Most ‘Marxist thinkers’ use Marx without really understanding his academic legacy

While so-called “Marxian Thinkers” in India talk about our poor social indicators, I believe they also need to view why India ranks better in HDI than compared to Per Capita Income.

The year 2018 has been celebrated as the 200th Year of the birth anniversary of Marx. Marx somehow continues to be the most misunderstood social scientists and thinkers and a major reason behind this is the adulteration of his theory by some of his supporters over the last couple of decades.

I admit that his book Das Capital is one of the finest pieces of work that gives us an interesting and refreshing take on how to analyse factors of production as a comprehensive part of the larger society in which we live in. His work on differentiating labour power from labour is also significant towards our understanding of how labour markets operate. Despite his contribution in terms of giving an alternate view of the society and factors of production within in, his work is generally much more widely cited and read by sociologists than economists.

One of the reasons why economists use selected parts of Marx is because, despite his distinct way of analysis, most of his conclusions were completely wrong. One of the reasons why that occurred is significant theoretical problems in his analysis but despite that, his biggest contribution remains in terms of telling the world that labour is the only human factor of production.

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Some of my professors have advocated for the comprehensive view that Marx takes of the society and accept that he is more of a social thinker than an economist. This is why Keynes work which happened around the same time finds a greater emphasis in economic thinking than of Marx. But the focus of this article is not Marx but the great disservice that students of certain universities who advocate for a Marxian way of thinking are doing towards the legacy of Marx.

I wanted to test a hypothesis just for the sake of it (non-academic hypothesis so don’t get into the methodology and everything around it) so I decided to ask 30 students who are ardent supporters of Marx about the contribution he made in Volume 2 of Das Capital. To my surprise, most weren’t even aware that there was a Volume 2 while a couple of people who did try to answer were unable to give any specific answer as they kept talking about “labour” and “workers of the world unite”.

I am not saying that all Marxist thinkers are like that. Some of my best professors have been Marxists and they too are aware of the limitations in Marx’s theoretical analysis but the current breed of students who talk about Marx know zilch about him. Marx unfortunately, has become a figure who is adulterated by these thinkers and as a consequence, he is targeted. His academic legacy is also up for debate. Some might completely debunk his critique of capitalism, while others may find merits in parts of it, however, most of the ‘Marxist thinkers’ of the current lot aren’t even aware of the facts to indulge in reasonable debate.

While his ideology arguably claimed millions of lives, his academic legacy is towards providing us with a strong critique of capitalism so that we can improve upon the system and ensure that in our process of development, social welfare (Health and Education) is of paramount importance. In a big way, we’ve been doing just that as most democracies are welfare states. The problem occurs when those who haven’t even read Marx, stop us from critically evaluating him. For all that Marx gets wrong, he gets one thing right which is the critique of capitalism. The critique offers a roadmap of how to fix the system, not replace it with another one which we now know doesn’t work.

Marx’s biggest improvement towards capitalism is demonstrating the critics of uncontrolled capitalism due to over-concentration of monopoly power (or monopsonic power). This was a timely criticism that had been adequately addressed by most economies by enacting a strong set of laws. There is a definite scope of improvement in anti-monopoly efforts, however, the biggest threat to monopolies has come from innovation and technological progress. Thus, his biggest improvement is towards directing his energies in providing a strong critic of capitalism and provide inputs on what needed some improvement. As far as criticism of Marx’s is concerned, there are volumes written on them. Biggest of them all being that he doesn’t factor in how labour markets are distinct from other markets and he assumes that wages would be suppressed in order to bring down the cost of production. However, as evident, both real and nominal wages actually increased over the last 5 decades pointing out how the wage suppression theory is not completely true. Ironically, China is the only country that has managed to suppressed real wages to reduce the cost of production so the criticism that Marx gave of Capitalism holds true for a Communist nation and not a Capitalist one. Technology too doesn’t find an explicit mention in his understanding of the dynamic nature of society and the economy.

While so-called “Marxian Thinkers” in India talk about our poor social indicators, I believe they also need to view why India ranks better in HDI than compared to Per Capita Income. The reason is that for every 1$ increase in per capita Income, India tends to make a significant improvement in its HDI. This in itself makes the point apparent that India’s model is addressing the critical challenges of social welfare.

Most Marxian thinkers have politicized him to the point that his actual views are immaterial to their political interests. This follows from the fact that Marx advocated for a classless society which can be interpreted as a caste-less society. Given India’s improvement in social indicators along with robust growth and development, the proponents are unable to construct a narrative and have now resorted to “class” based identity politics for their political interests which is in direct conflict with what Marx had envisioned in his work. I’m sure that Marx would have rolled in his grave had he seen how some Indian Politicians use him, without any idea of what he represents.

Karan Bhasin is a political economist by training and has diversified research interests in the field of economics. He tweets @karanbhasin95.

Karan Bhasin is a political economist by training and has diversified research interests in the field of economics. He tweets @karanbhasin95.

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