Bryan Caplan  

The Prevalence of Marxism in Academia

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As the Iron Curtain crumbled, people often joked, "Marxism is dead everywhere - except American universities."  The stereotype of the Marxist professor runs deep.  But is this stereotype grounded in statistical fact?  Here are the results from a 2006 nationally representative survey of American professors.  The survey asked if the professor considered himself "radical," "political activist," or "Marxist."  Survey says:


Overall, Marxism is a tiny minority faith.  Just 3% of professors accept the label.  The share rises to 5% in the humanities.  The shocker, though, is that as recently as 2006, about 18% of social scientists self-identified as Marxists. 

Neil Gross and Solon Simmons, the authors of the study, hasten to say, "Move along, nothing to see here."
[S]elf-identified Marxists are rare in academe today. The highest proportion of Marxist academics can be found in the social sciences, and there they represent less than 18 percent of all professors (among the social science fields for which we can issue discipline-specific estimates, sociology contains the most Marxists, at 25.5 percent).
In contrast, I urge you to rubberneck.  If 18% of biologists believed in creationism, that would be a big deal.  Why?  Because creationism is nonsense.  Similarly, if 18% of social scientists believe in Marxism, that too is a big deal.  Why?  Because Marxism is nonsense.  Furthermore, if 18% of a discipline fully embrace a body of nonsense, there is also probably a large bloc of nonsense sympathizers - people who won't swallow the nonsense whole, but nevertheless see great value in it.  Suppose, plausibly, that there is one fellow traveler for every true believer.  That would bring the share of abject intellectual corruption to fully 35% - and 51% in sociology.

I suspect that Marxists' share has fallen since 2006.  But it makes me wonder: When precisely did American academia hit "peak Marxism" - and how high was the peak?

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COMMENTS (44 to date)
sourcreamus writes:

If creationists had gotten together to kill one hundred million people in the last century the analogy would work better.

Jameson writes:

In this context, what does "radical" mean?

Tom West writes:

They asked about Marxism, not communism.

It's a whole lot easier to call oneself a Marxist, which is sort of a platonic ideal that can never be achieved, than to call oneself a communist, which has a nasty track record.

I'd bet that most self-identified Marxists would feel it's as responsible for the horrors of communism as self-identified capitalists feel that capitalism is responsible for American slavery and the near-genocide of North American aboriginals.

Levi Russell writes:

It saddens me that so many smart people cannot see the difference between analysis of the physical world and analysis of metaphysics. Your slam against creationism (broadly conceived, apparently) is just ignorant.

English Professor writes:

This sort of polling misses an important issue. In my department, only one or two members explicitly identify themselves as Marxists, but the majority of faculty are sympathetic to the social critique arising from the Frankfurt School. Many outside academia call this sort of thing "cultural Marxism." You can't do modern critical theory or what is called "cultural studies" without being sympathetic to Adorno, Horkheimer, and Foucault. So, no, most English professors will not tell you they're Marxists, but their intellectual lives and often their scholarship are deeply committed to a "critique" of capitalism.

Chris Wegener writes:

How about Austrian Economist?

Economic thought is valid no matter what the source. Marx had many original and valid critiques as well solid economic analysis. Has his understanding been refined and extended, yes.

Was he in anyway responsible for the Russian revolution or the horrendous crimes of Joseph Stalin, no. Nor are any who call themselves communists since Russia was never in any sense a communist country.

It was and remains an oligarchy.

CMOT writes:

A working defination of what I'd describe as the "Marxian penumbra" is needed. There must be many academics who would never identify as Marxists but whose ethics, belief system, and professional vocabulary are so suffused with Marxism that they are indistinguishable from them.

I know athiests who reject any notion of having a personal religious identity but whose ethics, belief system, and moral vocabulary are so informed by Christianity that they are indistinguishable from Christians.

Lars writes:

The central problem with this survey- and by extension, castigating people who call themselves as Marxist as being akin to creationists- is that it doesn't tell us what the respondents mean when they say they are Marxists. If by Marxist you mean the ones who think that the socialism is possible even in theory then I'm with you on that one- they are like creationists. But it is certainly possible to call oneself a Marxist and defend free-market orthodoxy. Indeed Marx himself was one of them. Surely Bryan Caplan does not mean that Marxists who are also defenders of free market orthodoxy are like creationists?

Don Boudreaux writes:

Levi Russell:

With genuine respect: Why is Bryan's expressed opposition to a doctrine that uses divine power to explain observed physical phenomena "ignorant"? If an economist argued that economic order is created by divine design or intention, surely that economist would deserve - and receive - ridicule, and other economists who expressly reject that creationist economist's explanation for observed economic order would likewise not be guilty of ignorance on this front.

Jeff writes:
In this context, what does "radical" mean?

In my experience, it means you hold far left views on a specific issue or subset of issues: environmentalism, feminism, animal rights, etc.

Lars writes:

Dear Don:

The quotes around the word "ignorant" puzzle me, since I never used the word, and it does not,I think, appear in Caplan's initial post.
My point is that Marxism encompasses more than one meaning for people who use the term to describe themselves: there are the true believers who believe that socialism is just right around the corner and when it comes it's going to work great. These, in my experience, comprise a minority view. There are those who try to use categories and concepts derived from the Marxist tradition to practice whatever their social scientific or humanitarian discipline. There are, again, Marxists who are mostly supportive of the free market system. Admittedly there used to be a lot more of those in the past than there are now, but they're still around.
To clarify a point that I made in my initial post: anyone who considers socialism to be achievable, even in theory, is seriously mistaken. Likewise anyone who thinks that the labor theory of value is still a viable theory. I just don't think there are very true-believing Marxists anymore.

Don Boudreaux writes:


My earlier comment was in response, not to you, but to Levi Russell (who did use the word "ignorant"). Sorry for any confusion that I might have caused.

Levi Russell writes:


You said

Why is Bryan's expressed opposition to a doctrine that uses divine power to explain observed physical phenomena "ignorant"?

The problem here is that your description of the term "creationism" is not accurate. It seems as though Caplan is operating under the same description.

While your description is accurate for some creationist views, it is not so for all of them and especially not so for any relevant usage of the term today in modern religious philosophy. In general, creationism is a philosophical view about metaphysics, not a scientific view about biology.

From Wikipedia: "Creationism is the belief that the Universe and Life originate 'from specific acts of divine creation.'" In general, creationism is the answer to questions like "Why is there something rather than nothing?" not "Why do dogs have four legs?" Yes, some specific versions of creationism attempt to answer that second question, but it's not relevant today, despite what the leftist media wants us to think as it generalizes and vilifies religious groups.

Aaron writes:

I wonder how much higher the number for the social sciences would be if economists were excluded. And as others have pointed out, many people can have Marxist leanings without explicitly identifying as a Marxist. In fact, I bet most of the cultural Marxists (social justice warriors, whatever one wants to call them) would probably disavow the label.

Tom West writes:

Cultural Marxist?

What's next, "He's a cultural capitalist"?

Capt. J Parker writes:

Marxism was nonsense. Then along came Rawls and he fixed everything.

Harold Cockerill writes:

I gotta tell you this one has me confused. I've read Marx and even though to me he was nonsensical if you say you're a Marxist I'm in the ballpark on understanding. How does the label relate to "radical" or "political activist"? It seems to be a comparison of apples and something completely unfruitlike.

The population minimum of natives of North America and the establishment of slavery in what would become the US both occurred before The Wealth of Nations was published.

I'd take Cultural Marxism more seriously if some of the people complaining about it didn't classify libertarianism as a type of Cultural Marxism.

Jim Glass writes:

self-identified Marxists would feel it's as responsible for the horrors of communism as self-identified capitalists feel that capitalism is responsible for American slavery

How would capitalism be responsible for slavery? Slavery was endemic around the entire world since the beginning of time.

Capitalism eliminated slavery, nothing else did, around the world and in the USA. The British were the leaders in practicing capitalism and eliminated it first. In the USA the Civil War was fought between the forces of the newly rising capitalist, free-labor North and the old class-based, race-based oligarchal order of the South.

Capitalism and free, mobile labor were a nightmare coming true for slave-holding society. Read the (in)famous "King Cotton" speech about that.

So how could anyone sensible deem capitalism "responsible" American slavery -- and why would any capitalist be defensive over the notion, instead of laughing at it?

OTOH, where are the Marxists who organized to stop the mass murders and tyrannies of communism, inflicted on hundreds of millions of people from the Paris Commune on? Who were they, where?

Bryan, would you put yourself down as a radical?

Tom West writes:

So how could anyone sensible deem capitalism "responsible" American slavery?

Because you are using the ideal of capitalism instead of what capitalism turns into - a society that legitimizes the commerce in anything including humans, and of course, a solidifying of the successful into oligarchy buttressed by law.

But that isn't capitalism! That's basically ANTI-capitalism using the term 'capitalism' as a cloak!

Bingo. And now you know how the Marxists often feel about conflating them with communism as practiced.

And do they protest communism? Mostly no, of course not. But then do capitalists protest nations using a capitalist fig-leaf to cover very non-capitalist behavior?

No, because everyone realizes that fig-leaves matter to who the public will condemn. It's why groups will usually ignore the crimes of almost any group that even claims the same banner, no matter how much they despise the behavior.

Dismalist writes:

Some commentators above got it exactly right: In my own words, most such faculty don't even know they are Marxists! A better survey question would surely have been: Are you against capitalism today? The reported numbers would far more than double in some fields.

It bothers me that they are Marxists; it bothers me much more that they are uneducated.

Michael Makovi writes:

The editor of a political science journal just rejected an article I submitted about certain aspects of socialism, saying that my article was well-written but not topically interesting, because few political scientists, he said, are bona-fide socialists. (Instead, they are interventionists and redistributionists, he said.) Perhaps I ought to find a different journal?

Julian Sanchez writes:

Meh. I rather doubt this should be read as meaning 25% of sociologists advocate revolution to bring about a proletarian dictatorship or what have you. More likely you're getting lots of responses from folks to whom "Marxist" primarily suggests a (mostly mid/late 20th century) body of social theory and its characteristic analytic tools, which whatever their other defects are only tenuously connected to a Marxist political agenda.

Pajser writes:

I for instance, identify myself as Marxist. That means, I am communist, and I think I'm closer to Marxist communism than to other communist currents, particularly anarchist communism. So, I describe my beliefs with one or two words only.

Many socialists accept most important Marx's ideas, but they feel that with such self-identification they paint themselves in the corner. Marx was only one man, and they want to be free to modify his ideas and accept ideas from other people and other traditions. I know personally about fifteen academics who have almost the same ideas as I have, but only one third of them self identify as Marxists. Many commenters said the same, but maybe you like to hear it from Marxist.

Ricardo Cruz writes:

Marxist as in Karl Marx? The author of communism and the jewish question?

Pagna writes:

I think it is difficult to define oneself in what school of thought, to begin with.

Most students and professors tend to be a Keynesian even they do not know, thus would not classify themselves.

Pajser writes:

As Caplan linked the claim that Marxism was the nonsense to one article on Slate Star Codex site. I think it is on topic to comment that as well. It appears that the author of the article believes that it is particularly hard to organize efficient non-capitalist economy. I don't think it is that hard. The simplest argument on my side is that it is already done. Soviet, hardly the best imaginable, planned economy worked and Soviet GDP/cap. growth was in period 1917-90 - faster than world average GDP/cap. growth in same period.

A writes:

Pajser, you have to look at relative starting points and huge low fruits like simple urbanization. North Korea might experience massive GDP growth, but central planning shouldn't get credit for the catching up required by previous central planning.

Robert Schadler writes:

A false comparison between creationism and Marxism. Marxism has been tried repeatedly in our time and can be studied. It hasn't been made to work. There is, then, a lot of evidence that it is nonsense.
How the universe began -- and even whether it was always -- is beyond "evidence." Very learned scientists are free to speculate and they should. But biology nonsense would be about things as biologists are subject to direct investigation: e.g. the circulation of blood, how plants grow and such.

" If 18% of biologists believed in creationism, that would be a big deal. Why? Because creationism is nonsense. Similarly, if 18% of social scientists believe in Marxism, that too is a big deal. Why? Because Marxism is nonsense. Furthermore, if 18% of a discipline fully embrace a body of nonsense, there is also probably a large bloc of nonsense sympathizers - people who won't swallow the nonsense whole, but nevertheless see great value in it."

Pajser writes:

A - you are right. I have to take that to account - but I did. The starting point of USSR was nearly the same as the world average and Latin America average.

1913 USSR was on 97.5% of world average GDP/capita, and in in 1990 it was at 133% of world average. The peak was 151% in 1976.

Similarly, 1913 USSR GDP/capita was 99% of Latin America average, and 1990 it was 137%. The peak was 140% in 1970.

Dan writes:

Marxist is such a strong term that this study offers little value.

In my schooling in the northeast, my feelings were that 90% of professors outside of business schools were socialists that believe strongly in the tenets of Marxism but would not identify as such.

Susan D. Harris writes:

I really found it fascinating reading John Porter's East's articles on liberalism in academia. As a compliment to your article here, I would like to offer this:
A Former Senator's Prophetic Warning to America

Thank you.

Bryan, regarding your suspicion that "Marxists' share has fallen since 2006" - this is certainly not true in human geography. Granted, I can only base my statement on casual observation, but the generational change among faculty in the last decade and a half has certainly increased their share and the youth/energy at the big meetings is in the "critical" sessions... I even heard a colleague of mine say a few years ago in a(n overflowing) session that sociologists are now jealous of what human geographers can get away with...

Jason Van Steenwyk writes:

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Craig Yirush writes:

Yet another badly argued post by Caplan, who also never deigns to respond to any of the substantive criticisms his posts generate (e.g., that Marxism means more than the labor theory of value, or the advocacy of violent revolution, as anyone with a passing knowledge of 20th social thought would know). There are Marxists in my field whose scholarship I'd put up against Caplan's any day (that is if you can count books on parenting which embrace genetic determinism as scholarship).

Also, by this logic, all of his Austrian colleagues at GMU would be guilty of the same "abject intellectual corruption" (quite what is gained by the modifier abject is unclear). After all, what serious scholar takes praxeology or ABC theory seriously? Caplan certainly doesn't.

Roger McKinney writes:

Wow! I can't believe anyone take such a survey seriously! I spent more than a decade in public relations trying to understand how to overcome the problem of people lying on surveys. Lying is the biggest problem surveyors have to overcome. So self-reported anything is totally worthless.

At the same time, the titles "socialist" and "Marxist" are very unpopular. Most people consider them insults. That doesn't mean there are no socialists or Marxists. They simply prefer different titles, such as progressive or liberal.

To determine is any Marxists exist, the surveyor would have to ask subtle questions about beliefs and classify those who held to Marx's ideas as socialists whether the professor thinks he is a Marxist or not. The number of "outed" Marxists would be surprising.

Years ago the Economist had an article on how Marxism rules the humanities and social sciences, but no one in those fields consider themselves Marxists and would be offended if called a Marxists. But those fields have taken Marx's assumptions at face value and structured those fields around those assumptions.

BTW, I don't have a survey, but anecdotal evidence suggests there are far more than 18% of biologists who are creationists. They tend to keep quiet because the evolution Nazis will destroy their careers if outed.

Roger McKinney writes:

PS, One of Deirdre McCloskey's chief complaints against mainstream economics is the obsessions over prudence. Economists assume that people have to values other than the desire for more materials goods. Where do you think that assumption comes from? It comes from Marx.

Tom West writes:

BTW, I don't have a survey, but anecdotal evidence suggests there are far more than 18% of biologists who are creationists. They tend to keep quiet because the evolution Nazis will destroy their careers if outed.

Seriously? Sorry, but I cannot imagine anyone studying biology in any serious way being a Creationist. It would be like the cross-section between Astronomers and believers in Astrology or like an Engineer not believing in Newton's laws.

Lauren writes:

Hi, Roger McKinney.

You said:

Economists assume that people have to values other than the desire for more materials goods. Where do you think that assumption comes from? It comes from Marx.
Actually, it comes from Adam Smith, founder of economics, in the 1700s. Long pre-dating Karl Marx, who was not even born when Adam Smith wrote his influential works on economics. Marx was well familiar with Smith's work.

Both of Adam Smith's published books, each emphasizing the inter-relationships between moral matters and economic incentives in their own ways, are made clear in Smith's foundational works in economics and philosophy: The Theory of Moral Sentiments and An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Adam Smith's works were familiar to, read by, and influenced ideas in the 1800s, such as those by Marx.

I recommend any of the related EconTalk podcast episodes, videos, etc., on Adam Smith, or the CEE materials on Karl Marx or Adam Smith. It's clearly the case that the inter-relationships between philosophy, moral ideas, and economics pre-date Marx. And probably pre-date Smith, though he was the first to spell out the ideas clearly enough to be used by later economists. But anyway, clearly the idea that people value multiple things and balance those multiple things--be they moral values or caring about family or friends, or remuneration from material goods, from work, or from financial profits--doesn't stem from Marx. And neither did Marx ever even claim that was his idea, to my knowledge.

Daublin writes:

@Tom West, it's easy to be a biologist and be a creationist. You just believe that the universe is billions of years old rather than thousands. I expect that a large number of biologists are creationists, and that a much larger fraction are aligned with Christianity or some other major organized religion.

@Roger, surely surveys are good for identifying people's self identification? 18% of the given survey respondents say they consider themselves to be Marxists.

All, I would suggest "pop Marxism" rather than "cultural Marxism". Either way, though, it's looney stuff.

Dsack writes:

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Rousseau writes:

I honestly can't understand how a professor within the social sciences like Caplan has the audacity to callously dismiss Marx by referencing a review of a 100 page summary of Marxist thought. The fact that Caplan can compare Marxism (as a theoretical framework) to creationism is indicative of the state of American academia. A European academic would face serious reprecussions for disregarding the principle of charity.

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