A few days ago I promised to write something about a short essay by János Kornai, the famous Hungarian economist, on his encounter with Marxism. The essay, entitled “Marx egy kelet-európai értelmiségi szemével” (Marx through the eyes of an Eastern European intellectual), appeared in a volume of Kornai’s collected essays, Gondolatok a kapitalizmusról: Négy tanulmány (Thoughts on capitalism: Four essays) (Budapest, Akadémia, 2012).
Kornai in this essay describes his road to Marxism and his discovery of some of the fundamental flaws of the Marxist system. He had just turned eighteen in 1945 and was open to the ideas of the Hungarian Communist Party (MKP) after going through a war, losing his father in Auschwitz and his older brother somewhere in the Soviet Union where he served in a labor battalion. He was attracted to the party that was most resolutely opposed to the Horthy regime and all that it entailed. So he began his study of the works of Karl Marx in the original German because at that time no Hungarian translation was available.
He began with Das Kapital and was struck by the sharp logic and the precise formulations of his ideas. These attributes appealed to Kornai because he himself is “a maniac for order and precise thinking.” Moreover, eventually he began to surmise that Marxism had universal application. It was just as applicable to the evaluation of a theatrical production as it was to economic problems. Here Kornai steps back a little and observes that “young people desire some kind of universal explanation for all worldly phenomena.” In addition, Marxism appealed to him emotionally because of the German philosopher’s passionate commitment to the oppressed and the dispossessed.
But then came the disillusionment. This process occurred not on an intellectual plane but on moral grounds. It happened when he met an old communist who has been arrested and tortured. His faith in the system was shaken. He had encountered critical voices against Marxism earlier but refused to take them seriously. Once his faith in the moral superiority of the system started to waver, however, he began noticing things that he didn’t want to see before. Problems with the practical application of socialism. In vain did he look for answers in Marx’s works. It was not that Marx gave wrong answers to these questions, like wastefulness, low quality products, the constant scarcity of goods. The real problem was that it never occurred to him to pose any of these questions in the first place.
Once Kornai’s faith was shaken he began studying Marx more critically and found that there are some really fundamental precepts of Marxism that have proven to be dead wrong in the years since Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto. One of these was Marx’s insistence that as a result of the capitalist mode of production the lives of workers will become more and more wretched. It was enough to look around in well-developed capitalist countries to see that this Marxist prediction was wrong. Exactly the opposite was true: the living standards of the proletariat were steadily improving. Without going step by step through his mental processes, the final result was that even before the 1956 Revolution Kornai had become a critic of the socialist system.
So, eventually he had to pose the question to what extent Marx was responsible for what was going on in the Soviet Union of Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev, in the China of Mao Zedong, and in other socialist countries. What is the relation between the theoretical ideas of Marx and the historical reality of the socialist system? Here I will quote Kornai verbatim: “I will try to answer concisely: the socialist system realized Marx’s plan.”
Kornai is aware that some people might counter that this judgment goes too far. But in Marx’s opinion a market economy doesn’t work. The market is anarchy and chaos. In its place a planned economy must be introduced. Moreover, private property must be abolished and it must be replaced by commonly held ownership. Both of these very basic Marxist doctrines became a reality in the socialist countries. When Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, and others invoked Marx’s name and work to defend their policies, they were correct. They had every reason to appeal to him. They were the ones who realized Marx’s dreams.
Kornai also finds Marx “guilty” of rejecting “empty, formal bourgeois constitutionalism, the parliamentary system, and democracy.” He didn’t seem to realize that once a market economy and individual initiatives are gone the system must be directed from above and that very fact results in the repressive apparatus of the state or the ruling party. So, Marx is responsible for what happened in the Soviet Union and in other socialist countries, but it is “intellectual responsibility.”
Finally, Kornai briefly analyzes what we still can learn from Marx. After the collapse of the socialist system the belief spread in intellectual circles that Marxism was dead. But in the last few years, especially since the 2008 financial crisis, the opposite has been true. Marx is in vogue again. “Prophets” have arrived who predict that capitalism is dead, a view Kornai doesn’t share. Yes, capitalism right now is going through a deep crisis but it is alive and will most likely live for a very long time.
Nonetheless, Kornai believes there are some valuable Marxist teachings that are still applicable. One of these is the overextended expansion of credit and production that far surpasses demand. Marx talked about these problems in the first and third volumes of Das Kapital and called attention to the grave consequences of these phenomena. Today we see the results of the irresponsible granting of credit all too clearly. As for the balance between supply and demand, Marx was especially interested in imbalances in the labor market. Today the imbalance in the labor market poses serious problems in the developed world. Marx was one of the pioneers in discovering this danger.
In addition, Kornai also looks upon Marx as the first person who tried the develop something Kornai calls a “system paradigm” (rendszerparadigma). He was an economist, a sociologist, a political scientist, and a historian who tried to combine all these disciplines. Today we call this an interdisciplinary way of looking at the world which attempts a comprehensive understanding of society as a whole.
Kornai ends his brief essay by saying that he is not a Marxist but neither is he a Keynesian. He doesn’t belong to any school or -isms. He considers himself to be an eclectic economist who was influenced by Joseph A. Schumpeter, John Maynard Keynes, Friedrich Hayek, and Marx “who in this list is always mentioned in the first place.”