of those words actually means what you say it means? Who is “we?” What’s a “bail out?” “General Motors” the whole company, the pension division, the new plant they opened in Russia, what? But if you ask for any clarification, you’re being difficult. You don’t get it.

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  31. Jose says

    Why all the Dogmas and prejudices…

    Actually ts very hard, not to say impossible to deny Marx corollary if you take into account the value theory He and the Classic Liberals were using.

    Not that it changes much if you use the utilitarian view… I think the outcome will always be the same if you somehow consider value creation has a competitive action.

  32. Peter says

    Marx is so popular, since he provided an »intellectual« justification for a small group of people to seize absolute power without going through the ballot box, using whatever means to achieve the Perfect Society.

    Similarly, Le Corbusier is so revered by architects, as he gave them a simple excuse to behave like dictators. He obviously learned from Marx:

    »The despot is the Plan, the correct, realistic, exact plan, the one that will provide the solution once the problem has been posited clearly, in its entirety, in its indispensable harmony. The Plan has been drawn up well away from the frenzy of the mayor’s office or the town hall, from the cries of the electorate. And this Plan is your despot, a tyrant of the people…«

    So the architect can hide behind his Perfect Plan and ignore the people who will live (or suffer) in his Creation.

  33. Mark Beal says

    From the preface to The German Ideology:

    “Once upon a time a valiant fellow had the idea that men were drowned in water only because they were possessed with the idea of gravity. If they were to knock this notion out of their heads, say by stating it to be a superstition, a religious concept, they would be sublimely proof against any danger from water. His whole life long he fought against the illusion of gravity, of whose harmful results all statistics brought him new and manifold evidence. This valiant fellow was the type of the new revolutionary philosophers in Germany.”

    One feels obliged to suggest that the ‘woke’ brigade are the new descendants of “this valiant fellow”. They’re people who have borrowed certain elements of Marx, but are perhaps more in the nature of the idealists whom Marx himself held in such disdain.

    Not that it makes Marx much better. I think it’s relevant to point out that the passage Matt mentions in The German Ideology about human beings realizing all aspects of their nature occurs in a passage critiquing the Division of Labour: “For as soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in 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, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic. This fixation of social activity, this consolidation of what we ourselves produce into an objective power above us, growing out of our control, thwarting our expectations, bringing to naught our calculations, is one of the chief factors in historical development up till now.”

    This is actually one of those passages that strikes the casual reader as incredibly naïve. It doesn’t seem to occur to Marx that different people have different aptitudes, and that most people have one or two things they do very well, a few more they do moderately well, while they’re rubbish at most things. It makes no sense for a society to have individuals engaged in pursuits other than those they’re particularly good at, other than for leisure purposes (you wouldn’t want to let me loose on your plumbing), and most people derive more pleasure from the things they’re good at then the ones they’re not. In a free market nobody is prohibited from pursuing any line of securing their livelihood they desire – though not every individual will make it, and no society can possibly accommodate the wishes of each and every young person desiring a career in media, fashion or something to do with “gender”. There will always be things that need doing in a society that very few people particularly want to do – and those jobs will go to the people who failed to make it in their preferred profession, or, to be fair, have very little choice. But it still doesn’t follow that society would be better or more productive if people scattered their energies rather than being extremely specialized, at least for the duration of the working day. Besides, one instinctively feels one wants to hot foot it up to Highgate, dig up old Karl and ask him if he’s done much cattle rearing lately.

    Also from The German Ideology: “But it is just as empirically established that, by the overthrow of the existing state of society by the communist revolution (of which more below) and the abolition of private property which is identical with it, this power, which so baffles the German theoreticians, will be dissolved; and that then the liberation of each single individual will be accomplished in the measure in which history becomes transformed into world history.”

    Really? How the hell could such a thing be “empirically established” in the 1840’s before any communist revolution had ever taken place? At least we can safely say by now that it’s empirically established that abolition of private property stifles not only liberation, but also progress.

    This isn’t to say that Matt’s article wasn’t interesting. Nor that Marx doesn’t occasionally make valid points. Unfortunately most of his interesting ideas are minor points which he makes less of than he might, while many of his most cherished ideas (by himself and his followers) are some of his most ill-considered.

    • dirk says

      This idea of being hunter, fisher or herdsman, and the disadvantages of strict specialisation, Marx stole form the French socialists Saint Simon and others. Also Smith wrote about the alienation of factory workers, and the need of special education or courses to overcome this mind killing and boring lifestyle.

      • dirk says

        I was hinting especially at Charles Fourier, with his Phalansteres and groups of workers with changing tasks (agriculture two weeks, then herding, then artisanry, then again horticulture (pears). Often, the famous passage in that German Ideology is seen as an ironic or critical comment on this naive suggestion of Fourier. Marx saw in labour division a necessity and a curse, for Fourier work had to be a pleasure, and a too strict division and specialisation led to boredom and unfree feelings.
        I think, both here were up to some relevant thought that uptil now have not been solved properly. But with automatisation and mechanisation (not foreseen by Fourier, but yes by Marx and Engels) the scene might soon change to the good.

  34. Saying the truth says

    Communism will win. It is inevitable.

  35. “It is in the interest of individual capitalists to pay their workers as little as possible for their labor, since doing so increases competitiveness and can result in a higher rate of profit.”

    Obviously. But “as little as possible” is bearing all the weight here. For it includes the equally obvious facts that the individual capitalist’s workers have a corresponding interest in receiving as much as possible for their labor, and that other individual capitalists have an interest in ensuring that they have some workers to work for them. Consequently, in a market, there are upward pressures on wages (workers wishes and competitors’ demand for labour) as well as downward pressures (the individual capitalist’s Scroogeist motivations.)

    And we have seen, before, during and after Marx’s day that the overall effect of these forces has been to drive wages up – a lot – not down. The primary forces dampening this upward surge in wages have been huge increases in the supply of labour – population growth (demonstrating rising agricultural productivity – else starvation would have nipped that in the bud); rising longevity and increasing health (more signs of prosperity); migration from farms to cities (slowing urban wage growth, by allowing country folk to raise their wages hugely by moving to the town); cross border migration (same idea) and greater female participation in the non domestc economy (more consequences of rising productivity, lower mortality etc.)

    To cut a long story short. Marx’s analysis of capitalism on this point – the inevitable grinding down of wages – is and always was, nonsense. The only places where real wages have fallen were the places unfortunate enough to be governed by Marx’s disciples.

  36. Jeffrey Scott says

    In the most broad sense, I am in agreement with this author.

    I currently teach in the Academy and I must teach Marx, along side other thinkers, because so many books and professors use his methodology and think in a Marxist paradigm. Even if you are not a Marxist (as I am not) you cannot discount his impact or ignore his existence. In my classes we take him straight on, and learning comes from such a pursuit.

  37. efeuvete says

    To my understanding there’s no pre determined end of The Universe; Just because The Universe in not an automaton.
    And the same can be said about human society, there’s no pre determined end, form, to human society.
    So, that means ANY society form must evolve to… whatever; by trial and error, as simple as that.
    Then the Karl Marx ideas this article underline are to me just common sense limitations of capitalism, no more, so, yes, capitalism must evolve but… Communism is such a negation of human identity that it can not work from its very beginning, communism is not a step to confront capitalism limitations, it is a simple and solid social error. And that has been proven by history in human pain and human deaths.

  38. Jonathan Ellman says

    Marx’s greatest achievement was his theory of dialectical materialism. This inserted a rational core into socialism. Prior to Marx socialists like Saint Simone and Robert Owen were in essence religious; ‘utopian socialists’ as Marx called them. What we have witnessed in recent decades is the hollowing out of socialist logic as dialectical materialism has more or less entirely evaporated from socialist discourse. The result is the Culture War; with an incoherent, dogmatic, pseudo religious left claiming the moral high ground by raising the status of the world’s victims and arguing only on moral/ethical issues with no rational cohesion.

    It is a return to early, pre-Marxist, religious socialism. National Socialism, Maoism, Stalinism and essentially all forms of socialism that have been adopted by states are, likewise, religious in nature rather than oriented around the notion of dialectical materialism. That is the cause of their tragedies and horrors.

    All this is not to say that dialectical materialism is a ‘correct’ theory or indeed that dialectics itself is ‘correct’. The point is that it formed the logical core of socialism, the rational cohesion, and without it socialist thought and action has consistently descended to the most dangerously murderous religio-ideology humanity has created.

    Dialectical materialism was predicated on the idea of the conflict between the working class and the middle class. As the distinction between these two classes has evaporated in the last 80 years with the working classes of developed nations now enjoying levels of prosperity that were far beyond the grasp of the wealthiest 100 years ago and with democracy the default political system, the dialectic no longer represents social reality. The Culture War is a desperate effort to replace the working class with various oppressed minorities, capitalism’s assorted victims. The lack of logic can be seen in the left’s support for the Wall Street whore Clinton and for Britain to remain in the EU. Both wholly irrational, ultra-capitalistic and highly conservative positions. The Democrats and the leftist remainers in the UK are forming into a quasi-religion in desperation at the absence of a coherent worldview. It is a fear of psychological chaos coupled with fear that their privileged status is under threat that motivates them. This is how to understand them.

    But there is no victory to be had in fighting them. The only solution is to find or create a replacement for dialectical materialism; to create another worldview for them, and for the rest of us. Preferably one based on reason. This is the challenge of our age.

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