Book Review: Marxism: Philosophy And Economics by Thomas Sowell

(William Morrow and Company, Inc., 105 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10016), 1985 • 281 pages • $15.95 cloth

Those who would defend freedom against its opposites must avoid the pat generalizations and hackneyed misconceptions that have colored both apologies for and attacks upon the work of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. In his slim, tightly woven but thorough exposition, Thomas Sowell cuts through the labyrinthine rhetoric of Marx and Engels to provide a scholarly but concise and accessible interpretation of Marxian theory.

Reserving criticism for his final chapter, Dr. Sowell simply and systematically presents the philosophy, economics, historical theory and political strategy of Marxism. He emphasizes that Marx must be understood in terms of his dialectics, thus avoiding the pitfalls of earlier analysts.

Dialectics refers to the process by which things change and develop. “What Marxian theory derived from Hegel,” Sowell tells us, “was that the way to understand the world was not to see it as a collection of things but as an evolving process. An acorn or a caterpillar could not be understood as a fixed and isolated thing, without seeing that it was a transitory stage of an ongoing process that would eventually turn one into an oak tree and the other into a butterfly.”

Marx was essentially interested in human development and wanted to establish the social environment where human beings might best realize their potential. Under the “exploitative” conditions of capitalism and the division of labor, Marx claimed, people can develop themselves only partially. Standing all day in a factory and working in front of a machine does not encourage a person to develop and express his or her personal creativity.

Marx’s theory of history tries to explain the transformations of whole societies. Changing technologies bring changes in economic relationships and ultimately in political structures and ideologies. Society is not completely determined by its modes of production, but economic development provides the tendencies which society will follow.

Capitalism is viewed as a necessary stage in socio-economic development, but one which will eventually be “negated” or replaced. It offered wider potentialities for mankind than earlier systems and provided a rapid increase in production, but it leads to continual, periodic crises which will ultimately hasten its development into a higher form of society.

The form the revolutionary movement would take was seen by Marx and Engels as crucial to the development of the post-revolutionary society. A democratic regime would be possible only if the bourgeois rule were overthrown by a mass movement of workers, but a small conspiracy of professional revolutionaries would imply dictatorial rule after the revolution.

Dr. Sowell sees the modern practice of communism as being, in a sense, a betrayal of Marx’s thought, but not one which should have been wholly unpredictable. For one thing, Marxism is, in Sowell’s words, “a mighty instrument for the acquisition and maintenance of political power.” And it is not entirely clear whether Marx himself would not have committed the atrocities of a Joseph Stalin or a Pol Pot.

Nevertheless, Dr. Sowell, who himself now holds a distinctly free-market outlook, remembers the attraction which Marxist doctrine once held for him and continues to hold for countless students and intellectuals. He tells us, “What Marx accomplished was to produce such a comprehensive, dramatic, and fascinating vision that it could withstand innumerable empirical contradictions, logical refutations and moral revulsions at its effects.”

Dr. Sowell, too, is dramatic and comprehensive, and his book is clearly written and devoid of jargon. It is ideally suited as an introduction to Marxism, but it delves deeply enough to recommend itself to more learned scholars. The last chapter spells out the tragic flaws in Marx’s reasoning and is especially worth reading. Dr. Sowell has provided a valuable work which will enable us to base our acceptance of free enterprise and our rejection of communism on careful study and deliberation.