Monday, June 24, 2013

Commentary: Marxist History vs Marxist Politics.

While reading Gordon Wright’s France in Modern Times, I found his views largely balanced and rational. Wright, not a Marxist himself, recognized that some of his Marxist colleagues had valid points to make. In his chapter entitled “The Republican Experiment, 1848-1852,” the author acknowledged that “some of Karl Marx’s original analysis” of class conflict, and the later analysis of “the modernized Marxist version are undoubtedly sound” (Wright, p. 135). It was an important, open-minded assertion from a temperamentally conservative historian who viewed revolution with suspicion.

The flaw with Marxism is not in its interpretation of class strata, but in its application in the realm of power politics. A Marxist view on history has an ability to accurately portray the rise of a working class and a bourgeoisie, along with the relationship of these newer classes to ones ranked above them in society and politics.

The mistake that some Marxist historians make is to see in this version a logical progression towards a Marxist Communist State that would liberate workers. Marx fundamentally misunderstood human nature, and the nature of governments, which caused Europeans to arrive at the systems of inequality he saw in his lifetime.

Marx argued that the workers should revolt, forcefully take power, then establish a Dictatorship of the Proletariat. The Proletarian Dictatorship would then, over time, give away decision-making power and economic power to soviets and collectives. This would gradually disintegrate the central authority and result in equality among all the people within the system. It is a grand idea, both optimistic and fair, but it cannot work.

Human nature is the obstacle. People become political leaders because they want power and influence. This is particularly true in a dictatorship, but I don’t see any current working system where this principle does not apply. For whatever good or ill motives, politicians wish to shape the direction of their nations. Politicians recognize that they can more easily attain their goals atop a central system that does not disintegrate. Naturally, individuals who seek power would rise to the top of a dictatorship. Likewise the bureaucrats, who are necessary to keep a system maintained, would be unlikely to undermine it through tactics that would result in decay. Thence, there has never been a Communist dictatorship which determined that the time was ripe to give away power and disappear.

On the contrary, governments, over a period of time, tend to become more organized and controlling around resources and people within their realms of influence. Unchecked governments get larger, not smaller. They develop more laws and protocols as it becomes apparent to the individuals managing such governments, that these measures are necessary to make a nation function according to their plans. Instead of providing increased freedom and flexibility to their citizens, state systems usually ask more of their populations in terms of forbearance: Higher taxes are levied to pay for centralized programs (i.e. education, infrastructure, military defense). Additional laws are created to control restive populations yearning to “lose their chains.” Various agencies are created to manage crises and fill needs. This results in complex systems of greater centralized control.

So a Marxist historian may have a reasonable interpretation of power relationships. But it’s an irrational leap from that understanding to the idea that a Marxist political leader has an effective model for a future society. Additionally, the mechanism for attaining this future society is a violent revolution which would cause immense suffering and death among the workers. To propose that workers violently smash an existing system, and replace it with one whose most recent experiments have shown anything but successful decentralization, is neither responsible nor humane.

Wright, Gordon. France in Modern Times. New York: W.W. Norton Company, Inc., 1981.

For a book review of France in Modern Times, see: