3 Straw Man Arguments Surrounding Marxism

marx strawmen

The following article was originally published on Pieria.co.uk as “The Many Straw Men Surrounding Marx,” by Unlearning Economics. We have re-published it verbatim, with permission. Be sure to go like Pieria on Facebook.

Every school of thought likes to claim that the other schools of thought misunderstand or misinterpret them, and hence that their criticisms miss the mark by attacking a ‘straw man‘. Sadly, it is often true that this is the case, and I am guilty of misinterpreting my opponents on many occasions. However, in my opinion, there is little contest for the most frequently misrepresented figure around: it has to be Karl Marx.

For many, Marxist theories should be laid to rest. His labour theory of value is often referred to as “discredited”, superseded by the subjective theory of value, while historical materialism and its lofty ideals about changing human nature are held to be equally fallacious. His purported views on colonialism (and their Leninist children), while not entirely wrong, are held to be incomplete as they fail to include non-capitalist instances of these phenomena. Finally, his historical ideas about the ‘inevitable’ overthrow of class war and victory of socialism are seen as naive and deterministic, and, to a degree, ethnocentric.

However, as I will show, such crude caricatures have been around for over a century, and were often repudiated by Marx (and his collaborator, Friedrich Engels) themselves.

Labour Theory of Value

The Labour Theory of Value (LTV) states that the “value” of a commodity is determined by the “socially necessary labour time” embodied in it (“socially necessary” to avoid the nonsensical idea that somebody who makes something slowly will contribute more value than somebody who makes the same thing, but faster). To the extent that ‘capital’ (machines, raw materials etc) contribute toward this value, it is only in the necessary labour time required to produce that capital. Hence, only labour can ‘add’ value, and therefore surplus is produced by workers, while capitalists are parasitic, receiving profit only because they pay their workers less than the workers produce.

Now, contrary to what many – including some Marxists – insist, the LTV is not a theory of price. Sure, thinkers from Adam Smith to David Ricardo, and to a certain extent Marx himself (at least initially), tried to work it out as such. But the finished product, as espoused by Marx and Hegel, had nothing to do with price. Instead, it was a theory of the total value in capitalist economies: where the surplus came from (exploitation) and how the changes in the production of this surplus would manifest themselves (periodic crises). Marx made this much clear in a response to critic, who charged that his theory of value was erroneous because prices are also a function of demand:

“What has this to do with my theory of value? To the degree that corn is sold above its value, other commodities…are, to the same degree, sold below their value. The sum of values remains the same.”

Hence, the theory can only predict the total value produced in a capitalist economy, while individual prices can vary based on monopoly, demand or whatever else. This is what led Eugene Bohm-Bahwerk to call Marx’s theory “tautological”; similarly, philosopher Karl Popper famously argued that such statements made Marxism unfalsifiable.

However, there is a clear criterion for testing Marx’s theory: the declining rate of profit. If there is observed a short term tendency of the rate of profit to fall – due to capitalists substituting capital for labour, hence reducing their surplus per unit of cost – manifesting itself in periodic crises, this is consistent with Marx’s theory. If not; if, say, the rate of profit increases before recessions, this would falsify the theory. To paraphrase commenter Hedlund, if we cut through the nonsense and merely ask the question “is what Marx called value, itself a function of necessary labour time, the major parameter underlying the motion of the economy?” then we have an empirical inquiry, and can dispense with the metaphysical confusion, at least for the purposes of science. For those interested, the Marxist economist Andrew Kliman has taken up this challenge.


It is commonly thought that Marxist theories of colonialism and imperialism argue these things are uniquely capitalist phenomena, and hence that the numerous instances of non-capitalist countries engaging in them serve to blow a massive hole in the theory. For example, economist Joseph Schumpeter, in many ways an admirer of Marx, argued it was “absurd” to make “both monopoly and conquest specific properties of latter-day capitalism”.

Yet nothing in Marxism says that to be aggressive, colonialist or imperialist, a country must be capitalist. In fact, as Vladimir Lenin pointed out in Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism:

“Colonial policy and imperialism existed before the latest stage of capitalism, and even before capitalism. Rome, founded on slavery, pursued a colonial policy and practised imperialism.”

The question for Marxists and Leninists is whether colonialism and imperialism are linked to, and are necessary components of, capitalism. Marx argued that if capitalism came into contact with primitive, traditional production structures, it would necessarily upend them in the interests of creating a workforce: the process of ‘primitive accumulation‘. This could occur both domestically – such as the foreclosure movements – or in foreign lands, such as the numerous horrors in the British and other European colonies. The Marxist argument is that the growth of capitalism necessarily results in the subsuming of all other production methods, manifesting itself in colonialism, rather than that any sort of conquest or occupation is necessarily a result of capitalism.

Historical Materialism and Determinism
In 1859, a reviewer of Marx’s Capital charged that:

“Marx treats the social movement as a process of natural history, governed by laws not only independent of human will, consciousness and intelligence, but rather, on the contrary, determining that will, consciousness and intelligence.”

If, as historical materialism charges, the characteristics of both people and society are determined by objective economic factors, then society will move in a certain direction, driven by these factors, regardless of whatever else happens.Yet Marx always recognised the absurdity of such ideas, deprived as they were of historical specificity and, crucially, human agency:”The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself. This doctrine must, therefore, divide society into two parts, one of which is superior to society [i.e. is not also a product of society, the educator].”

Hence materialism must be interpreted weakly, else it is refuted by its own existence!

Marx did claim that economic forces are a fundamental factor in shaping society: after all, his theory of history puts class struggle, itself a product of the relations of production, at centre stage – he famously began The Communist Manifesto by declaring that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” However, Engels warned against interpreting claims like this too strongly, saying that it “transforms [our] proposition into a meaningless, abstract, senseless phrase”. In fact, Marx’s materialism merely makes the claim that the economic relationships of production are a major factor in determining the characteristics of a society, not that they are the only one.

It is also true that Marx argued that there were distinctive, progressive ‘stages’ of society: first primitive communism, then slavery, then feudalism, then capitalism, then socialism, and finally ‘advanced’ communism. And interpreted superficially, this conception sparks some immediate, obvious rejoinders: surely society can regress, different modes can exist side by side, different paths can be taken, and the ‘victory’ of communism is not guaranteed? But again, Marx specifically emphasised that his ‘stages’ were not:

“an historico-philosophic theory of the [general path] imposed by fate upon every people, whatever the historic circumstances in which it finds itself, in order that it may ultimately arrive at the form of economy which will ensure, together with the greatest expansion of the productive powers of social labour, the most complete development of man”

Instead, he was simply describing the conditions of capitalism as it had actually developed, starting in Western Europe. Hence, his arguments, as always, were contingent on specific historical circumstances. The possibility of capitalism transforming not into socialism but into barbarism, or initially having developed another way entirely, is completely dependent on how history plays out.

It would not be ridiculous to suggest that much of the animosity toward Marx stems from a retrospective view of “what his ideas looked like when put in practice”, and the perceived failure of his ideas after the fall of the Berlin Wall. This much was evident in Benedict Brogan’s recent discussion of Ralph Miliband and the Cold War (refuted by Chris Dillow). In retrospect, Marx’s militant calls for communists to engage in “propaganda” (which only really gained a bad reputation as a word due to the Nazis’ use of it against the Jews) seem naturally extreme. Similarly, the mistreatment of “upper class” peasants in the USSR can seemingly be linked to Marx’s call for the destruction and abolition of private property, despite his statement that “the property of petty artisan and of the small peasant…there is no need to abolish that”.

In any case, Joan Robinson put it best when she said that reading Marx for herself revealed “a great deal that neither its followers nor its opponents had prepared me to expect.” Once you sweep through the caricatures and interpret Marx charitably, there is a great deal worthwhile to be found in his work.

  • Erik

    (1) I think you wrote Marx and Hegel regarding socially necessary labor-time, when you mean Marx and Engels. I’m sure you’ll see upon reflection that writing Hegel rather than Engels was a complete and utter waste of your labor (and to some extent mine). The value of labor comes from the goal it serves, not the other way around. Am I supposed to value Auschwitz because social labor went into it? No. It was an evil that never should have happened. The labor theory of value is reductive and misleading. The subjective theory of value not only allows for acknowledgment of risk and error, it allows for the acknowledgment of evil vs. good. I’m not denying that current wages in the US are largely unjust, but that argument can be made entirely within the framework of a subjective theory of value. (2) Quoting Lenin with regard to imperialism is a complete and utter joke; no, not only that, its mendacious. I usually don’t make such personal attacks, but my moral conscience calls for it. The USSR was to become one of the most imperialistic, colonizing forces on the planet, certainly on a par if not exceeding that of the US. (3) Okay, I’ll grant you your third point regarding historical materialism and the like. Thanks for that.

    However, I suggest that if you want to glean something from Marx, it should be his commodification thesis rather than the three theses you list above–that is, the thesis that the overinflation of the market and the capitalistic mentality crowds out other important values; and that there is a danger in reducing our self-understanding to merely marketable labor. Jürgen Habermas, following an established tradition, long ago pointed out that this overinflation of the market was one of the major colonizing factors of the lifeworld, which is the ultimate social space for moral action. Michael Sandel has recently articulated this in fairly mild terms, using weak examples, but he’s on the right track.

    • Jonathon Hawtin

      If you ever take the time to study and understand Marx’s value
      theory, one of the first things that will become apparent is that Marx
      makes a distinction between ‘use value’—the physical properties of a
      given commodity that make it more or less useful to a consumer based on their subjective needs and desires—and value as socially necessary labor time. Marx’s theory has nothing to do with your feelings on Auschwitz or labor that is not socially necessary ie rape. His theory is
      concerned with the creation of social surplus. The objections that you
      have raised don’t relate to his theory because you don’t know or
      understand his theory well enough to offer a critique. Yet you feel
      qualified to proclaim that ‘the labor theory of value is reductive and
      misleading, erroneous and uncritical’. Perhaps it is you who is
      reductive, misleading, erroneous and uncritical?

      • Erik

        The social necessary labor thesis, which appears in the third volume of Capital rather than the first, was largely the result of Engels’ attempt to adjust for Marx’s more strict labor theory of value, which appeared most clearly in the first volume. However, just look at how you must define “socially necessary” and you will find the subjective theory of value smuggled in there. Indeed, you’ve basically admitted above that the strict labor theory of value is wrong and that a proper theory of value must account for the usefulness of labor rather than labor simpliciter. I’ve certainly put in my time in studying the theory of value both economically and philosophically. I rather enjoy debate on the subject. I’m therefore willing to put in the labor. There’s no need to turn my criticisms of Marx into a personal attack on me (though if I were stupid enough to cite Lenin as an authority on imperialism, it would be well-deserved). I think it’s ironic though that you point out Marx’s distinction between use value and exchange value (the latter merely implicitly, which you perhaps equate with necessary labor time), and you take it as some kind of validation of what you are saying. Look deeper. It isn’t. It points to a tension rather than any resolution. For all of Marx’s critique of capitalism’s reduction of valuation to “labor as such”, he made the same reduction himself clearly in the first volume of capital and much preceding work where he uses a strict labor theory of value. Engels’s contribution in the third volume ultimately sidesteps the issue through some clever terminology. There’s really a huge concession hidden in there. That’s why anyone who really cares about resisting a mentality that embraces “the price of everything and the value of nothing” must ultimately critique Marx himself.

  • Zach Simonson

    Straw *Person

  • Paul Cockshott

    “Now, contrary to what many – including some Marxists – insist,

    the LTV is not a theory of price. Sure, thinkers from Adam Smith to David Ricardo,

    and to a certain extent Marx himself (at least initially), tried to work it out

    as such. But the finished product, as espoused by Marx and Hegel,

    had nothing to do with price. ”

    This is the most incredible baloney. First Hegel made no significant contribution

    to the labour theory of value, far less produced it as ‘finished product’.

    It ignores the entirety of the first volume of Capital, the last one

    Marx wrote and the only one that he published, which most definitely

    does use the labour theory of value to argue about prices.

    ” Hence, the theory can only predict the total value

    produced in a capitalist economy, while individual prices can vary based

    on monopoly, demand or whatever else.”

    It seems to have escaped the author that a theory of value that

    if you take that position you reduce Marx and the classical political

    economists to a joke scientifically speaking. If you think that the

    labour theory of value only predicts the total quantity of value

    produced then it predicts absolutely nothing since there remains one

    free variable – the value of money – so the theory becomes compatible

    with any observation you care to make.

    Let us take the theory as you present it , then we have the equation

    Net national product = hours worked * value of money

    If you had some independent way of determining the value of money this statement

    would not be vacuous, but if you measure the value of money by this same equation,

    then you end up saying nothing. There is no possible observation of the economy

    that your theory would contradict. You are also unable to distinguish between

    this theory and a whole bunch of other ones. How can you establish that the

    labour theory of value rather than the corn theory of value is correct.

    I could formulate an exactly similar equation for the corn theory

    Net national product = tons of corn harvested * value creating power of corn

    The labour theory of value is not only a theory of price, it is the best theory of commodity prices out there. It gives very good predictions of value added per industry – correlation factors above 95%. I can not for the life of me understand why some authors want to denigrate it and pretend, copious textual evidence to the contrary, that Marx and the Classicals did not hold to it.

  • SaulOhio

    If there is a great deal worthwhile in his work, why, when I tried reading “Das Kapital”, did I only find floating abstractions, obvious truisms, indisciferable sentences, baseless assertions, all jumbled up in a pointless hash that didn’t show any sign of actually going anywhere? I didn’t get past page 12.

  • SaulOhio

    Very importantly, imperialist colonialism is NOT capitalism, but its violation. It may be true that nations that have stronger elements of capitalism are wealthier and more technologically advanced, and thus the anti-capitalist elements in those societies have more power to project violent power across the world. But any act of aggression is ANTI-capitalist. All nations of the world exist with a mix of capitalist and anti-capitalist elements to their cultures and economies. Since capitalism is defined as a political/economic system based on property rights, any aggression that violates property rights is ANTI-capitalist.