What Did Marx Get Wrong?

January 9, 2015

There are lots of criticisms commonly directed at Marx. Most of these I think are misplaced; two of them I think are correct. This list is obviously not exhaustive, but here, very briefly, are some of those common criticisms. (In line with my new blogging practice, I’m not even aiming to argue for these positions here – this is just what I think…):

Criticism: Marx has a teleological stagist view of history.
My view: No he doesn’t.

Criticism: Marx’s labour theory of value is untenable.
My view: Marx doesn’t hold the labour theory of value.

Criticism: Marx’s humanist philosophical anthropology paints too rosy a view of human nature.
My view: Marx doesn’t have a humanist philosophical anthropology.

Criticism: Marx’s narrow economism has no space for agency.
My view: Marx is not narrowly economistic.

Criticism: Marx is too optimistic about the possibilities of technology.
My view: Marx is right to be optimistic about the possibilities of technology.

Criticism: Marx is too optimistic about the possibilities of central planning.
My view: I agree with this criticism.

Criticism: Marx’s attempt to provide blueprints for future institutions is dogmatic and utopian.
My view: Marx doesn’t provide such blueprints.

Criticism: Marx ought to provide blueprints for future institutions.
My view: I agree with this criticism.


All that is by way of saying, I see two central flaws in Marx’s work. First – he is too optimistic about the possibilities of central planning. His position is – as always – more nuanced than a quick summary suggests, but at base Marx thinks that bringing the uncoordinated and indirectly coordinated actions of the complex system of capitalism under some kind of centrally planned control is the way to eliminate the irrational and coercive aspects of that system. Marx is far too incautious about the concentrations of power that accompany such central planning – he doesn’t give nearly enough attention to the abuses of power and the exploitative dynamics that are likely to result from such massive concentration of political and economic power.

That said, Marx doesn’t spend much time writing about the shape of the more centrally planned society he’d like to see because, second: Marx is of the view that the shape of future society will basically be worked out ‘in practice’ – that it is not the job of intellectuals or political activists to provide ‘recipes for the cook-shops of the future’. I disagree with this too. Institutional change comes about because people change those institutions, and they change institutions by thinking about what institutions they’d like better. I believe there’s no reason why such thought can’t take place ahead of time – and I believe it’s better that a lot of such thought take place ahead of time, so that people aren’t having to do that thinking at short notice in incredibly stressful circumstances with catastrophic consequences of poor judgement calls.

So – those are the main areas where I disagree with Marx.

In other news, I have a new comment policy. (It basically just says that I’m going to stop responding to comments, because it takes me forever – like months and months – and really what good is that to anyone.)


3 Responses to “What Did Marx Get Wrong?”

  1. Jed Harris Says:

    Very helpful, thanks!

    So the next questions are:

    – What can you tell us about the implications of Marx’s thought for the necessary future institutional framework?

    – Who has done / is doing the best work to define that framework?

    I half way agree with Marx that we can’t just figure this stuff out. It requires a closed loop process where we experiment and develop bottom-up expertise as well as use top-down thinking. But I guess we probably agree about this.

    I’d like to believe that a lot of experiments today, e.g. community organizing and open commons peer production are relevant bottom-up experiments, but I don’t know if you’d agree (or think Marx would agree).

    I guess your new comment policy means you probably won’t respond in the comments, but maybe this will feed into another post.

  2. Hi, Duncan,

    Not relevant to your post, but I feel sure you will be interested in a book by Vincent Descombes: “The Institutions of Meaning”, tr. S.A.Schwartz (Harvard). There is a review of it at ndpr.nd.edu.
    Best wishes, Chris

  3. Hi, Duncan,

    Read Brandom’s latest, his response to Wilfred Sellars: “From Empiricism To Expressivism”. He gets better with every new book.
    ATB, Chris

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