An Attempt at Intellectual Fraud, Pt. 2
Phil Magness Can't Stop Lying
There is apparently no low to which Phil Magness will not stoop to defend his shoddy thesis that Marx was a “relatively obscure” figure in European intellectual life prior to the Russian Revolution. He persists in blatantly misrepresenting what I’ve actually written. His “response” to my post on the topic does not even link to it, probably because the entire premise of Magness’s post is so patently misleading and myopically fixated on a single point that he would prefer his readers to not actually look at what I argued and the evidence I provided.
He persists in the flat-out lie that I said that Weber’s comments about the signal importance of Marx as a thinker for his age were in Protestant Ethic. I said no such thing. Here is Magness:
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Enter John Ganz, a part-time journalist and substack writer. Like the other Twitter respondents, Ganz was convinced that he found an example that completely undermined our data, the famous German sociologist Max Weber. In a flurry of now-deleted tweets, Ganz proclaimed that Weber showed the pre-1917 salience of Marx’s ideas and even placed them at the center of his own work, most famously his 1905 book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.
I did not delete the tweets, I deactivated twitter, as I do periodically to focus on work. I’m sure Magness wishes I had because his transparent falsehoods would be easier to pawn off.
Magness thinks I was confused about the date of Max Weber’s comments. I was not: I said in the post the remarks were made at the end of his life, but like most of Magness’s efforts, this is both an irrelevant and pedantic point. My original point was two-fold: Weber’s comments were evidence of the overall intellectual significance of Marx in that era and that the sheer number of mentions alone is a bogus criterion since even few mentions can attest strongly to a thinker’s importance. Magness now thinks that the fact that Weber’s comments came in 1920 links them wholly to the Russian Revolution:
Far from debunking our thesis, Weber’s statement – made in the immediate aftermath of the Russian Revolution, and contextualized within the geopolitical climate of 1920 – actually bolsters our thesis that the Soviets boosted Marx’s salience in academic discussions. Indeed, Weber delivered a series of lectures on Marx and the Bolsheviks at the University of Vienna in 1918 – directly responding to these events. As an academic who was familiar with Marx, he was well positioned to do so but also clearly induced to comment by the political situation unfolding in Russia.
First off, here is an example of the many motte-and-baileys sprinkled through out Magness and his partner’s arguments. The make a number of very strong claims—their “hypothesis” in the original paper is “Our hypothesis is that Marx was an occasionally acknowledged but relatively minor figure between his death and the events of 1917” and then modest, even trivial ones — “our thesis that the Soviets boosted Marx’s salience in academic discussions.” When pushed on the stronger claims, they can retreat to the weaker, which are easier to defend. The notion that the Russian Revolution “boosted” discussion of Marx in academia is a totally unsurprising discovery. As difficult as it might be for Magness and his co-author to fathom, Marx and his followers were mostly uninterested in academic prominence and acceptance: they were trying to directly persuade an educated (and often self-educated) public. But the idea that prior to the revolution he was some kind of obscure crank of interest only internally to the left and without intellectual cachet beyond that subculture is a serious distortion of the historical record.
As for Magness’s new “hypothesis” that Weber’s acknowledgment of Marx as seminal figure hinges on the Revolution, that is easily disproven. The reason Max Weber said Marx was very important at the end of his life is simple: it’s because Weber actually thought Marx was very important, and his body of work reflects that belief. For instance, here here he is in one of his methodological papers, “The ‘Objectivity of Knowledge in Social Science and Social Policy,” which is from 1904:
We have deliberately refrained from referring to what is (in our view) by far the most important case of ideal-typical constructions: th[ose made by] Marx. We have done so because we do not want to complicate this account further by introducing interpretations of Marx, nor do we want to anticipate those discussions in our journal that will regularly subject to critical analysis the literature dealing with, or building on, that great thinker. Here, we shall therefore merely point out that all specifically Marxist “laws” and evolutionary constructions – provided they are theoretically correct – have an ideal-typical character. Anyone who has ever worked with Marxist concepts will be aware not only of the eminent, indeed unique, heuristic importance of those ideal types, when they are used for comparisons with reality, but also of how dangerous they can be whenever they are presented as empirically valid, or even as real (which in fact 1 means: metaphysical) “effective forces”, “tendencies” etc.1
The “ideal-type” is one of Weber’s most central and original conceptual constructions but here Weber writes the “most important case” of those come from Marx. Note his references to “that great thinker” and a “journal that will regularly subject to critical analysis” his work. This is clear evidence that Marx was esteemed and taken seriously in the non-Marxist intellectual world and his concepts were taken up even if critically and partially. This points again to the central flaw with the method of the paper: it’s fixation on citation of Marx’s name and inability to figure out when his concepts are in play. If Marx’s concepts appear more than his name, it could speak to a greater influence, a suffusion of intellectual discourse. We do not bring up Newton every time we use the term “gravity,” but that does not diminish his intellectual significance. (Just relax now—I mean to make no comparison hereby between the scientific accomplishments of Marx and Newton.)
Here’s an example of the problem with the method. Magness insists that Weber barely mentions Marx in his Protestant Ethic. But the fact is that Marxian ideas, as even Magness is forced to admit, appear throughout the book. He speaks of “the doctrine of the more naive historical materialism, that such ideas originate as a reflection or superstructure of economic situations” and addresses “the theorists of the superstructure.” These are clearly direct references to Marxian concepts, albeit without any reference to Marx’s name. How many other such references exist in the literature of the period that the authors’ method is totally unable to capture? (See for example also, in the collection of Weber’s methodological writings, his article on Stammler’s book on “the materialist conception of history.” The entire volume is full of theoretical grappling with historical materialism.)
Briefly, the idea that Weber must have been so impressed with the Russian Revolution that he revised his assessment of Marx’s importance doesn’t stand up to scrutiny either, because Weber did not think much of the Russian Revolution. As Mommsen writes, “Nor did he consider the Russian October Revolution to be a genuinely socialist revolution; rather, it was in his opinion, a military revolt cloaked in socialist drapery.”2 Keep in mind Weber died before the survival of the Revolution was even assured: the Russian Civil War continued until 1923. And since Magness and his co-author are apparently unschooled in European history, it's worth pointing that there had been a regime change in Germany as well: by 1920 had become democratic republic after the tumultuous end of the World War I and the largest party was—you guessed it—the Social Democratic Party of Germany.
In general, Weber was an outspoken and often dismissive opponent of socialism and social democracy in his native Germany and his work can be understood as an attempt to provide alternative, liberal solution to the same social problems. Weber's derisive comments towards social democrats and Bolsheviks show that his estimation for Marx and Marxism was emphatically on an intellectual level and not a practical one.
Marianne Weber, Max’s wife, was the author of a book entitled Fichte’s Socialism in Relation to Marx’s Doctrine. (Again, it hardly appears that Marx was some obscure crank either uninteresting or unknown to most contemporary intellectuals.) Here’s what she writes of Weber and Marx in her biography of her husband:
Weber expressed great admiration for Karl Marx's brilliant constructions and saw in the inquiry into the economic and technical causes of events an exceedingly fruitful, indeed, a specifically new heuristic principle that directed the quest for knowledge [Erenntnistrieb] into entire areas previously unilluminated. But he not only rejected the elevation of these ideas to a Weltanschauung, but was also against material factors being made absolute and being turned into the common denominator of causal explanation.3
But enough about Max Weber.— Magness also attempts to match his “hypothesis” with the historical literature:
This is not a particularly controversial finding when considered in light of the historical literature on Marx. Alan Ryan, editor of Isaiah Berlin’s acclaimed intellectual biography of Marx, has previously noted that in the early 20th century “Marx’s economics were not taken seriously other than on the Marxist Left, and it was not until the post-war” that the English-speaking world received a large influx of Marxist scholars from Germany. Kirk Willis’s classic study of the dissemination of Marxist thought in Great Britain similarly notes the “inescapable fact…that the Marxist alternative was rejected by the overwhelming majority of late-nineteenth century Englishmen.” Similar studies have indicated the slow adoption of Marx in this era in the United States and even his native Germany.
Note these are actual rather limited claims: one is about economics in particular and the second is about the reception of Marx in the English speaking world in particular. Perhaps only the English-speaking world and the discipline of academic economics are important to Magness? Second, Berlin’s biography of Marx is fine but it is not particularly “acclaimed.” And why is its editor a more trustworthy source than Leszek Kolakowsi, who is responsible for one of the most famous studies of Marx and Marxism, and whom I cited speaking of Marx’s intellectual and political ascendancy in the era prior to World War I? When I quoted Kolakowski, who is by the way a thoroughgoing critic of Marxism, Magness tweeted something to the effect that I was relying on the “declamatory statements of historians.” (For what it’s worth, another falsehood: I cited exactly one historian.) But I guess the declamatory statements of historians are OK when they confirm his prejudices.
I want to speak further now to Marx as a political figure in the pre-World War I period. Magness and his co-author suggest that Marxism was among several competing traditions of socialism and only the Russian Revolution decisively made it the dominant one. This is untrue and it is easy to show that Marxism was already the leading tendency of European social democracy, itself a mass political and social movement, prior to the First World War. The idea that German social democracy was “Lassallean” rather than Marxist is misleading and bogus. Lassalle was not a theorist like Marx. Kolakowski: “The Gotha Programme, severely criticized by Marx, was a compromise between Lassalle’s strategy and Marxism; in which the former’s basic principles were maintained, however, the influence of Marxism was increasingly strong.”4 In 1891, the SPD adopted the Erfurt Program, the language of which is explicitly Marxist. As I noted, at that time the SPD had received the most votes of any party in the Reichstag. In 1893 election, their proportion of the vote grew. In fact they received the most votes in every election from 1890 to 1912, when the lopsided parliamentary system of Imperial Germany finally allowed them to take their place as the largest party.
What about in France, the homeland of Proudhonism and syndicalism? Surely there Marxism was but a minor tendency? But by 1882, Jules Guesde’s Parti Ouvrier was explicitly Marxist in character.5 As Robert Stuart writes, the Guesdists were “regarded in their own time as the embodiment of Marxist socialism.”6 His great rival Jean Jaurès, was also a follower of Marx, albeit an eclectic and heterodox one. The two tendencies united in the SFIO, which by 1910 was the second largest party in parliament. A curious reader can look up the history of socialist and social democratic parties in Italy, Belgium, and Scandinavia if they are so inclined.
Magness wants to associate Marxism forever with bloody Bolshevism. But the irony here is that the Bolsheviks were in fact a relatively minor tendency within the larger context of European Marxism up until the Revolution. The knock on Marxism from radical proletarians was often that it was too parliamentary, too reformist, too political. Those with a desire for revolution and insurrection tended to chose other traditions, like anarcho-syndicalism. The fact is, by 1917, Marxism had been “mainstreamed” already: it was the intellectually and politically respectable branch of the socialist movement, much to the chagrin of some radical socialists. And unlike today’s United States, the socialist left was a world-spanning mass movement with millions of adherents and sympathizers, not an insular subculture. To try to pass off Marx “as only of interest” to socialists is inherently distorting if you don’t consider the fact that socialism itself was a major social presence.
Lastly, I think we should address the question of what Magness’s data actually reveals when you dive in. I have sworn by my principles of fundamentalist humanism never to reproduce a chart or graph on Unpopular Front, but I will link to the tweets of Jeremy Neufeld who poked around in the data and found that there is “there's no reasonable way to interpret this data as evidence of obscurity pre-1917.”
To conclude, I just want to say this entire business does make me quite angry. On a personal level, Magness has attempted over and over to misrepresent and falsify what I’ve written in black and white text. But more seriously, what he and his co-author are undertaking is an effort to grossly distort and falsify the historical record under the cover of bogus empiricism. The notion that Marx and Marxism were of negligible significance in Europe before 1917 is just nonsense. At best, it is a tendentious misrepresentation motivated by ideology. Put more plainly, and in my sincere opinion, it is a lie. Magness’s proven incapacity or unwillingness to admit he is wrong even when the plain facts of the matter contradict him constitutes the very definition of intellectual dishonesty. He is engaged in an absolutely disgraceful project. The fact that this paper has been granted any legitimacy whatsoever ought to be a scandal.
Henrik Bruun, H., & Whimster, S. (Eds.). (2012). Max Weber: Collected Methodological Writings (H. Henrik Bruun, Trans.; 1st ed.). Routledge. 132
Mommsen, W. J. (1977). Max Weber as a Critic of Marxism. The Canadian Journal of Sociology / Cahiers Canadiens de Sociologie, 2(4), 373–398. https://doi.org/10.2307/3340296. 381
Weber, M. (2017). Max Weber: A Biography. United Kingdom: Taylor & Francis. 355
Kołakowski, L. (1981). Main Currents of Marxism: The Golden Age. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press.
Stuart, R., Stuart, R. S. (1992). Marxism at work: ideology, class, and French socialism during the Third Republic. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press. 33