Karl Marx claimed that economics determines history and that one’s economic class determines one’s ideas. Ironically, he proved himself wrong, in a deadly way. The twelve-thousand-word propaganda tract written by Marx in 1848 and known as The Communist Manifesto was a concise summary of many ideas that Marx himself created. These ideas proceeded to shape the history of the twentieth century, including its political and economic history, as well as the ideas of most twentieth-century intellectuals. This history included approximately one hundred million innocent citizens slaughtered by Marxist governments, millions more enslaved by Marxist governments, international conflicts on an unprecedented scale, and an intellectual tradition that, at present, is thoroughly entrenched in the humanities and is in the process of destroying the ideas and ideals of the West. There have probably never been fewer words that have caused more misery and destruction than those written by Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto.
Contrary to Marx’s professed beliefs, ideas have consequences. The source of the misery and destruction caused by Marx’s ideas is the fact that they are fundamentally false, false philosophically, economically and historically. In the instance of Marx’s ideas, the true causal chain extends from his false metaphysical, epistemological and ethical premises, to his politics and economics, to the bloody history of the twentieth century.
Marx’s Epistemology And Its Consequences
The epistemological claim that Marx makes early in the Manifesto is the advocacy of a form of intellectual determinism and moral relativism that denies both free will and objectivity by claiming that the truth and falsehood of one’s ideas bear no objective status and are determined by, and their truth relative to, one’s economic class. He says, “Your very ideas are but the outgrowth of the conditions of your bourgeois production and bourgeois property… don’t wrangle with us so long as you apply… the standard of your bourgeois notions of freedom, culture, law, etc.” And: “Law, morality and religion are… bourgeois prejudices, behind which lurk in ambush just as many bourgeois interests.”
What Marx is claiming here is that the entire Western philosophic and intellectual tradition, as it had developed up until his time (and on which, ironically, he was entirely dependent for his own ideas), is a subjective rationalization used to justify the “exploitation” of the workers by the capitalists, a tradition consisting of ideas which are neither consciously chosen by the capitalists, nor have any basis in fact.
Of course, if the entire body of Western thought is a subjective rationalization, there can be no such thing as objectivity, or any defense, based on such a concept, of the institutions of a civilization founded upon it. Having dismissed freedom, culture, morality and law as subjective myths, Marx then feels free to advocate their outright destruction by the totalitarian State, which he refers to as the “Communistic modes of… appropriating intellectual products,” resulting in the elimination of “class culture.”
Following Marx’s theory, within a few months of coming to power, Vladimir Lenin quickly eliminated the “bourgeois notion” of law in practice by setting up a secret police, the Cheka, which controlled secret courts authorized to fix penalties in accordance with “the dictates of the revolutionary conscience” (i.e. without reference to written law or objective standards). The killing of collective groups of people, linked by class status or profession (such as homeowners and high school teachers) immediately followed. The “bourgeois notion” of freedom was eliminated by throwing those who were not murdered outright into concentration and labor camps. Consistent with Marxian subjectivism, objections to slave labor were brushed aside by Lenin’s associate Karl Radek as “the bourgeois prejudice of ‘freedom of labor.'”
Hitler, of course, would soon apply the same methods on a larger scale in his National Socialism, adapting the Soviet model to his own ideology by substituting the concept of race for class. Thus, in Marx’s epistemological ideas, began the intellectual subjectivism, the moral relativism, and the mass murder of the totalitarian governments in the twentieth century.
The “Communistic modes of… appropriating intellectual products” in order to eliminate “class culture” were made a reality both in the Soviet Union and Red China, whose leaders, Stalin and Mao, systematically smashed Western culture in “Cultural Revolutions” in 1946 and 1966-67 respectively. During these intellectual purges, Western-influenced “bourgeois” scientists and artists were killed or imprisoned, while their works were destroyed.
Marx’s non-objectivity is intricately linked to his policy of equivocation and conceptual redefinition. If there are no objective standards of knowledge, there can be no fixed, objective definitions of concepts. In fact, under the guise of using “dialectic logic,” Marx and his followers usually give key concepts the exact opposite of their objective meaning. Thus the term “slavery,” which in reality is a state maintained by the slave master by the threat of physical coercion against the slave, is used by Marx to describe the condition of the workers, who in fact are persuaded to work by the exact opposite of coercion, that is, by the offering of a positive reward, i.e. money. (A leading Marxist theorist of early Soviet Russia, Nikolai Bukharin, described capitalist labor as “the enslavement of the working class,” and Soviet concentration camps as “the self-organization of the working class.”) Similarly, for Marx, voluntary trade for mutual gain represents the “exploitation” of one party by another; whereas literal expropriation, i.e. robbery, the forced, unrewarded transfer of wealth from one party to another, has come, under Marx’s influence, to represent “social justice.” By extension of the same technique, twentieth-century Marxists have distinguished between Capitalist “imperialism” (free trade between independent nations) vs. “wars of liberation” (Communist-initiated wars of aggression leading to government “expropriation” (robbery) of private property and the enslavement of the population), as well as many other Orwellian slight-of-hands. (Nikita Khrushchev declared in 1961: “The Communist victory will take place through… ‘national liberation wars’ in Africa, Asia and Latin America, the ‘centers of revolutionary struggle against imperialism.'”)
The shortest outline of an answer to Marx’s epistemological falsehoods is the following: that both correctly formed concepts and true propositions made up of such concepts are objective, i.e. correspond to the facts of an absolute and knowable reality; that people possess free will, i.e. are able to choose to expend the effort to think logically or not, and therefore they possess the ability to arrive at truth by an effort which is volitionally exercised; that the ideas at which people arrive determine their actions (including their economic actions) and therefore their history; and that the application in action of true ideas has pro-life consequences, the application of false ideas, anti-life consequences.
Marx’s Ethics And Its Consequences
The underlying false ethical assumption which permeates the Manifesto and underlies Marx’s political and economic ideas is that self-interest is intrinsically evil and corrupt. Marx speaks of the “naked self-interest,” and “egotistical calculation” of the Bourgeoisie, who, by offering payment in exchange for the services of physicians, lawyers and poets, “stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honored and looked up to with reverent awe.”
What, in essence, is implied by such a statement? That because an instance of trade is advantageous to one or (in fact) both parties, because it appeals to their “naked self-interest,” by that very fact it must be considered corrupt and evil—that self-interest is corrupt and evil—that the source of personal honor is self-sacrifice, as opposed to self-preservation. As identified by Ayn Rand, implicit in such a view is a premise of death as the ultimate standard of value motivating one’s moral actions, actions which, in order for one to claim a positive moral status, one may never be the beneficiary of. Here, in what is perhaps the fundamental issue underlying ethics (self-preservation versus self-sacrifice as the standard of morality), we see the suggestion of a moral standard—in fact, an inversion of good and evil—that, when put into existential practice, will lead to the rationalization of countless human deaths, to the sacrifice of countless “selfish” individuals, a wholesale slaughter of human beings on a scale never before seen or imagined, in the service of “the greater good” of others, of humanity as a whole.
In Marxist political practice, the selfish, i.e. profit-seeking, individuals are identified as any professional group (Marx mentions landlords and shopkeepers) who have amassed more wealth relative to any other professional group through an act of trade, which other group it is assumed they have “exploited.” Once such a group has been identified, Marx believes it is morally justified to “expropriate the expropriators” by an act of force. (Note Marx’s establishment of the notion of collective, rather than individual, guilt deserving of collective punishment.)
This standard of morality was applied by Joseph Stalin in 1929–36 to a class of peasants he called the “Kulaks.” (Kulak literally means “fist”; as a descriptive term applied to the peasants it means “grasping peasant.”) To help speed industrialization Stalin wanted a greater production of food from the peasants, who formed approximately 3/4 of the Russian population. Because most peasants would not accept Stalin’s paper money in trade, he sent armed government officials to seize the peasant’s produce by force. Those peasants who resisted being robbed of either their land or their production were labeled “Kulaks” and were said to be engaging in “terrorist acts.” To stop these “terrorist acts,” Stalin called for an “all-out offensive against the Kulak…We must smash the Kulaks, eliminate them as a class…We must strike at the Kulaks so hard as to prevent them from rising to their feet again…We must break down the resistance of that class in open battle!”
The result of the ensuing war-like operation of the government against its citizens was an estimated 10 million men, women and children gunned down, and 10-11 million more transported to North European Russia, Siberia and Central Asia, where a third went into concentration camps, a third into internal exile, and a third were executed or died in transit. The remaining peasants, who were stripped of their property and herded into “grain factories,” revolted by destroying equipment and produce. Stalin’s offensive against the peasants thus caused what was to be “perhaps the only case in history of a purely man-made famine.”
It must be emphasized that the “terror famine” was not a misapplication of Marxism, but the implementation of one of The Communist Manifesto’s explicit goals: the “establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.” In a division of labor, when self-interested trade is condemned as immoral in a government’s ideology, political means, i.e. government force, is all that remains to motivate people to produce. In Ayn Rand’s eloquent words, the alternative to the dollar is the gun.
Marx’s Economics And Its Consequences
On an economic level, Marx sees the self-interested acts of producers and traders as resulting in the steadily increasing impoverishment of the many, the proletariat, to the benefit of the few, the bourgeoisie. On this and many related economic points, Marx contradicts not only economic theory as it had developed by his time, but his own account of recent history, as well as elementary logic.
For example, he writes, “The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scant one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all proceeding generations together,” and then later, that “the average price of wage labor is the minimum wage… required to keep the laborer in bare existence as a laborer,” and “the modern laborer… instead of rising with the progress of industry, sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class,” and finally, that the bourgeoisie is unfit to “rule,” because “it is incompetent to ensure an existence to its slave [i.e., the Capitalist’s employees] within his slavery [i.e., the employee is eventually reduced to literal starvation].” In other words, the result of a radical increase in the production of goods is the radical impoverishment, even ultimately the literal starvation, of the vast majority of humanity, the proletariat.
The first logical question to ask following such a fantastic progression of assertions is that if the workers are dying of starvation, who exactly then are the buyers of the Capitalist’s goods? Does the Capitalist produce goods that he subsequently buries in landfills? In logic, a radical increase in the production of goods is synonymous with a radical increase in prosperity, an inference demonstrated by the continuous and progressive increase in the prosperity of both the workers and the employers of the predominantly Capitalistic countries of the West during the past two centuries.
In economic terms, the equation of wages (i.e. money) with wealth implied by Marx’s quote is based on a Mercantilist fallacy dispelled by the Classical economists, whose ideas Marx was intimately familiar with at the time he wrote the Manifesto. In short, one of the central points these thinkers taught was that real wealth consists not in the quantity of the medium used as a means of exchange, i.e. paper or gold, but rather in the actual goods one can buy with these mediums, which they called “real wages.” If production is increased, the goods that one can buy with one’s salary are increased, and in turn, so is one’s prosperity. Given this perspective it becomes irrelevant whether the worker’s salaries average one dollar an hour or one hundred dollars an hour; what matters is what the salary can buy, and as production increases, so do the actual goods the average worker can afford.
A Marxist might contend that during Marx’s time the goods manufactured were priced at a high level that only the capitalists could afford. Such an assertion would be factually wrong, however; describing the results of the same Industrial Revolution in which Marx perceived increasing poverty leading to starvation, Jacob Bronowski writes:
“The new inventions were for everyday use. The canals were arteries of communication: they were not made to carry pleasure boats, but barges. And the barges were not made to carry luxuries, but pots and pans and bales of cloth, boxes of ribbon, and all the common things that people buy by the pennyworth… It is comic to think that cotton underwear and soap could work a transformation in the lives of the poor. Yet these simple things—coal in an iron range, glass in the windows, a choice of food—were a wonderful rise in the standard of life and health…”
Of course, that standard has kept rising, in the Capitalist and semi-Capitalist countries, through the present, with its previously undreamed-of standard of living for everyone, including, of course, the working class.
In another example of historic, political, economic, and logical self-contradiction, Marx writes, “National differences and antagonisms between peoples are daily more and more vanishing, owing to… freedom of commerce…” Then, writing of the end of “exploitation” to be brought about by the introduction of Communism, Marx writes, “In proportion as the antagonism between classes within the nation vanishes, the hostility between one nation to another will come to an end.” Again, in logic, one is led to ask: if freedom of commerce leads to harmony among nations, why would the opposite policy, the abolition of the freedom of commerce, now solve the already solved, now nonexistent problem of international antagonisms, rather than, logically, lead to the opposite result? To understand why economic freedom historically led to harmony among nations, and what effect the abolition of economic freedom would cause (and, in fact, later did cause) among nations, however, requires an analysis that Marx wisely avoids in the Manifesto.
There are, in fact, both political and economic explanations for the harmony among nations engendered by free enterprise and acknowledged by Marx. The political explanation is that, under Capitalism, both in regard to the interactions among private individuals and between private individuals and the government, the initiation of physical force is legally prohibited, which principle establishes that both individual people and individual nations, in seeking their individual ends, must deal with one another through strictly voluntary means. The economic principle that follows from this is that of free trade, any instance of which only takes place when both parties deem it to serve their individual self-interest, i.e. when a mutual gain results. Under such a system, physical aggression is in principle abolished on a political level, and individual people and individual nations become economic allies who benefit from each other’s existence—i.e., harmony among people and among nations results.
Marx, of course, regards cooperation among voluntary traders, when some of the traders in question are Capitalists trading money for labor, as “exploitation.” How then, according to Marx, is such “exploitation” to be ended? As in most of Marx’s positive assertions, the means to what he treats as a self-evidently noble end is left unidentified. (It is probably this technique of deliberately omitting from discussion the necessary means of implementing his ideas that underlies the claim of apologists that Marxism is a noble theory that has been misapplied in practice by corrupt leaders.) In reality, however, the only way for a government to prohibit one producer of goods or services from trading with other producers is through the initiation (or the threat of the initiation) of physical force against the traders, a force that aims to rob a producer of his production in order to redistribute it to a non-producer, under the Marxist policy of “from each according to his ability to each according to his need.” Such a policy, justified by the antecedent moral principle that seeking one’s self-interest is inherently evil, establishes the principle that the initiation of physical force is a proper function of government in order to coerce naturally immoral, self-interested individuals into pursuing moral, altruistic ends. It follows in the economic realm that individual people can no longer be allies, but must become antagonists since the gain in property of one person must now represent the forcible loss of property of another. Politically, it logically must also follow that if the initiation of force by the government against Capitalistic “exploiters” is a proper policy on a national level, it must also be so on an international level.
This, in fact, is the root of the Russian enslavement of Eastern Europe, the “cold war” between the Soviet Union and the United States, and the many Communist-sponsored third world “revolutions” that took place from the 1970s onward. Regarding the latter, historian Paul Johnson recalls that: “in December 1975, under Soviet naval escort, the first Cuban troops landed in Angola. In 1976 they moved into Abyssinia, now in the Soviet camp, and into Central and East Africa…by the end of the 1970s there were ten such African states, providing Soviet Russia, in varying degrees, with diplomatic and propaganda support, economic advantages and military bases.”
In summary, ideas determine history, not the other way around. True ideas have pro-life consequences, false ideas have anti-life consequences. Marxism, as presented in the Communist Manifesto, is not a noble theory that was misapplied in practice, but a vicious theory that, when applied, led to unparalleled human disaster. It is therefore imperative to human well-being that the “humanitarians” in our humanities departments replace all vestiges of Marxist philosophy with philosophically true ideas and begin teaching them so that philosophy can lead us to a second Renaissance, rather than the new dark age that is the end of the Marxist road. Those ideas are, above all, the ideas of Aristotle, John Locke and Ayn Rand.
Karl Marx And Friedrich Engles, The Communist Manifesto (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967)
Gary Hull, “Contemporary Philosophy: A Report from the Black Hole,” The Intellectual Activist 7.3 (1993)
Paul Johnson, Modern Times (New York: Harper Perennial, 1992)
Michael S. Berliner, “Marxism Versus Objectivity,” The Objectivist Forum April 1980
George Reisman, Capitalism: A Treatise On Economics
Leonard Peikoff, Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand (Hammondsworth: Dutton, 1991) Ayn Rand, The Virtue Of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1961)
Harry Binswanger, “The Dollar And The Gun,” The Objectivist Forum June 1983
Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent Of Man
Ayn Rand, “The Roots Of War,” Capitalism, The Unknown Ideal