An Open Letter to a Young Marxist

Published in Underthrow Series .

Someone has provided for you for most of your life. Some parental figure saw to your needs, whether food, clothing, or amusements, and you were raised a net consumer. I’m guessing you were more comfortable than 99 percent of anyone who has ever lived in human history. Yet you probably didn’t deserve any of it, at least not as a diligent worker deserves a paycheck. This is the way it goes in most families:

From each according to his ability to each according to his need. 

Because this is an open letter, I can’t possibly know the particulars of your “lived experience.” But I do know this: Someone provided for you. Did you expect all of those goodies? Most of us take our providers’ generosity for granted at some point. You might protest that you had chores, but an adolescent’s sense of entitlement rarely matches her contribution. 

Thus, you are alive and reading this because you were the beneficiary of someone else’s productive effort. (So was I, mind you.) Indeed, not only did your folks have to work, but nearly everything you enjoyed was produced by other people collaborating in a productive effort. The legal structure for this is called a corporation. There are different corporate forms, from worker cooperatives to traditional firms.

I understand you don’t like all of them.

As you got older, hopefully, you lost some of that adolescent sense of entitlement. Maybe you came to realize that you did, indeed, grow up comfortable and that not everyone does. Maybe you felt guilty. You might have even experienced the first stirrings of indignation about the circumstances of the working poor. Soon, a burning rectitude, a sense of injustice, became familiar but undefined. People live hard lives outside of wealth’s cottony confines and work long hours for little pay. When opportunities are few, people must take what work they can get.

Such is the way it is and has always been—though with great improvements through time.

But somewhere along the way, you discovered Karl Marx. Most start with The Communist Manifesto. If you graduated up to Das Kapital—congratulations! (It’s a beast.) In any case, I hope you’re up for a challenge. From here on, I’ll lay out some of Marxism’s fundamental problems.

Neither in Theory Nor in Practice

Two common cliches invite intellectual gymnastics on Marxism’s behalf: It’s never been tried in its truest form, and It’s good in theory but not in practice. We can dismiss both of these claims because Marxism offers little good in either theory or practice.

Consider this brief tour of Marxism coupled with critiques:

1. The Labor Theory of Surplus Value. In a sense, this objective theory of value is the lynchpin of Marxist economics and his theory of exploitation. Without it, the theory fails. The idea is that because profit goes to the capitalist, it is an unearned surplus that ought to accrue to the workers who create the real value.

I will pass over the fact that in traditional firms, owners bear all the risks of their decisions and strategies, and making good decisions is an essential form of work. But the fundamental problem with Marx’s Labor Theory is that all value is subjective. It doesn’t matter what the inputs are. In other words, the value of any given product lies solely in customers’ eyes.

For example, Marx tee shirts and Menger tee shirts might have exactly similar inputs – such as cotton, dyes, labor, and machines. Because so few people know of Menger, the Marx tee shirt is likely to fetch a higher sum. The point of entrepreneurship, whether determined by the ‘capitalist’ or workers voting in a cooperative, is to discover what people value and make bets accordingly. If the communist wants to argue that only workers should be allowed to take risks, more should try co-ops before fomenting violent revolution.

2. Alienation. This is probably Marx’s most substantial claim. The idea is that workers operating in conditions of industrial specialization become cogs in a larger machine, like a factory. But as a cog, the worker becomes separated from the products of her labor. This creates a negative psychological state that can rob the worker of the dignity and sense of efficacy she might once have found in some cottage industry.

Even as some workers find little dignity in so-called “bullshit jobs,” life is about tradeoffs. As the great economist Thomas Sowell reminds us, we have to ask: Compared to what? Cottage industries keep everyone poor. Nationalized industries offer little besides bullshit jobs. Maybe you think we can organize ourselves into worker cooperatives that make work less shitty? If so, show, don’t tell. Cooperatives are perfectly legal.

Specialization brings enormous social benefits, even to workers. Consider the fact that some workers like their work. Even in mixed economies, entrepreneurism can offer greater abundance, more work choices, and some measure of dignity. How best to sort who does what. To offer a wage, a labor price, is both an opportunity to earn and a means of price discovery. After all, we must acknowledge that someone has to do unpleasant, low-skilled work. Suppose the Marxist argues that everybody should have to pitch in on such tasks. In that case, he accepts not only a forced labor policy but also opportunity costs to society when surgeons and strategists empty garbage bins.

3. Exploitation. Marx’s concept of exploitation depends on the Labor Theory of Surplus Value, which we said postulates objective value.

In other words, Marx’s exploitation is the product of a dead theory. Sure, armies of unemployed workers can bid the price of labor down to levels that it can be tough for any given worker to make ends meet. But orthodox Marxism, far from recognizing economic reality, seeks to ban said reality by merely asserting that certain labor inputs are worth more than their value to anyone. Market prices, after all, are just measures of valuation, not a bourgeois conspiracy. This is how labor movements and min-wages create labor cartels that exclude people from opportunities. They protect the artificially high wages of the few at the expense of the many. Overt racists of the Progressive Era knew this. It’s how white teamsters sought to erect barriers to entry for women and minorities.

Speaking of exploitation, Marxism implies that a highly productive software engineer should receive the same pay as a custodial engineer, even if we stipulate the relative contribution of each is unequal. If a software engineer with rare talent wants to eat under Marxism, comrades exploit his labor. This just moves the locus of so-called ‘wage slavery.’ That’s why agreements between employers and employees are generally based on mutual benefit, not moralism. Marxism tries to turn labor market prices into a moral failure rather than a fact of economic reality.

4. The Abolition of Private Property. According to Marx, the capitalist system depends on private property, and private property allows the capitalist a degree of exploitative control. The centerpiece of Marxism is the abolition of private property.

By abolishing private property, Marxism removes both stewardship incentives and the preconditions of exchange. In some limited sense, therefore, Marxism requires a ban on trade. After all, if x is not mine, how can I exchange it for y that is not yours? But matters get worse. When authorities remove the ability to trade surpluses legally, as China did with its farming collectives before 1980, they reduce incentives to be more productive. History is replete with such examples, even among the kibbutzniks.

5. The Abolition of Market Prices. Marxist political economy requires dismantling market prices, too, whether such extends from abolishing private property or distributing resources based on “need.”

The economist Ludwig von Mises articulated the economic calculation problem in the 1920s. In short, if you don’t have free-flowing market prices based on demand for specific industrial inputs, there is no rational way to calculate what any given organization needs, much less what managers are willing to pay.

All forms of Marxism I am aware of involve a politburo who has to make political determinations about how resources are to be allocated. Not only does this create winners, losers, and bureaucratic backbiting, but it also creates gross economic distortions—such as gluts and shortages—that immiserate people at scale.

Prices are “information wrapped in incentives,” after all, so they are indispensable.

6. Historical Materialism. Marx believed one should evaluate history and predict future events through the lens of how labor is organized and the resulting conflict among classes. Such analysis, Marx thought, would allow us to show how history unfolds in a predictable fashion.

History is more than labor and class. We need only open our eyes and peer through different lenses. For example, what role have technology and various forms of organization played in how we come together to produce things? Are people living in a condition of absolute or relative poverty? Is a people surrounded by water or mountains or fields? What other factors affect history unfolding the way it has? Marxism, especially in its preoccupation with metanarratives, tells too many just-so stories. But a careful read of history reveals historical materialism as an unfalsifiable theory, which means it functions better as propaganda than analysis.

7. The Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Under orthodox Marxism, there is an intermediate stage between capitalism and communism in which the workers rise up and seize control of the state apparatus to realize the peaceful socialism of the final stage.

The thing about Marxism is that the fetters of authoritarian state power can never fall away as long as workers are obliged to conform to a single system and a certain wage. Many Marxists and Marx-adjacent syndicalists fancy that their particular form of organization will no longer require the coercive apparatus of the state or what Mikhail Bakunin called the “red bureaucracy.” But that bloody bureaucracy will always be necessary to maintain the preferences of worker councils and central committees. In short, The Dictatorship of the Proletariat is rather the unavoidable communist condition—unless, of course, communists grant a right of exit from the commune. But that, of course, would threaten the return of capitalists and class stratification.

8. Dialectical Materialism. Marx (and Engels) thought industrial society involved contradictions that needed to be resolved. Marx supposed that the most effective solution to the problems caused by said contradictions is to rearrange the systems of social organization at the root of the problems–through revolutionary reorganization.

How are we to rearrange systems and society? Technocratic central planning? It took a lot of bloody experiments for humans to realize that societal evolution doesn’t happen through rationalistic schemes and five-year plans. The problem with Marx’s concept of revolution is that it doesn’t happen through Intelligent Design. Entrepreneurial capitalism doesn’t have anything to say about who ought to own what in some organization. The profit and loss system ensures that ventures create at least enough value, measured in revenue, over costs. If they don’t, they die. In this way, profit, far from being antisocial, can calculate how much an organization has created (or destroyed) value for people—all of which is incidental to whether those profits go to workers, shareholder 401(k)s, or to growing the organization to supply more people with greater value. (Yes, we can discuss externalities another day.)

9. From Each According to His Ability… Marx admits this maxim wouldn’t work in the early stages of communism, as the early stages depend on laborers. Instead, Marx imagined a higher-stage version of communism in which technology has advanced to such a degree that overwhelming material abundance would inspire socialists to make certain kinds of contributions, such as art or creative works, freely to their comrades. Otherwise, there will be no need for laborers, as such.

First, there is a staggering level of magical thinking around such notions, which sadly have crept into today’s zeitgeist in everything from The Venus Project to “fully automated luxury communism.” Some sci-fi isn’t based on sci at all. What’s worse, though, is that no variant of Marxism can operate without committing to this maxim from the start. Marxism treats abler workers as slaves to the rest. If not through compulsion, how will the ablest be induced to work for the neediest?

Even if one, like syndicalist Noam Chomsky, doesn’t like the early-stage politburos with their armed sentinels, the shoes can only get made if you scrap the carrots of liberal capitalism and embrace socialism’s stern sticks. Engels agrees. He writes:

“[N]o communal action is possible without submission on the part of some to an external will, that is to say, authority.”

One might disagree with Engels about many things, but he’s right that communism, far from being a force for liberation, is a force for oppression.

Under every system, we must serve somebody to get the things we need. We must serve customers, bosses, or bureaucrats. We can scream and cry about the exploitation of it all, but I can think of no more exploitative a system than one requiring us to work for a sum that somebody else dictates, even if that somebody is a council of proles. Of course, there is no sustainable system in which everyone can simply choose not to work.

10. Marx’s Socialist Man. Social psychologist Erich Fromm argues Marx is not committed to the idea that humans are tabula rasa, but he quotes Marx as referring to “human nature as modified” within each historical epoch. Marx writes, “The materialist doctrine that men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of changed circumstances and changed upbringing, forgets that it is men who change circumstances and that the educator must himself be educated.” Revolutionary practice, then, is self-change towards the socialist man.

People are still “products of circumstances.” While this is not behaviorism per se, Marx’s more Hegelian nonsense is central to the idea that people living in communism must modify their natures or allow the revolution to do it for them. It’s no wonder that critical theorists and many postmodern thinkers build on this blanket denial of human nature’s limitations. Such denials are fertile soil for falsehood. That is, Marxism teaches us not only to deny certain features of social and economic reality but also to deny certain aspects of ourselves. Such self-deception helped to unleash many of the twentieth century’s horrors and the twenty-first century’s absurdities. 

So, young Marxist, I hope that if you have gotten this far in reading, you will consider each point carefully. You should try to defend Marxism from these critiques, of course. But if you’re interested in intellectual honesty and human flourishing, you should try your best to make a Steel Man out of them first. Why? Because violent movements forged in the fires of idealism seldom turn out well for anyone.

If any social experiment depends on scorching the earth before building a Utopia, it is probably not the way. But if an ideal system starts small and grows, pulling more human souls into its influence, it’s probably got legs. Sustainable systems persist, and the best systems will be a product of human choices. But that’s evolutionary, not revolutionary. 

Different systems can co-exist if we start with a principle of voluntary association. And believe it or not, my friend, that includes communes.

Max Borders is a senior advisor to The Advocates. He writes at Underthrow.

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