Notes on Marx

We wrapped up our discussion of Karl Marx in my “Classical & Marxian Political Economy” class today, and I posted what follows at Division of Labour this morning. What are we to do with Karl Marx the economist and with Karl Marx the social thinker more broadly? I rely here on the Oxford University Press edition of Schumpeter’s History of Economic Analysis, pages 383-392; parts of the Routledge edition are on Google Books. Schumpeter argues that the two cannot really be separated—Marx the economist relies on Marx the sociologist and vice versa. Further, he argues that someone can’t really understand Marx without a clear understanding of the German intellectual tradition in which he was writing, without reading all three volumes of Capital, and without reading Theories of Surplus Value.

Marx made several contributions that lend support to McCloskey’s thesis that he was the most important social scientist of the nineteenth century. In my reading of Marx I have found him to be a positively gripping writer, sure and strong in his convictions and fundamentally revolutionary in his rhetoric. In spite of the fact that his scientific work was virtually inseparable from his political agitation, he was fundamentally an analytical economist in the classical tradition. Discussions of Marx have been marred by unthinking religious devotion on the part Marx’s followers and by a refusal on the part of some anti-Marxists to defile themselves with his ideas (Schumpeter 1954 [1994]:385). It is, in Schumpeter’s words, “analytical by virtue of its logical nature, for it consists in statements of relations between social facts” (p. 385). At the same time, Schumpeter continues by noting that Marx’s science “was distorted not only by the influence of practical purposes, not only by the influence of passionate value judgments, but also by ideological delusion” (p. 385). Hence, Marx never developed a theory of the socialist economy but merely pointed to its alleged historical inevitability. He responded to his critics not with analysis and argument, but with ad hominem attacks that questioned the allegedly venal motives of those who dared to question his system.

A rich and well-explored irony of the Marxian system is the fact that Marx was himself “the product of a thoroughly bourgeois environment that failed to provide economic independence, and of a thoroughly bourgeois education that made him (as it makes so many) an intellectual, a radical, and a scholar—the radicalism being of the bourgeois brand of his time and the scholarship being of the historico-philosophical, as distinguished from the mathematico-physical type” (p. 386n). Marx’s revolution was a revolution that began with the intellectuals (beginning with Marx, himself ensconced in the library of the British Museum) rather than the working class. Marx was a member of the bourgeoisie writing for intellectuals, elites, and other members of the bourgeoisie. While I’m borrowing explicitly from Schumpeter and Murray Rothbard, I think this is a charitable interpretation.

So what of Marx’s economics, and what of his social theory? As I’m not a trained anthropologist, political theorist, sociologist, etc. I remain skeptically agnostic about Marx’s contributions to social theory because I’m still unconvinced that his social theory does not derive from his thoroughly exploded and refuted economic theory. Bohm-Bawerk and Schumpeter argue that Marx the analytical economic thinker was logically consistent in the construction of his system; however, his economics was totally unfounded. Here is Schumpeter: “...Marx’s system is seriously at fault. I mean only that he could have presented a comprehensive economic theory without violating logic—he would always have to do violence to facts” (p. 389).

According to Schumpeter, Marx’s “Economic Interpretation of History” was original and important (p. 389), as was his attempt to “work out an explicit model of the capitalist process” that “trie(d) to uncover the mechanism that, by its mere working and without the aid of external factors, turns any given state of society into another” (p. 391). According to a very brief hallway conversation with a political science colleague I ran into on my way to and from the coffee pot, Marx’s theories of class interest survive his exploded economics.* According to Rothbard, however, Marx slips between his “economic power” theory of class and the libertarian “political power” theory of class throughout the Communist Manifesto.

According to Schumpeter, Marx did make some important original contributions, but as I understand it these consisted largely of his pre-analytic vision rather than his analysis and conclusions. Rothbard is correct in his assessment of Marxism rather than capitalism being a system that has been “burst asunder,” and it is unfortunate that Marx’s unsophisticated “method” of criticism—don’t let ideas stand and fall on their own merits, but attack and denounce your enemies as blinded ideologues and apologists for the bourgeoisie—continues to permeate the Great Conversation.


Bohm-Bawerk, Eugen von. 1949. Karl Marx and the Close of His System, in Paul M. Sweezy, ed., Karl Marx and the Close of His System by Eugen von Bohm-Bawerk and Bohm-Bawerk’s Criticism of Marx by Rudolf Hilferding. New York: Augustus M. Kelley.

Rothbard, Murray N. 1995 [2006]. Classical Economics. Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute.

Schumpeter, Joseph A. 1954 [1994]. History of Economic Analysis. New York: Oxford University Press.


*I’m indebted to Arielle Goldberg for being kind enough to answer a couple of off-the-wall questions from an economist ten minutes before she had to teach a class.

Cross-posted at Division of Labour, Mises Blog.

Art Carden is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Associate Professor of Economics and Business at Rhodes College.
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