What exactly is communism? For years I was given several notions, stereotypes, textbook definitions, conceptions, etc. No one can keep from noticing, though, that there seems to be a common agreed upon idea, that communism (and communists, for that matter) is bad news. Bad news, mostly based on utopian fantasies, which disregard human nature and are oblivious to all comprehensive, discernible logic. For many years, I despised communists and lived under the assumption that people who thought like that were ill-minded, naïve tyrants and other adjectives I don’t feel proud of ever blindly believing before doing any actual research and analysis of my own.
I had imbedded this repugnant sense of abhorrence because I was taught that they wished to harm me and those around me. I was taught that they wished to take away our homes, our stuff and redistribute it to people who were lazy and, thus, couldn’t procure these goods by their own means because they lacked the aspiration to do so. I thought they wished to take all of our money in taxes, restrain us from creating our own businesses, force us to work in what they resolved would fit best, dictate most matters and activities in our lives, prohibit us from believing in the god/gods of our choosing, destroy our family bonds and culture, restrict any sense of political power we have as common individuals, and purposefully jeopardize our health and well-being if we were ever to disagree with the ruling class of society. Basically, I had been horrified at “Big Brother” imagery, like in George Orwell’s 1984; these fears and hatred lead to a lot of misguided insults and laughs with my friends at the communists’ expense, but I was lacking key pieces of information that hindered me from making a well-educated decision on my own beliefs and values.
It wasn’t until years later, after most of my friends who used to laugh with me enlisted in the Army or the Marines, and after I personally refused signing with the Marines (after a lot of consideration and disregarding of peer pressure) to instead pursue an unimpeded college education, that I realized that maybe I was previously incorrect. Once I met a more open-minded and educated group in the ideas of communism it struck me that, maybe, the truths behind the meaning of communism weren’t as clear as I previously had thought. Though I don’t identify with the group as much anymore, our intertwined paths lead me to conduct my own research as to what the meaning of communism really was, what was entailed in being a communist, what their beliefs are, and which logical socioeconomic theories they were based upon. I have chosen to give this personal narrative, not because I’m approaching this topic in an uneducated manner, but because what I underwent isn’t an enclosed occurrence or an unheard of change of heart; many people who start questioning all the dubious concepts which we are originally exposed to regarding this subject quickly start identifying many inconsistencies with their predetermined thought pattern, and I’ve gone through a similar, turbulent experience. To understand the ideas of communism more clearly, there’s no better way than to explore and analyze the document most communists regard as the basic guidelines to the gears of their movement, and that is Karl Marx’s and Frederick Engels’ Communist Manifesto.
The Communist Manifesto was published in February of 1848 (and in 2005 with historical guidelines and present day interpretations by Phil Gasper, a professor of philosophy at the Notre Dame de Namur University in northern California), and in it, Marx and Engels try to explain a view of sociocultural changes throughout history by evaluating their material existence during their specific time periods. Whatmaterial existence means is the demand, supply, availability and production procedures by which humanity produces and distributes its goods. The manifesto is a very important communist document, not because it’s the first recorded conception of communism, it’s not, communism existed a long time before either Marx or Engels, but because it was the first well-structured document that gave it a concrete and coherent model for its development, its necessary components and its intended purposes. The authors discuss a chain, resembling an assembly line in the way that each step introduces novelties that lead to the advances that result in the next step up the line, where the changes made to the material existence of society by a governmental system strengthen the future ruling ideas that’ll eventually succeed it and guide humanity into a different world view. I say a different view because Marx stated that, “The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class” (Marx and Engels 68), illustrating his belief that all societies so far have fueled themselves through class struggle (meaning the exploitation of a class by another). As ruling classes change, ideologies change along with them, such as the concepts of property, freedom, culture, etc. First, there’s the need to illustrate further the assembly line, as most of the manifesto bases itself upon this idea. Then, the dynamics between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, as this is the wedge driving the engine of capitalism into communism. And finally, the changes in ideologies can be discussed while overviewing some of the misconceptions people tend to get from communist ideas, mostly, because they misunderstand this concept that ideas are not static or stagnant and can be changed along with the material existence of humanity.
The assembly line, ironically one of the most famous tools envisioned and manufactured by the bourgeoisie themselves, is the perfect analogy to describe the rise of their bourgeois culture and society, and their inevitable downfall (according to Marx). The manifesto talks of three social structures, which, by the changes they created and the dynamics of their social struggles (the exploiters and the exploited), birthed and aided in the power surge of the latter. First, there’s the Feudalist social structure, where “the industrial production was monopolized by closed guilds,” which inevitably lead to capitalism and the domain of the bourgeoisie once it proved to be outdated when it “no longer [was capable of sufficing] the growing wants of the new markets” (Marx and Engels 41) as new products, resources and consumers started becoming more available in East-India, China and the American Colonies. The evolutionary foundation of the modern bourgeoisie, the burgesses, a “non-aristocratic middle class” (Marx and Engels 40) in the feudal system, that consisted mostly of merchants and manufacturers, finding their businesses and interests as a class hindered by the feudal lords, lead a revolution to rid the shackles of the old world to start a new one of their own. In historical continuation, there’s the bourgeoisie rule, who in the pursued of their interests unified and are continuously arming and increasing the numbers of the proletariat (wage labor workers), who they exploit for the accumulation of capital. It is in this world that we live now, a world of free market, where the best way to be efficient is cutting corners, to produce the most possible in the smallest amount of room and time, where expansion has spread out of control and leads to the constant destruction of the petty bourgeoisie (the middle class) who, in desperation to survive, become wage laborers and join in the struggle of the proletariat.
A couple of examples can be found in the Robert Kenney’s documentary Food, Inc.: First, from 00:07:20 – 00:07:40, when a graph is given demonstrating the fast growth and control of a handful of companies on the entire beef and pork industry. The second example is from 1:06:00-1:24:15, when they speak of the company Monsanto and their ownership over a specific soy bean that dominates the market, and how they harass, threaten, sue and blindly seek to eradicate other small business owners because they either decide to not use their product or because the nature of their business might defer others from using their product. The bourgeoisie depend on the proletariat so they are always trying to appease their demands and provide them with education, socialism from above, and while at the same time eradicating their humanity and turning them into another gear of industry.
Last, but not least, comes the era of the proletariat or communism, which would be independent from the other systems due to its radical changes that have never been seen before and, thus, would arguably be the final product of the assembly line, since its dynamics would end the systematic structure by which all the previous systems changed and developed. The radical factor is the abolition of classes, Marx and Engels, as stated before, believed that society advanced through social struggles, which are the daily battles of an oppressed class and an oppressive class. Since the proletariat consist of the majority of the world population, their rise to power as a class would dissolve their political power, any speck of a class system and, with it, the ability for class exploitation. As Marx himself said, the proletariat would “[sweep] away the condition for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class” (Marx and Engels 71). It is important to note though, that for the last of these to successfully occur, the proletariat requires of the changes to its material existence of life created by the bourgeoisie themselves, their struggles go hand in hand, and when taken out of context the efforts of the proletariat (just as in an assembly line, if a product misses pieces it could be rendered defective and/or unable to perform its function) would lead to a backtrack in political history, forcing society to remain stagnant in feudalism. That’s because the proletariat’s fierce inimical relation with the bourgeoisie would prevent the necessary revolutions to outdate feudalism as a whole, as the authors further discuss in more detail while analyzing what was known as the German “true” socialism (Marx and Engels 76).
With a clearer understanding of the components needed for historical change, it may seem appropriate to overview our society today, under the rule of the bourgeoisie and its clashes of interest with the struggles of the proletariat. We are capable of doing this in current times through the eyes of the manifesto, since this book, which was published over 150 years ago, still has meaning and clarity when evaluating the world today. The relationship of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat is one that consists of dual benefit at high costs for both entities. On one hand, the bourgeoisie exploit the proletariat for their goal of acquiring capital, but at the same time, to accomplish this, they strengthen the proletariat to rise against them. The proletariat, on the other hand, become starved and exploited by the bourgeoisie who repay their labor with capital which is immediately collected back by “other portions of the bourgeoisie,” such as “the landlord, the shopkeeper, the pawnbroker, etc.”(Marx and Engels 50), but have the advantage that the bourgeoisie provide them with education, unity and technology, which are crucial in the development of their political power. The proletariat aren’t regarded as “better” than the bourgeoisie in moral terms, since their class attitudes don’t necessarily mean that the individuals of each are either purely evil or good, but are considered more important to communism due to their size, power, and potential to create a truly democratic system where classes were once a thing of the past, since it isn’t the individual mentality of the proletariat what drives them, but the overall need and/or demand of their class as a whole that will eventually alter the views of its members (Draper). To shorten this concept a little, we’ll evaluate both the advantages and disadvantages of the bourgeois rule on the proletariat.
There are many advantages to the proletariat to live in a bourgeois society, since it is the struggles of the bourgeoisie which empower them in the long run. The first advantage is how the bourgeoisie consolidate the proletariat in a system of massive factories and industries. Heavy centralization of population occurred in smaller areas (cities) that due to their numbers and demands control the rest of the land around. This centralization also allows the proletariat, who are always increasingly getting more and more numerous, to solidify as a class and unite in demand and protest to acquire their interests, in comparison with a more solitary life style they would carry in a rural area. This level of organization required for the proletariat is one of the many benefits granted by the bourgeois education, which happens to be the second overall advantage. The bourgeoisie extend to the proletariat their “own elements of political and general education” which “furnishes [them with the] weapons for fighting the bourgeoisie” (Marx and Engels 53) themselves .The bourgeoisie educates the proletariat on how to organize, since they require the ability to train workers into cooperating amongst each other for the effective production of goods and services (Draper). The bourgeoisie also educate the proletariat on the use and maintenance of their technology and on their advance, revolutionary discoveries. The third advantage are the technological advances themselves, where we’ve grown enough to produce a sufficient food supply, not only to feed ourselves, but also most of the world’s population amongst considerably small patches of land. We would perplex our ancestors if we were to tell them that some of our biggest problems now aren’t due to insufficient production of goods, but to the over production of them. We have created global communication methods that have breached the limits of the ocean and of space. We have civilized most of the world due to these social advances, which are many of the advantages the proletariat around the world require to connect and aid in each other’s struggles, since as the industrialize world grows worldwide the needs of workers around the globe start to become similar, as they start to resemble each other’s material existence, and this international struggle is dire for communism to succeed.
As great as the benefits are for the proletariat to exist under the rule of the bourgeoisie, it comes at a big price, since most of the benefits are nothing but the engine powering the wheels of their emancipation and rise up to power. Most disadvantages are the fault of industry and it’s need to view people as potential prospects of capital, as stated before; it rewards their labor with capital which, as soon as they turn around, is collected back by other members of the bourgeoisie. The advances in technology lead to the specialization of workers on simple, mundane tasks, making them just another gear on the machine of industrious production, as can be seen again in Food, Inc., when they discuss the rise of fast food, with the example of McDonald’s, and the later application of this system of division of labor into the slaughterhouses further in the film. As a gear, as a tool, in a job that has lost all individuality and has become more of a tedious chore over everything else, the cost of the proletariat is proportionally diminished to the bare minimum necessary to keep them alive so they can show up to work the next day and repeat the process. The problems with centralization are, though workers have the ability to interconnect amongst each other, in a high demand for basic needs, the workers who only earn enough to barely maintain their existences find themselves in constant competition amongst each other that prevents them from unifying. Also, Marx and Engels predicted horrible market crises, where an over produced product becomes not profitable anymore, and the workers designated onto its production lose their jobs spiking unemployment. The spike causes huge fluctuations on the flow of capital, similar to in a heart attack or stroke, the flow becomes so severely hindered that it threatens to collapse the whole system upon itself. The capitalists manage to avoid this by finding new products to invest the work force in newer industries to compensate, but the more crashes there are the more violent the downfall is and the harder it is to find the necessary new frontiers to expand, until it can potentially reach catastrophic results.
Now that we have a more in-depth understanding of some of the main ideas of the manifesto, we can start to discuss some of the controversies that lead to misconstrued beliefs of communism. I won’t speak about the methods used, like propaganda, word-of-mouth, political influence, etc. I would have to write a complete analysis of political history predating the Cold War by a few centuries ” certainly too much material for what I’m allotted in an essay format; I would be required to write a book. Instead, I intend to bring forth how the ideas themselves have been misinterpreted, where the fallacies lay in their interpretations and hopefully open a couple eyes into the different meanings it conveys when studied in context.
There are many fallacious arguments that potentially cloud judgment as to what communism really is, but only a few are so accomplished at this deed that they are the ones worthy of an evaluation:
First, one of the most crucial ones, is the conception that communism aims to rid society of its freedom. We find examples of this in our everyday lives ” people accuse and harass socialists and communists because they have been convinced that the communists wish to enslave them, and as a result, for some people the idea of standing by their political beliefs as a communist in public can be worrisome and intimidating. Here in one of my college’s data bases, I found an essay by a Christian writer who states, “The Catholic Church as well as all churches know that socialism is evil and goes against the liberty of man. But Christians need to be vigilant and aware that it walks around the United States as a wolf in lamb’s clothing parading itself as social justice when in actuality it is government wanting to control every aspect of people’s lives” (Durkee). Disregarding the author’s apparent inability to use a comma, they truly believe this! I think, though, in reality, most people just seem to misunderstand what communists say when they say freedom. Marx and Engels believed that ideas, such as freedom, would be viewed differently when people’s material existence changes. So, on that note, when communists say they wish to rid away with freedom, they mean “freedom… under the present bourgeois conditions of production, free trade, free selling and buying” (Marx and Engels 62). This wouldn’t be a problem when people mostly think of their personal conception and understanding of the concept of freedom, the real issue, though, is that this definition under the bourgeois society also extends to include “the power to subjugate the labor of others by means of [appropriating the products of society]” (Marx and Engels 63). It is because of this freedom, however, that women gained their right to work, because, once the machine has evolved enough, it becomes insignificant what kind of gear fits the system to help it run, the whole point is that it fits and it works. After all, it was Marx himself who said that when capitalism evolved enough, “Differences of age and sex have no longer any distinctive social validity for the working class. All are instruments of labor, more or less expensive to use, according to their age and sex” (Marx and Engels 80). Unfortunately, this doesn’t only open the gate for women’s labor liberation, but also for children, and now child labor is an uncontrollable problem throughout the entire globe. Not to mention, when you’re value is dependent on your sex or age, we see disproportions in pay checks between women and men, children get paid next to nothing in this scale. To summarize this section, the only freedom communists wish to dispose of is the freedom to be the major or sole benefactor from the work of others.
Next, people tend to believe that communists wish to destroy their cultures. Culture, just like freedom, is a concept whose interpretation is based around people’s material existence. Culture in the world we see now would only be a training program to develop more workers for the bourgeoisie to utilize with the purpose of running capital. So, in a way, yes, communists do wish to destroy culture, but just its current viewpoint, and its goal is to develop a different sense of culture that would arise from a classless society, where class exploitation from another doesn’t exist.
The next misconstrued belief to acknowledge is the belief that communism and socialism are, by all means, the exact same thing, but they aren’t. Communism is a political and economic system while socialism are movements in the efforts of accomplishing social reforms. If you picture the structure of society as a pyramid, the proletariat would be the base that sustains and works as the foundation for society, while the bourgeoisie would be the tip of the pyramid, since they are the head of power. Now there are two types of socialism: First, there’s socialism from below, where the proletariat exert their demands from the bottom to the top in the aim to accomplish social reforms that fulfill their interests, this is what Marx regarded as real socialism, since it actually attends to the needs of the majority of the population. Second, there’s socialism from above, where the bourgeoisie push for social reforms for the proletariats; the big difference, though, is that this type of socialism is only meant to maintain the proletariat content and calm with their position in society, yet it’s not meant to fulfill their needs, just make them think they don’t need much more, and its real purpose is to serve as means for the bourgeoisie to meet their own interests.
Continuing, there’s the misguided idea that communism is guided by the idea of taking everyone’s private property and making it open for public use under governmental control, but again people seem to misinterpret what communists say when they say property. For communists, there’s a big difference between private property and personal property, and as stated before, communists want to make it impossible for people to use the labors of others to acquire the products of society, not that they want to make it impossible for everyone to acquire the products of society. So, in other words, when communists say private property, they mean the property that’s used in the production of goods. Then, they wish to give that property to the disposal of the people so, they themselves, can control the production of the goods of society and make them simpler for more people to acquire since the goal wouldn’t be the accumulation of capital, but the fulfillment of human needs. After all, let’s not forget, when communists meangovernment they mean the workers of society themselves, not the separate entity of government we experience today, but a government that’s the accumulated power of all members of society.
Now, one of the most controversial ideas about communists is that they are godless and atheistic by default, implying that to be a communist you are prohibited from believing in God, or human nature for that matter. In my college English course I happened to come across a specific quote in Edward O. Wilson’s essay Intelligent Evolution where he states:
The second worldview is that of political behaviorism. Still beloved by the now rapidly fading Marxist-Leninist states, it says that the brain is largely a blank slate devoid of any inborn inscription beyond reflexes and primitive bodily urges. As a consequence the mind originates almost wholly as a result of learning, and it is the product of a culture that itself evolves by historical contingency. Because there is no biologically based “human nature,” people can be molded to the best possible political and economic system, namely, as urged upon the world through most of the twentieth century, communism…
A paragraph later he then, sticking to his belief that communists really view the world this way, gives his aforementioned “worldview” the official title of “atheistic communism.”
To argue this statement and prove it to be the product of a misconception, I wish to present you with a concept with which we are all well acquainted, yet not well versed, and that is the separation from church and state. This concept already exists in our current bourgeois society, yet that doesn’t mean that all the politicians we hear of are atheistic or have the set mentality of being god-hating to qualify for their job. The reason I say we are yet not well versed with this concept is because even though we say religion should have no authority over our laws, we still live under evidence of certain religious preferences that influence the process of writing and passing laws (gay marriage, abortion, education on evolution, etc.). Communism believes in the equal say of all members of society, regardless of what they believe on, so when communists say that God should be left out of it, they mean that in legislature no influence of any conceivable God (regardless of which one you choose to believe on) should mandate social legislature. So, it would be a system where the idea of separation of church and state would be a more strengthen concept to include not just the freedom of religion, but also the freedom from religion.
Next, comes the issue of human nature, which according to Wilson, communists find nonexistent. Human nature, for communists as well as for anyone else with a logical sense, is indisputable, though all people are different we all have similarities in our behavior too big to disregard as nature and call a sole product of nurture. Communism simply believes that through education we exert some of our common natural traits more so than others, for example: competition vs. cooperation. There’s no person who is solely one of these traits, which would be a defiance of human nature, since by nature, humans are highly complex animals, who are capable of portraying a wide range of traits and emotions. Communists believe that through a more available and open-minded education, people can learn to exert their traits differently, and learn new ways of utilizing them in a system that isn’t designed for the accumulation of capital. For example, teaching people to exert cooperation with more members of the society around them and instead of basing competition as a battle amongst individuals to prove their superiority by the amount of capital they can acquire regardless of the costs, you aim that human instinct to different causes, such as proving your superiority to others by how many lives one can improve. People would still get the same sense of gratification in a society that values those values instead of capital.
The one most misleading and detrimental misconception of communism is the idea that communism has failed in practice before, and by evidence its most probable outcome is a totalitarian, fascist political system, where the people become the slaves of the government. This claim sounds pretty conclusive, due to the illusion that the statement is based on historical evidence, more specifically, the regimes of the former Soviet Union, the Republic of Cuba, and the People’s Republic of China. Yet, if someone were to evaluate the governmental history of these countries against the communist ideas that have been detailed throughout this paper, one would immediately start noticing striking discrepancies that beg to question if these regimes would count as real considerable examples of the effects of communism in practice (they don’t). Contemporary communists, to make sense of these events, have had to identify these regimes for what’s known as degenerate worker states, where the government owns the means of production, but the people don’t own the government (Gasper).
The former rule of the USSR is the most exploited example of communism’s defeat in the world stage. It all began November 5, 1917 when Vladimir Lenin proclaimed the victory of the Red Army’s communist revolution and their overtaking of Russia’s governmental control (Baggins). Lenin, a great communist, such as Marx, though both agreed in many aspects, they both had a big difference in their perception of the rise of the proletariat. For example, Marx believed that communists shouldn’t be involved in the recruiting of new members, or at least not have it as a priority, the priority of those who identified as communists should be to aid in the struggles from the left, from the socialists from the bottom and those members of society who wish to improve the condition of life of the proletariat, in hopes that the overall outcome of their struggle would be the principals of communism. Lenin, on the other hand, believed that there was the need for a communists group to enlist members and guide people towards understanding and embracing the principals of communism.
Under Lenin’s immediate rule of the new founded USSR, great political achievements were accomplished for the rights of the common individual. Some examples that were accomplished, still in 1917, slightly after the communists’ declaration of power are: Citizens were allowed to recall politicians from office, caps were set to limit the salaries of high paid officials, 8 hour work days were introduced to railroad workers, education was taken from the influence of the Russian Orthodox Church, Russian women for the first time in history had the right to divorce and the right to a 4 month maternity leave (Baggins). But with so many successes, there were many issues with the economy, as the country was in bankruptcy after the revolution, Lenin during the rest of his life had to implement “a mixture of capitalist and socialist [policies]. The stress of the [Party for these] policies would be on economic reconstruction and on the education of the peasant population” (Vladimir Ilich Lenin) in hopes to make a more subtle and sustained transition into pure communism. Unfortunately, before Lenin could see this social conversion he died in 1924, this along with the exile of Leon Trotsky in 1928, another revolutionary hero, it lead to a clean run for Joseph Stalin to rise to power.
Stalin would forever alter the views of the communist state when he transformed it into an unrecognizable structure of fascism and capitalism. Stalin differentiated with Marx in a way more radical than Lenin did, since it wasn’t regarding the rise of the proletariat, but the maintenance of the communist state, Marx stated that for communism to work it would require the effort of more than one single standing country, while Stalin was set to prove that one sole country could pursue to gain pure communism. To demonstrate his theory, in 1928 Stalin robbed the power from the people, and utilizing them as means, implemented his Five Year Plan, which was a set quota set for the production of goods within a period of five years (Five Year Plan). The purpose of this plan then became not to satisfy the needs of the Soviet people, but to raise the profile of the USSR in a capitalist economy, leading to its government need for the acquisition of capital as proof of power and authority, even if it came at the costs of the proletariat.
In Cuba the rise of the proletariat lead to sky rocketing improvements in the nation’s educational and healthcare systems, as it was acknowledge in the popular TV series House M.D. when Dr. House says “If there are two things Castro knows, it’s how to look great in green and train doctors.” Unfortunately, Cuba eventually also came in need of capital, which was being provided almost solely by the USSR since in the western hemisphere the United States was attempting to isolate them economically, this gave the USSR strong powers to pull ties on Cuba’s international political influences (Brown 303-312).
In China the situation was very similar to Russia, so it doesn’t take as long to disprove its communist’s claims, since it doesn’t require the analysis of two separate ideologies that controlled the country’s politics. Since the institution of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) political power in 1949, communism was mostly none existent. The electoral system in China is controlled, as well as everything else, by the CCP, though it has different levels starting from local governments that vote for higher representatives until finally arriving at national representation, most of the candidates are recommended by the CCP, meaning most of them are members and thus share only their opinions instead of the opinions of the proletariat, it’s actually unheard of for individual politicians to reach any level higher than the local level. Mao Zedong, similar to Stalin, wasn’t interested in aiding the proletariat of his nation, but instead intended to prove the success of his regime to the capitalist world. This lead to a plan, which even though was highly controversial it still got enforced by Mao, known as The Great Leap Forward. Mao’s plan was also a set quota for the production of goods in a very finite amount of time; it was meant to quickly industrialize the nation, but instead lead to “a poor harvest in 1959 [that] caused mass starvation” (Great Leap Forward) and the deaths of laborers, who were considered a lesser social class and whose purpose was for being exploited in attempting to achieve the nation’s need for international recognition as a rich and powerful state.
In conclusion, communism is a complex subject, and through the years, many of its ideas have been misinterpreted, and ultimately, consciously misconstrued by those who oppose it or simply wish to utilize it for their own separate interests. These issues have made it difficult for people to get a clear idea of what the real meaning of communism is. In hopes of assisting others in interpreting the concepts of communism, I have not only analyzed the crucial concepts of the Communist Manifesto, but also have compared those concepts with the most common misconceptions of the ideology today. I’ve done this in efforts to address reader’s need for further research and understanding of the subject matter in order to formulate a more educated opinion on either its potential success or failure as a political system.
(Originally published at Writer’s Cafe.)
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