I finally read the Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Having read several commentaries on Marxism I felt it time to read the actual Manifesto. Considering the nexus of all communist ideology is the Communist Manifesto, and given the vast number of its "followers," I prepared myself for a deeply intellectual assault on my capitalist ideals. Surely, the bastion of all communism would be based upon solid reasoning, keen economic knowledge, and adept sociology...right? Let's just say I was grossly over-prepared.
For those more accustomed to Twitter than Tolstoy, I will provide my synopsis in two sections: one short, the Summary; one long, the Analysis.
Summary: The Communist Manifesto is a sophomoric, ill written brochure with a few valid, but overtly generic, observations overwhelmed by a multitude of ignorant ideas concocted by the intellectual equivalent of a petulant schoolboy.
1) The most illogical notion of Marxism has only been further revealed for its idiocy through reading this original manuscript - the idea that a Worldwide amalgamation of "workers," a.k.a. the Proletariat, will rise up against the "evil" Bourgeoisie, preside over the masses in a new form of government, and eventually unleash the utopia of true Communism. I certainly don't contest that a large group (although never Worldwide) could rise up, pretend to represent the working class, and affect political change; however, to assert that it would instill an improved form of government is asinine. The primary motivating contention of Marx and Engels is that class warfare, or "antagonisms," is the impetus behind any such provocation of the Proletariat. But what would any form of government, new or otherwise, require? Leadership. Simple logic, not to mention ample history, reveals that a government will establish a separate class - the ruling class.
Absent a wealthy class - because the Bourgeoisie would be overthrown by the Proletariat - the only classes remaining would be the rulers and the non-rulers. In a communist form of government, the people, i.e. the "commune," control the means of production (NOTE: this is a poorly defined economic concept that Marx and Engels inaccurately try to develop in later writings). Regardless of how the government officials are selected for their positions, they would be responsible for determining the division of provisions and means of production. This gives the communist political leaders far more power than the so-called Bourgeoisie wherein means of production are diversified across thousands of people, many of whom have no real political authority. A mere glimpse at the authoritarian rule of communists in all levels of government within the U.S.S.R., China, North Korea, and Cuba is ample proof.
Marx and Marxian philosophers somehow miss or dismiss this point. In the case of Marx and Engels, it may be that they simply never asked, "Then what?" "We overthrow the capitalists, set up our new government, and then what?" More modern Marxists do not have the luxury of whimsically dreaming up global takeovers without any real consequences - they have to contend with the reality of failed, or failing, communist states. Not quick to realize their inherent folly, they often attribute such failures to A) the oppressive economic sanctions imposed by other nations, namely the U.S.A. (i.e. that silly capitalist country that prospered) or B) they legitimize their Marx-mania by asserting the leaders of these "great" nations weren't true Marxists and they didn't understand Marx correctly. Oh they understood him perfectly...and I rest my case.
2) Marxists also fail to comprehend the human psyche. Yes, workers may be willing to rise up against their "oppressors." Yes, they may want to form unions and political parties. But why? Because they want to commune in eternal brotherhood sharing their hard earned money with everyone else? Not a chance. The motivation behind such actions is the same selfishness the Communist Manifesto attributes to the profit mongering capitalists. Would any worker join a union if he didn't believe it would improve his income and benefits? Unionization is done purely for financial gain. This is the very same motivation that ensures my first point will always be true. There will never be a Utopian society of commune-ists because the opportunistic profit motive lives in all of us and ensures power will be wielded whenever possible. Therefore, a society will always contain profit and/or power maximizing individualism. For true Marxist Communism to exist would require every individual to willfully submit to the collective. Doing so is not normal for the vast majority of people; therefore, any attempt towards communism requires a political body to enforce the required collectivism. Hence, a powerful political class has formed in all "communist" countries in an attempt to alter the natural sociological characteristics of humans. This is also why Utopian Communism, as defined in the Communist Manifesto, can never be realized. Ironically, egocentric individualism is the part of the human psyche that makes capitalism work so well.
Of course, Marx said it best when he wrote in the Manifesto, "The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize all instruments of production in the hands of the state, i.e., of the proletariat organized as the ruling class..." Thank you Dr. Marx for, once again, making my point for me.
3) Marx and Engels were correct that capitalism would suffer from periodic failures - this is one of those overtly generic observations I referred to in the summary. Capitalists refer to these events as corrections. They may be short, long, unnoticeable, or devastating, but they are necessary shocks for renewing and revitalizing economies. In the USA, history has further revealed that these events are best dealt with via minimal government intervention. Therefore, I will relent to Marxists that capitalism does suffer periodic, even devastating, shocks. That would be in comparison to only one devastating economic shock occurring under communism... it begins when communism begins and ends only when communism ends.
4) In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels lament the bygone days of feudal society, although it would be a stretch to say that either of them actually experienced life during those times. In the Manifesto, and purportedly in Marx's Capital, Marx decries capitalism for its advances in technology of both communication and productivity. The motley duo claim that capitalism has reduced workers, i.e. not Bourgeoisie, to mere sources of labor. Because of such advances as railroads (keep in mind it was first published in 1847) and large business entities, the Bourgeoisie are evidently able to take advantage of workers owing to the competition among laborers. Further that the difference in price of the goods sold less cost of labor is the source of profits for the capitalists thereby motivating the Bourgeoisie to keep asunder the working class. Therefore, the authors reason feudal times must have been much better for the lowest classes because they were not considered a labor commodity - forced to sell their labor for a mere pittance, barely enough to survive.
I wonder what these Communists might have thought of feudal society had they actually been alive for much, or any, of it? More notably, their line of reasoning shows their economic naivete. To assume people did not sell their labor during feudal times is to confuse the concept entirely. Take for example a tailor. Although it may seem a tailor working independently is not selling his labor by contrast to an individual working in a large garment factory - the difference is not as compelling as Marx portends. The independent tailor is, in effect, selling his labor to himself, although the pay per unit of labor is a variable as a function of the price he garners for his goods or services and the time is takes to complete the same. Being an independent tailor is no guarantee of less servitude or greater financial gain than being a direct laborer; in many instances it is less so.
In addition, the technological advancements Marx derides as the tools of Bourgeoisie oppression can also give the worker advantage. By opening new channels of communication and transportation, workers are able to take advantage of new and distant markets for their labor. Marx et al argue that only the Bourgeoisie can manipulate new technologies for gain. The reality is that macroeconomic conditions dictate who will have the advantage: in good times the workers will be in greater demand and able to command higher wages; in poor times jobs are scarce and workers must compete with each other for jobs at bargain wages. It is no coincidence that Marxist ideologies return anew during economic downturns when jobs are scarce and wages low(er). However, the panacea is not greater government and central planning (the affects of this approach can be seen in the protraction of economic recession following the 1929 crash and the 2007 recession). Instead, workers are well advised to work diligently in the good times, live responsibly, and save for the inevitable bad times.
Interestingly, Eric Hobsbawm, author of the forward to the edition I read, acknowledges within his glowing praise that Marx had an underdeveloped, even flawed, knowledge of economics when he and Engels wrote the Manifesto. I'm sure this has nothing to do with Marx's effective academic failures, much less his failure to contribute productively to society - other than his concerted efforts to undermine it. Even more ironic is that in the forward to the 1872 German edition of the Communist Manifesto, Engels and Marx conclude they shouldn't revise the document because of its historical nature. That preface addressed much of the antiquity of the Manifesto's cultural references, but completely ignored the economic errors pointed out by Hobsbawm, though Hobsbawm also claimed Marx developed more advanced economic knowledge in the years after first writing the Manifesto. Perhaps Marx just never really understood economics (ding, ding, ding, what have we got for him, Johnny?)
5) The Communist Manifesto makes use of the term "Progressive." I'm sure this is not the only, or first, time the term is used in historically significant documents, but it certainly seems appropriate considering the context. Most notably, compare the principles of the Bull-Moose Party to the ten measures of communist takeover listed in Section II of the Manifesto. For instance, a "heavy progressive or graduated income tax." Moreover, the insistence that Progressives bill themselves as a political ideology more than a political party is strikingly similar to the notions of a Marxist ideology.
6) If you destroy the means of production, then what? In several passages, the Manifesto calls for destructive protest by the Proletariat against the means of production. Were the Proletariat successful in their overthrow of capitalism by this tactic, then what would remain to produce the much needed outputs: food, clothing, shelter, Etc.?
7) Bourgeoisie get their wealth from the Workers. Really? This is like saying economies grow by government spending from taxation. In order for the Bourgeoisie to gain wealth from the Workers they would have to pay them as much, or more, than their gross sales. In a capitalist economy, some wealth is obtained by the aggregation of sales of a product or service across a particular market; other wealth is gained by the non-monetized change in asset valuation (such as increase in market value of property or stocks without selling). It will also be true that there are some "Bourgeoisie" who gain wealth and some that lose wealth within any given economy. In a truly free society with free market capitalism even the Workers have the opportunity to advance, e.g. Oprah, Bill Gates.
8) Here is a great passage that I think well illustrates the level of "thinking" required to be a Marxist, "In bourgeoisie society, therefore, the past dominates the present; in communist society, the present dominates the past." Evidently Marx invented a time machine.
9) "In this sense, the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property." Later Marx contends that he doesn't mean abolition of the Worker's property, because there isn't much to take. Clearly, the intent of Communists is purely selfish gain: when innovation and hard work elude you, just take it from someone who has more via collective acts of violence. Marx further argues that the abolition of private property would not halt production and "universal laziness will [not] overtake us." However, this is completely without justification in the Manifesto (or elsewhere). Private property is a store of wealth for all "classes." In the concept of Communism there is no motivation for hard work (probably because Marx and Engels were content to live off Engels' family's business income and Marx's inheritances from his in-laws; the two wouldn't have known hard work if it hit them head on). If there is no store of wealth, then for what purpose should an individual strive to be better?
10) Marx, and Communists in general, have a vexing hatred of religion. "But communism abolishes eternal truths, it abolishes all religion and all morality, instead of constituting them on a new basis; it therefore acts in contradiction to all past historical experience." Oh, so that's how they justify violence and stealing...these act are no longer immoral because, in their minds, morality doesn't exist. Furthermore, they effectively explain why communism is so illogical - when you "[abolish] eternal truths" there really can't be any such thing as logical relevance. I think this is the single most revealing aspect of the whole Communist Manifesto, no less communist ideology in general. Don't like the truth? No problem, just ascribe to Marxism and deny there is truth.
I could expend great multitudes of time and effort describing all the intellectual shortcomings of communism and the Communist Manifesto, but I hope this abbreviated version has been enlightening, or at least validating. Perhaps I will elaborate further in a future post. In addition, Capital is on my reading list - I'm sure I will have more glowing praise for that fine work of intellectual vacuum.