My Time with Karl Marx

By Roberts, Paul Craig | Independent Review, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview
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My Time with Karl Marx


Roberts, Paul Craig, Independent Review


My path to Karl Marx was through my work on the Soviet economy. Sovietologists had difficulty comprehending the organizational nature of the Soviet economy because they were uninformed about its Marxian aspirations.

Sovietologists regarded Marx as irrelevant to an understanding of the Soviet economy. Alexander Gerschenkron, one of the most distinguished Sovietologists, told the annual meeting of the American Economic Association in 1968 that hardly anything in the momentous story of Soviet economic policies needs, or suffers, explanations in terms of its derivation from Karl Marx's economic theories (1969, 16). Sovietologists thought of Marx, to the extent that they thought of him at all, in terms of exploited labor and the final breakdown of capitalism that sets the stage for socialism. They repeatedly told themselves and their readers that Marx had left no blueprint for the centrally planned economy.

Marx's denunciation of capitalism as a system of commodity production (market exchange) provided no clue to Sovietologists as they struggled to comprehend Soviet economic history, policies, and the peculiar gross output indicators that served as measures of managerial success. With the Sovietologists' explanations and reputations in place, it was difficult to persuade these analysts that the Soviet economy should not be classified organizationally as a planned economy and that the efforts to plan the economy had failed to attain the original aspirations (Roberts 1969, 1971).

My argument that Soviet economic organization and history reflected Marx's aspiration to replace chaotic commodity production with planned production for the direct use of society had to contend also with academic misinterpretation of Marx as a humanist concerned with modern sociological concepts of alienation (Bell 1962; Fromm 1961; Tucker 1961). In order to make progress in persuading Sovietologists of my explanation of the Soviet economy, I had to correct widespread misunderstanding of Marx's economics.

The result was Marx's Theory of Exchange, Alienation, and Crisis, coauthored with my colleague Matthew A. Stephenson and published in 1973 by the Hoover Institution Press. The book proved to be extremely popular in Europe. German university libraries acquired multiple copies, and a Spanish-language edition was published in Madrid in 1974. In 1983, Praeger republished the book with a new introduction.

Stephenson and I showed that Marx was an organizational theorist with a consistent taxonomy. Marx used his taxonomy to explain the manorial and feudal systems as economies that produced for direct use and to explain capitalism as a system of production for exchange. Marx's critique of capitalism and his prediction of its demise are based on the separation that market exchange creates between the production of goods and their use. In this separation, Marx found the source of economic crisis, alienation, and private property. He defined socialism or communism as an economy organized to produce for direct use. Every product would have a predetermined use. Market exchange would not be involved either in the organization of production or in the distribution of products to consumers.

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