Front Page Titles (by Subject) Romantics vs. Marx on Political Economy - Literature of Liberty, Summer 1982, vol. 5, No. 2
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Romantics vs. Marx on Political Economy - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Summer 1982, vol. 5, No. 2 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Romantics vs. Marx on Political Economy
“The Fiends of Commerce: Romantic and Marxist Criticisms of Political Economy.” History of Political Economy 13 (Spring 1981): 80–94.
Marxism and Romanticism stand as essentially alien doctrines, opposed in sensibility and style, scornful of each other's excesses, and insensitive to their common concerns. Recent years, however, have witnessed a renewed interest among social theorists in understanding the ties between these two outlooks. Prof. Ryan's article examines some areas of difference and agreement among Romantics and Marxists within the realm of economic theory. His point of departure is the critique of classical political economy.
George Bernard Shaw made the comment that, compared with the scorn which Ruskin heaped on classical economics and capitalism in general, Marx's criticisms read like the “platitudes of a rural dean.” Like Marx, the Romantic critics perceived that the failings of classical theory lay not merely in its facts and figures, but in its guiding assumptions about human nature and society, the questions it asked, and the type of answers it provided.
Romantics called the whole enterprise of political economy into question by casting doubt on its fundamental conception—the notion of ‘human nature.’ They did so in a variety of ways. First of all, the Romantic emphasis on the uniqueness of each individual and his capacity to construct his own reality, both inward and outward, formed an implicit challenge to any general theory of human nature with its reduction of individual activity to common and invariant passions.
Romantics specifically objected to political economy's view of man—not only because it described him as an asocial, selfish animal—but because it positively promoted antisocial tendencies as the very basis of its theories of politics and morality. The reductionist urge in political economy led theorists to explain all human actions by considerations of profit and loss. This, the Romantics felt, produced an inadequate and perverted picture of the object under study.
Marxist analysis shared the Romantic distrust, if not outright rejection, of the concept of human nature which formed the focal point of classical theory. Marx's attack on this theory is both an internal and external critique. He points to contradictions within the theory itself and then holds the theory up to scientific standards largely external to it.
For Prof. Ryan, Marx's originality as an economist lay in his insight that all economic processes have a political character, since all social life is permeated by force, coercion, and the struggle for power. In failing to appreciate the political character of economic relations, the classical economists, Marx believed, failed to grasp the true nature of their object of inquiry. By regarding economic forms as dictated by the facts of human nature, they took as timeless and “natural” what were actually the expressions of quite specific and changeable social relationships. “Change the social relationships,” Marx wrote, “and you change the ‘essence of man’ along with them.” This rejection of human nature theory was clearly anticipated in the works of Romantic theorists.
Unlike the Romantics, however, Marx seems to champion the scientific approach to economic study as vehemently as any of the classical theorists. For Marx, people living in a capitalist society lay in ignorance of the social forces that affect them. As a result, their individual capacity to choose may be nil in the face of the social influences that batter them. The unfreedom of those living under capitalism makes a predictive science of that society not only possible but necessary.
With the advent of communism, thought Marx, this will all change. In the words of Marx and Engels, the “domination of material conditions over individuals and suppression of individuals by chance” will be replaced by “the domination of individuals over chance and circumstances.” The social conditions which necessitate political economy will thus be dissolved. In the words of G. A. Cohen, political economy “withers away” as a truly free society comes into being.