Nov 16, 2022Liked by Branko Milanovic

Having read some of the exchanges generated by the Magness and Makovi piece I was reminded of the saying ‘academic fights are so vicious because the stakes are so low’. Having said that, I find much to agree with Branko Milanovic’s take on Die Karl Marx Frage, in particular, his criticism of Magness and Makovi thesis as affected by ‘presentism’ and exclusivism’. Allow me however an observation. Branko Milanovic states:

The fact that Marx’s fame was caused to a large extent by the October Revolution and Lenin’s decision [to link the proletarian revolutions in the West to the anti-colonial movement in the rest of the world] that I mentioned is no different than how any social scientist becomes famous. It is the political, external events which suddenly reveal the importance of the work that we might not have appreciated.

I see an important difference with respect to the other great social scientists and great social events that Milanovic has in mind, e.g., Keynes and the Great Depression. At least as far the October Revolution is concerned, I guess that Milanovic would agree that more than one century afterwards the historical verdict is close to the one that Kerenski pronounced only ten years after it: the catastrophe. Therefore we have the paradox that Marx’s ascendancy as global thinker is due to having inspired an ultimately catastrophic historical event.

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Excellent essay. There are some differences, however, with the other social scientists and social events that you reference.

The October revolution was not really an event that validated Marx's theory - it was just a serendipitous coup by a group of people who happened to read and espouse Marx. Not a proletarian revolution as proscribed by Marx, by any means; heck that country hardly had any proletariat to speak of.

Further, once in power the Bolsheviks institutionalized Marxism as state ideology, which is not something that happened to any of the other scholars that you mentioned. Their theories are mostly pure science, or in the case of Keynes applied science, which happened to be corroborated by world events. The Marx - October Revolution connection is quite different. That does not invalidate the intellectual merit of Marx's writings, but it is just a different paradigm.

I think a more relevant comparison is probably early Christian doctrine and its institutionalization by Constantin and the Roman Empire. While powerful, emotive and viable for over 300 years, the Christian cult was not meant to become the state religion of the most powerful Empire. It was an extrinsic event that vastly increased Christianity's relevance in history.

While Marx's writings are as compelling as any of the other scholars you mention, the October revolution did indeed elevate his historical status in the XXth century far above that of any other social scientist, in a somewhat random and stochastic way.

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Branko, I read most of your posts, but this time I feel compelled also to add a comment - this is one of your very best pieces. Thank you for writing and sharing it

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When did you first read Marx's manifesto and Capital? Was it required reading for high school students the old Yugoslavia? And do you agree with the critique that Marx wrote a lot of insightful thoughts on capitalism but not a very good description of how a Communist society would or should be ordered?

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I will say honestly that give Phil and Mike credit -- I bet you wouldn't have written this excellent piece otherwise. I'm teaching history of economic thought right now and we started Marx yesterday and this has all been really fascinating for me.

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You are absolutely right. And, with the passage of time Marx will be more significant. His scholastic critics are only pre dwarfs.

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Marx didn't prophecized anything: what he established was a scientific model of History. A model, even if scientific, is just that: a model.

But a scientific model is closer to the truth than an ideology or a person's opinion. Nobody shits on Isaac Newton just because Albert Einstein turned his model obsolete. The difference here is that there's no Einstein to Marx (and never will be, as his theory is essentially proven correct).

Contrary to Cold War mythology, Marx never laid down a theory of socialism, let alone communism. He barely lived long enough to finish his theory of capital. All we have about socialism and communism from him are logical assumptions that, albeit true, do not configure scientific models (e.g. that, in socialism, there will be no money capital; that communism will necessarily be stateless).

The advantage of Marx's theory of History is that it is scientifically useful: you can make predictions in the area of History that were never possible before.

The capitalists (liberals) don't have a theory of History, and the models they use are logically absurd. There are mainly three "theories" of History the non-Marxists use today:

1) the Statecraftist Theory, which states History is the history of the eternal struggle between the individual (freedom) and the State (oppression). This model treats time as sinusoidal or cyclical: humans are destined to repeat the same cycle of oppression-freedom ad eternum, relaying between periods of hegemony of commerce (free enterprise, freedom, individualism) and the State (oppression, autocracy, totalitarianism, collectivism);

2) the End of History Theory, which states that the USA is the highest possible stage of human development. That means either that the era inaugurated by the end of the Cold War is eternal - followed just by a History made of a sequence of random facts (absolute freedom) - or that, if the USA world order is to be over, something worse will necessarily have to follow its demise (an eternal dark age). Therefore, they divide themselves in two subgroups: those who believe the American unipolar order is invincible on a historical scale and those who believe it will end - but this end will represent the end of every possible human civilization (see, e.g. "Neofeudalism"). The notion of time here is one of a line cut, i.e. time existed before but doesn't exist anymore.

3) the Christian Theory, which states that the events of the birth to the resurrection of Christ (i.e. the New Testament) encapsulates all the possible historical episodes that happened, happen and will happen in History. Also called Typology. This is the original theory of the Western historians, and they divided in two subgroups: those who believed that historical events that happened closer to the life of Christ were more divine (therefore more "truthful" to human essence and existence; closer to God) and those who believed that, the more distant in time from the life of Christ the historical events, the more divine they were (the thesis of closeness to the Rapture, to the Armageddon, the eventual coming back to the Kingdom of God). This model of time is concentric: Jesus' life is in the center of time itself, everything before and after gravitating around it.

If you read or hear someone quote some episode from the bible in order to explain modern important geopolitical events (e.g. the war between Russian and Ukraine), you can bet he/she has a Christian notion of (historical) time: he/she is not trying to convert you, it is simply the case he/she has absolute conviction they know the entire human history - including events yet to happen - just because he/she read the Bible.

There is a fourth, hidden and more macabre, theory of History from the liberals, which is the Traditionalist one: from Hinduism, they borrowed the idea of Kali Yuga, which essentially talks about a cycle in phases of all of Human History: the era of the priests (golden age), the era of the warriors... and the era of the slaves (the dark age, the worst possible time). From the era of the slaves, a huge cataclysm must necessarily follow so that humanity can "purify" itself and go back to the era of the priests. This is a circular notion of time: there is a progression, but then a collapse that will catapult humanity back to the good times. This is the far-right notion of history, used by, among others, Alexander Dugin (with some modifications and sophistication) and, most notably nowadays, Steve Bannon.

Yes, you guessed right if you deduced that the traditionalists associate communism with the era of the slaves. No wonder they make the most fanatic anticommunists of the 21st Century.


We must also differentiate Marx's works (what he published, not some cherry picked excerpts from his many letters to his friends an colleagues and from his voluminous sketches and drafts) from the ideologies and political doctrines founded that were based on his work (or claim to be).

Marxism is any ideology or doctrine that claims - correctly or not - to have been based or inspired by at least one of Marx's works. We must not mix Marx with Marxism.

An academic who studies Marx's works exclusively is called a Marxian.

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Comment on ,The unexpected immortality of Karl Marx'

While one could basically buy into the general line of the view expressed in the article regarding Marx’s continuous and still growing influence there is a fundamental contradiction in the statement about the nexus between ideas and ideology manifesting in concrete political action.

Stating - “The ideas of the French Revolution of liberty, equality, and fraternity are not to be dismissed because that revolution quickly degenerated into reign of terror” - is a textbook bourgeois objection stemming from reactionary notions about revolution and ensuing radical changes.

Revolutionary terror is not only justified but a necessity given the permanent threat of counterrevolutionary bourgeois reaction. Bourgeois capitalist regimes will always fight any form of collective socialism tooth and nail trying to reverse things back.

Robbespierre was right, just like the Bolsheviks during war communism, to defend the revolutionary movements against that bourgeois backlash. You can not argue with that unless you buy into reformist agendas which never throughout history changed anything for the people. It was the decision of the people to fight the enemies of the people. You can not stop half way through. Praising the ideals of the french revolution or Marx ideas but condemning the revolutionary terror resulting from it is hypocritical and fundamentally wrong. It is the attitude of fancy talking liberals who are afraid of just one thing - class conscience. It is deeply pseudo leftist. Even the article admits that Marx was in favor of revolutionary violence. It is the natural outcome of revolution to prevent itself from getting wrecked by an ever present strata of class enemies - those who make the laws for those who own the nations to run it. Praising the French Revolution but judging Robbespierre’s and Marat’s actions or Trotsky’s terror as bloodthirsty aberrations is in the best tradition of the historical sell out of the socialist idea by the german social democratic movement in the aftermath of the Bolshevik revolution. Just look at the outcome and where the reformist approach has taken (western) societies and socialism in the 100 years since then.

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Branko, your remarks on Marx’ program going beyond a a critique of political economy and thus invoking the concept of ‘Historical Materialism’ is spot on - Great piece of writing

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Some remarks on «Das Karl Marx Problem» by Magness & Makovi.

Statements like ‚They emerged from Lenin and his many copycats staging violent coup d’etats to place themselves in power‘ & ‚wish to retain the theoretical framework of Marx but strip it of the violent legacies of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Castro, and other discrediting political figures‘ can only come from bourgeois conformist academics who have no idea how revolutionary movements always have been playing out throughout history. This kind of fingerpointing is intrinsic to claims of bourgeois superiority. Radical changes go beyond their narrow framework of reformist beliefs and are always denounced as undemocratic, violent and inhuman. The class perspective, which underlies any socialist revolutionary movement must not enter their mindset because that would shatter their world view. In the light of that anything they argue gets reduced to more or less meaningless academic blather to put it mildly. Theory and practise always coalesce in revolutionary political and social activity, which is rendering radical experiences. Revolution is not something to vote on or parliamentary talk. The reflex western habit of discrediting revolutionary leaders for their means towards overthrowing capitalist frameworks is always a poorly concealed and pathetic attempt to defend class society in all its political, social, cultural and economic spheres.

Regarding Marx’ Labor Theory of Value there is the usual and inevitable claim that the theory is flawed based upon the criticism of Boehm-Bawerk and Bortkiewicz, both of which long since have been refuted. The accusation that Marx, who was well aware of the formal problem of the transformation of value into price, played ‘semantic games’ in Vol III of Capital to work around the transformation problem just reverses what his critics have been doing - playing meaningless games of semantics by their lopsided reading of Capital. Marx was not a simultaneist and the transformation problem, which by the way is a minor technical issue, is resolved by TSSI interpretations (Temporal Single System Interpetation). Yet all of that is usually ignored by vulgar economics and to top it all off there is the usual arguing that the ‘Marginal Revolution’ has prevailed for its superiority, while it has been nothing but a bourgeois attack on society to promote predatory capitalism. While Marx can, modern neoliberal economics can not explain profits, capitalist cycles and crises, is built on fundamenyally wrong assumptions and talk about categories and tenets like subjectivity, equilibria and perfect markets, none of which could ever come into existence. But they are playing nice games of logical proofs and mathematics on a micro-economic level, which has nothing to do with economic and social reality. Modern economics has perversly co-opted and distorted classical political economy - misinterpreting and bending into shape much of Adam Smith, shelving Ricardo and denouncing Marx to have him reduced to footnotes at best.

After the introductory thorough bashing of Marx’ work follow historical speculations on the influence and weight of Marx throughout the past 150 years, which do not contribute anything of worth for what they are - speculations - which are given a superficial methodical approach.

Aside from the entire article being a meaningless academic excercise, it is brimming with condescending lingo to knock Marx and suggesting his theories being irrelevant.

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Terrific writing

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Enjoyed this - Ive come across the sort of narrow perspective referenced of scholars who try to argue that plato wouldn’t have been hired at a modern philosophy department etc and have never quite known how to think of such odd assertions but this article does that quite well

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