Marx, his Errors, and his Continuing Influence with Phil Magness

This week’s episode of Economics Detective Radio deals with the economic thought and continuing popularity of Marx. No, not Groucho! The other Marx!

My guest on the podcast is Phil Magness, a historian who teaches at George Mason University. Phil recently wrote a piece entitled, “Commie Chic and Quantifying Marx on the Syllabus.” Recently, the Open Syllabus Project released a data set including thousands of college syllabi. To many people’s surprise, Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto enjoys massive popularity!

Phil took a closer look at the numbers and reached some startling conclusions:

1. Accounting for different versions of its title, Marx’s Communist Manifesto appears on a total of 3856 syllabi in the Open Syllabus Project database. That makes it the second most used text in academia after the popular writing style manual by Strunk and White (3934 syllabi)—a book that’s usually assigned to help college students with their composition habits for writing term papers.

2. Of those 3856 Communist Manifesto hits, only 103—or 2.67%—are on syllabi in Marx’s own primary academic discipline, economics. The rest are in fields that venture far astray from economics, with the highest concentrations coming from the humanities.

3. Marx’s Communist Manifesto far exceeds the syllabus frequency of virtually *any* other author or work in all of human history with the possible exception of Plato. Here are the rankings for Marx and the most cited work of several major philosophical figures on the list (note: I intentionally excluded works that are textbooks or primarily literary and paired down the tail end of the list to give a rough sample):

Marx (Communist Manifesto) – 3856

Plato (Republic) – 3573

Aristotle (Ethics) – 2709

Hobbes (Leviathan) – 2671

Machiavelli (The Prince) – 2652

King (Letter from the Birmingham Jail) – 1985

Mill (On Liberty) – 1969

Foucault (Power) – 1774

Darwin (Origin of Species) – 1701

Augustine (Confessions) – 1694

Tocqueville (Democracy in America) – 1650

Smith (Wealth of Nations) – 1587

Rousseau (Social Contract) – 1427

Rawls (Theory of Justice) – 1248

Sartre (Existentialism) – 1224

Paine (Common Sense) – 1128

Locke (Second Treatise) – 1045

What could account for the popularity of The Communist Manifesto? Phil identifies two hypotheses: First, it could be the case that Marx simply is the most important thinker who has ever lived, beating out all but Plato by a wide margin. Second, Marx could be enjoying outsized popularity because university faculty outside of economics are overly enamoured with his thought.

The latter seems like the truth.

While Marxian thought does dominate some corners of philosophy, history, literary criticism, and many other subfields, we would expect classes in those areas not to focus on The Communist Manifesto but on Marx’s other works. Das Kapital is in 1447 syllabi, right around Rousseau’s Social Contract.

The Communist Manifesto is a political leaflet, not a work of deep scholarship. The fact that it dominates not only the works of other thinkers but also Marx’s other works indicates that it is assigned primarily for its political conclusions.

How has Marx Avoided the Dustbin of History?

Marx’ economic thought was rejected by economists even within his own lifetime. All of his economic analysis shared a fatal flaw: the labour theory of value.

Marx observed that capitalists earn profits above the wages paid to workers. In his framework, this would only be possible if the capitalists exploited the workers. This was met with an empirical challenge: If profits are the result of exploitation, how come profit rates aren’t highest in capital-intensive industries? Instead, they are relatively consistent across the entire economy.

Engels claimed that Marx would resolve this issue in the later volumes of Kapital. He even held a Prize Essay Competition to see if anyone could anticipate Marx’ solution to this seemingly intractable problem. But the later volumes didn’t offer a satisfactory solution.

Austrian economist Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk wrote the definitive critique of Marx, Karl Marx and the Close of His System. The marginal revolution of the 1870s, which laid the groundwork for all of modern economics, offered a simple solution to the problem. This solution has stood the test of time: interest.

As Böhm-Bawerk points out, workers are paid when the work is performed. But capitalists only earn revenue once the final product is sold. So if production takes time, we must account for interest. A unit of currency today (gold, silver, dollars, pounds, etc.) is not worth the same as that same unit tomorrow or next year. Leaving aside inflation, people subjectively value money today over money in the future. When you adjust future revenues accordingly, profits are actually very close to zero throughout the economy.

This is the explanation that any modern economist will give you. So when a modern economist assigns Marx, it’s to teach about his role in the history of economic thought, not to teach his ideas on their own merits. That’s why so few economists are assigning Marx at all!

Marx the scientist may have fallen out of favour, but Marx the political theorist survived and thrived. Marx inspired the political left, and through a twist of fate his adherents came to power in Russia and spread his influence around the world.

Other links:

Venezuela, El Caracazo, and Chavism with Francisco Toro

Colonization After Emancipation, Phil’s book on slavery

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