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defending marx

September 2, 2009

Now, I’m not a “Marxist” by any means, but I find myself defending Marx more and more recently. There seems to be a lot of misinformation out there about what socialism really means and represents as an economic system, and this is especially true with Marx’s writings.

The majority of people who take issue with Marx appear to do so based upon his association with “communist” countries that supposedly put his theories into practice, but few of these critics seem to have actually read anything Marx himself wrote (there are exceptions, of course). Reading things like The German Ideology and Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, for example, make it clear to me that Marx would be absolutely horrified by what authoritarian countries like China and Russia have done in his name.

I think Marx was wrong about a lot of things, and I certainly don’t agree with all of his conclusions, but I don’t think he’s the monster that many people often make him out to be.

On, for example, someone wrote:

[R]ead Marx. The whole point was to convince the proletariat they’d be better off if they had a revolution, seized the means of production for themselves, and instituted socialism. He wasn’t appealing to their compassion for their fellow man.

Of course, a selective reading of Marx can support this, but I have to disagree that he was wasn’t also “appealing to their compassion for their fellow man.”

While encouraging a proletarian revolution was certainly one of things Marx was trying to do with his writings, he also stressed that he believed the self-emancipation of the proletariat would ultimately bring about the emancipation of all classes. In the words of Erich Fromm, “His concept of socialism is the emancipation from alienation, the return of man to himself, his self-realization.”

According to Marx, all individuals in capitalist society are essentially alienated, from their labour as well as from each other. The reason Marx singled out the working class was because he saw in the working class the means by which capitalism could be transformed. It was his hope, however, that once this economic transformation was underway, the alienation of each individual would gradual be eliminated via a more socialized means of production, which, in turn, would sow the seeds for the “resolution of the antagonism between man and nature, and between man and man.”

As Marx wrote in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844: “… the emancipation of society from private property, from servitude, takes the political form of the emancipation of the workers; not in the sense that only the latter’s emancipation is involved, but because this emancipation includes the emancipation of humanity as a whole. For all human servitude is involved in the relation of the worker to production, and all types of servitude are only modifications or consequences of this relation.”

Nobody would confuse Marx for the Dalai Lama, but he certainly had a great deal of compassion for his fellow man, and I think that comes through in many of his works. He may not have expressed it directly, but it definitely comes through in his idealism, as well as his hopeful vision for humanity’s future.

Additionally, the same person also said (albeit in a different context):

[T]here’s no contradiction in being a socialist dictator and a socialist robber. Marx said there was supposed to be a dictatorship for a while — and he didn’t put a time limit on it. He advocated seizing property. These are inevitable when you decide to go the revolutionary route. “Socialism” doesn’t mean just the specific ideal society you happen to have in mind; it’s a category. Every society that satisfies the defining criteria is socialist, regardless of what else it does. So unless the definition of “socialism” includes democracy — and it clearly does not — whether a society has a dictator is just immaterial. There’s a reason the dominant political faction in western Europe originally called itself the “Democratic Socialists”: the phrase is not redundant.

To begin with, Marx did say that “the class struggle necessarily leads to the dictatorship of the proletariat” and that “this dictatorship itself constitutes no more than a transition to the abolition of all classes and to a classless society.” However, I disagree that democracy wasn’t a part of Marx and Engels’ vision of socialism — the transitory phase between capitalism and communism — from the very beginning.

For example, even though I’m sure there are things that can be found within Marx’s numerous writings that can be used to contradict this view, Engels, in his 1847 programme The Principles of Communism (the precursor to the Communist Manifesto), writes:

Above all, it [the proletarian revolution] will establish a democratic constitution, and through this, the direct or indirect dominance of the proletariat. Direct in England, where the proletarians are already a majority of the people. Indirect in France and Germany, where the majority of the people consists not only of proletarians, but also of small peasants and petty bourgeois who are in the process of falling into the proletariat, who are more and more dependent in all their political interests on the proletariat, and who must, therefore, soon adapt to the demands of the proletariat. Perhaps this will cost a second struggle, but the outcome can only be the victory of the proletariat.

He continues by stressing that, “Democracy would be wholly valueless to the proletariat if it were not immediately used as a means for putting through measures directed against private property and ensuring the livelihood of the proletariat.”

In addition, Marx, in his 1871 pamphlet The Civil War in France, writes about the Paris Commune (notice the parts about “universal suffrage” and “revocable at short terms,” i.e., characteristics of direct democracy):

The direct antithesis to the empire was the Commune. The cry of “social republic,” with which the February Revolution was ushered in by the Paris proletariat, did but express a vague aspiration after a republic that was not only to supercede the monarchical form of class rule, but class rule itself. The Commune was the positive form of that republic.

Paris, the central seat of the old governmental power, and, at the same time, the social stronghold of the French working class, had risen in arms against the attempt of Thiers and the Rurals to restore and perpetuate that old governmental power bequeathed to them by the empire. Paris could resist only because, in consequence of the siege, it had got rid of the army, and replaced it by a National Guard, the bulk of which consisted of working men. This fact was now to be transformed into an institution. The first decree of the Commune, therefore, was the suppression of the standing army, and the substitution for it of the armed people.

The Commune was formed of the municipal councillors, chosen by universal suffrage in the various wards of the town, responsible and revocable at short terms. The majority of its members were naturally working men, or acknowledged representatives of the working class. The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time.

To which Engels, in his 1891 postscript to The Civil War in France, states:

Of late, the Social-Democratic philistine has once more been filled with wholesome terror at the words: Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Well and good, gentlemen, do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.

So, from just these few references, it’s clear to me that democracy was an essential part of Marx and Engels’ vision of socialism, including the “dictatorship of the proletariat.”


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