In 1982 Thomas Sowell wrote a book “Marxism” in which he laid out first the arguments that Marx and Engles made (as opposed to the stuff that people claimed later in the name of “Marxism”, stuff that often directly contradicted what Marx and Engles wrote). In the preface he said that he’d save criticism of Marxism for the end of the book.
I’ve been listening to the book on Audible. I haven’t got to the “Criticism” point yet, and am near the end of Chapter 7 as Audible counts it (which may or may not match the actual book chapters). And, so far, I find three major flaws in Marx’s ideas (they’re not the only ones, just the ones that loom largest).
First, Marx defines “class” not in terms of a group’s similarities and differences from other groups but _expressly_ in terms of “conflict”. A group can be well defined in any particulars but if it’s not in conflict with another group, then it’s not a “class.” A result of this that I can see is once you accept this as a definition, it is a small step to use the more conventional definition of “class” and simply assume that said classes must, then, be in conflict. After all, since Marx declared that classes are always in conflict (because that’s the definition of “class” he used) then if one has a class (by other definitions) then it must be in conflict with other classes. This seems a reasonable argument to most people even though it’s false and based on confusing definitions.
In Capitalism, indeed, the biggest conflict is not between “capitalists” and “the proletariat” (workers). It’s between capitalists and other capitalists. They compete for customers. They compete for good workers who produce value for them. They compete for resources. All of this competition means that they cannot charge arbitrarily high prices for their commodities. They cannot pay arbitrarily low wages. And they certainly cannot make arbitrarily high profits. The competition among capitalists flies in the face of the Marxist idea that conflict is between classes.
Second, he attempts to define an objective “true” value for commodities. It’s not simply the labor theory of value that often gets ascribed to him. The problem with this is that if you declare a “true” value to any commodity–including ones labor–than one cannot benefit from a transaction except at the expense of the other party to that transaction. Instead, if one considers value to be subjective and each individual has their own value they place on something, then I can trade something I value less and you value more for something you value less and I value more, and both of us benefit. Indeed, in the absence of force or fraud, this is the only kind of transaction that will occur.
If I have apples and you have chairs, I can trade some of my apples for a chair and we both come out ahead–or I can trade some of the apples to someone else for money and then trade the money to you for a chair, which money you trade for something you want, and everyone comes out ahead. We each get something we want (value) more in exchange for something we value less.
The third, and this is a real doozy, is defining the income of the workers in such a way that it’s entirely possible for the workers to become richer in conventional meanings–meaning that they have an improved standard of living and greater buying power for the commodities available–and still be considered “poorer” simply because someone else is advancing faster. They have a relatively “smaller slice” of whatever the current pie is however much bigger the pie is and however much bigger in absolute terms that pie may be. Thus you can get claims of “the poor get poorer” even if they’re living better than the wealthy of decades and centuries past. Marx himself acknowledged that the workers were doing better, had a higher standard of living, than those of times past and yet still declared that they were getting poorer because the “Capitalists” were doing better yet. I have, of course, dealt with that one before.
Now, to a certain extent these mistakes were understandable to someone of Marx’s time. The concept of marginal utility, and thus that “value” was not a fixed characteristic of something but something that can vary from individual to individual, from situation to situation, from time to time, was just making inroads into economics. And with the French Revolution still within living memory the coupling of class and conflict can certainly be understood. And the idea that some could be “poorer”, not because they have less but because someone else has more is not original with Marx. All of these things are, to a certain extent, products of their time. The problem is that they continue to be at the core of so many folks’ political and economic philosophies long after they have been shown to be simply wrong.
Indeed, people today often simply accept the idea of “class conflict” as being the natural order of things. They believe that there’s some objective sum that is the “value” of a given thing. And they believe that “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer” is inevitable unless stopped by the coercive power of government. So thoroughly have they been indoctrinated that they don’t even recognize that this is Marxist doctrine. And they certainly don’t recognize that it’s completely, utterly false, or at best self-fulfilling prophecy. If, for instance, you believe that class differences must come with conflict, you will seek conflict. If you believe that there is some objective “value” to things, you will always see yourself cheated by being charged more than what you think the “value” of something is or not being paid what you think your “value” is worth. And if you are driven by envy you won’t see your own improvement in standard of living but the rise of others who are doing better than you.
And so, these three things between them render anything build on them as a foundation utterly worthless. They are the source of endless conflict that obscures, rather than illuminates, roads to the actual improvement of the state of humanity.
And yet people still cling to them and to other principles that are derived from that artfully worded claptrap.
2 thoughts on “Marxism”
I’ll have to get that book, thank you.
The third, and this is a real doozy, is defining the income of the workers in such a way that it’s entirely possible for the workers to become richer in conventional meanings–meaning that they have an improved standard of living and greater buying power for the commodities available–and still be considered “poorer” simply because someone else is advancing faster.
The interesting thing is while justifying it may not have been Marx’s smartest move, identifying this feature of human thought might be his strongest psychological insight. One of the stronger results in social sciences is a relationship between the Gini coefficient and violence. It scales well. Compare two nations and higher Gini coefficient means higher violence. Break both nations in provinces/state and the correlation maintains. Break the states into counties and it still does.
Where Marx failed is the same research shows it isn’t so much the raw disparity, but the ability to bridge it. That is, results matter less than opportunity. In a static structure, like feudalism, frustrated lower status young people, especially men, have no ability to advance so the energy that would go into that dissipated in other ways. This is why the presence of a welfare state doesn’t lower the violence for a given Gini coefficient, the UK being a great example.
That’s because in these views, both Marx and the Gini studies, wealth is a proxy for status. It is a fairly strong proxy, although there are plenty of counter examples. Also, right now the flow tends to be less wealth, unless extreme, brings status (the book The Millionaire Next Door covers how the typical millionaire is low status to the public) and more status brings wealth, see the net worth of people before and after entering Congress, the fact celebrities who no longer do what made them famous making a good of money doing other things, usually poorly.