Rothbard’s Perversion of Marx

Michelle Fransan, from the São Paulo’s Instituto Liberal, published an article this week (“Marx e a defesa da prostituição forçada“, Liberzone, May 13) that supposedly “proved” how Marx advocated the dissolution of family and general forced prostitution. It’s an old meme that refuses to die. It’s also a lie that forces me into the awkward position of defending Karl Marx.

Periodically, this claim seems to be brought back by communism truthers who aren’t content in criticizing Marx’s actual views, but have to appeal to misreadings of obscure letters so that they are able to churn out clickbait headlines to be plastered all over social media.

Not surprisingly, Murray Rothbard is the one to blame here. In his An Austrian Perspective on the History of Economic Thought (volume 2), he misquotes and wildly misinterprets Marx in an effort to portray him as someone who not only advocated borderline collective rape, but who was also well aware that his system was supposed to destroy everyone’s individuality.

A couple of years ago, an excerpt of his book was published at the Brazilian Mises Institute website, kickstarting articles such as Fransan’s rehash and hundreds of Facebook images proving that Marx was actually the devil incarnate. I will try to present here an accurate reading of his views.

(As a side note, I should also say here that part of the problem here are the ridiculous “translations” published by Mises Brazil — if they can even be called that. In an effort to make their articles even more outrageous and hence shareable, the editors over there make it a point to substantially modify the text of each and every piece they put up. That’s one of the reasons this article gained traction in the first place. Thus, Mises Brazil is absolutely worthless as a source. In this instance, they expanded on Rothbard’s points and even extended his quotes. What is even more frustrating is that they never make clear who wrote which section — they just mix in the editor’s writing with the original. Mises Brazil’s articles, therefore, should be called supercuts rather than translations, and should be avoided like the plague by anyone who values accuracy rather than propaganda.)

In any case, Rothbard talks about “raw communism” as described by Marx. According to Rothbard, “raw communism” is the first stage of Marx’s revolution (the dictatorship of the proletariat). This is false. Marx describes raw communism so negatively to oppose it. Marx claims that some communist authors didn’t go far enough in their denunciation of private property, so their theories weren’t able to overcome it, so much as they intended to “generalize” it. I quote at length from Rothbard’s piece:

Most remarkably, Marx admittedly agreed with Proudhon’s, and particularly Stein’s, portrayal of the first stage of the postrevolutionary society, which he agreed with Stein to call “raw communism.” Stein forecast that raw communism would be an attempt to enforce egalitarianism by wildly and ferociously expropriating and destroying property, confiscating it, and coercively communizing women as well as material wealth. Indeed, Marx’s evaluation of raw communism, the stage of the dictatorship of the proletariat, was even more negative than Stein’s:

“In the same way as woman is to abandon marriage for general [i.e. universal] prostitution, so the whole world of wealth, that is, the objective being of man, is to abandon the relation of exclusive marriage with the private property owner for the relation of general prostitution with the community.”

Not only that, but as Professor Tucker puts it, Marx concedes that

“raw communism is not the real transcendence of private property but only the universalizing of it, not the overcoming of greed but only the generalizing of it, and not the abolition of labour but only its extension to all men. It is merely a new form in which the vileness of private property comes to the surface.”

In short, in the stage of communalization of private property, what Marx himself considers the worst features of private property will be maximized. Not only that, but Marx concedes the truth of the charge of anticommunists then and now that communism and communization is but the expression in Marx’s words, of “envy and a desire to reduce all to a common level.” Far from leading to a flowering of human personality as Marx is supposed to claim, he admits that communism will negate it totally. Thus Marx:

“In completely negating the personality of men, this type of communism is really nothing but the logical expression of private property. General envy, constituting itself as power, is the disguise in which greed re-establishes itself and satisfies itself, only in another way … In the approach to woman as the spoil and handmaid of communal lust is pressed the infinite degradation in which man exists for himself.”

All in all, Marx’s portrayal of raw communism is very like the monstrous regimes imposed by the coercive Anabaptists of the sixteenth century.

Professor Tucker adds, perhaps underlining the obvious, that “these vivid indications from the Paris manuscripts of the way in which Marx envisaged and evaluated the immediate postrevolutionary period very probably explain the extreme reticence that he always later showed on this topic in his published writings.”

It’s unfortunate that Rothbard relies so much on secondary sources (in this instance, Robert Tucker’s work), because his interpretation is utterly bizarre.

Marx describes raw communism in those terms because he opposes it to his own scientific communism. According to Marx, raw communism leads to such repulsive results because it doesn’t mean the end of private property, but its transformation into common property.

You shouldn’t have to believe me. You could look into primary sources. The source from these quotes is an unpublished manuscript by Marx that was cited in David Riazanov’s book Communism and Marriage. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to scoop an English version for it online, but the always helpful archive has a Portuguese version available, which I translate below (don’t worry: I follow a strict policy of actually translating what the author wrote, unlike Mises Brazil):

[I] was lucky to find a manuscript by Marx where he criticizes this so-called “raw” communism, not only regarding private property, but also in relation to marriage. I apologize in advance for the long quote:

Considering private property, in its origin, communism is in its primitive form means the generalization and abolition of private property. There are two aspects regarding this abolition: on the one hand, it overstates the role and the domination of material property so much that it intends to destroy everything that is not able to bring about fortune and everyone’s private property; it intends to suppress by violence the individual abilities, etc. Physical possession appears as the only principle of life: the activity of the laborer is not abolished, but extended to every man.

Private property continues to be the collective relationships in the realm of things; this movement that claims to oppose private property to private property turned common expresses itself in a very animalistic way when it opposes marriage (which, evidently, is a form of exclusive property) in favor of a women’s community: when women become collective and abject property. We can say that this idea of a women’s community reveals the secret of this raw and soulless communism. In the same way that women abandons marriage in favor of general prostitution, the realm of wealth, that is, the objectified essence of man, turns from exclusive marriage to private property into general prostitution with the collective. Prostitution is nothing but a particular expression of the general prostitution of the worker, and since prostitution does not extend just to the prostituted, but also to those who prostitute (whose abjectness becomes even larger), the capitalist is also present in this category, etc. This communism, which denies all human personality, is nothing but an expression of private property it denies.

The woman, considered as prey and object that serves the collective concupiscence, expresses the infinite degradation of man when she exists for herself, for the mystery of man’s relation with the other is expressed unequivocally, decisively, frankly, in the relations of man and women, and in the ways of entering into these natural and direct relations. . . .

Thus, the first form of positive abolition of private property, raw communism, is nothing but the vulgarization of private property trying to affirm itself as a positive social structure.

While Marx is certainly hard to read and interpret (and, naturally, translate), and while the above excerpt wasn’t published, it seems clear that Marx opposed raw communism. For him, it isn’t the first stage of revolution, but it is an inferior communist system, compared to his own. And why is it inferior to his own version? Because, according to him, it would lead to a “vulgarization” of private property, rather than its abolition. It wouldn’t overcome the labor, but make everyone a laborer; it wouldn’t abolish marriage as property, but would generalize marriage relations (which would lead to general prostitution).

Marx also, in spite of Rothbard’s claims, seems quite sensitive to the fact that the communism he describes would need to employ violence and to suppress individual personality. And, again, Rothbard (probably following Robert Tucker), took away from the text the exact opposite of what Marx meant.

Now, as I said in the beginning, I feel a little awkward having to write something like this, since I’m no Marxist. However, I do feel the need to set the record straight, especially when false information such as Rothbard perpetrates are repeatedly brought up by libertarian and market anarchist circles.

We don’t even have refrain from criticizing the writings Rothbard himself quoted.

We could say that Marx’s distinction between raw communism and scientific communism is bogus; that his own version would bring about the undesirable results he described; that ending all private property is a chimera.

But we shouldn’t say that he advocated raw communism, or general prostitution, or collective rape, or the suppression and violence of individual personality. Because he didn’t.

Often, we end up swept by the narratives shared over and over on Twitter and Facebook. It’s a shame that people resort to these bullshit arguments, because, really, it isn’t that hard to find holes in Marxism.

Translations of this article:

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory