Deepening the Critique of Marxism

by Benjamin Studebaker

I found myself in another lecture on Marxism yesterday. Why do I say “another”? I did a cursory search of my own website and found that just shy of a year ago, I was responding to a lecture about Marxism on this blog. In that piece, my focus was primarily a criticism of the solutions Marx and the Marxists offer. Specifically, I was objecting to the Marxist belief that it is possible for people to be socially rewired so as to become more altruistic or otherwise capable of working hard without a scale of variant material incentives. Rereading that argument, I found myself agreeing, but I also found my critique had deepened, that there was somewhat more to it than I said last year. That’s what I’d like to develop today.

My original complaint is that Marxism seeks to build political structures that only suit exceptionally benevolent people. The existence of ordinary and sometimes even especially self-centered individuals has a tendency to make Marxist solutions practical nightmares.  While Marxists can present us with many good reasons for thinking that if people were willing to work hard without a scale of diverse material incentives our society would be a better place, they are not able to offer us a convincing argument as to how it would come to pass that existing ordinary, selfish people would become benevolent societal maximizers in this way, indifferent to their relative standing individually.

However, there’s a further problem with Marxism and with the Marxist solution that deepens the critique. Let’s say that we were able to somehow educate people such that they would be willing to work without a scale of diverse material incentives. According to Marx, if everyone received the same and had the same stake in ownership of the means of production, this would mark the end not merely of class conflict, but of social troubles more broadly, because Marx believes that all alienation and social conflict ultimately derives from facts about who owns the means of production.

There is a hidden presumption here that the primary thing that human beings care about is their share of societal wealth and their sense that this share is a product of a procedure they deem fair. Human beings do care deeply about wealth, but Marx does not properly evaluate why it is that people care about their share of the means of production. In every instance, our society’s economic output can in some way be described as giving someone the power to do something or control something he otherwise could not do or control. For instance, purchasing a car gives one the power to travel large distances in much shorter time frames and the opportunity to control a complex machine and make it serve one’s ends. Purchasing a massage gives one the power to use another person for one’s own ends (in this case, the pursuit of comfort or pain relief). In every case, wealth is used to acquire what can ultimately be described in power terms. Marx is right that we are very preoccupied with distributions of wealth, but not as an end, but as a means to power, the power to acquire for ourselves the things we consider good and to avoid for ourselves the things that we consider bad.

Wealth is merely one form of power. Power can be acquired through other means. While Marx sees these other kinds of power ultimately in a servile position to wealth and to the predominant means of production, it is possible to design political systems in which wealth does not subjugate all other forms of power. I would argue that this is one of the principal criteria by which a system of government is to be judged–does it prevent those with money from using that money to possess other kinds of power? To the extent that it does, it is unjust and requires revision. No political system has successfully full de-linked money from power, but we can all agree that there are laws or judicial decisions we could pass or make that would either further link these forms of power together or would further de-link them. If we eliminated the cap on campaign donations to specific candidates, that would link money to power more so than it presently is. If we forbid private citizens from donating to campaigns altogether, that would do the inverse. The mere fact that states levy taxes in a progressive way such that the burden on the rich is greater is proof that in some way, other kinds of power can dominate over raw wealth.

So even in a society in which there is no cause for distress over the distribution of economic power, there may yet be cause for concern over the distribution of political power, power in social relationships, at work, among friends, in families, and in a variety of other contexts. In the face of this argument, Marxists often agitate for radical direct democracy, so that every person in every institution or social setting is afforded equal power. But this is subject to the same criticism I set out initially–are human beings happy to maximize their own varying potentials while receiving shares of power that do not reflect those potentials? At present, the answer is overwhelmingly negatory. There are many people who do not merely desire power, but who desire to have more power than others have, the antithesis of the Marxist objective. For these individuals, a Marxist society is as alienating as a capitalist society is for Marxists. And even were man to mellow and his nature to become more accommodating, it only takes a handful of defectors to cause considerable trouble. Furthermore, how long will it take for men to mellow? Centuries? Millennia? Longer? How many generations should suffer whatever injustices and miseries there are while waiting?

Many Marxists agitate and campaign their entire lives in an effort to get the wider population to change its attitudes and behavior, but they are on a fool’s errand. In trying to induce the public to radically reform society, they pass up the opportunity to radically reform society themselves. Already, several generations of Marxists have lived and died without having achieved significant amelioration of the problems identified by Marx. Those who have made meaningful changes have made them through the regulatory and welfare states–through Keynesianism, not Marxism.

There is a better way of dealing with our problems–we need institutions that assimilate highly anti-social behavior, that convert selfish, otherwise damaging acts into productive and useful ones. Instead of waiting for people to lose interest in power, the one thing that human beings have consistently fixated on, we should put competing ambitions to work within political frameworks that curb corruption and abuses while simultaneously allowing these individuals to flourish. Those individuals and groups that cause Marxism to fail in practice are not bad or in need of reform, they are in need of being better utilized in more effective and less damaging ways. Instead of trying to force men to fit our theory, we need a theory that fits our men. Marxism, a year later, is still not that theory.