Marx or markets? Rubbish!

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Marx caused the death of millions…???

5 May was the 200th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth.  It inspired a lot of tributes, and quite a few trashings as well.  The trashing that particularly caught my eye was a short piece in our local Dominion Post entitled “Day marks a lesson learnt 200 years on”.  It contained extracts from an opinion piece in USA Today, which had a much more forthright headline, “Don’t celebrate Karl Marx.  His Communism has a death count in the millions.”

Estimates of the number of deaths caused by the Russian and USSR “communist” states since the 1917 revolution vary widely, but there is no doubt that deaths from persecution, famine, and war were indeed in the millions.  And other “communist” regimes, most notably in China, have also been responsible for millions of deaths.

But there are numerous problems with attributing all these deaths to Karl Marx.  The most important one for the purposes of this blog is that the regimes which committed the atrocities were never “his communism”.  They were all authoritarian, centralist regimes, arising more from Lenin’s elitist concept of a strong party directing the (incompetent) peasants than Marx’s transitional “dictatorship of the proletariat”.

“His” communism was never a fully developed philosophy, let alone a blueprint.   Indeed, the opinion piece itself can do no worse than accuse him of “never recognizing the inherent danger of Leviathan (=a strong State)” and “never attempting to reveal how the State would wither away” as he wrote his “humanitarian piffle”.

He idealised big government…??

The writer’s main target is not the “death to millions” of the headline, but what he sees as “big government”.  He equates communist regimes with big (and therefore repressive) government.  And Marx’s “humanitarian piffle” is a result of his “criminal naivety, to expect happy results from any system that bestowed boundless power on rulers”.   The writer concludes, “On Marx’s birthday, never forget that a philosophy that begins by idealizing government will end by idealizing subjugation”.

That last sentence shows, in a nutshell, what is wrong with neo-liberal thinking.  Their creed can be summed up as “individual freedom based on private property rights, with government activities confined to protection of those rights”.  In other words, the sole function of government is to protect those who have (and can get) from those those who haven’t (or can’t get).  It is a creed based on the selfishness of the already and would-be wealthy.  And it is best expressed through “the power of the markets” (as opposed to government).

This is pretty much the exact opposite of Marxism, and the main reason that Marx has been demonised for so long by capitalists.  A central tenet of Marx’s communism is the abolition of “private” property.

In this context, “private” property broadly comprises land, capital, and factories (the means of production), as distinguished from “personal” property, comprising homes, consumer goods and personal possessions (the things produced).  The “abolition of private property” puts the means of production into common ownership, rather than private hands.  Consequently, under Marx’s communism, the wealth created by production is also commonly owned.  Under capitalism, private and personal property are indistinguishable, all property should be private, and hence wealth will be held by those who hold property.

The next question is then one of governance – if private property is put back into common ownership, how will that common ownership by expressed?  Will a strong central government arise, which dictates the objectives and operations of all the means of production (as under Stalinism, and aspects of Chinese Communism)?  Or will regional and local areas have greater power over their production, through cooperatives  and mutual agreements (as sporadically in some South American and other countries)?

If Marx’s communism idealises anything, it idealises governance – the conscious arrangement of human affairs for mutual benefit (another central tenet of Marx’s communism is “from each according to their means, to each according to their needs”) – at the expense of markets – the creation and idealisation of transaction-based relationships that inevitably benefit those with greater amounts of personal property.

Marx’s communism does not idealise big government, but does assume the need for some centralisation of planning to replace the anarchy of unfettered capitalist production.  Obviously, the more detailed this planning function becomes, the more centralised and rigid the system – as notably in the USSR under and after Stalin.  And if power is increasingly centralised through planning and other functions, yes, the far end of this ideal is control by the few with political power at the expense of the many.

The far end of  unrestrained centralisation of any type of government is political control by the few at the expense of the many – dictatorship or, more likely, feudalism in effect.  But the far end of  unrestrained capitalism is financial control by the few (big corporations and their owners) at the expense of the many – also feudalism, in effect.

Roger Waters sang “give any one species too much rope and they’ll fuck it up“.  The same is true of political or production systems – allow them to develop in any one direction in an unrestrained way and they will first become parodies of themselves (as in the USA today, where the political system is currently almost completely controlled by the capitalists), and finally disintegrate (as in the USSR, which over-centralised).

The real issue is power, not institutional form

I’m with the writer on one narrow aspect of what he says – a very small part, and probably not in terms he could accept.  “Boundless power” is a fundamental problem of human society, under any system.

The central issue is not “government versus markets”, but “how is power to be distributed, and how are people to be given (and kept to) the levels of power suitable to their potential contributions?”.

As long as we have specialisation, as long as we need to organise ourselves in complex social and economic structures to live our lives, power will have to be granted to people to manage those organisations.  As long as people have large stores of personal wealth, they will have access to resources that give them power over others.

And as long as people have power, they will misuse it, either because they are themselves corrupt, or because they have been corrupted by it.

I am deeply and proudly a democrat – a believer in the distribution of political, financial, organisational and coercive power as widely and evenly as possible.  My book “A New Place to Stand” has six chapters in it directly about power, the two of which most relevant to this blog are “Power” and “Real Democracy“.

And, at heart, the ideology of communism is far more democratic than that of capitalism.

Communism is about common ownership and mutual endeavour by the many.  We haven’t seen much “true communism” yet in modern history, except in isolated and beleaguered instances.  But if you want to know what true communism could look like, read a bit about Rosa Luxemburg – who I think is possibly the best thinker yet about communism-as-it-might-be.  And the expanded role now being taken by cities and local groups in organising from the bottom up to save our foothold on the planet looks increasingly like Luxemburg’s communism.

Capitalism is about private ownership and wealth for the few, and the eventual consequences of capitalism are expressed in the quote from Marx at the top of this blog.

Marx’s work and analysis were mostly focussed on capitalism, not communism, and his analysis of the evils caused by ownership of capital are in even starker relief today than they were when he wrote, with wealth concentrating in fewer and fewer hands, based on exploitation of the poor and the planet.

This was his great contribution.  His expression of communism-as-an-ideology was primarily about the destruction of capitalism, and he did not develop his vision of a future society fully, as the USA Today writer seems to implicitly understand.

In particular, he did not deal with the evils of centralisation of power beyond a generalised view of the “dictatorship of the proletariat” – a view that the many should have the power, rather than the few.  Which is essentially democratic.  But, in avowedly “communist” countries, it became “dictatorship ostensibly on behalf of the proletariat” as power centralised.  And Marx might be blameable for “naivety” in not foreseeing this.

But if so, so must the prophets of capitalism be blameable for their naivety in not foreseeing (or even, now, acknowledging), the consequences of their system.  The USA Today writer blamed Marx and “his” communism for millions of deaths.  As far I can tell, the number of deaths caused by these regimes pales in comparison with the deaths from famine, war, persecution and neglect caused – and continuing to be caused – by capitalist regimes (see discussion of this question here).

Both “systems” have wreaked havoc on the poor and the planet, in the one case through centralisation of political power, and in the other through centralisation of financial power.  Both need to be jettisoned in favour of real democracy, based on truly sophisticated understanding and management of the problem of power.

And, just as the far end of unfettered capitalism should not be blamed on Adam Smith, the far end of over-centralised “communism” should not be blamed on Karl Marx.

He should be celebrated as one of the greatest thinkers in modern history about politics and economics – and about capitalism in particular.

Come on friends, raise a glass with me to Karl Marx, born 200 years ago and one of the great prophets of our time.  Prost!




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