Yesterday I was debating the author of the post I criticised which used what I think to be Marx’s faulty argument regarding the Irish famine and my attention was brought to a footnote that I had missed when I read the section on the famine the Das Kapital. The footnote, had I come across it would have greatly strengthened my original argument.
In my previous post I wrote that Marx’s interpretation bordered on conspiracy theory. Well, now I can go one further: Marx’s argument did not border on conspiracy theory; it was a conspiracy theory. In order to see this we must first read the footnote and then analyse it.
How the famine and its consequences have been deliberately made the most of, both by the individual landlords and by the English legislature, to forcibly carry out the agricultural revolution and to thin the population of Ireland down to the proportion satisfactory to the landlords, I shall show more fully in Vol. III. of this work, in the section on landed property.
Read that carefully. Marx is making an absolutely bizarre argument. According to him, the individual landlords and the English legislature are using the famine to “forcibly carry out” an agricultural revolution and “thin the population of Ireland down to the proportion satisfactory to the landlords”. If that sounds like a conspiracy theory that’s because it is.
Marx is attributing active agency to both the individual landlords and the English legislature. He is accusing both of them of some sort of plot — likely in a smoky backroom of the British parliament — to use the famine as a means to bring the population under control. He even suggests that they have a target of some sort (“thin the population of Ireland down to the proportion satisfactory to the landlords“). Indeed, I showed this passage to an historian friend of mine who specialises on Ireland in this period and he jokingly quipped “I wonder if they came up with a number”.
This is conspiracy theory pure and simple. How did Marx know that this was going on? He certainly doesn’t seem to have had access to any records or documents that proved this conspiracy. And I’m confident that if such records existed Irish historians would have found them by now in the archives — indeed, such records might still today cause a minor diplomatic incident between Ireland and Britain.
No, Marx just made this up. Just like conspiracy theorists do. He read a bunch of extremist thinkers on population reduction and thought “well, if they say that about population reduction then the elites must be doing this”. This is exactly what conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones do today. They read academic works by extremists in the sphere of biology and conclude that governments are putting fluoride in the water as part of population control measures. The themes are even the same: population reduction; monopolistic capitalists seizing property using the government etc.
I’ll bet that there are lots of passages like this in Marx’s work and that people miss them (myself included) because they assume that Marx is talking in theoretical generalities when he makes claims about Capitalism-in-the-abstract. But it is clear from the above passages that he is not just talking about theoretical generalities when he discusses certain real historical events; he is talking conspiracy theories.
Marx may or may not have been a good economist and philosopher; that is up in the air. The more I read on both topics the more I am convinced that Marx’s contributions are vastly exaggerated; but I am at least open-minded that there might be something of worth there. His historical accounts of particular events, however, are highly misleading and appear to have elements in them that, were they said in public today, would be laughed at.