Is The Communist Manifesto Misunderstood?

 

In college, I was surprised when an honest and charitable philosophy professor I very much admired claimed that Karl Marx is misunderstood. Marx would not have supported communism as we have known it, he told me. What was seen at the hands of Lenin, Stalin, Mao, or even Gorbachev was not communism as Marx envisioned it.

Next week, Ubisoft will release the next grand episode in its popular series of historical playgrounds, Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate. Because the overarching theme of the Assassin’s Creed series (about as philosophically consistent as Star Wars) is a conflict between the freedom-loving Assassins and conspiring Templar oppressors, the game’s setting in Victorian London will emphasize struggles for power among the classes of industrial British society.

Is my professor’s claim about Karl Marx and his Communist Manifesto just the same dangerous delusion that has made forced redistribution of property and flattening of culture the foundation of the Democratic Party? Or were the published ideas of Marx distorted and misapplied by people who wanted communism to be something fundamentally different?

What should students learn about Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and the The Communist Manifesto? Is that the true origin of communism?

There are 93 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. Frank Soto Contributor
    Frank Soto
    @FrankSoto

    This is a long topic.

    It is true that Marx never directly says what the post revolution world will exactly look like. So it isn’t unreasonable for someone to claim he pictured something different than 20th century communism.

    However, I would suggest that his critiques of capitalism reveal a great deal about what his preferred economic system would look like.

    When Marx talks about specific ways in which capitalism is wasteful of resources, he is telling us that his system would not be wasteful in those ways.

    When taken all together, he lays out an economy that must be every bit as authoritarian as real world communism turned out to be.

    • #1
  2. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    My god that trailer was awful, pure propaganda.

    • #2
  3. Don Tillman Member
    Don Tillman
    @DonTillman

    Aaron Miller:In college, I was surprised when an honest and charitable philosophy professor I very much admired claimed that Karl Marx is misunderstood. Marx would not have supported communism as we have known it, I was told. What was seen at the hands of Lenin, Stalin, or even Gorbachev was not communism as Marx envisioned it.

    ‘Doesn’t matter.  If it is an ideology that is easily corruptible, well then, that’s a very real and significant consequence of the ideology.

    Fundamental to Marxism is that there are no checks and balances, and no mechanism of corrective feedback.

    What should students learn about Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and the The Communist Manifesto? Is that the true origin of communism?

    It’s definitive.  And readily available for all to enjoy.  Here’s a complete version in pdf format for free download from the folks at marxists.org.

    Marx: The Communist Manifesto

    • #3
  4. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    Jamie Lockett:My god that trailer was awful, pure propaganda.

    Every Assassin’s Creed game has opened with the disclaimer, “This game is developed by a multicultural team of various faiths and beliefs.” Of course, that’s lawyer/PR speech for, “We’re about to take sides.”

    But I enjoy the games the same way I enjoy action movies and philosophically barren mystery thrillers.

    • #4
  5. Manfred Arcane Inactive
    Manfred Arcane
    @ManfredArcane

    Jamie Lockett:My god that trailer was awful, pure propaganda.

    But it is the coolest CGI propaganda I have ever seen.  And they have made the whole game look like this?  Not possible!  Thanks for the post.

    • #5
  6. John Penfold Member
    John Penfold
    @IWalton

    It was totalitarian and reactionary from the beginning, at its core, in its purpose and there is no way to make it otherwise.

    • #6
  7. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    Aaron Miller:

    Jamie Lockett:My god that trailer was awful, pure propaganda.

    Every Assassin’s Creed game has opened with the disclaimer, “This game is developed by a multicultural team of various faiths and beliefs.” Of course, that’s lawyer/PR speech for, “We’re about to take sides.”

    But I enjoy the games the same I enjoy action movies and philosophically barren mystery thrillers.

    I liked the Pirate one. The others, meh.

    • #7
  8. Jordan Wiegand Inactive
    Jordan Wiegand
    @Jordan

    I honestly believe that the professor is sort of onto something.

    Marx had not entirely bad ideas.

    But redeeming Marx is almost impossible, and you’re better off starting from scratch.  There are a lot of fatalistic problems in his corpus.  Even Marxists admit that there were fatal flaws in his thought, and later thinkers had to basically rewrite Marxism.

    But as for Assassins Creed, if they had some balls they’d do a game about the Reconquista.  Instead they make sure that the Christians, usually the Catholic Church, who are always the bad guys.  Such brave, diverse narrative it is to always have Catholic/Christian bad guys.

    I do like those games a lot, for some reason.

    • #8
  9. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    Manfred Arcane:

    Jamie Lockett:My god that trailer was awful, pure propaganda.

    But it is the coolest CGI propaganda I have ever seen. And they have made the whole game look like this? Not possible! Thanks for the post.

    That’s what the actual gameplay looks like.

    And yes, AC: Black Flag (the pirate one) was the best.

    The last game was set in Paris during the French Revolution. The ending (SPOILERS) offers the developers’ own interpretation of the creed of the Assassins (“Everything is true. Nothing is forbidden.”). Basically, it argues against firm belief in anything and that people can only be judged by themselves. In other words, it’s the sort of dishonest dribble one would expect from effete tyrants Obama and Pelosi.

    • #9
  10. Jordan Wiegand Inactive
    Jordan Wiegand
    @Jordan

    That’s what the actual gameplay looks like.

    And yes, AC: Black Flag (the pirate one) was the best.

    The last game was set in Paris during the French Revolution.

    Arno was a punk.  Worst assassin ever.  At least Ezio had some class, literally, as in he was an aristocrat.

    I rather liked Rogue, since you get to play as the good guys (Templars).  The series does more or less give up the ghost in Black Flag that the first few games are Assassin propaganda, and the better description is that the Templars and Assassins are two sides of a coin, and the Assassins are mostly hypocritical idiots.  Although, this reveal might be unintended.

    • #10
  11. BrentB67 Inactive
    BrentB67
    @BrentB67

    Aaron, you and Frank clearly have more to say about this, but I think your professor’s position believable.

    A similar statement can be made about Keynes. Politicians of both parties invoke Keynes early and often to justify more government and deficits.

    What Keynes wrote and what is politically implemented are different. I think Keynes has been exploited by politicians for their own ends. It isn’t hard to imagine something similar happening to Marx writings and ideology.

    • #11
  12. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    To bring this conversation back around the communism…

    What exactly did The Communist Manifesto introduce or popularize?

    Class warfare hardly seems a novel idea. The French had already slaughtered an entire aristocracy in hatred and naive faith that another aristocracy would not rise to replace it. Tensions between rulers and peasants are as old as history.

    Did communism merely apply this material frame of reference to the new “middle class” which resulted from industrialism? Did it essentially argue that “peasants” are no longer too weak to impose their wills on politicians and business owners?

    • #12
  13. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    BrentB67:Aaron, you and Frank clearly have more to say about this, but I think your professor’s position believable.

    A similar statement can be made about Keynes. Politicians of both parties invoke Keynes early and often to justify more government and deficits.

    What Keynes wrote and what is politically implemented are different. I think Keynes has been exploited by politicians for their own ends. It isn’t hard to imagine something similar happening to Marx writings and ideology.

    People always forget that Keynes advocated government austerity during boom cycles to fund the pump priming during downturns.

    • #13
  14. Eric Wallace Inactive
    Eric Wallace
    @EricWallace

    Does this mean we have to read Das Kapital to understand Marx? Because I really, really don’t want to.

    das kapital bear

    • #14
  15. Jordan Wiegand Inactive
    Jordan Wiegand
    @Jordan

    Aaron Miller:To bring this conversation back around the communism…

    What exactly did The Communist Manifesto introduce or popularize?

    Class warfare hardly seems a novel idea. The French had already slaughtered an entire aristocracy in hatred and naive faith that another aristocracy would not rise to replace it. Tensions between rulers and peasants are as old as history.

    Did communism merely apply this material frame of reference to the new “middle class” which resulted from industrialism? Did it essentially argue that “peasants” are no longer too weak to impose their wills on politicians and business owners?

    I think it brought things back to materialism.  Which isn’t totally wrong, but the problem with Marxism is that it is totally materialism.  Human activity takes place in mostly material terms, so this isn’t entirely inappropriate to have that focus, but we know better now, and the materialists are certainly wrong.

    Also the middle class didn’t spring up in the Industrial period.  Wealthy merchants and a kind of “business class” had been around for a very long time.  The Industrial Revolution, however, allowed middle class status to most who wanted it bad enough though, and this was a problem for Marx.

    • #15
  16. Fricosis Guy Listener
    Fricosis Guy
    @FricosisGuy

    The Communist Manifesto is quite clear about how communism will happen.

    The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.

    Of course, in the beginning, this cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production; by means of measures, therefore, which appear economically insufficient and untenable, but which, in the course of the movement, outstrip themselves, necessitate further inroads upon the old social order, and are unavoidable as a means of entirely revolutionising the mode of production.

    These measures will, of course, be different in different countries.

    Nevertheless, in most advanced countries, the following will be pretty generally applicable.

    1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.
    2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.
    3. Abolition of all rights of inheritance.
    4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.
    5. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.
    6. Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State.
    7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.
    8. Equal liability of all to work. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.
    9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country.
    10. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, &c, &c.

    Das Kapital was subtler than this in its analysis, and Volume I came nearly 20 years later. Marxists claim that The Communist Manifesto is indeed a call to action, but it’s from a less-mature Marx and Engels. This gap and the theoretical focus of Das Kapital give this claim cover.

    However, Marx and Engels reissued the pamphlet to immense acclaim after the 1871 Commune. They use the preface of their later Russian edition to speculate that Russia would, perhaps, not have to go through capitalism to reach communism. Which is, of course, what Lenin and Gang tried. Leninism fills in the political action gaps between the two works.

    • #16
  17. Don Tillman Member
    Don Tillman
    @DonTillman

    Eric Wallace:Does this mean we have to read Das Kapital to understand Marx? Because I really, really don’t want to.

    The folks at marxists.org have a free downloadable pdf version of Das Kapital here.

    I recommend reading a single page chosen at random, and then walking away, slowly, backwards.

    Alternatively there’s a podcast I listen to called Marxism Today which provides insight about how two modern functioning Marxists in Madison, Wisconsin think about things.  It’s sad and unintentionally humorous at the same time, if you are the sort who is able to find humor in utter cluelessness.

    • #17
  18. BrentB67 Inactive
    BrentB67
    @BrentB67

    Jamie Lockett:

    BrentB67:Aaron, you and Frank clearly have more to say about this, but I think your professor’s position believable.

    A similar statement can be made about Keynes. Politicians of both parties invoke Keynes early and often to justify more government and deficits.

    What Keynes wrote and what is politically implemented are different. I think Keynes has been exploited by politicians for their own ends. It isn’t hard to imagine something similar happening to Marx writings and ideology.

    People always forget that Keynes advocated government austerity during boom cycles to fund the pump priming during downturns.

    You are absolutely correct. That part conveniently gets left out.

    I am a bit rusty on my Keynes history since I dismissed him early on, but I think what is attributed as Keynesian economics was just a paper he wrote or something like that and wasn’t originally published as some kind of progressive intervention manifesto.

    • #18
  19. Fricosis Guy Listener
    Fricosis Guy
    @FricosisGuy

    Don Tillman:

    Eric Wallace:Does this mean we have to read Das Kapital to understand Marx? Because I really, really don’t want to.

    The folks at marxists.org have a free downloadable pdf version of Das Kapital here.

    I recommend reading a single page chosen at random, and then walking away, slowly, backwards.

    Alternatively there’s a podcast I listen to called Marxism Today which provides insight about how two modern functioning Marxists in Madison, Wisconsin think about things. It’s sad and unintentionally humorous at the same time, if you are the sort who is able to find humor in utter cluelessness.

    Marx is the Ur-incomprehensible German scholar.

    • #19
  20. RightAngles Member
    RightAngles
    @RightAngles

    Aaron Miller:What should students learn about Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, and the The Communist Manifesto? Is that the true origin of communism?

    They should learn that Marx came up with this ideology at a time when there was an aristocracy, a real “ruling class,” into which one usually had to be born. They should be taught that they live in a country and in a time when anyone can achieve anything if the government would only get out of their way and stop “helping.” And they should be taught that communism and all its forms are nothing but a tired, warmed-0ver canard from the dustbin of history, and never works outside of a piece of paper in a faculty lounge

    • #20
  21. Spicy Food Hiccups Inactive
    Spicy Food Hiccups
    @SpicyFoodHiccups

    Aaron Miller: Basically, it argues against firm belief in anything and that people can only be judged by themselves.

    We must be certain of our uncertainty!  All truth is relative, except this one!

    It gets tiresome, doesn’t it?

    • #21
  22. Could be Anyone Member
    Could be Anyone
    @CouldBeAnyone

    Marx is very much misunderstood by us and the left. Not exactly in the stereotypical way though. I have read the Communist Manifesto roughly 3 times in the last 4 years (so I am somewhat fresh).

    People misunderstand both the timeline of Marx’s communism and socialism. Most of the time people apply socialism to communism and our Cold War rhetoric also muddies the water. In Marx’s view (and words in the manifesto) he claims that Socialism (government ownership and/or direction of all means of production, capital) is necessary to achieve communism and that socialism requires capitalism.

    Capitalism provides the base structure of mass production that eliminates scarcity (we become so darn efficient), but the Bourgeoisie are so allegedly greedy that they don’t give the Proletariat their “fair share”. Socialism will end this by the proletariat absorbing all other classes and dominating the state and imposing government control of all means of production and distrinbution. This goes back to his Hegelian dialectic of how the world operates (class oppression by at least 2 classes; oppresser and oppressed). This dialectic will end according to Marx and beget Communism.

    Socialism will then stand as long as it takes for the state to habituate every member of the proletariat (some members will be former Bourgeoisie and other classes, who are or maybe still selfish) to become “unselfish” and/or complete the perfection of production that begun under Capitalism. Then Communism will gradually result.

    -continued-

    • #22
  23. Could be Anyone Member
    Could be Anyone
    @CouldBeAnyone

    -continued-

    This Communism will be a post scarcity world. As Marx said “From each according to his ability [input=output; or scarcity] to each according to his need [infinite output at the least; no scarcity]” will be what happens. With there being infinite everything, there will be no need to steal from anyone (you have all you need and more) and if it does happen there is infinite everything being produced all the time so that you can always have more.

    There will be no need to murder or commit any crime in Marx’s mind under such a system and with “fairness” mandated under Socialism everyone will become habituated to “doing things for the common good” all the time; property will lose all meaning with post scarcity. Thus we have Utopia, we have all we could ever want and more and there is no reason to fight and thus the government eventually dissipates.

    This little theory of course runs against reality and economic theory though and so I would argue it should be discarded. It also means that those we call Communist are not communist but socialists. This is one of the reasons why the Nazis hated the Soviets so much. Marx did not want socialism (where everyone has to have it equal), but Communism. The Nazis thought Socialism was good in and of itself (better property owned by all than no property at all) against the Communist/Marx/Soviet vision.

    -continued-

    • #23
  24. Could be Anyone Member
    Could be Anyone
    @CouldBeAnyone

    -continued-

    This is why I think many people misunderstand Communism. They apply Socialism to Communism when technically Communism has never happened and even then there is gaps in what Marx says to boot. So when the Left says Communism was not applied correctly, I would respond it was not applied at all.

    Even if they think this protects them from the sins of what we call “communists” it does not. Because Socialism (what Nazi Germany, China, and the USSR actually practiced) does not care for the individual at all. Remember that at the core of the theory is the belief that the “common good” or utilitarian good is above the free will of every individual.

    They categorically think that free will is not a good thing or something that should not be allowed. This is why they think the state (collective) is justified in using any means necessary to compel people to do whatever the state defines as “right/good”, in our case we hear about fairness and equality of results.

    And that goes back to the core of the theory. Its all about the results. Our humanity (rationality; what differs us from other animals) does not matter to them at all, only the results of what they want does. This collective has dozens of names. Proletariat, 99%, working class, etc. are all different names to create some illusory perfect class that is a victim but also the majority at the same time and what they want is “good”.

    -continued-

    • #24
  25. Lazy_Millennial Inactive
    Lazy_Millennial
    @LazyMillennial

    National Review did a very interesting profile of Marx and Engels recently, detailing their life stories.  I wish I could find it to share… Basically Marx was a 19th-century hipster: wannabe revolutionary, lived off his parent’s income and friend’s generosity, “wrote” his screeds for tiny audiences, wasn’t really known in his own time.

    I highly recommend reading “The Communist Manifesto”. It’s short and easy to understand, and as a general rule of thumb influential authors are often more easy to read than their critics and historians; hard to be seen as “influential” in history when nobody can understand your stuff.

    • #25
  26. Could be Anyone Member
    Could be Anyone
    @CouldBeAnyone

    -continued-

    So in effect the Soviets, Nazis, and Chinese (French Revolution also) have applied leftist theory each time and it failed each time and got at least one hundred million humans (some guilty perhaps but many were innocent) killed/murdered.

    But as to the whole surprise about Assassin’s Creed doing this leftist stint, did you not play the French Revolution Assassin’s Creed? They have been shilling for the whole leftist collective argument for a while now. The Darwin part in the trailer is funny though because for those that have played the game’s previous installments would remember that the game explains how humans were created (and its not evolution) and the game also explains that the Templar’s used one of the pieces of Eden to manipulate bones found so as to make it look like evolution was the cause of humanity. So why is Darwin even in the game?

    This doesn’t even cover the fact that Victoria gets ton of credit for doing nothing; after all it was Parliament that passed laws and governed the nation at the time for the most part so she did nothing. Then again there is that PC warning that they are just creating fiction. However, don’t you degrade Star Wars by comparing it to Assassin’s Creed.

    • #26
  27. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    I’ve read the manifesto twice, but not recently (and I have a terrible memory for details).

    Could_Be_Anyone, would it be fair to summarize communism as the impossible dream which socialists aspire to? Even if Marx’s communism required property rights to be eliminated only until socialism instituted habits of selfless sharing, the ideal of “a world without want” seems the same.

    It sounds like Marx was a hapless fool who later became a dangerous fool.

    • #27
  28. Sabrdance Member
    Sabrdance
    @Sabrdance

    1.) Wow, that’s a dull trailer.

    2.) AC2 (and Revelations and Brotherhood) remains my favorite, but yeah -the Pirate one is good, too.

    3.) And yes, after AC3 it’s pretty clear that the Templars and Assassins aren’t so different, and if we must choose one, an honest tyrant has certain things to recommend him  (but really, they’re both wrong).

    4.) On Communism it seems to me “Alienation of Labor” is the key work that combines everything together.  The goal of communism is to re-import meaning into life by putting capital in the hands of everyone.  Then, we would make what we want, do what we want, and live how we want by our own choice rather than by the necessity of hunger or class.  It is, in a sense, existentialist.

    Capitalism creates the wealth of the state of nature and puts it in the hands of everyone so that, as when we were in the state of nature, when we wish to eat, we go to the tree, pluck, and eat.  When we wish to sleep, we make the bed, and sleep.  There is no need for more property that what we are presently using because there is so much.

    The tragedy of Marxism is that he gave up this naturalist utopia (which was impossible, but basically harmless) for the revolutionary proletariat which is even less likely to produce paradise, and far from harmless.

    • #28
  29. Fricosis Guy Listener
    Fricosis Guy
    @FricosisGuy

    Sabrdance:The tragedy of Marxism is that he gave up this naturalist utopia (which was impossible, but basically harmless) for the revolutionary proletariat which is even less likely to produce paradise, and far from harmless.

    Gotta immamentize that eschaton.

    • #29
  30. Could be Anyone Member
    Could be Anyone
    @CouldBeAnyone

    Aaron Miller:I’ve read the manifesto twice, but not recently (and I have a terrible memory for details).

    Could_Be_Anyone, would it be fair to summarize communism as the impossible dream which socialists aspire to? Even if Marx’s communism required property rights to be eliminated only until socialism instituted habits of selfless sharing, the ideal of “a world without want” seems the same.

    It sounds like Marx was a hapless fool who later became a dangerous fool.

    Socialism and Communism are technically two different things. Socialism is a world with state dominance while communism is a post government and post scarcity world. Socialism had long existed prior to Marx and Marx simply applied it as the transition stage between Capitalism and Communism.

    The difference is the end goal of what the world will be. Communism sees infinite production with no government and no property. Socialism sees a world of limited production with a large and pervasive government with property (its owned by all). This is why the Nationalist Socialists did not like the Soviets.

    Socialism at its core sees the concept of property as necessary, but it also sees equal ownership as necessary too (its owned through the state). Communism does not see it the same.

    The reason why there is a confusion is because the Left uses the two words interchangeablely and that confuses those arguing against it. I do agree that Marx was a fool and in particular, a lethal one at that.

    • #30

Comments are closed because this post is more than six months old. Please write a new post if you would like to continue this conversation.