Daffyd Thomas, one of the most memorable characters in the ‘Little Britain’ series, is ‘the only gay in the village’. Or so he likes to think. Daffyd loves the role of the outsider, who bravely defies society’s stifling conventions. So he convinces himself that everybody is shocked and horrified about the fact that he is gay. But he has to work hard to sustain this delusion, because everyone he meets is either indifferent, supportive or gay themselves.

If Daffyd were a real person, he would probably write for the Guardian. Guardian journalists have this irritating habit of espousing fashionable views while adopting a bet-my-radicalism-shocks-you tone.

A recent example is this Guardian article, by Ellie Mae O’Hagan, on Marx and McDonnell:

“Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to clutch your privately owned pearls, for the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, has had the audacity to acknowledge – live on TV, no less – that there is a lot to learn from Karl Marx. Judging by the horrified reaction McDonnell’s comments unleashed, you’d think he had ridden into BBC studios on a Soviet tank […] If these histrionics are anything to go by, the respectable position must be that Marx’s ideas are outdated and dangerous, and that we should all carry on as though they never existed.”

First, that’s not really what happened. Yes, there was a little storm in a teacup around a McDonnell interview about a week ago, which lasted for about a day – but that was mostly about McDonnell’s inconsistency rather than his praise of Marx; it was about the fact that he sometimes says he is a Marxist, and sometimes says he’s not.

Be that as it may: The claim that there’s a lot to be learned from reading Das Kapital is not quite the brilliant heresy that O’Hagan seems to think it is. It’s a well-worn cliché. I’ve heard it a million times. And my problem with it is that whenever I ask people who make the claim what exactly they have learned from reading Das Kapital, the answer is either awkward silence or some vague generality (“Well there’s, like, recurring crises in capitalism. Isn’t that, sort of, what Marx said?”).

Sure, the fact that it’s a cliché does not make it wrong. Clichés are usually true. And yes, of course you can appreciate Marx without sharing his conclusions. In fact, there are even classical liberals and libertarians who are quite fond of Marx.

But I’m not convinced by O’Hagan’s claim that “we can’t understand capitalism without considering Marx”. Yes, Marx wrote a lot about economic crises. But that does not mean that every economic downturn proves Marx right. Nostradamus wrote a lot about catastrophes, but that does not mean that every natural disaster, which vaguely resembles something Nostradamus has written, proves Nostradamus right. Hundreds of economists after Marx have written about economic crises as well, and there are now dozens of competing business cycle theories. If every economic downturn proves Marx right, it must also prove Henry George right. And Milton Friedman. And Ludwig von Mises. And John Maynard Keynes. And Simon Kuznets. And many more.

Except, they cannot all simultaneously be right, because some of these theories are mutually exclusive. Marx, of course, did not just have ordinary business cycle fluctuations in mind. He predicted that recessions would get more severe over time, ultimately contributing to capitalism’s self-destruction. That clearly has not happened. Whatever his other merits may be, he was wrong on the grand narrative. So why give him the benefit of the doubt?

I’m not claiming to a Marx expert. Quite the opposite. A few years ago, I was invited to a panel discussion on Marxism, to debate against some Marxist professor. I chickened out, and I would chicken out again if I received another invitation of that kind today. I know that my opponent would say something like “You clearly have never read the key paragraph on page 857 of Das Kapital, otherwise you would know X, Y and Z”, and they would be right. I haven’t read page 857 of Das Kapital. I haven’t even read page 1. I only have second-hand knowledge of Marx, which I picked up by reading other economists who refer to him.

But what I’m saying is: The burden of proof should be on those who insist that Marx is still relevant, and that we cannot understand capitalism without him. It should not be on those who believe that Marx has been broadly refuted by events, and that reading Das Kapital is a waste of time. The people who urge us to read Das Kapital may well be right – but their case is not nearly as obvious as they think it is, and reading Marx has opportunity costs.

If I was stranded on a lonely island, with only a copy of Das Kapital, then yes, I would read it. But as things stand, there are many excellent contemporary economists who I haven’t read yet, plus people who aren’t technically economists, but whose work has important implications for economics (in areas like psychology and cognitive science). It’s not enough for the Marx fans to claim that there’s ‘a lot’ to be learned from reading Marx. I’m sure there is. But there’s a lot to be learned from many other, more contemporary authors as well. And I can’t see which of them I should put on hold to read Marx instead.


Head of Health and Welfare

Dr Kristian Niemietz joined the IEA in 2008 as Poverty Research Fellow, becoming its Senior Research Fellow in 2013 and Head of Health and Welfare in 2015. Kristian is also a Fellow of the Age Endeavour Fellowship. He studied Economics at the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin and the Universidad de Salamanca, graduating in 2007 as Diplom-Volkswirt (≈MSc in Economics). During his studies, he interned at the Central Bank of Bolivia (2004), the National Statistics Office of Paraguay (2005), and at the IEA (2006). In 2013, he completed a PhD in Political Economy at King’s College London. Kristian previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Berlin-based Institute for Free Enterprise (IUF), and at King's College London, where he taught Economics throughout his postgraduate studies. He is a regular contributor to various journals in the UK, Germany and Switzerland.

4 thoughts on “Why I can’t be bothered to read Marx”

  1. Posted 16/05/2017 at 02:58 | Permalink

    If all you get from reading the Guardian is irritation then be rational and stop. Its circulation will decline by one and if all people who are in a similar position stopped reading it then our much maligned market will confine it to irrelevance and economics will deliver the coup de grace. Just think, their circulation may well be at a tipping point and by cancelling your subscription you may well tip them over. Unless, they then convince the government that their continued existence is a necessary antidote to the Murdoch press and worthy of a (very) generous taxpayer subsidy.

    Or is it possible, just, that you do get value as the Guardian helps to reinforce who you are not? They are the Other so beloved by Constructivists. If even mildly true then the same can be said of Marx. Reading Das Kapital may well fortify your beliefs about capitalism.

    Evidently, to be a true Marx aficionado you must read his work in German. I tried to read the English translation but struggled (Like thick soup it can be described as turgid). However, it did cure my insomnia and perhaps one day I will get back to it. But for now it is gathering dust on my shelf alongside Pilketty.

  2. Posted 17/05/2017 at 10:03 | Permalink

    As a university teacher, I am generally all in favour of the reading of original texts rather than just summaries or second-hand accounts. Nevertheless, some books should not be read cover to cover. When I was an adolescent and had more energy than sense, I managed to read John Locke’s Essay on Human Understanding in its entirety, all two volumes and 996 pages of it. Despite my respect for Locke, this isn’t something I could recommend to anyone—there are better things to do with one’s time. Marx’s Capital is another book that should not be read from cover to cover, although I suspect that many people have come to the same conclusion as I have without the benefit of my advice. It is a huge, sprawling, badly organised tome. Here I am speaking of the first volume, the only one Marx himself completed. It has many of the vices of the caricature of German scholarship—ridiculous length and an extravagant display of needless scholarship—with few of the virtues—clear analysis and logical rigour, although David McClelland bizarrely claims to find it ‘witty in a heavy-handed Germanic sort of way!’

  3. Posted 18/05/2017 at 12:36 | Permalink
  4. Posted 01/09/2017 at 14:19 | Permalink

    I find this article deeply disappointing.

    Here we have an academic, a well-learned and well-read individual who has studied hard to reach his position, a positon from which you would hope that such an individual would champion the reading of books, rather than urging us to do quite the opposite.

    I gain no such pleasure from trolling on the internet, and I genuinely do not wish to be rude to Dr Niemietz, but I find it somewhat disturbing that he would encourage us all to avoid reading what is clearly, one of the most important economic and philosophical works of the past 200 years.

    I am not a particularly intelligent man and I am also not handsomely paid for the low grade clerical work that I do and I often struggle to understand some of the more complex aspects within books of academia.

    Nevertheless, I absolutely felt it necessary to take on Das Kapital (admittedly after procrastinating for many years!) and am currently about half way through it. It is challenging in places and sometimes it can drag a little, but it is far from turgid and its arguments have a sound logic behind them and are backed up with much evidence.

    Again, I am not the brightest of individuals, but I would be curious to hear of any other theorist who has so effectively explained the theory of value adequately or attempted to analyse in accurate detail the actual dynamics of capitalism. The project of neo-liberal economic theory (or “vulgar economics” as Marx might have it) have done nothing other than give us a manual on how to perpetuate a system of unequal distribution and to that end, it has not been altogether that successful considering the vicissitude of the banking crisis!

    Dr Niemietz ‘s area of study is quoted as Poverty Research, yet he flatly refuses to acknowledge the importance of the most authoritative tome on the fundamental structural causes of much poverty in capitalist societies.

    Again, I do not wish to troll, I’m just deeply saddened by such a dismissal of an important and in my opinion, accurate analysis of why capitalism is not working for people like me.

    It is further disappointing, because, as a member of the working class, we are told to extoll the virtues of the successful middle classes, yet Dr Niemietz cannot evet be bothered to read one of the most crucial economic theorists of the modern era?

    Dr Niemietz, I ask you, what has market de-regulation, the rolling back of the state and the erosion of worker’s right done to improve society as a whole?

    It has given us a weakened welfare state, overpriced utilities and flatlining wages. How can this be seen as positive?

    I know I am stupid working class idiot but I would generally love to know what is so great about your neo-liberal doctrine?

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