What is human nature? Is it selfish? Or is it social? Maybe a bit of both? This seems to be one of the most fundamental questions when it comes to evaluating the philosophy and political system of Karl Marx. What exactly is human nature, and can it be changed?
Given that ‘post-capitalist’ ideas are growing more popular (particularly in Europe in the wake of the Great Recession), we’ve launched a series looking at the legacy of one of the most influential anti-capitalists in history: Karl Marx.
May 2018 will mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of Karl Marx, and February 2018 will be the 170th anniversary of the publication of the Communist Manifesto. To mark these dates, Debating Europe is launching a series of online discussions dedicated to examining the impact and legacy of Marx and his writings.
We had a comment from Eva, arguing that communism could never work in practice (at least, in a capitalism system). So, is communism just a nice idea that’s never been implemented properly? Or is the very notion flawed from the start?
To get a response, we put Eva’s comment to Vladimir Tismăneanu, Professor of Politics and Director of the Center for the Study of Post-communist Societies at the University of Maryland (College Park), and a prominent critic of Marxism. What would he say?
Eva makes a comment I hear quite frequently from my undergrads and graduate students, and I think we have to take it quite seriously. The communist project was fundamentally an economic, social, intellectual, moral, and civilisational project. The idea was not only to defeat capitalism economically, but to defeat capitalism and all the other previous social formulations, from slavery to the bourgeois domination; to create a new anthropological species. For Karl Marx, this was the mandate of the global proletarian revolution.
In his early writings, in his work ‘The Holy Family’, Karl Marx referred to the proletariat as the ‘messiah class of history’. This is the reason why, for instance, Yuri Slezkine, in his recent book ‘The House of Government’, insists on Bolshevism as a political religion. So, Karl Marx created a political religion meant to replace the Kingdom of Necessity through the Kingdom of Liberty. He basically thought that human nature can be fundamentally transformed, and here I find the major problem with the original Marxian project: the Utopian hubris at its core.
For another perspective, we put the same comment to Charles Post, Professor of Sociology at Borough of Manhattan Community College-CUNY. How would he respond?
If by ‘communism’ she means a non-capitalist economy, where there is collective social ownership of industry, commerce, etc., and there is a planned economy, I think, in fact, it can work. But there have to be two conditions, both of which were lacking in most of the societies that called themselves ‘socialist’ or ‘communist’.
The first is some level of material prosperity, so that people would have free time, etc. This didn’t exist in Russia in the aftermath of the Russian revolution, or in most of the countries that had experienced so-called transformations.
The other is that there has to be real democracy for working people. There has to be a multiplicity of political parties, free speech, free elections, etc. so that people can democratically discuss, debate, and correct planning decisions, etc. So, I think that the problem is that it was never implemented in societies where there was enough of a social surplus product that people had leisure time to engage in a really democratic political structure that has to surround any sort of socialist or post-capitalist world.
Next up, we had a comment from Tino, who thinks that Marx may have been wrong about the cure, but he at least diagnosed the disease correctly. Is that a fair assessment?
How would Professor Vladimir Tismăneanu respond? Obviously, he is a critic of Marx and his writings, but are there nevertheless some parts of Marx’s political philosophy that he finds himself agreeing with?
Definitely, there is a moral component in Karl Marx’s legacies that ought to be revisited, and ought to be, in my view, rescued and appreciated. Karl Marx opposed injustice, Karl Marx opposed exploitation, Karl Marx opposed the humiliation of human beings. This is an important thing, and even such a sworn critic of Marxism and of Karl Marx’s doctrine as the late British philosopher (born in Central Europe) Karl Popper, author of ‘The Open Society and Its Enemies’, says that there is something very important that remains from the legacy of Karl Marx. That is: the moral prophetism.
On the other hand, the pretence to have created a ‘science’, the pretence to epistemic infallibility, the pretence to have the ultimate answer to all the ultimate questions, makes Karl Marx’s ideas, at this moment, problematic.
Finally, what would Professor Charles Post say to Tino’s comment? Does he think Marx was correct about the diagnosis but wrong about the cure?
No, I think that if you do believe that the problems the world faces today – from growing inequality, poverty, overwork, alienation, gender and racial discrimination, and environmental destruction – are actually rooted in the most basic dynamics of capitalism, which is what Marx argued even in the mid-19th century, then looking for some decisive break with capitalism and a different form of society is in fact necessary. That break has to come through a mass political movement and, as I said before, produce democratic political structures. Otherwise you get planned economies without democracy, which are highly wasteful, alienating, etc.
Could Communism ever work in practice? Is it a nice idea that’s never been implemented properly? Or is the idea flawed from the start? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their response!