Branko Milanovic´ – Die Karl Marx Frage

The errors of presentism and exclusivism

Branko Milanović is an economist specialised in development and inequality. His newest  book is “Capitalism, Alone: The Future of the System That Rules the World”

Cross-posted from Branko’s Substack blog

The Karl Marx problem (or Die Karl Marx Frage, to make a nod towards Smith), as called by Philip W. Magness and Michael Makovi, has generated quite a lot of disagreements recently. Rather than summarizing the view of Magness and Makovi who published a recent article in the Journal of Political Economy, let me link to their summary here.

They quote me and my piece published for the bicentenary of Marx’s birth and then included among a dozen of contributions on Marx published by the Deutsche Historische Museum at the occasion of exhibition on Marx’s life and work recently held in Berlin.

The title of my piece is “The unexpected immortality of Karl Marx”. I think it conveys very well what I had in mind. The piece is here and I will not summarize it. I think it is worth reading.

Let me now explain where I agree with Magness and Makovi, and where I strongly disagree with them. I do agree that Marx’s influence, although substantial in the left-wing circles and increasing, even if criticized, in liberal and right-wing circles (e.g. Bohm-Bawerk, Croce, Weber) would not have made Marx the global thinker that he is today. If it had not been for the October revolution, and very importantly, Lenin’s decision to link the proletarian revolutions in the West to the anti-colonial movements in the rest of the world, I think that Marx would be known to us today as one of the theoretical brains behind the rise of the German Social-democracy, but even there his influence would have been “watered down” (as the success of Bernstein’s reformism  showed).  It is the October Revolution  plus Lenin that propelled Marx to the unique role of the global thinker, brought him to India, Japan, China, Africa, Latin America etc. He became probably the most influential social scientist of the past half-millennium. He was the only social scientist whose theories directly inspired revolutions.

Thus, I agree with Magness and Makovi that these, eminently political, events made Marx what he is now. But I see this as a vindication of Marx’s greatness. And this is where I sharply disagree with them. They make a double mistake. They imagine that the greatness of a social scientist is determined by what his/her contemporaries think of him, and this within a narrow circle of like social scientists. Basically, great economists today are those that today’s economic profession thinks are great. They thus make a double mistake: presentism (only the present assessment counts) and exclusivism (only academic opinions matter).

Both are wrong approaches for the assessment of social scientists in general and for Marx especially so. The greatness of social scientists is shown by their “durability”, that is, by the ability to be relevant over the long haul. This has  been the case, in economics, for Adam Smith, Ricardo, Marx, and probably Walras and Keynes. (One could go into other social sciences and bring up Rousseau, Machiavelli etc., but we do not need to do that). Why are such thinkers relevant? Because their way of thinking, the system they have designed, is found congenial, or has an explanatory power given the circumstances we face today. We search in their writings for explanations of  our current ills. The longer the social scientist is relevant, the more important he/she is. I do not think that anyone who has read even one chapter of Plato’s “Republic” or Aristotle’s “Politics” was  not struck by how extraordinary relevant they are. This is greatness. And this is what Marx has in abundance.

The fact that Marx’s fame was caused to a large extent by the October Revolution and Lenin’s decision that I mentioned is no different than how any social scientist becomes famous. It is the political, external events which suddenly reveal the importance of the work that we might not have appreciated. The latest financial crisis has brought Hyman Minsky from obscurity. If there is another crisis, he will be even more famous. The concern with the role of slavery in the development of capitalism has brought up W.E. D. DuBois’ writings to the fore. Malcolm X is also going through a revival. Their writings suddenly seem relevant. Had we solved the problem of depression as Robert Lucas promised us, Keynes’ relevance for economics and policy-making would be minimal.  But as soon as the economy sputters (as now), economists rush back to the General Theory. It would be silly to claim that Keynes is famous just because “external” events are favorable to him.

Now, let me go to over why “presentism” and “exclusivism” are particularly inappropriate as the judgment criteria in the case of Marx. Whoever has read Marx must know that his program was much wider than the transformation of economics. The critique of political economy, as the subtitle of Capital says, is just one part of that overall program. His program was to propose an entirely new understanding of human history in which economic forces play an important, and perhaps, key role. Once the meaning of history is discovered, this knowledge needs to be coupled with conscious action to bring about the change that history “reveals” to us. Our actions bring that historical evolution, discovered intellectually, to fruition. This is where the key Marxist concept, praxis, appears: it is the unity of theory (idea) and practice. It is at that point that that ideas (if they indeed are “correct” in the sense that they have seized the key determinants of evolution of human society) become material forces. Idea is then as much of a tool of change as a demonstration, the barricade, or the invention of a new machine.

Why do I need to go through this long explanation of Marx’s system (which of course is something that has been hinted at since Gramsci and Lukacs but became much better known after Marx’s manuscripts were published in the 1960s)?  Because it shows that reducing Marx’s objective to influencing economists like J. S. Mill and others is totally misunderstanding Marx. Marx was in the business of influencing the world history and social sciences as a whole. This was supposed to be done through the workers’ movement which imbued with the “correct” ideology becomes the instrument that changes history, brings about classless society, and lets us enter “the realm of freedom”. Marx was not in the business of applying for a job at the University of Cambridge, or writing refereed papers.

People whose highest aspiration is the latter cannot understand it.  Our own age is the age of pettiness and if our objectives are petty, we cannot even begin to conceptualize that somebody looks beyond that. The situation was not too different even in Marx’s time and this is why he was so mercilessly scathing of McCullochs of this world. They were just not on the same wavelength, they were not his peers.

It is true, as was mentioned by many, including Isaiah Berlin in his biography of Marx, and Schumpeter in The History of Economic Analysis and Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy,  that there was a lot of prophet in Marx and that our problem with him is that he transcends the confines of science. The ambition and comprehensiveness of his program is something only religions allow themselves to go in. And indeed criticizing Jesus for having had only a dozen disciples, not writing down his ideas, and not applying to join the Academy in Athens or perhaps a synagogue in Judea, is similar to criticizing Marx for not caring to convince McCulloch.    

Branko Milanovic´ 

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