Stumbling and Mumbling

Author: chris dillow   |   Latest post: Wed, 28 Jul 2021, 2:19 PM


(Not) reading Marx

Author:   |    Publish date:

How well-read should we expect politicians to be? This is the question posed by Rachel Reeves' recent boast (
33'50" in) that she hasn't read Marx's Capital*.

She, of course, is by no means the worst offender. It's become fashionable on the right to betray a complete ignorance of Marxism - as for example when they decry taking the knee as Marxist: some Tories think it's impossible to be a decent person without being a Marxist, which is further than I would go. As the great John Spiers tweeted:

The number of people on this platform using the word Marxist without even having a rudimentary understanding of what it means is hilarious. Like teaching a dog to say sausages and claiming the dog knows what it means!

Such ignorance is in one sense inevitable. It is impossible to have read everything. And one can be a perfectly good economist without having opened the pages of Capital. We are all ill-read and ill-informed about many things: much of poetry, science and ancient history and culture for example are closed books to me. But you know what? I keep quiet about such matters. Similarly, for most people there is nothing wrong with not having read Marx and keeping quiet about Marxism. What is wrong is spouting off on things you know nothing about.

There are however some things that some people should have read. For me, it is regrettable that politicians - especially Labour ones - have not read the greatest book of left-wing economics, for three reasons.

First, it betokens a lack of curiosity. Ms Reeves will have spent long hours (and it would have felt even longer) listening to gobby fellow PPEists and Labour activists talking about Marx. Not to have asked: "what did this fellow actually say?" is a sign of a lack of inquisitiveness and of interest in the intellectual history that shaped our world. And if you are incurious about Marx, what other things - maybe more important things - might you be incurious about? Marx

It's also a sign of a lack of interest in the issues that Marx explored such as unfreedom, stagnation, exploitation and capitalism's proneness to crisis. Whilst I'd expect Tories to have no interest in these, it is surely deplorable in a Labour politician. A potential Chancellor must be concerned with more than merely balancing the books and shifting a few crumbs from rich to poor.

Thirdly, not having read Capital disqualifies you - or at least should disqualify you - from entering important debates. If you don't know what Marx said, you cannot claim that his ideas have nothing to tell us today. You cannot be an intelligent anti-Marxist without having read the man. As Sun Tzu said:

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.

On this point, American generals are more clued up than British politicians.

Here, you might object that you don't need to have read Capital to be well-informed about Marx, any more than one need have read Newton's Principia to be a physicist. True, Marx has inspired a fine secondary literature such as Paul Sweezy, David Harvey, Jon Elster, Ben Fine (pdf), Michael Heinrich and William Clare Roberts to name but a few. If Ms Reeves and Tories have done such reading - though I doubt it - then my charge loses some of its force.

But not all. These commentators would, I suspect, urge you to also read the original. To not do so is to take on trust their readings. Such credulousness is not a property I look for in politicians who are faced with biased and partial advice from all corners.

Also, in not reading the original Capital, you risk missing some important features of Marx - several of which would surprise his critics. One - stressed by Roberts - is just how literate Marx was. Which is reflected in the fact that much of volume one of Capital is a good read - especially once you get past the early chapters: you should start Capital with chapter 10. Yes, volumes two and three are less so, but that's because Marx never finished them in his lifetime.

A second is that Marx was highly empirical. Much of volume one especially describes prices, wages, working and living conditions in some detail.

A third is that Marx wasn't much concerned with income inequality - and why should he be as this had long pre-dated capitalism and so was not a distinctive feature of it? His beefs with capitalism were about exploitation, alienation and its proneness to crisis.

Yet another is that Marx was pretty much silent in Capital about what he thought a post-capitalist society should be. He was much more an analyst of capitalism than an advocate for socialism.

Also - though this is evident in most commentaries - is that Marx attacked capitalism at its strong points. Joe Biden recently tweeted:

Let me be clear: capitalism without competition isn't capitalism. It's exploitation.

This, though, is emphatically not the Marxian view. Although he saw that capitalism tended to generate monopoly, his analysis assumed competitive markets and that "all commodities, including labour-power, are bought and sold at their full value." It was competitive forces, he thought, that drove exploitation:

Capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the labourer, unless under compulsion from society...But looking at things as a whole, all this does not, indeed, depend on the good or ill will of the individual capitalist. Free competition brings out the inherent laws of capitalist production, in the shape of external coercive laws having power over every individual capitalist.

The notion of greedy or evil capitalists is not a Marxist one. For Marx capitalists, like workers, are victims of the forces of competition. One of his beefs with capitalism is that it strips us all of agency: in many ways, Marx as a libertarian. And the flaws of capitalism aren't accidental ameliorable things like monopoly or rent-seeking but are inherent in the system. That's a critique which is in danger of being lost.

So, if you are interested in capitalism you should at least acquaint yourself with Capital. I don't mean you should take it as gospel, obvs, nor that you must pore over every sentence: much of volume two repays skimming. And, of course, I don't confine this advice to Marx. I would urge all leftists to read Smith's Wealth of Nations** and at least some of Hayek, such as his essay "The use of knowledge in society". Some things are essential reading.

There's one other thing. Some people have suggested that Ms Reeves was lying when she denied having read Marx. I have no problem with lying: the truth is a precious thing, and precious things shouldn't be wasted on idiots. If this is true, however, it poses the question of why she felt the need to do so. Of course, our political culture is degraded, anti-intellectual and philistine. But I would hope that the Labour party would challenge this fact rather than kow-tow to it.

Don't call it "Das Kapital", unless you are in the habit of referring to every foreign-language book by its original name.

Not the Theory of Moral Sentiments, though, as it would merely reinforce their prejudices.

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