The Apple Book Store has a lot of classical eBooks that can be downloaded for free with choices that range from all six volumes of Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire through The Federalist Papers. One title that I recently discovered in their free library is “The Communist Manifesto.” Described as a pamphlet and not a book, at 67 pages it’s a quick read that’s very much lacking in substance.
Some historians like to play the devil’s advocate when it comes to Karl Marx—the author of the work—and how communism was executed during the 20th century. Their argument is that if Marx was still alive when the Soviet Union was formed, he would have disavowed it and claimed this was not what he envisioned. I’ve heard plenty of arguments and facts that denounce communism and prove that it’s a failed ideology with disastrous consequences when put in practice, but I’d never read the original source of this ideology so maybe the apologist historians were onto something?
The Oxford Dictionary defines a manifesto to be “a public declaration of policy and aims.”
“The Communist Manifesto” is very vague in this respect. Readers don’t even receive a clear summary of the belief of communism until page 29, which is “the abolition of all private property.” There aren’t any instructions for how this should be organized and administered, it should just happen, even if it requires brute force. And no one should dare complain because the Bourgeois Capitalists are only getting their just desserts—and if you’re part of the Proletariat then your possessions are meager and you would have eventually lost them anyway because capitalism will eventually ruin you.
In the 67 pages of the manifesto, only two are devoted to listing what the policies of the communists would be. The policies, enumerated in 10 points, are the abolition of land ownership, heavy taxes to the point of crippling individual wealth, abolition of the right of inheritance, confiscating the property of all emigrants and rebels (destroying those who disagree with you), nationalized banks, centralization of all communication and transportation to the state, state owning all means of production for industry and agriculture, establishment of worker armies, gradual abolition of the distinction of cities and towns (forced resettlement), and free education.
Two pages is light for defining what a government system should be, but these policies were incorporated in Soviet Russia and the People’s Republic of China following both countries’ successful communist revolutions. The Soviet Union became a superpower and then collapsed under the inefficiencies of communism; the Chinese Communist Party still exists today because its leaders largely abandoned Marxist policies in favor of market reforms.
But the most lasting effect of Communist theory being put into practice is a death toll of between 55 and 95 million people.
The Lamentation of Creative Destruction
Section 1 of the Communist Manifesto is called the “Bourgeois and Proletarians.” The main thesis of this part is that human civilization has historically seen class conflict between a ruling class and everyone else that is under them—whether it’s lords and serfs in feudalism or patricians and plebeians in the Roman Empire. Marx defines the class conflict of his era to be the bourgeois (merchants, business owners, entrepreneurs, capitalists, and the new middle class) and the proletariat (those who don’t own much and their only way to earn money is to sell their labor). The only way to end this conflict is to have a revolution that will make everyone part of a single class, the proletariat. Marx also recognizes the aristocracy, a class seen as enemies to the bourgeois who are disrupting the old ways of society.
According to the Manifesto, many members of the 19th century era proletariat are descended from artisans who made decent livings during the middle ages but now their families are being forced into poverty because modern factories are creating what they used to make on a larger scale and then selling them for a cheaper price. What once required skilled labor is now being replaced by someone who can operate a simple machine for the lowest price while the old artisan’s skills are becoming obsolete.
To give Marx the benefit of the doubt, what he was lamenting was a process today known as “creative destruction,” which wasn’t formally recognized until the 20th century, when economist Joseph Schumpeter coined the term for the process. As individuals in an economy create new innovations, production processes become more efficient which allows newly freed up resources to be applied to new areas which in turn generates economic growth for the whole society. A good example of this is how the automobile industry in the early 20th century displaced the horse and carriage industry.
The biggest gap to Marx’s thinking is that while he laments that the average cobbler is no longer enjoying his former standard of living, factories have now made shoes more affordable for everyone in society. Because of mass production, shoes that once cost some people a year’s wages could be purchased for a week’s wages; and now in modern times, with the benefits of free trade and specialization, a typical US worker can get a decent pair of shoes for an hour or two of work.
Innovation is a largely positive force in economics. While some people lose in the process because their skills become obsolete, new jobs with new skills and opportunities rise in place of them, and the overall standard of living rises with it. To deny this truth and refuse to consider what can be gained in the future because something was lost in the past is the tell-tale sign of what Henry Hazlitt defined as a bad economist.
Marx Should Not Be Celebrated
As an economist, Marx lacked the vision to see the future and what the industrial revolution would turn it into. Just before the fall of the Soviet Union, 20 percent of their population was living in poverty despite more than 70 years of communism. After the fall of the Soviet Union, what was known as the Second World (countries allied with Moscow) collapsed and many governments embraced free markets. In 1990, 36 percent of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty, by 2015 that number was reduced to 12 percent. Communism and top-down centralized governments were not responsible for that reduction, capitalism was.
Marx died almost 150 years ago. In the years since his death, we have seen his criticisms of capitalism disproved as the middle class has grown and standards of living have surged around the world. Marx’s limited ideas, on the other hand, have failed over and over again.
But for some reason, many modern-day intellectuals view him as a misunderstood genius—despite all the evidence to the contrary.
This article, I Read ‘The Communist Manifesto’ for the First Time. Here’s What I Learned about Karl Marx, was originally published by the Foundation for Economic Education and appears here with permission. Please support their mission.