If it weren’t for the fact that his ideas resulted in the deaths of around 200 million people, I’d be inclined to tip a hat to the fact that Karl Marx managed to create what amounts to the world’s most durable secular religion. Because I’m old fashioned and happen to regard an amoral, genocidal and totalitarian ideology as…you know…a net negative on human welfare, I can’t really do that with a clear conscience. Marxism is so destructive, yet its appeal remains undimmed by the failure of communism. It also remains seemingly resistant to criticism. If one has any intentions of engagement in the battlefield of debate, you’re going to need to fortify yourself with heavy intellectual artillery. Since it is such a cancerous blight on humanity, opponents of Marxism are well served by understanding its architectural underpinnings. Thomas Sowell’s analysis of the entire system, Marxism: Philosophy and Economics, is an essential step toward that end.
Marxism is the apotheosis and the backdrop of the ideological Left. It is a framework which can be recycled and repurposed in order to justify any expansion of political power. More importantly, it provides a critical ballast of narrative that infuses the ideology with a sense of moral urgency and historical struggle against an omnipresent capitalist boogeyman. It can absorb and accommodate new social phenomena (e.g. transgenderism, queer and race “theory”, etc) as well as the latest pseudoscience (climate change, etc) because it is pseudoscience all by itself. Marxism is a seemingly evergreen ideology because it is a theory of history, economics, and sociology wrapped in the rhetoric of equality and justice. It bakes moral outrage into its premises, but considers all moral transgression a necessary but transitory phase in an inexorable, dialectical historical progression towards a society of classless emancipation. In other words, it possesses all the features of religion, but still maintains an appearance of intellectual depth and scientific legitimacy.
The basic propositions of Marxism are easy to grasp, but the system itself is deeply layered. It is propelled by an emotional immediacy and a certain internal coherence that makes it especially resilient to attack. Defenses of Marxism take one of four forms:
- You don’t understand Marxism.
- (Choose communist state) wasn’t what Marx intended.
- Marxism (i.e. socialism/communism) has never been properly attempted.
- There’s nothing wrong with the ideology. It fails because of capitalism, bad people, etc.
The latter three defenses are demonstrably false, but Sowell’s book is particularly useful in rebutting the first claim. True believers ascribe a quasi-mystical depth to Marxism that is apparently unattainable to luddites who aren’t sympathetic to his thought. There is something to this claim. Besides the sheer volume of his corpus, Marx presented his work, Capital in particular, as an unfolding dialectic which would unmask the bourgeois appearance of reality and reveal its true essence. Sowell emphasizes two hurdles that this approach presents to the layman. First, Engels himself cautioned Marx that his dialectical approach would potentially be misunderstood. This is telling since his magnum opus, Capital, is an excruciating slog. Further, Marx’ own writing suggests the possibility that he never intended to be understood fully and was simply laying traps for his critics. The latter possibility should be considered since Marx enjoys a reputation among his acolytes as some kind of prophet or mystic whose depths can only be divined by dutiful study at the feet of #WOKE college professors. Any philosopher whose work produces so many fiercely divided opinions over what its True Meaning was may not have ever intended to be fully understood in the first place. The only result that mattered was that he succeeded in building a cult of personality machine for himself and for generations of followers who’ve taken up the ideology.
Marxism must be judged by the results it has produced in the world and the actions of its adherents. Revolution by violent means, strict demands for ideological conformity, and complete subordination of the individual to some self-appointed elite have been the consistent hallmarks of every attempt to implement this ideology. When the written record is examined, it is rather easy to see how the ideas correlate to real world outcomes. Fortunately for us, Sowell breaks down Marxism’s festering carcass so that its fetid anatomy can be examined.
Rather than delivering a polemic, Sowell spends most of the book analyzing each component of Marxist philosophy in a dispassionate, scientific manner. Lest you believe that Sowell’s political leanings have biased him against the ideology, just keep in mind that he spent 25 years working on this book and earned an advanced degree from Harvard on this very subject. By systematically stepping through each aspect and sourcing his argument from the original texts, Sowell distills Marx to his essence without building straw men. The book reveals the central pillars that bind the entire philosophy with Sowell’s trademarked clarity and precision.
Sowell analyzes the full arc of Marx’ career, and he is very honest about the many inconsistencies, failures of logic, dubious elisions, cop outs and ideas that were never fleshed out. Delineating where Marx ends and Engels begins is a problem rarely discussed by doctrinaire socialists and academic apologists, but Sowell is careful to point all of these things out while cautioning the reader to consider the larger context of his work.
Marxism belongs to a philosophical tradition known as materialism. It is a philosophy which posits that there is no spiritual reality and all that exists is the material world. Not only does this view consign human volition to determinism, it provides an opening for the likes of Marx to embue social and material forces with spiritual and supernatural qualities while operating under the guise of social science. Social transformation is the product of material and social forces to which the individual is completely subordinate.
THE MARXIAN THEORY OF HISTORY
Marx’ materialist conception of the world dovetailed into his theory of history. This historical aspect of the Marxist doctrine is downplayed by modern acolytes, but deeply significant because it compounds the moral and ethical void in the entire system. Marx was a member of the Young Hegelians and developed a theory of history which closely resembled the thought of his mentor. Marx saw the transformation of one stage of society to another in a quasi-deterministic manner that was driven by changes to the material conditions and social relations rather than the movement of individuals or ideas. According to Marx, these changes naturally bred conflict because all capitalist innovation simply created new enmity and jealousy. Marx and Engels spent much of their careers waiting for capitalism to fail and for all of their ghoulish hopes of societal collapse to come true, but they never did. Rather than admitting error, apologists will keep moving the goalposts to validate Marx’ so called predictions. If the development of a revolutionary consciousness was the ironclad, scientifically sound historical inevitability he claimed, calls for revolution were redundant.
THE CAPITALIST ECONOMY
The Marxian conception of the capitalist economy was more sociological than economic. The only purpose Capital serves to the contemporary audience to confirm the prejudicial notion that capitalism is an inherently predatory and exploitative system. It does not offer a positive theory of socialism nor does it add anything to classical market economics. It’s three volumes of tortured, fallacious metaphysics layered on top of thought pioneered by greater minds. Marx completely disregarded the necessity of varying skill levels in the development of an advanced economy, and consigned the entrepreneur completely to the role of soulless predator.
MARXIAN ECONOMIC CRISES
As is the case with most of the economic analysis in the Marxian system, Marx’ “theory” of business cycles was a half-baked hodgepodge of existing theories jerry-rigged together in order to add another layer of oppressive class struggle. Mismatches of supply and demand were evidence of a lack of proportionality in sectors and were ultimately evidence of “ever widening crises” and deepening class struggle.
The Marxian concept of value is one of the lynchpins of the entire ideology. It’s less a theory of production or consumption goods and more of a theory of social relations. Marx leaned very heavily on the labor theory of value as articulated by Ricardo and Smith, but was distinguished by his emphasis on “socially useful labor” and the quantity of surplus value extracted by the capitalist. Somehow, contemplating all this the surplus value was a critical act of dialectical inquiry that sharpened the revolutionary consciousness.
POLITICAL SYSTEMS AND REVOLUTION
Sowell’s treatment of the Marxian concept of proletarian revolution is proof positive of the even-handedness of his analysis. As easy as it is to point to that one paragraph from the Critique of the Gotha Program as prima facie evidence that Marx wanted a dictatorship, Sowell takes pains to emphasize that this should be taken in context with his overall vision of the transformation of social relations and productive forces. Ultimately, these subtle nuances didn’t override the ideology’s central propositions pertaining to the predatory nature of capitalism.
Marx was sympathetic to the Paris Commune uprising, and saw it as an exemplary model of a proletarian dictatorship. In The Civil War in France, Marx professed support for four feelgood principles to which any modern progressive would readily align himself. Universal suffrage, an open society, freedom of religion, separation of church and state, and a non-militaristic viewpoint sound good on paper just like many other Marxist epigrams. The abject failure of this experiment and the support he gave it were evidence that he was giving birth to a totalitarian ideology.
One of the most pernicious myths of the Marxian system was Marx’ claim that, unlike his utopian forebears, he had put forth a theory of “scientific” socialism. Despite the numerous flaws and inconsistencies within the system, this perception of scientific legitimacy not only persists as Belief, but abets all complementary doctrines of scientific social organization.
MARX THE MAN
Similar to Gary North’s contribution to Requiem for Marx, Sowell gives us a portrait of Karl Marx’ life. Rather than being the type of working class prole he claimed to represent, he was born into a middle-class family of means, and enjoyed a life of lavish patronage from his parents, wealthy in-laws, and his intellectual wingman, Friedrich Engels. He was notoriously spendthrift with other people’s money, and apparently, quite the party hound. He regarded university as little more than a “camping ground” in which to while away the hours. His megalomaniacal tendencies and apocalyptic visions were present in his early poetry, and were simply transferred over to his political writings later in life. Marx’ entire career was marked by failed attempts at media success, squandered wealth borrowed from others, bitter rivalries with other intellectuals, and a marriage marred by self-imposed impoverishment, financial incompetence, emotional strife and infidelity. In short, he was the very epitome of the smug, entitled, coddled, narcissistic, middle-class progressive who goes to college to end up studying Marxism or subjects informed by Marxism.
THE LEGACY OF MARX
The endurance of Marxism’s appeal is simultaneously befuddling and tragic. Despite numerous refutations and contributing absolutely nothing of enduring value to modern economics, the basic template of Marxian proletarian oppression has been transferred over to the entire spectrum of sociology, arts and humanities. Marxism fits very neatly into the two realms of academic “science” which are the Left’s current vehicles for the implementation of Communism 2.0: gender studies and climate science.
Even if Karl Marx never existed, the Left would have invented him. Since the Left’s true goal is absolute political dominion, it needs a secular cult of the State in order to advance its agenda. It makes perfect sense that a quasi-religious, pseudoscientific, anti-family, anti-capitalistic, atheistic paean to state power written by a pampered, sheltered academic is still the guiding light of the Left.
Marxism enjoys an unchallenged dominion in the halls of academia. Instead of promoting intellectual curiosity, Marxism inculcates a set of prejudices against capitalism, prefab outrage, simplistic explanations for complex phenomena, and most importantly, a pretense of moral superiority.
Marxist thought is reaching a state of peak fermentation in America and Europe after decades of gestation. True believers are beyond reason, but for those looking for intellectual ammunition to ward off the Marxist zombie apocalypse, Thomas Sowell’s book is an indispensable weapon for your arsenal.
Much of the intellectual legacy of Marx is an anti-intellectual legacy. It has been said that you cannot refute a sneer. Marxism has taught many-inside and outside its ranks-to sneer at capitalism, at inconvenient facts or contrary interpretations, and thus ultimately to sneer at the intellectual process itself. This has been one of the sources of its enduring strength as a political doctrine, and as a means of acquiring and using political power in unbridled ways. – Thomas Sowell