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September 04, 2002

More from "Intellectuals"


I can't resist posting another excerpt from Paul Johnson's "Intellectuals"--again on Marx.

Why Are You Resisting My Theories?

Chapter Eight [of Marx's "Capital"], 'The Working Day'...present[s] itself as a factual analysis of the impact of capitalism on the lives of the British Proletariat; indeed, it is the only part of Marx's work which actually deals with the workers, the ostensible subject of his entire philosophy. It is therefore worth examining for its 'scientific' value...

The truth is, even the most superficial inquiry into Marx's use of evidence forces one to treat with skepticism everything he wrote which relies on factual data...[H]e uses out-of-date material because up-to-date material does not support his case. ...

[H]e selects certain industries, where conditions were particularly bad, as typical of capitalism. This cheat was particularly important to Marx because without it he would not really have had Chapter Eight at all. His thesis was that capitalism produces ever-worsening conditions; the more capital employed, the more badly the workers had to be treated to secure adequate returns.

The evidence he quotes at length comes almost entirely from small, inefficient, undercapitalized firms in archaic industries which in most cases were pre-capitalist-pottery, dressmaking, blacksmiths, baking, matches,wallpaper, lace, for instance. In many of the specific cases he cites (e.g., baking) conditions were bad precisely because the firm had not been able to afford to introduce machinery, since it lacked capital.

In effect, Marx is dealing with pre-capitalist conditions, and ignoring the truth which stared him in the face: the more capital, the less suffering. Where he does treat a modern, highly-capitalized industry, he finds a dearth of evidence; thus, dealing with steel, he has to fall back on interpolated comments ('What cynical frankness! 'What mealy-mouthed phraseology!') and with railways he is driven to use yellowing clippings of old accidents ('fresh railway catastrophes'): it was necessary to his thesis that the accident rate per passenger mile traveled should be rising, whereas it was falling dramatically and by the time Capital as published railways were already becoming the safest mode of mass travel in world history...

What Marx could not or would not grasp, because he made no effort to understand how industry worked, was that from the very dawn of the Industrial Revolution, 1760-90, the most efficient manufacturers, who had ample access to capital, habitually favoured better conditions for their workforce; they therefore tended to support factory legislation and, what was equally important, its effective enforcement, because it eliminated what they regarded as unfaircompetition.

So conditions improved, and because conditions improved, the workers failed to rise, as Marx predicted they would. The prophet was thus confounded. What emerges from a reading of Capital is Marx's fundamental failure to understand capitalism.

Gee, is it just me, or do I hear echoes of the today's professional-environmentalist-prophets-of-doom in that? Try re-reading this passage using "the environment" in place of "the workers" and making similar substitutions.



posted by Friedrich at September 4, 2002


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