Features Australia

Over-rating Marx

26 May 2018

9:00 AM

26 May 2018

9:00 AM

Was Karl Max over-rated as a thinker? It was hard not to ask that (provocative) question as I read the torrent of articles marking 200 years since his birth. Of course, we would expect die-hard Marxians to sing his praises. But I’ve been surprised to see some otherwise sensible people, including Henry Ergas, trumpeting Marx’s intellectual legacy.

In case you missed it, Ergas, writing in the Australian earlier this month, argued that Marx was a flawed yet brilliant thinker: a philosopher of history whose breakthrough was to identify class conflict as the crucial agent of change and transformation.

To be fair, Ergas accepts that Marx’s vision had its dark side. He reminds us of the crimes committed in his name. But he concludes that ‘there is little doubt that his work not only changed the world, but altered the way we understand it.’ Marx, Ergas adds, had ‘greater honesty and integrity than many who took his name’ and ‘fundamentally, he was an intellectual steeped in the tradition that stretched from Socrates through Shakespeare and Spinoza to this day.’

Marx as an heir of Socrates? Ergas either has a wonderfully wicked sense of humour or has forgotten what Socrates he read a long time ago.

Socrates, who famously stood for intellectual humility above all else, was the antithesis of Marx. The Prussian economist, after all, was hardly lacking in the intellectual arrogance stakes. Nor was he wracked by Socratic doubt. Indeed, had he encountered Marx, Socrates would likely have skewered him. Marx’s lumbering, obsessive and self-referential polemical style would have been no match for Socrates’s quick-fire, nimble mind.

As a young economics student, I read Das Kapital. While opposed to Marx’s politics, I was at first beguiled by his vision, ambition and theoretical pyrotechnics. This guy might have been wrong, but he was someone to reckon with. But the better acquainted I became with Marx, the more he shrank for me. If he started off as a colossus, he ended as a Wizard of Oz figure: a silly old man pulling levers behind the scenes to impress the naïve and gullible.

Does any of this matter? Marxism is a bankrupt intellectual and political creed after all. Yet despite that, it seems that Marx’s influence in pockets of academia, politics and society lives on.

True, no serious person uses Marx’s vocabulary of terms and concepts any more. Marx the economist is dead and buried.

Yet Marx’s legacy is discernible, if more as a subtext than as a headline.  As others have pointed out, his particular way of thinking has seeped into other disciplines, other forums. It has infected, for the worse, parts of our public debate.

Marx famously reduced man to a single, economic dimension of his existence.   He wasn’t the first to do this, but he arguably took it further than anyone else.

For Marx, there was no such thing as mankind. There was no common humanity sharing essentially the same outlook, capabilities and potentialities. For him, man was rigidly defined by the economic class he was born into. This not only prescribed his economic role, it imprisoned him in a particular, class-bound reality – one he could never escape or transcend.

So for Marx, there was no such thing as economics, politics and ethics, applicable to all thinking and feeling men, but only ‘proletarian’ or ‘bourgeois’ economics, politics and ethics. Even aesthetics was subjected to this apartheid, among some of Marx’s followers. For Marx, there was no single reality, therefore, but multiple, mutually incomprehensible realities.  Class identity determined everything else.

In this sense, Marx anticipated those who today partition and segment humanity based on some single, defining external characteristic (fill in the blank for Marx’s class) and, having Balkanised us in this way, argue that conflict and division are inevitable.

Secondly, Marx, like so many cranks and fundamentalists before and after, made an art form of both historical determinism and the idea of utopia. History, he argued, was on a single set of tracks which, allowing for twists and turns (his pretentious but profoundly hollow dialectic), would inevitably end at the prescribed destination: a make-believe communism offering prosperity for all, freedom and the elimination of all injustice.

Ergas seeks to exonerate Marx by reminding us that Marx disavowed ‘writing recipes for the kitchen of the future’.  We may not have been given the recipes, but to use Marx’s analogy, the restaurant (a government-run canteen), its food (inedible stodge) and who the diners would be (proletarian party officials) were pretty clear. For the old determinist, communism was not only an inevitability, but (in his mind) a logical necessity.

Marx, ever the cynical polemicist, knew this combination of (pseudo-) science, prophecy and moralism would be an unstoppable propaganda tool, as it proved to be.

It allowed him and his followers to lay exclusive claim to the future. Any dissenting perspective could be dismissed not only as outmoded thinking, but as ethically wrong. History and the better world it promised, Marx kept reminding us, was on the proletariat’s side. The young and those on the make, in his day, found that irresistible.

In this sense, of course, Marx was the arch anti-empiricist. Nothing could disprove his theory or vision. Here is another reason why Marx, to my mind, should not be seen in the Enlightenment tradition.

And again, we see this Marxian debating trick resorted to in the modern world. Too many academics who should know better can’t resist the eye-catching prophesy, usually some form of catastrophe which will befall us all if their advice is not heeded, and the grand utopian vision.

Marx’s final legacy, it seems to me, is his ugly intellectual elitism. He embraced Plato’s idea that only the chosen few, the philosopher kings, were able to glimpse reality. For Marx, only the Marxist intellectuals could shake off their class background and truly understand the world.  The uninitiated, lacking this exclusive scientific knowledge, could be treated with contempt. Intelligent lay scepticism and reasoned debate are ruled out.

Marxism has long gone. But Marx’s unwelcome influence persists. Ergas sees fit to celebrate him as a thinker. But, for me, Marx was less than meets the eye, his legacy doing more harm than good.  Given this, my humble advice to Ergas would be: leave your youthful Marxian enthusiasms where they belong, in the (non-recyclable) dustbin of history.

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