Phooey on the Communist Manifesto (aka: It Ain’t Socialism)

The Communist Manifesto is one of the most shallow, overly simplistic, lock-minded pieces of superficial thinking I’ve ever read.

I know this only because I recently took the time to actually read it for myself. Before that, I had only heard how bad it is. Though I had heard that for my entire long life, I had never bothered to read and consider what it actually says in order to knowledgably form my own opinion of it. To my discredit, I had always passively accepted the opinions of others that found their way to me—quite the same way so many people passively adopt others’ opinions about religion without actually studying it for themselves. Lazy—in both cases.

It was not hard for such anti-communist opinions to find their way to me, because the western society I was born into is super-saturated with the anti-communist propaganda of industrial-corporate America, which would be abolished if the Communist Manifesto had its way. It isn’t called propaganda, or even recognized as such, but that’s what it is. In American society, even speaking the word communist in any context other than derisive is as politically incorrect as standing up and shouting shit in church.

The lords and scions of corporate industry don’t like it, this grizzled old communist cornerstone that so fiercely advocates for their extinction. They are indeed the foremost target of the hatred so repetitiously expressed in the Manifesto. Before the Communist Manifesto’s polemical firing squad, they’re at the head of the line, followed by lesser targets such as ordinary small companies, smaller entrepreneurs down to mom-and-pop corner grocers, and anybody else out trying to hustle an honest buck to get by in our monolithic capitalist economy that is the extreme opposite of communism.

Never before having bothered to read the thing for myself, I was taken aback to discover how very extreme was the closed-mindedness of its authors. In a nutshell, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels invented a mental “philosophical structure”—i.e., proletariat (lower-class workers) versus bourgeosie (middle-class entrepreneurs)—that came to so dominate their mental perspective that all other perspectives and facts must be seen as “fitting inside that structure”—even when they didn’t. Reading their most famous writing, I had to remind myself that these otherwise fairly smart guys had good and worthy intentions, that they were by no means the agents of Satan that American industrialists have painted them to be.

Marx and Engels were both German born and both became social reformers with the best of intentions to make European society a better place. They both became journalists, historians, philosophers and political theorists. By the time they met in Paris in 1844, both had already evolved into revolutionaries focused on somehow overturning the appallingly awful factory working conditions that prevailed in the industrial revolution’s mid-nineteenth century advance across Europe. Those conditions don’t get much attention in today’s press, but modern readers would find it hard to imagine the squalor, danger, physical exhaustion and petty tyranny encountered daily by men, women and, yes, children working twelve- to sixteen-hour days, every day, in the noisy, alternately freezing and overheated factories of their time.

Neither man necessarily fit the mold of predestined revolutionary. Engels was a successful businessman whose wealthy family owned large cotton-textile mills in England and Prussia. Born in 1818, the scholarly Marx studied at universities in Berlin, Bonn and Jena where he earned a doctorate in philosophy in 1841. An avid student of Hegel’s ideas, Marx had already written his seminal Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts by his mid-twenties. This, at a time when the very concept of “economics” was still a new idea introduced by Adam Smith less than seventy years earlier.

Modern citations nearly always refer to both men as “revolutionary socialists”—revealing thereby how widespread is contemporary ignorance of the quite major differences between communism and socialism. To emphasize a not-so-fine point, Marx and Engels were not socialists, they were communists. In their Manifesto, they went to some length to spell out these differences, and their significance.

In fact, both men were attracted to the growing number of organizations that pursued the substantially more radical ideas of “communism”—a relatively new word that had come into increasingly popular usage by the 1840s as an outgrowth of the French Revolution’s left-wing Jacobin Club half a century earlier. As devotees of the new communism’s radical focus on revolutionary conflict, Marx and Engels were generally contemptuous of what they considered socialism’s half-measures, which they regarded as merely perpetuating “the controlling bourgeosie” they so despised.

Modern Americans are well informed of communism’s inglorious history and ultimate failure everywhere it has ever been tried, but they constantly use the terms “socialist” and “communist” interchangeably, synonymously—as if they were the same thing. Decidedly, they are not. Though many are oblivious that almost all our democratic European allies have substantially socialistic economies, history-minded Americans perhaps may better grasp the much-neglected differences between socialism and communism reflected in the important ways in which our own “capitalistic” democratic society has put to good use the “socialist” reforms Marx and Engels advocated as “communist” goals:

“Complete separation of church and state; universal suffrage for everyone over the age of twenty-one; universal free education; prohibition of child labor; maximum working hours; minimum wages; a living wage for all workers; social welfare; a graduated income tax; curtailment of the rights of inheritance; payment to the representatives of the people so that the working classes can participate in government; creation of a state bank to control usurious forms of credit; and finally, state regulation of the modes of communication to prevent the billionaire class from having a monopoly over the newspapers and other means of communication, allowing them to spread the self-serving ideologies that kept the masses in their thrall. By overhauling the banking system, enhancing the graduated income tax, and introducing social security, unemployment insurance, maximum working hours, minimum wages, and a plethora of other measures to benefit working people and strengthen their bargaining power, Roosevelt saved capitalism.” (Shadia B. Drury in Free Inquiry, December 2015)

Good intentions to improve the sorry lot of industrial workers so grievously exploited by capitalist overlords was no sin of the sincere social reformers Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. No, their failure was in the way they defined the terms of the game. And it was an abject failure. They were mentally locked onto a perception that human existence was—and had to be—a constant, bitter, negative struggle between some people who exploited others and those other people who suffered from being exploited. They actually spent several paragraphs advocating hatred of the exploiters by the exploited. Nowhere else have I ever seen blatant advocacy for hatred, with nary a glimpse of the universal mandate to love one another.

Marx and Engels focused their considerable energy on the worst, not the best. Their bedrock was negative. Life consisted of—and only of—a never-ending struggle between the greedy and the oppressed. No time for green Sunday walks in the park, pausing to watch butterflies. Their writings leave no clue that they ever even noticed life’s butterflies. The future nirvana that their endless internecine war might someday produce was hazy, ill-defined, never explained very clearly. One feels fairly sure they didn’t see it very clearly themselves.

All in all, it seems insufficient to describe their distilled views as “closed minded.” Perhaps “lock-minded” might better describe their polemics. The distinction would not have mattered if their hare-brained dogmatic focus hadn’t directly led to a century’s worth of chaos and tens of millions of human lives forfeit to the Great Communist Idea as it took root in Russia, in imperialist Russia’s subordinate conquered nations of eastern Europe, in China and down around southeast Asia—and its personification in the persons Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and a zoo of lesser tinpot dictators who saw communism’s dictatorial potential and ran with it. And all that doesn’t include the great idea’s bizarre manifestation in the northern Korean peninsula that somehow manages to stagger on, surviving into our own day. Mygod.

Most moderns recognize that there’s serious wrongs needing to be righted in runaway modern capitalism’s economic divisiveness, the inequality it causes, and its unrealistic expectation of endless growth on a finite planet that simply does not have enough resources for ten billion humans (by mid-century) to all own a McMansion with three-car garage, backyard pool and lawn sprinklers. But it has demonstrated that—so far—a non-communist economic model can sustain more or less democratic politics and an almost-acceptable measure of sharing the pie for somewhere above eighty percent of the population.

Neither communism nor capitalism has ever conceded that there’s any choice other than the two of them. In this they are equally blind. In point of fact, there are many other perfectly good “third options” for redesigning our economic system in such a way that competition would hold prices down, no seller would ever control more than five percent of the market—much less grow too big to fail, and the inequality and injustices that welfare and labor unions exist to address would be eliminated.

But that’s a separate discussion. In this discussion, communism sees itself as the only option, period—no other options may be considered. I can only marvel at the utterly dogmatic blindness that is so rampantly apparent in the lock-minded polemics I read all through Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto, may it be dead and stay that way.

Wikipedia defines polemic thusly: “Polemic is contentious rhetoric intended to support a specific position by forthright claims and to undermine the opposing position. The practice of such argumentation is called polemics, which are seen in arguments on controversial topics.”

If you’d like to see a classic example, read the Communist Manifesto. But—tell the truth—I really think there’s better ways to waste your time.

October 2023