Marxism Demystified


Marxism: Philosophy and Economics, by Thomas Sowell, New York: William Morrow, 281 pp., $15.95

If you have wanted to learn about Marxism but didn't know where to begin, your problem has been solved. Thomas Sowell, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and one of the best free-market economists in our time, has come to your assistance.

Sowell's Marxism is a superb achievement, yet without the intimidation one may associate with a brilliant discussion of the thinking of Karl Marx. For one, Sowell writes so clearly that those familiar with Marx's own, often abstruse, works can only marvel at how this could be accomplished by even the most conscientious scholar. What is even more remarkable is that Sowell never compromises on scholarly accuracy or thoroughness.

In Sowell's own words, "The main purpose of this book is interpretation." There is only one final chapter devoted to criticism, to which I will return shortly. For anyone who has been studying Marxism for a while, it should come as a great piece of news that there is now a book that simply wishes to get Marx straight.

While Sowell is a prominent free-market economist now, this will not serve those who would therefore dismiss his work on Marx: Sowell was himself, at one time, a devotee of Marx. He has written scholarly pieces on Marxism, including one for the Canadian Journal of Economics in 1967, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the publication of Marx's Das Kapital. As Sowell notes in his preface to Marxism: "What is gratifying is to be able to read back over these earlier efforts and see how little difference my own changing viewpoints have made in the purely interpretative analysis." Additional testimony comes from the fact that his essays on Marx can be found in anthologies on Marxism—edited by Marxists.

It is difficult to lay out Marxism in 200-plus pages, but Sowell succeeds. I can only indicate how by considering some of the tasks he accomplishes in the process, some especially noteworthy for proponents of individual freedom.

For one, Sowell disabuses us of a few myths that free-market economists have promulgated about the flaws of Marxism. If there is one thing that those who wish to defend the free society should never do, it is to underestimate or trivialize the Marxist critique of the capitalist system or to underrate Marx's own theoretical apparatus.

The well-known "labor theory of value" is a case in point. In this connection Sowell observes, "Nowhere have earlier and later theories been read into Marx with more disastrous effects on accuracy.…Marx did not have a theory of value, but rather what he himself repeatedly referred to as a 'definition' or 'concept' of value."

Many free-market economists come to their understanding of Marx's ideas about value and about exploitation of labor via the work of Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk, one of the first members of the Austrian School of economics. But by Sowell's account, their understanding is thus skewed, despite the merits of Böhm-Bawerk's economic thinking.

Another well-known mistake about Marx is that he believed workers would become poorer as capitalism advances. This "immiseration thesis" is often attributed to Marx. Marx is partly to blame for the misinterpretation—as he is for many others—because of his convoluted writing and because it is difficult to distinguish the political rhetoric of Marx from his serious theorizing. What he actually argued in this case, however, was that the gap between capitalists' and workers' standards of living would increase as capitalism develops, a claim that is quite compatible with the improvement of the worker's absolute level of income.

In addition to interpreting Marx's theoretical works, Sowell also fills the reader in on Marx's life. Everyone by now must have heard that Marx was by no means a prince of a fellow. He was conceited and priggish, could not manage his family's finances, and though receiving a comfortable income from supporters and his journalistic work, lived in virtual squalor (which may have led to the death of three of his children). As Sowell tells us, "The death of his infant son he blamed on 'bourgeois misery,' which he apparently considered also the cause of the boils that covered his body, for he promised to make the bourgeoisie pay for them via his revolutionary writings."

All this Sowell tells with a deftness that abstains from explicit moralizing but leaves us able to draw our own moral conclusions. For example, he writes that "in 1852 [Marx] referred to some 'good news'—the illness of 'my wife's indestructible uncle'—and added: 'If that dog dies now I'll be out of trouble' financially."

Yet Sowell cautions us not to condemn Marx for sins of which he was not guilty, such as fanatic racism and bigotry. Marx's criticism of Jews, he argues, is a complicated matter, not comparable to that of the Nazis. Sowell here disagrees with such Marxist scholars as George Watson, who claim that Hitler actually learned much from Marx that led him to his anti-Semitic terrorism.

It seems to me that at times Sowell is a bit too charitable toward Marx, who in his letters to Engels praised the clearly racialist anthropolitical theories of the French biologist Pierre Tremaux. Tremaux argued that the soil in which food is grown determines the character, morals, and culture of the person eating the food. Marx, as a result, maintained that Tremaux's book "in its historical and political application is much more important…than Darwin." This implies a form of racism and ethnocentrism that many contemporary Marxists denounce—for example, in connection with the debate about the validity of intelligence tests.

Sowell's criticism of Marxism is brief and to the point. It is worth the price of the book, especially for those who believe in the quick dismissal of such ideas as Marx's exploitation theory (in which Marx argues that the bourgeoisie, presumed to own all property, or capital, is able thereby to exploit workers by hiring them at wages that don't reflect the value that their work creates). "Vulnerable as Marx's exploitation theory was," writes Sowell, "part of the marginalist economists' criticism of it missed the mark, for the marginalists argued in terms of the respective contributions and rewards of factor inputs [labor, capital, etc.], rather than of people as such."

The only thing I would wish to add to Sowell's assessment of Marxism is that the conception of human nature that Marx entertained throughout his life leads to almost all the major horrors associated with Marxism in history. To Marx, "The human essence is the collectivity of man." Once this is accepted, all the purges, liquidations, and so on, come easy to those who wish to usher in humanity's glorious emancipation. It is crucial to understanding Marx.

Yet almost every other body of thought in the West has preached something similar, if not identical. The doctrine of the brotherhood of man; the idea that every one of us really is part of some monolithic family, perhaps "the family of God"; or that we are all the parts of the great earth cell, come to no less than Marx's idea that humankind is an "organic whole." And just as the whole may sacrifice some of its parts for its own health, so humanity may sacrifice some of its individual parts—you or me or the kulaks or the capitalists—for the sake of its ultimate health. This, perhaps more than anything else, has given Marxism its intellectual force—it made an old, mystical idea compatible with at least the appearance of modern science.

Sowell has written a very satisfying book. Among the innumerable tracts about Marx, it stands out as a very clear and diligently accurate one. It is a pleasure to read. And it does not play merely to the gallery of rooters for the free society.

Tibor R. Machan will be teaching philosophy this year at Franklin College, in Lugano, Switzerland.