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Arguing about justice

Axel Gosseries
Philippe Vanderborght

If Marx or Freud had never lived?

Jon Elster


Dans cet article, on se pose la question contrefactuelle de savoir ce qui se serait passe si Marx et Freud n’avaient jamais vécu. On examine d’une part leur impact sur le bien-être de l’humanité et de l’autre part leur impact sur notre connaissance de l’homme et de la société. On se demande aussi si d’autres personnes auraient pris leur place et accompli ce qu’ils ont réalisé. Avec les réservés et les hésitations de rigueur, on conclut que le monde et notre connaissance du monde auraient profite s’ils n’avaient jamais vécu.

Texte intégral


1Counterfactual history is a delicate subject, partly because it may be difficult to establish an appropriate antecedent (if we assume away one factor in the past, how much else do have to assume away?) and partly because it may be difficult to determine the consequent (do our causal theories allow us to determine a unique alternative outcome, or at least a range of outcomes?). The most ambitious attempt to date, Fogel’s study of the economic development of an American economy without the railroad, tries to address both questions, with questionable success (Elster 1978).

2In a subset of counterfactual issues, the first difficulty – the indeterminacy of the antecedent – takes a particular form. If we ask what would have ensued if a particular individual had never lived, we have to ask whether someone else would have taken that person’s place and realized all or some of his or her accomplishments. In this article I address a special question of this kind: what would have happened if Marx or Freud had never lived?

3The question of "the role of the individual in history" is not one that lends itself easily to meaningful discussion. I shall nevertheless try to make some general observations, and then address my two specific counterfactual questions. Consider as an example the importance of Napoleon. In a letter to W. Borgius from 1894, Engels wrote, naively:

That such and such a man and precisely that man arises at that particular time in that given country is of course pure accident. But cut him out and there will be a demand for a substitute, and this substitute will be found, tant bien que mal, but in the long run he will be found. That Napoleon, just that particular Corsican, should have been the military dictator whom the French Republic, exhausted by its own war, had rendered necessary (nötig), was an accident; but that, if a Napoleon had been lacking, another would have filled the place, is proved by the fact that the man has always been found as soon as he became necessary: Caesar, Augustus, Cromwell, etc.

4This is a meaningless teleological argument, based on the alleged needs or demand of society at these various times.

5In his biography of Napoleon, George Lefebvre (2005: 89) offers a more sober causal account:

That the Revolution would resort to dictatorship, was not an accident; an internal necessity (nécessité) pushed it in that direction, and not for the first time. Nor was it an accident that it finished by the dictatorship of a general. But that general turned out to be Napoleon Bonaparte, whose temperament even more than his genius could not easily accommodate itself to peace and moderation. This was the unpredictable factor that turned the scales towards the eternal war.

6Although ”necessité” shares the ambiguity of the English ”necessity”, there is no doubt that Lefebvre is arguing in causal rather than teleological terms. Had he written in German, he would have used ”notwendig” rather than ”nötig”.

7I shall not try to reconstruct the causal mechanisms underlying Lefebvre’s argument. Let me only point to the distinction between those of Napoleon’s actions that would have been done by someone else had he not been present on the scene, and those that were due to his peculiar temperament and genius. With regard to the former, Napoleon merely preempted his rivals. There was only one slot available for a military dictator, and he occupied it. In a different set of cases, more relevant to my topic here, several individuals could fill the same slot. The list of independent discoveries in science, for instance, is long and impressive (Merton 1961). Engels was somewhat less naive when, in the same letter to Borgius, he wrote that ”While Marx discovered the materialist conception of history, Thierry, Mignet, Guizot, and all the English historians up to 1850 are the proof that it was being striven for, and the discovery of the same conception by Morgan proves that the time was ripe for it and that indeed it had to be discovered”. It would seem, therefore, that in this respect at least, Engels thought that Marx didn’t make much of a difference.

8I am going to discuss Marx and Freud separately. To some extent, of course, the impact of each has enhanced that of the other. There have been many attempts to integrate Marxism and Freudianism, ranging from the Frankfurt school to French structuralism. Without exception, I believe, these attempts rest on facile analogies. (As regrettably but irrefutably manifested in Elster 1975: 219, I have endorsed one of them myself). Hence if Marx had never lived, some contrived interpretations of Freud might have been avoided, and vice versa. Yet these are second-decimal issues.

9With regard to the first-decimal questions, I want to consider the impact of Marx and Freud both on society and on social theory, inducing four subsections altogether. Would the world as a whole have been better or worse off if the one or the other had not lived? Would our understanding of the human mind, human action, human interaction and the human condition have been further advanced? The questions are somewhat interrelated. A negative answer to the second question would imply that a large numbers of scholars have wasted their time, to the detriment of society at large and, more conjecturally, to the detriment of their own intellectual development.


The impact of Marx on society

10Individuals, parties and regimes claiming to implement the ideas of Marx have, of course, had a massively negative impact on human welfare. The victims of Lenin, Stalin and Mao are counted in tens of millions. That observation does not, however, offer an answer to our question, for several reasons. First, it is not clear that we can hold Marx causally responsible for the effects of the choices made by those claiming to act in his name. Even if we could, we might not be able to hold him morally responsible, if these choices and their effects could not have been foreseen. I shall not pursue this issue, but limit myself to the causal question. Second, if Marx had not lived, some other socialist thinker might have produced doctrines similarly liable to abuse. Third, even if no such thinker had appeared, other dictators might have emerged to cause equal or greater harms in Russia and China. The third issue merely invites idle speculation. We are on somewhat firmer ground regarding the first, to be considered here, and the second, to be considered in the Conclusion.

11Three besetting and closely interrelated sins of Marx’s thinking were intellectual hubris, moral hubris, and disregard for individual rights. The core intellectual flaw, inherited from Hegel, was the idea that the history of mankind had a foreordained and knowable end – ”end” having the double sense of terminus and goal. This end was the advent of communist society, following which the book of history would only, in Hegel’s phrase, contain blank pages. These general ideas get additional power by the belief that communism can be attained only through a violent revolution, with the implication that anyone who opposes the use of political violence is guilty of delaying an inevitable-cum-desirable outcome. The multiple flaws in these ideas have been thoroughly exposed and denounced by Kolakowski (1978).

12It is easy to see how this rhetoric of omelette-making and egg-breaking could provide a useful after-the-fact justification for dictators bent on destructive aims. It is much more difficult to determine whether they would have acted less violently without this convenient ideology, and (a different issue) whether the latter might actually have inspired their actions. I believe that the mind-set developed in the Second International was (1) a direct legacy of Marx and (2) a direct cause of the Russian Revolution. Without Marx, German socialism might have followed the course advocated by Bernstein, and Russian revolutionaries might have remained stuck in the dead-end of anarchism. Although these statements seem more plausible to me than their negations, others may have different intuitions.

The impact of Marx on social theory

13Let me distinguish between the influence of the questions Marx asked and the impact of the answers he provided, and also between positive (explanatory) and normative questions. Roughly speaking, I believe Marx had good answers to some important normative questions, and that he raised some valuable positive questions. The answers he provided to the latter, however, were partial at best, incoherent at worst.

14I do not need to say much about Marx as an economist. In the words of Paul Samuelson (1957), Marx was a ”minor post-Ricardian”, his only contribution of interest being the precursor of input-output analysis in the second volume of Capital. Although there are still scholars who waste their time and that of their students by defending the labor theory of value and the theory of the falling rate of profit, Roemer (1981) and others have shown that Marx was a failure as as an analytical economist. His ”explanation” of the falling rate of profit was particularly flawed, since the explanandum was a pure product of wishful thinking.

15As a social theorist, Marx did much harm through his practice of functional explanation. Actions or institutions that might be seen in some perspective or other as benefiting the capitalist class were to be explained by that benefit. One can always find such a perspective, for instance by claiming, as Marx did, that it was in the interest of the capitalist class to let some other class wield the political power. The enormous and pernicious influence of Foucault and his agentless ”dispositif” - ”an apparatus which gradually undertook the control or subjection of madness, sexual illness and neurosis” (Foucault 1980: 195) – would hardly have been possible without Marx. Since functionalism has appeared independently in the writings of other scholars, and may stem from pattern-seeking as a hardwired tendency of the human brain (Ramachandran & Blakeslee 1998), Marx does not have the full causal responsibility for the prevalence of functional explanation in the social sciences. It seems likely, though, that but for him it would not have taken the systematic and all-embracing form that it has in Foucault and his numerous imitators.

16Although Marx had important things to say about class conflict and the conditions under which classes ”in themselves” acquire class consciousness, he overrated the importance of class struggle and economic exploitation compared to other forms of social conflict. The transitions in Eastern Europe in 1989-90 and the uprisings in the contemporary Arab world did not take the form of struggles between classes defined in terms of property or nonproperty of the means of production. Had Marx not lived, the importance of class conflict for social change might have remained underestimated. As a result of his influence, it is now perhaps overestimated.

17Exploitation, in Marx’s work, serves the ends of both positive and normative analysis. That exploitation is unjust, is a normative statement; that men rebel because the are unjustly exploited, is a positive one. As just noted, the positive statement is false if taken in the sense that exploitation is the only or even the main source of rebellion. In a broad historical perspective, the normative statement is clearly true. The unequal ownership of the means of production that has made exploitation possible throughout history has almost invariably been based on unjust appropriations. Yet exploitation is not a fundamental moral concept. As Roemer (1985) showed, Marxian exploitation can come about as the result of voluntary choices based on fair initial endowments.

18In my view, Marx’s most valuable contributions to social theory were his critique of alienation and, as the positive counterpart, the conception of the good life as one of self-realization through self-externalization (of which productive labor is one but not the only form). These ideas were hijacked and transformed by writers of the Frankfurt school and other critics of consumer society, according to whom false consciousness (being alienated without knowing it) is the main problem of industrial societies. In practice, this view has often led to elitist criticism of popular culture, as in Adorno’s uninformed and deeply misguided attacks on jazz, rather than to efforts to change the workplace and to facilitate other vehicles of self-realization. In this case, Marx’s views did not have the impact they deserved to have, in contrast to cases in which they had an impact they did not deserve.


19Although (or perhaps because!) my mother and her father were both trained as psychoanalysts by, respectively, Otto Fenichel and Wilhelm Reich, I know less about Freud than about Marx. On a continuum from wellgrounded opinion to unfounded prejudice my views about Freud may be closer to the latter extreme than are my opinions about Marx, but not, I hope, closer to that extreme than to the former one.

The impact of Freud on society

20Freudian ideas have become a part of the popular culture of Western societies. We routinely refer to repression, defense mechanisms, the unconscious and the superego, as if these were well-established mechanisms or entities. They are not (see next subsection). When invoked in everyday exchanges, they can do harm. Someone who reacts angrily to an unfounded accusation may see his anger transformed into evidence for the charge. A person who is genuinely ignorant of a fact may be told that she is in denial. Such refusals to take what other people say at face value (”the hermeneutics of suspicion”) have a large potential for disrupting human relationships. As far as I can judge, their net impact on human welfare is negative.

21Psychoanalysis and other forms of therapy inspired by Freud seem to involve waste rather than harm. Most therapies do help a bit, but their success is correlated more with the personality of the therapist than with the theory to which he or she subscribes (Dawes 1996). However, the evidence seems to show that therapists, to be effective, do not need the long training that is supposed to justify their high fees (ibid.).

  • 1 Aftenposten, Oslo, October 9, 1999.

22Other forms of applied Freudianism have caused harm on a large scale. Acting as expert witnesses in legal trials, psychologists have persuaded courts to believe in false memories and unfounded accusations of sexual abuse (Loftus & Keecham 1994), often with very detrimental consequences. In a Norwegian case in which a father was accused of sexual abuse of his daughter, on the basis of her statements, an expert psychologist testified that the sharp fence posts in the childs drawing of a house surrounded by a fence very likely had a sexual significance.1 She affirmed, moreover, that the number of posts in the fence very probably indicated the number of occasions on which the child had been abused. The childs father spent two weeks in jail, in a security cell, was barely acquitted of incest, but his life was ruined. Later, the child confessed that it was all an invention. This is not a rare or atypical case.

The impact of Freud on social theory

23In 2009, an editorial in Nature (461: 847) stated that ”Anyone reading Sigmund Freud’s original work might well be seduced by the beauty of his prose, the elegance of his arguments and the acuity of his intuition. But those with a grounding in science will also be shocked by the abandon with which he elaborates his theories on the basis of essentially no empirical evidence.” It is difficult, in fact, to point to theoretical propositions in Freud’s work that are both novel and well-documented. Nor have his successors even tried to propose falsifiable hypotheses. With one important exception that I shall state shortly, Freud tells us nothing about the human mind that we cannot also learn from the classical and French moralists, Nietzsche or Proust. These teach us the reality of unconscious causal mechanisms, such as wishful thinking, the transmutation of ”I cannot do it” into ”I do not want to do it” (and vice versa) or of envy into righteous indignation, the tendency to hate those whom we have injured, and so on. By contrast the alleged defense mechanisms that induce the transmutation of ”I love him” into ”He hates me” or of ”My mother hates my father” into ”I hate my brother” (Suppes and Warren 1982) have no empirical foundation or intuitive plausibility (see Elster 1999, Ch. V for a fuller discussion).

24The exception to which I referred is the proposition that as the ego is navigating the external world (the Reality Principle) it also has to fight a two-front war against the impulses coming from the id (Pleasure Principle) and the punitively severe impulse control exercised by the superego (Conscience). This idea is original, profound and true. What it lacks is a mechanism. Why could not the ego itself exercise whatever impulse control might be needed? Why do morality and conscience so often take the form of rigid rules? Do we need to stipulate the existence of separate and quasi-autonomous mental functions? It took the pioneering work of Ainslie (1975) to provide satisfactory answers to these questions, using the idea of hyperbolic time discounting.

25If Freud had never lived, this particular insight might have been lost. At the same time, the study of the unconscious would not have been sidetracked into the arbitrary speculations that have dominated the field. It is difficult to assess the net effect.


26Marx and Freud underestimated the complexity of their respective subject matters. Like many modern economists, they were victims of excessive ambition (Elster 2009). In addition, they lacked a proper understanding of causal thinking and of the principle of falsification (which they could have learned from Pascal), reasoning in terms of analogies and functions rather than causes and using empirical phenomena as illustrations rather than as potential falsifiers. At the same time, they were of course towering intellects, still very much worth reading today.

27Similar remarks could obviously be made about many other thinkers of the modern period. Tocqueville (in the second volume of Democracy in America) was equally reliant on analogies, and Durkheim (in The Division of Labor) equally reliant on functions. I have not tried to explain why Marx and Freud had a vastly greater impact than these and similar writers. I have been concerned only with the benign or malign nature of that impact. Overall, I tend to think that both the world and our understanding of it would have benefited had they never been born. I do not except to persuade many readers who do not already share my views. These are intrinsically indeterminate matters, where reasonable people can differ. I hope, however, that even those who disagree with my conclusions with regard to the one or the other thinker might be moved into asking themselves exactly how Marx or Freud offered a net improvement of the world or our understanding of it. What would have been lost if they had never been born? Would the losses have been bigger than the gains?

28The question that remains to be discussed is that of preemption. Perhaps Marx and Freud only preempted other writers or politicians who would have taken their place and accomplished, ”tant bien que mal” as Engels says, what they did. To address this issue, it is not good enough to say that their ideas were ”in the air”. Rather, we should follow the example of Engels, in his discussion of historical materialism, and try to identify actual historical individuals who were engaged, at the same time, in similar endeavors. With regard to the most important issues, I do not think such individuals can be found. Marx’s theory of revolution and Freud’s theory of the unconscious were genuinely radical proposals, and not simply the earliest or most forceful expressions of ideas that would have made their way without them. On this point, we can also draw on Lefebvre’s comments on Napoleon. One might well argue that some of the achievements of Marx and Freud would have been realized had they never lived, and still deny that their decisive achievements were inevitable.

29Admirers of Marx and Freud tend to claim both that their ideas had a positive net effect and that these ideas would not have been proposed had Marx and Freud never lived. I concur with the latter claim, but not with the former. With regard to historical materialism, Engels concurred with the former claim, but not with the latter. Nobody, to my knowledge, has stated disagreement with both claims.



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1 Aftenposten, Oslo, October 9, 1999.


Jon Elster is the Robert K. Merton Professor of Social Science at Columbia University (New York). His books include Ulysses and the Sirens (rev. ed 1984), Sour Grapes (1983), Making Sense of Marx (1985), Alchemies of the Mind (1999) and Explaining Social Behavior (2007). He is currently working on the normative analysis of collective decision-making and on the interaction of arguing, bargaining and voting at the Federal Convention (1787) and the French Assemblée Constituante (1789-1789).

© Presses universitaires de Louvain, 2011

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