Marxism has been in retreat in recent years, but Karl Marx's footprints on the history of the 20th Century rival the legacies of Thomas Jefferson, Adam Smith, and Mohandas Gandhi. Many of Marx’s works were written collaboratively with his friend, Friedrich Engels, but Marx's contributions were always clearly dominant. His major work, Das Kapital, was intended primarily as a critique of capitalism, but his sweeping philosophy addressed issues in sociology, psychology, economics, and history.
Scholars disagree on the
extent that events colored Marx's perspective, but certain strands of his
personality and experience are prominent. One is that adversity often came
his way. Marx's radical politics deprived him of a stable income. No
university would hire him, despite his Ph.D. in philosophy from the
Life as an exile can be
harsh. The Marx family finally settled in
Another aspect of Marx's personality was ambivalence, which may have originated with his parents' conversion to Christianity from Judaism, supposedly more for social convenience than from conviction. During adulthood, his dual commitments to political action and scholarly understanding were often in conflict. Marx's scholarly passions frequently interfered with his political activism, while his political zeal crept into his writing. Consequently, partisan outbursts and scathing condemnations of class interests permeated all his written works.
Biographies of Marx invariably portray an autocratic and paternalistic bent in his relationships with his wife and family, which was inconsistent with his writings about proper family structures. Despite his internal turmoil, or perhaps because of it, Marx left a lasting mark on the world.
ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT ACCORDING TO MARX
Marx foresaw an unabated course of progress and development for societies everywhere. (Optimists about the human prospect are increasingly convinced that he was wrong about the specifics.) His prognosis was that every society inevitably goes through six major stages of history, culminating in an ideal state.
Turmoil and the overthrow of
Marxist dictators in
SOME MARXIST PREDICTIONS
The works of Marx and Engels
were written well over a century ago, when the evils of the factory system
seemed blatant, and the aroma of revolution wafted throughout
Mature capitalism would fall to communism like rotten fruit. Class struggles would end when the proletariat overthrew capitalists and their middle-class lackeys, the petit bourgeoisie. A short “dictatorship of the proletariat” would follow, during which workers would share the full values of production (subsistence wages plus surplus values). Then government would wither away, as outdated as an adult's baby tooth. Communism would evolve as the final synthesis, characterized by a classless society in which people would live and work under the condition, “from each according to ability, to each according to needs.” And everyone would live happily ever after. In the end, the communist ideal resembles Sir Thomas More's Utopia.
Most Marxist predictions seem way off target. Unemployment rates vary over the business cycle, but there is no discernible upward trend over the past century, even though growing percentages of the world's people have moved into the industrial labor force. The purchasing power of wages has risen dramatically over time. Are workers in market oriented industrialized nations increasingly miserable, when most have color televisions and paid vacations? As Joan Robinson, a prominent 20th Century Marxist, conceded, “`You have nothing to lose but the prospect of a suburban home and a motor car' would not have been much of a slogan for a revolutionary movement.”
Average rates of profit have varied widely over the past century, but without discernible long-run trends. Sporadic booms and busts have plagued capitalism, but with decreasing severity during the past eight decades. Marx was, however, almost alone in correctly predicting greater industrial concentration. Economic power within many industries did become more concentrated from 1850 to 1930, but more recent evidence of increased concentration is hard to glean from the data.
The evils of capitalism identified by Marx have been at least partially cured by the expanding role of government in the market system. Government activity, including development of the modern welfare state, has placed a safety net under the living standards of the poor, dampened business cycles, and slowed industrial concentration in most mature industries. Marx's assertion that “the state is nothing but the organized collective power of the ruling classes” is almost certainly wrong.
A significant rebuttal of
Marxist predictions is that communist revolutions bypassed most
industrialized capitalist nations, occurring instead in feudal agricultural
In the past two decades or
so, most communist governments suffered enormous reversals, being widely
replaced by more democratic governments that tend to privatize much of
government activity. A domino effect seems at work, with
• CENTRAL PLANNING AND FORCED SAVING
Were ideal societies implemented
where Marxists gained control? Hardly! One famous Marxist slogan is,
“Religion is the opiate of the masses.” Paul Samuelson, a Nobel Prize winner,
has paraphrased this as, “Marxism is the opiate of the Marxists.” No matter
how brutal some socialist regimes have been (e.g., the
Marx and Engels wrote thousands of pages on capitalism's ultimate collapse, but less than a hundred pages even hint at specific mechanisms to replace markets. When communist revolutions succeeded in feudal rather than industrialized countries, the new leaders were on their own. Alternatives to markets as ways to answer What? How? and for Whom? had to be invented. None of these alternatives fostered prosperity. Central planning, in which government specifies wages, prices, an the outputs of most industries, was the most common path adopted when communists seized power.
The Marxist term surplus
value refers to gaps between what workers are paid and the average value of
their total output. Orthodox Marxism categorized all rent, interest, and
profit as “surplus value.” Marxists contend that capitalists exploit workers
by “expropriating” surplus values. It is ironic that centrally planned
Marxist societies have been extraordinarily exploitative. Under Soviet
five-year plans initiated in 1929 and used until 1990, low wages were set
relative to individual output, while prices for most nonessential consumer
goods were kept artificially high. Holding consumption far below production
forced people to “save.” The
Forced saving is intended
to foster rapid growth, but we now know that growth in the USSR was actually
slower than in most countries that rely heavily on private saving and
investment. The apparent evolution (based largely on bloated statistics) of
Central planning used coercion to enforce productivity, but these pressures eventually backfired: productivity, incomes, and standards of living collapsed. The painful transition of centrally-planned former Soviet-bloc nations toward heavier reliance on market forces initially resulted in less forced saving and less investment, and was plagued by high unemployment and reduced productivity. Unfortunately, criminals accustomed to dealing in “black markets” frequently were the only people with expertise in using market forces, and the march towards market efficiency has been marred by widespread corruption. Moving to a market-oriented economy may require decades to develop the social institutions of private property and other market mechanisms. The turmoil of transition delays possible benefits from capitalist markets. Although forced-saving strategies in Soviet-controlled nations yielded only anemic growth at best, other ways to force higher saving exist in democratic, market-oriented economies: inflation and taxation.
Karl Marx, though an incendiary polemicist whose words galvanized generations of radical revolutionaries, was not an especially creative thinker. Major strands of thoughts in Marx’s writings echo the analyses of earlier and far more original philosophers. For example, his dialectical materialism borrowed the “dialectics” developed by the idealist Georg Hegel [1770-1831], and “materialism” came from the writings of Ludwig Feurbach [1804–1872]. Another example: The popular rallying cry often attributed to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” was actually written by a radical journalist, Jean-Joseph Louis Blanc [1813-1882]. If not for the historical influence of Marx’s works, he might be remembered today by specialists in the history of economic thought merely as a minor Ricardian.
Nevertheless, Marx’s ambitious attempt to synthesize all social knowledge since Aristotle was intended to extend understanding of the conditions of human development so that the movement to higher stages of development might be accelerated. His vision of this ultimate society, dimly sketched, was that of a communist system based on rational planning, cooperative production, and equality of distribution. Above all, it was to be a society freed from all political and bureaucratic hierarchies. Those societies that, until recently, were categorized as “Marxist,” scored very poorly on this last point, but for Marx the “withering away of the state” was critical. It may have been the tendency of his followers to compromise on this matter that allegedly led Marx to declare on his deathbed, “I am not a Marxist.
Author: Ralph Byrns
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