Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A few problems with “The Communist Manifesto”

"A spectre is haunting Europe - the spectre of communism. All the Powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this specter ... Where is the party in opposition that has not been decried as Communistic by its opponents in power? Where is the Opposition that has not hurled back the branding reproach of Communism, against the more advanced opposition parties, as well as against its reactionary adversaries? Two things result from this fact: I. Communism is already acknowledged by all European powers to be itself a power. II. It is high time that Communists should openly, in the face of the whole world, publish their views, their aims, their tendencies, and meet this nursery tale of the Spectre of Communism with a Manifesto of the party itself."

- Opening lines of "The Communist Manifesto" (1848)

I was recently told that I should write a blog post about why Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were wrong - arguing not on values as I did in another post (though there is a place for that as well), but on facts and theories, challenging their dubious factual and theoretical claims.

Karl Marx

Friedrich Engels

In discussing problems with Marxism, where does one start?

To someone who's read and understood their book "The Communist Manifesto," that might seem easy - and in some ways, it is. But in trying to debunk it, I had one big problem: where to start. Despite "The Communist Manifesto" being a tiny book (which I read through in a day), it sometimes seems when I'm reading the book like its two authors were having a competition to see who could cram more fallacies into a small amount of space. And they both won.

Marx and Engels

Discussion of Marxist fallacies is practically a genre in its own right ...

I intend this blog post to be a short one, so I will only be able to summarize this book's problems. But if you're after a more thorough treatment of its fallacies, this is practically a genre in its own right, so there are lots of works to choose from.

Title page of "The Communist Manifesto" (original 1848 edition)

"Too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce" ...

To begin with, some of Marx's criticisms of capitalism are self-contradictory. Let us examine some of them here:

"In these crises there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity - the epidemic of over-production. Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed; and why? Because there is too much civilisation, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce." (Source: Chapter I)

Manchester, England 1840 (a.k.a. "Cottonopolis"); during Industrial Revolution

... but "industry and commerce seem to be destroyed"

If there is "too much means of subsistence," then how can it appear "as if a famine, a universal war of devastation had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence"? If there is "too much industry, too much commerce", then how can "industry and commerce seem to be destroyed"? The quoted portion of the paragraph contradicts itself - a feature it shares with many other parts of this work.

The theory of the communists: "Abolition of private property"

Then there are the things he said about bourgeois property. Let us turn to his own words:

"The distinguishing feature of Communism is not the abolition of property generally, but the abolition of bourgeois property. But modern bourgeois private property is the final and most complete expression of the system of producing and appropriating products that is based on class antagonisms, on the exploitation of the many by the few. In this sense the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property." (Source: Chapter II)

Karl Marx

"Private property is already done away with" for 90% of the population, according to Marx

Later in the chapter, Marx answers some criticisms of this proposal:

"You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine-tenths. You reproach us, therefore, with intending to do away with a form of property, the necessary condition for whose existence is the non-existence of any property for the immense majority of society." (Source: Chapter II)

According to Marx, you can only gain to the extent that other people lose ...

The latter part of this argument suffers from the fallacious assumption that the economy is a zero-sum game - that the bourgeois capitalists (and everyone else, for that matter) can only gain to the extent that others lose. The problem with this assumption is that the economic pie that his disciples want to redistribute is not fixed - it is constantly changing.

Milling machine by Nasmyth, 1829-1830 (during Marx's lifetime)

... but the argument assumes that this economic pie is fixed, when it is not really

Some of the economic pie is consumed and destroyed, while other things are produced and created, and then added to the pie. Even without taking into account the harvesting of natural resources from the environment, labor is constantly turning raw materials into far more useful finished goods. Thus, useful goods and services are constantly being added to the pie, and the idea that one can only profit at the expense of others is thus false. (Wrong again, Karl.)

The historical record does not support the claim that property was "already done away with" for 90% of the population

But earlier in the quote, Marx said something which is even more incorrect: He said that "private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population." Quite simply, the historical record does not support this assertion. It may be helpful here to quote the words of an earlier philosopher - a man named John Locke, who wrote the book I will quote now in 1689. Here is the quote:

John Locke

If we didn't have private property in our food, we would starve ...

"He that is nourished by the acorns he picked up under an oak, or the apples he gathered from the trees in the wood, has certainly appropriated them to himself. No body can deny but the nourishment is his. I ask then, when did they begin to be his? when he digested? or when he eat? or when he boiled? or when he brought them home? or when he picked them up? and it is plain, if the first gathering made them not his, nothing else could. The labour put a distinction between them and common [property] ... and so they became his private right. And will any one say, he had no right to those acorns or apples, he thus appropriated, because he had not the consent of all mankind to make them his? Was it a robbery thus to assume to himself what belonged to all in common? If such a consent as that was necessary, man had starved." (Source: Second Treatise on Government, Chapter V, Section 28)

John Locke

Truly putting a end to private property would thus cause starvation for all involved

Whenever we eat food of any kind, we have claimed it as our own. Once the food has been chewed or swallowed, it cannot be used by anyone else, and is good only for our use, and not for theirs. Can it truly be said, then, that the food is anything other than a private property of our own? Whether you put the property claim at the moment of its being eaten, or earlier when we acquire it into our hands; the very act of our eating the food is dependent upon our first having claimed it as property. If we were truly to put an end to all private property, humanity would starve to death, because they could never claim any food for themselves. Clearly the "nine-tenths of the population" did not starve to death (they survived long enough to remain a full "nine-tenths of the population"); and so the claim that "private property is already done away with" for this group is entirely false. I'm sure Mr. Marx's disciples would deny that the people's starving to death could logically follow from his theories, but it clearly does; or he would have qualified his advocacy for "abolition of private property" with exceptions, for food and other necessities - something that seems to have slipped his mind when he wrote this. His statements are instead blanket and all-inclusive, and thus could never truly be implemented without the people starving to death as a necessary consequence.

Karl Marx

And the last problem I will discuss here is found later in the chapter. To demonstrate that these quotes were not taken out of context, I will give the entire extended quote from "The Communist Manifesto":

First step in the revolution is to "win the battle of democracy" ...

"We have seen above, that the first step in the revolution by the working class, is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling as to win the battle of democracy. The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralize 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 of 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."

(Source: Chapter II)

October Revolution (which brought communism to Russia), 1917

... but in the beginning, this cannot be effected "except by means of despotic inroads"

Marx claims here that "the first step in the revolution by the working class, is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling as to win the battle of democracy." But he admits not long after that "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."

Russian Revolution of 1917, which brought communism to Russia

If this is democracy, I'd hate to see what dictatorship looks like ...

In other words, he claims that "despotic inroads" must be used to win the "battle of democracy," with the rights of property among the first targets of these "despotic inroads." If this is democracy, I'd hate to see what dictatorship looks like. How safe can democracy be if "despotic inroads" are used? Wouldn't that give the government enough power to crush democracy? (Apparently so, if the Marxist state of Soviet Russia is any example.)

Vladimir Lenin, chief philosopher of communist revolution in Soviet Russia

Conclusion: "The Communist Manifesto" has some serious problems

So these are just a few of the factual and logical problems in "The Communist Manifesto." I hope this has been instructive to those unfamiliar with this work.

See also my post about the actual track record of communism

Part of a series about

Communism in theory: Why Marxism can never work

The "Communist Manifesto" (and how Marxism got started)
Marx's "labor theory of value" (and why it doesn't work)
Problems with equalizing income (even in theory)
Problems with rewarding good behavior (under communism)
In defense of John Locke: The need for private property

Communism in practice: The results of the experiments

Revolution in Russia: How the madness got started
History's horror stories: The "grand experiments" with communism
Germany and Korea: The experiments that neither side wanted
Civil war in China: How China was divided
Chaos in Cuba: Castro and the communist revolution
Fall of the Wall: The collapse of the Soviet Union
Actually, communism has been tried (and it doesn't work)


  1. You've totally misunderstood Marx. A careful reading of the Manifesto reveals Marx does not intend to do away with all private property (which would be as absurd, as you've pointed out). He makes clear at the beginning of Chapter 2 he does not wish to abolish "the property of the petty artisan and of the small peasant" rather he wishes to abolish private property in the means of production. That is to say the means of production i.e. factories, natural resources, offices cannot be privately owned.

    It's also notable that the abolition of existing property relations is in no way a communist idiosyncrasy; the bourgeoise overthrew feudal property relations before implementing their own.

    Hope this provides some clarification as whilst Marx theories do indeed harbour some problems, they're not as fallacious as you might think.

    1. Your observation is interesting; but as I reflect on it and refer back to Marx himself, I still cannot agree. This passage seems to me to be quoted out of context. It is true that he said that he did not wish to “abolish” the property of these petty artisans and small peasants, but the reason he gives for this is that the development of industry “has to a great extent already destroyed it, and is still destroying it daily” (in the words of the paragraph you quoted). Thus, the only reason he doesn't want to “abolish” it is because he thinks this abolition already been done (at least partially) by the development of industry. This shows that it's not the idea of their being without property that bothers him, but the idea that you can actually take away their property when (in his view) they already don't have much anyway.

      As evidence of this, I submit the complete context for the passage you quoted: “Do you mean the property of the petty artisan and of the small peasant, a form of property that preceded the bourgeois form? There is no need to abolish that; the development of industry has to a great extent already destroyed it, and is still destroying it daily.” (Source: Chapter 2)

      Even in this passage, I should acknowledge, Marx did not claim that their property was “entirely” destroyed; since he only said it was destroyed to “a great extent.” Thus even he acknowledged that they still had some property left. If I understand you correctly, you are thus arguing that he would be in favor of “the petty artisan and the small peasant” keeping the property that they already have. The problem with this argument is that he gave no indication that he felt this way, even in this passage. He did argue that “the development of industry has to a great extent already destroyed” their property, but this only applies to the property that was “already destroyed.” He said nothing about the property that he acknowledged them to retain even then.

      His only reason for refusing to “abolish” their property thus did not apply to their current property, and his failure to say anything about this important issue would thus strike me as significant. Thus, I don't see how anyone can believe here that he was all right with them keeping their property. He said elsewhere, indeed, that “the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.” This would seem to apply to all currently existing property that he talked about, including that of “the petty artisan and the small peasant,” despite his reassurances to the contrary that are ultimately (to me) unconvincing.

      I have also written elsewhere that I think that Marx’s ideas also failed the empirical testing of the twentieth century. See the link for details: http://sparkscommentary.blogspot.com/2014/04/communism-and-poverty.html

      By the way, even though we don’t agree, I did enjoy your comments. Thanks for your input.


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