Marxist Theory Exists, but Its Reality Offers a Twist

By Emma Lehtonen, Co-Chair of the Political Science Club

May 5th marked the 200th birthday of the German philosopher and revolutionary socialist Karl Marx, whose anticapitalist works form the basis of Marxism. But exactly what is Marxist theory?

The IH Political Science Club recently watched a documentary that shed light on both Marxism and the development of communist philosophy.  While so-called communist countries continue to play a prominent role in American politics and global affairs, communism itself has been in decline since the latter half of the 20th century.

Here’s some background: Marxist theory is largely based on the idea of incompatible interests between the two main classes in capitalist societies: the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.  The goals of the proletariat, or the workers, include acquiring better wages, better working conditions, and shorter hours. In contrast, the ultimate goal of the bourgeoisie is to maximize profits, which deters them from granting these wishes to the workers.  

As a society becomes more truly capitalist, this clash becomes more prominent, as does exploitation of workers, thus creating an increasingly unstable society. Once it reaches this point, a proletarian revolution would occur and a communist system would be instated. During the transition phase between capitalism and communism, there would be a dictatorship of the proletariat, in which the workers hold the political power.  

The end goal is the ideal communist society, which, according to Marx, is a classless society which lacks hierarchy. It is truly utopian, in which production is the means used to satisfy the needs of all people, instead of profiting the bourgeoisie.  Paradoxically, Marx was, in a way, influenced by capitalism. He saw how capitalism allowed a certain group of people to reach their full potential, namely by maximizing human capital. Marx saw communism as the best way to allow everybody the opportunity to reach their full human potential.

This is the basis of communist theory. But, it never seems to pan out this way.  Communist revolutions always seem to end at dictatorship, never achieving the utopia envisioned by Marx.  And the dictatorship typically isn’t one of the proletariat.

For instance, the Bolshevik Revolution, the earliest communist revolution, was led by Vladimir Lenin, who developed Leninism, a political philosophy to which many so-called communist countries adhere to. Lenin placed emphasis on dictatorship, but instead of a proletarian dictatorship, he proposed a dictatorship of a few strong leaders from within the Communist Party. So, from its onset, communism, in practice and not just as a theory, has had authoritarian tendencies.  Lenin’s successor, Joseph Stalin, notoriously exhibited these tendencies, as did his contemporaries, such as Mao Zedong and Pol Pot. This is still true today, with Castros in Cuba and the Kims in North Korea.

Although we call many countries communist, there are no truly communist countries and there never have been.. No nations have achieved Marx’s conception of communism.  The countries we typically call communist are, really, authoritative socialist. While China, North Korea, and Cuba all operate under a one-party system, in which the only accepted party is the Communist Party, none of these countries are truly communist.  Even North Korea, certainly the most severe of these, or probably any, countries knows that completely refraining from participating in the world market would inevitably mean its demise. The Soviet Union, particularly under Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, also realized this, and became more accepting of capitalism, though, ironically, the Soviet Union would soon fall. Today, China, though ruled by the Communist Party, is one of the most successful capitalist economies.  

The United States has gone to great lengths to stop the spread of communism, like engaging in destructive proxy wars and even risking nuclear holocaust. But, as history tells, it seems that as communism runs its course, it ends itself, or, at the very least, limits itself.


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