Karl Marx's work laid the foundation for the theories that redefined the left in the nineteenth century. He analyzed capitalism and concluded that while it was productive, the forces that drove it would lead to its inevitable collapse and replacement wi th communism. While Marx gave the world a great deal to think about and has influenced billions, his theories are inherently flawed. Some of the details have been addressed by modern Communists and Socialists, but the basic underlying assumptions of his work, when subjected to scrutiny, seem to conflict with reality. These assumptions lead me to question his conclusions regarding the forces that drive history, the self-consuming nature of capitalist society, and the viability of a communist society.
Marx's first set of assumptions regards the nature of man. He bases his materialist conception of human nature on that of B. Ludwig Fuerbach. Both men believed that a man is a product of his society. Every individual's beliefs, attitudes, and ideas a re absorbed at an early age by exposure to those of the world around him. This argument makes some sense but it ignores two things: the infinite and contradictory variety of experiences any society will produce and the evidence that man's behavior will a lways be guided by certain instincts.
Jeffery Dahmer and Martin Luther King were products of the same society. At some age, humans acquire the ability to learn and make their own decisions. At this point, we are free and can develop any way we choose. In a single day, a human being has bi llions of experiences, and he will learn from many of them. Man not only chooses which experiences to learn from, but what he learns. Which experiences influences us most and the degree of their influence is dependent upon our choices. Those choices are the only thing that separates the Dahmers and Martin Luther Kings of the world. However far into the childhood or the womb you take back our chain of experiences, there must be a starting point. That starting point is our subconscious and our base inst incts.
Man is a product of evolution. When Marx argued that there is no single nature of man because we're simply products of our society, he seemed to be overlooking the forces that made man what he is today. All living organisms possess a survival instinct, without which life could not exist. Humans are no exception; without a survival instinct there would be nothing to prevent us from starving ourselves out of negligence, hurling ourselves off of cliffs, or committing suicide when we're upset, any of whi ch would make the continuation of our species impossible. When we face danger or discomfort, human beings respond at a very basic level. Fear and desire are perfectly natural to us. We are separated from other living things, though, by our ability to reason. Nietzsche's most sensible argument was that conscious thought coupled with our survival instinct generates what he called a "will to power."
"Will to power" is the application of conscious thought to our survival instinct. It allows us to formulate strategies for survival and act upon them. No theory of human nature is plausible unless it has definitive survival value, and it cannot be inhe rent to man unless it's in our genes. If it's not known to be in our DNA, we can't prove that it exists in all men. Survival instinct and conscious thought can be proven, so the existence of a will to power is hard to ignore. Even Marx acknowledges the human will in "Alienated Labor," although it plays no role in his theory.
It is possible that there are other elements of human nature, not accounted for by the will to power, that we have not yet found in our DNA. Looking at human history, we can empirically observe a sense of compassion in men that helps us build the great societies that we have. By compassion, I refer to our general distaste for watching other human beings suffer--those that enjoy suffering cannot function in society, and so do not reproduce as often. Natural selection weeds out people who cannot live wit h others. Marx believed that man could acquire compassion and genuine concern for his comrades simply by making it important in post-capitalist society. This would not only take generations to instill in society, but it there is no reason to believe tha t any given individual would embrace it.
Because Marx's materialist view on humanity does not acknowledge our nature, his ideal reflects the same mistakes. If human nature can be changed, as he feels it can simply by changing our society that we live in, why should we live with the inequities of capitalism? The problem is that his assumptions are backed by no credible arguments. If one accepts the materialist conception of the world at face value, then most of what Marx wrote will be consistent. If one disagrees with the way Marx sees manki nd, however, and takes a more Nietzschean view, the Marxist ideal is a prescription for disaster. Due to our naturally distrustful, greedy, and ambitious natures, which precede capitalism, humans will not motivate themselves to do anything unless there is a reward. Their survival instinct won't let them. Competition isn't just good for men--it's necessary. If there were no competition for the things we need, we would just take them and copulate and nothing else. While the species might survive, it would not progress, and we can live better. Competing for resources forces us to establish our identities and do more than just sit there and exist. Our will to power drives us to accumulate food, money, and control in order to maximize our chances of survival and reproduction. As long as our nature remains unchangeable, We will never be able to adjust to life in a Marxist society.
Marx's economic theory is flawed as well, since it ignores the role of individuals and looks only at groups. The genius of a few individuals is all that has kept mankind raised from the life in nature that Hobbes called "brutish, nasty and short." Th e individuals responsible for these achievements were generally not rewarded until the advent of capitalism and is industrial revolution, which has increased our rates of progress exponentially. If these few contributors weren't punished for their differ ences , they spent their lives working humbly under the "patronage" of feudal lords. Capitalism encourages individuals to make their contributions and spread them throughout the world, raising all of mankind higher and higher from our natural, animal-lik e existence.
Marx utilizes the Hegelian dialectic in his attempt to prove that capitalism will inevitably collapse from the crisis of overproduction and the class conflict caused by enmiseration and alienation. Capitalism, he felt, would inevitably be replaced by s ocialism. Marx died waiting for this revolution to come about, and it never has. Even the Russian and Chinese revolutions cannot be viewed as results of capitalism collapsing, nor can they be seen as socialist states because they retain post-revolution ary class structures and are not radical democracies. While Rosa Luxemberg wrote that while the capitalism will inevitably consume itself and that socialism is a possible option, I go so far as to question the Marxist logic that capitalism is doomed to c ollapse.
The capitalist that Marx evokes in his work is only a caricature of the behavior of capitalists and does not reflect reality as history has shown it to be. Successful capitalists are smart enough to plan for long-term profits in addition to the short-te rm. Like anyone else, they will make mistakes and learn from them. There is a Darwinian process to capitalism, and those unable to account for factors beyond their short-term profits will be replaced by those who can. How many buffalo-fur coat business es do we see? Despite the various crises of the past century, capitalism thrives and shows no major signs of strain. Despite Marx's predictions, capitalism is perfectly capable of inventing new markets to replace saturated ones. If stereo manufacturers can no longer find a market for their goods, they close down and invest their money in a new industry, such as cable television or computers. The crisis of overproduction will never happen because capitalism is flexible and will sacrifice it's short te rm goals to achieve its long term ones.
Marx also never took into account the effect government regulation and welfare would have on the capitalist system. Any business naturally desires monopolies over its markets, but when that is achieved, the consequences are disastrous. The final stage of capitalism, in which trusts and monopolies prevent the economy from running naturally and efficiently, has been prevented by legislation and unionization. None of the problems Marx predicted are unavoidable as long as we do not sink to the level of sh arks.
Marx's alternative to our economic system is dependent on man's ability to work for others without reward. I doubt that man is capable of doing so. If one is to receive the same reward whether one is unemployed, a housewife, retired, a factory worker, or an athlete, who will want to work in the factory? Who would want to be the garbage collector or the ditch-digger? If there is no division of labor and work is not done by specialized professionals, production will fall. Most work is not fun, regardl ess of whether it is for oneself or if it is for an employer who oppresses you. The result of less specialization and fewer working hours is a decline in production. In China, production on collective farms was ridiculously low until the peasants were g iven a parcel of land with which they could raise their own crops. These parcels produced far more than the collective farms themselves, and eventually the collective farms were broken up and leased to families. Production improved, but it is still only 60% of what it could be. The peasants are still too afraid of the government to make the effort to improve the terracing and irrigation. Production can only fall so far before people begin to starve to death. Production is simply not something that an yone should interfere with.
The final assumption Marx makes is that economics are the only force driving history. I feel that this is almost as over simplistic as his labor theory of value. I see a second, subtle, driving force in the struggle between individualism and civilizati on. Men desire the freedom to do as they please, while the existence of civilization both extends his reach and slaps his wrists. In Freud's terms, I would call this the conflict of our collective superegos against our collective ids. Individuals need a bit of "barbarism" to explore themselves and establish our identity. To an extant this requires us to hurt one another, but it is important. If we fail to express ourselves, we are nothing more than cogs in the machine of society. Conflict, competiti on, responsibility, and hope are all parts of the human experience. Establishing identity is impossible without them, and Marx doesn't address the issue of self-realization.
If the community is more important than the individual, as Marx assumes, then we are nothing more than gamete factories existing only to create the next generation. I completely reject this line of thought because I insist that my desires are important and I will spend my short life doing the things that I want to do, regardless of why I want to do those things or who may be offended. I can contribute more to society than my sperm, and I want my children to live better than I have lived. I will reject any system that denies me the right to provide for my children simply because they haven't "earned" it. I have no reason to trust my own welfare or that of my children to anyone but myself and those who have earned my trust. I will continue to make my own decisions, acquire property, protect myself and my loved ones, and try to gain power over the world around me because that is my nature, that is what makes me a human being, regardless of what economic system we live in. Like any other man, I will re spond to any attempt to "redistribute" my property with force. I don't care where it's going, who needs it more, or whether my kids will be taken care of--I will take care of my responsibilities, and other people will take care of their own.
Capitalism will not collapse on its own, but will continue until we have unlimited resources and capitalism is no longer needed. Throughout history, mankind has advanced and progressed and for the past hundred years we've been on a hyperbolic curve head ing up. Eventually, be it in a thousand years or in a million, we will achieve godhood: immortality, omnipotence, and omniscience. Nothing will short of extinction will prevent us from this. We will not simply get halfway there and stop. We are not in herently flawed and we have no limit to our potential. It's only a matter of time until we fulfill it. Progress we make now puts us that much closer to those final goals, and the sooner the better. No system but capitalism can achieve this kind of prog ress at our present rate. We are probably only a generation or two from unlocking the secrets of the aging process and expanding the human life span. We can only imagine what our descendants will be like a million years from now. They probably won't be human as we define ourselves now; they won't need to have a will to power. Only in the absence of need can a utopian system function. The closer we come to reaching godhood, the more Socialist we will become; the way of life described in Star Trek: The Next Generation is made feasible by the invention of replicators capable of making food and equipment from worthless material. When we are all-powerful, we will presumably approach Marxism and Anarchism.
Marx was fairly consistent, but his assumptions are highly questionable. His most valuable contribution was his analysis of capitalism and his presentation of its dangers. He wrote to organize workers and help them end their oppression, but capitalism is probably their best hope for a better life and a better life for their children. Unless a society is so prosperous it can afford to do no work, a socialist revolution will result only in violence and what Trotsky called "the redistribution of poverty. " A society needs a healthy economy to support itself, let alone advance, and due to human nature, that requires capitalism.
Card, Orson Scott. Xenocide. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 1991.
Heilbroner, Robert L. Marxism: For and Against. New York: Norton, 1980.
Kort, Michael G. Marxism in Power. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook, 1993.
Marx, Karl. The Communist Manifesto, with introduction by Francis B. Randall Stefan T. Possony. Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1954.
Marx, Karl. The Essential Writings of Karl Marx. Ed. David Caute. New York: Macmillan, 1967.
The Challenge of Marxism. Ed. Brian Simon. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1963.
---Will Serwetman May 1, 1997
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