Karl Marx: Man of Yesterday or of Tomorrow?

I was born a year before the collapse of the Berlin Wall, which signified the end of the Cold War and our entry into the end of history. Capitalism was thought to have triumphed over all its competitors. From now on, questions about who should get what and how the economy should be organized would only be framed along capitalist lines. The course of politics would therefore run quite smooth. Liberals and left-wing parties would argue for a little more taxation and welfare, and then conservatives would come back into power and roll back those benefits as much as they could. But the system as a whole would persist unchanged, with only minor tweaking at its edges.

Unsurprisingly, Karl Marx’s reputation took a nosedive after the tyrannical Soviet empire associated with his name collapsed. Major journalists claimed that his analysis was outdated and would quickly be forgotten. Authors like Michel Foucault dismissed Marx’s work as little more than a relic of nineteenth-century economics. And even the remaining nominally communist states, like China and Vietnam, seemed to be gradually moving into the capitalist sphere of influence—albeit, often without the democratizing impulse many hoped would follow. Yet, strangely, the specter of Marx never went away. The rosy political and economic prognostics of commentators in the 1990s papered over the significant cracks in the neoliberal edifice: belying everything from growing levels of economic and political inequality to increasing precarity in major industries. Many of these tensions came to a head during the 2008 recession, since which time Marx’s work has enjoyed a renaissance of interest. Major films about his life and thought— including a cheeky animated biography—keep appearing year after year. On the eve of Marx’s 200th birthday in 2018, the New York Times and even the Economist published laudatory opinion pieces on his thinking. And, recently, Jordan Peterson and Slavoj Zizek held a major debate analyzing the merits of communism and capitalism, which was watched by thousands.

Despite this positive reappraisal, Marx’s reputation remains invariably tainted by its association with some of the most sinister political experiments of the twentieth century, including the totalitarian governments of the former Soviet Union—especially during its Stalinist period, when millions died—Maoist China and North Korea. For many, these failed experiments with communism decisively disprove all Marx’s arguments for all time and render any effort to find value in them “appalling and shameful.” However, it is possible to extract substantial insights from Marx’s work—without endorsing or lending credibility to the totalitarian movements that have invoked his intellectual legacy. There is a great deal of value in his critical analysis of capitalism.

Karl Marx and Communism

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels are often considered the fathers of communism. In The Communist Manifesto, they call on the workers of the world to unite and overthrow an exploitative capitalist system—a call which retains its fiery power to this day. Marx never denied that revolutionary violence would one day bring an end to the capitalist system. He was under no illusion that capitalists—any more than feudal aristocrats prior to the French Revolution or the English Civil War—would simply cede control to the workers. They would use any means at their behest to hold onto power, meaning that only force could ultimately bring about transformative change.

This is strong stuff. But it is odd how little Marx had to say about the society that would emerge the day after the revolution. As the cliché goes, the father of communism had very little to say about his offspring—and a tremendous amount to say about capitalism. Throughout his work, there are tentative hints as to what a communist society would look like. Probably the most sustained analysis appears in his 1875 pamphlet, the Critique of the Gotha Program. This describes how the revolutionary period would be followed by a brief dictatorship of the workers, after which the state would gradually wither away. Resources would ultimately be distributed according to the principle of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”:

In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labor, and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labor, has vanished; after labor has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want; after the productive forces have also increased with the all-round development of the individual, and all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly—only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!

It would be possible to apply this principle of distributive justice in communist societies, since they would only emerge once the social and technological conditions for a society of relative affluence had been met. Unfortunately, little detail is provided as to what the realization of this principle would entail in practice. By comparison with later theorists of distributive justice, from Rawls to Nozick, Marx provides scant intellectual guidance on how a society organized along such lines would look. He does not call for each individual to receive the same goods and resources, but strongly implies that any just distribution of goods and resources must correlate with the particular needs of each individual. What this means is ambiguous, though scholarship has provided some clarification. Finally, in Critique of the Gotha Program and pamphlets like The Civil War in France, Marx suggests that communist societies will be more democratic than their liberal capitalist counterparts. Unfortunately, most of his remarks consist of criticisms of liberal democracy, rather than outlining a program for its replacement.

All this amounts to a call for a brief dictatorship of the workers, to destroy coercive state apparatuses, followed by the enactment of a more democratic political form, which would implement an interesting but vague principle of distributive justice. This revolutionary transformation would become possible once society had reached a certain level of social and technological development. The revolution could then use these advances to create an even higher social form. Unfortunately, this is all frustratingly vague even at the level of theory, let alone when it comes to hammering out the practical details of how to create such a society. One can understand why Marx’s constructive positions have been interpreted in so many different ways—providing support for everything from totalitarian to anarchist movements. And, while this is no excuse for the poor critical evaluations of Marx that suggest he argued for a crude equality of outcome along every metric, these ambiguities definitely lend themselves to misinterpretation.

Karl Marx and Capitalism

Karl Marx had oddly little to say about communism—and most of that was interesting but undertheorized or primarily based on arguments by contrast. Most of his work centers on analyzing and critiquing the dynamics of capitalism, which is where his real intellectual contribution lies. The insights found there explain his renewed popularity. In our troubled times, many are increasingly skeptical of capitalism and its affiliated political institutions. Even privileged conservative politicians like Boris Johnson are taking an increasingly critical line towards big business and many intellectuals have been condemning capitalism for eroding traditional communities and values. This makes Marx a natural touchstone for our troubled times.

Marx’s critique of capitalism was developed throughout his life, and drew on a myriad of theoretical traditions, including the dialectical theory of history developed by German philosopher Georg Hegel; the socialist and anarchist tradition of political theory developed primarily in France; and English and French political economy. His thinking was never static: the differences between Marx’s earlier works, like the Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, and the three volumes of Capital remain a point of considerable debate for experts like Louis Althusser and David Harvey. Marx’s complex argument is impossible to summarize in a brief article, but there are few primary insights we can take from his critique of capitalism.

1: Capitalism is a Historically Contingent Mode of Production

As far back as The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels hit upon one of their chief insights: that capitalism was a very new and very radical form of economic organization—or “mode of production,” as they put it. They contended that many “vulgar” economists and their simplistic followers reduced capitalism to any barter exchange in which small-scale buyers and sellers engage in mutually beneficial transactions: an idyllic vision of capitalism, which persists to this day. Marx pointed out that these economists ironically failed to see precisely why capitalism was so productive and why it generated so much affluence relative to earlier modes of production. Societies like Ancient Greece and Rome were primarily based on the slave labor of millions, while a small, affluent class of citizens and patricians reaped most of the benefits. Feudal communities were predicated on openly authoritarian institutions like serfdom, in which laborers worked for many months to provide tribute to aristocratic families. It was only within the past few centuries, starting at first within a few square kilometers around English cities like Manchester, that capitalism emerged as a uniquely powerful mode of production. Since it was far more efficient than slave-based or feudal forms of organization, these were quickly outcompeted and eliminated as capitalism spread. However, as Marx points out, if capitalism has not existed since the beginning of time, that strongly implies that it needn’t last forever. While Marx often points out the historicity of capitalism in order to sing its praises relative to earlier or competing modes of production, he is also insistent that we err in assuming it must always be with us. What came into the world at a specific point in history can also become historically outdated.

2: Problems With the Labor Theory of Value

Marx followed the more sophisticated classical political economists like David Ricardo—and to a lesser extent Adam Smith—in analyzing whether labor was the basis of economic value. His argument about the extent to which labor is a source of economic value is highly complex, and needs to be approached dialectically. Marx claims that vulgar economists focus far too much on micro-economic transactions as the basis of value—acting as though capitalist societies were still barter societies. We can see this, for instance, in the claim that the price of a commodity is primarily determined by the supply of commodities in a given market and consumer demand for those commodities. While these factors play a role, commodities only appear on the market as the result of an immense process involving the labor of hundreds of people. Even something as simple as a loaf of bread involves the labor of farmers sowing and harvesting grains, of transport workers, who move the grain to industrial centers, where it can be turned into flour, and efforts by bakers, who actually make the bread and, finally, by the retailers who sell it. Given the importance of this productive process, Marx often seems to argue that it is the “socially necessary labor time” which regulates how much commodities sell for. Though, as David Harvey points out, this is highly problematic given some of Marx’s later claims and is unconvincing given recent developments in economic theory.

One practical take-away from all this is Marx’s criticism of the still popular claim that the rich get rich because they work harder and smarter. This iteration of the labor theory of value was theorized by figures like John Locke, and is still invoked by contemporary defenders of inequality like Ayn Rand. Marx points out that, if you take the labor theory of value seriously, it quickly becomes abundantly clear that there is a huge discrepancy between the compensation given to the employees who do most of the actual work of producing commodities, and the huge gains enjoyed by employers and capitalists. Marx observes that, if you really believe labor should be correlated with reward, capitalism is a highly immoral mode of production. Many of his claims about exploitation stem from this insight. This poses a serious problem for those who want to argue that the rich get rich because they work harder, since a critic can always point to the vast segments of the population who do most of the work and receive very little.

3: Capitalism and Contradictory Tendencies

Marx’s thought is philosophically quite rich, especially in his treatment of the contradictions latent within capitalism. Here, he is clearly drawing on the work of Georg Hegel, who also argued that history progresses through contradictory dynamics working themselves towards some form of resolution. But Marx differed from Hegel in his materialist insistence that there is no such resolution to the contradictions of capitalism. At best, capitalism can try to paper over its contradictions through partial fixes. But these only exacerbate the problem, which will return in a more acute form and potentially lead to crisis and depression.

Consider the problem of effective demand for commodities. Capitalists have an interest in trying to get consumers to buy their products. But, in order to do this, consumers need money. Yet, under capitalist conditions, many firms pay their employees too little to allow them to actually consume very much. This makes sense for each individual firm, since low wages mean higher profits. But, in the long run, a society of low-wage earners will become characterized by chronic low consumption. Capitalists can try to resolve this contradiction between the desire for consumers and the desire to pay low wages in several ways. One of the most obvious is by making cheap credit available to all. But, of course, this means that people will spend far more than they earn, which can lead to serious problems down the line, since it results in a population that is both poor and up to its eyeballs in debt. Some Marxist scholars argue that this is precisely what happened in the lead-up to the 2008 recession, during which many people were no longer able to borrow against the increasing value of their homes, which precipitated a crisis.

Conclusion

Marx’s account of what a communist society might look like is suggestive. But it is also infuriatingly vague and open to eclectic misinterpretations. His critique of capitalism, however, is exactly the opposite: rich, illuminating, often mistaken, but always insightful and creative. In a contemporary environment in which concerns about the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few have returned to the political agenda, Marx seems like a thinker for our time.

If you enjoy our articles, be a part of our growth and help us produce more writing for you:

31 comments

  1. Matt McManus would do well to read Paresh Chattopadhyay’s “The Marxian Concept of Capital and the Soviet Experience” (downloadable at https://libcom.org/library/paresh-chattopadhyay-marxian-concept-capital-soviet-experience) . It would demonstrate pretty conclusively just how wide of the mark many of his observations about Marx and Marxism (not to be conflated with Leninism) are. Chattopadhyay’s convincingly demonstrates that in terms of original Marxian categories, the Soviet Union was fundamentally capitalist in its economic orientation

    Indeed, there were Marxist organisations at the time of the Bolshevik Revolution – notably the Socialist Party of Great Britain (formed in 1904) – that correctly predicted that the so called USSR was set to consolidate capitalism in the guise of a brutal anti working class state capitalist regime . The SPGB today contains an enormous database of articles that future historians of the various state capitalist regimes from the Soviet Union to the present day (North Korea, China etc ) will find enormously useful. (see its website https://www.worldsocialism.org/spgb/)

    You will never really get to grips with what Marx and Marxism as long as you mis-associate it with Lenin and Leninism which in so many ways represents a radical departure from the former

    1. Marxism not to be conflated with Leninism? They’re the same thing Robin. Here’s why:

      There has been for the longest time, a nasty rumour floating around sponsored by not-very-credible people that Karl Marx was an asset of the Rothschild Cartel.. In the wake of Matt’s article I googled “karl marx rothschild agent”. Here are the first four entries that I found:

      Historians Confirm Karl Marx Was Employed By The Rothschilds
      https://newspunch.com

      Karl Marx Was Rothschilds’ Third Cousin – Gazeta Warszawska
      http://www.gazetawarszawska.net/judaizm-islam/1409-marx

      Historians Confirm Karl Marx Was Employed By The Rothschilds …
      https://wikipress01.weebly.com/…/historians-confirm-karl-marx-was-employed-by-the…

      Karl Marx Was Rothschilds’ Third Cousin | Justice4Poland.com
      https://justice4poland.com/2018/05/08/karl-marx-was-rothschilds-third-cousin/

      This is where it starts to get incredibly nasty, indeed, where Angels fear to tread; what I’ve come to call “Truth as Anathema”: Because you see, in addition to Karl’s affiliation with these monsters, the Bolsheviks — being almost entirely Jewish, including Stalin — were also sponsored by American subsidiaries of, yes, the Rothschild Cartel..

      The first fact alone utterly negates every last word of everything Karl Marx ever wrote of course, meanwhile Mikhail Backunin appeared to be of the opinion that Marx was sponsored by the Rothschilds in order to subvert the developing socialist movement.. but that the October 1917 Russian Revolution was sponsored by Jewish Interests and implemented by Jews? … OMG..

      Here’s what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had to say about Marxism-Leninism, I’m not sure where:

      “You must understand. The leading Bolsheviks who took over Russia were not Russians. They hated Russians. They hated Christians. Driven by ethnic hatred they tortured and slaughtered millions of Russians without a shred of human remorse. The October Revolution was not what you call in America the “Russian Revolution.” It was an invasion and conquest over the Russian people. More of my countrymen suffered horrific crimes at their bloodstained hands than any people or nation ever suffered in the entirety of human history. It cannot be understated. Bolshevism was the greatest human slaughter of all time. The fact that most of the world is ignorant of this reality is proof that the global media itself is in the hands of the perpetrators. “We cannot state that all Jews are Bolsheviks. But: without Jews there would have been no Bolshevism. For a Jew nothing is more insulting than the truth. The blood-maddened Jewish terrorists murdered sixty-six million in Russia from 1918 to 1957.”

      I’m a raving anti-semite and some kind of nut you’re thinking? There’s no arguing any of this. I’m now on page 326 of The Gulag Archipelago: This stuff is documented history. You have to dig, just a little. But it’s there.

  2. Most of people commenting does not know anything about Marx thought and all their knowledge is from capitalist propaganda from various sources. The truth that socialism as a transient system never existed and that the conditions for communism still do not exist. They forgot that Lenin never called system in Soviet union socialism. That system was called the state capitalism by him. It was called socialism by Stalin. Socialism means democratic control of all society including economy which means there is no socialism without democracy in every aspect of social life. Base on that it is easy conclude if some country is socialist or not and it is obvious that Cuba or Venezuela or North Korea are far from socialist. Regarding communism in Marx thought is total disregard of his thought ( communism means disappearing of the state , free association of free producers where the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all. No socialism or communism without individual freedom and communism means maximal individual freedom ( as that North Korea is a perfect example of Marx communism). All that about socialism and communism is pure propaganda to make those idea of socialism not popular and attractive as possible change , but time is changing and socialism ( more democracy) as idea of new way how to organize society is attractive again (USA now).

    1. As Morpheus warned: “If you take the Blue Pill, you wake up in your own bed, and believe whatever you want to…”

      But the verdict of History is against you…

      1. You obviously do not believe that Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is democratic but somehow you believe that is socialist or communist, because that suits you.

        1
        1
        1. My wife grew up under Mao. Her parents were sent to Internal Exile in Chinese Mongolia. All their metal goods were destroyed in The Great Leap Forward. She lived through the Cultural Revolution. She described how she came home on the bus in Beijing during Tiananmen Square to the sound of machine gun fire: The butchers murdered THOUSANDS of Chinese young men and women. Her Mom suffered a massive stroke at 43 because of the death threats and relentless pressure from The Party.. My wife sustained PTSD from her experiences by the time she took the offer of the Canadian Government of Landed Immigrant status for any Chinese student who applied.

          Oh, and by the way? I’m on page 327 of “The Gulag Archipelago”.

          These things have told me all I need to know about The Judas Goat of Marxism.

  3. Great food for thought, Matt. Yes, Marx is tainted by those who applied some of their ideas in their own ways. He was probably better on analysis (the processes of capitalism) than on the constructive side, as you say. But hard to say he’s irrelevant, even in prediction, as some of his theories are still playing out. Income inequality increases worldwide, one step toward the revolution he foresaw. Even capitalist encroachment in China and elsewhere fit the pattern, as Marx also said that capitalism’s collapse was unlikely so long as there was a workforce in other countries to exploit; worldwide capitalism was a precondition for revolution, at least in some of his writings (don’t ask me to go back and find them though 😊 ). Then again, that “brief dictatorship” – there’s the rub, as I believe Bakunin so wittily pointed out when predicting that the dictators of the “proletarian elite,” or rather of “the Communist party, meaning Mr. Marx and his friends,” would turn out just like old elite statists.

  4. As the Polish ex Marxist dissident Leszek Kolakowski has pointed out, Marxism was effective only to the extent that it was an ideological construct which motivated and maintained some of the greatest humanitarian disasters of the 20th century, beyond that it should be studied only in the sense that we study historical curios to gain some idea of a particular time period – like we perhaps might study the mass sacrifice of Aztec captives to make the sun rise each morning. His work is and always has been a secular religion masquerading as a science, and if evaluated in the terms it applies to itself on the basis of it’s predictive power it is almost useless beyond an ideological edifice which somehow managed to grip a large portion of the world.

    Marx’s predictions as to how society would develop after his work have almost all been proven worthless – he predicted the decline in the middle class, due to decreased wages, whereas in fact the classical proletariat has largely disappeared and the middle class and wealth in general has increased exponentially. He predicted that capitalism would lead to technological stagnation in comparison with socialism, whereas the exact opposite has been true whenever we have roughly comparative societies of socialism and capitalism – Capitalism always fares better and communist countries only keep up to the degree that they embrace capitalist reforms. His theory of price versus labour value rests on an idealist base which anyhow does not reflect and cannot be applied to the modern world of intellectual or digital property.

    Aside from its uselessness as a science, none of Marxisms sociological problems have been remotely adequately worked through – how do you regulate production of goods (food etc) without a free market, and without it leading to the kind of overproduction and underproduction in relation to demand that was seen in the soviet union and now Venezuela etc? How do you collectivise without mass slaughter and when you have collectivised industry how do you maintain anything like the production level that you would have with the incentive of profit? When the state controls all means of production how do you prevent what is essentially a giant concentration camp from emerging?

    Besides this, Marxism contains an inner contradiction pointed out by a number of theorists most notably Del Noce, which is that it rests on two contradicting strands – both that of historical materialism and the belief in an inevitable unfolding of history towards communism through dialectic. Historical materialism denies ideals in the sense that all ideals and values are seen as a result purely of their material circumstances. This contradicts the belief in an inevitable communist destiny; either we have material historicism or we have an idealised communist destiny as dialectic. You cannot have both of these aspects together without the contradiction between the two eventually leading to a breakdown in the system.

    So why come back to something which is so flawed in so many ways when so many more fruitful veins could be tapped. To return to the beginning of your post – I went through the Berlin wall to the East whilst it was still operational and really think that a lot of Western intellectuals (with respect) should knuckle down to reading more of the literature from those who actually lived through it – Kolakowski, Milosz, Solzhenitsyn etc. – rather than moist-eyed French and American academics with romantic impulses, Soviet apologetics and perhaps paternal authority issues.

  5. This article is inexcusable. Karl Marx was a worthless, contemptible human being who was too shiftless to get a job, allowed his family to live in poverty, impregnated his maidservant and tossed her and his bastard child into the street to fend for themselves.. despite his pretensions he was an incompetent with money, knew nothing of the real situation of working men of his time, he never in his life entered a factory! You can read his Magnum Opus, “Capital” and NOWHERE, in that fatuous tome, is there any discussion of money creation, of fractional-reserve banking, of the nature of inflation. Most of his so called theory was his own wishful thinking based on absolutely nothing. In short, he was an abusive, incompetent fool who hadn’t a clue what he was talking about.

    Meanwhile everywhere Marxism has been attempted, the results are always the same: Massive destruction of the infrastructure, famine, hyperinflation and genocide. In Russia alone, economic output declined from 1917-1923 by NINETY PERCENT! And also by then, 10 million people had already died, either of starvation or mass murder… By the time Kruschev had murdered Stalin, they’d killed 66 million people..

    Historians estimate the total dead from Marxism at 100,000,000. I’ll wager the number is easily twice that: No-one knows how many millions that butcher Mao slaughtered…

    And you have the audacity to publish this fat-headed, ill-informed SHIT? How dare you?! I’m on page 263 of “The Gulag Archipelago”. I strongly recommend you buy a copy, and learn what you’re talking about.

    6
    1
    1. Neo-Marxists on the left are just the equivalent of neo-Nazis on the right, though the former are many times more numerous. In both cases, they make up just a particular segment of the young Miserables, like the beatniks of yesteryear — affluent and adrift, hoping to find meaning in old gods, and shock their elders in the process. It’s both comic and sad, and it’s not new..

  6. “Marx observes that, if you really believe labor should be correlated with reward, capitalism is a highly immoral mode of production. ”

    But what if you happen to believe that ~productive~ labor should be correlated with reward? Say, poorly designed wares require more frequent replacement compared to better designed ones, thus in the end, they consume more labor, increasing their own value viewed in aggregate. Should that be rewarded?

    What an economy should actually reward are clever applications of labor to niches that require them and not just the volume of work done. That lesson staying unlearned is probably why most (ex)communist places are mired in corruption and all have had trouble running economies of sufficient complexity that markets such as consumer electronics were underdeveloped and copied western know-how for the most part.

  7. capitalism is nothing more and nothing less than an inevitable expression of human nature. it is neither intrinsically good nor intrinsically bad, it is simply us, and what we do in the reasonable absence of top-down dictation of what we should and shouldn’t do.

    and if history teaches us anything, it’s that they who stand in the way of human nature shall be trampled by humans.

    1
    1
    1. But rape and war and torture are also inevitable expressions of human nature. In contrast I don’t think things like the Fed’s monetary policy are ‘simply us’, I think they are very intricately designed systems that are no more part of raw human nature than a nuclear reactor. One can very much ask the question whether some policy is good or bad, since it is not ‘simply us’ it is simply a bunch of very rich and powerful people deciding what will add to their wealth and their power.

  8. feudalism. lasted a thousand years and change.

    wasn’t any good for anyone but the aristocracy, but it lasted a real long time, and that’s all that matters.

    1. Even Marx knew that lasting a long time wasn’t all that matters. It lasted a long time because people didn’t know any better. Now we do.

  9. The appearance that capitalism is less bloody and violent is because the capitalist have very successfully hiddedn these things from masses. They keep workers engaged in a meaningless RAT RACE so that they dont recognise that they are being exploited and fooled. It has just whitewashed its sins. Beneath that its as ugly as dictatorship.

  10. Capitalism is most productive system is a half truth. Its true only within short sighted onesided history. Capitalist think history started with them is wrong. There have been much more successful systems.

  11. Good summary of a few of Marx’s key insights (I especially liked the commonsense takeaway from the Labor Theory of Value).

    Just a couple tweaks I would suggest:

    Re this: “Marx never denied that revolutionary violence would one day bring an end to the capitalist system…..only force could ultimately bring about transformative change”.

    Yes, he foresaw force as necessary “on the continent” (and, as far as I can tell, he was right). But he was not committed to the idea that “force” is always and everywhere necessary, as these words indicate:

    “…we have not asserted that the ways to achieve that goal are everywhere the same. You know that the institutions, mores, and traditions of various countries must be taken into consideration, and we do not deny that there are countries — such as America, England, and if I were more familiar with your institutions, I would perhaps also add Holland — where the workers can attain their goal by peaceful means. This being the case, we must also recognize the fact that in most countries on the Continent the lever of our revolution must be force; it is force to which we must some day appeal in order to erect the rule of labor.”

    I also think you could mention the positive reasons for Marx’s “vagueness” with regard to the far distant state-less communist future (e.g. his understanding that to provide a “blueprint” for a future society would be intellectual hubris).

    Finally, with regard to the “totalitarian movements that have invoked his intellectual legacy”, I would wish for a bit more critical appraisal of such “invocation”. It is very difficult indeed to reconcile top-down bureaucratic despotism with the sort of “dictatorship of the proletariat” described by Marx and Engels in their observations on the Paris Commune:

    “….Look at the Paris Commune. [writes Engels] That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.”

    And the elements of that Commune which they specifically identified as praiseworthy (universal suffrage, wage limits for representatives, immediate recall, etc.) were anything but top-down bureaucratic despotism.

    Besides, Marx and Engels also already made it clear what they would have thought of Stalinist Russia:

    “…self-government on the American model, and this is what we too must have. How self-government is to be organized and how we can manage, without a bureaucracy has been shown to us by America….”

    “….We are not among those communists who are out to destroy personal liberty, who wish to turn the world into one huge barrack or into a gigantic workhouse. There certainly are some communists who, with an easy conscience, refuse to countenance personal liberty and would like to shuffle it out of the world because they consider that it is a hindrance to complete harmony. But we have no desire to exchange freedom for equality.”

    1
    1
    1. The comment “We are not among those communists who are out to destroy personal liberty” was apparently the product of an early communist collective, not simply by Marx or Engels. That collective later split (as was and remains common amongst leftist sects), after which Marx issued the following pronouncement:

      “The minority … makes mere will the motive force of the revolution, instead of actual relations. Whereas we say to the workers: ‘You will have to go through fifteen or twenty or fifty years of civil wars and international wars, not only in order to change extant conditions, but also in order to change yourselves and to render yourselves fit for political dominion,’…”

      As we later found out, following the revolution the long-suffering workers had to go through not 15 or 20 or 50 years of such war, but over 70 years of war, both hot and cold — and still they couldn’t manage to change themselves enough to render themselves fit for political domination. Instead, they rendered their socialist masters unfit for such domination, at long last.

      The point is, theoreticians like Marx can always manage to keep their hands clean while making all kinds of lofty pronouncements. But it wasn’t just Stalinist Russia that somehow got him wrong while professing to follow him — it was Leninist Russia too, as well as Khrushchev’s Russia/USSR, and Brezhnev’s and Gorbachev’s, and Mao’s China, and Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and Castro’s Cuba, and Tito’s Yugoslavia, and Kim Jong-Un’s North Korea, and … well, maybe you can see a pattern here. If you can’t, try this: the only way to have any chance of replacing capitalism and substituting anything remotely resembling Marxism, in actuality as opposed to airy theory, is by installing and maintaining a ruthless totalitarianism.

    2. After the history of the 20th century, that Karl Marx should still occupy center stage in our Universities says plenty about our Universities — but none of it good. He and his toxic rubbish should have been consigned to the trashbin of history decades ago.

  12. If the workers add as much value as you claim they do, why not organize collectively and leverage their power to restructure the organization (or simply ask for significantly higher wages) rather than begin a violent revolution that would likely kill thousands if not millions nationally? I acknowledge this level of organization would be difficult, but that doesn’t excuse defaulting to a violent revolution when a peaceful one is on the table. This default to violence seems inexcusable considering Marxism holds itself as the more moral system.

    Also, your characterization of Peterson’s characterization of Marxism seems off. In the video you linked, he doesn’t say Marx argued for equality along every metric. He asked, why stop at economic equality. My understanding of his work is that Peterson rejects the idea of looking at outcomes as a measure of inequality in the first place. Another thing Peterson (or at least my interpretation of Peterson) rejects is the idea that a hierarchical arrangement resulting in unequal power in the hierarchy is necessarily exploitative, but rather can be symbiotic or exploitative (or both). I’ve never heard him argue this relative to Marxism, but this point seems clear to me in his discussions on the patriarchy, a term he rejects. His repeated use of the term Postmodern Neo-Marxist suggests that he believes modern feminism and Marxism operate along parallel strains of thought, to which I agree, although I’m hardly an expert on modern feminism, postmodernism, or communism.

  13. 1. Capitalism is indeed a “historically contingent mode of production” — it’s also, by orders of magnitude, the most productive mode of production the human race has ever seen, raising billions from starvation, disease, and misery. Which means that it’s contingency should be protected against those anxious to dismantle it — e.g., fascists, communists, and socialists.

    2. The labor theory of value is not just “unconvincing”, it’s wrong, and in being so it undermines the whole theory of exploitation that Marx takes three heavy tomes to promote. And nobody uses the labor theory of value to defend the rich or their entitlement to their possessions.

    3. An elementary book on economics would explain the error contained in the imagined “contradictory tendencies” of capitalism, and a child’s knowledge of history would see that, far from keeping people immiserated and indebted, capitalism has vastly enlarged consumption, an expansion over the last one and a half centuries since Marx that easily overrides temporary contractions like 2008.

    Conclusion: Marx’s critique of capitalism is not just wrong in fact, logic, and morality, it’s a flat cliche, long past its “best before” date. There’s a reason, after all, that it’s attempted implementation has only ever led to blood soaked tyrannies.

    5
    2
    1. Firstly, I don’t know anyone-even a Marxist-who would disagree with that point .In fact as far back as the Communist Manifesto,Marx and Engels observe that capitalism is the most productive economic system ever to be developed. Their point is that by no means implies it is perfect or free of contradiction.

      Secondly, as I pointed out, Marx doesn’t invoke the labor theory of value in a strict sense. This is in pact because the LTV was associated with classical political economists who were insufficiently critical of capitalism: Locke, Smith, Ricardo etc. His emphasis in Capital Volume One is on “socially necessary labour time” which is not reducible to Locke type claims about private actors working and producing goods. Moreover you see plenty of people invoke the rhetoric of the LTV to make just that point. To give just a few recent examples:

      https://www.businessinsider.com/16-people-who-worked-incredibly-hard-to-succeed-2012-9

      and

      https://medium.com/@matthewbiggins/thank-you-rich-people-a-brief-opinion-on-the-ethics-of-capitalism-bc2e8f07de7

      and

      https://canadafreepress.com/article/socialism-taking-bread-from-the-mouths-of-those-who-earned-it

      Like it or not, the rhetoric of “they worked hard, they earned it” is still very popular. Even though many thinking people-even on the right from Hayek onward-knew this argument was not particularly strong.

      Thirdly, most economists will acknowledge that capitalism has is a dynamic system with many competing tendencies and processes. This can occasionally produce significant economic downturns. There are even pro-capitalist economists like Joseph Schumpeter who are unafraid to acknowledge that some of these tendencies may even rise to the level of contradiction-for instance how monopolization and success tend to go hand in hand, mitigating the creative destruction necessary for the creation of new values. For that matter many now acknowledge that high levels of inequality and lack of money on the part of the poor may not just be unfair, but in fact conducive to more sluggish economic growth, precisely for the reasons I highlighted. This is one of the reasons a UBI is becoming increasingly debated as a serious option.

      4
      2
      1. I don’t know anyone who says that capitalism is perfect, but Marx and his followers provided no clue about anything better. His whole point, anyway, wasn’t that capitalism was imperfect but that it was exploitative and inherently contradictory, necessarily leading to socialism and then to communism. The past 150 years have proven not just that he was wrong, but that, as I’ve said, the various attempts to prove him right have led to some of the most destructive regimes in history. Rather than await Marx’s second coming, I think people should find another guru.

        The notion that saying “hard work can lead to success” implies the LTV is just silly.

        Yes, capitalism, like all economic systems, is a dynamic system, and there are debatable policies around issues like monopolies, etc. that may be required, but Marx is not only of no help for those, he’s positively misleading. People should be aware that it’s capitalism that is essential to provide the wealth needed to fund the welfare state and any proposed extension like UBI. Have a look at what happened to the poor under Marxist-inspired anti-capitalism.

        6
        1
        1. Capitalism hasnt been able to finish poverty or finish exploitation. So its as tyranical as any other system. And as big failure as communism is recent history. So its just reaching to a threshold where it will become totally irrelevant. I give max 5 years wherein a revolution is imminent and will throw away capitalism to provide way for more equitable society.

          1. Hey, you don’t have to wait even 5 years — just head for Venezuela now. Or, if you hurry, there’s still Cuba or North Korea!

          2. Have you actually looked at global poverty levels and their trends over the past 20 years?
            Capitalism is well on the way to “finishing” poverty, such that advanced and rich societies have to keep moving the poverty goalposts to classify where “poor” begins.

            2
            1

Leave a Reply

Inline
Inline