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Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Final Paper

NOTE: I may tweak this in the morning but it's more or less what I'll be turning in.

Marx’s Plan

The 19th century was a heady time for great minds in the West to become social visionaries. It was a time of societal change unseen since the days when humanity first began to domesticate plants and animals. With the industrial revolution having effectively wiped clean away the ancient agrarian society of the past that, a few generations earlier, had seemed as permanent as the stars, philosophers sprouted up in all corners trying to envision the new order yet to come. Among the crowd of thinkers one of the most influential, if not the most, is Karl Marx. His vision of the communist utopia to come had the effect of ending dynasties and building empires. Yet for all the achievement accomplished in the name of his vision there is little left today beyond mass graves and a small cadre of believers. The failure of his plan and his followers has to be the continual denial of human nature.


At a time of great upheaval the feel good rhetoric of the Communist Manifesto, its call to arms and claims of power for the oppressed, fell on many receptive ears. The testament to the power of its inspiring nature is that today, even after the fall of communism’s once mighty empire, people can still become enchanted by the message. For those who read the words of Marx the question of where or not they become new members of the faith rests solely on how strongly they are swayed by the rhetoric of his writing.


It should be abundantly clear to someone from today that, “neither capitalism nor the working class has developed as Marx anticipated” and this alone should give one pause before jumping in too deeply (Aronson 59). When someone creates a plan for a new society and then becomes so demonstrably wrong in how that society will come into existence we need to take a critical look at the plan itself, no matter how good it makes us feel. That critical eye should then be focused on the lynch pin of Marx’s plan, human nature.


Putting aside the “spin” the entirety of the communist system, as envisioned by Marx, can be boiled down to ten separate points. But these points are not merely my interpretation of the system. Marx himself, at the end of the second part of the Manifesto states, “Nevertheless, in the most advanced countries, the following will be pretty generally applicable.”(Marx 75). At which point he then highlights the list of ten core things that must take place for the communist system to work. With a look at only a few of the core points we can begin to see that Marx’s stance on human nature leads to an absurd utopian vision without the need to troll the rest of the screed for fodder such as his call for the, “abolition of the family”(Marx 71).


In the first of his ten points Marx calls for the, “Abolition of property in land and the application of all rents of land to public purposes”(Marx 75), which in short means the state owns everything but you still have to pay rent. For Marx the inability to own land is a good thing. He thinks that without the influence of the bourgeois in society that people would naturally prefer to pay rent for housing that they can never ever have any hope of owning.


The second point calls for “a heavy progressive or graduated income tax” (Marx 75) which on the surface seems benign, after all we have a graduated income tax here in the US today. However in detail, what he is calling for is a very low salary cap. The tax rates would be setup so that no matter your income everyone gets the same amount. Sound fair? Let’s compare the ER surgeon with the stoner pizza delivery guy. The stoner, who may or may not have finished high school, works a few nights a week spending most of his massive free time playing Play Station and getting “baked”. The surgeon spent decades in a serious and demanding education system so that he can work 60+ hour weeks in a highly stressful environment. While it is true that here in our market economy the surgeon gets handsome recompense we still have a shortage of doctors. If we have a shortage now, how can you hope to get anyone to become a doctor if the most they can hope for is the exact same rewards as the pizza guy? Simple, the state monitors young students and one day informs then that they are going to medical school. Again for Marx in the new society free of the oppression of class structure people would rather have the state tell them what to do.


In the sixth point Marx states that the communist system will need, “centralization of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the state”(Marx 75). For Marx freedom of movement and communication are nothing more than bourgeois tricks. In the new order people will be quiet happy allow the state to control whom they talk with and where they can go. In that lies true freedom.


One of the more insidious of his proposals is the call for the, “equal obligation of all to work”(Marx 75) in the eighth point. Which, like many of his proposals sound reasonable on the surface, would have, had it been in practice in the US in the 1840’s, put Henry David Thoreau into prison for life. It’s one thing to say that everyone should do an honest day’s work and something altogether different to compel, by force, everyone to work. Do we want to replace the words on the statue of Liberty reading, “Give me your tired…” with, “Arbeit Macht Frei”?


Simply put, for Marx, human nature is nothing more than a mirage. It’s just our current world view and can be easily altered. In Marx’s plan the destruction of the ruling, “bourgeois” class leads irrevocably to the creation of a communist system. This is possible because in the plan there is no basic human nature. Our actions, thoughts and desires are what the ruling class wants us to think. It’s this view of human nature that is the foundation upon which the entire plan of communism rests, and that without collapses. Even the most hardened Marxist will agree that if Marx was wrong on human nature then the plan gets chucked in the bin which is why today, 157 years after the Manifesto was published, modern Marxists make such a point of defending the Marx’s denial of human nature. The Marxists group Youth For International Socialism (YFIS) makes great pains to prove that “so-called human nature” is nothing more than a facet of a peoples “world view”.


In order to illustrate their point the YFIS go to the world of art and shows us how art has changed through the ages and is different from culture to culture. In that it has changed and does vary they are correct. However they then make the leap of logic that since humans do produce many different works of art ergo, there is no underlying human nature. They, and Marx, make a seductive argument that humanity can be easily altered by trying to merge human nature and world view into one malleable outlook. But lacking the genius and power of Marx’s pen they have gone to the world of art to prove themselves and in doing so they have, to be blunt, chosen poorly.


There is nothing in existence that more fully shows the truth of human nature than the art that we produce. For starters if the YFIS is correct then what are the statistical odds that all cultures in all different places and times would produce works of art? If so, how can a Westerner be moved by African tribal art? If so, why did 20th century Japanese film master Akira Kurosawa translate 16th century Shakespearean plays into Japanese settings? If so, then why do we still listen to the stories told by an ancient blind Greek? Surely we don’t share the same “world view” as the prehistoric Greeks and Trojans yet we can identify with the greed of Agamemnon, the anger of Menelaus, the pride of Achilles, the love of Hector and the sorrow of Priam. That we can so easily relate to the story of a people so far removed from us today should be self evidence of the existence of an underlying human nature but do not expect those like the YFIS to concede this. They will not, can not, concede any ground on the subject of human nature for to do so is to bring to an end their belief in Marx’s grand plan.


In a way, even with his controversial views and the failure of the governments that tried to create his system, it is utterly impossible to prove Marx was wrong. Any modern day Marxists will quickly counter with claims like, Marxism has yet to be “properly” implemented, capitalism “will” collapse or to point out that you have been so thoroughly fooled that you really believe in “human nature”. The hindsight history offers us rather than cause the modern Marxist to reevaluate the plan instead drives them further in their “messianic eschatology”(Munck 6).


It is Marx’s view on human nature that leaves his entire plan untenable. It led to his mistaken belief in the imminent collapse of capitalism. It led to his erroneous prediction that industrialization would led to a stratification of society into two vastly separated classes. His denial of human nature allowed him to develop a utopian plan that the likes of Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot would be able to use as justification for the extermination of millions. Should their sins be laid at his feet? Not entirely. Marx wasn’t a monster. He really did have the best intentions and truly wanted to make the world a better place. Unfortunately, good intentions aren’t enough. In the end Marx’s great error was that by discounting human nature as nothing more than a variable equation he removed humanity itself from his vision.

Works Cited


Aronson, Ronald Farewell to Marxism. New York: The Gilford Press, 1995.

Marx, Karl. The Communist Manifesto. New York: Signet Classic, 1998.

Munck, Ronaldo. Marx @ 2000. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000.

Youth For International Socialism. What About “Human Nature”?. FAQ on
Defending Marx.

3 Comments:

At March 27, 2005 3:04 PM, Blogger The Evil Jeremy. said...

On the whole, not a bad essay; it's clearly presented and flows well, asking and answering many of its provocations. Your paper has, however, on glaring fault to it that I am surprised you didn't notice: you argue for the existence of human nature, and against Marxisms denial of it, without ever spending the time to tell your reader what exactly that is. It's beating on a straw man (Marxism's ignorance of a concept), a perfectly good approach to essay writing, with a ghost man (an undefined concept of what constitutes human nature)From two of your examples (the land redistribution and transport points), it seems you are implying that the posession of property and autonomy of the individual characterize human nature. But one can't agree or disagree with that until we know for certain that's what you're saying, or we risk engaging points that were never intended. By the assertion that the progressive taxation system (as Marx, and not capitalism would have it) denies human nature, you seem to suggest human nature values an economic justice of some kind. That's a pretty tricky point to defend, if that's what you're defending, but we don't know because you haven't told us.

So what is human nature, that dintinguishes it from mere animal nature? What is this thing that Marx ignores at his peril? I'm not simply being pedantic: you could argue that there is a planet called Mars, and I could counter that Mars is a fictional entity concocted by NASA, but we would be in basic agreement to what we are arguing for and against: you would be asserting that there exists a massive, dry, ball of rock, 7,926 miles in diameter, at an average distance from the sun greater than Venus' but less than Earth's; I would be arguing that no such thing exists. Just so do plenty of atheists (at least the really stupid ones) argue that Jesus the Nazarene never existed; they accept that a version, to them fictional, of this character exists, and it is this specific version they seek to debunk.

Human nature, however, is not an agreed upon concept. From your refutation of YFIS' art analogy, you seem to come closest to a definition by suggesting that human nature is all that which is common to all human societies throughout all ages, but that needs to be firmly asserted, and subsequently reconciled with the other aspects of human nature given earlier in the paper. Otherwise we can't tell if you are using competing or complementary measures of the same idea.

It's a shame, really, because this essay is one or two process paragraphs away from being extremely cogent. Without those clarifications, though, it remains a bit undercooked and opaque.

......................................

Hope the trip was a success on both business and pleasure grounds. Welcome back to America and my withering criticism. Late April is fine for you to stop down, BTW. I am at present deciding whether to keep trolling Priceline to try to get a Comfest ticket to the 'Bus, or to settle for a cheap rental and drive up.

 
At March 28, 2005 2:15 PM, Blogger The Evil Jeremy. said...

ing more about the paper. (I swear, I'm not trying to beat on it, but rather give you some ideas you may have considered.) I think your ideas about owning property might be a bit anachronistic. In the England Marx is studying, the landed class was certainly no greater than 10% of the population, and probably closer to about 5%. So the idea of paying rent and never owning anything was what the overwhelming majority of people were reconciled to anyway, and hence Marx's redistribution schemes seemed a lot less radical to them than to a wealthy modern society like ours in which almost everyone can potentially own a home.

 
At March 29, 2005 9:37 AM, Blogger Dublin Saab said...

On the first comment: Ah. Oh. Yes. Well. That’s kind of what “we can identify with the greed of Agamemnon, the anger of Menelaus, the pride of Achilles, the love of Hector and the sorrow of Priam.” was supposed to do. I obviously did a poor job of conveying that. I chose not to go into deep detail into my feelings on what defines human nature because then you run the very real risk of losing the reading over the definition when the topic is a simple yes or no to it’s existence. So that’s my defense for what little it’s worth.

On the second comment: No. I was judging the Manifesto my our values, etc. in 2005 – which was my assignment. As such the land ownership numbers in England in 1848 couldn’t be less relevant as to where or not it’s radical to us in Ohio in 2005.

 

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