Book Club: Marxism in Theory and Practice

>> Thursday, April 19, 2007

Note: The following is the summary of the deliberations (plus some reflection of my own understanding) of Marxism discussed at a Book Club meeting I hosted four years ago today. Instead of discussing a book, The Book Club meeting on that day focused on the topic of Marxism.

By Ajay Pradhan | Saturday, April 19, 2003

What is Marxism?

That's a very simple question. Unfortunately, the answer is vastly complex. In the Book Club meeting of Saturday, April 19, 2003, that is the question we decided to discuss.

Marxism is a topic that is rather difficult to discuss dispassionately. For that reason, I had urged the participants to come prepared to bring more light to the topic than heat. But, I will admit it now that I secretly wished that, in order for some spice to be added to the discussion, somebody would passionately pound the coffee table with a clenched fist, just to make a point. Wait a second, there was no coffee table in my living room.

Marxism is a much discussed but little understood theory. The famous Communist Manifesto, which Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels wrote in 1848 for the Communist League, has been widely read, extensively studied, passionately discussed, diligently researched, and critically analyzed by many within and outside academia; yet, it still does not fail to perplex us. The terminologies that litter Marxist literature, as pedantic and esoteric as they are, spin our mind. Try, for example, "dialectical materialism". Hang on a second, say that again, dia... what materialism? Without a context, the term may simply mean discourse about the material world, for dialectical implies discourse or about language and materialism the material world. And, try some more... "scientific realism", "historical determinism", "Hegelian idealism", "dictatorship of the proletariat", "thesis, antithesis, and synthesis", "bourgeois society".

A student of philosophy could walk us through this mass of bewildering terminologies. But, since I knew of no philosophy student at the meeting, I thought a political scientist would have to do. So, I kicked off the meeting by asking Ramjee Parajulee, a George Washington University political science graduate who teaches at Simon Fraser University, if he would give us a synopsis of Marxism 101 and give us the essentials of Marxist literature.

"Marxism is based on class struggle", Ramjee Parajulee started off with the fundamentals, then added, "and dictatorship of the proletariat". In Marxist utopia, the proletariat, or the working class, who owns no means of production other than one's own labor, takes over control of society's means of production, thus effectively seizing power from bourgeoisie, the capitalist middle class. The objective is to remove class-based economic disparity that exists in a capitalist society. Marxism, he said, is the foundation of Leninism and Maoism.

Marxism: Foundation of Leninism and Maoism

Leninism, as Ramjee Parajulee said, is indeed founded on Marxism. But, what is the difference between them, if any? To understand this, we first have to understand Lenin's revolutionary zeal, something that markedly set him apart from Marxist philosophy. Leading the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party and seizing power in 1917, an historical event better known as the Bolshevik Revolution, Lenin accorded paramount role to a tightly disciplined vanguard of professional, revolutionary activists to lead masses to what he called revolutionary consciousness and action. Lenin put emphasis on the tactic of proletariat revolution in general and the eventual dictatorship of the proletariat over bourgeoisie in particular. Lenin lived in the era of developed imperialism, which he called the height of capitalism, and proletariat revolution. In fact, Leninism emerged from proletariat revolution.

Lenin was a revolutionary in his action whereas Marx was a revolutionary in his thought. Marx was a political thinker whereas Lenin was a political revolutionary. Leninism is, therefore, essentially the application of Marxism. No doubt, Lenin was a Marxist and Marxism was the basis of his world outlook, but his world outlook and foundations of Leninism aren't identical in scope. In short, Leninism emerged and developed under the conditions of imperialism, when capitalism was being increasingly questioned and criticized by followers of Marx for its contradictions, and when proletariat movement was taking shape—by which time Marx had long come and gone.

What about Maoism? Mao, like Lenin, was a follower of Marxism. But, Maoist followers accuse Lenin's Soviet communism as State capitalism, in which the State runs the economy as a capitalist economy—for profit rather than for human need, which eventually leads to the rise of bourgeoisie. In order to establish a truly classless society, Mao mobilized the workers, peasants and students into a guerilla rebellion against the nationalists within the Chinese Communist Party. In the process he armed them for a violent movement, giving his movement a much more militant color than Lenin's revolution.

Predictably, Mao's blustering followers say that accusations that Mao preached violence and many people were massacred by his cadre, are baseless. Maoists view the Chinese Cultural Revolution as the farthest historical advance toward communism. Maoist movement effectively came to a screeching halt in 1976 when Mao died and four of his successors, better known as the Gang of Four, were arrested, setting off the reemergence of French-educated reformist Deng Xiaoping and, under Deng's leadership, the economic modernization of China.

Dialectical Materialism

At the Book Club meeting, I didn't feel we expounded enough on the concept of dialectical materialism even though that seems to be a central characteristic of Marxism which Ramjee Parajulee did mention as such. A brief philosophical discussion, or just an attempt at it, at this point would not hurt anyone. Marxism is a theory rooted in Hegelian idealism and its notion of the dialectic. In philosophical literature, an idealist is someone who gives priority to the human mind, whereas a materialist is someone who believes that materialistic description, not mental phenomena, is far more important. Idealists doubt the existence of a material world and materialists think mental phenomena are a function of or are reducible to physical phenomena. We're getting a bit philosophical here, aren't we? Well, bear with me for just a few more seconds.

Well, back to our discussion. Materialism and idealism, thus, are diametrically opposed to each other. Materialism mostly influenced Soviet Union and China and German philosopher Hegel's idealism became influential in the Western world. Not that there were no materialists in the west; only they preferred to call themselves scientific realists. How can, then, Marx, who was a big materialist, expound a philosophy that has roots in Hegelian idealism? Well, it turns out that Hegel postulated a world attaining self-realization through a process of dialectical progression, in which, through a process of interaction and deliberation, one stage evolves into another. Marx also believed in the process of dialectic but he firmly located it at the material level—hence, dialectical materialism.

In layman's term, what does it all boil down to? I'm not absolutely certain if I'm correct, but my take on this is that idealists think human mind makes use of the material world and material world is only what human mind makes of it. On the other hand, materialists believe that human mind is essentially limited by the material world. This is why, I think, communism gives emphasis to brawn power, the labor class, than brain power, the entrepreneurs.

Class Struggle: Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis

When Marx applied the concept of dialectical materialism to history in the Communist Manifesto, it yielded a picture of class struggle being waged over time. Naresh Koirala and Ramjee Parajulee both expounded further on this concept of Marxism with eloquence. They pointed out that as the class struggle progresses, each form of society ("thesis") generates its own contradictions ("antithesis"), until a new synthesis is achieved, setting off the dialectical process on yet another cycle.

This "thesis-antithesis-synthesis" perspective allows us to understand Marxist explanation of historical evolution of society and prediction of an emergent society more clearly. According to this perspective, medieval society is superseded by bourgeois society which in turn is superseded by a new classless society. This classless society, Marx predicted, would be the dictatorship of the proletariat where the working class will be the only dominant force.

Ramjee Parajulee illustrated the "thesis-antithesis-synthesis" progression with a metaphor that his school teacher in Nepal used to explain the evolution of society as explained by Marx. A corn seed (thesis) germinates (antithesis) and grows to produce corncob (synthesis) from which is released corn seeds (thesis) that repeat the cycle of progression. I don't know if his teacher was successful enough in clearly explaining the concept of dialectical progression with this metaphor. But, clearly, the metaphor stuck in the young schoolboy's mind, who has himself now become a teacher. I silently noted with relief that the schoolboy's mind only got implanted with a metaphor, not a Marxist ideological crank to turn it.

The Communist Manifesto: Communism vs. Capitalism

Naresh Koirala then briefly summarized the Communist Manifesto. The manifesto, written by Marx and Engels in 1848, was a seminal work promoting communism's political agenda and to this day remains an important document. The document dwells more on why capitalism is bad rather than on why communism is good. It seeks to build a justification for communist ideals based on what they thought were contradictions of capitalism, rather than on why communism would be a better alternative. For example, as Naresh Koirala elaborated, the manifesto proclaimed private property as being the source of injustice and to remove such injustice from society struggle by landless labor was needed to deal a decisive blow to the landowners, or the bourgeoisie, and to abolish private property, as if such action would magically create a just and progressive society.

After Naresh Koirala talked about the Communist Manifesto, the book club meeting took a turn for open discussion. Lomash Regmi said neither communism nor capitalism as we see them today are 100 percent pure, meaning that they both have features borrowed from each other. Very true, because look at certain public policies that have been legislated in the United States, the bastion of capitalism. The affirmative action policy, for example, has principle of social justice normally championed by Marxists.

Another interesting point Lomash raised that illustrated communism's concern about capitalism's historical unjust domination of workers in a capitalist society was the long working hours that stretched to more than 12-16 hours a day. In the United States, the industrial labor movement for limiting the long work hours to a maximum of eight hours spanned over 70 long years before finally becoming successful. The movement began in the 1860s, became intensive in the 1880s, and then finally became successful in 1933 when Franklin Delano Roosevelt enacted an Act to limit work hours to eight hours a day. It was a significant achievement for the working class in a capitalist country.

Suresh Bhatta then brought in another interesting feature of communism that is actually in progress now in the non-communist European Union of western European countries. The ultimate utopia of communism is the abolition of class-based society, emergence of communion-based cooperative society and the ultimate establishment of state-less society, for, communists believe, state is typically always oppressive. Indeed, European Union now seems to be moving away from being multi-state Europe to the concept of single super state. Then, a relevant question that one might ask communists is, "Will the European Union with one single super state be more oppressive or less than each individual states combined?"

Ideological War: Is Classless Society Possible?

Is classless society, as prescribed and predicted by a prescient Marx, ever possible to successfully emerge and endure? No, declared Amod Dhakal and Lomash Regmi, because each individual human being has inherently different ability than the other. They implied that to try to create a class-less society would be going against the nature and would never succeed.

But, countered Naresh Koirala, bringing some objectivity to the discussion, what about the uneven playing field that underprivileged had to historically endure? Clearly, he brought up a Marxist contention that history determines the capacity of individuals—a concept Marx called historical determinism. He contended that such historical uneven playing field, or discrimination, if you will, is responsible, to an important extent, for what sometimes appears as different abilities that different individuals have. Canada's social safety net, he contended, is really a Marxist contribution. Giving another example, he said that affirmative action in the U.S. was brought in to level the historically uneven playing field so that the historically underprivileged have a chance to succeed in society.

Seemingly unconvinced, Lomash Regmi then put forth a forceful argument: How much longer shall we, as a society, keep on carrying such historical baggage? Clearly, while he acknowledged the existence of historical discrimination, he wasn't too keen on continuing civil justice programs like affirmative action that ignores individual merit in favor of class-based socioeconomic imperative. Both sides of the argument are equally strong and equally valid, I thought to myself, and these are issues that have no simple solutions.

Ritendra Tamang, a relatively new participant in the Book Club meeting, brought in a new thread of discussion, wondering if capitalism alone was sufficient to protect democracy. The question is interesting, especially because capitalists think democracy is only possible in non-communist states. We know very well that it is not entirely so; look at a non-communist Pakistan, we've got a dictator there. And, Suresh Bhatta reminded us, even in places where communists rule, there is democracy. The populous Indian state of West Bengal, he said, has been mostly ruled by communists and still has democratic government.

Socialism: A Middle Ground Between Capitalism and Communism?

Suresh Bhatta added another dimension to the discussion that was until then conspicuously missing—socialism is a mild form of Marxism. Interestingly, many western democracies love to hate Marxism, but they have many programs and policies that are, well, mild form of Marxism, if that is what socialism is. Canada is a capitalist country, but we have social safety net that we can agree is socialist in nature. In the U.S., right-wing zealots like televangelist Pat Robertson, Rev. Jerry Falwell, TV commentator Patrick Buchanan, and syndicated radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh love to call Democrats a bunch of communists.

Is the difference between socialism and Marxism a question of extent or of form? I think both. Socialism, in my view, provides a cushion and attempts to prevent people from falling through the crack whereas Marxism stifles competitive spirit and motivation for excellence. That's the difference in extent. What about the difference in form? In socialism, there is no one party rule as in a communist state. Therefore, the difference in form is really a question of whether or not there is democracy. It is the difference that we see in Nepal between Nepali Congress, a social-democratic party, and Nepal Communist Party (Maoist), a party that, despite their on-again off-again contradictory public statements regarding their official stand on multi-party form of government, dreams of establishing a one-party communist rule by abolishing multi-party system.

Does capitalism guarantee democracy? What did the participants think in general? We still don't know enough about capitalism, said Manisha Dhakal, pointing out some of the contradictions and weaknesses in it. Capitalist society, Lomash Regmi said, is not interested in democracy, only in money. That's a big accusation. But, it is true that every once in a while, there does seem to be violation of human rights, an important parameter of democracy, in capitalist societies as well. The post 9/11 America has, in the name of homeland security, has not guaranteed freedom of speech to every American. Questioning attack on Iraq is often branded as unpatriotic, added Bhaba Regmi and Sunira Tripathy. Criticizing unilateralist doctrine of George W. Bush often leads to dismissal from jobs. Iswari Koirala said even the free press in America has been biased on the Iraq issue. Bush going into Iraq may very well be for Iraqi oil rather than to reestablish democracy or to prevent a mythical threat against America.

Why Has Communism Failed?

Returning from the topic of capitalism to Marxism, Ramjee Parajulee said Marxism failed in many countries and wondered why. I offered two explanations: lack of democracy and misgovernment. When a regime crushes democracy to implement its dogmatic views it can cling to power only with a brutal military force, not with public support. That's a major reason why communism has collapsed in many countries.

The other reason, misgovernment, has to do with simple logic of management inefficiency inherent in a communist monolith, a concept that can be explained with a robust field of political research—theory of institution. To illustrate this example, I borrowed Garrett Hardin's "Tragedy of the Commons", a metaphor he used to explain why it is difficult, costly and inefficient to manage commons, whether it is a common pasture, a common farm, a common water, a common sky, or a common mill.

Hardin offered a common pasture as an example that is used by cattle herders. Because the pasture is common, each herder can benefit by grazing their cattle. Well, that's good. But, who would protect the grazing land? No one, because it costs time, effort and perhaps money to manage anything and why would any one single herder incur that cost if the benefit is not exclusively his but is to be shared by others? Therefore, like any rational human being, each herder is motivated to only derive benefit not incur any cost—a tragic situation that leads to the ultimate degradation of the common pasture, hence, "Tragedy of the Commons". If, however, the right to use the pasture is exclusive, or a fee charged for its use, then inefficiency can be removed to some extent.

It is true that Hardin didn't account for the human capacity to enter into mutually beneficial relationship among one another that would make it possible for the commons to be managed successfully. There are plenty of examples of successful management of commons, mostly at the local community levels. Indeed, human beings can devise rules to make the management of commons successful, but such rules work well only if a set of conditions are met—just two of which are that the group size is small and homogenous enough for each member of the group to easily interact with one another with minimum of cost.

These are important conditions that are not possible to be met in a communist nation-state that runs every asset as common, not private property. Just like Hardin's cattle herders, nobody has motivation to go the extra mile in communism, because there is no personal gain. That is why Soviet Union and Mao's China had inefficient mills and an inefficient economy. This is the second reason why communism collapsed. This explanation is at the level of government. Is there a more pervasive, more intrinsic reason that has to do with Marxist theory in and of itself? Well, I think, there is and to understand that reason we have to first understand if Marxist theory is a philosophical one or a socio-political one.

Marxist Theory: Philosophical or Socio-Political?

So, is Marxism a philosophical theory? Or, is it a socio-political theory? Is there a difference and, anyway, what's the difference, you might ask. Well, the difference is not only there but it is an important one. A philosophical theory interprets the world whereas a socio-political theory prescribes socio-political agenda. The theory that Marx bequeathed to his followers is essentially a philosophical theory, but with a definite socio-political agenda. The agenda is to change the world, rather than merely to interpret it.

Marx was correct in many respects. He made incisive and critical analysis of the weaknesses of capitalism and its basis, the theory of free market, in explaining the causes of social and economic inequity that exists in a capitalistic society. His philosophical interpretation had merit. But, when applied as a socio-political theory, with an agenda to change the world, to remove socio-economic inequity from society, Marxism failed and failed mightily. It created gigantic economic inefficiency, a debilitating phenomenon that all neoclassical economists love to loathe.

In the two roles that Marx played in world history—critiquing capitalism and advocating socialism—there is a big irony. He wrote a lot in criticizing capitalism and, actually, very little advocating socialism. But, and here is the irony, his followers embraced communism with such fervor that Marxism has become synonymous with a failed political doctrine. Moreover, Marxist followers see production for profit as opposed to production for need and extraction of surplus value as evil features of capitalism; these are features that have propelled capitalist world to the height of economic progress.

When I broached this explanation, it was with a not-too-hidden intention to discredit Marxism and its offspring, communism. "Marxism as a philosophical theory correctly analyzes some weaknesses of free-market capitalism, but as a socio-political basis of government, Marxism has failed utterly," I said without any prevarication. I was blunt because I wanted to provoke. As if already there hasn't been enough said or written out there about Marxism to discredit it, in order to back up my argument, I asked the participants to look at the examples of Soviet Union, People's Republic of China, North Korea, Cuba, and Vietnam.

Soviet Union, the birthplace of communism, that Lenin built into a communist monolith crumbled under its own weight after decades of economic stagnation over a dozen years ago. China, where Mao Zedong added to communism militant dimension, has, for the most part, now abandoned communism in its real sense, in defiance of what Marx and his follower Mao advocated. The communist North in the Korean Peninsula lags so far behind its democratic neighbor in the South, that all that North Korea's "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-il can boast about as having any relevance to international relations is their nuclear program, maybe his platform shoes and his puffed-up hairstyle, but not much else. In the communist Cuba, thousands of freedom-hungry Cubans risk their lives every summer and try to cross the 90-mile breadth of straights of Florida on rickety boats to the shores of Florida, with the hope of finding freedom and a better life, leaving Fidel Castro behind to swagger about the only thing he can—the hand-rolled Cuban cigars. Vietnam, where the communists crushed the mighty America and forced it down to its knees in the protracted Vietnam War, is now busy building market economy.

The communism has only given rise to statecraft of propaganda and sycophancy; not that communists have monopoly over this nauseating political culture, though—partyless Panchayat system in Nepal used it like a religion. And history has castigated the most prominent proponents of Marxism one after another: Lenin, Stalin, Mao. Those that are still left are there only because of dictatorship, not because people really want them. Communism, to use a cliché, has been relegated to the dustbin of history.

Marxism: Useful Critique, Less Useful Substitute

I stopped and looked around, hoping that somebody would jump in and defend Marxism, if only to act as the devil's advocate. When I began to think nobody would take my bait, Naresh Koirala did offer his erudite voice, not so much, in my judgment, in defense of Marxist philosophy but to raise the tone of our discourse from a staid unanimous concurrence to the level of vigorous discussion. But, he didn't contradict that communism has failed; essentially, he said that Marx did offer valid critical analysis of capitalism's reliance on efficiency at the cost of equity and social justice.

Ramjee Parajulee said Marxism has evolved and is no longer a dogma that it once was. Suresh Bhatta said Marxism is indeed a highly charged theory and mentioned a relatively recent article on Marxism in the Economist magazine that said Marxism may have failed as a system of government but it still remains a valid critique of capitalism. Lomash Regmi implored us to read the Communist Manifesto; he said, it tries to adjust the vices of capitalism.

Naresh Koirala added that Marxism seems to be an attractive ideology, but he said he didn't know if one could adapt it to one's own personal life. He said that dehumanizing aspect of capitalistic society frustrates him, but he said he didn't think if applying Marxism to solve that problem would be the answer. He concluded that he tends to think democratic socialism, that promotes social equity and at the same time preserves democracy, that is somewhere in between Marxism and complete capitalism would be better. I thought he hit the nail right on its head—Marxism looks good in theory, but not in practice. I thought it was a nice note on which to end our meeting until next month.


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