Karl Marx’s Conspiracy Theories

marx tin foil hat

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.

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About pilkingtonphil

Philip Pilkington is a London-based economist and member of the Political Economy Research Group (PERG) at Kingston University. You can follow him on Twitter at @pilkingtonphil.
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5 Responses to Karl Marx’s Conspiracy Theories

  1. Tom Hickey says:

    I’m not sure it’s that simple. While Wikipedia is not an authoritative source, it does provide a general picture of the Great Famine (Ireland) in historical context, both antecedently and consequently. The occurrence was complex and out of it a folklore was born, some of which I heard as child from people that were caught up in the consequences, which brought them to the US.

    What Marx is describing is similar to Naomi Klein’s disaster capitalism, which has also been dismissed as “conspiracy theory.” While this is not quite the folklore that I heard, it has a bearing on it. The folklore was based on meanness and bias, rather than just the ineptitude of those in power at the time.

    I think we are seeing a similar situation post-GFC, with TPTB concerned only with the next iteration of capitalism, which is being blamed on either unforeseeable exogenous shock or debt-beat debtors, or just not explained at all, since no explanation is really required of TPTB. As result millions of people around the world have been adversely affected, which TPTB regard as the collateral damage of creative destruction. There are presently “conspiracy theories” of an intentional great pruning underway to reduce the number of “takers” relative to “makers.”

    Things are always difficult to sort out in the fog of war, as disaster as well. Some vested interest know this and while they may not actually plan it, they certainly take advantage of opportunities that come their way. And it is pretty certain, too, that some don’t just wait for opportunity to come along but create it.

    Marx may have been closer to the situation than we are today, and certainly he was closer in time. Did he shape the narrative to suit his agenda? Possibly, of course. But if this was an isolated incident, is this explanation plausible. did ne regularly shape the narrative to fit his agenda, or was this an isolated instance?

    • This is a black and white issue, Tom. In history and in journalism you need a source to substantiate a claim. Did Marx have a source proving that the English legislature together with the landlords were using the famine to depopulate Ireland? No, he didn’t. So how did he “know” this was taking place? He didn’t. He made it up. Just like David Icke makes up stories about lizard people.

      According to Marx’s line of reasoning we should understand the public works set up and the food aid delivered by the English legislature throughout the famine as a sort of mechanism to control the rate of population decline. Presumably so that they could hit that “just right” number that the landlord class wanted.

      That is the product of a sick mind. Alex Jones says this stuff today. He claims that food stamps are a means to control the level of population decline in the US. Marx’s argument — and the arguments that follow if you carry it through to interpret all the actions of the English legislature during the famine — are literally equivalent to Alex Jones. If you buy into Marx’s arguments there is no reason why you shouldn’t read Infowars as a serious news source.

      Marx may have been an important thinker. I thought this once, but I’m no longer sure. But his commentary on current and recent historical events shows that he was actually a bit of a hair-brained lunatic.

      • Tom Hickey says:

        I don’t see it as that cut and dried. I don’t think that there is such a fine line between so-called conspiracy theory and indisputable evidence in many cases. Of course, TPTB were not going to debate something like this in Parliament or otherwise provide easy to establish evidence of a conspiracy against the Irish people. But power elites are notorious over the course of history of making use of crisis to promote their agenda, and also provoking crises.

        And I think that the comparison of Marx with Alex Jones weakens your argument.

        If you want to be convince people, I think a better argument is needed. You may be correct, but to my mind anyway that remains to be established compellingly.

  2. Tim Gibbons says:

    While I do not know what evidence Marx might have intended to muster I think there is evidence that the British government during the great hunger believed that reducing the population of Ireland would be a good thing, and that there were too many farmers farming too many small farms in Ireland. Cecil Woodham Smith writes,
    Ireland was to be abandoned to Trevelyan’s operation-of-natural-causes system. On February 9, 1849 , Clarendon, ‘Quite disheartened’, told Lord John Russell that he was unable ‘to shake Charles Wood and Trevelyan, that the right course was to do nothing for Ireland and to leave things to the operation of natural causes’. *** Officially, it was declared that no deaths from starvation must be allowed to occur in Ireland, but in private the attitude was different. ‘I have always felt a certain horror of political economists,’ said Benjamin Jowett, the celebrated Master of Balliol, ‘since I heard one of them say that he feared the famine of 1848 in Ireland would not kill more than a million people, and that would scarcely be enough to do much good.’ The political economist in question was Nassau Senior, one of the Government’s advisors on economic affairs….
    The Great Hunger, Cecil Woodham Smith, (originally published 1962, 1989 Old Town Books) pp. 375, 376.
    The problem with characterizing government policy in the mid-nineteenth century as a conspiracy is that at that time in the eyes of the British government there was nothing criminal in pursuing a policy which countenanced the death of millions of people and the emigration of more millions. A conspiracy is a partnership formed to commit a crime. The British government never believed it was committing a crime, and never apologized for the Hunger. There is no secret to uncover here. The British decided not to react to repeated failures of the potato crop, and they did so knowing that millions would starve to death.

    T. K. Gibbons

    • I say in the piece that the British government handled it badly and was ignorant to a large extent. Marx is saying that there was a conspiracy though. That’s a big claim. And there is no evidence for it.

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