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Few topics are as treacherous to tread in American political discourse than Marxist/Communist thought.  (In this post I will use the terms “Marxist” and “Communist” interchangeably, as Marx was the primary author of The Communist Manifesto.)  Indeed, one might say that communism is an ideological bogeyman in America, as well as the rest of the capitalist world.  So loaded is the term that politicos on the far right will use it (or “socialism” as well) to tar progressive policies with which they disagree.  Yet only a very small number of Americans are schooled enough in communist theory to have anything but the barest and most distorted notion of what it says.

Basically, Marxist theory posits that societies proceed through several stages dictated by economic and technological circumstances at work in that society.  These stages start with primitive societies and then go on to a slave society, followed by feudalism and then capitalism.  To Marx, all history is dictated by a struggle between opposing socioeconomic classes.  In feudalism that conflict was between lord and serf.  In capitalism it is between the bourgeoisie (the owners of the means of production) and the proletariat (the workers).

As Marx saw it, the bourgeoisie exploit and oppress the proletariat by paying them far less than the value of what workers produce.  Marx, who thought that people have an innate desire to work and produce, posited that this exploitation alienated the proletariat from their work.  Not only that, but workers’ wages are continually driven down over time as the economy becomes more monopolistic and technology reduces the demand for labor.  Marx also observed that capitalist exploitation takes place on an international scale in the form of colonialism, through which capitalist elites extract resources from colonized peoples for the benefit of imperial coffers.

Marxist thought further holds that a veil of “false consciousness” imposed and perpetuated by the upper classes keeps workers from seeing the true nature of their exploitation and protects the capitalist order from ideological threats.  Eventually, however, the veil of “false consciousness” is lifted from the proletariat, as they become aware of their class identity and realize their exploitative condition for what it is.  Once this happens, the proletariat would wrest control over the state and the means of production from the bourgeoisie.  A “dictatorship of the proletariat” then emerges, which puts an end to oppression, exploitation, and class hierarchy and ushers in an era where the state withers away and a society devoid of oppression and exploitation is born.  (Marx saw the state as little more than an instrument of oppression controlled by the bourgeoisie to protect the system that serves them so well.}  Furthermore, Marx believed that the dictatorship stage would almost inevitably be marked by violence and upheaval as the bourgeoisie defend their power and wealth.  Thus, the final stage of communism is one of complete liberation and freedom.  Just as Francis Fukuyama posited for capitalism, so Marx saw this final stage – a pure, communist society – as marking the end of history.

Now, any reasonably observant reader would note that while there may be something to commend in Marx’s analysis, he was naïve on some important points and downright wrong on others.  For example, while he acknowledged the enormous productivity of capitalism, he failed to recognize the resilience of that system and its ability to adapt in the face of threats, without sacrificing its fundamental characteristics.  In this regard, we need only look to the creation of the welfare state or enactment of certain worker protection laws to see this at work.  Marx also failed to foreshadow how workers’ pensions and other savings vehicles would allow some workers to have an indirect stake in business enterprises, bringing their own economic interests into line with those of the bourgeoisie and obscuring class identity and unity.  In addition, Marx underestimated the power of nationalism.  In this regard, Marx erroneously thought that as class consciousness took hold among the international proletariat, it would overtake national identity as this new consciousness washed across borders.  He erroneously thought the same of religion.  And while Marx recognized another class that was neither proletariat nor full-blown bourgeoisie, whom he referred to as the “petty bourgeoisie” (i.e., self-employed individuals who own their own means of production), he did not foresee how large this class would become; think of the numerous shop owners and freelance service providers in our economy.  This is important because the political and economic identity  of this class was not always clear.

Critics of communist thought point to a number of flaws in it.  They dismiss communism as incompatible with human nature, which they believe is indelibly marked by the desire to create and accumulate individual wealth, power, and status (i.e., greed and selfishness).  Such a powerful instinct, they contend, could never allow for a system that champions full social and economic equality, communal ownership, and the demise of hierarchy.

Furthermore, critics point to the failure of “communist” states, most of which have inevitably become authoritarian, poor, and disdainful of human rights.  These critics point to life in Cuba, China, Vietnam, North Korea, Laos, and the former Soviet Union.  While the Chinese and Vietnamese economies have performed impressively in recent times, critics note that this only happened after capitalist reforms were introduced.  But there are some important points to note here.  First, despite the fact that these countries, as well as the rest of the world, label themselves “communist,” there is no truly communist country (as Marx envisioned it) in the world today, including the aforementioned.  As noted above, the end stage of communism is a totally free society without a state to protect an oppressive system — a goal that no country has achieved so far.  Indeed, these societies are authoritarian and unequal, the direct opposite of what communism thought envisions.  The most charitable thing that can be said of them is that they have become stuck in the dictatorship of the proletariat stage because their societies are not ready for communism or they have had to contend with the hostility of capitalist interests in the form of sanctions and insurgencies.  Thus, while these countries certainly cannot be seen as examples of communist success, one also cannot point to “communist” countries as proof that communism cannot work.

While the belief that communism runs contrary to human nature and therefore can never work is widespread, it proceeds from a rather dark vision of human nature.  If we are beings motivated by little more than greed, it must be that more virtuous instincts, such as empathy and love, take a back seat at best.  Communism, on the other hand, posits a less cynical picture of human nature as essentially good.  In such thought, it is the capitalist system that deforms humans from cooperative and caring beings into greedy, commodified creatures.  In this regard, one might point to societies where such instincts do not govern, such as certain indigenous communities and early Christian settlements, as examples of where the virtues mentioned above have flourished and, in fact, functioned under systems very much like communism.  And one need only look to the decline of ethical principles and explosion of mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, and suicide, in the capitalist world to recognize that the system does indeed deform us, as our insatiable drive for power and wealth becomes ever more relentless and pathological.

Whatever the virtues of criticisms of communist thought, is there nevertheless a baby there that we don’t want to throw out with the bathwater?  First, let’s start with the endpoint of communism – a classless and stateless world with no oppression or exploitation and with communal ownership of the means of production.  As noted above, many would criticize this vision, including the principle of communal ownership, as impossibly utopian or an affront to freedom.  But how free are we really today?  Our society remains replete with injustice and oppression in the form of sexism, racism, homophobia, and other “isms.”  And how much freedom is there when wealth becomes increasingly concentrated among a small minority at the top?   And let’s not forget what unbridled freedom for companies can bring us in the form of pollution and carbon emissions. What communism claims to offer is “true” freedom, in contrast to the ersatz freedom Marx believed capitalism peddles.

Nor can the assertion that communism is a fantasy contrary to human nature be regarded as an unequivocal fact.  It is based on an assumption about human nature as being selfish and fixed.  But what is seen as immutable human nature and its related values at one point in history does not necessarily hold true for subsequent eras.  For example, up until the late 19th century, acts that would later be universally condemned as war crimes were widely committed with impunity.  And, of course, the abolition of slavery, once thought to be a natural attribute of societies, is yet another example of how sensibilities can morph over time.  The advent of open-source software, such as Linux, presents an interesting example of how human nature is cooperative and not ineluctably greedy.  Likewise, the inventers of the first polio vaccine (Jonas Salk) and the Worldwide Web (Tim Berners-Lee) both declined to patent their inventions so that the world would have free use of them.  The fact is that “human nature” evolves throughout time, and it is impossible to conclude that mankind will remain selfish and greedy for all eternity (though repetition of this assertion can certainly delay the day when humanity’s moral evolution moves towards greater enlightenment).  We should also consider what one of the themes of The Wizard of Oz has to tell us on this subject:  if we believe in something, that may be enough to make it come true.

Perhaps one aspect of communist theory which is particularly instructive is the concept of false consciousness.  Under capitalism, the dominant ethos is that capitalism is fair and maximizes freedom, a viewpoint that posits that the wealthy and powerful are that way because they work harder and have faculties superior to those of lower classes.  (This, of course, completely ignores the roles played by inherited wealth, discrimination, and greater access to high quality education and networks of power and wealth enjoyed by those at the top.)  As control of media rests primarily in the hands of those with power and wealth, it should not be surprising that most sources of news and information reflect capitalist values, presenting it as fair and without any workable alternative.  (An interesting parallel to this notion that the powerful are entitled to their exalted position by virtue of their superiority would be the “divine right of kings” of an earlier era, by which European monarchs sought to validate their position and power by reference to religion)  And the concept of false consciousness applies not just to consciousness of class and exploitation, but to many situations where the powerful seek to obscure reality and impose on the unwitting a consciousness that suits their interests, many times, ironically, with the latter’s fervent support.  One need only look at the lies spun by Donald Trump about so many subjects, including the threat posed by Covid-19 and the 2020 election results, to see this phenomenon at work.

While many would decry the loss of private ownership of the means of production, for those who find communism’s endpoint attractive the question arises as to whether it is worth the turmoil and violence of the dictatorship of the proletariat.  As noted above, as Marx envisioned it, there would need to be a period of violence and upheaval as the working class disassembled the capitalist system.

Perhaps it is not worth that pain.  Perhaps Marx was guilty of impatience in seeking to move societies from capitalism to communism.  Better to eschew the taking up of arms by the proletariat against the bourgeoisie and wait until human social evolution arrives at a point where the masses demand communism and enact it through democratic means.

Some might brand this as totally naive, but perhaps its chances are not necessarily as hopeless as it might seem.  For example, it could conceivably happen if a devastating economic crisis occurs (Marx observed that capitalism is inherently unstable and prone to crises).  Of course, as noted above, capitalism is adept at surviving such crises, but things could be different next time. Indeed, had the Occupy Wall Street movement been better organized and led, it might have grown into a catalyst for political transformation.  Or a grave threat to the planet that required intense international cooperation – such as an impending asteroid collision – might awaken a communal mindset among humanity that would regard communism as a system whose time has come.  And a growing number of media sources might develop the will to disseminate information that could lift the veil of false consciousness that capitalism is fair and good.  After all, the early Christian and indigenous communities that were communistic did not get there at the point of a barrel.  Of course, modern day societies are vastly larger and more complex than those earlier communities, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that communism on that level is impossible.