The Allure of Marxism … And Why It’s a Mistake

Karl Marx is probably the most important social scientist in history. But while his influence is beyond compare, Marx’s legacy is, in many ways, disastrous.

Few thinkers have inspired so many people to commit crimes against humanity. Think of Stalinist gulags. Think of the Ukrainian famine of the 1930s, which may have killed as many people as the Holocaust. Think of the Great Chinese Famine of the late 1950s, which killed even more people than the Holocaust. All of these crimes were driven by Marxist policy.

An obvious problem?

OK, many of you are probably wondering where I’m going with this discussion. You’re thinking to yourself: yes, it’s obvious that Marxist ideas led some people to do nasty things. So why do we need to discuss it?

The problem is that it’s not obvious to everyone. Many Marxists don’t connect the crimes of Stalin and Mao directly to Marx’s ideas. Instead, they dismiss these crimes as aberrations. These crimes, they say, were unfortunate consequences of bad people or bad circumstances. Marxism itself was not the problem.

I’ve experienced this thinking first hand. I once took a class taught by a professor who was a militant Marxist. One day, a student asked the professor what had gone wrong with the Russian revolution. The professor’s response surprised me. The revolution, he said, was going well until Lenin died. Then Stalin took over. It was Stalin, the professor insisted, who hijacked the revolution. Had Lenin remained in power (and found a better successor), things would have gone differently.

Now, like me, you’re probably skeptical of the professor’s response. But ask yourself — what’s wrong with his explanation? What’s wrong with pinning the problems of Soviet Russia on Stalin?

Here’s a gaping flaw. When it comes to communist revolution, leaders like Stalin are not the exception. They are the rule. Think Mao. Think Pol Pot. Think Kim Jong-Il. For reasons that Marxists don’t like to think about, communist revolutions frequently end up with despots running the show. So if despots seem to take over Marxist revolutions, it’s hard to argue that Stalin was an aberration.

If we don’t buy the ‘aberration’ argument, then we need to ask a question. Why do communist revolutions usually lead to despotism? Is it just bad luck? Unlikely. I think there’s something deeper going on. I think the problem has to do with Marxist theory itself.

Why do communist revolutions lead to despotism?

Communist revolutions end badly, I believe, because they are based on faulty ideas. The problem is that Marxists misunderstand the source of capitalism’s social ills. It all goes back to Marx himself.

Marx pinned the ills of capitalism on private property. I think this was a mistake. The real cause of most social ills, I believe, is not private property. It’s hierarchy. Why? Because hierarchy concentrates power. And concentrated power is the despot’s best friend. Concentrated power, I believe, leads to social ills like totalitarianism, inequality, mass violence, and oppression. True, private property is intimately linked with hierarchy and power. But, as communist states demonstrated, we can have hierarchy without private property. This is Marx’s fatal error.

So here’s what goes wrong with communist revolutions. Distracted by private property, Marxist revolutionaries make the problem of hierarchy worse than it was under capitalism. They abolish private property, thinking this will solve the problems of capitalism. But to achieve their goals, Marxists create a vanguard party that eventually becomes a single-party state.

So in the name of creating a more just and equitable society, these revolutionaries concentrate power. They replace capitalist hierarchies with an even larger communist hierarchy. Yes, private property is gone. But the problems of hierarchy are even worse than before. It’s an ironic twist. Marxist revolutionaries aim for a socialist utopia. But what they get is a totalitarian nightmare. And it’s all because they focus on private property and neglect the problem of hierarchy.

Marx’s theory of capitalism

To understand why Marxist revolutionaries fixate on private property, we need to understand Marxist theory.

Capitalists, Marx observed, own the tools and machines that workers need to do their jobs. By owning the ‘means of production’, capitalists are able to exploit workers and extract a ‘surplus’. Capitalists, says Marx, are parasites. They live off the backs of workers.

I’ve tried to visualize Marx’s theory in Figure 1. Here we have a group of workers (‘labor’) who collectively produce something of value. To do their jobs, the workers must use construction machines. We call this machinery ‘capital’.

Marxist view of capitalist income

Figure 1: Visualizing Marx’s theory of capitalism.

Here’s the catch. The capitalist owns the capital. So to do their jobs, the laborers must work for the capitalist. Now comes the crucial part. According to Marx, it is workers who create all the value. But since the workers are employed by the capitalist, they don’t own the value they create. The capitalist owns it. And unsurprisingly, the capitalist takes a cut.

So here’s the crux of Marxism. Marxists think that by owning capital, capitalists can take a cut of the value produced by workers. Marxists call this cut ‘surplus value’. It’s value that is produced by workers and stolen by capitalists. That’s Marx’s theory of capitalism in a nutshell. It’s simple, seductive, and incendiary.

Private property as an ideology that justifies hierarchy

Here’s the problem with Marxist theory. I don’t think that private property is the true problem. Private property is just an ideology that justifies hierarchy. And it’s hierarchy, I believe, that is the real social evil. Hierarchy concentrates power, leading to many forms of debauchery.

With hierarchy in mind, let’s take another look at the role of private property in capitalism. Marx focuses on the ownership of things — the tools and machines that workers’ use to do their jobs. But I think this is a distraction. What is really important is the ownership of institutions.

When you own an institution, in effect, you own a hierarchy. But it’s not the ownership itself that is important. It’s the fact that ownership is what legitimizes your power. As the owner of hierarchy, you are the legitimate ruler.

Let’s illustrate this principle using a modern example. Think about what it means to purchase all the shares in a company. What are you buying? I argue that you are buying hierarchical power. As owner of the company, you gain the right to command the corporate hierarchy. Your subordinates obey your commands because, as owner, they believe you are the rightful ruler.

I’ve visualized this thinking in Figure 2. Here we have a capitalist who commands a corporate hierarchy. As ruler, the capitalist is able to split the firm’s income stream. The capitalist keeps some of the income (as profit), and pays the rest to workers. We think of capital not as ‘thing’, but as the symbolic power of the owner.

Capitalist income in a hierarchy

Figure 2: Private property as an ideology that legitimizes hierarchy. Rather than a ‘thing’, we conceive of private property as an ideology. As owner, a capitalist is the legitimate ruler of a corporate hierarchy. The capitalist uses his/her power to divide the firm’s income stream. My thinking here combines my ideas about hierarchy with Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler’s theory of capital as power.

So here’s my main point. I think Marx looked at private property the wrong way. Private property is not the source of our social ills. Private property is just the ideology that justifies hierarchy. And it is hierarchy (and the concentration of power that goes with it) that is the true source of our problems.

The many ideologies of power

When we treat private property as an ideology of power, something interesting happens. We realize that banning private property won’t solve any problems. Why? Because there are many ideologies of power. [1] Banning private property just leads to a new ideology of power. And so the problem of hierarchy continues.

Here’s an interesting way to look at communist revolutions. In a matter of years, they reveal the same pattern that human history shows over centuries. What’s the pattern? That hierarchy is a consistent part of civilization. You can change the ideology that justifies hierarchy, but hierarchy itself doesn’t go away.

Take a long-term change — the transition from feudalism to capitalism. Over centuries, the ideology of power changed. In feudalism, power was justified by religion. (Think of the divine right of kings). But in capitalism, power became justified by private property. The ideology of power changed, but hierarchy itself didn’t go away. If anything, it grew.

Communist revolutions show the same trend, but over a matter of years (not centuries). In one fell swoop, communist revolutionaries abolish private property. In effect, they instantly kill the capitalist ideology of power. They also usually ban religion, and so kill the ideology of feudal power. But do communist revolutionaries abolish hierarchy? No! They remain slavishly devoted to it, probably even more so than under capitalism.

After killing the old ideologies of power, communist revolutionaries adopt a new one. They created a secular religion — a belief in salvation through socialist utopia. Then they used this ideology to concentrate power.

Marx would probably be horrified if he had lived to see his ideas put in action. At least for a time, communist revolutionaries made Marxist thinking a more potent ideology than private property or religion ever were. In the name of Marx, communist regimes plumbed the depths of totalitarianism. Millions died as a result.

Marx underestimated the scale of the problem

Marx argued that there is a simple solutions to the problems of capitalism. Abolish private property, he claimed, and a socialist utopia would follow. But when Marx’s ideas were put in action, they failed spectacularly. Marxist revolutionaries wanted a socialist utopia. Instead, they got a totalitarian hell.

I’ve tried to explain here what went wrong. Basically, Marx underestimated the scale of the problem. Our problem is not private property. Our problem is hierarchy, and the concentration of power that goes with it. Marxist revolutionaries showed that we can abolish private property. But no (lasting) revolution has ever abolished hierarchy. Revolutions just replace one ideology of power with another.

The point that I’m trying to drive home is that hierarchy seems to be a consistent part of civilization. It has been for thousands of years. So barring the collapse of civilization itself, it’s unlikely that hierarchy will vanish any time soon.

So it looks like we’re stuck with hierarchy, and all the social ills that go with it. But that doesn’t mean that we should give up the goal of seeking a more just and equitable society. It just means that communist revolution is not the answer.

Are there answers to the problems of hierarchy?

I believe the answer to our hierarchy problem is simple — make those in power more accountable to their subordinates. Yes, this is simple, but it’s devilishly hard to do. Bottom-up accountability runs counter to the top-down command that those in power love.

Still, over human history we’ve made modest gains in holding those in power to account. We have democracy, however limited it may be. The answer to our hierarchy problem is more democracy. I think it’s doubtful that we’ll get this through revolution. Instead, the march to hold power to account will be a long slow process, fraught with many failures and setbacks.


[1] Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler have an apt name for the relation between ideology and power. They call it a mode of power.

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  1. Hi Blair,

    Many thanks for this post and for your impressive work more generally (of which I’m a great admirer).

    I’d like to push back against one central point you’ve made here.

    I completely agree that the militant Marxist professor was wrong in pinning the problems of Soviet Russia solely on Stalin.

    However, I don’t think it follows from this acknowledgement that these problems can be pinned on Marx.

    I’m not a Marxist (inter alia, because I find Nitzan and Bichler’s critique of the labor theory of value very convincing), but your argument in this post seems to rest on the unstated assumption that Lenin did not distort Marx’s thought.

    However, your own account of Marx’s thought seems to imply that Marx didn’t stop at advocating the abolition of private property, but that he also advocated workers’ control over the means of production. If so, Marx sought to eliminate social hierarchy at the work place (you might still argue he didn’t adequately consider other forms of hierarchy, but he was certainly not oblivious to the problem of hierarchy). In contrast, Lenin was opposed to workers’ control over the means of production, not only in word (his words were often quite ambiguous and opportunistic), but in action too.

    As it happens, the idea that Lenin distorted Marx’s thought in this regard is not new. You might be familiar with the following text by Chomsky (where he cites others who have made the same point):

    If we go by the logic of classifying regimes and people as adherents of particular ideas solely on the basis of their own proclamations, we might need to pin plenty of casualties and problems on the idea of democracy, given the huge number of people who died and suffered actions carried out in its name. But that would be absurd.



  2. Private property and hierarchy are very intimately linked, both historically and conceptually. There can no private property (in the capitalist sense of the word) without hierarchy.

    – What is Property? An Inquiry into the Principle of Right and of Government – Pierre-Joseph Proudhon:

    – Manners, Deference, and Private Property: Or, Elements for a General Theory of Hierarchy – David Graeber:

    – Critique of private property:

    – The Conquest of Bread – Peter Kropotkin:

  3. Wait, human nature abhors a vacuum, therefore trying to maintain one indefinitely is like trying to defy the laws of physics? I know it’s reading a lot into your text, but that certainly seems to be what you’re hinting at, saying hierarchy has been with us for millennia and probably won’t go away soon.

    Likewise the solution, those in power being accountable to their subordinates. Is this to say the United States’ system of checks and balances is as good as it gets? I’m sure you can envision the levers of accountability going much deeper than that. Hopefully at the very least we could count the business sector as a power center for the purpose of balance of powers, a power to be held in check. But checks and balances is an adversarial system, so if improvements to that are all that’s on the table, non-adversarial dreams, such as an economy based on cooperation instead of competition, perhaps remain pipe dreams.

    Overall, there was a smell of defeatism.

    • The problem, as I see it, is that the nested structure of hierarchy seems to be crucial for large-scale organization. Obviously humans can live in small cooperative groups, but the scale of this power-free cooperation seems to have limits.

      In his writings on participatory economics, Michael Albert has argued for what I would call “hierarchy without power”. He argues that human societies should be organized around a nested set of democratic councils. This nesting structure is essentially the same as a hierarchy. But the ‘subordinates’ have strict democratic oversight over those whom they give power to. He sees this as a form of direct democracy.

      When I argue for “more democracy”, I don’t mean representative democracy. This is basically a system where the masses choose who commands the government hierarchy. What I mean by democracy is a bottom-up flow of accountability that counters the top down flow of power at every level of the hierarchy (not just the top). Organizations like labor unions accomplish this. But I think it should be built into the hierarchy.

      So no, I don’t mean that change is not possible. I just mean that seeking a better society by concentrating power is the wrong thing to do.

  4. Thanks for this – another very interesting post.

    I can think of a couple of things I’m interested in which may be of interest regarding the issues raised in this post.

    1) Accountability from above and below. My frame here is efficacy not power, but it’s the other side of that coin in many ways.

    2) I wonder what interest you have in selection by lot as a political mechanism. It seems to me to be very attractive in numerous ways – which I’ve elaborated in various places, probably the most programmatically here. It seems to be to sidestep the ideas of ‘accountability’ and ‘hierarchy’ to a substantial extent with self-accountability instead.

    I’d be interested in your thoughts on both these things.

  5. “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” George Orwell, Animal Farm

    It can be argued that the finance industry have become the parasites (on the workers) rather than the owners of capital. Despite there being alot of capital in existence (its not a scare resource), profits don’t diminish, I suspect this as much to do with cleverness of middle-men as it is the degree of power hierarchy within institutions.

  6. Thanks Blair,

    In response to the question you posed, “Are there answers to the problems of hierarchy?”

    I’d like to modify your proposed solution from “more democracy” to “tailored democracy” to contextualize when democracy needs to be used. Implemented in two parts:

    1. Governments should really create a market for Democracy via the issuance of Democracy Dollars or Democracy Credits. Any institution in the market place is required by law to purchase credits depending on their respective HP or sphere of influence. The constraints being there are only 35 million Canadian Democracy Dollars at a price $1/person the market cap is $35M to be traded between all companies participating in the Canadian economy (or some better version of this idea).

    2. The creation of a Regulatory Body like the Fed which governs Monetary Policy, and instead of solving for inflation and unemployment; solves for regulatory oversight\accountability inflation and unemployment (or something representative of the well being of the population). Extending the Reg Index, we re-purpose the chain weighted inflation index example, which measures both changes in the price of goods, but also reflects changes in the quantity of goods bought. We substitute P with your proposed Price of Hierarchy Power or Democracy (HP) and Q with HP…or some combination of that idea (to arrive at “chain-weighted democracy”, “chain-weighted freedom”, “..accountability”).

  7. Interesting post. But I’m afraid it suffers from a ignorance of Marxist literature, particularly his own writing. Marx has quite a bit to say about democracy and hierarchy (see Critique of Hegel’s “Philosophy of Right”, the German Ideology, And Engel’s Principles of Communism). It is a complete misreading of Marxist theory to suggest the solution of capitalism was merely the abolition of private property.

    Marx and Engels stated in The Communist Manifesto and later works that “the first step in the revolution by the working class, is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class, to win the battle for democracy” and universal suffrage, being “one of the first and most important tasks of the militant proletariat”. As Marx wrote in his Critique of the Gotha Program, “between capitalist and communist society there lies the period of the revolutionary transformation of the one into the other. Corresponding to this is also a political transition period in which the state can be nothing but the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat”. He allowed for the possibility of peaceful transition in some countries with already strong democratic institutional structures (such as Britain, the US and the Netherlands), but suggested that in other countries in which workers can not “attain their goal by peaceful means” the “lever of our revolution must be force”, stating that the working people had the right to revolt if they were denied political expression. In response to the question “What will be the course of this revolution?” in Principles of Communism, Engels wrote, “Above all, it will establish a democratic constitution, and through this, the direct or indirect dominance of the proletariat.“ Marx was all for the establishment of representative democracy and most importantly to him, universal suffrage. You need to recall in his time, democracy was fairly limited to through out the world.

    On one level, agree with your professor, it all went wrong once Stalin came to power. But it was Lenin’s fault that the power structure of the party and suppression democracy allowed Stalin the opportunity to become the tyrant he became. But there was always a significant faction of communists who saw the flaws of evolving power structure and protested the centralization of industry in the party.

    So called Left Communists and other factions in the Communist Party critiqued the decline of democratic institutions. Internationally, many socialists decried Lenin’s regime and denied that he was establishing socialism; in particular, they highlighted the lack of widespread political participation, popular consultation, and industrial democracy.

    The lack of democratic institutions to curtail the tyrannical impulses of despots post Communists revolution is not due to the inadequacy of theorization on the part of Marxism or Marx himself. Democratic institution building and decentralization as a means of ameliorating hierarchy was just the part of Marxist theory that was willfully ignored by Lenin and later revolutionary leaders after him.

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