Marxism remains dangerous nonsense

Tuesday, September 12th, 2023

Tyler Cowan asks, What is valid in Marxism?

1. Capitalist systems, especially before reaching contemporary times, can produce less autonomy than small scale production. Standards of living do rise from industrialization. But I look at many of my rural Mexican friends. They could earn somewhat higher wages in factories, but they prefer to paint ceramics at home. It is more fun and they control their time to a large degree. At some point industrialization can undercut the cultures and networks of suppliers that makes such a choice possible. Marx directs our attention to a certain indivisibility of systems.

2. Marxism promotes an alternative idea of freedom, namely freedom from the market. Anyone who has chosen life as a tenured university professor should not claim that such an idea is complete nonsense. Smith thought in terms of marginal tradeoffs. Marx, above all, focused on inframarginal and systematic effects.

3. The benefits of industrialization take a long time to kick in. Reforming postcommunist economies took fifteen years or more. Poland did most things right and people there are still unhappy. So how long should it take to reform feudalism or other preindustrial structures? Forty years? I take seriously the idea that the industrial revolution did not make people better off right away, so did Marx.

4. Being happy at work is one of the most important things in life. Marx saw the importance of this more clearly than did many of the classical economists. And he saw the importance of inframarginal systemic factors.

5. A growing division of labor can make some people unhappier at their jobs.

To sum up, we all know that capitalism brings a “creative destruction,” to use the phrase of Schumpeter. This is all for the better, but Marx saw how strong both the positive and negative sides of this process would be. And he knew that the relevant problems went deeper than just looking at whether people make rational tradeoffs at the margin. That being said, he overestimated the negative side of the market and underestimated how well capitalism could solve its problems concerning the distribution of income.

Of course marxism, as a political program, remains dangerous nonsense. Marx’s blind spots were enormous, and I still cannot understand how generations of the intelligentsia were taken in by the whole thing.


  1. David Foster says:

    Sounds like more of a critique of industrialization than of capitalism.

    Regarding being happy at work, how many people would be happy as agricultural laborers or, at best, as very small-scale farmers?

  2. Jim says:

    This was written in 2004. In 2004, many things were much less clear than they are now, in 2023. 2023 is much more strange and unpleasant than 2004, and there are many strange and unpleasant things about 2023, and there are many much stranger and unpleasanter things still to come, but one nice thing about 2023 is its brutal honesty: for whatever reason, today’s public figure, as compared to the public figures of 2004, has vastly less polish and social filter and a much greater tendency to go before a camera and emit tactless chains of reasoning like some sort of otherworldly sperg.

    Personally, I am in absolute awe of that forehead. Envious. Shaking.

  3. Michael van der Riet says:

    The rising tide of capitalism floats most boats, not all. To switch metaphors, some people are going to fall into the cracks. The 19th century saw huge growth in GDP as well as massive unemployment. Tim Worstall in one of his famous fallacies (he’s much better at detecting the fallacies of others than at thinking up logically consistent economic theories of his own) insists that the worker made redundant by technology is now free to be redeployed to more productive work. For much of the Industrial Revolution, automation progressed faster than the economy’s ability to provide employment. It could take years and decades for that displaced worker to find alternative work. Marx saw this all too clearly. Perhaps he’d read Blake’s poem “London.” He saw capitalism’s evil side. Marx and others created the labor movement in opposition to capitalism and it is now the dominant political force.

  4. Marty H. says:

    David Foster, self-reliance and the ability to create an independent life in agrarian settings was considered virtuous. The “King” takes its toll and the banks firgured out how to rig the game against the small-holder. Having worked on one some many years ago, had the taxes and financial rents been removed, it would have been an interesting lifestyle option.

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