ABSTRACT

The object of this chapter is to put in perspective a few issues concerning the system of Karl Marx and his criticism of classical political economy. ‘Marxism’ was undoubtedly one of its kind, and the critique of the Ricardian frame therein embodied the intention and the ambition to reform Ricardian thought – not to abolish it, while in the political field, Marx’s ideas were clearly set on revolution. He pretended that he could make a rather significant scientific contribution by that reform – the desired outcome was to rid economic theory of bourgeois bias, it was not to formulate a ‘pure’ theory, something somehow deemed impossible by Marx’s own historical and anthropological standards and frame. The reason why that latter standpoint is most debatable (and has been debated for over a century … ) lies in the quite paradoxical confidence that Marx, although a critic of bourgeois economic ideology, put in the most basic concepts of the classical matrix. Labour value was vital to his demonstrations, just as it was to Smith’s, Ricardo’s … and the Historicists’. There is another criticism that the Marxian system shares with German

Historicism, namely being keen on its historical approach to phenomena. One may even be tempted to see Marxism as the left wing of the ‘political spectrum’ of the German Historical School, a view held by some commentators

such as Luhmann. Yet, it may not be quite satisfactory to position Marx in a given compartment in that field: besides the fact that it is quite a challenging task, it bears in our eyes little interest in itself. ‘Good’ or ‘bad’ in the eyes of the many observers, economic and political commentators who have reacted to Marx’s views for a century and a half (roughly half the population of the world has had something to do with his ideas – while the other half was at the very least aware of their impact), Marx, as we said previously, is one thinker of his kind. Rather than try to put him in a particular drawer, the modern scholar should try to ‘make sense’ of his concepts and analyse his notions. In order to do so, questions of interpretation come first. ‘Marxism’ as a

label has had a long tradition inextricably enmeshed in the political history of the subsequent twentieth century, for the better (whatever dreams of social equality may have long made believe) and for the worse (which may be the final assessment of what happened in the reality of government practices, as has appeared all along, to finally collapse at the end of the century). As regards politics, besides enthusiastic revolutionaries and/or bureaucrats who paid lip service to the official creed, the reaction to Marxism has therefore evolved with the course of political upheavals. Whether the end of the twentieth century – also the end of a millennium in

the Christian calendar, generally used worldwide but not the only possible computation of time and history3 – marked the end of times for ‘millenarian’ hopes of socialist/communist absolute control over the economy, that is a question better left untouched. It has no place here and it is better left to politicians, be they canny lads and/or fanciful dreamers. Scholarly work on Marxism may have by the way benefited from the disappearance of the complex relationship that was implied by the fact that some states officially (if not always faithfully) abode by the terms of Marx’s views, taken as a gospel. Altogether, a good number of sycophants as well as of opponents left the field, once political games were over and whether their U-turns were sincere or fake, despicable or welcome, is not the business of serious scholarship. Alleged opinions and claims that are void mark their bearers – to which it is a vain purpose to stick for study. Now, what still deserves some interest is that, utopian or not, the ‘dream’

that Marxism was used for, was deemed as grounded upon a ‘scientific’ basis. Was that only a cover? Surely, it has to do with economics, philosophy and history, or rather a philosophy of history applied to economics. Therefore, the criticism of historicism considered as a whole necessarily includes Marx – especially in the terms formulated by Carl Menger. The terms that were thus applied to Marx’s ideas – if not much by Menger, undoubtedly by his heirs – always critical, spread from the most cold-hearted to the most vehement: from Böhm-Bawerk’s answer to Capital through his own Positive theory of capital,4 via Sir Karl Popper’s obsessive-compulsive attack on any ‘enemy’ of the ‘open society’, down to Ludwig von Mises – who, in Human Action, 1949 would label ‘polylogism’ the approach inspired by Historicism based on multiplelayered historiography – and his (self-proclaimed ‘extremist’) disciple Murray

Rothbard.5 Views oscillated between mere rejection, especially along Popperian lines (which thus was at least partly integrated as the methodology of mainstream economics), to an analysis of the rationales of such rebuttal. The present chapter will not endorse the categories of those most resolute opponents of Marx’s ideas, the reason being a general methodological issue: just as excessive sympathy and praise take away from the truth, total lack of empathy usually does not provide the best advice whatever the kind of study. This chapter will try to show understanding towards the ideas of Marx – and may, perhaps surprisingly, discover that all may not be dead in there (as a matter of fact, just as in any major author of the tradition – including the Historicists discussed in previous chapters).