Economic Theory

Why I can’t be bothered to read Marx


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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on a Soviet tank […] If these histrionics are anything to go by, the respectable position must be that Marx’s ideas are outdated and dangerous, and that we should all carry on as though they never existed.”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 Political Economy

Dr Kristian Niemietz is the IEA's Editorial Director, and Head of Political Economy. Kristian 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). He also studied Political Economy at King's College London, graduating in 2013 with a PhD. Kristian previously worked as a Research Fellow at the Berlin-based Institute for Free Enterprise (IUF), and taught Economics at King's College London. He is the author of the books "Socialism: The Failed Idea That Never Dies" (2019), "Universal Healthcare Without The NHS" (2016), "Redefining The Poverty Debate" (2012) and "A New Understanding of Poverty" (2011).


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

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

    Kris
    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?

  5. Posted 30/06/2018 at 18:58 | Permalink

    Matt, You’re right, you are not the brightest of individuals otherwise you would know that Smith and Riccardo both explained the role of value in production far better than Marx, although all three of them were unable to appreciate the role of imperfect competition in underming the theory itself. It is not labour which determines value but price. Das Kapital was irrelevant when it was written and is a fossilised relic now. No wonder Harold Wilson never got past page 1.

    Of course self identification as working class is in itself a misnomer as most who do so are usually anything but. De-regulation is separate from a capitalist society (the CEO of the NHS is a member of the Labour Party) and the alleged state of society to which you refer is a myth. Possibly you’re too young to remember the inefficiency of the former nationalised industries, the trade union tyranny practiced by Jones, Scargill et.al in pursuit of Marxist theory. Certainly you are too myopic to acknowledge that empiricism has proved the irrelevance of socialist theory in the real world.

  6. Posted 24/04/2019 at 15:34 | Permalink

    I have read most of the works of marx including capital when i was young. It does require lot of youthful energy and curiosity to read it. Whether marxism will be accepted in the present day or in near future. A definite no. To put it simply greed and power has assumed very dangerous proportions. Technology and nuclear arsenals are at the easy disposal of the rich and powerful.
    Thirdly marx is no god or godman. Societies which were experimented on his models have caused extreme pains to humanity and has failed. To stick on dogmatically to marx’s words like a holy book is the blunder communist parties world over are commiting. Volumes have been written about blunders in marx’s theories and its practical applications. Having said this i do agree there are gems in marx’s economic theories which will help the help the struggling poor and philonthrophic rich. A thorough overhaul of marx’s theory to mainly include spiritual quest and entertainment needs as secondary but very important to human society primary importance being to basic needs food shelter and clothing is the need of hour. Such an overhaul should make acceptance of pluralistic parliamentary democracy as a pre condition. That exercise if carried out sincerely can provide an alternate model for the huge inequalities existing in the present day world..7

  7. Posted 24/08/2020 at 16:35 | Permalink

    It appears that you wish to talk about the failures of Socialism, but your quick dismissal of the original texts taht Socialism was founded upon I think is a mistake. What can justify the need for reading Marxian economics is that he explains thoroughly the economic relationships of the class conflict between the working class and the capitalist class, but also of the labour theory of value, exchange-value, and use-value. Despite what subjective theory of value tries to say by going, “oh yes but the labour theory of value is wrong,” that is not a valid criticism since Marxian economics already involves a version of the subjective theory of value: that is the very definition of use-value. It is understandable if you don’t want to read Das Kapital in its whole since it’s a beast, instead you might just take the quick summary of the theory by Libertarian Socialist Rants youtube channel which he covers it in 8 videos which are around 15 minutes or so. You should really consider looking more deeply into the various branches of Socialism, like Marxist-Leninism, Anarchism, and so on, before talking about it in books like, “the failure of Socialism,” as otherwise it is a highly superficial progression of historical accounts that falsely conclude that all of Socialism does not work, except that Socialism is a broader topic than that. There’s also dialectical materialism to learn about. Also don’t chicken out of debates even when you know that you’ll get beaten the crap out of you, otherwise it wouldn’t be so surprising if you stick with the very worldview that you’ve comfortably adopted and are more of an expert on. Also you’re statement on the prediction that Capitalism has not collapsed yet is too vague, because I cannot tell whether you meant, “recessions will get more severe over time,” or, “Capitalism will be overthrown.” Otherwise if you meant that Capitalism hasn’t been overthrown yet, hence Marx was wrong, is a bit of a blunt conclusion, especially of the overthrow of Capitalism in Rojava, Revolutionary Catalonia, Makhnovia, Vietnam, Zapitastas Autonomous Municipals, and not to mention just because something hasn’t happened yet doesn’t necessarily mean the prediction is wrong. Also as you’ve pointed out, younger people are becoming more attracted to Socialist ideas, which would imply that since it is younger people that are poorer relatively nowadays than their parents and the boomer generation, would that not also imply that Capitalism is actually leading to its own self-destruction?

  8. Posted 24/08/2020 at 16:59 | Permalink

    A note to Gerard Casey
    I can see your train of thought with long-ass books you shouldn’t read from front-to-cover. I’m currently reading through Das Kapital, and plan to read all 3 volumes, though it’s over 1500 pages long, and I’ve reached 309 pages which took me quite the while. I disagree with you however, that these kinds of books shouldn’t be read from front-to-cover. I think it all depends on really, what is it you wish to do, and want to achieve? Also, what are you interested in? If you want to read very deep into Marxian economics, then reading it front-to-cover is something I absolutely recommend. If you just want the general gist of his arguments, then there’s no need to bother. Likewise, that goes for any philosopher or theorist you might be interested in learning from.

  9. Posted 15/11/2021 at 14:03 | Permalink

    Interesting comment, I agree that one should not feel pressured to read anything they aren’t interested in. But surely not just as a professor but the head of political economy in a school. it’s your duty as an educator to understand with minimal depth the propositions of opposing views, maybe rather than debate the Marxist professors you should discuss with them and share ideas this seems like an unhealthy outlook for an academic mentor.

  10. Posted 30/07/2022 at 01:48 | Permalink

    Gee, I can’t imagine WHY someone like the author would recommend not reading a masterpiece. Probably because he didn’t comprehend it? Or simply has an agenda? And for those who haven’t read it, it’s perfectly easy to comprehend. A fascinating work. Read it yourself and decide for yourself before allowing the so-called professional managerial class “intellectual” to lead you by the nose.

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