Noah Smith: Remember Karl Marx for the many things he got wrong

Noah Smith: Remember Karl Marx for the many things he got wrong: “Marx didn’t make it to 200, but the ideas he injected into the global conversation and the ideologies that bear his name far outlasted the German economist and philosopher…

…Respect for Marx is enjoying a bit of a resurgence…. But something about this celebration of Marx sits uneasily…. It’s hard to forget the tens of millions of people who starved to death under Mao Zedong; the tens of millions purged, starved or sent to gulags by Joseph Stalin; or the millions slaughtered in Cambodia’s killing fields. Even if Marx himself never advocated genocide, these stupendous atrocities and catastrophic economic blunders were all done in the name of Marxism. From North Korea to Vietnam, 20th century communism always seem to result in either crimes against humanity, grinding poverty or both…. Defenders of Marx will say that Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot exemplified only a perverted caricature of Marxism, and that the real thing hasn’t yet been tried…. Excuses ring hollow. There must be inherent flaws in the ideas that continue to lead countries like Venezuela over economic cliffs. The best way to look for those flaws is to follow Cooper’s advice and read Marx with judicious detachment.

My favorite example of this is a 2013 post in which University of California-Berkeley economic historian Brad DeLong tried to boil Marx’s big ideas down to their essentials, and evaluate each one…. [His] mistakes alone would be enough to hobble an economy and send any economic doctrine to the rubbish heap. Collectivization of agriculture seems to have been particularly disastrous for farm-based societies…. But they can’t explain why communism was so often accompanied by atrocities, or why leaders like Mao and Stalin persisted in failed policies long past the time when wise, benevolent leaders would have changed course. The brutality and insanity of communist leaders might have been a historical fluke, but it also could have been rooted in another of what DeLong sees as Marx’s mistake: the preference for revolution over evolution…

May 10, 2018


Brad DeLong
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