by William H. Benson
March 17, 2020
A month ago, I happened to catch a “Planet Money” podcast called “Overrated / Underrated.” An economist named Tyler Cowen, a professor at George Mason University, fielded a series of questions, and one was, “Who is the most underrated economist ever?” He answered, “Adam Smith.”
The next question was, “Who is the most overrated economist ever?” Cowan replied, “Karl Marx. His work influenced the Soviet Union, eastern Europe, and Communist China for decades, and most of what he said was wrong.
“Capitalism does not have to destroy itself, and the paradise of the workers, the proletariat that Marx envisioned, is not ever going to rule society very well. Marx’s reputation today is in tatters, but he is still overrated, and some of his ideas are making a comeback.”
The British historian, Paul Johnson, wrote a devastating critique of Karl Marx in 1988. In the third chapter of Johnson’s book Intellectuals, Johnson paints an ugly literary portrait of Marx, as a failed academic, poet, philosopher, scientist, economist, journalist, moralist, husband, and father.
Although Marx achieved a doctorate as a classical scholar at the University of Jena, in Prussia, he never taught at a university, because his revolutionary ideas forced him to flee Prussia with his wife Jenny, and their children, and settle in London.
There, the family lived a poverty-stricken life, in a dirty, dingy, dust-covered apartment. He worked days, sometimes nights. He slept whenever and wherever he wanted, oblivious to his wife and children. When awake, he smoked cheap cigars, and filled the apartment with a constant cloud of smoke.
For most of Marx’s life, he was stateless, an exile, a dreamer of revolution. He chose not to seek employment. Instead, for thirty-four years, until his death on March 14, 1883, he spent his days in the reading room in the British Museum, transcribing other thinkers’ ideas into over a thousand notebooks.
He said, “I am a machine condemned to devour books.”
From this mass of scribbling over a lifetime, Marx managed to publish just two books, “Communist Manifesto” in 1848, and the first volume of “Capital.” His associate, Frederich Engels, then published the second and third volumes of “Capital” after Marx’s death.
In addition, Marx wrote a stream of awful poetry. Paul Johnson said, “Savagery is a characteristic note of his verse, with intense pessimism about the human condition, hatred, and pacts with the devil. Marx is an eschatological writer from start to finish.”
One of his poetic characters says, “I shall howl gigantic curses at mankind.” Another says, “Every-thing that exists deserves to perish.” A “Day of Judgment” or a “Doomsday” waits in the wings. He writes, “History is the judge, its executioner the proletariat.”
Paul Johnson points out that Marx’s poetic vision fueled his economic vision. In other words, he began with a vision of terror, death, and destruction, and then worked backwards to find “evidence that made it inevitable, rather than forward to it.” None of this approach was scientific.
Indeed, Marx failed to complete any basic research that would have given his work scientific stature. Johnson says, “so far as we know, Marx never set foot in a mill, factory, mine, or other industrial workplace in the whole of his life.” He was without a clue what went on in a business.
He felt only contempt for “skilled workers, watchmakers, printers, shoemakers, because they were self-educated, disciplined, solemn, well-mannered, and moderate about the practical steps required to transform society.” Yet, these were the proletariat, those Marx believed would someday rule the world.
Marx was critical of them because they refused to join in his “apocalyptic visions of revolution,” and “to talk his academic jargon.” “Practical solutions to actual problems of work and wages” he had no patience for or interest in. “He refused to investigate working conditions in industry himself.”
Yet, Karl Marx hired one employee, his wife’s maid, a diminutive woman named Helen Demuth. She was permitted a room and meals in the Marx’s apartment, but he expected her to work day and night. “Marx though never paid her a penny,” “his most bizarre act of personal exploitation.”
“The proletariat have nothing to lose, but their chains, a world to gain. Workers of the world unite!”
Most tragic though was when Karl Marx’s savage, apocalyptic, and impractical ideas fell into the hands of the wrong people. Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Tse-tung adopted Marxist philosophy, and with it, they tore the world asunder, murdering millions along the way.
Lenin once said, “Ideas are more powerful than guns.” Indeed they are, both those ideas that are true and those that are false and unworkable, like Karl Marx’s.