An Honest Critique of Marxist Thought
I recently had the pleasure of hearing a thoughtful and humorous debate between Per Bylund of the Mises Institute and Andrew Kliman from the Marxist-Humanist Initiative. The topic: "What makes a free society?"
I'll make no attempt to hide my bias. I'm an anarcho-libertarian of the Austrian tradition, thus my skepticism of Marxism is insurmountable. Marxists would likely say the same about libertarianism, but the act of doing so would be a performative contradiction because it would demonstrate a preference for private property norms through argumentation ethics. In other words, it's not possible to reject libertarianism through debate without tacitly accepting libertarian principles.
But I digress.
What struck me about this debate is that, despite the flaws in his own arguments (which I will soon address), Andrew Kliman is refreshingly not oblivious to arguments of the Austrian tradition of economics. He did put forth a passionate and strong (albeit unconvincing) case for why he believes libertarianism and Marxism aren't mutually incompatible, the main points of which I've paraphrased as follows:
All means of production have been built with capital that was at one point expropriated, therefore it is morally justified to "expropriate from the expropriators" to collect restitution.
Individuals in a Marxist or libertarian social order would be allowed to keep any "personal property" (houses, cars, cell phones, etc.)
Any individual who doesn't like the conditions of a libertarian or Marxist social order is free to leave.
To Mr. Kliman's credit, he did honestly admit that he is unconcerned with the means by which his goals of egalitarianism are achieved. According to him, he is only concerned with the ends, which means he shouldn't object to free market libertarianism if it brings about the ends he'd like to see - a more equal distribution of wealth than what occurs under "state capitalism" so that people don't have to worry about being "dominated by nature or people". This stance is neither uncommon nor controversial among Marxists.
Mr. Bylund did a wonderful job addressing each of Mr. Kliman's claims, but I would like to further assess each of the three main claims above to demonstrate why they are problematic.
Expropriating expropriated means of production.
Mr. Kliman claims that all means of production have been built with land and capital that was expropriated over the course of the last 500 years, citing the eviction of laborers from the fields. Furthermore, he claims that libertarians have neither acknowledged nor sufficiently condemned this expropriation. The reasons for why this is erroneous are numerous.
First, the libertarian private property ethic explicitly recognizes first use of a scarce, rivalrous resource as sufficient for the establishment of ownership. Libertarians CONSTANTLY point out how the men and women calling themselves "government" violate property norms in the name of property. As Hans-Hermann Hoppe would say, an expropriating property protector is a contradiction in terms. This necessarily implies that libertarians are opposed to excluding the first user of a scarce, rivalrous resource from the use of that resource without mutual consent. All other things being equal, removing someone from land they were using first is therefore immoral.
Second, in order for there to be a redress of damages, the victims and perpetrators would need to be alive. Since they aren't, and since none of the other people currently living knew them, use of capital that was previously stolen from them couldn't possibly constitute complicity in the expropriation itself. Even if they were still living and could be located, what is to be done if the stolen capital has already changed hands? What if the current possessor has no knowledge of the expropriation? Would it be right to deprive him of both that which he gave up for it AND that which he received in order to make the victim whole? I would submit that it isn't. The original thief did not transfer culpability for the expropriation to the new possessor of the stolen capital; he merely transferred the stolen capital. It is therefore still incumbent on the thief himself to repay restitution to his victim.
Third, libertarians have actually gone above and beyond anything Marxists have bothered to point out with regard to expropriation. Libertarians were the ones who pointed out that the fractional reserve central banks Marxists prescribe as means to bring about Marxism universalize expropriation through the deleterious practice of inflation, except among the privileged few who run the central banks and those closest to them. Some of the so-called "bourgeois" and "capitalists" from whom Marxists wish to expropriate property are among the victims of this expropriation but the brunt of the burden falls squarely on what Marxists call the proletariat class. The methods by which Marxists intend to bring about Marxism therefore result in the opposite of the intended effect. What about redressing the damages done to the "proletariat" by fractional reserve central banking? Libertarians aren't audacious enough to presume to know the method by which that restitution should be assessed or provided, but if they were, we could be certain that those methods wouldn't include expropriating the property of innocent people.
You can keep your stuff under a Marxist social order...?
The second of Mr. Kliman's claims is that there is no issue with people owning their own property under a Marxist social order as long as that property isn't a means of production. But what constitutes a means of production? In the hands of a five year old, a touch screen tablet is a means of entertainment. In the hands of a writer, architect or software engineer, it's a means by which content is produced. Any scarce, rivalrous means is a means of production in the hands of someone who produces with it. A house could serve as simple shelter for a small family, or it could serve as a business front for a hairdresser. A car could serve as a simple means of transportation for a commuter, or it could serve as a means by which an Uber drive provides a service to his customers. There is no non-arbitrary way to differentiate between whether or not a given means is capable of being used in the production process.
Furthermore, if Mr. Kliman's previous claim is correct and all means of production are constructed with capital that was at one point expropriated, this would also be true of any goods or services produced and provided via those means. There would therefore be no objective difference between means which Mr. Kliman deems to be capable of production and means which he doesn't deem to be capable of production.
Factories and fields do not have a duopoly on production. Without an objective standard by which to differentiate productive means from unproductive means, there would therefore be no way to ensure that people aren't arbitrarily deprived of their property at the whim of anyone who unilaterally deems them to be guilty of expropriation in a Marxist social order.
Leave if you don't like it.
The third of Mr. Kliman's claims is that those who don't like the rules of a Marxist social order would be free to leave. This is a bit of a Machiavellian dilemma. On the one hand, you can have your property expropriated and be excluded from the use of it. On the other, you can abandon your property and be excluded from the use of it. Sounds like a win-win for Marxists. This claim is simply argumentum ad baculum. Nothing more needs to be said about it.
By contrast, libertarians don't force people off of their property for not surrendering their property.
Despite Mr. Kliman's claims to the contrary, libertarianism and Marxism are mutually exclusive under an overarching Marxist social order. On the other hand, small Marxist communes certainly could exist under an overarching libertarian social order because libertarians aren't seeking to expropriate anything. The expropriation by which Marxists would establish their social order can only ever result in the opposite of the intended effect. Trying to bring about equality through the initiation of force is a performative contradiction. Asserting a fictitious moral exception that allows people to expropriate from others without consequence makes people unequal by definition.
According to Mr. Kliman and his comrades, a laborer's decision to enter into a mutually consensual exchange agreement with the owner of a means of production constitutes expropriation of the laborer's work. Never mind the fact that an act can only constitute expropriation in the absence of freely given consent. In their view, the biological limitations of the human body are the fault and moral responsibility of entrepreneurs; not nature. Any entrepreneur who finds a way to free men from the natural constraints of the world is seen by the Marxist as responsible for the existence of those constraints in the first place. What the libertarian sees as a mutually beneficial exchange (win-win) is always seen by the Marxist as subjugation (win-lose). In the Marxist perspective, there is no such thing as a mutually beneficial exchange. They see all exchange as a form of slavery, thus they prefer to enslave entrepreneurs.
Why would Mr. Kliman or any other Marxist have better insight into the preferences of an individual worker than the worker himself given that no individual has epistemic access to any mind other than his own? Any "proletariat" capable of rational thought would find this paternalism offensive. The enslavement of entrepreneurs robs working class people of both moral agency and upward mobility. If Mr. Kliman and his fellow Marxists wish for a less unequal distribution of wealth and for the fewest number of people to be vulnerable to nature due to the biological limitations with which they were born, they should probably become anarcho-capitalists.
About the Author
I'm Jared Howe! I'm a Voluntaryist hip hop artist and professional technical editor/writer with a passion for Austrian economics and universal ethics. You can catch my podcast every Friday on the Seeds of Liberty Podcast Network.