Who's Afraid Of Karl Marx?

From the thread about FDR:

So. What is so bad about communism?

I don’t mean in how it has been practiced in the past century through China and the former USSR. I see that as facism masquerading as communism.

I am talking about the theories of Marx, Engels, and other philosophical writers in their inception of a collectivist society that was for the betterment of all(well, at the time it was very sexist and was just for the betterment of men).

And why? Why? Why? Does socialism get smeared with the same brush that the anti-communists smear the concept of communist theory with?

While socialism and communism come from the same theory, communism(if you’ve read the Communist Manifesto(a good read, by the by)), communism comes out of revolution, while socialism is a choice that the people make for the betterment of all.

So… who’s afraid of Karl Marx?

And why are you afraid?

Marx was NOT for a peaceful revolution for the betterment of ALL men.

He was only concerned with the workers. He ignored the majority in most countries, the peasants. He wanted a bloody, violent overthrow of the system. Marx was also far too materialistic. He had not concept of individuality, which was one reason why he was rejected by Kerensky.

Yeah, he diagnosed the problem correctly, but his cure wasn’t a good idea.

Socialism isn’t communism. You can be a socialist, without being a communist, despite what most right wing conspiracy theorists will tell you.

Well, for socialism or communism to work there have to be one of two conditions met. Those conditions are a)everyone agrees to the system or b) the government suppresses those who do not agree with the system. Since there will never be universal agreement about any idea the only option left is b.

Guinastaisa may not understand this but both socialism and communism rely on force at the simplest level. The force of government. The power of the gun.

The best idea so far was the U.S. and the Republican Democracy. The U.S. is a republic and a democracy. Is it perfect? No. But it sure as hell beats any other system out there. Regrettably the U.S. has been sliding down the socialist path in the past 50 or 60 years.

You know what really kills me about the path that socialist and communist have set us on? It has killed goodwill between people. Before the government got involved people would lookout for and take care of their neighbors. Now most people figure the state will take care of it and ignore what ever the problem is. That, to me, is truely sad. The governments policy has really killed giving.


Sleestak, I think the black people in the south just a generation ago did not see that goodwill you are talking about. Many Latin American nations also missed on that.

As if racism doesn’t exist in socialist/ communist countries!

Barking Spider I replied to Sleestak remark on the “goodwill” that was prevalent in those good old days. I was going to say that your remark is silly, but in reality it supports my point in that it is not a good idea to assume that communism will cause or cure racism. (Virtually in all the communist nations I remember, racism was present before and after communism came along. (The former Yugoslavia is a good example))

Why are people afraid of Karl Marx? People aren’t afraid of Karl Marx, it’s just that Marx’s economic theories are as dead as Freud’s pschological theories. They were both extremely influential, and both extremely wrong.

Both Marx and Freud are well worth studying. But we don’t study them because they were right, we study them because they were influential.

I don’t know if I’d say that he ignored peasants, or that peasants were the majority of the population in the countries Marx was focusing on. Most Frenchmen, Germans, Englishmen, or Americans in the 19th century weren’t peasants…they were either free farmers or factory workers. It’s also not fair to say that Marx wanted a bloody overthrow of the system so much that, in his understanding of economic history, only violent revolution brings about social change, because people in charge never want to give up power voluntarily.

Marx was a materialist, I agree with you there. As for his concept of individuality, it’s true that a lot of the time he focused on groups instead of individuals, because of his belief that it was groups that shaped history…but, to use his own words.

Apparently you don’t understand that capitalism relies on force. The government suppresses those who oppose it. They use violence to protect property rights.

When are people going to figure out that neoliberalism is wrong?

Captain Amazing, thanks for correcting some of the most glaring errors in this thread so far. Guinastasia, I know you to be an open-minded person. May I suggest, in the nicest way, that you read Karl Marx. He is a brilliant, if difficult philosopher. Marx was responding to a previous generation of other difficult philosophers most of whom few Dopers have ever read: e.g., Hegel, Feurbach, Mill. The problem with understanding Marx today is that he needs to be understood in context: yet few people are willing to devote the time. If it’s true that people are “afraid” of Marx what they are afraid of is a distorted myth of Karl Marx which, for the most part, is very unlike the actual–and, most important, contextualized–Marx. For example, very few passages in his famous writings Capital, “The Communist Manifesto,” etc. say anything at all about a bloody revolution though he is indeed talking about changing the world.

As to his not caring about individuality: that’s simply not true. Here, analogous to the quotation from Captain A., is an excert from The German Ideology (co-written by Engels):

"In the present epoch, the domination of material relations over individuals, and the suppression of individuality by fortitious circumstances, has assumed its sharpest and most universal form [he means unregulated or laissez-faire capitalism], and the suppression of individuality by fortuitous circumstances, ahs assumed its sharpest and most universal form, thereby setting existing individuals a very definite task. It has set them the task of replacing the comination of circumstances and of chance over individuals by the dominations of individuals over chance and circmstances."

If you read this passage carefully you may begin to understand why it is that Marx was a “materialist.” That is, he was a materialist in the philosophical sense. The opposite of a materialist is an “idealist”: someone who believes that the primary reality is mental. According to Marx, philosophers like Hegel who saw progress developing at the level of ideas and spirit were ignoring the fact that most people’s lives were determined by material circumstances such as poverty. At the time that Marx wrote about 1/3 of the population of Great Britain (where Marx lived) were living at a level of grinding subsistence poverty with none but the most brutal kind of state assistance available if they fell ill, lost their jobs, etc.

Marx was a “materialist” because he believed that progress happened at the level of the material world; because he believed that people living in grinding poverty lacked the basic freedom to develop and cultivate themselves as full human beings must do. In this sense Marx was actually working very much within Western humanist philosophy: only he was pointing out that those western values could never be accessible to the mass of poor whose lives would always consist in a gruelling struggle for basic existence–unless something changed. So Marx was actually very much a humanist, concerned with spiritual, human and–yes–individual development.

I’m willing to bet, Guinastasia that unless you are a Buddhist or Christian monk, a hardcore transcendentalist, or some other kind of serious ascetic that your own worldview is exactly as materialist as Marx’s. Marx was not at all materialistic: that is, he was not obsessed with how much money people had beyond the level required to give them the freedom to live fully human lives worth living; the kind of lives that we in the United States often take for the granted (the kind of lives that at least about half of the people alive today don’t yet have).

As to collectivism: collectivism was developing long before Marx: insofar as communism=Marxism, FDR was not drawing off of either when he used collectivist ideas to fend off the Great Depression and create a social safety net. Collectivism–the idea of doing things through public and collective ownership–is as old as idea of churches, it is almost always linked to a republic (which relies on collective institutions of various kinds to create good citizenship), and it is around us everywhere in schools, museums, fire departments, public universities, public support for the arts–and in corporate welfare of various and nefarious kinds.

Marx’s philosphy is brilliant, insightful, often funny, and eye-opening. Reading it will not turn you into a Communist or an ideologue. For a good start, you might want to consider buying the Marx entry from that “For Beginners” series. It’s written by someone named Rius. I can probaby post an Amazon link if anyone wants me to. Beyond that “The Manifesto” is the easiest to read but it’s not nearly as profound as sitting down and reading the first volume of Capital. For anyone who’s still in college, the best thing would be to take a course where you’ll read Capital, or excerpts from it, with an instructor who’s either a philosopher, political theorist, or historian.

chula, lots of Dopers have figured out that neoliberalism is a deluded, antiquated and destructive economic philosophy: as entirely unworkable as the wholesale implementation of communism envisioned by many Marxists. But thanks for bringing it up in this thread!

Mandelstam, well said.

Would you agree that the “Marxism” that is (legitimately) attacked is actually “Leninism”?

Jeez, what’s with all the Communism threads lately? This must be the fifth or sixth thread defending Marx or Communism in the last week.

Anyway, let me paste a response I made in one of the other Communist threads. It was pretty much ignored there, so let’s try again:

Communism doesn’t work even ‘in theory’. The reason has to do with information theory - capitalism is a system that uses negative feedback to correct itself, and its structure gives it a huge informational bandwidth. The price system acts as an information conduit to pass necessary information about the supply and demand of goods and services. So a capitalist economy works more like a massively parallel computer.

In a communist system, control of production comes from the top down, creating informational bottlenecks. It’s also much slower.

Modern economies are extremely complex. Milton Friedman wrote a famous essay once in which he showed that no one in the world knows how to make a pencil. Even something as mundane as a pencil requires the collaborative efforts of people, and each of those people needs to have specialized knowledge. Therefore, if you can put the decision-making in the hands of those people, and create an economic system that rewards and punishes them when they are right or wrong, you are in essence building a very adaptive, fast-responding, stable environment.

Consider what happens when the demand for pencils goes up. Pencil manufacturers respond to the increased demand by raising prices. This forces out marginal users who really don’t need pencils, which helps alleviate temporary shortages. In the meantime, the increased profit of pencil manufacture brings more competition and leads to increased pencil production. This, in turn, puts more demand on wood, graphite, ferrules, erasers, etc. The increased demand for brass ferrules drives up the spot price of brass, which causes the price of other brass products to increase a bit. That in turn causes marginal brass users to use less of it, which helps control temporary shortage. So now brass doorknobs cost more, so people use more glass or aluminum doorknobs. That in turn increases the price of glass and aluminum…

These changes ripple through the system, and production of and demand for millions of different products subtly adapts to accomodate. In the end, the increase in demand for pencils may, through several secondary interactions, cause the price of fish to rise. The exact results are impossible to know in advance for all but the most trivial of changes.

And the beauty of the price system is that the guy who makes doorknobs doesn’t have to know anything about pencils or the demand for them. The price system is efficient because it acts as a natural filter, passing only the necessary information and nothing else.

Now consider what happens when someone with imperfect knowledge tries to manage production from the top down. Let’s say we decide that people should use more pencils. So we order them up, but now there are those shortages of wood and brass. But we’re smart guys and we thought of that and ordered more wood and brass production. But that caused an increase use of woodcutting blades, and there weren’t enough sharpening tools available. So now our wood is lying uncut. So we order more sharpening tools, which diverts production away from knife sharpening. So now people have dull knives, and compensate by using more foods that don’t require cutting. Oops. Now there’s a shortage of fish, and a glut of tougher meats. Never saw that one coming… So now we try to adjust to that, which causes other unforseen problems. Plus, there is a much bigger time lag between action and reaction than there is in a capitalist system, which makes these problems worse.

What you find in practice is an increasingly complex set of rules and bureacracies trying to keep it all going. And all of these people may have good intentions and want to do the right thing, but it’s simply impossible. In practice, what you generally wind up with is a series of gluts and shortages, poorer quality, and an overall lower level of productivity.

This problem doesn’t exist just in communist countries, but is a characteristic of any government-imposed solution. Look what happened to Hillary Clinton’s health-care task force - they started with a simple enough goal, but as they worked through all the permutations and distortions, the plan rapidly grew into a monstrosity consisting of something like 1200 pages of regulations. And I guarantee that wouldn’t have even begun to cover al of the problems once such a system was put into place.

For another take on this, read this essay: http://www.virtualschool.edu/mon/Economics/HayekUseOfKnowledge.html

A quote from the article:

People keep saying things like "Communism works “in theory”, but only breaks down in practice because people are greedy and selfish.

The truth is that Communism is, even in theory, a fundamentally flawed structure for societal organization.

And aside from economic reasons, Communism is flawed in the sense that central control of a country makes the country more susceptible to revolution and overthrow, and makes it less resiliant to things like natural disasters and war. It’s simply much smarter and better to decentralize control of an economy and leave the decision-making in the hands of hundreds of millions of people.

Except, in theory, Marxist Communism is decentralized, economically, and politically. Marx believed that eventually, under communism, there would be no states or government to speak of. Under Communism, you’d have a bunch of communities all autonomous and democratic, where every individual basically does what he or she wants. There are some problems with this, I think, but it’s not because Communism is top-down or hierarchical.

Nicky, Yes, I do think that often what gets discussed as “Marxism” is Leninism–though often it’s not even as well-informed as that.

Sam, FTR, I’m not defending communism (if by communism we mean nationalizating or otherwise collectivizing all private property–or trying to). I’m doing two things: 1) distinguishing between collectivism (which no functional democratic republic can do without) from both Marx’s philosophy and from communism and 2) defending the value of reading and understanding Marx as a philosopher who has much to teach us. Precisely because you believe in capitalism you should read Marx. Understanding his critique of bourgeois capitalism will enrich your mind immeasurably and improve your predictable cast of thinking.

You will be surprised, perhaps, to find how many of Marx’s insights into industrial capitalism and commercial society remain powerful. When I read Francis Fukuyama–with whom I mostly disagree–it was interesting to see the overlap betwee his bourgeois critique and Marx’s. As a conservative (which I take you to be), you will perhaps be consoled to find that some of the really brutal capitalist effects in Western countries have been eliminated; and most have been ameliorated despite the setbacks and growing inequalities of recent decades. Conversely, it may awaken your thoughts to the condition of workers in presently industrializing countries. On top of that, a lot of what Marx wrote bears on the modern human condition in a large sense: on our relation to other people, to commodities, to the things we consume. This stuff is mind-blowing!

In any case, it’s a mistake to be complacent about the legitimacy of one’s preconceived ideas. I’m willing to bet that if you’ve read any Marx at all it was a snippet from the Manifesto: or some paragraph cited by someone who was opposed to his thinking entirely (and may not even have properly understood it). (If that’s not the case your post shows no signs of it being otherwise.)

As to other threads on communism: this is the first thread I’ve read or posted on in weeks so I can’t say. I don’t know what hte quality of the threads were. For myself, I don’t expect a revival of communist political aspiration in the form I’ve described above; and if it were to take place, I I’d probably not participate. But, for that very reason, I do believe that we need to read Marx much more now than we did prior to 1989.

Mandelstam: I HAVE read Marx. A lot of it. I read the entire Manifesto, and the Penguin edition of Capital. Sure, there are some good insights. But most of it is wrapped around so much poor scholarship and shoddy thinking that I find the work as a whole to be fairly uninteresting. It’s been probably two decades since I read them, though.

Certainly I believe that Marx’s writings are not worthy of being continually quoted as a primary reference on economics or social construction. But let me turn that around - how often do you consider the ideas of Hayek, Von Mises, or Friedman in your debates? I can’t remember you quoting extensively from Human Action

Mandelstam: I HAVE read Marx. A lot of it. I read the entire Manifesto, and the Penguin edition of Capital. Sure, there are some good insights. But most of it is wrapped around so much poor scholarship and shoddy thinking that I find the work as a whole to be fairly uninteresting. It’s been probably two decades since I read them, though.

Certainly I believe that Marx’s writings are not worthy of being continually quoted as a primary reference on economics or social construction. But let me turn that around - how often do you consider the ideas of Hayek, Von Mises, or Friedman in your debates? I can’t remember you quoting extensively from Human Action

Sorry for the double post.

Um, Mandelstam-thank you, but I DID read Marx, in college.

And I didn’t like it.

Yes, he was correct when he diagnosed the problems. However, his solutions weren’t going to work, either. That’s not to say that you can’t take some things from Marx, and put them to work-you can. BUT…I’m just not a big fan of the guy-I prefer John Stuart Mill, Jeremy Bentham and Alexander Kerensky.

As far as socialism/collectivism-I’m more for the FDR, Tip O’Neill branch.

However, there’s a problem with Marx, in that he focused on the economic too much. Poverty is one major major problem. THAT I agree with.

HOWEVER, at the same time, you also have another factor-ignorance. You can be poor and ignorant, or rich and ignorant, but the results will be the same. I’m still waiting for a philosopher that focuses on EDUCATION.
I don’t dismiss Marx out of hand, I just don’t like him, that’s all. (I read the Manifesto and enjoyed it just as much as I enjoyed Atlas Shrugged. Like my professor said, you shouldn’t look at Marx as the antichrist, but more like he actually was-this old, smelly guy who used to hang out in the libraries in England and grouch all the time. He was also pretty much a misogynist, from what I understand.

I don’t have all the answers. But, I just found Marxism, in it’s purest form, bland. Boring. Conceptual. I’d rather deal with PEOPLE. Life, details. That’s what I like. Plus, maybe I’m influenced by the fact that one of my professors grew up in the Soviet Union. He basically said, as he understood it, they were promised to be taken care of, their whole lives, but in reality, it didn’t happen. Marxism, SO FAR, hasn’t really worked-at least not without a lot bloodshed, and I don’t want to see that.

I want a society with a safety net, for people to be taken care of-maybe it won’t be perfect, but as Bentham said, the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people. But I also want what Mill wanted, that is, a society that stresses freedom of ideas and thought and discussion.

Sam Stone:“Sure, there are some good insights [in Sam’s wide reading of Marx]. But most of it is wrapped around so much poor scholarship and shoddy thinking that I find the work as a whole to be fairly uninteresting. It’s been probably two decades since I read them, though.”

Well, perhaps two decades might account for a lapse in judgment but, seriously, “poor scholarship and shoddy thinking” don’t sound to me like any considered view of Marx. (And I speak as someone who rejects Marx’s teleological view of history, who has read rebuttals of the labor theory of value, and who understands the problems with the base/superstructure way of thinking embedded in Marx’s materialism.)

In any case, I’d like to know more about what your idea of shoddy thinking is.

Do you for example find anything shoddy about the thinking below and, if so, what and why?

“[The capitalist’s] interest…in any particular branch of trade or manufactures, is always in some respects different from, and even opposite to, that of the public… The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce which comes from this order ought always to be listened to with great precaution, and ought never to be adopted till after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention. It comes from an order of men whose interest is never exactly the same with that of the public, who have generally an interest to deceive and even to oppress the public, and who accordingly have, upon many occasions, both deceived and oppressed it.”

Back to Sam:“Certainly I believe that Marx’s writings are not worthy of being continually quoted as a primary reference on economics or social construction.”

Well I don’t actually know of anyone who continually quotes Marx as a primary reference on economics these days; since the economy has changed greatly over the course of more than 150 years it would be rather odd to do so. As to “social construction” I’m not really sure what you mean.

Marx’s primary value–as I see it–is for those who really want to think seriously about the big ideas of Western civilization that so many on this board take for granted: e.g., ideas about freedom, about progress, about the relation between the individual and society, about industry and technology, about inequality and the dangers and problems thereof. I don’t find any of Marx’s thinking on these subjects to be even remotely shoddy, however dense and difficult his writing might often be.

"But let me turn that around - how often do you consider the ideas of Hayek, Von Mises, or Friedman in your debates? I can’t remember you quoting extensively from Human Action

Well when have I ever quoted extensively from Marx? Or better still, from any of my favorite thinkers. As you may be aware, John Stuart Mill is one of my favorite older philosophers and I have occasionally quoted from him or referred to his thought. But otherwise I have not even mentioned most of my favorite contemporary thinkers which include, FTR, Bourdieu, Habermas, Baudrillard (in small doses), Kristeva and Charles Taylor. As to conservative thinkers I have read and continue to read my fair share. Not too long ago I read Huntington since he is so a la mode, and at the moment I have work-related reasons for reading E.H. Carr. I have, of course, read Friedman (Thomas as well as Milton since the former for me qualifies as a conservative thinker of a sort). I also have read and in many respects admire older thinkers cherished by many conservatives including Coleridge, Burke and Adam Smith (the latter of whom is in my view misunderstood), and latterday liberals now liked by many conservatives including Tocqueville and J.S. Mill himself. So you are very much mistaken if you think that I get all of my ideas from The Nation or from the Che Newsletter ;).

Guinastasia: Fair enough–I’m glad you read Marx and appreciated his diagnosis; and I agree that he’s not the philosopher to look at first and foremost for workable solutions to the problems of today. I’m glad you like Mill. :slight_smile: As someone who’s read quite a lot of Bentham, I can’t say I’m a fan–though utilitarianism, as modified by Mill, is far from the least palatable modern philosophy. I have not read Kerensky; I’ll try to make some time for him since you recommend it.

You write: Marx…focused on the economic too much. Poverty is one major major problem. … HOWEVER, at the same time, you also have another factor-ignorance. You can be poor and ignorant, or rich and ignorant, but the results will be the same. I’m still waiting for a philosopher that focuses on EDUCATION."

I don’t think that you can treat poverty and ignorance as mutually exclusive categories in this way. There is a point at which people are simply too poor to learn: that is, too poor to be able to afford books and teaching; too busy working 15 hours a day to be able to devote the leisure to learning; and/or too hungry to be able to learn effectively. That was true for most of the people on behalf of whom Marx wrote. For that reason he saw poverty as the disabling condition to overcome. Given what povery meant in the nineteenth century, I don’t think he was wrong in that, though I do think he underestimated what democratic reform could do for the working classes, and I do think that his philosophy of history led him to believe that that a new phase of economic development would inevitably succeed bourgeois capitalism just as industrial capitalism had succeeded feudalism. Marx also distrusted education as a “solution” to working-class imiseration because the middle classes tended to teach the working classes what they wanted them to know: watered down political economy, the bible, etc.

As to education: lots of philosophers emphasize education–including Mill. Education (in conjunction with the arts) is a key foundation (if not the key foundation) of almost all liberal political and social philosophy. In our time you might want to check out Amartya Sen (who, come to think of it, I do bring up pretty regularly). He is both an economist and philosopher and he has done some fascinating research on how education is significantly more important in improving people’s quality of life than is incremental change in their purchasing power. See Development as Freedom, one of my favorite recent books.

If you every have the inclination or opportunity I do think it’s worth studying Marx with someone who genuinely admires the genius of his thought (and that person, these days, isn’t likely to be a communist).

Mandelstam: Whoa. I wasn’t trying to disparage your knowledge. I was engaging in a roundabout refutation of your appeal to authority. A) your assumption that I haven’t read Marx, and B) Your inference based on that assumption, that my opinion isn’t really valid.

As for his ‘shoddy thinking’, you yourself just mentioned candidate A), his labor theory of value. A theory so easy to tear apart that I’m rather shocked it has survived as a serious idea for this long. His notion of the ‘social surplus’ displays a gross misunderstanding of just what it is that capitalists do.

He lifted his labor theory largely from David Ricardo, but where Ricardo used it as an explanation of prices (as I recall - it’s been a while), Marx took a left turn and used it to show how workers created ‘excess value’ that was exploited by capitalists. To me, that displayed a rather poor understanding of value and the role of capital.

The fatal flaws in these ideas dooms much of Marx’s writing, because he considered them a cornerstone of his philosophy. Knock those down, and all you have is a series of comments about capitalism and socialism that contain some interesting ideas and some useful criticisims (as I admitted in my first message about this), but which completely falls apart as a coherent economic system.