To Understand Bitcoin, I Studied Karl Marx

OPINION
Tom Goldenberg
Jan 17, 2018 at 12:00 UTC  |  Updated  Jan 17, 2018 at 23:16 UTC

Tom Goldenberg is chief technology officer at Commandiv, a combined stock and crypto trading platform providing investors with automated trade recommendations and rebalancing tools. 


To hear all of the bluster and hype about bitcoin and blockchain these days, you would think that it will solve all of our modern world problems.

Web 3.0 is coming  - a new digital age. No industry will avoid disruption, whether healthcare, government, finance or retail.

Yet this may be, to quote the author Antonio Garcia Martinez:

"The monumental hubris of assuming that the cure for our social ills lies in some as-yet uninvented future, rather than some forgotten past."

There is much that we can learn from history  -  as much as we can discover through new technologies.

That's why I delved into Marxism to understand more about what bitcoin is really about.

Reading Satoshi's white paper

I sat down and read Satoshi Nakamoto's original white paper on bitcoin last month, and I must say that my mind was truly blown. It is a remarkable work.

Yet I had several unanswered questions:

  • What events influenced the ideas behind bitcoin?
  • Why would the author choose to be anonymous?
  • Is bitcoin really what Satoshi says it is? Is it what he (or she, or they) meant it to be?

As I reflected on these questions, I arrived at an insight that I believe applies to both Satoshi and Marx:

"Genius is creative, but not predictive."

That is, both Marx and Satoshi articulated a reasoned, well-thought-out vision of the future. But neither had the power to predict how their ideas would influence others or be implemented. And neither could control their own creations.

Genius is often reactionary

Marx's ideas on communism and economics were influenced by his environment. It was that same environment that affected the propagation of his ideas - a fear of industrialization ;  that new technology would render laborers useless.

That's ironic, because it also describes our current environment, with the rise of artificial intelligence.

The term "Luddite" refers to an actual group of the time that was against new technology. These changes, and the huge inequalities between the industrialists and the workers, prompted Marx to criticize capitalism heavily and propose a communal system instead.

Bitcoin is also a product of its environment. The Satoshi white paper was first published in 2008, shortly after the 2007 recession. That event caused an erosion of public trust in financial institutions that, to this day, is still in disrepair. Thus, the idea to bypass institutions was born.

Removing centralization

Marx and Satoshi approached their respective problems in a somewhat similar way. Marx advocated for a stateless system, where the worker controlled the means of production. Private property would be abandoned for the notion of communal property, and the state would "wither away," in the phrasing of Marx's frequent co-author Friedrich Engels.

Obviously, this withering did not happen in the countries where communists took over the state - the opposite happened, with horrific results.

Satoshi sought to remove financial intermediaries  -  the banks and credit card companies that controlled the world's flow of value. Instead, a peer-to-peer network would be established, with no central authority. The network would be carefully crafted so that no single actor could influence transactions wrongfully.

Devil in the details

As brilliant as the idea for bitcoin may be, its reality today is inarguably different from what Satoshi envisioned. In the white paper, bitcoin is described as follows:

"A purely peer-to-peer version of electronic cash would allow online payments to be sent directly from one party to another without going through a financial institution."

While this is not necessarily wrong, this is not how bitcoin is primarily used today.

Satoshi failed to predict bitcoin's difficulty scaling to billions of transactions. The fees for buying and selling bitcoin, as well as the inability of the network to quickly process transactions, have changed its very nature. It is now used less as a payment method, and more as a store of digital wealth.

Bitcoin's main use cases today are as a speculative instrument (many traders are enticed by the large price swings) and as a "digital gold." That's not how Satoshi originally envisioned its adoption.

Marx, as noted above, similarly failed to anticipate how his own ideology could be used to manipulate and exploit populations. The idea of a stateless economy became, in practice, totalitarianism. Populists who claimed to have the workers' best interests at heart would succumb to the temptation of power.

Their legacies

Yet, both bitcoin and Marxist thought continue to live on, in adapted forms.

Marxism influenced several labor movements in the United States, and Marx's critiques of capitalism are still echoed by both economists and grassroots movements. Further, several nations have adopted social democracies promoting a more communal form of capitalism.

As for bitcoin, its future is playing out in front of us now. It may not be the final solution (a phrase with its own historical baggage) for peer-to-peer payments. But as a digital commodity, it has revolutionized the way people store wealth.

Marx and Satoshi were both great minds, and their creations will continue to influence coming generations. That does not mean that they knew or could control how those ideas would spawn to life. We can honor their gifts, while acknowledging that they do not have the full, perfect answer.

Karl Marx on East German banknote image via Shutterstock

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Satoshi NakamotoPoliticsBitcoin

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