I fear I might have given a mistaken impression in this post deploring the possibility of Marx being voted the greatest philosopher of all time. I think there’s a lot to admire in Marx, for example:
1. The theory of history. Technical change leads to changes in the distribution of property and hence the nature of society. This is a valuable insight. As Douglass North – who won a Nobel prize for recasting the idea into terms more acceptable to conventional economists – has said (Structure and Change in Economic History p61):
The Marxian framework is the most powerful of the existing statements of secular change precisely because it includes all of the elements left out of the neoclassical framework: institutions, property rights, the state and ideology.
2. Primitive accumulation. Marx’s description of the origins of capitalism – in state-sponsored theft – draws attention to a point forgotten by both left and right, that capitalism is the effect of injustice, not (just?) the cause of it.
3. A theory of exploitation. Only a buffoon believes the labour theory of value. But only a buffoon thinks it essential to Marxism; why does believing the labour theory of value discredit Marx but not Adam Smith? As John Roemer and Michio Morishima have shown, it is possible to establish that profits are the result of exploitation without the labour theory of value. Whether this is morally interesting is another question entirely.
4. The determination of profits. Standard Keynesian/neoclassical economics doesn’t say much about the macroeconomics of profits – something I found annoying when I worked as a City economist. Marx’s analysis, at least as interpreted by Kalecki, filled the gap. Thinking of the profit rate as a function of output-capital ratios and the share of profits in GDP – and thinking about the determinants of these ratios – is still relevant.
5. The idea that social science is the study of the unintended consequences of individual action. Sure, Smith’s invisible hand was an illustration of a benign instance of this. But Marx placed much more emphasis upon the gulf between intentions and outcomes.
6. Ideology. Why do people believe the things they do? To Marx, it wasn’t (just?) because they were stupid. He tried to show how social conditions could lead to systematically distorted beliefs. Of course, this led to lots of nonsense about “false consciousness,” but as Jon Elster has shown, there are more interesting ways of building on his analysis.
7. Scepticism about reformism. As G.A. Cohen has said (Self-ownership, Freedom and Equality p11):
[Marx] thought that anything short of an abundance so complete that it removes all major conflicts of interest would guarantee continued social strife.
Surely, the 120 years of social democracy since Marx’s death shows that he had a point there?
In these ways, Marx was a genuinely inspirational thinker – in the sense that he inspired great work by the likes of John Roemer and Jon Elster; it would be stretching a point to cite Douglass North or Daniel Kahneman as his intellectual heirs.
Why then, don’t I like the idea of him being voted the greatest philosopher of all time?
First, it’s a simple demarcation issue. These are not ideas in philosophy but in social science.
Second, his insights were buried under a lot of mumbo-jumbo functional explanation and Hegelianism. Put it this way. No-one has put the case for liberty better than John Stuart Mill. But plenty of people have expressed Marx’s ideas better than Marx.
Third, I’m suspicious of the motives of those voting for Marx. Those who do so are, I suspect, not endorsing the thinking of Cohen, Elster, Marglin, Roemer or Kalecki. They’re just expressing a woolly-headed distaste for capitalism without understanding it or knowing what to replace it with. And therein lies a paradox. Marx was contemptuous of bourgeois or utopian pseudo-socialists. But it’s those, I fear, who are voting for him.