Cats and Theories
a blog by coticheque
a blog by coticheque

Is Marxism still relevant today?

The ideas of Marx these days are closely associated with the legacy of totalitarian communist regimes that existed all over the world throughout the 20th century. The common critique of such approach is that not all of these so-called communist regimes were built in line with the original ideas of Marx, hence it’s not fair to evaluate the ideas of communism judging solely by the wicked attempts to apply these ideas in practice. But what if we try to disentangle the theory from practice, and try to evaluate the proposals of Marx objectively from the the perspective of the 21st century?

This week I read the Communist Manifesto. After finishing it, I can assert that some of the Marx’s ideas still sound relevant up to this day and can be thus applicable even to the modern-day world. At the same time, the text of the Communist Manifesto also contains a number of straight-away controversial slogans that couldn’t but inspire the 20th century revolutionaries to establish totalitarian regimes in their countries.

Let’s hence take a critical look at the text of the Communist Manifesto and examine its ideas in light of the present-day world.

Economic inequality and the role of inheritance

First of all, we are used to the thought that Marx was advocating against all sorts of private property in favour of establishing a public property. However, was Marx really against all forms of property and capital?

No. According to the Manifesto, what Marx was fighting against was one very specific type of capital, which is the bourgeois capital. In the 19th century, the world was mainly dominated by the ‘old money’, the old wealth held by a small class of bourgeoisie that evolved directly from the feudal society. The fact that almost all property ended up being owned by bourgeoisie was explained by the fact that the majority of this property was inherited, and the capital was gradually passing from one generation to another, growing and concentrating more and more. The world was dominated by the small class of economic elite – people who were lucky enough to be born into wealthy families and merely inherited all their property from the preceding generations.

Is this problem still symptomatic of today’s economic system? Definitely. Just going through the Wikipedia article on economic inequality, we find the following facts: 

– ‘In the year 2020, the richest 1% of adults alone owned 40% of global assets. The three richest people in the world possess more financial assets than the lowest 48 nations combined.’

– ‘In 2014, the richest 1% in the US now own more wealth than the bottom 90%. Inherited wealth may help explain why many Americans who have become rich may have had a substantial head start.’

Clearly, Marx is not advocating against all sorts of capital, but mainly against the inherited capital. There’s nothing to disagree here with. As a matter of fact, inherited capital indeed has a tendency to get accumulated over generations without adding much contribution to the real economy.

But what about Marx’s stance on capitalism per se – such as the version of it currently prevailing in most Western democracies of the 21st century? For instance, what could be the hypothetical opinion of Marx on the present-day self-made billionaires – like the tech billionaires from the Silicon Valley? Well, that’s what Marx says:

‘…hard-won, self-acquired, self-earned property, property of the petty artisan and of the small peasant, a form of property that preceded the bourgeois form? There’s no need to abolish that.’

Marx doesn’t advocate for abolition of the hard-won self-acquired property! What he has on his mind is the disdain for idle capital – the capital inherited without effort and not used productively. It’s exactly that sort of capital that Marx is critisizing further:

‘It has been objected that upon the abolition of private property all work will cease, and universal laziness will overtake us. According to this, bourgeois society ought long ago to have gone to the dogs through sheer idleness; for those of its members who work, acquire nothing, and those who acquire anything, do not work.’

He reaffirms this statement by writing the following:

‘The distinguishing feature of communism is not the abolition of property generally, but the abolition of bourgeois property. But modern bourgeois private property is the final and most complete expression of the system of producing and appropriating products, that is based on class antagonists, on the oppression of the many by the few.’

‘In bourgeois society, the past dominates the present; in communist society the present dominates the past.’

That leads us to the next point…

Class society and the inaccessibility of capital

As it becomes clear from the aforecited paragraph, apart from the chain of inheritance that links the capital of the past to the capital of the present and leads to unjustified concentration of wealth, another key attribute of the communist ideology is the theory of class antagonism – or, the never-ending clash between economic classes.

How relevant does this problem seem to be these days? Today, we definitely still witness a rather large inequality between various economic classes, however it cannot be compared to inequality of the class society of the 19th century. The modern-day Western society is primarily based on an open stratification system, the system where social mobility from one economic class to another is ensured through the personal merits, such as individual skills, abilities and efforts. You cannot call it a rigid class system, when the society actually has social lifts and tools that allow for mobility between classes. After all, I think the bigger problem of the modern-day world is not the increasing discrepancy between economic classes, but a widening inequality between intellectual classes.

The 19th century society was quite binary, as it predominantly consisted of bourgeoisie and working-class people, at least according to the Marx’s interpretation. In the 21st century, we also have a relatively large proportion of the middle class. So, as a person who managed to become a part of the middle-class through a corporate career, I’m quite curious what could be the stance of Marx on modern-day educated professionals working in corporations – the ‘wage-workers’ of our days. Well, that’s what he says:

‘The average price of a wage-labor is the minimum wage, that quantum of the means of subsistence, which is absolutely requisite to keep the labourer in bare existence as a labourer. What, therefore, the wage-labourer appropriates by means of his labor, merely suffices to prolong and reproduce a bare existence.’

That would definitely resonate with many present-day educated professionals. As Hannah Arendt wrote, the current world primarily focuses on the maintenance of its economic system, or maintenance of the physical world in order to preserve it for the use by future generations. The big problem of such type of economic and social organization is that there’s not much room left for any meaningful creative labor, or the use of human creative potential. Doesn’t matter if such creative spirit is expressed in terms of creative arts or through the application of entrepreneurial abilities, which could also be called art in some sense.

Even the modern-day middle-class professionals ultimately earn just enough money to maintain existence of themselves and their families, while not having a luxury to accumulate any sort of capital. Just think of the fact that housing is almost unaffordable for most people these days, at least over the lifespan of one generation. No significant wealth can be built in surplus of operational costs needed for the life maintenance.

This is exactly what Marx affirms further:

‘You’re horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population.’

‘From the moment when individual property can no longer be transformed into bourgeois property, into capital, from that moment, you say, individuality vanishes.’

Here we see what Marx got absolutely right: access to the real capital is almost unattainable for working people, even nowadays. In rare cases when accumulation of capital proves to be achievable, it’s usually either a result of luck, exceptional entrepreneurial abilities, or consistent effort over a timespan of a few generations.

Rethinking the family

Interestingly enough, the Communist Manifesto criticizes not only the economic status quo of the 19th century, but also the other traditional forms of social organization prevailing during those times: for instance, the private domain of a family life.

Marx advocated for abolition of the family. According to him, the institution of family simply fosters economic inequality. As already discussed, the right of inheritance leads to multiplication and concentration of capital. When the chain of inheritance is interrupted, the idea of family simply loses its sense:

‘On what foundation is the present family, the bourgeois family, based? On capital, on private gain. In its completely developed form this family exists only among the bourgeoisie.’

Abolition of traditional family hence makes sense. I’m all for it. Just like Marx, I have always found the Western idea of a traditional family life flawed, to say the least. The fact that even today two people are forced to form a family and raise children within it is just terribly inefficient. It’s merely counterproductive from the standpoint of time allocation and resource management. Raising children requires an absolutely similar set of skills in case of every individual child. Repeating the same procedure with each kid in each family is counterproductive. What society should consider instead is incorporating the principles of economy of scale into the domain of a family life. Instead of multiplicating the amount of efforts spent on raising one child, all children should be raised by a common effort of teachers within some specialized institution – at least until they reach a conscious age. This will allow parents not to waste their precious time on dull stupefying activities of handling toddlers, and let them allocate time to more meaningful and creative work instead.

Finally, let’s take a look at the Marx’s infamous idea of the ‘community of women’:

‘Bourgeois marriage is in reality a system of wives in common and thus, at the most, what the communists might possibly be reproached with, is that they desire to introduce, in substitution for a hypocritically concealed, an openly legalized community of women.’

This idea cannot be properly understood without taking into account the life-style prevailing in the Marx’s immediate social circle. Clearly, here Marx behaves like a reactionary towards the habits of 19th century bourgeoisie, who sometimes had quite eccentric polygamous ways of living. Just read Tom Stoppard’s ‘Coast of Utopia’ for some examples. Marx must have witnessed it with his own eyes, looking at lives of his friends, and proposed to take the situation a step further – legalize the ‘hypocritically concealed’ polygamy. Given the historical context and social circle of Marx: fair enough!

Marxism and totalitarianism

Let’s now take a look at the concrete actions that Marx proposes on the concluding pages of the Communist Manifesto. As already asserted above, the following principles from the communist agenda sound pretty reasonable even these days:

– A heavy progressive or graduated income tax 
– Abolition of all right of inheritance

At the same time, the communist action plan includes a few slogans that are straight-away totalitarian. Take for instance the following ones:

– Centralization of credit in the hands of the State
– Centralization of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State

Many people argue that there’s nothing totalitarian in the ideas of Marx himself. After all, you cannot judge the theories of Marx by the deeds of Stalin. These people argue that the communist regimes that existed in the 20th century deviated from the original Marxist ideas, and instead of reinstating public property converted all private property into the property of the state. However, the aforecited statements clearly prove that totalitarian etatist premises are in fact rooted right in the original text of the Manifesto. To justify these measures and to somewhat mitigate the need for a full state control, Marx proposes the following:

‘When, in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared, and all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation, the public power will lose its political character. Political power, properly so called, is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another.’

Unfortunately, it didn’t prove to be this way. In all real-world communist regimes, the authoritarian state stayed in place for numerous decades, ultimately reinstating itself as the new dominating economic class.

To add even more to the totalitarian inclinations of Marx, here’s his criticism of the bourgeois institutions. According to Marx, the true communists are supposed to be ‘…against representative government, against bourgeois competition, bourgeoisie freedom of press, bourgeois liberty and equality.’ Well, sounds like absolutely all liberal democratic institutions are evil products of the bourgeoisie, and thus should be destroyed.

Finally, Marx urges us not to forget that we shouldn’t sell our souls to capitalism. He says that we cannot ‘…barter truth, love and honor for traffic in wool, beetroot-sugar, and potato spirits.’ Despite such claim, all existing communist regimes were in fact entirely centered around the materialistic matters of economic relations, and redirected the public focus to the aforementioned sugar and potato spirits, rather than the truth and honor. Clearly, truth and honor are the concepts belonging more to the idealistic realm of Hegel, not the materialistic domain of Marx.

As the history shows, communism doesn’t work in practice. Forced equality will always require a dictatorship regime that would be enforcing it. This was evident in the Soviet communist regime. It’s no less evident in the present-day cultural neo-marxist policies aimed at controlling the public discourse and restraining free speech.

The evolution of capitalism in the 20th century

Interestingly enough, the Communist Manifesto claims that Germany is the best place to establish the first proper communist regime in:

‘The communists turn their attention chiefly to Germany, because the country is on the eve of a bourgeois revolution that is bound to be carried out under more advanced conditions of European civilization, and with a much more developed proletariat than that of England in the 17th and of France in the 18th century.’

Well, we know quite well what happened in Germany as a result of resistance against the communist ideas. Nevertheless, looking at Germany of the 21st century, it’s getting quite clear that the ideas of Marx ultimately found a suitable ground in this country. Low economic inequality, almost no distinction between economic classes – the modern-day Germany is almost a socialist utopia. All of this was however achieved on the foundation of capitalism, not through a violent communist revolution. Does it mean that the ideas of Marx hold true, and capitalism inevitably evolves into socialism, as the examples of Germany and many other Western and Northern European countries show? Perhaps. What we know for sure is that social progress is more likely to be achieved through reforms, not revolutions.

Judging by the concluding paragraph of the Communist Manifesto, Marx clearly doesn’t support this view:

‘The communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.’

This is the final argument that makes Marxism agenda quite outdated in light of the current century, at least when it comes to practical proposals outlined by it. In the past 100 years, the proletarians have been gradually winning the world without any need of overthrowing the social hierarchies. It doesn’t mean that the vision of Marx is no longer relevant – we’ve seen that it still is. This vision can however be achieved by means of different, more civilized and reasonable actions.

My personal opinion is that capitalism is intrinsically good. So far, it’s the most efficient economic system that simply works and has allowed for enormous economic growth over the past centuries. It’s undeniable that capitalism has its internal flaws and weaknesses, such as the mentioned concentration of wealth and accumulation of capital, however we can work with that, keeping the system in place – not overthrowing but reforming it. I personally like the ideas of Thomas Piketty who proposes to introduce a huge tax on wealth and inheritance to prevent formation of another class society, like the feudal aristocracy of the 19th century.

To sum up: in the 21st century, Marxism sounds just way too radical and idealistic. All hail Piketty!

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