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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2700

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.

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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 classical economists: the question of the causes of economic crises. Unlike Sismondi, Marx believed that economic crises were caused by sectoral disproportionality of production rather than by general underconsumption; unlike Jean Baptiste Say, who believed that supply created its own demand, Marx showed how such sectoral disproportionality could cause monetary reactions that would temporarily push aggregate demand below aggregate supply.

While Sowell does generally succeed in placing Marx within the context of his time, his treatment of Marx’s idea of progress is misleading precisely because it fails to offer such comparative perspective. Sowell criticizes Marx, in the final chapter on Marx’s intellectual legacy, for failing to take into account the possibility of retrogression as well as progress, for failing to recognize that capitalism could as easily be replaced by something worse as by something better. Yet naïve faith in the inevitability of progress was by no means a failing peculiar to Marx; it can be found in many nineteenth century thinkers, including such Social Darwinists as the English sociologist Herbert Spencer. The crucial difference is simply that Marxist naïveté had more serious political consequences.

Besides placing Marx’s teachings in their proper historical perspective, Sowell also takes account of change in Marx’s ideas through time; by doing so, the author helps resolve some of the apparent inconsistencies in Marx’s thought. Over Marx’s forty-year career as theorist and agitator, his opinions on certain issues were modified in significant ways. Thus, during his young manhood, in the period of Europe-wide economic distress known as the Hungry Forties, Marx predicted that the workers’ lot was bound to grow ever worse in absolute terms. Later, when the European economy had improved somewhat, Marx redefined the immiserization of the masses to mean a continual fall in the relative share of economic growth obtained by the proletariat; such immiserization could occur even if the workers were somewhat better off in absolute terms than they had been before. Similarly, Marx’s idea of revolution, clearly foreseen as a violent uprising in the Europe of voteless workingmen that existed in the 1840’s, had been transformed by the early 1880’s, with the growing enfranchisement of the working classes throughout Europe, into something that could as easily be achieved by peaceful as by violent means.

Marxism has, as Sowell recognizes, been thoroughly tainted for the average Western man (including the average workingman) by its use as an ideological fig leaf for some of the most brutally tyrannical regimes in human history. Yet Sowell can only wrestle somewhat inconclusively with the ambiguous legacy of the German philosopher’s teachings concerning the State. Sowell argues, in his chapter on Marx’s political philosophy, that Marx’s concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat meant not the narrow elitism propounded by the Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Ilich Lenin but a democratic, republican form of government by the workers themselves. Somewhat inconsistently, however, Sowell, in the final chapter, blames the allegedly totalitarian heritage of Marx’s thought for the sins of the regimes that later bore Marx’s name in the U.S.S.R. and elsewhere; the tyranny of Joseph Stalin is pointed to as one particularly horrible example. In the chapter on Marx’s life, the author even argues that Marx’s dictatorial personal style exerted an especially malign influence on future Marxist revolutionaries. Sowell ignores the possibility, raised by the historian Robert V. Daniels in Russia: The Roots of Confrontation (1985), that the crimes of Stalin may owe as much to the autocratic tradition of pre-Communist Russia as they do to the ideology of Karl Marx.

Sowell’s case for the baleful legacy of Marx’s economic thought is a bit more persuasive. The author concedes that Marx did sometimes recognize, in his off-the-cuff remarks, the importance of skills and risk-taking in a capitalist economy. Yet Sowell firmly insists that such occasional bursts of insight into economic reality were vitiated by Marx’s failure to incorporate the factors of skill and risk-taking into either his labor theory of value or his general theory of capitalism as expounded in the seminal work Capital. Marx made an even more serious mistake, Sowell argues, by naïvely assuming that a future socialist economy could easily dispense with the pain of capitalism’s economic crises without endangering the gain of efficient allocation of resources, or eliminate the supposedly unjust profits of the capitalist at the expense of the worker without also stifling badly needed incentives for innovation in the interests of the consumer.

Sowell is right in pointing out the naïveté of Marx’s vision of a future socialist economy in which all human and material constraints could be easily overcome. Yet the author fails to see that criticism of such a vision can as easily be made by a theologian as by an economist. Marx postulated the coming of a future in which neither the apparatus of police coercion nor the mechanism of economic incentives would be necessary to ensure the smooth functioning of society. The traditional Christian doctrine of the innate sinfulness of man, reasserted in recent times by thinkers such as the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, is a warning against Marx’s belief that a mere change in social institutions can radically transform human nature.

In giving reasons for the success of Marxism, Sowell mentions the appeal of Marxism as an intellectually coherent system, its popularity among the highly educated scions of the elite, and its convenience as an excuse for ambitious politicians’ hunger for absolute power. The author ignores, however, yet another important reason for the popularity of Marxism: its role as a substitute religion for those who have abandoned the certitudes of orthodox Christianity or the time-honored ways of life of traditional Judaism. Sowell correctly notes that Marx’s steadfast refusal to provide any detailed blueprint for the future socialist state and economy made it possible for governments calling themselves Marxist to carry out many unwise and tyrannical policies in the master’s name. Sowell fails to recognize that this very vagueness about the future society, by enabling men to see this future society as the embodiment of all of mankind’s most strongly felt millennial longings, probably did much toward permitting the Marxist version of socialist thought to displace other competing versions of socialism in nineteenth century Europe. For a fuller discussion of the religious appeals of Marxism, one can consult The Opium of the Intellectuals (1957), by the French anti-Communist intellectual Raymond Aron.

Sowell has also failed to touch on other interesting subjects. Thus, Karl Marx’s teachings on the family and sex roles in capitalist society and in the future socialist state deserve a bit more attention from the author. The only mention of the subject in Sowell’s work is a citation, in the chapter on Marx’s life, of a plank in the Communist Manifesto as evidence of Marx’s totalitarian intention of destroying the existing family structure; this citation is not an adequate treatment of an issue of considerable importance. A better treatment of this issue can be found in Lise Vogel’s Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Theory (1983), although it does have a strong pro-Marx bias.

Sowell could have provided greater insight into Marx’s ideas by providing a fuller comparison of them with those of the English population theorist Thomas Malthus. Sowell gives Malthus’ views on economic crises but does not say anything about Malthus’ population theory as such. Malthus, like Marx, did have a model of immiserization, one in which the steady impoverishment of the masses was caused not by the inner workings of the capitalist system but by the mechanism of unchecked population growth. For Malthus, a pessimistic conservative rather than a revolutionary socialist, such immiserization led, not to a radical leap into a higher social order, but to a reestablishment of the old equilibrium between population and resources. Some historians have offered a Malthusian explanation of the very economic misery, prevalent in the England of the 1840’s, that Marx’s longtime collaborator, Friedrich Engels, saw as evidence of the instability and unfairness of capitalism. The reader of the 1980’s living in a world troubled by the problems of rising population might be more interested than Sowell seems to be in finding out how Marx dealt with the implicit challenge to his theories posed by Malthus’ theory of population growth.

Thomas Sowell’s Marxism: Philosophy and Economics is by no means the first work in English to attempt to provide a summary of the thought of Karl Marx for the general reader. Marx can be profitably studied from the vantage point of more than one author and more than one scholarly discipline. In Marxism: For and Against (1980), Robert Heilbroner, an American who has written many popular works on economics, presents a view of Marx which, while not uncritical, is considerably more sympathetic to the German philosopher than is Sowell’s. Heilbroner’s rather brief book, however, lacks the sophisticated understanding of economic thought found in Sowell’s work. The Australian professor of philosophy Peter Singer, in Marx (1980), one of the Past Masters series, provides a better insight than does Sowell into some aspects of Marx’s thought, even though his coverage of Marx’s economic concepts is as sketchy as Heilbroner’s. Singer’s discussion of Marx’s concept of freedom, for example, demonstrates an awareness of the collective irrationality that free individual choice can sometimes bring. Such a treatment of this issue seems more enlightening than Sowell’s broad-brush condemnation of Marx’s attitude toward freedom as a form of totalitarian elitism. All these various approaches to Marx add something to an understanding of the man and his theories; of them all, Sowell’s is, on balance, the one that best combines, for the general reader, scholarship, readability, and comprehensiveness.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 57

Barron’s. LXV, July 8, 1985, p. 50.

Choice. XXII, June, 1985, p. 1545.

Human Events. XLV, January 12, 1985, p. 17.

Kirkus Reviews. LIII, January 15, 1985, p. 89.

Library Journal. CX, March 1, 1985, p. 91.

National Review. XXXVII, May 3, 1985, p. 54.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, March 31, 1985, p. 18.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVI, January 18, 1985, p. 67.

The Wall Street Journal. CCV, March 29, 1985, p. 26.

Washington Post Book World. XV, March 24, 1985, p. 11.

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