A Critique of Marxism
On the shortcomings and merits of classical Marxism
Azure James Michalak
Just as right-wing classical liberalism dominated the 19th century and monarchy the 18th, the most influential force of the 20th century was Communism. Karl Marx’s teachings, after his demise, became a powerful force in great swathes of the world. His doctrine espouses, among other subjects, the avoidance of exploitation; the world proletariat community; the end of alienation and classes; gender equality; and public property. The situation in the world has changed in a multitude of ways since then, politically, economically, and technologically, however in some ways Marx was more than a hundred years ahead of his time.
A central tenet of Marxism is that in capitalism, the means of production is not owned by the workers, therefore they can be forced into dehumanizing positions as powerless underpaid cogs on the wheel of industry. This exploitation, supposed to give them reason to rebel against the capitalists, forms the backbone of communist theory. His vision of an ideal socialist state is where one is paid according to their needs and not their wants.
There are several psychological processes working against the claim that it is beneficial to be paid by needs. First of all, working is often done for the express purpose of receiving payment, not for the betterment of society, making the worker lazy enough to barely complete his job in order to get what he “needs”. Excess work, in opposite, does not seem to have any mechanism for remediation. In some socialist theories, all jobs have similar wages per hour, and this system seems in most situations superior to Marx’s “to each according to his needs; from each according to his ability” ideology due to its improved rewards for labor. Of course this does not mean there should be no social welfare for those who cannot work.
Exploitation in jobs still occurs but it is not an important enough hazard to make governmental communism viable, especially with its historical failings.
World Proletariat Community
This system of the triumphant proletariat was supposed to spread around the whole world, making nation-states as they are now known evaporate. As such, with no countries or nationalism, the world would unite as a unified proletarian group.
This may sound like a great idea in theory, but Marx seems to in some way fail to foresee the repercussions of a world of communism. Human greed would still be at play, and there would be a great chance of dictators, capitalists, and other misfits entering the scene. Because of the definition of Communism as the leadership of the proletariat, it cannot happen in nations without a proletariat per se, therefore it cannot not be global.
Alienation is an important aspect of Marxist ideology, and comes in many forms, such as the alienation of workers from their own product, the alienation of workers from each other, and the alienation of the proletariat and capitalist classes from the other.
Marxism was founded in Industrial Revolution-era societies, which is now one of its largest flaws. Economic systems have changed significantly since then. Instead of employees and their bosses being direct antagonists, as they are in factories, they are more balanced in the dimensions of power, control, and at times, wages. There are now more tiers to the capitalist system than simply capitalist and proletarian, and many jobs are exactly in the middle. North America has moved from a disciplinary society (one where the wrong decision necessitates punishment) to a society where employees have, and appear to have, at least a small amount of control over their jobs. Minimum wages, insurance, and other employment laws have also affected the economic system. America is still the most classically liberal, with no parental leave from work, for example, but Canada and Sweden, among with many other nations, have at least a few socialist principles.
Because of this, direct Marxism, the uprising of the proletariat caused by their discomfort and agitation, cannot occur in most developed nations due to the comfortable conditions of the same.
The views of dissolution of classes are now in some ways out-of-date, in others just as important or moreso. Wealth inequality is extremely high, around the world and in America. However, using the example of the ‘shapeless grey mass’ of the predominantly single-class Soviet Union, experiments in classlessness have not been totally successful. Even the Soviet Union and Pol Pot’s Cambodia still had some sort of class system, for example Shostakovich was paid more than the average worker and was much more famous, and of course the leaders of both countries and some of their cronies had access to more luxuries and privileges than everyone else. These could be thought of as fascist states instead of true communist communities, but judging from the difficulty and challenges posed in creating true communist nations, it is a rather hopeless situation. Democracies have had a much better track record. Treating everyone in an absolutely egalitarian manner is simply illogical, as genetics and physical differences cause people to have unique capabilities and distinctions.
Equality of Genders
Similarly to classes, Marx treated the genders in an egalitarian manner. “The less the skill and exertion of strength implied in manual labour, in other words, the more modern industry becomes developed, the more is the labour of men superseded by that of women. Differences of age and sex have no longer any distinctive social validity for the working class. All are instruments of labour, more or less expensive to use, according to their age and sex.” (Marx, Engels) It is interesting to compare this attitude to the rise of feminism since Marx’s death and observe that they coincide quite well. By inference it is clear that he did not approve of treating the feminine sex in many ways more politely then males, as many of his more traditionalist contemporaries did.
Communist sentiment in Soviet Russia involved the idea and practice of children being raised by society, not their parents. “But even if housework disappears, you may argue, there are still the children to look after. But here too, the workers’ state will come to replace the family, society will gradually take upon itself all the tasks that before the revolution fell to the individual parents. Even before the revolution, the instruction of the child had ceased to be the duty of the parents.” (Kollontai) Whether or not it was directly because of Marx, Soviet children were taught to prioritize Communism above all, rather than attaching themselves most strongly to their families. Aside from being unnerving for parents, in most circumstances would it not be better for children to get at least a large portion of their culture and routine from their mother and father? If freedom or nonconformity is valued, the answer is yes.
Marx was not a supporter of the capitalist notion of private property gained from the labor of others. ‘”The capitalist method of appropriation, which springs from the capitalist method of production, and therefore capitalist private property, is the first negation of individual private property based on one’s own labour. But capitalist production begets with the inevitableness of a natural process its own negation. It is the negation of the negation.” Here we have the three stages: the thesis—private property; the antithesis—capitalism; the synthesis—common ownership.’ (Beer) A number of drawbacks must be mentioned vis-à-vis private and public property.
Firstly, some property cannot be public due to sanitary or personal reasons. Secondly, with predominantly public property, there is little to work towards compared to in consumerist private-property societies, whether or not that is a benefit. No class distinctions rob people of the everpresent entrepreneurial drive in American mythology. Twenty-two percent of children in the UK said they “just want to be rich” when they grow up in a study with no leading questions.
Public property often has great merit but can be abused by people causing harm to the property or not treating it with the greatest care. This could be thought of with bicycles; if everyone borrowed the same bicycles for transportation, some would abuse them with racing and mud riding. On the other hand, with private property the only person harmed by misuse is the user.
Now vs. Then
When The Communist Manifesto was written, the trend towards classical liberalist, small government, production-based principles gave the author’s views a particular tinge. With today’s modern regulatory governments and service-based economies, there are no longer obvious capitalists disciplining their workers in the factory, for example, and the capitalist process has become more complex and bureaucratic. Unions have also changed the situation– Marx would probably be pleased with the improved conditions of the modern worker even though his life is still lived inside a capitalistic process. Although Marx taught that history is a history of class struggle, considering the situation-specific impetus for communism, it is an interesting question to wonder if Marx would be a communist if he was born now.
Analysis of Control
Looking at all the different economic systems from an unbiased standpoint, it seems that controlling every facet of the economy at a state level does not lead to the best results, as it causes shortages, maldistribution, and black markets. (e.g the Soviet Union and North Korea) On the other side, complete economic anarchy produces erratic results and the opportunity for worker abuse, environmental abuse, or dangerous products. (e.g parts of Africa and Asia).
As an example of free-market success, America did very well economically with a totally free market, including the institution of slavery, but it is obviously immoral from a humanitarian standpoint to run a country in that manner. The economic middle ground, on the other hand, encompasses many prime nations, to the left side in Scandinavia and to the right in England and Canada. A range of options in economic control can lead to healthy, first-class nations, when communism and anarchy almost always fail in this respect.
Social freedom follows generally similar rules. Stalin and Hitler’s rule, along with the rule of many other monarchs of the past, have caused many millions of lives to be lost from warfare, genocide, starvation, et cetera. Social anarchy and libertarianism have had their faults as well but have not generally caused such devastating problems.
State communism, with its state-controlled media, culture, and ideology, is rarely successful in truly leading the ideology of the people. Socialism seems more long-lasting or at least more humane, as nations leaning towards it now, even if they slowly change in their political beliefs, are quite stable with regards to treating people well.
Even when the US was more economically free, before the Great Depression, there was still quite a lot of social control. This caused a number of problems and repressions, especially among women, but also in the end made for a more vibrant and cohesive culture. A similar pattern can be seen in many areas with moderate social control.
No social control at all, in mixed locations, will cause a lack of a singular definable culture, like a more extreme version of Canada’s largest cities. It will also decrease homogeneity and impose few rules upon what people can or cannot do. Whether or not these symptoms are positive or negative depends upon the conservativeness of the observer.
Typically, however, it seems the best results can be had when nations have modest to moderately strict economic control combined with scanty to average social control.
Marxism in its past and present forms fulfills none of the above-listed criteria on freedom and ignores several human characteristics like greed, religion, and rebelliousness. In practice at least, and arguably in theory, it is an ideology far from perfection.
Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. The Communist Manifesto. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Project Gutenberg. Web. 21 Oct. 2015.
Marx, Karl. SparkNotes: Das Kapital. N.p.: n.p., n.d. SparkNotes. Web. 21 Oct. 2015.
Beer, M. The Life and Teaching of Karl Marx. N.p.: British Labour, 1921. Project Gutenberg. Web. 21 Oct. 2015.
Inequality. Digital image. Pew Research. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2015.
Kollontai, Alexandra. Communism and the Family. Trans. Alix Holt. N.p.: Allison & Busby, 1977. Marxists.org. Web. 21 Oct. 2015.
Winter, K. (2014, August 5). Generation Greed? Three-quarters of children between five and ten believe money can buy you happiness. Web. October 22, 2015.