Bryan Caplan  

The World Without Marx

The Stupid Party... Well-Said...
Suppose Karl Marx had never been born.  How would the modern world be different? 

My best guess is highly optimistic.  Without Marx, there would have been no prominent intellectual promoter of violent revolution for socialist dictatorship.  There would still have been a big socialist movement, including many socialists dreaming of bloodbaths and tyranny.  But the movement as a whole would have rapidly evolved into something like social democracy.  Third World dictators would still have killed in the name of socialism.  But there would have been no Soviet Union without Marx.  And without the Soviet Union, there would be no fascist Italy and no Nazi Germany.  A socialist dictatorship could still have come to China.  But without the ghoulish example of Soviet agriculture, even a socialist China would have avoided major peacetime famine.

It's clearly possible that an alternate, equally influential theoretician of violent revolution for socialist dictatorship would have arisen.  But this seems unlikely.  When historians of science try to weigh a scientist's influence, they search for runner-ups - rival scientists waiting in the wings to make the same discovery.  Challenge: If Marx had never lived, who exactly would have replaced him?  In Germany, Marx's top rival was Ferdinand Lassalle, a figure far more in tune with modern social democracy than Marx.  On the global socialist scene, it's hard to name any figure that compares with Marx.  Who's even in the running?

There's really only one fact that tempers my optimism: The world with Marx has never had a nuclear war.  Altering any major facet of history could plausibly reverse that happy outcome. 

Your thoughts?

P.S. John Alcorn points out an interesting essay by Jon Elster on "If Marx or Freud Had Never Lived?"  Elster and I seem to be on the same page:
I believe that the mind-set developed in the Second International was (1) a direct legacy of Marx and (2) a direct cause of the Russian Revolution. Without Marx, German socialism might have followed the course advocated by Bernstein, and Russian revolutionaries might have remained stuck in the dead-end of anarchism.
The question that remains to be discussed is that of preemption. Perhaps Marx and Freud only preempted other writers or politicians who would have taken their place and accomplished, "tant bien que mal" as Engels says, what they did. To address this issue, it is not good enough to say that their ideas were "in the air". Rather, we should follow the example of Engels, in his discussion of historical materialism, and try to identify actual historical individuals who were engaged, at the same time, in similar endeavors. With regard to the most important issues, I do not think such individuals can be found. Marx's theory of revolution and Freud's theory of the unconscious were genuinely radical proposals, and not simply the earliest or most forceful expressions of ideas that would have made their way without them.

COMMENTS (28 to date)
Michael B. writes:

Without Marx, the world wouldn't likely have been much better. Marx merely won the battle for the heart and soul of the extreme left and for the meaning of the word "socialism". There were others with competing visions for what socialism was and would mean. Remove him and someone else wins the battle. Also, bad people still would have found excuses to do bad things. Maybe the Cold War and the Soviet Union never happen, but we'd likely get other horrible things in it's place. Only if were really lucky would a pro free market and private property "socialist" like Benjamen Tucker win the heart and soul of the left.

Anonymous writes:

@Michael B

That's a great way to look at it - different ideas competing to satisfy the left-wing sentiment.

fralupo writes:

Keep in mind that in our timeline there is no Marx-sized lacuna for a later historical figure to fill in. We may not see who it is because there was no room for him (or her!) to emerge at that level. For all we know Marxism might have diverted some entrepreneurs in misanthropy from making mischief of an ilk we cannot imagine.

Jim Rose writes:

I think your idea runs contrary to Stephen Stigler's Law of scientific epiphany.

Every idea is discovered multiple times so there would have been several alternative sources of supply of the ideas of Karl Marx.

Harold Cockerill writes:

Lenin was more of a force for the creation of a violent socialist dictatorship and he got most of his revolutionary and socialist ideas from other Russians, not from Marx. He used Marx's writing as justification because of the popularity of Marx but Lenin created the Soviet Union and probably would have whether Marx existed or not. No Lenin then quite likely no Stalin (no man, no problem)and today's world looks a lot different.

John Alcorn writes:

Jon Elster reaches a similar conclusion: "I believe that the mindset developed in the Second International was (1) a direct legacy of Marx and (2) a direct cause of the Russian Revolution. Without Marx, German socialism might have followed the course advocated by Bernstein, and Russian revolutionaries might have remained stuck in the dead-end of anarchism." - Jon Elster, "If Marx or Freud had never lived?," in A. Gosseries & P. Vanderborght, eds., Arguing about Justice: Essays for Philippe van Parijs (Presses Universitaires de Louvain, 2011) pp. 219-228.

Jose Romeu Robazzi writes:

I strongly disagree. My general view on this kind of issues is that ideologues don't influence people that much, they just write down concisely ideas that were already "floating around" in society. People are just too stubborn to take extreme measures after "convinced" by others. Take Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela. Why after decades of corrupt and inept governments, increased poverty, there is still a large portion of the population that supports Lula, Kirchner, Maduro, even deceased Chaves. Take France, socialist ideas are strong there. These ideas won't go away, and there will always be some ideologue that will summarize them.

Pajser writes:

It appears Caplan believes that Marx and Engels were against peaceful, democratic transition to socialism. It is hardly true. They were, on the level of values, pro-democratic even in Manifesto, just they believed peaceful transition was impossible. In 1872, Marx believed it is possible in some, although only minority of countries.

    "Someday the worker must seize political power ... But we have not asserted that the ways to achieve that goal are everywhere the same. ... we do not deny that there are countries -- such as America, England, and if I were more familiar with your institutions, I would perhaps also add Holland -- where the workers can attain their goal by peaceful means. ... " (Marx's speech in Amsterdam, 8th of September 1872)

One might claim that chances for democratic transition to socialism were greater than Marx believed. I do not know whether it is true - but it is not very strong criticism to start with. What would happen if Marx didn't existed? Who would be the intellectual leader of the socialists? I have no idea.

E. Harding writes:

"Challenge: If Marx had never lived, who exactly would have replaced him?"

-Engels, of course.

"And without the Soviet Union, there would be no fascist Italy and no Nazi Germany."


"China would have avoided major peacetime famine."

-"Major peacetime famine" was typical of China.

Bryan, I've been reading up on Marx lately, and I find it difficult to share your view of him as *especially* evil. This is a banal observation, but he seems to have been mostly a product of his time. Yes, he was enthusiastic about bloody revolution. But so were lots of people! We Yanks have a holiday once a year to celebrate bloody revolution! And many people in France to this day look back on the French revolution as a point of national pride.

I agree with Jose Romeu Robazzi. Ideologues mostly just write down ideas already "floating around" in their time, they're rarely the originating cause of social change.

Nathan W writes:

I don't think it would have changed much.

Lenin might have been very inspired by Marx, but I assume he would have been similarly inspired by the next best thing. I assume that existing conditions were his main inspiration, and he would have simply encountered other thinkers who would have motivated him in similar ways. Consider that there are fundamental differences between Marx and Lenin, namely that Marx believed in the withering away of the state, whereas Lenin was a strong believer in technocratic governance. I suggest that he would simply have chosen different word to make basically the same arguments.

Lenin and Stalin: Lenin basically believed in highly technocratic government. But an absence of Marx in Lenin's writings or political activities wouldn't have prevented Stalin from taking control, and there's hardly anything Marxist about Stalin. He believed in delaying current consumption to massively invest in increasing the productive (and also military) capacity of the state. I don't see how a no-Marx scenario would have prevented him from coming to power or from following this line of thinking.

As for Mao, I'm doubtful that he even really understood Marx very well at all. The conditions were ripe for revolution. Quasi-feudal relations with small numbers of land-owners owning all the land, and a peasantry mired in eternal poverty. All it took was someone to come along, point out what everyone already knew, and lend credibility to the notion that they could collectively do something about it.

Mao may have drummed up some slightly better propaganda after exposure to Marx, but one could counterargue that plausibly a no-Marx scenario would have led other thinkers to be prioritized, with even BETTER propaganda in the communist insurrection. Mao was a general, not a thinker, and I doubt that his philosophical influences or writings are particularly related to how things evolved, which I suggest were largely a result of historical conditions.

ThomasH writes:

Another way that a "no Marx" world might be different is that social reformers who want to improve the distributional outcomes of markets (progressive consumption taxes), or favor pigou taxes to deal with externalities (a carbon tax for CO2 emissions), or favor certain collective consumption expenditures (NASA), or see a role for regulation in dealing with information asymmetries (Federal meat inspections), or a role for public investment (NSA, NIH, etc) might not be tarred as "Socialists" (with the connotation of wanting central planning and public ownership of the means of production). We could be having a much less polarized debate about how to run a Democratic Capitalist society.

emerich writes:

Convincing post. But alternative history is hard-just speculation. Without Marx there might have been a nuclear war. Or not. No particular reason to go either way. But if there had been, would the toll have been higher than the Soviet and Maoist toll of what, close to 100 million?

emerich writes:

Convincing post. But alternative history is hard-just speculation. Without Marx there might have been a nuclear war. Or not. No particular reason to go either way. But if there had been, would the toll have been higher than the Soviet and Maoist toll of what, close to 100 million?

Njnnja writes:

First, I love counterfactuals because it really helps one to think about what are the most important things in history because even if you change what appear to be major immediate causes, you ask, would they have happened anyway?

As for Marx, I think you still get some sort of USSR like entity. There is little reason to believe that WWI would have unfolded much differently without Marx, and once you have WWI, you have German intelligence promoting rabble rousers in Russia. WWI was a war that almost broke nations as strong as France and Britain. Helped by the push from Germany, Russia was going to break no matter what. And given the nature of Czarist Russia and a lack of any sort of pre-existing democratic institutions (thanks to the czar), a French revolution-style peasant revolt, starting with a reign of terror and ending with an eventual restoration of autocratic, expansionist government seems like the most likely bet. Which is pretty much what happened when the Bolsheviks took over.

Roger Sweeny writes:

As several people have pointed out, the Marxian canon can be read to mean many things, from Pol Pot semi-genocide to airy-fairy democracy. (It is touching how many people write that Lenin or Stalin or Mao didn't "really understand" Marx, like reading theology about how this or that church doesn't "really understand" Jesus.)

Without Marx, there would have been a crapload of bad stuff anyway:

1) A majority of people want a government that cares and takes care of them. If government is perceived as the good guy, the institution that runs "in the public interest," many people will find it obvious that the government should control everything.

2a) The more power a government has, the more it will attract people who really like exercising power.

2b) "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely."

RPLong writes:

On the other hand, we would have missed out on a lot of great economic ideas that were conceived as responses to Marx, like those of, to choose one good example, Josef Schumpeter.

Anonymous writes:

I disagree.
I think that someone would be just as prominent as Marx defending very similar ideas.
I don't say this because I believe there is some kind of "cosmic justice" so that someone always occupies one's place. I agree with the idea of looking at rival's contributions to see measure the importance of a scientist's discovery.
But Marx was not a scientist, and he does not make important discoveries. What he did was channel some folk economics ideas and wrap them in serious sounding language. That is something that, I think, someone was bound to do.
His prominence derives less from some intrinsic quality that he has then from positive feedback loops that make people converge towards *the one* thinker that knows it all. In that sense, he is better compared to a pop phenomenon like Justin Bieber. I think it is fair to say that, if Justin Bieber never existed, teenage girls would obsess with some other star. Importantly, though, they would still obsess over the same star, because this coordination is an important part of the value they get from being Justin Bieber fans.

[This commenter is not the same person as the one using the nick Anonymous above. --Econlib Ed.]

cavedave writes:

"The Germans took a somber decision. Upon the western front they had from the beginning used the most terrible means of offense at their disposal. They had employed poison gas on the largest scale and had invented the 'Flammenwerfer.' Nevertheless, it was with a sense of awe that they turned upon Russia the most grisly of weapons. They transported Lenin in a sealed train like a plague bacillus from Switzerland into Russia." - Winston Churchill

Miguel Madeira writes:

"On the global socialist scene, it's hard to name any figure that compares with Marx. Who's even in the running?"

Bakunin, who, in the times where both lived, was probably more influent than Marx (if anything, was Lenin that make Marx retroactively famous more than Marx creating Lenin).

Of course Bakunin was in favour of "violent revolution for socialist anarchy", not of "violent revolution for socialist dictatorship", but I suppose that Bryan Caplan considers that socialist anarchist will be authoritarian if tried in practice (at least I had that impression from something that we wrote about the Spanish War); btw, it is not even sure that Marx was in favour of a "dictatorship" in the sense that we normally use the word (yes, he wrote about the "dictatorship of the proletariat", but I think he defined "dictatorship" in a way - the intrument of coercion from one parte of society over the other, or someting like that - that every form of government, including democracy, is a "dictatorship"; and what he describe in the "The Civil War in France" seems a ultra-democratic way of government)

"But there would have been no Soviet Union without Marx. (...) A socialist dictatorship could still have come to China. "

Why in China but not in Russia?

And, in my alternative scenario where Bakunin was the intelectual leader of socialist movement, an ansoc revolution in Russia was very plausible ; after all, even in the real world many "red guards" were anarchists, not bolsheviks (for example, Anatoly Zheleznyakov, who dissolved the Constituint Assembly)

"But there would have been no Soviet Union without Marx. And without the Soviet Union, there would be no fascist Italy and no Nazi Germany."

First, even without Marx a Revolution in Russia was possible; but, even without the Russian Revolution a German Revolution against the war and the empire (like what happened in reality) was a strong possibility (perhaps even more if the German had to fight in two fronts, with Russia still in the war); then (again, like in reality) also a kind of civil war between left-wing and right-wing extremists was expectable(note also that about half of German Comunist Party of that time was expelled by Lenin from the Communist International for "left-wing radicalism", meaning that the russian influence was not the only source of radicalism in the Germany of 1918-21; if anything, the USSR was a moderating force), creating the same conditions that put the Nazis in power.

Btw, there is even a real case where a right-wing dicatatorship came to power against non-marxists, non-USSR-inspired left-wing revolutionaries - Franco in Spain (a more peaceful government than Hitler of Mussolini, but imagine that Spain was in the Central Europe and had grievences from WWI)

Jose Romeu Robazzi writes:

Good point. A smart debate is always fruitful, although I believe only later generations will benefit from it.

Pithlord writes:

Marx was very much a moderate in the First International. Yes, he had romantic memories of '48. But he also saw the British Trade Unions and even the US Republican Party as the way forward. He thought the Paris Commune was a bad idea, but then felt he had to defend it. He was already moving towards what became social democracy. Engels went a lot further after Marx died. If Marx had never lived, there would have been plenty of revolutionary leftist thinkers, although maybe no one who created his unique (and incoherent) synthesis of Ricardian economics, Hegelian dialectics, working class reformism and bohemian radicalism.

J Hanley writes:
And without the Soviet Union, there would be no fascist Italy and no Nazi Germany.

I think the most charitable way to put this is to say that claim needs a little more development.

Absent the Soviet Union we still have WWI and we still have crippling reparations on Germany. These are the conditions that created Hitler. I'm not sure what the actual significance of the USSR is supposed to be in your storyline.

Martin Deck writes:

It is very simplistic to say that "crippling reparations" were the sole or even the major cause of Hitler's appeal to the Germans.

Hitler called himself a socialist, and he appealed to people who believed that capitalism was inevitably going to fall, and socialism would take its place. Hitler's followers wanted a National, and anti-Semitic, Socialism; they believed that the International variety promulgated by the Bolsheviks was a Jewish conspiracy.

Both Italian Fascism and German National Socialism were indebted to Marx amd Lenin. Google it.

Glen W Smith writes:

Who were Marx's first-level disciples? They would be among the most likely stand-ins if Marx had not existed.

Gyges writes:

[Comment removed. Please consult our comment policies and check your email for explanation.--Econlib Ed.]

David Timoney writes:

You ignore the actual history of socialism, particularly the First and Second Internationals. To contemporaries, Marx had many intellectual peers and competitors, such as Proudhon, Bakunin, Sorel et al.

In attempting to separate socialism from social democracy, you are merely continuing a long tradition on the right: the isolation of supposed "extremists" (your choice of language, "bloodbaths and tyranny", goes back to the reaction to the French Revolution).

"But there would have been no Soviet Union without Marx". The USSR always owed more to the anticapitalist, pro-agrarian and nationalist strand of Russian political thought whose chief thinker was Alexander Herzen. Marx was always a minority taste. Stalin's "ghoulish" policy on agriculture and the kulaks cannot be understood outside this (non-Marxist) tradition.

"And without the Soviet Union, there would be no fascist Italy". Mussolini founded the original Fascist party in 1915 and seized power in 1922. The Bolsheviks seized power in Russia in late 1917 and constituted the USSR in 1922. Your theory lacks chronological credibility. (I'll ignore the claim about Nazi Germany on the grounds of taste).

Counterfactuals tend towards the optimistic because, paradoxically, they are essentially conservative. They seek to wish away the actual changes of history, but in so doing they also seek to annihilate history and imagine an eternal present in which social relations are unchanging.

The final irony is that Marx's work revolves around the idea that history is not the result of individual actions, whether benign or malign, but of social relations rooted in the material world, which are inevitably stressed by technological change. To suggest that the whole of history would have been different had one man not been born would have struck him (rightly) as absurd.

Jim writes:

Caplan an anarchist surprisingly subscribes to the great man theory. It's timing.

Who would replace Rothbard? Mises from the 40's. Caplan to from the 2000's.

Any Rand? Garet Garrett from the 20's who she plagiarized. Huemer from the 2000's.

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