Liberty Matters

What Is Left?

In my Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy course, which I've taught for almost 30 years now, I require my students to carefully and charitably read and discuss some of Marx and Engels's original writings during the first several weeks of the semester. (Students often become convinced by Marx until I turn to Mises and Hayek, and the Soviet experience with central planning, during the next several weeks.) But if a student or two had not taken my class and were interested in Marxism, I'd direct them to more contemporary literature. Marx himself is simply too difficult to handle for the curious student who wishes to read him without any formal guidance. Of course, at some point I also recommend they read Mises, Hayek, Lavoie, or Boettke for both balance and criticism.
I fondly recall when Pete Boettke and I would meet weekly at the George Mason University Library, in a small room the size of a broom closet, trying to come to terms with Marx. So I'm a bit surprised, and disappointed, when Pete says in his latest post that there is "absolutely nothing" to learn from Marxism. Now, I fully agree with him – and I teach this in my course and have focused on this in my own writings – that Marx's theory has fundamental contradictions and his predictions have been proven false time and again. But I disagree that, as a result, Marxism as a whole offers absolutely nothing of value, or that, as David Hart says, it's a "dead end."
Pete mentions the influence of Don Lavoie on us, and that encourages me to reflect a bit.
Back in the early 1980s, when I was an undergraduate "free-market economist," I thought I was expected to applaud Reagan because, after all, my hero Milton Friedman spoke favorably of him. I thought I had to watch Buckley's "Firing Line" TV series because he, too, was a friend of markets. And so I did, quite uncomfortably.
But then, during my first year at Mason (1984-1985), I served as Don Lavoie's research assistant and proofread his National Economic Planning: What is Left? (1985) before publication. Chapter 7 changed my vision. I saw that we can and should be engaged in a serious, charitable, and open discussion, a dialogue, as it were, with the left.  And not just as a matter of strategy (cf. Rothbard [1979]) but as a matter of principle. Or at least I myself saw it as a matter of principle, and I think Don did too. Indeed, Lavoie cast his vision as being part of the left. Since then I have wanted to see which positive elements of the left can be saved, given the lessons and framework imparted by Mises, Hayek, Kirzner, Lachmann, and Lavoie. My effort is not one of grabbing onto the left in an attempt to "dare to be different" among my Austrian school colleagues (although I sometimes pretentiously claim to be). It is, instead, motivated because I share many of the left's concerns over power in the workplace, potential exploitation, some form of alienation, consumerism, and so on. Pete says that "we have far better theories and analyses of power, of alienation, of exploitation" than those offered by Marxism. Who's the "we"? Which Austrian economists have a better theory of exploitation or alienation? I'm confident our analysis can be more powerful, but very little is being written.
I wonder why.
Hardly anybody in our school explores labor-managed vs. traditional hierarchical capitalist firms, for example. I've stood alone on that issue since writing my first book, Marxism and Workers' Self-Management: The Essential Tension. (Maybe the younger generation of Austrians will eventually find something of value in my scattered writings.) The radicals among us economists often stand for "anarcho-capitalism" but say nothing about power-ridden capitalist firms and the employer-employee relationship within that anarchist utopia, a concern for Marx but also for many others. (See, for example, Anderson [2017]). Here we can learn much from David Ellerman's (1993) critique of the traditional wage contract. (In fact, that book was published in the Lavoie-Klamer series at Blackwell, and, according to Don himself, "The book's radical reinterpretation of property and contract is, I think, among the most powerful critiques of mainstream economics ever developed" [from his manuscript acceptance letter to a senior editor at Blackwell].) And let's not forget Ellerman's (and Hayek's!) influence on Burczak, which I mentioned in my previous reply
Pete says that not only Marx but Marxism is good for nothing. That's odd because Lavoie himself saw something positive in reading Marx -- recall his "Some Strengths in Marx's Disequilibrium Theory of Money," published by the Cambridge Journal of Economics (1983). Steve Horwitz (1994) found value in the Austro-Marxist Rudolf Hilferding's classic book, Finance Capital. Pete now proclaims Marxism is good for absolutely nothing, while he encourages all of us here to "say it again." That disappoints me. Alas, now I can only look fondly upon the bygone days when Pete and I sat reading in the Mason library, freshly inspired by Don Lavoie's charitable influence and his unique vision.