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Correcting Common U.S. Misconceptions about Marx

Barbara Goodrich, Ph.D.


Below are a series of comments and questions I've heard over the years. They range from the very intelligent to the silly, as you'll see. I'm throwing 'em all in!

1. But the Cold War is over. The Soviet Union crumbled back into its constituent nations (Russia, Croatia, etc.) in 1989. And China is becoming more capitalist.

Doesn't this prove that Communism doesn't work?

1. Marx never wanted governments like those of the Soviet Union or of Maoist China. He attacked the then-hypothetical notion of such governments as nothing more than "state capitalism." (The Soviet Union wasn't Marxist; it just became the world's largest "Company Town.") It's just like the worst of industrial capitalism, but with the state as owner, as "entrepreneur," as robber baron, rather than "private individuals." That's no better -- and maybe worse.

China is a pretty clear example of "state capitalism" in many respects. Few political or human rights are acknowledged, but people are becoming more "free" to pursue profit.

(More details: 20th century Communism was certainly very much anti-individualistic, because of several historical accidents. Lenin and his companions expected that Marx's prophecies would come true, that the Russian revolution would spill over into Germany and the rest of Europe. When it didn't, he was faced with the unexpected (at least by Marxists) situation of having a "post-capitalist" nation (and Marx had thought that it wouldn't be just a nation, but international!) based on a pre-industrial economy! Russia really did still work along the lines of a medieval feudal country. For almost all the population, the European Enlightenment and individualism had never arrived in Russia! So it was especially easy for the new Soviet country to devolve back into the old tyrannical hierarchy that everyone was familiar with, with the Party ruling rather than the Czar and his bureaucrats. Something similar happened in China. With its revolution, the intellectuals faced a choice, either to adopt a U.S.-style localized pragmatic approach, or to adopt the Soviet-style hierarchy. They chose the latter since it was so much more familiar, i.e. really just the pattern of the old imperial hierarchy. In both cases, there was no culture of individualism to begin with (as there was in western Europe), so the new well-meaning government slid tragically into the old oppressive behaviors and institutions.)

2. But still, the notion of an economy not run on human selfishness -- that's pretty naive, pretty utopian!

2. There are many examples of other economies that have worked: The Jesuit-built state of Guarani people in Uruguay in the 1600 and 1700s was one of the most dramatically successful. (It was destroyed violently by external forces, primarily the slave trade. See Philip Caraman's The Lost Paradise.) Based on a new school for working-class boys establsiehd in the 1940s, the town of Mondragon in the Basque region of Spain has embraced a socialist movement htat has established numerous cooperatives, including a people's bank, a technical college, a business school, a cooperative for research and development, a consumer cooperative, and many cooperative farms and factories. (See David Schweickart's Against Capitalism, a rigorous book by the mathematician-philosopher that belies its over-dramatic title.) Funny that we never hear about these. There are many other examples, too, but perhaps the key point to remember is that before Adam Smith, economies weren't expected to run on selfishness. People from other periods and other societies would regard such a claim as bizarre.

3. I reject everything about Marx because I value the individual person. He doesn't have room for the individual person.

3. Marx was not opposed to the value of the individual person. This is probably the worst common misconception about him. In fact, many socialists are socialists because they have concluded that socialism is the best way to encourage individual liberty and genuinely free thought, etc.. After all, big business, e.g. multinational corporations, is as much of a threat to individual freedom as big government. (And with a representative government, at least, you can have some say in its decisions. You have no say whatsoever in what IBM or GM etc. decides to do, unless you are lucky enough to be one of the tiny handful of enormously wealthy shareholders.)

4. I've read that Marx was a "materialist." I think we should have more spiritual values, myself.

(If this comment sounds too silly, please know that I've heard it many times!)

4. Marx was not a materialist in the sense of mindless pursuit of material wealth. This is precisely the sort of shallow (and only apparently "free" ) life that he scorned. He thought people only want that because they've been manipulated, socialized, into wanting it, and taught to believe that nothing else is possible.

5. Marx was an atheist, though.

5. Yes. And he was a "materialist" in the sense of not believing in a spirit world apart from the world we see, touch, etc.. On the other hand, Marx wasn't as much of a scoffer at religion as he's usually portrayed as being. The famous quote about religion being "the opium of the masses" is usually misunderstood. At that time, opium was the only really effective sort of pain-killer.

6. Marx meant well, but he was unrealistic. He was convinced that people are innately good. They're just not.   Capitalism acknowledges this, and even makes use of it, using greed as a driving force.

6. Marx did not have any unrealistically positive view of human nature as saintly. He regarded it, like Nietzsche did, as rather fluid, as capable of great kindness, generosity, creativity, humor, and such, and of great cruelty, greed, vindictiveness, envy, stultification, etc. (And anthropology, social psychology, sociology all bear him out in this.)    It’s because humans are so capable of mistreating each other that we dare not let a few people with capital have such immense control over innocent human lives. 

7. Well, what else can you expect from a Russian like Marx?

7. Marx was a German, not a Russian. He did, however, live in London for many years, after he was forced to flee the European continent. The slums of London, the mistreated workers described by Dickens, Marx saw first hand; this is the source of much of his anger.

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