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Mises on the Myth of Marx

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Every once in a while, even The Economist gets it right. In a review of an intellectual biography of Marx (Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion), published this past fall, they argue that “the myth is more impressive than the reality”. Echoing, in fact, several arguments from the book—written, surprisingly enough, by a scholar with Marxist leanings—, they point out how out of step Marx was with the theoretical developments of 19th century economics, and how dense and often nonsensical his writings were.

As refreshing as it may be, this perspective on Marx is hardly a new one. We know that throughout his work, Ludwig von Mises has exploded many of the fallacies of the Marxist school of thought, particularly those concerning the workings of a socialist system and the idea of class struggle. But Mises had, in several of his publications, also criticized the myth of Marx, pointing out inconsistencies and errors in his research, as well as criticizing his writing style.

In Human Action (p. 78), Mises explained that Marx’s unfinished work on Das Kapital was not due to illness, but due to the inability of its author to solve the problems of his theoretical system:

“[Marx’s] own economic ideas are hardly more than a garbled version of Ricardianism. When Jevons and Menger inaugurated a new era of economic thought, his career as an author of economic writings had already come to an end; the first volume of Das Kapital had already been published several years previously. Marx's only reaction to the marginal theory of value was that he postponed the publication of the later volumes of his main treatise.”

In Socialism, Mises launched a more extensive critique of the scholar Karl Marx:

“Ecstatic enthusiasts see in Marx one of the heroic figures of world history, and class him among the great economists and sociologists, even among the most eminent philosophers. The unbiased observer looks on Karl Marx's work with different eyes. […] the later volumes of Das Kapital, from the day they were published, were quite out of touch with modern science. […] As a scientific writer Marx was dry, pedantic, and heavy. The gift of expressing himself intelligibly had been denied him. In his political writings alone does he produce powerful effects, and these only by means of dazzling antitheses and of phrases which are easy to remember, sentences which by play of words hide their own vacuity.”

That Mises was the better writer of the two is hardly a question for debate. But perhaps the more prominent difference between the two authors is in their (economic) world view: where Marx envisioned classes of people locked in a struggle, Mises described comparative advantage. What Marx viewed as exploitation, Mises saw a flourishing network of mutually beneficial exchanges and ever more productive capital accumulation. Where Marx saw conflict, Mises saw cooperation. Again in SocialismMises wrote:

“Marx preaches a doctrine of salvation which rationalizes [people’s] resentment and transfigures their envy and desire for revenge into a mission ordained by world history. He inspires them with consciousness of their mission by greeting them as those who carry in themselves the future of the human race. […] it always pays to rouse what is evil in the human heart. Yet Marx has done more: he has decked out the resentment of the common man with the nimbus of science, and has thus made it attractive to those who live on a higher intellectual and ethical plane. Every socialist movement has borrowed in this respect from Marx, adapting the doctrine slightly for its special needs.”

Even if it will take a long time to dismantle the Marxist myth, I’d like to think that it will be Mises’s view of the world that will prevail. 

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.

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