Saturday, March 21, 2009

Hitchens and Marx's carbuncles

Hitchens at his best: "The Revenge of Karl Marx."

...there was an underlying love-hate relationship between Marx and capitalism. As early as the Manifesto, he had written of capitalism’s operations with a sort of awe, describing how the bourgeoisie had revolutionized all human and social and economic relations, and had released productive capacities of a sort undreamed-of in feudal times. Wheen speculates that Marx was being magnanimous because he thought he was writing capitalism’s obituary, and though this is a nice conceit, it does not quite explain Marx’s later failure, in Capital, to grasp quite how revolutionary capitalist innovation really was. (The chapter on new industrial machinery opens with a snobbish quotation from John Stuart Mill’s Principles of Political Economy: “It is questionable if all the mechanical inventions yet made have lightened the day’s toil of any human being.” This must have seemed absurd even at the time, and it appears preposterous after the third wave of technological revolution and rationalization that modern capitalism has brought in its train.) There’s also the not-inconsiderable question of capitalism’s ability to decide, if not on the value of a commodity, at least on some sort of price for the damn thing. Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk and the other members of the Austrian school were able to point out this critical shortcoming of Capital—no pricing policy—during Marx’s lifetime, and it would have been good if Wheen had found some room for the argument (especially vivid among Austrians for some reason) that went back and forth from Rudolf Hilferding to Joseph Schumpeter, whose imposing “creative destruction” theory of capitalism has its own dualism.

Rereading those wonderful Viennese polemics, I was reminded of a slight but hard-to-forget quip (in both of those respects rather typical) made in my hearing by the late Isaiah Berlin. His own book on Marx was as good as useless, but he would often have fun pretending to “mark” the old man for an exam in Oxford’s course on philosophy, politics, and economics: “I think probably a beta in economics, yes really a beta, but rather better in philosophy and an alpha—one might even want to say an alpha plus—in politics.” Had it been an examination in history, greatest of the muses, then who can say? (A. J. P. Taylor thought that “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” was, as a historical essay, “without flaw.”) But even here, the estimation must give way to irony. At the conclusion of his article, John Cassidy wrote of Marx, “His books will be worth reading as long as capitalism endures.” That would appear to mean that Marxism and capitalism are symbiotic, and that neither can expect to outlive the other, which is not quite what the prophet intended when he sat all those arduous days in that library in Bloomsbury, and swore hotly to Engels, “I hope the bourgeoisie will remember my carbuncles until their dying day.”

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