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defending marx (edited version)

September 4, 2009

(Note: Gender specific terms such as “man” and “fellow man” in reference to humanity were originally taken from the comments of the person I was rebutting — as well as Marx’s writings — and since I was lazy and couldn’t think of better, gender neutral terms to put in their place, I’ve left them as they are. Apologies in advance to anyone who might actually read this and find them distasteful.)

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.

To begin with, Marx wasn’t a big fan of private property. In fact, he advocated the abolishment of private property (as in the means of production, not personal property) and the placement of the proletariat (i.e., the majority of the working-class population—not a single person and/or political party who simply claims to represent the proletariat) in direct democratic control of production. And because of this, some say that Marx was simply a troublemaker—that the whole point was to convince the proletariat they’d be better off if they have a revolution, seize the means of production and institute socialism, that he wasn’t appealing to their compassion for their fellow man and was essentially advocating authoritarianism with his “dictatorship of the proletariat.”

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, or that democracy wasn’t a part of Marx and Engels’ vision of socialism — the transitory phase between capitalism and communism — from the very beginning.

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:

[T]he 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.

As for the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” it’s true that 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 still believe that democracy was a part of Marx and Engels’ vision of socialism.

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 Marx had a great deal of compassion for his fellow man and that democracy was an essential part of Marx and Engels’ vision of socialism, including the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” Nobody would confuse Marx for the Dalai Lama, but his compassion definitely comes through in his idealism — as well as his hopeful vision for humanity’s future — and it’s hard to believe that he would approve of what authoritarian countries under the banners of “communism” and “socialism” have done in his name.

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One Comment
  1. David McReynolds comments:

    Nice piece, Jason. Glad you have gotten hold of Fromm. I'd not worry about gender specific terms – I'm uneasy about our correcting poems are articles from the past which would be written different today.

    I know that Dwight Macdonald's great quote: “The root is man, here and not there, now and not then” is “gender wrong” but the flow of words is right. I guess I'm biased toward what might be called the music of language. Many (many) years ago at UCLA I heard a lecture by the great American poet William Carlos Williams. A student asked him “Mr. Williams, if the idiom conflicts with the meter, which should give way” to which Williams immediately said “the idiom always has first place”.

    We must understand what Marx meant by dictatorship of the proletariat. I wish he had used a different term, but that phrase has to be seen in light of his view of the “State as the Executive Committee of the ruling class”. All current democracy is, in fact, a dictatorship by the few over the many. It can be a relatively gentle as in the West, or as ruthless as had been the case in Central and Latin America, but the courts and the laws were set up for the protection not of the many, but of the few who owned property.

    So Marx had in mind, if I can use such a confusing phrase, “a more democratic dictatorship”, in which the State would represent the many rather than the few.

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