In this week’s article, I’d like to discuss an aspect of Murray Rothbard’s criticism of Marxism that is often misunderstood. The topic is important not only for understanding the essay by Rothbard I’ll be discussing, “Karl Marx as Religious Eschatologist,” but also for grasping a useful style of conceptual analysis of which Rothbard’s essay is a fine example.
Rothbard argues in the essay that Marxism is a religious movement that centers on the violent arrival of a heaven on earth.
The key to the intricate and massive system of thought created by Karl Marx is at bottom a simple one: Karl Marx was a communist.
A seemingly trite and banal statement set alongside Marxism’s myriad of jargon-ridden concepts in philosophy, economics, and culture, yet Marx’s devotion to communism was his crucial focus, far more central than the class struggle, the dialectic, the theory of surplus value, and all the rest.
Communism was the great goal, the vision, the desideratum, the ultimate end that would make the sufferings of mankind throughout history worthwhile. History was the history of suffering, of class struggle, of the exploitation of man by man. In the same way as the return of the Messiah, in Christian theology, will put an end to history and establish a new heaven and a new earth, so the establishment of communism would put an end to human history.
And just as for postmillennial Christians, man, led by God’s prophets and saints, will establish a Kingdom of God on Earth (for premillennials, Jesus will have many human assistants in setting up such a kingdom), so, for Marx and other schools of communists, mankind, led by a vanguard of secular saints, will establish a secularized Kingdom of Heaven on earth.
(All subsequent quotations will be from this essay.)
One objection that some people sympathetic to Marxism might raise is that Rothbard here commits the genetic fallacy. He tries to show that Marxism is false just because of the way the main concepts of Marx’s doctrine came into his mind. This is not a valid way of proceeding: the psychological genesis of a doctrine isn’t relevant to its truth.
This objection doesn’t work. Rothbard hasn’t in the passage just quoted said anything about the manner in which Marx arrived at his ideas. (He will do so later, and I’ll return to this topic.) He has identified a pattern of thought, and, if he has correctly done so, this will enable us to understand how various parts of Marx’s framework fit together. When Rothbard says, for example, that Marx adopts a “reabsorption theology,” a description of the features of this theology helps us understand some of the main features of Marxism; in particular, the emphasis Marx puts on the revolutionary violence needed to bring about the onset of communism:
One of [reabsorption theology’s] crucial tenets is that, before creation, man—obviously the collective-species man and not each individual—existed in happy union, in some sort of mighty cosmic blob, united with God and even with nature. In the Christian view, God, unlike man, is perfect, and therefore does not, like man, perform actions in order to improve his lot. But for the reabsorptionists, God acts analogously with humans: God acts out of what Mises called “felt uneasiness,” out of dissatisfaction with his current lot. God, in other words, creates the universe out of loneliness, dissatisfaction, or, generally, in order to develop his undeveloped faculties. God creates the universe out of felt need.
In the reabsorptionist view, creation, instead of being wondrous and good, is essentially and metaphysically evil. For it generates diversity, individuality, and separateness, and thereby cuts off man from his beloved cosmic union with God. Man is now permanently “alienated” from God, the fundamental alienation; and also from other men, and from nature.
It is this cosmic metaphysical separateness that lies at the heart of the Marxian concept of “alienation,” and not, as we might now think, personal griping about not controlling the operation of one’s factory, or about lack of access to wealth or political power. Alienation is a cosmic condition and not a psychological complaint. For the reabsorptionists, the crucial problems of the world come not from moral failure but from the essential nature of creation itself.
This response to the genetic fallacy objection invites a new objection. Marx claims that he has found the “law of motion” of capitalism; like Newton in physics, he is a scientist. Further, he says that a revolution to overthrow capitalism must come “with the inexorability of a law of nature.” If this is so, then we don’t need to appeal to a pattern of religious thought to explain Marxism. Marx’s analysis of capitalism suffices.
But of course it doesn’t. It’s precisely the failure of Marx’s economic reasoning that leads Rothbard to look elsewhere to explain his views.
Certainly, one obvious way in which Marxism functions as a religion is the lengths to which Marxists will go to preserve their system against obvious errors or fallacies. Thus, when Marxian predictions fail even though they are allegedly derived from scientific laws of history, Marxists go to great lengths to change the terms of the original prediction.
A notorious example is Marx’s law of the impoverishment of the working class under capitalism. When it became all too clear that the standard of living of the workers under industrial capitalism was rising instead of falling, Marxists fell back on the view that what Marx “really” meant by impoverishment was not immiseration but relative deprivation. One of the problems with this fallback defense is that impoverishment is supposed to be the motor of the proletarian revolution, and it is difficult to envision the workers resorting to bloody revolution because they only enjoy one yacht apiece while capitalists enjoy five or six.
Another notorious example was the response of many Marxists to Böhm-Bawerk’s conclusive demonstration that the labor theory of value could not account for the pricing of goods under capitalism. Again, the fallback response was that what Marx “really meant” was not to explain market pricing at all, but merely to assert that labor hours embed some sort of mystically inherent “values” into goods that are, however, irrelevant to the workings of the capitalist market. If this were true, then it is difficult to see why Marx labored for a great part of his life in an unsuccessful attempt to complete Capital and to solve the value-price problem.
To show that a nonscientific pattern of thought helps us understand Marxism does not by itself show that Marxism is mistaken. To reach that conclusion, you need to add some other premise; e.g., “reabsorption theology is false.” Someone who accepted this sort of theology might take Rothbard’s argument to be a point in favor of Marxism. If, however, you regard the pattern of thought as irrational, this does give you grounds for viewing Marxism with suspicion. We can now return to the “genetic fallacy.” At places in the article, Rothbard refers not only to the pattern of thought I’ve been talking about but to Marx’s personal psychology as well, citing for example a poem he wrote that expresses Marx’s “enormous thirst for destruction.” Rothbard does not, though, argue that because Marx had this thirst, Marxism is false. But if we reject Marx’s alleged “science” and we doubt the virtues of destruction, this gives us yet another reason to look askance at Marxism.