The Communist Manifesto / Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

The Communist Manifesto is another work of political science that the conservative placed on their list of the most harmful books written. However, never made clear exactly who these works harm. Marx and Engels argue in this polemic that their Communist plan harms only the bourgeois , that small portion of society (which they put at 1/10 of the population) which owns the means of production. In their view, their revolution would help the proletariat, the working men, the wage laborers, who comprise the other 9/10ths of the world. If they are indeed correct, it would seem that is narrowly identifying itself with but a small portion of society. They would essentially be arguing that their list of books contains ideas that are harmful to them, and that their interests are more important than society’s interests. When that list is taken as a whole, I do believe that analysis holds. But in fact I also believe that Communism harms the very wage laborers it holds up as its beneficiaries.

Cover of The Communist Manifesto (Signet Classic)

So in reading The Communist Manifesto, I was in fact reading with one major goal in mind: I was looking for where Marx and Engels had gone wrong. I do not believe that these men who studied political economy intended to be the inspiration for the disastrous results that Communism produced. Alas, I shall probably have to wait until I’ve read Marx’s Capital and criticism of that work before I shall be able to fully understand the economic theory of Communism. The manifesto is not an explanation of the theory; it is more akin to the United States Declaration of Independence. It is a short version of the grievances of the working class, a description of the program they desire to institute, and a call to arms. But I’ve got enough economics underneath my belt that I shall attempt to analyze the piece anyway.

The manifesto begins with a description of the bourgeois and proletariat classes as Marx defines them along with a history of how these classes arose. Marx was a proponent of a theory he called historical materialism. Each economic system existed for a period of time after which it would implode on its own foundation spurred by a revolution of the class that would succeed previous ruling classes. History in his view consisted of warring classes of people. The final system that would emerge would be that of Communism, which would equalize everyone in the proletariat after which no further revolution would be necessary. It would be the ultimate version of what the French Revolution was supposed to be. Equality, liberty, and fraternity, both politically and economically.

Key to Marx’s analysis, at least at the time he authored this polemic, was that Communism really could not exist until capitalism first rose and built up the productive capacity of a nation in the ashes of its feudal past. Then, eventually the have-nots of the capitalist period would demand their fair share of the fruits of their labor.

Here, verbatim, is the ten point program of the Communists of the age (yay for public domain!), which is included at the end of the second chapter of the manifesto:

  1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.
  2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.
  3. Abolition of all right of inheritance.
  4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.
  5. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with state capital and an exclusive monopoly.
  6. Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the state.
  7. 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.
  8. Equal obligation of all to work. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.
  9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the population over the country.
  10. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production.

This chapter defends this program against the objections of bourgeois arguments. This is the chapter where Marx and Engels fail to grasp the implications and frailties of their proposals.

They defend the abolition of private property against the argument that it appropriates the results of hard work by declaring that the working man and the petty bourgeois (a class of small shopkeepers and similarly situated people that barely climb above wage laborer status) have no real property anyway. The only people with property are the oppressive capitalists. The problem with that argument is one of history. I don’t think Marx and Engels really realized that capitalism had but begun its journey. The division of labor which exploits the comparative advantage between people had not truly solidified. Even today, we are finding finer and finer ways to split our work to allow people to become very good at one extremely narrow job. As such, the working class at the time did not have large amounts of property. Today, they do. It’s still dwarfed by the property controlled by the rich.

To the argument that men will become lazy under a communist regime, the authors erect a straw man and then knock it down. That scarecrow is that all work will cease, and Marx and Engels note that under capitalism, the hardworking acquire nothing, and that the idle retain everything. Even if true, it hardly refutes the then theoretical effects produced by a lack of economic incentive in Communism. At best it merely equates them. If there is no personal benefit to working hard, why would anyone work harder than the next person. In fact, there’s an incentive to be a free rider, to work less proficiently at their labor and still reap the same benefit. The fact that laborers under capitalism did work hard even then is evidence that they were acquiring something, or at least they thought they would. It may have been too small for Marx and Engels to recognize or acknowledge, but it had to be there. While I am no believer of the idea of perfect rationality that is so often taught in today’s economics classes, the general phenomenon is indisputable to anyone with much intelligence. People generally act in their own interests. Under communism, the obligation to work must be maintained by force or implied force. The very word “obligation” implies this. Marx and Engels must have recognized this at some level, even if they believed that a Utopian communist state would transform that obligation into an incentive.

One set of problems with communism that they do not defend against is that which ails a centrally planned economy. Under capitalism, resources are shifted from producing one good to another in a quite messy but very effective way: prices. When a commodity is needed less, there will be less demand for that product, and it’s price will drop. Producers will see less profit from their reduced sales, and will limit production because of this. The reduced supply will raise prices. These two forces will find an equilibrium for a time. (A need for more of a good works similarly.) It subtly directs the correct level of production for that commodity. It is messy because as the prices adjust, all sorts of producers and consumers who had invested their resources based on old assumptions about how much was needed will be hurt. There is a transaction cost to repointing one’s capital.

Under communism, this mechanism either does not exist or is wildly warped so much as to be ineffective. The central planners must then be nearly omniscient to correctly allocate resources. Perhaps in a future day when Star Trek’s computers are powerful, it’s models perfect, and it’s resources so abundant as to nearly eliminate scarcity, that such a computer could manage accurately the massive chaotic system that a wide economy would be. But we aren’t in that perfect world. Not even close. By no means has capitalism’s allocation been ideal, or we would not have starving children in third world countries. Communist countries suffered from these problems more acutely and more chronically.

To my notice, Marx and Engels did not provide an counter to this argument in the manifesto. Perhaps Marx addressed it in other works. Perhaps they were not aware of the complexity.

The last part of the work is the humorous one to me. Marx and Engels list off various other regimes that fall under the banner of socialism, and pick them apart. Some for their lack of purity. Some for their lack of revolutionary zeal. In the end though, for tactical reasons they decline to oppose any political party that genuinely attempts to better the state of workers. Fighting amongst themselves could only be to the benefit of the oppressive bourgeois. Perhaps they hope that these other parties will grow to the realization of the rightness of communist proposals as they struggle and fail to transform capitalist society.

Pretty much just as much of the world’s communists grew to realization of the rightness of capitalism as they struggled and failed to transform anything into a true workers paradise. I still have to admire Marx and Engels for where their hearts were placed, even if they failed intellectually.

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