The Irony of Marxist Class Consciousness
Let’s set the scene.
You and I are at the local pub when we find ourselves thrust into a rousing debate with our neighbours regarding the vicious state of the world and how we ought to put it right. We say free the markets and spontaneous order will do the talking. They say socialism is the only way forward. As our third pints dwindle to their last dregs, it begins to look like it will be a while before we get away to the bar for another round. Onlookers turn from their tables to shoot us sympathetic looks when one of our interlocutors, frothing at the mouth, accuses me of bad faith, and you of nefarious motives.
I rouse myself hysterically to our defence, banging the table with my right hand while I adjure him not to make things personal. You back me up, insisting: “No, no! It’s not like that, mate—we’re just pointing out the facts!!”
His partner sniggers upon hearing this, replying with a grunt, “Nonsense, comrade! There’s no such thing as the disinterested search for truth.”
“Yes, citizen,” asserts the first, training his attention on me, “You’re just saying that because you’re middle class.”
Most people would agree that this is a bit of a silly way to end a debate. For one thing, pointing out someone else’s class background doesn’t demonstrate why their position is wrong. Secondly, a person can’t change their extraction—and neither can an argument. So, if their pedigree really does lead them to impregnable prejudices, you’d best save your time on debating them. If there’s no disinterested search for truth, why not say: “Well, I have my bias and you have yours. There’s no way to bridge the gap, so let’s order another drink and leave it at that.” To be honest, I often wish I had the will power. And what basis would our challengers have for knowing if the positions they argued for were correct given the presupposition that truth of facts is a bridge too far for human reason?
To take a more philosophical turn, it’s self-contradictory to try to convince someone that there is no such thing as objective logic. Reasoning that there is no reason? Philosophers call this a “performative contradiction” and recognize it as a logical fallacy. Other examples of performative contradictions include “Language is meaningless,” which itself uses language to convey meaning, and “There are no absolutes,” which is a statement of an absolute. Karl Marx pointed out that Proudhon, the anarchist famous for declaring that “property is theft,” was guilty of a performative contradiction because “theft” is the forcible violation of property, which presupposes the existence of property to steal!
One of Mises’s major criticisms of Marx was that he never really refuted his contemporary opponents or the ideas of the classical economists. He simply dismissed them as “bourgeois” and prejudiced (along with a string of nasty names).
If you have ever engaged in an online debate you will have likely noticed that dismissing someone’s arguments based on their identity is far from uncommon. Just today someone commented, “You may have went to uni and you may have wrote a couple of books but you haven’t actually lived the capitalists life. Where you’re forced to sign a contract to work more than 45 hours a week because if you didn’t you wouldn’t eat.”
People do this quite naturally when confronted with information they don’t want to accept. Their first reaction is to find a way to dismiss the source rather than refute the claims. I remember that growing up I had a communist friend who would wave away thinkers he didn’t like, dismissing Karl Popper as “reactionary” and Nietzsche as “thoroughly right-wing.” This is not particular to the Left either. Conservatives are known to commonly dismiss their opponents as “libtards.” Hell, Hitler dismissed all the conclusions of Einstein, Freud, and Adler as “Jewish science.” As the social psychologist Thomas Gilovich put it,
For desired conclusions, we ask ourselves, "Can I believe this?", but for unpalatable conclusions we ask, "Must I believe this?"1
Most people recognise that while we might resort to personal attacks in the heat of the moment, an ad hominem is never really logically valid. What singles Marx out is that he actually systematises the tactic into his philosophy. According to Marxism, a person’s social position determines their beliefs. They lack the ability to perceive the world except through he eyes of their class interests, which will determine the views they express. Thus there is no such thing as the disinterested search for truth. Workers are irreconcilably pitched in a class struggle against their employers in capitalist society, and so each of them is bound to adopt tainted ideologies which, while false, have the purpose of operating through them to serve their class interests.2 Truth lies only with the proletarian science, and thus Marx did not have to refute his ideological opponents—merely unmask them as bourgeois3 (pretty rich coming from the son of a wealthy lawyer and whose wife was the daughter of a nobleman). Those early economists who advocated liberalism had intentional or unconscious biases that led them to favour the free market. They were “sycophantic apologists of the unfair class interests of bourgeois exploiters, ready to sell the people to big business and finance capital.”4 That’s all that really need be said about them.
Mises, of course, hardly denied that people held biases. He was not naïve to the notion that people might be predisposed towards political convictions which benefited them personally. After all, he was a great critic of state subsidies and protective tariffs. He had every reason to believe that when manufacturers in Austria advocated for higher taxes on imports it was because they hoped to avoid foreign competition. What he rejected is the notion that it is impossible to attain true beliefs through reasoning. That is what debate is for—to expose faulty logic. Mises called reason “the sole instrument of science and philosophy,”5 by which he meant that our reason—however erringly applied at times—is still our only way to distinguish a true idea from a false one.
“All that counts is whether a doctrine is sound or unsound. This is to be established by discursive reasoning. It does not in the least detract from the soundness and correctness of a theory if the psychological forces that prompted its author are disclosed….If the failures and errors of a doctrine are unmasked…historians and biographers may try to explain them by tracing them back to the author’s bias. But…reference to a thinker’s bias is no substitute for a refutation of his doctrines by tenable arguments.”6
It’s important for Mises to stress that economics, as a science, is value-free (wertfrei). It aims at describing how the world is rather than how it ought to be. It’s descriptive rather than prescriptive. It is supposed to offer us the tools to discover what the outcome of policies will be, quite independently of what we—or our opponents—may hope, wish, dream, prefer, or claim. The only way to discover whether an economic claim (such as the claim that price controls lead to gluts and shortages) is true is by discursive reasoning. Appeals to the race, religion, “national character,” or “class interests” of the originator are worthless. Mises warns of the grave consequences of believing otherwise. What begins with the innocent unmasking of bourgeois prejudice (on the left) or racial proclivity (on the right) can only lead to the persecution of dissenters and their eventual “liquidation.”7 Put simply, it’s reason or violence.
Now Bertrand Russell (perhaps the foremost philosopher of the twentieth century until his death in 1970) would often say, “I think if something is true one ought to believe it, and if it is not true one ought not to believe it.” This I have also always held to be true, although one of my philosophy lecturers pointed out that there are sometimes good arguments against believing the truth. For example, if you’re an Olympic athlete it might benefit your performance to have an inflated sense of your own ability. Nevertheless, we can agree that as a general way of life it is preferable to hold truth over fiction. This is why we put delusional people in institutions and argue with relatives who claim that FDR ended the Great Depression. We accept that even if “ultimate truth” is beyond the apprehension of mere mortals, truthfulness is a standard we can at least aspire to.
Mises says we could skip the controversy over whether the logical structure of the mind differs among members of different classes. We could accept—for the sake of argument—the dubious claim that the main concern of intellectuals is to promote their class interests (even if they clash with their personal interests). We could even take as given the idea that there is no disinterested search for the truth. And still, even granting Marx all of his major premises, the ideology doctrine would still fall flat on its face!8
His reason for this is that there is no justification for believing that false views would advance anyone’s class interest more than correct ones—a pretty clever observation. Returning to the example of putting delusional people in institutions, we do this because false beliefs cause people to clash with reality. Fundamentally, the truth works.
If you want to put up a house, you’d better follow the laws of gravity. If you want your plants to grow, you better water them and put them next to the window, where they will get some sun. People came to study mechanics for practical reasons, writes Mises. They wanted to solve engineering problems. How far would bad ideas get them? Not a single steam engine could have been invented on false premises. “No matter how one looks at it,” writes Mises, “there is no way in which a false theory can serve a man or a class or the whole of mankind better than a correct theory.”9 Marx never attempts to explain why an ideological distortion would help someone serve their class interests better than the truth.
Mises goes on to ask why Marx came to teach this doctrine—so full of contradictions. He then proceeds to question Marx’s motives. This may seem thoughtlessly ironic given the context. It certainly provoked a belly laugh from me. But bear in mind that Mises has already stated that once you have exposed someone’s fallacies they are fair game for the analyst’s couch. So just remember—next time you feel tempted to call someone a stupid lib on Facebook or right-wing nutjob or Twitter, make sure you refute their argument first.
Marx disseminated this philosophy, because his passion was fighting for the adoption of socialism. According to Mises, he was “fully aware” that he couldn’t actually debunk the devastating critiques of socialism set forth by the economists. What’s more, the labor theory of value which he had hinged his philosophy upon, adapting it from J.S. Mill, David Ricardo, and Adam Smith, had been overturned by economists Carl Menger and William Stanley Jevons only four years after Marx published the first volume of his magnum opus, Das Kapital, in 1867. Embarrassing.
Marx didn’t grasp the new and more accurate marginal theory of value, which held that we each evaluate each unit of a good we receive less than the previous unit. Given only one glass of water, we will hold it precious and certainly drink it. If we have enough water, we will soon be taking baths and sprinkling it over our lawns. Since we put each unit of water to a less urgent function than the last, we value it less.
Smith and Ricardo were not long lived enough to have a crack at debunking the early socialist thinking that emerged as a force only in the 1830s and '40s. Mises notes that Marx didn’t attack them but did vent his “full indignation” (Mises was handy with an emotionally florid turn of phrase) upon those who followed in their footsteps to defend the market economy against its critics. Marx dismissed them with ridicule, calling them “vulgar economists” and “sycophants of the bourgeoisie.” Bootlickers sucking up to the ruling class.10
Mises notes a bit of a contradiction here too, since, at the same time as Marx dismisses classical economists for being impelled by their bourgeois background, their promarket prejudice, he also borrows from them to reach antimarket conclusions.11 The thing is, though, it would be completely transparent that Marx was just using this as a smear tactic to discredit the economists if he hadn’t “elevate[d] it to the dignity” of a general law. So the Marxists went about interpreting all philosophical systems in light of the ideology doctrine—scrutinizing Mendel, Hertz, Planck, Heisenberg, and Einstein for their class interests.
But here’s the irony. They didn’t apply it to their own doctrines. The tenets of Marxism, of course, were not biased. They weren’t ideologies. They were “a foretaste of the knowledge of the future classless society, which, freed from the fetters of class conflicts, will be in a position to conceive pure knowledge, untainted by ideological blemishes.”12
Marx attacks the arguments made in favor of capitalism as ideological, but, Mises asks, Why would the capitalists even need to justify capitalism if, according to Marx’s own theory, every class is “remorseless in the pursuit of its own selfish class interests”? Sure, if they were ashamed of their role as “robber barons, userers, and exploiters,”13 they wouldn’t be able to look themselves in the mirror. They’d need a good ideology to make them feel alright about what they were doing. But what need is there to satisfy a conscience free from guilt?14 According to Marx the bourgeoisie can’t even understand the workers, because they think differently; they are running a different system of logic.
Finally, according to Marx’s own system, capitalism is a necessary stage in the evolution of mankind. Since no social formation ever disappears before all the productive forces have matured enough to necessitate the change, capitalism is needed to bridge the gap between the feudal system and the final goal of international communism. Capitalists, predetermined in their attitudes by their place in the social order, are driven passively to fulfil the laws of history. They can’t be doing anything wrong! If anything, they themselves are playing their necessary role in building a bridge to the bliss of a classless society. They are tools of history, working according to a preordained plan for mankind’s evolution in compliance with eternal laws, independently of their own will—or any human will. They couldn’t help it even if they tried! And they certainly wouldn’t need an ideology or false consciousness to tell them they are correct to do so. Marx himself tells them.
Mises leaves us with this mic drop,
If Marx had been consistent, he would have exhorted the workers: “Don't blame the capitalists; in 'exploiting' you they do what is best for yourselves; they are paving the way for socialism.”
For more, see Theory and History (1957), chapter 7, section 4, and chapter 2, sections 1 and 4.
- 1. Thomas Gilovich, How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life (New York: The Free Press, 1993).
- 2. Ludwig von Mises, Theory and History: An Interpretation of Social and Economic Evolution, ed. Bettina Bien Greaves (1957; Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund Inc., 2005), p. 82.
- 3. Ludwig von Mises, Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis, trans. J. Kahane (1922; Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund Inc., 1981), p. 17–18.
- 4. Ludwig von Mises, Bureaucracy (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1944), p. 86.
- 5. Mises, Theory and History, part II, chap. 5, p. 49.
- 6. Mises, Theory and history, p. 19.
- 7. Mises, Theory and History, p. 23.
- 8. Mises, Theory and History, p. 82.
- 9. Mises, Theory and History, p. 83.
- 10. Anyone with market-oriented leanings is probably quite used to receiving such smears, giving us to wonder why the billionaire classes are funding the campaigns of libertarian candidates that support free enterprise. The obvious truth is that free markets aren’t favorable to the rich and powerful, who benefit from preferential legislation, government contracts, subsidies, protectionist tariffs, and corporate welfare.
- 11. Mises, Theory and History, p. 85.
- 12. Mises, Theory and History, p. 84.
- 13. Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, trans. N.I. Stone (1859; Chicago: Charles H. Kerr and Company, 1904).
- 14. Mises, Theory and History, p. 85.