Thursday, July 6, 2017

Getting to the Why of Marxism

I picked up a biography of Karl Marx: the Passionate Logician by Joel Carmichael at HalfPriceBooks the other day for the princely price of $3.00, and I'm glad I did.

Because the book helps me understand the why of the most destructive and reactionary political ideology in human history, responsible for millions of deaths and unimaginable human misery.

Carmichael does a splendid job of laying out the ideological fervors that were consuming rich university kids like Marx in the early to mid 19th century and that led to the Communist Manifesto and Marxism.

First of all, everyone in Germany and Russia in the early 19th century was consumed by Hegel. Why? Well, Carmichael proposes, partly because Hegel made dialectics not just about logic and argument, but about the real world. If you like, Hegel gets over the problem of Newtonian mechanics that the world, the universe, is like a billiard table where everything is determined like the movement of cannon balls and planets. In Hegel, things change by the to-and-fro movement from thesis to antithesis and back, which is a lot closer to the real world of constant change and oscillation.

Then everyone was transfixed by the early years of the industrial revolution, where sensitive urban souls got to see for the first time the reality of poverty in the lower orders. There must be a better, higher way, they thought, and being young men they quickly decided that the best answer would be a gang rumble, the intoxicating violence of revolution. They would rebel in the name of the proletariat, of which they knew nothing.

So in the first half of the 19th century we got a two-stage development of socialism, first in the ideas of Fourier, Saint-Simon, and Robert Owen, and then in the more pointed ideas of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, √Čtienne Cabet, Louis Blanc, and Moses Hess. The point of all of these ideas was that the welfare of mankind was far too important to be left to the likes of merchants and bankers. Educated men of virtue needed to intervene, with the glorious promise of socialism where property would be abolished and people would live in genuine equality and harmony.

Those times were rather like our own time. Here was a radical revolution in the economy, throwing the modestly fed, clothed and housed artisans and craftsmen of the guilds out of work. It looked like things were spiraling downwards as the world of the craftsman was replaced by the teeming slums of the proletariat and the manufactory.

Same thing today. We have the global economy that is shattering all the comfortable assumptions of the industrial age. You can't hope to graduate from high school and get a lifetime union job at the local steel plant or auto factory any more. In fact some reckless prognosticators are predicting the end of the job altogether.

Since we can't just trust the market, it stands to reason that government must intervene, then and now, with its force. Or better yet: Revolution, Baby! We will replace private property and its injustice with the ethical principles of true community.

Now I think that there is a fatal flaw in the lefty analysis, both then and now. There is a basic assumption that the fall of the craftsman and the "deskilling" of work was universal. But in fact that was not so. The craftsmen might have been falling into poverty, but the new proletariat was overwhelmingly composed of people migrating from the country to the city. Presumably they made this journey because they felt that wage labor in the city was better than whatever they were experiencing in the countryside. No doubt, because the agricultural revolution of the previous two hundred years had reduced the sturdy European peasant to nomadic penury. That's why the Elizabethan Poor Law was passed in 1598: because landless peasants were roaming the countryside in Britain -- robbers and highwaymen -- and Something Had to be Done.

Same thing today. We see the decline of the white working class, previously propped up, like the guild craftsmen, by government-sanctioned privilege. But at the same time we see the immigrants from the Third World flooding into our cities, looking to wive and thrive in the modern economy. In Florida, where I am presently attending on Lady Marjorie's end-of-life mother, the hospital staff, the home health aides are mostly black immigrants from the Caribbean (BTW, one aide drives a Mercedes, and another drives an Infiniti: go figure). There is barely a white working class in sight. In China, I read, something like 12 million people are moving from the country to the city every year. Are all these people moving to misery? I doubt it.

But at least the Proudhons and the Marxes had an excuse. They were experiencing the beginnings of the Great Enrichment and it would have been reckless to assume that, in 1850, you ain't seen nothin' yet. And the socialist dream had not yet been tested and killed millions of people and tanked the economy wherever it was tried. Our modern lefties have no excuse; they are simply living in Cloud Cuckoo Land.

But here is their basic error: their attack on private property. The point about private property regulated by law is that it is an amazing advance over the alternative, which is property adjudicated by war. That was the old way, from the Romans to the Vikings. How did they get rich? They stole it. The point about Julius Caesar is that he spent ten years conquering Gaul and accumulating a rich harvest of loot and slaves. Ditto the Vikings, only they preyed on the Brits as well as the French.

Now go forward to the new way, practiced by the Brits in India. When they set up their trading posts at Calcutta and Madras and Bombay people from the hinterland flocked to shelter under their rule, because their's was a trading, merchant economy, not a looting, feudal economy. And when the Governor of Bengal, Warren Hastings, started doing a bit of looting and plundering, Edmund Burke had him impeached in the British Parliament.

No, property is not theft; it is an amazing human invention that allows humans to buy and sell rather than seize and hold. And notice that the socialist states all regress from buy and sell to seize and hold. Their only means is violence, and violence leads to poverty and riots in the streets, President Maduro, because government is force.

Then there is the price system. Marx built his whole economics on the contradictions in classical economics between use value and exchange value. But ten years after he published Das Kapital, Vol. 1, scientists realized that there wasn't such a thing as use value and exchange value, there was only marginal value. And then Ludwig von Mises made the prophetic statement, just as the Soviet Union was getting going, that socialism could not work because it could not compute prices. If any prophecy in this world has been confirmed by events, millions of deaths, and untold misery, it is the prophecy that socialism can only work when it merely banishes prices to the black market.

Yet day in and day out, people are going to government trying to get it to put its thumb on the price system and warp it in their favor. Where are the passionate rich young men, educated at the best universities, that are denouncing this vile and reactionary exploitation? Youthful educated passion, it appears, does not extend to descanting on the wonders of peaceful cooperation and enrichment by submitting to the prices set day by day in the market.

Anyway, now I have a better idea of what Marx and his pals in the mid 19th century were thinking, and why.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you. This was an excellent explanation of a small part of economics that I either had not learned in college, or had forgotten. I linked to it at: