So, it was Marx’s 200th birthday the other day and my twitter timeline was full of different versions of the same stuff, “Marx was great at describing the problems with capitalism but not on what to do about it”. Mostly this seemed intended as contrarianism (but balanced! The best kind!). Many assume that most people unjustly hate/ dismiss him and then there are a few true Marx believers and both these perspectives are wrong. But this is an unbelievably standard, almost banal take.
My, incredibly hot take is that Marx was bad. Not “directly responsible for Stalin” bad, which is also a take I don’t like, but bad as in he was not that honest or admirable as an intellectual (despite *some* insights that stand up today) and he was bloodthirsty enough that accusations of Stalin causing are not really necessary to establish badness.
People may not defend the Stalin-y stuff (you know, the “not really Marx” stuff), but many do defend the Lenin-y and Trotsky-y stuff which did involve lots of violence, maybe because more of this was directed at the “right” people and the murdering was done for the right reasons. This is stuff Marx would have approved of. He was a revolutionary.
The revolution is framed as overthrowing tyranny and that sounds good! Sometimes it is! But it does actually matter how bad things really are, Nazi Germany isn’t the same as 2018 New Zealand. Marx looks around and says that things really are *That Bad*. But even though most places suck in various ways they could be a *lot* worse (and of course often were revolution…) and this is relevant. This was true in his day, but it is EXTREMELY more true in liberal, capitalist places today. So, if we are keen to say “Marx was good at pointing out the problems with capitalism” and we have lots of capitalism now, you end up walking around Sydney and seeing a dystopian, tyrannical hellscape. Also, the bad guys and class enemies that need to be violenced are probably people like you and your friends.
Part of the appeal of Marx and the problem with him is that he has two personas. One was the dry, unreadable academic and the other was the polemicist (journalist political agitator). One persona gets him his intellectual respectability and the other is why people really care about him. Without Marx the polemicist we would care much about the academic. The two personas mix to a certain extent. So, say a guy starts a business and the revenue is R500 000 a year. Business grows so he offers to hire someone and pay him R500 000 a year too but since they can each specialise a bit, revenue increases by R600 000 and the owner keeps the extra R100 000. The extra worker increases revenue by more than he gets paid! We *could* call that “profit”, but Marx defines this as “exploitation”. Look, the dispassionate economist has proved that profit is exploitation! Amazing! Another example is how much emphasis is placed on how the wages for workers will be driven down to the exact level required to stay alive and working for the bosses. This isn’t what happens in capitalist countries today, but aren’t jobs in Walmart or MacDonald’s pretty crap? So, Marx was clearly on to something right?
So, there’s the academic economist and there’s the revolutionary. You could admire one or the other. But they’re connected by the idea that if things are bad enough that violent overthrow of the system is justified. If things aren’t as bad as he says they are then revolution isn’t required and might make things worse. Marx is so convinced that things *must* be so bad under capitalism that he isn’t a fan of the kinds of reforms that exist in some nice countries today. I’ve even seen Marist scholars argue against effective altruism or a universal basic income because, by making the system seem more tolerable it will have the pernicious effect of prolonging capitalist horror. So Marx can be a used to prevent actual improvement and that is bad.