Book Review: Making Sense of Marx by Jon Elster

Cambridge University Press, 32 E. 57th Street, New York, NY 10022 • 1985 • 556 pages, $15,95 paperback

This volume is the second contribution to a series, Studies in Marxism and Social Theory, being jointly published by the Cambridge University Press and the Editions de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme. The edi tors of the series hope that it will “exemplify a new paradigm in the study of Marxist social theory,” liberating such theory from what they describe as “the increasingly discredited . . . presuppositions” of Marxist orthodoxy.

Jon Elster—a Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago and research director of the prestigious Oslo-based Institute for Social Research—designates himself a Marxist, albeit noting that the sense in which he feels able so to describe himself “has undergone a change over the years.” Many readers may, however, wonder precisely what Elster’s radically revised “Marxism” signifies. His scholarship is awesome; his language is precise; his argumentation is cogent. Yet his Marxism is to the writings of Marx what the ethereal smile of the Cheshire Cat is to that enchanting creature.

“For many readers,” observes Elster, “Marxist economics will be more or less synonymous with the labour theory of value.” One might challenge the term “synonymous” but one both could and should be excused for suggesting that this theory is central to the economic thought of Marx. One is thus somewhat relieved to discover that Elster concedes this centrality. Yet he bluntly asserts that “the theory is useless at best, harmful and misleading at its not infrequent worst,” and proceeds rigorously to defend this judgment.

Elster’s unqualified rejection of both the special and general labor theory of value is extraordinarily significant. The grand old man of Marxist economics in the United States—Paul Sweezy—is indubitably correct to insist that Marxist economics without the labor theory of value and the associated concept of surplus value is Hamlet without the Prince. The insistence of Marx that the capitalist mode of production necessarily involves the exploitation of labor by capital depends, in his economic writings, utterly upon the labor theory of value. Yet Elster firmly and decisively rejects that theory.

Elster’s criticisms of Marx’s class analysis of capitalist society are no less stringent than his criticisms of the labor theory of value. Yet he clearly is anxious to retrieve the notion of class conflict from the dismembered cadaver left when his dissecting exercises are complete. Sadly, Elster is either unaware of, or chooses to ignore, the class (or “caste”) war stressed by classically liberal thinkers, particularly such nineteenth-century French thinkers as Jean Baptiste Say, Gustave de Molinari, Charles Comte, and Alexis de Tocqueville. Indeed Thomas Paine, writing in 1792 of the United States, insisted that “[t]here are two distinct classes of men in the Nation, those who pay taxes and those who receive and live upon the taxes.” As against the “high Tories,” the classical liberals perceived in any government able to appropriate goods and services the root cause of social division and “class” straggle, insisting that unless structures limiting the power of government could be created, conflict between those controlling the statist apparatus and those subject to that apparatus is inevitable.

A case can be made for asserting that the insights Elster most values in Marx are remarkably familiar to students of the freedom philosophy. No student of Ludwig von Mises or reader of Joseph Schumpeter will be amazed to learn that the world studied by economists is a world of dynamic and ongoing change. No person familiar with the rich heritage of classical liberalism will find astonishing the notion that, the moment government’s task is perceived as going beyond that of defending through laws equally applicable to all the equal rights of all, special interest groups seeking to forge an unholy alliance with government will emerge, each warring against the others. No reader of Adam Smith will greet the insistence that a vital relationship exists between a nation’s political and economic structures with other than a somewhat tired, “So what’s new?”—for after all, the market economy rests upon precisely defined and efficiently enforced private property rights.

In short, Elster perhaps unwittingly raises the extraordinary but enchanting possibility that what the editors of the series to which his book is a singularly distinguished contribution wish to establish—namely, “what is true and important in Marxism”—might be aspects of the classical liberal heritage absorbed by the eclectic Marx. Be that as it may, Elster’s volume is a work serious students of the freedom philosophy would do well carefully to read, thoughtfully to ponder, and mightily to enjoy!