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Pat MurphyKarl Marx is buried in England, in the north London suburb of Highgate. I know that because I came across his grave in the summer of 1964. Topped by a large bronze bust on a marble pedestal, the tomb is hard to miss.

And although you might think of Marx as a quaint figure, you’d be well advised to park that assumption. With May 5 marking the 200th anniversary of his birth, there’s been a spate of think pieces designed to remind us of his continuing significance.

Many of these have been laudatory.

For instance, the New York Times ran one by philosophy professor Jason Barker under the heading, “Happy Birthday, Karl Marx. You Were Right!” Clearly, the fan club is alive and well.

Barker thinks Marx has become the philosopher of the middle class. Or as he puts it, “educated liberal opinion is today more or less unanimous in its agreement that Marx’s basic thesis … is correct.”

The basic thesis being referred to is the proposition that all value is derived from labour and that profit is therefore surplus value appropriated by the ruling-class minority from the labour of the working-class majority.

Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell
Marx’s contribution to economics is “virtually zero

Thomas Sowell takes a different view. Published in 1985, Sowell’s densely argued book Marxism: Philosophy and Economics is a critique that wouldn’t sit well with Barker’s “educated liberal opinion.”

First, though, a word on Sowell, who is an interesting guy by anyone’s definition.

Born in 1930, Sowell is an African-American high school dropout who, after serving in the Korean War, changed life direction and acquired degrees from Harvard, Columbia and the University of Chicago. Then, in addition to teaching at universities like Cornell, Sowell wrote prolifically on a range of subjects from economics to social policy to history. Over the years, he has produced dozens of books, plus a syndicated column that continued until he was 86-years-old.

Marx’s theory of surplus value – the very thing that animates Barker – comes in for withering criticism from Sowell. Indeed, he assesses the Marxian contribution to economics as “virtually zero.”

The problem, as Sowell sees it, is that Marx’s theory showed little appreciation for the economic contribution of other factors such as capital, risk-taking, innovation and the exigencies of managing a business.

To quote: “As a theoretical system, Marxian economics begins the story of production in the middle – with firms, capital and management already in existence somehow, and needing only the introduction of labour to get production started. From that point on, output is a function of labour input, given all the other factors somehow already assembled, co-ordinated and directed toward a particular economic purpose.”

Essentially, Marx’s theory of value is narrow and circumscribed, and whatever relevance it might have would apply only to a static economy. It has nothing useful to say to the modern world.

Sowell is also critical of how Marx’s thinking on alienation encouraged the totalitarian impulse.

If the monotony of assembly-line capitalism creates alienation by virtue of stunting personal development, then the worker has been “reduced to the mere fragment of a man.” Consequently, he’s not fully aware of what constitutes his real interest and thus needs to be guided, even coerced, into doing what’s best for him.

And only those whose intellectual understanding transcends these environmental influences can provide the requisite direction. Hence the need for a leadership class that will act in the name of the workers, with or without their consent.

Sowell summarizes it this way: “The Marxian vision took the overwhelming complexity of the real world and made the parts fall into place, in a way that was intellectually exhilarating and conferred such sense of moral superiority that opponents could be simply labelled and dismissed as moral lepers or blind reactionaries. Marxism was – and remains – a mighty instrument for the acquisition and maintenance of political power.”

In his famous observation about religion being “the opium of the people,” Marx is understood to have been ascribing anaesthetic characteristics. Religion would psychologically alleviate suffering and provide a means of coping, but it was really a fantasy that did nothing to engage the underlying problem.

Writing in the 1950s, French philosopher Raymond Aron said something similar about Marxism. He called it “the opium of the intellectuals” and described the dream of a Marxist utopia as “no more than an illustration in a children’s picture book.”

I’m with Aron.

Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well, perhaps just a little bit.

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