To: Sylvia Nasar, Ph.D., NYTimes economics correspondent
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: Reviewing the Marx biography
Your review of the new Marx biography by Francis Wheen, a Brit who you say writes for The Guardian and the humor magazine Private Eye, really does the old man and the book a great disservice. And I say this even though I’d not heard about the book until I saw that you were treating Karl Marx as if he were “Groucho.” I don’t blame you for that, Sylvia, as that comparison is never made in your review -- it was a bit of hype by the Times editors. Nor do I blame you for the headline on the review: “The First Marxist: His latest biographer says the man who wrote the Communist Manifesto was unkempt, unreliable and often broke.” I don’t know of any Marx biographer who has portrayed Marx differently, so why the headline? Where I fault you is in your cursory treatment of Wheen’s assertion that Marx was a great political economist whose insights endured. You have a doctorate in economics, but the way you disposed of Marx suggests me that you never really took a hard look at what he was all about. I came away thinking Wheen is right and it is you who look silly to those who have studied the man and his philosophy. First, here is the relevant paragraph in your review:
Wheen’s portrait of Marx’s life is artfully shaped and makes delectable reading. Alas, his breezy comedy takes an unintentionally farcical turn when he assesses Marx’s ideas. Improbably asserting that all Marx’s critics have either not read “Das Kapital” or else misread it, Wheen provides a capsule summary that is perversely selective and highly misleading. He insists that Marx’s major economic and political predictions have stood the test of time. Hello? Capitalism has self-destructed? Socialist societies that have dispensed with markets and democracy have succeeded? Wheen’s defense of Marxism has got to be one of the silliest apologias of all time.
My advantage, I suppose, is that I’ve taken the trouble to read Das Kapital not once, but several times, since my grandfather gave me a Modern Library edition for my high school graduation. I also read several other books by Marx and about him. In fact, I recently came across a 1928 bio of him by Otto Rühle, Karl Marx: His Life and Work, which interested me because it was written prior to the 1929 Wall Street Crash. A lot of Marx fans saw the Crash as proof of Marx’s vision about an end to capitalism. You know, Silvia, it was completely consistent with his warning that unless it was checked by active, universal suffrage, runaway capitalism would blindly drive toward maximum profits and political self-protection at the expense of the working class. Those economists who believe the Great Depression was caused by the gold standard can blame Marx, who believed with all classical economists that a gold-defined money was as good as it could get. If you believe the Crash was caused by the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act, as I demonstrated in The Way the World Works, you would have to hand it to Marx for seeing it in advance. Now that we have been through the mess of the 20th century, it is easy to say we proved Marx wrong, but I think the experience proved Marx correct. He was an ardent democrat who saw that only the votes of the masses could offset the untrammeled greed of the ruling class, which would if it could always put its interests ahead of ordinary working people. He also was an unabashed admirer of the United States, which he saw as the last best hope of mankind, precisely because it still put the interests of market democracy ahead of the political elites.
If Marx were alive today, he would continue to observe the controls the Political Establishment wields over the interests of ordinary people. He would identify the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank as perfect examples of undemocratic capitalist institutions, meant to serve the interests of our multinational corporations and banks -- at the expense of the poorest people on the planet. The NYTimes, one of the principle voices of the Establishment, is of course a faithful supporter of the IMF/World Bank policies that are at the root of so much misery, poverty and war in the developing world.
You write that Marx was an opponent of “markets” as well as of “democracy.” Please give me the citations, Sylvia, or I will have to conclude that Wheen was correct when he said the opponents of Marx have never read his work. Near the end of his life, so many utopians in Europe had tried to stir revolution in his name that Marx himself insisted he was not a Marxist. He certainly would have turned in his grave in watching the Leninist/Stalinist/Maoist experiments cast in his name. Might I suggest you read up on him before you do any more book reviews or continue work on your forthcoming book on the great economic thinkers of the 20th century. Several years ago, at the end of the Cold War, I spent several months doing just that. I wrote a long tract, Karl Marx Revisited: A Fluid Economy, which I think is fairly easy reading for a college freshman. You can find it at my website’s “Supply Side University.” Perhaps you will also finally decide to actually read some Marx. You can find everything he ever published on line, at Marx/Engels Library