With Karl Marx’s 200th birthday tomorrow, 5 May, we are likely to be reminded once again that communism has failed. But really, this whole jolly business just confirms his theories.
Marx believed that communism requires capitalism to first prepare the ground by creating a modern economy and society, and turning most people into wage and salary earners – that is, proletarians. There was certainly very little of that in Russia and China when they had their communist-led revolutions way back in the early twentieth century.
Both countries started out with one foot still in fedualism. It was wall-to-wall peasants rather than proletarians. And like all traditional class societies, they had a culture of subordination that makes modern capitalism look egalitarian.
Their proletariat was still in its infancy. Lack of technology and poor education meant that the new regime had to retain a hierarchical division of labour with most workers bound down by toil, and a minority elite of cadres who did all the thinking and organising, and got a bigger slice of the cake.
Full marks for dragging people out of their feudal swamp (and for defeating fascism) but that is where their historical mandate pretty much ended.
These states became systems that penalised all of the things that a revolutionary transformation required such as questioning, challenging and displaying initiative and creativity. So their claim that they were marching down the road to communism was false – but Marx help anyone who said so.
The collapse of the Soviet bloc, with its economies going backwards and regimes unloved, was not the ‘collapse of communism’. Real Marxists had every reason to be delighted when the Berlin Wall came crashing down. We still have relics: North Korea hangs on by terrorising its population. China and Vietnam have adapted by dropping much of the empty and dysfunctional socialist shell while retaining the reins of political power. Cuba now appears to be attempting a similar adaptation in an effort to get out of its economic mess. We can only wish the worst for these police states. I am sure that Marx would be of a similar mind.
When workers in the developed countries begin to stir from their deep slumber, perhaps with the next economic crisis, it will be under conditions far more amenable to proletarian revolution. Of special note is the real prospect of relying less and less on personal material gain.
With robots and computers doing more and more of the jobs we don’t want to do and leaving us with more interesting options, work can increasingly become something that provides its own motivation.
At the same time, with per capita output starting to approach something half reasonable, it is possible to imagine a real narrowing in income disparities as people become happier with an equal share of a large and increasing pie.
Revolution will still be quite an ordeal. First off, we will need to take the means of production away from the 0.01 per cent. Then there is the protracted business of changing ourselves and society, as well as overcoming those who want to stop the process. It will not be smooth sailing.
At centre stage is transforming the relations of production, something Marx talked about quite a lot. There will be work for everybody. And there is the creation of a culture of mutual regard where we increasingly help rather than hinder others in the performance and enjoyment of their work, knowing they are doing likewise.
Success in this cultural transformation will depend on a revolutionary movement providing a critical mass of people keen enough to get mutual regard snowballing at work and in life generally. They will need to have the confidence and courage to help others deal with their personal challenges, and to work collectively to do away with the old power relations.
Let’s leave the last word to Marx from The Communist Manifesto:
In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.
Read more at The Communist Project.