(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Thomas Sowell, an American economist and a leading black neoconservative, is best known for his work on American race and ethnic relations. Yet his first academic contributions, more than a quarter of a century ago, dealt with the ideas of the German socialist philosopher Karl Marx. In Marxism: Philosophy and Economics, Sowell offers, for the general reader, a guide to one of the most significant intellectual products of the nineteenth century.

Marxism is the official social and economic dogma of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, whose political elite uses that ideology to justify its possession of absolute power. Yet the average American does not know what Marxism means or how this doctrine originated. Sowell’s work, although not particularly original or path-breaking, does perform a valuable service: It gives Americans a thoughtful, although occasionally a bit overly polemical, exposition of Marxist theory, based on a close reading of the writings and correspondence of Karl Marx and his collaborator, Friedrich Engels.

Sowell’s book is especially useful to such beginning students of intellectual history as college undergraduates. In each one of chapters 2 through 8, the author examines in depth a different aspect of Marx’s thought; the inclusion of a summary at the end of each of these chapters makes it easier to remember the author’s main points. Sowell devotes three chapters apiece to the economic theory of Marxism and to the philosophical underpinnings of that economic theory; chapter 8 deals with Marx’s theory of politics. The last two chapters are an account of Marx’s life and a sharply critical assessment of Marx’s legacy.

Marx’s works, Sowell makes clear, have often confused later generations of readers because the German philosopher’s writing is so epigrammatic, relying on catchy phrases at the expense of clarity. As the author repeatedly reminds his readers, Marx, both during his early life in Germany and throughout his long years of exile in France, Belgium, and Britain, was a polemicist as well as a scholar. He was engaged not merely in economic research but also in a continual debate with both the defenders of the existing social order and his rivals within the European radical movement. In most of Marx’s writings, Sowell explains, the German philosopher’s position was defined by contrast with that of his rivals; only in Das Kapital (1867; Capital, 1886) did Marx give his own ideas systematic exposition.

To understand Marx’s economic theories, Sowell contends, one must first comprehend the dialectic, a philosophical tool taken from the kit of the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. When one uses the dialectic, one sees the world as a series of processes rather than a set of isolated facts; one looks for the inner tensions that propel the transformation of something from one state to another, rather than simply accepting the surface appearance of things as the ultimate reality. Thus, Marx speaks of the everyday idea of price as a surface phenomenon, beneath which lies the truer notion of value. Marx looks beneath the surface of capitalist society and sees those forces which are working to transform it into a totally different type of society.

To illustrate Marx’s distinction between the essence of something and its outward appearance, Sowell uses the example of the metamorphosis of the caterpillar into the butterfly; throughout the discussion of Marx’s thought, Sowell adeptly employs such simple but powerful illustrative examples in order to make murky concepts clearer and easier to grasp. Having made the dialectic more comprehensible, Sowell goes on to explain, clearly and carefully, the equally difficult concepts of alienation, philosophical materialism, and the labor theory of value.

Sowell is willing to aid the untutored reader by pointing out possible misunderstandings that might arise from changing meanings of certain words. Thus, Sowell informs his readers that the materialism inherited by Marx from such ancient philosophers as Epicurus and Lucretius, and from such later European philosophers as Baron Paul Henri Dietrich d’Holbach and Ludwig Feuerbach, had nothing to do with the greed and gluttony associated with that word in popular usage; it simply meant a belief in matter as the ultimate reality. Similarly, the author warns, the fact that Engels and Marx called the future society a communist one and wrote Manifest der kommunistischen Partei (1848; Communist Manifesto, 1888) does not, in and of itself, prove that they wished to see a society like the Communist regime currently existing in the U.S.S.R. The word “communism” must be understood in its proper historical context.

Americans have an unfortunate tendency to think of Karl Marx and Marxism in a historical vacuum, as if socialism began only yesterday, and only in the U.S.S.R. Sowell is careful to place Marx firmly in the context of his time. Marx was, Sowell demonstrates, by no means the first Western European thinker to argue in favor of socialism; other thinkers, earlier in the nineteenth century, had also expressed their hopes of seeing a new social order replace the old system of private property. It was in his emphasis on the historical relativity of moral judgments, derived from the dialectic of Hegel, and in his faith in the historical inevitability of the transition to the new society, Sowell shows, that Marx differed most strikingly from such earlier socialist thinkers as the British reformer Robert Owen and the French theorist François-Marie-Charles Fourier, and from such contemporaries as the French radical thinker Pierre Joseph Proudhon. For Marx, capitalism was not simply evil, as it had been for earlier socialists; it was historically necessary, but also inevitably fated to be replaced by socialism.

Giving the reader the full benefit of his long years of research on the classical economists, Sowell also fruitfully compares and contrasts Marx’s economic theories with those of the British economic thinkers David Ricardo and Adam Smith, the Swiss economist Jean-Charles-Léonard de Sismondi, and the French economist Jean Baptiste Say. It was from Ricardo, and ultimately from Smith, Sowell points out, that Marx took the labor theory of value, although the notion of surplus value as a measure of the exploitation of labor was Marx’s own idea. Although Sowell is critical of Marxism, he is fair-minded enough to recognize at least one instance where Marx’s powers of economic analysis were equal or even superior to those of some of the...

(The entire section is 2700 words.)