- Israel’s annexation plans and the United States Michael Koplow, Ottomans & Zionists
- Opium: from vice to crime in European empires Diana Kim, Aeon
- An interview with John Stuart Mill Jason Brennan, 200-Proof Liberals
- Is the left reclaiming freedom and anti-statism from the right? Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
- “Experimenting with Social Norms” in small-scale societies Pseudoerasmus
- Reading Karl Marx in Beijing Fabio Lanza, Jacobin
- Which works better: democracy or dictatorship? Branko Milanovic, globalinequality
- Grappling with the meaning of martyrdom Scott Beauchamp, Law & Liberty
- If Brexit goes ahead, say goodbye to radical redistribution Chris Bertram, Crooked Timber
- The lasting, important influence of Karl Marx Branko Milanovic, globalinequality
- Perverse rationality Nick Nielsen, Grand Strategy Annex
- Scents of heaven: frankincense and myrrh in the Christian realm Timothy Carroll, Aeon
- On the inexhaustible desire to keep talking about Marx Jonathan Wolff, Times Literary Supplement
- The promise of polarization Sam Tanenhaus, New Republic
- Anglo-Saxon England was more cosmopolitan than you think Rhiannon Curry, 1843
- DC unfriends Silicon Valley Declan McCullagh, Reason
- Marx and the morality of capitalism Virgil Storr, Liberty Matters
- Adam Smith’s two economies Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
- 2002 essay on Columbus and the New World Charles Mann, the Atlantic
- Polish plans for an American military base, pros and cons Michael Kofman, War on the Rocks
This week, I thought it might be fun to take a break from the series on the state and education and instead to introduce the topic of up-close and personal encounters with some very interesting people: Marxists. My reason for writing on this topic is simply that I’m curious to see if other people have had similar experiences and what the Notes on Liberty community thinks of this breed.
In my experience, there are two archetypes of modern Marxist. The first is the “cultural” one. This one is to my mind the more preferable of the two. This one conscientiously reads all the literature associated with Marxism and its derivatives, normally discards much of the economic aspects, and embraces the social and intellectual pieces. They tend to not think too highly of The Communist Manifesto but are crazy about Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoléon. The result is that they cerebrally focus on class struggle, disenfranchisement, social inequality, etc., all while happily stipulating to all of the horrible famines, massacres, breadlines, general deprivation, etc. that occurred under Marxism. Their attitude is similar to a person who uses an old, long unpracticed religion as a form of social identification, e.g. “I’m Catholic (though I haven’t been to Mass in 40 years and support causes frowned upon by the Church).”
The standard response when asked about the fruits of Marxism tends to be a variant of “That wasn’t true Marxism; Marxism done right wouldn’t have caused that,” or “it just wasn’t implemented properly.” I have even heard one along the lines of “That was communism, not Marxism.” The cultural Marxist is easy to get along with. Because he tends to be a genuine intellectual and honest academic, when faced with reputable sources, he will graciously concede the point. Since this type respects skill and knowledge, there is a shared framework in which to debate. He is happy to debate anything and never views any author or source as particularly sacrosanct.
As a result, the cultural Marxist is reasonably open-minded and eager to find some common ground. My personal encounters with this type tend to be positive and normally end with everyone buying everyone else coffee and leaving the meeting as friends. They also tend to be pragmatic; during my time at Columbia (it’s reputation should be well known vis-à-vis Marxism), there was one faculty member who could only be described as fiscally capitalist and socially Marxist. Dovetailing with debates on class structure, we also received exhortations to secure our financial futures and received step-by-step instructions on how to invest in Vanguard mutual funds! It was slightly surreal, but I later discovered that this hybrid attitude is fairly typical among cultural Marxists. For them, it’s not about the money; it’s about the ideas. But because they mix and match ideas to create a personal worldview, they are neither invested in any particular aspect of Marxism, nor overly interested in practicing it.
The other archetype is the rabid ideologue who believes everything from Karl Marx, Vladimir Lenin, and, variably, Ivan Trotsky, Josef Stalin, or Mao Tse-tung is gospel. Unlike the cultural Marxist, the knowledge of ideologue tends to be constrained to a limited number of sources and works. The existence of The Eighteenth Brumaire can come as a surprise to these people, though they can quote The Communist Manifesto practically verbatim. Encounters with this type disintegrate to name calling and ad hominem attacks within a matter of minutes, in my case usually when their source foundations have been abolished in debate. The hallmark of their mentality is a fixed belief that if they personally are incapable of something, then no one else can do it either.
As an example, a group of students, including myself, went to a performance of La Traviata at Opéra Bastille in Paris. One of our number turned out to be a Marxist ideologue who spent the evening denigrating the entire affair. I recall one particularly embarrassing moment during an intermission when the person loudly ranted about how none of the attendees were there through love of music, being only drawn through an affected desire to show off and appear cultured. All attempts to inveigle the person to return quietly to our seats failed. Never once did it occur to the person to observe that evidence of genuine music appreciation was present just within the student group.
Recently, I tangled with a self-identified Marxist-Leninist ideologue online. Somehow the conversation careened from the original topic to his insistence that I couldn’t possibly have functional fluency in six languages (classical musicians have to be able to read and work in the five languages of music – English, French, German, Italian, and Latin – and I studied Ancient Greek through college). The only justification for his doubts appeared to be that he only had knowledge of three languages. The pivot and then ad hominem doubt is all par for the course in dealing with this type of person, but what struck me is that in all my history of engagements only ideologue Marxists have used the “you can’t possibly be or do X because I’m not or can’t” argument. This is where there is a real divergence between ideologue Marxists and cultural Marxists: all of the latter I have interacted with are highly capable people who go to the opposite extreme and assume that others are informed and thoughtful as well. On a side note, there is nothing quite as entertaining as watching a cultural Marxist debate an ideologue; it inevitably ends with a scorched earth defeat of the ideologue.
Since all of these interactions are anecdotal, they may be sheer personal experience and could very well be due to ideological ignorance. At this point, I invite members of the NOL community to relate their personal stories of brushes with Marxists and what most struck them about their mentality and approach. What is the most irrational thing you have heard on this topic? Were you able to reach a state of détente? Did the discussion end in a draw, or a meltdown? Are there any archetypes you might add?
Notā bene: I am entering an intensive language course in preparation for doctoral studies. As a result, I may not be very present on NOL for the summer. I will do my best, though, to monitor comments and to be part of the conversation.
Given all the time I wasted reading Marx, I’d say I lost big time. If I had it to do over again I’d read Grundrisse and stop.
Here is a link to Grundrisse (pdf), and note that Marx spends a good deal of time near the end of his manuscript on “the Frenchman,” Frédéric Bastiat. Oh, and Grundrisse has over 800 pages of reading in it.
According to all accounts, Karl Marx was not an easy person. Basically, he had the habit of making the life of all around him miserable. However, as Joseph Schumpeter (himself far from being a Marxist) loved to point out, he was extremely well read. This allowed him to build a complex economic theory focused on factory workers, without ever (or almost ever, at least) stepping into a factory. Life for a factory worker in 19th century Britain was not easy, and Marx was very able in pointing that out. His economic theory, however, was a complete failure, as Ludwig von Mises aptly pointed out.
Marxism should have died in the mid-20th century when it became clear that all socialist countries are poor and oppressive. However, it survived as cultural Marxism. People like Antonio Gramsci, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and everybody in the Frankfurt School were not interested in economics. Instead, they wanted to study culture. The oppressed were not the factory workers anymore, but the social minorities. Libertarians and Conservatives should sympathize with that. It is true that women, non-whites, and homosexuals suffered a great deal in the masculine, white, heterosexual West. To point out that they suffer even more outside the West is not particularly helpful. We don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater. However, as with much of original Marxism, cultural Marxism is only good at pointing the problems, not at offering solutions. Modern civilization, as Sigmund Freud very well observed, is full of discontents. This is an old argument. Rousseau points out how modern civilization is cruel. Voltaire answers that, as cruel as it might be, it is still better than the alternative.
Our problem today is that cultural Marxism was successful in pushing the Overton window in their favor. That was precisely Gramsci’s objective: to fight “bourgeois” cultural hegemony with Marxist cultural hegemony. To a great degree, he succeeded. We need to fight the cultural war. As much as modern life can be bittersweet, I still haven’t heard a better alternative. Besides, as a Christian, I have to say with Saint Augustine that men have a “God-shaped hole” that no civilization – Modern, pre-modern or postmodern – can fill. But still, I enjoy the things that capitalism, capitalism that originated from the Protestant ethic, has to offer.
I’m getting tired of reading and listening to so-called libertarian or conservative people saying that “in theory socialism is beautiful.” No, it’s not. In theory, socialism can be summed up as “the end of private property.” This is how Karl Marx summed it up. The genius of Ludwig von Mises is precisely in the fact that he did not have to wait until 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, to realize that this does not make sense. When the Soviet Union was still a young country sweeping intellectuals around the world, von Mises made the following remark: without private property, there is no supply and demand. Without supply and demand, there is no price formation. Without prices the economic calculation is impossible. And that is precisely what happened in the USSR and happens in countries that follow the path of socialism: without the compass of free market prices, governors can not make decisions about allocating resources. Socialism is the death of rationality in economics. Socialism is rubbish in practice because before that it’s rubbish in theory. Please stop talking nonsense. The free market, on the other hand, is beautiful in practice because first of all, it is beautiful in theory.
- We’ve lost our faith in God *and* reason Kenan Malik, Guardian
- Pope Francis is beloved, but disaster looms for the Vatican Ross Douthat, NY Times
- What did Karl Marx think about freedom? Daniel Luban, the Nation
- Hungary’s slow, sad decline into dictatorship Matthew Engel, New Statesman
When Fidel Castro died he was totally alone. It doesn’t matter if relatives or friends were standing beside him: in the end, we are all alone. We experience the world through our sense of perception. Of the things themselves we have no experience. On the other hand, all humans have perception of themselves. We just know that we are. This self awareness is a fundamental aspect of what it is to be human. Castro’s death already received a lot of attention, but I believe it is a moment really worthy of reflection. Under his half-century regime millions died or suffered, and it’s always important to remember that we are talking about a little country, an island in the Caribbean. Cuba was one of the most prosperous nations in the Americas, and today it is one of the most miserable.
It is really sad to see that most of my colleagues are unable to call evil by its name. In the mid-nineteenth century Karl Marx predicted that capitalism was going to collapse because of its internal contradictions. He was not saying that he wanted capitalism to collapse. He was saying that this was a scientific fact, as sure as the next eclipse predicted by an astronomer. Capitalism, of course, didn’t collapse. Marx’s economic theory was simply nonsensical, and was contradicted by logic and facts. But Marxists couldn’t admit it. Instead they replaced economics with culture, and the working class with Others as the oppressed. Blacks, women, Native Americans, underdeveloped countries and many others became the new oppressed class. Fidel Castro fit beautifully in the Marxism of the New Left. He was the charismatic dictator of the charming island nation of Cuba. The US, ruled by leftists in the 1960s and 1970s, was unable to give a consistent answer to it. Latin America, ruled by dictatorships that the left called “right” (no one wants to take their dictators home), was also not in place to contrast the evils of the Castro regime. A perfect storm.
Castro, for all we know, died with no regrets for the evils he committed in life. Political commentators say that history will judge him. But this is a lie. History can’t judge anyone. Only people can judge people. And it is fundamental that political commentators today judge Castro for all the evil he has done. Castro didn’t kill people in Cuba only. He supported, in one way or another, brutal regimes all over the world, mostly in Latin America. To this day he is partly responsible for the evils of Foro de São Paulo. But many political commentators insist in the lie that in Cuba there’s true freedom: they have enough to eat, universal healthcare and universal education. Why would they want freedom?
Freedom is the fundamental state of human beings. We are, in the end, all alone. Of what goes in our hearts, only we are aware of. Sometimes not even us. All of us make choices based on knowledge that’s unique. Circumstances of time and space shape the choices that we make. And life is made of choices. Marxism, socialism, and all forms of statism go against these fundamental truths.
People in Cuba are not free. They are all slaves to the Castro family. Some people want to have life in a cage, as long as they receive food every day. Of course this is a lie. In order to live in a cage you need to have someone outside the cage bringing the food. Someone has to be free. This person becomes your slave as well, and this constitutes a fundamental contradiction of socialism: Alexis de Tocqueville mentioned that socialism is just a new form of slavery. In slavery someone is forced to work for somebody else under the threat of physical violence. Under socialism everybody is forced to work for everybody else. Let’s hope that Castro’s death may help put socialism in the past, where slavery is, and that Latin America may finally see the light of freedom.
Alguns posts atrás fiz uma exposição sobre o que é capitalismo, e também procurei expor e desmistificar alguns equívocos a respeito dele. Nos próximos posts pretendo fazer algo semelhante com o socialismo: explicar o que é e desfazer alguns mitos e equívocos. Falando a respeito de capitalismo, expliquei que esta palavra é utilizada de forma bastante livre, e assim há muitas variedades de capitalismo. Optei por expor um tipo de capitalismo associado ao pensamento de Adam Smith e à tradição liberal, algo que pode ser chamado de liberdade econômica, liberdade de mercado ou liberdade de escolha. O socialismo também aparece em variadas formas. O que exponho aqui é a variedade associada a Karl Marx. Marx foi um historiador, filósofo e sociólogo, mas o que me interessa aqui é principalmente sua teoria econômica.
A teoria econômica de Marx começa com a teoria do valor trabalho. De acordo com esta pressuposição, o que dá valor a um produto é a quantidade de trabalho envolvida na produção. Em outras palavras, o trabalho (trabalho braçal, entenda-se) é a fonte de todo valor. Esta percepção de valor trabalho pressupõe uma ligação entre mais valia e acumulação de capital. Marx argumentou que toda a riqueza é fruto do esforço dos trabalhadores. No entanto, os trabalhadores não recebem um salário correspondente ao valor pelo qual sua produção é vendida. Na percepção liberal, a diferença entre custo de produção e valor de venda é chamada de lucro. Na percepção de Marx, isto é mais valia: os donos das fábricas (ou donos dos meios de produção) enriquecem a custa do esforço dos trabalhadores. Mas esta é uma relação insustentável: para lucrar os empresários precisam pagar aos trabalhadores o mínimo possível, somente o suficiente para garantir a sobrevivência e reprodução dos trabalhadores. Com o tempo, os lucros iriam cair, o capital (ou os recursos de produção) iriam se concentrar em poucas e imensas fábricas (fabricas menores seriam levadas à falência pela competição), haveria dificuldade de transferência de capital (os investimentos seriam cada vez menos rentáveis), o número de desempregados se elevaria, a capacidade de venda cairia, crises cada vez mais profundas e frequentas ocorreriam, todo o sistema iria inevitavelmente chegar ao fim. Uma sociedade socialista, onde os trabalhadores seriam donos dos meios de produção, surgiria.
No coração da teoria econômica de Marx está o conceito de mais valia: os trabalhadores não recebem o que merecem pelo seu trabalho. Ao invés disso, eles são explorados pelos patrões. Acredito que esta noção de exploração comove muitas pessoas, mas ela não faz o menor sentido. Marx não está dizendo que alguns patrões exploram os trabalhadores. Ele está dizendo que, por definição, todos os patrões exploram os trabalhadores, pois retém na mais valia uma riqueza que não lhes pertence.
A pedra fundamental da teoria econômica de Marx é a teoria do valor trabalho: o que confere valor a um produto é o trabalho que se tem para produzi-lo. Daí que necessariamente haja exploração. Mas a teoria do valor trabalho está certa? Ela corresponde à realidade? Acredito que está bem claro que não: posso ter muito trabalho para produzir uma escultura de palitos de fósforo no meu quintal, e nunca conseguir vende-la, pois ela não tem valor para mais ninguém. Todo o meu trabalho, todo o meu esforço, é inútil e sem valor se eu não estiver produzindo algo que seja do interesse de outra pessoa. Além disso, a revolução marginalista do final do século 19, e particularmente a Escola Austríaca, veio demonstrar que valor é algo subjetivo e sujeito a condições de tempo e espaço.
A questão clássica a respeito de valor é: “porque diamantes, que não alimentam, são tão caros, enquanto que água, que é essencial à vida é tão barata?”. A resposta do valor trabalho é que dá muito trabalho conseguir diamantes, enquanto que água literalmente cai do céu. Mas esta resposta é incompleta: em alguns lugares água não cai do céu. No deserto do Saara, morrendo de sede, uma pessoa pode trocar muitos diamantes por copo de água. Em outras palavras, se a teoria do valor trabalho está correta, então há um valor objetivo: é possível calcular com precisão o valor de alguma coisa considerando o trabalho empregado em sua produção. Mas é manifesto que isto não é verdade: produtos tem seu valor afetado por muitas circunstâncias, e o esforço empregado na produção pode não ter qualquer relevância no valor final.
A conclusão é simples: se a teoria do valor trabalho está errada, toda a teoria econômica de Marx está errada. Isto quer dizer que patrões nunca exploram seus empregados? Claro que não! Isto quer dizer apenas que esta exploração não ocorre segundo a explicação de Marx.
As previsões de Marx (salários menores, maior desemprego, crises econômicas recorrentes e profundas) foram desmentidas uma a uma: a Europa do final do século 19, progressivamente marcada pelo liberalismo econômico, experimentou uma prosperidade impar em sua história. Num quadro mais amplo, nações que optam pelo liberalismo econômico prosperam, e principalmente prosperam os trabalhadores. Basta comparar Coreia do Norte e Coreia do Sul, China e Hong Kong, Alemanha Ocidental e Alemanha Oriental, EUA e URSS e assim por diante. Entendo que muitas pessoas se encantam com o marxismo (e como o socialismo) por se apiedarem das condições muitas vezes precárias dos trabalhadores. Porém, não basta ter o coração no lugar certo. É fundamental ter uma compreensão correta da realidade. Caso a exploração dos trabalhadores seja uma preocupação para você, sugiro considerar o capitalismo e esquecer qualquer forma de socialismo.