Pieria: Straw Men and Marxism

I’m in Pieria again, with a post that tries to outline Marxist theories and defend them from some common but clearly misplaced criticisms:

For many, Marxist theories should be laid to rest. His labour theory of value is often referred to as “discredited”, superseded by the subjective theory of value, while historical materialism and its lofty ideals about changing human nature are held to be equally fallacious. His purported views on colonialism (and their Leninist children), while not entirely wrong, are held to be incomplete as they fail to include non-capitalist instances of these phenomena. Finally, his historical ideas about the ‘inevitable’ overthrow of class war and victory of socialism are seen as naive and deterministic, and, to a degree, ethnocentric.

However, as I will show, such crude caricatures have been around for over a century, and were often repudiated by Marx (and his collaborator, Friedrich Engels) themselves.

I talk about the Labour Theory of Value (not price!), which I’ve defended before, as well as the Marxist view of colonialism and imperialism; finally, I refute the absurd idea that Marx supported a strong form of historical materialism.

As a brief conjecture, I think one of the main problems people have with accepting Marxism – aside from the difficult political implications – is that it is such a comprehensive ‘theory of everything’. While, as I argue, Marxism gives birth to many falsifiable hypotheses, it also acts as a lens through which to view the world. Hence, embracing it fully is a big step for a most people, because they (a) lose the ‘individuality’ of their views and (b) have to master an entirely different method of communication. (To this end, I would advise Marxists to refrain from using terminology quite as much as they do – it alienates (!) people).

Anyway, ‘read the whole thing’, as they say.

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  1. #1 by Hedlund on October 8, 2013 - 1:11 am

    Oh hey, rad. :3

    But I think I spotted a typo: “But the finished product, as espoused by Marx and Hegel, had nothing to do with price.” (Unless there was some correspondence between the two at that late date — but then, some especially uncharitable critics might well allege that Marx read Hegel through a ouija board…)

  2. #3 by Magpie on October 8, 2013 - 3:55 am


    You must be a very patient person, indeed.

    The PoMo/PoKe Wunderkind will be coming after you at any moment now.

    Good luck! :-)

  3. #10 by Boatwright on October 8, 2013 - 12:23 pm

    Labour was the first price paid for all things. It was not by money, but by labour, that all wealth of the world was originally purchased. – Adam Smith

    I’ve always found this statement irrefutable as a starting principle – not to mean that, once ownership, profit, and the rights of property were added to the mix, a strict labor theory of value works as an economic model.

    When analyzing Marx, we should always remember that Das Kapital was published in 1867, when the rights of property and its consequent ownership of the fruits of labor were nearly absolute. Considering this imbalance, we need to consider the moral impulse behind Marx’s economic analysis.

    While we may criticize Marx as an economist (although I suggest great care here — he was a giant of economic thought), we also need to pay great attention to his insights as a MORAL philosopher. Theories of value aside, there was and is today a fundamental injustice in how the wealth created by labor is allocated in a capitalist economic system.

  4. #11 by Jan C on October 8, 2013 - 6:27 pm

    “Marx argued that if capitalism came into contact with primitive, traditional production structures, it would necessarily upend them in the interests of creating a workforce: the process of ‘primitive accumulation’.”

    It follows, I think, that this then is also true for socialism and ‘advanced’ communism. But in this case it should be seen as a more positive development?

    • #12 by Unlearningecon on October 9, 2013 - 11:38 am

      Do you mean existing socialism? Primitive communism existed side by side with various other structures. It doesn’t have the power to assimilate them.

      • #13 by Jan C on October 9, 2013 - 1:33 pm

        As you say `It is also true that Marx argued that there were distinctive, progressive ‘stages’ of society: first primitive communism, then slavery, then feudalism, then capitalism, then socialism, and finally ‘advanced’ communism.´

        If capitalism upends more traditional structures, it seems logical to me that the more advanced stages of socialism and ´advanced´ communism also upend primitive, traditional production structures. So no, I do not mean primitive communism.
        Existing socialism had imperialist tendencies, but here I am more interested in what Marxism as a theory claims/predicts.

      • #14 by Boatwright on October 10, 2013 - 12:30 pm

        It would be nice to see a reasoned discussion of Marx’s falsifiable hypothesis. I find statements such as, “if capitalism came into contact with primitive, traditional production structures……………” , uninteresting because they are untestable.

        It is an unfortunate tendency of economic philosophy to spin a thread of logical statements into a fabric of ideology, Logical consistency is a component of truthful theory. It is a characteristic of immature thinking to see logic alone as sufficient.

        Marx put forward many arguable, testable, and falsifiable hypothesis: the labor theory of value, the movement of capitalist ownership towards monopoly, etc.. Perhaps we could be discussing these?

        I am reminded of a personal experience from many decades ago. As a college sophomore fresh from Econ 101 I had made the discovery that Marx was not the scary monster of the popular imagination, but rather an important economic thinker.
        At a family picnic the following June I innocently announced to an older relative my discovery that Marx had some very interesting things to say about the business cycle. I was rewarded by Aunt Catherine’s horrified cry to the assembled relatives, “Oh my Lord! He’s a communist!”

      • #15 by Unlearningecon on October 10, 2013 - 2:28 pm


        But socialism, in theory, does not rest on a continued quest for growth and expansion. So it could quite easily exist alongside other structures peacefully. The question of whether it would transfer technologies and skills to these places and hence morph them is open for debate, sure, but it certainly wouldn’t force these things upon them in the same way capitalism has.


        I find statements such as, “if capitalism came into contact with primitive, traditional production structures……………” , uninteresting because they are untestable.

        How so? If we can find examples of capitalism living in harmony alongside ‘traditional production structures’ for long periods of time, we would falsify the marxist idea that capitalism must necessarily expand and subsume all other economic systems under its control. But we don’t: Native Americans, Indochina, Africa etc. were all taken over.

        I was rewarded by Aunt Catherine’s horrified cry to the assembled relatives, “Oh my Lord! He’s a communist!”

        I say I’m a communist – even though I’m not really one, as I don’t believe in a stateless society – just to get this reaction :)

    • #16 by Geolibertarian on October 15, 2013 - 12:56 am

      In Marxist terms, “Socialism” would not have the imperialist drive of Capitalism and the need to assimilate the entire world under it as both are completely different modes of production. “Capitalism” is a mode of production driven by accumulation (first primitive accumulation, then Capitalist accumulation) and where there must be constant growth (if the rate of accumulation slows down, the circuit of Capital stagnates and then outright stops, leading to recessions); so when it enters in contact with other economic structures it has an ‘incentive’ to them and assimilate them (primitive accumulation) to expand further.

      As for Socialism, it lacks this innate expansionist drive. For this reason Socialism can’t be built somewhere and then expanded to everywhere else nor can it be imperialistic, the process of Socialism’s creation must be built “on-top” of Capitalism as it collapses worldwide. What we call “Existing Socialism” is usually called “State-planned Capitalism” by non-leninist marxists and by anarchists.

      • #17 by Unlearningecon on October 16, 2013 - 5:58 pm

        Good to see you, geo!

        What we call “Existing Socialism” is usually called “State-planned Capitalism” by non-leninist marxists and by anarchists.

        I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand: yes, the USSR did not fit the definition of socialism or communism (as ‘worker ownership of production’), while it probably did fit some definition of state capitalism. On the other hand, to define existing communism like this is effectively to move the goalposts and try to avoid responsibility for regimes and events that were clearly established in the same of Marxist and socialist ideology.

        This is why I prefer the historical context argument to the “true socialism” argument.


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