Political Philosophy – Marx & Engels’ Communist Manifesto
For this lecture, read The Communist Manifesto, sections I & II.
As mentioned last week, communism is a form of 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. Both of these assumptions depend on the industrialization of modern times.
In theory, communism is 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 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 communist government was installed to transition the people into a bottom-up communist direct democracy.
Unfortunately, in both Russia and China (as well as 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, portrayed by Orwell in his famous Animal Farm. 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.
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 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, 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.
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 said the same and became the hated enemy of Lenin and later Stalin for it.
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. 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. As Marx and Engels wrote, “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.
While Marx believed that the workers would rise up and create the communist revolution, Lenin argued that a small vanguard party of professional revolutionaries must take power to make the transition from capitalism to dictatorial communism to democratic communism possible. This became known as Leninism, along with specific economic theories Lenin believed would be the best way of implementing Marxism. Vladimir Lenin (1870-1924), like Trotsky, was exiled from Russia for these views and organizing as a communist. In the midst of WWI, with starvation throughout the land, the Tsar abdicated the thrown as the people of Russia rose up demanding revolution in February 1917. The social democrats (like the US democratic party, who push for social reforms without nationalization) continued to invest in fighting the war, which upset the starving Russian people and led to the return of Lenin and Trotsky and the October revolution, the second and final stage of the Russian Revolution. Lenin, who famously announced, “I bring you peace, land and bread”, found himself politically on top of a volatile and unstable situation with many parties demanding many things. Unfortunately, after the Tsar and social democrats running the country were overthrown, Lenin called together a democratic assembly but disbanded it when it did not support a majority for Lenin’s Bolshevik party.
After Lenin’s death in 1924, not very long after the October Revolution, Leon Trotsky (1879-1940) and Stalin vied for power. Stalin argued that the Soviet Union should create “socialism in one country”, concentrating on Russia but supporting communist parties worldwide. This became known as Stalinism, though Stalin’s supporters called it Marxism and Leninism. Trotsky opposed this, arguing as Marx and Engels had done in the Communist Manifesto that Russia must work for revolution in developed countries like France, Germany, Britain and America.
When Stalin seized power, Trotsky was exiled from Russia yet again, but this time by the communist government that he had played a large part in creating. Not only was Trotsky for internationalism, he was for democratic continuous revolution that would keep the top-down party structure in check, the Theory of Permanent Revolution. This became known as Trotskyism, and Stalin worked hard to eliminate all Trotskyites from power. Stalin became a brutal dictator, like Lenin suppressing all democratic dissent and criticism of his regime as counter-revolutionary enemies. Trotskyites argue to this day that their version is the true Marxism, just like the Stalinists, calling each other counter-revolutionaries who want to destroy true Marxism and the communist state. Today, in the wake of the tragedies of Stalin and Mao, most hard lining communists today ascribe to Trotskyism.
Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937) and his Prison Notebooks have become hip for many left leaning people including socialists and communists who do not like what happened in Russia or China. One of the founders of the Italian Communist Party (PCI), he was jailed by Mussolini after he took fascist control of the country in 1922 while Gramsci was visiting Russia as a representative. The prosecutor at Gramsci’s trial famously said, “For twenty years we must stop this brain from functioning”. Gramsci died in prison, but not before writing extensively in his prison notebooks which were smuggled out by visitors. Gramsci’s centrally celebrated concept amongst socialists, Marxists and post-Marxists is cultural hegemony.
In the wake of Stalinism, communists began wondering why the revolution was not succeeding worldwide as planned. Gramsci argued that while Marx and Engels reduced all conflict to the struggle between workers and owners, society is more complex and certain groups dominate others (ex: Christians are predominant in America and this can lead to demonization of Muslims, just as Europeans are predominant such that minority groups are suppressed). The process by which these dominant and marginal forces work out their struggles is known as hegemonic discourse. With such a complex situation, communists should switch from an outright war of frontal attack to one of social positioning. Only such a long and patient effort would succeed given the divisions that exist in the world population. Like Trotsky, and following his lead, Gramsci believed that Lenin and Stalin had come to betray the revolution not because they wished to but because they did not grasp the need for a slow process of continuous revolution in setting up the dictatorship of a vanguard party. All dissent was labeled “reactionary” and “counter-revolutionary”, which masked the real divisions and issues.
Mao Zedong (1893-1976) had his own take on Marxism and Leninism. While the communist symbol is a hammer (for factory workers) and sickle (for farm workers), Mao argued that Lenin and Stalin had paid too much attention to the factories in the city and not enough to the farmers of the countryside. Mao shifted his attention and reforms to agriculture and farm life, which made sense considering the landscape of China. Mao argued that communism in a developing country would only succeed if it did not try to jump to advanced industrialization in imitation of Britain and America but rather developed the life of the farming peasants. Mao famously said that the leader must be down on his knees with the peasants in the soil, or else there would be alienation between the rulers and the workers of the sort Marx had hoped to overcome. Unfortunately, Mao surrounded himself with supporters who wanted to please him while brutally suppressing dissent, and this created a situation where everyone was telling Mao the farms were producing overabundance when they were in fact creating massive starvation.
In the wake of Mao’s death, factions accused each other of undermining Mao’s policies and thwarting the revolution. Since 1978 and the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, capitalist free-market reforms were introduced and China remains an officially communist country that has a mixed economy that leans far towards socialism. Bob Avakian, who participated in the 60s Free Speech Movement and worked with the Black Panther Party, is the most well known American Maoist.
I gave you Slavoj Zizek’s (1949 – present) introduction to the writings of Mao to read. Zizek, a post-Marxist socialist philosopher himself, argues that people make the mistake of trying to find the single moment when communism became dictatorship, but there may not be a single famous figure who “got it wrong” as Judas to Marx’s Jesus. As a Slovenian socialist, Zizek has particular interest in this because Slovenia was one of the lands brutalized under Stalin. He argues that the primary struggle today is between the first and third world, and that communism, like capitalism, can become the oppressive force that it attempts to oppose. Zizek often takes controversial figures like Jesus, Descartes and Mao and finds important contributions that are often overlooked in the wake of tragedy, opposing the externalization of the enemy. I appreciate this reversal of perspective. Thus, Zizek applauds Mao’s turn towards the farmers who Lenin sidelined for the sake of city development, as well as his return to a Hegelian understanding of the pervasiveness of contradiction and continuous struggle.