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It's time to normalize Karl Marx

Ryan Cooper

Happy birthday to Karl Marx, who was born 200 years ago on May 5. He was the most astute and influential critic of capitalism in history — and also the most misunderstood.

It is long since time that Marx re-joined the community of ordinary intellectuals, considered as neither the terrifying harbinger of social upheaval, nor a secular pope with the eternally correct description of all human society. He was a genius, but in the end, only another human scholar with a brilliant but incomplete perspective.

For elite American economists, Marx has long been viewed as absolutely anathema, if not some kind of demon, producing an enormous taboo against seriously considering or even mentioning his ideas. Back in 2006, liberal Berkeley economist Brad DeLong jokingly sneered his book Capital would "introduce serious, permanent bugs into your wetware" (that is, your brain), and therefore reading it "should only be done by somebody with immunity to the mental virus — by a trained intellectual or social or economic historian, or by a trained neoclassical economist." In other words, the best person to crack the dread tome is someone who is already a committed right-winger.

This is absurd, if for no reason other than its lack of confidence in human reason. Any thinking person can read any book without brain damage, as there are no magic spells in real life. And as economist Branko Milanovic argues, Marx is incontestably one of the greatest and most influential intellectuals of all time, right up there with Aristotle and Augustine. If nothing else, he is worth examining for that reason alone.

But not only for that. Today, as against the neoclassicals who view the capitalist economy as a perfect self-regulating machine, Marx reminds us that capitalism has an inherent tendency towards crisis — and the purer the capitalist institutions, the worse these crises are. His historical grounding is refreshing in an economics profession that is far too often obsessed with arid mathematical theories bearing little or no relationship to reality.

His labor theory of value (something he took from classical economist David Ricardo, mind you) is not strictly correct. However it is certainly true that many if not most workers are being exploited for profit, and that on the other hand many owners of capital receive immense income for which they did nothing. Indeed, all the income growth of the top 1 percent since 2000 has been capital income.

Even Marx's ferocity is an important reminder of the vicious brutality of early capitalism. When today people like Steven Pinker loudly insist that the history of Western liberalism is a calm and steady march towards greater prosperity and decency, Marx reminds us of the soul-crushing poverty, exploitation, and pitched political battles of the early Industrial Revolution. The reason little English girls stopped having their fingers ripped off in power looms, or American women stopped being chained inside fire-prone sweatshops nine hours a day, is not because the working class patiently waited to be reached by the tide of prosperity, but because they joined together and desperately fought the capitalist class for decent pay and working conditions — often facing soldiers and live ammunition in the process.

However, there is a contrary intellectual pitfall here — that of credulousness. When people read Marx's books, there is sometimes a tendency to think of them as religious prophecy, not academic argument. The person DeLong was criticizing above actually described his reading of Capital as sounding "rather like that of students of the Bible, the Talmud, or the Koran."

DeLong is right to say this is no way to read an academic text. Marx's thinking is firmly a product of the 19th century, and some of his ideas have not held up at all. His materialist turn-crank picture of history has been heavily complicated by historians, to say the least. His prediction that rates of profit would inevitably fall to nothing has not been borne out, and neither has the idea that industrialization would inevitably create a radicalized, internationalist working class. (One important lesson here is that trying to predict the broad sweep of history is bound to fail.)

This tendency towards Marx-worship is largely an outgrowth of the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and the subsequent adoption of Marx-influenced thinking in China and elsewhere in the developing world. When Marxism-Leninism became the official party dogma of the Soviet Union — essentially, a state religion — Marx also became the man people turned to who hated Western capitalism, imperialism, or just disliked Western powers in general. Divorced of actual curiosity, Marxist slogans became mere catechisms. (Additionally, Capital is a difficult book, and once one has the hang of such a thing there is a natural instinct to treat it as a sort of intellectual master key.) 

Leszek Kolakowski, in his magisterial book The Main Currents in Marxism, does an incredibly close and detailed reading of the philosophical developments in Marx and his followers, and concludes that much of the brutality of Soviet Communism was essentially baked into the cake of Marxist ideology. But (as might be expected from a philosopher) while he makes many excellent points, this conclusion gives too much credit to the detailed philosophy of Marx and not nearly enough to the history, sociology, and politics of the early 20th century.

After all, Lenin was an astoundingly brilliant organizer and politician, but a subpar intellectual who had to haphazardly bolt on some crude additions to Marx to account for the fact that Russia was absolutely not suitable for a traditional Marxist revolution. (These two things are probably not unrelated — as Eric Hobsbawm argues, Lenin's ideological flexibility was one of his major strengths in leading the revolution.) This reflects the deeper fact that the content of books and doctrines are often warped almost beyond recognition to serve people's political needs. The words of Jesus Christ, about the most radical pacifist and egalitarian it is possible to imagine, have been used to justify slavery, repressive police states, wars of aggression, and much more.

To be sure, the brutal tyrannies of Stalinist Russia and Maoist China did have some recognizable Marx-derived characteristics. For anyone studying Marx, it's important to identify and isolate those things to understand where they came from, and why those countries turned out so badly — just as it would be for anyone studying the works of classical liberal economists like John Stuart Mill to investigate their connection with trade-fueled disasters like the Irish Famine or the Congo Free State.

But people must abandon the idea that either avoidance or embrace of any one person or doctrine can save us from the deep problems of organizing human society. There is simply no way around wide reading, study, and argument; careful critical thinking; and moral engagement with one's fellow human beings.

Fortunately, this weird combination of stigma and credulousness has been slowly fading over the last few years. With the Soviet Union long dead and China completely abandoning any semblance of Communism aside from the symbols, Marx is no longer the prophet of a world-conquering secular religion. On the other hand, since the 2008 global crisis, the post-Soviet "end of history" triumphalism of neoliberal capitalists has been revealed as a false dawn. DeLong himself has softened considerably on Marx, explaining at length in 2013 what he considers strong and weak points of his works, and providing a fairly solid leftist reading list in 2016.

In the next 100 years, let us remember Marx as just a top-tier intellectual — no more, but no less either — who can be read without dread or ecstasy.

http://theweek.com/articles/770718/time-normalize-karl-marx



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Why Marx Was Wrong

On the occasion of Karl Marx's 200th birthday, the co-founder of communism has received more than a few positive reappraisals, even from Western leaders. But those arguing that Marx cannot be blamed for the atrocities that his ideas inspired should reexamine his ideas.

Carl Bildt, 05/09/18

STOCKHOLM – The bicentennial of Karl Marx’s birth has occasioned a surge of interest in the man’s work, complete with the unveiling of a statue in his hometown of Trier, Germany.


At a celebration of Marxism in Beijing last week, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared that, “like a spectacular sunrise, the theory illuminated the path of humanity’s exploration of the law of history, and humanity’s search for [its] own liberation.” He would go on to claim that Marx “pointed out the direction, with scientific theory, toward an ideal society with no oppression or exploitation, where every person would enjoy equality and freedom.”1


Given that Xi’s words were uttered in “Marxist” China, those in attendance had no choice but to agree with them. Yet, speaking in Trier on the same day, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker offered a somewhat generous appraisal of his own: “Today he stands for things which is he not responsible for and which he didn’t cause, because many of the things he wrote down were redrafted into the opposite.”


It is not entirely clear what Juncker meant by this. Marxism, after all, has inflicted untold misery on tens of millions of people who have been forced to live under regimes waving its banner. For much of the twentieth century, 40% of humanity suffered famines, gulags, censorship, and other forms of repression at the hands of self-proclaimed Marxists.2


In his speech, Juncker seemed to be alluding to the standard counterargument: that communist atrocities throughout the twentieth century were due to some sort of distortion of Marx’s thought, for which the man himself can scarcely be held responsible.


Is there anything to this argument? Marx spent most of his life analyzing the political economy of the industrializing mid-nineteenth-century West. But his enduring relevance owes more to his ideas for the future, and the implications they would have for society. In considering his legacy, this area of his thought cannot be ignored.


Marx regarded private property as the source of all evil in the emerging capitalist societies of his day. Accordingly, he believed that only by abolishing it could society’s class divisions be healed, and a harmonious future ensured. Under communism, his collaborator Friedrich Engels later claimed, the state itself would become unnecessary and “wither away.” These assertions were not made as speculation, but rather as scientific claims about what the future held in store.


But, of course, it was all rubbish, and Marx’s theory of history – dialectical materialism – has since been proved wrong and dangerous in practically every respect. The great twentieth-century philosopher Karl Popper, one of Marx’s strongest critics, rightly called him a “false prophet.” And, if more evidence were needed, the countries that embraced capitalism in the twentieth century went on to become democratic, open, and prosperous societies.7


By contrast, every regime that has rejected capitalism in the name of Marxism has failed – and not by coincidence or as a result of some unfortunate doctrinal misunderstanding on the part of Marx’s followers. By abolishing private ownership and establishing state control of the economy, one not only deprives society of the entrepreneurship needed to propel it forward; one also abolishes freedom itself.


Because Marxism treats all contradictions in society as the products of a class struggle that will disappear when private property does, dissent after the establishment of communism is impossible. By definition, any challenge to the new order must be an illegitimate remnant of the oppressive order that came before.


Thus, Marxist regimes have in fact been logical extensions of his doctrines. Of course Juncker is right that Marx – who died 34 years before the Russian Revolution – was not responsible for the Gulag, and yet his ideas clearly were.


In his landmark three-volume study Main Currents of Marxism, the Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski, who became a leading critic of Marxism after having embraced it in his youth, notes that Marx showed almost no interest in people as they actually exist. “Marxism takes little or no account of the fact that people are born and die, that they are men and women, young or old, healthy or sick,” he writes. As such, “Evil and suffering, in his eyes, had no meaning except as instruments of liberation; they were purely social facts, not an essential part of the human condition.”


Kołakowski’s insight helps to explain why regimes that have embraced Marx’s mechanical and deterministic doctrine inevitably must turn to totalitarianism when confronting the reality of a complex society. They have not always fully succeeded; but the results have always been tragic.1


For his part, Xi views China’s economic development over the past few decades as “cast iron proof” of Marxism’s continued validity. But, if anything, it is exactly the other way around. Remember that it was the China of pure communism that produced the famine and terror of the “Great Leap Forward” and the “Cultural Revolution.” Mao’s decision to deprive farmers of their land and entrepreneurs of their firms had predictably disastrous results, and the Communist Party of China has since abandoned that doctrinaire approach.


Under Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping, the CPC launched China’s great economic “opening-up.” After 1978, it began to restore private ownership and permit entrepreneurship, and the results have been nothing short of spectacular.


If China’s development is being held back by anything today, it is the remnants of Marxism that are still visible in inefficient state-owned enterprises and the repression of dissent. China’s centralized single-party system is simply incompatible with a modern and diverse society.


Two hundred years after Marx’s birth, it is certainly wise to reflect on his intellectual legacy. We should do so not in celebration, however, but to inoculate our open societies against the totalitarian temptation that lurks in his false theories.

https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/why-marx-was-wrong-by-carl-bildt-2018-05?utm_source=Project+Syndicate+Newsletter&utm_campaign=33a09b0d78-sunday_newsletter_13_5_2018&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_73bad5b7d8-33a09b0d78-93509473



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Is Marx Still Relevant?

On the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth on May 5, 1818, it isn’t far-fetched to suggest that his predictions have been falsified, his theories discredited, and his ideas rendered obsolete. So why should we care about his legacy in the twenty-first century?

Peter Singer, 05/01/18

MELBOURNE – From 1949, when Mao Zedong’s communists triumphed in China’s civil war, until the collapse of the Berlin Wall 40 years later, Karl Marx’s historical significance was unsurpassed. Nearly four of every ten people on earth lived under governments that claimed to be Marxist, and in many other countries Marxism was the dominant ideology of the left, while the policies of the right were often based on how to counter Marxism.1

 

Once communism collapsed in the Soviet Union and its satellites, however, Marx’s influence plummeted. On the 200th anniversary of Marx’s birth on May 5, 1818, it isn’t far-fetched to suggest that his predictions have been falsified, his theories discredited, and his ideas rendered obsolete. So why should we care about his legacy in the twenty-first century?

 

Marx’s reputation was severely damaged by the atrocities committed by regimes that called themselves Marxist, although there is no evidence that Marx himself would have supported such crimes. But communism collapsed largely because, as practiced in the Soviet bloc and in China under Mao, it failed to provide people with a standard of living that could compete with that of most people in the capitalist economies.4

 

These failures do not reflect flaws in Marx’s depiction of communism, because Marx never depicted it: he showed not the slightest interest in the details of how a communist society would function. Instead, the failures of communism point to a deeper flaw: Marx’s false view of human nature.

 

There is, Marx thought, no such thing as an inherent or biological human nature. The human essence is, he wrote in his Theses on Feuerbach, “the ensemble of the social relations.” It follows then, that if you change the social relations – for example, by changing the economic basis of society and abolishing the relationship between capitalist and worker – people in the new society will be very different from the way they were under capitalism.

 

Marx did not arrive at this conviction through detailed studies of human nature under different economic systems. It was, rather, an application of Hegel’s view of history. According to Hegel, the goal of history is the liberation of the human spirit, which will occur when we all understand that we are part of a universal human mind. Marx transformed this “idealist” account into a “materialist” one, in which the driving force of history is the satisfaction of our material needs, and liberation is achieved by class struggle. The working class will be the means to universal liberation because it is the negation of private property, and hence will usher in collective ownership of the means of production.

 

Once workers owned the means of production collectively, Marx thought, the “springs of cooperative wealth” would flow more abundantly than those of private wealth – so abundantly, in fact, that distribution would cease to be a problem. That is why he saw no need to go into detail about how income or goods would be distributed. In fact, when Marx read a proposed platform for a merger of two German socialist parties, he described phrases like “fair distribution” and “equal right” as “obsolete verbal rubbish.” They belonged, he thought, to an era of scarcity that the revolution would bring to an end.

 

The Soviet Union proved that abolishing private ownership of the means of production does not change human nature. Most humans, instead of devoting themselves to the common good, continue to seek power, privilege, and luxury for themselves and those close to them. Ironically, the clearest demonstration that the springs of private wealth flow more abundantly than those of collective wealth can be seen in the history of the one major country that still proclaims its adherence to Marxism.

 

Under Mao, most Chinese lived in poverty. China’s economy started to grow rapidly only after 1978, when Mao’s successor, Deng Xiaoping (who had proclaimed that, “It doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice”) allowed private enterprises to be established. Deng’s reforms eventually lifted 800 million people out of extreme poverty, but also created a society with greater income inequality than any European country (and much greater than the United States). Although China still proclaims that it is building “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” it is not easy to see what is socialist, let alone Marxist, about its economy.5

 

If China is no longer significantly influenced by Marx’s thought, we can conclude that in politics, as in economics, he is indeed irrelevant. Yet his intellectual influence remains. His materialist theory of history has, in an attenuated form, become part of our understanding of the forces that determine the direction of human society. We do not have to believe that, as Marx once incautiously put it, the hand-mill gives us a society with feudal lords, and the steam-mill a society with industrial capitalists. In other writings, Marx suggested a more complex view, in which there is interaction among all aspects of society.

 

The most important takeaway from Marx’s view of history is negative: the evolution of ideas, religions, and political institutions is not independent of the tools we use to satisfy our needs, nor of the economic structures we organize around those tools, and the financial interests they create. If this seems too obvious to need stating, it is because we have internalized this view. In that sense, we are all Marxists now.

https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/karl-marx-200th-birthday-by-peter-singer-2018-05?utm_source=Project+Syndicate+Newsletter&utm_campaign=f976680ea0-sunday_newsletter_6_5_2018&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_73bad5b7d8-f976680ea0-93509473



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