Thinking Critically about Marxism, Socialism and Communism (All in fewer than 1000 words!)

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[This is the third blog entry in a series on critical thinking which lays out ten guidelines for critical thought. Last week started a sub-series on the first rule of critical thought, “Think Systemically.” That rule holds that we can’t really escape Plato’s Cave unless (without prejudice) we’re clear about the meaning of the key systemic terms: capitalism, Marxism, socialism, communism, mixed economy, and fascism. Last week’s blog entry tried to explain capitalism in three simple phrases: (1) private ownership of the means of production, (2) free and open markets, and (3) unlimited earnings. This week’s episode turns to the main critique of capitalism (Marxism) and to the nature of its alternatives, socialism and communism. Again without judging, it will clearly explain these terms using just three points each and in fewer than 1000 words. I promise.]

MARXISM

Marxism represents the Western tradition’s most trenchant critique of capitalism. Marxism’s three points are as follows: (1) capitalism necessarily exploits workers and the environment, (2) workers will eventually rise up against such exploitation and replace capitalism with socialism, and (3) socialism will eventually evolve into communism. Let’s consider those points one-by-one.

First of all, Marxism’s critique of capitalism holds that the system necessarily exploits workers (and by extension, as we shall see, the environment). The adverb “necessarily” is emphasized here to show that, on Marx’s analysis, the destructive nature of capitalism is not dependent on the personal qualities of individual capitalists. Regardless of their personal virtue or lack thereof, the market mechanism itself forces capitalists to exploit workers (and the environment). This is because, for one thing, workers are forced to enter a labor market whose wage level is set by competition with similar workers seeking the same job. As a result, each prospective employee will bid his competitors down until what economists have called the “natural” wage level is attained. Marx found this “natural” level below what workers and their families need to sustain themselves in ways worthy of human beings.

For Marxists, the capitalist system does not merely exploit workers of necessity. It also necessarily exploits the environment. That is, the market’s supply and demand guidance dynamic punishes the presence of environmental conscience on the part of producers. Thus, for example, a conscientious entrepreneur might be moved to put scrubbers on the smokestacks of his factory and filters to purify liquid effluents from his plant entering a nearby river. In doing so, he will, of course, raise his costs of production. Meanwhile, his competitors who lack environmental conscience will continue spewing unmitigated smoke into the atmosphere and pouring toxins into the river. Their lowered costs will enable them to undersell the conscientious producer, and eventually drive him out of business. In this way, the market rewards absence of environmental conscience.

Marx’s second point is that the exploitation which the capitalist system necessarily fosters will cause rebellion on the part of workers. They will rise up against their employers and overthrow the capitalist system.

Marx’s third point is that the workers will replace capitalism with socialism. Socialism will eventually evolve into communism. So what do those terms mean?

SOCIALISM

For Marx capitalism’s replacement at the hands of workers is socialism. This economic system is capitalism’s opposite on each of the three points indicated earlier. First of all, whereas capitalism espouses private ownership of the means of production, socialism advocates public ownership. According to this theory, the workers themselves take over the factories and administer them, not for the profit of the few, but for the benefit of workers and their families.

Secondly, whereas capitalism demands free and open markets, socialism mandates controlled markets. Since socialism has the interests of the working majority at center, its pure theory will not allow, for instance, production of luxury crops (such as roses or coffee) if that production deprives workers of the food they need for subsistence.

Thirdly, whereas capitalism idealizes unlimited income, socialism calls for redistribution of income – for instance, through a progressive income tax. For socialism, greed is definitely not good. So it might also limit income by establishing ceilings beyond which personal incomes are not permitted to rise. Taxes and surplus earnings are then used for the common good, for example to fund schools, clinics, food subsidies, affordable housing, rents and health care.

COMMUNISM

As for Communism, it is a “vision of the future” which some, though not by any means all, socialists entertain as history’s end point. That is, while all communists are socialists, not all socialists are communists. This is because some socialists (along with all capitalists, of course) consider the communist vision of the future as unrealistic and unattainable. That vision, overly idealistic or not, is of a future where there will be (1) abundance for all, (2) no classes, as a result of such plenty, and (3) no need for a state.

To begin with, the vision of virtually unlimited abundance marks communists such as Marx and Engels as convinced industrialists. They were highly impressed by the unprecedented output of the factory system of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Shirts, for example, that would take a skilled seamstress days to produce, were turned out in minutes, once an assembly line based on “division of labor” was set in motion. Soon, communists theorized, the world would be filled with consumer goods. And in a context of such abundance “yours” and “mine” would cease to have meaning. Neither would it make sense for some to hoard goods to themselves at the expense of others. The result would be the disappearance of classes. There would be no rich and no poor. Everyone would have more than enough of what they need.

With the disappearance of classes would come the gradual “withering away” of the state. This is because “the state,” by communist definition is simply armed administrator of the affairs of society’s dominant class. As Marx and Engels put it in their Manifesto, “Political power, properly so called, is merely the organized power of one class for oppressing another.”

Thus the state’s job is to impose the will of a ruling class on others. Under capitalism, the state’s function is to oblige the working class to accept conditions profitable to the bourgeoisie (wealthy property owners). In other words, under capitalism, the state imposes the “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.”

Meanwhile, under socialism, the function of the state is to impose the will of the working class on the bourgeoisie. It enforces the “dictatorship of the proletariat.” By way of contrast, under communism, in the absence of classes (eliminated by a condition of abundance) there remains no group whose will needs to be imposed on others. The state’s function thus ceases. It gradually disappears.

[Next week: Conclusion of Critical Thinking’s first rule (Think Systemically): Mixed Economy and Fascism]

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

11 thoughts on “Thinking Critically about Marxism, Socialism and Communism (All in fewer than 1000 words!)”

  1. In your essay on communism/socialism I think you should have thrown in 2 or 3 sentences to the effect that Communism, in every single case, has proven to be totally morally and ethically bankrupt. The “dictatorship of the proletariat” has meant in all cases the seizure of power by a handful of people at the top who then pursue policies of oppression reaching as far as genocide: think of the millions killed at the whim of dictators Stalin and Mao. The best that can be expected is the socialism in a country such as Norway, where there is a more equitable sharing of wealth produced by oil etc.
    I am not defending capitalism as it is practiced in the USA. I would like to see a series or individual blogs dealing with real concrete issues, as you did, for example, in the case of the wars of Empire waged by the USA and less writing on theoretical, abstract issues.

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    1. Your judgments about communism, socialism, and communism are interesting as well as your desire for “real concrete issues.”. However, I think you’re somehow missing the point of the series. The point is to say that before we can address such issues, those doing so (and those reading) must be clear on terms. So this first rule of critical thinking (“Think Systemically”) is merely about clarifying the concepts capitalism, Marxism, socialism, communism, mixed economy, and fascism — and to do so precisely without making the value judgments you seem to be seeking..Moreover, the project here is to make such clarifications in as few words as possible (3 phrases or sentences for the essence of each item), since we “Americans” have such low tolerance for the “theoretical and abstract.” However without the clarification sought here, arguments about issues tend to make little headway, and we make ourselves vulnerable to manipulation by those who would demonize the systems in question — i.e. to those carrying their “statues” in front of the fire in Plato’s Cave..

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      1. I have no idea what “carrying statues in front of the fire in Plato’s Cave” means –too obscure a reference. As a former priest (and your friendly classmate), and publisher of 135 books., I know how to think critically. Perhaps you could apply such critical thinking to your own views on reform in the Catholic Church: first it’s revolution from below following the very thought out views of liberation theologian Matthew Fox; then two weeks later it’s abandoning Fox’s views in favor of “Let’s Call a Council; it’s our tradition” –when just about all the cardinals and bishops
        are right wing appointments of Wojtyla and Ratzinger. I will place some credibility in Bergoglio when he appoints the viciously persecuted Hans Kung as cardinal and begins to treat women, gay people and so many others in an enlightened manner instead of calling gay marriage “the work of the devil” as he has openly done (see the net). Meanwhile, this series is as boring as hell.

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  2. You have set out a lucid, dispassionate summary of Communism on the theoretical level. As you point out, to think critically about a subject, one must first have a clear definition of terms. The frustrating thing about most political and ideological discussions by today’s media and talking heads is that nobody seems to bother about accurate definition of terms.
    On the practical level, I concur with Skymind that Communism as implemented has been an unmitigated disaster–far worse than capitalism at its most egregious.
    By all means go on to a discussion of concrete issues. But only after terms are precisely define and premises are clearly articulated.

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  3. P.S. Would you consider doing a brief description of Liberation Theology? I can get it through Google or other sources, but I would rather see your ideas, plus your or your friends’ “in the trenches” experience and comments.

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