20 March 2009

Pot - Kettle

The robe of speculative cobwebs, embroidered with flowers of rhetoric, steeped in the dew of sickly sentiment, this transcendental robe in which the German Socialists wrapped their sorry "eternal truths," all skin and bone, served to wonderfully increase the sale of their goods amongst such a public.

~Karl Marx (Communist Manifesto)



We're reading the Communist Manifesto for Political Philosophy, and this quote alone makes reading the thing worthwhile. Why? Because the entire work is little more than "speculative cobwebs, embroidered with flowers of rhetoric, steeped in the dew of sickly sentiment." What little "evidence" Marx attempted to present for his position was largely anecdotal and speculative. If it was a Wikipedia article, someone would have gone through and put "citation needed" on most paragraphs.

The part that makes sense is the desire to do something about the horrid condition of the working class in this time period. With little to no restraint on pure capitalism, their condition was little better than slavery ... and possibly worse than some forms of slavery. I sympathize there, but Marx's supposed solution is never explained sufficiently. Essentially, he claims that it is inevitable that the proletariat will rise up against the bourgeoisie ... then the proletariat will institute a series of reforms which do away with classes ... then there will be a perfect society. The end. He does list some specific types of reform that should be instituted, but then acts as if it is self-evident that these reforms will bring about perfection in society. He talks about it in terms of natural laws, as if such a sequence of events were completely and utterly inevitable.

The other big problem with this, and the one that would come back to eat Communism away from the inside, is Marx's Rousseau-inspired assumption that he can treat the proletariat as a single, unified entity. Now, you would think that since, at that time, the one Rousseau-inspired revolution, i.e. the French Revolution, had led to complete and utter chaos and despotism, that Marx would have known better than to trust Rousseau's principles. According to Rousseau, there was no need for checks and balances in a true democratic government, as the People would not vote to harm Itself, any more than a hand would vote to harm a foot on the same body... Unfortunately, the "People" are not truly one body. There are diverse interests across the board. Now, Rousseau did realize this, and allowed for it by requiring uniform education and property holding for everyone in his ideal society. How this is to be brought about from a state of complete inequality is never made clear, but Marx clearly thinks a simple Revolution is all that is needed.

Of course, we know how that ended. Class antagonism didn't end; it was just no longer acknowledged. The government was (claimed to be) the People! The People were the government! So... why were they starving? Why were the working classes of East Berlin so eager to get away from the system that a Wall had to be built to keep them in? Orwell's Animal Farm summed up the result rather nicely, even if it ignored the genuinely good intentions that began the movement.

On different note, a few years back I read In Exile from the Land of Snows, describing experiences of Tibetans through the Chinese conquest. One oddity was that the Maoists seemed to be following a recipe book, expecting to bring about utopia. In particular, they instituted something like a bourgeois class for the express purpose of having something for the proletariat to rebel against. No, I'm not making that up. The reason for this, er, Pythonesque approach became clear after reading Marx's Manifesto. He insists that first the bourgeoisie must establish itself, then that will result in the creation of a proletariat class, and finally the proletariat will become so disenchanted that it will rebel. Since China had started in the "aristocratic epoch," it had to move into the "bourgeois" epoch before the proletariat could rebel, and, er, somehow or other, create a utopia.

And that's the biggest problem with the Manifesto. It posits the Revolution, suggests a few reforms, but there is no indication of how this is to accomplish all the miracles Marx expects. The conclusion is assumed to be obvious and inevitable, which would suggest that the plan's failure was also obvious and inevitable.

Final thought: Before reading the Manifesto, I had considered Communism to be "One of those ideas that sounds good on paper, but doesn't actually work." After reading it, I have to say it doesn't even sound good on paper. So I'm going to revise that to, "One of those ideas that can be made to sound good by a persuasive speaker, but doesn't actually work." When only the goals are described, it can sound quite promising. When the methods are included... it's a bit like someone saying he's going to fly to the moon on a chair with 47 rockets strapped to it, and that his reaching the moon is therefore inevitable.

2 comments:

Paul said...

It's been quite a while since I read the Manifesto, so my impression may be a bit off, but I thought his analysis of the benefits of capitalism was pretty spot on in some respects. Better and more accurate than that of many of his followers.

Qalmlea said...

For the time period, certainly. That was the part of the Manifesto where he, mostly, made sense (apart from going a tad overboard with some non-economic criticisms, like asserting capitalist marriage was essentially a group "affair").

I'm not entirely sure what his followers espoused. All I've got in my head is, "Capitalist Running Dog," which is more an epithet than an actual criticism.