I recently ran across a copy of the Communist Manifesto by Groucho Marx and Freddie Engels. It looked short enough—sort of a pamphlet—that I thought I might read it. It has a few nice quotes in it, but to me it is hardly the stirring document that is supposed to have inspired the hearts of millions of people. Despite its brevity, I am not sure I understood it. The basic point, I think, is that capitalism creates a “bourgeoisie” class of rich owners of corporations, which oppress the working class “proletariat,” who then inevitably rise up in revolution.
The fall of the USSR was not the failure of communism. The USSR was not a communist country. It was an oligarchy. The leaders pretended that they were communists but actually they were rich capitalists who used power to oppress the very working class they claimed to have liberated. The same thing occurred in China. Today, both countries are oligarchies that use capitalism to make a few people rich, sans most of the communist phraseology. The United States is also an oligarchy. A few rich people make the decisions, regardless of what the citizenry or even the market desires. President Obama recently said that two hundred rich people could determine the outcome of elections. This seemed very cynical to come from the mouth of a man who once exulted in the power of large numbers of people making small contributions, the man who said “Yes we can.” Republicans, of course, believe that this is not just the way it is, but is the way it ought to be. Mitt Romney is five hundred times as rich as I am, which to a Republican means I must be five hundred times as stupid, or lazy, or both. The old USSR, the new Russia, Maoist China, modern China, and the USA are all oligarchies. Oligarchs are the bourgeoisie, and everyone else is the proletariat. Marx and Engels adequately described European society of the early industrial revolution and modern American society, but the description also fits countries that pay lip service to Marx.
The most spectacular failure of the viewpoint of Marx and Engels is that oppressed people have not risen up consistently or for very long. The Occupy Movement, and the democracy movement in Hong Kong, both failed because most people wanted to get back to work, understandably afraid that revolt would make them lose their jobs. The Arab Spring has turned out to mostly be “give us a different dictator.” Corporations own us. Congress, doing the bidding of the rich, has already shown that they are willing to send the entire country into default if we do not do what rich people demand. Corporations own the government too.
The main reason that Marxism has failed is that it does not reflect the dynamics of biological or cultural evolution. Animal societies, including ours, are complex networks of oppression and altruism, which promote the individual genetic fitness of dominant individuals and their families. Marx and Engels were wrong in assuming that the proletariat would work for the good of its own group. (They were also wrong in assuming that family units and religion would disappear. They thought family and religion were economic structures, when in reality they are evolved and instinctual adaptations.)
True communism can work in small communities or tribes, such as Native American villages prior to European conquest or the early communities of the Christian church, but not on a national scale. Neither does free enterprise work on a national scale—and for the same reason: the bourgeoisie, whether in Russia or the USA, want to get money for themselves, regardless of the effects on society. Adam Smith’s invisible hand is not a hand of freedom but an oligarch fist.
Big corporations actually do their best to stifle free enterprise. Let me give you an example. Lots of people want to invest in renewable energy, such as wind and solar energy. People invest in the infrastructure necessary to generate their own electricity, which (if enough of them do it) saves the utilities the potentially huge cost of building new power plants. Sounds like free enterprise: people freely choose to do something that saves them money in the long run. But the Koch brothers do not like it, because it means that the utilities that get fossil fuels from them will not make as much money. So the Koch brothers have gotten state governments, including Oklahoma where I live, to tax solar and wind energy production (see this recent New York Times editorial). The Koch brothers want their enterprise to be free, but no one else’s.
Is there anything we can do? The only changes that have ever amounted to much are the slow ones that germinate and grow in the minds of people. The slow work of health education is largely responsible for the decline in smoking, from its 1965 peak in which 42 percent of American adults smoked (an average of 11.7 cigarettes per day) to its 2011 level, in which only 19 percent of adults smoke, an average of 3.4 cigarettes per day.
What I will do is to continue teaching my students what is right, even if it hurts corporate profits. I want my students to be healthy, even though the tobacco and processed-food corporations will lose profits if my students stop smoking and eat less processed food and less meat, and if they walk instead of driving as much. That is what I will keep doing. I will not hold my breath waiting for the proletariat to rise up.
Merry Christmas, comrade.