Reply to John Gray on Marxism


by David McDonagh

John Gray [http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-14764357], like so many who has said that Marx was right after all since 2007, and there eems to be very many of such people in the UK mass media today, tends to say that Marx was also wrong in certain ways. Gray says Marx was right on capitalism but not on communism; which Gray, rightly, says will never ever emerge. He lacks the wit to realise that is tantamount to saying that Marx was wrong overall.

But then Gray undoes this idea that Marx was right on capitalism too as he says that it has enriched the workers but that was something that Marx though could never happen, quite the contrary. Marx was way more like Malthus than he was ever happy about, as Marx did not like Malthus. Gray admits that today we are all better off whilst Marx thought that capital accumulation was, oddly, for nothing at all and that we would all get poorer and all tend to drift down into destitution; yet as Marx did not like Malthus, whom he was too close to on that for his own liking [rather like Kant disliked his nearness to Berkeley] so he wrote ambiguously to try to obfuscate this fact. They both held that the conditions of their day veered the masses towards destitution, though Malthus thought it would be famine [though he later admitted that it might be avoided by moral restraint] but Marx thought it would not go that far. He used ambiguity to be on the safe side against the empirical facts, a ploy that resulted in a long debate among his epigones as to whether Marx on increasing misery meant destitution or merely intense feelings of envy.

However, Gray admits that the outcome is rather one of ever increasing wealth, even if everyday life is becoming increasingly barren. All in all, this is looking like a talk on the lifelong pessimism of John Gray rather than a talk on Marx being right after all. One of my fond libertarian friends has asked me whether a pessimist can be a libertarian anyway. If not, then maybe John Gray never was one of us.

Gray adopts the rather daft but very widespread idea that mass unemployment is caused by something other than the

dole and the even sillier idea that the sub-prime mess arose from the free market; both popular but both false.

Marx and Malthus each had at the heart of all they wrote a very clear falsehood, what Marx might have called a bit of ideology. He held that ideology was, very clearly, false ideas, as most people see religion as being full of; even those people that support religion! Bacon might have called the major ideas of Marx and Malthus “false idols”, way out ideas that men play with instead of doing proper science.

The false idol from Malthus was that humans breed so rapidly that no amount of progress could prevent many famines ahead each century as they simply cannot refrain from sex. If J.L. Simon had read Malthus closely, he would have been surprised that, apart from this rapid breeding process in humans, Malthus wrote as if he agreed completely with Simon’s famous book: The Ultimate Resource (1981). Malthus expected unlimited long run economic growth but with many Malthusian cutbacks along the way, about four famines every hundred years. Diminishing returns was not the idea of Malthus, as so many imagine, but of Sir Edward West. Malthus saw no limits to long run growth.

The stark reality about sex in society, as William Godwin pointed out, in his long delayed reply, On Population (1820), was that teenaged boys longed for but usually went without sex, that they often did not get till their 20s. Godwin confessed that he was the norm in failing to indulge in his teens, despite feeling a very keen teenaged desire to do so. The moral restraint was even more powerful than man’s sexual drive!

Marx’s false idol was put in the title of a massive book in the 1960s by David Riesman, Abundance For What? (1964). Marx thought that capitalist accumulation was a mere fetish as no one, not even the over investing capitalists, would gain from it. Where did he imagine all that mass production was going then? In fact, it went to the masses, as mass production is almost bound to do, and that showed that Marx was clearly wrongheaded, of course. Gray openly admits that fact.

But Marx did think that communism might create a society that would allow people to consume it. Gray has read From Marx To Mises (1992) D.R. Steele that very clearly shows that this is a most unlikely thing to ever occur.

John Gray is a puzzle. He has read all the classical liberal stuff but still puts out absurd statist claptrap. The answer might be that along with the move from Oxford to the LSE, the desertion of the pristine liberal outlook has resulted in his far greater productivity resulting in authoring more regular books and in some long last success for the more prolific author in radio and TV fame. His new claptrap, maybe, just flows easier for him. Is he happier today? Can John Gray ever be happy?

Anyway, he is harmless enough. I do not expect any sound argument against classical liberalism from him.

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2 responses to “Reply to John Gray on Marxism

  1. Julius Blumfeld

    Shorn of the existential stuff, Gray basically says that the global financial crisis will destroy the middle classes through inflation. Of course he is right about that. But then he blames this on capitalism, as though bankrupt governments and inflationary fiat money are free market outcomes. The piece would make some sense if Gray were writing about actually existing capitalism in the State-Corporate-Soft-Fascist sense. But as an attack on capitalism as a system of voluntary exchange, it is an intellectually dishonest piece.

  2. It is a very odd case. I assume that he never was happy in the classical liberal camp. He maybe is a bit happier in his new claptrap today. I am not sure it is dishonesty but it does seem to be confused.

    Anyway, he is harmless enough.