Today marks the birthday of probably the most influential social scientist of the last two centuries, Karl Marx. Enormous amounts of ink, digital and actual, have been spilled interpreting Marx, reinterpreting Marx, exegeting Marx, applying Marx, criticizing Marx, refuting Marx, praising Marx, and burying Marx. The current campus debates about free speech suggest that we should consider Marx’s practical, intellectual, and political legacy.

Scholars working in the classical liberal tradition are no strangers to calumnies and occasional slanders as arguments are met with a sneering “who funded this?” rather than careful and critical engagement.

Opponents of minimum wages must be corporate stooges.

Intellectuals who dissent from orthodox positions on anthropogenic global warming — or even the suggestion that it might not be cataclysmic — are in the pockets of oil companies and other sinister interests.

The mere fact that Charles Koch chairs the Institute for Humane Studies’ board of directors and is a generous benefactor of the institute is sufficient in many minds to dismiss wholesale everything that scholars in the IHS network do.

My research defending Walmart was clearly bought and paid for by Walmart.

My work critical of Walmart was clearly bought and paid for by “labor unions and socialists,” as one commenter put it.

Scholars in the IHS network are only enthusiastic about open borders because our corporate masters wish to exploit cheap labor.

You get the idea. Accusation is a convenient substitute for thought.

The enemy is not refuted

As Ludwig von Mises put it in Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis regarding Marxian interpretations of history and intellectual processes, “The enemy is not refuted: enough to unmask him as a bourgeois.” Mises devotes large chunks of an entire short volume — titled Marxism Unmasked — to the discussion and dissection of Marxian methods, argument, and analysis. Confront one who disagrees. Slander him as a bourgeois or as a mere defender of bourgeois class interests. Use this as a pretext for rejecting his ideas wholesale. Move on to the next step in the revolution, contradicting theory and evidence be damned.

Deirdre McCloskey argues that Marx was the greatest social scientist of the 19th century. There is much to support this view, and in promulgating it, she alienates many of her friends on the right. Likewise, she alienates many of her friends on the left by pointing out that Marx was wrong about everything. There is much to support this view as well, from rising real wages for unskilled labor during the British Industrial Revolution to rising standards of living globally in what Andrei Shleifer called “the age of Milton Friedman.” Then there’s the wholesale collapse of economies built on socialism or extensive interventionism as we saw in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the late 1980s and early 1990s and as we are seeing in Venezuela right now.

What are we to make of the intellectuals’ anti-intellectual habits?

They learned them from Marx. Thomas Sowell put it this way in his 1985 book, Marxism: Philosophy and Economics:

Much of the intellectual legacy of Marx is an anti-intellectual legacy. It has been said that you cannot refute a sneer. Marxism has taught many — inside and outside its ranks — to sneer at capitalism, at inconvenient facts or contrary interpretations, and thus to sneer at the intellectual process itself. This has been one of the sources of its enduring strength as a political doctrine, and as a means of acquiring and using political power in unbridled ways.

This acquisition and use of power was not innocuous. Marx famously wrote that “the philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” Change it Marx and his followers did, and not for the better.

Societies built on Marxist ideals were and are murder machines, and even when people aren’t lined up and shot for their opposition to various revolutions, they are made to “leap forward” and are ultimately starved to death. The body count from communist regimes — reaching into the tens of millions — is Marx’s intellectual and political legacy. Would that he and his followers had been more open to the possibility that they might be wrong.