Saturday, May 05, 2018

The unfortunate Karl Marx: confused, dishonest, malignant

Apparently today is the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx.  And apparently the president of the EU, Jean-Claude Juncker, has celebrated by commemorating and defending Marx.  Comrade Juncker (there's an ironic and appropriate mouthful!) seems to think that just because Marxism has led to terror, butchery, and economic catastrophe everywhere it's been tried, that's no reason to blame Marx -- it's the fault of his followers.

Good grief.  Marxism is totalitarian, comrade Juncker.  It will always lead to terror, butchery, and economic catastrophe.  There's no alternative.

Marx himself seems to have been intelligent, well-read, and a damned fool.  He was a notorious plagiarist -- he stole a great deal from Joseph Proudhon, whom he simultaneously trashed.  His criticisms of others tended to be grossly unfair and he had no compunction about misrepresenting their views in order to attack them.  As Ludwig von Mises points out, Marx' primary "contribution" to socialist thought was his doctrine of polylogism, the bizarre idea that different "classes" (class itself is an undefined and amorphous term) have different consciousness and different logic -- hence the "proletarian" need not address the refutations of socialist dogma from the "bourgeois" economist, and can pretend it's all just class pleading.  That's an important "contribution" because socialist economic theory is a tissue of nonsense, and if a socialist grapples with a competent economist, the socialist will lose.

Marx is terrifically confused and intellectually dishonest on these points.  For a telling example, Marx was a proponent of the labor theory of value, yet just after laying out the theory in Das Kapital, he noted that exchange value necessarily fluctuates with demand, a contradiction that English economist Philip Wicksteed pointed out.  Marx was familiar with the subjective marginal utility theory of value -- probably from reading Menger or Jevons -- because he even notes it as the source of use value; but rather than draw the obvious connection between that and exchange value, he simply asserts that there's none.  He has to sidestep utility theory, because it destroys his preposterous theory of surplus value and his entire economic system.  Marx and his system predict that worker incomes shrink under capitalism; in fact, the greatest increases in individual income and wealth for the typical human being all have come from capitalism and the free market system.

Part of Marx's problem was his philosophical foundation in German idealist philosophy, and particularly the cockamamie ideas of the dialectic, from Schelling and Hegel.  As Mises puts it, these philosophers "expatiate on the Absolute as if it were their pocket watch," or in Ken Binmore's words, "they have no more access to the 'noumenal' world than does the boy who delivers your paper in the morning."  Somehow Marx -- a member of the bourgeoisie -- not only understood the world from a proletarian perspective (and understood better than the proletarians themselves, who didn't share his true proletarian consciousness), he is supposed to have had deep insight into process by which all human history unfolds.  Der Geist whispered into his ear, apparently.  Simply put, Marx's philosophy is all mystical fantasy, no more grounded in reality than Charles Fourier's dreams of lemonade oceans.  He just made it up.

The market system is a system of voluntary, cooperative behavior.  Because it is a system of voluntary exchange and protected rights, it generates mutually beneficial outcomes.  People are free to reject offers and arrangements that don't make them better off.  Socialists are people who cannot follow this and cannot get it into their heads that the world is not zero-sum.  They cannot imagine how it can be that the gain of one person doesn't come at the expense of another.  Socialism is, at root, a simple, primitive, shallow way of looking at the world, typically promoted with great prolixity.  Marxism is socialism's apotheosis.

The malignancy of Marx deserves some attention.  For all his claims of wanting to liberate the proletariat, his real driving force was a hatred of capitalism and an overwhelming self-conceit that he knew how the world should be run.  In his lifetime he could see rising living standards of workers; earlier economists, such as Adam Smith, had even documented this carefully, as had Marx's contemporaries such as Menger and Böhm-Bawerk, or for that matter Roscher.  But Marx ignored all this.  When one is concocting a utopia in one's head, facts are best ignored.  Reading Marx -- Communist Manifesto or Das Kapital -- one notices that his references to capitalists or members of the bourgeoisie are laced with venom; if you pay attention, you realize it really does seem that hatred and megalomania are what urge Marx on.  It is even more evident for his followers, because for them it's an enormous problem that workers actually become much better off under capitalism.  Hence the endless quest for other grounds for revolution, and the idiocies that emerge from the Frankfurt School and post-modernism.  If their motive was caring about workers, they'd abandon Marxism as a failed theory and promote capitalism.  (Some actually do this.)  But Marx's followers share the megalomania and the urge to construct utopias, even if it requires "breaking a few eggs" (i.e. killing recalcitrant human beings).

Marxism is a repugnant system of thought.  It is absurd philosophy and bad economics, and attempts to implement it involved snuffing 100 million human lives or more.  The man who invented it had read real economics and knew better.  I can understand lamenting the birthday of Karl Marx, but there's no reason to commemorate it.  The sooner the world forgets the ravings of this unfortunate, confused, vile scoundrel, the better off the world will be.

Photo: Statue of Marx is dismantled to make way for a new church.  Penza, Russian Federation, 2011.

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