Thursday, July 18, 2013

Marx

In an interesting essay/review that discusses why so many American Communists were Jews (although very few American Jews were Communists) David Mikics asks "What better way is there to understand the appeal of radical politics for Jews than to go back to the original Jewish leftist, Karl Marx?" and wonders why so many academics still find Marxism attractive. On Marx:
....In an impressive new biography, the historian Jonathan Sperber focuses on Marx as a 19th-century thinker, a man of his time and place; and one of Sperber’s concerns is necessarily Marx’s Jewishness.

Strictly speaking, of course, Marx was not a Jew: His parents were converts to Protestantism, and he declared his atheism from an early age. In the infamous essay he wrote when he was 25, “On the Jewish Question,” Marx declared that society must be freed from Judaism, which he identified with capitalism: a huckstering entrepreneurial worship of the false god, money. At the same time, Marx advocated that Jews be granted civil rights—so that they could then be divested of their Jewishness and become fully assimilated. Marx’s letters are strewn with derogatory references to Jews; though Sperber tries to make the case that Marx “took a certain perverse pride” in his Jewish ancestry, he can’t muster much supporting evidence. What we see instead are a series of slurs that today would certainly be called anti-Semitic.

.... His writing style was a calamity: full of sometimes puerile vehemence, he heaped scorn on his opponents, inaugurating the long Marxist tradition of mercilessly deriding anyone with incorrect opinions. Marx displayed particular contempt for the high-living, dandyish Ferdinand Lassalle, a fellow socialist also of Jewish origin. In a letter to Engels, Marx mocked Lassalle, who supposedly had African ancestry, as a repulsive “combination of Jewry and Germanism with the negroid basic substance”; “the pushiness of this lad is also nigger-like,” he added. In Marx’s pamphlets, mudslinging abounds: His opponents are generally idiots, traitors, and scoundrels, but these heavy-handed insults tend to make us doubt Marx himself, since he relies so much on vituperation instead of reasoned argument.

Marx failed as a theorist too. As Sperber argues, Marx’s effort to derive the market price of goods from their value, the labor that went into them, was a vestige of the 19th-century economic theories of David Ricardo and John Stuart Mill (both of them arch-capitalists). By the time Marx died, economists had already given up trying to relate price to value and were beginning to understand that value was a chimera. ....

Finally, Marx was a failure as a prophet, in spite of the fact that he inspired revolutions that changed the course of history. His essential idea, influenced by Ricardo, was that capitalism would become less and less profitable and that its downward spiral toward the abyss of deflation—lower prices, lower profits—would be followed by worldwide revolution. Instead, capitalism has become vastly more profitable. .... [more]