Happy Birthday Karl Marx!

In “Marx’s Contributions and their Relevance Today,” John G. Gurley takes an interesting approach to viewing the contemporary economic world through the lens of Marxist analysis. He asks us to consider what Karl Marx himself would say if he were “to rise from the dead and survey our world of theory and practice.” Gurley approaches the question by looking at what he views as the seven major contributions of Marx to economics.

The first of these contributions is Marx’s theory of historical materialism which established a framework “for analyzing economic, social, and political changes over long periods of time.” Today, Marx would find that he was correct about the “transitory” nature of capitalism. Yet, he would find that socialism had not replaced mature capitalist political economies, but instead had taken hold in “immature capitalist or even pre-capitalist societies.” The proletariat in advanced industrialized countries have become satisfied with their relative condition and unwilling to challenge exploitation.

In some way, the transitory nature of capitalism is an evolutionary one. I say this because capitalism changes, but it is not replaced. We see this in the way that capitalism adopts government investment and welfare mechanisms to mute the more brutal aspects of free-market capitalism. Yet, the adaptations do not negate poverty, inequality, exploitation, or alienation. All of this is to say that capitalism has evolved rather than be replaced by communism as Marx predicted. Marx may have been right about capitalism (in many ways), but he may have underestimated the extent to which the forces of capitalism seek to maintain capitalism.

The second contribution which Gurley lists is Marx’s conclusion that working class in “bound” to remain in a lower and “impoverished” position in relation to “the growing wealth around it.”

Today, Marx would find that the position of the working class has not changed in its relative position to the capitalist classes. While the details surrounding the conditions of the class may appear different, Marx “would see here essentially the same class structure that he left.” Additionally, Marx would find that economists today, like those in his day, continue to ignore his analysis of labor value and exploitation.

Another contribution of Marx was his “economic theory of the state.” Marx felt that the state could do little to “alleviate the commercial crisis of capitalism.” While the state can make temporary effects though fiscal and banking policy, state primarily works to support the capitalist class. Gurley says that Marx would be “surprised” by the government measure used to stabilize the economy. I agree that he might be surprise by the extent to which big government has been mobilized to support capitalism. However, I think that he would see this as proof of his prediction that capitalism is instable. It is so instable that the forces of capitalism require full backing of the state to perpetuate.

Marx also explained how alienated workers continue to support and idealize capitalism. Additionally, those workers who questioned the merits of capitalism where often mislead or “deceived by numerous anarchist, reformist, and bogus socialist movements.” As a result the workers are not only alienated from the means of production and their own humanity, but also from each other. This division of the working class has long diluted the working class as a political force.

Today, Marx would be dismayed by the grasp of nationalism amongst the working class. The working class seems more likely to be patriotic or nationalistic, in an absolute sense, than amongst elites where as sense of cosmopolitanism is more accepted and encourage. Yet this allegiance to nation state, for Marx, is not is the interest of the worker, particularly when the national interest is the basic for denying the working class progress. He would likewise be dismayed “by the continuing debilitating influence of religion on the working class.” Marx was right to say that the working class are too easily pacified in their alienation by religion. As a religious person, I often am shocked (though I tend not to be so shocked anymore) by the amount of religion that is really just an endorsement of the bourgeois way of life.

Needless to say, Marx would be disappointed today if he returned, both with the state of the world and the state of economics. However, given his understanding of the forces of economics he would not be surprised. He may not have predicted that things would turnout as they have, but many of his assumptions were correct, even if the class struggle did not manifest itself as he might have hoped. I think that he would be most discouraged that while the class structure of society is so evident in the capitalist world, it is widely ignored. We continued to move forward as though we are a classless society, when in fact the classes are just moving farther apart before our eyes. Yet, we still do not see it. Gurley concluded by saying that a revived Marx “begin organizing the proletariat.” I wonder if the despair would overwhelm him. It does me when I consider the prospect of an egalitarian society.

Happy Birthday.

Gurley, John G. “Marx’s Contributions and their Relevance Today.” The American Economic Review 74, no. 2, Papers and Proceedings of the Ninety-Sixth Annual Meeting of the American Economic Association (1984): 110-115.

27 Replies to “Happy Birthday Karl Marx!”

  1. It’s Marx’s birthday, shout “Hooray!”
    We want to sing to him today.
    One year older and wiser too.
    Happy Birthday
    To you!

  2. Classes move further apart, but the persistence of classes are what matters. And the classes are not all that persistent between dirt poor to upper middle class.

  3. I see Marx and his followers as repugnant. Similar to how I see followers of Hitler.

    I know that Marx was just a academic who came up with a theory but his followers killed 100 million people in the 20th century.

    Current followers of Marx need to answer for these historical facts as do Neo-Nazis need to answer for their founders crimes

  4. Marx would also find that in today’s world, religion is still the opium of the masses.

  5. Blaming Marx for Soviet Communism is like blaming Nietzche for Hitler. The more accurate comparison would be Hitler and Stalin. However, I do not think that bbell is all that interested in the history of intellectual thought.

    I also do not blame Joseph Smith for bbell.

  6. This is puzzling to me. How can anyone in America think highly of Marx? Yes, American capitalism has many problems. I just watched “Inside Job”, by Charles Ferguson and it is easy to see how greed can destroy America. I think #3 bbell supplied a to the point comment about Marx.

    There is all kinds of evil in the world, but some evil has had greater success than others.

    #1 BHodges– are you serious? Are you a fan of Marxism?

    Help me understand why on a Mormon blog you are praising Marxism?

  7. Jared,

    This post was actually written years ago (typos and all) for a graduate seminar on theories of political economy. The post is very specifically about Marx and not larger Marxism. I am sure you do not understand it, but I am not sure if you actually read more than the title and the comments.

  8. Karl Marx never wrote anything directly on .education – yet his influence on writers academics .intellectuals .and educators who came after him has been profound. As Karl Popper a fierce .opponent of Marxism has claimed all modern writers are indebted to Marx even .if they do not know it .

  9. Chris H.

    It looks like you’re going to brush off my question with the big me, little you approach.

    I wonder if Karl would approve?

  10. If Marx was just a socialist academic, his name would be mentioned with respect throughout the world. That is not the case though – he was an advocate of the sort of violent upheaval that turned the world upside down for more than a century, and as a consequence his name is practically synonymous with the promotion of violence, misery and death.

    That is what Marxism is – trying to establish a socialist paradise at the point of a gun. That is Marxist socialism’s distinguishing feature. The most significant historical event of the past half century is the abandonment and repudiation of Marxist techniques by left leaning movements throughout most of the world. The struggle for socialism (or some variation thereof) continues, but at the ballot box rather than the machine gun.

    Marx’s personal contribution was to inspire millions to a lifetime of misery, want, and war. That is not something to be celebrated, but rather to be condemned. I don’t see how anything else he advocated makes up for that.

  11. Marx… the fool whose Luciferian ideas fueled the totalitarian regimes which killed millions and enslaved billions.

  12. For those so critical of Marx, how many of you have actually read Marx and can point to specific things he says that are objects of your critique? If I understand the main accusation, it’s that he advocated violence as a means of building his utopia. Okay, so what exactly is this theory that you find so contemptuous? Is it better or worse than those found in texts such as the Old Testament, etc.?

    I say this not as a defender of Marx, but as an advocate of understanding that which we criticize. When I’ve actually sat down and read Marx, I have to admit that I’ve found him much more persuasive then I thought I would. This comes as a surprise because I’d been taught since I was young that Marx was on par with Hitler, et al. To point to one example, I find his theory of alienation to be quite insightful.

  13. I know that Marx was just a academic who came up with a theory but his followers killed 100 million people in the 20th century.

    I think this comment brings up the problem of the “by their fruits” test, bbell. It seems to me we could implicate Jesus himself, if we judge him by the behavior of those who profess to follow or be inspired by him, those who committed what we see as evil acts. Slavery continued, wars were fought, lives were taken, etc.

    So this comment, which damns Marx based on subsequent and horrific acts of human inhumanity to humans, seems little more than an easy escape from actually having to understand or engage in what Marx was talking about. It seems like uncritical cheerleading to me, which isn’t the sort of discussion I’m interested in right now. sometimes I am, though, I admit. I think we all like to cheer.

    This reminds me of when I read Theodore Kaczynski’s “Industrial Society and Its Future.” Kaczynski basically argued that human freedom was being eroded, as was the planet, by increasing dependence upon technological advancement. Some of it really hit a wrong chord with me, but other bits seemed quite prescient and even useful. Of course, Kaczynski is also known as the Unabomber, and I can certainly disagree with his own tactics while still understanding his arguments he wrote.

  14. Marx would also find that in today’s world, religion is still the opium of the masses.

    Mormons might attribute religion’s potential to act as an opiate to the apostasy, no? It seems to me there can and have bee good critical looks at religion, even within our own religious tradition.

  15. #1 BHodges– are you serious? Are you a fan of Marxism?

    Not to be pedantic, but I suppose it depends on what you mean by “Marxism.” If you are asking whether I like to look for good from whatever source, and whether I believe some of that good can be discovered in Marx’s thought, then I would say I am a “fan” of Marxism according to that view, yes.

    I guess I think this all boils down to whether we can appreciate or learn from someone with whom we disagree. I think Marx had some really interesting diagnoses that are still worth thinking about. I think he was also completely wrong on many of his predictions for the future. We can see that quite plainly today. I can see some of the horrible fallout from things he wrote, but I don’t think that gives me the license to simply overlook all of it and forget about it altogether, if I have time to engage with it, that is. Some people don’t, and that is fine. I don’t have the time to fully engage with Marx, I can only do piecemeal stuff. But that would also prevent me from just dismissing it all. Dismissal, in my view, ought to require as much thought as the things we embrace requires, though that’s an ideal I simply can’t live up to.

  16. #14 BHodges–

    Studying Marx is not the problem, the problem comes when one is persuaded by him.

    Recognizing Marx on his birthday; what does that say?

    What about those who founded America, have you ever recognized them on their birthdays?

    I’m big on agency. If someone thinks Marx is the ultimate political philosophizer then I support them in their agency to do so.

    I’m just surprised.

  17. Recognizing Marx on his birthday; what does that say?

    I suppose it says that he is still relevant, which also might help explain the somewhat pointed response from you and a few others in the thread, and I don’t point that out to make fun of you or make light of your perspective, only to say that it proves my point that there is some relevance there.

    Studying Marx is not the problem, the problem comes when one is persuaded by him.

    I guess this doesn’t make sense to me. Maybe this is because I hope to make judgments on these matters based not so much on who argues a particular point, but on what exactly is argued. I don’t always succeed in that, of course, in fact I tend to filter out some authors based on my assumption that they have little to say to me anyway. But when I do engage a particular author I hope to look at ideas in a web, not a single monolithic “doctrine” which is entirely self-consistent and disposable or acceptable in total.

    Above that, it still isn’t clear to me at all that you or a few other folks in this discussion have studied Marx anyway, certainly not enough to be either persuaded or dissuaded. I posted a link to an interesting podcast, it’s fifteen minutes long, it isn’t difficult to grasp nor does it take much time, but I don’t know that anyone will actually check it out. Instead we’re sort of stuck in surprise mode.

    What about those who founded America, have you ever recognized them on their birthdays?

    We have a national holiday for it, don’t we? Also, if someone here makes a post about any particular founder I’d be more than glad to join the discussion or to include a funny primary version of the birthday song which was probably written due to copyright restrictions!

    I’m big on agency. If someone thinks Marx is the ultimate political philosophizer then I support them in their agency to do so.

    I guess I didn’t see anyone here claim that Marx is the “ultimate political philosophizer,” so I’m not sure who that statement is directed at, but to be honest I think it is off-topic at best and a straw man caricature at worst.

  18. “Recognizing Marx on his birthday; what does that say?”

    it says that I am a nerd who knows that it is his birthday. I am also a nerd will old papers on file related.

    “What about those who founded America, have you ever recognized them on their birthdays?”

    I do posts all the time related to the birthday and special-anniversaries of Abraham Lincoln. I used to teach American Heritage, I will have to look up Madisons b-day.

    “If someone thinks Marx is the ultimate political philosophizer then I support them in their agency to do so.”

    Anyone who thinks he is the ultimate political philosopher would be wrong. He has weaknesses that I have discussed in other posts about socialism (both here and at BCC). Either way, my favorite political philosopher is well known (NOT Marx).

    “I’m just surprised.”

    I do go for shock-value.

    BTW, the “big me, little you approach” may be a result of me being 360 pounds.

  19. I minored in Political Science in college. That certainly doesn’t make me an expert, but I’m not new to the subject.

    Prior to that I frequently flew in a helicopter along the border in Germany in the early sixties. It was interesting to see politics from the air. One side of the fence was new and thriving. The other side old and starving. The locals were very grateful for there prosperity and freedom. Many of them thanked me for being there to support their continued freedom.

    I wonder about your generation. So many of them take America for granted, seem ungrateful.

    Don’t get me wrong. I’m not doing anything other than asking questions and trying to understand your point of view.

  20. I don’t get the impression that you’re trying to understand my point of view as much as you’re assuming you already know my point of view (taking America for grated, ungrateful, lacking in perspective, thinking Marx is the “ultimate political philosophizer,” etc.) and then noting your astonishment. I know that may sound harsh, and I don’t intend to offend you by saying it. I do intend to point out that you’ve made a lot of assumptions about what I believe or understand which really aren’t warranted.

  21. BHodges-

    I don’t consider it harsh to express how you feel.

    I’m not interested in alienating you or Chris H. I really am trying to understand, and at the same time express my feelings. I think that is what blogging is about.

    I’ve seen first hand, to the degree a solider and missionary can, the misery that people have to endure when power is concentrated in the government/military. Germany, Korea, and Viet Nam are doing better today than they did under Hitler, Kim Il Sung, and Ho Chi Minh.

    I wish all generations of American’s would praise and give gratitude to the America experience even with all of its failings. What country has done more to advance humankind?

    Karl Marx contributed to human misery. I am puzzled why so many in America are beginning to embrace the failed ideologies that emerged from his philosophy. I’m also astonished that anyone with faith in Mormonism would wish him a happy birthday.

    Chris H. posted a blog, I added my two cents, politely and directly.

    Wish both of you the best.

  22. Chris H-

    You didn’t. I moved from the specifics of your post to a trend I am beginning to see emerge in our country. It seems that those who advocate/praise Marxism are stating it publically nowadays.

Comments are closed.