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.