Marxism in the Twentieth Century
The twentieth century was a period in world history that saw more than one dramatic reshaping of the world’s political and economic landscapes. Many of Europe’s oldest monarchies collapsed giving way to other forms of government. Two world wars were fought that brought an end to European imperialism and saw the formation of new governments in parts of the world that had never been ruled by an organized and centralized indigenous government. Much of the political turmoil of the twentieth century is at least tangentially related to the ideas of Karl Marx whose Communist Manifesto begins, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”
The lens through which Marxism views the world presumes that the rich exploit the poor, the powerful oppress the weak, and that every human relationship between non-situational equals involves oppression, exploitation, and struggle. As a result, all of society is divided into two basic classes: the oppressed and the oppressors. Marxism claims to have the remedy to end these struggles and to place all men on equal situational and economic grounds. The fact is, Marxism is fatally flawed and the Marxist formula for ending class warfare simply produces nothing but death, suffering, and misery. In the twentieth century, an estimated 85 million to 100 million people died as the result of Marxist experiments around the world, and many more hundreds of millions have been subjected to deprivation and poverty.An estimated 85-100 million people have died because of Marxist experiments around the world Click To Tweet
Marxism is evil. Marxism is nothing short of demonic, in fact. Marxism seeks to create an unattainable Utopia that looks remarkably similar to the eschatological promises of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The problem, however, is that Marxism seeks to create this Utopia now, rather than to wait to see the people hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks when the Lord returns to bring an end to all war and usher in eternal peace (Isa 2:2-4). Marxism gets a bit ahead of itself and tries to build the perfect society without the benefit of a perfect King and perfected people.
The newly formed Soviet Union experienced an abysmal decline in agricultural production in the first years following the October Revolution. In response, even Lenin himself backed away from pure Marxism/Communism and allowed for the privatization of small farms. This type of moderated Marxism is what we know as socialism, and while socialism is not as drastic as pure Marxism, it is Marxism none-the-less and infected by the same faulty assumptions.
Economist Thomas Sowell wrote, “Socialism in general has a record of failure so blatant that only an intellectual could ignore or evade it.” This evasion of facts is fueled by an ideology that appreciates the goals of Marxism, but presumes materialism and fails to understand the fundamental flaws and inconsistencies of Marxist ideas.
The rest of this essay will explore the faulty assumptions of Marxism that infect every manifestation of the idea, from the most ardent, militant Soviet-style Communism to the broadly accepted socialist welfare states of the west that we see manifested in Western Europe and that is beginning to emerge in the United States. I will not address every flaw of Marxism, or even flesh out all of the depth of the flaws that I do discuss. I do hope, however, that this essay will be helpful for those struggling to understand the implications and significance of the infection of Marxist ideas in our society.
The three flaws of this system that I will discuss in these posts are: 1) a flawed and inconsistent conception of the nature of property, 2) a flawed understanding of the nature of economic value, and 3) the erroneous assumption that the family does not matter.
Flawed and Inconsistent Notion of Property
Property is at the heart of Marxism. Property is that which vests the Bourgeoisie with advantage over the Proletariat. Those who own the factories and the tenements are able to employ and rent to Proletariat workers. While most would agree that job creation and the provision of affordable housing is a socially responsible and beneficial use of wealth, Marx would disagree and argue that the employer/employee and landlord/tenant relationships are inherently exploitive. Marx argues that labor is property that is stolen from the worker by the factory owner (more on this in a later post). Given that property is the source of power and the means of exploitation, the concept of property plays an important role in the Marxist system.
The fundamental problem, however, is that Karl Marx didn’t know much about the concept of property in the western tradition. The concept of the private ownership of property traces its roots into antiquity. For example, the Old Testament, which has been foundational for the western tradition, presumes private property ownership when it forbids theft and covetousness in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:15, 17).
Property is classified by its kind and currently, there are three types: real property (land and “improvements” to land, like buildings), chattels (TVs, cars, pencils, anything that can be moved), and intellectual property (ideas, patents, trademarks). The most dominant metaphor used to illustrate property rights is a bundle of sticks. When you own property, ownership means that you have certain rights to that property that society recognizes. Each stick in the bundle represents one particular type of right. For example, if you own a building, you are, absent government regulation, more than welcome to paint it pink, store farm equipment in it, or even burn it to the ground. Anyone else who tried to do those things would be violating your rights to your property by committing vandalism, trespass, or arson. One of the most important sticks in the bundle is the right to disposition, meaning that you are free to destroy, sell, or otherwise dispose of your property as you see fit, absent, of course, some sort of intervening regulation.
One example of Marx’s flawed understanding of property is evident in his belief that a communist state should not recognize a “right to inheritance.” There is, however, no such thing as a “right to inheritance” as Marx conceives it. Inheritance involves the acquisition of property by an heir based on the pre-mortem direction of a property owner or by operation of law in the absence of valid directions for postmortem disposition. The law presumes that the will of the deceased is predictable based on the expressed will of most members of society. As such, inheritance is not a right, but the result of the exercise of the right to disposition of property. The fact that Marx describes this right in exactly opposite terms betrays a bias against the creation and retention of generational wealth. In fact, the authors claim to be in favor of the accumulation of “[h]ard-won, self-acquired, self-earned property.” Apparently, only the laborer himself should ever be entitled to benefit from his labor. Even the laborer’s children and grandchildren are barred from benefiting from it, even when it is the will of the laborer himself that they benefit.
When the principles of Marx are extrapolated and applied to this type of circumstance, this worker has been robbed of a benefit of his labor: not by a factory owner, but by society. This society, I might add, is one that has been built with the goal of protecting the rights of the worker from exploitation by the wealthy bourgeoisie. Marx substitutes the state for the factory owner and does violence to the property owner’s rights in the process. The communist state, in attempting to insulate the worker from harm, has only become the perpetrator. Part of this Marxist prohibition against passing along wealth is informed by the next faulty assumption that I will discuss in a few days, the assumption that families don’t matter. If parents aren’t invested in their children, why would they care whether their children and grandchildren benefit from their hard work to build wealth?
Erroneous Assumptions about Labor
Marx feeds workers (the proletariat) false ideas about the nature of their work and the relationship that they have with their employers (the bourgeoisie). In section one of The Communist Manifesto, Marx makes a very brief, but crucial statement on which he does not elaborate. He writes, “the price of a commodity…is equal to its cost of production.” This statement is found in a broader discussion of what he observes to be the commodification of proletarian labor (i.e., considering labor a commodity).
The theory may be summarized like this: raw materials pass through production before becoming finished products that can be traded on the market. The value of the raw materials is substantially lower than the price for which the goods are sold. The value of the labor used to transform the raw materials into a finished product, according to Marx, represents the added value. So ([cost of labor] = [price of good on market] – [price of production). Any wage paid to the laborer that is lower than the “cost of labor” in this equation represents stolen labor. When their labor is characterized as a commodity, Marx is able to argue the bourgeoisie exploit the proletariat by stealing labor from them when they pay them wages less than what Marx considers the “cost of labor.” This forms the basis of the Marxist worldview and, if it is flawed, the entire system is invalid.
There are several problems with this view of labor as a commodity. First, the market does not consider the cost of production in determining the price of goods. The value of a good on the market can be estimated prior to the moment of exchange, but only when a good is actually exchanged can its actual value be determined. If consumers are unwilling to pay a price for a product that represents the cost of production, the product is not worth what it costs to produce it. The value of a product in the free market is determined by the wants, needs, and preferences of consumers.
Second, the workers whose labor transformed those raw materials into finished products are not slaves whose labor has been stolen, as Marx claims. Marx states, “[those] who work, acquire nothing, and those who acquire anything, do not work.” By this he means the proletariat workers do not acquire the value of their labor, while the bourgeoisie, who do benefit from the value of the labor, do not themselves work to produce that value. This is simply not true. Even Marx knows the proletariat are paid for their labor. As long as the bourgeois factory owners actually pay the laborers the wage they promised to pay, they have not stolen the workers’ labor. On the contrary, those who work have acquired something. They have earned a wage that they can use to provide for their families. The wage may not provide a luxurious lifestyle, but it is fair if it fulfills the contract between worker and employer.
More fundamentally, however, Marx discusses labor as if labor is “property.” As discussed in the previous post, property is classified on the basis of its character. “Labor” cannot be classified as land, a building, idea, or a chattel. Labor may be an asset, and forced labor is the forced allocation of that asset, but labor is not bought and sold like property is bought and sold. Technically, even slavery is not the theft of labor, but the theft of wages earned through labor. These are principles of the law that trace their roots to the very earliest civilizations and are present, in one form or another, in every society. Marx mischaracterizes the nature of labor in such a way as to foment further class conflict by pitting the proletariat against the bourgeoisie in an exploitative relationship.
This false characterization of labor as property is problematic. It serves as a basis to advance the false notion that workers are entitled to more than the wage for which they have contracted. Outside of a Marxist fantasy world (and probably inside of it, too) workers are guaranteed wages that are representative of the terms of their contracts. Even when the firm loses money, workers receive (or can recover) the wages due to them. Only when a firm makes profits does the Marxist seem to believe that a worker’s wage should be dependent upon the market outcome of the sale of the final product. Many companies offer profit-sharing programs as a part of compensation packages, but this is only because the employee and employer have freely negotiated the terms of employment.
This type of employment agreement is clearly one-sided. The employer takes all of the risk and stands to gain nothing. The employee, however, takes no risk and stands only to gain. So the reality is in fact the opposite of Marx’s supposed exploitative scheme.
Some will argue that this is a mischaracterization of the employment arrangement that Marx envisions as ideal. In fairness, that may be true. Marx points to the value of the final product merely as proof that the worker was shorted wages that he rightfully earned. The problem here, however, is that it was a market mechanism that determined the value–the free exchange of money or goods for the final product. In reality, there are two market mechanisms at play that Marx conceptually merges. First, the free negotiation of a contract for labor between the employee and the employer. Once the work is done and the wages are paid, this exchange is complete. The second is the free exchange of goods between the employer/producer and the consumer. These two exchanges are related in the sense that increased labor costs will result in increased consumer costs, but the employee/employer relationship is unaffected by any subsequent exchanges–it is complete. It is only the false characterization of labor that Marxism presents that forces the completed contract between employee and employer to be renegotiated in a way that benefits the worker exclusively.
What are the implications of this flawed view of labor as a commodity? First, it’s entirely untenable. Since the laborer’s wage depends on the price at which the commodity is sold, the laborer’s wage is entirely unknowable and unpredictable. A Marxist society is supposed to be a “classless society.” But creating a classless, equal society would require perfect knowledge of the future in order to calculate the prices of goods sold on the market, in order to adjust appropriately the wages that should be given to all workers (which in the end should create equality). This is clearly impossible. Moreover, since the laborer’s wage would depend on the price of the produced commodities when sold, there could be no wage contracts because there can be no predetermined wages. With such a volatile wage system, employers will be unwilling to take entrepreneurial risks since they can’t make firm wage agreements with workers. In such a system, there could be no Steve Jobs, no Bill Gates, and no pharmaceutical scientists curing diseases.
Second, in the case where you do attempt to adopt Marxist ideas, you end up with higher rates of unemployment among the marginal worker because there is no ability to contract for a specific wage, thus creating risk for the employer. Unskilled laborers are almost by definition expendable (not as people, but as workers). Their work requires no particular skills and there is a near limitless supply of individuals with no particular skills. The higher the cost of labor (which would result from some sort of undefinable Marxist mechanism dictating wages before the market has determined the value of goods) means that employers will seek to produce their products with minimum labor (which translates into minimum laborers). There becomes more motivation to automate production or simply less motivation to innovate. At some point, skilled laborers (including professionals like engineers, or even those with particular vocational skills) will be impacted. If the system does not encourage and reward innovation and entrepreneurship, there is not need for those with the skills to translate the entrepreneurial idea into a tangible final product. In the short term, however, it is just the class that Marxism purports to help that is most immediately and directly impacted. The worker isn’t helped by a system that discourages the creation of jobs and encourages the elimination of his job.
If our concern is to love the poor, which is a central command throughout the Bible (Deut 15:11; 24:14; Rom 15:26; Gal 2:10; etc.), then propagating Marxism is not the way to go about it.
Morally Bankrupt Vision for the Family
Marxism hides behind a veneer that articulates the goals of the system in a morally admirable way. Who can argue that freeing the oppressed from oppression is a good thing? Anyone who has read the Minor Prophets knows that God cares about the way that nations treat the poor among them. Any believer who takes his faith seriously knows that while we are to be primarily concerned with the condition of men’s souls, we follow Christ’s example when we do good works that eliminate temporal human suffering. There is no doubt that there are well-intentioned Marxist idealists out there who believe that Marxism presents the best formula for accomplishing many laudable goals. As genuine as their belief may be, it is no less wrong. Marxism presents a system in which theft is institutionalized as personal property rights are eliminated. It also unnecessarily pits employee against employer, assuming that any situationally unequal relationship must be exploitative in some way. The most grievous moral defect, however, is Marxism’s goal of abolishing the family.
Marx concedes that the abolition of the family is radical, but the family as an institution is an oppressive bourgeois institution itself. Children, according to Marx, are exploited by their parents because they are educated within the system for purposes of perpetuating the class. Women are exploited by their husbands because they are “mere instruments of production.” By eliminating the institution of the family, Marx purports to eliminate one of the tools of bourgeois oppression, leveling the social relationships between husband and wife and parent and child. Marx’s contemporary critics rightly argued that this would simply create a “community of women.” In a perfect world, no husband would ever exploit or otherwise marginalize his wife and no parent would ever abuse his or her children, but this is not a perfect world. The family is the institution that the Lord has provided for the care and nurture of children and it is the family that is the vehicle through which God uniquely blesses a society.
A society without strong families is a society that lacks a stable and solid foundation. THESE are the societies where women are valued only as objects and children are viewed as a hazard of sexual recreation. Every productive activity (i.e. “labor”) is comodified in a Marxist system—labor is understood to be property. If the “means of production” is property to be bought, sold, and stolen, then the “means of production” of children has the same status. Sex becomes a commodity and those members of the community of women who trade it like other commodities become prostitutes and those from whom it is stolen become victims.
In a Marxist system children are to be provided an education by the state from the earliest possible age. Children are to be disconnected from their parents and taught to be subservient to the state. They no longer function as a member of a family where they find love and provision. They are a part of the state where they are required to contribute. Certainly, all parents want their children to learn to work hard, to be generous, and to contribute. Unless a child loves to learn and trust, however, he will never be motivated to altruism. The family is where children learn to love and trust, not in state-sponsored “baby mills.”
It may seem that Marxism is a distant threat. The Soviet Union has collapsed and the nations that still hold to any pure form of Marxism are isolated and on the margins of the world scene. As mentioned in earlier posts, however, socialism is a pragmatically modified manifestation of Marxism. As the state provides more and more, the family becomes less and less critical. Members of society look to the state to provide healthcare, to solve problems, and ultimately, to raise their children. Socialism, like Marxism, results in the erosion of the family and as a result, the erosion of every institution (including the state, ironically) that is founded upon the family.
Marxism eliminates respect for the spiritual and socialism only gives it passing mention, but no serious consideration. A Marxist dystopia may seem worlds away from us now, but the slide into it is both subtle and steep. Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises wrote, “The Marxians love of democratic institutions was a stratagem only, a pious fraud for the deception of the masses. Within a socialist community there is no room left for freedom.” Every revolution begins with democratic rhetoric and ends with the foreclosure of personal freedom and the elevation of the state above the value of the individual.Three flaws of Marxism and why it just doesn't work Click To Tweet