I just learned that May 5, 2018 was the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birthday, so happy birthday Karl! But I would be remiss to point out that this is a bittersweet occasion given the history of Marxism and the great fiasco of the Soviet Union as well as many, many other lesser fiascos.
I might point out, on a personal note, that the title of this blog, “Course 17”, which is what they call political science at MIT, is in part due to Karl, if I may call him Karl. You see, there was a professor there, let’s call him Prof. Kilo, which is appropriate since it implies the metric system, the implied ascendancy of science, and the rejection of regressive tradition and backward religion — by force if necessary — which frequently it proved to be. I my case, I wrote a paper against socialism in an MIT class called “Rationality”. Being a computer scientist — what they call “Course 6” at MIT — I noted that computational theory shows there are all sorts of interesting limits that pop up quite quickly when it comes to the predictability of computers with perhaps the most famous being the halting problem, which states you can’t tell it a computer program is going to halt or stop unless you actually run the program. When it comes to actual day-to-day programming, this theory manifests itself through the need to save backups before making and testing even small changes because frequently what I thought was going to work didn’t, and I needed to get back to what I knew did work. This is counter-intuitive to non-programmers because I knew more about that code than anybody in the world because I wrote it, but the code had become sufficiently complex that my mind couldn’t predict what it would do. I had theories, sure, but they needed to be tested and were frequently found… wanting.
When it comes to Marxist political theorists though, they regularly assume they know how political systems far more complex than mere computer code work. Moreover, Marxists advocate — based on their super-powerful brains and deep understanding — making gigantic, radical changes to political systems based on their predictions about how they’ll turn out. My paper said, basically, that if I had trouble predicting small changes in my computer code that I created and understood better than anybody else in the world, then how could Marxists predict the outcome of gigantic, radical changes of systems understood far less well? Basically this was Hayek’s Nobel-winning thesis but with a computer theory overlay, which seemed like a reasonable paper for MIT.
The reaction was not what you would expect as a Course 6 person but exactly as you might imagine as a Course 17 person — that is, spectacularly negative! I received an F on the paper. Not much I could say about that, so I went away and reviewed my logic, which still made sense to me, and then thought about how to present my arguments better. I went back to Kilo and started to express what I was trying to do when he interrupted me and shouted, “Your paper means nothing! Nothing!” Strangely, I felt better because I realized that there was something there, but Kilo just couldn’t handle it because why else would he be so emotional? I still had an F on my record, but that was only a minor problem.
Later on I read Herman Finer’s Road to Reaction, which criticized Hayek similarly — that is, emotionally. What’s revealing is that this book by Finer, a Harvard professor and Fabian socialist or Marxist, is absolutely horrible, but it was published and apparently accepted as reasonable by his socialist and Marxist colleagues. Hayek was given an update by Herb Simon, who also a Nobel and created bounded rationality, which hearkens back to the Course 17 class that Kilo gave me an F in, Rationality.
The point here is not to rehash who said what long ago but to realize there’s an important and unresolved research puzzle here that has incredibly large, super significant policy consequences. Why do Marxists claim to follow science and logic yet come unglued when confronted with complex arguments they can’t understand or answer? What is the enduring appeal of Marxism, and why does it persist despite its obvious and oh-so-well documented failures? This isn’t just an academic endeavor but is vital for the future of humanity, and the way forward seems to be through a better understanding of complexity generally and complex social science specifically and, more importantly, how it is different from and better than Marxism. No less an intellect than Stephen Hawking said that the 21st century will be one of complexity, and who are we to let Steve — if I may call him Steve — down?