Karl Marx's "Communist Manifesto"
Last revised: 2001.05.17
When it comes to belief systems, there are many ideas which, if challenged, tend to provoke violent defensive reactions on the part of their believers. Star Trek fans, a disproportionate number of whom are pseudoscience afictionados, tend to become irritable when reminded of the vast gulf between Trek pseudoscience and real science. Creationists tend to become emotional and defensive when reminded that their precious ideas may make for good religious dogma, but they bear no resemblance whatsoever to science. And in spite of the utter failure of communism in the twentieth century, its defenders attack any criticism as "capitalist dogma".
Karl Marx wrote his Communist Manifesto in the middle of the 19th century, which was a heady time in human history. The Industrial Revolution was radically and rapidly changing society. New technologies were coming out all the time, and many spoke of huge, sweeping changes to come. The idea of "social engineering" became popular; people believed that, armed with advancing technology and an enlightened world view, they would be able to tear down the rotten and dysfunctional society that thousands of years of human civilization had slowly constructed, and replace it with a new, improved version.
The problem with Marx's grandiose vision of social engineering is that it assumes humans will play by rules which are against their nature, and that a large industrialized economy is simple enough to be centrally managed. Any engineer knows that when faced with an enormously complex piece of machinery, it is much easier to tweak it than it is to replace it. Complex systems such as societies and economies tend to obey the laws of chaos theory; the short and long-term effects of changes are unpredictable by even the most brilliant economists and sociologists, so any attempts at "social engineering" should be performed very carefully, and very slowly. It is a laudable goal to improve society, but it should be done through gradual change, not "revolution".
The funny thing is that communism does follow a twisted sort of logic. If you accept its underlying premises, some of its conclusions actually do make sense. However, you can't accept its underlying premises. Humans won't work as hard without self-interest to motivate them, as anyone familiar with the behaviour of our evolutionary ancestors will quickly realize. The collective self-interest of a nation of millions is much too remote and abstract to have the emotional immediacy necessary to strongly motivate most individuals. An economy of millions or hundreds of millions of people is not simple enough to predict and control from a central bureaucracy. People won't give up the traditional family structure, which has existed (either as monogamy or polygamy) in one form or another since the dawn of recorded history. And absolute power does corrupt absolutely, even in the hands of the benevolent Communist Party.
The Communist Manifesto
The first section of "The Communist Manifesto" is a long-winded and repetitive rant about the evils of capitalism:
"Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other -- bourgeoisie and proletariat." This is Karl Marx's biggest mistake: his assumption that all of the societal classes in an industrialized world will coalesce into two remaining classes: wealthy industrial property owners and starving labourers. The critical distinction is between people who work for a living, and people whose money works for them. This is no small distinction, and Marx's divisive description is still echoed today by the political left wing. However, the analogy of "hostile camps" suggests warfare, which in turn suggests that one is somehow a traitor or a deserter if one moves from one "camp" to the other. This is simply not the case; we all strive to become "financially independent" (read: "bourgeoisie") someday, and many of us achieve that goal, even from the humblest beginnings. He also ignored the existence of the middle class (which has actually grown since his era, rather than shrinking away to nothing in his predicted polarization). Most of the middle class has both employment and investment income, and will eventually retire to live off their money, thus making them the true middle ground between wage earners and capitalists: at different stages of their lives, they will be both. Since virtually the entirety of Marx's argument for communism relies upon the assumption of two distinct, polarized, hostile classes, the existence of a viable middle ground literally cuts his knees out from under him.
"The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage laborers." This is really just a repetition of his earlier attempt to pretend that society is polarized into those who work and those who live off their money. Now, I don't mean to suggest that our society, either in its current state or in Karl Marx's time, is ideal. However, his artificial polarization was an inaccurate description of events in the 19th century, and his writings proved an inaccurate prediction of events in the 20th century. Events have shown that a free-market system does offer great opportunity for those with ambition and intelligence, contrary to what Karl Marx predicted. Professionals with valuable skills do work for their wages, but it's not a prison; they also invest in things like houses and retirement funds, and most of them will eventually retire on those investments. Moreover, those who would defend him by saying that he couldn't have known about future events would be well advised to consider the fact that all of these objections were also raised in his era. Clearly, his detractors knew something that he didn't.
"Modern bourgeois society, with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells." Here he tries to portray one of the strengths of the free market as a weakness, by complaining that someone should be in "control". But why does someone have to be in "control" of the economy? "Laissez-faire" capitalism is based on the fact that free markets control themselves. The laws of supply and demand and the free-market forces of competition control the economy, without any government bureacracy holding the reins. The strong survive, the weak perish, and the group as a whole becomes stronger (it is an historical irony that Darwin and Marx published within a dozen years of each other, since Darwinian evolution is analogous to the free-market system which eventually triumphed over Marxism). The only role for the government of a true free-market economy is to ensure free competition rather than monopoly (which destroys choice), and to provide security and infrastructure for its citizens. The vast disparity in living conditions between communist states and free-market states is proof that the lack of a central controlling authority is not the glaring weakness that he claimed it to be.
"It is enough to mention the commercial crises [recessions] that, by their periodical return, put the existence of the entire bourgeois society on its trial, each time more threateningly." Yet again, he describes one of the strengths of a free market as a weakness. How can periodic recessions be a strength, you ask? That's simple: like any self-regulating system, a free market economy corrects itself whenever it gets "out of whack". Sometimes, this correction comes in the form of a recession, and sometimes, it comes in the form of a boom. Either way, it's evidence of the free market's self-regulating mechanism in action. Millions of people subtly and collectively influence the cyclical direction of countless separate industries through their spending and investing choices (every dollar counts as a "vote" of sorts, making the free market more democratic than the government in many ways). Did you ever wonder why central banks often raise interest rates in order to slow down an "overheated" economy? It's because they understand that know that an excessive upswing must be followed by a correspondingly violent downswing, so they try to encourage the masses to invest more and spend less. At all times, it is the masses who are truly in control of the economy, while the government merely tries to nudge them in the right direction. Compare this to the communist system, where the government takes control of the economy away from the masses. It is ironic that an economic system which purports to fight for the masses will actually take away most of their power.
[Explaining recessions] "Because there is too much civilization, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce." This is the third time he describes a strength of capitalism as a weakness. Chronic over-production is not a bad thing! It's actually a good thing, for two reasons:
Availability of necessities. When the supply of a product is controlled so that it matches demand, there is always the risk that the government bureaucrats who are doing this "matching" will make a mistake, resulting in a supply shortfall (remember the Soviet bread lines?). However, when there's an over-abundance of product, this cannot happen. Consider the example of the fresh produce section at your local supermarket. They throw out a lot of food, because they chronically stock more than they can sell. Is this bad? Of course not; it ensures that nobody with a job (or even a welfare cheque) will starve, and it also lets us carefully pick only the most ripe and appetizing food.
Freedom of consumer choice. When there are too many products out there, all vying for your money, you have the luxury of choosing which one you want. But Karl Marx's communist government would take away your ability to choose what you need and which supplier you'll use. The freedom to choose is not a triviality; it is power. Why does the government care what voters think, even if only during election years? Because our votes give us the power to choose the other party. Why do companies care what customers think? Because our dollars give us the power to choose a competitor. In a free market, the masses have the power to not only punish a company for wrongdoing, but to totally destroy it, driving into bankruptcy and erasing it from the face of the planet.
"Owing to the extensive use of machinery, and to the division of labor, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him." This is an example of Karl Marx's absolutely incredible arrogance. How can an ivory tower intellectual who never worked in a factory presume to know what it's like? Unlike Marx (or his fans, most of whom have never set foot inside a factory), I actually have worked in a highly automated factory, and I have worked as a skilled professional, co-operating with others to design and build products. I mention this because it means that I can speak from personal experience to refute his claims: when I see one of those products rolling down the street as part of a finished automobile, or sitting on a store shelf somewhere, I do feel a sense of pride in workmanship. Karl Marx was wrong; you can take pride in something that you made with the aid of technology or through co-operative work. And if you doubt that, go down to Bowling Green (Kentucky, USA), accost a worker at the Corvette plant, and tell him that you think the Vette is built like shit. You just might get an earful (or a sound beating).
The second section of "The Communist Manifesto" is a long-winded and repetitive advertisement for communism, in which every argument takes the form of a hideously distorted strawman caricature of capitalism, followed by his model of communism and the accompanying implicit message of: "there- isn't that better?".
He describes communists by saying that "they have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole." In other words, they're selfless and they have no ambitions for power whatsoever. And if you believe that, I have some swamp land in Florida to sell you. The reality of communism is that every communist revolution in history has been precipitated by a small group of people who gave themselves enormous power while trampling upon the rights and freedoms of the people. Neo-marxists defend this ugly history by saying that a "true" communist would not commit the sins of Leninism, Maoism, Stalinism, etc., but they fail to realize that communism seeks to take power from the masses by its very nature, by replacing free markets (which are controlled by the masses) and competing corporations (which the masses can punish, reward, or even destroy) with government monopolies, which the public has no power to directly control (to say nothing of punishing or destroying them if they are displeased with their performance).
"The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all other proletarian parties: Formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat." Ludicrous fantasy. An entire social class cannot seize power. Instead, it can only appoint representatives to take that power. No matter what flowery language Karl Marx chooses to use, the simple reality is that government power will always be in the hands of the few, regardless of whether that government is communist or capitalist. The only question is how much power we want that government to have, and Marx made the mistake of assuming that the more power the government had, the more power the masses would have. This is a very serious "have your cake and eat it too" fallacy; you cannot simultaneously give more power to the masses and to the government! Marx felt that free markets are undemocratic and unfair, but in reality, free markets are actually more democratic than governments, communist or otherwise. They actually respond to the whims of the masses, while governments only make promises. Look at Wal-Mart; its profits dwarf that of every rich person's boutique and specialty store in America. Now look at your federal capital: is there any venue there where your average Wal-Mart customer would be taken seriously?
"In this sense, the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property." This is actually untrue. The core of his theory is summed up in his idea that society is polarized into subsistence wage earners and people who live off their money. This is his suggestion for a solution to that oversimplification, and it's a solution which is never really justified. If we translate this from the language of Marxism into the language of the free market, he is saying that he wants to abolish your freedom to decide whether to use your wages to buy something, or to invest. You will be forced to spend every penny of every paycheque to buy state-supplied goods and services (at prices and in quantities fixed by the state so that there's none left over). If you attempted to put your money in the bank and get interest on it, you would be a lawbreaker.
"The average price of wage labor is the minimum wage, i.e., that quantum of the means of subsistence which is absolutely requisite to keep the laborer in bare existence as a laborer." In an industrialized world, no one will be paid more than the bare minimum required to keep us alive? In the real industrialized world (as opposed to his sterile imaginary world), if you have a skill which is in demand, then you can command a higher salary for your services. Conversely, if you have a skill which is ridiculously commonplace (eg. if your resume lists "literate in the English language" as your only job skill), then you will get paid a pathetic wage. I can't believe people still think of Karl Marx as some sort of genius when he obviously didn't even understand the principles of supply and demand.
"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 who acquire anything, do not work." Naturally, he tries to deal with one of the most popular criticisms of communism. He argues that the idea of "incentive to work" is flawed because rich people have no financial incentive to work, so their society should have self-destructed through "sheer idleness". However, he ignores the fact that many rich people are in fact idle (a fact which he himself complains about, yet he ignores it here), thus showing that a lack of incentive will keep people from working. Those who do work do so either to make sure they stay rich, or because they have replaced the motivation of money with the motivation of power. Either way, people only work because they have a personal incentive to do so, and no one has ever produced a compelling argument that this isn't the case.
"Abolition of the family! Even the most radical flare up at this infamous proposal of the Communists." As well they should. It is a disgusting concept! Karl Marx believed that the family structure was inherently exploitative, with capitalists treating their wives and children as property and bequeathing their accumulated assets to their children (he saw the concept of inheritance as a horrible evil). His solution? Children should be raised by the state, marriage and inheritance should be eliminated, and noncommital sex should be the only form of relationship. The man was a lunatic, and most people don't even have any idea how extreme and unrealistic some of his views were, because they've never bothered to read his Manifesto.
"Our bourgeois, not content with having wives and daughters of their proletarians at their disposal, not to speak of common prostitutes, take the greatest pleasure in seducing each other's wives. 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 system of free love." Just like all of his other arguments, he starts with an incredible lie about capitalist society and then uses it to excuse himself for the obscenities of communism. In this case, he defends his attack on monogamous marriage by claiming that capitalists are incapable of being monogamous anyway! Now, this may be true in Hollywood, but there are lots of capitalists in the rest of the world who are monogamous. In any case, after selling the fantastic lie that monogamy doesn't exist, he argues that we should forget about achieving this supposedly impossible goal and simply embrace "free love", a euphemistic term for unbridled hedonism and sexual promiscuity. As an aside, this idea resurfaced in the 1960's, with no more success: it produced a generation with a soaring divorce rate and disaffected children.
At this point, he finally gets down to business and lists the ten commandments of communism:
"Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes." In other words, seizure of all real estate. No more worrying about saving money to buy that house ... the government will take it away!
"A heavy progressive or graduated income tax." After taking away your real estate, the government will take away most of your income too. Wonderful.
"Abolition of all rights of inheritance." Taking away the right to bequeath the fruits of your life's work to your beloved children. How charming. It's one thing to tax inheritance, particularly for the wealthy, but to confiscate it entirely? That's simply unconscionable.
"Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels." Ah, yes. The never-ending communist persecution of "emigrants and rebels." Although neo-Marxists often claim that "true" Marxism does not restrict the right to live where you wish, we can see here that this is simply untrue:
Marx targeted emigrants (presumably with something stronger than the general confiscation of land; he probably meant that they should lose everything but their underwear), because the free movement of people, goods and services is anathema to Marxism. This is a reminder of a serious problem with communism- it can only exist in isolation. A communist society will be "contaminated" by contact with a capitalist society, due to the capitalist habit of broadcasting images of its wealth and materialism. Those images act as a magnet for the "best and brightest," who will be rewarded like princes under capitalism but treated no better than the ignorant and useless under communism. However, a society will not fare well if the "cream of the crop" leaves. So what can they do? They can restrict access to capitalist broadcasts and they can criminalize emigration. And of course, this is precisely what real communist states have done. I think we all recall the infamous Berlin wall.
Marx wished to persecute rebels, but how does one specifically target rebels? In free societies, a rebel is only arrested if he commits an act which violates one of the general laws, such as shooting a police officer or bombing a government building. The fact that he is a rebel is not, in itself, considered illegal. There are no special laws designed to target rebels, and in fact, numerous forms of public protest, demonstration and civil disobedience are actually protected by law. So we return to the question of: "how do we specifically target rebels"? Well, one can hardly single them out by waiting for them to break a general law- this is what we do for all citizens. The only way to single out rebels is to target their political beliefs. This is exactly what real communist states have always done, and although neo-Marxists claim that this isn't what Marx intended, they can't explain how he planned to persecute "rebels" without resorting to such measures.
"Centralization of credit in the banks of the state, by means of a national bank with state capital and an exclusive monopoly." Monopoly and state control are the mantra of communism, but monopolies are always destructive. Without competitive forces to ensure quality and efficiency, monopolistic entities, whether they be corporations or government agencies, invariably descend into wastefulness and sloth. This is why Microsoft was brought up on charges by the United States Department of Justice: competition is nature's way of ensuring the strength of the species, and it has proven to be a good way to ensure the strength of an economy as well. Furthermore, competition means choice, and choice means that the buying public has power.
"Centralization of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the state." First rule of all dictatorships: seize control of the radio stations, the telephone system, and the newspapers. Neo-marxists claim that Marxism does not necessarily lead to dictatorship, but it's hard to agree with that claim when one of Karl Marx's ten commandments is the state seizure of all "means of communication"! Such far-reaching government power over communications can be abused to muzzle miscreants or suppress public knowledge of state misdeeds at any time, so it effectively removes freedom of expression. Without freedom of expression, there can be no freedom at all. Of course, it goes without saying that the seizure of transport has a similar chilling effect on freedom of movement (not to mention the power of the masses to punish or reward competing suppliers of transportation services).
"Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the state; the bringing into cultivation of waste lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan." Broadening of state industry- this is actually redundant, given his previous statements. If the government has already seized all real estate, it already controls all the factories. I'm not sure why this directive was included at all.
"Equal obligation of all to work. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture." What sounds better to you? Being paid to work, or being forced to work? Choosing an employer based on pay and benefits, or being forcibly conscripted into an "industrial army?" The phrase "obligation to work" sounds better than "being forced to work by threat of punishment", but without the possibility of positive incentive, it means the same thing. Marx would take away your freedom to choose not to work. Suppose you decide that you would rather move to a small cabin up north, live largely off the land, and do just a little bit of occasional work for spending money? In a capitalist society, you would be forced to adopt an austere lifestyle, but no one would stop you. But Karl Marx would accuse you of not pulling your weight, and you would be forced to go work the same way as everyone else.
"Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country." Like all advocates of social re-engineering, he thinks that it should be possible to "turn back the clock" on the process of industrialization. Sorry, but there is no practical way to decentralize heavy manufacturing operations so that they're spread out over the countryside like primitive feudal farming operations. This is wishful thinking at best, and sheer stupidity at worst.
"Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children's factory labor in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, etc." This sounds pretty good, and indeed, all civilized nations have instituted public schools and made child labour illegal. But if you read his full text, you will see that he is not merely advocating the creation of public schools. He wants children to be taken away from their parents and educated in state boarding schools! And he is not trying to abolish child labour entirely, he just wants to abolish child labour in its present form. In its place, he suggests that schools and industrial factories be merged into one, so that children work and go to school at the same time. How charming.
The third section of "The Communist Manifesto" is a largely forgettable collection of historical discussions of various different socialist movements throughout history, as seen through Marx's eyes. The fourth section is a short summation, which ends with his infamous battle cry: "Workers of the world, unite!" That's a great slogan, but it is backed with terrible logic. All of his arguments follow the same pattern: take an aspect of society, falsely claim that it is hopelessly broken and cannot possibly be fixed under capitalism, and then leap headlong into the assumption that the solution is state control.
At no time does he explain why the state is guaranteed to outperform private industry or competitive mechanisms, nor does he explain why the state is guaranteed not to abuse the massive powers granted to it in his "utopian" plan. He creates a false dilemma by claiming that we must choose between a hideously distorted caricature of capitalism and his half-baked alternative, and then he assumes that any flaw in capitalism (even imaginary ones or strengths misrepresented as weaknesses) represents de facto support for communism (the hidden assumption is that his half-baked alternative schemes would solve the nonexistent or exaggerated problems without introducing enormous problems of their own).
Communism isn't totally insane; we all have a little bit of experience with it. After all, a healthy family's economy is basically communist: mother and father put their earnings into a common pool, draw from that common pool to finance purchases, and share a common standard of living with their children. But that model, as good as it is for a family, cannot be expanded into an entire country.
A father may work hard for the benefit of his family, but he has many motivations which don't apply to a worker toiling for his country. The parental drive to provide for the children comes from instincts hardwired into the human brain after millions of years of evolution. No such evolutionary imperative drives people to toil for an abstraction such as king and country. A father or mother receives also direct benefits from the work they do for the family. The same is supposedly true for communism, but when the size of the "family" grows huge, the connection between work and benefit becomes abstract. There is no immediate perceptible change in the collective fortunes of the state when one worker slacks off, unlike the change in a family's fortunes if Mom or Dad slacks off.
There is one thing which a communist family and a communist state do share: unfettered power for their leaders. If Mom and Dad want to be abusive, the children have no recourse inside the family. And if a communist government wishes to abuse its power, there are no checks and balances to stop them. Parents are (ideally) kept from abusing their power by the rule of law, but there are no credible police forces for the misbehaving governments of the world. If people can't always be trusted to resist the temptations of power over their own children, how can any sane person claim that politicians should be implicitly trusted to resist the temptations of power over a population of total strangers?
When viewed through the eyes of history, the 20th century will be remembered mostly for its startling rate of technological advancement, the evil of Hitler and Stalin, and the utter failure of communism. Neo-marxists expend a tremendous amount of effort to whitewash this failure, but they cannot deny the fact that no one has ever successfully implemented the philosophies of Karl Marx. Every attempt to implement marxism has turned into a disastrous dictatorship, in which the proletariat loved the communist lifestyle so much that they would risk their very lives to escape it.
Many books have been written about why communism failed, and a discussion of that subject is far beyond the scope of this document. I'm only attempting to highlight obvious logical and observational errors in "The Communist Manifesto," and to show how ludicrous it is to use this document as the blueprint for a modern society.