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Revolutionaries and their Hobbies

What would have happened if some of the world’s top revolutionaries had stuck to their initial profession?

August 13, 2001

What would have happened if some of the world's top revolutionaries had stuck to their initial profession?

In these stock market-obsessed times, few people realize that the archenemy of capitalism, Karl Marx himself, dabbled in the stock market. Using the 1990s parlance, he was a day trader, trying to support his life as a philosopher by trading stocks.

Marx’s poor performance as an investor comes as no surprise. He was an economist, after all — and most economists, ironically, are not very good at managing their own investments. Perhaps this happens because they can’t make up their minds quickly enough about which economic forces make stocks go up or down.

Besides, Karl Marx the investor was handicapped in another way. At his core, he believed in the progressive impoverishment of the masses and increasing concentration of wealth and monopoly capital in fewer and fewer hands.

Given these fundamental assumptions, he would have missed the greatest development of the modern economy — and the most lucrative one from the point of view of investors: the rise of mass consumption and mass marketing, and the development of the economies of scale.

He probably wouldn’t have invested into Henry Ford’s new idea. Why bother, Marx would told himself. By his logic, Mr. Ford’s production lines might produce plenty of cars, but people under capitalism would not have money to buy them anyway.

On the other hand, there is a mainstream economist who beat the odds and turned out to be a successful investor. John Maynard Keynes made a large fortune in the stock market in the 1920s. For all the flak he has been catching from conservative economists these past 50 years, Keynes at least was correct as far as his own investment decisions were concerned.

In contrast, Marx’s day-trading activities raise some intriguing possibilities. For example, had he achieved more success in the stock market, would he have chucked all that proletarian revolution business — and retired to the French Riviera to enjoy his winnings?

Alternatively, having lost money in stocks, Marx probably should have realized that his theories didn’t work quite as well as he had supposed and gone back to the drawing board. The world might have been a better place for that.

Let us now turn to one of Karl Marx’s last living heirs, Cuban President Fidel Castro. When he was a teenager, he supposedly tried out as a pitcher with the Washington Senators baseball team.

It is intriguing to think of him today as a long-retired Hall of Famer, not an aged firebrand politician. Florida Cubans, who now think of Mr. Castro as the Devil, would undoubtedly have revered him as a god. But then again, there would have been no Florida Cubans in this case.

Even if Mr. Castro didn’t have the right stuff as a pitcher, the Senators, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, probably should have been smart enough politically to sign him up anyway. Keeping him in a minor- league dugout would have kept him out of the Sierra Maestra Mountains, where Mr. Castro started his revolution.

We are quite certain that another baseball aficionado, current U.S. President George W. Bush would have preferred that outcome. Mr. Bush, incidentally, was at one time the owner of the Texas Rangers, which — in case you are not aware of it — is what the Washington Senators — after various ownership changes and relocations — eventually became known as.

The story about the Castro tryout may not be true after all. But George Steinbrenner, the owner of the New York Yankees, has been snapping up, and richly rewarding, every pitcher who has come out of Cuba lately. Here is one sports businessman with a keen sense of geopolitics, a man who clearly takes no chances about spawning any more Cuban revolutionaries.

And then, finally, there is Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones. For a while in his youth, Mr. Jagger attended the London School of Economics (LSE). The LSE is an elite university turning out cadres for the economics departments of global investment and commercial banks.

Who knows, maybe because of Mr. Jagger’s rock ‘n’ roll success, the economics profession lost another great London-based mind of the caliber of Karl Marx or, at least, John Maynard Keynes? One thing is sure, however. No matter how well he would have done once out of the LSE, Mr. Jagger’s own economic standing — as well as his level of material satisfaction — would have been considerably lower.