Liberty Matters

Marxist Class Analysis Is Marx’s Sole Redeeming Virtue

Please note that I warned readers of the many "dead ends" S&M had to offer but did not refer to the totality of Marx's thought as a "dead end" in the singular. The exception for me is Marxist class analysis from which I have learned a great deal. But I learned this from Marx the journalist and not Marx the economist.
Marx the journalist used class analysis in some important essays which predated his work Das Kapital, such as "The Class Struggles in France, 1848 to 1850" (1850) and The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852).[33] As the gifted journalist he was, in these writings he dumped the pure "economic" theory of class (based on ownership of the means of production and wage labor) and used an older "political" view of class to devastating effect. Here the important factors are who has access to the coercive powers of the state; how is this power exercised; how do the users of power benefit from it; who is forced to pay for this; and how does power change over time? Marx and the "Marxist" historians who followed his lead thus ask nearly all the right questions about political power and its exercise.
In my own journey as an historian, I have benefited enormously from reading the work of Marxist historians such as E.P. Thompson, Christopher Hill, Perry Anderson, Charles Tilly, Moses I. Finley, Robin Blackburn, and Eric Hobsbawm.[34] They may not get all the answers right (because their understanding of how markets work is fundamentally flawed), but they ask the right questions about power and get those answers pretty well correct. A new generation of neo-Marxist historians is currently at work, such as Sven Beckert at Harvard,[35] whose work needs to be addressed by classical liberals (with the usual caveats about their not being able to distinguish legitimate "capitalist acts between consenting adults" and illegitimate plunder à la Bastiat).
There are two very bitter ironies in all this. The first is that Marx explicitly acknowledges that he got this notion of political class from reading French classical-liberal economists and historians such as Augustin Thierry.[36] See Marx's letter to Weydemeyer, March 5, 1852:[37]
I do not claim to have discovered either the existence of classes in modern society or the struggle between them. Long before me, bourgeois historians had described the historical development of this struggle between the classes, as had bourgeois economists their economic anatomy. My own contribution was 1. to show that the existence of classes is merely bound up with certain historical phases in the development of production; 2. that the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat; 3. that this dictatorship itself constitutes no more than a transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.
The second irony is that when he attempts to explain in more detail what he means by class (at the very end of Das Kapital, volume 3, published posthumously by Engels), his manuscript literally breaks off in mid-paragraph as he cannot reconcile all the contradictions his "economic" theory of class entails and so he cannot continue.[38] He begins by talking about "die drei grossen gesellschaftlichen Klassen" ("the three great classes of modern society," namely, "[die] Lohnarbeiter, Kapitalisten, Grundeigenthümer" [wage earners, capitalists, and landowners]) and then asks himself the key question: "what constitutes a class?" When he realizes that two other important groups who are part of the system and who provide services ("Aerzte und Beamte" [doctors and office workers, or civil servants]) cannot be fitted into his theory of class, he breaks off at this point. This, to paraphrase Böhm-Bawerk, is how Marx closes his system.
In this, as with so much else about Marx, the rule of thumb I have developed when assessing his theoretical contributions is the following: "what is correct in Marx is not original; what is original in Marx is not correct."
[33.] Karl Marx, "The Class Struggles in France, 1848 to 1850" (1850). Written January - October 1850 for the Neue Rheinische Zeitung Revue and published later as a booklet by Engels in 1895. In Marx, Selected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1969). vol. 1. And The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoléon (1852) in Karl Marx: Surveys from Exile: Political Writings, Volume II, David Fernbach, ed. (New York: Vintage Books, 1974).
[34.] Christopher Hill, Milton and the English Revolution (London: Fabar and Fabar, 1977); and The World Turned Upside Down; Radical Ideas during the English Revolution (New York: Viking Press, 1972); Perry Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State (London: Verso, 1979) and Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism (London: Verso, 1979); Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990-1990 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990) and The Formation of National States in Western Europe, ed. Charles Tilly (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975); Bringing the State Back In, ed. Peter B. Evans, Dietrich Rueschemeyer, Theda Skocpol (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985); Moses I. Finley, Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983); Robin Blackburn, American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights (London: Verso, 2011), The Making of New World Slavery: from the Baroque to the Modern, 1492-1800 (London: Verso, 1997) and The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776-1848 (London: Verso, 1988); and Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789–1848 (Cleveland, OH: World Pub. Co., 1962), The Age of Capital: 1848–1875 (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975), The Age of Empire: 1875–1914 (London : Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1987), The Age of Extremes: The Short Twentieth Century, 1914-1991 (London : Michael Joseph, 1994).
[35.] Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York: Vintage Books, 2014).
[36.] See the extracts from Adolphe Blanqui, Frédéric Bastiat, Charles Renouard, Gustave de Molinari, and Augustin Thierry in the anthology Social Class and State Power (2018).
[37.] Karl Marx, "Letter to Joseph Weydemeyer (March 5, 1852). MECW Volume 39, p. 58; and also "Letter to Engels" (July 27, 1854) in MECW, Volume 39, p. 472.
[38.] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Volume III: The Process of Capitalist Production as a Whole, by Karl Marx, ed. Frederick Engels, trans. from the 1st German edition by Ernest Untermann (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr and Co. Cooperative, 1909). </titles/967#lf0445-03_label_226>.