Marx by Karl Marx

Marx (Great Books of the Western World, #50)Marx by Karl Marx
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The two works in this volume, Capital and Manifesto of the Communist Party, represented efforts by their author to wear the hats respectively of social scientist and of revolutionary firebrand. It is this second hat that he wears most comfortably, and which he was not able to remove while writing his “scientific” treatise. The result, for this reader anyway, is that while Capital contains much powerful evidence and cogent thinking, the work as a whole is tendentious and not persuasive.

Ever since I first heard of the existence of Marx’s Capital in my teens, it has been the epitome of the forbidding, difficult, and unappetizing text. Reading this book, to me, an omnivorous consumer of books on science, history, philosophy, religion, and other things, always seemed to offer only a punishment detail. For one thing, although I was raised in a working-class household that had, as far as it held any kind of political orientation, a socialist outlook, when I was 16 I read Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand, and found myself strongly drawn to her point of view (even as I had some problems with the preachiness, repetitiveness, and plain length of the book). I started to think of myself as someone who believed in capitalism, free enterprise, and free markets. Ayn Rand’s view was essentially that society advances only through the creations of individual geniuses, and that if we want humanity to prosper, these geniuses must be left free to operate. When we mow down the tall poppies we lobotomize humanity and lose the benefit of the most precious part of our human nature.

As I grew up, I lived in a kind of tension between my attraction for the creativity and individualism of capitalism, and my concerns about social justice and the environment. But overall, after experiences like membership in four different trade unions and a brief visit to the USSR in 1982 to meet my grandfather, my heart declared itself for the capitalist side. In a free society, the individual should be able to choose his own destiny and reap the rewards–or punishments–of his own efforts. And with all the tens of millions of people who had died at the hands of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and Kim Jong-il, Capital by Karl Marx faded into irrelevance.

Then, last year, I joined Goodreads and came across a book called Why Marx Was Right, published in 2011. A chill moved through my bones. For I had long thought to myself, “What theory has been as thoroughly falsified as Marxism?” Phrenology? Phlogiston? The flat Earth, perhaps? Hadn’t all the purges, the mass starvation, and finally the dissolution of the Soviet Union itself, driven a stake through the heart of this ideology? But no, here it was again, springing up like a peat-bog fire that just won’t be put out.

I knew that Marxism was, or anyway for a long time had been, fashionable in North American academia. But this I put down to a herd mentality that was preoccupied, above all, with securing state funds for itself, and I reckoned that the great majority of these academics didn’t know any more about Marx or Marxism than I did. At least, they were like me in not having read Capital or the Manifesto of the Communist Party. Laagered in their ivy halls, they were anachronistic and absurd, but also irrelevant.

What had changed now though was that the world economy, signaled by the subprime-mortgage crisis of 2007-08, was heading into a depression. We’re still heading into it. Governments around the world are printing money and then borrowing it to meet their towering and ever-growing budget deficits; people are losing their jobs, their houses, and their savings, and the number of these people will continue to swell. There will be increasing civil unrest. There will be revolution.

There will be Marxism.

A few years ago I read a book by an American political thinker and longshoreman named Eric Hoffer, published in 1951 and called The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements. In it Hoffer sketches his idea of how mass movements unfold. He believes that people, when they perceive their lives to be ruined, never blame themselves but always seek an outside cause; and if some charismatic person claims to have found that cause, they are ready to follow him. They are ready to become a swarm of locusts, devouring all in their path to realize their leader’s vision.

The Manifesto of the Communist Party was a call to action for such a mass movement, and Capital was intended to provide the theoretical justification for it. When I saw that there was a recent book proclaiming that Marx was right, I realized that I could not dodge his works any longer. As volume 50 of the Britannica Great Books of the Western World, Marx was on my reading list anyway; but the thought that his ideas would again be enlisted to justify social revolutions that I regarded as imminent moved this volume to the top of the pile, and, gritting my teeth, I dug in.

There’s no denying that the first part of Capital is tough going. Here Marx tries to build up the elementary components from which his theory will be built. Through my other readings I came to discover that Marx relies heavily on chapters 8-10 of Book 1 of Aristotle’s Politics, plus chapter 5 of John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government. From Locke Marx draws the idea that it is our labor that creates our ownership of things, and that we are always entitled to possess the products of our own effort. From Aristotle Marx draws the idea that value of these products is always of two types: a use-value which is the purpose for which the product is made, such as a pair of shoes to serve as foot-coverings; and an exchange-value which is the value of the product as a thing to be traded for some other product. Aristotle contends that the use-value of a thing is its true and proper value, and a good and necessary part of civilized life, while the notion of exchange-value leads on to the invention of money and to the idea of seeking to acquire wealth for its own sake, which occupation can never be part of living a good life. Marx fervently seconds this emotion, and defines a commodity as a product made for the purpose of exchange. And when you hire wage laborers to help you make these products, you become a capitalist and a bourgeois. And whether you intend it or not, you rob your workers of the “surplus value” of their labor and thus render them ever poorer and ever more dependent on you and your kind, even as you put out an ever greater quantity of goods for sale and make yourself ever richer.

Marx’s argument is convoluted and tendentious. He tries to show that the value of any product is exactly proportional to the quantity of labor that goes into it, and that this quantity of value is essentially conserved like physical quantities such as energy or angular momentum. I can’t accept this. I’m prepared to accept that, as a rule of thumb, the “value” of a thing, all other things being equal, is roughly proportional to the quantity of (skilled) labor that has gone into it, but I agree with the liberal economists that value is ultimately in the eye of the beholder. If Justin Bieber cut a lock of his hair and put it up for sale on eBay, what would he get for it? Nothing from me, but he could probably get hundreds or thousands of dollars from someone. What is the “objective” value of a lock of his hair? The answer, I’m afraid, is “whatever someone is willing to give for it.” It has no objective value.

The “scientificness” of Marx’s theory depends on his account of value, which eventually he even treats as a variable in equations. I’m afraid this is all nonsense. To me, having now read the work pretty carefully, Marx’s economic theory is bunk.

This is not to say that Capital is itself without value. As I see it, the book is a braid made from three main strands: a deep reading of economic history, especially that of England since feudal times; a wide survey of working conditions and the lives of workers in industrial England; and abstract theorizing to explain these. The abstract theory comes first, then the survey of working conditions, and finally a precis of economic history. Marx was filled with anger and outrage over the plight of factory workers, and he produces plenty of evidence to support his view, which makes fascinating and troubling reading. Government factory inspectors were themselves traumatized by what they found: the relentless, around-the-clock exploitation of men, women, and children, who lived in filth, poverty, misery, and degradation. The owners of the factories resisted all efforts to improve the conditions of these helots.

In his economic history too Marx is pretty convincing. He shows how the proletariat, the army of dispossessed would-be workers, was progressively formed by the dissolution of ancient and feudal notions of property and by the enclosure of the commons and by the seizure of ecclesiastical properties by Henry VIII and others. People who had been farmers or agricultural workers were thrown off the land and wound up broke and desperate in the towns. They became cannon fodder for the mechanized factories of the Industrial Revolution.

Whether “Marxism” is the answer to these kinds of problems has already, I believe, been answered in the negative by history. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be tried again–and again and again. Indeed, when I finally came to the much shorter Manifesto of the Communist Party, and waded through the sarcastic and patronizing attacks on the more timid brands of socialism to arrive at Marx’s 10-point survey of traits that the post-revolution world would possess, I saw that some points have already been implemented:

  • Point 2: “A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.”
  • Point 5: “Centralization of credit in the hands of the state by means of a national bank with state capital and an exclusive monopoly.”
  • And, in light of the proposed U.S. Ex-PATRIOT Act, Point 4: “Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.”

Marx would have to give us some credit, I think, for having taken these steps toward realizing his utopia. But, as his Manifesto makes clear, his program is necessarily violent, for it is not possible to break the grip of the bourgeoisie on the means of production except through force. And his call for “justice” though violence will find many receptive ears in the years ahead, I have no doubt. But now, having read him, I can provide not just resistance, but principled resistance, to that program.

Thinkers of the world, unite.

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