What Marx got wrong is more important than what he got right
By James K. Glassman A quarter-century ago, Marxism provided the ruling ideology for roughly half the world’s population and threatened to spread to at least half of the other half. But a year ago, outside of Pyongyang, Havana, and isolated pockets of academe, the conventional wisdom was that Marxism was stone dead. “I shouldn’t even ...
By James K. Glassman
A quarter-century ago, Marxism provided the ruling ideology for roughly half the world’s population and threatened to spread to at least half of the other half. But a year ago, outside of Pyongyang, Havana, and isolated pockets of academe, the conventional wisdom was that Marxism was stone dead.
“I shouldn’t even mention Marxism,” wrote Charles Murray, the conservative scholar. “For decades, it was the leading intellectual paradigm on the continent and had a huge influence among broad elements of the American intelligentsia. What is left of Marx?…Virtually nothing.”
Today, however, there’s a chill running up the legs of leftists everywhere as they survey the wreckage of the current economic crisis and point to Marx’s warnings about how such debacles are, as Matthew Yglesias paraphrases, “endemic to the capitalist system.”
Not so fast! As terrible as it has been, the recession in the United States appears to be bottoming out, as Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke said yesterday. A good guess is that the U.S. economy will show positive growth in this quarter, or next at the latest. Also, some perspective is in order. GDP this year, despite the recession, will exceed $14 trillion, or $45,000 per capita. This crisis of capitalism has meant that, for the United States and other developed nations, output for the first quarter of 2009 will be the same, in real terms, as output for 2007. And, by the way, capitalism is not the only system that moves in fits and starts. Feudalism and communism have their own economic crises; communism’s (if we may judge from North Korea and Cuba) is perpetual.
Berkeley’s Brad DeLong, of all people, puts it well:
Marx thought that business cycles and financial crises were evidence of the long-term unsustainability of the system. We modern neoliberal economists view it not as a fatal lymphoma but rather like malaria: Keynesianism — or monetarism, if you prefer — gives us the tools to transform the business cycle from a life- threatening economic yellow fever of the society into the occasional night sweats and fevers: that with economic policy quinine we can manage if not banish the disease.”
My own interest in Marx is rooted in Keynes’s famous statement in his General Theory of 1936: “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.” Keynes himself is such an economist, as I wrote in Commentary in March. And, in this department, Marx is at least Keynes’s equal (Keynes, in the quotation, was referring to “political philosophers” as well as economists).
Marx posited a world of contending, class-driven materialist forces. “Does it require deep intuition,” he wrote, “to comprehend that man’s ideas, views, and conception — in one word, man’s consciousness — changes with every change in the conditions of his material existence?”
We have bought into this notion almost completely. Look at the 2008 election campaign, where the candidates fully accepted the construct that policy is determined by powerful, moneyed corporate “special interests.” The healthcare system we have today, we are continually told by politicians (and accept as truth), is the result of the clout of lobbyists working for drug and health insurance companies. And anyone who thinks ideas can be generated or advocated outside the context of wealth is naïve.
It’s not that such a notion has no validity. Of course it does. The problem is that we’ve bought into the whole dreary story completely. Christopher Hitchens in his Atlantic piece quotes James Buchan: “Marx is so embedded in our Western cast of thought that few people are even aware of their debt to him.” That, alas, is true. The average TV talking head, as a framework of analysis, embraces the Marxist concept that the only reason people do things is for material interest: All relations are driven by power, and all motivations by money.
Marx saw history as a succession of class struggles, with the current and final one between “two great hostile camps…bourgeoisie and proletariat.” Social and economic mobility, not to mention the ownership of assets like stocks and real estate, is so pervasive in the United States that it is absurd to believe that we have a “working class,” or proletariat, as Marx conceived.
Yet surveys show that Americans describe themselves in just these Marxist terms. They eagerly respond to Gallup polls asking them which candidate “respects working-class Americans” more. The first step toward purging Marx from American life, in fact, is to stop using the term “class” to describe anything other than a sense of style or a course in school. Americans need to get back to their pre-Marxist roots, when we viewed individuals as conscious, autonomous actors. That was the basis of Enlightenment thinking that Marx supplanted.
He wrote in 1857: “The single, isolated hunter and fisherman, with whom [Adam] Smith and [David] Ricardo begin, belongs to the unimaginative fancies of eighteenth-century Robinsonades,” a reference to utopias on the lines of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Marx ridiculed this concept of “Natural Man” — the man of the Declaration of Independence, with its strong admonition that governments are formed to protect the natural, God-given rights of the individual, rather than governments beneficently bestowing those rights.
Even if Marx had gotten the part about capitalist economic crises right, he got the part about human beings wrong. At least, I sure hope so.
James K. Glassman is the former Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. He is president of the World Growth Institute, which promotes global economic development.
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