3 May 2018

Marx’s defenders should explain why his ideas never actually work


This week will mark the 200th birthday of Karl Marx. It will be an occasion for a deluge of articles repeating the well-worn cliché that even though Marx’s predictions ultimately did not materialise, his analysis of capitalism was nonetheless spot on, and remains hugely relevant today. (In fact, it’s already started.)

Those articles will contain plenty of awkward attempts to squeeze contemporary developments into a Marxist framework, in order to make the case that the great man saw it all coming. There will be plenty of obscure Marx quotes on display, which, like Nostradamus quotes, will have the virtue of lending themselves to projection. Those articles will end with platitudes like “Marx still has a lot to teach us”, or “you cannot understand modern capitalism without understanding Marx”.

They will, of course, respect the unstated etiquette of any contemporary discussion of Marxism: that the outcomes of real-world attempts to implement them must never, ever, be held against Marx’s ideas. To even mention the Soviet Union or a similar system in a discussion about Marxism is considered gauche and boorish today. The underlying assumption is that a sophisticated person is able to grasp the difference between a theory and its distorted application, while conflating the two is a hallmark of a simple mind.

Marxism is, in the sense, an outlier. We would not do this with any other political or economic theory. The thing about political and economic theories is that they are never implemented in pure form.

All real-world applications of political and economic ideas are, to some extent, distortions. While some governments just seem to make up their policies as they go along (our current one being a good example), others have a recognisable common thread, shaped by a specific set of ideas. Most famously, New Labour was clearly influenced by Anthony Giddens’ concept of the ‘Third Way’, a form of social democracy that makes its peace with the market economy.

Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies were influenced by free-market thinkers such as Friedrich Hayek. West Germany’s first post-war government was influenced by ‘ordoliberalism’, an economic school of thought which tried to combine free-market economics with an active competition policy. Yet in each of these cases, if we look at what the original thinkers said, and then compare that to what the politicians influenced by them actually did, we will always find a massive gap between the two.

Of course there is a massive gap. There are always competing ideological influences; there are always competing interests; there are always (deliberate or genuine) misunderstandings of a theory; there is always a risk of governments running out of steam or losing interest; and there are always country-specific idiosyncrasies and oddities which get in the way. It is therefore unsurprising that insofar as original thinkers live to see some of their ideas being adopted, they are rarely happy with it. Anthony Giddens was not particularly happy with the New Labour government.

One of Hayek’s relatives, who used to come to IEA events, once mentioned that Hayek was not especially impressed by Margaret Thatcher’s governments either. Similarly, when West German ordoliberals give an account of Konrad Adenauer’s government, they tend to talk about the early days with some enthusiasm, and about the later years with palpable exasperation. But nonetheless: we judge those ideas, at least partly, by the successes and failures of the policies they helped to inspire.

Yes, of course we should cut adherents of those ideas some slack when they point out how politicians have misunderstood and distorted their ideas. We might well give them the benefit of the doubt when they claim that the results could have been much better, if politicians had been more truthful to the original ideas.

That is all fair enough. But it is not, and should not be, a Get Out of Jail Free card. If your ideas require impossible standards of purity in implementation in order to work, then maybe your ideas are not as great as you think they are.

A good idea will still work out OK even in a distorted and poorly implemented version. That, arguably, is a big part of what makes a good idea good. The question is not whether Karl Marx, had he come back to life a century later, would have been a huge fan of the Soviet Union, the German Democratic Republic or the Hungarian People’s Republic.

He almost certainly would not have been. He may well have stayed in London, writing grumpy articles for the Guardian and the New Statesman about how politicians in those countries were
disfiguring his ideas. So what? Political and economic theories are never implemented in pure form, and their adherents are rarely impressed by politicians who claim to be inspired by them. That’s just par for the course.

Marxists, however, are pretty much the only thinkers who accept no responsibility whatsoever for real-world approximations of their ideas. Third-Way advocates may have despaired over Blair,
Hayekians can – and do – rant all day about Thatcher’s shortcomings, and ordoliberals have written scathing condemnations of Konrad Adenauer. But ask them whether they think those respective governments did more good than harm on balance; ask them whether they think those governments were preferable to the next likely alternatives – and you will get an unambiguous and unqualified “Yes!” as an answer.

In contrast, hardly any contemporary Marxist would accept that whatever ‘real’ socialism is – surely, East Germany was at least closer to it than West Germany, North Korea is at least closer to it than South Korea, Venezuela is at least closer to it than Peru, Maoist China was at least closer to it than Taiwan, etc.

And why would they? It works for them. Every other idea is judged by its necessarily crude, incomplete and imperfect real-world approximations, warts and all.  Only Marxism has the luxury of being judged purely as a set of ideas, which something as mundane as real-world experience could never blemish.

Kristian Niemietz is Head of Health and Welfare at the IEA.