Sunday, April 10, 2011

Social & Political Philosophy: Communism & Marxism

As mentioned last week, communism is radical socialism. While socialism argues that some industrial production should be publicly owned and controlled for social interests rather than private interests in a mixed economy, communism argues for an entirely planned economy in which the “anarchy” of private ownership of industrial capitalism is transformed into a centralized system of social interests and production. Marx and Engels argued that just as the French Revolution threw off the first and second estates, the clergy and nobility, giving all power to the third estate, the common people, so must the communist revolution throw off the industrial capitalists and give all power to the laborers, the industrialized farmers and factory workers. Though the French Revolution fell apart and Napoleon took over, they viewed history much like Hegel and argued that industrialization signaled the final stage of economic development when an egalitarian revolution could finally succeed.

As we discussed with Saint-Simon and socialism, Marx and Engels argued that socialism would lead to communism such that there would be no more “thieves” who contribute nothing to society and “to each according to contribution” could become “to each according to need”. Saint-Simon argued for meritocracy, but Marx and Engels argued for a more radical egalitarian democracy that have no need to take benefits or voting rights from anyone. This assumes two things: first, that society would maximize the productivity and contribution of all members of society, and second, that society would produce a superabundance of wealth such that all could take as needed.

In theory, communism was supposed to be a radical form of direct democracy in which free-associating individuals participate in labor and labor councils (soviets, in Russia), which then form larger groups that form society as a whole. This would be very similar if not identical to bottom-up socialism and anarchism. The problem arises, most famously in Russia and China, in the transition to this final stage by process. Just as the French Revolution fell first to the dictatorship of Robespierre and then Napoleon, the Russian and Chinese communist revolutions did not come to erase divisions of power and create classless direct democracy but rather resulted in the dictatorships of Lenin, Stalin, and Mao. In every case, a top-down radical communist government was installed to transition the people into a bottom-up communist direct democracy. Unfortunately, in both Russia and China (North Korea, Cuba) the people were never deemed “ready” by the oligarchs and the dictatorships persisted, unwilling to relinquish control. The most famous case is the duel between Lenin and Trotsky. After the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, Lenin was not willing to compromise with opinions different than his own so he quickly abolished the democratic assembly and took power. Trotsky, who argued that there should be continuous revolution and democratic criticism of power, was tossed out, Stalin took power after Lenin and eventually had Trotsky killed. This was parodied by Orwell in his famous book Animal Farm.

To play devil’s advocate, all of these societies were under barrage by European wealthy capitalist nations and had reason to fear that communism would be overthrown without a strong leader shepherding the people and protecting them from communism. Consider the US blockade of Cuba and the jokes Reagan makes about the poverty of Cuba and Russia. In addition, there were large portions of the population who did not believe in either socialism or communism, and the leaders could easily convince themselves that they were acting out of the people’s interests in a top-down capacity even if the people were not yet capable of seeing their own advantage in communism from a bottom-up perspective. Would you trust America to be a direct democracy at this moment? Both the left and the right would worry that a democratic vote might sweep away their own programs and reforms. Those on the left would be afraid of popular racism, distrust of intellectuals and nationalism, while those on the right would be afraid of socialism, multiculturalism and internationalism.

Today many Marxists, or post-Marxists as the most critical call themselves after Stalin, acknowledge the serious problems with the Russian and Chinese revolutions and propose many different forms other than vanguard party dictatorship for the transition from capitalist to communist society. Unlike socialists, who would compromise with a mixed economy, they would still argue that an entirely planned economy is possible and most beneficial for all members of society. The question is that between top-down and bottom-up forms of power, the struggle we find in all societies that has certainly been raised wherever there has been leadership and division of labor. How much can leaders or the common people be trusted to work from their own particular individual interests and view toward the overall common social interest and view. From the top one can more easily take a longer view and social view (in line with Mill’s Utilitarianism) but one is detached from the labor and struggles of the common people. From the bottom one is involved with the labor and struggles of the common people, but one has more trouble taking the detached view while attached to one’s own position and in-group.

Another important idea of communism is internationalism. Nationalism, of course, is the allegiance to one’s homeland. Just as communism proposed common property and interest, internationalism proposes a common society beyond the boundaries of nation-states and a system that benefits all people of the world equally.

Karl Marx (1818 – 1883) was a German political philosopher and economist who co-wrote the Communist Manifesto with Engels in 1848. He wrote many works, his most famous other than the manifesto being Capital, a massive three volume work on capitalism and the possibility of communism. Born upper-middle class in Prussia, he became involved with the Young Hegelians at the University of Berlin. He spend most of his life in London writing, supported by Engels in poor conditions. His tombstone in London reads, “Workers of all lands unite”, the final line from the manifesto, and “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways – the point however is to change it”.

Friedrich Engels (1820 – 1895) was the son of a wealthy German cotton cloth manufacturer who read Hegel and began denouncing the conditions of the laborers in factories such as those owned by his father. With Marx, he attended the University of Berlin, joined the young Hegelians and co-wrote the Communist Manifesto. While he wrote many works on his own, including The Conditions of the Working Class in England, he considered Marx to be a better writer and philosopher than himself, at one time calling Marx the greatest philosopher who has existed so far, and he used his family’s wealth to support Marx and his writings.

I gave you the Preface to the Russian Edition of 1882 as a preface to the manifesto because not only do you find Marx & Engels mentioning that the first Russian edition was translated by Bakunin, obviously before he broke from the communists to become a major leader of anarchism though the break is not mentioned, you also find them telling Russia that America will clearly overtake Europe as the greatest industrial power and that the revolution can only succeed if Russia, Europe and America all develop together. Considering the resistance of England and America in particular to the Soviet Union and its fall, this is quite remarkable to hear coming from Marx and Engels who would both be dead for decades before the Russian Revolution.

Marx and Engels start by noting that communism is feared by the powers that be in Europe, and so communism is clearly strong enough to publish its views openly in spite of persecution. The opening line famously reads, “A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of Communism”. The French philosopher Derrida wrote a book Spectres of Marx in which he, like the postmodernist he is, shows that every Marxist believes they follow what Marx really believed but this is taken in many different directions such that one may wonder if there is a single meaning behind or correct interpretation of Marxism.

Marx and Engels write that all history is the history of class struggle. As already mentioned, Gramsci and others will be critical of this reduction of all struggles between oppressor and oppressed into the single struggle of owners and workers. Marx and Engels believe that the final polarized struggle is crystallizing in their lifetime such that the final battle has been set by industrialization. The world has been united through international trade such that industrialization covers the globe. Factories and industrialized farms (hence the hammer, industry, and the sickle, agriculture, crossed as the symbol of communism) have created great alienating divisions between great masses of laborers who view each other as common in interest and the small number of wealthy capitalist owners who control the laborers. Notice how similar this is to Hegel’s master/slave dialectic.

As mentioned, a new time calls for a new stage of development. Between the owners and laborers is the bourgeoisie, what we often call the middle class (doctors, lawyers, professors, business managers, scientists, priests, artists, etc), who are the privileged servants of the capitalist owners but are in a prime position to lead the workers to liberation and a new way of life. The middle class is needed by the owners because the modes of production, the theories of management, academics, art and science, are in constant need of revolution and new ideas. Because of this, the middle class must be kept under control or they will revolutionize the structure of society in a way that does not benefit the small number of owners. However, because the world has become a smaller place and the machines allow for greater and greater achievements, capitalism is like a sorcerer whose magical spells have gotten too powerful for the sorcerer to control. All the peoples of the world are now in communication and exploited in the same ways by a small minority while the human individual becomes ever more capable of achievements through technology and science.

The manifesto argues that communists have no interests other than the interests of everyone, and that their theories and conclusions are not based on ideas or principles but rather the actual historical relations of the class struggle. Here we see the scientific positivism of Saint-Simon, a positivism that I myself do not admire for the same reasons Marcuse is critical of it. Marxists often argue that Hegel was an idealist, but Marxism avoids idealism and is scientific and materialistic. Marcuse argues, in the wake of Stalin, that this positivism is an unwarranted defense against criticism that does not liberate people but helps to enslave them. Next time, we will see that Trotsky would say the same and became the hated enemy of Lenin and later Stalin for it. This is a particularly interesting problem given that Marx was a great admirer of Hegel’s Logic, calling it fundamentally revolutionary, and thought the bourgeoisie who did not share his views were not critical enough of society.

The manifesto argues that communism is called the abolition of individuality and liberty by the middle and upper classes, and this is correct insofar as this sort of freedom is only provided by brutality and exploitation. Here again we see socialism and communism leaning toward equality where capitalism leans toward freedom. Marxists argue that they want freedom, but the sort of freedom that capitalists are afraid of losing is unsustainable in an economically just and egalitarian society. We read, “you reproach us with intending to do away with your property…Precisely so, for is just what we intend”. Middle and upper class individuality should be made impossible. Only then can common people be given their just due. The middle and upper class say that society will fall apart because everyone will be lazy, but the manifesto argues that if this is so, society should have collapsed already because those who work do not gain and those who gain do not work.

The manifesto calls for the abolition of the family, that children and women are objectified and exploited by the household head who seeks for his own gain rather than society or equal benefit throughout the family. Nationality and religious divisions need also be swept away, as these also divide the people who should view and share in common. Inheritance will be abolished, public education established, rebel property seized, central services nationalized, and heavy taxes on the wealthy imposed. In the beginning, these radical changes must be established through dictatorship or the property and power of the ruling class will thwart the revolution. Once the changes have taken, the dictatorship can be gradually dismantled and society will be ready for direct bottom-up democracy. Unfortunately, as we will see next time with Trotsky, Gramsci and Mao, this did not go according to the manifesto’s idealistic plan.