One of the problems with being a Marxist is that one is the subject of silly misunderstandings. Here are a handful of the bad arguments against Marxism I often see, and my replies.
“Don’t you realize central planning has failed?”
We do. But if you want to find people who still believe in central planning today, you should look not among Marxists but in company boardrooms. It’s bosses who believe complex systems can be controlled well from the top down, not we Marxists.
In fact, many of us point to the abundant evidence that worker (pdf) ownership and control increases (pdf) well-being and productivity (pdf) as evidence that a post-capitalist society is feasible – in the sense of one in which hierarchical inequality is replaced by more egalitarian forms of control and ownership. For me, central planning is not a part of socialism.
“How can you believe guff like the labour theory of value?”
Simple – because as an empirical theory (pdf), it actually (pdf) works well (pdf). Paradoxically, the theory might be true but irrelevant. John Roemer has shown that it is not necessary for the claim that workers are exploited under capitalism. Instead, he says (pdf), we can say that workers are exploited if they would be better off if they could withdraw from capitalism, taking with them their per capita share of the capital stock. On this conception, the question is: does capitalist rule increase wages (by more efficient organization) or depress them (by exploitation).
“You’re ignoring the fact that capitalism has lifted millions of people out of poverty.”
I don't. It has. And Marx – perhaps more so that his contemporaries – was aware of this. Capitalism, he wrote, “has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals”, “has given an immense development to commerce” and caused a “rapid improvement of all instruments of production.”
However, to assume that this will remain the case is to commit the fallacy of induction. Marx also thought that there’d come a time when capitalist relations of production would become “fetters” upon growth. It’s possible – given the slowdown in growth – that developed economies have reached this point.
“Marxists are the enemies of freedom.”
Let’s leave aside the fact that this accusation often comes from supporters of political parties that have created over 5000 new criminal offences since 1997. What this ignores is that there is a big strand of libertarianism within Marxism: Marxists are far more sceptical about the benevolence of the state than social democrats, for example. As Jon Elster has written, Marx "condemned capitalism mainly because it frustrated human development and self-actualization." For us Marxists, one of the nastier features of capitalism is that it forces people – for lack of alternatives – into employment relations which are illiberal, coercive and demeaning. For us one challenge is to find ways of increasing people’s real freedom to live fulfilling lives. Such ways might not be compatible with capitalism.
“You want to impose a social engineering dogma onto people.”
No. Insofar as government has a role to play in the transition to socialism, it’ll be through a form of accelerationism or what Erik Olin Wright calls (pdf) interstitial transformation – encouraging and facilitating democratic libertarian egalitarian alternatives to capitalism. For example, a citizens income combined with a meaningful jobs guarantee would be a step towards real freedom, and might kill off the most exploitative forms of capitalism by allowing workers to reject bad jobs. Preferred bidding status might encourage the growth of coops. Credit unions and P2P lending could be encouraged as alternatives to banks. Forms of civic engagement could be encouraged on the basis that small forms of democracy will lead to demands for more. And so on.
In this sense, socialism might evolve as capitalism did – through an admixture of emergence and state intervention.
“You’re a bunch of utopians.”
In the sense that we believe that a better world is possible, we plead guilty. But we are not alone here. Non-Marxists who claim there’ll be big gains from managerialist policies are also guilty of a form of utopianism. A big reason why I’m a Marxist is that I’m a sceptic about that sort of utopianism, and doubt how far working people’s lives can be improved within the confines of a stagnant late capitalism.
“Marxism is a pseudo-science.”
This accusation often comes from people who believe in a form of mainstream economics which rests upon numerous unobservable entities such as the natural rate of interest, natural rate of employment, marginal utility and marginal product.
I suppose it is true for some definitions of “science” and some definitions of “Marxism”. For me, though, Marxism comprises a set of theories which are reasonably consistent with some facts, for example:
- Technology affects culture. “The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life” said Marx. This has been confirmed, for example, by the work of Jeremy Greenwood. If you want an example of Marxism at the BBC, the strongest is Radio 4’s The Digital Human.
- Apparently free markets – what Marx called “the realm of liberty, equality and Bentham” – can disguise rent-seeking and exploitation. Marx had in mind the labour market. Other examples are the markets for CEOs and for many financial “services.”
- Marx thought there’d come a time when capitalist institutions – what he called the “relations of production” would act to restrain economic growth. “From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters.” Secular stagnation might be evidence that this is happening. For example, intellectual property laws might do more to increase incumbents’ profits than encourage technical progress. Bosses’ opposition to organizational change might mean that the full gains from IT have yet to be realized. And the difficulty of monetizing innovation might help explain the paradox that techno-optimism co-exists with low investment.
In these ways – to mention just a few – Marxism is, to put it at its weakest, at least a useful perspective on today’s problems.
You might object here that my Marxism is idiosyncratic. Certainly, it owes more to the Marx described by Jon Elster than to the one portrayed by Leszek Kolakowski. But frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.