Phillip W. Magness

U.S. Economic & Political History

Commie Chic & Quantifying Marx on the Syllabus

scumbagkarl

A recent story about the prominence of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto on U.S. college syllabi has sparked a number of lively debates and discussions about the proper role of such an economically discredited yet philosophically prominent thinker in the classroom curriculum. I’m personally of the view that Marx’s intellectual contributions are severely overrated and I consider his philosophy to be intellectually incoherent. Still, a need exists for non-marxists to grapple with the pervasiveness of his arguments on a number of fronts. I have no particular desire to expunge him from college curricula, and – on the contrary – encourage anyone who wants to tackle the old Marxist question to familiarize him or herself with his work. Marx should be read and dissected to the extent necessary to dispense with his arguments.

The latest debate is interesting as it takes on an additional empirical character through a fancy new tool, the Open Syllabus Project. This search engine/network mapping hybrid crawls the internet for publicly posted college syllabi and aggregates statistics about the frequency that certain texts are assigned in college classrooms. And without too much surprise given academia’s general leftward tilt, Karl Marx showed up on top of the list.

I’m an empiricist at heart, so I decided to take a closer look at some numbers on the whole Marx/syllabus presence question and in particular the ranking of his most frequently assigned book, the Communist Manifesto. My findings and a few observations proceed in the following steps:

1. Accounting for different versions of its title, Marx’s Communist Manifesto appears on a total of 3856 syllabi in the Open Syllabus Project database. That makes it the second most used text in academia after the popular writing style manual by Strunk and White (3934 syllabi) – a book that’s usually assigned to help college students with their composition habits for writing term papers.

2. Of those 3856 Communist Manifesto hits, only 103 – or 2.67% – are on syllabi in Marx’s own primary academic discipline, economics. The rest are in fields that venture far astray from economics, with the highest concentrations coming from the humanities.

3. Marx’s Communist Manifesto far exceeds the syllabus frequency of virtually *any* other author or work in all of human history with the possible exception of Plato. Here are the rankings for Marx and the most cited work of several major philosophical figures on the list (note: I intentionally excluded works that are textbooks or primarily literary and paired down the tail end of the list to give a rough sample):

Marx (Communist Manifesto) – 3856
Plato (Republic) – 3573
Aristotle (Ethics) – 2709
Hobbes (Leviathan) – 2671
Machiavelli (The Prince) – 2652
King (Letter from the Birmingham Jail) – 1985
Mill (On Liberty) – 1969
Foucault (Power) – 1774
Darwin (Origin of Species) – 1701
Augustine (Confessions) – 1694
Tocqueville (Democracy in America) – 1650
Smith (Wealth of Nations) – 1587
Rousseau (Social Contract) – 1427
Rawls (Theory of Justice) – 1248
Sartre (Existentialism) – 1224
Paine (Common Sense) – 1128
Locke (Second Treatise) – 1045

It continues downward from there into increasing obscurity.

4. From these stats, it may be easily observed that Marx’s Communist Manifesto appears on syllabi at a frequency that is often 2, 3, or 4X that of other thinkers of comparable prominence. Again, Plato is the only one who even comes close.

Taken in cumulative, these data suggest two unusual possibilities:

A. Karl Marx is the single most important, influential, and far-reaching thinker who ever lived, and his empirically attested syllabus presence accurately reflects this extreme degree of influence that he has over virtually all aspects of human knowledge.

-or-

B. Karl Marx enjoys a grossly outsized presence on college syllabi relative to his importance as a thinker, owing to a similarly disproportionate affinity for his thought among university faculty and particularly those faculty outside of the economics profession.

Explanation B strikes me as far more plausible than explanation A.

In considering the implications of this finding, it is worth acknowledging that Marx remains a prominent figure in several fields outside of economics: some corners of philosophy and political theory, certain schools of historical thought, a heavy presence in English/literature, and around the periphery of sociological circles, among many other locations. For better or for worse (and mostly worse, given the interminable jargon, conspiratorial disposition, and cluttered writing that Marxism tends to breed) students who pursue degrees in these fields are likely to encounter Marx at some point in their education. It might therefore be tempting to attribute Marx’s high syllabus ranking to his lingering trendiness in a number of academic fields. Let’s call it commie chic for fun.

But wait for a moment before we leap from the existence of commie chic to our syllabus-derived empirics. The typical academic Marxist lesson in literary criticism, conflict analysis, race/class/gender analysis and the rest enjoys a well-deserved reputation for taking textual obscurantism to near-comical extremes. If you’re studying Marxist historical materialism at anything more than a superficial level, you can expect your reading assignments to derive from Marx’s Preface to the Critique of Political Economy, an acroamatically decoded passage from the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, and probably some unduly celebrated clump of palavered word-lint from the Grundrisse. As a Marxist philosopher or lit critic-in-training, you should be at minimum touring the vocabulary swamp from one of the later chapters of Capital. 

The one thing a student of “Advanced Marxian Dialectics 501” would not expect to encounter on a syllabus is a frolic through the common trite platitudes of Marx’s most famous foray into political leafleteering, the Communist Manifesto. In the academic world of commie chic, that’s the kindergarten lesson.

Returning to the syllabus project’s database, we quickly find that classroom Marx lessons trail off after the Communist Manifesto. The second place Marx-text is Capital at 1447 hits, placing it right in the neighborhood of Rousseau’s Social Contract. The descent from there is rapid, such that they attract a couple hundred appearances a piece. The Civil War in France comes in at 133 for example. Between its various titles, his Theories of Surplus Value numbers about 200. Grundrisse is at 196, and his essay On Religion pops up at 115 hits.

The observed syllabus chart-topping popularity is no general feature of Marx himself, but specific to Marx’s Communist Manifesto. The acknowledged academic proliferation of commie chic is therefore insufficient to explain Marx’s overall dominance of the rankings.

This secondary finding would appear to further dampen the prospects of Explanation A above, namely that Marx somehow landed himself on the very top of the list of the most important, influential, far-reaching, and consequential figures of all time. Rather, university faculty simply have an abnormally pronounced affinity for assigning his bombastic little propaganda pamphlet at rates that far exceed every single other writer in human history, ever. I’ll leave it to my readers to draw their own inferences as to the intellectual merits of that little exercise.


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