The Reputation of Karl Marx and the Soviet Revolution of 1917

The Reputation of Karl Marx and the Soviet Revolution of 1917

The Reputation of Karl Marx and the Soviet Revolution of 1917

Karl Marx (1818-1883) remains one of the most highly cited authors in academic literature, 140 years after his death.

But when did his writing become especially prominent?

During his lifetime or after? And how has his prominence trended in recent decades?

Philip Magness and Michael Makovi discuss the history and offer some measurements of how often Karl Marx is cited in “The Mainstreaming of Marx: Measuring the Effect of the Russian Revolution on Karl Marx’s Influence” (Journal of Political Economy, June 2023).

Marx is not cited much by economists. The authors quote the 1925 comment of John Maynard Keynes that Marx’s Capital is “an obsolete economic textbook . . . without interest or application for the modern world.” However, Marx has become immensely popular in other fields:

A century later, Marx enjoys an immense scholarly stature—albeit almost entirely outside of economics. His critiques of capitalism are taught as foundational texts in sociology, political theory, philosophy, and literary criticism, and his socio-economic doctrines of alienation, class consciousness, and historical materialism exert heavy influence through the academically fashionable analytical frameworks of critical theory, postcolonial theory, and cultural studies.

One 2013 paper estimated that Karl Marx was the most-cited author in history. Looking at college syllabuses (and leaving aside textbooks), Marx remains among the most-assigned authors, rivaled only by Plato, and far ahead of John Stuart Mill, Adam Smith, Martin Luther King Jr., Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Rawls, and others.

I will not try here to unpack just why economists in general have been dismissive of Marx’s work since the 19th century, although Magness and Makovi go into that topic in some detail. Instead, I focus on the evidence they compile from Google’s Ngram Viewer, which measures how often an author or a term is used in printed books over time. For comparison, they compare citations to Marx with the average of a group of other socialist writers from the 19th century, weighted so that their citations match those of Marx in the lead-up to 1917. This “synthetic Marx” group is mostly made up of mostly Frederick Lassalle, Johanne-Karl Rodbertus, and Oscar Wilde (who wrote a prominent 1891 essay called “The Soul of Man under Socialism”). Here’s a figure, with the solid line showing citations to Marx and the dashed line showing citations to “synthetic Marx.”

The fact that the two lines track each other before 1917 isn’t a surprise: “synthetic Marx” was constructed to track Marx before that date. What’s interesting is the divergence around 1917, when citations to Marx rise dramatically, and then keep rising. The authors write (citations and footnotes omitted):

The Bolshevik political ascendance drew widespread attention to Marx’s system particularly as the Western press sought to contextualize the revolution. … For many observers abroad, Marx became a clue to understanding the “Bolshevik threat” … Lenin’s political rise simultaneously enabled a sizable boost to the academic study of Marx’s doctrines. In 1919, the Soviet state created the Marx Engels Institute … Working with the newly established Frankfurt Institute of Social Research (the “Frankfurt School”), the Marx-Engels Institute published 12 volumes of the Marx-Engels-Gesamtausgabe (“MEGA1”) in German.

The Soviet state became the primary translator of Marx’s works through the government-funded Progress Publishers, founded in 1931. Marx played a similarly prominent role in Soviet propaganda through artwork and statuary, dating to Lenin’s personal direction . Indeed, Lenin initiated the practice of pilgrimage to Marx’s grave in 1903 and personally supervised the first of several unsuccessful Soviet attempts to have his remains relocated to Moscow in 1918. While other factors certainly shaped Marx’s reception in the mid-twentieth century, including the diaspora of the German-speaking academic Left in the face of Nazi persecution, the catalyzing event in the elevation of Marx’s intellectual stature appears to be the Russian Revolution. …

We hypothesize that the Soviet embrace of Marx not only elevated Karl Marx absolutely but also crowded out other socialist traditions. Several of these competing thinkers linger in relative obscurity today, despite being closely matched contemporaries of Marx in the eyes of late-nineteenth-century socialists.

All of my professional life, it has been common for me to hear people argue that while they are a Marxist, they are not therefore a Stalinist, a Leninist, or a supporter of the politics, economics, and philosophies of Soviet Russia. At some level, this is all fair enough: blaming Karl Marx for events that happened decades after his death seems unfair, as silly as blaming, say, Adam Smith (died in 1790) for modern capitalism. But on the other side, those who choose Marx as the avatar for their socioeconomic doctrines do bear some responsibility for their emphasis on Marx, who was uplifted by a considerable publicity effort from Soviet Russia, rather than choosing to fly the banner of his socialist contemporaries like Lassalle (who favored social-democratic labor reform in Germany and was denounced by Marx in anti-Semitic terms) or Rodbertus (who may well have originated the “surplus value” concept used by Marx). As Magness and Makovi put it:

While much of the discussion surrounding the bicentennial of Karl Marx’s birth sought to differentiate consideration of his modern relevance from the totalitarian track record of twentieth-century communism, the elevation of Marx’s stature provided by the Russian Revolution illustrates that the two cannot be easily separated. It is insufficient to portray Soviet communism as an aberration from true Marxist doctrine, as the intellectual mainstreaming of Marxist theory is intimately intertwined with the political establishment of the Soviet Union. In assessing how this historical link shapes current interpretations of Karl Marx, one must grapple with the implications of Marxism’s early twentieth-century intellectual ascendance as a Soviet political project.

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Timothy Taylor

Global Economy Expert

Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.

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