What did Karl Marx have to say? by Will Chaney

Communism. Socialism. Joseph Stalin. Planned economy. U.S.S.R. Marxism. Are you uncomfortable yet? For a long time in this country, an ideology has been built for the purpose of making you feel negative emotions while hearing these words. The most extreme lines include “communism is evil” and that it has “killed millions of innocent people.” The chic thing our parents often say is that “communism was defeated when the U.S.S.R. went down, I watched it on live television.” Then there’s the trendy intellectual-sounding truism that “communism works out great on paper, but it will never work because of human nature.” What do we learn from these quick “academic” discussions? Very little.

So let’s put our emotions to the side for a few minutes so we can get back to the O.G.: Karl Marx. In this article, I’m going to respond to Aaron Albrecht’s criticism that we need to abandon Marxism in order to unify the Left. Instead, I claim that the Left needs to organize its thought around Marxian theory so it can better understand our current economic crisis and look to the future of revolutionary change.

The criticisms that Aaron and many others often bring up are very legitimate and should be seriously considered. Communism-hating Americans often rightly point to leaders in faraway lands that claimed to embrace Marx while starving their people and violating human rights. The field of economics is designed to show how central planning, used in many “communist” countries, is much worse than the free market because of its “inefficiencies.” However, these critiques have very little bearing on Marxian theory, because:

  1. Marx never said the government should own everything,
  2. Marx never said we should abolish markets, and
  3. Marx never said that dictatorship is the ideal form of government.

It seems that there is a substantial gap between what Karl Marx actually wrote and what the leaders who took up his name did. What then did Marx have to say?

In the United States, we are told that Marx was the founder of communism and that his writings and thoughts were all about making a communist society. However, Marx didn’t care too much about speculating into the future; instead he spent his time examining the present. About 95% of what Marx has to say is about capitalism, especially the problems that other authors ignore. The most interesting aspect of Marx’s critique is that it examines fundamental problems in capitalism that are as relevant now as they were when his most important work, Capital, was published in 1867. Marx’s analysis attempts to be scientific, and his goal was to find general tendencies in the economy, comparable to how scientists look at the natural world. After more than twenty years of research, Marx was able to detail many problems that still occur today. However, the study of the economy is not as straightforward as the hard sciences. Instead of finding “laws” in capitalism, Marx found capitalism to produce “tendencies.”

Some these tendencies include: (1) extreme wealth inequality, (2) cycles of prosperity and then horrific crashes, (3) the replacement of workers by machines or cheaper workers, (4) nations going to war for the profits of a small number of citizens, and (5) the general rate of all business’s profits to fall over time.

Have these claims proved to be somewhat legitimate in the past 150 years? (1) 1% of Americans own 40% of our wealth, (2) “business cycles” as they are now called by bourgeois economists occur every 10 years or so, including the one we’re in now, (3) “Made in China” and continuous outsourcing have become staples of our economy, (4) there is substantial proof that we went to war in the Middle East for oil profits, and (5) the economic growth rate of the United States has decreased from 3.5% in the 1950s to 1.9% today. The facts seem to line up with some of Marx’s major points, and this gives his theory a lot of validity.

Now painting Marx as a stoned Nostradamus-like prophet babbling nonsense in some dirty cave certainly does sound dogmatic. However, Marx did not set out to create a new religion with himself as its soothsayer. It is indisputable that some “Marxists” like Stalin and Mao, did try to create religious-like ideologies, but the fact is that Marx’s serious writings are simply a critique of capitalism. Marxian theory is still today accepted as the most developed fundamental critique of capitalism. I now ask Aaron, and all of those who disregard Marx: why would the Left, charged with looking out for the little guy, correcting social ills, and fighting for the people want to distance themselves from such a useful and developed critique? We can use Marxian theory to find new explanations for many issues, including the events in Ferguson, why college tuition is so high, and why Kraft is throwing 275 Kirksville residents are out of a job this year.

That brings us to the last point: Many super smart people in the past 150 years have built on Marx’s original theory. They have proposed new ideas, debated each other and non-Marxists, and answered their critics. The result has been a very rich academic tradition. There is certainly a lot to talk about, with regards to the news, in our classrooms, and even with our nerdy friends at lunch. So why do our discussions about Marxism degrade into overly simplified axioms?

The purpose of any ideology is to make us accept the current state of affairs. The people in power want us to look at poverty, hunger, and war, and think, “that’s just the way things are.” It should not be surprising that capitalism’s greatest challenge is kept out of the mind of a capitalist society like the United States, even where free speech is treated like a golden calf.

Marxian theory is suppressed at most colleges and universities, including Truman. As an economics major, I will never be required to read one word of Capital. The only line about Marx in my introductory economics textbook (Principals of Modern Economics, page 22 if you have it) is a gross misquotation. If I talk to other economics majors about Marxian economics, they usually giggle as if it is a joke or look confused about something. Should we blame our fellow students, professors, or President Paino? Probably not. The suppression of Marxian theory is a greater problem that is not the fault of any one individual. Some professors, such as Dr. David Gillete, don’t teach Marxian theory in their classes, but are very open and accepting of different perspectives.

What we on the Left can do, and really have to do at this point in history, is to begin to educate ourselves. We must rid ourselves of the fear of couching our analysis in Marxian terms like “class,” “commodity fetishism,” and “exploitation.”

It is time to wake up, because capitalism certainly isn’t working out real well off paper.

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